Monthly Archives: April 2013

The Butterfly Sister by Amy Gail Hansen

The Butterfly SisterThe Butterfly Sister by Amy Gail Hansen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As usual I paid nothing for this book but also as usual I’ll review it candidly anyway. I received this book through the kind consideration of a GoodReads giveaway just as I have so many others.

Our protagonist is a broken woman, the victim of a spurned and ill-advised love. She revolves in her sad and wounded orbit until one day a suitcase shows up on her doorstep that belongs to an old acquaintance from her former college. From there the story twists mercilessly and unexpectedly to its whiplash-inducing ending.

Hansen’s novel is certainly full of surprises. I expected a romance (I never read the back of the book) but instead ended up with a full-fledged murder mystery. The author is masterful at painting characters in a way that makes them easy to relate to and gets the reader attached. They have lives of their own with histories that jive well with their actions in the here and now. She spends three quarters of the book building up background like a roller coaster tick, tick, ticking its way to the top of the hill. When finally the last quarter arrives the whole thing comes together in an almost dizzying hurry that is full of surprises and rushes by in what is guaranteed to be one sitting. Once the last 70 pages or so are begun, do not expect to put them down for any reason not related to Emergency Medical Services.

For all the drama of the last part, however, the author does seem to take her time. I found myself skimming mercilessly through the middle third of the book and when the end arrived I didn’t really felt like I’d missed much. Our author paints a wonderfully vivid picture of her protagonists but it can wind on for almost too long and tread on the reader’s patience. Ultimately though a well-crafted, if wordy, story.

In summary, this is a grand and very timely (ripped from the headlines as it were) murder mystery full of intrigue. Fans of the mystery genre should be advised, however, that this is one from the emotional side rather than the clinical one. No forensics, no evidence, no blood splatter patterns, just surprising twists and turns and eventually lucky cops. That said, it’s still entertaining.

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The Death of a Disco Dancer by David Clark

The Death of a Disco DancerThe Death of a Disco Dancer by David Clark

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As usual, I received this book for free for the purposes of review via GoodReads giveaway. Despite that kind consideration, I will review it candidly below. Also, this book is categorized as Mormon Literature but I will review it solely on its literary merits and not its spiritual ones.

The thumbnail sketch of the story is that it’s completely not what one would expect based on the cover or the title. I ignore utterly the book blurbs provided so I readily anticipated a mystery or suspense novel of some sort. Instead, we get the story of an adolescent boy as he and his family deal with the increasing dementia of his aging grandmother and the trials and tribulations of a new school year. Our protagonist progresses forward through life as his grandmother pulls back to her childhood.

This book is rife with positive merits; the characters are true to life and the story is evocative and though provoking. The author also gives the non-Mormon a welcome look into life in this little-understood religion as well as a snapshot of adolescence in the southwest U.S. during the early 80s. He deals candidly and skillfully with tough subject matter and by the end the reader really feels invested in the characters. Clark has given us a story with substance in a wonderful and little-seen setting.

I would be remiss if I didn’t say a bit about the treatment of religion in this novel. Generally, when a book is branded as ‘religious’ in nature, I dread it from the first page. I’ve suffered through many Christian novels and in general the characters therein are plastic and beyond all credibility. If Christians were anything like the characters in these novels then I, as a non-Christian, would want little to do with them. Most Christian literature paints the faith as if life were a cartoon parody of itself. “Disco Dancer” in contrast is first and foremost a good novel. It happens to be about Mormons and it also happens to illuminate key Mormon values but that’s not the center of the story. The Mormonism that weaves its way through this book adds variety and appeal to the storyline rather than the usual cloying manner in which Christianity permeates every word of some examples of the genre. All this is done without turning the Mormon faith into a freak side-show act. It is, simply, an excellent example of how religious fiction should be done.

The only negative that comes to mind has nothing to do with writing. While the cover certainly is eye-catching, I can’t look at it without feeling that it misrepresents the contents somewhat and will dissuade readers from picking it up. It gives the book a rather grim aura when in fact the contents are anything but. It’s also unhelpful that the photo is rather out of focus in spots.

In summary, a classic case of “don’t judge a book by its cover.” This book is fascinating from its emotional storyline to its anthropological backdrop. It represents the Mormon faith in a positive and very human light while at the same time being entertaining and worthy of passing around to everyone you know when you’re finished with it.

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The Summer of France by Paulita Kincer

The Summer of FranceThe Summer of France by Paulita Kincer

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As is the usual opening for one of my reviews, I received this book for free. This time it was part of a GoodReads giveaway. Despite the fact that it arrived at my door for the princely sum of nothing at all, I shall give my candid opinions forthwith.

Our protagonist is a life-long Midwesterner who gets the call from an uncle, living in France, to come relieve him of his duties running a bed and breakfast. He invites her for a few months… or a year…. or forever. Dutifully, she uproots her family and moves across the rolling blue ocean of the Atlantic, but not long after her arrival she realizes there’s a sinister shadow hanging over her uncle and his dark history during the war.

Kincer’s novel is reasonably well written but her characters inspire in the reader some real annoyance. Without giving too much away in my commentary, the protagonist’s husband becomes an inspired ass not long after their arrival, her children are singularly self-obsessed and our main character is hopelessly helpless in any attempt to defend herself or her family. The world seems to fall apart around her and she chugs along mindlessly in her rut until it’s far too late. This book amounts to reasonably good writing wrapped around an incredibly predictable story.

The real problem here isn’t one of execution so much as the exercise of uncountable cliche situations. In many previous reviews I have summarily dispensed with authors because they were unable to execute technically on a chosen theme. In this case, our writer is an effective one. She writes in a very readable and very engaging manner. Unfortunately, she has chosen for her book the plot of at least a dozen movies from the 1950s. Again, I feel obligated not to illuminate in specific as a reviewer for fear of spoilers, but there’s just nothing original here. One could draw each of these characters from mid-20th century sitcoms verbatim.

In summary, the author is skilled and executes a good novel. The chosen story, however, is nothing even remotely original. This is a pity but it does give one hope for the future that some innovation will be brought to obvious technical expertise.

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Stone Princess – A Collection of Short Stories by Michelle Smith

Stone Princess - A Collection of Short StoriesStone Princess – A Collection of Short Stories by Michelle Smith author

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As usual, I didn’t pay anything for this book but instead it came to me as a gift from the author who happened upon my Facebook page and asked me if I’d like to read and review her work.

Ms. Smith’s stories center around women who are in their darkest hour. The author is abundantly adept at finding a raw emotional nerve and quietly hitting it with a large and heavy hammer. She deals quite potently and effectively with the subjects of abuse, addiction, prostitution, classism and death in her stories in a way that is honest and evocative. Smith pulls no punches as she writes about the darkest corners of life.

Qualitatively speaking, I have to admit to a bit of initial skepticism. When an author approaches you out of the blue with their work the outcome is almost always one in which you’re trying desperately to find something nice to say about it. The chances, after all, of finding a book that’s previously undiscovered and unappreciated are pretty small. In this case, the challenge is trying to find anything negative to say about it. Smith’s work is delightfully impassioned and she’s unafraid to reveal to her readers a desperately dark and unapologetic storyline. I judge much about a book based on how ready I am for it to finally be over but all of Smith’s stories have a gripping potency that is very satisfying. I am, frankly, stunned that this book has no reviews on either Amazon or GoodReads. This one deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting.

On the negative side, the only thing I would really say is that the book does seem to be a bit thematically scattered. The author covers such a range of topics that it’s hard to know exactly what to expect. As an example, the first story is one of classist snobbery and first-world centrism. While a great story with a wonderful point to make (that a lot more people should take to heart) it doesn’t really seem to fit. In general, the book seems to fall more in line with her marvelous story, “Unspeakable,” in which she describes an episode of chronic child abuse from the psyche of the abuser. It’s that dark and meaty writing that makes this a wonderful book.

In summary, simply the best unsolicited book I’ve received. Smith not only writes beautifully and emotionally but she makes a point at the same time. I spend a LOT of time reading and reviewing books and if they were all like this then that task would be significantly more enjoyable. This book is abundantly and unabashedly worth it.

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American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men by David McConnell

American Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among MenAmerican Honor Killings: Desire and Rage Among Men by David McConnell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Firstly and foremost, I won this book in a drawing from LibraryThing. Despite the fact that I didn’t pay a dime for it, I will give it a candid assessment below.

So this is the bit in which I traditionally summarize the plot, and I’ll admit this book wasn’t what I expected. When I hear the phrase “honor killings” I expect traditional murders to safeguard the reputation of the family. The murderous rampages described here are plain and simple hate crimes. This does nothing to diminish them or their importance, certainly, but reading this book I did have trouble correlating the title with the content. Our author describes at length, and with absolute candor, the act of killing because of prejudice against race, religion and primarily, sexual orientation. The work is an incisive view into the odious act of hating and destroying someone just because of the demographic into which they fall. Or, to put it more simply, these are the truly scary people with which we share society.

Evaluating this book, on the positive side the author has done us a great service. He’s shielded us from nothing. No detail or nuance is hidden and his research is intimate and complete. We see these heinous acts from the inside of the killer’s head and from the outside as viewed by the world in general.

On the negative side, I’ll admit that I just couldn’t carry on reading this whole thing. By the halfway point I felt that I’d fairly well “gotten the point” as it were. The killers are heartless bigots motivated by hate and fortified by misplaced religious beliefs. A hundred or so pages of that seemed sufficient. I didn’t need more text to back up my support of the author as I was solidly and convinced from the beginning.

In summary, this book is a meticulously researched and insightful view into the mind of those that hate to the point of murder. If it suffers, it suffers only from the fact that I agree with it so vehemently and don’t really need more examples to fortify my dislike for religious zealotry. An excellent work that I just couldn’t finish because it resonated far too strongly.

PS: It is my endeavor to provide reviews that are succinct, honest, balanced and above all help the potential reader to answer the simple question, “Do I want to read this or not?” Any feedback you can provide about how you feel I have accomplished those goals (or not) is immensely appreciated.

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The Family Mansion by Anthony C. Winkler

The Family MansionThe Family Mansion by Anthony C. Winkler

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As is usual, I received this book for free through the kind consideration of a GoodReads giveaway. Despite this kindness, I’ll give my candid opinions below.

Our protagonist is the second son of an English aristocrat. The inheritance laws of the day state clearly that as second-born, when his father the Duke dies, he won’t get so much as a farthing. It is from this position of impending penniless that our hero approaches his life. After a brief and unsuccessful attempt to wrestle the estate from his older brother, he finds himself on a Jamaican sugar cane plantation in 1805, home of brutal slavery, yellow fever and more than a few lessons about how the world works for those without silver spoons firmly clasped in their newborn palates.

Winkler’s novel has a lot to recommend it. For one thing, Winkler isn’t afraid to give his readers a bit of a history lesson in the midst of his narrative. At various points, a educations in primogeniture, yellow fever, dueling and aristocratic honor are provided in a very tidy and succinct manner. Those not firmly aware of their 19th century history need not fear. Our author also isn’t afraid to take on some heady issues from human rights (which were certainly in flux at the time) to classism (is our nabob really all that much better than the man he bought for 50 pounds?). He does all this in an almost effortlessly easy to digest manner; there are a lot of ideas packaged into a very slick and palatable pill…

… but my only real complaint, I suppose, is that this pill is sometimes too slick. His dialog can at times be anachronistic and his situations too easily resolved. This is not the typically dense and complex historical novel one tends to find in this genre. Instead it is rather glossy and a very quick and light read. That said it’s a great introduction for those not accustomed to the sometimes impenetrable density of novels set in far-off climes well before the reader’s great-great-grandsire was born.

In summary, one of my few solid five-star books for the year so far. Even more telling, I’ll make a point to remember Anthony C. Winkler and pick up another book or two at some point. Exceptional storytelling in a light yet educational style.

PS: It is my endeavor to provide reviews that are succinct, honest, balanced and above all help the potential reader to answer the simple question, “Do I want to read this or not?” Any feedback you can provide about how you feel I have accomplished those goals (or not) is immensely appreciated.

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The Suicide of Kate Evers by Eugene Kaster

The Suicide of Kate EversThe Suicide of Kate Evers by Eugene Kaster

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As usual, I received this novel for the ripe and familiar sum of nothing due to the kind consideration of a GoodReads giveaway. Despite that generosity my candid opinions follow.

Kate Evers is dead and given the title of the book this should come as no surprise whatsoever. The San Francisco police have ruled her death a suicide but her estranged husband isn’t buying that for a minute and he’ll do anything to prove she was murdered.

“The Suicide” is a novel that appeals most strongly to those who like to untangle large and complicated knots. The bulk of the book centers on the protagonist become widower as he picks apart a million tiny clues that lead him to the truth he seeks. Featuring everything from blood splatters to handwriting analysis to autopsy techniques this is a police technophile’s dream. It can, at times, be somewhat laborious and at at others gratuitously graphic but it’s a well composed journey through a dogged police investigation.

On the negative side, the author has a rather fearsome writing tic that can be very distracting. The majority of the novel is straightforward enough but periodically Kaster slips into what I can only describe as Yoda-speak and words in odd order they are suddenly. This rather disrupts the flow of the book but can be largely ignored if one is sufficiently persistent.

In summary, “The Suicide of Kate Evers” is a meticulous and detailed novel of a cuckolded husband’s quest to figure out what really happened to the wife that ran away to sleep around. The main draw is all the technical and investigative detail. Our author really knows what he’s talking about and weaves a great story for his readers. One does wish for just a bit of editing to counteract his tendency to channel the long-dead spirit of Yoda, however.

PS: It is my endeavor to provide reviews that are succinct, honest, balanced and above all help the potential reader to answer the simple question, “Do I want to read this or not?” Any feedback you can provide about how you feel I have accomplished those goals (or not) is immensely appreciated.

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