Two Can Keep a Secret by Karen McManus (YA)

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Random House Children’s through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on Jan. 8, 2019 — in 2 days!
Writing: 4.5/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

Karen McManus is the Liane Moriarity of the YA set, writing gripping thrillers with characters that draw you in immediately and hold you fast.

California twins Ellery and Ezra Corcoran find themselves in Echo Ridge, Vermont, living with a grandmother they barely know while their single mother Sadie dries out in rehab. Echo Ridge has a haunted past — it was the place Sadie’s twin Sarah disappeared 20 years ago and more recently the place that 17-year old prom queen, Lacey Kilduff, was killed in the aptly named Murderland theme park. And the haunting doesn’t seem to be restricted to the past…

Populated with well fleshed out, multi-generational, townies, the story is told in alternating voices: Ellery is a True Crime fanatic and invents crazy scenarios faster than they can be discounted; Malcolm Kelly is the younger brother of Declan Kelly, Lacey’s boyfriend at the time of her death and thought by many to be responsible for the crime.

It’s a story full of suspicion and trust, new friendships and old understandings, standard teen stuff and very non-standard teen stuff, and lots of tangled and tortuous plot twists. As with her last book — One of Us is Lying — I didn’t figure it out until the very end.

2018 in Review …

2018 was a good reading year for me — 111 books in total; 86 by women authors, 25 by men; a lot of British and American based books but also a few from Korea, Ireland, China, and Rwanda.  Types:

10 non fiction
48 General fiction
17 Literary fiction
10 Fantasy and Science Fiction
8 Mystery
18 Children and Young Adult

My goal for 2019 — more non-fiction and more foreign fiction — but we’ll see what happens!

My favorites for the year …

Non Fiction:

The Art of Power by Jon Meacham — An insightful and well-written biography about one of the Founding Fathers and the author of our Declaration of Independence (Thomas Jefferson).

Killers of the flower moon by David Grann — A chilling history of the “Osage Reign of Terror” in which a large number of wealthy Indians from the Osage tribe were killed over a period of several years, possibly even decades, in the early 1900s.

The Library Book by Susan Orleans — The story (and multiple fascinating back stories) of the massive 1986 fire that brought the Los Angeles Central Library to its knees.

General Fiction:

The Almost Sisters by Joshilyn Jackson — Quintessentially southern, humorous, and impossible to put down. 38-year-old Leia Birch is a well-regarded graphic novel artist and self professed “uber-dork”. After an enjoyable comic book convention hook-up with a gorgeous black man in a come-hither Batman cowl and cape, she finds herself pregnant. Take it from there …

Chemistry by Weike Wang—A belated (she’s in her 20s) coming-of-age story about a young, Chinese-American woman in the midst of capsizing both her Chemistry PhD and long-term relationship. We view the process of life dismantling and reconstruction from within her own mind through her unique, first-person voice.

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel — A story about the Van Ness String Quartet and the individual members comprising it, both evolving from rocky beginnings to success and stability. Some very nice descriptions of music and the art of making music together.

The Last Year of the War by Susan Meissner — An historical novel that plunges you right into the WWII period period through the eyes of Elsie Sontag — a ten-year old Iowan girl whose life is utterly upended when her father is unjustly arrested as an enemy alien under Executive Order 9066 and first interned, and then repatriated to Germany.

The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland — Spiky Loveday Carew has worked in the Lost For Words bookshop in York (England) for 15 years. Her network of tattoos is a compendium of significant first lines from favorite novels — I was hooked right there. By the way, the first line of this book? — “A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.” By turns comic, powerful, uplifting, and literary, this book about books and the people who love them made me one happy clam.

The News of the World by Paulette Giles — A Wild West story that by no means glorifies the period. Captain Jefferson Kidd — seventy two years old and making his living by reading the “news of the world” to audiences around Texas for a dime a piece — takes on a troubling task: to return a ten-year old white girl to relatives after being kidnapped by the Kiowa four years before.

Once Upon a River by Diane Setterfield —An old-fashioned Story (with a capital S!) full of richly drawn archetypal characters, a convoluted but cohesive plot, and just the hint of inexplicable mysteries.

Literary Fiction
Exit West — A brilliant, insightful, distillation of the experience of two individuals who go from a life which appears “normal” to one of upheaval, exposure to extremism, and displacement.

Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim — An utterly engaging story that follows two sisters as they grow up separately due to the Korean War.

Like a mule bringing ice cream to the sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika — Beautifully written book about Morayo Da Silva — a strong, vibrant, deliciously interesting character. Almost 75, she lives in a small, book-filled, rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco with an incredible view. A retired professor of literature, she was born in Nigeria and lived around the world before settling in San Francisco.

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose — A powerful and poignant novel about the transformational impact of Marina Abramović’s The Artist is Present on those who witness it during the 75 days of performance at MOMA.

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee — A sweeping, multi-generational, saga of a Korean family spanning the Japanese occupation of Korea, WWII, and beyond.

Salvage the Bones by Jessmyn Ward — Salvage the Bones is an utterly gripping depiction of life in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi for the Batiste family during the twelve days before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina — as seen through the eyes of 15-year-old Esch.

Sing Unburied Sing by Jessmyn Ward — A powerful novel. The language is riveting and evokes a pervasive sense of physical and emotional space in a way I haven’t felt since reading Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Small Country by Gaël Faye — A coming-of-age novel in the politically charged climate of Burundi in the 1990s.

Virgil Wander by Leif Enger — A story of the opportunity for redemption and resurrection for a fading town and the fading men within it. Perfect for fans of Kent Haruf, Ivan Doig, and Wallace Stegner.

Fantasy and Science Fiction
Irontown blues by John Varley — A nice fast-paced, action-oriented, noir-mystery in a futuristic setting from Sci-Fi master John Varley. could be subtitled: “The Case of the Leprous Dame of Irontown”

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes — A blend of African style juju, speculative fiction twists, and a hard boiled detective story. Our first person narrator is Zinzi Lelethu December — the “animalled,” ex-junkie, hard-boiled, Sam Spade style character with a hefty past just struggling to survive in a dark environment.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson — Book two of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series as awesome and complex as the first.  Unrivaled world building with an  overwhelming variety and depth of populating cultures  — a constant mental exercise for the reader as a continual stream of new information forces refactoring of the complex models held in reader land.

Mystery:
Bluebird, Bluebird — A remarkable and entertaining book — appealing to literary fiction and mystery lovers alike. As a whodunit, it has it all — convoluted plot, simmering tensions in the community, and plenty of motive to spread amongst an array of characters. What takes it past straight mystery and into the realm of literary fiction is the top notch writing, truly in-depth characters, and the fact that the narrative never takes the easy way out.

Young Adult:
School for Psychics by K.C. Archer — A Harry Potter-style story for millennials with a menagerie of psychic powers nurtured by a blend of science, chakras, vegan diets and computer hacking in a School for Psychics. A fun book — well paced, great plot development, cool characters, and multiple layers of mystery. Also, nothing egregiously stupid which frankly tends to pepper this kind of book.

The Next to Last Mistake by Amalie Jahn (YA)

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Inscribe Digital through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own. The book will be published on March 19, 2019.

Writing: 3.5/5  Plot: 3.5/5 Characters: 4.5/5

Blonde haired, blue eyed, Iowa farm girl Tess Goodwin has her life uprooted when her father reenlists in the military and relocates the family to Fayetteville, North Carolina. “Trading farm crops and silos and tractors for soldiers and loud guns” — it’s a rough transition for Tess. She leaves behind a beloved lifestyle and her best (and in some ways only) friend Zander … for whom she may have some stronger feelings than just friendship. She also enters the very real and dangerous world of the military where “the practice of staying alive is incentivized” with a billboard displaying the number of days with no unit fatalities. However, as they say in her farming community, you “grow where you’re planted,” and this is the story of how she manages to develop in a wildly different environment.

Leaving the homogeneity of Iowa behind, this is Tess’ first experience with racial diversity. Establishing a strong connection with a group of three other girls — military and townie, black and white — she is forced to come to terms with her own implicit biases. While I got a little tired of her feeling “humble and thankful for clemency” so frequently when faced with racial realities of which she was previously unaware, I did appreciate the frank discussions of the topic, exemplified via experiences, educational mini-lectures, and a couple of really good literary discussions drawn from Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye.

A coming-of-age story, it does a nice job of describing the experience for a specific, rather than generic, teen. Tess is a chess enthusiast, a skillful farmer, and has a much closer relationship with her father than her (perfectly normal) mother. The book does a nice job of challenging multiple gender, race, and role assumptions simultaneously.

At times the book feels a little over simplified (problems are solved with far too facile measures) and a few passages feel like mini-lectures rather than the natural expressions of teenage girls, but the characters are appealing, the descriptions of both farm and military life are engaging, and I liked the clear descriptions of difficult racial subjects from the perspective of a white girl who had not needed to consider them before.

Stars Uncharted by S. K. Dunstall

Thank you to Berkeley Publishing Group and NetGalley for an early review copy of Stars Unchartede by S.K. Dunstall, which will publish August 14, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.
World building: 4.5 plot: 3.5 characters: 4.5 Writing: 4

Thoroughly enjoyable, action-packed, sci-fi about a motley crew of spacefarers thrown together by circumstance. In this world, body modification for health, style, or pleasure is easily available if you have the cash, and the “modders” who do those modifications are held in far greater esteem than doctors. Nika Rik Terri is the acknowledged best, but some nasty customers who prefer not to leave witnesses have her on the run; Josune Arriola was sent to spy on Captain Hammond Roystan — clearly not the simple cargo runner he appears — but remains when her own ship shows up with a full complement of dead crew members.

In a galaxy where the big 27 Combines run the legal system, justice can be difficult to procure leading to intrigue and imaginative fight and / or flight scenes. Exploration of the art and science of body modification via genetic engineering is pervasive throughout — details of design, implementation, requirements, source materials, equipment, and the challenges of difficult cases make for interesting reading. Plenty of technical detail on fixing up their (oft attacked) ship as well. In addition to the action, I found a couple of other points interesting: Nika — the top notch modder — thinks about why style and appearance are so important to her and how that may have caused her problems in the past. Also, I found the contrast between current and previous modder training interesting — the newer training taught people to rely on technicians and equipment rather than their own deep expertise; Nika prefers to be able to maintain, extend, and even create her own equipment. A good analogy for traiing in many fields today.

Great for fans of Andy Weir, Becky Chambers, CJ Cherryh, and Lois McMaster Bujold.

Review double-header…

The Ensemble by Aja Gabel

Writing: 4.5 Plot: 4 Characters: 4

A story about the Van Ness String Quartet and the individual members comprising it, both evolving from rocky beginnings to success and stability. Some very nice descriptions of music and the art of making music together. Over the roughly 15 years of the story there are romances, friendships, children, students, and always lots about the music.

At first I didn’t enjoy it as it seemed far more about individual dysfunction than music, but then I realized the author used this personal squirming to show the interplay between the growth of the entity and the growth of its constituent parts.

A compelling story for me, both in terms of the world of classical music performance and the personal motivations and challenges for each performer. I also found it interesting to see which characters I could relate to and which left me cold (I related best to Henry and Brit…). Would love to compare notes with others!

Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

Writing: 3 Plot: 3 Characters: 4

Kind of disappointing. Pretty obvious “ugly duckling becomes beautiful dancing swan” plot and stereotype characters (simplistic Chinese immigrants, semi-slutty, neurotic, but super nice and supportive ballroom dancers). What started out as an obvious story told in a sweet way became just an obvious story told without a lot of grace. Writing was decent but the characters and story were just too simplistic for me.

There were some very nice Lao Tzu quotes, description of Tai Chi and Qigong, and descriptions of ballroom dancing in the first half. And I did enjoy the characters at the beginning when they had more individuality and less stereotype to them. Somehow it feels as though the second half was written more hurriedly and more focused on plot and less on the character and environment that made the first half so enjoyable.

 

 

Irontown Blues by John Varley

Thank you to Berkeley Publishing Group and NetGalley for an early review copy of Irontown Blues by John Varley, which will publish August 28, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4 Characters: 4 Plot: 4 World Building: 4.5

A nice fast-paced, action-oriented, noir-mystery, in a futuristic setting from Sci-Fi master John Varley.

Chris Bach is a PI wannabe offering his services on Luna many years after the alien invasion of Earth (which basically depopulated the planet — see previous books in the Eight Worlds Universe for more details on this, but it’s not important for this story). He sets off to solve the case of a woman who has been given leprosy against her will (hard to believe anyone would willingly contract leprosy but in this world of acceptable and reversible extreme body modifications, disfiguring diseases can be a source of amusement for some — hmmm). “The Case of the Leprous Dame of Irontown” — trust me when I tell you that the case does not go where you think it will.

Chris is aided by his sidekick, Sherlock. Sherlock is a CEC — a Cybernetically Enhanced Canine. The tale is told through their alternating voices — Sherlock’s via the aid of a canine interpreter named Penelope Cornflower (β-Penny in Sherlock parlance). The book is worth reading for Sherlock’s story alone — if you’re at all a dog person you’ll enjoy (and crack up at) his interpretation of the world and events. Other cool characters include Chris’ not-very-maternal mother (retired police chief and now prehistoric-reptile rancher), and some pretty nasty soldiers from Charon, a once prison-planet turned … not-so-nice but now fully acceptable part of the Eight Worlds.

Great world building and descriptions of future life, both technologically and culturally enhanced. Surprising plot and interesting characters. Plenty of fun references to our favorite detectives both current and past (Elvis Cole and Marlowe are mentioned a lot as is Hildy Johnson. Heinlein gets a whole subculture.) Threads on libertarian ideals, body modification, creative habitats, and slightly insane AIs, run liberally through the story.

Hugo-and-Nebula-Award-Winner John Varley has been writing since shortly after I began reading, and I’ve read most of his work. His short story collection, The Persistence of Vision, is possibly my number one favorite SF short story collection (which is saying quite a lot). I confess I had lost track of him for the past few years and haven’t read his last couple of novels — but I’ll remedy that shortly.

My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver

Writing: 5 Plot: 4.5 Characters: 5

Thank you to Candlewick Press and NetGalley for an early review copy of My Year in the Middle by Lila Quintero Weaver, which will publish July 10, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Excellent middle grade level story about racial tensions in Red Hook, Alabama, on the eve of the gubernatorial election of 1970 (hint: George Wallace wins). Lu Olivera is a fabulous character — she is the quiet and unassuming daughter of Argentinian immigrants who finds her own voice and moral compass as racial tensions manifest in her town and her school.
Lu is one of the few kids who “sits in the middle” in the classroom, with the black kids on one side and the white kids on the other. She finds a talent and passion for running and a new best friend — who happens to be black — to go along with it. As events transpire, and things occur which she knows are wrong, she wants to speak up, but running through her head is always her parent’s refrain: “We’re foreigners. We’re not supposed to get involved.” It’s both a history lesson and a lesson on the perils of conformity, being delivered to just the right age audience.
The characters are real and absorbing, and the plot keeps you on your toes and is appropriate for the middle school audience. The characters are portrayed skillfully as kids who would rather focus on family and friends (and in Lu’s case – boys) than politics but who are reluctantly drawn into these issues nonetheless.
Great book!