Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Last One by Alexandra Oliva

From the publisher: Survival is the name of the game as the line blurs between reality TV and reality itself in Alexandra Oliva’s fast-paced novel of suspense. She wanted an adventure. She never imagined it would go this far. It begins with a reality TV show. Twelve contestants are sent into the woods to face challenges that will test the limits of their endurance. While they are out there, something terrible happens. Cut off from society, the contestants know nothing of it. When one of them—a young woman the show’s producers call Zoo—stumbles across the devastation, she can imagine only that it is part of the game. Sophisticated and provocative, The Last One is a novel that forces us to confront the role that media plays in our perception of what is real: how readily we cast our judgments, how easily we are manipulated.

I attended the Public Library Association conference in Denver this spring, and The Last One was one of the hot books people were talking about. I was lucky enough to meet the author and pick up an advance reader copy of her book.

The concept is intriguing – 12 contestants on a reality survival TV show have no idea that a pandemic has broken out. The novel moves back and forth between the early days on the show before the pandemic, as the staff behind the show manipulate how viewers will perceive the 12 contestants, and later days, when the contestants believe they are facing a solo challenge. The later chapters follow one contestant in particular as she stumbles on increasingly distressing scenes that she believes are part of the challenge.

I very much enjoyed reading The Last One. I compare it to the blockbuster Gone Girl in that I wanted to keep reading to see what was going to happen next. It’s not a book I would read a second time, and it will be more enjoyable to read if you don’t know much about the plot. The writing is smooth and the character development good.

I’ve never watched any Survivor episodes and I still enjoyed the book. I think fans of the TV show would like this book even more than I did because of the way the contestants are manipulated and presented to the TV audience.

The plot dragged a bit toward the end and slowed my rush to finish. But the slow period didn’t last very long. This is a debut novel, and to make the story work the author does rely on a couple of plot devices that are hard to believe. I won’t mention one because it would act as a spoiler, but the other involves her eyeglasses. She breaks them early on. Although she breaks into stores to find supplies, she does not look for reading glasses or contacts until late in the book.

But those are minor complaints. I think this would be a great beach or travel read. I often dislike the flat or anticlimactic endings of first novels, but I was quite satisfied by the ending of The Last One¸ and I was happy to see that the author did not feel the need to tack on an epilogue.

I recommend The Last One to anyone looking for an engrossing thriller, especially fans of survivalist fiction. I read an advance reader copy of The Last One; it is scheduled to be published on July 12. It will be available at the Galesburg Public Library in print and as an ebook.

Friday, May 20, 2016

If Bees Are Few: A Hive of Bee Poems, edited by James P. Lenfestey

Publisher description: An anthology of 2,500 years of poetry, from Sappho to Sherman Alexie, humming with bees, at a moment when the beloved honey makers and pollinators are in danger of disappearing. Virgil wrote of bees, as did Shakespeare, Burns, Coleridge, Emerson, and Whitman, among many others. Amid the crisis befalling bees—hives collapsing, wild species disappearing—the poems collected here speak with a quiet urgency of a world lost if bees were to fall silent. A portion of the proceeds from this anthology will be donated to support research at the Bee Lab in the Department of Entomology at the University of Minnesota.

I enjoy poetry and am worried about the status of bees, so this anthology of poems about bees intrigued me. The fact that some of the proceeds will benefit the Bee Lab alone makes it a worthwhile endeavor.

Some of the poems are focused on bees; in other poems, the bees are merely background. Some poems are long and lyrical, and others are  short and modern and to the point about vanishing bees. As usual with anthologies, some of the poems spoke to me and some did not. My three favorite poems were Two New World Bees by John Caddy, Bumblebee in the Basement by James Silas Rogers, and the pedigree of honey by Emily Dickinson:
The pedigree of honey
Does not concern the bee;
A clover, any time, to him
Is aristocracy.
If you enjoy reading poetry written by a variety of poets over thousands of years of human history, you might enjoy dipping in to If Bees Are Few. Be prepared to crave some honey!

I read a digital advance reader copy of If Bees Are Few. It will be published on May 30 and will be available in the new nonfiction section of the Galesburg Public Library.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Windcatcher by A.J. Norfield.

I love fantasy novels involving dragons and enjoyed Windcatcher, the first book in the Stone War Chronicles, by A.J. Norfield. Windcatcher is an old-fashioned (in the best sense) traditional fantasy dragon novel. A small squad of soldiers travels deep into enemy territory in an attempt to retrieve a treasure stolen from their kingdom’s ally. The treasure turns out to be something thought to exist only in legends – a dragon egg. He hatches, bonds with one of the soldiers, and becomes an ally in their fight against the enemy.

First person narrators are all the rage these days, and I’m tired of them. I’m especially tired of unreliable first person narrators. Give me a good old omniscient third person narrator any day. It was refreshing to read Windcatcher from that standpoint – it reads like a throwback fantasy novel. 

Windcatcher starts slowly, but I recognize that one has to take the time to do some world building in a long fantasy series. Once the dragon, Galirras, hatches and joins the cast of characters, things really take off.

The author is also a fan of traditional fantasy, and it shows. Sometimes the story is derivative. For example, on page 300 I could hear the Wilhelm scream used in many blockbusters, including The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, in this sentence: “The soldier disappeared from sight with a high-pitched scream.” But since the book is well written and well plotted, I can forgive the occasional lapse into cliché.

One way in which the book is not quite traditional is that the author does attempt to work in some diversity. For example, there is a “same gender” couple in the small troop, and the human tells the dragon, “Unfortunately, same gender lovers are heavily frowned upon by some. You often hear about such people being ridiculed, beaten up, or worse. They’re ignorant and small-minded people that do those things. I mean, who gave them the right to judge how others should feel?” (p. 159 of the ebook)

I do wish the Evil Bad Guy had a little more depth. He is pretty much a stereotypical, one dimensional fantasy villain. I’d like some explanation as to why he is evil and what motivates him. I was surprised by a violent episode that occurred at the end of chapter 13. It seemed extreme compared to the tone of the rest of the book, and its only point seemed to be “hey, this guy is really evil!” Perhaps we will learn more in the second book. 

Book one definitely does not stand alone. It stops in the middle of the story, and I’m ready for book two. If you like immersive traditional fantasy novels, especially those involving dragons, I recommend Windcatcher. It will be available in print at the Galesburg Public Library within the next month.

I was given a free digital copy of Windcatcher by the author in exchange for an honest review. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge by Paul Krueger

Publisher Description: College grad Bailey Chen has a few demons: no job and a rocky relationship with Zane, her only friend when she moves back home. But when Zane introduces Bailey to his fellow monster-fighting bartenders, her demons get a lot more literal.

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge is a silly and entertaining tale of cocktails that give one the power to fight demons.

The fighting demons with cocktails conceit wore a little thin, but the robust plot kept me going as a reader. There was one shockingly out of place incident that won't make dog lovers happy, but otherwise the violence is of the over-the-top demon fighting kind. Overall, I’d rate this book a little gimmicky but amusing and fun. It definitely does not take itself seriously. (The demons are called tremens - a group of them? A delirium.) It also has a diverse cast of characters, always welcome.

I loved the Chicago setting and details. The cover says the writer lives in L.A., but I have to believe from the accurate Chicago vocabulary that he was a Chicagoan at one time. Some lines made me laugh out loud (off to fight demons and the bad guy, the main character’s hair was “styled to weather both Chicago winds and possibly the end of the world.” p. 327 of the advance reader copy).

Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge really feels like a “new adult” novel (although I do hate that label). (“She’d spent so much of the past two months running from her old self, but for the first time she felt maybe she didn’t have to. … What mattered was the future, and she still had plenty of that left.” (p. 276) This from a recent college graduate.)

Recommended for lovers of urban fantasy like Jim Butcher’s The Dresden Files and for “new adult” Chicagoans who like quirky fantasy. In fact, if you are a Chicagoan or ex-Chicagoan of any age and the book’s description intrigues you, give it a shot. The opening of the author’s Acknowledgments give you an idea of what to expect: 
The hardest part about writing the acknowledgments for a book I wrote is finding a way to stretch the words “Great job, Paul!” See, that’s the thing about this book: I wrote it all by myself. If there’s anyone to acknowledge, it’s definitely just me and me alone. Well, me and Mira. I will definitely thank her. She’s my roommate’s cat, and she spent most of the draft process lying quietly in a nearby sunbeam. It was the single most inspiring thing I’ve ever seen. (p. 280 of the ARC)
 I read an advance reader copy of Last Call at the Nightshade Lounge. It will be published on June 7 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library as a print book and an ebook.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Reliance, Illinois by Mary Volmer

Publisher description: Illinois, 1874: With a birthmark covering half her face, thirteen-year-old Madelyn Branch is accustomed to cold and awkward greetings, and expects no less in the struggling town of Reliance. After all, her mother, Rebecca, was careful not to mention a daughter in the Matrimonial Times ad that brought them there. When Rebecca weds, Madelyn poses as her mother’s younger sister and earns a grudging berth in her new house. Deeply injured by her mother’s deceptions, Madelyn soon leaves to enter the service of Miss Rose Werner, prodigal daughter of the town’s founder. Miss Rose is a suffragette who sees in Madelyn a project and potential acolyte. Madelyn, though, wants to feel beautiful and loved, and she pins her hopes on William Stark, a young photographer and haunted Civil War veteran. 

Reliance, Illinois appealed to me because it is set in a fictional small town in Illinois on the banks of the Mississippi. The description on the back of the book made me laugh ("offers a large-hearted look at the stories animating a small town: gossip, murder, love and hate, lace making and drunken fist fights, sinners, saviors, and even an appearance by Mark Twain himself").

The book seems exhaustively researched. It exhausted me just reading all the details. There are many characters and I had some trouble keeping them straight. The narrative and the history are fine, but character development isn't one of the novel's strengths. The one part that didn't ring true to me was a section on the names of female private parts and a certain contraceptive device. While I'm sure there were women trying to spread the word about and the availability of contraception, it just seemed a little too forward to me. 

If you enjoy historical fiction with a touch of humor and bigger than life colorful characters, you may enjoy Reliance, Illinois.

I read an advance reader copy of Reliance, Illinois.  It will be available at the Galesburg Public Library starting May 10.