Reviews by Kelli Robinson

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Clock Dance: A Novel
by Anne Tyler
Beautifully Gentle Story of a Woman's Life (7/22/2018)
Sometimes a book finds you right where you are and turns out to be the perfect book to read in that very moment. Clock Dance was just what the reading doctor ordered. Here's what I needed and here's what I got: a beautifully gentle story of a woman's life with its inevitable ups and downs. Anne Tyler tackles difficult subjects with grace and amazing insight sprinkled with humor and a true understanding of human nature. I saw myself and my family reflected in the familiar characters of this novel which prompted frequent chuckles and "notes to self" along the way. What a pleasant reading journey!
Force of Nature: A Novel
by Jane Harper
Things Can Go Wrong in the Woods (11/2/2017)
I had the pleasure of reading Jane Harper's debut, The Dry, earlier this year but Force of Nature (book 2 in the Aaron Falk series) was even better. A multi-day corporate hiking and camping trip sounds scary enough but the drama is definitely intensified by the isolated bushland, the family drama back home, the history of serial killer in the exact same location, and the strained relationships among the co-workers. Federal Police Agent Aaron Falk is still charming and there were hints of The Dry throughout as Aaron struggled to understand his relationship with his now-deceased father. I will definitely continue this series.
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.
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.
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.
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 Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration
by Isabel Wilkerson
Great Study of the American South (11/25/2014)
As a Yankee transplant to the South who has lived in Birmingham, Alabama, for nearly 20 years, I found this book fascinating. From the minute I arrived in Alabama, I was acutely aware of the race relations issues still lingering and I found myself studying the history of Alabama especially as it relates to the civil rights movement. One visit to the impressive Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, and its Jim Crow installation including a "White Only" water fountain leaves a lasting impression especially when you walk out the front door and find yourself standing in front of the 16th Street Baptist Church where 4 little girls were murdered in 1963 by a church bomb. Kudos to Ms. Wilkerson and her extensive research which is so eloquently set forth in this book. If I could make this book required reading in every American middle or high school, I would. We may have come a long way since Jim Crow but we still have so far to go and this is the kind of book that opens up the important dialogue necessary between the races to keep the improvement of race relations front and center.
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.
On Black Sisters Street: A Novel
by Chika Unigwe
Be Transported to Nigeria and Belgium (11/25/2014)
I discovered this book while looking for a Nigerian author for a reading challenge. As with any book set outside of the United States, I liked being transported to two different countries: Nigeria and Belgium, neither of which I had ever visited. I also liked the structure of the book as it moved from the present in Belgium and the mystery surrounding the murder of a fellow sex worker back to the pasts of four different women and their paths from Africa to Europe and to their current trade. This book is dark and the naivete of the characters seems a bit unrealistic at times, but I found myself moving through the story quickly. Men are the aggressors throughout the book but that part of the story seems based on an all-to-often reality for many women in many parts of the world.
A Discovery of Witches: A Novel
by Deborah E. Harkness
Good Contemporary Paranormal Fiction (11/25/2014)
I waffled back and forth between 3 stars and 4 stars and settled ultimately on 3 stars. I prefer the Anne Rice world of witches and vampires to the Stephenie Meyer or Charlaine Harris worlds. I like my paranormal universes to be dark and I don't mind a story steeped in history - even history of science. With that said, I found the Deborah Harkness world of witches and vampires to be closer to Anne Rice albeit much lighter but pleasantly heavy on the history. I suspect I may enjoy All Souls Trilogy #2, Shadow of Night, even better as it looks like it will be even heavier on the history. After having become convinced that all contemporary paranormal fiction was a lost cause, I'm happy to have discovered Matthew, Diana and the work of Deborah Harkness.
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.
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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