Unforgettable Prose in "Something Rich and Strange", by Ron Rash - Book Review

Ron Rash excels in expression and economy of words. His style is unpretentious, yet evocative. Something Rich and Strange is my first encounter with Rash, and certainly time well spent. It’s a book of short stories that crosses eras, from the civil war to present day. Each story, unique in it’s characters and circumstances, share the working class of North Carolina as its backdrop.

There is humor and tragedy, and sometimes both in the 34 stories. Whether overt or not, the book has a veil of melancholy throughout, providing us with a glimpse into lives hard-lived and sometimes our own condition. Rash’s characters are in the heart of Appalachia - farmers, soldiers, teachers, radio jockeys, janitors, carpenters, meth addicts, and widowers - each with a unique story in which their being  becomes palpable and relatable. Rash almost modestly presents us with heartbreak, and just as austerely, with wit, though it is also tinged with sorrow. 

And though everything seems swathed with this gloom, I could not tear myself away from soul-baring simplicity and stillness of Rash’s stories.  The title seems to sum the quality of this work perfectly, because the book is something rich and strange

Published: 2014
Publisher: Ecco

Vickie’s rating 5 stars

Who Are the Good Guys in “The Director”, by David Ignatius - Book Review

Taking a page from Sara’s post asking authors of children’s books to stop underestimating their audience…Dear writers of political suspense novels: please stop slighting women. These novels have a wider audience than the dudes they’re targeted to. Spies, politics, and suspense are subjects a lot of women love as well. And with a generation of pretty sharp young women entering the work force and reading adult fiction, you may be pushing this audience away, as well as portraying women in a subservient light with men.

The Director: A Novel
By David Ignatius

How does this relate to The Director?  We’ll get to that. In the meantime, I’ll start with how much I did enjoy this cyber-espionage thriller. I tend to gravitate to rather heavy subjects and need to remind myself to pick up some intellectual candy every once in a while. This fit the bill perfectly. David Ignatius is a well-respected, experienced journalist with the Washington Post. He’s written several political thrillers; one made into the film, Body of Lies. He’s a skilled writer and digs deep into his subjects.

The Director takes on the thorny and very prevalent subject of cybersecurity and highly proficient hackers. The story begins with a new CIA Director, Graham Weber. Weber is an anomaly in the intelligence community - an outsider from the business world and outspoken about government abiding by its laws. His idealist philosophy immediately comes into conflict with safeguarding the nation his very first day on the job. Weber struggles with maintaining his own beliefs and morals, how far to bend them for the good of the country, and staying alive. But he has a mole within the CIA, and he has to catch him red-handed. Who does he trust in the den of spies, hackers, and politicians? As the story unfolds, we’re taken to secret hideouts, shell companies, embassies, safe houses, and the White House. 

All of this equates to a well-constructed plot and a very fun read. Here’s where my issue is, which is not exclusive to Ignatius (see my post on Leaving Berlin). The leading female character, Dr. Ariel Weiss, is beautiful, sexy, and wicked smart. She’s a cyber expert with the CIA and knows how to work the system. She essentially has to play double agent, spying within her own agency, while balancing the politics and secrets amongst the hackers, the CIA Director, and Director of National Intelligence. But for all her education and training as a secret agent, she’s amazingly vulnerable. And quite frankly, some of the scenes including Weiss are wholly ridiculous. Perhaps, geared to a male audience, Ignatius believes this is what they want to read. Or perhaps he’s simply playing into the male fantasy of women who are smart and sexy, yet still cannot fully succeed without a man’s helping hand. Well, maybe it’s still true.  

Despite this annoyance, I do recommend The Director. It’s incredibly interesting to read about international cyber warfare, along with our own country’s political cover. Ignatius bases his subjects on a certain amount of fact. Which leaves the reader to wonder how much of it is reality. Regardless, engage your suspension of disbelieve, and give it a shot.

Published: 2014
Publisher: W.W. Norton

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars 

Dystopian Love Story: “The Girl With All the Gifts”, by M. R. Carey - Book Review

The Girl With All the Gifts was an audio book for me, and frankly, it was made great by the narration of Finty Williams. This science fiction novel is not completely mired down in it’s “sci-fi-ness” (a plus for me). While certainly not of the world as we know it, writer M. R. Carey’s characters seem realistic enough.

The book begins with Melanie - a delicate child living in a cell. She’s chained to a chair, eats once a week, participates in school with other children, and is extraordinarily intelligent. We find out rather quickly that Melanie and the other 20 or so students are “hungries” - not quite living and not quite dead. So yes, I unwittingly read a zombie book.

The story begins far into the future - a dystopian England where all advanced technology has been destroyed, and healthy humans live within an enclosed environment or protected military outpost. There is a constant fear of attack from any measure of creature outside the walls, whether gangs of scavengers or hungries.  Melanie is there it seems, as an experiment - kept under complete control for both social and medical research for the heartless Dr. Caldwell to find a cure. When the base where Melanie is housed is attacked and overrun, somehow Dr. Caldwell, the angry commanding sergeant, a rather witless soldier, a nurturing teacher, and Melanie manage to escape. The ensuing journey is a long game of cat and mouse - running from the hungries and trying not to kill each other.

Even with all of this, the book is more of care and nurturing between Melanie and her teacher, Ms. Justineau. Melanie has never known parents or even had physical contact of any kind. Ms. Justineau sees in Melanie a curious, sweet, and intelligent child that simply needs love. And though they must both learn to control their impulses - in Melanie’s case quite deadly - they find common ground.

The characters were well crafted enough that I forgot about the flimsy plot.  It did, however, end rather abruptly, and left me wanting for a more pleasant conclusion. I’m no zombie expert, but overall I’d say The Girl With All the Gifts did well for the genre.

Published: 2014
Publisher: Orbit

Vickie’s rating: 3 stars 

“Remember Me Like This”, by Bret Anthony Johnston - Book Review

Like a house of mirrors, only slowing revealing the truth, Remember Me Like This unhurriedly divulges the facts, shattering the assumptions we’ve made along the way.  Taking place in a small Texas town outside Corpus Christi, author Bret Anthony Johnston roots us into the Campbell family four years into the search for missing eldest son, Justin. 

Parents Eric and Laura, and youngest son Griff, are coping with Justin’s disappearance in very different ways, of course. This family is not particularly unique - they are middle America, unnoticed except for the those in the town of Southport around them, recognized only for their grieving faces as they plea for any information that lead to their son’s return. They post flyers, organize search parties, and retreat into themselves. The desperation includes Eric’s father, Cecil, and important part of the narrative. Cecil is steady on the surface, and remains a stabilizing guide for Eric. Cecil grieves too - both for Justin and his late wife.  He’s an important part of the family’s lives and an interesting character - strong, vulnerable, angry, and tender. 

Remember Me Like This: A Novel
By Bret Anthony Johnston

Justin’s disappearance is only part of the story. He’s found. And similar to the troubled emotions of his loss, equally unsettling is dealing with the aftermath - of responsibility of parents and brother alike, and even more disconcerting, his kidnapper. Again, each family member has a unique reasoning and way of coping. So deep does Johnston dive into each person’s psyche, we feel the ache of loss, pain, and the brief allowances of joy.

What truly makes this book special however is Johnston’s writing itself. He brings an authenticity and rawness to each character, especially Eric and Laura, that their weaknesses lay spread out before us, disconcerting in how obviously real they are; too real. More than we would ever really want to know about those in pain perhaps, but here it is. And the prose is seamless - from describing emotions to the crime itself, and about the supporting characters around them. The complex story is precisely woven together and presented to us in a way that both surprises and makes us yearn for more.

Published: 2014
Publisher: Random House

Vickie’s rating: 5 stars 

Loss and Love in the Bookshop of "The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry", by Gabrielle Zevin - Book Review

Author Gabrielle Zevin has created her character, A.J. Fikry as an eccentric widower running a bookstore on the fictional Alice Island off the coast of Hyannis, Massachusetts. He is ornery and off-putting to anyone who ventures into Island Books, although somewhat rightfully so after the tragic death of his one true love, his wife Nic.

But then he happens upon a toddler left alone in his store with a note from her mother, which provides a questionable explanation for the abandonment. Her name is Maya, per the note, and shockingly, A.J. decides to take on the role of her caregiver. Once he does, his demeanor changes and his heart expands.  

A.J. and Maya forge an immediate bond – she starts calling him Daddy right off though no one has told her to – and she is as precocious as he is odd. They are a perfect fit. Somehow his lack of knowledge about anything baby doesn’t hinder the reader’s belief that this relationship could actually work.

Other players in the book include A.J.’s good friend Daniel, a dallying professor, and his wife Ismay, A.J.’s sister-in-law. There is Chief Lambaise, who has been on the scene for all of the monumental events in A.J.’s life: the death of his wife, the theft of a treasured book, and the discovery of Maya in the store. Finally, there is Amelia, the book rep that we meet first in the story, who ultimately comes to play an important part in both A.J. and Maya’s lives.

The story is quirky and funny. At the same time it is touching and tender, just like the main character. A.J., for all of his bluster, is really just a softie at heart. The chapters each start with a book review by A.J. giving you a glimpse into his heart and soul. He is also a lover of books, as is this reader, and so many of his lines hit me in my reading heart.

We read to know we’re not alone. We read because we are alone. We read and we are not alone. We are not alone.

A relatively short book in length, it is easy to read in a couple of days. It skips forward years at a time and I found myself wishing Zevin had gone ahead and written about all of those sped through years so it would have lasted longer. But maybe her brevity and snap shot view into her characters’ lives is what gave the book its charm.

Published: 2014
Publisher: Algonquin Books

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars 

SciFi for the Rest of Us: "The Martian”, by Andy Weir - Book Review

The Martian is my first audio book review. I used to think this was cheating, but then I started a long daily commute that drove me to the edge of insanity. A friend recommended audio books as a way to not only cope, but expand my literary repertoire. Another friend recommended The Martian. As it turns out, I’m hooked.

My hesitation in starting audio books is that it isn’t reading. Am I using my brain the same way? Am I using the same number of cells and keeping my cognitive functions as engaged as when sitting down with an actual book in my hand? Ah, who cares. I was completely engaged. I started walking around my house with my headphones in while folding laundry. I had to hear more. And my commute? Much more tolerable. In fact…well, don’t tell my boss.

Andy Weir is a self-proclaimed “space nerd” and worked as a programmer and software engineer since age 15. His debut novel embraces his nerdy tendencies.  This guy loves space. And the book (audio) was really good. I do have a confession though. There is a lot of time with our hero spent alone on Mars. He recites calculations and measurements about chemistry, physics, and agriculture ad nauseam. I fast forwarded. Yep, I did. And I’m not sorry. Still got the gist and don’t feel I missed a thing.

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A Rather Familiar Family in "The Vacationers", by Emma Straub - Book Review

Author Emma Straub writes of the quintessential New York family.  In The Vacationers, the Post family travel to the island of Mallorca, off the coast of Spain for two weeks to celebrate Jim and Franny’s thirty-fifth wedding anniversary.

Fourteen days of family togetherness….what could possibly go wrong??

Daughter, Sylvia, fresh out of high school, would much rather be with friends in the City or on her iPad. Bobby, the prodigal son returned, brings along his cougar girlfriend (whom no one likes) and a bucket full of problems. Charles, Franny’s dearest friend, tags along, at Franny’s urging, with his husband, Lawrence, much to Jim’s chagrin. Oh, and the couple of the hour? There is most definitely trouble in paradise.

Everything and nothing happens during the two weeks. Relationships deepen and dissipate, alliances shift, and bonds emerge in unexpected places. Straub masters the microcosm of the Post family’s dysfunction while allowing the reader to bask in the beauty of the Spanish isle.

At the end of the day, the Posts aren’t so different than any other family; their lives are full of laughs, heartbreaks, resentments, and tenderness. But also, a whole lot of love that ultimately carries them through the rough spots.

The Vacationers is the perfect vacation read.

Published:  2014
Publisher:   Riverhead Books

Elizabeth's rating: 4 stars

"God'll Cut You Down: The Tangled Tale of a White Supremacist, a Black Hustler, a Murder, and How I Lost a Year in Mississippi", by John Safran - Book Review

A long, complicated title for a similarly long, complicated book. I read about God’ll Cut You Down in Garden & Gun magazine, one geared specifically to Southerners, and had to get it.

Author John Safran, a Jewish Australian documentarian, pursued the story because he had spent time with murdered white supremacist, Richard Barrett. Why Safran knew Barrett is a titillating story on its own and is explained in the book.

The title sets the scene. Barrett’s partially charred body is found in a field in front of his house with multiple stab wounds. Vincent McGee, a young black man who had been in trouble more than out, is the suspect. Why? Well, in addition to being the last person to be with Barrett, he confessed. The twist? It might have been self-defense.

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The End of Civilization As We Know It in "Station Eleven", by Emily St. John Mandel - Book Review

Station Eleven’s storyline seamlessly moves between present day and the post-apocalyptic world that remains after most of the human population is decimated by a catastrophic world-wide pandemic. In a strangely non- "end of the world" book fashion, it starts off in the midst of a Shakespeare play and the Bard, through his works, seems to almost become a character in the story. 

Station Eleven
By Emily St. John Mandel

Through a masterful use of flashbacks and foreshadowing, author Emily St. John Mandel weaves a complicated tale, involving numerous characters and relationships that she wraps up so neatly at the end you feel as though you’ve been given a beautiful present. And her representations of what the end of life as we know it would be are so realistic; they are as believable as they are frightening.

Operating in the new world under a theory that “survival is insufficient,” those still alive have to face an existence that most of us have never contemplated much less lived. The desperate circumstances the characters face turn them into killers at times, but we understand that it is necessary for the greater good and are shockingly unbothered by it. Despite the bleak landscape of the "years after", Mandel’s story is one of hopefulness of the human spirit. One that has us believing that good will prevail against the evil that lurks close by, and that life will find a way no matter what. 

A finalist and/or winner for multiple prestigious awards, this post apocalyptic tale reads like classic literature, and is absolutely worthy of your time.

Published: 2014
Publisher: Knopf/Vintage Books

Elizabeth's rating: 5 stars

Young Skins, by Colin Barrett - Book Review

I hear a lot of people say they don’t care for short stories.  I never quite understood this. Short stories can be as beautifully written as a novel, with the added benefit of feeling accomplished - getting through a story in a short period of time. It’s perfect for those with short attention spans or who read multiple things at once. But that’s just me.

Young Skins is a collection of short stories and one novella. It’s the debut book from Irish writer Colin Barrett, and it’s completely absorbing. Barrett combines edgy and prosaic prose with lyrical descriptions of the stories’ backdrop, placing the reader in clear view. The title, Young Skins, refers to the 20- and 30-something year old lads as the protagonist of each tale. Most of these young men live in the small Irish town of Glanbeigh, rarely hold traditional jobs, and find themselves in and out of conflict - with the law, business dealings, friends, relationships and alcohol. They are gas station attendants, bouncers, fathers and criminals. There is a melancholy tone, and you can feel the gray clouds of Ireland hovering just overhead. Barrett ends each of his stories rather anticlimactically; and none with a fairly tale ending. 

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