Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Tears in the Darkness

Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and its Aftermath by Michael Norman & Elizabeth M. Norman  464 pp.

This well written account of a horrendous episode in military history uses one survivor, Ben (Bud) Steele as a focal point. But it also includes personal accounts of others who fought the doomed Battle of Bataan to be taken prisoner in the Philippines in 1942 and forced on a 60+ mile walk with 80,000 other U.S. and Filipino troops. During the march the men were given little food and water, were beaten, tortured, bayoneted, and beheaded. About 3,000 died on the march with nearly 28,000 dying at the Camp O'Donnell prison camp. Many of the prisoners died of malnutrition, dysentery, malaria, beriberi, made worse by the lack of food, medicine, water, forced labor, and thr brutality of their captors. Ben Steele nearly died of malaria while a prisoner. When the Allies began to retake the Philippines, many who still survived were put on "death ships" that transported them to Japan to work in mines not far from where the bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. Once the survivors were freed, the book focuses again on Ben Steele who went on to be an artist and professor of art in his home state of Montana. The little bit I knew of what occurred was based solely on movies and other sources. The one relative I had who survived the march and POW time never spoke of it which seems to be the way most coped with it.

Humans of London

Humans of London by Cathy Teesdale 224 pages

If you're a fan of Brandon Stanton's Humans of New York books and blog, you'll find Cathy Teesdale's book every bit as refreshing: a wide variety of people photographed all over London, with enough of their story included to make you feel that you were next to the photographer, meeting these people. The photographs and the people are intriguing.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Beneath the Sugar Sky

Beneath the Sugar Sky by Seanan McGuire, 174 pages

Eleanor West's Home for Wayward Children is a safe space for kids who have gone through a door to other fantasy worlds where they feel at home — and then returned to our mundane world. So the residents at Eleanor West's are used to hearing about other places where the logic is different (or nonexistent). But they're not used to a door being opened from another world directly into their back yard, which is exactly what happens when Rini, a girl from the sugar-spun world of Confection, drops into the turtle pond at Eleanor West's. Rini has come with a problem that only the wayward children can solve, sending them on a world-hopping quest to save Rini's very existence.

This is the third book in McGuire's Wayward Children series, and while I like it and the characters she creates here (I LOVE our narrator Cora, an overweight girl who's hoping to return to a world of mermaids), it's definitely not my favorite installment. Something about Confection and the devious Queen of Cakes seems unfinished, and perhaps McGuire will sort that out in a future book. However, I think the reason that this isn't my favorite is simply that the previous two entries in this series — Every Heart a Doorway and Down Among the Sticks and Bones — are so fantastic. The bar is set very high for this series, and Beneath the Sugar Sky just doesn't quite clear it.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The Best Kind of People

The Best Kind of People by Zoe Whittall, 430 pages

When a high school teacher is arrested, accused by four students of sexual misconduct on a class ski trip, his life and the lives of his family are turned completely upside down. The author transports the reader delicately into the evolving points of view of  his wife, adult son, and high school-aged daughter. We see how the crisis changes relationships within and outside the family. Like his family, I kept wondering whether to believe the man or his accusers. Whittall's novel, published in 2016, evokes the #MeToo movement that has lately resonated through our society.

Theory of Shadows

Theory of Shadows: a Novel / Paolo Maurensig, 179 p.

An exploration of the very real life of Russian chess master Alexandre Alekhine, who died under exceedingly mysterious circumstances in Portugal in 1946.  Alekhine, who survived the war by playing chess on behalf of the Reich and cozying up to high-ranking Nazis, was found dead in his hotel room, seated before a chess board,  cause of death unclear.  The author uses the form of the novel hoping that fiction will lead him to uncover truths that research does not.  The result is an interesting, creepy story about a brilliant but horribly flawed man. 

Barbie Chang

Barbie Chang: Poems / Victoria Chang, 99 p.

I was impressed by Chang's earlier volume Boss and enjoyed this one as well.  Barbie Chang is a persona, the author's immature, insecure, frightened self.  The experience of reading these poems, about not fitting in, about romantic fantasy, and about demented and dying parents, is a bit like reading a novel in YA style with adult themes.  Not as strong as Boss, but nevertheless very accessible and true.

No Time to Spare

No Time to Spare: Thinking about what matters by Ursula K. Le Guin  215 pp.

This wonderful collection of essays, penned while the author was in her eighties was published shortly before her death on January 22 of this year. Included are topics as varied as growing old, the "f" word, writing, politics, catching a rattlesnake, eating soft boiled eggs in the shell, the Oregon food bank, her cat, the story of a captive lynx, and much more. There is much to think about and much that is just entertaining. The collection shows off her ability to write not just the science fiction and children's books for which she is most well known. Time to dust off The Left Hand of Darkness for a re-read.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Little fires everywhere, by Celeste Ng

Shaker Heights, Ohio, is perfect.  A wealthy, planned community where the schools are excellent, all the children are above average, and the homes are color-coordinated by law.  But as the novel opens, one of those beautiful homes, the Richardson’s, is burning to the ground.  The pebble dropped into this placid surface may be Mia Warren, a young artist with a 15-year-old daughter, Pearl, who shows up in the town and rents the upper floor of the duplex that is owned by Mrs. Richardson (note, all duplexes look like single family homes with one entrance instead of two so as not to disturb the appearance of the street).  Mrs. Richardson, married to a successful lawyer, is a fourth generation Shaker resident and subscribes to the progressive, if somewhat repressive, tenets of her community.  She seems undisturbed that her oldest daughter, Lexie’s, boyfriend is African-American or that Lexie’s best friend is Serena Wong.  They are, after all, a very progressive community.  Mrs. Richardson, a journalist with the local paper is the mother of four children, one in each year at the high school.  Her younger son, Moody, befriends Pearl, and Pearl slowly becomes a fixture in the Richardson household, which also includes junior Trip, a handsome and charming athlete, and freshman Izzy, a surly, sullen, unhappy teen in Doc Martens.  The Richardson children’s lives couldn’t be more different from Pearl’s peripatetic life.  When a Chinese baby is abandoned at the local fire station, she seems to be the answer to the prayers of Mrs. Richardson’s best friend, Linda, who with her husband has tried unsuccessfully for years to have a baby of their own.  Then Mirabelle, nee Lily May’s, birth mother reappears and wants her child back.  Suddenly, things aren’t so progressive any more.  A thoughtful and thought-provoking book by an Asian-American who grew up there.  338 pp.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

Be frank with me

Be frank with me / Julia Claiborne Johnson, read by Tavia Gilbert

A reclusive author gets bilked out of her fortune and returns to writing in hopes to keep the house.  Her publisher sends twenty-four year old Alice out to California to keep her on track and transcribe her book.  Alice arrives to fine M. M. Banning a little odder than she anticipated.  Also on site is her son Frank, a nine year old cinephile who dresses like he is on set in a Hollywood hit from the 30's or 40's.  Alice becomes Frank's companion as the goal it to get his mom to finish her book.  Frank has a lot of rules and isn't all that adept at reading a situation.  He has problems in school, mostly with the other kids, but lights up whenever the mysterious Xander, the globe trotting handyman appears.  Alice is starting to fit in with this oddball group but every time she gets answer, several more questions appear.  I listened to the audio version and found it absolutely delightful.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Fire and fury

Fire and Fury: inside the Trump white house / Michael Wolff, 321 pages.

There isn't a whole lot of new information in this book if you have paid attention to the comments about it and the appearances the author has made on various talk shows.  However, the political junkie really has to read it just to marvel at the amazing stories of the president and staff.  It is kind of like looking at a car wreck, you don't want to see it but you can't look away.  It would be a fun book if it was fiction but since it is our reality, it is mostly frightening.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

The Lost Plot

The Lost Plot by Genevieve Cogman, 367 pages

In this fourth Invisible Library book, we find Librarian extraordinaire Irene getting reluctantly pulled into dragon politics, via a world that's permanently stuck in Jazz Age America. If that sentence made no sense, that's sad, because it means you haven't read the first three books in this awesome series where Librarians (yes, capitalized) are secret agents that travel between worlds, acquiring books that help keep the universe together. There are the high chaos worlds ruled by the Fae and strictly ordered worlds ruled by dragons, but Irene and her fellow Librarians maintain a strict neutrality between the warring factions and generally stay in those worlds that are somewhere in the middle. OK, it still probably doesn't make much sense, but that's OK — Cogman makes it work, and does it with grace, humor, and a healthy dose of adventure. I can't wait for the next book in this series.

Get Well Soon

Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright, 320 pages

I've been listening to the audiobook of Get Well Soon for the last few weeks, using my short commute to learn about everything from cholera to the bubonic plague to leprosy. This may not sound like a great way to start your day at work, but then, you probably haven't listened to this fascinating, and surprisingly funny, book. Each chapter takes on a different plague, discussing causes, reasons that it spread, and how society responded, scattered with plenty of witty comments that serve to punctuate her points as much as add levity. Maybe there are some that feel these topics should be treated with only solemnity, but I positively loved Wright's storytelling style. And props to audiobook narrator Gabra Zackman, who beautifully captures that style. Christa called this one of her favorites of 2017, and I can totally see why. Great book.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Lady Travelers Guide to scoundrels and other gentlemen

The Lady Travelers Guide to scoundrels and other gentlemen / Victoria Alexander read by Marian Hussey, 538 pgs.

A departure for me, this is a historical romance that features witty banter, travel adventures and a woman who changes her mind about love. India Prendergast was raised to be a VERY practical woman by her cousin who took her in after her parents died. Now her dear cousin Lady Heloise is missing! She embarked on a trip arranged by the Lady Travelers club and after a few descriptive letters, has disappeared. India, who has read MANY detective stories, is investigating and convinced that the club is a scam and stealing money from its members. She has pinned this on Derek Saunders, the great nephew of one of the founders of the club. Derek, at the same time, has discovered the possibly fraudulent setup and is concerned for his great aunt. India and Derek decide to work together to find Lady Heloise despite their obvious animosity for each other. They travel to Paris, the location of the last letter from Heloise. While together, they notice a lot of things to like about each other and proceed to fall in love. Will they end up together or will Inida's prim employer break them apart? I don't think it is much of a cliffhanger so don't hold your breath. The audio version is very well done.

Women & Power

Women & Power: a Manifesto / Mary Beard, 115 p.

The text of two lectures from 2014 and 2017 by the classicist and author of SPQR, with accompanying pictures.  Generally I don't enjoy reading speech-to-print volumes like this one, but I appreciated this.  Of course, picking apart the mechanisms which keep women out of power is an easy hit for me, and Beard is concise and energetic in her argument.  What's lacking, naturally, is the course of action. 

Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach: a Novel / Jennifer Egan, 438 p.

In 1943 New York, Anna Kerrigan longs to leave her tedious job on the waterfront measuring shipbuilding parts with a micrometer for greater excitement.  She finds it by becoming a diver, a highly trained position involving danger and lots of pushing of gender boundaries.  Meanwhile, she is consumed with the search for her absent father, mysteriously disappeared during her teenage years.  What was her father's connection to the charismatic nightclub owner Dexter Styles?   Is he still alive?  Can she trust Dexter?

A very solid and suspenseful piece of historical fiction, strenuously researched.  I enjoyed the strong sense of place, and was hugely amused by the many underworld conversations which all amounted to the same thing: who's better, an Irish criminal or an Italian one?  The most notable element of the plot was for me the nuanced treatment of Lydia, Anna's developmentally disabled sister.  Nostalgia, suspense, and danger on the high seas add up to an engaging read.

Monday, January 22, 2018

The Search For My Great-Uncle's Head

The Search For My Great-Uncle's Head, by Jonathan Latimer 297 pages

Peter Coffin is a young, staid college professor visiting the large estate of his great-uncle Tobias Coffin. Even though his death doesn't appear imminent, Tobias has summoned several other family members there as well, wanting to see them before he dies. However, during the houseguests' first night in the mansion, Tobias is found headless at his desk in his study. With a madman at loose in the area, it's unclear whether the gruesome murder is a random act by the madman or a deliberate act by a relative wanting to get a greater cut in the considerable estate left behind. There's said to be a new will, but if so, it has disappeared along with Tobias's head. Peter and the others search for clues, not quite trusting each other, while waiting for the detective from Tobias's life insurance company to come onto the scene.

This somewhat old-fashioned book (written in 1937, after all) is set in a time when wealthy people routinely "dressed for dinner," and were attended to by butlers and maids.  In spite of the story being a bit predictable, it was still an enjoyable read for a winter day.

The Lonely Hearts Hotel

The Lonely Hearts Hotel by Heather O'Neill, 389 pages

Orphans Pierrot and Rose are brought together as children by their odd dispositions and innate talents for performing, dreaming of one day creating a traveling show of their own. But as things for orphans in the 1920s often go, they are torn apart, with little chance of meeting again. By the time they do, more than a decade later, Pierrot has gone from living in the lap of luxury to being a heroin addict, while Rose went from being the mistress of a mafia boss to performing in pornographic films.

O'Neill tells the story in such a romantic, melancholy way that it comes across less like a novel and more like an antique music box that's been bewitched to create a seedy story of crime. It's haunting and sad and somehow beautiful, all at once. While it was perhaps a bit more risque than I was anticipating — particularly for a book that features so many forlorn clowns and an invisible bear — I loved it.

Sherlock Holmes (Unabridged) Part 4 The Hound of the Baskervilles

Sherlock Holmes (Unabridged) Part 4: The Hound of the Baskervilles read by Stephen Fry  128 pp.

I had never read this classic Holmes story although I have seen a number of different film/television versions including the classic Basil Rathbone/Nigel Bruce from 1939. The heirs of Baskerville hall are cursed by a generations old story of a supernatural hound of enormous proportions that kills each Lord of the Manor. The newest Baskerville heir, Sir Henry, arrives from America to claim his inheritance after the brutal death of Sir Charles Baskerville. Holmes and Watson have been asked by the local doctor to protect him and ensure he does not become yet another victim. Holmes believes there is nothing supernatural about the killings and sets out to prove it. The screen versions I have seen for the most part stick to the book. However, I just discovered there is a spoof version made by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore that I need to get my hands on.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Pirates of Pensacola

Pirates of Pensacola / Keith Thomson, 309 pgs.

Morgan's dad Isaac disappeared when he was a kid, off to prison.  This was bad timing because his mom had just died.  Morgan is taken under the wing of  Herb Flick, he grows up to become a middling accountant.  He is basically an office drone at the Vail Company when his dad shows up unexpectedly and drinks the last beer from his fridge.  There are some unresolved issues between father and son, to say the least.  Soon, however, they are on an adventure, looking for lost treasure that Isaac hid before his time behind bars.  Seems like Isaac has lots of people who remember him from the old days.  Although this starts out as a kidnapping, Morgan eventually goes all in on the adventure and he learns to admire and trust his dad.  Swashbuckling fun.

How the light gets in, by Louise Penny

One way to get through a spell of dark zero degree days is to curl up with a cup of tea, or something stronger, and the next in the Inspector Gamache mystery series.  It’s even colder in the small Quebec village of Three Pines in this book, which returns to the Inspector to this hidden-away refuge, but the warmth of the characters makes the snowy scene comforting rather than depressing.   The genius of this author is both that you don’t tire of her cast of characters – cranky poet Ruth and her pet duck, the odd couple of Oliver and Gabri, Myrna the bookstore owner, or of Gamache himself – and that her plots continue to be intriguing and unusual.  Often you learn a lot too – about Gregorian chant, or computer hacking, or curling.  I found this ninth book to be her best yet and wonder at its end how she will continue the series.  I will be “désolé’ when I’m finished with the last book.  404 pp.