Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The joke's on you, reader.

So there are basically two main elements to the book:
1) Where the heck are they and how do they get out alive?
2) What's with this guy who's an admiral but clearly not an admiral?

The first is handled with classic suspense/escape sensibilities - they come up with a plan, nearly succeed, plan fails and they're marginally worse off than before. Lather rinse repeat. This part holds together fine, it's a standard sci-fi model.

The second annoyed me tremendously. Within a few chapters, one of the underlings has figured out who the 'admiral' is, but they don't tell us. They drop hints like we know a darn thing about the worlds they come from. It's a series of inside jokes and the reader is on the outside. Throughout the whole book, exactly one paid off at all for me, and it was way too little after way too long. All the answers come in the final chapter, when two characters sit down and conveniently explain everything to the reader in a simple dialogue that no two human beings would ever have.

Will i read the next in the series? I don't know. It will depend a lot on whether it's building on these characters, or just the world they live in.

(I received a free ARC of this book from the Amazon Vine program.)

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

"The Rest of Us Just Live Here" will ruin YA SF/F for you, in a good way

"But what about everyone else?"

This is what Ness asks in the introduction (though i guess i'm not sure it'll appear in the published version, one can never be sure when reading an ARC). It seems like every YA book these days features, as he notes, "a Chosen One, who has secret abilities he's never known about or an incredible inner strength that she doubted was there. They're the only ones who can defeat the Big Bad, topple the government, free the people."

Of the hundreds of kids who line up in District 12, only Katniss and Peeta are sent to the Hunger Games. There are plenty of Divergents, but only Tris is divergent enough to do what needs to be done. Harry's just one wizard in a school full of wizards. What about Katniss's second cousin, George, who lives on the other side of town? What about Lisa, an abnegation/erudite just keeping her head down and hoping for the best while handing clothes out to the factionless? What about Jill, the quiet girl in Ravenclaw who would be the best in her year except that Hermione is always better? They have lives, too, you know.

Ness offers up what would be a pretty generic coming-of-age story, a gaggle of kids finishing their senior year of high school, with all the checkboxes ticked: unrequited love (or is it?!), The Gay Friend, The New Kid, distant parents, college angst, etc. But each chapter leads with a plot summary of the equivalent chapter in a Generic YA Book, with all the tropes and cliches and whatnot. While The Chose One is saving the world, Mikey is wondering if he'll ever kiss his dream girl, if he'll stay friends with his bestie when they go off to school.

And the thing is, i hate Coming Of Age stories. 17-year-olds wangsting about the same thing everyone else around them is also going through just makes me snippy. But the juxtoposition made the story. By comparing Mikey and his friends to some unlikely teens out saving the world, it makes the mundanity of getting ready for prom into something much more potent.

Of course, there's also the humor - these are a bunch of normal kids leading normal lives in a world just like ours except that, every few years, Something Goes Horribly Wrong and a Chosen One has to fix it. Casual references to what is, for them, everyday life, are just absurd when they involve the Undead Army interrupting final exams.

(I received a free ARC of this book from the Amazon Vine program.)

Sunday, December 27, 2015

"The Wolves" by Alex Berenson takes the character John Wells to a darker place and I didn't care for it

This is Book #10 in the author's John Wells series of spy thrillers.  John Wells is a CIA agent (and later a deniable independent contractor for the CIA) who has spent most of his career infiltrating terrorist cells in Afghanistan and similar countries.  Along the way he converted to Islam -- his religious beliefs and practices form a distinct part of his character.  And like most "lone wolf" spy novel protagonists, he has a complicated personal and romantic life.

I haven't read all of the John Wells books but of the several I have read, this one was my least favorite.  The storyline follows directly from the previous book in the series, "Twelve Days," so you probably should read that book first to understand the context of how the characters relate to each other.

This book is almost the complete opposite of Twelve Days in tone and pace.  The pace in Twelve Days was frantic with Wells going from country to country -- Europe, Russian, Middle East, Africa -- in a very short period of time to try to keep the United States from being tricked into entering a war with Iran.  And it was heavy on the violence as well.  This book starts when events have had a little time to calm down and because there is not a deadline, the action moves more slowly from place to place and even within a set location.  The level of violence is significantly lower in this book, as is the degree to which Wells's physical ability to carry out his mission and escape from tight situations stretches the bounds of believability.  For the most part, Wells doesn't pull off physically improbable stunts.

However, instead of being about saving the United States, the story in this book is all about revenge.  I didn't like that part of the book -- it made the character of John Wells even darker than he has been throughout the series.

One interesting part was how much time the reader spends inside the heads of the bad guys.  They aren't just caricatures but fully formed people who justify their own actions.

If you like this series and this character, you most likely will enjoy this book as well.  I didn't care for the particular focus of this book, but it was still a fairly entertaining read.  Even though this book was merely OK for me 3 stars out of 5), I would still read the next book in the series.

I received an ARC free from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a review.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

"Real Tigers (Slough House)" by Mick Herron is not the spy book I was expecting but definitely worth reading

This was not at all the book I was expecting from the blurb on the back of the book. I had not read any of the other Slough House books and always associate spy novels with nonstop action and page-turning speed. So I was a bit taken aback when the book started out fairly slow and "wordy" (by which I mean there are a lot of full paragraphs and not just the spare action and dialogue oriented prose you might see in an American thriller). Clearly this was not going to be a page-turner and I was tired and just wanted some mindless escapism so I nearly quit reading but was convinced to keep going and am glad I did.

The Slow Horses (which I only just now realize is a play on words of the building where they "work") are MI5 agents who have been pulled from official duty for various screw-ups and given make-work assignments designed to make them quit. These folks are not James Bond or any of the great fictional British spies. They are not especially heroic or competent and they don't appear to like each other very much. A lot of the wordy part at the beginning of the book gives the reader insight into these characters and what messes they have made of their lives. It can be slow reading, especially if you are expecting a spy thriller. If you get tempted to stop reading -- just keep going. There is a point to what you are reading and things will eventually start moving.

Just about the time you think the action is really going to start, you get more background but keep with it. This is definitely a book written by someone with a degree in English, not the typical American thriller that is often a mental movie script in novel form. It is much more character driven with a fairly involved plot. Sit back and enjoy the writing.  One of the benefits of so much of the book being about the characters and not just solid action is that it is not critical to have read earlier books in the series to be able to understand and enjoy this one.

I don't want to give out any plot details because it would spoil the surprises the author has built into the story. Right around page 114, I realized what kind of spy book this was going to be -- and it was nothing like I expected. For the rest of the book there were plots and counter-plots until you wonder who the good guys and bad guys really are and who is going to come out on top in the end. And I finally got more of the action I was originally expecting, even though the Slow Horses are not your typical spies.  By the time I finished, I was really glad I had kept reading even though it wasn't the book I had expected. This is definitely a thinking person's spy book -- a literary spy thriller. If all you want is page-turning action, this might not be the book for you. But I still recommend it because it will keep you on your toes.

I received an Advance Readers Copy of this book through the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a review.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Review: THE HUNGRIEST MOUTH IN THE SEA (by Peter Walters)

bookcover of THE HUNGRIEST MOUTH IN THE SEA by Peter Walters

THE HUNGRIEST MOUTH IN THE SEA is a bright colorful book that is going to appeal to young animal lovers and adults like me who love to share science and nature with youngsters.

I think it's a great book to share because of the fun artwork and because it makes a nice read-aloud.

Floating out at sea, a cloud of green plankton
drifts with the tide, soaking up the sun.

But look-- a hungrier mouth
in the seas of the south!

Who would you say is heading this way?

It's not immediately clear but the focus of THE HUNGRIEST MOUTH IN THE SEA is a little unusual.  I don't know about you but so many ocean books that we've read are generic.  Peter Walter's book though focuses on the South Sea and it's unique Food Web. The author starts with algae and moves up from krill to white sharks and beyond.  The hook is 'who is the hungriest mouth'.

If you aren't acquainted with them one thing you might want to know is that these Arbordale Books allow you to adapt how you use the material to your child and situation.  If you want to get into more depth, for example, you can use the "For Creative Minds" section at the end of the book. These sections have more information and some activities.  There is predator and prey matching for example and food web cards and even a card game you can play.  Other activities can be found online!

--The Accelerated Reading level is 3.2.
--The Lexile level is 670.
--Can be shared with much younger children as the artwork is very appealing.

I really like this book.  I found the artwork very appealing and I really like that the focus was on the South Seas eco-system.  The book is appropriate for a fairly wide range of children; though written on the 3rd Grade level.

I could see buying this for the home shelves or for a classroom book basket.


(Arbordale Publishing)
by Peter Walters

Disclosure:  Review Copy received from publisher

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

"Milo Speck, Accidental Agent" is a delightful Dahl-esqe fantasy adventure for younger middle grade readers

I am much much older than the target audience for this book, but it grabbed me from the opening paragraph.  I am quoting  from the ARC, so something might have changed in the final published version of the book, but it gives you a good sense of the flavor of this book:

Milo had read about magic before.  He knew that kids in stories sometimes found magic in secret drawers or hidden away in attics, and he had always hoped that if he were to find magic, it would appear in the form of a mysterious silver coin or a doorway to an enchanted world.  But when magic came to Milo Speck, it came in the form of a sock.  

A sock?!?  Something about that passage captured my attention and pulled me into a story about a very small boy sucked into a world of hilariously doltish (but very large and dangerous) ogres who enjoy snacking on boys.  The story had a very familiar feeling of tongue-in-cheek absurd humor combined with heart but it wasn't until reading the author's note at the end that I realized why -- one of the writers she credits for inspiration is Roald Dahl.  It would be a disservice to compare any writer to the great Roald Dahl, but younger readers who like the kind of humor found in books like "The BFG" should really enjoy this book as well.

Milo Speck, is an unlikely hero.  He is small for his age and his "Grandmother" dresses him in ridiculous clothes that she buys on clearance.  As this book opens, he is wearing a googly-eyed duck sweatshirt that "quanks."  Through an unlikely act of magic,* Milo is transported to Ogregon where he has to avoid becoming an ogre snack, rescue some other kids, figure out what his Dad is doing there, and find a way back home.   There is a lot more to the story, but I don't want to spoil the fun by giving away anything more than what is in the publisher's book blurb.

I really enjoyed the combination of silly fun and adventure in this book and would recommend it for readers on the younger end of the 9-12 age range.  It would also be appropriate for children younger than 9 whose reading level is beyond their years.  Older children might like it as well, especially if they aren't yet ready for the more mature Young Adult books.

It's a great book to recommend for boys who will enjoy going on this adventure with Milo as he  uses his wits and heart to survive the ogres.  Girls will enjoy it as well, but I always like to find books that I think will appeal to boys to encourage them to read more.

*For parents who are uneasy with the idea of magic in books, I hope you will not avoid this book on those grounds.  Milo is not a wizard and has no magic abilities.  He's just a regular boy. The "magic" in the book is mostly confined to the ability to travel between the regular world and Ogregon, though there is brief discussion of some other "magical" creatures in other parallel lands.  The characters themselves don't do magic.

I received an Advanced Readers Copy free through Amazon's Vine program in exchange for a review.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Sandwich Test

I'm not sure how i came up with the Sandwich Test. I suspect the idea started with one of Yahtzee Croshaw's critical video game reviews, wherein he often compares disappointing characters to various inanimate objects. However, the Sandwich Test is now my primary metric for judging novels. It goes like this:

Would the story be meaningfully different if you replaced the main character with a sandwich?

In too many of the YA novels i've been reading lately, main characters might as well be sandwiches. They don't do anything, they just are. People do things for them, or about them, or around them. People move them from one location to another. These characters, and every one that leaps to mind is, alas, female, might as well be a sandwich for all it matters to the story.

And why a sandwich, you ask? Why not a pebble or a manequin or a sock? Well, two reasons. First, it's funnier, and keeps me sane when, for some reason, i decide to stick it out in a book that already failed the test. Second, there are actually a variety of sandwiches out there, and that allows other characters to interact with the sandwich in ways they wouldn't necessarily interact with a pebble. Cribbing from one of my own reviews, in which i compare a character to a pastrami sandwich:

But of course, people have strong feelings about her. Some are repulsed (perhaps they're vegetarians?), some want her but know to stay clear (on a diet, maybe?), whereas others want to possess her (pastrami connoisseurs, in this example).

It's been a while since i read the Hunger Games trilogy, so i can only use it for general examples, but here goes:

In book 1, Katniss is a person. She's struggling to keep her family alive, hunting and trading and dodging the cops. When Prim is selected, Katniss leaps forward to volunteer herself in her sister's place. In the games, she makes alliances, she attacks and defends, she even stands up to the Powers That Be at the conclusion of the games.

By book 3, she's a Sandwich, being handed around by various factions. She does what people tell her, and if no one has anything for her to do, she sits there. By the end, she's not even a good sandwich, she's a day-old soggy cold cut sandwich.

So, readers, next time you're frustrated with a character who doesn't DO anything, use your spare time deciding exactly what kind of sandwich they are. BLT? Club? Hummus wrap?

And authors, please, don't write any more sandwiches.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Let he who has done his own fact-checking cast the first stone

So You've Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson
Published by Riverhead Hardcover (March 31, 2015)

 I think Ronson's arguments about the actual psychological and social damage of shame are powerful and important. However, several times during reading, i laughed. Out loud. And not at anything that was supposed to be funny.

For example, in a book about shaming, the author attributes the efficacy of those signs on the side of the road that tell you your speed to... feedback loops. He thinks the value is in showing you your speed, not in showing everyone around you. It's a shaming device, at least in part. And that's ignored.

Another one: after chapters and chapters and chapters of Jonah Lehrer observing that if he'd only fact-checked his book, he'd have saved himself a lot of trouble, Ronson gets Godwin's Law wrong. He cites a corollary of it as if it were the law itself. 15 seconds on wikipedia would have been enough to get that one right.

So... valuable insight, oddly shoddy writing and editing. Certainly very readable, and probably worthwhile, but it only escaped being thrown at the wall because i was reading it in a public place with innocent bystanders nearby.

(I received a free Advance Reader's Copy of this book through Amazon Vine.)

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

On The Beach for a New Generation

Author:  Tommy Wallach
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers (3/24/15)

The plot of We All Looked Up may seem familiar.  An asteroid is headed towards Earth.  While it's possible that it won't hit, the probability is that it will hit and the world will end in about two month's time. 

Now, I loved this book, but for some reason, publishers keep comparing this to The Stand.  Wipe any thought of The Stand out of your mind. That's an awful comparison because it's got nothing in common with it. The one book that did keep running through my head was On the Beach by Nevil Shute . It's not a story about the apocalypse so much as it is about the philosophy of life. What would you do if you knew with almost absolute certainty that you would die within two months?

The teens in this book are vibrantly, brilliantly alive. They love and hate. They smoke out, they play music, they have sex, they adore each other and betray each other, and they do every day ordinary teen things. They are young and feel immortal. They've got their entire lives ahead of them.

Until they don't.

While the story focuses on one school and one group of kids, the story feels more global than that. You get to witness both the good and the bad of the way society deals with impending destruction.

At its heart, though, the book is about dreams, about learning what's most important, and about living life to the fullest. It manages to be both hopeful and heartbreaking all at once.

The writing is beautiful, the characters more authentic than you would expect, and the story keeps your attention to the last page.

Have you seen it before? Sure, but it's a new generation and it works.

*ARC Provided via Amazon Vine Program

Monday, February 23, 2015

And the 2015 Newbery Award Goes To...

Awards are popularity contests.  The Newbery Medal, given to the author whose book is considered to be the most distinguished in children’s literature out of a year’s worth of books aimed at young readers, is no different.  I have never been on an awards committee.  I have spoken to and taken classes from library professionals who have been on awards committees including the Newbery.  They all are in some level of agreement that the most passionate voice often holds sway.  This is not to say that book awards are without merit and that what goes on behind closed doors is not important.

If you look at the winners of the most prestigious award in American literature for young readers from the inception of award the Newbery Medal in 1922, it’s rather obvious that the books selected have not been chosen by children for children.  The list of winners is plagued by works that have gone out of print (or should have if not for the award designation), been loved by adults but not children, and are often difficult to sell to the target audience.

To say a revolution is afoot might be a false claim, but there does seem to be a sense of change coming, slow as it is.  In 2008 the committees were chastised for selecting books that are not universally loved by young readers or even read by them or the people who regularly work with children.  However, the 2009 selection of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book not only connected with adults but, surprisingly is enjoyed by the target audience and a rare genre (science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and so on) selection.   (Nonfiction as winner is just as rare in case we're counting.)

Realistic fiction is awards bait between the dead or absent parents, children having to face the harsh realities of life such as the death of a loved one including but not limited to pets and family members, being misfits, being on a book long guilt trip, and just suffering in general.  Orphans and dead pets in particular have long been overused to create drama and force a coming of age moment in realistic children’s fiction.  So, for a book that has some of the previously listed elements but was also about friendship and family in a nontraditional way and a happened paranormal variety fantasy to be given the highest distinction, it was a sign that the times might be a changing.  Or Neil Gaiman's just that brilliant and most librarians love him and he just plain deserved the award that year.

Not all the winners and honors since then have broken the mold.  There is still plenty of favoritism in play and authors who, as well written and accomplished as they are, seem to simply awarded for publishing something in a given year.  All it takes is one voice, one person with a deep seated passion for one book to push a book to medal winning status.  It should be noted that any number of honor books can be designated from none to infinity, though in a given year there has never been more than four, though there are some years where none have been selected.

Below are the 2015 selections for the Newbery Medal and honors including a brief description of each and what might be some of the reasons why they were selected.

Alexander, Kwame.  The Crossover.  Boston: HMH Books for Young Readers, 2014.

Someone suggested to me that this novel in verse was not a story but unconnected poetry about basketball.  That person obviously did not read this book correctly.  Alexander's medal deserving book is, actual, a strong narrative. Twelve year old Josh Bell discusses the highs and lows of his last basketball season through a variety of poems.  What the book does well is make you feel the game even if you are not familiar with it.  Josh also has to tackle some big changes including the different path he is taking from his twin brother Jordan who is more interested in girls than sports.

Alexander gets to the heart of what it's like to grow up without needing a plethora of words or resorting to cheap tricks.  There's an honesty to the book and Josh as a character that is relatable regardless of one's age or background.  That the poetry feels natural and each one leads nicely into the next without a break in flow makes The Crossover stand out even more.  It so easily could have been a device, but Alexander's ability to foreshadow deftly means you're eased into even the most emotional moments without feeling you've been cheated.  Truly a masterful work and an example of how to craft a poetic novel that kids will enjoy. 

Honor Books
Bell, Cece.  El Deafo.  New York: Amulet Books, 2014.

The most interesting aspect of this book's selection for a Newbery honor is that it is, in fact, a graphic novel.  The Newbery awards writing.  The Caldecott is awarded to illustrators for book illustrations.  I don't think Bell's book would be exactly high up the list for the illustration award, but I can say that the writing is quite strong.  El Deafo is the author's mostly autobiographical account of growing up with hearing loss.  As a result of a meningitis infection at the age of four, she lost most of her ability to hear.  The story is as much about fitting in as it is about the author finding her own self worth and not letting others opinions rule her life.  Bell's writing of her own story appears to be of a no nonsense simplicity, but it still hits home as a coming into one's self story, made up alter egos and all.  Young readers will love the format and relate to the story, hijinks and all. Adults will appreciate the bunny ears used throughout even characters without hearing loss.

Woodson, Jacqueline.  Brown Girl Dreaming.  New York: Nancy Paulsen Books, 2014.

Woodson discusses what it was like to grow up essentially in two worlds and of finding her calling to writing through free verse poems.  She writes about complex topics such as having to grow up and navigate the different ways of life in the south and in New York City.  Family, religion, politics, and location are all recurring topics.  Woodson is an excellent writer of free verse contemporary novels, but the inclusion of this book also feels a bit like an oft honored author getting another nod for doing something a little different.  It's a different sort of autobiographical effort and the message of following one's dreams and believing in something including oneself are important parts of the narrative and worth consideration even if adults undoubtedly will get more from this book than children. 

The 2015 Newbery selections have the feel of a diversity that has not always been present in the awarding in the past, but still have a sense of similarity between them.  Two books are written in verse, one is a graphic novel, two are by women, two by writers of color, one by are biographical in nature, one by a person with hearing loss.  None are traditional narratives.  This may be progress, but at the same time an oft honored but never winner is among the group.  One thing is clear, though.  The award and awarding of the Newbery Medal and its honors has changed since 1922.  The times truly are a changing and it is only right that the writer to whom the Newbery Medal is awarded reflects the times.  I, at least, can say that the winner, Kwame Alexander, is getting well deserved recognition for crafting a book I not only enjoyed experiencing but enjoy giving to young readers who feel the same after reading it.

Monday, February 16, 2015

And Now for Something Completely Different: Why YA Love Triangles Need to Go

The love triangle.  We've all read one or hundreds in our lives.  One character gets involved with another and then a third person shows up who is more interesting or cares more or is just more and the world will end if our main character does not anguish over who to choose.  Below are two examples of books I recently read that include the love triangle cliche.

Example 1
Book one is styled as a fantasy, derivative fairy tale meets bizarre but true history and a romantic subplot.  The main character, aka first person narrator, is a seventeen-year-old and unsurprisingly naive girl who is betrothed to the prince.  Their relationship can be called distanced but amicable despite not having seen each other or really spoken to each other in the two years since their betrothal.  No sparks fly between them but there is nothing to say they couldn't make it work.

In comes the foreigner to unravel everything and be love interest number two.  The narrator has led a sheltered life and knows little of the world, so, of course, our worldly introduction will be interesting to her.  However, she almost instantly goes along with what he says and bam!  She's 'in love' to quote her from several times in the book.  Here is someone who has had zero references in her life to what true love and being in love is like, but she knows she's in love with someone who is still basically a stranger.  Their chemistry on page is worse than the chilly relationship between the narrator and her betrothed.  Dramatics ensue in which her loyalties to both are tested for various reasons including 'doing the right thing' and 'saving the kingdom.'

Example 2
In book two, this time a 'realistic' fiction, the narrator main character (again, seventeen-ish and female) is torn between jock perfection who she knows gets around but doesn't really know other than he's the hottest thing in school and that guy blindly devoted to her since childhood who her friends think is weird and kind of a loser.  One insists he can help solve her problems and the other basically just wants to hookup or something.

Both of the example books are being released by big publishing houses this year.  One senses the continuing of a trend.  The trend being the love triangle that drives teen angst.  Here's why it needs a break or to just disappear for a while:

Totes cliche
Everyone is doing it!  All you need to think about are some of the most popular YA series.  It's difficult to find one that doesn't triangle at some point and a number of none genre one offs pull the same tricks to apparently make the story more interesting.  There are authors (John Green whom I don't heart but respect for not triangling his romances) of works for teens capable of crafting realistic teen works without resorting to: 

Forced melodrama
Consider the usual love triangle plot.  Now take out one of those characters (preferably the least believable or most unsuited to the main character).  Yes, it changes the story - sometimes a lot - but it also shows that there might be a more interesting plot that comes to the fore.  Example 1 is a case where the melodrama of the romantic triangle distracted from what was interesting about the book.  I almost missed the good bits at the end because I had to wade through unnecessary relationships.  The main reason for the drama factor?  This:

The relationships themselves are implausible
When I think of most real-life teenage relationships including my own, they don't usually involve someone being forced to constantly pledge allegiance to one person or another romantically over the course of a predetermined amount of time.  I don't think my experience in this is singular, either, which might explain why the love triangle is most present in implausible or genre (fantasy, science fiction) scenarios.  The audience is already tuned to world being different, so why not make expectations of relationships that way? 
This is really a fault of the forced 'do I love him or do I love him' aspect of these type of books.  The romantic interest characters in question (usually hims) are often diametrically opposed.  One's the good guy, the other bad, so you get a whole other cliche can of fish.  The main character (usually hers) is always put in a situation where she doesn't wish to choose one or the other but one of them handles the problem better and thus must be the victor.  Except:

Nobody really wins
The love triangle is a game of cat and mouse where they're all chasing each other for the prized cheese, no exceptions.  It's an angstfest to 'create interest' or 'flesh out the characters' or, as is most often the case, 'show the main character who she really is.'  There are enough coming of age tales available that don't need romantic interests to be relatable to the target audience much less the people who read them for fun outside the target. 
In the end, the main character has always been through the emotional wringer, the love interests usually have gotten into a brawl with each other (sometimes fatally so), and none of them are truly happy despite the pretext that it can end happily ever after even in realistic fiction.  Katniss is a good example of being torn between loyalties and ending up content but not truly happy as well as being a victim of forced triangulation to intensify drama. 

Now, I'm not saying I expect the publishers and authors to completely do away with the triangle or even the rare love square.  They can be done well, but the problem lies in everything I just said above and some ideas I didn't even touch on.  Ideally the romantic interest, one singular interest, would have qualities of both the usual bad and good boys that bring out the best in the main character.  I scoff at the idea that a plausible relationship between two attracted characters can't be interesting without introducing a third (John Green, again, does this well even though I still don't particularly care for his books.)  Yes, the triangles sell and create marketing opportunities.  Yes, it is easier to say you're team whatevs versus team whatnots.  But just because those things are good for selling doesn't mean they're good to read all the time.  So, for a change now and then, let's try something completely different and not force love triangles into all our book.  I suspect the results will be much more interesting and certainly something different.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Does a book have to be good to be enjoyable? Red Queen as a case study.

Several of our contributors have recently read Victoria Aveyard's Red Queen, a new and heavily hyped YA novel.

As a group, we were wary, as most of us have also read (and loved) Pierce Brown's Red Rising. The commonalities in the plot are hard to miss. Both feature a society with a color-based class system, with Reds at the bottom and Golds or Silvers at the top. Both feature a plucky young Red who, through no particular plan of their own, infiltrates the most elite circle of the upper class, and if their true nature is exposed they risk death. Both intend to upend the rigid social heirarchy by working from the inside.

Oh, and did i mention one's named Darrow, and one is named Mare Barrow?

Either putting our concerns aside, or holding them tight and making a bowl of popcorn first, we read Red Queen. And a funny thing happened: some of us liked it, and some of us didn't, but we all agree it wasn't very good.

When we disagree on a book, it's often the case that what the low-star camp cites as plot holes, inconsistencies, or just nonsense are details the high-star camp can explain, justify, or otherwise believe. For example, when we disagreed wildly about Winner's Curse, it was the exact same elements that made or broke the book for each group.

However, in this case, both the pro-Red Queen and anti-Red Queen camp agreed: this story is full of plot holes, character inconsistencies, flawed worldbuilding, and, frankly, nonsense. We got together and had a lovely time listing out all the things that Just Plain Didn't Make Sense. It's not a short list. This is not a plot that can withstand even casual scrutiny.

But while some readers refer to The List to justify why they didn't like the book, others acknowledged the list and insist the book is worth reading anyway.

One is reminded, in a way, of Summer Blockbuster Movies, which are often more about spectacle than content. While you can sit down and make a (very long) list of the problems with, say, Die Hard, most people will still agree that it's a fun movie worth watching. So why is it different with a book?

I was one of the readers who, despite my misgivings, ended up enjoying the book. I think the reason i liked it has to do with the fact that it is, in several ways, a Superhero Story. Mare is a bit like an X-Men mutant, and i spent a fair deal of my youth watching the X-Men animated series, collecting the cards, and blowing my allowance on the comic books. Any comic book fan has to have a habit of overlooking the kind of errors that plague Red Queen, otherwise they probably wouldn't enjoy comic books in the first place.

Reading is always going to be a subjective experience. One person's Favorite Book Ever is a stack of pages that another reader couldn't even finish. But it's rare to find a book like this, that everyone seems to agree is deeply flawed while disagreeing about its merit. I invite my fellow bloggers to add their own comments about why they liked or disliked this book.

Disclosure: most, if not all, of us who red Red Queen got the Advance Readers Copy for free through the Amazon Vine program. 

Friday, February 6, 2015

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington -- via Hollywood

If you're a non-fiction fan, you probably already know that university presses are a treasure trove for readers of history, film studies, literary criticism, etc. While a few academic publishers such as Oxford University Press and University of California Press have been targeting general audiences for many years, now many university presses are slapping colorful covers on their books and toning down the academese to appeal to a wider audience.

Just when I was starting to take this bounty for granted, here comes a new development -- audiobook editions. I was able to preview this book, Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life (University of North Carolina Press), as an audiobook, courtesy of AudioBook JukeBox (the NetGalley of audiobooks) and Blackstone Audio. It's available to buy from all the usual sources:, iTunes, and others as an audio download or as an MP3 CD. AudioBook JukeBox sent me a download via the HighTail app which I was not able to get to work, but I was able to listen to the book on the Scribd audio app (with my subscription). The Scribd audio app is not as slick as's audio app, but it's good enough to do the job.

And the book? Splendid. A fine history of the connection between Hollywood and Washington D.C. Not only did that relationship start long before JFK, it began almost as soon as Hollywood did. Hollywood got into politics in the 1920s with California governors' races, but by the presidency of Californian Herbert Hoover, Hollywood was fully involved in national politics.

Author Kathryn Cramer Brownell takes us from those early days up to the Reagan years, and the Clintons, barely mentioning the Carter/Ford race, the Bushes, or Obama. The emphasis is on the war years of FDR and then of Kennedy and Nixon. While I hadn't really thought of Nixon as having been particularly Hollywood-connected, he had plenty of Hollywood supporters and as a native Californian was also well aware that Hollywood could help (or hurt) him and lobbied accordingly.

The downsides of listening to rather than reading this book were that, especially during the section on World War II, the alphabet soup of abbreviations and acronyms was hard to keep track of without a scorecard, and that I didn't have access to the bibliography as I would in the print book. On the plus side, the narration by Pam Ward was clear and easy to listen to for long stretches.

An excellent look at American political history as well as what I hope will be the beginning of a trend in academic press audio publishing. 

Showbiz Politics: Hollywood in American Political Life
by Kathryn Cramer Brownell
Narrated by Pam Ward
11 hours 35 minutes unabridged
University of North Carolina Press 2014
audiobook published by Blackstone Audio 2014

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

A Stunning Voice in SF

Title:  Flex
Author:  Ferrett Steinmetz
Publisher:  Angry Robot

Flex is a wonder drug. 

It flexes the world into whatever your mind can imagine.  Are you a gamer?  Gamermancy will give you life bars and power ups during a gun battle.  Is your perfect world one of lists and paperwork to keep everything organized?  Papermancy will allow anything to happen simply by filling out a form.  Literally everything you can imagine can become reality.

For a price.

With Flex comes Flux.  It's karmic law.  Whatever good you create must be offset by something bad.  It could be a simple as your house burning down.  Or as brutal as hundreds of dead strangers.  It depends on how big the magic you created was.

Paul Tsabo was a cop, but is now simply a bureaucrat.  There are three things he knows with all the certainty in his heart.

1)  He loves his daughter.

2)  He resents his ex-wife.

3)  The only good 'mancer is a dead one.  And if you can't kill them, at least wipe their brains clean.

His world makes perfect sense…until an act of 'mancy disfigures and almost kills his daughter and wakes his own 'mancy.  And whether or not 'mancy is evil, Paul Tsabo is going to use it to find and destroy the 'mancer who hurt his little girl - even if it kills him.

The book is billed as urban fantasy.  If you're like me, that term has been corrupted to mean books featuring girls wearing leather and killing and courting sexy demons.  Ferrett Steinmetz has taken the term Urban Fantasy back!

This is gritty, violent, and sharp.  The magic is both fantastical and yet grounded in reality.  The book is unflinching.

Paul Tsabo is like something straight out of a magical Death Wish or Dirty Harry.  He's a wounded man who turns his need for revenge into something bigger and even more important.  And as for the women in the book, if they do wear leather, it's more because they took it off of your broken corpse than any demon killing dominatrix fantasies.

This is original, strong SF and I can't wait to see what the author does next!

*ARC Provided by Netgalley for review purposes.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Let's Not Get Lost

Title: Let’s Get Lost
Author: Adi Alsaid
Publication Date: 29 July 2014

Note: ARC received via Amazon Vine program

Let’s Get Lost by Adi Alsaid is the story of Leila as told through her brief encounters with four strangers while she is on a road trip of discovery.  Because of the limited nature of these encounters, we only see glimpses of who Leila and her acquaintances really are.  Alsaid’s writing is crisp and somewhat refreshing in its flowing nature and ability to not overcook the descriptors.  You get enough of a picture of the scene to feel like you're there with the characters.  Where the book falls short is the scenarios presented and the way in which the main characters go along with Leila's sudden presence in their lives. 

The first section in which Leila meets mechanic Hudson and they start his journey of discovery feels the most realistically possible, but the following scenarios grow in absurdity.  Runaway Bree encourages Leila to steal and they get tossed in jail for borrowing a sports car which they intend to return.  Elliot nearly gets run over by Leila and then immediately trusts her to help him try to win the girl of his dreams on prom night.  Sonia loses her passport and they need a stoner to smuggle them across the US-Canada border.  In Leila’s final moments of self-discovery, a group of total strangers go along with a little girl's desire to throw Leila a birthday party, but, of course, that all goes wrong, too.

I must admit I felt little to no connection to Leila at the start as she seemed that sage stranger who seems to really be present to guide the other characters through a difficult period of their lives.  The timing is all a bit too perfect and the strangers all too trusting, especially the peripheral characters who really should know better.  By the end you'll find out why Leila is the way she is, a moment that wouldn't make sense earlier but feels like it should have found a way in anyway.  Don't misread that as saying the book isn't without merit.  Alsaid has talent and is an author to keep an eye out for in the future.  Let’s Get Lost is the type of book you can tear through in an afternoon sitting.  The writing itself has something indescribable that pushes you along and makes you care enough to get through to the end.  The characters and scenarios, though, don’t quite have the same spark and make the journey less fun than it ought to be.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

I Didn't Want to Know These Things

Title:  Blood of the Tiger Author: J.A. Mills
Title:  Blood of the Tiger
Author: J.A. Mills
Publisher: Beacon Press

I feel like the proverbial ostrich, hiding its head in the sand. On an intellectual level, I knew, of course, that people all over the world kill many of our endangered species for some pitiful reasons. But until I read this, I don't think I truly knew how widespread it is, how 'normal' it is, and how much of it even happens here in the U.S.

J.A. Mills forced my head out of the sand.

Now, I don't want to worry you. The book isn't written like some fire and brimstone religious sermon. It doesn't club you over the head with atrocities and try to make you feel like the lowest form of humanity for not being aware of this before.

In fact, the writing style is engaging, honest, personable, and incredibly readable. Is it a plea for humans to have a little more humanity? Absolutely. But it's done in such a way that you feel energized and hopeful instead of guilty and hopeless.

The author is fully aware of her own prejudices. I appreciated the fact that she tells you that some of what she once thought were ignorant ideas about the health benefits of some animal parts actually have some basis in science. No, it still doesn't excuse cruelty and atrocity, but it was refreshing that she admits her own ignorance. You also witness her journey from the kind of activist who wants to scream injustices to the world, to a true advocate who still wishes to change the world, but does so with education, understanding, and heart.

The book is an adventure story that presents important truths, a ton of hope, and just may light a fire for change.

*ARC Provided by Amazon Vine Program.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

No Bollywood Fairy Tale Here

Title:  A Bad Character  Author:  Deepti Kapoor
Title:  A Bad Character
Author:  Deepti Kapoor
Publisher:  Knopf

I've read books before which have modern day female Indian protagonists, but they all seem like Bollywood meets Chick Lit. This one isn't a Bollywood fairy tale.

This is a challenging and emotional read, the depth of which far surpasses its scant physical length. Our narrator tells her story poetically - short bursts of lyrical writing that sometimes feel almost more like prose poetry than anything else. The storytelling is disjointed, moving between different times, places, and even emotional states. She's isolated and striving for something, anything, that makes her feel wanted and relevant.

A character in and of itself, India is frightening - particularly for a young female. While I saw the beauty and excitement of modern India, I also felt intently its seedy undercurrent. It seems, in the book, a country where some insidious thing sneaks up on you until it devours you.

Frightening as the book makes it seem, India is also presented as thoroughly modern, a place where ambition rules and makes things happen, though almost always for men.

I ended the book feeling drained, uncomfortable, and a little hopeless. I realize this is one person's view of modern India, and I hope it's colored by the perception of our isolated narrator, but this isn't an India I would want to visit - much less live in.

Well written, disturbing, and a window into a world I'm not sure I want to visit. Just note, you may need a palate cleanser of something incredibly innocent after this one.

*ARC Provided via Amazon Vine Program

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

"I Can't Read!"

Among the many Monty Python sketches (though it's been used other places, memorably with Marty Feldman in the Graham Chapman Role) that I feel get forgotten is this gem – The Bookshop Sketch.  Yes, I know it is a bit of a risk to use the punchline for the title of the post as if it might give something away, but the whole sketch contains a large kernel of truth as to not only how we relate to books, but how different we all can be in relating to them. It also got me thinking about my own reading process and how I relate to the books I read.  

Slightly different version to get a sense of the sketch:

I recently undertook the task of attempting to read two books as objectively as I could manage.  The first book was one I went into with the expectation of extreme displeasure and near dread; the other gave me a sense of sheer joy just to hold it and expected to love it.  Instead of allowing those feelings to drive the experience of reading each book, though, I tried to experience them with a bit of distance.  The results of the experiment is, well, not entirely surprising.

Pure objectivity is impossible.  We all bring bias into our reading, which is why my results are not wholly surprising.  There are schools of criticism which attempt to remove the reader completely from the process and plenty that bring the reader to the center of the reading process, but neither is what I was aiming for.  I was not reading with an eye to a specific criticism but rather an eye toward not letting my predisposition toward each book completely influence my reading of them.

By not focusing entirely on the parts I loved or hated, I found that each book had problems, one more than the other in my opinion, but the point of the exercise was not about comparison either.  Rather, the exercise was about the experience of being as neutral in my approach to reading each book.  Had I allowed myself to be blinded in the process, driven by whatever expectation I had coming into each, I would have been like the bookseller in the sketch – making assumptions about what the customer.  In fact, the reasons I downgraded or upgraded my assessment of each book were for somewhat unexpected purposes that could best be classified as quirks of each author's writing style.  In the case of book I wanted to hate, I found there were redeeming qualities in characterization from time to time.  Likewise, book I wanted to love required me to get past an overhyped sense of drama in order to be completely in love with it.  I was able to focus on the clever turns of phrases, depth of characterization, and leaps of logic or suspense that worked and didn’t work in each book and came out a bit more, well, neutral.  I wasn't so neutral as to completely change my assessment of either book completely, however.

So, about that sketch.  I’ve always connected to Bookshop Sketch because of the growing absurdity of the customer’s requests and the fact that John Cleese so brilliantly plays the quick to anger bookseller.  What I didn’t quite connect to until I looked at it from the angle of a reference librarian was the fact that it truly is about the customer’s inability to read.  The level of innocence, despite the customer’s occasional use of big words and referenced literary classics, is something that we lose over time because of our reading experiences which is why objective reading, after a time, is near impossible.  It’s a convoluted mess, as difficult as finding '‘Stickwick Stapers’ by Farles Wickens with four M’s and a silent Q' one might even suggest. If we’re reading with an eye to understand a book and not automatically disparage it for whatever reason, well, we might just find a lot more to like.

A Snapshot of Chinese Culture

Title:  China A to Z
Author: May-Lee Chai, Winberg Chai
Publisher: Plume

China A to Z is a great little cultural encyclopedia for those of us who may be a bit intimidated by travel to China. Addressing everything from popular scandals to how the Chinese view interracial relationships (especially interesting to me as my daughter is half Chinese), this is a very worthy snapshot of modern day Chinese Culture.

Separated into categories, it's easy to skip to the categories that most interest you, but each entry is worth reading. Not only do you learn about things like the types of food you may be served, but why they may serve it to you, and how to avoid eating certain things while still remaining sensitive to the needs of your Chinese hosts.
Although the book is honest about some of the negatives about Chinese culture (i.e. the treatment of some of their ethnic minorities), the overall impression is of a country of warm, friendly people who have a real curiosity about non-Chinese.

The book made me want to travel to China and when I eventually do get there, I'll definitely use this as a reference!

*ARC Provided by Netgalley for review purposes.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Parents should read "The Honest Truth" by Dan Gemeinhart along with their middle-grade children

I received a free ARC of this book from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a review.

This is a middle-grade book that offers something to both the intended audience (ages 8-12) and the adults in their lives. And each group will feel differently about what is happening in the book. For that reason, I think it would be great if parents read this book along with their children and talked about their reactions to what is happening.

My initial reaction to this book was "Ugh, not another sick kid book. It's going to be such a depressing downer." I didn't decide to read it until I read some other reactions and I am glad I didn't let the subject matter turn me away from it. Because it is not so much about a sick kid as it is about love and loyalty and friendship and dealing with unwelcome news. With a big dose of adventure tossed in to keep the kids from getting bored.

The main character is Mark, a tween or young teen boy who starts out the book by running away from home. The reason is not at first apparent to the reader (other than from what is in the book synopsis) but he has a goal and a destination in mind and knows that he probably won't be returning. He takes some money, some supplies and his dog Beau. Back at home are his best friend Jessie and his family. The story unfolds in half chapters -- the full chapter numbers are Mark's first person narrative and the half chapters are about what is going on back home and told in third person, primarily from Jessie's perspective.

I don't want to give away any spoilers yet (see below) but as an adult reader, there were so many times when I wanted to reach through the pages of the book and talk to Mark and Jessie -- to tell him to call his parents and have them come get him and to tell Jessie to tell Mark's parents what she knew. The choices the young characters face and what they decide to do is probably the most important reason for adults to read and talk about this book with their children/students. It would be really interesting to hear what middle-grade readers think of those choices and whether they would make the same choices as the characters.

The strength of this book is that I was emotionally invested in Mark from the very beginning of the book. His personality, his feelings, and most importantly his relationship with his dog and his friend Jessie shine so strongly that you can't help but care what happens to him, to Beau and to Jessie.

For the younger readers for whom this was written, Mark has a lot of adventures -- both good and bad -- on the way to his destination. That action, along with the great character the author has created, keeps this book from turning into the depressing downer I worried it would be. I think it is a must read, both for the target middle grade readers and the adults in their lives.




The elephant in the room with this book, is that Mark has had cancer since he was five and has recently learned that the cancer has returned. This is what sparks his decision to run away. And he isn't just running away. He is running away to climb Mt. Rainier with expectation that he will die on the mountain. This doesn't make it exactly a suicide book because Mark assumes that he is dying already and doesn't want to put himself and his parents through his illness and cancer treatment any more. The interesting thing is that there are several instances along his journey when Mark could have either been killed or chosen to die but at each point he chooses survival and continues trying to reach his goal of reaching the top of Mt. Rainier. And finally one dramatic event makes him affirmatively choose life.

I was reminded throughout the book of the real life story of Brittany Maynard, the young woman with terminal brain cancer, and her decision to end her own life on her own schedule. Again, there is so much in this book for both adults and tweens/young teens.

Monday, January 12, 2015

The Martian: In the voice of a snarky scientist

Note: I received a free copy of this book from Blogging for Books, in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve been hearing lots of good things about this book, so I was happy to accept a review copy. Until I realized that there were already more than 5000 reviews on Amazon, and I needed to think of something new to add to the conversation.

Let me start by saying that I wasn’t at all surprised when this book won a GoodReads Choice Award. It offers a compelling story of an astronaut left for dead on Mars, and his struggles for survival. The Martian includes some of the most exciting passages that I’ve read in a long time. It’s not all perfect—especially at the beginning, when I thought the whole book might be from the perspective of one character with no human interaction, I was a little bit worried, but that worry dissipated when we did eventually get to see the reaction of people back on Earth. No matter how compelling the protagonist is, other characters are important. 

But rather than giving a detailed survey of the book’s pros and cons, I want to focus on one aspect that I found particularly striking: the language. The vast majority of the book consists of log entries from the stranded astronaut, and their tone and style are unlike any I’ve encountered in a book before. The writing is much more casual and contemporary, basically what I would expect to find in a blog or livejournal, or in regular conversations with my friends. I actually think this is a very good thing; it fits the character perfectly, and his constant snarky remarks made in a normal tone of voice make it much easier to relate to this brilliant scientist.

Some examples, beginning with the first line of the book:

“I’m pretty much fucked.”

“I’ll lose half a liter of water per day to breathing until the humidity in the Hab reaches its maximum and water starts condensing on every surface. Then I’ll be licking the walls. Yay.”

“The guy just plain owned that landing.”

“There’ll be a lot of H20 at the end, but I’ll be too dead to appreciate it.”

“Once I got home, I sulked for a while. All my brilliant plans foiled by thermodynamics. Damn you, Entropy!”

I’ve seen other reviews complaining about the tone, describing it as childish or otherwise unliterary.
And maybe it is childish, but it actually seems perfectly natural to me, and I’m almost 30. This is the way people actually communicate, and it was somehow both surprising and satisfying to see it reflected so well in a book. I want to emphasize that this isn’t text-speak, just a slightly less formal register of English. You would not find expressions like “pretty much”, “fucked”, “yay”, “owned” (in that sense), “too dead”, or “Damn you, [inanimate noun]!” in formal writing.

It’s not that I’ve never seen casual language in a book before, but I’ve never found that the language was so familiar. I guess this is the casual language of educated nerds in their 20s or 30s. It’s not the casual language of valley girls, or the uneducated, or whatever other non-standard language normally appears in books. It’s non-standard in a smart, self-conscious way.

I also think the light tone was absolutely necessary in a book that otherwise includes a lot of logistical calculations and science. I don’t normally read hard science fiction, and in some ways this was harder than I’d like. The casual snarkiness is what made the book readable, and even then I was happy when we sometimes moved away from Mark Watney’s perspective to see the responses of people back on Earth.

Andy Weir has done a lot of interesting things with this book. I realized it’s been a long time since I read a “classic” science fiction novel about space travel, possibly because NASA abandoned its space program a few years ago, so it felt fresh enough just to see a modern take on the issue. Then there’s the matter of language, which again made the book feel very fresh and unique, while also seeming completely natural. Readers who are very opposed to hard science may want to look elsewhere, but if you have a science background yourself, even one that you’ve since abandoned, you’ll probably find a lot to like here. This is a contemporary novel with a very relatable protagonist, who may be a brilliant scientist but also feels completely like one of us. I’ll be happy to read anything else that Weir writes in the future.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

$pread - When Sex Workers Speak

Title:  $pread
Author:  Rachel Aimee, Eliyanna Kaiser & Audacia Ray (and others)
Publisher:  The Feminist Press at CUNY   3/17/15

I had never heard of $pread, but I was interested in this book, simply because it promised first person essays from people I don't know much about - those working in the sex industry.

Now, because of my unfamiliarity with $pread, I have to admit that I found the initial introduction and history to be just a little tedious.  I really didn't care about what lead them to create their magazine or how it transformed.  I just wanted to hear the voices of the people in the industry.

But you need to keep reading past the introduction because the essays are amazing.  They come from everyone from strippers to prostitutes to adult film actors.  They talk about race, age, and taboos.  They are heartfelt and hopeless and every last one of them comes from someone who is smart, savvy, and has something important to say to the world.

You'll never look at sex work the same again.

One of the most fascinating essays is 'Stripping While Brown' by Mona Salim, as she lets the reader know her experience as one of the few Indian women stripping in New York.  The reactions of clients and employers was eye-opening, as was her unique experience of many of the stereotypes that exist in the industry.  

In fact, race is a large part of quite a few of the essays as they explore how white adult actors are treated (and paid) in comparison with black or Asian actors.

Other essays deal with reactions of family and friends, once the truth of their jobs is revealed.

Every essay has merit, though some few can be hard to read.  These woman meet with prejudice, violence, and social disdain on a regular basis.

Sex workers become the buyer's sexual fantasy.  They are walking, talking dolls and it can be incredibly hard for people to think of the human who lives behind the lingerie, cameras, and sex toys.  $pread reminds you that not only are these women human, but they are smart and funny mothers, daughters, sisters, and friends.

A worthwhile book that deserves a wide audience!

*ARC Provided by Publisher for review purposes.

Monday, January 5, 2015

"The Stolen Ones" by Owen Laukkanen is my favorite in the Stevens and Windermere series so far!

"The Stolen Ones" is the 4th book in the Stevens and Windermere series of thrillers written by Owen Laukkanen. I have been reading them since the first one ("The Professionals") and this one is my favorite so far, but I have enjoyed them all. 

Even though the stories of each book stand alone, I recommend reading at least the first book in the series before reading this one so you get some background on how the main characters started working together.  And really, because this book doesn't come out until March, you have plenty of time to read the first three books before reading this one.

I started reading this series because I thought they were Minnesota-based thrillers and this is my home state.  But although they generally start in Minnesota, I wouldn't call them Minnesota mysteries because the characters end up traveling across the country to solve their cases.  In this book, for instance, the action starts in Minnesota, then goes to Montana, Nevada, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York.

I continued reading this series because Stevens and Windermere are such an engaging pair of crime fighters.  Kirk Stevens is a middle-aged Minnesota white guy with a wife and two kids.  He works at the Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.  Carla Windermere is his complete opposite:  she is a beautiful young single black woman from Miami who has been assigned to the Minneapolis office of the FBI.  In the first couple books they end up working together by chance on cases that intersect but in later they work together on purpose.

In this book, Stevens is on vacation in northern Minnesota with his family and gets called in to check out what should be an open-and-shut case of a local deputy shot by a young woman.  But he discovers things are not as easy as they first appear and calls in Windermere and the FBI when he realizes the young woman is a victim of sex trafficking.

One of the other reasons I enjoy this series so much is that the author gives the criminals as much personality -- and time in the book -- as the main characters.  The book isn't all about the main characters trying to solve a crime, it is also about the criminals and what they are thinking and doing.  The author creates criminal characters who are fully fleshed out, not just villainous caricatures. 

The reason I like this book the best so far is that there are two more characters in this book whose points of view are followed -- the Romanian sisters Irina and Catalina who are part of a shipment of Eastern European girls brought to the U.S. to be sold into the sex trade.  They are young but feisty and courageous.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a fast-paced exciting and interesting police procedural thriller.

I received a free ARC of this book through the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a review.

The Hunger of the Wolf

Author:   Stephen Marche
Publisher:  Simon & Schuster (February 3, 2015)
(Book provided via Amazon Vine program)

The editor of this book has compared the author to both Neil Gaiman and to Colson Whitehead. The Gaiman reference is not at all accurate and I fear that Gaiman fans will be left scratching their heads at the comparison. The Whitehead comparison is apt.

In The Hunger of the Wolf, Marche turns a horror sub-genre into a literary novel. How successful it is, will depend, I think, on your own literary preferences.

While the horror trope that defines the underlying 'illness' of the brothers Wylie is presented as real in the story, in truth, it's just a metaphor for the wildness within. One brother learns to wield that wildness, turning it into a blessing that results in untold wealth. Another brother can't tame it, and the beast within causes horrors.

For those of you who love a literary family saga, I think you'll really enjoy this. The writing manages to be lyrical, while still somewhat scornful of the practices of the world's richest men. And since the horror trope in question is more a metaphor, you'll find there's nothing genre - or popular fiction - about this.

For those of you who love horror lit, you'll likely find this lacking. You may find yourself bored with the intergenerational saga of riches lost and earned, and of strong men and stronger women who hold a family together through terrible things. This is definitely not horror, though there are horrible things that happen.

As for me, I can appreciate the beauty of the writing and the scope of the saga presented, however I did miss the horror. Just my preference.

This is not a quick read. It's more the meandering book that you read while sipping a cup of tea and appreciating a well turned phrase.

I just wanted a little more popcorn.