Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Haunted Season by G.M.Malliet

The Haunted Season is the fifth book in G.M. Malliet’s Max Tudor series. Max is a former MI5 agent who left after his partner was killed in front of him. Now an Anglican priest in the quaint village of Nether Monkslip, he is married to his soulmate Awena, a pagan and owner of the local New Age shop. They have come to terms with their different beliefs and have a new baby, Owen.

Much to the chagrin of his bishop, Max keeps getting involved in murders. This is a textbook cozy mystery series, full of quirky side characters, coincidences, and the occasional dead body to cause gossip and give the vicar an excuse to show off his deduction skills and intelligence.

None of the books have lived up to the first, but this one was pretty enjoyable. Life seems a little too perfect for Max, and Owen is the most ridiculously well behaved and intelligent baby. There is a nice nod about halfway (p. 183 in the digital advance reader copy) to Agatha Christie, the master of the cozy mystery:

“I was just thinking that the genius of Agatha Christie was not that she saw the universal traits of mankind, like Shakespeare, but that she saw we are all quite different people, with differing motivations.”

The book has some flaws. The murder itself – decapitation by a trip wire while the victim was riding a horse – seems unlikely to come off so seamlessly or to take off a head entirely.The author relies a little too heavily on coincidence (the new curate overhears two of the main players in the crime discussing it miles from Nether Monkslip, for example), and there is a long, long (too long) section in which details of the crime are explained by Max and Cotton to Awena. A scene in which Max runs towards danger while carrying his baby is ridiculous. I can’t believe Max wouldn’t have thought first of the baby’s safety. But I have these kinds of minor complaints about many cozy mysteries.

The book ended strongly, with the last line catching me off guard and piquing my interest about the next book in the series.

I read an advance reader copy of The Haunted Season. It will be published on October 6. The Galesburg Public Library owns many of G.M. Malliet’s books, in regular print, large print, and digital form. Wicked Autumn is the first book in the Max Tudor series.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child

Just days before a massive exhibition opens at the popular New York Museum of Natural History, visitors are being savagely murdered in the museum's dark hallways and secret rooms. Autopsies indicate that the killer cannot be human...

But the museum's directors plan to go ahead with a big bash to celebrate the new exhibition, in spite of the murders.

Museum researcher Margo Green must find out who-or what-is doing the killing. But can she do it in time to stop the massacre?(source: B&N)

Far above Michael Crichton's Jurassic Park.”--Booklist

I grew up watching Jurassic Park and reading Michael Crichton, so I read Booklist's statement as a personal challenge. With a gutsy review like that printed on the front cover, I had very high expectations for this book. And, while I'm unwilling to concede the Jurassic point, Relic exceeded my expectations.

You may have heard of the 1997 film, which was based on the book. If you thought the film's plot was brilliant...the book might not be for you. If you thought the film could use fewer plot holes, more back story, and a snarky Southern FBI agent, then yes, absolutely read this book. Read this book for Agent Pendergast, who is delightful and mischievous (and the star of a whole series of techno-thrillers, of which this is only the first). Read this book also for shockingly lucid pseudo-science, quite unlike Crichton's medical jargon and trade-language.

The monster is terrifying, made even scarier by a plot twist late in the novel. If you love monsters, you'll totally love Mbwun. This guy has it all—mashed up genetic material, basically unkillable, a fascinating origin story, with just enough pathos to make you want to cry a little. The human characters, on the other hand, are predictable and have very few motivations behind their actions. They can be a little stereotypical at times, and most of their thoughts are inane and kind of boring. To me, however, the shallow characters didn't matter. Maybe that's because I based my expectations on other thrillers I'd read—the thriller genre, of course, being much more concerned with the actual thrilling than character development. This isn't to say that all the characters are lackluster—again, I direct you to Agent Pendergast, i.e. the best character ever—but characterization is definitely not the authors' main concern.

They're more concerned with gluing the reader to their chair and making them jump at mysterious night sounds. While this book probably isn't for the reader who can't handle descriptions of blood and gore, or for the squeamish (one of Mbwun's, uh, favorite foods, is really specific and gross), if you can power through, it's worth it. So, I don't know that I would say it's better than Jurassic Park. It's a fantastic read, especially good for summer, when it's more okay if you need to stay up until 3 reading. I accidentally read the first 200 pages while sitting at a coffee shop, so yeah, it's pretty engrossing. There's also a sequel, Reliquary, which I'm currently reading, and an entire series of books about Agent Pendergast (for when you realize that he is in fact the best).

Monday, July 20, 2015

The Gathering by Anne Enright

The Gathering is another read that's aimed towards a mature audience and uses strong language. The book is set up in a way that it is written by the main character herself, Veronica. It mostly consists of memories she holds and memories she has made up from her grandmother's past. It is absolutely stunning how well Enright is able to capture how the human mind thinks and remembers. The Gathering very much sounds like Veronica is trying to explain far away memories, correcting what she has remembered wrong ,in some cases, at the end of the chapter.

Throughout the book, Veronica is dealing with the death of her family member, and you can see the fog death throws over you in 'her' writing. The mood and feel is expertly done, with incredible descriptions and attention to little details added in.

As mentioned, the book switches through Veronica's real memories, the made up ones about her grandmother, and the present. This transition is done fluidly with no confusion between which is which. Each new segment offers something new, in the same descriptive way. The Gathering has stunned me with the amount of detail and mood, I can't stress that enough.

However, This is not a perfect book. There isn't a whole lot going on in the story. No major conflict that is the main focus, sure there are problems, but it's never focused on, and gets lost within the segments of the chapters. What is being told is being told slowly, with no anticipation. A story can be slow, if it has suspense or anticipation. The only way anticipation is added to The Gathering, is if you read the back of the book first, which I do not, which informs you that there is a family secret to be uncovered. That family secret isn't discussed at all in the book until it is revealed. Personally, I had it figured out within a couple chapters from how Veronica acted, but that could just be me. Needless to say that took away any surprise and suspense I might of had. But Veronica did react correctly to that 'secret', she had the same response most others would have, so I give Enright credit for that. It is a hard topic to express.

Overall, not the best story-line, and not the best way to deliver it. However, the details, mood, and ability to express thoughts and emotions saves this from being flat for me.In the end, I would say The Gathering is a decent book, I didn't waste my time reading it. I am a firm believer that every book is worth a read and will offer something to everyone, but with that in mind, I wouldn't put this to high up on you're reading list.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Liszt's Kiss by Susanne Dunlap

Liszt's Kiss takes place in the 1800's, during the cholera outbreak in Paris. Dunlap did her research and the cholera outbreak in the book is accurate to what happened, and she also included two characters who did indeed exist in this time. Franz Liszt himself, a famous Hungarian pianist, and Marie d'Agoult, a countess. Each section of writing is switches between their point of views, Annes', the main protagonist, Anne's cousin, and a young doctor who wishes to marry Anne, whilst Anne has her heart set on Liszt.

As much as this sounds as your average romance novel with drama sprinkled on top, it isn't. Deception and mystery is at the core of this book. Relationships between the charterers don't come easy, and seemingly innocent characters jump to great lengths for those they love, including law breaking. The drama is kicked up a notch with classical misunderstandings, leaving everyone confused at the end.

The mystery is what really kept me around, the questions that shrouded Anne's family gave the book some much needed suspense. Lizt's Kiss has suspense, has intense drama, has mystery, and passion for music. However, all this is dampened because of the time period. It can be hard to feel the intensity of a scandal, when the scandal is something as small as holding hands. Accurate to the time period, but not that exciting. Some creators can put emotion behind otherwise bland historical fictions, this is not one of them. 

Personally, Liszt's Kiss is not one of my favorites. The book wasn't able to drag out any emotional response from me. The character's were good, but not great and relatable. The writing was good, but not fantastic. It turned out to be a mediocre work with a lazy 'wrap-up' ending. I would only suggest this if your very into the 1800's or if you're lacking a next book to read.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Armada by Ernest Cline

I loved Ernest Cline's first book Ready Player One, and I wanted to love his new book Armada just as much. Unfortunately, I did not. (I apologize to Mr. Cline for comparing his second book to his first, but it’s just the easiest way to review the book.)

Ready Player One was original and inventive. Armada is neither, and it is very predictable. It’s so predictable that I thought it would surely end in another way, as the author points us so strongly in the direction of the predicted ending. Plot points along the way were also predictable, and Armada falls back on tired clichés (like the school bully accompanied by his two “big and dumb” thugs).

I totally bought into the world of Ready Player One. I can fully imagine our world disintegrating into the chaos of Ready Player One by 2044. I did not buy into the world of Armada, which is set in 2018. The whole scenario – sentient beings on a moon within our own solar system, a secret plan to prepare all of Earth’s citizens for war through popular culture and video games – did not seem plausible. I felt like I was reading a script for a forgettable alien invasion movie. I did not get caught up in Zack’s world.

Zack was also not nearly as likeable as Wade from Ready Player One, and Zack’s band of compatriots felt clichéd (African-American, check; gay, check; middle-aged, check; Asian, check).

I’m not a gamer, but that bothered me not a bit in Ready Player One. The gaming in Armada is much more focused on one type – “space invader” shooting games. I was bored by the long descriptions of game playing and actual combat.

The popular culture references in Armada feel forced. I didn’t get a lot of the references in Ready Player One, but they came so fast and furious, and were built so seamlessly into the dialog and plot, that I didn’t care. Multiple times while reading Armada I found myself feeling annoyed that I didn’t get a reference.

Although I couldn’t help but read Armada in the shadow of Ready Player One, if I’d never read Ready Player One I would not have enjoyed Armada any more. In fact, I probably gave Armada an extra half star because I love Cline and his first novel so much.

Armada is not without merit. I was amused off and on. I enjoyed Zack’s online call sign of IronBeagle, a combination of the hero from the movie Iron Eagle and Snoopy fighting the Red Baron. Cline has a nice way of putting words together (“I reminded myself that I was a man of science, even if I did usually get a C in it.”) Armada was a quick read, and there are worse ways to pass some time. I will definitely read his next book.

If you have not read Ready Player One,go read it! And if you have, I'm sure you will want to read Armada as well. It comes out on July 14 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library. 

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Beautiful Souls by Eyal Press

Beautiful Souls is a descriptive non-fiction that takes on a new perspective in history, focusing on four people who went against the norm when the norm was morally wrong. Instead of largely known hero's, Eyal writes about normal people who step out of line for what they believe is right. This book is set up in four different parts, each about a different person faced with a situation that will change their lives. Eyal does an expert job of writing down their experiences, what as a person they are like, and how the interviews went.

The author digs deep to find answers to seemingly spontaneous acts of courage from otherwise indifferent people. He has an excellent talent for finding others personality traits and describing their character. He manages to connect psychological theories to why these four acted so out of character when faced with a moral decision that held no consequence over their head if they went against what they believed was right.

I would recommend this to anyone who is a fan of psychology and history, and maybe even philosophers. Eyal Press delivers this book well, one of the compliments I feel that I can give him is he does not fall to what so many non-fiction writes tend to do and does not use unnecessary 'big' words. The words and sentences fall together smartly without any assistance from words that no one has heard of before. While I read this, it was evident he was a professional journalist and worked hard to gather as much information as possible on this topic.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Dishing the Dirt by M.C. Beaton (Agatha Raisin #26)

M.C. Beaton has been publishing books about Agatha Raisin since 1992. I am a loyal Agatha Raisin fan and have read all 26 books in this cozy mystery series. There hasn’t been much new in recent titles, but a new entry is still a fun read. I enjoyed Dishing the Dirt more than the last three books. It seemed a little more light-hearted.

Having said that, the thing that intrigued me the most as I read Dishing the Dirt was the body count. Three dead bodies by page 34. Four dead bodies by page 57. Five dead bodies by page 70. Six dead bodies by page 96. Seven dead bodies by page 124. This is not a plot that takes itself too seriously! And weaving in and out amid the carnage is Agatha and her normal crew – James, Charles, Bill, Toni, Phil, Mrs. Bloxby. Mrs. Bloxby even gets a fun plot development of her own! (About time.)

This is a great read for a plane ride, an afternoon at the beach, or other circumstances where total concentration is not necessary or possible. It’s verra silly, as Beaton’s other series character, Hamish Macbeth, might say. And as has happened before, there is practically a whole other book in the Epilogue, with a teaser for the next book in the series. 

Dishing the Dirt is a definite recommend for die-hard Agatha fans. Settle in for a visit with our aggravating but lovable old friend in the charming Cotswolds village of  Carsely. 

The Galesburg Public Library has various books from the Agatha Raisin series available in the adult Fiction, Large Print, and audiobook sections and as digital ebook and audio downloads. The first book in the series is Agatha Raisin and the Quiche of Death.  Dishing the Dirt is scheduled to come out on September 15. I read a digital ebook from

Monday, July 6, 2015

The Just City by Jo Walton

The Just City is a unique dystopia, or utopia, which is focused on Greek gods, mythology, and Plato's work The Republic, though you can read this book without having to read The Republic. This is a book intended for mature audiences, it hits on heavy issues, and there is rape scenes in it, though nothing I believe to be extremely graphic.

The base of the book is about the Greek god Athene. She brings various people throughout all of time, historical figures, everyday people, and even robots' to Atlantis in order to build Plato's Just City. This book is an interesting mix, bringing successful people from all over the time spectrum to one place to discuss philosophy and create the Just City Plato had dreamed of.

Plato's Just City brings up many philosophy questions, and social issues that come from many different centuries into question. The book itself focuses more so on the development of the city through the eyes of three characters, Maia, one of those chosen to build the city, Simmea, a child of the city, and Apollo, the god who becomes mortal in order to participate as a child in the Just City. As the city grows, some of the issues touched upon are human breeding instead of marriage and love, if humans can have relationships without crossing the line of sex and without loving someone more then the other citizens, and discussions on trust, souls, and free will. There are many more subjects presented, those are simply some of the examples that I enjoyed exploring myself. The biggest question is should justice go over happiness, and I suggest that question to be at the forefront of your mind when you read this.

Jo Walton is an incredible writer, she has a grand understanding of Greek mythology and Plato's literature. Walton was able to show the true nature of Greek gods extremely well, and did just as good of a job on the human characters and their relationships. I could find no fault in the writing of The Just City, I highly recommend this, specifically if you are interested in dystopias or utopias, Greek mythology, and Plato's works.

This work was published in 2014, but the ending did leave room for a second installment, which I look forward to if she decides to continue on with it.

Murder in Thrall by Anne Cleeland

Murder in Thrall is not your normal British police procedural. The Detective Chief Inspector, Michael Acton, is a stalker. He admits as much to the object of his obsession, Detective Constable Kathleen Doyle, who is elevated from the lower ranks to work with him because of his interest in her. “Misdemeanor or felony?” she asks him. He thinks about it for a moment and replies “felony.” He has entered her apartment. He watches her through binoculars. He takes photos of her sleeping unaware and keeps them on his phone.

I was totally sucked into this odd mystery and didn’t want to stop reading. Each chapter opens with a brief insight into what’s going on in Acton’s mind. The rest of the narrative is from Doyle’s viewpoint. She has the ability to tell when most people are lying, which makes her very useful during interrogations. She has trouble reading Acton, but when he suggests before they have even had a date that they should solve their individual problems of finding suitable companions by marrying each other, she is shocked - but can tell that he truly means it.

I wondered early on if this was actually a psychological thriller, but as there are already two more books in the series, you can draw your own conclusions. I enjoyed the mystery part of this mystery, and it took some twists I did not expect. Some of the minor characters are fairly well developed. I read a lot of books by British authors and was impressed to come across a number of words and phrases that I did not know (although most of them, like “culchie,”  were from the Irish Doyle). The reference “brides-in-the-bath,” for example, is to an English serial killer case I’d never heard of that is an early example of the use of forensics in solving a crime.

On top of everything else, Acton has a title, so there were references to the British aristocracy on top of the usual SOCOs, DCIs, Evidence Recovery Units, and other terms I expect to find littered throughout police procedurals. Acton and Doyle’s relationship is further complicated beyond the fact that he is her boss because he is an erudite Anglican English Lord and she is an Irish Catholic nobody. Doyle is uneducated and inexperienced but intelligent and sensible. I enjoyed their banter and her way of handling tense situations.

Doyle’s manner of thinking and speaking is charming. She often refers to herself as her “fair self,” her “foolish self,”, her “motherless self,” etc., which I would have thought would have become annoying but did not. She has a healthy self-esteem and feels confident about her ability to deal with Acton’s obsession. She is trying to improve herself and often works in vocabulary words, another habit that could have become annoying but did not. Acton is a highly unprincipled DCI. There is a lot of material for future books in the series. I often smiled at Cleeland’s way with words, including sentences like “Men; honestly.” (p. 90 of the digital edition)

There was a plot point that took place early on but was revealed much later that felt like a cheap trick on the author’s part, and late in the book Doyle insists that Acton have sex with her after something had happened in an exchange that did not feel at all believable to me. But my complaints about the book are small and nit-picky.

The relationship between Acton and Doyle is clearly unhealthy, and I feel a bit conflicted about this book, but I was intrigued all the way through and will definitely read the next book in the series. If you like British police procedurals that feature a romance or morally ambiguous detectives, I recommend Murder in Thrall.

The Galesburg Public Library has the three books in Cleeland’s New Scotland Yard mystery series in both print and digital through eRead Illinois.

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh by Kathryn Aalto

If you remember Winnie-the -Pooh from your childhood, or the childhood of someone dear to you, with fondness, then The Natural World of Winnie-the -Pooh by Kathryn Aalto is good for a relaxing, nerve-calming read. In the book she relates the career of A. A. Milne, author of two Winnie-the-Pooh books as well as many other books and plays. Aalto also tells of the collaboration of Milne and artist E. H. Shepard whose iconic illustrations created visual memories to accompany the classic stories.

Aalto goes on to talk about the origins of the stories, many based on elements from the childhood of Milne's son Christsopher Robin, namesake of the boy in the Pooh books. The real Christopher Robin's rambles in Ashdown Forest near the Milnes' home inspired the Hundred Acre Wood of the books. Aalto takes the reader from location to location in Ashdown Forest, telling of its history and geography as well as likely connections to the settings of the dwellings and adventures of Pooh, Piglet, Owl, Rabbit, Eeyore, Kanga, Roo and Tigger. The last portion of the book deals with the flora and fauna of the forest.

The Winnie-the -Pooh books continue to remain top best-sellers. The Natural World of Winnie-the-Pooh is a lovely companion. It has many photographs as well as illustrations. In the pre-publication advance reader copy the photographs are all in black and white. When published in September 2015, most of the photographs will be in color. Aalto, overall, does a good job. My only criticism is that she is a little repetitious. I think there is too much material related to the game of Poohsticks, a simple game from one of the Pooh stories.

There is a popular idea that similar things often happen in threes. My reading of this book was a part of such a grouping. Just before picking out this title from the advance reader book cart at my local library, I was reading cartoonist Bill Watterson's Exploring Calvin and Hobbes - An Exhibition Catalog. In it he describes a wooded area behind his childhood home in Ohio. While he denies being any Christopher Robin, he does fondly speak of his own woodland rambles and the freedom they made him feel. Certainly the Calvin and Hobbes cartoons often had their own woods and adventures in them, with Calvin a more zany, roguish six-year-old than Christopher Robin and Hobbes perhaps more philosophical than Tigger.

At the same time I was reading Watterson's book, I was dealing with some writings of my own. They involved an old newspaper clipping about a three-acre woods in Virginia. Curiosity about the status of the woods twenty-four years after the article was written led me, via the Internet, to come in contact with a gentleman who is a master gardener and certified Virginia naturalist. He has been using the 3-acre woods as a resource to educate over 13,000 local school children about the marvels of nature, its plants and critters. With the appearance of Aalto's book on the library's cart, I had an unplanned set of three - three woods, three connections with childhood woodland experiences. What a delight - tiddely-pom.