Owlcat’s CBR V Review #26 of Paradise City by Archer Mayor

Although this is, I believe, Archer Mayor’s 22nd novel, I confess to never having read any of his books prior to this, even though he is a semi-local author (out of Vermont) and has even had book signings here in Greenfield, Mass.  I decided, however, to read this book based entirely on the title, Paradise City, which is the “nickname” for Northampton, Mass., and I knew I’d likely be able to relate to the localities in the book.  That turned out to be both a good idea for me and not-so-good because I did, indeed recognize many of the sites within the book, including parts of Northampton, Brattleboro, Vermont, Boston, and even a brief description in Greenfield.  This was unfortunately a distraction for me as I read (my fault, not his) but nevertheless, I did continue reading and for the most part enjoyed the mystery and characters and plot despite the distractions.

Joe Gunther is the main character, a member of the Vermont Bureau of Investigation, which gets invited to assist other local authorities when they are unable or unwilling to deal with crimes within their jurisdictions.  In this case, there are major burglaries throughout Vermont that have stymied local police departments and eventually seem connected to a major home burglary in Boston where an elderly woman’s antique jewelry is stolen and she is beaten so badly that she succumbs to her injuries.  Gunther begins working with the Boston police because of the suspected connection with the Vermont burglaries, and he and the Boston police try working with the old woman’s niece to piece together some of the possibilities for her being the target. The niece is not happy with their pursuit, however, believing they are minimizing her elderly aunt’s situation and begins her own attempt to uncover facts and follow them.

They all end up in Northampton, Mass., “Paradise City,” where they believe the jewelry is being fenced. She endangers her own life by being too obvious when she’s asking various jewelers and artisans questions, and Gunther and the Northampton Police attempt to rein her in.  Gunther has a history that’s alluded to of having lost the love of his life violently (several books back) and is uncomfortable with this woman putting her own life in jeopardy.  He wants to convince her to stop and she placates him but continues with her own research and pursuit nevertheless, which ultimately jeopardizes not only her own life but that of Gunther’s irascible partner who himself is just beginning to develop a new approach to life with a wife and child. This all comes to a climax at the end of the novel and though somewhat contrived, it nevertheless “works.”

My only complaint in the ending is that it’s almost too sudden;  whereas the bulk of the novel involves well-developed characters and a meandering plot that sometimes is a bit too convoluted but plausible, although also at times a little difficulty to follow, the ending is achieved in just a few pages and the tension does not develop the way the rest of the novel would have led the reader to believe it would.  There are a few too many “connect-the-dot” situations and coincidences that the characters’ dialogues reveal, rather than just letting the plot continue to meander slowly toward the end.

Within this novel, too, is the secondary storyline of smuggled immigrants, whom the fencers are using to redesign the stolen jewelry, and that storyline is interesting, albeit a bit of a distraction, too, as Mayor develops one of the immigrant characters a bit more, perhaps, than she needed to be.  It was an interesting aside to have her developed but not necessary to the story;  a more generalized description of the smugglers and their captives would have sufficed.

I did find most of the characters, especially Joe Gunther, as very believable, as well as the other law enforcement officials and the private investigator in Northampton who was skeptical about dealing with someone on her “turf.”  I did wonder as I read the story if some of the artisans and jewelers described were based on real people since the descriptions of Northampton locations were so clear! The interwoven plot made me think, too, that this is probably what “real” crime looks like, with misleading evidence and apparent luck as much as anything working against and/or in favor of the investigators.  One word here, one person there.  Mayor was quite masterful at developing those kinds of realities.

I guess I would recommend this book based on an entertaining mystery.  I might try another of his books that maybe would be less distracting for me;  it was too easy to get caught up in, where is that exactly? or, oh, I know that’s Bill’s Restaurant, etc. Next time, I would choose one of his very early ones – though this book did make me realize that although it’s a part of a series, like any good series, it does not really require that I have read any of the earlier ones.  Past references are alluded to enough so the reader gets the gist of why someone is the way they are but without distracting details, and that was very helpful.  I would be curious to see how a non-local person responds to this book.

Owlcat’s CBR V Review #25: The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan

I waited a very long time for this newest novel by Amy Tan.  I have never been disappointed in her books before but I found myself dissatisfied with The Valley of Amazement, despite her very well developed characters and the various story lines.  The latter is part of the reason for this disappointment, as the novel is about three generations of Chinese-American women and their relationships;  like most of Tan’s books, the focus is on the mother-child relationship and the secrets each possess.

The first half of the book centers around the main character, Violet, who is the daughter of turn-of-the-century (early 1900s) Shanghai’s most well-known and respected courtesan.  We meet her as a very young child who is intrigued by the men who come to her mother’s establishment but who begins to suspect, and she becomes aware through some of her mother’s elite customers that she may not be completely American, although her mother has always told her she was.  After the visit of a Chinese artist, Violet begins to suspect he is her father and begins to recognize Chinese characteristics in herself.  She has always suspected that her mother doesn’t really love her and to her, this is verified when her mother learns her son, who was taken from her many years prior, is alive in San Francisco, and she immediately plans to travel there, supposedly with Violet, to find him.  An unscrupulous friend of her mother’s manages to separate the two the day of the passage and her mother sails without her. Violet is then kidnapped by agents of this man and sold to another courtesan establishment to undergo training as a virgin courtesan.

Like her mother before her, after some difficulty adjusting to this life and believing her mother is never going to return to rescue her, she becomes a well-known courtesan. In the meantime, she develops a loving relationship with an American man, and they “marry” (though he is married to someone in the States) and have a daughter, Flora. When her husband dies from the Spanish flu, and her husband’s real wife arrives, she is suddenly homeless and childless as they snatch away her daughter to be raised in a civil society back in New York.  From this point on, the book becomes dark with the terrors of being taken advantage of by a supposed poet, who takes her as his Second Wife and brings her to the village where his family lives. Her life becomes one of desperation and sadness as all she thinks about is escaping and finding Flora.

While she is in this village, we begin getting bits and pieces of her mother’s story, how she was living in San Francisco prior to the turn of the century and had met a Chinese artist and seduced him.  She later followed him back to Shanghai but he was unable to break the Chinese customs and she was abandoned by him and did not prevent his parents from stealing their son from her.  It’s this son she longs for that makes Violet think she doesn’t love her enough, though at the time neither knew about the son’s life in San Francisco.

Eventually, when Violet and her mother reconcile and her mother’s story is told, we learn about Flora’s life through Violet’s mother, who agrees to go to New York and observe to see if she is happy and healthy.  Three lives torn asunder by young peoples’ choices and family decisions based on culture and custom. We learn less about Flora, except that she is very smart, but a sad and unhappy child who was never loved in a conventional way that a parent should love.  She didn’t know the circumstances of her being in New York with her father’s family.

Tan is a fine writer and her characters are very well developed. The culture clashes and descriptions of Shanghai and the village were interesting. However, I felt like this book, even though the abandonment and secrets and mother themes tied it together, wasn’t wrapped well in that thread.  Flora’s situation was just one too many pieces to tie into it and I almost felt she was more of an afterthought, like Tan had decided last minute, we really need to have Violet lose yet one more person so she can share in her mother’s experience.  It wasn’t totally necessary.  It did have the saving grace of making all of Violet’s suffering tenable and gave a nice Hollywood ending to the story in one respect, but it just made the story too long for me and less believable.

The valley in the title is the painting that Violet’s mother had with her that had been painted by her Chinese husband and its presence in the book is a tangible object that connects all of the main characters. I found it a little distracting, except when it symbolized her father’s mediocrity. I’ve seen paintings like that!

I am sorry I cannot recommend the book and others may enjoy it far more than I did.  I would be curious to see others’ reactions to it.  I guess what I felt was that Amy Tan was relying on her reputation and hadn’t really been able to accomplish what she might have set out to do.

Owlcat’s CBR V Review #24 of Marmee & Louisa, the Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and her Mother by Eve Laplante

NPR thought this was one of the best books of 2012 and as a result, I had been long intending to read it, not only because of their recommendation and high praise, but also because, since my ‘tweens, I had been a huge fan of Louisa May Alcott, totally loving Little Women and Little Men, though not aware then of her other novels, nor her poetry that was mostly addressed to her parents.  Like most people, too, I had been under the assumption that much or most of her influence and encouragement came from her father.

I have to admit, however, that I disagree with NPR and, instead, found this book to be dry and written as if it were someone’s doctorate dissertation.  Laplante is a descendent of Louisa May Alcott and had access to her and her family member’s diaries, the ones that weren’t destroyed by the family as they approached death, and it’s her interpretations of these intimate works as well as historical documents and issues that she uses to establish her premise that LMA’s mother had influenced her more greatly than her father ever did.

She begins the book with a detailed account of her mother’s upbringing and the historic figures and events occurring around her – these followed the American Revolution before and after and life in Boston for the most part. Throughout her own life, the mother was thwarted by society and tradition in terms of education and access to independence and, though clearly an intelligent and creative woman, had great difficulty living under these circumstances.  That time period did not allow a woman to be much more than chattel and to be instead, subservient to her family and later her spouse.

According to Ms. Laplante, Bronson Alcott, LMA’s father, was incapable of viewing his effects on his family that his Utopian philosophies imposed on them.  He tried and failed at numerous conventional jobs as a teacher and when he attempted to establish his own schools;  at first he would do well but as his teachings became more radical, even the more liberal families would take their children out of his schools.  LMA’s mother did much to help with the teaching, supporting him through his various attempts, and eventually even becoming what would be considered a social worker (one of the few positions allowed to a woman) in order to help support the family.  His move to Concord and his establishment of his community there, Fruitlands, resulted in near starvation at times for his family and only through help from friends (including Ralph Waldo Emerson and other renowned philsophers) were they able to cope. Society would pity Mrs. Alcott and the children and would be critical of Bronson because he so often failed and abandoned his family for long tours through the country espousing his philosophy, but society wouldn’t allow Mrs. Alcott to do anything beyond the norm for those times.

Consequently, because she was always the present parent, when she realized LMA’s talents and determination, she seemed to vicariously push her into the direction of writing for a living.  Her health was somewhat fragile over time and LMA also was influenced by this, feeling her father was in many ways responsible for her condition, and it was up to her to help her mother and to give her what she needed to overcome everything she had endured with her father.

We see the early attempts at writing, Louisa’s choices to work in Boston as a governess (which she hated but found necessary to earn money), her brief nursing career during the Civil War, and gradually a sense of the disparity in the social norms that had become even more evident after the war.  In a sense, her mother’s greatest influence was her always sacrificing for her daughter(s) and finding ways to enhance their talents (another sister was an artist who eventually moved to Europe, where social norms were much more lenient), and giving Louisa a sense of permission to override the local norms as times changed.

As time passed, Louisa was afflicted with an apparent autoimmune disease (likely lupus) that would be debilitating at times, and which made writing and caring for her mother, her two great causes, extremely difficult, though she still managed both.  Again, I felt it was more the influence of her mother’s sacrificing everything that required her to do this.

The information in this book is interesting, to say the least.  I particularly enjoyed reading about the early childhood/teen period of her mother but got bogged down by the minute details, particularly around family members, that went beyond explaining Louisa’s mother’s upbringing.  I did learn some things; I hadn’t realized that the family tree on her mother’s side included John Hancock and other well-known Bostonian and colonial persons.  I also hadn’t been aware of the prevalence and importance of ministers within the family on both sides, including her mother’s brother, a prominent Unitarian minister, and that influence on both her mother and herself. Nor was I aware of her autoimmune illness and her stint nursing during the Civil War and the typhus she developed as a result. But again, though interesting, much of the information was not relevant to what I felt was the story being presented and like a dissertation that might lack enough pages, had been added to “pad” the book.  While reading the last few chapters, I began wondering if it would ever end!  I think it could have been half the length it was and we would still have enjoyed the information presented and recognized the connections Laplante was drawing.  I had the sense, too, that she was vilifying Bronson (understandable) but hadn’t enough information to develop the premise that Louisa’s mother was more influential than her father.  This was a very disappointing book, particularly in light of my admiration for Louisa May Alcott.

Owlcat’s CBR V Review #23 of The Misremembered Man by Christina McKenna

This novel takes place in rural Northern Ireland near Derry in 1974, with charming, well defined descriptions of the locale and way of life among the characters that contrast with the harsh realities of both the characters’ pasts and present situations.  This is one of the most quiet and poignant novels I have read in a long time, very different in its subject matter and characters. It moves somewhat slowly but in the process, it develops layer after layer of explanation around the characters’ development that makes their reactions to events around them and toward one another more clear than they might otherwise have been.

Jamie McCloone is a small time farmer who has resigned himself to a life of loneliness, but who realizes he wants and needs more to continue living. He has survived to date because he had experienced his uncle Mick’s love and care until his recent death. Now, to cope with both his loss and horrific memories from his childhood before he was adopted by Uncle Mick, he drinks rather heavily and uses Valium prescribed by his local doctor.  His only friends are the ever optimistic and cheerful couple, Rose and Paddy, who live down the road from him, and as much as he appreciates their help and attention, at the same time their life tends to reflect even more what he doesn’t have.  He tries to repress his history and its effects but too often, and particularly now that his benefactor has died, they overwhelm him.

Parallel to his story, we meet Lydia, who is also single and unhappy and lonely.  Although she did not experience the horrendous degradations Jamie experienced, her own childhood was lonely and sad, with no siblings and an oppressive mother and religiously authoritative father who was a minister.  They allowed nothing that might suggest she was her own person, although were willing to accept her becoming a teacher, something that was “respectable.”  After her father’s death, as the obliging, good daughter, she became her demanding and cynical mother’s caretaker and longed for the day when she would be free of this responsibility.

The story itself begins during one of Lydia’s summer breaks from school, when she is reflecting more on how unhappy she is.  Jamie is persuaded by his friends to list himself in the Lonely Hearts section of a local newspaper.  Lydia does the same at the encouragement of her one friend, the local librarian.  This process is addressed both humorously and sensitively by the author and her characters, and I like the course it takes originally, not smooth by any means and definitely realistic.

The most difficult part of this book was reading Jamie’s memories of his early childhood in a brutal Catholic orphanage, where he endured horrendous abuse, physical and sexual, by those who were supposed to be caring for him;  there, he had been known only by a number, 86. Had I not already been aware of Irish institutions such as the Magdalene asylums throughout Ireland (some of which were not closed until the 1990s), I would have thought the descriptions of his life there were dark fantasies from the author’s imaginations.  However, I know they aren’t, and therefore am very appreciative of the fact that she was able to describe his horrific life within the orphanage with enough detail for the reader to empathize and be shocked, but with limited graphic description so that it was bearable – though only just – to read.  His life there, however, accounted for many of his personality traits so was necessary to go into.  The author uses flashbacks, so the memories are not relentlessly long for us to endure, although I did find as I approached each that I was beginning to cringe and wonder how bad this next one would be.

When the two characters finally meet, they encounter a number of obstacles, and the reader begins to think their lives might not be any better for having taken the risks they take. The author, though, has made us so aware of their backgrounds that we understand why things happen and we accept the consequences each time.  The ending, which I will not reveal, is not necessarily a happy Hollywood ending but is satisfactory nevertheless and, in my opinion, the only way it could or should have ended.  Throughout the book, there are a couple of subtle hints, but I only guessed at the ending very near to it and then wasn’t entirely sure.

This is a story of intense loneliness, overcoming the past, developing love and connection, and the alternatives for ending a hopeless existence,  The author has managed to weave an interesting, believable story with humor and empathy and sympathy for her characters.  The Irish culture plays an integral part within the story, too, from that horrific childhood Jamie survived to the music, the social life in a pub, the farm and family traditions.  It was an interesting combination of everything.

I’ve had a difficult time writing this review because I felt the book and its emotions more than being able to put my finger on any one or number of aspects that made it “right.”  I just know that I would recommend it and would hope you feel the way I do after reading it.

(Disclosure:  I am of Irish ancestry and many of the elements within the story resonated with me as a result.  I don’t think, however, that you need have this background to enjoy it.)

Owlcat’s CBR V review #22 of The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith (JK Rowling)

I know there are some who dislike JK Rowling’s decision to discontinue writing Harry Potter books and/or not write other children’s books and, instead, turn her attention to writing the books that these aforementioned books are giving her the opportunity, i.e., in terms of money, to write.  I suspect, after reading this newest novel of hers, these adult books were the ones she was “meant” to write, but then again, I am not a fan of the Harry Potter books, having read only the first one.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is a detective mystery set in London.  There are actually two primary characters, a military veteran, Cormoran Strike, who wears a prosthetic leg, who has begun his own detective agency, and a temporary secretary, who has moved to London with her fiance and is in search of a well-paying job but forced to be a temp in the meantime.  The story is frequently told from each of these two characters’ perspectives, although the quirky detective is the prominent character, and they play off one another’s personality well.

Strike is hired by the adoptive brother of Lula Landry, a famous, young model, to disprove her suicide that he is convinced was a murder.  The questions for the detective are whether Lula Landry jumped from her apartment or was pushed and if the latter, who pushed her.  There is a long list of possible perpetrators, although through the story, some become victims themselves and thus are eliminated from his (and our) consideration.  He occasionally takes his secretary with him or has her doing errands once he realizes she is by far the smartest and able temporary secretary he has had and begins to pay her “under the table” to retain her services rather than have her return to the temp agency.  Their relationship never strays from employer/employee until one night when she helps him through a particularly inebriated episode, but even then, it develops into a respectful friendship and doesn’t dissolve into any sexual encounter that a less skillful author may have thought was necessary.

In fact, it’s Rowling’s skill developing her characters that is most impressive.  I like that they are normal people we might meet or see on the street without ever guessing what is beyond their exterior appearance.  She peels away their external protection and we meet complex people among all the characters, not just the primary ones, with all their insecurities and confidence and histories. This goes along with her great descriptions of locations and we see the worlds they are living in and investigating clearly and how they might compare.  There is some humor in the characters, particularly Cormoran, and particularly in his relationship with his ex-girlfriend and with his secretary, but the humor wasn’t contrived and felt very natural, the kind of humor people exhibit around each other.

Although I read this novel knowing who the author was (I’d heard it referred to after someone had disclosed she’d written it using a pseudonym), I quickly forgot it was written by Rowling and instead, was immersed in the stories and characters as presented.  Had I read it thinking the author was one Robert Galbraith, I’d have felt the same way I felt knowing otherwise. So for me, this book clearly had a life of its own and I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys detective stories.


Owlcat’s CBR V review #21 of The Light In the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is one of my favorite authors, so I always look forward to reading his newest novel.  Recently, he has occasionally drifted away from the New England locales of most of his novels, for which he has been criticized, although I continued to enjoy his stories like Skeletons At the Feast, with the theme of a defeated Germany in WWII,  and The Sandcastle Girls, with a theme of the Armenian genocide that few Americans know much about.  The latter was particularly good.  Therefore, when I read that The Light in the Ruins was another historically based novel, I did not expect that would be problematic for me.  However, although this was an interesting story and basically well written, somehow the author missed his mark and I came away from it feeling disappointed.

As is typical of many novels these days, there are parallel stories going on, with one story ultimately affecting the other.  In this case, Bohjalian is telling the story of a noble Italian family, the Rosatis, in Tuscany during WWII in 1943/44, who have for many years during the conflict managed to avoid and ignore the worst of it, until the war began turning against the Italian allies, Nazi Germany.  When Germany discards their facade of being allies with Italy and essentially become their occupier, and as a result there is conflict and turmoil within the Rosati family.  Two sons are in the Italian army, Marco in Sicily and Vittore in Florence. The assumption by their family is that they are in “safe” locations. Marco, however, experiences first hand, the Allies’ invasion of Italy and the real horrors of the war.  Vittore convinces himself he is protecting the Italian art world as he works with the Germans and their art thievery. At the villa, called Chimera, the remaining family refuses to recognize the reality of the war that they have so far been able to ignore, living with what they consider some minor inconveniences, and attempting to continue living as much as possible as they always have. They believed the family would be reunited when the war ended and they could resume their prior lives of comfort and wealth.  At the villa are Antonio Rosati, the patriarch of the family, his wife, his son Marco’s wife and two children, and his daughter Cristina.

Gradually, however, the war invades their quiet, “normal” lives. The Germans have intruded on them and neighbors and townspeople are beginning to resent the family’s having German guests at the villa, and become even more suspect when one of them and Cristina begin to fall in love begin to have a relationship. The Germans at the same time, begin to feel nothing but disdain for the family and the villa becomes a distortion of the safe haven it had once been for the family.

This story of the Rosati family is told through chapters that alternate with the story of monstrous murder in 1953 of two family members.  This part of the story is partially narrated by the murderer himself, though the reader has no idea who the murderer is.  I made several guesses and until the end, wasn’t even close.  The other part of this murder mystery focuses on Serafina Bettini, a female homicide detective who had previously been a partisan during the war.  She is badly scarred both physically and emotionally but a good detective, and the Rosati killings result in her own demons resurfacing, so this becomes a story within a story within a story.

As usual, Bohjalian’s characters are well developed, well defined, and each a dichotomy of good and bad.  In other words, they are normal people, if somewhat flawed, dealing with extraordinary circumstances. Even some of the Germans are portrayed with a conscience and conflict within, although some are portrayed as pure evil.  Everyone, including Rosatis themselves, as well as a number of the Germans and even the partisans, are forced by their situations as a result of the war to make choices that are nearly impossible to make.  A good author asks the reader to question themselves as to what they would do in a similar situation, and in this, Bohjalian hits his mark.

Overall, however, I came away from the story tired of the alternating chapters, feeling it was a contrived gimmick, and since the story was told within a 10-year span, don’t think it was a necessary tool to move it along.  A more linear approach would have worked better for me.  I also did not like the murder’s narration, which was generally at the beginning of several of the 1953 chapters;  I found it distracting and not particularly creative. I have noticed a tendency with Bohjalian, too, more recently to focus on the physical horrors within a story to the point that he is beginning to become too graphic and much less subtle than he has been over the years.  Reading this book would make me a little more hesitant to read his next one as a result.  So, I can’t really recommend it and feel badly that I can’t.  I am hoping he returns to his more insightful self-discovery stories and style, which he could still pursue with historical based novels, if those are his choice.  I’m hoping this book was more of an experiment to see what his readers would tolerate and/or enjoy.

Owlcat’s CBR V review #20 of Bedbugs by Ben H. Winters

After reading the first two books in Ben H. Winters’s The Last Policeman trilogy and awaiting the third book, I read the opening chapters of Bedbugs that was offered to readers at the end of the second book.  I was skeptical, partly because of the title, which caused shudders every time I read it, and partly because I knew it would be so different from the trilogy I’ve been reading that I assumed I might be disappointed. But I wasn’t disappointed at all and was quite happy that I did decide to read it. Bedbugs is both a mystery and a sinister psychological thriller.

When the main characters, Susan and Alex Wendt find a dream second-story apartment in Brooklyn Heights that they can afford, they can’t believe their luck.  The landlady is an elderly widow who appears eccentric but not menacing, and the handyman is an elderly gentleman who is a former school principal who occasionally makes comments that Susan in particular finds somewhat cryptic and disturbing.  Overall, however, she and her husband are happy with their choice and quickly move into the apartment, which affords them a separate room (finally) for their very young daughter, and a spare room that Susan assumes she will begin using as her artist’s studio;  she had quit working a year ago to pursue her art career, although had failed to do so and now saw this as incentive.

However, shortly after they move in, the bedbugs emerge, biting no one but Susan and in the process, a portrait she began painting of a previous tenant begins showing “bites” on her face as well.  Susan at first assumes she’s sleepwalking/sleeppainting, although doesn’t understand why.  She is high strung and obsessive by nature and now, as the landlady contends there are no bedbugs, she begins to obsess about them, seeing them when others don’t, scratching at bites that aren’t visible to others.  She begins obsessing about a murder that took place nearby, when a young mother dropped her twin daughters from the top of a building in their stroller to their deaths.  She begins thinking no one is taking her seriously about the bedbugs, although she and the elderly handyman do clean the room where her painting is, scrubbing it, and her husband relents and allows her to have a recommended exterminator come in to examine the apartment and fumigate if necessary.  Everything, however, indicates there are no bedbugs.  Meanwhile, she has scratched herself in so many places so destructively that her husband brings her to a psychiatrist, who diagnoses delusional parasitosis and prescribes Paxil.  She strongly believes he is wrong and without telling her husband, does not take the medication.  Her symptoms continue to worsen and everyone is at a loss about what to do.  She fires their nanny, who she decides brought the bedbugs into their apartment as a result of her promiscuous college behavior.  She sees everyone in a delusional, conspiratorial state.

She spends hours pursuing information on the Internet about bedbugs and finally comes across someone who wrote a book about “badbugs,” which scientists and psychologists have dismissed as the rantings of a delusional man.  She, however, begins to believe this is what she is experiencing, after recognizing all the symptoms of the infestation he writes about.

At this point, we are now in Stephen King territory, with the realization that maybe, despite all the normal signs within the story, she is somehow right in her appraisal of what is really going on.  She is still alone in this, however, and the tension and anguish, and in the end, the threats and fears, manifest themselves in carrying the story to its strong ending. There are elements that are similar to some of Stephen King’s writings and to older horror stories like Rosemary’s Baby, without the blood and gore of a slasher movie.  The story, even the bizarre parts of it, rely on the author’s obvious research into bedbugs, as well as the development of the characters and the tension among them and within themselves.  Everything is essentially believable and therein lies the pleasure of reading this, despite the inevitable “horror.”

I could have done without the illustrations of the bedbugs at the beginning of each chapter. I felt like I needed to brush them off and kill them!  They are creepy and this story was apparently written during all the hype of bedbug infestations within hotels, motels and homes, so it hits a raw nerve.  I had the desire to examine my bed linens and washing them in hot water and bleach by the time I finished the book.  I guess that attests to the realism … and his ability to feed into our normal fears and disturbances.  I do recommend this book if you can get beyond the bugs!

Owlcat’s CBR V review #19 of Countdown City (Last Policeman #2) by Ben H. Winters

Having read the first book in this trilogy of a pre-apocalyptic world, I was so eager to read the second book, Countdown City, I pre-ordered it and was thrilled when it arrived in July to my Kindle.

The story picks up from the previous book, now with only 77 days remaining before the asteroid’s impact in Southeast Asia. The main character, Hank Palace, has lost his job as a police detective with the Concord, NH, Police Department, the result of federalization throughout the country of security venues. The story begins when a former babysitter, who sat for him and his sister when they were little, asks his help to find her husband, who may or may not have gone “bucket list” like a lot of other people and has disappeared without telling her or anyone anything.  This is so out of character for him that his wife is absolutely sure there is much more to his leaving. With the loss of phones, cars, and other normal modern amenities, this is a task almost impossible to accomplish but he relies on his own intuition, as well as his sister, who in the previous book had joined a band of rebels who believe in true conspiracy mode that the U.S. government is not telling people everything and which is generally anarchist. He knows she may have a solution to finding this man through her various contacts, particularly the community that has taken over what used to be the University of New Hampshire. He and she travel there, he finds some answers, and pursues his quest to find the man who apparently is not the person his wife believed he was.

Consequently, he is thrown into several murderous scenarios, almost losing his own life in the process.  Throughout the book, however, because he is such a decent man with a high degree of integrity and determination, despite the world and society around him falling apart, he plows forth with finding answers, whether they are ones he or the wife want to hear.  He has his moments of doubt and many moments of fear and confusion when what had seemed black and white turns out to be grey.  He also discovers some of what his sister and others have told him about the government’s deceptions appear to be true, particularly regarding the “boat people” who travel in horrific conditions from the South Asian countries to the shores of this country, hoping for at least a minimal chance of survival when the asteroid hits by being as far away as they can be from its epicenter and within a country that has boundaries and morals.  He is dismayed and frustrated and angry but these emotions also feed his determination to accomplish the nearly impossible so he can bring some answers and “closure” to his former baby sitter.

In the process he nearly dies, though obviously the reader is aware that isn’t going to happen because there is a third book due within this trilogy.  As in the first book, the Hank’s character is intriguing and admirable, but has enough flaws of his own to make him believable.  Other characters within the story are well developed, likeable in some ways, dislikeable in others, just as in real life.  Winters has woven the story well, though to be honest, although I’ve seen from other reviews that many thought this book was better than the first, I preferred the first.  The plot in this story was slow to develop and the multitude of characters a little difficult to keep sorted.  The ending, however, was quite believable and again, throughout, the book makes the reader wonder how he or she would react under these circumstances, with the impending doom of an asteroid strike that will undoubtedly kill of most human beings throughout the world and which has already affected society in many unpleasant, negative ways.  It is a book worth reading for those questions alone, and now I truly look forward to the third book in the trilogy, though am not certain when it will be available.  When I finished this second book, I had wished I could just keep on reading to the end event!

Owlcat’s CBR5 review #18 of Timeline by Michael Crichton

This is an older book that Michael Crichton published in 1999 and frequently while reading it, I had the feeling I might have read it back then but wasn’t remembering characters or the storyline specifically.  But several times, I would feel, “I think I read this,” but not knowing (or remembering) anything about it, I continued on and the more I got into it, the less I felt like I had read it.  A friend suggested, when I mentioned this to her, that maybe I’d read too much Michael Crichton and that could well be the case.  I loved his books from his first publication, “The Andromeda Strain,” but gradually felt many were too similar in both characters and plots, namely the effects of time travel.  They were different in their locales but they had a formula to them of good people, bad people (especially those who want to exploit the benefits of science and time travel), well-meaning people, idealistic people, ruthless people, and people getting stuck in and at the mercy of the time period, etc.  There were frequently variations on the theme but the theme remained, and this book is included in all of these points.

The book opens with a mysterious seriously ill man whom a vacationing couple find wandering in the New Mexico desert.  When they bring him to a local hospital, his condition creates all kinds of unanswerable questions for both the medical personnel and the police, who are called in because of the unusual situation.  They learn he was a physicist and employee of ITC, a high tech company that on the surface is developing technological advances, though much is kept secret from the media and the public.  They are, however, funding historical and archeological research medieval towns in the Dordogne region of France, and the leader of the historical and archaeological team, Professor Johnston, goes to their New Mexico headquarters with suspicions about detailed knowledge of the site that the ITC staff who visit seem to have.

While he is gone, archaeologists at the site discover an anomaly that appears directly but impossibly linked to Professor Johnston, including a piece of parchment on which he appears to have asked them for help. This makes them question what has happened to him and what ITC really is doing.  Consequently, they fly to New Mexico and discover that ITC has been using quantum technology to travel to Dordogne in 1357 and that Professor Johnston did so but had not returned. Three of the researchers agree to go into time to retrieve him, knowing they are limited by a window of time;  if they and he are not at the transit pad within a specific amount of time, they will be forever in 1357. The fourth researcher, however, chooses not to go, distrusting, Doniger, the founder and the owner of ITC, as well as its technology, convinced they haven’t been told everything regarding the time travel, which according to ITC isn’t really time travel by multiverse travel (as opposed to universe) through quantum wormholes.  Gradually, too, Doniger reveals the evidence of “transcription errors,” which occur when people go back and return too often in time;  physical and mental issues develop, at first not too seriously but eventual become too dangerous for the traveler.

Naturally, the three who do go encounter the expected problems that all residents of that time period experience, and become victims of the war that is occurring there and the barbarism of the medieval way of life.  Included among these trials is the fact that their transit pad has been inadvertently destroyed by one of the military escorts from ITC when he tries to return to the present.  At this point, they attempt to blend in with the populace, which isn’t always feasible, despite their medieval clothing and earpieces that translate the archaic language, and which are communication devices among themselves, as well.  This is how they begin to realize there is someone among the warring factions who also has an earpiece and hears them and is determined to kill them to avoid detection; they don’t know why or how he is there, and are initially unaware of which knight or nobleman he might be, and unaware of the phenomenon of transcription errors that have affected him mentally.

Meanwhile, as they try to rescue the professor and keep themselves safe until they can use a ceramic piece they still have that can call a transit pad to them from the other side, they are unaware of that in the present, a huge explosion has occurred at ITC and they are trying desperately to repair the transit pads so when they are ready to transport back, they will be able to.  Toward the end of the book, there is tremendous suspense, typical of Crichton, within both stories – timing the repair on one side and the attempts of the three rescuers and the professor to be at the right place and time, while fighting for their lives.

What I liked about this story was the details Crichton included around the medieval way of life, not romanticizing it at all, although one of the characters, Marek, who has been totally immersed in medieval history for years, has romanticized it and is shocked when he realizes what a brutal society it was.  Still, he was the most prepared to endure, understand and accept it, which helps him as they try to negotiate their way through the war battles and their personal battles.  I didn’t like the detail that Crichton went into around quantum physics, because even when explaining it, it was so difficult to understand and at some point, I began thinking he was not really explaining it but justifying it as it applied to his story.  I wasn’t sure what was accurate and what wasn’t.

This was a fun and exciting book and if you like stories about time travel and particularly if you like history, you would enjoy it.  Crichton was very good at developing his characters and most acted the way you expect them to act from when you first meet them.  The story moved along well, except at times when ITC was being described, and I admit having a tendency to skim those parts.  I thought the physical landscape and architecture and lifestyle described of the medieval villages and castles were rich in detail and most of that was through the characters’ eyes and experiences, making it more digestible than the ITC-type descriptions.  Toward the end, I didn’t want to put the book down because I wanted to see what was going to happen with each of the characters trying to return and in that respect, was not at all dissatisfied.




Owlcat’s CBR5 review #17 of The German Suitcase by Greg Dinallo

I admit before reading this book, I had a strong bias toward books that are published only online, but the title and synopsis I read of this novel, plus the fact that Greg Dinallo, an author I am/was unfamiliar with, has published hard copy books in the past, I decided to take a chance on reading this.  Being an e-book only, the price was right, too.

The novel is actually two within one, with the primary story beginning when an advertising agent, Stacey Dutton, with a penchant for retrieving discarded goods for personal use, and thus having a goldmine of interesting furnishings, etc., finds a Steinbach suitcase discarded on a sidewalk behind a famous apartment building in New York City.  She retrieves it and immediately begins thinking of how it could be used in an advertising campaign that she and her company are about to embark upon with Steinbach & Company, who have produced high quality suitcases in Germany since the mid-19th century.  When approached with the idea of following the suitcase’s journey, including through the Holocaust, the CEO of Steinbach & Company, Sol Steinbach, is intrigued and excited about this approach. Questions are then asked:  who owned this suitcase? how did it come to be discarded in New York City and why? what is its connection to the Holocaust? and what is inside, as it is locked and things are clearly stored inside it.

After a lot of research, it appears the suitcase belonged to a prominent New York City orthopedist, Dr. Jacob Epstein, a Holocaust survivor as well, and the founder of a famous Jewish foundation that is involved in charity work and honoring, among others, Gentiles who helped save Jews during World War II.  He and his family are approached by the ad agency to engage in telling the story of the suitcase’s travels and in the process, honoring the Holocaust victims and survivors, which he agrees to do.

As the agency and he embark on this process, a young newspaper reporter, looking for the story of a lifetime that might guarantee his job at the newspaper for which he works and which is laying people off – and, incidentally,Stacey Dutton’s boyfriend – begins to suspect and unravel secrets surrounding the suitcase, Dr. Jacob Epstein, and another Holocaust victim (albeit Gentile), Max Klein.  His suspicions arise when he notes that there are two photographs of the same Auschwitz tattooed numbers on the arm of Dr. Epstein, and the two photos clearly show a different style of writing the numbers!

The second story within this novel is the history of the suitcase, but more, the history of the people involved in World War II, including Dr. Epstein himself, Max Klein, and others involved in helping Dr. Epstein and Max’s girlfriend, Eva, escape the SS and Gestapo after having originally been given waivers to practice at the hospital regardless of being Jews, needed because of the lack of German doctors.  The waivers are suddenly revoked, and their stories become a history of the fears, flights, and hiding, ultimately ending in the concentration camps for Dr. Epstein and fortunately for the girlfriend, in Italy, where her parents lived and which has not experienced the complete horrors of the rest of the European Jews.  The suitcase belonged to Max Klein and was given to Dr. Epstein at the beginning of his flight out of Germany and he managed to keep it with him throughout his incarcerations.

Meanwhile, Max Klein, who had to reluctantly become part of the SS to protect his own family, becomes the target of a particularly vengeful military officer because of his involvement with his Jewish girlfriend, Eva. He is sent to Dachau to work as a doctor on the ramps from the cattle cars and make the decisions of which Jewish prisoner went where, to a line that would send them to the gas chamber immediately, or to a line where they would become overworked and underfed slaves and die a slow death.  He tries to avoid this but cannot without jeopardizing his family, and so learns what other “good” German doctors learned at these ramps, how to shut down, make the choices, and then drown the memories in drink and sleep.

It is here at the ramp where he recognizes his best friend, Jake Epstein, who is transferred from Auschwitz to Dachau.  He rescues Jake by telling other doctors at the ramp that he and the accompanying doctors from Auschwitz have been sent to help with the prisoners’ suffering and dying from typhus, since they haven’t enough doctors at Dachau for this, and who cares if Jews die treating other Jews. Both Jake and their mutual doctor friend Hannah contract typhus in the process. From here, their relationship is complicated by various events, including the suspicions of Gestapo and SS officers and, eventually, the Allies arriving at the camp, which results in unrestricted vengeance by prisoners and some of the U.S. troops.

The stories in the present and the past are told alternately in every other chapter and at first, I thought this would be distracting, but I actually liked the style, partly because I didn’t have to wait until later in the book to learn how a specific present-day scene related to the past.  As the book went on, it became easier to figure out what had happened in the past, even before it’s revealed totally, but even so, that did not interfere with either part of the novel.

The characters, both past and present, were totally believable in their actions and reactions.  Those who had to make horrible choices were clearly fraught with ethic dilemmas throughout.  The moral dilemmas were evident in both the past and the present, when people had to choose the lesser of two evils and choose if not making a decision was the right decision to make.  At times, particularly among the modern characters, it was easy to dislike some of them, but then I would find myself realizing that they weren’t all bad and had consciences and were struggling just like most of us would.

The ending was not terribly surprising but it was satisfying, and I would recommend this book.  I also discovered that my bias toward publishing only as an e-book was totally unwarranted and that’s encouraging because it could mean more books for more people at lesser cost.  But I will definitely read some of Dinallo’s other books now.