Book Review: LITTLE VOICES, Devon tries to exonerate her friend, accused of murder – who will get her first? Her enemies or the little voices?

Lillie, Vanessa - Little Voices (1)Little Voices
Vanessa Lillie

Three months early, in September, Devon Burges goes into labor and is rushed into an emergency C-section. As the anesthesia pulls her under, she hears a report on the radio: Belina Cabrala was found murdered at Swan Point Cemetery. Belina, her close friend as well as the nanny for Emmett, son of Alec, one of her college classmates.

In December, Devon begins venturing outside the house with her premie, Ester. Alec is one of the first people she sees, and he divulges that the police are treating him as their primary suspect in Belina’s death. He begs Devon, a lawyer, to help him prove his innocence.

Not only does Devon believe Alec, she is driven by a compulsive need to find justice for Belina. Though still physically and emotionally fragile, she begins an investigation parallel to that of the police. However, in the throes of postpartum depression, Devon begins hearing voices—cruel, hateful pronouncements that seem to be rooted in childhood trauma.

Nevertheless, Devon doggedly pursues the killer’s trail, following it through Belina’s passionate affairs and illicit business dealings. She uncovers secrets of powerful individuals, and it’s unclear whether her voices or her enemies are most dangerous—and if she or Ester will pay the price for her persistence.

Little Voices offers an interesting protagonist: a strong, intelligent, yet flawed and vulnerable woman who takes on a male-dominated environment to seek justice for her friends. Even when Devon’s internal voices were eating her away, she projects self-confidence and power. The book had a wide roster of supporting characters, including siblings Cynthia, an astute businesswoman and Philip, a reporter, and Derek, Devon’s animal-loving, addict brother. Her husband, Jack, was both a calming force and a foil, and Jack’s Uncle Cal provided access to the city’s upper echelons. I wish Derek and Jack had been more developed; Derek was one of my favorite characters.

For me, the voices sometimes were so frequent, they were distracting to the narrative. While I suppose that’s a good approximation of Devon’s experience, it doesn’t always make for pleasant reading. Additionally, I thought the pace and the delivery of crucial backstory was a little awkward.

Still, this is a promising mystery debut by Vanessa Lillie, and I’m especially excited that like me she is from Oklahoma! I look forward to her future novels.

Thanks to NetGalley and Thomas & Mercer for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: INTO CAPTIVITY THEY WILL GO, a rural boy grows up believing he is the second coming of Jesus

Into Captivity They Will Go
Noah Milligan

Initially, I was interested in Into Captivity They Will Go by Noah Milligan because it’s set in Oklahoma, my home state. The book centers on Caleb Gunter, a preteen who is told by his mother Evelyn that the world is ending, and he is the second coming of Jesus. Even in the buckle of the bible belt, such a pronouncement doesn’t sit well, and the First Baptist Church in Bartlesville excommunicates the Gunter family. Leaving her husband Earl and older son Jonah behind, Evelyn takes Caleb to a rural religious community run by her stepfather’s friend, Sam Jenkins. The people there are more accepting of Evelyn’s message, and Caleb, speaking in tongues, lost in the spirit, and lifted up by the other congregants, finally feels at home.

Evelyn’s homilies, however, grow more extreme, and as her prophecies darken, she views the outside community with more and more suspicion. Meanwhile, Caleb struggles to accept what it means to be the savior who will lead the chosen people after the end of the world. After a series of cataclysmic events, Caleb loses everything familiar, including the foundation of his faith.

While the first two thirds of the book recount Caleb’s childhood and are told in third person, the final section gives Caleb a first-person voice and more insight into his reactions to the events surrounding him. I couldn’t help but think how damaged Caleb must be and how tempting it was to fall into old patterns of behavior, substituting one false god for another. He’s calm and accepting of his past, which is hard to understand, but Atchley, a character he later becomes close to, may provide the reader’s perspective wondering how he isn’t angry and resentful.

Throughout the book, I wondered why Evelyn had taken this religious path, but then I also asked myself if it mattered. Whatever the cause, Caleb was left to cope with the impact of her beliefs and actions and how they affected him; they also rippled into the family, changing the lives of Earl and Jonah, and beyond, so that others in the community were never the same.

One of the triumphs of the book is that Milligan writes with such compassion and empathy that is impossible to write any characters off as one-dimensional, fringe, or unbelievable. I thought that I would immediately feel anger and contempt for Evelyn. Instead, while I did feel some of that on behalf of Caleb, even more, I considered her with empathy and curiosity. Caleb’s general placidity evokes an air of forgiveness and acceptance, and despite the travails of his childhood, it seems that attitude serves him well. Furthermore, I loved the subtle Oklahoman references Into Captivity They Will Go such as the primacy of Dr. Pepper, the references to concerts at the Blue Door, the constant calibration of weather, and the love of Sonic and Braum’s.

Even though I did grow up in Oklahoma, I went to a relatively liberal church (for that state anyway), and I wasn’t familiar with the biblical passages from Revelations. I had to look up the seven seals to fully understand Evelyn’s references. I also wish that some of the characters, like Earl, had been more developed. The shift from third person to first person was a little jarring and unexpected, and Caleb seemed like such a different person, also with time passing and experience gained, the change did made sense once I reflected on it. Finally, some details concerning spatial and time relationships were confusing, but that may be a function of the advance copy I read and will be corrected in the printed version.

Readers who enjoy literary fiction, coming of age stories, narratives about extreme religion, and of course, books set in Oklahoma should read Into Captivity They Will Go.

Thank you to NetGalley and Central Avenue Publishing for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: Right After the Weather, in a moment, everything can change

Right After the Weather
Carol Anshaw

Happy Publication Day!

A set designer with a master’s degree, but an unsteady income, Cate, at forty-two, gets by—barely—only because her ex-husband bought her a condo and her parents still give her money. Still, she is working on Plan C which involves a new relationship with Maureen and the possibility of working with a renowned playwright and director Off-Broadway even as her old relationships simmer on the surface. Her ex-husband, Graham, separated from his third wife, has taken residence in her guest room and spends his days online discussing conspiracy theories, while she can’t shed feelings for Dana who is firmly committed to her girlfriend despite their passionate affair.

Cate’s singular constant is Neale, her best friend since childhood. When Cate arrives at Neale’s house to pick her up for a yoga class and sees her being brutally attacked, Cate responds with equal savagery. That moment of violence ripples through all Cate’s relationships, challenging her very assumptions about herself and her closest confidants.

Right after the Weather is highly character driven and low on plot, but the writing is spectacular, and the themes are thought-provoking. Set in the fall of 2016 and spring of 2017, the characters grapple with Trump’s victory and the associated issues it raised.

That Cate is in theater as a set designer shows an interesting profession but more than that, the act of designing a set can be seen to parallel that of presenting a particularly curated face, one that Cate has to defend when her story becomes public. Faced with such a clear delineation between before and after, Cate, Neale, and the other characters in their orbit must renegotiate not only what they mean to each other, but their very identities.

For fans of Ottessa Moshfegh, Binnie Kirshenbaum, and Jen Beagin.

Thanks to NetGalley and Atria Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: THE ANIMAL AWARDS, who wins magical healer? amazing egg? Find out!

Jenkins, Martin - The Animal AwardsToday is National Wildlife Day, a perfect day to share the just published children’s book The Animal Awards written by Martin Jenkins and illustrated by Tor Freeman.

The Animal Awards uses the entertainment awards ceremony in an innovative way: to present a natural history of unusual animals who would probably not be in a collection together, or maybe not in a book at all. Using categories such as “The Amazing Egg Award”(ostrich), “The Best Bouncer Award” (kangaroo), and “The Magical Healer Award” (axolotl), Freeman introduces fifty animals, insects, and sea creatures.

The book is entertaining and informative with engaging text and charming illustrations. Each “award” spread has a description of the animal on one side with basic information: category (e.g., bird, reptile, insect, or mammal), habitat, lifespan, and diet. In describing why the animal has won the award, Freeman offers a brief profile of the creature with interesting facts. On the facing page, an illustration or series of illustrations exhibits additional facts. In the illustration of the tortoise, for example, winner of “The Centenarian Award,” the illustration compares the lifespan of the tortoise, Greenland shark, black coral, and ocean clam. The illustration page for the lion, winner of “The Marvellous Mane Award,” has four smaller drawings showing what life is like in a lion pride.

In addition to providing a natural history of these interesting animals—also including penguins, elephants, bats, terns, bullfrogs, cheetahs, jellyfish, and so many more—the book sensitively discusses extinction and threats to endangered populations.

The Animal Awards uses humor to convey a wide array of interesting factual information. Although some of the vocabulary or concepts may require the help of a parent, teacher, or guardian to understand on first exposure, I think this is a book that kids will return to again and again for the fun facts and absolutely adorable and informative illustrations. It would be a wonderful gift and addition to a school or home library.

If you would like to know what you can do to help save endangered wildlife today and every day, visit the Wildlife Conservation Society.

Thank you to NetGalley and Frances Lincoln Children’s book for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: THE LONG CALL, meet Detective Matthew Venn

Cleeves, Ann - The Long Call (ed)The Long Call
Two Rivers Book #1
Ann Cleeves

Happy Publication Day
to the Long Call!

Detective Matthew Venn watched his father’s funeral from the periphery. Since he renounced his family’s strict evangelical faith when he was in college, he’s not been in contact with them. But he was startled out of his memories back into his current reality when his office called to report that a dead body had been found on a nearby beach. After a rough period, the man, Simon Walden, had been living with devout social worker Caroline Preece and her roommate, Gaby Henry, artist in residence at the Woodyard Center, a hub of the community containing an art studio, theater space, café, and day center for adults with learning disabilities.

As Venn investigated with the savvy single mother DS Jen Rafferty and young, ambitious Constable Ross May who has uncomfortable ties to the DCI, a woman with Down’s Syndrome who attended the adult day center went missing. Since Simon Walden volunteered at Woodyard, it became a focus of the investigation—difficult for Venn since the visionary behind Woodyard and the current managing director was his husband, Jonathan Church. Just as shocking, Venn received an unexpected call from his mother. The murder and missing girl represented a tangle of secrets involving his past and present selves, and he wasn’t sure he wanted the answers.

The Long Call is the first book in a planned series featuring Matthew Venn who is unlike most detectives in literature. He is gay, which is refreshing, but also refreshing is that his sexual orientation is not an issue except vis-à-vis his family and their conservative religious community, the Barum Brethren. More than that, Venn generally follows the rules and is less a lone wolf than some of the other protagonists in my favorite detective series. He’s also quite insecure and vulnerable making him very relatable but at times maudlin. I enjoyed DS Rafferty because she is tough and outspoken though very empathetic, but at times (though not always) both she and Constable May seemed to be “off the shelf” characters—the brass female sidekick and the young Turk.

The mystery took some unexpected detours, sometimes making such a hairpin turn I was momentarily confused and had to reorient myself and one character felt more like a deus ex machina than an essential element of the narrative, but I found the art center setting interesting and thought Cleeves presented the members of the adult day center with sensitivity. As far as I can remember, I haven’t read books that take place in North Devon, and Cleeves gives vivid descriptions of the towns and landscape of the area. This is actually the first Ann Cleeves book I’ve read, though, so I’m unable to compare this book to her previous work.

The Long Call was engrossing, and I was overall invested both in Detective Venn and the secondary characters and plan to read subsequent volumes in the series. I think it is a good investment for mystery fans.

Thanks to NetGalley and Minotaur Books for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.