Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Stranger by Harlan Coben

I read a lot of thrillers. I have read a lot of thrillers. I intend to continue reading thrillers. But I am pretty sure that Harlan Coben's newest, The Stranger, is going to end up being one of the best. The book has 56 chapters, and by Chapter 55 I still was not totally sure of what happened or who was to blame. Now that is some excellent story-telling!

The premise is somewhat familiar - husband finds out that wife has been keeping a secret from him for quite some time. Husband confronts wife. Wife gets upset and asks for "time" and takes off. Husband does not worry too much until wife is gone a little too long and cannot be reached. Husband gets nervous and starts looking for wife. Husband discovers bad guys are involved. Real bad guys. Cops may or may not be in on it. Innocent husband now perfect suspect.

Heard it before, correct?

But when Harlan Coben is doing the writing, it is all just a little different. And way better.

Good luck figuring it out ahead of time.


Read alike author: Linwood Barclay

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Family Fang by Kevin Wilson

The four members of the Fang family are far from your typical all-American family. Annie, the older of the two Fang children, is an actress who has been in a successful superhero movie. However, at the start of things in The Family Fang she finds herself in a mess. Her on-set protest about a topless scene she is supposed to do in a movie called Sisters, Lovers results in an internet scandal and in her losing her part in the next installment of the superhero movie franchise. Buster, her brother, has published two unpopular novels and is now writing an article for a men’s magazine on a group of Iraq War vets who have made shooting potatoes out of guns and cannons their post-war hobby.

But Buster and Annie’s lives are normal compared to the pursuits of their parents, Caleb and Camille. Or to put it more accurately, Buster and Annie’s lives are normal compared to the strange childhoods they spent performing in their parents’ performance art pieces. These pieces fell somewhere between experimental art and Candid Camera segments. One piece required Buster to pretend like he had lost his parents at the mall and then insist that a random customer at a department store is his mother. Another had Buster and Annie playing intentionally horrible music on the street with a “note that read: Our Dog Needs an Operation. Please Help Us Save Him.” While they played, their parents snuck into the gathering crowd and started heckling Buster and Annie, inciting the crowd until a riot nearly broke out. Most of The Family Fang alternates between chapters about the family’s past art pieces and ones that follow what is presently going on with the Fangs. This could make for a potentially sluggish read but author Kevin Wilson doesn’t allow this to happen. When the flashbacks are most successful they parallel issues Annie and Buster are currently dealing with.

Despite the wackiness, the characters are three dimensional, and Wilson creates a very plausible alternate reality. The humor is sharp, often laugh-out-loud, and there are plenty of plot twists. Most importantly, The Family Fang is likely to remind you of little that you’ve read before.


Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Third Bear by Jeff VanderMeer

When I think of short stories I tend to think of realistic fiction by writers such as Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, and John Updike. This type of short story has dominated annual collections such as The Best American Short Stories for quite a few years. But there is a different, often bizarre vein of short story that stretches most clearly back to Franz Kafka. Jeff VanderMeer’s short story collection The Third Bear very much follows in this vein.

The two most successful stories in the collection are “Finding Sonoria” and “The Quickening.” “Finding Sonoria” has something of a hard-boiled detective feel to it. The detective in the story accepts a case for a man who owns a stamp for a country that does not seem to exist. The man wants him to find out where the country is even though the internet comes up with no results for Sonoria.  “The Quickening” centers on a girl, her Aunt Etta, and a talking rabbit named Sensio. Aunt Etta has dreams of cashing in on Sensio’s ability to speak, and the whole story has a creepy, horror story quality to it. It’s not surprising that things don’t go the way the narrator’s aunt hopes they will. I highly recommend The Third Bear, particularly to readers who, like me, sometimes find contemporary short stories a bit dull.


Friday, April 3, 2015

The Cinderella Murder by Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke

The Cinderella Murder is second in a new series that was introduced last year by Mary Higgins Clark. Bestselling author Alafair Burke is joining her in this one and in future endeavors, and it turns out to be a pretty good match.

Laurie Moran is the producer of Under Suspicion, a reality based television series that revisits cold cases. She is also the mother of young son Timmy and daughter of retired policeman Leo. Laurie is thrilled to be given the opportunity to produce a segment on the death of talented, beautiful UCLA student Susan Dempsey, who was murdered more than a decade ago. No one has ever been prosecuted for the crime, but there are many suspects. One former roommate went on to to star in a Hollywood film (the part was originally supposed to be Susan's) and the other roommate dropped out of school and basically disappeared. Then there's the boyfriend - constantly cheating and no real alibi for the evening. Lab partner Dwight has always been in love with Susan. Did she turn his advances away?

Lots of theories, lots of players. Where will all of this take Laurie and her crew?

As she has been doing for decades herself, Mary Higgins Clark has it all figured out!


Read-alike: I've Got You Under my Skin by Mary Higgins Clark. This is the first in this series, although you do not need to read this one to enjoy the other.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach

Author Mary Roach enjoys exploring the unexplored, the odd, out right weird, and amusing details of events that are everyday (well her space travel book, Packing for Mars, may not cover everyday life, but it does look at space travel in a way that you won't find in most histories). Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers looks at the adventures a body can have once it is dead.

Bodies can be donated to science and used in research for car crashes (dummies can only tell us so much), provide practice for plastic surgeons, and used in anatomy labs for future medical professionals. Roach also covers organ donation, cultural and historical definitions of death and the soul, and an overview of death and the use of cadavers historically (at one point in a doctor suggested systematic tongue pulling for several hours to ensure that a person was truly dead). Other, slightly less known options include ecological burial  - at least in Sweden (which is more or less turning your body into fertilizer) and plastination, which is a way to preserve actual bodies for education (at the time of this book's publication The Body Worlds exhibit was not around, but now you can check it out in action the next time it's in Chicago).

While descriptions can be blunt and irreverent (although the overall book I found to be respectful) it was a fascinating, amusing, and thoughtful book to listen to.


Other books you may want to check out:
The Undertaking by Thomas Lynch
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes by Caitlin Doughty

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

150 Pounds: A Novel of Waists & Measures by Kate Rockland

Two successful bloggers, Shoshana and Alexis, meet on the Oprah Winfrey Show for a debate regarding weight and lifestyle. Alexis is very thin ( 100 pounds dripping wet!) and extremely rigid with her opinions about the kind of lifestyle women should maintain; Shoshana is much more relaxed (and larger - 215 pounds). Her attitude is be happy with the body God has given you and love yourself. 

Although there is not a clear winner of this debate, both women leave the show with a new determination to defend women of all body types. And this is where the novel gets interesting. 

Flaws and triumphs are revealed, as well as a new understanding of what fit and healthy really means.

150 Pounds is not a feel good book by any means, but I am sure many women (and men as well) can relate to yo-yo dieting and image worries. This novel offers a bit of dispensation if only for a little while.


Read alike author: Meg Cabot

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Seeing the Light by Rob Jovanovic

While beyond obscure in their brief time together, the late sixties/early seventies band The Velvet Underground has become almost legendary since their albums started getting re-released in the mid-eighties. You can now find deluxe CD box sets of some of their albums, such as a six CD version of their debut, The Velvet Underground and Nico. It’s not surprising, then, that a number of biographies have come out on The Velvet Underground, such as Rob Jovanovic’s Seeing the Light: Inside The Velvet Underground.

Jovanovic’s book spends most of its time on the band as a whole. He moves through the biographies of individual members quickly rather than getting bogged down discussing band members’ great grandfathers. This appealed to me as many biographies take 100 pages to even start to sniff the lives of their main subjects. The Velvet Underground was together from roughly 1965 to 1970 and, unlike other bands such as The Rolling Stones and The Beatles that were successful while they were together, The Velvet Undergrounds did not have constant media coverage. Despite this potential lack of sources, Jovanovic dishes out a lot of good information about the band’s albums and live shows. It also helps that for a period the band was managed by Andy Warhol, although their split with him was far from amicable.

Seeing the Light also doesn’t paint the best picture of Lou Reed, the group’s best known member. He comes off as a control freak and paranoid, but the book also investigates Reed’s innovations in song writing, particularly in terms of taking on edgy material such as drugs. Reed’s gift for melody and writing catchy material, most notably the classic Velvet Underground song “Sweet Jane,” is also explored.

If you’re a fan of The Velvet Underground or just know a few songs but would like to further explore their career, I highly recommend Seeing the Light.