Sunday, December 10, 2017

Some Assembly Required

Some Assembly Required by Michael Strelow  
Roundfire Books: 12/8/17
eBook review copy; 208 pages
ISBN-13: 9781785356278

 
Some Assembly Required by Michael Strelow is a recommended humorous science fiction novel.

Jake James is a writer. He also has always heard voices and has learned to not tell people about it after that disastrous initial disclosure in grade school. His voices aren't bad. They don't tell him what to do. They might poetically describe a scene, or just say his name, and he's learned to co-exist with them. He doesn't talk about them to anyone, including his girlfriend, and life is good.

When Jake is on an assignment covering an A.I. convention he listens to the presentation of Dr. Sewall. While the presentation is without fanfare and barely audible, when Jake actually reads the paper presented, his interest is piqued. Jake sets off to visit Sewall at his office, located at the back of the Ag department at the university. It is there that Jake sees Rex. Rex is a sentient being that resembles a blob of gray-green oatmeal. Dr. Sewell apparently created Rex by inserting a form of AI he created using a mathematical algorithm into a bowl of oatmeal. Now the Dr. feeds him and Rex, while ravenous and growing, excretes a dust.

When Rex, or Rex II, reveals he has a voice, Jake begins to hear Rex's voice along with the other voices he already hears. Suddenly everything changes, including Jake's perception of the world. Or is Rex a symptom of Jake's undisclosed mental illness.

Some Assembly Required is a well-written sci-fi romp through the absurd. Jake is a likeable protagonist, with a quirky sense of humor and a self-effacing attitude. He's really an everyman - except for the voices. Once he starts talking to Rex, or Rex is altering reality, the story takes a turn. There were sections and descriptions in this novel that I liked very much and the writing is excellent. I loved it at the beginning and then, ultimately, the direction the plot took lost me. Other readers might enjoy it in entirety more than I did.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Roundfire Books.

Insidious Intent

Insidious Intent by Val McDermid  
Grove/Atlantic: 12/5/17
eBook review copy; 400 pages
ISBN-13: 9780802127167
Tony Hill & Carol Jordan #10


Insidious Intent by Val McDermid is a highly recommended tenth installment to the series featuring psychologist Tony Hill and DCI Carol Jordan.
 
There are dual plotlines in this fast-paced, intense procedural. Carol Jordan has been asked to return to head the newly formed Regional Major Incident Team (ReMIT) and she has handpicked her colleagues. All of Carol's skills and Tony's insight are needed and tested with the Wedding Killer. They must find a serial killer who finds his victims at wedding receptions. The killer seeks out a woman who seems to be alone, courts her, and eventually kills her. Then he sets fire to their lifeless bodies in their cars, not only destroying the bodies, but destroying any evidence that would connect him to the crime.


While trying to catch the killer, crime reporter Penny Burgess has made it her goal to end Carol's career. At the same time DS Paula McIntyre is being urged by Carol to take her inspector's exam so she can take over for Carol - if she has to step down. To add to the complications, Paula and her partner Dr. Elinor Blessing must figure out why their teenage ward, Torin McAndrew, is suddenly acting moody and secretive. DC Stacey Chen is back and using her mad IT/computer skills to help solve the cases.


This is a great long-running series with well-developed, well-established characters. The writing is excellent and the dialogue is well-done. McDermid keeps the action fast and the tension building in this outing. The team is seriously stumped and there are so many peripheral things happening that could distract them from the case. All the various plot-thread keep moving along as the stress levels of the team rise along with the pressure. There is a reason McDermid is such a successful crime writer.  The ending on this one  is a shocker.


Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Grove/Atlantic.

The Only Girl in the World

The Only Girl in the World: A Memoir by Maude Julien
Adriana Hunter (Translator)
Little, Brown and Company: 12/12/17
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316466622

The Only Girl in the World by Maude Julien is a highly recommended memoir about a woman's abusive childhood - and her escape.

This is not an easy memoir to read because of the abuse and the family situation is so bizarre. Maude Julien's parents were fanatics and the torture she experienced under their supervision was supposedly done to strengthen her. Her father got her mother at around age 6 from her parents, promising to educate her. He then raised and groomed her mother to eventually be his wife and help him raise a superior being. Maude was born from this odd union in 1957.

Her father was many things. He had a megalomaniac personality. He was paranoid, narcissistic, cruel, abusive, and a conspiracy theorist. He believed he was "a Grand Master of Freemasonry and a great knight of a secret order." He designed the education and cruel tasks Maude had to do and his wife helped him carry his plans out. Their duty, mother and daughter, was to do his bidding. He was controlling and a master of psychological indoctrination.

Maude is never shown any love or tenderness. The abusive things Maude was forced to do in order to strengthen her character are painful to read about. She has to sit still in a dark rat-infested cellar overnight. She had to hold on to an electric fence without flinching. She had to bathe in cold, dirty bath water. The amount of sleep she had was strictly limited. The animals, the only ones who gave Maude affection and that she loved, were all abused. Both Maude and her horse were forced to drink alcohol. Maude was forced to eat food in huge chunks and only given stale bread to eat. They ignored her being sexually abused by their handyman. Maude finally escapes when she is allowed to take a train to Dunkirk to study music and she realizes she can escape.

The recounting of the abuse is relentless and matter-of-fact as she recounts her daily existence and the abuse she was experiencing at the hands of her parents, although it was her father who was in charge. There isn't a lot of reflection or analysis by Maude as she relates what she had to endure and at times it feels just too unflinching in the recounting of the horror. Although it might have been nice to read about her childhood from the viewpoint of the adult and psychotherapist that she is today, it is at least gratifying to know that she did escape. It is also satisfying to know  that an outsider, a music teacher, assessed what was going on and put a plan into action that would eventually help Maude escape her insane, controlling father. While this is a dark story that she needed to tell, it is not really inspirational, except in the fact that she does survive and overcomes her abusive background.
Be forewarned that there are triggers in this book for those who have experienced physical or sexual abuse and self-harming. There is animal abuse.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Little, Brown and Company.

The Vanishing Season

The Vanishing Season by Joanna Schaffhausen
St. Martin's Press: 12/5/17
eBook review copy. 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250126047

The Vanishing Season by Joanna Schaffhausen is a highly recommended debut mystery/police procedural.

Ellery Hathaway knows a thing or two about serial killers.  On her 14th birthday, Ellery, whose first name is actually Abigail, became the 17th young woman abducted by the notorious serial killer Frances Coben. Abigail was the only survivor and under an intense media spotlight. She decided to go by her middle name, Ellery, to avoid anyone recognizing her name, she hides her scars, and she no longer celebrates her birthday.

Now, fourteen years later, Ellery is police officer in a small town, Woodbury, MA, and she's concerned that there is a serial killer in her small town. Three people have disappeared in July over the past three years. Ellery sees a pattern and would like the disappearances to be further investigated, but her chief thinks otherwise. No one in the community actually knows Ellery's past history, so her concerns are easily dismissed.

As the date approaches for the vanishing season when another citizen will disappear, Ellery calls the one man she knows who may be able to help her solve the question of who is taking these people, FBI Agent Reed Markham. Markham solved the case of her abduction and rescued her from Coben just in time. He may have insight into the three missing persons cases. He may also be able to help Ellery solve another question, one closer to home, because it appears that someone knows her true identity and they have been sending her a birthday card since she moved to Woodbury.

The Vanishing Season is a well written mystery/procedural. Schffhausen builds up the suspense and suspense while slowly revealing new clues and suspects. The plot is complex and there are a full cast of characters. Ellery's dog, Speed Bump, or Bump for short, is a great scene stealing. Ellery's back story is told in chilling detail and it is clear how wounded she still is from her experiences, as well as why the current cases of missing persons concerns her.

The main characters are all well developed, although readers will question the wisdom of some of their decisions. Ellery doesn't share any of her history with her current colleagues and so they have little reason to take her concerns seriously, which, while you can see her reasoning, it also seems to be a mistake on her part. I will say that the perpetrator was easy to spot early on, making the ending feel a bit contrived, but the conclusion is satisfying. All in all this is a satisfying debut and an author to watch for in the future.

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

Sunday, December 3, 2017

Plague Land

Plague Land by Alex Scarrow
Sourcebooks: 12/5/17
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13:  9781492652106
ReMade YA Series #1

Plague Land by Alex Scarrow is a highly recommended YA horror thriller that was previously published under the title ReMade.

Leon and his younger sister Grace have recently moved to London, England, from NYC after their parent's divorce. Leon is struggling to fit in at his new school when he begins to notice short news blurbs about a plague spreading in Africa. No one seems to worried, but Leon is becoming alarmed. The plague is unlike any other seen and seems to be spreading at an unbelievable rate, killing everything in its path. Leon's decision to answer a phone call from his father is fortuitous, as his father tells them all to leave London, ASAP. This advice may have saved them because it got Leon, Grace, and their mother out of London, just as the plague was hitting there. However, once they witness up close victims of the plague liquefying, they realize that there might not be a safe place anywhere anymore.

Plague Land is, without a doubt, the start of a new YA series. It is an engrossing, basically fast-paced horror novel that should capture the attention of the YA crowd, although it's probably best suited for older/mature teens. There are a few slower parts to the story, but they tend to be developing the structure of the post-plague society. Interspersed in the novel are short chapters told from the point of view of the virus/plague, that hint at further developments along that line in future installments. This is a plague that works as a collective and can formulate a plan.

The writing is good, but I suspect that won't matter to most of the readers of this sci-fi-horror-thriller. The characters are nicely developed for the first book in the series. Scarrow has left readers several scenes that point to many different directions that the story can take in future installments - and I imagine that there will likely be more than one or two. Mature YA readers of horror will likely embrace this new series. (It did hold my attention, but as a decidedly adult reader perhaps not enough to read the next installment.)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

The Demon Crown

The Demon Crown by James Rollins
HarperCollins: 12/5/17
eBook review copy; 464 pages
hardcover ISBN-13: 9780062381736
Sigma Force Series #13

The Demon Crown by James Rollins is a very highly recommended terrifying, horrifying thrill ride of action and adventure! This is a smart, excellent new addition to the Sigma Force series.

Professor Ken Matsui, an entomologist who specializes in venomous creatures, is the lone survivor of an attack on an island off the coast of Brazil. What he discovers there is a frightening foe that hasn't been seen alive for millions of years.

Surprisingly, the threat was first known by James Smithson, the man who founded the Smithsonian Institution. A secret vault under the National Mall holds the artifact first collected by Smithson and buried with him. Alexander Graham Bell led a team to recover the artifact and hide it to protect humankind. The artifact is the bones of a small dinosaur preserved in amber - Smithson called it the Demon Crown. They cannot destroy it as it is said to hold the very secret of life after death. Additionally, Smithson’s diary contains the warning that "what the Demon Crown holds is very much alive... and ready to unleash the very hordes of Hell upon this world."

When the large chunk of amber is stolen, the secret it contains is unleashed as a dreadful, horrifying weapon with an unimaginable strength to wipe out life as we know it. When the menace is unleashed on the islands of Hawaii, the Sigma Force must survive it and try to stop the maniac behind the abominable attack before the threat expands to cover the Earth.

The Demon Crown is one of the stronger additions to the Sigma Force novels and it will hold your attention in a vise-like grip for the whole novel.

The novel presents us with a terrifying, repellent, menacing horde. Rollin's cautions in the opening Notes From the Scientific Record that we are living in the Age of Insects and "some insect will kill one person out of sixty every year." It could be possible that insects contributed to the extinction of the dinosaurs. Unless you want to be scared half to death, those with spheksophobia, apiphobia, or melissophobia need to be warned to avoid this book.

As expected, the writing is excellent, the plot intelligent, and the action is non-stop and fast-paced. This would be the perfect selection for reading during a vacation when staying up late
reading "just-one-more-chapter" might not matter as much - because you will lose sleep when reading The Demon Crown. All the team members are back for long time fans of the series. There is also an unexpected alliance that must form to save the world. There are chapters written from the view of the menacing foe that are truly frightening.

As many of us who are fans of Rollins expect, at the end of the novel there is a whole section on Truth or Fiction. I love that Rollins includes these notes and I appreciate the work and research he does when writing his novels. I know many of us like the fact that Rollins treats his readers with respect and a nod to their intelligence and ability to comprehend a complex plot based on facts and science.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Not Safe After Dark

Not Safe After Dark: And Other Stories by Peter Robinson
HarperCollins Publishers: 12/5/17
eBook review copy: 496 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062673893

Not Safe After Dark by Peter Robinson is a highly recommended collection of twenty short stories. All the stories in the collection are finely crafted, featuring well-written dialogue and surprising plot twists. Included are three Inspector Alan Banks police procedurals. I enjoyed the majority of these short stories immensely and was legitimately surprised and shocked by a few of the endings.

Contents:
Summer Rain: A young man who believes in reincarnation is sure he was murdered in his last previous life.
Fan Mail: A fan of a writer sends fan mail asking for help in planning the murder of his wife.
Innocence: Reed travels two hundred miles away from home to meet with his friend Francis, who never shows up. This sets into motion a series of coincidences in his life.
Murder in Utopia:  Utopia was a model mill workers' village built in 1873. "As there was no crime in Utopia, no police force was required, and we relied on constables from nearby townships in the unlikely event that any real unpleasantness or unrest should arise."
Not Safe after Dark: City parks are not safe places to walk after dark. All the guide books state this. But what would be the harm in taking a short walk among the trees by the lake to cool off on a hot summer night?
Just My Luck: Walter Dimchuk, a confirmed Torontonian, attends a convention in Los Angeles, a place he has never taken seriously.
Anna Said: In this Inspector Banks tale, a woman dies, likely from food poisoning.
Missing in Action: An Edgar Award-winning story about the disappearance of a nine-year-old boy in the early days of WWII that sparks a mob mentality.
Memory Lane: The band Memory Lane plays oldies at a nursing home.
Carrion: Two strangers in a pub strike up a casual acquaintance that completely alters the life of one of them.
April in Paris: A girl in a cafe in Paris reminds someone of a girl he knew named April
The Good Partner: An Inspector Banks tale. A woman is murdered, presumably by her husband.
Some Land in Florida: Santa Claus is found face down in a pool and it might not have been an accident.
The Wrong Hands: Mitch draws up a will for Mr. Garibaldi and is given an additional task. He is asked to hand over to the police an unregistered gun that has been kept hidden for years.
The Two Ladies of Rose Cottage: Set in 1939, two elderly women, Miss Eunice and Miss Teresa, have the police pull up outside their cottage and rumors begin to fly about murder and human bones dug up in the garden.
Lawn Sale: A man's home has been broken in to and they have taken his wife's jewelry.
Gone to the Dawgs:  Calvin Bly is tired of Charlie Firth winning the NFL football pool. "Nothing could stop the smug bastard from winning again now. Nothing short of murder."
In Flanders Fields: Even though bombs were falling around them, someone bludgeoned Mad Maggie to death and she wasn't discovered until several days later when the milkman found her.
The Duke’s Wife: The Duke announces that he is going to marry Isabella, a young woman who was going to join a convent.
Going Back: Inspector Banks takes a trip back home to celebrate his parents' Golden Anniversary and sees "how evil can wear many disguises."

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.


Because I Was Lonely

Because I Was Lonely by Hayley Mitchell
RedDoor Publishing: 3/2/17
eBook review copy: 304 pages
ISBN-13: 978-1910453292

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Princess Diarist

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher
Penguin Publishing Group: 11/22/17
eBook review copy; 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399173592

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher is a highly recommended personal insight into her life as Princess Leia and her affair with Harrison Ford during the filming.

In 1977 she was just a teenager, 19, when she accepted the role of Princess Leia. She never wanted to be an actor, but had a role in Shampoo in 1975 and auditioned for the role of Princess Leia. For several reasons Carrie Fisher had kept quiet for years about her affair with Harrison Ford during the filming of the original Star Wars. With the discovery of journals she had written during that time, she finally decided that it was time to tell the story.

First she discusses the effect being Princess Leia has had on her life. Obviously in such an iconic role being forever known as Princess Leia has had a profound effect on her life, whether she wanted it to or not.  When Fisher met Ford, she was inexperienced, while Ford was an older married man. It was an affair that lasted just while they were filming Star Wars. It likely had little effect on Ford, but Fisher was young and impressionable. Only about half of the book includes the dairy entries and poems she wrote, which all clearly show how she struggled with keeping emotions out of it when as a young woman she was full of emotions, insecurities, and was extremely vulnerable.

This is not a tell-all book full of details about the affair nor is it a detailed account of filming Star Wars. It is Carrie Fisher sharing part of herself, from a time long ago, and how the events influenced her life. Fisher is a good writer, and she captures her feeling about the events honestly. She also writes candidly about autograph and photo-op events.  Since this is the last of the autobiographical books Fisher will write, it deserves at least four stars.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the Penguin Publishing Group via Netgalley.

The Whispering Room

The Whispering Room by Dean Koontz
Random House Publishing Group: 11/21/17
eBook review copy; 528 pages
ISBN-13: 9780345546807
Jane Hawk #2

The Whispering Room by Dean Koontz is the action-packed very highly recommended thriller and sequel to The Silent Corner.

From the first book in the series, we know that Jane Hawk's husband Nick killed himself, but Jane knows that it wasn't him. There is a foul plot afoot with some powerful men behind it. They are trying to eliminate a specific group of people by making it appear that they are committing suicide, while they are also taking control of other people's free will. Jane has gone rogue from the FBI, and is on the run, but she is intelligent and resourceful enough to begin uncovering bits and pieces of the group's insidious plans

In the beginning of The Whispering Room we meet Cora Gundersun. Cora has been a teacher of the year and is beloved by all who know her. By all accounts she is a wonderful, caring, gentle person. When Cora completes a plan that results in her taking her own life as well as the lives of others, Sheriff Luther Tillman knows that something is amiss. The act does not reflect the person Cora was known to be. Tillman begins his own undercover operation that leads to the widespread conspiracy that Jane is bent on uncovering and revealing.

I really enjoyed The Whispering Room. Admittedly it is not quite as good as The Silent Corner, but it is still excellent. Most second books in a series suffer a bit in comparison to the first, but I'm not holding that against The Whispering Room. I stayed up way-too-late with this one saying "just one more chapter." Now, they are short, quick chapters, but there is enough action that finding a good stopping point was challenging and resulted in many repeats of the "just one more chapter" mantra. In this case I really think that you need to read The Silent Corner before The Whispering Room. Koontz does include information on what happened in the previous book, but it would be helpful and increase your appreciation of this second novel if you read them both in order.

Jane is a wonderfully realized character. She is well developed at this point and a woman to be reckoned with, as she has the knowledge, background, and skills to manage to stay hidden while conducting her own investigation. I really like her. And Koontz knows how to deliver a story and keep the plot moving. I can hardly wait for the next book in the series. Koontz manages to combine the action of a thriller with some of the aspects of science fiction, especially nanotechnology. It is reminiscent of Michael Crichton's Prey, but Koontz is making this his own.

While Koontz has written a wildly entertaining novel here, some of the questions it raises can be directly applied to the current atmosphere in the USA today. I'm not going to wax philosophical on this, but if you should choose to go down that path, you certainly could as Koontz has made some compelling arguments about mind control, control of the few over the many, and the existence of absolute evil.

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

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

The Story of Arthur Truluv

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg
Penguin Random House: 11/21/17
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9781400069903

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg is a feel-good novel with life-affirming messages. This is about three people who have lost someone, are lonely, but ultimately find companionship and a family with each other.

"Arthur thinks that, above all, aging means the abandonment of criticism and the taking on of compassionate acceptance."

Arthur Moses, eighty-five, lost his beloved wife, Nola, six months ago. His days consist of caring for his roses and Gordon the cat, and taking the bus to have lunch at the cemetery with Nola. Arthur is an optimist, but he desperately misses his wife.

Quite by chance, Arthur meets Maddy, a high school student who will be turning eighteen soon. She skips lunch and classes to avoid her classmates. Often she goes to the cemetery where she sits and take pictures. Maddy's mother died shortly after she was born and her father seems to blame her for the death. Maddy craves love and acceptance. To make matters worse, her classmates relentlessly bully her. Once she and Arthur meet and form a friendship, she gives him the nickname Truluv.

Across the street from Arthur lives his neighbor Lucille. She is a retired school teacher who often calls Arthur over to sit on her porch when she sees him. More importantly, she sends delicious baked goods home with him. Lucille lost her one true love in high school and is over joyed when he reconnects with her. When circumstances cause these three people to bond together, they not only support and help each other, they form an unlikely family of sorts. 

This is a wonderfully written, charming story of how people can help each other and form their own family through their friendship, compassion, and emotional support. Set in Mason, Missouri, a small town of five thousand people, The Story of Arthur Truluv has a small-town-Fannie-Flagg feeling to it. It is a simple story, but charming. There are not any shocking surprises - it is not that kind of story. And while there are some harsh and challenging things that happen, our characters are going to get through it. We know they will because it is that kind of story. You know it will provide positive messages and have a feel-good ending. And, you know, sometimes that is what you need.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Future Home of the Living God

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich
HarperCollins: 11/14/17
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062694058

Future Home of the Living God by Louise Erdrich is a very highly recommended novel of speculative fiction.

Cedar Hawk Songmaker is twenty-six, pregnant, and writing this book for her unborn child. Cedar is the adopted daughter of Sera and Glen Songmaker, open-minded Minneapolis liberals who have raised her to embrace her Ojibwe roots. She is also in contact for the first time with her birth mother, Mary Potts, who lives up north, on the Ojibwe reservation. She contacted Mary Potts because she wanted to understand her origins for herself and her baby. While she hasn't been paying a lot of attention to the news, apparently evolution is moving backwards. While it is moving backwards quickly for many creatures and plants, what is alarming is that women are now giving birth to infants who are from a more primitive species.

A new government is in control. Now it seems that pregnant women are being rounded up and sent to special hospitals, or prisons, so they can be watch and monitored during their pregnancy. Apparently Cedar may be one of the few women who is giving birth to what seems to be a normal baby. Cedar manages to hide for a while, but with eyes everywhere watching, it is questionable how long she can stay hidden. Cedar writes down everything that is happening to her and around her.  She records her unborn child developmental milestones, and notes about how life used to be for her baby.

This is how to set a pregnant woman in a bleak dystopian world and have her talk to her unborn child. Erdrich captures what was missing in a previously reviewed novel (The End We Start From). In that novel the protagonist also basically ignored the news and didn't have a whole lot of information about the disaster, but here Cedar shares what she knows, which helps the reader enormously.  Cedar's parents tried to get her to see the news - she was just preoccupied with her own news. I know it might seem shocking for some people, but there are many who don't watch or read the news with any regularity. I get that. I believe that if the world was ending in some way that information, real information would be lacking and not freely forthcoming from officials. But I also believe that people would get a hold of the dribs and drabs of what was happening and react accordingly.

Cedar is a well-developed character and definitely comes across as a realistic individual with her own thoughts and feelings. She is an intelligent woman, who, once she understands what is happening, she decides on a plan of action. She is portrayed as human and thus is conflicted enough to have issues with the baby's father and her adoptive mom. She struggles while trying to bond with her birth family. I appreciated that Erdrich had Cedar embrace a religion, Catholicism. She's not perfect, but she manages to adapt to every impossible situation she is faced with.

I found Future Home of the Living God to be an excellent novel. The writing is extraordinary - intelligent and captivating. The narrative is compelling, with a plot that is chilling and believable. Erdrich has several current political points that translate well into this plot, such as the misuse/abuse of political power,  governmental spying, reproductive freedom, self-determination, environmental changes, and questioning the wisdom of altering biology. I raced through this novel and stayed up too late finishing it because I simple couldn't set it down. While  Future Home of the Living God is reminiscent of and shares some basic elements with The Children of Men and The Handmaid's Tale, it is definitely its own story.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.


Sunday, November 12, 2017

Artemis

Artemis by Andy Weir
Crown/Archetype: 11/14/17
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780553448122

Artemis by Andy Weir is a very highly recommended noir crime novel set on the moon.

Jazz Bashara has lived in Artemis, the colony/city located on the moon for twenty-years, since she was six-years-old. Currently she is working as a low-paid porter, but where she really makes her money or "slugs" is as a smuggler. It's expensive to live on the moon, so what's a girl to do? Her job as a porter barely pays for the rent on her coffin-sized sleeping space in Conrad Down 15, which she says if it were a wine "connoisseurs would describe it as 'shitty with overtones of failure and poor life decisions.'"

When wealthy businessman Trond Landvik, who Jazz knows because she smuggles in cigars for him, offers her an impossible to refuse opportunity to earn a million slugs, how could she say no? All she needs to do is figure out how to do the job without getting caught. Jazz comes up with a clever plan which almost goes right - until it doesn't. It's only after the fact that Jazz learns that there is more going on than she realized. Now she has even more complications to handle and she'll need some friends to help her.

I loved the noir feel to the novel. Setting the novel on the moon allows Weir to add some details and dangers you wouldn't find in just any noir novel. Weir adds all sorts of little details that make the story come to life, like eating Gunk, the dangers of lunar dust, and why physics dictate that coffee tastes bad on the moon.

Jazz is an irreverent, sometimes foul-mouthed, immature, resourceful, intelligent, humorous, and independent protagonist. Certainly the entire novel is set up to expect another adventure on Artemis and hopefully with Jazz. Interspersed between chapters is some of the correspondence that Jazz has had with Kelvin Otieno. They became penpals when she was nine, and are now friends. I'm hoping she and Kelvin get to meet in person too.

I didn't approach Weir's new novel looking for another The Martian. And I'm glad I read it without any unwieldy expectations. For everyone wondering, no, it's not The Martian II, but I found it a highly entertaining and fun adventure all on its own. There is some science and creative problem solving, but living in an established colony on the moon isn't quite like being stranded alone on Mars. However, the best recommendation is that I lost track of time and stayed up way-too-late to finish reading Artemis, and I can't say that about many books. Weir knows how to write an engaging, entertaining story. I enjoyed every second of it and that is worthy of five stars every time.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of
Crown/Archetype via Netgalley.

Down and Out in Purgatory: The Collected Stories

Down and Out in Purgatory: The Collected Stories of Tim Powers
Baen: 11/7/17
eBook review copy; 496 pages
ISBN-13: 9781481482790

Down and Out in Purgatory: The Collected Stories by Tim Powers is a highly recommended collection of twenty-one short stories, all with a supernatural element to the plot. Each of the stories is introduced by Powers with additional information about or inspiration for the story. (My review copy has 21 stories, although the description says twenty.)

Contents:
SALVAGE AND DEMOLITION:  A book collector discovers a manuscript that results in a time traveling adventure to save the world.
THE BIBLE REPAIRMAN: A psychic handyman, who is currently  semi-retired and paid to eliminate troublesome passages of the Bible, is asked to return to the work he used to do and save the kidnapped ghost of another man's daughter.
APPOINTMENT ON SUNSET:  A group of men are trying to save another man's life by making him repeat the sequence of events that led to his death in 1964, but trying to change the end results. Saving him is a side effect of what they really want to do.
THE BETTER BOY with James P. Blaylock: "A scaled-down horticultural version of Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea, with a tomato instead of a marlin."
PAT MOORE: A chain-mail letter promising good luck after you send it on to ten friends is more sinister than it seems.
THE WAY DOWN THE HILL: A we’d-all-be-better-off-dead story about a family of immortals who jump from one host to another.
ITINERARY: a time traveling ghost story.
A JOURNEY OF ONLY TWO PACES: A man settles an old friend's estate which requires a trip to a strange apartment building.
THE HOUR OF BABEL:  A group of men need help time-traveling to June 21,1975, the night when "God vomited on Firehouse Pizza."
WHERE THEY ARE HID:  Inspired by the Fritz Leiber novella, "You’re All Alone." A chrono-jumper has undisclosed plans.
WE TRAVERSE AFAR with James P. Blaylock: A grieving man has an encounter during the Christmas season.
THROUGH AND THROUGH: A ghost comes to a confessional and wants absolution from the priest.
NIGHT MOVES: An imaginary playmate tracks down a boy, no matter where he moves.
DISPENSATION: two men encounter kittens and a ghost.
A SOUL IN A BOTTLE: A man meets a ghost - and falls in love with her.
PARALLEL LINES: The surviving elderly sister grieves the loss of her twin, who is trying to communicate with her.
FIFTY CENTS with James P. Blaylock: A man is searching used book stores for a particular book when he encounters some supernatural trouble.
NOBODY’S HOME: A prequel for the character of Jacky Snapp from the novel The Anubis Gates.
A TIME TO CAST AWAY STONES: A story about Edward Trelawny, a real historical figure; "a liar who eventually came to believe his own melodramatic fabulations."
DOWN AND OUT IN PURGATORY: A man vows to kill the man who murdered the woman he worshiped from afar.
SUFFICIENT UNTO THE DAY: A family's Thanksgiving feast takes a dark turn as the invited ghosts of relatives past accidentally draw soul-stealing demons into the family television set.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

The End We Start From

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter
Grove Atlantic: 11/7/17
eBook review copy; 160 pages
ISBN-13: 9780802126894

The End We Start From by Megan Hunter is a recommended debut dystopian novel.

An unnamed narrator is pregnant and gives birth to her first child, a son called Z. Simultaneously an apocalyptic flood hits London and the women is forced to leave her apartment with her husband, R, a few days after giving birth. They make it to the home of R's parents in the country, but have limited supplies there. Eventually they are forced to leave for a camp for displaced persons, hoping to find safe shelter and food. R ends up taking off for a "few weeks" but is essentially gone. Our narrator makes friends with other mothers of young children, O, and evens travels with her to find another place of safety.

This is a difficult novel to review. It is a dystopian, but we never exactly know the what and why's (global warming? a natural disaster?). What we have is a new mother, marveling at her son's development and surviving the disaster. What we don't have is information about, well, much of anything of significance beyond what the narrator mentions. While the novel is almost poetic in its descriptions and phrasing, Hunter left out an important part, a definitive plot and narrative for us to follow while appreciating the well written turns of a phrase. We have a light plot - a woman has given birth to a son and a disaster of great magnitude has happened - but no great substance and details in the body of the novel.

Now, I say novel, but, at 160 pages this is close to a novella. It is a very fast read. With the lyricism in what Hunter does write, I do wonder if it was a choice to pare the novel down to the bare bones, just as the character's names are reduced to an initial. Are we supposed to extrapolate the missing details and infer what happened? However, there are cases when her descriptive prose is overwrought and not conveying just the essential information. It's a quandary.  This is Hunter's debut novel, however, so she is a writer to watch for future novels.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of
Grove Atlantic via Netgalley.

Heather, the Totality

Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner
Little, Brown, and Company: 11/7/17
eBook review copy; 144 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316435314

Heather, the Totality by Matthew Weiner is a short so-so debut novel.

Mark and Karen Breakstone live a very comfortable life in Manhattan and have an adored daughter, Heather. Heather is beautiful, intelligent and empathetic. After Heather is born, Karen devotes all her time and attention to her, leaving Mark out. Mark resents Karen's over-protectiveness and feels he has to compete in order to spend a small amount of time with Heather. Tensions between Mark and Karen escalate. Heather grows up and is aware of their strained relationship.

In stark contrast to the lives of the Breakstones, Bobby Klasky grew up in an unstable home, living in poverty with a drug addicted mother and her series of boyfriends. He grows up with a cruel, violent streak, and exhibits the traits of a psychopath. After he spends some time in prison, Bobby joins the work crew that is remodeling the penthouse in the Breakstone's building. He notices Heather and becomes obsessed with her.

Heather, the Totality has some underlying potential that make me believe it could have been a much better novel if Weiner had chosen to broaden his plot development and flesh-out his characters. The truncated length, almost a novella, and attenuated plot made it a fast read, but not particularly a compelling one. The narrative is written in third person with no dialogue, which doesn't help. While reading I found little reason to care about these people.

This is not a psychological thriller or even a dark look at the class divide. Yes, there are people from two different socioeconomic levels depicted, but, uh, one is a psychopath. Class differences do not definitively correlate to a destructive personality disorder that could be found in people from any background.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Little, Brown, and Company via Netgalley.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Millard Salter's Last Day

Millard Salter's Last Day by Jacob M. Appel
Gallery Books: 11/7/17
eBook review copy; 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9781507204085

Millard Salter's Last Day by Jacob M. Appel is a recommended story of a 75 year-old man who wants to end his life.

It is Millard Salter's 75th birthday and it is the day he wants to end his life, before he becomes incapacitated. He doesn't want to slowly fade out or lose control. He would rather plan his suicide, by hanging, after he handles some final details on this, his last day. He goes to work at St. Dymphna’s Hospital, where he is a psychiatrist, and continues as if this is an ordinary day, as he deals with all the various problems that crop up on any day. One problem is a lost lynx somewhere in the hospital (and you will wonder if it is really a lynx until the question is answered).

He meets with patients. He talks to a student who wants a recommendation. He deals with various colleagues with widely divergent temperaments. He purposefully seeks out his ex-wife, whom he hasn't seen for twenty-seven years. He meets his 
his youngest son, Lysander, for lunch. He visits the grave of his second wife, Isabelle. He stops in to see Delilah, the widow he has fallen in love with. He talks to his youngest daughter, Maia. Basically, Millard goes through his day, reminiscing and reflecting, but still planning to end his life. He's trying to tie up any loose ends before his end.

There are many humorous scenes and descriptions. Millard is a old pro at word play and puns. He freely shares his thoughts with the reader, some of them serious, like the right to die. The day itself was full of enough odd occurrences that many able-bodied people (of which Millard is one) would want to change their plans just to see what the next day had in store for them. There were enough surprising things that happened that it would be fitting for the man to pause and reconsider his course of actions. Rather than thinking about how old or outdated he feels, perhaps this psychiatrist should have looked at his own thoughts and asked for some help. ("Physician heal thyself.")

While very well-written technically, the actual content of Millard's day combined with his thoughts seemed a bit too meandering. But the overwhelming trouble with this novel for me was the inability to feel any connection or sympathy for a man who wants to end his life based on his age and before he has any health problems. Sorry, but that is not a good enough reason for this reader. Just because he is 75 isn't a reason not to embrace the life he has. He has no major health issues, no physical limitations, no financial struggles. There are so many people who have a life filled with what could be viewed as legitimate reasons to want life to end, but yet they still embrace life and live it to the fullest. (And, I would not describe this novel as "heartwarming" or as "in the spirit of "A Man called Ove." Millard is not a curmudgeon.)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Gallery Books.

First-Person Singularities

First-Person Singularities by Robert Silverberg
Three Rooms Press: 10/31/17
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9781941110638

First-Person Singularities by Robert Silverberg is a very highly recommended collection of eighteen stories by Silverberg all told in the first person singular. This is a wonderfully written collection of many favorite stories that showcases Silverberg's enormous talent over five decades, from 1956 to 1997, or from when Silverberg was 21 to when he was 62. The volume features an introduction by John Scalzi. Each story is then introduced by Silverberg and he also shares additional inside information about it. 

Contents include:

Ishmael in Love: A well-educated dolphin is in love with a human woman. Quote:"Misguided human beings sometimes question the morality of using dolphins to help maintain fish farms. They believe it is degrading to compel us to produce fellow aquatic creatures to be eaten by man. May I simply point out, first, that none of us work here under compulsion, and second, that my species sees nothing immoral about feeding on aquatic creatures. We eat fish ourselves."

Going Down Smooth: A computer is a little bit off balance, perhaps crazy, in this story. Quote: "They call me mad, but I am not mad. I am quite sane, to manypower exponential. I can punctuate properly. I use upper- and lower-case letters, do you see? I function. I take the data in. I receive well. I receive, I digest, I remember."

The Reality Trip: An alien being wearing a human disguise is trying to fend off the unwanted attention of a fellow resident in the Chelsea Hotel.

The Songs of Summer: A story featuring multiple first person narrators. A man travels to the future and tries to take control.

The Martian Invasion Journals of Henry James: A retelling of Wells’s tale of Martian invaders as if the invasion had been experienced firsthand by Henry James.

Push No More: A sexually inexperienced Jewish boy happens to be a poltergeist.

House of Bones: The story of a man who finds himself stranded many thousands of years in the past.

Call Me Titan: Typhoeus, one of the Titans awakes, and looks for members of the old pantheon.

Our Lady of the Sauropods: A scientist visits the L5 space satellite/habitat where the reconstructed dinosaurs are kept. Quote: "What a brilliant idea it was to put all the Olsen-process dinosaur-reconstructs aboard a little and turn them loose to recreate the Mesozoic! After that unfortunate San Diego event with the tyrannosaur, it became politically unfeasible to keep them anywhere on earth..."

There Was an Old Woman: A man, one of thirty-one identical siblings, writes about his mother, a scientist with a theory. Quote: "Each of us was slated for a different profession. It was the ultimate proof of her theory. Genetically identical, physically identical except for the minor changes time had worked on our individual bodies, we would nevertheless seek out different fields of employment. She worked out the assignments at random..."

The Dybbuk of Mazel Tov IV: Mazel Tov IV is a planet that has been colonized by Jews fleeing from persecution by their fellow Earthlings. Quote: "But there was no arguing the phenomenon away. There was the voice of Joseph Avneri emerging from the throat of Seul the Kunivar, and the voice was saying things that only Joseph would have said, and Joseph had been dead more than a year. Call it a dybbuk, call it hallucination, call it anything: Joseph’s presence could not be ignored."

Caliban: "The tale of the one ugly man in a world of people who have made themselves look like movie stars."

Passengers: Aliens can take over human minds, as "passengers" and control them. Quote: "It is always like that when a Passenger leaves us. We can never be sure of all the things our borrowed bodies did. We have only the lingering traces, the imprints."

Now Plus N, Now Minus N: A story written in the first-person plural about somebody who is getting stock market information from his future self and relaying it to his past self.

The Iron Star: The after effects of a supernova are noted on a distant world when an alien race is encountered.

The Science Fiction Hall of Fame: "My mind is cluttered with other men’s fantasies: robots, androids, starships, giant computers, predatory energy globes, false messiahs, real messiahs, visitors from distant worlds, time machines, gravity repellers. Punch my buttons and I offer you parables from the works of Hartzell or Marcus, appropriate philosophical gems borrowed from the collected editorial utterances of David Coughlin, or concepts dredged from my meditations on De Soto. I am a walking mass of secondhand imagination. I am the flesh-and-blood personification of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame."

To See the Invisible Man: A man is sentenced to one year of invisibility.

The Secret Sharer: This story is a rewriting of Conrad's plot where a ship's captain finds a stowaway on board.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Three Rooms Press.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
Sourcebooks Landmark: 9/1/18
eBook review copy; 512 pages
ISBN-13: 9781492657965

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton is a highly recommended, clever, body-swapping, time-traveling mystery that seems to channel Groundhog Day and Inception.

A man wakes up covered in cuts in the forest and his first thought is of Anna. The problem is he doesn't know who Anna is - or who he is. He manages to find his way back to Blackheath, the nearby estate, and discovers he is Dr. Sebastian Bell, right now. Really he is Aiden Bishop existing in the body of Dr. Bell for this day. Tomorrow he will inhabit another body. Aiden learns that he has seven hosts whose bodies he will inhabit over the next 8 days. He needs to solve the mystery of the death of Evelyn Hardcastle in those eight days or he will have his memory erased and go back to day one. And he will repeat this endless cycle again, and again, and again until he solves the mystery.

The first person narrative of the novel jumps back and forth and ahead in time as the days progress and Aiden switches bodies. As he switches bodies he views the same events through different eyes and from a different perspective. He must take the clues he sees while working through what feels like an endless cycle of eight days to solve the mystery. Aiden is not alone in this quest. There are other people also inhabiting different bodies who must try to solve the murder. There is also a mysterious footman pursuing all of them.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a well-written mystery with science fiction elements. Viewing the same events through Aiden's eyes as a different character in the drama was an interesting twist and the striving to pass along clues to your future self was an interesting concept. Putting a person into a different body and capturing the essence of the body-character while it's inhabited by the narrative-character is also a mind-boggling feat.

This is a satisfying, unique, complex mystery that should appeal to a large number of readers, especially those who enjoy British murder mysteries and science fiction. I had small issues with the very slow start and the ending, along with a few other minor quibbles that were more a personal preference than anything worth noting. This would be a great choice for a cold, snowy day when you have uninterrupted time to immerse yourself in the mystery.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Sourcebooks Landmark.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Lost Lake: Stories

Lost Lake: Stories by Mark Slouka
W.W. Norton & Company: 10/24/17
eBook review copy; 192 pages
ISBN-13: 9780393352665

Lost Lake: Stories by Mark Slouka is a recommended collection of twelve interconnected stories set in a small Czech community on the shores of Lost Lake.

The stories are all wonderfully descriptive and mainly about fishing. The narrator is a middle-aged man, Mostovsky, who is looking back at his experiences at the family's cabin on Lost Lake in upstate New York and the largely Czech community who vacationed there. As with many childhood memories, many of these have a dream-like nostalgic quality to them. Along with the good memories are other memories that are less than beautiful or not completely understood until viewed at as an adult. Strong emotions from the memories are acknowledged, as are the subtleties among the residents there that may be noticed by a child, but, again, only understood as an adult.

The strength in this collection and the reason to read it is the beautiful writing, which is rich in its comparisons and images. That said, this isn't a collection where a whole lot of action takes place or a clear plot is developed. The stories jump back and forth in time as memories and recollections are shared.  There are prose includes descriptions of the nature surrounding the lake in the stories and talk about fishing. A whole lot of talk about fishing. In the end it was all the discussion of fishing that overwhelmed me and began to detract from the quality of the writing.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company.

Strange Weather

Strange Weather by Joe Hill
HarperCollins: 10/24/17
eBook review copy; 448 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062663115

Strange Weather: Four Short Novels by Joe Hill is highly recommended collection of 4 novellas that are independent stories.

Snapshot: Michael is a thirteen year old boy who must protect Shelly, his elderly neighbor who has dementia, from the person she calls the Polaroid Man. Michael meets him, but he thinks of him as The Phoenician because of the tattoos he sports. The Phoenician has an odd looking Polaroid-like camera that he uses to erase memories.

Aloft: A young man agrees to skydive to impress the woman he loves but ends up crashing on a solid object obscured by a cloud. The cloud/object seems to have the ability to read his mind and tries to provide what he needs.

Loaded: Gun violence connects the characters, an adulterous couple, a mall security guard, and  a local journalist, in a Florida town.  The mall cop stops a mass shooting, becoming a hero, but then his story comes under question.

Rain: A rain cloud approaches Boulder, Colorado, and the storm contains a deluge of nail-like razor sharp crystal shards, killing almost everyone caught in the storm. It is uncertain if the apocalyptic event is from climate change or chemical warfare. Apparently the disaster is spreading and from now on the nail-like crystals may be what fall instead of rain.

I loved two of the stories in this collection, Snapshot and Rain, and I liked Aloft quite a bit. Loaded was my least favorite of the quartet, mainly because it felt more like a need to express personal emotions and political views over guns and it seemed to run on way too long. All in all, though, this was a strong, well-written collection of stories.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

The After War

The After War by Brandon Zenner
Brandon Zenner: 6/30/17
eBook review copy; 444 pages
ISBN-13: 9780692907627

The After War by Brandon Zenner is a two part post-apocalyptic tale and military dystopian survivalist novel. It is recommended for the right reader.

It has been two years since the known world fell apart. We aren't given a whole lot of details but apparently there was a devastating world-wide war and what seems to have been a biological weaponized plague released simultaneously that wiped out most of civilization, leaving just a few hardened survivors. Brian and Steven have been safe and secure for two years in an underground bunker prepared before the war hit. Their Uncle Al, Lieutenant General Albert Driscoll, was privy to inside information and made sure the two young men and Steven’s sister, Bethany, were safe. The cousins were given specific instructions and a map by Uncle Al. They were to leave the bunker after two years, travel to get Bethany, who is secured in another bunker, and then head to Alice, the designated meeting spot.

Simon Kalispell and his dog Winston were able to survive the war and plague by staying in a cabin in British Columbia. Simon has had naturalist/wilderness survival training so he has the knowledge base to endure the two years in the wild. Simon, the son of extremely wealthy parents was sent to the cabin in a well-equipped van to ride out the two years seclusion. Now he is also heading back east to meet his parents at the family mansion.

In the first part, chapters alternate between the actions of two groups, Brian and Steve, and Simon and Winston. The novel follows their treks and travails to get to Alice. Every chapter seems to end in a cliff hanger, which did become tiring after the first few times, but this is the kind of novel that requires you to just roll with it. Part two deals with the organized groups that are remaining and fighting in this now dystopian world.

Reviewing a book like The After War requires me to set aside a few preferences. The main event and the reason you'll be reading this is for the action, narrow escapes, and grim events that will assuredly be occurring. You will have to suspend your disbelief on more than one occasion. It is obvious here that you need to be wealthy or come from a wealthy family in order to survive the end of civilization. Those of you who think this scenario is coming might want to take note and work on your investment portfolios. There isn't great character development here or keen insights into anything. The dialogue is stilted and unnatural.

However, if you choose to read this novel it will be for the action, not the character development, finely drawn plot, or incredible dialogue. Zenner definitely provides the action. This is a perfect airplane book. It will hold your attention but you won't cry if you lose it or misplace it.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the publisher/author.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Little Secrets

Little Secrets by Anna Snoekstra
MIRA Books: 10/17/17
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780778331094

Little Secrets by Anna Snoekstra is a highly recommended thriller.

In Colmstock, Australia, an arsonist has recently burned down the courthouse, killing a young boy who was inside. Rose Blakey is an aspiring journalist in Colmstock who just needs an opportunity to escape from the small town and make a name for herself. She's been given an ultimatum to move out of the family home by her stepfather, but she has no where to go, unless she can somehow manage to get a job writing in the city. Currently she's working as a barmaid in a local tavern where the police hang out every night.

After the fire Rose learns from Frank, one of the police officers who hang out at the bar nightly and one who has a crush on her, that someone has begun leaving porcelain dolls on the doorsteps of homes where young girls live. The dolls all bear an eerie resemblance to the young girls who receive them. Rose's younger sister, five year old Laura, had received one of the dolls, so Rose contacts the police to turn it in, in hopes that they can find the creep who is doing this.

Then Rose begins to view the doll story as  her ticket to escape Colmstock. She investigates and  writes up a version of the story to sell to a tabloid, The Star, and she gets published. Now she needs to keep updating the story in hopes of finding a way out of the small town. An exactly who is the mysterious stranger who arrived in town and why is he there?

This is a compelling thriller that will hold your attention. Snoekstra keeps the tension and paranoia high in her characters and the atmosphere unsettled and ominous as Rose investigates. When suspicions run high and the community begins to turn against her and each other, the tone of the novel becomes dark. Soon it becomes apparent that everyone has an agenda and secrets. This is a desperate town full of desperate, suspicious people.

There really aren't any likeable characters here. You may think you like of dislike a character, but will then change your mind as events unfold. There were so many different directions that the story could have been taken that I was a little disappointed in the direction Snoekstra choose. I did like the resolution to the doll story, but there were other little comments made or actions taken in the narrative that could have made for a richer, deeper experience. Still, Little Secrets is a satisfying novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of MIRA Books
.

Smile

Smile by Roddy Doyle
Penguin Publishing Group: 10/17/17
eBook review copy; 224 pages
ISBN-13: 9780735224445

Smile by Roddy Doyle is a very highly recommended excellent novel about a man examining his life and the uncertainty of memory.

Victor Forde, 54, is a failed writer who is looking for a local pub that he can call his regular place. After his recent separation from his famous wife, Rachel, he has returned to his hometown and rented a cheap apartment. Now he simply wants a quiet place where he can have a slow pint at night. He's decided on Donnelly's. Then a man called Fitzpatrick shows up there, sits next to him, and immediately claims to know Victor from secondary school. Victor doesn't recall the man at all and , in fact, dislikes him on sight.

As he finds a group of regulars to sit with at Donnelly's, what Victor tries to do is avoid Fitzpatrick at all costs. The man acts like they are best friends, but, as he reviews his life, Victor seems to be afraid of what Fitzpatrick might reveal. Fitzpatrick seems to know a lot about Victor, but Victor cannot remember him at all. What Victor does is begin to reminisce on events from his past. He looks back at his life as a rock critic and political journalist. He recalls when he met Rachel and her rise to fame. He recollects the radio programs where he was invited to speak on controversial issues. But he especially begins to remember his years being taught by the brothers at St. Martin's Christian Brothers School, especially one brother.

Doyle brings all of his considerable, skillful writing ability to bear here and the result is stunning. Smile may not evoke any mirth the title implies, but this is a memorable, tenacious, and daring psychological mystery. the ending will have even the most careful reader take pause and reexamine everything they have just read. This is an exceptional novel that begs the reader to question how we recall our own memories of events that have occurred in our lives. Most of the novel is written in flashbacks.  Not much can be written about the ending, but it will shock and disturb you. Smile is nothing like any other novel by Doyle I've read, and yet it is remarkable. It also makes Smile a novel that is quite unforgettable.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Seven Days of Us

Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak
Penguin Random House: 10/17/17
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780451488756

Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak is a dysfunctional family drama, so-so for me, but recommended for the right reader.

The Birch family is going to spend Christmas together - in quarantine. Emma and Andrew Birch will be spending seven days at Weyfield Hall, their country estate, with their two daughters. Their oldest daughter, Olivia, is a doctor who is returning from treating an epidemic in Liberia, the Haag virus. She has to stay in quarantine for a week, and so must her family if she is with them. Olivia views her family as rather superficial and foolish. Youngest daughter Phoebe is shallow, self-centered, and focused on her upcoming wedding. Andrew, a restaurant reviewer, has received an email from an illegitimate son he knew nothing about, and Emma is keeping an even bigger secret from them in hopes of having a wonderful family Christmas.

Each chapter in Seven Days of Us is written from a different character's point of view. They are short, quick chapters. This does help move a very s-l-o-w start along any quicker, but at least you get to read about what another character is thinking/doing. Everyone has a secret, but the secrets are all out and running rampant for the reader. The novel then sets up a series of unbelievable coincidences that all collide and help expose all the secrets. Did I mention that it starts out very s-l-o-w. Extremely s-l-o-w. Add to this the host of unlikable characters and it was difficult for me to make myself continue to read because it all seemed so pointless to spend that much time with characters that I didn't remotely care about.

I also had a very difficult time with the big set-up, that the family was all to be under quarantine. A quarantine for a doctor returning from working in an area with an epidemic (called the Haag virus here, think Ebola or Marburg virus for comparison purposes) does not consist of being locked up with your family for Christmas and relying on them to stay isolated and others to read the notice and stay away. Period. And the family members were all ignoring the seriousness of that premise anyway - going out, inviting people in. They sort of proved themselves to be foolish, again and again. They are, however, more caricatures than real characters, so it just comes off as farcical.

Obviously many readers liked this one more than me. There are some amusing scenes, but I never found anything "laugh-out-loud funny." The quality of the writing is good. If you like The Family Stone -type dramas this might fit the bill. The actual drama and humor is more low-key, though. It might, dare I say, make a better movie than a book because you could pick up the pace, add a bit more real humor, and make all the coincidences seem likely. (2 for me, 3 for the right audience)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Penguin Random House.