Friday, March 14, 2014

How the Light Gets In

by Louise Penny
New York : Minotaur Books, 2013.

This is - let me see - the ninth book in the fabulous Three Pines/Inspector Gamache series by Louise Penny. My reviews of previous titles in the series (from newest to oldest) can be found as follows:
At the end of the last book, Jean Guy Beauvoir walked away from Inspector Gamache to follow after his addictions and Chief Superintendent Sylvain Francour. As the Christmas season gets closer, Gamache's department has been completely decimated and only Isabel Lacoste is left standing with him. Meanwhile, Myrna Landers calls from Three Pines when a friend of hers goes missing.

This series has been incredible in the way I've come to know and care about these characters almost as much as friends. The end of The Beautiful Mystery left me incredibly unsettled (should books be getting these reactions out of me?), and I couldn't wait to pick this up and find out what would happen next. Many of the storylines that have been threaded through previous books come to a head in this one, in a way I found incredibly satisfying. I gobbled this up in three days, became invested even when I'd already figured out part of the solution, and found myself swinging from emotional extremes of fear and joy. I wasn't sure Louise Penny could top Bury Your Dead for my all-time favorite in the series, but I do believe she has done so with this one.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Crossing to Safety

by Wallace Stegner
New York : Random House, 1987.

Larry and Sally Morgan. Sid and Charity Lang. One couple from the west, poor and hardworking. The other from the east and rich. Larry and Sid happen to work together at a university in Wisconsin; their wives strike up a friendship, the Morgans are invited over for a party and the rest, as they say, is history.

This is essentially the story of an unlikely friendship between four people, sometimes held together by a shoestring, memories, and the force of Charity's personality, but always dear to all. These are rich characters, likable and maddening, and so completely real. The narrative descriptions are pitch-perfect word pictures that made me wish I could write that (seemingly) effortlessly, and what isn't said is as important as what is.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Dad is Fat

by Jim Gaffigan
New York, NY : Crown, 2013.

Comedian Jim Gaffigan reflects on his experience as a father of five, living in a two-bedroom apartment in New York City.

That one line of description both says it all and, well, doesn't really describe it sufficiently, unless you happen to have experience with large families or living in New York City. I'm the oldest of five, so I found many of the stories amusing even though my knowledge of the scenarios he describes comes from being one of the kids. I could relate to some of what he wrote about, and those were the funniest parts for me. Parents could probably relate best, but even if you're not, consider giving it a try. I have it on good authority from a couple of my co-workers that the audiobook is excellent, since you get the comedian's own delivery.

To get both a flavor of his brand of comedy (and to have a frame of reference for one of the routines he refers to often in his book), check out his thoughts on "Hot Pockets":

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Oath of Fealty

by Elizabeth Moon
New York : Del Rey/Ballantine Books, 2011 (hardcover published 2010).

Kieri Phelan, the former Duke and soon to be crowned King of Lyonya, has a new challenge in ruling a human and elven kingdom and convincing his Council that they need to have a protective army for defense. His former captains, Arcolin and Dorrin Verrakai, have challenges of their own as Arcolin takes over the Duke's mercenary company and Dorrin returns to her estranged family's holding as the new Duke Verrakai.

Though Oath of Fealty begins with events soon after the end of Oath of Gold in Paksennarion's trilogy, this book could also be read as a standalone and the beginning of the new series. As such, it is less focused on Paks (though she's still a character) than on Phelan, Arcolin, and Dorrin as well as political events between Tsaia, Lyonya, and Pargun. The various events involving the Verrakai betrayal and companies of bandits clearly have an underlying link that apparently have some connection to the former pirate, Alured, a much bigger conspiracy than anyone first guessed. I really enjoyed returning to Paks' world, and enjoyed getting to know some of the characters better who had been more minor, especially Dorrin. She's the one good out of a pretty rotten family, and often questions herself and her motives while she tries her best, very believably a mix of doubt and action. I hope I won't wait so long before reading the next book in the series.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Mistress of the Art of Death

by Ariana Franklin
New York : Berkley Books, 2008.

In 1170, a child is found brutally murdered in Cambridge, and the townspeople are quick to blame the Jews. King Henry II doesn't particularly care about the Jewish people, but he does care about his lost income now that they are holed up in a castle for their own protection, and arranges to have someone sent to investigate. Enter Adelia, a woman doctor from Salerno, and her traveling companions Simon and Mansur, who arrive to look into the matter.

The best historical fiction, to my mind, teaches you something about a time period, a people, or a culture while telling a really good story. This book does that in spades, giving such information about the Church at that time, medicine, and more. Yet there's no time for an information dump, because the story reads fast, at first because there is a lot of dialog and short paragraphs and, as the story progresses, an ever-faster pace as we draw closer to the conclusion. I have to say, the identity of the murderer was not all that surprising to me (one of a few people I had on my own suspects list), but exactly how it happened and how everything was resolved was indeed unexpected. In this sort of book, you're always on the lookout for glaring anachronisms. Adelia herself is the biggest anachronism of all - not so much because she's a woman doctor, which is handled believably, but because of her modern ideas and practices. The others are dealt with well in the author's note. The descriptions of the dead and what had been done to them was a bit much for the squeamish side of me. Granted, I was reading so fast much of this washed over me and I only noticed looking back.

If you really enjoy historical mysteries, this is the first in the series and well worth reading. Ariana Franklin is the pen name of Diana Norman, a British journalist and author, who sadly passed away in 2011.

Monday, February 24, 2014

UnSouled

by Neal Shusterman
New York : Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 2013.

UnSouled is the third book in this series - ***spoiler warning*** for the first two books, Unwind and Unwholly.

Connor and Lev are on the run from the mess that was once the Graveyard. Before he left, Trace had given Connor a bit of information about Proactive Citizenry – the group that seems to be behind quite a lot having to do with unwinding as well as the creators of Camus Comprix, the first person to be made with parts of the unwound – and a mysterious man named Janson Rheinschild. Following that up seems to be all he can think to do, now that Risa is gone who-knows-where. Meanwhile, Cam himself is determined to win Risa's love and trust by demolishing the very organization that made him.

The more I read this series, the more I can believe the premise, that people could get so fed up with “feral” teenagers that they start to think that using them for transplants and saving lives would really be for society's good. In the midst of the future dystopia are real, recent news articles and clippings on related topics, such as black market organ donors and a politician who apparently wrote that he thought there should be a death penalty for rebellious children – not that anyone would use the option, mind you, but that it might scare kids into behaving. This just adds to the believability of what might otherwise sound completely nightmarish and over the top. The various complicated ways in which Proactive Citizenry is working and unwinding has become entrenched in society are further unfolded. I especially enjoyed getting more of Sonia's backstory, that of the woman who first took in Connor and Risa and started them on their way through the safe houses that brought them to the Graveyard. I'm really looking forward to seeing how the series comes together in book four, due to come out next year.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Unwholly

by Neal Shusterman
New York : Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers, 2013 (hardcover pub. 2012).

Unwholly is the second book in a series: this is a ****spoiler warning**** for the first book, Unwind.

Connor, presumed dead by the authorities, is running the Graveyard, a home to the kids still under 17 who are in danger of being “unwound.” Risa works with him as a medic, in a wheelchair because she refused to accept the spine of an unwind – a teen who has been unwound into a “divided” state, with basically all parts used medically for transfusion and transplant. Lev, the former “clapper” who did not clap and detonate the explosives in his blood, has gone through medical treatment to make himself stable and is now feeling stifled, talking to kids in danger of being unwound but unable to speak out against unwinding either.

The book is hard to describe if you haven't read the first book, and would be hard to follow as a standalone as well. The future civilization Shusterman describes has an element of possibility in it: what if really screwed up teenagers were “unwound” to provide organ and other transplants? What if abortion didn't exist, but you could leave an unwanted baby at a doorstep as long as you weren't caught (a practice known as “storking”), with the expectation that the owners of the house would take the child? This series explores the implications of this dystopia, with no easy answers. Unwholly takes up soon after Unwind left off, continuing the multi-perspective switches between Connor, Risa and Lev, and adding some new characters in Starkey, Miracolina, and the “parts pirate” Nelson, who's after runaway unwinds (also known as AWOLs, the kids whose parents have signed the unwind order but who get away before they are picked up to go to “harvest camp”) for the black market. Another new character, Cam, adds another element to the mix as a sort of Frankenstein creation from the parts of unwound kids. Is he merely a conglomeration of all these parts, or is he more? Does he have his own soul? A creepy, fast-paced, and thought-provoking series I'd recommend to a variety readers.