Friday, November 16, 2018

Pashmina

Pashmina by Nidhi Chanani  166 pages

Priyanka Das is an Indian teenage girl who wants to find her self and rediscover her Indian culture. All she knows is that her mother won't talk to her about her past in India, which makes Pri feel misunderstood. Then she finds the magic of the pashmina, which is a cloth that allows her to experience the ideals of freedom. The children's graphic novel is about the choice to make your own life decisions and how to spread that choice to others, woman specifically.

I wouldn't normally read a book with this plot however I highly enjoyed it. This graphic novel is a good read for all ages and I hope others give it a shot as well.


Uprooted

Uprooted by Naomi Novik, 438 pages

Every 10 years, a reclusive wizard named the Dragon comes into the valley and chooses a 17-year-old girl to spirit away to his tower. When Agnieszka's year comes, she (and everyone else in the village) assumed her friend Kasia would be taken. But everyone was wrong: Agnieszka is chosen instead, much to the Dragon and Agnieszka's mutual consternation. As Agnieszka starts her years in the Dragon's home, she quickly learns that she has magical ability, though of a completely different sort than the Dragon's. Soon, Agnieszka finds herself putting her powers to the test in battles between herself and the Dragon, between the dark magic of the nearby forest and her hometown, and between countries that have fought intermittently for the last 20 years.

This is the second time I've read this captivating, fairy tale-esque novel, and I enjoyed it as much this time through as I did before. Novik sprinkles the story with references to the Eastern European fairy tales she grew up hearing, yet creates something completely new. I love the character growth of Agnieszka, particularly as she harnesses her stubbornness to assist in her magical skills. This is a wonderful book, highly recommended to those who enjoy fairy tales.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

The House Swap

The House Swap by Rebecca Fleet (2018) 294 pages

Caroline and Francis, a married couple in Britain who have a young child, take a vacation a few hours away from home as part of a house swap through a website. Their relationship had weathered some rough times in the past few years as Francis battled an addiction to pills and Caroline became enamored with a  co-worker. Caroline and Francis stayed together, but their relationship was still somewhat fragile; they hoped that this vacation for just the two of them would help.

The house they stayed in was oddly barren of personal touches, but there were a few things that started creeping out Caroline, including a bottle of the same aftershave that Carl, her ex-lover had used, which was  hidden under the bed, and a lone photo on the wall, which showed a place that she and Carl had gone to together. Who house were they staying in? Who was in their house? Was the house swap a coincidence or was something odd at work here? Why does Amber, who lives across the street from the vacation home, persist in showing up at strange times and asking questions?

Alternating points of view tell the story from the perspectives of Caroline, Francis and the person occupying their house/the person whose house they are occupying. The story also pivots in time from when Francis was an addict and Caroline was starting her relationship with Carl, to the present time. I usually shy away from suspense, but this novel gripped me. Each time I thought I was starting to understand something, I found there were still layers of unknowns yet to be revealed.

Emma, by Jane Austen


After Pride and Prejudice, Emma is probably Austen’s best-known work.  Austen called Emma a heroine "whom no one but myself will much like" and I found myself coming down on the side of not much liking the main character although I certainly enjoyed the book.  Twenty-one year old Emma Woodhouse, “handsome, clever and rich,” lives a life of comfort and ease as the younger daughter of a difficult widowed father.  She has a “happy disposition” but is oblivious to her own faults, is socially snobbish, and what a modern-day reader would call a control freak.  Her father, Mr. Woodhouse, also a controlling personality, suffers from anxiety and hypochondria, seeing danger at all turns – as a result, he rarely leaves the house, dislikes change of any kind, and hopes to keep anyone he loves safely by his side indoors.  In this he has been frustrated.  Not long back, his elder daughter married John Knightly and set up housekeeping with him and her growing family about a mile away.  Most recently, the girls’ beloved governess and companion, Miss Taylor, or “poor Miss Taylor” as Mr. Woodhouse always refers to her after her departure, has similarly found happiness outside the family hearth when she marries a local widower and moves into her own nearby establishment.  All this distresses Mr. Woodhouse terribly.  With only her father left at home, someone as lively as Emma is sure to find her circumscribed existence boring, so she sets about arranging the lives of others.  Her many forays into match-making drive to plot as marriage is about the only game available to her and those around her.  Her blindness to others leads to one misunderstanding after another and many lives are affected by her meddling.  With some luck, a growing sense of her own limitations, and the help of her sister’s husband’s brother, George Knightly,  in the end all find a happy ending.  Marriage all around!  Although I thought I had long ago read the novel, I must only have seen modern-day film adaptations.  Having a “new” witty Jane Austen to read was a treat.   453 pp.

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Hanging

The Hanging by Lotte Hammer & Søren Hammer  298 pp.

Two children arriving at school early one morning discover the gruesome remains of five men, mutilated and hanging by the neck from the gymnasium ceiling. Chief detective Konrad Simonson (frequently and confusingly referred to as Simon in the book). As the victims are slowly identified a connection between them is discovered and it appears their deaths were the result of brutal vigilante justice against pedophiles. The ones behind the murders launch a media campaign against Denmark's failure to investigate and prosecute child sexual abusers compounding the difficulties faced by the police. What seems at first to be a basic police procedural takes on a more complex nature as side plots intervene, some integral to the story and others not. I found this a slow read and I'm not sure if that is because it is a translation from Danish or just the story itself.

The Punch Escrow

The Punch Escrow by Tal M. Klein  356 pp.

In the year 2147, Joel Byram works at training artificial intelligence to be more human. His wife is a researcher for the corporation that has developed teleportation (think "Beam me up" on Star Trek).  Everything about life in the 22nd century has been altered by genetic engineering and nanotechnology right down to the mosquitoes which now consume air pollution instead of blood. The secretive and somewhat sinister teleportation company is opposed by a fanatical religious group who sees teleporting as a corruption of the body. When a planned trip to Costa Rica for Joel and his wife is disrupted by a terrorist attack, the result is the creation of two Joels during the transporting process. It is then that the "dirty secret" about the transporting process comes out as the corporation attempts to eliminate the Joel in New York while the Joel in Costa Rica has no idea what has happened. It's an interesting premise that will give you second thoughts about how nice it would be to instantly travel from place to place.

Armstrong and Charlie

Armstrong and Charlie by Steven Frank  298 pp.

This is one of the books selected for my Treehouse Book Club. It takes place during the 1970s shortly after the resignation of Richard Nixon. Sixth grader Armstrong LeRois has been enrolled in a busing program to take him from his neighborhood school in the Los Angeles South Central projects to a previously all-white school in wealthy Laurel Canyon. Charlie Ross will be attending that school as always even though many of his friends have been pulled from there by parents who disagree with the busing of African-American kids to the school. The boys are also dealing with their own issues at home. Charlie's older brother died recently and his mother is deeply depressed while his father is trying to hold everything together. Armstrong's dad is a Korean War veteran who lost his leg in battle and still suffers flashbacks from the war. Armstrong and Charlie engage in a lot of one-upmanship and some physical altercations before reaching a truce and ultimately becoming friends. The story also realistically covers the important adolescent issues of peer pressure and boy-girl relationships. Even though some of the 70s references will be lost on the kids reading it today, the themes are ones still apply to contemporary society.   

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Transcription, by Kate Atkinson


A new book by Atkinson is always a cause for celebration and this one doesn’t disappoint.  Like many of her best novels, it is set in England during the Second World War.  And like some, it darts back and forth in time, from the war years, to 1950, to 1980 and back again.  Young Juliet Armstrong, who has recently lost her mother and is alone in the world at eighteen, is recruited into M15 in 1940.  Her job, not too fascinating, is to transcribe recordings secretly obtained of meetings between an M15 agent and British Fascists who support Hitler and his aims.  But things don’t stay boring as Juliet is pulled further into the shadowy world of espionage.  The bright, brittle, witty chatter that makes up most of the book is reminiscent of a fast-talking Forties comedy of manners, but the undertone is distinctly more reminiscent of LeCarre’s world of  ambiguously moral figures during the war years and the Cold War.  “This England,” indeed.  335 pp.

An Elderly Lady Is up to No Good

An Elderly Lady Is up to No Good: Stories / Helene Tursten, trans. by Marlaine Delargy, 171 p.

Maud lives alone in a spacious apartment in Gothenburg, Sweden. She is 88, and, after a life of hard work teaching and acting as caretaker for her mentally ill sister, she lives exactly how she pleases.  And I do mean exactly.  That is to say that if someone - anyone - disturbs her pleasant routine, they may be in for an unpleasant surprise.  Written in the dry, no-nonsense style I've come to expect from a lot of Scandinavian writers, these little stories almost operate on the realm of moral fantasy.  What would it be like to live with no regard whatsoever for others?   I suppose I should say I was shocked and appalled.  I suspect Maud appeals because most readers have at least a little bit of her inside. 

Monday, November 12, 2018

Landwhale

Landwhale: one turning insults into nicknames, why body image is hard, and how diets can kiss my ass / Jes Baker, 255 pgs.

A bit of a memoir, a bit of a manifesto, Jes Baker tells us what she thinks about a lot of different things. A "body positive" activist, she doesn't really give a shit what you think of her body and how you are going to tell her you are worried "for her health."  She points out it is "my body, my rules" which she had tattooed rather predominately on her body.  Seems fair.  I mean, just like we are having a resurgence of hate and loathing in this country, Jes is here to tell you that she is a person who makes her own choices.  So suck it up.  I like that attitude.  The memoir part about her relationship with her dad is a little frightening.  She, however, sees what it has given her and how she is stronger after some adversity.  Good for Jes!  She seems quite beautiful inside and out despite her struggles.

In the House in the Dark of the Woods

In the House in the Dark of the Woods by Laird Hunt, 218 pages

Once upon a time, a young wife walked into the woods to gather some berries for her husband and son. When she happened upon a small stream, she sat down, took off her shoes, nibbled a few berries, and took a nap. But when she woke up, it was much later and she could not find her way home, and soon got lost in the dark, spooky woods.

This is the premise that starts Hunt's story of an abused colonial wife's adventures in the forest near her home. Like any good fairy tale, this one has mysterious people popping in and out (a helpful woman named Eliza, a yellow-robed young girl bearing odd gifts, the creepy Granny Someone, and the generally helpful pirate Captain Jane), as well as many situations that may or may not be what they seem. I enjoyed the premise of the story, but for some reason, the unresolved uncertainty of situations (are those really pigs?) and characters was somewhat bothersome to me. That said, I'd definitely recommend it to people who enjoy spooky and atmospheric tales.

Delicious Foods

Delicious Foods by James Hannaham, 371 pages

Patrick and Christa have both blogged about this book before, and it was on their recommendation that I decided to give it a read. Or rather, a listen, despite my tendency to shy away from novels in audiobooks (I get too involved in novels, much to the chagrin of anyone riding in the car with me). And holy cow, was it good.

When the novel starts out, Eddie is in the process of escaping from a horrible situation, one that somehow led to both of his hands being cut off at the wrist. The rest of the book tells the story of what exactly led to that horrific situation — turns out, it was a bunch of other horrific situations, including the racially-driven murder of Eddie's father, Eddie's mother, Darlene's, subsequent addiction to crack cocaine, young Eddie's long search for his mom after she disappeared one night, and Darlene and Eddie's entry into not-quite-slavery (but-yeah-totally-slavery) at the titular farm. The narration of this book bounces between Eddie, Darlene, and, ingeniously, the crack cocaine itself. Hannaham does an excellent job of presenting this tough and sobering story, and his narration is top notch. I'm so glad I listened to this!

Sunday, November 11, 2018

When Breath Becomes Air

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi (2016) 225 pages

I have seen this book circulate so many times at our library that I finally took a moment to read the front flap before shelving it. (Or I should say, before not shelving it.) It's written by a neurosurgeon who was diagnosed with lung cancer in his mid-thirties. What is fascinating is the doctor's attitude as well as the story of his education, from his early years, living in Kingman, Arizona, to his degrees in English and biology at Stanford, to Yale's medical school, and back to Stanford for his residency in neurosurgery. Before he could graduate from the residency program, his cancer diagnosis upended everything. His thought processes show that not only does the cancer itself cause upheaval, but the fact that one doesn't have a handle on the time-frame for one's life makes it hard to decide how to spend it. If he thought he had twenty years, he would spend it differently than if he had ten or one. The fact that he and his wife were both doctors also changed the way they viewed his disease.

Kalanithi's personal and professional relationships are explored, as well as his decision about how he chose neurosurgery versus other specialties he saw fellow students going into (like dermatology or radiology) which would give those doctors a better quality of life, but which weren't a "calling."

The reading flows; I felt that I knew the author. His early interest in literature, and frequent quotations from authors evokes comfort. Kalanithi's wife Lucy wrote an epilogue that was as thoughtful as her husband's writing and filled in the gaps perfectly.

Hope Never Dies

Hope Never Dies by Andrew Shaffer (2018)  301 pages

Inspired by Kara, I started reading this work of fiction featuring Joe Biden and Barack Obama on election day. Told from Joe Biden's point of view, the story begins with Biden feeling hurt because Obama hasn't reached out to interact with him since they left office, and trying to assuage his jealousy when he sees media reports of Obama's interactions with the rich and famous. But then who should appear but Obama himself, to tell Biden that a longtime acquaintance of Biden's, Amtrak conductor Finn Donnelly, has been hit by a train. The Feds found a map indicating that the conductor was trying to contact Biden. Worse, Biden learns later from a Delaware police detective that the conductor had heroin in his pocket.

The story takes off from there, with Biden making sure the conductor's family is okay and then trying to vindicate Finn. Obama and his Secret Service agent, Steve, go along for the ride (often literally) as the details come out. But who can be trusted? The story is filled with folksy aphorisms and metaphors galore, which make Biden sound so authentic. The wrap-up is quite thrilling. Fun book!

Friday, November 9, 2018

City of Ink

City of Ink: a Mystery  / Elsa Hart, 341 p.

Number 3 in the series which includes Jade Dragon Mountain and  The White Mirror and featuring intrepid 18th century imperial librarian Li Du and his frequent sidekick, the storyteller Hamza. 

Ah...how I love a good series!  For me, this one has it all: intriguing plots, likable characters, and an unusually strong sense of place.  In this case, the place is 18th century Beijing.  I'm in no position to know whether Hart's research and understanding are accurate, but if they are, then reading this series is the easiest time travel anywhere.

In his efforts to learn more about the imperial plot that saw the execution of his mentor Shu, Li Du has returned to the capital from exile and taken up a position as a lowly clerk.  The job is beneath his super-librarian abilities, but it gives him surreptitious access to the documents he needs to do his research.  He's taken away from his digging when the bodies of a man and woman are found stabbed to death in a factory that produces roof tiles.  Were they lovers?  Is it a case of a jealous husband?  Does it have something to do with the elite book discussion club held a few evenings earlier at the factory?

Good and mad

Good and Mad: the revolutionary power of women's anger / Rebecca Traister, 315 pgs.

Odd only to those who haven't been paying attention, this book talks a lot about modern day anger issues.  It also delves into the history of women's anger and what it has accomplished.  Funny how a lot of things women have done aren't making it into the history books.  Funny how angry women are deemed "hysterical" on "unhinged" and angry men are seen as strong leaders.  Feeling angry?  Read this book and know that you are not alone and that anger is an energy that might be the key to change.

Infidel

Infidel by Pornsak Pichetshote, art by Aaron Campbell, 168 pages

Leslie lives in an apartment building that is infamous throughout the city as the location of a poorly planned terrorist attack several years earlier, and while most of the people who lived there at the time have since moved away, those who remain seem to be a bit skittish about Muslims and those of Middle Eastern descent. Enter Aisha, fiancee of Leslie's son, and a Pakistani American Muslim, who comes to live with her future mother-in-law. Aisha keeps seeing horrific beings in the building and starts to wonder if it's not haunted by those who died in the explosion years ago. Soon, Aisha's fears and those of her neighbors come to a head in some fairly horrific ways.

That's a fairly bad description of a truly wonderful graphic novel. As Jeff Lemire points out in the afterword, horror and politics are hard to do well in comics, but Pichetshote and Campbell prove that it can be done. The story seamlessly weaves together several types of horror, both real and supernatural, and Campbell's disturbing and amazing artwork makes it all the more convincing. I'm in awe of this book, and their talents.