Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Secret Keeper Review

I first started reading Kate Morton's books two years ago and they grabbed me immediately. She has four books out now: The Distant Hours, The House at Riverton and my favorite, The Forgotten Garden. She's an Australian writer who must also have ties to England as most of her novels take place there. There's a bit of a formula to her books, but that formula works.

Typically, her novels take place over two or three different time periods, one usually in the present, one often during WWI or WWII and often sometime in the middle.

The Secret Keeper is no different. The story begins in 1961 where teenager Laurel witnesses her mother, Dorothy, committing a dreadful crime. This moment shapes her life completely. In 2011, Laurel is in her 60's and is a well regarded British character actor. She travels back home to the big farmhouse where she was raised because her mother is now in her 90's and quite ill. Laurel still wishes to know what drove her mother to action when she was younger and as Dorothy lets some things slip in her old age, Laurel starts putting the pieces together.

The story also flashes back to 1941 London during the Blitz, where young Dorothy works as a companion for an older wealthy woman. She also volunteers for the war effort, is enchanted by her neighbor Vivian and is in love with a war photographer named Jimmy. Everything seems to be perfect for Dorothy until suddenly it all goes wrong.

I'm not going to give anything else about the plot away. If you liked Kate Morton's other books, you'll like this one. It has the usual twists and turns and an intriguing plot. There are multiple voices in the novel, including Dorothy and Laurel but also Vivian and Jimmy. Everything comes together in the end. To be honest, I guessed the major twist before the end of the book but to Morton's credit, I wasn't entirely sure that I was right. I think I guessed the twist behind a few of the other books too although it's been so long since I read them that I can't quite remember.

If you've never read a Kate Morton book, pick up The Forgotten Garden first. It's the best, I think. As I said before, if you like her other books, you'll be a fan of this one. If you like sweeping gothic/historical mysteries, Kate Morton is a really great author, whose books I will continue enjoying!

Buy it at amazon and Barnes and Noble 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Twelve Review

The Twelve (Book Two of The Passage Trilogy): A Novel
In July of 2010, Justin Cronin's The Passage was the bit hit of the summer. I didn't read it until October of that year. I had just recently gotten my first kindle and had spent five glorious days reading The Hunger Games trilogy. The Passage was a huge book and as I'd recently been diagnosed with tendinitis in my hand, the kindle was becoming my new best friend when it came to avoiding heavy hardcover books. At the time this came out, I was so over the whole vampire craze. Twilight, in my eyes, was for lovesick teenagers and was also really badly written and while I liked to watch True Blood, I tried the first book in the series and found it silly. I wasn't sure about reading  The Passage because it got a lot of comparisons to Stephen King novels, which are a little too gross for me, but the reviews were so good that I went for it.

I spent about five days alternately enthralled, scared, exhilarated and finally totally obsessed. This was the perfect book. The premise is that in our near distant future, a man named Dr. Lear (who I believe is mourning the loss of his wife), becomes obsessed with extending our lives. He travels to South America with a team after hearing about cancer patients who went to this place and emerged healed. Lear's theory was that people in Biblical times lived very long lives because they had enlarged thymus glands. Lear's story is primarily told in emails to a friend. It becomes clear that the trip turned disastrous and one of the soldiers, Fanning (the trip was sponsored by the US government) was infected with a virus. And the virus does something to him, something that makes the US Department of Special Weapons very intrigued. To make a very long story short, The Passage initially follows Brad Wolgast, a divorced FBI agent responsible for bringing death row patients to a secure facility in Colorado where presumably they are being used somehow by Lear and his group. The main characters in the first third of the book are Wolgast, a nun named Sister Lacey, a death row prisoner named Anthony Carter (who breaks my heart) and a little girl named Amy.

Wolgast is ordered to bring a final test subject to Colorado, the little girl named Amy, which he is of course reluctant to do. I don't remember exactly why she was picked but the plan was to give her a different version of the serum given to the original Twelve, who had turned into what we would think of as vampires - violent, batlike, super strong and fast, vulnerable to sunlight, etc. The thought with Amy is that since she still has an immature immune system, the serum will grow with her and not change her completely.

Anyway, of course all hell breaks loose. The Twelve and Patient Zero (Fanning) telepathically corrupt their guards and escape, creating an absolute bloodbath that rapidly spreads across the country. Amy and Wolgast escape and hide out in the mountains for a bit while humanity is rapidly destroyed.

The narrative breaks into the diary of a woman recalling that she was put on a train in Philadelphia as a girl and sent to California to be safe. CA had seceded from the rest of the US in an attempt to quarantine themselves and FEMA had established a protected area called First Colony, which was surrounded by bright lights and high walls. There some of the children grew up. The story then shifts to almost 100 years after the events in Colorado where the First Colony still exists, although some residents learn that their electricity is running out. A small group of them sets out to see if there are more people still alive and if they can save their own home.

Amy, the little girl from the beginning is still alive, and has barely aged. She walks safely among the virals, as the infected people are called, as she technically is one of them. She has a strange connection to the infected but also wants to help the team and have them help her figure out why she is ageless but also why she lacks the mindless hunger of the other virals. The world is a scary, scary place as the colonist travel throughout different parts of the mid-west. I don't want to spoil anything else, but let's just say that The Passage is one of my favorite books of all time. It is such an engrossing story, which came about because the author's daughter asked him to write a story about a girl who saved the world and he also wanted to combine a lot of genres. There's horror, sci fi, mystery, religion and lots of other elements thrown into this novel. I was completely obsessed. I also listened endlessly to Guster's Easy Wonderful album during this time and every time I hear it now, I'm taken back to how I felt when I was reading The Passage.

So on Tuesday, the sequel called The Twelve came out. I had been dying to read it, especially because The Passage ended on a major cliffhanger. I was really happy that the release coincided with my two weeks off work after surgery. The Twelve picks up about five years after the events of the first book, but after only a couple chapters, it shifts back to the world right after all hell broke loose. There are a few characters who were either mentioned briefly or were very minor in The Passage who emerge as important protagonists in this section of the novel. I really liked how it switched back to that time to see how other survivors made it. These new(ish) characters also set up the action nicely of this book, so I think it was an important shift. One of the reviewers below didn't agree with me, but that's ok.

Eventually, after a brief chapter that takes place about 20 or so years before the events in the first book (76 AV - after viral, I think - maybe), the action shifts back to the characters from The Passage: Peter, Michael, Amy, Greer, Alicia and a few others are point of view characters. The action goes back and forth from Texas to Iowa mostly. Again, Cronin does an impressive job of slowly building the tension to some very climatic scenes. I was kept on my toes throughout the many twists and turns in the book as everyone, despite being separated, eventually made their way to the same place for the final showdown... where some seriously crazy stuff went down.

The Twelve was less scary than The Passage. The characters were still well developed and realistic, although there were some secondary characters from the previous book that I had to go back and look up. I opened my version of the first book a few times and searched for names to remind myself who these people were. A reread might have been beneficial but I didn't really have time to do that. Cronin does a neat little recap at the start but he doesn't mention all the characters. Despite the lack of chills that I had from the first book, this was still incredibly entertaining and advanced the plot forward without feeling like a crappy second book in a trilogy that serves only to get the characters to the places they need to be in the third book. There was not a major cliffhanger. The ending was much more absolute and really lovely, but it did set up for the third book, City of Mirrors (is it 2014 yet?) nicely.

I was left with a few questions, which are very spoilery, so I am going to post them below the links to the book. Be warned, I am definitely going to spoil major elements of the plot so please do not read my questions if you plan to read this series. However, if you have read the book and have any answers for me, please comment! 

My final thoughts are oh man, I so loved this book. It was truly an excellent read and well worth the time it takes to read a longer novel.

Buy it at amazon and Barnes and Noble.


My lingering questions:
1. At the end, Wolgast's spirit was in Anthony Carter's viral body? Or was that viral just Wolgast? I was a little confused.
2. What the hell is going on with Amy and Alicia?  How can Peter and Amy ever realize their love if she is a viral? Why can she zoom off in a ray of light or whatever like she did at the end?
3. Is Anthony Carter's viral self still around? Is he stuck in limbo forever (somewhat happily) mowing the lawn and drinking iced tea?

I was really happy that Sara was still alive and that she got to reunite with Kate and Hollis. I loved seeing the connections between people of various generations - Kittridge and April to Alisha, Tifty to his daughter at the end, etc. I loved (and cried) when Amy took Brad to heaven, a place where there is a house in twilight and the people you love (Lila and Eva) are waiting for you. Such good, good stuff. I can't wait for book 3! 

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Killing Time with Comics & Carrie Bradshaw

I am so so excited that Justin Cronin's sequel to The Passage, The Twelve, is coming out tomorrow, as is the newest Kate Morton novel, The Secret Keeper. It's hard to decide which one to read first, but I think it has to be The Twelve. It's the perfect time of year to read a creepy book and since I'm stuck at home for another week recovering from surgery, I really need something awesome to read.

I finished The Casual Vacancy last Thursday and after the joyless soul sucking plot (seriously, it was like the Dementors of books), I needed something light and breezy and fun to read before diving back into the hefty (but awesome) world of The Passage.

Fortunately, the sequel to The Carrie Diaries arrived in my email from the library last week, giving me something short to plow through until tomorrow.

I don't really remember much from The Carrie Diaries, but I do recall that it didn't really mesh in my head with Sex and the City, which I watched, like most women my age. Summer and the City was relatively entertaining. It covers the summer after Carrie graduated from college when she attended a writing seminar at The New School during the 1980s. She ends up living with Samantha, who flits in and out of the story. Samantha is engaged to a wealthy guy named Charlie and is up and coming in the advertising world. She is the cousin of one of Carrie's high school friends, which is how they met. Since Samantha basically lives with her fiance, Carrie is able to crash at her West Village apartment after being kicked out of the place she was originally living in.

Carrie spends much of the summer wrestling with writer's block. She also wanders around the city and meets a lot of random people, including Miranda (!), who she becomes fast friends with. Carrie is naive in a lot of ways, especially as she gets into a relationship with an older playwright named Bernard. She also interacts with two guys from her seminar: Ryan and Capote. The relationships between these people are all pretty obvious but again, it was a light and easy read. I wasn't looking for much and after rolling my eyes a bit at the beginning, I got into the story. By the end, Carrie will have met her best friends for life and is off to college at Brown. I'm not sure if Bushnell is going to continue the series (I'll have to read the interview I posted below) but I know the CW is making a show out of The Carrie Diaries that is premiering this January, I think. I probably won't watch it but I'm sure they'll do a decent job leading up to Carrie's life in the city as an adult.

Candace Bushnell interview with EW

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Broken (Star Wars: Legacy, Vol. 1) (v. 1)

Unfortunately I finished Summer and the City on Sunday and then had two days to kill with nothing to read. Geoff made me promise to read a comic of his choice, so he picked out Broken, the first of Star Wars: Legacy, a series that takes place 137 years after the first Star Wars movie, featuring Luke's great-grandson, Cade Skywalker. While the timeline seemed a little suspect to me (Luke is obviously dead but if he's a jedi, shouldn't the people in his family be longer lived? I can't believe that Ben - Luke's son - is dead too. Does that mean Han and Leia's daughter is also dead? Probably... I just think more time should have passed to make this more "realistic". Anyway, I really only intended to read one of these but we have the first three and as our cousin Sean says, "Star Wars is like crack to the Sassos". I ended up reading all three. While I still find it stupid that the same lines are passed around through generations of SW characters (from the horrific prequels to these comic sequels), it was still pretty well done. If you like Star Wars, you'll probably be a fan of these.

Then I moved on to the 14th Walking Dead comic, No Way Out. I haven't read the whole series in a long, long time, so I had a little trouble remembering what was going on. The main characters I knew well, like Michonne and Rick and stupid Carl, but there were a few newer characters introduced around book 12 that I didn't really remember. As usual, it was fast paced and intense and things do not look good for the characters at the end. I didn't pick up 15 yet, but I'll get to it eventually.
The Walking Dead, Vol. 14: No Way Out
Did anyone see the premiere of season 3 on TV last week? I watched it last night and FINALLY, something interesting happened. It was more in tune with the tone of the comics, which I appreciated. And everyone was useful, including Carol, Lori and Carl. How'd that happen? Keep it up, writers.

After that I entertained myself with two short stories featuring two of my favorite detectives. The longer one was a new Lady Georgie (Royal Spyness) book by Rhys Bowen called Masked Ball at Broxley Manor (a Dorothy title if there ever was one).
Masked Ball at Broxley Manor
This cute short story takes place four years before Georgie becomes a spy. She is still living with her brother and his awful wife in London at the end of her season and she quickly begins to suspect that she is being thrown together with a Prussian prince to possibly marry. But if you've read any of these books, you'd know that Lady Georgie will never get married unless it's for love. She attends a masked ball, doesn't solve a mystery as it's before her spy days but does have a brief encounter with a favorite from the series. I'm not spoiling who, although it's perfectly obvious from the second this person shows up, even if they are in a mask!

An East End Murder
An East End Murder is an even shorter mini mystery featuring Charles Lenox, who investigates a murder of a man who lived in the Dials, a poor area of London. The whole story was super short and was solved rather abruptly, but still it was a nice lead in to the next Lenox mystery, even if it didn't feature any familiar characters besides the detective himself.

Both short stories are previews of the new books coming out by Rhys Bowen and Charles Finch. If you've read this blog for a while, you probably know that I love Bowen's Royal Spyness series. I recommended the books in the blog post that I wrote for Glamour magazine last year, which kicked off this blog (It's been almost a full year!). Her newest, The Twelve Clues of Christmas comes out November 6. Clearly it's a Christmas book (Masked Ball was a Halloween story). Poor Lady Georgie is stuck up in Scotland celebrating the holidays with her brother and his wife but being the intrepid girl that she is, she ends up hosting a holiday party in a little village where her mother (the bolter) is spending Christmas. Of course, she stumbles on a murder (this poor woman has seen SO many murders since the book started) that needs to be solved and the gorgeous Darcy eventually shows up to probably be infuriating and adorable at the same time.  I'll probably tear through that one pretty quickly.

The next week, on November 13, the newest Charles Lenox, A Death in the Small Hours, comes out. While I read the last Royal Spyness book (Naughty in Nice) immediately when it came out last year, I had just started the last Charles Lenox when my kindle was stolen from the gym so I literally just read it last month and it was excellent. In this book, Charles is a new father and continuing to rise in Parliament, but of course he gets dragged into a mystery that he has to solve with John Dallington, the young man that he has been training as a detective. I really enjoyed the last book, although my biggest complaint was that since Charles was traveling for the British government, most of the regular characters were barely in it, like Lady Jane. I hope she's more of a presence in this book since Charles now has a daughter with her.

Anyway, lots to look forward to. But now I have to focus on The Twelve, the sequel to Justin Cronin's The Passage, one of the best books I've ever read. I'm SO excited to keep reading it!

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Casual Vacancy Review

Imagine you're JK Rowling, international best selling author and creator of the beloved Harry Potter series. You're a multi-billionaire. You want to write an adult book. How can you distance yourself from your popular children's book and still sell books? Here's how I imagined she approached The Casual Vacancy.

JK Rowling's Rules for Writing an Adult Book (by me)
1. Realize that you are very good at creating unlikable characters (personally, Umbridge is still one of the most horrifying characters that I've ever read about) and make up an entire town full of mostly unlikable people.
2. Come up with a plot more muddled than the Elder Wand situation with a far less satisfying conclusion.
3. Throw in a lot of cursing, sex (my mind kept wondering what would happen if Ron and Hermoine got up to the stuff the teens do in this book), drugs, suicide, etc.

Long story short, I did not really enjoy The Casual Vacancy. I thought I would love it. It sounded like a novel about a small, quirky British town. I thought it would be like Major Pettigrew's Last Stand or The Tower, the Zoo and the Tortoise: funny and charming and entertaining.

Not so much. The premise is that Barry Fairbrother, a relatively young council member of Pagford's local government, dies suddenly, leaving a casual vacancy in the council. The very Dursley-esque Howard Mollison, first citizen more or less of the town, wants his son to take Barry's place. You see, Howard and Barry were on opposite sides of the issue of the Fields. The Fields is a rather run down neighborhood where a lot of degenerates live and where the local addiction clinic is. Due to a zoning issue, the Fields is under the jurisdiction of Pagford, but the Pagfordians want it out of their hands and passed on to the control of the local city. Barry had been a passionate supporter of the Fields, since he had grown up there and had made something of himself through education despite his impoverished background. Howard wants the Fields gone completely.

Throughout the book you meet a plethora of townspeople, so many that sometimes I couldn't remember who was who - which is not something I usually have a problem with. I'm pretty good with even the minor characters in Game of Thrones, but I felt like I just didn't care enough about these people to keep them all straight. Everyone was pretty awful from the nosy housewives to the awful teenagers to the meth addicted residents of the Fields. I laughed at bit at Miles Mollison and his father Howard, because I kept picturing them as Dudley and Vernon Dursley from Harry Potter but then they just got awful and not in an amusing Harry Potterish way. Also there was literally no one to root for. No plucky orphan kid destined to rid the world of evil or whatever. Yeah, I knew not to expect that but honestly there was just no one good. It was like reading two books on Jamie from Game of Thrones and realizing that he is totally awesome when he gets his first point of view but then when Cersei gets her point of view, you find out that there is absolutely nothing redeemable about her. That's like most of the characters from this book.

I didn't know if I would even finish it at one point but I just had surgery and spent much of yesterday at home in bed so I just pushed through and finished it. And it had a pretty crappy, sad ending.

The book was well written and the characters were fairly well developed, however, I didn't care about any of them. It was a little too gritty British for me (not enough tea and scones and amusing people... more like Skins on the BBC, which I found irritating). So now we know, JK Rowling can write an adult book. Sadly the woman that brought so much joy to people all over the world has now sucked that joy right back out. I don't need her to revisit Harry Potter's world (although clearly I would be first in line to buy a book if she did) but I also wish this was a better read. Blah.

Entertainment Weekly Review 

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Wednesday, October 3, 2012

The Last Policeman Review

There was so much of this book that I really, really enjoyed. Ben H. Winters, the author, wrote the Jane Austen mashup Sense and Sensability and Sea Monsters, which I did not read, although I did like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, not written by Winters.

Anyway, there are so many post-apocalyptic, dystopian books out there but this book took a different tack. In six months from the present date of the book, a massive asteroid is going to collide with the earth. No one knows where yet but the world has been living with the knowledge of the asteroid, known as Maia, for almost a year.

Subsequently, many people are killing themselves across the globe. In Concord, NH, the preferred method of suicide is hanging, so much so that people call the city "Hanger Town". The book opens with what looks like a typical suicide - an accountant is found dead in a McDonalds, having used his belt to kill himself. Detective Henry (Hank) Palace is at the scene of the crime. He is relatively young, in his mid-20s, and hasn't even been a detective for 3 months. His promotion was a result of someone leaving the department either due to suicide or a bucket list. A lot of people in this world do Bucket List, as Winters refers to it.

Palace is a bit of an anomaly. On one hand, he is fully aware of the potentially apocalyptic future that his world holds. But on the other, he's just a guy with an awesome work ethic, trying to keep some normalcy in his every day life. It's pretty funny how most of the other detectives tend to blow off their work - as most people in the world do (pot has become legal, but much of the rest of the US has become a bit of a police state - no driving, restrictions on weapons, etc) by drinking or indulging in other vices. Detective Palace just goes about his business in a very focused manner.

He starts to suspect that the suicide of Peter Zell, the accountant, is actually a murder. But really, no one cares. People are dying all over the place and this looked like a suicide so others in his department dismiss his suspicions. But Palace sticks with it, navigating the pre-apocalyptic world to try solving the crime. But of course, it takes a while to find out if it really was a murder.

Along the way we meet several colorful people - Hank's younger sister Nico, a bald woman named Naomi, various members of the police force, etc. Winters has created a very interesting premise here, and apparently this is going to be the first of a series (or at least a trilogy), so I'm really interested to see what happens next. I really liked Hank. I highlighted a lot of passages  about him along the way. Other characters dismiss him or admire him for his continuing work ethic even in such a dangerous time.

The one thing I didn't like was towards the end when Hank puts all the pieces of the puzzle together. He does so without revealing the suspect to the audience, although I figured it out around the same time that he did. It's a little irritating that he runs around putting a plan together to reveal the suspect. Winters seems like he's trying a bit too hard there to make the ending shocking. As I said, I figured it out and I thought the suspect was a good one and that the plot made sense but it just felt like Winters was trying to do a whole 1940s noir thing that wasn't quite working for me.

Overall I liked the detective a lot. There was also some lovely, poignant writing in here, like this excerpt from the Slate article (link below):

In this dire, doomed world, what the city of Concord needs—what we all need—is a guy who just wants to do his job. Late in the book, a frustrated Palace grouses to his favorite diner waitress—a kindred spirit who slings hash every day and still tries to expand Palace’s palate even though, seriously, who the hell cares—“I feel like I wasn’t made for these times.”
“I don’t know, kid,” the waitress responds. “I think maybe you’re the only person who was.”

That being said, I really enjoyed the book as a whole. It's interesting to see how society devolves in the face of catastrophe and I think that it was a different take on the whole apocalypse mania going on today. I will definitely be reading the others in the series!

The book's website


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