nbmars

Reviews
More
The Lucy Variations

by

Lucy Beck-Moreau is a sixteen-year old piano prodigy from a musical family headed by her domineering grandfather, who manages their careers. Her ten-year-old brother Gus is currently the focus of the family’s attention, since Lucy abruptly walked off the stage in Prague before a performance eight months earlier. When Gus gets a new piano teacher, Will, whom Lucy finds attractive and charming, she starts to rethink her decision to stop playing. But Lucy is intimidated by her grandfather, who told her that when she quit that night, she quit forever.Discussion: A number of things didn’t gel for me in this book. The story centers around Lucy’s big meltdown in Prague, when she walked off the stage. What caused it however, as I saw it, was a totally unnecessary revelation by her father. I don’t see why he couldn’t have waited until after her upcoming performance, since he had already procrastinated about telling her. Moreover, ever since then, everyone blamed Lucy instead of the father. It didn't make sense to me.Secondly, Lucy is all over the place with inappropriate behavior; her constant crushes on older men, whether married or not, as well as her occasional irresponsible drinking, insouciance, vacillation, and self-centered view of the universe. Okay, she is 16 and she has been treated like “an entitled brat” (as her grandfather says) her whole life, but one might think the reason for presenting Lucy this way is to show her growth. In the end, however, she learns particular truths about particular persons, but overall? I didn’t see any epiphanies on her part about her personal behavior. The only thing she does seem to learn is the importance of choosing what she wants to do based on her own wants and needs and not those of her family. But that wasn't much of a stretch for Lucy; she was pretty self-oriented already.Finally, some of the plot threads were just dropped. They weren't critical, but why include them if they go nowhere?There are, however, positive aspects to the book, too, besides Zarr's great talent for teen dialogue and characterization. First of all, the title of the book is perfect - it couldn't have been better. I also liked how, whenever a chapter departed from the main theme to reveal a flashback, it was called Intermezzo. Finally, I appreciated the music list appended to the end of the book written by "Lucy."Evaluation: I’m a fan of Sara Zarr; I think she has great insight into the minds of teenaged girls and she writes well. But I didn’t like the main protagonist of this book much. Nor did I think that everything in the story fit or displayed the narrative arc one might have expected.
Angelology: A Novel

by

Angelology begins in Milton, NY at St. Rose Convent. Sister Evangeline is 23; she has been living there since she was 12, and took her vows at age 18. She works in the library, handling the correspondence. Her days have been fairly routine until now, but on the day the book opens, December 23, 1999, she receives a letter from a V.A. Verlaine, inquiring about a possible connection between a prior abbess of the convent and Abigail Aldrich Rockefeller, the famous (real-life) philanthropist of the arts.We quickly get enmeshed in a Dan Brown-sort of thriller, featuring theological mysteries that are derived from angelology, the study of angels and their presence on earth throughout history. We are reminded that the presence on earth of “Nephilim,” or half-angels, half-humans, was described at the beginning of the Bible, in Genesis 6:"The sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives of all which they chose,” and when “they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown.”As the story progresses we learn how the history of the Nephilim became interwoven with the myth of Orpheus, among other myths; all of these stories are purported in the book to have had a basis in fact. As one of the angelologists explains in a clever implied repost to positivists:"Whereas angels were once the epitome of beauty and goodness, now, in our time, they are irrelevant. Materialism and science have banished them to nonexistence, a sphere as indeterminate as purgatory. It used to be that humanity believed in angels implicitly, intuitively, not with our minds but with our very souls. Now we need proof. We need material, scientific data that will verify without a doubt their reality. Yet what a crisis would occur if the proof existed! What would happen, do you suppose, if the material existence of angels could be verified?”Since the publishers tell you on the blurbs and by virtue of the cover picture itself that the Nephilim exist, it won’t be spoilery to reveal that Evangeline and Vervaine get involved in a life-or-death struggle with these creatures, who are not interested in having their secrets uncovered. In fact, it is the Nephilim, so the angelologists contend, who promulgated atheism, so that people will not suspect the extent to which humans are not, in fact, free of the nefarious intervention of Nephilim into their affairs.This trope works well enough for most of the book, since there is enough similarity to the real world to make the story seem clever and entertaining. Toward the end though, a few sharks get jumped, in part, one supposes, to spur the reader on to read the next installment. Discussion: It was interesting to see how Trussoni based the plot on an extremely literal and anthropomorphic interpretation of the Bible. Of course, there are probably more competing interpretations of the Bible than there are actual people in the world. Nevertheless, when you opt for the Vengeful God and Evil Angels version of the Bible, it seems to me that you need to have your characters also account for divergence from metaphysical doctrines such as omnipotence (clearly not a Divine attribute in this series), forgiveness, redemption, and maybe the whole Sermon on the Mount. (Jesus and associated ethics of love and morality generally do not play a role in these two books. The author supplements mostly Old Testament passages with some from the Apocrypha and other non-canonical works, such as the Book of Enoch.)I do think Trussoni does a nice job with the theological arguments she does tackle, and the thriller aspect of the book is well-done.
The Forest of Hands and Teeth

by

Mary is a teenaged girl living in a small village surrounded by high fences to protect the inhabitants from the Unconsecrated, i.e., zombies. The villagers call the world outside the fence “The Forest of Hands and Teeth.” Growing up, Mary’s mother told Mary stories about a wider world, with tall buildings and even an ocean, but no one believes these tales except Mary. And when Mary’s mother is lost to the Unconsecrated, as had happened to her father, Mary’s world becomes even more restricted:"In my village an unmarried woman has three choices. She may live with her family; a man may speak for her, court her through the winter and marry her in the spring ceremonies; or she may join the Sisterhood.”Mary’s brother Jed blames Mary for their mother’s fate, so he refuses to take her in, and thus she is forced to join the Sisterhood. Unexpectedly though, she falls in love. The object of her feelings is already spoken for, however, and then, unexpectedly, a second boy speaks for her. (Females have no say in the matter.) Mary thinks her chances of finding happiness (not to mention the ocean) are gone forever. But things get even worse: the boundaries of the village are breached by the Unconsecrated, and those who can must find a way to escape.Discussion: The author lines up the usual YA Post-Apocalyptic/Dystopia suspects: a rebellious teen girl who narrates in the first person and who exhibits both bravery and idiocy; the inevitable triangle with two boys vying for her affections; an evil female adult who stymies the heroine’s attempts at freedom; and a host of bloody, slack-jawed, drooling and moaning Undead to act as the Greek Chorus.Does this one stand out from the rest of them? Not really, in my opinion. Mary, the main character, is a bit too self-centered and idiotic for my taste. The two boys of her triangle are both milquetoasts. World-building information is barebones, with background explanations non-existent.Was there anything to like? Well, I have to say my favorite part is that Mary and her group, running from the zombies, keep encountering Roman numerals, and can’t figure out what they mean or how they are ordered. I could so relate!
Tuesday's Gone: A Frieda Klein Novel (2)

by

This is the second book in the detective/psychological thriller series featuring psychotherapist Dr. Frieda Klein, who is the occasional collaborator of London Detective Chief Inspector Malcolm Karlsson. There is no romantic involvement between the two, although not for want of enthusiasm among readers for the match-up.When the story opens, a social worker discovers a mentally ill woman tending to a decaying corpse. The ill woman doesn’t seem to get that the man is dead, and so she isn’t the best witness to any possible crime that was committed. This sets up the need for Inspector Karlsson to call in Frieda.As the police try to discover the identity of the corpse, and why and how he ended up dead, there are two other stories running on the side, which seemingly are not connected. Meanwhile, Frieda continues to risk her life and limb so she can find out about all these other lives, while simultaneously avoiding investigation (by herself or others) into her own. The story ends with a hint that the crimes of “Monday” and “Tuesday” are not yet resolved.Discussion: The series has a psychological/thriller aspect to it, so it is a bit dark and perverse. A scary character from the first book is part of the second as well, although this didn’t strike me as realistic.There is something else about the series that is a bit odd. The characters don’t like to expose their interior lives, and because the narrator is not an omniscient one, I often feel as if I don’t really “know” the main protagonists. This keeps me at an emotional distance from them, and prevents me from caring about them as much as I might otherwise do. Somewhat humorously in a meta sense, the dead victim in this book is a con man whose identity is a mystery. How appropriate. The books in this series can be read independently, although Tuesday’s Gone definitely is closely related to Blue Monday, and the second book would be better understood if one approached the series from the beginning. (A series of eight books featuring Dr. Klein are planned.)Note: Nicci French is the pseudonym for the writing team of husband and wife Nicci Gerrard and Sean French.
Disgrace

by

For those of us who tore through Stieg Larsson and then Jo Nesbo, the desire for another Scandinavian crime novel writer to follow has been acute. I like what I have found so far with Jussi Adler-Olsen.The Absent One is the second book in Adler-Olsen's “Department Q” series featuring Copenhagen Deputy Detective Superintendent Carl Mørck. Carl heads a very small subunit in Homicide called Department Q, which was established to take a second look at cold cases. I didn’t read the first book in the series, but that unfortunate oversight on my part did not create a problem for me. As the story opens, Department Q is given a file detailing some grisly murders from 1987. The crimes committed that are the focus of this investigation are way over the top, as are the outrageously depraved characters who commit them. (We are told right at the beginning who they are and what they have done, so there are no spoilers involved in discussing them.) I almost didn’t keep reading because of the absurdity (or at least, I hope, the absurdity) of these evil characters.But Detective Mørck was appealing to me immediately, as was his most humorous sidekick Assad and the new department assistant Rose Knudsen. The focus of the story weaves back and forth between the gang of killers and the members of Department Q. By this process we get to know both groups. I should warn potential readers that one manifestation of the degeneracy of the villains involves cruelty to animals. If you are familiar with Flaubert's short story, "The Legend of Saint Julian the Hospitalier," the perpetrators may remind you of Saint Julian (prior to his repentance, that is).Tension builds as Department Q gets closer to exposing these miscreants, and they in turn get closer to making sure the members of Department Q aren't able to expose anything or anyone ever again.Discussion: I have to say I have rarely come across a more unlikely scenario, i.e., a non-dystopian society having in its top echelon a number of very, very sick people who are also rich and powerful movers and shakers. Surely in “real life” someone on their staffs would talk? Even given the greed that seems ubiquitous in this story, a tabloid newspaper or magazine would undoubtedly satisfy someone’s need for a payout. And could you even be so successful if you were so totally psycho? Well, I’m hoping it’s an unrealistic scenario! Nevertheless, it was a fast-paced, entertaining read.Evaluation: I really enjoyed getting to know Carl Mørck and his colleagues. The humor associated with this motley crew provided a nice break from the violence and tension-filled activities of the bad guys. I’ll be seeking out the next book in the series for sure!
The Affair: (Jack Reacher 16)

by

Fans of Lee Child may have wondered why Jack Reacher, Child’s popular protagonist, left the army. (Even in the first book in the series, Reacher was already an ex-Army M.P.) Child answers that question in The Affair, by going back in time to 1997 for the termination of Reacher’s military career, when Reacher was 36. Most of the action takes place near Fort Kelham, a fictional army ranger base in Northern Mississippi, where Reacher has been sent to make sure the army is not implicated in the murder of a beautiful young townie. The young lady in question, who happened to be Caucasion, was the victim of a grizzly throat slashing, just the sort of killing a well-trained army ranger might be able to accomplish. It then transpires that two other local beautiful women were recently killed in an identical modus operandi, but being black, their murders caused hardly a ripple. While in Mississippi, Reacher encounters some tough [but not nearly as tough as Reacher] Good Ol’ Boys, a beautiful ex-marine sheriff named Elizabeth Deveraux, and a sinister plot that extends high into the Pentagon. As one who has read Lee Child novels can expect, Reacher goes on to beat up the Good Ol’ Boys (six of them at one time), make passionate love to the ex-marine, and foil the sinister plot. In the process, the reader learns the extent of damage that (1) a freight train can do to a car; (2) a hunting knife can do to a throat; and (3) a well-timed head-butt can do to an unexpecting combatant. Child is an expert at describing macho wise-cracking, verbal intimidation, and hand-to-hand combat. He is awful at describing sex. Unlike most of his books, this one contains several sex scenes, none of which is erotic, all of which could have been truncated. During the first and most explicit sex scene, I kept wondering and asking myself, “When is he going to finish?!” That scene was probably more painful because I was listening to an audio book and could not easily skip to the dénouement. The reader of the audio version, Dick Hill, does a decent job of changing voices for the male characters; but when he indicates that a female is speaking, it is just painful. I’d have trouble being attracted to any woman who sounded like him even if she were gorgeous and intelligent. Nevertheless, when he sticks to his knitting, Child can be very good, and this book is no exception. Child knows how to withhold just enough information from the reader to keep one off balance without being too gimmicky. The plot is nicely complicated, and the action outside the bedroom is fast-paced and handled with aplomb. Child uses repetition of verbal themes very effectively. For example, when Reacher says, “I said nothing,” you can almost hear ominous theme music playing in the background. Evaluation: This isn’t the best Jack Reacher novel I’ve read, but it is not bad. Recommended for airport reading. Note: This is the 16th book in the Jack Reacher series. I listened to the unabridged audio version on 11 compact discs.(JAB)
Nelson: The Sword of Albion

by

Horatio Nelson, despite his early death at the age of 47 during the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars, remains the focus of much interest with good reason. The Battle of Trafalgar is still considered one of Britain’s greatest naval triumphs, and both Nelson’s life and the times in which he lived were quite fascinating, and justify the many books that tell their story.This is Sugden’s second book on Nelson; it only covers the last eight years of his life, from his return to Portsmouth -after over four years at sea - as “a half-blind, one-armed admiral,” to his death in 1805. Yet, in spite of the relatively narrow focus, this book has over 800 pages, full of remarkable detail. Sugden claims in his introduction that the amount of documents on Nelson is voluminous, and it is clear this is so from the day-by-day, sometimes hour-by-hour account of his life he is able to give. (We even get a blow-by-blow recital of the trajectory the bullet took that ended Nelson’s life.)For the record, Sugden doesn’t even mention that there is any controversy whatsoever about Nelson’s last words to his flag captain Thomas Hardy. Sugden has Nelson say “Kiss me, Hardy.” He thus gives no credence to the hopeful modern counter-theory [by those worried about a kiss between two men] that Nelson actually said “Kismet [fate] Hardy.” Discussion: Readers are provided with all sorts of fascinating details on armaments, training, food planning to avoid scurvy, methods used to keep up morale, and even information on how the navy dealt with dirty laundry. Sugden allows the reader to come to his or her own conclusions about what kind of man Horatio Nelson was. He shows us his extraordinary bravery, as well as his “cloying hunt for love and attention,” his “unquenchable thirst for glory and distinction” and susceptibility to flattery and attention. His domestic “affairs” in the double entendre sense take up a good portion of the story. Nelson seems to have been a great admiral, especially in the extent to which he pushed his men to achieve and excel, rewarded initiative, and made himself sympathetic and accessible. This is all the more remarkable, it seems to me, given his perfectionism and egotism.This is by no means a hagiography. Sugden argues, for example, that “Nelson’s tactics were the product of unusual and clear forethought, but they were not strokes of inspiration from a clear blue sky, nor, for that matter, were they entirely successful.” While he applauds Nelson’s open and constant communications with his crew and his management skills overall, he makes clear that Nelson was not so forthcoming or considerate in his personal life. Evaluation: Sugden is an excellent writer and his account maintains your interest the whole way through, but there is a question of whether it is either desirable or necessary to devote quite so much of one’s time to Nelson’s story. If however, one wants to know anything at all about this period in British naval history, this book is a superb way to find out.Note: The book has maps, illustrations, and a very helpful maritime glossary in the back.
The Lightness of Being: Mass, Ether, and the Unification of Forces

by

In 21st century physics, there is no such thing as truly empty space. What we envision as “empty” is a multiplicity of space-filling ethers or fields, where virtual particles pop in and out of existence. The theory of all that activity is called quantum chromodynamics, or QCD. Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Prize winning professor of physics at MIT and one of the developers of QCD, attempts to describe that arcane subject in The Lightness of Being. Wilczek tackles the profound issues of what is matter and from whence does mass arise. In the process, he introduces us to the details of the most current theories of particle physics. He tells us that the existence of many types of exotic particles was first predicted from the governing equations before those particles were ever observed in a laboratory. The actual equations from which the predictions followed are a bit too advanced for a book of this type. He tries to impart the importance to scientists of a unified field theory that could unite the four known forces found in nature into a single overarching set of equations. Alas, although significant progress along those lines has been made, we still lack a way of combining the force of gravity with the other three forces. Wilczek is a lucid writer with a deft sense of humor, and he avoids all but the simplest equations. His explanation of Einstein’s special theory of relativity is as terse and clear as I have read. Moreover, he provides the reader with a comprehensive glossary that itself would constitute a challenging and fairly thorough introduction to the subject. Nevertheless, the subject matter is TOUGH. I found the first eight chapters (out of 21) pretty easy to understand, but I started to get lost when the book delved into the combinetrics of quarks and gluons. (JAB)
Fuse

by

Note: There are big spoilers for the first book in this series, but none for this one.Before I started this book, I re-read the first book of the trilogy, Pure. As much as I loved the first book, I thought it was even better the second time through!As I said in my first review, Julianna Baggott’s gripping and stunningly imaginative dystopia immerses itself into world-building in a way that guarantees we understand the horrific results of the “detonations” that destroyed the world.This dark tale is full of characters who physically fused with their surroundings during the heat of the bombs. These were no ordinary bombs but nanotech-enhanced weapons that disrupted molecular structures. That means there are now people who are part bicycle, or flecked with glass, or even fused with one another. The heroine of the story, Pressia, was seven at the time of the detonations, and because she was holding a doll at the time, one of her hands now is the doll’s head.But not everyone is fused. Before the detonations, some citizens got to go inside the Dome, an experimental environment constructed to provide sustainable living in the event of nuclear or biological attacks or environmental disasters. Those inside survived intact, and are known by those outside the Dome as “Pures.” Those outside are known as “Wretches.”In Book One, Pressia, now 16, joins forces with a couple of other “Wretches” to escape the OSR – a vicious paramilitary organization that rules the outside. One of them is Bradwell, a handsome revolutionary who has birds fused to his back. El Capitan, or “Cap” is a former OSR agent who has his younger brother Helmud permanently around his back. And this motley group is improbably joined by a couple of escaped “Pures,” including Pressia’s half-brother Partridge and Lyda, the girl he loves.In Book Two, Baggott switches her focus from world-building to character-building. In addition to those we already know, another strong woman, Iralene, joins the cast. The characters are still struggling against evil, but they are also struggling with the subject of love. If you love someone, you can lose that someone. So is falling in love a sign of weakness or a sign of courage? And what about the people who are fused together? You can feel a deep love, but also a deep resentment because you can never be alone or have privacy or not have to take care of another. There is also the consideration of love as an idea - one of the characters loves the way it sounds to say “I love you” and the way it feels to think that you are someone “in love.” Two of the male characters share a different conception of love: love is what makes us become or want to become someone else for the other. Ironically, these two characters also come to love each other – it is the love of friendship, the love of having been through thick and thin together, and learning to rely on and trust one another.Partridge is in a particularly trying situation with respect to love, on all fronts. He knows that his father is the epitome of evil, and yet he is his father. At some level, he still craves parental love. And he also is unsure of who he loves romantically, or why.As far as what happens in Book Two, the characters are racing to find a way learn how to survive, in spite of growing obstacles. The surprises in this installment take the form of character developments we did not expect. They are better than they knew.Discussion: Baggott is very talented, and shows courage, I think, in writing dialogue that may not be “literary” but is so true to life you feel every squirm and wince and smile and tear that would accompany it. I love, for example, this scene between Pressia and Bradwell in Book One:"’So…,’ Pressia says.‘So?’‘Why did you come after me if it wasn’t for my grandfather?’‘You know why.’‘No I don’t. You tell me.’ They’re so close that she feels the heat of his body.”Great stuff!I also like Baggott’s commentary on the state of the world. In Book One, Bradwell and Patridge are talking about the cruelty and devastation of the detonations. Bradwell says:"You know what I think sometimes, Partridge? … I think we were already dying of superdiseases. The sanatoriums were full. Prisons were being converted to house the infected. The water was already shot through with oil. And if not that, there was plenty of ammo, uprisings in the cities. There was the corn-fed grief, the unbearable weight of pie fillings. We were choking on pollutants, radiation. Dying one charred lung at a time. Left to our own devices, we were shooting ourselves with holes, burning alone. Without the Detonations, we’d have dwindled and finally clubbed each other to bright bloody death. So they speeded that up, right? That’s all.”What a brilliant commentary. Note the phrase: “the unbearable weight of pie filings.” It’s worthy of Chabon: clever and loaded with multiple meaning; expressing an essay’s worth of arguments in just six words.I should note that the females in this book are exceptional. (So are the male characters, but that is more the norm, sad to say.) Baggott’s females are intelligent, fierce, resourceful, and capable of much more than we think when we first meet them. Perhaps the author is poking us for gender expectations, and making us aware of how we project presumptions onto characters based on their sex.Butterflies are a recurrent theme. They are lovely and fragile. They don’t even seem to have much of a “function.” Yet they still exist, despite everything. They fill the need for people to believe in something beautiful again.Evaluation: I think Baggott is brilliant, and her characters rich and warm. I want to take care of them all. But I think her females would look at me defiantly and say, “we can take of ourselves!”
The Time of My Life: A Novel

by

I have read a number of other books by this author, and enjoyed them. With this one, however, I could not even get through more than fifty or so pages. I had three main objections from the start. One is the protagonist. Not only is she vapid, but she keeps providing long narratives about her background and then saying, “Okay I lied.” I found that not only annoying, but unfair to the reader. Second, the concerns of the protagonist were a bit too inconsequential to me, in the worse “chick-lit” sort of manner. And last but most importantly, the central premise struck me as totally ridiculous. Ahern has used magical realism before, but this time she goes way beyond the limits for which I could suspend belief.
scribd