Monday, July 16, 2018

July 2.0

Neverworld Wake by Marisha Pessl
Having loved her previous book, Night Film, I was excited to pick up this new YA book by Pessl. And wow, it is a page turner, mixing a mystery of a young man's death along with time travel, or should I say time standing still? Here's the deal: five young adults back from their first year of college, still reeling from the death of their sixth member from their last year in boarding school, are all out carousing one night. On their drunken drive home, they have a scary incident with a tow truck and are run off the road. However, it is more than a 'close call;' it is a snag in time. These five are now stuck in this one day, over and over again, and the only way out is to vote on who should be the one who gets to live. Without consensus, this day replays endlessly so they decide to spend their eternal day trying to figure out how Jim died. Was it really suicide or something more sinister? Your mind will be blown.

The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels by Jon Meacham
If you want to be inspired that our country is not taking a one-way trip to hell, this is the book for you. Meacham explores the different periods in America's history where we had autocrats, demagogues, and conmen leading the way. Each time the goodness in humanity prevailed, whether through politicians who finally stood up for what is right or through the populace's voice demanding a different direction. It is a fascinating listen, though I will say Meacham is not the best narrator; I was thankful he only did the intro and conclusion. And seriously, you can skip the intro and just go straight to the first chapter - you won't miss a thing! This book gave me hope that we will survive the hateful policies and divisiveness that characterize today's politics in America...I wait patiently for the angels to appear.

The Subway Girls by Susie Orman Schnall
I am a bit torn by this book. On one hand, it is an interesting look back at New York City post WWII, as young women attempt to continue marching into the work force following WWII. In 1949, Charlotte wants a career before marriage, is attempting to complete a college degree, and is fighting to be chosen Miss Subways as part of an ad campaign that she believes could help save her father's business. At times, Charlotte is a feminist, and at other times she acquiesces to the rules of the day, making some statements about men and life which made me nauseous, but however made sense historically. However, the story of today (Olivia as an ad campaign exec, trying to win the business of the NYC subway system) is more problematic for me. She waffles between being a badass and being just a wimp; in love with her boss, it colors the story in a frustrating way for me, challenging her ability to be seen as competent employee and to deal with the blatant sexual harassment from another employee. An interesting read, but ultimately too predictable with a lack of characters I could truly cheer for and an abundance of cliched writing that just was not my style. Thanks to Net Galley for an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

Believe Me by J.P. Delaney
Let me preface this review that I really loved the first book by Delaney, The Girl Before. I was excited to pick up the second but that faded quickly. Here's the short preview: British actress in NYC has immigration issues so chooses to work for police to try and entrap a serial killer into confessing. It is a completely implausible plot line - what police department in America, much less NYC, would ever use a psychologically damaged civilian to run a legitimate legal operation? Good grief, I've watched enough Law and Order to know better! Sorry, but this was just a laughable 'thriller.' I like my mysteries clever, twisty, and thought-provoking. Thanks to Net Galley for an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

A Double Life by Flynn Berry
This mystery kept me thinking and turning pages for the first half of the book; a young woman continuously searches for clues to her father's existence, the father who murdered her nanny and violently attacked her mother while both children were in the home. Claire is a well-educated doctor who loves her drug-addicted brother and seems to be mildly interested in helping her patients, yet she is obsessed with the idea of finding her father, the only sitting Lord accused of murder, who fled the country years ago. Unfortunately the plot line takes a turn towards the implausible and ridiculous side of things in the last half and at times the constant switching of time periods is hard to follow needing smoother segues. And honestly, the last twenty percent just seemed rushed, as if the author just didn't care about a thoughtful conclusion or was not sure how to wrap it up creatively yet thoughtfully - very disappointing. Thanks to Net Galley for an advanced copy in exchange for an honest review.

My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
I read the rave reviews on this one and wondered what the heck I missed?! I did not find it deep, nor powerful, nor profound. I found it to be narcissistic, shallow, and ultimately quite boring. This story follows a year where a young white woman, privileged and entitled, chooses to spend a year in her NYC apartment popping enough pills to put her to sleep for 365 days. Within this year, we see echoes of her past with both parents dying while she is at Columbia University, a sad and pathetic job at an art gallery, hilarious conversations with a complete wackjob of a therapist who hands out drugs like candy, and a cruel and selfish so-called 'friendship' with another messed up young woman. I am sure I was supposed to feel sadness for the tragedies in their lives, but all I felt was contempt. I have read gorgeously sad fiction (we all remember Jude in A Little Life), and witnessed in real life many tragedies; I know what it is like to have my heart pummeled, to weep for the unfairness in life. I just attended a memorial service for a former student, cut down by cancer in the prime of his life; that is true tragedy, not this pathetic young woman's story. This was a total miss for me and a waste of three hours. Thanks to Net Galley for a preview copy in exchange for an honest review, and yes, I am always honest:)



Sunday, July 1, 2018

July

The Last Time I Lied by Riley Sager
The author of the 2017 hit, Final Girls, is back with a new thriller and it is as dark and twisty as his last one. In fact, I liked this one better. This time around, Sager combines every adult's awkward memories about summer camp, and then pumps them full of creepy steroids to make summer camp a bit more 'murderous.' The main character, Emma, is fifteen years past her one and only sleepaway camp experience, and it was a doozy. As a thirteen year old, all of Emma's roommates disappear one night, and they never return; needless to say, that ended her camping week as well as Camp Nightingale itself. Fast forward to today and Emma, now a celebrated artist who consistently paints the missing girls into forest scenes, has been invited back to the newly opened camp in hopes that this return will banish all her ghosts, both literally and figuratively. The plot line skips between Emma's narration from today and her camp weeks, and eventually leads the reader to some fairly dark places. Admittedly, I read tons of mysteries and thrillers and can usually at least narrow it down to a list of whodunnits, but this book had my head reeling, especially with the final twist at the very end. If you're looking for a great summer read that you will not be able to put down, I would definitely recommend this one.

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz
A woman visits a funeral home to plan her own memorial, and is then found strangled just six hours later; a deliciously clever cast of suspects abound as we see the latest crime-solving duo created by Anthony Horowitz, screenplay writer of BBC's Foyle's War, author of Alex Ryder children's series and the newest Sherlock Holmes books, and author of my favorite mystery of 2017, Magpie Murders. This is the start of a new series for Horowitz, which combines a crusty, socially inept yet brilliant London ex-cop named Hawthorne with writer Anthony Horowitz (yes, one and the same) who Hawthorne wants to write up his life story into true-crime fashion. These two are hilarious, brilliant, and ultimately completely ingenious as we watch the mystery unfold. As with any British caper, red herrings are rife in the scenery and Horowitz uses his own bungling to mirror the reader's confusion as to whodunnit. Another five-star mystery, it is a "can't miss" for your summer reading list.

The Banker's Wife by Cristina Alger
I really enjoyed Alger's first two books (The Darlings and This Was Not the Plan), and her latest is another solid story, with some intriguing twists and interesting characters. Alger heads back to the world of her first book, The Darlings, and in fact, some overlapping characters in the journalists who investigated the SEC schemes of a wealthy well-to-do family. This time around, we have another wealthy NYC family, but this time their hands are in corrupt politics and money laundering (sound like some headlines over the last year??). The story is told through two viewpoints: Marina, the independent, intelligent news reporter who just happens to be engaged to the son whose dad is announcing his candidacy for president, but there's a few skeletons in that dark rich closet; and Annabel, the wife of a young international banker, working in Switzerland and recently killed in a suspicious plane crash. As Alger strings all the pieces together, so do Annabel and Marina in a taut plot line, with some surprising twists that kept me turning the page. Alger is very good at slowly developing characters so be patient - it is worth it.

The Perfect Mother by Aimee Malloy
Wow, this Book of the Month book has sure received a lot of buzz. The fact that Kerry Washington is starring in the movie version of it might have helped a bit. However, it is a pretty decent thriller. Set amongst a group of New York city mothers who have recently given birth and have formed a loose friendship group with one another. When their first night out turns to tragedy and an empty crib is found, an investigation into all the women ensues. Debut author Aimee Malloy has created an eclectic group of mothers: the career woman battling to return to work, a mom who gets overly involved in the police work of the missing baby, a writer with writer's block and sleep deprivation, and a former reality TV star. Sprinkled throughout are the private thoughts of the young mother dealing with relationship betrayal and love issues, adding a whole other twist to the story. It is a good mystery, yet I found myself a bit bothered by the betrayal of new motherhood and the supposed 'craziness' that comes with it. This story seemed to perpetuate some asinine myths about what hormones do to one's brain, as well as the fall out of choosing to end a pregnancy. Perhaps small complaints, but it just did not sit right with me.

Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man's First Journey to the Moon by Robert Kurson
As a child of the 60's with a father who worked in the Boeing space program, I was fascinated, along with the rest of the country, with astronauts, the moon, and those humongous rockets out of Cape Canaveral. This new book on the historic first orbit of the moon is a wonderful walk down a lot of exciting memories, but it is also an outstanding reminder of what hope, determination, and plain ole hard work can accomplish. Author Robert Kurson does an admirable research job, filling his book with intriguing facts and tidbits about NASA, the backstories of the three astronauts, and the state of America in 1968 (not good, by the way - we needed this space trip pretty desperately!) This is a fabulous listen, as well as an incredibly inspiring story of what three men did for our country on Christmas Eve in 1968; they raised our spirits, gave us belief in the future, and reminded us about the goodness of America. It is exactly what I needed to hear in these dark days of summer 2018.


Friday, June 15, 2018

June 2.0

The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland
You know those books that sweep you into the characters' lives, that make your heart ache and your brain think? Yep, this is that kind of book, the kind that I did not want to put down at night, no matter the time. The story begins when Loveday, a young woman who works in a bookstore, finds an abandoned book on the street and posts a note in the store window. Nathan, the owner of said poetry book, invites Loveday to a poetry reading...the story unrolls from there. Through the eyes of Loveday, we revisit the past: family life at a small seaside town, as their lives unravel; life in foster care; a violent relationship; and the small cadre of loyalists who surround Loveday and help her to heal from her past. Loveday has a wickedly British sense of humor, with hilarious asides to you, the reader, as she relates the story of her life. For those of us who love life in a book shop, who love complicated characters, who love exploring how the past impacts our present, who loves smart writing, this book is definitely for you. This is a feel-good, there-is-hope-for-a-better-tomorrow, and books-matter kind of novel.

The Myth of Perpetual Summer by Susan Crandall
Susan Crandall is a master of tales of the south, dysfunctional families, heroic children, and satisfying endings. Her previous two books, Whistling Past the Graveyard and The Flying Circus, were some of my favorites, and her latest is a worthy member of her collection of Southern stories. This time around we are introduced to the James family, living in Mississippi in the 1960's: the father, a history professor who suffers from bi-polar disorder; the mother, completely uninterested in being a mother; Gran, who wants to believe in the old elegance of the south and her aristocratic family; Griff, the oldest boy trying hard to outrun his embarrassing family; the twins, Dharma who is desperate for attention, and Warner, who just wants to be loved; and Tallulah, the narrator, a smart, compassionate, courageous, independent young cuss of a girl. The story moves from California in the hippie era, back in time to Tallulah as she tries to repair the broken threads of her family, and forward to 1972 as the family tries to save one of its own. My one complaint is the ending is a bit saccharine, but then again, we all need hope, especially in the face of tragedy. This book will make you cringe, remind us of hard times past, and eventually warm your heart.

The Possible World by Liese O'Halloran Schwarz
This book is good, and I mean really good. Reminiscent of authors Jodi Picoult and Kate Morton, Schwarz is able to pull together different time periods, characters, and plot lines, weave them into a panoramic view, and then pull it all together in the end. First the characters: Lucy, an ER doc, struggling with her marriage, the crazy hours, and the emotional turmoil of incoming patients; Clare, an elderly patient in assisted living, looking back at her Depression-era childhood and the direction life took her; Leo, a young boy, given away by his mother, and in need of a home where he is loved; and Ben, a young boy, traumatized after a horrific murder scene, and scared speechless. Somehow, Schwarz pulls these disparate people together, creating a book one cannot put down, and reminding us of the power of love, the pull of our past (in every way), and the ways strong women can choose to direct their lives. In other words, Schwarz is a very talented storyteller.

Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris
I loved her first book, Behind Closed Doors, and liked her second book, The Breakdown, but it is never a good sign when one laughs at a thriller, and wants to throw the book across the room when the last page turns. The premise was promising. British male character, Finn, pulls into a roadside rest stop in France to use the bathroom. When he returns, his young girlfriend, Layla, has disappeared. Twelve years later, good ole Finn is engaged to Layla's sister, Ellen, has just completed a big lucrative financial deal, and Layla rears her mysterious head. Ellen and Finn hear find Russian nesting dolls everywhere (it's a 'thing' with Layla), Finn receives multiple emails, and Ellen believes she sees her. As this mystery unwinds, we go back to the past to see the beginning of their relationship and it throws in what perhaps the author perceives are intriguing red herrings, but really, they're just stinky dead fish (I mean, the hermit-like neighbors next door?? The childhood friend he beats terribly??). And seriously, the ending had me shrieking with laughter, with the complete implausibility of the entire 'mystery.' B.A. Paris is waaaaaay better than this.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O'Farrell
I was quite intrigued by the idea of this book - an author recounts her many near-death experiences, and waxes on philosophically about the meaning of life. Not a bad idea. However, the actuality of it was just not my cup of tea. By the fourth 'near death' miss, it just got a bit repetitive. Besides, how many times can one be that stupid? Some of it was just bad luck, but some incidences were like...really??? The philosophical part of life was occasionally provocative and thoughtful, but in general this short book was not short enough for me.

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry
Yes, I read weird stuff, and yes, this is one of those. This was a reaaaaallly long listen on Audible, that had super interesting spots and then other dry spells where my mind wandered. It gives an extraordinary history of American medicine - the lagging behind Europe, the big minds of the day, the rise of proper medical schools, etc. And yes, I found that stuff fascinating. As it starts to tell the tale of how the Spanish flu pandemic originated on U.S. military bases, and the shockingly grotesque errors the government made that allowed this disease to spread throughout the world, killing millions before it died out, I could not pull myself away. However, some of the small details of the research to find a cure and the obscure scientists who looked for it became a bit mind-numbing. However, I would definitely recommend this to anyone thinking of going into medicine, and who likes to listen to long books (reading it would be a bit of a chore). And yes, John M. Barry really knows his material.

All is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker
This is a fascinating and twisty thriller that I highly recommend listening to rather than reading. The narrator is Dylan Baker (google him - trust me, you'll know him. He always plays brilliant crazy people on television). His voice is amazing and kept me quite occupied as I walked my dog. The premise of the story is unique: Jenny, a sixteen year old girl is brutally raped and while at the hospital is given a drug to make her forget the actual hours of the rape. At the time, it seemed like a good solution to Charlotte and Tom, her parents, yet this 'forgetting' has some traumatic outcomes as memories are never truly gone. As the psychiatrist-narrator relates the story, he delves into the secret lives of Charlotte and Tom, as well as another patient of his who also was given the drug after an violent incident in the Middle East war zone. Be forewarned - there are some graphic violent details of the rape, as well as a few sex scenes.


Friday, June 1, 2018

June

Us Against You by Frederik Backman
If you read Beartown, you will be compelled to read this one. I was not sure if I was ready to re-enter the small northern town of Beartown, to relive the heart-wrenching yet incredibly heroic tale of a culture that turned its back on a vulnerable girl and her family. Yet I also wanted to know..what next? This book picks up at the end of a tragic loss for the Beartown hockey team after a young girl's story of rape sidelines the star, and forces his friends to become heroes or villains. Once again Backman is able to take our hearts and wrap them around his characters: the new female hockey coach who says she only cares about hockey but gives chances to kids who never had them before; the head thug who loves his brother and his hockey team with a purity that defies reason; the two best friends who must re-find how friendship should be defined; the star who is outed, and must find his place in the hockey stadium and the world at large; the mother and father whose life ambitions pull them apart; the politician who is willing to sacrifice them all for power; and the crusty old bartender who holds the town together. As I turned the final page, I felt bereft, as if I had lost a town of friends, people I cheered for, yelled at, shook til their teeth rattled, and ultimately drew into my heart. Yep, I loved this book; I loved it because Backman reminds us that humans are complicated, not perfect, just complicated.

Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier
This is a solid thriller that kept me turning pages late into the night. Set in Seattle, the plot line veers back and forth between the story of today (high paid executive testifies in court against high school boyfriend who is serial killer, and then begins prison sentence) and the story of their high school days (trio of friends, one who is murdered, one who goes to prison as an accomplice, and one who is the policeman who investigates). Fair warning, this is not for the faint-hearted as some blood, gore, and violence accompany this telling of a psychopathic murderer who preys on young girls, and adds in small children to the crimes of today. The author throws in numerous red herrings to send you in a variety of directions; it took me awhile to figure it all out, but eventually the clues were all there. My one complaint is that the ending was too saccharine for my taste, too pat, and a bit unrealistic. And I have to say, as a Seattle-ite born and bred, it's annoying to read about a fictitious college - just use one of the colleges that are in the city as there are a plethora of them. Just my two cents.

A Reaper at the Gates (Ember Quartet #3) by Sabaa Tahir
Ember in the Ashes began this YA fantasy series. I really liked the plot construction of the first one, but was disappointed in the weak female leads - where were the badass heroines taking on the world? But when I read book number two, A Torch in the Night, I was reminded of the value of patience, of slowly building characters, of allowing learning and life to shape people. Laia and Helene, along with Elias, have turned into some of my very favorite literary characters, showing honor, integrity, heart, wisdom, and courage - all learned in response to not only their upbringing and heritage, but to what life has thrown at them. In book number three, the fight continues for the Empire, for the Scholar slaves to find freedom, for Elias to 'catch' the dead and take them to the other side, for Helene to save her family from destruction as well as her country, and for Laia to be the heart that holds them all together. Book Three in this quartet is powerful and amazing; trust me, do not miss this series if you're a fan of YA fantasy. It's one of the best in the literary world.

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James
Historical fiction spliced together with a ghost story in a girl's boarding school and a little murder on the side - does it get better than this? Switching between two times periods, we see the issues this small town has with the now defunct school where wayward girls were once sent decades ago, and where the main character's sister was found, dead, in the not so distant past. As Fiona Sheridan, daughter of a famous journalist, investigates the school, it brings up memories and questions surrounding the conviction of her sister's murderer, the rich son of a bigshot family. Fiona begins to learn of the four girls who once lived at Idlewild Hall, as well as the long ago death of a young girl, who perhaps continues to haunt the area all these years. This book is a classic throwback to the gothic novels of old, but with some modern twists that will keep you on the edge of your seat. I literally could not put this book down, and now understand all the rave reviews for it. Highly recommend for that summer read, brain candy book, especially for my teacher friends who want to be entertained during the break.

Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent
I loved Nugent's debut novel, Unraveling Oliver, but her second book just did not live up to my expectations, mostly due to the ending. It is definitely a page turner and easy to read, and the first line is a doozy! "My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it." The story is told through two voices, wife/mother Lydia who hides a murder, and her son Laurence, who attempts to live a normal life from within a seriously messed up family. Lydia, who is just out and out batsh*t crazy, has some fairly wicked skeletons in her closet, never wants to go too far from her huge family estate, and pretty much destroys everything she touches. Poor weak, overweight, pathetic Laurence tries real hard to escape her clutches, but alas, for naught. I never really felt for either of these characters: wholly unlikable, thinly drawn, and just not that bright. The ending fell flat as well, so this book was a bit of a miss for me.

Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body by Jo Marchant
At the age of 55, I experienced my first surgery, which led to a long journey down the rabbit hole of chronic pain, varying medical advice and prescriptions, and a turn to looking for other options. This book is a powerful look at the varied options out in the world that do not preclude medical care, but also includes options outside that realm as well. Using many statistics and studies, journalist Jo Marchant explores the placebo effect, the uses of behavioral conditioning, virtual reality, religious belief, and many many more as she travels through the Western world looking for "cures" to a wide variety of medical issues. This book is a formidable reminder of the power of the mind, and our ability to harness it in the service of healing ourselves. Life-changing for those of us who need another road to healing.

Friday, May 18, 2018

May 2.0

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware
Admittedly, I am a big fan of Ruth Ware; she writes very quintessential British mysteries, full of interesting characters, always uses a female lead, and is darn good with the ending 'twist.' I loved In a Dark, Dark Wood, really liked Woman in Cabin 10, and thought The Lying Game was okay. In Mrs. Westaway, Ware has her mojo back. Hal, a lonely young woman, deals tarot cards on the Brighton pier, has some serious money issues and a nasty loan shark, and has recently received a letter telling her that as Mrs. Westaway's granddaughter, she has an inheritance coming. All good, right? Yeah, nope. All of Hal's paperwork shows her grandparents' names and none of them are Westaway, she's never heard of this family, and it would literally take her last dime to get a train out to Penzance. Yet...how can she not go? Who better to pull off a con than a fortune teller? As Ware spools out the threads (three uncles she's never met, a forbidding and creepy housekeeper, a diary from a teenage girl, a creaky cold Cornwall mansion, and some prophetic magpies), I followed quite a few hints down wrong roads. This book kept me turning pages long past when I should have - great vacation read, or for a rainy day, or just for anyone that loves a solid mystery.

Furyborn (The Empirium Trilogy #1) by Claire Legrand
Take all the most incredibly creative ingredients from other fantasy novels: shades of HP (tournament, dementors, trio of friends, prophecies), Hunger Games trilogy (tournament costumes), Game of Thrones series (army of the dead, flying creatures), Shadow and Bone trilogy (different magical skills for cliques of people), Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy (angels for antagonists). And now mix it all together with Claire Legrand's natural affinity for gorgeous writing, a creative and beautifully drawn fantasy world, a gripping plot, and complex and deeply developed characters, and here is a new hit fantasy series. This book is wicked good; its characters invaded my nighttime dreams, made me stay up waaaay too late at night, and made me voraciously hungry for the second book.

A Shout in the Ruins by Kevin  Powers
In 2012, Kevin Powers wrote his award winning debut novel called Yellow Birds, an evocative and unforgettable story of the Iraq war. Six years later he is back with another powerful and confronting story, this time set in the South. The story spins throughout time periods: the Beauvais plantation as its inhabitants face the cruelty of enslavement and the brutality of Civil War; Virginia in the 1950's as an old man searches for his identity; and the 1980's as a woman reflects back on her life. Through these brief snapshots of life, Powers forces us to see what our American history of racism, enslavement, and lack of opportunity has done to all of us, whatever race we may be. The power of hate and how it entraps all humanity is shown to be insidious and powerful. This is not a book to be read when falling asleep; one needs all their emotions right on the surface, all their wits about them as the setting changes, and all their own cultural biases at the forefront to see the beauty in this book. This would be a phenomenal book club choice, and also a powerful read for a high school or college classroom, particularly in today's world as we continue to see the consequences of terrible decisions made hundreds of years ago.

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
This is a delightful, witty, very British romp through time as we meet Tom Hazard, a man who happens to be over 400 years old, living in today's world. You see, he has a physical anomaly - for every decade of life, he only ages one year. Sounds great, right? Yet it has caused Tom a plethora of stress and tragedy throughout the ages as it requires him to move constantly (it gets a little noticeable when you don't get any older than your neighbors!) and lessens the ability for long term relationships when you outlive a spouse by a few hundred years. We meet Tom as he has taken a new job teaching history in a London school, creating many opportunities to go on past reminisces on the people he has met (Shakespeare, Captain Cook, F. Scott Fitzgerald), the adventures he has experienced (wild west America, Tahiti during the height of colonialism, the roaring twenties), and the family for which he yearns. I was thoroughly entertained by Matt Haig's dry humor and thoughtful explorations of love, friendship, and the passage of time.

Legendary (Caraval, #2) by Stephanie Garber
In the first visit to Caraval, we met the two fearless sisters, Tessa and Donatello, as they escaped their nasty father and won the golden ticket to play the game of Caraval, a magical romp put on by the mysterious magician called Legend. This second trip is mind-blowing, wickedly delicious, and contains an unstoppable train of events. Tella is the player now, and a dark, foreboding pall hangs over this game as the elderly empress has demanded a special playing for her birthday celebration. Unbeknownst to Tella, the Fates (a super creepy batch of creatures) have been trapped in a deck of cards for quite some time and want out. Her 'pretend' fiance for the game happens to be the Prince of Hearts who is looking to free his buddies from their flattening confinement, as well as dangling the possibility of saving Tella's long-lost mother as part of a deadly bargain. The sisters have some impossible choices in front of them, which forced me to stay up waaay too late to voraciously read to the very end, where of course I got a bit of a cliffhanger as I wait impatiently for Book Three. She does, however, wrap up this storyline which is much appreciated:) Stephanie Garber is a magician herself as she is able to create a gorgeous yet forbidding fantasy world, write complex characters that act in oh so human ways, and design a twisty turning plot that demands to be read. While I loved Caraval, I do believe Legendary is even better.




Thursday, May 3, 2018

May

Trouble the Water by Jacqueline Friedland
An antebellum story, set in Charleston, with whiffs of The Kitchen House in its character development, this is a solid first outing by a debut author. When young Abby Milton comes to live in Charleston, all we know is the life of poverty she left behind. Yet Friedland slowly spools out the details of Abby's past, and we see how this past impacts her introduction into Charleston society and her life with her benefactor,  The author does a solid job of creating a strong female character that still fits into the time period, not always an easy thing to do. Abby is no wilting violet. Douglas Elling, an Englishman and shipping magnate, has a troubled past of his own, as his abolitionist work has brought him great sorrow. Slavery is white-washed a bit, but there are some incidences that show the degradation, the violence, the humiliation of the institution that are powerful parts of the book. The minor characters in this story are well developed, particularly Miss Larissa, the governess and Grace, the newly found best friend. As passions collide, the story builds to a somewhat predictable ending, and yet an explosive epilogue. If you are a fan of love stories and historical fiction, this book will suit you well.

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain
The author of The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun is back, delving once again into a strong woman engulfed in a relationship with America's iconic writer, Ernest Hemingway. This time she focuses on Martha Gelhorn, a young woman from St. Louis, a travel addict and aspiring writer. Her elite circle pulls her into contact with a variety of famous people, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Lillian Hellman, and yes, the great Hemingway. This book focuses solely on the years of their relationship: their meeting in Key West, the affair begun in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, a life in Cuba, their struggles with his literary success and her literary frustrations, and the time apart as Martha pursues her own career as a war correspondent. This book is aptly named, as their love for one another shines through, but it is apparent that neither are great candidates for marital bliss. As always, the book is well-written, well-researched, and has well-developed characters. However, my huuuuge complaint is that McLain has done to Martha Gelhorn exactly what the press did to her decades ago; she minimizes Gelhorn's own career (read the Author's Note at the end - Gelhorn is an icon in the journalistic world, one of the all-time great war reporters this country has ever known, and she did it by breaking every gender stereotype) and puts Gelhorn's life into context only as a wife to Ernest. Aargh...I can hear Marty Gelhorn turning over in her grave. Gelhorn is a fabulous choice for a novel, but I wish McLain had used her as she did Beryl Markham in Circling the Sun, as an incredible portrait of what a woman must do to survive in a man's world, the resilience and grit it takes to never give up, and the incredible courage it requires to turn one's back on marriage and motherhood and pursue one's career. Ah, that's where the story of Martha Gelhorn belongs and McLain misses it, at least she did for me.

Silent Companions: A Ghost Story by Laura Purcell
Do not - I repeat do not - read this book late at night. This is a throwback to the old Victorian Gothic books I was addicted to year's ago, full of mystery, ghostly companions, mysterious family members, and creepy servants. In other words, I could not put this book down. Set at the end of the 19th century,  the story begins with Elsie talking to a doctor in the asylum, a hint of the hot mess found in the past. As Elsie relates her story as part of her 'therapy,' she tells of the dark, overgrown estate of her late husband and the village who won't work for her (you know, the ghost and witch rumors will kill a good employment opportunity). Her only companion is her husband's cousin, Sarah. Oh, and the creepy wooden 'silent companions' carved a few hundred years ago for the previous family members to keep them company and show off to King Charles the First. Those pesky wooden cut outs just will not go away and survive being locked away and even burned. The hair on the back of your neck will be permanently raised, and the ending will make your jaw fall on the floor. If you like a little bit of fright (no blood or serial killers, just gothic creep), you may love this book as much as I did. And the cover is just stunning - well worth the paper copy.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman
This is a gorgeous little book that is so hard to describe. The characters drive all the action, yet not a lot of action exists. Feelings exist, as does history, disease, paintings, words. Two young boys, Michael and Ellis, become friends, fall in love, then fall in friendship. Annie comes along, loves Ellis and forms a triumvirate with the two young men. Ellis is left alone in the world, with only his memories and Michael's diaries to keep him company. It all sounds so simple, yet Sarah Winman takes these intense feelings of youth, of hope, of confusion, of death, of tragedy, of grief, and of renewal, and she melds them into a stunning book that I just could not put down. A bit reminiscent of A Little Life, this is a gorgeous story.

The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
A topical and powerful setting for a debut novel, this book moves between two unique times: medieval Syria where a famous Muslim mapmaker and his legendary female apprentice fight mythical creatures, Crusaders, and the elements to map the world as it is known; and Syria in 2011, where a widowed mapmaker returns with her three teenage girls, after years in NYC, to find family and cultural connections, but runs straight into the Arab spring and a civil war. I struggled with the first half of this book, finding it hard to connect to either story. The 12th century story is rife with Arabic names of ancient places no longer heard of, as I found myself skipping the long descriptions. Once the story settled more on the characters and their quest to map the world, it was far more interesting. The modern tale is told through the eyes of 12 year old Nour, a daughter who grieves her father and suffers through unimaginable horror as her world is literally blown up around her. Yet it took until the second half to care deeply about this family. I wanted the author to dive deeper in their hearts, to flesh out more of the story through the characters rather than the plot.  I do hope this author writes another book on Syria as I believe she has great potential for educating many of us on the need for more compassion, not a law banning refugees getting a hand up from America.

Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall
This book reminds me of a combo of Gone Girl + Girl on the Train + Fifty Shades of Grey. Take an unreliable, batsh*t crazy narrator, toss him into a sexually charged relationship with some twisted beliefs, mix it in with a death and plenty of bias against women, and Our Kind of Cruelty is what comes out of the oven. Don't get me wrong; the story is unique and quite compelling. I just feel like I want to take a shower after spending a couple days in the world of Mike and Verity. If you like dark, nasty twisted tales, where the courtroom scenes put on full display the hypocrisy of what the world thinks of sex and women, then this book is for you. It would definitely be a provocative choice for a book club. Thanks to Net Galley for a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, April 20, 2018

April 2.0

Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan
This is a gorgeous book, both inside and out, that perfectly encapsulates my personal beliefs about why I am a proud bookworm. In a witty, sassy, irreverent voice, London writer Lucy Mangan takes us on a nostalgic trip through her childhood reading. We journey through picture books, first readers, obsessively read book series, and the power of young adult books that made her see the world in a new light. Sprinkled throughout is some wonderful trivia on the varied famous children's authors of yesteryear, as well as the different movements throughout the rise of children's literature. While many of the books were unknown to me (born and raised in the U.K., Lucy was enamored with different books than an American child of the 1960's and 70's), yet I was interested in what these books meant to Lucy, and ultimately they reminded me of my own childhood obsessions. Much of my current book tastes were born from my childhood: the Oz books gave me my love of magic and fantasy; the Little House series brought me into the world of historical fiction; Anne Frank introduced me to the power and learning of non-fiction; and Anne of Green Gables showed me the world of a strong young girl who fights for her place in the world. This book felt like a warm hug as I traveled back in time, when books opened my world in stunning and unforgettable ways.

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim DeFede
The latest new hot Broadway hit, Come From Away, is based on this 2006 book; considering the musical is coming here to the PNW in October it made sense to give this book a read. And wow, it blew me away - finished in just a day and a half, it is near impossible to stop turning pages. If you are like me and vividly recall every moment, for weeks on end, of 9/11 and its aftermath, this book will grip you as well. On that day, over thirty airplanes were directed to land in Gander, a small town on the island section of Newfoundland. And in this remote land, passengers from over 40 countries, varied religious beliefs, ages, and economic levels, a total numbering over 6,000 came together to be hosted by "Newfies." I was amazed at some of the famous folk involved, and moved by the stories of ordinary Americans as they dealt with the griefs and worries over family left behind, where to turn next, and the horror occurring in their own country. The Newfies themselves are heroic, almost unreal in their hospitality, compassion, and kindness. As I see a level of hostility towards the 'Other' in America today that breaks my heart, as I long to see more human kindness and compassion towards those in need, from wherever they may come, this book renewed my belief in humanity.

The Liar's Candle by August Thomas
This book surprised me. When I first got into it, I thought it was going to be a shallowly written, stereotypical "girl is stupid, man saves her' kind of spy thriller. Yet August Thomas pleasantly surprised me in her debut outing with truly authentic characters and exciting plot twists. Penny Kessler is a 21 year old American intern at the Turkish embassy when a bomb goes off and kills hundreds of innocent people. As Penny gets wrapped up in the search for the perpetrator, she meets an intriguing group of people: the daughter of the Turkish president, the female section lead of the CIA, the agricultural desk jockey who is actually an intelligence officer, and an assortment of folks just trying to kill her. Author Thomas does not denigrate Muslims or Turks, does not play to racist hatred, puts strong females in important roles - impressive. Penny acts perfectly her age - impulsive, sassy, smart, and thoroughly twenty-one. I loved that the author didn't make her out to be a stupid girl, but a young one who has much to learn about trust and truth. My favorite though was her sidekick, Connor, who totally runs against the typical male hero - former Naval officer, current CIA agent, is openly gay, questions his actions in following immoral orders, is not superhuman but wholly human. I turned pages quickly and was thoroughly entertained by this story.

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Gilbert
The title itself is a bit of a downer, and I'm not usually a science-genre kind of reader, so this is a surprising choice for me. I chose to listen to it, figuring the science-y talk would not put me to sleep that way; for the record, I was correct. Gilbert spends this book looking at the vast extinction going on literally right under our noses - think frogs, reefs, and lots and lots of bugs. Yep, they're all dying off, which may seem inconsequential, but Gilbert makes us see the overarching big picture of what this means for Earth. It did not make me feel as if the sky is falling, spinning me into a grand depression, but it is eye-opening, shocking, and ultimately very enlightening. Granted, I do not care all that much for bugs; most of us don't. However, the author makes a good point that we all are much more drawn to the 'sexy' possible extinctions, such as rhinos and gorillas, but it's the small stuff that is going to be the ultimate problem. We humans have not been good for this earth and this book, while a tad boring at the beginning, is quite interesting in the end.

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatche from the Border by Francisco Cantu
Topical and multi-faceted, this is an interesting memoir. Cantu focuses on his life as a  Latino-American - fluent in Spanish, a college graduate who wants more than a cubicle in an office, and who is able to see both sides of the big picture of immigration in America as he spends a few years as a border patrol agent. The problem with the book for me is the writing style: it jumps abruptly amongst an olio of topics, none of which become deeply developed; I found the writing to be a bit clunky at times when discussing the people involved in the story, yet poetically descriptive about the scenery of the Southwest; and the narrator's voice is quite calm and cool on a very emotional topic, which I find a bit perplexing. This book takes a very controversial subject - how do we deal with illegal immigration in this country - and actually creates no controversy in his story? Odd. Cantu witnesses some pretty heavy stuff, yet maintains such emotional distance that I ultimately was disappointed with his effort.