Saturday, January 2, 2021

Review: 'Unplugged' by Gordon Korman

 ©2020 All Rights Reserved Lynne Perednia

By Gordon Korman
MG Adventure Fiction
Balzer + Bray

Jett Baranov, the only son of a Silicon Valley genius whose companies are like Google, Apple and Microsoft combined, is en route to Oasis, a wellness resort in the middle of nowhere, Arkansas. He's not going willingly. He's going because he's caused one uproar too many. Accompanied by an employee of his father, Jett is determined to get back home or cause even more trouble. Or both.

Giving up all his devices and deprived of tech upon his arrival only makes him more determined, especially when faced when an all-veggie diet.

Gordon Korman's latest middle grade adventure, Unplugged, is not only Jett's story. There are other young teens at the resort, their families, his companion and those who run the resort. Magnus created Oasis. His number two is Ivory, a tall, tough-looking woman who specializes in hypnosis counseling sessions.

Magnus can do no wrong in Grace Atwater's book. She and her mother have been coming to Oasis for years, leaving her dad and dog at home while they meditate, zip line and paddle in the lake. Everything about Jett is wrong to Grace, and she wants him to leave as much as he does. Tyrell Karrigan is allergic to everything and hapless about just about everything. Brooklynne Feldman comes and goes to camp activities as she pleases. Grace and Tyrell aren't even sure who her parents are, but Brooklynne has been coming to Oasis longer than they have.

When Jett finds a baby reptile in the hot springs pool, the kids band together to take care of little Needles. They end up bonding together in a story that doesn't force them into becoming friends. Their bond serves them well when Jett's trips to town to get meat for Needles lead to a surprising discovery.

The discovery leads to a wild action adventure-style climax, but one that middle grade readers will enjoy. Korman, an accomplished author of dozens of novels, does a great job providing adventure and characters to care about. Unplugged is a fun and engaging novel.

Unplugged will be published on Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2021.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Review: 'A Golden Fury'

 ©2020 All Rights Reserved Lynne Perednia

A Golden Fury
By Samantha Cohoe
YA Fantasy
Wednesday Books

As the French Revolution looms, Theosebia Hope enjoys talking politics and ideas, philosophy and alchemy. Although only 17, she is the valued assistant of her mother, a renowned alchemist who has had some success. They are close to creating the famed Philosopher's Stone, which would grant limitless power.

But that work comes with a heavy price. Her mother descends into madness pursuing her craft. Thea is sent to her father in Oxford, a professor who does not know she exists. Although Dominic, her father's assistant is kind, she knows she is not wanted. Her only hope is to find Will, the boy who was studying alchemy with her mother, the boy her mother sent away.

Soon they are all at the mercy of another rich man, one who is owed a great debt by Will. All three young people feel compelled to take that last step, that of creating the Philosopher's Stone, even if it makes them insane. They each find themselves wondering if they can take the chance, if they can save other people at the cost of their own reason.

But this is not a YA romance. A Golden Fury is a story about power -- the fabled unlimited power of the stone created through alchemy, power that Thea's mother came close to creating before it drove her mad. There is another powerful thread running through the story -- that of Thea's place in the world. Women in the 18th century were not free to carve out their own future. The ideas of proto-feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, are woven into the choices Thea must make. What power does Thea have? And if she has any, how does she use it? Who does she use it for?

Cohoe has crafted together many elements in a fast-paced novel that melds together fantasy, horror and historical fiction to tell the story of a gifted young woman who wants to live a full, complete life.

Monday, September 14, 2020

Review: 'Piranesi'

 ©2020 All Rights Reserved Lynne Perednia

By Susanna Clarke

The flooding waters are rising, and getting closer. A lone person scrambles into a safe niche among the marble statues filling a hall. The water recedes. And that lone person resumes his ongoing task of chronicling the world in which he lives.

That world is one of endless halls filled with marble statues, each one unique, and an ocean enclosed within the house that contains those halls. There are birds and no other humans, save one. The Other, who meets with our lone narrator twice a week, never stays long.

The lone person is called Piranesi by The Other. And in this new novel by Susanna Clarke, who brought the brilliant saga of Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to life, Piranesi's world is both enchanting and strange. Piranesi is a careful observer and chronicler of his world. It's uncertain how he knows some things and how he came to be. There are 13 others, but they are the skeletal remains of people he never knew in life.

During the regular meetings with The Other, he urges Piranesi for specific kinds of information to aid his own search for some Great and Special Knowledge. Although Piranesi is willing to help out, he begins to question the thesis when new information presents itself, or himself. There may be a 16th, another person. The way that The Other regards this stranger recalls the overbearing, nearly cult-like leaders of Iris Murdoch's books. Soon there are vibes that recall Tartt's The Secret History.

Piranesi also has a deep philosophical reason for not wanting to pursue this search for knowledge. As he puts it, if the House where he lives is merely a riddle to be solved, then solving the riddle will leave the House as nothing more than scenery. The House, as he calls it, is literally his world. Every inch of it means more than scenery to him.

He also likes the idea of abandoning this specific search because it would free him to go wherever his discoveries and accumulation of data may lead. To pursue knowledge of its own sake, as one fact leads to another, is something that obviously inspires Piranesi. 

Indeed, one of the lovely aspects of reading this novel is seeing how Piranesi is fascinated by and in awe of his world. As the story progresses, this is something that does not fade and does not disappoint.

Without saying whether the mysteries set up in the story are solved, it is important to note that the novel holds up and does not disappoint. There is another grand idea that Clarke explores fearlessly, but bringing it up is too close to being a spoiler. But that grand idea is key to this remarkable storytelling. Reading Piranesi is as exciting a discovery as any of the great world-building novels of the past few decades, including not only Clarke's debut, but also The Shadow of the Wind and Erin Morgenstern's novels.

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Review: 'The Queen of Tuesday'

 ©2020 All Rights Reserved Lynne Perednia

The Queen of Tuesday: A Lucille Ball Story
By Darin Strass
Literary Fiction
Random House

What if? That's the story of life.

What if I had done this? What if he had done that? What if someone knew this about her? What if no one knew? What if no one cared?

What if a man entering middle age, who wanted to be a writer but went into the family real estate business, had kissed Lucille Ball at a Coney Island party one evening? What if that led to another encounter? What if these things showed that man how his own life had become a series of What if? scenarios in which everything seems hollow, even though that man realizes his good fortune?

That's the story of Isidore Strauss. In Darin Strauss's new novel, The Queen of Tuesday, a character who may or may not be the author's grandfather may or may not have kissed the famous star before she became Lucy and everyone fell in love with her. If it happened, what might have happened next? What turns did his life take?

And what if Isidore, now an old man, had told his grandson about what may have happened? And that there is a chance that he may have written something that may yet be seen in the world? The novel goes meta with this part of the narrative, as the author breaks the fourth wall.

The other side of "What if?" in this novel is "Hold on". That's the nickname Lucille gives Isidore at that party on the beach, one held by Fred Trump. What if someone holds on to what she knows is dear, even if there is heartache? What if someone holds on and gives a second, third and fourth thought to the idea of flinging caution out?

Amidst all the yearning and desires for other things in life throughout The Queen of Tuesday, the sections centered on Lucille Ball are outstanding. Both the difficulties in dealing with an unfaithful husband and with a career that is on the brink of being a Hollywood has-been are clearly conveyed. The success of "I Love Lucy" is both something that no one imagined happening and something that leads to more "What if?" scenarios.

The breakthrough sitcom, which apparently is being shown somewhere in the world every minute, lends another "what if?" layer to the narrative. What if Lucille Ball had not been beloved as Lucy when HUAC came calling? Or would they have come calling at all had she not become famous as Lucy? What if Lucille was more like Lucy and Desi was like Ricky? How would their own marriage have been different? 

What if we viewed "I Love Lucy" as an extended playing out of Lucille not wanting to break into show business, like Lucy, but instead wanting to be close to her husband? What if we viewed Ricky Ricardo not as a bandleader, but as the man Desi turned out to be -- successful at running the business side even while being an unfaithful husband? Is Lucy's attempt to be on Ricky's stage nothing more than Lucille's attempt to have the TV show as a way to keep her marriage to Desi?

The Queen of Tuesday is the kind of book people could chat about with large glasses of a preferred beverage, wondering aloud various "what if?" ideas. 

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Review: 'The Butterfly Lampshade'

©2020 All Rights Reserved Lynne Perednia

The Butterfly Lampshade
By Aimee Bender
Literary Fiction

 A young girl knows enough to lock herself into her bedroom at night when her mentally ill mother is having an episode. When her mother is hospitalized, the girl then lives with her aunt, uncle and newly born cousin as a 10-year-old. The now grown young woman seeks to solidify her position in the world through memory.

Aimee Bender's The Butterfly Lampshade is a quiet, calming book in which finding one's place in the world is possible because of love. Remembering how situations came to be makes the love more real, more tangible.

Three episodes in young Francie's life hold particular meaning for her, because they are occasions when things not real became so. A butterfly matching the ones on a lampshade in her babysitter's apartment appears floating in her water glass. A beetle from a drawing on a school worksheet appears in the backpack in which Francie stored the paper. Three roses matching the ones on a friend's curtain appear on the floor, and she takes them home.

There is no question the objects are real. The roses are seen by her friend, and her young cousin keeps one of them as a treasured object. Through the years, Francie's mother struggles with her illness but finds a quiet place to flourish in a group residence. Francie grows up with her loving aunt and uncle, and her adored cousin, who adores her right back. The family's quiet love is a bedrock to Francie's existence, which is most helpful when she doesn't always feel tethered to the world.

Now grown and ready to face her own questions about the three instances of objects becoming real, and what it means to her place in the world, Francie undertakes daily quiet sessions. In a tent that she and her cousin, Vicky, set up on her apartment balcony, Francie lets her mind go where it will, down any memory rabbit hole. 

It's a brilliant way for Bender to chronicle Francie's life growing up, going back and forth to incidents that held strong significance to her, and go focus on incidents more than once as her ability to remember deepens.

In addition to the larger narrative about love and being solidly in the world, the memories also let the reader in on why Francie, even as a grown woman living alone, still feels compelled to be locked in at night. It's something she felt was necessary even after moving in with her aunt and uncle. When the "why" is revealed, it fits in with the larger narrative of why Francie feels unhinged in the world.

The reader also learns why Francie settles into finding objects and reselling them online, sending them along their journey to become objects with new meaning to new owners.

Anyone who has read Bender's earlier work knows her remarkable talent at descriptive passages that feature stirring language and serve her story. That talent is on full display in The Butterfly Lampshade, as here:

We are all locked in rooms in different ways, and part of growing up is finding different kinds of keys, and meeting the people who will help free you.

May you find the people who are your keys.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Review: 'The Night Swim'

 ©2020 All Rights Reserved Lynne Perednia

The Night Swim
By Megan Goldin
St. Martin's Press

A small North Carolina beach town is deeply divided about the rape trial of a star swimming athlete, accused by a local high school girl of a brutal attack. A true crime podcaster arrives to cover the trial, bringing her listeners daily updates from the courtroom. In the days before the trial begins, she is drawn to a 25-year-old case of another young woman who died there but who seems to have been forgotten.

The Night Swim is an intense thriller of both the current case and the old one. Podcaster and investigative reporter Rachel Krall discovered facts that freed a wrongly convicted man and, in her second season, solved a cold case murder. Her new season revolves around the case of Scott Blair, a potential Olympic swimmer visiting his parents during college break. He crashes a high school party thrown while parents were gone, gives the victim a ride, gets her pizza and takes her to the beach. The town, and the early evidence, are split between whether he raped her or whether she changed her mind after the fact. People in town who back Blair are quick to blame the victim.

Victim blaming is a big part of the cold case, as well. Hannah, the younger sister of the girl who died all those years ago, leaves notes for Rachel, begging for help. Her sister Jenny was called a drowning victim and a second-generation slut. But Hannah and their late mother insist she was killed. When Rachel begins digging into the case, immediate red flags pop up in basic autopsy protocol.

But the cold case cannot take all of Rachel's attention. She is able to interview the parents of both Blair and the girl he was with that night, as well as defense counsel. Both the high-priced criminal attorney and local district attorney trying the case have local ties, as do generations of the families of the two young people.

The two narratives of past and present cases are balanced so well, especially as the information revealed rachets up the storytelling pace. Issues surrounding rape are presented within the context of what happens to women. Goldin also enriches the novel with attitudes about the differences between prosecutors and defense attorneys, podcasting and reporting, and parenting through a crisis. But most of all, the focus is on what happened in these cases and how people remain affected, even years later.

The Night Swim is a strong work about crime and it affects those involved. For a thriller to be both entertaining and meaningful is the mark of a very good writer.

Monday, August 10, 2020

Review: 'Pew'

©2020 All Rights Reserved Lynne Perednia

By Catherine Lacey
Literary Fiction
Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Imagine wandering without knowing anything about oneself, except that you exist. Where did you come from? Where you going anywhere? Are you even male, female, something else? How old are you? None of these are things that matter. What does matter is finding a place to rest, maybe even sleep.

Churches are good for that. 

And when the protagonist of Pew by Catherine Lacey finds a church in which to sleep, everyone in the strange little town in which it is located is oddly invested in knowing more. They name their newly found person Pew for being found sleeping on one. The family that takes Pew in constantly cajoles, entreats and begs Pew to reveal more. Every time one of them tries to find out more, they show their judgment even as they deny being judgmental. Just existing and resisting only by being practically non-responsive riles up doctors and church folk.

The church folk are the ones who control the small town. It's nearly that time of year, when the annual Forgiveness Festival is held. Emotions are ramping up. The mood is ominous, especially for something that is supposed to be healing. And only the white people take part; the Black side of town stays away. At the same time, the news is filled with people disappearing from a nearby town.

The novel begins with an epigraph of Ursula K Le Guin’s The Ones Who Walked Away from Omelas, and has overtones of other works, including Kafka, The Giver by Lois Shields and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson. The plot and the philosophical questions blend seamlessly. It is tempting both to turn the pages as quickly as possible to see what is happening, and to stop and mull over the existential questions and noticings of a stripped down character that remains a complex being.

Who are we, as just ourselves? As humanity? What are we like? What are the things that make a difference? Are they physical? Mental? A part of our souls? In musings both profound and poetical, Pew and the people in this community open up myriad ways of looking at the world and ourselves. To do this with such a light touch is a remarkable accomplishment. Pew is a book worth reading more than once.