Thursday, November 30, 2017

Theft by Finding

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002 by David Sedaris, 514 pages

In this hefty volume, bestselling essayist Sedaris offers up selections from his personal diaries, written between 1977 and 2002 (apparently, a second volume is planned, spanning 2003-2016). The diary entries — which sometimes ramble on for pages, and sometimes consist of just a sentence or two — start with his years of part-time jobs, ratty apartments, and long nights at the IHOP, and show his slow transition into a successful writer in a serious relationship. As a fan of Sedaris' work, I was transfixed with his evolving writing style, which grew more confident and fluid as he got older and more successful. As always, this book was peppered with his trademark wry sense of humor, and the audiobook (read by the author) was particularly excellent. Can't wait for the next volume!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Trigger Warning

Trigger Warning: Short Fiction and Disturbances by Neil Gaiman  310 pp.

This anthology of short works includes a variety of sometimes creepy, sometimes disturbing, sometimes scary, and sometimes confusing stories. Some were published prior to this collections, others were new when this collection was published in 2015. Included is a lengthy introduction in which the author discusses the nature of "trigger warnings" and brief background information on the stories in the book. There is a novelized version of a "Doctor Who" episode written for the 50th Anniversary of the television show. There is also a story with characters from Gaiman's novel America Gods. Also included is "The Sleeper and the Spindle" which was later published as an illustrated stand-alone book. As with any collection like this, there are some I liked more than others. I can't say that there were any just I didn't like or that triggered me in any way. I bought this book when it came out and it has been sitting on my shelf every since. I chose instead to listen to the audiobook read by the author who I love listening to. 

Black Dahlia

Black Dahlia by Rick Geary  80 pp.

This is another in the "Treasury of XXth Century Murder" series of graphic novels by Rick Geary. In 1947 the mutilated body of Elizabeth Short was discovered laying in a vacant lot in Los Angeles. The body had been drained of blood, scrubbed clean, and cut in half. A police investigation discovered her identity but not the killer(s). The local and later national press covered the discovery and investigation extensively and dubbed the victim "The Black Dahlia". Geary covers the facts and his realistic pen and ink drawings give it the feeling of an old newspaper account. The Black Dahlia murder was never solved and much has been written about it, both nonfiction and fiction.

A trick of the light, by Louise Penny

Completing a minor Penny binge with book # 7.  Clara Morrow’s long-awaited solo show at a major art gallery in Montreal is a rousing success as is the after-party at her home in Three Pines.  Then a body is found in the Morrow’s garden the morning following the party.  Horrifyingly, it turns out to be someone she knows well – her former best friend from her troubled childhood, Lillian Dyson.  But Lillian, who grew up to be an art critic, wrote a horrible review of Clara’s early work they had been estranged ever since.  Whodunit (and why do so many people get murdered in this tiny town)?  As art dealers vie to represent the newly famous Clara, her husband Peter, formerly the successful artist of the couple, struggles with his own envy and with a secret from the past.  Of course Chief Inspector Gamache is called in to investigate, and we are once more in the cozy but surprising lethal village enjoying croissants, hot chocolate, and the twists and turns of the plot.  339 pp.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Stories of your life and others

Stories of your life and others / Ted Chiang, 281 pgs.

A collection of short stories that will amaze you with the variety of subjects and how perfectly the author tells them. Every selection is thought provoking and mostly unconventional. It is difficult to pick a favorite.  Even though both of the libraries in the consortium who own this book classify it as science fiction, it seems like that label restricts these stories in a way that isn't right.  For example, two selections have clear biblical overtones that are unexpected.  The titular story is the basis for the movie "Arrival" which does feature alien visitors but is really more focused on the process of communication and the physics of time.  Sure, featuring aliens screams "SCIENCE FICTION" but somehow as you read, the alien part seems so natural and totally normal.  I'm not sure how Chiang does it but it makes me want to keep reading and discovering a perspective on something that is original and worthwhile.  Recommended for people who enjoy philosophy and having to THINK about what they are reading.

The Grapes of Wrath

The Grapes of Wrath / John Steinbeck, read by Dylan Baker,  464 p.

The powerful story of the Joads, forced off their Oklahoma farm and trying desperately to make it to California where, they are told, the work is plentiful and the living is easy, resonates today.  Steinbeck makes the hopelessness of the Joads' situation plain; they are at the mercy of forces they can not control, such as the California growers' cooperatives who keep wages horribly low, and the police who see the 'Okies' as only a problem to be driven away.  A grim, dark story that's enlivened by extremely vivid characters and human warmth.  A first-rate reading, complete with atmospheric harmonica interludes, by Dylan Baker.  Can't think of anything better for listening on a road trip west.

Six Months, Three Days, Five Others

Six Months, Three Days, Five Others by Charlie Jane Anders, 188 pages

In this pocket-sized book of short stories, Anders offers up some wonderfully weird tales of everything from aliens returning to Earth to check on their creations (AKA humans) to a theater-critic-turned-genie at the end of the world to a love affair between two people who can see the future (though not necessarily the same one). Anders caps this excellent collection with a coda to her excellent novel, All the Birds in the Sky, answering once and for all the burning question of that book: whatever happened to Patricia's cat? (I won't answer it for you here, but I will say I enjoyed the cat's fate.) If you're a fan of Kelly Link or just like weird stories, I highly recommend this collection, though I would also recommend reading All the Birds in the Sky before you partake of that last tale.

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage / Haruki Murakami, trans.. Philip Gabriel, read by Bruce Locke,  386 p.

Tsukuru leads a placid life in Tokyo designing railway stations.  But his present life is marred by an incident from his past, in which he was cast out from his group of intimate friends.  The novel tells the story of his coming to terms with that long-ago incident.

I wanted to like this, my first Murakami, but I found it dreary and depressing.  I suspect that my feelings would be different if I had read the print version; next time I will try that.

Voices from Chernobyl

Voices from Chernobyl: the Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster / Svetlana Alexievich, trans. Keith Gessen, 236 p.

Interviews of emergency workers, their families, scientists, politicians, and ordinary people approximately 10 years after the explosion. 

If you look at election results around the globe in the past couple of years, you could be forgiven for thinking that when 'The People' speak, most of what they say is, well, stupid.  Alexievich demonstrates otherwise, thankfully.  The voices of ordinary farmers and laborers as they recount an experience both horrific and never-ending were profound, graceful, moving and extremely insightful.  At times the wisdom in these pages seemed to equal that of 100 novels.  The reading was so intense that I could only handle four or five pages at a sitting.

An especially memorable voice was that of Vasily Nesterenko, former director of the Institute for Nuclear Energy at the Belarussian Academy of Sciences.  He lays out in damning detail the many ways the government's practice of putting politics before science and plain denial greatly increased radioactive exposure to the population.  In reading his words, it was hard not to think of another country that puts politics before science with results we can only begin to predict.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Fifty Grand

Fifty Grand by Adrian McKinty, 308 pages.

I got to know this excellent author through his Detective Sean Duffy novels, set in Northern Ireland. They are great books and a joy to listen to, especially with the outstanding narration of Gerard Doyle. In this earlier work, McKinty gives us Havana Detective Mercado. She takes time off from a government sanctioned visit to Mexico City and hires a coyote to smuggle her into the United States, heading for Colorado to quietly investigate the death of her father. Her father had defected in a colorful manner decades back, and was far, far out of favor with Raul Castro and the security apparatus of the state. Mercado must travel carefully, staying under the radar of US immigration, local police, and Cuban Intelligence. Well-paced and tightly written with compelling characters.

The Reason You're Alive

The Reason You're Alive by Matthew Quick, 226 pages.

David Granger, a crusty, profane, and un-apologetically non-pc Vietnam Vet tries to forge a better relationship with his son after he, Granger, has surgery to remove a brain tumor. Somehow his relationship with his son is the least interesting and believable part of the book. It seems to me that if someone who has known you for their whole life thinks your a racist and an asshole, it's probably not just because of your colorful language; they would have seen your sensitive side at some point.  Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook, among other novels, has created a complex character in Granger. He's quick to anger, prone to violence, and though demonstrably (ehhh) not a racist, uses racially charged language. Quick shows him to be, as the story unravels, at his core a kind and loving man..It was a very enjoyable book, especially so in audio format; R.C. Bray does a great job reading this. He really became the character for me, so much so that when I started another audiobook immediately after this one and found that Bray was the narrator, it was so jarring that I had to put that book aside for later. Granger has to work on some other relationships besides the one with his son, and these subplots are more satisfying, making this a book worth reading.

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin, 270 pages.

Our book group choice for November. A. J. Fikry is busy running his bookstore on Alice Island, Island Books, and drinking himself to death. Opening the bookstore had been his wife's idea, but since she died in a traffic accident the joy of it all has gone out of A. J.'s life. As the book begins, A. J. yells at a publisher's rep and his treasured copy of Poe's Tamerlane is stolen.  Everything is going down the drain. He is saved when a small child is left in his care, and when he is given a chance to apologize to and reconnect with the publisher's rep.
This is a sweet and wonderful sort of book, reminiscent of A Man Called Ove, Major Pettigrew's Last Stand and others showing a live saved by unexpected love. The Police Chief's book group and the character of  the local chief Lambiase, are great, as is the series of chapter-beginning book reviews. And the characters of Maya and Amelia add a lot to this enjoyable book. Some twists and turns and more deaths than expected.

Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History

Unbelievable: My Front-Row Seat to the Craziest Campaign in American History by Katy Tur, 291 pages.

Katy Tur was assigned to the Trump campaign by NBC News in early 2015. She followed the candidate around the country until November of 2016, reporting on Trump's angry, crazy, and improbable rise to the Presidency. Along the way she got to be attacked and praised personally by the candidate, depending on his mood. She was able to see and hear all of the headline grabbing antics of the candidate, from talking about his penis size at a debate, to veiled threats from the candidate towards the press-corp, so frequent and so effective at riling up the campaign crowds that Tur and many of the press following Trump around resorted to private security.  An interesting read about an extraordinary time.

Standard Deviation

Standard Deviation by Katherine Heiny, 319 pages

Christa recommended this one to me, and she does an excellent job of describing it here. But for those that don't want to click that link: introverted Graham and extroverted Audra have been married for more than a decade and now have an origami-obsessed son. Graham's ex-wife Elspeth suddenly returns to their life, bringing with it plenty of contemplation, confusion, and dinner parties. The characters Heiny creates are incredibly realistic, and while she's a bit too much to handle, Audra in particular is fascinatingly odd. I enjoyed this look at the complications of everyday life. Thanks for another good one, Christa!

This Book is Full of Spiders

This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don't Touch It by David Wong (Jason Pargin) 406 pp.

Apparently this book is the sequel to one called John Dies at the End. Reading the first book is not required before tackling this one. I am undecided in my opinion of it but the audiobook did hold my attention. In an unnamed town in the midwest an outbreak of strange proportions has created national paranoia. But are the spider monsters real? Do the spider monsters turn people into zombies? Are people really being turned into zombies? Do the people supposedly infected really have to die? Is the government really going to bomb the town into oblivion? Why does the author use his own name and that of his friend for the main characters? (Answer: "David" & "John" are pseudonyms for writers at Should I read the first book . . . or the sequel? This one was a wild ride.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body

Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body by Roxane Gay, 306 pages.

Gay, who writes intriguing, humorous, and fascinating essays on a wide variety of subjects, talks about her own past in her newest book. The daughter of Haitian immigrants who insisted that she work hard and do well at school, Gay was a good daughter and did as well as she could; she was a good student. When she was twelve and started seeing a boy she thought cared about her, she couldn't tell her parents, and when that boy; a nice boy from a good family, raped her and let his friends rape her, and her world crumbled, she couldn't tell her family about that either. Twelve-year-old Roxane turned to food for comfort and protection. Having decided after the brutal attack on her that being obese would make her undesirable, and that being undesirable could keep the pain away, Gay's relationship with food and with her body was altered in a way that would continue to vex her into her adult life. Gay talks about her time at high-school, college and graduate school. She talks about her relationships with her students, and her relationships with a series of lovers over the years. Though there is a fair amount of pain in the book, it is a strange sort of joy to read this; the writing is so good and the writer is so strong.

A legacy of spies

A legacy of spies / John Le Carre, 264 pgs

It is safe to say here, what happened in the Cold War does not actually stay in the Cold War.  Peter Guillam is living out his life on his farm in Brittany when he is summoned back to HQ.  His life in the British Intelligence service is being questioned.  Surviving off-spring of two operatives killed during the Cold War are suing for money and information about their parents.  The "circus" is a different place now. The younger generation is not keen to learn from their elders or see things from the historical perspective.  Guillam is questioned at length about one of his operations.  The results of "Windfall" are difficult to decipher, and Guillam was not a leader then, but a follower.  However, George Smiley can not be found to be held to task.  Guillam is retired but none of his former training is gone.  He spends time rediscovering his reports and people from his past.  He carefully obfuscates his role and understanding of the situation.  Eventually he realizes it is time to take it on the lam.  Still great, the author takes us on another wild ride in this wonderful series. 


Victoria / Daisy Goodwin, read by Anna Wilson-Jones, 404 pgs.

This is a fictional biography of Queen Victoria but based on real people and the facts as read in Victoria's own diaries.  A short time after her eighteenth birthday, Victoria is thrust into the spotlight as the Queen of England when her sickly uncle.  This sheltered teenager rebels against those who want to minimize her influence and begins to become a queen with the help of her prime minister, Lord Melbourne. This book covers a short period leading up to her coronation and the beginning of her reign.  Everyone is pushing her to find a husband but Victoria is not certain that is the path she wants to follow.  Rebellious, independent and curious, this book depicts Victoria as a force.  Goodwin uses Victoria's own diaries and fills in the story with credible dialog and character development.  This audio is well done by Anna Wilson-Jones who does a great job of giving a voice to the young queen.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady

Eleanor and Hick: The Love Affair That Shaped a First Lady by Susan Quinn (2016), 404 pages

Eleanor Roosevelt's early years were tough, with an alcoholic father (Elliott, brother to Teddy Roosevelt) and a mother who didn't seem to have maternal feelings towards her. Both parents were dead by the time she was ten years old. Extended family who took her in didn't provide the warmth that Eleanor craved.

Lorena Hickok's early life in South Dakota had its challenges too, with physical abuse from her father that her mother was unable to protect her from, and her mother's death when Hick was thirteen. Only fourteen when her father remarried, Hick was informed by her stepmother that she'd better find another place to live. Hick spent some years struggling for survival, working in various homes and boardinghouses until she was invited by an aunt to move to Chicago and go to high school. After some time in college, Hick became a writer for the Milwaukee Journal, then later for the Minneapolis Tribune and eventually for the Associated Press.

Perhaps their early trials, when shared, helped cement the relationship that began when Hick met with Eleanor Roosevelt to interview her during Franklin Roosevelt's time as governor of New York. During FDR's first presidential campaign, they became close friends, corresponding regularly as well as traveling together. Later, Hick even had a bedroom in the White House. Their correspondence provides much of the framework of this book, in addition to information gathered from the the Roosevelt Library and other sources.

I learned not only about the lives of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, but about many of their associates, and about FDR and many of his associates as well, getting a insider's view of their era.

So, were Eleanor and Hick really lovers? It seems to depend on how you interpret their correspondence. Read this book and see what conclusion you come to!

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Extraordinary adventures

Extraordinary adventures / Daniel Wallace, 328 pages

Edsel Bronfman is 34 years old and has never really been on a date, has no friends, works a dead end job and wonders what has happened to his life.  He gets a call about a free trip to Destin, FL.  It is one of those "let us try to sell you a time share" weekend visits.  To Edsel, it seems like the biggest adventure of his life.  But the woman says he must bring a companion.  Who can he bring?  His mother is losing her marbles, and besides, this isn't a trip for a mother and a son, he needs a COMPANION.  After 34 years, he decides to find someone.  He starts conversations, checks out the scene, starts working out at the YMCA.  He steps, ever so hesitantly, out onto the limb that may contain a real life.  Edsel is really a sweet guy, just maybe a late bloomer.  He starts a conversation with the receptionist at work, a lady cop and a young woman who is a friend of the local drug dealer.  Any and all of these relationships show promise of ending in a trip to Florida.  For us, the real trip is watching Edsel make his move (so to speak) and find a life for himself.  Great fun.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil deGrasse Tyson   222 pp.

This book is a quick overview of the Universe from the Big Bang up to what is known about it now. The explanations are clear and succinct and presented in an easily understandable and occasionally humorous way. It is not a book for someone embarking on an in depth study of astrophysics and the nature of matter. It is for the layperson who would like to be more knowledgeable about the whys and wherefores of our planet, solar system, galaxy, and universe. I listened to the audiobook read by the author, and who doesn't love to listen to Dr. Tyson?

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

The force

The Force / Don Winslow, read by Dion Graham, 482 pages

Highly decorated cop Denny Malone is the head of a special task force that is working hard to get drugs and violence off the street.  So what if occasionally they find themselves holding some money that was part of a bust.  After all, they gotta eat too.  The methods are not always exactly legal but the job is getting done so most everyone looks the other way. But it is all a slippery slope, as they say, and pretty soon they step a little further over the line and then a little further.  Eventually Denny gets popped and he turns into a rat.  This is another situation where the line keeps moving.  At first he will only sing about lawyers, then pretty soon, he is giving up his own squad when faced with the alternative that includes his wife going to jail.  This story is often thrilling and the motivations of Denny and his crew are clear.  After he tries to save his own skin, however, the narrative goes a little off course.  It becomes a huge cat and mouse game where it isn't always clear who is who.  I think that section may have deserved a little more editing.  The audio version is always excellent and Dion Graham keeps it moving and you never want to turn it off.  Overall recommended for anyone with a soft spot for cop stories.

Communicate like a leader

Communicate like a leader:  connecting strategically to inspire, coach, and get things done / Dianna Booher, 192 pgs.

In some ways, a typical "business" book but in other ways, so much more.  Booher has some great, straight forward strategies for improving your communication.  Oddly, everyone puts "excellent communication skills" on their resume but often that isn't true.  There is an art and a practice to effective communication, negotiation, and leading.  Lots of topics are touched on in this book and done so in an cluttered, simple way that makes it easy to take something away from each topic.  This is what you would expect from an expert and Booher delivers.  Lots here for anyone to use even outside their business or professional lives.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Radio Free Vermont

Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance by Bill McKibben, 224 pages

Vern Barclay is your average local talk radio host, discussing high school sports scores, the unseasonably warm weather, updates on the local news, you know the drill. But then his station (the last independent station in Vermont!) is purchased by an out-of-state conglomerate, he's forced to cover the opening of a Wal-mart, and the next thing you know, he's a fugitive from the law, spearheading the shop local movement to end all movements (and eventually a secession movement) through the website, podcasts, and occasional broadcast of Radio Free Vermont.

McKibben has given us a creative, fun way to look at resistance in the current political climate, and I thank him for that wholeheartedly. I loved the characters he created (particularly Perry? The computer whiz who ends each sentence with a question mark?), and the excellent ways they find to stick it to the man. One of my favorites of the year.

Lost City of the Monkey God

Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston  326  pp.

It's not often you find a nonfiction page turner but this one was for me. In 2012, Douglas Preston traveled to Honduras as part of expedition to search for the mysterious Ciudad Blanca "White City" the subject of legends of an ancient Mayan metropolis called the Lost City of the Monkey God, deep in the Central American rain forest. Preston was on the expedition to document it for National Geographic. The expedition was a treacherous one with torrential rains, waist deep mud, disease carrying biting insects, and the deadly fer-de-lance viper. With the help of advanced laser technology the city was located and secured against looters with the assistance of the new Honduran government. After returning and reporting their findings including some speculation on how and why the city was abandoned. After their return the scientists and archaeologists came under attack from a faction of their peers for a variety of mostly unfounded accusations. But the worst was yet to come when Preston and most of the expedition members are afflicted with leishmaniasis, an insect-born parasite that eats flesh. With varieties of treatments, most recovered and were able to return to the site in 2016. The scariest part of the whole book is the information that this once tropical disease is spreading northward with the assistance of Global Warming. Preston's descriptions of the treacherous journey and the its aftermath make this nonfiction book read like a novel but is factual and in no way related to the Pendergast series written by Preston and Lincoln Child.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Five-carat soul

Five-carat soul / James McBride, read by Arthur Morey, Nile Bullock, Prentice Onayemi and Dominic Hoffman, 308 pgs.

These short stories are really great.  I especially loved the ones set in the zoo that were narrated by a lion.  The animals are the "higher order" and people are "smelly ones."  There are a lot of rules among the higher orders and a communication among all called "thought speak."  But really, you can't go wrong with any of these fabulous stories.  I listened to the audio book which was worth the time.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Leonardo da Vinci

Leonardo da Vinci by Walter Isaacson  599 pp.

Walter Isaacson writes detailed biographies of highly intelligent people. I previously read/listened to his books on Albert Einstein and Benjamin Franklin. While I enjoyed those two, this one on Leonardo is my favorite. What is obvious in the book is that Leonardo's entire life was focused by his curiosity. His works of art were preceded by detailed examinations of anatomy, light and shadow, and perspective. His insatiable curiosity often caused him to leave paintings incomplete or never get them to those who commissioned them because he continued to make changes based on his scientific investigations including his many autopsies of cadavers. While his procrastination frequently caused problems with the patrons who supported him, his talent and reputation meant he was never without a rich and powerful patron for long. Included with the audiobook is a .pdf of the illustrations in the book which are referred to by number in the text including paintings, sketches, and schematics made by Leonardo and others. There is so much information in this book but it is very accessible to readers without knowledge of art and engineering. This one is well worth the time to read and/or listen to it.


The end of the fucking world / Charles Forsman, 176 pgs.

James and Alyssa are two disgruntled teens.  They might be in love or maybe just hanging out because it is convenient.  James pretty quickly outs himself as a bit of a sociopath.  He is mean to animals, he sticks his hand down the garbage disposal, things continue to be more violent.  He is basically a person who does not feel.  Alyssa kind of ignores the signs and behavior but things eventually get out of hand.  There are no lovable characters here...heck, there aren't even any likable characters.  The art is simple so the violence isn't too graphic.  Not sure who I would recommend this book to but I don't regret reading it.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Reincarnation Blues

Reincarnation Blues / Michael Poore, read by Mark Bramhall, 371 pgs.

Milo has been reincarnated 9,995 times when he finds out there is a hard limit on how many times one can live and he is closing in on it.  The pressure is on to achieve "perfection" and move onto post death status as "oversoul."  He starts being more serious about what he accomplishes in his remaining lives.  Will he achieve perfection?  This book is really interesting and we see Milo in many different incarnations, back in forth through time.  A fun story that is well read by Mark Bramhall.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn / Mark Twain, read by Robin Field,  336 p.

We all know the story of Huck, Jim, Tom, et al., and that great big brown river that rolls them south.  I was surprised at how engaging and funny the story remained.  It's great road trip material, and ably read by Robin Field.


LaRose: a Novel / Louise Erdrich,  read (gorgeously) by the author, 373 p.

A beautiful 'wow' of a novel from a writer fully in command of her craft.  LaRose is a 5 year old boy when a terrible accident occurs, linking two families straddling the border of the Ojibwe reservation and rural North Dakota. In an attempt to heal the rift created by the accident, a plan emerges: LaRose will become son to both families involved in the tragedy.  This seemingly impossible solution, rooted in old Ojibwe ways, plays out across several years and touches many lives: LaRose's two sets of parents, his many siblings, and their extended families.  Great storytelling and especially noteworthy for the pitch-perfect detail.  While listening I felt like I could smell the meat stews, see LaRose's sisters applying nail polish, and hear the thwack of the volleyball as his sisters play in a high-stakes tournament.  The author presents characters who are deeply flawed but never judged.

The misfortune of Marion Palm

The misfortune of Marion Palm / Emily Culliton, 283 pgs.

Marion Palm lives a pretty good life with her husband Nathan and their two daughters.  What isn't known to anyone but her is that she is financing this life by embezzling from the school where she works.  This also happens to be the school that her children attend.  When word comes down of an audit, Marion goes on the lam.  She leaves her husband and kids but doesn't go far...she ends up renting a room from a Russian woman who employs her to clean apartments.  Pretty soon, she is stealing again.  Meanwhile, life at her old home is kind of falling apart.  How are things going to turn out for this odd family?  An interesting debut novel.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Kristin Lavransdatter 1, The Bridal Wreath

The Bridal Wreath / Sigrid Undset, trans. Charles Archer and J.S. Scott, 283 p.

The first novel in a trilogy by the 1928 winner of the Nobel Prize, in which the life of a medieval Norwegian woman is traced from birth to death.  The Bridal Wreath tells the story of Kristin's childhood to her marriage.  The novel is rich with detail of daily life on a Norwegian farm in the 14th century, and the landscape described is spectacular.  Readers who enjoy medieval historical fiction will almost certainly enjoy this; Undset's knowledge of the period seems so thorough that through descriptions of clothing, food, cooking, social events, and religious ritual, the reader is fully immersed.  But make no mistake: the Bridal Wreath is first and foremost a novel about sex.  Greed, hunger, fear, and faith drive the plots of many novels, but the arc of Kristin's adolescent life is directed by sexual drive, both her own and that of those around her.  The prose style as translated by Archer and Scott was a bit tough going; I'd really like to take a look at the new translation by Tiina Nunnally, translator of Camilla Lackberg, Mari Jungstedt, and other Scandinavian thriller writers.

Catching Fire

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins, 391 pages

In this sequel to The Hunger Games, Katniss finds herself readjusting to life outside the arena — struggling to sort out her feelings for Gale and Peeta, struggling with survivor's guilt, struggling to protect her family and friends from the government (which saw her final moves in the arena as an act of rebellion). In short, she's struggling. And guess what? It's not going to get any easier. This book ends on a cliffhanger, leading directly into Mockingjay, so I'll shortly be (re)reading that one too. These books are so good and so gripping.

The Dark Flood Rises

The Dark Flood Rises:a Novel / Margaret Drabble, read by Anna Bentinck, 327 p.

I have come to love Margaret Drabble's novels; previously I've blogged about The MillstoneThe Witch of Exmoor, and others, and Linda wrote an earlier review of this title.  In Drabble's novels, very little happens, but in recounting her characters inner thoughts, it seems as though the world is explained, somehow; it all makes sense.

Here we have Fran Stubbs, an energetic 70-something who drives all over England examining care homes for the elderly and helping them optimize conditions for their residents.  As she drives back and forth to her meetings in a perilously rainy English February, her son is in the Canary Islands visiting friends who are also grappling with end-of-life issues.  While Lanzarote, Canary Islands, sounds nearly like paradise, its residents still grow old, fall, have strokes, and die.  Meanwhile, Fran has a friend dying of cancer in London, and another embarking on new scholarly adventures in a deluxe assisted-living facility in Cambridge.  Sounds depressing, but for a glass-half-empty person like me, it was just brilliant. 

The First Day: a Novel

The First Day: a Novel / Phil Harrison, 214 p.

Samuel and Anna meet in Belfast and fall into an intense love affair.  The problem is that Sam is married, has three children, and is a charismatic minister.  A lot of what happens to the characters here is predictable; what's not obvious at first is just how damaging the fallout will be, and how that damage will continue to play out over many years.  Suspenseful and sinister, and definitely engaging for a short read.  The religious elements were thoughtful if occasionally overwrought.

Bury your dead, by Louise Penny

In this sixth of Louise Penny’s Chief Inspector Gamache mysteries, she adroitly keeps three plots up in the air like an expert juggler.  The first is left over from the previous book which was set in the magical village of Three Pines near the Vermont border.  The second is in Quebec City during a winter festival, where an archeologist obsessed with finding Quebec’s founder Samuel Champlain’s final resting place is murdered in the basement of an English language library.  The third is set in the same area, but back in the mid-1800s.  As if this wasn’t enough, in a fourth plot, we gradually learn what has happened to the Chief Inspector and his assistant, Jean Guy Beauvoir, since we last encountered them that has left both physically and mentally wounded.  A tour de force.  371 pp.

Jade Dragon Mountain, by Elsa Hart

This is the first of Hart’s two (so far) mysteries featuring Li Du, an imperial librarian in China in the early 1700s.  He has been exiled by the emperor, the second in the line of Manchu emperors, and is wandering towards the Tibet to leave the country.  Entering the town of Dayan, the older name for present-day Lijiang on China’s southwest border, he is surprised to learn that the emperor himself is also on the way to this far-flung frontier town to celebrate the spring festival and bring forth an eclipse of the sun.  Jesuits, able astronomers and virtually the only Westerners allowed in China at that time, have tipped the Emperor off to the event and he seeks to consolidate his power with this display of commanding the heavens.  In Dayan, Li Du pays a visit to his cousin, who is the magistrate there and is eager to impress the emperor with his preparations for this grand display and earn a position closer to the Imperial City.  His consort has designs of her own.  Also angling for access to power is a representative of the East India Company who wants to discredit the Jesuits and gain influence in this hidden kingdom.  A murder occurs and Li Du is drawn into the complex situation.  Hart, who will discuss her Li Du mysteries at the April Friends of the Library meeting, has lived in many interesting parts of the world and wrote this novel in Lijiang.  It is a fascinating and well-written book about a time, place, and culture I knew little about.  I look forward to reading her second book and to hearing her speak.  321 pp.