The idea of this book is great: a man who is about to have his 100th birthday party escapes from his retirement home and embarks on a series of hilarious and dangerous adventures.  And, for the most part, it is funny.  But, it is also told in two time periods…the present day (where the man is 100) and the past (where the man in younger but still having adventures).  I LOVED the present day parts.  They are well-written and VERY funny…sardonic, sarcastic, and very, very dark in its humor.  But, the flashbacks to the past are…part funny, part endearing, and part history lesson.  After a while, all of the histrionics of the flashbacks begins to take its toll.  I wanted more (all) of the present day story.

The flashbacks play out more like Being There (the film and originally the Jerzy Kosinski book) and Forrest Gump…where the man, Allan and his life and works alter segments of history, such as Los Alamos, actual events in China, North Korea, etc., where he seemed to have no trouble affecting international politics just by being himself.  Aside from being in the “thick” of things politically (President Truman was a good friend), Allan was also high adventurous and enterprising as a young man (he walked back to his homeland of Sweden over the Himalayas after his involvement in the Far East was over.  So, the flashbacks part was a overly unbelievable and less funny than the antics of the 100-year-old Allan and his group of misfits.  These misfits include a thief who befriends Allan shortly after his “escape” from the retirement home, a hot dog cart owner (who also has a car that comes in handy), a home owner who just happens to own the house Allan and his crew stumble upon (the home owner is also the owner of a stolen/found elephant), and eventually a crime lord.  If you want a funny, lively and truly entertaining read, try this one.  Skim the flashbacks (they are funny in parts…just too long) but savor the present-day adventures of a 100-year-old man. 
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These two books have several things in common:
·         Narrators are unreliable.
·         The main characters are psychopaths or behave like psychopaths under their circumstances.
·         The main characters do not possess a moral compass.
·         There is no resolution of the conflict faced by the protagonists.
·         These two books were very difficult for me to read. I wanted each of them to be finished sooner, but unfortunately both needed to be as long as they were.
·         Both books are award nominees. The Yellow Birds was a National Book Award Finalist and Gone Girl is nominated for an Edgar Award.
The Yellow Birds is conflicted in its voice – our narrator sounds like a soldier when he speaks with other soldiers, but sounds like a poet in all his description and contemplation. These two don’t fit together for me. That being said the book is a good read if you want to hear the painful garbled confession of a combat soldier. I have known several soldiers who have told me their very difficult stories of what occurred while they were deployed. Their stories, like Bartle’s in Yellow Birds, brought me to tears.  Like Bartle, they too found life after combat a very difficult adjustment.
Gone Girl is a real page turner and reads like marriage gone badly under the hands of Alfred Hitchcock. I felt totally manipulated and occasionally strangely delighted with the author’s dark wit. Her description of character behavior in so many situations is startlingly accurate and perfectly described.  Most of the characters are quite despicable. While I hate the story, I find the book to be very well written and I choose it over Yellow Birds for that reason.   Ruth Schuster
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For distinguished fiction by an American author: 

Awarded to The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson, an exquisitely crafted novel that carries the reader on an adventuresome journey into the depths of totalitarian North Korea and into the most intimate spaces of the human heart.

 

Finalists:

Also nominated as finalists in this category were: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank,” by Nathan Englander (Alfred A. Knopf), a diverse yet consistently masterful collection of stories that explore Jewish identity and questions of modern life in ways that can both delight and unsettle the reader; and “The Snow Child,” by Eowyn Ivey (Reagan Arthur/Little, Brown), and enchanting novel about an older homesteading couple who long for a child amid the harsh wilderness of Alaska and a feral girl who emerges from the woods to bring them hope.

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Lord Crick has died. While convulsing. And turning yellow. And providing his family with a gruesome corpse. Although young Lord Crick had some health issues (i.e. the pox) and a rather nasty disposition, it really was a ghastly and horrific death. His sister Lady Lydia decides that there must be a further investigation. The gossip against her husband Captain Flynn, who is her brother’s heir, is becoming scandalous. On the advice of her cousin Francis, she travels to London to meet with Dr. Thomas Silkstone, an American physician who is working, studying and teaching with British anatomist Dr. Carruthers. Silkstone, who is quite taken with Lady Lydia, agrees reluctantly to exhume and examine the corpse and answer questions at the inquest.

When he is at the estate, he finds not just a house in mourning, but a household full of secrets. Silkstone uses his primitive forensic and toxicology skills to study the remains, but he finds more questions than answers, and his list of suspects in the household grows.  The tension swells, and the plot twists,  but will Silkstone (with some help from Carruthers,) find the answers with his scientific methods before there is another body found on the estate? Harris writes a layered tale of forensic mystery using engaging characters who struggle with the conventions of their time. Silkstone is wonderful as the outsider looking into their society. Can’t wait to read the next one in the series!

The Anatomist’s Apprentice by Tessa Harris 

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A riveting and ominous tale of loss, love and heartbreak set in both 1919 and the early 1960s.  The 1919 story involves a past love who most likely perished in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and a woman, Vivian, who cannot get over her loss.  Vivian is “the kept woman” to David, a married man who might or might not leave his wife for her.  The earthquake ends whatever future they might have, but Vivian is determined to find him and she is still hoping for a passionate, heartfelt reunion all the way until 1919, when she finds out the truth. 

Tying in with that is the tale of Claire, a 1960s housewife who sees her love for her husband and the life she has made for herself slipping away.  It’s not that she’s powerless to do anything about it…it’s just that she is unsure whether she wants to stop her sedate, mundane life from slipping out of control.  Her story is set during the inauguration of President Kennedy in early 1961; she looks to Jackie Kennedy as an icon for beauty, stability and class.  As President Kennedy and Jackie’s story sets out, her own story begins to crumble…including her husband walking in on her affair with another married man and then her pregnancy by either her lover or her husband. 

At first, I could not see how these two stories would intersect but as the stories progressed, Hood sets up patterns of misery and disillusionment in each woman that is so compelling that really doesn’t matter.  And then with the connection between 1961 and 1919 is revealed, it is believable and natural.  I’ve read most every novel (she also writes some nonfiction) Hood has written and to the best of my memory, this is the first time she has set a novel in two different time periods (usually, her novels involve one main character (usually female) with her own set of issues and concerns).  Well, for a first time out, the concept works, bringing to life both women, both of their worlds and both of their fully fleshed out emotional struggles.  The vibrancy and passion in the writing helps us to both visualize and sympathize with both ladies’ tales of pain.  A lesser writer would have had trouble creating sympathetic characters out of two adulteresses, but Hood’s careful attention to the character’s inner turmoils allow us to not only sympathize with the two ladies, but possibly even relate to them. 

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A strong Chicago-based mystery from Chicago-based writer Walker, who has a knack for capturing both the essence of the city and the suspense that fills its streets.  In this novel, Walker, a former Catholic priest, uses his seminary background as the backdrop for this latest, involving a priest who gets caught up in an international quagmire.  One day, out of the blue, Father Paul Clark’s friend is killed right in front of him.  Barely escaping with own life, Clark soon finds out that his friend was involved in some less than savory dealings with the wrong types of people.  Enter a woman who says she is from the government who has a plan to help Clark. Can she be trusted?  Clark spends much of the novel trying to answer that question, a search which leads him all the way to South America.  In the midst of all of this, a young man enters him life and shakes his beliefs to the core. 

As mysteries go, this is quite strong.  The character of Paul Clark is a believable, convincing protagonist.  All throughout the book, no matter what Clark is going through, we feel his pain and can sympathize with his difficult situations.  As a priest, he might appear as unrelatable, but Walker gives Clark such compassion and conscience and even some faith crises that we can understand what Clark is experiencing. And Walker also makes good use out of Chicago.  Through the pages, I was able to visualize the gritty and dank streets of Chicago where Clark was desperately trying to run for his life. 

This is the second mystery I have read by Walker (Saving Paulo was the other one) and though I liked both, I found myself drawn more this Clark and his set of nerve-wrenching circumstances. 

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 In 1981 Nora Roberts published her first novel, Irish Thoroughbred. Some thirty years later Roberts has written her 200th published novel, Witness and it is a ROMANCE WINNER!  Elizabeth Fitch is a sixteen year old daughter of a frigid surgeon mother in Chicago, who fed up with the rigid life style her mother commands, goes to the mall, buys clothes not dictated by her mother and goes to a club with a school acquaintance. She drinks too much, winds up at the home of a member of the Russian mob and witnesses several murders. She runs for her life and calls 911. Ultimately she is in a safe house under the protection of several agents but on her birthday her good guy protectors are killed by fellow agents in league with the mob. Elizabeth escapes and knows she can trust no one.
Fast forward twelve years Elizabeth Fitch is now Abigail Lowery, a computer genius running a profitable security company, hiding out in Bickford Arkansas with her gun collection and well trained dog. The new handsome chief of police, Brooks Gleason is curious and is not shy about trying to unlock the puzzle of Abigail Lowery.
 I stayed way past my bedtime finishing this novel. It is a strong romantic suspense read with good characterization and pacing.   Her computer hacking skills, sharp intelligence and vulnerability make Abigail an interesting study.  Brooks Gleason is kind, handsome, smart and of course the perfect male. Roberts is deft with dialogue and the humor is well spaced with the suspense.  On a cold winter night, Witness provided cozy relaxing comfort.
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Told from the point-of-view of both a stepmother and a teenage girl, this novel really delves deep into what makes a family tick.  The stepmother, Andi, is a woman desperate for a child of her own.  She marries a man with two children…a pre-teen girl who causes little if any trouble and a full-blown teenager who is more than makes up for her sister’s lack of trouble.  Andi’s struggles with her new marriage, her husband and her step-kids seem realistic and not fake in anyway.  Emily, the teenager, comes to life on the page…angst and depression and self-hate all included.  Green lets us watch this family’s troubles play out…never forcing us to feel something that seems unnatural or unrealistic.

This is a heartwarming book about the troubles of one family and how they preserve and overcome.  This is the first Jane Green book that I read all the way through and I would definitely read her again.  She’s not totally “chick lit” (or at least this one wasn’t).  There was a depth to this novel that most Kinsellas and other Chick Lit connoisseurs lack.  I liked the characters and the development of them throughout the story.  There were times when certain parts went on too long, but over-all, this is a good, solid story about family and the troubles they bear. 

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This book begins with Japanese “picture brides” on a boat to early 20th Century America to meet their husbands.  These brides are young girls (some 12 or so) who have been shipped off by their parents with the intention of having them get married, have families and basically have better lives than they would in Japan.  The end of the book covers the heart-wrenching years of the Japanese Internment Camps during the post-Pearl Harbor era in the Western USA. 

I absolutely loved the story, the lyricalness, the lushness and the tone of this novel.  Otsuka has a gift of being able to express series of complex emotions with just a few words.  Her writing style seems natural, fluid, yet filled with power.  She does a fantastic job of creating a scene with as few words as possible.  Less, if definitely more here.  After-all, the novel is around 120 pages.

Saying all of that, I still found myself wanting a little more.  NOT more of the words…more of the individual characters and their own stories.  This novel is told in the first person plural voice (or point of view).  Meaning: WE did this, WE did that. With such powerful stories to tell, I wish Otsuka would have picked one or two women to focus on instead of the global “we.”  This does not mean I did not like the book.  I loved it.  I just would have loved it even more had there been a little more individual detail.

But, I understand why she choose the plural voice to write it.  The subject matter here is highly emotional…and by keeping it in the plural, both Otsuka and the reader are able to keep a fair and appropriate distance.  Either way, a must read for all…

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This is another psychological thriller that keeps the reader riveted from Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn. This, Flynn’s debut novel, tells the story of Camille and the uphill battle she faces as she is forced to confront her past and return her her roots.  Struggling as a cub reporter, Camille gets a prime assignment that just might get her name on the journalism map.  The only problem is the story requires her to head back to her small hometown to cover the murder of two young girls.  Her mother still lives there and Camille has had practically no communication with her since Camille left eight years ago.  There also is a new half-sister, who Camille does not know at all.

Flynn does a fantastic job of interweaving all of Camille’s troubles with the case she’s supposed to be researching and reporting.  And, though Camille is not a perfect character, we do at least begin to like her more and more as the story progresses.  She’s very troubled (at the beginning, we find out one of the reasons she is floundering in her newspaper job is that she just finished a stint in a psych hospital) and heading to her hometown only increases these troubles.  But, Flynn does not take Camille or any of the characters here and send them over the top, as many authors tend to do, especially in thrillers.  The story and the characters here are controlled and methodical.  All in all, this is a a wonderful thriller with a dark, gritty edge. 

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