Archive for the 'Book Review' Category

Review: The Deep by Nick Cutter

Monday, January 19th, 2015

the deepNick Cutter’s The Deep starts out with a very promising premise: a strange plague is afflicting humanity on a global scale. Scientists have stumbled upon a possible cure — at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. In a desperate race to save the human race, governments have come together to build a research station at the bottom of the ocean, eight miles underwater. The Trieste may be man’s last hope, but there is something lurking there, and the cure they are researching might not be benign.

I loved the beginning of the novel. The plague itself is horrifying: those suffering with The ‘Gets slowly begin to forget everything. At first, it’s small things, like where they left their car keys. Later, it’s their name, how to feed themselves, even how to breathe. The situation is dire enough to imagine this sort of multinational cooperation and expenditure. Luke Nelson has been called to the site of this amazing research station to try and retrieve his brother, Clayton. Clayton is difficult and unpleasant, probably a bit of a sociopath, but he is also a genius, a brilliant researcher and he is currently at the bottom of the ocean and he has stopped communicating with the researchers on the surface. They hope his brother can draw him out, but that means sending his brother on that long, cold, dark journey to the ocean floor.

It’s a great build up. I was reading the novel while on a business trip, in a hotel room far from home. The descriptions of the research station were strangely in tune with the hotel: the strange shadows and unexpected noises, the feeling of isolation combined with the weird watched feeling you get when you’re surrounded by strangers – it was the perfect atmosphere for reading something like this. It really gave me the creeps. The story itself was pretty engaging, especially when you start learning the backstories of the various characters. Luke and Clayton had a pretty rough childhood and they have never been close. The other scientists have their own tragic pasts and early on, you begin to wonder if that is a coincidence. There is definitely something happening on the Trieste, and it’s not something good.

My real problem with the book is the ending. After a great build-up, great stories hinting at something evil, something strategic and inhuman, the ending really fell flat. I found some of the conclusions just too much to swallow – the idea that whatever this lifeform might be, it had the sort of influence they suggested was too implausible. The last scene was even more disappointing to me. I don’t require that a book wrap up every storyline in a ribbon and present it to the reader all neat and tidy – in fact, I would prefer that it did not – but this felt like taking the easy way out. I still have another book by Nick Cutter on the shelf – The Troop – and I plan to give it a try. The Deep had so much potential, but a really flat finish.

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

Review: A Bowl of Olives by Sara Midda

Friday, January 16th, 2015

bowl of olivesA Bowl of Olives: On Food and Memory is a lovely little book, beautifully illustrated with tiny watercolor paintings of olives and figs and rabbits and vegetables and wine bottles. The emphasis is on the word little – on some pages, the writing is so small that it is almost impossible to read. The pages are full of tiny watercolors, small-scale photographs, leaves and flowers and fruits in a wonderful color palette. The paper is heavy and more textured than an average book, and the font is chosen to mimic handwriting. I spent a long flight studying the tiny charts on how to cut cheese correctly, miniature photos of bamboo implements, drawings of dogs and stone walls. 

It is a food-lover’s journal of places visited, meals eaten, tastes remembered, There are recipes and recommendations: what to eat in Morocco, perfect foods for summer days and nights, the best way to prepare parsnips. I loved the pages on choosing the perfect mug, food memories, and the chapter on the history of olives and olive oil.

It’s really a beautiful book, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with it, now that I have enjoyed the first reading. It’s not the sort of thing I’m likely to read again (at least not after I try that recipe for Onions Monegasque). It would have been the perfect stocking stuffer for food-loving friends; I know a number of people who will enjoy reading the tiny print and smiling over the tiny pictures. Whether they will use it to suggest table settings or ideas for onion tarts, I can’t say for certain, but it will be a lovely addition to their shelves and certain to bring a smile.

My copy of A Bowl of Olives: On Food and Memory was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

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Review: Man v. Nature by Diane Cook

Wednesday, January 14th, 2015

man v natureMan V. Nature: Storiesby Diane Cook is a fascinating book of short stories – the kind that keep you thinking long after you finish reading. The stories present impossible situations — truly impossible situations that you can’t imagine happening in real life. In “The Not-Needed Forest, a 10 year old boy is told he is “not needed” and is sent off for incineration. Huh? What parents would allow this? Why is it only 10 year old boys who are deemed “not needed”? Why not girls or 12 year old boys? It’s a completely improbable situation, but he waits on the front lawn for the bus and off he goes – how could that possibly happen? The way the characters navigate these strange circumstances makes for really intriguing reading.

In “Moving On” my first thought was that this was an impossible situation that some people might really be drawn to. Our main character is a recent widow, and after a very brief period of mourning, she is sent off to a sort of boot camp for widows and widowers. (Her home and all the belongings she shared with her husband are sold and the proceeds become part of her dowry.) She gets counseling to help her get over the loss of her husband as quickly as possible. She is encouraged to get in shape, learn new hobbies, make new friends, all with an eye towards attracting a new spouse. Her spouse will choose her (and her dowry) from among a batch of profiles and she gets no choice in the matter.

In another favorite, “Somebody’s Baby,” a woman comes home from the hospital with her new baby to find a man lurking in the yard — a man who plans to steal the baby. This is a perfectly normal occurrence; some families lose two, even three babies before the man moves on to other families, but when the new mother suggests protecting their children and fighting back, she is ridiculed and shunned by her neighbors.

I find myself thinking about these stories, even as time passes. What would I do if clothes and trinkets began turning up in my washing machine? Why would a woman become fixated on a perfectly ordinary weatherman? What mother wouldn’t want to retrieve her stolen children? I think  that’s really the measure of a book like this — how long do the stories stay with you? How often do you find yourself thinking about them? What new insights have come, weeks down the road? If a book can keep me thinking and questioning, I will definitely be recommending it to my friends, and I will certainly be recommending this one.

My copy of Man V. Nature: Stories was an advanced reader copy, provided free of charge.

Review: Flings by Justin Taylor

Monday, December 22nd, 2014

flingsFlings: Stories by Justin Taylor, a book of short stories, is interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying. The blurb on the back names Taylor “A master of the modern snapshot” and they might well be right. The book is like a stack of Polaroids, taken by strangers and with no context to explain them. (Think Awkward Family Photos.) They are fascinating, funny, vaguely disturbing, but by themselves, they aren’t enough to tell a story.

As always, I wanted to love the book – I love short stories, in particular, and I always want to love the books I settle down to read – but I found this one easy to put down. That’s never a good sign. While the stories were interesting, they weren’t absorbing and they weren’t satisfying. A good example is Mike’s Song, a story about a divorced father taking his adult children to a Phish concert. There is some hint that the divorce was his fault – probably something to do with his new girlfriend, Lori, who may or may not be cheating on him, based on some misdirected texts – and there is some random reference to a neighborhood boy who committed suicide back when his kids were in their teens. It is most definitely a snapshot. It’s an odd, awkward night with this family, full of tense undertones and secrets no one talks about. I can see why some people might be fascinated with it, the way you can be fascinated staring into a lighted window, watching the family inside and wondering about them, but in the end? I wasn’t drawn in. I didn’t care how it ended — which is a good thing because it doesn’t end, not in the sense that anything is wrapped up and resolved. We learn a few things about them, Mike learns a few things about his kids, but you don’t get any sense of what will come of that knowledge. We walk past the window and on to another one.

One story I felt was much more successful was After Ellen –  Scott leaves his girlfriend because she suggests getting a dog and he can suddenly see his whole life stretching out before him. The dog is just the start, the test before they have kids, get a house in the suburbs, a minivan, a carpool, etc., etc., etc. So he takes off, sneaking out while Ellen is at work, taking his half of their stuff, the car, and leaving her a note. He crashes in an expensive hotel with Mom and Dad’s credit card, and eventually finds a new place, a new gig as a DJ, a new girlfriend…and a dog. It goes somewhere. It has some resolution to it.

Now, there may be people who really appreciate these kinds of snapshot stories; apparently, I’m not one of them. The book, for me, was like seeing Waiting for Godot: I spent the whole time waiting for something to happen, feeling like there were clues and allusions that I was missing. There’s a fair amount of graphic sex in the stories that seems sprinkled in at random, more for shock value than anything else; for me, it didn’t seem to serve the story. While I enjoyed some of the writing and found interesting bits in most of the stories, overall, they left me unsatisfied. It was easy to put the book down and walk away because even the stories I finished felt unfinished.

My copy of Flings: Stories by Justin Taylor was an Advance Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: Want You Dead by Peter James

Monday, December 8th, 2014

want you deadWant You Dead by Peter James is a woman’s worst nightmare. You date a guy who seems terrific — he’s handsome and charming, doesn’t mind spending money on you and seems to really enjoy your company — and he turns out to be a crazy stalker. In this case a OMGCRAZYWTF stalker. The kind that breaks into your house, burns down your favorite restaurant, tries to murder your parents…you know the type.

Bryce Laurent is a charmer — on the surface. He meets Red Cameron on a dating site and is immediately smitten with her. He is convinced she’s the one and for a while, so is she. Unfortunately, things take a very dark turn and eventually Red has to involve the police, get a protection order, move to a new flat and get a new job. But that’s not enough. Bryce still finds her, and if he can’t have her, no one can.

It’s a scary situation. A recent article I read reports that one-third of women murdered in the US are killed by their male partners. Do a quick Google search on “women killed by estranged boyfriend” and the results are horrifying. Bryce Laurent is different from many of the cases you see in the news (aside from being, thankfully, fictional)- he has money, and time, and he will stop at nothing to punish Red for leaving him. He is frighteningly clever and utterly ruthless – he wants Red to suffer and he is willing to hurt a lot of people to make that happen.

One of the things I loved about Want You Dead is that first, there’s a great thriller at the heart of it – what will Bryce do next, will the police be able to protect Red, who else is going to get hurt? In addition, the secondary characters are great – there’s a little romance, there’s a little conflict, and the personalities are really interesting. A main storyline won’t keep you reading without a great cast of characters. I also love the way that the relationship between Red and Bryce is slowly revealed. In the beginning, it’s hard to believe that such an amazing guy who could be so awful but over time, as the details come out, you are gradually more and more horrified. The reveal is really handled very well.

This is a great thriller, full of surprises and suspense. My copy of Want You Dead by Peter James was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: Deep Shelter by Oliver Harris

Monday, December 1st, 2014

deep shelterLet me start off by saying: I loved this book. Nick Belsey is a sorry excuse for a cop, probably a worse boyfriend, but he is smart and determined and he just does not quit.

Deep Shelter by Oliver Harris is a terrific story, full of twists and turns, with a lot of great characters. Belsey is trying to find a suspect that disappeared down a rabbit hole. Instead, he finds a tunnel that leads into an old wartime bunker underneath London. It has offices and dorms and workspaces, it’s fully stocked with food and medical supplies — he even finds cases of champagne. They were new went they went down into the tunnels, but they are vintage now. So, of course, Belsey does what any good cop would do: he calls his dealer and his fence and makes plans to sell the drugs and the booze. Then he invites his new girlfriend, someone he arrested a while back, on a romantic trip to the tunnels.

Belsey took the candle and walked into the dorm. Bunk cages danced in the wavering light. No sign of her. He waited for his date to jump out. That would be classic. She didn’t.

“Are you OK?” he called, and his voice sounded like the voice of someone on their own.

Incredibly creepy. And it gets even creepier when he starts getting text messages and emails, taunting him. He knows that if he reports her disappearance, he’ll be the prime suspect, so he doesn’t report it. Instead, he investigates on his own. The investigation leads into an incredibly twisted story of wartime preparations, top-secret cover-ups and a city beneath the city.

If you like complicated storylines, you’ll love this. There is so much going on, so much backstory, so many interesting twists and turns that I could not put this down. I like Belsey – he’s a crooked cop, but he’s trying to do the right thing. He’s got quite an assortment of equally bent contacts, and they make for an interesting crew. The book makes me want to go back to London — I’ve been to a few of the locations mentioned in the book, like St. Pancras Station, but not many — and look for the landmarks in the book and dream of a secret city beneath my feet.

My copy of Deep Shelter is an Advance Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

New on the Shelves…

Thursday, October 16th, 2014

Here’s one that I picked up for my personal collection. You know how it goes – you’re in the airport, you already finished one book on the first leg of your flight and you don’t want to be caught with only book on a long flight, right? After all, the battery on your Kindle could give out, leaving you with only the in-flight magazine, and someone has probably already done the Sudoku. So, I’d heard great things about Flash Boys by Michael Lewis and now it’s at the top of my TBR pile.

flash boysFlash Boys is about a small group of Wall Street guys who figure out that the U.S. stock market has been rigged for the benefit of insiders and that, post–financial crisis, the markets have become not more free but less, and more controlled by the big Wall Street banks. Working at different firms, they come to this realization separately; but after they discover one another, the flash boys band together and set out to reform the financial markets. This they do by creating an exchange in which high-frequency trading—source of the most intractable problems—will have no advantage whatsoever.

The characters in Flash Boys are fabulous, each completely different from what you think of when you think “Wall Street guy.” Several have walked away from jobs in the financial sector that paid them millions of dollars a year. From their new vantage point they investigate the big banks, the world’s stock exchanges, and high-frequency trading firms as they have never been investigated, and expose the many strange new ways that Wall Street generates profits.

The light that Lewis shines into the darkest corners of the financial world may not be good for your blood pressure, because if you have any contact with the market, even a retirement account, this story is happening to you. But in the end, Flash Boys is an uplifting read. Here are people who have somehow preserved a moral sense in an environment where you don’t get paid for that; they have perceived an institutionalized injustice and are willing to go to war to fix it.

 

Review: Ice Shear by M. P. Cooley

Monday, October 13th, 2014

ice shearThis is the start of a great new detective series! At least, I hope it is; I haven’t seen any indication that M.P. Cooley is planning a follow-up to Ice Shear, but I certainly hope she is working on it right now. Ice Shear combined a great mystery, some good twists and turns, interesting characters and a likable lead detective with a great back story – one that holds a lot of promise for future novels.

Officer June Lyons is nearing the end of her overnight shift in the small town of Hope Falls when she makes a gruesome discovery: a young woman, impaled on a spike of ice in the Mohawk River. Instead of heading home for breakfast with her young daughter, Lyons will be dealing with frigid temperatures and a hostile Assistant District Attorney, with even more surprises in store. The dead girl is the daughter of a powerful Congresswoman and her sketchy past is going to make this a tough case for everyone involved.

Lyons returned to her hometown during a particularly rough patch in her life. She has family here, but she isn’t totally accepted by some of her colleagues on the police force. When the FBI is called in, it gets even more difficult – now she’s also dealing with hostile former colleagues. Her interactions with the locals and the outsiders really drew me into the story – a single mom, pressure from all sides, trying to do a really difficult job – she’s a great character and there is a lot of potential for future stories.

Really, this is a great mystery from cover to cover. If you can imagine a Senator’s daughter married to the head of a motorcycle gang, that’s all the suspension of disbelief you;ll need (and certainly not the craziest thing we’ve ever seen from a Senator’s kid). Lyons’ backstory is great and there is a lot to uncover there. It will be interesting to see where her personal story goes in the next book.

My copy of Ice Shear is an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: The Drop by Dennis Lehane

Tuesday, September 23rd, 2014

dropI am fast becoming a big Dennis Lehane fan. I read Shutter Island and loved it. I recently reviewed Live By Night and loved it. Even more recently, I devoured The Drop in one bite (on a flight between Cleveland and New York/JFK) and loved it. That’s a pretty good track record!

Bob is a loner, a bit of a social misfit, a man with secrets that come between him and the world — and Bob is desperately lonely. When he finds a battered puppy stuffed in a garbage can, he seems to have finally found a friend – not only the puppy, but a woman he meets nearby who encourages him to take in the dog. It would not be wise to step between the man and his new friends.

That’s only part of the story. Bob works for his Cousin Marv at the bar everyone thinks Marv owns, but is really a front for the Chechen mob. Cousin Marv used to be somebody, be a tough guy, but in the end, he wasn’t tough enough. The Chechens treat him like an errand boy and it galls him, maybe enough to do something stupid.

I think everyone reading The Drop sees the end coming. Cousin Marv’s bar is going to be “the drop” on one of the biggest nights of the year and that makes them a target. We all know that something bad is going to happen – the question is who will it happen to and how will they react. You can’t help but root for Bob, I think, and his poor puppy and his friend, Nadia. You want things to work out for them and there are so many ways this could all go wrong. I kept expecting one more twist, one more complication, and that’s the tension that kept me turning pages, rushing towards the end.

I am looking forward to seeing the movie, although I had a hard time imagining Tom Hardy as a misfit loner…until I saw the stills from the movie. You can see it in the hunch of his shoulders and the set of his mouth. It’s going to be interesting to watch. In the meantime, I strongly recommend the book. It’s a quick read and very enjoyable. It looks like I’ll be working my way through Lehane’s back catalog, while I wait for the next novel.

My copy of The Drop was an advanced reader copy, provided free of charge.

New on the Shelves…

Friday, September 19th, 2014

I have heard a lot of great things about Flash Boys by Michael Lewis, so  I picked it up at the airport in New York (a little insurance policy, since Id already finished one book on the flight). Surprised one of my coworkers (he never did explain why he thought I wouldn’t be reading it), but I am looking forward to it.

flash boysFlash Boys is about a small group of Wall Street guys who figure out that the U.S. stock market has been rigged for the benefit of insiders and that, post–financial crisis, the markets have become not more free but less, and more controlled by the big Wall Street banks. Working at different firms, they come to this realization separately; but after they discover one another, the flash boys band together and set out to reform the financial markets. This they do by creating an exchange in which high-frequency trading—source of the most intractable problems—will have no advantage whatsoever.

The characters in Flash Boys are fabulous, each completely different from what you think of when you think “Wall Street guy.” Several have walked away from jobs in the financial sector that paid them millions of dollars a year. From their new vantage point they investigate the big banks, the world’s stock exchanges, and high-frequency trading firms as they have never been investigated, and expose the many strange new ways that Wall Street generates profits.

The light that Lewis shines into the darkest corners of the financial world may not be good for your blood pressure, because if you have any contact with the market, even a retirement account, this story is happening to you. But in the end, Flash Boys is an uplifting read. Here are people who have somehow preserved a moral sense in an environment where you don’t get paid for that; they have perceived an institutionalized injustice and are willing to go to war to fix it.