Friday, September 26, 2014

Sunshine on Scotland Street

Sunshine on Scotland Street
by Alexander McCall Smith
Anchor Books, 2014. 297 pages. Fiction.

In the 8th book of McCall Smith's Scotland Street series, the author brings back his lovable cast of characters from Edinburgh for another look into the daily workings of Scotland. You'll meet up again with Bruce, who finds his dopopelganger; Matthew, who is being followed by a Danish cinematographer bent on producing a documentary about real people in Scotland; Angus and Domenica on the eve of their wedding; Irene and her faith in psychoanalysis; and Bertie, who still dreams of turning 18 and leaving his micromanaging mother for a life of adventure in far-off Glasgow. Situations change and hilarity ensues, but in the end all of them are still happy in Edinburgh, chasing their dreams.

What I love most about the Scotland Street series (and, really, anything by Alexander McCall Smith) is that they are really in-depth character studies. To be honest, there is not much action in these books; there's never a pivotal climax or a thrilling moment where everything changes. What he presents is a study of people going about their lives, thinking their own, unique thoughts, and influencing their own small spheres. The writing is exceptionally witty and lends itself well to being slowly read and savored over a long period of time (the series, is, in fact, originally printed daily in The Scotsman as a serial story a la Dickens and then compiled into a book and published). By the end of the book, even though nothing of striking importance has occurred, the characters have become exceptionally real. I would expect to find every one of these characters in their present form if I went to Edinburgh.

JH

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Solanin

Solanin
by Inio Asano
Viz Media, 2006. 424 pp. Graphic Novel

This is a story of a young woman, Meiko Inoue, her boyfriend, Naruo,  and their circle of friends as they struggle to make their way in the world after college, reconciling the nebulous dreams of happiness and success with the reality and constraints of the adult world. Stuck in dull and/or poorly paid jobs and uncertain of their futures, Meiko, Naruo and his man-child band mates struggle to figure out what they want and how to get it. After tragedy strikes one of their group, the band must find a way to keep the music playing.

While the story itself is not terribly extraordinary, this is a good example of a graphic novel being a proper, well constructed novel and not just a long form comic book. In keeping with the manga tradition, the book reads right to left, which can take a bit of getting used to. For anyone interested in trying graphic novels, this would be an good place to start.

CHW

Station Eleven

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 333 pp. Fiction

Outside of Toronto, a famous actor, Arthur Leander, collapses from a heart attack in the middle of a performance of Shakespeare's King Lear. Shortly thereafter, a deadly super-flu quickly spreads and wipes out approximately 99% of the world's population. The novel switches back and forth in time, before and after the pandemic, and centers on the lives of Arthur and people connected to him in one way or the other. In the years after the Fall, one of these people, Kirsten, join a group of traveling actors/musicians who are determined to keep a modicum of culture alive and take as their motto a line from Star Trek: Voyager: "Survival is insufficient".

This is an excellent example of a post-apocalypse novel done right. The story starts off well, taking hold of the reader and never letting go. The novel maintains just the right level of pace and tension, until the very last page. I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in reading a post-apocalypse novel but are turned off by zombie novels or the tiresome slog that is Cronin's The Passage. In fact, I would recommend this to just about anyone.

CHW

Friday, September 19, 2014

The Last Illusion


Cover image for The last illusion : a novel

The Last Illusion
By Porchista Khakpour
There is an ancient Persian myth about a boy named Zal, born of a king, but raised by a large bird because his father is horrified when Zal is born an albino. The Last Illusion is a brilliant re-imagining of this myth taking place in the last years of the 20th century and culminating in the tragedy of September 11th in New York City. The contemporary Zal is born in Iran to an elderly couple, and his father dies before he is born. His mother is already sliding into dementia, and when she sees her albino son she believes he is cursed. She calls him the white demon, and puts the infant in a bird cage in her courtyard filled with her precious pet birds. Zal grows up eating seeds, squawking instead of speaking, and wondering why he cannot fly like his brothers and sisters. Eventually Zal is discovered and adopted by an American psychologist who specializes in feral children, and is taken to live in New York City where he slowly attempts to become 'normal'.

This beautifully rendered story brings up questions about what the lines are between crazy, normal, and everything between. Zal in befriended by an illusionist who is going to make the twin towers disappear for his last great illusion; and a girl who makes artwork out of dead birds, and is plagued with premonitions of an imminent disaster that no one believes. The story boarders on absurdity from time to time, but the humanity and dimension Khakpour gives her characters somehow holds it back from spinning into chaos and instead imbues it with an atmosphere of magical realism.

ZB

Chances Are

Chances Are
By Traci Hunter Abramson
Covenant Communications, 2014. 245 pages. Romance.

Maya has escaped an arranged marriage in India and is on the way to living the American dream...until cancer stops her in her tracks. When her best friend offers to let her stay in her brother's apartment while he's out of town so Maya can get some experimental treatments, Maya has no choice but to accept. Ben is a successful rookie baseball player who decides unexpectedly to leave the glamor of a MLB off-season in Los Angeles, only to find his apartment retreat has been invaded. But as Ben starts putting Maya's needs before his own, he begins to see the amazing woman he realizes he will do anything to save.

Yes, the plot is a little over the top and many of the details left me wondering if any of what happens in the book is legally or medically possible. However, all that aside, Abramson creates characters that you want to root for. While the plot may leave you raising your eyebrows, the characters themselves make you want to keep reading through all the improbabilities thrown their way. It is a fun, relaxing read for a day when you just want something to smile over.

JH

For Elise

For Elise
By Sarah M. Eden
Covenant Communications, 2014. 259 pages. Romance.

When tragedy strikes the families of childhood friends Miles Linwood and Elise Furlong, they were left with only each other to rely on. And then Elise suddenly disappeared. Four years later, Miles sees her, begging for scrap remnants at a fabric shop with her young daughter and takes her back home with him. But Elise has changed and is clearly unable to trust Miles. Will he be able to regain the friendship he had with her before? And will Elise finally have the courage to tell him the reason why she hid for so long?

Sarah Eden has hit upon a tried and true formula that has made her successful, and her latest venture will satisfy her loyal readers. With this story, however, Eden has added a little more depth to the characters and infused the story with a sense of mystery that is not usually a part of her writing.

JH

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot
by David Shafer
Little, Brown and Company, 2014.  425 pgs.  Fiction

   "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you" could easily be the theme of this witty, multilayered thriller about a consortium of business tycoons and media moguls who decide they should control everyone's information--all of everyone's information. The Committee doesn't take kindly to a couple of essentially guileless characters who stumble upon their plotting.  Leila Majnoun is an NGO worker in Burma/Myanmar who has been battling a feckless bureaucracy for long months trying to distribute monies to potential nursing students. Leo Crane is a recently-fired pre-school aide (one too many times playing "Rolling Death," a game involving an office chair and shrieking children). Leila and her driver accidentally see more than they should have as they are trolling the countryside for nursing candidates; subsequently, the CIA tries to ruin her father, a school principal, by planting porn on his computer. Leo has a bit of a cuckoo blog where he posts angry conspiracy theories that may actually turn out to be true. These two are recruited by another shadowy group, "Dear Diary," an organization devoted to taking down The Committee. Leila and Leo must enlist Mark Deveraux to help because he has the ear and the confidence of one of the kingpins of the committee. Too bad Mark, formerly an extraordinary essayist and thinker, has become a pablum-spewing self-help guru, druggie, and drunk. I can't say much else about this wildly entertaining novel without spoiling the ending, but I will say that it works brilliantly on several different levels: as a thriller, as a spokesbook for the modern age, and as a great story about the willingness and ability of regular guys to do good things to help other.  Some bad language and vulgarity.

LW

Friday, September 12, 2014

Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons

Diary of Two Mad Black Mormons: Finding the Lord's Lessons in Everyday Life
By Zandra Vranes and Tamu Smith
Ensign Peak, 2014. 221 pages. Nonfiction.

When Zandra Vranes and Tamu Smith met at a meeting of Genesis, a social group for black members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake, they instantly hit it off. And they realized that people might be able to relate to their unique perspective on faith and dedication. What started as a weekly blog has evolved into a regular podcast on the Mormon channel. This book is a collection of many of their regular blog posts, giving their perspectives on topics such as faith, honesty, relationships, and so much more, in a voice that is casual and humorous but always sincere.

What I liked most about this book is the universality of the message. Sure, the cover talks about Mormons, but they are saying things that any Christian is going to relate to and agree with. In fact, they take the time to define any terms (either from LDS culture or from black culture) that they know won't be understood by a general audience. This isn't just a great, uplifting book for Latter-day Saints, but for anyone who truly wants to strengthen their love for Jesus and live more joyfully every day.

JH

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Illusive

Illusive
By Emily Lloyd-Jones
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, 416 pgs. Young adult.

This dystopian novel has promise for fans of Divergent or Shatter Me and was interesting for the story of a vaccine that has created mutant like effects in a small percentage of the population. As more dystopian books are published, it seems that there are lots of tries for something new to cause the apocalypse or happen after it. This one did okay with something new, but the characters were actually the least likable part. They were all a bit selfish or whiny and I couldn't find one to really connect with and want to see how their storyline ended.

The population that has weird changes in their bodies means that the government does not want them using their powers for their own, and in some cases even being alive. The powers were anything from people that could create illusions to those that could memorize anything perfectly within seconds. The heroes, or anti-heroes as they begin, are up against the government as well as each to survive and save their own kind. There are multiple groups against the teens and their leader and so many plot twists I really just was waiting for the end so I could mark it as read. It was an easy enough read and had plenty of action, even if it fell short of a really original story. Try it if you want a story with super powered people and more discussion of how the government created an end to the world as we know it.

EW

10% Happier

10%  Happier
By Dan Harris
It Books, 256 pgs. 2014. Nonfiction.

What interested me about this book most was actually his stories about his life as a news reporter and anchorman. The competition and challenges that came with his job fascinated me. I could see where he connected the voice in his head and the anxiety he has had to his goal in his career and also the experiences he has reporting in the field. Harris talks about his search for peace and calm through visiting pastors, monks, yoga meditation, and more. Due to the voice that gave him his drive, it also gave him his struggles. After experiencing a panic attack live on national television, he tries to find a place where his thoughts can't take control.

The idea of anxiety and panic is a hot topic in books whether it is a personal story, research, or to say mental health issues are more prevalent than you think. Harris' book is a different take though as much of the story was reliant on his jobs and personal life, and not necessarily research to describe what he was going through. And he didn't give a lot of details in to his panic attacks or issues, but more background on his hectic life. Then the other major part of the story was for the exploration of spiritual, mental, and physical health that would help in controlling that voice in his head. I thought it was a super interesting read and I enjoyed his perspective on changing his life.

EW

This is the Water

This is the Water
By Yannick Murphy
Harper Perennial, 352 pgs. 2014. Fiction,

This book centers around a swim team, and as a high school swimmer I had to pick it up. Annie and her husband have two girls on the swim team and a tense marriage. Annie starts to flirt with a fellow swim dad and they take the opportunity of away meets to get to know each other. Among the other parents, there are the tense ones, the helicopter moms, the competitive dads and everyone has an edge to them. Things change when one of the girls is murdered and the team and parents have to become protective of  each other and some even become suspicious. One mother even takes it to an extreme and many parents are forced to decide who to stand by.

This mystery novel has a lot going on, told in a simple manner. The first several chapters have an interesting concept of starting almost every sentence with "this is...". At first I didn't know if I could keep going, but the story moves quickly and the uniqueness becomes catchy within the rest of the book. The murder story is a little disturbing as it is a young girl who is murdered, but the entire time I wanted to know who the murderer could be. The story ending was unexpected and different.

EW

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

All Fall Down

All Fall Down
By Jennifer Weiner
Atria Books, 2014. 400 pgs. Fiction.

Jennifer Weiner's books can be hit or miss for me but I was completely engrossed in All Fall Down. Allison Weiss is a mother, a woman's blogger for a popular website, a husband she loves, and a nice life. When she is at a doctor's office for her daughters she randomly takes a magazine quiz that brings her to question if she is an addict. She has the excuses, the stories, and the lies that point to it, but she can't bring herself to admit she needs help. Her need for pills helps her function and look at her life as perfect. Through trials and scary moments, Allison learns that she does have an expensive, dangerous problem and she eventually has to decide if she wants to get rid of the problem or not.

Weiner's book was very realistic and so well done with heartfelt characters and even some funny moments. I really enjoyed reading about not only Allison's struggle but her friends and family and their reactions as well as how they tried to help. I couldn't stop listening to the audio as the narrator did a fantastic job. The book was real and the writing wonderful. In the end, I wanted everyone to have a happy ending.

EW

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

The From-Aways

The From-Aways
By C.J. Hauser
William Morrow, 2014. 341 pages. Fiction.

This is the story of two women who come as outsiders to a small Maine town and join forces at the local paper to uncover a scandal that could prove damaging to those they hold most dear. Leah, a newly-married New York reporter, is happy to follow her new husband Henry out of the city and into his idealized fishing village of his childhood. Quinn has come to Menamon looking for the father who abandoned her as a child and takes a job at the paper to make ends meet while she gets the courage to confront him. But will they be forced to choose between the paper and the ones their article could hurt the most?

This book has everything you could ever want in a story: a great plot, a scenic location, interesting characters. Reading the back of the book, I was captivated. And then I opened the first page and it all fell flat. I never liked the characters. At all. Leah was at least an endearingly flighty woman, although even that started to grate pretty quickly, but Quinn was just constantly abrasive. And that, for me, is what killed the story. If you like plot more than characters, this may be the book for you, because Hauser has plot going for her in a big way. If you read more for characters (which I do) you may want to find something else to read.

JH

The Day She Died

The Day She Died
By Catriona McPherson
Midnight Ink, 2014. 301 pages. Fiction.

When Jessie Constable meets Gus King and his daughter Ruby in the grocery store, Gus is sitting on a bottom shelf, devastated to learn his wife has just left him. But after driving him home, Jessie is suddenly a part of this stranger's family, watching the kids, cleaning the house, staying the night - and she wonders if she has at last found love. And her wish for love makes her hesitate to acknowledge the strange things that have been happening at the house since Gus learned that his wife died the day she left him in a terrible car accident.

McPherson has crafted a deeply psychological thriller in this book and by the time I finished it, I really was confused about whether I liked it or not - even though I couldn't put it down. And I think that is the point of the book. The characters are so completely normal and yet unsettled and unsettling that they leave the reader feeling the same way long after the book is over. In fact, the book doesn't even feel like a thriller until halfway through the book, when Jessie begins to question things that happen, because everything seems so normal. Don't pick this up if you're looking for a lot of action or gore because you'll be sadly disappointed. But as a study of a normal person in a normal circumstance that suddenly becomes a whole lot less than normal, the story is brilliant. There is a lot of profanity and some innuendo.

JH

Friday, September 5, 2014

An Unwilling Accomplice

An Unwilling Accomplice (Bess Crawford #6)
By Charles Todd
William Morrow, 2014. 337 pages. Mystery.

Nurse Bess Crawford comes home for a brief leave from the front lines in France, only to learn that a strange soldier has requested her to be his aide in visiting the King to receive a reward for gallantry. But as soon as the ceremony is over, the soldier disappears and Bess is left to take the blame. Determined to clear her record, Bess and family friend Simon Brandon take to the English countryside in search of the truant soldier.

For me, Todd's Bess Crawford series is the best of all worlds. It is set in WWI/postwar England, which is a really fascinating time period, but isn't as mind-numbingly depressing as other WWI mystery series can end up being. Bess is an interesting character that is easy to relate to and Todd provides a good mix of action and history in the plot.

JH

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Once Upon a Marigold

Once Upon a Marigold (Marigold #1)
By Jean Ferris
Harcourt, Inc., 2002. 266 pages. Young adult fiction.

Christian has lived in a forest cave with Ed, his guardian troll, since he ran away from home when he was six. Now 18, Christian is eager to explore the world, beginning with the intriguing princess who lives right across the river. Watching through his telescope, he sees her reading books, playing with dogs, and all sorts of other unprincesslike things. After a lengthy correspondence through pigeon mail (p-mail), Christian decides to get a job at the castle to be closer to Princess Marigold - and quickly discovers a plot that could cost her everything.

While not a fairy tale retelling, this book evokes the feel of a fairy tale in its structure. The writing in spectacularly witty and the plot is very original. It had a very similar feel to Patricia Wrede's Dealing with Dragons series. The book itself is on the lower end of YA reading levels, but will be enjoyed by readers of any age.

JH

A Promise Kept

A Promise Kept
by Robin Lee Hatcher
Thomas Nelson, 2013. 296 pages. Fiction.

Allison can't believe it when, after issuing her husband an ultimatum to choose between their marriage or his alcohol addiction, he willingly walks out the door. Now 45 and living in her late aunt's cabin in the Idaho mountains, Allison finds her aunt's old diaries and begins to learn the story of what made her such a remarkable woman. In the process, she learns a lot about herself, as well.

What really drew me in about this book was the compassion Hatcher uses to describe the working of God in the lives of both Allison and Aunt Emma. And reading the author's note at the end of the book explains why: Hatcher herself had a husband choose to abandon their marriage to his alcohol addiction. While she is clear that Allison's story is not a retelling of Hatcher's own story, the empathy Hatcher has the for the character shines through in the writing. This was a nice inspirational, Christian novel that expressed faith in a difficult circumstance without being preachy.

JH