Sunday, December 4, 2016

Ocean of Storms

Ocean of Storms by Christopher Mari, Jeremy K. Brown
47North: 12/1/16
eBook review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9781503938779

Ocean of Storms by Christopher Mari and Jeremy K. Brown is a so-so science fiction novel.

An explosion on the moon causes an EMP that affects all of the earth. A deep fissure is now on the Moon's Ocean of Storms and it is believed that an alien ship long buried on the moon has caused the event. The effort to get a team who can explore the suspected anomaly on the moon requires cooperation between the USA and China. Tensions are at an all-time high globally, so hopefully some answers will calm down the human race.

This is an interesting mix of sci-fi and thriller. It starts out slow, so be prepared for a long, slow build up before they actually get to the moon. After that the novel jolts forward like it is a race to make sure they have as many varied events occurring as they possibly can in one novel. This has the novel heading more in the direction of a thriller.

I'm in a quandary over the rating of this one. There are numerous examples of poor science/no science here. Research would have helped enormously, especially since many sci-fi readers like real science in their science fiction. This lack became problematic for me as the errors mounted. For example, a world-wide EMP (electromagnetic pulse) would not be an event that we would recover from as easily and quickly as depicted in Ocean of Storms. Certainly Mari and Brown could have written this as some other world-wide occurrence and skip calling it an EMP. As the errors began to add up, I was ready to stop reading. Then the novel takes this leap and starts running off in a new direction, which made me realize that Mari and Brown weren't actually writing a sci-fi novel, they were writing a thriller that needed the sci-fi elements. This realization lessened my harsh judgement of Ocean of Storms.

It is entertaining. The writing is okay; there are numerous errors in the science. There was one huge, glaring plot mistake where a character wasn't in the scene and then suddenly was. I re-read the previous pages thinking I missed something, but, no, I didn't. All the characters are caricatures of various standard types. The thriller element tackles more popular hot topics and a conspiracy. In the final analysis it is an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink plot peopled with standard characters.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Road to Paradise

Road to Paradise by Paullina Simons
HarperCollins: 11/29/16
advanced reading copy; 544 pages
trade paperback ISBN-13: 9780062444332

Road to Paradise by Paullina Simons is a novel about teenage girls on a cross-country road trip in 1981.

After graduating from high school and before she heads off to college in the fall, Shelby Sloane plans to drive across country from Mamaroneck, NY, to Mendocino, CA. Her mother, whom she hasn't seen since she was a young child, supposedly lives in Mendocino. Her father died years earlier. Emma has taken care of Shelby. Emma also gives Shelby a classic bright yellow 1966 Shelby Mustang as a graduation gift. Shelby's former friend Gina hears about her cross-country plans and begs to go with her. Gina wants to reunite with her boyfriend who is living in Bakersfield, CA.

Soon Gina is part of the planned road trip but her addition adds other problems, like several side trips to run "quick" errands for various family members. Oh, and Gina forgets to tell Shelby that she doesn't have her driver's license, so Shelby has to do all the driving. Along the way the two girls run into a hitchhiker who calls herself Candy Cane. Once she joins the two, their road trip takes a dark turn.

First things first: I would read a few pages of Road to Paradise, and then have to set it aside so I could rant at all the characters. Mainly, at the beginning, I wondered how Shelby could be so foolish and stupid. I wondered who in their right mind would not say it was a bad idea to take this trip, especially to a young woman who has never traveled anywhere. Now, I was a young adult in 1981, in college and a few years older than these girls, but still.... Even then I would have considered this a bad idea. Then I was wondering why Emma would buy her that car. Why not save the money for her college fund. Don't even get me started on what Shelby didn't realize about Emma's relationship to her. How could this have never been discussed?

There were so many ignorant, incompetent decisions that it was incomprehensible. And they just kept coming. Why wouldn't they have just left  "Candy Cane" at a gas station and keep going. Why couldn't Shelby just say "No." No I won't drop these dogs off 250 miles out of my way. No, that is not going to happen. No, Gina, I don't want you to go with me. UGH!

I would have set this book aside and informed the publisher that I simply could not finish it because it was not a book I was enjoying at all, but I had a commitment to TLC. I dearly love reviewing books for TLC, so I finished reading the whole hot mess. I admittedly did start skimming through the middle of the book because it is 544 pages of a hot mess. The epilogue did make it all a wee bit better - not enough to raise my rating, but at least I didn't feel as much resentment over reading it.

Obviously, I don't recommend this book, but be sure to read other reviews and see how other readers felt. It just wasn't a good choice for me.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC


Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Lucifer's Banker

Lucifer's Banker by Bradley C. Birkenfeld
Greenleaf Book Group: 11/1/16
eBook review copy; 344 pages
ISBN-13: 9781626343719

Lucifer's Banker: The Untold Story of How I Destroyed Swiss Bank Secrecy by Bradley C. Birkenfeld is a recommended account of how one man took on the Swiss banking industry.

Working his way up in the banking industry, Bradley Birkenfeld was a success. He lived and worked in Switzerland as a private banker for the largest bank in the world, UBS. UBS specialized in providing the ultrawealthy the way to hide their money, especially from paying taxes. Birkenfeld knew how the game worked, with its secret numbered accounts and the tactics used to make sure their clients could have access to their millions with no penalties.

It came to his attention that UBS had buried deep in the bank's files an official policy in place to cover their backs if any government came asking about taxes. Birkenfeld realized that the policy would throw him and his co-workers under the bus while protecting the bank and the managers.  That was when he decided to take matters into his own hands and blow the whistle himself, telling the US government how the Swiss banking industry worked.

Birkenfeld brought his information to the Department of Justice first and was treated like he was wasting their time. The part about the Department of Justice is going to anger you, but it shouldn't really, given current events. It is no longer about justice but political maneuvering, Washington insiders, and cronyism. When Birkenfeld took his secrets to the US Senate, the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Internal Revenue Service, he was finally taken seriously and action was taken.

Then, and this presents a perfect example of why the Department of Justice needs to be gutted and overhauled: "at the same time he was cooperating with the US Government, the Department of Justice was still doggedly pursuing him. He was arrested and served thirty months in federal prison." Birkenfeld writes: "The US Department of Justice was supposed to welcome me, protect me, thank me for being the first and only Swiss private banker to crack that impenetrable shell of Swiss secrecy and corruption, to ensure that American taxpayers would be cheated no more. But instead, the DOJ had reached out for my treasure trove with one slimy hand, and slapped cuffs on me with the other. Scumbags."

But Birkenfeld got the last laugh. "When he emerged, the Internal Revenue Service gave him a whistle-blower award for $104 million, the largest such reward in history." This is a fascinating account of inside the secret Swiss banking industry and our government’s justice system.

Lucifer's Banker is written in a conversational style as if Birkenfeld was sitting down with you telling his life's story. It does have rather a 007 feel to it, which is alluded to several times.

I guess the biggest problem for me, as a female reviewer, is it is also a bit too chauvinistic. There is a sexist boy's club vibe reflected in comments throughout the book - like older 007 movies - and numerous times beautiful "girls" are mentioned as sex objects and play things. Comments like "gorgeous girls who care only about pleasing you and having a great time" and this not-very-amusing-to-me story: "I’d decided to take a companion along. Marketa was a bar hostess in Prague—tall, slim, pretty, and just turned twenty-two. She’d never been to the United States, so my invitation to fly business class, party in Hollywood, and then see some hot lava put a smile on her face. She was a sweet girl, innocent in many ways, and she gasped when I booked us into the Peninsula Hotel in Beverly Hills. Did we have a good time? Let’s just say there’s nothing quite like gratitude sex. I called her my 'Czech Mate,' which she didn’t get, but I amused myself."
Not so cool. Not so amusing.

So, in the end this is an interesting book and a riveting account about whistle blowing on the Swiss banking industry and corruption in the Department of Justice. It's also written, in my opinion, for male readers or stories like the one above, and there are more than one, would have been left out. To reflect this I left a star out and lowered my rating. It would be a much better book had the stories of sexual escapades been left out and Birkenfeld concentrated on telling us the important facts with some measure of acknowledgment that women who were not interested in "gratitude sex" would be reading the book too.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Monday, November 28, 2016

The Whole Town's Talking

The Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg  
Random House: 11/29/16
eBook review copy; 432 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9781400065950

The Whole Town's Talking by Fannie Flagg is a highly recommended sweet, charming novel that follows the residents of Elmwood Springs, Missouri, from 1889 to 2021. Elmwood Springs was founded by Swedish immigrants, specifically Lordor Nordstrom. At the beginning of The Whole Town's Talking the citizens in the area, before they are even officially a town, mark out on a hill where the cemetery is going to be and choose an area for their family plots and final resting places. They name it Still Meadows, which it is anything but still or restful, as you will hear in the future.

Lordor advertises for a wife and Katrina replies, a young Swedish woman living in Chicago. They exchange pictures and letters. The women in the town try to help Lordor's cause, assuring Katrina that "Lordor is a good eater and has all his teeth" and that it "is not like Sweden here. We do not let the men rule with an iron hand. We are all free American women in Missouri." Katrina accepts his invitation to come to Missouri and Lordor pleads with her to "Please hurry. All the ladies around here are busy trying to improve me as well. By the time you get here, I may be over-improved and not much good for anything.

After the opening Flagg introduces us to the citizens and families of Elmwood Springs and follows the happenings decade by decade. It's an epic novel for those who like sentimental lighthearted novels that are extremely well written. Flagg has always been a wonderful story-teller and she brings that innate gift to bear on The Whole Town's Talking. It is a pleasant, feel-good story, but it is also a witty, funny tour through the decades with the citizens of Elmwood Springs. There are a few serious and sad moments, but the citizens pull together and keep a positive outlook on life.

Soon enough readers will learn that once you have reached your final resting place in Still Meadows, you may be resting, but the meadows are anything but still as those interred there are able to talk to each other until they mysteriously seem to just quietly disappear. Just as the community below the hill is active, the discussions are also ongoing on the hill top. I especially appreciated the thoughts at the end from Macky who is worried about the country because he felt something was rotting from the inside, a slow decay of what was right and wrong. If you would find the idea of souls living on talking to each other objectionable, then you might want to skip this one. If that isn't going to bother you, then this is a pleasant comforting stroll through the decades with the citizens of a small town.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Animators

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker
Random House: 1/31/2017
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780812989281

The Animators by Kayla Rae Whitaker is very highly recommended. This is a powerful novel that explores the creative process and coming to terms with your past. It's about friendship and secrets. It's about ambition and self-doubt. It's about fame and dark secrets. It's about gifts and inner demons. Expect language and self-destructive behavior. It is heartbreaking, funny,  scathingly brilliant and one of the best novels I've read this year. This is a debut novel and Whitaker just made a fan.

Mel Vaught and Sharon Kisses met in a college art class and became fast friends as well as artistic partners. They both came from a white trash background, especially to their elitist college classmates. Sharon's family is in rural Kentucky while Mel's is from Florida, where her mom is in prison. The two, who seem to be opposites - Mel is gay and outgoing while Sharon is straight and reticent - share a love of comics and drawing. They become animators. Even though they may be motivated by different desires, together they struggle and drink and smoke and work hard. After a decade collaborating, their first full length movie, Nashville Combat, is released and they are the recipients of a prestigious grant.

Nashville Combat
is autobiographical and based on Mel's childhood. The fame and notoriety that follows their success leads to self-destructive behavior on Mel's part and self-doubt for Sharon. Their collaboration and friendship seems to be on the verge of imploding when a tragedy happens that pulls the two back to an understanding of what they mean to each other. After secrets Sharon has been keeping are revealed, they understand how important it is for them to continue working together. But this is just the start to their story...

There is so much more to The Animators than this brief description. That is only the beginning. I would say it is a coming-of-age novel, but it's more a coming-to-terms-with-a-crappy-childhood novel. But it is also about the secrets we keep, secrets from our past, family secrets, and how long some of us carry the burden of those secrets. It questions which relationships can survive revelations? How much do you have to sacrifice for your art?

The writing is exceptional, extraordinary, amazing! All the characters are well developed, even those briefly introduced. Sharon and Mel will become real to you. You will know these women and their inner turmoil. Your fingers will feel sore and you'll swear they are ink stained. You'll have an urge to smoke. You'll laugh at the jokes. And your heart will break. The settings are just as finely drawn and skillfully described. Whether in Brooklyn or Florida or Kentucky, you will know where you are. Whitaker captures the ambience; you feel the atmosphere, smell the odors and hear the defining sounds.

The Animators is an exceptional novel.

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author. 

And I see something I have never seen before in Mel: self-removal. Inside, she has fled. The ability of anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of something violent to grasp the details that remind them of their humiliation - smells, colors, sounds - and blur these details so that they become foreign, someone else’s property. It is a cultivated skill, requiring time, experience, unspeakable mental real estate. It is, for the desperate, the only chance to leave what happened with the part of yourself that is still yours. Children learn it. Boys, but more often, and more closely, girls. When girls learn it, they learn it for the rest of their lives, inventing two separate planes on which they exist - the life of the surface, presented for others, and the life forever lived on the inside, the one that owns you. They will never forget how to make themselves disappear. To blend into the air.  

She turns, giving me her ultimate nonplussed look. “You may not know this about yourself,” she says, “but you’ve got a serious gift for self-containment. You run a pretty tight f*ckin ship, presentation-wise. Kind of freaks people out.” 

Ice and Bone

Ice and Bone by Monte Francis
SceneBooks Inc.: 4/19/16
eBook review copy; 390 pages
ISBN-13: 9781942266396

Ice and Bone: Tracking An Alaskan Serial Killer by Monte Francis is a highly recommended true crime novel.

"In the Fall of 2000, in Anchorage, Alaska, a series of murders captured headlines, stoking fears a serial killer was on the loose. Six women, mostly Alaska Natives, were found slain, all under similar circumstances. An anonymous tip led investigators to a thuggish, young drug dealer, who would eventually implicate himself in three of the women’s deaths. But it wasn’t until the disappearance of a well-loved nurse psychologist seven years later, and the discovery of her body in the remote wilderness of Wasilla, that two astute female detectives would finally bring the murderer to justice."

Joshua Wade was likely responsible for the murders of more women (and maybe even some men) than the crimes he was officially charged with. Wade was incarcerated for life in 2010 after the 2007 murder of Mindy Schloss. It is horrifying that he was charged with the 2000 murder of Della Brown but was acquitted because the evidence was circumstantial. If a better case were presented lives could have been saved. It is to the credit of everyone investigating the murder of Schloss that Wade was finally caught and put away for good.

Francis concentrates on the crimes and the investigations, but he also shows how the family and friends of his victims were affected by his horrendous actions. I do wish some more focus on the Native Alaskan population and how they are victimized, but, perhaps that is another book. Ice and Bone focuses on the murders of Brown and Schloss, but there is a mention that he may have murdered other women and men. In the end it is satisfying to know Wade is locked up for life.

The writing is clear and concise even when the information imparted is complicated and convoluted, especially with Wade's friends talking and backtracking about what he said and what happened. Expect lots of language. Francis does an admirable job presenting it all and adds background information that is pertinent. It really is a heartbreaking but chilling account of a killer and the sometimes frustrating investigation that finally put him away. (And for those of you who read Ice and Bone: Could the young woman who befriended Wade be any dumber? "I was young so I didn't understand the terminology 'acquitted for murder.' " She gives new meaning to the phrase: "Dumb as a box of rocks.")

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016


Slipping by Lauren Beukes
Tachyon Publications: 11/29/16
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781616962401

Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing by Lauren Beukes is a highly recommended collection of 26 previously published pieces. The majority are fiction, with five nonfiction essays at the end of the collection. As with any compilation, some of the works appealed to me and felt more successful than others, but there is no selected work included that doesn't belong. There are several selections that could easily be the start of a novel. My absolute top favorites were Slipping, Smileys, The Green, and Litmash, but there are several others I also liked quite a bit. All the works are, to some extent, about the darkness inside people's souls. They are all well-written and powerful.

Contents include:
Fiction: Muse; Slipping; Confirm/Ignore; Branded; Smileys; Princess; My Insect Skin; Parking; Pop Tarts; The Green; Litmash; Easy Touch; Alegbra; Unathi Battles the Black Hairballs; Dear Mariana; Riding with the Dream Patrol; Unaccounted; Tankwa-Karoo; Exhibitionist; Dial Tone; Ghost Girl
Nonfiction: Adventures in Journalism; All the Pretty Corpses; Judging Unity; Inner City; On Beauty: A Letter to My Fiver-Year-Old Daughter
To assist those who need it, there is a Glossary which could help those who need it with some of the South African words in the collection

Disclosure: My advanced reading copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.