Review of “The Three: A Novel” by Sarah Lotz

This is one of the scariest books I’ve read in a long time, mostly because I tend to avoid Stephen-King-like novels. And this definitely fits into that category.

31TDNtr0lzL._

The Three tells the story of four airplane crashes on the same day, which came to be known as Black Thursday, resulting in the deaths of over a thousand people. There were, however, inexplicably, three survivors – all young children, one from each of three planes. But something is “off” about these children, and the global reaction intensifies with each new piece of information about them.

This very clever book is told in the form of a book within a book called “Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy: Inside the Phenomenon of The Three” by Elspeth Martins. The book consists of testimony from a variety of people affected by the crashes – some of it in the form of interviews conducted by Martins, and some in the form of internet messages and other documents collected by Martins.

Evaluation: This book gave me nightmares for days. It is realistic enough to be very, very frightening on several different levels!

Rating: 3.5/5

Note: Not recommended for airplane reading!

Published by Little, Brown and Company, a division of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2014

Review of “Night and Day” by Robert B. Parker

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

This was the eighth novel written by now deceased Robert B. Parker in the Jesse Stone series. Jesse Stone, about 35, is the police chief of the small town of Paradise, Massachusetts. He is also an ex-alcoholic and he is still involved with his ex-wife. But he has made inroads into the corruption and crime in Paradise, and is well liked by the police force.

200px-Night_And_Day_(Robert_Parker)

In this book, Stone is investigating a character who calls himself the “Night Hawk.” The Night Hawk started out as a relatively harmless peeping tom, but he has moved on to home invasions in which he forces women to strip naked at gun point. As it happens, Jesse is also investigating swingers groups. When the women in the group identify a man who likes to look but not touch, Jesse thinks he may have found the Night Hawk. The dénouement involves using Jesse’s faithful female assistant, Molly, as bait for the bad guy.

To a large extent, the entire book revolves around the various sexual obsessions of several characters. The Night Hawk is intent on looking at naked middle-aged women. Various members of the swinging couples club are into having sex with other peoples’ spouses. And as in all the earlier Jesse Stone books, Jesse is obsessed with his ex-wife, Jenn. A substantial number of pages are devoted to Jesse’s discussions with his psychoanalyst about his own obsessions and those of the potential suspects.

As is typical of Parker’s books, the subplots and snappy dialog are more interesting than the main plot. I sometimes enjoy finding out how many donuts the individual cops will consume more than I enjoy the solving of the crime. Parker, who has made Jesse Stone a former minor league baseball shortstop, is also particularly good at describing the difference between a pretty good athlete’s skills and those of a genuine major leaguer. In any event, this novel is a good representative of Parker’s genre.

Evaluation: Enjoyable and diverting, if not earth-shaking.

Rating: 3/5

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2009

Review of “Shatter Me,” “Unravel Me” and “Ignite Me” by Tahereh Mafi

Note: There are no significant spoilers in this review, except as marked.

I think this author is a very talented writer. The story is good, even though sometimes the characters act imperfect (and thus very realistic) rather than being what you would like them to be. These are complicated people, and Mafi is adept at using short word-impressions to capture the essence of a description.

This is a YA trilogy narrated by Juliette Ferrars, a 17-year-old who has been imprisoned by “The Reestablishment,” the power faction that is supposed to renew the dying society. But, as with most dystopias, the new group in control has become drunk on power and despotic.

real

In this future scenario, the ecosystem has become severely distorted by human abuse, and one of the effects is that some people have developed “special abilities” that are not normal. In Juliette’s case, if she touches anyone, that person will die. Eventually she meets a whole group of others who have special abilities like she does. She learns that as the world changed, so did the energy within it. Matter is never created or destroyed, but it can change into different forms; she and the others with gifts have absorbed this energy in different ways, and they must learn to harness it and use it to restore freedom to the world.

13104080

I had some complaints, but they are extremely spoilery. SKIP THIS PARAGRAPH IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS:

One: All of the three main protagonists have personality changes throughout the series. I thought that the “unraveling” of Juliette and Warner seemed reasonable and well explained. Adam, on the other hand, has a big personality change that does not seem true to who he was in Book One, or even “fair” to his character. And for her to conclude that Adam never loved her? Just not fair. Two, Juliette – confronted with this new Adam, gets all outraged when he “insults” her, but at the same time (a) did indeed betray Adam with Warner; and (2) has been understanding and accepting of any abuse Warner heaped upon her. Three: What was up with the bird dream and tattoo? They were never explained except as serving to “connect” Juliette and Adam to Warner, but where did they come from? The whole coincidence of their appearances was dropped. Four: The X-Men aspects of the plot took over at the end; I would have preferred more realistic developments to a denouement dependent on techno-whiz-bang special effects. The latter doesn’t do much for me, and is a bit too deus-ex-machina for my tastes.

END OF SPOILERS

18053135

Discussion: In spite of the complaints I had, I appreciate Mafi’s writing, and I thought the beauty and skill of it compensated for my gripes about perceived plot problems (which after all I would not have cared about, had I not liked the story so much). I love the way the text appears as if it consists of actual stream of consciousness, including cross-outs to indicate thoughts Juliette has but doesn’t want to have, and the skilled (rather than hackneyed) use of metaphorical expressions of feelings.

(And a lot of the story does focus on Juliette’s feelings to the exclusion of, and insensitivity to, those around her. But Juliette’s self-absorption and her struggle to overcome that is one of the main themes of the books.)

I also liked the way the author handled the (very) erotic sequences. There is almost no description on what goes on; rather, we just infer from the reactions of Juliette to what she sees and what she feels, and they are romantic as well as sensual:

He shifts his weight to one arm, uses his free hand to softly stroke my cheek, to cup my face like it’s spun from glass and I realize I’m still holding my breath and I can’t even remember the last time I exhaled.

His eyes shift down to my lips and back again. His gaze is heavy, hungry, weighed down by emotion I never thought him capable of. I never thought he could be so full, so human, so real. But it’s there. It’s right there. Raw, written across his face like it’s been ripped out of his chest.

He’s handing me his heart.”

Evaluation: I thought this trilogy showed a great deal of creativity, a lovely depiction of young romance, and a nice exploration of different kinds of family, love, and friendship. (The friendship between Juliette and one of the male characters, Kenji, is especially gratifying because the author doesn’t feel the need to make Kenji gay in order for the female lead to love him as a friend.) Although this is a dystopia, there is less emphasis on world-building and more on how three kids who grew up abused by cruel parents learn to love and respect themselves and others. And there’s plenty of (very euphemistic) steaminess for those who like their character studies with heat….

Rating: 4/5

Note: These are not standalones, and should be read all together.

Published by Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2011, 2013, 2014

Review of “Alienated” by Melissa Landers

This is yet another entry in the recent spate of books featuring earth girls having relationships with aliens. In this case, 17-year-old Cara Sweeney doesn’t have much trouble falling for one of three L’eihran exchange students, Aelyx, who comes to stay with her family. Not only is he from a race with the same DNA as humans, but he is 18, and hot, hot, hot.

alienated_cvr

However, there are many on Earth who are terrified of these “others,” such as the growing membership of HALO, or Humans Against L’Eihr Occupation, also known as The Patriots of Earth. At first, they just bully and harass Cara and her family and friends. But as ecological devastation of the Earth accelerates, the Patriots blame the aliens, and the opposition turns deadly.

Things I liked:

In a fun side plot, Cara runs a blog, and her posts are interspersed throughout the text.

Cara is a good character, and defends Aelyx out of integrity rather than lust, although we don’t have a chance to question whether or not she would behave in the same way if he weren’t “hot.”

Cara has supportive, loving parents – a rarity in YA books!

Things I didn’t like:

The story would have been more subtle and persuasive had Aelyx had his same personality but with more alien features, and not necessarily so great looking.

Cara is the school valedictorian, but doesn’t seem all that bright. Aelyx has to explain a lot to her that shouldn’t need explaining, like about how big the universe is. Really?

The author’s use, in the beginning of the story, of bad metaphors was almost a deal-breaker of me. (The school principal was “happier than a pigeon with a French fry.” When Cara felt nervous it was “like she’d eaten a dozen Taco Bell double-decker burritos in one sitting.” To raise her grade point average, she was “sneaky as a senator.”) Fortunately, as the plot evolved, the prose settled down.

The author has Cara successfully defend the worth of humans by sharing tales of human kindness. They seem way too anecdotal to be persuasive, however, given the treatment of the L’Eihran ambassadors and the history of violence on Earth.

Last but not least, this is just Book One of what will presumably be a trilogy….

Discussion: One wonders (rhetorically) why so many YA authors have races of vampires, aliens, werewolves, and even angels decide that the best place for them to infiltrate and influence society is in high school. This is a major eye-rolling element you have to get over if you are to read these books!

Evaluation: This is a quick read with not much gravitas, but if you accept the underlying premises, it’s quite fun, with some laugh-out loud lines delivered by the snarky but lovable female protagonist.

Rating: 3/5

Published by Hyperion, an imprint of Disney Book Group, 2014

Review of “Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crises” by Timothy F. Geithner

Note:  This review is by my husband Jim.

Stress Test Is Timothy Geithner’s Apologia for his handling of the financial crisis of 2008 as well as his four years as Barak Obama’s Secretary of the Treasury and his previous three years as President of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.  The financial crisis weathered in those years was the worst since 1929 and created the most severe general economic recession since the Great Depression of the 1930’s.  

Geithner’s background had been working in the U.S. Treasury Department to rescue foreign countries like Mexico and Thailand from default on sovereign debt when their governments found themselves in financial crises.  That experience was to serve him well once he assumed significant responsibility with the Federal Reserve and later as Secretary of the Treasury. 

BOOK-superJumbo

The financial crisis of 2008 was brought about by the issuing of hundreds of thousands of very risky sub-prime mortgages.  Residential real estate prices had been increasing at an unsustainable rate for about a decade.  Banks made mortgage loans (often to borrowers with no realistic hope of repaying them) based on what they thought prices would be after more increases.  Lenders rarely kept such mortgages to term, preferring to sell them shortly after entering into them, after siphoning off a profitable “commission.”  Thus the initial lenders made a profit, and were not concerned about what happened down the line.  Risk analysis was minimal because the original lenders had no intention of waiting years to be repaid.  The process has been called a “Wall Street securitization Ponzi scheme” for good reason.

20080929_400

After being resold, the mortgages were then “sliced and diced” into tranches (portions of pooled assets) and then combined or repackaged by investment banks into exotic derivatives known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs).  Those CDOs were thought by the rating agencies to be investment grade because they spread the risk of default over many different mortgages.  The amount of trading in such securities reached an astonishing $530 trillion (that’s right, trillions) of dollars before the underlying mortgages began to default en masse.  The banks, especially the investment banks, were thinly capitalized.  Significantly, their capital was largely in short term borrowings that could flee with the merest hint or rumor of insolvency, while their assets were primarily in longer term instruments like home mortgages or the complicated securities derived from or backed by such mortgages.     

The financial crisis became acute when Bear Stearns, a major global investment bank, found itself illiquid in 2008 and ready to default on many billions of dollars of obligations.  Geithner, as head of the New York Fed, feared that such a default could spread throughout the entire global financial system and start a panic of major proportions.  Unfortunately, the Fed did not have sufficient statutory powers to compel an influx of capital that could have saved the firm.  Instead, at the clever suggestion of one of Geithner’s staffers, and after much arm twisting, the moribund firm was sold to J.P. Morgan Chase.  Much criticism followed in the financial press because saving improvidently run firms was thought to create “moral hazard,” i.e., an incentive for other firms to engage in risky behavior knowing that the government would intervene to save them if they misguessed the market.  

too-big-to-fail-cartoon 

But the securities and derivatives that were the cause of Bear’s woes only became less valuable as the underlying sub-prime mortgages that were to fund them began to default.  Real estate prices crashed as many foreclosed properties came on to the market.  The next big financial institution to face insolvency was Lehman Brothers, an even bigger investment bank than Bear Stearns.  Geithner writes that he and his staff strove mightily to save Lehman, but they could not find a willing or able buyer and had no other statutory weapons to effect a rescue.  Lehman filed for bankruptcy, and roiled the financial markets for months thereafter. 

Things went from bad to worse after the Lehman bankruptcy.  An additional five huge companies [American International Group (AIG), Bank of American (BoA), Citigroup, Fannie Mae, and Freddie Mac] with truly enormous financial exposure were on the verge of failing.  Geithner contended that he learned in foreign financial crises that it was important to provide rescue funds in large amounts quickly, before panic spread and investors insisted on being repaid short term capital.  Fiscal responsibility could follow later, after the crisis had abated.  Like St. Augustine and chastity, he wanted the government ultimately to exercise financial prudence, but not yet!

11.08toobigtofail

Geithner then recounts the ways in which he, along with his BFFs Ben (Bernanke), Larry (Summers), and Hank (Paulson), basically saved the world in 2008 from Armageddon.  The first thing they had to do was get statutory authority to infuse money into the troubled firms.  They lobbied hard for, and ultimately received such authority with the Troubled Assed Relief Program (“TARP”), which authorized the Treasury either to purchase so-called “toxic” assets or to invest directly in the capital of troubled firms.  Geithner is adamant that the financial crisis was not the time to worry about “Old Testament style” punitive measures for those who caused and/or benefitted from the situation leading to the financial meltdown.   He and the others were firemen!  This was a raging inferno!  It would have been irresponsible, he says, to devote time and attention to wringing concessions from banks, such as reductions in insurance payments for credit defaults, executive compensation, golden parachutes, or severance packages that enabled many individual culprits who caused the crisis to get rich while their institutions failed or had to be rescued by governmental intervention.  

Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Timothy Geithner. Illustration by Mark Ulriksen for New Yorker Magazine

Henry Paulson, Ben Bernanke, and Timothy Geithner. Illustration by Mark Ulriksen for New Yorker Magazine

Geithner’s ultimate “solution” to the financial crisis (and the eponym for the book) was the stress test.  This is was an audit of the major commercial and investment banks to measure the effects a hypothetical crisis would have on banks’ regulatory capital.  The test found most of the institutions to be solvent AND liquid, and the financial crisis passed with the influx of private money.  (Some sources, however, such as this Bloomberg analyst, contend that the test wasn’t credible.) 

Geithner retired from Treasury in 2012, shortly after Obama was reelected.  His contributions to the welfare of the country may have been substantial, but he has been severely criticized for allowing most of the malfeasors to escape punishment and even to prosper.   Specifically in the case of AIG’s payment of huge bonuses to its executives shortly after receiving the multi-billion infusion of TARP funds, Geithner argues he had no authority to prevent the payment of the bonuses, which the firms had contracted to pay before receiving governmental assistance. 

2009-03-16-AIGtrough  

Geithner also makes a point of attacking what he considered to be the posturing and abject stupidity exhibited by various congressmen, particularly Republicans who claimed that their priority was in obstructing Obama rather than dealing with the crisis. He is especially vitriolic in describing the foolishness of the Republicans’ threat to cause the U.S. government to default on its obligations as a bargaining position against the implementation of ObamaCare.   

Discussion:  This is an interesting, important, and provocative book.  Geithner has a nice, even self-deprecating sense of humor, although his humility doesn’t extend to his vision of himself as Superman rescuing Gotham City.  He is nonplussed by the fact that critics on the left see him as the embodiment of a Wall Street toady, while critics on the right (and much of Wall Street) see him as a communist or socialist. (He takes advantage of this contradiction to imply neither side could possibly be correct.)

While he tries very hard to claim he and Paulson, Bernanke, and Summers were not in the pocket of Wall Street and big business, he refrains from delineating all the close ties among them and the top banks and investment firms.  Indeed, protecting the market has always been a top priority for the dons of American finance.  As MIT Professor Simon Johnson wrote in 2009:

… Over the past decade, the attitude took hold that what was good for Wall Street was good for the country.”

And in fact, Geithner now serves as president of Warburg Pincus, a Wall Street private equity firm.  (You can read more about the revolving door between Wall Street and the government here.)

Geithner’s focus, rather, was on the aggressive measures that were (very probably) necessary to save the large firms. He does not emphasize the cupidity, imprudence, and stupidity that put those firms at risk. Nor does he dwell on the irony that all of the firms that required huge influxes of taxpayer money were particularly expert in avoiding taxes themselves, largely through the use of off-shore tax havens. And finally, he at no time considers the profound injustice of extending rescue measures to those with huge assets, while the majority of “average” Americans struggled with the repercussions of their actions.

qqxsgBailout

Evaluation: Whether or not you are happy with Geithner’s omissions and assertions, the fact that he has been such an influential player in America’s politics and economics for the past decade is justification enough to learn about what he was thinking.

Rating:  4/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

We listened to an audio recording of the book, read by the author.  Geithner has some quirks in his speech patterns — he rushes some syllables together in an unusual manner.  And he admits that he is not a good public speaker.  He might have been better off to have a professional actor read the book, but his own sincerity comes through his delivery. 

Published unabridged on 15 CDs (18.5 listening hours) by Random House Audio, 2014

Kid Lit Review of “Baby Bear” by Kadir Nelson

babybearcover

I wasn’t going to review this book, because I didn’t actually get it, and it’s rather a source of embarrassment when one doesn’t get a book designed for children aged 4-7. However, it occurs to me that this too is a legitimate response to reading a book.

Baby Bear 11Mc CMYKsmall

This is the story of a little baby bear who is lost and is trying to find his way home. He stops and asks for help from the animals he encounters, all of whom tell him some version of trust yourself and listen to your heart. Finally he encounters a salmon who promises to lead the way if the baby bear promises not to eat him. At the end of the book, the salmon has successfully lead the baby bear to a place he recognizes as home.

Baby Bear 18Mc CMYKnewsmall

Discussion: I was perplexed by the message in this book. It might be appropriate for older readers to learn to trust your heart, but if you a little kid who is actually physically lost, I don’t see how that helps much. I am surprised the other animals didn’t advise Baby Bear about noticing the position of the sun or the stars, or about picking out landmarks in the landscape.

It is conceivable that Nelson is trying to convey a message about the golden rule, e.g., when the salmon does a good turn for the bear in exchange for the bear not eating him. (But then, when the bear gets home, won’t he be eating salmon?)

It is also conceivable that Nelson is writing a preschool version of Oh, The Places You’ll Go by Dr. Seuss. In that story, the reader is similarly advised about what direction to take in life, especially if one feels lost, but Dr. Seuss’s message is more clearly allegorical:

On and on you will hike
and I know you’ll hike far
and face up to your problems
whatever they are.
You’ll get mixed up, of course,
as you already know.
You’ll get mixed up
with many strange birds as you go.
So be sure when you step.

Step with care and great tact
and remember that Life’s
a Great Balancing Act.
Just never forget to be dexterous and deft.
And never mix up your right foot with your left.

And will you succeed?
Yes! You will, indeed!
(98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed.)”

Finally, it could be that, as the jacket advises, this story is to show children that they are never alone, even when they feel lost.

Screen Shot 2014-03-02 at 7.55.25 AM

Evaluation: With any book illustrated by Kadir Nelson, one tends to be overcome by the beauty of his oils. Despite the fact that most of the story takes place at night, the pictures are luminous, taking advantage of the bright gold of the moon, the warm brown of the fauna, and the various shades of green and aqua of the flora and the river. Frankly, I’d get this book for Nelson’s pictures regardless of the message.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Balzer + Bray, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014

Baby Bear 13Mc CMYKsmall

Review of “Cop Town” by Karin Slaughter

This crime/police procedural is all the grittier for being set in 1974 Atlanta, Georgia, a time and place inhospitable to women, gays, blacks, Jews, Hispanics, and anyone else considered a threat by the white Christian males used to being in control.

18594594

As fans of Slaughter may recall, she focused on a similar time and place for her previous book in the Will Trent series, Criminal.

This book is meant as the beginning of a new series, and introduces two young patrol officers, Maggie Lawson and Kate Murphy, who are trying to keep their sanity in the sexist, racist atmosphere of the police force in 1974 Atlanta.

Maggie, 23, comes from a family of policemen, and as the book begins, her brother Jimmy is carrying his injured partner to the hospital. A cop killer dubbed “The Shooter” has been killing police two at a time, but in Jimmy’s case, the shooter’s gun jammed, so only his partner got killed. The detectives on the force believe the shooter is black, even without any evidence, and will not entertain any other theories. These embittered white cops are looking for an excuse to start a race war.

Maggie desperately wants to help find this shooter, but the men won’t let her on the case. Instead, she reluctantly enlists the help of a new rookie, Kate, and her old mentor, Gail. Gail tries to advise Kate on how to survive on the force:

Kate . . . obviously didn’t get it. The hardest battles didn’t take place on the streets. They happened inside the squad room. Every time a female officer took a step forward, a male officer felt like he was being pushed back. The guys pounced the minute you showed weakness.”

Kate comes from a privileged background, and is astounded not only by what she sees on the streets, but by the way fellow officers treat her. She explains to her father and grandmother that some of the policemen are repulsive racists and misogynists, and yet, she feels confident they would risk their own lives to help a fellow officer, even a female officer. It doesn’t make sense to her. Her father can only opine: “People stink. But then sometimes they don’t.”

In spite of the “soul-killing and humiliating and terrifying” experience she has had on the force though, she also finds it challenging, exciting, and even sometimes, fun. She wonders if she is becoming someone different.

In the end, Maggie and Kate make some surprising discoveries about The Shooter, and get insight both into the fear that makes some of the men act so hateful, and into the occasional and inexplicable moments of love and grace.

Evaluation: Usually I avoid violent, gritty stories with profane, nasty, scummy characters, but Karin Slaughter is an inordinately talented writer and her female protagonists are exceptional. The author knows how to bathe her grimy settings in empathetic compassion and insight. A terrific book; I cried at the end.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Delacorte Press, an imprint of Random House, 2014

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 314 other followers