Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Talking As Fast As I Can

Talking As Fast As I Can: From Gilmore Girls to Gilmore Girls, and Everything in Between by Lauren Graham, 224 pages

Actress Lauren Graham is perhaps best known for her portrayal of fast-talking, coffee-mainlining single mom Lorelai Gilmore from Gilmore Girls, a show that recently received a mini-series-esque revival on Netflix. In this light memoir, Graham discusses her experience working on both the original series and the reboot, as well as sharing some thoughts on her personal life.

It's one of the fluffier memoirs I've read — Graham seems to be adhering to the old "if you can't say something nice, don't say anything at all" mantra — with most of the insight coming during the section on the Gilmore reboot. I'm a HUGE Gilmore Girls fan, and I'd recommend the audiobook (which Graham reads, and I listened to) for other such fans. Otherwise, you're probably OK to skip it.

The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery: a Novel / Michael Crichton, 266 p.

Thanks to Kara for this recommendation, a charming reminder of Crichton's terrific storytelling abilities.  A fictional account based on the Great Gold Robbery of 1855, the story is full of the elements that make heist tales appealing: ridiculous costumes, devious mistresses, prison breaks, and improbable stunts.  The bonus here is the seamless weaving of Victorian history into the narrative, most of it selected with an ear for the fantastic, grotesque, or both.  Best of all is the underworld lingo.  I don't know if Crichton's dialogue would stand up to the OED, but it sure makes for fun reading: "...he speaks a wave lag from Liverpool, and he can voker romeny."  (He had a Liverpool sailor's accent and he spoke criminal jargon.)

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Pictures

The Pictures by Guy Bolton, 389 pages

LAPD Detective Jonathan Craine is still mourning the suicide of his wife, Hollywood starlet Celia Raymond, when he heads back on the job, which largely amounts to making the criminal misdeeds of actors and actresses disappear. But when a beautiful blonde and a high-profile movie producer both die mysteriously the same night, and a young police officer won't stop asking pesky questions, Craine finds he has a bit more trouble making this problem go away.

Set during the golden age of Hollywood and mixed with plenty of gangsters, this story had the potential to be either a glitzy movie star story or a noirish mafia tale. Instead, the plot is so scattered and the clues so nonexistent that it's neither. The book is filled with well-described action sequences, but has little in the way of character development or conversations between characters. In short, it reads like a screenplay for an action movie. It wasn't worth my time.


Reset: my fight for inclusion and lasting change / Ellen Pao, 274 pgs.

This memoir recounts Pao's lawsuit against her employer, a powerhouse venture capital firm who retaliated against her suit by firing her.  The suit became the talk of the own in Silicon Valley.  Outspent by her opponents, she ended up losing her lawsuit but retained the right to talk about what happened.  Thus, this book.

Having no real idea about the world of venture capital does not make it difficult to understand the workplace situation Ellen faced. Have you ever been in a meeting where someone is ignored or talked over?  Have you ever seen someone make a suggestion that is ignored, then the same suggestion made by someone else is hailed?  If you haven't noticed this, maybe start paying closer attention.

Although I can't imagine how difficult it was to follow through with suing her employer, I'm glad that she did so we can have this book.  I'm sure many women will read this book and have no problem relating.  It is more important that men and bosses read it and work on improving work places.


Victoria by Daisy Goodwin  404 pp.

As fictionalized versions of British royalty go, this one is okay. It is the novelization of the PBS/Masterpiece series "Victoria". The story covers the years from just prior to her becoming Queen of England to her betrothal to her cousin Albert of Saxe-Coburg. This book makes much of Victoria's crush on Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne. I have to admit I enjoyed Goodwin's novel The American Heiress better than this one. And I believe Cynthia Harrod-Eagles' I, Victoria is a much better fictional account of the life of England's second longest reigning monarch.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Norma: a Novel

Norma: a Novel / Sofi Oksanen, trans. Owen F. Witesman, 306 p.

I was excited to see this novel after being fascinated by Finnish-Estonian Oksanen's earlier novels Purge and When the Doves Disappeared In Norma the author ventures into the slightly supernatural, one of those odd stories where things are just a tick off the norm.  Norma's mother, Anita, has just been killed by jumping onto the tracks at a Helsinki subway station, but Norma knows she was not suicidal - she'd just returned from a great vacation to Thailand and was full of plans.  Norma's hair, which grows several feet per day and can sense others' moods and health, signals that something menacing is happening.  When Anita's former business associates show up and begin asking strange questions, Norma launches a quest for the truth about her mother's death.

Norma is part-mystery, part meditation on the ways in which women's bodies are used: hair, eggs, and uteruses are all commodities to be exploited by networks as vicious as drug cartels. As a novel it doesn't quite work - there is a flatness to the narrative, and the suspense just isn't there - but Oksanen is an unusual thinker and I was still intrigued throughout. 

Divine Misfortune

Divine Misfortune by A. Lee Martinez  321 pp.

Teri and Phil are an average couple who never had the need for a personal deity because of all the extra work involved with altars, offerings, devotionals, etc. When Phil is passed up for a promotion they decide to pick one to improve their lot in life. They select Luka, the raccoon god of prosperity who promises them good luck with little in the way of payment . . . except for letting him live in their house. But the good fortune brought by Luka is laced with other problems. Besides having the personality of a somewhat sleazy used car salesman, his old fling, the love goddess Sif, becomes intent on getting revenge for what she sees as Luka's abandonment. Another god, Gorgoz, is bearing an old grudge and wants to destroy Luka and his followers. And Quetzocoatl aka Quick, the Aztec feathered serpent god, is not taking any followers and just wants to sleep on their couch. When Phil's life is on the line it can only be solved by a confrontation and conflagration of gods. There is humor in this story but it wasn't laugh-out-loud funny. Good but not Martinez's best.

The Atlas of Forgotten Places

The Atlas of Forgotten Places by Jenny D. Williams, 361 pages

When idealistic aid worker Lily suddenly goes missing in Uganda, her aunt Sabine must travel to a region beset by civil war in attempt to track her down. At the same time, Rose, an Acholi woman living in Uganda, is working as a translator for a Swiss anthropologist when her boyfriend, Ocen, also disappears. These two searches eventually combine, leading Rose, Sabine, and Christoph (the Swiss anthropologist) on a dangerous trek that forces them all to confront their pasts and their assumptions of the present.

When I first picked up this book, I was afraid it would be incredibly depressing, bloody, and bleak — after all, it is set against the backdrop of the very real Operation Lightning Thunder, a 2008 bombing initiative against the Lord's Resistance Army that failed massively (it led to the deaths of nearly 900 civilians). Instead, the book strikes a more hopeful tone, illuminating the universality of loss while still respecting the horrific experiences of those who live near conflict. I ended up really enjoying this book.

Anything is possible, by Elizabeth Strout

This new novel by Strout is similar in form to her best-selling Olive Kitteridge (which is also an engrossing made-for-TV limited series with Frances McDormand).  It also is connected to her more recent My name is Lucy Barton and reading it enhanced my understanding of the earlier book – I rather wish I’d read them in a different order.  Lucy Barton, like Olive Kitteridge, is a central figure in this new novel, which like Olive Kitteridge, is a series of interconnected stories in which she plays a major or minor role.  Many of the same characters mentioned in the earlier book are fleshed out in the newer one, which gives the reader a more nuanced view of their influence on Lucy Barton’s life.  Recommended – but try reading it before My name is Lucy Barton if you haven’t read it already.  254 pp.

The world, two wheels, and a sketchbook, by Sophie Binder

The author, who lives in the area, spoke recently at The Green Center about the adventures detailed in this beautiful self-published book.  Binder is a graphic artist and writer.  Born in France, she moved to the United States in the 1990s.  An adventurous soul, she wanted to take a solo around-the-world trip on a bicycle, sketching and painting as she went.  By 2001, when she received her green card and knew she wouldn’t have trouble returning to this country, she decided to make this dream a reality.  Her travels on bike take her from St. Louis east to the coast, where she and her trusty stead flew to her native France.  Her travels took her through France, Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and other parts of the Mideast.  She happened to be in Syria on 9/11.  India proved to be a difficult destination both because of the immense poverty and the crush of the population, and the very dangerous traffic.  She also biked through Laos, Vietnam, Nepal (those hills…..) and New Zealand before flying back to Los Angeles and biking up to the Bay Area and across the country back home.   Her sensitive descriptions of the geography,, history, and the people she met paired with her stunning watercolor sketches make this oversized book a joy to read and look at.  Highly recommended, and I hope the Friends may sponsor an author visit from her soon.  283 pp.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017


Jillian / Halle Butler, 227 pgs.

Megan works in a doctor's office with Jillian, a woman more than 10 years older who is irrationally optimistic and cheery even as her life is spinning out of control.  Megan is also losing her mind as her friends and acquaintances are building "real" lives while she is stuck looking at colonoscopy pictures to file in a mundane job with the irritating co-worker.  She even sort of hate and resents her boyfriend who is, generally, supportive and nice to her.  Jillian is on the verge of being crazy.  A single mother receiving no support from the father of her child, her car is impounded but she makes up a story about being in an accident and scores a sympathy pain reliever script from on of the doctors in her office. Jillian imposes on a friend from church to transport her child to and from day care because she can't afford to get her car back.  She makes poor choice, after poor choice, adopting a special needs dog that she can't take care of and liberally overusing her pain meds, even at work.  Megan is becoming so hateful, she really can't manage a nice facade at a party and ends up in a fight with long-time friend Amanda.  Megan's boyfriend begins to have doubts about the sanity of remaining in the relationship as Megan continues to become more unhinged.  Somehow, parts of this are very funny and you feel real sympathy for both of these women who continue down their chosen paths no matter how badly you want them to revise their direction.

Sing, unburied, sing

Sing, unburied, sing / Jesmyn Ward, read by Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Rutina Wesley & Chris Chalk, 289 pgs.

Jojo is 13 and his sister Kayla 3.  They live with their grandparents and mother.  Their father is in prison.  The grandparents are the true parents as their mother Leonie has a drug problem and isn't made of mother material.  The family matriarch is on her deathbed, beaten down by cancer.  Pop is holding down the fort, raising the children and recalling his own time in prison when his almost son-in-law is released from the same place he served time.  Leonie decides to take the kids for the release date to see the father they barely know.  The narration for this book bounces between Jojo, Leonie and Richie, a ghost who haunts Pop mentally but is seen by and communicates with Jojo.  The stories of each are mostly heart breaking and occasionally hopeful. Each is treated with extreme respect by the author who has crafted an unforgettable book. I listened to the audio that is expertly narrated by the small cast listed above.  I think the audio version packs a bigger emotional punch which may not be a good thing for everyone.

Standard Deviation

Standard Deviation / Katherine Heiny, 319 pgs.

Graham has been married to Audra for 12 years when an opportunity arises to circle back and be friends with his first wife Elspeth.  He knows he should not compare them but he can't really help himself.  He cheated on Elspeth with Audra and eventually left her.  He and Audra now have 10 year old Matthew, a kid on "the spectrum" who loves origami.  He also has a young secretary, Olivia, who sometimes needs help with clues about basic life functions.   He is really a bit of an introvert but Audra is the exact opposite, she talks to everyone, knows almost all of them, and often invites people to dinner or even to move in for lengths of time.  This book is basically Graham's take on his surroundings, his relationships and life in general.  Often hilarious, occasionally heartbreaking, but always possibly real. I enjoyed this immensely and will recommend to anyone who enjoys domestic fiction with realistic relationships.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green  286 pp.

Kara pretty much covered everything in her review. I can't say this is my favorite John Green book but it is well worth reading. And I was very amused at the mention of the Applebee's at 86th & Ditch in Indianapolis since I knew exactly where that was -- my son used to live close by there. This novel gives an interesting insight into the workings of one mentally ill person's thoughts. Definitely worth reading.

Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin: An America Life by Walter Isaacson  590 pp.

As he did with his biography of Albert Einstein, Isaacson provides a detailed account of the life of entrepreneur, author, politician, inventor, diplomat, and founding father whose fascinating life was full and varied. This biography unveils many of the mistaken legends about Franklin, including the depictions of him as being an older, gray-haired man flying his kite in a storm -- he was 44 -- and that what we call a "Franklin Stove" is a later, much altered design because his original one did not work as planned. There is an honest portrayal of his love of women's attention, and neglect of his own wife. Also, John & Abigail Adams' disapproval of Franklin's lifestyle and indulgences is discussed. In spite of the negatives about the man, Isaacson succeeds in giving an interesting account of one of the most intelligent, well-read, and well-spoken minds of the 18th century.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Bone: Tall Tales

Bone: Tall Tales by Jeff Smith, 108 pages

In this companion to his epic graphic novel series Bone, Smith offers up a handful of campfire stories that goofy Smiley Bone tells to his troop of Bone Scouts. They're fantastic stories, beautifully told, as one would expect from Smith. I particularly liked the story about Fone Bone and Phoney Bone following the treasure map — without giving the story away, I'll simply say that I may have to try this out on my kids someday. A wonderful quick read.

To Fetch a Thief

To Fetch A Thief by Spencer Quinn, 307 pages

This third installment of the Chet and Bernie mystery series does not disappoint.  I came across this series by chance - a man and dog detective agency.  But what's this?  The stories are told from the dog's point of view?  Yep, Chet is a hundred-pound mixed breed, thoughtful and smart as they come, as long as he doesn't happen to notice that cat (or Cheeto or Slim Jim) over there.  The man, Bernie, is divorced and barely scraping by.  Chet, who has the deepest loyalty for Bernie, also appears to be more financially savvy than his man.

In this story, an elephant (Peanut) and her trainer have disappeared from a small traveling circus.  How can an elephant just disappear?  Jocko, a large scary man with a crooked nose and a bandana, provides intimidation galore.  With Chet's nose on the job, the story winds around the Southwestern US and drops into Mexico as the search for Peanut and her trainer evolves.

Meanwhile, Chet's thoughtful and humorous canine commentary really makes one wonder if author Spencer Quinn can read a dog's mind...

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Finishing School: a Novel

The Finishing School: a Novel / Muriel Spark, read by Nadia May, 181 p.

Rowland and Nina own and operate College Sunrise, a small, highly personalized school for wealthy young people in Ouchy, Switzerland.  One of their charges, Chris Wiley, is at age 17 well on his way to publishing a novel, which fact makes Rowland, himself an almost-novelist, wildly jealous.  Similar themes of tortured teacher-student relationships to Miss Jean Brodie, but even more cynical and arch, too much so for me. 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie / Muriel Spark, read by Nadia May, 187 p.

I suppose I must have seen the film based on this brief novel starring Maggie Smith, but if so I didn't remember it as I was listening to this taut, strange and fascinating tale.  Miss Brodie, a rebellious and unconventional Edinburgh teacher, has a group of 6 young girls that comprise her set.  She opens their minds and wields an outsize influence, but this is no heartwarming tale.  Yes, Miss Brodie gives primacy to the arts and imagination, but alas, she is rather too fond of Mussolini and Franco for her own or anyone else's good.  Weird and wonderful.

The Ninth Hour: a Novel

The Ninth Hour: a Novel / Alice McDermott, 247 p.

Jim is an Irish immigrant to Brooklyn who, one dreary February afternoon, closes the windows of his tenement and turns up the gas, setting his young pregnant wife on an unexpected course, along with the Little Nursing Sisters of the Sick Poor who come to her rescue.

I love McDermott; she is one of very few fiction writers who depict American Catholic experience without kitsch.  In this case, a family saga provides the backdrop for an up-close look at the lives and work of women religious in their heyday, at the turn of the last century when in Catholic neighborhoods they were nurses, social service workers and teachers and lived in intimate connection to the families they served.  McDermott is not uncritical or dewy-eyed in her portrayal, but she draws vividly the unceasing physical labor, skill and grit that characterized the work of these women.  The Ninth Hour makes a lovely homage but as a piece of fiction I prefer Charming Billy and After This. 

Dinner at the Center of the Earth

Dinner at the Center of the Earth: a Novel / Nathan Englander, 252 pp.

A young American, referred to as Z, is in Paris, on the run and afraid.  Then there's Joshua, young, confident and Canadian, learning to sail in Berlin thanks to his new friendship with the wealthy Farid.  What is the connection between Joshua and Z?  And what does it all have to do with the 'General,' the great and powerful Israeli who lies in a coma for years on end?

I very much enjoyed this novel, a little bit of espionage and a lot of layered meditation on imprisonment (Israeli, Palestinian, and maybe American, too), loyalty, and sacrifice.  I was oddly thrilled to find a fictional treatment of Ariel Sharon's long twilight, a truth-is-stranger-than-fiction scenario that always seemed made for storytelling. Different in tone from the equally enjoyable What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank; both works skillfully master a feeling of playful seriousness. 

Thursday, October 19, 2017


Chemistry / Weike Wang, 211 pgs.

A Chinese-American grad student has a bit of a breakdown and smashes a bunch of beakers in the lab.  She is put on "medical" leave and her live-in boyfriend tries to get her life back together.  Of course there are issues.  Realizing she has no good reference point for what love is.  Her parents were not good examples as husband and wife nor as parents.  She finally discovers something about love when she adopts and dog and then more when her best friend has a baby and she becomes devoted.  This may be the worst summary I've added to this blog because the book is about so much more.  I absolutely loved the way Wang takes us through the doubt that plagues our grad student.  What does she want?  How will she figure it out?  You even learn a little chemistry. Wonderful debut.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelley, 324 pages

Rereading Frankenstein this month really drove home the fact that many stories I love owe large parts of their plots to Mary Shelley’s monster story.  Lilo and Stitch?  Not only is it one of my favorite Disney movies, but it’s totally a Frankenstein retelling (with a happier ending).  Ex Machina?  Yep.  Frankenstein.  I’d argue that almost any movie/story where an intelligent non-human creation ends up at odds with its cold, egotistical, human creator can be traced back to Frankenstein.  

For those who have only experienced the cinematic/pop-culture version of Frankenstein's monster*, Shelley's book will be a bit of a shock.  Even though I'd read the book before, I was struck by how graceful, intelligent, and sympathetic the monster is (despite his hideous outward appearance).  It's amazing how all those images of a shambling, non-speaking beast stick in your mind's eye.  For my modern YA-reading sensibilities, the book's 200 year-old plot is not exactly fast moving but was engaging nonetheless. 

*But he really doesn't mind if you just call him Frankenstein:

The night the lights went out

The night the lights went out / Karen White, read by Carolyn Cook, Susan Larkin, Tiffany Morgan, 406 pgs.

Sugar Prescott has a new tenet.  Marilee Dunlap, a newly single mother of two is still reeling over her divorce that was precipitated by her husband cheating on her with the third grade teacher.  Marilee and the kids move to a new area of the suburb of Atlanta and are trying to start over.  Sugar Prescott is old Georgia and has lived in the area all of her 90 years.  She is touch cookie and not especially well liked but can't stay away from Marilee and her kids.  She sees a lot of herself in Marilee and knows there is something in her past.  We learn about Sugar's life through flash backs and Marilee's life mostly through conversation and current events.  As Marilee makes new friends, some things don't seem to be quite right but she is too harried to look more closely.  In the end, a murder puts Marilee on the suspect list. 

Unfortunately there isn't much mystery with this murder.  Although the author attempts to give us a cliff hanger, it seems pretty obvious to me from the start what is going on.  If nothing else, this is a long story that should encourage you to pay attention and not share your passwords.

The Amber Shadows

The Amber Shadows by Lucy Ribchester, 451 pages

In the midst of World War II, Honey Deschamps is a typist at Bletchley Park, a British compound dedicated to breaking Nazi communication codes. One night, as she's walking home to the home where she's billeting, a man who claims to work at the Park approaches her with a package that was mistakenly delivered to the wrong place. Inside is a square of amber, the first of several pieces that are sent to her. The mysterious packages (and the intriguing man, who keeps popping up at convenient times) send Honey on a cloak-and-dagger hunt for the meaning and sender of the coded message.

Ribchester does a good job of bringing to life the everyday elements of Honey's wartime life — the rations, the billeting, the high security, the double standards for women and the men with whom they work. Where she misses, however, is a much more crucial element of the story. Given all of the references to Alfred Hitchcock and Daphne Du Maurier, I think she's trying to create a spooky, atmospheric mystery, but it lacks the suspense and tension such a tale requires. A heavier edit (including cutting out some scenes that do nothing to advance the plot) would have helped immensely.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Spill Zone

Spill Zone / Scott Westerfeld & Alex Puvilland, 211 pages

Years after the "event" marred the city and made it uninhabitable, Addison is left to care for her little sister Lexa who has not spoken since the incident.  To make money, Addison sells photos from the spill zone, a dangerous but lucrative activity.  When an insistent collector requests a special mission, Addison breaks her own rules of survival to go for the big payoff.  This first part of the series ends with things going a little out of what at home but with Lexa finding her voice.  Interesting art and an active plot line make this something you will read in one sitting.

Fifty inventions that shaped the modern economy

Fifty inventions that shaped the modern economy by Tim Harford, read by Roger Davis, 321 pgs.

This interesting book talks about innovative inventions and ideas that have shaped our economy.  As with all lists, there will be topics included and left off that make the list seem incomplete.  If we accept this list for what it is, you will be intrigued by the analysis of the intended and unintended consequences of each of the ideas on the list.  Agree or disagree that the "welfare state" is an invention but read with interest what it means to the modern populous.  This is not the typical list of important inventions.  You will not find here the printing press but paper is included.  Logically there would be no press if paper had not come first.  Also included, double entry accounting and barbed wire.  If you are interested in economic history, you will find much here enjoyable.  Roger Davis does a good job of breezily reading in a style that makes this an easy listen.

Sherlock: a study in pink

Sherlock: a study in pink / Steven Moffat, Mark Gatiss & Jay, 224 pgs.

Sherlock Holmes and John Watson chase a killer whose victims commit suicide.  Set in modern day London, this adaptation is done in Manga style, reading right to left.  This collection of the serialized comics was originally published in Japan. This work is based on the TV series Sherlock starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman.  The drawings and story line will be familiar to fans of the show.

The book of Polly

The book of Polly / Kathy Hepinstall, read by Jenna Lamia, 322 pgs.

Willow Havens is obsessed with the health of her mother.  Willow was a late in life baby and her father died before she was born.  Now she realizes her eccentric mother Polly is the only link she has to a decent life.  She decides to try to keep her alive and learn her secrets even though Polly is not one who liked to divulge much.  Polly is the type of mom we can only all hope for...still enjoys a good margarita and backs up her daughter's lies, even if it means admitting she has a tail "it is a very small and dainty one."  I could not get enough of this mother daughter duo.  Pretty much every line of this book is fabulous and perfectly read by Jenna Lamia who will, hopefully, win many awards for her telling of this story.

One day we'll all be dead and none of this will matter

One day we'll all be dead and none of this will matter:  essays by Scaachi Koul, 241 pgs.

A collection of essays by Scaachi Koul, a daughter of Indian immigrants to Canada.  These essays focus on being an outsider, looking for identity, and sometimes just mortifying experiences.  The story of a cousin's wedding gives you a taste of India. The story of having to get cut out of an outfit in a store after trying it on and not being able to get it off gives you a taste of being a woman.  Stories about her parents give you the idea of what its like to be a daughter of Indian immigrants, or actually a daughter of many other types of parents too.  The story of being roofied seems very current. Often funny, sometimes heartfelt and occasionally horrifying, Koul is an interesting read and suggested for fans of witty women.

Monday, October 16, 2017

The Black Tower

The Black Tower by Louis Bayard  352 pp.

What if the young Dauphin Louis Charles, son of King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette had not died in a cell in the notorious "Temple" prison but was smuggled out of the prison and grew to adulthood. That is the premise of this novel. Vidocq, chief of the new plainclothes police force disrupts the quiet life of Hector Carpentier after mistaking him for his late father, a physician while investigating a murder. The senior Carpentier had treated the sick prince in the Temple. Did he, with the help of others, carry him out of the prison inside a hobby horse? If not, then who is the gentle young man rescued by Vidocq and the younger Carpentier? The story has lots of twists and puzzles and the ending leaves you wondering if something like that could have happened and how it would have changed history. 

The Great Train Robbery

The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton  266 pp.

This is the novel that was the basis for the film by the same name that starred Sean Connery and Donald Sutherland. Edward Pierce gathers a collection of thieves to pull off a daring heist. England is in the midst of the Crimean War. Shipments of gold were sent by rail to the coast and then to the Crimea to pay the soldiers. Pierce concocts an audacious plan to steal the gold from the train between the Folkestone Station and the coast. Most of the story is the several months of preparation that is needed to copy the sets of safe keys needed and figure out how to get inside the locked baggage car before the train leaves the station. Crichton loosely based his novel and the subsequent movie on an actual event. The added complications to the plot were creations of Crichton's. 

Friday, October 13, 2017

Turtles All the Way Down

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green, 286 pages

From the outset, it's obvious that Aza Holmes is not your stereotypical teenage girl. Even while her chatterbox best friend Daisy talks to her about school, boys, work, Star Wars fanfic, and everything else, Aza is trapped inside her own head, worrying about the microbes that are in her stomach, or in the perpetual cut on her callused finger. She tries to be a "normal" kid though: she starts dating Davis (an insanely rich kid whose father disappeared just as his arrest for a white collar crime), she hangs out at Applebee's, she sings along to pop songs while driving her beat-up Toyota.

Plot-wise, it doesn't seem like much happens in this book, though that's probably because so much happens in Aza's head. We, like she, are caught in her thoughts as they spiral tighter and tighter, affecting her physically and emotionally. While the secondary characters are a bit two-dimensional, I'm OK with that because that's kinda how Aza sees them, since she has SO MUCH to deal with just to maintain appearances of a normal life. For those of us who have anxiety, there's a lot we can identify with, even if we don't share Aza's particular intrusive worries. It's a great book, not just to read, but to simply have around.

You Can't Touch My Hair

You Can't Touch My Hair: And Other Things I Still Have to Explain by Phoebe Robinson, 285 pages

Comedian, blogger, and actor Phoebe Robinson presents this equally thought-provoking and HI-LARIOUS collection of essays on everything from being a black woman in comedy and how to tell if you're "the black friend" to her personal ranking of the members of U2 based on the order in which she'd like to sleep with them (Larry Mullins Jr. may want to change his name if he wants to move up a notch or two). It's fun, it's informative, it's scattered with plenty of excellent pop culture references, and flat-out great.

Additional recommendation: listen to the audiobook, which Robinson reads herself. From her introduction (where she claims that the book will be 99 percent Miss J from America's Next Top Model "and like, two sentences of Between the World and Me") to her post-credit plea to get the audiobook in the hands of Michelle Obama (this is part of her plan to become Mrs. Obama's new best friend), I was laughing, learning, and loving it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

The School for Good and Evil

The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani, 488 pages

Every four years, a mysterious School Master kidnaps two children from the idyllic town of Gavaldon, taking them to a two-towered school that helps kids embrace their Good and Evil natures, respectively, and eventually placing them in their own fairy tales. When best friends Sophie and Agatha are kidnapped, they're taken to the school and think they know where they'll end up: beautiful, blonde Sophie is convinced she's a happily-ever-after princess in the making, while creepy loner Agatha is a shoo-in for a wicked witch (she grew up in a graveyard, for crying out loud!). Turns out, the School Master has other ideas, and both girls find themselves outcasts in the opposite schools than they expected.

Aimed at middle grade kids, this book offers a great twist on fairy tales and the nature of Good and Evil, though it sometimes comes across as a bit heavy-handed for adult readers. While it's interesting to watch Sophie and Agatha struggle with the roles they've had thrust upon them, most of the characters are a bit two-dimensional (though one could argue that so are most fairy tale characters) and the world, while certainly imaginative, isn't really as richly alive as it could be. That said, there are three more books in the series, and as this one ended on a cliffhanger, I'm definitely going to be picking up the next one to see where the story goes.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Thanks, Obama

Thanks, Obama: My hopey, changey White House years / David Litt, read by the author, 310 pgs.

David Litt started out as a volunteer on the campaign trail for Obama and ended up a speech writer for him.  This book starts on the campaign trail and tells it all, the embarrassing stories, the political triumphs and the losses. Litt has many great stories of being young an foolish at the White House.  He enters hoping to become best friends with the president and leaves feeling like something got accomplished.  Litt wrote speeches for many in the administration but was often the go-to guy for the funny stuff.  He admits to an occasional game addiction and also gives you the straight info on the best bathrooms and lunches at the White House.  This is information you can really use to rate a work place.  Wonder if much has changed there?

Litt does a great job reading this book.  Listen to the audio version if you get the chance.

Bluebird, Bluebird: a Novel

Bluebird, Bluebird: a Novel / Attica Locke,  307 p.

Darren Mathews is a black Texas Ranger.  He loves being a Ranger, and he's good at it.  He loves Texas, too, and in particular his homeland of East Texas.  But he has no illusions about the difficulties of delivering justice for African-Americans in that corner of the world, and a lot of Bluebird involves Locke's contemplating (through Darren's voice) on the power of home and the pull to remain in places and institutions that are flawed but worth fighting for.

Darren is called to the small town of Lark on US 59, where two people, an African-American man and a young white woman, have turned up dead near the bayou that runs alongside the town.  Can it be a coincidence?  And is it even possible that race does not play a role in these two crimes?  What part does the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas play, happily installed installed as they are in the town's only bar? 

The story rolls out at a leisurely pace; this is not a page-turner.  But it's thoughtful, and definitely evocative of a distinct place.  Darren is a solid, complicated character, and I think we will see more of him.  The story ends on a surprising personal cliffhanger, so stay tuned.

Rain Dogs

Rain Dogs: a Detective Sean Duffy Novel / Adrian McKinty, read by Gerard Doyle, 329 p.

The fifth in the Detective Sean Duffy series; these audiobooks, wonderfully read by Gerard Doyle, have been my car companions for months now.

In this title:

As in #3 in this series, In the Morning I'll Be Gone, Detective Sean Duffy is presented with a locked-room mystery.  A woman has been found dead in the courtyard of the local castle, and there's no apparent way the killer could have escaped unseen.  On the plus side, Sean's personal life is about to take a very interesting turn...

In all Detective Sean Duffy novels:

checking under the BMW for mercury tilt bombs
a fabulous supporting cast, including Sergeant McCrabben (Crabby), Duffy's dour Presbyterian sidekick, and attractive neighbor Mrs.Campbell, perpetually horny because her husband is either away or depressed
an encyclopedic display of musical knowledge
a shocking amount of alcohol consumption, even for Ireland
hilarious dialogue
a terrific sense of place

Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions

Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions by Amy Stewart, 374 pages

In this third book of the Kopp Sisters series, sheriff's deputy and jail matron Constance comes face-to-face with the morality-driven arrests of young women living on their own in 1916 New Jersey. As she fights for the rights of her charges in court and in society, she's faced with her youngest sister Fleurette leaving home to find her own life (a move that needles at their staid sister Norma, who wants to send the police after the "wayward" Fleurette).

As with the first two books in this series, it's loosely based on a true story: Constance Kopp really was the first female sheriff's deputy in New Jersey, Fleurette really did audition for singing roles with traveling troupes, and Edna and Minnie (the two "wayward" girls Constance fights for in this book) really were arrested for the reasons given in the book. Historical fiction that's based on real people sometimes rankles me because I'm unsure of what's true and what's not. Thankfully, Stewart offers a wealth of historical notes at the end of the book, discussing what's true and what's not (sadly, Norma's pigeon obsession falls in the "not true" category). I loved the first two books, and I love this one.

The Mathematician's Shiva

The Mathematician's Shiva: a novel by Stuart Rojstaczer  366 pp.

Rachela Karnokovitch, survived a rough childhood in Poland and the Soviet Union during World War II. In spite of her beginnings she became a brilliant and world renowned mathematician and professor at the University of Wisconsin. She dies peacefully with her family surrounding her. Her son, Sasha, her husband, and other family members plan a quiet funeral and shiva only to have their plans disrupted by the arrival of masses of mathematician's who revered and/or hated her. All believe she has taken the solution to the million dollar Navier-Stokes Prize problem to her grave. Her son has found no evidence of it. However, there is her memoir about her life during the war, written in Polish that Sasha painstakingly translates. Besides the collection of socially inept mathematician's, the arrival of Sasha's daughter and granddaughter, neither of whom he has met before, adds another wrinkle to the proceeds. There is subtle humor, reluctant romance, and heartwarming moments. The book is well written and so believable that at one point I had to check to make sure this was a fictional story and not a son's true memoir of his mother.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

The Address

The Address by Fiona Davis  354 pp.

Sara Smythe is an Englishwoman with a good job as the head housekeeper in a pricey London hotel in 1884. Staying at the hotel is American architect Theodore Camden, who is currently working on plans for an apartment house in New York City. Camden offers her a lucrative position at the building which will be known as The Dakota and a ticket for the ocean voyage. Sara travels to America to take her place as the "Managerette" of the building. Her life takes a downward turn after a wrongful accusation of theft, exoneration, and the murder of Theodore Camden. Fast forward 100 years to a young woman named Bailey Camden who is fresh out of rehab and trying to regain her footing in the world of interior design by helping her cousin "remodel" the Camden apartment in the Dakota. The stories of the two women intersect when Bailey finds trunks full of Camden possessions from the previous century which only raises more questions about her great-grandfather's murder and her position in the Camden family. The story alternates between the centuries and, while the premise is intriguing, it is too often predictable. The author's notes list the references on The Dakota she used in writing the story which includes Life at the Dakota. In addition the author admits altering the timing of some historic events such as the arrival of the Statue of Liberty in New York and reporter Nellie Bly's famous undercover stay at the Blackwell's Island lunatic asylum.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017


Brimstone by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child  497 pp.

Brimstone is the fifth book in the Pendergast series. FBI Special Agent Aloysius Pendergast and Sergeant Vincent D'Agosta reunite in trying to solve a series of bizarre deaths that appear to have resulted from a pact with the Devil. The investigation takes them from New York to Florence, Italy in search of the cause. Meanwhile, Captain Laura Hayward remains in NYC dealing with a messianic drifter who has stirred up a belief that the deaths are a sign the Apocalypse is imminent. In the middle of all of this is a tale of a priceless Stradivarius violin. There are literary references to Wilkie Collins' The Woman in White and Edgar Allan Poe's "The Cask of Amontillado." And I'm pretty sure the part about Sergeant D'Agosta losing the tip of a finger is an homage to Preston's own childhood episode found in the amusing biography of the author found here. 

Read My Pins

Read My Pins: Stories from a Diplomat's Jewel Box by Madeleine Albright 176 pp.

Former U.S. Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright is a collector of pins and brooches. Most of her collection is costume jewelry with some more expensive pieces. Some she purchased, others were gifted to her. The collection itself is not particularly remarkable. The intriguing part was how she used her pins as tools in her diplomatic duties. Frequently, her stance on issues was displayed right there on her dress or suit. The press learned to check on her jewelry before important meetings and negotiations. This is a quick, light read.

Life at the Dakota

Life at the Dakota: New York's Most Unusual Address  241 pp.

This book was published back in 1979 so it is far from being up to date in the tale of the famous/infamous Dakota apartment house on Central Park West. It includes the history of the building from the beginning when that part of town was a lesser location than the more prestigious East Side of Manhattan. There are anecdotes about the residents who lived their over the years, the famous and not so famous. There is much about the management and mismanagement of the building over the years and the battle to turn it into a cooperative apartment. The author was less than complimentary about some of the famous residents including John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I wonder if his attitude would be different had he written the book after Lennon's murder outside the building in 1980. All in all, this is a so-so book.

The One-in-a-Million Boy

The One-in-a-Million Boy by Monica Wood, 323 pages

Ms. Ona Vitkus is 104 years old, and the local boy scout troop has just foisted another of its members on her to help out around the house. But this boy is different: he's what so many people dub "an old soul," obsessed with world records and collecting merit badges, and a friendship develops between them. But when the boy dies suddenly (I'm not spoiling anything by saying this — you find this out within the first three pages), his somewhat flaky father takes over his weekly visits to Ms. Vitkus, leading to a friendship that neither of them could have anticipated.

I read this book on the recommendation of a friend with whom I share an affinity for books about quirky friendships and odd people. This book (which mixes prose chapters with one-sided interview transcripts and lists of Guinness World Records) certainly fits the bill, and is definitely one I'd recommend. That said, it hit a bit too close to home for me to fully appreciate it for what it is — the unnamed kid is uncannily similar to my similarly aged son (including the fact that both have librarians for mothers) and Ms. Vitkus reminds me of my 104-year-old grandmother — and instead left me a bit unsettled.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

The little hotel

The little hotel / Christina Stead, 216 pgs.

Kathleen wrote about this book here which certainly made me interested.  The setting is a little hotel where all kinds of things are happening.  Who knew so much went on at a place like that?  It sort of reminds me of the library.  People come and go but there is a crew who stays the whole time.  The young proprietress is working hard with her husband to keep the place running, dealing with staff, guest and all the crazy things that go along with the human condition.  This is just one long chapter about a time period in the hotel and all that happens.  It is so much fun to read and I think I enjoyed every page.

Monday, October 2, 2017

September totals!

A new blogging year has begun! If you haven't blogged in a while, now's the time to start up again.

Our wild card categories are books featuring pirates and books with a name in the title, as well as left-handed bloggers.

On to the totals:

Christa  15/4475
Kara  9/2497
Karen  6/2526
Kathleen  10/2985
Linda  4/1744

Total: 44/14,227

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Herman Melville's Moby Dick

Herman Melville's Moby Dick by Chaboute, 256 pages.

Chaboute's black ink drawings are really spectacular. His drawings and the edited text of Melville's classic novel really bring this abbreviated version to life. Or so I assume, because I have never read the original. I'm waiting until we do Moby Dick for our big-book summer read for that. This graphic novel comes to life, anyway. Ishmael and Queequeg meet when they share a room at the Spouter Inn. After a misunderstanding when they meet, Queequeg adopts Ishmael and helps him get a berth on Captain Ahab's ship, the Pequod. The rest of the story moves along, as I am told the original novel does not. So good for Chaboute. He makes it seem like this classic novel should move well up on the must-read list.

Fieldwork, by Mischa Berlinski

The few times the narrator of this novel is named, his name is Mischa. And, indeed, as one learns from the author in the end notes, the book began life as a non-fiction history of the conversion of the Lisu people in northern Thailand to Christianity.  In a vision or dream, not unlike some that occur in the novel, the author decided instead to write a work of fiction, a sort of mystery story.  But the mystery of why Martiya van der Leun, an anthropologist studying the Dyalo tribe in Thailand, murders David Walker, the charismatic son of a missionary family that has been converting people in southeast Asia for literally generations, is not the main plotline of the book.  It is an exploration of faith, customs, and the infinite variety and sameness of the human race.  Mischa has gone to Thailand with his girlfriend – they’re both recent graduates at loose ends and with low job prospects when she gets a position teaching English in a private elementary school.  When he works at all, he engages in journalism for hire, writing reviews of art, music, and whatever’s on offer.  A college friend, Josh, also in the area, relates some of Martiya's story to Mischa.  She has been in prison for murder for over ten years without support.  Her aunt asks Josh to contact Martiya in prison to let her know her uncle has died and left her money.  This inheritance turns out to allow her to resume her scholarly writing in prison.  A year later, Josh receives two manuscripts from Martiya to send to important anthropology journals.  Not long afterward, she commits suicide.  Caught up in the story, Mischa goes on a quest to try to understand how she came to live so long with the Daylo villagers and what really happened, both to David Walker and to her.  Along the way, he encounters memorable characters such as Farts-a-lot, Sings Soft, and the entire Walker missionary clan.  And Rice, with a capital R.  The author says his influences include Nigel Bagley, whose wonderful Not a hazardous sport and Ceremony were two books I read when they came out in the mid-eighties.  I thoroughly enjoyed them and recommend both them and this book to you.  320 pp.