Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Beginner's Guide to Paradise

A Beginner's Guide to Paradise by Alex Sheshunoff
Penguin: 9/1/15
eBook review copy; 464 pages

ISBN-13: 9780451475862

A Beginner's Guide to Paradise: 9 Steps to Giving Up Everything by Alex Sheshunoff is a highly recommended humorous, anecdotal travelogue. This is the guide for those who want a hilarious look at someone who drops everything to move to an island.  He  lists the nine titular steps as: 1. Pick an Island; 2. Ask some Questions (but not too many); 3. Adjust Loincloth; 4. Find a Safety Pin... 5. And some Lucky Strikes; 6. Study the Art of the Rope Ladder; 7. Do as Chief Chuck does; 8. Reflect, Briefly; 9. And Hope for the Best.

After having a quarter life crisis, Alex left his dot com start-up business in NYC, broke up with his girlfriend, packed up 100 books he felt he should read, and took off for a South Pacific Island hoping to find paradise. He visits the islands of Yap, Pig, Palau, Angaur, and Guam. At the beginning of each chapter is a short, humorous "What You Can Expect to Learn in This Chapter" section that can take the form of quizzes, anecdotal information, or questions that will be answered in the chapter. For photos and much more information visit his website:

Alex didn't have much of a plan before he took off to discover paradise so this travelogue is more of a travel misadventure full of happenstance and surprises as he tries to negotiate his way among the islanders and find a place for himself. While nothing really startling actually happens (except for the turtle incident which some readers might want to skip) Alex tells the story of his travels and adventures, such as they are, in a self-deprecating humorous style that should keep readers entertained.  In the end he does, in fact, wear a loin cloth, find love, build a house, and diaper a baby monkey. While doing all of this there is a generous amount of humor along with some personal reflection.

This is a seriously funny book perfect for a relaxing night of escapism. The writing style flows smoothly in an almost conversational-story-telling style. Sheshunoff is not trying to change the world or come up with some profound thoughts during his navel gazing adventures (the book will explain that). He just needed a vacation and took it a little further than most of us would have done.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Penguin books and Penguin First Reads for review purposes. 

Waiting on God

Waiting on God by Wayne Stiles
Baker Books: 8/18/15
eBook review copy; 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780801018459

Waiting on God: What to Do When God Does Nothing is a highly recommended combination Bible Study on the life of Joseph with anecdotal personal insights and applications by Wayne Stiles.

Sometimes God seems silent or absent in our lives and going to the Bible to study and consider the life of Joseph presents a perfect example of waiting on God for years. We can be confused as to why God hasn't answered our prayers, but God's answer often requires a more active role from us rather than just waiting for our circumstances to change. Stiles points out that God may be waiting for us to change - and our circumstances may even worsen while He patiently waits for us to make those changes. We need patience too. Patience is the art of waiting well.

Hard times and difficulties are normal. God's people were never promised a trouble free life and Joseph's life is a perfect example to consider. God does make promises to believers, but there are lessons we may need to learn in the in-between time of waiting. God never said we wouldn't have troubles. In fact, we should expect trouble and difficulties (1 Thess. 3:3–4; 1 John 3:13; 1 Peter 4:12) as a normal part of our lives... along with waiting.

Here Stiles goes through the life of Joseph and considers his life (as well as the lives of his family) in comparison to things and circumstances we might go through today. Stiles uses many personal examples to make the story more pertinent to lives today and help readers see how Joseph's story is applicable to their lives, their personal stories. This isn't really a devotional or a Bible study, per se, but a study of one story and how it can be interpreted to encourage, help, and challenge us in our Christian walk today.

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


X by Sue Grafton
Penguin: 8/25/15
eBook review copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399163845
Kinsey Millhone Series #24

X by Sue Grafton is a very highly recommended 24th book in the series featuring private investigator Kinsey Millhone. I've read almost all the books in the series with the exception of the ones published in the last couple of years. It was great to have my memory jump-started on why I originally liked the character of Kinsey Millhone so much. A large part of that enjoyment is due to accomplished writer Sue Grafton's ability to present a complex plot and bring it to such a satisfying conclusion. Even if this is your first introduction to the series and the characters, I think you are going to enjoy X.

In a change of pace, the titular "X" stands alone. It could stand for several characters or words in this novel set in 1989 in Santa Teresa, CA. There is a drought and landlord Henry Pitts is busy trying to get their water consumption under control. Kinsey has met with a client, Hallie Bettancourt, who wanted her to find the contact information for Christian Satterfield. He's recently been released from prison. Hallie claims he is the son she gave up for adoption at age 15. Kinsey easily finds out the information only to discover, after she's passed it on, that Hallie is not a real person and she's paid for Kinsey's services with marked $100 bills.

At the same time she is trying to help her friend Ruthie Wolinsky go through a box of paperwork/files of her late husband to find some files for the IRS. Pete Wolinsky was also a PI and was shot during a robbery a year ago. Kinsey is sure he was crooked, but she likes Ruthie, so she is trying to help her. While going through the files she discovers a false bottom in the box that contains an envelope addressed to someone else and in the files a sheet of paper written in code. Kinsey inevitably ends up trying to finish/solve the case the Pete was working on before his death, which becomes much more dangerous that she ever would have imagined.

This makes it sound simple, but everything going on in Kinsey's life is always much more complex than the initial situation would suggest.

Sue Grafton is an exceptional writer. Not only does she provide us with another complex plot and several cases to solve, she imbibes the character of Kinsey with wry humor and insight into human behavior. This is a win/win situation: great writing and plot. Now that I have been reminded about how good this series really is, I need to go back and get the (few) letters I missed in the alphabet series.

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

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Drowned Boy

The Drowned Boy by Karin Fossum
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 8/25/15
eBook review copy, 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780544483965

The Drowned Boy by Karin Fossum is a highly recommended eleventh book in the Norwegian police procedural featuring Inspectors Konrad Sejer and Jakob Skarre.  Be forewarned that the novel opens with a very graphic description of what happens when someone drowns.

Tommy Brandt, a healthy 16-month-old boy with Down syndrome, is found drowned in the pond behind his parent's house. Carmen Zita, Tommy's mother, claims he wandered outside when she was cleaning, or in the bathroom washing out some clothes. She had left the back door open because it was so hot and Tommy must have walked down to the pond and fell in. His father, Nicolai Brandt, was in the basement fixing a bicycle. He rushed outside when he heard Carmen yelling, after she found Tommy, but it was too late.

The problem is that something is not quite right about Carmen's behavior. She's crying, but it also appears to be an act rather than true mourning. The boy's father is seriously grieving and never considered a suspect. The two present a stark contrast in their different behavior. The drowning may be an accident, as Carmen claims,  but she seems to be having a hard time remembering exactly what she was doing when Tommy would have wandered down to the pond and drowned. She also seems very eager to pack up and move out all of Tommy's things.

Carmen's story changes after the autopsy. The inspectors are even more suspicious, but have nothing to definitively prove Carmen is lying. Complicating the interpersonal dynamics is Papa Zita, Carmen's father. Carmen's a daddy's girl, and her father is right there, supporting her every statement as fact and trying to help. Papa Zita owns a fast food restaurant where Nicolai and Carmen both work.

The writing in this series is very much to the point and concise. There is not a lot of extra verbiage and descriptions beyond just what is needed to propel the story forward. It should also be noted that The Drowned Boy is more psychological study than a police procedural. Carmen's odd behavior will stand out in stark contrast to Nicolai's grief. She is determined to move on, maybe have another child, while Nicolai is completely overwhelmed with grief. The incongruity between the two is startling. When the question is raised if it would have been better for Carmen to have aborted Tommy, she thinks it would have been better while Nicolai most decidedly says no. (Those following the series will also be concerned about Sejer's recent dizzy spells and his reluctance to go to the doctor.)

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for review purposes.

Thug Notes

Thug Notes: A Street-Smart Guide to Classic Literature by Sparky Sweets, PhD
Vintage: 8/18/15

eBook review copy: 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101873045

Thug Notes: A Street-Smart Guide to Classic Literature by Sparky Sweets, PhD is CliffsNotes and SparkNotes written in gangsta. With a wise-cracking street sensibility, it breaks down the plots and analyzes 16 literary classics. The titles analyzed include: Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird. Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, Invisible Man, Lord of the Flies, Moby Dick, A Raisin in the Sun. Hamlet, Fahrenheit 451, The Catcher in the Rye, Crime and Punishment, Things Fall Apart, The Color Purple, and The Scarlet Letter. There is also a Bibliography.

What you need to know is that Thug Notes began as a humorous online series presented by Sparky Sweets, PhD, and Wisecrack. Sparky Sweets, PhD, is comedian, writer, and actor Greg Edwards. The videos of this series have been used in classrooms to try to make classic literature accessible, which lead to this written guide. The guide does a good job breaking the selections down to the essential basics. He begins by introducing characters, and then does a walk-through analysis of the plot. Included are important themes, symbolism, and passages. But keep in mind all of this is written in "thug" or street language.

I, personally, struggled with reading the actual guide because of the language and phonetic spelling used in the conversational gangsta-street-talk-style. I think I can follow the videos easier than the written guide. (Some of my struggle also involved a technical issue with how the review copy interfaced with the eReader program I use on my tablet.)

While I think Thug Notes has its place and could be beneficial, I'm having a hard time rating this one. I think the videos are far easier to follow than the written guide. Recommended for those who need some gangsta interjected in their study of classic literature.

Disclosure: My eBook edition was courtesy of
Vintage for review purposes.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

The Murderer's Daughter

The Murderer's Daughter by Jonathan Kellerman
Random House: 8/18/15
eBook review copy, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780345545312

The Murderer's Daughter by Jonathan Kellerman is a recommended stand-alone thriller.

Grace Blades is an intelligent, very independent woman who works as a psychologist specializing in treating victims of trauma. She is highly recommended in referrals because of her devotion to and great empathy for her patients. Much of Grace's success is due to her horrific childhood. She was a neglected child living in an abusive environment. After witnessing her parents murder/suicide at age 5, she spent several years in the foster care system. She had a secure home, finally, at age 11. Her background helps her understand and treat her patients.

Now Grace is a consummate professional and devoted to her patients by day, but engages in secretive, risky, dangerous behavior in her free time. She has it down to a science how to initiate a one-night-stand, or really just a quick hook-up to get what she wants from a man with no commitment.

When Grace's latest patient turns out to be the man she gave a fake name during to the escapades of the night before, both are shocked. Her new patient gave her a fake name the previous night too. After an uncomfortable brief meeting, Grace learns that the man came to see her because of a paper she had written years ago on under the burden of being related to a murderer, or living with evil. He quickly leaves her office and later turns up dead.

Grace tries to figure out who this man really was, since he seems to have given her yet another alias for his office visit. He said he was from San Antonio, TX and came just to see her, but that also seems to be untrue. And now someone might be following Grace, but she needs to figure out why by herself so her secret duplicitous activities aren't exposed.

The Murderer's Daughter is very well written. I wouldn't expect anything less from Kellerman, who has successfully penned his Alex Delaware series for years. Here, however, there is a plethora of background information on Grace in chapters that alternate with the present day.  I was heartbroken and very sympathetic with young Grace and her situation. I didn't so much care for adult Grace and her reckless, foolish behavior, so I had a difficult time sympathizing with her. If she is as intelligent as she is purported to be, she should be smart enough to figure out a safer way to engage in her reckless sexual behavior. Hooking-up with random strangers is stupid.

What the novel felt like, in the end, was the first book for a new series in which all the character's background information was presented. The thriller felt like it was added in between the character development chapters.

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

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Oregon Trail

The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck
Simon & Schuster: 6/30/15
eBook review copy, 464 pages
ISBN-13: 9781451659160

The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck is a very highly recommended account of two brothers traveling along the Oregon Trail today.

Author Rinker Buck, his brother Nick and Nick's “incurably filthy” Jack Russell terrier named Olive Oyl traveled over 2000 miles for four months along a route that was the Oregon Trail. They went from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Baker City, Oregon, through six present-day states, Missouri, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming, Idaho, and Oregon, in a covered wagon pulled by three mules named Jake, Beck, and Bute. In the fifteen years before the Civil War 400,000 pioneers used the trail to emigrate west. The last documented crossing was in 1909, so this trip was a historical reenactment or at least a taste of what happened during the great exodus west.

All it took to spark Rinker Buck's decision to travel the trail was learning from Duane Durst, an administrator from the Kansas Historical Society, that the 2100 mile length of the trail has been "meticulously charted and marked, with long, undeveloped spaces now preserved as a National Historic Trail. Except for two bad stretches of suburban sprawl around Scottsbluff, Nebraska, and Boise, Idaho, most of the rest of the trail is still accessible along remote farm and ranch roads in the West." Rink decided he had to travel the trail, and do it in as authentic a manner as possible.

If a travelogue of his adventures on the Oregon Trail today wasn't enough, Buck also includes a plethora of additional information on a wide variety of topics related to the trip. We learn a great deal about mules, wagons, the pioneers, cholera, marking the trail, plants along the way, burials along the trail, and the Mormon experience, to name a handful of topics. Buck also talks about a trip his family made in 1958. At that time his father decided to take his family on a month long "See America Slowly" vacation. They traveled in a covered wagon from central New Jersey across the Delaware River to south central Pennsylvania on a month long trip.

On the back of the wagon for this childhood trip his father had a sign made that said: "We’re Sorry For The Delay—But We Want The Children To SEE AMERICA SLOWLY New Vernon, New Jersey to Valley Forge, Lancaster, Gettysburg, Penna." For their new trip Nick had taken the board to a sign painter in Maine for the similar messaging he considered appropriate for our trip. Painted on the back of the original sign was the new one: "We Are Sorry For The Delay, But We Want To SEE AMERICA SLOWLY St. Joseph, Ft. Kearny, Scott’s Bluff, South Pass, Farewell Bend."

Buck is a perfect writer for this harrowing adventure. As he writes, "Only a delusional jackass, or someone seriously off his medications, would pull off the road at the Hollenberg Ranch one fine summer afternoon and concoct such a preposterous scheme. But you can’t save an addictive dreamer from himself, and that jackass happens to be me." He's a great story teller and includes a lot of self-deprecating humor along with all the additional support information. Even while letting us in on the mishaps and failures of the present trip, he includes references to past experiences and stories from his childhood, and manages to tie the two experiences together.

After spending my early years in Nebraska, I learned about the history of the Oregon Trail every year of elementary school. It was fascinating to read this account of the trail today and the hazards crossing it. The year Rinker and Nick undertook this adventure was also a very wet year, with lots of rain, thunderstorms, and flooding, so it was not an easy year to travel the trail. I had to laugh at the fact that: "The brisk and incessant prairie winds of Kansas and Nebraska were one of the most persistent obstacles to travel that the pioneers complained about in their journals." I thoroughly enjoyed this book!

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Simon & Schuster for review purposes.

Saturday, August 15, 2015


Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books by Michael Dirda
Pegasus: 8/15/15
eBook review copy, 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781605988443

Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living with Books by Michael Dirda is a very highly recommended bookish book and perfect for bibliophiles.

If you need more of an explanation, it is a collection of fifty essays that Dirda wrote between February 2012 and February 2013 for the American Scholar. These are not heavy, scholarly essays, although they do contain a wealth of information, but they are for the most part personal reflections written in a conversational style.

In the introduction Dirda writes: "Please bear in mind that these are light essays, meant to be entertaining. They aren’t jokey precisely, but they do have jokes in them. And lots of allusions and quotations, as well as the occasional pun. Now and again, I go off on rants, sometimes I make up lists, at other times I describe my misadventures at literary conventions and conferences." He continues "I’ve retained the name Browsings as the title of this collection, even though it is something of a misnomer. Rather than chronicling “the adventures of a soul among the masterpieces,” I quickly gravitated to talking digressively, and I hope amusingly, about bookishness itself. These are, in fact, very much personal pieces, the meandering reflections of a literary sybarite."

For those of us who are fellow bibliophiles, not only are these essays entertaining and engaging, they also will provide you with a list of things you simply must read someday. Keep a preferred writing implement handy so you can make lists on your preferred type of paper/notebook. This is especially true if you enjoy discovering early, classic science fiction or adventure tales. Dirda has a wealth of information and knowledge that he shares in these essays. Some extoll the wonder of discovery when a perfect, longed for edition of a book is found by chance in a used book store, a feeling many of us can appreciate. Dirda, for all his unpretentiousness about his knowledge, accomplishments, and literary acquaintances, will impress most book lovers. Some of these essays filled me longing and a desire to sit down and just listen to him talk. And maybe get a peek at his basement. And book shelves. And then listen some more.

Not all of the essays are about books. There is one about pets. There are several essays that are best described as rants. These include a trip to a Colorado state park that was undergoing road construction, enduring repeated week long power outages by Pepco (Potomac Electric Power Company), life in Washington DC area, and American culture. Most of the essays, even if they touch on other subjects, have some tie-in to literature.

In the afterword Dirda notes all the other writing he did during this time. It's impressive. Dirda is the weekly book columnist for the Washington Post and received the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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

Friday, August 14, 2015

The New Sorrows of Young W.

The New Sorrows of Young W. by Ulrich Plenzdorf
Romy Fursland (Translator)
Pushkin Press: 8/11/15
eBook review copy, 160 pages
ISBN-13: 9781782271130

The New Sorrows of Young W. by Ulrich Plenzdorf is a recommended satirical novel that was originally published in 1972 in Germany. This re-released edition is translated from the German by Romy Fursland.

Edgar Wibeau, a 17 year old drop out, is found dead, electrocuted, inside a condemned building in Berlin with just a tape recorder and a battered copy of Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther. Edgar had previously sent tapes discussing his life to his friend Willi Linder. His father, hoping to find an explanation for his son's death, now listens to the tapes and retraces Edgar's travels, from Mittenberg to Berlin, since he left home.  The voice of Edgar's spirit interjects comments and explanations along the way as his father visits Charlie, the kindergarten teacher Edgar loved, and Addi, Edgar's last employer.

The New Sorrows of Young W. is a parody of and follows The Sufferings of Young Werther. Goethe's work is often quoted along the way, creating a work of intertextuality between the two. Along with Young Wether, Plenzdorf also includes tie-ins to Salinger's Holden Caulfield, the standard for teen arrogance and angst. The result is a funny, absurd, and tragic coming of age story set in East Germany.

Having never read Goethe's original but well acquainted with Salinger, I found this novel amusing and entertaining. The whole part on blue jeans, how they should be worn and who can wear them was pretty funny, even as it served as a symbolic representation of communism in East Germany. While the novel is dated, it was interesting and insightful. It might be more entertaining if I had been a teenage boy.

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

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Days of Awe

Days of Awe by Lauren Fox
Knopf Doubleday: 8/4/15
eBook review copy, 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780307268129

Days of Awe by Lauren Fox is a very highly recommended novel about loss and change. What Lauren Fox presents us with is a year in a woman's life; a year of loss when her world and family is changing dramatically.

Isabel Applebaum Moore and Josie Abrams met as teachers at Rhodes Avenue Middle School and quickly became best friends. Izzy even introduced Josie to her childhood friend, Mark, and he and Josie married. But now Josie has died in a car crash, leaving a hole in Izzy's life. She is understandably full of grief, but on top of this, her world begins falling apart. Izzy's marriage to Chris becomes full of stress and Chris moves out, into his own apartment. Their 11 year old daughter Hannah, who is also mourning Josie, must now deal with her parent's separation. Added to this is the fact that Izzy's mother who lives nearby, has had a stroke and Izzy can see that she is aging.

Izzy's overwhelming sadness as she grieves the loss of her friend is understandable, but soon it becomes clear that she is grieving for much more than this one unexpected death and her changing family. She is grieving for the past that her mother, a Holocaust survivor, never talks about except in hints. She is grieving for the lost children of all the miscarriages she has had. She is angry at Mark for seemingly moving on way-too-quickly to a new relationship with a woman who is the antithesis of Josie. She is struggling with her previously adoring daughter suddenly turning into a teen with an attitude and insomnia.

Izzy has been a dutiful daughter, wife, mother, and best friend. These relationships have defined who she is for years. Now Izzy must come to terms with who she really is, as well as some secrets about Josie that she been unable to face.

In Izzy, Fox has created an amazing finely layered character. She can be darkly funny, acerbic, and quick witted. She feels things deeply, passionately, but not always openly. When she does comment, she has a unique voice and an individual perspective on everything.  Her struggles are universal. Her relationships are all in transition. She is seeking atonement, undertaking an introspective look at her life during this year. (The title is a nod to the Jewish Days of Awe.) I totally understood much of what she was experiencing and the depth of emotion that Fox manages to convey is very true to life.

The writing in Days of Awe is exquisite, literary, and it perfectly depicts an incredible character whose whole life is in transition. This book had me staying up way too late to finish it, the sign of a compelling story combined with great writing. I had one quibble with it: the ending was way too pat for the rest of the book. Many people liked it though, so this feeling is personal - and based on personal experience. I won't say more, but it did knock it down a star for me, until I decided I liked everything else about Days of Awe way too much to go that low.

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

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Woman with a Secret

Woman with a Secret by Sophie Hannah
HarperCollins: 8/4/15
hardcover, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062388261

Woman with a Secret by Sophie Hannah is a highly recommended police procedural.

In this latest case featuring British police officers DC Simon Waterhouse and his wife, DS Charlie Zailer, there has been a murder of a well-known columnist on Elmhirst Road in Spilling. Damon Blundy may have been well known, but he was also controversial and combative. He was killed in a way that seemed to be sending a symbolic message, but what could the message mean? And then there are the actual words painted on the wall saying, "He is no less dead." The list of enemies should be extensive, but the investigation takes notice of one car, being driven by Nicki Clements, a woman in her early forties who makes a U-turn to avoid where the police are stopping every car up ahead.

Nicki, who is trying to run an errand to her children's school, sees a cop she wants to avoid seeing again at all costs. The big question is why? What secret is Nicki trying to hide? Because Nicki's erratic behavior is captured on CCTV she is called in for questioning. Clearly, when Nicki is answering questions, she is also trying to cover up something. She has a secret, but does it have anything to do with Blundy's murder?

As part of Nicki's secrets and lies are clear to the reader, the question is how or if they are related to the case. We do know Nicki has been going online and is conducting an affair, at this point just through email, with "Gavin" after previously having another affair with someone she met online.

Parts of this story are told through Nicki, her email correspondence with Gavin, the police investigation, and Blundy's columns. It opens with a personal ad placed on a dating site that invites speculation, but is also deceptive. And that deception, the lies and secrets, are what makes up a great deal of this novel and keeps you guessing what is real and what isn't.

Hannah does an excellent job capturing the present world where we are all online, social media abounds, CCTV surveillance is common, and there are plenty of columnists that revel in being nasty and/or combative as they name names and throw accusations. It seems that everyone is striving to be more connected. She does an excellent job depicting this world where we are either trying to stand out more and set ourselves apart from the pack or we are conducting a secret life online.

The real treat to this well written novel is Simon and Charlie. Their complex relationship, interaction, and thought processes as they work together are what kept me reading.

Nicki is an unreliable narrator as well as an unlikeable character. In fact there are many unlikeable characters in this novel. So many nasty people, with the exception of Simon and Charlie, could leave you with no one to cheer for or at least hope it works out for them. On the up side, though, it also provides plenty of suspects and clues to follow in order to figure out who done it and why.

Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher and TLC for review purposes. 



Monday, August 10, 2015

The Casualties

The Casualties by Nick Holdstock
Thomas Dunne: 8/4/15
eBook review copy, 288 pages
ISBN13: 9781250059512

The Casualties by Nick Holdstock is a unique, very highly recommended novel about change.

A major disaster is heading toward the Comely Bank neighborhood of Edinburgh, Scotland. It is referenced obliquely, as if it is common knowledge, because our narrator in The Casualties is telling us about the disaster from the vantage point of sixty years in the future. What he wants to talk about are some of the inhabitants of the neighborhood and tells us their stories. He is looking back and talking about the past, in 2016 and 2017, right before the apocalypse happens and everything changes.

The narrator tells us right away that Samuel Clark, who lives in Comely Bank and runs a charity used book store, is a murderer. Sam likes to collect bits of lives that have been left in the books donated to his shop, things like old letters, photos, airline ticket stubs. He also likes to hear the stories of the people around him. Holdstock introduces us, through Sam, to the denizens Sam is curious about, and those who are obsessed with him. The exceptional people we meet are: Alasdair, the might-be-crazy man who lives under the bridge; Caitlyn, who works in the charity clothes shop next to the bookstore and has a face that develops cracks; Mr. Asham runs a store and longs to belong to the community; Mrs. Maclean taught for over forth years and longs to die; Rita and Sean are two drunks who always hang out together at the park; Toby is an extremely obese young man who craves food constantly so he must be supervised all the time; Sinead is a nymphomaniac who watches Toby but longs for Sam; Trudy is a Filipino prostitute.

It is a narrative with finely drawn characters that are well developed, remarkable, and interesting.

Holdstock presents his story from a unique viewpoint, which sets this pre-apocalypse story apart in a category all on its own. Even while introducing us to these characters and leading us up to the murder Sam is supposed to commit, Holdstock also drops small, vague references to the disaster that will be happening, a disaster that makes all the drama he is telling us about seem inconsequential. But that is the beauty of this novel. The narrator has a point of view from far in the future, a time years after the impending disaster and all the subsequent societal developments about which he hints. He's talking about the past many years ago. The happenings in the Edinburgh neighborhood are trivial in comparison to the bigger picture. We really don't know what the disaster is until we are far along in the story and even then he does not talk about that. He talks about this neighborhood just before the disaster.

And this choice is brilliant.

Holdstock creates a tension right away because we know something much bigger is coming but his narrator chooses to focus in on Sam and this odd, damaged group of people in this particular little neighborhood. He wants to tell us a story. It is akin to hearing about now what people were doing before boarding the Titanic, or just before the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, or the devastating Tsunami of 2004. A disaster much bigger than any little drama is coming, but the narrator needs to tell us this story, the story about what was happening just before the disaster to these people.

The ending might not suit everyone, but I could appreciate it in the context of the whole novel. This one was a nice surprise.

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

Saturday, August 8, 2015


Man-Eater by Harold Schechter
Little A: 8/4/15
eBook review copy, 374 pages
ISBN-13: 9781503944213

Man-Eater: The Life and Legend of an American Cannibal by Harold Schechter is a highly recommended nonfiction narrative about Alfred (Alferd) G. Packer, a prospector who was accused of cannibalism.

Six miners went into the mountains
to hunt for precious gold;
It was the middle of the winter,
the weather was dreadful cold.
Six miners went into the mountains,
they had nor food nor shack—
Six miners went into the mountains,
But only one came back.
 "The Lost Miners"(or the Ballad of Alferd Packer; nineteenth century)

In 1873 Packer and a group of five other men set off through the high mountains of Colorado to seek their fortune in gold or silver. It was winter, a brutal time to be traveling through the mountains, and the men were lost and starving. Packer was the only man to make it out alive. Though he changed his story several times, it was widely believed that he killed the others and ate them in order to survive. Packer claimed, at one point, that the men were killed by another member of the group, Shannon Wilson Bell, who Packer in turned shot before Bell killed him. Then he did eat the flesh of his deceased companions to ward off starvation. It was also believed that he may have killed the other men to rob them; he did admittedly take money from the dead men.

Schechter covers Packer's two trials, along with a plethora of historical information to place the legendary crime story in context. He includes Polly Pry's efforts on Packer's behalf, and the cultural impact of Packer's story. For example, a cafeteria at the University of Colorado Boulder is named after Packer,  several films and a musical based on the story have been made, and songs have been written about it. Schechter also discusses James Starr's efforts in to use modern forensic science techniques to resolve the questions surrounding Packer's case. 

This is one of those books that is simply interesting to read. If you enjoy nonfiction about the late 1800s, prospectors, cases of cannibalism in US history, and sensational historical figures, this may be a good choice for you. Written in 50 short, well organized chapters, the book includes chapter notes and a bibliography.

(The spelling of the name Alfred as “Alferd” is because Packer didn’t know how to spell his name when younger and used the alternate misspelling.)

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

Thursday, August 6, 2015

We Believe the Children

We Believe the Children by Richard Beck
PublicAffairs: 8/4/15
eBook review copy, 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781610392877

We Believe the Children: A Moral Panic in the 1980s by Richard Beck is a highly recommended examination of the panic over alleged horrific abuse by day care workers in the 1980's. Beck is primarily focusing on the history of the allegations, why it may have happened, and several other topics related to the discussion rather than presenting new information about this time in history. I vividly recall all the outrage and panic coverage over these cases in the 1980s when the McMartin Preschool became a whispered household word and accusations of satanic ritual abuse was seemingly everywhere.

"[I]n California, New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Massachusetts, Florida, Tennessee, Texas, Ohio, and elsewhere, day care workers were arrested, charged, tried, and convicted of committing horrible sexual crimes against the children they cared for. These crimes, social workers and prosecutors said, had gone undetected for years, and they consisted of a brutality and sadism that defied all imagining. The dangers of babysitting services and day care centers became a national news media fixation. Of the many hundreds of people who were investigated in connection with day care and ritual abuse cases around the country, some 190 were formally charged with crimes, leading to more than 80 convictions."

I also recall some of the more sensational and less than stellar media coverage surrounding the outbreak (Geraldo Rivera) as well as coverage on 20/20 and 60 minutes. For all the accusations, outrage, and charges, though, no evidence was found for many of the claims.  The McMartin case, one of the longest and most expensive trials in history, resulted in no convictions.

Beck, an editor at n+1, a New York-based literary magazine, examines how social workers, therapists and police officers helped induce children to tell elaborate stories about abuse that never took place. The methods used by these professionals and investigators encouraged children to lie and tell those investigating what they wanted to hear. The whole atmosphere at the time was akin to a witch hunt, and Beck does make the comparison to the Salem Witch trials, with the difference being the accused witches were later given an apology.

There is a lot of extraneous information included in this presentation of the facts, including multiple personality disorder and recovered memory therapy along with anti-pornography efforts and Christian concerns about the family. Some of this extra information, while interesting, could have been reduced or eliminated. Becks ultimate theory as to why he thinks the societal hysteria took place is interesting, although I'm not sure I totally agree with his conclusions.

This is well written and well researched look at the fear that created a cultural disaster. Beck includes plenty of documentation to support the research in his presentation. My advanced reading copy included the footnotes and the final book will have an index.

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

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Marriage of Opposites

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
Simon & Schuster: 8/4/15
eBook review copy, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781451693591

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman is a highly recommended novel of historical fiction about the mother of painter Camille Pissarro.

Rachel Manzana Pomié grew up on the tropical island of St. Thomas in the early 1800s. Her father is a merchant on the island and her family was part of the Jewish community who settled there for religious freedom under the protection of Denmark. Her family brought an apple tree with them to the tropics because it is the basis for their name, but, although the apple tree lived, it never flourished. The family also survived, but did not flourish on the island. While her father taught her to read and doted on her, her mother is harsh and does not want a daughter. Her mother favors a nephew she adopted as a baby.

Rachel knows her mother's harsh tongue and manner, but she is decidedly an unconventional girl who just happened to live in a time not well suited for her strength of character, societal rule breaking, and love of reading. The family maid is a source of great comfort and support and her daughter, Jestine, is Rachel's life-long friend. Rachel longs to go to Paris, but the nephew is sent instead. Rachel is then married off to Isaac Petit, a widower over twice her age,  to save the family business from financial ruin. Isaac has three children and Rachel quickly adds 3 more children to the family.

When Isaac suddenly dies, as a woman Rachel is left with nothing. Her husband inherited her father's business interests and now his nephew will inherit it all. Rachel is 29, caring for 6 children and about to give birth to a seventh. When the nephew, Frédérick, who is 22, arrives, it begins a love affair of the heart and a marriage that breaks Jewish laws and causes them to be outcasts in society. From their marriage Jacobo Camille Pissarro is born.

Hoffman's expressive writing style, rich in descriptions, folklore, and historical fact, is well suited for this novel. She manages to capture life on St. Thomas in the 1800's and brings Rachel to life, showing her formative years, island superstitions, struggles, and determination. There is some magic realism thrown into the story.  While closely following the historical facts, Hoffman embellished and added some characters for depth.

The Marriage of Opposites will appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction - especially historical fiction that is well well-written, carefully researched, closely follows historical facts, and realistically and accurately portrays the historical time, place, and setting.  While it does move a tad bit slow at times,
The Marriage of Opposites brings a small part of history to life.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
Simon & Schuster for review purposes.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Night Sister

The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon
Knopf Doubleday: 8/4/15
eBook review copy, 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385538510

The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon is a very highly recommended novel that combines suspense and fantasy as it explores the bonds between sisters and the downfall of keeping secrets. McMahon is swiftly becoming one of my go-to authors for the combination of consistently great writing with a compelling narrative. She delivers on both counts here.

The Night Sister opens with a horrific murder. It appears the Amy Slater has killed her family and then herself at her home. They were living in her family's house by the dilapidated buildings of what was once her family's business, the Tower Motel, in the sleepy town of London, Vermont. The only survivor is her daughter Lou, who was found hiding out on the roof of the house. 

Margot calls her older sister Piper to tell her of the tragic news and Piper flies back to Vermont to be with her sister. A photo was found with a cryptic note on it referring to the 29th room. The only problem is that the Tower Motel only had 28 rooms. But Piper and Margot were childhood friends of Amy and the three played together until they had a falling out in the summer of 1989. They know a secret they aren't sharing. Jason, who is currently on the police force in London and married to Margot, knew all three girls at that time. He knows they are hiding something, but he has secrets of his own.

The story is presented in three time periods, which are clearly indicated: 2013, 1955 or 1961, and 1989. The chapters are narrated through the voice of several different characters: Amy at the very beginning, then the story unfolds through Jason and Piper in 1989 and 2013, and Rose (Amy's mother) in the early years. Interspersed in the early years are letters Silvie, Rose's older sister, has written to Alfred Hitchcock.

While you know that the three girls discovered a terrible secret that ruined their friendship in the summer of 1989, you don't find out what the secret is until the end. McMahon grabs your attention at the beginning with the murders, and then settles in to tell her story, slowly revealing clues that aren't fully explained until the end. (Fans of Hitchcock movies may be able to spot several tie-ins to his films.) The Night Sister is a good, creepy book that held my attention from beginning to end.

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