Friday, March 31, 2017

Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues

Even White Trash Zombies Get the Blues by Diana Rowland  320 pp.

Angel has the perfect job for a zombie. She works in the coroners office of her Louisiana parish. This provides her with a ready source for the brains she needs to eat to prevent herself from rotting. But there are still problems in her life. Her felony conviction and probation rules are causing her problems. Her hunky zombie cop boyfriend is the nephew of a zombie mafia kingpin...yes, there is a zombie mafia. One particular zombie hunter has become thorn in her side. Her alcoholic father is always an issue. And then she is robbed at gunpoint at the morgue for a recently delivered body.  This book isn't going to win prizes for great literature but it is a fun bit of fluff. There are others in the series.

Universal Harvester: a Novel

Universal Harvester: a Novel / John Darnielle, 214 pp.

I think - I can't be entirely sure - but this might be one of the coolest novels I've read in a long time.  My uncertainty is on account of the fact that I didn't completely understand this strange and deeply atmospheric story.  At a Video Hut in a small Iowa town in the 90s, customers start complaining that their videotapes have strange segments spliced in.  When Jeremy, Video Hut's gentle twenty-something clerk, and a curious friend take the tapes home to look, they are deeply disturbed.  People with bags over their heads and peculiar markings on their clothes struggle to free themselves.  A lone woman runs terrified down a dark highway flanked by dry rows of corn.  Worse still, a few background bits make clear that these are local productions.

At first my reaction was, "Great!  Children of the Corn meets Blair Witch meets The Ring."  But Darnielle is aiming higher here.  At root, this novel is about loss: of parents, of small town life,  and of (perhaps) climate norms.  But these losses are achingly explored through the unfolding of a terrifying mystery, one that the reader never gets to look at directly, but only glimpses in fragments.

The Nest

The Nest / Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney, 353 pp.

Four siblings, raised in comfort in New York, must wait until the youngest sister's 40th birthday to receive their portion of a large inheritance.  But one of the four, Leo, the oldest, may have put the whole 'nest' in peril because he...well, because he acted like a stereotypical wealthy, entitled white guy.

And this was my problem with this deftly written and carefully plotted novel.  The four siblings, along with most of the large supporting cast, are both morally and psychologically hollow, A minor subplot involves the widower of a 9/11 victim, and he is the only remotely sympathetic character.  Even that bit seems a little silly, as if 9/11 were invoked merely for the purposes of injecting gravitas.

And yet.  The Nest was a big 2016 bestseller and won a raft of accolades.  So maybe it's me.

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, 818 pages.

I read Chernow's Washington several years ago, and loved it, but for some reason I lacked strong enough interest in the Hamilton bio to pick up the massive tome. I knew that he was the only man killed by an American VP (at least the only acknowledged one--we've all heard the stories about the Indiana contingent, 5 vps from "the Crossroads of America," each of them, according to the state's bizarre election rules, having to kill a man in unarmed combat to be eligible to take office).
Since my younger son has had a strong interest in the 2015 musical, and since we listen to the cd, and the mixtape cd frequently (and watch various videos of the cast and Lynn Manuel Miranda frequently, too), and since my son asked for the book, I decided to read Chernow's work. It is very well written, and, no surprise, tells a compelling story. Chernow tells of this incredibly intelligent founding father who was a soldier, lawyer, financial innovator, abolitionist, writer, politician, and ladies man. Pretty much every part of the story is fascinating, and (far more often than I anticipated) surprising. From the songs in the musical I knew about the Coast Guard connection, and I had heard before about the banking system, but I didn't remember him as a commander of Washington's force sent to put down the Whiskey Rebellion, or that Adams had him as one of the commanders in the Army set up to repel an anticipated per-Napoleonic French invasion. His complicated relationships with Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Burr made for great reading. His behavior regarding Maria Reynolds and the "Reynolds pamphlet" were more bizarre than I would have thought from the musical. His ability for self-harm was also extraordinary. Really fascinating.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Fate of the Tearling

Fate of the Tearling by Erika Johansen, 478 pages.
The third and final volume of Johansen's Tearling series really does a good job of tying together all of the diffferent subplots and characters into a satisfying conclusion, Kelsea's visions of the past continue and she uncovers more of the mysteries of William Tear and the long-ago founding of the land that was to become the Tearling.
Johansen employs a great sense of world-building (one that I have to admit that I found somewhat annoying in the first and second volume); revealing rules and connections only as Kelsea becomes aware of them. This really works in the final volume, as her knowledge of the total situation and ideas of how to deal with it start coming together.
The less than awesome origin stories of the enigmatic Fetch, the evil Red Queen, and the super-evil Row are all deftly revealed in a way that keeps. them interesting characters and doesn't lessen the horror of who they become.
The audio is narrated well by Polly Lee.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

March: book three

March: book three / John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell, 246 pgs.

The third and final book in the trilogy is an award winner. As of this writing, it has won nine awards.  It probably deserves even more.  This book takes us through the civil rights struggle of John Lewis, participant.  Lewis headed up Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and worked hard around the south to combat racism and oppression.  After years that included multiple beatings, arrests and jail time, this book culminates with the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.  Of course, the struggle does not end there.  It is just shocking to read about the number of people killed during this time for participating in peaceful protest. This series should be required reading for anyone who wasn't around to witness these events.  And for those who did witness, read as a reminder to what has been accomplished and what still remains to be accomplished in this struggle.

Crimson Shore

Crimson Shore by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child  339 pp.

Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast takes on a freelance investigation into the theft of a wine collection worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. The theft uncovers a horrific centuries old crime perpetrated by the inhabitants of the small town of Exmouth, Massachusetts. When local residents are murdered, Pendergast and his ward, the mysterious Constance Greene, become involved in those investigations. That storyline is wrapped up about 2/3 of the way through the book. Then the characteristic creepy story begins when Pendergast once again is up against a monster of strange and sinister origins. This book ends with a serious cliffhanger necessitating continuing on to the most recent book in the series.

The Man Who Was Thursday

The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare by G.K. Chesterton, 199 pages

Once upon a time in London, two poets get into a philosophical argument about anarchy, resulting in one bringing the other to a clandestine meeting of anarchists who are electing a member to fill a position on the board of a worldwide organization devoted to destroying the constructs of society. The outsider, Syme, is elected to the board, and begins a whirlwind thrilling (and, more often than not, terrifying) adventure with six mysterious men, who go by pseudonyms named after the days of the week.

I picked up this book on the recommendation of Neil Gaiman, who mentions it in his book of essays, The View from the Cheap Seats. Upon reading The Man Who Was Thursday, it is easy to see Chesterton's influences on Gaiman; you could almost call Chesterton's book Gaimanesque, except, of course for the fact that The Man Who Was Thursday far predates any of Gaiman's work (it was originally published in 1907!). Anyway, it's an entertaining book that offers plenty of twists and thrills, as well as meditations on society, religion, and humanity. In other words, it's a perfect read for fans of Gaiman.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

No-no boy

No-no boy / John Okada, 259 pgs.

Ichiro Yamada returns home to Seattle after WWII.  He spent two years in an internment camp, then two years in prison for refusing to serve in the military.  He has some anger issues.  Worse, his mother has some denial issues.  She does not believe that Japan has lost the war.  She is proud that her son did not serve in the American military and hopes he relocates to Japan for a better life.  The letters from her family in Japan begging for her to send supplies are faked, she believes, as a part of an intricate propaganda campaign. Ichiro's father is now a high functioning alcoholic and his brother is an angry 18-year old who is signing up to join the army in hopes of decreasing the family shame.

Set in the few weeks after Ichiro returns home, this book is an incredible account of one Japanese-American man who is struggling with his history, his background and his inability to fit into society.  It is perhaps, the first Japanese-American novel.  Originally published in 1957, the book fell into obscurity until it was "discovered" and republished in the mid 1970's.  An amazing work that illuminates the struggles of Japanese-Americans in the 1940's.

Pontius Pilate: Deciphering a Memory

Pontius Pilate: Deciphering a Memory / Aldo Schiavone, translated by Jeremy Carden, 238 pp.

Schiavone is a classicist, and this is an especially erudite linguistic and historical analysis of the encounter between Pilate and Christ in the four Gospels, along with Pilate's interactions with the people of Judaea as these events are recorded by Josephus and others.

"Especially erudite" is code for "this reader didn't understand everything she read;" still, there was a lot for me to enjoy as I slowly worked my way through the text.  I was especially interested in what Schiavone had to say about the Q and A between the prefect and his prisoner and how their conversational nuances lay down important distinctions between the empire Pilate serves and that other kingdom, the one that's harder to draw on a map.

The Little Book of Hygge

The Little Book of Hygge (pronounced HOO-GA): Danish Secrets to Happy Living / Meik Wiking, 221 p.

An absolutely charming book that attempts to define the concept of Hygge, which the Danes, the happiest people in the world, think of as "coziness of the soul."  The necessary ingredients include candles, hot drinks, scarves, sweets, fireplaces, books, nature, and spending time doing fun things at home with a close circle of friends.

Well, you get no argument from me.  But I wonder if Wiking isn't just having a bit of a laugh at his American audience.  He points out, "Universal and free health care, free university education, and relatively generous unemployment benefits go a long way toward reducing unhappiness." On my way home tonight I'm going to stop and pick up a few candles.

Desperation Road

Desperation Road / Michael Farris Smith, 286 pp.

A fast, engrossing read about two people living very close to the edge.    Maben is on the run with a shotgun that doesn't belong to her and a small, exhausted daughter in the Mississippi Delta.  Russell has just left the Mississippi State Penitentiary when he is greeted by enemies from before his time in prison.  They will meet, but it's not clear whether they will be able to help one another.

Excellent pacing, terrific dialogue, and a strong sense of the small-town south that dispenses with the usual southern cliches.  Recommended.

Fables vol. 12

Fables: The Dark Ages [vol. 12] by Bill Willingham, et al, 192 pages

This 12th volume of Fables picks up the story in the immediate aftermath of the war in the Homelands, wrapping up the last loose ends of the Adversary arc and opening up the next chapter in this tale. This volume introduces the horrific new villain Mr. Dark (whose uninspired name is somewhat indicative of his decidedly un-nuanced character), whose witching cloak was used to great effect in the war, much to Mr. Dark's chagrin. This point of the series always makes me sigh, as I've always felt the Mr. Dark story arc isn't nearly as interesting as the Adversary arc. But it has its moments, and they're definitely present in this volume.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Insane clown president

Insane clown president: dispatches from the 2016 circus / Matt Taibbi, 350 pgs.

Taibbi covered the 2016 election for Rolling Stone magazine. This compilation of reports through the primary and general election shows many times where he was insightful and many times where he missed the boat.  He is very honest about both.  Taibbi has a sense of the history being made (nothing to be proud of) and predicts the long term result.  I've always liked his perspective and often appreciate the words he chooses. I wonder how long it will take before reading about the election is not hard.

You are Not Special

You are Not Special...and Other Encouragements by David McCullough, Jr.  316 pp.

McCullough, son of author, historian, narrator, and television commentator, David McCullough, wrote this book from a commencement address he gave at Wellesley High School where he is an English teacher. The video of the speech went viral because of its message to the graduates that they are not special but just one of the many thousands that are graduating. (You can read the text of the speech here.)  In spite of all the support, prodding, and accolades from parents, grandparents, teachers, coaches, etc. there is nothing exceptional about them. It is up to them to make their lives exceptional, not necessarily in the opinion of others, but for themselves. The book expands on the speech in part with examples of McCullough's own children, his students, and encounters with parents of students. I think this should be required reading for all high school seniors, especially those who are convinced their lives will be over if they don't get into their choice of  "the best" colleges.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein  384 pp.

Before Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick gave us Hal, the sentient computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey, Robert Heinlein introduced us to Mike, aka Mycroft (after Sherlock Holmes brother). Mike is the administration computer for the penal colony that is the Moon. One armed computer technician Manuel "Mannie" Garcia O'Kelly-Davis is the one who discovered Mike's ability to think for "himself". Soon Mike becomes an integral part of the Lunar Rebellion against Terra (Earth) but only a few of the rebellion's leaders know of his existence and the extent that the rebellion relies on "him." As in other Heinlein works, there is political satire and pointed critiques of the powers that rule. The Lunar society also mocks social mores, especially marriage, by displaying a variety of marriage types including the multi-generational group marriage of the Davis clan. Personally, I didn't find this as enjoyable and entertaining as Stranger in a Strange Land but it is a classic work of Sci-Fi and well worth reading.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The Black Dahlia

The Black Dahlia / James Ellroy, 325 pp.

After finishing Rick Geary's Black Dahlia I thought I would compare it with the fictional treatment of Elizabeth Short's story, told by the author of L.A. Confidential, Suicide Hill and others.  Short was murdered in particularly gruesome fashion in 1947 Los Angeles; the crime was never solved.  Ellroy tells her tale through the narrative of two fictional detectives, Lee Blanchard and Dwight "Bucky" Bleichert, former boxers who happen to be in love with the same woman.

The novel was first published 30 years ago and its setting takes us back 70 years.  And it sure reads like a trip in a time machine!  There is one heck of a lot of misogyny, racism, and homophobia packed into these pages, most of it a perfectly accurate depiction of the setting, no doubt.  The lingo - a very noir LAPD-ese - is great fun, but it took some getting used to.  And the story?  On that point, I would have to agree with the rave reviews on the jacket.  Detective fiction doesn't get much better than this.  But I think my next LA noir read will be an Easy Rawlins by Walter Mosley.  Same time, same place, but a very different perspective.

Monday, March 20, 2017


Homegoing / Yaa Gyasi, 305 pgs.

The setting is Ghana in the 18th century.  Two half sisters are born and follow different paths.  One marries a British slaver, one is sold into slavery.  Each chapter follows an offspring from the previous generation.  Both sides run into issues and strife.  This story follows through to present day.  Some chapters are harder to read than others.  I mostly liked the book but the short exposure to many of the characters left me wanting more information about several.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

A Conjuring of Light

A Conjuring of Light by V.E. Schwab, 624 pages

In the first two books of the Shades of Magic trilogy, Schwab created a series of parallel worlds centered on their different versions of London: Grey London, which is for all intents and purposes our world; Red London, a beautiful world in which magic flows freely, though not unrestrainedly; White London, which has become stark and scary through the rule of siblings who control magic with an iron fist; and Black London, which has fallen to wild dark magic and is shut off from all other places. The only people who can travel between these Londons are specific types of magicians, called Antari (easily recognizable through their one normal eye and one reflective black eyeball).

This final entry in the trilogy brings the Antari together to fight a force that has escaped Black London and is attempting to take over Red London. Though there are some elements of this story that I particularly liked (The gay non-white royalty that's not really a big deal! The tougher than nails women!), I felt a bit let down by the story as a whole. The book felt long and unwieldy, and certainly could have used another pass of proofreading, as way too many inconsistencies and typos sneaked through. It ended well enough, though, and I got to see these fantastic characters grow and mature. So it was OK.

Before We Visit the Goddess

Before We Visit the Goddess by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni  225 pp.

This is the story of three generations of strong, determined, and headstrong women and the effect secrets had on their mother-daughter relationships. Sabitri learned the art of making spectacular Indian sweets from her mother. After she successfully sues a company for the wrongful death of her husband she opens a sweets shop which becomes immensely successful. But her workaholic ways and strident rigidity with her daughter, Bela, leads to abandonment when her daughter elopes to America with her shady boyfriend. Even after the birth of her daughter, Tara, Bela has very little contact with her mother until she enlists Sabitri's help when Tara drops out of college. Bela is a survivor, coping with a divorce and estrangement from her own daughter. She is befriended by Ken, a young gay man who lives in her apartment building. With his help she regains her self-confidence and begins a successful food blog and cookbook writing career. Tara tries to distance herself from her Indian heritage until a job puts her in contact with a visiting Indian businessman who takes her to the temple. Tara has her own problems and secrets that keep her away from her mother. By the end of the book multiple secrets are revealed that caused the behavior that created wedges in their relationships. Even Bela's dishonest ex-husband's secrets come to light and explain much of his behavior. There is a lot packed in this short novel and it's characters are fully fleshed and interesting.

LaRose, by Louise Erdrich

The name “LaRose” has been passed down through several generations of a Native-American family and those who bear the name are special.  The newest LaRose is a boy, unlike those who bore the name before him.  Six years old, he is youngest of the five children being raised by Landereaux and Emmaline Iron.  The eldest, Hollis, is actually not their kin, but the son of Landereaux’s childhood friend, Romeo, whose life has been ruined by alcohol, drugs, and resentment.  He is bitter about the success of his former friend, who had a hand in the serious boyhood injury that left Romeo a cripple.  LaRose’s best friend is his cousin, Dusty.  Dusty is the son of Peter and Nola Ravich – Nola is Emmaline’s half-sister and Peter is not Indian – and he has an older sister, Maggie.  The Irons live on the reservation and Peter and Nola live just adjacent to it.  In the fall of 1999, tragedy occurs when Landereaux, an accomplished hunter, is out after the buck he has been watching all summer.  He shoots it on his friend Peter’s land, where he often hunts, and is horrified to find that somehow he has killed Dusty instead of the deer.  To atone for this mistake and following an ancestral way, he and Emmaline take LaRose to the Ravichs to live with them in Dusty’s place.  Both families struggle with the grief that this event has set in motion.  This beautifully written story weaves together the members of the two families and how they handle love, loss, and justice.  It also speaks powerfully of the shameful treatment of Native-Americans by white settlers and governments.  A thoughtful book that is a worthy addition to Erdrich’s long list of affecting novels.  372 pp.

The cruelest month, by Louise Penny

Dirty work at the crossroads, again – in the little village of Three Pines as spring is upon it and Easter is being celebrated.  The seemingly harmless idea of holding a séance turns deadly when an ill-advised second séance is held in the evil old Hadley house.  Once again, Chief Inspector Armand Gamache is called in to investigate whodunit.  And he has problems of his own as old friends/enemies continue to pursue the end of his career through devious means.  Luckily, since after three volumes one comes to really love the inhabitants of the village, Louise Penny hasn’t yet pulled an “Elizabeth George” on us and killed off a favorite character.  I’d hate to lose Gabri or Oliver and their delicious food and drink.  311 pp.