Archive for the 'Book Review' Category

Review: Suffer the Children by Craig DiLouie

Monday, August 17th, 2015

sufferWhen is a vampire story not a vampire story? Suffer the Children by Craig DiLouie is a story with vampires, but it’s not really about them. It’s about parents and children, and what a parent will do to save their child. It’s about what one is willing to give…and what the other is willing to take.

The setting is the small town of Lansdowne, a typical American suburb. We meet a number of residents early on: Joan Cooper, who runs a local daycare; her husband, Doug Cooper, a man devoted to his family but unhappy in many areas of his life; Ramona Fox, single mom who feels more than a little trapped by her life; David Harris, a local pediatrician who takes care of other people’s children while mourning the loss of his own young son. All of their lives are about to be changed by the Herod Event.

While the local news begins to run ominous reports, the local children all drop dead. Literally. Whatever they’re doing, whatever they are, the drop dead in their tracks. It’s happening all over the US and in a short span of days, it spreads across the globe. Every child in the world is dead.

Imagine that. The world grinds to a halt as parents mourn, as hospitals and mortuaries try to cope with the influx of bodies. There are mass graves, suicides, worldwide mourning for all these young lives. And then, just as they begin to think they’ve got a handle on it, the children come back. They sit up on the autopsy table. They claw their way out of shallow graves and call for help from their body bags. It is miraculous – they are alive and well where they were dead just hours before. But is it too good to be true? The children have come back hungry – not for brains, like a zombie, but for blood.

The average person has 10 pints of blood in their body; they can 1 pint every 8 weeks. But if your child needed a pint or more a day, how far would you be willing to go to get it? How long before what people will give willingly isn’t enough?

This is one of those truly creepy books where you know the bad thing is going to happen. You even know what the bad thing is. You’re really just waiting around to see how it all plays out. Reminds me of some of the classic Stephen King stories where you just know what’s headed your way. You know that someone is going to bury a person in the Pet Semetary, even though they’ve been warned not to. You know that there will be a showdown in Vegas with Randall Flagg. You just have to sit there, wincing, waiting for it. Suffer the Children does a pretty good job of pulling off this sort of suspense, giving you hints, showing you who is reluctant and who is more than willing to do what must be done. Creepy, but a good sort of creepy. This is one I enjoyed.

My copy of Suffer the Children was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: The 6th Extinction by James Rollins

Tuesday, August 4th, 2015

the-sixth-extinction-james-rollinsAs soon as I read the description of James Rollins’ The 6th Extinction, I was hooked…

A military research station buried in the remote Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California broadcasts a frantic distress call that ends with a chilling order:

“This is sierra, victor, whiskey. There’s been a breach. Fail-safe initiated. No matter the outcome: Kill us … kill us all.”

How can you read that and not be intrigued? Clearly, there was some dangerous research going on and something deadly was about to be turned loose on the world. Who could be counted on to save us all? Apparently, only the Sigma Force team, led by Commander Gray Pierce. They have the military and scientific knowledge to decipher what was happening at the lab and track down the saboteurs who interfered – and who are working on their own deadly agenda.

I love a good covert operation, I love a good science storyline, and there is plenty of excitement in this one. When a garbled call comes in from the military research station, Ranger Jenna Beck and her canine companion, Nikko, head up there to check things out. She finds the gate standing open. (That’s never a good sign. No self-respecting, top-secret military base leaves their gate unlocked!) She gets a frantic call from her dispatcher, ordering her to get out of there, relaying the “kill us all” message, just as the entire base erupts in flame. That’s enough to get Jenna headed out of the compound at full speed … but why is there helicopter tailing her?

The story takes us from California to Washington, from the jungles of Brazil to the ice floes of Antarctica. It reaches back to Charles Darwin aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, and beyond, to the Library of Alexandria, for a map that may show the way to a lost continent under the ice, the terrifying secrets it holds, and the devastation it could unleash. There are mad scientists and evil geniuses, soldiers and mercenaries, and a mad rush to either save mankind or destroy it. That should be enough excitement for anyone!

I haven’t read any of the other Sigma Force novels (this is the tenth book in the series), but I can certainly see the appeal. Still, I found it harder and harder to suspend my disbelief (and I am a master of that particular skill). Although Rollins lays out the scientific principles and the current technology in the Author’s Notes at the end of the book, I still found it a bit much. A friend who has read the whole series says that they get “more eye-rolly” as they go on, which means I would probably love the early books. Although I sped through this one in pretty short order and enjoyed the twists and turns, I didn’t love it. It needed just a little more grounding in reality for me.

My copy of The 6th Extinction was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

 

Review: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision NOT to Have Children by Meghan Daum

Thursday, July 9th, 2015

selfishThis was a very personal read for me. I am approaching a landmark birthday and I am single and childless, and I’m not depressed about any of it. I am not afraid of getting older, since I don’t feel old. I would very much like to meet someone special, but I am not pining away, nor am I desperate and willing to choose just anyone so I am not on my own. And I decided many years ago that I did not want to have children, for a variety of reasons that I have revisited and revised over the years, but I remain convinced it was the right decision for me.

In Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids,Meghan Baum brings together 16 writers – men and women, gay and straight, older and younger – to talk about their particular reasons for not having children. Sometimes, their reasons echo my own. Sometimes, they are so different that I could barely parse them. But all of the essays are thoughtful and brutally honest.

The first thing that struck me was the inclusion of men. It makes sense, of course, but the discussion of being childfree so often centers around women that it was a little surprising to think about men in this context. Woman are sort of raised to assume that men don’t want obligations and commitments, so it’s more of a surprise when they are eager for a family. Gay men were also a surprise for me, as I had never thought about how the AIDS crisis and the changing face of LGBT rights in this country had changed the way gay men thought about being parents.

But for me, the most interesting parts were about women, of course. I appreciated the fact that these were writers, people accustomed to explaining themselves, to making their ideas clear in words. I shared some of their feelings: the desire to have a career that meant something to me, the desire for independence, and the feeling that motherhood is a bad bargain for women in many economic and social ways. One of the common themes is that these women felt that if they had a child, their lives would be consumed by the child and its needs, with little time and energy left for anything else. These were women committed to being able to write, and they knew that having a child would make that far more difficult, if not impossible. Some found it a sacrifice, some didn’t.

The essay that broke my heart was by Sigrid Nunez. I knew it would be hard from the first sentence:

There was a time during my childhood when I believed that all children were unwanted.

If you grow up feeling unloved and unwanted, it makes sense that parenthood seems like an insane idea.

I could commiserate with a lot of the comments women in the book dealt with, the assurances that when you reach some magical age your hormones will kick in and you will automatically want babies. The idea is ridiculous on the face of it. I loved this response, in the essay written by Pam Houston, as she talks with some very young women at Butler University:

“And you? Where do you stand on children?”

She raised one eyebrow a full inch above the level of the other and said, “Not if hell froze over and hair grew out of the palm of my hand.”

Of course, the other girls assure her that she’s wrong, and she’ll want them, but sometimes you just know. I know that I did, and it’s not a decision I regret. Life is full of choices; no matter what you choose, you leave something else unchosen. There are always things you will not be able to do because you are doing something else instead. That’s just the way of it. As one of the authors, Geoff Dyer, says in his essay, “When it comes to regret, everyone’s a winner! It’s the jackpot you are guaranteed to win.” There will always be things I wish I’d done, so all I can do is try to choose wisely.

One comment I couldn’t relate to was from Jeanne Safer:

“Making a conscious choice about something so fundamental, and so intertwined with one’s own past, with society’s expectations, and with notions of femininity and the purpose of life, takes every ounce of will you have; going against the grain always does.”

I have never found that to be the case. It’s one of the easiest decisions I’ve made. That’s what made the book so engaging – there is such a wide variety of opinions represented that every reader is going to find something that will startle them, surprise them, make them angry, and make them think. What better endorsement for a book?

My copy of Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids came from my local library. Have you been to yours lately?

Review: Extreme Food – What to Eat When Your Life Depends On It by Bear Grylls

Monday, July 6th, 2015

extreme foodI love survival books! They’re all part of my plan to be prepared for the Zombie Apocalypse. And after reading Extreme Food: What to Eat When Your Life Depends on It by Bear Grylls, I know which bugs I can cook, which mushrooms to avoid, and that if the situation is ever so dire that my best food source is a saltwater crocodile, I’m doomed.

“There’s no getting away from it; I’ve eaten some pretty extreme things in my time—live tarantulas, raw goat testicles, elephant dung, you name it. In a situation when your life depends on it, you need to put your prejudices aside to keep your stomach filled and your strength up.”

This book is full of disclaimers, and rightly so; wilderness survival is something that takes years to learn. Anyone who thinks they can learn everything they need to know about foraging for mushrooms or stalking wild game from a book is probably too dumb to survive in the wild for very long anyway. But there are some tips here, and some ideas that will make you think about what’s really in the woods and wild spaces around you.

“The indigenous people of Alaska have a saying: when the tide is out, the table is set. It’s true. You might look at a wide expanse of beach after the tide has receded and think that it doesn’t offer much in the way of nourishment. But really you just need to know how and where to look. Wherever you are in the world, from the frozen wastes of the Arctic to the burning shores of Australasia, the seashore can be a life-giving source of ready nourishment.”

The one thing that really struck me as strange in this book is that even though the title talks about “when your life depends on it” – meaning extreme survival situations – Grylls often takes time out to remind readers to check local regulations to see if they need a fishing license and to familiarize themselves with wildlife that is endangered and therefore off limits for hunting. Personally, if I’m starving and I can catch it, I’m eating it, local regulations be damned, but it’s startling to think that you could be in a life and death survival situation in a place that requires a fishing license. It’s a good reminder that you don’t have to go too far into the wild to get yourself in trouble. Runing out of gas on a drive through the desert would probably be enough.

For me, this was a pretty entertaining read. I’m not an extreme camper and I tend to be pretty cautious, so unless I join the cast of The Walking Dead, I’m unlikely to find myself in a situation where I need these tips (although a few of them came in handy while playing Worst Case Scenario this weekend). Still, there are some good stories, the information is generally fun (if you find recipes for Frog Soup fun), and it’s a quick and pleasant read. If it were the only reference book I had while stranded on an uninhabited island, I might be in deep trouble, but I could probably use the tips on making a snare or building a homemade fishing hook. And let’s be honest, these books are far more fun when we don’t think we’ll ever need the information.

My copy of Extreme Food: What to Eat When Your Life Depends on It was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick

Wednesday, July 1st, 2015

midwinterbloodI’ve been making the drive back and forth to our Cincinnati office the last two weeks (about 3.5 hours in good traffic) and audiobooks are the perfect entertainment. I can catch up on my reading while I drive and some books are just better on audio. This week, I managed to pick up two books with similar themes, although told in very different ways. The first, and definitely the better of the two, is Midwinterblood by Marcus Sedgwick.

This isn’t my usual reading fair – there’s more romance than I normally go for – but the premise is interesting. Seven interwoven stories, seven different time periods, three names that turn up again and again. Eric, Merle, and Tor appear over and over in these stories: Eric is a journalist in the near future, writing an investigative article on a mysterious island in the far north where residents seem to live forever. Tor and Merle are a married couple who rescue a wartime aviator who crashes on their property. Merle and Eric are brother and sister, living among the Vikings, and Tor is their uncle. The relationships change, the situations change, but these characters inhabit every story. As we move back in time, back to the beginning of their story, they are constantly reaching out to each other, circling around each other.

This reminded me a bit of Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, one of my all-time favorite novels. It’s not in that class, but they cover some of the same territory: the idea that we are surrounded by people we know and love, throughout many lives and incarnations. In the ebb and flow of time and reincarnation, these people always come to the same place. They are always connected to one another.

I think what I enjoyed about this is the way that the stories differ. It is not as though these characters lead the same lives, fall in love in the same way, or even relate to each other the same way, time after time. Merle and Eric might be lovers, or they might be mother and son. It made the stories more interesting, as you watched the various connections unfold. I also liked watching for the small details that tied the stories together — the bit of wood in the grave, the painting, the hare. They give the reader something to discover, something to watch for in each story, and you get to wonder and speculate on how the details in each story will manifest as you move through the centuries.

Midwinterblood made for a very entertaining ride. The second novel I spoke of, which I hope to finish and review next week, isn’t faring nearly as well. This audiobook came to me through the Kent Free Libary.

Review: A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

ghostsThis was an odd one. I knew it would be odd as I sat trying to sort out the cover of the novel, a photo of a hallway turned sideways; it’s a great way to set the tone for the rest of the book. A Head Full of Ghostsby Paul Tremblay is the story of the Barrett family – Mom, Dad, and two daughters, Marjorie and Meredith. They were the subject of an early reality TV show, one that ended tragically; now, years later, Meredith is finally telling her story to an author for a memoir. Interspersed with her conversations with her ghostwriter are excerpts from a blog that recounts the TV episodes in great detail.

The Barretts were sadly typical. John Barrett lost his job at a local factory. Sarah Barrett was trying to keep the family afloat on bank teller salary. The girls appear oblivious, until fourteen year old Marjorie begins showing signs of schizophrenia. The doctors they consult are unable to help. Her sister, Merry, is terrified – Marjorie has stopped being her constant friend, her story-teller, her idol, and become someone entirely new and very frightening.

I told her to get out, to leave my room, to go away.

Skeleton-white hands came out from under the blanket and wrapped around her neck. They pulled the blanket down over her face, skin tight, and the blanket formed a shroud with dark valleys for eyes and mouth, her nose flattened against the unyielding cloth. Her mouth moved and choking growls came out. Those hands squeezed so the blanket pulled tighter and she shook her head, thrashed it around violently, and she gasped and pleaded with someone to stop or maybe she said she was trying to stop. Her hands were still closed around her own neck, and I’m sure it was some sort of optical illusion or a trick or kink of memory because her neck couldn’t have gotten as thin as I remember it getting…

Scary stuff for an eight year old. Is Marjorie going crazy? Or is it something more disturbing?

Eventually, John Barrett turns to his priest for help and advice. He is the only member of the family that is religious (his wife is openly scornful) and he and the priest decide that this might very well be a case of demonic possession. And somehow, the decision is made to turn the family’s struggles and Marjorie’s exorcism into a reality TV show, although Merry was too young to know the details. The show will certainly help the family’s financial problems. Sarah is clearly uncertain about turning the whole thing into a spectacle, but John convinces her. I can’t imagine that it was what any mother would have wanted for her family.

More sad for me than Marjorie’s illness was Merry’s friendship with Ken, one of the show’s writers. She seems so desperate for attention, so lost in the drama of her sister’s illness and the way her family is crumbling around her. The idea that she has latched on to this man who is part of a team of people who are profiting from her family’s horrible situation was just heartbreaking.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the ending – a nice way to finish a mystery. You know it’s going to be bad, everything is leading up to a terrible conclusion, but you’re not sure what kind of bad it will be. Will Marjorie turn out to be faking it all, exposed on national TV, leaving the family the laughingstock of their small town? Is that worse than finding out she’s possessed by demons or that their house is haunted? Or is something else stirring in that house? Could one of these girls be an evil genius? Marjorie seems lucid much of the time, and seems to be plotting something with Meredith, but is that the demon talking?  Right up to the end, even after you know how Marjorie’s story ended, there are hints that maybe, just maybe, there is more to the story. I love that – I want a book to keep me guessing, to let me sort out alternative endings on my own.

My copy of A Head Full of Ghosts was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson

Monday, June 22nd, 2015

of things gone astray
“On a seemingly normal morning in London, a group of people wake to find something important to them missing, something dear but peculiar: the front of their house, their piano keys, their sense of direction, their place of work.”

Can you imagine? You get up, shower, dress, have some coffee and head to the office. When you get there, the building is gone. Not demolished, not boarded up with a For Sale sign, just vanished, as if it was never there. What would you do? I would assume that I had gone insane. Who would you ask? You couldn’t very well start stopping people and saying, “Are you from the neighborhood? Didn’t there used to be a building there?” Would you call your colleagues? Sure, but – and I would be worried about this – what if they don’t answer? What if the phone number that has always worked for the office goes to some other company? Possibly even worse: what if they DO answer? What if they say they are in the building that isn’t there? What if they don’t know who you are?

Janina Matthewson doesn’t answer all of these questions in Of Things Gone Astrayshe seems more concerned with the impact it has on Robert when his business – his job and office and colleagues – are all suddenly gone. The characters in this book have all lost something very important to them, and it impacts them in unexpected ways.

The story is told round-robin style, with short chapters, many less than a page long. Each chapter is from the point of view of a single character, and they tell the story in a roundabout way.

Each character has lost something, but not in the usual way we think of it. One character has lost her sense of direction; one morning, she starts to walk to the corner store and she ends up wandering for hours, hopelessly lost in the neighborhood where she has lived all her life. Mrs. Featherby has lost the front of her house. She wakes up one morning and the entire front wall is gone, with her home exposed to the street and the open air.

Over the chapters, we come to understand what these things mean to the characters. Mrs. Featherby is a very private person, very proper and dignified, and being observed from the street, having people stop and look at her house and even speak to her – it’s horrifying. Delia begins to realize that she hasn’t just lost her sense of direction on the streets, she’s lost it in her life. She’s lost her drive and her life has become kind of aimless. She meets Anthony, a widower who is losing touch with his son, Jake. They now don’t even see each other when they are in the same house – literally, it is as if they are invisible to each other. It’s an extreme sort of estrangement, as they both deal with their grief over the loss of Jake’s mother.

The stories are interesting in a tangled way. They overlap, with characters meeting each other. Some resolve themselves, but others don’t wrap up neatly. Some of them are heartbreaking (the flight attendant stopped to ask me about the book because I was crying on the flight). A rather amazing first novel.

My copy of Of Things Gone Astray was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: Lucky Alan by Jonathan Lethem

Thursday, May 14th, 2015

luckyIf you hang out here very often, you know that I love short stories. I think there is a real art to telling a story in just a few pages. In Lucky Alan: And Other Stories, Jonathan Lethem succeeds in a few stories – one or two stories stayed with me – but most left no impression.

My favorite story by far in this collection was “The King of Sentences.” Two hipsters, so self-absorbed they can’t see past the end of their own noses, are obsessed with an author they call The King of Sentences. They study his books, they read them aloud to each other, the become obsessed with the idea of tracking him down, worshiping him. They get the sort of reception they deserve.

The other standout is “Their Back Pages,” a story about forgotten comic book characters, stranded on an island. It stands out mostly because it is so weird!

C’KRRRARN TEARS OFF THE TOP OF A PALM TREE AND FEEDS!!!

C’krrrarn is staying within himself.

C’KRRRARN TEARS OFF A CORNER OF THE VOLCANO AND FEEDS!!!

C’Krrrarn is stayin within himself.

C’KRRRARN TEARS OFF A CHUNK OF THE OCEAN AND DEVOURS IT!!!

C’Krrrarn sits perfectly still and tries to empty him mind.

But even weird gets tedious after a while.

This was, sadly, not a collection of short stories that I could sink my teeth into. My copy of Lucky Alan: And Other Stories was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: The Martian by Andy Weir

Monday, May 11th, 2015

the martianPEOPLE OF EARTH: DROP WHAT YOU ARE DOING AND BUY THIS BOOK.

I can’t tell you how much I loved this book. This is the sort of book that makes you bounce in your chair while you’re reading it. You know that little frisson of glee that you get as a reader when you know something really cool is about to happen? I got that a lot in this book.

Mark Watney is a crew member on the third manned mission to Mars. Not as cool as being on the first mission, but still pretty darned cool for a botanist. But once they’ve landed, there’s a problem: a powerful sandstorm with winds strong enough to do damage to their equipment and living quarters.

“It was a ridiculous sequence of events that led to me almost dying, and an even more ridiculous sequence that led to me surviving.”

Everyone thinks Watney is dead; there is no reason to think otherwise. So they leave…and Watney wakes up to find himself stranded on Mars, with about a year’s worth of food, four years until the next Mars mission, and no way to contact Earth.

But he has science on his side! He’s a botanist – he can grow food. He understands how the space station works (and if he doesn’t, the computer has all the plans and specs and instructions and he’s got plenty of time to study them). He’s a scientist and he is going to science the hell out of all of this and figure out how to stay alive, how to contact Earth, and how to get home.

This is a book about science, but in the most entertaining way imaginable. Watney knows his stuff and as a narrator, he does a great job of explaining it to the reader. He explains how the supplies get there, how the space stations work, how they make fuel and water and oxygen. The descriptions of how he repurposes pieces of the ship and how he re-engineers the systems to grow food, communicate with Earth, and make his existence more comfortable were endlessly entertaining.

“Yeah, I know. A lot of my ideas involve setting something on fire. And yes, deliberately starting a fire in a tiny, enclosed space is usually a terrible idea. But I need the smoke. Just a little wisp of it.

“As usual, I’m working with stuff that was deliberately designed not to burn. But no amount of careful design by NASA can get around a determined arsonist with a tank of pure oxygen.”

Eventually, Watney makes contact with Earth and then the race is on to figure out a way to rescue him. As expected, it’s not just about the science — it’s a political and financial challenge, as well. The NASA scientists are dedicated to bringing him home, and you can’t help joining in the people around the world rooting for him.

This book was recommended to me by a friend with excellent taste. My copy of The Martian is a permanent addition to my personal library.

 

 

Review: Disclaimer by Renée Knight

Monday, May 4th, 2015

“Any resemblance to persons living or dead…” The disclaimer has a neat red line through it. A message she failed to notice when she opened the book.

disclaimerSometimes a novel really speaks to you – really seems to hit home. You can see yourself and your struggle in those pages. But what if it really was you? What if someone got wind of your deepest, darkest secret and decided to tell the world…in the pages of a “novel”? That’s the situation facing Catherine Ravenscroft in Disclaimer, a thriller by Renée Knight.

Catherine is a documentary filmmaker. She and her husband have recently emptied their nest, moving their somewhat trouble son, Nicholas, into his own apartment. They’ve moved to a new, smaller home, and as they are getting their belongings sorted out and put away, she finds the book on a table and from that point, her life begins to fall apart.

E. J. Preston, the author of this mysterious book, has somehow learned Catherine’s deepest secret, a secret that is slowly revealed to us over the chapters. It involves her son, that much we know from the beginning. We know that something happened and we know that Catherine didn’t tell her husband at the time. Preston has put his own spin on the events, told the story from a different point of view, made it into something that horrifies Catherine and would devastate her family.

We meet Preston early on and learn about his family. We learn about how he comes upon this story, and why he decides to tell it in this way. He has never met Catherine, but he believes that she is responsible for one of the great tragedies in his life and this is how he has chosen to take his revenge.

There were a couple of things I really liked about this novel. First is the idea that someone could put our deepest secret out there for everyone to see. That you could pick up a novel or open a website and there you are, exposed and humiliated. In this age of self-publishing, a story like this is completely probable and completely terrifying.

I also appreciate the skillful way the secret is revealed. I have to say that what I originally thought was way off. You think you know where it’s going, you think you know what side you’re on, but you’re probably wrong. The secret was not what I expected, and the way each piece of the puzzle comes to light made for a great story.

My copy of Disclaimer is an Advance Reader Copy, provided by the good folks at Harper Collins. It is scheduled for release on May 19th.