Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Cellar by Minette Walters

Description: From the internationally bestselling, award-winning crime writer Minette Walters, The Cellar is a harrowing, compulsively readable novel about a family of African immigrants, the Songolis, and the dark secret they keep hidden in the depths of their seemingly respectable British home.

On the day Mr. and Mrs. Songoli’s young son fails to come home from school, fourteen-year-old Muna’s fortunes change for the better. Until then, her bedroom was a dank windowless cellar, her activities confined to cooking and cleaning. Over the years, she had grown used to being abused by the Songoli family—to being their slave.

Now that Scotland Yard has swarmed the Songoli house to investigate the disappearance of the son, Muna is given a real bedroom, real clothing, and treated, at least nominally, as a daughter. But her world remains confined. She is not allowed to go outside, doesn’t know how to read or write, and cannot speak English. At least that’s what the Songolis believe. Before long it becomes clear that young Muna is far cleverer—and her plans more terrifying—than the Songolis, or anyone else, can ever imagine.

The Cellar by Minette Walters is one of the best books I’ve read/listened to in the last year. Powerful, intense and devastating.

Muna is stolen from an orphanage by an immigrant family and kept imprisoned in a home in the heart of London with a dark basement as a bedroom. Muna is a slave to the family who visits horrible abuse on her, physical, mental and sexual. Until the day the Songoli’s youngest son goes missing and the family is forced to treat Muna as a daughter, at least in front of the police. Every misfortune that befalls the Songoli family makes Muna’s life better.

Muna’s “family” tells her that she is brain-damaged so often that they come to believe it themselves. But Muna is clever and observant and most of all patient. The story is narrated in a matter of fact tone that makes the evil that is perpetrated all the more devastating. Every  time you are tempted to feel sorry for the Songoli family, you are reminded that they are despicable and beyond redemption.

Investigation by Scotland Yard as well as the presence of a nosy neighbor prevent any return to the way things were for the Songoli family. Muna’s cautious, observant, patient and terrifying. The fact that she is no more or less than the family has made her is tragic and thrilling. This story will have you riveted from the opening line to the last and will linger with you for a long time. One of the best and most powerful books I’ve read in a long time.

The narration of the audiobook by Justine Eyre is phenomenal. She perfectly captures the tone of the book and drives home every thrilling and horrifying moment. An award-worthy performance. Highly recommend.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Ashley Bell by Dean Koontz

Description: The girl who said no to death.

Bibi Blair is a fierce, funny, dauntless young woman—whose doctor says she has one year to live.

She replies, “We’ll see.”

Her sudden recovery astonishes medical science.

An enigmatic woman convinces Bibi that she escaped death so that she can save someone else. Someone named Ashley Bell.

But save her from what, from whom? And who is Ashley Bell? Where is she?

Bibi’s obsession with finding Ashley sends her on the run from threats both mystical and worldly, including a rich and charismatic cult leader with terrifying ambitions.

Here is an eloquent, riveting, brilliantly paced story with an exhilarating heroine and a twisting, ingenious plot filled with staggering surprises. Ashley Bell is a new milestone in literary suspense from the long-acclaimed master.

Dean Koontz is an immensely talented writer. Intricate plotting and a master at creating mood and suspense. On top of that, he has a gift for description that is beautiful and lyrical. He can make you pause and reread or listen again to some amazing prose.

In Ashley Bell, he has created a fascinating protagonist, Bibi Blair. Strong, gifted, and with an indomitable will. Upon a spontaneous recovery from terminal cancer, she is informed that the price for her cure is to save someone named Ashley Bell. Reluctantly coming to believe the truth of this, she begins a quest that takes her deeper and deeper into a surreal adventure. Meanwhile, her fiance, fighting in a war half a world away gets a message that Bibi needs to be saved and comes home to begin a parallel quest to Bibi’s own.

There is a lot to like in Ashley Bell. Koontz creates an eerie mood that makes you unsettled throughout. A larger than life antagonist to oppose Bibi and a well-defined and interesting supporting cast, from Bibi’s surfer parents, her enigmatic grandfather and laid-back but fiercely loyal best friend Pogo to her former professor Solange St. Croix (the character names in this book are also a blast) as well as several others. Among the obstacles Bibi has to overcome are some of her own memories which have been powerfully blocked.

Two things work against this being a great book. First, the pace was far too slow. As wonderfully evocative as the language is, it gets in the way of the storytelling sometimes. The pace does pick up in the last quarter of the book, but it took a loooong time to get there. The second thing that I found disappointing was that one of the major surprises was forecast from quite a ways ahead and robbed it of a lot of its punch.

In spite of some flaws, Ashley Bell is a memorable and enjoyable book. Beautiful language, memorable characters and wonderful atmosphere. All of these things will stick with you for a while. Long-time Koontz fans will not want to miss it and there is plenty to like for new fans.

I listened to the audio version and Suzy Jackson did an outstanding job of narration. Her voice of main character Bibi perfectly captured how I pictured her and the narration of other characters was distinctive and easy to differentiate. I love a narrator who enhances the story and doesn’t get in the way of it. Recommended read (listen).

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

Description: A page-turning debut in the tradition of Michael Crichton, World War Z, and The Martian,Sleeping Giants is a thriller fueled by an earthshaking mystery—and a fight to control a gargantuan power.
A girl named Rose is riding her new bike near her home in Deadwood, South Dakota, when she falls through the earth. She wakes up at the bottom of a square hole, its walls glowing with intricate carvings. But the firemen who come to save her peer down upon something even stranger: a little girl in the palm of a giant metal hand.
Seventeen years later, the mystery of the bizarre artifact remains unsolved—its origins, architects, and purpose unknown. Its carbon dating defies belief; military reports are redacted; theories are floated, then rejected.
But some can never stop searching for answers.
Rose Franklin is now a highly trained physicist leading a top secret team to crack the hand’s code. And along with her colleagues, she is being interviewed by a nameless interrogator whose power and purview are as enigmatic as the provenance of the relic. What’s clear is that Rose and her compatriots are on the edge of unraveling history’s most perplexing discovery—and figuring out what it portends for humanity. But once the pieces of the puzzle are in place, will the result prove to be an instrument of lasting peace or a weapon of mass destruction?

Sleeping Giants is science fiction at its best. Original, exciting and thought-provoking. The story is told through journal entries and interviews. Rather than distancing you from the story, it draws you in and makes it more personal.

The premise is fantastic. Part of an alien artifact literally beneath our feet. Who put it there? How does it work? Are they coming back? Were we meant to find it? Why now? The involvement of the military, shadowy operatives inside and outside of government, scientists, all pulling in different directions. One hundred different motives and one singular purpose. To find and control the alien artifact. Was this device left here to protect us or doom us? And if to protect us, from what? Each other, or is there another threat we’re not aware of.

Sylvain Neuvel has written a gem and an incredibly accomplished first novel. An outstanding science fiction thriller with characters you really come to care about. This is a book that poses a lot of questions and not all the answers are comforting ones. Get your hands on a copy of this book. People are going to talk about this book and you are definitely going to want to be part of the conversation. Highly recommended.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Cold Between by Elizabeth Bonesteel

Description: When her crewmate, Danny, is murdered on the colony of Volhynia, Central Corps chief engineer, Commander Elena Shaw, is shocked to learn the main suspect is her lover, Treiko Zajec. She knows Trey is innocent—he was with her when Danny was killed. So who is the real killer and why are the cops framing an innocent man?
Retracing Danny’s last hours, they discover that his death may be tied to a mystery from the past: the explosion of a Central Corps starship at a wormhole near Volhynia. For twenty-five years, the Central Gov has been lying about the tragedy, even willing to go to war with the outlaw PSI to protect their secrets.
With the authorities closing in, Elena and Trey head to the wormhole, certain they’ll find answers on the other side. But the truth that awaits them is far more terrifying than they ever imagined . . . a conspiracy deep within Central Gov that threatens all of human civilization throughout the inhabited reaches of the galaxy—and beyond.

The Cold Between by Elizabeth Bonesteel is the beginning of an interesting new SF series. Part military sci-fi, part space opera, part mystery and a little bit of romance. It’s an interesting and very entertaining book that has a nicely contained story that doesn’t leave you hanging, but still makes you want to continue the series to learn more about the characters and this universe.

Elena Shaw is a strong lead character who is driven, competent and no nonsense. Elena hooks up with Treiko Zajec, a retired space captain and erstwhile chef, for a presumed one-night stand. When Elena’s former lover winds up murdered, things quickly get a lot more complicated. Strong secondary characters, particularly Elena’s friend Jessica and captain Greg, add to a story that’s fueled by mystery and conflict involving both planetary and galactic governments. The mystery dates back to a 25 year old tragedy involving Greg’s mom and may just be the tip of something even more sinister.

Bonesteel does a good job of juggling different plot elements, but it is the strong characters that drive the story here. There’s a lot to like here and I’m looking forward to where she takes the story next in this new Central Corps series. Bonesteel is clearly a talented writer and The Cold Between stands out as something a little different than your typical military sci fi. Recommended read.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.