Thursday, July 20, 2017

Throw Back Thursday: Great Reading from My Past

I am such a fan of time travel in books, but it must be done well.  No sloppy pretense will do.  Lauren Beukes in The Shining Girls does time travel beautifully.  It's a mystery and crime novel on top of that, so what's not to love.  Today's Throw-Back Thursday book is from 2013 and is definitely worth reaching back in time for.  Below is first the book description and then my review.

Book Description:

The girls who wouldn't die hunts the killer who shouldn't exist.

The future is not as loud as war, but it is relentless. It has a terrible fury all its own."

Harper Curtis is a killer who stepped out of the past. Kirby Mazrachi is the girl who was never meant to have a future.

Kirby is the last shining girl, one of the bright young women, burning with potential, whose lives Harper is destined to snuff out after he stumbles on a House in Depression-era Chicago that opens on to other times.

At the urging of the House, Harper inserts himself into the lives of the shining girls, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. He's the ultimate hunter, vanishing into another time after each murder, untraceable-until one of his victims survives.

Determined to bring her would-be killer to justice, Kirby joins the Chicago Sun-Times to work with the ex-homicide reporter, Dan Velasquez, who covered her case. Soon Kirby finds herself closing in on the impossible truth . . .
The Shining Girls is a masterful twist on the serial killer tale: a violent quantum leap featuring a memorable and appealing heroine in pursuit of a deadly criminal.

Reading Room Review:

We know who the killer is. We know who the victims are. We know who the lone survivor is. We know all of this information fairly quickly. What we don't know is if the killer will ever be caught or if the survivor will remain so. Of course, there is a complication for the police and the survivor. The killer is a time traveler, using a ramshackle house in the depression era 1930's to find his way to and from the future. The house is itself alive with its urges to kill that must be obeyed by the depraved man who stumbles upon the evil and who is more than compliant in his devotion to carrying out the nefarious deeds. Harper Curtis has chanced upon his soul mate in the form of the grotesque dwelling. Kirby Mazrachi is trying to ferret out her would-be killer whom she doesn't realize leaped from 1931 to 1989 to stalk her and strike her down. To Curtis, she is simply one of his "shining girls," one of nine predestined to die.

For Kirby, it is 1993, and she has taken an internship at the Chicago Sun-Times with Dan Velasquez, sports reporter, but formerly homicide reporter who covered her case. Her placement with Dan is deliberate on her part, as she is attempting to uncover any information about her case. Her goal is to expose her attacker and link him to at least one previous murder. Kirby detects a pattern, but she is unable to support it with evidence. She enlists Dan's aid in digging through materials, both old and new, connected to her attach and similar murders. Is it possible to make sense of the implausible, to even arrive at its connection to reality? To stay alive, Kirby will have to entertain her wildest thoughts as the key to catching a ruthless, elusive killer.

Lauren Beukes has written a brilliant novel, a full-on creepy novel that will shock you with brutality, but at the same time, it will spellbind you with the suspenseful genius of a story you cannot read fast enough. In fairness, the brutality is brief in its telling, but knives are always a particulary grisly method of death. Beukes achieves the back and forth of the time traveling with deftness and intrigue. As a fan of time travel, I am impressed with her ability to create a story that flowed so smoothly with so many different time frames involved. I feel certain that this book will be short-listed for several awards and included on many summer's hottest reads lists.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Throw-Back Thursday: Great Reading from My Past #6

I'm so excited to share this week's throw-back Thursday selection.  I've picked one of my favorite children's/young adult novels and authors.  Hold Fast by Blue Balliett is a book for all ages that features the poetry of Langston Hughes.  How can it not be an amazing book with this author and that poet?  Again this week, I'm including both a jacket description and my review (a short one) of the book.  I would love to hear back from readers who have read Hold Fast or who read it after seeing my post.  It's definitely one of those books that you want to share with the whole world of readers.  

Jacket Description:

From NEW YORK TIMES bestselling author Blue Balliett, the story of a girl who falls into Chicago's shelter system, and from there must solve the mystery of her father's strange disappearance.

Where is Early's father? He's not the kind of father who would disappear. But he's gone . . . and he's left a whole lot of trouble behind.

As danger closes in, Early, her mom, and her brother have to flee their apartment. With nowhere else to go, they are forced to move into a city shelter. Once there, Early starts asking questions and looking for answers. Because her father hasn't disappeared without a trace. There are patterns and rhythms to what's happened, and Early might be the only one who can use them to track him down and make her way out of a very tough place.

With her signature, singular love of language and sense of mystery, Blue Balliett weaves a story that takes readers from the cold, snowy Chicago streets to the darkest corner of the public library, on an unforgettable hunt for deep truths and a reunited family.

Reading Room Review: 

Blue Balliett is one of the best children's authors writing today. Her characters are always well developed and worthy of great admiration. In this latest novel, Hold Fast, reading is front and center as the glue that holds together a family of four living on the poor in Chicago, and it is reading, with a major emphasis on Langston Hughes, that is their hope for survival when 11-year-old Early Pearl's father disappears and she ends up in a shelter with her mother and 4-year-old brother. Early must use all she learned about language and its rhythms from her father Dash to try and save her family and find her father. As usual, Balliett enchants the reader with the beauty and power of language. And along with an intriguing story full of words and mystery, the author throws the door wide on the problem of homelessness and the children who suffer daily because of it. Books that make you look at your own life differently are the best, most lasting kind of reading, and Blue Balliett has given us the gift of Hold Fast to touch hearts and impact lives.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Lockdown by Laurie R. King: Reading Room Review

I long ago fell in love with Laurie King's writing through the Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series. I have followed her books through other series and her standalones, too, and I've been rewarded with great reading year after year. I was excited to learn that there would be a new standalone, but it seemed quite a departure in subject matter from what I expected. I was right. It was a departure, but a fascinating one that proved me wonderfully wrong about my predictions concerning the big event and its villains and heroes. Of course, there are many different scenarios that could have played out due to so many characters who are hiding secrets from their past and present.

The story is presented in alternating chapters between characters, mostly short chapters, but some are longer, and those that are longer turn out to be just the ones I wanted to be so. At first, I wasn't sure about the switching points of view, afraid that I wasn't getting enough from the characters each time to form a clear picture of them, but after a bit, I realized what a crafty choice those transitions from character to character were, building the total story while building the characters. What seemed like a slow burn began to be a suspenseful progression gaining steam all along.

The story centers around Guadalupe Middle School, an economically depressed and troubled school in the small community of San Felipe, California and the upcoming Career Day, designated as one of new principal Linda McDonald's shining moments for the school to show how far it had come in the last year. But, others have their own agendas for Career Day, and some of those agendas are set on destruction. As the important day approaches and then begins, the stories of Linda, her husband, the school janitor, the local police woman, various students and parents, and members of the community reveal all matter of hidden variables that will play out on Guadalupe's big day. While there is much good going on both visibly and behind the scenes, there is also evil festering with an urgent pulse. And, while much progress has been made with the new principal, the school year has seen the murder of one of the student's teenage sister and the disappearance of one of Guadalupe's students. These events along with the dramas playing out in each character's life form the crisis that will make or break the school and community. Career Day at Guadalupe Middle School turns out nothing like Principal Linda McDonald had envisioned and nothing like I had anticipated.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Throw Back Thursday: Great Reading from My Past #5

This Thursday's pick is a timely one, more timely than I realized when I picked it.  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler was the 2014 winner of the PENN/Faulkner Award for Fiction, and it is a book so unique and so well-written that such a prestigious award is only fitting.  As for the timeliness of my pick, I've just discovered that HBO has a mini-series of this book coming out soon, starring Natalie Portman.  That alone should get readers' attention that We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is a must-read.  I am including my review of this favorite book, along with its description.  Be careful about reading reviews before you read the book, as it is a story easily spoiled.  My review is spoiler free.  I actually removed a paragraph that might have teetered on spoiler territory.   And, don't read the back cover or the inside flap descriptions!  The big reveal should be revealed when it comes in the book and not before.  Readers need to experience the revelations of this journey for themselves.  

Brief Book Description from Goodreads:
    Meet the Cooke family.  Our narrator is Rosemary Cooke.  As a child, she never stopped talking; as a young woman, she has wrapped herself in silence: the silence of intentional forgetting, of protective cover.  Something happened, something so awful she has buried it in the recesses of her mind.
    Now her adored older brother is a fugitive, wanted by the FBI for domestic terrorism.  And her once lively mother is a shell of her former self, her clever and imperious father now a distant, brooding man.
    And Fern, Rosemary's beloved sister, her accomplice in all their childhood mischief?  Fern's is a fate the family, in all their innocence, could never have imagined.

Reading Room Review: 
Although this novel is assigned six parts to it, for me it is separated into two parts, before the big reveal and after. At first, I was bothered by the big reveal, and it annoyed me in the sense of having been tricked or snookered into believing that the book would be about one thing, and, then, a huge monkey-wrench (only the-already-have-read-it will truly appreciate that term) is tossed into the perceived story to come. That the reveal comes almost 100 pages into the book seemed particularly unsporting. However, after getting over my initial shock and disgruntlement, I began to realize what all the hullabaloo over this novel was about. There are quite simply important issues at hand in Rosemary Cooke's narrative of her life, her unusual early childhood and her confused state from age five to early adulthood. Unfortunately, so much cannot be related in this review unless I fill it with spoilers, which I try diligently to avoid in reviews. 

At the heart of this story is Rosemary Cooke and her family, who experience the closest knit love of togetherness and the consuming grief of unexpected separations. As a loquacious child, Rosie's (Rosemary) father advised her to start in the middle of what she wanted to say, and so it is this very manner in which she proceeds to tell the story of her family from her perspective. It is only after she is in college that she begins to know and understand the perspectives of her other family members. So much is unspoken, too much that Rosie has had to fill in for herself, and not all of her version is accurate, due to missing information. Not to worry. Along with the great reveal are other reveals that plug the holes of faded and selective memory. Rosie might start in the middle, but the beginning and ending (up to a satisfactory point of ending) are disclosed, too. The title is well chosen, as the family is indeed completely beside themselves with a despondency that exists primarily because the deep voids of information are left unresolved for so long. I kept wanting to shout, just ask why or what happened. Alas, Rosie must take her own path (and sweet time) to lift herself out of the fog that encapsulates her.

So, Karen Joy Fowler, you have done yourself proud with this novel that touches our hearts and minds in a most profound way. Kudos to your excellent writing, which includes a richness of vocabulary last encountered by me in my earlier years of reading the apposite-worded Agatha Christie novels. I feel rather as if I sucked the pages of your story dry, in that I gleaned so much worth retaining. You, Ms. Fowler, have reached a level of distinction in your writing that demands attention, not to mention awards. 


Saturday, July 1, 2017

July's New Book Titles Are Lighting up the Sky

This summer continues to be week after week of great new titles to read.  I hope you weren't planning on using the summer to catch up on old reading because the new will keep you hopping.  Perhaps, a vacation to a deserted island is a good choice for allowing yourself plenty of reading time.  Some of July's hot titles are pictured below.  Happy Reading!



Thursday, June 29, 2017

Throw Back Thursday: Great Reading from My Past #4

This Thursday, I'm featuring a non-fiction book about a fiction writer's reading life.  My Reading Life by Pat Conroy was published in November 2010.  This brilliant author of so many best sellers, including my favorite of Beach Music, died in March of 2016, and the world lost a talented, compassionate, and funny man.  In reading My Reading Life, one can feel the essence of Pat Conroy, as it is the story of his life just naturally told in what he read and where he was and how it affected him and who was instrumental in his reading/life. 

First up is the jacket description of My Reading Life, followed by my review of the book.  Even if you've never read a Pat Conroy novel, you will find the book fascinating.  Of course, if you have read Conroy, My Reading Life will charm you in tune with what you've read, especially now that he is gone from us. 

Pat Conroy, the beloved American storyteller, is a voracious reader. Starting as a childhood passion that bloomed into a life-long companion, reading has been Conroy’s portal to the world, both to the farthest corners of the globe and to the deepest chambers of the human soul. His interests range widely, from Milton to Tolkien, Philip Roth to Thucydides, encompassing poetry, history, philosophy, and any mesmerizing tale of his native South. He has for years kept notebooks in which he records words and expressions, over time creating a vast reservoir of playful turns of phrase, dazzling flashes of description, and snippets of delightful sound, all just for his love of language. But for Conroy reading is not simply a pleasure to be enjoyed in off-hours or a source of inspiration for his own writing. It would hardly be an exaggeration to claim that reading has saved his life, and if not his life then surely his sanity.

In My Reading Life, Conroy revisits a life of reading through an array of wonderful and often surprising anecdotes: sharing the pleasures of the local library’s vast cache with his mother when he was a boy, recounting his decades-long relationship with the English teacher who pointed him onto the path of letters, and describing a profoundly influential period he spent  in Paris, as well as reflecting on other pivotal people, places, and experiences. His story is a moving and personal one, girded by wisdom and an undeniable honesty. Anyone who not only enjoys the pleasures of reading but also believes in the power of books to shape a life will find here the greatest defense of that credo.

This book is the type of book that I love and dread simultaneously. I literally found myself hanging on every word (and they are such magical, illustrious ones)as I slowly turned the pages, fearing that I might miss yet another pithy, entertaining statement from Mr. Conroy. OK, so the only "dread" aspect of my relationship to this book is the arduous task of noting all I wanted to remember with post-it flags and highlighter marks, not to mention looking up a few words whose meaning I obsessively had to learn. There is so much to love in what Pat Conroy conveys to us about his reading life, a prolific one to say the least. Conroy must be the best-read author ever. I'm not sure when he finds the time to write, but, of course, I'm most grateful that he does. I was fortunate to hear this wordsmith speak at a book festival, and remember hanging on his every word then, not just smart this Southern charmer is but laugh-out-loud entertaining. Reading this book was akin to listening to the silver-tongued tale spinner himself. Insights into Pat Conroy's life and growth as an artist are, of course, an inexorable part of what he has read and why. Seemingly ordinary people, starting with his bibliophilistic mother, places, authors, and books devoured are given separate chapters in which Conroy brings each alive with his memory and their value. Gene Norris, a high school mentor/teacher may be singularly responsible for my beloved author channeling his love or reading and writing into a path of genius. I felt a moment of epiphany when Conroy talks about "exactness" as being a "virtue" and responsibility of a writer. As with all meaningful writing, this love story to reading will prompt you to read more, both of Conroy and others. I count meeting Pat Conroy at that book festival as one of the highlights of my reading life. Fortunately, I didn't know just how smart he was at the time, as his down-to-earth Southern civility and habitual smile belie the erudition of his demi-god status. His bearing and manner invite you to blurt out whatever is on your mind, and he greets it with interest and grace. Reading his story of his reading life, as if there is any other kind, one gains  understanding of how an author so brilliant could be so humble. 

Monday, June 26, 2017

The Birdwatcher by William Shaw: Reading Room Review

I have a fondness for mystery/crime set in isolated settings, so The Birdwatcher, set in the harsh, bleak landscape of the Kent coast and with backstory integrated from the segregated factions of Northern Ireland in the late 70s, The Birdwatcher solidly checks that box.  Setting is a major player in this standalone by Shaw, with it influencing the action in dark, reclusive ways.   And, the setting, with its solitary and inaccessible features is reflective of the characters that Shaw so deftly draws, their secrets and their fears keeping them apart from the warmth of companionship.  Rather like a locked-room mystery in which one must determine how the players all there in front of us were able to elude our grasp of the guilty.  And, like a locked-room tale, this novel is not a thunderous roar of action, but instead is a slow, meticulous sifting of the evidence and connections to a crime.  The story is a police procedural with a dogged determination by the main character to get it right, and that takes a bit of time. 

Sergeant William South has worked as a policeman on the Kent coastal lands and the Dungeness area for over twenty years.  He is quite content to work as a routine policeman in the community and has no experience with murder cases.  That dearth of experience is self-imposed, as he early on decided that his past as a murderer should preclude any involvement with it in his job.  He is an avid birdwatcher, having started the practice as a boy, and it is this activity and work that comprise his life, nothing more.  His contentment, however, takes a hard hit when a new detective sergeant, DS Alex Cupidi, shows up, and due to the force being short staffed, William is assigned to help her get her bearings.  Unfortunately, that help includes accompanying DS Cupidi on her way to a murder scene.  That murder scene turns out to be William’s neighbor and only quasi friend, Bob Raymer, who was a fellow birder. 

The brutality of the murder is shocking to all, and there are no obvious suspects.  Like William and others that lived in that remote region, Bob Raymer kept himself to himself.  William realizes just how little he knows about the man who lived only a hundred yards away from him.  Although William’s official involvement in the murder case of his friend wanes after the discovery of the body and subsequent interviews, his personal interest doesn’t.  It has stirred old memories of another murder, and the book begins its backstory of William as a thirteen-year-old in Northern Ireland during the ethno-nationalist conflict called “The Troubles.”   It was another harsh setting with a grim story of his home life, where his father was a violent, angry man and his mother one of the two victims of the father’s abuse.  Developments in the present-day case serve as an impetus for William to come to terms with the murder he committed as a youth and to ensure that justice is served in his friend’s death.  A physical connection of the past crime to the present one cannot be ignored by William.  Shaw does an exceptional job of transitioning from the dangerous conflict of Ireland past to the desolate present of the coast of Kent, and we, along with William, see an unfolding of the conflict and pain inside him.

William’s character is a study in how one’s past affects one’s future, and raises the question of how a life burdened with secrets can sustain itself without facing those secrets and demons.  The author has given us a character that is a complexity of interesting, peaceful, closed-off, and amiable.  That William accepts a forced friendship (from a plea of Alex Cupidi) of Cupidi’s daughter Zoe, who is also interested in birding, and that he seems to care about Cupidi’s and Zoe’s lives reveal a glimmer of hope for his bonding with other people.  Shaw doesn’t shy away from dealing with how people and relationships can be the biggest mysteries of all. 

The Birdwatcher is the first novel that I’ve read by William Shaw, and I will be going back to check out his Breen and Tozer series.  Fans of Peter May should be especially drawn to The Birdwatcher, as May has mastered the setting of isolation long ago, and Shaw does a superb job here. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Throw Back Thursday: Great Reading from My Past

Today's selection for Throw Back to my reading is The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey.   It was an important book for me historically, as well as introducing me to Josephine Tey's writing.  In English history, King Richard III is a controversial figure.  Although Richard III only ruled for two years, his reign is rich in historical significance.  With his death on August 22, 1485, the Plantagenet dynasty and the Wars of the Roses both came to an end.  There is the persistent story of how he killed the two princes in the tower to make his rule secure.  To this day, there are strong feelings about whether Richard murdered his nephews and was a bad person or whether he was egregiously slandered.  After reading The Daughter of Time years ago, I became a staunch supporter of Richard III and his innocence.  Of course, the fictional book did for me what all good reading does, it led me to more reading about the subject matter.  It's a short book, and I highly recommend it. 

Book Description:
"One of the best mysteries of all time" (The New York Times)—Josephine Tey recreates one of history’s most famous—and vicious—crimes in her classic bestselling novel, a must read for connoisseurs of fiction, now with a new introduction by Robert Barnard.

Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, recuperating from a broken leg, becomes fascinated with a contemporary portrait of Richard III that bears no resemblance to the Wicked Uncle of history. Could such a sensitive, noble face actually belong to one of the world’s most heinous villains—a venomous hunchback who may have killed his brother’s children to make his crown secure? Or could Richard have been the victim, turned into a monster by the usurpers of England’s throne? Grant determines to find out once and for all, with the help of the British Museum and an American scholar, what kind of man Richard Plantagenet really was and who killed the Little Princes in the Tower.

The Daughter of Time is an ingeniously plotted, beautifully written, and suspenseful tale, a supreme achievement from one of mystery writing’s most gifted masters.

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Marsh King's Daughter by Karen Dionne: Reading Room Review


There are parts of this story that are hard to read, but any story that has its origins in a brutal kidnapping of a young teenager is not going to be a pleasant tale.  And, the events and feelings being narrated by the daughter born into the circumstances of the kidnapper raping the mother is going to deal with complex and disturbing issues.  That the daughter of that unholy union didn’t know her father was also her and her mother’s jailer until the daughter was twelve contain memories that to her were “normal,” but to others are untenable.  Living isolated in a wilderness where animals are hunted and survival of the fittest is in constant play makes for some uncomfortable moments, too.   But, again, this is not a story with which you are supposed to be comfortable.  The narrator is a survivor of an unimaginable situation whose demons in the form of her violent father come back to haunt her in the flesh when she is in her late twenties and has a family of her own.

Helena Pelletier is the daughter of her mother’s abduction, and she has miraculously managed to move past the trauma of her younger years and is now married with two young daughters and living in the Upper Penninsula of Michigan. The trauma has not left her without scars, but she is grateful for her life of normality and the love of her family.  Then, her father, Jacob Halbrook, the man who ruined her mother’s life and twisted hers breaks out of prison, killing two guards.  The manhunt for this dangerous criminal is centered where the clues lead, but Helena knows her father deliberately left those clues to throw the police off the track of where he’s really headed.  And, Helena, who knows this man better than anyone, knows he is headed for her and her family.  Having learned tracking and survival skills at her father’s knee, she also knows that she is the only one who can recapture him.

The reason I found this book fascinating is that we are given insight into how a child born into such a disastrous situation thinks, or how she comes to process and accommodate her past into her present and future.  The author uses alternating chapters of Helena’s past and present to acquaint readers with the years Helena spent as a daughter unaware of her parentage origins.  While we see the man who fathered her as a monster, an object of disdain, Helena’s perception is colored by the isolation of living in a wilderness and not knowing any other example of what families were until she was twelve and loving a father who taught her everything she knew.  To say her feelings and thoughts are outside of most people’s realm of relevancy is an understatement.  But, this story presents a perspective that is important to consider when our “normal” isn’t someone else’s.    

Karen Dionne tackles this difficult subject matter with a directness that doesn’t avoid the ugliness or discomfort of the story.  Life is scary and cruel and unfair in a world where a young girl is kidnapped by a narcissist and gives birth to a child.  That child deserves to tell her story like it was and is, without any sugar coating.  Dionne’s description of the UP of Michigan was an educational one for me, as I’m completely unfamiliar with that area.  The description of the marshland where Helena grew up shows both the beauty and the harshness of its isolated setting, a metaphor for Helena's life there.  The use of Hans Christian Anderson’s fairytale The Marsh King excerpts at the beginning of Helena’s early years chapters serves as the allegory for good vs. evil in man’s nature, begging the question which is stronger, and more specifically which is stronger in Helena.  

The Marsh King’s daughter is a book that will haunt you, but it is also a book that will keep you completely engaged in its uniqueness and well-paced plot.  The characters are presented in all their rawness of culpability and trauma, but the examination of a mind and a person who must overcome disturbing origins to emerge as an accepted member of society is a harrowing story worth experiencing.