Friday, June 15, 2018

June 2.0

The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland
You know those books that sweep you into the characters' lives, that make your heart ache and your brain think? Yep, this is that kind of book, the kind that I did not want to put down at night, no matter the time. The story begins when Loveday, a young woman who works in a bookstore, finds an abandoned book on the street and posts a note in the store window. Nathan, the owner of said poetry book, invites Loveday to a poetry reading...the story unrolls from there. Through the eyes of Loveday, we revisit the past: family life at a small seaside town, as their lives unravel; life in foster care; a violent relationship; and the small cadre of loyalists who surround Loveday and help her to heal from her past. Loveday has a wickedly British sense of humor, with hilarious asides to you, the reader, as she relates the story of her life. For those of us who love life in a book shop, who love complicated characters, who love exploring how the past impacts our present, who loves smart writing, this book is definitely for you. This is a feel-good, there-is-hope-for-a-better-tomorrow, and books-matter kind of novel.

The Myth of Perpetual Summer by Susan Crandall
Susan Crandall is a master of tales of the south, dysfunctional families, heroic children, and satisfying endings. Her previous two books, Whistling Past the Graveyard and The Flying Circus, were some of my favorites, and her latest is a worthy member of her collection of Southern stories. This time around we are introduced to the James family, living in Mississippi in the 1960's: the father, a history professor who suffers from bi-polar disorder; the mother, completely uninterested in being a mother; Gran, who wants to believe in the old elegance of the south and her aristocratic family; Griff, the oldest boy trying hard to outrun his embarrassing family; the twins, Dharma who is desperate for attention, and Warner, who just wants to be loved; and Tallulah, the narrator, a smart, compassionate, courageous, independent young cuss of a girl. The story moves from California in the hippie era, back in time to Tallulah as she tries to repair the broken threads of her family, and forward to 1972 as the family tries to save one of its own. My one complaint is the ending is a bit saccharine, but then again, we all need hope, especially in the face of tragedy. This book will make you cringe, remind us of hard times past, and eventually warm your heart.

The Possible World by Liese O'Halloran Schwarz
This book is good, and I mean really good. Reminiscent of authors Jodi Picoult and Kate Morton, Schwarz is able to pull together different time periods, characters, and plot lines, weave them into a panoramic view, and then pull it all together in the end. First the characters: Lucy, an ER doc, struggling with her marriage, the crazy hours, and the emotional turmoil of incoming patients; Clare, an elderly patient in assisted living, looking back at her Depression-era childhood and the direction life took her; Leo, a young boy, given away by his mother, and in need of a home where he is loved; and Ben, a young boy, traumatized after a horrific murder scene, and scared speechless. Somehow, Schwarz pulls these disparate people together, creating a book one cannot put down, and reminding us of the power of love, the pull of our past (in every way), and the ways strong women can choose to direct their lives. In other words, Schwarz is a very talented storyteller.

Bring Me Back by B.A. Paris
I loved her first book, Behind Closed Doors, and liked her second book, The Breakdown, but it is never a good sign when one laughs at a thriller, and wants to throw the book across the room when the last page turns. The premise was promising. British male character, Finn, pulls into a roadside rest stop in France to use the bathroom. When he returns, his young girlfriend, Layla, has disappeared. Twelve years later, good ole Finn is engaged to Layla's sister, Ellen, has just completed a big lucrative financial deal, and Layla rears her mysterious head. Ellen and Finn hear find Russian nesting dolls everywhere (it's a 'thing' with Layla), Finn receives multiple emails, and Ellen believes she sees her. As this mystery unwinds, we go back to the past to see the beginning of their relationship and it throws in what perhaps the author perceives are intriguing red herrings, but really, they're just stinky dead fish (I mean, the hermit-like neighbors next door?? The childhood friend he beats terribly??). And seriously, the ending had me shrieking with laughter, with the complete implausibility of the entire 'mystery.' B.A. Paris is waaaaaay better than this.

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O'Farrell
I was quite intrigued by the idea of this book - an author recounts her many near-death experiences, and waxes on philosophically about the meaning of life. Not a bad idea. However, the actuality of it was just not my cup of tea. By the fourth 'near death' miss, it just got a bit repetitive. Besides, how many times can one be that stupid? Some of it was just bad luck, but some incidences were like...really??? The philosophical part of life was occasionally provocative and thoughtful, but in general this short book was not short enough for me.

The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History by John M. Barry
Yes, I read weird stuff, and yes, this is one of those. This was a reaaaaallly long listen on Audible, that had super interesting spots and then other dry spells where my mind wandered. It gives an extraordinary history of American medicine - the lagging behind Europe, the big minds of the day, the rise of proper medical schools, etc. And yes, I found that stuff fascinating. As it starts to tell the tale of how the Spanish flu pandemic originated on U.S. military bases, and the shockingly grotesque errors the government made that allowed this disease to spread throughout the world, killing millions before it died out, I could not pull myself away. However, some of the small details of the research to find a cure and the obscure scientists who looked for it became a bit mind-numbing. However, I would definitely recommend this to anyone thinking of going into medicine, and who likes to listen to long books (reading it would be a bit of a chore). And yes, John M. Barry really knows his material.

All is Not Forgotten by Wendy Walker
This is a fascinating and twisty thriller that I highly recommend listening to rather than reading. The narrator is Dylan Baker (google him - trust me, you'll know him. He always plays brilliant crazy people on television). His voice is amazing and kept me quite occupied as I walked my dog. The premise of the story is unique: Jenny, a sixteen year old girl is brutally raped and while at the hospital is given a drug to make her forget the actual hours of the rape. At the time, it seemed like a good solution to Charlotte and Tom, her parents, yet this 'forgetting' has some traumatic outcomes as memories are never truly gone. As the psychiatrist-narrator relates the story, he delves into the secret lives of Charlotte and Tom, as well as another patient of his who also was given the drug after an violent incident in the Middle East war zone. Be forewarned - there are some graphic violent details of the rape, as well as a few sex scenes.


Friday, June 1, 2018

June

Us Against You by Frederik Backman
If you read Beartown, you will be compelled to read this one. I was not sure if I was ready to re-enter the small northern town of Beartown, to relive the heart-wrenching yet incredibly heroic tale of a culture that turned its back on a vulnerable girl and her family. Yet I also wanted to know..what next? This book picks up at the end of a tragic loss for the Beartown hockey team after a young girl's story of rape sidelines the star, and forces his friends to become heroes or villains. Once again Backman is able to take our hearts and wrap them around his characters: the new female hockey coach who says she only cares about hockey but gives chances to kids who never had them before; the head thug who loves his brother and his hockey team with a purity that defies reason; the two best friends who must re-find how friendship should be defined; the star who is outed, and must find his place in the hockey stadium and the world at large; the mother and father whose life ambitions pull them apart; the politician who is willing to sacrifice them all for power; and the crusty old bartender who holds the town together. As I turned the final page, I felt bereft, as if I had lost a town of friends, people I cheered for, yelled at, shook til their teeth rattled, and ultimately drew into my heart. Yep, I loved this book; I loved it because Backman reminds us that humans are complicated, not perfect, just complicated.

Jar of Hearts by Jennifer Hillier
This is a solid thriller that kept me turning pages late into the night. Set in Seattle, the plot line veers back and forth between the story of today (high paid executive testifies in court against high school boyfriend who is serial killer, and then begins prison sentence) and the story of their high school days (trio of friends, one who is murdered, one who goes to prison as an accomplice, and one who is the policeman who investigates). Fair warning, this is not for the faint-hearted as some blood, gore, and violence accompany this telling of a psychopathic murderer who preys on young girls, and adds in small children to the crimes of today. The author throws in numerous red herrings to send you in a variety of directions; it took me awhile to figure it all out, but eventually the clues were all there. My one complaint is that the ending was too saccharine for my taste, too pat, and a bit unrealistic. And I have to say, as a Seattle-ite born and bred, it's annoying to read about a fictitious college - just use one of the colleges that are in the city as there are a plethora of them. Just my two cents.

A Reaper at the Gates (Ember Quartet #3) by Sabaa Tahir
Ember in the Ashes began this YA fantasy series. I really liked the plot construction of the first one, but was disappointed in the weak female leads - where were the badass heroines taking on the world? But when I read book number two, A Torch in the Night, I was reminded of the value of patience, of slowly building characters, of allowing learning and life to shape people. Laia and Helene, along with Elias, have turned into some of my very favorite literary characters, showing honor, integrity, heart, wisdom, and courage - all learned in response to not only their upbringing and heritage, but to what life has thrown at them. In book number three, the fight continues for the Empire, for the Scholar slaves to find freedom, for Elias to 'catch' the dead and take them to the other side, for Helene to save her family from destruction as well as her country, and for Laia to be the heart that holds them all together. Book Three in this quartet is powerful and amazing; trust me, do not miss this series if you're a fan of YA fantasy. It's one of the best in the literary world.

The Broken Girls by Simone St. James
Historical fiction spliced together with a ghost story in a girl's boarding school and a little murder on the side - does it get better than this? Switching between two times periods, we see the issues this small town has with the now defunct school where wayward girls were once sent decades ago, and where the main character's sister was found, dead, in the not so distant past. As Fiona Sheridan, daughter of a famous journalist, investigates the school, it brings up memories and questions surrounding the conviction of her sister's murderer, the rich son of a bigshot family. Fiona begins to learn of the four girls who once lived at Idlewild Hall, as well as the long ago death of a young girl, who perhaps continues to haunt the area all these years. This book is a classic throwback to the gothic novels of old, but with some modern twists that will keep you on the edge of your seat. I literally could not put this book down, and now understand all the rave reviews for it. Highly recommend for that summer read, brain candy book, especially for my teacher friends who want to be entertained during the break.

Lying in Wait by Liz Nugent
I loved Nugent's debut novel, Unraveling Oliver, but her second book just did not live up to my expectations, mostly due to the ending. It is definitely a page turner and easy to read, and the first line is a doozy! "My husband did not mean to kill Annie Doyle, but the lying tramp deserved it." The story is told through two voices, wife/mother Lydia who hides a murder, and her son Laurence, who attempts to live a normal life from within a seriously messed up family. Lydia, who is just out and out batsh*t crazy, has some fairly wicked skeletons in her closet, never wants to go too far from her huge family estate, and pretty much destroys everything she touches. Poor weak, overweight, pathetic Laurence tries real hard to escape her clutches, but alas, for naught. I never really felt for either of these characters: wholly unlikable, thinly drawn, and just not that bright. The ending fell flat as well, so this book was a bit of a miss for me.

Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body by Jo Marchant
At the age of 55, I experienced my first surgery, which led to a long journey down the rabbit hole of chronic pain, varying medical advice and prescriptions, and a turn to looking for other options. This book is a powerful look at the varied options out in the world that do not preclude medical care, but also includes options outside that realm as well. Using many statistics and studies, journalist Jo Marchant explores the placebo effect, the uses of behavioral conditioning, virtual reality, religious belief, and many many more as she travels through the Western world looking for "cures" to a wide variety of medical issues. This book is a formidable reminder of the power of the mind, and our ability to harness it in the service of healing ourselves. Life-changing for those of us who need another road to healing.

Friday, May 18, 2018

May 2.0

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware
Admittedly, I am a big fan of Ruth Ware; she writes very quintessential British mysteries, full of interesting characters, always uses a female lead, and is darn good with the ending 'twist.' I loved In a Dark, Dark Wood, really liked Woman in Cabin 10, and thought The Lying Game was okay. In Mrs. Westaway, Ware has her mojo back. Hal, a lonely young woman, deals tarot cards on the Brighton pier, has some serious money issues and a nasty loan shark, and has recently received a letter telling her that as Mrs. Westaway's granddaughter, she has an inheritance coming. All good, right? Yeah, nope. All of Hal's paperwork shows her grandparents' names and none of them are Westaway, she's never heard of this family, and it would literally take her last dime to get a train out to Penzance. Yet...how can she not go? Who better to pull off a con than a fortune teller? As Ware spools out the threads (three uncles she's never met, a forbidding and creepy housekeeper, a diary from a teenage girl, a creaky cold Cornwall mansion, and some prophetic magpies), I followed quite a few hints down wrong roads. This book kept me turning pages long past when I should have - great vacation read, or for a rainy day, or just for anyone that loves a solid mystery.

Furyborn (The Empirium Trilogy #1) by Claire Legrand
Take all the most incredibly creative ingredients from other fantasy novels: shades of HP (tournament, dementors, trio of friends, prophecies), Hunger Games trilogy (tournament costumes), Game of Thrones series (army of the dead, flying creatures), Shadow and Bone trilogy (different magical skills for cliques of people), Daughter of Smoke and Bone trilogy (angels for antagonists). And now mix it all together with Claire Legrand's natural affinity for gorgeous writing, a creative and beautifully drawn fantasy world, a gripping plot, and complex and deeply developed characters, and here is a new hit fantasy series. This book is wicked good; its characters invaded my nighttime dreams, made me stay up waaaay too late at night, and made me voraciously hungry for the second book.

A Shout in the Ruins by Kevin  Powers
In 2012, Kevin Powers wrote his award winning debut novel called Yellow Birds, an evocative and unforgettable story of the Iraq war. Six years later he is back with another powerful and confronting story, this time set in the South. The story spins throughout time periods: the Beauvais plantation as its inhabitants face the cruelty of enslavement and the brutality of Civil War; Virginia in the 1950's as an old man searches for his identity; and the 1980's as a woman reflects back on her life. Through these brief snapshots of life, Powers forces us to see what our American history of racism, enslavement, and lack of opportunity has done to all of us, whatever race we may be. The power of hate and how it entraps all humanity is shown to be insidious and powerful. This is not a book to be read when falling asleep; one needs all their emotions right on the surface, all their wits about them as the setting changes, and all their own cultural biases at the forefront to see the beauty in this book. This would be a phenomenal book club choice, and also a powerful read for a high school or college classroom, particularly in today's world as we continue to see the consequences of terrible decisions made hundreds of years ago.

How to Stop Time by Matt Haig
This is a delightful, witty, very British romp through time as we meet Tom Hazard, a man who happens to be over 400 years old, living in today's world. You see, he has a physical anomaly - for every decade of life, he only ages one year. Sounds great, right? Yet it has caused Tom a plethora of stress and tragedy throughout the ages as it requires him to move constantly (it gets a little noticeable when you don't get any older than your neighbors!) and lessens the ability for long term relationships when you outlive a spouse by a few hundred years. We meet Tom as he has taken a new job teaching history in a London school, creating many opportunities to go on past reminisces on the people he has met (Shakespeare, Captain Cook, F. Scott Fitzgerald), the adventures he has experienced (wild west America, Tahiti during the height of colonialism, the roaring twenties), and the family for which he yearns. I was thoroughly entertained by Matt Haig's dry humor and thoughtful explorations of love, friendship, and the passage of time.

Legendary (Caraval, #2) by Stephanie Garber
In the first visit to Caraval, we met the two fearless sisters, Tessa and Donatello, as they escaped their nasty father and won the golden ticket to play the game of Caraval, a magical romp put on by the mysterious magician called Legend. This second trip is mind-blowing, wickedly delicious, and contains an unstoppable train of events. Tella is the player now, and a dark, foreboding pall hangs over this game as the elderly empress has demanded a special playing for her birthday celebration. Unbeknownst to Tella, the Fates (a super creepy batch of creatures) have been trapped in a deck of cards for quite some time and want out. Her 'pretend' fiance for the game happens to be the Prince of Hearts who is looking to free his buddies from their flattening confinement, as well as dangling the possibility of saving Tella's long-lost mother as part of a deadly bargain. The sisters have some impossible choices in front of them, which forced me to stay up waaay too late to voraciously read to the very end, where of course I got a bit of a cliffhanger as I wait impatiently for Book Three. She does, however, wrap up this storyline which is much appreciated:) Stephanie Garber is a magician herself as she is able to create a gorgeous yet forbidding fantasy world, write complex characters that act in oh so human ways, and design a twisty turning plot that demands to be read. While I loved Caraval, I do believe Legendary is even better.




Thursday, May 3, 2018

May

Trouble the Water by Jacqueline Friedland
An antebellum story, set in Charleston, with whiffs of The Kitchen House in its character development, this is a solid first outing by a debut author. When young Abby Milton comes to live in Charleston, all we know is the life of poverty she left behind. Yet Friedland slowly spools out the details of Abby's past, and we see how this past impacts her introduction into Charleston society and her life with her benefactor,  The author does a solid job of creating a strong female character that still fits into the time period, not always an easy thing to do. Abby is no wilting violet. Douglas Elling, an Englishman and shipping magnate, has a troubled past of his own, as his abolitionist work has brought him great sorrow. Slavery is white-washed a bit, but there are some incidences that show the degradation, the violence, the humiliation of the institution that are powerful parts of the book. The minor characters in this story are well developed, particularly Miss Larissa, the governess and Grace, the newly found best friend. As passions collide, the story builds to a somewhat predictable ending, and yet an explosive epilogue. If you are a fan of love stories and historical fiction, this book will suit you well.

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain
The author of The Paris Wife and Circling the Sun is back, delving once again into a strong woman engulfed in a relationship with America's iconic writer, Ernest Hemingway. This time she focuses on Martha Gelhorn, a young woman from St. Louis, a travel addict and aspiring writer. Her elite circle pulls her into contact with a variety of famous people, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, Lillian Hellman, and yes, the great Hemingway. This book focuses solely on the years of their relationship: their meeting in Key West, the affair begun in the midst of the Spanish Civil War, a life in Cuba, their struggles with his literary success and her literary frustrations, and the time apart as Martha pursues her own career as a war correspondent. This book is aptly named, as their love for one another shines through, but it is apparent that neither are great candidates for marital bliss. As always, the book is well-written, well-researched, and has well-developed characters. However, my huuuuge complaint is that McLain has done to Martha Gelhorn exactly what the press did to her decades ago; she minimizes Gelhorn's own career (read the Author's Note at the end - Gelhorn is an icon in the journalistic world, one of the all-time great war reporters this country has ever known, and she did it by breaking every gender stereotype) and puts Gelhorn's life into context only as a wife to Ernest. Aargh...I can hear Marty Gelhorn turning over in her grave. Gelhorn is a fabulous choice for a novel, but I wish McLain had used her as she did Beryl Markham in Circling the Sun, as an incredible portrait of what a woman must do to survive in a man's world, the resilience and grit it takes to never give up, and the incredible courage it requires to turn one's back on marriage and motherhood and pursue one's career. Ah, that's where the story of Martha Gelhorn belongs and McLain misses it, at least she did for me.

Silent Companions: A Ghost Story by Laura Purcell
Do not - I repeat do not - read this book late at night. This is a throwback to the old Victorian Gothic books I was addicted to year's ago, full of mystery, ghostly companions, mysterious family members, and creepy servants. In other words, I could not put this book down. Set at the end of the 19th century,  the story begins with Elsie talking to a doctor in the asylum, a hint of the hot mess found in the past. As Elsie relates her story as part of her 'therapy,' she tells of the dark, overgrown estate of her late husband and the village who won't work for her (you know, the ghost and witch rumors will kill a good employment opportunity). Her only companion is her husband's cousin, Sarah. Oh, and the creepy wooden 'silent companions' carved a few hundred years ago for the previous family members to keep them company and show off to King Charles the First. Those pesky wooden cut outs just will not go away and survive being locked away and even burned. The hair on the back of your neck will be permanently raised, and the ending will make your jaw fall on the floor. If you like a little bit of fright (no blood or serial killers, just gothic creep), you may love this book as much as I did. And the cover is just stunning - well worth the paper copy.

Tin Man by Sarah Winman
This is a gorgeous little book that is so hard to describe. The characters drive all the action, yet not a lot of action exists. Feelings exist, as does history, disease, paintings, words. Two young boys, Michael and Ellis, become friends, fall in love, then fall in friendship. Annie comes along, loves Ellis and forms a triumvirate with the two young men. Ellis is left alone in the world, with only his memories and Michael's diaries to keep him company. It all sounds so simple, yet Sarah Winman takes these intense feelings of youth, of hope, of confusion, of death, of tragedy, of grief, and of renewal, and she melds them into a stunning book that I just could not put down. A bit reminiscent of A Little Life, this is a gorgeous story.

The Map of Salt and Stars by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
A topical and powerful setting for a debut novel, this book moves between two unique times: medieval Syria where a famous Muslim mapmaker and his legendary female apprentice fight mythical creatures, Crusaders, and the elements to map the world as it is known; and Syria in 2011, where a widowed mapmaker returns with her three teenage girls, after years in NYC, to find family and cultural connections, but runs straight into the Arab spring and a civil war. I struggled with the first half of this book, finding it hard to connect to either story. The 12th century story is rife with Arabic names of ancient places no longer heard of, as I found myself skipping the long descriptions. Once the story settled more on the characters and their quest to map the world, it was far more interesting. The modern tale is told through the eyes of 12 year old Nour, a daughter who grieves her father and suffers through unimaginable horror as her world is literally blown up around her. Yet it took until the second half to care deeply about this family. I wanted the author to dive deeper in their hearts, to flesh out more of the story through the characters rather than the plot.  I do hope this author writes another book on Syria as I believe she has great potential for educating many of us on the need for more compassion, not a law banning refugees getting a hand up from America.

Our Kind of Cruelty by Araminta Hall
This book reminds me of a combo of Gone Girl + Girl on the Train + Fifty Shades of Grey. Take an unreliable, batsh*t crazy narrator, toss him into a sexually charged relationship with some twisted beliefs, mix it in with a death and plenty of bias against women, and Our Kind of Cruelty is what comes out of the oven. Don't get me wrong; the story is unique and quite compelling. I just feel like I want to take a shower after spending a couple days in the world of Mike and Verity. If you like dark, nasty twisted tales, where the courtroom scenes put on full display the hypocrisy of what the world thinks of sex and women, then this book is for you. It would definitely be a provocative choice for a book club. Thanks to Net Galley for a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, April 20, 2018

April 2.0

Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan
This is a gorgeous book, both inside and out, that perfectly encapsulates my personal beliefs about why I am a proud bookworm. In a witty, sassy, irreverent voice, London writer Lucy Mangan takes us on a nostalgic trip through her childhood reading. We journey through picture books, first readers, obsessively read book series, and the power of young adult books that made her see the world in a new light. Sprinkled throughout is some wonderful trivia on the varied famous children's authors of yesteryear, as well as the different movements throughout the rise of children's literature. While many of the books were unknown to me (born and raised in the U.K., Lucy was enamored with different books than an American child of the 1960's and 70's), yet I was interested in what these books meant to Lucy, and ultimately they reminded me of my own childhood obsessions. Much of my current book tastes were born from my childhood: the Oz books gave me my love of magic and fantasy; the Little House series brought me into the world of historical fiction; Anne Frank introduced me to the power and learning of non-fiction; and Anne of Green Gables showed me the world of a strong young girl who fights for her place in the world. This book felt like a warm hug as I traveled back in time, when books opened my world in stunning and unforgettable ways.

The Day the World Came to Town: 9/11 in Gander, Newfoundland by Jim DeFede
The latest new hot Broadway hit, Come From Away, is based on this 2006 book; considering the musical is coming here to the PNW in October it made sense to give this book a read. And wow, it blew me away - finished in just a day and a half, it is near impossible to stop turning pages. If you are like me and vividly recall every moment, for weeks on end, of 9/11 and its aftermath, this book will grip you as well. On that day, over thirty airplanes were directed to land in Gander, a small town on the island section of Newfoundland. And in this remote land, passengers from over 40 countries, varied religious beliefs, ages, and economic levels, a total numbering over 6,000 came together to be hosted by "Newfies." I was amazed at some of the famous folk involved, and moved by the stories of ordinary Americans as they dealt with the griefs and worries over family left behind, where to turn next, and the horror occurring in their own country. The Newfies themselves are heroic, almost unreal in their hospitality, compassion, and kindness. As I see a level of hostility towards the 'Other' in America today that breaks my heart, as I long to see more human kindness and compassion towards those in need, from wherever they may come, this book renewed my belief in humanity.

The Liar's Candle by August Thomas
This book surprised me. When I first got into it, I thought it was going to be a shallowly written, stereotypical "girl is stupid, man saves her' kind of spy thriller. Yet August Thomas pleasantly surprised me in her debut outing with truly authentic characters and exciting plot twists. Penny Kessler is a 21 year old American intern at the Turkish embassy when a bomb goes off and kills hundreds of innocent people. As Penny gets wrapped up in the search for the perpetrator, she meets an intriguing group of people: the daughter of the Turkish president, the female section lead of the CIA, the agricultural desk jockey who is actually an intelligence officer, and an assortment of folks just trying to kill her. Author Thomas does not denigrate Muslims or Turks, does not play to racist hatred, puts strong females in important roles - impressive. Penny acts perfectly her age - impulsive, sassy, smart, and thoroughly twenty-one. I loved that the author didn't make her out to be a stupid girl, but a young one who has much to learn about trust and truth. My favorite though was her sidekick, Connor, who totally runs against the typical male hero - former Naval officer, current CIA agent, is openly gay, questions his actions in following immoral orders, is not superhuman but wholly human. I turned pages quickly and was thoroughly entertained by this story.

The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Gilbert
The title itself is a bit of a downer, and I'm not usually a science-genre kind of reader, so this is a surprising choice for me. I chose to listen to it, figuring the science-y talk would not put me to sleep that way; for the record, I was correct. Gilbert spends this book looking at the vast extinction going on literally right under our noses - think frogs, reefs, and lots and lots of bugs. Yep, they're all dying off, which may seem inconsequential, but Gilbert makes us see the overarching big picture of what this means for Earth. It did not make me feel as if the sky is falling, spinning me into a grand depression, but it is eye-opening, shocking, and ultimately very enlightening. Granted, I do not care all that much for bugs; most of us don't. However, the author makes a good point that we all are much more drawn to the 'sexy' possible extinctions, such as rhinos and gorillas, but it's the small stuff that is going to be the ultimate problem. We humans have not been good for this earth and this book, while a tad boring at the beginning, is quite interesting in the end.

The Line Becomes a River: Dispatche from the Border by Francisco Cantu
Topical and multi-faceted, this is an interesting memoir. Cantu focuses on his life as a  Latino-American - fluent in Spanish, a college graduate who wants more than a cubicle in an office, and who is able to see both sides of the big picture of immigration in America as he spends a few years as a border patrol agent. The problem with the book for me is the writing style: it jumps abruptly amongst an olio of topics, none of which become deeply developed; I found the writing to be a bit clunky at times when discussing the people involved in the story, yet poetically descriptive about the scenery of the Southwest; and the narrator's voice is quite calm and cool on a very emotional topic, which I find a bit perplexing. This book takes a very controversial subject - how do we deal with illegal immigration in this country - and actually creates no controversy in his story? Odd. Cantu witnesses some pretty heavy stuff, yet maintains such emotional distance that I ultimately was disappointed with his effort.

Friday, April 6, 2018

April Reading

Circe by Madeline Miller
Remember way back in 2011, a gorgeous book called Song of Achilles? I have been waiting patiently for her next book...and it is finally here on April 10. Once again, as is obvious by the title, Miller returns to her Greek mythology roots. As a retired teacher who taught the Odyssey relentlessly, year after year, Miller picked one of my favorite characters on which to focus her incredible story-telling skills. Circe, the witch who 'imprisons' Odysseus and his men for over a year, sends them to the House of the Dead, tells them how to avoid Scylla and the Sirens, this gorgeous, frightening, intriguing, complicated woman finally gets her own story and it's a doozy. We see her youth in her father Helios' palace (yep, that Helios, the Sun God), her interplay with some creepy siblings and cousins, her first foray into witchery, the banishment to her island, and her dealings with a wide variety of characters from Greek mythology; don't forget - she's immortal so time just whizzes by. While it was a bit of a slow start for me, by about page 40 I was ensnared in Circe's world. This is a gorgeously written book of a historically misunderstood woman, imperfect yet capable of growth, weak yet learns strength, unlikable at times yet wholly admirable. I highly recommend:)

The Chalk Man b C.J. Tudor
This is a deliciously British mystery, dark and chilling, with some strangely compelling characters. The plot line trades places between the childhood of a small gang of children and thirty years later, as the boys have grown into men, the girl into a woman with secrets, and adults who are ill, dead, or have lots of skeletons in their own closets. Eddie Adams is the core of the story that everything swirls around; he has a wild crush on Nicki, the one girl in their crowd, he befriends the school teacher who helps him save a young girl's life after a horrifying carnival accident, and Eddie is also the one who creates the game of chalk. Their gang uses chalk messages and stick figures to communicate with one another, but when a dead body is found and chalk messages litter the forest, a mystery is born. This book will take a reader down a lot of dark alleys, through mazes of dead ends, give hints along the way, and leave one reeling all the way until the final chapter. I highly recommend listening to this one; the narrator has a marvelously clipped British accent, perfect for this creepy tale.

Then She Was Gone by Lisa Jewell
This book is definitely a page-turner of a thriller. Laurel's daughter Ellie went missing ten years ago, yet Laurel's new love interest has a young daughter who looks strikingly like Ellie. As Floyd becomes incorporated into Laurel's life, author Lisa Jewell creates a cast of quirky characters: Hanna, the daughter Laurel has a complicated and negative relationship with; Noelle, the weird math tutor; Paul, the ex-husband who Floyd seems freakishly copy; and Poppy, Floyd's young daughter, brilliant, socially over-mature, homeschooled, and a dead ringer for Ellie. Yet with all this mystery, the book ultimately was a bit predictable for me, with too pat of an ending. Read in one day, this is a vacation read that won't let you down, but not one that will linger long in my mind. Thanks to Net Galley for a free copy in exchange for an honest review.

The Saint of Wolves and Butchers by Alex Grecian
The author of Scotland Yard's Murder Squad books (The Yard, etc.) has turned his attention to a new cast of characters in a new setting. Investigator Travis Roan has made his way to Kansas where he is in search of a Nazi who has hidden for decades. On his first day, he meets both Skottie Foster, a state patrol woman and Sheriff Goodman, a stereotypical small town lawman who does not want strangers in his territory. My favorite character, however, is Bear, Travis' humongous Tibetan mastiff, whose personality, bravery, and intelligence steals every scene. The hidden Nazi, Rudy Bormann, has gathered a creepy collection of acolytes around him while Travis' family organization supports his investigation. The plot line is unique and definitely gripping; in other words, I was compelled to keep turning pages. My one complaint would be the characters. At times, I felt that Skottie, a newly single mom who happens to be one of the rare African-American staters, was thinly drawn; so many deeper issues seemed to be plausible with her that I felt the author ignored. Ditto for Travis Roan, whose mysteriousness is intriguing but also makes me want a second book in order to delve deeper into how Travis came to be this human who fights those who lack humanity and honor. Well worth the read, but also worth a round two by the author to flush out these characters.

Friday, March 23, 2018

March 2.0

In the Shadow of 10,000 Hills by Jennifer Haupt
It's hard to know where to start with this profoundly gorgeous book. Evocative, lyrical, powerful...this book grabs the reader by the throat and forces one to look at the survivors of the Rwandan genocide, and it doesn't let go easily as I found myself continuously thinking of this story well after turning the final page. First, the characters - oh my, the deeply complex, beautifully flushed out people who inhabit these pages: Lillian, a young girl involved in the beginnings of the civil rights movement in America, who eventually moves to Rwanda and starts an orphanage; Henry, the white man Lillian loves during a time it wasn't allowed, a photographer, a father, a wanderer, a lost man; Tucker, a young medical student who comes to Rwanda seeking meaning in his life; Rachel, Henry's daughter and grieving mother, who seeks answers about her father to fill the empty spaces in her heart; Chloe and Nadine, survivors of the genocide, living victims whose life will never be the same; and most importantly, the country of Rwanda, the land of 10,000 hills, whose land is rich with both tradition and hate, the land that needs to heal and regrow. Author Jennifer Haupt, a journalist who gathered the stories of the Rwandan survivors and wove it into a breathtakingly beautiful book, shows great talent in her debut novel. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.

The Widows of Malabar Hill by Sujata Massey
Oh my, what an utterly delightful and unique book from an author I should have discovered long ago. Set in 1921, Bombay, Perveen Mistry is a young woman who works in her father's law firm as the first female solicitor in Bombay, awaiting entrance to the bar. Intensely curious as well as intelligent, Perveen's unique ability to enter purdah (the strictly secluded women's quarters of Muslim women) allows her access to a fascinating world. The three widows who live in a bungalow on Malabar Hill need help with the will of their recently deceased husband; as Perveen gets to know these intriguing women, secrecy and even murder invade the legal machinations. Woven throughout the novel is Perveen's own past history, one that involves a deeply held love, abuse, and her own experience in an orthodox Muslim household which gives her a depth of understanding far beyond the ordinary Farsi attorneys. This is a beautifully written book that showcases a strong woman, an fascinating culture, and a time period of long ago that has echoes of today. It is also a beautiful book to listen to as the narrator is quite gifted - I highly recommend it for your next long car ride:)

Janesville: An American Story by Amy Goldstein
Janesville is the quintessential Rust Belt town: majority white, suburban/rural, dependent upon manufacturing, strong traditions, can-do spirit, and yes, the home of House Speaker Paul Ryan. Yet in the Great Recession of 2007-2008, Janesville has the rug ripped from under thousands of feet as the major employers in town (General Motors, Parker Pens, Lear Corp who made the car upholstery) all shut down. The fallout is what Washington Post journalist Amy Goldstein explores, and it is a strangely gripping read. Strange because at times I felt I was invading peoples' lives, as Goldstein follows a variety of people for years as they struggle through these hard times. Yet she also shows the other 'side' of Janesville as the bank president and other leaders of the community experience and see the destruction of jobs in a completely different light. I came to better understand the frustration with both political parties as Janesville was promised, lied to, and deceived as the people tried to recapture their jobs of yesteryear, a time of high salaries, good health insurance, and dependable pensions, a time that was never to come again. This was a fantastic listen with a great narrator and an inside look at how the recession almost destroyed a community.

White is the Coldest Colour by John Nicholl
The premise of this book is unfortunately quite topical: a respected doctor in a Welsh community preys on young boys, yet the police, child protective services, and parents have a hard time believing such an upstanding citizen could be a monster. The author uses a variety of story strands to tell the story: police detectives investigating a pedophile ring in the area; a family in crisis with a young son who needs counseling; a social worker that knows what is going on yet cannot inform a friend to remove his son from the doctor's care; and the creepy, insane, evil doctor. The problem I had with this book is what I would call "unrealistic predictability.' Instead of focusing on how deft and insidious many pedophiles are at grooming their young victims, the main focus is more on the unraveling of this doctor, as we watch the wheels go spinning off in remarkable fashion as the police close in. The psychiatrist does insanely ridiculous things, yet it seems almost how it goes in this book. The family story is the most compelling, as the parents try to get past an affair and mend their family. The creepy doctor is such a flat character, who shows only his evil side in the telling of this book, that it is impossible to believe anyone in this town would have liked and respected him. And as far as the doctor's own family...so damaged that the ending is completely unrealistic. Potential here, but a miss for me.