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Category Archives: Fiction

Andrew’s Brain by E.L. Doctorow

Andrew's BrainPremise: Andrew is a brilliant cognitive scientist discussing the important events of his life with his therapist. As he talks about losing a child and a wife, Andrew wonders if he might be an agent of death.

In the back and forth narrative of Andrew’s Brain, we get an insight into what makes Andrew tick and the neuroses that inform his decisions. In order to cope with his losses, he floats from job to job, teaching high school and university classes, and working for the president of the United States who also used to be his roommate in college.

Themes: Loss and death is at the forefront of Andrew’s Brain. Andrew’s child dies from his first marriage, causing their separation. Andrew’s new young wife dies as a result of the 9/11 terror attacks. When he doesn’t know what to do with his new child, he takes the baby to his first wife, thereby losing everything in his life that he loves.

Andrew’s Brain also peers into human existence and consciousness as Andrew attempts to teach his students about how the human brain interprets information, and ultimately how human sentience works. In turn, the reader receives brief lessons in cognitive science.

Pros: Andrew’s Brain shows how people can react to loss in their grief in different ways. As Andrew loses children and wives through death and separation, he shares his feelings to his therapist. It’s probably the biggest redeeming quality of this book.

Cons: There is a lack of character development in Andrew’s Brain, including Andrew the protagonist. As Andrew talks about his life he looks upon most everyone else as beneath him, excusing his own behavior when he acts in much the same way. Andrew comes across as neurotic, and in contrast to the attempts to paint him as a genius he instead sounds mentally ill. Without naming him, this book also clearly speaks against a certain president during the 9/11 terror attacks, but it felt more like filler politicizing.

Recommendations: Andrew’s Brain comes across as self-righteous as it talks down to the reader in its self-indulgent philosophizing. With a few humorous moments and a serious look at loss and grief, this short book lacks compelling characters or a true conclusion. I haven’t read any other of Doctorow’s work, but unless you’re into existential intellectualizing through life, I doubt this would be the one to begin with as it doesn’t really go anywhere.

E.L. Doctorow’s website
Andrew’s Brain on Goodreads
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I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

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Posted by on January 27, 2014 in Fiction

 

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The Deep Zone by James M. Tabor

The Deep Zone (Hallie Leland, #1)Premise: A deadly bacterial strain is introduced into a military hospital in Afghanistan, and it is from there that it makes its way back to the United States. Common antibiotics aren’t working on this mutation, and the only hope comes from a “moonmilk” from the deepest cave in Mexico that has the ability to fight off the most powerful of pathogens. And the person who discovered the moonmilk must go back in to get more samples, even though she was fired from her position for unexplainable reasons.

Hallie Leland is an expert diver, caver, and microbiologist, and she is just the person for the job to find the one thing that can potentially save the lives of millions. Hallie has been added to an elite team of hand-picked people with very specific specializations of diving, caving, and cultural experience to go deep into the cave to obtain more of the moonmilk while doctors in the U.S. fight off the quickly spreading infection with available means. The doctors themselves risk exposure to the infection, while their last hope goes on an incredibly dangerous recovery mission.

With the burden for salvation solely on Hallie’s shoulders to obtain the moonmilk and bring it back to synthesize a cure for the deadly ACE bacteria, the real source of the outbreak comes to light with players working every angle to achieve their own goals. Some shady dealings with foreign governments and private corporations reveal the real threats to the country and the world.

Themes: Trust becomes a problem as those who Hallie could depend on before lose their credibility, while others regain trust that was broken when she was let go from her previous position. Trusting the government to make wise decisions and to handle this outbreak effectively becomes essential for this team going on the moonmilk recovery mission.

One major theme in The Deep Zone centers around the governmental and private response of a major epidemic. Turnaround times for vaccines and treatments must be factored against the time it takes for such an epidemic to spread. And individual officials working for their own benefit threaten the fabric of the governments they work for.

Romance develops, especially toward the end, as Hallie begins to care about a member of her team. The imminent danger helps to fuel the feelings that are growing, with the chance of loss of the other person at any moment.

Pros: James M. Tabor obviously knows his stuff and has taken the time to do proper research into many facets of the story, especially when it comes to certain details. Different types of gear for diving, climbing, weapons, medical technology, and caving are all over The Deep Zone. The terminology is accurate for all these aspects, making sure not to dumb down anything for the reader’s sake. The action is pretty solid for most of the story and you get a real sense of danger, becoming especially perilous for any and all characters at key points throughout the story.

Cons: There are simply way too many descriptions in The Deep Zone. We get details into the types of military gear being used, the types of climbing gear, even the types of medical gear. The author might know a lot about the subject and have done his research, but I just stopped caring about these things halfway through the book. And the romance between the protagonist and a not quite main character seemed forced. I got the sense she didn’t care for him at first and at some point that seemed to change inexplicably. There is some deus ex machina stuff going on at the end that isn’t quite explained very well. The book could have probably been cut down another one hundred pages and had a better clip than it does without losing much in the way of its tone.

Recommendations: The Deep Zone is a serious adventure novel that includes political and military intrigue suitable for anyone looking for a lengthy intelligent read. The characters are fine, if not somewhat taking on characterizations of various personality traits. The most consistent part of the book are where the author takes the time to share the details of his knowledge and research of every aspect of the story, some of which makes the book drag at times. The Deep Zone has a serious tone that is consistent throughout, with language and terminology that lends to a more mature and intelligent audience. With all that said, The Deep Zone has a lot of everything, including some decent action, adventure, political intrigue, and even a little romance thrown in. It would have been even better if it were a shorter book.

James M. Tabor’s website
The Deep Zone on Goodreads
Buy The Deep Zone on Amazon
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I received a copy from Goodreads to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on August 21, 2013 in Fiction

 

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Like Mind by James T. Wood

Like MindPremise: Corey Tosh is a slacker in Portland, Oregon who gets by on just enough work to survive, making sure to put out minimal effort in everything he does. That is why he responds to a Craigslist ad looking for medical test subjects in exchange for fifty bucks. Of course things go terribly wrong when people begin following him and trying to kill him. But in the process he discovers he has an amazing new ability.

Thankfully, the cute redhead from the medical office is there to help him. Anka is the prettiest girl who has ever talked to him, but she’s not really a nurse. She works for the NSA. She also doesn’t really find Corey’s continual pop culture references to be incredibly endearing, at least not at first. But Corey’s understanding of women is about as obscure as his constant movie quotes are to Anka.

Now they must find the doctor who performed the experiment on Corey’s brain because whatever the doctor did is killing him. They also learn that, of all the people trying to kill or kidnap Corey, nobody can be trusted, not even Anka’s boss at the NSA.

Themes: How do you learn new things? Do you need to see them done first or do you work through trial and error? Corey is forced to learn new things instantly, and with it comes the shock of being able to do many new things without the understanding of why or how.

Meeting Anka not only makes Corey evaluate his own understanding of women, but it also makes him look at himself and his past romantic relationships, or lack thereof. Corey does some soul searching on why all his relationships failed and what part he played in making them fail. It also helps him to understand what it is that some women find attractive, especially when it comes to Anka.

Like Mind also touches on government conspiracies, international spying, and terrorism through intertwined plots that quickly spiral downward in a race for their lives. Corey and Anka discover that who they can trust might not be those they first expected.

Pros: Like Mind is laced with humor that helps to make an otherwise typical chased-by-the-governments-trying-to-kill-you story into something more unique and fun to read. This book is pretty short, so the pacing is quick and the character exchanges are crisp. And if you have never been to Portland, Oregon or driven up through Washington, Like Mind is spot on, giving references to local landmarks and places to see such as Powell’s Books, the hipster culture, even down to the terrible traffic on I-5 and I-84 (the Banfield). I’m glad I got most of the movie and television references because most of them add to the comedic tone of the story. The editing is actually very good, especially for a self-published book.

Cons: Some of the humor will be lost on many readers as obscure movie and television quotes are thrown out mercilessly. I am certain that few will get every pop culture reference in Like Mind and will perhaps even find themselves connecting with Anka more than Corey in her constant eyebrow raising at his lame jokes. With it being Anka’s first assignment her nervousness and questionable abilities make sense, but I figured her training would have made up for some of these things. The one thing I noticed most with the editing was some missing or misplaced comma usage. We don’t learn the protagonist’s name until the third chapter, which makes the front end seem clipped, like there is something missing. And being a short book might not be a positive for some readers.

Recommendations: Like Mind is a quick, fun romp through Portland, Oregon with a local slacker making light of a government trying to kill him. I thought of the television show Chuck as I read Like Mind, but instead of a database implanted into Corey’s brain it is the triggering of mirror neurons allowing him to imitate everything he sees. I only wish the story was a little longer with some more context into why Anka would be interested in someone like Corey in such a short period of time, even with the stressful things they go through together. Like Mind actually gave me some hope that not all self-published books are terrible. In fact, this one is actually pretty good.

James T. Wood’s website
Like Mind on Goodreads
Buy Like Mind from Amazon
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I received a copy from the author to write this honest review. We also used to be roommates.

 
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Posted by on August 4, 2013 in Fiction, Romance, Science Fiction

 

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Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles by Ron Currie Jr.

Flimsy Little Plastic MiraclesPremise: Ron Currie is an author truly in love. The biggest problem is the woman he loves, Emma, may or may not return the sentiment, at least not in the way he thinks he wants. At Emma’s request, Ron banishes himself to a Caribbean island to write this book, that happens to be about Emma, and also to grieve the loss of his father to cancer.

Ron’s grief over the loss of his father and of Emma leads him to self-destructive behavior: getting into fights, drinking himself into oblivion, engaging in a physical relationship with another woman, and eventually faking his own death. The ramifications of his choices come piling on when he has to face the reality of the living and the people he has hurt along the way.

Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles pulls back the curtain of a mind obsessed with a woman and deeply entrenched in the reality of the world’s problems. What happens when the reality created in our own minds leaks into that of others? And then what happens when the truth is revealed and this false reality is unfulfilled?

Themes: Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is about obsession over a woman who will not fully have a man. Ron’s love for Emma is made clear to her, but she remains aloof. Even though she cares for him in some way, her inability to give herself fully to him keeps them apart.

This is also a story about love, for Ron’s obsession is based around his ability to only love one woman, Emma, even when he is with other women. His willingness to banish himself to an island is evidence of his love for her in spite of it being unrequited.

Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles shows us how people cope with loss. When Ron’s father is dying of cancer, and he eventually dies, Ron takes us through those last days of his father’s life and the aftermath of what happens when someone is gone from our life. The grief also comes out in his relationship with Emma, as he plunges into a self-destructive tailspin on a Caribbean island.

Pros: I found the narrative of Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles interesting, being first person and journal-like and feeling deeply intimate in the author’s mind. It clips along pretty fast, and jumps from topic to topic in a way that highlights the thought processes of a neurotic mind. The characters are key in making this story believable, especially considering the meta of wondering if this is really an autobiographical story.

Cons: Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is so packed full of profanity, sex, and moral depravity that made it difficult to read. The thought process was hard to follow at times, going from talking about his dying father to robots becoming self-aware and taking over the world. The neuroses of Ron Currie (character or author?) only speak to a lacking in a life seeking meaning and happiness in the wrong places. The main character comes off as egotistical and pretentious.

Recommendations: Even with a great amount of profanity and sex, my biggest problem with Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles is that Mr. Currie seems to equate reality with truth, and sets up philosophical arguments that are flimsy straw men. In spite of these things, Ron Currie, Jr. touches on some topics that are difficult to talk about but real: coping with death of loved ones and the loss of romantic love. I have a feeling anyone who reads Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles will have strong feelings of either liking or disliking it, but I think everyone who does read it will encounter a story that causes them to think about their own lives.

Ron Currie, Jr.’s website
Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles on Goodreads
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I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on February 7, 2013 in Fiction, Romance

 

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There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love StoriesPremise: Even in the midst of Communist Russia, perhaps especially in such a place, people desire human connection. In this collection of dark short stories, each person lives a life in close quarters with others, yet still can’t seem to manage healthy close relationships. Women reach out to married men for romance, men cheat on their wives looking for excitement, children desire affection, and all under the haze of alcohol to block out the pain they wallow in.

We bump against people every day. We make decisions that lead to unforeseen consequences. Those consequences are passed on through generations for more decisions to be made, and so on. This is the human condition. Underneath it all is a need for everyone to have love.

Themes: These short stories are proclaimed to be love stories, and that they are. But they are more. Each short story tells the tale of a person’s search for love, but also their desire to be loved and accepted, not always requited by others, but always searching.

On a general scope, the stories of There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself show us what life is like under an oppressive communist regime and the misery it can bring to the people. In their group apartments, basic needs are hard to come by as they share lives never quite having enough to get by, yet still somehow surviving.

Pros: More than anything, I felt a very human experience through these stories. They are far from flashy or even very exciting, but on the grand scale the views of these very ordinary people’s lives seem to create a spectrum of emotions both in the characters and in the reader. Whether it is pity, sympathy, sorrow, or hatred, you will feel something from reading these so-called love stories. You may not be able to relate directly to the characters in their circumstances, but there will be some sense in which you can relate to what they are feeling in spite of their circumstances.

Cons: Some of the things in There Once Lived a Girl can be difficult to relate to because of culture gap from not living in a communist country. Most of the amoral decisions made by characters, including promiscuity, women chasing after married men, men beating and cheating on their wives, and an overall drunkenness in the culture seemed to be a self-fulfilling prophecy. This was probably the most difficult thing to see past while reading this collection, not to mention it is fairly depressing.

Recommendations: There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself brings to light the lives of everyday people living in misery under the oppressive Soviet Union. The stories illuminate our interconnectedness and what it really means to be human. We each have, on some level, a desire for love, acceptance, and self-worth that can only be fostered through relationships with other people. Through these characters, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya makes us see other people with more sensitive eyes and with the realization that each of us has our own story to tell. Give this collection of dark short love stories a chance and you might just find yourself appreciating the loved ones you have even more.

There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself on Goodreads
Buy There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister’s Husband, and He Hanged Himself on Amazon
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on January 27, 2013 in Fiction, Romance, Short Story

 

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The Darlings by Cristina Alger

The Darlings: A NovelPremise: When Paul Ross loses his job, it is a no-brainer to go work for his father-in-law, Carter Darling, as general counsel for his hedge fund. Paul’s marriage to Merrill has been one of privilege now that he is a part of the Darling family, whose lavish parties and weekends in the Hamptons have become common practice. However, in the midst of the 2008 market crash, all eyes are on the financial industry and Paul might have found himself put in a dangerous place right in the middle of it.

When a tragedy hits the Carter family and one of Delphic’s funds is under suspicion, the Carter family comes together. Paul is thankful to be one of the family, and his first inclination is to defend Carter and the company. When suspicion is pointed to Paul after only working at Delphic for a couple months, he must decide between going out of his way to clear his own name or be willing to protect his family in spite of what he knows to be right.

Themes: Family loyalty is probably the most prevalent and obvious theme in The Darlings. In the middle of Ponzi schemes and media outcry, what will a family do to protect those they love, even if it means putting out their own neck for them? This might also ultimately mean covering up indiscretions and put protecting family over telling the truth.

The Darlings also makes the reader consider the dangers of the pursuit of riches. In the middle of Wall Street scandal, riches were made at the expense of many others, and those riches can be so quickly taken away if ill-gotten or unwisely spent. Even with so many possessions, morals seem to be more easily thrown aside for the sake of keeping a lavish lifestyle.

Pros: If making every character unlikeable was the goal, Alger succeeds in The Darlings. She does a good job of laying out the lives of the New York elite, and the financial and legal lingo are accurate as far as my knowledge of those two worlds goes. The story takes place in about a week, which helps to keep the pace quicker. The writing is good, especially as it paints the setting and characters with great detail.

Cons: I wasn’t sure who I was supposed to like or dislike since I ended up disliking every character. Perhaps it is because they all come off as pretentious rich people, which is ultimately what they are even for those who lose everything. With characters talking about living in Manhattan and their homes in the Hamptons, and then how living in the suburbs is so terrible, it is difficult to feel sorry for any of them, including those we are supposed to like. I believe the word is “clueless” as to their knowledge how most people in the country live. Hating every character doesn’t make me like the book more; quite the opposite.

Recommendations: I don’t normally read fiction like The Darlings, but it ended up being more interesting than I expected. Though it lacks real punch in the way of action, there is enough intrigue here to form a thriller out of the boring setting of the 2008 financial crisis. With a more likeable protagonist I think The Darlings could have possibly succeeded even more, though it might have made it blend in with all the other underdog attorney novels caught in a power struggle like most John Grisham legal novels. Those with a legal or financial background might take to The Darlings more readily. If anything, reading The Darlings might make you more thankful for  what family and possessions you have or realize the pursuit of those things only makes the fall from grace that much greater. The Darlings is a solid debut novel from Cristina Alger. I only hope her next book will have at least one character that isn’t a wealthy, pretentious jerk.

Cristina Alger’s website
The Darlings on Goodreads
Buy The Darlings on Amazon
Download The Darlings for your Kindle
I received a copy from the publisher to write this honest review.

 
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Posted by on December 23, 2012 in Fiction

 

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The Merchant’s Daughter by Melanie Dickerson

The Merchant's DaughterPremise: Annabel Chapman comes from a wealthy family, but when her father dies and the family accumulates debt, they must work in the fields to pay off what they owe. When Annabel’s family refuses to work, she either must agree to marry Tom the Bailiff, who has offered to pay their debt for them, or work in the home of the new lord, Ranulf le Wyse, in order to repay it. Lord le Wyse has a reputation of being harsh and uncompromising, and he wears a beard to cover a scar on his face, which all adds to his fierce countenance.

Annabel proves to be a hard worker, but continually finds herself bumping into Lord le Wyse in awkward situations. Their relationship becomes complicated when they begin to develop feelings for each other, though they are conflicted with how they really feel. Lord le Wyse bears the pain of losing a child and a wife, and Annabel has dreams of becoming a nun, so romance is the last thing either of them want. Since Annabel can read and has always wanted to read the Bible for herself, she jumps at the chance to read to Lord le Wyse. It is during these nightly readings that their relationship becomes confusing, but it is also a time when they gather answers to questions they have about life.

Things come to a head when Bailiff Tom is injured when trying to take advantage of Annabel in the woods. She is quickly suspected of injuring him but refuses to reveal the truth in order to protect someone else. Ranulf le Wyse faces a revolt incited by Tom and Annabel must make the decision to save her own life by fleeing to the convent or staying to defend Ranulf’s honor. It is during this time that everyone’s true feelings come to light.

Themes: The Merchant’s Daughter is a romance, bringing together people who are initially not attracted to each other but begin to see the good in each other through adverse circumstances. Lord le Wyse initially comes off as mean and Annabel desires to become a nun, but their desires to be alone are slowly changed as they spend more time together.

This is also a story of faith and seeking truth. Annabel has never seen a Bible, let alone read one, and her dreams of becoming a nun stem from her deep-rooted desire to read the “Holy Writ” with her own eyes and thoughtfully come to conclusions based on her own reading. Ranulf has a Bible and allows her to read to him, and their reading and accompanying conversations lead them to deep discussions about faith, contrasted by the sermons of the local priest.

With the historical medieval setting of The Merchant’s Daughter, there is also a vein through the story of the separation of classes. We have lords controlling land and the peasants they oversee, kings who rule and those who judge on their behalf, and a sense of duty, both for the peasants to work for their lord and for the lords to protect and provide for those people. Questions of propriety come up, with Annabel being a servant to the lord, along with her desire to read the Bible to make her own decisions of her faith.

Pros: It is humbling how easy it is to take the printed and written word for granted, especially the availability of a Bible for people to read. It was refreshing to read a romance that didn’t focus on sex as the basis for a relationship. I was thankful that the main characters struggled with their faith and didn’t make blind assumptions. They ask valid questions that are relevant to everyone who has questions about belief in God.

Cons: The Merchant’s Daughter suffers from too much telling and not enough showing. Some additional dialogue would have helped, but I can see how this might have taken away from the tension between the characters. Annabel seemed a little too perfect as a character, being kind and beautiful and virtuous in all ways. A couple of the supporting characters felt unnecessary, especially Gilbert Carpenter, who could have probably been omitted or combined with another. The Merchant’s Daughter might be considered preachy for some, but this can be easily accepted if the reader opens the book knowing that it is Christian fiction.

Recommendations: For a clean, Christian retelling of the classic Beauty and the Beast fairy tale, The Merchant’s Daughter does a satisfactory job. There is some violence and attempted rape, but it is not in any way graphic. The romance is palatable, though I am certain I am not really the intended audience. This would probably be more entertaining for a female teen than an adult male. Give this a chance if you are looking for historical fiction with a good message or if you simply like fairy tales and are looking for a different take on a classic.

Melanie Dickerson’s website
The Merchant’s Daughter on Goodreads
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Posted by on September 12, 2012 in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Romance

 

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