Author Archives: Sarah

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Chosen to Die by Lisa Jackson

Date of Publication: 2009, Zebra Books

Number of Pages: 460

Synopsis (from back cover): Detective Regan Pescoli has worked the “Star Crossed Killer” case for months, never imagining she’s be captured by the madman she’s been hunting. Regan knows exactly what he’s capable of – an avoiding the same fate will take every drop of her courage and cunning.

Regan Pescoli is unlike any woman Nate Santana has met before. But now she’s missing, and Nate knows something is dangerously wrong. The only person who can help him find her is Detective Selena Alvarez, Regan’s partner. As Nate and Selena dig deeper into the Star-Crossed Killer case and the body count rises, the truth about Regan’s disappearance becomes chillingly clear.

In the desolate Montana woods, evil is lurking. And with time running out, the only way to save Regan will be to get inside a killer’s twisted mind and unravel a shocking message that is being revealed, one body at a time…

Review: The story starts out with a bang…literally. As Regan Pescoli is crossing the Bitterroot Mountains, heading toward her ex-husband’s house, her tires are skillfully shot out and she careens off the road. What follows is a frightening imprisonment in the lair of the Star-Crossed Killer. Regan’s disappearance completely takes the sheriff’s department by surprise, and those close to her – her lover, Nate, and her partner, Selena – struggle to unravel the cryptic messages left by the killer with each of his victims.

There was a lot I liked about this book. The pace of the action is excellent, and the small-town characters are vivid and entertaining. Lisa Jackson is able to tell her story not only through action and dialogue, but also through images. The starkness of the Montana winter is expertly described, and even though it’s currently the middle of summer, I found myself growing colder and colder as I read. I could picture each and every scene in my mind with ease, making it seem like I was watching a movie.

However, I did have a few issues with this book. Some of the characters who seem like they’re going to be a significant part of the story are never alluded to again. One example is GracePerchant , a reclusive woman who talks to spirits. She comes to the police with her psychic intuitions about the killer, never to be mentioned again. The amount of attention that Jackson gives her early on in the story made me expect that Grace would become a central character. However, she’s barely mentioned again. Also, this is apparently the second book in the Star-Crossed Killer series, and some of the characters from the first book (Left to Die), show up again…but for readers, like me, who had not read the first book will remain confused as to their place in the story.

In the end, though, this book is a terrific thriller with plenty of action. The suspense is maintained extremely well, with no slow sections. I did find myself impatient for the conclusion, but that is just more proof of how well Lisa Jackson is able to draw her readers in. I’m definitely going to be reading more of Jackson’s books!

Rating: 8/10

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The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

Date of Publication: 1963, Harper & Row

Number of Pages: 244

Synopsis (from back cover): The Bell Jar chronicles the crack-up of Esther Greenwood: brilliant, beautiful, enormously talented, and successful, but slowly going under – maybe for the last time. Sylvia Plath masterfully draws the reader into Esther’s breakdown with such intensity that Esther’s insanity becomes completely real and even rational, as probable and accessible an experience as going to the movies. Such deep penetration into the dark and harrowing corners of the psyche is an extraordinary accomplishment and has made The Bell Jar a haunting American classic.

Review: Probably the thing that scares me the most about this book is how much I relate to Esther, the brilliantly mad heroine. Of course, it’s not her brilliance to which I relate, but her madness. Sylvia Plath indeed makes Esther’s breakdown seem like the most reasonable thing in the world. Esther is battered left and right by people’s expectations of her, as a woman and as a writer. All of these expectations are burdens, weighing her down until she finally falls into a dark hole. It’s 1953, and for a woman who wants to define her life by her work and her mind, the pressures of marriage and womanhood are immense. Esther is surrounded by talented girls who want nothing more than a rich husband and children. Esther doesn’t fit into that mold, and she is unable to create her own.

Sylvia Plath uses the story of a fig tree to illustrate how Esther sees the many different possible paths in her life. One fig is the talented poet, another is the doting wife and mother, and another is the powerful editor….it goes on and on. Many people have struggled with the same thing. Esther feels pulled in many different directions (as do I). Her descent into madness throws a wrench into her plans, forcing her to deal with the imperfect person she really is. Plath uses an almost causal tone when describing Esther’s breakdown. Everything is stated matter-of-factly, demonstrating how even the mentally ill can think rationally.

The book deserves its place among the best of the American classics. Plath was a literary genius whose own struggles with mental illness gave her poetry and prose a tragic and haunting voice.

Rating: 10/10

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Rock Bottom by Michael Shilling

Date of Publication: 2009, Back Bay Books

Number of Pages: 371

Synopsis (from back cover): Once upon a time, Blood Orphans were the next big thing. They had a fat recording contract, the swagger of the gods, and cheekbones that could cut glass. They were the darlings of the LA music scene. They were locked and loaded for rock-and-roll greatness.

And then everything…went…wrong. The singer became a born-again Buddhist who preached from the stage. The bass player’s raging eczema turned his hands into a pulpy mess. The drummer, a sex addict tormented by the misdeeds of his porn-king father, was losing his grip on reality. And the guitar player – the only talented one – was a doormat cowed by the constant abuse of his bandmates.

Set in Amsterdam on the last day of Blood Orphan’s final tour, this novel tells the raucous story of a band – and their heroically coked-out female manager – trying to get in one last shot at fame’s elusive bull’s-eye. Rock Bottom is a pitch-black comedy, a wild ride on the crazy train of outrageous misfortune, and a bighearted paean to the power of dreams.

Review: This book is simply fantastic. The members of Blood Orphans, a disgraced heavy metal band, each have their own bitterness and and misfortunes that they are forced to deal with on this last day of their tour. Bobby, the bass player with the diseased hands, spends his day fighting off his feelings of inferiority and struggles to believe in the affections of a beautiful Dutch girl. Adam, the insanely talented guitar player, finds himself believing in a future without Blood Orphans. Shane, the evangelist singer, spends his day covered in rancid peanut butter, struggling with the dying embers of his once white-hot faith. But it is Darlo, the sex-addicted drummer, who goes through one of the biggest transformations. While the other band members think of him only with hostility, he reveals a troubled, pained soul while dashing through the streets with Joey, the band’s drug-addicted manager. Darlo’s life changes with one phone call from the family lawyer, and he is forced to face the demons of his past.

Each chapter is told from the point of view of one of the characters, which give readers a glimpse into the extreme mental and emotional anguish and journey of each band member. By the end of the book, the band has morphed into something completely different…but I will leave it to future readers to discover what that is! I would recommend this book to any fan of rock-and-roll, or to anyone who has watched and loved This is Spinal Tap.

Rating: 10/10

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Lud-in-the-Mist by Hope Mirrlees

Date of Publication: 1926 (my edition: 2001, Cold Springs Press)

Number of Pages: 239

Synopsis (from back cover): Lud-in-the-Mist, the capital city of the small country Dorimare, is a port at the confluence of two rivers, the Dapple and the Dawl. The Dapple has its origin beyond the Debatable Hills to the west of Lud-in-the-Mist, in Fairyland. In the days of Duke Aubrey, some centuries earlier, fairy things had been looked upon with reverence, and fairy fruit was brought down the Dapple and enjoyed by the people of Dorimare. But after Duke Aubrey had been expelled from Dorimare by the burghers, the eating of fairy fruit came to be regarded as a crime, and anything related to Fairyland was unspeakable. Now, when his son Ranulph is believed to have eaten fairy fruit, Nathaniel Chanticleer, the mayor of Lud-in-the-Mist, finds himself looking into old mysteries in order to save his son and the people of his city.

Review: This is a very delightful story, and one that meets every reader’s expectations of what should happen. In terms of good versus evil, right versus wrong, innocent versus guilty, every expectation is met. One may think that this sort of predictability would make the story dull and stale, but in fact, it elevates the story to a higher plane.

One of the most important themes in Lud-in-the-Mist is the unreality of our reality. Life is a story that we have control over. If we have control, why shouldn’t the innocent be vindicated and the guilty punished? Mirrlees points out, rather uncomfortably, that we has humans, choose to believe in what we believe in, but nothing is at all certain. Is Fairyland a myth, or our all-important belief in Law and Order actually a myth? Our hold on reality is tenuous at best, and in order to regain control, sometimes we must choose to believe in things once cast aside, which is exactly what Nathaniel Chanticleer does.

One of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman, wrote the foreword to Lud-in-the-Mist writes that this book “is, most of all, a book about reconciliation – the balancing and twining of the mundane and the miraculous.” Mirrlees achieves this balancing act superbly, and she deserves a much higher place among the ranks of modern fantasy writers. I recommend this book to any fan of fantasy, or to anyone looking for a great story that helps to disrupt the monotony of daily life.

One warning: the Cold Springs Press edition, which is the most common, is fraught with typos. Please be patient when reading.

Rating: 8/10

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Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Date of Publication: 2005, HarperTorch

Number of Pages: 384

Synopsis (from back cover): Fat Charlie Nancy’s normal life ended the moment his father dropped dead on a Florida karaoke stage. Charlie didn’t know his dad was a god. And he never knew he had a brother.

Now brother Spider’s on his doorstep – about to make Fat Charlie’s life more interesting…and a lot more dangerous.

Review: Anansi, one of the gods featured in Gaiman’s American Gods, is a spider god who owns all the world’s stories. This is probably the most important thing to understand about him. His son, Fat Charlie, though, is a man who doesn’t even live his own story. When Anansi dies and Charlie meets his brother, he is forced to face the two parts of himself: the part that is Fat Charlie and the part that is Spider, who lives a life Fat Charlie could only dream of.

This story is many things all at once. In a way, it’s a coming of age story (even though Fat Charlie is an adult). It’s also a story about families, love, and the nature of life and death. It’s a thriller, with its own maniacal killer, and it’s a story about the history of the world and how we came to understand it, mainly through Anansi’s stories. It’s fast-paced, moving, hilarious, and scary. I would recommend this book not only to fans of modern fantasy, but also to anyone who simply wants to read a great story.

Rating: 10/10

Reviewed by Sarah

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American Gods by Neil Gaiman

Date of Publication: 2001, HarperCollins

Number of Pages: 588

Synopsis (from back cover): Released from prison, Shadow finds his world turned upside down. His wife has been killed; a mysterious stranger offers him a job. But Mr. Wednesday, who knows more about Shadow than is possible, warns that a storm is coming – a battle for the very soul of America…and they are in its direct path.

Review: Neil Gaiman, originally from England, explores an issue that every American, whether they realize it or not, has struggled with. Who are the gods of America? Where do they come from? America is a country founded by people from all over the world, depriving us of a central mythology or religion. Even the people who crossed the land bridge over the Bering Straight brought their gods with them…they weren’t here already. This is the problem that face the unique characters in Gaiman’s story. They are gods…but what happens to gods when people stop believing in them? People brought them here, and then abandoned them. The gods in the story areĀ  a wandering people,misunderstood, forgotten, and fighting for survival.

Shadow unwittingly gets put in the middle of the fight between the old beliefs and the new. As a main character, Shadow is mysteriously incomplete. Although much of the story is told from his point of view, he seems to simply react to things and doesn’t ponder them. In any other book, this would be a drawback, but in this one, Shadow fits perfectly. He is a man without a past; after the death of his wife, he lets go of his past and unflinchingly accepts his new fate.

As an American reading this book, I really identified with the idea that the country is a difficult place for gods. My ancestors came from all over Europe; there is no one defining culture or belief system. But the book provides a warning, that as a society, in place of the old gods, we have set up new ones: technology, mass media, fashion. To what or whom will we sell our souls?

Rating: 10/10

Reviewed by Sarah

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The Hours by Michael Cunningham

Date of Publication: 1998, Picador USA

Number of Pages: 226

Synopsis (from back cover): Passionate, profound, and deeply moving, The Hours is the story of three women: Clarissa Vaughan, who one New York morning goes about planning a party in honor of a beloved friend; Laura Brown, who in a 1950s Los Angeles suburb slowly begins to feel the constraints of a perfect family and home; and Virginia Woolf, recuperating with her husband in a London suburb, and beginning to write Mrs. Dalloway. By the end of the novel, the stories have intertwined, and finally come together in an act of subtle and haunting grace, demonstrating Michael Cunningham’s deep empathy for his characters as well as the extraordinary resonance of his prose.

Review: I had several reasons to read this book. First, Mrs. Dalloway is one of my favorite books and the film adaptation of The Hours is one of my favorite movies. So, I was prepared for something profound, but I was not expecting a book that would speak to me the way this one did. Michael Cunningham has a way of describing his characters’ thoughts and feelings that makes me feel like he’s inside my own mind. The fears, sensations, and oddities of Virginia, Laura, and Clarissa are so much like my own and it forced private feelings that I have never really acknowledged to come to the surface. Reading this book was a a very personal experience for me, but I believe that any reader will be able to enjoy it. Cunningham explores an incredible variety of emotions and demonstrates a unique understanding of human nature. I would recommend this book to pretty much everyone I know.

Rating: 10/10

Reviewed by Sarah

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Shinto: The Kami Way by Dr. Sokyo Ono

Date of Publication: 1962, Tuttle Publishing

Number of Pages: 112

Synopsis (from back cover): Shinto, the indigenous faith of the Japanese people, continues to fascinate and mystify both the casual visitor to Japan and the long-time resident. This introduction unveils Shinto’s spiritual characteristics and discusses the architecture and function of Shinto shrines. Further examination of Shinto’s lively festivals, worship, music, andsacred regalia illustrates Shinto’s influence on all levels of Japanese life.

Fifteen photographs and numerous drawings introduce the reader to two millenia of indigenous Japanese belief in the kami – the sacred spirits worshipped in Shinto – and in communal life, the way of the kami.

Review: As someone who is interested in all things Japanese, I was really excited to read Dr. Sokyo Ono’s Shinto: The Kami Way. This book is held as the standard introduction to Shinto for Western readers, and for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed. The author, a recognized expert on the subject, presents Shinto to the reader in plain, simple language. The bare essentials of Shinto are explored, including the architecture and layout of Shinto shrines and the rituals and festivals that are celebrated within. Unfortunately, I was seeking a more philosophical discussion of Shinto, and the author really only includes a short chapter in the back of the book that delves into the actual beliefs of Shinto. Still, the influence of Shinto on the daily life of the Japanese is addressed throughout the book and gives Western readers a glimpse into the way the Japanese have evolved along with their indigenous beliefs. I would recommend this book to all readers interested in world religions and philosophies. This is definitely a must-read for anyone who hopes to understand the Japanese people even a little bit.

Rating: 7/10

Reviewed by Sarah

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The Geeks’ Guide to World Domination by Garth Sundem

Date of Publication: 2009, Three Rivers Press

Number of Pages: 245

Synopsis (from back cover): Sorry, beautiful people. These days, from government to business to technology to Hollywood, geeks rule the world.

Finally, here’s the book no self-respecting geek can live without – a guide jam-packed with 314.1516 short entries both useful and fun. Science, pop-culture trivia, paper airplanes, and pure geekish nostalgia coexist as happily in these pages as they do in their natural habitat of the geek brain.

In short, dear geek, here you’ll find everything you need to achieve nirvana. And here, for you pathetic nongeeks, is the last chance to save yourselves: Love this book, live this book, and you too can join us in the experience of total world domination.

Review: Yes, I consider myself to be a geek. But despite what the author claims, this book seems to be meant for geeks and nongeeks alike. For nongeeks, topics such as nuclear energy, thermodynamics, and the subtleties of the Klingon language are explained in easy-to-understand terms that even the nongeek brain can grasp. For geeks, there are ample opportunities to indulge in our various geeky obsessions…for me, the sections on J.R.R. Tolkien were particularly satisfying. This book gives geeks a reason to be proud of their geekiness, and gives nongeeks the ability to pretend that they are geeks…which of course, all nongeeks wish they could do.

Reading this book will give one the ability to impress anyone he or she encounters. You’ll be able to show off your shadow puppet-making skills, impress people with your expert martial arts moves, and help out your friends be making them chain mail armor. In all seriousness, this book is both entertaining and informative. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to improve their knowledge of both absurd and useful topics.

Rating: 10/10

Reviewed by Sarah

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Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Date of Publication: 1999, Harper Perennial

Number of Pages: 250

Synopsis (from back cover): Young Tristan Thorn will do anything to win the cold heart of beautiful Victoria – even fetch her the star they watch fall from the night sky. But to do so, he must enter the unexplored lands on the other side of the ancient wall that gives their tiny village its name. Beyond that old stone wall, Tristan learns, lies Faerie – where nothing, not even a fallen star, is what he imagined.

Review: Stardust is a superb story, hearkening back to both ancient fairy tales and to Tolkien’s beloved works. It pulls you in to its magical world and makes you believe in it without question. At the same time, there is a sense of modernism to the story that adds a complex element to the story. Many of the characters, even the magical ones, are recognizable as the heroes and heroines of modern stories, as well as the fairy tales we all heard as children. The love that drives Tristan Thorn to journey through Faerie, looking for his beloved’s star, is at once timeless and innocent. He remains an innocent throughout the story, just like the young adventurers in the old stories.

Everyone pursuing the star does so for a different, but elemental reason. Tristan seeks the star for love. Septimus and Primus, heirs to the throne of Stormhold, pursue the star for power. And the old witch searches for the star to regain her youth. All of these things – love, power, and youth (health) – are sought everyday by all people in their different ways, meaning that the reader is able to connect with this story on many levels.

In terms of simple storytelling, Gaiman once again delivers. The language is flawless, and it is here that I could sense the influence of Tolkien, which is more than appropriate for the story. The characters are engaging, funny, terrifying, and real. The setting comes alive on every page. This book made it into my dreams as I read, and for me, that alone is proof of its magnificence. I would recommend this book to all fans of fantasy and adventure.

Rating: 10/10

Reviewed by Sarah

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