Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Sweetness #9

Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark
Little, Brown and Company: 8/19/2014
eBook, 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316278751

It's 1973, and David Leveraux has landed his dream job as a Flavorist-in-Training, working in the secretive industry where chemists create the flavors for everything from the cherry in your can of soda to the butter on your popcorn.
While testing a new artificial sweetener—"Sweetness #9"—he notices unusual side-effects in the laboratory rats and monkeys: anxiety, obesity, mutism, and a generalized dissatisfaction with life. David tries to blow the whistle, but he swallows it instead.
Years later, Sweetness #9 is America's most popular sweetener—and David's family is changing. His wife is gaining weight, his son has stopped using verbs, and his daughter suffers from a generalized dissatisfaction with life. Is Sweetness #9 to blame, along with David's failure to stop it? Or are these just symptoms of the American condition?
David's search for an answer unfolds in this expansive novel that is at once a comic satire, a family story, and a profound exploration of our deepest cultural anxieties. Wickedly funny and wildly imaginative, Sweetness #9 questions whether what we eat truly makes us who we are.

My Thoughts:

Sweetness #9 by Stephan Eirik Clark is a highly recommended fictional novel that is ostensibly about a flavorist, but in reality begs us to question the true safety of the processed and chemically altered foods we eat.

Sweetness #9 begins in 1973 when David Leveraux accepts a job at  a major company which is conducting animal testing on its soon to be released product: an artificial sweetner called Sweetness #9. David is excited about his beginning career, knowing that, hopefully, he will soon advance out of animal testing and move into breakfast cereals. But a kink happens when David notices the results of the consumption of Sweetness #9 on his rats... and a co-worker's primates. It seems that the artificial sweetner is causing a lot of harm for something that is going to be released on the market soon. When David tries to bring his concerns to the boss-men on the fifth floor, he's fired.

After struggling for a while, David is eventually offered another flavorist job at a different company. His life continues on, he has a family, and the story jumps into the nineties.

Clark does an excellent job raising questions about the safety of the manufacture products full of chemical additives we ingest on a regular basis, along with all the dyes, preservatives, etc. Written as a novel, it is at the heart of the matter, a social satire. All of the characters are likely showing signs of being poisoned by Sweetness #9 (or other additives). The prevalence of additives in almost everything we eat and drink (unless you are consuming all whole foods and organic) will certainly touch a nerve with most readers.

Alternately, since this is fiction, you will also wonder how many and exactly what facts have been exaggerated to make a point. He also keeps it humorous, even when tackling a serious question, which makes the novel a pleasure to read.

I found it rather amusing when Clark asked the question "Were we really a country that couldn't even cut its own cantaloupe anymore?" Okay, some people can't or won't take the time to cut their own fruit, but someone is cutting up the produce for them. (And some unnamed reviewer might just have a part time job doing just that, cutting up fruit and vegetables, that pays pretty good. So is it truly a sad commentary on our lives or simply consumerism at work?)

Sweetness #9 is entertaining, but not without a few problems. I guess my main problem was with the end when the plot seems to jump off onto a new tangent and toward a conspiracy theory. My qualms with the novel were nicely offset and balanced with Clark's superior writing ability and sense of the absurd in the juxtaposition of some of the facts and characters.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Little, Brown and Company via Netgalley for review purposes.

American Cornball

American Cornball by Christopher Miller
HarperCollins: 9/23/2014
eBook, 544 pages

ISBN-13: 9780062225177

American Cornball is Christopher Miller's irresistibly funny illustrated survey of popular humor—the topics that used to make us laugh, from hiccups and henpecked-husbands to outhouses and old maids—and what it tells us about our country yesterday and today.

Miller revisits nearly 200 comic staples that have been passed down through our culture for generations, many originating from the vaudeville age. He explores the (often unseemly) contexts from which they arose, why they were funny in their time, and why they eventually lost their appeal. The result is a kind of taxonomy of humor during America's golden age that provides a deeper, more profound look at the prejudices, preoccupations, and peculiarities of a nation polarized between urban and rural, black and white, highborn and lowbrow.

As he touches on issues of racism and sexism, cultural stereotypes and violence, Miller reveals how dramatically our moral sensibilities have shifted, most notably in the last few decades. Complete with more than 100 period illustrations, American Cornball is a richly entertaining survey of our shifting comic universe.
My Thoughts:

American Cornball: A Laffopedic Guide to the Formerly Funny by Christopher Miller is a very highly recommended. This entertaining and fascinating guide looks at what Americans have found humorous from the start of the 20th century until about 1966.

Arrange in alphabetical order by the subject of the humor this guide offers a startling look back at what we have found funny in the past that may not be so funny today, as well as a nice overview of what topics are found in humor. In American Cornball, Christopher Miller looks at the comic stripes, cartoons, and movies from our past and sifts out the cultural touchstones of humor that were seemingly shared by a majority of people. 

It is rather eye opening to read about some of the topics that people found humorous early in the 20th century that we would find appalling today (racism, dead baby jokes, rape jokes, spousal abuse). There are also connections to subjects still found in humor today (bananas, ducks, baldness, back seat drivers, spinach). There are things that used to be funny but have lost their humorous context over time (boarding houses, chamber pots, tax payer's/pauper’s barrel, old maids).

Miller provides so many great little tidbits of information. For example, I never would have thought that the early and mid-1960s seems to have been the heyday of funny amnesia. Or that cartoonists have always been kinder to dogs, but they clearly find cats funnier. Did you know that feet are even funnier than noses? Or that all personal-hygiene items are funny—mouthwash, toothpaste, toilet paper, and so on—but soap may be the funniest. Even I can understand that the bigger the musical instrument, the more laughter it provokes. 

Who would have imagined that "mooning” peaked in 1955? Or that the laugh track debuted on the evening of September 9, 1950, on a television comedy called The Hank McCune Show?  And number 23 is the funniest number, but the number 42, with hats off to Douglas Adams, comes in a close second to 23 as the favorite funny number.

Did you know that grawlixes are the name for symbols that stand for unprintable profanities:“!#@!” Or that an "eusystolism" is a euphemistic use of initials for words we’d prefer not to utter or spell out - "B.O.," "B.M.,” “V.D.,” and “W.C.” Or that those little drops of sweat that fly off a cartoon character when he or she is alarmed or dismayed are called "plewds." 

This is an informative and entertaining guide as well as a history and linguistic lesson on humor.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of HarperCollins via Edelweiss for review purposes. (read in Febuary 2014)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Don't Look Back

Don't Look Back by Gregg Hurwitz
St. Martin's Press: 8/19/2014
eBook, 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780312626839

In Don't Look Back, Eve Hardaway, newly single mother of one, is on a trip she’s long dreamed of—a rafting and hiking tour through the jungles and mountains of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico. Eve wanders off the trail, to a house in the distance with a menacing man in the yard beyond it, throwing machetes at a human-shaped target. Disturbed by the sight, Eve moves quickly and quietly back to her group, taking care to avoid being seen. As she creeps along, she finds a broken digital camera, marked with the name Teresa Hamilton. Later that night, in a rarely used tourist cabin, she finds a discarded prescription bottle—also with the name Teresa Hamilton. From the camera’s memory card, Eve discovers Teresa Hamilton took a photo of that same menacing looking man in the woods. Teresa Hamilton has since disappeared.
Now the man in the woods is after whoever was snooping around his house. With a violent past and deadly mission, he will do anything to avoid being discovered.  A major storm wipes out the roads and all communication with the outside world. Now the tour group is trapped in the jungle with a dangerous predator with a secret to protect. With her only resource her determination to live, Eve must fight a dangerous foe and survive against incredible odds—if she's to make it back home alive.

My Thoughts:

Don't Look Back by Gregg Hurwitz is a highly recommended action/adventure thrill ride of terror.

When Eve Hardaway's husband dumps her for a younger woman and moves to Europe, leaving her and their son behind, she decides to push beyond her comfort zone. Instead of canceling the surprise trip she booked for their anniversary,  Eve decides to go ahead and take the vacation to the  Días Felices Ecolodge, an eco-tourism camp in the mountainous jungles of Oaxaca, Mexico. While out on a day excursion with the group, Eve discovers a camera lost by a woman who was a previous guest, on a ridge overlooking a house where she sees the disturbing sight of a man practicing throwing a machete at a human target. Later, when unpacking in her cabin, she discovers other items left behind by this same woman. When Eve asks about the woman, she is told that she decided to suddenly pack up and leave for Mexico City. With further research, Eve discovers that this woman was reported missing and never found.

As more clues and questions surface, suspicions begin to rise in the group and it becomes abundantly clear that they are likely all in danger from the sinister-looking man with the machete she saw in the jungle. Eve must rely on hidden resources she didn't even realize she had in order to survive this threat and not leave her son without a mother.

With their isolation in the jungle and threatening weather looming, Hurwitz does an excellent job ratcheting up the tension and making the threat to everyone feel more and more palpable and ominous. While careful readers are going to notice a few holes in the plot, most of us will likely just race through trying to read as fast as possible to see what on earth happens next. Hurwitz does an excellent job with the character of Eve. Although action/adventure books are not usually known for a depth of character development,  Eve felt like a real person to me and I was cheering her on.

This is a perfect airplane book. It will keep you entertained and the time will pass quickly.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of St. Martin's Press via Netgalley for review purposes.


The Story Hour

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar
HarperCollins: 8/19/2014
eBook, 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062259301
An experienced psychologist, Maggie carefully maintains emotional distance from her patients. But when she agrees to treat a young Indian woman who tried to kill herself, her professional detachment disintegrates. Cut off from her family in India, and trapped in a loveless marriage to a domineering man who limits her world to their small restaurant and grocery store, Lakshmi is desperately lonely.
Moved by Lakshmi's plight, Maggie offers to see her as an outpatient for free. In the course of their first sessions in Maggie's home office, she quickly realizes that what Lakshmi really needs is not a shrink but a friend. Determined to empower Lakshmi as a woman who feels valued in her own right, Maggie abandons protocol, and soon doctor and patient become close. Even though they seemingly have nothing in common, both women are haunted by loss and truths that they are afraid to reveal.
However, crossing professional boundaries has its price. As Maggie and Lakshmi's relationship deepens, long-buried secrets come to light that shake their faith in each other and force them to confront painful choices in their own lives.
With Thrity Umrigar's remarkable sensitivity and singular gift for an absorbing narrative, The Story Hour explores the bonds of friendship and the margins of forgiveness.

My Thoughts:

The Story Hour by Thrity Umrigar is a recommended novel that explores the evolution and the boundaries of an unconventional friendship.

Dr. Maggie Bose, a black psychologist, first meets Lakshmi, a young Indian immigrant, after her suicide attempt. Maggie assumes that this cry for help is due to cultural separation and isolation and perhaps an abusive husband. Maggie, who is married to an Indian man, manages to establish communication with Lakshmi. While trying to insure Lakshmi continues treatment, Maggie offers to see her for therapy at her home office for free. While Maggie tries to help, the arrangement soon morphs into something different as Lakshmi needs a friend. Maggie is quickly cast in that role and reinforces this when she tries to help Lakshmi. Soon the boundaries between patient and Dr. are breached.

While I enjoyed The Story Hour, there are a couple little details that prevented me from giving it my highest rating.

I absolutely had to force myself to continue reading after the first page. The chapters alternate between Lakshmi and Maggie. Maggie's chapters are in third person while Lakshmi's are written in first person. Therein lies my problem. In Lakshmi's chapters she is talking in an Indian/English patois, which I found extremely distracting and awkward to read. It did get easier as the novel progressed, but that initial impression lingered. I know other people have noticed this but it didn't bother them, so this is definitely a personal quirk. If you think you might be bothered by this, take note. Additionally, I am not so keen on Maggie's personal and professional choices. She showed a great lack of judgment in having an affair (and seemingly with little forethought) and her inability to keep professional boundaries was disturbing. I honestly didn't like her as a character.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of HarperCollins for review purposes.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

One of Us

One of Us by Tawni O'Dell
Gallery Books: 8/19/2014
eBook, 304 pages

ISBN-13: 9781476755878

From the New York Times bestselling author of Back Roads comes a fast-paced literary thriller about a forensic psychologist forced to face his own demons after discovering his small hometown terrorized by a serial killer.
Dr. Sheridan Doyle—a fastidiously groomed and TV-friendly forensic psychologist—is the go-to shrink for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office whenever a twisted killer’s mind eludes other experts. But beneath his Armani pinstripes, he’s still Danny Doyle, the awkward, terrified, bullied boy from a blue-collar mining family, plagued by panic attacks and haunted by the tragic death of his little sister and mental unraveling of his mother years ago.
Returning to a hometown grappling with its own ghosts, Danny finds a dead body at the infamous Lost Creek gallows where a band of rebellious Irish miners was once executed. Strangely, the body is connected to the wealthy family responsible for the miners' deaths. Teaming up with veteran detective Rafe, a father-like figure from his youth, Danny—in pursuit of a killer—comes dangerously close to startling truths about his family, his past, and himself.
My Thoughts:

One of Us by Tawni O'Dell is a highly recommended psychological thriller that, although light on the suspense, is extremely well written.

Famous TV forensic psychologist, Dr. Sheridan Doyle is currently living in Philadelphia, but he grew up as an abused child in a dysfunctional family in a coal mining town. Lost Creek is famous for the gallows where some rebellious miners, the Nellie O'Neills, were hanged in the late 19th century. The mine is still in possession of the Dawes family, the same wealthy family who owned it years ago. Sheridan or Danny as he is known in Lost Creek, grew up hearing the stories from his beloved grandfather, Tommy, the one person who saved him from his father. When he was growing up, Danny's mother was in jail for murder.

Danny is back in Lost Creek to see 96 year old Tommy when he discovers a body at the gallows. This discovery leads the town to wonder if there is a paranormal explanation for the murder or is something else going on? As in any small town, everyone knows who is related and there are plenty of secrets people are hiding. It's also clear that the town of Lost Creek has obsessed over the story of the doomed miners for years.

The story is told from the viewpoints of Danny, a descendant of one of the miners, and Scarlet Dawes, daughter of the wealthy family who owns the mine. Clearly, Danny is as psychologically damaged as the killer.

The writing is excellent and O'Dell does a nice job developing her characters in this very much character driven story. Basically, there is no great mystery here regarding who the guilty party is and even much of the why is not that surprising. This is not a novel like Gone Girl or even one with a great deal of suspense. Rather is is more a novel of psychological insight into several damaged characters. It also brings to light the effects of poverty on the residents of the small coal mining town. It is an imminently readable and compelling novel.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
Gallery Books for review purposes.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Song for Issy Bradley

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray
Random House: 8/12/2014
eBook, 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9780553390889

The Bradleys see the world as a place where miracles are possible, and where nothing is more important than family. This is their story.
It is the story of Ian Bradley—husband, father, math teacher, and Mormon bishop—and his unshakeable belief that everything will turn out all right if he can only endure to the end, like the pioneers did. It is the story of his wife, Claire, her lonely wait for a sign from God, and her desperate need for life to pause while she comes to terms with tragedy.
And it is the story of their children: sixteen-year-old Zippy, experiencing the throes of first love; cynical fourteen-year-old Al, who would rather play soccer than read the Book of Mormon; and seven-year-old Jacob, whose faith is bigger than a mustard seed—probably bigger than a toffee candy, he thinks—and which he’s planning to use to mend his broken family with a miracle.
Intensely moving, unexpectedly funny, and deeply observed, A Song for Issy Bradley explores the outer reaches of doubt and faith, and of a family trying to figure out how to carry on when the innermost workings of their world have broken apart.

My Thoughts:

A Song for Issy Bradley by Carys Bray is a very highly recommended novel about a family experiencing a tragic death and how they all handle the aftermath.

The Bradleys are an LDS (Mormon) family living in the UK. Parents Ian and Claire have four children: daughter Zippy is sixteen, son Al is fourteen, son Jacob is seven, and the youngest daughter is Issy. A Song for Issy Bradley opens on the morning of Jacob's seventh birthday. Claire is trying to get things ready for his party and has been promised help by Ian, but Ian is serving as a bishop for their church and rushes off to help one of the (many needy) church members who calls, leaving Claire to manage the shopping and the party alone. Issy has stayed in bed because she doesn't feel well, so Claire gives her something for her fever and tries to get everything ready for the party, hoping Issy will sleep and feel better afterwards. After the party, Ian is still gone and Issy is not up. Claire immediately realizes that something is wrong and they call for an ambulance. Issy is hospitalized, but dies from meningitis. 

Each member of the Bradley family tells their story and what they are thinking and experiencing during this picture of their lives during an especially trying and emotional time of their lives. Claire falls into a deep depression, sleeps in Issy's bed and neglects the rest of her family. Ian is like a cheerleader for the LDS church. He knows that there is something wrong but will not get Claire help, even as Zippy asks him to, because it's not what "we"do.  Zippy is a teen girl dealing with her first crush, and guilt over the way her church handles any petting - it's always the girl's fault. Al just wants to play football, something his father is trying to prohibit. Jacob thinks if he has enough faith and prays right he can bring Issy back to life. And Ian just keeps following along with the LDS role of bishop, always going if anyone calls him, neglecting his family who really need him.

I simply can't say enough good things about A Song for Issy Bradley. The writing is stunning, superb, superlative. The character development is outstanding. It's hard to believe that this is Bray's debut novel - it is that good. Now, the subject matter is hard... so hard. Parts of this novel will anger you, and with good reason: a child dies; a woman falls into a black hole of depression; a father tries to ignore it and hides the truth from people so no one will think there is anything wrong; a teenage girl is made to feel guilty and that petting with a young man is her fault, according to what her LDS church teaches; a young man is prohibited from pursuing his passion for football and doubts his faith; a young boy thinks he can pray his sister back to life.

But even as you are indignant and brokenhearted over the abuse/misuse of faith, the family is presented with real empathy and compassion. Claire's questioning of her faith and falling into a depression is very easy to comprehend after the death of her child. Ian's reactions are harder for me to accept. His eagerness to please all the church members and put their needs and desires first while allowing his own family to suffer is unintelligible.  Zippy is a great character and the guilt that she is burdened down with in the name of religion is awful.

Carys Bray grew up in the Mormon church, so she knows her subject matter and infuses every bit of A Song for Issy Bradley with very realistic details of the daily life of an LDS family. The questioning of their beliefs and how women are treated/viewed are based on real facts and the inside knowledge lends an authenticity to the novel that is hard to ignore.

One of the best books I've read this year!

One quote took my breath away since I intimately know and have experienced this feeling when my sister passed away:
"Zippy stared at Issy’s face; she didn’t look peaceful and she didn’t look asleep. She looked like a badly made model of herself, empty of all her Issy-ness. She looked really dead."

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Random House via Netgalley for review purposes.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The House We Grew Up In

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell
Atria Books: 8/12/2014
eBook, 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9781476702995

Meet the Bird family. They live in a honey-colored house in a picture-perfect Cotswolds village, with rambling, unkempt gardens stretching beyond. Pragmatic Meg, dreamy Beth, and tow-headed twins Rory and Rhys all attend the village school and eat home-cooked meals together every night. Their father is a sweet gangly man named Colin, who still looks like a teenager with floppy hair and owlish, round-framed glasses. Their mother is a beautiful hippy named Lorelei, who exists entirely in the moment. And she makes every moment sparkle in her children’s lives.
Then one Easter weekend, tragedy comes to call. The event is so devastating that, almost imperceptibly, it begins to tear the family apart. Years pass as the children become adults, find new relationships, and develop their own separate lives. Soon it seems as though they’ve never been a family at all. But then something happens that calls them back to the house they grew up in—and to what really happened that Easter weekend so many years ago.
Told in gorgeous, insightful prose that delves deeply into the hearts and minds of its characters, The House We Grew Up In is the captivating story of one family’s desire to restore long-forgotten peace and to unearth the many secrets hidden within the nooks and crannies of home.

My Thoughts:

The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell is a very highly recommended novel about a very highly dysfunctional family.

The Bird family, parents, Colin and Lorelei, and their four children, Meg, Beth, Rory and Rhys live in a picturesque village in the Cotswolds.  Easter is Lorelei's favorite holiday and she loves to make it an event while relishing the pastel foil wrappers. But underneath the charming exterior is a much more complex situation. Lorelei has mental disorder: she is a hoarder. While certainly her propensity to hoard was present before, it is set into high gear after a horrific family tragedy occurs one Easter weekend.

As if this one tragedy, and the fall out of the family dealing with it, is not enough, there are more incidents and poor choices and mistakes and... The Bird family is a catalyst in a bubbling caldron of melodrama and dysfunction. The story unfolds through emails Lorelei is sending in 2011, the present day tragedy that must be dealt with, flashbacks as the children are growing up, and through the voice of several different characters.

I decided on my highest recommendation for The House We Grew Up In for several reasons. This novel is very well written and not just a soap opera of troubles. The development of the characters and the progression of their problems were believable, even if many of their choices that created more problems were unfathomable. The narrative is plotted with care as more, new information about past and current issues is slowly revealed.  It is totally engrossing and entertaining. You will be anxiously turning the pages to read what happens next. In the end I decided that I was completely immersed in the story, and, much like an episode of a show on hoarders, repulsed but intent on finding out what could possibly happen next.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of 
Atria Books for review purposes.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The 6th Extinction

The 6th Extinction by James Rollins
HarperCollins: 8/12/2014
eBook, 448 pages

ISBN-13: 9780061784811
Sigma Force SeriesSeries #10

A remote military research station sends out a frantic distress call, ending with a chilling final command: Kill us all! Personnel from the neighboring base rush in to discover everyone already dead-and not just the scientists, but every living thing for fifty square miles is annihilated: every animal, plant, and insect, even bacteria.
The land is entirely sterile-and the blight is spreading.
To halt the inevitable, Commander Gray Pierce and Sigma must unravel a threat that rises out of the distant past, to a time when Antarctica was green and all life on Earth balanced upon the blade of a knife. Following clues from an ancient map rescued from the lost Library of Alexandria, Sigma will discover the truth about an ancient continent, about a new form of death buried under miles of ice.
From millennia-old secrets out of the frozen past to mysteries buried deep in the darkest jungles of today, Sigma will face its greatest challenge to date: stopping the coming extinction of mankind.
But is it already too late?

My Thoughts: 

The 6th Extinction by James Rollins is the very highly recommended 10th Sigma Force Novel, but more importantly, it is a terrific thriller that will deliver an action packed ride to the suspenseful end. This is not a leisurely read. It is a "stuck overnight at the airport book," meaning The 6th Extinction will keep you up, awake, and entertained with minimum trips to find coffee or a distraction. In fact, you will be a toe-tapping, nail-biting mess trying to read fast enough to find what will happen next. (And I literally was a toe-tapping, nail-biting mess reading while waiting for my car's oil to be changed today.) 

A distress call comes out of an old military station in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, by Mono Lake, asking for someone to, "Kill us all!" Jenna Beck, a California State Park Ranger and her dog, Nikko, go up to investigate and quickly become part of something much larger than anything she could anticipate. It appears everything near the site is dead - and then commandos in black from a ubiquitous black helicopter fly in to finish the job. The site is blown up, releasing a man-made pathogen that kills everything.

The Sigma Force is called into action to find out what the pathogen is, where the scientist in charge has been taken, who is attacking them and the scientists, and where the genesis of the pathogen can be found. Their teams must travel from California to Brazil to Antarctica in a race to discover the answers and stop the madness before it causes the 6th extinction, this time of the human race.

Rollins always delivers the goods! 

This thriller benefits from all the real science and research Rollins does to enhance the book. (Those who miss Michael Crichton's books, take note.) The 6th Extinction is full of science and history. Rollins clues you in at the end what science and research is real, what research or beliefs the scientific debates and theories are based on, and where the science is heading, along with other information. I love that about his books. Rollins not only provides us with an excellent, electrifying thriller full of action and adventure, he also treats his readers with respect and a nod to their intelligence and comprehension.

Having read all the Sigma force novels (or almost all of them), I could easily follow along with the many characters and the action. I really think that you could jump into the series and still finish the book with just as much enjoyment. Of course, then I'm predicting that you'll then want to go back and read the other Sigma force novels - and everything else Rollins has written.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of 
HarperCollins for review purposes.


Monday, August 4, 2014


California by Edan Lepucki
Little, Brown and Company: 7/8/2014
eBook, 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316250818
The world Cal and Frida have always known is gone, and they've left the crumbling city of Los Angeles far behind them. They now live in a shack in the wilderness, working side-by-side to make their days tolerable in the face of hardship and isolation. Mourning a past they can't reclaim, they seek solace in each other. But the tentative existence they've built for themselves is thrown into doubt when Frida finds out she's pregnant.
Terrified of the unknown and unsure of their ability to raise a child alone, Cal and Frida set out for the nearest settlement, a guarded and paranoid community with dark secrets. These people can offer them security, but Cal and Frida soon realize this community poses dangers of its own. In this unfamiliar world, where everything and everyone can be perceived as a threat, the couple must quickly decide whom to trust.
A gripping and provocative debut novel by a stunning new talent, California imagines a frighteningly realistic near future, in which clashes between mankind's dark nature and deep-seated resilience force us to question how far we will go to protect the ones we love.

My Thoughts:

California by Edan Lepucki is a so-so character study of a relationship that, very coincidentally, takes place in a post-apocalyptic future.
Society has broken down. Apparently Eastern and Southern states have been devastated/wiped out by hurricanes and the Midwest by blizzards. A flu epidemic has further reduced the population. The wealthy live isolated in sort of city/state gated communities where they keep all supplies and medical facilities for themselves.

Cal and Frida have left L.A. behind them and have found a shed in the woods that they are taking over in an attempt to live off the land away from the disintegrating urban areas. Frida has brought along a turkey baster, which she cherishes. They live out in the woods for two years, eventually taking over a cabin when they find their closest neighbors dead. But after Frida discovers she is pregnant, they decide that they need the protection/help that can be found in a larger community, so they seek shelter among the nearby group they have heard about. Once they are there, the two discover that they both have a connection to the groups leader and allowed to stay (Frida brought her turkey baster with her, naturally). The group may have more secrets than it seems at first.

The description of California makes it seem far more compelling than it is in reality. This is more of a character study of Frida and Cal, and their relationship. And lots of pondering of Frida's turkey baster. (I am not kidding. The turkey baster is a character.) As characters, I found Frida annoying and Cal boring. More importantly, I didn't believe for a minute that either one of them would make it anywhere in the wilderness on their own. I kept reading, hoping that there would be a huge twist or some earth-shattering information would be revealed, but.... nothing. The big surprises weren't that surprising.  (I was at least expecting something revolving around that stupid turkey baster. )

And that really signifies the problem with California - it ends up feeling like a grab-bag of ideas with no firm commitment to any one of them. The hurricanes and blizzards, mentioned in passing, both seem like they would be more compelling settings for a drama about societal breakdowns amid natural and man-made disasters rather than these two bumbling about in the woods. This book is simply a way to pass the time, nothing special, which is disappointing because I was looking forward to reading it.

Excerpt - first chapter which includes the introduction to the turkey baster

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Little, Brown and Company for review purposes.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

All We Had

All We Had by Annie Weatherwax
Scribner: 8/5/2014
eBook, 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9781476755205

...For thirteen-year-old Ruthie Carmichael and her mother, Rita, life has never been stable. The only sure thing is their love for each other. Though Rita works more than one job, the pair teeters on the edge of poverty. When their landlord kicks them out, Rita resorts to her movie-star looks and produces carpet-installer Phil, "an instant boyfriend," who takes them in.
Before long, Ruthie convinces her mother to leave and in their battered Ford Escort, they head East in search of a better life. When money runs out and their car breaks down, they find themselves stranded in a small town called Fat River where their luck finally takes a turn. Rita lands a steady job waitressing at Tiny’s, the local diner. With enough money to pay their bills, they rent a house and Fat River becomes the first place they call home.
Peter Pam, Tiny’s transgender waitress and the novel’s voice of warmth and reason, becomes Ruthie’s closest friend. Arlene, the no-nonsense head waitress, takes Rita under her wing. The townspeople—Hank and Dotty Hanson, the elderly owners of the embattled local hardware store, and even their chatter-mouth neighbor Patti—become Ruthie and Rita’s family....
Accomplished visual artist Annie Weatherwax has written a stunning, heartrending first novel. Ruthie’s wry voice and razor sharp observations about American life in the twenty-first century infuse the prose with disarming honesty and humor. All We Had heralds the arrival of a powerful new voice in contemporary fiction.

My Thoughts:

All We Had by Annie Weatherwax is a highly recommended mother/daughter novel that looks at the gritty side of poverty, sometimes with humor, but always with empathy.

Rita and Ruthie Carmichael are a mother and daughter who are used to moving often and scrambling to try and find a way to live. That may mean working several jobs or it may mean Rita will be looking for a new "sugar daddy" for them to live with. Rita has frequently resorted to using her sexuality to help her get what she wants or needs, a fact that 13 year old Ruthie, the narrator of All We Had, is well aware of either because she witnessed the acts or because Rita told her what she did. Ruthie will tell you that her mother's favorite word is the F word.

They are currently living with Phil in CA, but Ruthie easily convinces Rita that it is time to move on. After stealing his things and pawning what they could, the two set off across the country and end up stranded in Fat River, a small town in NY. Rita accepts a waitressing job and Ruthie a job as a dishwasher at Tiny's Grub 'n' Go, a diner. For Ruthie this becomes one of the happiest periods in her life. She adores
Peter Pam, a caring, funny transgender waitress. They make friends with Mel, the owner, and Arlene, the head waitress, as well as some neighbors when they rent and later buy a house. For once Ruthie feels some stability in her life.

Ruthie is an intelligent girl who does not mince words when describing what Rita does and where things are headed. When they fall on some hard times, after the long stretch of almost normalcy, Rita resorts to her tricks, what she knows how to do to survive, which puts Ruthie in a bind. She wants to stay in Fat River. When you are used to living so close to the bottom all the time, any sense of community and camaraderie is something to cherish.

I'm going to admit that at the beginning of All We Had I wasn't enjoying the novel. It gets much better once the pair settle down in Fat River. The character of Rita, the mother, is especially had to feel much empathy for because of all her extremely bad, selfish choices. Ruthie, however, will steal your heart. You will be wishing her all the best.

Weatherwax has written an excellent novel in All We Had. The characters were well developed, the descriptions very visual (it's the artist in her), and the plot moved along at a good pace. I'm anticipating she'll come back with another winner soon. (All We Had has been optioned to be made into a movie.)

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Scribner via Netgalley for review purposes.

Friday, August 1, 2014

A History of the Future

A History of the Future  by James Howard Kunstler
Grove/Atlantic: 8/5/2014

eBook, 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780802122520
#3 A World Made By Hand Novels

A History of the Future is the third thrilling novel in Kunstler’s "World Made By Hand" series, an exploration of family and morality as played out in the small town of Union Grove.
Following the catastrophes of the twenty-first century—the pandemics, the environmental disaster, the end of oil, the ensuing chaos—people are doing whatever they can to get by and pursuing a simpler and sometimes happier existence. In little Union Grove in upstate New York, the townspeople are preparing for Christmas. Without the consumerist shopping frenzy that dogged the holidays of the previous age, the season has become a time to focus on family and loved ones. It is a stormy Christmas Eve when Robert Earle’s son Daniel arrives back from his two years of sojourning throughout what is left of the United States. He collapses from exhaustion and illness, but as he recovers tells the story of the break-up of the nation into three uneasy independent regions and his journey into the dark heart of the New Foxfire Republic centered in Tennesee and led by the female evangelical despot, Loving Morrow. In the background, Union Grove has been shocked by the Christmas Eve double murder by a young mother, in the throes of illness, of her husband and infant son. Town magistrate Stephen Bullock is in a hanging mood.
A History of the Future is attention-grabbing and provocative, but also lyrical, tender, and comic—a vision of a future of America that is becoming more and more convincing and perhaps even desirable with each passing day.
My Thoughts:

A History of the Future  by James Howard Kunstler is the highly recommended third book in the World Made by Hand series. These books are set in a future America after a complete economic, political, and cultural collapse has occurred. Epidemics have swept the land and the population has been decimated. In this world, those who are going to survive are forced to live literally by what they can do with their own hands and labor. It is sort of a dystopian pioneer setting - the simple life but in a changed, harsh world.

It is just before Christmas in the town of Union Grove in upstate New York. While there is no electricity, the town is doing what it can to decorate and celebrate a much simpler holiday, but perhaps one with more meaning after the catastrophes of previous years. The New Faith Covenant Brotherhood Church has opened a tavern, a pet project for Brother Jobe, which gives the townspeople a place to fellowship and helps bring a sense of a new normalcy returning to Union Grove. Andrew Pendergast is thriving. He has kept busy, and with his many varied interests, is actually doing quite well in this new world where self-sufficiency is the key.

But then the unthinkable happens - a double murder. It appears that Mandy Stokes, a woman whose sanity is truly in question, has murdered her child and husband on Christmas Eve. She needs to be locked up. The Brotherhood volunteers a place where this is possible and now the town must decide how to proceed. Is there a legal system intact to handle a murder trial? During the same time, Daniel Earle, the son of Mayor Robert Earle who left Union Grove at the end of the first book, World Made By Hand, has returned home. Emaciated, exhausted, and ill, Daniel needs a chance to recover, but even more important is the news he brings of the fractured outside world. 

The series started with World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron. Although I have read World Made By Hand, I have not read the second book and had no problem following the story. It might behoove readers interested in this series to at least read World Made By Hand first.

Many of the same concerns I had with World Made By Hand continued with A History of the Future, with the exception of tying up the loose ends of the story. Naturally, if you are writing a series of books set in the same world, certain parts of the story and plot may continue on into the next novel, so that problem was neatly answered.  The female characters continue to feel one dimensional and I still know that people around my part of the country could survive and thrive because they have a wealth of skills and knowledge that the people of Union Grove, NY, are somehow lacking. It is encouraging that the survivors are doing better and learning old/new-to-them skills.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
Grove/Atlantic for review purposes.