Friday, November 22, 2013

Review of Checkmate by Jonathan Patrick

Jonathan Patrick's political thriller is currently on a virtual blog tour with Closed the Cover through December 6.  International terrorism is at the center of the plot and draws on the experiences of the author as a retired U.S. Air Force veteran.

What happens when North Korea, China, and Iran conspire to attack the United States?  The answer is an intricately woven story full of rich details and research, and (for the most part) high developed, believable characters.  I won't give away much in this review because so many details are so tied into one another that it would risk giving away important plot elements.  Simply put, Checkmate must be read to appreciated.  A synopsis does not do justice to the time and effort obviously made by Mr. Patrick to make the story as realistic as possible.  When the original conspiracy is put forth in a meeting at the Grand Hyatt Taipei in Taiwan, readers can easily become skeptical as to how
 a plan that seems to be so far-fetched could have a chance of being put into motion and actually being successful against the world's greatest superpower.  However, as the author reminds us in the book's trailer, "with most of its once mighty navy staying in port, and the remainder stretched thinly across the globe, America's enemies now have different words to describe America: weak...and very vulnerable".  Without taking obvious political sides, the novel shows how austerity measures have weakened America's military might and thus opened a window of opportunity for the country's political enemies to take advantage of chinks in the armor.

Jonathan Patrick is a retired veteran of the United States Air Force who currently lives in the Carolinas with his wife and two children.  His military career took him to various countries around the world and provided him with experiences with several intelligence agencies.  He is working on a second novel.  To learn more about him and his thought process while creating the novel, check out the Q & A with him on the Author Interviews page of this blog.

As I read the novel, I was reminded of the political thrillers from authors such as Tom Clancy.  The details of the missions, submarines, and military and commercial installations was so realistic that it was almost scary to realize how such a sinister plot could actually play out against American interests.  I also really enjoyed the background information provided about many of the key characters, allowing us to see how even some of those who come to be enemies of America, have human interests, feelings, and motivations.  The only character who seemed under developed was Ramon, the totally inept supervisor of Julie and Gina, the brilliant young women who designed the computer software program that is at the heart of the story.  While America faces imminent threat of attack, his only interest seems to lie in the March Madness basketball tournament.  Readers would shudder to think that a supervisor in a key government intelligence agency would be so out of touch.  But then again....

Checkmate has a fast-paced, chilling climax that leaves enough loose ends to warrant a sequel in the near future.  I for one, will be looking forward to it, if only to continue reading about the heroic characters that were introduced to us in this book and see how America recovers and fights back against a conspiracy that spans the globe.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Review of From Rum to Roots by Lloyd G. Francis

Francis, L. (2013).  From Rum to Roots.  San Francisco:  Marway Publishing.

From Rum to Roots is the debut novel from author Lloyd G. Francis.  When I received the invitation to participate in the blog tour through Closed the Cover, I jumped at the opportunity after reading the synopsis, and the book met all of my expectations and then some.

The story begins in 1937 in the Jamaican countryside.  Linton McMann is the gang driver at a rum plantation owned by Major Blaine.  There is an unspoken, well-hidden secret between the two men-Linton is Major's illegitimate son.  Linton has grown up with the resentment and shame of never being publicly acknowledged by his father, despite Major's small efforts to placate him.  After violence erupts in and around the plantation as the workers rise up in an attempt to organize and demand better wages, Linton and his girlfriend Sheila escape to the settlement of Bessanworse where they join an elder named Timothy and become a part of the fledgling Rastafarian community.  Meanwhile in Kingston, 17 year old Daisy has just graduated from high school and is taking over her family's ice business while dealing with friction between her and her sister Callie, as well as her mother's new husband, Wilbur.  After a terrifying episode of abuse that Daisy shamefully keeps secret, she leaves home and marries Miles, a man who turns out to be very abusive.  Daisy leads a miserable, poverty-stricken life with her two young daughters, Janet and Lissette, while Linton struggles with the loss of Sheila and  their unborn child, leaving him to carry a heavy load of guilt and grief.  Linton and Daisy's paths finally cross in America, when they both receive visas and end up in Brooklyn, New York.  They marry and start on a solid path of upward mobility, fulfilling the American dream while attempting to erase their painful memories of Jamaica.  Daisy's dream of sending for Janet and Lissette fade with each passing year as she and Linton have children of their own and the ocean separating them seems to grow too wide to cross.

A native of Oakland, California, Lloyd G. Francis started his career as a photojournalist and ended up covering battles in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kashmir.  To learn more about him, check out the interview with him on the Author Interview page of this blog.

From Rum to Roots is a story of an often untold immigrant experience that turns the history of Jamaica and America in the early part of the 20th century into a mesmerizing, richly detailed narrative with characters who are endearing but flawed, and who epitomize the human struggle to survive and overcome daunting odds.  Linton and Daisy must both overcome personal histories full of pain, guilt and hurt, and until they do so,they can never truly find complete happiness, despite the material wealth that they gain as they become financially successful.  Money truly cannot buy happiness, and their attempts to shut out their past causes friction and a nagging sense of emptiness, and for Daisy, it also causes a nearly irreparable rift between herself and the daughters that she left behind in Jamaica.  This story speaks to the very real struggle that many immigrants to this country face-the desire to assimilate into American life without losing their past and heritage completely.  For Daisy and Linton, their heritage does not represent a source of pride and comfort, but instead serves as a reminder of the struggles and tragedies that they left behind.  They must ultimately realize that burying the past does not bury the pain, and that they cannot heal themselves by turning their backs on their roots, but rather by embracing them and drawing on the wisdom and pride of their ancestors and homeland.  From Rum to Roots is a moving, deeply fulfilling novel that will linger in the minds of readers long after the final page is turned.  This is a first-rate effort from a new author and a worthy piece of contemporary fiction that speaks not just to the immigrant experience, but to the general human experience as well.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Review of Living Again by L.L. Collins

Collins, L. (2013). Living Again.

Living Again is the debut novel of self-published author L.L. Collins.  When I chose to review this book as part of the Closed the Cover virtual blog tour, I was skeptical as to whether I could get into the storyline of a contemporary romance.  However, I  found myself easily pulled into the plot.

Life can't possibly get any better for Kayley Carson. She has a great career as a physical therapist and is married to her college sweetheart and best friend, Alex.  With a baby on the way, their future and happiness together seems totally assured.  Then one evening, Alex is late coming home from work and an ominous phone call sends Kayley's world into a tailspin.  Alex has been critically injured in a terrible car crash.  Kayley rushes to the hospital, only to be given the news that Alex has passed away.  Only weeks later, she gives birth to their daughter, who she names Alexis in memory of the father that she will never know.  Kayley enters the world of motherhood in a fog of despair and grief.  Overnight, she has gone from a happy wife and expectant mother, to a single parent facing the world without the man that she loves most.  Only the love and support of her family and friends, including her best friend Emily, allows her to rebuild some semblance of a life.  Kayley dedicates herself to raising Alexis and keeping Alex's memory alive.  Her family urges her to begin dating again, but Kayley has shut her heart off from the world.  Memories of Alex wash over her daily like the waves of the ocean on the Florida beach near her home. Then one day, she meets Dr. Ben Nichols, an emergency room pediatrician and she tentatively takes steps towards building a new relationship. However, both she and Ben must face and overcome the insecurities and pain from their past so that their new love can stand a chance.

L.L. Collins is a teacher, mother, and wife living in Florida.  Her second self-published novel will be available in the early part of 2014. Read more about her on the Author Interviews page of this blog and enter to win an ebook version of Living Again by clicking on the Contests and Giveaways tab.

Living Again is a modern love story with heavy doses of romance and sexuality.  Due to graphic lovemaking scenes, this book is recommended for mature readers only.  The story is laid out in both the present day and through a series of flashbacks.  It is very poignant and emotional, with some outright tear-jerking scenes throughout.  Vivid imagery, well-written prose and flowing dialogue make this is a worthy debut from a new author in the adult contemporary romance genre.  Living Again should definitely find its way into the hands of romance fans, while fans of other genres may not be as impressed.  On the other hand, they may be pleasantly surprised like I was.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Review of Countdown City by Ben Winters

Winters, B. (2013). Countdown City. Philadelphia: Quirk Books.

Countdown City is the much anticipated sequel to The Last Policeman and the second book in the trilogy.  Readers are once again transported to the pre-apocalyptic world of Hank Palace as he and those around him struggle to hold onto the last remaining pieces of civilization in the face of impending doom.

At the end of The Last Policeman, Hank solved his case determining the true cause of death of Peter Zell and inherited a dog named Houdini in the process.  Hank suffered two significant losses- the official end of his job when the Concord (New Hampshire) Police Department is taken over by the feds, and the murder of the woman he loved, Naomi.

Countdown City picks up with 77 days left until the predicted impact of Maia, the enormous asteroid that will obliterate most, if not all life on Earth.  Conditions are rapidly deteriorating.  The electricity is gone.  Most businesses are closed, and food is becoming scarce.  Palace and two of his police buddies meet at a diner each day for lunch where they are served the only things left on the menu, hot tea and oatmeal.  Citizens are responding to the impending doomsday in a variety of ways:  some have committed suicide, many have disappeared to fulfill their 'bucket list' wishes, while others are hoarding supplies, taking weapons training, and preparing for slim chances of surviving the catastrophe.  Many children have been abandoned by their parents and have taken shelter in a local elementary school, where they sleep outside and play aimlessly.  Hank has taken an interest in two of the children-a brother and sister, and keeps tabs on them when possible.  Perhaps even more saddening, are the large numbers of boats filled with desperate refugees fleeing the impact zone of the asteroid but who are often forcibly turned away by the U.S. Coast Guard.  In the midst of it all, Hank finds himself once again working a case, this time, the disappearance of Brett Cavatone, husband of Hank and his sister Nico's childhood babysitter.  Hank had a bitter disagreement with Nico and they parted ways in the first book, but their paths cross again in Countdown City, both because she becomes helpful in his quest to find Brett, but mostly because of a childhood promise that he made to her that he would never leave her.  The brother and sister's love/hate relationship provides an interesting backdrop to the heightening mystery surrounding Brett Cavatone's disappearance, culminating in a series of events that literally mean life or death for Hank.

Ben H.Winters grew up in Maryland and attended college at Washington University in St. Louis.  He has worked as a journalist and a playwright and has written seven novels.  The Last Policeman won a 2012 Edgar Award.

Countdown City continues Winter's spare, elegant prose as he delves into the life of a detective who struggles to make sense of a world that has fallen apart and maintain some semblance of decency and civility even when it seems hopeless to do so.  Everywhere he goes, Hank is asked "why"?  Why is he so doggedly pursuing cases, trying to solve crimes, looking for a missing person in a world full of people who have gone missing?  Winters manages to achieve the fine balance between making a philosophical point without being preachy.  He shows readers that Hank continues to solve cases for the same reason that he and his police friends meet for lunch each day, for the same reason that Ruth-Ann continues to serve them determinedly from her dwindling menu, for the same reason that Micah-the little boy who sleeps in the elementary playground with his sister, hangs on to his samurai sword-because even in the face of almost certain doom, the human will to survive is one of the strongest forces on the planet. Hank made a promise to solve the case. Ruth-Ann made a promise to serve her customers.  Their fragile world is held together by the slender bonds of these promises-none of which they are bound to keep in the face of such damning odds, but which they keep nonetheless, lest they give up and their souls die of despair before their bodies physically perish.

Winters invites readers to submit short essays to his Quirk Books page answering the question, "What would you do with just 77 days until the end of the world?" What would you do? Please comment below!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Thriller Fiction Novelist Tom Clancy Dead at Age 66

copyright 2012 David Burnett
The Penguin Group has announced the passing of New York Times best-selling novelist Tom Clancy in Baltimore on Tuesday.  The author was 66. A cause of death was not stated. Clancy was perhaps best known for his blockbuster thriller, The Hunt for Red October, which became a hit movie starring Alec Baldwin and Sean Connery.

Several of his other novels also went on to be played out on the big screen, including Patriot Games, The Sum of All Fears, and Clear and Present Danger.

In the statement released by the publishing company, Penguin executive David Shanks was quoted as saying "He was a consummate author, creating the modern-day thriller, and was one of the most visionary storytellers of our times. I will miss him dearly and he will be missed by tens of millions of readers worldwide."

Command Authority, Clancy's 17th novel, is due out on December 3rd.

An icon of the literary world is gone but his words will live on.  What is your favorite Tom Clancy novel/film? Comment below.

Friday, September 27, 2013

Review of Gone Girl by Gillian Fly

Flynn, G. (2012).  Gone Girl.  London:  Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

Gone Girl may be one of the only books that you encounter in your life in which the thoughtless, forgetful, cheating husband becomes the victim and the person that you root for in the end.  I can't give away too much in this review because of a mind-blowing twist in the middle of the novel. This is truly one book that you simply must read for yourself.

Nick and Amy Dunne are a mid-thirties couple living in Nick's small Missouri hometown.  Both writers who met when living in New York City, they became victims of the economy and the digital wave that wiped out many print journalists.  When they find themselves both unemployed and Nick gets a call from his twin sister Margo to tell him that their mother is dying from cancer, the decision to move back to Nick's home is an easy one-at least for him.  Amy leaves behind everything she has ever known, including her parents, in order to follow Nick halfway across the country, where he and his twin, who he affectionately calls Go, borrow money from Amy's trust fund to start a small bar.  Meanwhile, Amy tries to settle into her new surroundings and wanders aimlessly through her days as a forced housewife.  Her side of the story is told through her diary entries, which paints a picture of an isolated, unhappy woman who maintains a facade of cheerfulness as her marriage slowly unravels.  Then one day, Nick comes home and finds the front door wide open, their cat outside, signs of a struggle in the living room, and most shockingly-blood in the kitchen.  Amy is gone, and his world goes into a tailspin overnight.

Gillian Flynn earned a bachelor's degree in journalism and English from the University of Kansas and a master's in journalism from Northwestern University. A former critic for Entertainment Weekly, she is the author of two other novels.  Gone Girl is a New York Times Bestseller and has been nominated for several awards, including an Edgar Award.

Gillian Flynn creates a stunning masterpiece with an engrossing, startlingly real character study of Nick and Amy at the center.  Their opposing narratives show how the same actions and events can be viewed in completely different ways by the people involved, a phenomenon that is anything but fictional and leads to the disintegration of real-life marriages too.  Colorful characters such as Tanner Bolt, the obscenely expensive lawyer that Nick hires when it becomes apparent that he is suspect number one in Amy's disappearance, and Ellen Abbott-the prosecutor turned true crime television analyst (shades of Nancy Grace) who vilifies Nick nightly in her self-righteous rants, add humor and irony as well as telling commentary on a society that tries criminal cases in the media and in which spouses of missing or murdered persons are judged innocent or guilty based on the amount of emotion they display.  Gone Girl is a can't-put-down must read with a thriller of a twist and a perverse ending that will leave readers begging for a sequel.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Review of Vuto by A.J. Walkley

Walkley, A.J. (2013).  Vuto. Rocket Science Productions.

Author A.J. Walkley spent time in the Peace Corps after graduating from college, working as a health volunteer in the country of Malawi in Africa.  Her experiences during this time inspired the novel Vuto, a moving narrative that describes what happens when two cultures collide and how help from a well-intentioned outsider can be viewed as interfering and have far-reaching consequences.

Vuto is a 17 year old who is giving birth to her third child when the novel opens.  Samantha, a white Peace Corps volunteer, watches and wonders why she is alone, no family or friends present to provide comfort and support. The nurse explains that Malawian tradition dictates that the woman gives birth alone, as a sign of strength.  As the narrative switches back to Vuto's perspective, readers soon learn that her birth name is not Vuto, but she is called Vuto, meaning "problem" because she is deemed a troublemaker.  Her two previous children, both boys, died soon after birth.  Her third child, a girl, whose birth Samantha witnessed, dies on her 13th day.  Tradition dictates that the woman and the child stay isolated for two weeks after birth.  If the child lives past this time, then and only then, does the mother introduce the child to the father. Because all of her children have died before this time period, Vuto has never been able to show her husband their children.  She has carried the burden of her grief alone.  After the death of her daughter, whom she had named Mwala, meaning "Rock", Vuto summons her courage and confronts her husband in front of a tribal meeting of elders, in order to force him to see his dead daughter.  She is immediately ordered to be banished from the village with only the clothes on her back for her disobedience and violation of cultural traditions.  As she leaves, desperate, heartbroken, and unsure of what she will do next, she encounters Samantha, who remembers her from the clinic.  Upon hearing her story, Samantha offers her a place to stay in the small hut that she is provided as a volunteer.  Because Samantha's home is not outside of the village borders, Vuto is violating her order of banishment by staying there.  Leona, the nurse, sees Vuto enter and secretly goes back and tells that she is there.  Enraged, Vuto's husband shows up at the house and attempts to attack her.  Samantha defends her new friend by stabbing Vuto's husband with her Swiss Army knife, killing him.  Panic-stricken and faced with the realization that Samantha may face murder charges, the two women flee, but only after Vuto reasons through Samantha's naive beliefs that the authorities will understand that the murder was self-defense and that the Peace Corps will come to her aid.  Vuto narrates, "she didn't see it from my point of view, only hers, and her point of view was American, not Malawian. Not African at all." After Vuto tells the story of how a former Peace Corps volunteer was raped by a village elder and the organization swept the incident under the rug to avoid bad publicity, Samantha realizes that she is on her own.  Along the way, they receive help from Samantha's boyfriend Hunter, a fellow Peace Corps volunteer, and when they reach the Peace Corps headquarters in the capital, things come to a sad, troubling end.

A.J. Walkley majored in English Literature and spent a year in the Peace Corps in Malawi after graduating from college.  In addition to Vuto, she has written two other books.  She currently works as a writer and blogger for The Huffington Post.  To learn more about her, check out the Q &A on the Author Interviews page of this blog.

Vuto tackles tough issues in a thoughtful, realistic manner.  The Malawian characters, including Vuto, are torn in their feelings towards the Peace Corps volunteers.  On the one hand, they welcome the help that is so desperately needed.  On the other hand, they resent and distrust them, viewing them as yet more white outsiders who have come in to change and destroy their way of life.  Vuto herself questions and disobeys some of her culture's traditions, but it is even worse when a white outsider such as Samantha does the same.  Samantha sorts through her own internal conflicts.   Many of the things that she sees, especially the treatment of women and children, goes against her own belief system.  However, she wonders who she thinks she is to come in and criticize or try to change a culture simply because its traditions don't align with her sense of right and wrong.  The Peace Corps forbids volunteers from interfering in cultural traditions, which is one reason why Samantha cannot expect them to defend her.  However, Samantha's-and the reader's view of the Peace Corps as a benevolent humanitarian organization is tarnished as she learns just how far it will go to maintain good public relations.  Perhaps what makes this story so real and compelling, is that all of the answers are not presented neatly tied up in a nice ending.  Samantha's efforts to help Vuto-although well-intentioned, lead to tragedy.  In the end, although she saves Vuto's life, she cannot save her from her overwhelming grief, nor rebuild her broken spirit that has been crushed by years of cruel disregard and even abuse in the name of tradition.  The reader, like Samantha, is left to wonder what-if anything can be done to bridge the gap between Western culture and the rest of the world, after so many years of oppressive brutality and colonialism on one hand, and misunderstood and sometimes abusive traditions on the other.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Review of Sister Souljah's A Deeper Love Inside: The Porsche Santiaga Story

Sister Souljah.  (2013). A Deeper Love Inside:  The Porsche Santiaga Story. New York:  Emily Bestler Books.

A Deeper Love Inside: The Porsche Santiaga Story is the long-awaited sequel to Sister Souljah's bestseller, The Coldest Winter Ever. The author's first novel chronicled the fast-paced, danger-filled rise of the Santiaga family as the head of the house, Ricky, became a legendary drug kingpin in the projects of Brooklyn, New York.  The Santiaga's eldest daughter, Winter, was the apple of her father's eye and determined to follow in his footsteps, even when the family was broken and disgraced after Ricky's arrest.  A Deeper Love Inside tells the second part of the Santiaga tale through the eyes of Porsche, the middle sister, who at the young age of 10 finds herself navigating the harrowing world of a state juvenile detention center where she is serving a sentence for assaulting the caseworker who removed her and her younger sisters from their home.

After an unbelievably daring (and stomach-turning) break-out from the detention center, Porsche finds herself on the run with her older mentor and friend from inside, a mysterious white girl named Riot who took her under her wing.  They end up on a Native American reservation, where Porsche is healed of the eating disorder that she developed on lockdown and learns about natural healing through the use of organic foods and herbs. Embraced by the Native American community and at peace with their beautiful surroundings, the girls could safely stay there forever without fear of being caught by the authorities, since American law enforcement does not have jurisdiction on the reservation.  However, each girl has unfinished business from the past to face, and so they make a pact to split up and then meet back up in New York City several months later.  Porsche hits the streets of New York in a determined quest to put her family back together and reclaim the money, property, and Long Island mansion that was taken when the police arrested her father.  She finds her mother, the once beautiful diva who was the envy of all of the other women in Bed-Stuy, but who is now a broken-down crack addict.  The two of them live underground-literally, and Porsche uses her street smarts and hustling ability to scrape up several under-the-table jobs to care for the both of them, since she isn't legally old enough to work and has to dodge the authorities who would want her in school, locked back up, or both.  Using the healing talents that she developed on the reservation, she takes her mother through a homemade detox program in an attempt to cure her drug addiction. She also meets and falls in love with Elisha, a prep-school teen with aspirations of being a filmmaker.  However, their budding romance is threatened by Porsche's secrets.  Afraid to reveal her real identity, Porsche tells him that her name is Ivory.  She is too afraid for him to find out who she really is, and to see the poor conditions that she lives in with her drug-addicted mother.  She must also continue to deal with the issues that haunt her.  She wants to find her family and must come to grips with the realization that both her mother and Winter knew where she was when she was locked up but only made one visit to see her and never sent any money to her. While in lockdown, she developed a split personality, a girl named Siri, and as her world becomes more confusing and challenging, the line between where Porsche begins and Siri ends becomes ever more blurred.

Sister Souljah is a community activist, intellectual, and sought after speaker.  A graduate of Rutgers University with a degree in both American History and African Studies, she is the author of four bestselling books-three novels and one autobiography.

Just as with The Coldest Winter Ever, I found myself unable to put this novel down.  Porsche's story was just as compelling as her older sister Winter's, and even more profound and touching.  Whereas Winter was very selfish and thought only of self-preservation, the lengths to which Porsche went to save her mother and find their young twin sisters, Lexus and Mercedes, was poignant and heartbreaking.  Sister Souljah does a great job comparing the outcomes of the two sisters and showing how being greedy and self-centered and focusing on making fast, illegal money, leads to a sure downfall in the case of Winter, in contrast to Porsche, who does her best to help her family and friends and makes her money through legitimate, though under-the table hustles, resulting in lasting wealth for her-both materially and emotionally.  Fans of Midnight, the mysterious, enigmatic character who was introduced in The Coldest Winter Ever and went on to be the subject of the author's next two novels, will be excited to see his return in this novel and the part that he plays in helping Porsche and her family.  Once again, Sister Souljah has done a notable job creating real characters that are very identifiable with the young urban readers who make up the majority of her fan base.  She also presents valuable life lessons about navigating the tough choices presented by the streets without being preachy.  A Deeper Love Inside challenges readers to follow Porsche's example and find love for themselves and then to magnify that into love for their family, friends, and neighbors.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Review of Deadly Eyes by Michael Meyer

Meyer, M. (2012).  Deadly Eyes.

The Caribbean is a popular setting for many fiction writers.  The beautiful weather and scenery, and colorful language and culture provide an exotic backdrop for many fictional plots.  Only some authors, however, go  beyond scratching the surface to delve deeper into the Caribbean that visitors sometimes do not see-the islands scarred by poverty and economic despair, and the skepticism and sometimes even resentment that is often harbored by local people towards tourists but that is carefully masked because of reliance on the money and jobs generated by those same tourists. Independent writer Michael Meyer is one of those authors.  His story of James Cuffy, known as Cuff, and his indomitable girlfriend Rosie, is set against the backdrop of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.

Cuff is an American but he is not a tourist.  He has come to St. Croix to start life over after false accusations from a student ends his idyllic career as a university professor.  As a permanent resident and not merely a tourist, Cuff experiences St. Croix in ways in which the vacationing tourist cannot.  He becomes accustomed to the natural beauty and the slow pace of the island, and learns to appreciate the local foods, customs,and ways of speaking.  Through the struggles of his girlfriend Rosie, a bartender/server at a popular bar, readers understand the poverty that many islanders live with as they rely on low-paying jobs in the service and tourism industries to make a living.  As Cuff tries to build a new life for himself, he is unwittingly falling prey to an unknown stalker whose all-seeing eyes mark his every move.  As the mysterious assailant closes in on Cuff and Rosie, everyone that they come into contact with becomes susceptible to danger and they must race to find out the identity and motive of the killer before they become the final and ultimate targets.  In addition to the careful detail and attention that the author uses when painting the background story for readers, an additional characteristic that I haven't seen in a book since my junior high days reading the Choose Your Own Adventure series makes this novel unique-Meyer includes an alternate ending.  Meyer gives readers fair warning before choosing to read one or both of the endings.  Ending A is the 'happy ending' while Ending B is the more sinister one.  Ending B actually wrapped up details and loose ends more than Ending A however, answering several questions that would no doubt be in the back of readers minds as the plot unfolded.

Michael Meyer is a retired university professor and the author of another suspense thriller in addition to Deadly Eyes.  He enjoys traveling and uses the locations that he has traveled to and worked in as the settings for his novels.  For more information about him, check out the Author Interviews page on this blog.

Deadly Eyes combines two of my favorite things in a novel-a mystery and a Caribbean setting.  The mystery at the center of the story is fast-paced and believable, although as previously stated, the second ending provides more answers to some plot details than the first one does.  The author presents a realistic, unvarnished view of the Caribbean through the eyes of Cuff in a way which is neither idealistic nor patronizing.  Cuff does not carry himself like a stereotypical obnoxious tourist, but has truly made the island his home, accepting the good and the bad that go along with it.  He and Rosie are fully-fleshed, believable characters with flaws but who are overall good people, and their complex relationship is put to the test but ultimately stands strong as they fight for survival.  The plot is unique and truly keeps the reader guessing until well towards the end as they try to piece together how the varied and colorful characters that Cuff interacts with are all related to the mysterious threat that he faces.  The addition of an alternate ending, something done with modern movies on a regular basis, adds a nice twist to the novel as well.  Michael Meyer establishes himself as a credible independent author with well-written prose, fully developed narratives and characters, and an engaging story line that pulls readers in from start to finish.

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Review of Wisdom by Heather Neff

Neff, H. (2002). Wisdom. New York, NY: Ballantine Books

In Heather Neff's novel, Wisdom is not just a character trait, it is a location that holds the key to a woman's legacy, identity, and future. Maia Ransom is a nurse from Michigan who goes to the Caribbean island of St. Croix in search of the land that her grandfather always told her about.  Wisdom is the name of the estate that her ancestors lived and worked on as enslaved African people.

Despite the laid-back temperament of the island, Maia is driven by a very personal sense of urgency.  She is dying from the same ovarian cancer that claimed her mother, but has kept her illness a secret from most of the people in her life.  She has given herself three weeks to come to St. Croix and find her family history.  However, she finds her precious time slipping away from her as she runs into one roadblock after another.  Modern maps of the island seem to have literally wiped Wisdom 'off the map' and the islanders are strangely unhelpful when she seeks their assistance in locating the land.  Her only real friend is Damian, the manager of Chez Alexander, one of the finest restaurants on the island.  He too is shunned by most of the Crucians, in his case because he is gay.  They form a close bond in their shared isolation as Damian shields her from the unwanted advances of some of the Crucian men, and Maia provides acceptance and a listening ear.  The brick wall that Maia has run into on her quest to find Wisdom begins to crumble when she meets Noah Langston, a distinguished attorney and one of the few black men on the island who has made it into the upper class. Despite his upper-class education and money however, he is treated with disdain with the white monied Crucians, including the family that owns Wisdom, because he has been successful in several legal challenges that have restored land taken by slave owners to the native islanders.  He wants to do the same for Maia and as they work together, they develop a romance that Maia is reluctant to pursue, given her medical prognosis.  As Maia and Noah get closer and closer to the truth, she becomes more endangered as Severin Johanssen, the only remaining son of Wisdom's owner, and other islanders conspire to keep Maia from her inheritance.

Heather Neff is an English professor and has also worked as a translator and a language coach for film productions.  She studied French at the Sorbonne and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Zurich and is the author of four other books.

In the spirit of Octavia Butler, author of the acclaimed classic The Kindred, Heather Neff beautifully weaves elements of the supernatural into her storyline as Maia channels the spirit of one of her ancestors in the search for her people's stolen land.  The external obstacles that she faces in her quest are paralleled by the internal obstacles that she must overcome, namely, finding the will to live and trusting herself to open her heart to love.  Neff presents a cast of colorful, fully developed characters that pull readers into the story and her research and time spent living on St. Croix are evident in her painstaking attention to detail and accuracy in describing the island's history, people, language, and culture.  Maia's journey in St. Croix ultimately saves her life and serves as a metaphor for the search for history and roots that is often an all too difficult one for the descendants of enslaved humans.  As they reclaim their history and heritage, the lives of their culture and future generations are redeemed.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Review of Escaping Barcelona by Henry Martin

Martin, H. (2012).  Mad Days of Me:  Escaping Barcelona.

Alone in a foreign country.  Unable to speak the language but enjoying solitary freedom and adventure nonetheless.  Then, brutally attacked and assaulted, robbed of most of your belongings, including your money and your passport.  This is the scenario that faces Rudy in Escaping Barcelona, the first volume in the Mad Days of Me trilogy by independent author Henry Martin.  What begins as an adventurous trip and a path to a fresh start, quickly descends into a nightmare spiraling out of control that Rudy is unable to escape.

Rudy is a young European man frustrated with the dead-end that he has reached in life.  Due to the economy, he is underemployed and forced to move back home with his family.  He feels like he will never measure up to his police officer brother and yearns for a fresh start.  On an impulse, he buys a train ticket to Vienna where a friend named Michael lives.  After unsuccessfully attempting to convince his girlfriend to join him, he travels alone to Vienna, where he discovers that Michael is away.  Undeterred, he begins his adventure across the continent, stopping in various cities.  Another impulse leads him to stop in Barcelona.  Things start out well at first. He finds cheap, clean lodging at a youth hostel and goes out to a cafe to sit and enjoy the evening and take in his surroundings.  Suddenly, he hears two men speaking Arabic come up behind him and feels a knife at his throat.  They drag him away to some bushes, where he is sexually assaulted and robbed.  When he wakes up, his passport, his money, and most of his belongings are gone.  In physical as well as emotional pain, he makes his way to a police station where he files an assault complaint.  He is too ashamed to tell the officers that he was raped.  He is given temporary papers that will last for thirty days.  He then goes to the consulate where he learns that they can't do anything for him because he doesn't have the money to purchase a replacement passport and he is too ashamed to contact his family to have them send the money.  Thus begins his journey into homelessness.  As Rudy struggles desperately to find a way out of the situation, he reaches the depths of despair and misery, facing hunger, hopelessness, and repeated brushes with violence.  Along the way he meets several colorful individuals and he learns a lot about himself.

Henry Martin is a novelist and poet who lives with his family in the Northeast United States.  In addition to the Mad Days of Me trilogy (Finding Evissa and Eluding Reality are the other books in the series), he has also written a short story anthology and a collection of poems.  Learn more about him by checking out the Author Interview page on this blog.

While independent and self-publishing is becoming increasingly popular, in some circles, there is still a certain stigma that insinuates that authors self-publish because their work isn't good enough to find a traditional publisher.  Escaping Barcelona proves that a lack of a traditional publisher does not automatically mean a lack of talent.  This novel was professionally edited and full of great writing.  I found myself reading late into the night, being pulled into Rudy's world and rooting for him as he tried to find a way out of his miserable situation.  I would definitely recommend this book for very mature audiences due to the themes of sexual assault, drug abuse, and the violence that Rudy encounters as he navigates living on the streets.  However, while some novels are over the top with the use of graphic details, Martin uses these themes quite succinctly to paint a gritty but very realistic portrait of both the traps that can befall unsuspecting tourists in foreign countries, as well as the day-to-day life of the homeless.

As Rudy finds himself trapped into life on the streets, he hits rock bottom.  Along the way, he comes to many poignant realizations about life.  He begins to appreciate the simple things that he once took for granted-a shower, clean clothes, a hot meal, a bed to sleep in.  He meditates on how we as humans look down on the less fortunate among us and now that he finds himself in those ranks, he understands how much the blank stares, the careless ignorance, and rude dismissal directed towards the homeless can hurt.  However, Escaping Barcelona  not only paints a vivid picture of the worst of the human experience, but it also shows the best of the human spirit.  Every time Rudy is about to give up, he finds the strength and inner resolve to keep pushing.  No matter how many times he is knocked back down, he gets back up.  He is also helped by friends, many of whom are in just as bad a situation as he, but together they share what little they have and snatch small bits of light out of the darkness.  Escaping Barcelona is not just about escaping a city, it is about escaping despair and hopelessness and finding the strength to survive and even thrive no matter what life throws at you.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Review of All the Light There Was by Nancy Kricorian

Kricorian, N. (2013). All the Light There Was.  New York, NY:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.

When the Nazis marched on Paris on June 14, 1940, a four-year occupation of the city began, leaving a mark of hunger, despair, and brutality on its citizens.  In the midst of it all is the Pegorian family, Armenian refugees who are at the center of All the Light There Was. Maral Pegorian is 14 when the occupation begins and her brother Missak is 16.  For them, the real sign that the occupation has begun is not the sound of German boots marching through the streets, or the ominous sight of tanks, but their mother and Aunt Shakeh, who lives with them, rushing to the stores and frantically stocking up on as much food as they can find in preparation of the lean times that they know are to come.  Maral's mother even spends the money that she was saving to buy a new sewing machine, a signal to her and Missak as to just how serious things are about to become.

Eventually even this stockpile runs low and they, like many other Parisians, find themselves surviving on meager rations of rutabagas and other root vegetables, supplemented by occasional eggs and chicken from their cousins who have farmland outside of the city.  Maral tries to continue a normal life as possible-studying hard to keep her status as a top student at her academic high school, knitting with her aunt, and spending time with her friends.  However, her family's world changes in dramatic ways.  Friends and neighbors disappear, rounded up and arrested for political speech, being part of the Resistance, or for being Jewish.  Maral has a crush on one of her brother's best friends, Zaven, but just as their relationship begins to blossom, he and his brother Barkev, who along with Missak are part of the Resistance movement, disappear in order to avoid forced military service.  Zaven and Barkev are eventually caught and imprisoned, and after D-Day and the liberation of Paris, only one of them returns, causing a major shift in Maral's life course.

The culture of the characters in the novel is close to the author's heart, as Kricorian herself grew up in the Armenian community of Watertown, Massachusetts. She studied at Dartmouth and the University of Paris, and completed an MFA at Columbia University.  In addition to her essays and activism, she has also written two other novels.

Many novels have been written about life during World War II in Occupied Europe.  All the Light There Was takes a well-worn plot line and tells it from a unique perspective.  The Pegorian family are not native Parisians, horrified at what their homeland is turned into by Hitler's army, nor are they Jews, increasingly persecuted and ostracized until they are finally rounded up and marked for extermination.  Maral's family came to France to flee their own holocaust, the genocide that left Maral's parents orphans.  The lyrical prose told in the first person by Maral captures the unique position of her family-they maintain their language, culture, foods, and other practices while at the same time identifying strongly with their new country even though they are not citizens.  Maral's father literally fumes with anger each night as he reads the news reports of Hitler and the puppet French government.  Missak, Zaveg, Barkev and many other Armenians participate in resistance efforts.  However, to the Nazis, they are looked down upon as refugee immigrants, people without a land, only slightly better than the despised Jews.

Kricorian captures an important period in world history and infuses it with haunting beauty, sadness, and even romance. One of the most beautiful lines in the book is when a friend tells Maral "you are so beautiful that you shed light on dark walls".  Maral, her family, and her community find both small and large ways to find beauty and light in the darkness of Hitler's reign of terror. Her characters epitomize the struggle of those caught in the grip of Nazi Europe to maintain their dignity and their way of life despite ever-increasing difficulties and horrors around them.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Review of The 5th Wave by Rick Yancey

Yancey, R. (2013).  The 5th Wave.  New York, NY:  G.P. Putnam's Sons.

The 5th Wave is a young adult sci-fi novel by Rick Yancey that follows 16 year old Cassie Sullivan as she struggles to survive in a world that has been invaded by hostile aliens.  A mothership arrives above Earth one day and hangs in the atmosphere as everyone speculates what will happen next.  Then the first 1st Wave, or attack, arrives in the form of a total EMP (Electromagnetic Pulse) attack, shutting down all electronic communications including cell phones and power grids.  Many die from the resulting car and plane crashes.  The second wave consists of alien-induced earthquakes and tsunamis that wipes out the coastal populations.  The third wave is a highly infectious plague transmitted by birds that kills 97 percent of the remaining survivors on Earth, including Cassie's mom.  When the book opens, Earth is in the middle of the 4th Wave.  The few surviving humans are being picked off by snipers that Cassie has ominously named Silencers.  The main rule of surviving the 4th Wave is to trust no one.  The aliens understand the human instinct to horde, and are taking advantage of this to kill.  Anyone that you meet may be a Silencer.

After a tragedy at the refugee camp that her family found shelter at, Cassie finds herself alone and on the run with an M-16 and a Luger for safety.  She wonders in her journal if she is the last human on Earth. She scrounges for food at abandoned stores, risking death by drone strikes or sniper attacks, and hides in the woods at night.  The only thing that can overcome her fear is the need to find her little brother, Sam, and she sets out on a dangerous journey to save him.  Along the way she meets Evan Walker, a handsome, intriguing young man who may not be what he seems.  Cassie now knows that she is not, in fact, the last person alive on Earth, but finds herself torn between the 4th Wave rule of trusting no one, and relying on him because she needs his help to find Sam.  Halfway through the book, the story shifts to focus on the fate of one of Cassie's classmates, Ben Parrish.  A tension-filled, harrowing journey ensues culminating with Cassie and Ben's lives intersecting in an explosive (literally) climax.

In addition to several award-winning books for young adults, including The Extraordinary Adventures of  Alfred Kropp, which was a Carnegie Medal finalist, Rick Yancey has also written several adult novels and a memoir.

The 5th Wave has enjoyed an immensely positive reception from both critics and readers.  It is being compared to Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games because of some of the similarities in plot elements, and is on pace to enjoy the same popularity.  It is the first in a promised trilogy, again drawing a comparison to Hunger Games.  Like Hunger Games, The 5th Wave is officially categorized as a young adult novel but is strong enough that it is being well-received by older readers.  As a teacher, I would recommend this book for older students, 9th grade and above because of mature language and the intensity of the subject matter.  Because the characters spend so much time alone, this would be a great novel to use to explore character development with students.  The length of the novel (457 pages) may be off putting for reluctant and/or struggling readers but the fast pace and mystery of the plot make it a easier read.

As a reader, I recommend this book to anyone who is a fan of sci-fi and survivalist fiction.  Although the basic plot of aliens taking over Earth seems played out, Yancey deal with this in a unique and refreshing way.    The disaster takes Cassie literally overnight from being a regular teenager worried about dating, school, and socializing, into a fugitive fighting for survival and trying to save what is left of her family.  The forced introspection and emotional growth of Cassie and Ben causes them to reach some mature conclusions about human nature, the force of human will against the odds, and what really matters in life.  Readers will have the chance to think about their own beliefs about the choices that they would make in similar circumstances and what they would be capable of doing in the name of survival.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Review of The Last Policeman by Ben Winters

Winters, B. (2012).  The Last Policeman.  Philadelphia, PA:  Quirk Books.

What would you do if you knew that the world was going to end in six months?   This is the question at the center of The Last Policeman, the first mystery in a promised trilogy and winner of the 2013 Edgar Award.

The world has found out that a devastatingly large asteroid-scientifically known as 2011 GV1 but nicknamed Maia, is scheduled to collide with Earth and cause global loss of life.  In America, the economy quickly falls to pieces as employees and even CEOs walk off the job, determined to carry out their bucket lists and spend their remaining time with family and friends.  Some turn to religion to find solace and even more turn to substance abuse.  Drug use skyrockets so much that the government decriminalizes marijuana in an effort to deter people from turning to harder drugs.  The suicide rate climbs exponentially.

In the middle of it all is Detective Hank Palace, one of only four remaining members of the Adult Crimes Division in the Concord Police Department in New Hampshire.  Palace has only been on the force for little over a year when his promotion to detective is precipitated by the retirement-and in one case,disappearance, of his senior officers.  Most police officers, including Palace's team members, are only half-heartedly investigating crimes and the government has ruled that law enforcement agencies no longer investigate apparent suicides, for obvious reasons.  Hank Palace is the youngest member of his division and the only one that still takes his job seriously, provoking good-natured teasing from his colleagues.

The teasing is escalated when Palace is called in on what should be an open-and-shut suicide case- an insurance worker named Peter Zell who apparently hung himself in a McDonald's bathroom.  Palace can't shake the feeling that there's more to the story than meets the eye, and proceeds with investigating the case with noncommittal approval from his superiors.

As Palace investigates dead-ends and wrong turns, he must also deal with his personal issues, namely an erratic younger sister and her missing husband, as well as his personal nightmares.  Despite these obstacles, Palace perseveres, taking his job seriously and doing his best to maintain high standards and professionalism at work while the world crumbles around him.

The Last Policeman raises important questions about morality and humanity.  What does being human mean?  How important are relationships, law and order, and basic decency, in the face of apocalypse?  Palace believes in doing his job to the best of his abilities and not slacking, despite the fact that in six months, none of it will matter anyway.

Most of the apocalyptic novels that I have read deal with the actual disaster and its aftermath as people survive and begin to rebuild.  The Last Policeman is different in that it deals with the period leading up to apocalypse and how the human spirit is tested, broken, and in some cases, made stronger in the face of impending doom.  These questions become as important as the murder mystery that Palace is trying to solve and works in tandem with his investigation to create a worthy read that is most deserving of the awards and praise that it has received.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Review of Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones

Jones, T. Silver Sparrow. (2011).  Chapel Hill, NC:  Algonquin Books

Like her previous two novels, Tayari Jones' Silver Sparrow is set in urban Atlanta.  It chronicles the lives of two sisters-one who knows that the other exists, and one who doesn't.  The opening line of the novel, "My father, James Witherspoon, is a bigamist", begins the ride through the world of Dana Lynn Yarboro, the 'secret' daughter of James and Gwen.

Dana's parents meet at the department store that Gwen works at when he comes in to buy an anniversary present for his wife.  Gwen is still married herself, although long separated from her husband.  Thus begins an affair that leads to the birth of Dana, while James' marriage to Laverne remains childless.  Wanting her child to be legitimate, but knowing that James is already married, Gwen convinces him to cross state lines to Alabama and marry her there.  Her best friend Willie Mae and James' adopted brother Raleigh-who signs Dana's birth certificate and aids James in his duplicity throughout the novel, are witnesses.  It is Willie Mae who also points out another practical reason for marrying James-he is now considered a bigamist and this crime can be held over his head by Gwen should he ever mistreat her or attempt to leave.

Dana lives in a universe defined by secrecy and conflict. She gets only one night a week with her father-Wednesdays, when he tells his wife that he is working late at the limousine business that he owns with Raleigh.  She learns from an early age not to speak about her father to anyone, even her friends or teachers.  Her mother takes her on trips through town that they call "surveilling" in which they spy on her sister Chaurisse, and James' other wife, Laverne.

It's easy to feel empathy for Dana because while James attempts to be  loving father on his weekly visits and provides financial support, she still suffers as the secret child.  her life is constantly put on hold in order to maintain the family secret.  If  Dana is accepted to a school or summer camp and Chaurisse decides to enroll, Dana can't go.  She is even forced to give up a coveted summer job at Six Flags because Chaurisse is also hired there.

But just as you're totally siding with Dana, Jones flips the script and pens the second half of the story from Chaurisse's point of view.  Then we see that while Chaurisse enjoys the privileges that come with legitimacy, she suffers in her own way.  She is plagued with adolescent fear and self-doubt, especially regarding body image. Like her mother, she is overweight and plain in appearance.  During the two chance encounters in which she and Dana meet, she is struck both times at how beautiful she is.  She calls her a 'silver girl' one of those girls whose beauty Chaurisse aspires to but can never reach.  Chaurisse's title for Dana along with a Gospel quoted in the story about God watching over the sparrow, becomes the source for the book's title.  Like the sparrow, Dana is 'the least of these' because despite her beauty, she is and always will be the second-place child.

As the dialogue hints throughout the narrative, it is inevitable that James' double life implodes and the truth is revealed.  I won't put any spoilers in here, but suffice to say that James is not cast in a favorable light in his treatment of either of his daughters when he realizes that his secret is about to be revealed.  The confrontation between his two wives is climactic and tension-filled, yet at the same time, it provides you with a sense of relief because you have spent the entire novel knowing that this showdown must take place, but wondering when and how it will happen.

Tayari Jones is a lyrical writer who manages to weave poetic language in with adolescent narrative in a way that is both elegant and realistic.  She uses the children to tell the story of the parents and in the hallmark of a good character writer, she creates characters who are believable and none of whom are totally innocent or guilty.  While we cheer for Gwen when she tries to fight for her daughter, especially when privileges are taken away to keep her from running into Chaurisse, we then also have to remember that by knowingly getting involved with a married man, she set her daughter up for this type of treatment.  While James is an adulterer and a bigamist, he also tries to be a good father to both of his daughters, though he will always fall short in that role as far as Dana is concerned.

Jones strikes a chord with readers as she touches on subjects and emotions that are central to many families with multiple children and not just families with 'secret' children.  Feelings of favoritism and jealousy among siblings, the strains of the parent-child relationship as children grow older, complicated marriages, and unrequited love are universal topics that readers can identify with.  Silver Sparrow is a beautiful read with a poignant, somewhat sad ending that reminds us that in the real world our choices sometimes come with

hard consequences and that there are not always neat, fairy-tale endings.