Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith

 Child 44 by Tom Rob Smith is a mysterious, suspicious, relentless page turner of a book. Leo Demidov is an officer in Moscow’s MGB, the organizational precursor to the KGB. Leo is also a decorated hero of WWII with his picture plastered all over the newspaper. Working for the MGB in 1950s Stalinist Russia means that Leo’s life, and the life of everyone around him, is rife with fear and paranoia. Leo has a tiny bit of protection since he works for the MGB, but he is more than aware of how quickly the security afforded to him by his job can be snatched away.

The Soviet Union under Stalin’s rule lives under the heading that there is no crime. That simply isn’t true. Crime that happens is quickly quelled by the MGB and is usually stopped before it happens by quick capture and interrogation. Leo handles a variety of cases and on one of his missions, he is assigned to talk to the family of a young boy who died. The family is convinced that the boy was murdered, a fact made worse by the fact that the boy’s father works for Leo at the MGB. Tasked with making sure the family understands the boy’s death was an accident, Leo tries to get them to understand the situation.

Another of Leo’s cases puts him at odds with a different subordinate, to the point that the man seeks revenge. Forces come to a head and Leo’s steady life is rocked. Faced with the decision of whether or not to denounce his wife as an enemy spy, Leo seeks advice from his parents and wrestles with his decision. Leo is a believer in his country with his work record and military history backing up his beliefs. Asking him to denounce his wife has the potential to push him over the edge.

Circumstances collude to destroy Leo’s life. He is dispatched out of Moscow and exiled to a country village. Leo finds the body of a child killed in the same way as the young boy in Moscow, a fact that puts his whole demeanor on edge. The death he was forced to cover up in Moscow cannot be a coincidence and Leo soon believes a serial killer is after Russia’s children. The official government standpoint is that these deaths are a coincidence. This rankles Leo and sets him down a path to find the real killer, while he also works to keep he and his wife safe.

This book was a riveting read. Tom Rob Smith conveys the melancholy and oppressiveness of Stalin’s Soviet Union very well. Add in murder, espionage, intrigue, and suspense, this piece of thrilling historical fiction comes to life as Leo works to solve crime in a country where crime simply doesn’t exist. This is also the first book in a trilogy, so you can keep reading about Leo’s adventures (The other two are on my list!).


This book was made into a movie starring Tom Hardy and Gary Oldman. It’s on my holds list! Hopefully they stayed somewhat true to the book.

 


This book is also available in the following formats:

Now Departing for : Texas

Hello Online Reading Challenge Members!

Yee haw! We’re off to the Wild West this month! Well, we’re off to Texas and the American Southwest, a part of the United States with a colorful history that continues to be a favorite of writers and film makers alike. There will be no shortage of excellence this month.

I have to admit, when I first drew up this year’s list of subjects for the Online Reading Challenge I included the American Southwest with Texas because I didn’t think there would be enough books just on Texas. Wrong! I discovered lots of great titles, many of which are among my personal favorites. Here are some of them:

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry. Don’t let the various awards (including the Pulitzer Prize) for the this book scare you off as “too literary”. It is indeed a masterpiece of writing and a joy to read, but more importantly, it’s a masterpiece of storytelling. It is the story of one last epic cattle drive across open country, fiercely real, set against an unforgiving landscape and filled with tragedy and triumph,  You will never forget the characters or their stories. An excellent mini-series, starring Robert Duval and Tommy Lee Jones, is also highly recommended.

News of the World by Paulette Jiles reminded me quite a bit of Lonesome Dove although it’s a very different story. What they have in common is uncommon characters, epic adventure and tragedy and triumph. I blogged about it in more detail last year. Highly recommended.

If you have not read Tony Hillerman’s books then do yourself a favor and start! Set in the Navajo Territory, these books follow Lt Leaphorn and Officer Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police as they work to solve crimes in this beautiful but remote and isolated part of the country. While these are on the surface crime-solving mysteries, there is a lot going on beneath the surface including the push and pull of old vs new – Leaphorn is older but does not believe in the Navajo myths; Chee is a young man studying to become a Navajo shaman – and the frequent misunderstandings between cultures. Hillerman was a master writer, spare and evocative with great respect for the Navajo Nation. Amazing books. The Blessing Way was the first book; Skinwalkers is the first with Leaphorn and Chee working together; The Thief of Time is probably my favorite (although I love them all).

Finally, there are many tv shows and movies set in Texas and the Southwest. My favorite is Friday Night Lights and I will argue that it is one of the best television shows ever. Starring Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton, this series features great writing, excellent characters and epic stories all beautifully filmed and with a pitch perfect final episode. Set against the backdrop of football crazy Texas, it’s actually about family and friendship, finding your own way and growing up. I wrote (enthusiastically) about the show here and here.

My plan for August is to go to the classics and read Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop I’ll you know how it goes.

Now, what about you? What are you reading this month?

Playing Dead: A Journey through the World of Death Fraud

Finding herself in a standard thirtysomething situation, our intrepid author ponders the likelihood of faking her own death to escape student loan debt. And thus, was born the premise of Playing Dead: A Journey through the World of Death Fraud.

What an uplifting audiobook.

So, what is the best way? Awash at sea? Nope. Unless you’ve wronged the mob, people don’t sleep with the fishes as much as wash ashore.
Hiking is better. Those bears are ravenous.

How about staying gone? Olivia Newton John’s “drowned” boyfriend Patrick McDermott made it a decade before a website tracking his location saw repeated hits from his new home in Mexico.  Oops.

In 2017, the ability to vanish successfully with longevity is unlikely. To commit insurance fraud and get away with it? Nearly impossible. Enter the cloak and dagger world of the skiptracer. If you’ve used a ballpoint pen or a keyboard since 1988, you’re not exactly D.B. Cooper.

Do you already have an existing electronic footprint? How do you plan to pay for things until your last day?  What circuitous message bouncing technique will you employ to communicate with others in an untraceable manner?

How long before vanishing did you beef up that hefty life insurance policy?    Red flag.

This book skewed away from the grim and grisly to focus on the fascinating. Did you know there is a thriving marketplace in the Phillipines for unclaimed bodies? Private air conditioned storage facilities are happy to part with them to “next of kin” for a modest fee, providing of course you are, ya know, bereaved and such.  You wouldn’t believe it, but the purchasers always want them cremated.

African safari adventures offer a variety of packages a la Apple Vacations, complete with grainy VHS video recordings of third-tier thespian funeral mourners. Who knew I was such an avid naturalist and so popular on the savannas of Tanzania?  Yes, yes, I was, and the Masai were so sad to hear what happened with the warthog, Mr. Insurance Agent.

In the end, insurance companies have big pockets, they hire Liam Neeson Taken-types who’ve done this dance many times. These guys never fail, and they’re willing to hump it to a mountain in Kazakhstan with a spade to make sure your skeleton is there, not that of an unlucky goat.

Back to playing the lottery.

Now Arriving from : Alaska

Welcome Back Online Reading Challengers!

How was your July? Did you find something wonderful about Alaska this month? Surely reading about all that cold and snow helped keep you cool here in Iowa!

I read The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey, a story that is both hopeful and heartbreaking. Set in frontier Alaska where conditions are harsh and homesteading is hard work, The Snow Child is about a middle-aged couple who have come to Alaska for a fresh start. Their only child has died and they are unable to have another. Mabel, struggling with grief is considering killing herself and she and her husband Jack are drifting further and further apart. They are just barely hanging on. One day, impulsively, Jack and Mabel build a snow child and soon after they begin to see glimpses of a small girl in the woods. Who is she? Where did she come from? Is she safe alone in the woods?

Over time Jack and Mabel befriend the girl and welcome her into their home and hearts. She grows into a beautiful young woman, but there is something wild and otherworldly about her, as if she is only here temporarily. What follows is a story about family, both those we are born into and those we create, about surviving sorrow and finding joy again. The land of Alaska plays a big part in this book and is beautifully described – you can almost feel the cold winter winds or see the brilliant sunshine. Ivey is a native Alaskan and her love and respect for the land and wildlife are evident. Based on a traditional Russian fairy tale, this is a lovely, thoughtful book.

Now it’s your turn – what have you read this month?

 

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

 American Gods by Neil Gaiman is a twisted fantasy tale of gods come to life in modern-day America. There is a battle soon to rage between the ancient gods and the gods of today. The historic gods of European tales were brought to North America and other countries around the world in the minds of the people who believed in them. They grew stronger in those new places every time someone talked about them or thought of them. The old gods are coming up against a struggle now. The new gods (gods of media, television, Internet, etc) feel like the old gods have reached their limit. The old gods feel like they’re being usurped by gods that will vanish from the public’s minds in a few years, an idea that infuriates them. Spiritual warfare runs rampant through this book as readers discover that gods walk among us, hidden as humans or animals. These ancient divinities may struggle against the new trends and fads, but their struggle for survival is necessary in this new supernatural climate.

Thrown into this conflict, our antihero rises. He is a convict named Shadow, a man who has feelings that the world is going change drastically. Through Shadow, readers witness the behind-the-scenes relationship between the gods and humans. Humans and their faith play a very large part in this book with Shadow and the gods constantly struggling in this massive religious upheaval. Shadow soon finds himself thrust into the middle of this skirmish between the ancients: Odin, Anansi, Those, Loki One-Eye, etc, and the contemporary deities: geek-boy god Internet, the goddess Media, etc. It’s a fascinating journey as Shadow takes a job as a kind of bodyguard for Mr. Wednesday, a human representation of the Norse god Grimnir, as they travel across the country trying to recruit more gods to actively fight on their side. The magical and the mundane are, for the most part, evenly balanced throughout this book, a fact that I greatly appreciated since it helped me better understand what was happening.

I listened to this book through OverDrive and greatly enjoyed it because the author actually read the prologue! Getting to hear authors speak is one of my favorite things because you really get to hear their viewpoint and how their cadence influences the writing of the book. His discussion of the creation of this book was also invaluable knowledge. I greatly enjoyed this book.


This book is also available in the following formats:

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

 The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt is a massive undertaking of a book. (The audiobook was over 30 hours long!) Despite its length, this book is masterfully crafted and deals with a wide variety of topics from drug use to terrorism to museums to alcoholism to loss to survival. So many different themes that some reviewers have called this book an odyssey. I would have to agree with them. I definitely felt like I was being given the complete tour of the main character’s life, as well as everyone that he came in contact with.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt tells the story of the life of Theodore Decker. This book follows Theo’s life starting as a young boy in New York City to his current situation as a man in his twenties who has wound up back in New York. As a young boy, Theo lives with his mother after his father abandoned them. Out one day with his mother, Theo miraculously survives a horrendous attack that kills his mother and many other people. Traumatized, alone, and unsure of his future, Theo finds himself ensconced in the home of a wealthy friend. When his father unexpectedly pops back into his life, Theo finds himself ripped from his only place of security into a whirlwind of confusion. He bounces around the country meeting new people, but is always drawn back to New York, the girl he met the day of the attack, and the artifact he found. This artifact, a painting, leads Theo down an unexpected road into the art underworld. Theo’s life journey, accompanied by this small, mysterious painting, is perilous: full of loss, mania, fixations, power struggles, new identities, and the looming, heady sensation of anguish and grief.

This book is such a rich expanse of wonder that, once you are finished, you will be left gaping at everything that the author was able to pack in. It’s not shocking that this book won the Pulitzer Prize. Tartt has created a masterwork that takes readers through present-day America as Theo struggles to find himself amidst unbelievable loss and tragedy. Tartt pays such close attention to Theo’s feelings that readers are acutely aware of everything that is happening around him and how the tragedy he has suffered has deeply changed him. This is a story of massive loss and overwhelming survival, of obsession and the need to become a new person. Highly recommended.


This book is also available in the following formats:

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty is a diving read into the secrets that we all have within ourselves and between our families and friends. Cecelia Fitzpatrick stumbles upon a letter written by her husband that is only to be opened after his death. Concerned about what the letter is about, Cecelia wrestles with whether to open it or not, coming to the decision that her husband, whom she has been married to for 15 years and has three daughters with, must have just forgotten to give it to her. His reaction to her admittance that she found the letter makes Cecelia doubt her decision and causes a great chasm to open up between her and her husband, as well as between her and the people she comes into contact with on a daily basis.

Tess O’Leary lives with her husband and young son. Tess started a business out of her home with her husband and her best friend as her business partners. Everything is going along perfectly until her husband and her best friend sit her down to tell her they’ve fallen in love. Shattered, Tess packs up her son and heads to her childhood home, which just so happens to be the same town that Cecelia lives in. Tess must deal with her feelings towards her husband and best friend, her entertaining relationship with her mother, her son’s confusion, and her lingering feelings about returning to her childhood home and the people she grew up with.

Rachel Crowley works at the local school as a secretary. She comes into contact with the parents, children, and teachers on a daily basis, something that drives her crazy because she believes that one of the teachers at the school killed her daughter twenty years ago. With her daughter and now her husband dead, Rachel looks forwards to the days that her toddler grandson comes over to visit. That joy is soon snatched from her when her son and his wife announce that they are moving to New York. Her grandson will be gone too. Rachel doesn’t know what to do.

The letter that Cecelia finds has the power to destroy so many lives, but also the ability to answer so many questions. Secrets run amok in this book and the characters involved struggle with their inner demons on a daily basis. Seeing the interplay between people and how each secret connected really hooked me into the book and had me wanting more.

I have listened to and read almost all of Liane Moriarty’s books, leaving me with a little disappointed that I don’t have very many left! She is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. This is due to the fact that her stories are so relatable. The narrator(I’ve listened to all of her books through OverDrive) has a fantastic accent and has a really animated delivery as well. This book is wonderfully crafted and I greatly enjoyed it.


This book is also available in the following formats:

Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon

I don’t read as many print books as I used to. Life got in the way and I found myself gravitating more toward audiobooks since I could multitask and listen to books that way. Every now and then though, I find myself faced with a quandary: I want to read a book that the library only has in print and that isn’t available as an audiobook in OverDrive. If that happens, I have to find the time to sit still and read. My latest print book read was Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon and I’m glad I forced myself to take the time to sit and enjoy it.

Everything, Everything, I’m sure most of you know, is now a major motion picture, but that isn’t how I came to know this book. I had read Yoon’s other book, The Sun is Also a Star, and loved it. It’s an angsty teen love story that deals with deportation and a lot of other really relevant teen and adult topics. That book has also won a lot of awards. After I finished The Sun is Also a Star, I decided to give Everything, Everything a try to see if it was worth all the hype the movie was bringing to it. I’m still up in the air about it, even though this book is written beautifully with diverse characters present throughout.

Everything, Everything tells the story of a terminally ill teenage girl who falls in love with a perfectly normal teenage boy. (If you boil down all the plot elements, that’s basically it, BUT don’t do that. It’s so much more, like HUGE plot twists that even I didn’t see coming.) Family dramas abound, both inside the bubble and out, first love feels galore, and traditional teen mixed up feelings are all over this book. Add in a messed-up medical condition, a parent who is a doctor, and the deaths of family members and this book will drag you on a roller coaster of feelings from the first page to the very last.

Madeline is an Afro-Asian teenage girl who cannot remember the last time she has been outside of her house. She has a very good reason. Madeline Whittier is allergic to the outside world. She can’t go outside, breathe fresh air, feel the sun, nothing. If she did, she could die. Maddy hasn’t left her house in seventeen years and only has contact with her mom and her nurse, Carla, on a daily basis. Her compromised immune system has left her isolated. Maddy is stuck in her air-locked house and has come to terms with it. Until the day a moving truck pulls up next door.

Drawn to the window out of pure curiosity, Maddy watches a family clamor out of the moving truck and take in their new surroundings. Maddy finds herself staring at the teenage boy who is lanky and dressed in black from head to toe. He catches her staring and they lock eyes. That’s the first time Maddy sees Olly and her life is changed forever.

Maddy quickly wants to know more about Olly and his family. From watching them, she discovers some normal, as well as some troubling, things. Maddy and Olly quickly start ‘talking’. They window communicate, IM, email, and all this leaves Maddy wanting more and more. Olly does too. What is she willing to risk for friendship and love? Will Olly accept her? What will her mom think? What will her mom do?

This book is a fantastic read. Going beyond the traditional angst of only being separated from your crush by your parents, Maddy’s disease is the one separating them. It’s a fascinating read that delved into some pretty deep topics.

You could definitely finish this book in a day. The chapters are short, but very engaging. The only reason it took me over a week to read was because I started it in the midst of a multi-day road trip. If you have time and can, more importantly, get your hands on a copy, I recommend you give this book a read. Now I’m off to watch the movie and see how close they followed the book! I hope they followed it pretty closely…


This book is also available in the following formats:

Now Arriving from: San Francisco

Hello Fellow Reading Fans!

We’re back from the City by the Bay – how was your virtual visit? Did you find a book that gave you a taste of the city?

I hit the jackpot this month and read a great book – Mr Penumbra’s 24 Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan. Set mostly in San Francisco, the story revolves around a mysterious bookstore that is open 24 hours a day and caters to a very particular clientele. More that that it’s an exploration of old vs new, of how pen and paper (and books) mesh with and clash with technology and new ideas.

Stephanie wrote a great review of this book for the blog a couple of years ago which I suggest you check out. It gives you a great description of what the book is about (without spoilers) and why it’s so good. It’s also pretty funny – Clay’s internal dialogue is often hilarious (and very relatable) and while San Francisco isn’t an integral part of the story, it does add a lot of character to the setting. Read it – it’s sooooo good!

Bonus: if you like to judge a book by it’s cover and mostly pick up a book because of its appearance rather than what the blurb says, then you have to check this one out because the cover glows in the dark! Yep. I tested it myself and it really does glow in the dark. Kinda super-awesome.

So, what about you – did you find anything super-awesome to read (or listen to or watch) this month? Tell us!

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

I just finished listening to John Darnielle read his book, Universal Harvester, on CD. I am left asking myself, “What just happened?” I liked it. I think I would like to re-read it, this time in print.

The book is about a young man named Jeremy Heldt who works at Video Hut in Nevada, Iowa in the mid-nineties. He is a down-to-earth guy, having lost his mother to a car accident six years prior. As a relatively responsible twentysomething adult, he isn’t sure what to do when he discovers that some videos have been returned with strange footage spliced into them. It is unclear to him whether the scenes are a goof, or if someone is getting hurt and sending out a cry for help. Also, his boss at the video store may or may not have become personally entangled in whatever it is.

I was first drawn to listen to this book because I read in a Booklist review that it is set in small-town Iowa. Not knowing anything about author John Darnielle, I thought, “I want to find out how he portrays an Iowan. I want to hear if he’s going to butcher the way we talk.”  I was admittedly skeptical that I wouldn’t find his portrayal of an Iowan to be silly, maybe a little bit insulting. Often it seems to me that nonnatives perceive us all to be rubes. Sometimes actors portray our manner of speaking in a way that more resembles a southern drawl than the intonation of an actual Iowan. I was pleased to find Darnielle’s main character sounding like some Iowans I know, albeit the ones who have also spent time living out west. This made more sense to me once I looked up a little more about Darnielle online and learned that he grew up in southern California and lived in Portland, Oregon briefly after high school. He did live in some of the Iowa towns where the events in Universal Harvester take place, though it is unclear when and how long.

My opinions of the writer/reader’s dialect aside, this book is a hard one to categorize. Some libraries in our system have classified it as fiction; others put it in the horror section. I am not usually a reader of horror books, and when I realized it was considered that, I thought “Uh oh. What am I getting myself into?” As I got further into the book, I kept bracing myself for something gory or horrifically disturbing. When I think horror, I think gore. However, there isn’t anything terribly gory in this book.

It turns out I was just as mistaken as the folks who think Iowans speak with a drawl. I came across this great article from The Horror Writers Association and learned that horror can take as many forms as the people who read it. After all, not everyone is horrified by the same things. I happen to find gore horrifying, some people are just as horrified by the unknown. Death is perhaps the biggest of the unknowns, but there are also a myriad of other unknowns throughout life.

There are many unknowns in Universal Harvester. If you like a plot that gets neatly tied up at the end, this book is not for you. However, if you appreciate great writing and a story well-told that makes you think and ask questions, then you should check this book out. It would be a great book club selection, because there is plenty here to explore and discuss. (In fact, if you know me, please read this book so we can talk about the details together! I’m still not sure what just happened.)

Next, I am going to check out some Mountain Goats CDs. The author of this book is in a band called the Mountain Goats, and he has been hailed as one of the best living lyricists. Judging by his novel writing ability, I’d say that’s likely a fair assessment. Happy reading and/or listening!