Thursday, March 30, 2017

A Welcome Murder

A Welcome Murder by Robin Yocum
Prometheus Books: 4/4/17
eBook review copy; 263 pages
ISBN-13: 9781633882638

A Welcome Murder by Robin Yocum is a highly recommended small town murder mystery told through multiple points-of-view.

There is no question in many people's mind that Rayce Daubner deserved to be shot and left for dead in an isolated park. The question is who is responsible for the murder? Steubenville, Ohio is the setting for a widely diverse cast of characters and several suspects for Rayce's murder.

Johnny Earl, a former professional baseball player was just released from prison. He was busted for selling cocaine when Rayce worked as an informant with the FBI and set him up for the drug sting. Smoochie (Matthew) Xenakis's wife, Dena Marie Conchek Androski Xenakis, was having an affair with Rayce (and many others). Sheriff Francis Roberson, former FBI agent, dreams of running for congress and eventually the presidency. He needs to solve this case to look good and keep Dena out of his office. Allison Roberson, the sheriff's wife just wants her husband's plan to succeed so she can get out of Steubenville.

Each chapter in the narrative is told from the first person point-of-view of one of these character, often with thoughts that are widely divergent from what the other characters are thinking. None of these characters are particularly likeable or trustworthy. One character will be thinking one thing while the thoughts of the other are completely opposite of what is assumed. Many of these characters are still basking in the glory of their high school days.

The novel is really pretty funny and clever as it quickly moves from one character's thoughts to the next. We aren't following the murder investigation; rather we are just following the thought processes of the different characters during this time. There is a bit of a surprise reveal and a satisfying conclusion. This is a well-written, entertaining mystery that is easy to follow, and a pure pleasure to read.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Prometheus Books.

Hallelujah Anyway

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott
Penguin Publishing Group: 4/4/17
eBook review copy; 192 pages
ISBN-13: 9780735213586  

Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy by Anne Lamott is a so-so exploration of mercy, as radical kindness.

Lamott says: Mercy is radical kindness. Mercy means offering or being offered aid in desperate straits. Mercy is not deserved. It involves forgiving the debt, absolving the unabsolvable. Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves—our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice. It includes everything out there that just makes us sick and makes us want to turn away, the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway, the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer.

Drawing on her own experiences on how difficult it is to extend mercy and accept it in the real world, Lamott uses plenty of personal examples and stories along with Biblical stories to support her thoughts. "When we manage a flash of mercy for someone we don’t like, especially a truly awful person, including ourselves, we experience a great spiritual moment, a new point of view that can make us gasp." She shares a few good examples of the difficulty of extending mercy to some of the especially unlovable people you might come across in your life, but also the same difficulty in extending mercy in disagreements with those you truly care about.

This is not her best work and it fell flat for me. It sort of felt like she phoned this one in and stretched the reach of some of the stories in order to make them apply to the point she wanted to illustrate. I agree with some of her conclusions and thoughts, but ultimately reject how she expressed herself in several instances in this book. Additionally, I've heard plenty of colorful language during my life, but it didn't feel all of the usage was entirely appropriate or needed when used in Hallelujah Anyway. Of course, I can extend mercy and ignore the language in multiple instances. But why were the multiple usages necessary to begin with? Finally, when she describes Jesus as getting "pissy" in his reaction, she lost me entirely. There are so many more appropriate and descriptive words in the English language, so why go low?

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

Waking Gods

Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel
Random House Publishing: 4/4/17
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101886724
Themis Files Series #2

Waking Gods by Sylvain Neuvel is the highly recommended second book in the Themis Files Series which began with Sleeping Giants. It is important to read these books in the order in which they were written.

In the prologue we hear from a new character named Eva Reyes: "They keep telling me it’s normal to have bad dreams. But I know they’re not dreams. I have them when I’m awake now. I saw it again today at school, and I started screaming. It’s the same one I’ve been having for months. Everyone’s dead. There are thousands of them, dead on the streets, a whole city filled with corpses. I see my parents lying in blood inside our house. I haven’t told them that part. Today there was something new. I saw a robot, like Themis, a big metal woman falling into the clouds."

The Earth Defense Corps members, including physicist Rose Franklin, are still studying the advanced technology found in the giant robot named Themis, while Army pilot Kara Resnik and Quebecois linguist Vincent Couture are becoming more adroit at moving/controlling the robot. It was thought that Themis was left on Earth to protect humankind from future invasion. This theory is tested when a giant robot suddenly appears in London and subsequently wipes out a wide swath of the city. While they were somewhat successful in the aftermath of the attack, how will they handle the many robots landing in large cities worldwide? These new robots have arrived with a new way to exterminate millions of people.

The narrative is again told through an epistolary compilation of interviews, news items, and official journal entries. The mysterious interrogator/examiner is back, discussing events and actions with the characters. The development of the characters is though these interviews and journal entries and is surprisingly effective for the most part. Some more surprising information is revealed in these almost matter-of-fact entries. The complex plot moves quickly forward and the action is very fast-paced due to the way the novel is written, which allows the facts to be succinctly presented. While new questions arise, some previous questions from Sleeping Giants are answered.

Waking Gods is the second in the series and does suffer a bit from second-in-a-series syndrome with some plot points cleared up but many new ones left opened and unanswered. Still, there are giant robots arriving in cities and being piloted by aliens with some nefarious plans. And there are new scientific facts learned as well as many startling personal revelations. 

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

A Mother's Reckoning

A Mother's Reckoning by Sue Klebold
Penguin/Random House: 2/7/17
trade paperback; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101902776

A Mother's Reckoning: Living in the Aftermath of Tragedy by Sue Klebold is a memoir of the mother of Dylan Klebold, one of the Columbine killers.
"On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold walked into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Over the course of minutes, they would kill twelve students and a teacher and wound twenty-four others before taking their own lives."

In the introduction Andrew Solomon states "The ultimate message of this book is terrifying: you may not know your own children, and, worse yet, your children may be unknowable to you."(pg. xvii) "Columbine was above all an ambush of unknowability, of horror hidden in plain sight." "Eric Harris appears to have been a homicidal psychopath, and Dylan Klebold, a suicidal depressive, and their disparate madnesses were each other's necessary condition."(xviii) Eric Harris wanted to kill and Dylan Klebold wanted to die. Dr. Dwayne Fuselier, a clinical psychologist and the supervisor in charge of the FBI team during the Columbine investigation said, "I believe Eric went to the school to kill people and didn't care if he died, while Dylan wanted to die and didn't care if others died as well." (pg 172)

Sue Klebold has had to live with her grief, questions, and public scrutiny since that day. In this memoir she explores her quest to understand her son's actions and if she could have done anything to prevent Columbine from happening.  Do not expect answers in this book. Klebold tells us in the Preface that she has been writing about what happened from the start because she needed to get her thoughts down on paper. That is where this memoir came from, a mother's thoughts about the inconceivable actions of her son. She is sure that she missed subtle signs of psychological deterioration in Dylan and could have prevented the killings and her son's suicide.

It is noted that: "All author profits from the book will be donated to research and to charitable organizations focusing on mental health issues." Klebold makes it clear that she is donating the profits to "organizations dedicated to suicide prevention, evidence based programs, and brain health research." (Klebold also prefers to use the term "brain health" instead of mental health. Even though she explained the source of this term on page 153, the repeated unending usage of it becomes extremely annoying.)

Ultimately this is a book about mental health, depression, and suicide prevention in teens. Klebold is sure that Dylan "was experiencing depression or another brain health crisis that contributed to his desire to die by suicide, and his desire to die played an intrinsic role in his participation in the massacre."(pg 152) She continues to say it is not an explanation of what he did, as many people with depression or other "brain health issues" are not dangerous to others, but she points out that  there is an "overlap between brain health issues and mass shooting." Her understanding of what lead Dylan to desire to commit suicide helped her understand what he had done.

After reading A Mother's Reckoning, I was left perplexed and uneasy. There are no answers, nor did I expect them, even though the title of the book implies that there will be answers, a reckoning. But how much objectivity did I really expect from the mother of a killer? I vividly remember the day Columbine happened and it was horrific. Klebold seems to  desire to deny some of her son's responsibility. She desperately wants to show how they were good parents and a normal family - and I believe her. The fact is, though, that both boys suffered from mental health issues.  Both are culpable for the killings. Both of them. But Klebold seems to want to push the greater share of the blame on Eric Harris.  It is awful that Dylan committed suicide, but he also killed people. Eric and Dylan both killed and then committed suicide.

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

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Mississippi Blood

Mississippi Blood by Greg Iles
HarperCollins: 3/21/17
advanced reader's edition; 704 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062311153
Natchez Burning Series #3

Mississippi Blood by Greg Iles is an amazing, incredible, extraordinary, stunning literary achievement of nail-biting suspense and breathtaking drama. It is the very highly recommended conclusion of the phenomenal epic Natchez Burning trilogy that explores how sins of the past haunt the present. The series includes Natchez Burning, The Bone Tree and Mississippi Blood. This conclusion to the impressive dramatic series is a contender for my top ten books of the year.

"[W]here good people stand against evil, sooner or later fate demands a reckoning."
Set in Natchez, Mississippi, Penn Cage and his family are under constant guard and it appears that their lives are not only under a constant threat but that everything is collapsing around them as they as they prepare themselves for the murder trial of his father, Dr. Tom Cage. Despite the fact that Penn was a lawyer, his father has chosen to keep him guessing about the defense strategy. Dr. Cage is on trial for murdering his former African-American nurse, Viola Turner, who worked for him in the 1960's. Tom Gage had an affair with Viola and fathered a child. Viola was suffering from terminal cancer and came home to Mississippi to die, asking Tom Cage to help her. It is their child, Lincoln Turner, who sets into motion the murder case.

Penn is in a battle for his father's life and his family's safety, while trying to uncover witnesses who can help Tom by testifying about the activities of the Double Eagles. Now headed by Snake Knox, the notorious and murderous Double Eagles, a splinter KKK group, still have a few loyal followers around. Once you are a double Eagle, you are in it for life. To talk and betray your brothers means death, which has been proven time and time again. The nefarious deeds of the Double Eagles are a huge part of the secrets from the past that haunt Viola and Tom and threaten the safety of Penn's family still. Snake has recruited the VK, a motorcycle gang, to assist him.

The courtroom scenes are simple excellent and provide some of the finest scenes of drama and suspense I've read in quite awhile. There are several twists and reveals that are heart-stopping and had me racing through to the next scene... and the next... and the next. Let me just admit that I stayed up way-too-late over several nights compulsively reading Mississippi Blood right up to the concluding epilogue. This is sure to be a classic series.

The writing is excellent. The character development is excellent. Allow me just reiterate what I said about the first book in this stunning trilogy, Natchez Burning as it hold true for Mississippi Blood: "This is an excellent book on all points: great writing, check; intricate plot twists, check; complexity, check; well-developed characters, check; suspense, check, check, check. Forget my stuck-overnight-at-the-airport book rating. You'd miss them calling your next flight. In fact, just save yourself the trouble and postpone your trip to finish Natchez Burning and jump right into The Bone Tree. Greg Iles just made another fan." Read this series ASAP.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins

Purchase links:
HarperCollins | Amazon | Barnes & Noble



Saturday, March 25, 2017

It Happens All the Time

It Happens All the Time by Amy Hatvany
Atria Books: 3/28/17
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781476704456

It Happens All the Time by Amy Hatvany is a highly recommended examination of a friendship changed by sexual expectations.

Amber Bryant and Tyler Hicks have been best friends since they were teenagers. She was there for him when his macho father humiliates and degrades him. He was there for her when her eating disorder leads to a heart attack. Amber made it clear to Tyler during high school that she wasn't interested in a romantic relationship with him. Now Amber has returned home for the summer. She's just graduated from college and is engaged. She strictly watches her eating, but she's eating. Tyler is working as an EMT. He still has feelings for Amber and has hoped that someday she'd reciprocate them.

Tyler and Amber rekindle their friendship. Amber's fiancé is miles away and she's working before moving to meet him in the Fall. While Amber still wants the friendship to remain platonic, she's confused about her engagement. Tyler still desires more than a friendship. The two begin to see each other a lot and the flirtation between the two increases. A drunken party on the fourth of July, blatant sexual flirting, and a kiss lead to a sexual encounter. Amber feels it was rape while Tyler sees it as his dreams fulfilled.

The narrative alternates between the point of view of Amber and Tyler. Since the novel opens with Amber kidnapping Tyler at gun point, you know right away a rape is going to happen. When it does, well, the line is a little blurry since "No!" was never used, but "Wait" was. I can concede that it was rape because it was unwanted. However that doesn't make Amber's later crime okay. You'll have to read the book, but it didn't sit well with me that it was alright to lie about Amber's actions, but Tyler had to be held accountable for his actions. Hmmmm... They were both guilty of acts of violence. And the eating disorder thrown in for good measure also muddied the plot.

This is a well-written novel that is imminently readable with a plot that moves along quickly. Amber and Tyler are well-developed characters, even though the plot does get in the way of them being actually likeable. Additionally Amber's eating disorder lessens the emotional impact of the assault, especially after we learn that Tyler is the one who saved her when she had the heart attack. He's wanted a relationship for years, she knew it, and yet she still led him on sexually. I'm not letting him off the hook either. When she said wait he should have stopped. Even though she was drunk and coming on to him, he could have told her to stop it because she was engaged.

This could be a good choice for a book club because the discussion would undoubtedly be lively.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria Books.

Friday, March 24, 2017

Pirate Women

Pirate Women by Laura Sook Duncombe
Chicago Review Press: 4/1/17
eBook review copy; 264 pages
ISBN-13: 9781613736012

Pirate Women: The Princesses, Prostitutes, and Privateers Who Ruled the Seven Seas by Laura Sook Duncombe is the first-ever collection of stories about women pirates, real and legendary.

"[T]o be a pirate is to assert that whatever you fancy belongs to you." This was written to describe sixteenth‑century pirate Grace O’Malley.
While it is difficult to define exactly what would constitute a pirate, Duncombe takes a broadly defined look at the definition beyond the golden age of piracy. All pirates had the desire for freedom to live as they chose as a common denominator, but female pirates are often absent in historical accounts. "Pirates live outside the laws of man, but women pirates live outside the laws of nature. Women pirates are left out because they don’t fit nicely into the categories of 'normal' women or traditional women's virtues." Since traditional historians are men, accurate historical information about women pirates is lacking. "As long as men control the narrative, women pirates will be mostly left out. Even if male historians today were inclined to write about pirate women, they would have a difficult time doing so because of the dearth of primary sources about them. Since women have been considered unworthy subjects of historical documentation in the past, it is now difficult to study them - a vicious cycle that persists in keeping women 'off the record.'"

The women pirates Duncombe covers include, in part: Queen Artemisia I of Halicarnassus; Queen Teuta of Illyria, or "the Terror of the Adriatic"; Christina Anna Skytte; Elise Eskilsdotter; Ingela Gathenhielm; Johanna Hård; longship captains Wisna, Webiorg, and Hetha; Princess Alfhild, also called Awilda;  Jeanne de Montfort, aka Joanna of Flanders; Jeanne de Clisson, aka the Lioness of Brittany; Sayyida al‑Hurra; Lady Elizabeth and Lady Mary Killigrew; Gráinne (Grace) Ní Mháille, the pirate queen of Ireland; Anne de Graaf; Jacquotte Delahaye; Anne Dieu‑le‑veut; Anne Bonny; Mary Read; Maria Cobham; Martha (Mary) Farley (or Harvey); Maria Crichett (or Mary Crickett/Crichett); Flora Burn; Rachel Wall; Charlotte Badger; Catherine Hagerty; Margaret Croke; Cheng I Sao (with four hundred ships and somewhere between forty thousand and sixty thousand pirates under her command); Sadie Farrell, aka Sadie the Goat; Gallus Mag: Lai Choi San; Hon‑ cho (or Honcho Lo); and Cheng Chui Ping, aka Sister. There is also a discussion of women pirates in the movies.

This is a well-researched, thoughtful, scholarly account of the women in history, real or fictional, that have made a mark as a pirate.  Pirate Women includes a list of general resources, specific sources used for each chapter, and an index for those who would like more information on the historical records.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the Chicago Review Press.


The Midas Legacy

The Midas Legacy by Andy McDermott
Random House Publishing Group: 3/28/17
eBook review copy: 640 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101965313
Nina Wilde/Eddie Chase Series #12

The Midas Legacy by Andy McDermott is the latest addition to the popular action/adventure series featuring Nina Wilde and Eddie Chase.

The first book in the series is The Hunt for Atlantis, and The Midas Legacy actually continues part of that story. Nina has a grandmother, whom she was told was deceased, contact her about her family's connection to a mysterious cave guarded by Buddhist monks. Apparently an Atlantean explorer went to the Himalayas and left a treasure in a cave there -  a treasure tied to King Midas of Greek mythology. Nina's mother had looked for the location of the cave unsuccessfully. Nina looks at her mother's notes, given to her by her newly discovered grandmother, and determines that a trip to the Himalayas is warranted. An unknown enemy is waiting for them, though, which starts the nonstop action.

Nina and Eddie are known, established characters at this point. You expect Nina to have the research and historical/archeological knowledge at the forefront of her mind. You expect Eddie to have amazing tactical/military knowledge and the ability to get them out of any situation. Nina does have some mad tactical skills too. Nina will have a smart mouth, and Eddie will make bad jokes and wise cracks. They will escape everything.

We're jumping ahead three years from the last book. Nina was pregnant in The Revelation Code. Now Nina and Eddie's daughter Macy is three. In the last book Nina mentioned that she was pregnant on about every other page. Be forewarned that this time it will be mentioned just as frequently that they have a daughter, they have to get back to Macy, they need to survive for Macy, etc. etc. Yes, it is just as annoying. Macy herself is w-a-y too precocious for her age.

While there isn't any further character development beyond the two being parents, let's be honest, these aren't the books you read for great character development and subtle clues you must carefully follow to unlock the secrets. These are formulaic action/adventure thrillers and I can't fault McDermott for writing what his fans want. The heroes will escape from totally unbelievable circumstances in incredibly unrealistic ways, even though they are wounded or hurt, while making bad jokes. There continues to be globe-trotting action with little or no preparation. The pair remain an "almost a magnetic draw for megalomaniacs, murderers, and terrorists."

This is an "airplane book" and at 640 pages you can count on a distraction for hours. You can even skim through some pages and still follow the action. I'd have a backup book around just in case you are stuck overnight at an airport as this one does grow tiresome after so many pages.

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

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Simple Favor

A Simple Favor by Darcey Bell
HarperCollins: 3/21/17
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062497772

A Simple Favor by Darcey Bell is a highly recommended, twisty domestic thriller.
Stephanie's best friend Emily is missing. Stephanie is a young widow and stay-at-home mommy blogger, so it must have been fate that she and Emily, a PR executive for a fashion designer, would hit it off so well. Before she went missing, Emily asked a simple favor from Stephanie, one that best friends can ask of each other and one that she had asked many times before: could Stephanie pick up Emily's son Nicky after school? Stephanie's son, Miles, and Nicky are best friends and both 5 years-old, so of course Stephanie said yes. Isn't that what best friends do for each other?

But then Emily doesn't come to pick up Nicky. She isn't answering her phone calls or texts. Emily's husband, Sean, is traveling overseas on business. Perhaps Stephanie misheard Emily and she meant keep Nicky overnight, but she certainly wouldn't have meant she'd be gone for six days. What has happened to her best friend? Stephanie turns to her many readers on her mommy blog and asks for help locating her best friend. Her readers know how lonely she was before she and Emily became friends, so they will understand how distressing her disappearance is for Stephanie and her son. Then Sean returns home, and he and Stephanie begin to spend time together, bonding over Emily's disappearance. When Emily's body is found, Stephanie and Sean begin to find more than just solace in each other's company.

The narrative is told from three points of view, starting with Stephanie. Then, in turn, we hear from Emily and Sean. Nothing is quite what it seems in this very addictive thriller. All the narrators are disagreeable and unreliable. There are more than enough lies, secrets, and schemes kept by all the characters. Stephanie is the main voice, and she is full of more than enough anxiety and insecurities, which she overshares about in an untruthful manner on her blog. She, too, is hiding secrets. But, by far, the bigger secrets are Emily's.

I'm going to be honest here: I wasn't sure I could continue reading A Simple Favor at the beginning when it was focused on Stephanie's point-of-view and her blog entries. Mommy blogs are something I have always studiously avoided reading and Stephanie's entries were downright cloying, as well as annoying. What the blog entries do manage is to highlight the difference between what she wrote and reality. Once Stephanie and Sean begin their affair you really begin to question the intelligence of all these people. I pushed on, hoping the missing friend would add more interest - and she surely did. Once the narrative turned to Emily's voice, things began to get much more interesting.

While I found A Simple Favor to be generally well written, having Stephanie be the lead, start-off character was a bit of a misstep for me, as was Emily's plan. Although the plot is nothing earth-shatteringly unexpected, the tension rises considerably when Emily's thoughts are shared. It was at this point that A Simple Favor became unputdownable for me. Whereas Stephanie is annoying and naive, Emily is smart, likely a psychopath, and playing a long-con. Yeah, her plan doesn't quite seem realistic. She's unlikeable and treacherous, but in a way that makes you wonder what her next move is going to be - and she has some doozies. My rating kept going up as I was reading. The ending was pitch-perfect.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins for TLC.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Asteroid Hunters

Asteroid Hunters by Carrie Nugent
Simon & Schuster/TED: 3/14/17
digital review copy; 128 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501120084

Asteroid Hunters by Carrie Nugent is a highly recommended quick look at asteroids. This is the published version of a TED talk that would be a good choice for anyone interested in learning more about asteroids, from as young as age 10 to adult. This book could be the foundational inspiration for future asteroid hunters/researchers.

Nugent provides her information about asteroids in accessible easy to comprehend language. She covers what they are and where they come from, but also the bigger question: what would happen if one hit the Earth? We know they have hit the Earth in the past and many adults remember Shoemaker Levy 9 hitting Jupiter. Elementary school children will know that a meteorite was responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs. I think most people who are interested in asteroids will remember the meteor that exploded over Chelyabinsk in Russia on February 15, 2013. There were numerous videos available online and they can still be found today with a quick search. ( 

Nugent discusses the different telescopes used to find asteroids, including the infrared NEOWISE, the project on which she is working. "The successful hunt and mapping of asteroids could mean nothing less than saving life on earth." Most asteroids live in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and stay in a stable orbit. Why scientists are busy identifying those asteroids, they are also looking at any whose orbit takes them close to Earth. By the end of 2011, scientists had found "over 90 percent of asteroids bigger than one kilometer across that get close to Earth" and since then even more have been found. Asteroid hunters are continually searching for even smaller, but still potentially destructive asteroids.

This is a short, easy to read and follow look at Nugent's job as an asteroid hunter. As someone who has spent more than one night watching the sky during meteor showers I guess the one drawback for me was the lack of real pictures in the book. You don't forget seeing a fireball or an especially active shower. There are illustrations, probably made for the TED talk, but it would be nice to see some real photographs. This is especially true of some big events that I recall being in awe over - Shoemaker Levy 9 hitting Jupiter and the Chelyabinsk, Russia meteor.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Perils of "Privilege"

The Perils of "Privilege" by Phoebe Maltz Bovy
St. Martin's Press: 3/14/17
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250091208

The Perils of "Privilege": Why Injustice Can't Be Solved by Accusing Others of Advantage by Phoebe Maltz Bovy is a very highly recommended, blunt and well-documented discussion of the current social justice phenomena of accusing people of "Privilege" and the ever present insult to people "Your privilege is showing" or YPIS.
Author Maltz Bovy states that The Perils of "Privilege" is an argument against using the concept of privilege to understand and fight against injustice. "It is an attempt at taking a step back and asking whether the privilege-awareness project is a valuable one. And it’s my sense - with some caveats - that it’s been a disaster." "This is the biggest theoretical challenge to the privilege turn: An approach that’s ostensibly about achieving social justice winds up suggesting, or seeming to suggest, that everyone should be miserable. A further flaw: "Privilege" is based on an analogy, namely that other forms of unearned advantage are similar to, and as important as, wealth." It is all about sensitivities and tends to make far too much of minor problems and far too little of big ones.
Chapter 1 covers the online privilege conversation, a tangled accusatory atmosphere where it is easy to call out someone for YPIS, as I'm sure many people have observed. Chapter 2 looks at American high schools and universities who now regularly host privilege-awareness workshops and now Privilege Studies is an academic field." I know from personal experience that these workshops are presented in a wide variety of careers, including all public school employees and expanding to health care fields. Chapter 3 shows the "impact privilege theory has had on the arts and on cultural criticism. Books, movies, and TV shows are now evaluated in terms of privilege, to the exclusion of all other observations or reactions." Chapter 4 examines the effect and the presence of privilege on politics. Chapter 5 examines the use of privilege by the far right and the plight of the straight, white, middle-class male, among others.

This is an excellent, thought-provoking well-written look at privilege. Phoebe Maltz Bovy makes a plethora of thoughtful comments and provides well-documented examples. In many ways this book is over whelming because there is so much information and so many examples. It is information-dense. According to her calling out someone for YPIS harms more than it helps. It has become a way to bully people online, which has caused irreparable damage to its original use. As she succinctly states: "There is, of course, the even stronger case for checking the privilege of privilege checkers, namely that the people making these accusations tend to be fairly privileged themselves." I really agree with her that all of these accusations of YPIS terrify people that they’re losing the basic right to express themselves, their freedom of speech.

The first time I saw the accusation or thinly veiled insult of "your privilege is showing" was in a comment on a book review. I was rather taken aback that in order to disagree with what I assumed was a white male book reviewer based on his picture, the female commenting had to tell him YPIS. This was for a review on a novel, fiction. So, rather than saying you disagree and envisioned the characters another way, it made more sense to attack the reviewer's privileged status, which is really just a kind of trolling. Goodness.

Then there are the encounters with privilege-awareness-raising exercises. The questions require participants to disclose information, private information, that, perhaps, you don't really want made public to co-workers. However, if you chose to hide certain information then you are higher on the privileged scale. It becomes a dilemma. You certainly don't want to be near the front of the room with the well-educated, cis, white male, but how much do you really want to reveal about yourself or your background? 

A couple of quotes - and I had pages of them saved - that I'm including without comment:
"[P]olitical commentator Andrew Sullivan.... spelled out the Trump-and-privilege connection in a New York magazine piece that, while highly critical of Trump, sought to understand where his supporters were coming from: A struggling white man in the heartland is now told to 'check his privilege' by students at Ivy League colleges. Even if you agree that the privilege exists, it’s hard not to empathize with the object of this disdain."

"Thanks to the privilege framework, it’s possible - no matter who you are, or why you’re doing so - to bash women and be given the benefit of the doubt. Well done, privilege framework. Well played."

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

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Never Out of Season

Never Out of Season by Rob Dunn
Little, Brown and Company: 3/14/17
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316260725

Never Out of Season: How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and Our Future by Rob Dunn is a highly recommended discourse on the importance of diversity in our increasingly genetically standardized crops grown worldwide.

We used to know what season it was and where a person lived based on what food was available. Now agriculture has been globalized and homogenized. Food crops are breed for taste, productiveness and hardiness - and then that selected variety is the one relied upon almost exclusively. We are standardizing crops. Now the taste is always the same, rather than greatly differing between different types of, for example, bananas.

Dunn points out that the Irish potato famine "was not the last ancient plague but rather the first truly modern one. And whereas the threat from the potato famine was regional, the threat we now face, in our far more connected economy, is global." In 1845 the Irish were more dependent on the potato than anyone else, and when disease we call late blight hit the potato crop, it caused the famine. With the standardization of crops we are setting ourselves up for the same kind of event. A single blight, disease, pathogen could at any moment attack a specific crop and destroy it. "We need ever more food from each acre and so are bound to those crops that produce the most. Just as it was for the Irish, each time a child is born our reliance on our most productive crops increases. Corn in North America. Wheat in Europe. Cassava in Africa. Rice in Asia."

The problem is that with reduced diversity of crops, we are setting ourselves up for failure because now when a pathogen attacks a crop it has the potential to wipe it out completely. We no longer have the many different varieties grown in different places so if one variety is wiped out, the entire crop could no longer exist. The key is to keep the wild relatives of our crops available. We need all the species alive and their seeds available as a key to combat any future plagues. We are reducing the number of varieties of crops we depend upon for food when we need to be protecting the varieties in order to protect our future food supplies.

Dunn covers a variety of crops including bananas, coffee, cacao, wheat, corn, cassava, and potatoes. He also tells about the forward thinking of Soviet botanist Nikolai Vavilov who began collecting a wide variety of seeds in the 1940s and those who understood the need to protect the seed bank during WWII. Dunn extensively discusses the "doomsday vault" in Norway where seeds are preserved against a future apocalypse.

Never Out of Season is well-researched and contains extensive notes for each chapter and the sources cited. There is also an index. Even though it is a scholarly work, it is very accessible for anyone who is interested in agriculture, history, and food science.

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

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

The Roanoke Girls

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
Crown/Archetype: 3/7/17
eBook review copy; 288 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101906668

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel is a highly recommended, disturbing, creepy thriller.

After 15 year-old Lane Roanoke's mother commits suicide, Lane leaves NYC to live with her grandparents and cousin Allegra on their farm, named after the family, in rural Kansas by the small town of Osage Flats. All Lane knew about her grandparents was that her mother couldn't wait to leave and never went back. Once in Kansas, Lane learns that her grandparents are wealthy, but she also learns that the Roanoke girls seem to be prone to dying - or running away like her mother did. What she can't figure out is why her mother was so haunted by her life there. When she does discover the truth over the one summer she was there, she also runs.

Eleven years later Lane is living in Los Angeles when she gets a call from her grandfather telling her that Allegra has gone missing and Lane needs to come home. Lane does return to Roanoke to help search for Allegra and figure out what happened to her. Did she run or did something else happen. Lane certainly doesn't care about seeing her grandparents, and makes it quite clear. She even blurts out early on the big, dark secret hanging over the Roanokes, making it clear why she likely ran away. It's disgusting and the book slowly reveals the extent of the family secret. Lane also wonders about seeing her boyfriend from that summer, Cooper.

The narrative alternates between the past and the present. It follows Lane during her summer at Roanoke and then her return eleven years later to look for Allegra. It also goes back in time to reveal what happened to all the other Roanoke girls in the past. As I said, the shocking secret is revealed early in the book, so what you will be looking for are clues to Allegra's fate and more information and clarification about what has happened to all the other Roanoke girls.

Engel does an excellent job keeping the suspense and intrigue going, hooking you into the secrets of the past and present, as she slowly reveals more information. The novel is well-presented, in the writing, execution and the length. I was completely hooked in the story and never had a point in The Roanoke Girls where I thought the story was being stretched out. I read it in one sitting, which is the perfect way to read this page-turner. The ending is rather predictable, although it seems intentional as the focus is more on Lane's emotional state and her search for the reason for Allegra's disappearance.

The biggest drawback to The Roanoke Girls is the subject matter. The subject matter is repulsive and will always be disgusting. Additionally, Lane's self-loathing can be difficult to relate to. In the end, however, Engels pulls it all together, reveals all the secrets, and there is closure.

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

Monday, March 13, 2017

Every Wild Heart

Every Wild Heart by Meg Donohue
HarperCollins: 3/14/17
eBook review copy; 304 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9780062429834

Every Wild Heart by Meg Donohue is a recommended mother/daughter story.

Gail Gideon is the radio personality/voice for "The Gail Gideon Show."  Gail's show began as an on-air rant nine years ago when her husband asked for a divorce. Now her nationally syndicated show provides advice to millions of women who seek self-empowerment. Her fame has come at a price, including stalkers, misguided fans, callers who dislike her, and harassing notes. But Gail has kept a low profile and most people don't know what she looks like.

Gail's daughter Nic, 14, has always had self-esteem issues and a problem with stuttering. She tends to avoid social situations and much prefers her time after school at the stables with her horse, Tru. Then the unthinkable happens and a riding accident sends Nic to the hospital with a traumatic brain injury. When she comes out of her coma, she is a changed girl. She is now much more confident, charming, outspoken, and her stutter is gone. She's now emboldened to talk to new senior, Lucas Holt, but she is also making other decisions that are more reckless.

Gail notices the change in her daughter and wants to protect her, but needs to balance her concern with other commitments. Nic definitely can't ride her horse until it is approved by the doctors and her mom and dad. Will Nic listen to her mom when riding is her true love, unless Lucas is going to take that role. And what about Gail? Can she really give advice to single women when she might be falling for someone?

This novel is set with a sound track because Gail loves her music and has a song or two or three for every scene and event in her life. Music is a central theme in this story, so know your female singers when you start reading.

Every Wild Heart encompasses a light mystery, love stories, the mother-daughter bond, horses, and music. The novel is well-written and flows smoothly as the chapters switch between the point of view of Gail and Nic. The dual narration is very successful here and offers a nice point-counterpoint between the two as the various storylines in the plot are developed. Even though the novel is a little too-sweet and predictable at times, it is well-written and offers a pleasant diversion from life. Every now and then it is nice to read a novel with conflicts that all find a resolution and a happy ending.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, March 12, 2017

One of the Boys

One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel
Scribner: 3/14/17
eBook review copy; 176 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501156168

One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel is a very highly recommended debut story of survival that focuses on a father's physically and psychologically abuse toward his sons.

The unnamed 12-year-old narrator, his older brother, and their father have survived a brutal divorce and custody battle referred to by the father as "the war."  After the narrator participated in lying about his mother's negligence so his father could gain custody and the narrator can be "one of the boys," the three leave Kansas and move to New Mexico to begin a new life. The boys go to school and join basketballs teams while their father works from home. At first it seems that they have a chance at the good life their father promised.

Soon it becomes clear to the narrator that their father will be just as violently abusive toward his sons as the father was toward their mother. He also figures out that his father is covering up a serious drug addiction. Their father is quickly headed downhill and the boys are increasingly exposed to an increasingly odd group of strangers in their home. The boys have only each other to lean on for support while they try to carefully maneuver around their father's erratic, violent drug-induced mood swings.

Magariel's carefully written prose manages to capture the boys' loss of trust in their father, and the hopelessness they feel trying to figure out what to do next to survive life with him. The way the charismatic father manipulates his sons and their response is chilling. He is their father and wants what is best for them, right? Because they are "one of the boys" it's their job to protect and look out for him, right? The mixed emotions the boys experience is heart-breaking, yet realistically portrayed.

This is a remarkable, stunning, brilliant, extremely well-written debut novel. At only 176 pages it can be read in one sitting, but the modest size of the novel belies the huge emotional impact on the reader. That is going to last much longer. 

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Scribner.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

The Fall of Lisa Bellow

The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo
Simon & Schuster: 3/14/17
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781476761466

The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo is a highly recommended complex family drama about survivor's guilt.

Meredith Oliver is thirteen and in the eighth grade. She and her friends watch and discuss the popular mean girls at their school, including Lisa Bellows, whose locker is next to Meredith's. It is a struggle for anyone to get through the day when in middle school. Meredith's family is still recovering from the horrible accident her adored older brother had when playing baseball. Now he's essentially blind in one eye. All Meredith wants to do is get through this day in October and stop to get a root beer at the Deli Barn after school.

When Meredith gets to the Deli Barn, she sees that Lisa Bellows is already there, so she has to wait for Lisa to order her two sandwiches. Suddenly a masked gun man enters the sandwich shop. He orders both girls to get on the floor and robs the place. The two girls cower together on the floor, alternately giving each other support. Before the gun man leaves he tells Lisa to get up and come with him. Meredith remains on the floor, completely paralyzed with fear, until a customer comes in, a janitor at her school, and calls the police. Meredith is traumatized, trying to deal with witnessing the kidnapping, being the girl left behind, and processing all her feeling about the event.

The narrative has chapters alternating between two characters, following the thoughts and emotions of Meredith and Claire Oliver, her mother. While Meredith is trying to understand why she was the one left behind and find some answers, if only in her head. Claire is relieved her daughter was not taken, but struggles with confronting her inability to protect her children or even comfort them.

The Fall of Lisa Bellow is a very well-written book and  was compelling enough that, staying up a bit too late, I read it in one sitting. I simply had to find out what happened. Perabo manages to capture and realistically portray the inner voice and struggles of both a thirteen-year old girl and her mother. This is a feat in itself. Both Meredith and Claire are strong characters who are dealing with their unspeakable mental anguish in their own way.  They are also both well developed characters and strikingly realistic - neither of them are particularly likable. The depiction of Meredith struggling with survivor's guilt and trying to process what happened is especially effective.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Simon & Schuster.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Wanderers

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey 
Penguin Publishing group:3/14/17
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399574634

The Wanderers by Meg Howrey is a highly recommended novel exploring the psychology of a Mars mission on the astronauts and their families.

Aerospace giant Prime Space has chosen three astronauts for its upcoming mission to Mars. Helen Kane, Yoshihiro Tanaka, and Sergei Kuznetsov have been selected for the mission, but first they must undergo a 17-month realistic simulation in the Utah desert in an operation known as Eidolon. This simulation will force the three to endure both the physical and emotional pressures of what the trip might entail for the crew. Not only are their technical, physical, and interpersonal skills tested, they are also under constant surveillance by the Prime Space’s team of "obbers" as are their family members. As their time in isolation increases both astronauts and family members question the stories they chose to tell and what is being told to them.

The Wanderers explores the psychological aspects of a long  mission to Mars on both astronauts and family members. The narrative focuses on what all of the characters are thinking. Not only do we have the distinct voices of Helen, Yoshihiro, and Sergei, but also Mireille (Helen's daughter), Madoka (Yoshi's wife), and Dmitri (Sergei's 16-year-old son), and a member of the "obbers." 

What we have here is a character study of all the people involved rather than a science fiction novel. It is well written and there is an incredible depth of insight into the characters, making them complex, realistic people. Two important things to note are that not all the characters stories have closure and the novel does feel a bit slow at times.

While the psychological insight and exploration of the different characters is interesting, what drew me to this title was the phrase "Station Eleven meets The Martian." Since these are two novels I loved and both were in my top ten lists for their publication years, I was sure The Wanderers would be a winner. While the writing is certainly good and the insight interesting, the novel was done a disservice with the comparison to these other two novels. I will admit that I felt let down. Probably a 3.5 rounded up

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of the Penguin Publishing group.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Ill Will

Ill Will by Dan Chaon
Random House Publishing Group: 3/7/17
eBook review copy; 480 pages
ISBN-13: 9780345476043

Ill Will by Dan Chaon is a highly recommended psychological thriller that contains murder, drug addiction, and satanic ritual abuse.

In June of 1983 the parents of Dustin Tillman, 13, and his cousins Kate and Wave were murdered. At the time his adopted brother, Rusty, was convicted of the crime. Now Rusty is being released from prison as DNA evidence now proves he was innocent. Dustin testified about his memories of witnessing a satanic cult ritual at Rusty's trial which helped convict him.

Now Dustin is in his 40s and a psychologist in Cleveland who uses hypnotherapy. He is still recovering from his wife's death from cancer. His oldest son is off at college, but the youngest son, 18-year-old Aaron, is quickly acquiring an addiction to heroin and has been secretly talking to Rusty and learning about his dad's past. At the same time a patient of Dustin who is a former police officer is telling him about the series of drowning deaths of drunken male college students that seems to point to a serial killer on the loose.

Dustin is someone who is easily persuaded and influenced by others, although the extent of this isn't clear at first. The story is told through several characters, flashbacks, and in multiple timelines, as well as following two different story lines. At one point Aaron's narrative is even shared through a split two-column page and in first-, second-, and third-person points of view, which works surprisingly well in this story where disconnection is a theme. 

Charon has created a disturbing thriller with Ill Will and presents its many complexities in surprisingly straightforward eloquent prose. There is more going on, in the past and present, than is evident at first. The characters are complicated and unreliable. There is a sense of foreboding and doom that looms over the novel while you are reading. Because of the multiple points-of-view and timelines, you won't have any answers to nagging questions right away and some questions will never be answered.

My only complaint about Ill Will is that it seemed to drag a bit in the middle, making it feel overly long. If the narrative is compelling enough that it commands my complete attention I normally don't notice the length, which makes me think that there could have been a bit of tightening of the plot in the middle to keep the sense of foreboding at the fore-front of your mind rather than allowing the "this seems a bit long" thought to enter.

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

Monday, March 6, 2017

Bit Rot

Bit Rot: stories + essays by Douglas Coupland
Penguin Publishing Group: 3/7/17
eBook review copy; 432 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399575808

Bit Rot: stories + essays by Douglas Coupland is a very highly recommended thought provoking eclectic collection of over 65 essays and stories. "'Bit Rot' is a term used in digital archiving that describes the way digital files of any sort spontaneously (and quickly) decompose. It also describes the way my brain has been feeling since 2000, as I shed older and weaker neurons and connections and enhance new and unexpected ones."

I enjoyed the intermingling of the essays and the stories in this very diverse and satisfying collection. The pieces range from insightful to personal to witty to hilarious, and include a level of perception and depth along with technological and cultural observations. I will admit that I liked the essays more than the short stories, but a few of the fictional pieces stood out. Almost all of the essays were winners (with the exception being the Google searches, although it was interesting).

Anyone familiar with Copeland's writing knows that he has an exceptional way with words and a unique way of observing the world. It is all evident here. Normally I try to avoid including quotes from review copies, but these pieces are finished and previously published. The quotes will give you a taste of what Copeland has served up in this collection:

A common question I ask people whenever film discussions come up is, "What is the movie that scared the shit out of you when you were eleven or twelve - the film that you were probably too young to watch, but you watched it anyway, and it totally screwed you up for the rest of your life?" Everyone’s got one. Mine was Lord of the Flies, but other common answers are The Exorcist and Event Horizon. The point is that we all know that magic window in time when one is most susceptible to fear." (This is a great question to ask people. I know my older brother took me to a movie...)

Last summer in Reykjavik, I learned that one in ten Icelanders will write a novel in their lifetime. This is impressive, but the downside of this is that each novel gets only nine readers. In a weird way, our world is turning into a world of Icelandic novelists, except substitute blog, vlog or website for novel - and there we are: in Reykjavik. (As a long-time blogger, I actually laughed aloud over this.)

It turns out that smell is a vector, and for every smell there exists an anti- smell, and the anti- smell of human death is artificial cinnamon. You learn something new every day, and this is what you learned today.

The slowness and cluelessness of some Starbucks staff drive me insane. I want a brewed coffee, here’s two dollars, so come on, just pour the damn thing. Starbucks needs an express lane. Do they ever count how many customers leave because they don’t want to wait for ten minutes behind useless people ordering complicated, useless beverages? I think they must.

I don’t know if it’s me or what, but having to speak to college students is like having to address a crowd of work- shirking entitlement robots whose only passion, aside from making excuses as to why they didn’t do their assignments, is lying in wait, ready to pounce upon the tiniest of PC infractions. (This translates to employees that are students too.)

Worrying about money is one of the worst worries.... Worrying about money is anger-inducing because it makes you think about time: how many dollars per hour, how much salary per year, how many years until retirement. (oh yeah.)

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

Sunday, March 5, 2017

The Coming Apostasy

The Coming Apostasy: Exposing the Sabotage of Christianity from Within
by Mark Hitchcock and Jeff Kinley
Tyndale House Publishers: 3/7/17
eBook review copy; 224 pages
ISBN-13: 9781496414076

The Coming Apostasy: Exposing the Sabotage of Christianity from Within by Mark Hitchcock and Jeff Kinley is a very highly recommended plea to the church to return to sound Biblical teaching.

Apostasy is falling away from the faith. It is the rejection of sound and wholesome teaching that is based on the Bible. The Bible warns that, "For a time is coming when people will no longer listen to sound and wholesome teaching. They will follow their own desires and will look for teachers who will tell them whatever their itching ears want to hear. They will reject the truth and chase after myths." 2 Timothy 4:3-4 (NLT)

"Apostasy represents an abandonment of faith, and it can happen over time without a person realizing it. In fact, just the opposite may occur, as pride mixed with false doctrine leads to an attitude of superiority, complacency, and self-righteousness." Authors Hitchcock and Kinley have four purposes for writing this book: (1) to help Christians understand what apostasy is; (2) to help us understand that it’s surging all around us and is a serious sign of the end times; (3) to guard us from spiritual shipwreck and the danger of sinking; and (4) to help us understand the truth so that we stay on course as we await Christ’s return.

Many Christians can see that we are living in a time when sound doctrine is under siege and the Bible is being reduced to an outdated book of suggestions. It seems that people are more concerned with how they feel about whatever moral or theological topic is under consideration rather than what the Bible says. As pride mixes with false doctrine, it "leads to an attitude of superiority, complacency, and self-righteousness." Individuals, churches, and whole denominations are subject to a falling away from sound doctrine. Our guide to what is right and wrong should be the Bible.

The word of God does not change - people do. God does not compromise or rewrite his truth - people do. And in our quest to be relevant and up-to-date we are trying to please unbelievers by compromising the very inerrant and infallible word of God. Bringing home the point that it is currently unconscionable that we are even considering negotiating with a certain ideology that believes they have "holy mandate" to subjugate or kill outsiders. Right now Hitchcock and Kinley are spot on in their observation that: "The war in the East is to establish a religion. The war in the West is to eradicate a religion."

The Coming Apostasy is well written and organized, making it easy for readers to follow and understand the points being made. I agree with everything written in it, although I would prefer one or maybe two translations of the Bible be used rather than five, or at least do a parallel version to see/compare alternate translations. This is just a personal preference, but I also understand why different translations can make points easier to comprehend for a wide variety of people.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Tyndale House Publishers.