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.