Sunday, August 19, 2018

The Italian teacher

The Italian teacher / Tom Rachman, read by Sam Alexander, 341 pgs.

Charles "Pinch" Bavinsky has always adored his father.  Even after he left Pinch and his mother Natalie and moved on to create another family.  The new family thing is something the great Bear Bavinsky does several times.  But why is the father so honored?  He is one of the great painters of his time.  He has created a legend of himself and his art is compared to Picasso and others.  Bear lives a life as he sees fit.  He does what he wants and cares little about the consequences.  He is a master of PR for himself by becoming the guy everyone wants at a party as well as being a great talent.  But this is Pinch's story.  He is young when his father leaves but devotes much of his life trying to gain his respect...or maybe just his attention.  His mother is Natalie, a ceramics artist who becomes relegated to "muse" and "wife of the great..." and who never finds her own success.  She loves Pinch and still even loves Bear whose personality suffocated her life.  We meet Pinch as a very young boy and follow him through his life.  He has limited success or is that just when compared to his father?  Turns out the mild mannered Pinch is a lot more than meets the eye.  Loved these characters and this story that is perfectly read by Sam Alexander.

The neuroscientist who lost her mind

The neuroscientist who lost her mind: my tale of madness and recovery / Barbara K. Lipska w/ Elaine McArdle, read by Emma Powell, 199 pgs.

A neuroscientist who studies mental illness gets cancer and suddenly her personality changes so much that she can reflect on it later and be amazed.  At the time, however, she didn't notice the change and her family and co-workers struggled to act like it was stress from her illness rather than the illness itself.  I like medical memoirs and this one is interesting, the author was raised and educated in Poland, coming to the U.S. as an adult to work in her field.  How, I have to ask, did she and her circle not see that her personality changes were related to her illness?  It sort of defies logic.  Still, the science and medical stuff is very interesting.  The audio version irritated because the narrator's accent seemed all wrong to me.  I finished the book in print.

There there

There there / Tommy Orange, read by Darrell Dennis, Shaun Taylor-Corbet, Alma Cuervo and Kyla Garcia, 294 pgs.

This debut novel is an interesting mix of characters and perspectives.  All are "natives" who have different levels of understanding about their heritage and are struggling with other life events that have nothing to do with heritage.  Everyone has had a tough time one way or another but all are going to end up at the Oakland powwow, a big event that will attract many people. There are funny parts, sad parts and everything in between.  These characters are very real and the author does a great job of giving us a peak into their thoughts and actions.  I listened to the audio that is well done by a cast.  Looking forward to Orange's next effort.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Wish You Were Here

Wish You Were Here by Rita Mae Brown and Sneaky Pie Brown (1990) 242 pages

Here's a mystery book from a series new to me that I was sucked into from the first page. Our main (human) character is a thirty-something woman named Harry, who runs the post office in her small town in Virginia. The main (non-human) characters are Harry's pets, a cat named Mrs. Murphy and a Welsh corgi dog named Tee Tucker.

I loved how the reader sees how the animals speak to other, and how they refer to the humans in their lives (and how often the humans totally misunderstand what the animals are trying to tell them).

When a grisly murder occurs in the town, not only is Harry delving into it, but her pets are conducting their own investigation, even sneaking out the pet door at night to learn what they can, putting their noses to work at the crime scene.  I enjoyed this book so much that I've already started another book in the Mrs. Murphy Mystery series.

I Know I Am, But What Are You?

I Know I Am, But What Are You? by Samantha Bee (2010)  242 pages

This collection of essays is an entertaining look at Samantha Bee's childhood and coming of age, along with snippets from her adulthood. She grew up in three different homes--with her mother, grandmother, and father and stepmother (who were all very interesting characters themselves)--and she gained an array of experiences that made me laugh, shake my head, and/or groan. The individual essays sometimes hop from topic to topic before they're tied back together, which makes reading them more like hearing her speak in an informal setting. A bit rambling at times, but I lost track of the times I laughed out loud, which made it worth it.

Friday, August 17, 2018

Mother's Milk

Mother's Milk (Patrick Melrose bk. 4) by Edward St. Aubyn  288 pp.

This is the longest of the Patrick Melrose novels although it is also rather short. Patrick has finally embarked on a somewhat normal life. The beginning of this volume is told from the point of view of his older son who has inherited the habit of running internal dialogues. The arrival of a second son triggers a sort of abandonment of Patrick and young Robert from the attention of Mary who is terminally besotted with the outrageously precocious new arrival, Thomas. Patrick's own mother has bequeathed his birthright of the home in France to a New Age "Shaman" and is now slowly dying in a nursing home.Alcohol abuse, extramarital affairs, and the discussion of assisted suicide add further complications to the story. So far, this is the best one of the lot. One more book to go.

Void Moon

Void Moon by Michael Connelly, 391 pages

Cassie Black is 10 months into her parole when circumstances push her back into the burglary business. Her fixer Leo has a line on a high roller in Vegas who's on a winning streak, and with her skills at breaking into hotel rooms and safes, Cassie is the right woman for the job. Of course, things go sideways, getting Cassie in WAY deeper than she planned.

This was an enjoyable heist, with almost all of the hallmarks of the genre (yes for tech, bespoke tools, double-crossing partners, a criminal pulled in for "one last job," and unexpected problems during the heist; no for blueprints and crime slang). The tech-speak was WAY out of date, as Connelly spent a laughable amount of ink on explaining GPS technology, but he made up for it with a wonderfully wicked bad guy. I'm a sucker for a heist, and this one was well worth the time.


Spinning by Tillie Walden, 395 pages

For 12 years, Tillie Walden was a competitive figure skater. Spinning is her memoir of that time in her life. I'd say that it's the memoir of her figure skating career, but I'd be lying. Figure skating is merely the backdrop for this beautifully drawn, soul-bearing memoir of growing up, not fitting in, coming out, falling in love, and dealing with heartbreak. It's intimate, it's beautiful, and I can't believe the creator was only 21 when it was published last year. I can't wait to see what other gorgeous works she creates in the future.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Some Hope

Some Hope (Patrick Melrose bk. 3) by Edward St. Aubyn  224 pp.

This installment of the Melrose novels finds Patrick at thirty, no longer using excessive amounts of drugs, and trying to figure out just what he is doing in life. Most of the story centers around a huge party in a Gloucestershire manor for the creme de la creme of British society. Vicious satire about the wealthy abounds including a number of scathing portrayals of Princess Margaret. Of course, there are the marital infidelities, drunkenness, and the other vices one expects to see in stories of the type. I actually enjoyed it much better than the previous two novels.

Monday, August 13, 2018

Spinning Silver

Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik, 466 pages

Once upon a time, a young woman took over her father's faltering money-lending business, and turned out to be much better at the business than him. One day in the forest, the young woman exclaimed that she could turn silver into gold (metaphorically speaking, of course), but an evil king of winter overheard her and kidnapped her on the basis of her alchemical powers.

Once upon a time, the quiet daughter of a duke spent her days in the upper rooms of a castle, awaiting the day that her father and stepmother would marry her off to some distant lord for some political advantage or another. One day, a jeweler came to the duke and sold him some powerful silver jewelry, which the duke used to make a match between the quiet girl and the diabolical tsar.

Both of these stories come together in Novik's Spinning Silver, a fairytale that weaves together Jewish tradition, Eastern European mythology, and more than a bit of feminism through two excellent central characters in Miryem (the moneylender) and Irina (the duke's daughter). I loved the story told here, though Novik's use of shifting first-person perspectives would've been easier to handle had she labeled the sections. But that's a minor quibble with an otherwise wonderful book.

Sunday, August 12, 2018

There There

There There by Tommy Orange, 290 pages.
Through the efforts of a lot of people the Big Oakland Powwow is coming. The characters in Orange's first novel, interrelated in a bunch of different ways, all have their own reasons for heading to A's stadium to participate in this event. Jacquie Red Feather and her younger sister, Viola Victoria Bear Shield, are at the nexus of the novel, and we follow their lives, and the lives of their friends and family, back and forward to see where they have been and where they are going.
Orvil Red Feather and his brothers Loother and Lony live with their grandmother's sister and learn about Native culture from Youtube videos. Tony Loneman struggles with the way people perceive his off-kilter features and the actions he takes. Blue and Edwin both have worked hard to get the Powwow off the ground and they both make unexpected connections there.
A really good book with a few minor flaws; for instance I don't think that 3D printed guns without metal parts are currently capable of semi-auto fire.The book flows along nicely, but the cast of characters in this engaging novel are the best part.


Temperance by Cathy Malkasin, 240 pages.
Pa has convinced everyone that there is an invading enemy who will soon kill them all. He convinces everyone to build the fortress Blessedbowl and to isolate themselves inside. Minerva, one of the children closest to Pa, leads the inhabitants in the years after Blessedbowl is sealed off from the outside world. She builds upon Pa's lies in order to keep the life she has built with Lester from falling apart.
Interesting story and well-done black and white art.

Saturday, August 11, 2018


Awkward by Svetlana Chmakova  210 pp.

The best description for this is middle school angst in graphic novel form. Penelope "Peppi" has a list of "Cardinal Rules for Surviving School" as she begins her first day at a new school. Things immediately go wrong when she trips into a nerdy boy named Jaime and then ends up shoving him when he tries to help her. She really wants to apologize but doesn't have the nerve to approach him. She eventually settles in with a group of friends in the Art Club. But Art Club is in conflict with Science Club, of which Jaime is a member, and things rapidly escalate. Things are ultimately resolved (no spoilers).

Bad News

Bad News (the Patrick Melrose novels book two) by Edward St. Aubyn  256 pp.

One thing positive about this collection of novels is that they very quick to get through. In this one Patrick is in his early twenties. He has traveled to New York City to retrieve the ashes of his late father who everyone tells him was such a wonderful person. A majority of the book is Patrick's out of control drug use and/or his attempts to procure drugs and he takes an insane amount of drugs. The only redeeming quality of the story are his internal stream on consciousness monologues that are intriguing and sometimes humorous. While so far, I'm not fond of this series, I understand that they are the perfect vehicle for Benedict Cumberbatch's style of acting. So I soldier on to book three.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Natural Causes

Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer by Barbara Ehrenreich, 234 pages

Barbara Ehrenreich has a bit of a beef with the medical industry, and in Natural Causes, she lays it all out. From anti-aging products to unnecessary medical tests to restrictive diets and exercise regimens meant to "add years to your life," Ehrenreich pokes holes in all of them, focusing on the central idea of aging comfortably while realizing that we're all going to die anyway. While I appreciated Ehrenreich's many feminist takes on medical history, as well as her dry sense of humor while discussing the whole "anti-aging" industry, I felt that these belonged to a completely different book from the cell biology that makes up almost half of the volume. That said, I did enjoy this book, and would recommend it to those who are fed up with all of the contradictory health advice we receive on a daily basis.

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Never Mind

Never Mind  (the Patrick Melrose novels book one) by Edward St. Aubyn  208 pp.

I started on this pentalogy before tackling the Showtime series "Patrick Melrose" starring Benedict Cumberbatch. This first book was quite dull until about half way through. In it we are introduced to  Patrick Melrose, the child, who lives with his horrible parents. His father is abusive to both his wife and son, and anyone else he can get away with. Patrick's beloved mother is an alcoholic who drinks because her husband is so awful to her. She is clueless about the seriousness of the abuse to Patrick. The couple socializes with several equally messed up people who end up looking saint-like in comparison to Patrick's father. It is a scathing assailment on the European upper classe. Apparently this series is semi-autobiographical and St. Aubyn uses this volume to suggest a cause for Patrick's problems in adulthood.

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie (1926) 221 pages

This is one of the few books by Agatha Christie where I remembered who the murderer was. Even though I've now read it at least three times, I continue to enjoy this Hercule Poirot mystery.

Doctor James Sheppard is a friend of Roger Ackroyd, who is killed with a Tunisian dagger from his own collection. When Ackroyd's niece pleads with Poirot to take the case, he agrees to come out of retirement in this small village called King's Abbot. Instead of Poirot's longtime associate Hastings narrating this story, Doctor Sheppard tells the story of the murder investigation. It's a tale not only of murder, but also blackmail, suicide and a missing person. We see Poirot's meticulous use of his "little grey cells" (plus his somewhat over-sized ego) to sort it all out. If you read it, you'll see why it's such a memorable book.

Red Joan

Red Joan / Jennie Rooney, 390 p.

Inspired by the true story of an English spy for the Soviets who was unmasked at the age of 87.  Joan studies physics at Cambridge in the 30s and meets charismatic cousins Leo and Sonya, Russian-born and dedicated to the Communist cause.  Joan is sympathetic to the ideology but is also entranced by her new friends.  During the war she takes a job in a secret lab dedicated to producing a British atomic bomb, and gradually Joan succumbs to her friends' pressure to help the Russians obtain their own weapon.  Well plotted and told, but the science reads at a middle-school level, making it hard to believe that Joan could really be a scientist.  There is also one historical howler: Rooney apparently believes that it was Hoover who dropped the bomb rather than the man from Missouri.  Otherwise very enjoyable historical fiction and soon to be a film starring Judi Dench.


Factfulness: Ten Reasons We're Wrong about the World - and Why Things Are Better Than You Think / Hans Rosling,  342 p.

"How many of the world's one-year-old children today have been vaccinated against some disease?

20 percent
50 percent
80 percent"

Rosling spent his career accumulating and disseminating statistical information about world health and living standards, and in so doing he learned that a lot of us have a pessimistic view of things that doesn't square with reality.  He formulated a short quiz of questions like the one above, and found that the great majority of "developed world" citizens (a descriptor he would like to eliminate) score worse than chimpanzees.  His concern is that this skewed worldview effects decisions and planning within governmental and business organizations to everyone's detriment.  Why, for example, are Kotex and other companies that manufacture sanitary products striving mightily to craft new products to appeal to the US and European market, when there are really no new customers to be gained there?  They should instead be focusing on developing cheaper but still effective products for the African and Asian market, where there is currently a massive upswing in the numbers of women leaving home to go to school and work.  The book is full of such observations, as well as persuasive data and illustrative anecdotes.  Very strongly recommended. 


Dietland / Sarai Walker, 310 pgs.

Plum has spent her life being fat but now she is scheduled for surgery.  Once she gets the surgery, she will lost lots of weight, wear stylish clothing and go by her given name, Alicia.  Plum works for a fashion magazine but she works from home.  She responds to letters sent to her boss by young women and girls who have a variety of problems.  She isn't an advice columnist, she responds directly to the emails in the "voice" of Kitty, her boss.  One day, it registers with Plum that she is being followed.  She ends up getting involved in a feminist group and moving into a house that used to serve wayward teens.  She starts a new program that really focuses on life changes.  She starts seeing herself as a person, not just a fat person.  In other world news, a radical group is forcing changes in advertising and publishing.  No more sexist photos of women only.  Is this movement related to the group Plum is living with?  What does it all mean?  You won't get any spoilers from me.  Read it yourself!

The infographic guide to personal finance

The infographic guide to personal finance: a visual reference for everything you need to know / Michele Cagan & Elisabeth Lariviere, 127 pgs.

An interesting way to look at personal finance, a topic so few seem to find interesting.  This is so visually attractive, it might trick you into learning something!  This book would go great with "The index card: why personal finance doesn't have to be complicated" for people who are starting to get their personal finances in order and looking towards their financial future.

Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Strange Practice

Strange Practice: A Dr. Greta Helsing novel by Vivian Shaw  385 pp.

Dr. Greta Helsing has the unusual medical practice of treating the undead seeing a variety of supernatural creatures like vampires, ghouls, banshees, mummies, etc. When a mysterious cult targets both the living and the undead she sets about to stop them before they destroy her practice and her undead friends. When they come for her, it becomes personal. The premise of this book is great, the execution not quite. There's nothing wrong with the story or the writing but I finished reading with the feeling that it could have been so much more. The ending is an obvious lead to a second book.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Blueberry Muffin Murder

Blueberry Muffin Murder by Joann Fluke (2002) 328 pages

Continuing my quest to check out mystery series that I'm unfamiliar with, I chose this one, the third in the Hannah Swenson Mystery series. Hannah Swenson owns a shop called The Cookie Jar, located in a small town in bitterly cold Minnesota. The town has prepared for a Winter Carnival, which is ready to get underway when a famous guest, Connie Mac--who has a cable TV cooking show--comes to town to support a fundraiser. Connie Mac disappoints people when they quickly realize that she is not the amiable person she appears to be on her show. When she is murdered in Hannah's shop, Hannah (of course!) tries to learn who the murderer could be. Meanwhile, Hannah's affections are torn between two men; the town's chief detective and the town's dentist. (Always need to have that sexual tension going on!) Hannah's sister Andrea, a real estate agent, is very helpful to Hannah, while their mother is definitely not.

After a slow first chapter, the book's pace picked up and kept me interested through to the end. It was a bonus to have 8 recipes in the book. I'm open to reading more from this series.


Provenance by Ann Leckie, 439 pages

In an attempt to get her mother's attention and prove that she's a capable adult, Ingray makes the risky move of buying a political opponent's child out of prison, sure that she can maneuver this act into the recovery of stolen artifacts and ensure her mother's political prowess. Things don't exactly go to plan, however, and Ingray and the former prisoner find themselves mired in a controversy that involves murder and several species of angry aliens.

This was a much lighter book than I expected, given the weight of Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy. I very much enjoyed the characters, particularly Ingray, whose vulnerabilities and stubbornness rang incredibly true to me. I can't wait to discuss this next week for the Orcs & Aliens book group!

West winging it

West winging it: an un-presidential memoir / Pat Cunnane, 310 pgs.

The inside scoop from a kid who started as an intern and worked his way up to a writer for President Obama.  Pat Cunane has a wonderful ability to make fun of himself while appreciating every minute spent in the White House but never overselling his importance.  I loved the "little stories" the best.  Once Pat slammed a door in VP Biden's face and then apologized to his assistant.  He hesitated to be in the frame of a picture taken of his fiance and the president, just in case their relationship didn't work out (he sweetly wanted HER to have a memory with the president).  The attempt to get Pope Francis to bless him by sneezing in his presence is pure genius.  Traveling with the president and wrangling the press sounds like a job only for the young and agile. Not a hard hitting political story, but very fun to read.

Last things

Last things: a graphic memoir of loss and love / Marissa Moss, 173 pgs.

A personal story of the author's struggles when her husband was diagnosed with a very fast moving type of ALS. The struggle to cope with the diagnosis is made worse by the speed of decline.  With three young sons, the world is turned upside down very quickly.  The reaction of the author and her husband were very different.  He refused to accept help and threw himself into finishing his life long project, a scholarly book that he had been working on for sixteen years.  The book took priority over his family and that decision left a lot of hurt for years to come.  Of course the author knew her husband loved her and the kids but just couldn't deal with the situation.  However, the kids were too young to understand. This is one of those stories you hope to never be able to relate to very closely.  Beautifully done.


#NeverAgain: A New Generation Draws the Line by David Hogg and Lauren Hogg, 165 pages

David and Lauren Hogg are students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, site of the February 14 mass shooting that killed 17 of their classmates and spawned the March For Our Lives movement. In this short book, the siblings candidly discuss their experiences before, during, and after the shooting, including their roles in the now-nationwide movement for stricter gun control. While it's heart-wrenching to read, it is encouraging to hear them discuss this topic in their own voices and with such poise. Here's to their generation and the power they bring with them: may you accomplish what so many have failed to do before!

Sunday, August 5, 2018

Educated: A Memoir

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover, 334 pages.
An absolutely riveting account of the author's live growing up in an isolated home on a mountain in Idaho. Westover's parent's are super-devout Mormons. Maybe theirs was moreof a sort of a family-only splinter group, since Westover's father seems to disagree with everyone about what it is, precisely, that God wants from his flock.

Westover is a compelling storyteller, taking the reader past the edge of comfort, as she recounts scenes of violence and tragedy she encountered in her family life. Early on, I found myself hoping that Westover was another James Frey, making up the horror out of whole-cloth, or at least exaggerating, but that seems not to be the case, and I was soon caught up in the story, believing it all, especially as family member started telling their own versions of the same stories.
A great read.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

How to stop time

How to stop time / Matt Haig, read by Mark Meadows

A charming book about Tom, a guy who ages but after about age 10, he ages VERY slowly.  He figures about one year for every 15 years so at 439, he looks like he is nearing 40.  His first job was playing the lute in the orchestra of some young playwright named Shakespeare and he has learned to play another 25 instruments or so. There is an organization for people like him that help him relocate and get new identification papers, etc. every 8 years are so.  In present day, he is a HS history teacher.  He is able to really sell history since, in reality, he has lived much of it. After a rough start he excels at connecting with his students. Of course there is other drama, love and a re-connection with an old friend and his daughter.  The audio version is a lot of fun.

One great line, "I have no idea if anything I have said to Anton has got through.  I have only been alive for four hundred and thirty-nine years, which is of course nowhere near long enough to understand the minimal facial expressions of the average teenage boy."

Thursday, August 2, 2018

The Other Woman

The Other Woman by Daniel Silva  476 pp.

This is the 18th book in the Gabriel Allon series and no, Gabriel is not having an affair although the title might suggest that. Silva has looked to the past to create a story of Russian double agents within Britain's MI6 intelligence organization. In 1963, Kim Philby defected to the U.S.S.R. after being one of a handful of Soviet spies working within British Intelligence. Fast forward to the current day and Philby's legacy is in line to become the next head of MI6. After a disastrous defection attempt by a Russian agent brings Israeli Intelligence under fire, Allon, now the head of Mossad, becomes directly involved in the investigation which just might destroy his career and that of Graham Seymour, head of MI6. I am a big fan of the Allon series but this is not my favorite. I can't say exactly what the problem is with this one, but it seems as if something was missing. However, one brief sentence points to the possibility of this enemy reentering Allon's life. And once again I will wait another year for the next installment.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

July totals!

Friendly reminder that we only have ONE MONTH LEFT to get extra points for pirate books and
books with names in the title, so if you've read anything that fits either of those criteria, BLOG ABOUT IT. (And not just on a Wednesday.)

Christa  17/4405
Jan  7/1691
Kara  13/3752
Karen C  8/3119
Kathleen  7/1968
Linda  4/1432
Patrick  22/7178

Total: 78/23,545

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Walking Shadows

Walking Shadows: A Decker / Lazarus Novel by Faye Kellerman, 384 pages.
This was my first Faye Kellerman book in quite a while and I was a little disappointed. I don't think that the police can just casually access your tax records and I think that not paying any rent or utilities when you have a decent full-time job might explain always having enough money for nice restaurants.
Also, I was reading this while listening to a Louise Penny novel, so the crossed wires might have had a negative effect on my opinion of this book. Decker has retired from the LAPD and is living and working in Greenbury New York. While responding to a vandalism complaint Decker discovers a body and his investigation leads him to another more brutal murder in the neighboring town of Hamilton. These two murders are apparently linked and there also seems to be a connection to a pair of murders in Hamilton that occurred twenty years ago. Police corruption, family secrets, and betrayals are all threaded together in this police procedural.

All the Answers: A Graphic Memoir

All the Answers: A Graphic Memoir by Michael Kupperman, 218 pages.
Michael Kupperman knew that his father had been famous, but his father never wanted to talk about it. Father Joel taught philosophy at the University of Connecticut and had built their family home off in the woods. Michael grew up feeling isolated and alone. In the years before his father's death, as dementia began to set in, Michael tries to talk to his father and find out what it was about his childhood and teen years, time he had spent as one of the most famous kids in America, that had affected him so strongly. Michael finds that his father has blocked out large portions of his time as a radio and TV star on "Quiz Kids." Joel would grow uncomfortable when TV or radio were even mentioned and would leave the room if anyone brought up the show he was on or his famous past. The art is spare but very effective, and moves the story along well.

The Death of Mrs. Westaway

The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware, 368 pages.
Harriet Westaway, known as Hal, finds out that she may have some previously unkown-to-her family on her mother's side at about the same time she finds out that the consequences of borrowing money from a local loan shark and not paying back the interest can be serious. While Hal doubts that she is in anyway the granddaughter that the late Mrs. Westaway's estate is searching for, she is intrigued by the possible lifeline that the idea of inheritance offers. Hal decides that she is willing to go and meet her possible relatives and to keep her answers vague enough until she can see if there is an inheritance sufficient to keep her bones unbroken.
An intriguing book with plenty of twists and turns. The downloadable audio is brilliantly read by Imogen Church.

The Mars Room

The Mars Room by Rachel Kushner, 338 pages.
Kushner was a finalist for the National Book Award in 2013 for The Flamethrowers. Her newest book is quite different but does a great job of showing her range and in maybe showing that she is very good at whatever she sets out to do. From the very first page Romy Hall is going to tell the reader and her fellow inmates only so much. If you want to know her story or anyone's story here at Stanville Women's Correctional Facility then you have to be patient. Romy tells her story slowly, going back and forth between the now of prison life, and her time before prison, her life growing up in San Francisco and then the events that led to her incarceration. Romy and her fellow prisoners have all suffered abuse to varying degrees, but they are not claiming victimhood. Romy killed her stalker. Button was only fourteen when she and two companions killed a man during an attempted robbery. Conan and Teardrop, Betty and Doc, and many other characters have their interesting stories told. All in all it is a very good book with some odd little flaws. Rights are "waved" instead of "waived." The unabomber manifesto confused me, too.

The talented Ribkins

The talented Ribkins / Ladee Hubbard, 295 pages

All of the Ribkins have a special talent. The type of things your don't hear about all the time.  Johnny has a way with maps, Franklin could climb walls, Simone appears to people as she wants to be seen, Bertrand can belch fire and young Eloise catches things. Each is trying to use their gift in the best way possible but at the same time, they are often stumbling and making mistakes.  Johnny is in a situation where he owes some money fast and takes a trip "running errands" which means he is digging up old treasures.  He and half brother Franklin had a nice partnership of stealing things for awhile before Franklin died and so lots of holes contain cash and jewelry.  Johnny's niece Eloise has just met her uncle and is traveling with him to get to know her dad's side of the family.  Her father died before she was born so there is a big gap.  Always a fan of a good dysfunctional family, this group is really more functional that most.  Also reminiscent of last year's favorite "Spoonbenders."  Certainly a fun book to read.

The beauty of dirty skin

The beauty of dirty skin / Whitney Bowe, 278 pgs.

An interesting overview of how we are abusing our skin and how we can stop.  Also interesting connections between other lifestyle choices and how they affect skin health.  Diet, exercise and stress levels are mentioned and discussed in detail.  The idea here is that everything we do is connected and to fix problems may take changes in several areas.  The positive news it if you are not comfortable with it, maybe medication isn't the first step.  Lots of this has been said before with no specific reference to skin but it doesn't hurt to hear it again.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Sky in the Deep

Sky in the Deep by Adrienne Young, 340 pages.

When Eelyn discovers that her brother, Iri, might still be alive, it changes her life. She and the rest of her Riki clan are locked in ritualized, but deadly battle with the neighboring Aska, their sworn enemy, the killers of their friends and family. Eelyn's journey from warrior to prisoner, her battle's with the rules of her clan, and the conflict she feels between clan loyalty and the love she feels for Fiske, a member of the enemy clan all have some familiar
Young tells an interesting tale about family and betrayal, and she has created a believable world. Ably narrated by Khristine Hvam.

No One Is Coming to Save Us

No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts, 371 pages.
In looking over the reviews now, I realize that when I listened to this book, a couple of months ago, I completely missed the Great Gatsby connection. I like being able to prove, over and over again, that I'm not really a careful or close reader.

Pinewood, North Carolina is the setting for this tale of an extended family. All the good jobs have moved overseas and the people who have stuck around have all seen a measure of hard times.When JJ returns to the area, ostensibly a wealthy man now, after a childhood of poverty, old feelings and emotions are brought to the surface.
This was the One Book, One Kirkwood read for 2018, and I listened to the book in anticipation of going to see the author back in May. I wasn't able to make it to the event, but I am still glad that I read this excellent book.

The Bible of Dirty Jokes

The Bible of Dirty Jokes by Eileen Pollack, 307 pages.

As we meet Ketzel Weinrach she is a recent initiate to widowhood. She grew up imitating the comedians who performed at her parent's Borscht Belt resort. She could do dead-on imitations of Henny Youngman, Zero Mostel, and all the greats of the 1950s and 60s. As an adult, when she decided to take to the stage these imitations didn't take her very far. Comedy was shifting and Ketzel was being left behind, but then Ketzel met Morty and things were good for a while.
Ketzel has always been a little bit our of sync with the world around her. Her parents and her brothers were always playing a little bit loose with the rules. Grampa was allegedly in the mob's pocket, Leo, the family retainer, had a bit of a gambling problem and maybe left a few bodies at the bottom of a local lake. Brother Ira died during the Six-Day-War, brother Howie became a religious zealot after a stint in prison, and brother Mike died in a helicopter crash after he quit working for the family business and went to work for Donald Trump.
Ketzel has been drawn back into her parents' world now that her last surviving brother, Potzie, has disappeared. As she attempts to track down Potzie and their slimey cousin Perry, Ketzel keeps uncovering family secrets. A good solid mystery.

Valdez is Coming

Valdez is Coming by Elmore Leonard, 232 pages.

Bob Valdez worked as the shotgun rider on a Hatch and Hodges stagecoach. He also worked as the town constable in Lanoria, Arizona. He was an accommodating man, willing to go along, to get along. But, after Valdez was tortured and almost killed by the gunmen employed by a local cattle rancher, as he was seeking justice for a widowed mother, he reverts to the man he was when he served as a scout for the during the war against the Apaches.
Leonard did violence very well. No one is taking anything lightly, but people continually mistake the everyday for the extraordinary. Maybe the first book I have read because it was mentioned in the review of a novel, two characters in the forthcoming George Pelecanos novel discuss this book.

The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House

The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House by Ben Rhodes, 450 pages.

Rhodes has written a wonderful account of the Obama administration and the world he knew during that time. Before volunteering for the Obama campaign, Rhodes had worked for former Democratic Congressman from Indiana, Lee Hamilton, and had been part of the 2006 Iraq Study Group.
Near the end of the book, Rhodes, who had been kept out of meetings on Russian interference during the election, reflects on his last days in the White House when he was let in on what was being uncovered, "I'd run into different staffers who worked on Russia in the government, and they always had the same message: It's even worse than you think. Always the suggestion was that there was more to the story. Trump, one told me, is exactly the kind of person that the Russians liked to invest in for years."

Addendum: Barack Obama, on the eve of traveling to Africa gave us his Africa-focused reading list, and among titles by Nelson Mandela, Chinua Achebe, Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Chimamada Ngozi Adichie, he talked about this book by Ben Rhodes, saying, "Ben does not have African blood running through his veins. But few others so closely see the world through my eyes like he can. Ben’s one of the few who’ve been with me since that first presidential campaign. His memoir is one of the smartest reflections I’ve seen as to how we approached foreign policy, and one of the most compelling stories I’ve seen about what it’s actually like to serve the American people."

The Mars Room

The Mars Room: a Novel / Rachel Kushner, 336 p.

Romy Hall is serving multiple life sentences in California for killing a man who relentlessly stalked her.  Her extenuating circumstances, and there are many, were never presented in court by her hopelessly overworked public defender, but the reader learns all of them.  Surrounding Romy are a fascinating group of flawed but human fellow prisoners, all drawn in terrific detail.  The novel is full of gorgeous visuals of California desert and mountains, perfectly tied to the narrative, and the writing is of the 'can't stop until the last page' variety.  But something fell short here, though it's hard to say what, exactly.  It wouldn't make sense for a novel such as this to have a happy ending, and I didn't want one.  Still, Kushner seems to have put all kinds of things in here - references to Thoreau, and the Unabomber, and ancillary characters whose stories just fizzle out - and then grown tired of it, too early for the reader.  Great writing but not, in my view, a great novel.

Big Guns

Big Guns by Steve Israel, 310 pages

Gun crime is WAY up across the country, and Chicago has become the poster child for gun violence. When the mayor of the Windy City joins with other metropolitan mayors in a promise to enact gun control measures, the stocks of gun manufacturers naturally takes a hit. So what's a gun manufacturer to do but lean on his lobbyists to help get pro-gun measures passed in Congress? This is the set-up for Israel's novel, a satirical look at gun politics in America. It's uncomfortably real in many ways, but former U.S. Congressman Israel does a wonderful job making the book funny as well (I especially liked all of the organization names he came up with for pro- and anti-gun groups). Fans of political satire like Thank You For Smoking will enjoy this one.

Darth Vader and Son

Darth Vader and Son by Jeffrey Brown, 64 pages

In this short and sweet book, Brown imagines funny vignettes of Darth Vader as a doting dad to a 4-year-old Luke Skywalker. It's cute, the comics are funny, and you don't have to be a mega-fan of Star Wars to appreciate it. Well worth the 20 minutes it takes to read it.

Convenience Store Woman

Convenience Store Woman: a Novel / Sayaka Murata, 163 p.

In Graeme Simsion's The Rosie Project, a young man "on the spectrum" meets and falls in love with a "typical" woman who complements his amusing yet poignant idiosyncrasies.  I loved the book, and recommended it far and wide.

The convenience store woman, Keiko, is also somewhere on the spectrum.  Her loving family has never known how to help her, but when she lands a full-time job at a neighborhood convenience store, stocking shelves and greeting customers according to the company's cheery stock phrases, her life seems to take a positive turn.  She loves her job and feels adrift when she's away from work.  But Keiko's life shifts again when a moody, disaffected young man takes a job at the store.  Will Keiko grow and change in response?  Is a happy ending possible?

Just as funny in its way as The Rosie Project, but far darker in tone and outlook, Murata's novel felt extremely realistic psychologically.  Insightful, sad, and recommended.

Ready Player One

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline  374 pp.

This is such a fun book. I enjoyed its geekiness even though I'm not a gamer. The premise of a future where real life is so awful everyone prefers to live in a virtual world called the "OASIS (Ontologically Anthropocentric Sensory Immersive Simulation)" provides the setting for the ultimate video game with billions of dollars at stake. What makes this novel so enjoyable is the stream of pop culture references from the 1970s & 80s. Songs, movies, and early video games are all a part of the contest game set up by the designer of the the OASIS as his legacy. Protagonist Wade Watts and a few others have taken the lead in the contest. But an evil corporation enters the contest pitting multiple players against the individuals playing on their own and the contest turns deadly. The audiobook version is read by Wil Wheaton who does an acceptable job but I kept waiting to hear the line "Shut up, Wesley!"

Okay for Now

Okay for Now by Gary D. Schmidt  360 pp.

I liked other books by Schmidt that I read in the past and have used them for my kids book club. While Okay for Now is good, I didn't enjoy it as much as The Wednesday Wars or Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. The main character is Doug who has been transplanted from New York City to a small town where his abusive, alcoholic father found a job. Doug is trying to make himself into a good person and protect his mom, but with his father and a criminal brother, it isn't easy. A fascination with a rare book of Audubon bird illustrations leads to a friendship with the local librarian. His science teacher is also on his side. And Lil, the first person he meets helps him get a job for her father's store. His older brother returns from Vietnam physically and mentally scarred which leads to more drama in the family. There is a lot going on in this book and Doug's journey to be his own person is a heartfelt one. It's worth reading but not a choice for my book club this time around.

Sunday, July 29, 2018

A Separation

A Separation by Katie Kitamura (2017), 229 pages

At the beginning of this novel, a wife who has been separated from her husband is called by his mother, Isabel, who does not know of the separation, but who does know that her son Christopher went to Greece. Isabel is insistent that Christopher's wife travel there and make sure he's ok since she has not been able to contact him. The wife (whose name isn't revealed), decides to go ahead and travel to Christopher's hotel in an isolated area of Greece in order to ask him for a divorce.

Upon her arrival, she learns that Christopher hasn't been seen by the hotel staff for several days. Based on the behavior of one of the hotel's employees, a desk clerk named Maria, she suspects that Christopher has had an affair with the young woman, not surprising since Christopher had a habit of infidelity. The wife decides to hang around for a few days to see if he returns, taking a couple of day trips to look at a church and meet an old woman who was a professional weeper at funerals.

The time spent waiting to see if Christopher would return was also spent in mulling over relationships, not only her own with Christopher, but also that of Maria, the desk clerk, with Stefano, a man who is clearly in love with her, and also the relationship between Christopher's parents, Isabel and Mark. The outward lustiness of the only other guests at the hotel is also something to consider. This novel isn't uplifting, but it does provide something to think about...

Homicide in Hardcover

Homicide in Hardcover by Kate Carlisle (2009) 289 pages

This book, the first in "A Bibliophile Mystery" series, is the first Carlisle book I've read. Her protagonist, Brooklyn Wainwright, is trained in the conservation and preservation of books. She'd first come to the profession by training with her mentor, Abraham Karastovsky, whom she'd met as a child when her family lived in a commune near San Francisco. She and Abraham had had a falling out when she'd decided to open her own business rather than staying with him. When the story opens, she's very nervous about seeing him again at a private showing of an important book collection he's working on, not knowing how their relationship stands after six months apart.

To Brooklyn's immense joy, Abraham welcomes her with great enthusiasm. However, that same night, she finds him dying in his workroom in the basement of the facility where the private showing is occurring. All he can say before he dies is "Devil. Remember the devil." 

Brooklyn is an immediate suspect in his murder. Worse, in her view, is when she begins to think that her own mother is involved. Brooklyn not only wants to finish Abraham's work preserving a Faust book by Goethe, which is said to be cursed, but (of course, as Whodunnits often go) she also wants to find out who killed Abraham.

Carlisle creates a nice mix of characters, some a bit stereotyped, but still entertaining: from Brooklyn's family (she is one of six children raised by Grateful Dead-enamored hippies), to her best friend Robin from their "growing up in the commune" years, to her ex-fiance Ian, to colorful neighbors, to wealthy benefactors. Finally, there's Derek, whose good looks continue to stun Brooklyn, even though she's not sure whether to trust him.