29 December 2011

The Road to Petra; D.C. Baramki

The Road to PetraThe Road to Petra by D.C. Baramki
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Petra has been a fascination of mine since reading Richard Halliburton's description of the city in his Complete Book of Marvels.  While I don't remember where or how this really slim book came into my life, that's definitely why.

This isn't really travel writing, it's a factual tour guide for those interested in visiting Transjordan; since the 6th edition is dated 1961, one can only imagine the trip the author describes as much has changed in the intervening half-century.  Example: the recommended route is Jerusalem to Amman then to several cities, a simple process (albeit one with many police check-ins) back then.

The many black-and-white photos hint at how beautiful these antiquities must be (describing the es Siq gorge, "Here one enters a dream-like, unreal world. Soft sandstone cliffs of varied and unusual colours and fantastic shapes tower to a height of 200 to 300 feet").  One of these days, I'll get to visit and this book will come with me.

Folly; Laurie R. King

FollyFolly by Laurie R. King
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Another psychological thriller that's less of either - the scary bits don't come until the very end, and by then it's pretty obvious what's going on. 

Rae has her Watchers, voices and noises that drove her to attempt suicide following the accident that killed her husband and daughter and the attack/near-rape a few months later.  After spending time in a mental hospital, she finally has the health and direction to attempt to rebuilt the house her great-uncle built on a remote island in the San Juan Strait.  There are still Watchers, but slowly she finds the work healing on an emotional level - there's also her growing relationships with Nikki, Ed and Jerry.

She's also haunted by the problem of her son-in-law, a shady businessman determined to fleece her out of her money (or prevent her from seeing her granddaughter), and the guilt of not being a better mother to her elder daughter.  All of this could have added up to many more flashes of mental terror and questioning, but instead we get long - and I do mean long - passages about the building/rebuilding of the house and her life on Folly.  The same applies to her finding the bones of her Great-Uncle Desmond (who supposedly disappeared in New Mexico, not on the island).

While this is well-written, the creepy terror 'noises-that-go-bump'/'am-I-going-mad?' factor just isn't there.

27 December 2011

The Night Lawyer; Michelle Spring

The Night LawyerThe Night Lawyer by Michelle Spring

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is supposed to be a psychological thriller, but ultimately it wasn't so thrilling.  Eleanor is haunted by her past (her father's death and her mental breakdown and hospitalization) and is starting to pick up the pieces, including becoming a purple belt in karate and joining a tabloid as their night lawyer.  We see how she's filled with self-doubt, punctuated with moments of real confidence and happiness.

The thriller part comes from her having a stalker, someone who has apparently waited 20 years for justice.  There's also her relationship with one of her female colleagues, with whom she thinks she can be friends, and a few of her male ones, from whom she desires respect.  Finally, her next-door-neighboor has an abusive boyfriend and with the thin walls between their houses...  Getting to see glimpses of the others' lives is supposed to immerse us in Eleanor's world, ratcheting up the terror quotient.  That doesn't quite happen because those glimpses allow us to make really educated guesses about what's happening or going to happen.  There was one real surprise, but even that felt a little like a letdown.

Speak Ill of the Living; Mark Arsenault

Speak Ill of the LivingSpeak Ill of the Living by Mark Arsenault
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Our reporter/investigator/hero Eddie Bourque is the much (20 years) younger brother of Hank, who is serving life for the theft of 1MM lbs of gold and the murder of the two security guards guarding the gold. Why is this relevant? At first we're not sure, but slowly the kidnapping (and possible murder) of businessman Rick Lime, the suicide of the coroner Caine and the death of the writer/editor/dogsbody of the Lowell weekly start to tie together. The ending is nicely ambiguous - what will Eddie do next? how will what happened in this book affect his future? will he continue to report on/investigate mysteries only now with his brother's behind-bars help?

The mystery was relatively easy to follow, and the Big Reveal was hinted at earlier (or maybe I've just read far too many mysteries?), but overall this wasn't bad. Even better was that General VonKatz wasn't portrayed as some cutesy addition to Bourque's life but as the only constant being in his life. At times I'm not sure why we get all the Lowell-Kerouac ties, however. Perhaps it's to separate Lowell from other small, semi-rundown towns? There seemed to be little other reason.

26 December 2011

The Merry Recluse; Caroline Knapp

The Merry Recluse: A Life in EssaysThe Merry Recluse: A Life in Essays by Caroline Knapp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was one of those "how did I end up with this book?" reads - I suspect a colleague weeding her collection, possibly grabbed because of the title. However it happened, this is a wonderful selection of essays that will remain in my mind and on my shelves.

Knapp is incredibly honest about her life as an anorexic and alcoholic (both of which are also covered in her two previous books), funny about her problems as a nester and compulsive shopper, open about her reaction to September 11, men named "Dave", girl crushes and other life-related items. I giggled through her "Letter to Corporate America" and the "All-Girl Marine Corps" and hoped I can deal with my parents' eventual deaths and dismembering their house better than she did.

There were essays I want to share with others so I'm definitely going to look for them on-line, but the book stays with me.

The Athenian Murders; José Carlos Somoza

The Athenian MurdersThe Athenian Murders by José Carlos Somoza
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This mystery tried so very hard to be clever, but honestly? More trying and less clever. It also brought to mind Sophie's World, with the supposed translator becoming a part of the book but perhaps more of a literary device than a real character.

Ostensibly this is an ancient Greek text about the murders of a few young boy/men in Athens, students at Plato's Academy yet also partaking of the arts (forbidden by the Academy) and Heracles is a "Decipherer of Enigmas" asked to find out what really happened. Then there's the translator of the original into Italian, Montalo, who apparently went mad at the end of his life and may have been killed in the same manner as the first death. Finally, there's the modern day translator who realizes that this is an eidetic novel, goes somewhat mad, is kidnapped and finally written out of the text by the original writer. Confused yet?

There is a lot going on, and quite a bit about what life was like in Athens at the time of the "original" murders. For lovers of literature and literary devices there's also much to chew on (although "eidesis" is not a real literary device - I checked). The problem is that there's almost too much going on and, as I said, the author is trying to be too clever.

Switched; Amanda Hocking

SwitchedSwitched by Amanda Hocking
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I've heard so much about the self-published phemon Amanda Hocking that I was really curious to read this - and now that I have, well, "meh". The writing isn't bad, but a good critical editor is definitely missing (four books? really? there's material here for two at most).

>Wendy (named after the heroine of Peter Pan and all her descendants) has a temper, doesn't look anything like her family (she's dark, they're fair), can manipulate people with her mind and was nearly killed by Kim, her mother, when she was six. Since then she's been taken care of by her aunt Maggie and her brother Matt, while Mom/Kim languishes in the looney bin. Flash forward to high school and she's semi-stalked by this cute guy, Finn. Turns out she's Trylle (fancy name for a branch of the troll family) and a changeling, while he's a tracker sent to bring her back to the Trylle compound to take her rightful place as Princess.

As with the Inheritance series by Paolini, you can really see Hocking's influences here and there's little to surprise the reader. The other problem is that this is written (I'm guessing) for high school students but in a style that 7/8 graders will appreciate - and neither group is going to really care about that.

ARC provided by publisher.

25 December 2011

Ripley Under Ground; Patricia Highstreet

Ripley Under GroundRipley Under Ground by Patricia Highsmith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Reading this, I had to wonder if the perpetrators of the forgeries outlined in Provenance had read this! Here, Ripley is living a life of relative ease as a married man in France; his wife knows he's a little on the shady side, but doesn't seem to mind (theirs is also what one can only term an open marriage). One source of income is from the forgery of Philip Derwatt paintings and the licensing of his name for art supplies and an art school.

Of course things start to go wrong, and Ripley is called upon to impersonate Derwatt... and then - oops! - kill people to cover his tracks. Once again, the murders fall into the "he had it coming/it wasn't really murder" category, and Ripley manages to skate through. Or does he? At the end of the book it's clear that his proximity to all these deaths is starting to raise eyebrows.

Now I need to read the next book at see what happens. Only I don't have that one. Sigh.

20 December 2011

The Talented Mr. Ripley; Patricia Highsmith

The Talented Mr RipleyThe Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Definitely old-school from the pacing to the plot. We have Tom Ripley, amateur con man, who is sought out by Herbert Greenleaf, father of Dickie. Dickie has escaped the family and gone to Italy and his father (and mother) want him back home, would Tom go over and convince him to return? Tom takes on the job and turns into a SWF (ok, SWM)-stalker, imitating Dickie's walk, talk and life. And then it's not about imitating, it's actually inhabiting Dickie's life, avoiding friends and living off Dickie's money until Freddie Miles comes and Tom's life as Dickie starts to unravel.

Except it doesn't completely, as Tom miraculously manages to evade detection as a double murderer. As I read I kept thinking how much a period-piece this was: fingerprinting is primitive, ditto police methods. Could someone take on another's entire personality and life in this day and age? That didn't lessen my enjoyment of the book, but it did occasionally run through my mind.

19 December 2011

We Shall not Sleep; Anne Perry

We Shall Not Sleep: A Novel (World War One Series, #5)We Shall Not Sleep: A Novel by Anne Perry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This finale to the WWI series was the first - only - book I've read by Perry, and I'm intrigued enough to read more. Because this wraps up a series, there are allusions to previous murders and doings, although you can definitely read it as a stand-alone and not feel as though you've missed something,

The horror of the war and trenches is clear, as is the confusion and rage that soldiers near the end of the war felt. The rape and murder of Sarah Price brings those even more forward, particularly as this is October 1918 and no one is sure what waits for them back home. There's also the question of the Peacemaker and how he can finally be brought to justice.

The mystery is pretty good, but the characterizations sometimes seemed to be a little pat. There are too many pronouncements, some holier-than-thouishness and a few implausible twists, not to mention far too many emotions flaring (briefly, usually). I'd have to read another of her books to see if this is her usual style.

The Tsarina's Daughter; Carolly Erickson

The Tsarina's DaughterThe Tsarina's Daughter by Carolly Erickson

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One of the problems of historical fiction is how well the history is portrayed. While the first part of the book isn't that far off (although some of the relationships between the various European rulers is mangled and unclear), the tsarina's escape to (eventually) the United States lost me. Usually it's Tsarina Anastasia who is rumored to have survived, so that this is based on her older sister Tatiania is a little different. Not different enough, though, to overcome the writing or the plotting.

Obviously Tatiana's history prior to 1918 has to adhere to what we know, but there are weird time jumps and several suppositions (that she would help her maid's sister and visit the poor at night) that just don't quite ring true. Also, because these are Russian-born, native Russian speakers, it doesn't work when words are translated by the speaker (eg, what "Rasputin" means).

16 December 2011

Exploring Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials; Lois H. Gresh

Exploring Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials : An Unauthorized Adventure Through The Golden Compass,Subtle KnifeExploring Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials : An Unauthorized Adventure Through The Golden Compass,Subtle Knife by Lois H. Gresh
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is the perfect book for anyone interested in the "behind the text" of Pullman's series, however the slightly too-chatty tone combined with first-person narrative (eg, "I have a few modern books about angels" or "In the last chapter, we discussed..."). I found it distracting from the actual information, but for middle grade readers - whom I suspect are the intended audience - that might not matter.

15 December 2011

Cinder; Marissa Meyer

Cinder (Lunar Chronicles, #1)Cinder by Marissa Meyer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I do love Cinderella stories and this is an interesting mix of that genre with the Lost Prince/future-with-cyborgs-and-androids genres.

Cinder is a cyborg, technically the property of the stepmother (Andri). She works as a mechanic and her best friend is Iko, an android owned by her family. There's one mean stepsister (Pearl) and one nice one (Peony), both of whom are going to Prince Kai's ball. Prince Kai is, of course, gorgeous and one day brings Cinder his broken-down tutor android, Nainsi; they flirt. So far, so familiar, right?

Add to this the fact that there's a colonized moon with a population of humanoids called Lunars, noted for their "magic" (actually just bioelectrical manipulation in the form of glamors), ruled by an evil, usurping Queen who wants to take over the Earth; there's also a modern-day plague that is killing people. Cinder's sister Peony contracts the plague and Cinder is sent to the hospital as part of a program to see if the cyborgs somehow hold the key to the cure.

Anything more would be spoilers, so let me just say that of course Cinder does get to the ball. The big questions about Cinder's pre-cyborg identity are relatively easy to guess, but the way in which she - and others - find out isn't a detraction. The fact that this is the first of a four-part series, on the other hand... I think the second book will be interesting (given what we know about the characters by the end of the book) but can this be sustained over four books? There were signs of padding in this one, and I suspect we'll see more. However, as the French say, on verra.

ARC provided by publisher.

14 December 2011

Clearcut; Nina Shengold

ClearcutClearcut by Nina Shengold
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

What is it about Forks WA? Another book about a love triangle, this time without sparkly vampires but with an ecological message.

Earley is a 29-year-old shake-rat (someone who goes to a forest clear-cut and cuts stumps down for shingling) originally from Georgia - he has a broken-down truck and lives in a bus parked up in the woods. His showers are taken in dime-per-minute campsite showers, and his life is anything but going somewhere. One incredibly rainy day he picks up Reed, a trust-fund hitchhiker who left Berkeley to head to Alaska (but first, he wants to see Xan, the girl he's in love with).

Reed and Earley end up working together, sharing the bus and daily chores. Reed's newness to the job frustrates Earley but they find a way to make it work, particularly as Reed's skills grow. And then there's Xan, who is in love with Reed but flirts with Earley.

The love triangle is messy but, unlike most, the twist of who ends up with whom may surprise readers. The characters don't really change (although Reed grows up some over the course of the book), and the ecological message isn't pounded in - both of which would have made for a more compelling book.

10 December 2011

World's End and other stories; Paul Theroux

World's End and Other StoriesWorld's End and Other Stories by Paul Theroux
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This collection of short stories is supposed to be tied together by a diversity of places, but it's more the inherent sadness of the characters that is the thread that carries through. Each, of course, sad in their own way; some aren't sad in the truly unhappy sense but in the "reader looking at their life" sense.

As an introduction to Theroux this might discourage readers, but each story, on its own, is so well crafted (except perhaps "The Greenest Isle") that if readers take their time - perhaps spacing the stories out - they'll appreciate his writing more. (Note: "Zombies" is not a nod to the latest paranormal craze!)

08 December 2011

The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri; David Bajo

The 351 Books of Irma Arcuri: A NovelThe 351 Books of Irma Arcuri: A Novel by David Bajo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book about books? Yay! When that book includes lots of math? Uh, not-so-yay. Irma Arcuri is an author, book binder, relatively free spirit and the decades-long friend/lover of Philip. She disappears (possibly for good, possibly suicide) and leaves Philip her library of 351 books.

Philip is a twice-divorced math genius who runs for fun (he's worked out how many steps and breaths it takes to run the 3000) and who has downsized into a small apartment, little furniture and bookshelves to hold his legacy. His goal? To read all the books, not necessarily in order and not necessarily all the way through. One night he meets Lucia, with whom he starts a physical relationship - in part because she reminds him of Irma. Lucia points out that the books have not only been rebound by Irma, but that Irma has created content (a new story by Borges or paragraphs of Cervantes).

Added to this is his learning that his former stepson, Sam, has gone missing and that his two former wives and his stepchildren have had physical relationships with Irma. Philip goes to Spain looking for Sam and Lucia, hoping to also find Irma. Things get a little weird from there, with coincidences and memories colliding.

In some ways Irma and Philip's relationship like that of Hilde and Sophie in Sophie's World, or that of Griffen and Sabine. The math confused me (I'm not a math person) and that's when the book lost me; the books, the conversations about them and the bindings drew me in.

06 December 2011

Mooncranker's Gift; Barry Unsworth

Mooncranker's GiftMooncranker's Gift by Barry Unsworth
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For some reason this book reminded me of Durrell's Alexandria Quartet - it's nothing overtly like it, but there was something there that tugged at my memory of those four books and said this was like them.

The main character is Farnaby, who met the titular character as a teen. At that point in Farnaby's life he was religious, reading the Bible and praying daily, but it was one of those turning-point summers: his parents are getting divorced, he discovers the mixed pleasures of "pleasure" and Mooncranker gives him a gift that so horrifies him that he turns from prayer. What's the gift? A figure of Jesus, on the cross, made of sausage and wrapped in cloth; it eventually rots and Farnaby discovers maggots and flies crawling over the dead meat.

For years this has haunted him, both the image and the question of why someone would give him such a "gift." While studying in Istanbul, his Uncle George reintroduces him to Mooncranker, by this time a pathetic drunk mourning the loss of Miranda (another remnant of that long ago summer). After hospitalizing Mooncranker, Farnaby agrees to go look for Miranda at a Turkish spa, a place that seems to be more about illicit sex than healing.

The characters at the spa are vaguely stereotypical, but we don't meet them clearly enough during the two days that Farnaby is there. He does meet up with Miranda and ultimately asks her about this "gift" - whether or not he's happy with the response, or her reasons for why it may have been given, are left open to our interpretation. I didn't get he sense that he'd come to peace with what happened either that summer or with Mooncranker in Istanbul.

Having said all that, I'd be interested in reading more from this author. Why? The style is a little old-fashioned, less plot than character driven and that makes a nice change of pace.

05 December 2011

Arcadia; Lauren Groff

ArcadiaArcadia by Lauren Groff
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wasn't quite sure how I felt about this one - at times it was really engrossing, and at times my mind wandered or I wondered what the author wanted me to get from that episode. Overall it was a good read, and certainly a good nostalgia read for those who want to know more about the hippie commune movement of the 70s. Having said that, it's not historical fiction (the timefrom moves from 1970s-2018!).

This is the life of Ridley "Bit" Scott, the first-born Arcadian. His parents, Abe and Hannah, joined Hardy's intrepid group somewhere out West and Bit was born (it appears prematurely) as they made their way East. Ultimately they end up on a 600+ acre property in Upstate New York, where the winters are harsh but the ground is good for growing and there's the possibility that the Arcadians can live in peace with the land. We meet Bit at/in Arcadia at the ages of 5/5 and 14/15, both pivotal times for the commune, then again at 35 and 50-ish, post-Arcadia.

The life of the Arcadians, the power of a charismatic leader, how communes can work well and then implode, and how people dedicated to a cause and belief can become disillusioned are all explored in the first two sections - that's the best part of the book. By the time Bit is an adult, married with child and working at a university, the book has lost a little of its power. It would have been more interesting to see Bit evolve in the World Outside Arcadia (although that is shown) that it was to hear him go on about Helle. His observations about digital fasts and technology today (during the 35y.o. segment) also could have been expanded into something more.

It's the last part, the future of 2018, that I think bothered me the most. It was almost as if the author wanted to show that the world Arcadia was founded to prevent was, in fact, inevitable. And even though Bit (and Abe and Hannah) have stayed in touch with a core group of Arcadians, we don't get a good sense of their lives 30+ years on (which would have been really interesting, particularly since some - like Dylan - have radically changed).

ARC provided by publisher.

04 December 2011

The Invisible Ones; Stef Penney

The Invisible OnesThe Invisible Ones by Stef Penney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm giving this a 5 even though it was really a 4.5/4.75 - I really enjoyed this mystery!

Ray is a half-Gypsy (dad left that traveling life to become a postman) private detective and as such is considered acceptable to Leon Woods, who is searching for his long-lost daughter. Seven-ish years ago, Rose Woods married Ivo Janko - the Jankos being of the "old black blood" and from "somewhere in the Balkans". As is traditional, Rose became part of the Janko clan, and Leon didn't expect to have much contact with her... except no one seems to have heard of/from her in over six years. So he hires Ray to clear up this mystery.

As Ray digs into the Janko's lives, he runs into several sub-mysteries: why is there such division between Tene and his sister Lulu? What happened to JJ's father? What is this "blood" illness that Ivo's son, Christo, has? And why can't anyone give him a direct answer to the question of when Rose disappeared and where? Most important: how did he end up with ergot/henbane poisoning, semi-paralyzed and in hospital?

Interwoven with his story is that of JJ, the son of Sandra Smith nee Janko. JJ goes to school, interacts with non-Gypsy girls, and seems to want to settle down somewhat. He's a teen and starting to look for answers to some of his questions about his father - who he was, why he left, and why there are no photos or signs of him. He cares for Christo and Ivo, helping the family on their trip to Lourdes (Ivo was cured there years ago, and perhaps Christo will also be cured).

The two stories come together in somewhat surprising (and violent) ways, and its clear that neither Ray nor JJ will be the same. What I particularly liked was that not all of the mysteries are resolved, with several loose ends left untidily around for the reader to ponder. While I guess the major plot twist about 50 pages from the end, it was still ambiguous enough for me to think "maybe I'm wrong" until the very end!

Because this is a murder mystery, I'm hoping that Ms. Penney turns this into a series - in any even, her first book is on my To Buy list and I'm keeping an eye out for her next one.

ARC provided by publisher.

03 December 2011

Sympathy for the Devil; Virginia A. McConnell

Sympathy for the Devil: The Emmanuel Baptist Murders of Old San FranciscoSympathy for the Devil: The Emmanuel Baptist Murders of Old San Francisco by Virginia A. McConnell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

True crime, particularly when the crime happened a long time ago, is somehow a perfect read when you're feeling sick - this book fit the bill in much the same way that P.D. James' The Maul and the Pear Tree did a few years ago.

The murders of Blanche and Millie took place in April 1895, in San Francisco, so there was no way to process the crime scenes in a modern sense: no "Bones", no "CSI" and no BAU to profile the murderer. Instead there was a lot of circumstantial evidence, conflicting witness statements, and two newspapers to whip the public into a frenzy. Ms. McConnell does a great job of sorting through all this and of pointing out where modern court cases and murder investigations differ from what happened.

In the beginning of the book, however, she suggests that Theo Durrant was not the murderer, that there were other, equally plausible suspects; by the end of the book, however, she seems to have changed her mind. There are two others who might have done one (or both) murders, and it would have been interesting to explore that a little. Perhaps the lack of documents (due to the age of the crimes, the difference in what evidence was collected back then, and the 1906 earthquake destroying some of the records) prevented her from pursuing that.

01 December 2011

The Artful Dodger; Nick Bantock

The Artful Dodger: Images and ReflectionsThe Artful Dodger: Images and Reflections by Nick Bantock
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If you don't know Bantock's art, this is a great way to learn... and if you do know his work, it's a wonderful celebration of what he's done. I had no idea he'd done cover art, or the pop-up books (and now I'm adding those to my To Be Bought list). His explanation of the thought and art process that went into the Griffin & Sabine books as well as his other work is just fascinating, and seeing some of the art again made me think about re-reading and re-viewing what I've read before.

A must buy/must read for the art lover in all of us.