Saturday, August 31, 2013

Soon I Will Be Invincible

Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, 287 pages.

I first started listening to this over the 4th of July weekend and then, since there wasn't anything objectionable, and it was very funny I started listening to it over again with my kids. We all loved this hilarious novel. Grossman's novel takes place in a world gone slightly askew, a world where superheroes and super-villains, "enhanced" humans and aliens, battle regularly. Doctor Impossible, an evil super-genius, tells half the story, recounting his many attempts to take over the world (twelve so far), his philosophy, "When life gives you lemons you squeeze them, hard. Make invisible ink. Make an acid poison. Fling it in their eyes." He's enhanced, but damaged, he's got amazing strength and speed now, but he's still the middle-schooler who cried when he dropped his lunch, still the odd man out, just like when he was at the special high-school that produced all those super-heroes. His plans involve math and physics beyond the comprehension of most humans, but he still forgets important points, like how much it hurts when you get hit by a superhero over and over again, and that it's best not to get caught up in the moment and reveal your whole plan when confronted with a super-hero.
The other half of the story is told by Fatale, a newly-minted member of the Champions, the best of the superheroes. Fatale was surgically enhanced. She signed the consent papers while in the ER after a horrific accident. She doesn't know her own origin story too well, and she doesn't know the full extent of her own powers, not really, but she is an eager new member of a storied team.
All of the characters are meticulously crafted, and likable in their own ways. And the plot moves along smartly with lots of action and twists. I look forward to reading Grossman's new book, You.
J. Paul Boehmer narrates part of the audio, and does a terrific job.

Bury me deep

Bury me deep/Megan Abbott 240 pgs.

This book starts our being something typical.  The sweet young wife of a doctor is left alone while he takes a job in Mexico and falls in with a bad crowd of "fast" women who introduce her to the town "player" and they start an affair...blah, blah, blah. I enjoyed the writing so I continued and I'm so glad that I did!  Of course there is an event, a turning point, that is pretty horrible and our sweet young thing (Marion) finds her backbone.  She is tough as nails and not going to let anyone get the best of her. She knows she has made mistakes but is going to fight her way back.  Wow, it turns into a much more interesting story.  Interestingly, at the end, there is a note from the author about a similar true story that she adapted into this fictional account where the main character does a better job fighting back.  The very noir feel about this book kept me reading but the second half made me a believer in Megan Abbott.

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Bookshelf/Alex Johnson 272 pgs.

As advertised, this book is full of book shelves.  Amazingly, there are 272 pages worth of VERY different ways to shelve your books.  No standard varieties here, these are all very creative, design heavy weights that are totally awesome.  Very fun for book lovers and those who appreciate design.

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Friday, August 30, 2013

The House of Silk

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel by Anthony Horowitz  294 pp.

Anthony Horowitz who created and does an exemplary job of writing the popular British television series Foyle's War and the young adult Alex Rider series has captured the style and tone of Conan Doyle's tales of the consummate British detective, Sherlock Holmes. As in those familiar Conan Doyle stories Holmes friend/assistant/biographer, Dr. Watson, is the narrator. He relates the story years later, long after the death of Holmes and Watson's dear wife, Mary. Many characters from the original stories make appearances including Scotland Yard's Inspector Lestrade, Holmes housekeeper Mrs. Hudson, his brother Mycroft, Dr. Trevelyan who first appeared in "The Adventure of the Resident Patient" and the Baker Street Irregulars. What begins as a tale of an attempted robbery on an American train and the destruction of several valuable paintings soon becomes a saga of murder and intrigue in which Holmes finds himself jailed for the murder of a young girl. It is all connected to the mysterious "House of Silk" whose members have warned Holmes against further investigations and which no one, not even brother Mycroft, is willing to talk about. In the end the House of Silk is far more evil than the clues lead you to believe. There is more action than in the traditional Holmes stories including frequent gunplay and a "high speed" carriage chase. Horowitz has captured Holmes and Watson with great style while still managing to touch on the plight of orphaned children at the turn of the 20th century. I listened to the audiobook version read by by the actor, Sir Derek Jacobi (I, Claudius; Brother Cadfael). Jacobi captured the voice of Dr. Watson magnificently although in my mind Holmes & Watson will always look like Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Curiosity

The Curiosity/Stephen Kiernan 434 pgs.

I enjoyed reading this book.  The writing is good and the characters are interesting.  Unfortunately the huge plot holes and problems make me want to introduce the author to the basic services provided by librarians.  The basic premise includes a science project to "re-animate" flash frozen creatures.  They hit a payload when they find a man on an arctic expedition who had fallen overboard 100 years ago and is now the perfect first human subject for their process.  The process works so well, the man does not only come back to life but actually regain consciousness and is barely freaked out by being dropped into the world 100 years after his last memory.  I can stomach all of this but what I can't figure out is how this group of dedicated brilliant scientists couldn't figure out who this guy is, months after he is walking around with them, they can't find out if he has any living relatives.  They don't know anything about his former life and the world he lived it...Geez, we are talking about tracing a family tree back 100 years...this really isn't that big of a challenge.  Even though I enjoyed the writing, I just kept feeling shocked by the "big questions" in the book that would be SO easy to answer with an Internet connection, or a telephone and a number for a public library.

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Dr. Bloodmoney

Dr. Bloodmoney or how we got along after the bomb/Philip K. Dick 298 pgs.

This post apocalyptic novel starts before the miscalculation causes a nuclear accident that leads to mass destruction and mutations. Dr. Bruno Bluthgeld is to blame for the accident.  We see Bluthgeld suffering from guilt and seeking help from a shrink.  The story skips ahead about 8 years as many communities are making a come back.  The book spends a lot of time with the citizens of Marin County in California as we get to know the people who live there.  Dr. Bluthgeld is living there under an alias with a dog who can speak along with a group of fairly odd people with various effects of radiation, etc.  This is another book by the master of science fiction that I don't think I really understand.  Like most post apocalyptic stories, the world does not seem to be a very good place.

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Unfamiliar Fishes / Sarah Vowell 238 pp.

The author of Assassination Vacation and The Wordy Shipmates brings us another gem, albeit one with a more mournful tone.  Vowell tells us the story of American contact with the kingdom of Hawaii to the time of our country's annexation of those islands during the McKinley administration, and it's a sad one.  In Vowell's characteristic style, though, momentous history is interspersed with personal, political, and sexual oddities of all kinds, which makes for one-of-a-kind listening (and reading).  There are plenty of villains; they are, alas, greatly outnumbered by the victims.

The Dust Bowl: an Illustrated History / by Dayton Duncan, 231 pp.

This is the companion volume to Ken Burns' 2012 PBS program, but it's a fine work on its own merits.  Startling photographs and detailed first-person accounts of life during the worst man-made ecological disaster our country has seen make for a fascinating read.  I never knew, for example, that one particularly violent and long-lasting dust storm blew topsoil from the southern plains as far east as Washington, D.C., and right onto FDR's desk.  Who's the villain?  Drought, humankind, government agricultural practices?  You decide. 

Monday, August 26, 2013

The Red Hotel

The Red Hotel by Graham Masterton  216 pp.

This is the third book in the Sissy Sawyer mystery series.  Sissy Sawyer is a psychic who counsels people by reading the mysterious DeVane cards. The cards, which are similar to Tarot cards, have much more detail and are quite creepy and sinister. Sissy's step-nephew brings his girlfriend Lillian, nicknamed T-Yon, to visit and to discuss the disturbing dream she has been having. After a confusing and upsetting reading of the cards it becomes apparent that the problem lies with the old hotel, T-Yon's brother Everett has refurbished that is soon to open in Baton Rouge. Sissy and T-Yon travel to Louisiana and discover that strange things have been happening in hotel. Fresh blood stains appear in unused rooms, a maid and a police officer disappear, and threatening ghosts haunt T-Yon. While this is going on Everett is trying to prepare for the hotel grand opening which may be delayed or cancelled altogether because of the disturbing events. The last third of the story is blood & guts gory. I don't normally read books like that. But the creepy goings on had me hooked and I had to see how it would end. The first two books in the series were not this graphic and I wonder what book four will be like.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, 181 pages

As a 7-year-old, the nameless narrator of The Ocean at the End of the Lane had an otherworldly experience with the mysterious Hempstock family, an experience filled with monsters, mystical cats, and an ocean that masquerades as a pond. This novella is his memory of those few days, remembered only when he returns to the Hempstocks' farm on a whim.

This is a beautiful short novel. The characters and creatures are three-dimensional and fully realized, though not over-described, which leaves so much of their existence up to the reader's imagination. I love that Gaiman respects his readers enough to let us draw our own conclusions. As I read this, I kept thinking about how I could easily see it being made into a Miyazaki anime feature. Something about it just reminds me of Howl's Moving Castle and Spirited Away. So if you liked those movies, you'll definitely enjoy this book. I loved it.

Don Quixote

Don Quixote/Miguel de Cervantes & Edith Grossman 989 pgs.

Widely considered the first modern novel, Don Quixote is a real classic. This book is full of adventures of Don Quixote, knight errant and his dedicated squire Sancho Panza.  There is too much to easily summarize but the themes focus on chivalry, insanity, and friendship.  Sancho is said to be "simple" over and over again but he consistently makes the most astute observations and statements.  The characters are often the butt of ridicule and pranks but soldier on as if their fantasy world is reality and they stick to their principles.  It isn't difficult to see modern parallels.

We finish up our adult summer reading program Wed. the 28th with our final discussion of this book.

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Friday, August 23, 2013

The Stench of Honolulu

The Stench of Honolulu by Jack Handey 224 pgs.

If you are a fan of Jack Hndey's "Deep Thoughts" than you will enjoy this book too.  The plot is a little thin but the comments are funny.  Not exactly a literary triumph but many "laugh out loud" sentences.

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The Light in the Ruins

The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian   320 pp.

This is one of the best books I've read this year. Set mainly in Tuscany, the story switches back and forth between the War years of 1943-44 and post-war 1955. The aristocratic Rosati family try to stay apart from the war at their home, the Villa Chimera. The arrival of two German officers to see the Etruscan ruins on the property changes everything. Eighteen year old Cristina Rosati begins a romance with the younger officer and the villa soon becomes a place of socializing and then housing for Nazi officers. In 1955, Francesca, the beautiful, widowed daughter-in-law of the Rosatis is brutally murdered and her heart cut out. Police detective Serafina Bettini is investigating the crime which seems to have a link to events of the war. Serafina bears the physical and emotional scars of her time during the war fighting with the Partisans. Soon she learns that she too has a connection to the Rosatis and the Villa. Bohjalian did a masterful job of staging the events of the story with cliffhanger after cliffhanger as the scenes switch time periods and locations. The addition of occasional narration by the killer adds to the suspense. By the end I had changed my mind about the killer's identity and motives three times and was still wrong. I listened to the audiobook version and it is well narrated by Cassandra Campbell with Mark Bramhall as the voice of the killer.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling, 309 pages, 8 hours on CD

I have read this book more times than I care to admit, but this was my first time listening to it. We took it on vacation because my son wanted me to read it to him again, but he ended up not paying attention. However, my husband and I loved it. Jim Dale needs to have some sort of statue erected in his honor. This was awesome, and I'm sure that, much to my husband's chagrin, I'll be re-reading or listening to the rest of the series in the near future.

An Abundance of Katherines

An Abundance of Katherines by John Green, 227 pages

Colin is a child prodigy who, at 17, is well past his prime. He's still super smart, knows lots of random information (this is my kind of kid!), and anagrams like nobody's business. He's also got an interesting romantic past, having just been dumped by his 19th girlfriend, all of whom have been named Katherine. To help him get over his recent heartbreak, Colin and his best (read: only) friend, Hassan, take off on a meandering road trip through Middle America. While on this rambling trip, Colin decides that the best way to win back Katherine 19 is through proving his genius by way of a mathematical theorem explaining love and relationships.

I love everything I've read by John Green, and this book may be my favorite. I enjoyed his quirky multidimensional characters, and I LOVED all the factoids Colin kept spewing. Hassan is a great sidekick to our protagonist, keeping Colin's brainiac ways in check with the blunt "not interesting" whenever he starts rambling about some obscure scientist (though I disagree with Hassan's determination that Tesla isn't interesting).

I still love John Green, and I can't wait to read more of his books.

Fragile Things

Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders by Neil Gaiman, 360 pages

I read this collection on my iPhone (which was a new experience for me) and on dribs and drabs throughout my vacation. So the specifics of the stories have escaped me to a degree. HOWEVER, I do know that I greatly enjoyed Gaiman's stories, some whimsical, some vaguely horrifying, and all simply excellent. I was surprised to find that I liked the poems scattered throughout, particularly one about the story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears as it's told through generations. Also, the final novella made it that much more imperative that I finally read that copy of American Gods I have lying around. That to-read list just doesn't ever get shorter, does it?

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The tennis partner, by Abraham Verghese

Verghese (author of the popular Cutting for stone) has a fascinating background – born to Indian parents and raised in Ethiopia, an Orthodox Syrian Christian (clearly an important part of his life), educated in medicine in India, and practicing in the United States.  An outsider in so many ways.   He is obviously as gifted a doctor as he is a writer.  This memoir (1998) relates a year or so when he was a new doctor teaching in El Paso TX.  His ten-year, rather traditional marriage to his wife, also Indian, is unraveling.  His two young sons are caught in the middle.  Into his life comes a medical student, David Smith from Australia, who is somewhat older than the rest in his class.  There is a reason – he has been in rehab, not for the first time, for cocaine addiction.  They form a bond over tennis as David has actually toured as a pro and Verghese is an excellent player as well.  It was something that grounded him during his difficult childhood.  Even If you’ve never held a racquet,  Verghese’s lengthy and poetic descriptions of their games in the desert country are enthralling.  While Verghese struggles with his decision to leave his family, Smith struggles with staying clean.  It is his last chance.  You can probably guess how it ends.  In many ways, the book was painfully revealing about Verghese in a way that most people would not put out in public.  What a bundle of talents he has.  368 pp.

One for the money, by Janet Evanovich

A Grand Rapids MN Public Library used book sale purchase.  Thought I should read one of these since the author’s books were always in demand at UCPL and she’s up to Takedown 20.  Hmmm…..perhaps they get better.  Obviously lots of folks are buying/reading them.  I found it a bit silly.  I’m still trying to figure out why anyone would give Stephanie Plum a gun when she clearly has no idea what to do with it.   But, hey, if you are on vacation and desperate, it’s diverting.  Guess this first title is also a movie….19 more to go?  352 pp.

This book will save your life, by A. M. Homes

Having enjoyed May we be forgiven, I put another title by Homes on reserve.  In many ways, it is a very similar book, and similarly enjoyable.  Richard Novak is rich, but his life seems completely without any real focus or meaning.  A sudden attack of mysterious and overwhelming pain gets him out of the house for the first time in a month when he goes off to the ER.  Returning home, he tells the taxi to let him off at a donut shop he has noticed and meets the first of a series of colorful characters who will change his life.  Meanwhile, his hill-side home in LA has also had a physical crisis – a sinkhole has developed that threatens to swallow it up.  Mixing the stories of an immigrant (Anhil the donut shop owner), a famous movie star, an iconic writer from the sixties, a crying housewife in the produce department, and a fraudulent doctor with those of his ex-wife, the 17 year old son he barely knows, his aging parents in Florida, and a rich miscellanea of others minor characters makes the book a fun read.  Much depends on unrealistic coincidences, like her later novel.  Witty and a bit sad.  372 pp.

We are all completely beside ourselves, by Joy Fowler

Reviewers have found it impossible to discuss this remarkable new novel without giving away the main device, so if you don’t want to know, stop here.  Two sisters are separated when they are five.  Sad in any event, but even more tragic when you learn that the sister who has disappeared is a chimpanzee.  She was being raised by a psychologist and his wife as a member of the family, and also as a scientific experiment.  She is the same age as their daughter.  Rosemary is the human, Fern the chimp.  Brother Lowell is older and when the novel opens, has been absent and estranged from the family for a decade or so.  His anger has turned him towards radical animal liberation.  Rosemary is a 22 year old college student, who hides the most interesting part of her past – her missing sister.  But growing up in her formative years with a sibling who was in some ways far ahead of her in development and in others backward, has definitely made Rosemary a misfit and a loner.  The book raises questions about what is family, what does it mean to be human, and in a non-preachy way, what are the ethical issues of animal/human interactions.  But mostly it is a funny, wise, and heartbreaking book.  320 pp.