Alternate Side

Alternate Side

Alternate Side by Anna Quindlen (Literary Fiction/Women’s Contemporary Fiction)

Alternate Side is a character-driven slice-of-life story, the type at which Anna Quindlen excels. You get to know her people as though they were friends. As with most of us, their lives have moments of drama among mostly no-big-deal daily stuff, but because you know these people, you’re interested. If, perchance, you can identify with them and their problems, all the better.

Nora Nolan and her husband, Charlie, live in a closely knit New York City neighborhood of comfortably rich people with housekeepers and a shared handyman. They all know each other, socialize at catered neighborhood events, but are not quite friends. In other words, they don’t bare their hearts to one another. Still, they care about each other, and when something happens to one, the others come to help.

After nearly thirty years together, Nora and Charlie have grown apart. Their twins are graduating from college and moving on with their lives, leaving an empty nest. While Nora loves New York City life, Charlie wants to move to a warm climate where he can golf year-round. She has a job she enjoys; he’s not all that happy in his. Little things he does are starting to annoy her. He’s threatened by the possibility that she will take a new position with status greater than his. When an act of violence rocks the neighborhood, she and he see the incident very differently.

Having grown up in a friendly Midwestern neighborhood where block parties were common, I could identify with the measured camaraderie among neighbors. And being of a certain age, I could understand how Nora and Charlie felt. This story also deals with race relations, class privilege, and what are often referred to as first-world problems, yet refrains from passing judgment. If you are looking for fast-paced action , mystery, or romance, this book is not for you. But if you enjoy fine writing, Alternate Side is that.

Grandma gives Alternate Side five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Alternate Side will be released on March 20, 2018, and is available for pre-order.

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The Family Next Door

The Family Next Door

The Family Next Door by Sally Hepworth (Women’s Fiction/Psychological Thriller)

This book involves five women who live in the upscale neighborhood known as Pleasant Court, where families mingle but also cherish and protect their privacy. Three women – Ange, Fran, and Essie – are married with young children. The new neighbor, Isabelle, is single and childless. Barbara is Essie’s single mom and grandmother to Essie’s little girls. All five women have their secrets and their frustrations, and we get to know them well as they take turns telling this story from their individual points of view.

Sally Hepworth (The Mother’s Promise) brings all of it together in an ending I didn’t see coming. Throughout the story, we’re aware of each woman’s struggles with motherhood, marriage, and men who disappoint in one way or another. We know about their psychological breakdowns, their mistakes, and what wears them out by the end of the day. We watch them grapple with personal demons that require difficult decisions. And running throughout is the question, who is the anonymous, mentally disturbed narrator who has taken someone else’s baby from the hospital?

All in all, it’s an interesting look at the face we put on for others and leaves you wondering what you don’t know about that nice family down the block.

Grandma gives The Family Next Door four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Family Next Door will be released on March 6, 2018 and is available for pre-order.

A Boy Made of Blocks

A Boy Made of Blocks

A Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart (General Fiction)

Alex Rowe, the thirty-something narrator of this story, cannot stop dwelling on a tragedy that occurred during his childhood. As a result, his marriage is falling apart, he cannot relate to his autistic young son, and he barely communicates with his sister and widowed mom. When his frustrated wife kicks him out of the house and he loses his job, he realizes he needs to change his ways. In an effort to connect with his little boy, he learns to play Minecraft, a video game the boy loves, and little by little they literally build their own world together. In the process Alex comes to understand both himself and his child better and finally comes to terms with his past.

Although this may sound like a dire scenario, Alex is funny and likeable, and we grow to love his son, Sam. The book is populated with interesting characters who round out his life, and the entire story is uplifting and poignant. In real life, the author is the father of an autistic child, and while this is not his son’s story, his first-hand knowledge of autism and its challenges is apparent.

Unfortunately, the extensive descriptions of their Minecraft world were often too much for me, and I found myself skimming those passages. While it’s important to understand the game and how one creates with it, the details made my eyes glaze over. In general, however, I found the story and its characters enjoyable and the narrator a delight.

Grandma gives A Boy Made of Blocks four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Wife Between Us

The Wife Between Us

The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen (Thriller)

The write-up for this psychological thriller warns that even when you think you have things all figured out, you’ll be wrong. This is true.

Lots of twists and unexpected turns make this a book that will keep you off-balance. What seems to be a somewhat unlikeable protagonist/narrator morphs into someone you begin to understand. Not everything she has said and done was reckless after all. She’s not as unreliable as she seems. There are good reasons why things happened the way they did. Things you don’t see coming suddenly make sense when you think back on how it all played out.

Hendricks and Pekkanen combine their respective careers as book editor and best-selling novelist to produce a work meant to make the most of what’s popular in today’s fiction. It’s full of familiar tropes: the rich, handsome, doting husband who’s too good to be true; the awestruck young wife blinded by her fairy-tale life; the vindictive former wife stalking the new wife. The authors cleverly tweak the familiar to keep it unpredictable and introduce new “aha!” moments that won’t let you put the book down until it’s finished.

A good read when you’re looking for something that holds your interest but then lets you move on without too much introspection… unless, of course, you’re married to someone who seems too good to be true.

Grandma gives The Wife Between Us four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received an ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

 

How Speleology Restored My Sex Drive

How Speleology

How Speleology Restored My Sex Drive by Michael Bernhart (Action/Adventure)

Don’t judge this book by its title – it is a witty adventure story involving some hefty topics, including racism, kidnapping, and the aftereffects of serving in Vietnam, yet it kept me chuckling from beginning to end. The year is 1993, and the narrator, Max Brown, is the 52-year-old father of mischievous nine-year-old twins, Mary and Margaret (M&M), and husband to their “scrumptious” mom, Sally, who is much younger than he. As the title suggests, he worries about sexual performance, but that’s nowhere near what this novel is all about.

His precocious daughters disappear into the wilds of northern Georgia while visiting Sally’s crazy backwoods uncle, Skeeter. They and Skeeter hope to find Confederate gold rumored to be hidden in abandoned mines. Local Klan members don’t take well to outsiders messing around in their territory, but decide to see what the treasure hunters might discover before getting rid of them. Max and Sally don’t know which of the locals they can trust as too many negative things occur after they confide in seemingly friendly folks. They must rely on their own wiles and wits if they’re going to find their girls before it’s too late.

What makes this such an enjoyable read is the voice of Max Brown as he relates what’s going on with his kids, his wife, her wacky uncle, and the various people they run into on their quest. Max’s self-deprecating humor and his wry observations keep the narration light and funny even when the stakes are high and things are going poorly. None of it makes light of what the KKK stands for, however, nor are Klansmen portrayed as buffoons. The book depicts racism in all its ugliness and introduces us to people who must face it every day. As for the title and what it implies, think PG-13 when it comes to sex. Max is honest and funny but too much of a gentleman to go into detail.

Grandma gives How Speleology Restored My Sex Drive four stars. 4 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

The Blackbird Season

The Blackbird Season

The Blackbird Season by Kate Moretti (Suspense)

In The Blackbird Season, Kate Moretti gives us front-row seats to a drama about marriage, fidelity, teacher-student relationships, and the complicated interactions among peers in a small town, be they teenagers or adults. In typical Moretti fashion, she provides complex, nuanced characters whom we get to know well and whose flaws make them all the more real and relatable.

Alecia and Nate already have a stressful marriage. Her days are totally consumed by her obsession with their  autistic five-year-old, while Nate is closely – some might say excessively – involved with the high school students he teaches and coaches. When one of the students claims that she and Nate are having an affair, things begin to fall apart, and when the girl disappears altogether, it gets worse.

The story is told from the points of view of four different characters, and the timeline jumps back and forth, providing backstory at some points and current story at others, which I found potentially confusing at first. I thoroughly enjoy Moretti’s writing style, however. Her descriptions bring people and places alive, immersing the reader in each character’s experience, and her pacing keeps one engaged.

While this book is categorized as suspense based on the girl’s disappearance and the question of who is responsible, it’s really more of a study of the complexities, expectations, and disappointments of personal relationships. It also does a good job of exploring the tragic outcomes that can result from the loss of a small town’s main source of employment – in this case the local paper mill that once meant prosperity but now sits in ruin, abandoned and dangerous. The whodunit aspect takes a back seat to finding out how the main characters will fare when all is said and done.

Grandma gives The Blackbird Season five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews received a free ARC from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Blackbird Season will be released on September 26, 2017, and is available for pre-order.

An Unexpected Afterlife

An Unexpected Afterlife

An Unexpected Afterlife by Dan Sofer (Religious Fantasy)

Complex, interesting characters in a most unusual situation. Moshe Karlin wakes up lying on the dirt in a cemetery, naked and alone, with no recollection of how he came to be there. Before long he learns the alarming truth: he died two years before.

Without going into the plot or the outcome, let me simply say that this novel grabbed my attention from the get-go with all its possibilities, and it was a great read. In addition to being highly creative in his premise, Sofer gives us humor and adventure as well as raising a number of questions. Among them: Would it really be so great to come back from the dead? If a deceased loved one suddenly came back into my life years later, would I believe it? How might it complicate my life and what would I do? Will true believers recognize and be ready to accept the End of Days when it begins? Are there people already among us who are more than they appear to be?

Throughout the action, the author brings modern-day Israel to life for those of us who have never been there, as well as providing interesting details about Jewish tradition, Judaism’s belief in the Resurrection of the Dead, and its anticipation of the End of Days. As one who enjoys novels that teach me something, as well as being well-written, well-edited, and well-proofread, I found this book to be pure joy and very satisfying entertainment.

This is Book One in a series called The Dry Bones Society. As such, it left a number of questions open in preparation for Book Two. With that in mind, I’m able to accept the fact that one character – who may or may not be the prophet Elijah – remained a mystery to me at the end. Moshe’s story – at least for the moment —  was resolved well enough, and I hope that future books will tell us more about the fates of his fellow resurrectees.

Grandma gives An Unexpected Afterlife five stars. 5 stars

Bella Reads and Reviews Books received a free copy from the author in exchange for an honest review.