Category Archives: 3 stars

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

Review (Amazon): 

“Ten . . .”
Ten strangers are lured to an isolated island mansion off the Devon coast by a mysterious “U. N. Owen.”

“Nine . . .”
At dinner a recorded message accuses each of them in turn of having a guilty secret, and by the end of the night one of the guests is dead.

“Eight . . .”
Stranded by a violent storm, and haunted by a nursery rhyme counting down one by one . . . as one by one . . . they begin to die.

“Seven . . .”
Which among them is the killer and will any of them survive?

My Review (spoilers):

Executive Summary: creative

Whoa. It’s been almost 2 months since I posted a review. O_O Part of that is because I tried reading One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest for book club and failed dramatically. I tried multiple times, but just couldn’t get into it. So I skipped that and moved onto this one which I read in a weekend!

I’m not sure why, but the book made me think of the board game Clue. I guess because there were so many people who were all suspects.

An island recently changed ownership and there was lots of gossip and speculation of who bought it. Was it a Mr. Owen or a Hollywood film star? It has previously been owned by an American millionaire who had the most lavish parties. So naturally when people get invites to Soldier Island, no matter how obscure the invite is, they go! Specifically Justice Wargrave from his acquaintance Constance Culmington, who he hadn’t seen in 7 or 8 years. Or Vera Claythorne who was offered a holiday secretarial post, or Phillip Lombard who was offered 100 guineas to keep an eye on things on the island. Or Emily Brent, who was offered a stay at a formal guest house (not one of those modern places with gramophones). She couldn’t even determine who the letter had come from, but it was so appealing, she went anyway. General Macarthur was invited to have a chat with some buddies from old times. Dr. Armstrong was invited by Mr. Owen who worried about his wife’s health and offered a large check to ensure the best. Tony Marston was invited out for a party. Mr. Blore…

They arrive to the island and find that Mr. and Mrs. Owen are nowhere to be found, but Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, the servants, have already arrived in advance for preparations. The house is very nice, and each room has a framed copy of “Ten Little Soldiers” (much more racist in previous versions of the book) as well as a series of ten figurines on the dining room table.

After dinner, a record is put on by Mrs. Rogers, as instructed by the owners, and it goes around to accuse each and every guest, including the Rogerses of murder. Everyone is shocked and aghast (some are in denial). They compare stories and realize that none of them know who the Owenses are. In fact, the name itself suggests from various letters to be U. N. Owen or Unkown. After the reading, Tony Marsten finishes his drink and collapses on the floor dead. One of the ten figurines is broken.

It then follows quickly that the next morning Mrs. Rogers does not awake due to an overdose, and later that day, General MacArthur is found dead from a blow to the head. The deaths follow the nursery rhyme, and each time someone dies, a figurine is broken from the table. It is decided that some of the men should go out on a search party to find the killer, but they come back empty handed. There’s no one on the island but themselves.

The following morning, Mr. Rogers is found dead out where he was chopping wood to start the fire for breakfast. Later that afternoon, Mrs. Brent is dead from a hypodermic needle (to resemble a bee sting) to the neck. The men then decide that they ought to round up all weaponry and lock it up so to do so, they search everyone’s rooms as well. Later when Vera goes up to take a bath, she finds that someone has hung seaweed from the ceiling in her room. She screams and then men run up to see the commotion. When they return downstairs, they find that Judge Wargrave has been dressed like a judge and shot, presumably using Lombard’s revolver. Again, like with the other deaths, Dr. Armstrong confirms death.

When they go to bed that evening, Lombard is surprised to see his gun back in his nightstand. Blore awakes that evening to hear steps outside. He sneaks out to see a retreating figure, and when Blore and Lombard find that Armstrong is not in his room, they and Vera assume that he is the killer (particularly because that part of the rhyme says that the soldier was eaten by a red herring). The remaining three stay together the next day, even trying to send out an SOS to the mainland, until Blore separates from the other two to go back into the house for some food, and he is killed by a large clock being pushed out of the window from Vera’s room (but Vera is outside with Lombard. Vera and Lombard assume that the missing Armstrong is who killed Blore until they find Armstrong well decomposed washed up on the beach.

At this point, they both assume that each other is the killer. Vera manages to get Lombard’s gun from him and shoots him. Then in a state of shock, she returns to her room and in a delusion, her former love entices her to hang herself with the seaweed on her ceiling.

The epilogue follows that Scotland Yard is investigating the homicides, and they are going through the records of each person. The Rogerses were thought to have let a previous employer die from neglect. Justice Wargrave convicted a likable man who most thought was innocent although after the hanging, information came out to prove that he had been guilty. Vera was the governess for a family whose child had drowned. She had swam out to save him but it was too late. Dr Armstrong had had a patient die in his care due to clumsiness. Miss Brent had a servant who had gotten pregnant. Because of the stigma, Miss Brent fired her and the girl drowned herself. And Marston hit and killed two children due to reckless driving, but they were poor and he was let off with just a fine. Lombard, MacArthur, and Blore, they weren’t too sure about. The order of deaths is recorded in the diaries and notes of various people on the island. It is confusing though that when the police found the murder scene, the chair under Vera’s body had been placed back upright. They have no idea who was the killer.

The book ends with a note in a bottle which was sent to Scotland Yard from the island from Justice Wargrave admitting his guilt. His time on the bench made him hunger for justice, and even murder. He himself being sick allowed him to create an elaborate murder and then kill himself in the process. Through talks with various people, he found 9 people who were guilty of crimes that the result was too difficult to prove. And then he killed them one by one, rigging an elaborate system to shoot himself in the end.

Verdict: 3 stars

I liked the idea of this book, but I found the ending to be a bit weird. It seems odd that the Justice sent a message in a bottle instead of just leaving a note, and also if one is going to fake a murder, I’d think killing by poison rather than an elaborate use of rigging up a way to fire a gun at yourself makes a lot more sense. It also didn’t make sense that Armstrong had agreed to tell the remaining others that Justice Wargrave had died when he hadn’t. I didn’t understand that at all. I also found the death of Vera to be very unrealistic and bizarre. I have read one other Agatha Christie book which I liked much better. My mom has read every one of Christie’s books which are still available, and she mentioned that she thought this one was kind of mediocre in comparison.

 

 

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The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

Review (Amazon):  It is 1939. Nazi Germany. The country is holding its breath. Death has never been busier, and will become busier still.

Liesel Meminger is a foster girl living outside of Munich, who scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist–books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement.

In superbly crafted writing that burns with intensity, award-winning author Markus Zusak, author of I Am the Messenger, has given us one of the most enduring stories of our time.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: blah

This book has been on my To Read list for ages, but boy did it not live up to the expectations! A month after reading it (I’m getting caught up from my vacation!) and I can barely remember what the book was about or what the point was. I feel sometimes like you could set any book in Nazi Germany and it will somehow be a winner.

This book was far too long with characters that were so dull, you forgot about them before you even closed the book. Oh, and the narrator of the book? It’s death. Like grim reaper death. -_- I hated that.

The main character, Liesel Meminger, is 10 years old and lives with Hans and Rosa Hubermann. The Hubermanns have a few older (out of the house) children, and to make a little extra money, they agreed to take in Liesel. They were supposed to also take his brother but unfortunately he died on the trip to their house. Liesel and her mother bury her brother, and Liesel “steals” her first book–one she finds about grave digging. Liesel’s parents are communists so it’s not a safe time for them to live in Germany. Luckily Liesel has blonde hair and “looks German” so she can blend in. Her best friend is named Rudy, and he is a bit of a troublemaker. They play soccer in the streets and Liesel works hard to catch up in school.

Her father realizes that she is behind and also that she wants to be able to read her books so he has late night sessions with her to learn to read her books. Hans was a soldier in WW1 but he can’t seem to figure out where to stand on the Hitler movement despite his son being quite involved. Hans had a great friend in the war who was Jewish so he has a hard time prejudicing them.

Rosa helps out Hans’s painting jobs by doing laundry for some wealthy families in town. As times get tougher in Germany with the war efforts, she sends Liesel to drop off and collect the laundry assuming that people would be less able to cancel on a little girl. Liesel befriends the mayor’s wife who has a giant library. Ilsa gives Liesel books to read, including the journal which she writes her story (which Death is narrating), but eventually Ilsa has to stop her laundry service. This upsets Liesel who starts breaking into the library with Rudy’s help to “steal” books.

One day, a strange man shows up at the Hubermann’s and it turns out to be the son of Hans’s WW1 Jewish friend. The Hubermanns decide to shelter him in their basement where he and Liesel become great friends. She reads to him, and Max paints and writes stories for her.

The war progresses and the times to go to a bomb shelter become more frequent. The Hubermanns have to go to a neighbor’s as their own basement is not deep enough. While in the shelter, Liesel reads to the group of neighbors to keep their minds occupied. “Parades” of Jews are also brought through the town. It is during one of these that Hans makes a huge error and shows sympathy to one of the Jews. He knows then that he, and especially not Max, are no longer safe. Max leaves their house to find a different place to hide. Shortly thereafter, both Hans and Rudy’s father are drafted into the army. Hans ends up with a broken leg and is sent home.

One evening, Liesel is writing in her journal in the basement, and bombs strike her town leveling her house. For some miraculous reason (in her not-bomb-proof basement), she survives but neither the Hubermanns nor Rudy do. Ilsa picks her up from the officers and she then lives there. When Rudy’s father returns from the war, he also takes Liesel under his wing. Eventually once the war is over, Max returns and finds Liesel at Rudy’s father’s shop. This just seemed really awkward to me.

The book then ends with Liesel living in Australia with her husband, children and grandchildren, and finally Death finds her.

Verdict: 3 stars

I felt like this book could have been easily condensed to about 2/3 of the final product. There wasn’t anything particularly wrong with the book per se, but there also wasn’t anything about it that I was totally smitten about. I thought the characters were very vanilla which made me not care very much about them. It is rare that you read a story set in one of the worst wars in the history of humanity and you don’t really care whether the characters live or die. Or maybe you only care if they live because you don’t want to hear Death’s narration of them dying. I expected so much more based on everything I had heard about this book, and I came up sorely lacking.

 

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The Art of Hearing Heartbeats – Jan-Philipp Sendker

Review (Amazon):  A poignant and inspirational love story set in Burma, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats spans the decades between the 1950s and the present.  When a successful New York lawyer suddenly disappears without a trace, neither his wife nor his daughter Julia has any idea where he might be…until they find a love letter he wrote many years ago, to a Burmese woman they have never heard of. Intent on solving the mystery and coming to terms with her father’s past, Julia decides to travel to the village where the woman lived. There she uncovers a tale of unimaginable hardship, resilience, and passion that will reaffirm the reader’s belief in the power of love to move mountains.

My Review (Spoilers!): This review has some big spoilers at the end, so if you do want to read the book, you might refrain from reading my review!!! Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Executive Summary: Odd

So this was our romance/love story for this year’s book club, and I really thought it had a lot of potential. It’s a lot different than the standard story from this genre, and it had an unfamiliar setting. However, at the end of the book, I was left scratching my head about things.

Julia, a young professional lawyer, decides to take a sabbatical from her job to figure out what happened to her father. She grew up in New York City like her mother, but her father grew up in Burma. One day he up and left his family, his trail running cold in Bangkok. Her mother didn’t know anything of her father’s childhood, and Julia decides to see what she can find out. Her father was a lawyer, and by the time he disappeared, he and Julia’s mother did not get along well.

Over the next four years, nothing turns up of her father. Her mother one day sends a package of some remaining items of her father’s. Julia looks through them, and finds an envelope addressed to Mi Mi, in Kalaw, Burma from 1955. It’s a love letter, and the first key to the puzzle. When she tells her mother she is leaving, her mother is annoyed. She doesn’t understand what Julia expects to find, and she is bitter. She tells Julia that her father never wanted to marry her, and that he left her (and them) long before he physically did. Julia decided to go anyway.

When Julia gets to Kalaw (a very long and difficult journey), she meets an old man named U Ba at the tea house. He claims to know her father and begins to tell Julia his tale.

Tin Win (Julia’s father) was born to very superstitious parents. His mother had watched her brother die as a child and went to the astrologer regularly to seek guidance. Tin Win was born on a very superstitious day. Following his birth, bad things began to happen, and eventually, his parents sought the astrologer. The astrologer told them that the child will bring great sorrow to his parents. Not long after, Tin Win’s father died in a work accident, and his mother, knowing that she could not handle any more sorrow, left the boy. Eventually a neighbor, Su Kyi, comes to rescue him and moves into his house to look after him. He’s a strange boy, not having any friends, but spending most of his time playing outside. But over time, his eyesight begins to deteriorate.

Su Kyi takes him to the monks as she has a good friendship with the head monk, U May. She asks him what to do, and he suggests that Tin Win stay for a few weeks with the monks. During that time, he learns to deal with his blindness, letting his other senses develop so that he can manage in the world. He’s a good student but has no friends. He begins to develop extraordinary hearing, but he cannot identify the sounds he hears. He asks Su Kyi to investigate, but she can never get him the info he wants. And then one day at the monastery, he hears something new–a heart beat. He goes to identify the source, and he finds a girl. He speaks to her briefly, and then her mother calls her away. Her name is Mi Mi.

Eventually he finds her again at the town market, and he asks her to help him identify a sound. She agrees but she needs his help to put her on his back to investigate that the sound he is hearing is of an unhatched chick still in its shell. Mi Mi needs help because she cannot stand, nor walk, on her own due to a birth defect. Tin Win continues to meet her every market day, and they develop a symbiotic relationship–he is her legs, and she is his eyes. Over the years, it developed into the most intense love that Mi Mi’s parents and Su Kyi could even imagine.

But one day, Tin Win’s uncle, U Saw arrives from Rangoon. He volunteers to take Tin Win to a doctor in Rangoon to help restore his sight. He goes to see Mi Mi before he leaves, and they have a romantic encounter. He leaves with his uncle, who is only helping Tin Win because he believes it will help his own luck in business. Tin Win’s sight is repaired relatively easily as he had cataracts. He writes to Mi Mi every day, and she writes about the same, but his uncle intercepts both sets of letters before they reach their rightful owner. The surgery has helped U Saw’s luck, so he wonders what else he can do to boost his luck, and he doesn’t want this juvenile love to get in his way. He enrolls Tin Win in school where he excels. Following that, U Saw sends Tin Win to New York for college.

He then continues on to law school, and then is pressured into marriage by Julia’s mother. They have two children–Julia and her brother. Mi Mi continued her life in Kalaw, becoming a sort of astrologer herself. Julia doesn’t understand U Ba and his decision to quit university and return home to his mother who was growing old. She doesn’t understand why her father didn’t just disregard U Saw and go back to Kalaw for Mi Mi. U Ba claims that it is just a different culture. She learns that U Saw died in 1958, a chance for her father to come back, but by then, her father, for reasons unknown on his end, was already married, and her brother was about to be born.

U Ba tells her that her father returned there, to find Mi Mi, and when he arrives at her house, she is on her death bed. She has been waiting for him. He crawls into bed with her, and when the doctor finds them the following morning, they are both dead. Per the time and culture, the two lovers were burned side by side on separate pyres. Julia is not prepared for the news, but she still wants to see where her father and Mi Mi grew up and where they died. They happen to arrive on the anniversary of her father’s death, which has become a sort of celebration in Kalaw for the two long lost lovers. She learns that U Ba is her half-brother–the product of the romantic night that her father and Mi Mi had before he left for Rangoon. They attend the celebration together and the book ends.

Verdict: 3 stars

I wanted to read this book because Burma is a country which has been so shut off for so long. I thought it would be an interesting glimpse into a place that would be unfamiliar. It was, but in a way that I didn’t understand. The timeline of the book is very unusual as well because at the time when Julia would have supposedly been visiting, Burma was under fierce military rule which most likely would have deterred her from going, but this aspect wasn’t mentioned in the book whatsoever. Also, I just hated how weirdly fairy tale it was. Tin Win and Mi Mi–a love story so strong that he married another but yet they die together and their story is celebrated each year with a holiday. It’s baffling.

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The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

2052

Review (Amazon): When a dying millionaire hires Philip Marlowe to handle the blackmailer of one of his two troublesome daughters, Marlowe finds himself involved with more than extortion. Kidnapping, pornography, seduction, and murder are just a few of the complications he gets caught up in.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: familiar

We picked this book as our mystery for the year, however, I’d say that it’s not so much a mystery as it is a detective story. Apparently this book was the start of the noir genre, and reading it after being exposed to so many stories which have used this theme, it seems a little cliche. It was written in 1939 so it is obvious that it was what created these cliches, but it is still strange to read.

The detective/main character of the book is Phillip Marlowe, and this was his first book appearance. He’s a sharp talking, scotch drinking, lady ogling sort of guy. You know the type. He’s the original. He’s hired by General Sherwood to find out who is blackmailing Sherwood’s youngest daughter Carmen. Sherwood is on his death bed, and is very wealthy. When Marlowe meets with him, Sherwood mentions that his older daughter, Vivian, was married to Rusty Regan, but Regan has disappeared. Marlowe likes Sherwood and agrees to take the case of investigating the man who is blackmailing Carmen. Carmen has been blackmailed before, by a man named Joe Brody, but this time it’s by a bookseller named Arthur Geiger. When Marlowe’s leaving the house, he meets Vivian who is convinced that he has been hired to find Regan.

Marlowe heads to Geiger’s bookstore, and realizes after asking the clerk, Agnes, a few questions that the book store is definitely a front. While he is there, a man came in and dropped off a package which was then delivered to the back of the store. Marlowe follows the man and realizes that the store is a front for pornographic books. Marlowe stakes out in front of the house to wait for Geiger and eventually sees him enter and eventually leave the store. He then proceeds to follow him to his home. Eventually a woman pulls up to the house and goes inside. The car window is open allowing Marlowe to determine that it’s Carmen’s car. Marlowe continues to wait, and he sees a flash of light and hears an odd scream from the house. He goes to the door and as he’s about to knock, he hears three shots fire out followed by footsteps running away.

Marlowe lets himself into the house where he finds Geiger dead, and Carmen naked and completely dazed. There is a camera set up pointed directly at Carmen although it has no film in it. The flash of light Marlowe saw was obviously the camera, and the shots were someone’s response to it. Marlowe dressed Carmen and takes her home and then walks back to Geiger’s. When he returns, the body is gone. He takes a little time investigating the house, but the only real thing of interest is Geiger’s notebook of customers.

The next morning, Marlowe is awakened by a phone call from a cop friend to let him know that one of the Sherwood’s cars is being pulled up from the pier. And there’s a guy inside. Marlowe immediately assumes it’s Regan so he heads down to see. He finds that it’s the Sherwood’s chauffeur.

Marlowe heads back to Geiger’s shop to talk to Agnes. He asks if Geiger’s in, and she stammers and tells him that Geiger’s out of town. He notices the boy who was driving Geiger’s car loading some boxes of books into a truck, so he gets a taxi to tail them and finds out that the boxes are going to someone named Brody. He heads back to his office where he finds Vivian awaiting him. She continues to press Marlowe about why her father hired him, but he doesn’t relent. She then shows him the envelope that she received of the picture of Carmen from the previous night. It accompanied a phone call asking for $5000 (~$85000 today). They discuss what happened with the chauffeur, but Vivian doesn’t know anything. It wasn’t his night off, and she was gambling at Eddie Mars’ casino. Everyone thinks that her husband ran off with Eddie’s wife Mona which is why he’s nice to her.

He returns to Geiger’s house where he finds Carmen snooping around. Carmen tells Marlowe that it was definitely Joe Brody who shot Geiger, but she’s just playing along. While they are there, Eddie Mars arrives. They talk about what happened to Geiger, Eddie playing along in hypotheticals to see what Mars knows.

From there, Marlowe goes back to Brody’s and gets Brody to talk by offering up the customer list. Once he’s inside, he realizes that Brody and Agnes are in on it together. Marlowe’s pressing him hard about the pictures of Carmen when she arrives there too. Between the two of them, they manage to get the pictures from Brody. Carmen leaves and Marlowe questions Brody a bit more to learn that he blackmailed Vivian because he’d already hit up their dad before and he’s short on cash. The chauffeur found out about the blackmail and because of his crush on Carmen, went to Geiger’s and shot him. Brody was there and followed the chauffeur, but didn’t see how he ended up off the end of the pier (No one knows who killed the chauffeur or whether it was suicide.) and took the opportunity to take over Geiger’s dirty business. As Brody, Marlowe, and Agnes are wrapping up the story, there’s another knock on the door. Brody answers the door thinking it is Carmen and is shot twice. Marlowe races out the door and after the perp, eventually finding the boy from Geiger’s. Turns out he was Geiger’s gay lover who kept a secret room at Geiger’s house. (seems quite scandalous for 1939).

Marlowe instructs him back to Geiger’s house where they find Geiger’s body which the boy hid to keep him protected. He believed that Brody had killed Geiger so he decided to take matters into his own hands. Marlowe reaches out to his police friend who takes over from there.

And then with the real mystery over, Marlowe decides to look into what happened to Rusty Regan which is where the story gets a bit confusing in my opinion. He goes to talk to his cop friends to find out what came out of the missing person investigation which isn’t much. No one saw him take his car out and the only lead is that Eddie Mars’ wife also went missing. So Marlowe goes to speak to Mars. Vivian is at the casino winning big.

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The House of the Scorpion – Nancy Farmer

Review (Amazon): Matteo Alacrán was not born; he was harvested.
His DNA came from El Patrón, lord of a country called Opium–a strip of poppy fields lying between the United States and what was once called Mexico. Matt’s first cell split and divided inside a petri dish. Then he was placed in the womb of a cow, where he continued the miraculous journey from embryo to fetus to baby. He is a boy now, but most consider him a monster–except for El Patrón. El Patrón loves Matt as he loves himself, because Matt is himself.

As Matt struggles to understand his existence, he is threatened by a sinister cast of characters, including El Patrón’s power-hungry family, and he is surrounded by a dangerous army of bodyguards. Escape is the only chance Matt has to survive. But escape from the Alacrán Estate is no guarantee of freedom, because Matt is marked by his difference in ways he doesn’t even suspect.

My Review (Spoilers!):

Executive Summary: OK

One of the categories which wasn’t chosen in book club this year was surprisingly the young adult category. So when we had a mix-up in months, we decided to add a young adult book to our year, and this book was chosen. Unfortunately, in my opinion, it did not live up to expectations.

On the plus side, it was a light read, and it had a different setting and plot (although similar) than a lot of the YA I’ve recently read. On the negative though, I didn’t feel like any of the characters were well-developed and I felt like the plot was full of holes.

Matteo Alacrán is a clone of El Patrón, the dictator of Opium, named aptly as it’s used to grow poppies and thereby Opium. It’s a country which developed because El Patrón, a drug dealer, advised both the USA and Mexico to set up a country where any illegal would be turned into a Farmer and there was an agreement to not sell the opium in either country. Because that seems reasonable that the USA and Mexico would be like “yeah OK this drug dealer seems to have a good idea”.

Matt grew up hidden by El Patrón’s cook until he got out one day to play with some children he saw outside. When he was caught, he was treated worse than an animal (since he was a clone), stuck in a room with sawdust like a chicken coop and abandoned. Eventually his nurse and his only friend (Maria), rescue him. El Patrón is furious that someone would treat Matt this way, and the nurse who was in charge of him is turned into an eejit like the rest of the farmhands. The eejits have implants in their brains so that they are under complete control. They work until told otherwise. Most clones are also eejits since they will eventually be harvested for parts, but El Patrón did not want Matt to have the procedure done. Matt is also given a body guard, Tam Lin.

Matt turns out to be very bright, going to eschool (since no one would want to teach a clone) and learning how to play music. He goes about mostly unnoticed since people completely ignore him. He and Maria develop a friendship. She doesn’t live at the house with him, but her father is an important person to El Patrón so she comes around often.

As he grows older, he begins to understand further what is going on within the household and with himself, and eventually when El Patrón has had another heart attack, he and Maria try to flee. Unfortunately they get caught by Maria’s sister who takes Maria back to the convent, and Matt is taken to the hospital where El Patrón tells Matt that he is only to be used for his heart which he is going to give to El Patrón. Celia pipes up to say that she has been slowly poisoning Matt with arsenic just so that he can no longer be an organ donor. Tam Lin is instructed to take care of Matt but instead, he gives Matt supplies and allows Matt to escape.

Matt gets caught at the border and sent to some sort of juvenile detention center. (This is where the book really derailed for me). The prisoners are governed by older boys who it turns out are just high all the time. The front of the whole camp is that they harvest plankton, but in reality, they are trafficking drugs. For whom and why, it never says. Eventually Matt and a few of his new friends from the camp escape (after Matt and another boy are deposited in the whale bone pile (also unexplained and really bizarre) and end up in the town where Maria is at the convent.

They make their way to the convent/hospital (I was really confused by this point) and Maria and her mother are there. (This is odd because Maria learned that her mother was still alive only recently from a book of Matt’s and she presumably lived in California, but here she just mysteriously appeared). She is interested to know about the center where Matt came from because apparently people have been trying to shut down the drug trade business for years but didn’t have enough evidence to arrest them or something (despite the entire premise of building the country of Opium being that the drugs were going to be sent out of North America). Annnnyway, Maria’s mom tells Matt that Opium has been on a complete lock down for months and that he needs to go figure out what’s going on. Since he and El Patrón have identical genetics, he shouldn’t have a problem getting in.

OK no problem, he gets back into Opium to find out that El Patrón died and during his wake, Tam Lin brings out some wine which El Patrón had wanted to have at his funeral. Tam Lin instructed another of the guards to not drink it, however he and everyone else did, and everyone died. The end. Not really, but it gets even more unrealistic. Now because Matt is technically El Patrón, he becomes the new ruler of Opium. Um, what? The book ends with him speculating about how he can disable the eejits and fix the country.

Verdict: 3 stars

This book has excellent reviews on Amazon, but frankly I don’t know if I read the same book as those people. I was sorely disappointed. Some of the ideas were good, but it did not feel like the book was thought through, and it felt as though the ending was rushed and too coincidental (never resolve a plot with a coincidence; it always feels disingenuous.) There is a sequel to this book, written many years after the original, but I don’t think I care enough to read it.

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The Speed of Dark -Elizabeth Moon

  Summary (Amazon): In the near future, disease will be a condition of the past. Most genetic defects will be removed at birth; the remaining during infancy. Lou Arrendale, a high-functioning autistic adult, is a member of the lost generation, born at the wrong time to reap the rewards of medical science. He lives a low-key, independent life. But then he is offered a chance to try a brand-new experimental “cure” for his condition. With this treatment Lou would think and act and be just like everyone else. But if he was suddenly free of autism, would he still be himself? Would he still love the same classical music—with its complications and resolutions? Would he still see the same colors and patterns in the world—shades and hues that others cannot see? Most important, would he still love Marjory, a woman who may never be able to reciprocate his feelings? Now Lou must decide if he should submit to a surgery that might completely change the way he views the world . . . and the very essence of who he is.

My Review (SpOiLeRs!):

Executive Summary: almost

So this is our science fiction pick for the year, and it’s not really science fiction. It’s set in a future world where all people who will have autism have been corrected before being born. There is a gap generation who were too old for the full correction, but have had some procedures, allowing them to work and have semi-normal lives. No robots, aliens, or flying cars. Just a story about an autistic man named Lou.

Lou has an apartment, a car, and a job. He works in a job in a special office with only other autists. They have some special perks which the other “normal” employees do not get, but this allows them to fully channel their concentration into their work and find patterns and sequences that others cannot.

A new big boss, Mr. Crenshaw, arrives at the company, and his goal is cutting costs. He decides that this group of autists is too much work, so he comes up with a (really contrived) plan. He is going to cut costs by eliminating the perks that these autists get by making them all sign up for an experimental medical procedure which makes them “normal”. Their direct boss, Mr. Aldrin, who has a severely autistic brother, gets to work foiling his plan.

Speaking of foils, Lou’s main past time is fencing. There’s a group he goes to once a week at Tom and Lucia’s house. It took Lou a while to get the hang of it physically, but he now is quite a good competitor as he can deduce the opponent’s pattern. A bunch of others go to the fencing group, but the story focuses mostly on two–Don and Marjory. Don’s a jerk, and Lou doesn’t really see it. The others defend Lou when Don makes crass jokes about him being a retard, but really this just makes him madder that they like Lou better than they like him. Marjory is a love interest of Lou’s although it takes him a while to realize it. He struggles to understand how to manage that situation, and Tom and Lucia explain to him that “normal” people also have a lot of difficulty in this situation!

His situation at work is getting more dire as he and the others in his group don’t know that their manager is working behind the scenes to fix things, and now Lou appears to be being targeted by someone who has slashed his tires and broken his windshield. The final piece comes when someone leaves an explosive jack in the box inside his car where the battery should be. After only slight investigation, they realize that it’s Don, and he is arrested when he tries to shoot Lou at the grocery store. Lou struggles with this as Don’s punishment is to have his brain altered so that he won’t want to do bad things. Lou has been reading a lot of books that he had borrowed from Lucia about the brain to understand better his own possible treatment, so he additionally knows what will be happening to Don.

It turns out that the big boss is fired when the rest of the C levels find out what he is up to, and the program is off. Mostly. The autists can still have the procedure done if they would like, and one of them does immediately. Lou struggles with deciding whether or not to do it, and then he eventually decides that he will. He awakes from the surgery and originally has no memory. Tom comes to visit him but it takes a few visits for Lou to remember who he is, but eventually he does. He starts to remember his old life, but he decides that he wants to get into a PhD program. He eventually loses touch with his friends from his old live including Marjory.

Verdict: 3 stars

The one thing that I did really like about this book was the glimpse into the mind of an autistic person. Reading some reviews of the book, including one written by a high-functioning autist, suggest that this depiction is actually very realistic. (The author has an autistic son.) However, the actual story of the book I found to be very unrealistic and at times very dull (like the detailed pages and pages about Lou reading about the brain). I thought that aside from Lou, every character felt very flat especially Mr. Crenshaw and Don. It also felt like a snap decision that Lou made in the end, and the book ended so abruptly. And in general, I thought it was quite the stretch of calling it a science fiction book.

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Filed under 3 stars, Book Club, Book Review

Orphan Train – Christina Baker Kline

  Summary (Amazon): Christina Baker Kline’s Orphan Train is an unforgettable story of friendship and second chances that highlights a little-known but historically significant movement in America’s past—and it includes a special PS section for book clubs featuring insights, interviews, and more.

Penobscot Indian Molly Ayer is close to “aging out” out of the foster care system. A community service position helping an elderly woman clean out her home is the only thing keeping Molly out of juvie and worse…

As she helps Vivian sort through her possessions and memories, Molly learns that she and Vivian aren’t as different as they seem to be. A young Irish immigrant orphaned in New York City, Vivian was put on a train to the Midwest with hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.

Molly discovers that she has the power to help Vivian find answers to mysteries that have haunted her for her entire life—answers that will ultimately free them both.

Rich in detail and epic in scope, Orphan Train is a powerful novel of upheaval and resilience, of unexpected friendship, and of the secrets we carry that keep us from finding out who we are.

My Review (Spoilers!!)

Executive Summary: heartwarming

So this is the book that was chosen for my pick for this year’s book club list for the literary fiction category. Unfortunately I wasn’t wowed by it. I found it a little bit overly predictable, and it felt more like reading a movie than it did reading a book (aka everything wraps up neatly at the end). However, on the other hand, it exposed me to a part of American history that I was unfamiliar with. I just wanted more from it. A lot more.

The book juxtaposes two story lines that obviously intertwine–Molly, a teenager in modern time, and Vivian, and old lady in modern time, who was obviously the one on the orphan train. The problem is Molly. Molly’s sections are contrived, unrealistic, and so cheesy young adult, that I nearly almost stopped reading it. And I hated that the book began with Molly instead of beginning with Vivian.

Molly is the most stereotypical angsty teenager of all times. She’s a goth vegetarian “orphan” (technically her deadbeat mother is still alive but she’s in and out of jail) who stole a copy of Jane Eyre from the library, and now she is apparently about to go to juvenile detention unless she finds some community service to do instead. Her boyfriend, Jack, pulls some strings with his mother to allow Molly to do her community service helping Vivian, Jack’s mother’s employer, sort through years of boxes. (Is that what community service looks like these days?)

Vivian was born in Ireland under the name of Niamh. She, her parents, and her sister and brothers, moved to America in 1927 and lived in a tiny apartment in New York City. Two years after arrival with no real sight of the American Dream, the family perishes in an apartment fire and only Niamh survives. The neighbors, the Schatzmans, take her to the Children’s Aid Society where she is sent on a train to the midwest for adoption. En route, she befriends an older boy “Dutchy” (Hans) who sits beside her, and they promise that no matter what happens, they will find each other later. Dutchy gets picked at the first stop, Minneapolis, where they are put through all but a sale. Niamh boards the train for the next stop, Albans, MN.

in Albans, she is selected by an Irish man and his wife, the Byrnes. Mrs. Byrne runs a clothing shop, which Niamh, now Dorothy, works at. She doesn’t go to school, but she is treated OK until the stock market crashes and she is “returned” and sent to live with another family, the Grotes. The Grotes are a hot mess. The mom sleeps all day. The dad wants to basically live off the grid. (He doesn’t have a job. He just hunts and forages for food.) Niamh sleeps in a pile with the rest of the skinny children. But she is allowed to go to school. There she befriends the nice teacher, Miss Larson. It’s a good thing too because in not too long, Mr. Grote assaults Niamh and Mrs. Grote walks in, blaming Niamh and kicking her out of the house. She walks to the schoolhouse with her belongings, and Miss Larson calls Mr. Sorenson, the Children’s Aid Society worker. He thinks that Niamh was being overly dramatic. Luckily Miss Larson stands up for her, and volunteers to allow Niamh to stay with her in her boardinghouse until a new solution can be found.

Mrs. Murphy, the landlady of the boardinghouse, is Irish as well, and she immediately takes a liking to Niamh who stays at the boardinghouse until Mrs. Murphy finds her a new family, the Nielsens who lost their only daughter to diphtheria a few years prior. They initially want her as some additional help at the shop that they own, but over time, they adopt her and change her name yet again, to Vivian. (Creepily their dead daughter’s name). As Vivian grows older, she takes a real interest in the shop, suggesting designs and changes to make the store better, eventually managing the store upon graduation.

One night, she’s enticed by two of her friends to go with them to Minneapolis to see The Wizard of Oz (one of my favorite movies!). She doesn’t go out much, as she has been brought up knowing how severe getting in trouble can be (although this is weird that she has this behavior but yet Molly does not??) but her friends were there mostly to party only under the guise of seeing the movie. In the most eye-rolling moment of serendipity, she accidentally finds Dutchy while at a club in Minneapolis. Shortly after that, they get married. All is going well. They move back to Hemingford where Vivian runs the store and Dutchy teaches music at a local school. And then World War II happens. Dutchy is eventually drafted, and while he is in training, Vivian discovers that she is pregnant. They write regularly, but eventually the bad news come back. A plane crashed onto the fleet carrier where Dutchy was. He did not survive.

Vivian makes the hard decision to place the baby, a girl, up for adoption. After the war, she marries Jim Daly, who brings the rest of Dutchy’s things to her. It’s more of a business partnership, but it worked out for both of them.

Molly presses Vivian to investigate what happened to the rest of her family, but Vivian does not want to embrace the technology. As part of a school project, Molly decides to do it herself, finding out that Vivian’s sister indeed survived the fire and was adopted by the Schatzmans. She had children and grandchildren, but had passed away a few years previously. Molly gets in a last fight with her foster parents and goes to live with Vivian who has a big house with many empty rooms. And Molly only has a short amount of time before she’s out of the system anyway. Molly tells Vivian about her sister, and this information convinces Vivian to embrace technology (way more than seems likely) and tracks down her daughter.

The book ends with the daughter and her family coming to meet Vivian.

Verdict: 3 stars

I wanted to love this book. It was my choice for this year, and the topic is interesting. But I just could not get past the clichéd writing. I know I’m in the minority on this (it has a 4+ star ranking on Amazon), but I just was expecting more.

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Filed under 3 stars