Julia’s #CBRV Review #13: The End of Eternity by Isaac Asimov

509784I’m a big fan of used book stores. Shelves of dirty, old, used up books. My copy of The End of Eternity came from an even grimier origin, the “free bin” at the library. Yes, books so used up that the library doesn’t even want to keep them anymore. This particular book had a big circular indent on the back cover, perhaps somebody used it as a pot rest at some point? I will never know. What I do know is that I have no regrets about holding onto this book, despite the smell. It’s not a book that gets regular mention in the Asimov cannon, but it’s certainly not one to be dismissed. Clocking in at 192 pages it’s a book you can get into and out of in a few hours, but those hours will feel entirely worth it.

The book is set in Eternity, a location outside of time where time travel has been perfected. The men trained in the use of time travel are known as Eternals; they travel “upwhen” and “downwhen” in history, performing little changes that serve to better the human race. Eternals fall into different classes, there are “Computers” who calculate what changes should be made and “Observers” who amass data from different time periods. Andrew Harlan is a “Technician,” he is responsible for carrying out reality changes. Harlan travels to various points in time in “Kettles” and makes minute changes that will eventually prevent a war from being fought, or a plague from spreading, or a totalitarian government from rising. Harlan is doing good work, or so he thinks…

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Lauri’s #CBR5 Review #5: The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

I’ve alwaydog starss enjoyed a good post-apocalyptic novel, be it zombie, alien, or, as in The Dog Stars, a super flu that has wiped out 99% of the population. What stands out in the debut novel by Peter Heller, is a world filled with both the ugliness of human behavior almost in contrast with immense beauty of the landscape, as seen from the main character’s old Cessna.  And in the end, this is a novel filled with a cautious hope and optimism, that just maybe love and compassion can survive.

Hig lost his wife to the flu, some 9 years prior to the events that start the novel. He lives in a small airport hangar, defending his little slice of life along with a cantankerous, often scary partner named Bagley, as well as his best friend and dog. A deep sadness permeates Hig’s inner thoughts, but he also finds some contentment while scouting the countryside from the sky, as well as fishing and hunting the land, with his faithful canine companion.

A chance transmission received from a city past the point of no-return (the point at which there would not be enough fuel to fly home) sticks with Hig. And after thinking and waiting (and killing, in defense) for 3 years, events bring Hig to set out and explore. What results is…well, read it for yourself. The prose has a unique beat of its own, poetic even, with a hint of Hemingway thrown in. There are so many post-apocalyptic stories and novels out there, it’s hard to find an original way to tell the story of humanity’s continued survival anymore. But Heller brings an optimism to a theme that is often quite the opposite.

The Mama’s #CBR5 Review #21: Hemingway’s Girl by Erika Robuck

hemingwayMariella Bennet is a young girl living in Key West in 1935, struggling to make ends meet and support her family after the death of her father, when she meets Ernest Hemingway at a boxing match. Young and gorgeous, Hemingway is immediately entranced by her, and hires her to work as a maid in his home. In the hands of a more predictable writer, they would fall in to a brief and torrid love affair, leaving Mari devastated and alone once Hemingway moved on.

But Robuck takes a different turn, and that’s where things get interesting.Read more here…

Aunt Ada Doom’s #CBR5 Review #8: The Amateur by Robert Littell

the_amateur_coverCharlie Heller, the protagonist of The Amateur, is a cryptographer for the CIA. He is a quiet man with top-secret clearance who spends his days happily mucking around with math and loving his fiance, Sarah. This all changes when Sarah is taken hostage in a terrorist attack and publicly executed. First, he grieves. Then, he seeks revenge.

Heller’s not a field agent — he’s an egghead at a desk. The CIA will have to mount an operation to pursue, and Heller won’t be involved. Unfortunately, the CIA is not on board. The terrorists have retreated to Czechoslovakia. Legally, they can’t be touched. They’ll watch and wait, they tell Heller. Beyond that, their hands are tied.

Heller won’t take no for an answer. Because of his position as the the Company’s best cryptographer, he has access to hundreds — thousands — of the most sensitive communications ever to come through the CIA. He picks off a couple dozen of the worst of the worst and blackmails his employer. If they train him to go after the terrorists himself, he says, he’ll kill the terrorists who killed his fiance and deny that the CIA’s involved. If not, he’ll reveal the damaging messages to the public.

The CIA gives in to his blackmail and puts him through training. He prepares to go to Czechoslovakia in pursuit of the terrorists. But now that the plot is set in motion, it’s not just the terrorists who want him to fail. It’s the CIA, too.

This is an engaging, enjoyable read. The plot moves along at a sprightly clip and the not-very-surprising main developments get some color from unexpected details, like an art deco building shaped like a concrete nest and a subplot about analyzing Shakespeare for Baconian codes.

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Fucking cryptography, how does it work?

Unfortunately, I have one major nitpick. The description of Heller’s cryptographic work is totally misguided. Littell repeatedly describes how Heller cracks coded CIA messages in loving pseudo-technical detail, yet seems to think that all codes are essentially substitution ciphers. Which, nope. This would not be a problem except that these sections are obviously intended to establish Heller as a brilliant genius and to give the book as a whole some authority as a realistic portrayal of tradecraft, so getting it this glaringly wrong is pretty … glaring.

Ignore those bits and you’ll have a fun read.

Read more from Aunt Ada Doom at Two Wrongs and a Write.

Rachie3879’s #CBR5 Review #10: A Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long

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My sister-in-law, a librarian at a local prestigious university and what I’d call a fairly high-brow reader with a literary bent, is a friend of mine on Goodreads, so I often use her reviews or additions to her To Read shelf and put them on mine. I was surprised to see her reading a few books awhile ago from a set of books called Pennyroyal Green; I read the description and thought – “Is that a romance novel???” My sister-in-law is the LAST person I’d have thought would read one, much less rate it three stars, so I thought why not? I’ve never read a romance novel before, it could be fun. This series in particular takes place in a town in Sussex, England, in the 19th century. So – totally my wheelhouse! This is how I came to read A Notorious Countess Confesses by Julie Anne Long. In a day.

Countess is the story of Evie Duggan, a former actress turned courtesan turned wife of a Viscount turned widow, now relocating to a small town (Pennyroyal Green) and the estate her husband has left her. As the entire city of London has decided to brand her a whore and possible husband-killer (she isn’t, by the way), she has decided to embrace country life and hopes she can start afresh. She’s wrong, however, and her reputation has preceded her. She meets the local vicar, and of course they argue at first but obviously find each other insanely attractive and you know where these two are headed. She enlists the vicar’s assistance in helping her make friends in the town that is so coldly rejecting her. Stuff happens, people fall in love, etc.

I’m surprised to find that I liked it. I won’t pretend that it’s a story that’s all that new or profound or even expertly written. I will say that the writing is better than some really bad stuff I’ve read (50 Shades…). The characters are interesting with the right amount of hotness and secret desire burning in loins and whatnot, but the book isn’t smutty. In fact, there are only two sex scenes. I’d always assumed romance novels were really just successive sex scenes with an occasional chapter of plot just peppered in here and there to make readers aware they weren’t reading one of the author’s other books again. I liked that the romance is built up over a few hundred pages to boil over a couple times toward the end.

That being said – some of the names are KIND of ridiculous. There’s a vicar, named Adam Sylvaine (!), so naturally I thought of the Friends episode where Rachel’s romance novel is discovered. I wonder – do all romance novels have super-hot vicars? Ok really just the main guy’s name is silly sounding. This might be a thing in the romance genre – I’m not really sure this being my first. If you’re looking for smut, don’t look for it here – like I said: two sex scenes. I won’t lie – I’ll probably read more of this series at least. It’s fun, I read it in a day and this could help me get to my quota for CBR pretty easily. I might pack a ton of these when I head to the beach this summer – they’re perfect for that. This particular book was apparently the 7th out of the series; all the characters are sort of inter-connected and there are some references to other stories so I probably will try to start at the beginning next time.

Rachie3879’s #CBR5 Review #9: Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

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My review of Ian McEwan’s Sweet Tooth should come with a disclaimer: McEwan is one of my favorite modern writers. When I read Atonement, the story stuck with me for days after I finished it. I also really liked Enduring Love. Something about the way he writes just really appeals to me so I’m not an objective reader here.

Sweet Tooth tells the story of Serena Frome (rhymes with plume) and her transition from dutiful daughter of an Anglican bishop to spy for MI-5 – who are hoping to help foment national pride and anti-Communist sentiment through the clandestine funding of seemingly right-leaning authors. This is England in 1972 – the Cold War isn’t over, the IRA is just getting warmed up, and the British economy is suffering. Serena’s affair with an older man she meets while studying Mathematics at Cambridge leads her to a low-level job with MI-5. Her love of reading and her connection to the Cambridge lover draw attention to her and soon she is tasked with introducing herself to Tom Haley, a new writer with a few published short stories and journalistic articles teaching at the University of Sussex.

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Jen K’s #CBR5 Review #40: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

I probably wouldn’t have noticed this novel on my own if there hadn’t been a certain amount of hype, all generated by one person, on both Facebook and Pajiba. I’m sure I would have picked it up once it started making “Best of Lists” but the title and the description one their own would not have been enough to capture my attention.

Read more here.  It’s actually rather short … maybe you should just read the novel instead.

Reginadelmar’s #CBRV review #14 Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel

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I knew I would be reading Bring up the Bodies because Wolf Hall was one of my favorite reads of 2012. For this reason I didn’t read prior reviews, but I promise I will search for them now. What surprised me about Bring up the Bodies was the way these books fit together so well, even though  they’re quite different. Wolf Hall introduced us to Thomas Cromwell and his rise to power, first serving Cardinal Wolsey and then Henry VIII himself. The narrative took place over decades, allowing us to get to know Thomas Cromwell and get a glimpse at the religious reformation occurring throughout Europe.  This was the macro view of Cromwell’s life.

Bring up the Bodies takes a micro view.  Rather than decades, it takes place in less than one year and focuses on the downfall of Anne Boleyn. Henry is finished with Boleyn because of her failure to bear him a son. His attentions have shifted to Jane Seymour, he’s wanting a third try. Having already gotten rid of one unsatisfactory wife, disposing of a second should be short work. Cromwell was instrumental in Henry obtaining his divorce from  Catherine, thus he is enlisted to remove another queen. This is a story in which we know the end, but like any good travel adventure, it’s not the destination but the journey that is so enjoyable.

What I like so much about Mantel’s writing is that she moves the story primarily through dialogue, and does it so incredibly well. Each character lives through his or her words, or dies because of them. Mantel chooses words well, just like her protagonist. Cromwell is a listener, who hears what he needs in his opponents’ words while being sparing with his own. Cromwell is a clever hunter, he sets traps, but most often the victims trap themselves in their own words.

Nevertheless, Cromwell is charting an iffy course. The powerful nobility hate him, in no small part because he is a commoner who has made the most of his skills, which far exceed their own. This is particularly true with respect to the management of wealth. Now he needs the help of the families that hate him because they lost power with the setting aside of Katherine. Because they hate Boleyn they are willing to work with him. Will they regain power and be the instrument of his destruction? Or will it be someone else who betrays him?  It is likely that Cromwell’s final lesson may be that the enemy of my enemy is still my enemy. I look forward to Mantel’s final installment of the trilogy.

ABR’s #CBR5 Review #7: The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

gatsbySomehow I made it to adulthood without reading The Great Gatsby or seeing the 1974 movie. But I wanted to read the book before I saw the latest movie version later this year. While there are elements of the book that will translate to the screen (especially in a Baz Luhrmann film), I was disappointed in the book. I know it’s considered a classic, but overall, it’s not an engaging read.

The plot is straightforward. The narrator, Nick Carraway, is a college graduate and war veteran working in New York City, living in West Egg. His next-door neighbor is a mysterious millionaire named Jay Gatsby.

Although Gatsby’s past and the source of wealth are unknown, one thing is certain – he throws extravagant parties, attended by anyone and everyone. “People were not invited – they went there. They got into automobiles which bore them out to Long Island, and somehow they ended up at Gatsby’s door. Once there they were introduced by somebody who knew Gatsby, and after that they conducted themselves according to the rules of behavior associated with an amusement park.”

At one of these lavish parties Nick meets Gatsby, and despite his mysterious past, his questionable wealth and his shady business associates – or more likely because of them – Nick develops a fondness for Gatsby.

Unbeknownst to Nick, Gatsby once dated his second cousin Daisy, who is now married to Tom Buchanan and living in fashionable East Egg. Tom has cheated on Daisy throughout their marriage. His current mistress, Myrtle Wilson, is married to a witless cuckold, who also happens to be Tom’s mechanic.

When Daisy learns that Nick is Gatsby’s neighbor, she coerces him into organizing a reunion with Gatsby and they soon rekindle their romance. Daisy is intent on flaunting the relationship in front of Tom, and he tolerates it, perhaps as retribution for his infidelity, until one awkward evening. After a night of drinking Tom confronts them. Gatsby and Daisy leave together. As they are racing through town, they pass the home of Myrtle Wilson. She and her husband have also been fighting; Myrtle’s husband George knows she is having an affair, but he doesn’t know it is with Tom. Gatsby and Daisy hit Myrtle as she is running to flag down the car and escape George. In the wake of the accident Tom and Daisy appear to reconcile and leave town. Gatsby reveals his back story to Nick, who encourages Gatsby to leave town as well.

Tom tells George that Gatsby struck his wife, and George assumes Gatsby was her lover. He tracks down Gatsby and kills him. Nick is left to contact Gatsby’s family and plan his funeral. Despite his popularity while alive, Gatsby’s funeral is only attended by three people.

I know The Great Gatsby is widely read and much loved, praised by critics and readers for decades. But to me this is a book whose parts are greater than its sum. The individual characters are interesting, but collectively they are the worst type of clique – selfish, aloof, devoid of sympathy or remorse. Even though Nick is likable and pitiable, he’s impressionable. I wonder why he’s so interested in the ‘in crowd’ even though he recognizes how fake they are. I’m not even sure Fitzgerald liked his characters, especially the women. There is not a single admirable female character in the book. They are either materialistic, androgynous or home wreckers.

Moreover, the love story between Daisy and Gatsby, the quintessential love story that was the impetus for all the events in the book, isn’t convincing. In fact, it’s as impulsive and affected as Daisy’s other whims (including the daughter she completely ignores).

In the end Nick finally realized what we’ve known all along, that Daisy, Tom and Gatsby “were careless people … they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.” He acknowledges that the East, with all its “superiority to the bored, sprawling, swollen towns beyond the Ohio” has lost its luster for him.

Ultimately Nick wasn’t profoundly affected by the fateful tale of The Great Gatsby, and neither was I.

Jen K’s #CBR5 Review #39: The Winter of the World by Carol Ann Lee

The novel begins with the train carrying the UK’s Unknown Warrior to London, and its eventual final resting place in Westminster Abbey. After this opening, which also has brief appearances by what will soon be the novel’s two main characters, the novel flashes back a few months to earlier in 1920. Alex Dyer, a journalist, is back in France to cover the rebuilding of Flanders and France, and the types of things that are being done to commemorate the war’s dead. While there, he ends up sharing his story with one of the men involved in the work at the cemeteries (I’m not entirely clear if he’s a grave digger, gardener or a combination of the two).

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