Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Brutal Youth by Anthony Breznican

 

When prospective freshmen arrive at St. Michael's High School for visitor's day, they are subjected to a horror none of them expected.  A student, bullied for years, has picked today to fight back at his tormentors and has climbed to the roof, hurtling cement statues down on his classmates.  Students run everywhere and some are hurt by the projectiles.  Peter Davidek and Noah Stein are both there visiting and they stand out by helping a seriously wounded student in the parking lot, probably saving his life.

When the freshman year starts, one would think these two would be considered heroes but that's not what happens.  For some reason, several of the teachers take against the two and they are singled out for ridicule in classes.  Peter just wants to go unnoticed as that's his plan in life until he can get old enough to get out of his household and escape the town.  Noah, who has a scarred face from an earlier trauma, is combative and his first instinct when bullied is to fight back.  Both of them have a crush on the beautiful Lorelei, who was ignored and harassed at her last school and is hoping for a new start.

St. Michael's is on the verge of being closed due to a crumbling infrastructure and financial issues.  The staff and faculty seem to have given up and turn a blind eye to the rampant bullying that goes on.  Seniors take delight in having their year to do whatever strikes their fancy to freshmen.  It is an institutionalized ritual that gets more brutal every year.  When the annual picnic comes around with its showcase of ritualized abuse that is the freshman talent show, everything is in place for a tragedy.  Can anyone turn things around?

Anthony Breznican has written a novel that will stir echoes in many readers whose education was marred by the casual cruelty of other students and by bullying that can turn violent and tragic in a moment.  The atmosphere at St. Michael's has been exaggerated and the constant idea that there is nothing the faculty, staff and parents can do about the bullying doesn't ring true but otherwise he has captured the intensity of feeling and the strong friendships that this age often encounters.  Peter and Noah are sympathetic characters and the book ends in a satisfying manner.  This book is recommended for readers of young adult fiction.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Kisscut by Karin Slaughter

 

Grant County, Georgia is still reeling from the serial killer who came to town last summer.  The police chief, Jeffrey wonders what he could have done to solve the case sooner.  His ex-wife, Sara, the town pediatrician and county coroner is affected as is Lena, the only female deputy who was a victim of the killer who survived.

But crime doesn't take a break because people haven't yet recovered.  One Friday night at the local roller skate rink, what should have been an easy night of teenage fun explodes with the end result being a thirteen year old girl dead, killed by police when she tries to shoot a boy.  When her body is examined, evil screams from the body.  This girl has been circumcized with the brutal surgery of backwoods countries in other parts of the world.

Who could have done such a thing?  As Jeffrey and Lena investigate they come to realize that evil has again been stalking their town.  This time it's a ring of pedophiles who have been victimizing young children for years.  Can Jeffrey stop the crime and catch the criminals before more violence occurs?

This is the second novel in the Grant County series.  It is unimaginable that such vicious crimes are occurring in what seems like such a placid rural town where everyone pretty much knows everyone else and their business.  The aftereffects of the first crime on Lena are vividly portrayed but the reader holds out hope that she can find her way back to normality.  The relationship between Jeffrey and Sara is tenuous but this couple may also find their way back to where they used to be.  This book is recommended for readers of mystery novels.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Rockets And Rodeos by Thomas Mallon

 

Thomas Mallon is a writer who has written ten novels as well as a wide variety of nonfiction.  He got his doctorate in English and American literature from Harvard and has taught at several universities such as Vassar and George Washington University.  His shorter pieces have appeared in such publications as The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly and the New York Times Book Review.  He has also served as the literary editor for Gentleman's Quarterly.

In this book of essays, Mallon covers a wide range of topics.  He talks about the scientists who observe the space program both in Florida with the Discovery rockets and in Alaska.  He writes about a criminal murder trial stemming from a bank robbery and one where two teenage boys were killed.  Rodeos are another area of interest and Mallon covers the lives of those who follow the circuit and the rodeo business itself.  He talks about what it is like covering a Vice Presidential visit with the Vice President in question being Dan Quayle.  He also talks about the anniversary of Pearl Harbor and the men who survived that day and came back fifty years later to remember it.

This book is written in the late 1900's and may seem dated to some readers but I found it fascinating.  Each essay covers the topic in ways that explain it while pointing out what might make it interesting to others.  The writing is clear and concise and the author is clearly at the top of his form.  This book is recommended to readers of nonfiction.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Totally '90s Coloring Book by Christina Haberkern

 

For adults who enjoy coloring or for those who have children and want them to see a bit of what their parent's childhood was like, Christina Haberkern has created the perfect vehicle.  This coloring book has scenes about such fads as fanny packs, trolls dolls, ring pops and 90's tv shows like Full House.  The images are clear and will provide lots of entertainment as they are colored.

The author is a designer and illustrator who owns Hello Harlot which is a stationary and gift brand of pop culture and humorous products.  This book is a great addition to that genre.  

Here's an example page:



Thursday, November 19, 2020

Don't Ever Forget by Matthew Farrell

 

State Police Investigator Susan Adler has seen a lot of cases but this one strikes close to home.  A state trooper has been found dead, bludgeoned when he makes a roadside stop.  Enough is caught on his dash cam to see that there were two people involved in his murder; the woman driving the car and a man who was in another car.

Things get more complicated when the woman's car is traced.  It belongs to a homecare nurse who is missing.  Even more bizarre, her current patient, an Alzheimer's patient, is missing from his home.  There is blood on the walls at his home and a search of the residence uncovers bloodchilling evidence that ties the man to a series of child murders that occurred decades ago.  Was he the killer?  Is his disappearance and that of his nurse tied to these events?  Did someone find out his secrets and come to take revenge?

As Susan investigates, she needs additional help.  She calls on a friend, a forensic investigator named Liam Dwyer to help.  Liam is currently at loose ends after he was accused of a crime that he didn't commit.  He was eventually cleared but it left him with some physical issues and a distaste for returning to his old unit.  He is more than willing to help Susan where he can as the murders occurred in his area.  Can the two unravel the mystery in time to find the nurse and her elderly patient?  

This is the start of a series.  Both the police characters have issues from their pasts that tend to draw them together.  The action is fast and furious and readers who aren't careful can get lost in the action as there are lots of other characters to keep track of.  The mystery that fuels the action is revealed in bits and pieces and it's unclear at all times if what is revealed is true or false, just another piece that fuels the suspense.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Other Fires by Lenore H. Gay

 


Joss and Phil's marriage has been in trouble since the birth of their second baby.  Somehow, the pressure of working and raising their first child is doubled with the addition of the new child.  When Joss finds out that Phil has been having an affair, she wonders if this is the last straw.  Hurt and frustrated, she sends him to the guest room to sleep.  When a fire breaks out in the night, he is the one who is injured.  When he wakes up in the hospital, there is another issue.  He doesn't recognize Joss at all, claiming that she is a stranger and wonders why she is there.  To tell the truth, so does Joss.

Adam is a recovering alcoholic.  He is a skilled electrician but it's been hard for him to keep a job while he was drinking.  Sober now, he comes to Joss' house to help repair things after the fire.  Somehow he and Joss strike up a relationship.  Adam is also a dreamer and he believes he is meant to leave this town and make a whole new life somewhere else.  He thinks that Joss will uproot her children after only a few weeks of their new relationship and follow him wherever the fancy takes him.  

Terpe is the older child.  She loves her father who has always treated her as his special child.  She has been threatened by the arrival of her baby sister and is now unsure how she should regard her father.  She saw him with another woman at the hospital and it is difficult to reconcile that image with the one of him as a loving father.  She is also upset at Adam being in their house and assuming that he has rights to her mother.  

Lenore Gay has written a novel that explores the family dynamic in strained circumstances.  Infidelity is a cruel occurrence and those who shortsightedly rush into extramarital relationships seldom consider the hurt and tragedy they are bringing on those around them, especially their children.  Gay's background is in sociology and rehabilitation counseling.  This expertise is demonstrated as she explores the lives and viewpoints of these four people.  The reader will sympathize with some of the characters while being frustrated at the blindness and singlemindedness of others.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.


Monday, November 16, 2020

A Burning by Megha Majumdar

 

A horrible event has occurred in Kolkata, India.  A train has had its doors locked shut than terrorists have tossed in firebombs.  Over a hundred people are killed.  The outrage is real and calls for retribution are everywhere.  This event has major effects on three individuals.

Jivan is a young Muslim girl who lives in the slums with her parents.  Given a scholarship to a good school, she stays long enough to get her certificate of completion then leaves to take a job in a store.  She is thrilled to have a real job with money that she can help support her family with.  PT Sir was her PE teacher and is a man still searching in middle age for a way to stand out.  Lovely is a hijra or transgender individual who makes a living blessing others for a fee or by begging.

Each character has dreams for the future.  Lovely dreams of being an actress in the Bollywood movies.  PT Sir dreams of fame and power.  Jivan dreams of pulling her family into the middle class.  Each individual's dreams are affected by the catastrophe.  Jivan makes a terrible mistake.  Scrolling through Facebook on the phone she has just bought with her own wages, she makes a comment on the tragedy about how the government is ineffectual in preventing such tragedies.  This comment leads to her being targeted by the police and charged herself as a terrorist as she was in the vicinity that day.

Lovely knows why Jivan was there.  She was on her way to Lovely's house where she tutored her in English, which Lovely knows she needs in order to have an acting career.  The package Jivan is carrying that the police find so suspicious on the CCTV footage contained textbooks for Lovely.  Lovely is willing to testify for Jivan but soon realizes that will hurt her chances at getting acting roles.  PT Sir joins a right-wing party that uses hatred of Muslims as a vehicle to gain more power.  Although Jivan had been his favorite pupil, he balances that fondness against his rise in power and prestige.  How will this play out?

This is a debut novel for Megha Majumdar who was raised in India and came to the United States to attend Harvard.  She now lives in New York and works as an editor.  The novel has gotten a lot of buzz and is a National Book Award longlist nominee as well as a Today Show book club pick.  Her ability to use the event to raise moral questions makes this a rewarding read.  Which is more pressing for individuals, ambition or the truth?  How can dreams and goals come true when you are not seen as an person?  Will sectarian violence find a mechanism to stop the prejudice that allows hatred to push its agenda?  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.


Saturday, November 14, 2020

The Glass Magician by Caroline Stevermer

 

Thalia Cutler is a stage magician, an occupation that isn't that usual in 1905 for a woman.  She inherited the act from her father and learned all about stage craft and the ways to make magic appear spellbinding for the audience.  She is making a name for herself with the help of his best friend, David Nutall, who has been a surrogate mentor and advisor for her after her father passed on.

But her successful rise is stalled when the biggest theatre conglomerate puts a ban on her.  It seems that another magician has claimed that Thalia has broken a noncompete agreement.  It's unheard of for a magician to have a noncompete and the man who is persecuting Thalia stole most of his act from her father in the first place.  Thalia and Nutall are determined to find a way to overturn the decision.  They attend a performance of the other magician's act only to witness him be killed in a mishap.

Bad luck continues as Nutall is arrested and charged with the murder.  Thalia is left on her own but is soon taken in by a rich man and his sister who Thalia is instructing in stage magic.  The two are Traders, individuals who trade places with their animal sides and it turns out that Thalia is also a Trader which comes as a shock to her.  She has lived her life as a Solitary and never knew that her parents were both Traders.  Now she has two missions.  She must find out who really killed the magician on stage and she must find a way to fully transition to her new life and abilities.  Those who don't make the full transition are prey to being hunted by Manticores who seek to kill them.

Caroline Stevermer has written a fantasy that is also a mystery.  She does a good job of portraying life in the early 1900's and Thalia is a fully developed individual.  Other characters such as the rich Trader who offers Thalia shelter are not as richly developed and it can be unclear what the differences are between Traders, Solitaries and a third category, the Sylvestri.  This book is recommended for fans of the Gilded Age and for fantasy readers.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

The Age Of Wonder by Richard Holmes

 


In this fascinating work, Richard Holmes explores the Romantic period from the latter part of the 1700's to the mid-point of the 1800's and how the work of various scientists changed the worldview forever.  This was the time when major discoveries were being made but also a time of great discoveries and work in the arts with many of the well known poets doing their strongest work.  Holmes explores the intersection of science and poetry and what men believed before and after these great discoveries were made.

The work revolves around the lives of several scientific giants.  The first is Joseph Banks.  A wealthy man, he went on Captain Cook's exploration of such cultures as Tahiti.  His scientific interests were wide ranging and he returned as a society lion with all the wonders he brought back and could talk about.  He went on to become the President of the Royal Society which was the premier association of scientists.  His interest in all areas of science and his network of scientists worldwide made him the preeminent figure of his time.

William Herschel and his sister Caroline were astronomers.  Herschel discovered the planet Uransus and constructed huge telescopes never before possible that allowed him to write the definitive numbering of the astral bodies.  His sister Caroline was one of the first women scientists in this area and was known for discovering new comets.  Their work was fascinating to King George III and his royal patronage made their work possible.

Humphrey Davy revolutionized the field of chemistry.  He worked on gases and discovered various uses for what is called 'laughing gas'.  He experimented on himself with this and his work was famous.  His most successful experiments were his work in making mining safer.  As men tunneled further and deeper, methane gas became a major issue with huge explosions periodically killing massive numbers of miners.  Davy created a safe lamp that allowed the miners to work more safely and was a hero in that industry.   

Along with these three giants were many other scientists.   Some most will have heard about were Michael Farraday, the African explorer Mungo Park and Charles Babbage, the mathematician whose work led to the first 'calculating machine' or computer.  But what was also fascinating were the topics that the famous poets of the era were exploring due to these scientific discoveries.  Coleridge, Keats, Wordsworth and the Shelleys Percy and Mary, were exploring the relationship between nature and the ideas of a deity that were considered set in stone.  Many of the scientists and poets started to question this certainty as their work didn't support the idea of a Creator who set everything in motion in six days.  Herschel talked about the enormity of the universe and how many millions of years it took for light from the stars to get to Earth.  

Richard Holmes has made his literary career in biographies.  His area of interest has been the poets of this era.  This work, exploring the interaction of science and art, and the opening of the questions of how man came to exist and how the universe truly worked, is a fascinating exploration of the topic and its figures.  This book is recommended for history and science nonfiction readers.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

Blonde Roots by Bernardine Evaristo

 

Doris is a thirteen year old girl going about her business on her family's small farm when it happens.  One minute she is strolling through the field, the next she is grabbed by a large man who puts a hood over her head and hauls her off.  He and another man rush her into the woods, then they travel many miles.  What is happening?  How will her family find her?  She ends up at the coast and as she is put into a pen with other people, she realizes that she is now a slave.  She will now spend the rest of her life serving her black masters.  Doris is white, as are all the other slaves.

Loaded onto a ship, she is taken to another country.  Many die along the way and many of the women are taken out at night and used by the sailors for sex.  When she arrives, Doris is immediately sold off to a wealthy man.  He renames her and tells her that she will be the companion of his small daughter who is to be obeyed in everything.  The daughter is spoiled and vindictive.  She never hesitates to tell Omorenomwara, Doris's new name, how ugly white people are.  Omorenomwara hates her life but knows she is much better off than those working in the house and especially those in the fields.  A tragedy occurs when the daughter dies and then Omorenomwara is sold to another master.

This man realizes that she can read and write and uses her in the office to help with his affairs.  But after she tries to escape, she is tracked down and flogged to within an inch of her life.  No longer trusted, she is sent to cut sugar cane on an island where her life is even more difficult and brutal.  Along the way, she has had three children all of whom were taken from her and sold.  Omorenomwara is determined to be free but is there any way for this to happen?

Evaristo has written an alternative history that spotlights the indignities and cruelty of slavery in a new light that may resonate with those who have never considered it before.  The hardships are both large and overwhelming and small but created to break the spirit of those enslaved.  Omorenomwara is a determined woman but can anyone fight against such institutionalized cruelty?  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Evil, Inc by Glenn Kaplan

 

Things are going well for Ken Olsen.  He has a beautiful wife and a little girl who is the apple of his eye.  He is rising fast at his company.  But things are about to take a turn.  When the new CEO of his company, Tom Pennington, comes to visit the company in the wake of a merger, he plucks Ken from mid-manager and makes him the head of the turnaround that will be necessary for the company to avoid closure.

Ken is estastic and full of plans.  But those plans don't have a chance.  Shortly after his promotion, an explosion and fire at the company ends it along with the lives of all the workers there that day.  Ken's own wife and child were at the plant in the daycare facility and are also killed.  Ken was out of town that day and escapes.

At first the explosion looks like it was caused by neglect of maintenance.  Ken realizes that it is no accident and that he has been set up to be the scapegoat.  Along with his brother-in-law, he vows to find those responsible and bring them to justice.  He soon realizes that Tom Pennington is responsible, the lives lost in his schemes to rise even further in the business world.  Can Ken find the proof that will put an end to Pennington's evil?

This book, along with the author's others, is set in the world of big business.  In order to believe the evil portrayed, the reader must suspend belief and accept that people are willing to kill hundreds of people unknown to them to advance their own personal goals of success at any cost.  That's a high bar to set and many readers won't be able to get over it.  The pace is fast and there are a few surprises along the way.  This book is recommended for readers who enjoy thrillers.

Friday, November 6, 2020

The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

 


Lucy froze inside when she was eight.  As her mother was leaving to go out with her friends one night, Lucy stood on the front porch shouting, 'I hope I never see you again'.  When her mother is killed that night in a car accident, the young Lucy believes her wish caused her mother's death and she stops feeling anything.  She grows up with her brother, being raised by her grandmother, but feels nothing for anyone, fearing that her love is the kiss of death.  She becomes a librarian as it is a job in which she is able to remain distanced from others.  Her research specialty is death, how to do it, methods, symptoms of poisons, etc. 

Then something happens.  Lucy is struck by lightning.  When she is released from the hospital, her brother comes up from Florida to take care of her.  He convinces her that she needs to move with him to Florida and has already found her a job there and a house to rent.  Lucy doesn't really care where she is so she agrees.  While there, she agrees to be part of a study group of lightning strike survivors.  The other survivors whisper about one survivor who was clinically dead for twenty minutes but came back to life.  The man, Lazarus Jones, refuses to talk to anyone.

Lucy is intrigued and drives to his house to talk to him.  She finds that he is the opposite of her iciness; he is full of fire.  He stays remote from people because he fears harming them.  Lucy is drawn to Lazarus and soon they are involved in a torrid affair.  She can cool him down, he can burn her enough to make her feel and melt her iciness for a few moments.  Soon Lazarus is all she thinks of.  She neglects her job and the survivor group.  She hasn't seen her brother in months.  Will Lazarus be the answer she has searched for all her life?

Alice Hoffman is a prolific author with many acclaimed novels.  This novel draws the reader in and it ends quite differently than one might expect.  The author delves into the inner emotions that can help people connect or put up barriers that prevent connection.  Her understanding of human nature makes for an interesting read and the reader is attracted to Lucy and hopes for a life for her that brings her contentment.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.  

Wednesday, November 4, 2020

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

 

Egan has written a novel of character studies about what it is growing up in the 1970's and 1980's.  The novel is loosely based around the lives of Sasha and Bennie who work in New York City in the music industry.  Bennie is a manager and producer of rock groups and Sasha is his assistant.  But Egan writes about many more characters all connected to these two in some way.

We first meet Bennie as part of a rock group of high schoolers in California.  They are hoping to hit the big time but only one of them, the guitar player named Scotty, is talented enough to go further.  Sasha has a more checkered life, moving out of her family as a teenager, going to Europe and doing whatever it takes to survive, then coming back to the States to college and eventually marriage and children after her New York days.

Along the way we go on safari with the man who picks up one of the girls in Bennie's rock band and who takes his children wherever he goes and whichever woman he is with at the moment.  We meet a man who Sasha shares a first date with in New York and see him again decades later when he is a young married man with a small child, now working for Bennie on the sly generating publicity.  There are other characters we meet along the way.

This novel has garnered literary praise.  It is a National Book Critics Circle Award Winner, a PEN/Faulkner finalist and a New York Times Book Review Best Book.  It was also singled out by organizations such as People, Salon, the Boston Globe, Slate, Time, Publishers Weekly and others as a Best Book.  Egan asks what holds our lives together through all the changes we encounter over our time here on Earth and what happens to those we are once close with.  She finds an enduring thread of friendship and character that stays with us no matter how our circumstances change.  Each character study is masterfully done and the thin threads that tie each character to another are often surprising and give the reader a sense of connection.  This book is recommended for literary fiction readers.


Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Pisces by Melissa Broder

 

Lucy is at a crossroads in her life and she doesn't know what direction to take.  She has worked on a doctoral dissertation for nine years but is now ambivalent about it and thinks she may have made a mistake.  She is at the same place with her boyfriend of many years, Jamie.  When they first got together, both insisted they were fine with no thought of marriage or living together.  As the years passed, Lucy began to change but Jamie still thought their arrangement was perfect.  When Lucy flared up at him and said maybe they should break up, she was shocked when he agreed that maybe 'they needed a little space.'

So she has picked up from the Arizona desert she has called home for over a decade and come to Venice Beach, California, to housesit for the summer for her sister who is in Italy with her husband.  She is also petsitting their fox terrier, Dominic, and for many days he is her only company.  She joins a counseling group for women who are having issues but doesn't really relate to them.

The women seem addicted to men and sex.  There is the woman who lets her boyfriend treat her terribly, ,using her for money and a residence while dating anyone he wants.  There is the woman who spends her days on Tinder meeting men for meaningless sex; she is determined to have a harem of men so that no one man means that much.  Another woman who everyone thinks has it all, rich, wonderful children, spends her days at the club in sordid affairs with the young tennis pros.  Lucy sees them and wonders if she can learn anything from them.

She tries the Tinder route and has a few dates and sex with a few men but it is not satisfying.  She is about to give up entirely when she meets a young man.  She has gone at night down to the beach and sitting on the rocks she senses someone there.  When she looks down, a man is in the water and says he is resting before starting his swim again.  Theo says he swims every night.  Lucy is interested but decides he is too young for her.

But she keeps going back at night and Theo is always there.  As the days pass, they get more and more involved until she falls in love even as he reveals his biggest secret, one that would make him unavailable to most women.  Could this be the love of her life?  What will she give up to be with him and only him?  Is Theo even telling her the truth?

Melissa Broder has written an intriguing novel that was nominated for the Woman's Fiction Prize.  Lucy seems insatiable yet restless, a woman who never knows what she wants and pushes it aside if it appears she is getting it.  The women all seem to want men in their lives but don't know how to make the men want them the same way.  For some readers, the graphic sex in the novel may make it questionable but others will find it quite erotic.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.