Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Only Human

Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel
Random House Publishing Group: 5/1/18
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399180118
Themis Files Series #3

Only Human by Sylvain Neuvel is the recommended third book in the Themis series. This is not a stand-alone novel and the three book series has to be read in the order they are written.

Since this is the last book in the series, I don't want to give away too much of the plot. Basically a giant robot was found buried in pieces around the Earth. It is put together and we are trying to master the technology, when more fully operational robots are sent to Earth and begin attacking. The attack is stopped, but all the robots, including Themis, the robot that was put together here, disappear from Earth. The human crew inside Themis, Dr. Rose Franklin, linguist Vincent Couture, his 10-year-old daughter Eve Reyes, and Gen. Eugene Govender, are stranded on the robots home planet, Esat Ekt. After being stranded on Esat Ekt for nine years, they return back to Earth, but the geo-political climate has changed. The group lands in Russia, become prisoners,  and discover that America and Russia are battling for the supreme control of the planet. Those in charge seem to be suffering from some kind of collective insanity and rule by violence and fear, including vast numbers of people sent to work camps and internment camps.

As in the previous two books, the story unfolds using interviews, diary entries, mission logs, and covert recordings. The narrative jumps back and forth between the time spent on Esat Ekt and after the group returns to Earth. Most of the main characters were already fully fleshed out in the first two books and are further developed here, while new characters are a bit lacking in development. Russian intelligence officer Katherine Lebedev comes across as an unrealistic cartoonish caricature especially with the "jokey" dialogue she takes part in. There isn't a lot of in-depth worldbuilding on Esat Ekt, and what is presented doesn't seem alien. The political climate on Earth is examined, but

Taken as a whole I'd give the series 4 stars, but, for me, this was a weak ending. I'm not entirely thrilled with Neuval's choice to make the plot so political. I get it; the current polarized political climate is disturbing. For me, however, all this did was make the presentation a bit too preachy in this final installment of the series and I didn't get as much of the science fiction, and robots, I craved.  Additionally, I can't help it, but I missed the unnamed narrator from the first two books. 

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

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Into the Storm

Into the Storm by Tristram Korten
Random House Publishing Group: 4/24/18
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781524797881

Into the Storm: Two Ships, a Deadly Hurricane, and an Epic Battle for Survival by Tristram Korten is a very highly recommended nonfiction account of two doomed ships and a harrowing Coast Guard search-and-rescue operation.

An informative slow paced beginning sets the groundwork for the story. Korten opens up with an introduction to the brave, highly trained members of the Coast Guard on duty who would be pivotal in the search and rescue operations and a description of the two ships and their captains. The true story happened in late September/early October of 2015 when Hurricane Joaquin raged across the Caribbean. A pair of cargo vessels were in the path of this destructive storm. Captain Michael Davidson's ship was the El Faro, a 790-foot American behemoth with a crew of thirty-three, and Captain Renelo Gelera ship was the Minouche, a 230-foot freighter with a dozen sailors aboard.

After the ships leave port and the storm develops and subsequently changes course, the pace becomes more frantic.  The Coast Guard was informed that the Minouche was taking on water on the night of October 1. They worked in the dark through the raging storm, with rescue swimmer Ben Cournia in the sea loading survivors into the helicopter rescue basket. They manged to save the crew of the Minouche. The rescue mission for the El Faro was not successful and became the largest U.S. maritime disaster in decades.

This is an extremely well-researched and well-written account of the events during Hurricane Joaquin and the heroic efforts of the Coast Guard in their search and rescue mission.  A tension filled nail biter that is a true life thriller.  Into the Storm includes maps, notes, and an index. (Korten's online GQ article about the hurricane includes photos of the men involved and visual information that may be included in the book but wasn't in my review copy.)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Random House Publishing Group.

Property

Property: Stories Between Two Novellas by Lionel Shriver
HarperCollins Publishers: 4/24/18
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062697936

Property: Stories Between Two Novellas by Lionel Shriver is a very highly recommended collection of two novellas and ten short stories that focus on property and how ownership of homes and objects can affect the lives of those who own them. This is an excellent collection of well-written, thought provoking, engaging short stories full of insight into human nature. All the characters are complex and multi-dimensional, even in the briefest of stories. Property is an exceptional look at people and their relationship to their possessions.Certainly this will be one of the best short story collections I will have read this year.

Contents:

The Standing Chandelier: A Novella - Artistically inclined Jillian Frisk has become accustom to the bewildering experience of having other women dislike her. When her long-time best friends Weston gets engaged to Paige, she is expecting their 25 year friendship to endure, but Paige has other plans.
 
The Self-Seeding Sycamore - A widow of fifty-seven had left the gardening to her husband and now she must deal with what was likely his nemesis, the neighbor's tree that drops thousands of seeds in her garden.
 
Domestic Terrorism - Thirty-something Liam doesn't seem to find adult life especially compelling and refuses to leave his basement bedroom in his parent's home, much to their chagrin.

The Royal Male - Gordon Bosky, a postal carrier, begins to hoard half of the mail from his route rather than deliver it.

Exchange Rates - A miserly retired professor visits his son in England and complains constantly about the exchange rate of the dollar versus the pound. When he gives his son his pound notes as he leaves, he expects his son to send a check and reimburse him so he can avoid the exchange fees.

Kilifi Creek - On short notice, Liana, a young woman from the USA, imposes on the home of an older couple living in Africa based on knowing friends of friends of friends.

Repossession -  Helen Rutledge buys a two-story semidetached on Lansing Terrace in record time and begins to fix it up.

The ChapStick - Peter's father is supposedly dying, again, and he must fly down to see him, again, only this time the TSA takes umbrage to his "attitude" and his ChapStick.

Negative Equity - A married couple breaks up during the housing crisis, but can't afford to leave or sell their home.

Vermin -  A couple buys a house they loved renting, but ownership and fixing the house up destroys their relationship.

Paradise to Perdition -  Barry Mendelssohn embezzles a huge sum of money, changes his name to Rodrigo Perez, and moves into a tropical resort, but discovers the easy life isn't quite as exciting as he thought..

The Subletter: A Novella - Sara Moseley, a writer living in Belfast, instinctively keeps track of what other people owe. She briefly considers moving to another country, and has young woman set up to sublet her apartment. Before she can move, however, the two are both living in the apartment which begins a passive/aggressive fight over territorial rights and possessions. 

As usual, I have a plethora of quotes from Shriver that express many of my thoughts to such perfection it's hard not to share them all. 
 
"...how careless people were with their antipathy, how they threw it around for fun; how these days people indiscriminately sprayed vituperation every which way as if launching a mass acid attack in a crowded public square. Sheer meanness had become a customary form of entertainment."  (The Standing Chandelier)
 

"She couldn’t speak for the human sphere, but apparently in the botanical world, without the constant intercession of a benevolent higher power, evil triumphed." (The Self-Seeding Sycamore)
 
"Though Liana imagined herself undemanding, even the easy to please required fresh sheets, which would have to be laundered after her departure, then dried and folded. She would require a towel for swimming, a second for her shower. She would expect dinner, replete with discreet refreshments of her wineglass, strong filtered coffee every morning, and - what cost older people more than a sponger in her early twenties realized - steady conversational energy channeled in her direction for the duration of her stay." (Kilifi Creek)

"Pricks get away with acting like pricks because they’ve always gotten away with acting like pricks, and no one wants to interfere with the natural order of the universe." (The ChapStick) This perfectly captures the attitude of many people, and, to no surprise, especially several of those I encountered on my last bout of flying, the trip that made me declare I was never flying again.

"Apparently the gene for small-mindedness was passed down maternally like the one for hair loss." (The Subletter)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins Publishers.

Then She Was Gone

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell
Atria Books: 4/17/18
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501154645

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell is a very highly recommended addictive novel of psychological suspense.


Ellie Mack was fifteen, the youngest of three, and her mother's favorite when she disappeared in 2005. There were never any clues and her case soon went cold. Laurel Mack's whole life seemed to crumble after her daughter Ellie disappeared. Her marriage with Paul ended and she became distant to her surviving children, Hanna and Jake. When a final piece of evidence was discovered ten years after her disappearance, Ellie is finally closed and Laurel is trying to put her life back together, even though she still feels she has no real answers as to what happened to Ellie.

When Laurel meets a charming man at a cafĂ©, author Floyd Dunn, she is surprised to find herself actually accepting a dinner invitation. As their relationship becomes more serious, Laurel meets Floyd's daughters and his youngest daughter, Poppy, takes her breath away because she so resembles Ellie. When Laurel learns that Floyd’s former partner vanished five years earlier after dumping Poppy with him, it brings back unanswered questions and memories of Ellie's disappearance. But when Laurel learns that Poppy's mother, Noelle Donnelly, was also Ellie's math tutor, it seems to be too coincidental.

Then She Was Gone is a wonderful example of how excellent writing and superb planning can elevate a psychological thriller to a perfect rating. Will most readers figure out what likely happened to Ellie very early on? Yes. Is the insight into the characters and the journey of discovery more important than this one big puzzle piece? Oh, yes! Many readers (and reviewers) of suspense novels can predict how a plot is going to go, sometimes very early on in the novel. Personally, I believe in this case Jewell acknowledges that truism and doesn't give a whit about it. In fact she uses this detail and guessing/knowing is only going to increase the suspense and deepen the mystery.

Part of the clever, skillful writing is found in the structure Jewell chose to present Then She Was Gone. The novel is told by several narrators and is split into three parts. The first part has chapters that alternate between the present day events and ten years ago at the time of Ellie's disappearance. The second section begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. The first two sections are primarily narrated by Laurel. The third section has several narrators and those voices are in different time periods, past and present. The structure keeps the pace quick. This, in turn, increases the tension and the psychological suspense, while simultaneously building an uneasy anxiety in the reader.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books via Netgalley

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Liar's Candle

Liar's Candle by August Thomas
Scribner: 4/17/18
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501172847

Liar's Candle by August Thomas is a highly recommended thriller.

Penny Kessler is a 21 year-old intern at the US Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, when, during a 4th of July celebration at the embassy, a bomb explodes killing 256 of Penny’s friends and colleagues. Penny is in the hospital, sedated, and doesn't realize that a picture of her has gone global in the media and she is the face that represents the international incident. Showing up at her bedside in the hospital, demanding that the doctor give her something to make her regain consciousness is Frank Lerman, a senior State Department official who is assisted by Connor Beauregard. Her boss, Brenda Pelecchia, tries to stop him to no avail.

Penny is briefly questioned about her relationship with Zachary Robson, an embassy employee who disappeared after the explosion, but then the Turkish Prime Minister arrives and takes her to the presidential palace as an "invited" guest/prisoner of Melek Palamut, daughter of the president. She is being questioned about Zach and everyone assumes she has some information that they all want. Penny miraculously manages to escape from the Presidential Palace and manages to run into Connor, who has been sent to retrieve her. Soon it becomes clear that there is a whole lot more going on than either Penny or Connor realize. Penny is believed to have crucial information everyone wants and someone wants them both dead. Penny has become the woman who knew too much, but what does Penny know?

Liar's Candle is a fast-paced thriller written with a nod to sheer escapism. Thomas, who was a Fulbright scholar in Turkey, captures life in Turkey and the local atmosphere, with an eye for detail, quite well. Do Penny's many astounding escapes and strategic feats stretch credulity? Sure they do. Do you have to suspend disbelief to enjoy the novel. Yup. Is it worth it to get to the end? It certainly is worth accepting everything this young, naive, untrained 21 year-old manages to accomplish in order to enjoy the story. The novel held my attention throughout, even when I was surreptitiously rolling my eyes over some spectacular exploit Penny pulled off. The bad guys are bad, the good guys good. Was I entertained? I certainly was and the rapid pace helped keep me reading.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner
via Netgalley.

The Plague

The Plague by Kevin Chong
Arsenal Pulp Press: 4/24/18
eBook review copy; 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9781551527185

The Plague by Kevin Chong is a recommended modern adaptation of Albert Camus's original 1947 classic novel.

The Plague is written as a historical account looking back to the year 201- when the plague occurred. The setting is moved from the original French village or Oran to present day Vancouver where the unnamed, omniscient narrator tells the story and follows three characters. After the rats and subsequent other wild animals who live in modern cities started dying in alarming numbers, then people began to experience flu-like symptoms and swelling in their lymph nodes. The sick are clearly infected with Yersinia pestis, or the plague, and the city is immediately placed under quarantine.

Dr. Bernard Rieux is trap in the city while his wife is off receiving alternate treatment for her cancer. He is trying to find a way to redress the treatment-resistant disease, while he is alternately seeking to find meaning in suffering. Megan Tso is an American writer who is trapped in the city while on a book tour. She is trying to hide from an ex while assisting Dr. Rieux. Raymond Siddhu, who is married and the father of twins, is a reporter who is trapped in the city due to the quarantine.

Chong explores the same themes as the original novel, including the nature of destiny and the human condition, the frailties of human behavior, the psychological strain of being under quarantine, and the bravery required in the face of futility. He also places the novel in the present day by addressing many current political and cultural anxieties. His characters are well-developed and compelling. Chong does an incredible job developing his characters and making them real individuals facing a stressful crisis.

The plot however, when it should be full of nerve-racking tension and anxiety because, duh, it's the plague in a major city, is actually too slow moving and, well, a bit dull. As a character study and used as a comparison to Camus's novel, it is worthwhile to read; as a novel though about the plague hitting Vancouver, the pace of the actual story is rather weary.


Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Arsenal Pulp Press
.

Raising the Dad

Raising the Dad by Tom Matthews
St. Martin's Press: 4/17/18
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250094766

Raising the Dad by Tom Matthews is a recommended drama featuring a dysfunctional family in an unimaginable situation.

John Husted's family is struggling. The doctor for his mother, Rose, has diagnosed her with Alzheimer's. His older brother, Mike, a ne'er-do-well drug abusing rocker, has just been released from prison. His marriage of seventeen years to Robin has become a stale, routine. His daughter Katie is hanging out with a moody, fatalistic group at her high school. To add to the stress, John, a grant proposal writer for a nonprofit group, is falling behind on his job.

When an old friend of his father wants to meet with John at a familiar restaurant across the street from the hospital that he and John's father helped found, he agrees. John's father Dr. Lawrence Husted, had a debilitating stroke thirty years ago and died. Since then, his family has been struggling. What the old doctor shares with John is unbelievable, overwhelming, and places John in an inconceivable situation. What his family believed about his father's death isn't exactly the truth. Now John's stress levels are increasing and he must decide what to tell his family about the new revelations.

The writing is good and Matthews does address the history of the family and the struggles they have encountered over the years since their father's stroke. The characters are developed, and background information is disclosed. Their relationship with the family patriarch is portrayed realistically, helping to set up the conflicts and exposed buried emotions. The characters make the novel worthwhile. There is growth and development. There is change.

The actual situation that the family finds themselves in, however, is truly unbelievable and, well, preposterous. In a farce, I could go with it, but this isn't written as a satire so it was a struggle for me to accept the situation. There is a story here and the interaction between the characters is worth the read, but you will have to overlook the impossible in the novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of St. Martin's Press.