Friday, February 27, 2015

Daughter

Daughter by Jane Shemilt
HarperCollins: 3/3/2015
eBook Review Copy, 352 pages

ISBN-13: 9780062320476
https://janeshemilt.wordpress.com/

Jenny is a successful family doctor, the mother of three great teenagers, married to a celebrated neurosurgeon.
But when her youngest child, fifteen-year-old Naomi, doesn't come home after her school play, Jenny's seemingly ideal life begins to crumble. The authorities launch a nationwide search with no success. Naomi has vanished, and her family is broken.
As the months pass, the worst-case scenarios—kidnapping, murder—seem less plausible. The trail has gone cold. Yet, for a desperate Jenny, the search has barely begun. More than a year after her daughter's disappearance, she's still digging for answers—and what she finds disturbs her. Everyone she's trusted, everyone she thought she knew, has been keeping secrets, especially Naomi. Piecing together the traces her daughter left behind, Jenny discovers a very different Naomi from the girl she thought she'd raised.
Jenny knows she'll never be able to find Naomi unless she uncovers the whole truth about her daughter—a twisting, painful journey into the past that will lead to an almost unthinkable revelation. . . .

My Thoughts:

Daughter by Jane Shemilt is a recommended debut novel about the breakdown of a family.
"It’s easier than you think to lose sight of what matters," says Jenny, a GP in Bristol, England. Jenny and her husband Ted, a neurosurgeon, are the parents of three teenagers: 17-year-old twins, Ed and Theo, and 15-year-old Naomi. When Naomi fails to come home on the second night of performance for her school play, the police are called in to try and unravel what has happened to Jenny. As the investigation plods along, Jenny realizes that she didn't know Naomi, or her boys, as well as she thought she did.

The novel switches back and forth in time, going from Naomi's disappearance to a year later when Jenny is living alone in her family's vacation cottage in Dorset. We know, then, that Naomi is still missing a year later and we know that other events have taken place to disintegrate the fragile family bonds that Jenny thought were so strong. Apparently for years Jenny has been turning a blind eye to clues that were all around her regarding her whole family, not only Naomi. Shemilt also touches on mistakes doctors can make as well as mistakes parents can make.

While this certainly is not a bad debut novel, there were a few problems for me. The first half of the novel moves very slowly. I kept with it hoping to find out what happened, but some of that was a sense of duty from accepting a review copy. Jenny is a well-developed character, but the rest of the family remains largely a mystery. Sure, we don't always know other people as well as we think we do, but Jenny is taking the blame being thrown at her for not seeing this or doing that, while Ted is basically being given a pass for all these things he should have noticed too. Her son Ed is a spoiled brat who needs to be told to stop blaming others for his decisions. Naomi is really a mystery. Jenny thinks she was one way when she obviously wasn't. Finally, the ending of  Daughter may irritate some readers because there is no closure, just more unanswered questions and unresolved issues.

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




Thursday, February 26, 2015

The Crops Look Good

The Crops Look Good by Sara DeLuca
Minnesota Historical Society Press: 3/1/2015
eBook Review copy, 240 pages

ISBN-13: 9780873519755240
When Margaret Williamson left her family’s rural Wisconsin farm to work in Minneapolis in 1923, her mother, Olava, wrote regularly with updates about daily activities: laundry, bread baking, plowing, planting, and harvesting the crops. Sometimes she enclosed a note from seven- year- old Helen, who reported on school and shenanigans and how she longed to see Margaret again.
 
So begins decades of stories about a family at once singular— with personal joys and challenges— and broadly representative of the countless small farms that dotted the midwestern landscape in the early twentieth century. As Margaret’s niece Sara DeLuca weaves together family tales gleaned from letters and conversations, we learn of births and deaths, of innovations like the automobile, radio, and telephone that drew rural communities together, and of national and international events that brought home stone- hard truths. Depression- era farmers struggled to keep their land and feed their livestock; many failed. During wartime, this family made do just like everyone else.
 
The tale that emerges is one of fierce devotion to family and work, of a changing landscape as smaller farms became part of conglomerates, and of the comforting daily rhythms of life shared with those who know us best.
Poet and writer Sara DeLuca grew up on a dairy and sheep farm near the Williamson “homeplace” in Polk County, Wisconsin. She is the author of the memoir Dancing the Cows Home and the poetry collection Shearing Time.
My Thoughts:

The Crops Look Good: News from a Midwestern Family Farm by Sara DeLuca is a very highly recommended biography of a family, told mainly through their correspondence, who lived on a dairy farm in Polk County, Wisconsin from 1923-1955. Although I understand that this biographical narrative will be appealing to a limited audience, those who chose to read it are going to be entranced and delighted with this chronicle of a past way of life. Polk County, Wisconsin is "dairy farming country, settled primarily by Scandinavian and German immigrants..... The soil that once nurtured hardwood forests is rich and loamy. But the climate is extreme and unforgiving, ranging from one hundred degrees in midsummer to minus thirty in the deep of winter."

DeLuca was given the family letters she uses to tell the story of her families past over twenty years ago, but she waited until she felt ready to undertake the writing.  She writes, "They were a burdensome gift. I had been given an assignment I could not fulfill. The farming culture described in these letters has passed into history. I wanted to bear witness to that time. But any book I might create from these writings would require skillful narration, and I did not feel up to the task." Once she felt ready to write this intimate biography, she decided to present the letters chronologically and added notes on historical details from each time period. She manages to capture a past way of life in a rich, rewarding way, with details that bear witness to the work ethic of the times.

An example of a letter from a young girl, Helen sent to her older sister Margaret describes life of the farm on July 24, 1925:
"Dear Margaret,
We are not getting any more strawberries now but we have been picking rasberrys for quite a while. Some of the rasberrys in the middle of the bushes are so ripe they are pretty near purple and they are so nice and big. Mama has canned 25 quarts of rasberrys and she has canned 12 quarts of peas. I milked 3 cows last night and washed all the supper and lunch dishes. They finished haying yesterday afternoon and soon they are going to cut the last field of peas. Mama is washing clothes today and I have to find my new stockings so she can wash them.
Good-bye for now and love from sister Helen"

Contents include:
Genealogy
Map
Prologue
Directly as a Stone, 1923–24
Bread and Butter, 1925–29
What One Has to Do, 1930–35
A School in Patience, 1936–39
A Thousand Thoughts, 1940–42
When Sorrows Come, 1943–44
The Beautiful Country, 1945–46
Back Where I Belong, 1947–49
Love Made Visible, 1950–55
Epilogue
Acknowledgments
Source Notes
Index


Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press for review purposes.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Some Other Town

Some Other Town by Elizabeth Collison
HarperCollins: 2/24/2015
eBook Review Copy, 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062348821

http://www.elizabethcollison.com/

"But here is the strangest part. Now in the mornings when I wake from the dream, for an instant it's as if there are two of me. The one that will rise and go off to work and come home again to Mrs. Eberline. And the one that awakes from the dream of the van and feels something inside of her rising. Quickening, yearning, keening."
Margaret Lydia Benning, twenty-eight and adrift, still lives in the same Midwest town where she went to college. By day, she works at the Project, a nonprofit publisher of children's readers housed in a former sanatorium. There she shares the fourth floor with a squadron of eccentric editors and a resident ghost from the screamers' wing. At night, Margaret returns alone to her small house on Mott Street, with only her strange neighbor, Mrs. Eberline, for company.
Emotionally sleepwalking through the days is no way to lead a life. But then Margaret meets Ben Adams, a visiting professor at the university. Through her deepening relationship with Ben she glimpses a future she had never before imagined, and for the first time she has hope . . . until Ben inexplicably vanishes. In the wake of his disappearance, Margaret sets out to find him. Her journey, a revelatory exploration of the separate worlds that exist inside us and around us, will force her to question everything she believes to be true.
Told through intertwined perspectives, by turns incandescent and haunting, Some Other Town is an unforgettable tale, with a heartbreaking twist, of one woman's awakening to her own possibility.

My Thoughts:

Some Other Town by Elizabeth Collison is a highly recommended, surrealistic novel about a woman who has fallen in love.

Margaret Benning, 28, has bought a stone house on Mott Street and settled into the same town where she attended college. She lives next door to Mrs. Eberline, a woman who is likely insane and certainly has the potential to cause some serious trouble. Margaret works for the Project, a grant funded business devoted to writing  beginning readers for children. The Project is located on the grounds of what was a sanatorium for TB patients. It is still referred to as the Sanatorium even though it now is the home for a wide variety of endeavors and programs.

Three months ago Margaret broke up with Ben Adams, a visiting art professor that she met at a gallery opening. Ben, 16 years her senior, could have been the love of her life, but she hasn't heard from him in 3 months. Mrs. Eberline is demanding that she go find him, insisting that Ben is in danger, but Margaret seems hesitant, perhaps because Ben was married or perhaps it was from their last encounter.

The writing in Some Other Town has a dream-like, ethereal quality. I began to question what was real, and wondered what parts should I take note of and what characters should I care about. I briefly speculated that all the characters were ghosts. While Collison's writing quality is quite good, it seems that something was not quite hitting the mark for me in the presentation. It could be the dream-like detachment she has given to Margaret and Ben in the novel permeated how I felt about it. We hear both of their voices, but mainly it is Margaret's voice you will be paying attention to.

Margaret seems strangely detached from everything, which, although it is explained by the ending, did make it hard to care about her through the whole novel. I couldn't understand why Margaret wasn't calling the police on Mrs. Eberline. There is no way someone would ever tolerate that behavior from a neighbor. The encounters between her co-workers at The Project provided some much needed comic relief, but even then Margaret wasn't engaged with them - even though the reader is seemingly expected to care about their antics.

In some respects, the ending gave me more respect for the book than I initially had. The problem is that some readers are not going to stick with the book to get to that ending. Yes, it is technically very well written, almost poetic at times, but it is also an unconventional presentation that requires readers to take note of everything and care about the characters in spite of the enigmatic qualities of the novel. 3.5

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

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Finding Jake

Finding Jake by Bryan Reardon
HarperCollins: 2/24/2015
eBook Review Copy, 272 pages

ISBN-13: 9780062339485

A heart-wrenching yet ultimately uplifting story of psychological suspense in which a parent is forced to confront what he does—and does not—know about his teenage son.
While his successful wife goes off to her law office each day, Simon Connelly has stayed home to raise their children. Though Simon has loved taking care of Jake and Laney, it has cost him a part of himself, and has made him an anomaly in his pretty, suburban neighborhood—the only stay-at-home dad among a tight circle of mothers...
Then, on a warm November day, he receives a text: There has been a shooting at the high school.
Racing to the rendezvous point, Simon is forced to wait with scores of other anxious fathers and tearful mothers, overwhelmed by the disturbing questions running through his head. How many victims were there? Why did this happen? One by one, parents are reunited with their children. Their numbers dwindle, until Simon is alone. Laney has gone home with her mom. Jake is the only child missing.
As his worst nightmare unfolds, Simon begins to obsess over the past, searching for answers, for hope, for the memory of the boy he raised, for the mistakes he must have made, for the reason everything came to this. Where is Jake? What happened in those final moments? Is it possible he doesn't really know his son? Or he knows him better than he thought? Jake could not have done this—or could he?
But there is only one way to understand what has happened . . . he must find Jake.
A story of faith and conviction, strength and courage, love and doubt that is harrowing and heartbreaking, surprisingly healing and redemptive, Finding Jake asks us to consider how well we know ourselves . . . and those we love.
My Thoughts:

Finding Jake by Bryan Reardon is a very highly recommended, compelling novel about a family tragedy.

Suburban Delaware father, Simon Connelly, has been a stay-at-home dad for their children, Jake, 17, and Laney, 14, while his wife, Rachel, goes off to work at her corporate law office.  When Simon receives the message: "Shots have been fired at the high school. Calmly report to St. Michael’s across Route 5." Like almost any other parent in this situation, Simon knows: "It is not until I see other cars, driving as recklessly as my own, that I begin to understand. There has been a shooting at my kids’ school. My kids, Laney and Jake, are at the school. My kids are in danger. I am not afraid. I am not worried. I am protective, animalistic in my instincts. I will do anything to keep my children out of danger. I will die to protect them. This is not bravado. It is simple fact." He takes off for the high school and joins the other frantic parents waiting to hear of their children are safe.

When Rachel joins him and together they see that Laney is safe, Simon begins to understand that Jake is missing - and even though they can't find him, the police think he was helping the known shooter, Doug. Other parents begin to shy away from them and the accusations and recriminations quickly follow as news crews move in to cover the story. Simon reflects, "My thoughts trip and stumble. I am packing to leave my house, which is in the process of being searched because the police think my son shot thirteen kids today."

Simon, who has always felt insecure and wondered what role his decision to be a stay-at-home dad along with his own social awkwardness may have affected his children, reflects on Jake's life and the choices he made when Jake was younger. Chapters alternated between the present day and the past. We follow the current heart-breaking events along with the reflections on the past.


It becomes clear that both Simon and Rachel have had difficulties and struggles maintaining their marriage during this time they have held nontraditional parental/societal roles. But as we watch Jake grow up and how Simon handled parenting it also seems clear that no matter how much he questions himself and wonders if Jake could really be involved, that Simon is a good parent.

Reardon does a great job building suspense. I appreciated the format, with alternating chapters between the present and the past. Any parent wonders and reflects about how decisions they have made when their children were young may have influenced how they when grown. A tragic event would make this self-introspection even more acute. The format also serves to heighten the suspense.

Although comparisons are made between Finding Jake and We Need To Talk About Kevin, I found that the comparisons can only be made in the broad sense of the basic subject matter. Both novels are about a parent reflecting on their roles in their child's development, but not in the content of that introspection. To say much more would be a spoiler, but while vaguely similar, they are also very different novels.

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

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Doomsday Equation

The Doomsday Equation by Matt Richtel
HarperCollins: 2/24/2015
eBook Review Copy, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062201188

From the Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times journalist comes a pulse-pounding technological thriller—as ingenious as the works of Michael Crichton and as irresistible as a summer blockbuster—in which one man has three days to prevent the outbreak of World War III and the world's annihilation
What if you knew the world was going to end?
What if no one believed you?
Jeremy Stillwater is a genius with computers but not so much with people. Maddeningly self-righteous, he's alienated his girlfriend and infuriated his Silicon Valley financiers and the government agents who saw military promise in his innovation: a program that seemed to be able to predict war.
Even Jeremy has begun to doubt the algorithm's capabilities. Then one day his computer has a message for him. War is coming. Three days and counting until massive nuclear conflict.
Is it real? A malicious joke? A bug?
Isolated yet relentless, Jeremy soon uncovers an ancient conspiracy of unspeakable danger. And it will take every bit of Jeremy's stubborn ingenuity to survive another minute, let alone save the world.
My Thoughts:  

The Doomsday Equation by Matt Richtel is a highly recommended techno thriller.

Jeremy Stillwater may be caustic, annoying, and have difficulties connecting with other people, but he is a programming genius who has developed a algorithm that harnesses big data to predict large-scale human conflict. The only problem is that government/military officials and others have told him it doesn't work, leaving him plummeting from unbelievable success to abject failure. But did they tell him the truth. Now "his computer is predicting there is going to be a massive global conflict, engulfing the world in death and destruction—and that the calamity is imminent." The world is going to end in 3 days. April’s projected deaths are 75 million.

Jeremy, who is always connected in some way, is on the move with his tablet. He "needs to get someplace settled and run a test. He needs to check the List. The List is a set of 327 statistical inputs that, Jeremy believes, together describe the state of the world. Oil prices and population density and weather systems and all the rest." Jeremy is unsure is someone got in to his computer program and is trying to run a hoax on him or if his program is compiling the data points correctly.

His program collects data in three major areas. "One is Tantalum. The second is Conflict Rhetoric. The third is the Random Event Meter, known as REM." He notices that "there has been a sharp uptick, 14 percent, in the last few days, of the collective language of conflict, material enough for the computer to care. There’s been an even sharper rise in the Random Event Meter. It’s up 430 percent. Jeremy shakes his head, mostly annoyed, vaguely curious. The meter measures whether there has been some event or series of events that, in historic terms, would seem far outside the standard deviation. And the event can be anything." "He turns to the third variable, tantalum. That’s up 4017 percent. The precious metal is integral to the making of cell phones."

While Jeremy is trying to make sense of the data and run new tests, he notices that he may be being watched. As Jeremy tries to run diagnostic tests and look at the information his program is collecting, he is also on the run, always moving while it seems he is being followed. Despite his caustic nature, he does have people he cares about. Can he save them if this threat is real? And why are people setting lions free from zoos?

Jeremy is an unlikeable protagonist, but you will believe that he is also brilliant and that something is going to happen. Since Jeremy doesn't have the answers, just the predicted outcome of events going on in the world, the tension ratchets up in the count down against the predicted time when the world is supposed to end versus Jeremy's attempts to make sense of the data and avoid whoever is following him. We also don't know if Jeremy is just paranoid or if he really is being followed.

Richtel does an excellent job keeping this high tech thriller up to date. Jeremy relies on all the devices many of us carry and use throughout the day. We are almost always connected and Jeremy reflects that new sensibility. There were plenty of twists in the plot and the ending took me totally by surprise. Well done!

With The Doomsday Equation there should be broad cross-over appeal for those who like science fiction or thrillers. 

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

Friday, February 20, 2015

Across the Deep Blue Sea

Across the Deep Blue Sea: The Saga of Early Norwegian Immigrants 
by Odd S. Lovoll 
Minnesota Historical Society Press: February 15, 2015
eBook Review Copy, 224 pages
ISBN-13: 978-0873519618



Across the Deep Blue Sea investigates a chapter in Norwegian immigration history that has never been fully told before. Odd S. Lovoll relates how Quebec, Montreal, and other port cities in Canada became the gateway for Norwegian emigrants to North America, replacing New York as the main destination from 1850 until the late 1860s. During those years, 94 percent of Norwegian emigrants landed in Canada.
After the introduction of free trade, Norwegian sailing ships engaged in the lucrative timber trade between Canada and the British Isles. Ships carried timber one way across the Atlantic and emigrants on the way west. For the vast majority landing in Canadian port cities, Canada became a corridor to their final destinations in the Upper Midwest, primarily Wisconsin and Minnesota. Lovoll explains the establishment and failure of Norwegian colonies in Quebec Province and pays due attention to the tragic fate of the Gaspé settlement.
A personal story of the emigrant experience passed down as family lore is retold here, supported by extensive research. The journey south and settlement in the Upper Midwest completes a highly human narrative of the travails, endurance, failures, and successes of people who sought a better life in a new land.

My Thoughts:


Across the Deep Blue Sea: The Saga of Early Norwegian Immigrants by Odd S. Lovoll is a very highly recommended scholarly work.

"The idea to seek a better future in America might have been planted by an individual, an innovator, based on news from America. The innovators in general belonged to the Norwegian farming class."

Anyone who enjoys well presented research on Norwegian immigrants or is of Norwegian ancestry, should welcome this academic look at immigration in the mid 1800's, specifically the passage through Canada in the 1850s-1860. Lovoll gives an overview of Norwegian settlements in Illinois and Wisconsin before 1850  because these communities  "became important magnets for Norwegian immigrants in the following decades." Many early immigrants came based on religious considerations and a desire to seek refuge from religious intolerance. "They sought a place where they could freely and without restrictions worship God."  They were either "The Sloopers" who were Quakers (named after the type of boat they used) or Haugeans, followers of the great lay Lutheran preacher and revivalist Hans Nielsen Hauge.

Clearly Canada encouraged the immigrants to use the route through Canada, offering rebates and an easier time getting on with their journey in comparison to NYC. I hadn't realized that Canada had a quarantine station too, Grosse Île, located in the St. Lawrence River some twenty-nine miles from Quebec City, where a doctor would come onboard the ship an examine the passengers.

A "walk down to the customs house on the new docks in Christiania [Oslo], one would most likely catch sight of well-dressed bonde families, men, women, and children, waiting to be put onboard a ship. They have arrived with their luggage, a diverse collection of boxes and chests. One reads: Paul Larsen, Milwaukee, Wisconsin, North America; Ole Andersen, Chicago, Illinois, North America; Peder Gulbrandsen, Madison, Wisconsin, North America; Olivia Eriksdatter Nordreie, Iowa, Minnesota, and a great number of other names and addresses."

Although I clearly realize that Across the Deep Blue Sea: The Saga of Early Norwegian Immigrants is not going to have wide spread appeal, I have to admit I found it very interesting and enjoyed it a great deal.

Odd S. Lovoll, professor emeritus of history at St. Olaf College and recipient of the Fritt Ords Honnør for his work on Norwegian immigration, is the author of numerous books, including Norwegians on the Prairie and Norwegian Newspapers in America.


Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Minnesota Historical Society Press for review purposes.

World Gone By

World Gone By by Dennis Lehane
HarperCollins: 3/10/2015
eBook Review Copy, 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780060004903
http://dennislehane.com/books/
Dennis Lehane, the New York Times bestselling author of The Given Day and Live by Night, returns with a psychologically and morally complex novel of blood, crime, passion, and vengeance, set in Cuba and Ybor City, Florida, during World War II, in which Joe Coughlin must confront the cost of his criminal past and present.
Ten years have passed since Joe Coughlin’s enemies killed his wife and destroyed his empire, and much has changed. Prohibition is dead, the world is at war again, and Joe’s son, Tomás, is growing up. Now, the former crime kingpin works as a consigliore to the Bartolo crime family, traveling between Tampa and Cuba, his wife’s homeland.A master who moves in and out of the black, white, and Cuban underworlds, Joe effortlessly mixes with Tampa’s social elite, U.S. Naval intelligence, the Lansky-Luciano mob, and the mob-financed government of Fulgencio Batista. He has everything—money, power, a beautiful mistress, and anonymity.
But success cannot protect him from the dark truth of his past—and ultimately, the wages of a lifetime of sin will finally be paid in full.
Dennis Lehane vividly recreates the rise of the mob during a world at war, from a masterfully choreographed Ash Wednesday gun battle in the streets of Ybor City to a chilling, heartbreaking climax in a Cuban sugar cane field.
My Thoughts:

World Gone By by Dennis Lehane is a highly recommended second novel in the gangster series featuring Joe Coughlin. World Gone By is a sequel to Live By Night (2012) in Lehane's series of historical novels that began with The Given Day (2008). 

It's almost ten years since Joe's wife was killed in a bloody gangland battle. Now Joe is a devoted, single father to Tomas and a respected leader in the underworld of Tampa, Florida. Joe is a businessman, although the legalities of all his businesses may be in question, his control and influence never has been in doubt, until now. An imprisoned young woman manages to get in contact with Joe to warn him that someone has a contract out on him and his life is in danger. While this is perplexing to Joe, he starts to ask questions and speculations and rumors begin to unfold.

This is a complex novel with numerous different storylines going on at the same time so it is a novel that you have to pay attention to the characters and the relationships while reading. It is also a gangster novel, so the characters are not engaged in virtuous action, although there is some sort of honor among thieves, there is also a moral ambiguity concerning their actions. While Joe has a code of ethic, it is based on the whole gangster culture that he is an integral part of, even though he's not in the trenches as much as he used to be. 

Lehane is always an excellent writer so this is not only a well written technically, there is also a complexity to the plot and character development that set his book above many others. Additionally, he includes many historical facts and characters.  World Gone By is a historical gangster novel, but it is not only about betrayal and bloody gang wars, it is also about fathers and sons, family ties, and fate.

While I have the previous two novels on my shelf, I haven't read then yet. That did not prevent me from enjoying this complex historical crime novel.


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

Monday, February 16, 2015

Welcome to Braggsville

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson
HarperCollins: 2/17/2015
eBook Review Copy, 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062302120
http://www.geronimo1.com/
Welcome to Braggsville. The City That Love Built in the Heart of Georgia. Population 712.
Born and raised in the heart of old Dixie, D'aron Davenport finds himself in unfamiliar territory his freshman year at UC Berkeley. Two thousand miles and a world away from his childhood, he is a small-town fish floundering in the depths of a large hyperliberal pond. Caught between the prosaic values of his rural hometown and the intellectualized multicultural cosmopolitanism of "Berzerkeley," the nineteen-year-old white kid is uncertain about his place, until one disastrous party brings him three idiosyncratic best friends: Louis, a "kung fu comedian" from California; Candice, an earnest do-gooder from Iowa claiming Native roots; and Charlie, an introspective inner-city black teen from Chicago. They dub themselves the "4 Little Indians."
But everything changes in the group's alternative history class, when D'aron lets slip that his hometown hosts an annual Civil War reenactment, recently rebranded "Patriot Days." His announcement is met with righteous indignation and inspires Candice to suggest a "performative intervention" to protest the reenactment. Armed with youthful self-importance, makeshift slave costumes, righteous zeal, and their own misguided ideas about the South, the 4 Little Indians descend on Braggsville. Their journey through backwoods churches, backroom politics, Waffle Houses, and drunken family barbecues is uproarious at first but has devastating consequences.
My Thoughts:

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson is a highly recommended novel that faces down some stereotypes and assumptions with amazing wit and insight.

D'aron Little May Davenport has left his hometown of Braggsville, Georgia, to attend college as far away from Georgia as he can get - the University of California, Berkeley. He and Louis Chang, his roommate and an aspiring comedian, meet Candice, an Iowan, and Charlie, a black prep school student at a dot party where the four are accused of being insensitive. Soon they become close friends and dub themselves the "4 Little Indians."

The four friends take a class called "American History X, Y, and Z: Alternative Perspectives," which spurs them on to make their first political statement of outrage, which fails miserably. When D'aron mentions that Braggsville has a Civil War re-enactment the group decides to go to Georgia and stage a protest that is more a performance piece than based on any true social outrage. The performance goes terribly wrong and suddenly the students and the town are confronting some racial and social realities, as well as other ideological positions that they never anticipated.

Johnson opens the novel with a glossary of terms the students will be using, which should clue you in that this is mainly a humorous novel,  even while it brings some serious topics to light. There are a lot of preconceptions of many makes and ideologies, all presented with keen insight and satire. Johnson presents real historical social situations and makes connections between them, while shifting from comedy to tragedy. The main exploration is of racism in the South and the tension that still exists.

This is a well written novel. I'll admit feeling a bit of distance from the characters at the beginning, as they seemed to me to be so very young and naive. As the novel progressed, I appreciated Johnson's skill much more because of the way he allows his characters to grow amidst all the contradictory elements we see around us in contemporary America.


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

Behind the Book Essay 

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Seeker

Seeker by Arwen Elys Dayton
Random House Children's Books: 2/10/2015
eBook review copy, 448 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385744072
Seeker Series #1  
http://www.arwendayton.com/


The night Quin Kincaid takes her Oath, she will become what she has trained to be her entire life. She will become a Seeker. This is her legacy, and it is an honor.
As a Seeker, Quin will fight beside her two closest companions, Shinobu and John, to protect the weak and the wronged. Together they will stand for light in a shadowy world. And she'll be with the boy she loves--who's also her best friend. But the night Quin takes her Oath, everything changes. Being a Seeker is not what she thought. Her family is not what she thought. Even the boy she loves is not who she thought. And now it's too late to walk away.

My Thoughts:


Seeker by Arwen Elys Dayton is a recommended start to a new series for younger YA readers. It's not recommended for adult readers.

Three teens, Quin Kincaid, Shinobu MacBain, and John Hart, have been training on a Scottish estate for years to be Seekers by Quin's father, Briac Kincaid. A Seeker is supposed to use their training for the good of humankind and all the teens have been told it is a noble calling. They have had extensive training to fight with the whipsword, and to avoid the dreaded disruptor. They are told the secrets to using the athame, a stone dagger that can slice through time and transport the user to almost any destination. When they are finally ready to take the oath of a Seeker, they learn that John won't be included.  John, however, is harboring a secret of his own. He needs to bring down Briac and take back his family's stolen athame.

Once they have taken their oath, Quin and Shinobu learn the bitter truth: what they are required to do by Briac is not honorable work. The two take advantage of a destructive raid on the Kincaid estate by John and his forces and escape to another time and place in Hong Kong. But John still wants his family's athame back and he won't stop looking for it and Quin.

I think a YA reader will be satisfied by the action, the deceptions, the conflicting loyalties of the teens, the rather oblique love triangle, and the complicated, emotional family loyalties. While I think a younger reader, 14, will enjoy this new series, I'll have to admit that it was a struggle for me to finish it. The worldbuilding is somewhat lacking and Dayton never establishes her settings clearly for the reader. The background information on a Seeker was incomplete. The writing felt disjointed to me. BUT, I am sure that all the points that make it a not recommended novel for me, an adult well above the targeted age range, will likely not matter at all to a 14 year old reader.


Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
Random House Children's Books for review purposes.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Crazy Love You

Crazy Love You by Lisa Unger
Touchstone: 2/10/2015
eBook Review Copy, 352 pages

ISBN-13: 9781451691207
http://lisaunger.com/
Falling in love can feel like a dream…or a living nightmare.
Darkness has a way of creeping up when Ian is with Priss. Even when they were kids, playing in the woods of their small Upstate New York town, he could feel it. Still, Priss was his best friend, his salvation from the bullies who called him “loser” and “fatboy”…and from his family’s deadly secrets.
Now that they’ve both escaped to New York City, Ian no longer inhabits the tortured shell of his childhood. He is a talented and successful graphic novelist, and Priss…Priss is still trouble. The booze, the drugs, the sex—Ian is growing tired of late nights together trying to keep the past at bay. Especially now that he’s met sweet, beautiful Megan, whose love makes him want to change for the better. But Priss doesn’t like change. Change makes her angry. And when Priss is angry, terrible things begin to happen…
My Thoughts:  

Crazy Love You by Lisa Unger is a highly recommended psychological thriller.

Writer and illustrator Ian Paine is a successful graphic novelist with his series featuring characters Fatboy and Priss. In his comics Fatboy is a nerdy loser and Priss is the hot red head who champions him and avenges his tormentors. Fatboy is Ian's alter ego from back when Ian was a teased and bullied youth living in The Hollows,  a town about 100 miles from NYC where strange, ominous events seem to occur on a regular basis. Just as in his graphic novels, he had, still has, an amoral friend named Priss who still will do anything to defend him. Ian had a troubled childhood and Priss was Ian's only friend and confidant for years. But now Ian has a serious girlfriend, Megan, and he wants to start a new life with her, away from the drama that seems to follow in Priss's wake.

The plots of Ian's graphic novels mimic Ian's life. His editor is encouraging him to reach a conclusion to the story of Fatboy and Priss. In fact it may be time to end their storyand begin a new series.  The problem is that Priss is not pleased with these new developments. And when Priss is not pleased, events can take a destructive, even deadly turn.

As Unger's novel progresses, she has Ian's life clearly reflected in his graphic novels. No matter how far he has come from The Hollows, Ian is still Fatboy. But he is also self-destructive, over indulging in alcohol and relying on popping various pills to get through his days. Soon, it becomes unclear if Priss is really a person or a figment of Ian's imagination - and if she isn't real, then he has committed all the destructive acts he blames on her?

The complex plot in Crazy Love You shifts back and forth in time - and also between the present day and Ian's graphic novel plot. You'll need to pay close attention to what is going on with the fast pace and shifting events. There can also be a disconnect between what is real and what is a product of Ian's imagination. As the novel progresses, there is more and more information presented that will have you questioning what you previously believed to be true.

There are a series of short stories based in The Hollows which, although not necessary to follow the plot, might compliment Crazy Love You by providing some additional background.


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


Monday, February 9, 2015

The Glittering World

The Glittering World by Robert Levy
Gallery Books: 2/10/2015
eBook Review Copy, 352 pages

ISBN-13: 9781476774527
http://www.therobertlevy.com


In the tradition of Neil Gaiman (The Ocean at the End of the Lane), Scott Smith (The Ruins), and Jason Mott (The Returned), award-winning playwright Robert Levy spins a dark tale of alienation and belonging, the familiar and the surreal, family secrets and the search for truth in his debut supernatural thriller.
When up-and-coming chef Michael “Blue” Whitley returns with three friends to the remote Canadian community of his birth, it appears to be the perfect getaway from New York. He soon discovers, however, that everything he thought he knew about himself is a carefully orchestrated lie. Though he had no recollection of the event, as a young boy, Blue and another child went missing for weeks in the idyllic, mysterious woods of Starling Cove. Soon thereafter, his mother suddenly fled with him to America, their homeland left behind.
But then Blue begins to remember. And once the shocking truth starts bleeding back into his life, his closest friends—Elisa, his former partner in crime; her stalwart husband, Jason; and Gabe, Blue’s young and admiring coworker—must unravel the secrets of Starling Cove and the artists’ colony it once harbored. All four will face their troubled pasts, their most private demons, and a mysterious race of beings that inhabits the land, spoken of by the locals only as the Other Kind...

My Thoughts:  

The Glittering World by Robert Levy is a recommended novel that encompasses fantasy and self-discovery.

The story in The Glittering World is told in four parts by four different characters. It opens with Michael "Blue" Whitley and his friends Elisa, Jason, and Gabe, all traveling from NYC to the Starling Cove Friendship Colony in Canada. The trip is partially a vacation, but mainly the others are accompanying Blue as he sells his deceased grandmother's house. What Blue does not anticipate is that memories from his past will reemerge and open up with unexpected results. When Blue and Elisa turn up missing it seems that the past is repeating itself. Or is there something else going on in the remote Canadian woods? Elisa's husband, Jason, and Blue's friend, Gabe, are left trying to figure out the mystery.


The narrative moves along swiftly and I had no qualms with the quality of the writing. Levy is an excellent writer and the story itself is compelling. The Glittering World will hold your attention, as you try to figure out what is going on and why (and who and how) as it quickly switches from a nostalgic trip with friends to a supernatural, mystical fantasy story. In some ways the self-discovery aspect of the novel was more compelling than the fantasy portion, but that could be due to the way the novel is written. 

With each character narrating a different section, we never revisit or hear from Blue or Elisa after their sections are done. It's a quandary for me, as a reader. I understand and appreciate the shifting points of view for each section, but at the same time I find myself longing to hear from Blue again. The Glittering World lost the momentum it successfully built up for me at the end. It might have been more successful with a final chapter from Blue's perspective, giving closure to the whole novel. I liked it much more (four stars) until I reached the end and was left feeling unsatisfied.


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

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Blood Infernal

Blood Infernal by James Rollins, Rebecca Cantrell
HarperCollins: 2/10/2015
eBook Review Copy, 416 pages

ISBN-13: 9780062343260
Order of the Sanguines Series #3

http://jamesrollins.com/
http://rebeccacantrell.com/

As an escalating scourge of grisly murders sweeps the globe, archaeologist Erin Granger must decipher the truth behind an immortal prophecy, one found in the Blood Gospel, a tome written by Christ and lost for centuries: The shackles of Lucifer have been loosened, and his Chalice remains lost. It will take the light of all three to forge the Chalice anew and banish him again to his eternal darkness. With the Apocalypse looming and the very barriers of our world crumbling, Erin must again join forces with Army sergeant Jordan Stone and Father Rhun Korza to search for a treasure lost for millennia, a prize that has already fallen into the hands of their enemy.
But the forces of darkness have crowned a new king, a demon named Legion, who walks this Earth wearing many faces, whose reach is beyond measure, where even the walls of the Vatican fall before him. To have any hope of saving the world, Erin must discover the truth behind man's first steps out of the Garden of Eden, an event wrapped in sin and destruction, an act that damned humankind for eternity.
The search for the key to salvation will take Erin and the others across centuries and around the world, from the dusty shelves of the Vatican's secret archives to lost medieval laboratories, where ancient alchemies were employed to horrific ends. All the while, they will be hunted across the breadth of the globe, besieged by creatures of uncanny skill and talent. As clues are slowly dug free from ancient underground chapels or found frozen in icy caverns high in the mountaintops, Erin will discover that the only hope for victory lies in an impossible act, one that will not only destroy her, but all she loves. To protect the world, Erin must walk through the very gates of Hell and face the darkest of enemies, the adversary of humankind, the very serpent in the garden. She must confront Lucifer himself.
My Thoughts:

Blood Infernal
by James Rollins and Rebecca Cantrell is the recommended third and final book in their Order of the Sanguine/vampire trilogy.



There is a battle between good and evil, light and dark and there are three people who are destined to stop it. All of them are a part of an ancient Vatican order. Archaeologist Dr Erin Granger is the Woman of Knowledge who has possession of the Blood Gospels. Sergeant John Stone is the Warrior of God. Rhun, a Sanguinist priest, is The Knight of Christ. Together these three must stop the Strgoi , demons and Lucifer from taking over and ruling the world. 


Sanguinists are vampire priest and nuns who are dedication to the Lord and can slake their thirst for blood with wine. Strgoi are evil vampires who feed on the blood of humans and cause death and destruction. Rollins and Cantrell provide non-stop action, as the three follow clues and figure out riddles while experiencing  deception, terror, and battles along the way.
 

While the novel is clearly well written readers will also have to buy into Rollins and Cantrell re-interpreting Catholicism and Biblical history, as well as their version of vampires. Also note that this is the third book in a series, following The Blood Gospel and Innocent Blood, and two novellas, Blood Brothers and City of Screams. I read Blood Infernal after only reading one of the novellas and can attest that it might help to read the three in order, which means you'll need to clearly be willing to make that time commitment to a vampire story, albeit an extremely well written and intelligently conceived vampire story. The comparisons to Dan Brown's books are a given. I'll have to admit that I have liked all of the other books by Rollins that I've read more than this one.


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

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Forgetting Place

The Forgetting Place by John Burley
HarperCollins: 2/10/2015
eBook review copy, 352 pages

ISBN-13: 9780062227409
john-burley.com/


Menaker State Hospital is a curse, a refuge, a prison, a necessity, a nightmare, a salvation
When Dr. Lise Shields arrived at the correctional psychiatric facility five years ago, she was warned that many of its patients—committed by Maryland's judicial system for perpetrating heinous crimes—would never leave.
But what happens when a place like Menaker is corrupted, when it becomes a tool to silence the innocent, conceal injustice, contain secrets? Why is it that the newest patient does not seem to belong there, that the hospital administrator has fallen silent, and that Lise is being watched by two men with seemingly lethal intent? The answers are closer than she realizes and could cost her everything she holds dear.
In this chilling follow-up to The Absence of Mercy, author John Burley—a master of medical and psychological detail—showcases the many ways in which the dangers of the outside world pale in comparison to the horrors of the human mind.
My Thoughts:

The Forgetting Place by John Burley is a highly recommended psychological thriller.

Psychiatrist Dr. Lise Shields works at Maryland's Menaker State Hospital, a psychiatric correctional facility. She joined the team five years ago, knowing from the beginning that: "There are individuals here who will never leave—who will never reside outside of these grounds. Their pathology runs too deep. They will never be restored to sanity, will never return to their former lives. And the danger, I am afraid—and the great tragedy for those who love them—is to cling to the hope that they will."

Lise is frustrated when a new patient, Jason Edwards, arrives without any paperwork detailing his medical history and the court orders for his commitment. When she asks her supervisor, Dr. Wagner, he provides her with no details other than stating that it will be fine and she needs to talk to him to find out the information. Eventually he tells her that his presence is related to the murder of his partner/lover, Amir Massoud. Soon it becomes clear to Lise after several long discussions with Jason that his presence at Menaker must be the result of a much larger conspiracy. Then she starts to notice she's being followed. When two FBI agents make contact with her, she begins to understand just how complicated and widespread the conspiracy is and she doesn't know who she can trust. Along the way we learn about Jason's story and some of Lise's background too. 

The Forgetting Place is well written and Burley provides plenty of clues along the way for readers to figure out the conspiracy. I'm going to have to admit that I guess almost immediately what the big twist was in this novel. And while it closely resembles another novel (which I won't name to keep the secret) with the same kind of twist (which was done a little better), it does do a great job holding your attention. I kept reading to see if I had guessed correctly, and there were even a few times I doubted myself, which says enough. The ending made the rest of the novel worth my time and bumped up my rating to highly recommended.

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

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

A Spool of Blue Thread

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
Knopf Doubleday: 2/10/2015
eBook review copy, 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101874271
“It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon. . .” This is how Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she fell in love with Red that day in July 1959. The Whitshanks are one of those families that radiate togetherness: an indefinable, enviable kind of specialness. But they are also like all families, in that the stories they tell themselves reveal only part of the picture. Abby and Red and their four grown children have accumulated not only tender moments, laughter, and celebrations, but also jealousies, disappointments, and carefully guarded secrets. From Red’s father and mother, newly arrived in Baltimore in the 1920s, to Abby and Red’s grandchildren carrying the family legacy boisterously into the twenty-first century, here are four generations of Whitshanks, their lives unfolding in and around the sprawling, lovingly worn Baltimore house that has always been their anchor.
Brimming with all the insight, humor, and generosity of spirit that are the hallmarks of Anne Tyler’s work, A Spool of Blue Thread tells a poignant yet unsentimental story in praise of family in all its emotional complexity. It is a novel to cherish.
My Thoughts:  

A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler is very highly recommended, complex, multi-generational novel that is incredible. Really, this could be my favorite Anne Tyler to date, and I love several of her previous books.
 
This time Tyler introduces us to the Whitshank family: Junior and Linnie and, their son Red, his wife Abby and their children, Amanda, Jeannie, Denny, and Stem. We are also introduced to their   Baltimore home on Bouton Road. The home was built by patriarch Junior. He bought and moved his family into it when the original owners sold. The novel opens with Red and Abby worrying about their son, Denny, which provides keen insight into all three characters. We are also introduced to their other children.
 
All families have myths and stories they repeat and tell to subsequent generations. The Whitshanks have some stories of their own that are often told and retold. One story Abby tells is of the day she fell in love with Red. It always begins,  "It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon …" What we are privy to, eventually, is some of the truth behind the family myths.

Tyler excels at showcasing the intricacies and complexity of relationships in daily domestic life. The conversations her characters have and conflicts that arise resemble those I have had or heard, in my own family. That members of a family can keep secrets, make assumptions, behave badly, avoid responsibilities, follow traditions, repeat family lore, and live independent lives,  all while trying to do their best to care for others or protect them or avoid the truth or deflect responsibility or feel obligated to help, is a fact of life. Families are complicated and relationships messy. Tyler can take these messy complexities of a family and capture it perfectly on paper.
 
These characters are well developed and totally realized. Through the dialogue and their actions I could readily discern who they are and how they will react to situations. Tyler delivers subtle nuances into all her characters through their dialogue and actions. In the end they are all trying to do their best, even if it doesn't seem apparent or their best isn't what you would expect. As you learn about the Whitshanks, they will become real and you will empathize with them.


I simply can't quite capture how much I love A Spool of Blue Thread. As I have said, it may just be my favorite Anne Tyler novel to date and that in itself is saying a great deal. A Spool of Blue Thread embodies everything that has made Anne Tyler one of my favorite authors. The writing, descriptions, and dialogue are perfect. It's not an extravagant novel, broad in action and breadth. It is an exquisite, finely spun, carefully crafted novel that captures the quirks and nuances of an ordinary family with grace and compassion enough to make them what we all think we are, a special family.
 

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

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Margaret Atwood at KU


 
An enjoyable evening spent listening to Margaret Atwood's lecture, “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?: The Arts, The Sciences, The Humanities, The Inhumanities, and The Non-Humanities. Zombies Thrown In Extra”  at the University of Kansas.

http://www2.ljworld.com/news/2015/feb/02/author-margaret-atwood-delights-packed-house-refle/

Monday, February 2, 2015

Walking on Trampolines

Walking on Trampolines by Frances Whiting
Gallery Books: 2/3/2015
eBook review copy, 368 pages
ASIN: B00LD1OM36


Praised as “a tender exploration of friendship, families, and first love” (Liane Moriarty, New York Times bestselling author of The Husband’s Secret), this coming-of-age novel from bestselling author Frances Whiting is equal parts heartwarming, accessible, and thought provoking.
“Tallulah de Longland,” she said slowly, letting all the Ls in my name loll about lazily in her mouth before passing judgment. “That,” she announced, “is a serious glamorgeous name.”
From the day Annabelle Andrews sashays into her classroom, Tallulah ‘Lulu’ de Longland is bewitched: by Annabelle, by her family, and by their sprawling, crumbling house tumbling down to the river.
Their unlikely friendship intensifies through a secret language where they share confidences about their unusual mothers, first loves, and growing up in the small coastal town of Juniper Bay. But the euphoria of youth rarely lasts, and the implosion that destroys their friendship leaves lasting scars and a legacy of self-doubt that haunts Lulu into adulthood.
Years later, Lulu is presented with a choice: remain the perpetual good girl who misses out, or finally step out from the shadows and do something extraordinary. And possibly unforgivable…
It’s not how far you fall, but how high you bounce.

My Thoughts:

Walking on Trampolines by Frances Whiting is a highly recommended coming-of-age novel.

Set in Juniper Bay, Australia, Annabelle Andrews and Tallulah (Lulu) de Longland became best friends when they met for the first time at St Rita's in seventh grade. After meeting  they become inseparable, like sisters , but we know from the opening scene that their friendship is likely going to be more tangled and complex than it appears at the beginning. Inevitably, there is betrayal and one of the girls is left wounded and floundering, trying to recover but still suffering. The question is, after the opening scene, who betrayed whom and why.

This is a very well written and easy to read novel that was almost addictive at times. You will want to know what happens and then what happens next. There are several strong bonds of friendship between different characters and the bond between parents and their child is also represented. The families represented in Walking on Trampolines are complex and unique, as are the friendships. None of the relationships are presented as perfect. They are all complex and fraught with difficulties. Bonds between characters are broken and, when restored, they are changed. Characters need to forgive and, maybe, move on to form new relationships.

If there is any weakness in Walking on Trampolines it is that the ending is a bit too pat and easy to predict. Life rarely all falls into place so comfortably. But if you are looking for chick-lit that is well written and conflicts are resolved, you should try this debut novel by Frances Whiting.



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