Friday, March 31, 2017

Crosstalk by Connie Willis

Reviewed by Jeanne

Briddey Flannigan pretty much has it all.  Not only does she have  a good job at communications giant Commspan, but she has landed possibly THE most eligible bachelor at the company.  Trent is not only a fast rising executive who drives a fabulous car, he’s gorgeous to boot.  And he’s serious about the relationship!  He wants them to have an EED, a procedure in which a neurosurgeon gives them both implants to enhance their mutual empathy.  It’s all the rage; all the best people are getting them.  What could possibly go wrong?

The only problem is trying to keep it a secret until after their engagement.  Gossip spreads at the speed of thought not only at Commspan but through Briddey’s nosey family as well.  The best she can hope for is to try to misdirect them, at least after the operation and she and Trent connect.  That could be filed under “Easier Said Than Done.”

Every time I start a Connie Willis novel, I get a bit impatient.  There is usually a good bit of set-up for the first part of the book: family entanglements, romantic attachments, disagreements, all done with such a light touch that it seems like fluff.  Then the plot really gets rolling and most of the “fluff” turns out to be groundwork for important developments later. At the end of the book, I’m stunned, amazed, and delighted.  As soon as my senses recover from the roller coaster ride, I find myself thinking, “How’d she do that?”

That’s why I tell people Willis’ writing is deceptive. It only seems light and superficial when in fact she makes a lot of interesting social commentary along with a good tale well told. For example, she shows us a hyper-connected world, where Briddey is flooded with communications from all sides, leaving her overwhelmed —and yet the thought of NOT being connected is, well, unthinkable.  People are constantly buffeted by texts, emails, phone calls, Skype, FaceTime, and messages; they long for peace and privacy but can’t bear the idea of being left out of the loop.  Briddey sometimes feels she’s drowning in communication but there’s no filter, nothing to separate truth from fiction, vital from trivial.

And information is everywhere, correct or not.  Rumors fly about office romances, industrial spies, lay-offs, what the competitors are planning, the Next Big Thing, who’s about to be promoted, and who’s about to be fired. In her family, Aunt Oona, having been schooled in the fine art of texting by Briddey’s precocious niece Maeve, bombards her with reminders about Daughters of Ireland meetings, her sister Mary Clare frets about anything Maeve does, pre-teen Maeve struggles to have some independence from her mother’s strictures, and sister Kathleen encourages her to try all the new dating sites, from Tinder to JustDinner to Latte’n’Luv (for people who think a meal might be too much of a commitment.)

That’s another strength for me.  I like the way she creates memorable characters, people I’d love to meet, from Aunt Oona and her love for the Ould Sod to messy but cute C.B. Schwartz holed up in the basement office.  I’d like to take Maeve out for ice cream just to hear her relate the plot of the new zombie movie she’s not allowed to watch (but has) and have her teach me how to program my phone.

I also feel the need to memorize the shapes and colors of the Lucky Charms marshmallows. You’ll know what I mean if you read the book.

Willis’ writing can be sweet, but it’s never saccharine, and it always comes with a side of satire.  She has a sharp sense of humor and a good eye for how people manage to bog down in the trivial, missing the big picture.   There’s also a sense of hope. This isn’t to say things always work out as I think they should or that no tragedies occur; it’s just that there’s a core belief that there is some good in people; maybe not all people, but just enough.   Most of all, I know I can count on Willis for likeable characters, an entertaining story, some thought-provoking concepts and commentary, and passages I will long to read aloud to someone else.  Also, I’ve found that after reading a Willis book, time and time again I will come across something that will remind me of some passage or incident.  I firmly believe that someone will create C.B. Schwartz’s SOS app to let people escape from the tyranny of their communication devices or at least dodge a few messages, and I wouldn’t be surprised if someone came up with an EED implant.   And when I hear about those, I’ll know that, once again, Connie got it right.

If you're already a Willis fan, I'll say that this is  in the vein of To Say Nothing of the Dog:  light, funny, and gently satiric. The setting is slightly futuristic instead of Victorian, but the feel of the book is similar. 

Crosstalk is approved by Peggy

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Ambrea's Read Harder Challenge: Playing for Pizza, Hush, and Master of Crows

Next up for my Read Harder Challenge, I…
·         Read a book about sports.
·         Read a book you’ve read before.
·         Read a book published by a micropress.

Admittedly, I wasn’t sure how to conquer this first task, because I am not a sports and/or athletic person.  I am, at best, a rather sedentary creature with a great affinity for books and chocolate and good food, preferably in that order; however, I was willing to take a crack at this one because, surely, I could find a sport I liked.  Considering the sheer variety of sports out there, I knew I could find something entertaining.

And, luckily, I did.  A co-worker recommended Playing for Pizza by John Grisham and, since the challenge doesn’t specify fiction or nonfiction, I thought I’d give it a whirl.  I’m glad I did, because I enjoyed Grisham’s novel so much more than I expected.  Granted, I listened to the audiobook, which features Christopher Evan Welch as narrator, but I don’t think that matters as Playing for Pizza is a fun, accessible and entertaining novel whether listening to or reading it.

Not to mention, I really enjoyed the descriptions of food.  (I was craving pasta like mad, before all was said and done.)

Playing for Pizza begins with a game, specifically the worst game of Rick Dockery’s career.  Now, marked as the worst player in the NFL—and effectively banished from Cleveland—and sporting a terrible head injury that would leave most players contemplating retirement, Rick is at his wits end.  Since he can’t find a new position in the U.S., his agent directs him to Parma—as in Parma, Italy, where he becomes quarterback to a ragtag group of Italians who just happen to be American football aficionados.  It’s a huge change for Rick and, as he comes to learn, it might not be a bad one.

Next, I decided to reread Hush by Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee.  This is one of my favorite Batman comics for the simple fact that it has some of the most alluring, most beautiful art I’ve encountered, and it has such a richly detailed, incredibly poignant story that that I was mesmerized the first time around.  I love every bit of this book, and I found it to be even better the second (okay, third) time.

Unlike Loeb’s earlier works, Long Halloween and Dark Victory, which features Batman’s earlier career, Hush follows the weathered and strained Batman/Bruce Wayne as he tries to keep Gotham safe from new and ever worsening dangers.  Together with his cadre of crime-fighting vigilantes—including Nightwing, Robin, Huntress, and Superman (but not quite Catwoman)—Batman sets out to find the puppet master who has set the whole of Gotham’s criminal underworld onto his heels.

Hush is one of those wonderful comics that will always offer more surprises each time a reader picks it up.  It’s thoughtful, it’s complex, it’s detailed (in both story and art), and it explores every emotional side of a Dark Knight who has suffered innumerable losses, endured more grief and pain than most can manage, and defeat some of the most terrifying villains in the world.  Moreover, it has a level of mystery that reminds me of Agatha Christie, which kept me on my toes even as I enjoyed it.  I mean, I certainly didn’t expect it to end the way it did—and I found Batman to be all the more clever for solving the ultimate mystery.

Last, I read Master of Crows by Grace Draven.  Originally published by Amber Quill Press (which, I realize, is not quite a micropress), it was eventually republished by Grace Draven—and, as all the definitions of a micropress I can find defines it as being a small and/or single-person publisher, I decided it would fit nicely into this category to complete my challenge.

Yes, I realize I might be pushing the rules with this one, but I didn’t have the best of luck identifying and finding books published by micropresses.  Morover, I couldn’t find something I enjoyed by a micropress to which I had direct access at my local library, thus the Internet and Tennessee READS—and, of course, Master of Crows—became my go-to choice.

Now, putting aside my (admittedly weak) justifications, Master of Crows wasn’t a bad novel.  In a world where magic exists and dark creatures lurk at the periphery of civilization, Silhara and Martise are thrust together in an unexpected alliance when one of the old gods—Corruption—returns.  Determined to stop Corruption and deny his fate, Silhara enlists the aid of the Conclave and meets Martise, a slave girl turned spy.  Together, they must discover Corruption’s weakness and save the world…or, quite possibly, die trying.

I realize it sounds a little melodramatic and, yes, I suppose it is; however, it’s also an unexpectedly complex novel that I enjoyed.  It has its faults, like a hero who is more cruel than noble, but, overall, it had interesting characters and created a sturdy setting that I appreciated.  Personally, I think I enjoyed Draven’s ability to build her world.  It’s rich with detail and magic, and I absolutely loved learning more and more about the creatures, places, and history of Silhara and Martise’s world.  I will note it’s more of an acquired taste, but it’s certainly worth sampling—unless you aren’t a fan of explicit material.  In which case, I probably wouldn’t recommend it.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Reviewed by Rita

OASIS is a massive multiplayer online game that has become part of the daily lives of most everyone on Earth in the year 2040. The eccentric creator of OASIS, James Halliday, has died leaving behind a video message to the world that he has hidden an Easter egg in the virtual utopia and the first person to find it will inherit his multibillion dollar fortune and control of OASIS. He ends the video with a riddle to begin the contest:

Three hidden keys open three hidden gates
Wherein the errant will be tested for worthy traits
And those with the skills to survive these straits
Will reach The End where the prize awaits

The quest for Halliday’s fortune quickly becomes a global obsession. Weeks pass with no one finding even the first of the three keys.  Then months pass, and then years. Interest in the hunt wanes and Halliday’s estate becomes little more than urban legend. Finally, after five years, the first key is finally found.   

The finder is Wade Watts, an eighteen year old high school student living in Oklahoma City, With the first gate unlocked, the search for Halliday’s treasure is renewed—and search for Wade is beginning. The biggest threat to Wade comes from Innovative Online Industries, the world’s largest internet provider, which wants control of OASIS for themselves and intend for Wade to help them find it, whether he wants to or not.  

Halliday was obsessed with 1980’s pop culture so the book contains a multitude of references to 80’s video games, movies, music, TV shows, and fads. As a child of the eighties this was one of the initial draws for me, however, there were points in the book where the abundance of pop culture references seemed a little superfluous. 

I was surprised to find after reading that this was Ernest Cline’s debut novel. His writing drew me in from the very first page and held my attention throughout. There was plenty of action and interesting characters to keep the plot moving forward. While this novel is classified as science fiction, it’s not hard to imagine the world being as Cline describes in the not too distant future. People have jobs, attend school, even meet and marry inside the virtual world without any real world contact. I feel like this book is more than just an entertaining sci-fi fantasy, it’s also a cautionary tale of what could become of humanity if we are not careful.

Friday, March 24, 2017

The Woman in Blue by Elly Griffiths

Reviewed by Jeanne

When Ruth’s Druid friend Cathbad sees what appears to be a woman wearing a blue cloak standing beside a tombstone in the moonlight, he wonders if he is seeing a real woman or an apparition.  After all, the town of Little Walsingham is known for visions of religious figures, especially the Virgin Mary.  But when a woman’s body is found in a nearby ditch, it seems that he may have been among the last to see the victim alive.
Meanwhile, a former colleague has contacted Ruth about some troubling letters she has received. Hilary is now an Anglican priest and is on her way to a conference in Little Walsingham.  If there’s anything Ruth has learned, it’s not to ignore coincidences, so it’s with some trepidation that she arranges a meeting.

Of course, DCI Harry Nelson is the officer in charge, and he is not pleased at having Ruth and Cathbad involved in yet another investigation.

This is the eighth in the popular Ruth Galloway Mystery series. Griffiths has created a marvelous cast of characters with complex relationships; to try to explain them all would make it sound like a soap opera, but it’s not.  For the uninitiated, Ruth is a forensic archaeologist at the local university who has worked with the police on several cases, so most of the cases have a strong historical component.  Many also delve into the realm of folklore, which is something I particularly enjoy.  There is sometimes a whiff of otherworldly elements or superstition, but there is no real magical intervention in the stories. 

I do enjoy the plots, but the main draw for me is the aforementioned cast of characters.  Ruth, for example, is a teacher but more a working archaeologist.  She’s no good at the politics of academia, bad at small talk at parties, and frequently feels out of place.  She’s untidy, a bit overweight, definitely unfashionable, and yet she’s comfortable with herself.  Oh, she may think she should lose a few pounds, but she doesn’t obsess over it or feel compelled to try to change in order to fit in. I find that very refreshing. 

Because of the character development, however, this is a series best read in order. The first book is The Crossing Places