Review: File M for Murder by Miranda James

Review: File M for Murder by Miranda JamesFile M for Murder (Cat in the Stacks, #3) by Miranda James
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: cozy mystery, mystery
Series: Cat in the Stacks #3
Pages: 304
Published by Berkley on January 31st 2012
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Goodreads

Athena College's new writer in residence is native son and playwright Connor Lawton, known for his sharp writing- and sharper tongue. After an unpleasant encounter, librarian Charlie Harris heads home to a nice surprise: his daughter Laura is subbing for another Athena professor this fall semester. It's great news until he hears who got her the job: her old flame, Connor Lawton...
Fearing competition for Connor's affections, one of his admirers tries to drive Laura out of town. And then, before Connor finishes the play he is writing, he is murdered- and Laura is the prime suspect. Knowing she's innocent, Charlie and his faithful sidekick, Diesel, follow Connor's cluttered trail of angry lovers, bitter enemies, and intriguing research to find the true killer before his daughter is forever cataloged under "M"- for murderer.

My Review:

I am predisposed to like this series. The amateur sleuth is a 50-something librarian named Harris who loves his enormous cat. Said cat is excellent at providing aid and comfort (but mostly comfort) to anyone in his orbit who needs it, and sometimes serves as a great sounding board for his human.

We all talk to our cats, and we all believe that they understand at least some of what we say, and vice versa. Diesel, while rather large for a cat, because Maine Coons are very large cats, acts like a cat a bit on the high end of feline intelligence. But no more than that. One of the things I love about Diesel is that he never does anything that cats don’t do – albeit writ somewhat large. It’s not uncommon for Maine Coon cats to be three feet long from nose to tail, and for the males to top out at over 20 pounds. Diesel is a big, handsome boy with a purr that sounds like, you guessed it, a diesel engine.

And Charlie Harris is very much a librarian. I can easily identify with what he does at work, and why he does it. And also why he loves the parts of this job that he loves, and dislikes the parts he doesn’t love. He rings true as “one of us”. Except for that fascinating habit he has of getting involved in murder. Like so many fictional small town amateur detectives, he does have a gift for tripping over dead bodies and inserting himself into police investigations. It’s a knack that the local police detective finds more annoying than endearing, to say the least.

This particular case hits rather close to home. On the plus side, Charlie’s daughter Laura is home in Athena for the summer, teaching a drama class at the local college where Charlie works. On the minus side, she got the temporary gig through the influence of this year’s resident playwright at the university. And Connor Lawton is a major pain in the ass. Not just to Charlie, but to every single person he comes in contact with. He’s rude, arrogant and downright nasty to all, and no one likes him one bit.

He’s one of those people who is just such a big arsehole that no one seems to mourn him when he’s found dead in his apartment. Rather, the long line of people who might want to do him in stretches rather far.

But once Connor is out of the way, whoever is behind his death turns their gaze upon Laura Harris, and her family finds itself under threat from all sides. Charlie, as usual, feels like it’s all up to him to figure out whodunit – before the killer manages to either kill his daughter or burn down his house with everyone inside.

Escape Rating B: This series is always a good time. I got hooked when I picked up Twelve Angry Librarians, and so far I have yet to be disappointed by a single trip to Athena, Mississippi. I grabbed this one because I bounced hard off of two books, and needed something that I knew would draw me right in, and File M for Murder certainly delivered.

The mysteries in this series are definitely cozy. And not just because Diesel, like all Maine Coons, is a very furry cat. Athena, Mississippi is a small college town, and everyone pretty much does know everyone. When Charlie needs to find the dirt on someone living in town, he knows just who to ask. And when he has to do research on someone’s past doings, he knows just which library has all the resources he needs, as well as the skill to use them.

There are plenty of cat mysteries, but one of the things that I like best about this series is that Diesel is just a cat. A very big cat, but just a cat. He doesn’t do anything that cats don’t do. Even in this particular story, where there is one point where Diesel really does save the day, he does it by smelling something off and meowing about it until he gets his human’s attention. Not all of us receive letter bombs (thank goodness) but that a cat would sniff out that the thing just smells “wrong” in a big way is quite possible.

It’s not that I don’t love Shirley Rousseau Murphy’s Joe Grey series, because I do, but one talking cat mystery series is probably enough. Or at least it is for this reader.

Another thing that I enjoy about this series is that Charlie is not always the first person to solve the mystery, the best person to solve the mystery, or even the person who saves the day by solving the mystery. In Charlie’s cases, he does get in the way of the police as often as he helps them. He doesn’t always do the cliche thing of getting all the suspects together for the big reveal. Sometimes the solution is anti-climactic, and Charlie is a step behind the police. It feels more human, and more likely, that an amateur sleuth would be as much of a hindrance as a help, while it still gives the reader a chance to put the pieces together along with Charlie, mistakes and all.

If you are looking for a light, fluffy and fun mystery series, with lovely people in an interesting setting, check out Charlie and Diesel. You don’t have to start with Murder Past Due (I didn’t) – this series is just good cozy fun wherever you jump in.

Review: The Admiral’s Bride by Suzanne Brockmann

Review: The Admiral’s Bride by Suzanne BrockmannThe Admiral's Bride (Tall, Dark & Dangerous, #7) by Suzanne Brockmann
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: military romance, romantic suspense
Series: Tall, Dark & Dangerous #7
Pages: 256
Published by Mira Books on April 1st 2006
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Goodreads

His mission was to pretend that Zoe Lange, beautiful young scientist—nearly half his age!—was his new bride. Former Navy SEAL Jake Robinson was sure that his romantic years were behind him, but for God and for country, he would look into Zoe’s beautiful dark eyes, kiss her senseless, hold her as if he would never let her go... and then, when the job was done, do just that.

The only problem was, with each hour in Zoe’s company, the stakes were becoming higher. The game more real. And the dangers within their "honeymoon" chamber more and more apparent...

My Review:

I borrowed this one from the library because I was jonesing for a good older man/younger woman romance. I read a lot of fanfic, and one of the pairings that I’m following from a video game I’m playing deals with this trope, so I had a taste for it. And I’ll admit that I was looking for one where the story was finished. As much as I love fanfic, one of the problems with reading a lot of it is that even the best stories don’t always get finished, and I’m as guilty of this as anyone.

But it gave me a yen for a story with this trope, and browsing the Goodreads list brought this one to the top. That it also reminds me a another fanfic pairing was an added bonus.

The Admiral’s Bride was originally written in 1999. Technology has changed, and has certainly become more ubiquitous. On that other hand, the terrorist militia group that the Admiral and his Bride have to infiltrate could be ripped from today’s headlines. Technology may change, but human nature doesn’t seem to.

The Admiral in this story is Jake Robinson. And he really is an Admiral, or at least he is now. But he’s a former Navy SEAL, and Admiral is the nickname that his unit gave him back in Vietnam, where he seems to have made it his own personal mission to rescue units that Command said couldn’t be saved from the enemy.

The hospital started keeping track, calling the men he saved “Jake’s Boys”. There were nearly 500 of them by the end, and one of the last ones was intelligence agent Zoe Lange’s father. As Zoe wasn’t conceived until after her dad came home from Vietnam, Zoe quite literally owes Jake Robinson her life.

She’s hero-worshipped him from afar for almost her entire life. Which does add a certain amount of complication when they finally meet face-to-face. Because the man hasn’t lost a scintilla of his looks or his charisma in the 30 years since ‘Nam. He’s already the fuel for entirely too many of Zoe’s fantasies, but meeting him in real life turns out to be much more electrifying than she ever imagined.

And it’s completely mutual, as much as Jake keeps telling himself it shouldn’t be. He’s only been a widower for three years, and he still thinks of himself as married. Zoe is a member of his team, and should be off-limits. And if that wasn’t enough of a reason to back off, she’s 24 years younger than he is, she couldn’t possibly be interested in him.

But of course she is. And in the circumstances in which they find themselves, pretending a relationship is the only way to get the mission done. And when the pretense turns real, it gives them both a reason to survive.

If the entire mission doesn’t go totally FUBAR first.

Escape Rating B+: This was exactly what I was looking for. So I dove right in and came up for air about four hours later, ready to read the book I was supposed to read (actually yesterday’s review of Cover Fire).

In spite of Cover Fire being science fiction romance and The Admiral’s Bride being an almost 20-year-old contemporary, they have a surprising amount in common. In both cases, the black hats are a repressive, conservative cult conducting terrorist attacks. And in both stories, the man is career military while the woman is an intelligence operative. Both romances feature people who believe that the person they have fallen for could not possibly be interested in them, and that they have no possible future together. The reasons may be different, but the emotions they engender are surprisingly similar.

And both cults contain entirely too many people who are absolutely nucking futz. The crazy, hate-fueled BS gets a bit hard to read. In neither case are the heads of these arseholes places we want to stay for any length of time.

But one does get caught up in both the action and the romance of The Admiral’s Bride. Jake and Zoe are in tremendous danger, and they have to work together (and get their heads out of their emotional asses) in order to survive and succeed.

At the same time, one of the things that this book does well is to air the doubts that are all going through Jake’s head. 24 years is a big age gap. He and Zoe are not at the same places in their lives. It is hard to think about forever with someone, when your version of forever is 20 or 30 years shorter than theirs. The other person is potentially signing up for a lot of pain at the end. There are ways to deal with all of those issues, and this story doesn’t gloss them over. That Zoe’s job is so dangerous actually helps the situation. The mess they are in together brings home the possibility that she could be cut down in the line of duty at any moment.

That this story reminded me of a lot of early NCIS fanfic (which I love) was just a bonus. It was all too easy to see Gibbs as Jake Robinson, even though he’s not nearly tall enough. But it still added to my enjoyment of a story that just plain hit the spot.

Review: Grimoire of the Lamb by Kevin Hearne

Review: Grimoire of the Lamb by Kevin HearneThe Grimoire of the Lamb (The Iron Druid Chronicles, #0.4) by Kevin Hearne
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: ebook, audiobook
Genres: urban fantasy
Pages: 64
Published by Del Rey on May 7th 2013
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKobo
Goodreads

There's nothing like an impromptu holiday to explore the birthplace of modern civilisation, but when Atticus and Oberon pursue a book-stealing Egyptian wizard - with a penchant for lamb - to the land of the pharaohs, they find themselves in hot, crocodile-infested water.
The trip takes an even nastier turn when they discover the true nature of the nefarious plot they've been drawn into. On the wrong side of the vengeful cat goddess Bast and chased by an unfathomable number of her yowling four-legged disciples, Atticus must find a way to appease or defeat Egypt's deadliest gods - before his grimoire-grabbing quarry uses them to turn him into mincemeat.

My Review:

With great power comes great responsibility, at least according to the Spiderman mythos. But there are plenty of people who want that great power, but want to completely sidestep that whole great responsibility price tag. While history and politics are both littered with the bodies of the victims of those “great” figures, in urban fantasy that shortcut to great power usually travels down the road to hell, often paved with no good intentions whatsoever. That shortcut is nearly always dark magic.

And so it proves in Grimoire of the Lamb.

The Druid now known as Atticus O’Sullivan is 21. That’s 21 centuries old, not 21 years. But his magic keeps him looking much closer to 21 years old, and if that’s what people want to assume, he’s happy to let them.

While Atticus isn’t old enough to have visited Egypt when the pyramids were built, he is more than old enough to have visited Egypt before the Library at Alexandria was burned to the ground. And that long ago bit of library looting is the root of this story.

In the 21st century, Atticus lives in Tempe, near Arizona State University, and owns a shop that sells a combination of new age trinkets, minor magical items for the knowledgeable practitioner, arcane-seeming (and sometimes really arcane) used books and very special herbal teas that help students study just before exams.

While Atticus does seem to sell a few safe or relatively safe used books, most of his collection belongs in the Restricted Section at Hogwarts, or the nearest local equivalent, which happens to be a magically locked case in his shop.

And that case contains at least two books that are on semi-permanent loan from the defunct Library of Alexandria. One is that Grimoire of the Lamb, which Atticus believes is an ancient cookbook. The other is a book he calls Nice Kitty, which he describes somewhat like an illustrated guide to tantric sex to be practiced in the worship of Bast.

Bast is not happy that Atticus has that book. She’s so unhappy, in fact, that Atticus has avoided going to Egypt for centuries. But now he’s stuck.

An evil wizard has just stolen the cookbook, but only after informing Atticus that it isn’t a cookbook. That poor lamb isn’t for dinner, it’s a blood sacrifice to one of the ancient Egyptian gods. And it’s a sacrifice that will let the sorcerer kill his (and his god’s) enemies and place himself in a position of power. Someone has seriously given in to the dark side of the Force, and not just because he discovered the book by conjuring up a demon.

So Atticus, along with his faithful Irish wolfhound Oberon, takes off for Egypt to track down that stolen (or is that re-stolen) book, before it’s too late.

Escape Rating B+: I was looking for something quick and fun, and this certainly filled the bill. I was tempted to say light and fun, but Atticus often isn’t light. There are always plenty of humorous moments, if only within the confines of Atticus’ own thoughts, but there’s also always something darker at work.

And even if Atticus doesn’t provide a lot of levity, Oberon always does. When Bast’s many, many, MANY minions chase Atticus and Oberon through the streets of Cairo, poor Oberon’s attempts to visualize just how many cats are following them nearly breaks the poor dog’s enhanced brain. Bast commands a lot of cats. All the cats. And they all chase Atticus and Oberon with a vengeance. Possibly literally.

Grimoire of the Lamb is a prequel story to the Iron Druid Chronicles. Although it takes place before the absolutely marvelous Hounded, it was written after it, so while it introduces the characters we are familiar with, it also already knows who they are and what they are supposed to be.

This story is more intimate than Hounded in that the only two characters that we are familiar with are Atticus and Oberon. His werewolf lawyer appears in a phone call, but doesn’t participate in the action. This one is all on the druid and his dog.

Especially on Atticus. Just as in Hounded, the story is written in first-person singular, so we are always inside Atticus’ head, even when he’s gibbering to himself in pain. Which is often. Atticus gets knocked around a lot.

Tangling with a crocodile, let alone a crocodile god, is always messy. Especially when, as so often happens with Atticus, he’s making it all up as he goes along.

One of the fun things about this series is the way that it mixes multiple ancient mythologies with contemporary sensibilities. Atticus has survived by adapting from century to century and country to country. He never forgets who he is, where he comes from, or what he remembers, but he doesn’t cling to the dead past. There’s probably a lesson in there someplace.

Most of the time when Atticus is forced to deal with myths, legends and deities, they are from his own Celtic pantheon. But he remembers the other old gods, and they certainly remember him. Bast certainly does. And will. He’s planning to steal Nice Kitty back, as soon as he heals up from dealing with Sobek the Crocodile God. Hopefully for the last time.

But this is certainly not my last time visiting Atticus and Oberon.

Review: Someone to Love by Mary Balogh

Review: Someone to Love by Mary BaloghSomeone to Love (Westcott, #1) by Mary Balogh
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: paperback, ebook, large print, audiobook
Genres: historical romance
Series: Westcott #1
Pages: 400
Published by Signet on November 8th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Humphrey Westcott, Earl of Riverdale, has died, leaving behind a fortune that will forever alter the lives of everyone in his family—including the daughter no one knew he had...
Anna Snow grew up in an orphanage in Bath knowing nothing of the family she came from. Now she discovers that the late Earl of Riverdale was her father and that she has inherited his fortune. She is also overjoyed to learn she has siblings. However, they want nothing to do with her or her attempts to share her new wealth. But the new earl’s guardian is interested in Anna…
Avery Archer, Duke of Netherby, keeps others at a distance. Yet something prompts him to aid Anna in her transition from orphan to lady. As London society and her newfound relatives threaten to overwhelm Anna, Avery steps in to rescue her and finds himself vulnerable to feelings and desires he has hidden so well and for so long.

My Review:

When a book appears on seemingly everyone’s best of the year list, there’s a natural curiosity about whether the book lives up to its hype. Someone to Love is one of those books that landed on everyone’s “Best Romance” or “Best Historical Romance” list, so I wanted to see whether it was “all that”.

And in the end, it definitely is.

Someone to Love is part Pygmalion, but also part journey of discovery for both the hero and heroine, as well as everyone whose life is turned upside down by the death of the not-at-all lamented Humphrey Westcott. He died and left his mess for everyone else to clean up.

And what a mess he made. The late Earl of Riverdale was a bigamist. While it’s not clear why he married his first wife, he certainly married the second one for her money. He just neglected to tell her, or anyone else, about the first wife.

Ironically, he could have. His first wife, although she indisputably died after his second marriage, shuffled off this mortal coil before the first of his bastard children was born. He could have married her again in secret and made all his subsequent children legitimate.

Instead, his son and his daughters all believe that Anna Snow is the bastard, and that they are high-and-mighty little lordling and ladies. While their initial treatment of Anna is fairly abominable, their comeuppance is also painful. Dad was obviously a bounder, and no one seems to have a kind word for him now that he’s dead.

Even before the mess he’s left behind has been fully excavated.

Avery Archer, the Duke of Netherby and a somewhat distant connection of the late Earl, is the only person to see Anna as she really is. She is not a fortune hunter. The rich and proscribed life of Anastasia Westcott is not the life she hoped for or planned on. The only thing she wants out of this mess is family, and while some embrace her, others reject her utterly. She has discovered the truth of the old adage about being careful what you wish for because you might get it.

And everyone wants to make of her something that she is not, and has no desire to be, whether that is the villainess of the piece or merely a pawn to be molded to their will.

Only Avery sees Anna Snow exactly as herself, no matter how much wealth is draped around her. What disconcerts Avery immensely is that Anna is the first person to see him as he truly is. To see the brave and scared little boy who has made himself into one of the most feared and respected men in England.

They are made for each other.

Escape Rating A: Someone to Love is terrific historical romance. While it plays with the trope of Pygmalion (My Fair Lady) quite a bit, it also turns it sideways in some really delicious ways.

Anastasia Westcott, formerly known as Anna Snow, is not prepared to enter the rarefied society of the ton. But while she is willing to learn what the rules of that society are, she is not willing to stop being herself. Anna is already 25, which in ton terms means she is very nearly on the shelf. But in her own terms it means that she knows who she is and what she wants, and most importantly, what things up with which she will not put. She bends, but only so far. Her sense of self is very strong, and she is willing to push against both the tide and the managing natures of all of her new relations.

Until her unexpected elevation, Anna was a teacher, and a damn good one. She knows how to manage herself, and she knows how to manage others. And unlike the popular version of Pygmalion in My Fair Lady, Anna, while not raised as nobility, was definitely given a good education as well as lessons in deportment and manners. She finds the ton absurd, and has the intelligence and knowledge to recognize and articulate those absurdities.

Avery Archer’s character also plays with tropes and stereotypes, in this case the figure of the affected, bored society darling who appears to be eternally bored and doesn’t let anyone get close to either his heart or his mind. He delights in pretending that nothing affects him at all. But like the Scarlet Pimpernel, or Lord Peter Wimsey whom he somewhat resembles, there are dangerous depths under that bored, affected surface. He is a dangerous man, and people both respect him and give him a wide berth, unconsciously aware that he is a predator and that all of them are prey. He doesn’t need to display his power to have it acknowledged.

Avery’s interest in Anna surprises them both. She is never boring, and he does enjoy watching her navigate her family and the ton. But it much more than that. She is never affected. Her honesty captivates him. She on the other hand, can’t resist discovering just what is below the face he shows to the world.

That they fall for each other seems inevitable, and yet it isn’t. There is no secret yearning. Instead it’s more of a secret discomfiture. They reach beneath each other’s surfaces and bother each other. A lot, and in more ways than just emotional or sexual. They fall in like before they realize that they are in love.

If you are looking for a historical romance that provides a hero and heroine who manage to be a part of their time while still transcending it, Someone to Love is a winner.

Reviewer’s note: This book has given me a terrible earworm. I can’t get Queen’s Somebody to Love out of my head. And it fits.

Review: The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

Review: The Throwback Special by Chris BachelderThe Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction
Pages: 213
Published by W. W. Norton & Company on March 14th 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Finalist for the 2016 National Book Award for Fiction
A slyly profound and startlingly original novel about the psyche of the American male, The Throwback Special marks the return of one of the most acclaimed literary voices of his generation.
Here is the absorbing story of twenty-two men who gather every fall to painstakingly reenact what ESPN called “the most shocking play in NFL history” and the Washington Redskins dubbed the “Throwback Special”: the November 1985 play in which the Redskins’ Joe Theismann had his leg horribly broken by Lawrence Taylor of the New York Giants live on Monday Night Football.
With wit and great empathy, Chris Bachelder introduces us to Charles, a psychologist whose expertise is in high demand; George, a garrulous public librarian; Fat Michael, envied and despised by the others for being exquisitely fit; Jeff, a recently divorced man who has become a theorist of marriage; and many more. Over the course of a weekend, the men reveal their secret hopes, fears, and passions as they choose roles, spend a long night of the soul preparing for the play, and finally enact their bizarre ritual for what may be the last time. Along the way, mishaps, misunderstandings, and grievances pile up, and the comforting traditions holding the group together threaten to give way.
The Throwback Special is a moving and comic tale filled with pitch-perfect observations about manhood, marriage, middle age, and the rituals we all enact as part of being alive.

My Review:

To paraphrase Thoreau, “Most men lead lives of quiet desperation and die with their song still inside them.”

This is the story of a group of 22 middle-aged men who get together, once a year, to re-enact a single, disastrous football play, and let that song out, just for a brief moment of their lives.

The idea behind this story almost seems a bit absurd. This group of men has created a fairly elaborate ritual where they spend a weekend together in a very middling hotel and replay one memorable football scrimmage from 1985. The night that quarterback Joe Theismann of the Washington Redskins suffered a career-ending compound fracture while being sacked by New York Giants linebacker Lawrence Taylor. In the replays, you can hear the bones snap, and it’s still enough to make you sick to your stomach.

And this bunch of guys replays that tape over and over, so that they can get their parts just right for their actual replay on the field.

It’s a gathering of men who otherwise would have nothing in common. We don’t know how they originally came together, or why. All we know is that this is their one moment, every year, to be someone else, and to experience a little piece of the world through someone else’s eyes playing someone else’s part.

And through the rituals of the weekend, they reconnect with each other, and with themselves.

Escape Rating B: I found this book quietly interesting, but I’m not the intended audience. Although the friend who recommended it certainly is. I do remember that play, it was during a period of my life when I used to regularly watch football. I don’t anymore, and for the reasons why, take a look at my review of Monsters. I just can’t get past the cost.

The Throwback Special is, as I said, a very quiet story. We don’t know how these men originally got together. We also don’t see any more of their regular lives than they choose to reveal to each other over the course of the weekend.

What we do see, and what is fascinating, is the way that they each interpret and reinterpret every single event and every word that is said to them, or that they say to one another. Every moment is evaluated and reevaluated for threats, implications, and inevitably misunderstandings. Every man seems to be worried every second about how they perceive and are perceived by the others. Every interaction is analyzed for its possibilities of one-upsmanship and being set one-down in response. No matter how successful and in control any of them appear to be, the reality is that they are all insecure and uncertain every minute.

And they hide all their humanity behind a borrowed uniform and a worn helmet, while letting just a tiny bit out.

As a woman, I don’t know whether this portrayal of the men’s thoughts and fears is real or imaginary. But if there is a partial reality hidden there, it makes me sad. And it does what literary fiction is supposed to do. It makes me think.

Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Review: The Underground Railroad by Colson WhiteheadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, large print, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, magical realism
Pages: 306
Published by Doubleday Books on August 2nd 2016
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Life is hellish for all the slaves but especially bad for Cora; an outcast even among her fellow Africans, she is coming into womanhood - where even greater pain awaits. When Caesar, a recent arrival from Virginia, tells her about the Underground Railroad, they decide to take a terrifying risk and escape. Matters do not go as planned and, though they manage to find a station and head north, they are being hunted.
In Whitehead's ingenious conception, the Underground Railroad is no mere metaphor - engineers and conductors operate a secret network of tracks and tunnels beneath the Southern soil. Cora and Caesar's first stop is South Carolina, in a city that initially seems like a haven - but the city's placid surface masks an insidious scheme designed for its black denizens. Even worse: Ridgeway, the relentless slave catcher, is close on their heels. Forced to flee again, Cora embarks on a harrowing flight, state by state, seeking true freedom.
As Whitehead brilliantly re-creates the unique terrors for black people in the pre-Civil War era, his narrative seamlessly weaves the saga of America from the brutal importation of Africans to the unfulfilled promises of the present day. The Underground Railroad is at once a kinetic adventure tale of one woman's ferocious will to escape the horrors of bondage and a shattering, powerful meditation on the history we all share.

My Review:

As the saying goes, “fiction is the lie that tells the truth.” The Underground Railroad is definitely that kind of book. These specific events didn’t happen to this particular person, and yet, they all happened, all too frequently, to entirely too many people who had but one thing in common with Cora – the color of their skin.

The story in The Underground Railroad is historical fiction mixed with a bit of magical realism. The real, historical, Underground Railroad was not actually a railroad with rails and steam engines under the ground. The secret train with its hidden stations makes for a powerful metaphor for the vast network of people who helped fugitive slaves escape from the South’s “Peculiar Institution” to the theoretically “free” states of the North. Or to Canada.

Cora’s journey parallels many such real journeys, from the plantation in Georgia where she was born to her long and often desperate flight to freedom, endlessly pursued by the slave-catcher Ridgeway.

As she travels, she finds herself in different places, and in each she discovers a different way in which she, and her people, are not truly free of subjugation and hatred, even if it briefly appears so.

And while, again, the locations and the methods were not exactly in use in each specific place at that particular time, all these things really happened to real people just like Cora.

Her journey is one of continual loss, with the tantalizing hope of freedom always just out of reach, even when it seems most closely present. Her story is often grueling, and frequently heartbreaking. As each chance for hope and happiness is snatched away, we shake our heads and quake in anger, incensed that this is the way it was.

And this is the way, in so many ways, it still is. Slavery casts a long shadow, not just on those who suffered it directly, and those who perpetrated it and tried to perpetuate it, but on everything and everyone it touched. Even today.

Escape Rating B+: This is a hard story to read. We want to say, I want to say, that this treatment was beyond unjust, and that it couldn’t happen here. But we know from history that it most certainly did happen. And that its legacy is still with us.

The perspective in the story is that of Cora, a young woman born in slavery who decides to escape at whatever cost – because even though she knows that even the attempt is a death sentence if she fails – staying on the plantation is a sentence of immediate death in utter torment. There is no sugar-coating of the terrible conditions of slavery. Nor should there be.

But Cora is a difficult protagonist. Her story often feels as if it is being told at one remove. While we are outraged at everything that happens to her, we don’t always feel with her. She seems a bit detached, and so are we. There’s a part of me that believes that her detachment was part of her means of survival, but it makes her a sometimes cold character to follow.

Like the Railroad itself, each stage of her journey is a metaphor for one of the varying, but equally awful, ways that whites thought of blacks in the 19th century and believed that they were finding ways to deal with “the problem”. The most supposedly “enlightened” solutions contained some of the truest brutality, and the most overtly brutal enslaved everyone it touched, white as well as black, but in different ways. Even the “Free” North can’t bear the thought of a self-sufficient black community, as it gives the lie to all the stories they have told.

There are no easy answers in this book. The ending is not a happy redemption of anyone, more like a hope for a possible better future somewhere down the line. But we’re not there yet.

Sometimes a book sweeps all the awards, and one is left wondering why. The Underground Railroad is not one of those books. This is one that will haunt you long after you turn the final page.

Review: American Heiress by Jeffrey Toobin

Review: American Heiress by Jeffrey ToobinAmerican Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst by Jeffrey Toobin
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: biography, history, nonfiction, true crime
Pages: 368
Published by Doubleday on August 2nd 2016
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From New Yorker staff writer and bestselling author Jeffrey Toobin, the definitive account of the kidnapping and trial that defined an insane era in American history
On February 4, 1974, Patty Hearst, a senior in college and heiress to the Hearst family fortune, was kidnapped by a ragtag group of self-styled revolutionaries calling itself the Symbionese Liberation Army. The already sensational story took the first of many incredible twists on April 3, when the group released a tape of Patty saying she had joined the SLA and had adopted the nom de guerre "Tania."The weird turns of the tale are truly astonishing -- the Hearst family trying to secure Patty's release by feeding all the people of Oakland and San Francisco for free; the photographs capturing "Tania" wielding a machine gun during a bank robbery; a cast of characters including everyone from Bill Walton to the Black Panthers to Ronald Reagan to F. Lee Bailey; the largest police shoot-out in American history; the first breaking news event to be broadcast live on television stations across the country; Patty's year on the lam, running from authorities; and her circuslike trial, filled with theatrical courtroom confrontations and a dramatic last-minute reversal, after which the phrase "Stockholm syndrome" entered the lexicon. The saga of Patty Hearst highlighted a decade in which America seemed to be suffering a collective nervous breakdown. Based on more than a hundred interviews and thousands of previously secret documents, American Heiress thrillingly recounts the craziness of the times (there were an average of 1500 terrorist bombings a year in the early 1970s). Toobin portrays the lunacy of the half-baked radicals of the SLA and the toxic mix of sex, politics, and violence that swept up Patty Hearst; and recreates her melodramatic trial. American Heiress examines the life of a young woman who suffered an unimaginable trauma and then made the stunning decision to join her captors' crusade. Or did she?

My Review:

The past, as they say, is another country. They do things differently there.

1974 is definitely the past. Which is something which also feels unaccountably “wrong” at the same time. I was a junior in high school when Patty Hearst was kidnapped. And it seems like a life-time ago – only because it was.

patty hearst SLAThe story of Patty Hearst’s kidnapping, conversion, capture and conviction is so wildly improbably that it could only be fact. If someone tried to sell this saga as fiction, it would be rejected as too improbable to be believable. But it really happened.

It’s a very wild ride.

One of the things that struck this reader is just how inept both sides of the equation were. The cops, notably the FBI, come off as much more Keystone Kops than clear-eyed Eliot Ness. It’s not just that they couldn’t catch a break, but that they often didn’t know what break to catch. In hindsight, there were all kinds of clues that weren’t followed up on. This didn’t have to go on nearly as long as it did.

Especially since the criminals were no more ept than the cops. As you read the story, it’s impossible not to be struck but just how often the SLA just got lucky. They may have planned their individual operations down to the details, but there was no overall plan and no major goal to be accomplished. They seem to have been living in a bubble of their own making. And it somehow kept working for them.

Until it didn’t.

The central figure in this story is Patty Hearst herself. So much hinges on figuring out what she really thought and felt. And that’s an unknown, and always has been.

It’s difficult not to put myself in her place. At 19, if someone kidnapped you at gunpoint and locked you in a closet, what would you think when weeks later they offered you the option of walking away or joining up? Would anyone actually believe that walking away was a real option? I keep coming back to that over and over. Expediency says to play along.

The questions, both at the time and now, come back to whether or not she truly believed in the revolutionary cause she ended up espousing. But even if she did, how can anyone say that she truly gave unforced consent to anything that happened? How free was she to choose? We’ll never know.

Which is probably how she managed to receive both clemency from President Jimmy Carter and a pardon from President Bill Clinton. In the end, with Patty controlling the narrative, everyone saw what they wanted to see.

Something that Patty Hearst seems to have been very, very good at playing.

Escape Rating A-: One of the things that this book does well is to set the stage. The 1970s are not that long ago, but they are also in some ways very far away. The optimism of the civil rights movement and the feminist movement had not yet faded into cynicism. At the same time, it was a completely crazy era, as the anti-war protests of the 1960s descended into revolutionary fervor and violence of all types. Including lots of bombings and home-grown terrorism.

The cops come off as almost completely inept. At the same time, the criminals were more lucky than smart. One of the things that the author makes clear, but is so hard to imagine today, is that there were no cell phones and no internet. Communication was slow and clumsy, coordination was incredibly difficult. Those are factors which made the criminals lives much easier, and the cops’ jobs much more difficult. Occasionally, that ineptitude feels like it drags the narrative down a bit. Because the bulk of the book is about Patty’s life on the run with the SLA, the length of time she remains free and the inability of the police and the FBI to find and apprehend her goes on and on, because in real life it did.  However, I would have liked a bit more on the trial and its aftermath than is present in the book.

At the end of the book, the questions are still unanswered. Both the question of just how willing a participant Patty Hearst was in the later SLA criminal activities, and also just how much will did she have at that point? It’s ironic that the phrase that most often comes to mind in reference to her case, Stockholm Syndrome, wasn’t in use at the time of her trial because the Stockholm event itself had just occurred in 1973. Was she formally brainwashed? Based on the book, it seems doubtful. Not that the SLA might not have tried, but that they never seemed to have it that much together. Did she have Stockholm Syndrome? That seems much more plausible.

That the questions from the book continue to haunt me says something about the writing. This is a good story. It always has been. There’s a lot of drama, a certain amount of melodrama, and a fascinating use of a kind of sin and redemption trope, as Patty is taken from her good girl life, becomes an outlaw, and then reforms. It’s also a story about where the rich really are different from you and me. No one else in history has ever received both clemency and a pardon. Money still talks.

American Heiress is a compulsively readable account of an utterly fascinating riches to rags to riches story of crime, punishment and redemption.

Review: Stardust by Neil Gaiman + Giveaway

Review: Stardust by Neil Gaiman + GiveawayStardust by Neil Gaiman
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, graphic novel, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, fairy tales, fantasy
Pages: 288
Published by William Morrow on September 27th 2016 (first published 1999)
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Go and catch a falling star . . .
Tristran Thorn promises to bring back a fallen star for his beloved, the hauntingly beautiful Victoria Forester—and crosses the wall that divides his English country town from another, more dangerous world of lords and witches, all of them in search of the star. Rich with adventure and magic, Stardust is one of master storyteller Neil Gaiman's most beloved tales.
“Eminently readable—a charming piece of work.”   —Washington Post Book World
“Beautiful, memorable . . . A book full of marvels.”   —Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

My Review:

Stardust the movie posterNever judge a book by its movie. I saw the movie Stardust a few years ago, but my recollection of it is NOTHING like the book. Which was lovely. But does not contain cross-dressing pirate captains. Not that a book about or containing cross-dressing pirate captains might not be good, or interesting, or funny, or all of the above. But there are none in Stardust. The book.

Stardust has the feel of a fairy tale, albeit one written for adults or near-adults. Or possibly pretending-to-be-adults. The world of Faerie, beyond the town of Wall, has all the elements of a fairy tale. There are evil witches who cast terrible spells. There’s a mysterious kingdom high in the mountains, where the throne is passed, not from father to eldest son, but from survivor to survivor, in a winner-takes-all competition for the throne. There are people ensorcelled to be animals, and animals spelled to be people.

And of course there is prophecy, destiny and fate. And absolutely nothing is as it seems.

Once upon a time, a young man of Wall spends the night in Faerie with a beautiful girl. He goes home to his ordinary life, and marries his ordinary wife, and the night he spent with the bird-girl slips further into dreams.

Until nine months later, when a baby is shoved through the opening from Faerie into Wall, and Dunstan Thorn learns that actions have consequences, although not necessarily for him. Because this is not his story.

It’s that baby’s story. Tristran Thorn grows up, and as a very young man, makes a very foolish promise to a rather stuck-up young woman. But while she means nothing of what she says to him, he means every single word that he says to her.

And off Tristran goes, to Faerie, to seek out a fallen star. He has no idea that Faerie is the land of his birth. And he equally has no idea that the fallen star he seeks is not a lump of metal, but a young woman who was knocked out of the sky by a magically thrown rock.

And of course he has no idea at all that this adventure will be the making of him. The boy who leaves Wall plans to bring the star back to show the young woman he believes that he loves.

The man he becomes, well, that man discovers something else entirely.

Escape Rating A: Stardust is, as I said in the beginning, absolutely lovely. If you have fond memories of reading fairy tales, Stardust will bring back all those feelings, while still telling a story written, if not exactly for grown ups, at least for people masquerading as such.

Stardust is also both a quest story and a coming-of-age story, in the finest fairy tale tradition. As everyone in Faerie knows, there are only two reasons for a young man to embark on the kind of quest that Tristran undertakes – either he is seeking his fortune, or he is doing it for love. And of course, they are right. While he is doing it for love, what he finds turns out to be his fortune. And also love. It wouldn’t have a happy ending otherwise.

Which it most certainly does. But it’s absolutely nothing like the movie.

NEVER JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS MOVIE! The book is ALWAYS better.

~~~~~~ TOURWIDE GIVEAWAY ~~~~~~

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William Morrow is giving away (5) sets of American Gods, Anansi Boys, Neverwhere and Stardust! (Which are all absolutely awesome books!)
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Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

Review: Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt VonnegutSlaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: classics, Fiction, science fiction, World War II
Pages: 215
Published by Dial Press Trade Paperback on January 12th 1999
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Kurt Vonnegut's absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes unstuck in time after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut's) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden.
Don't let the ease of reading fool you - Vonnegut's isn't a conventional, or simple, novel. He writes, "There are almost no characters in this story, and almost no dramatic confrontations, because most of the people in it are so sick, and so much the listless playthings of enormous forces. One of the main effects of war, after all, is that people are discouraged from being characters."
Slaughterhouse-Five is not only Vonnegut's most powerful book, it is also as important as any written since 1945. Like Catch- 22, it fashions the author's experiences in the Second World War into an eloquent and deeply funny plea against butchery in the service of authority. Slaughterhouse-Five boasts the same imagination, humanity, and gleeful appreciation of the absurd found in Vonnegut's other works, but the book's basis in rock-hard, tragic fact gives it a unique poignancy - and humor.

My Review:

1969 cover of Slaughterhouse Five
1969 cover of Slaughterhouse Five

Although I’m sure I knew it before, i was still surprised to see that Slaughterhouse Five was nominated for the Hugo Award for best science fiction novel in 1970. Slaughterhouse Five isn’t what we now think of SF. There are no spaceships (well, maybe one spaceship) and a debatable amount of faster than light or other than light travel. Instead, Slaughterhouse Five represents science fiction as the literature of ideas, and in that area, as in so many others it is a classic.

The winner of the 1970 Hugo was The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. LeGuin. Slaughterhouse Five was in excellent company.

The climax of Slaughterhouse Five is the bombing of Dresden at the end of World War II. The protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, was a witness to that bombing, an American POW on the ground, or nearly under it, as the bombing took place. As one of the few survivors, he participated in the horrific clean up afterwards.

Billy Pilgrim is, to a greater or lesser extent, telling the author’s story at this point. In real life, Kurt Vonnegut was a POW held in Dresden during this incident, when allied forces reduced this once beautiful city to a rubble strewn landscape as barren and deadly as the moon.

This story is told by the unnamed narrator from a perspective at the end of Billy Pilgrim’s life. And because it is told at the end, the reader is never quite sure whether Billy really was unstuck in time, or whether he is just remembering the important bits of his life out of sequential order. And it doesn’t really matter.

Neither does the question of whether or not Billy really was kidnapped by the alien Tralfamadorians, who introduced to him the concept, or philosophy if you will, that every moment is forever, and that only remembering the good bits is the best way to manage existence.

What is certain is the Billy has post-traumatic stress disorder after his experience in Dresden. And who wouldn’t? Dresden comes last in the story, because it is the focus of everything. It is a moment of man’s absolute inhumanity to man, and Billy still can’t process it. So he keeps returning to it over and over, and every event that led to it, in an attempt to tell his truth.

Escape Rating B: I am glad I read Slaughterhouse Five. I had never read any of Vonnegut’s work before, but now I have a tiny glimpse into what made his work both so beloved, and so controversial at the same time. This review is being posted as a part of Banned Books Week, because Slaughterhouse Five is one of the most frequently challenged or banned books of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.

The bombing of Dresden was hidden from the American public for years after the war. It has been debated whether Dresden truly was a legitimate military target, or whether the entire purpose of the reduction of this formerly beautiful city to rubble was just to reduce what remained of German morale at the beginning of 1945. The bombing of Dresden caused as much of a loss of life as either Hiroshima or Nagasaki, minus the nuclear fallout. War is always hell.

Billy Pilgrim is a non-heroic hero. He is not brave in any way. He doesn’t serve with special distinction. But he survives, and manages the best he can, which in the end isn’t very well. He believes he’s done the best he can, coping with the uncope-able.

Having read the book, I’ll admit that I don’t understand the continuous attempts to ban it, particularly the most recent ones. There is profanity in this book. Many of Billy’s memories take place either among soldiers during wartime, or among POWs. I’d be more surprised if they didn’t cuss. There’s a little sex, and a lot of violence. Again, most humans manage to have a little sex, and talk about it a little more, over the course of a lifetime. And the terrible violence is part of an equally terrible war. The bombing of Dresden was nothing but violence. I will never understand the unwillingness of people to admit that what happened did in fact happen. Or those who believe that if we stop talking about the terrible past or the awful present, that it will somehow remove the worst events from history. A problem that has a great deal of resonance today.

It’s ironic that a story about the way that people in specific and humanity in general keep repeating the same mistakes over and over keeps getting banned and challenged, over and over. As that unnamed narrator says every time someone dies in the book, “And so it goes.”

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil GaimanThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
Format: ebook
Source: borrowed from library
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: coming of age, fantasy, horror, magical realism
Pages: 178
Published by William Morrow Books on June 18th 2013
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn't thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she'd claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.
Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.
A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly's wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.

My Review:

If the man who is never named, who may be someone not dissimilar to the author, returns to that ocean at the end of that lane so that Lettie can see if her sacrifice was worth it, readers are left with the certainty that it was.

If only that so we can read this strange and marvelous story that has bits of fantasy, parts of horror, and a few things that go bump in the night. Along with the sense both that we never quite grow up, and that the bits and pieces we remember of our childhoods do not necessarily resemble what actually happened.

And probably shouldn’t.

From one perspective, this story is relatively simple. A man returns to his childhood home for a funeral, and in his grief he finds himself wandering back to the places he knew as a child.

Much of his childhood has been torn down, and this is not surprising, it happens to all of us as we reach middle-age. But one place is still standing, because it is a place that has always been standing, and possibly always will be, even after the rest of us have turned to dust.

It is the place where the narrator experienced something both wonderful and terrible, an experience that was awful both in the sense that it was a horrible thing to have happen , and in its original sense, that it was full of awe. But it was an experience that his seven-year-old self wasn’t ready to experience, and one that his ordinary self is unable to remember.

Except when he returns, as he sometimes does, to remember what really happened and to give an accounting of his life to the one person who made it all possible.

And it’s magic.

Escape Rating A: Fair warning, this is going to be one of those reviews where I mostly talk about how the book made me feel. I’m not sure there is any other way to approach it.

Although most of the events being recounted happened to the protagonist when he was seven, this is an adult book. It is the man looking back on those events, and recognizing that there are things he knows now that he didn’t know then. And sometimes vice-versa.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a story that will either charm you and draw you in, or it won’t. It is also not quite what you might be expecting. There is a sense that it is fantasy, a possibility that it is horror, and even a chance that everything the author thinks he remembers is mostly a story that he tells himself rather than events that he actually remembers.

There are readers, who will be turned off by the child’s perspective, and there are readers who will be turned off by the fantasy elements that are inserted into the real world. Obviously, I wasn’t one of them. I found the sense that he was telling the story to himself added to the magic. It felt like a memory of the things you think you see out of the corner of your eyes – or when when you turn suddenly and what you thought was there seemingly isn’t.

This is also one of those stories that when you finish, you look back at what you read and are forced to view it in an entirely different way because of what you have learned. One of the ways in which the author turns this trope on its head is that while the reader ends with enough knowledge to re-evaluate the whole story, the protagonist forgets all that he has learned. Again.

What he experienced, what he learned, is too magical, too real, to exist in the mundane world. But it is such an important part of what made him who he is that it is necessary, every once in awhile, that he come to Lettie’s Ocean to remember it all over again.

And as the reader, I am very grateful for that.

If you believe that the world is much, much stranger than it seems, and that there are forces both wondrous and terrible still lurking in its hidden corners, this book is an incredible, and intense, treat.

Ocean
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