Friday, June 24, 2016

Book Review: The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton

This book started off slowly for me, but really picked up speed at the end.

Kevin and his family suddenly move to his grandfather's house in Appalachia in Kentucky after Kevin's brother dies. It's in the early days of mountaintop mining when it's destructiveness wasn't quite clear to everyone (although very plain to some.) Throughout the summer Kevin hangs out with Buzzy and helps his grandfather with his veterinarian practice. At the end of the summer, his grandfather takes Kevin and Buzzy on a fishing trip that will change everyone's lives.

 The book was very atmospheric and I liked the setting and the time (very early '80s). Kevin is a likable character and even though he's an outsider, he gets involved in the town quickly, mostly due to the very small size of the town and his grandfather's prominence as one of the few educated people in the area. Mr. Scotton did a great job of capturing the region and era, and also of recreating a bored, dusty summer in a way we can never have again thanks to cable TV, internet, and smart phones. At the end, I couldn't put the book down.

I checked this book out of the library.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Book Review: The Girls by Emma Cline

I have mixed feelings about The Girls. In it Evie, a fourteen-year-old living near San Francisco and spending a boring summer at home with her newly divorced--and dating--mother in 1969, meets a hypnotic group of slightly older girls. She hangs out with them at their commune of sorts, steals for them, eventually meets the man who is their de facto leader, and at some point when you're reading this, you realize this novel is based on Charles Manson and his cult.

I found it brilliantly written. Ms. Cline's turns of phrase are often crystalline and perfect. It was also very easy and a fast read—I zipped through it in just about 3 days. I felt completely immersed in the atmosphere of the place and time. However, when I reflected on it further, some issues came up for me. I found the framework not really necessary, and jarring each and every time it came back into the story. I found Evie to be a convenient character who easily became an insider in the cult, while remaining an outsider. I found the descriptions of the cult rather sanitized, where the worst things were neglect of children, bad food, and filthiness (I’m pretty sure most cults are in situations much, much worse, although a lot of the badness of them is going to be somewhat hidden to the casual interloper). Evie stepped up to the edge of going on the murder spree, and then conveniently was shoved out. She didn’t make that decision, which I know was part of Ms. Cline’s point—that many of us actually could have ended up in the shoes of the murderers if we’d experienced what they had—but at the same time, it was a cop-out to not have her think it through, not have her make the hard choice, have it foisted upon her. She was a pretty bland character without much personality. And then I felt like the leap from being used sexually with some minor drug use, on to murder was too much of a leap. There should have been a more gradual escalation of the final insanity. But I think that would have been hard to write, not to mention hard to pull off with Evie still going home to her mother and the contrast she’s see there, given that as the avatar for the reader, she likely would never be put in a position of fully drinking the Kool-aid. It felt to me like Emma Cline, like Evie, walked up to the edge of a great novel, but then backed away.

Now, that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. But it’s sad to see something that could have been amazing and instead is just really good. That said, if you don't think about it too much afterwards, I'm sure most readers will love it, which makes for a terrific summer read.

I got this book for free at Winter Institute.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Book Review: Another One Goes Tonight by Peter Lovesey

When I read this book I was expecting a fairly traditional British mystery, maybe quirky, maybe boring. I wasn't quite sure. I knew Lovesey was respected, but successful mystery writers can still vary a lot in quality in my experience. I was pleasantly surprised!

The premise is interesting: A cop is killed and his partner badly injured in an accident. While investigating, a detective assigned to the crash, Peter Diamond, accidentally finds a third victim, a civilian. This takes the whole investigation to a new level as it now seems the police might have hit and possibly killed an elderly man on a bicycle, which would be a terrible news story for the police, if it is true. So Diamond has to look into it thoroughly and fast. What he finds is bad. The civilian victim might himself be a killer. As he struggles to survive, Diamond and his colleague pry into the man's life, into his love of trains, and into his interest in how to kill without being detected. There do seem to be an awful lot of supposedly innocent deaths around the man.

The red herrings were (to me) completely convincing. I didn't see the ending coming at all, but when it did, I could see the subtle set-ups that really worked. I liked Diamond, who was torn, after having saved the life of this man who might turn out to be a serial killer, and who had to investigate him even if what he found out might make him regret having given him CPR. And the train nuts were fascinating and hilarious. This book kept me turning the pages!

This book is published by Soho Press, my employer.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Book Review: Murder on the Quai by Cara Black

The perfect entrance to a long-time series is a prequel like this one, explaining how Aimee Leduc became a private investigator. I have not read any other books in the series so this was just right for me. Aimee is a university student who picks up some side work for her father, a private investigator himself, in between classes, but when he doesn't return quickly from his sudden trip to Germany, Aimee continues to look into the mysterious circumstances, even though they might not be able to bill for her time, and she could be in real trouble if she gets caught out anywhere, as her PI license is a forgery.

The action moved forward quickly and we are taken on a whip-fast trip around Paris and beyond, with multiple narrative threads to follow, and a few items that seemed unnecessary or given uneven weight, but I am pretty sure those are parts explaining the introduction of characters who are more important in the series generally, and so those scenes mean more to people already familiar to her world. She takes foolish risks but I suppose that's a character trait almost necessary in a private investigator. And while a part of this book involved flashbacks to WWII, and I do have a moratorium on WWII this year, those were handled well and didn't annoy me or feel like I've read them a hundred times before. They also didn't take over the book as WWII often does.

Overall, a solid mystery where I felt like I almost had all the clues and if I just sat down and thought about it, I could probably figure it out, but I didn't which was also nice (I hate when I figure out the twist early on or easily and the book feels like a waste of time. And the characters seem dumb for not figuring it out. Or the author is being unfair by giving readers too much information beyond what the main character has.) Well done.

This book is published by Soho Press, my employer.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Where I've Been

Sorry to have pretty much vanished for the last two months! A lot has changed around here. I accepted a job as Sales Manager at Soho Press in NYC, which meant I had to move, and as my husband was still finishing up grad school, it meant I really had to do all the moving myself. So last month we arrived in Montclair, NJ. He went back to NC to finish up the semester and got here permanently 2 weeks ago. I however, started my new job immediately so it's been a heck of a lot to keep up with. And I didn't get much reading done.

But as we start to settle in, I am reading more, and we should get our internet hooked up today (fingers crossed; the first time didn't work) so I ought to be able to get back to blogging. From now on, about half of my books will be Soho books. And unlike my previous reviews where I've been pretty open about disliking a book, I might not be as straightforward about Soho titles. I will mark them in the disclaimer at the bottom of every review, so do take that with a grain of salt. So far I have thoroughly enjoyed the ones I've read. But at the beginning, mostly I get to choose what's appealing to me, so that might not last forever. And I am still reading books for pleasure as well, so those will be mixed in.

I am loving my new job! Soho Press is a small publisher but producing the books of a mid-sized publisher. We are mostly known for international mysteries, but personally I think a better descriptor is that in Soho books, setting and place are as important as the other elements of the story. Soho also publishes literary novels, and started a young adult imprint, Soho Teen, a couple of years ago. We are distributed and sold by Random House so most of my job consists of being a liaison with them.

So, that's why I've been fairly silent for the last 2-3 months. Hopefully I'll be able to start posting more regularly! And thanks for your patience!

Book Review: Behave by Andromeda Romano-Lax

Rosalie Watson deserves to be every bit as famous as her husband, Dr. John Watson (some might even argue more so because while she did subscribe to a lot of his nutty beliefs about behaviorism, she wasn't as hardcore as he was.) And in this novel, she finally gets her due.

Dr. Watson was a professor at Johns Hopkins, where Rosalie was doing graduate work after graduating from Vassar. She assisted with his studies, particularly his most famous study about "Baby Albert." while he was married at the time, rumor began to circulate about them, and eventually it all came to a head and he had to get divorced and they had to get married quickly to try to tamp down the scandal. It didn't work, and John ended up working in advertising. Rosalie ended up raising their two sons, working as John's secretary and co-author on papers and eventually on their best-selling parenting books.

What was most intriguing to me about this book was simply trying to imagine who could be married to this man and raise his children? He firmly believed that parents did nothing but mess up their kids. He advocating removing all children from their parents at birth to be raised on "baby farms." He believed everything good was nature and everything bad was nurture. How do you raise this man's children?

What I truly found fascinating was how enlightened Rosalie and her family were--how whether she was going to go to grad school was never a question, and how much she wanted to go back to work even if it was impractical (and therefore she didn't for a long time, although she sure kept her hand in, assisting John.) It's rare in that era. Also unusual was reading a book that went right through the 1930s, without the people involved being terribly affected by the Depression. They stayed employed and didn't become impoverished. That's how the majority of Americans did experience the Depression--as hard but not catastrophic--but it's a perspective rarely depicted in literature of that decade.

If you like historical fiction, particularly of women who have been overlooked by history, this is a captivating read.

This book is published by Soho Press, my employer.