Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Nimona

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson, 265 pages

In the opening pages of this AWESOME graphic novel, spunky shapeshifter Nimona approaches science-minded villain Lord Ballister Blackheart with a mind toward being his sidekick. What develops is a familial friendship between the two as they fight against the supposedly good Institution and its chosen hero, Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. This is a delightful story, full of snort-inducing humor and huggable warmth (and some truly fantastic names). I loved it, and I can't wait to share it with my kids.

Monday, January 30, 2017

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead, 306 pages

Cora was born into slavery on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Her mother ran away from the plantation when Cora was just 10, and became famous among the slaves there as being the only one to successfully escape. Ten years later, another slave approaches Cora and asks her to flee with him using the Underground Railroad (ingeniously reimagined here as an actual railroad that runs under the ground), beginning a flight for freedom that takes Cora from state to state, where the attitude toward former slaves varies widely depending on the local culture.

In this fantastic book, Whitehead weaves a story that is so incredibly real, despite the obvious fictions (his description of the underground railroad stations are so well done that readers will have themselves double-checking their history books to make sure they didn't somehow miss something). Cora's inner monologue is filled with doubts, fears, and regrets so well described that she becomes a real person to the reader. It's not a particularly cheerful book, but wow, is it a great one.

Failure is Not an Option

Failure is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond by Gene Kranz  415 pp.

Anyone who was around in the 1960s spent much time glued to the television whenever there was another launch into space or at least my peers and I were. One of the faces frequently seen was that of Gene Kranz with his crewcut, military bearing, and signature vests (made by his wife). After years as an Air Force pilot, test pilot, and engineer, Kranz joined NASA in the early days. He was there for the early rocket failures, the first manned launches, the successes of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the tragedy of Apollo 1, and the near loss of Apollo 13 and a few other near disasters. Kranz was a flight director in Mission Control for most of that time. His book chronicles the failures and successes as well as the mistakes, internal disputes, mishaps, and creative fixes the on-the-ground personnel would come up with to solve problems. The crews that worked at NASA during that time became a sort of family that worked long, hard, stressful hours but then partied just as hard when the missions were done. Kranz tells the story matter of factly. There are amusing and serious anecdotes about various astronauts, engineers, and MC personnel. Kranz also pays tribute to his wife, Marta, who frequently raised their six children alone while he worked long hours in other locations. I was interested to discover that Kranz had a St. Louis connection, having graduated from Parks Air College in East St. Louis and working at McDonnell-Douglas here.

Saturday, January 28, 2017

The mothers

The mothers / Brit Bennett, 278 pgs.

The three main characters are Nadia, a brainy and beautiful seventeen year old whose mother just committed suicide, Aubrey, the "good girl" who volunteers extensively at the church and wears a purity ring, and Luke, the preacher's son who is not as good as his parents hope.  As teens, Nadia and Luke hook-up but the relationship is doomed by events.  Later, Luke and Aubrey discover each other and marry.  Nadia and Aubrey are best friends who keep in touch while Nadia is going through school but doesn't' know about the past between her husband and friend.  Time goes on and now as adults, these three are tossed into a situation together that results in pain for all of them.

I enjoyed the writing and the way the author builds her characters but part of me wanted someone featured here to be able to move on with their lives.

The Last Olympian

The Last Olympian by Rick Riordan, 381 pages

With this final book in the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series, we find Percy and friends in the midst of their war against Kronos and the Titans. It's hard to say much about this book without discussing the details of the rest of the series, but suffice it to say that there's a lot of action, plenty of romantic tension (Percy's almost 16 after all), and several characters die in battle. My son and I have plans pick up Riordan's Heroes of Olympus offshoot series (there are Roman gods in that one), but not until my voice recovers from all of the final battle cries of The Last Olympian.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The Life We Bury

The Life We Bury by Allen Eskens  303 pp.

Joe Talbert needs a subject for a biography assignment in a college course. He finds one in a local nursing home. Carl is in the last few months of his life after spending most of it in prison for the brutal rape and murder of a 15 year old girl. The heroic Vietnam veteran Joe meets and interviews doesn't seem like he could have done the horrible deed. Joe and his neighbor and now new girlfriend begin investigating to get the backstory on Carl's murder conviction which was largely based on the girl's coded diary. While this is going on Joe is dealing with an alcoholic mother, his beloved autistic brother, and trying to stay afloat financially. It's an intriguing story with well written characters. My only complaint was the occasional, dangerously dumb things Joe and his girlfriend do towards the end of the story.

March: book one

March: book one / John Lewis, Andrew Ayden, Nate Powell, 121 pgs.

Told in flashback, this graphic novel is a memoir of Congressman John Lewis' early life and the beginning of his civil rights activism.  Most poignant to me was the depiction of the training to become involved in the movement.  All demonstrations were to be non violent from the protester end.  Of course that did not mean there would be no violence inflicted upon them.  The group underwent training which included being insulted, spit on, and abused.  If you could not take the abuse, you could not join the sit-in.  Many people failed the training.

As someone who has been recently accused of being "all talk, no action," this first book in a trilogy gives a different perspective on Lewis' actions.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The undoing project

The undoing project / Michael Lewis, 362 pgs.

The history of behavioral economics starts with two Israeli psychologists.  This book tells the story of the amazing collaboration between two genius psychologists who spent years together just talking and developing some of the most influential theories about decision making.  Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman had a relationship that overshadowed even their marriages when you reflect on the depth of their collaborations and long term relationship.  This book talks about their history and their extraordinary work.

As always, I savored every word.  Michael Lewis has a way of making you care DEEPLY about everything he writes about by choosing the best information, the best words, and the most interesting topics.

Between the world and me

Between the world and me / Ta-Nehisi Coates, 152 pages

In an extended letter to his son the author tells him about his past, his beliefs and how he deals with being himself, a black man in America. There are a lot of layers to the topics Coates discusses and one goal of his is to make sure his son grows up without the same baggage that he carries yet also making sure he carries the baggage that he needs.  This is a great example of a book that allows you to look inside someone else and get a clear look at their perspective.  I always love examples like this that show the power of reading.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Another Brooklyn

Another Brooklyn / Jacqueline Woodson, 175 pgs.

This book tells the story of August, who at 35, returns to Brooklyn to bury her father.  August then reflects back on her life, mostly in Brooklyn where she moved at age eight.  Her father was from there originally and moved back after his marriage faltered.  Brooklyn and her younger brother make their way, she mostly due to the support of her friends, Angela, Sylvia and Gigi.  The foursome is fierce in their love for each other as younger then teen age girls.  The memory of her youth and the absence of her mother is beautifully written.  Woodson generally writes for a younger audience but here she shows us that she can do it all.  I listened to the audio version and it was ok but I didn't add to the book.


Shrill

Shrill: Notes from a loud woman / Lindy West, 260 pgs.

What do you do when your are different than the desirable?  In a world that values thin people, what if you are fat?  What if you hold beliefs that conflict with the "norm?" What if you have the guts to post your ideas on the internet and you are a woman?  Just ask Lindy West and hear about the horrible responses she gets from trolls who think it is ok to threaten women, call them fat, tell them they deserve to be raped.  Sounds great, doesn't it?  West says this abuse is just part of the job and has learned to live with it.  She is often told that "it's just the internet, it doesn't mean anything." For someone that doesn't have to put up with that abuse, I can only wonder how she does it.  But she does it and even still has a sense of humor.  I listened to the audio version of this book which is read by the author and highly recommend it as well. If honesty offends you, this book might not be for you.

The Graveyard Book

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, 312 pages

In his Newbery Medal-winning book, Gaiman tells the story of Bod (short for Nobody) Owens, a boy who was raised by the dead residents of an old graveyard after Bod's parents were brutally murdered. The book discusses Bod's somewhat-antiquated education, the various residents of the graveyard, and the struggles they all have when Bod begins growing up. It's a fantastically told story of growing up, of family, of friendship, and of being an outsider in all situations. I've read many of Gaiman's books, and this one does not disappoint. An excellent book.

Just One Damned Thing After Another

Just One Damned Thing After Another by Jodi Taylor  335 pp.

This is the first book in the Chronicles of St. Mary's series. St. Mary's Institute of Historical Research is not a bastion of stuffy, stereotypical historians poring over documents and books. St. Mary's "investigates major historical events in contemporary time" via time travel (but don't call it that!). New historian Madeleine Maxwell, "Max" soon discovers that popping back to observe without disrupting history is not always easy and can be quite dangerous (T-Rex anyone?), When a mission discovers other time travelers whose purpose is far from innocent, a mission to stop them is organized and goes horrible wrong and Max must try to rectify things. This is light reading with humor, romance, and a bit of sex added to the serious elements. Not great literature but a fun book. But I haven't decided if I will continue with the rest of the series.

The Professor and the Madman

The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary by Simon Winchester  242 pp.

That lengthy title pretty much says it all. At the end of the 19th century, a committee was charged with creating the definitive dictionary of the English Language. In charge was Professor James Murray. The group solicited definitions with accompanying quotes from literature in the effort to find the earliest usage of each word. One man, Dr. W.C. Minor submitted more than ten thousand entries. When the professor sought out this prolific contributor he discovered that Dr. Minor was a patient rather than a doctor at the Broadmoor Criminal Lunatic Asylum. Minor had killed a total stranger during a delusional episode. Dr. Minor was, in fact, a doctor and had been a Union Army surgeon during the American Civil War the horrors of which may have contributed to his mental instability. The book covers the history of and Murray's hard work on the OED as well as Minor's life before, during, and after his commitment to Broadmoor. I listened to the audio book version and, aside from hearing the chapter about Minor's horrific self-mutilation while eating my lunch, I enjoyed it.

Monday, January 23, 2017

From Bad to Wurst

From Bad to Wurst by Maddy Hunter, 289 pages

The tenth entry in Hunter's Passport to Peril cozy mystery series finds a group of globetrotting senior citizens sharing a tour of Bavaria with four Iowa-based oompah bands who have been selected to perform at Oktoberfest. A freak accident that kills an accordion player in one of the bands sets off a series of events including an unlikely replacement, a case of short-term memory loss, some fortune-telling, and yep, another murder. It's a fun, easy read, and Hunter should be commended for her all-too-accurate descriptions of the places the tour group visits. Her descriptions of Munich's Marienplatz and Glockenspiel, Mad King Ludwig's Neuschwanstein castle, and Hitler's Eagle's Nest compound are spot on, making me feel as if I was back in Bavaria. Well done!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, 277 pages

So I'm about a decade late to the party, but this epistolary, post-war novel is simply charming. In it, a between-books author, Juliet, strikes up a correspondence with the residents of Guernsey, one of the small islands in the English Channel that were under German occupation during World War II. Set in 1946, this book shows a side of the war that is not typically found in books about WWII. And while there were twists aplenty, none of them were particularly shocking; that said, the emotional impact of them was not lessened by their predictability. I very much enjoyed this book, and am sad that it sat on my shelf, unread, for so long before I finally picked it up.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Intern's Handbook

The Intern's Handbook by Shane Kuhn  276 pp.

This book is written partly as a story and partly a handbook for new interns of Human Resources, Inc. is a business that supplies "special" interns to other businesses. But the interns they supply have the specialty of being hired killers. "John Lago" has been with them since he was a child "saved" from a horrific foster system by Bob, the man who runs the business. Now he is preparing for his twelfth hit and retirement from the business at the age of 25, The man who is his target is the partner of a large law firm who is selling the identities of people in witness protection. Lago gets hired on as an intern at the firm and soon his breaking all his own rules of operation including falling in love with Alice, another lawyer at the firm. Alice helps him to find his father who has been missing since Lago was born and they reconnect via phone. But it turns out Alice is actually an FBI agent and Lago discovers her dead in her apartment. The end of the story takes an unexpected turn and more people end up dead. The premise is interesting and the book is fast paced if a bit bloody. There is a sequel to John Lago's story with the possibility of it becoming a series.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Burning Page

The Burning Page by Genevieve Cogman, 356 pages

(Rather than writing a typical blog entry here, I'm going to use this space to appeal directly to the author. I hope nobody minds.)

Dear Ms. Cogman,

Please tell me that this isn't the last of the Invisible Library books! You got our heroine, Librarian-extraordinaire Irene, out of immediate trouble yet again, and may have averted disaster for the Library once again, but there are so many questions I have! The world(s) you have created is(are) so wonderful and multifaceted, and there is so much more I want to see! You are probably aware of the questions I have regarding Alberich, and Irene's parents, and Kai's abilities, and Vale's future (and in any case, I don't want to spoil these fantastic books for others who may be reading this plea), but I'd like to ask you to swear, in the Language, that more Invisible Library books will be published.

Thank you!
Your loyal reader,
Kara

Mangaman

Mangaman by Barry Lyga, art by Colleen Doran, 112 pages

In this fun, genre-bending graphic novel, the titular Mangaman is Ryoko, a hero from Japanese comics that is blasted into a typical American comic (except that the residents of the American comic don't realize they're comic characters). Despite dealing (hilariously) with the common features of manga, Ryoko manages to fall in love with all-American girl Marissa. It's a typical plot, but the mash-up of manga and western comics styles is brilliant. High five to Lyga for his fantastic idea, and a million high fives to Doran for her excellent artwork. I had a blast reading this!

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Crossing the Horiozon

Crossing the Horizon / Laurie Notaro, 455 pgs.

This is a novelization of real events that happened soon after Lindbergh's famous flight in 1927, the race was on to break other flying records.  This book recounts the efforts of three women, Elsie Mackay, Ruth Elder and Mabel Boll, all who wanted to be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic.  Mackay was an accomplished pilot, actress and businesswoman.  She financed her efforts with her own money.  Ruth Elder, also a pilot, made it part-way although her plane ditched in the ocean. She was rescued at sea and became "Miss America of Aviation."  Mabel Boll was a spitfire who wanted to go as a passenger only and drove away several teams with her intense demands and crazy behavior. It is interesting to read about the intense competition that was going on with these women and many others who were competing for prize money, glory and fame.  Although this book was a slow starter for me, it was great to read about these adventurous women.

Six and a Half Deadly Sins

Six and a Half Deadly Sins by Colin Cotterill  242 pp.

This is the tenth book in the Dr. Siri Paiboun series. As always, Dr. Siri goes off on an unofficial investigation (he is now the Retired National Coroner of Laos) this time into the mysterious package he receives containing a hand woven pha sin, a traditional Laos skirt (the "sin" in the title). Sewn in the hem of the sin is a human finger. Since Siri and his wife have been forced to live in Siri's old house with the collection of crazies that inhabit it, they are glad for a reason to go on the road and solve a mystery which takes them north to the Laos-China border in a kind of scavenger hunt for other sin. Siri's old friend Civilai appears, having been sent on a diplomatic mission to negotiate with the Chinese. When they end up with a stash of heroin instead of another skirt, things get dangerous. Inspector Phosy has also been sent to the same area to investigate some killings and is captured and presumably killed. Then the Chinese invade Vietnam and chaos reigns. While the others are "enjoying" their trip to the north, Nurse Dtui discovers that an old nemesis of Siri's was not actually executed as they thought and is once again out to kill him. All the chaos comes to a conclusion at a funeral for a main character, but I'm not giving away who the funeral is for.

Absolutely on Music

Absolutely on Music: Conversations with Seiji Ozawa by Haruki Murakami  325 pp.

I'm going to start this off with a warning: This is not a book for your "average" Murakami reader or even the casual lover of classical music. I would not recommend it unless you are very well versed in classical music, music conductors, and recordings of classical music. I consider myself to be fairly knowledgeable about classical music but the transcripts of the Murakami-Ozawa interviews frequently left me lost. I am a fan of Maestro Ozawa and have always enjoyed various television performances he conducted. He was an oddity in the music world being the only Asian conductor working in the west studying with Herbert von Karajan and later picked by Leonard Bernstein to be Assistant Conductor of the New York Philharmonic even though he spoke little English at the time. Ozawa is one of those hard-working non-stop people who at the age of 81 is still at it even after taking a little time off for a bought of esophageal cancer. What was surprising to me is Murakami's extensive knowledge of the genre including the subtle and not-so-subtle differences in recordings of major works conducted by various of the world's greatest conductors. (The list of recordings is so extensive they were not listed in the book but are available on Murakami's website.) But it is clear that Murakami's questions for the Maestro were sincere and in the interest of gaining further knowledge. This is an excellent book for a very select audience.

The Wright Brothers

The Wright Brothers by David McCullough  320 pp.

As in his other books David McCullough does a meticulous job of chronicling the lives and achievements of Orville and Wilbur Wright and their accomplishments and failures while keeping it interesting and readable. The nearly inseparable brothers, both with a incredible sense of focus, used their talents to create a successful bicycle business in the days when bicycles were become more popular and useful. Every cent they made was put back into the business or used for their other venture: trying to build a flying machine that actually worked. Many others were also pursuing that goal and most were failing, some fatally so. Their dogged persistence finally carries them to success despite their detractors. The friendships and battles between the Wrights and their competitors and supporters include two others important in aviation history, Samuel Langley, who at that time was in charge of the Smithsonian, and glider pioneer, Octave Chanute. I enjoyed this book as I have others by McCullough. However, the description of the Wrights' rustic outpost at Kitty Hawk at Kill Devil Hills on the Outer Banks of North Carolina made me wonder what they would think of it now with multi story vacation condos built right up to the edge of the  property housing the Wright Brothers National Memorial and Museum.

The Fun Family

The Fun Family by Benjamin Frisch, 236 pages

Robert Fun is a comic strip creator, famous for a wholesome, single-circle strip. But after his mother dies and his wife leaves him for their marriage counselor, oldest child Robby takes over the strip... and the management of the family finances. It's an obvious twist on Family Circus (and touches on all of the tropes of the newspaper staple), but in my mind such a twist is well overdue. This graphic novel is perfect for those who are annoyed by the saccharine Family Circus and have always wanted to see it sour. I loved it!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Cat Castles

Cat Castles: 20 cardboard habitats you can build yourself / Carin Oliver, 96 pgs.

This is an absolutely ridiculous book that encourages you to decorate cardboard projects for your cat to sit, lay, sleep, play in.  No cat has a need for anything this fancy and I deem this a great book for someone who has too much time on their hands.  Now excuse me while I start on my first project.  P.S.  Also contains fabulous photos of projects in use.

Gumption

Gumption: relighting the torch of freedom with America's gutsiest troublemakers / Nick Offerman, 387 pgs.

Offerman's collection of Americans who personify "gumption" is kind of fun.  Some of his subjects are obvious, George Washington, Ben Franklin, Teddy Roosevelt, and some are more personal choices, Carol Burnett, Jeff Tweedy, Conan O'Brien.  We get it that these essays will be unrelentingly positive about the subjects and that these people have made a mark on Offerman's life.  But at times, there is a turn of a phrase or a way of looking at something that is just perfect.  For example when writing about James Madison and his participation in the Constitutional Convention, Offerman writes "Even Thomas Jefferson knew which tiny horse to bet on."  I admit, that line just slayed me.  But I have to agree with Kara who also reviewed this book, Offerman bloviates like few others.  It is good in short spurts but can get tedious.  The author reads the audio version and that is worth while, I think, because the emphasis is in all the right places.

The impossible exile

The impossible exile: Stefan Zweig at the end of the world / George Prochnik, 390 pgs.

One of Europe's best know authors fled with the rise of Hitler but never managed to find a place where he felt at home.  The author handles his subject with care and does a good job of making the reader understand the idea of exile.  Yes, there were many others with worse situations,  Zweig had the means to move many times, to Paris, England, New York, Ossining, NY, and Brazil but that didn't mean he could find what he left in Vienna.  Interestingly, this is an author that was so popular in his time that we know almost nothing about.  I freely admit I had never heard his name.  Now I will have to read some of his works.  How does fame work like that?  Possibly that is the part of the story that is the lease interesting.  Zweig as a character with loves and friends and feelings is the most interesting.  His life was beautiful and it was tragic.

Sweet Lamb of Heaven

Sweet lamb of heaven / Lydia Millet, 250 pgs.

Anna married Ned, the hot guy who turns out to be a sociopath.  She leaves after the birth of their daughter, a baby unwanted and basically unacknowledged by Ned.  Now Ned is running for his first political office and needs a family by his side to help the campaign.  The ultimate manipulator, he makes it impossible for Anna to refuse to comply.  In almost a second story, Anna and her daughter have been living in a small motel in Maine.  There she meets up with other people who have been afflicted with something that she experienced after the birth of her baby until said baby started talking.  These people hear voices.  Nobody knows where the talking comes from or what it means.  Everyone seems to have their own version.  What brought Anna to the motel?  How has she met up with others with her condition?  What does it all mean?  I'm not sure the book answers the questions but it sure does raise them.

Hag-seed

Hag-seed: the tempest retold / Margaret Atwood, 314 pgs.

Felix is pushed out of his job as the creative lead of a theater company and ends up on a twelve year sabbatical that gives him just enough time to plan his revenge.  His self exile in a rough cabin inhabited by the ghost of his young daughter who died at three and his own thoughts is sometimes stultifying.  He takes a job teaching literacy theater in a prison and the road to revenge is paved.  I will freely admit the story was new to me after having no problem forgetting the entirety of my college Shakespeare class.  This retelling is interesting and made me a want to read the original.  I listened to the audio version and thoroughly enjoyed R. H. Thomson's narration of events.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Doctors

Doctors by Dash Shaw, 93 pages

Graphic novel that I chose to read because it had a one-word title, and because I thought that I would get it read before the end of 2016 and it would help me catch up to Christa. But I didn't finish it last year because even though it is short, it is not that engaging of a story. Tammy Cho, a doctor, and her father, also a doctor, are hired by the loved ones of the recently deceased to journey into the minds of the decedent and convince them to return to life. People continue to hire them even though the whole concept is poorly explained, implausible, and seems to have horrific results.

Commonwealth

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett, 322 pages

Bert Cousins unexpectedly shows up at a christening party for Fix Keating's youngest daughter and a quick romantic interlude later, the lives of the Keating and Cousins families are simultaneously exploded and forever intertwined. That's Commonwealth in a nutshell, though the description doesn't do justice (not nearly so) to the rich tapestry that Patchett has woven with these characters. Hopping about in time and characters, Commonwealth shows the long bond that was formed among six step-siblings through years of spending short weeks together each summer, and harboring the secret of the truth behind their brother's death. This was a wonderful book. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Mangaman

Mangaman by Barry Lyga  126 pp.

This mash-up of Manga and American comic book styles centers on a manga style character who is transported to a comic book land and falls in love with a girl character. The military wants this androgynous "Mangaman" sent back to his own comic land and the bleed through between comic styles to be permanently sealed. But the love of the two creates a difficulty. The amusing take on typical features of manga art are a high point in the story.

Seveneves

Seveneves by Neal Stephenson  867 pp.

I decided that this year I was going to tackle the longest audiobooks in my Audible library at one a month and this was the first one I chose at just under 32 hours long. If there is such a thing as "classic" science fiction this book qualifies. The moon has been completely obliterated by an unknown force leaving an unfathomable amount of meteors of all sizes behind. The people of earth have two years in which to find a way to save the human race by rapidly adding onto an existing space station and choosing who will be the ones to survive in space. Of course nothing works as planned and humanity is soon left with only a few survivors and the DNA information to recreate humans and animals once Earth is again habitable. Those few survivors include the Seven Eves who will be the ones who give birth to the races who will repopulate the world. Fast forward 5000 years and Earth is finally inhabitable but of course there are political factions amusingly called "Red" and "Blue" in dispute over who gets which parcels of land until they meet with an unexpected surprise.

Belgravia / Julian Fellowes, 402 pp.

I picked this audiobook up after reading a glowing review in Booklist, and I wasn't disappointed.  Fellowes is the author of Downton Abbey, and he's concocted another gorgeous period piece full of Upstairs / Downstairs class tension and lavish detail.  Anne Trenchard, wealthy merchant's wife, and the Countess of Brockenhurst go into lady-like battle to determine the fate of handsome Charles Pope, a young man of mysterious origins who all the best people in London suddenly want to meet.

With the exception of Bahni Turpin's True Meaning of Smekday, this is the best reading I've heard.  Juliet Stevenson did a fabulous job of smoothly creating distinct voices for a large cast of characters and bringing the story to life.

Monday, January 9, 2017

Monstress

Monstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu, art by Sana Takeda, 192 pages

The humans and the animalistic Arcanics have been at war for years, and Maika Halfwolf is a teenage survivor of the conflict, struggling to figure out who, and what, she is. She looks human but knows she's Arcanic, and a waking monster inside her has drawn the attention of the witch-nuns who lead the humans, making her both hunter and hunted. It's a perplexing and fascinating story, and Takeda's art is beyond gorgeous. I'm more than a bit confused by what's going on, though I hope it clarifies a bit in coming volumes.

The Shining Girls

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, 375 pages

In the middle of Depression-era Chicago, Harper comes across a house that transports him back and forth throughout the 20th Century. While some might use it to see momentous events or make big sports bets pay off, Harper instead uses it to track down and kill "shining girls," young women who are especially bright and talented in their field, and avoid capture by slipping into another era. But one of the girls survives and tries to track him down, slowly catching on to his machinations. It's an interesting twist on your standard serial killer, though I felt like the magical house was somewhat misplaced: nothing else in the world, or even in the house, has any power; indeed the Chicago in which this is set is exactly the same Chicago you or I could go visit tomorrow. There's something awkward and unsettling about that. I'm still not sure what I thought about the book, and I finished it almost a week ago.

ninety-nine stories of GOD

ninety-nine stories of GOD by Joy Williams  220 pp.

This is a case of don't judge a book by its title. Williams has created ninety-nine vignettes with some kind of connection to God. A couple seemed to be a bit of a stretch. Some are just a couple sentences, others a couple pages. One is a diagram for a labyrinth to be painted onto a tarp. Random people are represented including Golda Meir, Tolstoy, Kafka, the Unibomber, and O.J. Simpson. God appears as a character in a few of the selections. Dogs also play a part. The vignettes run the gamut from sad to humorous to just odd.

Guardians of the Louvre

Guardians of the Louvre by Jiro Taniguchi  136 pp.

This was reviewed by Patrick a few months ago and pretty much says it all. A young Japanese artist tours the Louvre and learns of the "Guardians" of the museum. The Winged Victory of Samothrace (with a head) teaches him about the art, artists, and history of the famous museum. He has face to face encounters with famous artists. What is left unsaid is whether the supernatural encounters are real or the result of the fever he suffered. The artwork is beautiful and the story intriguing.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Yuge!

Yuge!: 30 years of Doonsbury on Trump, by Gary Trudeau, 112 pgs.

Trudeau reminds us that Trump had presidential aspirations since 1987.  He has been chronicling Trump's public statements and activities through the eyes of Doonsbury, his long running newspaper comic strip.  I imagine this would have been one of the funniest books I read if completed it before November 8th of last year.  Now it is just scary and worrisome.  Hats off to Trudeau who seems to have captured Trump's essence as well as his own Twitter feed.

Schlump: Tales and Adventures from the Life of the Anonymous Soldier Emil Schulz, Known as "Schlump," Narrated by Himself. / Hans Herbert Grimm, trans. Jamie Bulloch, 279 pp.

A book worth burning is a book worth reading, and a book burned by Hitler (and with a one-word title) is a hot commodity.  Schlump, who received his unfortunate nickname as a child, volunteers for Kaiser and country as a seventeen-year-old.  This first-person account from an author who served in the Great War is a gem. Schlump's war begins as a sort of town supervisor in France, thanks to his marginal skills speaking the language.  The cannons boom but they are far away, and there are loads of pretty girls attracted to Schlump's sweet good-humor and genuine affection.  Things change when he's sent to the trenches, but later stints in hospital and in a military currency exchange afford more opportunities for love and graft.

Schlump is at once an everyman and a wholly unique character.  He is almost more easily described by what he is not: not a genius, not a revolutionary, not a pacifist, and not a paragon of morality.  He is a decent, essentially cheerful young man who loves women, his mother, and his homeland.  Through his eyes the war seems messy, foolish, and often very funny, but hideous violence is always around the corner.  In the midst of gruesome carnage, Schlump makes Love (capital L intended) all over Europe, and the reader is relieved that he does.  This is an oddly charming novel; I am glad it was rescued from the fire.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Unfamiliar FIshes

Unfamiliar Fishes / Sarah Vowell, 238 pgs.

A history of Hawaii that reveals such an interesting take on the monarchy of the country that gave way to (eventual) American statehood, I think I need to visit the many sites mentioned herein. Sarah Vowell is up front about her own views and inserts them into this rollicking tale of missionaries, sailors, and American imperialism.  I listened to the audiobook which was read by the author with an assist from several others. Every time I read a book by Vowell, I marvel that anyone has a problem finding history compelling.  Then again, many are remembering slow moving facts only texts from their school days.

December totals!

Christa  12/2882
Kara  11/2654
Karen  14/4729
Kathleen  6/1862
Linda  2/507
Patrick  28/8437

Total:  73/21,071

Before the Frost


Before the Frost by Henning Mankell  384 pp.

In this installment of the Wallender mysteries, Kurt is joined in crime solving by his daughter Linda. Linda is newly graduated from the police academy and due to start working as an officer at the same police station her father works out of. Before she can officially start her job she gets involved in the disappearance of a friend. Linda is just as stubborn and single minded as her father and soon finds herself in over her head. Soon it is realized that Linda's friend, Anna is somehow connected to a religious extremist and a gruesome murder. Linda puts herself in harm's way more than once through her single-minded pursuit of her goals. In the mean time her father is trying hard to cope with the idea of his daughter being a police officer while also "being a dad" and trying to protect her. Because of their similar personalities there a plenty of verbal confrontations between father and daughter. This is far from the best of the series but still an interesting mystery.

The young widower's handbook

The young widower's handbook / Tom McAllister,  282 pgs.

Hunter Cady hasn't accomplished much in his 29 years except to fall in love with Kait...a successful woman who loves him back despite his shortcomings.  Hunter feels very lucky and also thinks he may have to get his act together...eventually...when disaster strikes.  Kait dies and Hunter is all alone with himself.  Cue crazy parents and in-laws, none of whom he wants to spend time.  Nobody is more filled with grief than Hunter.  He is at a total loss and doesn't know what to do when some life insurance kicks in and he decides to take Kait (in ash form) on the trip they always envisioned.  Of course Kait was the planner and the driver of the couple so things quickly go wrong on the trip.  Hunter abandons his vehicle and hooks up with an unlikely trio, young couple Austin and Amber and Amber's grandfather Paul.  They are recreating Paul's epic road trip with his young wife of many years ago.  This group is quirky and interesting together.  Hunter makes up a story that he going cross country to meet up with his wife who has started a new job.  Eventually they find out that Kait has been with them all along carefully packed away in Hunter's duffel bag.  I could relate with the grief felt by the characters and enjoyed a lot of the story.  A good first novel by McAllister.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Moonglow, by Michael Chabon



"Vonce ze rockets are up, who cares where they come down?  That's not my department," says Wernher von Braun.  So goes the old Tom Lehrer song, and Michael Chabon pretty much agrees with Lehrer’s assessment of the rocket scientist in his faux memoir, Moonglow.  As the narrator’s grandfather is dying in 1989, the palliative drugs loosen his tongue and the famously reticent man tells his grandson the story of his life.  It has been an unusually eventful one.  The occasional footnote adds verisimilitude to the novel, as does the appearance of real people and the events during World War II that led to the “capture” of von Braun by the Americans.  Von Braun’s knowledge, vision and skills (along with those of other former Nazis, -- “Nazis, Schmatzies, says Wernher von Braun”) were key to America’s successful moon landings in the late sixties.  Sharing a fascination with the possibility, and later the actuality of space travel with von Braun, the grandfather’s wartime experiences and later work on the periphery of NASA put him in the position of admiring and envying the work of a man whose moral compass is turned toward expediency.  The vivid, in all senses, portrait of the grandfather’s wife, a French refugee with a complicated background and harrowing mental illness, is the other linchpin of the story.  Chabon’s imagination is remarkable and although this book isn’t, in my opinion, the masterpiece that The amazing adventures of Kavalier and Clay is, it is very good indeed.  428 pp.

Hank By Mark Ribowsky

Hank
By Mark Ribowsky
Live right

Hank Williams is known for being a one of the sacred pillars of country music and the patriarch of a musical dynasty that has seen his son and grandson follow into the family business.Yet this is so much more to him than that.

Although the tragedy of Williams hard drinkin’ ands rough and tumble lifestyle has been well documented, Mark Ribowsky’s new biography Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams” is the first really comprehensive account of the singer and his career.

He astutely goes through the motions of pointing out how Williams was an artist who initially tapped into the vein of rural America with themes of heartache, love, sorrow and the struggle of everyday life.  As noted, as his success grew more into the mainstream Williams’ flaws were amplified, causing irreparable damage to his family life and career.


Despite his ascension to fame, Williams could not handle his temper, his temptations or his alcohol. This deadly cocktail, combined with his genius as a songwriter makes him a fascinating character study.

The really sad part is that Williams went off the rails at a time when he was at his artistic peak when he had his formative years ahead of him.

Using new sources and archived material, Ribowsky digs in, moving beyond the basics of Williams’ ascent as a picker from the impoverished Deep South into his rise as an American music pioneer.  Not shying away from the ugly truth, Ribowsky delves into his relationships with those around him, including his friends, wife and family, leading the readers to more than his music, while unearthing his highs, lows and rambunctious hell raising.

“Hank” is a tragedy of self-destruction and creative genius at conflict. It gives the reader a complex portrait of an artist who rose abject poverty to the stage of Nashville's sacred Grand ‘Ole Opry, catapulting him to a fame before his untimely death at the age of 29 in1953.