The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (audio)

Source: Audible
Audiobook, 14+ hours
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The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, narrated by Simon Vance, was our November book club selection and is a steampunk alternate history set in 1855 in England.  Vance is a wonderful narrator as always, so there were no issues in that regard.  The novel seeks to explore the political and societal implications of when Charles Babbage succeeds in building an analytical computer, the Difference Engine, creating a barely recognizable world in which technological advancements are ubiquitous and enabling Britain to become more powerful and the United States to become more fragmented than unified.  However, as the water and the air become more polluted, the wealthy are able to flee outside of London, while the laborers are stuck in the city with the soot and pollution.  The anger this engenders, causes the laborers to become revolutionaries, rising up and calling for anarchy.

Intelligence agencies, difference engines (computers) and secrecy abound in this topsy-turvy world, but on audio, some of the intricacies are lost.  A lot of the narration is spent on describing clothes, surroundings, some of the machines, and mundane actions, like opening containers and whether people are wearing gloves.

Among the minutiae, a mystery about computer punch cards emerges, and everyone seems to want them.  Paleontologist Mallory is the only interesting character, but his segment in the plot ends and the final third of the novel plods along once again.  At least he lasted longer than the other interesting character, Sybil Gerard.  While some believe the cards can be used to place bets and win big, it is clear that’s a red herring.  The tug-of-war between the luddites and the ruling class that espouses the benefits of technology and advancement is often lost in the narration, which takes on several iterations — the only clue that the narrator is an outside observer.

The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, narrated by Simon Vance, is convoluted  and mysterious to its own detriment.  Overall, while readers may enjoy Vance as a narrator, this book might get a better reception in print.  However, this particular novel also has a number of confusing plot lines that intersect haphazardly, almost as if the writers were trying to confuse the reader.  Unfortunately, at some point readers may give up caring about uncovering it.  This is an overly stylized novel aimed at a sliver of readers, with a very masculine tone and vaunted scientific jargon and theories.

What the Book Club Thought:

We all agreed that the plot didn’t take up much of the book, and that the mystery reveal at the end was kind of a let down, especially given all that had happened to obtain the punch cards.  Some of the characters were disliked, the choice of a paleontologist was an odd one for some, and a few of us skimmed or did not finish the book.  Those of us who did finish the book thought that it had been more of a world-building exercise.  Moreover, some of the things that happened in the background are things that some of us would have rather had in the main parts of the story.  Overall, none of us really cared for any of the characters too much and thought that the book was wordy at best.

About the Authors:

William Ford Gibson is an American-Canadian speculative fiction novelist and essayist who has been called the “noir prophet” of the cyberpunk subgenre.

Bruce Sterling is an American science fiction author who is best known for his novels and his work on the Mirrorshades anthology. This work helped to define the cyberpunk genre.

Poe’s Children: The New Horror edited by Peter Straub

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 544 pgs.
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Poe’s Children: The New Horror edited by Peter Straub, which was our October book club selection, is billed as an anthology that includes horror stories that can be deemed literary, rather than “formulaic gore.”  Although some of these stories are by turns surreal and unsettling — some may even be literary — they are a far cry from the disturbing and nightmarish tales of Edgar Allan Poe.  Readers may appreciate the nods to Poe or even other authors, like Franz Kafka, but those nods to previous greats on their own do not make a story worthy of note.  “Cleopatra Brimstone” uses the idea of people turning to bugs found in Kafka and turns it into a story about strong female sexual identity, but at the same time, the story lacks verve.

“The Bees” and “The Man on the Ceiling” will leave readers wanting more, particularly in the development of the characters, while “The Great God Pan” offers an interesting premise and a shadow that lurks behind the lives of three friends who underwent a ritual together, but the story fizzles out by the end.  “In Praise of Folly” is a slow moving story in which Roland Turner seeks out the Jorgenson estate in his quest for a folly to be saved, and it’s a tale of watch what you ask for because you just might get it — and then some.  While the story itself is not particularly unique, the anxiety stems from what happens when Turner finally finds the estate and its “Little Italy.”  Although it is not horrifying in the gory sense, it does make readers gulp for air as they consider what happens to him.

Even the stories by Stephen King, Joe Hill, Peter Straub, and Neil Gaiman are lackluster, though Gaiman’s story is the most enjoyable and uses his writing style well.  King’s story was not what readers will expect, Hill’s is unimaginative, and Straub appears to be too bogged down in his own introductory statements about literary horror fiction.  Unfortunately, Poe’s Children: The New Horror edited by Peter Straub does not live up to expectations and is mediocre at best.

What the Book Club Thought:

Many of us were disappointed by the horror collection, with many of the stories only moderately creepy and others were just surreal or odd.  Some stories felt very unfinished, and others had endings that came out of left field.  A few felt that the introduction set us up for disappointment, as many of the stories were lacking in the horror or Poe quality we expected.  The cover of the hardcover edition seems to tell you what the book will not be — it is not about dead babies and other horrors traditionally found in the genre.  One member, however, thought that the introduction helped lower expectations and made the collection more enjoyable.  Overall, the discussion about each of the stories was animated, even though no one really LOVED this one.

About the Author:

Peter Straub was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1943, the first of three sons of a salesman and a nurse. The salesman wanted him to become an athlete, the nurse thought he would do well as either a doctor or a Lutheran minister, but all he wanted to do was to learn to read.

He went to the University of Wisconsin and, after opening his eyes to the various joys of Henry James, William Carlos Williams, and the Texas blues-rocker Steve Miller, a great & joyous character who lived across the street, passed through essentially unchanged to emerge in 1965 with an honors degree in English, then an MA at Columbia a year later.










Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 249 pgs
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Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien, which was our July book club selection, and is a post-apocalyptic young adult novel in which a teen is alone on the family farm when the rest of the family ventures beyond their valley in search of other survivors.  The only survivor of the bombings, but the teen has enough knowledge to know how to grow food and care for what farm animals are left.  Soon, the teen realizes that there may be others, as smoke in the distance moves closer and closer each day.  After being alone for a long period of time, how would you react to another person, a stranger that you don’t know anything about other than that he is a scientist and has some knowledge of radiation.

“I passed the house.  Visions moved behind my eyes, and I saw the house as I had seen it as a child: climbing the front steps on the way to supper; sitting on the porch at night, watching the fireflies; my grandfather rocking me on the swing; sitting there listening to someone singing, or a phonograph; later sitting on the swing at night weaving long, romantic dreams about my life to come.”  (pg. 242)

After observing the stranger for a few days, the teen decides that to meet him face-to-face is the best option, as this is the family home in the valley.  There is a sense of responsibility not only for the farm and its buildings, but for creating a home-like atmosphere even for this stranger.  Mr. Loomis, who claims to be a chemist and knows about radiation, falls ill with radiation sickness when he throws caution to the wind and jumps into the stream without testing it.  The green lushness of the valley has lulled him into a false sense of security, and this mirrors the false sense of security the teen feels when a routine develops between them.

Z for Zachariah by Robert C. O’Brien is character-driven from a first person point of view, and while the protagonist can be insipid at times, there are moments of evolution in her character.  Some readers, however, will be angered by the teen’s reactions to Mr. Loomis and his actions.  There are moments in which readers will want to slap the teen silly, but living a farm life in a semi-religious family, it can be easy to see how the teen would have an outlook that is hopeful and positive, expecting the best from others, rather than the worse.  Mr. Loomis and the teen are nearly foils of one another in terms of worldview, and while he is paranoid and controlling because of the loneliness he felt, the teen views the world optimistically and with wonder.  Is this due to the difference in age, their upbringing, or other factors …  it is unclear.  Background information on the characters is minimal, but the story is engaging for the most part as a teen faces a series of tough decisions.

What the book club thought: (updated 9:12 AM)

Our meeting had a consensus of they liked the book for the most part, but the protagonist drove us crazy and the scientist is someone we thought was just evil — though one member made the argument that he may have experienced more damage during his radiation sickness than we thought.  We liked the premise of a valley isolated in its own weather pattern from the fallout and we liked that the young girl had survived on her own because of her farming skills, and most of us agreed that had it been an urban kid there, they would likely have had a harder time.  There were some religion vs. science themes, but it didn’t seem to be overly done to most of us.  There were two members who absolutely disliked the main character and her decisions, her inability to swear, etc., and her naivete about the world outside the farm and the necessity of killing the antagonist.  Some also had issues with the plot and overall, most were disappointed by the ending — though we agreed that because this is an older book (1973, I think, and was finished by the author’s wife and daughter from his notes) the prose was much different than today’s cinematic-style YA post-apocalyptic novels.

About the Author:

Robert Leslie Conly (better known by his pen name, Robert C. O’Brien) was an American author and journalist for National Geographic Magazine.

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 85 pgs
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The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli, which was our June book club selection and my second reading (I haven’t read this since college), is a nonfiction analysis of different types of principalities and how a prince can keep them when factions or people move against him.  The work is considered a classic and it is an examination of what traits make principalities hard to maintain or easy to keep, as well as what characteristics a prince should foster in himself to hold onto his principality.  Although this is a slim volume, the economy of the language makes it quite dense and oftentimes dry.  Many often attribute the sayings of “the ends justify the means” and “might makes right” to Machiavelli, though they are not necessarily accurate interpretations of what he espoused.

It is clear that his life experiences as a civil servant in Italy, which had been far from unified under one government and was operated more through a balance of various factions and the strength of the truth.  It is clear that Machiavelli viewed political success from a practical standpoint, without an emphasis on morality.  More accurate attributions of wisdom to him might be that you can gauge the intelligence of a prince by those he has around them or that it is better to be feared than loved.

“The main foundations of every state, new states as well as ancient or composite one, are good laws and good arms; and because you cannot have good laws without good arms, and where there are good arms, good laws inevitably follow … ” (page 40)

The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli has become a guidebook for many leaders, and has been perverted by others, including Hitler and Stalin.  Whatever readers may take away from his advice on principalities, Machiavelli is clearly a keen observer of human behavior, especially among rulers.  It is highly humorous that he would give this book as a gift to a new ruler of the Medici family in the hope of gaining favor with the new government, especially since the book tends to provide a framework for governing as if the reader would need pointers.  How many rulers would take to that kindly?

What the book club thought:

Everyone seemed to agree that this was almost like a how-to guide on how to become a prince and maintain the power they gain, regardless of the political or geographical situation.  One member expressed the opinion that Machiavelli seemed to focus on his own ambitions, despite his couching of his advice as something to help Medici, who was currently in power at the time the book was written.  Others did not see that, and I mentioned that he was incredibly disappointed that his political and civilian government life had come to an end too quickly and that he was motivated to ensure his return to that life.  Overall, most people found the book interesting and though that it would be interesting to see what Machiavelli would have written about the U.S. presidency or if his guide would work in today’s modern world.  The book generated a great deal of discussion, and most were surprised that it was not more evil than they expected.

About the Author:

Niccolò di Bernardo dei Machiavelli was an Italian political philosopher, musician, poet, and romantic comedic playwright. He is a figure of the Italian Renaissance and a central figure of its political component, most widely known for his treatises on realist political theory (The Prince) on the one hand and republicanism (Discourses on Livy) on the other.

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 452 pgs
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Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige is a twisted rendition of The Wizard of Oz, with a lot of references to the classic movie of the same name starring Judy Garland.  Paige has brought Amy Gumm to Oz the same way that Dorothy arrived, but unlike the happy ending in the story Amy knows, Oz has found itself sapped by Dorothy’s lust for magic.  Given that this is book one in a young adult trilogy, readers can expect that despite the title, obstacles are greater than they first appear and the story will drag on.  However, Paige keeps too much information close to the vest, leaving the main protagonist and the reader too much in the dark.  With the pacing bogging down in parts for extra long training sessions and discussions about things that don’t advance the plot or characterization much, readers may find their mind wandering and wishing Amy would just get on with her mission from the Revolutionary Order of the Wicked.

“I first discovered I was trash three days before my ninth birthday — one year after my father lost his job and moved to Secaucus to live with a woman named Crystal and four years before my mother had the car accident, started taking pills, and began exclusively wearing bedroom slippers instead of normal shoes.” (page 1)

Amy is a young woman with image issues and someone who has spent too much of her young life being an adult when her mother wallowed in her self-pity.  When she arrives in Oz she may seem tough to the munchkins and others, but on the inside she’s unsure of just about everything.  Consistent reminders not to trust anyone force her to rely on herself and her own instincts, which in some cases prove not to be so good.  This journey story is rife with twisted characters from Oz, magic, and indecision, but it also creates an alternate universe that will leave readers wondering what happens next because this is not the story they remember.

“Relying on a rat to guide me through a magic maze pretty much summed up my last twenty-four hours.  I felt out of control, isolated, and uncertain where I was headed.  I plunged forward regardless.  Sometimes the path was narrow and claustrophobic, the hedges so high I couldn’t even see their tops.  Then I’d turn a corner into a sweeping cobblestone boulevard where the topiary walls were short enough that it seemed like I might be able to dive over them with a running start.”  (page 384)

Dorothy Must Die by Danielle Paige, our March book club selection, was an interesting twist on a story many of us already know, and while the book’s twisting of characters worked better for characters like the Scarecrow than they did for the Lion, Paige has built a believable construct from a world consumed by greed.

About the Author:

Danielle Paige is a graduate of Columbia University and the author of Dorothy Must Die and its digital prequel novellas, No Place Like Oz and The Witch Must Burn. Before turning to young adult literature, she worked in the television industry, where she received a Writers Guild of America Award and was nominated for several Daytime Emmys. She currently lives in New York City.

What the Book Club Thought:

We discussed this one and our February pick, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, at the same meeting.

Everyone seemed to enjoy Skloot’s book and we had a great discussion about medical ethics and privacy as well as whether we’d want our names to be known if our cells ended up helping cure disease or wipe out the human race.  It was a lively discussion, even with those who did not have a chance to read the book.

Most people liked Dorothy Must Die for the most part, though several said the pacing was off and a couple members mentioned that the best drawn of the characters was the Scarecrow.  Some expressed an interest in reading the second book in the series, but we’ll have to wait until next month’s nomination period to see if that happens.  Otherwise, some will likely read the second book on their own.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (audio)

Source: Public Library
Audiobook, 12.5 hours
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The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, narrated by Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin, was our February book club selection.  Henrietta Lacks was a black woman who felt something was wrong, some lump was growing insider her, and that lump she had was eventually diagnosed as a kind of cervical cancer.  Her treatment commenced, but she bore it all on her own, telling very few in her family about it.  She also continued to bear children throughout the process.  Lacks has since become immortal in that her cancerous cells were collected and cultivated by scientists and renamed HeLa.  Those cells were used in the fight against polio and a number of other diseases.  While she was unable to see the fruits of her cells’ labors, she is in a way immortal.

Rebecca Skloot injects herself into this narrative, which becomes part memoir as she recounts her interactions with Lacks’ children, especially Deborah.  Skloot discovered that this family had been bombarded by requests for information long before she decided to write a book about Lacks and her cells, which had made them less than willing to speak to her.  Despite the many set backs and the paranoia that often ruled Deborah’s reactions to her questions, Skloot made headway and even took family members on road trips in ways that brought the true past of their mother back to the family.  In many ways, this is not just a story about Henrietta Lacks, how her cells helped science and cured disease, or about medical ethics, but it also is a story about a family regaining its connections and its past.

The audio production was well done, especially differentiating between Deborah’s thoughts and that of the author, making them easily discernible.  This audiobook also included an interview with the author about her research and her interactions with the Lacks family, as well as her writing process, which was fascinating.  And although the story shifts from the past to the current research, the book’s narrative flows well and is immediately engaging for those with an interest in science, medical research, and the history of HeLa.  But even then, this is a human interest story about how a family struggles to learn about their mother and her cells and what happened in the past.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, narrated by Cassandra Campbell and Bahni Turpin, packs a punch — hitting the heart of medical research and the debate about who cells belong to, what rights patients have to their own cells, whether there should be more restrictions on their use, and whether compensation should be offered to those who donate their cells.

About the Author:

Rebecca Skloot is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Her award winning science writing has appeared in The New York Times Magazine; O, The Oprah Magazine; Discover; and many other publications. She specializes in narrative science writing and has explored a wide range of topics, including goldfish surgery, tissue ownership rights, race and medicine, food politics, and packs of wild dogs in Manhattan. She has worked as a correspondent for WNYC’s Radiolab and PBS’s Nova ScienceNOW.

Book Club had to be postponed due to a snowstorm, but I cannot wait for the discussion in March!

Northern Lights by Tim O’Brien

Source: Personal library
Paperback, 372 pgs
On Amazon and on Kobo

Northern Lights by Tim O’Brien, which was our November and final book club pick of the year and a re-read for me, is the author’s first book, and not my favorite.  The story is about two brothers — Perry and Harvey — and one went to Vietnam and the other stayed home and got married.  Perry works for the agriculture department in Sawmill Landing, Minn., which is a small dying town with very few farmers left.  Heavily populated by Swedes, Finns, and Germans, the town has gone through periods of prosperity and periods of fallow ground.  Harvey is set to return from the war, and he’s altered in more than one way.  While O’Brien has crafted a story of brothers who were always different from one another — Harvey, the bull, considered the outdoorsy and confident brother, and Perry, the book smart and self-conscious brother — the story slowly unwinds to show just how false those perceived differences were.

“They call it a dying town.  People were always saying it: Sawmill Landing won’t last another decade.  But for all the talk, Perry never saw the death, only the shabby circumstances of the movements around him.  It was melancholia, seeded in the elements, but he had no idea where it started.”  (page 65)

When his brother returns, there is a heaviness that settles on the house, a house their father lived and died in and a house that was often filled with tension between the three men.  With Grace, Perry’s wife, in the house, there is a lightness from her womanly touch as she tries to keep the peace and make Harvey feel at home.  But then there is Addie, a young lady who flirts endlessly and teases all the time.  She’s an enigma, flirting with married Perry and with single Harvey, but it is clear that she’s never serious.  She likes the games.  The moral tension is palpable throughout the novel in whether Harvey and Perry are flirting with Addie, or whether Perry has to overcome his fears and hunt in the woods as his brother did with their father.

Rather than focus on the Vietnam War, Northern Lights by Tim O’Brien is a look at the home front after the soldier returns home and tries to fit back into society, as well as the brother’s struggle with seeing his own brother so changed.

***Unfortunately, due to car issues, I missed this meeting with the book club.  A meeting I was really looking forward to.***

About the Author:

Tim O’Brien was born in 1946 in Austin, Minnesota, and spent most of his youth in the small town of Worthington, Minnesota. He graduated summa cum laude from Macalester College in 1968. From February 1969 to March 1970 he served as infantryman with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, after which he pursued graduate studies in government at Harvard University. He worked as a national affairs reporter for The Washington Post from 1973 to 1974.  Here’s the reading group guide.

36th book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.






32nd book (Vietnam War) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Source: Public Library
Audiobook, 11+ hours
On Amazon and on Kobo

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson, narrated by Orlagh Cassidy, chronicles the disjointed life of a woman who has lost her memory in an accident.  Each night, while she is sleeping, she loses all her memories of her present and past.  She remembers her life up until about her 20s, but only the journal she keeps helps her remain grounded in the life and the husband she no longer recognizes.  This is a fast-paced debut novel that examines the role that memory plays in how we identify ourselves and our own happiness.  Christine Lucas is a writer who is struggling each day to remember her life before an accident wiped out her memories, an accident she doesn’t even remember.  As she begins keeping a secret journal and meeting with Dr. Nash to try some treatments to regain her memory, dark secrets about her life, her past, and her current situation bubble to the surface.

Watson has carefully crafted a character adrift in her own life, and while some of the details are needlessly repeated as she wakes from sleep each morning and struggles to remember her life, readers are swept up in this mystery.  As the book is told from Christine’s point of view, the reader has only her knowledge to draw conclusions from, and this can be frustrating.  While the cues are there to unravel the mystery beforehand, readers will likely enjoy this crazy journey as well as become frustrated with the main character’s stupid decisions from time to time.  There are times when reading the journal should have taken much more time than it seems to, which would have left her little time to do much else in a day, especially for someone who wakes up with a blank slate every morning.

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson, which was out October book club selection, was an interesting debut, and it did mirror the feel of the movie Memento, but the ending was disappointing and some parts in the middle dragged a bit.  While this is fast-paced toward the end when everything starts to fall in place, there could have been further editing in the middle that would have tightened this up more and made it even more thrilling.

A note about the narrator, her voice really grated on my for some reason and she seemed to lose the tone when speaking as a male character, slipping back into Christine’s voice, which made it hard for me to follow along at certain points.

About the Author:

S J Watson was born in the UK, lives in London and worked in the NHS for a number of years.  In 2011 Watson’s debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, was released to critical acclaim. It has now been published in over 40 languages, and has become an international bestseller, winning numerous awards.   The movie of Before I Go To Sleep, starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong, is due for worldwide release in Autumn 2014. Watson’s second book is out in Spring 2015.

What Book Club Thought (Beware of spoilers):

Most of the book club felt that this was a quick and entertaining read, even though many of us didn’t think the mystery was much of one.  The writing was well done for the most part, and with it being made into a movie a few people expressed interest in seeing it, either on video or on Netflix, etc. I personally thought a better twist would have been to have Dr. Nash be her son. While one person couldn’t even get into the book at all.  There was quite a bit of repetition, which may have grated on people early on, but when a main character has no ability to make new memories, they tend to repeat things.

73rd book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.

Blue Moon Rising by Simon R. Green

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 480 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

Blue Moon Rising by Simon R. Green is an adventure story of kings, castles, dragons, and unicorns whose hero, Rupert, is a second son in line for the throne and dedicated to his duty to the Land even at the expense of his own safety.  On his first quest he is sent to slay a dragon, but what he encounters runs contrary to everything he’s ever heard about quests from the minstrels.  Knowing that he can never rule as king, Rupert is aware that he isn’t meant to return from his quest or if he does, he’s to return with something of value that his bankrupt kingdom can use to fight off the Barons who wish to take control.  Unfortunately, he and his unicorn return with a live dragon, not jewels, and a difficult Princess Julia.

In typical adventure fashion, but with humor, Green creates a world in which the darkness threatens to overtake the Forest Kingdom.  Rupert is a reluctant hero and Princess Julia is the antithesis of feminine royals who care more about dresses and balls.  Harald, the prince next in line for the throne, is charismatic and wily, and he has a reputation with the ladies.  He and his brother are often at odds, though readers will wonder if they would get along better if their father didn’t show preference for Harald over Rupert at every turn or if the kingdom was not in such turmoil politically that factions are vying for their own favorite son to ascend to the throne.  Green populates his novel with a few too many quests when one would have sufficed before the kingdom was threatened by the Darkwood and the Demon Prince.

“For a long while the Court stood silent, shaken by the Astrologer’s dark vision.
‘There must be something we can do,’ said Rupert haltingly.
‘There is,’ said the Astrologer.  ‘Prince Rupert; you must journey to the Dark Tower, and there summon the High Warlock.’
Rupert stared at the Astrologer.
‘I should have volunteered to lead an army against the Demon Prince,’ he said finally.  ‘It would have been safer.'” (page 87)

The dragon doesn’t play much of a role here, but the unicorn seems to be the comic relief for the most part.  The debate between the privilege in royalty and being a peasant is consistent throughout the book, as is the tension between duty and desire.  Despite its wordiness, Blue Moon Rising by Simon R. Green is a keen adventure with humor and plot twists, though some may be predictable and less satisfying than expected.

Unfortunately, the book club discussion for this one was postponed do to some illnesses and other conflicts.

About the Author:

Simon was born in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, England (where he still resides), in 1955. He has obtained an M.A. in Modern English and American Literature from Leicester University and he also studied history and has a combined Humanities degree. His writing career started in 1973, when he was a student in London. His first actual sale was a story titled Manslayer, back in 1976, but it didn’t appear till much later; Awake, Awake…. was his first sale to a professional editor, in 1979. Furthermore he sold some six or seven stories to semi-pro magazines before that market disappeared practically overnight.

After years of publishers’ rejection letters, he sold an incredible seven novels in 1988, just two days after he started working at Bilbo’s bookshop in Bath (this after three and a half years of being unemployed!). This was followed in 1989 by two more, and a commission to write the bestselling novelization of the Kevin Costner film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, which has sold more than 370.000 copies.

62nd book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 389 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson, our August Book Club selection, is part legal thriller and part historical fiction, as Ben Solomon recognizes that one of Chicago’s elite was a former Nazi SS officer Otto Piatek, the butcher of Zamosc, and his one-time brother.  Solomon’s family always strove to help their neighbors whenever possible, and one day take in a German boy, Otto, as their parents face the struggles of lost jobs and opportunities.  On the cusp of Nazi expansion, Poland seems like it is protected from outside forces and immune to Nazi takeover, but suddenly, things change and the Solomons are faced with a variety of tough decisions.  In the present Ben Solomon has aged and is on a crusade to bring Piatek to justice no matter the cost.

“‘Maybe for some.  Not for me.  It is why we must remain diligent and relentlessly pursue men like Piatek.  Evil is contagious.  Much like a pathogen, it must be snuffed out at the source.'” (page 139)

Balson has a great story to tell, but it’s too bad that the modern-day character of Catherine Lockhart is too much of a pain, with her constant interruptions about billable hours and urging Ben to get to the point.  She’s constantly bombarding Ben with questions about property and the basis for his lawsuit and always denying her interest.  While her backstory about a horrible conniving husband gives credence to her lack of confidence as a lawyer and her concern about keeping her current job, her story is pale in comparison to Ben’s Holocaust story.  Moreover, there are times when Ben appears to be spouting off facts in an effort to educate the reader, coming off more as a lecture than a man who is telling his life story.  Despite these flaws, the story is engaging — even if everything that could have happened during the Holocaust happens to Ben and his family — and readers will be sucked into the past, just as Catherine is.

Once We Were Brothers by Ronald H. Balson is intriguing because of the Polish setting, and the story of Ben and his family is engaging, but the lawsuit portion is resolved very quickly and the relationship between Ben and Otto as children is only partially developed.  With that said, Balson knows his history and has created an engaging look into the past that will have readers examining the world today in a new light.  Are we beyond the evil the Nazi’s engaged in or is the potential still here among our own world leaders?

About the Author:

The author, Ronald H. Balson, is a Chicago trial attorney, an educator and writer. His practice has taken him to several international venues, including villages in Poland which have inspired the novel Once We Were Brothers.

What Book Club Thought:

Most of us were displeased with the attorney character and her sob story, which had not place in the book, especially in comparison to Ben Solomon’s holocaust story.  With that said, one member really enjoyed the legal maneuverings near the end of the book, though they were resolved very quickly.  While the novel was readable and went quickly, there seemed to be an abundance of bad things happening to Ben and his family, though like most of these stories there are many who die.  Otto also seemed to be “too” evil and there was little seen of his transformation, which could be because the story was told from Ben’s point of view for the most part.  One member suggested that the modern day characters be cut out or that they be only at the end when Ben makes it to modern day and begins his lawsuit, while another suggested the book be split between the “brothers'” points of view.  Overall, many thought this book could have presented the story in a better way.

20th book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.



49th book for 2014 New Author Challenge.




15th book for 2014 European Reading Challenge(Set in Poland)



25th book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.


The Program by Suzanne Young

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 405 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

The Program by Suzanne Young, which was our book club selection for July, is a young adult novel in which young people are sent away to The Program if they show signs of suicidal thoughts before committing the act, and in this world, one can never be too careful because suicide is contagious.  At least that’s what the government would have parents and their teens believe.  Every teen lives under a microscope, and the pressure can be unbelievably intense for those who are friends or, especially, related to someone who has committed suicide.  Sloane Barstow is just one teen of many, but her brother committed suicide so she bottles up as much of her anguish and pain as she can so that her parents don’t think she’s suicidal too.  Her only comfort is in the arms of her friend, and her brother’s, James Murphy — a rough and tumble kind of guy who has mommy issues and doesn’t much like school or his dad.

“Teen suicide was declared a national epidemic — killing one in three teens — nearly four years ago.  It always existed before that, but seemingly overnight handfuls of my peers were jumping off buildings, slitting their wrists — most without any known reason.  Strangely enough, the rate of incidence among adults stayed about the same, adding to the mystery.”  (page 9)

The novel is told in first person point-of-view, so if Sloane doesn’t know the reasons or the actions behind the scenes, neither does the reader.  This leaves the reader and Sloane in the dark, especially when she begins to lose parts of herself.  Her relationship with James is hot and cold, mostly because James has a hard time being vulnerable, but her relationship with her parents is even harsher, with her moods constantly negative toward them and them trying to smother her as if that will protect her from getting sick.  There are a great number of issues to discuss, particularly about what it means to be us — do our memories make us who we are or is it something more? Should the government force teens into treatment for suicidal symptoms and their grief over lost loved ones or should they allow them to handle their own emotions?  Is there some other vast government conspiracy at work?

Young’s portrayal of rebellious teens is spot on in her portrayal of Sloane and James, but there is question that builds in the reader’s mind about whether Sloane and James are in love or merely thrown together by mutual loss.  While there are touching moment between the two and it does seem to be love, there relationship does not evolve beyond the mutual lust and desire for one another, and in many ways, it is based on mutual comfort.  Despite the questions about whether The Program is increasing thoughts of suicide among teens that want to avoid it, at its heart this novel is a love story in a dystopian world where kids have little control of their lives, except to run away.  The parents are not as hands on as one would presume them to be in a world where suicide is an epidemic, there is no real explanation of who runs the program or of why the program is so prevalent other than its 100% cure rate, and the last part of the book seems like it was thrown together to explain a subordinate character’s actions in The Program and outside of it.

The Program by Suzanne Young is a fast-paced romance for young adults that raises a number of questions for book clubs to discuss, and it is enjoyable.  For readers looking for a little more about the setting and The Program or other cures that could have been tried, etc., you’ll be left wondering.  The end opens more doors than closes, and its possible that there could be a sequel in the works.  Sloane and James are strong and rebellious, but even they are not immune from the disease or its cure.  Is it better to forget the past and move forward, or should you reclaim as many of your memories as you can?  That’s still the question.

About the Author:

Originally from New York, Suzanne Young moved to Arizona to pursue her dream of not freezing to death. She currently resides in Tempe, where she teaches high school English. When not writing obsessively, Suzanne can be found searching her own tragic memories for inspiration.

Suzanne is the author of several books for teens, including THE PROGRAM, A NEED SO BEAUTIFUL, and A WANT SO WICKED.  Visit her on Facebook, her blog, and Twitter.


What the Book Club Thought:

Most members agreed that the book was an easy read, while one wanted more hope at the beginning at least for the reader.  Others thought that they were in the situation with Sloane (probably due to the first person point of view) and could understand how a teen girl would be so obsessed with a boy and only think about surviving, rather than what her future could be like once she hit 18.  At some length the book club talked about the lack of hope in the beginning, which some said was intentional.  Another aspect of the book that people discussed at length was Sloane’s seeming acceptance of the pills given to her by the psychiatrist, rather than fighting to keep her memories as she said she would early on.  The underground aspect of the book that shows up later in the book was examined as a possible conspiracy as well as The Program itself.  However, there is another book to this series, so we’re waiting to see what that brings (at least some of us are).  In terms of whether members would take the pill to bring back all of their memories, some said they would without hesitation, while others said they would think about it and one said he probably wouldn’t.  When asked about whether they would place their own kid in the program, a few said that they would not immediately do so, seeking out alternative means and others suggesting that they would immediately do so.

45th book for 2014 New Author Challenge.


Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford 1937-1947

Source: Gift (Published by Graywolf Press)
Hardcover, 128 pages
I am an Amazon Affiliate

Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford 1937-1947 edited and introduced by Fred Marchant, which was our June book club selection, is a collection of mostly never before published poems by William Stafford while he worked with the Civilian Public Service (CPS) after becoming a conscientious objector of WWII.  While it is a collection of poems by a young poet working in camps on civil service projects who felt exiled within his own country for being a pacifist, these poems also represent a poet searching for his own voice and style.  There are variations in tone, punctuation, and capitalization, as well as a wide use of the em dash.

The Prisoner (page 26)

Touched the walls on every side again—
Obsessed with prowling thoughts of free live men.
He heard when guards had slammed the outer gates,
How suddenly like wool the silence waits.
Resigned, he sat and thought of all the dead.
"I'll soon wake up from life," the prisoner said.
                      c. Magnolia, Arkansas

While Stafford was a conscientious objector, life in the camps was not easy going — it was hard work, and many might even characterize it as a punishment for those who objected to doing their soldierly duty.  While he seemed to know that he was a pacifist, he continued to struggle with what it meant to be a pacifist, and this struggle is evident in his poems.  Another running theme through the poems is a deep sense of loneliness, a being apart from the whole of society, and wondering how he fits into not just his pacifist society at the camps, but in the greater society outside of those camps.  In this internal struggle, Stafford writes about listening and observation and in many ways he takes these “passive” activities and makes them active inspection and cause for action.

From "Their voices were stilled..." (page 24)

Their voices were stilled across the land.
I sought them. I listened.
The only voices were war voices.
Where are the others? I asked, lonely
      in the lush desert.
One voice told me secretly:
We do not speak now, lest we be misunderstood.
We cannot speak without awaking the dragon of anger
      to more anger still.
That is why you are lonely.
You must learn stillness now.

I looked into his eyes, and they were a dragon's eyes,
      and I could not speak,
And we were as grains of sand huddled under the wind,
Awaiting to be molded, waiting to persuade with yielding
      the feet of the dragon.

                        Magnolia, Arkansas
                        May 1, 1942

Another World Instead: The Early Poems of William Stafford 1937-1947 edited and introduced by Fred Marchant explores the early writings of a national poetic icon, who stood behind his convictions even if it meant he was separated from society at large and required to work so hard it seemed like a punishment.  Stafford’s “deep listening,” as Marchant says, requires active participation on his part, he evokes pacifism in a way that will leave readers re-examining their own convictions where war is concerned.

***Disclosure, Fred Marchant is my former poetry professor from my Alma Mater.***

What the Book Club Thought:

The book club seemed to enjoy the poems, though there were a few members who found the poems in the end section rather odd compared to the others.  Once we got Skype going with the editor of the collected poems, several members were engaged in the conversation, poems were read aloud and discussed, and afterward, several said they would go back and re-read some of the poems now that they had more background on the poet and his experiences.  Having Fred Marchant join us engaged more of the members in conversation and reading of poems, and the background information seemed to help put the poems in perspective.  The poems were dated, so we could follow the historical time line, such as one poem written about the bombings of Nagasaki and Hiroshima.  Members indicated they would be interested in another Skype session.

About the Editor:

Fred Marchant is an American poet, and Professor of English and Literature at Suffolk University. He is the director of both the Creative Writing program and The Poetry Center at Suffolk University. In 1970, he became one of the first officers of the US Marine Corps to be honorably discharged as a conscientious objectors in the Vietnam war.

38th book for 2014 New Author Challenge.






21st book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.






Book 19 for the Dive Into Poetry Reading Challenge 2014.

13th book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.