Sunday, July 23, 2017

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen

The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, 83 ¼ Years Old by Hendrik Groen
Hester Velmans (Translator)

Grand Central Publishing: 7/11/17
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781455542178

"I made the decision to give the world a little taste of the real Hendrik Groen. I hereby declare that in this diary I am going to give the world an uncensored exposé: a year in the life of the inmates of a care home in North Amsterdam." As quoted from The Secret Diary of Hendrik Groen, a recommended novel, highly for the right reader.

There are some funny lines: "Of the five senses, my nose still works best. Which is not always a blessing in here. It smells of old people." There are some sad, poignant moments, and some very realistic scenes, but much of the book has an optimistic feel, sort of shenanigans among the elderly, even as the people around him struggle with their health and other issues. Along with the retelling of the daily events, there is commentary about care for the elderly.

Henry has his list of complaints and topics he discusses with his doctor, but he is still alive so he has decided to write a dairy exposing all the daily occurrences and happenings at the retirement home where he lives with an assortment of other "inmates." He discusses (quite a bit) his dribbles and move to wearing an adult diaper, the outings of the Old-But-Not-Dead Club, his mobility scooter, his friends amputations due to diabetes, another friends worsening dementia, and the on-going questioning of the director about the policies of the home.

It is written in the diary format, so the plot is the daily events in the care home as seen through Hendrik's musings, thoughts, or stories. Although it is being compared to A Man Called Ove, the comparison didn't hold up for me. It's not necessarily bad, it's just not as well written. While I initially enjoyed it, I soon tired of the format along with the novel. Additionally, serious health problems and facing death can also come to those who are much younger than these residents. (I will concede that perhaps this wasn't a good week for me to read this one. I don't regret reading it, but I was glad when it was over.)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Grand Central Publishing.


Spire by Fiona Snyckers
Clockwork Books: 3/23/17
eBook review copy; 262 pages
ISBN-13: 9780620753449

Spire by Fiona Snyckers is a recommended thriller set in Antarctica.

Dr. Caroline Burchell is a surgeon and virologist who has been chosen to join the team of SPIRE and spend the winter in Antarctica doing research. SPIRE stands for the South Pole International Research Establishment. Caroline has brought vials of cryogenically frozen viruses that she plans to study over the 8-9 months she will be there. Before she can even begin her research though, the whole team there is coming down with a wide ranging number of diseases that are represented in her vials. The only problem is that the seals on her vials are all still intact which means someone else has brought the same deadly diseases to the station and released them. Soon Caroline is the only survivor with no hope of rescue in sight; however soon mysterious occurrences in the station make her suspect that there may be another survivor hiding from her.

The set up to Spire is intriguing as I am always up for virus-outbreak stories. Then it changed into potentially an exciting lone-woman-against-the-elements story. For a brief, shining moment I thought it was going to be sort of a twist on The Martian, or Endurance, only with a female doctor trapped at an Antarctica research station, but it soon lost some of its initial momentum and morphed into something else. The quality of the writing is adequate, no glaring problems and written in a simple, easy to follow style reminiscent of a YA novel.

Once the story changed, it lost its energy. The viruses were introduced to eliminate everyone and add a twist that was, quite frankly, not very believable. Add to this Caroline's finding a cat at the station, and her ability to use the internet, contact people, including colleagues and her family, Skype, etc., made the disorienting sense of isolation and solitude vanish. The horrible sense of isolation and potential for death, etc., was really only fully utilized during one part of the plot. FYI, it's also not a very tech-savvy novel for those of you who care about such things.

Now, it is still an interesting story. It was easy to set all my misgivings aside and just enjoy the novel as is. Don't expect any great use of the viruses, though, beyond a plot element to isolate Caroline. This is an airplane book. It will hold your attention and help pass the time but you won't worry if you never finish it. Apparently it is a sequel to the novel Now Following You, but you won't need to read that before

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Clockwork Books.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Last Breath

Last Breath by Karin Slaughter
Witness Impulse: 7/11/17
eBook review copy; 176 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062742155

Last Breath by Karin Slaughter is a very highly recommended short novel that is a prequel to her upcoming novel, The Good Daughter. It also stands alone as an excellent story.

Charlie Quinn is a lawyer visiting a group of Girl Scouts for career night when she suddenly feels ill and runs to the bathroom where fifteen year-old honor student Flora Faulkner assists her. Afterwards, Flora asks for Charlie's help to become an emancipated minor. It seems that Flora's grandparents are spending all her trust money on themselves and there won't be anything left for Flora to attend college. How could Charlie refuse to help a girl who lost her mother, just as Charlie did. Soon it is clear that the case is much more complicated than it originally appeared.

What a wonderfully written, outstanding twisty tale. Charlie is a great character and Slaughter proves how accomplished she is at character development and setting the location, and doing so in an abbreviated number of pages. It was a pleasure to read Last Breath and only makes me more anxious to read The Good Daughter (released on 8/8/17). This prequel is set thirteen years before events in
The Good Daughter.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Witness Impulse.


Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 7/11/17
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0544947306

Bannerless by Carrie Vaughn is a recommended murder mystery set in an agrarian post-apocalyptic society.

The world collapsed decades earlier and survivors of California have regressed into small towns along the Coast Road where enclaves of people are organized into households. The new society controls population growth and has strict guidelines that must be followed for farming the land. If a household proves that can take care of themselves they may be awarded a banner. The banner represents a child that the household can have because having children is a privilege in this society.

Bannerless follows two different stories set in two different timelines. Both feature Enid, either as a twenty-seven-year-old investigator or when she was a teen. In the present day Enid is an Investigator. She and Tomas, another Investigator, have to travel from their home in Haven to Pasadan in order to investigate the possible murder of a man named Sero. This is Enid's first murder case and she is determined to do a good job at discovering what really happened. In the end her investigation leads to even more questions about what happened and why it occurred. In the timeline from the past a teenage Enid travels with Dak, an itinerant musician who travels up and down the Coast Road, singing and playing his guitar.

The plot is set far enough in the future that details about the collapse aren't really well known. The narrative is interesting, but the world building feels like it is lacking.  The focus is really more on small, limited aspects of this new society and the investigation. The Investigators carry notebooks, which seemed very odd and felt out of place to me. There are also some things from the past that they have carried into the future, like intradermal birth control implants and some solar powered cars around, that just felt like anomalies.

The travels of teenage Enid actually detract from the story rather than explain her current choices or aspects of her personality. It might have been better to just briefly explain how she knew Dak from the past rather than spend so much time on their travels. It didn't add to the story.

While I liked this novel, I didn't love it as much as I thought I would. This is a quick read, perfect for escapism or a beach read. You won't need to concentrate on the story in order to follow it.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Bring Her Home

Bring Her Home by David Bell
Penguin Publishing Group: 7/11/17
eBook review copy; 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399584442

Bring Her Home by David Bell is a recommended thriller, highly for the right reader.

Bill Price's fifteen-year-old daughter, Summer, and her best friend Haley, have been found dumped in a park after they had disappeared days earlier. Haley is declared dead at the scene while Summer is in the hospital with severe life threatening injuries. This is just a year and a half after his wife and her mother died, so Bill is over-the-top distraught. As he talks to detectives at the hospital about Summer, hoping they can find out who did this, he is waiting to see if his daughter regains consciousness. Bill is a man on the edge.

This is a well-written novel told in quick, short chapters. The narrative is told from Bill's point-of-view. Bell provides several twists in Bring Her Home, but most of them were predictable and I didn't find myself surprised by any of them. Let me just say the plot twists are all ripped-from-the-headlines reveals and not entirely believable. I was still interested in the story, but I had guessed correctly what was going to happen at every turn. There was no suspense here for me. It is entertaining, though, and would make a good vacation read, especially with the short chapters and quick pace. I did finish Bring Her Home and generally liked it.

I guess the biggest issue I had with Bring Her Home is the character of Bill. His quick temper was very off-putting because it seems he is angry, very angry, all-the-time. You also know that he wants to hit/punch/blame someone almost all-the-time. It's not only that he comes across as a rather unsympathetic, unlikable fellow (and you want to like a grieving husband and father) it's that the violence is always so close to the surface that I never felt I could trust the man's emotions. He also repeats himself again and again and again. There are also a few other problems that I had that might not bother anyone reading causally for escapism and sheer entertainment.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the Penguin Publishing Group.

Tropic of Kansas

Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown
HarperCollins: 7/11/17
eBook review; 480 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062563811

Tropic of Kansas by Christopher Brown is a highly recommended dystopian/political satire set in the alternate reality of a future, fractured USA.

Sig was an illegal from the USA hiding in Canada, until he was caught and sent back over the border wall into the area that was once Minnesota. Now the Midwest is just part of a wasteland of warring factions and provincial militia groups. This area has been dubbed The Tropic of Kansas and is known for the third world lawlessness that thrives there and the various greedy leaders who control parts of it. Sig, the son of political dissidents, is a survivor and escape artist. He essentially trusts no one. He's difficult to keep as a prisoner because he will find a way to escape. He will also find a way to survive.

Tania was once Sig's foster sister. Sig's mother dropped him off at her house for Tania's mother to care for when her arrest was imminent. Tania is now a government investigator. She got into a little trouble in Washington D.C. and is now looking for Sig to rectify her mistake and to try to get her own mother free from imprisonment. When Tanis goes searching for Sig, she comes to terms with her own past and perhaps the direction of her future.

Chapters alternate between Tania and Sig. You'll be rooting for Sig as he manages to escape from one predicament, betrayal, and impressionist after another. You'll also be hoping Tania sees the light, and the corruption of the government, and finds Sig along with a new goal for herself.

Brown takes present ideological differences, technology, factions, and widely different beliefs among citizens in the USA today and escalates all of it into a dystopian setting while setting his characters into this action packed satire. It's a wild ride through politics, drones, guns, and bullies. It's also an easy to read novel, with short chapters that avoid much detailed descriptions of settings or other characters. This is entertaining - certainly a good airplane book. It is worth noting that you should anticipate that Brown will hit you over the head with pc politics along with the expectation that you will naturally believe all that he believes. But, since this is also set in an alternate reality USA, it is much easier to just go with the flow and accept any precautionary statements that might be leached out of the adventure.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

My Sister's Bones

My Sister's Bones by Nuala Ellwood
HarperCollins: 7/11/17
Advanced reading copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062661968

My Sister's Bones by Nuala Ellwood is a very highly recommended psychological thriller. This is an excellent, compelling, unforgettable novel that will keep you guessing.

Kate Rafter, who has been a war correspondent for fifteen years, has returned back to the U. K. from coverage in Aleppo, Syria. While she was out of the country her beloved mother died and Kate was unable to attend her funeral thanks to her alcoholic sister, Sally, who did not contacting her in time. Now Kate has returned to her childhood home in Herne Bay, Kent, to sign some documents and view her mother's will. But after covering wars for years, Kate is also suffering from nightmares and hallucinations. She hears the cries for help and voices of those people she encountered.

Feeling under siege is not a new feeling for Kate, though, as her father was an abusive alcoholic who regularly beat her mother. As she stays in her childhood home, all the memories of abuse come rushing back along with Kate's regular visions and nightmares from the wars she has covered. But this time Kate is convinced that she is not seeing things when she hears a boy crying for his mother and sees him in her garden. She is convinced that the woman next door, an Iraqi refugee, is hiding abuse by her husband and that the boy in in danger. The woman claims, however, that she has no son and that her husband is away.

In between chapters of Kate's experiences in part one of My Sister's Bones are excerpts of a psychiatrist interviewing Kate. We know Kate has been arrested for something, possible related to her hallucinations and hearing voices, and she is being held while her mental health is evaluated. How reliable of a narrator is Kate? Is she imagining things?

Kate is a fully realized character draw with skill and depth. Yes, she is flawed and we know she is suffering from her years of war coverage, but she still inspires empathy and support while you are reading. Her sister, Sally, is an unsympathetic character who is vividly described and desperately flawed. It seems that both sisters are so damaged from their dysfunctional childhood that normalcy or recovery may not be an option.

The writing in My Sister's Bones is exceptional and the plot is compelling and clever. This novel was impossible to put down. I devoured this book almost effortlessly - the pages just flew by -  and was surprised at the twists the novel took. Ellwood has several shocking surprises that I never saw coming. She also skillfully covers domestic violence and the violence in a war-torn country, with insight and sensitivity as she draws comparisons in her narrative between the effects of both violent situations on the victims.