Archives for posts with tag: Leslie Hayes

bestdayWhile I was reading BEST DAY EVER by KAIRA ROUDA, I made a Facebook post that said “Only 50 pages in and I want to strangle the narrator.” A friend advised that I was “allowed to put it down” and I realized I couldn’t. Just like when I tackled Flynn’s GONE GIRL, I knew I was going to have to finish this book. I needed to know what happens to the characters. I needed to know that Paul Strom was going to be punished for being truly awful.

Everything about Paul is perfect. He has the perfect life: a high-powered job, a beautiful stay-at-home wife, Mia, and two young sons. And he has planned the perfect weekend getaway with Mia at their second home in an exclusive gated community. He even assembled the perfect playlist as the soundtrack the their weekend. (Paul is prone to repetition; maybe it affected me a little.) But if everything is so wonderful, then why does Mia seem so unhappy? Why are Paul’s thoughts so dark? What are they both hiding?

As the day’s events intensify, Mia seems to know more about Paul’s darker half than he realizes. She asks questions about his work life that make him incredibly nervous. Of course, he thinks he’s too smart to be found out. She’s just a silly housewife, no threat to him whatsoever. But Paul’s overconfidence may end up being his downfall.

Written primarily from Paul’s perspective, this book is very character-driven. He is an intense, brooding, and flawed person. In many ways, he reminded me of Patrick Bateman from American Psycho. Is Paul a psychopath or just creepy and controlling? Or both? Or is he just an exaggerated character who is created to tell a story?

I think that Paul, while perhaps a bit embellished, is a very realistic character. He’s overly concerned with status and brand (he mentions a least a dozen times that he drives a Ford Flex). Maintaining a picture-perfect life is what he strives for. And maybe that’s what felt over the top about him. If he’s a psychopath, would he care about creating an illusion? Or would he just try not to get discovered? Regardless of these nitpicks, the story is both disturbing and compelling.

Even though I was angry at the narrator, I think that’s the mark of a successful book. Rouda managed to evoke incredibly strong emotions from me. I was filled with disgust for Paul. I rooted for Mia to confront her controlling husband. I wanted answers to all the questions brought up by Paul’s unsettling internal monologue. For the most part, I got those answers. But can you really trust the answers of someone as suspicious as Paul?

Sometimes, it’s fun to explore the scary things in the world. I think I prefer the more impossible side of scary, though. Give me vampires, werewolves, and Ancient Ones any day. Knowing that there are really people like Paul out there made Rouda’s book more unsettling for me. But, if you don’t mind getting inside the head of someone who is, frankly, unlikeable and unreliable, then BEST DAY EVER might be for you.

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epiphanyTattoos most often have a personal meaning for their recipients. Hours of thought and planning are invested before needle takes to skin. But, in the world of THE EPIPHANY MACHINE by DAVID BURR GERRARD, those who receive tattoos from the mystical machine have only one choice: whether or not to stick their arm into the jaw of the beast-like device.

For me, The Epiphany Machine is not an easy book to write a review of. Mostly, the book follows Venter Lowood from high school through college. His parents were among the first of those to use the mysterious epiphany machine. The tattoo his mother received seemingly foretold her abandoning her family. And Venter’s father’s tattoo may have contributed to his lackluster parenting. Naturally, Venter has been told to avoid the machine. We can all imagine what happens next.

One of the first rules of using the epiphany machine is: “The epiphany machine will not discover anything about you that you do not, in some way, already know.” Venter’s tattoo reads DEPENDENT ON THE OPINION OF OTHERS. While this doesn’t surprise him, he alternates, for the rest of his life, between trying to defy and follow his tattoo’s words. And this is maybe the most frustrating thing about him. I spend a fair amount of time thinking of Holden Caulfield, one of my least favorite literary characters. I have to give David Burr Gerrard credit for writing a character that evoked an emotional response, even if it was frustration.

So, what is the epiphany machine? Who created it? How does it work? What powers the machine? No one knows. But the machine’s owner, Adam Lyons, begins operating it in his New York City apartment in the 1960s. The tattoos are brief and seem to reveal a truth about each person. These truths are somewhat uncomfortable, but at the same time, offer enlightenment. Before long, even John Lennon shows up at Lyons’ apartment, puts his arm into the machine, and receives a mystical tattoo. Generations use the machine with no major incident. After 9/11, the machine takes on a more sinister connotation.

Venter’s best friend, Ismail, is Muslim and has a tattoo that reads WANTS TO BLOW THINGS UP. Unfortunately, one of the pilots who hijacked a plane on 9/11 had the same tattoo. Soon, Venter comes back to his dorm to discover government agents want information. Stuck with an impossible choice — and DEPENDENT ON THE OPINION OF OTHERS — Venter turns his friend. From there, Venter’s life bounces from one bad decision to the next.

The Epiphany Machine is, at its core, a book about choices and how we deal with them. Should we use the machine or not? Once the tattoo is there, how much weight should you give it? Should you work to change yourself, or is there some core part of our personality that cannot be changed? Though Gerrard can’t answer those questions, he does set up a story that invites readers to explore them on our own.

indexGenerally speaking, I don’t read books that have to do with nature. I’m not a person who’s interested in mountain climbing or caving. So why I picked up THE WHITE ROAD by Sarah Lotz is still a bit of a mystery to me. Maybe something in the description made me think of one of my favorite horror movies, THE DESCENT. Maybe I just wanted to try something different. No matter what the reason, I’m glad I gave this one a chance.

Simon Newman and his friend Thierry run a struggling website. On the hunt for content that will bring in new readers, Thierry discovers the story of Cwm Pot. While exploring a system of caves in Cwm Pot, three men died. Their bodies were unable to be recovered due to the difficulty of the cave. Thierry and Simon decide that Simon will explore the cave to get footage of the dead men.

Simon finds a guide to lead him through the caves, he assumes everything will go well. But Simon and his guide Ed wind up trapped during a flash flood. The guide attacks Simon and dies in the resulting struggle. On his own in unfamiliar territory, Simon must decide whether he will wait for potential rescue or try to find his way out. Unable to stand the thought of being trapped with four dead men, Simon stumbles his way to rescue.

Of course, Simon’s footage goes viral. He and Thierry are on the verge of being rich, which means they need more content for their site. Thierry comes up with the idea of sending Simon to Mt. Everest to capture footage of the dead climbers at the summit. Eager for money, Simon agrees to go.

This half of the book is told from the viewpoints of Simon and a climber named Juliet. Juliet was a climber who was attempting to climb Mt. Everest with her partner Walter. Walter dies during the climb, leaving Juliet alone. She begins to see something along the way. A phantom climber that haunts her day and night. What – or who – is this entity?

Simon climbs ever closer to the summit, befriending his fellow climbers. As they get closer to the summit, he discovers that one of the other climbers, Mark, is actually the son of the lost Juliet. Mark wants to climb only to find his mother’s body. Simon is conflicted. Does he want footage for the site or to respect the journey of his new friend?

At the summit, Simon loses his grasp on reality and removes his glove. Because of the extreme environment, his hand is frozen. The guide who was leading him to the summit rescues Simon, but Mark is lost. Simon loses part of his hand to frostbite. But the footage of the climb skyrockets the website’s popularity. Despite this, Simon sinks into a deep depression and is haunted by the ghost of Ed. Discussing too much more of the plot would spoil the ending, but I will say that Simon goes on a quest to both rid himself of Ed and discover what haunted Juliet on Everest.

 More than anything, Lotz’s writing captures the extremes of the environments she writes about. The crushing depths of the cave and numbing cold of Everest are described so well that reading them was uncomfortable. The description of going through the tight spaces of Cwm Pot made me pretty sure I don’t ever want to go caving. This wasn’t quite the horror story I thought it would be, but if you’re looking for a different take on both scary situations and nature writing, THE WHITE ROAD is worth your while.

I’m not really mubwwbch of a mystery reader. Unicorns? Spaceships? Talking dogs? I’m game. But whodunnits have never really appealed to me. However, when I saw Burn What Will Burn, I have to admit, the title hooked me. The short summary I read made it seem even more interesting: a poet finds a dead body and puts his own life in danger.

Set in fictional Doker, Arkansas, Burn What Will Burn is a story about what it’s like to be an outsider. Bob Reynolds is a poet with a lot of problems. First, people in his life tend to drown. Second, he has some sort of unnamed anxiety disorder. And third, he’s an outsider in a very small town.  When he finds a dead body in the creek behind his Arkansas home, his life begins to unravel very quickly.

When Bob pulls the body out of the creek and calls the High Sheriff Sam Baxter, he doesn’t realize that he’s stepping into a decades old web of lust, lies, and family secrets. No one in town trusts Bob or even really wants him around. When the High Sheriff wants to blame someone for the mysterious death, who better than Bob Reynolds? He’s a poet, which is weird enough in the small town of Doker, but he’s also just plain weird. He has a crush on the local “mechanic” Tammy Fay that borders on obsession, but she only wants to use Reynolds as a pawn in this small town conspiracy.

The story hinges on Bob Reynolds trying to get out of the hole he’s found himself in while surrounded by an angry preacher, a drug dealing felon, a corrupt sheriff, a mentally challenged boy, and Tammy Fay, a woman with an agenda of her own and no interest in returning Reynolds’ affection. Many of the characters McKenzie writes about are eerily similar to people I’ve encountered. However, sometimes they seem more like a roll call for small town stereotypes.

Honestly, I didn’t enjoy this book. Bob Reynolds is the narrator, and his internal monologue gets flowery at times. I also just didn’t like him, which makes reading a whole book through his perspective a little tedious. Often, Reynolds does things for reasons that not even he seems to understand. The plot seems to be unimportant even to Reynolds, who bounces from event to event without a clear plan of action.

I couldn’t decide if I wanted Reynolds to go through a flashback or two to explain his weirdness. On one hand, it would answer a lot of questions I had about the unseemly narrator. On the other hand, I think Bob Reynolds would have lost a lot of his intrigue if we knew his whole backstory. I had trouble connecting to a narrator who spends zero time thinking about anything other than the exact present moment he’s in. But maybe that’s part of the brilliance of this character: his lack of forethought is exactly what gets him into trouble.

At only 212 pages, Burn What Will Burn is a quick read, though probably better suited to folks who like mystery stories. It’s an interesting character study of small town living, but it’s not going on my Top Ten Favorite Books list.

bhbFormed when stars collapse, black holes are a phenomenon that has intrigued scientists since they were predicted in 1915 by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Black holes have infiltrated pop culture as well, appearing as plot points in dozens of books, tv shows, movies, and even video games. Difficult to study because they are so far away and because they so powerful they can literally suck in light, black holes are a great mystery of science.

Janna Levin introduces these phenomena with the fact that, if two black holes were to collide, they would produce a sound. The universe is full of sound, she tells us, we just can’t hear it. But what if, science asks, we could? This question led to a quest over two decades old.

Officially begun in 1994 by the National Science Foundation, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) is actually two observatories working together to seek out whatever sounds the universe might be making. The research that led to the foundation of LIGO came from an international team of dynamic scientists.

Kip Thorne, Rainer Weiss, Ronald Drever, Rochus E. Vogt, and Barry Barish are not household names. They are, however, some of the scientists whose research created the basis for LIGO. Drever, for instance, used mirrors in his Scottish backyard to detect Earth’s movements, leading to the mirrors used at the LIGO institutes. They are, if you’ll indulge me, the bad boys of astrophysics. Strong personalities and fighting fueled by mistrust and lack of scientific progress nearly ended LIGO before it began.

Levin provides intimate biographies of the major players in this quest to hear the sounds made by the universe. These biographies serve not only to provide a look at who is involved, but they also give depth to the story, showing how these scientists are connected to the likes of Galileo, Einstein, and Oppenheimer. Each of the LIGO scientists were independently brilliant, all unknowingly working on the same problem from their locations around the world.

Perseverance has proved a powerful force for LIGO. The team, plus or minus founding members, survived and has been listening to the universe since the mid 1990s. Upgrades were made to the stations over the years. Most recently, upgrades were completed in 2015, making the observatories more sensitive than ever before. Future upgrades are planned, and a there is talk of building a third observatory in India.

The punchline to “Black Hole Blues” is that in February of this year, LIGO announced that they had detected the waves created by the collision of two black holes. There are strict guidelines in place for analyzing any data collected by the observatories. The discovery was actually made shortly after the most recent upgrades were made, but the results had to be confirmed. Goal achieved, the team has helped prove Einstein’s 101 year-old theory about what happens when black holes merge.

Levin’s book is less about black holes than humankind’s quest for answers about them. Black holes were only recently proven to be real. They are thousands of lightyears away from us and we’ll most likely never be able to study them up close. What drives a person to devote their life to research this unknowable phenomena? Like black holes, we may never have all the answers to the questions that surround them.

rbg

2015 could probably be considered the year that Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made it in pop culture. After gaining notoriety for her dissenting opinion on the Burwell v. Hobby Lobby ruling, Ginsburg began popping up here and there in pop culture.

Ginsburg became a fairly regular character on “Saturday Night Live.” A blog called “Notorious RBG” sprang up, comparing her to rapper Biggie Smalls. The more I heard about her, the more she sounded like the sort of person I’d want to adopt as an honorary grandparent. Stars aligned, cogs turned, and “Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg” came across my desk.

Appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1993, Ginsburg has led a career that puts her in the upper echelon of lawyers. Her career began in the 60’s as a clerk, helping research cases for Judge Edmund L. Palmieri. She wasn’t content to work behind the scenes, however, and by January 1973, she was presenting cases to the Supreme Court. RBG hasn’t slowed down since.

Much of her career was spent fighting to establish legal precedents for gender equality. She fought not only for the rights of women to move up in careers and make their own decisions about their bodies, but also for the rights of men who took on caregiver roles. Her goal for many of the cases she took on was to achieve gender equality under the law. One case, Duren v. Missouri, argued that jury duty for women shouldn’t be optional because it made women’s service on juries seem less important than men’s.

“Notorious RBG” also paints a picture of the Justice’s personal life, especially her marriage to Marty Ginsburg. The pair complemented each other well throughout their nearly 60 years of marriage. Ruth wasn’t a great cook, so Marty took over, much to everyone’s delight. They supported each other through all sorts of obstacles.

While he fought cancer in law school, she took notes for him and helped him complete his classwork. After she was done helping him each night, she would then work on her own assignments. Teamwork was the at the heart of their marriage, mirroring the overall theme her legal career. Sadly, Marty passed away in 2010, from a second encounter with cancer.

RBG has dealt with two bouts of cancer and in 2014 had a stent placed in her heart, but she shows no signs of stopping. One of the funniest portions of the book comes from her personal trainer, Bryant Johnson, who describes the tenacity with which RBG approaches her workouts. She once left early from a White House dinner to meet a training session, Johnson says.

On March 15, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg turned 83. When asked about retirement, RBG doesn’t have a date set. She seems to have a lot more in mind for her career and isn’t ready to stop working just yet. RBG’s sense of humor hasn’t faded over the years. Her office, the book’s authors report, is filled with memorabilia related to her recent rise in fame.

“Notorious RBG” is an interesting, humorous, and straightforward biography about one of the most influential women in the United States, maybe even in the world. While not tremendously in-depth, the authors included charts outlining RBG’s legal work, her dissents with commentary from other legal professionals, and even a quick guide to RBG’s workout regimen. “Notorious RBG” is probably best described as a gateway book: full of the sorts of interesting stories and details that will likely inspire readers to further investigate RBG and her astounding life.

I didn’t set out to be a “weird book” reviewer, but I guess that’s what I’ve been drawn to lately. It’s been fun reading books that take typical plots and turn them sideways. I’ve always been a SciFi fan, so getting to read weird, award-winning SciFi made me a happy reviewer.

In 2014, author Jeff VanderMeer released three books, all part of the Southern Reach Trilogy. These books quickly gained some notoriety in the SciFi world and Mr. VanderMeer won both the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson award that year. I heard that a movie was going to be made based on the books and sat down to find out what all the fuss was about.

Thankfully, the trilogy is pretty short–about 900 pages. I found them both entertaining and compelling and couldn’t put them down. A quick word of warning: this trilogy is not for people who need every loose end tied up by the last page of the book. You will have lots of questions and pretty much none of them will be answered.

What I can tell you is that there is a place known as the Southern Reach, which is somewhere in Florida. The area is infected with some kind of alien life form and can keep things out if it chooses, but humankind has found a way in and has sent in expeditions to explore the growing infection. These expeditions never end well, but the government keeps sending them anyway.

Annihilation is the first of the trilogy. A team of four women – an anthropologist, surveyor, biologist, and psychologist – are exploring the Southern Reach. The Biologist and her team discover an underground silo filled with ominous writing. They also explore a lighthouse, which holds secrets about the previous missions and their outcomes.

The Biologist’s fears about the expedition are brought to light when she realizes that the Psychologist is using hypnotism to control the group. After the Anthropologist goes missing, the mission falls apart completely. Fighting the very team she was supposed to trust, the Biologist must find a way to survive the swamps of the Southern Reach and the horrific creatures she discovers there.

Very little about the history of the Southern Reach and the previous expeditions is revealed in Annihilation. We only know what the Biologist knows, but she barely trusts herself. I think it was the list of questions I had about just what was really going on that propelled me through the next two books in the series.

Authority takes place after the events of Annihilation. A new Director for the Southern Reach facility arrives. This man, who prefers to be called Control, is a hugely conflicted character. As he interacts with the Biologist, Control begins to discover that he has been misled about the purpose of the Southern Reach and the experiments that have gone on there. He begins to investigate the mysterious disappearance of the previous Director and finds that she may have had a deeper connection to the Southern Reach than anyone realized.

Acceptance, the final book, takes place as a prequel. The point of view jumps back and forth between several characters and pieces together what the Southern Reach was like before explorations, clone-monsters, and glow-in-the-dark lighthouse keepers. There are several plots that are explored in Acceptance and they each serve to give us more information about the characters and stories that hold the previous two books together.

While Mr. VanderMeer had a great opportunity to answer all our questions in Acceptance, he chose not to. Instead, he uses the trilogy to explore human nature and what we might do when we’re faced with an unknowable entity. If you like wacky, weird fiction without answers, this should be right up your alley.