Tag Archives: female protagonist

20th Century Fox

The Informationist: A Vanessa Michael Munroe Novel by Taylor Stevens (Broadway, $14.00, 327 pages)

There’s a remarkable similarity to the opening scenes of The Informationist and Fever Dream by Preston and Child. Both tales begin in Africa and they contain some of the most electrifying examples of tension and suspense this reader has ever encountered.

The Informationist (nook book)

Vanessa Michael Munroe is the informationist. Her beauty and brains are surpassed by the cold-blooded determination she brings to each secret assignment that pays her well. Knowledge of many languages, national customs and human nature assist Michael, as she likes to be called, in succeeding on each job. Corporations, politicos and wealthy individuals have provided her with more than sufficient means to live a comfortable life; however, money and comfort do not motivate her. The assignment Michael accepts in this tale is to locate the missing daughter of a Texas billionaire. The daughter, Emily, was seen in the back country of Africa traveling with two young men seeking adventure.

As one might imagine there’s ever so much more to the assignment than travel to trace the path taken by Emily and her companions several years prior to the time of the novel. Michael visits parts of Africa where she grew up and learned quickly to fend for herself. Beauty, brains and agility mask the scars — both physical and emotional — that are at the heart of Michael’s very being. A woman as tough as Michael seems beyond the ability to feel love. Perhaps it was driven out of her by her mentor years ago.

Be prepared for a very quickly-paced adventure and be sure to sit in a corner where no one will be able to sneak up on you. Yes, The Informationist will pull you in and hold you to the very last page.

Well recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “…a protagonist as deadly as she is irresistible.” Vince Flynn, author of Kill Shot: An American Assassin Thriller.

James Cameron has bought the film rights to this female-driven novel, which he plans to produce and direct at some point in the future.

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Love Is All There Is

Yesterday's Sun (nook book)

Yesterday’s Sun: A Novel by Amanda Brooke (Harper, $14.99, 326 pages)

How can she choose between her child and herself?

If you’ve enjoyed reading Audrey Niffenegger’s unique novels (Her Fearful Symmetry, The Time Traveler’s Wife), you will likely find this debut novel by Amanda Brooke to be extremely engaging. Yes, there’s the calm countryside near London, time travel and spirits of a sort as provided by a magical device – an ancient Aztec moondial that, on full moon nights, enables its owner to travel 18 months into the future, for an hour at a time. Our female protagonist, Holly, fears she’d be a terrible mother – like her own parent, until she uses the moondial found in her new home’s garden to discover that she will give birth to a daughter, Libby. The problem is that Holly will die while giving birth, which means that she’s faced with the choice of never getting pregnant or sacrificing her life for that of a child she will never know.

Brooke does so much with this fascinating plotline and, like Niffenegger, drags us slowly into an alternate world presenting strange and dreadful choices…

Holly felt defeated and deflated. There were three whole weeks to wait until the next full moon… and Holly felt like her life had been placed in limbo. Dealing with the emotional fallout from this latest separation from (her husband) was bad enough, but living with the nagging doubts and the growing possibility that she had seen a vision of her future – one where she had already died – was just too much to bear.

Holly, fortunately, comes to know the elderly neighbor, Jocelyn, who once lived in her old rural home and knows the powers of the moondial, and the rules (“A life for a life.”) that apply to its use.

Her hands trembled as she held aloft her death certificate. The certificate recorded the cause of her death as an aneurism… following childbirth complications. Holly took a deep breath and focused on the sensation of her blood flowing through her veins and her heart beating rapidly in her chest. She was most definitely alive.

Holly barely survives the days between full moons, when she jumps into the future for 60 minutes and sees the results of her current life choices. She comes to find that some things about the future can be changed, and some cannot. And she’s faced with the ultimate choice: continuing her own life (seeing in her time travels that her husband Tom will be destroyed at her untimely death) or giving it up for the child she’s seen and come to love more than anything.

(Holly) looked up at the moon and realized that she didn’t have to wish for anything else. She had her husband and she had Libby growing inside of her and she would have both of them with her until the day she died.

Brooke supplies an almost perfect ending that will fool readers, like me, who suspect a different conclusion has been brewing. This novel, which evolved from the author’s loss of her three-year-old son, Nathan, from cancer, is both inspired and inspiring. It’s a fine tribute to Nathan Valentine and the power of eternal love.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. “Magical and unputdownable.” Katie Fforde

Yesterday’s Sun was released on February 12, 2013.

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Twist and Shout

The Expats

The Expats: A Novel by Chris Pavone (Broadway, $15.00, 352 pages)

The Expats by editor-turned-novelist Chris Pavone has all the twists and turns of a Robert Ludlum or Clive Cussler action-thriller, plus a domestic element that sets it apart from the pack: it plays the layers of duplicity in Kate and Dexter Moore’s professional lives against the secrets they guard from each other in their marriage.

Kate is a spy and a young mom – a smart, self-consciously attractive, nominally maternal, thirty-something who leaves a CIA career to stay home with the kids when Dexter lands a lucrative banking security job in Luxembourg. But nothing and no one in The Expats is as advertised. Kate’s nagging questions about her husband’s fundamental character spur her to investigate when she senses threatening intentions in a friendly American couple they meet in the ex-pat community in Luxembourg.

Don’t read it for shimmering imagery or deeply conflicted characters. It isn’t that kind of book. Kate is Jason Bourne in a skirt. She can remove herself from the Company, but she can’t squash the instincts that made her a hired gun. The Expats is a set of spiraling secrets, the exposition of which is played out in lushly detailed European cities.

In a Publishers Weekly interview in 2012, Chris Pavone said, “A detailed map of the story line was what made it possible to write such a labyrinthe book…” – in addition to a numbered list of twists and turns. Action thriller fans will love this one. Well recommended.

Kimberly Caldwell

A review copy was provided by the publisher. The Expats was released in a trade paper version on January 22, 2013. “Brilliant, insanely clever, and delectably readable.” Library Journal

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It’s the End of the World as We Know It

Trail of the Spellmans: Document #5 by Lisa Lutz (Simon and Schuster, $25.00, 373 pages)

I decided that sitting in a stairwell all night eavesdropping on a conversation in my own home was undignified, so I searched the office for a recording device that I could plant just outside the door.   Then I could listen from the luxury of the office.   Much more dignified.

Wacky, ironic, self-aware and irreverent are adjectives that sum up Isabel Spellman who is the narrator of the rather rambling and highly-entertaining journal of her family’s detective agency activities.   Their headquarters at 1799 Clay Street in San Francisco, California, also happens to be the family home.   Although this address is not really that of a home in San Francisco (a check of Google Earth confirms this fact), there are ample real locations in The City to validate Ms. Lutz’ familiarity with the locale.   She even goes so far as to disguise the name of a bakery in the Mission that has long lines in the hope that its fame will not be expanded by disclosure in the book.   My bet is that she’s referring to Tartine Bakery & Cafe at 600 Guerrero Street.

A family business like the Spellman’s presents opportunities to create intrigue and internal clashes.   The mix is enlivened by the presence of Demetrius Merriweather, a recently-released and wrongfully-convicted 43-year-old man, whose freedom after 20 years of incarceration is attributed to the efforts of the Spellmans.   When Grammy Spellman moves in, the family dynamics are tweaked beyond their usual passive-aggressiveness.

Lisa Lutz has enhanced the charm of this, her fifth book of the Spellman series, with illustrations and an appendix that includes background information on the characters, as well as documents referenced in the body of the story.

This reviewer caught herself laughing out loud on numerous occasions while reading this book.   Perhaps it’s time to read the rest of the series.   Hearty laughter is always a welcome accompaniment to a clever tale.

Highly recommended.

Ruta ArellanoTrail of the Spellmans (nook book)

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   The full title of the single from R.E.M.’s Document: R.E.M. No. 5 album is “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”   Another hit from that album was “The One I Love.”

R_E_M__-_Document

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Chook Lit

The Fine Color of Rust: A Novel by P. A. O’Reilly (Washington Square Press, $15.00, 283 pages)

I never bother locking the house in this kind of heat.   It we shut the windows we’ll never sleep.

Gunapan is a made-up name for a town in Australia situated within driving distance of Melbourne.   Author P. A. O’Reilly brings her reader into hot, dusty inland Australia with the sights, sounds and textures of rural life.   A seven-year drought has produced a landscape that begs to be soothed by rain.   Moreover, numerous ladies of the town have been deserted by their husbands, leaving them to care for the children.

Loretta Boskovic, the main character, is struggling at a low paying job to support her daughter Melissa and son Jake in the wake of husband Tony’s departure several years ago.   Norm, who owns the town junk yard, is Loretta’s best friend and confidante.   There are the usual class distinctions as wealthy land owners living nearby flaunt their leisure and luxuries.   They magnify the disparity between themselves and the ordinary folks in Gunapan.

The Fine Color of Rust is an engaging tale of persistence, friendship and commitment.   Loretta is a heroine who draws from her inner strength to fight the closure of Halstead Primary, the local school.   Her poverty in no way diminishes the quality of her efforts as she seeks to persuade local and central government officials to keep Gunapan’s school.   Melissa and Jake are vulnerable kids who long for their dad’s return to the family.

Be prepared to really care about the best characters in this story as each one is portrayed in-depth for the reader.   Although this is a novel, there are a few small mysteries that run like underground streams throughout.   Rather than propel the plot, they add dimension and motivation for Loretta as she follows her passion to keep Halstead Elementary from closing.

Readers of Sophie Littlefield’s A Bad Day for… series will enjoy this change of scenery.

Highly recommended.Fine Color of Rust (nook book)

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  “…a story about love, where we look for it, what we do with it, and how it shows up in the most unexpected places.”   Big Issue, Australia

Note:  Chook Lit (a bit like Chick Lit) is a slang term used in Australia to describe stories set in the Outback and/or those depicting the gritty realities of life in the rural areas of the Land Down Under.

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Starry Starry Night

Objects of My Affection: A Novel by Jill Smolinski (Touchstone, $24.99, 307 pages)

It is very easy to be drawn into this little story with a big message.   The narrator, Lucy Bloom, could be any single mom you know.   She cares deeply about her teenage son who has become a drug user.   As is her pattern in life, Lucy springs to action a little too late.   She sells her house to pay for his drug rehab stay in Florida.   Lucy, who wrote a book about organizing (Things Are Not People), happens to be out of work.   In a move to keep herself fed, she takes on the job of clearing the home of a hoarder.   The hoarder is approaching her 65th birthday and wants to put her home in order before the birthdate arrives.   Lucy has about eight weeks to accomplish the daunting task.

Both Lucy and the hoarder are mothers who have vastly differing views of life.   Each has a son and the sons seem to be similar in their self-centeredness.   While this novel is poignant from the perspective of each of the main characters, it also carries the message that being a mother does not mean losing yourself.   This reviewer found the message encouraging for parents.   It seems to say that realizing you own role in life as well as those around you is very important for each of us.

Author Jill Smolinski’s narrator, Lucy Bloom, is best summed up as self-effacing, yet not a total loser.   Lucy’s newly-found skills learned the hard way while clearing out the jam-packed house, include the value of recognizing true friendship and going after what matters most to her.   There is enough drama and suspense to keep the reader engaged and the dialogue is snappy without becoming a parody of the sensitive characters that populate this tale.

Highly recommended.

Ruta Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher.   “Simultaneously breezy yet thought provoking, this is a fun read that stays with you.”   Sarah Pekkanen, author of These Girls and The Opposite of Me.

 

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Turn The Page

An occasional column about book reviewing.

I.  Against the Wind

“What to leave in, what to leave out…”   Bob Seger

One thing that all book reviewers have in common is that they do a lot of typing.   These days, this means that the prime tool of the trade is not a portable Smith-Corona typewriter or an IBM Selectric but instead a computer – generally a PC Windows-based laptop or an Apple MacBook Air or MacBook Pro.   In order to find the best of these writing tools, reviewers like me can spend many hours – sometimes an inordinate amount of time, reading laptop/notebook reviews.

Something that has been surprising to me is how much space in modern computer reviews is devoted to discussing what is largely irrelevant.   For example, we’re often told that a particular computer screen is fine for most purposes but that the images on it quickly fade when the screen is moved 45 or more degrees – as if one might close it while still typing.   Frankly, I never  move the screen while I’m using my machine – I sit straight in front of it and never move either the screen or my body.   Which brings us to the next so-called “issue” covered in the majority of these reviews – we’re told that the monitor images tend to detiorate if you’re sitting three or four feet to the left or right of the screen.   Really?   Who types while sitting a bench-length away from the screen?

Some of the reviewer’s comments are so silly that I wonder where on earth they’re going to end.   I fully suspect one day soon I’ll read that a particular computer monitor does not offer good images when the machine is turned off; or when one stands to the back of the screen.   Clearly, this is true of 100 percent of television screens but no one would be crazy enough to call it to our attention.

What relevance does this have to the book reviewer?   Well, it brought home to me that fact that it’s key to leave in what’s important, while leaving out facts that the average reader would find to be irrelevant.   Let’s say, for example, that I’m reading a book – a family novel – in which the female protagonist lives in Denver, Colorado.   It might be relevant if I note that the protagonist’s brother is unlikable as he’s a violent womanizer and a drug abuser.   It’s likely not so relevant if I write that I didn’t like his character because he’s portrayed as being a fan of the Denver Broncos…  Yes, all information is not equally valuable.

Something else about computer reviews is that the reviewer often hedges his or her bets with some cheap disclaimer.   Instead of recommending or not recommending a machine, their review might go like this:  “The Emerson 15.6″ AMD dual-core laptop comes with a horribly glossy display, has an awful keyboard, a terrible trackpad, a battery that dies within 90 minutes, and is cheaply built.   But, if you’re looking for the most economical thing on the market that you can use to surf the web and send e-mails, it may be just the thing for you!”   The manufacturer, of course, will quote the last 7 words of the review, hoping that the prospective buyer doesn’t look up the full review.

Again, I think there’s a lesson to be learned here for book reviewers, which is to be true throughout the review.   Don’t take a position and then run from it with a potentially face-saving “out”.   Provide an opinion and stick with it – do the prospective reader-purchaser a favor by sticking with an honest opinion.   Do not hide your recommendation in the weeds.

II.  A New Issue

One new issue that’s popped up for me is that I’ll receive a book – actually an Advance Reader’s Copy (ARC) – weeks or months before it’s released and begin to read it.   I’ll then communicate with the author’s or publisher’s publicist and ask if I may post a review when I finish reading it.   Often the response is that they want me to hold off on posting the review until the release date or very close to it.   So I’ll close the book and, unfortunately, often never get back to it.   It becomes a lost book, an absent review because I could not write about it when I was ready.

I would love for some of these publicists and/or publishers to consider changing their stances.   Whatever happened to the view that some publicity is better than none?   And, confusingly, some publishers take the opposite stance – that all of the “buzz” about a book should come prior to the release date:  “If a book is not being talked about before its release date, it will most likely be dead on arrival.”

It’s a confusing world out there, including for the lowly book reviewer.   LOL

Joseph Arellano

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