Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Review: THE LAST POLICEMAN, by Ben H. Winters

The Last Policeman, by Ben H. Winters. Published 2013 by Quirk Books. Crime Fiction. Science Fiction.

The Last Policeman is the first of a trilogy and tells the story of Concord, New Hampshire detective Henry Palace, recently promoted after 15 months on the force. He's investigating the death of one Peter Zell,  an introverted accountant found hanged in a McDonald's bathroom. It looks like he killed himself. I mean, it really looks that way, and everyone thinks Palace's crazy to investigate, because these days everyone is killing himself. It's the end of the world, after all.

No, it really is. In the book, scientists have predicted that a mammoth asteroid is six months away from destroying life on Earth. Anarchy is settling in. People are pulling up stakes, going "bucket list" to do the things they always wanted to do. Cults are forming. Hopelessness abounds. And suicides are way, way up, so much so that no one even questions Zell's death. No one does, except for Palace.

The Last Policeman is more than just a mystery. It asks some searching questions about the choices that people make- would make, could make- when faced with the collective, inevitable, date-is-on-the-calendar end. It also asks us about our own lives, since each of us faces the inevitability of death with or without an asteroid. Society's steady dissolution is a major feature of the book; Palace struggles with the cynicism around him and inside him as he pursues Zell's killer. He almost gives up. Who could blame him? It looks just like a suicide; maybe it is.

I was totally glued to this book from page one. It was a staff pick of a fellow bookseller and I'm so glad she recommended it because I don't think I would have picked it up otherwise. I liked the combination of pre-apocalyptic science fiction and crime, and the setting of small-town New Hampshire was perfect. When the world ends, it won't just end in New York City; it'll end for all of us and Winters makes us consider the figurative impact of this asteroid through different levels of society and in places that don't normally come to mind when we think of catastrophe. And he wraps it up in a truly riveting mystery that will keep you guessing. Highly recommended!

P.S. Volume 2, Countdown City, is out now; there is no release date that I know of for #3 but I plan to read them together. I have to know how it all ends!

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

15 Day Book Blogging Challenge: Day 5

The topic for Day 5 is Recommend a tear-jerker.

Oh boy. Well what comes to mind first is Sebastian Japrisot's A Very Long Engagement, about a young woman trying to find her fiance in the wreck of post World War 1 France. It has a wonderful, bittersweet happy ending that makes me tear up just thinking about it. Another good one along those lines is Possession, by A.S. Byatt, about two British academics researching the lives of two Victorian poets. The kicker in that book is what they don't find out but we do. Still gives me shivers!

What's your favorite tear-jerker?

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Review: FALLEN LAND, by Patrick Flanery

Fallen Land, by Patrick Flanery. Published 2013 by Riverhead. Literary Fiction.

Patrick Flanery totally won me over with his stunning debut in 2011, Absolution; that book told the story of the dark legacy of apartheid and the way it twisted the lives of two writers, one a child when apartheid collapsed and one a literary star already in her twilight years who come together some years later, to discover what they have both lost.

Loss and the remains of history figure prominently in his latest novel, Fallen Land. He has moved from South Africa to middle America this time to tell the story of three broken families tied through blood and money to a plot of land undergoing all the changes of America of the last 100 years. Louise's family has lived on Poplar Farm for several generations after having inherited it from its owner after he was killed. Developer Paul Krovik buys it from her after her husband dies and she can no longer afford to keep it. He builds McMansions which he tries to sell to the newly-rich, but the economy collapses along with the poorly-constructed houses, and he's left with nothing- not his family, who leave him, nor his own dream home, sold to a bohemian-bourgeois family from, of all places, Boston. Nathaniel and Julia Noailles are about as Yankee as they come- they even named their shy, introverted son Copley- and slowly the mean spirits of the place devour them. Paul, meanwhile, hides in a basement bunker, stalking and terrorizing the family in hopes that they will leave.

A fairy tale about the dark side of the American dream, Fallen Land is a feverish nightmare of suspense and horror. Nathaniel works for the Orwellian EKK security company, whose ambitions only begin with enslaving prisoners and monitoring private citizens without limitation while Julia is trying, literally and figuratively, to make a robot of their son. Both Paul and Nathaniel are survivors of deeply horrific childhood abuse which drives each man to some very dark places indeed. We know that a tragedy of some nature has occurred from the opening pages; the suspense comes from watching Paul and Nathaniel's slow, horrible slide to madness and death.

Though there were some aspects of the book I felt were a little overdone, Flanery offers some powerful social commentary alongside the narrative and overall I really enjoyed Fallen Land. It certainly kept me turning the pages! I'd love to see a film adaptation; I bet this story would work well on the screen. Flanery alternates the viewpoints so we see each character's distorted vision, the fun-house-mirror versions of others that each person sees and then the way each person thinks about him or herself, and that's some fascinating and well-wrought character work. I recommend it to readers of literary suspense and realistic horror, and anyone looking to keep themselves awake at night!

Rating: BACKLIST

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from the publisher.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Review: LONDON UNDER, by Peter Ackroyd

London Under, by Peter Ackroyd. Published 2012 by Anchor. Nonfiction.

So I figured I didn't really have time for Peter Ackroyd's massive London: A Biography, but I wanted to get some background of the city before I visit in the fall, so I picked up his companion volume, a short book about the history of the city under the city- the rivers that flow beneath the streets, the ruins, and of course the Tube. Due to some sedimentary features of the city and environs there are layers upon layers of stuff down there. Ackroyd gives us a little tour.

It's pretty interesting, too. I learned a little about Roman London, about the network of rivers that mirror the streets above, the history of the sewer system, the growth of public transportation and with it urban life, and more. Ackroyd writes in a lively and entertaining style, treating the city like a character with secrets and a past- which it does have. He talks about excavations that were done during this or that period of construction and the things that people found- as well as the things that people buried, like other people, neglected Tube stations, emergency-preparedness centers and more. Some of these places you can visit today; others are barred or restricted, or too dangerous for the public.

It's all fascinating. If you're interested in London and have read about it or been there, I definitely recommend the book but it seemed like it was better for someone with a little experience of the city. I think I should have waited to read it until I knew more about the city, maybe until after my visit, and I may very well re-read it once I've been there. It's neat and you'll learn a lot though!

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, August 19, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?

Well I finished up The Last Policeman pretty quickly; it was a very absorbing page-turner and I already have the sequel in my to-buy pile at work. I'll have a review soon. There are so many books I need to review!

This week I'm in the thick of  The Art of Joy, by Goliarda Sapienza, a very long but engaging read. The chapters are short which make life easier because you can read a lot very quickly.  At the same time it can be a little hard to follow, but I think it's worth the effort.

I also started Sarah Dunant's Blood and Beauty, her latest historical novel about Italy, this time about the Borgias and the Borgia Pope Alexander. I'm really enjoying it. I loved her last book, Sacred Hearts, and she just seems to step it up every time.

Finally I started Paul Yoon's Snow Hunters, a very slow and delicate little literary read about a Korean man taking shelter in Brazil after the Korean War. The narrative is careful and haunted and slow- very nice.

What are you reading? See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Whaaaat?? It's My 6th Blogiversary!

Six years? Really?

I guess so.

Year six has been a slow one for me in terms of blogging but busy for everything else. I appreciate that you're still here reading! I'm not always posting, or commenting, or hanging out on Twitter as much as I used to but I refuse to give up my blog. Then what would I do, right?

A lot has changed in the blogging world. A lot has stayed the same. Thanks for taking this journey with me, and I guess I'll keep chugging along and see if we can make it to seven years!

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Review: ROUND IRELAND WITH A FRIDGE, by Tony Hawks

Round Ireland with a Fridge, by Tony Hawks. Published 2001 by St. Martins Griffin. Nonfiction. Humor.

If you've ever been to Ireland, or wanted to go to Ireland, this is the book for you. I lived in Ireland for four short months when I was 22 and the experience has stayed with me since then; even hearing an Irish accent can bring me right back to that time. I lived in Dublin and will never forget the kindness and good nature of Dubliners, or the charm of the city itself.  And in fact, I'm going back there soon for a short trip. Yay! So I've been doing some reading on Ireland, both fiction and non, and this book was recommended to me and my husband (who will shortly have the pleasure of going there for the first time) by a relative. It's great.

So this is a memoir of what happened when an English comedian named Tony Hawks bet a friend that he could hitchhike around Ireland in a month with a fridge in tow. Yes, they had been drinking. Hawks is mostly known for stand up comedy and for being confused with the American skateboarder Tony Hawk. And, in certain areas around the coast of Ireland, for being The Fridge Man. He even has a jacket that says so.

The book covers his journey through large towns and small, though mostly small, and through some very off-the-beaten-path places indeed. Did you know that certain small islands off the west coast of Ireland have kings? Or that if you travel around with a fridge, people will feel more comfortable with you if you let them name it? These are among the many things you will learn if you read this book.

And I really do recommend that you read it. It's the closest thing to being there without getting on a plane or a boat, from the landscape to the personalities to the patterns of speech. It's laugh-out-loud funny in some places, wryly humorous in others and sometimes just absurd. Mostly it's just delightful.

Rating: BEACH

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Monday, August 12, 2013

It's Monday! What Are You Reading?


I've been on a little bit of a It's Monday break while I finished up The Son, by Philipp Meyer, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki and Swimming to Elba by Silvia Avallone. I had those three books going for about three weeks so for a while I didn't have much to say on Mondays. I also finished Tony Hawks' delightful Round Ireland with a Fridge, and Peter Ackroyd's fun London Under, a history of the city beneath the city.

This week I'm starting fresh with two new reads. The first is a gigantic Italian novel called The Art of Joy, by Goliarda Sapienza. This book runs around 700 pages and has been a big hit in Europe. When it showed up at the bookstore I was immediately intrigued and then the review on NPR basically sold me.  It's very racy- like, from page one there is a lot of sex- and NPR described it as a mash-up of David Foster Wallace, Margaret Atwood and more, so that should give you a hint of what to expect. I'm also finding it to be breathtaking, addictive and really fun.

I also started Ben H. Winters' The Last Policeman, a pre-apocalyptic crime novel set in New Hampshire, at a time when a giant asteroid is poised to strike the Earth in six months' time. It's a very solid read with a great premise and takes the time to examine the choices people make when the whole planet believes its number is up.

What are you reading? I need to catch up with you all! See more at BookJourney.wordpress.com.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

15 Day Book Blogging Challenge: Day 4

The question for Day 4 of the 15 Day Book Blogging Challenge is: What is the last book you flung across the room?

You know, I can't even remember. I just don't do that anymore. The last book I DNF'd was James Joyce, the biography by Gordon Bowker.. I started reading it in preparation for my trip to Ireland but the (sad) fact is, I'm not a big Joyce reader, and I'm not that interested in his life. Having said that, it seemed like a perfectly fine book for someone who is. It just wasn't right for me. I'm returning it to the person who lent it to me but usually when I don't like a book I just unfold the dogear and put it in the donation pile. If I flung it, it might break the spine and be rejected for donation, and then what would I do?

You can participate in this challenge at GoodBooksandGoodWine.com.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Review: SWIMMING TO ELBA, by Silvia Avallone

Swimming to Elba, by Silvia Avallone. Published 2013 by Penguin.

When I was in school, I had an inseparable best friend. Like a lot of young girls do, we had some kind of a fight- I have no idea now what it was about- and she dumped me. I've missed her ever since. We got back in touch in our late 20s but then she dumped me again, and now and then when I see Facebook pictures of her with other friends of mine I feel a little hollow and sad, like a part of me is missing that can never be replaced. That's sort of what Silvia Avallone's European bestseller is about, an adolescent friendship that hits the skids and seems like it might never recover.

Set in a working-class Italy that tourists never see, Swimming to Elba tells the story of Anna and Francesca, two beautiful almost-14-year-olds on the cusp of everything- adulthood, sex, love and their forever-lives. They live in the same run-down building in Piombino, a Tuscan town that faces the resort island of Elba, where wealthy tourists frolic and play, but their town is no showpiece. Life in Piombino centers on the Lucchino steel mill and the via Stalingrado, where everyone in the town works and lives, including the girls' brothers, friends and boyfriends.

Anna and Francesca have been inseparable since they were little kids; each cannot imagine her life without the other, but as they enter this fraught period in their lives things change. They are maturing physically, attracting the attention of boys and men, and their minds turn to escape from their limited prospects. Anna's father Arturo is a wanna-be criminal who periodically abandons the family. Francesca's father is a miserable monster who beats her and her mother. And one of them has a secret, too. The shame each girl feels isolates her and drives each to bad relationships and self-destructive behavior. They try out other people like clothes but always reach for each other.

I really loved this book for its honesty and frankness when describing the difficult lives of these girls. I have seldom read a truer picture of teenage female friendship with all its complexities and games and mixed-up feelings. No light beach read, this book goes to some very dark places very quickly, and only barely recovers by the end. Although peppered with the joys of adolescence, it feels hopeless and grim most of the time. Slowly it becomes apparent that things aren't quite as bleak as they seem, and that escape might just be possible. I highly recommend this book with the caution that it contains pretty graphic material on domestic violence, drugs and sex. It would be an edgy book club choice and would doubtless prompt some great conversations. It's lead by compelling characters you'll care about and root for, and may even surprise you by the end.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I did not receive this book for review.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Review: THE SON, by Philipp Meyer

The Son, by Philipp Meyer. Published 2013 by HarperCollins. Literary Fiction.

It's hard to know how to start a review for a book like The Son. I met author Philipp Meyer at a HarperCollins dinner thanks to my employer and as interesting a person as he clearly is, and as lauded as his first novel American Rust has been, I was lukewarm about reading The Son and wasn't sure I was going to get around it to. What a mistake that would have been.

The Son is destined to be an American classic. Telling the story of Texas through a family of misfits and outcasts, it's a staggering book. The McCulloughs make their fortune in cattle but quickly turn to oil; patriarch Eli, "the Colonel," is kidnapped by the Comanches as a boy only to return to white society and build a fortress of wealth and power around himself. Eli's son Peter struggles to deal with the brutal massacre of his neighbors, the Garcias, and the takeover by the McCulloughs of the Garcia property. He also struggles with a failing marriage and his own failure in the eyes of his father. Peter's granddaughter Jeannie is a woman in a man's world, the heiress to the oil fortune and the person tasked with moving the family into the modern era and picking up the pieces of a family falling to time and change.

The book is primarily character-driven; it reads like three autobiographies but they vary in tone and style and voice. But don't take that to mean that there is no suspense. There is plenty to drive your fingers forward across the pages, plenty of tension and violence both physical and psychic. Early scenes depicting the violent deaths of Eli's family and passages later describing the aftermath of the Garcia massacre are haunting and vivid. Meyer consistently underplays the emotional consequences of these harrowing events, especially in Eli's passages which read like a simple cold recitation.

That said, Meyer provides an impressive amount of detail regarding Comanche life. Eli is telling his story to a WPA historian, as we learn in Jeannie's sections, and he's an old man as he does it, looking back on events years ago. Nonetheless we can see glimmers of the emotional weight he still bears. Meyer writes Peter's sections in diary form, lending his thoughts a right-now immediacy. I liked his chapters the best, I think for this reason. I also loved the way he grows and gradually rebels against his domineering father.

Jeannie's chapters were also wonderful. Meyer does a great job of getting inside her head; you'd think it was Margaret Atwood writing sometimes. Then there is a fourth character who appears at the end and whose actions form a circle that both closes and continues the McCullough saga.

So the bottom line is, read this book. You can skim over the gory bits if you need to, but don't miss out on The Son. You have time though- this is no fly-by-night pile of hype. It's a book that's going to be with us for a long time to come.

Rating: BUY

FTC Disclosure: I received an advance copy from HarperCollins.

Friday, August 2, 2013

15 Day Book Blogging Challenge: Day 3

I saw this meme on Magical Doorways, a new-to-me book blog written by the very cool blogger and all-around book person Helen. She's great and I love her blog, so I decided to crib this meme which originally came from GoodBooksandGoodWine.com
It's a 15-day series but I will do them on a now-and-then basis. 
Day 3's topic: Who are your blogging BFFs?

Sandy of You've Gotta Read This, myself and Dawn of She is Too Fond of Books
How can I answer a question like that? Book blogging has lead to so many new friendships and fun times.  The bloggers I've been reading since the beginning and haven't met in person are right up there with the bloggers who have become real-life pals whom I see often and the book folks who are professional colleagues and for-real friends. The picture above is me with fellow bloggers Sandy and Dawn on an outing a year or two ago in downtown Boston when we- get this- had lunch and went to bookstores. I know, crazy, right? That's the life of a book blogger for you.  And that's just one example of real-life adventures with my online blogging pals. I could go on and on.

What about you? Have you made IRL friends through blogging?