The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, by Nova Jacobs

35297219Being the child of a legendary genius is difficult, especially when one has no talent for mathematics like one’s grandfather. After Isaac Severy commits suicide, it seems like everyone’s weaknesses and insecurities come out into the open. This might have been enough for any adopted granddaughter to cope with. But in The Last Equation of Isaac Severy, by Nova Jacobs, Hazel Severy is sent on a quest for her famous grandfather’s work. She has to dodge mysterious pseudo-governmental organizations as well as grieving family members.

During the reception after her grandfather’s funeral, Hazel finds a letter from him, asking her to find and destroy his most recent work. She’s not supposed to tell anyone about it. But how is a failing bookstore owner ever to follow the clues laid out by a mathematical genius? Hazel’s not a blood relative. She doesn’t have the family spark. And yet, she seems to be the only person that Isaac Severy trusted with his secrets.

While we follow Hazel’s sometimes hapless attempts at solving Isaac’s puzzles, we also get to look into the lives of Philip, Isaac’s son, and Gregory, Hazel’s brother. Philip is a capable mathematician, but not brilliant like his father. It eats at him, as does his wife’s grief after their daughter dies in an accident shortly after Isaac’s death. He’s flailing. It’s not the best time for vaguely threatening government consultants to come sniffing around. They’re after his father’s work, but Philip is vulnerable to a bit of flattery. Meanwhile, Gregory is also falling apart. He’s been following his abusive former foster father (another of Isaac’s sons) and pining after his lover.

There’s a lot going on in The Last Equation of Isaac Severy. Every chapter reveals another layer to this complicated family. Most fascinating of all is what Isaac was working on before his death. I won’t reveal the secret here, but I can say that it brings up questions about free well and determinism. This book is full of chaos that the characters are desperate to make sense of. They want to find meaning in their recent tragedies and I can’t blame them. This book shows us how Hazel, Philip, and Gregory seek answers in very different ways that bring up even more questions to ponder after the last page.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss, for review consideration. It will be released 6 March 2018.

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The Regional Office is Under Attack! by Manuel Gonzales

25938482There are still many mysteries about who is really responsible for the events of The Regional Office is Under Attack!, by Manuel Gonzales. It is probably the Operative and the Recruiter who were crossed in love. But it might also be the kidnapped Oracle. There are interstitial excerpts from a book about the attack that give us background on the Regional Office and the aftermath of the attack. The novel itself gives us a ground-eye view of what happened the day the Regional Office was decimated. We follow Sarah O’Hara, the woman with the mechanical arm and a hybrid role in the organization, and Rose, a trainee Operative, who has been given a leading part in the attack. The Regional Office is Under Attack! is full of gripping fight scenes, tense stand offs, and some very interesting questions about the ripple effects of revenge.

The novel is written in contrasting chapters about Sarah and Rose, with plenty of flashbacks to show us how Sarah and Rose came to be at the Regional Office on the day of the attack. The Regional Office, on the surface, is a travel agency for the ultra-wealthy. This is a cover for its real purpose: training young women with special abilities to fight the forces of darkness, following the sometimes cryptic guidance of a trio of Oracles. Throughout the book, there are hints about the exploits of previous Operatives—which makes me wish there were more books about the Regional Office that I could read.

Sarah is the second-in-command in the Office, the righthand woman to the director. She has worked for the Office ever since they helped her track down the people who killed her mother. On the other side, we watch Rose as she follows the orders she was given by her recruiter and, maybe, his lover; she has been told they they were betrayed by the Office. The interstitial sections reveal that neither Sarah or Rose has a full picture about what the Regional Office is and how it got started.

It all comes down to revenge and lies, I think. Revenge never ends in The Regional Office is Under Attack! Whoever survives lives to go after the people they think wronged them. Then the friends or family of the killed go after the revenger. It never ends. A wiser person might advise these revengers to seek legal help or just let things go. But the potential revengers here are highly trained, super-powered women in a world of encroaching darkness working for a shadowy organization, who feel more than justified in taking out people who’ve wronged them.

The action-packed scenes in this book are a great vehicle to carry a larger story about the perils of revenge, with some great character development that had me worrying about people on both sides of the attack. I had a great time reading The Regional Office is Under Attack!

The Readymade Thief, by August Rose

33358209The Readymade Thief, by August Rose, is a rare book. I have only read a few other books that take actual history and spin it into a compelling conspiracy, with profound doses of science fiction and philosophy. The more I read, the more I enjoyed this tale of Lee’s perilous involvement with a sinister group of Marcel Duchamp enthusiasts who seem to be everywhere and are more than willing to kill what they want.

We meet Lee Cuddy in a brief prologue where she is walking around an abandoned aquarium. This is a place she escapes to for solitude and peace. Except, this time, she finds a note that orders her to return what she took. Then Lee takes us back to the beginning of her story to explain why she is so terrified to find that note and what she’s doing wandering around abandoned buildings.

Lee started to steal at a young age. Something about taking things makes her feel alive. Since her father is gone and her mother pays a lot more attention to her new boyfriend than Lee, the stealing is a way for her to make connections with other people and take care of herself. The Readymade Thief might have been a story about a girl who became a criminal, except that strange things start to happen very early in the novel. She gets an invitation to an exclusive rave hosted by the Société Anonyme (named for an artistic society Duchamp belonged to). Odd men in old-fashioned dress keep bumping into her. Her friends disappear under strange circumstances. There are drugs that turn rave-attendees into biddable zombies. Something bizarre is going on and Lee is inadvertently stuck in the middle of all of it.

After Lee is betrayed and ends up in a juvenile detention facility, then escapes, we start to learn a lot more about the Duchamp fanatics. It is marvelous the way The Readymade Thief weaves together Duchamp’s various artworks with physics and crime. I don’t want to say too much, because the slow revelation of secrets and conspiracies and betrayals made it impossible for me to put the book down. I plan on handing this book to other readers and just saying, “Read this.”

 

The Clarity, by Keith Thomas

35297412The Clarity, by Keith Thomas, is the kind of book that really wants to be a screenplay. The science fiction premise is only cursorily explored. The rampaging bad guy is described in almost loving detail. The chapters are short and packed with gun fights. I think this will be a great read for those who want a thrill. For those of us who wanted to know more about the possibility of reawakening ancestral memories, The Clarity is disappointing.

While the experiment known as Project Clarity has been going on for decades, Dr. Mathilda Deacon only gets involved when she is tipped off by a resident of a housing project in Chicago that there’s something wrong with a girl named Ashanique. Ashanique can remember the lives of dozens of people who died years or even centuries ago. She seems perfectly rational, apart from the memories. Because Mathilda works in memory and dementia, Ashanique is an irresistible patient. But before Mathilda can do much more than be convinced by Ashanique’s memories, the shooting starts.

We learn a bit more about Project Clarity and what’s going on with Ashanique, but most of the rest of The Clarity shows us a series of gun fights and chases all over Chicago. As soon as our protagonists find a safe spot, Rade, their terrifying pursuer (who works for the project) shows up and kills a bunch of people. Repeat. The more I read, the more I realized I would have enjoyed this more as a TV movie or something similar. This story is crying out to be filmed. It should be an easy task, since there’s not all that much detail that would need to be cut out to fit into a two hour movie. As a book, this book left me wanting so much that I was very disappointed by the little I was given.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 20 February 2018.

The Fortune Teller, by Gwendolyn Womack

31450952Books like The Fortune Teller, by Gwendolyn Womack, makes me seriously wonder whether literary/historical thrillers have much of a future. There have been a lot of read-a-likes since The Da Vinci Code*, but none of the ones I’ve read have added anything new to the sub-genre. In The Fortune Teller, as in those other thrillers, an academic discovers a document full of secrets that could rewrite the history of something only to find themselves on the run from a lethal, shadowy organization. This thriller is enhanced with some family drama and precognition that I found mismanaged to the point that I wish I could go back and un-buy this book.

Our protagonist in The Fortune Teller is Semele Cavnow**, a rare book and manuscripts specialist working for a New York-based auction house. The Bossard collection is a magnificent library that Semele leaped at the chance to work with. While in Switzerland cataloging all of the books and documents, she comes across an ancient manuscript in Egyptian Greek that appears to be addressed…to her. From that point on, Semele’s story alternates with the story of a line of women who seem to have the power to accurately predict the future.

I was initially drawn to this book because the plot involves the Tarot, weird manuscripts, and mystery. Unfortunately, the plot is very slow until the last hundred or so pages of the book. When I got to the 70% mark (according to my kindle app), a twist happened that made me feel cheated even if it did kick things into high gear at last. I also had issues with the way that the historical elements of the book is handled. What kind of family history includes word-for-word dialogue, even if it’s written by a seer ancestress? I couldn’t help but think about how Agnes Nutter’s family history/predictions were handled in Good OmensThe Fortune Hunter is Womack’s second novel, which surprises me considering how poorly constructed I found it.

This book is entirely skippable.


* Which I only managed to read once. When I tried to re-read it, I found it so ludicrous I was little ashamed of myself for devouring it the first time around.
** I will give Womack points for interesting character names.

The Stopping Place, by Helen Slavin

3390801Helen Slavin’s The Stopping Place is a horror novel, at least for women readers. It isn’t terrifying at first. The first part of the novel is unsettling, sure, especially as protagonist Ruby starts to become a vigilante for women who have problems with men who don’t listen to the word “no.” But when the second part, in which Ruby reveals where she came from and why she is so profoundly afraid of men, that The Stopping Place turns into a story so chilling that I had a hard time getting through it. Thankfully, the ending (not to say too much) delivers justice for Ruby and other women victimized by men.

When we meet Ruby, she is a library assistant in an unknown British city. (I only know this book is somewhere in the UK because of the vocabulary. Ruby is awfully fond of the word “claggy.”) She lives alone. She does not cultivate friendships. Instead, she watches people. In her role as voyeur, Ruby watches her coworker Martha’s relationship begin to turn violent. It’s clear she doesn’t want to engage, but Ruby masters her fear to fight back on the behalf of other women in her circumscribed world. Her successes, however, mean that her ex-husband tracks her down.

In the second part of the book, Ruby finally reveals her story. This part, I’ll say again, is very hard to read. Imagine trigger warning stickers all over the place for domestic violence, sexual violence, and emotional abuse. The second part probably goes on too long, if I’m honest. And yet, some of it is very necessary showing the emotional life of women involved with controlling, violent men. These abusive men are reasonable at first. They’re sexy, too. But, the longer the relationship goes, the reasonableness turns into a pot of emotional boiling water: little things are dismissed, larger things are explained away, and the biggest things must be coped with because the abused person has no way out.

The best part of The Stopping Place is the ending. During the first part, when Ruby-as-librarian digitizes and catalogs the papers of a Victorian photographer and searches for a missing laundress from the photographer’s estate, I didn’t see how any of it added to Ruby’s story. It was interesting, but it wasn’t until the end that I finally twigged to this subplot’s purpose. When it hit me, I saw how The Stopping Place is, over and over, a story of women pushed into uncomfortable or dangerous positions by powerful men (physically or otherwise) and hit their breaking point.

In spite of the difficulty in reading about physical and emotional abuse, I liked this book. I’m a big fan of a book about extrajudicial justice anyway, especially when the vigilante is a woman. I also enjoyed Ruby’s strange, new life and the way she gets little revenges on people who wrong her. The Stopping Place is a challenge, but I found it very much worthwhile.

I received a free copy of this book from the publishers via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 12 November 2017.

An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King

33544902The Chinese government instituted a policy restricting couples to one child only in 1979. There are ways around it, but every decade since that year has seen a growing imbalance in the number of male and female children. In An Excess Male, by Maggie Shen King, we see this imbalance extrapolated into a future where forty million men cannot find wives. They feel doomed to live alone, lamenting the fact that they will not pass on their names. The novel follows Lee Wei-guo as he attempts to marry a woman who already has two husbands—and as he ends up in trouble far over his head as secrets come out into the open and conspiracies get lethal.

An Excess Male begins like a gender-flipped version of a polygamist arranged marriage. Lee Wei-guo’s fathers (they are his mother’s widows) are trying to organize a marriage for their son. They’ve already worked with a matchmaker for months by the time we meet them, but they’ve only had one nibble—from the first husband of a woman who already has two. The fathers are not happy. Wei-guo, however, is charmed. He would love to marry Wu May-ling, even if it means sharing her with two other men.

It isn’t long before we learn why May-ling and her husbands are looking for a third husband. The Wus have their own secrets that they’d love to hide from a government that is all too willing to “re-educate” or simply do away with gay men (called the Willfully Sterile) or men with autism (Lost Boys). May-ling’s reasons are more complicated, but the short version is that she wants a relationship with a man that’s not just emotional or contractual.

I enjoyed the complex courting arrangements and I think I would have preferred it if An Excess Male had continued as social commentary. About halfway through the book, it takes a turn to become more of a science fiction thriller as the Wus secrets start to come out and Wei-guo ends up way over his head in a weird government plot to reduce the male population. There is still emotional depth in the interactions between Wei-guo and May-ling’s family, but they get a bit lost in all the chases and rescue attempts.

On balance, I was very interested in the story that An Excess Male tries to tell. What might happen in a society where women are coveted? It’s curious to see what changes and what doesn’t in this version of a near-future China, which has had its society run topsy-turvy by all-encompassing government policies. The problem with these types of grand policies is they fail to take into account the realities of peoples’ lives, wants, and abilities. Wei-guo, May-ling, and her two husbands are simply caught in the ugly place between policy and reality.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 12 September 2017.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, by Hannah Tinti

30556459Parent are mysterious creatures, at least from the perspective of their children. I doubt any parent is as mysterious as Samuel Hawley. Though he is a devoted father to Loo, Hawley carries around a platoon’s worth of guns and ammunition, knows how to hot wire cars, and is always looking for an escape route. Loo doesn’t think this is strange, nor does she think it’s strange that her father has so many scars from bullet wounds. As Hannah Tinti’s novel, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley, unspools, we start to learn the mysteries behind the scars and find a wonderfully criminal story of a mostly functional family.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is told in two, intertwining halves. In the present, we have Loo as she finally settles down after years of roving in her deceased mother’s former hometown. In the other, we have a series of episodes in which Hawley received yet another bullet wound as he performs jobs for a violent, watch-collecting ex-boxer. Loo is a chip off the old block. When she first arrives in town, she’s more apt to settle things with her fists—or a rock in a sock. The town soon learns that father and daughter are best left alone.

Like all parents, Samuel Hawley had a very full life before he fell in love with Loo’s mother and became a father. But unlike most parents, Hawley’s past is starting to catch up with him almost eighteen years later. Meanwhile, Loo is starting to have serious questions about what happened to her mother and why she has memories of her grandmother’s house when she thought she had never been there before.

I enjoyed Loo’s stubbornness and disinclination to conform with what her grandmother and the locals want her to be. But I loved Hawley’s devotion to his wife and to Loo. He’s far from perfect, but he is fiercely protective when real danger threatens his family. In a way, he reminded me of my own dad, a former Navy senior chief who isn’t always great with emotional stuff but who I always knew would fight like a bear for me if necessary. (Of course, Dad never taught me how to shoot or hot wire cars. An oversight, I think.)

Tales suburban families usually bore the life out of me—unless it turns out that at least some of the family members have particular skills they’ve acquired over a very long career. I sank into this book like a warm bath because it had so many of the things I love in a good book. The characterization is deep and off-beat. The structure is perfect. The plot is brilliant. I enjoyed the hell out of this book.

The King of Fools, by Frédéric Dard

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The King of Fools

Jean-Marie Valaise should have listened to another king at the outset of Frédéric Dard’s The King of Fools (translated by Louise Lalaurie). One year before this book was published in 1962 as La Pelouse, Elvis sang that “Wise men say only fools rush in.” Valaise certainly rushes in. His holiday on the Côte d’Azur turns, in a matter of days, into a nightmare of murder and accusations that might send him to the hangman’s noose. And it’s all because Valaise fell in love at first sight.

Valaise was having a mediocre stay in Juan-les-Pins, without his girlfriend, when he spots a woman sitting in his car. The woman, who turns out to be an Englishwoman named Marjorie Faulks, is embarrassed by her mistake, which she later compounds by leaving her bag in Valaise’s car. Their relationship carries more than a dash of awkwardness. Valaise tries to be suave, but frequently overreaches. Marjorie is married and very uncomfortable about everything. Valaise finds this endearing and he quickly adopts a protective role.

Marjorie has to leave the day after they meet, but they agree to exchange letters—though Marjorie insists on using a general post office address rather than her real one. A wiser man would start hearing alarm bells at this point. Valaise is not that wiser man. After one impassioned letter from Marjorie, he packs up and follows her to Edinburgh. The Scottish turns out to be the perfect gloomy setting for a journey that becomes more like film noir with every hour. Valaise gets rapidly in over his head, the dope, as he chases Marjorie around the city and tries to figure out what on earth is going on with her husband.

To say more at this point would ruin the rest of the book, so I will close this review by saying that The King of Fools is a perfect example of a page-turner. It’s so short and tense that I read it in one sitting. It’s is a perfect beach read—especially if one is lucky enough to be traveling to a French beach and have some Elvis on an iPod.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 5 September 2017.

Marathon Man, by William Goldman

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Marathon Man

William Goldman’s Marathon Man wasn’t half bad. Unfortunately, the other half was. I picked this book up because I remember enjoying the film version, which starred Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier. (Also, I’m a sucker for stories about tracking down Nazis who escaped Europe after the war.) I fell into the trap of expecting the book to be better than the movie because there would be more background and plot. The original novel did have more of both, but it didn’t make for a better tale.

I loathed the first half of Marathon Man. Set in 1973, the book is filled with edgy slang that has not aged well. The protagonist, T.B. Levy, has a motor mouth and is frequently obnoxious rather than amusing. Then there’s the casual racism. With the exception of Levy and one or two other characters, everyone says or thinks horrible things about African Americans and Jews. Instead of making the novel feel “gritty” and realistic, it just feels like paint-by-numbers characterization. It didn’t help that I was waiting for the novel to kick into gear for most of the first half. There’s some action in the prologue and in a side plot that didn’t make sense until Levy gets caught up in the conspiracy at the half-way point.

Once I got to that half-way point, however, my attitude completely changed and I raced through the book. The turning point is when Levy’s brother is murdered. The brother dies in Levy’s arms and Levy is told shortly after that his brother was a courier for Christian Szell, who was Josef Mengele’s (fictional) dental counterpart at Auschwitz. The highlight of the book is the same as the one in the film—which means that this is definitely not a book you want to read before you go to your next appointment with the dentist. The last half of the book is a thrilling, nail-biting race, literally and figuratively.

I would recommend skipping the first half of the book and jumping straight to Part II. Anything that was important from the first half gets referenced in the second and third acts of the book, with the bonus of skipping a lot of obnoxious dialogue and the aforementioned casual racism. Or you could just watch the movie and see Hoffman and Olivier make something interesting out of Marathon Man.