Friday, March 27, 2015

At the Water's Edge


At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen
Spiegel & Grau, Random House: 3/31/2015 
eBook Review Copy, 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780385523233 
http://saragruen.com/
At the Water’s Edge is a gripping and poignant love story about a privileged young woman’s awakening as she experiences the devastation of World War II in a tiny village in the Scottish Highlands.
After disgracing themselves at a high society New Year’s Eve party in Philadelphia in 1944, Madeline Hyde and her husband, Ellis, are cut off financially by his father, a former army colonel who is already ashamed of his son’s inability to serve in the war. When Ellis and his best friend, Hank, decide that the only way to regain the Colonel’s favor is to succeed where the Colonel very publicly failed - by hunting down the famous Loch Ness monster - Maddie reluctantly follows them across the Atlantic, leaving her sheltered world behind.
The trio find themselves in a remote village in the Scottish Highlands, where the locals have nothing but contempt for the privileged interlopers. Maddie is left on her own at the isolated inn, where food is rationed, fuel is scarce, and a knock from the postman can bring tragic news. Yet she finds herself falling in love with the stark beauty and subtle magic of the Scottish countryside. Gradually she comes to know the villagers, and the friendships she forms with two young women open her up to a larger world than she knew existed. Maddie begins to see that nothing is as it first appears: the values she holds dear prove unsustainable, and monsters lurk where they are least expected.
As she embraces a fuller sense of who she might be, Maddie becomes aware not only of the dark forces around her, but of life’s beauty and surprising possibilities.
My Thoughts:  

At the Water's Edge by Sara Gruen is a very highly recommended period piece set during WWII.
 
Maddie Hyde, her husband, Ellis, and their friend, Hank, are part of Philadelphia society. After a drunken New Year's Eve party that results in some disastrous familial/financial repercussions for Maddie and Ellis, the trio decides to go to Scotland and prove the Loch Ness monster really exists. This is something Ellis's father attempted to do years before and his photos were later discredited. The fact that Ellis is color blind and Hank has flat feet, which prevented the two from enlisting, also plays into their decision. They are tired of the insinuations being thrown toward them. Despite the fact that it is during the war and U-boats are patrolling the very area of the Atlantic that they will cross, the trio finds transportation and manages to make their way to the village of Drumnadrochit, Scotland, and a small, quaint inn.

Maddie has a hard time with motion sickness while crossing the Atlantic and it is during the crossing that the effects of war also becomes very real to her. Then, once in Scotland, Maddie seems to completely sober up and take a good look at herself, as well as Ellis and Hank, who are insensitive, privileged, inebriated morons, and she realizes that she is associated with them and their entitled, gauche, drunken search for Nessie. Maddie begins to grow as a person and connect with the people in the village while Ellis and Hank become less civilized and more self-obsessed caricatures. But, due to the times, Maddie is also subjugated to Ellis, which creates a difficult dilemma.

I really liked At the Water's Edge and was totally engrossed in the story from start to finish. First, Sara Gruen is an excellent writer so she is able to describe imagery and capture the settings so vividly that it seems effortless and allows the story to flow along smoothly. I appreciated the growth and transformation Maddie experiences as she is presented with some hard truths and realizes the true essence of Ellis's character. She matures while Ellis and Hank are diminished. Including the local myths and signs as harbingers of what could happen provides nice foreshadowing. The totality added up to a great historical fiction novel. I could have done without the love story, but, obviously, it certainly didn't detract from my enjoyment.


Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Spiegel & Grau at Random House for review purposes.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

My Life in a Nutshell

My Life in a Nutshell by Tanya J. Peterson
Inkwater Press: 3/28/2014
eBook review copy, 386 pages
Trade Paperback ISBN-13: 9781629010724
http://tanyajpeterson.com/

From the author of Leave of Absence comes another compelling tale of the human psyche.
A brilliant and talented man crippled by extreme anxiety and panic attacks, Brian has carefully crafted his world so that his interactions with others are severely limited. Although incapable of changing his situation, he discovers that, somehow, he is the only person seven-year-old Abigail can trust. Having bounced from one foster home to another, she has unexpectedly come to live with a childless uncle and aunt she has never known. For very different reasons, both Brian and Abigail are trapped in emotionally and socially isolated lives. Can they learn from each other?

My Thoughts:
 

When a book about a man with anxiety disorders has you sobbing multiple times in just the first few pages, you know the author has managed to capture some essential truth of the human condition and the book is something special. My Life in a Nutshell by Tanya J. Peterson is very highly recommended; very emotional, but worth every tear.

Brian Cunningham is 37 years old and works as the night custodian and information technology specialist at Hayden Elementary School. After 18 years of working at the same job, with the same man as the head, day time custodian, Brian is able to handle this job and his panic attacks because his contact with other people is limited. Brian not only suffers from anxiety disorders, and panic attacks, but he recently lost his best friend, his dog Oscar, so he is in mourning. Brian is isolated and full of anxiety daily. 

When 7 year old Abigail Harris, a new student to the school, is found hiding in the janitor's mechanical room, she latches onto Brian as someone she can trust after the initial fright both of them experienced. Abigail  has multiple problems of her own. She has been abused and lived in multiple foster homes. She is suffering from attachment issues and disorders.

When her immediate attachment to Brian is discovered by the principal and her uncle and aunt, Brian ends up being charged as watching Abigal after school until her uncle or aunt can arrive to take her home. The assignment gives Brian even more anxiety, but he finds himself able to relate to Abigail better than many of the other adults around her and help her.

The help for Brian comes in the form of Abigail and Dr. Greene, a therapist who Brian's mom contacts and makes an appointment for him. Even though he only sees her a few times in the book, those visits help give the reader an extra insight into therapy and how Brian may be helped to cope with life a bit easier.

Peterson is a mental health professional with a background in public education, so she brings a skill set to this novel that is incredible. She manages to capture what Brian,  the narrator, is thinking and feeling as he tries to get through each day. It is heart breaking. She allows Brian to tell us what he is thinking and feeling in such an empathetic but realistic way that you can't help but want the best for him; want him to receive some kind of help. She also provides the background information on the origin of Brian's anxiety. While she may not be a technically gifted story teller, she has brilliantly captured the inner thought process of Brian so completely that any quibbles about the plot fall away. This is a great book.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Inkwater Press for review purposes.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Vostok

Vostok by Steve Alten
Rebel Press: 2/17/2015
eBook Review Copy, 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9781681020006

https://www.stevealten.com/
 
East Antarctica: The coldest, most desolate location on Earth. Two-and-a-half miles below the ice cap is Vostok, a six thousand square mile liquid lake, over a thousand feet deep, left untouched for more than 15 million years. Now, marine biologist Zachary Wallace and two other scientists aboard a submersible tethered to a laser will journey 13,000 feet beneath the ice into this unexplored realm to discover Mesozoic life forms long believed extinct – and an object of immense power responsible for the evolution of modern man.

In this sequel to The Loch and prequel to the upcoming MEG 5: Nightstalkers, New York Times best-selling author Steve Alten offers readers a crossover novel that combines characters from two of his most popular series.
My Thoughts:

Vostok by Steve Alten is a recommended thriller that brings back The Loch's popular marine biologist Zachary Wallace. Times are tough for Zachary. After Nessie was found, there have been some economic trials and now his marriage is struggling.  When Zachary is recruited to head down to Antarctica and explore Lake Vostok, which is located underneath miles of ice, he hesitates at first, but then agrees.

Predictably (and honestly, what we all wanted to read about), Zachary encounters some Miocene monsters in the deep as well as some monsters of the human variety. Then the novel takes an odd turn that I could go with, as long as there would be more creature action. Well, the creature action diminishes and the story becomes a sort of UFO encounter of the higher consciousness. Then the story morphs into a tirade against big oil set in Washington DC and conspiracy theories. Next it... Well, that will give you enough of an idea of the directions the plot takes.

Honestly, I was looking forward to the escapism of an action/adventure thriller. I thought that was what I was getting. Come on, look at the cover! At page 143 my eyes widened, I grinned, and said "Now that's what I'm talking about!" Then things changed, but I could go with the new twist. It is different, not what I was hoping for but, hey, I'm flexible. Then they changed again, and changed again, and.... Finally, the beginning of Vostok is noticeably better written than the last half of the book in my review edition. Now this could be changed in the final version, but it was glaring for me.

I loved The Loch and was anxious to read about Zachary's latest adventure. Vostok didn't quite live up to that promise. While it wasn't as preachy-bad as The Shell Game, it certainly wasn't as entertaining and wonderful as Alten's earlier works. For me, Vostok is a solid airplane book. It will keep you entertained. You'll likely want to keep reading to find out what happens next, but if you misplace it or switch to another eBook, you aren't going to miss it.

Disclosure: My advanced reading edition was courtesy of Rebel Press for review purposes.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

The Tusk That Did the Damage

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James
Knopf Doubleday: 3/10/2015
eBook Review Copy, 240 pages

Hardcover ISBN-13: 9780385354127
http://taniajames.com/
...a tour de force set in South India that plumbs the moral complexities of the ivory trade through the eyes of a poacher, a documentary filmmaker, and, in a feat of audacious imagination, an infamous elephant known as the Gravedigger.
Orphaned by poachers as a calf and sold into a life of labor and exhibition, the Gravedigger breaks free of his chains and begins terrorizing the countryside, earning his name from the humans he kills and then tenderly buries. Manu, the studious younger son of a rice farmer, loses his cousin to the Gravedigger’s violence and is drawn, with his wayward brother Jayan, into the sordid, alluring world of poaching. Emma is a young American working on a documentary with her college best friend, who witnesses the porous boundary between conservation and corruption and finds herself in her own moral gray area: a risky affair with the veterinarian who is the film’s subject. As the novel hurtles toward its tragic climax, these three storylines fuse into a wrenching meditation on love and betrayal, duty and loyalty, and the vexed relationship between man and nature.
With lyricism and suspense, Tania James animates the rural landscapes where Western idealism clashes with local reality; where a farmer’s livelihood can be destroyed by a rampaging elephant; where men are driven to poaching. In James’ arrestingly beautiful prose, The Tusk That Did the Damage blends the mythical and the political to tell a wholly original, utterly contemporary story about the majestic animal, both god and menace, that has mesmerized us for centuries.
My Thoughts:

The Tusk That Did the Damage by Tania James is a highly recommended novel set in southern India, that covers the illegal poaching of ivory through three unique viewpoints. These three viewpoints are presented in alternating chapters.
 
The first viewpoint is that of the elephant which the villagers now call the Gravedigger. He witnesses the killing of his mother, after which he is captured, loved, trained, and abused. He later escapes, which is when he becomes The Gravedigger and is a source of fear and hatred.
 
The second viewpoint is the poacher, Jayan. This section is narrated by his younger brother Manu, who has been asked to look after his older brother. Jayan is attracted to the money he can make through poaching, although he tries to hide his illegal activities from his family at first. They would prefer he worked hard at farming. Gravedigger has already killed one member of their family.

The third viewpoint is that of the filmmakers, specifically Emma. Emma and Teddy are Americans in India to film a documentary about a vet named Ravi at an elephant sanctuary. They are trying to capture on film his technique for reuniting baby elephants with their mothers, who are known to disown babies who smell of human contact. A love triangle develops between the three.

James succeeds admirably in the chapters told through Gravedigger's point of view. I was sobbing like a baby over some of these sections, which are gruesome and heartbreaking. She brilliantly captures how a sentient being would react and be traumatized by seeing their mother killed, and then being captured and trained by the same kind of beings who did the act. She also evokes the sensory world of an animal and the resulting confusion his capture would cause. These are the strongest chapters in the book.

Although not quite as compelling, the chapters told through the poachers point of view are certainly enlightening. The financial reality of poverty and the money that can be made through poaching is brought out, as well as the problem of elephants destroying the farmer's crops. Certainly the actual poachers are low on the list of those who benefit from their illegal acts. The least successful chapters are those of the filmmakers.

James is an excellent writer and the prose flows beautifully, managing to portray each individual, their struggles, pain, and confusion, along with the questions of morality the narrative begs we ask.  She manages to capture the clash of man and nature in an individualized way, but, in the end, it is also a rather depressing tale.


Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher and TLC for review purposes. 


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Friday, March 20, 2015

Black Moon

Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun
Crown Publishing Group: 1/20/2015
eBook Review Copy, 288 pages
Trade Paperback ISBN-13: 9780804137164
kennethcalhoun.com

Insomnia has claimed everyone Biggs knows.  Even his beloved wife, Carolyn, has succumbed to the telltale red-rimmed eyes, slurred speech and cloudy mind before disappearing into the quickly collapsing world.  Yet Biggs can still sleep, and dream, so he sets out to find her.
He ventures out into a world ransacked by mass confusion and desperation, where he meets others struggling against the tide of sleeplessness.  Chase and his buddy Jordan are devising a scheme to live off their drug-store lootings; Lila is a high school student wandering the streets in an owl mask, no longer safe with her insomniac parents; Felicia abandons the sanctuary of a sleep research center to try to protect her family and perhaps reunite with Chase, an ex-boyfriend.  All around, sleep has become an infinitely precious commodity. Money can’t buy it, no drug can touch it, and there are those who would kill to have it. However, Biggs persists in his quest for Carolyn, finding a resolve and inner strength that he never knew he had.
Kenneth Calhoun has written a brilliantly realized and utterly riveting depiction of a world gripped by madness, one that is vivid, strange, and profoundly moving.

My Thoughts:

"To sleep, perchance to dream - ay, there's the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come"
Shakespeare, Hamlet Act 3 scene 1

 
Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun is a highly recommended surreal story of a world plagued by insomnia. What happens when the person with the ability to sleep, and to dream, is the rare exception? Sleep deprivation causes hallucinations, a disconnect with the sensory world, and language centers in the brain can no longer keep your word usage in syntax. Certainly everyone has experienced at some point a time when they craved the restorative power of sleep, and desired the release of dreaming, perhaps to work out life's problems through the dreams. But we all know that you are also at your most vulnerable when sleeping, cut off from the world around you. What is even more dangerous in this changed world for those who can sleep is the murderous rage insomniacs feel when they see someone sleeping.

In this dystopian world several characters try to hide their ability to sleep, while trying to get sleep even when they know they will be killed if found.
The main character in Black Moon is Biggs, a sleeper. Biggs has watched the gradual disintegration of his wife, Carolyn, who is an insomniac. When she disappears, he sets off across a changed, dangerous urban landscape to find her as well as reflect on their life together.
Lila Ferrell is a teen whose parents are insomniacs. When they become a threat to her life when she is sleeping, they send her off to the research center they have heard about.
Chase, an oblivious college student, teams up with Justin, a former high school buddy who has been following the news, to steal sleeping pills.
Felicia, Chase's former girlfriend, is a lab assistant at a sleep research center where they are trying to fight their own symptoms.

Calhoun's writing is brilliant. Those who can sleep are also sleep deprived because sleeping is dangerous and he manages to capture the dreamlike fugue characters are wading through. I like the word hallucinatory used to describe Black Moon because he manages to evoke that feeling. His characters are traveling through a known world that has suddenly become an illusory deception. Real landmarks are there, but changed due to the restless wandering of the sleepless. Biggs is reflecting on a past and dreams he shared with Carolyn that may be delusive. What is real and true in a sleepless world where dreams are a rare anomaly? And is it sleep or our dreams that determine our humanity?

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of
Crown Publishing Group for review purposes.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Cost of Life

Cost of Life by Joshua Corin
Alibi, Random House: 3/17/2015
eBook Review Copy, 274 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101882610
http://joshuacorin.com/

Happy Independence Day. You’re all going to die.
Life can’t be better for veteran pilot Larry Walder. He has a great job, a terrific kid, a gorgeous wife—and no inkling that tonight will be the end of the world as he knows it. In the early hours before the Fourth of July, three men break into Larry’s home. And as the day lurches on to its terrifying course, a life is taken, and Flight 816 from Atlanta to Cozumel, Mexico, vanishes off the radar.
In the air, Larry must find a way to save his family, his crew, and his passengers. On the ground, disgraced FBI agent Xanadu Marx goes rogue, making it her mission to track down the missing flight before the hijackers reach their diabolical endgame. With the casualties racking up and the world’s busiest airport under lockdown, a message arrives: This is no ordinary hijacking, no typical hostage crisis. This ransom is a totally different beast—the first hint of a conspiracy that might bring America to its knees.

My Thoughts:
 

Cost of Life by Joshua Corin is very highly recommended. This is a stuck-overnight-at-the-airport thriller that should hold your rapt attention from the start.

Pilot Larry Walder is woken up and informed that his wife and son are now hostages - and only he can keep them alive by following the kidnapper's instructions. Larry is scheduled to fly from Atlanta to Cozumel, Mexico, that day. Instead, once he takes off in Atlanta he is to fly the plane and all passengers to the location of the coordinates provided by the group of men. One of the men accompanies Larry to the airport just to make sure he follows their instructions.

Once Xanadu Marx, a former FBI agent recently released from rehab to a halfway house, hears some interesting information on a police scanner, she talks a fellow housemate into giving her a ride to the local FBI field office. She is sure that she will be needed on this case by SAC Jim Christie, Special-Agent-in-Charge at the Atlanta field office. What she learns is that she is now considered a civilian, but because of her special ability with a wide variety of languages she is being sent over to be an interpreter for a suspect in custody at the airport. A young intern is giving her a ride and will stay in touch with the field office.

This is no ordinary hijacked airplane story where the bad guys set a ransom in order to release the imprisoned passengers. Corin has set his high adrenaline-packed thriller decidedly in today's device laden society where everyone is connected all the time. At almost the half-way point this story took a twist and a turn that set my world of expectations in a tailspin, but made so much sense in today's culture. Devious, demented, shrewd, and calculating -  but so 21st century. And that is all I'll say. I don't want to spoil anything about this compelling thriller.

Corin is a good writer... or let me sheepishly admit that he must be a very good writer because I was not paying a lick of attention to his word usage or adept descriptive skills. It's all about the action here, baby, and he had me hooked at the start. Once you start your story with a family taken hostage and an ultimatum to keep them alive that could mean the death of others, you can pretty much bet on a plot that will keep you on the edge of your seat.

The story is told through alternating viewpoints, basically between those on the hijacked plane and the people trying to find the aircraft, although the main characters are basically Larry and Xena with several supporting characters. I know the character of Xana will likely grate on some people, but I liked her tough resourcefulness as she pieces clues together while fighting her demons. Hopefully Corin will bring Xena back for another thriller sometime in the future.


Disclosure: I received an advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher and TLC for review purposes. 


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Monday, March 16, 2015

The Wilderness of Ruin

The Wilderness of Ruin by Roseanne Montillo
HarperCollins: 3/17/2015
eBook Review Copy, 320 pages
Hardcover ISBN-13: 9780062273475

In late nineteenth-century Boston, home to Herman Melville and Oliver Wendell Holmes, a serial killer preying on children is running loose in the city—a wilderness of ruin caused by the Great Fire of 1872...
In the early 1870s, local children begin disappearing from the working-class neighborhoods of Boston. Several return home bloody and bruised after being tortured, while others never come back.
With the city on edge, authorities believe the abductions are the handiwork of a psychopath, until they discover that their killer—fourteen-year-old Jesse Pomeroy—is barely older than his victims. The criminal investigation that follows sparks a debate among the world’s most revered medical minds, and will have a decades-long impact on the judicial system and medical consciousness.
The Wilderness of Ruin is a riveting tale of gruesome murder and depravity. At its heart is a great American city divided by class—a chasm that widens in the aftermath of the Great Fire of 1872. Roseanne Montillo brings Gilded Age Boston to glorious life—from the genteel cobblestone streets of Beacon Hill to the squalid, overcrowded tenements of Southie. Here, too, is the writer Herman Melville. Enthralled by the child killer’s case, he enlists physician Oliver Wendell Holmes to help him understand how it might relate to his own mental instability.
With verve and historical detail, Roseanne Montillo explores this case that reverberated through all of Boston society in order to help us understand our modern hunger for the prurient and sensational.
My Thoughts:
 

The Wilderness of Ruin: A Tale of Madness, Fire, and the Hunt for America's Youngest Serial Killer by Roseanne Montillo is a highly recommended historical account of Boston in the late nineteenth century. Although, in reality, there is no frantic search for Jesse Pomeroy in this account, it is, nonetheless, an interesting look at 19th century Boston.

In Boston in the 1870s young boys began to disappear of turn up tortured, beaten and bloody. It turns out that the killer/torturer was 14 year old Jesse Pomeroy, a mentally ill sociopath who was convicted and sentenced to the reform school. After he was released early from the reform school, another boy was tortured and a young girl turned up dead. Pomeroy was convicted and sentenced to hang, but that was changed to life imprisonment. While detailing Pomeroy's life, Montillo includes information about the area, including the history of prisons, the treatment of mentally ill criminals, the fire of 1872, author Herman Melville, and physician Oliver Wendell Holmes.

In The Wilderness of Ruin Montillo succeeds in presenting an expertly researched, riveting look at historical 19th century Boston and some of the people who inhabited the city rather than a frantic true crime search for a psychopath. Anyone who enjoys American history or the history of Boston will likely appreciate The Wilderness of Ruin. While Pomeroy's story is disturbing, it is more interesting when placed in historical context and presented as a part of history. What is less successful is the attempt to draw a comparison between Melville and Pomeroy. I'm not sure that the forced comparison was even necessary.

The book includes black and white illustrations. As is my wont I was pleased to see that in her well documented research Montillo presents a plethora of notes, an extensive bibliography, and index.
 

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of HarperCollins for review purposes.