Thursday, March 24, 2016

Before the Fall by Noah Hawley

From the publisher: On a foggy summer night, eleven people - ten privileged, one down-on-his-luck painter - depart Martha's Vineyard on a private jet headed for New York. Sixteen minutes later, the unthinkable happens: the plane plunges into the ocean. The only survivors are Scott Burroughs - the painter - and a four-year-old boy, who is now the last remaining member of an immensely wealthy and powerful media mogul's family. With chapters weaving between the aftermath of the crash and the backstories of the passengers and crew members, the mystery surrounding the tragedy heightens. As the passengers' intrigues unravel, odd coincidences point to a conspiracy. Was it merely by dumb chance that so many influential people perished? Or was something far more sinister at work? Events soon threaten to spiral out of control in an escalating storm of media outrage and accusations. And while Scott struggles to cope with fame that borders on notoriety, the authorities scramble to salvage the truth from the wreckage.

I really enjoyed reading Before the Fall, not in a "I'll keep this on my shelf forever" kind of way but in a "what's going to happen next?" kind of way. The weaving of the narrative from multiple viewpoints was well done. The descriptions of the media circus surrounding the event is very believable. Every now and then a chapter is devoted to one of the disaster paintings Scott specializes in, and they really contribute to the sinister mood. Scott's portrayal as an average guy who has survived a disastrous plane crash as both a hero and a person under suspicion is very nicely done.

The author is not a subtle writer - "Bill dropped onto the sofa. He had the wingspan of a pterodactyl. He sat, as he always did, with his knees spread wide so you could see how big his balls were." (p. 65 of the advance reader copy) But he did a great job of keeping my interest, playing out details and hints that made me want to keep reading. Overall I like his way with words (“It turns out his shoulder is dislocated, not broken. The procedure to pop it back into place is an epic lightning strike of violence followed immediately by a cessation of pain so intense it’s as if the damage has been erased from his body retroactively.” (p. 41 of the advance reader copy )

In the end, my enjoyment of the book lay not so much with the mystery of why the plane crashed but in the backgrounds of the passengers and crew and in the accurate depiction of the insensitive ways the press these days treat both victim and hero in their search for sex and scandal, rather than just reporting the news. I highly recommend this as a vacation read, on a beach or on a plane (really), or to anyone who likes suspenseful, smart fiction. Also I love the cover.

I read an advance reader copy of Before the Fall. It is scheduled to be published on May 31. It will be available at the Galesburg Public Library in adult fiction and as an ebook.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire

From the publisher: Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere... else. But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children. Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced... they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.

Seanan McGuire’s Every Heart a Doorway was not what I expected, but it’s hard to know what to expect from Seanan McGuire. In any event, I loved it. It is short – lamentably short. I fervently hope it is the first in the series. It definitely stands alone, but there is plenty of room for additional stories set in the same world.

This book would be great in the hands of the right reader, teen or adult. It’s all about not fitting in and the search for the place that feels like your true home. It is full of characters who believe they are misfits. One character is asexual, another is a boy in a girl’s body, and there are twin girls (Jack and Jill) who were assigned the roles of “the pretty one” and “the smart one” by their parents but who are now seeking their own identities. “You’re nobody’s doorway but your own, and the only one who gets to tell you how your story ends is you,” writes one character. (p. 109 of the advance reader copy) What a powerful message!

Every Heart a Doorway is also a great story. It reminded me a bit of the Harry Potter series, actually, as the story takes place at a boarding school where terrible things are happening to students. The character development is not great, which is not surprising in a book that is under 200 pages. What I liked most was the immersion in a setting where everyone is different, on the surface and inside, and seeking the place where they belong. “This is not an asylum, and you are not mad – and so what if you were?” asks the school’s headmistress. “This world is unforgiving and cruel to those it judges as even the slightest bit outside the norm. If anyone should be kind, understanding, accepting, loving to their fellow outcasts, it’s you. All of you.” (p. 64 of the advance reader copy) Another powerful  message.

I am not a Narnia fan, and as an added bonus, a character in this book criticizes the Narnia series (the second book I’ve read in the last month to do so, score, the other being Arcadia by Iain Pears). “Narnia was a Christian allegory pretending to be a fantasy series,” says one of the boys who has been through his own doorway. “C.S. Lewis never went through any doors. He didn’t know how it worked.” (p. 64 of the advance reader copy)

I read an advance reader copy of Every Heart a Doorway. It will be published on April 5 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library in adult fiction and young adult fiction and as an ebook.

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Map of Bones by Francesca Haig

From the publisher: 400 hundred years in the future, the Earth has turned primitive following a nuclear fire. For some unknowable reason every person is born with a twin. One is an Alpha—physically perfect in every way; and the other an Omega—burdened with deformity, small or large. With the Council ruling an apartheid-like society, Omegas are branded and ostracized while the Alphas have gathered the world’s sparse resources for themselves. Though proclaiming their superiority, for all their effort, Alphas cannot escape one harsh fact: whenever one twin dies, so does the other. Cass is a rare Omega, one burdened with psychic foresight. While her twin gains power on the Alpha Council, she dares to dream the most dangerous dream of all: equality. For daring to envision a world in which Alphas and Omegas live side-by-side as equals, both the Council and the Resistance have her in their sights.

The Map of Bones is the second book in Francesca Haig’s Fire Sermon trilogy. The Map of Bones is easy to get into and easy to read, and it has a strong female lead. I will read the final book when it is published.

Still, The Map of Bones didn’t really pop for me. A surprise reveal toward the end seemed a bit pointless and dispassionate, as did the secret Zoe, an Alpha fighting for the Resistance, has been carrying. I have no emotional investment in the characters and I don’t sense any real commitment and feeling between them. Narrator Cass again makes some idiotic decisions, like insisting on burying an acquaintance found hanged even though her party is in an enormous hurry. The language is sometimes a little overwrought (“We trawled those dusty rooms for hours. Walls with a tracery of rust and damp. A baby’s skull the exact weight of a nightmare.” p. 275 of the digital advance reader copy)

I do recommend The Fire Sermon trilogy for those who enjoy dystopian fiction and strong female leads, and I look forward to seeing how the trilogy wraps up. I read a digital advance reader copy of The Map of Bones. It will be available at the Galesburg Public Library starting May 3 in print and as an ebook. The library also owns the first book, The Fire Sermon,  in those two formats.

Postscript: One thing that bothered me was that while the book is called The Map of Bones, the phrase “maze of bones” was used over a dozen times in the book while “map of bones” was only used once. I found this very distracting. As I read a digital advance reader copy; maybe the text will be changed before the final book is printed (although I think The Maze of Bones would have been a better title, and the cover could still have used an Alpha symbol as the A and an Omega symbol as the O).

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Pudge by Doug Wilson

From the publisher: Carlton Fisk retired having played in more games and hit more home runs than any other catcher before him. A baseball superstar in the 1970s and 80s, Fisk was known not just for his dedication to the sport and tremendous plays but for the respect with which he treated the game. Doug Wilson, finalist for both the Casey Award and Seymour Medal for his previous baseball biographies, uses his own extensive research and interviews with childhood friends and major league teammates to examine the life and career of a leader who followed a strict code and played with fierce determination.

Baseball is my favorite sport, and Carlton Fisk is my favorite baseball player. I named my first car Carlton Fisk, and for the seven years I owned it I had a little cardboard pop-up Carlton Fisk affixed to the dashboard. (It was a good thing I decided to buy a bunch of them, as I had to replace the figure each year due to fading from the sun.)

I just finished the extremely enjoyable book Pudge: The Biography of Carlton Fisk by Doug Wilson. Although Fisk was not interviewed for the book – participating in the writing of his own biography would be too much like bragging for Fisk – it is not a tell all. Or maybe there is no all to tell regarding Fisk. If you are looking for dirt on Carlton Fisk - if there is dirt on Carlton Fisk - don't look here. Pudge is not that book. It is a glowing love letter to New England’s greatest professional baseball player. The author is an unabashed admirer of Fisk, and since I am also, I loved the book. My coworker rolled his eyes when I read this passage outloud:

He was a man who undeniably exemplified all the attributes they wanted to believe about themselves as New Englanders: he was tough, independent, and principled. Stoic and in control, he spoke what he believed, said what needed to be said and little else. He was Calvin Coolidge in John Wayne’s body. And his posture: tall, ramrod straight; just hand him a musket and he could pose for a statue of a minuteman, keeping faithful watch to protect the citizens from tyranny, marauders, and even Yankees. (p. 81)

Pudge is also not for you if you are looking for a quick look at Fisk’s life and career. The book goes into great detail about Fisk’s years with the Red Sox and the White Sox and especially that famous home run in the 1975 World Series. However, if, like me, you loved watching Fisk play, you admire his work ethic, you think the White Sox mistreated him, and you wish professional sports had more players like Fisk, you will probably enjoy reading  Pudge. 

The Galesburg Public Library owns Pudge. It can be found at NFIC 796.357 FIS.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

The Bride Behind the Curtain: Regency Makeover Part I by Darcie Wilde

From the publisher: Adele Endicott has always been considered too plump and too awkward for the fashionable world. But the girl has a discerning eye for fashion, filling notebooks with designs for beautiful dresses. She also has an eye for the dashing son of French expatriates, James Beauclaire. With a little help from her friends, and a talented modiste's assistant, Adele's gowns take society by storm and she begins a secret flirtation with James, who finds himself torn between family loyalties and true love. But as all Adele’s impossible dreams begin to come true, can she resist the temptations of a world suddenly throwing itself at her feet?

A fluffy little Regency novella, as lightweight as a meringue and as easy to devour.

I didn’t like that the heroine had to lose weight in order to complete her transformation from dumpling to darling, but I did like that for once it was the older sister who was plain, shy, and insecure, rather than the younger sister. I also love the opening line: “Our story begins, as the best often do, in a library.”

Both the hero and the heroine were likable enough, and the author has a deft humorous touch. “What was Marcus doing out there? Probably looming. Marcus looming was a famously disconcerting sight. ‘You’re trying to intimidate me,’ Lady Helene went on, confirming Adele’s suspicions of looming behavior.” (p. 11 of the digital advance reader copy)

There is nothing particularly noteworthy about The Bride Behind the Curtain, but I needed a quick diverting read and it filled that need.

I read a digital advance reader copy of The Bride Behind the Curtain. It will be published on March 15 and will be available as an ebook through the Galesburg Public Library. 

Monday, March 7, 2016

A Lady in the Smoke by Karen Odden

From the publisher: Karen Odden’s enthralling debut historical mystery transports readers to Victorian England, where a terrifying railway disaster plunges a headstrong young noblewoman into a conspiracy that reaches to the highest corridors of power. Lady Elizabeth Fraser is on her way back to her ancestral country estate when her train careens off the rails and bursts into flames. Though she is injured, she manages to drag herself and her unconscious mother out of the wreckage, and amid the chaos that ensues, a brilliant young railway surgeon saves her mother’s life. Elizabeth feels an immediate connection with Paul Wilcox—though society would never deem a medical man eligible for the daughter of an earl. 

A Lady in the Smoke: A Victorian Mystery by Karen Odden could be the first in a new series by Anne Perry. A Victorian era woman of gentle birth feels a mutual attraction with a professional man - in this case a railway surgeon - while investigating a crime. It is told in the first person, but otherwise has a very similar feel to Perry’s The Cater Street Hangman. The trial of someone unjustly accused of murder as part of a conspiracy reminded me of Perry’s William Monk series as well. From page 291 of the advance reader copy: “Paul’s trial had been so very important to all of us, but his was only one of dozens that would take place during these two weeks. All these people’s lives, I thought as I looked about me, dependent upon a few words here and there, the momentary inclination of a judge, the presence or absence of a particular witness.”

The main character is a determined and strong woman. She puts herself in some situations that stretch believability, but that’s typical for mysteries. She and the surgeon fall in love quickly, but that’s typical for romance novels. The book seems very well researched. Although the author admits to taking “liberties” with Victorian England, the historical details rang true. 

A Lady in the Smoke is more mystery than romance, but the resolution of both threads was satisfying for this fan. I enjoyed having the railway be a prominent plot point, especially as I read the book while travelling by train. I found the writing style lively and engaging and was thoroughly engrossed. 

For now, this book is only available as an ebook. I hope it is made available in print as well. I believe it will find many fans among readers of historical mysteries. I read a digital advance reader copy. The book will be available for purchase on March 29. It will be available as an ebook through the Galesburg Public Library.

Friday, March 4, 2016

Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories, edited by Jorge F. Hernández

The Big Read is a program of the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with Arts Midwest. This year, Galesburg will be reading Sun, Stone, and Shadows: 20 Great Mexican Short Stories, and there will be a variety of programs to celebrate Latino history and culture through May 5, 2016. Visit for a complete schedule of events, or stop by the library starting March 7. Free copies of the book are available while supplies last.

Like most story anthologies, Sun, Stone, and Shadows contained stories I admired, stories I didn’t necessarily enjoy but that I’m still thinking about, stories I thought were lame, and stories I just did not get.

The stories are grouped into five sections. My favorite section overall was “The Fantastic Unreal,” and my favorite story in the collection was Permission Granted by Edmundo Valadés
The most famous author represented in the collection is arguably Octavio Paz, and I found his story My Life with the Wave to be disturbing and mind bending but also thought provoking. The language is very provocative, and the story is filled with nice imagery. Three other stories are grouped with it in “The Fantastic Unreal.” Chac-Mool by Carlos Fuentes could have been an episode on the TV show The X-Files. History According to Pao Cheng by Salvador Elizondo had a nice twist at the end, and Francisco Tario’s The Night of the Margaret Rose was also very evocative and made me feel as I were in the story with the narrator.

The second section is “Scenes from Mexican Reality,” and they are mostly sad or melancholy tales. I especially liked the touchingThe Mist by Juan de la Cabada. The third section is “The Tangible Past.” The Carnival of the Bullets by Martín Luis Guzmán has a strong and terrible narrative that is hard to forget. Permission Granted by Edmundo Valadés is very good, the most entertaining story in the collection, with an excellent ending.

The fourth section (the weakest, in my opinion) is “The Unexpected in Everyday, Urban Life.” I found Inés Arredondo’s The Shunammite predictable and thought the ending of Cooking Lesson by Rosario Castellanos fell flat. The fifth section is “Intimate Imagination.”  The Switchman by Juan José Arreola is about trains, so a good choice for Galesburg, and The Square by Juan García Ponce is full of lovely descriptions that gave me a real sense of place.

I really enjoyed this selection of works intended to acquaint me with Mexican literature and recommend it to anyone interested in Mexican culture and to everyone in the Galesburg area. Sun, Stone, and Shadows is available in English and Spanish at the Galesburg Public Library.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Wing and Claw Book 1: Forest of Wonders by Linda Sue Park

From the publisher: The first book in a planned trilogy, Linda Sue Park’s enchanting new fantasy-adventure richly explores the links between magic and botany, family and duty, environment and home.

Wing and Claw Book 1: Forest of Wonders, has much to recommend it. The cover is gorgeous, and the main character, Raffa, is admirable and talented. His cousin makes fun of him for his small size, but he is the better apothecary student.

Raffa, his parents, his cousin, and his uncle live in a village and are all apothecaries (or apothecaries in the making). They live near the Forest of Wonders, where they collect plants that can be used to lessen pain and heal injuries. Raffa has a gift, an ability to intuit whether combinations will help or harm. He saves a badly injured bat, and it leads to consequences he couldn’t possibly have imagined.

There is conflict in the story, and peer pressure, and bad behavior by adults. For once, a bat is one of the good characters (although at the expense of crows and owls, who are depicted as doing bad things). For my taste, for a book called Forest of Wonders, too much of the story was set in the city and not enough in the Forest itself. I hope more time will be spent in the Forest in the remaining two books in the series.

The story has the nice message that every life is worth saving. It also questions the relationship between humans and animals and the rights that animals have. The book does not stand alone; it ends very much in the middle of the story. Wing and Claw Book 1: Forest of Wonders is intended for children age 8-12/grades 3-7. I think it will appeal to children who love animals and nature (although parents should be aware that some animals are intentionally injured in the story). A 3.5 star book.

I read an advance reader's edition of Wing and Claw Book 1: Forest of Wonders. It was released on March 1.