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REVIEW:  Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry

REVIEW: Learning to Swim by Sara J. Henry

Dear Ms. Henry,

Recently I’ve been stuck at home due to a hairline fracture in my foot. To combat feeling cooped up, I turned to your debut mystery, Learning to Swim, which a friend had described as fresh and exciting.

Learning-to-SwimFreelance writer Troy Chance is taking the ferry from the Adirondacks town of Port Kent, New York to Burlington, Vermont when the opposite direction ferry sails by. Just then Troy spots what appears to be a child falling from the ferry opposite hers into the cold waters of Lake Champlain.

Troy, who has no children of her own (though she is a sort of den mother to the handful of male athletes with whom she shares her Lake Placid apartment) barely spares a second’s thought to the consequences before she dives in after the child.

She manages to rescue the boy, who is five or six and French speaking. The child clams up when she asks him what happened, who his parents are, and where he lives.

Troy is aware that no fuss was raised over the boy’s fall and no search for him has been announced. She recalls that a sweatshirt was tied around him, straightjacket-like, and realizes this was a deliberate attempt at murder.

If Troy reports his disappearance to the police and his parents are contacted, will the boy be safe once returned to them? Or are his parents the ones behind his close call with drowning? Afraid to take a chance with the child’s life, Troy takes him home with her.

In a matter of days, a deep attachment develops between Troy and Paul, as the boy reveals himself to be called. Troy realizes that it will be painful to part with him. But when Paul opens up to her about his parents’ identities, Troy realizes she can’t keep him with her, either.

Can the child’s father, once found, be trusted? Will it be a good thing for Troy to accept an invitation to stay in Paul’s life until he has adjusted to normal life? Is this a chance for a new romance, or is the situation far more dangerous than that for Troy, and for the little boy who has won her heart?

Learning to Swim did what I most wanted a book to do at the time I read it: absorb my attention fully. It’s a page turner and I was grateful for that.

Troy is a warmhearted protagonist. Her family background and lifestyle felt specific to her; she’d escaped Nashville and the family expectations she’d found suffocating there as a teen to go to college early, and then moved to Lake Placid where she made her living writing freelance articles and looking after an apartment with four other housemates.

Some of the small details–such as the mention of Troy’s leaving some dirty dishes in a bag outside the room door of a housemate who hadn’t washed his plates–made Troy come alive. The same was true of Paul, the somber little boy she’d saved. His physical gestures and his tendency to hide made him and his ordeal feel very real to me.

Most of the secondary characters also felt lifelike, but I had a problem with the way the villain’s actions were so very over the top. One thing that helped that go down easier was the writing itself—the dialogue was believable, and even when a character’s actions were out there, there was a normalcy to the way others reacted.

The prose had a simplicity that didn’t appeal to me but I can’t decide how much of that was due to the language itself and how much to the rather heavy-handed foreshadowing (which was especially pronounced near the end of each short chapter). Combined with the very evil villain and the child-in-jeopardy plot, these elements made me feel manipulated.

Then there was the way that Troy’s growth arc was played up in the narration. It’s true that Troy changed over the course of the story; she started out fiercely independent, and her attachment to Paul helped teach her to open up to the people who cared about her and ask their help.

I liked that, but at the same time, I felt more was made of this transformation than was actually shown. Troy kept saying she would never go back to being the same woman she’d been before rescuing Paul, so I wanted this change in her to be shown in depth, rather than just told about over and over.

I liked the sense of place employed throughout the book. Learning to Swim takes place in Lake Placid, Ottawa, and Burlington, and it doesn’t feel as though it could be set anywhere, but rather, located in these specific places.

This is primarily a mystery/suspense novel, not a romance, and the first book in the series too, but there are a couple of romantic possibilities for Troy. I was on board with the way this was handled in terms of what felt right for Troy, but at the same time, I’m not convinced that in a real life situation things would play out that way.

More important than any other relationship is Troy’s connection to Paul. The bond between them was probably my favorite thing in the story, and I loved the early scenes in which she rescued him and cared for him.

The latter parts of the book felt less organic to me, relying as they did on ominous lines highlighting the potential pitfalls for Troy and the dangers to Paul’s well-being and safety. While I loved Troy’s dedication to Paul, and liked Troy herself, I was less keen on the way these whiffs of menace toward Paul pulled at my emotional strings.

I didn’t guess the solution to the mystery. At one point I suspected it, but then I quickly dismissed this suspicion. I see the book as more suspense novel than mystery, because while there were clues and a solution, the greater emphasis was on the danger the characters faced.

Learning to Swim has won the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, the Agatha Award for Best First Novel, and the Mary Higgins Clark Award, but I am going to diverge somewhat from the award-givers.

Although I appreciate the compulsive readability of this book, its sense of place, the touching connection between its protagonist and the child she saves, and the detail employed to bring the characters to life, I was disappointed by the manipulative elements and the lack of d real depth.

The novel is worth the price I paid for it on a daily deal, but I’m on the fence about paying full price for its sequel. Taking all of the above into account, I’m going to give it a C+.

Sincerely,

Janine

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REVIEW:  Snow Falling on Bluegrass by Molly Harper

REVIEW: Snow Falling on Bluegrass by Molly Harper

Snow-Falling-on+Bluegrass

NOTE – this series is in e or audio only.

A love triangle of colleagues heats up the winter lodge where they get snowed in for a week.

Kentucky Tourism Commission employee and executive assistant extraordinaire Kelsey is known around the office for having everything under control. So it’s not surprising that she and her boss, Sadie, have everything planned to the second for the office winter retreat. But there are things even Kelsey can’t micromanage.

An unprecedented snowstorm smothers half of Kentucky and knocks out the power, closes the roads, and generally shuts down the state. Luckily, the lodge has working fireplaces and enough food to keep the staff from turning on each other like something out of The Shining. Kelsey wouldn’t mind being stuck inside if it wasn’t for the tension with her not-so-secret crush, Charlie, the office’s statistician. But handsome Ranger Luke, the lodge’s only employee on hand, is there to take Kelsey’s mind off her discomfort.

Even though this weekend is supposed to be a planning session for KTC, Kelsey can’t help her mind from wandering and finds herself conflicted over Luke and Charlie. Someone’s love will keep her warm, but whose will it be?

Dear Ms. Harper,

Somehow this one escaped my notice when it was released but as soon as I knew it was out, I was all over it. This is the third book in this series but the previous two are only briefly and succinctly recapped. Both h/h’s appear here but are included to show how their relationships are progressing rather than merely to hawk their book. I’ve been waiting for Kelsey’s book and you answered my need to know if she was finally going to get shot of her deadbeat, loser boyfriend and hook up with the hot, geeky guy at work.

Only technically things don’t happen “at work.” Asshole Boyfriend Darrell has already exited the scene leaving Kelsey with a fistful of unpaid bills he’s run up in her name even before the entire staff of Kelsey’s workplace leaves for their annual retreat – thank God my work place doesn’t have these Kumbaya/survival meetings from hell – just as Snowpocalypse hits the state. It seems that the characters of this series often need to be in enforced proximity with potential loved ones in order to work out their issues but this isolation is taking it to extremes.

As the story kicks off, I am loving Kels’ snark and humor. She makes me laugh with her worries that if zombies ever happened, she’d be attacked while in the shower thus becoming the only naked zombie with a loofah. When the lights go out and her coworkers begin to panic like barnyard fowl, she lightens the mood with conjectures on which of them would get eaten first if they run out of food.

But she has her focused moments of defending her boss Sadie against attacks from outside staffers sent to “monitor” them, getting the staff organized for Life without Electricity, and vowing to get to know her coworkers better. Kelsey’s genius is organization and we see her hard at work throughout the two week snowbound retreat.

As with the first two books, this is a paean to the great state of Kentucky – which I happen to love anyway so I don’t mind reading more about it – but haters or those uninterested in learning more about the Bluegrass Commonwealth beware.

What is the deal with Charlie? Since story is from Kelsey’s POV, his thoughts and motivations and intentions are hidden. When he finally tells Kelsey how he feels, it’s nice, it’s great, it’s wonderful for her but I did shake my head a little and wonder how two people could so totally miss their signals. For years.

Kelsey is definitely not an isolated heroine in that she has strong relationships with two of her female co-workers and 4 tech/nerd male neighbors. Even though she mentions some ditsy past moments, she’s also good and effective at her job thus avoiding one of my pet peeves – The Pratfall Heroine for Comic Effect.

The story is racing along and going well once Kelsey and Charlie get their signals clear only to suddenly bog down with a Big Mis. Then this gets cleared up and I’m left shaking off Plot Whiplash and wondering why those short few pages of misunderstanding were needed. Once the staffers are back in civilization, the other lingering issue on Kelsey’s life gets taken care of – thankfully in more or less legal fashion – and the HEA shines brightly as I power down my ereader. Without the Big Mis this one would have been a higher grade for me but with it, I’m afraid it dips to a B-

~Jayne

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