Monday, December 15, 2014

Revival by Stephen King

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Stephen King starts off strong with his latest work, Revival.  Jamie Morton is the central character of this novel. We first meet him when he is a pre-schooler, and follow him through a long and bumpy life.  Along the journey, Jamie keeps running into Charles Jacobs.  First, Jacobs comes to Jamie's small town as the new minister.  He, his beautiful wife, and their adorable son become central to Jamie's and his siblings' world.  Rev. Jacobs, in addition to being a minister, is a serious amateur scientist who is fascinated with electricity.  When one of Jamie's brothers is injured in a skiing accident, the reverend seemingly cures him using electricity.  It is not long after that that the reverend is also touched by a freak accident.  His wife and child are killed in a horrific traffic accident. Jacobs is inconsolable after the loss and completely loses his faith.  He gives a sermon which causes him to be immediately fired, and Jamie thinks he is out of his life for good.

Jamie's own fascination is the guitar.  He picks up one belonging to his brother and, before long, he finds himself playing with a band. He loves the way girls react to him as a musician, and he loves being onstage.  This leads him to a life with different bands, travelling from town to town.  Eventually, he finds himself with a serious heroin addition, down and out in Tulsa, OK. (As a resident of Tulsa, by the way, I have to mention that King's portrayal of my town is less than flattering and exaggerates stereotypes about the state.) He goes to the state fair, hoping to buy drugs, and runs into Charles Jacobs.  Jacobs saves his life by breaking his addiction and helps him get a job at a recording school in Colorado.

Jamie thinks Jacobs is out of his life for good, but, of course, he isn't.  Jamie and Jacobs reconnect which leads to a horrifying ending to the novel.  The ending, unfortunately, is where I think the novel lost its way. This is a story about faith, science, and magic.  It is the story of a man obsessed with finding our what happens after we die.  The ending, although it supplies an answer to the question, is neither horrifying enough to satisfy nor anticlimactic enough to give the novel an ironic twist.  I really like the first 80 percent of this book, but the ending left a lot to be desired.
John Grisham is Back with Gray Mountain

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John Grisham has been churning out legal thrillers on a regular basis for years.  Although I have liked some of them, I haven't really loved a Grisham novel since A Time to Die.  Finally, he has written another really great novel.

It's 2008, and Samantha Kofer is pulling in the big bucks in a high-pressure job with a huge Wall Street firm.  Her work is mind-numbingly dull, but she believes there is real opportunity for advancement if she keeps working nights and weekends.  Then, the world of finance comes tumbling down.  Samantha is one of hundreds of young attorneys laid off due to the financial collapse.  Her firm makes her an offer: if she will work for free for one year for a non-profit, they will hold her job and reinstate her when the economy turns around.  Samantha isn't too worried; she has saved quite a bit.  She half-heartedly applies for some of the positions with non-profits recommended by her firm.  Time after time, she is told that the position has already been filled.  Finally, she gets an opportunity with a small legal aid group in a tiny town in the heart of Appalachia.

Samantha's new firm deals mainly with trying to help miners and their families.  Simple divorces, wills, and other legal paperwork take up a great deal of their time, but the true heart of the firm is trying to help miners receive the black lung benefits they are entitled to.  Samantha becomes friends with a young attorney who is fighting the mining companies who are strip mining, destroying the land, and poisoning the water for miles around.  When he dies under suspicious circumstances, she finds herself in a life or death battle with big corporations.

The thriller part is as good as anything Grisham has written before.  What sets this book aside from his usual work is the complex character at the center of the story.  Samantha grows, changes, and becomes a better human being through her experiences in rural Virginia.  She learns a great deal about the law and life.  I hope she will appear in another Grisham novel sometime soon.
I Really Wanted to Hate These Books; Unfortunately, They Were Great: 
The Cuckoo's Calling and The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)

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J.K. Rowling's first foray into fiction after the Harry Potter series was The Casual Vacancy.  I read this book as soon as it was released, hoping for some of the fabulous writing and imaginative storytelling in the Harry Potter series.  I was hugely disappointed, and I really disliked the book.  So, when Rowling published The Cuckoo's Calling under a pseudonym, I expected to hate it too.  It was only after rave reviews from a friend with similar taste, that I finally broke down and read it.  Boy, am I glad I did.

The main characters in both novels are detective Cormoran Strike and his secretary Robin.  When Cuckoo's Calling begins, Strike is down on his luck.  He is down to two clients, living in his office, and only able to hire a temporary secretary.  In fact, he nearly sends Robin away on the morning she shows up since he really doesn't have the money to pay her.  A wealthy client soon arrives, however, and retains Cormoran to find out what really happened to his sister, superstar model Lula Landry.  Her death has been ruled a suicide, but her brother doesn't believe that is the case.

Cormoran, along with Robin, begins to delve into the lives of the rich and famous, trying to determine the real facts behind Lula's death.  As they investigate, we find out more about them as individuals.  These two characters are what makes these novels so engrossing.  As soon as I finished the first novel, I began The Silkworm.  Although it is a little grittier, it is also a fascinating mystery.  This time, Cormoran and Robin end up immersed in the literary scene in London.

Both novels are excellent mysteries with characters that you learn to really care about.  I can hardly wait for installment three of what I hope will be a long series.
Terminal City by Linda Fairstein

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Assistant DA Alexandra Cooper is back, trying to find a killer linked in some way to Grand Central Terminal before he kills again.  As with all of Fairstein's Alex Cooper books, this one gives you history and trivia about New York City along with a rip-roaring mystery. Alex, along with detectives Mike Chapman and Mercer Wallace, are on the trail of a serial killer.  The first body is found in the Waldorf Astoria but strange marks, resembling train tracks, have been carved into the body.  The second corpse moves the investigation closer to Grand Central, and the third actually takes place in the subterranean city beneath the station.  Adding to the urgency of stopping a killer is the fact that the President of the United States will be arriving at Grand Central in only a few days. Alex's relationship with Mike Chapman, which began in the last novel, is a sub-conflict throughout the book.

Fairstein's rock solid research brings Grand Central Terminal alive for the reader, and the mystery keeps you turning the pages.  I highly recommend this book.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

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Like so many of Alice Hoffman's novels there is something that appears to be magic, but truly is not.  The extraordinary things in this novel are mostly humans with birth defects or acquired abnormalities such as being covered i tattoos.  They are all exhibited along with some rare birds, a giant tortoise, and a number of strange (sometimes fake) creatures in formaldehyde, in Coralie's father's museum.  Coralie's father keeps her away from these "freaks" when she is a child, but as she grows older she becomes one of the exhibits since she has her own abnormality, webbed fingers.  Coralie is trained by being required to stay in a tub full of ice water for hours and developing her ability to hold her breath so that she can become a "mermaid" in a tank of water in the museum. As the prosperity of the museum is challenged by bigger and brighter entertainments in Coney Island, Coralie's father stoops to having her perform as something of an underwater stripper for groups of "gentlemen" in the evenings. Coralie is extremely sheltered, never allowed out without supervision except for quick trips to the market.  When she happens upon a young man one night after a nightly swim in the freezing Hudson, her life changes completely.

The tale of this young man, Eddie, is interwoven with that of Coralie in the novel.  Having escaped Russia with his father after his mother and everyone else in his village was murdered, Eddie is not content to slave in a factory as his father has done.  He strikes out, first working as a sort of child detective, then becoming a photographer.  He abandons his Jewish traditions, and he and his father become alienated.  Eddie chronicles life in New York City including the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire.  This event involves him in searching for a lost girl who should have been in the building that day and leads him inexorably toward Coralie.

There is a great deal of suspense and there are some truly disturbing scenes, but mainly this novel explores what "humanity" is and how outward appearance has little relationship to the quality of character.  I thoroughly enjoyed this book.

A Magical Novel: The City by Dean Koontz

The city is a story about magic and relationships, and about achieving greatness despite huge obstacles.  It is a wonderful young adult novel that will appeal to both male and female readers.  Jonah is eight when the story begins in 1967 and is living in an unnamed metropolis.  Although he is African American and this is the height of the civil rights movement, the problems Jonah deals with are more global than simply those of race.

He is living with his mother in a walk-up apartment.  His father is a no-account smooth talker who comes and goes but never really offers anything to the family.  Jonah doesn't have many friends when the story begins, but he begins collecting an odd assortment.  First there is Pearl, a magical woman who may or may not be the city itself.  She is there when Jonah really needs her, and he credits much of his good fortune to her.  Then there is Mr. Yoshioka, an upstairs neighbor who becomes Jonah's friend, confidant, and co-conspirator. Finally, Malcolm and his sister become Jonah's closest friends. 

Jonah's mother is a singer and his grandfather is a pianist so music runs through Jonah's veins. Music, in fact, becomes the one thing that Jonah can hold on to no matter what happens.  He becomes immersed in a plot by a radical group and has to rely on all of his friends to help him through, but it is music that saves Jonah's life in the long run.

This is a beautiful book with memorable characters and moving events.  I would highly recommend it for students in upper elementary, junior, or senior high.  It is also a great read for adults. 

The Quick: A Novel by Lauren Owen

First, let me say that The Quick is not - quick that is.  The first quarter of this novel seemed interminable!  It begins with a brother and sister being raised by servants and a series of governesses on an isolated British estate.  "How Gothic!" you might think.  You'd be wrong.  There's tons of atmosphere, but little happens. The absentee father dies, leaving the son a pile of money and the estate so he goes off to an exclusive school then heads to London to try his hand at writing.  The daughter, meanwhile, gets squat since she's a female and spends several years nursing an ailing aunt who takes her in.

Many reviewers have referred to The Quick as a modernized vampire tale.  The only modernity apparent to me is the homosexual relationship in which the brother becomes involved (before he becomes a vampire) with a tortured metaphor about the fact that being a vampire is as socially acceptable as being gay in Victorian London.

Now, to the vampires.  The actual vampire story is fabulous.  There are two social classes for vampires in London, the wealthy and the poor.  The wealthy vampires only admit men and only those of a certain class. The poor have vampires of all ages, both men and women.  The novel finally starts rolling with the introduction of vampire hunters who become involved with the sister's quest to find her missing brother. There is action, suspense, intrigue...all of the things a reader hopes for in a book. There is a surprising turn of events at the end which is quite satisfying.  

Overall, I would recommend this book, but I'd also recommend skimming the first 25%.  It will seem much more entertaining that way, and much more "quick"

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Charming, Funny, Touching...Just a Wonderful Read: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Although there is a mystery at the heart of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, it is the characters who keep you reading.  A.J. Fikry, the central character, has given up on life.  He expects only the worst and is simply surviving when an unexpected event causes him to change.

This novel revolves around life in a bookstore and offers humorous but dead-on reviews of some of the classics of literature.  It is a book that will make you laugh, but also one that will make you think.  I would highly recommend this to anyone who loves books.

Monday, July 28, 2014

He's Still Got It!  A Review of
Mr. Mercedes: A Novel by Stephen King

Stephen King's latest novel, Mr. Mercedes, is the story of a retired cop trying to solve an unsolved crime that still haunts him.  King creates a sense of instability for the reader  from the beginning by killing what appears to be the main character before the end of the first chapter.  He keeps the reader guessing for a time, and then it becomes perfectly clear who the bad guys is.  What is unclear is whether he or our hero will triumph in the end.

King creates the suspense and dread for which he is renowned.  He creates characters about whom the reader can truly care.  He lightens the mood with humor at just the right moments, on occasion making references to his own works.

Mr. Mercedes is a thriller with heart.  I'd highly recommend it for readers who like this type of novel.