Archive for the 'Book Review' Category

Review: Labor Day by Joyce Maynard

Monday, February 10th, 2014

labor daySometimes, I read a book and I think, “this would make a great movie!” Sometimes, I don’t want to see the movie, because I know that film and CGI will never match the story in my head. In the case of Labor Day by Joyce Maynard, I’m not sure I want to see the movie, because I don’t think Hollywood will get it right.

Labor Day is not a love story – at least, it didn’t read that way to me. It’s a story about a boy, barely a teenager with a lot more on his plate than any kid should have to handle. One long, hot holiday weekend, everything in his life is going to change, for better or worse, and it all depends on Henry.

You’ve seen the movie ads by now, and I hope to heaven that if an escaped convict ever shows up at my door, he looks like Josh Brolin. Frank has escaped from prison, where he was held for a particularly brutal crime, and everyone is looking for him. But at the end of the country road where Henry lives with his mother, Adele, there is a drama playing out quietly, behind lace curtains, that has nothing to do with the violence in Frank’s life.

Frank is a quiet man, a man who can bake a peach pie, a man who can teach an uncoordinated boy to throw a baseball. You can’t imagine him as an inmate, accused of murder, staging his escape. He is polite to Adele and Henry, making sure that they cannot be held responsible if he is found. Henry is drawn to him, lacking a real father figure in his life, but the attraction between Adele and Frank is powerful and immediate. They are two people who can’t leave the house – Adele held captive by her fears and her broken heart, Frank both captor and captive – and, as the ads say, they make a world for themselves within its walls.

Henry has no idea how to process all of this. He has a desperate loyalty to his mother – he knows that she’s not right, that she doesn’t react like other mothers and they don’t live like other families – and she depends on him. This is a side of her that he has never seen, and like any child who sees his parent drawn to another adult, he is afraid of being left out, left behind. As the temperature rises and the weekend draws to a close, he will have a choice to make and that choice will change the lives of everyone he loves. The story is really about Henry and what goes on in the mind of a thirteen year old boy who is watching his mother fall in love.

I really, really enjoyed this book – devoured it on one flight and a late evening in my hotel – but it may have spoiled the movie for me. I’ve read that Maynard had a lot of input into the film, but as much as I was touched by the blossoming love between these two damaged people, I don’t want to see it turned into a typical Hollywood love story. This is Henry’s story, and I hope he’s able to tell it.

My advice? Read the book. Then decide about the movie.

My copy of Labor Day was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Labor Day, the movie

Review: Killer’s Art by Mari Jungstedt

Thursday, January 30th, 2014

kilelrs artI seem to be gathering quite a collection of Scandanavian crime novels lately! I’ve got Joe Nesbo, Camilla Lackburg, Ake Edwardson…and now I can add Mari Jungstedt to the list. Killer’s Art is a very good mystery novel set in the art world of Gotland, an upscale, picturesque Swedish island. In the walled city of Visby, a killer is on the loose. He (or she) has killed a prominent art dealer, a man with secrets that will shock his friends and neighbors.

Egon Wallin is a respected art dealer on Gotland, which is described as the Swedish version of Martha’s Vineyard. He’s a married man with a successful gallery, plenty of friends and good contacts in the art world. He has recently hosted a very successful showing of a new artist, an artist who is about to sign a lucrative contract with Wallin. But on a cold February morning, a woman walking to work finds his battered body, hanging from the Dalman Gate.

What I enjoyed about Killer’s Art is the story – there are plenty of great twists and turns, and plenty to leave you wondering. Jungstedt purposely leaves you wondering about the killer, about the motives, about the next victim. The killer is quite thoughtful and the police are playing catch-up. The killer is telling a story in art and metaphor, with painting and sculpture.  You get the feeling that he is much smarter than the police and you wonder if they will ever catch up. That’s the sort of tension that keeps you turning pages.

There were some decent subplots, but a lot of the characters were more annoying than interesting. Detective Superintendent Anders Knutas is really unlikeable. He seems to dislike everyone he works with – even the coworkers he likes, he eventually complains about. His panicky efforts to keep Karin Jacobsson on-staff seemed bizarre to me – how could he be so dependent on her? Although he is outwardly friendly to Johan Berg, a reporter who has been involved in several other police matters, he is clearly resentful of him. As for Berg, the subplot focusing on his love life seemed over the top and frantic to me. All of his thoughts about Emma, the mother of his child, seem punctuated with exclamation points. I just wasn’t moved by it. I was also a little irked by the way that some of these subplots (what was bothering Karin? what happened between Emma and Johan?) were left unresolved.

Another thing I had difficulty with was the writing. It might be a matter of translation, but there seemed to be a lot of fragments, bits of sentences that should have been connected in some way. Jungstedt needed a few commas, some semi-colons, maybe even a smattering of em-dashes to make things flow a little more smoothly. There are multiple chapters where something happens — someone sees something, goes somewhere, is clearly plotting the next murder — but of course there are no clear indications of who it is. That can be very effective; in this case, it was overused.

Still, I enjoyed the book very much. I can overlook a few missteps when there is a good story at the heart of it all, and this has a good heart.

My copy of Killer’s Art by Mari Jungstedt was an Advanced reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Review: The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014

serpent of veniceI know this review is a little early. The Serpent of Venice by Christopher Moore isn’t due out until April 2014. I’m posting it now because (a) the book is still fresh in my mind (in fact, I’m still chuckling over it) and (b) this will give you time to pre-order it or get yourself on top of your library’s reserve list. Might as well be prepared. Also, since this was a digital ARC, it will soon disappear from my Kindle, and I want to be sure the review is written before it fades away…

Back in 2009, I reviewed Fool by Christopher Moore, which is sort of a precursor to this novel. The fool in that book, Pocket, is the king’s jester. In SerpentPocket is back and his enemies are coming for him.

This is a mash-up, bringing some great (and wildly divergent) storylines together. We’ve got Shylock and his pound of flesh from The Merchant of Venice. We’ve got Othello, Desdemona and Iago from Othello. And we have an excellent plot device from The Cask of AmontilladoIf you’re thinking that one of these things is not like the other, you are absolutely right — but Moore makes it work.

As with Fool, there were a ton of lines and passages I marked that it turns out, I can’t quote here. While I’m not a family website, as such, the book is pretty vulgar. Downright raunchy, in fact. And I love that about it.

I am not usually a big comedy fan. My sense of humor just doesn’t run along the same lines as most people’s, apparently. But this is smart funny and believe me, it’s funny. I read this on a flight to New Orleans and I just sat there in my seat and laughed myself silly. It was so funny, at least in part, because I was familiar with the source material. I’ve always enjoyed Shakespeare, and while I wouldn’t have combined it with Edgar Allan Poe, it’s an excellent combination. There are plots and subplots, intrigues and revenge, a serpent and a monkey named Jeff. I enjoyed every page of it.

My copy of The Serpent of Venice was a digital ARC, provided free of charge.

 

Review: The Widow File by S.J. Redling

Monday, January 6th, 2014

widow fileFirst of all, let me tell you about Kindle First. If you have Amazon Prime, Kindle First lets you get a free book for your Kindle every month – prior to its release date! Did you see that? FREE BOOKS! (As if I needed more free books.) It’s a very cool way to get new books as soon as they are released. The Widow File by S.J. Redling is the first book I’ve picked up under the program and I can’t wait to see what the options are for next month.

Dani is a Paint. (Didn’t mean anything to me, either.) She works for a top-secret security firm, analyzing evidence and details in their investigations.

“Internally, their team went by the designation Paint, so called for their ability to cover every inch of a scene without being noticed.”

The firm also employs Faces, who go out and meet with the clients, do the actual face-to-face investigating, and Stringers, who do the dirty work. She works with Fay, a vivacious young analyst and Choo-Choo, a handsome young man that Fay describes as “an obsessive compulsive nerd underwear model.” (Why don’t I work with guys like that?) An investigation has ended abruptly and Dani returns to work to find men with guns, her coworkers dead and the office under attack. Suddenly, this mild-mannered analyst is on the run from shadowy hit squads and Booker, an assassin hired to make sure that none of her coworkers survived the attack.

Booker is an interesting character. I liked the way Redling gives you an insight into his mind — how a hired killer might think about his targets, what kind of life he might lead. He finds Dani interesting and challenging in a way that most of his targets are not. But Booker is about to find out that even he doesn’t know exactly what’s going on. He himself might be a target in all this, and his only way out — and Dani’s — is to think fast and stay ahead of his opponents.

“He wanted her. He wanted to find Dani. He had to find Dani. That’s what he was getting paid for, but Booker knew firsthand the mind and the body found ways to encourage each other that had nothing to do with outside compensation. Sublimation — he knew it by name. Because of the demands of his job and the isolation it required, he sublimated his sexual urges into his professional prowess until picking a lock took on the same allure as unhooking a bra. “

There are some great plot twists and turns in this one, but it wasn’t too complicated to follow. The whole thing is a little implausible, but that doesn’t bother me much in a good spy novel. (This reminded me more of a spy novel than a thriller.) There are a few twists that you can’t see coming, but the ending was very satisfying. Definitely a fun read all the way around.

My copy of The Widow File by S.J. Redling came from my personal library, through the Kindle First program.

Review: Robert Plant: A Life by Paul Rees

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

robert_plant_a_lifeI’ve got so many thoughts running around in my head, after finishing Robert Plant: A Life by Paul Rees. Let me see if I can put them in some order:

1.  It has brought back fond memories of the Robert Plant poster that I had on my bedroom wall as a teenager. I studied that poster in great detail. I had thoughts about that poster.

2.  It is sort of sad to realize that by the time I was old enough to fall in love with Led Zeppelin’s music, they were already imploding.

3.  If I had been asked before I started the book, I would have said that I knew a bit about Robert Plant. I did not. Lots that I didn’t know.

4.  Perhaps most importantly, at least to my wallet, this book is going to cost me a fortune. I’m glad I got some  iTunes gift cards for Christmas, because I am going to be downloading a lot of music.

First off, I really enjoyed the book. The backstory of his young life was fascinating to me. The idea that at 15 or 16 years old Plant was running around, singing in clubs, appearing with a bunch of different bands, is remarkable to me. I can’t imagine having that kind of ambition and confidence at that age.

“The story goes that Headmaster Chambers told [Plant] he would never make anything of himself. When I came back to the school in the early ’70s, Chambers himself told me that Robert had later turned up at his house in a Rolls-Royce and asked the Headmaster if he remembered him.”

The story of how Led Zeppelin came about, how it became arguably the greatest rock band of all time, and how it imploded — that all made for great reading. Even more interesting was the story of what Plant has been doing since Led Zeppelin — so many bands, so much music, such an interesting life. For a music fan, even if you weren’t a big Led Zeppelin fan, it’s a terrific read. The big issue — and it is always an issue with biographies — is that this is really focused on on Plant, of course, and it definitely paints him in the best light possible. That always makes me wonder about how much is true and how much is slanted. It’s clear that Rees is a friend of Plant’s, so why wouldn’t he want to give this the best spin he could?

There were a couple of things I found really interesting. First, I admire the way that Plant did not get sucked into Led Zeppelin remakes. There were some reunion concerts, there were some collaborations with Jimmy Page, but I imagine that it would have been very easy to fall back into old habits. There would have been a fortune to be made there, with the Led Zeppelin name, and I think it would take a lot of will to pull free.

Second, and definitely related, Plant seems to have a remarkable ability to walk away. After Led Zeppelin, he is involved in a number of projects — The Honeydrippers, Band of Joy, Strange Sensation, his collaborations with Jimmy Page and Allison Krauss, the Sensational Space Shifters — and when he’s done with them, he’s done with them. His album with Allison Kraus, Raising Sand, is haunting and amazing and won a Grammy for Best Pop Collaboration with Vocals in 2008. But that was it – they didn’t work together again. There were short tours with Band of Joy, but when he decided that had run its course, Plant ended it. I’m not sure what I think about that; I wondered a lot about his bandmates, and what an upheaval it must have been for them, but you have to admire such a clear vision and that kind of determination.

“I once asked Robert how he went about choosing a girl when he was in Led Zeppelin,” adds Hossam Ramzy. “He told me, ‘It was very simple. There would be a thousand of them and I’d just go, “You, you and you – fuck off. The rest, come with me.’ “

I also wondered a lot about John Paul Jones. Although there were some Led Zeppelin reunions, Plant seemed dead-set against working with Jones, although no specific incident seems to have spurred that, at least none that was laid out in the book. It made me curious.

The final thing I was curious about was the drug use. There is a lot of talk in the book about Page’s heroin addiction and John Bonham’s addictions, which ultimately lead to his death. There is much less talk, however, about Plant’s drug use. Was he just a casual user, as opposed to an addict? Might go along with that sense of determination, but it was never really answered, at least for me.

At any rate, an excellent biography, lots of great stories and photos, plenty of input from friends, bandmates, and others who knew him. It paints a compelling portrait of a man who has led an amazing life and continues to make amazing music.

“Robert Plant turned 65 in August 2013. In his home country he is now eligible for a bus pass and a state pension.”

My copy of  Robert Plant: A Life is an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge. This is the kind of book that makes all the work on this website worthwhile!

Review: The Absence of Mercy by John Burley

Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

absence of mercyI love a good thriller and I definitely enjoyed The Absence of Mercy by John Burley. It reminds me a bit of Defending Jacob by William Landay; both begin with the murder of a teenager, and both deal with a father who is a central character in the investigation. In Absence of  Mercy, Dr. Ben Stevenson is the local coroner; his wife is a doctor at the local hospital and his sons, Thomas and Joel, went to school with the victim. As more victims pile up in the city morgue, his family is drawn deeper into the mystery.

The murder mystery itself kept me turning pages. The murders are fast and brutal, shocking to the quiet town of Winterville. Stevenson is worried about his family and their safety, and that clearly puts a strain on his marriage and family relationships. He argues with his wife, he is at odds with his son, and you have to wonder if the tension is caused by the strain of the case — or if there is something more sinister going on. There are some clues, but they are fairly subtle and don’t spoil the twists and turns ahead. When a victim survives an attack and is later befriended by Thomas, things begin to get more interesting.

There are some good themes to play with here and Burley does a good job of keeping you guessing, without making the final solution come completely out of nowhere. I hate when that happens! I want to feel that if I went back, read a little more closely, thought more critically about some of the details, I would have guessed the killer well before the ending. I hate hidden paths to the truth that let only the author know what’s going on, with no chance for the rest of us.

Burley also takes a fairly common twist (I don’t want to spoil it for you, so trust me, it’s definitely something you’ve read before) and turns it on its head. Although I had an idea where he was heading, the twist took a turn I wasn’t expecting at all. Definitely made me happy — I love to be surprised by a clever ending.

This one is a good choice for mystery lovers who like a few twists, but also don’t like to get too far off the beaten path. I suspect that you’ll be seeing this one day soon at your local movie theater — I think I would be a terrific film, lots of cool characters to play with here. I would definitely buy a ticket.

My copy of The Absence of Mercy is an Advance Reader Copy, provided free of charge.

Christine’s Review: The Awesome Guide to Life by Jason Ellis

Friday, December 13th, 2013

awesome guideIf you’re a fan of books by motivational speakers, you know that sometimes the cover is of questionable taste.  For example, Larry Winget’s recent title Grow a Pair features the author holding a pair of personal watermelons, representing…a pair.  When I saw Jason Ellis’ book, The Awesome Guide to Life: Get Fit, Get Laid, Get Your Sh*t Together, I expected a similar type of book.  Why wouldn’t you – it featured a woman sporting a mohawk on the cover.  However, appearances can be deceiving.  This book is meant to be motivational, but I am hoping that its reach is limited to Ellis’ viewers on SiriusXM.

The demographics for this book are inexperienced young men who are presumably fans of Ellis’ show.  Ellis’ goal is to teach you how to be a shallow, sex-starved twenty year old drinker and drugger.  He takes the approach of shaming the reader into wanting to eat healthy, dress well, and get in shape. If this approach is motivating to you, then it might work…with additional information.  Ellis’ plans are so basic that it is not really worth spending money on even those chapters. There are so many other products on the market.  I’ve also noticed no disclaimers.  As a result, following the actions in this book would leave you open to sue him from anything from a torn ligament to getting an STD.

You might want to feel sorry for the insecure young man who feels he needs Ellis’ tips on women.  The author tries to make himself out to be an in-demand stud, but he comes off as pathetic. It reminds you of Thicke’s uncut version of his “Blurred lines” video (where he has to spell out that he has a big penis at 3:14 and 3:52). If you have to brag about it that much, you’re probably lacking something.

Ellis makes a big show of making sure you have a woman’s permission before getting in bed with them, but that’s where any concept of respect ceases.  Chapters of this book are geared towards how to take advantage of women, how to pick up strippers, and how to find a hooker. The entire book dehumanizes women and forces them into the role of Cool Girl (discussed in Flynn’s Gone Girl): women are present to coo over men, to subjugate themselves to men, and to participate in whatever trend is going on in porn for men today, such as threesomes and anal sex.

The fact that this type of book is being published by Harper Collins in 2013 just reinforces that misogyny is alive and well, even in America.  Also note that I read this offal from cover to cover to provide you with a comprehensive review. My copy of The Awesome Guide to Life: Get Fit, Get Laid, Get Your Sh*t Together was a loaned advanced reader copy, provided free of charge, for a limited time period.

~Christine Linial (from Austinista.net)

Review: Rage Against the Night, short stories by Stephen King, Ramsey Campbell, Peter Straub and more

Thursday, December 12th, 2013

rageFolks, it pays to troll the Daily Deals and links on Amazon’s Kindle pages. That’s where I picked up Rage Against the Night, edited by Shane Jiraiya Cummings, with stories by all your favorites — Stephen King, Ramsey Cambell, Peter Straub, and more. The book is a fund-raiser for Rocky Wood, author, president of the Horror Writers Association and an expert on the work of Stephen King. Rocky has been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease and all proceeds from the sale of Rage Against the Night will go to Rocky.  When you can buy a great book at a low price and have the money go to a terrific cause, how can you pass that up?

“In this anthology, you will find stories of brave men and women standing up to the darkness, staring it right in the eye, and giving it the finger. These are stories of triumph, but triumph doesn’t necessarily come without cost. “

It’s truly a great tribute. There are terrific stories here! One of my favorites is “Afterward, There Will Be a Hallway” by Gary A. Braunbeck. It’s the story of Neal, a man who takes care of the things that people leave behind, their personal effects. It has a profound effect on him and it connects him to the dead and their world. In the theme of this collection, it is a sad story, but one that is also full of hope.

“Blue Heeler” by Weston Ochse is another great story, about a young boy’s unusual and (mostly) unseen friend. Unraveling the mystery behind his friend’s strange imprisonment will expose secrets that will break his family apart. “Like Part of the Family” by Jonathan Mayberry is a fun take on the classic detective story. Even though I could see the twist coming, I loved getting there.

I could go on and on, telling you about every story in the book, but you’ll have more fun discovering them for yourself.  My copy of Rage Against the Night came from my personal library.

 

Christine’s review: The Condor Song by Darryl Nyznyk

Monday, November 18th, 2013

DNyznyk_Book-Cover_WebBilled as an environmental thriller “inspired by the Sierra Club’s 1960s battle with Walt Disney Company over a proposed ski resort in the Sierra Nevada Mountains,” The Condor Song is compelling reading. Although informed by historical fact, the writing style is likable and engaging.  You want to sit down and finish the book in one sitting, even though it spans 350 pages.

The condor is the crux of the narrative.  Its mere existence makes the “golden staircase” deadly in more ways than one.  While most of the parties involved think they are doing what is best for the land, this book explores the ethics of developing what little wilderness we have left.  (The “Golden Staircase” is a part of the John Muir Trail (JMT), and since 1993 a part of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT).  One site with photos and a description of the area is authored by Social Hiker.)

This thrilling story is primarily told from the point of view of Sean Donovan, anti-hero.

A dangerously bright and ethical man, Sean suffered at the hands of a greedy former colleague, Richard Wolf.  The case of the Silver Lode Valley will be waged by Richard, Sean, and an unidentified killer.  By taking on the pro bono case for a friend of the family, Sean has an opportunity to rebuild a successful life for himself and the endangered condor.

Nyznyk’s thriller makes for an exciting read.  There’s so much to envision: the grandeur of Silver Lode Valley, the brutal beauty of the condors, the anonymous killer.  The only thing that stretches plausibility in my view is the background sketch of Sean Donovan.  He’s so beaten down that there’s nowhere to go but up. Sean is such an underdog that it’s hard to see him as a successful person. However, this underdog is what makes the book so interesting on a personal and environmental level.  Sean’s past sets up several complex relationships which make the book a great read.

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

~Christine Linial (from Austinista.net)

Christine’s Review: Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History without the Fairy-Tale Endings. by Linda Rodriguez McRobbie

Thursday, November 14th, 2013

princess_final_300While the Kindle version is half the cover price, Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings is a hard-backed treasure you’ll want on your shelves for inspiration over the years to come.  Douglas Smith’s woodcut designs grace the header for each narrative, which ties the stories together.  McRobbie’s goal for this book is to make these “princesses” into people, so that they come alive on the page. I would say she has succeeded.

Linda Rodriguez McRobbie explores the lives of women whose stories illustrate strong warrior, usurper, and survivor archetypes.  She saves room for the more notorious as well, including chapters on partiers and floozies.  Even Clara Ward’s sitting for Toulouse-Lautrec  along with her homely violinist husband, Rigo, is included. There’s a princess story in here for everyone’s taste.  These aren’t your grandmother’s versions of fairy tales. McRobbie takes a feminist perspective that is present from cover to cover. In her introduction, she takes on the Disney princesses. She wanted to provide in-depth role models for young girls.  Like all powerful women, princesses are a prime target for male subjugation.  McRobbie reminds the reader of the determination it takes to overcome the supposed limits of their gender.

The author also has a charming writing style.  One of my favorite quotes was about Pauline Bonaparte’s second husband-to-be, Prince Camillo Borghese, “The prince in question was handsome, rich, and well connected.  He was also as dumb as mittens on a cat.”. While the adventures of these women are fascinating, sometimes you feel like you’re reading more about Paris Hilton than Kate, the Duchess of Cambridge.  According to this book, Pauline slept her way through any available men she could entrap, while Caroline of Brunswick Wolfenbüttel was known for low-cut dresses that showed her nipples.

The text is not sexually explicit, but there are discussions about both sexual frigidity and exploits of these princesses.   The book makes excellent bedtime reading, but I would not recommend it for children.  High-school aged young women and beyond will get a kick out of these enlightening tales.

This book would make the perfect gift for the grown-up princess or history lover on your holiday gift list. My copy of Princesses Behaving Badly: Real Stories from History Without the Fairy-Tale Endings is an advance reader copy, provided free of charge.

~Christine Linial (from Austinista.net )