Book Review: Board to Death

Book Review: Board to Death by Amy Barkman, Debbie Roome &  Gretchen Anderson

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the Firstreads giveaway program on the premise that I would write a review of it.

Board to DeathAs the subtitle says, this is a set of three mystery stories linked by the theme of games. It’s double-spaced with fairly large type, so the book was a fast read.

The protagonists are all older women (“baby boomers” as the blurb puts it) and the stories double as romances as each of them finds love as well as danger. The stories are competently written, although only one of them is a “fair play” mystery that the reader can solve with the given information. The links between the stories as the games go from one person to another might seem a bit too “cute” to more cynical readers.

Which leads to the next thing I should talk about. All of the protagonists, like their authors, are practicing Christians. This leads to rather more God-talk than most cozies contain. I was comfortable with this, but I know many readers might find it intrusive or off-putting.

A peculiarity of the stories is that there’s only two religion settings for characters: practicing non-denominational Christian and entirely secular.  This is pointed up by one of the secular characters calling people who go to church of a Sunday and pray at appropriate moments “religious fanatics.” Clearly, she’s never met any real religious fanatics…such as those who would ban board games from their homes for leading to gambling.

And a generally conservative worldview predominates. The motive for one of the deaths caught me by total surprise because it was old-fashioned, almost quaint.

I’d recommend this book most to Christian “cozy” fans, and older romance literature fans.

Book Review: Pacific Crest Trailside Reader: Oregon and Washington: Adventure, History, and Legend on the Long – Distance Trail

Book Review: Pacific Crest Trailside Reader: Oregon and Washington: Adventure, History, and Legend on the Long – Distance Trail edited by Rees Hughes and Corey Lewis

Disclaimer: I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway on the assumption that I would write a review.

Pacific Crest Trailside ReaderThis anthology is a collection of short stories and essays regarding the Oregon and Washington legs of the Pacific Crest Trail, and there is a companion volume covering the California leg. Most of the pieces are true stories of hiking the long trail, but there are a couple of Coyote tales and some historical notes, as well as an essay on Mount St. Helens (not on the trail but visible from it) by Ursula K. LeGuin.

The stories take up only a few pages apiece, which makes it excellent reading for times when you only have a short minute or two to spare. There’s a strong unity of themes, and if you’re bored by tales of the great outdoors, this may not be the book for you.

I’d highly recommend this book to hikers, outdoorsy types and armchair adventurers; it might also do well for young adult readers and students who are taking related courses

Book Review: The Sufferings of Young Werther

Book Review: The Sufferings of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Translated by Stanley Corngold

Disclaimer: I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would write a review of it. Also, this was an advance copy, and minor changes may be made in the final product.

The Sufferings of Young WertherI approached this book with some trepidation, seeing as how “The Sufferings of Young Werther” is considered one of the classics of German literature, and one of the most important works of literature, period. It’s certainly very different from my usual taste in novels.

It takes a while for the plot, such as it is, to get moving.  Werther is a passionate young man at loose ends who falls in love with a woman who is already in love with someone else. She likes him back, but as a friend. Also, her fiance is a really swell guy who befriends Werther.

Werther gets a job elsewhere and tries to woo another young woman, only to have class distinctions rubbed in his face; she’s willing to see him on her own, but will not stand up for him among her peers.

So Werther returns to the town of his first love, now married to her fiance, and tries to work out that relationship. It fails, he falls into despair, and commits suicide.

I think I am perhaps finding Werther too late in my life for the book to have its full impact; it’s a story of youth, written from Goethe’s own youthful emotions. (Unlike his main character, Goethe got over it and grew up to a successful and moderately happy life.)

Trigger warnings: As is famous, Werther commits suicide.  It’s a fairly compelling depiction and in its time caused at least a few copycat suicides (which is why copycat suicides are said to have “the Werther Effect.”) Also, there’s an attempted rape by a minor character, who is depicted sympathetically by Werther.

The translation seems competent, but I have never read the original German or other translations to compare.  Notably, it is designed to use only words that were in English at the time the book was originally published.

It looks like the retail price of this book will be spendy; see if your library will be getting a copy.

Book Review: Cell 8

Book Review: Cell 8 by Anders Roslund & Borge Hellstrom

Disclaimer: I received this advanced reading copy from the publisher as part of the Firstreads giveaway program on the assumption that I would review it.  Minor changes may be present in the final version.

Cell 8

“Cell 8” is part of the Scandinavian thriller/mystery fad currently going on and appears to be the second book featuring Swedish police detective Ewert Grens.

Grens’ surprised when a minor scuffle on a cruise ship turns into an international incident.  It seems the perpetrator was convicted of murder in the United States–and is supposedly dead!  Now the U.S. wants him back so they can execute him properly, but Detective Grens and his team aren’t keen on the prospect.

I’m going to go right into SPOILERS here; this is less of a mystery book (though there is a mystery) than a soapbox. The authors don’t like the death penalty and were clearly itching to write about how much they don’t like it. Problem is, Sweden doesn’t *have* the death penalty, and hasn’t for quite some time. So, the story requires some elaborate and contrived setup to get our Swedish police officers involved with an American death penalty case.

The convict in question is extremely sympathetic and the case against him is suspiciously thin, even before later revelations, while the main spokesperson for the pro-death penalty viewpoint is an extremely unlikable nutcase.

Truth be told, Grens and the other Swedes don’t actually have much to do here; some subplots are advanced, but in the end, both the start and resolution of the central plotline are in far-off Ohio, where our main characters never go.

As for that resolution, it is, to say the least, outlandish and requires some serious suspension of disbelief that the killer’s plan never once went off-track, relying on, as it does, literally hundreds of people acting *exactly* as predicted.

The good news: For a soapbox, it’s quite well written, and I liked Grens and his colleagues (even the annoying ones.) The authors have clearly done their research on the physical “how” of execution, even if they gloss over the difference between American states’ attitudes towards the death penalty.

I suspect that the translator is more used to British than American English, based on a small slip of naming towards the beginning. Also, several words are italicized unnecessarily. I suspect they were in English in the original, and someone overlooked the transliteration issue.

I can’t wholeheartedly recommend this book, but if you liked Three Seconds and want more of Ewert Grens, or are very tolerant of soapboxing, it’s not a bad novel.

Book Review: Math Dictionary for Kids, 2E: The Essential Guide to Math Terms, Strategies, and Tables

Book Review: Math Dictionary for Kids, 2E: The Essential Guide to Math Terms, Strategies, and Tables by Theresa Fitzgerald

Disclaimer: I received this book as a Firstreads giveaway, and it was reviewed on that basis.

Math Dictionary

Math was never my strongest suit in school, so when I saw this book on the giveaway list, I chose it to give me a refresher on the subject. And it did a very good job of that.

The language is clear and simple (save for the mathematics terms themselves), and there are plenty of illustrations. The terms are grouped by subject, roughly in the order most schools would teach them. In addition, there are helpful charts and diagrams, and a listing of useful formulas.  However, it’s not a substitute for regular math textbooks–if you’re lost, it can be difficult to trace your way back to where the confusion lies.

This book would be an excellent resource for parents of elementary school kids in the US and Canada (the weights and measures chapter is kind of provincial) and for the kids themselves once their reading skills are good enough. The one thing I disapproved of was some product placement in the appendixes, recommending only specific brands of mathematics tools.

I  passed this along to my appropriately-aged nieces.

Book Review: Until Thy Wrath Be Past

Book Review: Until Thy Wrath Be Past by Asa Larsson

Disclaimer: I received this as a prize in a Goodreads giveaway (the first one I ever won; I’m reprinting my old reviews until I can finish a new book), and reviewed it on that basis. Also, this was an advance proof copy, and minor changes may occur between my reading copy and the final product.

Until thy Wrath Be Past

A young diver is found under the ice in a river in northern Sweden, but forensic evidence indicates that she drowned elsewhere.    Prosecutor Rebecka Martinsson finds herself literally haunted by the case, while police inspector Anna-Maria Mella learns that Sweden’s dark past  may have more to do with the murder than was immediately apparent.

Scandinavian mystery/thriller fiction appears to be “hot” right now. This one is from Sweden, and falls more towards the latter than the former. The story is narrated by the ghost of a murder victim, who can sometimes read people’s thoughts. This takes quite a bit of the mystery out of the proceedings. There’s some nice descriptive bits, but the story could quite easily be rewritten to eliminate said ghost and leave certain occurrences vague as to their origin.

A lot of the characters are “broken” one way or another, and two of them bonding about their brokenness is crucial to the climax of the story.

The northern Swedish setting seemed homey to me with its resemblance to the hinterlands of Minnesota, though the place names sometimes threw me.

The fact that it was not a finished product showed in some missing spaces, almost all near proper names. I hope that will be fixed in the published version. Less likely to be altered are some ill-timed transitions between third and first person.

I should also mention a couple horrific scenes of domestic violence, for those who are triggery about that.

Overall, a good read, but I’d go with borrowing it from the library rather than buying.

Book Review: The Invisible Chimes

Book Review: The Invisible Chimes by Margaret Sutton

This is a simple mystery story aimed at young teen-aged girls, ala Nancy Drew. Judy Bolton is a girl with a forceful personality and boundless curiosity, plus she’s good at details, all of which serve her well in dealing with the mysteries she runs into. Her primary weakness is that she jumps to conclusions, and will ignore data that contradicts her hypotheses until someone reminds her otherwise.

The Invisible Chimes

Judy and her friends witness a robbery, and then encounter an apparently amnesiac girl who Judy takes in, and may be more closely connected with the robbery than she’s letting on.

The mystery itself is pretty straightforward; I guessed all the twists several pages before Judy herself did (and I think most genre savvy readers will as well.)

Two things struck me about this story. First, the group of friends going out to the antique store/cafe where the robbery takes place consists of three high school girls, three college student boys, and a man who’s already graduated college and is fully employed. The last is one of the fellows who’s interested in Judy in a “more than just friends” way, though Judy herself seems oblivious to this.

The other thing was the strong current of classism; such things as “the better sort of people” comes up several times, including a conclusion that the sweet-tempered Honey could not have come from a lower-class family. It’s briefly mentioned that Judy has friends from the low-income end of town, but they make no actual appearance.

If you share this book with a young reader, you may want to talk about the assumption that wealthy people are that way because they’re “better” than poor people.

Otherwise, a fun book for its target audience.

Book Review: Mingo Dabney

Book Review: Mingo Dabney by James Street

Mingo Dabney is a Mississippi woodsman from Lebanon who falls in love with the lovely but exotic (white-haired) Cuban woman Rafaela Galbran when she comes to his hometown seeking money and arms for the 1895 Cuban revolution. Being a passionate young fellow, he winds up following her to Cuba and getting mixed up in the fighting.

Mingo DabneyThe story is based on real events and several of the people involved actually existed. Jose Marti, the author of “Guantanamera”, has a small but key role, for example. However, as the author admits in the foreword, he’s a storyteller, not a historian, and has rearranged things to make a better tale. In particular, one incident is moved from the 1868 revolution to 1895.

Racism is acknowledged in the story; while Mingo himself is surprisingly unbigoted for his time and place, the reputation of Southerners for racial prejudice works against him in the early part of the story. The revolutionaries’ fear that American intervention would result in a loss of sovereignty for Cuba is also mentioned.  Rafaela is the only woman with a substantial role in the book, and is primarily a symbol for the troops to rally around.

The book ends before the end of the revolution and the beginning of the Spanish-American War; it could easily have a sequel as there are several plot threads left loose, but Mingo Dabney’s character arc is complete, so it’s a satisfying ending.

You might have a little trouble finding this one–it appears that the most recent Cuban Revolution soured American readers on the topic, and it was not reprinted past the 1950s. But it’s a solid read about a period of history little taught in US schools.

Manga Review: Afterschool Charisma

Manga Review: Afterschool Charisma by Kumiko Suekane

Shiro Kamiya is an ordinary high school student until the day his father takes a job as headmaster of St. Kleio Academy, and enrolls Shiro in that exclusive school.  A very exclusive school indeed, as all the other students are clones of famous historical figures.  As the only one without a storied predecessor to be emulated or rebelled against, Shiro is an outsider–only a few of the students warm up to him at first.

Afterschool Charisma

It soon becomes evident that there is a darker side to the school when Marie Curie decides she’d rather be a musician than a scientist, she’s “transferred” but she never communicates with those left behind.   There’s a mysterious cult that seems to worship sheep, and the staff are evasive on certain questions.

Meanwhile, the most successful graduate of the school, Clone Kennedy, has been elected president of the United States.   He’s assassinated at his inauguration by a group that declares the intention to kill all clones.   Soon, events spiral out of control as secrets are revealed.

By Volume 8, Shiro has learned that he is not the person he thought he was, but remains confused as to just who he is now.  He and Marie Curie (yes, she’s alive) flee after a media presentation at the school goes horribly wrong, meet “Jesus Christ” who is most assuredly not a clone, and discuss the  different meanings of “freedom.”

They’re soon recaptured, but another layer of the onion is peeled away.  Meanwhile at St. Kleio, one reporter is allowed to remain and interview some of the students, learning more about their feelings toward their situation.  And the emotionally fragile Clone Hitler, now with the “resistance”, attacks his former school in the headlines.

There’s some nice art here, although the prettification of all the historical figures makes them a bit blander than necessary.    There is fanservice, mostly in the omakes, but every so often in the main story there will be unnecessary underwear shots or focus on cleavage.  While the guys are also supposed to be eye candy, there is not nearly an equal amount of objectification for them.

In the early volumes, the students of St. Kleio (named after Clio, muse of history) show a decided lack of curiosity about subjects that directly affect them or are relevant to their survival.  One might think that the school has conditioned them into blind acceptance, except that Shiro doesn’t think of these questions either.

And even though multiple revelations have been made about the secret backers of St. Kleio and the fate of many of the clones, it’s still not clear what the actual purpose of the entire exercise is.   It’s certainly not to turn out people just like their originals.  (As pointed out in the seminal 1973 novel Joshua, Son of None and portrayed by a much better writer in The Boys from Brazil, in order to have the same personality as the original, a clone would have to have the same life experiences.  Would Florence Nightingale have the same personality if she were specifically brought up to be a nurse, as opposed to being raised by a family that was strongly against that profession?  You bet she wouldn’t.)

I’m not sure the author will be able to come up with a satisfying answer in the end, but the ride has been a lot of fun so far.

Book Review: Washington Masquerade

Book Review: Washington Masquerade by Warren Adler

Disclaimer:  I received this book as part of a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Washington Masquerade

When Adam Burns, a vitriolic newspaper columnist who savaged the U.S. President at every opportunity, is found dead under suspicious circumstances, the media immediately picks up the “government conspiracy” theory and runs with it.  Washington, D.C. cop Fiona Fitzgerald must solve the case before the administration goes up in flames.

This is the eighth Fiona Fitzgerald book; I have not read the previous ones.   The first chapter is told from the perspective of Mr. Burns, explaining some of his motivations.  This may be a standard format for the series, but in this case I think the reader would be better served by skipping the chapter to enjoy learning the information along with the police officers.  I figured out the solution to the mystery far too soon.

That said, this is a pretty solid police procedural with some high-octane political content.  It’s transparently clear that the president is supposed to be Obama, but names of most high government officials are never given for reasons that will become obvious.   Fiona’s gimmick is that she was born into DC society, so can move in higher circles than most cops.  For this story, she’s given a new partner, Isadore Silverman, a black Jewish man who uses Talmudic reasoning to help him solve crimes.

There’s some scattered rough language, but towards the end there’s a lot of it and some slut-shaming coming from one of the characters.

There are a couple of proofreading errors, and a few instances of dialogue that can’t be tracked to a specific speaker in the conversation because of poor paragraphing.

Overall, a decent enough mystery, recommended for those who like the Washington political setting.

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