Tuesday, January 21, 2020

Come Tumbling Down

Come Tumbling Down by Seanan McGuire, 206 pages

*SPOILERS AHEAD FOR Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones*

In this fifth book of McGuire's Wayward Children series, we return to the dreary, horrific Moors, home world for twins Jack and Jill. At the end of Every Heart a Doorway (book 1 in this series), mad scientist-in-training Jack has killed her evil-yet-frilly twin Jill and is taking her body back through their door to the Moors. When this book starts, that door is reappearing, with someone who appears to be Jill being dragged through by yet another girl. But "Jill" is actually Jack in Jill's reanimated body — turns out Jack and her mad scientist mentor, Dr. Bleak, resurrected Jill, and then Jill's vampire master made Dr. Bleak swap their bodies so he could turn Jill into a vampire. So Jack has returned to Eleanor West's to ask her friends for help defeating Jill and her vampire master, and in getting her own body back.

Does that plot summary sound like a crappy B-movie? Yup. But I SWEAR no plot summary can do justice to McGuire's intricately drawn characters and the very real feelings they have. I'm constantly amazed by her writing, and this book is no exception. Another fantastic entry in this series.

Ayesha at Last

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin, 351 pages

At 27 years old, Ayesha's family has all but given up on her marrying a nice Muslim man. She wants to be a poet (but is settling for substitute teaching) and is stuck dealing with her younger and flighty cousin Hafsa. But when she meets Khalid, a traditional young man who is helping their mosque plan an event for young adults, both Ayesha and Khalid feel a connection, though neither will admit it. But thanks to a small mixup that Ayesha neglects to fix, Khalid thinks that she is actually Hafsa. Throw in some rishtas (the traditional courtship and marriage offers of Islam), and we have a thoroughly confusing, yet entertaining tale. Taking more than a few cues from Jane Austen, this is a great mashup of traditions in a very modern setting. I devoured it in nearly one sitting, and I highly recommend it to fans of Austen, romance, and mistaken identity stories.

Gideon the Ninth

Gideon the Ninth by Tamsyn Muir, 448 pages

When she was an infant, orphan Gideon was grudgingly taken in by the Ninth House, where she became a playmate/indentured servant to House heir Harrowhawk, though Gideon always dreamed of escape. Her chance finally arrives after more than two decades, when the mystical and revered First House sends a summons to the Second through Eighth Houses for their best necromancer and a cavalier to come compete for a job serving the undying Emperor. Harrowhawk and Gideon answer the call on behalf of the Ninth, traveling to a world inhabited only by reanimated skeletons, searching through a possibly empty palace for keys to their potential future.

Rereading my description, it sounds like a really dark and weird story, which is definitely correct. But it doesn't fully capture the twisted humor and horrifying situations. Gideon is basically a sword-wielding foul-mouthed jerk who is forced by uber-goth Harrowhawk into pretending to be a silent creepy nun. And this possibly empty palace? Dusty and creepy as anything you've ever seen in a movie, read about in a book, or dreamed in your worst nightmare. Somehow, it combines to make a story that is funny and creepy and full of action and intrigue.

Two Graves

Two Graves (Agent Pendergast series) by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child  484 pp.

When you read certain series out of order you may find yourself confused. That was the case with this book. I have read Fever Dream in which Helen, Agent Pendergast's wife is murdered. I haven't read Cold Vengeance where Helen apparently is found to be alive. This book begins with Helen alive but being kidnapped and then murdered. Pendergast is once again devastated and hides himself away but returns to work when a mysterious serial killer stalks New York. Pendergast realizes he has a personal connection to the killer. That investigation leads him to a plot involving modern day Nazis continuing the horrific work of Josef Mengele. A side plot involving Pendergast's "ward" Constance Greene explains some of the mystery surrounding her existence. I found this episode in the series to be one I had a hard time putting down (or turning off since it was the audiobook).

Monday, January 20, 2020

The Overstory, by Richard Powers

I read this first when it came out in 2018 and re-read it for discussion with my book club.  If anything, in light of forest fires in Australia for example, and the relaxing of environmental protections in this country,  it has a more urgency than ever.  At that time, I wrote:

Richard Powers is a polymath who in his twelve novels has immersed himself in many different disciplines – genetics, music, and artificial intelligence among others – to the extent that you would believe he had deeply and exclusively studied each.  In The overstory his themes are ecology, the environment, and specifically trees.  All kinds of trees, but primarily those which once blanketed much of this country.  The novels nine main human characters are introduced one by one in separate chapters at the beginning of the book – each chapter a novella unto itself.  The trees themselves are characters – one mourns the loss of chestnuts and American elms, and the imminent destruction of old-growth redwood forests.  It is the plight of the latter that draws the characters together.  New discoveries about the ability of trees to communicate with each other and the interconnectedness of all parts of a mature forest galvanize those who care about the forests into action.  At 500+ pages of dense and gorgeous prose, the book may seem a bit over the top to some (the pun is intentionally as some characters are literally living in the tops of trees to protect them), but many readers will find everything about this book engrossing and enlightening.  I admit to being a big fan of Powers’ writing (and of trees….) and hope many people give this epic story the attention it deserves.  512 pp.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Strangers and cousins, by Leah Hager Cohen


What might have been the straightforward story of a family wedding is complicated by several subplots and secrets.  Walter and Bennie are hosting the wedding of their oldest daughter, Clem, in a few days.  They live in an old, decaying family home in Rundle Junction.  Clem, half-Jewish, half WASP, is marrying her black college roommate, Diggs, so already gender and racial disparities are in play.  In addition, Rundle Junction itself is being polarized by the arrival of a new bunch of residents, ultra-Orthodox Jews who are building new homes with two kitchens.  Opposition to them is couched as an environmental impact fear (there’s a marsh) rather than anti-Semitism.  The three other Blumenthal children are as quirky as their oldest sister (who secretly is planning to turn the customary solemnity of a wedding into a performance art pageant).  Oh, and Bennie hasn’t revealed to anyone but Walter that, at 44, there’s a another bun in the oven.  As the story opens, Great Aunt Glad arrives – ancient and scarred by horrible burns sustained as a girl in an actual pageant in Rundle Junction that killed many local children.  It is clear as the story advances that she is dying.  Perhaps too many balls to keep in the air at once, but rather delightful.  320 pp.


Fleishman is in trouble, by Taffy Brodesser-Anker


A “he said,” “she said,” debut novel reminiscent of Fates and furies, with strong echoes of Philip Roth and other mid-century Jewish authors.  I read it in part because a friend of mine’s daughter-in-law’s sister is the author.  Brodesser-Anker writes very well and the book is hard to put down despite one’s underlying feeling that these privileged, wealthy people sure do whine about their lot in life.  The characters are ultra-rich New Yorkers – Toby Fleishman, the husband in novel, is relatively poor as he is only a well-regarded hepatologist at a major hospital.  He has decided to divorce his wife, Rachel, after fifteen years of marriage because he feels she is wedded to her wildly successful career as founder and head of a talent agency representing major stars.  She shows little interest in him or their two children, Hannah, a pre-teen, and eight-year-old Solly.  Then one morning, Rachel drops off the children at his apartment and fails to pick them up when expected.  She just disappears.  The first section, Toby’s side, is the longest.  Then we get the other Fleishman’s side, Rachel’s.  Overhanging these two stories is a first-person narrator, Libby, a friend of Toby’s from their college years.  She shows up, with little introduction – not even her name is known for a long time – fairly early on in Toby’s section, and this is her story as much as the Fleishmans’.  The book was long-listed for a National Book Award and I recommend it.  373 pp.

Murder on a Midsummer Night

Murder on a Midsummer Night by Kerry Greenwood (©2008, US edition 2009) 257 pages

Smart, sexy, fashionable Phryne Fisher juggles two different mysteries along with a very sweltering Australian summer in 1929, prior to air conditioning. First, a possible murder of Augustine, a junk shop owner whom everybody calls "good" and "honest." His death is currently listed as suicide, greatly upsetting his mother, who made the case that he would never do such a thing. Second, Phryne fields a request to look discreetly for a child who may have been born to a teenager in 1865, prior to a later marriage that produced four children. The woman has recently died, and her family and attorney find that they need this information in order to disperse her estate). Add theft, blackmail, greed, drug use, and excess alcohol into the mix and sprinkle with information about antiquities and some relevant history. Thus the scene is set. Phryne isn't always her cool, collected self in the impossible heat, but along with her usual crew of helpers and a couple retired actors, the knots eventually become untangled. 17th in the series, this book was a great read on a winter day!
 


Thursday, January 16, 2020

Redemption

Redemption (Amos Decker #5) by David Baldacci  417 pp.

When Amos Decker and his FBI partner Alex Jamison visit Decker's home town to visit his murdered daughter's grave on her birthday he is approached by a dying convict who was Decker's first murder arrest as a rookie cop. Now it turns out the convicted man may actually have been innocent and Decker puts his job with the FBI in jeopardy as he begins investigating the possible miscarriage of justice with the help of his former police partner. As he investigates, some person or persons try to thwart him by killing off the people who have the information he needs. The investigation leads to a massive conspiracy involving seemingly innocent businesses, prominent citizens, and the daughter of the wrongly convicted man. The return of character Melvin Mars (The Last Mile - Amos Decker #2) is a positive addition to the crime-fighting ensemble. The audiobook is read by Kyf Brewer and Orlagh Cassidy.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

Supernavigators

Supernavigators: Exploring the Wonders of How Animals Find Their Way by David Barrie  301 pp.

David Barrie, not to be confused with humorist Dave Barry, explains the science behind the abilities of different living creatures to navigate their surroundings. Many people know about the "dance" performed by bees to share directions to food sources or new hives. But how do animals know which way to go when they migrate? How do fish and sea mammals find their way in the depths of the ocean? How do the swallows return to Capistrano on schedule and Arctic Terns make their way from the Arctic to the Antarctic and back again? It can't all be visual because their travel continues even in storms, fog, and the dark of night. Scientists around the world have studied this question and have proved or come near to proving that most use a variety of inborn methods including auditory, optical, and olfactory senses as well as the ability to detect the magnetism of the earth itself. This book examines the science behind all this and proposes even more questions about the mysterious abilities in the animal kingdom.