Review of Sex on the Moon by Ben Mezrich


Book Reviews

I bought this book simply for the title. I figured anything with a name as catchy as that would be an interesting read, no matter what it was. And I was not disappointed.

As it turns out, Sex on the Moon: The Amazing Story Behind the Most Audacious Heist in History, by Ben Mezrich, is a wild romp, made even more fantastical because it is a true story. I had a vague familiarity of what the book was about, more so in urban legend than anything else, and found myself quickly absorbed in the actual events.

You’ve probably heard the urban legend which I’ve mentioned: someone once stole moon rocks for the purpose of having sex with his girlfriend on them. The truth is just as outlandish.

Thad Roberts earns a position as a NASA co-op and has a promising career in the making. But, after being shown a vault deep withing the Johnson Space Center that held moon rock samples that were essentially considered trash (meaning they had been used in experiments and for demonstrations, rendering them unusable in further testing), Thad concocts an idea to sell them for what he perceived to be their true value, $5 million. The truth is they were practically priceless. Being an amateur, Thad settled for the ridiculously low price of $100,000.

And he might had gotten away with it, if it wasn’t for a meddling amateur geologist in Antwerp, Germany. Axel Emmermann, a hobbyist and member of the local geological society, receives what others perceive to be a spam email claiming to have the moon rocks. He alerts the American authorities and a sting is set up. In the end, everyone involved gets some form of comeuppance, and the rocks are returned to NASA.

The story is much more intricate than what I’ve summed up, and it’s in these intricacies and details that the true story lives. Mr. Mezrich weaves an enthralling tale, supported by numerous interviews with the people who were most involved. But the story is not portrayed as a hero’s tale, or really glorified in any way. While you almost root for Thad, given his upbringing and the challenges he faced along the way, you also pity him, for you know well in advance that his naivete and hubris will cost him everything. It’s the emotional journey you are in for with this book. And for the moments of sheer gall, luck, and brassiness of someone who already has earned everything anyone could ask for.

I have a hard time finding any fault with this book. It’s extremely well researched and edited, the story is enthralling and captivating, and it’s a complete story arc, with real consequences and a satisfying conclusion. And it’s made all the better by the fact that it’s all true. There is no hyperbole in calling this the most audacious heist in history.

I recommend this book if you want to read something that makes your jaw drop. Simple as that.

Official Kristine’s BRF rating:

May 17, 2019

Review of Hieronymus Jones and the Teacup Squid by Michael Palmer-Cryle


Book Reviews

I am so excited to review this book because it comes from a fellow writer friend that I met on Twitter!

Hieronymus Jones and the Teacup Squid by Michael Palmer-Cryle was a sleeper hit with me. I absolutely fell in love with this story, and when I was done I did everything I could to try to get the next book in the series. Unfortunately, Michael hasn’t finished it yet. Insert frustrated grumble here.

Hieronymus Jones is a young adult fantasy novel about a brilliant teenager (the eponymous Hieronymus, and yes, I enjoyed writing that) with secrets and abilities that alienate him from his peers. That is, until Gertrude “Gerty” Green walks into his life. And a mysterious and growing danger presents itself in his afternoon tea in the form of an angry squid. Hiero, as his new friend Gerty calls him, uses the substantial advantages he has at his disposal to understand and fight the cephalopods, while trying to navigate the twists and turns of his very first friendship. And Gerty, a loner in her own right, harbors secrets of her own, secrets that are not fully revealed in the story. It’s clear, however, that she plays an important part in what is to come in further books. What follows is an epic opening to a wonderful series about magic, technology, heroism, friendship, and the importance of identity, especially in the teen years.

The real gem of this book, though, is not the magical, evil creatures and the lengths at which Hiero must go to combat them. No, what really took a front seat for me is how absolutely relatable Hiero and Gerty are as awkward teenagers. I giggled with them. I cringed with them. I felt my heart beat fast when they held hands but didn’t know what it all meant. I cried out in entertained frustration that everyone else could see what was happening, but they couldn’t. I fell in love with both of them. Michael did a fantastic job of writing believable teenagers, with every awkward, bumbling interaction perfectly reminding me of every second of being a teenager.

As a reviewer, I have to be honest, this book is not without its flaws. In this case, it’s one major flaw – the editing. This book is in serious need of editing, mostly for punctuation. If I hadn’t fallen in love with this book so quickly and so deeply, I most likely would have abandoned it for its editorial sins. However, that should relate just how strongly I love and believe in this story. You’ll see from my rating below, that this is one of the rare cases where the story was good enough to overcome its editorial obstacles. And Hieronymus Jones does exactly that. If it weren’t for the editorial issues, I’d have given this book a full 5 BRFs!

Hieronymus Jones and the Teacup Squid is a delightful mix of Sherlock Holmes, Inspector Gadget and Percy Jackson. If you want a fun, entertaining, heart-warming read that’s friendly for younger readers too – and can overlook some editing issues – I fully recommend this book! I, for one, cannot wait for the next one to come out!

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

May 10, 2019

Review of The Hoax by Clifford Irving


Book Reviews

Lies! Ladies! Luck!

And a book?

This is what The Hoax is all about. In 1970, Clifford Irving concocted a wild idea – to publish an authorized biography of the eccentric billionaire, Howard Hughes – involving his friend and fellow author Richard Suskind in the ruse. The only problem is that Hughes had been a recluse since 1958. Very few people, even in his own inner circle, had spoken to him via any means. This is what made the biography so sensational – Irving claimed that he was having secret, in-person interviews with Hughes, who wanted to tell his life story.

What follows is a series of lies, coincidences, half truths, and some wildly unbelievable luck. Peppered throughout the story is a recounting of Irving’s personal relationships with his wife, Edith, and the woman with whom he had long-term affair with, Nina van Pallandt.

From a crime caper standpoint, this book couldn’t have been more exciting. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but be drawn in, at times rooting for the antihero that is the character Clifford Irving. I marveled at what Irving and Suskind – at one point referred to as Irvkind – were able to get away with at the time. Had the unbelievable stories they imagined, and passed off as truth, been told today they wouldn’t pass a single second of scrutiny against the internet. But, such was life before the information super highway.

The problems with the book begin within the first few chapters, though. Clifford is a raging narcissist, an adulterer, a philanderer, and an unscrupulous liar. If this had remained within the context of the caper, I might have overlooked it for the sake of the story. But it’s not. These character flaws are most prominently displayed during his anecdotes of flagrant lying to his wife, Edith, placing her and his family at greater risk than he ever knew. The price she paid for loving him was prison sentences in both the United States and in Switzerland for the role she played in the hoax – which involved cashing checks from a Swiss bank account under a false name to fool McGraw-Hill into believing they were paying Howard Hughes. While Edith wasn’t exactly innocent in the plot, her actions, according to Irving, were a desperate attempt to keep her husband from his wandering lusts. After her release from prison, they divorced.

In the end, I didn’t feel like this book was an attempt to set any records straight. And though he said the words, I never believed that Clifford Irving regretted anything. He was simply sorry he got caught. His constant refrain that he didn’t believe he was committing a crime – that it was a hoax (and that somehow made it different, innocent) – might have been believable if he hadn’t repeated it so many times. Instead, I came away feeling a little used, a little cheated, and a little dirty.

After getting to know Clifford Irving, I can say I greatly dislike him. This was no confession or apology. This was Clifford Irving patting himself on the back, and an opportunity to cash in on a crime he almost pulled off.

If you’re into true life crime capers, and can stand 380 pages of a man who does nothing but betray his wife and a host of friends and supporters with absolutely no conscience whatsoever, you might enjoy The Hoax. The crime part of the story was actually pretty entertaining.

Official Kristine’s BRF rating:

May 3, 2019

Review of Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer


Book Reviews

In the final installment of the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, Acceptance ends the journey into Area X that we have been on with the biologist, Control, Grace and the Director. Everyone has found their way into Area X and are coming to terms with all that that entails.

Which I haven’t figured out.

I am not a science fiction reader, and I’m trying to broaden my horizons. I think this trilogy was a little too high concept for me, especially being new to the genre. What I found in Acceptance is that Jeff VanderMeer created a devastatingly beautiful world in Area X, something so vivid and alive that it’s a character unto its own (a point I’ve made before). But in the end, I felt like not much was done with it. We know that it’s there, but we don’t know why. We don’t know its motivations or its purpose. It’s just there, doing what it does. To me, since the environment was as much a character as anyone else in the story, the character felt undeveloped, underutilized, and incomplete.

The book, and the series as a whole, includes a number of themes, including (but not limited to): religion, loss, death, the end of innocence, environmental concerns, and the relationship between humans and the environment around us. But, while making statements about them, the story makes no conclusions about them. It feels like being told to be aware of something, but getting no further context. Most of this final installment felt like subtext, like someone knew something and was trying to talk to me about it, but without telling me what they were talking about.

In the actual plot of the story, I felt like too much was left unanswered. Without revealing any spoilers, there is a lighthouse lens that features prominently in the story, but we are never told why it’s important, or what it’s backstory is. Nor are we told how, if at all, it is relevant to what is happening in Area X. As far a plots go, I felt left in the dark, the butt of some ethereal joke.

Again, I think this book was just a little too over my head. The writing is beautiful, and the world building can’t be beat, but for me that really couldn’t make up for feeling unsatisfied at what has ended up feeling like a very long journey. I’m going to have to accept that, and maybe that was the whole point all along.

Official Kristine’s BRF rating:

April 26, 2019

Review of Authority by Jeff VanderMeer


Book Reviews

This week I’m covering book two of the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, Authority.

Authority is written from the perspective of the acting director of the Southern Reach (which oversees and researches Area X), a man who insists that everyone calls him Control. Over the course of his first week in his new position he is confronted with everything from insubordinate employees to wild conspiracies and cover-ups to mentally ill scientists to the revelation of family secrets. To say the least, it’s a challenging week for anyone new to a job.

Often times the second installation in a trilogy suffers as the bridge between the beginning and the end. In this instance, this is true. Control (a ridiculous name, in my opinion – made even more so when you learn how he got the name) is a former secret operative who suffered a fall from grace, obtaining his position only because his very powerful mother made it happen. And because apparently no one else wanted to do it. But for someone who allegedly has a very powerful background, Control is weak, ironically inauthoritative. When confronted by someone who is supposed to be his subordinate, he comes across as a piddling, mewling, wimp. And much of the book is office politics and butting heads. What’s happening with Area X and its research is only revealed in secondary story lines.

That’s not to say I didn’t like the book, because I did. There are revelations made that are important to the story, and we are led further down the road to figuring out what is actually happening. Area X is it’s on antagonist, but shares that title with hubris and lies. Authority almost comes across as a satire on the current state of affairs in the real world, which makes the story kind of brilliant.

As with any series, if you’ve made it this far, definitely keep going. A reader certainly can’t judge a series by it’s middle book. I’m excited for the third and final act.

As a stand alone book, here’s my Official Kristine’s BRF rating:

April 19, 2019

Review of Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer


Book Reviews

I’m very excited about this! I’m going to be reviewing all three books in the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff VanderMeer, starting with book one, Annihilation.

In Annihilation we meet the main character, known through most of the book only as “the biologist”.  The biologist and the team of scientists she’s joined are on a journey to Area X, a potentially dangerous environmental phenomenon that appeared 30 years ago. Expeditions to Area X have, for the most part, failed, with team members returning mentally and physically scarred, if they come back at all. Very little useful research returns with those who make it back. The biologist is on the twelfth expedition. And she has a secret motive for joining the team, one which I will not reveal here.

The entire book is written in the style of journal entries, a style which you don’t necessarily pick up on until towards the end. I think Mr. VanderMeer did a fantastic job of making what could have been a very passively told story something very intriguing and fun. The characters, as clinical as they are, are people you want to see succeed or fail, both of these feelings especially pronounced, at least for me, towards the biologist. I liked her because she’s strong, but she also irritated me in ways I can’t really explain. Regardless, a good character provokes you, and that’s precisely what she did.

Mr. VanderMeer is also exquisitely talented at setting the scene. Area X is quite different from what we know as the world, in that it is completely devoid of pollution and toxins that we are exposed to on a daily basis. The dichotomy between what we know and what Area X presents is so vividly portrayed that the setting becomes a character in and of itself. And, not to spoil anything, but a dangerous, intriguing one at that.

What I found difficult with this book, though, is that at the end, there are no answers. Granted, it’s the first in a trilogy, so of course there are no answers. But I like closure. I want to know what comes next. Which is why next week I’ll be reviewing book two in the trilogy.

If you enjoyed Solaris by Stanislaw Lem then I think you’ll like Mr. VanderMeer’s brand of science fiction.

Official Kristine’s BRF rating:

PS: a quick side note. If you are reading the book because you watched the movie, or are going to watch the movie after reading the book, be aware that the movie is more inspired by the book rather than based on the book. Both are very entertaining, but if you are expecting one to tell the same story as the other, you will be disappointed. Consider each on their own merits.

April 12, 2019

Review of Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan


Book Reviews

I love books about books! Any story that even so much as has a hint of books, bookstores, writing books, and I’m all about it. So I bought Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew Sullivan based solely on the cover. Yes, I literally judged this book by its cover. And yes, I liked it.

The premise is a fun one: Lydia Smith is living a very quiet, low-key life, working part time at a the Bright Ideas bookstore – a planned life meant to conceal a very public and traumatic past. All of her efforts begin to crumble when a favorite customer commits suicide in the bookstore, while in possession of a photograph of her from her childhood. I’ll leave the rest for you to read, but what follows is a wonderfully weaved mystery of family, forgiveness, honesty, trust and vulnerability.

Matthew Sullivan is fantastic writer. His setting is inspired, or so I surmise, from his time working in a bookstore, and for me it shines through brilliantly. They say write what you know, and he’s done a fantastic job of creating a place I definitely wish I could visit (trauma aside). Mr. Sullivan also does a great job creating his characters. The main characters are flawed and frightened and beautifully developed and relatable. The supporting characters serve to add color and quirk, humor and mystery. And I can’t imagine a better name for a group of book store patrons than “Book Frogs”. If I had a to be given a nickname based on my frequency at a book store, I hope it would be something as charming as this.

I will say, stretch your reading muscles on this one. Mr. Sullivan loves a long sentence, and if you’re not prepared for it his writing style could become a bit exhausting. It took me several chapters to adjust, fighting against the creeping desire to label this book a style not compatible with my tastes. Boy, am I glad I didn’t give up.

The best part of this reading experience was that I didn’t figure out the mystery until it was already partially revealed. And I was fully surprised by the motivations for the mystery. The twist at the end is beautifully and delicately delivered, and once you’ve read it you’ll look back at all the hints you missed, the hints now staring you in the face and seeming to say “how did you not see?”

An excellent book for the patient mystery lover!

Official Kristine’s BRF rating:

April 5, 2019

Review of The Innocent Man by John Grisham


Book Reviews

Having read an obituary for Ron Williamson, Mr. Grisham was inspired to look deeper into the man’s life and the false conviction that imprisoned him on death row for eleven years. Ultimately cleared of any wrong doing – coming within 5 days of being executed – Ron’s tale, and that of three other people in Oklahoma fighting wrongful convictions, is about so much more than just a man wrongfully accused. Ron seems to be the only innocent person in the whole story, as bad police work (including an abundant reliance on jailhouse snitches in multiple cases), ineffective lawyers, poor judgement, and stubborn refusal to admit error coalesce to nearly drive a man insane. So much was so horribly wrong in this case that even Ron’s exoneration, thanks to the hard and diligent work done by The Innocence Project, doesn’t really satisfy.

The Innocent Man contains so much history about the area, the people, the atmosphere, and the mentality of Ada, Oklahoma in the 80’s and 90’s that you’ll feel like you’re right there with Ron, through every dashed hope and every tragic step. Of course, a reader must acknowledge that there are two sides to every story, but with such a comprehensive collection of evidence and the advantage of distance and time, it’s difficult to fathom that Ron’s situation happened at all. And even more difficult to fathom that it is still happening today.

This book was originally published in 2006. I’ll admit it – I didn’t even know this book existed until the Netflix special appeared on my to-watch list. I wasn’t sure what to expect, knowing John Grisham only through his legal thriller fiction. But the story intrigued me, and I’ll say this: I was not disappointed. To skip this novel and only watch the Netflix special would be a disservice. The Netflix special (which I did watch) has a different, if just as important, agenda. But the book is John Grisham at his John Grisham-iest. Ridiculously well researched, expertly told, and filled with all the intrigue of his best works of fiction, Mr. Grisham pulls out all the stops and uses every resource he has to relate a life so tragically underserved. And the result is a story that refuses to let you put it down, and refuses to let you forget that it all actually happened.

Official Kristine’s BFR rating:

For more information on The Innocence Project, please visit www.innocenceproject.org.

To read more about Ron Williamson’s specific case, please visit www.innocenceproject.org/cases/ron-williamson

Disclaimer: I am in no way affiliated in any capacity with The Innocence Project.

March 29, 2019

Review of Artemis by Andy Weir


Book Reviews

Artemis by Andy Weir was my first foray into science fiction as a reviewer. Of course I’ve read sci-fi novels before, but I’ve kept my opinions on them, and the genre, to myself. Until now.

Jazz is a resident of Artemis, the first and only city on the moon. She is broke, owes a huge debt, and is a delivery person and a smuggler. Jazz has a crappy attitude and makes poor decisions. These are all things she freely tells the reader about herself. But Jazz is also entangled in a plot as diabolical economically as it is criminally, a plot which tests her abilities and strengths as well as her morality. And it all happens in the pressurized, low-gravity environment she’s lived in for most her life.

Everything about the book, from scenery to dialogue to character development is written in service of the plot, which is a good thing. The plot is strong and well thought out, but without the support of good characters, believable dialogue, and the obviously meticulous research Mr. Weir did to create the city of Artemis, it would fall flat. Luckily for me, it doesn’t.

The only real flaw I found with this book is Mr. Weir neglects to adequately state when the story is supposed to take place. Obviously, it takes place in the future. But how far? There are a number of pop-culture references that suggest it isn’t too far into the future, but the technological advancements and moon-Earth commerce suggests technological advancements that may not be within our reach for another 100 years. I finally found an answer when I read a supplemental paper that Mr. Weir includes in the book that posits the economics of space travel to the moon (an interesting read but an odd place to find the actual year in which the story takes place ).

Through his research, Mr. Weir, who is also the author of the smash hit The Martian, delivers as much as a scientist as he does as a writer. I thought this book was a fun read, and it’s an excellent selection for people who are interested in reading science fiction and are looking to wade in.

Official Kristine’s BRF rating:

March 22, 2019

Review of Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn


Book Reviews

I’m going to preface this post by saying that I wrestled with whether or not to review Sharp Objects by Gillian Flynn. If you aren’t ready for an unpopular opinion, I might even suggest that you read a different one of my reviews. But here goes:

I didn’t like this book. And, although I’ve only read one of her books, I’m not sure I’m a fan of Gillian Flynn’s writing. There is no doubt that Ms. Flynn is a popular, accomplished author, with a very strong following. And believe me, as a struggling writer I aspire to that, and I look up to her. She did it! And I am in awe of her. But not of this book.

In a word, after all the hype about Ms. Flynn’s novels, and about Sharp Objects in particular, I confess I was disappointed. I mean, HBO turned the book into a miniseries. And Ms. Flynn is known for her prowess as a psychological thriller author. How could I be so late to the game? (No, I haven’t read Gone Girl, either). So I was truly excited to dive in, especially when someone very close to me thought it would be right up my alley.

Perhaps it’s because I couldn’t find a single redeemable character in the whole story. Or, maybe it was because I found the protagonist to be so utterly stupid in her choices. (Seriously, you’re in your 30’s and you’re going to let a 13-year-old convince you to go to a high school party for booze and drugs? Oh, you are? Okay.) It also could have been my distaste for how the big reveal was delivered. I had kind of figured out the twist somewhere around halfway through the book, and I hate that!

But I think the most difficult thing for me to understand was the style in which this book was written. The sentences, almost all of them, were incomplete, halting, jarring. Now, I will of course give credit where credit is due. Perhaps Ms. Flynn is so brilliant that even the structure of her sentences serves to make the reader feel as isolated as the protagonist. If that’s the case, then bravo, Ms. Flynn. Bravo, indeed. But I have no way of knowing if that was intentional or if it was simply a writing style that I did not connect with.

Obviously this review is going to do absolutely nothing to Ms. Flynn’s meteoric success, and I certainly wouldn’t want it to. She’s found a genre that people really enjoy, and I respect and admire her for that. I just don’t think this book was for me.

There are very few books in this world about which I would say “don’t read it.” And I’m certainly not going to say it for this one. Though it was not my cup of tea, I think it goes without saying that fans of anything written by Paula Hawkins and Ruth Ware would enjoy this. But if you’re looking for a psychological thriller that I did enjoy, check out Dismantled by Jennifer McMahon.

Official Kristine’s BRF rating:

March 15, 2019