Monday, March 2, 2015

Book Review: Death Coming Up the Hill by Chris Crowe

Title: Death Coming Up the Hill
Author: Chris Crowe
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
Content Alert: Difficult subjects (war and family dysfunction) but a clean read

The year is 1968 and the war in Vietnam provides a backdrop for the domestic struggle going on in Ashe's home. His mom is a peacenik who buys him "Hell no, we won't go" t-shirts, and his dad is a hawk who takes every word that drops from Walter Cronkite's mouth as gospel truth until the moment Cronkite suggests that America might want to retreat from the war. As the year progresses and Ashe's own views on the war start to solidify, events that are outside of his control threaten his future. This is a story about family, fear, love, growing up, and facing responsibility.

That's a book you might want to read just based on the synopsis, right? Now, what if I told you the entire book is written as a series of haiku. There are 16,592 syllables in Death Coming Up the Hill, one for each American killed in Vietnam in 1968. That might scare some readers, and if I'd known that was how the book was written before I got home with it, it might have scared me off. But these are not your average haiku. The book reads like a novel, and also like a beautiful poem. At one point, Crowe says that it's what's in the gaps that are important in Death Coming Up the Hill, and he does a great job telling the story while leaving gaps for us to fill in. I love literary fiction that experiments with form when it doesn't detract with from the narrative, and this form works to enhance the narrative. The book is a remarkable achievement, one that captures what it feels to be seventeen in 1968 (as my mother was), what it feels like to face a war, and what it feels like to be in a family that's falling apart. All in all, this is a beautiful, startling, sad, and immensely readable book.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Book Review: Blood on the Water by Anne Perry

Title: Blood on the Water (William Monk #20)
Author: Anne Perry
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: Violence

Captain William Monk of the London River Police and his deputy are on the Thames one night, enjoying the sunset and the view of a pleasure cruise boat when the boat suddenly bursts into flames, and Monk springs into action, rescuing as many survivors as possible. But when the night is over, nearly 200 people are dead. Within days, the case has been taken from Monk, and he smells a conspiracy that he, his wife Hester, and his disgraced friend Oliver Rathbone work to uncover.

Initially, I thought that Blood on the Water did a nice job doing what so few sequels do well-- introducing the regular characters in a way that got new readers up to speed without bogging down the story for regular readers. However, as the story wore on, I found that I was so bored. Perry spends a lot of time with Monk and Hester, but not much time at all with the potential villains. The story quickly becomes bigger than just finding a bad guy, because there are many bad guys, but none she makes me care about. And I'm going to be a spoiler here, so don't read the rest of this if you want to read the book and be surprised, but it turns out that the major villains are people that dedicated William Monk fans already know-- they already care about them. But me? Not at all. And if I don't care much about the villain, and there's not a lot of character development going on for the heroes, then it's not a book I care much about.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Book Review: Almost Super by Marion Jensen

Title: Almost Super
Author: Marion Jensen
Enjoyment Rating: **** (if I were a ten-year-old)
Source: Library copy

Rafter and Benny Bailey are sure of two things: 1) on the first leap year after their twelfth birthday, they will get a super power (just like everyone else in the Bailey family), and 2) they will use this superpower to fight the Johnsons, the supervillains who live in town. But when February 29th rolls around, Rafter and Benny are disappointed to receive (ahem) underwhelming powers-- Rafter can light matches on polyester and Benny can change his belly button from an innie to an outie. When they return to school, the find an unusual ally in Juanita Johnson, and together they learn that there are bigger fights, manipulations and subterfuges going on than the skirmishes between the Baileys and the Johnsons.

Almost Super is everything a ten-year-old reader would love. It's funny, with plenty of action. But as an adult reader, I appreciated the deeper themes of the novel. Rafter, Benny and Juanita come to realize that there's more in life to being super, and that the way a story has been framed for them their whole lives might only represent a partial truth. They also discover something I think kids might both embrace and fear-- the idea that adults don't have all of the answers. Almost Super was an entertaining read for me, and one that I'm sure my kids will enjoy as well.

Friday, February 27, 2015

Book Review: The Shadow Throne by Jennifer A. Nielsen

Title: The Shadow Throne (The Ascendance Trilogy #3)
Author: Jennifer A. Nielsen
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Library Copy
Content Alert: Violence

In the first book of Jennifer Nielsen's The Ascendance Triology, Jaron rose from orphan boy to king of Carthya. In the second book, he fell in love. In The Shadow Throne, the final installment of the trilogy, both his kingdom and his love are under attack. Jaron, who always has tricks up his sleeve, works to foil his rivals and deals with some unexpected hurdles along the way as this series drives to a satisfying conclusion.

I find myself looking at The Shadow Throne from two perspectives. I'm the mom of ten- and fourteen-year-old boys, both of whom are reluctant readers of fiction. If they're going to keep reading a book, there needs to be lots of action and fighting. They're not really interested in the development Jaron's character over the three stories, and they're only marginally interested in love. If Nielsen is writing to that audience (and I think she is), then she nails it-- this book is nonstop fighting and action, with epic battles. But, I'm more interested in how a character changes over time, and with so much happening in every page of this novel, there's not a lot of room for character development. So is the book written for preteens or for their mother? If for them, it's definitely a winner. If it's for me, the reaction is a bit more mixed.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Book Review: To The Mountain: One Mormon Woman's Search for Spirit by Phyllis Barber

Title: To the Mountain: One Mormon Woman's Search for Spirit
Author: Phyllis Barber
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Digital Copy

After Phyllis Barber and her husband raised their sons as traditional Mormon parents living in Salt Lake City, the pair divorced, and Barber divorced herself from the LDS Church too. To the Mountain is a series of beautiful essays, delving into the child-rearing years, the years away from the church, and the experiences that led her back to the Mormon faith.

This collection of essays is all the good things-- honest, literary, real. It may be uncomfortable for some rank-and-file Mormons in some places, but I loved seeing the variety of experiences that enriched Barber's spirit, and appreciated that those things could be seen in a holistic way that enlightened her life as a Mormon, too. I see this book not just as a collection of essays, but as a journeying piece, in which Barber seems to come to a sense of peace.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Book Review: Hemingway on a Bike by Eric Freeze

Title: Hemingway on a Bike
Author: Eric Freeze
Enjoyment Rating: *****
Source: Digital Copy

We all know that Ernest Hemingway aspired to be the most masculine man of the twentieth century. When I think of Hemingway, I think of those Dos Equis commercials about the most interesting man in the world. Hemingway threw himself headlong into bullfighting, deep sea fishing, large game hunting, drinking, womanizing, and generally being larger than life. Think of him as  an AJ Jacobs who oozes machismo. Essayist Eric Freeze seems takes inspiration from a vision he has of Ernest Hemingway riding a road bike through Paris, but his essays meander through themes of spirituality, masculinity, francophilia, parenting, home repair, and popular culture.

This is a fantastic collection of essays-- one that seems to work as a cohesive whole (I read the book in one sitting) since it feels vaguely chronological (even if it's not), but I would imagine that a more leisurely reading would be even more fruitful. The collection as a whole is sweet, quick-paced, and a little daring. I think Hemingway would approve.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Book Review: Way Below the Angels by Craig Harline

Title: Way Below the Angels: The Pretty Clearly Troubled But Not Even Close to Tragic Confessions of a Real Live Mormon Missionary
Author: Craig Harline
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Digital Copy
Content Alert: Although Harline claims to be way below the angels, this was a clean read

Craig Harline writes about his mission to Belgium in the 1970s. This is a book about a regular boy, with the normal kinds of delusions of grandeur and fits of self-doubt, who goes on a regular mission, where things are boring and hard and he doesn't baptize a lot of people, but he still has a pretty good experience. What I appreciate about Way Below the Angels is the fact that Harline is so normal-- most other missionary narratives I've read have the characters/protagonists converting zillions, or else they end up falling in love with someone or escaping from the mob (or all three). This is a guy whose mission experience was mixed and probably pretty similar to most missionaries' experiences, and I appreciate the honesty with which he tells his story. Also, it's funny, which is always a plus.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Book Review: Hippie Boy by Ingrid Ricks

Title: Hippie Boy: A Girl's Story
Author: Ingrid Ricks
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Paper copy
Content Alert: physical and mental child abuse, neglect, implied adultery

In her memoir Hippie Boy, Ingrid Ricks writes about the years of her life when her mother's religious zealotry, her stepfather's abusiveness, and her traveling salesman father's ability to shirk responsibility all weighed heavily on her. Ricks could turn the story into a heavy-handed "woe is me" kind of tale, but she doesn't do that. Instead, Ricks works to see the perspectives of both of her parents (not excusing them, but also not condemning them). The book deals a lot with power-- religious power, abuse of power, abdication of power, absence of power, and how they play out in the lives of the Ricks family. She tells an engaging, empowering, and ultimately hopeful tale.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book Review: Field Notes on Language and Kinship by Tyler Chadwick

Title: Field Notes on Language and Kinship
Author: Tyler Chadwick
Enjoyment Rating: ****
Source: Paper copy

I've been writing reviews for days now, and I've saved my review of Field Notes on Language and Kinship until the end, primarily because I'm not sure how to classify it. In the book, Chadwick responds to, or is inspired by, many of the poems in Fire in the Pasture, the poetry anthology he edited. This is a really creative book, with essays, poems, literary criticism, and thoughts on life thrown in the mix. And by "thrown in," I think I mean, "carefully considered." This book is such a delightful mix of things, and it shows how one work of art can work to inspire readers to create others.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Book Review: The Good Girl by Mary Kubica

Title: The Good Girl
Author: Mary Kubica
Enjoyment Rating: ***
Source: Audible
Content Alert: sex, language, violence

The fact that Mia Dennett, daughter of the prominent Chicago judge, is missing is national news, but on the home front, the only people who seem to care are her mother and Gabe, the detective assigned to the case. We know that Mia isn't dead-- she's been kidnapped by Colin, who was supposed to snatch her and turn her over to the bad guys who hired him. Mia and Colin end up spending the fall and winter hiding out in a summer cabin in Northern Minnesota, while Gabe tries to track them down.

The Good Girl has some qualities in its favor-- the narrative alternates between before Mia is found and after she returns, which requires the reader to put in some effort to construct the story in a linear fashion. But (like Gone Girl, to which the story is compared), the story relies on a twist. I figured out what that twist would be the first time Mia alludes to it during her capture, and that made the ending a whole lot less satisfying. That, and Stockholm Syndrome. It's an entertaining read, and I enjoyed listening to it, but I wish I'd been kept guessing a little longer.