Wednesday, September 30, 2020

13 1/2 Reasons Why NOT To Be A Liberal

13 1/2 Reasons Why NOT To Be A Liberal by Judd Dunning
10/6/20; 256 pages
Humanix Books

13 1/2 Reasons Why NOT To Be A Liberal: And How to Enlighten Others by Judd Dunning, with Eric Golub, is a very highly recommended guide to talking to any liberal.

Dunning has the facts, research, and all the information collected here to help you answer all the insults, accusations, lies, and unfounded assumptions that are constantly yelled out to those who are conservative. It truly is a must-read guide. You may know much of the information here, but it is wonderful to have a comprehensive guide all prepared for you that presents it in an organized, logical fashion. If you are tired of liberals yelling illogical and clueless things at you, this will help you reply with confidence and clarity using facts, reason, and logic. Dunning has everything organized, with Liberal arguments (or rants and lies) followed by the facts. There may be a movement to rewrite or erase history, but there are still plenty of us who do know our history and facts. (Although I have this review copy, I am buying my own hardcover copy.)

Chapter 1: Big Government Fails at (Almost) Everything - Republican Party Small Government Pro-Growth Platform
Chapter 2: Life Is Not Fair and People are Inherently Unequal- Free-Market Capitalism and Individual Liberty
Chapter 3: Big Green Elephant - Climate Change, Responsible Progress, and Real versus Junk Science

Chapter 4: You Are Not a Bigot - Colorblind Conservatism and the Myth of the GOP as Racist
Chapter 5: Justice Does Not Need an Adjective - Constitutionalism, Social Justice, and Special Rights
Chapter 6: Life Is Not a Safe Space - Free Speech versus Leftist Political Correctness
Chapter 7: American Exceptionalism Is Not a Hate - Patriotism, Excellence, and Gratitude
Chapter 8: Jews and Christians Don’t Blow Up Airlines - Judeo-Christian Values Are American Values

Chapter 9: Freedom Is Not Free, Might Does Make Right, and Reluctant Interventionism Is Just - Strong Military and Foreign Policy
Chapter 10: Guns for (Almost) Everyone - Criminals by Definition Do Not Obey Laws
Chapter 11: Every Nation Secures Its Borders - Immigration
Chapter 12: Violent Anarchic Mobs Are Bad - The Decline of Law, Order, and Civility

Chapter 13: Facts Trump Feelings and Deeds Trump Words - Results Trump Everything

PART V Bonus Chapter
Chapter 13½: Babies Are Beautiful and So Are Women’s Rights - Abortion
Conclusion: First Principles, Final Thoughts

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Humanix Books.

The Last Campaign

The Last Campaign by Martin L. Shoemaker
10/6/20; 320 pages

The Last Campaign by Martin L. Shoemaker is a highly recommended political thriller/murder mystery/procedural science fiction novel set on a Mars. This is a sequel to The Last Dance.

Rosalia Morais and Nicolau Aames are a couple who have established a life together in Maxwell City on Mars. The city is fast growing and with that crime is on the rise. When Rosie accepts the position as the first Sheriff of Maxwell City, she immediately begins to build a team and install in them a sense of responsibility and accountability, but can she get her team ready for arson, insurance fraud, political conspiracies, and murders? Suddenly Rosie has a murder and a huge mystery to solve that could affect the future of colonists on Mars.

Essentially The Last Campaign is a political thriller/procedural/mystery set on Mars. The science fiction aspects are basically the setting which put some limitations on actions and movements as they go through their daily lives on Mars and the background of the characters. It also feels in some ways like it is the story of a new Sheriff in town in the Old West, albeit a strong female Sheriff. But there are a whole lot of political machinations going on in this novel, so if you like political thrillers this may be a good choice for you. The interconnected cases are all tied into politics. The reelection shenanigans and muckraking reporter in the plot feel rather pertinent today.

The plot is solid, descriptive, and interesting. Descriptions of living on Mars are simply the background to the mystery. I haven't read the first book in the series, The Last Dance, which meant I was lacking some background stories and details that might have made my experience with the novel filled with a richer understanding of the characters and the colony. Personally, I didn't quite connect with the characters. Although they are developed, I didn't feel I knew them as well as people who read the first book. I also felt like the dialogue could have been written to flow more smoothly and in a realistic, conversational style.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of 47North.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Unrestricted Access

Unrestricted Access: New and Classic Short Fiction by James Rollins
9/29/20; 416 pages

Unrestricted Access: New and Classic Short Fiction by James Rollins is a very highly recommended collection of twelve short stories. Eleven were previously published and one is a new novella featuring Captain Tucker Wayne and his military war dog, Kane. In between the stories Rollins explains how and why the story came about and where it was previously published.  This is a collection that fans will enjoy.

Contents include:
Kowalski’s in Love: A Sigma Force story featuring Joe Kowalski and a perfect start to the collection.
The Skeleton Key: A Sigma Force story featuring Seichan.
The Midnight Watch: Sigma Force story featuring Painter Crowe, Jason Carter, and Joe Kowalski
Ghost Ship: A sigma Force story featuring Gray Pierce and Seichan on vacation.
Crash and Burn: A Sigma Force story featuring Seichan, Kowalski,
Tracker: A Captain Wayne Tucker and Kane story
The Devil’s Bones: Commander Gray Pierce and Cotton Malone must work together using their unique skills to survive a deadly threat. A joint story from Rollins and Steve Berry
City of Screams: An Order of the Sanguines story featuring Sergeant Jordan Stone and written with Rebecca Cantrell.
Blood Brothers An Order of the Sanguines story featuring Arthur Crane written with Rebecca Cantrell.
Tagger: A pair of teenagers need to protect San Francisco from a demon.
The Pit: A young dog is stolen and turned into a fighter. (Warning, you may cry.)
Sun Dogs: New novella with Wayne Tucker and Kane that shows " how grief is etched in bone and sacrifice is never forgotten."

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.


Jack by Marilynne Robinson
9/29/20; 320 pages
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Gilead Series #4

Jack by Marilynne Robinson is a highly recommended introspective novel and is the fourth novel in her Gilead series.

John Ames Boughton(Jack) is the prodigal son of Gilead, Iowa's Presbyterian minister who is currently living in St. Louis, Missouri. Jack is the story of his relationship and romance with Della Miles, a high school teacher who is the daughter of a Methodist minister in Memphis. This is the story of when the two met before Jack's 1957 return to Gilead. It is the 1950's and this is the story of the beginning of their interracial relationship, which is intense and deeply felt. The two bonded on their shared experiences and love of books and poetry and their discussion of faith. The novel opens after their disastrous first date and then continues to a lengthy section of a night the two spend talking in a cemetery

One doesn't need to have read the previous Gilead novels in order to appreciate Jack. This is a wonderfully written and carefully crafted "meditation on the redemption and transcendence that love affords." The narrative consists of the inner thoughts and pondering of Jack. The timeline is not completely linear as it jumps back in time to explain and give more information on previous events. There are times in the novel where Jack's inner turmoil and musings can become a bit tiresome and repetitious. These sharply contrast with the time when Jack is charming and thoughtful. I did repeatedly want to ask Della why she is so attracted to him and determined to have a relationship with Jack.

Ultimately this is a love story of a very flawed man to a good woman. The two are determined to be together, like any star-crossed lovers. The story excels based on the depth that Robinson gives Jack's inner dialogue and the insight and discernment about his many flaws in light of all of Della's good traits.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The Exiles

The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline
8/25/20; 384 pages

The Exiles by Christina Baker Kline is a highly recommended historical novel which follows three women in nineteenth-century Australia.

Evangeline, a young governess in London, is sent to the notorious Newgate Prison when her pregnancy is discovered. After several months in jail, she is sentenced to being deported to Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony in Australia. During the journey Evangeline strikes up a friendship with Hazel, a girl who was sentenced for stealing a silver spoon. Hazel happens to be a midwife and herbalist, which is good because Evangeline's baby will be born on the journey.

In Australia, the British government in the 1840s has been forcibly relocating the native inhabitants and seizing their land. One of these relocated people is Mathinna, the orphaned daughter of the Chief of the Lowreenne tribe, who has been adopted by the new governor of Van Diemen’s Land.

The Exiles documents and recreates the beginnings of Australia from a modern perspective. The writing, based on her exhaustive research, is excellent. She does capture the opportunity and freedom that Australia offers while following the hardships and trials of her characters, although the bulk of the novel is the research, starting with the brutal sentencing for crimes during that time period and on to the colonization. While she does not romanticize the time period, readers new to the historical background presented will likely be more entrenched in the novel than those of us who know the history and background of Australia and are looking for a strong plot and well-developed characters.

Chapters alternate between the stories of Evangeline, Hazel, and Mathinna, following their lives and fates. The Evangeline and Hazel chapters are more compelling than the Mathinna ones, but it is understandable why the inclusion of her character made sense for the book.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.

The review will be posted on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Book of Two Ways

The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult
9/22/20; 432 pages
Penguin Random House  

The Book of Two Ways by Jodi Picoult is a highly recommended novel about the choices we make and the regrets in life, along with two possible futures.

Dawn Edelstein is on a plane when it is announced that passengers need to prepare for a crash landing. Dawn, who has been married to Brian for fifteen years, thinks not of her husband, but of Wyatt Armstrong, her first love. She last saw him fifteen years ago in Egypt on an archaeological dig site where the two were working. Doubts are suddenly raised that she should be with Wyatt.

In her current life she and Brian have a fifteen year old daughter, Meret, and she would have said they have a good life. Brian is a physics professor and Dawn is working as a death doula, where she helps those who are dying. But she still wonders what her life would have been if she hadn't had to rush back to the states for her dying mother. What if she had returned to Egypt and Wyatt and got her PhD in Egyptology? What if fate is offering her a second chance?

The novel consists of two possible futures narrative and follows those timelines. The first option is for Dawn to stay with her family and continue on with the life they have together. The second would be to return to Egypt, Wyatt, and the archaeological dig site she was working at to continue her research on the Egyptian The Book of Two Ways, which is a map of the afterlife. Then, on the two timelines the novel explores the question what does a life well lived look like? Dawn, who as a death doula helps ease people into their death has been immersed in this question since she was first first studying The Book of Two Ways.

Obviously, Picoult is an accomplished writer so the quality of the writing is excellent. If there are any faults in The Book of Two Ways it is the overabundance of information about Egyptology. She inundates the readers with facts and figures and timelines, which is all interesting, but a little goes a long way. This is combined with too much additional information about what a death doula does and stories about helping people die. I'm not sure if it is the overwhelming stressors of the current year, but it was all a bit too much. Even the choices and regrets Dawn suddenly is faced with in regards to her life while looking at her current life with Brian and her previous relationship with Wyatt is enough of a complicated, emotionally complicated examination.

Characters are well-developed and they all have strengths and flaws in their depiction. It is a character driven novel, though, and clearly makes the point that there are often no good, perfect choices in life. This is a novel about the Egyptian Book of Two Ways and a person's life regarding two different paths that her life could have taken.

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

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Girls of Brackenhill

Girls of Brackenhill by Kate Moretti
11/1/20/332 pages
Thomas & Mercer

Girls of Brackenhill by Kate Moretti is a highly recommended Gothic thriller wrapped around an old mystery.

When Hannah Maloney’s Aunt Fae dies in a car accident she must return to Fae's home in the Catskills, the castle on Brackenhill. Her Uncle Stuart is bedridden and dying from cancer and there are no other living relatives. Hannah and her older sister Julia spent several summers growing up at Brackenhill. All of that changed the summer her older sister Julia disappeared. Her sister's death was never proven and Hannah believes Julia ran away. She hasn't seen her aunt for seventeen years - not since Julia disappeared.

Hannah and her fiancé Huck travel to the castle where they learn that Fae has died from her injuries. Now Hannah must plan a memorial, find some placement for Stuart, but most of all she must face the events from seventeen years ago. When their dog digs up a bone that is human, it must be determined if it belonged to Julia or to another girl who disappeared. This brings Hannah's first boyfriend back into her life, police officer Wyatt McCarran.

There is a spooky, haunted atmosphere to this Gothic thriller, along with ties to the supernatural. As Hannah recalls past events, she begins looking into people and the past, trying to come to some realization of what happened. At the same time, she is starting to experience disturbing dreams and episodes of sleepwalking, things that haven't plagued her since she was last at Brackenhill. This, naturally, raises the spookiness factor, along with her memories of basement rooms that move and noises in the night.

Hannah is really the main character and the only, truly well-developed one, but she also becomes more unreliable as the story progresses and you will begin to have a hint that she may not be telling us the whole story or she may not be remembering things correctly.  What you will realize is that she is becoming obsessed with events from her past.

Moretti uses Hannah's flashback and memories to effectively heighten the tension and ratchet up the suspense. Is something evil lurking or is it all imagination or perhaps a person involved? There are plenty of questions and potential suspects along the way. And when Stuart, who is basically uncommunicative, mutters a few words, it sets Hannah on a quest to uncover the truth about the past and to try and figure out who her aunt really was and what happened to Julia.

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

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Cursed Objects

Cursed Objects by J. W. Ocker
9/15/20; 272 pages;
Quirk Books

Cursed Objects: Strange but True Stories of the World's Most Infamous Items by J. W. Ocker is a highly recommended look at several cursed items which are explained and described in an informative and sometimes hilarious way.

Ocker makes it clear in the introduction that you don't have to believe in cursed objects to be interested in the stories surrounding them because a large part of the curses are the stories and tragedies that surround the various objects. The stories are what gave then the reputation of being cursed and the curses are remembered through the retelling of the stories.  There are so many cursed items around the world that Ocker chose the objects for this book as follows: "Could I inadvertently pick it up at a flea market or an antiques store and bring it into my home? or Could I brush up against it in a museum and be forever damned? And, with a handful of notable exceptions, that’s exactly what is included in this book."

Included with the scary stories surrounding the objects and their curses are witty, funny, and irreverent remarks that help lighten the mood, which some of us might need after reading about many cursed objects. Objects are divided up into seven different categories. The book includes illustrations of various objects, a selected bibliography and index. (The illustrations are very nice, but I couldn't help but want pictures of the objects.)

Contents include:
I. Cursed Under Glass: The Hope Diamond;  Ötzi the Iceman;  M-Aori Taonga; The Tomb of Tutakhamen; Muramasa Swords; The Unlucky Mummy; The Ring of Silvianus
II. Cursed in the Graveyard: The Black Aggie; The Bjorketorp Runestone; The Tomb of Timur; The Black Angel;The Gravestone of Carl Pruitt; The Bronze Lady; Shakespeare's Grave
III. Cursed in the Attic: The Crying Boy Paintings; The Baleroy Chair of Death; The Dybbuk Box; The Basano Vase; Rudolph Valentino's Ring; Robert the Doll; Busby's Stoop Chair; The Conjured Chest
IV. Cursed in Stone: The Little Mannie with his Daddy's Horns; The Cursing Stone; The monogram of Patrick Hamilton; The Cursed Pillar; The Hexham Heads; The Amber Room; The Treasure of Cahuenga Pass
V. The Business of Cursed Objects: Annabelle the Doll and the Warren Collection; John Zaffis Museum of the Paranormal; Zak Bagans's The Haunted Museum; The Traveling Museum of the
Paranormal and Occult; Cursed on Ebay
VI. Why Aren’t These Objects Cursed?: The Mummified Head of the Dusseldorf Vampire; The Mitchell-Hedges Crystall Skull; The Miniature Coffins of Arthur's Seat; The Skin Book of James Allen; The Antikythera Mechanism
VII. The Curse in the Machine: The Prague Orloj; The Hungarian Suicide Song; James Dean's Porsche 550 Spyder; 0888-888-888; The Berzerk Video Game Cabinet; Chain Emails
Plus there are extra chapters included in each section

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Quirk Books.


Plague by Julie Anderson
9/15/20; 290 pages
Claret Press

Plague by Julie Anderson is a recommended procedural mixed with a love story.

Cassandra (Cassie) Fortune is one of the attendees visiting the site where an ancient plague pit was discovered during work on a London tube line. A sudden collapse reveals another room with a body that is obviously a recent corpse. Then, a day later another body is discovered, killed in the same way, and also in a plague pit. This victim is linked to the Palace of Westminster, where rumors swirl around the Prime Minister and his rivals. Cassie, who is a civil servant trying to recover from an incident that left her in disgrace, is assigned by the Deputy Prime Minister to shadow Detective Inspector Andrew Rowlands who is investigating the case and is sure it is tied to previous deaths. Cassie and Rowlands begin to work together and uncover clues in the case. To make matters more complicated due to the deaths and the ties to a plague pit, the media is inciting fear and there are riots breaking out.

This is both a whodunnit and a love story, although the investigation into the murders and the reason behind them is much more interesting and compelling a plot element than the love story, which seems a bit out of place, way too rushed, and too convenience for the plot. Setting all aspects of romance aside, the actual details and pattern of the murders and rapes of victims is exposed and the case is clearly made that there is a definite ring of people involved in the murders. They need to uncover why these people are doing this, for what purpose, and who is involved. The fact that the media gets involved indicates someone is using them and leaking information to distract people and change the narrative and focus. The characters are interesting although not particularly well-developed. Cassie's disgrace is never revealed.

The plague and plague pits are only a distraction to the real plague of murders occurring. I was a little disappointed that during this time of plague that this wasn't a real plague story, but once the plot got moving it was clear Plague was going to be a complicated tangled web of evil actions which needed to be uncovered in order to stop the plague of murders and, quite frankly, torture of the victims by those in power. The description of all the sewer tunnels, rooms, and hidden rivers, etc. underground in London was fascinating and I may have to look for a book on that. (I want to see the maps.) This is a very good mystery/procedural that was diminished by the whole love story which made no sense.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Claret Press.

Don't Look for Me

Don't Look for Me by Wendy Walker
9/15/20; 352 pages
St. Martin's Publishing Group

Don't Look for Me by Wendy Walker is a very highly recommended psychological thriller

During a raging storm Molly Clarke's car is found abandoned with her phone inside. A note is found at a nearby hotel. The authorities are calling it a walk away - just a woman who left her family and life to start over somewhere else. And, as it is has been five years since Annie, her youngest daughter, died, she had reasons to leave her life behind. But the night Molly disappeared her car needed gas, the gas station was closed due to the storm, so she started walking toward the nearest town. When a man and his daughter offered Molly a ride to town, she was grateful to accept his offer. Once inside the car, when the doors locked, Molly realizes that she made a terrible mistake.

Molly's twenty-one-year-old daughter, Nicole, is still looking for her mom and returns to the small town where she disappeared two weeks earlier when a woman calls with new information. It seems that everyone is helpful, until Nicole starts to uncover secrets, like another woman who disappeared, and connections in the town.

The chapters alternate between the point-of-view of Molly and Nicole. Molly's perspective informs us where she is and what is happening to her. She has to be resourceful and clever to survive her predicament as she tries to understand why she was chosen and what is expected of her. We understand that she is full of guilt and she and her family is still mourning Annie's death. Molly's chapters tell the backstory. Nicole's chapters follow her search for the truth. She knows her relationship with her mom has been contentious and full of tension, but she has never shared all the reasons why she feels that way.

This is an absolutely compelling, twisty psychological thriller. Yes, it is a nail-biter that will keep you up all night, with a plot that will adroitly play with all your emotions, but it is also a nuanced psychological portrait of a family in mourning that is suddenly faced with another crisis and an examination of a complex mother/daughter relationship. The characters are well-developed and portrayed as flawed individuals struggling with their own dilemmas and the side of the situation they are experiencing. There are suspects but you likely won't guess exactly what is going on until the end. The clues were there, but so cleverly woven into the plot that the final denouement will absolutely shock you.

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

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Anxious People

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
Atria: 9/8/20
review copy; 352 page

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman is a very highly recommended about a bank robber and a hostage situation - only it isn't. It is a poignant, charming novel about idiots, connections, coincidence, parents, relationships, anxiety, death, life, love, and more. I loved this novel! One of the best books of the year!

A would-be bank robber runs out of the bank, across the street, into an apartment open house, and inadvertently takes eight strangers hostage. The hostages include Roger and Anna-Lenna, an older couple who buy and flip apartments; Julia and Ro, a pregnant first-time home-buying lesbian couple; Zara, a wealthy bank director; Estelle, an eighty-seven-year-old woman, the real estate agent, and a surprise guest locked in the bathroom. When the hostages are released, the bank robber appears to have somehow disappeared, leaving a pool of blood behind. The police team are father and son, Jack and Jim, are interviewing the impossible group of hostages who are all anxious, impossible to get straight answers from, and, well, idiots.  They are the worst group of hostages in the world for the failed bank robber, but no one is exactly who they seem to be and all of them need to be rescued in some way.

I loved Anxious People by Fredrik Backman. I love everything about this novel. Every. Single. Thing. Backman has the ability to tell his story but include all manner of other observations and reflections about... everything. And then he includes a thought that will knock the breath out of you. There is no other author who can have me gaffawing, giggling, shaking my head in agreement over something (probably in regards to Stockholm or Stockholmers), and then sobbing - all on one page of text. There is an unsurpassed understanding and insight into human nature present in everything Backman writes. What other author can include so many truisms that reach the very core of your thoughts? (For example: Hand on heart, which of us hasn’t wanted to pull a gun after talking to a twenty-year-old? - which I found especially funny but that is based on my real life.)

There is a plot, but it is a meandering reveal of so many tangents, connections, and unexpected information that will take the whole narrative to reach the end and pull it all together. It all does reach a perfect ending. In between chapters that tell the story of the hostage situation are excerpts from the police interviews with the hostages. All the characters are wonderful in their own way. Yes, they are impossible, but they are also all too human. He does develop them, in his own special way as the plot evolves. This is most certainly one of the best books of 2020!

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Atria.


Creativity by John Cleese
Penguin Random House: 9/8/20
review copy; 112 pages

Creativity: A Short and Cheerful Guide by John Cleese is a highly recommended accessible and brief guide on developing creativity.

John Cleese shares his key ideas about creativity: that it’s a learnable, improvable skill. He makes it clear that "you can teach creativity. Or perhaps I should say, more accurately, you can teach people how to create circumstances in which they will become creative. And that’s what this little book is all about." It is a short, amusing, practical guide with encouraging advice to those who are interested in finding ways and techniques to increase their creativity. He includes some anecdotes from his own career.

The first suggestion, to allow your conscious and unconscious mind both work on the creative process. While your conscious mind can do much, your subconscious can often show you the resolution to a problem that has stymied your project. He also summarized Guy Glaxton’s Hare Brain, Tortoise Mind which suggests using quick, purposeful thinking with ruminating about a problem. The last section of the book is a collection of truisms that we may have all heard, but should be brought back to the forefront of your mind. Many of his observations may seem straightforward, his presentation and summary of the creative process makes his advice palatable and appealing.  This truly is a short and cheerful guide.

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

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini
Tor/Forge: 9/15/20
review excerpt; est. 220 of 880 pages

To Sleep in a Sea of Stars by Christopher Paolini is a highly recommended science fiction space opera - based on a excerpt.

Kira Navárez, a xenobiologist,is on a routine survey mission with a small team of other scientists when she finds what indicates an alien civilization. When the alien dust begins to move and encase her, she loses consciousness. Later, when she wakes up after her rescue and time spent in recovery, she seems to be fine, but a horrific incident makes it clear that an alien organism has bonded to her body, forming a second skin. When she feels threatened and the need to protect herself now, spikes will jump out from her skin stabbing anyone around her. Kira needs to learn how to control the suits power and perhaps use it to help humanity.

The main drawback to reviewing To Sleep in a Sea of Stars is that I was provided with an excerpt of about the first quarter of the novel. This allows me to get a sense of where the story may be going and the opportunity to develop a theory about the narrative. Over the many years I've been reviewing books there have been numerous books where the ending has totally change my rating, so being provided with only the first part of the story only allows me to determine if I would keep reading the novel or not. I would keep reading. Paolini's novel has the start of a great science fiction space opera. I hope to finish reading the story someday.

Now, that is not to say the section provided is perfect. Prose is still a problem and doesn't always flow smoothly and he also doesn't quite pull off writing as a female lead. Now, why I would have kept reading the novel if I were able is that the storytelling and world building is compelling. I think the drama, excitement and the plot will likely overcome some of those awkward points, but I can't know for sure.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Tor/Forge.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

One by One

One by One by Ruth Ware
Gallery/Scout Press: 9/8/20
review copy; 384 pages

One by One by Ruth Ware is a highly recommended psychological thriller set at a snow-covered retreat.

The social media company Snoop is holding a corporate retreat for nine, shareholders and team members, at a luxurious, rustic ski chalet in the French Alps. The weather is looking ominous and it looks like they will be snowed in, but there is a full-service chef, Danny, and housekeeper, Erin, on site so they will be taken care of even if skiing is not an option. Erin and Danny can tell immediately that the atmosphere is tense. The company is being offered a major buyout. Co-founders of Snoop, Topher and Eva, are on opposites sides. Other shareholders fall into both sides of the decision. The deciding vote will be from Liz. She no longer works there but has a small share of the stocks. The night they arrive, Eva ups the ante and adds an unplanned presentation to the agenda, pushing for the buyout.

The next day skiing is only possible in the morning, so everyone hits the slopes. When they return, one person is missing and the storm intensifies. Then an avalanche damages the building and leaves the group cut off from the outside world. It becomes clear that help is not going to arrive soon and the group must wait for help as the members dwindle one by one. This is a riveting, updated version of And Then There Were None.

Chapters alternate between the different points-of-view of Erin and Liz. As the housekeeper/server, Erin is able to observe and listen to the guests. She has some insight into what is going on and how the others are all reacting to it. Liz is a very socially awkward person who no longer works there, but has 2 shares of the company and will be the deciding vote to sell or not. The other guests are quite frankly a group of insufferable, wealthy, entitled bores who are taking sides and planning their next moves. Their characters are slowly developed while the action unfolds. This is a classic tension filled waiting game where first one guest disappears and then another dies and then. You'll be following it closely for clues and hints on who will be next and who is responsible.

The writing is great in this adaptation and I felt the tension increasing incrementally with each chapter and each new revelation or suspicion. Ware does a wonderful job setting up the plot and guiding us through the mystery. There is a whole roomful of characters, but you can get them sorted out along the way. The plot moved along quickly once the set up was over and I was glued to the pages from start to finish. There were a few missteps, but nothing major that will detract from your enjoyment of the narrative.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of Gallery/Scout Press.

Dear Ann

Dear Ann by Bobbie Ann Mason
HarperCollins: 9/8/20
review copy; 352 pages

Dear Ann by Bobbie Ann Mason is a recommended, maybe, novel where a woman re-imagines her life and her first love.

Ann Workman is on a cruise ship with her dying husband, looking back at her life, her first love, and the choices she made. She re-imagines her life from the perspective if she had listened to her college mentor, Albert, and went from rural Kentucky to California to attend graduate school at Stanford in the 1960s. Ann not only desires a PhD she is yearning for a boyfriend. Then Jimmy, her first boyfriend appears in her California experience. This is during the time of the Vietnam War and the country is in turmoil, but especially California which is the apex of the counter culture and protests.

This is a quintessential the-road-not-taken novel. Dear Ann is without a question beautifully written, but there are some imperfections that are difficult to overlook. The look back at what might have happened if Ann went to Palo Alto, California, in the sixties is flawed. Would all the free love, LSD, pot, and the new Beatles album have made a profound difference in her life were it experienced in California? Would it have made a difference if she met Jimmy in California? The transitions from the present to the re-imagined past, with the present reappearing occasionally, feels awkward. There are details that are more reflective of someone leaving home. The letters her mother writes to her about things happening on the family farm in Kentucky are a good touch and feel realistic. The fifty-year-old letters from Albert seem less likely to have been kept.

The characters are written more as caricatures of stereotypes representing different points-of-view found in the sixties. They are all lacking emotional depth. Many of the daily experiences the characters go through seem insignificant. They are generally indicative of the setting or the times, but less important to any advancement of the plot. While this is a love gained and lost story, it also strives to be a historical novel set in the tumultuous sixties in California. In the final analysis, I didn't really care about Ann and her musings over what might-have-been-if-only. Perhaps if the novel had been just a reflection of her looking back at her first love and left out the whole California experience it would have resonated with me more.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins.


Monogamy by Sue Miller
HarperCollins: 9/8/20
review copy; 352 pages

Monogamy by Sue Miller is a highly recommended character-driven domestic drama about marriage, love, family, happiness and sorrow.

Graham and Annie McFarlane have been married for nearly thirty years. They were both married previously but now their long and devoted relationship is well known and admired by friends. Graham is a big, outgoing bookstore owner whose gregarious nature is an essential part of his personality. In contrast Annie is small, reserved, introspective photographer. Just as she is preparing for her first gallery show in six years, Graham suddenly dies. Annie is mourning him and wondering how she can go on when she finds out he was having an affair which he ended just before his death. Annie is heartbroken, but feeling betrayed over his unfaithfulness. She thought their marriage was strong and that she was the love of Graham's life, so how could he have an affair? How could he be unfaithful to her?

This is a character-driven novel so we are provided with insight into Graham, Annie, Frieda (Graham's first wife and Annie's friend) and their two adult children, Lucas and Sarah. We meet Annie and Graham when they first met and started their relationship. Then the novel jumps ahead in time. The readers learn of Graham's affair and know about it long before Annie, so when he dies and Annie is drowning in grief, it creates a tension of what is left unsaid. When she learns of the affair, the novel changes. There is still grief, but also anger that she needs to suppress and hide from their children and others. The novel becomes much more thoughtful after Annie learns of the affair and begins to question their whole life together.

As expected the quality of the writing is excellent. She handles descriptions with a lyrical, poetic writing style. Miller delivers in this character-driven drama, covering both the realistic characters and depicting the inner working of their lives. The novel progresses with multiple layers of complexities, introspection, memories, and inner turmoil.  Those who have experienced a loss of someone close to them will understand the characters. Ultimately the question is how well do we really know those we love?

There are a few issues. First, for me, neither Graham nor Annie are all that appealing as characters and I really wondered if I wanted to read it. After his death, the novel begins to deal with some real issues and insight into the characters. Then the novel begins to drone on a bit too long and becomes tiresome. It's a very good novel, but it could have used some editing.

Disclosure: My review copy was courtesy of HarperCollins

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

One Step Behind

One Step Behind by Lauren North
Penguin Random House: 9/1/20
review copy; 368 pages

One Step Behind by Lauren North is a recommended stalker story of psychological suspense.

Jenna Lawson is a doctor, wife, and mother. For over a year she has been the ongoing victim of stalker who keeps leaving her frightening gifts. She can feel herself being watched and has sighted her stalker several times. Jenna is at a breaking point. She is barely sleeping and is on edge and wary all the time. She immediately reports all the incidences to the police, but they haven't been able to find the culprit. When a man is brought into the emergency room where Jenna works, she immediately recognizes him as her stalker. He is put into a medically induced coma and Jenna can't help herself, she looks at his phone. On it she finds images of her and her kids as well as another mother who she knows.

Inserted into the main story line are chapters about a personal trainer, Sophie, who is worried about her brother, Matthew. The two shared a difficult childhood. These chapters go back in time to when her parents first adopted Matthew and when Sophie was always admonished to take care of her brother. This seems to be the ongoing theme of their adult lives too, but Sophie is tired of taking care of Matthew and living with her overbearing controlling boyfriend. 

North does depict the increasingly poor decisions Jenna is making due to the stress and paranoia she is experiencing. You do begin to wonder briefly if she is doing this to herself.  But then it becomes more clear that, while the main characters are well-developed, they also all seem to be troubled and, well, become annoying after a while. After several chapters they begin to grate on your nerves. I pressed on because it's a stalker story and I wanted to get to the twist that had to be coming. The twist came, but it wasn't quite as satisfying as I was hoping.

Basically, though, the writing is good. North is a writer to watch in the future. She did a good job increasing the tension and suspense, although the novel did go on a bit too long. In the future more care needs to be taken before adding a few plot points that were improbable and simply couldn't happen. 

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


Daddy: Stories by Emma Cline
Penguin Random House: 9/1/20
review copy; 288 pages

Daddy: Stories by Emma Cline is a highly recommended collection of ten perceptive and thoughtful short stories that explore different facets of the human condition. The writing is quite good in this collection of universally depressing stories that explore the darkness and desperation under the surface in many lives. These stories are subtle glimpses into a character's life, past or present, and several seem to be a random slice of a moment in someone's life. Many of the stories are about the disappointments of men. The characters are complex and facing some crisis in their lives. As with all collections, some are more successful than others but all-in-all this is a very solid collection and does well to highlight Cline's talent and versatility.

Contents include:
1. What Can You Do with a General:  A father reflects on his family and their interactions past and present when all his children are home for Christmas.
2. Los Angeles: A young sales woman who wants to be an actress ponders her job and what she does to make a little extra cash.
3. Menlo Park: A man works as an editor for a billionaire who has had a ghost writer pen his biography.
4. Son of Friedman: An aging director man meets an old friend and actor who is his son's godfather before they attend the premiere of his son's first movie.
5. The Nanny: A young woman (and former nanny) is hiding from the paparazzi after her affair with an actor is discovered.
6. Arcadia: A young man lives with his pregnant partner and her brother on their working orchard, but knows they should move.
7. Northeast Regional: A man has to travel up to his son's boarding school due to a serious problem.
8. Marion: A woman recalls staying with her first friend on her family's family ranch and the boundaries her older friend pushed.
9. Mack the Knife: A man meets two old friends at a restaurant where he ponders his life and thinks of his ex.
10. A/S/L: Two women are clientele at a wellness/pre-rehab clinic when a famous male celebrity arrives for a stay.
There is one wonderful description that I had to highlight from "A/S/L" that made me laugh-out-loud: "It seemed like a book for people who hated books."

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