Archive for February 2018

Like a Champion by Vincent Chu


Let's take a moment to talk about reading slumps. Whether you read a book every once in a while for pleasure or rely on a strict schedule to maintain your reading goals or posts, everyone finds themselves in a reading slump. There are days when even my favorite genre or author can't inspire me to pick up a book. As a blogger who maintains a precise reading schedule, I've developed many tactics to pull myself out of the dreaded reading slump. For years now, one of my go to strategies has been to read short stories. The short nature of these works naturally lends themselves to being read in quick bursts. I love that I can sit down for a few minutes and blow through a story. Soon, I'll find myself back in the swing things. Even better, finishing short stories gives me the feeling of accomplishment that I need to persuade myself to venture back into larger books.

In his debut collection of stories Like a Champion, author Vincent Chu celebrates the victories of everyday life. No matter how large or small, we face a variety of challenges as we go through life. In his collection, Chu presents a multitude of stories that feature characters becoming champions of their own situations. One story in particular captured my imagination in both the innovative way in which it is presented and the universal charm of the characters. Through a series of instant messages, Chu tells the story of a couple interacting on an online dating site. The pair instantly hits it off, but is hesitant to meet in person. Chu deftly captures the reality and uncertainty of dating in the modern age within a minimal narrative structure. The simple story ended up being one of the most emotionally resonant and creative in the entire collection.

Another tells the story of a man taking a cruise. He is unenthusiastic about the forced relaxation and questionable quality of the ship. He can think of much better ways to be spending his time. Through dated diary entires, he complains about the amenities that other guest seem to be throughly enjoying. Slowly, he begins to relax and appreciate the time he is spending on the ship. Chu hints at deeper emotional turmoil that gives the charter a depth that is ever present despite the simple presentation of the story. In the end, the man faces victory in learning to appreciate the down time he has in life. At the same time, the story provides a larger lesson in appreciating what you have while you have it. After all, nothing lasts forever.

Other entries in the collection are more traditional in their presentation, but equally engaging and moving. Chu effortlessly writes stories that give readers insight into the "slice of life" moments of challenge and triumph. I found myself flying through the pages and wishing for more time with each of the characters I encountered. The stories in Like a Champion satisfied my craving for easily digestible fiction and left me yearning for more. Even better, the quick pace of each story was the perfect remedy for the pesky reading slump I was in. Chu is a natural storyteller whose penchant for relatable characters and inventive presentation will satisfy everyone who reads his stories.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2018, 9)

Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff


I went back and forth on reading and reviewing this book. I try to keep my reviews free of politics, and I typically like to think of my opinions as balanced. President Donald Trump usually incites the exact opposite. Most people are either staunchly supportive of him in everything he says and does or 100% against him. There's little middle ground. Still, there is no denying that Michael Wolff's account of the President's first 100 days in office has become part of the national conversation. As a person who writes a weekly review of books, how could I not read one of the most buzzed about books of the year?!

The President has brushed off Wolff's book as little more than tabloid gossip. To be fair to Mr. Trump, Wolff does little to protect himself from these accusations. Wolff starts the book by stating that the version of events he presents is his best representation of the truth based upon the varying versions he heard in interviewing White House staff. The varying renditions of events can only add to the confusion of where the truth lies. Further, Wolff never provides direct quotes or references as is the norm in other works of non-fiction.

Despite all of this, the most incriminating portions of the book are directly quoted from the President's campaign speeches, tweets, and press briefings. To the approval of his supporters and horror of his detractors, Donald Trump has never been one to mince words. He says exactly what is on his mind. That being said, reading the often incoherent ramblings of the President printed in black and white can be quite alarming. These irrefutable quotes seem to support Wolff's claims that Trump is ill informed about most of the big decisions he faces.

Wolff also touches upon the alleged disfunction among the White House staff. He maintains that the President's background in business makes him more focused on the "big picture". Because of this, the smaller staff positions that make the larger machine that is the US Government fucnction have not been filled. Beyond that, there is a war for the President's attention and policy that was between three sections of American Politics. Steve Bannon represents the interests of the alt-right of the Republican Party, Reince Priebus lobbies for the interest of the traditional/establishment Republicans, and Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner vie for the more liberal interests. This collision of ideologies coupled with the President's lack of governing experience, Wolff conjectures, caused Trump to not achieve any significant legislative victories during the first part of his presidency.

For as much media attention and hype that Fire and Fury has received, I was surprised at how little of the book was shocking or presented new information. Even the more inflammatory excerpts that made headlines are not so crazy. For example, one passage about Ivanka making fun of and describing the formation of her father's infamous hairstyle was actually a quote from years ago when she was a college student. History will ultimately be the judge of Donald Trump's time in office. Because much of Michael Wolff's more explosive claims are not verified by any specific source, I'm not sure that Fire and Fury will be remembered as part of that history. Rather, supporters of the President will likely not be swayed by Wolff's claims while detractors will use it to further fan the flames of their discontent.

For more information, visit Amazon and Goodreads.

(2018, 8)

Fierce Kingdom by Gin Phillips


"That is what you do when you have a child, isn't it, open yourself up to unimaginable pain and then try to pretend away the possibilities."

I finished reading this novel last week on February 13th. I was prepared to write a review the next morning and get it posted by that night, but another story took over my consciousness instead. After the horrific shooting in Parkland, I couldn't bring myself to write a review of a book about a mass shooting. The fiction was just too close to the real world for me to understand. These things are only supposed to happen in books. Almost a week later, I've finally been able to gather my thoughts enough to share them with you.

Joan has found the perfect spot at the local zoo for her and her four-year-old son Lincoln to relax. The little corner is just off the path enough for them to enjoy their afternoon uninterrupted by the other visitors. Their trips to this exact spot have become a ritual that allows Joan to relish her time with Lincoln, time that she knows won't last forever. He's simply growing up too fast. But for now at least, everything is perfect. Joan patiently coaxes her son to gather his things in preparation for the closing of the zoo. They only have a few more minutes to travel across the park before the gates are locked. That's when she hears the loud bursts of sound echo through the trees.

Unalarmed at first, mother and child make their way toward the exit. They are jolted to a stop when Joan notices the motionless body lying in the pathway. Further down, she spots a man sporting a rifle, and all the pieces fall into place for her. Joan desperately searches for a place to hide. Ironically, the little piece of paradise that has always brought joy to her and Lincoln has become the place of nightmares. She settles on an abandoned exhibit, hiding behind the rocky landscape of the enclosure. As the book progresses, she continues to navigate the situation through tense and terrifying moments of life and death.

Much of the criticism I've seen of this novel focuses on the perceived implausibility of Joan's actions. Frankly, I was never aware of this until reading reviews. Author Gin Phillips immediately captured my attention and held it through each tense moment. Beyond the suspense, Phillips tells of a beautiful and intimate relationship between mother and child. Through flashbacks and internal thoughts of Joan, we learn the little details of her relationship with Lincoln, a relationship that brings authenticity to both characters. Fierce Kingdom is a brilliant novel of suspense that also managed to capture my heart with an honest portrayal of mother and child. The horrific details of the news coming out of Florida has made this story all the more real to me. The heartache, anger, and passion that Joan displays within the pages of the novel mirrors the real life agony of all those affected by gun violence. Phillips also provides a larger message for those tragedies. By placing the love between mother and child in the middle of the horrors of the shooting, she reminds us that the world is not all bad. "There are beautiful things. Pay attention."

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2018, 7)

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer


Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer has been on my radar for several years now. The acclaim and notoriety that is received immediately following publication inspired me to instantly add it to my TBR list. Then, as often happens with books on that list, I ignored it for several years. The announcement and intriguing trailer of a film adaptation of the book brought it to the forefront of my list again.

The novel immediately presents itself as an eerie mix of sci-fi thriller and character drama. A group of women explorers have set out on an expedition to Area X, a mysterious portion of land that has been enveloped by a transparent border. Everything within the confines of Area X disappeared, and the remaining ecosystem has been vastly changed ever since. The explorers, made up of a Biologist, Linguist, Psychologist, Surveyor, and Archeologist, set out on a mission that is shrouded in secrecy. They are not even allowed to reveal their names to each other.

We learn of this strange place through journal entries written by the Biologist. As the unit advances deeper and deeper into Area X, the unusual nature of the place is slowly revealed to us. There is a blaring sound that trumpets through the bizarre landscape each night. Much of the novel focuses on a tunnel that the squad comes into contact with, though oddly the Biologist is convinced it is more of a tower than tunnel. The walls are covered in a writing that seems to be alive. More mysterious, it seems as if someone or something is still in the process of writing it.

Despite the allure of the high-concept sci-fi that the novel provides, the slow pace, distant characters, and no real ending really kept me from enjoying Annihilation. The book is only a couple hundred pages long, but I could never find a comfortable rhythm while reading it. We purposefully don't know the characters names, and their backstories and motivations are revealed through small anecdotes provided by the Biologist. I found that this unknown made it difficult to grasp onto any of the characters. The hints of a really great story made what I read all the more frustrating. The novel is the first part of a trilogy, but I'm not sure there are enough redeeming qualities to continue reading. Oddly, I'm still excited about the movie. This may be a rare case where I'm okay with the filmmakers drastically modifying the story from the book.

For more information, visit the author's website, Amazon, and Goodreads.

(2018, 6)

The Swedish Girl by Alex Gray


Another gripping Lorimer novel from Alex Gray, evoking Glasgow like no other writer can

When Kirsty Wilson lands a room in a luxury Glasgow flat owned by Swedish fellow student Eva Magnusson she can’t believe her luck. But Kirsty’s delight turns to terror when she finds the beautiful Swedish girl lying dead in their home and their male flatmate accused of her murder. Kirsty refuses to accept that he is guilty and, inspired by family friend Detective Superintendent Lorimer, sets out to clear his name.
Meanwhile, Lorimer calls on trusted psychologist Solly Brightman to help unravel the truth behind the enigmatic Eva’s life and death. But it is not long until another woman, bearing a marked resemblance to Eva, is brutally murdered. Horrified, Lorimer realises that Kirsty could be right. Is it possible that Glasgow’s finest detective has put the wrong man behind bars? And is there a cold-blooded killer out there orchestrating the death of the next innocent victim?

Book Details:

Genre: Mystery
Published by: Witness Impulse
Publication Date: January 9th 2018
Number of Pages: 368
ISBN: 9780062659255
Series: A DCI Lorimer Novel, #10 (Stand Alone)
Purchase Links: Amazon  | Barnes & Noble  | HarperCollins  | Goodreads 

Read an excerpt:

From Chapter 9
Kirsty turned the key in the door and closed it behind her with a sigh. The hall was in darkness and there was no sound coming from the living room. Her shoulders moved up and down in a shrug of resignation; she was alone in the flat again. Then she remembered. Wasn’t there some party that Eva had mentioned? They’d all be there, wouldn’t they? Pulling off her thin raincoat and hanging it on the old-fashioned wooden coat stand, Kirsty sauntered into the bedroom next to the front door, unbuttoning her jacket. It was fair handy having this big room to herself, especially when she was working late shift at the hotel. Nobody would be disturbed by her comings and goings. She took off her shoes and tossed her jacket, bag and mobile phone onto the bed. Oh, it was good to be home. A wee cup of hot chocolate and some of her own gingerbread would go down well, she thought, already imagining her teeth sinking into a thick slab of treacly cake.
She stopped for a moment, listening. There was a swish then a click as the front door opened and closed again. Then, nothing.
‘Colin? Is that you back already?’ Kirsty wandered out into the hall, her bare feet sinking into the pile of the hall carpet, still thick and soft despite all their winter boots tramping back and forth. Eva’s father had spared no expense in doing up this flat for his daughter and Kirsty Wilson was grateful for those small luxuries that were absent from most of her friends’ student flats.
Frowning slightly, Kirsty padded down the unlit corridor, one hand out ready to flick on the light switch as she reached the kitchen. But something made her turn left into the living room instead, just to see if anyone was at home after all.
At first she imagined the girl had fallen asleep, sprawled out in front of the television.
Kirsty moved forward and bent down, expecting the girl to sit up and yawn. One hand reached out to touch the back of her head but then she drew back as though guided by some inner instinct.
She stood up again and stepped around the recumbent figure, unaware that she was holding her breath.
Then, as Kirsty saw the expression in the dead girl’s eyes, the thin wail escaping from her open mouth turned into a scream of terror.
* * *
Detective Superintendent Lorimer crouched over the body, aware of the sounds of voices coming from the hall. The dead girl was lying on her back, one arm flung out, the fist curled tightly in the moment of death. Her head was bent to one side, blond hair partly obscuring her features, but Lorimer could see enough to make him wonder about the cause of death.
‘Manual strangulation?’ he asked, glancing up at the consultant pathologist who was kneeling on the other side of the girl’s body. The on-duty pathologist tonight was his friend, Dr Rosie Fergusson. He glanced at her with his usual admiration for her calm efficiency, knowing how different she could be at home as a doting mother and as the wife of Professor Brightman, an eminent psychologist and sometime criminal profiler who had worked with Lorimer in the past.
‘Looks like it,’ Rosie murmured, her gloved hands smoothing the hair from the victim’s face, letting Lorimer see for the first time what Kirsty Wilson had found earlier that night.
Eva Magnusson still had that ethereal quality in death that had captivated those who had gazed upon her: Lorimer saw the perfect oval face with flawless skin and bow-shaped lips that were slightly parted as though she had been taken by surprise. He watched as Rosie reached out to close the dead girl’s eyelids, seeing for the final time those pale blue Scandinavian eyes staring out at a world that had proved less than kind.
Excerpt from Swedish Girl by Alex Gray. Copyright © 2018 by Alex Gray. Reprinted by permission of Witness Impulse, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. All rights reserved.

Author Bio:

Alex Gray was born and educated in Glasgow. After studying English and Philosophy at the University of Strathclyde, she worked as a visiting officer for the Department of Health, a time she looks upon as postgraduate education since it proved a rich source of character studies. She then trained as a secondary school teacher of English. Alex began writing professionally in 1993 and had immediate success with short stories, articles, and commissions for BBC radio programs. She has been awarded the Scottish Association of Writers' Constable and Pitlochry trophies for her crime writing. A regular on the Scottish bestseller lists, she is the author of thirteen DCI Lorimer novels. She is the co-founder of the international Scottish crime writing festival, Bloody Scotland, which had its inaugural year in 2012.

Catch Up With Alex Gray On: Website, Goodreads, & Twitter!


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