Monthly Archives

June 2014

Giveaway: WAYFARING STRANGER by James Lee Burke

The good people at Simon & Schuster are letting me give away two copies of James Lee Burke’s new novel, Wayfaring Stranger, which comes out July 15. Here’s the book description from the author’s website:

wayfaring strangerFrom “America’s best novelist” (The Denver Post): A sprawling thriller drenched with atmosphere and intrigue that takes a young boy from a chance encounter with Bonnie and Clyde to the trenches of World War II and the oil fields along the Texas-Louisiana coast.

It is 1934 and the Depression is bearing down when sixteen-year-old Weldon Avery Holland happens upon infamous criminals Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow after one of their notorious armed robberies. A confrontation with the outlaws ends as Weldon puts a bullet through the rear window of Clyde’s stolen automobile.

Ten years later, Second Lieutenant Weldon Holland and his sergeant, Hershel Pine, escape certain death in the Battle of the Bulge and encounter a beautiful young woman named Rosita Lowenstein hiding in a deserted extermination camp. Eventually, Weldon and Rosita fall in love and marry and, with Hershel, return to Texas to seek their fortunes.

There, they enter the domain of jackals known as the oil business. They meet Roy Wiseheart—a former Marine aviator haunted with guilt for deserting his squadron leader over the South Pacific—and Roy’s wife Clara, a vicious anti-Semite who is determined to make Weldon and Rosita’s life a nightmare. It will be the frontier justice upheld by Weldon’s grandfather, Texas lawman Hackberry Holland, and the legendary antics of Bonnie and Clyde that shape Weldon’s plans for saving his family from the evil forces that lurk in peacetime America and threaten to destroy them all.

Want a copy? Enter by leaving a comment answering this question: If you could go back in time, with whom would you like to have a chance encounter?

Giveaway ends next Tuesday, July 8, at 9 p.m. PST. US addresses only. Winners will have 48 hours after being notified to claim the prize before alternate winners are chosen.

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Best 2014 Books I’ve Read So Far

The year is more than half over, so I thought I’d do a best-of list at the halfway mark. February was the best month for me so far, when I read three books in a row I thought were outstanding. This seldom happens. There are times when I’d like three books in a row, but wouldn’t say they’re all excellent. Over at Goodreads, most of my ratings are three stars (you need a Goodreads account to see my shelf and reviews).

The following books were more memorable than the rest, keeping me enthralled and entertained all the way through. Click on the links for my reviews.

In chronological order of release:

  1. Love story, with murdersLove Story, with Murders by Harry Bingham
  2. North of Boston by Elisabeth Elo
  3. Watching You by Michael Robotham (scroll down to bottom of post)
  4. The Intern’s Handbook by Shane Kuhn
  5. The Three by Sarah Lotz
  6. Closed Doors by Lisa O’Donnell
  7. The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair by Joël Dicker
  8. Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta

What are your favorite reads so far this year?

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Book Review: MAMBO IN CHINATOWN by Jean Kwok

mamboIn Jean Kwok’s follow-up to Girl in Translation, twenty-two-year-old Charlie Wong starts out as a dishwasher at a restaurant in Chinatown, where her father is a noodle maker. She has an eleven-year-old sister, Lisa, and all three live together in a tiny apartment, barely scraping by.

One day Lisa sees an ad for a receptionist position at a ballroom dance studio and encourages Charlie to apply for it. The girls’ late mother was a star dancer with the Beijing Dance Academy and this would be a way for Charlie to feel closer to her, having inherited—according to Charlie—none of Ma’s talent and grace.

Through a series of events akin to stars aligning, Charlie gets the job and climbs the ranks to become an instructor, blossoming as she finds passion for dancing, even as she hides her new life from her traditional Chinese father. As a major dance competition approaches, Charlie must decide what—and who—she loves most.

Though there are few surprises in this Cinderella story, Kwok’s writing style is accessible and the main characters likable enough for readers to root for them. Charlie is so self-deprecating and such a hard worker that even if her lucky breaks stretch credulity, I was glad they came her way.

Kwok addresses the internal conflict some Asian-Americans feel as they straddle Eastern and Western beliefs, and the struggle they experience when they want to pursue the arts instead of a more financially stable career. It’s hard to believe Charlie is able to hide her dance job from her father for so long, but it’s easy to understand her reasons for doing so.

I was distracted by the stilted, unrealistic dialogue. Characters tend to speak in a way that sounds like writing instead of conversation. When Charlie confides her troubles to one of her dance students, he replies, “What burdens you’ve been shouldering alone.” The speaker is a young male gardener in contemporary New York City, not a middle-aged professor or someone from the early twentieth century.

But the overall narrative voice is engaging enough for me to enjoy this fairy tale, one with heart and wit and such buoyant descriptions of dance it made me want to sign up for lessons and get my mambo on.

Nerd verdict: Mambo moves well

Amazon | IndieBound

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Book Review: THOSE WHO WISH ME DEAD by Michael Koryta

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission.

those who wish me deadAt the start of Michael Koryta’s Those Who Wish Me Dead, 13-year-old Jace Wilson tries to conquer his fear of heights by jumping into an abandoned quarry lake. Just as he thinks the drop wasn’t so bad, he encounters a dead body in the water. Then two men dressed like cops approach the edge above, escorting a third man under a hood, and, as Jace hides beneath a rock, he witnesses the murder of the hooded man.

Ethan Serbin runs a program in Montana that teaches people how to survive the wilderness. One night, a former student and current US marshal asks Ethan to take a young murder witness into his next group of students to help hide the boy in the mountains in case the killers come looking for him. His parents don’t trust law enforcement, and Jace needs to be kept safe until he can testify in court. Ethan is reluctant but can’t say no to protecting a child. His decision brings hell to his front door and forces him to use every skill he’s ever taught to stay alive and protect those he loves.

The throat-clutching suspense in the novel’s opening is maintained throughout. The protagonists are well defined and sympathetic, regular folk who discover their own incredible strength in extraordinary circumstances. And readers may well wish the strikingly creepy villains dead. Much of the novel takes place over rough terrain, but Koryta (Edgar Award finalist for Tonight I Said Goodbye) is a sure-footed guide who takes readers on a harrowing adventure they won’t soon forget.

Nerd verdict: For Those Who Wish for unrelenting suspense 

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Book Review: THE SECRET LIFE OF VIOLET GRANT

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission.

secret life of violet grantLike her previous historical novels (Overseas and A Hundred Summers), Beatriz Williams’s The Secret Life of Violet Grant alternates between time periods, but this book features two different heroines—the titular character and her great-niece, Vivian.

In 1964, Vivian leaves her privileged Fifth Avenue childhood behind to make her own way in New York City after graduating from Bryn Mawr. She gets a job as a fact checker at Metropolitan magazine, with hopes of becoming a writer. A potentially hot story lands in her lap—well, her mailbox—when she receives a notice to pick up a package at the post office. It turns out to be a suitcase more than fifty years old, belonging to her great-aunt, Violet, a scientist who reportedly murdered her husband in Berlin in 1914 before fleeing with her lover. Vivian is determined to track down what happened to Violet and publish her story in Metropolitan to settle decades-old rumors.

Readers will be swept away to Europe on the brink of the First World War and 1960s New York City, and Vivian is the kind of sassy heroine Williams’s fans have come to love. She throws snappy banter at Doctor Paul, the handsome man she meets at the post office, the way an actress like Carole Lombard would in a classic movie. Violet is more innocent but exhibits a strong will by crossing the Atlantic to study physics in London in 1911, blossoming when she meets her true love. The late twist in the story is not entirely convincing but readers likely won’t mind since it provides a satisfying ending.

Nerd verdict: Smart, romantic Secret

Amazon | IndieBound

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Movie Reviews: THE FAULT IN OUR STARS & EDGE OF TOMORROW

Movie-studio execs must’ve thought releasing a sad teenage romance and a big sci-fi action thriller on the same weekend meant they were targeting different audiences, but I don’t belong to any one group so I decided to see both. First up:

A Fault In Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars

Based on the mega-hit novel of the same name by John Green (which I haven’t read), adapted for the screen by Scott Neustadter & Michael H. Weber.

Hazel (Shailene Woodley) is a 16-year-old living with thyroid cancer, which has spread to her lungs. She’s on an experimental drug that can keep her stabilized for an unknown amount of time, but she has to drag an oxygen tank with her (it’s like a rolling backpack) everywhere she goes.

In cancer support group, she meets Gus (Ansel Elgort), who’s been cancer-free for 18 months, though his lower right leg was amputated as part of treatment. Gus starts courting her, and even the cynical Hazel can’t help eventually falling for his charms. Their love affair has a ticking clock attached, but the two set out to make the best of the time they have together.

At one point, Hazel’s dad says, “We are not sentimental people,” and the movie’s tone mostly adheres to that statement. Woodley’s performance is clear-eyed (even if you don’t stay that way while watching her) and never asks for pity. She doesn’t wear a stitch of (detectable) makeup but Gus’s attraction to her is understandable—she has an easy grace and smarts to spare.

Gus’s cockiness is almost off-putting at first, and then he follows Hazel around with moony eyes, wearing his feelings on the outside. I don’t know if this is how he was written but the way Elgort plays him, Gus is like a puppy, and his chemistry with Hazel is more sweet and familial than romantic (and I say this without having seen Woodley and Elgort playing brother and sister in Divergent).

Memorable supporting turns come from Laura Dern as Hazel’s mother and Nat Wolff as Gus’s friend Isaac. The onion ninjas are also out in full force so be prepared for lots of eye leakage.

Nerd verdict: Moving Fault

 

ALL YOU NEED IS KILL
Edge of Tomorrow

Based on the Japanese novel All You Need Is Kill by Hiroshi Sakurazaka, adapted by Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth & John-Henry Butterworth.

Giant aliens called Mimics are attacking Earth and Earth is losing the fight. Not that you can tell from the media coverage, because Major William Cage (Tom Cruise) is spinning the situation like crazy, making the world think humans have a chance of winning, causing legions of people to join the United Defense Force (UDF), an international military.

Due to a disagreement with General Brigham (Brendan Gleeson), Cage ends up on the front lines when the UDF invades an unnamed beach (I don’t think it’s a coincidence this movie opened on the 70th anniversary of D-Day).

As a paper pusher who’s never been battle-trained, Cage quickly bites the dust. But he wakes up with a chance to repeat the day. Over and over. And over. Until he destroys the Omega, which is like the aliens’ Death Star, or its control center. Think of it as a video game. If you die, you play it again until you stop getting killed and can move on to the next level and finish the game.

It’s amusing to see Cruise, well known for his daredevil stunts, start out as a sissy who doesn’t even know how to turn on the weapons in his metal armor. Before some of his deaths, knowing it’s coming, he’d whine, “Aw, maaan,” or “Son of a bitch!” He becomes more competent as the movie progresses, eventually turning into the intense action man he’s built his career on.

The revelation here is Emily Blunt as Rita, called the Angel of Verdun for her astonishing alien-killing skills on the battlefield in that French city. We already know Blunt can be funny and smart; now we know she can also be tough and buff. Some actors think being a badass involves snarling and chewing scenery. Blunt just embodies the spirit of a warrior, with her quiet confidence and steady eyes, and when she says, “I’m a soldier,” you believe her completely.

Director Doug Liman keeps a tight rein on the thrilling action scenes, and for a movie that involves lots of dying, it’s much less bloody than the typical video game. Something it doesn’t kill? Your brain cells.

Nerd verdict: Thrilling Edge

Photos: Fault/Twentieth Century Fox; Edge/Warner Bros.

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Review & Giveaway: THE TRUTH ABOUT THE HARRY QUEBERT AFFAIR by Joël Dicker

harry quebertWhen Penguin Books acquired US rights to Joël Dicker’s The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair last year, it announced the book was the publisher’s biggest acquisition in history.

Why so much money for a debut novel by a young unknown writer? Because the book was already a smash hit in France and other European countries. Now American readers get to see why.

The story opens in August 1975 with a woman’s urgent call to the police, saying she sees a man chasing a young girl through the woods near her house. Cut to 33 years later, when young author Marcus Goldman is having a major case of writer’s block after his first novel was a runaway bestseller. He calls up his old college professor, Harry Quebert, for help and inspiration.

Harry invites Marcus to his home in Somerset, a remote (fictional) town in New Hampshire, to get away from New York City distractions and focus on writing. Marcus has barely arrived in Somerset when the body of 15-year-old Nola Kellergan is dug up on Harry’s property by a landscaping crew.

Nola was the girl seen running through the woods all those years ago; she subsequently disappeared without a trace. Now she’s found clutching a handwritten manuscript of Harry’s career-making novel, The Origin of Evil. Harry is arrested, and the case against him looks worse when he admits he was in love with Nola and they had a romantic but nonsexual affair.

Harry claims, however, that he had no idea what happened on the night Nola disappeared. Marcus is the only person who believes Harry and he sets out to prove his mentor’s innocence. In the process, he rediscovers his passion for writing.

Though the novel is 640 pages, it’s an addictive read, making me flip pages so I could finish it within two days. Dicker’s style is accessible and his plot complex and twisty. I rarely knew where the story was going, just sat back and enjoyed the revelations as they came. Dicker credibly brings to life the small town’s characters, each with his/her hopes, loves, and disappointments.

Nola remains somewhat a cipher, however, and seems to have had Madonna/whore syndrome. Depending on which town denizen Marcus talks to, Nola was either the sweetest girl ever or someone who did some shocking things (that were not entirely convincing). Nevertheless, her story is a sad one, and Harry’s grief believable.

Dicker offers amusing insights into the publishing world via the ridiculous demands Marcus’s publisher makes on him, while Harry has Marcus rethinking his views on writing:

“Don’t write in order to be read; write in order to be heard.”

Harry also points out to Marcus that:

“The writer’s disease isn’t an inability to write anymore; it’s being incapable of stopping.”

The Harry Quebert Affair is a sprawling novel for mystery lovers and those who appreciate the art of writing. If you fall into either or both categories, you can enter to win a copy, courtesy of Penguin Books.

Enter by leaving me a comment answering this question: Do you ever lament a lost love and if yes, who? As usual, lies are accepted. This is to keep entries interesting; I’ve really enjoyed your creative answers in past giveaways.

Giveaway ends next Friday, June 13, at 9 PST. US addresses only, please. Winner will have 48 hours after notification to respond before an alternate winner is chosen.

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Nerdy Special List June 2014

How can it be June already? This year is flying by so fast, I can almost hear Christmas music.

But before we get there, we still have summer and summer books. Jen of Jen’s Book Thoughts has two recommendations this month:

The Red Room by Ridley Pearson (Putnam, June 17)

red roomThe third book in Pearson’s The Risk Agent international thriller series, featuring protagonists John Knox and Grace Chu, is an exciting, intense, smart adventure with a multilayered, fast-moving plot set in Istanbul, Turkey. The characters are exquisitely developed, as is the setting. Knox and Chu are contractors for Rutherford Risk, a security company. Knox is an import/export dealer by trade and Chu is a forensic accountant. Their backgrounds and cultures are almost complete opposites, so their skills and personalities complement each other as a team.

In The Red Room, the duo is brokering the sale of a priceless statue as a cover to get in the same room with the buyer. Neither Knox nor Chu has been told why they need to get close to the buyer, so they begin investigating on their own, unearthing more questions than they originally had and a whole lot of danger. Thriller fans shouldn’t miss this one!

Jen’s second June recommendation has the best title I’ve seen so far this year:

Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy Writers by Mike Sacks (Penguin Books, June 24)

poking a dead frogThis is a collection of interviews with today’s comedy writers, from television, books, comics, and the stand-up circuit. Mike Sacks conducts the highly-researched interviews, asking engaging questions specific to each writer. The questions are fresh and the interviewees provide insightful, honest responses.
With a few exceptions, most notably George Saunders, the interviewees aren’t hysterically funny in their responses, but their candor and anecdotes make the interviews fascinating. I found myself wanting to read “just one more interview.” The individuals in the book span decades of comedy writing, from ninety-two-year-old Peg Lynch, who started in radio, to Megan Amram, a Parks and Recreation writer, who was discovered through her Twitter feed.

Poking a Dead Frog gives the reader an inside look at publications like The Onion, television shows including Saturday Night Live and Cheers, even children’s books. Readers will learn a tremendous amount about the world of humor writing, and they’ll have fun learning it!

From PCN:

Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta (Little, Brown; June 3)

those who wish me deadThe opening of Koryta’s thriller is incredibly nerve-wracking, with 13-year-old Jace Wilson encountering a dead body and then witnessing the execution of another person—by two men dressed as cops. A US marshal puts Jace into a wilderness survival program, asking the instructor, Ethan Serbin, to take the boy and the other young students into the mountains, where there is no GPS or cell phone service or Internet, which would hopefully make it difficult for the killers to find Jace, who only needs to stay safe until he can testify against them.

But things go horribly wrong, and Jace and Ethan—as well as Ethan’s wife, Allison, and a fire lookout named Hannah Faber—must employ every trick they know just to stay alive.

The suspense is relentless, and at times I found myself tearing up from frustration at how the killers keep getting away with their horrific deeds, always while remaining disturbingly calm. The two men—brothers—are the most unsettling and formidable villains I’ve come across in recent reads, and I very much wished them dead. This book, however, I heartily recommend.

What are you looking forward to reading this month? (See past lists here.)

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Book Review: CLOSED DOORS by Lisa O’Donnell

This review originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission. 

closed doorsLisa O’Donnell follows up her award-winning The Death of Bees with Closed Doors, another novel featuring a young narrator. Michael Murray, age 11, lives on the Scottish island of Rothesay and likes to listen behind doors because adults don’t tell him everything. One night, he hears his mom screaming downstairs, and when he runs to find her, he sees her face is bloodied.

His father and grandmother tell him Rosemary saw a flasher while walking home from work in the dark and she fell running away from him. Michael believes the story, but is not allowed to tell anyone about the flasher. When his mother refuses to go to the police or discuss what happened, people in the small town start whispering ugly rumors about Michael’s father, reaching their own conclusions about Rosemary’s facial bruises. Michael is torn between his promise to keep the family secret and the need to defend his father’s honor, especially with Dirty Alice, the neighborhood girl he hates.

O’Donnell deftly writes from the boy’s point of view; Michael’s observations are realistic and often laugh-out-loud funny. Confused when Dirty Alice suddenly bursts into tears at one point, he thinks, “I’ve heard her cry before but only after a fall or that time I threw a rock at her head.” The levity balances out the darker elements, and Michael’s innocence spares readers the full horror of “the flasher’s” deeds. Michael loses some of that innocence over the course of the story but remains an engaging narrator to the end.

Nerd verdict: Engaging Doors

Amazon | IndieBound

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