Monday, October 15, 2018

The Secrets of Wishtide

The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders  334 pp.

Mrs. Laetitia Rodd is a fifty-two year old widow who lives a modest, quiet life with her landlady in London. Her brother, Frederick is a criminal barrister who occasional enlists his sister's help with discreet inquiries for his clients. Laetitia takes a position as governess to the Calderstone family to investigate the son's inappropriate relationship with a woman with a past. Once that case is seemingly resolved the murders begin and Laetitia ends up in that investigation. This is the first book in a series but I was not particularly impressed with it. It's not that there is anything wrong in particular but I found the story to be so-so. 

Hope Never Dies

Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer, 301 pages

In this wonderfully refreshing mystery novel, former Vice President Joe Biden is chilling at home in Delaware eight months after leaving office, grousing to himself about Barack Obama's post-presidential celebrity-filled, globe-trotting adventures, when he learns that his favorite Amtrak conductor has died under mysterious circumstances. And who should be the one to deliver this news but 44 himself, appearing in Biden's yard in the dead of night with a Secret Service agent named Steve. From that moment on, Biden and Obama are on the case, dragging poor Steve through rough neighborhoods, into the den of a biker gang, and, of course, to the Amtrak station.

Oh, how I needed this book right now. This campy and cozy mystery is exactly the heroic story that's needed in today's messy political climate. (Just look at that cover! Isn't that enough to tell you how great it is?) Shaffer plays on the shoot-from-the-hip, everybody's-favorite-uncle persona of Biden and the lovingly-put-upon, smarter-than-your-average-bear persona of Obama that spawned a thousand memes. I hope that Shaffer writes more of these, and I hope that they gain enough readers that someone, somewhere convinces Joe Biden to do the audiobook.


Calypso by David Sedaris, 259 pages

In his latest collection of essays, David Sedaris ruminates on everything from aging to foreign traffic insults to relatives visiting from beyond the grave to his addiction to his Fitbit. Many of these essays focus on his family, including his nonagenarian father and his late sister Tiffany, who took her own life in 2013. While the essays still crackle with Sedaris' trademark humor, there's a degree of introspection here that doesn't always appear in his previous collections. That said, it is a wonderful book, and I highly recommend the audiobook, which is read by the author. A must if you're a fan of David Sedaris.


Transcription by Kate Atkinson, 343 pages.

It's getting to the point that knowing that there is a new book by Atkinson coming can be a light off in the distance that keeps me going.
And while Transcription doesn't necessarily transcend all other recent fiction, in the way that Life After Life or A God in Ruins both did (admit it, they did), Transcription, with its switchbacks, slow motion pursuit, and plot-twists and turns, certainly equals those titles in (or at least near) the top tier of current fiction in the way that the best of the Jackson Brody novels always did. Juliet At loose ends after the death of her mother, Armstrong finds herself working for MI5. It's 1940 in Endland, and the 18-year-old is set to transcribing the secretly made recordings of meetings of Nazi sympathizers. Armstrong mus make decisions concerning the fates of those she is observing, her coworkers, and agents she hardly knows. Juliet discovers the layers of loyalty and betrayal that exist or that seem to exist. Her choices continue to impact her life as the story continues five years after the war's end. All of the characters are nuanced and finely drawn, and all of the situations and settings are shrouded in a foggy ambiguity. Armstrong, who seems so much older than eighteen, with a confidence that never seems misplaced, but oftne is, must decide who to believe and which path to follow. Fascinating.
The audio is very well narrated by Fenella Woolgar.


Severance by Ling Ma, 291 pages.

I love post-apocalyptic novels that are less about the grim struggle and more about the nostalgia, and are quietly reflective on the smaller things that were lost, more about the continuity of small sadness after the world has come crashing down. Station Eleven and Colson Whitehead's magnificent Zone One stand out in this sub-genre. And now Severance is there too. This is a character-driven piece of Post-A fiction and Candace is a quiet, likable, and compelling central character.
Candace is rooted in her small apartment in New York, still stuck in the loss of her parents and in the sense that she disappointed them. As Shen fever takes hold, and the world starts falling apart, Candace is left with her job, her photo-blog, and her failing relationship with Jonathan. The book cuts back and forth through time, settling at times in scenes of memory; Candace's parents and their journey to America, and their ongoing battle about staying or returning to Fuzhou, or the recent past with Jonathan, and her work on the Gemstone Bible, or settling into the present with Candace's role as a reluctant member of a survivalist group / low-rent cult, following the not-so-charismatic Bob on his quest to relocate to the mythical and sad "facility" somewhere outside of Chicago. A quietly great book.

Every Heart a Doorway

Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan McGuire, 173 pages.

After reluctantly returning home after a stint in the underworld, Nancy finds herself shipped off to Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children, a boarding school for children trying to readjust to life on the everyday earth after having traveled to any one of  a number of fantasy realms. Nancy wants to return to the underworld and her beloved lord of the dead, but finds her quest interrupted by the murders of several of her fellow students. Initially suspected by her classmates, Nancy joins forces with some new-found friends and attempts to stop the carnage. Interesting and fun to read.


Cherry by Nico Walker, 317 pages.
A great, somewhat depressing, and moving debut novel by a man who, like his main character, served as a soldier in Iraq, was a heroin addict and a bank robber.
Adrift as a teen in Ohio, the narrator joins the army, not out of a surfeit of patriotism, but more because his girlfriend has changed schools and is due to leave him. Soon he is off to Iraq as a medic, but he doesn't find much in the Army or in Iraq that inspires him. There is no heroism or patriotic awakening in the narrator's experience, it's mostly grim, stupid and wasteful. Once back home, and reunited with his wife, the narrator mostly focuses on his opiod addiction. That's where the bank robbery comes in. Walker presents his characters with a grim humor and empathy and makes the book a compelling read.

A Place for Us

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza, 385 pages.

The story opens with Amir returning for his sister Hadia
's wedding and then jumps back to Amir, Hadia, and Huda's childhood in California. Their parents, Layla and Rafiq, are devout Muslims and strict parents. Huda and Hadia do their best to please their parents, but Amir chafes at their rules and rebels. Amir blames himself for a lot of his failings as a dutiful son, but as we hear their stories and see the crossroads traveled by the family and the choices they make, we realize that not all the fault is his. But, honestly, most of it is. A pretty good book.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Star of the North

Star of the North / D. B. John, Narrated by Linda Park, 402 pages

Years after her twin sister disappeared from a South Korean beach, Professor Jenna Williams gets word that she may have been part of a North Korean program to kidnap outsiders and learn their secrets. Originally not too excited about it, she quits her University job and goes into training with the CIA.  We also meet Colonel Cho in North Korea, he too is a twin who keeps learning even more disturbing things about the government he serves.  Mrs. Moon is a former prisoner, recently freed who is trying to make her way in North Korea.  The intersection of these main characters is interesting. Sometimes an action thriller, sometimes a more intimate story, this political story will keep you interested.

My ex-life, by Stephen McCauley

And ex-wife.  Although this novel does read a bit like it is soon to be made into a motion picture, as others by the author evidently have been, it is a clever and insightful.  David Hedge’s comfortable life in the Bay Area has run into several roadblocks lately – the departure of his long-time boyfriend and the possible sale of his remarkably affordable and spacious carriage house with a view are just two of his problems.  He was briefly married to Julie Fiske when young, and is surprised to hear from her after many years.  His job is counselling high school students applying to colleges and Julie’s daughter, Mandy, is in dire need of help.  So, for that matter, is Julie – her husband has not only left her for another woman, but is demanding she either buy him out or sell their rambling and ramshackle house, which she is using as an illegal Airbnb.  She’s a mess and so is the house.  David, actually glad to have a reason to at least temporarily run away from his problems in San Francisco, offers to fly out to the Boston area, drive up to the resort town where she lives, and lend a hand. Meanwhile, Mandy, a moody and solitary girl, has fallen into an unsavory relationship with a local character.   324 pages later, things are better for all concerned.

Meet me at the museum, by Anne Youngson

A charming epistolary novel in the manner of 84 Charing Cross Road and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.  Tina Hopgood, a British woman in late middle age, writes to the Aarhus Museum in Denmark where the “Tollund Man” is on display.  P. V. Glob wrote a book called The bog people in 1969 about this amazingly well-preserved Fourth Century BCE specimen and his milieu and she hopes he is still at the museum and can answer a few questions.  They are rather existential questions, having to do, among other things, with her and her best friend’s plans to visit the Tollund Man someday, which has been rendered impossible by her friend’s recent death.  A polite curator replies that Glob died in 1985, but he will try to answer her queries.  And so develops an increasingly intimate conversation between Anders Larsen, the curator, who recently lost his beloved, troubled wife, and Tina, wife of a stolid farmer who she married because she got pregnant at nineteen.  Her life has been full, and not without its pleasures, but it is clear that she is isolated geographically and emotionally and disappointed in more than just not having seen the Tollund Man.  This debut novel by a 70- year-old author gives hope to all late-bloomers.  Lovely book.  272 pp.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Once Upon a Spine

Once Upon a Spine by Kate Carlisle (2017) 279 pages

Much has happened in the time between the first Bibliophile Mystery (published in 2009) and this one (from 2017). Brooklyn Wainwright, book restoration specialist and paper maker, is engaged to be married. With only a couple of months before the wedding, she hasn't yet met her future in-laws, but they're scheduled to arrive any day now, along with her own parents who live on a commune not far from her and her fiance's apartment in San Francisco. She's freaking out about how the parents will get along, all staying together in their apartment for a week. She's upset about a heel breaking on her best good shoes, because that pair was her go-to pair for the outings planned with the parents. She's also greatly concerned about the status of "The Courtyard," a group of eclectic businesses in an old Victorian-era building across the street that are rumored to be for sale, afraid that if a sale goes forward, the attraction will be razed for apartments, which would diminish their quality of life. 

When Brooklyn happens upon a deadly scene in the health food store/juice bar in The Courtyard early one morning, it's not clear if the death of the local cobbler was intended, or if it was a case of mistaken identity. Meanwhile, two guys who own a bookstore in The Courtyard are getting quite antagonist towards each other. What's going on there? Brooklyn and her fiance do what they can to help the local police with the murder while dealing with all of the in-laws-to-be. When both of the mothers-in-law practically insist on getting involved, that adds a dimension I hadn't expected.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

The Wise Man's Fear

The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, 993 pages

In this second book of the Kingkiller Chronicles, innkeeper/scholar/mage/bard Kvothe continues telling the life story he began in The Name of the Wind. Kvothe's tale takes him from the halls of arcane study at the University to the palace of the Maer (a wealthy man who, had certain historical conflicts gone slightly differently, would be the King) to chasing bandits in the wilds of the forest to the Fae to Ademre (the exotic home of unbeatable mercenaries) and back again.

The story twists and turns, dips and dives, but propels forward at an incredibly quick and readable pace — this book did NOT feel like 993 pages. I very much enjoyed it, and now count myself among the Rothfuss fans that are waiting impatiently for the next volume.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Norse Mythology

Norse Mythology, Neil Gaiman, 304 pages

Neil Gaiman has created a place for himself in writing modern fairy tales and myths. His work with Stardust and Neverwhere delighted and teased adult perceptions of how mythology works.While he works with traditional Norse mythology here, his introduction reminds us that these are stories that he has adapted in his own way, not just faithful recreations. This is most evident in his language choices, with one of my favorite lines having been, "Shut up, Thor." The book is wonderfully set up as a series of short stories, making it a quick and enjoyable read. If I had one complaint, it is that I finished the book wanting more.

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Sáenz  359 pp.

I like this book so much! It's been on my "too read" list for awhile. I'm sorry I waited so long. Aristotle (Ari)  and Dante are 15 years old when they meet at a swimming pool in 1987. Dante is very secure in his place in the world with devoted parents and a comfortable life. Ari's life is more uncertain with a father suffering from PTSD and a brother in prison. Soon they are devoted friends but Dante's openness about his homosexuality is uncomfortable for Ari. However, that doesn't stop Ari from risking his life to save Dante's. This is a brilliant coming of age novel and has the awards to show for it. The audiobook is read by Lin-Manuel Miranda.


Noir: a novel by Christopher Moore  339 pp.

I'm a big fan of Christopher Moore's novels. His humor frequently leaves me laughing out loud. This is not his best book to date but Fool is pretty hard to top. However, he does have the film noir patois perfected. Sammy "Two Toes" Tiffin is a bartender in post-WWII San Francisco. He is enamored by a lovely blonde named Stilton (like the cheese) and is eager to put the moves on her. Add in an Air Force General, a UFO and a plane crash, a deadly poisonous snake, and Chinese opium den and you pretty much have your typical Moore novel. Sammy's conversations with a neighborhood kid sound like they were stolen from the Bowery Boys movies. Johnny Heller reads the audiobook version and occasionally lapses into a pretty good Bogart imitation. Not great literature but a lot of fun.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Communist Manifesto

The Communist Manifesto / Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, adapted by Martin Rowson, unpaged

In case you are as confused as I was when I picked up this graphic rendering of a rather famous text, the Manifesto is very brief, unlike Das Kapital, which comes close to 900p.  So.

Rowson's art is fascinating, complicated, and extremely dense; certainly it would take longer to parse the artwork here than to read the text.  This is definitely worth looking at and reading, if only for the fun, anachronistic feel.  "Working men of all countries, unite!  You have nothing to lose but your chains.  You have a world to win."  Hmmm.

The Ruin

The Ruin / Dervla McTiernan, read by Aoife McMahon

Detective Cormac Reilly has recently relocated to Galway to support his partner's career.  Coming from Dublin, this might be seen as a step down.  He is not greeted with open arms by his new co-workers and is assigned a bunch of cold cases that have no new leads. The cold case duty leads back to a situation from early in his career.  He was called out to a house and found a dead woman in a house and two children who had clearly not been well cared for.  This case haunted him for a long time because the kids had clearly fallen through the cracks of the social services system...or maybe there was never much of a system and only cracks.  Now the boy from the old case is an adult and has just committed suicide.  Except his girlfriend and sister don't believe the suicide story and start making a ruckus. A few other things don't add up.  What will come of this?  I'm not going to ruin the mystery for you.

Monday, October 8, 2018

The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt

The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt: a Tyranny of Truth / Ken Krimstein, 233 p.

A lovely graphic biography of the author of The Origins of Totalitarianism, The Human Condition, Eichmann in Jerusalem: a Report on the Banality of Evil, et al.  Krimstein doesn't shy away from the intellectual challenges posed by Arendt's work, but he still produces an accessible, enjoyable read.  The artwork is lovely,  all in gray except for images of Hannah, which are splashed with a fresh green.  Intimate and rigorous.  I can't tell whether this will lead me to (finally) undertake to read the great Arendt, but Krimstein has at least tempted me. 

The Battle of the Labyrinth

The Battle of the Labyrinth by Rick Riordan, 361 pages

Percy Jackson and his demigod pals are preparing for the upcoming war between the gods of Olympus and the Titan Kronos, when they're sent on a quest through the mythical Labyrinth in search of the string of Ariadne and the lair of Dedalus. Oh, and the Great God Pan, who has been missing for almost 2,000 years. As with the other books in this series, many battles with mythological baddies ensue. My family listened to this one in a car trip to Mammoth Cave National Park, and we found the underground labyrinth setting particularly appropriate for our destination. Generally speaking, Jesse Bernstein did a good job narrating, though the horse-y voice he used for the pegasus Blackjack and the stereotyped Asian voice he did for demigod Ethan Nakamura were both cringe-inducing, though for very different reasons. Otherwise, though, this was a good one!

Strange the Dreamer

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor, 544 pages

Lazlo Strange never fit in. His obsession with the mythical city Weep and dreamy demeanor leads to ridicule from children and adult alike. He  grew up an orphan in a brutal and abusive monastery and found sanctuary in the library. Through a twist of fate, he is able to become a librarian and expects a quiet life of books and research on the city he is convinced is real. His world is flipped on its head when warriors claiming to be from Weep arrive and say they are recruiting people to join them on a quest to save their city.

This book hits so many of my buttons - a person who overcomes a difficult childhood, a reverence for books, and a high fantasy quest. It also won the 2018 Michael L. Printz Award so my expectations were rather high. I perhaps should have read the reviews bit closer because around page 400, it promptly shifts from a high fantasy epic quest to a Romeo and Juliet story. The repetitive descriptions of clumsy, teenage romance and physical intimacy was... awkward to say the least. While a lot of people love the awkwardness of first love, it is not for me. While longer than it needs to be, it is a pretty good example of YA romance high fantasy.