Review Room

Book reviews and miscellanous thoughts

Book Review : Flying Shoes by Lisa Howorth

Written By: amodini - Aug• 27•14

Flying ShoesTitle : Flying Shoes
Author : Lisa Howorth
Genre : Contemporary
Publisher : Bloomsbury
Pages: 336
Publish Date : June 17, 2014
Source : Netgalley / Publisher ARC
Rating : 3/5

Mary Byrd Thornton has received an unsettling phone call from a reporter seeking details about her little brother’s unsolved murder. The police are apparently reopening this 30 year old cold case. Mary and her family have since moved on. She now lives in a small Mississippi town with her art-dealer husband Charles and two kids. Since the police want her and her family back for questioning – they apparently have new leads – she must go back for a meeting. An unexpected ice storm is moving into the area, and Mary, petrified air-traveler, must find some way of getting from Mississippi to Virginia in really bad weather.

That’s the beginning of the novel, and it hooks you right in. However, right after the introduction of the murder mystery, the novel sidetracks into full-blown description mode, detailing for us various eccentric characters in Mary’s life. There’s Mary, her husband, her kids, her husband’s old schoolmate Mann, who’s a rich chicken farmer of sorts. Then there’s Mary’s help, an African American lady called Evagreen, with whom Mary has an odd relationship. There are also other characters around town – an odd-job man called Teever, and Ernest with whom Mary has a semi-flirtatious relationship. All these characters are in the novel because they influence Mary’s life. All are well-drawn.

From the book blurb I was expecting a murder mystery, and while that is present it is given very little space, and appears almost like a backdrop against which the character descriptions are set. Lisa Howorth writes beautifully, and her writing flows. I was quite content to go along and listen to her descriptions. It took me a while to realize that the descriptions and the vignettes of Mary’s life formed the bulk of the book, and that was a little disappointing. This novel is not for those of you who expect a straight-forward crime thriller or police procedural. This isn’t one; rather it is a novel detailing the aftermath of a terrible tragedy and the plight of a family-member desperately seeking some form of closure.

Given Howorth’s obvious talent, this book should have been an absolute must-read, for the right kind of audience. Publicizing this book as a murder mystery (when it isn’t one) does it a disservice and places this book in the hands of the wrong audience – an audience whose expectations it won’t meet. That said, I have to give credit where credit is due, and it goes to the author for pouring her heart out on paper (the book is based on a true unsolved murder).

Even though this book doesn’t deliver on it’s blurb’s promise, this is a good read for all those folks who enjoy a well-written, exquisitely described story of healing and closure.

Wordless Wednesdays #34

Written By: amodini - Aug• 20•14

Gaudi's Casa Mila, Barcelona, Spain

Book Review : Lock In by John Scalzi

Written By: amodini - Aug• 13•14

Lock InTitle : Lock In
Author : John Scalzi
Genre : Sci-fi
Publisher : Tor
Pages: 336
Publish Date : August 26, 2014
Source : Netgalley / Publisher ARC
Rating : 4/5

Amazingly, I lover-of-all-that-is-hard-science-fiction hadn’t read John Scalzi before. I corrected that by reading “Lock In” who’s protagonist is a disease-inflicted human living his life with the help of an android body.

Chris Shane lives in a futuristic world where a contagious disease, dubbed Hadens, causes a “lock-in” among its victims. Hadens affects humans in different ways – most have little to no side effects, some are completely physically paralyzed  or “locked-in” with fully functioning brains, and the third category have their brains modified by the disease enabling them to become (if they choose) Integrators.

Since there is no cure, and Hadens takes a toll every year, technology has been developed to enable paralyzed Haden’s sufferer’s (also called Hadens) to live out their lives in a physical world via robot bodies called threeps. “Locked-in” Hadens also have another option should they wish to traverse the world physically – they can up-load into another human, an “Integrator”, and assume control of that body for a short period of time. Our hero Shane having experienced complete lock-in as a child, and now a newly appointed FBI agent, fulfills his work requirements via his high-end threep.

Shane is assigned to the Hadens crime unit with his senior partner Agent Leslie Vann, and when a mysterious murder involving a Hadens Integrator comes to light, Shane has his first case on the job.

Lock In is a murder mystery set in a futuristic world. There are political influences – there is a new law ending subsidies for all Hadens, causing much protests and action in the Hadens community – none of which endear them to the larger non-Hadens world. Then there are economic implications of this law, which give rise to a whole other set of problems. When a Hadens dies in such an environment, everyone is suspect.

While the murder mystery is well done and works on its own, I really enjoyed the novel because of the skill with which this futuristic world is constructed. Scalzi gives much thought to details and answers the how-what-why questions which come with this fictitious world, so the sci-fi part of the story is well-grounded (IMO, half-baked sci-fi settings cause many a could-have-been-great novel to sink). It was quite interesting having the first person point of view from Shane’s threep, a robotic body which is also an advanced computer letting him have advantages like built-in recording, instant database lookup etc. that ordinary humans don’t.

I also liked Scalzi’s characters. Chris Shane is a rich kid with a privileged upbringing. He doesn’t need to work for a living, but does so because he wants to. He keeps a balanced head on his threep and is generally good humored, patient and pretty sharp. It’s also kinda helpful that bullets just zing off his metallic alloy body :-) and that he can simply dial down his threep’s pain receptors, when in a potentially painful skirmish. Agent Vann has her problems but Vann and Shane work well together as a team.

This was a well-rounded sci-fi novel – just my kind of book. I enjoyed it very much and look forward to reading other Scalzi novels. Hopefully a sequel or series based on Team Shane-Vann too?

Book Review : Born Confused by Tanuja Desai Hidier

Written By: amodini - Aug• 06•14

Born ConfusedTitle : Born Confused
Author : Tanuja Desai Hidier
Genre : Mystery
Publisher : Scholastic
Pages: 512
Publish Date : July, 2003
Source : Netgalley / Publisher ARC
Rating : 3.5/5

I’m no teenager and generally try to keep away from Young Adult books, but I chose to read this one because of the familiar Indian strains in it. Born Confused (taken from the acronym ABCD – American Born Confused Desi) is told in first person by Dimple Rohitbhai Lala, an American teenager of Indian heritage. Dimple’s parents are Indian born, with strong ties to their roots and culture. They attempt to instill their cultural values in Dimple, but she at 17, is resistant, and wants to be true-blue American. However change is coming, in ways Dimple never imagined.

Born Confused touches on various finding yourself /coming of age issues, the angst of growing up, and yes – the obligatory romance. When Dimple first meets frumpy desi-boy Karsh, she is not impressed and says as much to her closest pal Gwyn. She realizes later that appearances can be deceptive, when she meets him later sans familial interference, at a desi party. As her own interest peaks, his cools, and she finds herself at the opposite end of her usual quandary: maybe she is not desi enough for him?

This book starts off pretty well – I liked Dimple and her wry sense of humor. She seemed reasonably grounded and an all-around nice person. Her angst and the questions in her mind were to be expected; the burden of preserving age-old heritage is heavy :-) . The story was predictable and ran the route of most coming-of-age novels, but it was pleasant enough and believable enough. Hidier does try to force a wide variety of issues into this one novel with the attendant cliches, but that again is par for the course, it being her first novel when the outpouring of feelings and emotions is generally unrestrained and makes it into print.

On the negative side, there were a few issues too. I was a little bemused to see Dimple’s parents pushing her towards a “suitable boy” at 17. I can understand her parents wanting her to understand and respect her culture, and preferably choose a partner from the same background, but this early? I just couldn’t imagine them pushing her towards a (serious ?) romantic relationship this young. Then I was a little surprised to see some of the activities Karsh thought suitable while hanging out. Also while I did like the fact that Hidier tries to give us an inside look at Dimple’s state of mind, at times the description meandered into pages and pages of juvenile-sounding introspection. Good editing might have transcribed this fulsome prose into reader-suitable words.

This is an interesting book for teens, although there is some content that may not meet parental approval, so I’d suggest reading it prior to buying it for a young one :-) .

Audiobook Review : The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Written By: amodini - Jul• 31•14

The Goldfinch: A Novel (Pulitzer Prize for Fiction)Title : The Goldfinch
Author : Donna Tartt
Genre : Contemporary
Narrators : David Pittu
Publisher : Hachette Audio
Listening Length : 32 hours 24 minutes
Source : Library
Rating : 4/5

The Goldfinch in print is 775 pages long. In audiobook form this comes in at a whopping 32 hours! The longest audiobook I’ve listened to before this is Rohinton Mistry’s A Fine Balance which was a long 24 hours, although so finely written that one didn’t quite notice the hours slip by. I listen to these audiobooks on my phone, and a 24 hour long audiobook is pretty large sized; my trusty little Samsung would take a minute or two just to start and stop the audio reading – so it’s not something I did thoughtlessly :-) . When I noticed the length of the Goldfinch, I shuddered to think of my poor phone struggling with the file size. Regardless I went ahead – because what’s a minute or two of load time when listening to a thing of beauty. Because thing of beauty it is – a long, long deliciously wrought and painstakingly explained thing of beauty.

Theodore Decker is our hero, and he’s only a boy of 13 at the beginning of this novel. When a tragedy leaves him an orphan he floats from one home to another, surviving childhood to grow up into an almost respectable member of society. However the mistakes of his youth have followed him into present day, demanding a high price.

That’s the nub of it really and the center of it all – Theo Decker’s rather colorfully varied life. Theo himself is not an unlikeable character. For a lot of the novel, he is a figure to be pitied, an orphan at the mercy of other adults. He is also the underdog as we see him struggle and sometimes succumb to situational pitfalls. But then there’s this other side to him, a desperate side hungering to fill the hole inside of him, not to picky about the means he chooses to fulfill this need.

I like Theo because Tartt sketches him so well, well-meaning but weak, striving to do the right thing, but getting side-tracked along the way; life is such a slippery slope. In my mind’s eye, Theo is a real person, so well has he been sketched. And not just him, the entire novel is proof of Tartt’s firm hold on her subject and story-line. She writes with such surety; her characters are rock-solid. You could come at them 10 different ways and they wouldn’t budge because they are who they are. We know them so well, that when they act, we just nod and go along with the flow.

As good as it was, I do think this tome of a book could have used some editing. In many places Tartt seems to go on and on, describing fairly esoteric experiences like Theo’s drug proclivities or descriptions of places and people. Normally I love description – a fulsome description helps the emotion sink in – but there has to be a balance and this book did not have it. If I had been reading these passages, my eyes would have glazed over. Since I was not reading but listening to it, I tended to drift off and lose the flow, only alighting back on earth when her ethereal description seemed to come back to the present point in the story. Not quite ideal – this drifting off, but there you have it.

The narrator David Pittu is exceptional. Consider that there are quite a few characters in this novel – Theo, his mother, the Barbour family, Theo’s friend Boris, furniture maker Hobart, and Theo’s lady loves – and Pittu gives each one an almost unique voice and style of speaking. Quite amazingly done!

Despite it’s length, this still remains a remarkable book. Recommended for people with the patience gene.

Audiobook Review : The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

Written By: amodini - Jul• 25•14

The Husband's SecretTitle : The Husband’s Secret
Author : Liane Moriarty
Genre : Contemporary
Narrators : Caroline Lee
Publisher : Penguin Audio
Listening Length : 13 hours and 44 min
Source : Library
Rating : 4.5/5

This is a story of three women. Cecilia Fitzpatrick is the Tupperware queen, managing her wholesome family and her flourishing business quite well. When she inadvertently finds a letter from her husband John-Paul, she opens it, and her well-settled world turns on its head. Tess O’ Leary is married to Will, and considers herself fortunate to have a good friend in Felicity. When Felicity and Will confess that they have fallen in love with each other, she is shocked and goes off with her little son Liam, to her mother’s home in Sydney where she has grown up. Here she meets old boyfriend Connor Whitby, and also Rachel Crowley, an acquaintance of her mother’s who has sunk inwardly into a depressive stupor after the death of her daughter 3 decades ago.

Cecilia, Tess and Rachel are the three vertices of this triangle. Each one’s life is going through the wringer, facing catastrophes so real and immediate that even a semblance of normality is unthinkable. Though them, Moriarty questions our beliefs on morality, grief and guilt and wonders if these ever come with any disclaimers.

The Husband’s Secret has a very interesting three-pronged plot line. On the surface these seem to be three totally separate stories, but of course, they are connected. Very tenuously at first, but as we go on, (and go on we do; we are but putty in Ms. Moriarty’s hands) things get much clearer. Moriarity weaves in the three stories in parallel, so we get to hear a little of Cecilia’s , then a little of Tess’s and then a little of Rachels’s. As the characters get into closer contact, we also get to hear of them from the the other two points of view – we see them as perceived by others. Moriarty takes her time telling her tale, squeezing out the tension to the last possible moment. Cecilia’s husbands secret, for example, is revealed fairly late in the novel and I was racing to get to that point.

I haven’t read Moriarty’s work before but it is quite obvious that she is right at home telling us about middle class Australian women faced with their very own Waterloos. I have to say that this book was extremely engrossing. I couldn’t wait to have a spare moment to listen to it. Moriarty writes in the third person and accomplishes what I’ve always though only writing in the first person could do – she gets you to dwell in the minds of her characters. Her characters are transparent to us, we see every frisson of worry that crosses their foreheads, every nagging thought that flits through. And her astute observations are interlaced with wit and humor. She has a knack for description, description so relevant, so detailed and immaculate that you can almost see the scene and the people in it.

While this exceptional book stands on its own merit, the jewel in the crown was Caroline Lee’s fabulous narration. Lee’s narration made the story come to life with her great Australian accents. I enjoyed this very much indeed. Highly recommended.

Wordless Wednesdays #33

Written By: amodini - Jul• 09•14

Interesting Building, Madrid

Audiobook Review : Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

Written By: amodini - Jul• 02•14

Fahrenheit 451Title : Fahrenheit 451
Author : Ray Bradbury

Genre : Dystopian
Narrators : Stephen Hoye
Publisher : Tantor Audio
Listening Length : 5 hrs 37 min
Source : Library
Rating : 2.5/5

Guy Montag is a fireman. In this future, firemen don’t extinguish fires, they start them. Books are banned. If they are found they are burnt along with the home they are found in. Society is placid and pleasure-seeking and discouraged from thinking too hard – fast cars, video walls and entertainment parlors are the rage these days. Montag finds himself rebelling against this dumbing-down after a conversation with his young, perceptive and questioning neighbor Clarisse, but has his awakening come too late?

This is one of the rare cases where I disliked the book and the narrator. I’d been wanting to read this book for so long, it being hailed as a classic and all, that I probably was expecting a bit too much from it. Even so, I found the book boring and tiresome, although I appreciated the lesson it underscored.

Bradbury wrote “Fahrenheit 451” in 1953, and then, told a story of a future which looks imminent now, as I read this in 2014. Everything around us is being dumbed down for the lowest common denominator and the shortest attention span. Pictures replace words. News becomes flaky and frivolous, and the television is really transforming into the idiot box. It is not too far to the entertainment parlors and the video walls described in the novel. Fahrenheit 451 is indeed to be commended for this interesting premise and train of thought.

However interesting the initial premise, the book had a sparse plot and laggard pace; I could probably sum up the entire book in a few sentences. The characters – Montag, his wife Mildred, his neighbor Clarisse and Montag’s captain Beatty are shallowly described, and we never quite get to know the kind of people they really are. Besides that, I found the language and the (archaic?) phrasing quite tiresome.

This was narrated by Stephen Hoye, and he has a peculiar style to his voice (like a snooty British-German butler on too much wine), which remains regardless of the character he’s portraying. That, along with the sing-song lilt in his tone made it quite tempting to give up this listen midway but I stuck on because this book has classic status and because it is a fairly short audiobook. I’m glad it’s over though.

Wordless Wednesdays #32

Written By: amodini - Jun• 25•14

Gran Via, Madrid, Spain

Audiobook Review : Everything Changes by Jonathan Tropper

Written By: amodini - Jun• 18•14

Everything Changes: A NovelTitle : Everything Changes
Author : Jonathan Tropper
Genre : Contemporary
Narrators : Scott Brick
Publisher : Books on Tape
Listening Length : 10 hrs 8 min
Source : Library
Rating : 4/5

Everything Changes is told in the first person by our hero, Zachary King, a young executive in a supply chain company. Zach thinks of himself as a glorified middleman and hates his job, but does not have the guts to break out of his comfortable niche. He has two brothers, angst-filled musician Matt and autistic Peter. Peter lives with their mother Lela, their never-do-well father Norman having been out of touch with their family after the divorce. Zach is also engaged to the lovely and rich Hope, but in his heart of hearts finds he has feelings for Tamara, his best friend Rael’s widow. When Zach gives us a short introduction to his family and his life, he has no idea that his world is about to be upended very soon.

What we are treated to then, is a blow by blow account of this unraveling. When Zach’s father, whom he doesn’t address as dad but as Norm, returns, we expect upheaval. Norm has made a career of running away from his responsibilities. And Zach has lived through Norm’s many betrayals braving the worst along with his mother, and taking the brunt of it trying to shield his younger brothers. Understandably he has strong feelings, none of them polite, where Norm is concerned. Then there is the small matter of his tiresome job, and his upcoming engagement to a woman he’s not wholly committed to.

Now this summary of things might leave you cold; Zach is not, after all, facing anything really dire – he lives a comfortable life with a cushy job and blue-blooded fiancee who dotes on him. Still his life is interesting – I have it to commend Tropper’s skill – and beautifully built-up.

Zach feels like a real person with the hundred different thoughts in his head, his neuroses and worries. While I find him a bit of whiner, much like all of us, shirking the right way in favor of the easy road, he isn’t really a bad guy, and I find myself sympathetic to his plight. All the characters are sketched from Zach’s point of view, and delineated believably – you get a feel for the good guys and the bad guys – not that there are any clear cut bad guys; it is just like in life, there are just lazy, unthinking, selfish people who leave the innocent ones to clean up their messes.

The book is narrated by Scott Brick, and he does a fantastic job of it. Upswelling emotion where required, and great story-telling otherwise. His reading added to the pleasure of this well-written book.

Everything Changes stays with you, much after the read/listen. It is a heart-warming tale of family and supporting the ones you love, in good circumstances and bad. It might seem dour at times, but it is also moving and funny and witty and feel-good. Highly recommended.