Reviews by Kelli Robinson

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I See You
by Clare Mackintosh
London Cyber Thriller (3/18/2017)
A thriller that highlights the sinister side of technology when in the wrong person's hands. Ties old school journalism to the Internet in a creepy but totally plausible deadly cat and mouse game.
News of the World
by Paulette Jiles
Quiet and Powerful (9/19/2016)
After finishing News of the World yesterday, I was thrilled to learn that it made the longlist for this year's National Book Award for Fiction. What a justified honor! Captain Kidd and Johanna will linger for some time in my recollections. As the unlikely duo arrived at their destination, I felt real heartache for the futures of the old retired Army Captain and the orphan/former captive. All that emotion in only 200 or so pages! As any good historical novel should do, it also piqued my interest in Texas history following the Civil War and the phenomena of children captured and adopted by Native American tribes. I plan to pass this book along to my mother who currently lives in the Texas Hill Country which plays a prominent role in the story albeit quite unrecognizable but strangely familiar to today's Texas Hill Country. I highly recommend this novel and look forward to exploring more by Paulette Jiles.
What Lies Between Us
by Nayomi Munaweera
Dark and Beautifully Written Tragic Story (12/17/2015)
I knew that I would be emotionally wrecked by this novel from the story of the moon bear in the Prologue. Read those first two pages for a virtual map of the dark and sad story to come - a foreboding that lasts for the next 300 pages. You know how this one is going to end before you start, and every page provides clues for the who, what, where, and why. The only thing you can't do is stop it from happening. Munaweera writes with raw and beautiful descriptions, and drags you along kicking and screaming to a bitter end. Although I have not read A Little Life yet by Hanya Yanagihara, I suspect those that loved that book will love this book. This story will also instigate wonderful discussions among book groups. Bravo!
The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
by Anna North
Examination of the Tortured Artist (10/7/2015)
I appreciate a story where the central character is a tortured artist - here Sophie Stark is a tortured but extremely gifted filmmaker. I have known tortured artists in my life (some more prolific in their art than others) and I fundamentally understand how adversity breeds creativity. Such tortured souls can also be moody, unpredictable, and often unlikeable. Simultaneously, their magnetism draws people into their circles like moths to a flame.

Late in the book, a boyfriend of one of those moths warns that: "Sophie's heading for something bad, and if you're the one that's with her, that's going to be on you." It doesn't play out exactly that way, but the warning about Sophie is spot on. I try not to judge a book by the likability of its main character. I did not like Sophie. I did not really feel any empathy for Sophie, and I did not at any point put Sophie on a pedestal. I did, however, like the author's treatment and approach and writing. This book hooked me and I looked forward to sitting down with it and its characters each time I read. Anna North may or may not be a tortured artist herself, but she definitely gets the internal conflict and the difficulty of these personalities and the often tragic results when you are a moth drawn to their flame.
Still Life Las Vegas
by James Sie
Quirky, Strange, Sometimes-Confusing Debut Novel (5/28/2015)
This quirky, strange, sometimes-confusing debut novel doesn't seem to know what it wants to be when it grows up. I agree with others that the writing is good and the reading experience was definitely interesting, but I ultimately found the book to be quite dark and sad with little resolution for the characters or the reader. James Sie stuffed way too many concepts, themes, and plots into this one novel between the family curse, issues of race, adoption, competitive accordion playing, Liberace, mythology, coming of age as a homosexual, mental health issues, immigration, Las Vegas, and Greek culture. Because of this breadth, the depth was missing and I was disappointed that characters who seemed quite intriguing were left relatively undeveloped. I suspect that this novel could have been excellent with a bit more focus. The pages here and there in graphic novel format further added to the chaos. Maybe if the entire book had been written as a graphic novel with the wonderful illustrations of Sungyoon Choi, the unbelievability and expansive nature of the story would have seemed at home.
Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend: A Novel
by Matthew Dicks
Creative Narrator Leaves Me in the Middle of the Road (3/8/2015)
The uncertainty of what this book is might be one of the reasons why I struggled to love this book, its narrator, its plot, and its characters. I questioned several times whether I was truly the intended audience for this book. With that said, I read the book quickly. As I finished, though, I imagined that the only folks I would likely recommend this book to would be middle school readers or parents looking for a book to read to their elementary school child. When I discovered that the author was, in fact, a fifth grade teacher, it made perfect sense to me. Although I know many adults have read this book, even as part of a book club, the book is written (intentionally) in short, choppy sentences from the unique view point of an imaginary friend of a third grader. Kudos to Matthew Dicks for the creation of the creative narrator! But the straddling between reality and fantasy was a tough sell for me - I would have been a much happier reader if Oswald had not intervened in the plot line. I wanted to see just Budo and Max figure this problem out by themselves. In the end, this book left me in the middle of the road.
He Wanted the Moon: The Madness and Medical Genius of Dr. Perry Baird, and His Daughter's Quest to Know Him
by Mimi Baird with Eve Claxton
Author's Quest to Know Her Father (2/9/2015)
I felt immediate empathy for Mimi Baird and her desire to know the physician father who "disappeared" from her life when she was 6 years old, and was dead 15 years later at the age of 55. Despite only having a few years with him, there is an indelible bond between father and daughter, a sense of loss that haunts Mimi throughout her life, and the writing and publication of this book was her "quest to know him." The book includes a fascinating and substantial manuscript written by her father in the 1940s which describes in excruciating detail his (mis)treatment as a manic depressive by a state mental institution. Dr. Perry Baird's account swings from the voice of a brilliant Harvard-educated physician examining his own illness ("the brutalities one encounters in state and city psychopathic hospitals must be the by-product of the fear and superstition with which mentally ill patients are regarded") to the voice of a seriously delusional man in the throes of his manic-depression. The book as a whole, however, feels a bit piecemeal and incomplete. In the end, I was left wanting more even though I knew that Mimi Baird had given us everything she had - it just wasn't that much.
Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story
by Mac McClelland
A Journalist's Powerful Account of Her Struggle with PTSD (1/2/2015)
"No one says that unresolved trauma can kill you. If anyone did, maybe people would take it more seriously. Serious as cancer." Mac McClelland is an American journalist and author that reports on domestic and international human rights stories. She has seen and heard a lot of nasty stuff through the course of her work, but it was a particularly violent sexual incident that she personally witnessed on the streets of Haiti in 2010 that ultimately led to her diagnosis of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Mac adamantly refuses to describe that Haiti incident in detail for the reader, but instead focuses her memoir on the physical and mental after affects that she has now come to realize may be with her for a lifetime. Towards the end of the book, Mac spends some time contemplating secondary traumatic stress disorder (STSD) which can affect spouses, children, and caretakers. This was an important question for Mac because she also fell in love on that fateful trip to Haiti. My question: Is it possible to exhibit minor symptoms of STSD from just reading a raw, well-researched account of someone else's PTSD? I literally had to put this book down at times when my pounding headache and racing heart made it impossible to proceed. For me, that is evidence of the strength and impact of this book.
Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel
Too Much Literary, Not Enough Dystopian (1/2/2015)
Station Eleven has received a lot of hype and accolades, and was listed on several "Best of 2014" lists. I do not disagree that this was a beautifully written and original story, but I suspect it will not stay with me - and hence, it earns that middle of the road rating of 3 stars. At the start of the book, the post-apocalyptic tale evoked fond memories of The Road. Others have made that same comparison to Cormac McCarthy but, for me, the comparison is short-lived. This book is literary dystopian fiction with a heavy emphasis on the literary and a marked dilution of the dystopian. That might not sound so bad, but these traits make the book bland, and the ending unresolved and unremarkable.
Calling Me Home
by Julie Kibler
Debut Novel Tackles Race Relations and Unexpected Friendships (12/17/2014)
Julie Kibler's debut novel tackles many themes common to Southern fiction: race relations; interracial marriage; family secrets; and unexpected friendship. The story is split between a present-day road trip from Arlington, Texas, to Cincinnati for 30-something Dorrie and almost-90 Isabelle, and a flashback to Isabelle's coming of age in the 1930s. Of particular interest is an explanation of the "sundown" law in Isabelle's small Kentucky town which prohibited blacks in town after dark. Interestingly, these laws were in no one limited to just the South but were found as far west as California in the 1930s. I like the way this book compared and contrasted race relations between Isabelle's "then" and Dorrie and Isabelle's "now," but - at the same time - there was something lacking for me and I never felt fully engaged. Despite this sentiment, I believe Julie Kibler is a fine writer and I look forward to reading her future books.
Red Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man's Fight for Justice
by Bill Browder
Hedge Fund Manager to Human Rights Activist (12/17/2014)
This is the story of one man's 25-year journey from Stanford Business School to ultra-successful hedge fund manager to human rights activist. This is also the story of one particularly brave Russian lawyer who made the ultimate sacrifice in his fight for justice. Although (in my opinion) no government is completely free of corruption, Bill Browder lays out in excruciating and heartbreaking detail the extent of corruption, lawlessness, and human rights abuses in today's Russia. Browder strongly believes that Vladimir Putin or members of his regime will have him killed one day. Once you read this book, you will understand why Browder's fear is very much justified, and why we should all be worried.
Cinnamon and Gunpowder
by Eli Brown
Pirate Story for Foodies (12/4/2014)
If you enjoy pirate stories for foodies, with a subtle romance thrown in for good measure, this is the book for you. Not sure that I can name another book like it. My reading challenge was the incredibly unusual vocabulary of author Eli Brown coupled with my dire lack of seafaring knowledge (i.e., mizzen, bulwark, forecastle, windlass). With that said, Julie Powell's endorsement describes this book as a "great beach read," and I agree that the tone is light and airy despite the swashbuckling violence peppered throughout. Not only was the action packed, but the author fully developed his main characters: Owen Wedgwood and Mad Hannah Mabbot. Great names, huh? At times, this book felt akin to the Pirates of the Caribbean movies - a bit of a parody of the pirate life - but, then again, who takes pirate stories too seriously anyway. Fun read for me.
The Fault in Our Stars
by John Green
No Emotional Investment For Me (11/25/2014)
This was my first John Green book and, prior to this book, I had no other experience with "cancer kids" in literature. I expected the story to be really sad but...it really wasn't. I generally appreciate snarkiness and Veronica Mars-like intelligence and quick wit in teenagers and I got a lot of that dialogue so that was welcome. I guess what was missing for me was a deeper connection to the characters. Maybe all that snarkiness kept me at arm's length and, although I was moved at some level by the struggles each kid faced, I wasn't emotionally invested so...no tears for me.
Divergent: Divergent Trilogy
by Veronica Roth
If You Liked The Hunger Games, Read This Book (11/25/2014)
When I stumbled upon The Hunger Games trilogy, I reluctantly read the first book despite the genre being one I generally don't tend towards but fell in love. It felt different and I was open to something different. I searched for recommendations on the next book to read and the lovers of The Hunger Games consistently recommended Divergent. They were right! I read it in less than a week and was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn't a regurgitation of The Hunger Games but something else fresh and new. I'm wondering if I'm now a true convert to this YA dystopian genre.
The Brief History of the Dead
by Kevin Brockmeier
Intriguing Premise (11/25/2014)
This was a reread for me. The premise of the book is so intriguing: a story split between a city of the "living dead" who only remain in the city as long as someone on Earth holds that person in their memory and a wildlife researcher in the Antarctica who may be the only person on Earth who has not yet succumbed to a man-made virus. On my second reading, I did a better job of tracking all the myriad connections between the many living dead and the still-alive wildlife researcher - however tangential those connections might be. What did not happen, however, is a change in my ultimate opinion for the book. I was definitely satisfied but nothing more.
11/22/63: A Novel
by Stephen King
Spectacular Ending (11/25/2014)
What a spectacular ending to an awesome book. In his Afterword, Stephen King gives credit for the ending to his son, Joe Hill. Kudos to Joe! After 1000 plus pages of reading, I expected to be ready to end this story but, instead, I was thoroughly disappointed to finish. Despite that disappointment, I was thrilled and emotionally touched with the way the novel closes. I have to admit that I had pigeon-holed Stephen King as a certain kind of author - one that I did not generally gravitate to but...this novel broke all previous preconceptions of King's writing for me. The ride down this rabbit hole of a book filled with history and love and unforgettable characters is magical.
Swamplandia!: A Novel
by Karen Russell
Disjointed (11/25/2014)
I just didn't like it. My boyfriend and I read it together and we both felt a real sense of disappointment. Did we just not "get" the hype? Were we missing something? I felt disjointed most of the time like it was really two novels spliced together - one trying to work its way under the magical realism genre and the other a sort of coming of age humorous one. The result for me was muddled, and maybe I just don't like magical realism or maybe Russell was working just a little too hard at making this a quirky novel. It hit me hardest when I realized what was happening to Ava....and didn't care. Yup, I just didn't care what really happened to any of these characters and, in the end, that's not the way to endear the reader. Oh well.
The Kitchen House: A Novel
by Kathleen Grissom
Too Much Sensationalism, Zero Subtlety (11/25/2014)
Sometimes you just don't agree with the majority and that is definitely the case with this book as I gave it only 2 stars. Maybe this book is a victim of circumstance since I'm reading it right on the heels of Gone With the Wind or maybe it is just not as well-written as I'd hoped. If the Enquirer or Star magazines from the grocery store checkout lanes were reincarnated as a novel, this would be that novel. There was so much sensationalism and zero subtlety and this meant that preposterous plot lines hit you over the head without mercy. I couldn't wait to get to the end and didn't really care how all of those plots resolved.
The Goldfinch: A Novel
by Donna Tartt
Big Fat Book Worth Reading (11/25/2014)
Although I agree with many other readers that the ending is less than satisfying, I highly recommend this book for its adventure and characters. I'm not sure how much I "cared" about the main character, Theo, but I was more than curious to find out his next move and that drove me to finish this big fat book quickly. I have no doubt that the judges for the Pulitzer made the right decision when awarding this book the Pulitzer Prize. It definitely is the best book that I read in 2013.
Arguably: Essays
by Christopher Hitchens
A Thought-Provoking Literary Challenge (11/25/2014)
This was not my first foray into the work of Hitchens. I read God is Not Great as well as several Vanity Fair articles prior to this set of essays. This book, however, illuminated the huge gap in intellect between Hitchens and myself. Not a surprising discovery but rather humbling. Fortunately, Hitchens himself made some progress in closing that gap as I progressed through his 100 essays from start to finish. Because nearly all of the literary references in the first third of the book were lost on me, it almost felt like I was reading a book written in a different language but that slowly dissipated as I moved along. For the casual reader of Hitchens, be prepared for a literary challenge but don't let that challenge stop you from getting to know this prolific writer and his thought-provoking opinions on literature, politics and religion.
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