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As of my "maternity leave," here are the stats of the past year: 74 books reviewed 9 guest posts 4 independent bookstores 3 d...

Thursday, October 30, 2014

The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assasins

I love "murder and mayhem," as my mother calls it. [For the record, I now call it that, too.] So obviously I picked up a copy of former CIA spy Robert B. Baer's The Perfect Kill: 21 Laws for Assasins. Obviously.

How does one become the perfect assassin? They follow the 21 laws that have been intricately honed by those you will never see. But what is an assassin, and what makes a man (or woman) one? This is about a game that is played between those who both believe they are right--but only one can come out alive.

Here's the deal--I totally thought this was fiction until about halfway through when I was like, "Hey, Nicole, you know these actual dates and facts are super on point." So I did some poking around and it turns out that Hajj Radwan, the main target in this book, is a real person whom Baer hunted. Mind. Officially. Blown. That being said, I think it speaks to the intrigue of the writing that it came across very much in the vein of a Josh Bazzell or a Matthew Quirk, a piece of fiction with a clear voice that is at times humorous and at others dead serious about staying alive.

This was also an incredibly fascinating take on our recent international history from the point of a government worker who lived and ran his life under the radar. There is so much that we simply can't know from the point of laymen in the United States, and so down the line reading this account made my jaw drop at times.

Since I don't plan on becoming an assassin anytime soon (psychologist works just fine for me, thankyouverymuch), I probably won't follow these laws to the letter. However, there is something to be said for living by these. "Make it count" (Law 2), because you might not get another shot. "Always have a backup for everything" (Law 4), because when something goes wrong you need to be sure you achieve what you set out to do. "Don't shoot everyone in the room" (Law 9), because not everyone deserves it and also, you are an assassin, not a murder. "He who laughs last shoots first," (Law 17), because if you hesitate you might not get it at all. All good lessons for life.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Party Games: A Fear Street Novel

Because Fear Street was a staple of my childhood. Because R. L. Stine changed the game for a lot of us as youth. Because without that man my love of murder and mayhem (and true crime) may not have existed. These are the reasons why I waited in line for so long to meet the man himself and to score an advanced autographed copy of Party Games at BEA last May. Worth. It.

Rachel is just an average girl living in Shadyside, working to help her parents out after her father loses his job. When the handsome Brendan Fear, of the infamous Fear family, invites her to his birthday party on the remote Fear Island, she gets weak in the knees and of course accepts readily. The party starts off great, if you consider the boat pilot hitting his head and drowning "great." The party only goes downhill from there when people start dying in the spooky mansion--meaning they all have a chance of being next.

This book was everything you love about Fear Street. It was delicious and savory, half hilarious reading it from an adult perspective and half indulgent reading it from an adult perspective. I realized while reading it that my mother must have either been off her rocker for letting me read these as a kid (I am talking, like, eight years old!) or else she just really had no clue what they were about. There are actual murders here, guys. The Fear Street series is like that, though. I am thankful my mom was so open to her bookworm daughter's eclectic (and slightly morbid) tastes. (Thanks, Mom. You are the best.)

(Remember the cheerleader series? That was the best.)

As per Stine, there is a bit of a twist about two-thirds of the way through, and the story turns sharply in another direction. It was pretty entertaining for a rainy day in, and I have to say I will not be attending any birthday parties in remote mansions any time soon. I did, however, have a blast dipping back into this series that I loved as a child. I adore how Stine updated his work seamlessly, almost as if no time has passed. He integrates current technology and teen-worldliness that feels natural and not at all as if he is trying to make it current. He also has a knack for current pop culture that is very impressive. The murders are all themed as "party games" from your childhood. Seriously delightful.

It's what makes the man a YA list genius.

Can we go ahead and get another installment, please, R. L.? xx, Nicole

Hard copy for purchase below. Or else.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Burned: A Vanessa Pierson Novel

Remember when I was excited to review the first of Valerie Plame's series on a CIA agent? Well, here's part two--Burned

The last time we saw Vanessa Pierson, she was trailing Bhoot, the international terrorist, and she had lost a witness in her pursuit. This time is no different, only the stakes are higher--there is someone after the same thing Bhoot wants. This makes her enemy more like her friend, and as her investigation goes deeper into the underworld of Europe, she soon discovers that there is a mole in her agency. Can Vanessa make it out alive and capture the man she seek so desperately?

Oh, I love a thriller that keeps me at the edge of my seat and takes me out of my life for just a little while. It's no surprise, then, that I sat back and rode the Vanessa Pierson roller coaster for a while and had a great time doing it. Vanessa is still Vanessa, which means she is absolutely brilliant and good what she does which requires a hell of a lot of skill. It also means that she is flawed and messy and like every other human being in her personal life, and it is what makes her real. As much as she wants to be the best at what she does, Bhoot reels her in every time. It's like a bad relationship that she is conditioned to need. Vanessa and her international terrorist.

This second installment of the Vanessa Pierson series is particularly interesting for several reasons. First, I love that it is set in places I have been, and fairly recently, too. While I am a bit unsettled by the idea of a terrorist attack in the heart of Paris, it was a compelling draw into the book. I also loved that Vanessa had to collaborate with the French version of the CIA. It made her more human, having to work with others and at least try to be friendly. I also loved the constant push and pull between Vanessa and her beloved and their third wheel--the CIA. All of which thrown together makes a book that keeps my hands turning pages and my eyes darting across the page.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Fire Shut Up in My Bones: A Memoir

Oh goodness gracious. Talk about a punch in the gut--Charles M. Blow's Fire Shut Up in My Bones.

Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist, is the youngest child of a Louisiana couple who face their own challenges in the world. He is very shy, doesn't fit in, and is incredibly attached to his mother. He is distanced from his gaggle of older brothers--something is very different about him, that he knows from a young age. This all contributes to a dark and startling violation by a trusted family member. This violation will change Charles's life forever, leading him to question his identity, his choices, and his life as a whole.

What an astounding and incredible piece of work. I was floored; I was moved. So much so that I passed my copy on to a friend because this has to be read. More than this, it has to be read with an open heart and a willingness to let Blow into your life. I find that the more I read in general, the more I love genuine Southern literature. It was a joy to be in Blow's world for a while and to allow him to tell me his story--it was an honor that he would trust me, as his reader, to ingest it and all me to wallow in it for a while. 

Blow is, first and foremost, and incredible writer. He has an ease that comes across in his prose that allowed me to sit inside it like a soft, soothing, comfortable egg. His words surrounded me and lived in me, and they were intelligent yet never patronizing. It is clear that he is a writer, and a story teller, and now all I want to do is pick up some of his journalism because I am sure it has to be beyond amazing. 

His story is also lovely and astounding; his childhood is so normal for what it is yet so different from what is to be expected. His desire to pursue a higher education and to be the best that he can be, whether it's through his fraternity or campaigning for a job that does not yet exist, is a lesson to be learned for anyone entering the big bad world at present. His attached relationship with his mother and the distance he experienced between his brothers is so easy to relate to in his tale; being violated by someone he knows and trusts is completely the opposite. Blow tells his tale with such fervor and drive that it's hard not to want to sit and listen to him speak for hours.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Book With No Pictures

At BEA this past year I stood in line to bat my eyelashes at B.J. Novak and pick up his children's book, The Book With No Pictures, much to my absolute delight.

This is a book with no pictures. It has words, though, and ones that you have to say. Because that's what books are--saying words! Even if those words at BLUURF or BLORK. You have to say them even if the book calls you a robot monkey. That's just the deal when you read a book.

I know this book has gotten a lot of good press lately, and it's well-deserved. This is a ridiculously adorable children's book that is fun for adults to read. (Or, at least, it's fun for this adult to read. But I have a low threshold for enjoyment, so keep that in mind.) That is, if you even remotely have a sense of humor, this book will put you on humor high. If you don't have a sense of humor, there is nothing I can do for you, nor can this book do anything to help. I giggled to myself and can absolutely see me reading this to some of the younger crowd in my life. Although let it be known, they aren't allowed to touch my personally autographed copy. For the record.

Hard copy for purchase below. GET THIS ONE!

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Blogger Girl: A Novel

How meta, isn't it? No, Blogger Girl by Meredith Schorr is not about me. It's better than that.

Kim is a legal secretary by day and book blogger by lunch-hour. She deals with her job; she is good at it and loves her boss, but it's not like there is any room for growth. No matter, it gives her the time to work on Purple is the New Black, her beloved blog. As her high school reunion approaches, Kim has to juggle insecurities about her job with running into her high school nemesis who has just so happens to have just published her first novel--and wants Kim to review it. Combine that with her work crush possibly being something more, and Kim's life is on a whirlwind joy ride around New York City.

Such a meta book in so many ways. Kim, or "Kimmie" to her crush, has devoted her blog strictly to chick lit, and lo and behold, this book is squarely in the chick lit category. Which I certainly didn't mind. Chick lit means that the romance angle is kept squarely to a minimum and that it hits on the main character's needs and wants--light and fluffy with a fun story, keeping the crazy dalliances to a minimum while still leaving the reader flush with cotton candy-like happiness. I appreciated how Schorr kept to her word and kept this book exactly that. 

I really enjoyed Kim's relationship with her best friend; it was complicated enough without being life-or-death, and in the end friendship conquers all. I particularly loved the high school reunion scene, but you will have to pick up the book yourself to read it. Speaking of the reunion scene, Schorr did a great job of capturing the awkwardness of seeing these people for the first time in ten years while still being excited to find out where everyone has ended up. Rather than dreading the reunion, Kim and her friends find bright spots to look forward to. 

This was a nice companion to a long week for me; it allowed me to suspend by own world for some time and dive into a lighter and more fun one. Never change, Kimmie--never change.

For purchase below.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Remedy for Love: A Novel

I was very excited at BEA this year to hear that Bill Roorbach had a new novel coming out; I loved Life Among Giants. This is The Remedy for Love, and it held up to my own hype.

Eric's personal life is a bit of a mess. His wife is touch-and-go on the whole being-married-to-him thing, and while he is good at his job, he has been alienating a few people as of late in his small New England town. Right before what is being dubbed the "storm of the century," he heads to the grocery to buy his version of victuals. Only the homeless girl in front of him can't quite afford what she has put on the counter. After he buys it for her, he takes her to her little cabin in the woods--soon to find he is stuck there for the storm. Who is this girl who calls herself "Danielle"? An even bigger question: Who is Eric?

Ok, so, for the record, I love Roorbach. I just do, and while you may think that this may color this review a bit, it wasn't until after I read this book that I knew for sure that I am a fan of Bill Roorbach, not just a book or two. He has a way of weaving stories that seem at first to be so simply intriguing and then end up grabbing you by the scruff and dragging you into his storytelling car, only to peal away and somehow make you appreciative for being kidnapped. I was nose-deep in this story from the first page, almost bordering on thriller-like.

Eric is a fascinating character, a bit self-absorbed and recognizing it. At first I believed that he wouldn't actually keep helping this woman, a woman who doesn't want his help and asks him to leave multiple times. The more he helped, the more I wanted to reach into the pages and slap the ever-loving crap out of him. SHE DOESN'T WANT HELP, I wanted to scream. But we all know that he has to, as this is the crux of the story. It also created a compelling character in Eric, and I found myself caring about him and his safety, wanting him to either get home or to convince Danielle to let him stay the night out of the storm. And you know what happens when you care about a character...

It's hard to know what to believe in this story, but the more of the night that goes by, the more fascinating these two become. What's more, the more fascinating all of the characters that you never meet become. Eric's ex-wife, Danielle's maybe-husband (it's always hard to tell what is the truth and what is all in her head), the vindictive veterinarian, the principal who loved and hated her. It's a novel that keeps your brow furrowed and, in turn, keeps you coming back for more.

All in all, I find Roorbach's novel to be fantastically lovely. 

Hard copy for purchase below.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Nora Webster: A Novel

Oh Colm Toibin, how you steal my heart every time. This is Nora Webster, his latest.

Nora Webster is a widow with four children just trying to get by. She loved her husband dearly, but she knows that moving forward is the only way to stay afloat. She sells their country house to a friend, she pays off the car, and she takes her two youngest sons on skip-day trips during the school day. She deals with family and well-meaning neighbors, all the time just wanting to be left alone to her home and her family. Nora takes the time to discover whom she is on her own, and in this time becomes a stunning pillar of strength and hope.

One of the most beautiful take-aways from this novel is that grief looks different on everyone. Some people don't have the ability to dive under the covers and not come out, and others just don't want to. Nora dealt with the prolonged illness of her beloved, and when he passed she chose to keep going. Partially because there wasn't another choice, and partially because she just had to spiritually. Nora chooses to grow into herself and allow life to take her there, and the result is a stunning piece of literature that will sit with me for a long time to come.

This is a novel where nothing happens yet everything does. Nora's going to the hairdresser to dye her hair is one of the most simple of stories yet has such a profound impact, and it is one of my absolute favorite moments in the book. Getting to know all of Nora's children is fascinating and they inform who she is, and her fierceness in protecting them is just right.Watching her go to her old employers knowing they will offer her a job feels like begging but is necessary at the same time. Every little thing that Nora does is weighty; even the every-day things become profound.

Nora Webster is classic Colm Toibin. His elegant sentences contain simplicity and complication all at once. Reading his work is like taking a long, hot bubble bath--a luxury indeed, but one worth every second you spend in that water.

No one is allowed to touch my personally autographed copy. For the record.

Hard copy for purchase below.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Reservation Ravaged: A Novel

Sometimes when you take a case, you have no idea what you are getting into, #knowwhati'msayin'? This is JoAnna Senger's Reservation Ravaged

Hermione Daggert has fallen into private investigation work, and it looks good on her. She is careful, thoughtful, and observant, and she excels at her job. When she is approached by the leader of the Kanache tribe of her hometown in California's central coast region, she agrees to help find who cursed their land. Little does she know that this will lead her on a several-month journey through the curse, murder, and ending at the Institute for Holistic Health. How are all of these things intertwined? Through the land, of course.

This book was very enjoyable. Senger has created an empathetic heroine who is down-to-earth and reasonable but still takes chances. She takes them in a way that I think most of us can understand--she follows her gut, listens to her head, and still sometimes makes mistakes that she wants to kick herself for later. Hermione is a lovely character that is easy to like because she is just so darned relateable. She could be any of us. Which makes you want to slap her when she makes mistakes you see coming but you just know that if you were in her position you wouldn't see them either.

I love a good mystery, and I thought that Senger weaved up (wove up? does it matter?) a tale that made me want to keep pushing forward. Never overwrought and always on point, Senger used dialogue to her advantage and worked the first person narrative to give me a tight story that kept me interested. She has a way of creating characters that are genuine and still worth hearing from; there was not one person in this story that made me wonder what they were doing there. Overall it was a great read and I was happy I picked it up for my long commutes early this week.

I also have to say that Senger did this in less than 200 pages which I cry, "Yippee!" See, when a novelist can whip me up a good, intriguing story in a bite-size piece I want to jump for joy. I love a book that is about this length, and it's even better when it's actually a good read. Which this one was. Obviously. If you have read this far you probably caught on to that.

Hard copy for purchase below:

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Dare to Kiss: A Novel

Girls playing baseball--I think they kinda rules. So I picked up S.B. Alexander's Dare to Kiss, the first in The Maxwell Series, this week. 

Lacey has just moved across the country to escape from her past, which is too tragic to bear. Her goals at the new school are to move past the visions that haunt her and make the baseball team so she can win her scholarship to college. What was not a goal is dating the resident bad boy. When she meets Kade Maxwell, she almost kills him--literally. As their relationship deepens, she begins to trust again, and she learns to lean in to love.

Alexander has written an interesting romance novel that focuses on a time we all remember well--late high school. Remember falling in love in spite of yourself? I sure do. (Ok, maybe it wasn't in spite of myself per se, but it happened nonetheless.) It was fun to revisit that time in my life when the hardest thing I had to do was keep up with school work and do outside activities. I envied Lacey in that respect, as I knew as I was reading that life would only get more complicated for her.

In all fairness, life was already complicated for the character. She was dealing with the unsolved murder of her mother and sister along with moving across the country, finding new friends, and falling in love. And the baseball team, too. The complications of Lacey's life lent itself to her whole character, in the moment she pulled a gun on her future boyfriend to the giving of herself to Kade. Life is complicated, and there's no reason our literary characters' lives should be any different. Complications are what make others want to view our lives from the outside looking in, and it is what makes a book worth reading.

Hard copy for purchase below.