Friday, September 30, 2011

The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta

The Leftovers is another fast, quirky walk through disaffected suburbia from author Tom Perrotta. In this book, the world is thrown into chaos when -- suddenly, and with no explanation -- millions of people vanish into thin air. One minute Nora's family of four is sitting down to dinner, and the next she is left sitting along at the table, her husband and two children gone. The event is dubbed "The Sudden Departure" and is compared to the Rapture -- however, many Christians are shaken by the fact that this particular Rapture was not the one they had predicted. Muslims, Jews, Unitarians, and even good old-fashioned heathens are among those taken, leaving those "left behind" feeling lost and confused about how to manipulate what remains of their lives.

As with his previous novels, Perrotta gives us a handful of interrelated storylines and lets us watch as the characters stumble their way in and out of one another's lives. I really enjoyed this book; I thought the concept was creative and the curveballs thrown in at the end kept me on my toes. I would recommend The Leftovers to fans of contemporary literary fiction.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Among Others by Jo Walton

I loved Among Others. I did not want it to end. I loved it so much I am considering starting a new Science Fiction/Fantasy book discussion group at the Galesburg Public Library. If you are a teen or an adult who might be interested in participating in such a group, please contact me at

The book opens in 1975. Two young twins, Morganna and Morwenna, attempt a bit of fairy magic to close down a chemical plant in their home in Wales. When nothing happens, they think they’ve failed; however, the next day they read in the paper that the plant is closing. If you believe the narrator in Among Others, fairies are real, magic is real, and both are just a part of our world. Mori, the narrator, is very matter-of-fact about that.

Four years later, in 1979, Mori has just been sent to boarding school by the father she hasn’t seen since she was a baby. The previous year, she and her twin fought a sensational battle with their mother, a witch, to keep her from controlling the fairies and taking over the world. As a result of the battle, Mori is crippled and her twin is dead. After running away to escape her mother, Mori was sent to live with her father and his three sisters (yes, his three sisters, which as anyone who loves fantasy knows is a significant number).

In many fantasy novels, the battle with the mother would be the climax. Not in this book. It’s a starting point, something that sets up the rest of the plot, but not the focus. The book is a refreshing, down-to-earth, original story about how Mori picks up the pieces and finds a place for herself after her world is torn apart. Mori is a very interesting character with a lot of depth who makes astute observations about her fellow students at school and what’s left of her family. I liked her, and I enjoyed watching her relationship with her father and his father change and grow.

What keeps Mori sane is her love of reading, especially science fiction and fantasy. She forms cordial relationships with her school librarian and the librarian at the town library. (An aside: how could any librarian not think kindly toward a book that opens with the dedication “This is for all the libraries in the world, and the librarians who sit there day after day lending books to people.”) Mori understands the power of great books and stories to heal and change. Mori has nothing in common with her fellow students, and her life is dramatically changed when the town librarian asks her to join a Science Fiction book club. Finally she finds a place she fits, where she can talk with people she likes and who like her. There are many references to great sci fi throughout Among Others, not only through the book club scenes but in Mori’s day-to-day life. I feel like I need to reread the book, make a list of all the titles I have not read, and start reading them.

Although Among Others is considered adult fiction, it could certainly be read and enjoyed by teens as well. There is not actually much magic in it, if someone who does not usually read fantasy wants to give it a try, but its true audience is those like Mori who love science fiction and fantasy. I have one quibble with a “surprise” plot point, but aside from that I have no real criticisms.

Are you a fan of science fiction and fantasy? If you are, I recommend you get your hands on a copy of Among Others by Jo Walton.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

I loved Ready Player One. It is one of the best and most original books I've read this year.

Set in 2044, the United States is a mess. Almost everyone prefers to live inside the OASIS, a virtual world, rather than in the terrible real world. When he dies, one of the two creators of the OASIS (kind of like I imagine Bill Gates might have turned out if he'd never married) leaves his fortune to the person who solves the puzzles he has left hidden inside the OASIS. Everyone with an avatar in the OASIS dreams of solving the puzzles. So does a big corporation, which wants to start charging for access to the OASIS, among other changes.

The narrator, an orphaned teen-ager who lives in his aunt's trailer along with 15 other people and who attends high school in the OASIS, manages to find the first clue, and the race to win the fortune is on. As his avatar Parzival, he meets virtual friends inside the OASIS in hopes that one of them can save the OASIS for everyone from the sinister corporation.

Ready Player One is filled with pop culture references from the 80s and from classic science fiction and fantasy. Although I didn't get all of the references, I got plenty, and certainly enough to make the book enjoyable. The main character is interesting, and so are his friends. Although the future world is a mess, unlike so much distopian fiction, the book is not gloomy, despairing and depressing. It's a wild ride that I thoroughly enjoyed.

The Betrayal of Trust by Susan Hill

The Betrayal of Trust arrived at the library with some other Advanced Reader Copies. Since I enjoy British police procedurals, I pulled it out to read even though I have not read any other books in the Simon Serrailler series by Susan Hill.

If I had read previous books in the series, I might have like the book more. As it was, characters and situations were introduced that I did not know anything about despite the assumption that I did.

The main character, Chief Superintendent Simon Serrailler, is not especially compelling, but the story jumps around a lot and is told from the point of view of other characters, so that was not a huge drawback. The author seemed to be making a political statement about the movement to legalize assisted suicide, but at the end I'm not clear on what the statement was. There was a complicated love-at-first-sight romance subplot that I absolutely hated and that added nothing to the story - I sped through those chapters to get back to the mystery.

On the whole, however, I enjoyed the book as a diverting read. I liked it enough that I will check out the first book in the series and give it a shot.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster by Amirante/Broderick

I don't usually read true crime, although I have read In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter. However, I was in high school in the Chicago suburbs when the John Wayne Gacy story broke, and I had to read John Wayne Gacy: Defending a Monster by Sam L. Amirante and Danny Broderick.

I found the book totally engrossing, but I think that is partly due to the the timing and location of the trial when I was a teen-ager. I haven't read any other books about Gacy, so I learned a lot about the crimes, the man, and the trial.

Defending a Monster is not destined to become a classic. It is not as good as In Cold Blood and Helter Skelter. It's also not really a true crime book. It's more the story of the lawyer whose first client in private practice was an acquaintance who turned out to be one of the most notorious mass murderers of all time. It's also a passionate plea from that lawyer to uphold the Sixth Amendment and provide everyone, no matter the crime, to a fair trial and a serious defense.

If you enjoy reading true crime nonfiction, or have an interest in the Gacy case, you will probably find this book interesting.

Marzi, a memoir by Marzena Sowa

I haven’t read many graphic novels, but I found myself intrigued by Marzi, a Memoir tucked in with the other preview books. The cover certainly didn’t sell me, with its grayscale Manga-esque small girl holding a rabbit surrounded by men in military fatigues holding batons. Even the author photo on the back unnerved me, as she’s holding a line drawing half-portrait of the same bug-eyed girl over her unsmiling face. I was caught by the text above that portrait that proclaimed, “I am Marzi, born in 1979, ten years before the end of communism in Poland.”

Marzena Sowa wrote about her childhood at the urging of her partner Sylvain Savoia, who illustrated the novel. Her story is nothing new, just the tale of a little girl growing up: the things she likes and doesn’t, the things she fears, the friends she has/makes/loses and how and where they play, the relationship she has with her mother and father… The beauty of Marzi as narrator is she tells of her life as if it is so normal, because to her it is. To Marzi it is normal to wait in line for hours for groceries, and normal to discover the shelves are empty and the clerks will only rudely answer “Nie ma!” to any request one has. Likewise it is normal (if humiliating) to wear a toilet paper roll necklace home from the store, because one had better stock up when an item is available. It is normal to march smilingly in a Labor Day parade if your parents want to keep their jobs. It is normal to put your name on a waiting list for a television and then wait in front of the store every week to see if it is your turn to buy one.

What is not normal in Marzi’s life is being rushed home from summer vacation to a hospital to drink a medicine to counter the effects of Chernobyl. It is unusual, but important, to turn off television sets and lights at night as a sign of silent protest against the government. It is extraordinary, but vital, for workers to strike by refusing to leave a factory, taking it over, to force discussion about making a country where what is “normal” is what the citizens choose, not what a government answerable to another country decides is “normal.”

I remember not fully understanding Solidarność when the evening broadcasts were filled with news about it. I can’t say I fully understand it now, but I tremendously appreciate the perspective of a little girl who lived history. Marzi is a translation, so the English is a bit off sometimes, but very readable. I understand from some research that the original, in French, had color panels as well, so perhaps the finished product will not be in black and white. Marzi is set to be released October 25th.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

A Killer’s Essence by Dave Zeltserman

Of all the literary land genres, I feel the most uncomfortable when reviewing crime novels. I say this not because I do not enjoy a good slasher fest now and again, but because I am quite the weak and uninformed fan when compared to the throngs of hardcore mystery readers out in the blogoshere. Now, with my disclaimer out of the way, I feel more comfortable sharing why I found Zeltserman’s novel impressive. I was not overly enthralled with the plot of this book, and the background of the main character Stan Green is fairly clichéd. I’ve encountered more than one workaholic, divorced, NYC detective in my channel surfin’ and novel readin’. However, Zeltserman still managed to rope me in with Green. In fact, Stan Green and supporting character Zachary Lynch are what make this novel a rewarding read. Green shines as the flawed, hardworking detective who continues to fight both personally and professionally when nothing seems to be going right. The perfect foil to Green's red-hot temper is the star witness, Zachary Lynch. Although Lynch is severely psychologically damaged, he possesses the unique gift of seeing the physical manifestation of a person’s soul. While I am not an experienced crime reader, I found the depth and believability of the characters to be the true energy behind A Killer's Essence. My pages turned not because I really needed to know who the killer was, but because I needed to know what happened to Stan and Zachary.

I would recommend this title to all adults interested in gritty detective mysteries.

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai

The Borrower is about an "accidental" children's librarian who "accidentally" kidnaps her favorite patron, at 10-year-old boy with a mother who censors his reading and who sends him to a Christian camp to try to keep him from being gay. She takes him on a long drive across the country, starting in Hannibal, Missouri. There are things I liked about this book and things I did not.

I like Ian, the boy. He is a delightful child, one I would enjoy meeting in real life. There is a plot twist toward the end involving a man who has been tailing them that amused me. The conversations between Lucy, the librarian, and Ian are often interesting and creative. I enjoyed the many literary references that are scattered throughout the book.

However, the book also contains many negative librarian stereotypes. Aside from Lucy, the "accidental" librarian, the other "real" librarians are happy to help censor reading material and have no problem violating patron confidentiality. Lucy notes that the two other women in the children's department "seemed to see the library as some kind of volunteer work, like a soup kitchen." The library director is a drunk. Lucy refers to herself as " a simple maiden lady librarian." I have to assume either the author has never met a real librarian or has met just one whom she did not like.

I recommend the later chapters, set outside the library. I do not recommend the early chapters, set inside the library. I had considered choosing this book for my book club, but I won't be.

Monday, September 19, 2011

Mice by Gordon Reece

I was attracted to this thriller because of its beginning--a timid mother and daughter trying to find the perfect house in the English countryside. Some unknown horrific occurrence in their past has made it necessary for them to hide.
Before long, the reader is made privy to that past, and the book begins to unfold its theme: How our personalities and characters change in response to the actions we take or choose not to take. In realistic fashion, everything is not black or white, and the reader's reaction to the characters' choices can be complex. By the end of the book, we are facing two extremely dangerous women.
The author does a good job of creating suspense; you keep reading to find out what happens next, in the best thriller tradition, so it was a fast read. There is some violence, and the ending was a little flatter than I felt it could have been, but on the whole this was a good weekend read.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Sisters by Nancy Jensen

I really wanted to like The Sisters. The advance praise for the debut novel claims that it is an “epic” journey through eight decades of a family history, a story of two sisters and the position of women in American society. The author's note at the beginning tells of learning of a piece of her family's history and, not knowing all the details, deciding she needed to write the book herself. I have a sister; we've had our ups and downs. I was primed to like this book and yet...

The estrangement between the first pair of sisters in the book comes from a misstep in communication and a subsequent refusal to hear the true story, to entertain any idea of another explanation. The separate lives led from that point on seem to have more downs than ups, especially for the sister who did the rejecting. From their stories, and the stories of their children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren I have considered again the position of women in American society in the twentieth century into the twenty-first. From what I've gathered, women have a pretty lousy position because:

1. They have been/are(?) subjugated by men.

2. They have been inadequately educated, for one reason and another, therefore

3. They have made poor choices.

4. They become bitter, thus influencing future generations to make poor choices.

I feel like there should be one of those “always/sometimes/never” quizzes at the end of each chapter.

The story is told in a sort of picture album fashion, with each chapter from the point-of-view of a different woman and a jump ahead in time as if the pages have been flipped, sometimes decades ahead. I don’t usually mind multiple characters and points-of-view, but I found it difficult to keep these characters straight, even with the helpful family tree in the front of the book. Complicating each relationship is an inability to communicate with family and oftentimes others.

The trouble with judging this book is that I don’t know if much of the story is real, with an imagined reason for the initial division, or whether it is completely a work of fiction. If it is the biography of a family, it is difficult to read because there is much avoidable hardship and not enough explanation of “where they are now,” except for glimpses through the stories of the other women, to make the reader care about their arduous lives. If it is purely fiction, then I find it frustrating for much the same reason, but also because the stories are so depressing. It’s as if Jensen is a Fairy Anti-Oprah: “Your life sucks, and your life sucks and your life sucks!” Even worse is the end, with its flashback to the details of the crisis that initiated the divide. I suppose it is meant to be uplifting, as one sister recasts the history in the way she had hoped it would turn out. I just found it sad.

The Sisters is on sale November 2011.

A Simple Winter by Rosalind Lauer

A woman with wealth but no family love or good health in her life meets a man who has to return to a family life he has run away from. The attraction to him causes her to step into his world and she finds an affectionate family as well as an end to her health problems. This is a story you can't put down and a look into the Plain Life of the Amish people. The deaths of the main male character's parents adds a tingle of the mystery to this compelling story.

M Edwards

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Captain Wentworth's Diary by Amanda Grange

I enjoyed Captain Wentworth's Diary a great deal. It is a retelling of Jane Austen's Persuasion from Captain Wentworth's point of view. The language and the plot developments matched Jane Austen's style perfectly. Real passages from Persuasion were inserted appropriately. I will definitely be reading some of the author's other Diary books written from the viewpoint of Austen heroes.

If you are a fan of Jane Austen and are on the lookout for similar books, I recommend Captain Wentworth's Diary.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Wicked Autumn by G.M. Malliet

In the tradition of Agatha Christie's Miss Marple comes G.M. Malliet's Max Tudor. Max is a former MI5 agent turned Anglican priest, now living in the quaint English village of Nether Monkslip. Wicked Autumn is the first book in a new series by G.M. Malliet. It's a quiet cozy, full of typical quirky individuals in the village, a village fair, and the murder of the most hated woman in town. The actual mystery is nothing special, but the book is well written and a fun read. I like Max as the main character - a former agent now living a quiet life, and yet managing to keep his hand in by helping law enforcement solve a murder. I'm sure it won't be the last murder in or around Nether Monkslip. I look forward to Max's next appearance.

(Wicked Autumn will be released on September 13.)

Falling Man by Don DeLillo

Falling Man is set in New York and takes place in the days, weeks, months, and years following 9/11. It is considered by many to be the best of the 9/11 novels written so far. I picked it for the library's book clubs to read as we mark the 10th anniversary of 9/11/2001.

I can't say it was a book that I enjoyed. However, I did find it helpful in reflecting on where I was and how I felt 10 years ago. The book contained passages and observations that resonated with me. For example (p. 135):

He said, "It still looks like an accident, the first one. Even from this distance, way outside the thing, how many days later, I'm standing here thinking it's an accident."
"Because it has to be."
"It has to be," he said.
"The way the camera sort of shows surprise."
"But only the first one."
"Only the first," she said.
"The second plane, by the time the second plane appears," he said, "we're all a little older and wiser."

There is not a lot of action in Falling Man. It captures the confusion and disbelief, the chaos and lack of comprehension of the events of 10 years ago. It's not profound, but it is a deeply thoughtful and reflective book about an event Americans share. If you are in the mood to think back on 9/11, I recommend it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Distopian novels are the hottest thing going right now. Divergent is not as good as The Hunger Games, but I liked it better than Delirium. It is set in a damaged but recognizable Chicago, a city I’m very familiar with, which helped me like it. In a future United States beset with problems, people are divided into five factions representing five traits. Teenagers are allowed to switch factions when they turn 16, basically turning their backs on their families, and our protagonist does just that. Most of the novel covers the training she must survive in the new faction, where only half the 16-year-olds are allowed to stay. The rest are kicked out and become “factionless,” homeless and without resources.

Divergent is narrated by the main character, which means there is no need to worry that anything serious might happen to her. She is not terribly likeable, but she’s a pretty realistic teenager. There are echoes of today’s society in the way the factions are described – the erudite want more wealth, while the selfless want to help the factionless. There’s a love interest, of course. And there are hints of the next two books in the series – if the guards are there to protect the city from whatever is outside the borders, why are the locks on the outside instead of the inside? There’s a big battle towards the end, and a lot of characters we’ve been introduced to die, so I expect lots of new characters in the next book.

I found Divergent well written but a bit long and draggy for a first book in a trilogy. Still it kept my interest and eventually picked up speed. There were scenes I liked a lot, and themes in the book made me think about our own society.

If you like distopian novels, definitely give Divergent a try. I look forward to the next book in the series.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Most Human Human by Brian Christian

A competition called the Turing test takes place each year. Judges at computer terminals interact with unseen correspondents. Each judge has two correspondents, one a human being and one a computer program, and the judge tries to tell which is which after a five minute online conversation with each. The program that receives the most votes and highest judge confidence score is named the Most Human Computer. This title is highly coveted by programmers. A side result of the voting, however, is that the human who receives the most votes and highest judge confidence score is named the Most Human Human.

It is from this side of the Turing test that author Brian Christian writes his book The Most Human Human. He sets out to participate in the test as a correspondent and to win the Most Human Human title. Along the way, he philosophizes about what it means to be human and how our interaction with computers is affecting that. He notes, “We once thought humans were unique for having a language with syntactical rules, but this isn’t so; we once thought humans were unique for using tools, but this isn’t so; we once thought humans were unique for being able to do mathematics, and now we can barely imagine being able to do what our calculators can.”

The author makes the point that cell phones, texting, and programs that finish our words for us are making us less creative. It is easier to use the word the phone suggests than to fight the phone and type the word we meant to use. He writes, “I was detachedly roaming the Internet, but there was nothing interesting happening in the news, nothing interesting happening on Facebook…I grew despondent, depressed – the world used to seem so interesting…But all of a sudden it dawned on me, as if the thought had just occurred to me, that much of what is interesting and amazing about this world did not happen in the past twenty-four hours. How had this fact slipped away from me? …. Somehow I think the Internet is making this very critical point lost on an entire demographic.”

Christian is an interesting guy. He has a dual bachelor’s degree in computer science and philosophy and a master of fine arts in poetry. He understands the scientific angle of the Turing test but also the human side of what it means for a human to challenge a computer. There is a wonderful scene during the Turing test when he spies on a fellow human correspondent’s chat with a judge and realizes they are chatting in shorthand about Canadian hockey teams, virtually assuring that the judge knows he is talking to a human. This causes Christian a moment of panic and despair when he fears that he will lose the Most Human Human title.

Christian’s views on how we interact with the world are refreshing. He says, “I think the reason novels are regarded to have so much more ‘information’ than films is that they outsource the scenic design and cinematography to the reader. … This, for me, is a powerful argument for the value and potency of literature specifically.” I felt somewhat lost toward the end of the book when it got a bit scientific, but the science was not too overwhelming, and I wouldn’t let that put you off as a potential reader. I enjoyed this book tremendously, and it really made me think.