The Pearl Sister, by Lucinda Riley**

ThePearlSisterI was invited to read and review this title, and I thank Net Galley and Atria for thinking of me. Sadly, though I tried more than once, I just couldn’t engage with the story. I couldn’t put my finger on it; whereas the character development could do with a little boost, generally a series mystery can inspire at minimum a 3 or 4 star review from me. What is it that stands in the way now?

Had I not been distracted by a major household disaster, I would have realized it sooner. The premise itself is a disturbing one to me. The sisters are all adopted children that were sought out by a now-deceased, very wealthy man, who wanted a child for each continent. No, wait. A daughter from each continent.

How do children become tchotchkes? What gives any adult a right to treat orphans like collector’s items?

Props to Riley for her resonant settings and for developing a dedicated readership. The fact that the series has developed such high reviews tells me that there are a great many people that genuinely admire this series and look forward to the next before it’s available. But try though I might, I don’t see it that way, and I cannot provide a review based on what other readers think.

For those that are already among Riley’s readers, here it is, another one. But for me? Not so much.

Need to Know, by Karen Cleveland***

NeedtoKnow

“My God, Vivian, what’s it going to take for you to trust me?”

 Need to Know is an espionage thriller written by a former CIA analyst. I read it free and early thanks to Random House and Net Galley. This book will be available to the public on Tuesday, January 23, 2018.

Our story is told in the first person by Vivian Miller, a CIA analyst with a mortgage to meet and four small children. In the course of her research she comes across the identity of someone she knows and then the whole house starts to tumble, as she makes one bad decision after another, punctuated with the occasional wise choice to heighten suspense.  Around the sixty percentile I found myself reading it for giggles as it becomes increasingly clear that our protagonist is as dumb as a box of rocks.

With this in mind, I have devised a drinking game for rowdy book clubs that meet in real life. Here are some ideas:

  • Take a drink every time Vivian refers to Matt as her “rock”.
  • Take two drinks every time she refers to Matt as their children’s “rock”.
  • Take a drink every time you run across the word “ringleader”.
  • Spin around three times and take a drink for every rhetorical question you find in the narrative.
  • Take a drink for every stereotype you see.

 

Spoiler alert (*snerk*): you may want to clear your calendar the day after your book club meets, because it’s going to be a rough one.

Now I understand that there may be abstainers in your drinking book club, patient souls that either really like the people in your club, or that can’t find a book club made up of tea-totters. For those people I have special instructions:

  • Take a drink when you find a well developed character.
  • Take a drink when you find a positive female role model .

 

Another spoiler alert: provide this second group of people with water, because otherwise they are going home thirsty.

I can also recommend this title to women that are newly divorced, mad as hell, and looking for something to throw. For these ladies, I recommend obtaining a hard copy, because you won’t want to ruin your expensive electronic devices. Before commencing with this title, remove pictures, monitors, and china from the wall where you’ll be reading. Broken glass is nobody’s idea of a fun Tuesday night.

“They’re good, the Russians.”

Newly divorced, mad-as-hell, book-throwing women that have recently divorced a Russian man may even want to pre-order a copy. I’d do that right now if I were you.

Купить книгу.

Sub Rosa, by Stewart Alsop and Thomas Braden**

subrosaI was invited to read and review this title by Net Galley and Open Road Media. At first I thought it looked like a real winner, and in many respects it is. For me, one glaring problem made it impossible to finish; more on that in a minute. For those interested in the Resistance during World War II, this may prove a successful read and an interesting one if you can get past the hurdle that stopped me.

And now, the rant: Why is it—I ask for perhaps the tenth time—that publishers that would never, ever dream of letting literature that gratuitously uses the “N” word,  and rightfully so, nevertheless let anti-Asian slurs drift in and out of historical prose as if they are nothing more than period details? Yes, it’s true that in World War II, Japanese were called some ugly things, and inexplicably, so were Chinese, though they were friendly toward the US. And it’s also true that there are Black men in the US military that were referred to by ugly, racist epithets by Caucasians at all levels of command. We don’t reprint the nasty words used with regard to African-American troops, because those words are hurtful, and the use of them is wrong. In fact, it may be considered a hate crime.

So then…why is it any less urgent that anti-Asian insults be expunged from literature?

If I had seen just one or two instances in this work, I would have included a comment to that effect here and move forward with a description of the book itself. And it’s true that there is solid information provided by specialists here, along with meaty anecdotes. It’s not easy to find accessible books that describe the Resistance in a knowledgeable way, and this book does that. In fact, without the vile language incorporated here without recognition or comment on the part of the authors or the publisher, I would probably rate this at five stars. But it’s hard to be certain because when I hit the page where 5 slurs appeared on one page of my Kindle—at about the 40% mark—I gave up.

Yo, Open Road. I love that you folks were among the first to auto-approve me when I was a brand new blogger, and I have been looking for a chance to pay you back with a five star review. And we almost had that here. But you need to do whatever it is that publishers do when they find offensive terms sprinkled throughout the text of an otherwise worthy book for no good reason. If you can’t do that, I can’t praise your historical works.

For Asians—some 6 million in the USA, according to the most recent Census—for those that love Asians and hate racism, this book is not recommended.

Sting Like a Bee, by Leigh Montville**

stinglikeabee“’It takes a lot of nerve for somebody, mainly a white, to ask me do I hate. I haven’t lynched nobody and hid in the bushes.’”

I received an advance copy free from Net Galley and Doubleday in exchange for this honest review. The book is now available for purchase.

Muhammad Ali died of Parkinson’s disease one year ago. By the time of his passing, he had earned the respect and recognition he craved. In this popular biography, Montville gives an overview of his rise to fame, but focuses primarily on Ali’s legal challenge to the US government, which strove to draft him to fight in Vietnam despite his professed status as a conscientious objector.

During the 1960s and 1970s, almost all of Caucasian America and a goodly number of African-Americans regarded Ali’s public statements either with derision or fear. Born Cassius Clay, he joined the Nation of Islam as a young adult and changed his name in the same way Malcolm X had before him. He did it in order to shuck the slave name given him at birth and adopt a new religion that taught him that Black men were not only equal to white folks, but better. Malcolm X had advocated Black pride and scared a lot of people, but he had done it from the point of view of a political activist. Ali was the first Black athlete to stand up tall and tell all of America that he was the greatest. The descendants of slave owners that willingly or not bore the guilt of the oppressors were absolutely terrified. This was the fear they seldom made themselves face, the notion that the descendants of those so grievously wronged might rise up belatedly and give back some of what their ancestors had been dealt. I was there; I remember.

Ali personified the white man’s fear of the jungle. Dude, here he comes; he’s strong, he’s angry, and he’s free!

Montville recognizes up front that when Ali died, he was an icon, both as an athlete and as a civil rights advocate. But the tone of his prose shifts from a more or less neutral journalistic tone, to a wry one—because Ali did say some outrageous things by anyone’s standard—and then, again and again, to a derisive one. The first time I saw it, I told myself I was tired and grumpy, and that I was probably being overly sensitive. My own family is racially mixed; I have raised a Black son. Sometimes I get touchy when I read things written by white authors about Black people. I should put the book down and examine it tomorrow with fresh eyes.

When I picked it up the next time I was immediately taken with the writer’s skill. His pacing is impeccable. Some of the quotes he chose are really delicious ones, although with Ali, it’s also kind of hard to go wrong. And at this point I considered that since we were on a roll, I should take the next step and examine the end notes and documentation.

Huh. Apart from a list of sources, most of which are biographies written by other people, there’s nothing. There are the in-text references a popular biographer uses, telling us, for example, that a direct quote comes from the magazine Sports Illustrated, without telling us what issue or who wrote it. And to be fair, that’s how a popular biography is written. It’s there for the masses that love boxing and aren’t going to check your footnotes. Everything within my academic heart recoils at this kind of biography, but it sells. I may not like it much, but people will buy it and they’ll read it.

But to write about a legal challenge of this magnitude and not provide specific documentation?
I could mention this within a review—as I have—and say that given this particular caveat, the biography is a four star read, and I thought that I might do that. But when I continued reading, there it was again. The author makes fun of the guy. And so just before the halfway mark, I started making careful notes of my own, because I wanted to see for myself how it is possible for a writer to appear to be neutral much of the time and yet also mock his subject. What I came away with is that the more straight-forward, respectful material is buried in the middle of each section, but the briefer sneering, snide material is usually right at the end of the section in one sentence, set apart from everything that came before it.

Writers do this for emphasis.

Fans of Ali will have to swallow hard to make it through this biography. Fans of boxing will find that it’s mostly about the legal challenge, and although Ali’s boxing matches are included, you’ll find a lot more about those in any one of the numerous other Ali biographies published earlier. And those interested in his legal fight may want to hold out for a more scholarly treatment.

When all is said and done, Ali was the greatest, but this biography is not.

Ill Will, by Dan Chaon**

IllWillThe good news is that if you’re looking for something dark, then Chaon is your author. I received a copy free and in advance in exchange for an honest review; thank you Net Galley and Random House Ballantine. This book was released today and is available to the public.

The plot centers around a psychologist, recently widowed, who’s coming unstuck. One of his sons has developed an ugly drug habit right under his distracted father’s nose, but his dad just keeps giving him money and doesn’t ask questions. At the same time, the psychologist’s brother, who was sentenced to two life terms for the murders of their parents, aunt, and uncle, is exonerated when DNA analysis is done.  Simultaneously a patient of Dan’s comes to him with questions about a series of drowning of drunken college boys that he says he believes are linked. At first, Dan assumes these are paranoid ramblings, but over the course of time, the patient begins to assume greater and still greater importance in Dan’s life, until the reader begins to wonder which of the characters is the psychologist and which is the patient.

The quality of the prose is surreal and at times, dreamlike.

Every reader has a threshold for the level of violence he or she can sustain before a book ceases to be deliciously creepy and instead becomes a thing we wish we never read. I knew when I hit the term “snuff film” before the twenty percent mark that I might be in trouble, but it was a passing reference and since I had an obligation to the author and publisher, I brushed it off and kept reading.  I read multiple books at a time, usually half a dozen or so, and I found that this book was the one that I just didn’t want to read. With the publication date upon me, I forced myself through to the end, and have been slightly queasy ever since.

I didn’t have any fun here; it was just too disturbing.

I want to be fair, and so I read carefully in order to see whether there are any clever literary nuances that might improve my rating, and the second star is included here because of some interesting and innovative stylistic tools that are employed. I liked the triple narrative that appears to be taking place simultaneously, and am interested in the business employed with sentence endings that begins with the father and ends with someone else.

The story’s ending is both unpleasant and disappointing, in that it doesn’t present any sort of epiphany or surprise. My reaction to the end of this whole unfortunate thing is, “Oh.”

None of this means that you won’t like this story. There’s a lot of buzz right now about the now discredited belief in Satanic rituals that were in the news during the 1980s, and if this is in your wheelhouse, maybe you’ll like the book. If your tastes run way out on the edge of horror, you might find it more appealing than I do. On the other hand, it won’t make the ending any less anticlimactic.

Recommended to those interested in extreme horror stories and with a bottomless wallet, or that can read it free or cheaply.

Killers of the Flower Moon**

killersoftheflowermoon I received this book free from Net Galley, courtesy of Doubleday, in exchange for an honest review. It looked like a fascinating read, but I am disturbed by the sources chosen, which sent up all sorts of red flags right from the get-go and before I had even focused on the references themselves, a due diligence that has to be done before any nonfiction work can be recommended. Once I examined the references, I concluded that so many of them are so questionable that nobody, including the writer, can demonstrate anything beyond the premise of the book itself to be true. The killings happened; that’s about it.

I am perplexed, because this kind of error is the sort I’d expect from a novice, perhaps a zealous but careless graduate student bent on self-publication come hell or high water. Grann, however, is an established journalist who’s written for solid mainstream publications. He’s published successful novels. This is his first nonfiction book, and I am surprised that it went to press without his own eyes or those of his publisher finding the glaring problems here.

Early in the text a fact is documented with a block quote from one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books, a series of YA novels loosely based on the author’s experiences during the Westward Movement, as Euro-Americans pushed the frontier back and took possession of Native territory. Many years ago, an interviewer challenged Wilder on a scene in one of her books, one in which a man recounts having been surrounded, chased, and threatened by wolves. The interviewer pointed out that wolves don’t do that, and Wilder tartly responded that she wasn’t aware that she had been supposed to be writing history or biology, but rather stories she had made up for little children to read. Her only nonfiction is a memoir she wrote later in life, which was not as widely seen.

This historical fiction, then, is Grann’s source material, and the fact that he chooses to give it a block quote also makes me wonder…if this is his good reference, what do the others look like?

A great many other sources are newspapers from what was then Western territory, newspapers from Oklahoma and elsewhere during the early 1800s. This is suspect material. There were no laws against printing inaccurate material, and journalists from this period often printed lies, sons of lies, and interviews based on lies, because there was absolutely no risk of penalty for doing so. To use sources like these, the very least a writer should do is find legitimate sources that agree with the questionable sources and cite both. This doesn’t happen here.

I have no idea why a good house like Doubleday would release this book, or why the writer didn’t use credible sources. Maybe he couldn’t find anything else, but that’s speculation, and I’ve just explained why nonfiction should not be based on guess work, on fiction based loosely on fact, or on unreliable sources, so I won’t take this line any further lest I be guilty of the same.

I was going to close by recommending that the reader just looking for a good story and not concerned about the research might like the book, but then I am confronted by the other unfortunate aspect of this story: I was pushing myself through it. I wasn’t spellbound, but as long as I believed there might be new information to be learned, I was ready to force myself to read this book, tedious though it is. With a DRC, I generally figure that once I’ve signed on, I have to make good on my promise. I wasn’t reading because I was absorbed; once I got a sense of the narrative I was reading out of duty, and out of the hope that at some point this thing would pick up steam. My hope was derailed by the bad source material.

Not this time.

1917, by Boris Dralnyuk**

1917I received my DRC for this collection courtesy of Net Galley and Pushkin Press. I thank them for the opportunity to read and review; this compilation of poetry and prose will be for sale on December 1, 2016. What a crying shame it’s so negative.

There are a few of us left out here—dinosaurs, to be sure—that regard the initial two or three years of the Russian Revolution as an inspirational time, a time when the working class and the Russian peasantry cast off their shackles, ran the brutal, entitled royal family and their minions out of power and eventually to a richly deserved death, and took control of their lives and their nation. When I saw this collection, I believed that this perspective would be represented here somewhere.

Instead, we read poetry about the Tsar’s wine. Oh, no! They destroyed all that expensive wine! Give me a break. Millions of peasants freed from bondage, and all we hear about is the wine casks, and some sorrowful reflections that lament the defeat of the Mensheviks—the party that tried to halt the progress of the revolution and create a bourgeois democratic state. All those sorrowful White Russians weeping into their vodka.

Do I have a bias? Of course I do, but unlike our editor here, I admit mine. The introduction to this thing, which is overlong and somewhat duplicitous, tells us that rather than relate the various political positions that were held during this cataclysmic time, we should instead look at feelings, at experiences. But everyone’s feelings during this tremendous upheaval, a time when the news footage at the time of the revolution shows throngs of joyful Russian workers screaming with enthusiasm, is apparently either sorrowful—aw geez, the poor royals—or conflicted. Not one person is glad it happened.

Poetry and prose are, at their root, political, and in rewriting history, Dralyuk demonstrates this. This collection is revisionist dross.

One other comment I’d make is that when editors decide to republish historic writing, they are often deluded as to how much of their own prose readers are looking for. For every piece, for every author, there is way too much introductory narrative. I really just want to read the work itself, not so much Dralyuk’s discussion of them. Had I enjoyed most of the poetry and prose, I would have upgraded this review to three stars and stated that it is hard to find the original work amidst the rambling discussion. Generally, the poem is short, the introduction is long; lather, rinse, repeat. The same is true of the prose.

So to those lonely Marxists out there hoping for literature, for poetry that’s in English and available readily in the US, I have to say, put that plastic away, because this isn’t that.

Her Nightly Embrace, by Adi Tantimedh*

hernightlyembraceI was invited to read and review this title by Net Galley and Atria Books. I thank them for the opportunity.  The first two chapters showed signs of promise, but in the end, this book is poorly written and for most, it will also be offensive. I can’t recommend this title. That said, it’s about to become a television program, so perhaps you will enjoy it more than I do. But I have to call them as I see them, and if they give this writer a host of awards, I will still say this book is worth one star and nothing else.

Ravi Singh is our protagonist. He has dropped out of a program of religious studies, to his father’s profound disappointment, and become a detective. He had something of a breakdown, and under stress he sees Hindu Gods that no one else can see. An added pressure is financial; he has bills to pay, and his mother has racked up some gambling debts for which she may be harmed if not paid soon. I warmed to the unlikely loan shark, and I thought this was going to be a fun read. And if it had been well written, it would have been.

In other reviews, I have occasionally noted the way in which a tired, overused plot device may become brand new and almost magical in the hands of a capable writer. This one works the other way around. It’s a unique, if somewhat gimmicky idea, but the author will have to develop a vocabulary before I can enjoy his work.

Profanity has never been a hot button for me. I’ve been known to toss the “f” word into my own reviews when feeling particularly warmly. Unfortunately, Tantimedh uses the word the way I’ve heard teenagers do it; when someone is too lazy to consider what word might be interesting and hasn’t been overused yet, the “f” word can become noun, verb, adjective, and interjection. Everything, everything, everything in this book is said, by either narrator or in dialogue, to be “fucked up”.  By the 40% mark I was so distracted, and it was so obvious that I wasn’t going to engage with the text as I had hoped, that I started keeping track to see whether my perception was accurate. Was I being snarky, or was that word—and a few other similar ones, especially the mother-f word—all over the place? And as I started highlighting, I was amazed to find it on almost every page. Some pages were miraculously free of it, but then there’d be another page where I found it twice, or thrice. At this point I gave myself permission to skip to 80% and see whether something wonderful would happen at the end to redeem this thing. It’s been known to happen; just not here.

I’ve only panned a title I was invited to review once before, and that was because of ugly racist references throughout the text. I’m generally a generous reviewer. But suddenly I felt as if I were before a class of eighth graders once more, explaining that not only will profanity offend some readers, but when it’s overused, it’s often because the writer doesn’t want to do the work to find a more specific or eloquent term.

Whether the issue is due to a translation issue—I didn’t check to see if this was published in something other than English originally—or laziness, or a lack of facility as a writer is moot. The end result is the same.  This is bilge. Save your money.

The Birthday Boys, by Beryl Bainbridge**

thebirthdayboysThe Birthday Boys is a fictionalized account of the Scott expedition’s travel to Antarctica in 1910. It’s told sequentially through the perspectives of five men that participate, each picking up where the last has left off and of course, also including some personal reflections and memories to make them more real to us. I was invited to read and review this novel based on my enjoyment of the book Ice Brothers, which was also a maritime tale (and is reviewed here: https://seattlebookmamablog.org/2015/01/03/ice-brothers-by-sloan-wilson/ ). Thank you to Net Galley and Open Road Media, but this isn’t my book. I pushed myself all the way through it hoping for some redeeming aspect of it to pop up at the end, but it only gets worse as it goes, at least from my perspective.

Our story begins in Cardiff, and the men and The Owner (always capitalized) are eager to get started before the Antarctic winter sets in, so they pass their whaler off as a yacht in order to prevent safety regulations from slowing them down. They understand they are sailing across the world in a leaky tub, but one of them is too unprincipled to care, and the others are so darn young. In fact, wouldn’t reaching the destination on one’s twenty-first birthday be the best gift ever? Hence the title.

At the outset, I struggled a bit with some of the technical terms, looking up “plimsol line” and a couple of others, but by the 15% mark I had my legs under me, so to speak, and felt more confident. Soon thereafter, however, the nasty references to gender and race came into it. I looked back at the copyright; since this author, highly respected in the UK and winner of awards, was born in 1932, might this be a digital release of a very old book? But not so much: the original copyright date was 1991. Perhaps Dame Bainbridge felt that ugly racist terms might provide some flavor here. Likewise, the women included here, generally wives of the men involved that were tucked safely away at the base camp, were carping or hysterical, squabbled with one another, and Mrs. Scott, the only woman with any character at all according to the narrative, kept insisting that she hated women.

Whoa.

The plot is rugged and gruesome. If not for the issues just mentioned, I might compare the writing to that of Jack London, fascinating for those that love the adrenaline rush of life-or-death adventures, but too grisly for me. There’s some good work with figurative language and at times the scenes are tremendously visceral. Yet at times the pace actually plods along rather slowly for a book of its kind, and so I find myself wondering how this writer managed to be recognized by the queen; that is true, at least, until I find the following passage:

“It’s difficult for a man to know where he fits in any more. All the things we were taught to believe in, love of country, of Empire, of devotion to duty, are being held up to ridicule. The validity of the class system, the motives of respectable, educated men are now as much under the scrutiny of the magnifying glass…”

Well, perish the thought!

If not for the racism and sexism I’d call this a three star read. If an Antarctic expedition thrills you and you have the stomach for the…never mind. I can’t finish that sentence without scrunching up my face and squinting, so let’s go with the bare truth: I don’t recommend this book to anybody.

Even the Wicked, by Ed McBain**

eventhewickedBest known by the pseudonym Ed McBain, Richard Marsten, the name under which this book was originally scribed in 1958, was born as Salvatore Lombino.  I was a huge fan of McBain’s, and every time I see some small thing he wrote that I haven’t had a chance to read yet, I snap it up. And so it was with this DRC, which I received compliments of Net Galley and Open Road Media. But once I reached the halfway mark, I felt sort of queasy and couldn’t continue. I suspect that much of what he wrote as Marsten might as well be left in whatever obscure attic corner it’s perched in, because society has moved forward since the 1950s, and this book is still there.

The re-publication date for this book is October 25, 2016.

The premise is this. Our protagonist, Zach, is returning to the beach house where he and his now-deceased wife stayed on their wedding night. He brings their little girl Penny along with him. Before he can commence to do any sleuthing, however, the real estate concern that rented the place to him tells him it’s been taken by someone else. Zach isn’t going down easily for two reasons: first, he wants to see if his suspicion regarding the possible murder of his wife is true, and second, he’s already paid in full for the entire stay. The story starts with the excellent, tense build up that would become Lombino-Marsten-McBain-Hunter’s hallmark. I rolled up my sleeves and snuggled in.

And then bit by bit it all went to hell.

First of all, why would a man on a deadly mission bring his little girl with him? Leave the tot somewhere safe or stay home. And then there’s the stereotypic, racist crap about the local Indian. (He’s ‘chiseled’, of course, but he’s also just plain creepy looking.) Next, Daddy Zach tells Penny that he’s pretty sure her mommy was murdered.

The fuck?

And as he sets up his date with destiny, he finally realizes he has to have a sitter for Penny after all—in the contested house, of course, where surely nothing bad will happen to her while he’s away—and so he asks a complete stranger for the name of a babysitter, and the person refers him to someone that’s also a complete stranger. He sets it all up, arranging to leave his little girl, all he has left in this world, with someone he’s never heard of till today and doesn’t even plan to interview, and hits the road to solve the crime.

I got halfway through this thing and finally threw up my hands. Had I read the rest, I might have thrown up, period.

I know that in bygone times, people in the US were much more relaxed about child care arrangements than we are today. Many Caucasian people were also really racist, and men and sometimes even women were sexist, too. But that doesn’t mean I care to see it in my escapist fiction.

If you haven’t read Ed McBain, find something he wrote after 1980 and you’ll be in for a treat. But this one is a thumbs-down.