Archive for the 'Book Review' Category
Oh, I can’t tell you how excited I was to get a copy of Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances for review! My love affair with Neil Gaiman’s writing has been a troubled one – some things I love, some things I don’t – but I love short stories when they are well-written and this collection was a treasure. That doesn’t mean I loved every one of them, that almost never happens, but there are some that were so good, so compelling, that I was sorry to see them end.
The book starts with a fairly long introduction, which makes great reading if you’re interested in a writer’s process and how they think about their work. It even contains a little bonus story about The Shadder – I love little hidden gems like this. (Joe Hill’s 20th Century Ghosts had a similar bonus story.) There is also a prize beyond measure: a recap of each of the stories and how they came to be. What a fabulous way to start the book! Not only do I get a preview of what’s coming, I get a little insight into the story behind the story.
I was torn about whether I should read these intros before I read the story, or afterwards. I opted for before (I don’t mind spoilers), but still found that by the time I read each story, I wanted to go back and read the introduction again, see if I remembered correctly, see what I thought about the origins, now that I’d read the story. It added a great deal to the book, and people who skim over it are really missing out.
As I was reading, I kept thinking, “Oh, this will be the story that I say was my favorite” – thought that at least 4 or 5 times and meant it every time. There is a good variety of stories here, not all frightening, not all funny, but clearly all the product of a wondrous imagination. There were stories that startled me, stories that worried me, and one story, “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury”, that made me bring up my local library website and check out some more short stories. It brought back some marvelous memories.
I loved “The Thing About Cassandra”, the story about a shy young man and his imaginary girlfriend – all well and good, until 20 years later she shows up on Facebook, asking about him. I loved two of the stories in “The Calendar of Tales.” In October Tale, we wonder what happens when a happy and contented young woman finds a genie in a bottle and has nothing to wish for. In November Tale, a critically ill woman buys a brazier at a garage sale, planning to burn away old papers…and maybe much more.
My favorites by far were the Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Who stories. In “The Case of Death and Honey,” Sherlock solves the greatest mystery of all. I love the way his story is interwoven with that of the beekeeper, and the idea makes perfect sense to me: what on earth would Sherlock Holmes, the man who prefers serial killers to boredom, do when he retired? And “Nothing O’Clock” brings the new Doctor and Amy Pond an even greater and more dangerous enemy than the Daleks: The Kin. I am not a Dr. Who fan; I always think it’s exactly the sort of thing I should love, but I don’t. This story, however, really captures the spirit of the show, with enough background that even a non-viewer will enjoy it.
And I could go on. And on. There was “Click-Clack the Rattlebag.” There was “Witch Work.” There was “Adventure Story.” So much good storytelling, pared down into bite-size morsels, to be enjoyed in a sitting and smiled over the rest of the day. God, I love short stories – and I think you’ll enjoy this collection, as well.
My copy of Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman was an Advanced Reader Copy, provided free of charge.
It’s been almost three years since my review of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. I recall being a bit mesmerized by the book at that time – the photographs were remarkable and the idea that they were real, found photos made them ever more fascinating. Hollow City (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children) picks up where Miss Peregrine’s leaves off, and I do mean right where it leaves off. That’s a big part of the problem I had with the book. We are thrown right back into the story of Jacob, Emma, Bronwyn, Olive and the other Peculiars, rowing their little boats toward the coast of Wales…and I honestly could not remember why they were there. There was no recapping of the story so far, even though the books were published 3 years apart. There were no re-introductions to the characters, no little clues when the characters referred to wights and hollowgasts and ymbrynes. There are some small photos at the beginning of the book but, to be honest, I didn’t stop and read them before jumping into the story. Luckily, the first nook was still on my Kindle, so I could go back and refresh my memory before digging into the book at hand. Not a good start, to be sure.
The story itself is much like the first book – entertaining and fairly fast-paced. The children are still on the run from wights who have invaded the “loop” where they’ve lived for decades. The loop is a bit of stopped time, well-protected from those who would harm the Peculiars. The hollowgast are the sad remnants of an experiment gone wrong, with tentacles for mouths and a hunger for Peculiar children. They are invisible to most Peculiars, which is what makes Jacob so valuable: his Peculiar skill is that he can sense and see and kill hollowgast. Wights are evolved hollowgast – they evolve by consuming the souls of Peculiar children. In Hollow City, they are after more than the children’s souls.
Jacob and his friends are traveling to London, the capital city of Peculiars, in the hopes of finding help for Miss Peregrine, who has become trapped in her bird form. They encounter a number of other Peculiars along the way, and learn much about the history of Peculiars. The children don’t have much time to save Miss Peregrine and to derail a terrible plot that would devastate Peculiars everywhere. In the midst of it all, Jacob must make some difficult choices, about leaving his friends, about being apart from his family, about falling in love and just what it is he wants to do with his life.
This was a quick read (shorter than a flight from Cleveland to Atlanta). Although I was frustrated by the lack of recapping and annoyed that I had to basically re-read the first book to continue the series, I still enjoyed the story and the characters. Although I admit that I am heartily sick of trilogies, this book was better than most second books, in that there was a lot of action and new development, which kept it from being more than just a set-up for the next installment.
As before, the highlight of the book, for me, was the photos. These are more real, found photos, showing all sorts of unusual people, and they bring so much to the story.
My copy of Hollow City (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children) came from my personal library.
Nick 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.
A 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.
Man 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.
Flings: 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.
Want 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.
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.
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 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.