Friday, November 30, 2018

An Almost Perfect Christmas

An Almost Perfect Christmas / Nina Stibbe, 176 p.

From the author of the wonderful Love, Nina and other delights comes a series of Christmas essays.  Not as gut-bustingly funny as previous works but still good fun.  My favorite part was the 'Almost Comprehensive Glossary of Christmas.'  Here's a sample entry:

Disco Deathbeat: Second-hand paperback porn-thriller given to my mother in 1995.  See funny gifts.

A Duke by Default

A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole, 376 pages

When picking out novels to read, I generally tend toward science fiction and fantasy, quirky characters, and often, a wicked sense of humor. Because of that, I don't often venture into the land of romance — I could probably count the number of romance novels I've read on one hand. But Alyssa Cole, you may be changing that with your Reluctant Royals books. The first book, A Princess in Theory, came out earlier this year, and it's made my list of favorites of 2018. Its followup, A Duke by Default, is just as good, with a great mix of three-dimensional characters, humor, female empowerment, romantic tension, and a surprising streak of nerdiness running throughout.

In this book, rich and flighty Portia has taken her "look, a squirrel" self to Edinburgh, Scotland, for an apprenticeship at a small armory that makes historically accurate swords. When she gets there, she finds out that the armory owner, gruff and sexy Highlander Tavish McKenzie, is also a Luddite who has no idea how much business he's missing out on by ignoring the internet. Determined to stay professional for once, Portia dives headlong into helping out the struggling business, taking on the marketing and website for Tavish, despite her boss's skepticism. Along the way, sparks fly (and not just in the forge) as Portia struggles to figure out herself and her role both at the armory and in Tavish's life.

Based on how great the first two books were, I'm going to go ahead and reserve the third book, which comes out next spring.

Thursday, November 29, 2018


Herland by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (1915) 146 pages

This novel from 1915 was not on my radar until a colleague handed it to me. The premise: Three friends, all men, hear rumors about a strange land of women and girls only, and they decide to see if it really exists. In fact, it does. The country is in a remote area, isolated when a volcanic eruption blocked off the one path that connected it to the rest of the world. The men are able to enter the country via an airplane. After they land, what they see amazes them; they have trouble believing that men did not have a part in providing the amenities in this self-sufficient society.

The three men are quite different from each other. Terry is quite rich (he owns the airplane) and believes that women are the lesser gender; he expects women to flock to him. Jeff is a doctor with interest in poetry as well as biology; he treats women with great reverence. The third man, Van, is a sociologist interested in all sciences and cultures. His view of women falls somewhere between the views of the other two. The story is told in his voice.

For a book past the century mark, many of the ideas seem very fresh.

The Clockmaker's Daughter

The Clockmaker's Daughter by Kate Morton, 485 pages

Archivist Elodie is sifting through a box at work when she stumbles upon a sketchbook that once belonged to Victorian artist Edward Radcliffe. Among the images he sketched are a hauntingly beautiful woman and a gabled, multi-chimney country home that Elodie immediately recognizes from a fairy tale her long-dead mother once told her. From there, the book hops around from Elodie's modern story to that of Radcliffe's beautiful model in the 1850s to a young student at the turn of the 20th Century to a researcher in the late 1920s to a mother and her children taking refuge at the house during the London Blitz. Throughout all of it is a narrative from a ghost who haunts the house, seeing all of these stories as they happen.

I love the idea for this book, but the execution is a bit rough, in part because Morton fleshes out each story SO MUCH — I kept finding myself hooked into a story only to find it dropping off in favor of a different character's story at a different time. I feel like Morton would have done well to cut out a storyline or two, and checked in with Elodie a bit more often (as she is the one who gets us into this whole tale to begin with). Great idea though.

Woman World

Woman World by Aminder Dhaliwal, 247 pages.

The book is based on and expanded from the author's web / Instagram comic, also called Woman World. The comic (both book and Insta) explores the world after men slowly disappear; there are fewer born every year until woman are humankind. Simultaneously the world is wracked by a series of natural disasters and upheavals, leaving the population in a gently post-apocalyptic world. In a funny, satirical, and lighthearted way, Dhaliwal pokes fun at the world we live in and the way we go about our lives. A fun read with clean, interesting art.

Falling Glass

Falling Glass by Adrian McKinty, 309 pages

McKinty is pretty masterful at telling a story in a way that keeps the reader interested, keeps them guessing, and that keeps everything in the story moving along. This is one of his stand-alone novels (as opposed to his Detective Sean Duffy or other series). In Falling Glass, Killian, a former enforcer and collector for a variety of bad people finds that his grand plan of investing in real estate and retiring from crime has not worked out in the wake of the housing market crash. Consequently, he drifts back into the life he thought he had left for good. After a particularly deft bit of collection, during which he recovered a large sum with no blow-back or bloodshed, Killian is hired by one of the richest men in Ireland to help track down his ex-wife and children. The client, an airline tycoon, explains that he is afraid his ex has resumed her drug habit and may be putting their young daughters at risk. Soon Killian finds that not everyone is being honest with him, and he runs up against a Chechen war vet who is seeking the same people. The Russian fixer is younger, stronger, and has a good deal less restraint or conscience. A really good book.
This audio, like most of the recordings of McKinty's books, is narrated by the excellent Gerard Doyle.

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life

The Tangled Tree: A Radical New History of Life by David Quammen, 460 pages.

A fascinating look at how genes change and travel throughout the living world, and, also the various science-folk who have discussed the various tree or blob shapes that can be used to show the relatedness of living things. Lynn Marguilis, Carl Woese, and many other people working in the field are discussed. Various theories ebb and flow, but one of the main foci of the book is horizontal gene transfer, or the movement of genetic material between individual microorganisms and between species, becoming apparent to human beings through phenomena like quickly spreading antibiotic resistance. By the time the Human Genome Project was underway and genetic mapping was becoming more common, evidence of HGT was found in insects, crustaceans, head lice and nematodes. The work continues as new discoveries show more of the interrelatedness of species and more of the problems in trying to map out the relatedness of families, phyla, genera and species. A compelling book, with a convoluted story, conflicting theories (over time), and brilliant people disagreeing passionately, and sometimes bitterly. The downloadable audio was narrated by Jacques Roy.

Wednesday, November 28, 2018

Appetites A Cookbook

Appetites A Cookbook, Anthony Bourdain with Laurie Woolever, 304 pages

Anthony Bourdain's sardonic humor and sense of what is important to him comes through in the text and pictures of Appetites A Cookbook. The accompanying photos for recipes are not stock images of plated perfection, but rough, post-modern glam shots and sometimes are just remnants of the food left on a plate. A chapter on dessert that is one page, and simply says "F*ck Dessert", then explains how he isn't the person to provide recipes about something he isn't good at and he doesn't like. Every recipe has an anecdote about where it comes from or what it means to him, often hilarious and written with a sense of purpose and singularity that expects a reader to have a baseline of both skill and restaurant work experience. It is not a beginner's cook book, though it does touch on how to properly make stock and roast a chicken (which are beginner's skill sets). The recipes are more suggestions than step by step instructions. This is not to denigrate their efficacy, but rather to highlight that they focus more on being able to connect the dots to make a dish your own, than to follow a step by step guide.

The Orchard

The Orchard by Yochi Brandes, 381 pages.

This fictional account of the life of Rabbi Akiva and the sages and Rabbis living in the first and early second centuries is engrossing and makes the remote past come to life. Brandes does a great job of telling a story that feels real, with a good sense for these historical figures as characters and with a setting that is believable. We read as the Sages and leaders of Israel have to contend with the longstanding disputes between the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Nazarenes. Rabbi Akiva, who started formal study of the Torah in his forties is at the center of the later stages of these struggles, ending with the Bar Kakhba revolt against the Romans, and is, along with his wife, Rachel at the heart of this book. Renowned Rabbis of the era, Rabbi Elisha, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Tarfon, Rabban Gamaliel also play central roles in the narrative.


Rogues, Edited by George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois, 832 pages

George R. R. Martin and Gardner Dozois have created an anthology of morally grey and ethically questionable characters across a multitude of genres. Martin's introduction points to a childhood experience of buying books that from candy shops and news stands, where no genre sorting was employed and you could find "The Brothers Karamazov sandwiched between a nurse novel and the latest Mike Hammer yarn from Mickey Spillane." This childhood experience is carried into the anthology with steam punk, modern, and fantasy stories all brought together by the theme of character. I really enjoyed Michael Swanwick's Tawny Petticoats, a story of con men in a New Orleans full of gene splicing, zombies, and pirates. The density and genre spanning of tales may not appeal to everyone, but within the anthology there is most likely something that will appeal to all readers.

Fever Dream

Fever Dream by Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child  405 pp.

This is not the same Fever Dream that Christa reviewed. It is part of the series featuring FBI special agent Aloysius Pendergast. In this installment Pendergast investigates the death of his wife Helen. For twelve years he believed she had been mauled to death by a ferocious red maned lion in Zambia but discovers her death was actual murder. He sets out to find her killer with the assistance of NYPD Lt. Vincent D'Agosta. Their investigation leads them to Africa and then to Louisiana where they discover the late Mrs. Pendergast's obsession with the work of John James Audubon that is somehow connect with her jobs with "Doctors with Wings", a charity organization and a pharmaceutical company. Agent Pendergast soon realizes he knew very little about the woman he loved. When D'Agosta is seriously injured, his lover, NYPD Captain Laura Hayward joins the investigation. The standoff in a Louisiana swamp is riveting. I did not realize when I started listening to the audiobook that this is the first book in a trilogy. With the exception of the mispronunciation of New Madrid, Missouri by Rene Auberjonois, the narration is excellent.     


Wrecked: an IQ Novel / Joe Ide, 343 p.

This was my first experience with the IQ (Isaiah Quintabe) series, and I plan to go back for more.  IQ's private detective business in Long Beach is just beginning to take off when he meets Grace, an attractive painter who needs help finding her mom Sarah, disappeared 10 years earlier.  Although Isaiah is sure that her disappearance has something to do with Grace's dead father's connection to the military and his time at Abu Ghraib, Grace doesn't want to probe the past.  Told from both Isaiah's point of view and that of a group of former soldiers who did horrible things at Abu Ghraib and are now trying to run from the past, this story is suspenseful, realistic, and psychologically true.

I love the character of IQ, smart and tough but modest and mild-mannered.  He functions as a one-man neighborhood watch, solving problems for people too poor to pay with cash.  As payment, he accepts knitted wool scarves (in LA), window washing, and artwork, among other things.  Well drawn and likable side characters round out an excellent story.

Milk Street Tuesday Nights

Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Tuesday Nights / Christopher Kimball, 405 p.

There are lots of cookbooks that are beautiful, or that tempt you out of your culinary comfort zone, or that just plain make you hungry.  To me the mark of a great cookboook is utility: will you turn to it day after day to help you put dinner on the table, and will the dinner turn out to be something you actually want to eat?  By that  measure, Tuesday Nights earns an A+, while also being terrific to look at.

Broken into three primary sections, Fast, Faster, and Fastest, these are meals you can have on the table in 20 - 45 minutes.  Other chapters include One Pot, Pizza Night, Supper Salads, you get the idea.  Basically, the reader decides which approach he wants to take for dinner, and the book gets you there, with clear instructions and nice photos.  I can personally vouch for: Persian Barley-Vegetable Soup, Sopa Seca with Butternut Squash, Soba with Edamame and Watercress, and Columbian Coconut Chicken. Comprehensive and recommended. 

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Florida, by Lauren Groff

I had mixed feelings about Groff’s well-received earlier novel, Fates and furies, as I do about this new collection of short stories.  In both, Florida is as much a character as a place, and after reading this collection full of snakes and swamps and creepy characters, her Florida is not a place I want to visit (well, actually, I don’t want to visit the real Florida either….).  The stories are very good, and the book was a National Book Award contender this year (as was Fates and furies), but I still don’t really “enjoy” them.  Her subject matter always seems a bit overwrought.  275 pp.

The winter soldier, by Daniel Mason

It’s hard not to hate the author, who judging from his jacket photo and blurb is young and handsome in addition to being a physician, professor at Stanford, and a very good novelist.  The winter soldier is his third novel and combines his writing skills with his background as a doctor.  Lucius is a twenty-two year old medical student in Vienna when WWI breaks out in 1914.  His aristocratic parents despair at his insistence in entering the professions rather than marrying well and upholding the family tradition of not doing much, certainly not something as low-class as working as a doctor.  However, he is socially inept and finds his calling and comfort in science and medicine.  While still a student, he is sent to a remote village field hospital in the Carpathian mountains where he meets a nursing sister, Margarete, who has been single-handedly holding the makeshift hospital together after the former physician had a nervous crisis and disappeared.  Lucius has been injured on the way there, breaking his wrist, which turns out to be fortunate as his actual contact with real patients in non-existent.  Margarete, a quick study, has learned well from the former doctor and, intuiting that Lucius is in way over his head, tactfully teaches him surgical skills and patient care.  Inevitably, they fall in love and are separated by the chaos of war.  The wartime hospital scenes are horribly convincing.  Even though a not all of the action takes place in the winter during five years the book covers, even the scenes set in high summer make the reader feel cold.  The setting in the borderlands between warring countries is very interesting in and of itself.  Recommended.  318 pp.