Friday, March 25, 2016

Spring Reading 2016 King Maybe (Junior Bender #5)

King Maybe (A Junior Bender Mystery)

A literate thief? One who quotes books accurately and understands their themes? It sounds too good to be true, and you know what they say about things that seem to good to be true. Perhaps Junior should have kept that in mind when he decided to take an "easy" job to please his fence. If he had, then he wouldn't have nearly been beaten to death by thugs with baseball bats, or threatened with a professional hit being taken out on him, or the string of other mishaps that plague him throughout the book. But since he doesn't listen to that little voice of reason, he finds himself being sucked deeper and deeper into a trap with no way out. There are more double-crosses and setups than a Sunday night mystery movie (yes, I'm dating myself with that reference), and they up the ante each time. And the pressure comes from every side; his girlfriend Ronnie, his ex-wife, his daughter and her social life, his fence, a burglary target, a former client, and a Hollywood executive (among others). Can an intelligent crook figure his way out, or will he be caught like an unwilling mouse?

Junior is not as dashing or into elaborate disguises as Val Kilmer in "The Saint." He doesn't use songs to time his movements like Bruce Willis in "Hudson Hawk." But he is glib, fairly good looking, and even has a bit of a conscience. He feels loyalty to his friends, is protective of his daughter and girlfriend, and is honest enough to admit when he owes someone. All of which makes him likable enough for us to wish for his success and cringe every time something else goes wrong.

For those who haven't read Junior's earlier adventures, this could be a good introduction to the series and to Junior's character. The supporting cast of Ronnie, Louie, Stinky, the Slugger, Anime, Milli, Rina, Kathy, Tyrone, et al. fill out the action with wildly different personalities and quirks. While it's not a screenplay, the story is very easy to visualize (back that Sunday night mystery movie), and carries the reader along from one crisis to the next. Recommended for mystery readers (existing Junior Bender fans or not), especially if they like stories with a cinematic feel to them.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Spring Reading 2016 The Forbidden Orchid

The Forbidden Orchid

Many people see Victorian England as a romantic time with its beautiful clothing, emphasis on manners and the expectations of society, and the beginnings of scientific advances with steamships and Darwin's writings. But there are things to dislike about that time period. Girls only stayed in school until their mid-teens, and after that they were expected to get married or find employment. Women had little say in their lives and were bossed around by fathers husbands, doctors, pastors, and basically any male in their lives. Girls and women were expected to be in the home and caring for their families, not out traveling and having adventures. And they were never allowed to be alone with a man (even a teenager), without having their reputation tarnished and their prospects for marriage ruined. And Elodie Buchanan seems to be fighting all of them.

Elodie's father is a plant-hunter, a man who travels the world collecting specimens of exotic plants for the rich men who hire him and also for the Botanical Gardens at Kew. But his last trip to China in search of orchids had a disastrous end and he has withdrawn from his family while he attempts to recover. Unfortunately, his last sponsor demands that he return immediately to China and fulfill his contract or his belongings will be seized, his family sent to the parish workhouse, and he will be locked up in debtor's prison. How can Elodie help her father prepare for his journey and ensure her family's future? From the quiet country house in Kent, to the bustling streets of London, then off to the opium houses and wild mountains of China, Elodie comes to the realization that just like the wildflower she is named for, she flourishes in the wild rather than shut up in a house.

Full of period details, danger, suspense, and touches of romance, this is a story for readers who enjoy historical fiction with strong female characters. Definitely for the YA crowd and not younger children; there are references to opium addiction, birth control, concubines, and sexual relations of various sorts.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Friday, March 18, 2016

What Happened, Miss Simone? A Biography

"I was born a child prodigy, darling. I was born a genius." Humility was something that Nina Simone never worried about. From the time she began playing for her mother's church services, she had an instinctive grasp of what it took to sway a crowd. She started with the piano at home, but the community soon became involved and that led to more opportunities as she found instructors and supporters. After being passed over for a scholarship to study at Curtis as a classical pianist, she found her way into giving private lessons and then to playing in clubs. Year by year her fan base grew and she moved to bigger venues, record contracts, and tours. Sadly, she was never really happy. Despite her renown and recognition, she had poor taste in men and a volatile temperament that only grew worse as she aged. When she died at age 70, she had still never truly connected with her mother or her own daughter.

The author has put together the story of a remarkable woman. By using song lyrics, journals, letters, and interviews (with Simone and with family and friends), Light has pieced together a detailed account of Simone's rise to stardom and her complicated life. She could perform any kind of music, and the accounts tell of her mastery in musical genres as diverse as classical piano, jazz, blues, gospel, show tunes, and protest music. The activity behind the scenes is nearly as mesmerizing as her music. Readers learn of her tempestuous relationship with her second husband, Andrew Stroud (whom she married even after he had beaten her severely), along with her later relationships with political leaders in other countries. There are details about her struggle with mental issues - psychiatrists, hospital stays, drug & alcohol use, possible diagnosis of bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, etc. And there are the heart-wrenching observations of her inability to be happy, some written out in her journals and others from those who knew her.

At times readers can only shake their heads in amazement at all her accomplishments, while at others they may grow teary-eyed at her self-destructive actions. Her involvement in the civil rights movement is reflected in her friend Andrew Young's statement, "There were two things that people in the movement would fight over. One was if you took their books. The other was if you took their Nina Simone albums." Songs like "Mississippi Goddam," "To Be Young, Gifted, and Black," or "Four Women" put the truth out there for everyone around the world to hear. Her friendships with notables like Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and the family of Malcolm X are also included in this biography.

Whether you are a fan of Simone's from her start back in the 1950s, learned about her from protest music in the '60s, or perhaps found her through the inclusion of her songs in commercials or movies such as the 1992 "Point of No Return," you will come away from this book with a much clearer understanding of the woman behind the music. 

I am one of those who first fell in love with Nina's voice in the songs on the soundtrack for "Point of No Return," and immediately had to buy a CD of her songs. Since then I have recommended her music to many people, and point out her songs when I come across them. Most recently it was "Take Care of Business" during the closing credits of "The Man from U.N.C.L.E" that put her back into everyone's ears.

You may click to find out more about the book or the author. "I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review."

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Spring Reading 2016 Sleeping Giants (Themis Files, #1)


Take the Washington backroom deals and intelligence/counter intelligence of "The X-Files," add the alien technology of "Stargate," and then spice it up with some "Pacific Rim" and "The Day the Earth Stood Still" touches. That should give you a home recipe hack forSleeping Giants. This first book in the Themis Files sets up the rest of the series (obviously), by introducing the search for and recovery of pieces from what seems to be a giant sculpture. There are hands, arms, legs, a head. A team of experts in seemingly unrelated fields is put together for the search and the assembly. Dr. Rose Franklin is the physicist heading the team, there are two military pilots helping with the search, a young linguist trying to interpret alien symbols on the artifacts, a geneticist, and other support personnel. They are all working on a worldwide search for the pieces and on finding the purpose for what they create. Oh, and did I mention the mysterious nameless man who seems to be pulling all the strings behind the scenes?

The story is told through personal journal entries and transcripts of conversations, briefings, etc. For those who enjoy "We are not alone" type stories, or really any sort of thriller/mystery with a sci-fi flare, this story has plenty to offer. There are characters with all sorts of quirks, international tensions (Russia, North Korea, the Middle East), the thrill of scientific discovery, the knowledge of alien civilizations, and big questions - Who left this here? What is is for? Are they coming back? Of course we'll have to wait for the other books to answer those satisfactorily, but some hints are provided. 

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Spring Reading 2016 Back to the Future: Untold Tales and Alternate Timelines

Back to the Future Untold Tales and Alternate Timelines, Volume 1

Fans of "Back to the Future," don't be sad that 2015 passed without a visit from Doc Brown or Marty McFly. This collection of stories will help fill that emptiness in your lives. Emmett Brown shares these stories with his boys, Jules and Verne, while they are living in the frontier town of Hill Valley. As he works on his steam engine/time machine, Doc tells his sons about earlier times in his life including his time with the Department of Defense and how he met Marty and Jennifer. For those of us who are fans of the film, these fill in gaps that were never discussed in the trilogy. We now learn about Doc's work with Robert Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, how he was approached by the government to build a time machine during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and even what he discovered when he visited his alternate self in the sanitarium when he and Marty returned to the alternate Hill Valley controlled by Biff. If you are more interested in romance, there are details about the beginning of Marty and Jennifer's dating life, and even the background of Clara Clayton and how she came to Hill Valley and met Emmett. 

One of my favorite stories is about George and Lorraine coming to Doc's house looking for Marty because they need dating advice. In a comic misunderstanding, George thinks Doc and Lorraine are involved in a relationship and when he bursts in on them it sounds like something from "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." "Marty!" "George!" "Lorraine!" "George!" (Janet - Brad - Janet - Dr. Scott -Rocky) Another story is a throwback to the 1980s film, "My Science Project," with Marty looking through the items in Doc's workshop trying to find something to turn in for his science assignment. And there's even some of Biff's trip from 2015 when he steals the time machine to visit his younger self (let's just say that he overshoots his target year by a large margin).

If you have enjoyed the films, you will like these untold stories featuring the characters we all know, even Copernicus and Einstein. Younger readers may not understand the references to historical events.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Friday, March 11, 2016

Winter Reading 2016 The Perks of Being a Wallflower


"We were infinite." That's a good description of those times when you are with friends and everything just seems to click on a level you seldom get to experience. For Charlie those times are with his friends Sam and Patrick. Being a socially awkward, although intelligent kid, freshman year is difficult for Charlie. But then he meets Patrick in shop class and enjoys his sense of humor. From there he meets Sam, Mary Alice, Craig, and all of their group. Even though Patrick and Sam are seniors, they take Charlie into their crowd and he begins to experience the fun of high school life - football games, parties, "The Rocky Horror Picture Show," etc.

Many people have compared this story to "The Breakfast Club," and I can see why. You have the group of distinctive personalities, the mix of funny and dramatic moments, and times when the events are "demented and sad, but social."Perks is told through letters that Charlie writes to an unnamed friend in which he relates his experiences, thoughts, and feelings. He is bright and articulate, has fun working in vocabulary words from his English class, and is completely honest about what happens and his reactions. As the book progresses, readers come to see that Charlie is not just awkward, but actually has some sort of mental or emotional problem. He becomes anxious about things to the point of being obsessive. He refers back to a time when he was hospitalized. He has a doctor that he visits and talks with about the present and his childhood. As readers watch him throughout his freshman year, more hints and details come out.

The circular framework of the story (both beginning and ending just as a new school year starts), gives it a sense of closure. The characters are well developed with good and bad traits. The relationships are realistic (cheating boyfriends, jealousy, loyalty). And it deals with issues that are relevant - abusive relationships, family dynamics, depression, drug and alcohol use, sexual orientation, dating, social norms and acceptance. A great read for book groups or class discussions. The author wrote the screenplay for the movie adaptation, so it will be truer to the book than many films based on books.

Caution: This book is for young adults. There are descriptions of sexual activities, characters use drugs and alcohol, and there is swearing (including the f-bomb). 

Monday, March 7, 2016

Winter Reading 2016 Tales of Honor, Volume 2


Honor Harrington spends time on pleasure satellite. Sounds like a tabloid headline, doesn't it? In this brand-new story featuring the Manticoran Naval officer, Honor heads to the satellite Eros to do a favor for her mother. Uncle Jacques is missing and was last seen on Eros, so Honor heads there with Harkness and Tremaine in tow. What they find is far beyond what they expected. As usual, Honor doesn't disappoint. With her two crewmen and Nimitz, she takes on crooked businessmen, hired guns, a peak bear, two wildcats...and uncovers evidence of major illegal activities. Between the gambling, buffets, fighting with marines, arena matches, etc. Harkness swears it is the best R&R he has ever had.

Reading the books about Honor and her crew, curiosity about how they spend their time off duty is natural. The creators of this graphic novel have come up with a story that fits easily into the existing oeuvre and fleshes out the characters in new ways. We see again how Tremaine works to keep Harkness out of trouble, how Nimitz and Honor work as a team, and how tight a bond there is between Honor and her crew. If you haven't tried the graphic stories of the Honorverse, you should really give them a chance. They are well written and beautifully illustrated, bringing Harrington and crew to life with color and action.

I read a pdf copy provided by the publisher for review purposes.

BTW, On Basilisk Station (#1) and The Honor of the Queen (#2) are free from Kindle and iBooks.

Winter Reading 2016 Tales of Honor, Volume 1

Honor Harrington fans have the chance to enjoy their heroine in a graphic novel format. The story takes place in two timelines. In the "present" time, Honor and her crew are being transported aboard a Havenite ship to the prison planet Hades. Honor is sentenced to be executed once they reach the planet. In the meantime, she is enduring torture and interrogation. To distract herself, she thinks back on her first command of the ship HMS Fearless ten years ago and the events that happened at Basilisk Station.

The action is based on two existing Honor Harrington novels, In Enemy Hands and On Basilisk Station, and is true to the existing story line from those books. The artwork does an excellent job of bringing the characters to life and depicting the ships and space station. Short bios of the main characters are provided in the back matter, as well as an explanation of how ships function in Honor's universe (the Honorverse).

This is highly recommended to fans of the novels and also to any readers who enjoy military sci-fi. 

I read a pdf copy provided by the publisher for review purposes.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Winter Reading 2016 Admiral


Waking up from cryo-sleep in a derelict ship on a deserted planet with only three recent trainees as company isn't exactly getting the day off to a good start. Although his sleeper unit is labeled as belonging to an admiral, he doesn't have the uniform or look like a high level officer. With the recent cease-fire, it's easy to suspect that he is a spy responsible for the sabotage of the ship - except he wouldn't want to get himself stranded outside known space with no way home. So suspicious Lt. Deilani, techie Ensign Nils, and negotiator Private Salmagard have to put their trust in the "admiral" whatever their reservations may be. The four of them have to go from being stowed in sleepers in their underwear to gearing up and surviving a hostile environment long enough to be rescued. Just another day in the service, right? I read this straight through from start to finish. It was suspenseful, the action never stopped, and had a brilliant twist at the end. 

Parts of it reminded me of The Martian with the continual need to find solutions to problems like oxygen, rations, establishing communication, hacking equipment for uses other than what it was built for, and finding a way to make it off the planet. Other parts were very reminiscent of "Aliens." There are mysteriously missing colonists, small arms fire and corrosive damage inside the colony ship, records of some sort of problem in med bay, etc. And when one of the trainees suggests that the ship is empty because all of the colonists are at a town meeting, I snorted out loud. (I could just picture Hudson hunched over his laptop scanning for trackers.) And if that were not enough, there are even hints of the Stainless Steel Rat or Miles Vorkosigan in the way that the "admiral" is able to convince the trainees to follow his lead.

Between the riffs on favorite books and movies of the genre and the original ideas and presentation, it is a very satisfying read. Sci-fi fans should keep an eye out for Sean Danker and future Evagardian tales. 

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Winter Reading 2016 London's Glory: The Lost Cases of Bryant & May and the Peculiar Crimes Unit

London's Glory: The Lost Cases of Bryant & May and the Peculiar Crimes Unit

A woman walks into a police office and announces that she is going to kill a man in a week. When he's dead a week later they have no proof, but know that she killed him somehow. An officer helping with security for a visiting dignitary's wife accidentally tackles one of the undercover security men. A woman is found dead in a snow covered park with her throat cut and no footprints anywhere near the body. These are the sort of cases that the Peculiar Crimes Unit is called in. Not quite an X-Files type office, they handle crimes that might create a sensational splash, a national scandal or security risk, or are just plain, well...peculiar. The two senior officers are Bryant and May. Bryant is written as a grumpy, curmudgeonly older man with odd bits of London history and esoteric facts tucked into his memory, and he is a technophobe who can't remember how to open his e-mail. May is his partner and more of a dapper ladies man, with a better wardrobe, nicer car, and smoother manners. He is often frustrated with Bryant for withholding information or making him work things out that Bryant already knows.

These short stories are a collection of quirky cases which include the samples I listed above. They range in time period through a couple of decades and generally take place in London, or at least close enough to travel to the scene and back without having to spend the night (although one takes place on a yacht in Turkey while the detectives are on holiday). The personalities of Bryant and May are fleshed out a bit more with each story. We see Bryant trying to sort out two jigsaw puzzles that have been mixed together, and he resorts to snipping off bits of the pieces and hammering them into place. We find May a bit flustered by a group of young college girls and being rather obvious in turning on his charm. The settings are also a mix of possible locations - a warehouse full of automated printing presses, a carnival side show, a trendy restaurant, the swimming pool of a private club, and even a double-decker tour bus.

There are several helpful notes added by the author. I appreciate the foreword in which he discusses his own influences and favorite writers (I made a list of things to look for at the library). There is also a brief introduction to each story, and at the end of the book are brief synopses of the other full-length adventures, including a brief bit of quoted dialogue and some backstory on each book's inspiration. The list of odd books that can be found in Bryant's fictional office are very funny, and the author's comment that it is up to the reader to determine which of the titles are real and which he made up sounds like he is double-daring us to do so.

I enjoyed the collection of stories with its mix of times and locations around London. The relationship between Bryant and May is a bit like the Holmes and Watson dynamic, although both of these characters are detectives. But there is the sense that Bryant has all these odd factoids at his fingertips, and funny sources for information available that hints of the Baker Street Irregulars. May is more a Watson with his attempts at charm with the ladies and his concern for propriety is a little more developed than his partner's. Mystery fans who have not tried any of Fowler's other works should give this collection a try and see if it is to their taste.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Winter Reading 2016 Brooklyn on Fire: A Mary Handley Mystery

Mary Handley is excited to receive a new client. Since she solved the Goodrich case, she has been trying to get her private detective business started and this doesn't seem to be too difficult a matter to clear up. Unfortunately, the case she accepts leads her into conflict with some of the biggest political powers in New York and Brooklyn. While things may be a bit rough in her career, her brother's seems to be taking off. Sean has just been given his first murder case as primary investigator and he has also become engaged to Mary's friend Patti. Things are very busy for the Handley siblings and the action and intrigue just keep piling up. Murders, arson, assault, scandal, frames, threats, blackmail...there isn't much criminal activity that doesn't make its way into their investigations.

For those who have read Mary's first adventure, the return of Brooklyn's first female detective will be a welcome reunion of reader and character. Those who are encountering Mary for the first time, will be amazed at the painstaking recreation of 1889 New York. Just as in the first book, many notable figures of the day have a place in the story, including - Cornelius and George Vanderbilt, John D.Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, Mayor Alfred Chapin, and William Gaynor. It is incredible how many real events and people are worked into the plot. Mary is a complex character with intelligence, courage, stubbornness, loyalty, and a determination to succeed despite society's restrictions and the disapproval of her own mother. Readers will be eagerly awaiting her next appearance when they reach the last page.

Click here for more information about the book or the author.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.