Monday, December 30, 2013

Chimera, by David Wellington

David Wellington, Chimera. New York: William Morrow, 2013. 432 pages. ISBN 9780062248770.

Afghanistan war veteran Jim Chapel has been working a desk job since he lost an arm while on duty, although his highly sophisticated prosthetic arm allows him to operate almost as usual. Chimera starts when Jim is asked by Admiral Hollingshead, of the Defense Intelligence Agency, to help round up, capture, or kill four individuals who've escaped from a high-security facility in New York State. These men have gone their separate ways after their escape; each with a list of people they've been told to kill.

Jim has to start his mission without knowing even the basics: Who are the men? Why were they being detained? Why are they killing the folks on this list? Why is the CIA involved in a DIA project? As he tracks down the four men, one by one, he begins to put the clues together, and learns that the four men are the result of a genetics experiment that was intended to create a new race of humans, in the event of a nuclear holocaust. When the cold war ended and the likelihood of a nuclear war diminished, these men weren't needed, and were simply locked away and forgotten.

This is a fast-paced thriller, with Jim working with Julia Taggart, the daughter of one of the victims, and Angel, a woman assigned to help him but whom he only knows through his cell phone. They are followed and endangered by a CIA crew that is trying to cover up all evidence of their assignment, including them. I recommend Chimera to anyone who likes a fast-paced thriller!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Never List, by Koethi Zan

Koethi Zan, The Never List. New York: Viking, 2013. 303 pages. ISBN 9780670026517.

At the age of 12, Sarah and her friend Jennifer were in a car accident that injured them both but killed Jennifer's mother. Inseparable friends, they compile a list of things to avoid in order to stay safe. When they head off to college, they continue their careful approach to life, but make one mistake that puts them in the hands of a kidnapper and sadist who keeps them captive for three years. Sarah survived her ordeal, but Jennifer never got away. Ten years later, their kidnapper is up for parole, and Sarah is asked to testify at the parole hearing.

Agoraphobic and psychologically frail, Sarah overcomes her fears and begins to investigate clues that she believes her kidnapper has sent her in his periodic letters from prison. She convinces her two fellow victims to help in her search for answers, and they begin to uncover evidence of many more crimes than were previously realized. As they track down their kidnapper's friends and colleagues, they begin to put the pieces together, but at the same time they attract the attention of folks with men who don't want what's going on to come to light, and these men will stop at nothing to prevent their exposure.

I found this book almost impossible to put down, and I read it through in two sittings over the weekend. I recommend it to anyone who likes a good thriller.

After I'm Gone, by Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman, After I'm Gone. New York: William Morrow, 2014. 334 pages. ISBN 9780062309563.

Laura Lippman's latest novel, After I'm Gone, demonstrates how pernicious lies, secrecy, and deception can be to one's family and relationships. The story focuses on five women who have mourned the loss of their respective husband, father, and lover for decades. Felix Brewer runs away from everyone he loves to avoid conviction and imprisonment for gambling charges. He made arrangements to help and financially provide for both his lover and his family, but those plans go awry and the reader can only speculate throughout much of the book what might have happened to his fortune.

Felix's lover, Julie, goes missing ten years after he disappeared, and everyone suspects that she left to join him. When her body is found many years later, it's clear that she never joined him, but it's unclear what might have happened to her and who was responsible. The novel is framed by the cold-case investigation of Julie's murder by Roberto "Sandy" Sanchez, a consultant with the Baltimore Police Department. As he investigates her disappearance and murder in the present, the novel takes us back in time to show us the backstory. Did Felix's widow or daughters kill Julie?

Ms. Lippman's writing is strong as usual, and the reader can't help but empathize with everyone in Felix's life whom he left with nothing but questions. Everyone has something to hide in this story and their secrecy and deception leave each other open to suspicion and distrust. I was guessing who was responsible up to the very end.

After I'm Gone is due out in February, 2014. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good mystery with well-developed characters.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Before I die, by Candy Chang

Candy Chang, Before I Die. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2013. 303 pages. ISBN 9781250020840.

Candy Chang is an artist who decided to use an abandoned house to create a public art project that would engage a community. She painted the outside of a house in New Orleans with chalkboard paint, then stenciled "Before I Die, I Want to..." and left spaces for people to write whatever they wanted. Within days the space had filled up and created an emotional gathering spot for community members. She's documented her work on a web site: and also in this book.

Ms. Chang describes why she was inspired to start this project, and how it grew to be emulated in hundreds of similar installations around the world. The book is composed mostly of photographs of her project and the many others that followed. Ms. Chang begins the book with her own project, then spotlights dozens of similar projects from around the world. She concludes with a chapter "By the Numbers" that provides a number of statistics about the project, and instructions on how to create a similar wall. This was a fascinating and fun book to read; I particularly liked reading about the people who lead efforts in various locations to create similar walls. I recommend Before I Die to anyone who is interested in public art or community projects.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Fortunately, the Milk, by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman, Fortunately, the Milk. Illustrated by Skottie Young. New York: HarperCollins, 2013. 113 pages. ISBN 9780062224071.

Neil Gaiman is one of the most versatile writers I know, writing in multiple genres and for all ages. My favorite book of his is The Graveyard Book which was a big success a few years ago and is in development for a movie by Ron Howard. Other books by Mr. Gaiman that I've read include Anansi Boys, Stardust, and Coraline, all of which I've enjoyed. I received an advance reader's edition of Fortunately, the Milk at the May 2013 Book Expo America convention in New York City. It included a post-it note inserted inside the cover with Mr. Gaiman's signature on it.

Fortunately, the Milk is an entertaining tall tale that is told by the father in the story. He goes out for milk one day and tells his children a tale to explain what took him so long. His story includes an alien spaceship, pirates, piranhas, a stegosaurus, a volcano, vampires, and more. The illustrations are well-drawn and amusing, and the writing is excellent as is usual with Mr. Gaiman. If you like kids books (as I do), this is a great purchase.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Short Movie Reviews: The Counselor; Catching Fire; The Desolation of Smaug

Once in a while I will use this space to write short movie reviews. While I used to go to the movies about once a week, after we moved to Albany our weekends have been dedicated primarily to three activities: working on the new house, exploring the Albany area, and visiting relatives who are now much further away than they were when we lived in State College. Things are starting to settle down a little and we've been getting out a bit to local theaters. Although we haven't been out to the movies much, our Netflix viewing has continued as usual, and we've managed to watch about 40 movies from Netflix this year (so far).

The Counselor. With Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, and Brad Pitt, how could a movie go wrong? Directed by Ridley Scott, this movie is fast-paced and keeps the viewer guessing about what's going to happen next. It made me cringe as I watched Michael Fassbender's character, the counselor, make one bad decision after another. I'm a big Ridley Scott fan, but this didn't feel like a Scott film; to me, it seemed more like a Quentin Tarantino film, with tricky dialogue and bizarre asides. Some of the action was over-the-top violent; the film could have been just as good with a lot fewer grisly scenes. I still liked it, though, and would give it a B.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The second installment in the Hunger Games trilogy was just as good as the first. I loved these books by Suzanne Collins, and the films have both done the books justice. While they may have changed a few details, or left a few minor scenes or characters out, the films have been just as I'd imagined the books. All of the actors have done a wonderful job with their characters, and remained true to the vision expressed in the books. Some YA literature, when made into films, comes across a little cheesy or campy (e.g., Twilight). Catching Fire is a thrilling fantasy adventure that would be appealing to both adults and a YA audience. The director, Francis Lawrence, has made an excellent film. I give it an A.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. For the record, I am a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, both the books and the movies. I also love The Hobbit (the book); it was my first introduction to the world of J.R.R. Tolkien, and I've re-read them several times. Peter Jackson's decision to turn The Hobbit into a trilogy was a colossal mistake. I've read interviews in which he defended this decision and described how he included story lines from other works by Tolkien, etc., but I don't buy any of it. The Hobbit is a short book; shorter than any of the individual volumes in The Lord of the Rings. It should have been made into one action packed film. Stretched into three, it's bloated and slightly boring. I can't believe I'm even saying that, because I couldn't wait for this film to be made, and made specifically by Peter Jackson. It's a real shame. To be fair: the CGI is great; the actors are quite good; the scenery is beautiful. Smaug's design and portrayal is truly wonderful. Nevertheless, I can only say that I'm disappointed by this (and the first) film in the trilogy. I give it a C.

Songs of Willow Frost, by Jamie Ford

Jamie Ford, Songs of Willow Frost. New York: Ballantine Books, 2013. 331 pages. ISBN 9780345522023.

Songs of Willow Frost is Jamie Ford's second novel, after Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. While I had hoped to read his first novel, I never got around to it, so I was pleased to be given a personalized advance reading copy of his second book at Book Expo America, in May 2013. Songs of Willow Frost was released in September 2013, and my book club selected it for our December discussion.

Songs of Willow Frost is about William, a 12-year old boy who has been living in an orphanage for five years. He's been told that his mother is dead, so he's surprised and thrilled when he thinks he sees her during a rare group outing. He begins to plan his escape from the confines of the orphanage so that he can track his mother down, and he does so with the help of his friend Charlotte, a fellow orphan who has been blind from birth.

As William tracks down his mother, in two forays from the orphanage, he learns his mother's story and how he came to be left at the orphanage. Life in Seattle during the 1920s and 1930s for his mother Willow, a Chinese-American, was extremely difficult. When her mother dies and she's left alone with her step-father, her life takes a turn for the worse. As a single mother, she becomes even more vulnerable when her employer has to close his business and she loses her job.

I enjoyed reading about Seattle in the 20s and 30s; it's a reminder of how difficult life was when there were no social safety nets. In reading William, Willow, and Charlotte's life story, one begins to see how fragile our way of life can be. Jamie Ford writes in clear, engaging, prose that brings that time period to life. The characters are believable, and their stories are compelling. I recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. 339 pages. ISBN 9780307265746.

Jhumpa Lahiri's earlier books include The Namesake (which was made into a movie), and two collections of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, and Unaccustomed Earth. Having read and very much enjoyed both The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies, I was looking forward to her new novel. Lahiri does not disappoint with The Lowland, the story of two brothers who are only 15 months apart in age, but who take very different paths as they grow to adulthood.

Subhash is the older brother, and he is very close to Udayan as they grow up and enter college. It is in the 1960s, and India is experiencing unrest with Maoist student and revolutionary factions competing with each other and protesting, often violently, against government injustice. Subhash doesn't want to become involved in politics and revolution, viewing the violence as wrongheaded, and pursues graduate education in the United States. Udayan takes another approach, and gets deeply involved in a Maoist party that plans and undertakes violent acts. Although he marries and is ostensibly living a responsible life, his revolutionary actions result in his arrest and death. Subhash returns home for Udayan's funeral, and offers a different life to Udayan's widow Gauri, who is pregnant with Udayan's child.

The novel follows Subhash, Gauri, and their daughter Bela, as they make a life in Rhode Island. But Gauri is harboring a secret that will not allow her to love Subhash and Bela as she should, and she abandons them when Bela is 12. As the story progresses, we can see how that abandonment takes root and affects all of them as the decades pass. As a reader, I felt empathy for all of the characters, even as they made choices that I think were heartless and cruel. As the years go by, they grow and come to a sort of peace with their lives and choices.

Lahiri's writing is beautiful and her characters are well-drawn. She writes from the viewpoint of all of the major characters, most often from the perspectives of Subhash, Gauri, and Bela. She describes the culture shock that anyone must feel going from one culture to a very different one, especially in the 1970s when we didn't have so much access to mass media and communication. The historical perspective is very interesting, but it doesn't weigh down the book at all. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys contemporary fiction.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

Marisha Pessl, Night Film. New York: Random House, 2013. 596 pages. ISBN 9781400067886.

When I heard that Marisha Pessl had a new book out I was thrilled, and I have to say that I'm not disappointed. I loved her Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which was published in 2006 to overwhelmingly positive reviews, and became a best seller. Night Film is a worthy successor, and is every bit as engaging and compulsively readable as Special Topics was.

Night Film's protagonist is Scott McGrath, an investigative reporter who's struggling financially and personally after being set up by an anonymous source. The target of that investigation, Stanislas Cordova, sued him, resulting in McGrath losing both his job and his wife. He is intrigued when, years later, Cordova's young daughter Ashley commits suicide under mysterious circumstances, and he begins his investigation into Cordova's activities again. This time he has two amateur assistants, both of whom had come into contact with Ashley in the months and days before she died. Hopper spent time with Ashley during a camping experience with other wayward youth. Nora met Ashley the night before she died at the hotel where Nora worked as a coat check clerk.

McGrath, Nora, and Hopper begin to follow a trail of clues to track Ashley's last movements, discovering a bewildering web of relationships and lies. The tension builds as they delve deeper and deeper into her actions and try to determine her motivations.

I'm impressed with Pessl's writing; I can hardly believe that this is only her second book. The characters are well-drawn, and I found myself wanting to know more about them and what happened to them after the book ended. It was impossible to put this book down and I'll be recommending it to all of my friends who likes mysteries and thrillers.