Undercard, by David Albertyn

No rating, as I did not finish this book!

This book was strongly recommended to me by someone on Goodreads. They went so far as to send me a copy for my reading ease. After pushing through the opening part, twice, I have come to see that this novel by David Albertyn was not for me. A boxer who is climbing the ranks and seeking a title shot, but whose past is never too far away. Friends of Antoine are coming out of the woodwork, though is it his fame or something else they find appealing? I suppose Albertyn will draw some readers in, but I just could not find myself want to learn more or even explore how the characters develop.

At a time when I am forced to be at home, with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, I seek books that will pull me in. This is not the first that failed to do so, and will likely not be the last. However, much like the friend who comes over when you want to be doing something else, I could not go 12 rounds with this story and not seek my own TKO!

Kudos, Mr. Albertyn. I hope others are ready for the battle, but this was just not my thing!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

The Brightest Fell, by Nupur Chowdhury

First and foremost, a large thank you to Nupur Chowdhury for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

I was approached by the author, who commented on my past reviews and large online friend base, to read and review this book. She talked me up with a spin of political intrigue and a dash of fantasy, hoping that it would pull me in. While Nupur Chowdhury offers both of these elements, I could not get interested in the book, giving it two tries on consecutive days. While I can see much potential here and some decent narrative work, alongside strong dialogue, I was not captivated. A country at war with terrorists holds some serum or injectable item that could make them docile. The country’s government ministers are torn about it, which causes a chasm like no other. Sure, it sounds as though it could be a blockbuster, but it fell flat for me. As I did not finish, I will respect the author and the publication, leaving a star rating blank.

Kudos, Madam Chowdhury, for taking the time to write this and search me out. I may be the odd reader in the mix who could not get hooked, but I prefer honesty rather than false platitudes.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Wake the Devil, by Ryan Adam

Six stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Reedsy Discovery and Ryan Adam for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Having never read anything by Ryan Adam beforehand, I was drawn in solely by the blurb on the dust jacket. That short summary promised a mix of mystery and some historical fiction, peppered with a touch of reality to leave the reader to parse through what they might like to believe. Truman Newirth arrives in New Orleans to take possession of a piece of property left to him by his family. Newirth has come from San Francisco and certainly senses the great difference. her in the Big Easy. When he discovers that the building of which he is about to take possession has ties to the Axeman Murders of the early 20th century, he is both disgusted and intrigued, hoping to learn more. The story then travels back to 1917, to a time in New Orleans when the city is being haunted by a killer, the Axeman. This character has targeted Italians, beginning by sneaking into their house though the kitchen door. After making their way to the bedroom, the Axeman hacked them to bits, leaving a bloody mess in his wake. Both the police and the local newspaper are baffled, unsure how to make sense of it all. Could it be a crude new means of Mafioso vengeance? Reporter Johnathan Newirth—great-grandfather to Truman—works diligently on the greatest story of his young career, unable to crack the code. When the Axeman publishes an ultimatum, everyone waits to see who might be next to die by the axe, and whether the authorities have the gumption to make an arrest that will save the city from future worry. The tale spans both time periods and it is only revelations at the end that ensure the reader better understands the Axeman and the crimes that shook New Orleans a century ago. Interesting in its premise, though I found myself drowning in the narrative. Hopefully others will be able to extract the spark of intrigue that I could not locate throughout my reading experience.

While the book appeared to have all the ingredients for success, I could not follow the direction that Ryan Adam sought to take the reader in this publication. Working in two time periods, one would have thought the mystery would have added depth and interest, but the opening section, set in 2004, seemed like an extended prologue that would not end. I kept looking to see why the reader needed to learn so much about Truman and this house he had enter his possession, learning only that Adam seemed to want to build up some curiosity that is sated only when the story flashes back in time. The bulk of the story, set in 1917-19, has some potential, as the city is reeling from these blood-filled murders. Why are Italians being targeted and who might be next? What motive might someone have to do this horrible killings and how are they able to stay off the radar of an accomplished police force and a witty journalist. I cannot pinpoint where things went wrong for me, but I can garner the sense that Adam’s writing did not stand off the page for me. It seemed to flow with ease and the story did move forward, but I could not find myself drawn to want to read thoroughly and intensely to discover how things would resolve themselves. It is a pity, for I was looking forward to a gripping story and gritty murder investigation—both from the angles of the police and a journalist—but was left feeling as though someone was sawing my neck with an old butter knife. Perhaps the brilliance is embedded in there for others, but I surely missed it in my reading experience. A mix of chapter lengths and the two time periods leave the reader wanting to learn a little more, as well as using what looks to be time-appropriate language and headline-grabbing sentences. Adam may simply have missed the mark for me, but I encourage others to see if this book is as riveting as the blurb makes it seem to be.

Kudos, Mr. Adam, for a good effort. I think you may have just lost me in this one. I’d be willing to try another of your books, or return to this one, down toe road.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Van, by Ramsay Elise

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to Reedsy Discovery and Ramsay Elise for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Always up for a good horror novel, I was drawn to this recently published piece, in hopes that Ramsay Elise could pique my attention. The premise seemed good and left me wanted to know a little more about her horror-filled tale with Norwegian undertones. When Alexander Gunderson settles in Minnesota, he has more than his luggage from Norway. Gunderson discovers a Dökkálfar, a dark elf from Norwegian lore in the woods behind his home. Rather than kill Gunderson, the Dökkálfar strikes a deal with him and takes over a van the retired car salesman owned. Anyone who owns a van of this nature is susceptible to becoming a vicious killer, controlled by the Dökkálfar. From a local serial killer in Minnesota to a killer who targeted Spring Break revellers in Florida, the Dökkálfar has been working hard to bring out bloodshed. However, the ultimate test will be Alexander’s great-grandson, Thomas, who must face off against the Dökkálfar and remove the pall enveloping the small Minnesota community. As Thomas returns to the town of his birth, he realises that much remains the same, with the Dökkálfar still lurking in the woods. To destroy the pact his great-grandfather made will be harder and more troubling than he could have imagined, but there is a sense of determination to see it through. An interesting tale that allows Elise to fan the flames on the Norse stories of old. While not entirely my type of book, there are surely some who will revel in its plot.

There is always a gamble when one discovers a new author, unsure how things will turn out and whether it will be worth the time spent reading. I have had many such moments in my reading career and today was another of them. I cannot take anything away from Ramsay Elise or the effort she put into this book, as I can see a gem in the premise and some of the plot developments. However, there is something lacking here, that would add much to the horror and terror, rather than simply serving as a tepid presentation of some past Norse elf with evil tendencies. I liked what was published as a skeletal outline for a larger and more complex piece, as it is sure to keep the reader on their toes, but Elise needs a great deal of time and effort to hash out what it add and how to bulk things up. The chapters flowed well and the three sections of the book proved useful (as did the Norse symbols to divide them), but I would be remiss to let this book stand as stellar or ready to dazzle the general public. More work and assistance would surely help Ramsay Elise rise to the top of her genre.

Kudos, Madam Elise, for a good effort. I’d read a more bulked up piece, should you have one down the road.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

The Hero: The Enduring Myth That Makes us Human, by Lee Child

Seven stars

If you have ever been on public transportation or sat in a location frequented by many you do not know, you will have discovered there is always someone who wants to share their story. Be it a tale from their youth or an anecdote that ties in nicely with what you are doing/reading at that moment, those people exist the world over. The person means well and seems to have something to say they feel will be of upmost importance to you, but all you can do is nod and hope to return to your previously scheduled solo activity. Since I began reading Lee Child novels, I often thought of that person as a personified Jack Reacher. He’s there, does his thing, shares a few stories, and then is out of your life again. Child offers up a book version of the Reacher persona with this publication, wherein he rambles for pages and pages about countless items, with a ‘hero’ theme threading its way from beginning to end and imploring that we, the reader/listener, hark to what is being said. While I love to learn and take great pride in deferring to those who hold the knowledge I desire, this seemed to be a long and meandering discussion that needed proper classification. Child is a masterful writer and knows his stuff (even with this piece), but I wanted something more organized and whose theses could be clearly delineated as I moved from opium to the emergence of Robin Hood as folklore hero. Some will love this publication and others will dislike it to the nth degree. It does not taint my admiration for all things Reacher, but leaves to to wonder what Child did not take all this trivial knowledge and let his well-known protagonist espouse it before wooing his next lady friend!

Kudos, Mr. Child, for an interesting branch-off from your usual fare.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Deep State, by Chris Hauty

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Chris Hauty, and Atria Books for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

In his debut novel, Chris Hauty takes the reader on a ride with this political thriller. While the premise is there, the book exemplifies that Hauty is a screenwriter and much of the needed impact was missing throughout. Hayley Chill has done well while serving her country. Stationed in Texas, Chill bided her Army time boxing and showing that she ought not be taken for granted. When she is discharged, she scores a coveted position in Washington, as an intern to the President’s Chief of Staff, Chill receives many of the unwanted jobs, but keeps a stiff upper lip. Saving her boss (and POTUS) on one occasion earns her the gratitude of the Commander in Chief. When Chill discovers the Chief of Staff dead in his home one morning, she cannot help but wonder if it was murder. Soon thereafter, she is targeted by someone close to her in an apparent attempt to shut her up. Chill cannot help but wonder if there is a conspiracy being run by Deep State, the faceless group that actually pulls the strings in DC. The more she probes, the closer Chill feels she is to the truth, but only helps to reveal how vast and all-encompassing the threat is, with POTUS at the centre. An ultimate strike is in the works, though Chill will have to be neutralised in order for it to be effective and rid America of a controversial leader. Hauty has a good framework here for a wonderful thriller, but there are some issues that I cannot ignore. Some may enjoy the political nature of this book, while others might want to wait for the movie (as this book reads like a film adaptation).

I loved the premise of this book when I read the dust-jacket cover, hoping that it would be a real poke at the circus that is Washington these days. Things began well, with a nice protagonist in the form of Hayley Chill. She has a backstory that ingratiates the reader to her, with a poor childhood and a gritty determination to succeed. Arriving in Washington, Chill does not know what to expect and tries to fit in where she is already an outcast. As the novel progresses, the reader learns a little more about Chill’s sleuthing abilities, but also how she can make poor choices that will sink her if she is not careful. Others find themselves serving as interesting place-markers in a piece that tries to be political and a thriller with an evil cast of characters. The story had the makings of a successful novel, but needs a great deal more meat to keep the narrative moving at a break-neck pace. More politics, added deception, and slow reveals would have made this book so much better. It may have taken 500-600 pages, but something of that caliber would be worth the read. The twist at the end was surely redeeming, but does not save the overall mediocre quality. I found it difficult to process the present tense narrative, as Hauty uses it throughout and then adds odd ‘this activity would come to haunt X a decade down the road’ sentiments at various points. Perhaps another shortcoming when a screenwriter tries to move to novels. There was so much potential here and I was hoping for a great deal more. I can only hope that Hauty can find new ideas and expand on them, or turn this into a movie, where brevity is sometimes an asset.

Kudos, Mr. Hauty, for the interesting story. I cannot say that I ‘stayed up all night’, as your editor mentioned in the ARC I read, but there is some potential.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Don’t Forget Me (Levi Kant #1), by B.C. Schiller

Seven stars

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, B.C. Schiller, and Amazon Publishing UK for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

New to the world of the husband-wife duo calling themselves B.C. Schiller, I was not sure what to expect. The short dust jacket blurb had me intrigued about this novel, though I was not entirely confident this had ‘translated’ onto the written page, if you will pardon the pun. Dr. Olivia Hofmann nervously checks the post and discovers yet another postcard with an apology and no more. It has been five years since Dr. Hofmann’s husband and young daughter have disappeared without a trace, which coincides with the brutal murder and incineration of a teenage girl, Lisa Manz. While meeting one of her clients, Hofmann discovers that he is holding onto a rucksack belonging the Manz and might have key answers to the crime, or be the murderer himself. When Hofmann agrees to meet him at his home the following day, she watched him fall from his second storey window, a shadowy figure seen pushing him. Dr. Hofmann reaches out to her acquaintance, Levi Kant, who was the detective on the Manz case, but who was removed close to its resolution when he was shot by another perpetrator. Armed not only with the rucksack, but also a diary that Lisa kept, Hofmann and Kant begin trying to piece things together, including discovering who this mystery ‘doctor’ was who is mentioned in the diary and is surely involved in abusing Lisa Manz. When someone targets Hofmann with a vehicle, trying to wipe her out, the panic level increases, but nothing will stop Kant from revealing the truth, something he has wanted to discover for the last number of years. A decent piece of crime work, though it did not jump off the page for me. I suppose those who enjoy quick thrillers will want to give this a try, though I cannot see it being catapulted to the top of many to-be-read lists.

As this was my first experience with B.C. Schiller crime writing, I have no outside context other than this novel. While the premise was good, I was left wanting much more, as I could not help feeling the entire experience was a tad beige for me. There seems to be a race for protagonist here, between Dr. Olivia Hofmann and Levi Kant. Hofmann takes centre stage early and the reader learns about her agonising confusion about a missing child and husband, though she seems to have been able to focus on her work. In an industry that has little downtime, Hofmann must juggle her patients and a mentally ill father, whose acuity is diminishing by the day. Still, she finds time to break away and join this impromptu investigation into the death of a teenager. Levi Kant, on the other hand, was one of Vienna’s great detectives, only to have his work come crashing down when a bullet entered his leg. Now teaching at the police academy, he has always wondered about that one case that slipped through his fingers. With a Jewish backstory that some may find intriguing, Kant is also a man of many passions in his current life, which he shares throughout. Others find their way directing the story in their own way, some effectively and others simply popping up to play their part and evaporating again. The story was decent and I cannot be entirely sure if the plot’s strength was ‘lost in translation’ or if I am simply setting the bar too high. I did not dislike the book entirely, but I had hoped for a more meatier tale to keep me fully captivated. The chapters were short and I flew through the book in short order, so I cannot say it was a laborious task whatsoever. I’d likely give the series another try, should something else be published, but I am not making any promises.

Kudos, Mr. and Mrs. Schiller, for a decent plot. While the delivery was not there for me, I may be asking too much all at once.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Empire of Lies, by Raymond Khoury

Did not finish (no star rating)

First and foremost, a large thank you to NetGalley, Raymond Khoury, and Forge Books for providing me with a copy of this publication, which allows me to provide you with an unbiased review.

Usually a great fan of alternate history and long one of Raymond Khoury’s work, I was hoping to find great interest in this novel, though things began to fall short from the beginning and remained troublesome for me. The premise, that the Ottoman Empire continued to gather strength and overtook much of Europe into the present day, sounded good on paper, but as Khoury wove his story, things never seemed to work for me. With a mysteriously tattooed man lurking in the shadows, I hoped for some injected excitement, but even the information he revealed left me wanting more and unable to find something intriguing. While I hate to leave a book unfinished—particularly an ARC—I owe it to myself and others not to get bogged down with something that will make me miserable or keep me from reviewing books that appeal to me. While some will surely love it, I had to let this one go 55% in and hope this was but a blip on the Khoury radar, not the new norm after a fairly lengthy time away from full novels.

Kudos, Mr. Khoury, for dreaming up an interesting premise. Delivery was off for me, so I hope others can see the empire for the castle walls, to poorly mangle a cliché!

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward

Six stars

When presented with this work by Jesmyn Ward, I was not sure what to expect. A reading challenge if ever there was one, which requires the reader to leave their preconceived notions and happy thoughts at the door. The story depicts a black family’s struggle in rural Mississippi over a period of time. There are three main stories here, the first, a living teenage boy—Jojo—who is trying to make sense of his life and how he will grow into a man. He lacks a true father figure, though is grandfather does the best he can. Jojo is mixed-race, forcing him to be scorned by all for his lack of fitting in. Add to that, his white father is incarcerated and his paternal grandfather will have nothing to do with him. Jojo’s mother, Leonie, is a drug-addled mother who is not present, but trying to pick up the pieces of her shattered life. She is still quite selfish, but must put on a brave face to ensure her children see the best of her. When Leonie packs her children up to take them to the prison, she hopes and prays that Jojo’s father is ready to face the reality of what awaits him. It is here that the reader learns of the third perspective of the story, a long-ago dead teenager’s ghost tells of Mississippi in the past, where people of colour had even fewer rights than today. Together, the story tells of a bleak outlook and one that can only get better with much change in a world that has forgotten the whispered voices. Sobering in its concept, but not what I expected or really felt connecting to me as a reader. Let those who love literature and its associated award-winning authors flock to this one. I’ll let them laud and praise it for the reader still on the fence.

It is always a gamble to read a new author and even more of one when presented with them in a reading challenge. I am always up for something new and interesting, though I cannot admit that I always follow the current of reviewer sentiments. In this piece, I was left feeling as though I wanted more Jesmyn Ward does well and has touched on a number of key issues with present and past America, showing that the country is far from the greatness its current leader espouses. However, the novel, presented through the eyes of three characters, failed to resonate with me. There is a thorough and multi-faceted view of life through the eyes of Jojo, offering his teenage struggles and how rural Mississippi is not an easy place to come of age, but this is interestingly contrasted with the life that Richie lived, another of the narrators, who faced lynchings and other horrible acts in a past full of trouble. Ward pushes a third perspective, Leonie, upon the reader, to show the middle ground of a woman who struggled as a child and found herself on the wrong path in a life full of poor choices and dead-end opportunities. The ideas were great and at times I enjoyed the delivery, but I could not connect with much of anything within the narrative. Surely, some will love it and praise Ward as being worthy of more accolades. For me, I am happy to hand over the shovel and ask that someone bury this experience so as to stop the caterwauling.

Kudos, Madam Ward, for your attempt. You did not win me over, but I hope others see the glimmer of magic I did not.

This book fulfils the August 2019 requirements of Mind the Bookshelf Gap.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

White Noisem by Don DeLillo

Six stars

Don DeLillo presents this off the wall piece that takes the reader on an adventure they may wish they’d never joined. Told in an oddly lilting manner, a family comes to terms with the pressures of the outside world in a way only they can surmises is rational. Jack Gladney is the Chair of the Hitler Department at a small college in Middle America. He thrives on the uniqueness of his work and yet has never learned to speak German, leaving him missing a key aspect of the essential research. At home, life is equally as unique, as Gladney and his wife, Babette, head up a family of children from their past marriages. A familial conglomeration of offspring from past unions that are mixed together like a multi-tiered cake, Jack and Babette try to create some normalcy in a situation that is anything but. With all that is going, there is something on the horizon, literally. When an accident at a train yard releases a toxic chemical, Gladney and his family gaze upon it with some awe. However, this cloud does not dissipate and soon the town is forced into an evacuation situation, which sees Jack Gladney exposed, however briefly, to some of the fallout. He chooses to keep this to himself, though the pall of death is now front and centre for Jack. He returns home contemplative as he banters with the children in the house, only to learn that Babette has been going through her own rollercoaster of emotions on this subject and many others. For the remainder of the novel, death lurks, as does the inherent fear of its arrival, taking the reader on a mind-bending (and numbing) discussion of preparation for the end and the afterlife’s inviting call. While there are surely some peaks in this novel, much of it is spent in valleys I wish I had kept well enough alone. I’ll go neutral on any recommendations and let each reader make their own decision on this one.

It is always difficult to dive into the middle of a well-established author’s domain and find issue with the first piece you discover. Having never read Don DeLillo before (and asked to do so for a book challenge), I could not help but wonder what sort of experience I might have. The dust jacket blurb for this piece seemed somewhat intriguing, which left me hoping that I would find something that kept my attention. However, as things inched along, I was drowned in silly offshoots that frustrated me more than helping move the story. Jack Gladney has the potential to be a captivating character, especially with the job he holds, though that ends up being a distance subplot and seems used only as window dressing for the piece. Rather, we see how Gladney tries to work through the patchwork of his home life with children from all sorts of marriages over a series of years, none of which give the reader any depth to the protagonist. There is little about the man that proves overly exciting, as he ambles along with his quasi-philosophical musings and banal conversations about life, death, and any number of other topics that lull the reader into something akin to wakeful sleep. I wanted much more, especially with all that was going on around him (and set at a time when chemical disasters could have meant a Cold War clash). Those around Gladney were equally irksome, fuelling some weird need to engage him on silly topics throughout, without actually making any progress. The premise of the novel had some potential for me, though its impact was lost in many of the long-winded and silly conversations that took place, circling the topic for ages and getting nowhere. Be it between the children or including adults, I wanted to reach out and toss a punch at someone’s throat, hoping it would end things and force the characters to move onwards. Alas, I suffered through it too many times, but soldiered on, knowing that the book challenge group would want to know about it. I suppose there is something in here for those who want something a little deeper or with some philosophical meat, though I hold firm that the title aptly describes this piece: something annoying in the background that is best ignored.

Kudos, Mr. DeLillo, for the attempt, but I will steer clear of your work for a while.

This novel fulfils the June requirements of Mind the Bookshelf Gap Reading Group. https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/886451-mind-the-bookshelf-gap

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons