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Maine Colonial's Reading Room (non-mysteries)

Discussion in 'Member Book Reviews/Journals/Blogs' started by Maine Colonial, Mar 29, 2014.

  1. Maine Colonial

    Maine Colonial Moderator Staff Member

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    I'll be posting my mystery reviews over in Murder, We Schmoozed, but for other books I want to hang out with the rest of you guys.
     
    Last edited: Apr 3, 2014
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  2. Maine Colonial

    Maine Colonial Moderator Staff Member

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    [​IMG]

    Robert Glancy: Terms & Conditions

    There's a particular sub-type of English male you see in quite a few books and movies. It's the man who apologizes when somebody else bumps into him, who always lets other people have their way, who never complains. Frank Shaw is one of those men; he describes himself as the "great capitulator."

    As we begin reading, though, Frank doesn't even know that much about himself, because he's been in a terrible car accident, suffered a traumatic brain injury and doesn't remember anything. The slim, sophisticated woman, Alice, who says she's his wife, and the fat, smug man, Oscar, who says he's Frank's older brother--well, neither one rings a bell. But Oscar not only has amnesia, he has synesthesia, where the sight of people and certain objects triggers sounds, colors, smells and strong emotions.

    That nasty, rancid green smell around Oscar. What's that about? When Frank is recovering at home and Alice is back to work at her corporate striver's position at a human resources consultancy firm, what does it mean that the sight of a box of books titled Executive X, written by Alice, enrages him, or that finding a jar with a preserved pinkie floating inside of it fills him with elation?

    Soon enough, though Frank still can't remember the day of his car accident and has some other big holes in his memory, he's able to return to work at the family law firm, where Oscar is the managing partner. Frank writes contracts for a living. His particular specialty is writing the fine print that nobody ever reads--which is a good thing for their clients, because Frank's fine print, or Terms & Conditions, stitch up the client's customer but good. No matter how comforting that insurance policy may sound to the covered person, Frank's Ts & Cs will make sure the insurance company makes its profits.

    It's not that Frank no longer appreciates a cleverly-written set of Ts & Cs, but as he sees Oscar taking on a new client whose business repulses Frank, and as shards of memories begin to pierce the fog of amnesia, he questions everything he's been told about his life, his state of mind before the accident and what really happened.

    As Frank pieces together the individual memories that return to him, and finds a few sympathetic characters to talk to, he sees that the Terms & Conditions of his own life are at least as good at stitching him up as anything he could have written. Can an expert crafter of Ts &Cs become just as skilled at destroying them?

    This is a darkly comic, clever story of how the great capitulator type can be transformed by the clean, clear taste and smell of anger and outrage. Robert Glancy uses fine-print footnotes to tell important bits of the story. Sometimes there are footnotes upon footnotes, until you're reading what looks to me like about 6-point type. One chapter, titled Terms & Conditions of Sex, consists of a half-line-long sentence and three pages of footnotes.

    But this isn't just an entertaining book with a clever gimmick. It's funny, touching, and sometimes discomforting in its evocation of just how soul-deadening a corporate paper-pushing job can be. In just 250 pages, but with plenty of gusto, Glancy thoroughly skewers the amorality of modern corporate life and the greedy grubbers for money and power. Frank's tortuous and poignant path to recovery leads him to rediscover things about himself and others that he'd lost long before his accident.

    Glancy is a new voice in fiction with an inventive, engaging and lively writing style. I'll be keeping an eye out for his next book.

    :star5: (4.5, rounded up)

    Note: Thanks to the publisher, Bloomsbury USA, and Amazon's Vine program for providing an advance reviewing copy. Terms & Conditions is scheduled to be published in the US on April 22, 2014.
     
  3. Maine Colonial

    Maine Colonial Moderator Staff Member

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    [​IMG]

    Rebecca Mead: My Life in Middlemarch

    When I read the title and the book description, I thought this would be a book about Rebecca Mead's experiences and how she related them to George Eliot's life and the lives of Dorothea Brook and the other characters in Mead's beloved Middlemarch. Although that is a theme of the book, it's a minor theme.

    The major theme is the life of George Eliot, and how her experiences informed the writing of her greatest novel. We learn about Eliot's girlhood as Mary Anne Evans; her love of scholarship; her rejection of religion and the rift it opened between her and her beloved father; Eliot's relationship with George Lewes and his children; their friends, the Pattersons, and speculation that the Pattersons were the models for Middlemarch's Dorothea Brooke and Casaubon. And, every now and then, we also learn about Rebecca Mead's life and the parallels she sees between it and George Eliot's.

    In her note about the book, Mead expresses the hope that she has written a book that can be read by people who haven't read Middlemarch. I have read Middlemarch, and I would say that although this book can be read without having read Middlemarch, I would definitely not recommend it. At the very least, the potential reader should read the Wikipedia entry on the book and get a good grounding in the book's characters and themes first.

    One of the reasons I decided to read this book is that it kept popping up everywhere and getting a lot of favorable press. When that happened a couple of months ago with Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch, I gave in and read it and loved it. I decided I should do that with this book and maybe I would get the same result. But I didn't.

    While the book was interesting and conveyed Mead's great admiration for George Eliot and Middlemarch, it did it in a sort of detached, scholarly way that left me feeling emotionally distant from the book. I'm not at all sorry I read it and I do feel it enlarged my knowledge of George Eliot and the experiences that went into her writing, but it didn't engage me at a more visceral level.

    :star3:
     
  4. Maine Colonial

    Maine Colonial Moderator Staff Member

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    Books read in 2014
    (Most recently read on top.)

    Joël Dicker: The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair (0.5 stars)

    Louise Penny: How the Light Gets In (5 stars) (re-read)

    Lenny Kleinfeld: Some Dead Genius (3.5 stars)

    Anthony Doerr: All the Light We Cannot See (3.5 stars)

    Ben Aaronovitch: Midnight Riot (3.5 stars)

    Dick Francis: Proof (4 stars)

    Tom Rachman: The Rise & Fall of Great Powers (4.5 stars)

    Daniel O'Malley: The Rook (2 stars)

    Peter Mayle: The Corsican Caper (3 stars)

    Boris Fishman: A Replacement Life (4.5 stars)

    Chris Pavone: The Accident (2.5 stars)

    Liane Moriarty: The Husband's Secret (2.5 stars)

    Christopher Fowler: Paperboy (4 stars)

    Kate Racculia: Bellweather Rhapsody (5 stars)

    Alena Graedon: The Word Exchange (3 stars)

    Daniel Friedman: Don't Ever Look Back (3.5 stars)

    Dorothy L. Sayers: Unnatural Death (re-read)

    Charles Belfoure: The Paris Architect (2.5 stars)

    Shane Kuhn: The Intern's Handbook (1.5 stars)

    Rob Thomas: The Thousand Dollar Tan Line (4 stars)

    Judy Greer: I Don't Know What You Know Me From (4 stars)

    Thomas Perry: The Butcher's Boy (4.5 stars)

    Robert Glancy: Terms & Conditions: A Novel (5 stars)

    Jill Paton Walsh: The Late Scholar: The New Lord Peter Wimsey/Harriet Vane Mystery (4.5 stars)

    Rebecca Mead: My Life in Middlemarch (3.5 stars)

    Julianna Deering: Rules of Murder (Drew Farthering, Book 1) (1.5 stars)

    Justin Go: The Steady Running of the Hour (3 stars)

    Georges Simenon: Pietr the Latvian (4 stars)

    Georges Simenon: The Late Monsieur Gallet (4 stars)

    Robert Harris: An Officer and a Spy (5 stars)

    Susan Rieger: The Divorce Papers: A Novel (4.5 stars)

    Harry Bingham: Love Story, With Murders: A Novel (5 stars)

    Katherine Pancol: The Yellow Eyes of Crocodiles: A Novel (4.5 stars)

    Henry Adams: Democracy, An American Novel (3.5 stars)

    Kerry Greenwood: Earthly Delights: A Corinna Chapman Mystery (3.5 stars)

    Alan Bradley: The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches: A Flavia de Luce Novel, Book 6 (4.5 stars)

    Donna Tartt: The Goldfinch (4.5 stars)
     
    Last edited: Jun 7, 2014
  5. pontalba

    pontalba Well-Known Member

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    Flavia just gets better and better, doesn't she? :)

    Loved The Goldfinch, too.

    I'm not reading any more of Harris's books until he comes out with the third of the Cicero books! Pah on him. :p
     
  6. Maine Colonial

    Maine Colonial Moderator Staff Member

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    That last Flavia de Luce was very affecting, and I'm very much looking forward to the transition the series is now going to take, which Flavia going off to that special school.

    It took me awhile to get into The Goldfinch, but then it was mesmerizing.

    Poor Robert Harris; if only he knew!
     
  7. Maine Colonial

    Maine Colonial Moderator Staff Member

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    My favorite read of 2012


    [​IMG]


    Nick Harkaway: Angelmaker

    Here's the thing. I very rarely give a book an unadulterated rave review. As a Mainer, I was brought up to practice moderation. To say I liked a book is fine, even that I liked it a lot, but to say I loved it is a display of flamboyant emotion my fellow Mainers would look at askance. But there's no help for it; I did love this book.

    Now the hard part. What's it about? Well, it's an old-fashioned tale of British Empire swashbuckling adventure (think The Man Who Would Be King, or King Solomon's Mines, for example), a science fiction technology fable, a family drama, a coming-of-age story, a jeremiad against contemporary finance-world fiddles and the modern Orwellian state that tortures its citizens to protect our freedoms, and also a tragedy, a comedy, a romance.

    Hmm, that's not very helpful in giving you a picture of the book, is it? What if I say it's about a supervillain known as the Opium Khan who, with his "Ruskinites," an army of black-clad man-machines, and the assistance of the cynical complicity of the modern security state, works tirelessly over decades to achieve the power of a god over all of humanity, all the while countered by ingenious men and women and their steampunkish submarines, trains, various other devices and a network of extremely quirky characters and one ancient, blind, bad-tempered and one-toothed pug? No, I thought not.

    [​IMG]

    Let's try another tack and look at the plot. Joshua Joseph ("Joe") Spork is a young London clockmaker and restorer of various types of clever machines, like Victoriana automata. He is the son of the late flashy gangster, Matthew "Tommy Gun" Spork, and the grandson of Matthew's disapproving clockmaker father, Daniel. Despite his love for his father and affection for the gangsters of the Night Market, where the criminal underworld meets periodically in a grand secret bazaar, Joe is so determined not to be like him that he has, as he says, dedicated his life to being mild. He's a quiet, law-abiding man, so shy and retiring he can't bring himself to follow through on the world's most obvious hint when a generously bosomed barmaid takes his hand and holds it over her heart.

    [​IMG]

    Joe isn't a complete saint, though. He knows the sin of covetousness when he doggedly visits ancient Edie Bannister and feels sure she's working up to offer him some really excellent piece of machinery to work on. And she is, but she might have left it just a little late. What she has is a piece of a device that, like the atomic bomb, has the power to end all wars or destroy the planet, depending on who controls it. And, suddenly, a lot of very bad men, including government men, want to be the ones to get their hands on it and are willing to do whatever it takes to Edie, Joe and everyone they ever knew, to achieve their goal.

    [​IMG]

    There follows a tale of dazzling imagination and invention that takes us back in time to Edie's youth as a highly skilled secret agent, doing battle with supervillain Shem Shem Tsien and falling in love with Joe's genius inventor grandmother––the creator of the sought-after device. This long trip into the past is no digression, though, because everything that happens there is supremely important to Joe's story in the present.

    In fact, though this is a long book crammed to the bursting point with anecdotes, people, places and things, not a single bit of it is frippery. It's all a part of the grand and intricate machinery that drives this epic story, one in which Joe ceases to be mild and embraces everything he ever learned from Matthew and his world. Why? So he can save the universe and get the girl, of course.

    All of the characters in this book are deftly drawn, the plot is always easy to follow despite its complexity, and Harkaway writes with a scintillating and abundant style that is just to the good side of florid. I'd say the book would make a crackerjack movie, except you'd miss the playful ingenuity and repleteness of Harkaway's prose.

    Harkaway is the son of famed espionage writer John le Carré. I imagine he knows a thing or two about growing up with a larger-than-life father, and that has added poignancy to Joe's story. Harkaway has chosen to follow his father's career and we should be glad he did. Though I warn you, this book may ruin you for any other reading for awhile. When I finished it, I was still so far under its spell that nothing else appealed to me. Everything else seemed muted and timid by comparison. I know, I finally thought: I'll just go find a copy of Harkaway's first novel, The Gone-Away World!

    Note: I first listened to the audiobook and then went out and bought a copy of the hardcover; that's how sure I am that Harkaway is going to become a big name and that I'll want to savor this book again. As for the audiobook, I just want to say that Daniel Weyman is the best possible narrator of this material. He understands that this is a story that needs to be acted, with absolute abandon, and he throws himself into it with all the energy and dash it deserves.
     
  8. Reads to Sleep

    Reads to Sleep Moderator Staff Member

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    I'm glad you wrote about Angelmaker, Maine. An incredibly entertaining read (I only lived briefly in New Hampshire, never in Maine).
     
  9. pontalba

    pontalba Well-Known Member

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    I'm quite certain he is crying into his pillow, every night. heh

    Excellent review. No, I'm not a Mainer....N'Awlins, dahlin'...o_O
     
  10. Maine Colonial

    Maine Colonial Moderator Staff Member

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    [​IMG]

    Charles Belfoure: The Paris Architect


    Plot B-minus, characterization and dialog D

    After five short chapters, I made notes of what I thought would happen in this book and, no surprise, I was correct. In the author's Q&A at the end of the book, Belfoure describes his novel-writing process as being similar to an architectural project. He first devised the plot, and then he populated it. I suspected as much.

    The plot certainly keeps the reader turning the pages but, at least in my case, I was turning them more and more quickly because I wanted to be done with the book. The problem was that although Belfoure's structure--the plot--was sound, albeit predictable, his characterization and dialog were seriously flawed.

    It was a good idea of Belfoure's to have the protagonist, Lucien Bernard, be a man with no sympathy for the plight of France's Jews, but who was drawn into saving Jews--first, through ambition, but then from conviction. Beyond that, though, the characters were flat, stock characters, and/or devices to help move along the plot. Sometimes they were inconsistent and changing in a moment, just to serve the plot.

    For example, Belfoure apparently felt that Bernard, being a Frenchman from Paris, must have a wife and a mistress, so he did, even though the wife, Celeste, was an almost entirely undeveloped character and could easily have been eliminated from the novel. The mistress, Adele, seemed to be there only to help illustrate the stock character of the "horizontal collaborator," help the reader to get to know the depths of Nazi evil, and put Bernard in dangerous situations with the Nazis.

    The dialog was wooden, and characters used slang and vernacular that wasn't appropriate to the time or place. It was disconcerting to read Bernard's memory of a clerk who regularly came back from lunch "shitfaced," another character saying "hey, shithead" to an office boy, an old man calling Bernard "motherf[@@@]er." Of course, the French of the 1940s had their own low-down slang, but these terms just didn't translate as being equivalents. They sounded way too modern and American.

    Then there is a scene that made me laugh out loud when a character says to Bernard: "with men like you in the fight, I'm sure we'll win." It was almost a straight copy of a scene in the movie Casablanca. Then there was the strangeness of references to characters having a "heeb look." The pejorative term, which is what these characters intended, is spelled h-e-b-e. (Modern slang appropriates "heeb," but not as a pejorative.) A spellcheck program would have highlighted this mistake, so I'm not sure why it wasn't corrected. This would be a mistake not worth mentioning in a stronger novel, but when it's one of several other clunkers in word use, it's harder to overlook.

    I read a lot of World War II history and fiction, and I agree with historian Max Hastings' description of that war as the greatest and most terrible event in human history. I think it's extremely challenging for a first-time author of fiction to dive into such difficult waters. In this case, I think the challenge was a bit too much for Belfoure's current skills with character development and dialog.
     
  11. Reads to Sleep

    Reads to Sleep Moderator Staff Member

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    The Paris Architect sounded very interesting, and I don't know whether to be relieved or disappointed that I no longer feel I must read it. Thanks for the great review, Maine.
     
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  12. pontalba

    pontalba Well-Known Member

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    Ditto ^^^^^. What a shame. Although, truth be told, I've been a bit WWII'd out for quite a while. I read quite a lot back in the 60's and 70's, and pretty much had my fill.
     
  13. Maine Colonial

    Maine Colonial Moderator Staff Member

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    The Paris Architect has tons of 4-star and 5-star reviews on Amazon, though the spotlight review is a well-written negative review.

    I can't imagine being WW2-d out! Actually, I can. I used to read tons of Victorian novels and I definitely burned out on them.

    A fellow WW2 addict recommended Paul Grossman's Brotherhood of Fear to me. It's set in 1933, and the interwar period is one I really like. But I thought Grossman's first book, Sleepwalkers, was one of the worst novels ever. But she said this one was really good, so I borrowed it from the library. It's sitting right there like a grenade.
     
  14. pontalba

    pontalba Well-Known Member

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    I really meant more of the non-fiction. We have a bookcase pretty full of them.
    Although there is always some new atrocity. /sigh/
     
  15. Reads to Sleep

    Reads to Sleep Moderator Staff Member

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    :rofl
     
  16. Maine Colonial

    Maine Colonial Moderator Staff Member

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    [​IMG]

    Alena Graedon: The Word Exchange
    Excellent premise; flawed execution :star3:

    For as long as I can remember, the dark side of technology is the fear that it distances us from what is supposed to be real life. As kids, we were constantly being told to quit watching TV and go outside and play. The arrival of personal computing ratcheted up this techno-anxiety and now, with smartphones, texting, Twitter and the advent of wearable computers, the warnings of a techno-apocalypse are frequently heard.

    The Word Exchange imagines that in just a decade or so, we will all have a Meme, a sort of super smartphone/ereader/wearable computer that taps into our neural networks to provide a word we're reaching for, call a cab when we enter the elevator to go down to the street, order us takeout Chinese food, make the pedestrian crosswalk signal go on, dial a friend we're thinking of, and make recommendations and suggestions throughout the day. Synchronic Corporation, maker of the Meme, has branched into monitoring and facilitating applications for every part of life, from caregiving to teaching, to security, to medicine and more.

    With reading actual books now an anachronism, our young woman protagonist Anana's father Doug's beloved North American Dictionary of the English Language (NADEL) will quit print publishing when its just-completed third edition ships. The International Diachronic Society warns against the abandonment of the book and the rising power of Synchronic Corporation and its products, but the Society's warnings go largely unheeded.

    Doug has always been a little absent-minded and unreliable, but when he doesn't show up for a scheduled dinner with Anana, she knows something is wrong. Her feeling is confirmed by messages Doug has left for her, a meeting with Doug's mysterious friend, Professor Thwaite, and a frightening encounter in the bowels of NADEL's building. Anana and her NADEL friend, Bart, set off on a quest to find Doug and find a cure for the "word flu" epidemic, which causes a bizarre form of aphasia, fever and even death, and threatens to topple all of civilization.

    Much as I enjoy books about books and language, and I loved The Word Exchange's premise, characters and ambitious scope, it lacked the storytelling magic of other books with similar themes, such as Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, and Max Barry's Lexicon. One serious problem I had with the book is that the action often comes to a screeching halt and there are pages of info-dump exposition.

    The battle between the plucky band of language lovers against the evil corporate Synchronic people was unoriginal, and the anti-technology messaging heavy-handed. I'm no fan of Twitter, for example, but I think it's going a bit far to lecture that streaming out messages of the minutiae of our lives is antithetical to reading, thinking and essentially a threat to civilization.

    If Graedon works on toning down the preaching and learns to make her world building an organic part of the story, then I think she has the imagination and ambition to be a successful novelist. So, while this was a mixed reading experience for me, I'm sure I'll want to read her next book.

    Note: Thanks to the publisher, Doubleday, and Edelweiss for providing an e-galley of the book for review.
     
  17. Maine Colonial

    Maine Colonial Moderator Staff Member

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    [​IMG]

    Love, loss and learning who you are
    :star5:

    It's a November weekend in 1987, and the down-at-heel Bellweather resort hotel in the Catskills is hosting its annual music convention for New York's high school talent. Twins Rabbit and Alice Hatmaker from tiny Ruby Falls will be there, Alice for the second time.

    Alice is a singer, featured in all of her high school's musical theater performances, and absolutely convinced she is destined for stardom. Rabbit is a much more low-key character. He's a bassoonist in the orchestra and hasn't managed yet to gin up the courage to tell anyone––even Alice––that he's gay.

    Viola Fabian, the new organizer of the competition, is as striking and sociopathic as Cruella de Ville, and her brilliant flautist daughter, Jill, is determined to use this weekend as an opportunity to get away from her somehow. Fisher Brodie, the symphony conductor, and Natalie Wilson, music teacher at the Hatmakers' school, are scarred veterans of their different past experiences with Viola.

    Minnie Graves is an outsider to the conventioneers, but not to the Bellweather. Exactly 15 years earlier, when she was a girl, she witnessed an event outside Room 712 that has haunted her ever since, and that she hopes to exorcise this anniversary weekend. Harold Hastings, longtime Bellweather concierge, has been a witness to years of music competitions––and the mystery of Room 712.

    You can just imagine the emotions, hormones and scheming when you gather hundreds of talented, competitive teenagers, and their adult supervisors, and shut them up in the middle of nowhere for three days, as a blizzard approaches––maybe you've even experienced it yourself. And when a new horror occurs in Room 712, all that intensity is dialed up to the peak setting.

    Some people are describing this book as Glee + The Shining, and I can see that, but there is a lot more to it, though it's hard to classify. It combines a young adult coming-of-age story with an amateur detective story, adding in some romance, magical realism, and some horror/suspense, all done in breezy, entertaining prose.

    Racculia is one of those writers who can paint you a character portrait in just a few words, and make you feel you almost can see right into the character's soul. She directs this large cast of characters like the most skilled conductor, weaving their themes together, sometimes in harmony and sometimes clashing. Every character is a bit of a misfit, but her writing is filled with understanding and sympathy for them. (Well, maybe not Viola, but everybody else.)

    If you have an interest in quirky stories and unusual characters, presented by a skilled storyteller, I recommend you give this book a try.

    Note: Thanks to the publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, and Amazon's Vine program, for providing an advance review copy of the book. Bellweather Rhapsody will be published on May 13, 2014.
     
  18. Maine Colonial

    Maine Colonial Moderator Staff Member

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    [​IMG]


    Had to read this for book club and it so taught me that I just don't like domestic melodrama, or women's fiction or whatever the heck they call this genre. The vast majority of people reviewing this on Amazon just loved it.

    I will say it was well written for what it was, though I thought the wheels of the plot were a bit contrived and the lives of the women were curiously retro. I remember it used to be said that Australia was decades behind the US in social attitudes and I never believed it, but this made me wonder. The women in this book went to Tupperware parties, cared a lot about keeping a perfect home, and were very church and school-oriented.

    2.5 stars for me.
     
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  19. Maine Colonial

    Maine Colonial Moderator Staff Member

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    [​IMG]

    Have you heard that slogan, "Information wants to be free" ? In The Accident, a certain bit of information is bursting to be free and, at the same time, in danger of being obliterated, along with everybody who has come into contact with it.

    A mysterious messenger delivers a hard copy of a manuscript titled The Accident to literary agent Isabel Reed. An exposé that would destroy Charlie Wolfe, a media mogul with political ambitions, the manuscript quickly multiplies and gets into the hands of assistants, competing agents and editors. Isabel knows she has a dangerously hot property, but she doesn't expect that anybody who touches the manuscript will be targeted for death, and that she will have to go on the run to avoid being another victim.

    Chris Pavone made a big splash with his first book, The Expats, but The Accident isn't up to that standard. It's a stylish and energetic thriller, but it suffers from having too many characters, and cutting so frequently back and forth among them that it's hard to engage with the story or the characters. Sometimes it's even hard to keep the characters straight.

    The big, elephant-in-the-room problem is the notion that in this day and age, a hot exposé would go out in hard copy only, rather than be uploaded to the internet. The entire plot depends on this contrivance, but the book's explanation of why hard copy is better than electronic seemed nonsensical to me. All along, I kept thinking just one person needed to take the manuscript, OCR it and send it out to a few media outlets. Of course, then the whole story would go poof.

    Given how good The Expats was, I'll give Chris Pavone another chance, but I definitely won't be recommending this one to anybody.

    2.5 stars

    Thanks to the publisher and Amazon's Vine program for providing an advance reviewing copy.
     
  20. pontalba

    pontalba Well-Known Member

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    Good review, MC. I have wondered about Pavone's second book even though I didn't much care for the first. I really wanted to, as the premise was interesting.
     

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