The Plotters, by Un-su Kim*****

The author of this surreal, expertly crafted tale has been called “the Korean Henning Mankell,” but I say he is the Korean Kurt Vonnegut. Enter a world in which the most ignorant and uncurious survive, one in which “Reading books will doom you to a life of fear and shame.” My thanks go to Doubleday and Net Galley for the advance review copy, which I received free in exchange for this honest review. This novel will be available in the U.S. February 12, 2019.

Our protagonist is Reseng. Orphaned at a young age, he grew up in Old Raccoon’s library. He is an assassin. Killing others for hire has grown into a huge industry, and the story begins with Reseng watching an old man through a scope. He has a job to do.

Readers are forewarned that this story is not for the squeamish, and I almost abandoned it, because although I like dark humor, this is triple-dark. I set it aside fairly early, unsure whether I was coming back or not, but despite its brutality, it drew me back, and I am glad I returned to it.

Bear is Reseng’s friend, and he runs the pet crematorium.  That’s what it’s called, because the murder industry is still officially illegal; it wouldn’t do to announce his business as the place to dispose of a freshly assassinated human victim. Not yet anyway; the way things are going, this may change. Reseng is there on business, though, because the old man he just killed has to be processed. And as he and Bear converse on the state of the profession—so many immigrants are coming to South Korea and taking these jobs; Chinese, North Koreans that sneak over, Vietnamese. They’ll work cheap, and it makes it harder for guys like Reseng to get what the jobs are worth. And then there’s outsourcing. Assassins are hired by plotters, but Reseng reflects that “Plotters are just pawns like us. A request comes in, and they draw up the plans. There’s someone above them that tells them what to do. And above that person is another plotter…You know what’s there if you keep going all the way to the top? Nothing. Just an empty chair.”

 Reseng’s greatest concern is Old Raccoon, Reseng’s aging mentor who is being edged out by unseen forces. Old Raccoon isn’t an assassin, but he has kept himself out of the crosshairs by permitting his library to be used as a meeting point between shady individuals looking to make deals. That’s worked for him pretty well, until recently. Old Raccoon is all the family Reseng has, and so out of concern, he begins asking questions. It’s a reckless thing to do, and he knows it.

Before long, Reseng’s life turns into a hall of mirrors, and it’s hard to know who to believe, because he can’t trust anyone. Where does Hanja, who was also mentored by Old Raccoon, fit in? What about the cross-eyed librarian? Is she on the up and up, and if so, where did she go? Is The Barber involved here? His queries take him to visit Hanja, who is now wealthy and influential, a giant among giants in the industry, and his offices take up three whole floors in a high-rise building:

“As if it wasn’t ironic enough that the country’s top assassination provider was brazenly running his business in a building owned by an international insurance company; the same assassination provider was also simultaneously managing a bodyguard firm and a security firm. But just as a vaccine company facing bankruptcy will ultimately survive not by making the world’s greatest vaccine but, rather, the world’s worst virus, so, too, did bodyguard and security firms need the world’s most evil terrorists to prosper, not the greatest security experts. That was capitalism. Hanja understood how the world could curl around and bite its own tail like the uroboros serpent…There was no better business model than owning both the virus and vaccine…A business like that would never go under.”

The struggle unfolds in ways that are impossible to predict, and what kind of fool would even attempt to make sense of it? When challenged, Hanja tries to warn Reseng that when an anaconda tries to swallow an alligator, it instead dies of a ruptured stomach, but Reseng will not be stopped. His journey builds to a riotous crescendo, and there’s a point past which it’s impossible not to read till the thing is done.

It’s a scathing tale of alienation told by a master storyteller, and the ending is brilliant as well. There’s nobody else writing anything like this today. Highly recommended.

Us Against You, by Fredrik Backman****

“The first time Peter realized that the tiny person was sleeping soundly in his arms. What are we prepared to do for our children at that moment? What aren’t we prepared to do?”

UsAgainstYouUs Against You is the second in book in the Beartown trilogy. My thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the invitation to read and review. This book will be available to the public tomorrow.

Beartown is in crisis. The hockey team has been undone by the arrest of their star player for rape, and Maya, his victim, has been harassed endlessly as if she were the perpetrator. Resentments simmer. There are anonymous callers. A new coach is hired, not only a woman—but a lesbian. Chins wag. New owners roll into town, friendly and treacherous, generous and oily. Violence hums beneath the surface as the town polarizes between the hometown hockey team and that in the neighboring town, to which some Beartown citizens have decamped.

Fredrik Backman, who is possibly the finest male feminist novelist in the world, is on a roll here. It’s interesting to note that although the hockey players in this story are men and boys, the best developed, most complex characters are the women. I like reading about Peter, Leo, Amat, Benji, and Teemu, but the characters that keep me coming back are Kira and Maya, Ana and Ramona. More than anything I want Kira to pack her bags and seize the opportunities presented to her, with or without Peter. Just go, woman, go. But it’s always easy to suggest that someone else should leave a troubled marriage behind, and the way that she deals with this problem—and the role that her daughter plays in the decision—is thought-provoking.

Meanwhile there are about a dozen other small threads here, and again, Backman is among the best writers when it comes to developing a large cast of town members without dropping anyone’s story or letting the pace flag. His use of repetition as figurative language is brilliant, and he is unquestionably the king of the literary head fake. If I taught creative writing to adults, I would assign my students to read his work.

I have some relatively minor quibbles here, although I know so little of Swedish culture that they may or may not be valid within that framework. I would dial the sentimentality and drama down twenty to twenty-five percent; clearly most readers love this aspect of these novels, but I would argue for a smidge more subtlety. There are occasional exaggerations that remind me that the characters are fictional. When the entire town is economically depressed, and yet everyone shows support for something by showing up in matching jackets, and when a preposterous amount of spare change goes begging in the kitty at the local bar, I wince. But then I am quickly drawn back in by the complex, compelling characterizations.

If you’re a fan of Backman’s, you won’t be disappointed. If you have never read his work before, don’t start here. Read one of his excellent stand-alone novels, or begin with Beartown, the first in this series. Recommended to those that love fiction that features excellent, complex characters, particularly female characters.

A Game of Ghosts, by John Connolly*****

AGameOfGhostsJohn Connolly writes two kinds of books. Some of them are good; some are damned good. This is one of the latter. It’s the fifteenth in the Charlie Parker series, and it marks a turning point; previously a thriller series with mystic overtones, it’s now a stew combining multiple genres. Connelly heats his cauldron and pours in a healthy dose of suspense, mixes in some detective fiction, and blends in horror and fantasy as well, along with a pinch of humor. The overall result is deliciously creepy, the kind of story that stays with me after I’ve read a dozen other less memorable books. Big thanks go to Net Galley and Atria for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. The book is for sale now.

Parker has a haunting past indeed; in the first book of this series, his wife and daughter Jennifer are murdered by a man that has come looking to kill Parker. Our hero sets out to find and kill the man that did it, and he succeeds; yet his thirst for stark, take-no-prisoners justice is not satisfied. Now the father of another daughter, Samantha, that lives with his ex, our current mystery finds Parker in a conversation with the girl’s uncle, who asks hard questions about Parker’s risky behavior. He wants to know why Parker keeps chasing bad guys now that his initial quest has been fulfilled. Why hunt down evil-doers when he might adopt a lifestyle more in line with the best interests of his still-living child? Parker responds,

“I do it because I’m afraid that if I don’t, nobody will. I do it because if I turn away, someone else might suffer the way I have. I do it because it’s an outlet for my anger. I do it for reasons that even I don’t understand. 
“But mostly,” said Parker, “I do it because I like it…
“We can’t leave these people to wander the world unchallenged.”

The premise here is that Parker is sent by FBI agent Ross, who he has agreed to work for under terms mostly his own, in search of Jaycob Ecklund, a man also employed by Ross who has vanished. Once Parker’s search for Ecklund commences we learn that the missing man was a ghostbuster of sorts, a man with a basement full of files on the paranormal. Many others are interested in Ecklund also, and the plot ramps up quickly and doesn’t relent until the last page is done.

The plot here is complex, and Connolly weaves in a host of characters, both living and dead. We have The Brethren, most of whom are alive yet already damned. We have Angel and Louis, a pair of characters that have appeared throughout the series that work with Parker; their darkly amusing banter helps lighten an otherwise almost unbearably intense plot. We have clairvoyants; we have The Brethren; the hollow men; we have a number of murder victims, before, during, and after their deaths; there is the Collector, who is tied to Parker like a falcon, and must always return to him.
And we have organized crime figures Phillip and his Mother, who abduct him in order to find out what Parker does and what he knows, in a civilized way, of course.

“There will be tea.”

Mother is the best villain this reviewer has seen in a long time.

The entire book is brilliantly conceived and flawlessly executed. And although Connolly’s series is worth reading from the get-go, those that hop in without having read earlier books from this series will be able to follow and enjoy this shapeshifting mindbender of a novel just fine, but those that genuinely believe in ghosts may not want to read it at night.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent novels of suspense.

The Standard Grand, by Jay Baron Nicorvo*****

thestandardgrand“A loaded gun wants to go off.”

Critics have compared Nicorvo’s brilliant debut novel to the work of Heller, and indeed, it seems destined to become the go-to story of those that have served in the unwinnable morass created by the US government against the people of the Middle East: “a drawdown war forever flaring up”. It’s created a tremendous amount of buzz already. I was lucky enough to read it free and in advance for the purpose of a review, thanks to Net Galley and St. Martin’s Press, but today it’s available to the public. You should buy it and read it, maybe more than once.

The story starts with a list of the characters involved, but the way it’s presented provides a tantalizing taste of the author’s voice. The page heading tells us these are “The Concerns”, and the subheadings divide them into practical categories, such as The Smith Family, the Employees of IRJ, Inc., and The Veterans of The Standard Grande (misspelling is mentioned later in the story). Then we proceed to list The Beasts, and The Dead, and The Rest, and right then I know this is going to be good.

Antebellum Smith is our protagonist, and she’s AWOL, half out of her mind due to PTSD, anxiety, and grief. She’s sleeping in a tree in New York City’s Central Park when Wright finds her there and invites her to join his encampment at The Standard Grand. Here the walking wounded function as best they can in what was once an upscale resort. One of the most immediately noticeable aspects of the story is the way extreme luxury and miserable, wretched poverty slam up against one another. Although the veterans are grateful for The Standard Grand, the fact is that without central heat, with caved in ceilings, rot, and dangerous disrepair, the place resembles a Third World nation much more than it resembles the wealthiest nation on the planet.

On the other hand, it’s also perched, unbeknownst to most of its denizens, on top of a valuable vein of fossil fuel, and the IRJ, Incorporated is sending Evangelina Cavek, their landsman, out in a well-appointed private jet to try to close the deal with Wright. She is ordered off the property, and from there things go straight to hell.

Secondary and side characters are introduced at warp speed, and at first I highlight and number them in my reader, afraid I’ll lose track of who’s who. Although I do refer several times to that wonderful list, which is happily located right at the beginning where there’s no need for a bookmark, I am also amazed at how well each character is made known to me. Nicorvo is talented at rendering characters in tight, snapshot-like sketches that trace for us, with a few phrases and deeds, an immediate picture that is resonant and lasting. Well drawn settings and quirky characters remind me at first of author James Lee Burke; on the other hand, the frequently surreal events, sometimes fall-down-funny, sometimes dark and pulse-pounding, make me think of Michael Chabon and Kurt Vonnegut. But nothing here is derivative. The descriptions of the main setting, The Standard Grand, are meted out with discipline, and it pays off.

As for Smith, she still has nightmares, still wakes up to “the voices of all the boys and girls of the wars—Afghan, Iraqi, American—like a choir lost in a dust storm.”

There’s so much more here, and you’re going to have to go get it for yourself. It’s gritty, profane, and requires a reasonably strong vocabulary level; I’m tempted to say it isn’t for the squeamish, yet I think the squeamish may need it most.

Strongly recommended for those that love excellent fiction.

Everything Belongs to Us, by Yoojin Grace Wuertz****

everythingbelongstousI was invited to read this novel by Random House and Net Galley, and although I read multiple books at a time, this was the one I saved for bedtime, after the lights were out, the hound snoring at the foot of the bed, and everyone else was asleep. This is prime reading time, and this was the story I wanted to follow uninterrupted. You can get a copy for yourself this Tuesday, February 28, 2017.

This story is set in 1978 in Seoul, South Korea, and features the political demonstrations by workers and students against the notoriously repressive Park regime. The main characters are all involved briefly with these protests, either as participants or as witnesses. While the setting is handled competently, the success of this novel is owed to character, character, and character.

We are introduced to three young adults. First is Jisun, a bright young daughter of a ruling scion. Jisun harbors tremendous anger toward her father, and as the story unspools, we find out why, little by little. One hint I’ll offer that doesn’t spoil the ending is that it isn’t about rape or sexual abuse of any kind, and I was glad not to see this overused device employed here. Everything in this story is fresh and original.

Our story comes to us from multiple viewpoints. My favorite character by far is Namin, a striving member of the working class battling to rise through hard work and intellectual talent. An unlikely but wholly believable friendship develops between Jisun, who is trying to grasp what ordinary people experience day to day, and Namin. Namin’s parents labor nearly every waking hour running a food truck, and her sister works in an auto plant so that Namin can attend the university. The choices that are made in order to fuel Namin’s success, and by extension that of her family, are hard ones, and this is just one aspect of the book that would make for excellent discussion in a literature class or book club.

The third main character is Sunam, a young man from a middle class family who finds himself in a love triangle with these two young women. At one point I feared the book would turn melodramatic, but in the author’s capable hands it is deftly maneuvered and is made believable. In fact, while I didn’t always like these characters, by the halfway point I absolutely believed all three of them.

The only weakness here is the way in which the protestors are depicted; they seem addled and the struggle appears to have no political platform whatsoever. Liberal Christian missionaries appear and vanish with no clear role, and although a purpose becomes apparent eventually, I felt they were more of a distraction than a worthwhile component.

The struggle against the Park government was a more worthy one than Wuertz’s narrative suggests. Had this been given firmer contours, this would be a five star read.

For those looking to broaden their literary horizons or just looking for a good story, this novel is recommended.

Orphans of the Carnival, by Carol Birch****

“Julia hated thinking about money. There’d always been enough. Other people provided, but she had to work. She could sweep and wash and light fires, or she could sing and dance and let them look. Singing and dancing won all, hands down.”  orphansofthecarnival

Thank you to Net Galley and Doubleday for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review. The book comes out Tuesday, November 8.

Orphans of the Carnival is a fictionalized account of the life of Julia Pastrana, a Paiute woman born in Latin America in the nineteenth century, a time in history when people born with serious birth defects have no surgical alternatives, and are viewed by many as having been cursed by God; often they find themselves, as Julia does at one point, as traveling circus acts, with their physical difference providing them with a means of making a living, however degrading, during a time when there is no medical alternative and no government safety net.

Her early life is spent as a servant and nurse to an elderly relative after her mother abandons her. Given the chance to perform—and be stared at—for a wage with room, board, and transportation thrown in, she chucks her broom, chamber pot, and scrub brush and hits the road with a circus.

Part of the allure in Julia’s performance is that she begins it completely covered, with a dress, long sleeves, and a veil covering her face; she sings and dances, saving the  big moment when her veil is lifted for the end of the act. In order to make a living largely based on the need of the public to see what she looks like, she cannot go out in public or be seen outside of the show, which makes for a lonely existence. But over the course of time, her circumstances change once she places her career in the hands of a manager named Theo Lent.

There are few remaining records existing of Pastrana, and so when Birch tells this story, most of it is invented. On the one hand, she has little information to work with, but on the other hand, she is also not constricted in her storytelling by a long list of historical details to be attended to. I love the wry way in which she wraps the whole thing up, particularly with regard to Theo, who even the scant available data demonstrates was a real piece of work. I won’t give you any more than that, because there are twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, and I don’t want to ruin it for you.

There’s also an alternate narrative that takes place in the present, involving a woman named Rose, a hoarder with a mysterious background. I think the story would work just as well and perhaps better without Rose, but this is a minor aspect of the overall story, and it also doesn’t detract much if at all from the main plot.

About halfway through the book I run a Google search for an image of Pastrana, and of course, Wikipedia doesn’t let me down. I am shocked, not by how horrible she looks, but by how normal she appears. She does have more body hair than most women, but there’s skin showing through; the appellate of “bear woman” is a tremendous exaggeration. She is born with an overly extended jaw line and a second row of teeth, two separate disorders; in addition, there’s another disorder that causes the excess body hair. But the response of the crowds seems overwrought, though it is undoubtedly what happened at the time; if the public, or a part of it, didn’t see Pastrana as truly unusual, she wouldn’t have made this her livelihood, because the crowds would not have come.

Why read this book? I was initially drawn by the cover, and then again by the unusual topic. In this troubled election period, I am more than ready to escape to a completely different time and place, and to be sure, Julia’s problems make others seem miniscule.

What keeps me interested once I commence is Birch’s writing. She knows how to drive a plot forward, and when to step back from the midway craziness and insert something wry and understated to make us smile slyly. I find myself wondering where she plans to take this or that aspect of the tale, and she never disappoints.

Wishful Seeing, by Janet Kellough****

wishfulseeingThaddeus Lewis, the traveling preacher sleuth, is back on the road again. He’s headed to speak at a gathering of Methodist Episcopalians when he finds himself involved, once more, in a murder case. This cozy mystery is my second in an endearing series by Janet Kellough. I snapped up the DRC when I saw that Dundurn had made it available on Net Galley, so I read it free in exchange for an honest review. This title will be available to the public this Saturday, July 30.

A body has been found in Rice Lake, and there are witnesses that saw Major Howell and his wife Ellen, the woman in the blue dress, near the scene of the crime “in the right place at more or less the right time”.  In the Canada that existed back then, that was enough to put Mrs. Howell in jail; her husband would be there too, but he is nowhere to be found.

Lewis finds himself drawn toward her case. Is it because he saw bruises on her arm that suggested her spouse may have handled her ungently? Is it because she is lovely, and he wishes she were with him instead? Or is it because Lewis just can’t scratch that legal-eagle itch enough times to be rid of the urge?  Likely it’s some of each.

The main draw card here is setting. Kellough has done a good deal of research in laying out both the area around Toronto during its frontier period. The result is a historical mystery with a travelogue feel to it. Kellough takes us to a time and place nobody can visit anymore except through literature, and she does a great job of it. She includes a lot of interesting details about the history of the Canadian legal system that drew my attention, because it was very different from what those of us raised in the US have come to expect. I found this aspect of it fascinating.

I also really enjoyed the part played by the little dog, Digger. I wouldn’t care to see him start solving crimes, but I hope we see him again in a future installment.

The only weak part is—perhaps unfortunately—at the beginning. There is so much of Thaddeus’s inner narrative, so much soul searching and comparison of beliefs among the various Protestant denominations that if I had not read Kellough’s work before, I would have wondered if I had inadvertently stumbled across Christian fiction. In fact, my notes show that at one part I wondered anyway.

Yet in another way, if there has to be a slow part, let it be at the beginning. And it’s clear that Kellough is not attempting to put together a thriller that grabs the reader by the throat, but rather is treating us to a relaxing story that one may take to the hammock and flop down with.

Nevertheless, by the time all the groundwork has been laid, it is a hard book to put down.

So this is your beach read. Take it to the shore, to the mountains, to the river, or even your own back yard, but don’t cheat yourself by passing it by. You can have it this weekend, and those that enjoy both historical fiction and mystery wrapped up at once are in for a treat.

The Last Road Home, by Danny Johnson****

thelastroadhomeThe Last Road Home, bold and impressive new fiction by Pushcart Prize nominee Danny Johnson, came to me free thanks to Net Galley and Kensington Books in exchange for an honest review. It tells the story of Raeford “Junebug” Hurley and his friendship with neighboring twins, Fancy and Lightning Stroud. Junebug is Caucasian; the twins are African-American, politely referred to during that time as ‘colored’ or ‘Negro’. The story is set during the Civil Rights movement of the early 1960’s, but in rural North Carolina, the Klan stands tall and strong and absolutely nothing has changed in terms of race relations. Junebug finds himself riding on the fence rail from hell. This fascinating tale will be available to the public in late July. Those that love good historical fiction should read it.

The book begins with one horrible loss after another. At age 8, Junebug’s parents are both killed in a car wreck, and he goes to live with his grandparents.  His life is pleasant and stable, helping his grandpa run the farm, but then his grandpa dies too. And by the time his grandmother dies, I have decided that the theme of this story must be grief and loss, or given the number of religious references, perhaps there is some sort of Christian redemption theme here. And on both counts, I find I am mistaken. Johnson is a masterful storyteller, and there is nothing simplistic in how this novel unfurls.

For while Junebug has plenty of questions about the religious fervor that pervades small towns of the South during this era, by the time he buries his grandma, he has had it with religion. “The preacher said a prayer, asking the Lord to be with me in this time of grief. I’d had all of God’s shit I could take and didn’t need His sympathy. If he said it was ‘God’s Will’, I might choke him.”

I wanted to stand up and cheer.

At age 15, orphaned and the sole remaining member of his family, he is on his own. “Fifteen was considered adult in farm years.” Lightning leaves home suddenly, unhappy with the limitations placed on Black men in his part of the world. Fancy is left behind, and she is the only friend Junebug has within walking distance of home. As friendship turns to passion, both find themselves occupying a dangerous place in their community. Given that they are cold shouldered simply for appearing in town together to run an errand, the thought of letting their feelings for one another be known is terrifying.  He recalls his grandma’s admonition:

“’Junebug, you need to understand that cruelty and memory have been married together a long time in the South.’”

Johnson does an outstanding job of depicting white neighbors’ responses to the notion that our protagonist is linked romantically with Fancy. At first they are able to maintain the age-old fiction that she is his housekeeper, but she goes home at night, then sneaks back in darkest night to lay beside him. The muted references, little hints given by Caucasian elders nearby to guide the young white farmer away from a liaison that doesn’t fit local expectations, are rendered skillfully. There are a number of really vicious racial epithets tossed casually around by the local landowners, not always even in anger, sometimes in ugly jokes, as this writer knows from childhood experience is the way racists behave when a white supremacist perspective is not something being fought for as an outlier, but rather the dominant, even comfortable, norm. As the book continues, not only anti-Black pejoratives, but also nasty terms regarding Jews and Asians are tossed into the vernacular. None are gratuitous; they are an undeniable part of the setting, which would be revisionist without them.

Fancy and Junebug seem doomed. He tells her, “It feels like my life’s sprung a lot of leaks, and I’m running out of fingers.” She points out that she only has ten fingers too.

I was watching for the pat ending, the comfortable happy fiction that novelists are often drawn toward. Every time I thought I knew where the story was headed, it went somewhere else. Johnson is brilliant at breaking apart stereotypes, making setting real and immediate, and his character development is strong apart from some minor inconsistencies toward the end. And his framework is materialist by and large, showing that our surroundings and role in life shape us in ways we sometimes don’t expect.

Those interested in this period of history or that love excellent fiction should order this book. It will be available to the public July 26, 2016; strongly recommended.

Union Soldier, by Gordon Landsborough***

unionsoldierI received this title courtesy of Endeavor Press, who invited me to read and review their material directly; I thank them for the invitation to read and review this Digital Review Copy free in exchange for an honest review.

Our protagonist is McGaughey, a physician with a troubled past who enlists as a Union soldier because he cannot enlist as a doctor. He falls in love with a young woman named Sara, and so this relationship is a key aspect of the book. He moves heaven and Earth to see that she is allowed to stay with his unit, even introducing her as a laundress, a thing I never knew Union troops enjoyed.

Landsborough does a middling job of character development and creates an aura of mystery around McGaughey. I found his depiction of Union soldiers in general alienating. For me, the American Civil War was the last really righteous war the US fought, and so his characterization of most recruits as men that would do anything rather than serve, men that were rough, dishonest and usually of poor character demeaning. I suspect he was striving for realism, or perhaps he truly believes the war should never have occurred at all. Those that take this position may find themselves enjoying the novel more than I did.

Setting was a problem for me. Whereas his descriptions of the immediate area in any given situation were well done, I could never place this story on the map. On the one hand, Flagstaff is mentioned several times and so I was thinking of Arizona. The prominent role given American Indians tells us he has to be in the West. But the Sioux confederation is in the North, primarily in the mid-western USA, and so I was confused.

Landsborough does a creditable job of pointing out that the American Indian was still fighting for justice during this time period. The US government strove to fulfill the integrity of the nation, but didn’t do well by native peoples.

The stereotype that McClellan was an unskilled general whereas Lee and Jackson were brilliant is a tired old saw. A more in-depth look at these generals demonstrates that McClellan was entirely capable but actually sympathetic to the Confederate cause. Considerable evidence proves that his failure to succeed militarily in most situations was intentional. Lee made a number of errors as did Jackson, who was often unreliable when he was expected to show up, but both were bold, and for a time their energy and boldness paid off. I would have liked to see more knowledge of the war itself in this story, which turns out to be more a Western and also a romance than a Civil War tale. To be fair, it was billed as a western, but I latched onto the title and expected something more.

For those that enjoy Westerns or historical fiction that contains romance, this book may be of interest.

The Last One, by Alexandra Oliva****

thelastoneThose that occasionally hole up on their days off and binge on reality TV shows will love this book; those that don’t will love it too.  This reviewer has never watched a single episode of “Survivor” or any other reality-survival show, and yet once I began reading this novel, it elbowed aside all the other books I was reading till I was done. Thanks go to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC, which I received in exchange for this honest review.

In an interesting twist, readers are told up front that part way through this competition, most of the other contestants, along with the cameraman, producer, and a number of other support staff that would ordinarily be in charge of extricating her or announcing her victory, will die. Our protagonist, whom the show’s producers call “Zoo” because she has a job involving animals in real life, won’t know that the show is over, because the people in charge of telling her will be gone.  And so the suspenseful aspect of this story for readers is at what point does the competition actually end, and once we are sure it’s over, when will Zoo figure it out? What will she find when she finally makes it home, assuming she does?

 

The production team tries to get everyone out, but they’re on Solo Challenges and widespread. There were contingency emergency plans in place, but not for this. It’s a spiral like that child’s toy; a pen on paper, guided by plastic. A pattern, then something slips and—madness. Incompetency and panic collide. Good intentions give way to self-preservation.

 

Oliva is a champ when it comes to examining media and its effect on the thinking of ordinary people living in the real world, and in this case, even in a virtual one. And as the competition begins, we see how real people are being warped and cast as characters for a viewing audience; a sympathetic  contestant’s ungentle words during a stressful moment are edited out; an introverted, serious individual is billed as arrogant, and so his small acts of kindness will be cut from the final film.

It’s an unreal sort of reality programming, stories retold to make them more saleable to the viewing audience. Oliva nails the way that mainstream media manipulates our thinking; it’s one reason I watch so little television, but it’s not a book that will ruin your favorite shows for you.

Those looking for an absorbing beach read or a thriller to curl up with at the family cabin could do a lot worse.  This guilty pleasure becomes available to the public July 12, 2016.