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By Debra Hamel

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I've decided to stop accepting review copies. The downside of getting buried in free books is that reading increasingly becomes an obligatory act. After some seven years of blogging books, it's time for me to return to the simple pleasure of reading only the books I want to read, when I want to read them. The blog, however, will continue, and if you've got a good first line to share for TwitterLit please do so here.

From a random review:


August 2017: Book notices

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Claire North, The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August imagines a world in which a small percentage of the population are ouroborans or kalachakra--individuals who loop through time, reliving their lives indefinitely against a familiar historical backdrop. The big events don't change--at least, they're not supposed to--but the details of any specific life are what the individual makes it: you're born to the same parents, in the same place, but can choose a different career, a different spouse, a different college. The premise sets one thinking, and questions remain: as one Amazon reviewer noted, it's not clear what happens when one ouroboran dies. He goes back to his year of birth, but how does that timeline affect the others so afflicted? There is a villain in this book, with an Evil Scheme worthy of capital letters, but it's not entirely clear exactly what that scheme is. We know it's bad, but the details are sketchy. My only other complaint is that the book is longer than it needs to be. It's a richly imagined world, and that imagining takes time and pages, but still, I thought there were whole chapters that probably could have been lopped off without losing anything. At any rate, I don't want to dwell on these complaints, because I really enjoyed the book quite a lot, and found myself reading for long stretches when I should have been sleeping. It also brought back fond memories of Ken Grimwood's Replay, which has a similar theme and is highly recommended (my review).

Rachel Caine, Stillhouse Lake

This was a Kindle First selection in June of 2017, so in other words, it's probably not a book I would have known about had Amazon not offered a free copy to Prime members. Thank you, Amazon! What a taut, exciting read, from its grab-you-by-the-throat prologue to its cliffhanger ending. (The first thing I did upon finishing Stillhouse Lake was preorder its sequel, which is due out in December.) The book tells the story of "Gwen," the former wife of a psychopathic serial killer. She's now on the run, not so much from him but from the vigilantes who see her as complicit in her husband's crimes. She'll do anything to keep her kids safe, and of course she's called upon to do just that in this book. As far as I could tell, the story was perfectly constructed. At least, I didn't notice any problems as I was swiping furiously through the pages in the wee hours of the last couple of mornings. Looking forward to the sequel.

Penn Jillette, Presto

Presto is Penn Jillette's loose, somewhat rambling account of how he lost over a hundred pounds in the months before his 60th birthday in March of 2015. Confronted with the medical necessity of losing weight—the alternative was a stomach sleeve—Penn opted instead to go on a severely restricted diet under the mentorship of his friend Ray Cronise (and under the close scrutiny of medical doctors). The first part of this diet was a two-week potato fast—nothing but potatoes—and that was followed by the gradual reintroduction of other foods. Nowadays Penn eats mostly whole plants and is active and feeling better than he has in decades, for which, as a fan, I'm grateful.

Screen Shot 2017-08-11 at 3.54.35 PMMy daughters with Penn after a Penn and Teller
show in New York in the summer of 2015.

The book could have lost some weight itself: it's not the tangents that bother me—I kind of expect that (as well as a flood of curse words) when I'm reading something by Penn Jillette—but there was a lot of repetition in the book, and that could have been excised to good effect. Meanwhile, I have no interest in joining Penn on his extreme weight loss journey, because I couldn't handle the whole plant diet, but I do find the potato phase that he underwent intriguing. I've been inspired to read more about the idea in Tim Steele's The Potato Hack.

Paul Cleave, Trust No One

Jerry Grey is a successful crime novelist who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's at the age of only 49. As his dementia worsens, he begins losing the ability to separate his real life from the stories he's published. His behavior becomes increasingly unpredictable and problematic, and he winds up confessing to murder. The good news is that the crime he confesses to is from the pages of his first book. The bad news is that that book was based on a true story, the murder of Jerry's neighbor, and neither he nor we can be confident that Jerry is not in fact the knife-wielding sadist who killed the girl. There are other murders too, and Jerry looks pretty good for those crimes as well. The story jumps around, moving forward from Jerry's diagnosis, and it's picked up again later, after a major event that slowly gets pieced together. Jerry is quite the unreliable narrator, since his memory is spotty, and the information he gets from others may or may not be accurate. Part of the story is told by Jerry in his "Madness Journal," which he began writing early on as a way of reminding his future, forgetful self about things.

The story kept me guessing—although I actually guessed pretty well, as it turned out. The author cleverly keeps us and his protagonist in the dark, and it is all very confusing but nicely woven together, except for two things. First, the book should have been shorter. It dragged in parts, particularly the Madness Journal parts. And second, and more importantly, the Alzheimer's aspect of the plot just can't be taken seriously. As a patient with advanced dementia, Jerry is just far too competent, piecing clues together and reading his old notes, writing, making phone calls, getting around town. Plus he has an alter ego who is taking on a life of his own, as if a split personality is characteristic of the disease. So I kind of pretended that Jerry had some unspecified disease that diminished him mentally while allowing him to do the stuff he was allegedly doing, and that helped.

July 2017: Book notices

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Jimin Han, A Small Revolution

A Small Revolution was one of Amazon's Kindle First selections a few months ago. I grabbed it because it was free, although I probably wouldn't have otherwise. The book's description had things that appealed and things that didn't. On the plus side, a "tense standoff" with an unhinged gunman. But that was weighed down in my view by "abusive household" and "political protests." Ultimately, my first reaction to the book's description pretty much mirrored my reaction to the book itself. The story is about Korean-American student Yoona Lee, who's a freshman at college back when I was a freshman at college, 1985. The story alternates between the present—that tense standoff I mentioned—and the recent past, the summer that Yoona and her kidnapper spent in South Korea, when Yoona fell in love with Jaesung, another American student on tour there, against a backdrop of violent political protests. But something happened to Jaesung after she left. We find out about that in dribs and drabs as the story jumps back and forth in time, part of it addressed by Yoona to Jaesung as if in a letter. It's difficult to know exactly what happened. Finding out the truth is complicated for Yoona by the questionable evidence hinted at by her captor and by the difficulties inherent in international communication in the 1980s. It all feels very uncertain, in a nightmarish sort of way, as Yoona tries to piece things together in frustratingly small steps. I was frustrated reading it. The story was, to an extent, gripping, at least gripping enough for me to keep reading, bent as I was on reaching some clarity. But I finished the book just as frustrated, without finding any real answers—or at least not satisfying ones. 

Britney King, Water Under the Bridge

Water Under the Bridge is the first in a strange trilogy featuring a couple who find each other and fall in love, bonding, as so many do, over their shared interests. "Kate" (an assumed name) and Jude make a surprisingly endearing twosome considering that what they're primarily interested in is murder. He's an assassin; she gets antsy when she hasn't poisoned anyone in a while. They were made for each other. This outing tracks their relationship in chapters that alternative between his voice and hers, as they recount their shared history in what purports to be a series of letters to one another. The book may not be to everyone's taste, but I appreciate its dark comedy, particularly when Kate and Jude try to make a go of life in the suburbs: it's hard to bury bodies in your backyard when you've got neighbors nosing around the azaleas. Books two and three in the series are already available. I've got a sample of number two, Dead in the Water, warming a spot on my Kindle.

Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

There are some aspects of this book that I love, and some that really disappointed me. On the plus side, there is the setting, a quirky bookstore on an island off Cape Cod. It's run by a curmudgeonly widower, the titular A.J. Fikry, and he is joined by a supporting cast of quirky characters whom I would be happy to get to know better. The best part of the book has to do with Fikry's relationship with a publisher's sales rep, new to the job as the book opens, who periodically visits the island to try to convince him to order titles from her company's catalogue. They are both quick-witted, and their relationship is sweet and marked by charming banter. This is all good. Indeed, I could have spent a twelve-book series in this store and with these people, slowly watching their lives unfold over author events and the small dramas and mysteries of life. Alas, the story I would have enjoyed over 3000 pages is served to us in fewer than 300. There are parts of the book where we skip ahead years, as if the whole life of this A.J. Fikry simply must be shoehorned into the space of a single book. I hate this. For one thing, I find it depressing when whole years flash by with the turn of a page. But I also feel that these jumps forward in time distance us from the characters. The child we're getting to know at 5 is in high school a page or two later, and now we don't know her at all. And I really don't think there's any advantage to this approach, to our being shown so long a stretch of our characters' lives. A sliver of that time, delivered unrushed, would have been far sweeter.

June 2017: Book notices

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Blake Crouch, Good Behavior

Good Behavior  is a collection of three connected novellas about Letty Dobesh. She's a talented thief with demons--an unhappy childhood and a drug addiction that keeps sidelining her and that has separated her from her six-year-old son. I suppose I'm not keen on drug-addicted characters as a rule, but I like Letty, and I like the capers she gets involved in. Turns out, Crouch's novellas have spawned a TNT TV series, also titled Good Behavior. I have yet to see it, but it's now been added to my to-do list (as has Wayward Pines, which is based on Crouch's Wayward Pines trilogy--see my reviews). I'm not sure if there will be any more Letty Dobesh books, but if there are, I'll be reading them.

May 2017: Book notices

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Tim Tigner, Pushing Brilliance

Pushing Brilliance introduces Kyle Achilles, a former Olympic biathlete and CIA operative, who runs into some serious trouble when he goes to his father's 60th birthday/retirement party. Achilles ultimately has to prove himself and save the world, all while dodging hitmen and the authorities, but this is the sort of thing he excels at. He's a likable protagonist with formidable skills, not least of which is being able to climb up seemingly sheer buildings and cliff faces with the agility of a monkey. A fun read.

April 2017: Book notices

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Luke Smitherd, Kill Someone

The premise of this book appealed to me a lot. The doorbell rings, and our protagonist—21-year-old Chris Summers—is woken from a dead sleep into a nightmare. A pair of enigmatic villains at the front door introduce him to his new reality: Chris has to kill someone or five kidnapped girls will be dismembered and killed. There are a lot of intricate rules attached to the task they've assigned him, failure to follow which will have catastrophic consequences for the kidnapped girls. And the whole enterprise is so carefully planned out that Chris, from the moment he opens his front door that morning, really has no choice but to cooperate. We follow him as he tries to carry out the thugs' demands while coping with his conscience and fears. It's an interesting read, because it will surely get you thinking about the choices you would make in Chris's position—whom you would kill and how you'd do it. I liked pretty much everything about this book except for how the story ultimately played out. The mystery behind the enigmatic villains is ultimately cleared up, and, eh, that party really strains credibility for me and makes the book less satisfying. Nonetheless, this Luke Smitherd fellow seems to have an unusual sensibility. I think he's an author to watch.

January 2017: Book notices

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Caroline Eriksson, The Missing

The Missing begins with a nightmarish scenario. Greta goes out on a lake in a little boat with Alex and four-year-old Smilla. She stays in the boat while they get out to explore a small island. When Greta comes to from an apparent daydream, Alex and Smilla are simply gone. The reader can feel Greta's panic as she tries to find them, except that Greta doesn't respond as most of us do. Rather, her efforts to find them are leaden in the way that one's movements might be in a dream. She forgets what's she doing. She seems dull or slow or drugged. Maddeningly, she doesn't take the logical first step, or at least second step, which is to call the police and have them initiate a search. We soon come to distrust Greta's view of reality: Do Alex and Smilla in fact exist? If so, did Greta kill them and forget doing it? It's impressive that for a long time we really have no idea how much of what's happening is real. Still, the first part of the story is more annoying than not. The book becomes less annoying eventually, when answers to the story's mysteries begin to seep out through the gauze of the storytelling. Ultimately I'd say the book is satisfying, though there is one huge coincidence at the end that I believe remains unaccounted for. I'm not sorry to have read this one, but I come down very much in the middle on it.

Stephenie Meyer, The Chemist

I read and enjoyed Stephenie Meyer's Eclipse novels some ten years ago. (Huh. I'd forgotten the firestorm that erupted over the publication of the fourth book in that series! Check out my review: http://www.book-blog.com/2008/12/meyer-stephenie.html.) So I guess I'm not surprised that I liked The Chemist, but I am surprised at how different it was from her other books, not only in subject matter (no shiny vamps, nothing even fantastical), but in writing style. "Alex" is a former interrogator, whose nickname (The Chemist) comes from her preferred interrogation tools. But now she's on the run because her former employers want her dead. Her goal now is simply to stay alive, and she goes to great lengths—described in fascinating (to me) detail by Meyer—to keep her pursuers off her track and to ensure her safety should they find her. That's the status quo, but of course something happens to disrupt her routine. I really enjoyed this book and the trio of main characters, enough so that I kind of wish it were the beginning of a series. I don't think it will be, though.

Sholes, Lynn; Moore, Joe: Brain Trust

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Stone Creek Books © 2016, 374 pages [amazon]
4.5 stars

Brain Trust is the new stand-alone thriller by authors Lynn Sholes and Joe Moore, and I think it may be my favorite of theirs to date. The book tells the related stories of two characters. Maggie Hayden is the widowed mother of a math prodigy who's been having problems at school since his father's death. Maggie's life seems to be falling apart until a too-good-to-be-true job offer from out of the blue solves her financial and her son's social difficulties. She relocates to a planned community founded by her new employer, Reichert Pharmaceuticals. The other lead character is Brian Wheeler, who also works for Reichert, and who begins to suspect early on in the book that the company is up to no good. Maggie and Brian's stories eventually overlap, as they independently discover more information about Reichert and its nefarious plans.

For the most part, the book alternates between its two story lines every chapter. (There are just a couple of exceptions to this plan.) This approach can be problematic if it's poorly done, but it works very well in Brain Trust. First, the jumps between the stories were not at all jarring. With each chapter I immediately fell into the next story again without forgetting my place in it, or forgetting characters' names, for example. Second, both of the stories were equally compelling. I found this very impressive. And as with all the Sholes/Moore books I have read (a fair number now!), the authors' collaboration is seamless. I have no idea how they share the responsibility of writing, but I have never detected any differences in style within their books. Brain Trust is a good, fast read and comes recommended! (My thanks to the authors for sending me a review copy of the book.)

October 2016: Book notices

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Victoria Helen Stone, Evelyn, After

Evelyn, After is a romantic suspense novel that explores what happens after 40-something Evelyn Tester is woken in the middle of the night by a phone call. It turns out she has to stumble out of bed and meet her husband on an old deserted highway. What happens that night turns Evelyn's life upside down. The narrative skips around in time, alternating between "before" and "after" chapters, a device that does help build suspense. In the middle of the book it seems like the story has turned into pure romance, but happily that honeymoon doesn't last forever, and things get complicated again for the protagonist. I feel like the author has done a particularly good job portraying Evelyn's emotions, the ambivalence of her relationship with her husband. What she feels throughout this crisis seems real and honest to me. All in all, an enjoyable read.

Barry Eisler, The God's Eye View

Barry Eisler's stand-alone thriller The God's Eye feeds on modern fears of government overreach and privacy concerns in the wake of the Edward Snowden revelations. Evelyn Gallagher is an NSA analyst who winds up in serious trouble after she connects some dots her boss--the NSA director--would rather remain unconnected. Somehow she has to keep herself and her son safe, but what's the best way to do that when you're being watched...and listened to? Definitely a page turner, with a likable protagonist or two.

September 2016: Book notices

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Tim Tigner, Chasing Ivan

Kyle Achilles is a former Olympic biathlete turned CIA operative. In this novella, which I scored for free from the author's website, he's tracking down an elusive Russian bad guy they call Ivan, a man who's so careful to keep in the shadows that he's got contingency plans for his contingency plans. He seems to be set on influencing the outcome of the London mayoral election by getting his hands on the daughter of one of the candidates. Achilles and a colleague--an agent who's just completed training at The Farm--follow the girl to Monaco, and there are some very cool reconnaissance and action scenes on both their parts. I liked this one enough that I've purchased the first full novel in Tigner's Achilles series, Pushing Brilliance. (Wow. I just realized that Chasing Ivan and Pushing Brilliance are both self-published through Amazon. Now, I'm not really a snob when it comes to this--I've self-published myself--but you can usually tell when a manuscript hasn't been through the rigors of traditional publishing, even if it's just from the quality of the cover. Not in this case. I had no idea until now. Very impressed.)

T.H. White, The Once and Future King

I spent the summer reading this along with my daughter, who had been assigned it for summer homework prior to her freshman year in high school. This volume is actually a composite of four books that were initially published separately between 1938 and 1958. The first is rather different from the others. It is about the future King Arthur's experiences as a boy while he was being tutored by Merlyn. It's a series of adventures in which Arthur is turned into various animals by way of educating him about governance. It is the most like a children's story of the four books, and it is very, very dull for the most part--though King Pellinore and his Questing Beast are delightful. The second book tells the story of Arthur's nephews, who are destined to cause problems in the future. They're raised by a witch who--and this is almost the only thing I remember from the book--boils a cat alive for purposes of magic. It's a horrific but superbly written scene. But things actually get good in the third book, when Lancelot is introduced. His relationship with Arthur and Arthur's wife Guenever form the spine of books three and four. Their love triangle--for they all love one another--is tragic and nuanced. The book is over-long, if one can criticize a classic such as this: so much detail; and those tiresome animal stories at the beginning would turn off many a reader. It's as if White wanted to weed out the chaff among his readers and save the better stuff for the hardy few. But ultimately it is worth the read, and it ends well, with the final chapter of book four summing things up well.

Bill Bryson, Notes From a Small Island

Bill Bryson grew up in Iowa and moved to England in 1973. After twenty years there, he moved back to the U.S., but before he did took a tour of the U.K., mostly by public transport and with a view to writing about his adventures. Hence this book, which is the first I've read from the author (though I did see the Robert Redford movie that resulted from his Appalachian Trail book, A Walk in the Woods). Bryson likes to walk. He admires good architecture. He loves England--its people, its oddities, its land. He's a clever, often outright funny writer, and I now understand why he's had such success as a travel writer. He's curmudgeonly, and every now and again come off as an arrogant jerk, but it's possible that he exaggerates when describing those incidents and isn't in real life as obnoxious as he portrays himself. Reading this book, one feels something of his admiration for England, though I'm prone to that to begin with (albeit having never been there). I do wish that the book included photos of the places he describes, and lots of them, but there are none. Also maps. There are no maps! I very much wanted to follow along with Bryson's journey in some handy way. I think it would also have been a bit more interesting to me if I were familiar with the areas he describes. I'd sign up for a book detailing his jaunts through Connecticut, for example--though I suspect knowing the place would also make a reader more likely to find Bryson's observations annoying, as they are so often negative!

Dudman, Clare: 98 Reasons for Being

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Penguin © 2006, 352 pages [amazon]
5 stars

I wrote of Clare Dudman's novel One Day the Ice Will Reveal All Its Dead that it is "equal parts science and poetry." Something similar could be said of her book 98 Reasons for Being, which tells the story of the historical Dr. Heinrich Hoffmann. He was the author of Struwwelpeter, or Shockheaded Peter, a German children's book of rhymed stories about, usually, naughty children and the horrible consequences of their misbehavior. Struwwelpeter was a big deal, wildly popular and much translated, but the Hoffmann on these pages, at least, was more concerned with his true calling in life: he served as doctor at Frankfurt's lunatic asylum in the mid-19th century. Dudman brings Hoffmann to life in these pages as he becomes obsessed with curing a new arrival at the asylum, a young Jewish woman, Hannah, who does not speak initially and seems mired in an overwhelming sadness. After the usual cures prove ineffective—and here the horrors of pre-modern psychiatric treatment are on display—Hoffmann adopts a radical approach: talking. His story, and then hers, slowly drip out during their sessions, so that the source of her misery is finally revealed while his trials and character are likewise laid bare. At the same time, the lives of the other residents of the asylum are explored, both the inmates and the attendants, who live on-site for extended periods. These are all fleshed out characters, very real in their faults and sorrows. It's all deeply moving and sad, in large part, and beautifully written throughout. Every time I opened the book I was spellbound by it. It is an added treat that some of Hoffmann's stories are featured in the book, fit between the chapters, and they are surprisingly relevant to the surrounding story.

About the blogger: Debra is the mother of two preternaturally attractive girls and the author of a number of books about ancient Greece, including Trying Neaira: The True Story of a Courtesan's Scandalous Life in Ancient Greece. She writes and blogs from her subterranean lair in North Haven, CT. Read more.


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