Monday, June 19, 2017

June 2.0

Into The Gray Zone: A Neuroscientist Explores the Border Between Life and Death by Adrian Owen
Admittedly, non-fiction books about anything medical seem to be a siren song for me; I find them boundlessly fascinating.  Having read and loved Being Mortal, The Remedy, and My Own Country, I was immediately drawn to this one.  Matthew Owen, a neuroscientist, embarked into a career to explore, learn, and hopefully discover what occurs in a patient's brain when diagnosed as being in a 'vegetative state.' Throughout the book, he intersperses real life patient stories, discussions of his own life and experiences with the medical world, as well as the head injury of the woman he once loved.  I found his patient stories the most fascinating, with many "wow" moments as more and more of the gray zone was opened up to Owens and his fellow scientists, as both technology and learning progress continued to expand.  At times, the medical-ese stumped me and got a bit dry, but Owens was able to jump back into a narrative pace that helped bring the story alive to someone like me, fascinated with medicine but a complete dunce when it comes to the science of it all.  For those people who are impacted by a brain trauma, who work with children or adults with brain injuries, or for those other people like me who are just suckers for a good medical mystery, this book is a great choice.

Bellevue:  Three Centuries of Medicina and Mayhem at America's Most Storied Hospital by David M. Oshinsky
Did I tell you I am fascinated by medical  non-fiction? Yep, here is another one and it is a slam-dunk five star read. Author David Oshinsky does a masterful job of deep research, traveling far back into the 18th century, to shed life on the most storied hospital in American history.  At the forefront of every dangerous plague and historical catastrophe (ie. yellow fever, tuberculosis, AIDS, childbed fever, mental illness, the Civil War, Hurricane Sandy, 9/11, etc. etc. etc.), Bellevue has the been the best training ground for every type of medicine known to humanity. Yet, this book is not dry and boring, far from it.  Oshinsky sprinkles in fascinating tales of the real life humans who made this hospital hum, who discovered life-saving vaccines, who invented the modern-day ambulance, who battled sexism, anti-semitism, racism, and who ultimately set the example for all to see, that everyone, rich or poor, deserves medical care.  It is an inspiring, engrossing, completely absorbing look at not only our medical society, but its place in our culture.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

The Reminders by Val Emmich
What would it be like if you remembered absolutely everything that happened in a day, as well as what day of the week and time it occurred? Cool or not? Think about it...there's a reason why our brain rids itself of minutia and keeps the good stuff.  However, eight year old Joan remembers what was said, done, worn, etc. for pretty much every day since toddler-hood.  Not trivia or math factoids, just what happened.  Therefore, she is desperate to be memorable herself.  Enter Gavin, her parent's grief-stricken friend who moves in with them after losing his partner a few months ago.  Gavin, a network television star, set the social media world 'ablaze' when his neighbor videoed him burning pretty much everything in his house in an attempt to rid himself of memories.  See where this is going?  The Reminders tells of a beautiful friendship between Gavin and Joan, as well as showcasing the place of art in our lives, what is important in families, and how to make a little girl 'remember' her special talent.  It is a heartwarming book that will leave you utterly satisfied.

The Thirst by Jo Nesbo
If you like dark mysteries, filled with smart but conflicted police, sadistic and brilliant killers, and cynical yet humorous forensic scientists and reporters, and you still haven't discovered Jo Nesbo, where have you been?? Nesbo's Norwegian mystery series starring Harry Hole (pronounced Ho-lay) began a good ten years ago, with The Bat.  I, however, did not discover him until book #7, The Snowman.  The brilliant thing about this series is that you really don't have to read them in order; they all stand on their own.  Admittedly, I do like to see how the characters grow, change, and yes, even die off.  Harry started out as an idealistic young policeman in the first book, and I have watched him go through the most terrible physical and psychological traumas known to man. And yes, he always wins.  The latest is a great mind-bender involving two creepy killers, a new journalist with her claws deep into her police source, a young naive detective who wants to emulate Harry, and the insidious draw that serial killers have to pull Harry Hole back into detective work.  It is a serious page turner, un-put-down-able until literally the last page. Dive into this Norwegian mystery series - you won't be disappointed.

The Last Neanderthal by Claire Cameron
I found this book to be packed with intriguing and fascinating details about the life of ancient humans; the next time I complain about having to go to the grocery store for the second time in a day, I should remember how exhausting the whole 'hunting-gathering' life is! The premise of this novel is to delve into the lives of the Neanderthal people in France, while at the same time telling the story of the paleo-anthropologist who is discovering the bodies on her dig literally thousands of years later. The non-verbal lives of Girl, Him, and Big Mother, as well as Runt (the modern human child she adopts) are depicted in short chapters, full of details of a year in their lives. Each night I picked up the book, wondering "Do I really like this book?"; usually that question was answered in the affirmative in a few minutes, as I was drawn back into the ancient world of humanity.  I was unclear if I was as interested in the story of modern day Rose, as she struggles with the balance of financing the dig and staying true to her research, as well as her own pregnancy and the problems it creates. However, as the story crescendos in the final third of the novel, Cameron deftly brings the two stories together, weaving a powerful theme of survival, loyalty, strength, and perseverance.  This is a different book that will leave you in awe of the research, writing skills, and character development; if you want to take a walk on the wild side of long-ago history, I highly recommend it.




Thursday, June 1, 2017

June Books

French Bistro by Nina George
Did you read and love The Little Paris Bookshop, George's first big American hit? If so, pick this one up also; if not, you still need to pick up this book.  Set in Brittany, France, this is the story of Marianne, a sixty-year old woman whose life needs a directional change.  Following a botched suicide attempt, Marianne literally runs away, leaving behind her German husband, an autocrat with whom she has spent forty loveless years. When asked why she was in Kerdruc, Marianne replies "I was on a quest for death...then life intervened." Thanks to the kismet of a little painted tile, we meet the quirky characters of the small Breton seaside town of Kerdruc: the white witch of the forest who battles dementia, the beautiful young waitress and cook who refuse to acknowledge their mutual love, the man who tangos his wife back into his arms, the hotelier with a desperate lost love, and an artist who can see deep into Marianne's soul.  This is a beautifully told tale of love lost, found, forgotten, and forsaken, asking the question "Does love have to be earned through suffering?" No one dies, there is no dark mystery, nor stomach-churning tension.  Instead, this book touched my soul, leaving me feeling bereft of my book friends as I turned the last page. The Little French Bistro will leave you with your heart full.

Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore by Matthew J. Sullivan
For lovers of independent bookstores, page-turning mysteries, and well-developed characters, this book is for you. Just in the first chapter, I felt like I was back as a bookseller at Village Books here in Bellingham, re-shelving books at the end of the day, dealing with the 'regulars', and closing out the cash drawer.  However, unlike the main character of Lydia, I never found a dead body hanging upstairs, thank goodness.  Yep, that is how this story begins. As Lydia is drawn into Joey's secret life before, and inherits his collection of books where a secret code is hidden, her own past trauma is explored as well.  Survivor of a terrible in-home invasion and murder scene, Lydia has demons of her own, as well as a difficult relationship with her father. As all of these pieces of her past crash into the secrets of Joey and his suicide, it truly creates the perfect story.  Sullivan, a bookseller in his previous life as well, has created a masterful story in his first outing on the publishing side.  Picked for June's Indie Next listing, this book is sure to be a huge hit for all people who love a juicy plot set in a unique locale.

Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate
Seeing comparisons to The Orphan Train, a historical fiction book that many of us loved, I knew that Wingate's latest novel would be a good fit.  Based on the horrific real-life Tennessee Children's Home Society and the heinous woman who ran it, this is a tale of family secrets, hidden lives, and tragic abuse. Told through dual perspectives, two young women reveal the story.  Rill Foss, a young girl who lives in poverty with her family, is taken from her river home in 1939, along with her four other siblings.  Highly prized for their blond curls, they are stolen in order to be sold to the highest bidders, enduring both physical and emotional abuse at the Home. The story of today is told through Avery Stafford, the daughter of a well-to-do family whose father is a senator and part of a powerful family in South Carolina.  As Avery befriends an old woman in a nursing home, she uncovers pieces of the past that may directly impact her own family.  Wingate throws in a bit of a love interest for Avery, as well as some introspection of her direction in life.  Personally, I could have done without the romance, but the sister-relationship is beautiful and well-developed. My only issue is the one sentence of a highly offensive racist belief that white girls should be scared of black men raping them.  I know, it's just one sentence, but really?  As the author does nothing in her book to deal with racial issues, which is perfectly understandable in the context of this story, throwing in a one-off that perpetuates a racist stereotype is just unacceptable. Take that sentence out, and it's a four-star book.

The Breakdown by B. A Paris
I really loved Paris' first book, Behind Closed Doors; it was a tense, powerful thriller about an abusive husband and a wife who eventually fights back.  This second book is good, yet I found it to be a bit reminiscent of the first.  The premise of the plot is new and different, however. On her way home from a pub gathering, Cass takes a shortcut through the woods and sees a car pulled over; due to the terrible storm that night, Cass continues on her way home and hears the next day of the woman's murder.  As the guilt roils her emotions, we also see the ongoing memory issues with which Cass struggles, the impact it has on her young marriage, the slow deterioration of her mind as well as her life, and the help/hindrance of many supporting characters.  I read voraciously, with guesses in mind of 'whodunnit' (yes, I was correct from my original guess but perhaps it's because I read a ton of mysteries and not that it was obvious? Hmmm), yet I did wish that Cass did not take so terribly long to grow a backbone and act like a strong capable woman.  I would like to see Paris develop that strength sooner, or at least in her next book, have a woman who is a bad-ass and not such a pushover. With that said, if you're looking for a page-turning thriller, this one is pretty solid.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor
The author of Strange the Dreamer (and if you have not read this book yet, drop what you're doing and read it - truly stunning in style, character, and plot line), wrote a trilogy a few years ago that I am finally reading. Where has it been all my life?! If you like YA fantasy filled with magical beings (ie chimera), complicated characters (badass teens, monsters, and a few seraphim thrown in), and seriously complex and fascinating plot lines, this series is for you. In the first book, we meet Karou, a young woman who lives in Prague and attends art school with her best friend, Zuzana (don't judge - it's Czech). Karou has been raised by chimaera and knows nothing of her past life, which is revealed to her after falling in love with Akiva, a seraphim come to Earth.  I know, sounds crazy, right? Yet Taylor is a master storyteller, unwinding the secrets of the past and present through beautiful language and thoughtful development of her characters.  I cruised through this entire trilogy in a week's time. If you've never explored fantasy, give this one a shot - it is an incredible escape from the nastiness of the real world.

The Party by Robyn Harding
I am baffled by the 'rave' reviews for this so-called thriller.  Liane Moriarty, Paula Hawkins, Ruth Ware...these women can all write page-turning thrillers filled with complex characters; Robyn Harding, however, lost me on this one.  The premise was promising: sweet sixteen slumber party, tragedy ensues as does a trial, school bullying, and marital issues.  Unfortunately, the characters are all pretty two-dimensional, with very predictable behavior and not much growth shown by any of the teens or parents. Did I read it quickly?  Yep.  Would I like those four hours back?  Absolutely. I appreciate beautiful writing, provocative themes, and well-developed characters; this book was just not for me

Monday, May 15, 2017

May 2.0

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Wow, just wow.  This book contains a powerful punch - DO NOT MISS it, trust me.  Taking a page from the news, this debut novel deals with a police shooting of a young black man, followed by both the community and law enforcement reaction.  Told by Starr, a young black teenager who was in the car with Khalil when he was pulled over and shot, this young woman opens up the world of the inner city, of being a black student in an all-white suburban high school, of the anger in a community, of the frustration over injustice, of trying to straddle both worlds.  Starr is a rockstar, plain and simple.  Is she perfect? Nope.  She is sassy, combative, and angry; she is also fiercely independent, brave in the face of death threats and social exclusion, and knows when to shut up and when to step up. The supporting cast are stars in their own right as well: Maverick, Starr's ex-con, ex-gang, grocery-store owning father who loves his family fiercely and is not afraid to show it; Maya and Hayley, Starr's teenage girlfriends who provide two opposing pictures of racial knowledge and ignorance; Starr's siblings - Seven who shows what it means to be a big bother, the step-siblings who provide a look into a family in turmoil, and the baby of the family who quite honestly just made me laugh out loud.  This book will provide many "ah-ha" moments, as well as a deeper appreciation of the bubble where we all reside. I highly recommend this to all ages, all colors, all income levels - the more we learn, the more we can come together, stand together, progress together.

Irena's Children:  The Extraordinary Story of the Woman Who Saved 2,500 Children from the Warsaw Ghetto by Tilar J Mazzeo
Do not tell me you are tired of WWII era books after The Nightingale and All the Light We Cannot See; this non-fiction tale of this most amazing woman is not to be missed, seriously.  I taught Elie Wiesel's Night for years in my high school English class, showing "Schindler's List" occasionally and highlighting other heroes of the era.  However, looking back on it, how many women did I shine a light on?  Yep, none.  Quite honestly, shame on me and shame on Steven Spielberg  as quite honestly, Irena Sendler is a waaaaay bigger hero than Oskar ever purported to be.  Tilar Mazzeo (The Hotel on Place Vendome) has written a deep, thoughtfully researched, and honest story about an extraordinary woman.  It follows Irena's college education as she is influenced by progressive professors, her love affair with a Jewish man imprisoned in the Warsaw ghetto, her deep ties with the Jewish underground and partisans as she works both inside and out of the ghetto, and the system Irena and her compatriots use to hide, shield, and save thousands of Jewish children. Irena is an imperfect being, and Mazzeo exposes her foibles as well as her drive to always do what is right, regardless of the personal danger. This book gave me goosebumps and many surprising historical details of which I was ignorant; it is a truly inspirational book.  (And if you have young children, there is also an abridged version written for younger ones).  We need to highlight humanitarians in every part of the world and in every time period; we also need to show that women are extraordinarily strong, intelligent, wily, courageous, daring, heroic beings.

the life-changing magic of Not Giving a F*CK by Sarah Knight
First, let me preference this by acknowledging my love of the F-bomb; yep, it's a good word.  And next, I need to acknowledge, as the youngest child in a normal-dysfunctional family, my pathological need to people-please.  For those reasons and numerous others, I F*cking LOVED this book!!! I used to laugh myself silly when I sold the self-help book The Life Changing Magic of Tidying-Up during my tenure at Village Books; I always wondered "If you need this book to neaten up around the house, will it really change your life?" Hmmm...perhaps it did, as Sarah Knight's parody forced me to look at my own habits.  Shocking, I know, as I normally eschew the typical 'self-help' genre.  However, this book will make you laugh out loud (example: "unplug the family guilt machine before it can suck you in and spit you out like that Nordic assassin did with a corpse and a wood chipper in Fargo").  It will also help readers come to some surprising revelations about what is important in one's life, and what one really should not give a F*CK about in the big picture of the universe and desire for happiness.  Yes, I now have a "F*CK" list and a "Don't Give a F*CK" list that I will try my best to refer to in times of great angst, reminders of how to honor my own needs for time/energy/money without being an 'a**hole', and a greater sense of who and what does deserve my attention and love.  HIGHLY recommend!

A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson
Bryson is the ultimate "Renaissance Man"; he has written non-fiction books on history (One Summer), nature (A Walk in the Woods), travel (The Road to Little Dribbling), and many more.  His foray into science happened twelve years ago with this fascinating read.  After being inspired by Neil deGrasse Tyson's book, I felt a need to more fully understand our earth and how it came to be.  Having read some of Bryson's other books, I knew he would have a more 'science-stupid' approach and I was correct. Bryson looks at some big science ideas (the big bang theory, climate change, continental drift, evolution) and makes them come alive - let's be real, the names alone make my brain dry up!  Yet Bryson's wry sense of humor and depth of knowledge had me listening to the Audible book intently, and I felt like I understand much more than I would have thought.  The idea of billions of galaxies in the universe, the essence of time travel and the speed of light, and even how life began on earth...mind-blowing.  I have come to appreciate the hugeness and awesomeness of our life here on earth, and the infinitesimal existence we really have.  If you're looking for some down-to-earth, science-y kind of reading to stretch your mind, to try something new, this is truly the best.

The Perfect Girl by Gilly Macmillan
Ah, does one really need another thriller?  On a rainy weekend, sure, why not - and this one is pretty darn good.  Here's the premise: teenage musical prodigy with an IQ of 162 is returning to her musical career after a short break (as in, she was in juvie for killing three passengers while driving intoxicated). Unfortunately, the new town is not going to work for her any more as one of the parents of the dead teens discovers her at opening night.  Subsequently, mom dies and all kinds of weird and wild secrets come out, as we pop back and forth between the crime from two years ago and the investigation into mom's death.  Some fairly nasty characters make trouble in this book, a few heroes, and some well-developed red herrings, as well as a pretty fantastic twister of an ending.  Definitely a page turner - great vacation read:)

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
The latest in the Hogwarth Shakespeare series, Chevalier (Girl with A Pearl Earring) takes on the story of Othello, the tragic tale of friendship, love, and the ultimate betrayal.  Chevalier, however, takes the plot line and places it into...wait for it...a fifth grade playground, with each of the five acts a recess, lunchtime, and after school.  As a former elementary teacher, it is quite a brilliant move, as recess is the ultimate social experiment, with friendships lost over not being picked by a kickball team, a love affair that blooms at lunch time and is killed by the end of the day, and schoolyard bullies who rule the school.  In this case, Osei is the new boy from Africa, in a 1972 white school outside Washington, D.C. Immediately, Osei and Dee (ie Desdemona, the hot popular girl, ) become an item, causing Ian (ie. Iago, resident schoolyard bully) to become jealous, Casper (ie. Cassio, the hot popular boy) to become entangled in their web, and even Mimi (ie. Emilia, Dee's best friend) gets her loyalties pulled in opposite directions.  At times, I wanted more complex thinking and writing from this story, yet the voice truly fit those of elementary age children; they were fleeting in their emotions, impulsive in their behavior, and short-sighted over their relationships.  Would you enjoy this book more if you knew the story of Othello?  Absolutely.  Would it be an entertaining companion to the teaching of Othello in your classroom? For sure.  However, it is also another excellent example of how Shakespeare continues to be relevant hundreds of years after his death; he spoke of the most basic human emotions (love, revenge, betrayal, loyalty) that are still wrestled with in today's world.


Sunday, April 30, 2017

May Books



Salt Houses by Hala Alyan
A beautifully written book that encompasses so much of what is happening in the Middle East, yet does not engulf itself in war, or murder, or terrorism, but instead sets the story within generations of a Palestinian family.  The story begins at a wedding where the dregs of coffee foretell of life filled with sorrow, displacement, and emotional attachments.  Thus the story begins on the newlywed life of Alia and Atef: the many cities in the Middle East that they learn to call 'home' following the 1967 war, the three children they have with all the troubles of parenting that come with them, the winds that blow their family to all parts of the world, the rebellion of the teenage years and the search for identity in adulthood, and the final realization of what it means to be 'Palestinian.' This book does not tell a story of great tension, or mystery, or passion; what it does do is tell the story of a family who survives.  It opened up a hitherto unforeseen part of the Middle East for me and furthered my understanding that every story has multiple perspectives.

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson
Admittedly, this is not my typical genre. Also admittedly,  I am pretty sure I only understand a small percentage of the science. However, I was thoroughly awestruck by the concept of astrophysics, the study of the cosmos, and the hugeness of our universe and beyond.  I would find myself re-reading paragraphs, attempting to understand the ideas behind dark matter, supernovas, the big bang, etc., and eventually realizing that I did not need to comprehend every little detail; it was enough to use the topic to merely open my mind to the awesomeness of our existence. And yes, it was awesome.  Want to learn about where the components of the periodic table first came from or what all the black stuff is amongst the stars? Author Neil deGrasse Tyson, known for his ability to talk science in understandable language, inspired and educated me in a completely new topic.  This would be a pretty cool book for a book group; it would challenge the majority of readers, provoke conversation, and bring up some rather interesting topics.  Break out of that thriller/historical fiction/drama box you've been reading in and explore the cosmos!

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining Women by Kate Moore
If you liked Henrietta Lacks, this is the book for you. It is one of those stories that shocks, inspires, and mesmerizes a reader throughout the entire unfolding of a piece of history that cried for a voice. A new industry began as the first world war was born, a company which made clocks with dials that lit up at night due to the radium-laced paint used to paint the numbers.  These dial-painters were all young women, drawn to the job by lucrative pay and the hyped up idea that radium was good for them, that it gave them rosy cheeks and healthy blood.  This was a common, highly publicized belief in America, with tinctures and tonics marketed with the expensive radium chemical additive.  However, within a few years, the insidious march of radiation poisoning decimated the ranks of these shining girls, who glowed at night, developed anemia and sarcomas, and suffered immeasurable pain thanks to the "Lick, Dip, Paint" regimine.  The book follows the lives of some incredibly heroic women and their fight for justice and reparations.  Just when you think the story is over, hang on...the company finds another way to screw them over.  This was a fascinating look back at how OSHA was created, the rise of labor laws, and the heroes who gave up everything, including their lives, to make sure that others did not suffer the same fate as they did.  Absolutely loved the book!

The Leavers byLisa Ko
I am in a bit of a quandary over this book.  On one hand, the plot premise is engaging and topical.  A young Chinese-American boy, Deming, is abandoned by his Chinese mother and adopted by an American couple who re-name him Daniel.  While loving and well-intentioned, these new parents construct a completely unfamiliar new path towards adulthood for Daniel, with unwieldy expectations, a lack of knowledge for his past, and yet a willingness to hang in there during difficult times.  The story flips back and forth in time and character, with both Deming and his mother telling the story of past and present.  The quandary comes in when I think about the characters, both leading and peripheral. None are particularly heroic or likable, yet perhaps that is the author's point? This is a story of immigrants who are poor, who are buffeted by laws, by racism, by economic deprivation, who are merely trying to survive.  The questions I am left with therefore...is it possible to be heroic in these circumstances?  Do we ask too much of our children and of ourselves? Are laws supposed to be retaliatory and punishing, or should laws contain compassion?  This book provokes thought, and that is the point of literature.  I do think this would be a provocative book club choice, as it is a book that does not choose to give answers, but requires us to look at our own selves and our beliefs.  Solid debut outing by Lisa Ko, as is shown by the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction.

The Jersey Brothers: A Missing Naval Officer in the Pacific and His Family's Quest to Bring Him Home by Sally Mott Freeman
If you like stories of familial love and loyalty, were gripped by Unbroken and/or Flags of Our Fathers, and are a passionate lover of WWII tales, then this book is for you.  The three Mott brothers, Bill, Benny, and Barton grow up on the Jersey shore with an 'interesting' mother, a deep love for the Navy, and equally challenging childhoods and youths.  When WWII hits, Benny's Naval years place him as head gunner on the storied Enterprise carrier, Bill becomes the head of the map room in FDR's White House, and Barton is encouraged to go to the Philippines with the Navy Supply Corps where he will be 'safe.' Yep, you know where this true story is headed.  Barton is taken prisoner right after Pearl Harbor, and his two older brothers who always protected and cared for him, are frantic to find him.  Interspersed amongst the three stories of the brothers, this narrative follows the many battles of the Pacific, learning details of the shocking human toll at the battles of Saipan and Okinawa, the horrific treatment and movements of the POWs, and the interchange amongst the big boys in the White House. At times a bit long with more specifics than I needed, I still read voraciously, feeling well-educated at the end and quite in awe of the bravery of not only the Mott brothers, but of their Naval brothers in arms.  A first book, well-researched and written by the niece of the Jersey brothers, I do hope this is not her last outing.

The House of Names by Colm Toibin
The author of Brooklyn and Nora Webster takes a turn away from Ireland, all the way back to Greek mythology and the story of Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and their three children Iphigenia, Electra, and Orestes. This ancient story is ripe for a real page-turner with themes of parental love and betrayal, power and dominance, and thirst for revenge.  However, with all of Toibin's past writing accolades (well-deserved, mind you), he completely misses this time out.  These characters cry out for rich, deep development, to understand the motivation to kill a husband, to revenge a father, to betray everything one knows is good and decent.  Yet, the voices of Clytemnestra and her children remain flat and unemotional. This is a book of telling, not showing; it should have pulled at my heartstrings, but it left me saying 'meh.' And this from a teacher who taught the Odyssey for years and drove her students crazy with Greek mythological connections throughout the school year?! Sorry, but this is a big 'PASS' for me.

The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
Debut author, legal machinations, death row dilemma...this book called out to me.  Marzano-Lesnevich tells a tale of her own childhood intertwined with her work as a summer associate on a death row case.  Ali grows up in a legal family, both parents as lawyers in New Jersey, in a home riddled with hidden secrets and family dysfunction in some pretty tragic ways.  Molested as a young girl by her grandfather, Ali's family remains silent, 'protecting' all parties and sowing seeds of great trauma as Ali grows into adulthood.  When faced with a young man found guilty of molesting and murdering a six year old boy, Ali feels the need to delve more deeply into the story, testing her long-held beliefs on the injustice and finality of the death penalty.  This story definitely reads more as a memoir than a legal thriller as Ali juxtaposes her own family life with that of Ricky, the convicted felon. It brings up some troubling issues, with scenes that are very difficult to read, yet exposes the need to talk about the aftermath of molestation.  At times, I felt the description waxed on for too long, and details were given that were not relevant to the story; I would have liked the editing to be a bit tighter, to create more tension at times, so that it read more like 'true crime' rather than 'memoir.'  Overall, it is a solid first outing from an author that should definitely continue to write.





Saturday, April 22, 2017

April 2.0

Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Strout
Pulitzer Prize winning author, Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kittredge) is back to what she does best...stringing separate short stories together through similar motifs as well as character connections.  Few authors are so skilled at the sparse, spare writing that has the ability to illuminate so much.  Admittedly, this author could write a grocery list and I would purchase it; I am consistently in awe of her brilliance.  In a nod to her latest book My Name is Lucy Barton, Strout takes the peripheral characters from that short novel and gives them each their own moment of fame, in this case, their own chapter.  We return to Amagash, Illinois, the town of Lucy's birth, reminded once again of the amalgamation of society in the heartland of America:  the desperately poor, trapped by drugs, lack of education, and the disappearance of economic opportunity; the small town well-to-do folks, who have little concept of the 'other' and their needs; the folks who desperately seek love, sometimes finding it, sometimes not; the ones who escaped the small town trap, seeking bigger lives for themselves; and most importantly, we meet Lucy again, finally, in her attempt to return and reconnect with her siblings.  Does it help to have read Lucy Barton? Yes.  Is it necessary?  No.  (However, you should anyway - it is a fabulous book!).  This book illuminates so much of what not only divides our country today, but also what heals our country; it is the story of men and women, adults and children, old and young, and their struggles to find a modicum of happiness in their one brief time on earth.

Beartown by Frederick Backman
The author of the international bestseller, A Man Called Ove, is back! On the surface, Beartown is a novel of a small town where every man, woman, and child is obsessed by hockey, driven to watch, cheer, and kowtow to anyone connected to the rink, and willing to look the other way for both small as well as life-changing offenses.  Yet, hockey only grazes the surface.  This is the story of Amat, the phenom who skates for free while his mother cleans the rink.  It is the story of David, who needs to win and will motivate his boys any way he can.  It is the story of Benji, a player with a huge heart and an even bigger secret.  And it is the story of a family and a girl, whose core belief in their town, in what is true and honorable and right, is shaken to its very core.  All these dynamic characters are drawn together and tested as a terrible tragedy strikes the hockey family, and ultimately the entire town.  This story will sear your heart, force you to question your own actions, and make you cheer for the heroes that emerge.  Backman is back...and this is his most powerful book yet.

We Were the Lucky Ones by Georgia Hunter
My first thought was...do I really want to read one more WWII book? Haven't I heard it all? After reading Georgia Hunter's debut novel, based on her Jewish family's experiences surviving the Holocaust, the answer to that question is a resounding YES I needed to read another one and NO, I have not heard it all! After learning about her Polish relatives' survival, Hunter does a masterful job of research, weaving a tale of incredible hope and survival.  Covering the war years alone, we see the insular Jewish family of a mother, father, and five children, along with a few spouses as the Nazis slowly and insidiously enter their lives in Radom, Poland. As siblings are spun around the world (Russia, Brazil, Palestine, Italy, America), the war enacts terrible tolls, particularly on the one young grandchild.  At times it was hard to read as it wrung my heart out, yet it is filled with the such great courage and yes, hope.  The familial ties that bind this family together are extraordinary.  The beginning is a bit slow as you try to sort out who all the family members are, but do not give up; the tale of survival and the incredible ending is worth every moment.

The Stolen Child by Lisa Carey
Having just spent a week hiking on the 'Wild Atlantic' coast of Ireland, this was just the book for me.  Purchased in the Dingle bookstore, this book swept me away to a time period sixty years ago, on an island off the coast of Ireland inhabited by a fierce, independent, proud group of people who believe in the miracles of saints, the mischief of fairies, and the existence of changelings.  Twins Emer and Rose both have their own families, but are torn apart by their enormous differences: one loves her husband, one merely settles; one wants to stay forever on the island, one wants to take the offer of of housing on the mainland; one is sweet, loving, and kind while the other is filled with a deep well of sadness, anger, and abandonment.  When an American woman named after the island's saint, Brigid, comes and settles on the island, everyone's life is changed forever.  This book is filled with passion, magic, tension, sorrow, anger, and hope; it was a beautiful journey into Irish folklore as well as the history of the coastal islands.

The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown
The premise sounded promising...17th century England, sister Alice returns home to live with brother  Matthew when her husband dies in London, and finds her brother to be a nutcase when it comes to the occult.  However, I found this book to be a bit of a drag.  It took until half way through to really get into some plot development, as the author dragged the story along, plodding through the background on the family dynamics, the mystery of the brother's facial burns and their old servant, the complexities of their mother's mental and physical illnesses, the sister's hard life and marriage in London, etc. etc. etc.  And quite frankly, I was less than interested in these details as little tension was developed, nor any characters I could sincerely love or hate.  The second half was better, as the brother and sister take the 'show on the road' and ride about the small English villages testing young women for their skills at witchcraft.  Some emotional angst is brought in as the sister struggles with her own morality as she becomes complicit in the trials and deaths of these women.  The author plays with the idea of evil entities taking actual physical form, but does not firmly commit which is disconcerting to the reader.  Is it fantasy?  Is the evil read?  Or is the evil within humanity?  I would have liked more answers. Ultimately, I turned pages quickly in the end just to finish it, not because I was enamored.

The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck
This book has garnered quite a bit of buzz in the book world so I was excited to finally get to it on my bookshelf.  However, I was a bit under-whelmed.  The plot line is actually quite intriguing, with a bit of a different take on WWII and the Holocaust.  Instead of following the war, we see the aftermath and destruction of Germany, as well as the time period leading up to the declaration of war.  It was interesting in today's times that we are living in, with the rise of nationalism across the Western world, to see the rise of a dictator who subtly and insidiously plays on people's fears until they are willing to follow blindly.  The book is well-written, though at times I would have liked less long paragraphs and a bit more dialogue.  However, my main issue with the book were the three main characters who share the post WWII life in the castle:  Marianne, a privileged German aristocrat, courageous yet morally judgmental and inflexible; Ania, a hard-working mother of two boys with a dark secret; and Benita, an uneducated peasant thrust into a world of aristocracy and intrigue.  I continuously read, hoping to see some development with the three characters yet I was ultimately disappointed.  I found little to like, to applaud, or to feel deeply for in any of these women.  Is it a good story that keeps you reading?  Yes.  Are there great heroes and villains?  Not really.  For a reader like me who loves richly developed characters, I would not recommend it.


Wednesday, April 5, 2017

April Books

Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann
Do you like a good mystery?  How about history?  How about heroic FBI agents, twisted nasty bad guys, and an honorable tribal culture cheated out of both money and their lives?  The latest book by the best-selling author of The Lost City of Z will not let you down. This was an intriguing time in American history, one of which I had never heard about in either school or the media.  At the inception of a national department of investigation, soon to be known as the FBI, a new young director by the name of J. Edgar Hoover had a pile of crap laid in his lap:  in 1925, down in the Oklahoma area called the Osage hill country, Osage natives were being murdered.  The local and state law enforcement was too enmeshed with the suspects, thus a federal investigative team was needed.  Enter ex-Texas Ranger Tom White to save the day, and what an investigation it was.  The murder of Mollie Burkhart, and subsequently her sister and mother begins this tale of a dark time in our history, of a native tribe whose reservation sat on the richest oilfields in the world, of money stolen from the Osage, of family members, neighbors, friends, and lawyers willing to literally do anything to get their hands on the head rights of these fields, of lawmen who risked and lost their lives to uncover the insidious dark crime against these natives, and even the author, who uncovers hidden truths about new culprits decades after the trials.  I read voraciously, finishing in less than 24 hours, completely engrossed in this true-life crime of passion, prejudice, and broken family trust.  Even when you think it is all solved and what is left to be uncovered, you will find your mouth hanging open at the latest revelations.  This is what I call a 'humdinger' of a book!

The Widow of Wall Street by Randy Susan Meyers
While I can kinda/sorta read a balance sheet, the financial world is not my forte.  Thus, when the Bernie Madoff scandal hit a few years back, I was horrified by the people who lost their entire life's savings, yet also not completely clear about how something like this could happen.  Randy Susan Meyers (Accidents of Marriage -reviewed Dec. 2014 - excellent book) has fictionalized the Madoff saga, with a greater emphasis on the wife.  We meet Phoebe as a headstrong fifteen year old, born and raised in 1960's Brooklyn, daughter of a loving yet interfering mother, and infatuated with Jake, the boy who dreams big but lies and manipulates to get his way.  As Phoebe's life unfolds, and poor decisions commence, her marriage to Jake takes precedent to all else.  As the decades go by, we see the slow march towards unconscionable wealth, families persuaded to join the 'Club', Jake's special investment fund, Phoebe's involvement with a charitable organization, and the ultimate uncovering of a despicable lie.  Meyers knows how to tell a story, unspooling the lies slowly yet insidiously, grabbing at one's emotions through ideas of loyalty, sexual intimacy, and deep familial bonds, and making one turn pages late into the night.  This book was fascinating to me, a Pacific Northwest resident with little knowledge or attraction to the New York financial world, and the depth of the characters and tension of the story made it extremely hard to put this book down.  Definite winner!


If We Were Villains
 by M.L. Rio
For all you lovers of Shakespeare, teachers of the Bard, and attendees of festivals, this book is for you.  The premise is deliciously different from many other 'thrillers' of today.  Setting the plot at a prestigious arts institute, with the focus on the seven fourth-year actors, debut author M.L. Rio shows off her chops...and this woman knows her Shakespeare!  The story begins when Oliver is just finishing up his decade in prison and the policeman who put him there arrives to make a deal - 'Tell me the real story of that night and I can retire in peace.'  Thus the tale begins of these seven students, their last year together before graduation, the complicated ties amongst both students and teachers, the staging of Julius Caesar,  Macbeth, King Lear, Romeo and Juliet and all the ways these plays interact within their lives.  Of course, it is a tragedy so a dead body and some mystery is involved, but Rio does a masterful job of fully developing each of these seven actors, as well as what motivates their behavior.  Sprinkled generously throughout the book are lines from the Bard's many plays; as a former literature teacher, I loved recognizing some lines, but did not feel bereft if I was stymied.  I do not think you need a thorough grounding in Shakespeare but I do feel you will delight in this book more fully if you also enjoy a bit of the Bard.

The Cutaway by Christina Kovac
Combine a news director, a previous love affair with the head investigator, a scheming law firm, and the mysterious disappearance of a young woman, and a thriller is born.  Debut author Christina Kovac has created a tense, page-turner of a book in her first time out.  She highlights today's struggle to put out factual news and still keep the ratings up through lead character Virginia Knightley who chooses to ignore the management's directions and continues to investigate the disappearance and subsequent murder of a young Georgetown attorney.  Is the attorney's ex-military husband involved, as he struggles with PTSD?  How about the U.S. attorney, rumored to be having an affair with the young woman?  How is Knightley's ex-boyfriend involved, as he runs the investigation?  Is there something more than friendship with the lead anchor? And what is with the law firm where the victim worked?  Kovac forces you to furiously turn pages as you attempt to answer all these questions, giving you a few red herrings to chase down along the way as well as some complicated relationships among the characters to decipher.



Saturday, March 18, 2017

March 2.0

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
Her first book in eight years, Sekaran has written a humdinger of a story that is getting tons of buzz out there in the publishing world.  Charged with provocative themes of race, class, illegal immigration, and familial rights, this is a winner.  You'll need to get past the first 40-50 pages for the characters to gel, but be patient; it is worth it.  In this modern day re-telling of King Solomon and the mothers who both claim one child, Sekaran gives us two different mothers:  one, a young Mexican girl who has come to America, through the help of coyotes and generous parents, and who experiences horrific tragedy to give herself and her family a better life; the other woman, well educated at Berkeley, with a steady job, Silicon Valley husband, who desperately wants a child but is denied by her biology.  Throughout the book, we see the story of Solimar, an illegal immigrant, the fear that forces her to run through sidewalks in case ICE is around, who takes far less pay for her work as a nanny due to fears of IRS issues, and who is imprisoned for a nonsensical reason, in danger of losing the child she bore.  However, we also see Kavya, a woman who so longs for a child she can think of nothing else, who is a sincerely loving woman, who bonds deeply with the child in her care.  I found myself having to starkly and honestly confront my own embedded of class and race,  about what a child needs, or deserves - this is a powerful story that will provoke great conversation.

The Orphan Keeper by Camron Wright
Wright's previous book, The Rent Collector, was a favorite of mine a couple years ago, and he writes another interesting, heartwarming book on his second outing.  Based on a true story, just like his previous book, this time the focus is on India and its troubling past with illegal adoption practices.  We first meet Chellamuthu as a seven year old boy, part of an extremely poor Indian family.  While he is sometimes physically abused, due to cultural beliefs in his village, Chellamuthu is loved.  However, when his father leaves him on a street corner, unaccompanied for a short time, kidnappers take the small boy and deliver him to an orphanage in the big city.  The motives of the head man are questionable and provoke questions:  does he know the boy has a loving family?  does he care? does he care for the orphans to save them? or does he use the orphanage to fleece American families?  It is an intriguing dynamic.  As Chellamuthu then transitions to an American boy in his newly adopted family, he becomes Taj and we watch the years go by and his past fade.  Eventually, Taj must confront old memories and search for his past.  The only problem with this book?  At times, it does taste a bit saccharine, occasionally the story line drags a bit, and if you have seen the movie Lion, yep, it is a similar plot.  However, it is a heartwarming, multicultural story that would be appropriate for all ages.

I See You by Clare Mackintosh
Looking for your next vacation read, the one you cannot put down, the one where you want the world to stop tugging on your shirt sleeve? Look no further - Clare Mackintosh's latest (I Let You Go) is a serious page turner, as was her last one.  Written up in the New York Times book section for hot new mysteries, this one deserves all the accolades.  Playing on the real fears surrounding CTV, social media, and our obsession to let the world know everything about our lives, Mackintosh weaves a tale of suspense.  Two women take center state:  Kelly, a police officer, dying to be more than just on patrol and to work in the 'majors,' a dark past that keeps her back, and an insatiable curiosity and spot-on memory; Zoe, an ordinary mum, stuck in a dead-end job, torn between the current husband and the cheating ex, who sees a picture of herself in a newspaper advertisement as she rides the subway home.  As Kelly begins to piece together the pattern of rapes and murders, Zoe must protect not only herself, but her nineteen year old daughter.  Macintosh throws in numerous possible suspects, leading us down one dark alley after another, with a shocker of an ending.  This book does not disappoint.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
George Saunders, labeled "one of our greatest living writers" is back after his spectacular book of short stories, The Tenth of December.  His latest book will likely win a Pulitzer, American Book Award, etc etc etc.  It was an immediate bestseller and raved over in the New York Times and various book blogs.  Yet...I must be missing something.  On one hand, it is a highly creative plot line.  In 1862, President Lincoln visits the tomb of his eleven year old son, Willie, two days after his death of typhoid fever.  The book unfolds as various spirits, stuck here on earth in the 'Bardo' (a Tibetan term for the state in-between life and death), share their past lives and their perspectives on the current situation between Willie, who is desperate to see his father one last time, and Lincoln, who cannot let go of his beloved child.   Each chapter begins with numerous small tidbits of facts from historical diaries, news tidbits, etc., followed then by back and forth conversations from the spirits.  Many of their past lives are fascinating, humorous, terrible, you name it.  Admittedly, I had a hard time following all the strings of conversation and keeping characters straight; I also found myself more intrigues by the historical facts, rather than the ghostly tales.  I listened to the audio version which had tons of famous actors and has been highly reviewed; perhaps the written version where I could visually see the spirits' names might have been better?  I am looking forward to my Village Books bookclub discussion so they can clue me in to all the nuances I am sure I missed!

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
If I were to just scratch the surface, this is not my kind of book.  It has guns, and I mean a lot of guns; it begins with a child shooting a gun, chapters about each of the twelve bullet holes placed on Samuel Hawley's body, and minute description of his large gun collection.  However, below the surface, this is a powerful story of a wounded man, both physically and emotionally, loyalty to friends and family, and the unending search for love in this world.  I honestly did not think this book would be as deep as it became; I was figuring a bang-bang, shoot-em-up thriller, but I was so wrong.  The story swerves back and forth in time, spooling out the story of Hawley's life through each of his twelve wounds:  his beginning steps into the criminal world, the marriage and loss of his wife, his complicated relationship with his daughter and mother-in-law, and his search for heroism.  Tinti is a talented author, who uses the threads of Hercules and his twelve labors, the desire to be heroic when one is riddled with flaws, and the call of not only nature but the wisdom in the stars to show each character the way home, both literally and figuratively.  Do not put this book down, do not skim the surface and think it is a thriller - dive deep and swim through this rich and exciting book.  It is well worth your time.

Ill Will by Dan Chaon
This book gets lots of buzz, but honestly, I did not find it worth the hype.  Premise:  young boy named Dusty with a newly adopted fourteen year old foster brother named Russell who is abusive towards him, and oh yeah, spends decades in prison for killing the boy's parents as well as his aunt and uncle. Now that Dusty's wife has died and left him with two teenage sons, brother Russell returns to emotionally abuse the older son.  Yep, I stopped reading there.  I felt like I needed to take a shower - such ugly characters and a plot line that repulsed me.  One star...don't waste your time.