Friday, July 31, 2015

Seveneves

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson, 867 pages.
Stephenson, author of such science fiction classics as Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and Anathem tends to write books that are rather epic in scope. This novel starts with a contemporary setting and a rather believable apocalyptic event. As the nations of earth come together to try and save the human race by getting enough people off the planet and into some sort of  a sustainable future, Stephenson has what seems to be a complete story. But people in this world do what people do all the time, and soon jealousy, naked self-interest, and bad luck have the human race on the very edge of extinction. The last third of this book is somewhere between an extended epilogue, and a stand-alone story, though it wasn't til this point that I finally realized the significance of the title.
Stephenson is a very good writer, with a fair supply of style and a lot to say about science, people, and the ways in which life can become very complicated.

Great characters and interesting plot arcs keep the story going even after you think you had gotten to the end. A fun, entertaining tale that integrates the science into the tale seamlessly.
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The Glasgow Trilogy

The Glasgow Trilogy by Malcolm Mackay
The Necessary Death of Lewis Winter, 316 pages
How a Gunman Says Goodbye, 360 pages
The Sudden Arrival of Violence, 391 pages

In a stark and spare manner these three books explore the relationships between characters who are gunmen, enforcers, mid-level criminal management, or members of the Glasgow police as they go about their daily lives. Their daily lives are filled with betrayals, rumor, and violent reactions. Very few of the characters enjoy the killing and the violence that they face or mete out on a daily basis, it's all just part of the job, part of maintaining a strong image in a world where the perception of weakness can bring about tragic changes of circumstance.
Mackay is a master of conveying the mood of a scene, the setting and all of the action through his character's observations and internal monologue.
Through the trilogy an aging gunman, Frank, tries to accept that his recent hip replacement may mean the end of his life in organized crime. His protege, Colum, must decide if the life he has been living will be all he ever knows.
Reminiscent of Ted Lewis's Get Carter series and Richard Stark's Parker novels. Fans of well-written, fast-paced crime fiction will enjoy these. They are excellent.
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Let's be less stupid

Let's be less stupid: an attempt to maintain my mental faculties / Patricia Marx 200 pgs.

Patricia Marx once hung up the phone with a friend because she could not find her phone.  If you can relate with that last statement, this book is for you.  Marx decided to do something about her memory "problem" and undertook every activity she could find to enhance it.  This experiment lasted four months which she bookended (hey, did I just make up a new word?) with cognitive testing and an MRI to see quantify improvement.  But this book is no "how to".  Marx is a former writer from Saturday Night Live.  She has a sense of humor but does not have a lot of practical advice for the rest of us.

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The Residence

The Residence: Inside the private world of the White House / Kate Anderson Brower 309 pgs.

A look behind the scenes at the White House.  How does that place run?  Mostly flawlessly due to the crew of household staff that makes sure the needs of the President and families are met while they reside in the White House.  This book is full of personal stories from the staff who prides itself on its ability to respect the privacy of the people who live in and visit the "first residence."  If you are looking for gossip, you won't find it here but there are great personal stories from a variety of workers who have "seen it all" over their tenure.  Stories date back to the Kennedy's.  A must read for those looking for a more personal side of the first families.

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Thursday, July 30, 2015

A God in Ruins

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson, 468 pages

A God in Ruins examines World War II through the experience of Teddy Todd, an RAF pilot who was involved in many of the bombing missions in Germany. Like Atkinson's phenomenal Life After Life (a companion novel to this one), A God in Ruins jumps back and forth in time, telling Teddy's story both during the war, and in the years after, branching out into the lives of his wife, daughter, and grandchildren. I love Atkinson's always-surprising way of telling a story, and she doesn't disappoint here, offering up twists and turns, as well as plenty to ponder about war, humanity, and destiny. Well worth a read.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Audrey at Home: Memories of My Mother's Kitchen

Audrey at Home: Memories of My Mother's Kitchen by Luca Dotti  256 pp.

This is a loving memoir of Audrey Hepburn (with recipes) written by her son, Luca. In spite of her rail thin physique, Hepburn was a great lover of food and cooking. In spite of the quantities she ate, she did not gain weight as a result of suffering near-starvation during the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands during World War II. Included in the book are hundreds of photos, many never before published. Fifty recipes with detailed directions are included. There is a variety of favorites of Hepburn, her family, and friends. Because she retired from acting to raise her children, there is very little about her movie career. The focus of the book is the post-Hollywood Audrey Hepburn as a wife, mother, and later an ambassador for UNICEF. This is a sweet, quick read (lots of pictures).

Monday, July 27, 2015

The Axe Factor

The Axe Factor by Colin Cotterill 294 pp.

After spending so much time on Anna Karenina I needed something light and fun. This is the third book in the Jimm Juree mystery series that takes place in southern Thailand. These books are full of quirky characters humorous situations. Jimm is a free-lance journalist who lives with her unusual family at the run down resort her mother runs. Jimm is given an assignment by the local newspaper to interview the wealthy, successful mystery author, Conrad Coralbank. Coralbank takes a "personal" interest in Jimm and they begin a relationship. In the mean time the nurse at the local health clinic enlists Jimm's help in finding the missing clinic doctor. The doctor has been missing since attending a medical conference sponsored by a supposedly upstanding corporation. Injected into the story are blogs by a mysterious "CC" detailing axe murder & dismemberment. Anonymous threats arrive at the resort targeted at Jimm. Jimm believes Coralbank's housekeeper is the one making threats but Coralbank has an extensive weapons collection and the initials fit. Jimm begins investigating with the help of her sister Sissi, a former transsexual beauty queen and expert hacker, her bodybuilder brother, Arnie, and her retired policeman grandfather. In an exciting ending Jimm comes face to face with the killer and her rescue seems unlikely. There is lots of humor in these novels. In this one each chapter is titled with poorly translated "English" signs aimed at tourists (“Please Leave Your Values at the Front Desk”).

Go set a watchman

Go set a watchman / Harper Lee 278 pgs.

Set 20 years after the incomparable To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise Finch visits her father, Atticus.  Jean Louise lives in New York City but is still dating Henry Clinton when she comes to town.  Times are changing and the NAACP is actively pushing civil rights.  The one thing that Jean Louise thinks she KNOWS for sure is her father's commitment to fairness and equality.  This trip is eye opening for Jean Louise because she feels the shift in her small little Southern town of Macomb.  Attitudes are changing and things she thought were sure things in her life are less certain. Jean Louise goes through as many changes on this one trip as have happened in the 20 years since we last saw her as Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.

There has been a lot of talk about this book and the author.  Is this a legitimate publication, is Lee being taken advantage of, Is Atticus a closet racist instead of the admirable man dedicated to equal justice?  I'm not sure reading this will give you all the answers.  I see it more as the evolution of the relationship between father and daughter, the discovery that everything you thought was black and white when you were a kid may have a lot more gray involved.

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Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy  938 pp.

No spoilers since people are still reading it for the last discussion. Anna Karenina is, at first glance, the story of Russian noblewoman who has an affair and ultimately leaves her husband for her lover. A second storyline involves Konstantin Levin, a landowner who marries a princess who was jilted by Count Vronsky, Anna's lover. Because of the title it appears that the main focus of the story is Anna and her illicit affair but a large portion of the book concerns Levin, his farming, marriage, his dying brother, and the political situation in late Nineteenth Century Russia. The crux of the entire book is Russian society and it's inconsistencies, prejudices, arrogance, and failure to acknowledge the rapid changes taking place in the world outside of their own closed culture.  

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

H is for hawk

H is for hawk / Helen Macdonald 300 pgs.

Helen Macdonald's father dies and it is like a punch to the gut.  She isolates herself and wallows in grief.  During that time, she adopts a goshawk, Mabel, and pretty much turns everything else off in her life and spends time communing with the bird.  An experienced falconer, she has never trained a goshawk before.  They are supposedly difficult as detailed in a book she read from childhood, The Goshawk by T. H. White.  White's struggles are distant but familiar.  She revels in reading about his mistakes but makes a few of her own.  A bit of a memoir of grief, a bit of an adventure story and a little history, this book has something for almost everyone.

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