Monday, May 22, 2017

Wicked Wonders

Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages
Tachyon: 5/9/17
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9781616962616 


Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages is a very highly recommended collection of fourteen short stories. I enjoyed almost all of the stories in this collection immensely, with just a couple I was slightly less enthusiastic about. Those are pretty impressive odds. The stories consist of a mix of science fiction, fantasy, humor, coming-of-age, magic, and real life. All the stories except for one, Woodsmoke, have been previously published.


Contents:
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler: "There is something powerfully strange and strangely powerful, but it is off to the side or coming up behind you. You’ll sense it in the small, particular details at which Ellen excels..." "The only thing you can depend on is magic. However sober and quotidian the world, Ellen always brings the magic."
The Education of a Witch: Young Lizzy loves Maleficent the witch from Sleeping Beauty while dealing with changes in her life.
Amicae Aeternum: Before she and her parents board The Goddard, a generation ship, Corrine Garcia-Kelly is saying good-bye to everything she will miss on Earth.
Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox: Annabel meets Midge for a treat, which they split, repeatedly.
Singing on a Star: Becka has her first sleep over at her friend Jamie's house where a song opens an elevator to a different world where she meets a man named Hollis.
Hey, Presto!: Polly is working with her father, the magician Vardo!, for the summer.
Echoes of Aurora:  Jo Norwood returns to her hometown to settle her father's estate after being gone 35 years and meets Aurora.
Friday Night at St. Cecilia’s: Rachel Sweeney was supposed to be playing backgammon with her friend Addie, but instead gets caught up in the grip of a fairy queen and is trapped inside several board games.
Caligo Lane: Located in San Francisco, Caligo Lane might be an illusion. Difficult to reach, or find again, it is here that Franny, a cartographer, lives and combines mapmaking and origami.
Goodnight Moons: Zoe is part of the first team of six astronauts to go to Mars. She discovers she is pregnant after they have already started their voyage.
Gone to the Library: Izzy, an eight year-old girl who loves math, meets her neighbor, Bibber, who needs her help. 
Household Management: We get a glimpse into the life of Sherlock Holmes landlady.
Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl: A thief buys a map that he believes will lead him to a wizard who owns a pearl of great value.
Woodsmoke: "Every childhood summer is special. School is out and freedom beckons. Then comes a magic summer.... For Patricia Ann Maas that summer was 1963..." Patty spends her fifth summer at camp Wokanda, where she can be herself and is known by the nickname Peete.
The Scary Ham: A true story. Klages father was given a full-sized ham which he hung in his basement for twenty years, in the room with the litter box. This story and pictures can be found on the Tor website. http://www.tor.com/2014/05/22/the-scary-ham/
Afterword: Why I Write Short Fiction
10 Facts About Ellen Klages
Story Notes About the Author


Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Tachyon.



Dragon Teeth

Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton
HarperCollins: 5/23/17
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062473356

Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton is a highly recommended historical adventure novel.

Let me preface this review with a few comments. As most people know Crichton passed away in 2008 and the books published since then have been from manuscripts found by his wife Sherry.  Dragon Teeth is an early manuscript; purportedly research on it began in 1974. Longtime fans of Crichton's work will recognize in the style a resemblance to several of his earlier novels. That fact doesn't diminish this novel, but Dragon Teeth is neither a Jurassic Park story nor a prequel. What it does do is affirm that Crichton's fascination with dinosaurs, fossils, and paleontology began long before the Jurassic Park novels were written.

Dragon Teeth is set in 1876. At this time there was war in the west between Native American tribes and the US, a gold rush in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and legends of the Wild West were alive. It was also the time of the "Bone Wars," a nickname given to the bitter rivalry between paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edwin Drinker Cope. The narrative follows William Johnson, an entitled Yale student who made a bet with a rival that he would go west to dig for dinosaur bones. He learns photography so he has a skill that enables him to join Marsh's expedition. Marsh, however is a paranoid man and ends up abandoning Johnson in Cheyenne, Wyoming. At that point Johnson joins Cope's group, who are heading west to the Montana badlands to dig for fossils. They make an incredible find, but unforeseen circumstances separate the exhibition members, resulting in getting half of the bones back east to become solely Johnson's dangerous quest.

William Johnson is a fictitious character, but the novel is populated with many other recognizable historical figures, places, and events. Dragon Teeth is a western more than anything else, but it demonstrates the research Crichton undertook for his novels. This is a nice combination of historical fact and fiction that showcases Crichton's ability to take facts, science, and history and mold it into an entertaining story.

While Dragon Teeth doesn't have the high level of exceptionally-fast-paced-heart-stopping action that is displayed in many of his books, this is still a very entertaining story that will hold your attention from beginning to end. I do wonder, however, if it was set aside and not published earlier because Crichton wasn't satisfied with it. It is not as good as many of his novels. But, setting that aside, fans will be pleased with it and easily place Dragon Teeth in context as an early example of his body of work. As a long-time fan, I love Crichton's books, but... a gentle suggestion to his estate: I think it might be time to close the vault on things he wrote but didn't publish.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Nuclear Family

Nuclear Family: A Tragicomic Novel in Letters 
by Susanna Fogel
Henry Holt & Company: 7/18/17
advanced reading copy; 212 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250165237

Nuclear Family: A Tragicomic Novel in Letters by Susanna Fogel is a very highly recommended, hilarious, wonderfully quirky, entertaining debut novel. I loved and adored it!

This epistolary novel is a collection of letters/emails written to Julie by her dysfunctional, fractured Jewish family, as well as a few surprising sources that don't normally write letters. We never actually hear directly from Julie, but we meet her through what her family has written to her. The letters begin when Julie is a teen and end when she is in her mid-thirties and publishing a book about her family. Most letters are from her younger sister, Jane, and her mother, but her father, grandmother, uncle, and other family members also write.

The letters all have a title/heading. Here are some examples: "Your Sister, Who has Questions about Your Uncle Ken's Lifestyle, Has a Great Idea for His Birthday Gift"; "Your Grandma Rose Is Still Not Feeling This E-mail Thing"; "Your Stepmother Has Some Theories about Why You're Still Single"; "Your Dad, Who Asked Your Last Boyfriend If He Watches Porn, Is Wondering Why He Hasn't Met Your New Guy"; "Your Mother's Goddaughter, Who Crashed with You for Many Days, Is Sorry She Didn't Have Any Time to Hang Out"; "Your Dad, Who Lacks Boundaries, Wants to Talk about Your Body"; "Your Dad's Six-Year-Old Son from His Second Marriage Discusses His Superior Childhood"; "Your Mom has Some New Judgements She'd Like to Share"; "Your Mom is having Some Issues with Regularity"; "Your Sister, Who has Two Exes in Jail, Agrees That You Gotta Do You."

I loved every minute spent reading Nuclear Family! It is clever and humorous, from the titles to the letters themselves, and I laughed aloud through the whole novel. The titles preceding the letters can be just as comical as the letters themselves. The letter writers are clearly clueless as to what their letters are actually conveying and often over-sharing. Each family member has their own voice when writing, for example Jane writes her letters in text-speak, which adds a clever layer to the mix. You'll be surprised at how much of a story these letters tell about Julie's life - enough that you might want to look back at your own correspondence to see what stories are hidden there.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Henry Holt & Company via Library Thing

What She Saw

What She Saw by Gerard Stembridge
HarperCollins: 5/23/17
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062568984

What She Saw by Gerard Stembridge is a so-so novel that follows a woman through 24 hours in Paris.

Lana Gibson has decided to travel to Paris to see the Edward Hopper retrospective. She stays at the expensive Hotel Le Chevalier located on the Right Bank and assures her unknowing husband after-the-fact that she will be fine and take her meds to control her manic phases. She does see the Hopper exhibition, but she also becomes increasingly obsessed with seeing who is using the private elevator to the exclusive penthouse suite on the top floor. As happenstance and curiosity collide, she actually gets on the elevator when the door is open and is whisked to the top floor. When the door opens she sees quickly observes that an orgy is taking place, but she also witnesses a young woman trying to escape from a naked older man. She quickly snaps a few pictures with her cell phone before the elevator doors close again.

It turns out that the older man is Jean-Luc Fournier, an important French politician. Lana is already on the radar of his security detail, who have noticed her interest in the private elevator. Now she is on the run from the security men and needs to figure out what exactly is going on and who she can trust before her time runs out. The narrative follows Lana's perspective and that of a chauffeur for Fournier, Ferdinand (Ferdie). Ferdie has his own stakes in the outcome.

I really wanted to like her simply due to her desire to travel to see the Hopper retrospective, but Lana is a hard character to relate to or find any empathy for. She is also not a very well-developed character. Mainly you learn she doesn't seem to really even like her husband, she's on meds (apparently for bipolar disorder), and she's way-too-weirdly-curious about the penthouse elevator door. This makes it a challenge to feel invested in what happens to her, especially when she's repeatedly and consistently making some rather stupid actions and decisions.

The writing is good, but the 24 hour format seemed to just drag out the action and didn't work for me. Those who love novels set in Paris and Francophiles will likely appreciate the setting. I had a difficult time immersing myself in this novel, probably due to my increasing annoyance with Lana.


Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sister Sister

Sister Sister by Sue Fortin
HarperCollins: 5/23/17
eBook review copy; 384 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9780008238070

Sister Sister by Sue Fortin is a recommended psychological thriller.

Currently Clare, a solicitor, and her husband, Luke, a painter, and their two daughters are living with her mother, an arrangement that has worked out well for all of them. Twenty years ago Clare's father took her little sister, Alice, on a trip to the USA and never returned. Her mother has been pining away for her missing daughter ever since, even buying and putting aside presents for her yearly. Over the years they have hired investigators to look for Alice, but nothing turned up. Then when a letter from Alice suddenly appears, everyone is elated that there will be a reunion with the missing daughter/sister. What seems like a wonderful heartwarming visit soon turns into tension-filled days as Clare's suspicions about Alice's behavior begin to rise.

Sister Sister is certainly technically well-written and the story will keep your interest. You will want to continue to read the story to see what happens to the characters.  It is a good choice for a vacation read or an airplane book. It will hold your interest but you won't cry if you misplace it. Many readers are going to be thinking that they have heard very similar stories before and this one is equally predictable. There is nothing truly shocking that happens in it nor are the twists really surprising.  You will likely have already predicted what is going to happen long before any of the characters, besides Clare, have a clue.

Although I read it to the end and basically enjoyed it, Sister Sister is not without its problems - beyond the predictability.

Clare starts out as an intriguing character but quickly becomes a bit bumbling and insipid. She is supposedly an intelligent woman who is a lawyer. She should be able to logically collect evidence and present a well-supported case. Instead she becomes a bit of a shirking violet, afraid of hurt feelings. It is also illogical that no one else in the family is suspicious of anything and that they turn on Clare so quickly and easily. Her mother should have had suspicions too. Even if you want to believe, that doesn't mean you don't use your head. Luke is an idiot who should have been supporting his wife. Clare, though, mainly acts out, whines, and throws out suspicions without presenting evidence. Even a simple, "Alice did this, then this, then this. Why is that acceptable?" And, come on Clare: use that cell phone, take pictures, gather evidence and supporting proof.


Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Perfect Stranger

The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda
Simon & Schuster: 4/11/17
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501107993

The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda is a very highly recommended page-turner and I relished every one of those pages in this complex tale of suspense.

Leah Stevens was a journalist in Boston, but needed to resign from her job due to a story she wrote. Now she needs to find something new to do - in a hurry. By coincidence she runs into a roommate she had years ago during a time in her life when she also needed help in a hurry. Emmy was there eight years ago when they first met and helped Leah out before Emmy went overseas with the Peace Corp. It is a shocking surprise for Leah to run into Emmy now. The two immediately bond and take up where they left off. They decide to move together to a small town in Western Pennsylvania on a whim. Leah can get a position teaching at the high school and Emmy can find a job doing something.

Then a woman who closely resembles Leah is found seriously injured and Emmy has gone missing. Leah works with the police to try and help them while at the same time she tries to get them to look into the whereabouts of her missing friend. As both investigations continue it becomes increasingly clear that Leah really never knew Emmy well at all and the police are beginning to look at her as a suspect. Leah realizes that she needs to use her journalistic skills to uncover the truth about what happened and who Emmy really is.

Leah is a well-developed character and I began to like her more and more as the novel progressed and doubts began to develop. She becomes more spunky and begins to show more and more of her intelligence and intuition as she begins her own investigation while the police are more focused on investigating her.

The revelation of new information is wonderfully timed. It begs the question: How well do you really know other people? As Leah is desperately trying to find out what happened to her friend, you will begin to wonder if Emmy is even real and doubts about Leah's sanity will creep in. You only know Emmy through Leah, and Leah doesn't even reveal everything about her own life right away. The plot of The Perfect Stranger moves along at a gallop and never lets up. I enjoyed the fast-paced ride and twisty plot immensely. The writing is pitch-perfect in the suspenseful narrative.

I really enjoyed uncovering the twisty-layers of this swift-paced, agile novel of psychological suspense. It was a pleasure to read.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Monday, May 15, 2017

You Were Here

You Were Here by Gian Sardar
Penguin Publishing Group: 5/16/17
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399575006

You Were Here by Gian Sardar is a recommended atmospheric debut novel of suspense that follows two storylines in two time periods.

Abby Walter's is currently living in LA with her commitment-phobic boyfriend Robert. She hasn't returned home to Makade, the small Minnesota town she grew up in, for fourteen years. She had horrible recurring nightmares about being buried alive, among other things, and the nightmares stopped after she left. Now she has decided to visit her hometown for the upcoming high school reunion, but especially to research her family's past because the name Claire Ballantine has surfaced in her dreams. She thinks looking into the past may end her nightmares, which have returned with the news of the reunion. Abby's high school crush, Aidan Mackenzie, has also returned to Makade after working on the police force in St. Paul. He's a detective on the trail of a violent serial rapist.

The story set in 1948 focuses on a love triangle, or, really, an affair between a dashing, handsome older man and a younger woman who wants to escape her small town existence. Small town Eva is a young woman in love with William Ballantine, a privileged wealthy man who is married to Claire. William and Eva conduct their affair in Rochester. She takes the bus from her small town and meets him at a house he owns there. The two are in love or obsessed with each other, but William doesn't want to hurt Claire.

The slow moving duel plot eventually connects the two timelines, showing how the decisions made and secrets held in the past have consequences that can influence or affect the future. The secrets actually aren't all that shocking once you get to them because they are easily deduced much earlier in the novel.

The novel is beautifully written, almost poetic at times. The quality of the writing helps You Were Here rise above the numerous plot elements that are less-than-perfect. This isn't really a romance novel, more of an exploration of dark secrets. The romantic connection between Abby and Aidan seemed forced to me and served no real purpose in the plot. The affair between Eva and William has been seen many times before - an older successful man starts an affair with an attractive, desperate-to-escape younger woman.

The characters, for the most part, are well-developed, even if they are also at times a bit too melodramatic. It seems that most of the women in this novel are holding tightly to the role of victim and looking for a man to save them, which became annoying. Abby was the most developed of the characters, while Eva was perhaps the most sympathetic.

To be honest, I had a difficult time finishing this novel and flirted with stopping just before the half-way point. It just didn't seem worth my time. In the end I had to give credit to Sardar for pulling it all together and for the quality of the writing, which is what kept me reading and resulted in my recommendation. But, for followers of my reviews, there were no real surprises in the plot for me, as it all has been done before in one way or another, and the big, shocking twists were all very predictable. Other reviews seem to be more glowing, so it could be I am just the odd miss for the title. Literary fiction readers will appreciate the writing.


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