Saturday, December 6, 2014

Holiday Reading

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
It's amazing the things you learn when you watch Jon Stewart's The Daily Show; without my daily shot of comedic news, I never would have heard of this book or this intriguing author.  Stevenson is a professor at NYU, but has spent the majority of his law career in an equal justice law service begun by him in Alabama back in the early 1980's.  Just Mercy is a timely book, considering the demonstrations, media attention, and high emotions currently surrounding race and the inequities seen in our judicial system.  Stevenson is able to portray his own battles, and the battles of his clients, through a system that is inherently weighted against the poor, the handicapped, and the black and brown people in our country.  Fascinating and heart-wrenching stories abound:  the black man accused of murdering a young white woman, with a dozen witnesses placing him elsewhere, sentenced to death; the mentally handicapped teenage boy sentenced to life without the possibility of parole; the mentally ill young girl railroaded into a confession.  Powerful, insightful, and incredibly moving, Stevenson shines a light on a justice system that frequently only gives 'justice' to the rich and powerful in our country.  This is truly a book all Americans should read, no matter their social class, race, or area of this country they inhabit - it is life-changing.

Birth of the Pill:  How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched  Revolution by Jonathan Eig
If you like non-fiction, I guarantee you will like this book.  It's a fascinating look at the decade leading to the 1960's introduction of the Pill.  We see Margaret Sanger, years after her turn-of-the-century infamous media splash.  She has become an alcoholic, pill-popping, strange little woman who still has the power to get the medical community to rally around women's rights.  We also meet the moneyed philanthropist who is willing to finance the greatest change for femininity the world has ever seen, as well as the two doctors who research, who go through trial and error after error after error, who buck the Catholic Church and the naysayers and the government and everyone else who wants to 'keep women in their place.'  Quite honestly, I had always taken birth control for granted, having come of age in the eighties.  It is quite the revelation to see the power of being able to control your own body gives to women, the life-changing new opportunities it opens up, and the financial empowerment it brings to the home.  It is a beautifully written narrative of some fairly brave people who changed the lives of millions.  Well worth the read.

The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood
Having loved Marwood's first book, The Wicked Girls (reviewed earlier on blog), I eagerly awaited this next novel, and I was not disappointed.  If anything, I found it equal to, if not better, than the first.  The plot line begins in the present, with two London police investigating the death of a young woman.  As the novel spins back through different times, we start to see the outlines of the plot and the quirky characters that inhabit the nasty boarding house where they let apartments.  There's the requisite kindly old woman who has lived in the apartment seemingly forever, constantly telling the landlord about the dreadful smell and clogged drains in her basement flat.  The landlord himself is a creepy, handsy, fat deviant who specializes in ignoring his tenants.  Add to the mix a young runaway, an odd music teacher and the mysterious thirty-something woman who seems to want to hide from the world, and you've got a humdinger of a mystery.  Marwood reels out the secret lives of them all slowly and deliciously as the reader tries to put it all together.  This is one creepy mystery with some stomach-churning death scenes but if you like well-written, very British stories, you will love this one.

The Secret Place by Tana French
Admittedly, I'm a big fan of Tana French and her Dublin Detective series, ever since her debut years ago of In the Wood.  While The Likeness was her one miss, in my opinion, Faithful Place and Broken Harbor were both extremely well-written novels with fascinating, complex characters.  In The Secret Place, she brings back a couple detectives from those books and places them in a rather snotty, aristocratic private girls school.  A year ago a boy's dead body was found on their grounds, and suddenly a note shows up on the school bulletin board, dubbed 'the secret place' that says "I know who killed him."  And thus the mystery begins.  The entire book envelops just one day of the police investigation, as the two detectives interview the power clique and the odd-ones-out clique.  Interspersed one after the other is the story of the past, as the months unfold that lead to the boy's death.  The relationship of the detectives is fascinating to watch; the embittered female detective, partner-less in the Murder Squad due to her attitude as well as her gender; the young detective trying to claw his way out of the Cold Case Squad, desperate to be accepted in Murder; and the older detective whose daughter is a pivotal character in the plot, both a master at mind games.  This is a well-written, thoughtful, complex mystery.  If you have liked Tana French in the past, it is a winner.

My Sister's Grave by Robert Dugoni
Another good mystery, but not nearly as complex and detailed as the two previous books.  However, if you like a good page-turner, enjoy reading about the Northwest, and need a good vacation mystery, this is a good one.  Plus, if you're an Amazon Prime member and own a Kindle, it's free on the library - can't beat that.  The female detective investigates murder for the Seattle Police Department, and one day gets a report that a body has been found in her hometown that is suspected to be that of her sister.  As the detective returns to the small town of Cedargrove,  Dugoni also spins the reader back to the time period of twenty years ago, the shooting competition the sisters won, the engagement, the disappearance, the trial of the accused, the small-town secrets, the dissolution of the family - and everything leads to the final culmination.  While some of the story may be a bit cliche - the old friend who becomes a lover, the gruff sheriff, the kindly storekeeper - it's a well-laid-out plot with some good twists in the end.

News From Heaven by Jennifer Haigh
As I searched the book lists for some titles to bring to our book club 'picking' meeting at the end of summer, I deliberately looked for some good short story anthologies, just for a change of pace.  While short stories are not typically what I am drawn to, Haigh is one of my favorite authors so I figured we could not go wrong here.  Yep, I was right:)  Having already read Haigh's novels Bakerton Towers, The Condition, Mrs. Kimble, and Faith,  I am a serious fan.  She has an innate ability to breath life into normal people, to develop her characters so deeply that you hurt with them as they go through the normal complexities of life.  After the hundreds of books read in the last few years, I can still tell you every plot of those four books; Haigh sears these people and their life stories into your brain.  She really is that good.  News from Heaven is a compilation of stories that are all tied to Bakerton, the small mining town in Pennyslvania where Haigh set her first book.  Each story stands on its own, but is connected in some way to previous and future tales.  Her characters have very familiar problems - lost love, heartbreak, war, family dysfunction, death - but as you read, you become invested in their lives.  You won't find neatly tied up packages at the end, as that is not the way real life works either.  I loved this book and cannot wait for the discussion this month at book club.

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
What a pleasant relief to pick up a book that is only 183 pages long, and not the requisite 480 that every author seems to be determined to write; a good, crisp, well-told tale can be a beautiful thing.  I read Schumacher's book in just one day, and not just because it is short - it is utterly hilarious.  The book is an epistolary; in other words, the whole thing is a bunch of letters.  The letters cover a full academic year and summer in the life of one very curmudgeonly middle-aged English professor.  As he will tell you numerous times, he is tired of writing LORs (letters of recommendations) so he infuses his letters with some of the meanest, most satiric, wickedly funny tidbits that I wish all letter-writers would have; they would definitely be more entertaining for prospective employers to read.  The professor also details his life in his letters to various committees and university staff members, showing us his deadly literary career, his issues with former wives and girlfriends, and underneath all the vicious wit, a heart that actually believes quite strongly in the power of teaching literature and writing, God love the man.  If you have a secondary teacher or college professor on your gift list this month, do them a favor and buy them this book - it will hit just the right chord and make them laugh out loud.

The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Here is one of 'those' books: award-winner, critically acclaimed, on best-seller lists, short-listed for Man Booker prize, etc. etc. etc.  and yes, you guessed it, I couldn't stand it.  Normally, I don't review the books I don't care for, but I felt compelled as this one seems to be on everyone's 'to be read' list.  My advice would be...don't waste the time.  It's a viciously long book that could have used a more judicious editor.  The first two-thirds drones on and on, setting up the post WWI situation of  Frances and her mother, who have lost their father and two sons/brothers, as well as their nest egg.  Previously rather well-to-do, they have to resort to letting out rooms to a young couple, Mr. and Mrs. Barber, who are of the 'lower' classes.  Ms. Waters then spends an inordinate amount of time on the love affair of Frances and Mrs. Barber; I don't care who's having sex with whom, I don't want to read the details for a dozen pages - it gets tiresome.  It took until the final last quarter of the book before the plot line thickens and creates some tension with a murder, a trial, and a lover's spat.  Waters can definitely write a beautiful sentence and gorgeous prose; she just writes waaaaaay too much of it for me.

First Impressions:  A Novel of Old Books, Unexpected Love, and Jane Austen by Charlie Lovett
Lovett's first book, The Bookman's Tale (reviewed on earlier blog), was one of my very favorites of last summer.  Therefore, I was excited to see his next one come out with a similar idea, a plot line stretching across historical eras to one of my favorite authors.  In this case, it was a mix of a current Oxford literature student whose family library collides with Jane Austen's first draft of Pride and Prejudice.  The story flips back and forth from present-day, to the 1800's of Austen's young writing life.  If you are an Austen fan, you will recognize her story lines, her family life, and the beginnings of some rather famous novels.  I thoroughly enjoyed the historical aspect, and for most of the book, loved the tension and mystery surrounding the missing book.  I was ready to give it five stars...and then came the last thirty pages.  Crushingly disappointing, with so many cliches I could not count; the bad guys and good guys were cut right out of paper...bleh.  It ruined what was really quite a good tale.  It almost seemed as if Lovett was in a rush and just slap-dashed off the ending.  Phooeey.

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