Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Kingdom of Darkness

Kingdom of Darkness by Andy McDermott
Random House: 4/28/2015
eBook review copy, 512 pages
Mass Market Paperback ISBN-13: 9780345537089
Nina Wilde and Eddie Chase series #10
www.andy-mcdermott.com

History’s most sought after treasure is now mankind’s worst fear.
In Los Angeles, a desperate man seeks out renowned archaeologist Nina Wilde and her husband, ex-SAS soldier Eddie Chase - only to be gunned down in front of them. The assassin is soon identified as a ninety-year-old Nazi war criminal - with the body of a healthy forty-year-old.
Following the victim’s final warnings, Nina and Eddie travel to Cairo to inspect the newly discovered tomb of Alexander the Great. But the real find is hidden in one of its treasures - a mechanical guide leading to one of antiquity’s most tantalizing myths: a spring of water said to give eternal life to those who drink it.
Nina, Eddie, and a team of Mossad agents realize that the myth is real, and that a group of former SS men who have tasted this water are now hunting for its source. But before she and her alliance can act, Nina is kidnapped and spirited away to a secret Nazi enclave in Argentina, igniting a fierce, fateful, globe-spanning struggle in which her life hangs in the balance. All the while a terrifying possibility emerges - that the world’s darkest evil could live on forever.

My Thoughts:
 

Kingdom of Darkness by Andy McDermott is a highly recommended adrenaline packed thriller for action/adventure junkies.

This tenth addition to the Nina Wilde and Eddie Chase series opens with Nazi's finding a jar that descendants of Andreas, the cook for Alexander the Great, have hidden away. It contains the secret of immortality that Andreas found in the Kingdom of Darkness.

Then the action jumps to the present day. Nina and Eddie are in Hollywood when a young man approaches them, telling Nina, “Dr. Wilde, I must give you this. They must not be allowed to raid Alexander’s tomb!” He manages to show Nina the plans and tells her "...they are going to break into the tomb and steal the statue of Bucephalus. You have to stop them!”


Eddie is naturally alarmed, but Nina explains to him that the papers show a plan of Alexander the Great’s tomb, in Egypt. The young man manages to tell Nina that the "Oberkommando” is behind the planned theft and that he needs the statue to lead them to the Spring of Immortality. Then, suddenly the young man is killed by a mysterious gunman. The chase is on, as Eddie tries to find out the identity of the gunman.

After the dust settles (barely) Nina and Eddie are off on another globe-trotting adventure to discover the statue and the location of the rumored Spring of Immortality. This time there are real Nazi's, and plenty of action and ground to be covered in order to untangle the truth behind the myth of Alexander the Great's tomb. To add to the stress, Nina is not well, but she and Eddie are as devoted to each other as ever and Eddie is still quick witted and full of one liners.

Nina and Eddie are well established characters at this point, but that shouldn't deter anyone in just picking up this book and reading it. It can stand alone because, let's face it, we're reading these books for the action-packed plot more than anything else. McDermott knows what his fans want at this point and he delivers. (There is a series changing event in this one.)


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

Monday, April 27, 2015

Depth

Depth by Lev AC Rosen
Regan Arts: 4/28/2015
eBook review copy, 304 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9781941393079
www.levacrosen.com

Depth combines hardboiled mystery and dystopian science fiction in a future where the rising ocean levels have left New York twenty-one stories under water and cut off from the rest of the United States. But the city survives, and Simone Pierce is one of its best private investigators. Her latest case, running surveillance on a potentially unfaithful husband, was supposed to be easy. Then her target is murdered, and the search for his killer points Simone towards a secret from the past that can’t possibly be real—but that won’t stop the city’s most powerful men and women from trying to acquire it for themselves, with Simone caught in the middle.

My Thoughts:


Depth by Lev AC Rosen is a recommended detective novel set in a future NYC. Simone Pierce is a private investigator who, when the story opens, is "on the roof of a twenty-four-story building, so the ocean lay four stories down, churning just below the twenty-first floor. The fog was thick, but she could hear the waves lapping at the other buildings around her, and the worn wooden bridges that connected them to one another and to the permanently moored boats that made up New York City. New York, city of bridges and boats."

Simone is on a routine surveillance case of a husband suspected of cheating when she takes on a second job, escorting Alejandro DeCostas around the city. DeCostas is a visiting European archaeologist who wants to explore NYC looking for a rumored building that is water tight and dry below the sea level. While working both jobs, the surveillance case morphs into something else and takes on a life of its own. Simone is assisted in her inquiries by her friends, Caroline Khan, deputy major, Danny, a fugitive human computer, and Paul Weiss, a cop.

What is interesting and has great potential at the beginning is the setting -  NYC under water and cut off from the rest of a vastly changed USA. Rosen writes:
"New York, though technically still part of the United States, had long begun to consider itself its own country, hundreds of miles from the Chicago coastline and the conservative, religious mainland. The Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial had been airlifted to Salt Lake City, but no one tried moving New York. All the other drowned cities, like DC and Boston, were graveyards now—spires and flat tops of buildings tilting out unevenly from under the water like old headstones. Not New York. Though some older buildings had been worn away by the waves, others, retrofitted and laminated in that technological wonder Glassteel, stayed where they were as the ocean rose, closing off the bottom floors as they filled with water. There were newer buildings, too, designed to withstand the water, and decommissioned boats clever entrepreneurs had bought and moored around the city. There were a million New Yorkers left, and they were stubborn. They built the bridges themselves, and everyone bought personal algae generators and desalination filters for their apartments, stringing them out the windows into the sea. They reassembled their city. They stayed."

The potential for an intriguing story is all in place. The problem is Rosen has this great setting but neglects to make full use of it. The detective/mystery story is solid, but could easily be transferred to another setting, with some minor changes, and work just as well. This left me with a dilemma. I chose to review Depth based on the setting. The detective story is well written and satisfying but I kept longing for more information on the world. The search for a dry building underwater could just as easily be a search for a secret cache of some other treasure. This reduces the mystery to a formulaic plot that just happens to be set in a changed world and nothing in the plot elevated it above that for me.
 

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


Friday, April 24, 2015

The Brink: Stories

The Brink: Stories by Austin Bunn
HarperCollins: 4/28/2015
eBook review copy, 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062362612
http://austinbunn.com/

Brimming with life and extraordinary range, Austin Bunn's dazzling collection explores what happens at "the end" and afterward.

My Thoughts:


The Brink: Stories by Austin Bunn is a very highly recommended eclectic collection of 10 powerful short stories that embody several forms and genres. All of the characters have experienced some loss, either emotional or physical, and are trying to navigate new, precarious paths. In this process, all of them are facing some crucial, inherent truth about themselves. 


Bunn's writing ability is impressive and in The Brink he manages to deftly assemble a collection that encompasses a wide variety of characters and settings. I've tried to give the most basic description of each story without revealing any twists or surprises.

Contents:
How to Win an Unwinnable War: A gifted child of separated parents takes a summer school class on how to win a nuclear war
Griefer: An alternate reality role-playing gaming world is closing.
Getting There & Away: A couple is on their honeymoon in Bali.
The End of the Age Is upon Us: Michael is writing letters to Leah inside a cult where it's the end of the world.
The Worst You Can Imagine Is Where This Starts: Graham finds a mysterious black plastic bag in his basement.
Ledge: A sailor from Seville recounts his time at sea when they reach the edge of the world in the late 15th century.
Everything, All at Once: A recently divorced woman is selling her things through Craig's List, and getting her 71 year old mother to the doctor.
Hazard 9: An accident at a standoff over a mining operation leads to a precarious alliance.
When You Are the Final Girl: A young man is disfigured from severe burns. "Nobody wants to know where monsters come from. But I know. Because I am one. They come from a soundproof room, beige and white, with a door that seals for positive oxygen flow. Monsters come from all around to be born there, in the pure oxygen. Still, the place smells like Vaseline and burnt toast. Outside the room are six beds, hidden by curtains. There, the nurses put cadaver skin on you because it has nutrients your monster skin needs."
Curious Father: A 53 year old man questions his sexual orientation.


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

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Bridges of Paris

Bridges of Paris by Michael Saint James
Citron Bay Press, May 15, 2015
Hardcover review copy, 280 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1928595502
http://www.bridgesofparis.com/index.html
Bridges of Paris is a large-format coffee-table book, with over 350 original color photographs, which casts new illumination on the City of Light. The 37 bridges over the Seine River emerge as beautiful, historic destinations rather than unnoticed thoroughfares. The book features stunning portraits of each bridge as well as intimate riverside moments. Once you’ve experienced this river tour, you will never see Paris the same way again.
Living as a Parisian for a year, author Michael Saint James left his American lifestyle and spent his days and nights capturing images from over, on, beside and under the bridges of Paris. With over 30 years experience as a photographer, educator and world traveler, Michael immersed himself in French culture to search out his authentic artist self. The result is a visual treasure to share with everyone.
My Thoughts:

Bridges of Paris by Michael Saint James is a very highly recommended absolutely gorgeous collection of 355 photographs in a large format coffee table book. Everyone who has walked through my living room has been totally enraptured for weeks by the photographs in this book.

Michael Saint James includes all the information and organization I could possibly wish for along with the photos. You need to visit his website for a taste of the book, photos, and the list of bridges. He opens with an introduction and then a historical panorama of the building of the bridges. The bridges are organized by Island Bridges, Palace Bridges, Downstream Bridges, and Upstream Bridges. Included are maps of Paris, an index, bibliography Then we get to the pages and pages of luscious photographs.

At the beginning of each section you will see a satellite map showing and naming all the bridges. Then the individual bridge is named again on another satellite map at the opening of the section for that specific bridge. Vital statistics are included: when the first bridge in this location was built, when the current bridge was opened, the length, width, how many arches, and what the bridge is used for  -pedestrians and/or traffic and a brief history. It is absolutely an ideal way to present and organize the information and the photos of the bridges.

I went through and bookmarked individual photos I loved or found stunning and found that I could show you several that are on the website for Bridges of Paris


Oh, just look at every bridge in the Island Bridges section
I loved the Pont Saint-Michel photo.
Pont Alexandre III
Pont de l'Alma
Petit d'lena (the gateway to the Eiffel Tower)
Passerelle Simone-de-Beauvoir (a visually dynamic new bridge for pedestrian traffic)
There is one small photo of the author crossing the first bridge on the Seine near Source de la Seine in Burgundy that  found delightful, although it's not officially a bridge in Paris.

Truly Bridges of Paris captures la joie de vivre (the joy of life).

Just a note in passing: Normally review copies are rather plain. The covers may not be final yet, sometimes photos and maps are simple noted with a place holder. I usually file them out of sight on a bookcase near my desk before reading them. I was surprised to receive an exquisite review copy of
Bridges of Paris, with an impressive cover photo and then full of pages of gorgeous color photographs. I immediately placed it on my coffee table, with the thought that such a beautiful book with such sumptuous photographs was meant to be shared. It was a magnet for everyone who walked in to the room and I lost count of the number of times I heard the words "gorgeous photos!"

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

iRead Book Tour stops

Sunday, April 19, 2015

When the Shoe Fits

When the Shoe Fits by Mary T. Wagner
Waterhorse Press LLC: 6/19/2014
eBook ASIN: B00M39X7WE, 245 pages
Trade Paperback ISBN-13: 9780615991740
www.marytwagner.com/


When a hard fall from a tall horse landed Mary T. Wagner-then a freelance writer and a soccer mom with four young children-in a body cast for three months with a broken back, she didn't take it as a sign to ease back on the throttle. Instead, she changed careers, went to law school, took a job as a criminal prosecutor, and bought her first pair of spike heels. And THEN she started writing again.
More than a dozen national and regional writing awards later, Wagner has compiled this "best of" collection of her inspiring and empowering essays from her first three books, and added a few more for good measure....
In essays ranging widely from "Turbo Dating-the Year in Review" to "Riding Pillion," "The Limoncello Diaries" and "Angels in the Snow," Wagner's signature writing style combines humor, insight, and grace under pressure. Whether reflecting on subjects as diverse as motherhood, the view from the back of a Harley, the impending loss of a parent or the therapeutic effects of a post-divorce bonfire, Wagner's inspiring and empowering essays resonate with universal experiences of love, life and reinvention. A must-read for any woman who's asked herself "is there at least one more dream I can reach for?"... and then answered "YES!!"
My Thoughts:

When the Shoe Fits by Mary T. Wagner is a highly recommended collection of 38 essays that range from the author's love of drop-dead gorgeous stilettos to buying her first chain saw. Wagner manages to bring together in these essays the wide range of experiences, optimism, evolutions, loves, and emotions that, let's say a "maturing" woman will relate to and appreciate. She does indeed capture and share a slice of her life with humor and wit in When the Shoe Fits.

There were a few personal connections with Wagner that made these essays interesting and fun to read. My interest was sparked immediately when Wagner admitted that she now thinks about shoes - a lot. I too went for years when my children were young not thinking about shoes beyond utility and comfort. Now I admittedly have (too) many cute shoes (although I do avoid heels with my lifestyle).  I continued to bond with her further when she admitted, "I have trust issues. I will be the first to admit that I am a control freak. And I play by the rules, virtually all of the time." Goodness, it was as if I was being quoted.

I loved the story about buying her first chain saw: "You can look at it finally abandoning the last of the feminine 'rescue' fantasies. Or maybe it was just a dose of latent pioneer spirit finally coming to the surface. Though Davy Crockett never had one of these. (Of course, Davy Crockett never had a pair of leopard-print stilettos in his closet either. Or so we hope.) Either way, I bought a chain saw."

Some of the essays described experiences that were foreign enough to me that
they left me shaking my head. For example admitting that she  "...waited all of four days after the ink was dry on the divorce decree before I signed up to try on-line dating" was simply an idea that, even though she made her experiences humorous, I couldn't reconcile with someone who had any measure of common sense.

Her "The Limoncello Diaries",  "a tragic story of a bottle of lemon liqueur," was enchanting, and the piece about her father, "Ales Klar" was quite touching: "Then I kiss him on the cheek and tell him 'alles klar.' Roughly translated, it means 'everything’s fine.'" The Gatorade story was heart breaking and hopeful.

There are a wide range of topics discussed in Wagner's When the Shoe Fits but it must be noted that the essays will likely be enjoyed more by a specific target audience: women, likely over forty with older/adult children and divorced after a long marriage.  The book includes a discussion guide.


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




Thursday, April 16, 2015

House of Echoes

House of Echoes by Brendan Duffy
Random House: 4/14/2015
eBook review copy, 400 pages

ISBN-13: 9780804178112
http://www.brendanduffybooks.com/

Ben and Caroline Tierney and their two young boys are hoping to start over. Ben has hit a dead end with his new novel, Caroline has lost her banking job, and eight-year-old Charlie is being bullied at his Manhattan school. When Ben inherits land in the village of Swannhaven, in a remote corner of upstate New York, the Tierneys believe it’s just the break they need, and they leave behind all they know to restore a sprawling estate. But as Ben uncovers Swannhaven’s chilling secrets and Charlie ventures deeper into the surrounding forest, strange things begin to happen. The Tierneys realize that their new home isn’t the fresh start they needed . . . and that the village’s haunting saga is far from over. House of Echoes is a novel that shows how sometimes the ties that bind us are the only things that can keep us whole.


My Thoughts:

House of Echoes by Brendan Duffy is a very highly recommended, delightfully chilling, creepy, and atmospheric novel with Gothic overtones that will hold your attention from the beginning to the end.

Ben and Caroline Tierney have bought the Crofts, an old stone mansion built in the 1700s near the village of Swannhaven in the mountains of remote upstate New York.  They plan to turn it into a destination inn. They needed to leave the city and believe that fixing up and remodeling the old house will provide their family with the stability they all need. Ben is a novelist, so he's used to working from home. Caroline recently lost her banking job and has been going through depression and bi-polar disorder after the birth of their youngest son. The older son is 8 year old Charlie, who was being bullied in his school. After a horrific incident that had Charlie missing, Ben knows his family needs to get out of the city.

At first it seemed like the move was a good idea. Caroline seems to be feeling better and the renovations are moving swiftly along. Charlie is enjoying living in the country and exploring the woods surrounding the large estate. But there are also secrets being kept. Ben isn't talking about the dead animals he's finding - or the deer head left on a door step. Charlie isn't telling his parents about the "Watcher" he's interacting with in a strange game of tag in the woods. Caroline is hiding the fact that she is going off her medication and paranoia is starting to visit more frequently. Soon there is a palatable tension between family members.

As the family starts to interact with townspeople, Ben begins to explore the history of the Crofts, the town, and the Swann family. Interspersed between chapters are letters from the early settlers. You know that the Croft is not going to be the safe haven the Tierney's are seeking. The opening letter is dated December 23, 1777 and in it the young women writing to her sister says, "There are demons in us, Kathy. I see that now. Our blood is cursed, and doom haunts us always. It is too late for us, but I pray it is not too late for you."

Duffy moves the story along with excellent writing and character development in this well paced story. There is no huge, horrific incident, but plenty of mysterious incidents, dead animals, and unexplained noises to help slowly ratchet up the tension. The uncomfortable feeling that something awful is about to happen sneeks up on you gradually in this novel and is just as insidious and all encompassing as the wind that howls outside and through the cracks in the windows. You know something bad is going to happen, but you just don't know what form it is going to take. Is it going to be the weather, the weird villagers, a ghost, or something dark from the woods?

An excellent debut novel! Although I will admit to thinking about the Eddie Murphy skit on haunted houses, where he asked what was wrong with white people? Black people would just leave the house (especially once the head of a deer shows up on your front door step).


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

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Unoffendable

Unoffendable by Brant Hansen
Thomas Nelson: 4/14/2015
eBook review copy, 224 pages
ISBN-13: 9780529123855

http://branthansen.com/
It’s a radical, provocative idea: We’re not entitled to get offended or stay angry. The idea of our own “righteous anger” is a myth. It is the number one problem in our societies today and, as Dallas Willard says, Christians have not been taught out of it.
As it turns out, giving up our “right” to be offended can be one of the most freeing, healthy, simplifying, relaxing, refreshing, stress-relieving, encouraging things we can do.
In Unoffendable readers will find something of immeasurable value—a concrete, practical way to live life with less stress. They’ll adjust their expectations to fit human nature and replace perpetual anger with refreshing humility and gratitude.
The book offers a unique viewpoint, challenging the idea that Christians can ever harbor “righteous anger” or that there evenis such a thing for believers.
Few other books exist with such a radical, provocative proposal to consider. We have no right to anger. We are to get rid of it, period. Completely. And it is possible to choose to be “unoffendable.”
Through the author’s winsome, humorous, and conversational style, this book doesn’t add another thing to do on a stressed-out person’s ever-growing list. Better, it actually seeks to lift religious burdens from readers’ backs and allow them to experience the joy of gratitude, perhaps for the first time, every single day of their lives.
My Thoughts: 

Unoffendable: How Just One Change Can Make All of Life Better by Brant Hansen is very highly recommended life changing book. Today I am choosing to not be offended. 

Hansen, in a very accessible, conversational style full of self-deprecating humor, draws the attention of Christians to a Biblical truth that we may be ignoring. We need to deliberately choose to not be angry, even righteous anger, and not take offense. We need to take a step forward in our faith and walk with God and choose to be unoffendable.

Hansen writes, "Not only can we choose to be unoffendable; we should choose that. We should forfeit our right to be offended. That means forfeiting our right to hold on to anger. When we do this, we’ll be making a sacrifice that’s very pleasing to God. It strikes at our very pride. It forces us not only to think about humility, but to actually be humble."

As humans we actually like to be angry. Anger offers us a sense of moral superiority. The problem is when anger takes up residence in our hearts. We need to do what Dr. Martin Luther King recommended: "recognize injustice, grieve it, and act against it - but without rage, without malice, and without anger." Learning to let things go, not take offense, not make it personal, is the biggest hurdle we face. Often whatever we are scandalized over or upset about doesn't even have anything to do with us; it's someone else's behavior.

If we can manage to not be offended and keep a mindset of gratitude life will go much better for us. "Because that’s the thing about gratitude and anger: They can’t coexist. It’s one or the other. One drains the very life from you. The other fills your life with wonder. Choose wisely." And if you are constantly being offended it might be time to honestly evaluate your inflamed ego. If you can have an attitude of gratitude and humility, you will quite naturally be less easily offended.

Hansen summarizes that, "Choosing to be unoffendable means choosing to be humble. Not only that, the practice teaches humility. Once you’ve decided you can’t control other people; once you’ve reconciled yourself to the fact that the world, and its people, are broken; once you’ve realized your own moral failure before God; once you’ve abandoned the idea that your significance comes from anything other than God, you’re growing in humility, and that’s exactly where God wants us all." "When we surrender our perceived “rights,” when we let go of our attempts to manipulate, we find—surprise!—joy." And wouldn't anyone choose joy over being angry and offended all the time?

This would be an excellent resource for a small group study or any individual who wants to break the easy-to-take-offense cycle that seems so common today. And, although this is firmly a Christian book, the world at large could do with a dose of being unoffendable. This is an eye-opening look at something most Christians know at some level but need to take that knowledge to heart. It's time to be unoffendable and acknowledge that God is in charge.
 

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


Monday, April 13, 2015

What You Left Behind

What You Left Behind by Samantha Hayes
Crown: 4/14/2015
eBook review copy, 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780804136921
www.samanthahayes.co.uk
Two years after a terrifying spate of teenage suicides, the remote village of Radcote has just begun to heal. Then a young man is killed in a freak motorcycle accident and a suicide note is found among his belongings. When a second boy is found dead shortly thereafter, the nightmare of repeat suicides once again threatens the community.
      Desperate for a vacation, Detective Inspector Lorraine Fisher has just come to Radcote for a stay with her sister, Jo, but the atmosphere of the country house is unusually tense. Freddie, Jo's son, seems troubled and uncommunicative, and Jo is struggling to reach out to him. Meanwhile, Lorraine becomes determined to discover the truth behind these deaths. Are they suicides, or is there something more sinister at work? Finding answers might help Freddie, but they'll also lead to a shocking truth: whatever it is—or whoever it is—that's killing these young people is far more disturbing than she ever could have imagined, and unraveling the secret is just as dangerous as the secret itself.
My Thoughts:

What You Left Behind by Samantha Hayes is a recommended psychological thriller featuring British Detective Inspector Lorraine Fisher, who was first introduced in Hayes 2014 Until You’re Mine. What You Left Behind opens with an unnamed young woman walking away from a horrific motorcycle accident that left her boyfriend dead. "I don't look back. I don't want the memories that will haunt me, torment me in my dreams, soak my bed with night sweats. As far as I'm concerned, I was never a part of this." This is only the first of many secrets held by the various characters in this novel.

When Lorraine and her daughter Stella spend a week visiting her sister, Jo Curzon, and Jo’s 18-year-old son, Freddie, in the village of Radcote, the vacation isn't quite as relaxing as Lorraine had planned. Jo has recently separated from her husband, Malcolm, and Freddie is moody and sullen. To add to the gloomy mood, there has recently been another teen suicide. Radcote previously experienced six teen suicides in two weeks two years ago. Jo is worried about Freddie, who seems depressed, is heard crying in his room, and may be self-harming himself. Unknown to Jo, Freddie is being cyber bullied and is constantly receiving texts telling him to kill himself.
 
After meeting Sonia Hawkeswell, a volunteer at the local homeless shelter whose own son committed suicide, and her daughter Lana, who is a friend of Freddie's, Lorraine decides it is time to begin an investigation into the suicides. Much to her chagrin the chief investigator is an old nemesis and she knows he is incompetent enough to overlook important clues and evidence in his investigations. Adding to the assortment of odd characters is Gil, Lana's autistic uncle who is an accomplished artist, and Frank, a creepy man who works at the homeless shelter.

The quality of the writing is excellent and Hayes had me hooked at the beginning with the timely plot featuring cyber bullying and the teen suicide cluster,  but then the narrative began to wander a bit for me as it turned into more of a police procedural. I wasn't completely thrilled with the character Gil being made autistic and then thrown out there as an odd person who could be suspicious with bad intentions. There are twists and turns in this novel which seem to be all thrown in at the last minute. I also felt like there were a few story lines that could have brought to a conclusion more completely.
 

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

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Voices in the Night: Stories

Voices in the Night: Stories by Steven Millhauser
Knopf Doubleday: 4/14/2015
eBook review copy, 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385351591

From the Pulitzer and Story Prize winner: sixteen new stories - €”provocative, funny, disturbing, enchanting - €”that delve into the secret lives and desires of ordinary people, alongside retellings of myths and legends that highlight the aspirations of the human spirit.
Beloved for the lens of the strange he places on small town life, Steven Millhauser further reveals in Voices in the Night the darkest parts of our inner selves to brilliant and dazzling effect. Here are stories of wondrously imaginative hyperrealism, stories that pose unforgettably unsettling what-ifs, or that find barely perceivable evils within the safe boundaries of our towns, homes, and even within our bodies.
Here, too, are stories culled from religion and fables: Samuel, who hears the voice of God calling him in the night; a young, pre-enlightenment Buddha, who searches for his purpose in life; Rapunzel and her Prince, who struggle to fit the real world to their dream.
Heightened by magic, the divine, and the uncanny, shot through with sly and winning humor, Voices in the Night seamlessly combines the whimsy and surprise of the familiar with intoxicating fantasies that take us beyond our daily lives, all done with the hallmark sleight of hand and astonishing virtuosity of one of our greatest contemporary storytellers.

My Thoughts:

Voices in the Night: Stories by Steven Millhauser is a very highly recommended collection of 16 short stories. Get this collection! I enjoyed every story, although, naturally, I do have several favorites. Millhauser is a master at the art of writing short stories. He toyed with my emotions and created an almost unbearable tension in some stories or retold well known stories or fables in others.

Contents:
Miracle Polish: A man buys a bottle of Miracle Polish from a door to door salesman and discovers that when used his mirrors give his image a fresh glow, "like a man who believed in things."

Phantoms: Explanations and case studies of phantoms that are being seen in a town. The presences can look like anyone and always look at people before swiftly turning away.

Sons and Mothers: A man visits his mother after a long delay.

Mermaid Fever: "The mermaid washed up on our public beach in the early morning of June 19, at approximately 4:30 a.m., according to the most reliable estimates. At 5:06 a.m. the body was discovered by George Caldwell, a forty-year-old postal worker who lived two blocks from the water and was fond of his early-morning swim."

The Wife and the Thief: "She is the wife whose husband sleeps. She is the wife who lies awake, listening to the footsteps below."

A Report on Our Recent Troubles: A report on the recent rash of suicides in a town. "We can nevertheless agree that something began to reveal itself in March of this year, about six months ago. At that time three incidents occurred, apparently unrelated, which made a strong impression on the town without seeming to point in a direction."

Coming Soon:  A man moves to a small town, but change continues. "The city was a lost cause, what with the jammed-up traffic, the filthy subways, the decaying neighborhoods and crumbling buildings. The future lay in towns - in small, well-managed towns."

Rapunzel: The fairy tale is retold "...she dislikes the perpetual tugging at her scalp. She wishes they could find another way. But the tower has no door, there is no stairway..."

Elsewhere: "That summer a restlessness came over our town. You could feel it on Main Street, you could feel it at the beach." "At times it seemed to us that another place, an unknown place, was trying to emerge from within our town. It burrowed in the earth below our cellars, rose up silently in the corners of living rooms, trembled in the air above our rooftops."

Thirteen Wives: A man recounts the differences between his thirteen wives.

Arcadia: "Are you tired of life's burdens? Welcome to Arcadia, a peaceful woodland retreat founded over one hundred years ago to meet the needs of a very special clientele. Located on more than 2,000 acres of gently rolling spruce and pine forest, Arcadia offers a variety of comfortable and affordable accommodations suited to every taste." "Here in Arcadia we will show you the way. The way is hard for some and easy for others, but it is the only way and you will know it when you see it."

The Pleasures and Sufferings of Young Gautama: A tale of Buddha  when he was a young man.

The Place: "It was always known as the Place. Even as children we knew there was something wrong with a name like that you couldn't get a grip on it, the way you could get a grip on JoAnn's Diner, or Indian Lake, or the Palace Cinema out on South Main. It was as if whoever had named it hadn't thought very much about it, or hadn't been able to make up his mind. Later, as we grew older, we thought the very wrongness of the name was what was right about it. It was like an empty room you could put things in. Still later, we no longer thought about the name at all. It was part of what was, like summer and night."

Home Run: A satire of sports announcer language

American Tall Tale: The story of Paul Bunyan and his lazy brother, James.

A Voice in the Night: The story of the Biblical Samuel and a young boy in 1950 who is taken with the story and waits for the Lord to call him.

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







Friday, April 10, 2015

The Edge of the World

The Edge of the World by Michael Pye
Pegasus: 4/15/2015
eBook review copy, 360 pages
ISBN-13: 9781605986999

An epic adventure ranging from the terror of the Vikings to the golden age of cities: Michael Pye tells the amazing story of how modernity emerged on the shores of the North Sea.
Saints and spies, pirates and philosophers, artists and intellectuals: they all criss-crossed the grey North Sea in the so-called "dark ages," the years between the fall of the Roman Empire and the beginning of Europe's mastery over the oceans. Now the critically acclaimed Michael Pye reveals the cultural transformation sparked by those men and women: the ideas, technology, science, law, and moral codes that helped create our modern world.
This is the magnificent lost history of a thousand years. It was on the shores of the North Sea where experimental science was born, where women first had the right to choose whom they married; there was the beginning of contemporary business transactions and the advent of the printed book. In The Edge of the World, Michael Pye draws on an astounding breadth of original source material to illuminate this fascinating region during a pivotal era in world history.

My Thoughts:


The Edge of the World
: A Cultural History of the North Sea and the Transformation of Europe by Michael Pye is a highly recommended well researched presentation of the impact North Sea travel had during the dark ages and how it lead to modern Western civilization. Pye does an exceptional job of making the historical information accessible and entertaining, as well as informative. The areas of influence covered include the invention of money, the book trade, enemies, settlers, fashion, law, exploring nature to the north, science, women's rights, trading, plague laws, and the invention of cities. Pye uses historical documents and resources to show how the Frisians to the Vikings influenced cultural advances in civilization that can be seen today. Additionally, he references fictional literary works of the times to advance the presentation of historical facts with. The book includes references, notes, and an index.

"They came in glory. They look like something both new and brilliant, but the truth is that they grew out of the light in what we used to casually call the '€˜dark ages'€™ and the central importance of what we used to call 'the edge of the world'€™. Around the cold, grey waters of the North Sea, the old, the marginal, the unfashionable made us possible: for much better, and for much, much worse. It is time now to give them all their due."

Pye notes: "This book is about rediscovering that lost world, and what it means to us: the life around the North Sea in times when water was the easiest way to travel, when the sea connected and carried peoples, belief and ideas, as well as pots and wine and coal. This is not the usual story of muddled battles and various kings and the spread of Christianity. It is the story of how the constant exchanges over water, the half-knowledge that things could be done differently, began to change people'€™s minds profoundly. This cold, grey sea in an obscure time made the modern world possible. Consider what had to change after the end of the Roman Empire in order to take us to the start of the cities, states and habits that we now know: our law, our idea of love, our way of business and our need for an enemy in order to define ourselves."

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


Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Dream Lover

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg
Random House: 4/14/2015
eBook Review Copy, 368 pages
Hardcover ISBN-13: 9780812993158

http://www.elizabeth-berg.net/

At the beginning of this powerful novel, we meet Aurore Dupin as she is leaving her estranged husband, a loveless marriage, and her family’s estate in the French countryside to start a new life in Paris. There, she gives herself a new name - George Sand - and pursues her dream of becoming a writer, embracing an unconventional and even scandalous lifestyle.

Paris in the nineteenth century comes vividly alive, illuminated by the story of the loves, passions, and fierce struggles of a woman who defied the confines of society. Sand’s many lovers and friends include Frédéric Chopin, Gustave Flaubert, Franz Liszt, Eugène Delacroix, Victor Hugo, Marie Dorval, and Alfred de Musset. As Sand welcomes fame and friendship, she fights to overcome heartbreak and prejudice, failure and loss. Though considered the most gifted genius of her time, she works to reconcile the pain of her childhood, of disturbing relationships with her mother and daughter, and of her intimacies with women and men. Will the life she longs for always be just out of reach—a dream?

Brilliantly written in luminous prose, and with remarkable insights into the heart and mind of a literary force, The Dream Lover tells the unforgettable story of a courageous, irresistible woman.

My Thoughts:


The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg is a highly recommended fictional account of the life of Aurore Dupin, or as we know her, George Sand.

Berg starts her book in 1831 when Aurore Dupin leaves the French countryside and her conventional but loveless marriage to live a creative, bohemian life in Paris. Then the novel goes back in time to 1804 when Aurore is born and shows us her parents and childhood. The novel is historical fiction, but also becomes part biography as Berg recounts the life, career, and lovers of George Sand and her many struggles. Included in the novel is a plethora of famous historical figures that cross paths with Aurore/Sand and a characterization of her progressive political/social beliefs. While pursuing her writing career with great success, Sand was continually looking for love but never seems to truly find the titular dream lover.

Berg is an excellent writer and does manage to bring the myriad of details regarding Sand's life to the forefront. Fans of historical fiction will likely immensely enjoy the details included, as Berg did an notable job researching Sand's life in order to base this fictional account on the real person. For me, Sands still remains elusive as a person in this fictional account that feels more like a biography.  That's not necessarily bad, because I like biographies, but it is worth noting for other readers that Sand's actions sometimes feel as if they are a list of details in a report rather than an account of a historical figure being brought to life. This is also not necessarily a criticism since I completely understand that it can be difficult to write about a historical figure and bring them to life on the page while trying to include the many details of their life.


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

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Children's Crusade

The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer
Scribner: 4/7/2015
eBook review copy, 448 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9781476710457 http://www.annpacker.com/

A sweeping, masterful new novel that explores the secrets and desires, the remnant wounds and saving graces of one California family, over the course of five decades.
Bill Blair finds the land by accident, three wooded acres in a rustic community south of San Francisco. The year is 1954, long before anyone will call this area Silicon Valley. Struck by a vision of the family he has yet to create, Bill buys the property on a whim. In Penny Greenway he finds a suitable wife, a woman whose yearning attitude toward life seems compelling and answerable, and they marry and have four children. Yet Penny is a mercurial housewife, at a time when women chafed at the conventions imposed on them. She finds salvation in art, but the cost is high.
Thirty years later, the three oldest Blair children, adults now and still living near the family home, are disrupted by the return of the youngest, whose sudden presence and all-too-familiar troubles force a reckoning with who they are, separately and together, and set off a struggle over the family’s future. One by one, the siblings take turns telling the story—Robert, a doctor like their father; Rebecca, a psychiatrist; Ryan, a schoolteacher; and James, the malcontent, the problem child, the only one who hasn’t settled down—their narratives interwoven with portraits of the family at crucial points in their history.

My Thoughts:

The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer is a very highly recommended novel that delves into the complex dynamics of a dysfunctional family.

Pediatrician Bill Blair bought the land for his Portola Valley, California home in 1954, before he was even married, before it was Silicon Valley. When he met Penny, he thought he had found the perfect wife to start his family with and build a home on his land. Four children later, however, Penny is overwhelmed and tired of being a mother. While Bill is devoted to his family, Penny yearns for a different life and emotionally distances herself from her children and Bill. After leaving them emotionally, she removes herself physically, moving into a former storage shed so she can pursue her own artistic interests. The children are well aware of their mother's distance and discuss launching a "children's crusade" in an attempt to recruit her back to them, to return their love.

 
The story of this family and the crisis that brings them all back together when drifter James shows up again is told through the memories of the siblings and their reflections on their life and growing up. Each sibling reflects on their childhood, looking back from the perspective of an adult and their recollections are as unique as each individual. Robert is now an internist, Rebecca is a psychiatrist, Ryan is a teacher, and James is still the problem child. As Rebecca, the only daughter poignantly says, "Or rather, I remembered my memory of the moment, because after so long that’s what memory is: the replaying of filmstrip that’s slightly warped from having gone through the projector so many times. I’ll never know what actually happened and what distortions I added."

I thought The Children's Crusade was brilliant. Chapters alternate between the past and the present, four years after their father's death. Robert, Rebecca, and Ryan all live in the area, while James has wandered for years.  With the family stories told through each individual's memories of the events in their childhood, the picture of the family dynamics is slowly revealed and made more complete as each sibling recounts a story, a memory, and a piece of the family's history. All of their memories are enlightening and sometimes heartbreaking.

Packer is a remarkable, accomplished writer. She is able to capture complex family dynamics with empathy and compassion while still articulating the little quirks and personality traits that make them each individuals. The past does reflect on the present and all of our expectations and desires color our views even more. My only quibble is that Penny's actions are never quite explained, but, then, her self-centered egocentric actions are, perhaps, self-explanatory - simply a fact based on her choices. She wouldn't be the first individual to tire of the self-sacrifice involved in parenting.

I can see where The Children's Crusade might resonate more with readers who come from a larger family and are a bit older. Personally, I have seen members of my family, all contemporaries of the characters in The Children's Crusade, go through some of the same personal reflection, with each individual, based on birth order and personality, seeing events differently. Rebecca's comment about memory being a filmstrip that is distorted and warped due to the many replays is powerful and this concept can explain some of the present day conflicts siblings can hold. Memories and resentments can be buried deep and stories distorted by each individual's recollections. The years and personal experiences add to and change the way you view events from the past.


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


Monday, April 6, 2015

Blood on Snow

Blood on Snow by Jo Nesbo
Knopf Doubleday: 4/7/2015
eBook review copy, 224 pages

hardcover ISBN-13: 9780385354196

From the internationally acclaimed author of the Harry Hole novels fast, tight, darkly lyrical stand-alone novel that has at its center the perfectly sympathetic antihero: an Oslo contract killer who draws us into an unexpected meditation on death and love.

This is the story of Olav: an extremely talented "fixer" for one of Oslo's most powerful crime bosses. But Olav is also an unusually complicated fixer. He has a capacity for love that is as far-reaching as is his gift for murder. He is our straightforward, calm-in-the-face-of-crisis narrator with a storyteller's hypnotic knack for fantasy. He has an innate talent for subordination but running through his veins is a virus born of the power over life and death. And while his latest job puts him at the pinnacle of his trade, it may be mutating into his greatest mistake. . . .

My Thoughts:

Blood on Snow by Jo Nesbo is a very highly recommended Nordic noir crime novel about a paid assassin.

It is 1977 and Christmas time in Oslo. Olav Johansen is a hit man, a fixer for the crime boss and drug kingpin Daniel Hoffmann. Olav, a sensitive, thoughtful man with dyslexia came into this position because he was seemingly unsuited for any other position within the crime organization. Fixing people is the one thing he has been successful at accomplishing.

After finishing a fix, Olav is contacted by Hoffmann for another job. This time Hoffmann wants Olav to fix his new, young wife, Corina. This puts Olav into a dangerous position. He already knows too much about his boss's past and this new fix will likely result in Olav being the next target. If he refuses the job, he will also likely be the next target. Olav must figure out a plan to survive. In the meantime, while watching Corina, Olav begins to become smitten with her.

I was totally engrossed in Blood on Snow from beginning to end. I can see why movie rights have been purchased for this short novel. Olav isn't the usual tough talking assassin. He's sensitive, a reader, thoughtful, and impossibly soft-hearted man who has compassion, even while being very good at his job. Nesbo excels at character development and does a great job with Olav in a smaller number of pages than one usually finds in one of his books.

This is sure to draw new fans to Nesbo's Harry Hole novels. While fans of Harry Hole might miss him here, I thought this was a very engaging, compelling novel and I was completely immersed in the action and invested in the character of Olav.


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