Book Review: THE LAST ONE, a blurred line between reality and reality television

I read The Last One by Alexandra Olivia about two years ago, and I still think about it, so it seemed a perfect book to share for #throwbookthursday.

One of twelve contestants in a reality game show, Zoo navigates checkpoints in a remote wilderness area. But as she completes the challenges marked with her assigned color, she encounters widespread devastation that she forces herself to believe is constructed as obstacles to the contestants. The alternative would be unbearable.

Early in the The Last One, the nearsighted Zoo loses her glasses, and after that, her vision betrays her as much as her reality. As someone who is extremely blind without glasses or contacts, the idea of navigating a challenging wilderness without sight is harrowing!

I thoroughly enjoyed the world created by Alexandra Olivia and the questions it raised about loyalty, obedience, the role of the media (and reality television) as well as the challenges and necessity of perseverance in the face of mounting despair.

Book Review: FISHNET, exploring the world of sex work in the context of a missing persons case

Kirstin Innes

Happy U.S. Publication Day to Fishnet!

Six years ago, Fiona’s independent, younger sister, Rona, unexpectedly called for help. Fiona welcomed her into her apartment, pleased Rona finally needed her. But, the next morning Rona was gone. Fiona and her parents haven’t heard from her since.

Now, Fiona is an underemployed single mother who lives in a flat above her parents. For the first time, Fiona receives new information about Rona: she learns that before Rona disappeared, she was working as a prostitute. At the same time, the building occupied by Sanctuary Base, a haven for sex workers in the city center, has been acquired by the Jackson Group, and they’ve contracted with Fiona’s company to help with development.

Fiona takes the opportunity to search anew for Rona, but as she dives into the work of sex work, her assumptions about the women and the industry are upended. Rather than victims without choice, she finds an organized group of determined, ambitious, and intelligent women who decided to become sex workers rather than pursue other careers. At the same time, others insist that prostitution degrades women and lobby for stricter laws. (Set in Scotland, the laws around prostitution are different than in the U.S.) As Fiona is seduced by the allure and glamour—and steeliness of the women she meets, she dissociates from her work, her family, and even her daughter.

While Fiona may initially focus on the alluring aspects of sex work, Fishnet provides a wider view. Although ultimately the novel comes down to giving women choice over how to use their bodies, it does acknowledge that sex work can be risky and that women are stronger when they work together. In addition to providing Fiona’s perspective, the book includes excerpts from fictional blogs and ads written by sex workers which I thought added to the narrative. At times, it sounded slightly didactic, but I think that is because so many readers will come to the book anti-prostitution, and Innes wants to challenge that position.

Beyond presenting the question of sex work, the novel addresses Fiona’s malaise, and Innes’s descriptions of her office life are amusing. Additionally, the structure is unusual and surprising, so the reading is never boring, though how could it be with a subject like this!?

Thanks to NetGalley and Gallery/Scout Press (a division of Simon & Schuster) for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: LITTLE VOICES, Devon tries to exonerate her friend, accused of murder – who will get her first? Her enemies or the little voices?

Lillie, Vanessa - Little Voices (1)Little Voices
Vanessa Lillie

Three months early, in September, Devon Burges goes into labor and is rushed into an emergency C-section. As the anesthesia pulls her under, she hears a report on the radio: Belina Cabrala was found murdered at Swan Point Cemetery. Belina, her close friend as well as the nanny for Emmett, son of Alec, one of her college classmates.

In December, Devon begins venturing outside the house with her premie, Ester. Alec is one of the first people she sees, and he divulges that the police are treating him as their primary suspect in Belina’s death. He begs Devon, a lawyer, to help him prove his innocence.

Not only does Devon believe Alec, she is driven by a compulsive need to find justice for Belina. Though still physically and emotionally fragile, she begins an investigation parallel to that of the police. However, in the throes of postpartum depression, Devon begins hearing voices—cruel, hateful pronouncements that seem to be rooted in childhood trauma.

Nevertheless, Devon doggedly pursues the killer’s trail, following it through Belina’s passionate affairs and illicit business dealings. She uncovers secrets of powerful individuals, and it’s unclear whether her voices or her enemies are most dangerous—and if she or Ester will pay the price for her persistence.

Little Voices offers an interesting protagonist: a strong, intelligent, yet flawed and vulnerable woman who takes on a male-dominated environment to seek justice for her friends. Even when Devon’s internal voices were eating her away, she projects self-confidence and power. The book had a wide roster of supporting characters, including siblings Cynthia, an astute businesswoman and Philip, a reporter, and Derek, Devon’s animal-loving, addict brother. Her husband, Jack, was both a calming force and a foil, and Jack’s Uncle Cal provided access to the city’s upper echelons. I wish Derek and Jack had been more developed; Derek was one of my favorite characters.

For me, the voices sometimes were so frequent, they were distracting to the narrative. While I suppose that’s a good approximation of Devon’s experience, it doesn’t always make for pleasant reading. Additionally, I thought the pace and the delivery of crucial backstory was a little awkward.

Still, this is a promising mystery debut by Vanessa Lillie, and I’m especially excited that like me she is from Oklahoma! I look forward to her future novels.

Thanks to NetGalley and Thomas & Mercer for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: COLD STORAGE, only a retired FBI agent and two night security guards can stop a ruthless contagion

Cold Storage
David Koepp

1987. Counter-bioterrorism operatives Roberto Diaz and Trini Romano were rushed to the remote Australian bush where there’d been reports of strange behavior. When they arrived with infectious disease specialist Dr. Hero Martins, all of the residents of the small settlement were dead. They realized the agent was a highly adaptive fungus with one imperative: reproduce. And that meant killing all humans and animals alike. Roberto and Trini successfully destroyed the fungus, but they brought home a sample thought to be safe in deep sub-basement of a military facility.

2019. Roberto and Trini have both retired, and leadership at the Defense Threat Reduction Agency has long since forgotten about the destructive fungus, so much so that the facility that housed it was sold to a storage company catering to middle class consumers. When the deadly contagion finally escapes, only Diaz knows how to stop it—and his only allies are two twenty-something night security guards.

Cold Storage is the debut novel by David Koepp, successful screenwriter of Jurassic Park, Spider-Man, War of the Worlds, and Mission: Impossible, among others. His expertise is clear in the quick pacing and snappy dialogue of this pandemic horror. Personally, I love this genre, and Cold Storage elevates the basic formula with its interesting, narrow field of characters and its skillful plot execution. Like other books in the category, it has high stakes, conspiracies and secrets, and lots of gore.

For fans of this genre, it’s a fun, fast-paced ride. I’d also recommend it to people who may want to explore this category—it’s a great introduction.

Happy Publication Day to HOW WE FIGHT FOR OUR LIVES

How We Fight for Our Lives
Saeed Jones

In lyrical language, Saeed Jones chronicles his coming-of-age as a black, gay youth in Texas in the 1990s. The only child of a single mother, he knew that, despite his mother’s fierce love for him, his sexuality was a topic they couldn’t discuss. That might have been preferable to his grandmother’s approach. When he visited her in Memphis, she complained he was too worldly and forced him to the front of her church so the preacher could pray over him. That left the library, where the books about gay men always ended in AIDS. He already knew the dangers of being black; now he knew the consequences of being gay as well. Still, he was determined to live his truth, even if that meant distancing himself from those closest to him.

What that truth was, though, often remained unclear as Jones felt cultural, peer, and familial pressures to adopt other identities. As he progressed through school, then college, he switched between selves, at times putting himself at psychic risk and at times at physical risk. Yet, there is a sense that he required these experiences, a type of trial and error of behavior, to arrive at a place of peace.

Jones writes of these experiences with rawness and vulnerability, and at times I was incensed on his behalf, worried and angry that he put himself at such risk, saddened by his grief, and delighted by his good fortune. These reactions testify to his ability to convey his very self in his narrative, an act that takes not only skill but bravery. On one level, How We Fight for Our Lives is worth reading because of Jones’s story and how beautifully he conveys it. Yet, his memoir goes beyond his own experiences, echoing with themes of race and sexuality, questioning the strictures placed on those who don’t fit into the dominant paradigm and showing how damaging that can be.

A must-read for anyone interested in LGBT books or who enjoys reading spectacularly crafted memoirs and non-fiction.

Thank you to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.