Sunday, June 22, 2014

Reavis Z. Wortham writes characters that I can immediately see and hear in my mind as I read. Of course, growing up in the same area around the same time and among the same type of people he writes about makes that easier. Although his writing style is a little different--switching narrators from first to third person regularly--readers soon get the hang of his delivery and find themselves neck-deep into the story. 

"Vengeance" is the fourth book in a continuing series about the fictional Parker family and their life experiences in rural N.E. Texas during the mid-to-late 1960s. The action here starts out in Las Vegas, though, where a mob hitman named Anthony Agrioli has decided he's had enough of killing. He wants to leave the dark business and settle down in a quiet place in the country, namely, Center Springs, Texas, that he heard about from a casino visitor named Cody Parker and his lovely new bride a couple years back. 

Unfortunately, bad luck and trouble follow Anthony all the way from Nevada to Texas in the form of a team of goons sent by his former mob boss (also his girlfriend's father) to follow him and bump him off for good. In true fictional coincidence fashion, Agrioli is soon falsely arrested in Center Springs for a crime he didn't commit, whereupon he recognizes the local Sheriff as a recent visitor to his former employer's casino office in the desert. What is this local sheriff's connection to the Vegas crime syndicate? How much trouble is this little country town in for? Anthony and the Parkers soon find themselves and their friends in the midst of a battle the likes of which nobody saw coming. In the end, there's more than one dead body on the ground...

Vengeance is Mine has a publication date of July 1, 2014. This review was based on a digital ARC provided by the publisher, Poisoned Pen Press.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Books I Read in 2013

Close, but no cigar...   I read 48 of the 52 planned books for this calendar year. Most recently read is listed first.

  • 48. 100 Poems to Make Grown Men Cry by Anthony & Ben Holden [NF]
  • 47. The Last Detective (Peter Diamond #1) by Peter Lovesey [AF]
  • 46. A Captain's Duty : Somali Pirates, Navy SEALs, and Dangerous Days at Sea by Richard Phillips with Stephan Talty [ANF]
  • 45. The Vault (Peter Diamond #6) by Peter Lovesey [AF]
  • 44. And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini [AF]
  • 43. The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon by Alexander McCall Smith [AF]
  • 42. The Tooth Tattoo (Peter Diamond #13) by Peter Lovesey [AF]
  • 41. The Nethergrim by Matthew Jobin [JF]
  • 40. The Cartographer of No Man's Land by P.S. Duffy [AF]
  • 39. Go: A Kidd's Guide to Graphic Design by Chip Kidd [JNF]
  • 38. The Water Seeker by Kimberly Willis Holt [JHF]
  • 37. Diary of a Wimpy Kid #8 : Hard Luck by Jeff Kinney [JF]
  • 36. The Boy Kings of Texas by Domingo Martinez [ANF]
  • 35. The Royal Ranger (Ranger's Apprentice #12) by John Flanagan [JF]
  • 34. Insurgent by Veronica Roth [YA]
  • 33. The Enemy by Lee Child [AF]
  • 32. Inferno by Dan Brown [AF]
  • 31. I Am Pusheen the Cat by Claire Belton [E]
  • 30. Divergent by Veronica Roth [YA]
  • 29. Zero Hour by Clive Cussler & Graham Brown [AF]
  • 28. Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein [YA/HF]
  • 27. A Wanted Man (Jack Reacher #17) by Lee Child [AF]
  • 26. Six Years by Harlan Coben [AF]
  • 25. The Garden of Abdul Gasazi by Chris Van Allsburg [E]
  • 24. The Journey of English by Donna Brook [E]
  • 23. The Raft by Jim LaMarche [E]
  • 22. The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes [AF]
  • 21. The Uncommon Appeal of Clouds by Alexander McCall Smith [AF]
  • 20. The Forgotten Affairs of Youth by Alexander McCall Smith [AF]
  • 19. Paperboy by Vince Vawter [YAF]
  • 18. If I Ever Get Out of Here by Eric Gansworth [YA]
  • 17. Bomb: The Race to Build--and Steal--the World's Most Dangerous Weapon by Steve Sheinkin [YA/NF]
  • 16. Sky Jumpers by Peggy Eddelman [JF]
  • 15. The Dark by Lemony Snicket [E]
  • 14. This is Not My Hat by Jon Klassen [E]
  • 13. The Trap by John Smelcer [F]
  • 12. Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool [JF]
  • 11. The Hunters (Brotherband Chronicles #3) by John Flanagan [JF]
  • 10. The Invaders (Brotherband Chronicles #2) by John Flanagan [JF]
  • 09. Ghostman by Roger Hobbs [AF]
  • 08. Stay Close by Harlan Coben [AF]
  • 07. Flashfire by Richard Stark [AF]
  • 06. The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater [YA]
  • 05. The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman [AF]
  • 04. Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan [AF]
  • 03. The Racketeer by John Grisham [AF]
  • 02. The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers [AF]
  • 01. Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain [AF]

Saturday, October 26, 2013

     There are so many similarities between what happened to the main character in this book, and what happened in my life about the same age, that there were moments when I actually felt like the book could have been written about me.
     No, I didn't grow up on an Indian reservation, but I was raised during the same time period (the 1960s-1970s) and I very fondly remember listening to some of the same music mentioned regularly throughout this YA novel. The divisions and chapter headings are almost entirely taken from Beatles or Paul McCartney and Wings' song titles or lyrics. There's even a couple of Queen references thrown in for good measure. I recall being introduced to them by my slightly older cousin, Gary, who, like George in the novel, bought me Queen concert tickets, but I was unable to attend the show due to the flu.
     My first love, musically, was and is The Beatles. With each new album purchased, I'd spend hours poring over details of the packaging: the photography, the liner notes, etc. I remember the rumor that Paul was dead, so every little "clue" we thought we saw on the album cover was just another hint that it was true.
     Like Lewis, the main character of this gem of a book, I spent a lot of time listening for words that resonated with my life. No, I wasn't picked on to the extent Lewis was, but there were some rough patches when all I wanted was to just go to school and be invisible.
     I think there are plenty of kids in the same situation these days who will identify with the plight of Lewis and his small circle of friends and classmates. I think they'll root for him to face his bullies and win. I think they'll read this book, and they'll recommend it to their friends. I know I will.
     "If I ever get out of here" is probably a universal mantra from students no matter where they grow up. I think kids today, as well as adults of a certain age, will find this book entertaining and appealing.

John Flanagan once again proves he is the undisputed master of middle grade adventure stories. 

Years have passed, and former apprentice Will Treaty is now the most celebrated Ranger in the region. Unfortunately, he has suffered a great personal loss. Depressed, Will spends his days in solitude in his cabin on the edge of the forest, plotting revenge on Jory Ruhl, the malevolent criminal who is the cause of his anguish.

Meanwhile, in Castle Araluen nearby, the royal rulers have problems of their own to deal with. Their teenage daughter, Madelyn, has taken to sneaking out at night, hunting for small game, putting herself in danger of being kidnapped and the kingdom in danger of attack. Drastic measures are called for, and the decision Madelyn's parents eventually make can help both reign in their daughter's rebellious ways, and help their friend Will over his sorrow:  Maddie will be disowned as the royal heir and sent off to apprentice as a Ranger-in-training under Will's tutelage.  The discipline will do the former princess good, and training his new charge as a Ranger will give Will a purpose for living other than revenge.

At first a bit of a spoiled prima donna, Maddie soon takes to her new role with gusto, learning the tricks and techniques common to all Rangers, as well as the hard work and preparation that go into the job. She also brings a new weapon to their noted arsenal: a sling she has mastered with deadly accuracy from years of sneaking out at night and hunting in the woods surrounding her parents' castle. Maddie serves as a great role model for adolescent female fantasy readers, and she is enough of a tomboy that even young male readers will follow her training and achievements with interest, too! 

After weeks of practice and study, word eventually reaches Will of children disappearing from small villages in a neighboring fief and the death of the Ranger who was in charge of the region. Soon Will and Maddie take to the road to solve the case, and each is pushed to the limits of endurance in their quest to find out who is responsible for the kidnappings, and to put an end to the crimes. Along the way, Maddies discovers strengths she never knew she had, as well as truths about her parents and her mentor, Will. 

I see potential for a spinoff series, and I hope the author will consider continuing on with a new set of characters involving Princess-turned-Ranger Maddie. I've read rumors that this book is supposed to put an end to the Ranger's Apprentice series once and for all, but I hope they aren't true. While I can content myself that there's always the Brotherband Chronicles--Flanagan's equally well-written and compelling Viking adventures--I sure will miss his Ranger tales.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

THE SHINING GIRLS by Lauren Beukes

Lauren Beukes' The Shining Girls has been getting a lot of promotion from industry reviewers as the beach book to read this summer, so when I got the chance to download an advance reader's copy, I grabbed it. Similar in format to Audrey Niffenegger's The Time-Traveler's Wife (a book I really enjoyed), but with a time-jumping serial killer instead of a pair of star-crossed lovers, I found the plot compelling, but overall just not quite as satisfying. 
     Harper Curtis stumbles into a dilapidated row house in Depression-era Chicago's seedy projects. However, what he finds inside isn't the remains of a crumbling building, but a clean, well-maintained structure with modern conveniences, a suitcase full of strange money, a dead body in the hallway, and a key giving him access to travel back and forth in time (within a certain parameter of dates).  
     Over the course of alternating chapters, readers will come to know Harper at various stages in his perverted life, as well as meet his victims whom he sees as the "shining girls" of the title. The conflict of this story is how one of the intended targets, Kirby, a feisty, college co-ed with an independent spirit, survives his brutal assault and proceeds to launch a search for her attacker. She is aided in her quest by Dan, a sports writer and former crime beat reporter who guides her along a path of helpful resources to hopefully find the answers she seeks. Eventually, Kirby begins to discover some of the anachronistic clues that link a number of unsolved murders committed between the 1930's and the 1990's to one man...and she realizes she remembers meeting him when she was just a small child.
     Part of the problem with this book is that so much of it just seems kind of familiar. I feel other writers have tackled similar plots with better results (Shephen King's The Shining, for example).  I think the other issue I have with the novel is that it never fully explains how or why the killer picks his victims. Does the house control him? What makes the girls "shine" in the first place?  How did the house get its magical abilities and its power to control?  I think readers deserve more than this sketchy, enigmatic outline of a story. And how does Bartek, the Polish guy fit in?  Perhaps these questions will be answered when the story is developed as a television series.
     While I appreciate the opportunity to have access to a highly-touted book pre-publication, the digital version I read was a bit confusing because the page numbers, headings, author's name and font descriptions appeared randomly every other screen throughout the course of the text. I'm sure it would be much easier to follow on the printed pages of an actual book. That said, I did find the novel interesting enough that it kept me awake until I could finally finish it in the middle of the night. This one is for adults due to pervasive language, violence, and some sexual situations.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

PAPERBOY by Vince Vawter

 Part personal memoir, part mystery, part young adult coming-of-age story, Paperboy is one of those rare novels that works on a variety of levels.  On the surface it is a snapshot of one 11-year-old white boy's summer between his 6th and 7th grade years in school.  The youth (the author as a child, but essentially unnamed in the book) lives in an upper middle-class neighborhood in Memphis, Tennessee, in 1959.  Segregation is still the norm, as are live-in housemaids with starched white uniforms and dark-colored skin.  "Mam" is what he calls Miss Nellie, the black woman who looks after him, and she in turn calls him "Little Man."  She runs the household like a well-oiled machine.  
     Unfortunately, Little Man's life isn't exactly running as smoothly.  He's been stammering and stuttering since his toddler days, which doesn't make him easy to be around.  Adults always seem to be finishing his sentences, and most other kids treat him like he's mentally retarded. It isn't that he can't think, but that he just has trouble speaking out loud what is on his mind.
     Little Man's one good friend Art, whom he calls Rat because it has the same letters but is easier to pronounce, is going to his grandparents' farm for a few weeks and has asked him to take over his newspaper route for the month he'll be gone. Art knows his friend has a great pitching arm from their baseball games together, which will come in handy tossing papers onto front porches where they belong. Little Man agrees and finds himself feeling more grown up with the new responsibility, but terrified of the interaction with subscribers when he collects payments each Friday night. 
     Along the route he gets to know a few people in particular who catch his interest:  Faye Worthington, the beautiful but lonely young wife with both drinking and men problems; Mr. Spiro, who fills Little Man's head with self-confidence, the marvels of language and the power of words, as well as tales from his travels around the world in the Merchant Marines; and TV Boy, a young kid who sits silently with his face against a television staring at the images on the small screen, but who does not answer when spoken to. 
     Little Man adds to his troubles by asking Ara T, a raggedy old junkman to sharpen his yellow-handled knife so he can cut the bundles for his newspaper route easier.  Mam has no use for the smelly old bum, and she sure doesn't want Little Man to be associating with the likes of him. When Ara T doesn't give back his knife, Little Man follows him to his secret shed, and that's when his problems really begin to grow. Mam's pronouncement that there's "haints" in the neighborhood only adds to the premonition that something bad is about to happen, but to whom, where, and when?
     Readers who liked Kathryn Stockett's The Help should enjoy this shorter, less adult story of the same historical time period.  It's also similar in narrative style to Tony Earley's Jim the Boy, which I also liked and recommend. 
     I have no idea if there is a sequel planned, but I'd sure like to spend more time with Little Man, Mam, Rat, Mr. Spiro and the other characters in this story. While the violence is kept to a minimum, there are a very few swear words sprinkled about, so I recommend this book for students age 12 and older.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan


I can't remember the last time I've had such an enjoyable experience reading a book! This gem of a novel has layers upon layers to keep readers guessing and strategizing about the elusive messages hidden in the mysterious paper-wrapped volumes of Mr. Penumbra's magical bookstore.

Clay Jannon is a youthful out-of-work website designer living in San Francisco. It's been years since he actually touched paper, but he takes a job anyway as a desk clerk working the graveyard shift at a quaint little book shop in the city. The store doesn't really sell much merchandise, but seems to have a clientele of mostly older, eccentric customers who come in at all hours to borrow mysterious tomes from the store's expansive stacks which literally stretch to the ceiling. The cast of characters--and the store itself--intrigues young Clay, and eventually he begins to wonder what these people seek inside the pages of these enigmatic volumes arranged precariously among towering shelves. His questions are soon shared with friends old and new. Together, the group comes to one conclusion:  technology can solve any riddle. Incorporating elements of computer science, art, cryptography, mathematics, design, typography, and the history and evolution of printing, Clay and friends will not give up until they find the answer they seek.

Full of subtle humor, gentle fantasy, realistic friendship, exciting adventure, and an air of mystery, Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore has something for everyone. Readers and bibliophiles will love it. Techno geeks will appreciate it.  Mystery fans will devour it.  Art and design afficionados will dig it.  Cryptographers and math nerds will puzzle over it.  And did I mention that the cover glows in the dark?

I want to start reading this book again from page one right now just to experience it one more time. You will too! I firmly believe author Robin Sloan is the gifted lovechild of Sue Grafton and Dan Brown (or possibly Michael Scott?) and I am thoroughly impressed with this, his debut novel. I'm absolutely looking forward to his next work.

Althought written for adults, this book could easily find an audience with savvy teens who are into the areas mentioned above. There is very little "questionable content" in regard to language, sex, or violence.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Books I Read in 2012

My annual post about the books that caught my interest during the past twelve months beginning at the end:

  • 43. The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller [YA, AF}
  • 42. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys [YA]
  • 41. The Bartimaeus Trilogy, book 1: The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud [MS, YA]
  • 40. The Round House by Louise Erdrich [YA, AF]
  • 39. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: the Third Wheel by Jeff Kinney [E]
  • 38. The Family Under the Bridge by Natalie Savage Carlson [E]
  • 37. The Lilies of the Field by William E. Barrett [MS to Adult]
  • 36. Such Wicked Intent by Kenneth Oppel [YA]
  • 35. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn [AF]
  • 34. The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin [AF]
  • 33. Burrows : a Red River Mystery by Reavis Z. Wortham [AF]
  • 32. The Rock Hole : a Red River Mystery by Reavis Z. Wortham [AF]
  • 31. The Charming Quirks of Others by Alexander McCall Smith [AF]
  • 30. The Comforts of a Muddy Saturday by Alexander McCall Smith [AF]
  • 29. The Careful Use of Compliments by Alexander McCall Smith [AF]
  • 28. The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch [MS, YA]
  • 27. The Enchantress by Michael Scott [MS, YA]
  • 26. The Right Attitude to Rain by Alexander McCall Smith [AF]
  • 25. Friends, Lovers, Chocolate by Alexander McCall Smith [AF]
  • 24. All My Friends Are Still Dead by Avery Monsen and Jory John [H]
  • 23. The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection by Alexander McCall Smith [AF]
  • 22. The Peculiars by Maureen Doyle McQuerry [MS, YA]
  • 21. Dave the Potter by Laban Carrick Hill [E]
  • 20. The Book of Jonas by Stephen Dau [AF]
  • 19. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness [MS, YA]
  • 18. Postmortem by Patricia Cornwell [AF]
  • 17. The Dressmaker of Khair Khana: Five Sisters, One Remarkable Family, and the Woman Who Risked Everything to Keep Them Safe by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon [ANF]
  • 16. Miracle Cure by Harlan Coben [AF]
  • 15. Dean Koontz's Frankenstein series, book 1 : Prodigal Son [AF]
  • 14. Transfer of Power by Vince Flynn [AF]
  • 13. All the Earth, Thrown to the Sky by Joe R. Lansdale [YA]
  • 12. The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry [AF]
  • 11. Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos [MS]
  • 10. The Dressmaker by Kate Alcott [AF]
  • 9. The Great Cake Mystery by Alexander McCall Smith [E]
  • 8. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green [YA]
  • 7. Bread by Eric Treuille [NF]
  • 6. V is for Vengeance by Sue Grafton [AF]
  • 5. The Brotherband Chronicles, Book 1 : The Outcasts by John Flanagan [MS, YA]
  • 4. Grandfather's Journey by Allen Say [E]
  • 3. Tea with Milk by Allen Say [E]
  • 2. Tree of Cranes by Allen Say [E]
  • 1. The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman [MS, HS]

Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk by Ben Fountain

A "guy's book" if ever there was one. It's got the war in Iraq, football (specifically, America's Team--The Dallas Cowboys, drinking and swearing (lots of both), fist fights, weaponry, family dynamics, male friendships and brotherhood, questions about religion, and girl trouble. What more could a man ask for?
Billy Lynn is a small town Texas boy who finds himself in a bit of trouble at school. As a way out, he is given the option to join the Army. He enlists and finds himself a part of "Bravo Squad" on the front lines of the Iraq war. A surprise bloody confrontation is filmed live by a Fox News crew that has been embedded with their unit, and once broadcast, makes heroes of the unit, with Billy as the unintentional star. Now Bravo Squad is doing a Victory Tour of the USA to drum up support for the war effort. Along the way the soldiers are asked the same questions ad infinitum and ad nauseum by well-meaning citizens. Their words of encouragement becoming a litany of phrases that are high-lighted in the book like random e.e. cummings poetry: terrRrists -- uhMERicuns -- PAY-tree-uts -- nina leven, and so on... And the question on some lips: Are we really doing any good over there?
The only tour break for the Bravo Squad is when they are allowed to go home for a couple of days to visit family. To nineteen-year-old Billy, this means playing with his little nephew Brian, trying to form a genuine emotional bond with his mother, hanging out with his sisters, and observing his wheelchair-bound and distant father. It seems family members are the only ones who actually DON'T want him to go back to Iraq to finish the last year of his service contract. Everyone else in the community and the country thinks he and his cohorts are doing the right thing.
The final day of their Victory Lap is spent at Texas Stadium being ushered in and out of meetings with rich dignitaries, Texas oil billionaires, area celebrities, and being a part of a spectacle of a half-time show with bands, fireworks, and the music group Destiny's Child featuring the talented Beyoncé . To make things even more urgent for their final day, a Hollywood movie producer is tagging along with their entourage in hopes of selling their story to a studio or production company and making the boys some money for their act of heroism. But who should play the lead? Hilary Swank? Is casting a good star in the role more important than telling the true story? Everyone on the planet has seen the footage already on tv, so why would they make a fictional movie about the incident in the first place? So many questions swirling in young Billy's mind, he doesn't know what to think anymore.
This book has been described as the Catch-22 of our generation, and for good reason. It makes the reader take a good, hard look at fanatical patriotism and questions why we go to war. Religion, relationships, family, friendships, the various medias, and society in general are also under the microscope. Billy Lynn's Long Half-Time Walk is sure to get some conversations started, and maybe that's what the author was trying to do all along. This is Ben Fountain's first novel, and it is a 2012 National Book Award finalist.

Monday, September 3, 2012

THE ROCK HOLE : A Red River Mystery by Reavis Z. Wortham


I was fully prepared NOT to enjoy reading this book, because the only writing of Reavis Z. Wortham's that I had previously experienced was his outdoor humor column that's syndicated to several newspapers in the region. I occasionally read his hunting and fishing articles in The Paris News when the mood strikes me, and I like down-home anecdotes as well as the next man, but I can only take so many of them and in small doses. I wasn't sure if I could make it through an entire book full of colloquialisms and redneck pranks. Turns out Mr. Wortham is full of surprises. THE ROCK HOLE is not a collection of Wortham's folksy humor, but a full-fledged murder mystery novel.

The story is set in the Red River Valley of NE Texas--specifically Lamar County and points slightly north--in the mid 1960s. The Vietnam conflict is heating up and America is coming to grips with racial inequality at home. Rural farming communities still exist, but are fading from view as more people move to cities like Dallas and its suburbs. Life is still simple in the small town of Center Springs, Texas. That's why Constable and part-time farmer Ned Parker likes things quiet and peaceful in his jurisdiction.

Dealing only with the occasional moonshine ring, or a drunken domestic disturbance, Ned's world is fairly predictable, until one day the remains of a tortured bird dog are found in a field nearby. Gradually, more animal mutilations start turning up and Ned and his law enforcement colleagues notice that they are escalating in frequency and in brutality. The lawman worries that it's only a matter of time before "The Skinner," as the lunatic is known, progresses to humans, and he's leaving clues that children will soon be his next victims. How can Ned protect his community from such a crazed madman? Do the footprints in the dust outside his own grandchildren's bedroom windows mean his family is in the most danger? Will Ned and the others stop The Skinner before he kills again?

Wortham's writing takes readers along for a roller coaster ride as we first meet Ned Parker's family and friends in the town of Center Springs, and share their down-home fellowship and good-natured fun with each other. Then things turn unpredictable when an unknown terror starts spreading through the community. Ned suspects everyone--even members of his own family.

THE ROCK HOLE is one of those rare books that leads you in with gentle humor, then drags you through the woods and brambles to come face-to-face with a cold-blooded killer. I wasn't able to put it down. The book was even more meaningful for me because I live literally right up the road from where the story takes place, so the various settings, names, and characters were all instantly familiar. I think the book will entertain readers no matter where they are from, though. A companion book, BURROWS, is now available as well, so I guess I'll be reading more of Mr. Wortham's words in the future... You should, too!