Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Weirdness

Not sure how I got onto this book by Jeremy P. Bushnell, but it certainly lived up to its name. Billy Ridgeway is a bit of a space cadet, holding down a job making sandwiches while maintaining that his real vocation is as a writer. Unfortunately, nothing he has written has ever gotten wider approval, or even Billy's own. Fellow writer Anil, who also works at the sandwich shop has been Billy friend for a long time and puts up with his philosophical maunderings about things like where bananas come from. Waking one morning with a bad hangover, Billy finds a well-dressed man in his living room who claims to be Lucifer Morningstar, and he offers to make Billy a famous novelist if Billy will just retrieve his lucky Neko cat from a dangerous warlock. Billy IS smart enough to resist--at first. But Billy's life nevertheless begins to unwind in serious and dangerous fashion and it turns out that the devil may be the least of his problems. I was not sure I was going to finish this, but eventually I did get hooked. Billy is not exactly a character it's easy to empathize with or even feel sorry for--he just seems so aimless. But the cast of characters and the plots developments are unpredictable and entertaining, so I would give it a thumbs up.

Uprooted

This fantasy novel by Naomi Novik (one I read for my SF/Fantasy book group) was really meaty and satisfying...enough so that I have dived into the beginning book of her "Temeraire" dragon series. This is apparently a departure from her previous war-focused novels and reads more like a fairy tale. Once upon a time, there was a beautiful valley in some place like Poland, with a river connecting the small villages, mountains in the backgrounds and a terrible and malevolent Wood that wants to devour everything. The villages are protected largely by one of the King's wizards who lives in a tower across the river. Every 10 years, he comes to the collective celebration of the villages to choose one young woman to serve him for the next 10 years. Everyone knows that loyal, beautiful and smart Kasia will be the one chosen, but she is Agnieszka's best friend and Agnieszka is terrified of losing her. Surprisingly, the wizard Sarkan, known to the villagers as The Dragon, takes Agnieszka instead. Eventually she realizes that she has magical powers of her own, which The Dragon works desperately to enhance and refine, because it seems clear that the Wood is getting ready. When Kasia is taken by the Wood, Agnieszka  finds a way to rescue her and this gets back to the Prince, who is the next in line to the throne. The Prince forces Agnieszka, Kasia and the Dragon to join him on a suicidal mission to rescue his mother who was taken  by the Wood 20 years ago. Just when you think the story is resolving, another whole thread of the plot is taken up and woven in. Wonderful strong female protagonist that should appeal to older teens and adults alike. The book has been optioned by Warner Brothers for a film.

The Asset

In this novel by Shane Kuhn, our protagonist is a man who lives an existence driven by guilt  because he ignored his sister's request to fly home with her and the plane was one of those that crashed into the twin towers on 9/11. Since then, Kennedy has studied behavioral indicators of terrorists, notably with the Israelis, and has become the "go-to" trainer for TSA agents in the United States and abroad. He practically lives on airplanes, and when he is "home" in LA, he lives in a hotel. He is approached by the CIA to help determine what sort of master plan is going to be implemented by a nearly invisible terrorist who manipulates world events from behind the scenes to keep himself funded. Kennedy initially agrees to help, then quits when two sleeper terrorists working as TSA agents are killed. When he decides he wants back in, he has to prove his value by tracking down the terrorist on his own, with a little help from his sister's former best friend, pop star Love.
This is a very twisty plot and you trust all the wrong people along the way, but it draws you in and along until the very end when the resolution is just so unbelievable. Kennedy single-handedly disarms a nuclear weapon set to go off in Atlanta airport and ultimately becomes a member of the CIA, along with his new love, Love.

Night Shift

I am a Charlaine Harris junky, having read 2 previous series (Sookie Stackhouse and Lily Bard) in their entirety, several of the Aurora Teagarden and Harper Connelly series, and everything previously published in this newest series about Midnight, Texas. Midnight's residents are disturbed by people coming to kill themselves at the exact center of the crossroads that is the apparent reason for the town's existence. A large and scary voice is beginning to talk to Fiji, claiming it wants to make her happy by killing those who have been mean to her. Lemuel is still desperately trying to translate the books found hidden in the pawn shop that he believes will reveal what is driving this spate of suicides. Fiji, meanwhile, has broken up with Bobo--at least in her mind, although her heart and body don't seem to want to fall in line. When it turns out that a demon banished 250 years ago is about to re-emerge at the crossroads, and that only the blood of a witch can stop him from taking power and destroying the world, Fiji comes under a bit of pressure to perform a public deflowering on the site. Lots of other developments among the unusual populace keep this story rich and entertaining. There is a map of Midnight on the front and back end papers which is always a treat. Highly recommended if you like the supernatural. You don't have to have read the previous two installments (Day Shift and Midnight Crossroad) but why wouldn't you?!

Boar Island

The newest in the "Anna Pigeon" series by Nevada Barr is set on an island off the coast of Maine adjacent to Acadia National Park. Since Hal and I will be headed there in a couple of weeks, I was especially interested, although Nevada Barr has always been a favorite (see previous blog on Destroyer Angel). Anna's goddaughter Elizabeth is being cyberstalked and bullied after she is grabbed and fondled by her best friend's husband. At first Elizabeth thinks her friend has started the smear campaign, but when Anna and Heath (Elizabeth's adoptive mother) confront the family they deny everything. Anna is suddenly assigned to be acting Chief Ranger at Acadia while their regular Chief is off fighting fires. Heath's pediatric surgeon aunt, Gwen, comes up with the brilliant idea to go visit friends who own Boar Island and get Elizabeth et al. away from bad situation in Boulder.
In a thread that will soon tie in, we learn about Ranger Denise Castle, who is still seething about being dumped after 11 years together with Superintendent Peter Barnes. Now Peter is married and has a daughter, after forcing Denise to have an abortion. Denise discovers she has a twin; they were separated and put up for adoption at birth. Denise lived a horror story of foster homes until finding her place in the National Park Service. Sister Paulette has been living with an abusive husband since she was 16, who beat her during both pregnancies, causing miscarriages. Denise begins to formulate a grand plan for them to get away and be together, starting with killing Paulette's husband.
Meanwhile, the stalker appears to have followed Elizabeth to Maine and is now demanding an in-person meeting in order to stop the harassment. Anna is pulled to investigate both the murder of Paulette's husband, even though it is technically outside her jurisdiction, and so becomes a target for Denise.  It is a fast-paced, tense story line, but not a lot of description of the park, which was a disappointment. Still, you can't go wrong with this series. 

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Death on the Sapphire

This is the first of an intended series featuring Edwardian-era Lady Frances Ffolkes by R. S. Koreto. She is an unusual woman in so many respects. She persuaded her parents--over vigorous objections--to let her travel to America for a college education. Her mother's winning argument was that is Frances did outlandish things, fewer of their friends would hear about it! Of course she has come back to London, bolstered in her beliefs about the independence of women and is an active and ardent supporter of the Suffragist movement as well as many other charities. She works one night a week at the soup kitchen and so has up-close knowledge of the disparities between the classes. When the sister of her older brother's best friend call Frances for help in finding her dead brother's final memoir manuscript, Frances stirs up a lot of fear and violence. Because it turns out that the manuscript of this former British officer in the Boer wars plans to reveal how his men were sent into a suicide mission by traditionalists back home who could not accommodate to the new style of guerrilla warfare being waged there. Powerful people do NOT want this information to come out and those who have knowledge of the events are quickly disappearing. Frances contacts Scotland Yard, who in turn put her in touch with the new secret service and this sets alarm bells ringing for her and trusty lady's maid, June Mallow. Frances begins to think that Major Colcombe's death was murder and not an accident. Loyalty in all sorts of forms drives the actors in this story and the characters are very well developed. Setting is also well described and evocative. Definitely a superior read to the earlier book I reviewed with basically the same settings and similar pair of protagonists (lady and her maid, see Death Sits Down to Dinner). Review here from Publishers Weekly

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Wind is Not a River

This 2nd novel from Brian Payton tells the story of a much under-reported side of America's involvement in WWII. When the Japanese bombed Dutch Harbor and then invaded the islands of Kiska and Attu in the Alaskan chain of Aleutian islands, the U.S. military kicked out all the reporters, evacuated the natives to warehouse camps on the mainland, and destroyed their villages so the Japanese could not use them. They then proceeded to try and bomb the Japanese off the islands. The government did not want the general population to know we had been invaded. This was the only theatre of WWII fought on U.S. soil.  National Geographic journalist John Easley has defied the ban by taking his recently dead brother's identity papers from the Canadian Air Force and hitching a ride on a bomber, which was then shot down near Attu. The story is told alternately by John, who is trying to evade capture by the Japanese, starvation, and freezing to death, and by his wife Helen, who leaves her ailing father in Seattle and resolves to find John by joining a USO troupe going to Alaska. The story is absolutely compelling, beautifully and heart-breakingly told from both their points of view. Not a happy ending, but a totally believable one.
For a quick summary of why the book is titled as it is, see the last paragraph of this review in the NYT.  Also a very thoughtful review in the Chicago Tribune.