Review: The Intern’s Handbook

The Intern's Handbook, Shane KuhnIf you work a company that hires interns, think carefully: can you remember their names? Probably not. And why should you? Interns are there to fetch coffee, deliver packages, and do all the grunt work no self-respecting salaried employee would.

And that’s just the way they like it. An invisible intern is ignored, underestimated — and deadly.

Welcome to HR, Inc., a “placement agency” that sends assassins-for-hire to take high-profile executives who have stuck their noses where they don’t belong. The Intern’s Handbook is a field guide to this cat-and-mouse world written by its stealthiest inhabitant: John Lago.

The book you’re holding is part how-to, part confessional of John’s final mission at HR, Inc. He’s going against some truly dangerous people, including a sexy FBI agent named Alice who’s trying to take down his target. Will John prevail, or will his final mission mean his death?

Wonderfully done

The Intern’s Handbook promises to be a thriller, and it more than delivers. It’s perfectly paced, filled with unexpected twists that kept me on my toes, and has the perfect amount of action, snark, and witty banter.

John’s a boy in man’s clothing, a sociopath trying to end up a good person. The novel’s first person perspective puts you right in the middle of his messed-up mind, and it’s fun seeing how that mind ticks.

I still didn’t like it (SPOILERS)

Like most readers, I generally only dislike a book when it’s poorly written or structured, or is a genre that I don’t enjoy. Shane Kuhn’s novel has the distinction of being one of the few books I’ve read that is genuinely perfectly executed…that I ended up not liking. And it’s all because of those last few chapters.

I’m a happy endings kind of gal. Although many would consider John’s survival and discovery of his true parentage a happy thing, I find Bob and Alice’s trickery and betrayal too much to swallow. I know it’s all set up to prove that Bob is your basic asshole, but I feel like that’s something I already knew — why go to such extreme lengths to restate the point?

In the end, I just want the characters in the books I read to be happy. The Intern’s Handbook does end on a bit of an optimistic note, but I get the feeling that John spends the rest of his life adrift, rich, but purposeless and friendless. What kind of life is that?

I would still recommend this book to thriller fans, but be prepared for an unexpected — and somewhat unfinished — ending.

What do you think of happy endings? Do you need them to enjoy a book, or can you take ‘em or leave ‘em?

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Review: The Undertaking of Lily Chen

The Undertaking of Lily Chen, Danica NovogorodoffWhen Deshi Li’s brother dies unmarried, custom dictates that he must have a wife to keep him company in the afterlife — and it’s Deshi’s responsibility to find an eligible corpse before the funeral.

Unfortunately the only girl Deshi can find is very much alive. Lily Chen thinks Deshi is her ticket out of a forced marriage; Deshi only brings her along because he plans to kill her.

Things get complicated, however, when Deshi finds himself falling in love with the incipient corpse bride. He must fulfill his family responsibility, but will he be able to bring himself to kill Lily?

Good, but not great

I’m ambivalent about The Undertaking of Lily Chen, but not for the reasons I thought. I don’t love graphic novels in general — the supplied visuals are often amazing, but they get in the way of what I’ve got going on in my own mind.

This was the case for author/illustrator Danica Novgorodoff’s graphic novel, but the bigger issue was that I didn’t really enjoy the story itself either.

Deshi’s a weakling and Lily is a pill. Fortunately they both grow some during the course of the book, but that doesn’t make up for the fact that every other character is a bad guy. The corpse stealer. Lily’s father. Even Deshi’s brother was a jerk.

The person I found myself rooting for the most was Lily, and she wasn’t the main character. She’s strong and smart, which made Deshi look even weaker by comparison.

The novel was good, but not great. If you’re really into graphic novels, it’s a nice, visually pleasing read. Otherwise I’d recommend looking elsewhere.

Historical tidbits

Deshi’s family’s desire to find a “corpse bride” for their deceased son is a spin on the concept of the “ghost marriage,” in which one or both of the married partners are deceased.

In this tradition (which occurs most often in China, although it’s been discovered happening in India, Sudan, and even western Europe) a participant who is alive generally stays alive — they become a member of the deceased person’s family.

In some cases, however, only a corpse will do. And since China outlawed the entire ghost marriage tradition just after WWII, it all happens on the black market. As recently as 2013, people have been arrested for digging up and selling corpse brides.

While I think it’s reprehensible to dig up a deceased woman and sell her body, I find the idea of the tradition rather sweet — whether it’s a man or woman deciding to wed their deceased fiance, or a mourning family wanting their child to have a companion for eternity.

I’m not sure I would do such a thing, but I can understand why others do.

(I read this book as a part of the 2015 Monthly Motif Challenge. March’s challenge was to read a book in a genre that you’ve never tried or that you’re least familiar with.)

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Review: As You Wish

As You Wish, Cary Elwes with Joe LaydenAlthough it didn’t do well during its original 1987 release, the film The Princess Bride has been a cult classic for almost 30 years. It’s been replayed countless times and quoted even more than that (seriously, when is it not the right time to quote this film?). I myself have watched the film about a zillion times, as well as the read the book by William Goldman on which it is based.

As a closet exhibitionist, I’ve always liked peeking “behind the curtain” and learning the stories on the other side. As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of the Princess Bride gave me just such a chance.

Just lovely

As You Wish is a memoir by Cary Elwes, who starred as sweet, brave Wesley. It’s a record of his memories of reading for the role, filming, becoming friends with the cast and crew, and his astonishment at the impact the film has had on American culture.

The book also includes reflections from Robin Wright, Wallace Shawn, Billy Crystal, Christopher Guest, and Mandy Patinkin, as well as author and screenwriter William Goldman, producer Norman Lear, and director Rob Reiner.

Much like The Princess Bride, Elwes’ book has a little of everything: humor, danger, sword fighting, and above all, love. His book leaves you with exactly the same feeling as does the film: the awareness that these people care for each other, and that love is the greatest gift in the world.

Pick up a copy of this book as soon as you can. If you haven’t seen the film, do so right now. And have fun storming the castle!

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Review: The House on Tradd Street

The House on Tradd Street, Karen WhiteMelanie Middleton hates old houses. They’re money pits filled with all kind of unwanted guests: roaches, termites…ghosts. She prefers to ignore these crumbling ruins and their opaque inhabitants. So it’s for obvious reasons that becoming the owner of a haunted heap on Tradd Street is cause for concern.

Figuring out how to afford renovations soon becomes the least of Melanie’s worries. The house on Tradd Street has many secrets, and not all of its inhabitants want those secrets revealed. With the help of her friends — including the spirit of a woman long dead and a handsome writer looking for Confederate secrets — Melanie must root out the poisonous presence in her home before it’s too late for them all.

What’s not to love?

Ever since my trip to Charleston last year, I’ve gone gaga over any stories set in that city. It’s a melting pot of cultures and religions and history, and I’ll get back there any way I can — including through reading.

The House on Tradd Street is the first in Karen White’s Tradd Street series, and it’s wonderful. Rather than the grimy, flat settings I encounter in books like D is for Deadbeat, White’s novel puts me smack in the middle of sunny Charleston, where history hangs from the trees like Spanish moss.

I’ve always been fascinated by ghosts, so this series is right up my alley. The mystery and tension build slowly, with moments of silliness replaced by terror and close calls. And of course there’s a love triangle, which White sets up so nicely that the reader — like Melanie — doesn’t know who can be trusted and who can’t.

It’s particularly fun seeing Melanie grow and change. She keeps her baggage and emotions hidden away behind stark white walls and modern polished chrome, and in the end the book is as much about renovating her soul as the home she’s inherited.

The House on Tradd Street is perfect for those who love ghost stories and the South, history and mystery. And the best part? There’s three more books in the series!

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Review: Déjà Dead

Deja Dead, Kathy ReichsDr. Temperance Brennan believes in justice, particularly for those who cannot speak for themselves. As the resident forensic anthropologist at Montreal’s Laboratorie de Médecine Légale, it’s her job to identify skeletal remains, giving them names and causes of death.

When a set of neatly dismembered female remains is discovered stashed in plastic bags, Temperance uncovers a frightening pattern: a history of similar murders spread out over almost a decade.

As Temperance digs deeper into the case, she brings herself and those closest to her ever nearer to an incomprehensibly evil foe — one who will do anything to remain undiscovered.

A case of clashing expectations

Oh boy. I really wanted — and expected — to love author Kathy Reichs’ Déjà Dead, and the fact that I didn’t may be my own fault.

For those of you not obsessed with FOX’s series Bones (starring Emily Deschanel and David Boreanaz), allow me to share this factoid: the television show’s Dr. Brennan is based off Reichs’ novels.

When you read that a book is “from the author who inspired the FOX television drama Bones,” it tends to set certain expectations. I incorrectly assumed that the two would have more in common than the character’s name and unflinching belief in justice.

Bones is by no means a sitcom, but it does incorporate moments of levity, particularly about Temperance’s lack of social skills and her team’s interactions. None of this was present in Déjà Dead, and the novel really could have used it.

In contrast to the show, Déjà Dead is incredibly graphic and very serious.

Thoughts on the novel

It’s difficult to decide if I didn’t like Reichs’ novel because it differed so widely from my expectations, or because it’s not enjoyable all on its own. Upon reflection I think the former didn’t help, but that the latter is the truer reason.

Once again an author has beelined directly to creating a sexually violent criminal, my least favorite and something I’m admittedly a little over-sensitive about — at this point it’s almost a trope, and I think is used often as a way to sell more books and titillate those who read them. I don’t mean to be glib, but what’s wrong with an old-fashioned robbery gone wrong or a random beating?

I did like Reichs’ writing style, particularly her descriptions of locations and things.

When summer arrives in Montreal it flounces in like a rumba dancer: all ruffles and bright cotton, with flashing thighs and sweat-slicked skin. It is a ribald celebration that begins in June and continues until September.

Unfortunately the novel falls into the same trap as does Katia Fox’s The Copper Sign: the author did a lot of research on a topic and decided to put all of it into the book.

Déjà Dead has pages of descriptions of saw marks, bone structures, and other medical ephemera. It’s hard to provide enough information so that the plot and deaths make sense without overloading the reader, and I think Reichs’ novel leaned a little more towards overload.

The long and short of it

Some of my dislike of this book has to do with my own misplaced expectations, as well as my general mood; however, the writing itself is just as much to blame. It was a good mystery, I suppose, but too sexually violent and heavy on the exposition.

For those of you who do think you’d like the series, you’re in luck: the 18th book, Speaking in Bones, is set for release in September 2015.

Anyone read this novel and think I’m completely crazy? Drop a comment below!

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