Wednesday, July 13, 2016

After Alice - Gregory Maguire

Good gads she's posting today! I'm so, so sorry for my silence of late, friends. I've been a bit swamped with work, some professional development classes, my nephew's baseball season and a big announcement I'll have coming soon. I hope you're all having a great July so far and finding lots of wonderful things to read. Before I post my review today, I just wanted to share a couple links with you. First is the July Nerdy Special List. There's quite a few great books coming out in July; I had a hard time picking my title for this month, but I did finally narrow it down. There may or may not have been a coin flip involved. And secondly, I had my first review accepted by the Christian Science Monitor. That one is for Ben Winters' The Underground Airlines. You can read it here.  O.k. on to today's review...

First line: "Were there a god in charge of story--I mean one cut to Old Testament specifics, some hybrid of Zeus and Father Christmas--such a creature, such a deity, might be looking down upon a day opening in Oxford, England, a bit past the half-way mark of the nineteenth century."

Those familiar with Gregory Maguire's (The Wicked Years series) work will likely not be surprised to hear me say that his stunning gift with words and story-telling made After Alice a delightfully charming, incredibly creative, deeply insightful fantasy that should stand the test of time, just as its inspiration, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, has.

After Alice is the story of Alice's friend Ada who is headed to see Alice just moments after the spirited young girl falls down the rabbit hole. Ada accidents upon the same gateway to Wonderland and finds herself spiraling down as well. Ada's descent into the wacky world of the Mad Hatter, Cheshire Cat, White Knight (or Night) and Queen of Hearts frees her from the physical disabilities she endured at home, so she sets out on a magical adventure to find Alice.

Meanwhile, back among the boring realities of home, Alice's sister, Lydia, and Ada's governess, Miss Armstrong, are trying to find the missing girls.

Maguire's innate ability to build fantastic plots around the barely mentioned characters of epic fairy tales--plots that compliment and never contradict or alter the original stories--is awe inspiring. But he goes beyond that. In After Alice, the whimsical language echoes Louis Carroll's but still maintains a distinctness to Maguire's style. His playful approach to the world of words transfers to readers a youthful exuberance and giddiness while reading:

Beyond the door, the lawn was shorn and rolled to Pythagorean precision. The clouds were perfect, neither too many nor histrionic. As she watched hungrily, the cumuli began sliding down the side of the world and changing places with the lawn. This proved disconcerting, like a picture in a book turned upside down. Why, there was the Ace of Spaces digging a hole in the lawn-sky, and stuffing Rosa Rugosa root-first into the green-fringed heaven hovering over a blue eternal sky-sea. It was amusing to see the Ace of Spades sprinkle water upward.

Then while he's entertaining his reader with poetic imagery and playfulness, he sneaks in social issues--issues that seem to transcend time, like the glacial slowness of change:

"The law says one thing and custom another," replied Mr. Winter. "What the assemblies legislate and what happens on the back roads of small towns are not always in agreement. Put another way, history takes a long time to happen."

In this instance they're referencing the abolition of slavery in the United States during the Nineteenth Century, but that statement jumps off the page as glaringly true today for things like race, gender and sexual orientation equality.

And Maguire's insights aren't confined to social issues. He taps into human complexities as well:

As for dreams, they are powered by urgent desire, even if that desire is only to escape the quotidian. Ada, who lived with a sense of disappointment and failure, thanks to her misshapen form, suffered from a flat dream-life, one that seemed poorly differentiated from her waking hours. As a stolid child, her dreams were of static things, almost still-lifes: a lump of cheddar on a board, a goat roped to a tinker's cart, a curving road.

This enchanting, fun spin on the classic tale of Alice's wild adventures is as surprising as it is entertaining. There are captivating curiosities with every page turn. So settle yourself in for a fall down the rabbit hole into the marvelous world of Gregory Maguire's Wonderland.

After Alice is now available in trade paperback from William Morrow (ISBN: 9780060859749). You can still get a copy in hardcover (ISBN: 9780060548957) and there's an unabridged audiobook (ISBN: 9780062562272), narrated by Katherine Kellgren, from HarperAudio.

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My review today is part of the TLC book tour for After Alice. Check the schedule to see how other bloggers are reacting to their tumble down the rabbit hole with Ada.

Disclosure: I do some contractual work for one of the owners of TLC Blog Tours. My work with them does not obligate me to a specific kind of review. The reviews are still my own opinions and reflect only my thoughts on the novels. If you care to read more, you can find more information on my Disclosure page.

Monday, June 27, 2016

The Price of Prosperity - Todd G. Buchholz

First line: "I am a little kid in the backyard, swatting mosquitoes off my legs and waiting for Dad to flip a burger onto my paper plate."

Todd Buchholz's  book The Price of Prosperity: Why Rich Nations Fail and How to Renew Them is his argument for why wealthy nations fall. He examines economic, political and cultural realms that he believes contribute to the undoing of these prosperous countries. Buchholtz views birthrates, global trade, debt, work ethic and patriotism (or lack thereof) as the central fissures in the strength of a successful nation.

As much as I was looking forward to reading this book, I was ultimately disappointed. As much time and effort as Buchholz puts into detailing historic empires and their leaders, he fails to address many of the arguments that counter the foundation for his theory.  In an effort to make economics a bit more entertaining, he provides metaphors and examples using current pop culture, but many if not most fall miserably short of actually supporting his arguments.

I was a bit apprehensive when early in the book, during his discussion of decreases in birthrates, he makes a comparison between numbers of children and numbers of pets:

"We have about 75.5 million children in the United States but 90 million cats, 75 million dogs, and 170 million freshwater fish. Together Petsmart and Petco sell $10 billion in pet goods. The largest children's retailer, the Children's Place, earns just $1.8 billion in revenues, pretty much equivalent to what Americans spend on snakes, turtles and lizards."

The impression that is created--and I believe intended--is "wow! Look how much more we spend on our pets than our children." Only he's comparing apples to basketballs. The last time you walked into a Petsmart or a Petco, what could you buy for an animal there? Food, treats, clothes, leashes/crates/etc, bedding, grooming, training, toys....this is, of course, an incomplete list and can cover a pet for its entire life. Children's Place sells clothing and maybe some minor accessories for a limited span of a child's existence. Children require far more time, money and resources to raise than any pet that's legal to own in the United States.

Now in the whole scheme of things, this comparison is pretty unimportant to the book, but the fact that something so banal is full of logic holes puts the reader on alert immediately.

Ultimately Buchholz's point is that the wealthy have fewer children than the poor:

"US families earning over $75,000 per year have fewer than fifty-five babies per thousand women. This is half the birthrate of families earning less than $10,000."

He does go on to say that children are "messy, loud, worrisome, and expensive." But a paragraph later says,

"Yet children have always been messy, loud, and expensive. In 1900 the average white woman in America was ringed by three or four whining, crying, and loving children...So what has changed to explain the declining preference for children? And why is it so widespread?" 

The answer to that question could be a book in itself. And in the United States it's not going to change while college-educated, career-minded women are penalized for having children.

Buchholz then goes on to talk about historical cultures whose downfalls followed wealth and subsequent drops in birthrates. One example he uses highlights a culture that essentially farmed out their military because they didn't have enough citizens to serve in it. And the military was then susceptible to the highest bidder and turned on the country it was supposed to be defending. Legitimate concern. However, in the United States, the wealthy are the least likely to even serve in our military. So if the idea is for the wealthy to have more children, I'm not sure how this example fits into the scheme of his argument.

And the elephant in MY room while reading this section is lack of discussion about the limited resources of the planet. Even in our prosperous United States, we have areas that struggle with viable water sources. We don't want to become one of the nations on Earth that don't have room or food or water for the huge families they are having in order to have strong numbers to defeat their enemies. If we can't take care of our citizens, our enemies are a moot point. Then of course there's also the damage it does to other elements of the planet that we destroy in order to make room for the growing numbers. The planet's population is larger than it's ever been and it's not moving backward despite low birthrates in some countries. At one point, Buchholz seems to be mocking politicians who care about the environment, and he says,

"What a shame if an avalanche of our debt buries our grandchildren so deeply that they have to sell off national treasures to make ends meet."

Granted at this point he's talking about government debt, but this point so oversimplified the issue of the environment and never even touches global warming. It also neglects the point that if we don't do something to counteract things like our abysmal infrastructure and education system--both things that continue to erode because we're worried about this debt--debt isn't going to matter to our future generations because the country won't exist as it is now.

Now Buchholz does proceed and address the value in immigration, but his offered solutions for how to deal with the resistance to immigration fall very short and, quite honestly, left me with a bad taste in my mouth:

"But I would ask this question: if other advanced countries impose six months to an entire year of mandatory service on their own citizens, would it be so terrible to impose some slight inconvenience on immigrants who apply for citizenship, especially an inconvenience that would enhance their knowledge of the country they aspire to join?"

We already impose a test on these people that many natural citizens can't pass. But let's add to the expense of the process, requiring them to travel around the country and not be working so they can have their passports stamped at "historical landmarks, museums, and libraries." And I'm still not sure how that helps our xenophobic culture be more accepting of these people, who are already proving their dedication to the nation.

Buchholz says he would impose a similar requirement for any U.S. citizen who applies for a student loan through a federal program. Again, people in need of money are now put at further disadvantage in order to prove they are worthy. Never mind the towering debt that's burying these young folks already. No mention, however, of big businesses and the wealthy that take advantage of tax breaks and other government funds.

Sadly, I found myself going through the entire book this way. I typically mark up pages with excerpts I love and word choice or phrasing that moves me. In this reading I was marking every passage where I found logic issues or neglect of relevant information.  And I'm not referring to one-off exceptions.

Buchholz refers to the average income of people in the United States. With our current income chasm, the "average" doesn't refer to a lot of households. He says, "The price system and the 'invisible hand' of the market coordinate all of this." No, they don't. That's why we have unions, regulations, child labor laws, etc. And when those regulations have been drawn back, we see that greed knocks the invisible hand right off the invisible wrist.

He refers to the laziness of teenagers and the fact that fewer have summer jobs. But there's no evidence he did any research as to why fewer have summer jobs. Is it possible they are volunteering? participating in various kinds of summer camps? taking care of younger siblings at home? And generations don't simply become lazy on their own. To point the finger at this generation and say they have a bad work ethic is to completely ignore the helicopter parent phenomenon and the role that plays in the child's development. He refers to them not being willing to relocate to a state with lower unemployment rates and not getting driving licenses. However, he neglects to address the costs that keep people from doing things like this. He talks about cars and their affordability. Sure if you come from a well-to-do family, money isn't as big an issue, but Buchholz has already pointed out that the well-to-do are having fewer children. The poor don't have money for additional cars, insurance, license fees, etc. And if you don't have a reliable source of transportation, could that possibly impact your ability to get or hold a job?

There is a section that directs attention to the Labor Participation Rate and Buchholz refers to it as the "proportion of adults who want to work." But he mentions nothing about the growing numbers of people who have taken themselves out of this arena because they've tried to find jobs and have been unsuccessful for so long that they've given up hope, that their time out of the workforce makes employers pass over them automatically. In a nation that puts up so many barriers for those coming out of prisons, a nation that has to petition employers to hire veterans coming back from war, a nation whose sky-rocketing cost of education puts it out of reach for a growing percentage of the population--people who desperately need new skills in order to be marketable, the term "want" is a huge over-generalization. 

While there are legitimate concerns presented in The Price of Prosperity, and I'm glad I read it for a view point that doesn't necessarily align perfectly with my own, it reinforces for me the fact that we're neglecting vital realities that exist in our nation. For Buchholz to make the statement, "When rich nations begin to shatter, everyone has a comfy bed--but fewer people have a reason to get out of it," I know he's neglecting realities and his credibility is, therefore, destroyed. I believe in the United States. I'm not lining up to relinquish my citizenship. But I do not believe The Price of Prosperity holds the answers to the problems that plague us. For that, we'll have to look elsewhere.

The Price of Prosperity is available in hardcover from Harper (ISBN: 9780062405708). It is also available as an unabridged audiobook (ISBN: 9781522690788) from Brilliance, narrated by Buchholz.
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My review today is part of the TLC book tour for The Price of Prosperity. Check the schedule to see how other bloggers are responding to Todd Buchholz's solution to our country's prosperity problems.

Disclosure: I do some contractual work for one of the owners of TLC Blog Tours. My work with them does not obligate me to a specific kind of review. The reviews are still my own opinions and reflect only my thoughts on the novels. If you care to read more, you can find more information on my Disclosure page.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Where Jen's Book Thoughts Readers are Reading

Happy Friday, friends. I'm getting a bit of a late start after taking my dog, Rufus, on a hike this morning. It's a gorgeous day here in Northeast Ohio. I hope it is where ever you are, too.

I have a couple items to share before we get to today's special guest. It's almost the end of June now and I have been very remiss about Audiobook Month. So I'll share my review for AudioFile of a book called Lily and the Octopus. This one made me laugh and cry. I would recommend not listening to it on public transportation.  Another outstanding--and earphone award winner--that I reviewed recently is Walter Mosley's Charcoal Joe.

And if you follow the blog's Facebook page, you may have seen me post about this there, but a small school district that doesn't have a library is looking to rebuild and they're in need of donations. If you have some books you can share, they'd be most appreciative.

O.k. on to the fun stuff! Today's special guest is Deborah Ruth from Cincinnati. I have welcomed guests that I've known for some time in this series, but it's been the greatest treat to meet some folks I haven't connected with before. And this is the case with Deborah. So color me tickled today! Here's what she has to say about her fab photo she sent:

I am at the University of Cincinnati outside McMicken Hall with the two lions, Mick and Mack.  I'm almost 64 now, and I know there exists a photo of me as a toddler with Mick and Mack.  I'm in the senior audit program there which allows seniors aged 60 plus to audit classes for free.  What fun!  I always carry my kindle with novels, like Iris Johansen's Shadow Play, which I just downloaded. 

A woman after my own heart! Learning and books...lifelong loves. Deborah, thank you so much for participating. I'm over the moon to "meet" you and am so happy to feature you today. The next time I'm traveling down your way, I'll give you a buzz and maybe we can meet in person. Hope you enjoyed Shadow Play!

Thanks all for stopping by and meeting Deborah. Hope you have a fantastic weekend filled with sunshine and great reads. Happy reading!

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Second Life of Nick Mason - Steve Hamilton

Hi my book-loving friends. Sorry for another lull in the blog posts, so much summer wonderfulness is going on...and today's is just now the first day of summer. ;-) Hopefully soon I'll have some exciting news to share, but for now, I have a review to share. My review of Steve Hamilton's The Second Life of Nick Mason first appeared as a starred review in Shelf Awareness for Readers. I am posting it today with their permission. Hope you enjoy.

First line: "Nick Mason's freedom lasted less than a minute."

In a stark departure from his Alex McKnight novels, Steve Hamilton kicks off an impressive new series featuring Nick Mason, a former car thief from Chicago who tries to go straight for the sake of his family but winds up in prison for a murder he didn't commit. Now Mason is sitting in Terre Haute Penitentiary for 25 years to life. He learns the ropes of general population, doesn't make unnecessary waves, but also doesn't let anyone get the better of him. Then everything changes when Darius Cole summons Mason to the Secure Housing Unit.

Cole is the powerful head of a Chicago criminal enterprise in federal prison on a RICO conviction. Despite being locked up, his reach extends far beyond the walls of USP Terre Haute, and he's offering Mason a deal. Cole will arrange for Mason's conviction to be overturned, his slate wiped clean. In exchange, Mason works for Cole for the remaining 20 years of his original sentence.

The desire to return to his wife and daughter convinces Mason to trade his soul to the devil. But when the reality of his deal finally becomes clear, Mason discovers he may have put himself and his family in the worst danger possible.

The Second Life of Nick Mason is a new chapter in Hamilton's career, and it's intensely exciting. The concept is fresh, the action is heart pounding and Nick Mason is a solid protagonist. His halo is tarnished and his intentions are gold. Readers will connect with him and clamor for his return.

The Second Life of Nick Mason is available in hardcover (ISBN: 9780399574320) from Putnam and as an unabridged audiobook (ISBN: 9780451483546), narrated by the wonderful Ray Porter, from Penguin Audio. You can find a copy at your favorite independent bookstore or any of these online retailers:

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Monday, June 6, 2016

Property of the State - Bill Cameron

First line: "'Joseph. Don't sit down.'"

Veteran crime fiction writer Bill Cameron makes a stunning entry into the world of YA fiction with Property of the State, the first book in his Legend of Joey series. Joey Getchie is a foster child biding his time in the system until he can emancipate himself. As with many fosters, Joey's been bounced from family to family. Currently he's tolerating the Bobbitt family in order to attend Katz, an elite magnet school in Portland, Oregon, but he is coming to the end of his rope with his foster father who uses Joey's school computer to surf porn and his foster mother who is addicted to prescription pain killers. He's keeping his eye on the prize--early graduation--in order to make it through.

Joey's good friend Trisha is also a foster kid, but she's been with her family more long-term. However, Trisha's foster father has made it clear to Joey that he feels Joey is a bad influence and doesn't want him around. So Joey and Trisha see each other at school and their favorite coffee house, Uncommon Cup.

Joey's plan for early graduation and emancipation is threatened, though, when Joey and his foster father get into a physical altercation. Joey walks out and Wayne Bobbitt changes the locks. In a desperate attempt to hide the current situation from his social worker, Joey begins hiding out at the Huntzel Manor, the home of his classmate Philip Huntzel. Joey has a job cleaning for Mrs. Huntzel four days a week after school. He knows that one room is never accessed by anyone in the family--Kristina's room--so he hunkers down there and slips in and out of the house to attend school.

Joey's plan gets another jolt when his classmate Duncan is hit by a car and fighting for his life in the hospital. The police are looking for the driver of the car and their investigation takes them to Katz, and to Joey.

Property of the State is a YA novel that will keep readers of all ages engaged and enthralled.  The characters are fully realized, dimensional, complex and fun. The story line is suspenseful, including strong plot twists and a mystery sure to keep readers guessing.

Cameron's humor is a bonus in this strong series starter. Joey, being an exceptionally smart teen, excels at the art of sarcasm. And his descriptions of riding in his social worker's car or meeting with his therapist are priceless. But Joey is also a typical young boy, baffled by and bumbling over his growing attraction for Trisha.

As an older reader, I found Joey endearing. His desperate need for solitude and quiet in his world of constant chaos, his desire to do the right thing--even when the universe seems to be conspiring against him--make him an empathetic character.

I'm ready to hand off Property of the State to my niece so she can read it and we can talk about it together. And then we'll both be eagerly anticipating the next Legend of Joey book.

Property of the State is available tomorrow in trade paperback (ISBN: 9781929345229) from The Poisoned Pencil. You can find it at your favorite independent bookstore or any of the following online retailers:
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