Thursday, May 25, 2017

Hold Back the Stars

Hold Back the Stars by Katie Khan
Gallery Books: 5/23/17
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501142932

Hold Back the Stars by Katie Khan is a romance in a science fiction setting. I accepted a review copy based on the description, but I was bitterly disappointed. This is, above all else, a romance, not science fiction. The universe is unrealistic and the sci-fi elements are laughable. I powered through to the end hoping it would get better, but my opinion of the book just kept plummeting with every chapter. This reads like a YA novel.

The description: "Trapped in the vast void of space, Carys and Max have only ninety minutes of oxygen left to live. None of this was supposed to happen. After a freak accident, Carys and Max are left adrift in space with nothing to hold onto but each other. As they fall, they can’t help but look back at the world they left behind. A world whose rules they couldn’t submit to, a place where they never really belonged; a home they’re determined to get back to because they’ve come too far to lose each other now. While their air ticks dangerously low, one is offered the chance of salvation - but who will take it?"

Carys and Max are both annoying characters that I could neither relate to nor muster any sympathy for them. Perhaps if the world building was better I could have overlooked my annoyance, but the world building was worse than the actual "star-crossed lovers." For future reference, please, if you are going to write science fiction... if you are going to set your novel in space... if you are going to have an asteroid field circling the Earth, (if... I could go on) please do research. And don't even get me started on the societal rules that are not logically explained. The poor world-building was not just found in the science fiction bits in space.

Now, if you enjoy romance novels, something I avoid, perhaps this novel will be just fine for you because you can ignore all the parts that I intensely disliked.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Gallery Books.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Wicked Wonders

Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages
Tachyon: 5/9/17
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9781616962616 

Wicked Wonders by Ellen Klages is a very highly recommended collection of fourteen short stories. I enjoyed almost all of the stories in this collection immensely, with just a couple I was slightly less enthusiastic about. Those are pretty impressive odds. The stories consist of a mix of science fiction, fantasy, humor, coming-of-age, magic, and real life. All the stories except for one, Woodsmoke, have been previously published.

Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler: "There is something powerfully strange and strangely powerful, but it is off to the side or coming up behind you. You’ll sense it in the small, particular details at which Ellen excels..." "The only thing you can depend on is magic. However sober and quotidian the world, Ellen always brings the magic."
The Education of a Witch: Young Lizzy loves Maleficent the witch from Sleeping Beauty while dealing with changes in her life.
Amicae Aeternum: Before she and her parents board The Goddard, a generation ship, Corrine Garcia-Kelly is saying good-bye to everything she will miss on Earth.
Mrs. Zeno’s Paradox: Annabel meets Midge for a treat, which they split, repeatedly.
Singing on a Star: Becka has her first sleep over at her friend Jamie's house where a song opens an elevator to a different world where she meets a man named Hollis.
Hey, Presto!: Polly is working with her father, the magician Vardo!, for the summer.
Echoes of Aurora:  Jo Norwood returns to her hometown to settle her father's estate after being gone 35 years and meets Aurora.
Friday Night at St. Cecilia’s: Rachel Sweeney was supposed to be playing backgammon with her friend Addie, but instead gets caught up in the grip of a fairy queen and is trapped inside several board games.
Caligo Lane: Located in San Francisco, Caligo Lane might be an illusion. Difficult to reach, or find again, it is here that Franny, a cartographer, lives and combines mapmaking and origami.
Goodnight Moons: Zoe is part of the first team of six astronauts to go to Mars. She discovers she is pregnant after they have already started their voyage.
Gone to the Library: Izzy, an eight year-old girl who loves math, meets her neighbor, Bibber, who needs her help. 
Household Management: We get a glimpse into the life of Sherlock Holmes landlady.
Sponda the Suet Girl and the Secret of the French Pearl: A thief buys a map that he believes will lead him to a wizard who owns a pearl of great value.
Woodsmoke: "Every childhood summer is special. School is out and freedom beckons. Then comes a magic summer.... For Patricia Ann Maas that summer was 1963..." Patty spends her fifth summer at camp Wokanda, where she can be herself and is known by the nickname Peete.
The Scary Ham: A true story. Klages father was given a full-sized ham which he hung in his basement for twenty years, in the room with the litter box. This story and pictures can be found on the Tor website.
Afterword: Why I Write Short Fiction
10 Facts About Ellen Klages
Story Notes About the Author

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Tachyon.

Dragon Teeth

Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton
HarperCollins: 5/23/17
eBook review copy; 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062473356

Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton is a highly recommended historical adventure novel.

Let me preface this review with a few comments. As most people know Crichton passed away in 2008 and the books published since then have been from manuscripts found by his wife Sherry.  Dragon Teeth is an early manuscript; purportedly research on it began in 1974. Longtime fans of Crichton's work will recognize in the style a resemblance to several of his earlier novels. That fact doesn't diminish this novel, but Dragon Teeth is neither a Jurassic Park story nor a prequel. What it does do is affirm that Crichton's fascination with dinosaurs, fossils, and paleontology began long before the Jurassic Park novels were written.

Dragon Teeth is set in 1876. At this time there was war in the west between Native American tribes and the US, a gold rush in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and legends of the Wild West were alive. It was also the time of the "Bone Wars," a nickname given to the bitter rivalry between paleontologists Othniel Charles Marsh and Edwin Drinker Cope. The narrative follows William Johnson, an entitled Yale student who made a bet with a rival that he would go west to dig for dinosaur bones. He learns photography so he has a skill that enables him to join Marsh's expedition. Marsh, however is a paranoid man and ends up abandoning Johnson in Cheyenne, Wyoming. At that point Johnson joins Cope's group, who are heading west to the Montana badlands to dig for fossils. They make an incredible find, but unforeseen circumstances separate the exhibition members, resulting in getting half of the bones back east to become solely Johnson's dangerous quest.

William Johnson is a fictitious character, but the novel is populated with many other recognizable historical figures, places, and events. Dragon Teeth is a western more than anything else, but it demonstrates the research Crichton undertook for his novels. This is a nice combination of historical fact and fiction that showcases Crichton's ability to take facts, science, and history and mold it into an entertaining story.

While Dragon Teeth doesn't have the high level of exceptionally-fast-paced-heart-stopping action that is displayed in many of his books, this is still a very entertaining story that will hold your attention from beginning to end. I do wonder, however, if it was set aside and not published earlier because Crichton wasn't satisfied with it. It is not as good as many of his novels. But, setting that aside, fans will be pleased with it and easily place Dragon Teeth in context as an early example of his body of work. As a long-time fan, I love Crichton's books, but... a gentle suggestion to his estate: I think it might be time to close the vault on things he wrote but didn't publish.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Nuclear Family

Nuclear Family: A Tragicomic Novel in Letters 
by Susanna Fogel
Henry Holt & Company: 7/18/17
advanced reading copy; 212 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250165237

Nuclear Family: A Tragicomic Novel in Letters by Susanna Fogel is a very highly recommended, hilarious, wonderfully quirky, entertaining debut novel. I loved and adored it!

This epistolary novel is a collection of letters/emails written to Julie by her dysfunctional, fractured Jewish family, as well as a few surprising sources that don't normally write letters. We never actually hear directly from Julie, but we meet her through what her family has written to her. The letters begin when Julie is a teen and end when she is in her mid-thirties and publishing a book about her family. Most letters are from her younger sister, Jane, and her mother, but her father, grandmother, uncle, and other family members also write.

The letters all have a title/heading. Here are some examples: "Your Sister, Who has Questions about Your Uncle Ken's Lifestyle, Has a Great Idea for His Birthday Gift"; "Your Grandma Rose Is Still Not Feeling This E-mail Thing"; "Your Stepmother Has Some Theories about Why You're Still Single"; "Your Dad, Who Asked Your Last Boyfriend If He Watches Porn, Is Wondering Why He Hasn't Met Your New Guy"; "Your Mother's Goddaughter, Who Crashed with You for Many Days, Is Sorry She Didn't Have Any Time to Hang Out"; "Your Dad, Who Lacks Boundaries, Wants to Talk about Your Body"; "Your Dad's Six-Year-Old Son from His Second Marriage Discusses His Superior Childhood"; "Your Mom has Some New Judgements She'd Like to Share"; "Your Mom is having Some Issues with Regularity"; "Your Sister, Who has Two Exes in Jail, Agrees That You Gotta Do You."

I loved every minute spent reading Nuclear Family! It is clever and humorous, from the titles to the letters themselves, and I laughed aloud through the whole novel. The titles preceding the letters can be just as comical as the letters themselves. The letter writers are clearly clueless as to what their letters are actually conveying and often over-sharing. Each family member has their own voice when writing, for example Jane writes her letters in text-speak, which adds a clever layer to the mix. You'll be surprised at how much of a story these letters tell about Julie's life - enough that you might want to look back at your own correspondence to see what stories are hidden there.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Henry Holt & Company via Library Thing

What She Saw

What She Saw by Gerard Stembridge
HarperCollins: 5/23/17
eBook review copy; 320 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062568984

What She Saw by Gerard Stembridge is a so-so novel that follows a woman through 24 hours in Paris.

Lana Gibson has decided to travel to Paris to see the Edward Hopper retrospective. She stays at the expensive Hotel Le Chevalier located on the Right Bank and assures her unknowing husband after-the-fact that she will be fine and take her meds to control her manic phases. She does see the Hopper exhibition, but she also becomes increasingly obsessed with seeing who is using the private elevator to the exclusive penthouse suite on the top floor. As happenstance and curiosity collide, she actually gets on the elevator when the door is open and is whisked to the top floor. When the door opens she sees quickly observes that an orgy is taking place, but she also witnesses a young woman trying to escape from a naked older man. She quickly snaps a few pictures with her cell phone before the elevator doors close again.

It turns out that the older man is Jean-Luc Fournier, an important French politician. Lana is already on the radar of his security detail, who have noticed her interest in the private elevator. Now she is on the run from the security men and needs to figure out what exactly is going on and who she can trust before her time runs out. The narrative follows Lana's perspective and that of a chauffeur for Fournier, Ferdinand (Ferdie). Ferdie has his own stakes in the outcome.

I really wanted to like her simply due to her desire to travel to see the Hopper retrospective, but Lana is a hard character to relate to or find any empathy for. She is also not a very well-developed character. Mainly you learn she doesn't seem to really even like her husband, she's on meds (apparently for bipolar disorder), and she's way-too-weirdly-curious about the penthouse elevator door. This makes it a challenge to feel invested in what happens to her, especially when she's repeatedly and consistently making some rather stupid actions and decisions.

The writing is good, but the 24 hour format seemed to just drag out the action and didn't work for me. Those who love novels set in Paris and Francophiles will likely appreciate the setting. I had a difficult time immersing myself in this novel, probably due to my increasing annoyance with Lana.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sister Sister

Sister Sister by Sue Fortin
HarperCollins: 5/23/17
eBook review copy; 384 pages
paperback ISBN-13: 9780008238070

Sister Sister by Sue Fortin is a recommended psychological thriller.

Currently Clare, a solicitor, and her husband, Luke, a painter, and their two daughters are living with her mother, an arrangement that has worked out well for all of them. Twenty years ago Clare's father took her little sister, Alice, on a trip to the USA and never returned. Her mother has been pining away for her missing daughter ever since, even buying and putting aside presents for her yearly. Over the years they have hired investigators to look for Alice, but nothing turned up. Then when a letter from Alice suddenly appears, everyone is elated that there will be a reunion with the missing daughter/sister. What seems like a wonderful heartwarming visit soon turns into tension-filled days as Clare's suspicions about Alice's behavior begin to rise.

Sister Sister is certainly technically well-written and the story will keep your interest. You will want to continue to read the story to see what happens to the characters.  It is a good choice for a vacation read or an airplane book. It will hold your interest but you won't cry if you misplace it. Many readers are going to be thinking that they have heard very similar stories before and this one is equally predictable. There is nothing truly shocking that happens in it nor are the twists really surprising.  You will likely have already predicted what is going to happen long before any of the characters, besides Clare, have a clue.

Although I read it to the end and basically enjoyed it, Sister Sister is not without its problems - beyond the predictability.

Clare starts out as an intriguing character but quickly becomes a bit bumbling and insipid. She is supposedly an intelligent woman who is a lawyer. She should be able to logically collect evidence and present a well-supported case. Instead she becomes a bit of a shirking violet, afraid of hurt feelings. It is also illogical that no one else in the family is suspicious of anything and that they turn on Clare so quickly and easily. Her mother should have had suspicions too. Even if you want to believe, that doesn't mean you don't use your head. Luke is an idiot who should have been supporting his wife. Clare, though, mainly acts out, whines, and throws out suspicions without presenting evidence. Even a simple, "Alice did this, then this, then this. Why is that acceptable?" And, come on Clare: use that cell phone, take pictures, gather evidence and supporting proof.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

The Perfect Stranger

The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda
Simon & Schuster: 4/11/17
eBook review copy; 352 pages
ISBN-13: 9781501107993

The Perfect Stranger by Megan Miranda is a very highly recommended page-turner and I relished every one of those pages in this complex tale of suspense.

Leah Stevens was a journalist in Boston, but needed to resign from her job due to a story she wrote. Now she needs to find something new to do - in a hurry. By coincidence she runs into a roommate she had years ago during a time in her life when she also needed help in a hurry. Emmy was there eight years ago when they first met and helped Leah out before Emmy went overseas with the Peace Corp. It is a shocking surprise for Leah to run into Emmy now. The two immediately bond and take up where they left off. They decide to move together to a small town in Western Pennsylvania on a whim. Leah can get a position teaching at the high school and Emmy can find a job doing something.

Then a woman who closely resembles Leah is found seriously injured and Emmy has gone missing. Leah works with the police to try and help them while at the same time she tries to get them to look into the whereabouts of her missing friend. As both investigations continue it becomes increasingly clear that Leah really never knew Emmy well at all and the police are beginning to look at her as a suspect. Leah realizes that she needs to use her journalistic skills to uncover the truth about what happened and who Emmy really is.

Leah is a well-developed character and I began to like her more and more as the novel progressed and doubts began to develop. She becomes more spunky and begins to show more and more of her intelligence and intuition as she begins her own investigation while the police are more focused on investigating her.

The revelation of new information is wonderfully timed. It begs the question: How well do you really know other people? As Leah is desperately trying to find out what happened to her friend, you will begin to wonder if Emmy is even real and doubts about Leah's sanity will creep in. You only know Emmy through Leah, and Leah doesn't even reveal everything about her own life right away. The plot of The Perfect Stranger moves along at a gallop and never lets up. I enjoyed the fast-paced ride and twisty plot immensely. The writing is pitch-perfect in the suspenseful narrative.

I really enjoyed uncovering the twisty-layers of this swift-paced, agile novel of psychological suspense. It was a pleasure to read.

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

Monday, May 15, 2017

You Were Here

You Were Here by Gian Sardar
Penguin Publishing Group: 5/16/17
eBook review copy; 384 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399575006

You Were Here by Gian Sardar is a recommended atmospheric debut novel of suspense that follows two storylines in two time periods.

Abby Walter's is currently living in LA with her commitment-phobic boyfriend Robert. She hasn't returned home to Makade, the small Minnesota town she grew up in, for fourteen years. She had horrible recurring nightmares about being buried alive, among other things, and the nightmares stopped after she left. Now she has decided to visit her hometown for the upcoming high school reunion, but especially to research her family's past because the name Claire Ballantine has surfaced in her dreams. She thinks looking into the past may end her nightmares, which have returned with the news of the reunion. Abby's high school crush, Aidan Mackenzie, has also returned to Makade after working on the police force in St. Paul. He's a detective on the trail of a violent serial rapist.

The story set in 1948 focuses on a love triangle, or, really, an affair between a dashing, handsome older man and a younger woman who wants to escape her small town existence. Small town Eva is a young woman in love with William Ballantine, a privileged wealthy man who is married to Claire. William and Eva conduct their affair in Rochester. She takes the bus from her small town and meets him at a house he owns there. The two are in love or obsessed with each other, but William doesn't want to hurt Claire.

The slow moving duel plot eventually connects the two timelines, showing how the decisions made and secrets held in the past have consequences that can influence or affect the future. The secrets actually aren't all that shocking once you get to them because they are easily deduced much earlier in the novel.

The novel is beautifully written, almost poetic at times. The quality of the writing helps You Were Here rise above the numerous plot elements that are less-than-perfect. This isn't really a romance novel, more of an exploration of dark secrets. The romantic connection between Abby and Aidan seemed forced to me and served no real purpose in the plot. The affair between Eva and William has been seen many times before - an older successful man starts an affair with an attractive, desperate-to-escape younger woman.

The characters, for the most part, are well-developed, even if they are also at times a bit too melodramatic. It seems that most of the women in this novel are holding tightly to the role of victim and looking for a man to save them, which became annoying. Abby was the most developed of the characters, while Eva was perhaps the most sympathetic.

To be honest, I had a difficult time finishing this novel and flirted with stopping just before the half-way point. It just didn't seem worth my time. In the end I had to give credit to Sardar for pulling it all together and for the quality of the writing, which is what kept me reading and resulted in my recommendation. But, for followers of my reviews, there were no real surprises in the plot for me, as it all has been done before in one way or another, and the big, shocking twists were all very predictable. Other reviews seem to be more glowing, so it could be I am just the odd miss for the title. Literary fiction readers will appreciate the writing.

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

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Inkblots

The Inkblots by Damion Searls
Crown/Archetype: 2/21/17
uncorrected proof: 405 pages
ISBN-13: 9780804136549

The Inkblots: Hermann Rorschach, His Iconic Test, and the Power of Seeing by Damion Searls is a very highly recommended fascinating examination of the short life of Rorschach and the phenomenal spread and influence of the iconic test he developed. The first part of The Inkblots is an account of Rorschach's life, while the second is the history of the Rorschach Test and psychological evaluation.

In 1917 Rorschach was working at an asylum in Switzerland when he developed his inkblot test. Rorschach, the son of an artist, had artistic talent himself which aided him in carefully designing all of the final ten inkblots. His goal was to find a tool to use what we see and how we describe it as a way to find insight into the human mind. "Rorschach had come to believe that who we are is less a matter of what we say, as Freud thought, than what we see." The shapes he developed are bilaterally symmetrical. The shapes suggest both movement and form. This is a test where the psychological insight it reveals is based on the interpretation of what you see as it strives to measure imagination and personality. It is not a test with correct or incorrect answers. Today the ten shapes can readily be seen with a simple online search.

Rorschach tragically died in 1922 at age 37, but his test took on a life of its own, spreading across the world and especially took hold in America. It was used as a means of psychological evaluation in a wide variety of different situations. In the second half of the book Searls covers the history of psychology and the problems and changes associated with scoring the test. It also entered the realm of popular culture and at one time inkblots imitating the test could even be found in advertising.

I especially enjoyed this biography/history of psychology and thought the writing was exceptional. It is easy to understand while providing the background information and details you need to follow the information presented. It is well-researched, thoughtful, and intriguing. While I was totally engrossed in the whole book, the first part detailing Rorschach's life was especially detailed and interesting. Searls biographical account covers Rorschach's early life and his progressive beliefs as he grew up. Rorschach is presented as a very likeable man. Searls found a vast amount of material on Rorschach from a biographer who died before he wrote his book. Once we reach the second part of the book, which focuses on the spread of the test, the feuds, controversy, and revisions begin.

The Inkblots has all the special elements I love to see in nonfiction. The book includes many photos. There is an appendix focusing on his wife, Olga, and an excerpt of a tribute to her husband she wrote years later. There is a note by Searls in his acknowledgements explaining how he found original source material. Finally, there are extensive source notes for each chapter, which is always appreciated.

IF you are anything like me, you will want to see the original ten inkblots. They are easily found online (Wikipedia) and there is even an online inkblot test (which I didn't take therefore can't vouch for its validity.)

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

The Hanging Tree

The Hanging Tree by Rodney Hobson
Endeavour Press: 4/10/17
eBook review copy: 168 pages
D.I. Paul Amos series # 5

The Hanging Tree by Rodney Hobson is a highly recommended fast-paced police procedural set in the 1990's.

Detective Inspector Paul Amos and Detective Sergeant Juliet Swift are on  the case of a middle aged man found hanging from a tree in his back yard. The two older women living next door heard noise in the night and saw a naked man walking through the backyard so the police were on the scene rather quickly and have a few clues to follow. The murdered man was Duncan Watson. He was apparently the leader of a group of protestors in the sixties who participated in a siege of historic Wykeham Hall in an attempt to save it. Their efforts resulted in failure, but the group is having a 30th reunion this weekend. Amos and Swift rely on interviews while following the various clues that lead to a conclusion.

This is most decidedly an old-fashioned police procedural that follows the clues in the case without the help of current technology or advanced forensics. This isn't necessarily a bad thing as you follow the deductions the detectives make through their interviews and investigations. It is also a simple, short, fast-paced novel. There isn't a lot of time for character development or more than one line of investigation. The Hanging Tree is definitely a novel to read simply for relaxation. It is a good story that reaches its conclusion quickly. And let's be honest, sometimes this is a nice change of pace, especially if you have had a hectic week.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Endeavour Press.

Monday, May 8, 2017


Sycamore by Bryn Chancellor
HarperCollins: 5/9/17
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062661098

Sycamore by Bryn Chancellor is a very highly recommended debut literary mystery that explores a gamut of emotions. This is compelling reading.

In 1991 Seventeen year old Jess Winters has just moved to Sycamore, AZ, with her mother, Maud. Jess's father has left them for his new young wife and new baby daughter. We know that Jess disappears in December of 1991 and no one knows what happened to her. Her disappearance has haunted the town. Her mother Maud has never given up hope that she would find an answer to what happened someday. In 2009 a woman out walking finds bones that may be those of Jess.

Sycamore flips back and forth in time, as well as the voices of different characters, between 1991 and 2009. The story of what happened to Jess back in 1991 slowly emerges, as does the current information about the other citizens of Sycamore, the former friends, classmates, neighbors, and teachers  who knew Jess, then and now. The multiple points of view enrich the story and give an added emotional depth to the answers that are forthcoming as the novel progresses.

This spellbinding novel covers a multitude of emotions and subjects. It is a coming-of-age story with all the teenage angst that this suggests. It is an exploration of friendship and loneliness. It covers a variety of betrayals and faithlessness. It delves into love, grief, secrets, passions, rumors, disillusion, unfaithfulness, and hope. The novel begins quietly, but gradually becomes increasingly tense and complicated. These are broken people depicted on the pages of Sycamore, but even broken people search for happiness and a way to belong.

This novel is a well-written gem. The writing is marvelous. I was totally engrossed in both narratives, 1991 and 2009. If you enjoy literary fiction, as I do, you are going to see several corresponding themes running through the novel, connecting past and present. If you want to sit back and enjoy a well-written mystery, Sycamore will also fit that description.  This is a novel that should be savored. And keep your eyes on Chancellor for more novels in the future.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Dinner Party

The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris
Little, Brown and Company: 5/2/17
eBook review copy; 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316465953

The Dinner Party by Joshua Ferris is a highly recommended collection of eleven previously published short stories. The stories in The Dinner Party, six of which were first published in The New Yorker, are about "the modern tribulations of marriage, ambition, and the fear of missing out..." The lives here are all changed in some way and at times the stories read like dark comedies. The writing is wonderful and there are several stories with surprising twists at the end. This is an admirable collection with only one story that I didn't enjoy as much as the others.

The Dinner Party: A man loathes having to sit through another dinner party with his wife's friend and her husband.  "He also wanted his wife and her friend to drift apart so that he never had to sit through another dinner party with the friend and her husband."

The Valetudinarian: It's Arty Groys birthday. The Florida retiree is at loose ends until he receives an unexpected gift "If I had known about any of this forty years ago, I wouldn’t be so gloomy today, but no one gives you a manual."

The Pilot: Leonard, who is writing a pilot for a TV show is invited to a party by Kate Lotvelt, a very successful writer, and he is unsure if she intended to invite him. "He and Kate, they weren’t…were they friends? Well, yeah, they were friends. They were acquaintances. They’d met twice, once at the producer Sydney Gleekman’s yearly blowout, and then, a few months later, at the actor’s dinner party."

A Night Out: A man is unable to hide his cheating from his wife. "She didn’t know how she knew. She just knew. Tom wanted not to have seen her, then he shifted with a smile and a loud, “Clara!” Clara was surprised to see him, or acted so. Tom introduced his wife. Clara complimented Sophie’s handbag."

The Breeze: A woman is out on the balcony, catching a pleasant spring breeze, which sets into motion endless possibilities for her but complacency from her husband.  " 'In the brig!' Sarah called out and, with her wineglass at a tilt, peeked down again on the neighborhood. They called their six feet of concrete balcony overlooking the street the brig.

Ghost Town Choir: A fatherless boy watches his mother chase off another boyfriend. " 'Mom, why are you mad at Lawton?' She opened the window above the sink, and all her figurines fell into the water. 'Because I got an expiration date on my stupidity!'"

More Abandon, or What Ever Happened to Joe Pope?: A man stays in his office building long after closing. "But there is work to do, work to do, and that, he tells himself, is why he stays. It is nothing that can’t wait until tomorrow, but he is incapable of breaking free."

Fragments: A man listens to the fragments of conversations he hears while out walking, thinking about his life. "That night, Katy came home later than usual. He was up but feigned sleep. With the lights off, she tiptoed into the bedroom, making no effort to wake him. He wanted her to. He wanted her to say something, anything..."

The Stepchild: An actor's wife has left him and he's in despair. "...passersby might have thought him utterly seduced - until he turned and they glimpsed that he was crying. Then they knew they were in one of those city moments, a public audience to a stranger’s despair."

Life in the Heart of the Dead: A middle aged man spends an afternoon on a guided tour of Prague. "'It’s Prague Castle,' she said. 'And by the way,' she added, just when the whole table, and really the whole restaurant, seemed to go completely silent. 'For some reason, you keep calling it Czechoslovakia. You understand, I hope, that it isn’t Czechoslovakia anymore. It hasn’t been Czechoslovakia for twenty years. It’s the Czech Republic now.'"

A Fair Price: A man hires an older man to help him move his stuff but he becomes increasingly belligerent as the day progresses. "Nothing sucked more than moving your stuff out of storage. Luckily Jack had a hand. Guy he’d never met before named Mike. Ryan, his yard guy, had hooked them up. Mike worked for Ryan or knew Ryan somehow. Jack didn’t ask. He was just glad to have the help."

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


Sympathy by Olivia Sudjic
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 4/4/17
eBook review copy; 416 pages

Sympathy by Olivia Sudjic is a so-so overwritten novel focusing on obsession, stalking, and social media.
Alice Hare, 23, travels from England to NYC to stay with her ill grandmother. Even before she met her, Alice is obsessed with  Mizuko Himura, a Japanese writer living in NYC who teaches creative writing at Columbia. Alice's fantasies and thoughts are fueled by her desire to meet and establish the relationship she knows she is supposed to have with Mizuko. Alice stalkes her and manages to meet her in person via a social media clue mentioning a coffee shop, and proceeds to tests boundaries with her relationship with Mizuko.

I could go on with the description, but honestly, I don't like the novel enough to spend more time on this. The narrative jumps around in time, without building a sense of continuity or some identifying theme that allows the readers knowledge to grow with each chapter. The novel is over-long and slow paced, but still feels so disjointed that it wasn't a pleasure as much as it was a chore to keep reading. Additionally I didn't care for any of the characters. If you are going to throw a long, muddled, over-written plot at me with all sorts of obsessive narcissistic social media obsessed characters, at least give me one person to care about. By the end of this novel I was just celebrating the fact that it was over. It is given the so-so rating simply for the final third of the novel.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

It Started with Goodbye

It Started with Goodbye by Christina June
Blink: 5/9/17
eBook review copy; 272 pages
ISBN-13: 9780310758662

It Started with Goodbye by Christina June is a recommended YA retake on the story of Cinderella.

Tatum Elsea (TLC) is sixteen and about to experience a horrible summer. After Tatum unwittingly acted as a getaway driver for her best friend Ashlyn and Ashlyn's boyfriend, she's been charged with a misdemeanor. She has to pay a $500 fine and perform 100 hours of community service. To make things worse, her strict and intolerant stepmom along with her perfect stepsister are the ones in charge of her "house arrest" as her father is going to be away on business. When her stepgrandmother/fairy godmother arrives, it is a blessing. Tatum is secretly starting a graphic design business, TLC Design during this summer of reflection and growth.

This is a feel good story where the characters make dramatic changes rather quickly and the plot is very predictable. but it is all for the happy ending that you know will be coming because it is a Cinderella story. It is also quite decidedly a young adult novel. As an adult reader there were parts that made little to no sense and annoyed the heck out of me, but I am definitely not the target audience here. I would take this down to a younger teen audience (grade 8 for sure) as older teens or adults who like YA fiction are likely going to also have a few issues with the novel.

The writing is fine and there is some progression with the plot. Suspend disbelief for a few parts and just go with the flow to appreciate this light, fun novel for younger YA readers. (I really love the cover more than the book.)

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Blink.

Mockingbird Songs

Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee by Wayne Flynt
HarperCollins: 5/2/17
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780062660084

Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee by Wayne Flynt is recommended for the future historical significance of his correspondence with the notoriously private Nelle Harper Lee.
This is a collection of letters Lee and Flynt sent to each other over the years, from 1992 to Lee's death in 2016. The letters show a side of Lee that few seldom saw and could be a valuable resource for future biographers.

Flynt opens up the organized sections of letters with comments about the letters that follow. There is a variety of subjects discussed and as you are reading them you can see the friendship between the two growing and maturing. The letters begin more formal and eventually become personal and intimate. There are a few feisty observations and comments from Lee that will be appreciated, along with her sense of humor and phrasing as the letter begin to exhibit more of her personality. It should be noted that Lee's attorney approved the publication of the letters.

The value of this collection is the insight it provides into Lee's life during her correspondence with Flynt. It does beg the question, though, how she would have felt about the publication of their personal correspondence. She was a very private person. One rarely writes to friends and expects that exchange to be published in the future. However there is a long history of letters of famous people being collected and published.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

One Perfect Lie

One Perfect Lie by Lisa Scottoline
St. Martin's Press: 4/11/17
eBook review copy; 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9781250099563

One Perfect Lie by Lisa Scottoline is a highly recommended thriller.
When Chris Brennan moves to Central Valley, a small town in Pennsylvania, he lets us know right from the start that he's not who he says he is. His name is not really "Chris Brennan." His impressive credentials as he applies to teach at the high school are fake. He's an assistant coach in baseball, although he's never coached before, so he can find the perfect teenage boy. Chris has some kind of secret plan that involves a making a bomb with ammonium chloride fertilizer and it looks like he wants to find a teenage boy to help him pull his plans together. He's only planning to be in Central Valley for a week and he is looking at a boy from the baseball team to assist him.

There are three boys Chris is looking at, and Scottoline follows the point of view of the mothers of these boys and Chris in their alternating narratives.
Susan Sematov's son, Raz, is a member of the team. Her whole family is suffering because their father died a few months ago. Is Raz vulnerable enough to be the one Chris is looking for?
Heather Larkin is a single mother raising her only son Jordan, who is a rookie on the team. Jordan is reserved, but growing up without a father might make him susceptible for Chris's plan.
Mindy Kostis's son Evan is the star catcher of the team. They are a wealthy family. Her husband is a surgeon, Mindy leads the baseball boosters. Evan has grown up without need, was recently given a new BMW, and has a sense of entitlement. Could boredom lead him to look for something more dangerous?

The opening chapters of One Perfect Lie are pretty grim and there is an ominous, dire feeling as you read them wondering what are Chris's real plans and what boy is he going to pick to use to accomplish what must be some nefarious activity. Meeting the mothers of the boys adds to the tension and the backstory of the boys and their home life. Just before the half way point of the novel, the narrative does a huge double flip twist that will shock and surprise you. After the twist, things take off at a break-neck pace to the exciting conclusion.

The characters are all well-developed and finely drawn with a depth of emotion and reality that is nice to see in a thriller. We know Chris's inner thoughts and those of the three mothers. The family life of the boys is explored and depicted in a realistic manner. Scottoline captures the difficulties of raising teenagers today and the realistic struggles many families go through.

The writing is excellent. Scottoline will really throw readers for a loop in this one, especially with one of the twists. Some of the others were easier to predict. This is a thoroughly enjoyable thriller and is a perfect stuck-overnight-at -the-airport book which will keep you entertained for hours.

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

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

The Ridge

The Ridge by John Rector
Thomas & Mercer: 4/25/17
eBook review copy; 284 pages
ISBN-13: 9781503943933

The Ridge by John Rector is a recommended sort of sci fi, sort of domestic thriller, with a wee-little zombie undertone.

Megan and Tyler Stokes have moved from Chicago to Willow Ridge. Willow Ridge is middle-class employee housing for the Institute, a research center where Tyler now works, and is hundreds of miles from civilization. It's a planned community with four allowed house colors, open manicured lawns, and a Stepford-like vibe in the air. What Megan is really angry about is the neighbor across the street, Rachel Addison. Rachel has been flirting with Tyler, propositioning him, and Megan is not about to let that infraction stand. When she goes across the street to confront Rachel, Megan ends up throwing a tantrum and Rachel ends up dead - but maybe not. When Megan tells Tyler about the accident, he goes over to investigate and Rachel is there, answering the door.

Is Megan losing her mind? It seems like she must be because now she's noticing off behavior in others and it looks like Rachel might be entering the territory of the walking dead - that is until the clean-up crew comes late one night. It seems that neighbor David Mercer might have more information that he's kept hidden, but he is reluctant to openly talk about anything because he knows they are all being watched. What is really going on in Willow Ridge and at the Institute?

While The Ridge is basically well written and has a simple easy to follow narrative, it does suffer from a lack of real suspense and tension being created to make Megan's situation seem more dire and terrifying. You really end up feeling, at first, that she's losing her mind and the story is going to be her sinking into madness - unless the zombie-like Rachel was real or if Mercer's hidden information is legitimate. Megan also seems a little too excitable and eager to overshare her suspicions with people. Discretion doesn't seem to be a trait she exhibits. The creepiness factor is occasionally there, though, which helps some. The ending is interesting.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Thomas & Mercer.

The Ship

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell
Orbit: 4/25/17
eBook review copy; 336 pages
ISBN-13: 9780316469852

The Ship by Antonia Honeywell is a recommended YA dystopian coming-of-age novel.

It is the end of civilization. Lalage "Lalla" Paul has grown up in a future London where one act after another limits the registered citizens and controls the increasingly limited supplies. Plagues, viruses and the trashing of the environment have eliminated people and crops globally. People who aren't registered can be eliminated at any time. But none of the restrictions and limits seems to affect Lalla's life as the only child of a wealthy influential father, Michael, and her intelligent strong mother, Anna. They live in a comfortable flat with guards protecting them. While her father gathers supplies and worthy people for "The Ship" her mother tries to educate Lalla on past civilizations, culture, what the world once was, and compassion for others. 

On Lalla's 16th birthday, the increasing violence swirling around them has made her father decide it is time for them to leave for The Ship and put his survival plans into motion. Anna bulks and doesn't want to leave the land. She feels Lalla needs to learn more, but Lalla says she wants to go to this mysterious ship. A violent incident sets Michael's plan into motion.

The ship only has room and supplies for 500 people. British troops and a mob try to stop them, but they set out for sea. Soon it becomes clear that Michael wants control and obedience from the people in his utopia. As he instructs them to leave the past behind and consider him the "Father" of all the children, his actions take on a religious tone. Lalla is questioning everything about the endless supplies of food, her father's plan, and everyone's blind following of it. She wants to know when they will reach their destination and start a new life.

The Ship starts out strong in the creation of the dying world, but falls under too many pages and the sheer weight of Lalla's incessant teenage angst and, frankly, odd rebellious behavior. She's lived a very sheltered life compared to everyone else, but surely she should have noticed a bit more about what was happening on land than she apparently did. And she also should have noticed more about the ship than she did. Her love interest has as much depth as a cardboard cutout.

It becomes increasingly difficult to tolerate Lalla. As the plot and pace of the novel slow down, there is no extra character development or insights to keep your interest high and propel the plot forward. I couldn't help but think of Waterworld (don't judge) where they dove down to collect soil to grow things. One of my first thoughts was why didn't they at least try to get soil and grow things on the ship. It could be done. A lot of soil is covered up by buildings, etc. dig under them, get good soil.  Or, as other reviewers have pointed out, Lalla had some more options available in the long term, had she used her brains. The opening dystopian fall of society is worth an extra star, but the meat of the book is really so-so.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Orbit.

Monday, May 1, 2017

Vacation on Location, Midwest

Vacation on Location, Midwest by Joey Green
Chicago Review Press: 5/1/17
eBook review copy; 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9781613737255

Vacation on Location, Midwest: Explore the Sites Where Your Favorite Movies Were Filmed by Joey Green is the perfect vacation guide for film buffs. This is the Midwest edition, so one would hope other regional editions might be forthcoming, but this covers 40 popular films shot in 11 states. FYI, as you could likely guess, Chicago is a major location destination. Even if you aren't planning a vacation immediately to the sites, it is still going to be an interesting guide to where individual movies scenes were shot.

The organization of the book is a brief introduction and then consists of numbered scenes in the movie with addresses where it was filmed and a brief description. The numbers of the scenes are coordinated to numbered area on a map so you can find the location of the movie scene you are looking for.  If there are scenes that were shot elsewhere Green makes a note of it in boxed off "Shot Elsewhere" sections. The notes for each movie are followed by "Other Featured Attractions" a section that includes places where film sets or props (especially vehicles) can be seen. Green includes maps, photos and a bibliography.

Illinois: The Blues Brothers; The Breakfast Club; The Dark Knight; Ferris Bueller's Day off; The Fugitive; Groundhog Day; Home Alone; My Best Friend's Wedding; Planes, Trains, and Automobiles; Risky Business; The Untouchables
Indiana: Breaking Away; Hoosiers; A League of Their Own; Rudy
Iowa: The Bridges of Madison County; Children of the Corn; Field of Dreams; The Straight Story
Kansas: In Cold Blood; Paper Moon; Picnic
Michigan: Anatomy of a Murder; 8 Mile
Minnesota: Fargo; Grumpy Old Men; The Mighty Ducks; Purple Rain; A Simple Plan
Missouri: Escape from New York; Gone Girl; Up in the Air
Nebraska: Boys Town; Election; Nebraska
Ohio: The Avengers; A Christmas Story; The Deer Hunter; Rain Man; The Shawshank Redemption
South Dakota: Dances with Wolves; How the West Was Won; North by Northwest
Wisconsin: Back to School

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