Monday, November 13, 2017

Death Below Stairs by Jennifer Ashley

Kat Holloway takes a position in a Mayfair mansion and soon finds herself immersed in the odd household of Lord Rankin. Kat is unbothered by the family’s eccentricities as long as they stay away from her kitchen, but trouble finds its way below stairs when her young Irish assistant is murdered. Intent on discovering who killed the kitchen maid, Kat turns to the ever-capable Daniel McAdam, who is certainly much more than the charming delivery man he pretends to be. Along with the assistance of Lord Rankin’s unconventional sister-in-law and a mathematical genius, Kat and Daniel discover that the household murder was the tip of a plot rife with danger and treason—one that’s a threat to Queen Victoria herself.

Death Below Stairs is the first book in a mystery series set in Victorian England. Main character Mrs. Kat Holloway is young (29) but already an established and well regarded Cook. Although, like all cooks of her station, she is called Mrs., she is in fact not only single but has a 10-year-old daughter born of a relationship that turned out not to be legitimate. Kat’s main reason for being is providing for her child, who lives with friends.

Being single, however, leaves Kat open to an undefined relationship with the mysterious Daniel McAdam, a master of disguises working as a detective? for the police? Kat doesn’t know and Daniel can’t tell her, but she trusts him all the same.

Death Below Stairs is competently written, with likable characters and room for growth. The characters are very modern in behavior, so this book may not be for those readers who want historically accurate historical fiction and characters who behave true to the times. Kat spends way too much time out of her kitchen – it is hard to imagine her keeping her position no matter how good a cook she is.

The language is very modern. For example, Kat thinks, “I next tackled Mr. Davis; metaphorically, of course.” The author skirted (ha) around two women who dress as men, one clearly a lesbian, but this never becomes important to the plot. One murder was resolved in a very unoriginal way, but the other plot line was interesting.

 All the bits about the food Kat makes and serves did ring true and according to an author note were taken from Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management by Isabella Beeton, first published in 1861.

Although billed as a first in a series, I felt I was missing something as I read Death Below Stairs; it turns out there is a long short story/novella that introduced the main character. Unfortunately, A Soupçon of Poison is only available as an ebook and is not available for purchase by libraries.

If you enjoy historical fiction and don’t worry too much about historical accuracy, you may want to read Death Below Stairs. It’s a fun read and the series has a lot of potential.

I read an advance reader copy of Death Below Stairs. It will be published in January 2018 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library in print and as an ebook.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Artemis by Andy Weir

From the author: Jazz Bashara is a criminal. Well, sort of. Life on Artemis, the first and only city on the moon, is tough if you're not a rich tourist or an eccentric billionaire. So smuggling in the occasional harmless bit of contraband barely counts, right? Not when you've got debts to pay and your job as a porter barely covers the rent. Everything changes when Jazz sees the chance to commit the perfect crime, with a reward too lucrative to turn down. But pulling off the impossible is just the start of her problems, as she learns that she's stepped square into a conspiracy for control of Artemis itself—and that now, her only chance at survival lies in a gambit even riskier than the first.

Artemis is a fun romp from the author of the bestselling novel The Martian. Weir’s book is dedicated to the Apollo astronauts who flew to the moon but didn’t get to land and walk on it, a nice touch.

The world building is good. I totally believed in a city on the moon. There are a number of ambiguous characters, neither good nor bad. The science seemed real enough to this non-scientist. I liked how currency worked on the moon and also how justice for minor infractions was handled by former Canadian Mountie Rudy. I’m not a big map person but the maps at the front of the book helped me visualize the layout of Artemis.

Weir has a way with words: “If my neighborhood were wine, connoisseurs would describe it as ‘shitty, with overtones of failure and poor life decisions.’” (p. 5 of the advance reader copy)

Although I’m sure I didn’t get them all, I enjoyed the references to pop culture (e.g., "Don't get me wrong, this wasn't the farthest I'd been from the Shire or anything....But this was the farthest I'd ever been from safety." (p. 102 of the ARC).

Artemis is not a perfect book. I kept forgetting the narrator was a woman; I don’t think Weir quite nailed a female inner voice. Although I applaud his attempt to add diversity to science fiction, Jazz also didn’t seem credibly Saudi Arabian. She acted and talked like a snarky American. (Although, who knows, maybe we’ll all think and talk like that in the future when we have a city on the moon.)

Jazz is on the run at one point and dresses up like a prostitute, which seemed like a clichéd choice. Also, there is romantic/sexual tension with a number of different men, and yet she is hung up on the gay ex-boyfriend who left her for another man.

The book was slow starting as Weir did his world building but once the action started it really drew me in. The biggest issue for me was probably the amount of science. I totally believed that scientist Mark Watney knew all the stuff he knew in The Martian, but Jazz is a porter and smuggler. Although several characters comment on how she has so much potential and could be doing more with her life, I had a hard time believing she understood all the complicated science that comes in to play by the end.

So, I can’t say Artemis is as good as The Martian, but it’s an enjoyable science fiction read if you think you’d enjoy a story about a slightly implausible adventure that contains a lot of detailed factual information about staying alive in a city on the moon.

I read an advance reader copy of Artemis. It is scheduled to be published in mid-November. It will be available at the Galesburg Public Library in print, as an audiobook, and as an ebook. 

Friday, September 8, 2017

Are You Sleeping by Kathleen Barber

Are You Sleeping by Galesburg native Kathleen Barber is a compulsively readable psychological thriller. It started a little slow for me but by chapter 5 I was fully engrossed.

Narrator Josie Buhrman has changed her name and is trying to escape from her family history. Her professor father was murdered 13 years earlier. After the conviction of the teenager next door for the murder, Josie’s mother fled to join a cult and Josie suffered a terrible break with her twin sister.

But Josie can no longer escape because a journalist has brought the crime back into the news. A series of podcasts challenges the guilty verdict, suggests someone else might be to blame, and stirs up family secrets. The podcasts catch the fancy of the public and become a social media sensation. Josie leaves her home in New York to travel to her hometown in Illinois to attend a family funeral and finds herself in the middle of the controversy. Josie’s hometown, Elm Park, is a lot like Galesburg. It’s a small city in the Midwest anchored by a liberal arts college.

Are You Sleeping is not a perfect book but I rate it a solid four stars. I would never have guessed it was Barber’s first book. The narrative flows smoothly and the plot makes you want to keep reading so you can find out what happened. Josie rather foolishly thinks she can keep her past from her partner, to a point that strained credulity for me. However, Barber’s secondary characters are flawed, fleshed out, and believable. Josie's cousin Ellen is particularly both likable and unlikable and convincing. The ending didn’t stun but I was in doubt about who murdered the professor almost until the end.

The title was a good one – it had me singing Frère Jacques in my head, which kept me thinking about and wanting to get back to the book. The plot line about the podcasts and their popularity on social media was extremely believable; it made me wonder about other people whose lives have been damaged by sensational reporting.

Galesburg readers who enjoy psychological thrillers and mysteries will want to get their hands on a copy of Are You Sleeping. The book can be purchased at Stone Alley Books & Collectibles.

 Author Kathleen Barber will be at the Galesburg Public Library on Thursday, September 14 at 7:00 pm to discuss, sell, and sign copies of her book. In addition, the Tuesday/Thursday Book Clubs will discuss Are You Sleeping on Tuesday, September 12 from 1:00-2:00 pm and Thursday, September 14, from 6:00-7:00 pm. All readers are welcome to join either discussion at the library.

Friday, August 11, 2017

Bored and Brilliant by Manoush Zomorodi

From the publisher: In 2015 Manoush Zomorodi, host of the popular podcast and radio show Note to Self, led tens of thousands of listeners through an experiment to help them unplug from their devices, get bored, jump-start their creativity, and change their lives. Bored and Brilliant builds on that experiment to show us how to rethink our gadget use to live better and smarter in this new digital ecosystem. The outcome is mind-blowing. Unplug and read on.

I am very interested in the topic of phone use and overuse. I am not anti-technology (and neither is the author of this book), but I do find the overuse of phones by much of American society alarming. Zomorodi was definitely preaching to the choir with me as a reader.

Zomorodi includes research to back up the idea that we are more creative when we allow ourselves to be “bored” and allow our minds to wander. I do not carry my smartphone around in my hand and it is seldom in view when I am out with others, so I am actually not her primary audience. Still, even I found some of her seven challenges (to change your relationship with your phone and increase your productivity and creativity) of interest. Most of them are not a challenge for me (keep your device out of reach while in motion – already do that; have a photo free day – most of my days are photo free, etc.). But I certainly waste time on the internet on my laptop, if not my smartphone.

I found myself wanting to quote long passages of the book because they match my own experiences so well. For example,
“In a study from 2014 called the iPhone Effect: The Quality of In-Person Social Interaction in the Presence of Mobile Devices, researchers at Virginia Tech found that the mere presence of a mobile device, even just lying there, seemingly benign on the kitchen counter, can lower the empathy exchanged between two friends.” (p. 56)
and
“This isn’t just a productivity or focus issue. [Gloria] Mark’s lab has found that the more people switch their attention, the higher their stress level. That is especially concerning, she says, because the modern workplace feeds on interruptions.” (p. 89)
The text was engaging and the research cited compelling. If you would like to decrease the amount of time you waste on your smartphone (or laptop), you might find this short and easy to read book of interest.

I read an advance reader copy of Bored But Brilliant. It will be published in early September, and a print copy will be available for checkout at the Galesburg Public Library.

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson

From the publisher: An ingenious new thriller that weaves a path through history, following a race of human-like machines that have been hiding among us for untold centuries.

The main characters in The Clockwork Dynasty are June, a young human woman who researches mechanical antiquities, and Peter, an automaton or avtomat (a Russian word that means both “automatic” and “machine”). Peter has a “sister,” another avtomat, who looks like a doll but is determined, intelligent and logical.

The world building in The Clockwork Dynasty is amazing. It opens with June exploring a mechanical doll, which pulled me in right away as a doll collector. The story covers the lives of the two avtomats and others like them across continents and millennia. June gets dragged into an avtomat civil war against her will, but she has the knowledge and skills to alter the course of something that has gone on for thousands of years. I would describe the book as a sort of steampunk mystery. Why are the avtomats fighting? It was refreshing to read a book that didn’t dwell on a romantic trilogy – or any romance for that matter.

Wilson does a great job of painting images throughout the book. There are many little believable details about the construction of the automatons. Wilson draws them in such a way that they felt both real and inhuman to me. I felt I came to know Peter and his sister Elena better than the human June. The narrative jumps between Peter’s past and June’s present, but not in a way that seemed at all confusing.

The Clockwork Dynasty is not a perfect book – parts of it were a bit slow, and a lot of questions remained after I finished it. But I very much enjoyed this unusual read. The Clockwork Dynasty is available at the Galesburg Public Library as a print book and an audiobook, and it will be available as an ebook shortly.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

From the publisher: Earth, 2144. Jack is an anti-patent scientist turned drug pirate, traversing the world in a submarine as a pharmaceutical Robin Hood, fabricating cheap scrips for poor people who can’t otherwise afford them. But her latest drug hack has left a trail of lethal overdoses as people become addicted to their work, doing repetitive tasks until they become unsafe or insane. Hot on her trail, an unlikely pair: Eliasz, a brooding military agent, and his robotic partner, Paladin. As they race to stop information about the sinister origins of Jack’s drug from getting out, they begin to form an uncommonly close bond that neither of them fully understand. And underlying it all is one fundamental question: Is freedom possible in a culture where everything, even people, can be owned?
One of the most hyped upcoming releases in science fiction is Autonomous by Annalee Newitz. It is well written and kept me reading. It is, however, extremely bleak. The way the author deals with the issue of autonomy for both humans and robots is thought-provoking, as are the plot threads about health care in the future. While I had a hard time liking any of the characters, they were memorable.

This debut novel from the founding editor of the science fiction site io9 reminded me of A Closed and Common Orbit by Becky Chambers, the TV series Andromeda, and most of all the movie Blade Runner. If you like bleak space operas about a fallen Earth, this book may be for you.

I read an advance reader copy of Autonomous. It is scheduled to be published in late September 2017. It will be available at the Galesburg Public Library as a print book and as an ebook.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Persons Unknown by Susie Steiner

From the publisher: In this brilliant crime novel from the author of Missing, Presumed, a detective investigates her most personal case yet: a high-profile murder in which her own family falls under suspicion.

Persons Unknown is the second book in Susie Steiner’s police procedural mystery series. The lead character is a detective, pregnant through artificial insemination, who has recently moved to provide a better life for her adopted black son Fly. Then the father of her sister’s toddler is murdered, and Fly becomes the main suspect when he is seen on camera walking home from school near where the man was killed. The evidence is flimsy and circumstantial, but Manon’s colleagues seem to be working against her as she tries to prove Fly’s innocence.

Steiner is a good writer, and I wanted to see where the case was going and how Manon was going to cope with pregnancy while striving to clear her son’s name. Manon is messy and imperfect, and while I don’t always like her I appreciate that she seems like a real person.

The plot was inspired by a real case. While I fully believe young black man are falsely accused and even convicted on weak evidence, I did have a hard time fully buying that the adopted 12-year-old-son of a white police officer would be railroaded in quite the way that Fly is in this book.  Still, like the first book (Missing, Presumed), Persons Unknown is a definite recommend from me for lovers of British police procedurals.

I read an advance reader copy of Persons Unknown. It will be released in early July and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library as a print book and an ebook.