Thursday, March 31, 2016

Review of "Splinter the Silence" by Val McDermid




As this ninth book in the series opens Carol Jordan, having left her job as a Detective Chief Inspector with the Bradfield police, is renovating an English country barn to make a comfortable home for herself and her dog Flash. Carol is more or less estranged from her friend/former co-worker Tony Hill - a psychologist and forensic profiler.

After a local dinner party, Carol - who has an alcohol problem - is arrested for drink driving. With no other options Carol calls Tony for help, and the psychologist takes it upon himself to get Carol off the sauce - not an easy task. Carol is about to face charges in court when her old boss makes an offer she can't refuse. Carol's breathalyzer test will turn out to be 'faulty' if she agrees to return to the police force as the DCI in charge of a new roving Major Investigation Team (MIT). Carol gets to hand pick her team members and chooses Tony and a few good detectives she can trust.

Not everyone is happy about this. Several high-ranking police supervisors dislike Carol for making them look foolish (in previous books) and one former underling resents not being chosen for the new team. So when the press learns about the 'faulty' breathalyzer test - and splashes it across the front page - Carol suspects a cop leaked the information. And she plans to find out who.

Meanwhile, several women in the area have taken their own lives. Each woman expressed feminist views, was severely bullied online, and was apparently driven to suicide. Tony's instincts tell him these deaths are suspicious and Carol's newly formed MIT looks into them as a sort of practice run. This is all to the good since (as the reader knows) a killer is on the loose.

Members of the MIT interview various people, including cops who originally investigated the suicides, friends and relatives of the dead women, and people who posted ugly/threatening comments online. The team also learn that a certain type of book was left at the site of each 'suicide'. Very suspicious indeed!

In the end, the MIT uncovers the killer by dint of the skills of Detective Stacey Chen, an IT expert and hacker extraordinaire. Stacey backdoors her way into a book-selling website, CCTV camera files, motor vehicle registers, etc. and finds information that leads to the killer - and she does this all in a day or so!! To me this kind of resolution to a mystery book feels like cheating, more 'magic' than detective work.

The discovery of who leaked the breathalyzer story was also resolved too easily in my opinion. One of the MIT detectives had once been involved with a reporter...and he asked her.

There's more going on in the book as well. The issue of online bullying is addressed and the reader learns more about the lives of the characters. Carol is struggling with her alcoholism; Tony is trying to re-establish a close (not necessarily romantic) friendship with Carol; Stacey is in a relationship with a handsome but shallow fellow detective; some Bradfield detectives are trying to undermine Carol; the killer has issues stemming from childhood; and more.

All in all I enjoyed the story, which has an interesting variety of characters and an engaging mystery. I'd read more books in this series.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Review of "The Broken Window" by Jeffery Deaver

















  

In this book, wheelchair-bound criminalist Lincoln Rhyme and his partner, detective Amelia Sachs, are drawn into the investigation when Lincoln's cousin Arthur Rhyme is arrested for murder. Lincoln and his team soon discover that the real murderer is a serial rapist/murderer who uses personal information from a data mining company to lure his victims and to plant evidence so innocent people are arrested for the crimes.

The source of the personal data used by the perpetrator seems to be an information collection company called Strategic Systems Datacorp (SSD). When Lincoln's team starts to investigate SSD, the murderer - dubbed "522" - realizes that his plan has been discovered. Enraged, he cooks up schemes to get the detectives off his trail so he can continue his crime spree.

Deavers is a master at this type of story and the book zips along at a brisk pace and holds your interest.

Aside from the plot I was very interested to learn how much information about us is collected and collated by professional "data collectors." They apparently itemize the kinds and brands of products we use, our educational history, what kind of vacations we take, what restaurants we favor, where we get our hair cut, etc.etc. Ditto for all our relatives, friends, and acquaintances. In the book, the murderer makes use of this kind of information to plot his crimes.

Monday, March 28, 2016

Review of "The Bloodletter's Daughter: A Novel of Old Bohemia" by Linda Lafferty




This book was inspired by the true story of Don Julius, the illegitimate son of Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf. Don Julius was a mentally ill young man who scandalized the Holy Roman Empire in the early 1600s, when he cold-bloodedly murdered a young girl who worked in a Bohemian bathhouse.

As the book opens an adolescent Don Julius is obsessed with deciphering the secrets of a book called 'The Coded Book of Wonder', an activity which seems to quiet the evil voices in his head. Emperor Rudolf, thinking his son Julius should get out and about, forbids the boy from reading the book. Don Julius then devotes his time to feasting and debauchery and grows up to be a violent, obese young man who copulates in the streets and terrorizes the people of Prague, where he lives.

Fearing backlash from the public the Emperor sends his son to a village called Český Krumlov in Bohemia, where Julius is essentially imprisoned in a castle with guards, a priest, and a doctor. A local barber-surgeon named Pichler is hired to cure the mad royal using the medical treatment of the time, blood-letting and leeches. To assist him, Pilchler brings his daughter Marketa, a pretty young girl who works in the family-run bathhouse but longs to be a doctor. The descriptions of what goes on in the bathhouse are quite graphic. The  male customers paw and pinch the bathhouse girls, masturbate, and one particularly gross customer negotiates with Marketa's mother to take Marketa's virginity when she gets a little older.
 
Deranged Julius, convinced that Marketa is an angel from The Coded Book of Wonder, becomes obsessed with her - and his subsequent behavior has terrible consequences. Though the book is fiction, the historical events depicted are plausible and the arrogance and behavior of the Empire's rulers is shocking. It seems a prince of the realm could rape and pillage as he pleased with the townsfolk having no one to turn to for help. Nevertheless the murder of an innocent girl was apparently  a step too far and Emperor Rudolf was forced to act, especially since his brother was already plotting to replace him on the throne.

The story's setting is well-portrayed and the characters are vividly described and believable though I disliked many of them, including Don Julius, his priest, Marketa's mother, and most of the patrons of the bathhouse. The author does a laudable job fictionalizing Don Julius' life but for me the story moves slowly and isn't totally compelling. Fans of historical fiction, though, might like the book better than I did.

Review of "The Mind's Eye" by Oliver Sacks




Dr. Oliver Sacks was a practicing neurologist and professor who wrote a number of popular books about people afflicted with neurological and/or brain damage. In this book Sacks relates stories about patients who developed problems with their eyes or the 'vision' areas of the brain, including loss of the ability to read, inability to recognize everday objects, and impairment of stereoscopic and/or peripheral vision. Sacks also tells a very personal story about his own eye tumor.

Sacks starts with the story of Lillian Kallir, a gifted concert pianist who slowly lost her ability to read music, then words (writing), and finally the ability to identify mundane objects like a fruit or a violin. Through it all, Lillian retained her writing skills and maintained a lively correspondence - though she couldn't read what she wrote. (I'll admit, this seems REALLY strange to me.)

In normal life Lillian functioned, in part, by memorizing the location of objects around her. Sacks tells a story of having tea at Lillian's house and inadvertently moving a plate of biscuits, after which Lillian could no longer 'see' the biscuits - though they were still on the table. Lillian never recovered her lost abilities but was able to live a (more or less) normal life because of her musical gifts, excellent memory, and the help of her husband, friends, and doctors.

Sacks also relates stories about other individuals who lost their ability to read and/or recognize objects - usually due to a stroke or brain injury - and how they coped (or didn't) with the problem. Some patients eventually recovered their capabilities, some didn't.

Another interesting topic Sacks address is the inability of some people (including himself) to recognize faces, a condition called prosopagnosia. This problem apparently plagued Sacks for all his life. He tells one story about leaving the office of his long-time psychiatrist, then meeting a gentleman in the lobby who addressed him in a friendly manner. Sacks had no idea who this was....until his psychiatrist identified himself. This problem can be so significant that some patients can't even identify their spouse or children in an 'out of context' situation. Prosopagnosia apparently affects a significant proportion of the population, and sufferers must develop coping mechanisms as best they can.

In the most personal part of the book Sacks relates his own experience with an eye tumor, his radiation and laser treatments, and the eventual loss of almost all vision in his right eye. This resulted in a diminution of both stereoscopic and peripheral vision. Again, in his humorous self-deprecating style, Sacks relates incidents of missing stairs, bumping into and tripping over furniture and dogs, and not seeing things around him. He relates the discomfiture of having people or objects 'disappear' from his right side, then suddenly appear again.

Sacks goes on to relate the stories of several people who either gained or lost stereoscopic vision. One woman who obtained stereoscopic vision after seeing everything in only two dimensions was mesmerized by seeing, for the first time, her steering wheel projecting from the dashboard and her rear-view mirror sticking out from the windshield. Overall, (for me) these sections are the weakest part of the book, being too long and repetitive.

Along with the various stories in the book Sacks discusses parts of the brain that are specialized for specific 'visual' functions, how these brain areas interact, and how malfunction or damage in these areas affects people's vision, reading, object recognition, and so on. All in all, an interesting and informative book.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

Review of "The Absent One" by Jussi Adler-Olsen




Detective Carl Morck's 'Department Q' in Copenhagen, Denmark - which investigates cold cases - has a new task. Two boarding school students, a brother and sister, were killed twenty years ago and a clique of unruly fellow students were suspects. Evidence was lacking, however, and the students weren't charged. Then, almost a decade later, one of the students confessed and went to prison. The others went on their way, the men becoming rich, successful businessmen and the lone woman in the group becoming a homeless bag lady. Morck believes the whole clique committed the murders and decides to re-investigate the case.
 
The delinquent boarding school students are psychopaths who delight in beating up and killing people among other things. Their activities continue into adulthood and Morck's team uncovers a series of crimes the clique may have committed. The men in the group feel invulnerable because they have connections in high places and, in fact, certain police officials and politicians attempt to thwart Morck's investigation. Nevertheless the criminals are concerned. They know Kimmie (the bag lady) has a box of trophies from their victims and they're desperate to get the box. Thus Kimmie is being sought by thugs as well as the police. The lifestyles, debauchery, and criminal inclinations of Kimmie and the men are described in some detail and it's clear that the men are evil and Kimmie is deranged. 

On the lighter side, Department Q - which started out with Morck and his very clever assistant Assad - is deemed to merit a new employee,  secretary Rose Knudsen. Rose is a smart, strong-willed woman who's determined to enhance the basement facilities of Morck's squad. Morck doesn't like Rose though and - in his curmudgeonly fashion - plots to get rid of her. The interactions between Morck and Rose provide some of the more amusing moments in this very dark story.  

Morck's team works hard to overcome obstacles and collect clues. Meanwhile, Morck is dealing with his personal issues, which include lusting after the department psychologist, worrying about his paralyzed former partner Hardy, and living with his teenage stepson.
The book is well-written, interesting, and comes to a satisfactory conclusion. However I didn't enjoy it as much as the first book in the Department Q series (The Keeper of Lost Causes) - which seems more balanced in terms of evil people/horrible crimes vs. amusing characters/scenes. Nevertheless, this is a good book, recommended for mystery fans.      

Review of "Choose Your Own Autobiography" by Neil Patrick Harris


I listened to the audio version of this book so I didn't have the opportunity to skip around but I heard all the "alternate autobiographies" read by the author. The book takes us from Harris's childhood with a loving, supportive family in New Mexico to his current mega-success in show business and his happy home life.

Harris developed his love of performing as a child and started his acting career at a young age. He also developed an early interest in magic, which he studied seriously, and he includes some nifty card tricks in the book. Harris seems to have had few 'lows' in his career. In addition to two successful TV series ('Doogie Howser, M.D'. and 'How I Met Your Mother'), he starred in theatrical productions, did guest spots on TV series, starred in TV movies, had parts in big-screen films, hosted award shows, starred in popular YouTube series, and is now a successful author.

Harris's stories about his career - and his co-stars, directors, and people he worked with - are generally rendered in an upbeat, positive tone (the book is not a mean-spirited tell-all). While detailing his many successes Harris never comes across as arrogant but rather as a talented, hard-working guy who's had some good luck. Harris is also a keen student of the 'behind the scenes' aspects of show business and likes to go backstage, shadow the director, study how shots are set up, etc.

One of the most detailed stories in the book is about Harris's starring role in the Broadway production of "Hedwig and the Angry Inch." It's interesting to see how he got the role, prepared for the part, and was able to do eight shows per week while juggling other responsibilities. Harris also describes how he and the writers prepared musical numbers when he hosted award shows like the Tony Awards and the Oscars - a feat that was very creative and entertaining.

Harris talks openly about his sexuality. As a youngster he had girlfriends, apparently not quite realizing (or admitting to himself) that he was gay. Afterwards Harris was publicly silent about his sexuality until circumstances forced him to come out - which he did in a graceful, carefully crafted statement. Harris's tale about meeting the love of his life - actor/writer David Burtka - is engaging, as is the story of their becoming parents to two children (via egg donor and surrogate).

Another story describes how Harris and Burtka became close friends with Elton John and his husband David Furnish. The lucky Harris/Burka household gets to ride in private planes and visit Elton John's mansion in England - complete with pampering household staff and wonderful food.

The book isn't a text on how to succeed in show business but rather a wide (though not always deep) overview of Harris's life and career. I thought it was well-written and interesting. The 'alternate life stories' (fictional) are humorous, though some are gritty and end badly. Overall, I liked the book. Neil Patrick Harris fans will probably enjoy it.

Review of "I Am Pilgrim" by Terry Hayes




In the aftermath of the Twin Towers disaster on 9/11 a woman is murdered in a cheap hotel in lower Manhattan. The victim's face and fingerprints have been destroyed by acid, her teeth have been removed, and the room has been uber-cleaned with industrial strength chemicals. It's clear the killer took lessons from a scholarly book about forensics penned by 'Jude Garrett' - the assumed name of a retired, thirty-something, secret agent for a super-secret branch of the CIA. Because he's a forensics expert, the police ask 'Jude Garrett' to consult on the case. The few clues retrieved from the crime scene include a calendar featuring ancient ruins and a partial phone number.

We come to learn that 'Jude Garrett' - code name Pilgrim - grew up as the adopted son of a wealthy couple. He had a privileged life, went to the best schools, and was recruited by the CIA after graduating from Harvard. Pilgrim - who's intelligent, clever, intuitive, tough, and brave - may just be the best agent in the world. And he'll need to be when he goes up against an Arab zealot dubbed Saracen, a very cunning terrorist.

As the book shifts back and forth between Saracen's story and Pilgrim's story we find out that Saracen grew up in an educated, devout Muslim family in Saudi Arabia. Saracen's radicalization began when he was 14, after his father was publicly beheaded for criticizing the Saudi royal family. By the age of 18 Saracen was a highly skilled Muj (Mujaheddin) in Afghanistan, during the country's war with Russia. Afterwards Saracen devised a diabolical plot to get revenge against Saudi Arabia and the U.S. which (in his eyes) supports the evil regime there. Saracen's long-term plan involved going to medical school, becoming a respected doctor, and developing an enormously destructive biological weapon - a disease that has a fatality rate of 100 percent.

Most readers will be riveted and impressed (though horrified) as Saracen goes about executing his smart, cruel, diabolical plan. As a 'clean skin' (complete unknown) Saracen is not on the radar of any western countries. The Arab zealot has a bit of bad luck, however, and his potential weapon comes to the attention of the CIA, which immediately recruits Pilgrim out of retirement to stop the apocalypse.

Pilgrim soon learns that Saracen has a contact in Bogrum, Turkey. Serendipitously, a young American billionaire has just been killed in Bogrum. So Pilgrim, in the guise of an FBI agent looking into the billionaire's death, arrives in Bogrum to pursue Saracen. Pilgrim has several stateside contacts ready to assist: Ben Bradley - an extremely capable NYPD police officer who was badly hurt on 9/11; 'The Whisperer' - the Head of U.S. Intelligence; and Battleboi - a convicted (but genial) super-hacker.

As Saracen's plan, which has taken a couple of decades to complete, comes to fruition he prepares to launch his attack on America. Once America is in chaos (he thinks) it will no longer be able to support Saudi Arabia. Meanwhile Pilgrim, who's also investigating the billionaire's death to maintain his cover, is on Saracen's trail. AND EUREKA, the billionaire's death has a connection with the woman murdered in the cheap Manhattan hotel at the beginning of the story. (Talk about good luck! Or good plotting!)

Saracen's biological weapon is perfected and sent on its way to America while Pilgrim races around Eastern Europe and the Middle East, collecting clues about the Arab's real identity and history. Pilgrim is desperate to find out where, when, and how the weapon will be launched. All this leads to a dramatic, heart-pounding climax in an ancient ruin near the Turkish coast.

The book is a compelling page-turner with an interesting array of characters including a female Turkish homicide detective, Eastern European thugs, Mujaheddin believers, decadent Americans vacationing in Turkey, a handsome, well-built masseur in a tiny thong swimsuit (LOL), American socialites, government moles, an endearing little boy, and more. I especially like the scenes where Pilgrim talks about his beloved adoptive father Bill, a good and kind man who enjoyed sailing and collecting the work of unknown artists.

By the end of the book all the elements of the plot come together in a satisfactory manner, though some loose ends point to a possible sequel.

One small quibble I have with the story is the constant foreshadowing. Pilgrim's narration includes a lot of: "I should have paid better attention.....", "I should have listened more carefully......", "If only I'd known.....", "That was a mistake....", and so on. A little of this goes a long way.

Another thing that bothers me goes to the core of Saracen's deadly plan. He seems to think his biological weapon will destroy his enemies and that will be more or less the end of it. In reality, though, there would be no controlling the spread of the disease and the resulting pandemic would impact every country on Earth including Pakistan, Afghanistan, Lebanon, etc. - wherever Saracen plans to settle down after the U.S. catastrophe. In fact, the way Saracen's weapon is described, it would probably wipe out 99% of the world's population. (This is a work of fiction though, so I guess it gets a pass.)

Overall, this is a very enjoyable, well-written book, highly recommended.

Review of "Death of the Black-Haired Girl" by Robert Stone

 


While browsing in the library I picked this book up because - from the title - I thought it was a mystery. Though there's a death in the story it's not a mystery as such, with detectives following clues, etc. It's more of a literary novel.

The basic story: Maud Stack is a beautiful, bright co-ed at a prestigious New England college. She drinks too much, is having an affair with her professor/advisor Steve Brookman, and writes for the college newspaper, 'The Gazette'. Local anti-abortion protestors inspire Maud to write a scathing editorial supporting women's rights. The editorial describes non-aborted babies with serious birth defects and/or lethal syndromes - with distressing photos when the article goes online. Before it's published Maud drops the article off at Brookman's office, hoping to impress him with her writing.

As it happens Brookman has just learned that his wife is pregnant with their much-desired second child and has decided to break up with Maud. Thus, he doesn't read her article, avoids her phone calls, and doesn't respond to her text messages. Without Brookman to deter her, Maud's article is published. It garners enormous fury and blowback from the anti-abortion community, especially religious Catholics. (This part is hard to buy into. Surely the editor of 'The Gazette' would nix publication of such an inflammatory piece.)

Maud, very much in love with Brookman, is devastated by the break up. She shows up drunk outside his house one blizzardy evening and throws snow at the windows, screams at him, yells things about his wife, and so on. Brookman, wanting to protect his family, goes out to confront Maud - hoping to convince her to go home. Maud attacks Brookman, punching and hitting. Brookman tries to restrain the girl, and during the struggle a car hits Maud and she's killed.

Detectives investigate the incident. Did an anti-abortion protestor hit Maud? Did Brookman push her in front of the car? Was it a random accident? Was it the religious, stalkerish, estranged husband of Maud's roommate? Various 'witnesses' provide conflicting accounts of what happened and it's hard to decipher the truth.

As it happens Maud's father, Ed Stack, was once a New York City police detective who was at the Twin Towers on 9/11. Stack got emphysema from the dust, became disabled, and retired. Stack loves his daughter, is devastated by her death, and is determined to get retribution. Stack also feels guilty for 'abetting' thefts from dead victims of 9/11, and speculates that God might be punishing him by taking his child. (It's pretty horrifying to think that cops would steal from disaster victims but who knows if this is true or not).

Though some of this sounds like the stuff of mystery, the story doesn't really slant that way. It's more about a teacher/student affair, abortion/pro-choice issues, religion, a former nun who's now a student counselor, a militant priest who once worked in South America, a mentally ill man wandering around campus, Ed Stack's possible revenge, how Brookman's wife and co-wokrers react to the scandal, and more. In the end we do find out who killed Maud but this isn't the important part of the story.

The book has interesting characters and situations but I found it hard to remain engaged in the tale, which seems to wander all over the place. Thus, in the end, I didn't like the book much.

Review of "Police" by Jo Nesbo




A serial killer in Oslo has a bizarre agenda. Time after time the murderer lures a cop to the scene of an unsolved crime, then viciously kills him/her in a manner somehow connected to what originally happened there.

Harry Hole is not available to assist the investigation so other members of the crime squad have to pick up the slack as best they can. This includes Harry's former boss Gunnar Hagen - the team leader; Katrine Bratt - a clever, intuitive detective; Beate Lonn - who has a freakish ability to remember every face she's ever seen; and Stale Aune - a psychologist who's determined to give up police work.

Meanwhile, there are plenty of other things going on in this thriller. A cop guarding the hospital room of a comatose patient is too easily distracted by attractive nurses and odd noises. A police academy student becomes infatuated with her professor and determined to seduce him. And Mikael Bellman, the new police chief, is as corrupt as they come and anxious to hide his previous crimes. To stay under the radar Bellman had to suspend his sidekick - the murderous Truls Berntsen - because of an unexplained fat bank account. Ironically Berntsen spends his free time stalking/obsessing over Bellman's beautiful wife. To top it off, the drug dealer Valentin - thought to be dead - seems to be on the loose and is suspected of being the 'cop killer'.

Almost everyone in this book seems to be a potential victim, including people close to the crime squad. This is a gripping story with fascinating characters, gruesome crimes, and surprising twists. Very good book.

Review of "Morning Star" by Pierce Brown


 
 
This is the third book in the "Red Rising Trilogy".

In the 'Red Rising' sci-fi trilogy a caste system has been imposed on humans, who now live on planets and moons across the solar system. People are divided into 'color' groups, each of which has a defined place in society. There are a wide array of classes including: Gold, the iron-fisted rulers; Gray, police and military; Blue, pilots and navigators; Yellow, scientists and doctors; Orange, mechanics; Brown, servants; Pink, sex workers; Obsidian, warriors; and the very lowly Red, menial laborers and miners. As the series begins 16-year-old Darrow of Lykos is a Red miner who lives in the bowels of Mars and has a job as a helldiver - the operator of a huge, dangerous, scorching hot drilling machine.

As the trilogy opens, the execution of Darrow's teenage wife by a Gold ruler leads to Darrow being genetically and physically altered to resemble a Gold. Darrow then infiltrates Gold society, trains at an elite military academy, becomes a combat leader, etc. - all with the secret goal of overthrowing Gold rule so Reds (and other colors) can have freedom and better lives.

In the second book Darrow, who has earned the sobriquet 'Reaper' for his ferocious battle skills and many kills, manages to start a civil war among the most prestigious (and greedy) Gold families. However Darrow's plans go awry at the end of the second book when his lowly status as a Red is exposed, to the absolute horror of all the Golds.

As 'Morning Star' - the third book in the trilogy - opens, Darrow has been tortured, bound, immobilized in a horrific dark cell, almost starved....and is about to be transferred to his worst enemy for dissection. Darrow is rescued and reunited with his most loyal friends, who call themselves 'The Sons of Ares'. The Sons hope to convince the mighty Obsidian warriors to join them so their united armies can start a revolution of the lower colors against the Golds - an almost impossible undertaking.

In the course of the story there's a great deal of strategizing, shooting, hacking off limbs, lopping off heads, torturing, stabbing, killing, facing old friends who've become opponents, facing old enemies who REALLY hate Darrow now, betrayals, backstabbing, clever manipulations ...everything you'd expect in a war/adventure story. Darrow even gets to use his helldiver knowledge and skills in some of the most impressive (to me) parts of the book.

Pierce Brown has done a masterful job of 'inventing' all manner of weapons, armor, aircraft, bombs, etc. for these books, which are fascinating to read about (though rather mysterious to me). The book's hero, Darrow, is a very clever leader, often able to out-think his enemies. Nevertheless, all the fighting is very hard on the young man, not just physically, but because he loves and values those Golds who were once his friends and allies - and who he now must destroy.

For a needed change of pace there are also some lighter scenes in the story, including family reunions, drinking and carousing, joking and jesting, and even some mild romance. By the end of the book there might even be a brighter future for humanity.

My one quibble with the book is that the battle scenes are so complicated it's sometimes hard to follow the action. Still, I'm sure many readers enjoy these parts.

Morning Star is a fine conclusion to the trilogy, which is very good. Highly recommended to sci-fi fans.

Review of "Golden Son" by Pierce Brown




This is the second book in a trilogy that begins with 'Red Rising'.

As the book opens, Darrow au Andromedus - a former lowly Red miner who who was converted to an esteemed Gold warrior - is employed by Nero au Augustus, the hated man who killed his young wife. Darrow's plan is to rise high in the House of Augustus so he can obtain a fleet of warships. Darrow could then assist the rebel group, Sons of Ares, who want to overthrow the Golds and restructure society to free the lower Colors (Blues, Grays, Coppers, Pinks, etc.) from Gold domination.

However both Darrow and Augustus have deadly enemies, Darrow because he had to kill the son of a powerful family (as well as many others) at the Institute where he trained and Augustus because the House of Bellona wants to usurp his position as ruler of Mars. Moreover, Octavia - the Sovereign who governs the Golds - has a deal with the Bellonas and a huge war fleet at her disposal.

The action is non-stop as Darrow, assisted by a loyal group of friends, attempts to achieve his goals against overwhelming odds. Several powerful houses are allied against Augustus (and by extension, Darrow) and the Sovereign is very devious and deadly. Thus Darrow has to be inventive and clever, constantly thinking outside the box. He even joins forces with the Jackal, who was once his deadliest enemy. To add to the drama and suspense Darrow can't trust all his friends, some of whom are ready to turn traitor as soon as a good opportunity arises.

There's a little romance in the book since Darrow has fallen in love with Mustang, the daughter of Nero au Augustus. Unfortunately, Darrow's infatuation sometimes makes him reckless (and a little foolish) and some readers may get frustrated with him - but it's all part of the story.

There's a great deal of graphic violence and many deaths in the tale, along with a few surprises and twists - and the ending is an intense cliffhanger. I'm looking forward to see what happens in the third book of the trilogy.

Review of "Red Rising" by Pierce Brown

 
 

In this sci-fi thriller, the first book of a trilogy, humans are divided into caste-like categories with the ruling "Golds" on top and the low-level "Reds" - essentially slaves - doing all the drudge work. Other color groups are artists, soldiers, law-enforcement personnel, pleasure givers, bureaucrats, and so on.
Darrow, a 16-year-old mine worker living in an underground colony on Mars, is a very low Red. The Reds - whose lives are generally short, hard, and hungry - are constantly bombarded with propaganda praising them for their help in terraforming Mars so that humans from an overpopulated Earth will have a place to live to in the future.

When Darrow and his young wife Eo run afoul of the law tragedy ensues and Darrow realizes that the Golds - concerned only with their own power and comfort - have been dishonest and manipulative. Encouraged by his dying wife Darrow becomes determined to get revenge and free the Reds. Helped by his uncle, Darrow falls in with a band of rebels who "transform" him to resemble a Gold. This allows Darrow to gain gain entrance into a selective academy that prepares Golds for the highest positions in society. This is no regular school however, and what follows is like a hyper version 'The Hunger Games'.

The academy students are divided into 'houses' - mentored by praetors - that battle each other until one house is the winner. The whittling process takes many months during which the students try to demonstrate their intelligence and battle prowess in hopes of getting job offers from the most prominent Gold families. The students are forced to perform horrific deeds, which some do reluctantly and others revel in. Alliances form and fall apart, cheating occurs, and not everyone is who they seem.

Darrow is smart and capable but seems to be thwarted every time he's about to achieve an important goal. Thus he must learn to be cleverer, sneakier, and more politically astute than his rivals. In the course of the story Darrow evolves from a complacent teen to a warrior determined to get justice for the Reds. I liked the book and look forward to reading the rest of the series.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Review of "Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl" by Carrie Brownstein




Many people probably know Carrie Brownstein best as an actress on the TV sketch-comedy show "Portlandia". Prior to starring in this hit show, however, Brownstein was (and is) a successful guitarist and singer in the feminist punk rock band Sleater-Kinney, which emerged from the Pacific Northwest region that spawned a slew of alternative rock bands.
 
In this memoir, Brownstein reveals a love of performing that began in childhood, when she would regale family gatherings with her acting and singing. Brownstein goes on to unveil aspects of her formative youth, her mother's anorexia and abandonment of the family, her father's coming-out when she was a young adult, her love of music, her problems settling into college life, and the longing for closeness that seemed to propel much of her behavior and friendships. Though she reveals few names Brownstein mentions relationships with various women and the difficulty of maintaining a romance while touring for months at a time.
 
Brownstein describes the formation of Sleater-Kinney, writing the songs, and coordinating the guitar and drum music. She talks about her need to connect with the audience and release her inner anguish through the songs, which tend to be somewhat raw and strident. Much of the book is about recording Sleater-Kinney's albums and the tours that followed each release.
 
The tours were grueling, difficult, and done on the cheap. The band members generally drove to each venue in their cramped van, loaded and unloaded their own equipment, performed (and did photo shoots) in odd thrift store clothes, and slept crowded together on people's floors. The long drives were tedious, the food was bad, there was some tension among the bandmates, and - worst of all - Brownstein often became ill. At one time or another she developed incapacitating back pain, shingles, and severe allergies.
 
It wasn't easy being a feminist rock group during Sleater-Kinney's original run (1994-2006). Though the band garnered critical and popular acclaim it nevertheless experienced the condescending attitude directed at 'all girl bands', which Brownstein demonstrates with blurbs from music critics - some of whom were trying to be complimentary.
 
Brownstein talks about numerous punk/grunge/alternative bands that contributed to the music scene of the 1990's and 2000's, some of which - like Nirvana and Pearl Jam - came to be very well known. Moreover, Brownstein's book can almost serve as a primer on the 'business' aspect of running a small band: how to choose bandmates, organize a tour, pick an agent, manager, producer, PR person, and so on.
 
When Sleater-Kinney went on hiatus in 2006 Brownstein adopted two cats and two dogs for companionship (there's a dreadful anecdote in this section) and pursued other interests - including joining the show "Portlandia". The band began recording again in 2014.
 
Brownstein seems to be very honest in this book, detailing her successes as well as her problems and occasional bad behavior. She comes across as a talented, intelligent, funny woman and I enjoyed the book, which I'd recommend to anyone who enjoys an interesting memoir.
 

Friday, March 25, 2016

Review of "The Deep End of the Ocean" by Jacquelyn Mitchard

                                                        


I'm hesitant to outline the book's plot for fear of giving out too much information. However, since most reviews of the book give away the plot and because the story has also been made into a movie, I'll proceed. Be aware, though, that possible spoilers lie ahead.
                                  
                         SPOILER ALERT!!!

Beth Cappadora, excited about her 15-year high school reunion, packs up her three kids (Vincent, 7; Ben, 3; and infant Kerry) and her niece/babysitter and drives from Madison, Wisconsin to the Chicago hotel that's hosting the festivities. While Beth is doing some business at the hotel's busy reception desk Ben disappears. Police, family, and friends search all over for days, but Ben is simply gone.

Beth and her husband Pat are shattered by the loss, and their remaining two children suffer from their parents' distraction. In time Pat is more or less able to go on with his life and his job - helping run his uncle's restaurant in Madison. Beth, however, can't seem to recover at all. She sleeps most of the time and, even when she's awake, Beth isn't really there. The Cappadoras try attending a support group, which is of very limited assistance.

Vincent, who was supposed to be keeping an eye on Ben when he vanished, develops serious behavior problems. These become worse as he approaches adolescence and Vincent becomes a bully, gets into fights, and repeatedly gets into trouble at school. Vincent is sent to a therapist but does all he can to avoid addressing his real issues - thinking he's pulling the wool over his therapist's eyes.

After a health crisis the Cappadoras move back to Chicago, where their extended family still lives. And miracle of miracles - nine years after he vanished - Ben shows up on the Cappadora's doorstep looking for a lawn-mowing job.

The reunion isn't the total blessing Beth and Pat would have hoped for however. Ben doesn't remember them at all and has a fierce attachment to his 'new family' - the woman who kidnapped him (now severely mentally ill) and her husband George. To top it off George is a complete innocent in all this; he accepted Ben as his wife's child, 'adopted' him, and dearly loves the boy.

The latter part of the book is especially heart-rending as Ben's 'two families' must cope with everything that's happened. What's everyone supposed to do now? Are Vincent and Kerry going to welcome their 'new' sibling? How does Ben cope with being a stranger in his own family? How does Pat deal with 'another dad' in the picture? What's going to happen to the kidnapper?

The book tells a compelling story, the writing is good, and the characters seem more or less true to life. I had great sympathy for Beth but didn't like her much. She wallows in her grief for too long and makes (almost) no attempt to 'be there' for the family she still has. The other characters, especially Pat, seem to do the best they can in very difficult circumstances.

In the end I felt the book was too long and overly melodramatic. The story reminded me of an afternoon special on Lifetime TV. The story is average for me but I think some other readers would like the book better.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Review of "A God in Ruins" by Kate Atkinson




"A God in Ruins" revolves around Teddy Todd, who - in a nutshell - grew up in the English countryside, was the apple of his mother's eye, lost his loving father, was close to his sister Ursula, became a bomber pilot in WWII, married his childhood sweetheart, worked as a journalist, had a horrid narcissistic daughter, helped raise his grandchildren, got old, and died.

The book repeatedly pings back and forth in time, covering incidents from Teddy's childhood to his very old age. Overall, we see Teddy as a happy child, growing up and going to college, traveling in Europe, joining the RAF, dropping bombs on Germany. becoming a POW, having a relatively good marriage, dealing with a difficult daughter, encouraging a seemingly inept grandson, taking a nostalgic trip with his grown granddaughter, moving to assisted living, dying in a nursing home.....and lots of things in between.

The book doesn't lend itself to review as a story with a linear plot so I'll just highlight aspects that stood out for me.

Some of the most vivid scenes in the book describe Teddy and his bomber team (navigator, radio operator, bomb aimer, gunners, etc.) on their forays into enemy territory. The relatively slow, lumbering bombers took off from an English airfield, flew in the dark - often for many hours - and were easy targets for both groundfire and enemy fighter planes. Moreover, to Teddy's chagrin (as he found out after the war) the early bombers were often wildly inaccurate, blitzing civilians rather than the intended industrial targets. The author's deft writing brings Teddy's RAF companions to life, and I liked and sympathized with them as they fought and often died.

In the course of the story Teddy has a philosophical discussion with his sister about the morality of bombing Germany to smithereens. Teddy seems to feel no guilt about this, apparently believing that all's fair in war and you do what you have to do. For me, this seems like an understandable attitude but other readers may feel differently.

After the war,Teddy marries his fiancé Nancy and they have a daughter named Viola. Little Viola is a sweet child, very attached to her mom. Sadly, Nancy dies young and Viola blames Teddy, is overwhelmed with grief, and - perhaps because of this (but who knows) - evolves into a selfish, self-absorbed woman, oblivious to the needs of others. Viola is almost a caricature of a 'flower child', taking up a hippie lifestyle, living on communes, becoming a vegetarian, and having one boyfriend (or husband) after another. Viola eventually has a son she calls 'Sunny' and a daughter she calls 'Moon', being too carefree (or lazy) to choose conventional names. Moon, who renames herself 'Bertie', is an insightful child that has Viola's number from the get-go.

In any case, Viola soon abandons her children, leaving them in Teddy's care. In one of the more disturbing sections of the book Viola sends 7-year-old Sunny to live with his bipolar father's family. The poor little tyke's 'grandmama' belongs to the neglectful school of child-rearing. She provides no love or nurturing, very little food, and criticizes Sunny (who she calls Philip) constantly. Grandmama is also determined to send little Sunny to boarding school so he can grow up and continue the family name. Sunny is miserable but gets his own back a bit when - prevented from reaching the bathroom in time by Grandmama - he takes a dump on the living room carpet (ha ha ha).

It's also clear that Viola has little love or time for her father Teddy who - especially when he gets on in years - she regards as a burden and annoyance. Mostly Viola seems to covet Teddy's more valuable possessions.

Viola eventually becomes a successful novelist and makes some half-hearted attempts to reconnect with her children, but it's too little too late. Bertie's attitude toward her mom is especially knowing and sardonic and Sunny takes off for foreign shores.

Teddy himself comes across as a handsome, affable, intelligent man who tries to live a good life and be a good person. As a youth, however, Teddy has a rather flexible moral code. Even though he's engaged to his sweetheart Nancy during WWII, Teddy has no hesitation about romance and sex with other women, the apparent explanation being that pilots had a very short life expectancy. Still, after the war Teddy is a loyal husband and loving grandpa who's largely responsible for the happiness and success his grandchildren eventually achieve.

In lighter parts of the story, Teddy - as a child - is the model for his Aunt Izzy's series of children's books about 'Augustus', a hilariously naughty little boy. The tales of Augustus sprinkled through the book are fun and entertaining. Teddy also has several dogs as the story unfolds, and one sweet pooch serves as the mascot for his bomber team. I got a kick out of these endearing pets.

I expected to really like this book, which has garnered high praise from critics and readers. And I do think the book is well-written with characters that are vivid and believable. Still, I didn't enjoy the book as much as I'd hoped. It felt too long and slow-moving and I found myself wishing it was finished.

Still, I recommend the book to fans of literary fiction.

Review of "The Witches: Salem, 1692" by Stacey Schiff




In "The Witches: Salem, 1692", Stacy Schiff provides a thorough exposition of what happened during the Salem, Massachusetts witch frenzy of 1692. The trouble seems to have begun when two young girls, Abigail Williams and Betty Parris, took to twitching, convulsing, yipping, rolling around on the floor, being bitten, pinched, and pricked by spectral creatures, and so on. The attention this garnered the 'afflicted' young ladies soon inspired other girls to exhibit the same symptoms. The stricken youngsters said witches were responsible for their symptoms and proceeded to accuse their families, friends, neighbors, and acquaintances of being the witches in question. Soon afterwards the accusers were seeing people morph into animals, observing women fly through the air on rods, watching turtles and birds suckling on churchgoers fingers, seeing women consort with the devil, etc.

Before long many members of Salem's Puritan community were accusing each other of witchcraft. The Puritans apparently came to believe the devil wanted to destroy them. Satan's supposed method: get people to sign his book (and become witches) by promising them new shoes, foreign travel, nice clothes, land, riches - whatever their hearts desired. The newly minted witches would then go out and turn others to the dark side. If the devil's plan was successful the Puritans would apparently suffer eternal damnation. Thus, the witches had to be ruthlessly eliminated from the population.

Local authorities - prosecutors, judges, church ministers, and others - not only believed these ideas, they were often the main proponents. Thus, accusations of witchcraft were taken very seriously. And an accusation was almost as good as a conviction. Almost every person arrested for being a witch confessed, usually because she/he was relentlessly badgered, ruthlessly tortured, or completely self-deluded. And accusations weren't reserved for adults. Some witches were as young as five years old.

Arrests for witchcraft resulted in hundreds of shackled, hungry people languishing in filthy, stinking, freezing prisons, often for many months. To rub salt into the wound, the prisoners had to pay for their jail stay. Most of the accused were middle-aged to elderly women, but some men were suspected as well. Perhaps the most unlikely person accused was George Burroughs, a former Salem church minister.

The ongoing witch trials - not remotely fair by modern standards - resulted in 19 people being hanged, including Minister Burroughs - who maintained his innocence to the very end. In addition, one man who refused to confess was pressed to death by stones (a horrible way to die) and two dogs were executed. Moreover, a number of people died in prison, succumbing to the fearsome conditions.

Once a person was convicted of witchcraft (and sometimes even before conviction), his/her possessions were looted by authorities and sometimes local residents - leaving remaining family members penniless, homeless, and starving. One might suspect that this opportunity for 'legal theft' provided a likely motive for false accusations.

Eventually, a semblance of sanity began to creep back into Salem and the imprisonments, trials, and hangings ebbed and ceased. By then the major culprits of the witch trials - the prosecutors, judges, church ministers, and Governor of Massachusetts - were having second and third thoughts. The highest officials (including famous Minister Cotton Mather) spent the next few years trying to explain, excuse, and justify what they'd done. By then though, people's reputations had been irreparably ruined, families had been impoverished and/or destroyed, and the town had suffered tremendous hardships. To this day descendants of the Salem Puritans seem abashed about the hysteria of the 1600s - though it's given rise to a lively tourist business.

The book is almost too thorough in its coverage of the topic. There are so many descriptions of people being accused, arrested, questioned, imprisoned, tried, and hanged (or eventually freed), that they blend together. After a while it's hard to remember who's who. In addition, the repetition is tedious.

I was also mystified by the numerous references to Sweden, which didn't seem to make much sense (or maybe I missed something). In any case I googled 'witchcraft/Sweden' and found that a frenetic witch hunt in Sweden resulted in the 1675 Torsåker witch trials. Convictions in Torsåker resulted in 71 witches being beheaded and burned in one day. Salem authorities were apparently familiar with the Swedish witch hunt (in any case they mentioned Sweden a lot), and this may well have influenced their beliefs and actions.

Like many people, I was somewhat acquainted with the Salem calamity from history classes in school. This book, however, gave me a real education in the subject. The author's research was clearly prodigious and I found the story interesting (despite the repetitions). I'd highly recommend the book to curious readers as well as history buffs.

Review of "Fates and Furies" by Lauren Groff


 

As the book opens Lotto and Mathilde, graduating seniors at artsy Vassar College, have met, fallen in love, and married - all in the space of two weeks. And they're doing what newlyweds do.

From there we pause temporarily and go back in time to learn how Lotto's parents met, wed, and had Lotto and his sister. Lotto grew up in a wealthy Florida family where he hummed along quite happily until he lost his dad and became a teen. Wild friends and underage sex then alarmed Lotto's religious mother Antoinette, who shipped him off to boarding school in New Hampshire. There, Lotto was a difficult, lonely, acne-scarred student who was never permitted visits home.

In college, Lotto - extremely tall and not quite handsome - happily seduced almost every girl he met and took up acting. By his senior year Lotto hadn't seen his mother in many years, though his aunt and sister visited on occasion. Lotto had also reconnected with a sketchy pal from his teens who was destined to become a perpetual hanger-on.

When Lotto married Mathilde he hoped his mother would become a more integral part of his life, but Antoinette - furious about the whirlwind romance and Lotto's choice of bride- cut him off completely, rendering him essentially penniless.

In the first section of the book we follow the married couple as they move to New York and Lotto struggles to establish an acting career. Unable to gain much traction as an actor, Lotto relies on Mathilde to support them - which she does with semi-professional jobs that barely pay for food and shelter. Lotto and Mathilde would probably starve if Lotto's loving little sister didn't save up her generous allowance and donate it to the duo. Still, Mathilde seems quite willing to suffer hardships for her much loved husband.

Eventually Lotto becomes a successful playwright with scripts reminiscent of Greek tragedies, some of which are inspired by Lotto's family. Mathilde remains a stalwart helpmate but Lotto seems oblivious to how she's sacrificed for him and helped him. Moreover, Lotto has the whiff of a sexist about him and seems to denigratre female capabilities in general. When he extolls childbirth as 'women's creativity' (much more valuable than merely writing plays) this is a huge mistake, exacerbated by the fact the Lotto and Mathilde are childless.

(Reviewers note: The attitude that childbirth is the highest calling on Earth always irritates me. Yes, it's laudable to have children but most people can do it. On the other hand, it's quite difficult - and rare - to think up the theory of relativity, compose a concert, paint a masterpiece, become a world class athlete, etc.)

Lotto and Mathilde are hardly ever apart save for a spell when Lotto attends a writer's retreat with a talented young composer. Lotto hopes to create an opera with the music genius and keeps postponing his return home, to the chagrin of Mathilde (and the couple's dog 'God').

Still, Lotto and Mathilde march on through a quarter century of marriage, through highs and lows, and seem to greatly enjoy their lives - which involves lots of sex, wild parties, friends, fans, good wine, fine food, travel, etc. What's not to like?

In the second section of the book the author switches her attenton to Mathilde, whose appearance is probably what the French call 'jolie laide'. Some people find Mathilde's six-foot-tall, lanky, blonde appearance stunning while others find her plain and unattractive. In any case, we follow Mathilde through childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and married lfe.

And quite a shock it is. Dubbed 'devil child' when she's four years old Mathilde is brought up by a series of less-than-reputable relatives. Her unusual upbringing and psychological makeup result in Mathilde's being preternaturally self-sufficient, self-protective, and wily. Without giving away spoilers I'll just say that Lotto and Mathilde's marriage looks very different from her point of view. And it's best not to get on Mathilde's bad side....EVER.

All in all, Fates and Furies is a beautifully written, engaging (and sometimes enraging) story about a marriage with a LOT of secrets. There are a wide array of riveting characters, some likable and some detestable. For me there were too many cringe-worthy references to people licking each other, wanting to eat each other (not what you're thinking), having sex on the beach, in the house, at parties, with strangers, and so on.

If I'd rated the book after Lotto's section, I would have given it 3 stars. Mathilde is such a fascinating charcter, though, that it earned an extra star.

I'd recommend the book to readers who enjoy literary fiction.