Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Invoice by Jonas Karlsson

Review based on ARC (Advanced Readers Copy received for free in exchange for an honest review).

I just love the way Karlsson views life. This is the second book I've read by him, and I enjoyed this at least as much as the last. Probably more.

The protagonist, a film buff who works at a not-too-busy video store receives an invoice in the mail one day, claiming he owes a lot of money (it is written in terms of kronor, but the exact amount is not necessary to understand). When he inquires further, he discovers that everyone has been billed for essentially their life-enjoyment quotient.

So he embarks upon an investigation (casual, comprised largely of phone calls with an employee of the corporation who has issued the invoices) of how and why his invoice has amounted to what it has.

But what is brilliant about the book is how Karlsson goes about examining how someone's life could be reduced to a monetary figure. It is thoughtful, funny, surprising, and brilliant.

While somehow examining the philosophy of human happiness, Karlsson also manages to be entertaining and somehow brief. I read the small book easily in one sitting.

I just don't want to say anything else because the discoveries in this book are what make the book. But highly recommended to ... everyone? It's such a fast and easy read, I think I'd say yes. Everyone.

FIVE of five stars.

Some Possible Solutions by Helen Phillips

Review based on ARC (Advanced Readers' Copy received for free in exchange for an honest review).

This is a series of short stories that all consider something unique, something out-of-the-ordinary, something bizarre. Some of them were excellent, some of them were thought-provoking, and all of them were interesting. I read this series of short stories in two sittings. Although Phillips seems to be a bit infatuated with the female body and perhaps a bit falsely cavalier about sex, the stories were nonetheless well executed, well-thought out, and well-manufactured in short story form.

Overall, I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys speculative or unusual fiction. I will give a brief response to each of the short stories below.

FOUR of five stars.

The Knowers Phillips starts out with a sci-fi type piece where you can find out the date of your ultimate demise, and with it considers how some might react to the possibility and the way such knowledge may impact a typical relationship. The ending is unexpected and I actually kind of loved it.

Some Possible Solutions delves briefly into a few ways to "solve" some relationship "problems." The first is a bit disconcerting in the best way (you know, that creepy, crawly, under-your-skin feeling).. I believe Phillips has taken real things people think about and taken them a bit further along in their "natural conclusions" progression. Well-considered.

I didn't think I liked The Dopplegangers that much while I was reading it, but I was disarmed by where it went and am impressed in retrospect.

The Messy Throes... was funny and a bit surprising.. consider if all of a sudden you alone had not frozen in time during a diner party..

Life Care Center was probably my least favorite of the bunch... I don't know, it just felt a bit bleak and unfocused. Which was probably intentional, but I didn't really understand how it fit in with the rest.

The Joined, conversely, may be my favorite. It considers a different kind of answer to the problem of human relationship insecurities, and, once again, surprises and impresses me with its ending.

Flesh and Blood is one of the more "bizarre" ones.. It removes certain objects from the narrator's vision and follows through her responses. This was also not one of my favorites.. I think because, unlike many of the others, I was "meh" about where it went.. It was sort of predictable.. but any short story collection will have one or two of these..

When the Tsunami Came is perfect in its short and sweet honesty.

Game was another I didn't particularly like. I think I understand what Phillips was trying to do with the dual story lines, but it's one of those views of an inane relationship that just didn't strike me in any way. I couldn't wait to be done with that one.

One of Us Will Be Happy... was also not one of my favorites. It felt a little forced and aimless at the same time.

Things We Do was another meandering relationship piece that felt a bit like Game to me.. just kind of meh. I'm sure some people will like these pieces the most -- but the review of depressing relationships has never been my favorite thing in literature.

R is one of my favorites. I love the perspective. This was a sort of quick view into a dystopia where weather and it seems jobs are controlled to protect people, and how two strippers(/prostitutes?) fare in such a world after experiencing something they shouldn't have.

Children was another great one -- where might a line be between insanity and truth..

The Worst was almost a satirical look at perspective. Enjoyed in its brevity.

How I Began to Bleed Again... touches on everyday pain and losses with a touch of mysticism and leaves just enough unanswered to satisfy.

The Beekeeper was an almost light story about a developing, unlikely relationship at a time of fear and worldly problems.. I liked the story and mostly liked the ending, but it was a little abrupt -- not what happens, but what happens after. (I know that's confusing, but I don't spoil :))

The Wedding Stairs is somewhat unsettling, somewhat shocking, somewhat sad, a little confusing, and very well done. Another one of my favorites in the bunch.

The final piece, Contamination Generation was hopeful and heartbreaking and so well executed. It is not-too-distant future in a world in which we have kind of killed nature, but in which the very rich and the middle-class (?) live side-by-side and the stark differences are outlined and felt. I wanted it go to somewhere different than it did, but Phillips was correct in her decision and it was the right ending to the whole book.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Ashley Bell by Dean Koontz

Review based on an ARC (Advanced Readers' Copy received for free in exchange for an honest review). Also note, review based on audio version.

I absolutely loved how this book set itself up. Bibi Blair  is a smart but young author with a lot of potential and a little fame. Her fiancé is a special ops type of army-guy on a radio-silent mission when the book starts. Bibi is going about her normal everyday business when she suddenly tastes something funny and begins to feel a tingling along half of her body. A little longer and various bodily functions stop working on that same side. Although I won't say what precisely is revealed, the set-up of the book is that Bibi is told she has some rare, essentially incurable disease.

She nonetheless recovers quickly and miraculously. Her parents celebrate by sending a psychic/medium to Bibi, telling her to go at it with an open mind. In her experiences with the psychic, it is revealed that Bibi's life was saved in order for her to save another's -- Ashley Bell's. The problem is, Bibi doesn't know any Ashley Bell and the phone book doesn't seem to be helping much.

Follows is an intense cat and mouse type of thriller, where Bibi is rushing to find and save Ashley Bell while others, who are determined she do no such thing, rush to find her and perhaps end her life. There are elements of the supernatural weaved in as well, as Bibi struggles to understand the various experiences that she has had since she was a little girl. However, because of a memory trick taught to Bibi by her grandfather when she was little, Bibi and the reader are not really sure what those experiences are, or how they affect her current chase... we are only relatively certain that they do.

And I can't say much more than that because it would be spoiler and I'm anti-spoiler.

What I loved about the book: the puzzle, the pace (although the audio reader was a bit slow for my preferences, the book's pace was good), and many of the characters. I LOVE Bibi's old professor Solange St. Clair and her old teacher whose name is presently evading me. I also thought that (the bad guy whose name I won't reveal) was well-written and well-done and had a good amount of creepy/angry/disturbing personality. I thought Bibi was a fine, plucky character and her mom was interesting as well. And I also liked her best friend, the brilliant surfer dude. Conversely, I felt that her dad and her fiancé were pretty flat, but I didn't mind that. I didn't think every character needed to be robust. Her grandfather, however, I felt should have been fleshed out a little bit more -- having had such a large role in her childhood, I thought there were some pretty big holes that never felt answered with regard to his life and experiences.

As for the plot, although I loved the set-up, I felt that it started to waver and ultimately fall a little flat in the end. Not completely, but its end was definitely not as strong as its middle. In fact, I think parts of it could have been better had they merely been resolved a bit more quickly. There comes a point when the reader knows exactly what is happening and is fairly certain how it will all turn out... I thought the book took a little too long to conclude once that point occurred.

But overall, I still recommend it. I just recommend it with the caveat that it has a somewhat weak ending.

So overall, a strong THREE out of five stars. Recommended for people who like psychological thrillers with some supernatural elements... with the caveat mentioned above. I also think this probably reads better in a hard copy than the audio version because you can get through it a lot more quickly, and perhaps the lag near the end won't be as noticeable.

Monday, February 15, 2016

NOD by Adrian Barnes

This was a book I stumbled upon in the bookstore one day. I find myself starting in the Sci-Fi section more and more lately. I don't know, something about considering all the weird things that could happen in the "not-too-distant-future" is particularly intriguing to me lately. So what's this one about... It's set in the essential "now." Suddenly, one morning, it turns out almost no-one slept the night before. Only something like 1 in 10,000 people actually got any sleep. Worldwide. The book is told from the perspective of one of the "Sleepers" (as opposed to those who consider themselves the "Awakened") in a sort of journal-diary format. While it starts on Day 18, it then goes back to the beginning and progresses day by day. It's a shortish novel, only about 250 pages, and has a good pace, not dwelling on things (including any science, e.g.) for too long.

This is the synopsis from Goodreads: "Dawn breaks over Vancouver and no one in the world has slept the night before, or almost no one. A few people, perhaps one in ten thousand, can still sleep, and they’ve all shared the same golden dream. After six days of absolute sleep deprivation, psychosis will set in. After four weeks, the body will die. In the interim, panic ensues and a bizarre new world arises in which those previously on the fringes of society take the lead. Paul, a writer, continues to sleep while his partner Tanya disintegrates before his eyes, and the new world swallows the old one whole."

Framing the story itself are a series of uncommon or out-of-usage phrases or words that color and assist with the development of the story itself. I was impressed by Barnes' ability to really give us a sense of the actual character of the people populating his book as we watch everything disintegrate - people, personalities, relationships, society, etc. I was pulled along through the story, trying to figure out where it would all go, while fascinated at the various declines and how they played out. I LOVED how Barnes considered various aspects of psychological and physical decline and did not just go with one or the most obvious one. And I was very intrigued by the children .. I'm still not sure if I understand that whole line. Do I? ...

You know, the more I think about this one, the more I am impressed with it. The more I liked it. The more I'm thinking... I may just go back and read it again. Maybe someday soon.
There are a couple of R'ish-rated scenes.. a little more graphic than I was really expecting.. but they are relatively brief and not particularly gratuitous. Although it felt very "raw" while reading it, in retrospect, I think they made perfect sense as part of a sort of anthropological study of the deterioration of the human mind on no sleep.

... All in all, a very strong FOUR of five stars. I might have liked to know a little more about the children. But otherwise, a really impressive study in the form of a very interesting story. :)
Recommended if this is at all intriguing to you.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Arcadia (#3 in Advent Series) by James Treadwell

Review based on an ARC (Advanced Reader's Copy received for free in exchange for an honest review).

I re-read the first two books in the trilogy in order to "prepare" for the third and final installation. I again enjoyed Advent and continued to be impressed with Treadwell's creation of the world we know so well, as affected by magic in a way that we could not predict. I love some of the people and non-peoples he created, and the depth he gave some of his characters.

I again particularly enjoyed Anarchy. I thought Treadwell did an excellent job of showing the chaos experienced by the reintroduction of magic in our world. I loved the new stories and new characters he introduced, and I liked how it all tied together in some way or another.

So I was a bit disappointed with Arcadia. Arcadia begins about a year and a half after Anarchy ends, so magic has been well-incorporated into our world, and we have well screwed ourselves almost completely trying to deal with it. It's a sort of post-apocalyptic story in that sense, which is definitely my speed. But then Treadwell focuses our attentions on a single small island off the coast of England and we don't really experience the chaos of the world. Not that that is a bad story, it's just not what I was expecting. After the development in Anarchy, I was expecting Arcadia to be a bit more... exciting.

Instead, we follow a ten-year-old boy who knows that he is likely to be the next (and last) "man" to die in his universe (the island), as a result of Them. If you have read the first 2 books, ****NOTE: THERE IS SOME SPOILER'ISH LANGUAGE IN HERE. IT'S NOT VERY SPOILER, BUT I DID HIDE IT ON SITES. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK. it is clear rather quickly who They are. If not, I can imagine this might actually create some uncertainty that could have been interesting. For me, though, it felt like the first 50-60% of the book was just repetition of how boring life on the island is; how scared everyone is of Them; how likely it is that the main character is going to go off to Them anyway; how crazy his mom is; and how frustrating the rest of the characters are. Treadwell's gifted writing is still rather evident, but it was just a bit of a (long) lull.

That being said, when we MORE SPOILER>>>>  get to the mainland and see more of the after-effect of the introduction of magic, and especially when we arrive in the Valley, the magic (heh heh) of Treadwell's writing is fully exposed. I *loved* the Valley and I loved how uncertain and creepy that whole part is.

Ultimately, I felt that the end was a bit of anti-climax as well, but I also felt that Treadwell did a very good job of wrapping up... much. (but not all) All in all, I still definitely recommend the book as part of the trilogy.  It is worth completing the trilogy and, overall, the trilogy is a great one. I like that it is involved and hearty and satisfying.

So, overall, FOUR of five stars. Thanks to NetGalley for the copy!

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Witch of Lime Street: Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World by David Jaher

Review based on ARC (Advanced Reader Copy received for free in exchange for an honest review).

This is a book with a fascinating subject: The existence and experience of spirits and seances and whether or not they are real (or were proven to be real and/or false). Houdini, named in the title, himself experimented with so-called psychic experiences, but as he never really did them but happened to be particularly talented at convincing people he was "the real deal," he was particularly skeptical about all others who claimed to in fact be in contact with spirits and/or the dead.

In addition to Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was heavily involved in the whole spirit world - he was an ardent believer of contact with the dead, largely driven by various deaths in his own life and others and the loss of so many people in the recent war and epidemic.

And then there is the famed Witch of Lime Street, the wife of a Boston surgeon. She is young and smart and appears to be genuine.

In addition, Scientific American created a contest to determine whether any psychic could prove his or her merits. And of course Conan wants Margery (the Witch of Lime Street) to enter the contest, and Houdini is on the committee to determine whether she (among others) are legitimate.

So, fascinating, right?! Right up my alley. Interesting historical topic about very interesting people.... and Jaher doesn't do a bad job. He just doesn't do a particularly good job either. I found the book often dragged and spent too much time re-explaining the same inclinations of the various peoples, rather than moving more quickly through the events and analyses. Nonetheless, I enjoyed learning more about the topic and found myself repeating the information I'd learned to others in (somehow) every day topic.

Overall, a good historical account of a fascinating group of people and series of events. I would recommend to people interested in the subject, with the obvious caveat to simply "bear with" the parts that seem to drag.

Overall, THREE of five stars.

Slade House by David Mitchell

Review based on ARC (Advanced Reader Copy received for free in exchange for an honest review).

I have talked about and written about this book so many times since reading it, I didn't realize I hadn't yet officially reviewed it!

In short, I loved this book. It's a mini little ghost story with a lovely repeating but not really repetitious pattern.

It is almost a series of short stories, taking place every 9 years. It starts with a small black iron door. It starts with the Slade House. You may not find it, but if you do, you will be invited, expected, needed.

You're not quite sure who lives there, but you are sure that the brother and sister who crop up every 9 years play a significant role.

No more explanation. It's all spoiler other than that. But it's a quick read, an interesting read, and a thought-provoking read. It's creepy and atmospheric.. the perfect read for a dark and stormy night...

I love how it starts. I love how it middles. And I love how it ends. An easy 5 stars from me.

Note: I've only read 1 other David Mitchell book, so far. Cloud Atlas was a very good book, but a completely different type of book. I am impressed with Mitchell's ability to write different types, different characters, different perspectives. I look forward to more!