Posts Tagged ‘CBR-III’


Mswas’ CBR-III Review #7 – Big Machine by Victor LaValle


This. THIS is why I love Facebook* – crowdsourcing. I post on a Thursday afternoon that I’m looking for a book suggestion and get a few suggestions. And THEN Jon-Paul posts Big Machine by Victor LaValle.

Hol-eee cow! I was hooked right away, and it definitely lived up to my request for a page-turner. After finishing it, I posted that I really loved it and that it would be easy to write a review. Now, I’m not so sure about that. I don’t quite know how much I want to reveal about Big Machine, because the twists and turns of the story are really unusual.

I can tell you about the protagonist, Ricky Rice. Now a middle-aged man who works in a train station,  as a boy Ricky was the sole survivor of a suicide cult. But the event that opens the novel is the receipt of a note:

You made a promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002.
Time to honor it.

Enclosed with the note is a bus ticket to Vermont where Ricky meets a group of people similar to himself and  also summoned by a vow once given.  These people are inducted into the Unlikely Scholars, a group called together to find meaning, pattern and answers in newspapers and reports.

I won’t go further in the plot because it is complicated. LaValle spends a lot of time in Ricky’s and other characters’ pasts, and so the story becomes much more than just the supernatural themes that progress.  Ricky’s seen a lot, and his world-weary take on the world allows LaValle to comment on life.

…you’ll understand why I always took the stairs.

Ten times a day if I was sent on a lot of errands. Up and down so often that I really came to love that crappy gray stairwell. Half the overhead lights didn’t work, and sometimes garbage littered the landings. The perfume of urine often filled the air, and yet I knew the environment with sweet intimacy. How cold the handrail felt in the winter, the sound of my skin slipping along the metal in a low -swiff- whenever I went down. The chips of a cracked stair sprinkling the ones below it like rock salt on a winter road.

It seems impossible now, but at that time I thought of that stairwell as a kind of cloister. Where I could find a special quiet. You can’t predict the places where you’ll encounter the unknowable.

Big Machine has a lot of  unknowable,  supernatural, and truth as well. I saw several reviews that mentioned the X-Files, and I also felt it was similar to Stephen King’s Hearts In Atlantis. Both showed us undercurrents in our world or worlds that are parallel to ours, where things are just different. Whether things are different in a good way or a bad way remains to be seen, you just have to turn the page.

(* Oh Twitter, I’ll always love you too.)


Mswas’ CBR-III Review #6 – Take Me Home by Brian Leung


Take Me Home by Brian Leung is a good solid book, not without flaws, but entertaining till the end. It’s set in Wyoming in 1927 as Adele “Addie” Maine is returning to a small coal-mining town where she’d lived 40 years ago. Back in the 1880’s, she followed her brother, Tommy, to this town to join him on his homestead, but she hadn’t been back since the riot, since Addie had been shot. Would she finally be able to face the man she believes was the shooter?

The town of Dire was a rough little town with its population made of Chinese miners and other immigrants. The animosity between the Chinese and the other men was thick and simmered just below the surface of every interaction. After seeing a Chinese man on the train platform, Tommy sets her straight:

“Don’t have no dealings with them if you can help it. They’ll shake on a bargain with one hand and pick your pocket with the other. One talks to you, just walk away, and don’t be like old Lot’s wife.”

By the time we’ve gotten to this passage though, we’ve already found out that the residents of Dire had attacked the Chinese, and a riot had broken out and Addie had been shot during it. We’ve also learned that she had a very good friend named Wing Lee and that she hadn’t seen him since the riot 40 years ago. Addie also hopes to find out what happened to Wing and if he is dead or alive.

Leung transitions back and forth in time from the “present” day of 1927, to when Addie first arrived in Dire, to the time of the riots in an uneven fashion. Within one chapter, several different pieces of the story could be revealed in each of the three points in time. I found this disconcerting once or twice, but as a whole I can now see how this could be the perspective of an old woman visiting a place with such  vivid memories.

These transitions are not completely all over the place, but Addie’s reminiscing is also juxtaposed with sections from Wing’s point of view and sometimes within the same chapter. This works though because due to their language and societal barriers, they aren’t always able to share their true feelings. In fact, when they first meet, Wing does not divulge that he speaks English.  He does, eventually, and their friendship and trust grows.

Leung is an effective writer, and his description of the small, coal-mining town is vivid. Addie’s memories are also poignant, with a nice moment of her as a young girl coming to terms with the death of her grandmother. I would recommend this book even though it is imperfect.


Mswas’ CBR-III Review #4 – How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway


Ahhhh, at last, a Cannonball Read book that I can unhesitatingly recommend! True, I did love The Tiger, but I read that in December, and this year so far I haven’t read anything that I’d feel was worth recommending… until now.

“I had always been a disobedient girl.”

Thus opens How to Be an American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway, a wonderful read that I didn’t want to end.

How to Be an American Housewife tells the story of mother and daughter, Shoko and Sue, who are very different but are both trying to find happiness. Shoko was born in Japan and married an American G.I. after the end of World War II. She brings a book called ‘How to Be an American Housewife’ with her to America. Excerpts from this book begin each chapter, and we see how the authors instruct Japanese women on how to please their husbands and fit in to American society.

“When you marry and integrate with Americans, it is only natural not to have friends. Most American women will dislike you. Perhaps looking for other Japanese women will be possible, but probably not. Expect to be alone much of the time. Children help relieve this melancholy.”


“…you must work as hard as you can to prove yourself more than equal–the most polite, the best worker, an adept English learner, the most well-turned-out Housewife your husband could ever ask for. This is your duty, to both your home country and to your new one.”

Shoko reminisces about her life in Japan and coming to America, but her chapters in the first half of the book also focus on her current life. Shoko’s heart has always been bad, but now it is seriously failing. However,  she still wants to go to Japan to reconcile with her brother Taro who shunned her for marrying an American. Unfortunately she is too ill to travel, so she must ask her daughter, Sue, to go in her stead.

“I had always been an obedient girl”

Opening with this sentence, Sue’s chapters take up the latter half of the novel. As she and her own daughter, Helena, travel to Japan seeking her uncle, Sue thinks about growing up with her Japanese mother, American father, and much older brother. In some cases we do see both the mother’s and the daughter’s side of the same situations.

To my mother, the number four was bad. “Never take four,” she admonished me when I took four dumplings once at dinner. “ean death. Or two. Bad manner. One or three or five.” Same with sticking your hashi straight up and down in the rice bowl. “Only at funeral!” Mom admonished.

You couldn’t pick Mike ouit of a crowd as my brother. He was a stranger off the street. I had never run out to the tree on Christmas morning with Mike, to see what Santa had left us… But Mike was there when we needed him to be.

Margaret Dilloway’s lovely first novel is beautifully and thoughtfully written. I won’t spoil the ending for you and tell you if Sue finds her uncle,  if her mother survives her heart surgery, or if Mike becomes closer with his family. I will just urge you to go get this book and find out for yourself.


Mswas’ CBR-III Review #3 – 31 Hours by Masha Hamilton


I really liked 31 Hours, until the unsatisfying end. Normally I try to avoid spoilers in my reviews, but be forewarned that I am going to discuss the ending of this book.

Got it?

31 Hours focuses on a few main characters: Jonas, a young man who is in the middle of a plan to be a suicide bomber in New York City; his mother, Carol, whose intuition tells her something is wrong; his friend and lover, Vic, a dancer; and Vic’s kid sister Mara, caught between their parents’s divorce and living with a depressed mother. We do get insights from other peripheral characters – Jonas’ mentor, his father, a homeless man, and Mara’s father, but Jonas, Carol and Vic are the main voices.

Each chapter counts down the hours till detonation, and the tension is strong. Carol has an inkling that something is wrong with her son, but can’t reach him. Vic thinks Jonas has found another woman, and only gets alarmed when Carol reaches out to her. Mara has a plan to reach out to her father and ask for help. Jonas is searching for answers and believes he has found them in Islam and the teachings of his mentor, Mahmoud. Though I don’t agree with Jonas’ choice of violence, the insight into the terrorist mindset is intriguing and compelling.

The prose is gorgeous. This book is beautifully written. So much so, that when I got to the end, I wanted more.

“Their mother looked at both of them. ‘You girls,’ she said, and finally, shaking her head, she laughed. She actually laughed. It sounded gentle, like a real laugh, and it filled Mara with hope, and with a sharp longing she’d been denying — a yearning for those old days when twice as many people lived in this apartment, and it felt alive, and she’d never felt scared, like she did sometimes now, of shadows that stood in corners.”

But the end. The book ends with Jonas heading down into the subway. We’re not told what happens, whether Mara makes it home, whether his parents can find him in time, if the homeless man is caught in the blast. Nothing. Yes, this is supposed to leave us with questions, but it seemed like a cop-out to me. I felt cheated that there was all of this tension counting down the time, and then we don’t even get to the moment of the blast (or non-blast), we’re just left hanging 30 minutes before the critical moment…to make us think.

I liked Hamilton’s writing, and I would read more by her, but I don’t think this book deserved all of the stars I see on Amazon. Maybe she sucked me in so that I’m left wanting to know the end, to know the answer. Or maybe I just don’t get it.


Mswas’ CBR-III Review #2 – Midnight Angels by Lorenzo Carcaterra


One thing I need to give myself permission to do during CBR is to quit reading a book that stinks. A couple of times last year I struggled through a crappy book just so that I could get the review done, and I’ve done that again.

Midnight Angels by Lorenzo Carcaterra has a great premise, but ultimately it just didn’t do it for me.  Listen, I know that all fiction is untrue, but it has to have some ring of truth to be compelling.

Protagonist Kate Wescott has come to Florence to study Michelangelo, who she’s already studied for her whole life at the behest of her guardian, Professor Richard Edwards. The professor is a member of a secret society that is devoted to hunting down lost works of art. Along with a fellow art student, Kate discovers Michelangelo’s Midnight Angel sculptures.

Tracked by criminals, the Rome art squad, and a man who has a vendetta against Prof. Edwards, Kate and her friend Marco try to save the statues and avoid getting killed in the process.

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

But I just don’t buy it. I don’t know what it was, exactly. Was it the predictable characters, such as an art  thief with the nickname Cat who fathers a daughter who becomes an insurance investigator looking into art crimes? Was it the trite dialogue?

“You’re not one for a warm bedside manner,” Clare said, taken aback by his harsh tone.

“I’m a detective,” Rumore said, “not a doctor. I didn’t come here to offer comfort. I’m here to find out what you wanted and why.”

While I appreciate the Star Trek reference, I think it was unintentional. Dialogue throughout the entire book is hamhanded and clunky.

I didn’t care about the characters, I didn’t care about the art, I didn’t cheer when the bad guy gets it in the end.  I think I’d have been better off with a biography on Michelangelo, rather than something that something trying too hard to be art.


#1 The Tiger by John Vaillant – CBR-III


“Hanging in the trees, as if caught there is a sickle of a moon. Its wan light scatters shadows on the snow below, only obscuring further the forest that this man negotiates now as much as by feel as by sight. He is on foot and on his own save for a single dog, which runs ahead, eager to be heading home at last…They are hunting partners and the  man understands: someone is there by the cabin. The hackles on the dog’s back and on his own neck rise together.

Together they hear a rumble in the dark that seems to come from everywhere at once.”

Thus begins The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, by John Vaillant, an account of  a man-eating Amur tiger terrorizing a remote village in Russia’s Far East in late 1997.   We’ve all heard the term “man-eating” tiger, but I always considered that an exaggeration. Mostly I’d heard tales of people being mauled or bitten, but this tiger just destroyed its prey and consumed it. What remains of the man killed in the beginning, Vladimir Markov, barely fills the coffin, and the idea of him wearing the new suit his wife proudly purchased as his burial shroud is sadly preposterous.  Markov’s tale is the setting for stories of  in the lives of the residents in the Primorye territory.

The other man who Vaillant uses to frame the  is Yuri Trush, squad leader of an Inspection Tiger unit, sent to investigate the tiger attack.  A huge man and former foreman at a coal mine, he has led this unit for three years. He takes a group of trackers, armed with a lot of knowledge but limited weaponry, into the forest to track and destroy the tiger before it kills again. The story of  their forest journey and the unreal ending is compelling enough to make you want to continue through the book, but Vaillant also eloquently leads us through the history of the region, Russian struggles with China, the effects of Perestroika, not to mention a thorough examination of tigers themselves.

“As long as I’ve worked here, I’ve never seen a tiger as big as that one.”

The huge tiger prowling the countryside not only had the size and strength, but also the intelligence and skill to be a relentless hunting machine. There is such a narrow window of existence for the villagers in this brutally poor area, and the introduction of such a killer leaves a despairing terror in their hearts. Trush and his men must seek out the tiger to avoid further loss of life, either theirs or the villagers.  What happens in the end? Of course I won’t tell you, you must read it for yourself. I will say that if I’d seen a movie with this ending, I don’t know if I would be able to believe it.

“There are many people who don’t believe this actually happened. They think it’s some phantasm of my imagination. But it was real. There are the facts.” — Yuri Trush