Travel reading wrap-up: A big batch of mini-reviews — mothers, sisters, dogs, hippos, and more!

I can’t call the last two weeks a vacation. Yes, I was away from home. No, it wasn’t relaxing. And while there were plenty of fun moments spending time with my sisters and friends, for the most part, it was stress, work, and exhaustion that ruled the day.

Side note: When we imagine our adult lives, I’m sure none of us think about caring for elderly parents and the hard decisions that involves, but sooner or later, if we’re lucky enough to have parents that live that long, it’s something that we inevitably have to deal with.

Meanwhile, I did a lot of reading while on airplanes and sitting around hospital rooms and nursing homes. Here’s a quick wrap-up of what I read while I was away… everything from feral hippos to church ladies to war stories.

 

The Mothers by Brit Bennett: Contemporary fiction about teen lovers and the impact on an entire congregation, as told (mostly) through the eyes of the older women who form the backbone of their close-knit church community. The story is engaging, but at times the actions of the characters made me so angry I wanted to hurl the book at the closest wall. (Since I was reading on an airplane, this would not have been a good idea.) Still, I enjoyed the character development, the look at the impact of the characters’ decisions and how these set the course of the rest of their lives, and the intricate weaving of connections, friendships, and family loyalty.

 

 

 

 

The Bookshop on the Corner by Jenny Colgan: If you’ve ever checked out the Bookshelf Porn website, you’ll know what I mean when I say that this book is booklover porn. No, there’s nothing graphic or dirty or illicit here — but it’s sure to touch the fantasies of every devoted bookworm who ever dreamed of owning her own bookstore. Here, the 29-year-old main character, a downsized librarian, buys a big van, stocks it with every book she can get her hands on, and drives around the Scottish Highlands selling books to people who clearly need them. Lives are changed. Quirky villagers abound. And there’s even a love story! This is a sweet, lovely book, perfect for vacation reading or really, for any time you want to get away from the daily grind and wallow in the fantasy of finding a perfect life that combines reading, handling books, and being madly in love.

 

 

 

 

Sisters of Shiloh by Kathy & Becky Hepinstall: A beautiful yet devastating story of sisters, love, and sacrifice set during the Civil War. When Libby’s husband Arden is killed on the battlefield, Libby vows to get revenge by joining the Rebel army herself and killing one Yankee soldier for every year that Arden lived. Libby’s older sister Josephine can’t talk her out of it and can’t stand the idea of Libby going off alone, so the two sisters disguise themselves as teen boys and enlist. Sisters of Shiloh shows the savage butchery of the Civil War battlefields and the horrible deprivations suffered by the soldiers, but above all, it’s a story about courage and sisterly devotion. While I occasionally wanted to just shake some sense into Libby, I loved Josephine and found her part of the story deeply affecting and inspiring. I’d consider this book must-read historical fiction.

 

 

 

 

Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley: Warning: If you can’t handle sad dog stories, walk away now. Lily and the Octopus is the story of a lonely man whose life revolves around his beloved dachshund Lily. He constructs elaborate fantasies to narrate their life together (including interactive games of Monopoly and pizza nights), and simply can’t face reality when he spots what he calls an “octopus” on her head — his make-believe image for a tumor. As the story progresses, his battle against the octopus to save Lily’s life becomes increasingly complex — but ultimately, this is the story of a man slowly losing his steadiest, truest companion, and it’s a tearjerker. The octopus and other pieces of the fantasy were a little too much for me at times, but other than that, this is a moving story of love and connection.

 

 

 

 

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey: Oh my. Feral hippos in the Mississippi River marshlands! In this alternate version of US history, the government has solved the country’s meat shortage by importing hippos to be bred in the bayou. Hippo ranches are huge moneymakers, and cowboys ride exotic breeds of hippos known for their overland speed. Meanwhile, feral hippos haunt the criminal-run riverboats — a handy punishment for those who get caught cheating at cards. A ragtag band is assembled to stop a dastardly plot, and this gang is loads of fun, and full of people representing all the shades of the gender rainbow — all without blinking an eye. This novella is oodles of entertainment, and its underlying silliness absolutely hit the spot on a stressful day. I can’t wait for the sequel, Taste of Marrow, due out in September.

 

 

 

 

The Deep by Nick Cutter: This is a quick page-turner, but I found myself weirdly unengaged. An odd global virus starts the book on a promising note, but the virus piece is soon overshadowed by the malevolent goings-on deep in the sea at a research lab at the bottom of the Marianas Trench. There are lots of icky and creepy things in a setting that should be terrifying… but it just wasn’t scary, there’s no pay-off for the initial premise, and ultimately, the conclusion simply wasn’t satisfying. There is, however, tons of yuck and ick, so definitely not a book for the squeamish.

 

 

 

 

 

We Stand On Guard by Brian K. Vaughan: A graphic novel limited series (consisting of six installments) that tells the story of a US invasion of Canada and the scruffy resistance team that fights back. It’s quite fun, and a quick read. Fans of Saga and Y: The Last Man will absolutely want to check this one out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And that’s what I read while I was away! I covered a lot of ground — horror, historical fiction, comics, and dogs, to name a few — and that’s just the way I like it. Give me a stack of books with a lot of variety, and I’m a happy camper, no matter where I may find myself.

And now that I’m home, I’m looking forward to diving back into my bookshelves and seeing what odd array of books I can come up with next!

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Book Review: Mr. Mercedes

In the frigid pre-dawn hours, in a distressed Midwestern city, hundreds of desperate unemployed folks are lined up for a spot at a job fair. Without warning, a lone driver plows through the crowd in a stolen Mercedes, running over the innocent, backing up, and charging again. Eight people are killed; fifteen are wounded. The killer escapes.

In another part of town, months later, a retired cop named Bill Hodges is still haunted by the unsolved crime. When he gets a crazed letter from someone who self-identifies as the “perk” and threatens an even more diabolical attack, Hodges wakes up from his depressed and vacant retirement, hell-bent on preventing another tragedy.

Brady Hartfield lives with his alcoholic mother in the house where he was born. He loved the feel of death under the wheels of the Mercedes, and he wants that rush again.

Only Bill Hodges, with a couple of highly unlikely allies, can apprehend the killer before he strikes again. And they have no time to lose, because Brady’s next mission, if it succeeds, will kill or maim thousands.

Mr. Mercedes is a war between good and evil, from the master of suspense whose insight into the mind of this obsessed, insane killer is chilling and unforgettable.

I’m super late to this party, having finally read Mr. Mercedes just about three years after its publication. Why did I wait so long? No idea… but I’m glad I convinced myself to pick up the paperback that’s been sitting on my shelf for so long.

In Mr. Mercedes, Stephen King introduces us to a wonderful main character, Bill Hodges — a retired detective with nothing much to do except watch TV and fiddle with his gun, until he’s contacted by an elusive mass murderer who lives for the destruction he causes. As Hodges becomes reenergized by his search for the killer, he risks himself, his allies, and possibly thousands of lives to track down the psycho before he strikes again.

The plot is so tight and exciting that it’s impossible to look away. I sped through the story, because it’s one of those books where you just need to know what’s next and what’s after that.

I loved the main character and his two unlikely sidekicks, and found the chapters told from the killer’s perspective utterly chilling and convincing. Ick. Inside Brady’s head is not a healthy place to be. I also loved the shout-outs to King’s earlier works, as well as the mention of Judas Coyne from Joe Hill’s Heart-Shaped Box.

I can’t wait to continue with this trilogy! Stephen King is my go-to guy for when I need a book to keep me company while traveling, and he never lets me down. Mr. Mercedes is a winner. A must-read for King fans, of course (and why did I ever doubt that?), but also just a great crime thriller for anyone who enjoys the intensity of the genre.
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The details:

Title: Mr. Mercedes
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Scribner
Publication date: June 3, 2014
Length: 436 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Purchased

Audiobook Review: Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe

 

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to find yourself strapped to a giant rocket that’s about to go from zero to 17,500 miles per hour? Or to look back on the earth from outer space and see the surprisingly precise line between day and night? Or to stand in front of the Hubble telescope, wondering if the emergency repair you’re about to make will inadvertently ruin humankind’s chance to unlock the universe’s secrets? Mike Massimino has been there, and in Spaceman he puts you inside the suit, with all the zip and buoyancy of life in microgravity.

Massimino’s childhood space dreams were born the day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, but his journey to realizing those dreams was as unlikely as it is captivating. Growing up in a working-class Long Island family, Massimino catapulted himself to Columbia and then MIT, only to flunk his qualifying exams and be rejected twice by NASA before making it to the final round of astronaut selection—where he was told his poor eyesight meant he’d never make the cut. But even that couldn’t stop him from finally earning his wings, making the jump to training in T-38 Air Force jets and preparing his body—and soul—for the journey to the cosmos.

Taking us through the surreal wonder and beauty of his first spacewalk, the tragedy of losing friends in the Columbia shuttle accident, and the development of his enduring love for the Hubble telescope—which he’d be tasked with saving on his final mission— Massimino has written an ode to never giving up and the power of teamwork to make anything possible. Spaceman invites us into a rare, wonderful world where the nerdiest science meets the most thrilling adventure, and pulls back a curtain on just what having “the right stuff” really means.

I’ve always had a fascination with the space program, and I’ve loved both fiction and non-fiction books about the early days of NASA and the astronaut program, as well as more humorous (but still informative) works like Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars. I came across Spaceman purely by chance, and my first thought was, “Hey! It’s that guy who played an astronaut on The Big Bang Theory!”

Well, that’s true, but Mike Massimino is much more than some dude who had a cameo on a sit-com. Massimino embodies the “right stuff”, the true core of what makes an astronaut special. And I’m delighted that I took the time to listen to his audiobook and experience his story.

In Spaceman, Massimino takes us through his New York childhood, his education, his repeated attempts to overcome hideously difficult challenges — oh, for example, fixing his eyesight in order to meet NASA standards — and his determination to one day be a real astronaut.

Through it all, we get an intimate view of the US space program and its triumphs and tragedies, as well as one man’s dedication to achieving his life’s goals.

Massimino presents it all with humility and with humor. For a man who is startlingly intelligent and talented, he’s incredibly self-deprecating throughout the book, and does not shy away from discussing his shortcomings. His repeated message is about sticking with things, even when they seem impossible or out of reach.

Massimino himself narrates the audiobook, which is a wonderful thing. He’s got a gruff, deep voice, and it’s perfect for conveying his own story. Listening to him narrate his first space flight or his father’s illness or his sorrow over lost colleagues, you get the sense that his feelings are real and true, and there’s a sense of immediacy and intimacy in hearing him speak his own words.

There are a few truly beautiful things about Spaceman. One is the portrayal of friendship and goodness that Massimino presents as he speaks about his colleagues in the space program. He describes the dedication, the support, and the sacrifice that they all bring. Through his narrative, the picture emerges of people dedicating their lives to a higher cause, who genuinely believe in what they’re doing and that they’re making a difference in the lives of humankind.

Second is the devotion to one another among the people involved in NASA. When personal needs or crises emerge, the team is there for the individuals and their families, and it’s real. It goes way beyond sending flowers to a bereaved coworker — these people really care and give of themselves in thousands of ways.

Third, Massimino’s descriptions of what it feels like to fly, to spacewalk, and to see the Earth from a distance of 350 miles — just gorgeous. For a scientist, he’s practically a poet.

Finally, I couldn’t help thinking that Massimino himself is just a really nice guy. He says good things about EVERYONE. There’s not a single person he mentions in this book that he doesn’t praise or offer gratitude toward, and he’s quick to point out the talents of just about everyone he’s worked with. Some memoirs focus on the guilty secrets; in Spaceman, we only see the good. Quite impressive.

Sections of Spaceman are particularly moving, but none more so than when Massimino tells of the Columbia shuttle tragedy. He knew all of the lost crewmembers personally, and makes the disaster feel all the more tangible through the descriptions of the terrible events and human loss.

I highly recommend Spaceman — definitely for those who enjoy reading about space exploration, but also for anyone who appreciates a straightforward tale of one person’s journey toward his goals, told by someone who appreciates every opportunity he’s had to pursue and live his dreams.

A reading note: While I loved listening to the audiobook and hearing Massimino narrate his own story, I found it helpful to have a print copy (thank you, public library) on hand as well, both for going back and checking earlier chapters, and in order to be able to view the photos that go along with the story.

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The details:

Title: Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe
Author: Mike Massimino
Publisher: Crown Archetype
Publication date: October 4, 2016
Length (print): 320 pages
Length (audiobook): 10 hours, 57 minutes
Genre: Non-fiction/memoir
Source: Purchased

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Sudden Appearance of Hope

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Listen.
All the world forgets me. First my face, then my voice, then the consequences of my deeds.
So listen. Remember me.

My name is Hope Arden, and you won’t know who I am. We’ve met before – a thousand times. But I am the girl the world forgets.

It started when I was sixteen years old. A slow declining, an isolation, one piece at a time.

A father forgetting to drive me to school. A mother setting the table for three, not four. A teacher who forgets to chase my missing homework. A friend who looks straight through me and sees a stranger.

No matter what I do, the words I say, the people I hurt, the crimes I commit – you will never remember who I am.

That makes my life tricky. But it also makes me dangerous . . .

The Sudden Appearance of Hope is the tale of the girl no one remembers. But this gripping story – of love and loss, of hope and despair, of living in the moment and dying to leave a mark – is novel that will stay with you for ever.

 

My Thoughts:

Okay, misleading. The cover image and the blurb make it sounds as though this book is about a girl, possibly a teen.

It’s not. It’s about a grown woman, probably mid-twenties — and if the age were the only issue that annoyed me, we’d be in much better shape here.

The premise of this book is actually fascinating. Hope cannot be remembered. People who see her day after day react each time as though they’re meeting a stranger. Hope is so unmemorable that she seems to create holes that the subconscious works to fill. Someone who had a delicious dinner with Hope will remember being at the restaurant — for a meal that they ate alone. She can disappear in any crowd, because as soon as she’s out of sight, she’s literally out of mind.

The parts of the book that work best are about Hope’s inner life and how it is to be in the world so utterly alone, absolutely free of any restrictions or responsibilities, yet with no connections that last longer than a few hours. It makes sense that ultimately Hope would become a gifted thief. You can’t exactly hold down a steady job when each day your boss thinks you’re someone completely new… and it’s easy to get away with crimes when eyewitnesses never remember seeing you.

The plot of the book centers around a creepy app called Perfection, encouraging people to become “perfect” through an endless cycle of feedback on their habits, choices, purchases, and more. Hope becomes obsessed with tracking down the people who profit from Perfection and hurting them, and ends up involved in international espionage as part of a very long manhunt. Unfortunately, much of Hope’s journey has to do with her vendetta against Perfection, and it’s confusing and distracting and really, very disjointed.

Frankly, this book was a slog to get through. Like I said, the concept of Hope’s inability to be remembered is pretty mind-warping stuff — but the plot ends up in a pointless, long drawn-out crime caper, and the writing seems to consist mainly of strings of phrases with a noticeable lack of verbs.

I might have enjoyed this book more if it were about 100 pages shorter, but even so, the entire crime story left me cold. Terrific concept, weak execution. I didn’t hate the book, but I can’t say I particularly enjoyed it either.

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The details:

Title: The Sudden Appearance of Hope
Author: Claire North
Publisher: Redhook
Publication date: May 17, 2016
Length: 468 pages
Genre: Science fiction
Source: Library

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Reading Reaction: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

I did it! I finally finished reading the mammoth biography, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.

It’s no secret by now that this 800+ page history book is the inspiration for the Broadway musical Hamilton. And — oh yeah — let me just mention right here that I have tickets to the show FOR THIS WEEKEND!

Once I actually got the tickets, I became firm in my resolution to read the book. I was not giving away my shot to learn more about the ten-dollar founding father without a father. And so, in early April, I dug in. First, I started with the audiobook — a 36 hour audiobook! — figuring I’d make slow but steady progress. And I did — but took a break to listen to a couple of other things, and then couldn’t get back into the flow.

Next, I turned to the Kindle edition, with a vague plan to treat it as a serial read — maybe I’d devote 10 – 15 minutes a day, and sooner or later I’d get through the book.

I had to finish it.

After all, there were a million things I hadn’t known.

But it turns out, I just couldn’t wait.

Pretty soon, I was reading like I was running out of time.

(Sorry. I’ll stop. Soon.)

But seriously, I’m glad I stuck with it. Alexander Hamilton is a brilliant, LONG, minutely detailed, and exhausting book — but emphasis on the brilliant.

Sadly, it also made me realize that while I thought I’d gotten a pretty decent education when it came to US history, apparently my teachers skipped quite a bit. I was fairly good on the Revolutionary War and Civil War, but this book showed me how little I knew about the early, post-war years of our country, the political factions and their intense rivalries and scorching hatreds, and the incredible animosity between Hamilton and, well, so many of the founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. I actually had only the slightest clue about the process of the creation of the Constitution and Hamilton’s role in it. The book is eye-opening in the extreme — and while said eyes did actually glaze over a bit, especially during the chapters on Hamilton’s economic plans, national debt, banking, etc — I learned a tremendous amount that was new to me and/or gave me new perspective on political discord and the origins of controversies that linger to this day.

The writing in Alexander Hamilton is quite wonderful and never dull, and I loved how, thanks to Hamilton’s compulsion toward the written word, so much of his own written record is incorporated into the book. It’s enlightening as well to see writings of George Washington and other historical figures, and particularly moving to see the written record of the love and affection between Hamilton and Eliza.

The behind the scenes look at Hamilton’s time on Washington’s staff during during the war, the maneuvering and struggling to get the Constitution ratified, the deeply bloodthirsty political battles — all are written so vividly, and with such great use of language from the historical record of correspondence, newspaper articles, and personal memoirs — that I often felt like I was in the room where it happened.

So how is it that an 800-page history book can bring a woman of the 21st century to tears?

Adieu, best of wives and best of women. Embrace all my darling children for me.

Easy. By the time the duel with Aaron Burr rolled around, I was ready to put the book in the freezer. (Yes, that’s a Joey Tribbiani reference. Always appropriate.) I didn’t want it to happen. Make it stop! It feels especially silly getting emotional over events that (a) are carved in stone and actually happened and (b) happened over 200 years ago. Kind of similar to how I felt reading Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel — I wanted to somehow have the story work out differently so that Anne Boleyn could keep her head, but damn history! It happens anyway, despite my feels.

There are places where Hamilton’s writing and Chernow’s analysis are startlingly relevant. I’ll just leave a few bits here:

After a protracted inquiry into Hamilton’s conduct as Treasury Secretary which resulted in a finding that all charges were baseless:

Nevertheless, it frustrated him that after this exhaustive investigation his opponents still rehashed the stale charges of misconduct. He had learned a lesson about propaganda in politics and mused wearily that “no character, however upright, is a match for constantly reiterated attacks, however false.” If a charge was made often enough, people assumed in the end “that a person so often accused cannot be entirely innocent.”

Hmmm. (But her emails…)

Or hey, how about how a President selects key advisers?

Washington had always shown great care and humility in soliciting the views of his cabinet. Adams, in contrast, often disregarded his cabinet and enlisted friends and family, especially Abigail, as trusted advisers.

Lest we think political discourse was more genteel and polite back in ye olden days…

On October 1, he sent a follow-up note to Adams, calling the allegations against him “a base, wicked, and cruel calumny, destitute even of a plausible pretext to excuse the folly or mask the depravity which must have dictated it.”

And then there’s this commentary on a document about Adams published by Hamilton:

“And, if true, surely it must be admitted that Mr. Adams is not fit to be president and his unfitness should be made known to the electors and the public. I conceive it a species of treason to conceal from the public his incapacity.”

I ended up highlighting a LOT as I was reading — either wonderfully phrased words from Hamilton himself or interesting bits about the customs of the day or insightful hints of how Hamilton and his friends, family, and foes thought, as gleaned from their journals and letters.

I may not be all that young, scrappy, or hungry, but I did end up devouring this book once I got into its rhythms. Again, it’s weird to say that a book about history, some of it quite well-known, can be suspenseful, yet that’s how it felt. The author manages to take the events and people of the historical record and make them feel alive, and writes with a flair for capturing the intensity and drama of Hamilton’s life, as well as the emotions and experiences of Eliza, Angelica (the Schuyler sisters!), and Hamilton’s closest friends and harshest critics and enemies.

Okay, and I did come away from the book despising Aaron Burr (the damn fool who shot him), because it seems clear that Hamilton went to the duel determined not to shoot Burr, but Burr went there planning to shoot to kill, if he could.

Beyond the dramatic ending, I gained a huge amount of knowledge about Alexander Hamilton, the man who grew up impoverished and of questionable birth, who grew into one of our nation’s finest thinkers and leaders. What an amazing reading experience!

Yes, just about everyone has fallen in love with the Hamilton musical. (I admit, I was very late to the party myself, but have been doing my best to catch up!) If you’re someone who mainly knows the story of Hamilton courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda, I encourage you to give this book a shot. It’s worth the effort, and gives a whole new meaning to all those amazing lyrics that we all quote at random times. (Right? Not just me? Thanks.)

It’ll probably be a while before I venture back to the non-fiction shelf to pick up a history book or political biography… but Alexander Hamilton has proved to me once again that reading non-fiction can be just as much of a thrill as reading a great novel, when done well and in the hands of a gifted writer.

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Novella: Gwendy’s Button Box by Stephen King and Richard Chizmar

The little town of Castle Rock, Maine has witnessed some strange events and unusual visitors over the years, but there is one story that has never been told… until now.

There are three ways up to Castle View from the town of Castle Rock: Route 117, Pleasant Road, and the Suicide Stairs. Every day in the summer of 1974 twelve-year-old Gwendy Peterson has taken the stairs, which are held by strong (if time-rusted) iron bolts and zig-zag up the cliffside.

At the top of the stairs, Gwendy catches her breath and listens to the shouts of the kids on the playground. From a bit farther away comes the chink of an aluminum bat hitting a baseball as the Senior League kids practice for the Labor Day charity game.

One day, a stranger calls to Gwendy: “Hey, girl. Come on over here for a bit. We ought to palaver, you and me.”

On a bench in the shade sits a man in black jeans, a black coat like for a suit, and a white shirt unbuttoned at the top. On his head is a small neat black hat. The time will come when Gwendy has nightmares about that hat…

Whoosh. I read this novella all in one sitting… and I think you will too. Stephen King fans will just eat this up. It’s a quick story that casts an eerie spell, just the right length to sink its unsettling claws into your brain.

I wouldn’t call it horror, exactly. There’s very little outright blood or gore, although bad things do happen. Most of the tension and horror is psychological, as we see what happens to Gwendy after that fateful encounter at the top of Castle View.

The strange man gives Gwendy an oddly beautiful box, with eight differently colored buttons on top and levers on the sides. He shows her the levers: One dispenses a tiny piece of chocolate, which will be absolutely delicious, but which will also eliminate her cravings for junk food. The other lever dispenses a rare old silver dollar in perfect condition. As for the buttons on top, the man provides cryptic explanations, and then entrusts the box into Gwendy’s care.

And soon, her life begins to change. Gwendy at 12 is a little on the heavy side, and she’s determined to reinvent herself before starting middle school in the fall. Between her daily runs up the Suicide Stairs, and her new-found freedom from the lure of desserts and sweets, Gwendy gets in better and better shape. Is it Gwendy’s own effort paying off… or does the box have something to do with it?

Other positive changes soon follow. Gwendy’s vision improves to the point where she no longer needs glasses. She becomes a star athlete and a top student. Boys want to date her and girls want to be her friend. Her parents’ over-indulgence in alcohol seems to dwindle away with any noticeable effort. But the box is still there, hidden away for safe-keeping, and Gwendy never quite manages to get it out of her thoughts or to stop wondering what would happen if she actually pressed any of those colorful buttons.

Man, this is a good story! Even though Gwendy’s life gets better and better, there’s a dangerous undercurrent that plagues her — and us. What’s the price of all this good fortune? And who will pay it?

I don’t want to say much more. It’s a quick novella that can be read in one gulp, which is really what I recommend. There’s something about getting from start to finish without breaking the disturbing mood that lends the story even more power.

Gwendy’s Button Box is a must-read for King fans (which probably goes without saying) — but really, anyone who enjoys a tightly woven plot with an air of mystery and dread should check it out.

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The details:

Title: Gwendy’s Button Box
Author: Stephen King and Richard Chizmar
Publisher: Cemetery Dance Publications
Publication date: May 16, 2017
Length: 175 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Pearl Thief

Before Verity…there was Julie.

When fifteen-year-old Julia Beaufort-Stuart wakes up in the hospital, she knows the lazy summer break she’d imagined won’t be exactly like she anticipated. And once she returns to her grandfather’s estate, a bit banged up but alive, she begins to realize that her injury might not have been an accident. One of her family’s employees is missing, and he disappeared on the very same day she landed in the hospital.

Desperate to figure out what happened, she befriends Euan McEwen, the Scottish Traveller boy who found her when she was injured, and his standoffish sister, Ellen. As Julie grows closer to this family, she experiences some of the prejudices they’ve grown used to firsthand, a stark contrast to her own upbringing, and finds herself exploring thrilling new experiences that have nothing to do with a missing-person investigation.

Her memory of that day returns to her in pieces, and when a body is discovered, her new friends are caught in the crosshairs of long-held biases about Travellers. Julie must get to the bottom of the mystery in order to keep them from being framed for the crime.

In this coming-of-age prequel to Code Name Verity, we meet a much younger Julie — a privileged daughter of an aristocratic Scottish family, home for the summer from her Swiss boarding school. Julie and her siblings are converging on their late grandfather’s estate one last time as the grounds, manor house, and belongings are being either sorted for auction or repurposed into a boys’ school.

At the beginning of the summer, Julie is free-spirited and ready for fun. When Julie arrives earlier than expected (and ahead of her luggage), she grabs an old kilt that belonged to her brother and sets off to explore along the river that runs through their property — where she’s konked on the head and knocked unconcious.

As Julie recovers, she develops a connection with the Traveller family who rescued her, and begins to dig through her foggy memories to figure out who knocked her out, and what’s going on with the ancient and priceless Scottish river pearls that were a beloved part of her grandfather’s treasure trove.

Through Julie’s eyes, we get to know the family of Scottish Travellers and see the prejudice and cruelty they’re so casually subjected to, even by people Julie otherwise had respected. Likewise, through Julie, we meet a reclusive, disfigured librarian and gain an understanding of what it truly means to look beyond the surface.

The adventure and mystery of the story are quite entertaining, and there’s nothing here that would earn anything more scandalous than a PG rating. That said, Julie does explore her sexuality through a series of important kisses, and discovers that her orientation may be more complicated than she’d been prepared for. At the same time, we see the great love and loyalty that Julie is capable of, whether directed toward her immediate family, long-time acquaintances, or fast friends.

This is important to note, because of course this is Julie from Code Name Verity, and while The Pearl Thief is set earlier than that stellar book, it’s an interesting look at the young woman Julie was before her life was changed forever by World War II. In The Pearl Thief, Julie is still a half-formed woman, but she’s already well on her way toward establishing her outsized bravery, talent for mimicry and pretending to be someone else, keen mind that zooms in on details, and of course, the absolute devotion to her friends.

It’s not essential to have read Code Name Verity before reading The Pearl Thief, but I think it does add a great deal of meaning. Without the context of CNV, The Pearl  Thief is an interesting and entertaining adventure story, with a beautiful setting and a very neat interweaving of Scottish history and folklore within the more contemporary mystery plot. But having read CNV, The Pearl Thief is all above the above, plus.

It’s a beautiful look into the life of a young woman who we know will go on to be remarkable. For that reason, while The Pearl Thief itself isn’t a highly emotional story, reading it manages to be a moving experience. Here is Julie —  Queenie — in her early days, and it’s easy to see the roots of who she will one day be.

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The details:

Title: The Pearl Thief
Author: Elizabeth Wein
Publisher: Disney-Hyperion
Publication date: May 2, 2017
Length: 326 pages
Genre: Young adult
Source: Purchased

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Audiobook Review: Waking Gods

 

As a child, Rose Franklin made an astonishing discovery: a giant metallic hand, buried deep within the earth. As an adult, she’s dedicated her brilliant scientific career to solving the mystery that began that fateful day: Why was a titanic robot of unknown origin buried in pieces around the world? Years of investigation have produced intriguing answers—and even more perplexing questions. But the truth is closer than ever before when a second robot, more massive than the first, materializes and lashes out with deadly force.

Now humankind faces a nightmare invasion scenario made real, as more colossal machines touch down across the globe. But Rose and her team at the Earth Defense Corps refuse to surrender. They can turn the tide if they can unlock the last secrets of an advanced alien technology. The greatest weapon humanity wields is knowledge in a do-or-die battle to inherit the Earth . . . and maybe even the stars.

Wow. What a ride.

At the advice of the fabulous Bonnie at For the Love of Words, I decide to listen to Waking Gods rather than read a print version. And also thanks to her input, I first listened to book #1 of the Themis Files — Sleeping Giants — as a refresher. (I read — and loved — Sleeping Giants last year. Check out my rave review.)

Waking Gods picks up the story ten years after the ending of Sleeping Giants. Over the course of the intervening decade, the ragtag team of scientists and robot-wranglers has evolved into an organized global force called the EDC (Earth Defense Corps). Dr. Rose Franklin heads up the efforts, under the ever-present guidance of the unnamed man who pulls the strings. Meanwhile, robot pilots Kara and Vincent enjoy their life on the road with Themis, taking the giant robot on a worldwide goodwill tour to promote international cooperation and harmony.

Until… more robots arrive. Now Earth and all its people are threatened by an alien force that they have no hope of overpowering. If Rose and her team can’t come up with solutions, there may be nothing left.

Okay, wow again. Waking Gods is an absolutely stunning and addictive sequel that kept my attention from the very first moment all the way through to the end. As with Sleeping Giants, Waking Gods is told via transcripts of interviews, lab notes, radio broadcasts, and military communications. It works beautifully. Focusing for a moment on the audio listening experience, I was blown away by the intensity of listening rather than reading. While the transcripts work well on the page, it’s another thing entirely to listen to the talented narrators essentially act out each intense moment.

The audiobook is a full cast recording, so that each character has his or her unique voice, full of expression and personality. The unnamed narrator from the first book is back, and his voice in particular is odd but powerful. The rest of the cast is quite good (if you’ve read the books, you’ll be happy to know that Mr. Burns is just perfect), and the listening experience brings a tension and immediacy to the action scenes.

Waking Gods is a thrilling follow-up to Sleeping Giants. I do, however, have one minor complaint. I thought this was a two-book project. I haven’t seen anything anywhere referencing a 3rd. And it seemed as though Waking Gods finished the story (with an awesome climax, I might add)… until the very last moment, which took the concluding scene and turned it into a cliffhanger. So is there a book #3 on the way? So far, I haven’t been able to find a hint of it online.

I highly recommend both Sleeping Giants and Waking Gods — and definitely recommend checking out the audiobook versions, if you’re at all an audio person. Both books make for excellent listening experiences, and I was on the edge of my seat the entire time!

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The details:

Title: Waking Gods (The Themis Files, #2)
Author: Sylvain Neuvel
Publisher: Del Rey
Publication date: April 4, 2017
Length (print): 325 pages
Length (audiobook): 9 hours, 2 minutes
Genre: Science fiction
Source: E-book review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; audiobook downloaded via Audible

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Take A Peek Book Review: Less Than a Treason (Kate Shugak, #21)

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Kate Shugak is a native Aleut working as a private investigator in Alaska. She’s 5 foot 1 inch tall, carries a scar that runs from ear to ear across her throat and owns a half-wolf, half-husky dog named Mutt. Resourceful, strong-willed, defiant, Kate is tougher than your average heroine – and she needs to be to survive the worst the Alaskan wilds can throw at her.

Two thousand people go missing in Alaska every year. They vanish in the middle of mountain footraces, on fishing boats in the Bering Sea, on small planes in the Bush. Now a geologist known for going walkabout with his rock hammer has disappeared from the Suulutaq Mine in the Park. Was it deliberate? An accident? Foul play? Kate Shugak may be the only person who can find out.

But for the fact that Kate, too, is now among the missing…

My Thoughts:

Kate is back! Kate is back! Kate is back!

Yes, I’m excited. And yes, I loved this book!

If you’ve read my blog at all over the last couple of years, then you may know that I developed a full-on obsession for Dana Stabenow’s amazing Kate Shugak series. Kate is tough, devoted, smart, and resilient, and lives in one of the most beautiful places in the world. In the Kate Shugak series, the author serves up mystery after mystery — but really, what pulls me back for book after book is Kate herself, the “Park rats” who make up the tiny community in Niniltna, the troopers and cops and aunties and pilots who form the backbone of Kate’s world, and the richly entangled storytelling that builds up over the course of the series.

We’re now 21 books in (plus the Liam Campbell series of 4 books, which somewhat intersect with the Kate books and add yet another facet to her world). The series is still going strong. I gobbled up the previous 20 books (and the 4 Liams) in something like 18 months, and then was bereft over having to wait for Kate’s return, especially as #20 ended with a super cruel cliffhanger.

Well, now my girl is back! The mystery in #21 is standard Kate fare (mining, ore rights, missing persons); the real treat is in seeing Kate recovering from a traumatic event and reconnecting with all the various people who love her. All the old favorites are here — Bobby, Dinah, Katya, the aunties, and more — and Kate’s love interest Jim is as devoted (and hot) as ever. There are call-backs to earlier episodes, and some hair-raising action scenes, but mostly Less Than a Treason is a delight simply because we see Kate reclaiming her place in her own life and community.

Ah. I love these books, and I love the characters. This one made me so, so very happy, and I adored the ending too. I can only sit here now and hope and pray that Kate Shugak will live on in many, many, many more books. Do you hear me, Dana Stabenow??? I want more Kate, now and forever, amen.

Reading note 01 – The Kate books are full of super fun pop culture, literary, and musical references, and this one is no exception. Watch out for a selection in my Thursday Quotables post this week.

Reading note 02 – In case it’s not perfectly obvious, the books in this series do not — in my humble opinion — work as stand-alones. There’s simply too much world-building, full of rich and varied characters with unique and often complicatedly interconnected backstories, to be able to jump in with book #21! So take my advice, start at the beginning, and enjoy!

Reaidng note 03 — I’ll never get tired of Dana Stabenow’s gorgeous descriptions of Alaskan wildlife and scenery, even though she makes me mad that I’m not there right at this very moment!

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The details:

Title: Less Than a Treason
Author: Dana Stabenow
Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: May 6, 2017
Length: 320 pages
Genre: Mystery
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: The Boy on the Bridge

In the 2014 book The Girl With All the Gifts, author M. R. Carey introduced us to a terrifying world in which humanity has been overrun by “hungries” — humans turned into zombies after being infected by a virulent and unstoppable fungus. At an isolated army base in England, a military and medical crew work with a bunch of young hungries, who seem to be a different sort of species, still drawn to flesh for sustenance but able to speak, think, and feel as humans do. (If you haven’t read The Girl With All the Gifts, you need to check it out! My book review is here. The movie is worth seeing too!)

The new release The Boy on the Bridge is a prequel to The Girl With All the Gifts, set about 10 years earlier. Humanity has already been decimated by the Hungry plague, and the remaining humans in England live in a barricaded settlement called the Beacon. The Beacon sends out a team of scientists and soldiers in an armored vehicle, the Rosalind Franklin, to travel the country, collect samples, and search for some sort of cure or treatment for the plague — likely a hopeless cause.

The crew is an uneasy mix of career soldiers and geeky scientists, plus a gifted teen boy, Stephen Greaves, who is considered by most of the crewmembers to be possibly autistic, definitely odd, and generally a burden. The exception to this is Dr. Samrina Khan – Rina — who insisted on bringing Stephen along for the mission, and who acts as a surrogate mother to the boy. Stephen is brilliant, and Rina considers him to be crucial to any chance of making a scientific breakthrough.

We spend the entire book on the journey aboard Rosie, getting to know the crew as they bump along the countryside in very cramped quarters. There are rivalries and resentments, and the enormous pressure of knowing that they may be humanity’s last hope. The team is constantly in danger as well. Beyond taking samples, they venture outside of Rosie’s safety to do cullings along the way — basically, using their firepower to mow down as many hungries as possible.

The scenes of dormant hungries just standing wherever they happen to be, motionless and inert until triggered by movement or smell, are frightening and creepy. The danger is always present, and the reading experience can be almost as claustrophobic as it must be traveling inside Rosie.

I found the book to be slow at first, as it takes a while to get to know the twelve team members as individuals, and the first half or so of the book occasionally feels like one really unpleasant road trip. However, once the team encounters a group of feral children, the tension and the mystery definitely amp up. Who are these children, and where did they come from? What do they want… and can they be stopped? Meanwhile, Stephen and Rina each have secret agendas, and as the plot moves forward, their struggles become the central focus.

I spent much of the book wondering how this story would connect to The Girl With All the Gifts, and by the end, it becomes clear in a way that’s satisfying. The climax is action-packed and dramatic, and I was happy with the resolution presented in the epilogue.

I wouldn’t rate this one as high as the first book, but I did find it an enjoyable, entertaining read. Needless to say, it’s not for the squeamish — but if you enjoy a good twist on a a zombie apocalypse, check out The Boy on the Bridge.

Side note: The title doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me, and neither does the book’s synopsis as it appears on Goodreads. So ignore those, and just read the book anyway!

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The details:

Title: The Boy on the Bridge
Author: M. R. Carey
Publisher: Orbit
Publication date: May 2, 2017
Length: 392 pages
Genre: Horror
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher

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