Thursday, July 24, 2014

Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre

Main characters:  Marines Pete Donovan and Lester Pleasant, and Iraqui interpreter Dodge
Location: New Orleans and Iraq
Time period:  2006
Genre:  Adult Fiction, War Fiction

Fives and Twenty-Fives follows three men who were brought together by the war in Iraq, focusing not just on their time of service, but afterwards as they struggle to fit back in to civilian life.

Lieutenant Pete Donovan was a college man from Alabama before the war.  As a lieutenant, he seemed easy-going and content to allow his sergeants to handle the day to day running of his command.  Their role was road repair, which sounds a bit boring--filling potholes out in the brutal desert heat--but each pothole could, and often did, hide a bomb or trigger an ambush.  Pete has been awarded a bronze star for heroism, but he is uncomfortable with the label "hero" or even "sir."

Lester "Doc" Pleasant was from Cajun country in Louisiana before joining the Marines and becoming a corpsman, the first to administer aid in case any in his squad are wounded or injury.  He is deeply affected when he is prevented from running out to help a marine that badly wounded in an ambush.  The Lieutenant tells him that the man is already dead, but Doc is convinced that he saw him roll over.  Soon Doc is heading down a spiral of drug abuse which leads to him being discharged from the Marines.

Dodge is the Iraqui interpreter.  Dodge is, obviously, not his real name, which the military hides to protect him and his family from reprisals.  What Dodge does not tell anyone is that his father and his brother are much more likely to be the ones performing reprisals.  He wants to run from Iraq, from his family, and head to Syria, or Jordan, or anywhere there isn't war and he can resume his studies.  After his time with the Marines, he makes his way to Tunisia where he becomes a witness to the birth of the Arab Spring.

The author is a former Marine captain who served in Iraq and there is a strong feeling of authenticity through the book.  While reading it, I was reminded of the great World War II novels of Jim Jones, like From Here to Eternity and The Thin Red Line, or of movies like The Best Years of Their Lives and The Big Red One.  The emphasis is not on the battles but on the men and their relationships.  The structure of the novel--using current events to frame flashbacks--keeps propelling the story forward.  You keep getting hints that something big happened and you have to keep turning the pages to discover what that was.  (I was reading while waiting for a doctor's appointment and actually resented being called in because I wanted to keep reading.)

There is a well-crafted section where Pete is in a group of other officers and trying to have a serious conversation with one person while another man in the background is telling a story.  The way Pitre writes this section lets you clearly follow both conversations.  It's the sort of scene that would be so easy to do in a movie or TV but is very difficult in writing.

Pitre says in his forward that one of the things he wanted to do in this book was to show the suffering of the Iraqui people.  I think one of the saddest sections was where Dodge was talking about how he didn't have friends.  If you have friends, you have people.  And if you have people then there is a weapon that can be used against you.  So he denies himself from forming relations.  But though this is what he might say and what he might believe, he can't help getting entangled with others.

I very much enjoyed this book and would recommend it highly to everyone, even if you don't think you like stories about war.

I received this book as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Bitter Trade by Piers Alexander

Main character: 17-year-old Calumny Spinks
Location: London, England
Time period:  Late 1600's
Genre: Historical Fiction

"I was born to a raging Frenchy slugabed mother, sired by a sulking silk-weaver with a battered box of secrets under his floorboards. From her I got my flaming hair, so red that the scabfaced villagers of Salstead spoke of the evil's seed, spitting in the dust for salvation when I walked past. From my father came my sharp tongue, the quick wits to talk above my station, and the shoulders to take the blows that followed."

Everything is stacked against young Calumny Spinks--despised and rejected by the villagers of Salstead for having a foreign mother, seemingly rejected even by his father, Peter, who refuses to enter Calumny's name in the guild book so that he can be apprenticed and possibly make something of his life. Peter refuses to even tell Calumny why. He's almost 17, and already his life is almost over.

Then calamity strikes, and Calumny's mother is killed by the villagers who accuse her of witchcraft. Though it is the last thing he wants to do, Peter takes Calumny to London and finds a home with others in the silk-weaver's guild. London opens a whole world up to Calumny and he soon finds himself in over his head.

This time period, well after the English Civil War and the Restoration of the Monarchy, and after the Great Fire of London, is one that I'm not all that familiar with, and I did have to periodically check Wikipedia to get my bearings. Peter was a fighter in Cromwell's army during the Civil War and his secret--one that makes him fear for his own life and for Calumny's--dates from that time. The strife between the Catholics and the Protestants is still high almost a century after Henry VIII brought the Reformation to England, with power between the two groups shifting back and forth. Peter is a staunch anti-Papist, as are many of the guild members, and chafes under the rule of a Catholic king. Religion is not the only reason to oppose the king--there are also reasons of commerce and trade. Since Calumny cannot be apprenticed as a weaver, he becomes entangled with people trying to build a coffee trade, and who therefore are seeking to overthrow King James in favor of William of Orange.

All of this scheming and politicking is complicated when read in a history book, but seen narrowly through the eyes of Calumny (who is, by the way, a very lusty young man) it flows in a way that makes sense. Everything is new to him, and he is not one to examine the morality of what he is told to do. All he wants is to become a man of position, to be called "Mister" or "Master," and so he does what he's told and adds a bit of scheming of his own.

With a vividly depicted backdrop that manages to encompass the beauty and the ugliness of its time period, I would recommend The Bitter Trade to fans of unromanticized, unsanitized historical fiction.

I read this book as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Monday, July 14, 2014

The Kiss of Deception by Mary E. Pearson

Main character: 17-year-old Lia, First Daughter of the house of Morrighan
Location: Morrighan and neighboring lands
Time period: Fantasy Middle Ages
Genre: YA Fiction, Fantasy

Lia is being prepared for her wedding--a wedding she does not want to a man she has never met or even seen. The arranged marriage between her and the Prince of Dalbeck will bring peace to their two countries, but Lia sees the relationship between her parents, whose own marriage was an arranged, political one, and she knows that she could not bear that.  So, with the help of her maid, Pauline, she escapes the palace and, disguised as a commoner, heads to a town far enough away that no one will recognize her.  There she cheerfully gets a job as a  barmaid and for the first time in her life feels free.

Not too long after her arrival, two young men come into the inn where Lia is working.  What we, readers, know that Lia does not is that one of them is the jilted prince of Dalbeck, come to retireve the princess to restore his country's honor.  The other is an assassin from Venda, tasked with killing the princess to destroy any chance of peace between Morrighan and Dalbeck.  But even we do not know which one is which.

This is a very cleverly written novel with a trio of likeable characters at its core--yes, even the assassin.  In many ways, it reminded me of The False Prince trilogy by Jennifer Nieman. Though Lia has a power--a type of foresight--there is not a lot of magic in this fantasy (though that may change in the upcoming books), and there is a similar theme of young people being used as playing pieces in a political game.

The Kiss of Deception also has its share of romance, as Lia finds herself attracted to both men, and they certainly seem to be competing for her attention. The inevitable revelation of all the hidden identities is almost a disappointment, but it does shift the tone of the book from a pastoral interlude to an action cliffhanger (this is the first of a series, after all.)  I quite enjoyed this book and look forward to reading the future volumes.

I read The Kiss of Deception as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Outshine by Nola Decker

Main characters:  Gabe, who is allergic to lies, and Jessa, whose entire life is a lie
Location:  Galtonville, a college town
Time period:  Conteporary, or possibly near future
Genre: YA Fiction, Science Fiction, Bio-engineering Speculative Fiction

When he is told that his younger brother has disappeared, Gabe is relieved and hopes that his brother never comes back.  Though Gabe is the older by two years, Watts is an aggressive alpha male and has made Gabe's life a torment.  But Gabe's mother is devastated by Watts' absence.

When she hears that Watts has disappeared, Jessa is disappointed since now all her planning to get Watts to take her to the Valentine's Day dance is now worthless.

Sounds like a typical teen angst style YA novel, doesn't it?  But both Gabe and Jessa have super human powers that they have kept secret for years.  Gabe is literally allergic to lies--when someone lies to him, he gets a migraine and a rusty taste in his mouth, and he can hear the truth in the liar's mind.  This does not mean that he can read minds generally--only when someone lies.  As you might imagine, just being in high school bombards him with lies all day long.

Jessa has incredible strength.  She has to be careful when she opens a door that she doesn't destroy the doorknob.  When she hugs her friends she has to hold back so she doesn't break bones.  She has never even kissed a boy because she's afraid of what might happen if she loses control.

Reluctantly, Gabe agrees to help Jessa look for Watts, and they eventually uncover a secret genetic experiment begun by Deacon, a mad man trying to create an army of superior humans.  Gabe is a Spotter, part of an attempt to create human lie detectors that is considered a failure since the Spotters are also compulsive about telling the truth.  Jessa is a Nuke, genetically manipulated before birth and enhanced with nanobots after.  It's not too much of a surprise to discover that Watts is also a Nuke, and that he and Jessa are meant to mate and create the next generation of Nukes.  The Spotters, however, are to be exterminated.

On the run from Deacon and his henchmen, Jessa and Gabe soon learn that they can trust no one but each other.  But as they become more comfortable with each other, an attraction begins to build.  They influence and change each other, as Jessa becomes a bit kinder and gentler, and Gabe begins to stand up for himself and for her.

I found this a very intriguing and exciting novel--it was very hard to put it down, especially once we began to learn about Jessa and Gabe's origins and how far-reaching the conspiracy goes.  I did feel that the ending was a bit abrupt, and a solution was a little too pat.  Still, it did not ruin my enjoyment of the book as a whole.  As far as I can tell, this is a stand-alone novel, but I would welcome a sequel to see what happens next.

I read Outshine as an e-ARC from NetGalley.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Inspector Hobbes and the Curse by Wilkie Martin

Main character:  Andy Caplet, a 30-something out of work journalist; Inspector Hobbes, unhuman policeman 
Location:  Sorenchester, a small village in England 
Time period:  contemporary 
Genre:  Humorous supernatural British cozy mystery 

What a mash-up this is! A British cozy mystery with a supernatural element and a lot of word play.  I found it delightful, but I'll admit it won't necessarily appeal to every taste. 

From the beginning, there is a definite call-back to the Sherlock Holmes template.  You have your all-knowing yet unknowable detective, the biographer side-kick, and the incomparable housekeeper.  In this case, the detective in Inspector Hobbes, a large man who is an excellent Inspector, incredibly long-lived (he fought in the First World War) and definitely unhuman, though we don't know exactly what he is.  We do know that he's not a werewolf, however.  The sidekick is Andy Caplet, a 30-something out-of-work journalist who was has been welcomed into Hobbes' household.  Andy is terribly klutzy, socially awkward, and not always very sure of Hobbes.  But he's got a good heart.  And in the Mrs. Hudson role, we have Mrs. Goodfellow--an excellent cook who teaches karate and collects teeth as a hobby. 

I missed the first book in this series, so I don't know if we learned anything more about Hobbes there.  I suspect that there will be slow hints parceled out over the entire series, however long it lasts. 

The peaceful village of Sorenchester is being threatened.  The wealthy London businessman Felix King has his eye on certain properties and he doesn't take no for an answer.  At the same time, people begin reporting two large cats--panthers, maybe--attacking livestock on the edges of town.  The mystery is not that challenging, but this is the kind of mystery book where the mystery is not the most important thing--the characters and the humor is.  

I quite enjoyed Inspector Hobbes and the Curse; it was just what I was in the mood for at the time.  I read it as an e-ARC from NetGalley.