Review of “The Low Road” by A.D. Scott

This is the fifth book in a somewhat cozy murder mystery series set in the late 1950’s in the Scottish Highlands. The recurring characters operate a small newspaper, the Highland Gazette. Sometimes, in order to get the bottom of a story, they end up investigating and solving a crime as well.

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In this book, Highland Gazette editor John McAllister is taking care of his fiancée, Joanne Ross – one of the reporters on the Gazette. In the previous book, Joanne received a brain injury at the hands of a psychopath, and she has not yet recovered. McAllister has taken her into his house to recuperate, along with her two girls, Annie, 11 1/2, and “wee Jean,” 9, as well as Joanne’s former mother-in-law, Granny Ross, who is helping with the girls.

The wedding they had scheduled is just six weeks away, but McAllister is full of misgivings:

What if she’s never herself again? What if Joanne is never again the woman I love, the woman I wanted to spend the rest of my life with?”

McAllister is ashamed of having these thoughts, and yet he can’t deny them. But in spite of his shame, he craves normality. He longs “to escape the troupe of doctors and nurses and police and friends and parents-in-law ….”

And there is more that is bothering McAllister. Although he transformed the Highland Gazette, elevating it from a boring local broadsheet, it will never be the kind of exciting career he had when he was working for Glasgow’s Herald as a renowned war correspondent in Europe. And Glasgow itself – so much more exciting than the sleepy, though beautiful, Highlands. The technicolor of his youth, he is thinking, has dimmed to sepia. McAllister is starting to feel very trapped, and spends much too much time drinking whiskey.

Just at his most vulnerable, McAllister is asked by an old friend, Jenny McPhee, to help find her grown son Jimmy, gone missing in Glasgow. McAllister’s mother, still in Glasgow, has also contacted McAllister about Jimmy. McAllister goes to his old workplace at The Glasgow Herald for help, and there meets Mary Ballantyne, a young (28), pretty, ambitious reporter who senses a good story and decides to help McAllister. McAllister not only has to navigate the dangerous waters of gang feuds in Glasgow, but deal with his own desires to escape his quiet life; damaged fiancée; inherited family obligations back in the Highlands; and his growing attraction to Mary and to the youth she represents. And while Joanne may not be herself, she understands enough to be terrified that McAllister may not return.

Discussion: Scott has taken us through the emotional ups and downs of these characters in previous books, and the realistic way they are drawn is very impressive. In addition, the author has a knack for making the settings come to life as well, whether the atmospheric beauty of the Highlands or desolation of the post-war landscape of Glasgow:

…it was a tall, soot-blackened tenement block, one that had survived the carpet bombing of Clydeside. They parked in front of an empty block, bright with fireweed and broken glass, which had not been so lucky. Shipyard cranes filled the skyline to the right. And litter and dust and empty dreams tumbled in a wind coming off the river.”

Scott also beautifully captures the guilt so many caretakers feel, with the feelings of being ready to scream from frustration and even resentment, while also hating themselves for wanting to escape.

Evaluation: I value this series more for the portrayal of life in the 1950’s Scottish Highlands than for the crime story per se. In addition, I have come to care about the characters, and look forward to seeing what befalls them. In spite of often having quite a convoluted mystery as the plot, these books stand out more to me as well-made portraits of a fascinating time and place, in which an endearing and very human group of people struggle to achieve self-fulfillment and happiness.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Atria, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., 2014

Review of “The Infinite Sea” by Rick Yancey

Note: There are no spoilers in this review (so basically I pretty much don’t say much of anything).

This is the second book in the post-apocalyptic series that began with the widely-acclaimed The 5th Wave.

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Book One primarily focuses on Cassie Sullivan, 16, who survives four waves of attacks by alien invaders which took the population of Earth from some seven billion to only a couple hundred thousand. Cassie has a number of goals: to stay alive, to find her little brother and rescue him if he is still alive, and above all, to stay human. To become like the aliens – blindly killing, lacking compassion, and never recognizing the value of individuals – is to lose the war in every way. The probability of Cassie attaining any of her goals is low, until she is offered help by another survivor, Evan Walker. But this is a world in which it is very difficult to determine who can be trusted, or who is even human, because the enemy looks just like us.

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Book Two continues this riveting story, and this time it is the girl Ringer whose point of view dominates. And in this book, the survivors start questioning all of their previous beliefs, because they just don’t make sense.

Discussion: Yancey has created a story in which a small number of people are confronted by overwhelming odds against the possibility of survival. Yet, he never causes us to lose faith in realism. Yes, there are some technological advances in the plot, but they don’t seem out of the realm of possibility. There are not happy outcomes for all the main protagonists – far from it. And most importantly, there are no deus ex machini to help anyone survive. Only two factors seem to make any difference whatsoever: luck, and love, and even those don’t always suffice.

Evaluation: This book is definitely not a standalone, but is a must-read for fans of Book One; it has some big surprises in store for those who are following the series. I enjoyed it a lot, but it is definitely a trilogy “middle child.”

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group, a member of Penguin Group (USA), 2014

Note: Hollywood is adapting the story, and has cast Chloë Grace Moretz as heroine Cassie Sullivan.

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Review of “The Way Life Should Be” by Christina Baker Kline

This book falls into the category of cooking-school-find-yourself-romance books, with a Maine setting and a lot of recipes for Italian dishes.

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Angela Russo, 33, is fired from her job as an events planner in New York City, and on a whim, packs up her things and drives to Maine. She had always been intrigued by the idea of a romantic cottage on the Maine coast, and had even initiated a real-life relationship with a guy she discovered through an online dating service calling himself “MaineCatch.” She initially goes to stay with “MaineCatch” (who is actually Richard Saunders), on a small Maine island called Mount Desert. But Rich is a “player” who is not really interested in anything serious with Angela. Now homeless, jobless, and without romantic prospects, she gets assistance from a local barista, Flynn, who gives her a job and helps her find a place to live.

Angela hadn’t been all that attached to her dad and stepmom, but had a close relationship with her Italian grandmother, Nonna, who taught her to prepare food with love and skill. This knowledge serves her well in Maine, after she starts preparing treats for Flynn to sell in the shop. The customers pour in, and Flynn helps Angela set up cooking classes. Thus, Angela gradually finds new friends, a new purpose to life, and maybe even love.

Discussion: If you like cooking and/or Italian food, you are bound to enjoy this book, which includes a number of recipes. I also appreciated the fact that Flynn, who is gay, is not a caricature, but just a regular very nice guy.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published in paperback by William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2014 (originally published in hardback in 2007)

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wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

Review of “Ancillary Sword” by Ann Leckie

Note: There will necessarily be spoilers for Book One in this series, but none for this book.

This is Book Two of a series which began with Ancillary Justice, a book that won just about every big award for science fiction and fantasy in 2013, including the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, the BSFA Award (presented by the British Science Fiction Association), the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the Locus Award. There is a lot of love for this series.

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In this universe far into the future, there are a number of beings who are massive entities with hive-minds that reside in multiple bodies at once. This is true of the Lord of the Radch Empire, a being who goes by the name of Anaander Mianaai. It was also once true of Breq, who used to be an “ancillary” or segment of the Justice of Toren, a massive starship. The Justice of Toren was destroyed by Anaander Mianaai, with only Breq escaping. Because Breq occupies just one body now, Breq can pass for human.

[I should note, as I did in the review of Book One, that in this future galaxy, gender is maybe a matter of choice, or maybe of convenience; it’s unclear. We don’t know what gender anyone is, but everyone is universally designated as “she” except in the case of children, who are noted to be “sisters” or “brothers.”]

In Book One, we learned that the Lord of the Radch is at war with “herself” over the destruction of an entire solar system some thousand years previously. The Lord has now divided into two factions, one good and one evil. It is of course pretty difficult to figure out which is which, and to support either one is treason, as far as the other is concerned. This puts citizens of the Radch in a very difficult position. Occasionally it is possible to infer which is which from the relative justice of the act being ordered by the Lord. When Breq was still part of the Justice of Toren, Anaander Mianaai ordered Breq to shoot her beloved superior, Lieutenant Awn, in the head. Awn had discovered the split in Anaander Mianaai, and refused to obey the orders of the faction she concluded was evil. Breq had no choice; Awn would die in any event, and she thought she would die as well. Indeed, the Lord destroyed the Justice of Toren; it was an accident that Breq escaped. Breq loved Awn, and never recovered from what she had to do.

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In Ancillary Sword, Breq has been sent by the Lord of the Radch to Athoek Station as Captain of the starship Mercy of Kalr. This assignment dovetails with Breq’s own needs, because she wants to find the sister of the late Lieutenant Awn, and offer her support. But the sister, Basnaaid, will have nothing to do with Breq. While at the station, however, there is plenty to keep Breq busy: she gets involved with the station’s management and with the vicious undercurrent of race and class conflict that officially doesn’t exist.

Breq, no doubt because of her own past as a former ancillary, is outraged at the way the underclass is treated by those who think they are better; it is slavery de facto if not de jure. In particular, workers from other planetary systems are used as the elite wishes to use them, including being denied sufficient food and education, and being taken advantage of for sexual and labor exploitation. Once again, the notion of “justice” becomes a critical point for Breq. The political philosophy of the Radch is summed up by the slogan: “Justice, propriety, and benefit.”

No just act could be improper, no proper act unjust. Justice and propriety, so intertwined, themselves led to benefit. The question of just who or what benefited was a topic for late-night discussions over half empty bottles of arrack, but ordinarily no Radchaai questioned that justice and propriety would ultimately be beneficial in some gods-approved way.”

But that has always been the problem of course, over all of time, and over the expanse of the known universe. Who gets to decide what is just? And now that the Lord of the Radch can’t even agree, the question is more salient than ever.

Discussion: I appreciated the first book for its distinctive innovativeness, but I struggled with all of the “alien concepts.” In this book, the “heavy lifting” of the world building has already been done, and the author can just get on with the story; it is much, much easier to read.

Also, in the first book, Seivarden – a sad case who was rescued and rehabilitated by Breq, here comes into her own as Breq’s most trusted lieutenants. She is not featured as much in the story, but when she is, her character evolution is clear, as is the fact that she thinks of Breq much as Breq once thought of Lieutenant Awn. It’s a nice symmetry.

Two digressionary notes:

1. There is a very funny moment in this book when Breq reflects on the “oddness” of the name of a visitor from another place. The person’s name is “Dlique.” Everyone stumbles over this name, which is a riot considering their names are, for example, Anaander, Raughd, Daos, Skaaiat, and so on.

2. In thinking about the hive-mind/multi-bodied nature of the ruler, it strikes me as a brilliant way to solve the problem of administering a vast empire; i.e., if one is able actually to be everywhere at once! This was always a problem in the past, with the Persians, Ottomans, Holy Roman Empire, etc. In our current political systems, we are quick to blame our leaders for not being omniscient, but it really isn’t possible. On Radch, however, the problem is solved!

Evaluation: This is a middle book – definitely not a standalone, but I found that, unlike many middle books, it is a better read than the first book. This is, however, only because I didn’t have to struggle with all the “out-of-the-box” concepts in this one. I know that readers either love these books beyond all reason, or find them “alienating.” I am closer to the former camp than the latter.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Orbit, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc., 2014

Review of “A Chain of Thunder“ by Jeff Shaara

This fictionalized account of the 1863 Civil War Siege of Vicksburg has good and bad points.

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On the good side, well, it’s the Civil War. You’ve got such great characters in Grant and Sherman, and Vicksburg was a truly momentous victory for the North, arguably more so than Gettysburg, which occurred at the same time. Vicksburg gave the North the control of the Mississippi – absolutely critical, although Gettysburg provided an unparalleled psychological boost. But in any event, both are exciting and inspirational stories. (Jeff Shaara’s father, Michael Shaara, won the 1975 Pulitzer Prize for his fictionalized account of the Battle of Gettysburg, Killer Angels.)

Shaara chooses to tell the story of the Siege of Vicksburg by alternating among five main points of view: Northern Generals Sherman and Grant, Northern soldier Fritz Bauer, Southern General Pemberton, and a young female civilian in Vicksburg, Lucy Spence. The inclusion of a common soldier and a common citizen is a welcome addition to the usual Civil War stories that focus on the generals.

William Tecumseh Sherman

William Tecumseh Sherman

Vicksburg was notable for so many reasons. One of the most important was the generalship of the Southern forces by John C. Pemberton. Pemberton was a Pennsylvania graduate of West Point who chose to support the South. He was also apparently a good friend of President Jefferson Davis, which, in addition to his northern birth, put him at odds with Joseph Johnston, who was in command of the entire Department of the West, and therefore Pemberton’s superior. Johnson could be said to be the sixth main character of this story, even though he was largely invisible (just like in real life….) Johnson, to paraphrase Civil War expert James McPherson, was Davis’s McClellan. He was loathe to bring his army to battle, but Davis couldn’t get rid of him for political reasons, just as Lincoln had difficulty firing McClellan.

Joe Johnston

Joe Johnston

At Vicksburg, Pemberton repeatedly wired Johnston for help, and Johnston repeatedly denied it to him. Then, after Pemberton’s surrender (unfortunately for Pemberton made on July 4), Johnston used his southern credentials and popularity to smear Pemberton, blaming him for what happened, and making sure he would never again be accepted as a commander.

Shaara does a good job of portraying Pemberton in a way that manages to get readers to feel undecided about him. He is shown as quite obnoxious, but still inspires sympathy. After all, he is trying his best to save Vicksburg, but no matter what he does, he is hated by the men for his northern origins. He reacts defensively and aggressively – which didn’t help his case much, although it may not have mattered to the Southerners even if he had not. It is also clear that Johnston bears a large part of the blame for the loss of Vicksburg. And of course, to some extent, up against the likes of Grant and a vastly superior supply train, it is probable victory was inevitable no matter what anyone did. (And to this end, Johnston may have been correct in refusing to sacrifice his men for a lost cause, but he didn’t have any problem sacrificing Pemberton and his men.) My only complaint about the depiction of Pemberton is that Shaara endlessly rehearses Pemberton’s anger over the lack of trust and respect given to him. Some serious editing would have helped.

John Pemberton

John Pemberton

I was a bit perplexed over the relationship between the fictional soldiers, Private Fritz Bauer and his supposed good friend, Lieutenant Sam Willis. Willis consistently treats Bauer contemptuously. It didn’t make sense to me. And Bauer is another character who goes on a bit too much and too long about his feelings during this engagement. It is certainly useful to show us war from the point of view of the soldiers: the fear, the comaraderie, the long hours of inaction and boredom, and the brief highs afforded by engagement. But again, it just got very repetitive.

In fact, almost all of the characters got repetitive and therefore boring, even Sherman. We don’t need more than one monologue to make the point about the nature their concerns.

Lucy Spense, 19, is a composite character made by Shaara, who drew upon four different diaries of Vicksburg female civilians. Her observations about the horror and terror and hunger of the siege were interesting, but her story was a bit mysterious as well. Her mother was dead, her father had abandoned her a long time ago, and she was a Southern Belle who didn’t work; how did she support herself? How did she feed and clothe herself and maintain her house? This was never explained. In his Afterword, Shaara tells what befell the main actors at Vicksburg after the surrender. He includes a paragraph about Spense (and some of the other fictional characters). I did not feel the Afterword was an appropriate place to mix fiction and non-fiction, at least not without acknowledging which was which.

Vicksburg after the surrender

Vicksburg after the surrender

Moving on to more positive observations, the battle summaries are good, and although the paper form of the book includes a number of maps showing troop movements, the text was sufficiently illuminating that I was able to follow the action without seeing them, since I listened to this book on audio.

Shaara also gave a huge amount of exposure and credit to the engineers on both sides, another aspect of battles not often discussed, but one particularly critical during a siege. Shaara shows in detail the outstanding job each side did working with shovels and trenches to maximize the effectiveness of weapons and artillery, and minimize the dangers from the other side.

Evaluation: It has to be said that with material like the siege of Vicksburg, it’s pretty hard not to make a pretty good story out of it. I would have liked to see some editing of the long interior monologues of some of the characters, but it was still an enjoyable story.

Rating:  3.5/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

Narrator Paul Michael is an actor, and he adopts different voices not only for each of the main characters but for a number of others in the book who play smaller roles. He does a fine job with the northern men, but I thought he fell short with the voices of Southern men and of the women. I think it is so much better when an audio production uses at least one member of each gender to tackle a number of mixed roles like this.

Published unabridged on 18 CDs (22 listening hours) by Random House Audio, 2013

Kid Lit Review of “Who Needs A Desert? A Desert Ecosystem” by Karen Patkau

This book aimed at children aged 7-10 explains in very simple language how deserts were formed and introduces readers to plants and animals living in deserts. There are intermittent colorful photographs and a small glossary in the back.

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I have a number of books on the desert, because we lived in the Sonoran Desert for ten years. Most of them are more attention-grabbing than this book, in the following ways:

1. Deserts have amazingly bizarre flora and fauna you won’t see anywhere else. This book provides no amusing or interesting facts about them (of which there are plenty) to create motivation for children to want to investigate further.

2. There are some nice photographs, but not nearly enough illustrations. I think that artistically rendered pictures with better labeling would be more attractive to children.

3. There is no guide whatsoever to pronunciation. Even adults who come late in life to the desert are surprised to learn the pronunciations for “saguaro,” “javelina,” “gila monster” and so on. Seeing all these new words without any clue of how to say them doesn’t seem helpful.

By way of comparison, Meet the Wild Southwest by Susan Tweit is full of fun information that children would love, such as how many rattlesnake bites occur a year, the poor vision of javalinas, the way lizards clone themselves, how birds build nests inside saguaros, and how hawks and hummingbirds hover, to name but a few. She also accompanies the text with drawings, pronunciation guides, and sidebars with projects, “hot tips” and miscellaneous facts.

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The Book of Answers about the desert by David Lazaroff takes the form of a question and answer book. While more detailed and suitable for readers at the older range of the 7-10 spectrum, it also has many drawings, pronunciation guides, and desert trivia. Produced by the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, The Book of Answers addresses questions Museum docents hear most frequently, and so serves as a useful indicator of what might capture the imagination of kids: How do javelinas differ from pigs? Are scorpion stings deadly? What is the difference between cacti and other desert plants? Why are some hot places not deserts? Like the Tweit book, this one has lots of fun vignettes about gila monsters, desert snakes, kangaroo rats, pack rats, and other unique desert denizens. It also gives a lot more background on phenomena like why the desert is so arid, and how the monsoons work. (Patkau talks about “desert rain” but doesn’t mention the monsoon phenomenon, nor does she mention “haboobs,” another aspect of desert life children would find fascinating and entertaining.)

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Evaluation: I would look for a more entertaining guide to the desert to give to kids. The desert is a fascinating place, but you wouldn’t know it from this book, which seems almost as dry as the desert itself. This is just my opinion, of course; the author has won a number of awards for her books for children.

Rating: 2/5

Published in Canada by Tundra Books, a division of Random House of Canada, and in the U.S. by Tundra Books, 2014

Review of “Hurricane” by Hugh Howey

Unlike the other books I have read (and loved) by Hugh Howey, this one is a “regular” book (not scifi, post-apocalyptic, or dystopian) for young adults about a hurricane that devastates the town of Beaufort, North Carolina.

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Daniel Stillman, 17, feels like an outcast in high school. He doesn’t fit in with any of the “cliques”: the jocks, the preps, the hipsters, the gamers…. He thinks he must be just too dull – he dresses in normal clothes, he lacks confidence with girls, and doesn’t even have a smartphone like everyone else. The other kids scorn him as a “rando, a creeper, a sketch.”

Then Hurricane Anna hits, with the eye right over Beaufort. Daniel and his family (mom, stepdad Carlton, and younger sister Zola) take refuge in the bathroom in the center of the house. Trees come down everywhere, and they end up with a big hole in their house. Daniel’s estranged dad shows up with a chainsaw, and they and the other neighbors set about the business of cleaning up and rebuilding.

With the power out for a week, suddenly people are forced to interact with one another rather than with their digital devices, and Daniel’s family gets to know each other and their neighbors really for the first time. Daniel meets a nice, smart girl only four houses away, ironically named Anna, who has been home-schooled, precisely to avoid the kind of social pressures that have tormented Daniel.

Evaluation: This is a very sweet and quiet story, with a sort of delayed impact, much as one might experience from being in the eye of a storm. Daniel has an appealing, self-deprecating sense of humor. Howey is adept at conveying the different fears and insecurities members of his family feel both before and during the storm. The family dynamics are well done, and Howey never sugarcoats the family’s relationship with either the Stepdad or the Dad.

I thought the blurbs about the plot misrepresented it. I found it to be a good coming of age story, not really a parable about digital overload.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Broad Reach, 2011

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