It’s all over and I’m standin’ pretty.

the passage

 

I enjoy post apocalypse fiction. There is something about the society and all its excesses breaking down and mankind being stripped to its bare essentials that appeals to me as a literary trope. The means in which the world ends is simply a MacGuffin, the device that propels the story forward and tells us what happens to mankind when it has to focus solely on survival. The Passage is similar in that regard, though the concept of a viral vampire apocalypse is intriguing. In the end it’s the story of what mankind is when boiled down to its essence.

As with most apocalypse stories, the government is the catalyst. After finding a vampire-like virus carried by Bolivian bats that can greatly extend life, the U.S. Government uses death row inmates as guinea pigs for a top secret military operation known as Project Noah. Things to horribly wrong as they must for this story to continue. A young girl named Amy Harper Bellafonte, who has also been infected with the virus escapes with an FBI agent and lives through the end of the world, also outliving her savior. The story then jumps forward approximately 93 years to a small outpost in California which has been cut off from the rest of the country for decades and encounters Amy by chance. Though they don’t realize it, Amy holds the key to ending the plague that has destroyed most of humanity.

Though this book hit many of the same plot points followed by books like The Stand and Swan Song, it still surprised me in quite a few places. At over 700 pages the book is long but rarely drags. No character is unimportant to the plot. The book ties up many loose ends in the conclusion but still leaves a nice cliffhanger for its sequel.

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“You left me alone but you’re still my own.”

pretty girls

 

The key to a good suspense/mystery novel is similar to that of a good horror film. The characters reactions to things have to be realistic and make sense. That doesn’t mean they have to necessarily be smart or follow basic common sense. It means they have to make sense given what we know about the character’s past experiences and personality. That way, when everything goes pear shaped, it feels like these things are being experienced by a real human and not merely a vessel to move the story forward. Pretty Girls hits the nail on the head. I hate to use a cliched term like “non-stop thrill ride,” but reading this book was a lot like riding a roller coaster. I found myself having to take a breather from this book every once in awhile because it got too intense.

Lydia and Claire are two sisters who have not spoken in twenty years. Their relationship slowly deteriorated after their sister Julia disappeared without a trace from her college campus one night. The incident destroyed their once happy family. As the book begins, Claire’s husband is killed in what appears to be a botched mugging. This sets in motion a series of events that throw the two sisters back together as are drawn deeper into the mystery, not only of her husband’s death but of their missing sister.

Aside from being a hell of a good mystery, this book depicts the emotional toll taken on a family when a child goes missing. It packed an emotional wallop throughout. I will give a warning for extremely graphic depictions of murder and rape. It’s rough material but given the themes of the book I don’t think it’s extraneous.

All I want is some truth

code name verity

This book took me awhile to really get into. It definitely wasn’t bad, it just didn’t suck me in the way I expected to. The description, a young female spy held prisoner and tortured by the Nazis, gave me a much different impression of what this book would be. At it’s core, Code Name Verity is the story of a powerful female friendship and what one friend will do to save another. It was only about midway through the book when the perspective shifted that I was unable to put this book down.

The first half of the book is told by “Queenie,” a British spy against the Nazis for the Allied Forces. At the beginning of the book she is being held in an old hotel in occupied France which the Nazis are using as a prison/interrogation center. She is being forced to write everything she knows about the British Defense and French Resistance forces. Queenie is writing everything down in the form of a novel in which she tells the story of her friendship with Maddie, a British pilot dropped her into occupied French territory before crashing her plane. After Queenie concludes her narrative, the story shifts to Maddie’s perspective. As is often the case, this mid-novel perspective shift completely turns everything we thought we knew on its head.

This is a spy story but it is also the story of two singular women thrown into a harrowing situation and using all of their wits and their talents to try and save one another. I had to put this book down and have myself a good cry at one point. The next time a literary snob tries to tell you that YA writing isn’t art, buy them a hard copy of this book and beat them soundly about the head and shoulders with it…or make them read it, whatever.

“Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.”

Kitchen Confidential

 

I did not have any exposure to Anthony Bourdain until his later television programs; The Layover and Parts Unknown. I have to say I much prefer the older more introspective and thoughtful version of Mr. Bourdain. That is not to say I didn’t enjoy his first book thoroughly. While the younger chef is certainly more brash, he’s still clearly a smart, engaging and thoughtful writer who does not shy away from sharing some of his lowest career moments with his readers.

Before Anthony Bordain was all over our televisions trying meats of questionable origin from all corners of the world, he was just a work-a-day chef in kitchens throughout the eastern seaboard. Kitchen Confidential is the story of his early years; how he first became a “foodie” during a family trip to France, his early years as an inexperienced but overly cocky young chef and his various ups and downs (including a heroin addiction) to become head chef at Les Halles in New York City. He also offers various tips on getting the most out of your fine dining experience. I’m not sure if his advice is still accurate seventeen years later, but this book made me want to do a Cook’s Tour of Manhattan.

I love food memoirs and “Kitchen Confidential” is definitely one of the most famous. While it didn’t make me want to be a chef like “My Life in France” made me want to move to Provence, it’s a solid, well written and fun memoir.

“Come ride with me through the veins of history”

the invasion of the tearling

 

Spoilers for Queen of the Tearling ahead!

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, I dove right into this book since I enjoyed the first one so much and I already owned it. (Yep, still kicking myself for not picking up the third!) Invasion of the Tearling deals with the consequences of Kelsea’s breaking of the treaty with the country of Mortmesne and the Red Queen. As the vastly superior Mort troops begin to invade the Tear Kelsea struggles with how to save her people, with her own growing anger in frustration that is manifesting itself in some truly horrifying ways, and with her visions of a woman named Lily who lived 300 years in Kelsea’s past.

I definitely enjoyed this book as much as the first one. Watching Kelsea’s past (which is our future) was very informative. I did find that the middle part of the book dragged a little but I often have this issue with books where an inevitable fate is approaching through most of the plot. Kelsea’s ultimate confrontation with the Red Queen in the end was extremely satisfying as well when she finally got her groove back at the book’s conclusion. While I still can’t wait to read the resolution in the third installment, I was okay with taking a break from the Tearling for a bit to read something else.

 

“I’m just like my country. I’m young and scrappy and hungry.”

QUEEN OF THE TEARLING

I don’t usually finish a book and then immediately pick up the sequel. Now usually that’s because I don’t yet own the sequel but also I tend to want a change of pace genre-wise. But in the case of The Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, I had to know what happened next. Fortunately, I had the first two books in the series already on my kindle (and I’m currently kicking myself for not picking up the third when I had the chance). The Tearling series is a fast paced, genre bending work of fiction that I can’t wait to finish.

Princess Kelsea Raleigh has been raised in exile by her foster parents. On her nineteenth birthday, her personal guard arrives to bring her to the royal Keep so that she can ascend to the throne. Unfortunately the kingdom Kelsea is inheriting is in shambles, beholden to the seemingly immortal Red Queen in the neighboring kingdom of Mortmesne. Kelsea has been told little of the state of her kingdom or her mother who sent her away as a baby before she arrives in the capital and she immediately upsets the order of things. In addition, most of the people in power would like to see her dead before she is even crowned.

Kelsea is no Mary Sue character. She is plain and a little frumpy. She is smart, but no genius. She is however well read and highly moral thanks to her upbringing. It is this above all that drives Kelsea through this first book in the series. Her actions make her some powerful enemies and could spell disaster for everyone in her kingdom but she must act against the evil that has a grip on her land. Ultimately, Kelsea must use her education and her moral code to prove to those around her that she is a better ruler than those that have been in power.

This book is a mashup of both fantasy and, as you discover when you read dystopian future fiction. Although not everything is explained in the first book, The Tearling is located on Earth, but not anywhere we have seen before. Part of the reason to keep reading is not just to find out what will happen but what *has* happened. I can’t recommend this book enough.

A well written disappointment

in cold blood

 

I have been a huge true crime fan since I first read Helter Skelter at 16 years old. I listen to the My Favorite Murder Podcast religiously. But somehow in over 20 years, I haven’t managed to read this book, which is a classic in the True Crime genre. I finally picked it up in a birthday book buying frenzy in May and read it shortly after. Objectively, I recognize Capote’s contribution to literature and that it is the first of what’s often referred to as the “non-fiction novel.” However I did not like this book nearly as much as I thought I would.

The story itself is compelling enough. On the night of November 15th 1959, Herbert Clutter, a prosperous Kansas farmer was murdered in his home along with three members of his family: His wife Bonnie and his teenage children Nancy and Kenyon. The family was extremely well liked and had almost no enemies. The town was shaken and on edge after the killings. The perpetrators, Dick Hickock and Perry Smith had never met the Clutters before the night they died. A former cellmate of Hickock’s had spoken of Mr. Clutters prosperity and mentioned a safe containing as much as $10,000 in his office. After six weeks, the murders were apprehended, tried and eventually executed. It’s the writing that I sometimes found to be troublesome. Capote quotes uses huge blocks of text from the killers to do some of the writing in the last half of the book. While their past is certainly compelling, Capote almost seems too sympathetic at times to these men who committed such heartless acts. I’m glad I read the book, but I can’t see re-reading it.

“If you had the time to lose, an open mind and time to choose.”

outlander

 

I avoided this book for years because I was told it was a romance novel and I have a prejudice against romance novels. Perhaps it was the seemingly endless supply of Harlequin books my mother seemed to devour. The closest I ever got was a minor obsession with V.C. Andrews which take a decidedly darker turn than the average “bodice ripper.” While I’m still not a fan of a straightforward romance novel, I have included books that fall under the “romance” umbrella into my TBR pile. This was the first and mostly like the most hefty in foray into the genre. The fact that there’s time travel, adventure and historical fiction definitely helped ease the transition.

For the five of y’all that haven’t read this book. It centers on Claire Randall, a combat nurse who is enjoying a late honeymoon in the Scottish Highlands with her husband Frank after the end of World War II. While wandering through the stone circle at Craigh na Dun, Claire places her hand on one of the stones and is transported back about 200 years. Her accent and strange attire immediately cast her under suspicion. Due to some complicated circumstances, Claire is forced to marry Jamie Fraser a Scottish Laird/outlaw who is, of course, also terribly handsome. Naturally the two begin to fall in love and of course there are complications. The main complication being a sadistic English Captain named Jack Randall, who is a distant relative of Claire’s husband Frank and bears an uncanny resemblance to him (this sounds ridiculous when I describe it but…it works). Jamie and Claire run afoul of him more than once with some pretty awful consequences for both of them.

This book is…looooong. I’m in favor of giant books but since I bought this one in Kindle bundle of the first 7 books in the series I had no way to gauge just how far I was in the actual book. So just when I thought things were wrapping up, a whole new section started. So while enjoyed the heck out of Claire and Jamie’s adventures (though the last half of the book may need a trigger warning), I was ready to be FINISHED by the time I got to the last page. I may save the sequel, Dragonfly in Amber for when I have a long stretch of reading time to invest.

Put on some lipstick and pull yourself together

the angry therapist

 

I’m of the opinion that in a perfect world, therapy would be treated like any other kind of health maintenance. Some of us only need to go once or twice a year to make sure everything is still functioning like it should, and others might need a little more frequent fine tuning. But until that magical time occurs, we Americans are pretty much on our own as far as mental health. While John Kim’s book is by no means a replacement for a good counselor, it’s a great little guidebook for the basics of living your life honestly and truthfully.

John Kim’s approach is honest, direct and to that point as the title suggests. This is a bare bones guide to living your truth. He shares his own failures with you, which makes his advice much easier to swallow for the average person. Despite the brevity of the book, I think an editor could have been used. It could do with a few more paragraph breaks and spell checks, but such are the perils of small publishers. Otherwise, The Angry Therapist is an eminently readable book that I immediately passed on to a friend.

“And how many times have I prayed, that I would get lost along the way.”

the gunslinger

 

Coincidentally, I started reading this book the day the movie trailer dropped. I first read The Gunslinger as a twelve year old who was blazing my way through Stephen King’s works. Like many preteens, I was overly fascinated with sex and violence but had no real appreciation of the consequences of either. I did not care for this book at the time. It was too abstract and had the feel of the old westerns that my dad and grandpa favored, which I studiously avoided as “old guy stuff.” As an adult, I recognize that The Gunslinger is a cut above Mr. King’s already excellent body of work.

The book’s universe seems to take place in a parallel or alternate timeline. Characters make reference to historical and pop cultural items that mirror our own but this world is an unforgiving wasteland in which, as the protagonist says “the world has moved on.” Roland of Gilead, the titular gunslinger trails a mysterious man in black across a barren landscape. Along the way he encounters a town that has been tainted by the man in black and later picks up a companion in the form a of a young boy named Jake Chambers. Along the way, we learn a little about both Jake and Roland as they travel together toward a fate of which they are both increasingly fearful.

This book was hard to put down. Like many of Stephen King’s best works, you know something horrible is going to happen but you can’t stop reading. I have already added the next two books in the series to my TBR pile. and made The Gunslinger part of my permanent book shelf rather than passing it on like I typically do with books I’ve finished. I’m glad I finally started filling in this gap in my Stephen King library.