Saturday, November 17, 2018

Emma, a modern retelling, by Alexander McCall Smith

As a follow up to the reading the original Emma, I read this very successful retelling.  Like Curtis Sittenfeld’s Eligible, a 21st century Pride and Prejudice, McCall Smith captures the wit and liveliness of Austen’s prose and the social complexities of her plot, but gives Emma a few deft and amusing spins of his own.  The reader gets a more complete back-story to Emma’s childhood and her father’s early widowhood, which is covered in just a few early pages in the original.  I particularly liked that Mr. Woodhouse becomes a more well-rounded and real character in the modern book.  Harriet Smith, too, will surprise.  Thoroughly entertaining.  As an aside, I had only read the first of McCall Smith’s No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series and had no idea that he was such an industrious writer, with 100+ books (including scholarly works) to his name, many in continuing series and some even for children.  Where he found time to be professor of medical law at the University of Edinburgh and an international expert in bioethics, I have no idea.   361 pp.

You think it, I'll say it

You think it, I'll say it / Curtis Sittenfeld, read by Emily Rankin and Mark Deakins, 226 pgs.

Ten stories about average domestic situations.  Nothing found in a thriller and yet it is sometimes thrilling to get a peak inside the head of people doing regular things, living their lives, and figuring things out.  One woman is having an emotional affair with someone her husband works with.  When he unexpectedly becomes available, she learns he has no feelings at all for her beyond friendship.  A volunteer at a homeless shelter develops a hatred for a new volunteer who is too bubbly and has a different philosophy.  Old classmates run into each other on their respective honeymoons and their memories of their high school friendship varies quite a bit. Far from being banal, these stories are funny and sensitive.  It was a pleasure listening to the audio version.

America for beginners

America for beginners / Leah Franqui, read by Soneela Nankini, 310 pgs.

A widow from India is traveling to America to discover what happened to her son.  He came here to study but then discovered he was gay.  When he came out to his parents, they were not supportive. Additional stories include the guide hired to take the widow on her trip and a companion hired to make sure she isn't traveling alone with her male guide.  This was a fun read that touched on some serious topics.  The audio was well done by Soneela Nankini.

Friday, November 16, 2018


Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani  166 pages

Priyanka Das is an Indian teenage girl who wants to find her self and rediscover her Indian culture. All she knows is that her mother won't talk to her about her past in India, which makes Pri feel misunderstood. Then she finds the magic of the pashmina, which is a cloth that allows her to experience the ideals of freedom. The children's graphic novel is about the choice to make your own life decisions and how to spread that choice to others, woman specifically.

I wouldn't normally read a book with this plot however I highly enjoyed it. This graphic novel is a good read for all ages and I hope others give it a shot as well.


Uprooted by Naomi Novik, 438 pages

Every 10 years, a reclusive wizard named the Dragon comes into the valley and chooses a 17-year-old girl to spirit away to his tower. When Agnieszka's year comes, she (and everyone else in the village) assumed her friend Kasia would be taken. But everyone was wrong: Agnieszka is chosen instead, much to the Dragon and Agnieszka's mutual consternation. As Agnieszka starts her years in the Dragon's home, she quickly learns that she has magical ability, though of a completely different sort than the Dragon's. Soon, Agnieszka finds herself putting her powers to the test in battles between herself and the Dragon, between the dark magic of the nearby forest and her hometown, and between countries that have fought intermittently for the last 20 years.

This is the second time I've read this captivating, fairy tale-esque novel, and I enjoyed it as much this time through as I did before. Novik sprinkles the story with references to the Eastern European fairy tales she grew up hearing, yet creates something completely new. I love the character growth of Agnieszka, particularly as she harnesses her stubbornness to assist in her magical skills. This is a wonderful book, highly recommended to those who enjoy fairy tales.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The House Swap

The House Swap by Rebecca Fleet (2018) 294 pages

Caroline and Francis, a married couple in Britain who have a young child, take a vacation a few hours away from home as part of a house swap through a website. Their relationship had weathered some rough times in the past few years as Francis battled an addiction to pills and Caroline became enamored with a  co-worker. Caroline and Francis stayed together, but their relationship was still somewhat fragile; they hoped that this vacation for just the two of them would help.

The house they stayed in was oddly barren of personal touches, but there were a few things that started creeping out Caroline, including a bottle of the same aftershave that Carl, her ex-lover had used, which was  hidden under the bed, and a lone photo on the wall, which showed a place that she and Carl had gone to together. Who house were they staying in? Who was in their house? Was the house swap a coincidence or was something odd at work here? Why does Amber, who lives across the street from the vacation home, persist in showing up at strange times and asking questions?

Alternating points of view tell the story from the perspectives of Caroline, Francis and the person occupying their house/the person whose house they are occupying. The story also pivots in time from when Francis was an addict and Caroline was starting her relationship with Carl, to the present time. I usually shy away from suspense, but this novel gripped me. Each time I thought I was starting to understand something, I found there were still layers of unknowns yet to be revealed.

Emma, by Jane Austen

After Pride and Prejudice, Emma is probably Austen’s best-known work.  Austen called Emma a heroine "whom no one but myself will much like" and I found myself coming down on the side of not much liking the main character although I certainly enjoyed the book.  Twenty-one year old Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever and rich,” lives a life of comfort and ease as the younger daughter of a difficult widowed father.  She has a “happy disposition” but is oblivious to her own faults, is socially snobbish, and what a modern-day reader would call a control freak.  Her father, Mr. Woodhouse, also a controlling personality, suffers from anxiety and hypochondria, seeing danger at all turns – as a result, he rarely leaves the house, dislikes change of any kind, and hopes to keep anyone he loves safely by his side indoors.  In this he has been frustrated.  Not long back, his elder daughter married John Knightly and set up housekeeping with him and her growing family about a mile away.  Most recently, the girls’ beloved governess and companion, Miss Taylor, or “poor Miss Taylor” as Mr. Woodhouse always refers to her after her departure, has similarly found happiness outside the family hearth when she marries a local widower and moves into her own nearby establishment.  All this distresses Mr. Woodhouse terribly.  With only her father left at home, someone as lively as Emma is sure to find her circumscribed existence boring, so she sets about arranging the lives of others.  Her many forays into match-making drive to plot as marriage is about the only game available to her and those around her.  Her blindness to others leads to one misunderstanding after another and many lives are affected by her meddling.  With some luck, a growing sense of her own limitations, and the help of her sister’s husband’s brother, George Knightly,  in the end all find a happy ending.  Marriage all around!  Although I thought I had long ago read the novel, I must only have seen modern-day film adaptations.  Having a “new” witty Jane Austen to read was a treat.   453 pp.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Hanging

The Hanging by Lotte Hammer & Søren Hammer  298 pp.

Two children arriving at school early one morning discover the gruesome remains of five men, mutilated and hanging by the neck from the gymnasium ceiling. Chief detective Konrad Simonson (frequently and confusingly referred to as Simon in the book). As the victims are slowly identified a connection between them is discovered and it appears their deaths were the result of brutal vigilante justice against pedophiles. The ones behind the murders launch a media campaign against Denmark's failure to investigate and prosecute child sexual abusers compounding the difficulties faced by the police. What seems at first to be a basic police procedural takes on a more complex nature as side plots intervene, some integral to the story and others not. I found this a slow read and I'm not sure if that is because it is a translation from Danish or just the story itself.

The Punch Escrow

The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein  356 pp.

In the year 2147, Joel Byram works at training artificial intelligence to be more human. His wife is a researcher for the corporation that has developed teleportation (think "Beam me up" on Star Trek).  Everything about life in the 22nd century has been altered by genetic engineering and nanotechnology right down to the mosquitoes which now consume air pollution instead of blood. The secretive and somewhat sinister teleportation company is opposed by a fanatical religious group who sees teleporting as a corruption of the body. When a planned trip to Costa Rica for Joel and his wife is disrupted by a terrorist attack, the result is the creation of two Joels during the transporting process. It is then that the "dirty secret" about the transporting process comes out as the corporation attempts to eliminate the Joel in New York while the Joel in Costa Rica has no idea what has happened. It's an interesting premise that will give you second thoughts about how nice it would be to instantly travel from place to place.

Armstrong and Charlie

Armstrong and Charlie by Steven Frank  298 pp.

This is one of the books selected for my Treehouse Book Club. It takes place during the 1970s shortly after the resignation of Richard Nixon. Sixth grader Armstrong LeRois has been enrolled in a busing program to take him from his neighborhood school in the Los Angeles South Central projects to a previously all-white school in wealthy Laurel Canyon. Charlie Ross will be attending that school as always even though many of his friends have been pulled from there by parents who disagree with the busing of African-American kids to the school. The boys are also dealing with their own issues at home. Charlie's older brother died recently and his mother is deeply depressed while his father is trying to hold everything together. Armstrong's dad is a Korean War veteran who lost his leg in battle and still suffers flashbacks from the war. Armstrong and Charlie engage in a lot of one-upmanship and some physical altercations before reaching a truce and ultimately becoming friends. The story also realistically covers the important adolescent issues of peer pressure and boy-girl relationships. Even though some of the 70s references will be lost on the kids reading it today, the themes are ones still apply to contemporary society.