Brek Cuttler wakes up in Shemaya Station wearing the silk skirt and shirt that she put on when she dressed herself that morning. Something is different, however. Brek Cuttler is dead.
Brek’s last living memory was of going into the convenience store with her baby daughter, Sarah. They would stop in quickly for milk before heading home for the evening. Even thinking back to her life, she doesn’t remember anything after that moment.
Shemaya Station is where all of the recently deceased go. They stumble off of the train, as tattered and beaten as they left the living world. Brek came to Shemaya with two bullet holes in her chest. Shortly after her arrival, however, the holes disappeared, both from her body and from her clothing.
In her life, Brek was an attorney, searching for the technicalities in an agreement that could benefit her client. In one of her cases, her client purchased stocks with a loan he’d already defaulted on. If the bank had been previously aware, they would be barred from suing her client to recover the debt.
In The Trial of Fallen Angels, justice is the only means of salvation. Shemaya is where the souls are sent to be judged. Their sentencing could take as long as thousands of years. Brek’s mentor, Luas, has been presenting Emperor Nero, Caesar, since he died.
Brek is assigned as a presenter. Her job is to enter the memories of the judged, to see their experiences and present them to God, who will make the final judgment.
Each of the souls she enters into, however, helps to further the answer to the one question she can’t leave Shemaya without answering: how did I die?
The Trial of Fallen Angels spins off of an excellent concept, though it isn’t as engaging as it could have been. Brek is a wonderful character, complete with her own secrets as dark as some of the souls she presents. However, Kimmel spends almost too much time on the experiences of others, and not enough on Brek’s experience in the overall Shemaya, instead of just the courtroom.
The book is intended to be extremely captivating, allowing the reader deep into the lives of the characters and situations. Kimmel, however, doesn’t offer the experience. Shemaya would be far more intriguing with more description.
The Trial of Fallen Angels is Kimmel’s debut novel. His success with Brek likely stems of of his own career as a lawyer, studying the connections between the law and spirituality.
Even without Brek’s profession, Kimmel’s experience shows very clearly in the novel. Justice reigns above all. The real test is to understand the different angles justice can take, and to make the decision accordingly.
John Corey and Kate Mayfield live a fairly uneventful life. Aside from John’s international mission to kill The Lion, the Libyan terrorist and villain of DeMille’s previous book, The Lion. John and Kate are regular citizens of New York, aside from the line on Kate’s FBI record noting her kill of a CIA agent.
John is a retired NYPD officer, and Kate is a valuable member of the FBI. Together, along with a classified number of others, they make up the first federally-funded Anti-Terrorist Task Force.
A man named Bulus ibn al-Darwish, known as the Panther, is working with al-Quaeda. He is known to have been one of the masterminds behind the Cole attack–the primary plot of The Lion–and the U.S. government wants to talk to him.
The Panther knows the name of John Corey, and after his briefing, John knows his opponents name as well.
John and Kate are sent to Yemen to find this man. However, it’s not until they get there that they learn their primary objective is to draw the Panther to them. They are bait.
The Panther is quick and action-packed, though not as engaging as it could have been. Instead of a war-hardened soldier ready to jump back into the line of duty to protect his country, DeMille gives us John Corey, a man who, if the book allowed the reader much insight to the thoughts of those John comes into contact with, could be construed as the village idiot.
John is a wisecrack, one to laugh at his own jokes. While he may not voice all of his opinions, to the benefit of those listening, the reader learns all. John is disrespectful and arrogant. In a real-life situation, it would be a wonder his words didn’t get him killed.
Her husband’s childlike behavior, however, gives Kate that much more of a lift. She is an even-keeled professional. Kate is not the average Bond girl; she is good for much more than her attractive looks.
No superhero is complete without his upstanding gentleman of a sidekick, and John is no exception. Buckminster “Buck” Harris, a “well-dressed gent of about sixty,” seems to know just enough about everything to be seen as an enigma. Buck and Kate, though not the protagonist, give as much reason to pick up the book as John gives to place it gingerly back on the shelf.
I got up at 5:30 this morning. Not necessarily by choice, but because my dogs decided at 5 that they absolutely, without a doubt, needed to go out. So I trucked them out to do their business, after which they promptly went back to sleep.
Not so much for me, so I got up to watch TV before going out for a run.
I haven’t woken up with more than a half hour to spare before work in a long time. I enjoy Jump Start on VH1, I just haven’t had time to watch it in a while.But the more that I watch the music videos, the more I think to generations 20 and 30 years from now, trying to figure out what the “trend” of music in the ’10s is. And here’s what I’ve come up with: we like contradiction.
Let me bring you through my music journey.
1. “Your Body” by Christina Aguilera
Apparently, trailer parks are sexy now. Especially when they’re paired with Rainbow-Brite.
2. “Bottom of the River” by Delta Rae
Super excited about this one. Amazing video and song, plus a capella has now hit mainstream. Awesome. Nevertheless, it came directly after the sexy trailer parks.
–> Slight break for some Calvin Harris/Ne-Yo and the lovely Ellie Goulding.
3. “Too Close” by Alex Clare
So the fact that I haven’t seen this video until this morning is completely my fault, because I’ve loved this song for months. I had no idea it was sung by a lumberjack, however. It’s techno, so I just assumed … no lumberjack.
So there you have it. Sexy trailer parks, mainstream a capella, and a techno-singing lumberjack. And all within a half hour.
It only seems fitting that an author used to writing biographies would focus his first novel on one of the more high-profile women in the world.
Kuhn, author of previous books including Democratic Royalism; The Transformation of the British Monarchy, 1861-1914, Henry & Mary Ponsonby: Life at the Court of Queen Victoria, The Politics of Pleasure: A Portrait of Benjamin Disraeli’s and Reading Jackie: Her Autobiography in Books, makes his fiction debut with none other than the Queen of England herself, referred to in the book as simply “The Queen.”
A reader familiar with Kuhn’s previous work won’t be too surprised that he has, yet again, worked with royalty. However, he cannot be faulted for his strengths. The Queen is a remarkable character, as independent in her mind as she is dependent on those that care for her and the traditions that came before her. She is hardly the stiff upper lip that Queen Victoria was, though she tries to emulate the former figurehead’s reign as best she can.
The story itself tries to grasp common ground between “traditional” and “modern,” specifically when it comes to Britain and its corresponding royalty.
The Queen has centered her life around ceremony, adorning herself with pearl earrings “in the same spirit that a policeman did up his silver buttons. … They indicated who she was. They were not pretty things in her ears. They were her name badge. ‘I’m Mrs Queen.’”
She has become such a monument to tradition, in fact, that all it takes is a hoodie to disguise her to the general public, allowing her easy escape from the confines of her palace and the eyes that watch her every move, waiting to assist on a moment’s notice. On a train to Edinburgh, seemingly without security personnel, she sits at a table with a blind man, his seeing-eye dog, a woman “who, by the look of her thick spectacles might have been nearly blind herself,” and a heavily-pierced young man. Even through their entire conversation, much of which was about the current perception of the royalty, the best resemblance they can see is to Helen Mirren.
While charmingly written, the book is not without its faults. Though the change in perspectives is refreshing at times, the other characters don’t have much to distinguish them from each other. William de Morgan, the butler, can be separate if for nothing else than the fact that he has placed the “de” in front of his name to appear more noble than his childhood would suggest.
That said, as a character he blends quite well into Luke Thompson, the equerry who served in Iraq before working at the palace. William, supposedly, is older and more experienced than Luke, though Luke is consistently the one with the wiser solution. The two, reluctantly together, race to follow The Queen before anything happens to her.
Rajiv and Rebecca, supporting roles to the overall story, are great additions, though would likely not be missed had they been overlooked.
As a complete work, Mrs. Queen Takes the Train is a novel that very much resembles the demographic it is written about: quite polite, with a suitable amount of drama and intrigue, and distant enough to allow an appropriate amount of emotional attachment before continuing on with the day.
Peaches for Father Francis, by Joanne Harris. Viking, 452 pp. $26.95
Vianne Rocher is living a perfectly contented live with her two daughters on a houseboat in Paris. The most dramatic her life gets include only the daily musings of her teenage daughter, Anouk, and the silent interactions between her younger daughter, Rosette, and Bam, Rosette’s invisible friend.
One day, near the end of summer, Vianne receives a letter in the mail from an old friend who had passed away years ago.
“Take a trip back to Lansquenet,” the letter said. “Bring the children. Put flowers on an old lady’s grave. Say hello to my grandson. Have a cup of chocolate.”
In addition, Vianne was to pick the peaches that grow up the side of the deceased woman’s house. “I’d hate the birds to get them all,” she said.
Eight years ago, Vianne had moved to Lansquenet with Anouk to start a new life. She opened a chocolaterie and established herself in the community. Now, however, the community has changed and moved on without her.
The priest is pretending that things are normal, but Vianne can see he is in trouble.
The chocolaterie, the place she used to call home, was turned into a school and burned to the ground.
The village that her friend lived in, Les Marauds, the ghetto, now inhabits an entire sub-community of Muslims that don’t quite fit into the culture of the area.
Peaches for Father Francis is beautifully written, with an atmosphere of France available simply through the way Harris strung her words together. Vianne is mysterious, not quite the prim French woman, though her secret is buried deep.
There is a sense of disjointedness in the first part of the book. Things are not quite right: From Vianne’s perspective, the town has changed as the “foreigners” have moved in and introduced her practices and beliefs. The priest sees the other angle: The Town may have changed, but the people have not. Lansquenet is a small town: Word travels fast and rumors race to the finish. The rest of the town believes that Father Francis had something to do with that fire in the old chocalaterie, but only he knows the truth.
And, through each thread of uncertainty, a Woman in Black appears, clothed head to toe in a traditional Muslim “niquab.” She seems to be everywhere, though others that know her only speak her name in hushed tones.
Peaches for Father Francis is the third book of Harris’ that features Vianne. Her first, Chocolat, was made into a movie featuring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp.
I get a lot of questions from friends and family about what I’m reading and/or what I’ve got on deck. So, I thought, why not let everyone know?
Introducing, future bythebooks! This page is dedicated to what I’ve got scheduled each month for review. As I finish and post them, I will also include links to make finding a certain title’s review more convenient.
I’ll update as I get the books in, so keep checking back to see if your favorite author is listed. Or, who knows, your new favorite book might be released this month!
The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling. Little, Brown, 503 pp. $35.
In her adult, non-wizarding debut, literary giant J.K. Rowling takes readers to the small parish town of Pagford, where a well-known member of the parish council, Barry Fairbrother, has just died.
Fairbrother, both loved and hated by his fellow parishoners, left behind a wife, Mary, and four children: Fergus, twins Niamh and Siobhan, and Declan.
He left behind friends in all areas of the town, most notably Colin “Cubby” Wall, the principal at the prestigious St. Thomas school, Parminder Jawanda, the foreign-born doctor married to the “most gorgeous man in Pagford” and the entire rowing team at the school, which he coached.
Left with a gaping hole in their seemingly well-oiled cog of a town, the other parishioners of Pagford must now find a way to go about their daily lives. Cubby must learn to handle his ill-behaving son, Stuart, or “Fats.”
Fats’ friend Andrew, or “Arf,” must stand up to his abusive father, Simon, and his passive mother, Ruth, while soliciting the attention of the beautiful Gaia Bawden.
Krystal Wheedon, a member of the rowing team and Fairbrother’s “pet” student, must find a way to fit into her school, and her town, while also caring for her young brother, Robbie, and her heroin-addicted mother, Terri.
Robbie’s social worker, Kay, must convince Terri to walk away from her vice and allow her addiction to heal, so that Robbie does not have to be taken away like her other children.
Kay’s boyfriend, Gavin, must either break up with Kay or learn to live with her and her daughter, Gaia.
And, in addition to the upheaval that a simple death brings to the town, there is the small matter of Fairbrother’s chair on the Pagford Parish Council, now identified as a “casual vacancy.”
The vacancy must be filled, and several parishioners have submitted their papers to be considered for election.
The problem is that this seat holds power. Fairbrother was fond of the Fields, the neighborhood between Pagford and Yarvil, the closest town. He grew up there. Others on the council, those who consider themselves full-blooded Pagford, want the Fields to be released to Yarvil, for them to deal with. It was, after all, their project.
Cubby Wall wants to continue his friend’s legacy; he feels it is his duty.
Miles Mollison, despite the current stress of his home life, feels that a seat on the Pagford Parish Council will help bolster his name and status. His wife, Samantha, does not approve.
Howard Mollison, Miles’ father, is already on the council, and is ready to help his son, in any way needed, to achieve this goal. His wife, Shirley, is all for it, as it will not only help her own name, but it will also further annoy her daughter-in-law.
Simon Price would also like to run, as long as his son, Andrew, can keep his mouth shut about what happens within the walls of his own, hard-earned home.
Whispers are the main form of communication in this small town, and news inevitably travels fast. But the damage is done, and the seat must be filled.
A Working Theory of Love, by Scott Hutchins. Penguin Press, 328 pp. $25.95
We’re getting to the point in our information age where the line between human and machine is blending. And, in place of what used to be clear distinction, all we have left is questions. What makes us different? How can we tell? How far are we willing to go until the difference is lost completely?
In 1950, Alan Turing published a paper titled “Computing Machinery and Intelligence,” in which he poses the question: “Can machines think?” This question, and this paper, led to the Turing test: a computer must fool a judge into thinking that it is human, through an instant message conversation. In order for the computer to be considered “intelligent,” Turing states, the computer must fool 30 percent of the judges.
It’s this test that draws that draws Neill Bassett, Jr., into the world of computer technology, in Scott Hutchins’ A Working Theory of Love. Bassett’s boss, Henry Livorno, has figured out that instead of creating a coherent human voice from scratch, he would bottle a human voice that already exists. Bassett’s father, Neill Bassett, Sr., has kept a detailed record of his opinions for the last 20 years of his life, documented on 95 yellow legal pads.
The computer they created, named Dr. Bassett, is in many ways identical to the man who committed suicide when Neill was in college. He never knew his father the way he should have. In many ways, he resented the man. And how he has relegated himself to sitting in front of a computer screen, asking him questions and receiving his answers for eight hours every single day.
Hutchins examines the concept of humanity from every angle imaginable. Neill begins to know Dr. Bassett better than he knew his living father. He meets the identity-searching Rachel who has discovered the sexual cult Pure Encounters. Pure Encounters is dedicated to “Clicking In”: a way of connecting with your inner self and with the inner selves of those around you. As a form of protest against non-personal encounters, the local sex shop is burned down.
Everyone in this book is searching for answers to the questions mentioned above, and beautifully so. Neill was once married, though their love for each other powerfully waned after the wedding. Now he sees Erin out with another man, and he wonders if they made the right decision in ending their relationship.
On a similar thread, Neill never once saw his parents openly express their affection for each other. However, devout Roman Catholics, they highly disapproved of divorce.
The questions Hutchins asks, and attempts to answer, are not new. They’ve been asked for decades already, with greater urgency the further our technology develops.
With the increase in technology, it seems, there also appears to be a greater interest in the simpler times. The entire purpose of Pure Encounters is to retain what is left of the human-to-human connection. In a similar way, Rachel has always dreamt of churning her own butter.
Whether or not the questions can be answered is inconsequential. Neill may come to a greater understanding of what it means to “be human,” but the working theory of love is that he is just that: working. Because to be truly human is to have the capability to evolve, to change, to remain a work in progress.
This Is How You Lost Her, by Junot Diaz. Riverhead, 213 pp. $26.95
Junot Diaz returns from his massively successful The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao with a new collection of short stories, titled This Is How You Lose Her.
Each of the eight stories centers around one relationship from protagonist Yunior. There’s the fiery Magdalena in the title story, who believes that all Dominican men are cheaters. There’s Nilda, who really belonged to Rafa, Yunior’s brother, but who still shares a special connection to him. There’s Miss Lorna, the older woman Yunior can’t seem to separate himself from. And last, though maybe first ,there’s the one woman, the “ex,” who began the entire charade of women.
This Is How You Lose Her, is simultaneously literary and grimy, a product both of the streets sand of a cultured mind.
Diaz is Dominican, the same heritage as Yunior, and the subtle nuances inserted into each story give them authenticity. Only Diaz can create stories like this.
As each story progresses, so does the character of Yunior. In “Nilda,” Rafa contracts cancer and separates himself from the rest of the family. In “Invierno,” his family faces their first winter in the United States, and his father takes him to a barber for a shaved head, because his hair is too curly to run a comb through. Each of these stories, just as each of the women he meets and loves, shapes Yunior into an unforgettable character.
His previous book, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, published in 2008, won the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize, the National Book Critics Circle Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for fiction.
Circles Around the Sun, by Molly McClosky. Overlook, 240 pp. $24.95
At nine years old, Molly McClosky learned that her oldest brother, 14 years older than her, had schizophrenia.
Michael was diagnosed in 1973, when the only test available for a diagnosis like this was “an interview with a clinician, who assesses the presence or absence of certain symptoms and the period of time over which they have persisted.”
Nearly 40 years later, McClosky publishes Circles Around the Sun, a memoir about her family and about a brother so distant from the reality that surrounded him.
I decided from the start that were he ever to say, No, don’t write about me, or No, I don’t want to be in your book–and he is capable of saying ‘no’ to things he doesn’t want: seeing certain people, recommended medical care–I would shelve the project. While I was glad that he responded positively on three occasions to the question of being in a book I was writing, and consented to talk to me about his life, I also knew that a ‘yes’ constituted a cloudier kind of consent than it would in the case of someone who was not suffering from a mental illness.
While deeply personal, Circles Around the Sun is told from a woman who is still, even 40 years into the process, searching for closure.
McCloskey is incredibly scientific in this book. Over the years, she’s become very educated on schizophrenia, having read nearly every book on the topic. When she talks about Michael, she distances herself from the page, speaking almost as a physician would of a regular patient.
People with schizophrenia are like people without the illness, in that their subjective level of satisfaction tends to be linked to how well they are doing relative to those around them. But in the case of someone with schizophrenia, an increased level of functioning brings with it an awareness of just how far behind one is.
Oddly enough, the person that is portrayed in the most life-like way is McCloskey’s mother, Anita. The first chapters are dedicated to the love story between her mother and father, though not as much time is spent on her own relationship with her former husband.
Anita is vibrant in the pages, even after she and her husband divorce and she’s left with the still shocking title of “divorcée.”
What survived the transition from wifely cheerleader to reluctant divorcée was her sense of fun and curiosity. Though the split was heartbreaking for her, she welcomed the opportunities that single life afforded.
Potentially one of the reasons that McCloskey does not delve deep into the relationship her family shares with her brother, even though she has 40 years of letters he has written them, is that, should she fall too far into the abyss that is schizophrenia, she would emerge with an understanding of her own psyche that she is not yet ready for.
In a conversation with psychiatrist friend Azad, she explains to him why she has never been comfortable with psychotherapy, because “if anyone were to probe deeply enough, he or she would realize that I was crazy.”
In response, Azad leans in to whisper, still looking her square in the eye, and states simply, “We are all crazy.”
But her fear is justified. Because of her brother’s diagnosis, McCloskey has a seven to nine percent chance of becoming schizophrenic herself, higher than the one percent chance anyone else would have.
The anxiety is what troubles her most.
During the years when I had experienced intermittent free-floating anxiety, I had cast about for an understanding of it. I’d read Kierkegaard and Schopenhauer and Pema Chodron’s The Places That Scare You. I’d read What to Say When You Talk to Yourself and The Panic and Anxiety Workbook. I had applied the techniques of cognitive behaviour modification. I had quit drinking. I had taken up medication. Gradually, the fear had left me. And yet, here it was, back again, waiting for me each morning.
And even while she finds herself in pits of anxiety, she has learned that “anxiety is essentially the condition in which fear is fearing itself.”
Kierkegaard likened it to a Grand Inquisitor, who attacks when we are weakest and never lets us escape, ‘neither by diversion nor by noise, neither at work or at play, neither by day nor by night.’