Friday, December 8, 2017

Best Books of 2017

WINNER: The Heart's Invisible Furies by John Boyne
John Boyne explores the full life of Cyril Avery, a boy born to a poor unwed Irish mother in the 1940's, raised by emotionally negligent (though hilariously funny) adoptive parents, who experiences the entire 20th century as a gay man, who enters the 21st century in awe at how his world has grown.
This book will make you laugh, cry, and learn about the complex times in which we live. This is Boyne's masterpiece in his writing history; you will not forget the experience of his words.

General FictionBeartown by Fredrik Backman and This is How it Always Is by Laurie Frankel
Beartown is a departure from Backman's Ove bestseller, but this powerful story of hockey and rape culture in a small town is not to be missed / Frankel's book is a heartwarming and heart-wrenching novel of how a family adjusts and morphs to fit the world of their transgender child into their changing expectations of the definition of family

Honorable Mention: Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney, Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout*,  Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf, My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent, Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng, The Power by Naomi Alderman, The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti

YADreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham
In our time of racial divide, it is powerful to look back into history, at Tulsa in the 1920's, and remember a time of great racial strife that led to murder and mayhem, as well as to changes in outlook and belief systems.

Honorable Mention: Salt to the Sea by Ruth Sepetys, The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, Mr. 60% by Clete Barrett Smith

Historical FictionLove and Other Consolation Prizes by Jamie Ford / Lightning Men (Darktown#2) by Thomas Mullen
Love encompasses the lives of three amazing children, as they grow through the early days of Seattle and find their stories again at the 1963 World's Fair. No one delves into the hearts of children like Jamie Ford, and his ability to teach us and make us feel for his characters is unparalleled / Lightening Men examines the early days of the first black policemen in post-WWII Atlanta. Powerful characterization set in a fascinating age - this setting will embed itself into your dreams and your thoughts for days.

Honorable Mention: The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See, We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter,  A Tangled Mercy by Joy Jordan-Lake, Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister

MysteryThe Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz and The Dry by Jane Harper
Magpie will take you back to the days of Agatha Christie, with intelligent twists, turns, and red herrings. Intricate and incredibly well-written, this mystery will keep you turning pages / Jane Harper is the hot new mystery writer of 2017, and The Dry is well deserving of all the praise. Australia, a cynical policeman with a history, a dead boy and a false accusation will keep you reading well past your bedtime.
Honorable Mention: Kill the Father by Sandrone Dazieri, Midnight at the Bright Idea Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan, Unsub by Meg Gardiner, Unraveling Oliver by Liz Nugent, Odd Child Out by Gilly Macmillan, If We Were Villians by M.L. Rio

Science Fiction: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
What if there was a box that could take you to an alternative universe where you could see what your life would have been like if you had made different choices? What if there were thousands of these life choices? How does one get home, how does one appreciate the life they chose, and what makes life worth value? Trust me, you will read this book in a day, demanding that everyone leave you alone.
Honorable Mention: All Our Wrongs Today by Elan Mastai, Artemis by Andy Weir

Adult FantasyAn Unkindess of Magicians by Kat Howard
For those of you missing Harry Potter, this grown up version of magicians and their lives amongst unmagical humans is very compelling. Dark without being too disturbing, contests to the death, an evil entity, and a powerful female lead - one of the best adult fantasies I have read in years.
Honorable Mention: Beasts of Unusual Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang, Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman

YA Fantasy:  Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
A magical city far far away, an entity that can enter your dreams, and a young man destined for greatness...this is an incredible, lyrical journey into a brand new world.
Honorable MentionCaraval by Stephanie Garber, Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy by Laini Taylor, Wonder Woman: Warbringer by Leigh Bardugo, The Gilded Cage by Vic James, Invictus by Ryan Gaudin

MemoirThe Bright Hour by Nina Riggs
The story Nina Riggs tells, of her battle and death from fast-moving breast cancer is gorgeous and sad, yet also funny use of gallows humor, and ultimately a very profound look at life, family, and the end we all face.
Honorable Mention: What Made Maddy Run by Kate Fagan, Born a Crime by Trevor Noah, Reading With Patrick by Michelle Kuo, What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken

Non-Fiction, HistoryKillers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
The Osage tribe, richest cultural group of the 20th century oil boom, was hunted and murdered for their head rights; this story tells of the heroic FBI agents who found the trail of the killers and brought them to justice. Un-put-downable!
Honorable Mention: The Jersey Brothers by Sally Mott Freeman, Irena's Children by Tilar J. Mazzeo,  The Immortal Irishman by  Timothy Egan

Non-Fiction, Social JusticeA Colony in a Nation by Chris Hayes
Looking back through history, MSNBC host Chris Hayes explores American history that led to the racial issues of today - fascinating and eye-opening book.
Honorable Mention: White Like Me by Tim Wise, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, White Trash by Nancy Isenberg

Non-Fiction, ScienceBellevue: Three Centuries of Medicine and Mayhem by David M. Oshinsky
Every medical disease, plague, vaccine, cutting edge discovery in medicine walked through the door of this stories hospital; this is a fascinating look at our history.
Honorable MentionDreamland by Sam Quinones, The Radium Girls by Kate Moore

Non-Fiction, Self-HelpThe Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck by Sarah Knight
Okay, I hate self-help books but honestly this one is hilarious and seriously spot-on! I still use my 'F*ck' list I created to bring a semblance of peace to my life:)

Thursday, November 30, 2017

December books

The Tethered Mage by Melissa Caruso
Debut author, brand new YA fantasy series, badass female characters, creative plot line - yep, I was hooked. In the Raverran Empire, children who are 'mage-marked' (ie. they can do magic, insane magic like out of control fire, melting peoples' bones, building mirrors to trap intruders) are taken by the government at a young age and 'tethered.' Think falconry, as these young magicians, now known as Falcons, are imprisoned by a magical bracelet and a couple words that when spoken by their Falconer, release their devastating magic. Problems are inherent in this system, with underlying themes of enslavement, devotion to war, and political machinations to gain the upper hand with the empires that surround Raverra. Enter two incredibly powerful female characters: Amalia, daughter of a powerful council member and the Falcon she ensnares, Zaira, who has been able to avoid capture for all of her seventeen years and definitely does not want to be anyone's Falcon. This is an exciting first installment to a new series that has great potential. I do feel like it would have benefitted from further editing (definitely too long), and some stronger character development for some of the males. However, I did appreciate the way in which Caruso dealt with the cultural mores of Raverra, noting that many of their leaders are women, that Falcons and Falconers could be in a same sex marriage, that skin colors were different. All these ideas were just part of Raverra society, acceptable and nothing that really raised eyebrows; it's just the way their society works. That is powerful.

The Chosen by Kristina Ohlsson
Looking for a complex, well-developed, page-turner of a police/murder mystery? Check out Kristina Ohlsson's series of which The Chosen is #5. Considering I remembered very little of the previous books, one does not have to worry about reading them in order as each stands alone. Two main characters drive the action, Alex Recht, head of the violent crimes unit in Stockholm, a quiet intense man who is all business, and Fredrika Bergman, a brilliant detective with a busy home life that never gets in the way of solving the crime. Throw in some intense peripheral characters such as Petyr, a detective that was removed from his job due to murdering his brother's killer (that's a whole 'nother novel!) and Eden, who works for SAPO, the Swedish equivalent of the FBI/CIA, has a past with a Mossad agent, and is a stone-cold spy, and a fabulous cast of characters will make it difficult to put this book down. The plot begins with a dead preschool teacher and two missing school boys from a Jewish community school; so many twists and turns line the road that I was flummoxed until the last twenty-five pages. If you like those dark, Nordic mysteries, don't miss this author; she's a winner every time out.

The Language of Thorns by Leigh Bardugo
One of my very favorite YA fantasy writers (Shadow and Bone trilogy, Six of Crows duology) has written a new book full of six short stories, gorgeous illustrations on the interior pages, and a different view of some well-known old favorites.  A lover of magic and fairytales, I knew this book was for me as soon as I turned the first page.  Bardugo wears a different set of spectacles to retell some old tales, and to give us the dark and twisted endings that they always deserved. Think Hansel and Gretyl, but what if the witch was not actually evil?  What about the Little Mermaid and Ursula?  Two sides exist to every story, as does some background intel.  And sweet little Clara and the Nutcracker?  Oh my, that is a much creepier tale in the hands of this author. This would be a fabulous gift for any child age 11 and up, as well as any adult who loves fantasy, magic, and a different viewpoint.

Promise Me, Dad by Joe Biden
Listening to this new memoir in Joe Biden's voice is definitely the way to go, though be wary - I cried as I walked my dog as I listened to the last hour. Biden's story covers the last few years of his time as Vice-President of the United States, as well as the impact of his son Beau's death on not only Joe, but his family, his position, and the vast world that knew, admired, and loved Beau Biden. This is a family that has been remarkably touched by tragedy: the death of Joe's wife and daughter in a tragic car accident, the long hospitalization of his young sons, and the long battle with brain cancer that ultimately took Beau's life. I was impressed with the writing in this book; Biden is a beautiful, lyrical writer, particularly when he writes of his family, his dedication to those in need, and his connection with others marked by tragedy. I was less invested in some of the minutia surrounding his work with Ukraine and Iraq, though I did learn more about the impact of our foreign diplomacy on world relationships. I found this book to be inspiring, knowledgeable, and heart-breaking.

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate by Al Franken
Disclaimer: I wrote the following review prior to the allegations that came out against Senator Franken. After thinking long and hard about whether I should still include this review, I decided to do so, without editing it. You will read in the book about his admission of sophomoric, inappropriate jokes written while he was a comedian, and his acknowledgement of his mistakes. I hope I can stand by my review as the news cycle continues to move; we shall see...

If you have lost faith in the ability of government and politicians to positively impact your life, read this book. If you want to laugh out loud, read this book. If you want to be moved to action, read this book. Heck, just read this book, or actually listen to the audio as Senator Franken reads it to you and his comedic timing is pretty perfect! I am not usually a huge fan of celebrity memoirs; not sure I've read one since Mommy Dearest came out decades ago. However, I cannot really classify this as 'celebrity' as Franken has become so much more than that in the last fifteen years. (And if you watched him eviscerate Betsy Devos in the hearing for her Secretary of Education confirmation, you know what I mean) Franken tells of a very middle-class childhood growing up in the suburbs of Minnesota, his early years as a writer and sometimes actor on SNL, his journey to being a voice for progressive politics, and his eventual run and time in the United State Senate. I found this book utterly fascinating: the behind the scenes of how legislation works, the relationships with fellow politicians, his sardonic and biting insights into how government is supposed to work and how it really does. It is not a book written to stroke his own ego, to tell us how awesome Al Franken is; it is actually a book that attempts to renew one's faith in the power of government to change lives and to support Americans in their dreams, as well as just to explain how a regular kid from middle America gets to be a 'giant.' This was my favorite 'listen' of the year, best memoir in decades.

Never CaughtThe Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
Considering all the talk of past slave history and whether we should memorialize Civil War heroes, I thought this would be an interesting book to read. It follows the escape of Martha Washington's personal slave, and the 'no holds barred' pursuit of her by our leading Founding Father (be forewarned: you will never think the same about George and Martha Washington again) It was an interesting book, but it could have told the story in half the time. Too many fillers and repetitive stories for me. Therefore, this book is a 'meh.'

Poison by Galt Niederhoffer
The book caught my eye due to its intriguing plot line: 'perfect' marriage falling apart as wife suspects husband of trying to poison her. Interesting, right?! Nope. Unfortunately, the characters are incredibly unappealing: the husband, a smarmy twisted architect who weasels his way into a young widow's heart and family, little character development of why he is such a nasty human; wife who is inconceivably a hotshot journalist and professor from Columbia, who comes across as whiny, weak, and completely nuts. I understand that is part of the plot, wondering who's crazy and who's telling the truth; however, the two main characters were just so smug, or wishy-washy or unlikable that I just did not care. On top of that, as a Seattle native, I never understand why an author would set a story in a place they have so obviously never visited. Niederhoffer uses every stereotype ever written about Seattle to define it incorrectly, and on top of that says the mountains that surround a Pacific Northwest city are the Sierras! (For the record, those are in California - they're called the Cascades here in the northwest). I found myself laughing out loud at the book, and I'm pretty sure that was not the author's intention.

The House on Foster Hill by Jaime Jo Wright

Having read the description on Net Galley, I was thrilled to get a copy in exchange for an honest review. I will preface this review with the idea that this is not a book for me; however, I also do not think the description of the book is accurate as to what is inside the cover. It is described as a thriller type of mystery, as a page-turner told through two different view points, one from long ago and one from today. However, the mystery seems to be secondary to the romance as well as tons of heavy Christian theology. I don't read romance, I don't want to be preached at, and I don't want to be told that faith and belief will change my life; I prefer when characters take control of their fate themselves. Thus, this was not a book for me. The mystery from a hundred years ago was by far the more interesting story and perhaps I would have liked the story better if that had been the only perspective (daughter of small town doc tries to solve mystery of murdered girl, missing baby, and creepy house). The modern story of a young widow buying the old creepy house while being stalked by her past was a bit obvious, predictable, and wrapped up in too much religion and romance. 

The Perfect Husband (Quincy & Rainie, #1) by Lisa Gardner
Anyone else obsessed with the new Netflix series Mindhunter? So, I thought I would find a good mystery about FBI profilers. Yep, don't bother with this one. Written in 2004, it is incredibly sexist and predictable; the big tough private eye has to save the poor weak female who tries soooo hard to be tough, and let's throw in some questionable 'sex' scenes that border on abuse as well. Ugh...waste of three hours. I know Gardner is a popular mystery writer; I sure hope she has moved past the sexist blech of this, her first in the series. And no, it does not even deserve a picture.

Friday, November 10, 2017

November 2.0

Artemis by Andy Weir
I hear often, "I don't like sci-fi," yet I also hear from these same people how much they enjoy Star Wars, Interstellar, Star Trek and other futuristic movies.  So perhaps a person just doesn't like the 'robots are taking over the world and the book is full of impossible to understand physics concepts' kind of sci-fi - I get that.  If that is the case, Andy Weir's (The Martian) latest is anyone and everyone's type of science fiction.  Honestly, it is just that good.  This time around, the main character is a Saudi Arabian woman, Jazz, who has been raised in Artemis, the community built on the moon, since she was six years old.  Jazz has attitude...serious attitude, and is funny as hell.  She's everything I would want a daughter to be: smart, sassy, courageous, ambitious, but does take risk-taking a bit too far.  Oh, and her idea of career-building is to be the best smuggler on the Moon, but this time Jazz gets herself into some serious trouble with some very bad dudes.  This book is a rock-and-roll ride from beginning to end, with twists that will surprise you and turns you never saw coming.  Weir peoples his lunar community with a cast of unique characters; I suspect the movie will soon be in production, but do yourself a favor and read the book first - it's always better.

The Power by Naomi Alderman
This book is mind-blowing...seriously. Touted as the next generation of The Handmaid's Tale, I read this futuristic, feminist, gender-bender by a debut author in about 24 hours. The premise is unique: a set of email communications between two people explore the past history of the time period when women first experienced their 'power', as in literally electrical power. Then the story returns to that time period to track the inception and the fall-out. The author follows a variety of women as the young girls first learn that they can put out electrical shocks to people they touch, and the more they explore this 'power,' the better they get at it: a daughter of a British gangster looks to revenge a mother's death and consolidate influence, a mayor of a major city walks the line of politics while she and her daughter wrestle with the implications of this power; a foster child with the ability to morph into someone else entirely, and a young boy who tells their stories to the world. As the gender roles begin to switch, the choices society makes are questionable and intriguing. This book would provide a book club with some extremely provocative conversation.

Origin by Dan Brown
Remember that feeling of reading the first few chapters of The DaVinci Code? That sense of having sat down in a roller coaster, slowly going up that first climb, and the stomach-churning swoop down?  Yep, Dan Brown is finally back, after writing a couple of mediocre books following Davinci. Of course, Robert Langdon, our Harvard professor of symbology, is once again the wicked smart hotshot, who gets himself out of some fairly serious jams and uses his brain to lead the way. As always, he has a female sidekick, who while beautiful, does not follow the sexist stereotype of needing help from a male; she can take care of herself, and does. This time around, the premise revolves around a stupendously wealthy young man who has the attention of the world as he dangles a world-wide presentation where he will answer "Where did we come from" and "Where are we going?" Of course, author Dan Brown cannot let it be that easy so Langdon and his sidekick, Ambra Vidal, spend the rest of the book chasing down the answers and avoiding some fairly evil opponents. I found the science and religion pieces of this book to be fascinating, giving me some food for thought and some fears and hopes for the future. If you need a spellbinding vacation book, this one is a winner.

The Story of Arthur Truluv by Elizabeth Berg
This is the book you pick up after you have read a dark creepy mystery, or a psychologically disturbing thriller, or a heart-wrenching non-fiction book.  At times, I wondered if this book was a bit too saccharine, but then I realized that yes, sometimes we need hope, hope that a storybook ending truly exists, hope that other people are willing to care about strangers, and hope that the future will be better. In this new novel by veteran author Elizabeth Berg, Maddy is a young girl with a past history of loss and sadness. Motherless since infancy, with a father whose pain goes deeper than his desire to be a father, Maddy has attached herself to a rather feckless fellow who leaves her pregnant and questioning her choices. Enter Arthur and Lucille, two elderly neighbors who see a girl who needs a hand up. This book will make you laugh out loud at these two hilarious characters, especially Lucille who just doesn't 'get it' quite frequently.  And Arthur? Oh, you would want him for your next door neighbor or grandfather; what a lovely human being.  So yes, a bit overly sweet at times but don't we all need that in our lives? Nothing wrong with a book where your heart is warm and tender at the end:)

Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City By Kate Winkler Dawson
For fans of the Netflix series, The Crown, it is hard to forget the great London fog of 1952 that killed over 12,000 people. Combine that environmental disaster with the psychological disaster of a human being, Reginald Christie, Nottinghill serial killer, and a book is born. Dawson shows her journalistic past with deep research into both stories, though at times the details become slogged down in repetition and a dry voice. The science part of the deadly smog is fascinating, and scary as we watch the EPA being deliberately dismantled here in America, and the author delves deeply into the government's lack of response, a back bencher's fight to bring the media attention to a less-than-thrilling story, and one personal tale of a London family. However, I do think this part of the book would have been better served with more personal stories; it suffers from the MP's problem in getting newspapers to print more stories - one needs to make people relate, to empathize, to care, and we do that through the lives of ordinary people. However, the serial killer side of the story seems to explore the characters more deeply, though there is little suspense in the eventual ending. Overall, this was an interesting story but it would have benefitted with a more personal, compelling voice.

Tuesday, October 31, 2017


A Tangled Mercy by Joy Jordan-Lake
This is just a gorgeous, fascinating, oh so topical historical fiction book. Set in Charleston, South Carolina, the story takes two roads: 1822, as the city awaits the beginning of a slave rebellion and 2015, as a young woman searching for her family's history discovers the past. Both stories contain compelling characters. The famous weapons maker of the rebellion and his lover, the daughter of a slave owner with her own rebellious streak, and the masterminds of the uprising draws one into both the beauty of Charleston and the underlying ugliness of its history. The modern day story is equally as compelling, as Kate examines the past and its connection to today as she is pulled into Charleston life through friendships with a judge, a member of the old blue blood elite, and an artisan and his son as she tries to uncover the mystery of her mother's past. The author seamlessly weaves the tragedy of the AME church massacre of 2015 into the story line as she deals with today's issues of race in a thoughtful and powerful manner. This was a book I could not put down.

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
After reading The Japanese Lover early in the year, I was excited to receive an early release of Allende's latest book. What has always impressed me about Allende, a much celebrated Chilean-American author, is her ability to shift genres throughout her long career. Her last book encompassed a rich white California family with WWII and the Japanese, and her latest book is a complete departure from that.  In the Midst of Winter is a beautifully drawn, character-driven novel that begins during the blizzard of 2015, yet takes the reader to Brazil of the 90's, Chile in the 70's and 80's, and Guatemala of today.  The three main characters, who are faced with a blizzard, a sick cat, and a dead body, share their lives and inner souls with one another as they try to solve the various crises: Richard, owner of the Brooklyn brownstone where they are all stuck, a recovered alcoholic and NYU professor, unfriendly and snarky, but with a deep well of sadness inside; Lucia, a free-spirited Chilean adjunct professor who rents out Richard's basement, owner of a one-eyed chihuahua, and a tragic family history from the authoritarian takeover in Chile; and Evelyn, a young Guatemalan girl whose car accident precipitates their meeting, and who bears a past that is almost beyond surviving.  It is an oddly compelling story, full of humor, sadness, and great hope; it was a perfect read on chilly fall days.

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances by Ruth Emmie Lang
This is an extraordinary tale of an extraordinary boy, who grows into an extraordinary, and rather complicated, man.  It stretches belief. It is rather unbelievable actually; be prepared to suspend the 'rules' of nature and man, and go into some magical realism.  You see, where ever Weylyn Grey goes, strange weather follows him.  His parents are killed in a freak snow storm, leading Weylyn to meet and live with some 'interesting' characters.  This story is peopled with humorous, caring, cruel, kind, complex humans, folks from all walks of life.  The pivotal relationship is with Mary, who Weylyn meets as a young child. Their lives are meant to be entwined forever as we see these two children grow to be young adults, and beyond.  Admittedly, I love magic and fantasy, and I am impressed with how Lang weaves a strong engrossing story together with a beautiful fairy tale. This is a solid debut for a new young writer.

Odd Child Out by Gilly Macmillan
The second in a series by a fairly new British author, this is a surprisingly solid book.  I say 'surprisingly,' as it is hard to characterize it.  It nominally has to do with a death and a police detective, but it is so much deeper than a mere mystery.  Jim Clemo is a detective with a past (explained in the first book What She Knew which I have not read, but will definitely consider reading next), and he has been given an 'easy' case upon his return to get his feet a little damp.  Fortunately for this policeman, he gets waaaay beyond damp as he and his partner slowly and methodically pull bits and pieces of evidence out into the light. On the surface, it is an argument between two teenage boys, with one found in the river in critical condition, and the other one unwilling to talk. However, with a variety of intriguing characters as well as the backdrop of Somalian refugees and the horror they escaped to carve out a life in Bristol, England, this book takes us into some dark, complex arenas.  This one is a hard one to put down, with quite a twist in the end.

Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul by Naomi Levy
I have a tendency to choose books in regards to what is happening in my life, or occasionally to avoid specific topics that are too sensitive in that moment (re. my mother's death last year had me avoiding death books and skewing towards magical fantasy escapism). This last month of recovering from surgery, with time on my hands to think about new directions in life, led me to this gorgeous book.  On long walks through the beautiful PNW woods, I listened to Rabbi Levy explore the history, mysticism, and beliefs in not only Jewish religion, but in her own life.  She uses an incredible letter from a young rabbi who liberated Buchenwald concentration camp to the most famous scientist of his time, as this young rabbi searched for answers of his own son's death. I found myself often stopping, writing down notes, rewinding just to hear some lines once again, and heading to my bookstore to find a physical copy to explore more slowly in the months to come. It not only soothed my soul, but it expanded it; this book brought me back to a place of spirituality that I have missed in my life as a confirmed agnostic, and brought me a level of great peace that had been missing. When you need some spiritual salve, this book will provide it.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
In my many decades of obsessive reading, I have read a lot of WWII books, and I mean A LOT.  In fact, I rather avoid them now as I'm a little burnt out. Yet, this book has been on my radar for almost two years.  A Goodreads YA Fiction award winner and a Carnegie Medal winner of 2016, this author discovered a long hidden and forgotten story of great bravery, and incredible tragedy. The story flips amongst a variety of characters: a Lithuanian nurse, a young Polish girl, a mysterious Prussian soldier, and a German enlistee. As this group tells their tale of the treacherous escape to the Baltic Sea, as Germans, refugees, and soldiers, I felt myself tightly wrapped up in their tale, feeling my stomach tighten when they try to cross the frozen bay while Russian planes fly overhead, the fear when past stories of abuse are remembered, and my heart wrenched when some travelers fail to survive. Yet the story is not over when they reach the ships that will take thousands of refugees across the Baltic to Germany; it is just beginning. I still cannot believe this is a historical event that has never been broadcast, made into books and movies, or wept over for generations. If you like historical fiction and seek a new 'angle' on WWII, I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. It is powerful, beautifully written, and utterly fascinating.

Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham
And yet here is another YA historical fiction that focuses on an incident that has been covered up, forgotten, and deliberately hidden for generations...the 1921 white race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Latham, in just her second novel, does a spectacular job of moving between two time periods: in today's world, 17 year old Rowan whose best friend is black and asexual, whose father is a white powerful business and mom is a bad-ass public defender who happens to be black, and who discovers a mysterious skeleton hidden in her backyard; and the story of long ago told by William, a seventeen year old biracial boy of 1921 Tulsa, whose father is a white Victrola salesman and mom is a wealthy Osage native, whose learning curve of race relations in his town is a high and furious curve. Oh yes, so many things are brought into this book...the treatment of black and natives, the role of oil in Tulsa, the murders of the Osage women and their headrights, the treatment of blacks, particularly young black teens, in today's society. It is an olio of 'issues' and author Latham handles them with aplomb. A beautifully written book, with a serious mystery that will keep one turning pages, and a feeling of shock of all the things that have been hidden away from us in America's history surrounding race, this is just a fantastic book. It would be a fantastic book to use in a secondary classroom, or a book club, as the provocative topics will definitely stimulate conversation.

Friday, October 13, 2017

October 2.0

My Absolute Darling by Gabriel Tallent
Raw. Disturbing. Intense. These are the first words that come to mind after finishing this powerful coming-of-age debut novel by an impressive new author. The story follows Turtle, a fourteen year old girl being raised by her survivalist father, Martin, as well as her alcoholic grandfather. Incest, physical and verbal abuse, and shocking abandonment is woven through this disturbing tale of how a young teen survives what no one should be subjected to in any stage of life. When a young man befriends Turtle and a teacher reaches out to help, the push and pull of Turtle's life will rip your heart out. This is not an easy read; it will profoundly disturb many readers, but if you can get past the first fifty pages, you will be rewarded with one of the most moving stories of unlikely heroes. Turtle is uniquely complex; she will say things that make you hate her, and then at other times you will want to wrap your arms around her. What you won't ever do is forget her.

Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng
An immediate best seller, Celeste Ng's second book is really that good. Seriously. I liked her first one, Everything I Never Told You, but honestly, Fires is better. The writing, the character development, the varied themes - Ng has honed her skills brilliantly. The story begins at the end, and then puts all the pieces together thanks to a complex crew of characters: Mrs. Anderson, a repressed wife, mother, and journalist, who is aggravating, mean, insensitive, and devoted to her own picture of what makes a life worthwhile; the four Anderson children, all unique and quirky, with pieces both unlikable yet sympathetic; Mia, an artist with a mysterious past and her daughter, Pearl, who longs for a stable home; and a young Chinese immigrant mother who blows the plot line in all directions. This is a powerful novel, with so much ‘meat on the bone’ for discussions of race, class, parenting, teenagers, art, that it would be an outstanding choice for a book club. 

What Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton

Cmon, admit it, you’re curious. Well, I was! I chose to pre-order the audio version just so I could hear Hillary tell me her side of the story. It does not disappoint. Is it subjective? Of course, it is HER story. But is it fascinating? Absolutely. This book not only gives deep and frequent glimpses into Hillary’s soul and heart, it also gives us a bird’s eye view into the workings of a presidential campaign; I found both compelling. Laced with facts and statistics (it is Hillary, the wonky policy maven), it lays bare the true influence Comey, Russia, and yes, her own actions had on the 2016 electoral college loss. It also gives deep personal stories of her family and friend relationships. Admittedly, I am a fan, always have been. Yet would I recommend this to people who aren’t fans, who voted independent or even (gasp!) Republican? Actually, I would, even more strongly than for supporters. By the end, I was sad for our country, feeling that we lost a real opportunity to unite this country and repair some damage. I am still and will always be “With Her.” Read the book - it’s actually very good. 

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander
This is a highly read and recommended book, as well as a frequent assignment in today’s college curricula; it will change forever the way you see justice in America. Therefore, in today’s charged environment, as we watched Charlottesville unfold and the NFL rise, or kneel, to the president’s challenge, it behooves us all to gather as much factual information as possible in order to have informed opinions, based on facts and not just what pundits are spouting. This book should be your first stop. I highly recommend listening to it. At times, it can be a bit dry. I would also recommend skipping the first chapter as all that does is lay out, in PhD type of doctoral format, what the author will be discussing in the book - just get to the book. And once you do, you will be given an in-depth historical tour of America and the caste system it has slowly and insidiously built for hundreds of years. 

Code Girls: The Untold Story of American Code Breakers Who Helped Win World War II by Liz Mundy
With whiffs of Hidden Figures, author Liz Mundy brings us another true story of women mathematicians and teachers who changed the tide of war to victory, but were unknown heroes for decades. Told in a narrative voice, Mundy reveals the very beginning of the use of women code breakers by both the navy and army. As men were needed at the front, searches began first in the Seven Sisters college system, then through the Ivy Leagues and teachers schools, and by later war years, a warm body with a penchant for puzzles was good enough. Literally thousands of women went out to work decoding, encoding, and even building code breaking machines. Women became respected and revered members of the crypto analysis units, irreplaceable to the war efforts and truly essential to the Allied victories. At times, the writing gets bogged down in minutia, but it always picks back up and returns to fascinating stories of the real women and battles they influenced. (Fun fact: Bill Nye the Science Guy - his mom was a code breaker!) If you like history, love historical trivia and war stories, and enjoy learning about badass women, this book is for you:) I know my WWII veteran and engineer father of mind would have loved this!

Mr Dickens and His Carol: A Novel of Christmas Past by Samantha Silva
Most of us know who Charles Dickens is, the famous 19th century British novelist who brought us Oliver Twist, David Copperfield, and of course, the most cold-hearted miser of all time, Ebenezer Scrooge. In Samantha Silva's debut novel, she imagines how a Christmas Carol was born. It is an inventive, fluffy tale of Victorian England with all the lovely description of the streets that Dickens inhabited and where he found all his characters. We see his family life, his frustrations with fame and the hangers-on who want his money, and his utter disbelief as his previous novel fails miserably and he is strapped for cash. This is a charming little tale that will satisfy the Christmas spirit as well as give one some intriguing insight into one of our most prolific English authors.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

October Books

Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land
My, oh my, this is one deep, dark, twisty, brilliant, mess-with-your-mind kind of book. Once I picked it up, it was impossible to put it down and it literally kept me guessing until the last three pages. Milly's mom is a serial killer. And I don't mean the garden-variety, "I randomly shoot people" type of killer; I mean the "torture small children and bring sorrow and tragedy into families" type of murderer. So the question is, how does that impact Milly? Can she live a normal life after turning her mother into the London police? Can the psychologist with whose family she now currently lives assuage her painful memories? Can her new 'sister' destroy her with the bullying, or make her stronger? Can her friendship with a younger girl be healing or destructive? And the ultimate far from the tree does this apple fall? Author Ali Land spent years as a mental health nurse in the UK and her deep knowledge shows. She is a master of character development, creating rich and complex humans that a reader can cheer for, or empathize with, or root against as the story progresses. This is one humdinger of a book for a debut; I will be first in line for Land's second book!

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs

As age continues to creep up on me, I find more and more people in my life are suffering from cancer and chronic illness, caring for parents with dementia, and have children who are fighting for their lives. This book had been on my TBR pile for awhile, and as I planned the sprinkling of my own mother's ashes, it seemed a cathartic choice. You see, Nina Riggs experiences what all women fear each time they go in for that mammogram...a spot is found. But people beat this stuff all the time, right? Yep, those are the stories we usually read about, as well as the ones we wish for, but what about the cancer that is hyper-aggressive, that metastasizes quickly, that within a year knocks Nina to her knees and forces her husband and two young boys to confront the realization that this cancer is going to kill her.  And as irony would have it, her own mother succumbs to her own eight-year long cancer battle right in the middle of Nina's own treatment. I know, sounds uber-depressing, yet Nina has an engaging, dark sense of humor that makes one laugh at the most inappropriate times, as well as helping us see the everyday trials of this insidious disease. At the end of this book, I realized once again that death finds us all in the end, that we are called to make the most of every moment and give back what we can, to love hard and often and ceaselessly, that our lives are just infinitesimal pieces of the universe,  and that laughter and sorrow quite often go together.  One can find great solace in this beautiful book.

Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie
Acclaimed Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie takes on the topic of jihadi recruitment and the impact on the family in her modern-day retelling of Antigone.  Left alone by their mother's death and their jihadi father's mysterious disappearance into the gulag of Guantanemo, three siblings each take a separate path. Isma, the oldest daughter, flees to America, burying herself in PhD studies and a friendship with the son of prominent English-Pakistani politician; Aneeka, her gorgeous younger sister, law student, and rebel; and Parvaiz, Aneeka's twin, who gets lured into the dark world of the jihad, and winds up a half a world away from London. We see each side of their story through powerful narration and character development, as the plot slowly and inexorably leads to the final conclusion.  This is a powerful tale of what a sister will do for her brother, how lack of hope and prejudicial treatment can twist a young person's dreams of the future, and how far a family will go to survive.  It is slow at times, but it builds to a devastating conclusion, with the final one third of the book being the most powerful.  This would be an excellent book club choice as it provides one with a variety of life choices to discuss endlessly.

Rules of Magic by Alice Hoffman
One of my favorite authors is back and I could not wait to get my hands on her latest, due out November 10 (thank you Net Galley for the advanced copy!). While I loved The Musuem of Extraordinary Things and The Marriage of Opposites, The Dovekeepers of 2011 remains my favorite due to its setting in biblical times and the extraordinary four women who tell the story of the Masada. In Hoffman's latest venture, she returns to the world of one of her earliest works, Practical Magic, and the Owens family of witches.  Thanks to the long-ago Salem witch trials, the intermingling of two families, and a dark curse that hangs over the Owens' head every generation, falling in love can be a deadly prospect.  The three Owens children, Fran, Jet, and Vincent, are each highly unique. Hoffman uses magical realism in a delightful way, with mischievous happenings, some humor, and then some dark magic thrown in as well. I was mesmerized by this story - it is what I call a 'delicious' read that will keep you entertained until the very last page.

Upstairs at the White House: My Life with the First Ladies by J.B. West
The life of the Chief Usher in the White House is outlined in this book, moving from the last term of FDR all the way to the first term of Richard Nixon. As West moves from assistant to head, we see the close business relationship he has with all the first ladies of the era.  One experiences the loosey-goosey Eleanor Roosevelt style, where she wasn't even sure who was sleeping and even living on the third floor, the love story of Harry and Bess Truman, with a few laughs over broken bed boards and the real boss of the nation, and the formality of the Eisenhowers and Mamie's love of the color pink.  The short tenure of Jackie Kennedy is the most powerful story, with a deep abiding friendship between West and Jackie highlighted, a friendship that moved beyond the walls of the White House.  The loud home of the Johnsons and their two teenage daughters was a hoot, and LBJ's obsession with saving money on electricity was ironic. At times, I could have done without the long description of place settings and decorations, but the historical viewpoint was fascinating.  I respected West's devotion to not airing dirty laundry, yet it did make him a less-than-reliable narrator, as you cannot convince me all these first ladies were the paragons of virtue he made them out to be. However, it is a great book club discussion book as evidenced by our rousing discussion in our monthly book salon, as well as a thoughtful gift to any parent who lived during these times.

The Last Painting of Sarah deVos by Dominic Smith
An intriguing, yet very different book, I would say this book has a fairly narrow audience. However, for a variety of reasons I thoroughly enjoyed it. One, it is extremely well-written; the narrative prose is beautifully constructed, yet at times it does go on a bit with little dialogue.  Secondly, if you are a fan of art, interested in art history or the Dutch masters, you would definitely enjoy the plot line.  It combines three different times periods to create an emotional story around one painting: 1637 and a female Dutch painter whose personal life is tragic, and her relationship with the Amsterdam artist guild is challenging; 1958 New York City where a wealthy art patron and patent attorney owns the only deVos painting, as he searches for the person who stole and forged his property; and the year 2000 in Sydney, Australia, as all the threads of the story come together.  It is a slow, beautiful tale, that spoke to me as the mother of an art historian who lives in Amsterdam.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

September 2.0

Dear Fahrenheit 451A Librarian's Love Letters and Break-Up Notes to the Books in Her Life by Annie Spence
Oh how I loved this sassy, sarcastic, heartfelt ode to libraries, librarians, and the world of books! Think Nancy Pearl, but with humor and some salty language, which suits me waaaay better. Annie Spence, a librarian in Michigan, gives us some wildly honest 'responses' to an eclectic collection of books as she writes letters to them that explain her love, frustration, bitterness, adoration, and yes, the need to break up sometimes. I laughed myself silly over her description of library patrons and Fifty Shades of Grey, experienced the exact same frustration with Russian 'classics' that I am sure I should read but just cannot get through, and realized that yes, Forever by Judy Blume was a girlhood cult book of mine that did not age well as I became the parent of a daughter. Spence divides her book logically and artfully, sticking to common threads so that even though the olio of books was varied, I didn't feel like I was getting yanked all over the place.  I particularly loved her 'pairings' of books (yes, just like wine and food, but books are more my style).  And the many excuses to use for social occasions when I would rather be reading?  Oh, those were money:)  For anyone who loves books and enjoys a fresh literary voice, do not miss this book; you will laugh out loud and feel so satisfied in the end, only wishing Spence would hurry up and write another one.

The Scarred Woman (Dept. Q #7) by Jussi Adler-Olsen
If you like the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo, you will like this detective series by Danish writer Adler-Olsen. Do you have to read them in order? Nope. However, if you are into character development, you might want to as both the main and the peripheral recurring characters are complex and dynamic, showing tremendous growth throughout the series. In his latest mystery, a variety of threads become strung together under the stewardship of Department Q, where lost causes and old cases are solved: a grandfather with a disturbing Nazi past, a police assistant whose struggles with mental health overtakes Dept. Q, an angry social worker, some selfish young women with questionable values, and a police commission that wants to break up the department. Per usual, Head Detective Carl Morck is his usual curmudgeonly self as he teases and berates everyone around him. Syrian sidekick Assad provides levity with his constant misuse of language, while Gordon desperately tries to save Rose, the department secretary, from the demons of her childhood. It is definitely a page-turner, but give it about forty pages for all the threads to start to weave some sense together. This series is also a great listen for those long road trips as the narrator is money.

Invictus by Ryan Graudin
One of my very favorite YA authors (Walled City, Wolf by Wolf, Blood for Blood), Gaudin's latest is once again mind-blowing!  This time she takes us on a sci-fi, time travel, adventure through history.  Hundreds of years into Earth's future, time travel has become a 'thing,' with specially trained people who go back through time to get video and information for historical purposes only.  Warned not to ever disrupt time by being noticed, this of course creates ripe opportunity for literary license, as does the idea that wherever 'legal' is a must, a black market must of course exist.  Thus, the main character, a young man called Faraday McCarthy, fails his final exam to be a time traveler and goes to work for a shady character who pays him big bucks to steal antiquities across time.  Far puts together a ragtag group of compelling characters:  Priya, the med tech and love of his life, who is brave, smart, and compassionate; Imogene, his crazy-ass cousin who dyes her hair a different color every day and is a whip-smart historian; Gram, his best school chum and whiz kid at everything with numbers; and the new kid on the team, Eliot, a girl from another world who has no hair, writes messages in her eyebrows, and is a boss!  I could not put this book down - fabulous page turner, exciting until the very end, and truly appropriate for ages 14-100.

Dead Woman Walking by Sharon Bolton
Another excellent book by the author of Daisy in Chains, this one will keep you up late at night, reading until the very last page. Set in northern England, the story begins with a hot-air balloon ride filled with tourists, families, and two sisters, one a nun and the other a cop. When a crime is seen and disaster strikes the balloon, one sister is left behind to pick up all the pieces. Bolton does a fabulous job of keeping all the balls in the air, as she goes back and forth through time, developing not only the sisters' history, but some other extremely despicable crimes perpetrated by a Romany family involving Syrian refugees as well as the police. The rabbit holes are numerous and complex, as the mystery slowly unfolds, and the ending is a serious 'ah-ha' moment. Thrillers seem to be a dime a dozen these days, with numerous authors throwing thin stories into the publishing world, hoping something hits. I appreciate Sharon Bolton's ability to thoroughly develop her characters, and create a unique and complex plot line. If you need a great mystery for that beach vacation this winter or a gift for a person who loves English thrillers, you will not go wrong with this book - it's a winner.

Mr. 60% by Clete Smith
Let me preface this review with the fact that I taught English in our small PNW town with the author. To this day, he remains one of the funniest men I know, my daughter's favorite literature teacher, and a man with a great heart for kids. I could not wait to get my hands on his first YA book - he writes the middle reader series Aliens on Vacation, etc., which for the record are pee-your-pants funny.  His first venture into the world of teens is a winner for a few reasons.  One, as a former classroom teacher, I recognize his main protagonist, Matt, the kid who comes to school reluctantly, is perpetually absent or late, who is always yawning in class, and who does just enough to get by. Every teacher ever has had many "Matts" in their room. You see, Matt is caring for his dying Uncle Jack, with no financial help from the state or his family; this kid is just trying to survive but teachers and administrators expect him to care about completing worksheets. Second, this makes Mr. 60% a book that both teachers AND students should read.  It is a powerful reminder that none of us knows how life is impacting another human until we ask, until we take the time to sit down, until we care.  In Matt's life, that is a young woman named Amanda, an overweight, lonely girl who insinuates herself into Matt's life, whether he wants her there or not.  And last, this book speaks directly to kids just like Matt.  Clete Smith doesn't muck up the story with flowery description or $100 words; he writes a story that kids like Matt can read and understand, and can recognize themselves in the pages. So, to all my former teaching pals - put this book in a kid's hands and take a copy home for yourself - you'll be glad you did.

The Cuban Affair by Nelson DeMille
Nelson DeMille really never disappoints.  In the style of a Clive Cussler or Robert Ludlum, he always creates a great hero (okay, rather stereotypical but easy to root for), a complicated plot in an intriguing setting, and a solid page turner. This time around he has "Mac" MacCormick, a war veteran with a chest full of medals, quick-witted and humorous, and never afraid to take a few risks. This mystery involves a cargo coming out of Cuba to America, deeds to land taken during the revolution, and skulls and bones of Vietnam veterans, all things the Cuban government does not want seen by the rest of the world.  As the mystery unfolds, one sees the lack of trust within government, with everyone on the take; it definitely does not make one want to vacation in Cuba yet.  If you're looking for a strong thriller for the person in your life who loves this kind of book (it's one way to get my husband to pick up a novel), you won't go wrong with The Cuban Affair.