Friday, September 30, 2016

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

This novel popped up on my TBR list this month out of the blue  and it knocked a few others down the ladder.  But it was a refreshing change from my usual reads, and introduced me to Connie Willis, a very well known and beloved writer of science fiction.  I've got her novel Doomsday Book sitting on my bookshelves and now I'm raring to read it.  

Crosstalk takes place in the present, and is all about the wonderful and dangerous field of communication.  Namely, telepathy.  Briddey Flannigan works for Commspan ( an Apple-like company) and dates one of its rising stars, Trent Worth.  They've decided to take their relationship forward by having an EED procedure.  This procedure (which is outpatient brain surgery!) connects a couple together by enabling them to sense each others feelings, thereby bringing them closer and making their relationship that much better.  It's a major commitment.  Trent wants it done before he proposes.  Briddey's large and loud Irish-American family does not want her to undergo the procedure, so Briddey decides to have it done in secret.  

Only problem is, Briddey's surgery has a different result.  Instead of feeling Trent's emotions, she hears a voice loud and clear in her head.  CB Schwartz is a genius who works at Commspan (in the basement, by himself) and regularly consults with Briddey.  He implored her not to have the EED done.  And who's voice does Briddey hear?  CB's.  Loud and clear. As in telepathy.  As in they can have conversations in their heads no matter how far apart they are or where they are located.  Oops.  

Furious with CB, Briddey's life becomes a game of trying to fend off Trent's impatience at their delayed connection, keeping her family from finding out about the surgery, and figuring out how the heck to deal with CB's voice in her head. Only problem is, Briddey begins to hear other, random voices in her head too.  The only person who can save her from madness, and help her unravel the mystery of her telepathy, is CB.  Meanwhile, Commspan is frantically trying to come up with a phone that will rival Apple's latest.  In a world where communication is everything, where do we stop?  How far will Commspan go to become the best?

This was a fun novel with serious undertones about today's world and the need for instant communication, corporate greed, and lack of privacy.  Briddey has no privacy at all; her family is always calling, texting, or visiting, and in her workplace everyone knows everything immediately. I found myself annoyed for Briddey's sake when she can't even get out of the parking garage without a coworker asking about her date the night before.  There are no secrets.  

I liked CB's character a lot.  It's obvious Briddey and CB should be together, and as a reader it is enjoyable to watch their relationship slowly unfold.  Trent is a rather shallow character who seems pretty one dimensional; I have to say Briddey's family is right on the money not liking him so much.  There are references to Joan of Arc, Saint Patrick, and others throughout history who have claimed to hear voices.  Telepathy has been around for centuries, and the same fears of persecution and unethical experiments still hold true in today's world.  Underneath the comedy of errors that is Briddey's life, there is a seriousness and a reminder that sometimes silence is golden.  

This book will be out in hardcover and e-book  on Tuesday, October 4th.

Thank you to Penguin/Random House for a review copy, and introducing me to Connie Willis.  

Rating:  8/10 for a novel that has many layers.  It will appeal to those who love a good romantic comedy, those who are into science fiction with a technological angle, and those who like a good story.  It would make a good book club discussion.  


Tuesday, September 20, 2016

My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

I used to read teen novels on a fairly regular basis.  But then my book talks at work became more frequent, and I found myself reading much more adult fiction and less teen.  Last month, a friend talked about this book at our book club, and loaned me his copy.  I LOVED THIS BOOK.

I've always had a giant pang in my heart for Lady Jane Grey.  She got such a lousy deal and lost her head over it.  For those who don't know, Lady Jane Grey was caught up in the Tudor soap opera.  Edward VI died at the young age of fifteen and wrote Jane into the line of succession, leaving his half sisters Mary and Elizabeth out in the cold.  Jane was queen for 9 days before the Privy Council turned their backs on her and backed Mary, who brought an army to London to claim the throne.  Shortly thereafter, Jane and her husband, Gifford Dudley, were executed for treason.  She was only sixteen years old!  

But Hand, Ashton, and Meadows turn this story on its head and created a really fantastic alternate ending to Jane's story (and Edward, and Gifford).  In this England, Edward is King, but he is really ill.  People are either Edian (eth-y-un) or Verities.  Edians are humans capable of turning into animals.  Verities believed it was wrong, and persecuted Edians as heretics.  Henry the 8th became a glorious lion when angered, and ate a few jesters.  Edward wanted to be an Edian so bad, but so far hadn't changed and believed he hadn't inherited the trait from his parent.  Jane, a lively, book smart young lady was Edward's closest friend and secretly longed to also be a Edian.  As long as Edward was on the throne, Edians had some measure of protection.  His sister Mary, however, despised Edians and wanted to burn them all.  

Edward is dying of "the affliction", and his advisor Lord Dudley (not a nice man) convinces him that Jane should marry his son, Gifford; and that Jane should be the queen after Edward dies.  Edward agrees, and Jane and Gifford are married.  It's mutual attraction and dislike at first sight.  What Jane doesn't know is that Gifford (who prefers to be called G) turns into a horse at sunrise, and back into a rather handsome young man  at dusk.  It's a family secret and G considers it a curse. He doesn't know how to tell Jane, but that is resolved pretty quickly on their wedding night when he turns into a horse in their bedchamber.  Oops.  He's got some explaining to do...

All sorts of stuff happens in this novel, and I don't want to give it all away.  Elizabeth (Bess) is a big player in the plot; she's close to Edward and neither of them much like Mary.  Bess has a few surprises up her sleeve, too.  Lord Dudley is hungry for the crown, and he's prepared to do what it takes to get it through Jane and Gifford.  So how will it end?!

This novel is full of humor, a bit of romance (teen romance that's fairly chaste), loyalty, and teenagers dealing with very adult problems.  Can you imagine being 16 and being crowned the Queen of England?  Nope.  I can't.  When I was 16 I was juggling babysitting jobs and vaguely wondering what I would do after high school.  The added spin of magical animals makes everything seem possible in this alternate England.  And I'm so glad I read this story, because it was clever, fun, and for the first time, made the Tudor kids actually come alive for me.  Yes, it's all made up, but I don't care!  Now I can carry this alternate life of Jane's with me and not think about the horrible ending she really had (thanks to Mary).  

Rating:  9/10  for a teen novel that I thoroughly enjoyed.  The three points of view presented a thorough look at the actions and motivations of Jane, Gifford, and Edward.  I think it's a darn clever plot and one of my favorite reads of 2016.  

Available in hardcover and e-book.  

Friday, September 16, 2016

Ghost Walkers by Mary Robinette Kowal

I definitely have seasons for different genres of books.  I love to read science fiction/fantasy and paranormal novels when the seasons change from summer to fall;  it starts getting darker out earlier and the cool air makes me think about chili and apple crisp.  It's also the season when all of my favorite ghost shows start new episodes on TV.  When I saw Ghost Talkers on Twitter, I had to check it out. 

Ghost Talkers has a very interesting plot, and I have to give high marks to Mary Robinette Kowal for coming up with this storyline.  The novel is set in World War I Le Havre, a French village occupied by English troops.  Ginger Stuyvesant is a young American heiress working for the English military in an unusual capacity:  she is a medium that communicates with soldiers who have died in battle and can bring news about German troop movements and artillery back to British army headquarters .  There's a secret group of women known as the Spirit Corps who work in a vast warehouse called Potter's Field.   Every day and night, mediums sit in circles with people who ground their spirits while the women work with dead soldiers who have undergone a ritual that will compel their spirit to come back to Potter's Field and give their last report before they go into the light.  England's spiritual secret weapon may turn the war in their favor.  And if the Germans find out about it, it could mean the end of the program and danger for the mediums.  And it seems there may be a traitor to Britain working to expose the Spirit Corps to the Germans...

Ginger is engaged to Captain Ben Harford, a dashing English officer who is working with the Spirit Corps and sending coded letters back to Ginger when he is on the front battle lines.  The relationship between them undergoes some tremendous heartache and growth over the course of this novel.  I can't tell you much more about the plot because it would give it all away!  Needless to say, I was taken aback at the swiftness of major plot points, and they completely changed what I thought the story would be about.  But, I completely enjoyed this novel, even with the very dark and dismal background of World War I.  Ginger and Ben have a great chemistry and rapport, and fellow mediums who have smaller parts in the story add to an overall feeling of a united Britain working to win the war.  

I certainly hope and expect there to be more adventures for the Spirit Corps in future books.  I so want to know what happens next!  This was my first time reading Mary Robinette Kowal, and I'm happy to say her mix of fantasy/paranormal and history is something I like very much.  

Rating:  8/10 for an original plot with two main characters who came to life for me very vividly.  A good mix of history, paranormal, and just darn good writing.  
Available in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook.  I checked it out from my local library.  

Saturday, September 10, 2016

The Bookshop On the Corner by Jenny Colgan

The dangers of spending time on the computer in the early morning, sipping coffee and knowing I don't have to be anywhere the whole day, can be dangerous.  It means I discover even more books that are promptly added to my TBR list.  Some of those books just can't wait their turn; and that was the case with The Bookshop on the Corner.  Jenny Colgan?  Sold!

This was a delightful, fun read that holds no surprises and promises a happy ending.  I have absolutely no problem with this. 

Nina is a librarian who finds out her branch of the library is going to be closing, and be replaced with a media center that has no room for books, but plenty of room for computers.  This is actually a horrible crisis happening across England, and as we all know, librarians and libraries in the U.S. have to fight constantly to remain part of their communities and obtain funding.  *Ahem*

I felt like Nina was a kindred spirit.  She lives in books.  She spends her time reading and gathering books.  So many books that her roommate has threatened to kick Nina out because her boxes of books are taking a toll on their flat.  Nina's talent is pairing people with the perfect book; her knowledge of books is vast, and she's a treasure that isn't appreciated in a world that believes people don't need books anymore--heck, even the library doesn't appreciate her!

Nina is at loose ends until she sees a van advertised for sale in Scotland.  Her dream of owning a bookshop morphs into a bookshop on wheels.  Traveling to the village of Kirrinfief to check out the van, she falls in love with Scotland.  She can, for the first time in a long time, take a deep breath, slow down, and appreciate the incredible beauty of the Scottish countryside.  It feels like home.  But it doesn't fit into her plan to return with the van to Birmingham and set up her bookshop on wheels.  Just as she's set to turn the key and drive the van back to England, she finds out her permit request in Birmingham has been denied.  Now she's got a van, and she's got boxes and boxes (and boxes!) of books, but no place to go.  

But life has a way of working out, and Nina finds a place to rent outside of Kirrinfief, and she begins a new life with her mobile bookshop.  Nina has come home, but of course it's just not that easy.  

Yes, there is romance aplenty!  Malek, the train engineer:  an immigrant with big soulful eyes and the soul of a poet; and Lennox, Nina's farmer landlord; a bit of a grump who seems to bring out the worst in Nina.  

Here's what I loved about this novel:  it celebrates the importance of books.  Nina, the people of Kirrinfief, Lennox, and Nina's friend Surinder all bring  this novel to life.  The Scottish countryside is a big part of the appeal of this book, and it makes you long for a quiet piece of nature and a break from the noise of the city.  All we need are books, the love of good people, and a peaceful place to live and we will be richer than we can possibly imagine.  

Rating:  8/10 for a book that gave me a welcome break from a busy month.  Pure pleasure with lovely characters, the spectacular Scottish countryside, and of course, books!

Available in paperback and e-book.  This book will be available in late September.


Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Lady Cop Makes Trouble (A Kopp Sisters Novel) by Amy Stewart

I like Constance Kopp.  This is the second novel in the Kopp Sisters series, and I must confess I enjoyed it more than Girl Waits With Gun , which I reviewed last year.  

A short time has passed since the action in Girl Waits With Gun , and Constance is a deputy with the sheriff's department of Hackensack, New Jersey.  She's the first female deputy in New Jersey and loves her job.  But there are people who aren't happy with a female deputy, and Sheriff Heath is constantly under pressure to make Constance the matron of the female prisoners at the jail.  Life for a female law officer is difficult in 1915. 

Constance and Sheriff Heath are called to help guard a prisoner at the local sanitarium during a horrible rain storm and in the midst of a terrible train accident that leaves the sanitarium in a chaotic state.  Constance is told to stand outside the door of Dr. Baron von Matthesius, a odd little man who speaks to Constance in German and was put in jail on charges of indecent medical practices.  He's a crafty man, and before Constance can grasp the situation, he slips away and disappears.  

And thus begins the trouble for Constance and Sheriff Heath.  Determined to keep Constance's name out of the press, Sheriff Heath won't tell anyone a woman was guarding the prisoner who escaped.  The sheriff is under pressure to find the escapee because he himself can be tossed in jail and lose his job.  So Constance decides the only thing she can do is to track down Dr. Baron von Matthesius and recapture him herself.  Constance is now a deputy turned detective, and she has her hands full.  

Constance's sisters Norma and Fleurette are part of the story, but not quite as much as in the first novel.  It's good to see how each of them are carving out their place in a family of three women, in a society that expects women to get married and raise a family.  Constance's relationship with Sheriff Heath is evolving through the second novel, and I can't wait to see what happens next.  

 This isn't really a mystery (if it is, it's a very light one) but more of an entertaining historical novel.  And of course it is all the more fascinating because there was an actual Constance Kopp, who was the first female deputy in New Jersey.  She's a lady with smarts, moxie, and a commanding presence:  at nearly 6 feet tall, and 180 pounds, she isn't afraid to tackle a criminal to bring him to justice.  

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the advanced copy.  This is a fun read for anyone who likes to read about female trailblazers, early 20th century crime, and a bit of the criminal element.  There is no horrible violence, or crime scenes to make this objectionable to anyone.  

Rating:  7/10 for a sequel that keeps the action moving, and creates all sorts of possible story lines for future novels featuring Constance Kopp.  

Available in hardcover and e-book.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Arrowood by Laura McHugh

Arden Arrowood returns home to Keokuk, Iowa after her father dies and she inherits the family home, a grand place called Arrowood that holds a whole lot of sadness and unanswered questions.  Arden's twin sisters Violet and Tabitha disappeared from Arrowood's front lawn one September afternoon, 17 years before.  They weren't quite 2 years old, and Arden was 8 years old.  She feels responsible for their disappearance, as she was playing with them outside when she wasn't supposed to be; when her back was turned, they were snatched by someone in a gold car and never seen again.  Their kidnapping became one of the most famous mysteries in Iowa history, and people still whisper about it.  

Arden's life has been difficult.  Her mother and father divorced; her mother is remarried to an evangelist and living in Minnesota.  She still pops pills, drinks and watches HSN. Arden's mother doesn't really want much to do with her daughter.   Arden's father was a wanderer, a con man, and a disappointment to Arden's grandfather, the owner of Arrowood.  Such a disappointment that he forbade his son from living in the family home.  It sat empty for years, until his death.  Now Arden has returned because she has nowhere else to go and is at a crossroads in her life.  

Josh contacts Arden regarding a book he is writing about the Arrowood kidnapping.  He believes he has proof that the man who was accused of kidnapping the twins (but never charged with their disappearance) has been telling the truth all along, that he was innocent.  Could Arden's memories of that day be wrong?  If so, what really happened to the Violet and Tabitha?  Could they still be alive, somewhere?

But Arden's stay in the house is a bit eerie.  Water drips down windows, the giant claw-foot tub in the bathroom leaks.  Sometimes she thinks she feels her sisters around her.  Is it her imagination, or are they messages from beyond?

I enjoyed this novel, but I was hoping for a bit more supernatural spookiness.  Laura McHugh does a very good job of portraying a town haunted by its past, and the destruction that can happen to a family when tragedy visits and leaves unanswered questions.  I felt bad for Arden.  Her life was profoundly changed by the disappearance of her little sisters, and her guilt at not keeping them safe.  You may be surprised by the ending, or not. 

Rating:  6/10 for a good read with a main character who is complex because she's had such a messed up life.  Secondary characters round it all out to bring in that small town feel of secrets, gossip, and hidden passions.  

Available in hardcover and e-book.