Archive for the 'Book Review' Category

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.

Review: Cane and Abe by James Grippando

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

caneIn Cane and Abe by James Grippando, Miami’s top prosecutor becomes the prime suspect in his wife’s disappearance. Is she the victim of a serial killer? Or is there a connection to the women in Abe’s past?

Abe Beckham is a prosecutor in Miami, married to the lovely Angelina but still hung up on his first wife, Samantha. The relationship between the three of them is pretty complicated: Abe is white; he dumped Angelina to start dating Samantha, who was black. Abe and Samantha married, but Samantha died of cancer. Angelina worked her way back into his life, but I doubt she’s ever forgiven him. Now there is a serial killer on the loose, his victims are all in interracial relationships, and Abe’s wife has gone missing…

Abe starts out a victim, but quickly becomes a suspect. FBI Agent Victoria Santos doesn’t trust Abe and even something as innocent as a broken wine glass seems like a smoking gun. Abe makes some dumb mistakes – as a prosecutor, he really should know better – but as hard as Santos tries, she can’t quite pin this on him.

There are plenty of twists and turns in this story, and a lot of tangents that may or may not lead to the killer. There’s J.T., Samantha’s mentally unstable brother; Samantha made Abe promise to look out for him, but that may be an impossible task. There are untraceable cell phones, a possible connection to a major corporate player, and a storage unit where some long-forgotten boxes may hold vital clues. There are plenty of reasons to suspect any number of characters, and that keeps the mystery humming along. The ending managed to surprise me – though I doubt we’ve gotten the whole story.

This is a great choice for modern mystery lovers who want a twisty plot, a host of suspects, and any number of ways to interpret the evidence. I love it when a book leaves me with a few loose ends to toy with, so I can unravel bits of the mystery on my own. If you like your stories neatly wrapped up with all the questions answered in the last chapter, this isn’t the book for you.

James Grippando spent 12 years as a trial lawyer before becoming a full-time writer. He’s published 23 thrillers – Cane and Abe is #22 and Cash Landing, #23, is near the top of my TBR pile. For more about the author, check out his website.

My copy of Cane and Abe was an Advance Reader Copy, provided by the folks at Harper Collins.

 

Review: Orient by Christopher Bollen

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

orientThere are always quite a few murder mysteries in my TBR pile, so only the really good ones stand out. Orient by Christopher Bollen is definitely in that pile – I have to admit that I did not guess the murderer until the very end, and I certainly didn’t guess the motive. I like it when a book can surprise me.

Mills is a bit of a drifter, a foster kid who has fallen on hard times and is rescued by a neighbor, Paul Benchley. We know from the first few paragraphs of the book that there will be murders. We know that Mills will be blamed for them, even though he didn’t commit them, and he gives us some clues as to the murderer. The clues didn’t help me unmask the killer; they just made me suspicious of everyone we meet in Orient.

Paul offers to take Mills to his family home in Orient, on the North Fork of Long Island. It’s an isolated town, lots of families who have been there for generations, and the town is undergoing some rapid changes as new money and new people flood in. In particular, there are a lot of artists coming to the community. Not nice folks who want to paint the lighthouses along the shore. No, these are big-time, big money modern artists, the kind who will bash through your dining room wall with a sledgehammer, expose the pipes underneath, throw glitter on them and call it an installation piece (and charge you $100,000). They have very different sensibilities than the long-time residents, and the cultures are bound to clash. Some neighbors welcome the new blood and the new money that comes with it. Others are afraid of losing the quaint and peaceful town they’ve always known. There is plenty of hostility and distrust on both sides.

In addition, there is the threat of Plum Island Animal Disease Center – a research facility that some residents believe is working on dangerous projects. When a strange, mutated carcass washes up on an Orient beach, even the skeptics begin to wonder…

Paul puts Mills to work cleaning out two generations of hoarding in the old family home, where he discovers some secrets about his benefactor and the town. He becomes friendly with Beth, a failed artist struggling with her husband’s artistic success and a bad case of “I have everything I wanted so why am I not happy?” There are conflicts on the island between the successful artists who are driving up real estate prices and long-time residents who want to keep Orient a sleepy village, frozen in time. When long-time residents start turning up dead, it’s easy to point fingers at the new kid in town.

I didn’t recognize, at the start of the book, that the places Bollen mentions – Orient, Plum Island, Oysterponds, etc – are real places. I think that adds to the appeal of the book, the idea that you could take a drive through the streets you’ve read about, stand on the beach and look towards the lighthouse.

Beth became a real source of annoyance for me (which may have been intentional, on Bollen’s part). She’s an artist who doesn’t paint because she’s afraid to fail, even though her husband is supportive and encouraging. Her husband agrees to leave New York City and move out to this little island town because his wife wants to go home again. Her mother gives her a beautiful, spacious home on the island. She and her husband want to have a baby, but now that she finds out she’s pregnant, she hasn’t told her husband and she is considering an abortion. She has everything she wants, she gets everything she asks for and she is still not happy. She is the kind of character you want to grab by the shoulders and give them a good shake, ask them if they have any clue just how lucky they have been and how pathetic they are for not appreciating it. It’s infuriating! But you hope they have time to work it all out.

Really enjoyed this one, mostly because it was tough to see where the story was going. There were several angles – conflict on the Historic Board, a drunken handyman who knows all the town’s secrets, crazy artists and the looming presence of Plum Island, which may be slowly poisoning the residents. I admit I didn’t care for that last storyline, but it didn’t keep me from enjoying the mystery.

My copy of Orient by Christopher Bollen was an Advance Reader copy, provided by the good folks at Harper Collins. It is set for release on May 5, 2015.

Review: World Gone By by Dennis Lehane

Monday, April 20th, 2015

WorldGoneByFINALI am becoming a Dennis Lehane groupie – that’s all I can say. I loved The Drop. I loved Live By Night. And I loved the final book in the Joe Coughlin trilogy, World Gone By. This was a story that really drew me in, the kind of book where you keep re-reading pages, going back to an earlier section because you want to hear those words one more time. You can’t wait to see where the story is going, but you don’t really want it to end.

At the start of World Gone By, Joe Coughlin is a single father, a widower after the death of his beloved wife, Graciela, raising his 10 year old son, Tomas, on his own. His career has taken a surprisingly traditional turn- he has retired and become a consultant, a consigliere to the crime families that dominate South Florida. With his help and advice, the families are making money. Their businesses are thriving. Joe has no enemies. So why has someone put out a contract on him?

There is something unsettled in South Florida and Joe can feel its effects. He begins to see a ghost, a young boy who shows up at odd moments, in crowds or alone in Joe’s office. (In one of the most disturbing scenes of the book, Joe tells his doctor about the ghost. After Joe leaves the office, the doctor confronts his own demons and they are not pretty.) Dion Bartolo, may be losing his grip on the business – people are beginning to notice his vices. Rico DiGiacomo, Joe’s long-time friend, may be keeping his own secrets. Even Joe’s love life is unsettled, and the pressure is building. Joe wants to keep Tomas safe, but he’s not willing to run and hide. He knows the game and he knows the players, but the rules are changing.

Joe Coughlin is a bad guy that you can’t help rooting for. Whoever has put the hit out, you want Joe to figure it out. You want Tomas to be safe. You want Joe to be able to protect his friends and sniff out his enemies. You can’t really say that Joe does the right thing, but there are flashes – like when he doesn’t kill Loretta in Live By Night, even though it would be safer and easier – but you read the pages of World Gone By with a nagging feeling that Joe has missed something, that there is trouble headed his way and he may not be able to dodge the bullet this time.

This one was hard to put down. This is the final book in the Joe Coughlin trilogy and it is remarkably well done. There is no judgement here – yes, the characters are gangsters and killers, but that’s not the point. They are also fathers and husbands, wives, brothers, and friends. The mob might be run by criminals, but it’s a business; you take orders from the people in charge and someone is always watching the bottom line. The problem seemed to be that Joe wanted to live some semblance of a normal life as a retired consultant, raising his son, tending to his investments, maybe taking a new wife, but he wasn’t in a normal situation. This wasn’t the kind of story for that.

Currently, Ben Affleck is directing and starring in the movie version of Live By Night. I love the women they’ve cast so far – Zoe Saldano as Graciella and Elle Fanning as Loretta. Easy to picture that cast. I’m hoping they decide to adapt this novel for the big screen, as well. I can easily imagine turning this into an amazing film.

My copy of World Gone By is an Advance Reader Copy, provided by the nice folks at William Morrow.

Review: Of Things Gone Astray by Janina Matthewson

Tuesday, April 7th, 2015

of things gone astrayOf Things Gone Astray is a fascinating debut novel by Janina Matthewson. This is such an unusual story, an unusual method of telling it — days later, I am still thinking about it.

This is a story about loss – about the things we lose, what they mean to us, and how we replace them. The characters – Delia, Cassie, Anthony, Jake, Marcus, Mrs. Featherby, Robert – have all lost something important to them. This isn’t a book about losing your car keys or misplacing a library book. Robert has lost his job. He wasn’t fired or laid off; he went to work one morning and the building was gone. The company, the people – all of it, just disappeared. Cassie has lost her sense of direction; one morning, she headed out to the corner store and got hopelessly lost, spending hours wandering through the city where she has lived all her life. Mrs. Featherby woke up one morning to find that the front wall of her home was gone.

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 quite literally do not see each other when they are in the same house. It’s an extreme sort of estrangement, as they both deal with their grief.

The stories tangle and overlap in intriguing ways. Secrets are revealed. We find out more about the characters and what brought them to this point. Some of the stories wrap up neatly; others leave us hanging. And as I said, days later, I am still thinking about it, thinking about these characters. I love a story that lingers! I want the characters to get under my skin and stick to my brain and keep me up at night. It’s a great debut novel and although I have no idea what Matthewson might do to follow this up, I know that I’ll be interested in reading it.

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

Review: Normal by Graeme Cameron

Monday, March 23rd, 2015

normalHe lives in your community, in a nice house with a well-tended garden. He shops in your supermarket, bumping shoulders with you and apologizing with a smile. He drives beside you on the highway, politely waving you into the lane ahead of him.

What you don’t know is that he has an elaborate cage built into a secret basement under his garage. And the food that he’s carefully shopping for is to feed a young woman he’s holding there against her will—one in a string of many, unaware of the fate that awaits her.

Oh, she’s knows what fate awaits her.

Normal by Graeme Cameron is an interesting twist on the sympathetic serial killer story. Our main character has no name and no physical description, and that is purposeful. He could be anyone. He’s no one you would necessarily notice, and even if you did, you couldn’t imagine the sort of person he really is. He says, in the latter part of the book, “The truth is I hurt people. It’s what I do. It’s all I do. It’s all I’ve ever done.”  He’s gotten quite proficient at it – he has a routine, places to dispose of the remains, a well thought-out process for satisfying these urges. Up to now, it has worked perfectly for him, allowing him to travel under the radar.

The trouble starts with a woman, of course. Erica is in the wrong place at the wrong time and she ends up in the cage under our killer’s garage. This should be simple – clearly, he has done this before, made provisions for it. The cage is sturdy, the camera affords him an excellent view of his captive, but somehow things with Erica don’t go quite the way he planned.

Then there’s the woman at the all-night grocery store. Her name tag says Caroline and she is perfect. The kind of perfect that could make a man want to change his evil ways, walk the straight and narrow. But there’s the little problem of the girl in the secret dungeon and the police who suspect him of…something. They aren’t sure what, exactly, but they are definitely suspicious. Our protagonist has some clever and very entertaining ideas about how to weasel out of this – enlisting the help of a woman he planned to murder but ending up rescuing instead – but once more, tings don’t go quite as he planned.

I really enjoyed this – I like the style, I like the bits of detail interspersed with large patches of things left up to your imagination. I like the ambiguous bits – I don’t need an author to beat me over the head with the plot. You can’t help but root for our would-be lover to sort all of this out and get his happily ever after … and then you remember how many women he’s slaughtered and wonder what you were thinking. There’s humor, there’s suspense, and enough action to keep the pages turning. If you don’t mind a little blood and guts and adore a good antihero, you should definitely check this one out.

My copy of Normal was an Advance Reader Copy, provided free of charge. It goes on sale March 31, so pre-order your copy now.

 

 

Hot Guys with Books

Saturday, March 14th, 2015

Shirtless Benedict Cumberbatch on the beach, talking about a book.

I could probably stop posting now. What else is there?

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Review: Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

Wednesday, February 18th, 2015

boneshakerThis is a book I started ages ago, but I lost track of it on my Kindle (I keep forgetting that it stores galleys as documents, not books). When I managed to unearth it, I was thrilled to be back in the world of Boneshaker by Cherie Priest. It’s set in the wild and woolly Seattle of the 1880’s, with some major revisions. The city, its population swelled from the Klondike gold rush, has been devastated. The Boneshaker, a mining machine designed to dig through the Klondike ice, has malfunctioned and run wild beneath the city, collapsing buildings, creating tunnels, killing hundreds, and releasing deadly gas from deep underground. The gas, called Blight, boils up from the tunnels and clings like a thick fog. It kills plants and animals, corrodes metal, and turns the humans who breathe it into a sort of zombie, called Rotters. In an attempt to save what they could, the city was walled up, trapping the Blight and the rotters inside. The walls created a lost city, crumbling into ruin, inhabited by the walking dead and those hearty souls who have carved out a living in the basements, vaults, and any place that offers a little clean air.

Briar Wilkes has gone back to using her maiden name, because being the widow of Leviticus Blue does not endear her to her neighbors; Leviticus Blue invented the Boneshaker, after all, and many still hold him responsible for the devastation in the city. She has tried to shield her son, Zeke, from his awful history, but the curiosity of a teenage boy is a powerful force. Zeke has decided to sneak into the walled city, find his mother’s home, and bring back evidence that his father was innocent. When she realizes what he’s done, Briar has no choice but to go in after him.

Their adventures in the city make for a great read. There are pirates and villains, the Chinamen who built and maintain the machinery that keeps the underground inhabitable. There is a good-hearted woman, Lucy O’Gunning, with her strange mechanical arm, and a mysterious villain named Dr. Minnericht, who hints at an even more villainous past. It’s about a mother’s love for her son – all that she’s done, all that she’s tried to do, and all that she is still willing to do to protect him, even if he hates her for it. It’s about how you keep going after tragedy strikes and find a way to live with yourself. And all through the book there are great stories of underground palaces, murderous rotters and shifting alliances – enough to keep you turning pages well past the time you should blow out the candles and turn in for the night. The ending was great (and I’ve had too many disappointing endings lately) and makes me want to pick up the next book right away. It was a great story and my only regret is that I didn’t finish it sooner. The bonus is that the sequels are all lined up for me!

For more on the wondrous alternate universe of Boneshaker,  check out The Clockwork Century and Cherie’s homepage. My copy of Boneshaker by Cherie Priest was an Advance Reader Copy, provided free of charge.