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Posts Tagged ‘Book Reviews’

Historical Fiction – The Good Thief

Tuesday, October 9th, 2018

 

The Good Thief by Hannah Tinti

Review Vicky T. (VickyJo)

 

There is nothing I enjoy more than a good book that pulls me into another time and place, and makes me forget to take anything out of the freezer for dinner! I love rich stories full of interesting characters, and so I thoroughly enjoyed “The Good Thief,” a first novel by Hannah Tinti.

We meet young Ren, a boy without a left hand, living in the orphanage run by the monks of St. Anthony’s. It’s bleak, cold, and comfortless. Ren doesn’t remember why or how he lost his hand; all he knows is that he is always passed over for adoption because of this handicap. People coming to the orphanage to find a boy need one who can work, and not bring bad luck to their family. Ren’s future looks frightening, as the army will be his only option when he comes of age.

But miracle of miracles, a stranger arrives one day, and chooses Ren. In fact, he claims to be Ren’s brother. And so begins Ren’s new life, with a family of sorts; Benjamin Nab, the alleged older brother, and his friend Tom, a former schoolteacher. It doesn’t take Ren long to realize that things are not quite what they seem; but he still hopes for answers as to his handicap, and his origins, and is content to be a part of a family, even one like this. The three are bound together by a strange combination of con artistry and companionship, and Ren knows he can hardly expect more.

As time goes on, Ren despairs of ever learning of his past. The men try con after con to earn money, selling snake oil, the teeth from corpses, and finally, entire corpses to a doctor who wants to dissect them, which turns out to be both dangerous and quite profitable. In the midst of this, Ren and his fellow grave robbers meet up with a chimney-dwelling dwarf, girls who work for a miserly rich man, making mousetraps in his factory, and one night, while digging up bodies, an assassin who has been buried alive, who becomes part of their ‘family’ once he has been unearthed and cleaned up a bit.

Ren grows accustomed to this life. When told by the doctor who buys corpses from them that Ren is smart and should go to school and study science, Ren briefly considers this. “These possibilities fanned out before Ren like cards on a table, then closed back together until there was only one option left. He was never going to study science; he was never going to be respectable. And he was tired of trying to be good. The best he could do was follow the path that Benjamin had showed him. He belonged to it now.” But, the question remains, for how long?

The narrative flows along as we follow the three on their journeys. The characters are finely drawn, and while not always likable, they are always fascinating. The author was obviously inspired by Charles Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson: orphan boys, colorful characters, dramatic situations, and a pace that keeps you reading to find out what happens next. The Good Thief was the winner of the John Sargent Senior First Novel Prize, and named a New York Times Notable book, and given an Alex Award (Best Adult novel for young adults) by the American Library Association.

 

 

 

 

Literature and Fiction Review – Still Alice

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2018

Still Alice by Lisa Genova

Review Vicky T. (VickyJo)

The fact that I recommend books to people inspires some folks to recommend books right back at me. I love this, actually, because as I’ve mentioned before, I can’t possibly live long enough to read everything that I would like to…so recommendations are always helpful.

Not too long ago, I had a friend come into the library and return the book “Still Alice” by Lisa Genova. My friend said, “You have GOT to read this one.” “Oh, thanks…I will!” I promised…and then I took a closer look at the book. This is a novel about Alice Howland, a highly respected professor of psychology at Harvard who, just before her 50th birthday, is diagnosed with Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease. Ugh. How depressing is that? First of all, I’m just over 60. I forget things all the time. I really don’t need to read this. So I very unobtrusively slipped it back on the shelf.

Of course, a few weeks later, this same friend asked me if I’d read “Still Alice” yet. I really can’t lie well at all, and so I confessed that, no, I hadn’t. “It sounds too depressing.” “It’s NOT,” she insisted. “Try it.” So okay, I took the book home. It might not be that bad. And maybe I’ll pick up some tips on Early Onset Alzheimer’s for my own personal use, you know?

Well, you guessed it: I loved this book. The author is actually a neuroscientist at Harvard, so she not only knows what she’s talking about, but she explains the progression of this disease very clearly and concisely. At the same time, she doesn’t turn the novel into a lecture. Rather, she examines the causes and effects of EOAD, how it impacts not only the patients, but their families as well. She does a remarkable job of showing us Alzheimer’s from the inside…from the patient’s point of view.

Alice begins forgetting things; she searches for words, for her Blackberry, for her car keys. But when she becomes totally disoriented while out jogging one day, she knows this is more than being too busy, or just distracted, or the onset of menopause. Her doctor confirms the seriousness of her forgetfulness. The book spans three years, from September 2002 to September 2005. During this time, this disease robs Alice of so many things. She tries to hide it, but eventually she announces that she has Alzheimer’s and resigns her job. She must stop teaching, stop mentoring students; she cannot jog alone anymore, let alone travel to conferences all over the world the way she used to. She watches her husband grieve for her, even though she’s still right there. She sees the fear in her grown children as they wonder about the genetics of EOAD, and if they too will be afflicted. She creates a test for herself to take every so often. She composes five questions, such as “What is your address?” and “When is your daughter’s birthday?” At the end of the test, she instructs her future self, “If you can’t answer these questions, go to the bedside table. There is a bottle of pills there. Take all of them.” Alice can’t imagine having her family deal with her as the disease progresses, and so she decides suicide might be the best way to handle her illness, and spare her family. But, due to the nature of this heartbreaking disease, even this little safeguard won’t work. Alice eventually forgets to take the test.

If you have a loved one that has Alzheimer’s, I strongly recommend you read this book. I watched my grandmother go through this about 20 years ago, and I wish I could have read it back then. It’s not depressing, which surprised me, but it does have incredibly touching moments. I’m so glad I took a chance on “Still Alice.” And it also made me feel a bit better about not remembering where I put my car keys; the author explains ordinary forgetfulness as opposed to Alzheimer’s, and I’m happy to say, I’m doing okay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Non-Fiction Review – Blind Descent

Tuesday, September 25th, 2018

 

Blind Descent: The Quest to Discover the Deepest Place on Earth

by James M. Tabor

Review Vicky T. (VickyJo)

 

Space—the Final Frontier. All you Star Trek fans will remember that spine-tingling phrase. But guess what: Turns out, space is NOT the final frontier. In reality, the final frontier is the Center of the Earth.

Long after every other ultimate goal had been achieved—both North and South Poles reached by 1911, Mount Everest scaled in 1953, the Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the oceans, reached in 1960, the moon in 1969—the deepest cave on Earth was still undiscovered. In fact, as late as 2000, the “supercave” had not yet been found, despite numerous attempts. “Blind Descent” by James M. Tabor tells the story of two men, both driven to find and map the deepest cave on Earth, the teams they lead, and the triumphs and tragedies that befall them both.

The author begins the first section of the book by introducing us to Bill Stone, an American caver and entrepreneur who has been searching for The Supercave since the 1970’s. Tabor tells us about Bill Stone’s early years, how he became interested in caves, and the various teams he has pulled together over the years in an attempt to discover the deepest cave, the elusive Supercave. Stone, a type A personality that others either love or hate, is in his mid-50’s by the year 2004. He is convinced that a cave in Mexico called CHAY-vay will turn out to be the Supercave he’s been searching for.

Then we meet Bill Stone’s biggest rival in the caving world: Ukrainian caver Alexander Klimchouk. Oddly enough, Klimchouk seems to be Stone’s polar opposite. Stone is bold, brash, and commanding while Klimchouk is quiet, self-effacing and modest. Stone is tall and muscular while Klimchouk is short and slight. Klimchouk has been married to his wife for decades, while Stone is divorced and has had a series of relationships. But, Tabor points out “They are alike in two key ways: both are scientists and explorers…willing to risk everything, including their lives and those of others, for the ultimate discovery.” Alexander Klimchouk is also in his mid-50’s by 2004, and he believes the Supercave is in the Republic of Georgia in the former Soviet Union, a cave called Krubera.

Blind Descent details the race between these two men, half a world apart, but united by a common passion. Caving on a good day can be a dangerous sport; exploring supercaves can be incredibly deadly. Not only are you basically climbing mountains in reverse, but the hardest part, the ascent, comes last. Cavers spend weeks underground, camping in the dark under less than ideal conditions. Diving is also a common requirement, compounding the dangers.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. I can honestly say that I have found yet another sport that I will never attempt. And I won’t tell you which caver wins this competition; you’ll have to read the book to find out.

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Case of the Angry Mourner

Monday, September 24th, 2018

The Case of the Angry Mourner

by Erle Stanley Gardner

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

One of the upsides of reading Perry Mason novels is that they can be read in only about three or four hours. So even if the plot is far-fetched, any reader who likes Perry, Della, and Paul stories can put up with unlikely happenings for a couple of hours.

Another plus is despite the fact that Gardner doesn’t develop characters beyond a bare minimum, even minor figures are easy to keep track of because, like in mystery plays or Pilgrim’s Progress, a character is associated with a memorable trait. Distinctive passé names aid memory too: independent Carlotta, callow Harvey, haughty Dexter, and preening Darwin.

Another standby in the Mason novels is that clients handle the truth economically with Perry. When a rich wolf, Arthur Cushing, is murdered, Belle Adrian fears her daughter Carlotta, a pretty baa-lamb, resisted the wolf’s advances with a little too much force. Carlotta, in turn, suspects her dear old mam as the defender of her daughter’s honor, interfering and yet endearing as a mom-murderess. Belle fails to help her own cause when she not only tries to destroy all evidence of her daughter’s potential involvement in the crime but she also lies to Perry about doing so.

All in all, this mystery is worth reading, with the caution to hard-core fans of Perry, Della, and Paul that Perry and Pals don’t show up until the fourth chapter. One thing about Gardner too is that he wasn’t afraid of dealing with hard issues – like date-rape – in 1951.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Historical Fiction Review – The Book Thief

Thursday, September 20th, 2018

 

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

 

Review Vicky T. (VickyJo)

 

I read a lot of book reviews, and talk with a lot of people about books. I love recommendations, because it’s a wonderful way to find new authors or wonderful stories. However, I have had the experience (more than once, I might add) of hearing such amazing reviews of a book, that by the time I read it, this allegedly wonderful book isn’t quite so wonderful, and it becomes a letdown for me. I allow myself to have such high expectations that I am seriously disappointed. And I hate it when that happens.

Back in 2005, I began hearing some buzz over a book called “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak. I read glowing reviews; a couple of friends read the book and couldn’t say enough about it. And then, it was named a Printz Honor Book. The Printz Award is given every year for the best books written for young adults. There is a winner, and anywhere from one to three honor books named every January.

I finally decided to try the Book Thief, but I had serious reservations. Too much good stuff was circulating about this novel! I went in prepared to be letdown…but I was pleasantly surprised.

The Book Thief begins with an introduction to our narrator…Death. He says, “Here is a small fact. You are going to die…does this worry you? I urge you—don’t be afraid. I’m nothing if not fair.” Death meets nine-year-old Liesel when he comes for her younger brother on a cold, snowy day. He made what he called an “elementary mistake. I became interested. In the girl. Curiosity got the better of me…” especially when he saw Liesel steal her first book, a copy of The Gravedigger’s Handbook.

Liesel’s mother leaves her with a foster family in Munich, Germany; Hans who plays the accordion and teaches Liesel to read using her only book, The Gravedigger’s Handbook, and his wife Rosa, whom Death describes as having a face decorated with constant fury. Liesel adapts to her new life, making friends with other children in the neighborhood. But it is the man Max, the Jew that Hans and Rosa hide in their basement, who has such a profound effect on Liesel. At a time when people must be cautious, must watch what they do, what they say, and to whom they speak, Liesel grows into a young woman who learns survival skills she never dreamed she would need.

And stealing books is the theme in this novel. Liesel steals again; she picks a scorched book out of a pile the Nazis are burning, and hides it until she can get home and safely examine it. She meets the mayor’s wife, a sad woman with a mystery of her own. Liesel’s first visit to the mayor’s home results in finding the mayor’s personal library. Liesel steals another book, and with the mayor’s wife giving her unspoken permission, she continues to visit and steal books. For reading has become a distraction for Liesel, an escape from the world of Nazi Germany, which grows more frightening and uncertain with every passing day. Death becomes a presence in Liesel’s life; he observes her with an interest that both puzzles and fascinates him. Death confesses to us, the readers, “I am haunted by humans.”

As I was reading The Book Thief, I kept thinking, “Well, this is okay. It’s not a BAD book, it’s just not one to gush over, either.” But by the time I finished all 550 pages, I was hooked. This novel had worked its way into my heart and my mind to such an extent that I was sorry to see it end. It’s an incredible story, and one I would recommend to older teens and adults.

 

 

 

 

Mystery Monday Review – The Big Knockover and Other Stories

Monday, September 17th, 2018

The Big Knockover and Other Stories
by Dashiell Hammett

 

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)

Hammet was a master of PI fiction in the 1920s. These long stories star The Continental Operative, the nameless detective employed by the Continental Detective Agency. The writing is lucid, the tone hard-boiled and the settings realistic.

The Gutting of Couffignal (1925). The Op is employed by a rich dude to guard the presents at the wedding reception of the rich dude’s daughter. An audacious attack by a gang of robbers nets millions in booty. His attempt to recruit the locals on the exclusive island fails since “You can’t fight machine guns and hand grenades with peaceful villagers and retired capitalists.”

Fly Paper (1929). A debutante hangs out with the wrong people and finds that living on the edge with violence-prone knuckle-walkers is to her taste. The Op lands right in the middle of four marriages that are all rotten in unique ways. This story also shows Hammett’s penchant and supreme ability to set a large number of characters to bounce off each other.

The Scorched Face (1925). The Op is assigned to find two missing daughters. He uncovers evidence that connects a many socialite suicides and disappearances. The subtext of unbridled sex and its unfortunate consequences for vulnerable people – especially women – reflect an unease many people felt in the 1920s as Victorian mores were discarded.

This King Business (1928). The Op is sent to a Balkan country to extricate the wayward son of a rich guy. The son has found himself bankrolling a revolution for a crew of wily Slavs. The treatment of freebooting – i.e., funding coups out of sheer ignorance and misguided adventure and idealism – holds powerful interest in this story.

The Gatewood Caper (1923). Another wayward daughter case. It’s good, but feels half-done, as if its writing were rushed, that the writer should’ve revised a couple more times.. The setting of the Pacific Northwest – lumbering land – is persuasive.

Dead Yellow Women (1925). Set in San Francisco’s Chinatown, the Op and a Master Chinese Tong Boss match wits. In places it feels like a satire of a Yellow Peril story. The description of the maze-like interior of the criminal mastermind’s mansion is a tour de force.

Corkscrew (1925). The Op is a fish out of water when he assigned to clean up remote Corkscrew, Arizona. This ought to remind the astute reader of the masterwork Red Harvest. A gunslinger remarks, “A hombre might guess that you was playing the Circle H. A. R. against Bardell’s crew, encouraging each side to eat up the other, and save you the trouble.” The Op replies, “You could be either right or wrong. Do you think that’d be a dumb play?”

Tulip (1952) is a fragment of an autobiographical novel Hammett attempted near the end of life. Not consistently convincing as fiction, it at least presents Hammett’s ideas about literary form and content.

The Big Knockover (1927). Another audacious crime – the robbery of two banks at the same time. Unlikely that such an operation could be planned as carefully as the story would have it, but it has a lot of action and witty dialogue.

106,000 Blood Money (1927). This presents the sequel to The Big Knockover. Like many aftermath stories, it is less satisfying than the original, because the characters are made of cardboard. With hinges.

 

 

 

Non-Fiction Review – Touching History

Tuesday, September 11th, 2018

 

Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama That Unfolded in the Skies Over America on 9/11

by Lynn Spencer

 

Review Vicky T. (VickyJo)

 

The Federal Aviation Administration Command Center is located in Herndon, Virginia. The Center is responsible for monitoring and planning the flow of civilian air traffic over the United States. 50 specialists work full time with airlines and air traffic control centers, helping to guide the nearly 50,000 flights operating on any given day in the U.S. They watch flight trajectories and weather patterns on huge screens. Picture NASA’s Mission Control, and you have a good idea of what the FAA’s Command Center is all about.

Ben Sliney was hired as the national operations manager at the Command Center. His job would be to oversee all 50 specialists, and he was very qualified for the position, having been an air traffic controller and then a manager for many years. But still, there was a bit of nervousness on his first day of this new job. We’ve all felt that, right? First day on a job jitters.

There’s one wrinkle, though. Ben Sliney’s first day on the job just happened to be September 11th, 2001. That’s right: 9/11.

Ben Sliney’s story, and the story of scores of other people from the flight industry and the military, is told in the gripping book “Touching History: The Untold Story of the Drama that Unfolded in the Skies over America on 9/11” by Lynn Spencer. Spencer gives us a minute by minute account of that terrible day, allowing us to experience the events of 9/11 through the eyes of other pilots, air traffic controllers, and the military personnel that scrambled to respond to an unthinkable situation.

This book, even though it’s non-fiction, reads like a suspense novel. The minutes and hours tick down as we go from the FAA’s Command Center, to the American Airlines headquarters, to various air traffic controllers, to other pilots in their cockpits. The author is a pilot and a flight instructor, so she does an excellent job of explaining flight terms, and keeping the various characters and agencies straight. I learned a lot about civilian flights, our military response to the threat that day, and about the personalities involved.

It’s the little details that I found fascinating. For instance, when the hijackers picked up the intercom to talk to the passengers in the cabin, they didn’t realize that the intercom didn’t just broadcast to the passengers in the plane; everything they were saying was on the plane radios, and could be heard by other pilots in other aircraft. Another chilling detail: the North American Aerospace Defense Command (or NORAD) is the agency that is responsible for the detection of and response to an attack against the mainland United States. Sept. 11th was the day they had scheduled a training exercise, which would include a simulated hijacking. So when word came in of a plane suspected of being hijacked…everyone thought it was part of the exercise.

Not only did U.S. air flights need to be grounded that day, an incredible decision that poor Ben Sliney had to make, but flights coming into the U.S. had to be re-routed when the unprecedented decision to close American air space came down. It was just too unbelievable for many folks. One radio controller had the task of trying to explain this to an incoming Asian flight. The pilot was enroute to San Francisco, but was told he could not land in the U.S. “No problem, we go to Oakland.” “Negative, Sir, You are unable to land in U.S. airspace.” “Oh..roger! We go to Los Angeles.” “No, sir. You cannot go to the United States. The United States is closed.” The controller then sends the flight to Vancouver. The pilot finally understands the implications of all this, and signs off with a quiet, “Our condolences.”

For an inside look at 9/11 from a unique perspective, be sure to try “Touching History.”