Archive for the 'Book Review' Category

Review: Lost Girls, an Unsolved American Mystery, by Robert Kolker

Monday, September 15th, 2014

lost girlsFirst off, let me say that Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker was not exactly the book I was expecting. I enjoy true crime novels and I have always been fascinated by the procedural part of the story – how the authorities track down their killer. In this case, the killer was never caught and it looks like the police threw the procedures out the window. This book is truly about the victims and while it is not what I normally look for in a true crime story, it was all the more fascinating for putting the crime on the back burner.

“Over the course of three years, each of these young women vanished without a trace: Maureen in 2007, Melissa and Megan in 2009, and Amber and Shannon in 2010. All but one of their bodies were discovered on Gilgo Beach, Long Island, an unsettled, overgrown, seven-mile stretch of shoreline on the string of barrier islands along South Oyster Bay.”

These young women are the center of this story. Some of them came from pretty troubled backgrounds. They had children, family and friends. They had pretty serious addiction problems. And they were all working as prostitutes, advertising on Craigslist.

What impressed me about the book is that these young women do not become stereotypes. They are not woman battered by a pimp or empowered feminists taking control of their bodies. They are young women who need money, who don’t have any great job prospects, and who find prostitution an easy way to make a lot of money in a short period of time. These women don’t deal with pimps. They advertise for themselves. They decide where and when to work (and the amount of work they can find with a simple Craigslist ad is astonishing), and while they make some provisions for their own safety, desperation can make people careless.

What infuriated me about the story is the way that authorities treated the disappearances: they didn’t care. A hooker disappeared – big deal. In some cases their families were unable to file missing person reports and it was clear that authorities did not consider these women to be worth looking for, at least not until the bodies started piling up. There were so many bureaucratic errors in these investigations, so many oddities, so many times where the police were clearly looking out for themselves and not really pushing these investigations that you can’t help but be frustrated for these women and their families. In the end, they still have no closure; they have lots of suspicions, but no definitive answers.

It takes a skilled author to write a compelling book without an ending, and I think Kolker did an excellent job. I certainly kept turning pages, alternately absorbed and furious, and I found myself very much engaged with these women and wanting justice for them. He doesn’t whitewash their stories, so you still get angry at them for putting themselves in so much danger for a few bucks, but you still wish for a better ending for them.

My copy of Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery is an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: Season of the Dragonflies by Sarah Creech

Thursday, September 11th, 2014

season of dragonfliesSeason of the Dragonflies by Sarah Creech was a great end-of-summer read. It leans more toward chick-lit than my usual choices. There are some interesting plot twists and a good build-up, but the big finish fell flat for me.

This is the story of the Lenore women – ever since their matriarch made a bold decision and ran off an amazing adventure, they have nurtured a secret business, deep in the Blue Ridge Mountains. They cultivate a unique flower, a gardenia brought back from the Amazonian jungle, and turn it into the most expensive perfume on Earth. It is sold only to a carefully selected female clientele and it brings them wealth and power and success. Actresses, politicians, artists, CEOs – they have made their mark on the world with the help of the Lenore women and their secret elixir.

But now, their empire is in jeopardy. Youngest daughter Lucia is home from New York, mourning her failed marriage and failing career. Elder daughter Mya, groomed to take over the business, is plotting behind her mother’s back and making rash decisions. Their mother, Willow, can feel it all slipping away from her, and the news gets worse: the flowers are dying.

For me, the most interesting part of the story was the interaction with the two young actresses receiving the perfume. There’s real trouble brewing and the women are making some bad choices. The romances seem a little too convenient and the big climax a little contrived. While these women have managed their business for decades, suddenly things will grind to a halt without men in their lives – I really find that hard to swallow. I’m all in favor of romance, but this isn’t really what I was looking for.

My copy of Season of the Dragonflies was an Advance Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: The Wicked by Douglas Nicholas

Tuesday, September 9th, 2014

the wickedI am not normally a big fantasy reader, but I enjoy a little something fanciful now and then. I enjoyed Douglas Nicholas’ previous novel, Something Red, and I was not disappointed in The Wicked. Thirteenth-century England is the perfect setting for this sort of adventure, with elements of historical fiction, mystery and magic.

Once again, exiled Irish queen Molly is traveling the countryside with her granddaughter, Nemain, her young apprentice, Hob, and her lover, Jack Brown. They have come to the castle of Sir Jehan, who they saved in Something Red, to discuss a creeping danger that is facing his long-time friend, Sir Odinell. Something is preying on the people in the surrounding lands – draining their life force, leaving wizened corpses. Knights sent out to battle this evil do not return or return in a daze, a shadow of their former selves. With good reason, Sir Odinell suspects Sir Tarquin and his wife; they have a malevolent air about them and their behavior is suspicious. But how does one battle an ancient evil?

Of course, Molly and Nemain recognize the evil and have a plan for fighting it. Their particular variety of Irish magic fits so beautifully into the Olde English setting. However, for me, the star of this series is Hob. He has grown so much – he started out as such an innocent, raised by a parish priest, and he has become a vital part of this traveling band. While he may not understand the magic that they practice, he is bright and observant, often noticing details the others have missed. He struggles with their practices – he was raised by a priest, after all, and he is traveling with pagans – but he clearly loves his new family and it is interesting to see them all through his eyes.

I am really looking forward to the next book in this series. I enjoy the portrayal of life in that time period, the mysticism and the characters. Before writing novels, Nicholas was a poet and that shows in his writing. It’s a real pleasure to read.

My copy of The Wicked was an Advance Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

 

Review: The Children Act by Ian McEwan

Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

children actI’ve read two novels by Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beachand Saturday and loved them both, so I was thrilled to get an early copy of The Children Act. Like the others I mentioned, it’s understated and quiet; much of the action in the book happens inside the main character’s head. However, I was so caught up in the story, so engaged by her struggle, that I read nearly straight through. Thank heavens McEwan doesn’t feel the need for 800 pages to tell a story.

Fiona Maye is 59, a High Court judge who presides over family court cases. She thought she was happily married until her husband came to her with a proposition: he wants to have an affair. He tells her that he loves her, but they have become more like brother and sister and he wants to have one final, grand, passionate affair before he moves into his later years. Fiona is horrified, deeply wounded, and eventually her husband packs a suitcase and leaves Fiona alone and betrayed.

In a way, the rest of the book is about their marriage and how/whether they will come back to each other. It’s also a window into how Fiona’s cases affect her: a case involving conjoined twins leaves her squeamish about touch and her body. The bitterness and acrimony of divorcing couples makes it difficult to see her own marriage in any other light. But it is the case of Adam Henry, a teenager suffering from leukemia and refusing treatment, that will have the greatest impact, spilling out of the courtroom and into her personal life.

Adam and his parents are Jehovah’s Witnesses, and are refusing blood transfusions for religious reasons. He is seventeen, nearly an adult, but without treatment he won’t see his eighteenth birthday. Fiona’s decision changes everything in his life and leaves him without an anchor, a little lost and at odds with everything he has known. He looks to Fiona, hoping for a touchstone, some guidance, but she pulls away from him.

The Children Act refers to British legislation that makes the welfare and well-being of children “the paramount concern to the courts.” On the bench, Fiona can apply that standard easily; she can cut through the warring concerns of parents, social workers, and doctors, focusing on the child at the center of the conflict. Off the bench, she falters. Although Adam reaches out to her, she can’t take action to help him and her inaction will also have a price.

Adam’s story is heartbreaking and Fiona’s is frustrating. Over and over I wanted to shake her, or I wanted something to jolt her out of her structured, restrictive view of the world. I could easily imagine her losing everything in her life that was important to her because she couldn’t do something. Then, once Adam’s story started, I found the book impossible to put down and finished up about 2 am, both relieved and troubled. It was a fabulous read and I am already imagining the movie that someone is sure to make of it.

My copy of The Children Act was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge. It is scheduled for release on September 9th, but I recommend pre-ordering it.

Review: “We’re All Infected” – Essays on AMC’s The Walking Dead and the Fate of the Human

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

infectedI am a huge Walking Dead fan and I was really looking to reading the essays in We’re All Infected: Essays on AMC’s the Walking Dead and the Fate of the Human. I have spent hours debating with friends, discussing the meaning of key points on the show, discussing what zombies have to say about our culture, what causes some supernatural entity – whether it’s zombies or vampires or werewolves – to become suddenly in vogue. Lots of great topics there and I was hoping for a great series of interesting essays.

This is a dense bit of reading. It’s less like reading an essay and more like reading someone’s dissertation. I knew as soon as I started coming across passages like this one in the second essay, “Burying the Living with the Dead: Security, Survival and the Sanction of Violence” by Steven Pokornowski, that this would not be easy to plow through:

Second, I propose that a multidisciplinary perspective informed by biopolitical, posthumanist, and critical race theories can offer a way to resist this representational problematic at the levels of both consumption and production – can offer, in fact, a political and ethical critique that takes into account the role of the social constructions of humanity and race in maintaining sovereignty.

I don’t even know what that means, and it certainly doesn’t sound like the sort of fun and engaging discussion I was looking for.

There are a couple of high points. I particularly enjoyed P. Ivan Young’s essay, “Walking Tall or Walking Dead? The American Cowboy in the Zombie Apocalypse.” It goes into great detail comparing the tv show “The Walking Dead” to the 1953 film, Shane. I’ve never seen the film, but Young calls out instance after instance where the two Shanes (and Rick, as well) face similar circumstances and react in similar ways. There are too many similarities to be simple coincidence.

I also enjoyed “Zombie Time: Temporality and Living Death” by Gwyneth Peaty. It discusses the concept of time in the series – the ways in which time seems to have stopped, and just how important it is for civilized people to have a sense to time, to feel like they are moving forward. Various points in the series – Andrea planning to celebrate her sister’s birthday, the watch that Hershel gives to Glenn (and its later appearance in the opening montage), the big digital countdown clock at the CDC – all talk in their own way about the effect of time on the living characters. For the walkers, there is no time. Their death, which should mark the end of time for them, instead marks just a change of form. Although their time should be up, they keep on going, with no end in sight.

I have to say that overall, this was a disappointment. Someone with a more scholarly bent might appreciate it more, but I found most of the essays a real slog. There are many great ideas in this series to discuss and I have read some terrific articles on the various themes of the zombie apocalypse, but these are so weighted down with jargon and obscure references (do I think it is significant that Dale drove a Winnebago and Shane drove a Jeep Cherokee, both cars named after Indian tribes that are not native to the region? No, I do not) that I couldn’t really enjoy them.

My copy of We’re All Infected: Essays on AMC’s the Walking Dead and the Fate of the Human, edited by Dawn Keetley, was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: The Kill Call by Stephen Booth

Monday, August 4th, 2014

kill callThe Kill Call by Stephen Booth is the first book I’ve read in the Cooper and Fry series. I’m not sure this is a series I’ll keep reading, for reasons I’ll get to later, but it’s a pretty good mystery.  The story starts on a rainy moor – Sean has come up to one of his favorite quiet, deserted spot, where he goes when he needs to get away from everything. Today, something feels different. There’s a smell. And a corpse.

It’s an interesting mystery, with a couple of storylines to follow, and quite British, tied up in the odd world of fox hunting. The body was discovered during the annual Eden Valley Hunt, which is hotly protested by animal rights activists. The area was crowded with hunters and the folks who handle the horses, as well as the protesters (referred to as “sabs” or saboteurs by the police) and a host of police officers there to keep them from killing each other. The “kill call” of the title refers to the long, wavering notes on the horn that the hunters blow to call in the hounds to kill the fox. Only in this case, it wasn’t a fox.

Detective Constable Diane Fry is in charge of the case and totally out of her depth, although she would never admit it. She’s a city girl in a country police district and she has tremendous disdain for the citizens there. She quite clearly turns up her nose at the country life – from the quiet towns to the smell of horses in the barn. She’s supposed to be a great detective, but she can’t seem to see anything beyond her own nose. Even when she recognizes that she is putting people off, she can’t seem to change it. She clearly sees Detective Constable Ben Cooper as a rival, even though he not only helps with the case but tries to offer some personal support. She is so unlikable in this that I can’t see wanting to continue with the series. I may have missed some of her character’s development, and I know that some people enjoy a story with unlikable characters, but that really isn’t for me. If someone has read more of these, I would love to hear about them.

Even with those caveats, it was quite a good read. I enjoyed the various twists and turns of the story, I find Ben Cooper a very interesting character, and I am curious about what happens to Diane Fry – she seems to be at a turning point, trying to get her career back on track and resolve some personal issues. I’m just not sure that I am curious enough to put up with more of her abrasive behavior.

My copy of The Kill Call was a digital ARC provided free of charge.

Review: Nothin’ to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975) by Ken Sharp with Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons

Monday, July 28th, 2014

kisslosebookI was a Kiss fan as a teenager, so I was really looking forward to reading Nothin’ to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975). Author Ken Sharpe has pulled together an amazing series of interviews with former band members, roadies, industry and media people. In addition, there are a host of more recognizable names: Joe Perry (Aerosmith), Iggy Pop, Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper, Eric Bloom (Blue Oyster Cult), Neal Schon (Journey), Bob Seger, and Dee Dee, Joey, Johnny, Marky and Tommy Ramone. There are a lot of great quotes and interviews in the book – perhaps too many.

There are a number of things about this book that I loved. First, the interviews – it was fascinating to read the quotes from other musicians, people that liked Kiss and those who didn’t, bands who were more popular and those who were just starting out. Hearing what these bands had to say about Kiss, good and bad, gives you some context. Kiss was doing something very new and different, with the makeup and the theatrics. Some of their contemporaries embraced it, while others hated it; some were amused and others may have been a little jealous. But hearing them talk about the band – particularly those who said it was a gimmick and they would never make it – is definitely interesting.

The interviews with friends and industry people are a real look at what goes into launching a band. How difficult it is to get a label’s attention and then, once you have it, how to keep it. Getting signed certainly doesn’t guarantee success, and it is clear from each section of the book that if Kiss hadn’t had a few people who really believed in them, they’d have been doomed. Neil Bogart (Casablanca Records) and Bill Aucoin (their manager) did everything from manage, produce and promote the band to paying for their tours on their personal credit cards. Considering that they didn’t get a lot of radio airplay and they often had difficulty getting signed on as an opening act, they would never have gotten off the ground without their unflagging support. It was truly amazing to read just how much people invested in the band, and I don’t mean just the money involved to get an act like this rolling.

It’s also clear that Paul Stanley and Gene Simmons shared a dream for their band and were willing to work very hard to make it  reality. There is a sort of single-minded devotion to the band and a refusal to believe that they would be anything other than huge stars that is, by turns, endearing and annoying.

For me, the downside of Nothin’ to Lose is that it sometimes got a little tedious. There is a definite “us against the world” vibe to the book, and it can get a little tiresome. Perhaps it’s accurate – perhaps there really were almost no supporters for the band in the early days – but it is reiterated so often that it seems like overkill.

I was also disappointed that the book really glosses over the departures of Peter Criss and Ace Frehley. I was interested in reading about that, perhaps even getting some of the story right from the departed band members (a timely topic, considering the controversy surrounding the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductions). Unfortunately, their departures are covered only briefly on the last two pages of the book. Still, the book is an amazing look at a young band, on its way to stardom and all the ups and downs of that journey. There are some great stories here for anyone who was a member of the Kiss Army, and anyone interested in a slice of rock and roll history.

My copy of Nothin’ to Lose: The Making of KISS (1972-1975) was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

How to Read Blurb

Saturday, July 12th, 2014

Okay, this made me laugh out loud. If you have ever read the publisher blurbs after reading a book and thought “What were they thinking? What book did they read?” this will appeal to you, as well:

how-to-speak-publisher-page00011

Review: Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

Friday, July 11th, 2014

live by nightThere’s a bit of a story behind my reading of Live by Night: I picked up the audiobook from the library months ago – probably closer to a year ago. I sped through the first 9 cds and then…lost it. I brought it in from the car, set it aside, and it disappeared. I was furious! Ransacked the house, went through all my suitcases, the car, called the hotel I’d stayed at. No luck. Cut to this past week: I spent my vacation doing a thorough cleaning and decluttering of my spare bedroom, and guess what I found? Yep. I was finally able to finish!

Live by Night tells the story of Joe Coughlin, and it is a big story. Joe starts out the son of a law-and-order police captain in Boston. He abandons his father’s teachings to be an outlaw, to live outside the law, first as a petty thief, and later as a gangster. What I loved most about the novel was the range of stories: Joe as a petty thief who falls for a pretty girl he meets during a robbery; Joe as a tough guy in prison, standing up to the made guy inside; Joe as the King of Ybor City, using a lot of native smarts, cunning and ruthlessness to corner the rum trade; and Joe as a gangster, family man and gentlemen farmer in Havana, Cuba, building a baseball field for the boys who work in his tobacco fields. They are big stories and even though Joe is a very bad man, you can’t help but root for him – not to get back on the straight and narrow or give up his outlaw nature. No, you find yourself hoping that his latest criminal scheme will work out, that he can keep his employees safe, that he doesn’t end up in a pair of cement shoes.

In part, the story is propelled by Joe’s love of two different women. Emma is the pretty girl he meets during a heist, the kind of woman that men will do anything for. She makes Joe take crazy chances, chances that end badly for Joe. Later, Joe meets Graciela, a head-strong Cuban woman who helps him build an empire in Prohibition-era Florida.

When I first picked up this audiobook, I raced through the first 9 cds, before that little interruption I mentioned. When I had it back in my hands, I popped in disk 10 and I was right back in the story; I didn’t even need to go back for a refresher. Do you have any idea how unusual that is? I have stacks of books that I’ve read, reviewed, and a week later I can’t remember the name of the main character. Live by Night engaged me in a way that few books have recently. The stories and characters stayed fresh in my mind months later. I wish every book I read was so compelling.

My one complaint is that the book seemed to end very abruptly. I kept running back through the CD tracks, thinking it must have skipped a track. But looking back, the abrupt end made sense, in the context of Joe’s life.

What balances that complaint is that I can look forward to seeing the book on the big screen. Ben Affleck will directing and is apparently working on the screenplay. I’m not sure I picture Ben as Joe, but I have confidence that he can do a great job with it. Sadly, we’ll have to wait until 2016.

My copy of Live by Night came from the Kent Free Library, and I think they will be very happy to finally have it back!

 

Review: William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back by Ian Doescher

Tuesday, July 8th, 2014

empire striketh backIf you read my review of William Shakespeare’s Star Wars, then you know what to expect from William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back by Ian Doescher. They are fun little tidbits, translating Star Wars into something The Bard would have been proud of.

Luke Skywalker, on his battle with the Imperial Walkers:

A hit! A very palpable hit. Wait,
Although my shots have found their mark, their blasts
Have no effect, It is their armor, fie!
Our blasters are too weak to penetrate
The strength of their robust exteriors.
Rogue group, use thy harpoons and cables, too.
Let us go for their legs and trip them up -
Perhaps they can be bested from beneath.
Dack, art thou with me?

 

Leia, after Han is frozen in carbonite:

Full fathom five my lover lies
Within an icy tomb,
They say he lives, but my heart dies,
Sing wroshyr, wroshyr, wroshyr.

Fun, but to be honest, it gets tiring for me after a while.

I would love to give these to a bunch of eighth graders — I think they would make a great introduction to Shakespeare, a way of showing that Shakespeare’s language isn’t impenetrable and difficult, just different. Other than that, I think you need to be a real Star Wars geek to truly appreciate these.

My copy of William Shakespeare’s The Empire Striketh Back was an Advance Reader Copy, provided free of charge.