Friday, August 31, 2012

11/22/63

11/22/63
By Stephen King
Scribner, 2011. 880 pgs. Fiction

The title of Stephen King’s most recent novel, 11/22/63, promises historical fiction, but what he actually delivers is a remarkable time-travel book. The feeling of the early 60’s permeates the atmosphere, but so does the feeling of ‘otherness’ that only a sci-fi work can bring. The protagonist, Jake Epping, is your average mid-40s bachelor, until a mystery involving a cheap hamburger brings him through a hole in time and into 1958. The natural conclusion is then, of course, to try to save J.F.K. However, the actual scheme only takes up a small amount of page-time; most of the novel is devoted to the characters and relationships between the time-traveler and the 1960’s-rooted cast.

 You do not have to be a King fan to enjoy this work, in fact, it is so little like his other works that I would hesitate recommending it to a life-long fan. Simply put, this is an excellent story. It is a story so enjoyable that the reader hardly notices the 880 page behemoth fly by. Highly recommended summer reading.

JM

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Among Others

Among Others
by Jo Walton
Tor, 2010. 302 pgs. Fiction

Among Others  has already won the Nebula Award and is nominated for the Hugo, obviously a prime piece of speculative real estate.  Even though the book is to some degree about magic and fairies, Morwenna Phelps, the fifteen year old diarist of these pages, is besotted with science fiction. Growing up in the hills of Wales, Mor and her sister often saw and spoke (sort of) with the fairies who favored ruined and overgrown buildings and factories. Mor's own mother is a witch, and not a kindly one. Mor and her twin sister are forced at an early age to battle her to save, probably, the earth. Mor's sister is killed, and Mor is crippled. When she is sent to live with her father, whom she has never met, and his creepy sisters, and then on to a boarding school with a mean-spirited studentbody, Mor finds solace in books--books, books, and more books. (Interlibrary loan is one of the "heroes" of this text.) After Mor uses the tiniest bit of magic to find some friends, her mother finds her and their eventual confrontation leads to a life-affirming, even brilliant, choice by a young girl wise beyond her years. Though Morwenna is a teen, a few references to sexual situations make this book a best choice for older teens or adults.

LW

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Throne of Glass

Throne of Glass
By Sarah J. Maas
Bloomsbury, 2012. 406 pgs. Young Adult

Celeana was once Adarlan's Assassin, the best assassin in the country, but after she was betrayed, the king sentenced her to work in the Endovier salt mines, where most people die in a matter of months. Celeana has managed to survive a year, when the Crown Prince, Dorian, and the Captain of the Guard, Chaol, show up to make her an offer. The king is hosting a contest to find his champion; the winner will have to do his bidding for four years, but after that, will be free. Desperate to be free, Celeana agrees to be the prince's contestant, but when she gets to the castle and begins her training, she finds herself dealing not only with the other competitors but some sort of monster that is brutally killing off contestants. And although the king has banished magic, Celeana finds magical symbols, a secret passage way, and has dreams of a long-dead queen who doesn't seem quite as distant as a dead person should be.

I really liked the action, adventure, and world-building in this book, as well as Celeana and the supporting characters. One thing I didn't like is that there's a bit of a love triangle and Celeana picks the wrong guy! If she straightens that out in the next book, though, I'm sure I'll love the series. It's a great pick for fantasy fans.

AE

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Absent One

The Absent One
by Jussi Adler-Olsen, translated by K. E. Semmel
Dutton, 2012. 406 pgs. Mystery.

Among the pots and pots of high-quality, austere, noirish Scandinavian mysteries on the shelves these days, how many would you describe as funny?  Jussi Adler-Olsen's Department Q mysteries are that rare exception, murderous stories set in Denmark that use comic relief like Shakespeare did, to provide counterpoint to the darkness of, in this case, a series of particularly sadistic criminal acts perpetrated by a gang of boarding school friends who have become rich and famous, but not the less cruel through the years. Carl Morck, long-suffering and jaded head of the cold-case department, is goosed along by two unlikely assistants:  Assad, the open-hearted but mysterious emigre from the Middle East, and Rose, the annoying new girl with the braying laugh and the blinding competence. Together the three take on the long unsolved case of a brother and sister murdered and humiliated in death by their attackers. Multiple points of view ratchet up the tension as the wicked and the mostly just dance their terrible dance of revelation and concealment.  As with most Scandinavian mysteries, this one is filled with brutality and occasional graphic sex. Certainly not for the faint of heart or stomach, but a terrific book to close out the summer reading season. (See also Adler-Olsen's first Department Q mystery, Keeper of Lost Causes.)

LW



Monday, August 27, 2012

Gone Girl


By Gillian Flynn
Crown, 2012.  419 pgs.  Mystery

On the morning of their five-year wedding anniversary, Nick’s beautiful and brilliant wife, Amy, disappears from their beautiful mansion on the Mississippi River.  Signs of a struggle seem to be the only clues left, and the police have little to go on as a search begins in earnest. Nick is desperate to find her and to become the husband he knows she deserves.  Amy speaks from a journal chronicling their idyllic courtship and early years of marriage. What follows is a terrifying look at the impact the media can have on the direction of an investigation. Everyone knows the husband is often guilty and Nick has many secrets. Then again, so does Amy.

This is a psychological thriller of the highest order. Flynn presents characters you love to hate and hate to leave behind with the turning of that final page. Be prepared for some strong language and know that if you pick it up, you won’t want to put it down as you uncover the truth beneath the many layers of lies.

CZ

The Chaperone


By Laura Moriarty
Riverhead Books, 2012.  371 pgs. Fiction

In the summer of 1922, Cora Carlisle has just sent her two boys off for a work experience in the country in Laura Moriarty’s “The Chaperone.” Without a lot to occupy her time she jumps at the chance to spend a few weeks in New York City as the chaperone to a feisty young woman, Louise Brooks, who has been accepted to a prestigious dancing school. Louise is on the brink of a brilliant career and Cora is on a mission to uncover her past. Both will come to consider these few hot weeks in the city as a turning point in their lives as they each discover important truths about themselves and each other.

Based on the true story of silent film star, Louise Brooks, “The Chaperone” provides a vibrant look at an America just pulling itself out of a depression. Louise and Cora’s stories, besides being extremely fascinating, perfectly demonstrate the changing roles of women in the 1920s.  My only complaint with this enjoyable historical novel is that at times the author seems to let issues eclipse the stories. Besides that, Moriarty has given a superbly rendered novel.

CZ

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Shadow of Night

Shadow of Night
By Deborah Harkness
Viking, 2012. 577 pgs. Fiction

In book two of the ‘All Souls Trilogy’, Dina, a witch with more power than she can control, and Matthew, her mysterious vampire husband, have been transported to Elizabethan England. Their mission is to find someone who can assist Dina in harnessing her powers and, if possible, to also locate an ancient book that may hold the answers to their question and the key to their future happiness. A quest that they hoped would only take a few weeks stretches to months as both a witch tutor and the mysterious text prove frustratingly illusive.

I think I liked this volume as much, if not more, than the first one. As with ‘Discovery of Witches’, I’m not sure the story warrants the length, but it was still enjoyable. I grew to like the characters more and became a bit more invested in their fight against the dark forces. Hopefully the third and final installment in the trilogy provides adequate adventure and closure.

CZ

Definitely Not Mr. Darcy

Definitely Not Mr. Darcy

By Karen Doornebos
Berkley Books, 2011. 374 pgs. Romance

Chloe, the divorced mother of an inquisitive eight-year-old, is almost at the end of her financial rope. Her custom stationary business is about to go under and her ex-husband is gearing up for an expensive custody battle. Fortunately, she has been cast in a documentary/reality show recreating, in extreme detail, Jane Austen’s England. Having been an avid Austen fan her entire life, Chloe feels her chances of winning the $100,000 in prize money are very good and she is thrilled about the opportunity to live in a world without the distractions of modern life. But neither the earlier century nor the filmed production turn out to be quite what she expected. Too quickly Chloe’s financial and romantic futures are in peril.

Learning about how Austen’s heroines actually lived their daily lives is undeniably interesting. Learning about Chloe’s romantic adventures…maybe not so much. Not that it’s bad, ‘Definitely Not Mr. Darcy’ simply doesn’t present anything new or exciting. It’s a decent addition to the already overflowing collection of Austen inspired fiction, but nothing to write home about.

CZ

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Boston Strangler

The Boston Strangler
By Paul Hoblin
ABDO Publishing Company, 2012. 112 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

Between 1962 and 1964, eleven woman were brutally murdered, strangled and assaulted, and Boston was thrown into a panic, as the Boston Strangler, as he came to be known, was able to slip in and out of apartments unnoticed. With a killer on the loose, police were desperate to find the killer--and then Albert DeSalvo confessed. While many people accepted his confessions, despite the fact that it was riddled with inconsistencies and the interrogator asked leading questions, others weren't so sure that he really was the killer. There were numerous other suspects, and later in life--after being sentenced to life in jail for separate assault charges--DeSalvo seemed ready to offer up the name of the real Boston Strangler but was killed before he had the chance, leaving, the case of the Boston Strangler unsatisfactorily unsolved.

Hobin does a great job giving an overview of the Boston Strangler without going into gory details. With a highly readable format, including sidebars, timeline, and glossary, this book is a great choice for those interested in short true crime stories.

AE

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich
by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 2005. 182 pgs. Fiction

Into the backlist for one of the great novels of the twentieth century. Ivan Denisovich Shukhov has been sentenced to hard labor in the Gulag because as a Soviet soldier in World War II he was captured by the Germans and after his release, accused of treason since he had been hanging around with Germans. The book begins as the zeks, or prisoners, are awakened by the banging of a hammer on the railing of the admin building and are happy that it is only thirty degrees below zero instead of the expected forty. During the remainder of the day, Ivan Denisovich is working hard:  to stay warm, to form up the brickwork well on his day's assignment, to get a little extra bread here, some gruel there, and to avoid going to The Hole for hanging on to a bit of steel blade which he can form into a shoemaker's awl. What is most astonishing about Ivan's life, and that of his campmates is not the suffering, which from our perspective of comfort and peace is unimaginable, but the matter-of-fact manner in which the prisoners accept their situation and adapt to it. Based on Solzhenitsyn's own experiences as a prisoner who served ten years for criticizing Stalin in a letter to a friend, One Day in the Life of Denisovich is a classic in both expression and themes. Best not to read it if you are having a whiny day.

LW

An Everlasting Meal

By Tamar Adler
Scribner, 2011. 250 pgs. Nonfiction

Part cookbook, part philosophy, part poetry, this slim volume will have each reader re-imagining how to cook at home. Tamar Adler is a woman of strong opinions, among them the belief that aged food is better than fresh food, that we always under cook our vegetables, and that nothing should be thrown away. Through a series of innovative chapter titles, such as ‘how to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat’, Tamar outlines a plan for how to shop, cook, eat, and live well. This cookbook does what no other recipe-laden one can: it shows what to do with the left overs – the ingredients, cooking liquids, and partial meals that are so often discarded. Her philosophy allows each meal to roll into the next one, so the ubiquitous question ‘what’s for dinner?’ becomes obsolete and is instead replaced by the continuous action of cooking.

 I am not exaggerating when I say: this book changed my life. I have loved cooking and recipe books for ages, but even with dozens of cookbooks at my disposal, I never knew what to make for dinner. Furthermore, I always felt guilty about not eating left-overs, or not knowing what to do with the rest of a bunch of radishes – cleaning out my refrigerator at the end of the week was my most dreaded chore. After having read An Everlasting Meal twice, I implemented Tamar’s well laid-out plan this week and I have been eating some of the most wonderful food I’ve ever had. Not only does her philosophy translate to everyday life, but her narrative voice is gorgeous in a way that I can only compare to poetry. This is a book for anyone at all concerned with food: those who like to cook it, think about it, read about it, and, most importantly, eat it. 

JM

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Invincible Microbe

Invincible Microbe
By Jim Murphy and Alison Blank
Clarion Books, 2012.149 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

Award-winning author Murphy teams up with his wife to trace the history of tuberculosis and the treatment of the disease. For thousands of years, tuberculosis killed countless numbers of people, who sought any treatment they could get--from having their king touch them to heal them to blood letting. In the 1800s, with people not knowing how the disease was spread and guessing at treatments, the sanitarium movement was started, with towns actually recruiting people to come and stay in their sanitariums, giving rise to the "curing industry". And initially, when respected scientist Robert Koch discovered the germs that caused the disease--and their contagious nature--people didn't believe him and continued to turn to sanitariums and quack treatments. Once he did show that he had truly discovered the cause, a new search for the cure ensued; just as they seemed to have discover medicine to fight tuberculosis, however, drug-resistant strains began cropping up.

This book is jam-packed with interesting information, from the treatments, to the populations who were denied treatments, to the current conditions that could lead to additional outbreaks. Highly informative but still readable, this is an excellent piece of nonfiction.

AE

Palace of Stone

Palace of Stone
By Shannon Hale
Bloomsbury Childrens, 2012. 336 pgs. Young Adult

In this sequel to Princess Academy, Miri and some friends from Mount Eskel, including Peder, have been invited to spend a year in Asland, the capitol of their country. Miri and the girls stay in the palace as ladies to Britta, who will become the princess when she weds Prince Steffan. Miri has been looking forward to the opportunity to attend a special school and pursue addition knowledge, but she finds her trip to Asland is more complicated than she could have expected. Despite her feelings for Peder, he hasn't declared his feelings for her, and when Timon, one of her classmates, invites her to spend time with him, she must wonder where her heart lies. But her heart faces further tests, as Timon and his friends are revolutionaries calling for reforms in the kingdom, saying that the king's tributes keep the people impoverished. Miri, while afraid that if the king decided to exact tribute from Mount Eskel, her family and her people will lose everything, also doesn't want to betray Britta, who is her dearest friend. Miri must use all her intelligence to help her people--and her friend.

Yay! Highly enjoyable, this is sure to please fans of Princess Academy, Shannon Hale, or fantasy. I loved Miri in the first book and I was thrilled to be able to see her further growth in this tale. The fantasy world is well-developed but doesn't have so many details that they detract from the plot. I can't think of anything not to like about this one.

AE

Monday, August 20, 2012

Second Chance Summer

Second Chance Summer
By Morgan Matson
Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, 2012. 468 pgs. Young Adult

When her father is diagnosed with fatal pancreatic cancer and given only a few months to live, Taylor's family decides to go to the summer house in the Poconos that they used to visit every summer but stopped doing for the past few years. However, Taylor has no desire to go back because last time she was there, as a twelve-year-old, started out great, with her acquiring her first boyfriend in Henry Crosby, but end badly, leaving her without Henry or her former best friend Lucy. So going back is the last thing she wants to do, but she has to, and in so doing, she has to learn to stop running away from her problems. Instead, she learns to deal with her broken friendships and face the inevitability of her father's death.

Well-written and touching, this is an easy recommendation for fans of realistic teen literature. Taylor's learning to face her fears is something that will resonate with teens and adults alike. Her feelings are realistic and while readers might find themselves slightly frustrated with her for not dealing with things a little faster, they'll also empathize with how true-to-life her growth process is. A must read for fans of Sarah Dessen.

AE

Friday, August 17, 2012

The Gardener

The Gardener
by Kristen Randle
Ponymoon Press, 2012. 312 pgs. Young Adult

"The gardener came with the house." And the house is in New England, on the coast, a large and lovely old home overlooking the ocean, and surrounded by an acre of forest. Despite the beauty, Renny wishes her family could have stayed where they were--with her friends, with a spot on the yearbook staff for the coming year, in familiar surroundings. Worried about making friends in a new place, Renny is sort of glad when Mrs. Girbaud, the school counselor, sends a young man over to show her around the town; not so glad when the young man makes a heavy duty move on her and she has to fight her way out of his car to escape. But soon she makes good friends--real friends--though ominous happenings around her home keep her on edge.  There are footprints in the flower beds under the windows, the gate hanging open when Renny knows it was secured. Even more frightening are Mrs. Girbaud and her brother the Coach. Their relentless pressure on Renny and others of her friends to leave their "loser" crowd and join the "in" group is creepy. An extraordinary storm at the end of the book lays all things bare, bringing the book to a satisfying though bittersweet end. But through it all there is the gardener, who cares for the grounds and the home, who nurtures flowers, food, and children, who guards and guides without guile or self-interest.   The Gardener is by way of being a Christian allegory, the message clear but the correspondences subtle. There is so much good in these young people and their families, refreshingly loving and concerned parents (so rare in contemporary Young Adult fiction), and most of all, kindness and care. Kristen Randle's prose is vivid, colloquial but never condescending, full of life, as one might expect from the author of the much-honored The Only Alien on the Planet. A fine, fine book for teenagers and their significant elders.

LW

Secret Letters

Secret Letters
By Leah Scheier
Disney/Hyperion, 2012. 327 pgs. Young Adult

Four years ago, as her mother was dying, Dora Joyce found out that the man she thought was her father wasn't; her true father is none other than Sherlock Holmes. With this new knowledge, Dora read as much as she could about Sherlock Holmes and started acquiring some sleuthing skills of her own. Now, at age 16, Dora has the chance to go to London and seek out her father, since her cousin is being blackmailed over some love letters she wrote before she was married. However, when Dora goes to meet Sherlock and get him to take on her cousin's case, she finds that he has died recently. Although she can no longer hope to meet her father, Dora still wants to help her cousin, and when young detective Peter Cartwright offers his help, Dora accepts, and soon it seems that her cousin's blackmailer may be involved in another of Peter's cases, and Peter gives her a chance that no other detective would--to go undercover as a servant and try to find out more about the blackmailer, who may also be involved in a kidnapping.

This excellent detective story will appeal to fans of The Agency by Y.S. Lee or Death Cloud by Andy Lane. Dora is a great new character, smart and spunky, and the banter between her and Peter, along with an interesting plot line, keeps the story moving quickly forward. My only complaint? I don't want to have to wait for a sequel because I want to be able to keep going with the story right now!

AE

Thursday, August 16, 2012

After Hello


By Lisa Mangum
Shadow Mountain, 2012. 266 pgs. Young Adult

Seventeen-year-old Sara is always trying to capture the perfect moment in a photograph. On her first visit to New York City she’s hoping to take in the sights of the city in person and record them on film as well. Sam is great at finding things, whether it is a hard to find book or a trinket for a friend. When Sam and Sara meet on the street, neither of them are prepared for the adventure they will embark on for the one day they spend together.

This was a really fun book to read. It is a great blend of humor, romance, and adventure. If you liked The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight by Jennifer Smith, this book is for you!

AMM

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Physics of the Future

Physics of the Future: How Science will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100

By Michio Kaku
Doubleday, 2011. 389 pgs. Nonfiction

Michio Kaku is a professor of physics with his own Science Chanel TV show titled ‘Sci-Fi Science: Physics of the Impossible’. In ‘Physics of the Future’, Kaku presents readers with a look at the present science that will shape our world over the next 100 years. From living on Mars to contact lenses that provide access to the internet, some predictions are more easily imagined than others.

Kaku tries hard to write accessibly and usually he succeeds. Movie and television references are frequently made to provide examples of how life in the future may or may not actually look like. Kaku’s forecasts are interesting and make up for when the writing seems a bit flat but ‘Physics of the Future’ is still a good choice for general readers interested in what direction science is taking us.

CZ



The Watchers

The Watchers

By John Steele
Blue Rider Press, 2012. 574 pgs. Mystery
‘The Watchers’ begins feeling a bit like ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’. A young man with a twisted foot cares for the bells of his beloved cathedral. Then, across town, a beautiful young woman employed by an exclusive escort service prepares for an evening with a new client. And finally, there is Jay Harper who awakens to a dreary apartment, no memory of life beyond yesterday, but a strange understanding that he is a detective and he is on a mission of discovery. These three people will be drawn together as they realize that their stories are a part of an epic battle of good and evil with universal consequences.

This hefty tome is a first novel and the first in a series, so be prepared for a lot of ‘set up’. The world Steele is bringing to life is complex and shrouded in mystery. As one question is answered, a dozen more seem to spring up in its place. If you are looking for a quick read and even a small amount of closure, look elsewhere. In ‘The Watchers’ you will find a witty and ambitious thriller steeped in mythology telling of the fabled battle between angels and demons. In a word, it’s huge.   CZ

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The Trust

The Trust
by Norb Vonnegut (Kurt's distant relative)
St. Martin's, 2012.  306 pgs. Mystery

Grove O'Rourke is a stockbroker who is able to take his cutthroat training to the streets in Vonnegut's new thriller. When his friend and mentor, Palmer Kincaid, dies in an apparent sailing accident, Grove is asked to take his place on the board of Kincaid's charitable organization, the Palmetto Foundation. All is not well with the Foundation's funds, however, and when Grove is hard-nosed about wiring funds to a children's charity in the Phillipines things go violently wrong.

Although Vonnegut's characters are well-drawn and engaging (particularly the Charleston lawyer Biscuit Hughes), the action breakneck, the plot twists complex and unexpected, the brutality of the violence in this book is disturbing, even sickening. The Trust is a really exciting, well-wrought book, if you have the stomach for it.

LW

Monday, August 13, 2012

American Sniper

American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History By Chris Kyle, with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice
W. Morrow, 2012. 381 pgs. Biography

War is unimaginable to all who have never experienced it, but Chris Kyle has written an incredible memoir that gives civilian readers a chance to glimpse what goes on in the mind of one of our country's greatest warriors in "American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History."

Kyle spent 10 years in the Navy as a Seal and a sniper, and served four combat tours abroad. His record for confirmed kills, officially documented as 150, leaves previous records in the dust. As impressive as Kyle's shooting is, what really makes his story extraordinary is the personal account of life in the U.S. military. His wife also provides portions of the narrative telling of the struggles faced by the families of our deployed troops.

Kyle's writing is unabashedly honest, a little colorful (keep in mind he was in the Navy), and surprisingly humble. True patriotism is apparent and Kyle's love for his country, God, family, and the men with whom he served cannot help but inspire.

CZ

The Darlings

The Darlings

By Christina Alger
Pamela Dorman Books – Viking, 2012. Fiction

Over the course of a single weekend, the Darling family will learn that their abundant wealth and elite social status are both far more fragile than they ever could have imagined. Carter Darling has done well providing an extremely comfortable life for those he loves by managing a thriving hedge fund. But the shocking death of a major investor and close friend throws unwanted attention from both the SEC and the media onto the fund’s unlikely and almost too consistent gains. Each member of the family will be tested on their honesty and loyalty to their family, two traits that may end up being mutually exclusive.

Alger’s plot can easily be characterized as ‘ripped from the headlines’. This certainly gives the storylines immediacy and context and the characters a bit of depth and realism. Unfortunately, I wasn’t look for context and realism when I picked up this novel, so I was a bit disappointed in the book’s abbreviated time frame and serious voice. However, ‘The Darlings’ is still a sophisticated look at the life of the one percent and a frighteningly relevant demonstration of the lies that the upper minority tell the rest of us as well as themselves. Thoughtful and smart.

CZ

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Plugged

Plugged
Eoin Colfer
Overlook Press, 2011. 254 pgs.  Fiction

Daniel McEvoy is an Irish expat working as a bouncer in a sleazy casino in New Jersey.  His past has been exciting and colorful (as is his language). But his receding hairline is a constant reminder that he isn’t getting any younger and Daniel may be looking to settle down.  Thoughts of a picket fence and actual day job are brought to a screeching halt when he finds his pretty girlfriend murdered.  Suddenly the New Jersey mob, inquisitive police detectives, and a crazy lady in his building are all after him for unknown reasons and he seems to be haunted by an eccentric and dodgy plastic surgeon. 

Eoin Colfer is known most for his young adult series ‘Artemis Fowl’.  This book is certainly not for the young, or anyone queasy about a good dose of foul language.  On the other hand, this is a great book for readers looking for a quick, funny, convoluted mystery with a surprisingly endearing Irish thug as the hero.  Daniel’s exasperation over his situation and the insanity of the people with whom he is dealing is especially engaging and then there is his obsession with his hairline and newly implanted plugs.  A bit crude, a bit convoluted, a whole lot entertaining!


CZ

Escape From Camp 14

Escape From Camp 14: One Man’s Remarkable Odyssey from North Korea to Freedom in the West
By Blaine Harden
Viking, 2012.  205 pgs.  Biography

Shin Dong-hyuk was born in a North Korean political prison camp.   Up until his remarkable escape, his entire world was limited to the area within an electric fence.  Tales of the world beyond that fence, where food was shockingly plentiful and varied, were mere rumors related by other prisoners.  Life was harsh and hopeless.  Shin’s experiences would include beatings, tortures, and eventually watching the execution of his mother.  As the title assures, Shin does escape the confines of Camp 14.  But finding true freedom from the mental and emotional scars of his youth may turn out to be the most remarkable part of his odyssey.

This rare glimpse into the lives of the hundreds of thousands of North Koreans kept in these squalid camps is shocking.  Because so few prisoners escape the camps, Harden was unable to verify a large portion of Shin’s story which changed several times during Harden’s research.  However, readers are made aware of the lack of corroboration and Shin’s difficulty in trusting his biographer adds to the psychological portrait of this intriguing young man and his fascinating journey.


CZ

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Year of the Gadfly

Year of the Gadfly
By Jennifer Miller
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012 374 pgs. Fiction

The story begins with Iris Dupont entering Mariana Academy, a posh private school, as a transfer student. She is struggling to accept with the suicide of her best friend and is accompanied by her invisible mentor and confidant, Edward R. Murrow. Like her hero, she dreams of becoming a top flight investigative reporter dedicated to Truth. Before long she is invited to join Prisom's Party, a secrey society dedicated to upholding the school's rigorous honor code by exposing those who violate it. One of her favorite teachers, an alumnus of the school, is assigned the task of discovering the identity of the Prisom's Party members following a scandal involving his predecessor. Iris is ordered by her new associates in the Party to find out what her teacher is hiding. In addition, there is the mystery of the disappearance of a girl who knew Iris's teacher when he was a student twelve years before. What follows is not only the unraveling of mysteries, but also journey's of self-discovery.

I rather enjoyed this book. Many people when reading this book will no doubt reach for smart phone, tablet or laptop computer to find out who the heck is Edward R. Murrow. I remember him from the film 'Good night and good luck'. I thought this a rather clever plot device. This book is similar to Special Topics in Calamity Physics and to a lesser degree, Prep or I am Charlotte Simmons. This was a very interesting and thoughtful story.

CHW

Do Not Ask What Good We Do

Do Not Ask What Good We Do: Inside the U.S. House of Representatives
By Robert Draper
Free Press, 2012. 327 pgs. Nonfiction

In this book, the author examines the state of the People's House and follows a number of members of the House of Representatives following the 2010 election. The addition to the House of a number of people who had never held office before, many of whom identified with the Tea Party movement, resulted in a definite shift in the atmosphere of the chamber and the tone of the debate. The author did a good job of describing the individual members as persons with complex motives and worldviews. Freshly minted representatives, hell bent on imposing a rigorous fiscal discipline on the federal government, quickly discover just how hard it is to make change happen, even within the ranks of the Republican Party. The passions of the Tea Partiers both motivate and blind them to the perspective of others or the realities of divided government. I liked the fact that neither party were demonized. Individuals are treated as flawed but sincere in their desire to fulfill their goals and advance the public good as each defined it. For anyone who is fascinated by politics and government, this is a good choice.

CHW

Then Everything Changed

Then Everything Changed: Stunning Alternative Histories of American Politics: JFK, RFK, Carter, Ford and Reagan
By Jeff Greenfield
G.P. Putnam's Son, 2011. 434 pgs. Nonfiction

This was a quite interesting speculation of how historical events might have gone but for a twist of fate. What if the suicide bomber actually struck JFK right after his electoral victory and LBJ was in charge during the Cuban missile crisis? What if Sirhan Sirhan had missed Robert Kennedy? What if Ford had managed to defeat Carter in 76? This is just the thing for political and historical junkies who enjoy "What if...?" scenarios.

Unlike a lot of alternate histories written (I'm looking at you, Turtledove!), this was well thought out and each speculative scenario quite plausible.

CHW

Song of Achilles

Song of Achilles
By Madeline Miller
Ecco, 2012, 378 pgs. Historical Fiction

I found this to be a very good book. It is a wonderful and accessible re-telling of the Iliad, told from the perspective of Patroclus, the companion of Achilles. Having been exiled from home by his father, disowned and no longer a prince, he forms his close and passionate relationship with Achilles, hailed as Aristos Achaion, the best of the Greeks. Born of Thetis, a sea nymph, Achilles is the perfect warrior. After Helen is seized and taken to Troy, the Hellenic kings who swore oaths to uphold Helen's marriage decision gather to take her back by force. Knowing that his fate is to die in battle, Achilles takes up arms and joins the fight, Patroclus by his side. Being a Greek story, the ending has a suitably tragic ending. I would recommend this to just about anyone who enjoys books about ancient Greece.

One strong caveat for parents. The story makes quite clear the homosexual relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Not gratuitous, but certainly explicit. However, the sexual aspect of their relationship is only a minor part of the story. This does not by any means detract from the story.

CHW

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Alif the Unseen

Alif the Unseen
by G. Willow Wilson
Grove Press, 2012. 431 pgs. Fantasy

     What a scream. Laugh out loud stories about oppressive Middle Eastern regimes are not exactly a dime a dozen, so Wilson's story of the Arab-Indian computer hacker and expediter who finds a prickly refuge amongst the jinn of Middle Eastern mythology is a particular treasure. When Alif arouses the malign interest of The Hand of God, a shadowy government official adept at rooting out internet subversives, he runs for his life with the inadvertent company of his lifelong friend, the neighbor's daughter. A quick stop to consult his friends at Radio Sheikh sends him on to Vikram the Vampire who really is something less and more than human. Alif grows up during the course of the story, which takes him to prison, into the Empty Quarter (which is not all that empty after all), through a life-defining David Copperfield moment, and on to the fulfillment of narrative outlined by the ancient and profoundly valuable Alf Yeom--the book of A Thousand and One Days. Although Alif's city and country remain unnamed, the true richness and good (even if gallows) humor of life in the Arab lands is brightly revealed in these pages.  Just the sort of book you regret finishing because then you can't look forward to reading it.

LW

Wasatch: Mormon Stories and a Novella

Wasatch:  Mormon Stories and a Novella
by Douglas Thayer
Zarahemla Books, 2012. 235 pgs. Fiction

     Despite the implications of the subtitle, Thayer's stories are more faith-challenging than -promoting, but they are beautifully wrought and profoundly thought-provoking in any case. Many of these stories are about men who reject the safety of certitude for the call of the wild, who crave solitude and self-reliance over the comforts of home and family but whose choices in the end yield either disaster or a continuing life of Thoreau's "quiet desperation." First in the collection is "The Red-Tailed Hawk," a story so atmospheric and precisely rendered that one can feel the bitter cold. Other stories are by turns brutal and funny--as when Brother Melrose comes briefly back from the dead to visit his grandson and discomfit the rest of the family. "The Locker Room" is the linchpin of the story collection, a tragedy of not knowing the difference between doing good and doing right. "Dolf," the novella that ends the book, sums Thayer's recurring themes as a young man races towards destruction in a John Colter-like run away from the Blackfeet and from Providence.  Wasatch is an impressive, memorable collection which lingers in the mind long after the last page is turned.

LW

The Last Policeman

The Last Policeman
by Ben H. Winters
Quirk Books, 2012. 316 pgs. Mystery

     Suppose you were a beat cop who wanted to be a detective and you were suddenly granted your wish because the world is going to collide with an asteroid in the near future so the guys in front of you for the job have walked away from the department to work on their bucket lists or to spend the last months of remaining time with their families. This is Hank Palace's situation, and in a world where suicide is commonplace, the remaining police force of Concord, New Hampshire, thinks Hank is a nutcase for investigating a hanging in the men's room at McDonald's as a murder. And yet . . . why did the man hang himself with a belt other than his own? and why are files missing from the dead man's workplace?  who was the woman hurrying towards the fatal McDonald's who quickly reverse course when she saw the police?  Hank's single-minded pursuit of the truth is both exemplary and disturbing--why ruin more lives that are already universally ruined? Because things must be made right. The end of the world scenario of this detective novel makes it both thought-provoking and strange. First in a series which probably won't last too long.

LW

Friday, August 3, 2012

Along the Way

Along the Way: The Journey of a Father and a Son
By Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez
Free Press, 2012.  417 pgs.  Biography

The father-son duo of Martin Sheen and Emilio Estevez have worked together on a number of projects over the years. One of those projects was a movie written, produced and directed by Estevez, and starred Sheen as a grieving father making a pilgrimage for his dead son along the Camino de Santiago in Spain. After the 40 day shoot, on location in Spain, Emilio called his father and invited him to co-author a dual biography with him. "Along the Way" is the result of that collaboration.

The plot of "The Way" provides an incredible point of reference as the two authors discuss their own journeys through life. Both write with refreshing honesty about mistakes and challenges, joys and accomplishments. "Along the Way" is a great memoir for fans of the actors looking for an insider's view to their private lives, but it is also a revealing look at family and the complicated relationships between fathers and sons.

CZ

The Solitary House

The Solitary House
By Lynn Shepherd
Delacorte Press, 2012.  340 pgs.  Mystery

"The Solitary House" is a historical novel that occurs in Dickensian London alongside the plot of "Bleak House." Characters from Dickens's novel make appearances as Charles Maddox, a thief taker, tries to unravel two perplexing mysteries. The first is a case of a missing child and the second involves a certain lawyer, Mr. Tulkinghorn, and his shady associates.

Many gifted writers are turning back to the classics to gain inspiration for new adventures featuring characters readers have loved for over a century. What sets this book apart is the interesting and skillful way Shepherd weaves his story with that of Lady Deadlock, Inspector Bucket, and Mr. Tulkinghorn.

Readers not familiar with the story and characters of "Bleak House" can still enjoy "The Solitary House," but knowing at least the basics of the original novel certainly adds to the fun this new work. If you, like me, don't want to commit to reading 800-plus pages of Dickens to prepare for "The Solitary House," then try grabbing the BBC film instead (though even that is a good seven hours long).


CZ

Thursday, August 2, 2012

The Hypnotist

The Hypnotist
By Lars Kepler
Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011. 503 pgs. Mystery

A bloody double murder leaves its lone survivor unresponsive and recovering from over one hundred knife wounds.  Swedish inspector Joona Linna enlists the aid of Dr. Erik Maria Bark, a famous, though retired, hypnotist, in an attempt to retrieve information from the traumatized young man before his would-be killer strikes again.  But Dr. Bark’s reluctant assistance not only places his career in danger but his family as well and he and Linna will race to save the next victim from a horrific death. 

‘The Hypnotist’ is another gripping and gruesome mystery from Sweden very similar to the works of Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo.  Lars Kepler is actually a husband and wife writing team with a second book, ‘The Nightmare’ featuring Inspector Linna, released earlier this month.  Graphic, violent, and psychologically chilling this would especially appeal to readers who enjoyed the drama of ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ but would like to avoid the sexual violence of Stieg’s work.




CZ