Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #104: The Circle by Dave Eggers

I found this book to be one of the more terrifying books I’ve read this year, or any year, and as my final Double Cannonball review this year, I strongly urge everyone to read and discuss this book. The Circle is far from a literary masterpiece, but I believe it should be mandatory reading nonetheless.

Mae is a 20-something in a dead-end job but with a close childhood friend who has made it into the upper echelons of The Circle, the world’s largest and most powerful internet company which operates out of a luxurious and futuristic campus in California. Mae is brought on board through Annie, and rapidly rises in the ranks due to her willingness to re-shape her life to meet the needs of The Circle and to guarantee that her very ill father continues to get the medical care he needs courtesy of The Circle. She soon learns that the “Three Wise Men” who founded the Circle have an ultimate goal: to “complete” the Circle, which –stripped of the double-speak and mystery—translates to the social control of every living being on the planet under The Circle’s mantra of “democracy” and “transparency.” Every man, woman and child will ultimately wear a camera and/or a chip monitored by The Circle, so that their every movement can be observed at any time. Political and social leaders will become “transparent,” voting mandatory, extracurricular activities and opinions molded and refined, and so forth. This will end crime, say the Three Wise Men and their acolytes like Mae, while preventing disease, abuse, and corruption and fostering democracy, health, sharing, contentment.

Mae finds herself spending all of her days tweeting and posting and texting, taking thousands of surveys, signing umpteen digital petitions, growing her friends network, defining her product preferences, and spouting Circle mantra to her ever-expanding global audience as she is catapulted into the role of visible face of The Circle to an outside world rapidly becoming absorbed by The Circle. Her parents and former boyfriend are horrified by the loss of privacy and individuality that association with Mae and The Circle demands, but all those who warn against the accruing power of The Circle are met with internet-generated smear campaigns, scandals –and worse.

 I will admit that the encroachment of social media into every aspect of our lives and the way it has stupefied people—especially the younger generations—has me frightened for our future, but Eggers has done us all a tremendous service by taking us the next not-too-distant step into the world of The Circle, with all its Brave New World/1984-style implications.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #103: A Conspiracy of Faith by Jussi Adler-Olsen

Another great novel in the Department Q crime thriller series of this Danish author, with Detective Carl Morck and his side-kicks Assad and Rose up against a kidnapper and murderer. Adler-Olsen manages to convey the somewhat gloomy quality of the classic Nordic police procedural, but leavens it with unexpectedly quirky humor and personal side stories which capture the humanity of the victims as much as that of the dogged cops assigned to protect them.

This is not a classic who-done-it, as we are introduced to the scary psycho who has been operating with impunity for decades right at the beginning, but the author takes care to take us backwards in time and then forward to better understand the nature of the victims being chosen and the unique mania of the killer himself, as we follow the edge-of-our-seats hunt to catch him before he kills yet again. A victim himself of horrible abuse as a child, our villain is now preying on the fanatic religious sects to which his own horror of a father belonged. He infiltrates these sects, targets large families of means, seizes two of their children, and then demands a ransom, after which he kills one child and releases the other with the threat that he can take more of their children at any time if they pursue him. The families quickly hush up the incident, and due to the isolated nature of these sects, no one outside the family is alerted to the murderous deeds.

That is, until a bottle washes ashore with a barely legible note written in the blood of one of the children, begging for help. However, the bottle goes unheeded in the police station to which it has been brought for a decade, and when it is finally discovered, it falls to the Department Q of cold cases, headed by Morck, to pursue the almost non-existent clues.

The author uses multiple sub-plots to fill in the backstories on our characters, including that of the mysterious Assad and Rose who appear to have secret lives and which carry forward from one novel to the next. But one sub-plot surrounds that of the killer himself and, in fact, contains the key to his undoing (not really a spoiler: you didn’t think he got away with it, did you?). The climax is as dramatic as it should be, and the ending leaves just enough of a butterfly in the stomach to earn it an extra star.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #102: Storm Front by John Sandford

This is the latest of Sandford’s series centered around Minnesota’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension.  While the majority of the series is based on the adventures of Lucas Davenport, self-made video entrepreneur, millionaire, and cop supreme with the Bureau, this novel’s hero is the straight-talking Virgil Flowers, an unmarried 30s-something friend and co-worker of Davenport’s whose cowboy boots and long hair makes him look like a redneck but whose finely-tuned intellect and keen cop sense keep rising to the surface to help him catch the bad guys.

In Storm Front, however, it’s not obvious who the bad guys are. An apparently priceless Israeli relic which could turn biblical history—and thus history—on its head, has been snatched from a dig site and smuggled into the US, to Minnesota in fact, where it is made available to the highest bidder. The thief is a highly-respected minister and professor of archaeology named Elijah Jones, who is weeks away from death from colon cancer. Flowers gets paired with a tough Israeli female investigator who appears more Mossad than archaeologist, to track down the thief and get the stone back to Israel. But he wasn’t counting on shootings, kidnappings, false identities, Hezbollah thugs, dangerous killers, and a curvaceous scam artist named Ma Noble to all converge on the scene and muddy the waters.

Sandford’s writing is delightfully humorous and irreverent in all the right places and his characters are colorful, even if his plot is rather silly. Storm Front was a quick and rather forgettable, but a fun one.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #101: Jackdaws by Ken Follett

An exciting war-time drama about female British agents sent to France during the Nazi occupation, charged with blowing up a crucial telephone exchange the Nazis have set up in a bomb-proof French chateau. The women must disguise themselves as cleaners to gain access to the chateau, and are recruited from all walks of life—the British aristocracy, criminals, even a transvestite—and for all sorts of reasons, with but one goal: to survive long enough to sabotage the exchange and facilitate the success of the Normandy invasion. The process of their recruitment is less than credible, and the behavior of these “agents” sometimes stretches the imagination, but they are colorful and appealing enough as individual personalities to help us embrace them.

Pitted against the group’s fearless leader Felicity Clairet is a cold-blooded German intelligence officer with a special “talent” for interrogation and a dogged determination to capture Felicity and, through her, the entire French resistance. He is an interesting character, a master torturer and psychological manipulator with less of an investment in a Nazi victory than in his own career. His relationship with his French mistress is an evolving one, which also reveals his vulnerabilities, making him an interesting and worthy counterpoint to Felicity.

Jackdaws  is a great thriller with an exciting plot, a colorful and mostly believable cast of characters, enough romance thrown in to keep everyone happy, and a nail-biting climax  sure to please the most jaded among us. If there is a bit of stereotyping of some of the Nazis (the sadistic torturer, for example), there is also a bit of stereotyping of British intelligence, but neither is so heavy-handed as to ruin a good story. Not great literature, but a good spy story and a fun ride.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #100: The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harman

Author Patricia Harman treats us to a fabulous debut novel which combines the reality of the Great Depression, race relations and labor organizing in the 1930s, with the personal stories of characters so real that they practically leap off the pages. Simple but compelling narrative, authentic dialogue, evocative settings, and a flesh-and-blood heroine who needs no rescuing, combine to make this a top-notch piece of fiction deserving of a much broader audience than home-birth enthusiasts.

The story is the first-person account of Patience Murphy, who has fled her radical past in Pittsburg and a dark guilty secret of her own to end up in the impoverished coal town of Liberty, West Virginia, during the depths of the Great Depression.  The 36-year-old widow is working as a midwife of just a few years’ experience, living in an unheated cabin and surviving on garden vegetables and payment in the form of the occasional chicken, ham, and sometimes a dollar or two. Haunted by her past and fearful of exposure and arrest, Patience has shed her real name and lives in relative isolation with only her bicycle for transportation around town and to surrounding ethnic communities. Her only friend is the public health nurse who is afraid of the birth process; the only doctor in town won’t treat black people or those who cannot pay; and the midwife of the black community is in her eighties and ill.

Patience’s life changes when she reluctantly takes into her home and under her wing the tough young daughter of the local mine owner’s black maid. On the verge of bankruptcy, the desperate mine owner plans to throw Bitsy into the street, and when Patience comes to deliver his baby, she acquiesces to the mother’s plea to take her daughter and train her as a midwife’s assistant. Bitsy takes to it immediately, and in return, gives Patience access to the life she has kept at arm’s length until now. Her growing friendship with the black community through Bitsy catches the attention of the Ku Klux Klan, and warnings that she needs to be “careful” ratchet up the tension.

Pulling the novel  together, of course, are the marvelous stories of the births (not all of them happy ones) that Patience attends, and the exciting overlap between her medical knowledge, creativity and sheer grit that the midwife offers to her laboring mothers, the majority of whom are too impoverished—or the “wrong” color—to avail themselves of a hospital birth. As Patience expands her circle of clients and friends—including the local vet–we see her grow in confidence and move out of her self-imprisonment.

This is an inspiring tale, based on many of the true life experiences of the author, who worked as a midwife in West Virginia and on rural communes around the country for decades, and one suspects that the author has much of the same indomitable spirit as her heroine. We are the richer for it.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #99: The Northern Lights by Howard Norman

Sensitively and well-written “coming-of-age” story of life in the frozen lands of northern Manitoba, Canada, and yet somehow the book didn’t pull me in as I had hoped it would.  This is Norman’s debut novel, and he does a good job of conveying the ambience of small village life in the semi-wilds, and the compelling relationship between 14-year-old Noah and his best friend, the artistic and quirky Pelly.

Noah’s father is gone for long periods of time, mapping the interior of northern Canada, while his mother grits her teeth and maintains a sort of household in an old hunting lodge with Noah and Noah’s orphaned cousin Charlotte. Noah’s mother hates every moment of her isolation–and her husband for not noticing, or at least not caring—and hides her anxieties in fantasies about Noah’s ark. When things became too tense at home, Noah takes a mail plane over to Quill, 90 miles away, and stays with Pelly and his guardians, the strong silent Uncle Sam and his Cree wife Hettie. There, Noah experiences village life, gets to know the Cree culture which is partly nomadic and partly assimilated, and works at the small Hudson Pay outpost at the center of Quill’s social life.

All too soon, tragedy strikes, and Noah is left alone to deal with his tortured family life. When it becomes clear that Noah’s father isn’t coming home, his mom packs up and leaves for Toronto with Charlotte. Noah opts to stay with Sam and Hettie, partly for their sake and partly for his own, but ultimately he follows his mother to Toronto, where she has bought an old movie theater called Northern Lights.  Noah begins to put together a new life, but he is no longer the boy he once was.

The problem with this book, I feel, is that Norman’s characters are interesting but underdeveloped. We don’t know the backstories of Noah’s mother or father, or of Sam and Hettie, and why they ultimately do what they do and become who they are. Noah’s character doesn’t share what he is going through, and as we watch him move from one phase of his life to another, we are somehow left unengaged in his life and his future. When I put the book down, I stopped thinking about the story—and to me, that is not a sign of a good book that purports to be more.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #98: The Kiss by Danielle Steele

I’m sort of embarrassed to review this, but this was the only thing available to read on the recent long bus trip I took, and I am so close to my double Cannonball as the holidays descend,  so I bit the bullet—and got a bad case of tummy ache as a result. Who reads this stuff, anyway!?

In a nutshell, the emotionally-abused wife of a super-wealthy prick of a cold-blooded European banker has isolated herself by obsessively caring for her sickly son, and her only phone friend is the married but lonely American billionaire whose wife couldn’t be more of a stereotype—fun-loving, party-going, bed-hopping and bored with her politician husband. The phone friendship goes on for years behind their spouses’ backs and love quietly blooms across the transatlantic cables. When the two super-rich lonely hearts get a chance to spend a few secret —but “innocent”– days together doing art stuff in Paris, mad love ensues—only to be cut short when a horrible car accident mangles the two of them, leaving him broken in body and her damaged beyond repair and in a coma. Lo and behold, love conquers all—he calls her back from death during her trip down the “tunnel of light,” and recovers enough to lie next to her hospital bed and hold her hand and keep her tethered to life through their love for each other.

Next chapter, she goes home to her hateful husband to care for her slowly dying son, he divorces his wife but keeps her as a friend and confidante, and we have to plow through interminable debates with himself, his therapist, etc. about whether he can sustain an erection long enough for him to consider himself a man (!) and fight for his true love. He also doesn’t know if he’ll ever walk again, and how could he burden her with that, anyway? Well, the legs and the erection, not necessarily in that order — need I say more? In truth, any one of us could have written the ending to this bad soap opera—no mystery there. In fact, I would say that the real mystery is how Ms. Steele continues to find an audience for this stuff. I couldn’t even wring out a single tear over this, and I tried, believe me.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #97: The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

I am definitely of two minds about this book. On the one hand, I thought the premise was brilliant: a time-travelling serial killer who targets women when they are young girls with “shining” attributes—precocious, talented, ambitious, or just plain plucky—and comes back to kill them and snuff their glow decades later, always leaving behind mementos taken from a previous killing and, most importantly, from a different era, often the future! How do you catch a killer in the 90’s who is living in the ‘30s, or ‘50s, or whatever? One of his victims survives, however, and is determined to find him against all the odds, and the chase is on.

So, the story is set for some challenging writing and plot sequencing. And this is where Beukes fails. Each chapter slips back and forth in time, focusing either on the killer, his victims, or our traumatized but determined heroine and her journalist sidekick. It’s not that there isn’t some kind of sense to what Beukes writes, but it’s all over the place. The timeline shifts so often that it took a notepad and pen for me to keep track of who, what, when and where. And there is never an explanation of how the killer is time-traveling, except for some tenuous link to The House, which is a sinister portal to past, present and future squatting in the midst of one of the most wretched neighborhoods in Chicago. Okay, Beukes isn’t obliged to cross every “t” and dot every “I”, but this is a big plot point—the biggest, in fact—and a totally mystery from beginning to end. Left me frustrated!

Beukes does some lovely things with her story, particularly with her effort to flesh out all of her victims and give us their back stories. They are for the most part fascinating women, and their stories generally reflect the author’s thoughts on such social issues as race, male chauvinism, transgender, poverty, etc. She even makes a stab at giving us a little background on the killer himself, but that falls much flatter, and he remains for the most part a predictable psycho-killer who mutilated small animals as a child, who has delusions about his “mission,” and who wears a cliché rictus grin and an erection at the moment of the kill—and who just happened to luck out on finding a time-travelling portal through which to cover his tracks. What really put me off, though, were her all too lovingly detailed descriptions of each killing, from the sounds his knife made as it plunged through the necks, abdomens, and hearts of his victims, the obsession with looped intestines, the gushing blood, and so on. Enough already!

We know from the start how this novel will end, and it doesn’t disappoint. There are lots of thrills and chills along the way, and even some much needed light moments. What does disappoint is that Beukes had a gem of an idea, and just wasn’t able to polish it to a shine.

Valyruh #CBR5 Review #96: The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout

This is the latest novel by the author of Pulitzer Prize winner “Olive Kitteridge,” and it is simply beautiful. It deals with adult sibling relations in a profoundly poignant way, with no heroes or villains but just plain folks in their forties and fifties who are suddenly forced to deal with all the failures, regrets, jealousies, and secrets that most of us bring with us into adulthood.

The emotional scars each of us carries forward from our childhood can define who we become, and Jim Burgess and his younger twins Bob and Susan carry more than most. Susan is an embittered and alienated divorcee with a strangely silent and moody 19-year-old son. They have never left the Burgess’ small hometown of Shirley Falls in Maine, and Susan fears the outside world as unknowable . Her twin Bob is divorced with no children, a Legal Aid attorney who lives in a shabby apartment in New York City and slogs through life with a crust of self-loathing while coming off to all who know him as big-hearted, if somewhat goofy. Big brother Jim is a high-powered defense attorney with a reputation, who also lives in New York with his wealthy Connecticut-born wife Helen and three children all away at college. Susan and Bob worship their older brother who people seem to naturally adore, but Jim wants little to do with Susan and treats Bob as an annoying pet.

When Susan’s son Zach confesses to throwing a frozen pig’s head into a mosque where a growing Somali immigrant community worships in Shirley Falls, already rising racial tensions in the small town are stoked to fever pitch, and it looks like Zach is going to be made an example of by local, state and possibly federal authorities looking to use a hate crime case to score political points. Jim and Bob offer their support to Susan and Zach, but inter-family stresses begin to surface and ripple outward, dramatically changing the long-held dynamic of the Burgess siblings. Their story is told against the backdrop of small-time life in Maine versus the cosmopolitan setting of New York, with the counterpoint of life in war-torn Somalia and of its refugees forced to survive in foreign settings.

There are so many layers in this book, that it is impossible to capture them all in a review. Suffice it to say that Strout’s writing is exquisite, her character portrayals profoundly nuanced, and her multi-layered story a compelling read that will linger with you long after you turn the last page.

Valyruh’s #CBR5 Review #95: Never Go Back by Lee Child

The latest Jack Reacher novel is centered around a love interest! What?! Reacher hitchhikes his way from South Dakota to northern Virginia because the female Commanding Officer at the old military police unit he ran years earlier has an alluring “come hither” voice, and he just has to meet, dine and—he hopes—bed her. But when he arrives, not only does he discover that she has just been arrested for treason, but that he has not one, but two criminal complaints against him that could land him in military prison for a long time.Great set up, not so great follow up.

Reacher leaps into action, and rigs an implausible escape not only for himself, but for CO Susan Turner, and the two go on a cross-country run together while they try to figure out who’s out to get them, and why? Of course, they are a perfect match of intrepid, fearless, and dedicated, but we somehow know they won’t go off into the sunset together because what would author Child do for his next in the series? In the meanwhile, they have the army, the FBI, the local DC police and four military-like goons on their tail, but every close encounter ends with Reacher handing out broken arms, skulls, legs and fingers like candy, and adding another piece to the endless puzzle they are trying to solve.

The plot itself is ridiculous, [SPOILER HERE] involving a couple of old guys in the upper echelons of military intelligence running an opium den for rich old Washingtonians like themselves, but the repartee between Reacher and his lawyers, Reacher and his pursuers, Reacher and his possible daughter, and Reacher and his lady love almost make it worth slogging through this one. Almost. But not quite. The plot outline held lots of potential, but the story comes off as just plain silly. Note, this is from a die-hard Reacher fan!

Sorry Mr. Child, but it’s time for a reboot. Maybe you can foist this one off on Tom Cruise and call it payback for the terrible job he did with “Jack Reacher,” the movie.