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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

Review of Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz


Book Reviews

A book within a book about a book. A sterling homage to the grand tradition of British murder mysteries, clearly a love letter to Christie, Fleming, and Conan Doyle. Delightfully fun, wickedly deceiving. A little protracted at some points but made all the worth it by the final act.

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz is a treat for lovers of mystery. Structured quite differently than most books, Mr. Horowitz treats his readers to a double feature: a full-length novel within the novel, which I personally found to be more engrossing than the story about the novel. Confused? I was a little bit too.

It took me a little longer than I’d like to admit to figure out that everything in this story is, in fact, fiction. But Mr. Horowitz does such a wonderful job of pulling you into both stories that you have very little time to ruminate on this fact. No detail of this book is overlooked, right down to the page numbers, and the care with which it was edited shows that everyone involved – from writer, to editor, to publisher, and everyone in between – was fully invested in this work.

With characters that you immediately root for (or against), twists and turns enough to make you dizzy, and an easy, fast pace, Magpie Murders wins on all accounts. If you are looking for a more subtle, understated and truly fantastic mystery, this book is for you.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

March 8, 2019

Review of The Trauma Cleaner by Sarah Krasnostein


Book Reviews

The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein is a heavy book both about the heavy work of and heavy life led by Sandra Pankhurst. This is not the feel-good story it sounds like it could be.

Ms. Pankhurst’s experiences range from cleaning the homes of hoarders to natural disaster remediation to crime scene clean up. And from the start, we know that Sandra is dying a slow and painful death, despite her strength, humor, and joie-de-vivre. Through out the story, Ms. Pankhurst details memories, as best she can, of her life of abuse, tragedy, confusion, illness, and ultimately redemption. As you read, though, you find out that her entire life is an ode to dying, both by choice and by circumstance. And the author is recording that ode for posterity.

Sounds like an interesting read, right?

In theory, yes. In practice, however, while I was being told about Ms. Pankhurst through the eyes of the author, Sarah Krasnostein, I seemed to be learning more about Ms. Krasnostein than anyone else. In fairness, in the first chapter, Ms. Krasnowski calls the book a love letter to Ms. Pankhurst, or perhaps a love letter about her life. And it is true that that I was told that this is a biography like no other I’ve ever read. But I felt a little hoodwinked in that I was very much expecting to discover Ms. Pankhurst, when really Ms. Pankhurst seems to be the vehicle through which I learned about Ms. Krasnostein. All along, despite Ms. Pankhurst’s insistence to the contrary, it seems that Ms. Krasnostein wants to view Ms. Pankhurst’s life with optimistic glasses, and is trying to get us to follow suit. She’s too involved, too close.

To be sure, the book is full of interesting, funny, questionable, painful, and heartwarming anecdotes that Ms. Pankhurst relates about her life to varying degrees of reliability. But in the end, every one of the stories and experiences reflected back on the author in what felt like a backwards confessional. Call me a traditionalist, but I want the biographies I read to be about the person about whom they are written. For me, the author should be mostly invisible.

I recommend this book to anyone who is looking for a challenge, emotionally and literarily (yes, it’s a real word). Ms. Krasnowski spends time with her words, savoring and revering them, and expects you to do so as well. But expect the book to be as much about the author as it is about the subject.

Official Kristine’s BRF Rating:

March 1, 2019

Review of The Keeper of Lost Things by Ruth Hogan


Book Reviews

Literary fiction meets ghost story meets romance in the easy-to-read, sweet debut novel by Ruth Hogan, The Keeper of Lost Things. Ms. Hogan creates a story of love and loss, grief and recovery, and of impeccable timing. Her characters are lovable and flawed, and their relationships and interactions are defined by enough conflict that they are interesting, but not so much that you simply want to throw your hands in the air and give up all together.

The Keeper of Lost Things interweaves delight, mystery, grief, and love, and is satisfying without being overwhelming and charming without being false. It’s not perfect, and falls into some easy cliché’s, particularly in the subplot of the main character’s personal relationship. But the flaws in the novel are easily overlooked and don’t come across as distracting. Will this book change your life? No. But it is an interesting interpretation of what happens to the things we lose, and how we can’t possibly fathom the stories each of us holds. In the end, it is a pleasant and entertaining journey.

I recommend this book to anyone who is looking for the satisfaction of a Jodi Picoult novel minus the heavy drama.

Official Kristine’s BRF rating:

February 22, 2019

Online Book Club Reviews


Book Reviews

You may or may not know this, but I also do book reviews over at Online Book Club! I’ve just recently started doing this, but it has led me to some very interesting books already that I would never had thought to even look for, let alone to read. I hope these reviews will help drive some readers to new, unknown authors and genres that would not otherwise be read.

 

So, here we go. As a special, opening day treat, there are not one, but two reviews for you to check out! (Please note, these links will take you to the reviews hosted at onlinebookclub.com.)

 

Seven at Two Past Five by Tara Basi

 

The Cult Next Door by Elizabeth R. Burchard and Judith L. Carlone

February 15, 2019

Review of Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao


Book Reviews

Beautiful language and stunning imagery stand in stark contrast to some of the worst horrors humanity has to offer. Shobha Rao’s Girls Burn Brighter is a challenging debut novel that makes you wonder which is more powerful, the strength of the feminine or the cruelty of the masculine. With a strong message about the oppression and resilience of women, and the strength found in a soul mate of any kind, this story, while heavy handed in its delivery, is a strong voice for the promotion of the strength of women united.

 

Girls Burn Brighter is a novel for the reader who enjoys feeling emotions. Anger, sympathy, outrage, incredulity seep in from every corner as Poornima and Savitha navigate a world that does not care about them. But underneath is all is a current of hope. Because it is only each woman’s love for the other, and the certainty and desperation that they will one day reunite, that keeps each of them going. And for each woman that meas something different. In the end, if one might call it that, we are left to believe that there is such a thing as divine intervention, and that, for better or for worse, sometimes the universe looks the other way.

 

I recommend this book to fans of Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan,  perhaps to readers who enjoyed The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, and to anyone who enjoys a book that makes them feel strong and deep emotions.

 

Official Kristine’s BRF rating:

 

February 8, 2019