Review by Mark Palm:
Trust me, when it comes to the insane nature of possessiveness and books, I know what I am talking about. Although I am not obsessed with books as physical objects I still revel in the ownership of books. Sue me.
For all of this, I would be remiss to not acknowledge the important role that libraries have had in my life. Weekly trips every Saturday with my father to the Carnegie Library in my hometown certainly started me on my way to being the bibliophile I am today, but rather than take an annoying autobiographical detour, I will just recommend The Library Book by Susan Orlean.
Ms. Orlean takes a moving and amusing look at libraries and the people who work in them and use them, mainly by concentrating on the story of a single library, the main branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. A good portion of her story is focused on the fire that nearly destroyed the LA Library in 1986.
The story of the fire and the man who was accused of setting it is fascinating, and all of the characters are vividly brought to life. The reactions of this disaster on both the people who worked in the library and the community and revealing and often moving. Ms. Orleans uses that tragic event as a glimpse of the impact that the LA Library, and by extension, all libraries, have upon the people who work at and use it every day.
If you are worried about whether or not this one story is interesting enough to sustain an entire book you have probably never read Ms. Orlean before. Just to assuage you, the fire and the destruction that it caused is more of a frame than anything else. It is handled in detail, but Ms. Orleans uses it primarily as a frame to show that while a library is a place with books and maps and equipment it is actually much more. The modern library, in this book, is a community organization that provides all of the services one expects, along with helping children, the hungry and the homeless that find refuge among the stacks.
The author also traces the history of the LA library, and the cavalcade of interesting figures who have worked there, both in the past and the present, and who have shaped it into what it is today. Of particular interest was the stories of the women who frequently ran the early LA branch of the library, often to great success and little acclaim.
All in all The Library Book is both a loving and a realistic paean to libraries, and the people who love them. Like me.
Review by Mark Palm.
How many thrillers have started with the main character crashing their car -or almost crashing it-because they thought they saw a figure in the road? I’ve read more than a few, and What My Sister Knew by Nina Laurin starts the same way. However about three quarter of the way through Ms. Laurin shows you that even that singular event, like so much of the book, is not what it seems. And that is what makes this novel so gripping.
After the aforementioned car crash Andrea Warren, the main character and narrator discovers that her twin brother Eli, who has been in in prison, was just released, and is suspected of killing a woman. When the twins were twelve Andrea was burned and her mother and stepfather were killed in a fire that Eli was accused of setting. In the present the police are interested in Andrea, first fearing that he may be coming after her, and later suspecting her of aiding Eli. From here the novel follows Andrea as she tries to discover what is happening to her know, along with flashbacks to her and Eli’s life fifteen years earlier, before and after the fire. There are also excerpts from a true-crime book written about the case.
Ms. Laurin starts off simply but quickly entangled me in a plot that is complex but never convoluted. Andrea, the main character is complex and compelling. The supporting characters, particularly her step mother Cynthia, and her step sister Leeanne start off seeming like one-note cliches, but become fully realized and sympathetic. Eli’s story takes a similar arc, though in reverse, becoming harder to read and perhaps, more sinister. The story is taut and tense, and as I have alluded to earlier, so twisty that I cannot reveal much more without dropping a ton of spoilers. Ms. Laurin does an exceptional job of letting the story unfold through Andrea’s voice, and her prose fits that character, and the story, like a glove. After a measured pace in the beginning the last few chapters careen along like a runaway train to an ending that was both shocking and inevitable. If you are looking for a great summer thriller that will chill you to the bone read What My sister Knew.
Review by Stacy Palm.
This is the book you have been longing to read!
For some time now I've been on the hunt for a book that would hit all my pleasure points; a book that was smart, thrilling, and fresh. This is all that and so much more. Categorically, I'm a pretty slow reader. I have many hobbies and while reading is one of my favorites, I don't get much time to focus my sole attention on it. I was watching a recent podcast that happened to mention this book as one that they were planning on reading again because they wanted to see what knowing all the answers to the riddles would do to the context of the whole book. I'm not usually a mystery reader, but I was fascinated by the concept and so I feel down this rabbit hole and didn't emerge until I finished the book two days later. It's an odd thing having a book affect you so much that it infiltrates your dreams and waking hours, but I swear to you this morning when my alarm went off for work I dreamingly reasoned that I could stay in bed for 10 more minutes and one of my "other lives" would kick in.
This leads me to the premise and I will be honest - I'm going to be vague here because I do not want to destroy this story for anyone. You are a person, trapped in a world in which you must solve a murder in one day, but you are not always the same person and you do not have consistent skills to solve the mystery. You are not alone - you are hunted and thwarted at many turns. If you do not solve the mystery the loop will begin again.
This book could easily have gone south, but the author did an outstanding job of keeping me captivated, as well as keeping me guessing - never right might I add. This was a story told with great skill and an intelligent mind. If you are going to pick up one book this year this is the book that you must grab. I hope that many readers find their way towards this book and I hope to read many more tales from this author.
Review by Stacy Palm/
I was first drawn to this book because I was familiar with the author's prior work, and also being intrigued by the concept of a strong female lead that wasn't inherently good. I was not disappointed by this book, and in fact, enjoyed it much more than I initially thought I would. I am really captivated by the idea of a book not ending happily. I also enjoy being pulled into a story that mainly surrounds characters who are not always supposed to be likable. The only thing that kept this from being a 5-star book is that I thought more of the characters should have been further down their path of evil.
This story has a lot of political intrigue that I feel has a wealth of opportunity for the author to expand upon in the next novel. He did an excellent job of introducing us to this world and the political structure, but didn't overwhelm the reader with mundane information that wasn't directly related to our characters. The story beginnings with death and takes a child from her mother and leaves her broken and alone. As she grows we learn more about the world and travel with her to a place where she expects to find the skills needed to provide vengeance to the ones who wronged her family.
I truly enjoyed the main character, and I enjoyed the cast of characters that surrounded her. My one complaint is that for what these characters were doing they should have been more callous, but I also understand that you can't write a book in which every character is despised. There were a few characters I wish we would have become more intimate with during their moments. Some of the teachers were magnificently molded. I hope that this story continues down the current path and we end up with a profound series that makes people think, rather than have everything tied into a package with a pretty bow and a happily ever after.
Overall, this book was well written and expertly told. I did not guess the ending and was rather surprised by where this book took me as a reader. I should not have waiting so long to read this.
Review by Mark Palm.
It may have started earlier, but I first became conscious of the concept of the Final Girl in the late nineteen seventies, with films like Alien and Halloween, and the spate of inferior slasher/horror films that followed. If you have not seen these films the basic idea was that after a series of terrifying murders the sole survivor was usually a woman or a girl, confounding the norms of the past. The term “Final Girl” was coined by Professor of Film Studies Carol J. Clover, who suggested(in her book) that the concept was that these films started by identifying with the killer, but switched to identifying with the women. Which still did not stop the filmmakers from killing lots of women .
Anyway, Final Girls is the story of Quincy Carpenter. As a college student she went on a vacation in the woods of Pennsylvania at Pine Cabin and ended up the sole survivor of a massacre. She escaped by running through the woods, were the attacker was killed by the cop who found her. She remembers almost nothing of the evening, although she maintains a therapeutic relationship with the officer who saved her, Coop.
When the story starts Quincy has a quiet life with her lawyer. boyfriend Jeff and her baking blog. Coop informs her that Lisa, one of the other two living “Final Girls” who survived horrific massacres and with whom Quincy had been in touch, was found dead, an apparent suicide. She also finds an email from Lisa on her phone, left only hours before her death. Not long after that the third “Final Girl”, Samantha Boyd, shoes up on Quincy’s doorstep.For years she had been off the grid, but now she wants to talk with Quincy about Lisa’s death. A reporter manages to take a picture of their first meeting and the two women find themselves back in the news. Meanwhile Quincy invites Sam to stay with her and Sam’s rough-edged ways immediately have an influence on Quincy, as the two begin drinking and shoplifting and eventually the pair begin hanging around Central Park at night, attempting to be vigilantes, leading to Quincy attacking and seriously beating a man. At the same time a reporter keeps trying to warn Quincy that Sam is not what she says she is.
This first-person narrative by Quincy in the present is mixed in with a third-person narrative of what happened on the night of the massacre at Pine Cabin. This narrative arc adds a great deal to the tension of the book because they are replete with details that Quincy has repressed because of trauma, or so it seems.
It would go against the reviewer’s code to give more away, but things are not what they seem, and many of the assumptions set up early in the book are blown up as the story progresses, and while the beginning is a bit slow by the end the action is barrelling along like a runaway train. The prose is solid and most importantly, doesn't get in the way. The same can be said for the dialogue, which has some snap and flow. Quincy and Sam catty the tory, and their characters have depth and realism; sometimes you like them, and sometimes don’t, but they are always compelling. Even more important is that both Quincy and Sam have a definite narrative arc, and Mr. Sager lets the characters and the story shape and impact each other. The rest of the characters do their jobs. Like a lot of thrillers what carries the load is the plot and the story, and both are spot on here. At the end of the day it’s all about whether or not you want to see what happens next, and Mr. Sager does an excellent job of that here. So read Final Girls. It’s a lot better than any crappy slasher flick.
Review by Mark Palm.
It astonishes me how many writers and readers underestimate the power and the utility of transparent prose. Everyone, myself included have gushed about the eloquence of Nabokov and Faulkner, etc, and rightly so. These writers have the ability to make prose sing and soar. In some works, particularly in the field of thrillers and science fiction, the most important job of prose is to convey actions and describe events in such a way as they can be understood. Stephen King once said in defense of transparent prose, and I am paraphrasing, that the best way to prove its usefulness would be this: if you want to appreciate transparent prose, a writer should describe how to drive a stick-shift to someone who does not know how and then sit in the passenger’s seat of a car and let that person drive.
All of this preamble is important to understanding and appreciating Andy Weir’s latest novel, Artemis.
The heart of this book is Jasmine “Jazz” Bashara, a twenty-six-year-old woman who has lived most of her life in Artemis, the only city on the Moon. It’s a wonderland for rich tourists and the elite of society, but most of the two-thousand or so permanent residents are support staff, and Jazz is one of them. Their lives are tough, and Jazz, a porter, can barely make the rent on a cubicle not much bigger than a closet. So she also smuggles in harmless contraband for some extra income. Then one of her richest and most trusted clients offers her a job that will net her a lot of money, but requires her to commit a crime far more serious than she is used to. One, that if she is caught will get her imported back to Earth. Not only is Artemis the only home she has ever known, but exile to Earth could very well kill her. The cash is too tempting, and Jazz takes the job. That is when things begin to go really wrong.
Mr. Weir’s gift for the transparent prose of which I spoke earlier really steps to the fore here. The author seems to have an instinctive grasp of how to unravel a twisting plot while explaining a bevy of complicated technology without slowing down the breakneck pace of the action. And once the action starts Mr. Weir never take his foot off of the petal until the explosive climax which melds action, intelligent planning and a ton of clever science that makes one proud to be a geek.
I really enjoyed Jazz, though I could understand how some folks might not. She is a genius without drive and immature wise-ass that only tries really hard when she is breaking rules or protecting the people for whom she cares. I found her a living character, but unfortunately, she was one of the only ones in the novel. Everyone else, almost without exception, was either a type or advanced the plot. It seemed like Mr. Weir could not find a way to put himself in their shoes because Jazz was also the only character whose dialogue seemed fresh and funny. Although this does not cripple the story it does take a bit of the shine off because it’s hard to care for the people that Jazz does when they don’t really feel alive.
Still, when all is done, I found Artemis to be a success. Mr. Weir’s ability to mix excitement and adventure with solid believable science and tell a gripping story is quite an achievement. If he can get a real grasp on character and dialogue there is no telling what he can do. I can’t wait to see.
****Four out of Five Stars.
Review by Mark Palm.
Let me start by saying that this is the twenty-second book in the Reacher series. That is a lot of books, to put it lightly. Even so, there might be some folks out there who haven’t read one of the books or seen one of the two films based on the books, so I will give you a quick primer; Jack Reacher is a former MP who served in the US. Army. Physically. At six-five and two-hundred and fifty pounds, he is a bruiser. Mentally, however, is a master at inductive reasoning. Which is a high-faulting way to say that he notices things, pays attention, and thinks them through to a logical conclusion. It’s the same thing that Sherlock Holmes does, though for some reason people keep saying that Holmes uses deductive reasoning, which is an entirely different thing.
Basically, Reacher wanders around America, with nothing but the clothes on his back and a toothbrush in his pocket, looking for things that grab his attention. Usually, it turns out that the things that grab his attention are some smelly injustice that his sense of honor demand that he step up and take action. Then the story takes off.
It seems . on the face, like a basic premise. Lee Child has managed to take this basic premise, and keep me not only interested, but fascinated for a very long time. And he does it again in The Midnight Line, with a few significant differences.
This story starts with Reacher feeling down because Michelle Chang, from Make Me has left. So he takes a stroll, and stops at a pawn shop, where he sees a ring in the window. It’s a graduation ring from West Point, and it’s very small, certainly from a woman who was barely big enough to have attended West Point. Curious as to what hardships must have happened to this woman that would make her give up a ring that is so hard to obtain, Reacher starts on a journey, to trace the provenance of the ring. This entails calling in favors from the Academy and beating up bad guys. He ends up in Rapid City , South Dakota, working with a local cop, Gloria Nakamura, trying to take a down a local bad guy , Arthur Scorpio, who has his fingers in plenty of bad pies. They discover that the ring belongs to an ex-Army Major, Serena Rose Sanderson, who was injured in Afghanistan. His investigations leads him to Terry Bramhall, a private detective, who leads Reacher to Jane Mackenzie, the twin sister of of Rose.
After several plot turns I won’t disclose it turns out that Rose received a grievous facial injury from an IED in Afghanistan, and became addicted to Meth. Reacher and the rest must find a way to circumvent Scorpio’s drug ring to get enough Meth to Rose so she can move in with her sister and slowly wean herself off of drugs, without getting caught by the bad guys or the DEA.
The Midnight Line has all of the thrills and action you expect out of Lee Child, but this time there is a lot more compassion and heart than is usual. Rose is a fascinating character, and the arc of her story, as a wounded vet who turns to opioids, is touching and all-too common, and Child tells it with heart and compassion. All of the rest of the things you expect to find in a Reacher book, like the taut plotting and the realistic and clever dialogue, are all here, so get this book.
*****Five out of Five Stars.
Review by Mark Palm
It’s no surprise to anyone who follows the publishing business that the series has become a juggernaut. Like cinema, sequels and reboots have become ubiquitous, and I would argue, often at the expense of quality. However, when a series of books are written for artistic rather than financial reasons,and they work, they can have an impact that is staggering. I’m not saying that bigger is always better; but when big is great it packs one hell of a punch.
Which brings me to Hunger Moon, which is the fifth installment of the FBI/Huntress series by Alexandra Sokoloff. I’ve been reading and reviewing this series since the first book, Huntress Moon, and been enthralled the entire way. Each book has been exceptional, each one has been different, and when read together the sum total is greater that each individual part. So while these books stand alone I strongly encourage you to read the entire series, from beginning to end. To briefly sum it up, this series is the story of Cara Lindstrom, who was the sole member of her family to survive an attack by a famed serial killer. This event causes her to become an avenging angel who kills men who prey upon women and children. FBI Agent and former Criminal Profiler Matthew Roarke discovers Cara and become enthralled with the anomaly of what appears to be the first female serial killer.
The previous novel, Bitter Moon, deals with Cara’s life after the attack on her family, when, as a teenager she is forced to kill or be killed by a serial rapist and murderer, and Roarke's investigation of those same crimes years later to help solve crimes in the present. There were a lot of great things in Bitter Moon, but what I found most compelling was the dual narrative of Cara and Roarke. As they followed the same story, in different times, with different skills and attitudes, it was always thrilling; but what gave this tale a sense of depth that you rarely find was the sense of intimacy that these two shared, tinged with a sadness that was almost heart-breaking.
Hunger Moon, the latest installment, is different, but just as good. The story starts with Cara off of the grid on a Native American reservation, in hiding, but still dispatching predators attempting to take advantage of legal loopholes to rape Native girls. After discovering that Detective Ortiz, who had stalked her as a teenager has created online forums to place a bounty on her, Cara leaves, looking to stop him.
Meanwhile Roarke is back at the FBI, pitching his idea to create a task force to enable the Bureau to improve its ability to prosecute serial abuser, rapists and human traffickers. To his shock the Bureau suggests instead that he look into a vandalism case, perhaps backed by Bitch, the feminist organization introduced earlier in the series, where someone defaced a Berkeley fraternity who had many members facing accusations of rape, although no charges have yet been filed. Considering the assignment a dead end, Roarke and his partner Epps do their duty, and begin to suspect that the fraternity is deeply steeped in rape culture. When two of the frat boys are abducted, his investigation takes a more serious turn.
Jade Lauren plays an important role as well. Having left the Bitch group home upon hearing about the incident in Berkeley returns, and passing as a student she meets a woman who tells her that her sister was raped a a fraternity party. Jade convinces the woman that they must take matters into their own hands, and emulating Cara they do.
The other story-line features Agent Singh. While monitoring Ortiz’s forums trying to discover his plans for Cara, she is discovered, and finds herself in danger from the group. I was particularly impressed, and very moved, with the arc of Singh’s character. She has always had an exceptional supporting role, but in in this case she almost steals the book, no small feat in a novel with so many strong and vivid characters.
These four disparate plots, Cara and Roarke, Jade and Singh, become tightly interwoven as the novel races toward its end, and the fact they dovetail so well is a testament to the astounding story-telling skills of Ms. Sokoloff. I am not dropping spoilers, but trust me when I say that this novel left me breathless by the time it came to an end.
Hunger Moon is not an easy novel to read; nor should it be. It deals with rape, rape culture and human trafficking. This time, however, it also deals with the current administration's attempts to roll back all of the progress made in the past dealing with these issues. Ms. Sokoloff pulls no punches and takes on the new political landscape in which we find our-self; an America where one’s life can be in danger, simply because of your gender, race, religion or sexual orientation. A lot of people think that politics should play no place in fiction. I disagree. While a work of fiction Hunger Moon takes place in the modern world, in a very dark time in our history. The Huntress series has never shied away from difficult issues in the real world, and Ms. Sokoloff has always faced those issues straight on. She does it again here, and I cannot praise her enough, not only for her bravery and honesty, but for writing an excellent thriller. Read this book.
**** Four out of Five Stars.
Review by Mark Palm.
Unless I am mistaken this is a first for me. I have never written a review of the second book in a series without reviewing the first, but that is exactly what I am going to do here, because I read Sleeping Giants, by Sylvain Neuvel, on my own and was so impressed that I decided to review the sequel, Waking Gods.
The first novel is basically the story of Rose Franklin, a young girl who falls into a hole near her home and is found soon after atop a giant mechanical hand that appears to be of extraterrestrial origin. The story than shoots forward to Rose as an adult, now a physicist, who is tasked, along with an Army pilot Kara Resnik, and a linguist, Vincent Couture, with finding the rest of the pieces of the robot, assembling it and figuring out why and how it works. Once they assemble and manage to make the robot, called Themis, how to work they discover is awesome power. Then they must deal with when and how it should be used.
Mr. Neuvel does away with conventional narrative and instead uses a mix of journal entries, mission logs, news articles and interviews to tell the story, and this approach works in spades, giving the fantastic concepts a realistic feel. It also shows Mr. Neuvel’s great grasp of dialogue and moves the story along with a brisk pace. Because while the author does not shy away from big ideas and ethical issues, this book is primarily a thriller. Now there is a lot more to this book, but remember, I am just setting the stage for Waking Gods.
The sequel begins nine years after the end of the first book, and a lot has changed. The difficulty for me, is in explaining the complexity of this book while trying to avoid spoilers for not one, but two separate novels. I will gamely try.
As big as things were in Sleeping Giants they get much bigger, and darker in Waking Gods. Rose who disappeared in the first book returns, under circumstances that border on the miraculous. The shadowy nameless figure that provides a lot of the narration and exposition comes into clearer focus, and most disturbing is the sudden appearance, in London, of another robot, similar to Themis, but with some differences. After the new robot, called Kronos, destroys London, causing massive casualties, Themis is called into action to battle Kronos.
Now if this sounds like the plot to a low-budget Anime TV show, know that I am aware of that. And also know that I have only barely scratched the surface of the scale of events of Waking Gods, which approaches Armageddon levels of disaster. I am also stinting on the story-lines of multiple characters, many of whom I have not even mentioned, evolve and grow, and become more complex and vivid. As I said earlier, I am in new territory here.
What keeps this all together is the deft touch of Mr. Neuvel. Despite all of the giant robots and global cataclysms this novel is kept grittily realistic by the depth and complexity of the characters, the surety of the plotting, and the author’s pitch-perfect ear for dialogue. The action may recall the big-budget stories of the silver screen, but the heart of this book, of both books, is grounded in the quotidian reality of character and story. Quite an achievement in a novel about giant robots fighting. I can’t wait for book three.
***** Five out of Five Stars
Review by Mark Palm
I don’t think that I am going out on a limb when I state that America is a country that is deeply steeped in a culture that is fixated on guns. It’s not a political or moral statement, but simply a matter of fact. The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley: A Novel is a story about many things, but at it’s core it is a work that uses that idea, that particular shared identity to tell a tale of a father and his daughter whose lives are both brought together and at the same time, severed, by the use of guns.
The novel actually starts on Loo’s 12th birthday. The two are living in Massachusetts, and Hawley figures that it is time to teach her to shoot. During the lesson the two talk about Loo’s mother, Lily, who accidentally drowned in a lake in Minnesota when Loo was very young. Although Lily only appears in flashbacks in many ways she is the emotional heart of the story. She means so much to Hawley that wherever they live he creates a makeshift shrine to her in the bathroom, displaying photos along with her clothing and toiletries. This level of dedication is particularly striking because the two mo0ve frequently, and often with little or no notice, because Hawley is a criminal. His arsenal of guns are used as tools. Hawley is a freelance outlaw, working for other criminals and using his physical prowess and his skill with guns to fulfill his assignments. He steals, injures people, and sometimes kills, to stay alive and get the job done, all the time posing as a fisherman or a house-painter, and keeping his vocation a secret from Loo.
After the first chapter the novel tells, in alternating chapters, the story of Loo and Hawley in the present as she grows from an adolescent into a young woman, and the past, as we see how Hawley became a criminal, and how he met and fell in love with Lily, and their life with Loo as a young girl.
The twelve lives referenced in the novel’s title refer to the twelve separate times that Hawley has been shot, and although I hate symbolism, I think they also serve for a metaphor for the pain that Hawley has both suffered and caused; in losing his wife and in endangering the life of his daughter by the choices he has made. That may make this book sound like it’s a ponderous heavy read but nothing could be further from the truth.
Ms. Tinti moves the story along at a quick pace with a strong grasp of plot and structure. There is a lot of strong subplots at play that I have not mentioned because the do not want to spoil the surprises for anyone. All of the characters are original and fully realized, but this story is about Hawley and Loo, and they are head and shoulders above the rest.
Did I mention that Ms. Tinti writes like an angel? Usually in novels as full of action as this one is, a transparent prose works best. But Ms. Tinti is having none of that.Her prose absolutely sings, and I found myself reading passages aloud, particularly the final scene that closes the novel, to wife, even though she had not read the book. It’s very seldom that I come across a novel that does so many things so well, so read this book now. I can’t be any clearer than that.