Monday, September 18, 2017

The Underground River

Title:  The Underground River
Author:  Martha Conway
Publication Information:  Touchstone. 2017. 352 pages.
ISBN:  1501160206 / 978-1501160202

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "When the steamboat Moselle blew apart just off its Cincinnati landing, I was sitting below deck in the ladies' cabin, sewing tea leaves into little muslin bags and plotting revenge on my cousin Comfort for laughing at me during dinner."

Favorite Quote:  "We want to believe a story is true. We use our imagination to convince ourselves. We can't help it."

Much history has been written of the underground railroad, an informal networks of home and individuals that provided a path for those escaping slavery in the United States. So, the premise of this book about following a similar path on the "underground river" in the 1800s intrigues me.

History also tells of numerous, courageous abolitionists who risk everything for their beliefs that slavery always has been and always will be wrong. The premise of this book about a woman who becomes a coerced helper in this endeavor intrigues me. May gets involved in the underground journey because she has a debt to pay; she have never been exposed much to or thought much about the horrible institution of slavery. The idea of following on her journey of learning and her ultimate belief in what she is doing intrigues me. The potential for a story of an awakening intrigues me.

All of this, of course, is from the book description. That description and the cover are what lead me to pick up this book. Unfortunately, the book does not deliver what I expect, and I end the book disappointed. Based on my expectations, I am not the reader for this book.

Primarily, I expect a story of slavery - those who wish to perpetuate it, those who hope to escape it, and those who help along the way. That story is in the book, but it does not enter the book until almost half way through. The first half of the book is about a riverboat theater and the cast of characters who call it home. There is a brewing love story, descriptions of the riverboat and theater cultures, and the stories of relationships and conflicts that arise living in such close quarters.

The story centers around May, who joins the riverboat theater after she is essentially abandoned by her cousin Comfort Vertue (yes, that is the name). The key character trait stressed about May is, "I can be very literal ... when I talk ... I say what I think." This is further elaborated into the fact that May thinks herself incapable of lying. This, of course, is put to the test as she gets involved in the underground river. The only issue is that this trait is stressed over and over again. It is stressed not through actions, but essentially repeated many times over in words. After while, my reaction is that I get it. May is literal. Move on. Tell me something else.

That leads to my third issue in the book. It tells a story. That's what a book is supposed to do, right? Yes, up to a point. However, the books that pull me in are the ones that don't seem to tell the story. Rather, the characters appear to be living the story. This book, for me, never reaches that point. Hence, I am never fully engaged in the characters or the plot. That, to me, is disappointing for a book whose premise holds such promise.


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Thursday, September 14, 2017

The List

Title:  The List
Author:  Patricia Forde
Publication Information:  Sourcebooks. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1492647969 / 978-1492647966

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Smith Fearful was a scavenger."

Favorite Quote:  "Without words, we will be imprisoned in the here and now forever ... The here and now is only the smallest part of who were are. Each of us is all that we have been, all our stories, all that we could be."

The List is a middle grade book that is based on the interesting premise that if you control people's ability to communicate, you control their actions and hence their impact on the world. Limits communication and you limit an individual's ability to influence their environment.

The List is set in a post-apocalyptic, dystopian world where man's abuse of Earth has caused The Melting, a literal melting of the polar ice caps. One man, Noa, saw it coming and successfully built a place called the Ark. The names in this book are not the most creative ones, but perhaps that is because it is geared towards a younger audience, and more obvious connections influence comprehension.

Noa seeks to create a world - to save the world - but according to his rules. Control and force are the source of his power. A key tenet of the Ark is to limit communication. Music and the arts have been forbidden. Language itself is limited to, as you might guess from the title, a list. The list is about 500 words but getting shorter by Noa's decree. Certain professions have additional words specific to their work, but those are to be used only by specific people and in specific circumstances. Beyond that, words are whittled down to what Noa considers the essentials.

Benjamin is the wordsmith of the Ark. His job is to collect errant words and be the keeper of the list. Letter (makes me think letter?) is his twelve year old apprentice. As often happens in such books, her childhood has a tragic story. Sadly, in his word searching, Benjamin disappears, and Letta becomes the official wordsmith.


Of course, she learns that things are not always what they seem in the Ark, and that the individual viewed as the savior of this community may have other plans. Conflict between the two sides persists.  Note that the book does have scenes of violence and some descriptions of torture. Parents and teachers should determine its appropriateness for their middle grade audience.

As a adult reading the book, the story has two competing forces - the power and love of language and the environmental statement on the destruction of Earth by man. It is the environmental message that is at the heart of this book. Language is a means to control man towards Noa's environmental goals. Interestingly, for a book with a strong environmental message, the story includes no real if age-appropriate scientific information. Only one character is depicted as a scientist, and he exists on the periphery of the Ark society.

In fact, in a story of the past, Benjamin tells Letta about how "they [scientists] were seen as the enemy, the people who had opposed the Green Warriors before the Melting. There was no place for them in Ark." It is unclear how to balance that with the fact that current science is pointing out the dangers of man's abuse of earth. It is, in fact, the scientists leading the charge for environmental protection, and others who undermine science. On that point, the story may be confusing for a young audience. Which side is science on?

What I do leave the book with is the love and necessity of language. I can't imagine limiting it to a list. I can, however, imagine being a wordsmith whose life's work is to gather words.


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Monday, September 11, 2017

The Readymade Thief

Title:  The Readymade Thief
Author:  Augustus Rose
Publication Information:  Viking. 2017. 384 pages.
ISBN:  0735221839 / 978-0735221833

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "To make your way to the DePaul Aquarium and Museum of Natural History, on Petty Island in the middle of the Delaware River, you can drive through New Jersey and over the only bridge."

Favorite Quote:  "What do you do when the one true thing in your life turns out to be a lie?"

The story of the thief begins in the middle. Someone from the past has found her, and she does not want to be found. Lee Cuddy is only seventeen years old and has already been through a lot in her life. She is living on the periphery of society, under the radar, making do as best as she can.

There is a lot going on in this book. Shoplifting. Teenage angst. Child abuse. Homeless teenagers. Criminal cults. Murder. Physics theories. Ancient codes embedded in art work. Internet hackers. Sex trade. Drugs. Corruption. Love story. Teenage pregnancy. Those are just the things I remember.

It makes for an entertaining read up to a point. After a while, too much becomes just that. Too much. Following Lee's story is like jumping from one thing to the next to the next to the next. The fact that the book starts in the middle adds to that feeling because the story both moves forward and fills in the back story. So, the jumps occur in all directions. Oddly, even with all that encapsulated in one book, the book is at times slow moving. Overall, I keep thinking that less may have been more in this situation.

The connections in Lee's story are also at times unbelievable. Chance plays a big factor. People in Lee's seem either really really evil towards her or really really nice. Even some people who are complete strangers help her in a way that is not entirely believable. Even when they suffer for it, they continue to help. Yes, people like that exist in the world. However, the characters in this book are either one extreme or the other, and that is not realistic.

The scientific bent and the connection to the art world in this book comes through the works of Marcel Duchamp, a French artist. The book features the Société Anonyme as the name of a group. Duchamp with others started a society by that name for the promotion, exhibit, and collection of art. His piece, The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (also known as The Large Glass), is the work around which this story centers. Interestingly, Duchamp also had a series of works knows as the Readymades, found objects which he chose to collect and exhibit as art. That connection is not followed in the book, but makes for a possible reason for the title.

The connection to the art world has led to a comparison of this book to Dan Brown's books. For me, that comparison does a disservice to this book. The book does feature Marcel Duchamp's art works, but there is so much else going on that it becomes just a part of the story not the heart of the story as it is with Dan Brown's books. In addition, while the book itself is atmospheric and descriptive, that descriptive style does not extend to the works of art being discussed. In fact, having read the book, I can visualize the fictional places and events described but cannot visualize the real art pieces. I enjoyed learning about the work through the research I did while reading.

The imaginative and colorful descriptions of the places in the book are my favorite part. An abandoned museum. Underground tunnels that wind their way through the city. A building with a clown's head. A building called the Crystal Castle. The vivid descriptions create a suitably creepy and dark atmosphere that underlies this story and remains the most memorable part of the writing.


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Sunday, September 10, 2017

The Dying Game

Title:  The Dying Game
Author:  Asa Avdic
Publication Information:  Penguin Books. 2017. 288 pages.
ISBN:  0143131796 / 978-0143131793

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "One afternoon, the unit secretary came into my office."

Favorite Quote:  "Wink murder ... It goes like this:  One person is randomly chosen as a murderer and another is the detective. The other players, the victims, know who the detective is, but they don't know the murderer. Then everyone walks around the room. The murderer kills people by discreetly winking at them. When someone gets blinked at, they fall down dead. When the detective thinks he knows who the murderer is, he accuses the suspect. If the detective is right, he wins; if not, the murderer wins."

The year is 2037, and the world is not the one we know. Most of Europe operates under a benignly named but strictly controlled Union of Friendship. The game is real except it is not really a game. The rules are real except that each person thinks they are playing different game, and each person is given a different set of rules.

The reader knows the role Anna Francis plays and the rules she is given. What the actual goal of this project is keeps me wondering throughout the book. I guess at where it is going but do not guess correctly as to how. The "how" is the roller coaster ride of this book which the reader takes right along with Anna Francis.

Anna Francis knows only her work. Anna's mother is raising Anna's daughter; a father is not in the picture. A secret - a disaster both personal and professional from Anna's perspective - in her past has brought her from the forefront of major projects to a bureaucratic office job in Stockholm. Anna is given the "opportunity" to take on a new project to help with the recruitment of a new member for the RAN project. The book never explains what the RAN project is except to imply that the project is beyond top secret, and its members are a very elite group. Anna is asked to give a few days of her life to observe the candidates for this position as they are placed in a field test on the remote, secluded island of Isola.

Oh, and, she will be presumed dead for most of those days. That is indeed the test as Anna understands it. The candidates are to be led to believe that Anna has been murdered by one of them. With no way on to or off the island, how will that impact those who remain. The objective is to see how the individuals handle that situation. Anna is given an entire secret realm underneath and throughout the house from which to observe and report. That is the test. Or is it?

Once Anna is on the island, nothing is quite as she envisioned. Someone completely unexpected from Anna's past is part of this situation. Anna's "death" is staged as planned, but then events don't go quite as Anna or the other individuals on the island have been led to expect. New relationships are formed. Old relationships are rekindled. People appear to die. People disappear. Storms hit the island. Communication is cut off. Transportation is cutoff. The scenario is perhaps not as controlled as it was put forth by the project coordinators. Or is it?

Different perspectives throughout the book fill in some holes in the narrative, but the ending of the book leaves loose ends. What is the RAN project? What is the story of the man from Anna's past? What completely is Anna's story? What happens next? This last question arises not because the story feels incomplete but because Anna's character becomes real and I want to know. This last question is what warrants the success of this storytelling. I am left wondering what happens next and questioning if sequel will come to explain more. I want to know.


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Saturday, September 9, 2017

The Address

Title:  The Address
Author:  Fiona Davis
Publication Information:  Dutton. 2017. 368 pages.
ISBN:  152474199X / 78-1524741990

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "The sight of a child teetering on the window ledge of room 510 turned Sara's world upside down."

Favorite Quote:  "Sometimes we don't know the answer."

Two women. Two time period. One city. One beautiful old building. A past that dreams of a future. A present that looks to the past for answers. A host of intrigue and secrets that connects all of it. A book that tells both stories in alternating sections, winding them closer and closer together until by the end, all the connections are revealed, and the story of the past ends, and the story of the present finds a path forward. This is structure used by many books including Fiona Davis's book The Dollhouse, and it usually makes for an entertaining story.

In this book, the past is Sara Smythe in the 1880s. She works in a London hotel and cares for her ill mother. Life seems to hold no further prospects. A chance encounter offers her the opportunity to start a new life in the United States. She comes to New York, starts over, and her life goes in a direction she could never have imagined.

The story of the present is Bailey Camden in 1984. She is recovering party girl just out of rehab. Her issues have cost her friends and her job. Life seems to hold very few prospects. Her wealthy cousin Melinda's bounty offers her a chance to start over. She takes it, and it puts her on a path she could never have imagined.

See the parallels yet?

What first draws the two stories together is the location. Located at the corner of 72nd Street and Central Park West in Manhattan, the Dakota is a co-op apartment building considered one of New York's best addresses. In fact, it was the once home to John Lennon and the location of his death. However, when it was built in 1884, it was purposefully named The Dakota because its location was considered as remote to the main sections of Manhattan as the far-off Dakota Territories.

Sara comes to the Dakota in 1884 when the project architect Theodore Camden offers her a job at the Dakota. Theodore Camden is also Melinda and Bailey's grandfather. Melinda is descended from the children Theodore Camden claimed with his wife. Bailey is the daughter of a child Theodore and his wife raised. The Camden estate belongs to the direct descendants, leaving Bailey with the name but no inheritance.

The story continues to weave back and forth as Sara sets up the new building, and Bailey works on a project to remodel one of the units. Secondary characters and romances enter in the picture. Underlying it all is the history and grandeur of the building itself. Through Sara's eyes, the reader sees the initial construction and decor, and through Bailey's eyes, the reader witnesses the attempts to preserve that history and the destruction of that initial vision in the name of modernization.

As with most books such as this one, one time period calls to me more. In this case, Sara's story is the more compelling one, given the plot and the historical richness of the time period. Overall the book is an entertaining story and an intriguing look inside a landmark building.


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Friday, September 8, 2017

Hum if You Don't Know the Words

Title:  Hum if You Don't Know the Words
Author:  Bianca Marais
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2017. 432 pages.
ISBN:  0399575065 / 978-0399575068

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I joined up the last two lines of the hopscotch grid and wrote a big '10' in top square."

Favorite Quote:  "What greater gift can you give another than to say:  I see you, I hear you, and you are not alone?"

A mother wonders how to keep her daughter safe. A daughter wonders if, with her parents gone, safety is ever possible. Beauty and Robin - a woman and a girl - find their lives forever altered in the Soweto Uprising in 1976 in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The history that is the basis of this book is as follows. Thousands of Black South African students rose in protests over a decree that introduced Afrikaans as a language of instruction in Soweto school. The language, associated with apartheid, has been termed by Desmond Tutu as "the language of the oppressor." Johannesburg police responded with force. Police released the death count at 200, but most reports set the number much higher.

In this book, Beauty Mbali is Xhosa woman from a rural village in Transkei. She is educated, a teacher herself, and a single parent after the death of her husband in the mines. She comes to Johannesburg in search her seventeen year old daughter, who is a student in Johannesburg. Beauty learns that Nomsa is one of the leaders in the uprising and is now missing. Beauty's one instinct as a mother is to bring her daughter home to safety.

Robin is a nine-year old white girl. She lives a privileged life in Johannesburg with her parents. Her father is an official in the mines. Robin's parents leave for an evening out with friends. The next news is that protesters have killed them both. Robin is packed of to live with her aunt, who is unmarried, sometimes irresponsible, and in a career that does not lend itself to having a child in her home.

In the aftermath, the stories of Beauty and Robin meet and interweave. Told through their alternating perspectives, the book presents two very different images of the same world - one facing the harsh reality and one dealing with the harsh reality with the innocence and self-centered nature of a child. The book highlights Beauty's statement, "I want her to understand that two men can be in the exact same place doing the exact same things while wearing the exact same clothes and yet they can still be worlds apart." She makes the statement about people living in a world of apartheid and discrimination, but it holds true for all of life's experiences.

Beauty and Robin's stories are one of differences of race. Through secondary characters, the book also introduces prejudice and discrimination because of religion and sexual orientation. While absolutely real, the story lines are unnecessary to this book.

Beauty and Robin's perspectives are also those of an adult and a child. As the book progresses and particularly at the end, the events and actions attributed to the child seem too far-fetched to seem real in the volatile, violent environment. While I completely follow the story, towards the end, it loses the sense of reality that permeates the rest of the book. However, it remains a moving and touching story and highlights the point once again that in a war, innocent victims exist on all sides of the conflict.


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Thursday, September 7, 2017

The Asylum of Dr. Calgari

Title:  The Asylum of Dr. Calgari
Author:  James Morrow
Publication Information:  Tachyon Publications. 2017. 192 pages.
ISBN:  1616962658 / 978-1616962654

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "From its birth during the Age of Reason until its disappearance following the Treaty of Versailles, the tiny principality of Weizenstaat lay along the swampy seam between the German Empire and the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg like an embolism lodged in an artery."

Favorite Quote:  "You will teach me what you know of art, and I shall teach what I know of badness ... Madness? ... That, too."

The book's protagonist, Francis Wyndham, is an American from Philadelphia. He is also an aspiring painter, who comes to Europe in the hopes of apprenticing himself to one of the great painters, perhaps Pablo Picasso. Things do not work out as he hopes. He finds himself in dire straits. A chance meeting leads to a job as an art instructor at insane asylum run by Alessandro Caligari.

Dr. Caligari's asylum is in Europe. The year is 1914. That, of course, means war. The War. World War I. The events are in motion. Lines have been drawn. Sides have been chosen. And, then, there are the profiteers. Sometimes, ideology is a factor, but, more often than not, the profiteers are the ones who play both sides for profit and personal game. Everything is for sale to the highest bidder regardless of the impact on the world.

What, you might ask, does an insane asylum and an American painter have to do with the war? That is the crux of the book. For, Dr. Caligari is a profiteer. He has come up with a weapon that will make him rich and direct the course of the war. Francis Wyndham finds himself in the unlikely position of being the one who stands in Dr. Caligari's  way. He has help from an asylum inmate, and together they set out to foil the doctor's plan. Oddly, embedded in the middle of this mayhem is a love story and a tribute to the impact of art on its viewer. Perhaps, beauty, or in this case horror, is in the eye of the beholder.

This story is short - more novella than novel. It is also so odd that I began do research the story and the author. What I found makes the whole thing even more interesting. This novella is based on on a 1920s silent horror film from Germany titled Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (The Cabinet of Dr. Calgary). The movie is about a hypnotist who uses a sleep-walking man to commit murder. The movie itself is based on the creators' experiences in World War I. The hypnotist symbolized the German government, and the sleep-walking man, the soldiers trained to kill. The book brings the message more literally with its setting in the War and its weapon of mass destruction.

Bizarre is the word that comes to mind for this book. Not that that is unexpected given the title and the cover. The book "blurb" states, "The Asylum of Dr. Caligari is a timely tale that is by turns funny and erotic, tender and bayonet-sharp―but ultimately emerges as a love letter to that mysterious, indispensible thing called art." I am not sure I get all that from the book, but it intrigues me enough to keep reading to see where it goes. It ends up in an unexpected place, and that too is okay. This book is definitely one in which as a reader, I just go with the flow with no expectation, no major a-ha moments, no disappointments, but a memorable reading experience regardless.


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