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The Uninvited

The Uninvited
Liz Jensen

Hesketh is a man with a background in anthropology and an affinity for languages. He works for a company that investigates corporate fraud. He also has Aspergers syndrome and works hard to interpret interpersonal relationships. Folding complicated origami figures is his hobby, and he frequently visualizes folding figures to calm himself. He recently ended a relationship with a woman named Kaitlin, but what he seems to miss most is being the father figure for her son Freddy.
Hesketh is traveling around the globe investigating a series of whistleblowing cases that seem oddly similar. After exposing fraud in their companies, each whistleblower attempts suicide. As he digs deeper, Hesketh uncovers other similarities, like an intense craving for salt, and reports involving fairies, djinn, and other mythical creatures in different cultures.
While Hesketh tried to piece together the mystery of the reluctant whistleblowers,  a strange phenomena is happening around the world: previously well-behaved children are killing their family members, with no apparent provocation and no remorse. Hesketh feels like the situations must somehow be connected. Can he find out what is going on before its too late? Will Freddy be lost to the madness? Is there anything anyone can do?

I literally read the first 3 chapters of this book one day, and then read the rest in one sitting. It was chilling but so well written, and I just had to keep reading to find out what happened next.
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Rasputin’s Shadow

Rasputin’s Shadow
Raymond Khoury.

I do love a good spy novel, and Khoury is one of the best out there! I’ve read all of his books. I recall his past novels as being along the lines of  cracking codes, solving puzzles, and ancient conspiracy theories. This one was a little less puzzle and more straight spycraft: double agents, top secret reports, crime syndicates and blackmail- all the good stuff!

Instead of harking back to the mysteries of the ancients, Rasputins Shadow visits the recent past: Russia in the early 1900s, right before the royal family was killed in the Revolution. A fictional sidekick of Rasputin leaves diaries that are later discovered by his grandson, Solokov. The diaries tell the grandson how to develop a very dangerous technology. Cue the spies, defectors, Korean gangs, and car chases.

The key to the story (both past and present) is a dangerous weaponized technology. I don’t want to give away what it is, but I do wish it had been explained a little more a little earlier in the book. Copious hints were dropped, but I had to basically re-read the historical portions after the details were made more clear.

Russians have traditionally been our primary nemesis in spy novels. After the end of the Cold War, there was an increase in other antagonists: Middle Eastern and Chinese, primarily. Its interesting to me that suddenly spy novels are focusing on Russia again.

You might like: Ghost Man, Hobbs. Romanov Cross, Marsello. Amber Room, Berry. also Rollins and Kuzneski.

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Dollface

Dollface
Renee Rosen

Vera wants to live the glamorous life of a flapper in Roaring 20s Chicago. She loves clothes, dancing, drinking and most of all- handsome, dangerous men. But the truth is, Vera is a poor Jewish girl working two jobs just to make ends meet. She lives with her best friend Evelyn in a run-down boarding house and skips meals because she can’t afford to eat. At night in speakeasies, Vera looks good enough to get the nickname “Dollface” but the truth is, her stockings are painted on.
Vera thinks she’s incredibly lucky when she starts dating not one but two handsome men. Shep takes her on expensive dates, buys her gifts, and treats her well. Tony disappears for days at a time but he and Vera always reconnect with sizzling chemistry. Vera feels less lucky when she discovers that both of her lovers are gangsters- not only that, but they belong to rival gangs. At first, in horror, she breaks up with both of them. But she misses the romance as well as the fun times.
Vera has to find out the hard way that there is a dark side to the glamorous life, especially when you’re funding it with a bootlegger’s purse. Vera ends up paying a far higher price than she ever thought she would for loving her two gangsters.

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You might like: Vixen, Ingenue and Diva by Jillian Larkin

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The President’s Club

The Presidents Club
Nancy Gibbs
Michael Duffy

Before reading this book, I assumed the president’s club was more of a concept that a reality- a way for presidents past and present to connect, but not an official club. Turns out I was wrong.  It was founded by former presidents Truman and Hoover at the inauguration of Eisenhower. There is an official clubhouse, an allowance, and even a top-secret newsletter.
Men who have held the top office in this country are in a unique position to advise one another and influence politics even after they leave office. As presidents live longer, their time as ex-presidents becomes more of an opportunity for them. This book tells the stories of these men and the unique bond they share.

To be completely honest, I did not read all the pages in this book. There are just some presidents that are more interesting to me than others. The authors’ extensive research and produced a thick book packed with details. When the pages were about presidents from my grandparents era, I skimmed. When those details were about the presidents I remember in my lifetime (Bush Sr, Clinton, Bush Jr, Obama) I was fascinated. The post-office relationship of the two Bushes with Clinton has always kind of amazed me, given all the years of antagonism between them. But, as this book illustrates over and over, being an ex-president becomes more important than politics. The things presidents have in common vastly outweigh their differences.
You don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy this book. I learned a lot from it. But you might be a history buff if you read every page.

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The Last First Day

The Last First Day
Carrie Brown

The Last First Day is a love story. Not a story about new love, or falling in love, but about what love looks like over a lifetime.
Ruth and Peter are in their 80s. Peter has spent decades as the headmaster at the Derry School for boys. Ruth has never had her own career but was proud to be the headmaster’s wife- offering hospitality to the faculty, comfort to sick students, and generally mothering the boys. Now, Ruth is looking to the future with apprehension and the past with regret. The one thing she is sure of is the love she and Peter have built over the years.

Then, the book does flash back to Ruth and Peter when they first met. Their history sheds more light on their choices and regrets. It also makes helps explain why their love has been so lasting.

The love story of this book is beautiful. Our culture mostly focuses on falling in love, and not what it takes to stay in love- or what love looks like when its old and grey. For that alone, I would recommend this book.
In addition, the writing in this book is FANTASTIC. Brown uses very vivid descriptions that make scenes leap off the page. She uses words judiciously- a single detail tells a whole scene. I would read this book again (and I’m sure I will) for the writing alone.

Walk into any bookstore and love stories are a dime a dozen. But a book like this is a rare and pleasing find. No question its making the list of my Top 10 novels this year.

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You might like: The Notebook, N. Sparks. Water For Elephants,  S. Gruen. Three Stages of Amazement, C. Edgarian.

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I Am Malala

I Am Malala
Malala Yousufzai

Malala is a teenage Pakistani girl who was shot in the head by the Taliban because she stood up for education rights for girls and women. Miraculously, she survived. She recieved treatment in England, where she now lives with her family. She has gone on to achieve global fame, including being nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, and continues to speak out for education.

Of course I knew all this from the news, and actually didn’t plan to read the book, but I picked it up and next thing I knew, I was in chapter 3…so of course I had to bring the book home.

What struck me most about Malala’s story was how she came to be an education advocate in the first place. Her father was a teacher and activist in Pakistan. The school he founded grew large, altho not necessarily prosperous because of all the scholarships he gave away. When the Taliban came to Pakistan and started enforcing Islamic extremism, he lead activist groups and spoke out in the media. He refused to sucumb to pressure and threats, and kept his school open to girls. He treated his daughter Malala like an equal to his sons, which helped develop her freedom and confidence, as well as her love of learning.
Malala’s mother played a role that was less obvious but equally important. She was a housewife, not an activist- but its clear that she enjoyed more freedom and influence than many women in her culture. She had a role in family financial descisions and opened her home to many family members in need. Without her support, her husband would not have been as successful.
Malala obviously is a person of extraordinary courage, but its clear that she was rooted in a strong loving family. Her love of learning was instilled from both parents all her life.

The tone of this book’s writing was very inviting. Malala had a co-author, so I’m not sure how much of the style was hers, but it felt like sitting down and talking to a friend. Malala’s voice came through as direct and uncomplicated. She offered explanation and background for many things that would be unfamiliar to a Western reader, but the story doesn’t slow down. Overall, I found the book somewhat charming.
Malala shares little details of her home life and family to paint a vivid picture of her life. She is quick to point out her failings, including her worst subjects in school, her disagreements with friends and fights with her brothers.

In the end, the book invites us to see Malala not as an extraordinary person, but as an ordinary person who has had extraordinary experience and opportunity. She says she doesn’t want to be known as “Malala the girl who was shot in the head” but as “Malala the girl who stood up for education.” Thanks to the teaaching of her father, the support of her mother, and the story in this book- I think we will all remember Malala that way.

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You might like: And the Mountains Echoed, K. Hosseini. Kabul Beauty School, D. Rodriguez.

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Grim Company

Grim Company
Luke Scull

Working in a bookstore, I am often asked “I just finished GRR Martin’s Game of Thrones books.. what do I read now?” I have two go-to answers: Brent Weeks and Mark Lawrence. But I might just have a new author to add to the pile, and that is Luke Scull.
The cover of The Grim Company caught my eye first, so I picked it up and opened it at random. I don’t remember what scene I read, but two pages was enough to convice me I needed to read the book.

Centuries ago, the mages fought the gods- and won. The 13 old ones were vanquished and the mages (in typical victor form) promptly began to wage war on one another. By the time of The Grim Company, the land is divided among powerful and antagonistic magelords. Dorminia is ruled by a particularly despotic wizard named Salazar. Currently the greatest threat to his kingdom is the White Lady who rules Thelassa.
The Grim Company is notable for having several narrators on all sides of the conflict. Cole is a young member of a rebal band (the Shard) in Dorminica. He imagines himself a hero thanks to his magic blade- if only he didn’t keep losing said blade thanks to his lack of fighting prowess. Cole also dreams of winning over his fellow rebel Sasha, but she proves a smart warrior in her own right. Brodar Kayne is a battle-hardened Highlander. Along with his compatriot Jerek aka The Wolf, he fights to overthrow Salazar and ends up adventuring with Cole. There are ship battles,  mine explosions and sword-fights aplently.
Eremul is a wizard who survived Salazar’s culling of magic-users at the price of his legs. He has played both sides for so long that, given the chance to strike a decisive blow, he is no longer sure where his loyalties lie. Barandas is the chief of Salazar’s Augmentors, an elite guard given magic weapons and protection.  Yllandris is a female mage who serves one of the highland warlords but dreams of becoming his queen.

The Grim Company first drew me in with its snarky writing. Then the characters kept me turning the pages. None of them are perfect, but all of them are somehow relatable. Even Barandas (solidly in the camp of bad guys) is a man who loves his wife and wants to serve his country.
Of course, battles and adventures abound. Scull takes a turn into horror with zombies, tentacled killers, and horrible dragons. There is mining magic from the corpses of the gods. There are old scores settled among highlanders. Feasts, looting and treachery abound. In short, this is a good fanatasy book and a solid beginning.

I liked the depth of the characters, and how none of them were as good as they saw themselves- or as bad as others saw them. I liked the strong female characters (in every role from rebel to sorceress to queen.) I liked the fast paced action. I could’ve used a little more clarification on some of the backstory, but you don’t develop an entire mythos in one book.

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In short, thank goodness this book is being sold as the first of a trilogy because I want to read more! I feel like this author could be the next  Brent Weeks or Mark Lawrence- the next heir to the line of GRR Martin- and I really hope he doesn’t disappoint.

You might like: (do I really need to say it at this point?!) GRR Martin. Brent Weeks. Mark Lawrence.