Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Everything That Rises Must Converge / Flannery O'Connor, 269 pages

Wow. 

This is a collection of stories that O'Connor was working on when she died of lupus at the age of 39, in 1964.  How to describe them?  The protagonists are often horrible people who experience brief opportunities to grow.  Generally, they do not take advantage of these opportunities.  They or others die hideously violent deaths in surprise twist endings.  (I may have blunted the surprise a little - sorry.)

O'Connor is considered great by many people who know a lot more than I do, but I struggled to love these stories.  They are nearly perfectly crafted and one reads them quickly, even easily.  They are frequently extremely funny, and I will concede that O'Connor was an extraordinary observer.  As awful as the people in her stories are, they feel organic and strangely believable.  But she pulls no punches whatsoever when it comes to describing racial attitudes in the '60s south, and reading much of the (realistic) dialogue made me feel nauseated.  If she was too honest about her time and place, that's no failing.  But I was glad to turn the last page.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

I know what I saw

I know what I saw: modern-day  encounters with monsters of new urban legend and ancient lore / Linda S. Godfrey, read by Gabra Zackman, 322 pgs.

Basically this is a long list about first hand sightings of mysterious creatures.  Bigfoot, Momo, or whatever you call him/her makes an appearance but so do a whole lot of other unusual creatures.  Stick people, dog women, cave creatures, werewolves, dire dogs, the list is not short.  I loved the way each encounter is handled and the citations included.  Gabra Zackman does a brilliant job narrating.

They Called Us Enemy

They Called Us Enemy by George Takei, art by Harmony Becker, 192 pages

In this graphic memoir, Takei recounts his years spent in two Japanese internment camps during World War II. He was a small child when his family was sent first to Rowher and then to Tule Lake, so he didn't really understand what was going on — though he had a better idea when the camps finally closed and his family was left to reintegrate into society on their own. Throughout the book, Takei explains clearly and calmly how this experience affected his family, and how it led him to a lifetime of campaigning for civil liberties and human rights. The book comes at the perfect time, as so many of Takei's experiences are being echoed in ICE roundups, in Muslim travel bans, and in refugee detainment on the Mexican border. This is essential reading for Americans of all ages.

Summer Lightning

Summer Lightning by P.G. Wodehouse  316 pp.

This is one of the series of books and stories that revolve around Blandings Castle and its inhabitants. Lord Emsworth, the master of the castle is absent minded and frequently confused. He cares only about his award winning pig, the Empress, and worries that his rival, Sir Gregory Parsloe Parsloe will produce a pig that outshines his. Meanwhile Emsworth's brother, Galahad, is writing a tell-all memoir that could prove to be an embarrassment to the family and get them ostracized by their friends. Emsworth's sister, Lady Constance is a domineering old bat who is chatelaine of the castle and sends many residents into hiding to avoid her. Adding to the chaos are two romantic crises involving younger members of the family, a shady private detective, Lord Emsworth's secretary who may or may not be mad, the theft of the Empress, and a butler who probably deserves sainthood after dealing with all of them. This is classic Wodehouse and a great deal of fun. The audiobook was narrated by John Wells who does a masterful job of voicing the characters.

Monday, September 16, 2019

Jade War

Jade War, Fonda Lee, 590 pages

Jade War is the second novel in Fonda Lee's Green Bone saga, and it picks up shortly after the first book ends, with the ensemble cast having arrived where they were headed at the end of Jade City. The story is a bit slower in pace, as the characters spend more time setting up plans and putting plans into motion, which makes sense in the context that they are realizing that their actions now have moved from impacting their local communities to being international quasi-crime bosses. The continued themes centering around the importance of family, cultures of violence, and the attended costs of belonging to a super judicial clan of Kung Fu masters. This is decidedly not light-hearted fantasy fare, as things often seem to move from bad to worse for the characters, and every action the characters take seems to come at a great personal cost. Relationships crumble, families and clans are torn apart, and the Kaul family that is at the heart of the story seem to barely hold on in each situation they end up in.

The Sol Majestic

The Sol Majestic by Ferrett Steinmetz, 384 pages

Savor Station is a remote space station best known for The Sol Majestic, the most exclusive restaurant in the universe. People will travel light years to visit, and reservations are made years in advance. But Kenna doesn't know about The Sol Majestic when he arrives. He's a starving teenager, dragged from station to station by his parents, who are attempting to fulfill the Inevitable Philosophies of their religion while haranguing Kenna for not yet coming up with his own Philosophy. Yet by pure dumb luck, Kenna finds himself in the kitchen of The Sol Majestic, falling in love with the work the chefs perform every day and falling in love with one chef in particular, an indentured servant named Benzo. Soon the fate of Kenna's as-yet-unknown Inevitable Philosophy and the grandiose-but-bleeding-money restaurant are intertwined, causing Kenna to doubt the religion of his parents as well as his own humanity.

This book is a love letter to food, to determination, to hardworking labor. In rebelling against his parents' prohibitions against manual labor and mixing with the commoners, Kenna learns about the universe around him as well as about himself. So in that sense, it's a fairly standard coming-of-age tale. But it also delves into the concepts of knowledge, of power, of honesty, of skill, and of time itself. While parts felt a bit slow to me, I ended up loving this book and the way it resolved itself. I'm so glad Ferrett Steinmetz decided to keep writing and created this book.

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead

Drive Your Plow over the Bones of the Dead / Olga Tokarczuk, 274 p.

Janina lives in a lonely Polish village near the Czech border.  She has few neighbors, and there are fewer all the time, as they keep turning up dead.  Stranger still, their deaths involve the presence of deer, foxes, and other wild animals of the region who are frequently hunted by the residents.  Could the animals be taking revenge?  Between helping her friend Dizzy translate William Blake and constructing elaborate horoscope predictions, Janina decides to solve the mystery herself, with interesting consequences.  Not quite what I expected, and not sure what I think.

After the Funeral

After the Funeral by Agatha Christie   191 pp.

I read all the Christie mysteries (yes, all 82 of them) many years ago but the title of this one didn't spark any memories when I found the audiobook available for 99 cents. And it was read by Hugh Fraser who played Hastings in the PBS Poirot series with David Suchet so why not revisit it? It's a typical Christie-type mystery: large manor house, wealthy family, death of eldest brother, etc. But at the reading of the will the sister comments "But he was murdered, wasn't he?" When she is brutally murdered the following day. When the family lawyer's investigations come to a dead end, he enlists the help of Hercule Poirot who, of course, solves the mystery. Eventually I came to remember the story but not the solution so it was almost like a new book to me.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

A Spark of Light

A Spark of Light by Jodi Picoult (2018) 369 pages

Author Jodi Picoult's thorough research brings to life just about every aspect that relates to abortion in her powerful novel, A Spark of Light. A cast of characters converges at an abortion clinic in Jackson, Mississippi, the last open clinic in the state: A gunman, a hostage negotiator (who learns that his daughter and sister are hostages in the clinic), a doctor who performs abortions, the various staff members of the clinic, and most tellingly, the different life situations and needs that bring patients (and pro-life activists) to the clinic.

The story starts at almost the end of the hostage negotiations, then each chapter drops back in time by one hour, revealing the mindsets, histories, and surprises that bring each person to life, before the jump to the finale. Masterful, suspenseful, real.

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Cruelest Month

The Cruelest Month by Louise Penny (2007) 311 pages

In this third book in Penny's Inspector Gamache series, Madeleine Farreau, a woman that seems well-loved in the small village of Three Pines, dies during a seance in the very spooky Hadley house. When Inspector Gamache comes onto the scene, he has a good handful of suspects who had been at the seance, including a psychic and Tarot card reader, Jeanne Chauvet. Did Madeleine really die of fright or was her death a murder?

Meanwhile, while he works on the case, several different newspapers publish misleading information about him and his family, smearing their reputations. He thinks it's because of the work he'd done in the not-so-distant past, ousting some corrupt officials from the Sûreté du Québec. But if all the corrupt officials have been jailed, who is planting these outrageous stories in the media? Gamache has his own mystery to deal with as he explores Madeleine's death.


The Rosie Project

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (2013) 295 pages

Don Tillman is an Australian genetics professor who exhibits Asperger's syndrome. He decides to construct a questionnaire to administer to women in an attempt to find a wife. When he meets Rosie, it's clear she is not at all suitable for him, but he irrationally finds her compelling, and works with her in an attempt to find out who her father is. His first-person account is written in his very precise tone which I found quite entertaining. I'm looking forward to reading the sequels, The Rosie Effect and The Rosie Result.

Wild card info

Hey Bloggers! We're nearly two weeks into the 2019-2020 book challenge year, and we have wild card categories!! As you might guess, these are listed on the Wild Card Categories page for future reference, but I've also included them here:
  • Books with either a ? or ! in the title — This is pretty straightforward: is the title an exclamation, complete with an exclamation point? Is it a question, complete with a question mark? Then it counts. If the answer to either of those questions is no, then nope, it doesn't.
  • Books in which the author's last name includes a double letter — We're looking for two of the same letter in a row, like Clooney or Pitt (but authors, not actors). But remember, only the last name counts, so, to continue with the Ocean's 11 theme, Matt Damon doesn't count.
  • Bloggers whose first name OR last name is longer than 7 letters — This is an either/or situation, so you can't combine first and last.
Read on, blog on, and let me know if there's anyone who needs a bit of prodding to get blogging. As I'm sure you're aware, I can be really obnoxious persuasive when I need to be.

Unmasked

Unmasked: A Memoir by Andrew Lloyd Webber  544 pp.

This memoir by the world's most successful composer of musicals covers Lloyd Webber's life and career from childhood through the production of "Phantom of the Opera." Much of the book is about his youth and education - he was an Oxford University dropout - while the rest covers, in detail, the creation and production of his works beginning with "The Likes of Us." While the process of creating and bringing a major musical production to the stage is interesting, the book gets repetitive as it goes through six major productions and five minor ones. He wrote candidly about his personal life including the dumping of his first wife for the young Sarah Brightman who became his muse for "Phantom". I listened to the audiobook version read by Derek Perkins with the Forward and Afterward read by Lloyd-Webber. Their voices are so similar I felt like it was all read by the author.

Thursday, September 12, 2019

We Have Always Lived in the Castle

We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, 146 pages

Eighteen-year-old Mary Katherine (Merricat) Blackwood lives with her sister, Constance, and their senile uncle Julian. The trio has lived alone in a secluded mansion for six years, ever since the rest of their family died from arsenic poisoning during dinner. That event and the Blackwoods' subsequent agoraphobia has created animosity between most of the neighboring village's residents and Merricat, the only Blackwood who will leave their land. But when they're at home, Merricat, Constance, and Uncle Julian feel safe. Until their cousin Charles turns up, upsetting their world and leading to further catastrophe.

This is a moody, atmospheric tale that gets creepier and creepier as it goes. It's the first Jackson I've read, though it will certainly not be the last. She does such a wonderful job of creating a spooky story without any supernatural beings. No wonder she's referred to as a master of the genre!

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

In pain

In pain: a bioethicist's personal struggle with opioids / Travis Rieder, read by the author, 297 pgs.

Rieder was in a motorcycle accident and hurt his foot badly enough to require 6 surgeries.  This book talks about his struggles with the health care system and specifically the lack of assistance from any of his doctors when it was time to STOP taking opioids that were prescribed for his pain.  He was not an addict...he didn't want to take the medications any more but his body was dependent on them.  He went through a hellish month of withdrawal wherein he considered suicide and basically sat at home and cried.  He describes it as the worst flu he had ever had times 100.  In the end, there were other issues with his care but this one was the biggest. When he called doctors to get help, they told him, 'Just start taking the medicine again if it is so bad." Thus pushing the ball down the field and having to repeat the withdrawal process at a later date.  Rieder did not find that advice very helpful. The kicker here is Rieder works for John Hopkins.  He is not a medical doctor but a Phd. who studies and writes about medical ethics.  If this guy can't get good care, what chance do the rest of us have? 

The Color of Christ

The Color of Christ: The Son of God and the Saga of Race in America by Edward J. Blum, 340 pages

Fun fact: Jesus Christ's physical description isn't mentioned anywhere in the Bible. So where did all these images of Christ as a tall, long-haired white guy come from? Well, that's just one of the questions that Blum answers in The Color of Christ. This history lesson also examines the ways that religious and cultural leaders, as well as artists of all kinds, have manipulated the description of Christ over the centuries, generally speaking to better further their own agendas, dating back hundreds of years. This is a fascinating book, one that appeals to anyone who has wondered how both sides of the Civil War claimed to have Jesus on their side, and opposing sides of racial topics (from slavery to Obama's election in 2008) have felt inspiration from the son of God.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Careful what you wish for

Careful what you wish for / Hallie Ephron, 288 pgs.

Emily Harlow has quit teaching and is now a professional organizer.  Perfect job for a woman who is married to a "collector" who might really just be a hoarder. She and her partner are starting out and taking pretty much every job so are excited to get a referral to help a woman clean out her garage before they finish their CURRENT job of helping a widow clean out a surprise storage unit.  Things get interesting pretty quick as the garage job is a woman who is clearly in a bad marriage and a dead body is found in the storage unit.  Then the police come knocking...Emily is on the security camera at the storage place going into the unit after hours.  But she wasn't there.  Is this a setup?  What is going on?  Who can she trust to help her get to the bottom of it?  Like all good heroines, she does the legwork herself.  Interesting premise and it did spark joy for me.

The Unhoneymooners

The Unhoneymooners by Christina Lauren, 400 pages

Olive Torres has never been as lucky as her charmed twin sister, Ami, who managed to finance her entire wedding and honeymoon by winning contests. But the twins' luck may be changing: maid of honor Olive and her nemesis, best man Ethan, are the only two people who manage to avoid getting sick from the (free) seafood buffet. In keeping with her thriftiness, Ami insists that Olive and the evil Ethan (who's the groom's brother, and thus has the same last name) take the (free) honeymoon trip to Maui.

Since this is a romance novel, it's obvious from the get-go that Olive and Ethan are going to fall for one another once they reach the tropical isle. And they do so through a series of awkward, steamy, hilarious, and sometimes heartfelt interludes. I loved this frothy and fun read, and I highly recommend it for anyone looking for a bit of an escape.

Monday, September 9, 2019

The Sky Is Yours

The Sky Is Yours by Chandler Klang Smith, 457 pages

Take Manhattan, and throw in the following elements in equal parts:
  • horrific prison mismanagement (think a walled-in neighborhood where all criminals, regardless of crime, are thrown together); 
  • a disturbing fascination with reality TV and technology; 
  • a hopelessly romantic teenage girl whose only purpose is to be married off to a rich husband;
  • and a freaked out kid who grew up on a trash island.
Mix well and cook with intermittent fire provided by two ever-circling dragons flying above the city.

Makes: one cynical, funny science fiction novel. Devour at will.

I read this book for the first time last year, and blogged about it here. I feel much the same on this reread as I did then (still loved it, still tickled pink at the character names), so I won't say much more in this post. I'm curious to see what the Orcs & Aliens think of it tonight though.

A Queer and Pleasant Danger

A Queer and Pleasant Danger: A Memoir by Kate Bornstein  258 pp.

I must admit that the only reason I picked this book was to fill the "Q" slot in an "A to Z Title Challenge". However, I found it to be an interesting, if not great, book. Kate Bornstein is the transgender author of Gender Outlaw. This book chronicles her entry into the all consuming world of Scientology which lead them (then known as Al Bornstein) into the upper echelons of L. Ron Hubbard's cult dynasty all the while fighting the internal battle of gender dysphoria. After leaving Scientology Bornstein makes the decision to have reassignment surgery and becomes a woman in body while identifying as gender non-conforming. Parts of their story are disturbing and not for the faint of heart.

The Void

The Void (Witching Savannah Book 3) by J.D. Horn  322 pp.

In this third (and final?) installment, Mercy and her husband, Peter, are awaiting the arrival of baby Colin. However, Savannah has been rocked by the dismemberment death of a woman whose body parts have been found in seemingly random parts of the city. Soon demonic beings from the previous books reappear and it is clear that someone or a group of someones want to destroy Mercy and her baby. The Taylor family must join forces against those intent on destroying them. The ending is less than satisfactory with history changing so that Mercy never existed but the baby does as the child of her twin sister. And then Mercy returns. It seems the author was unable to decide on an ending and mashed together multiple options to a unfortunate conclusion.

Saturday, September 7, 2019

The bride test

The Bride Test / Helen Hoang, read by Emily Woo Zeller, 304 pgs.

Stuck in a dead end job in Viet Nam, My jumps at the change to make a better life for herself and her family by accepting a trip to California.  Khai's mom has been looking for a wife for him.  He is autistic so has a hard time making personal connections.  Predictably, he is at first against the match but then falls for her.  There aren't any surprises here but interesting by featuring a romantic story involving an autistic character and a hard working immigrant.

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Digital minimalism

Digital minimalism: choosing a focused life in a noisy world / Cal Newport, 294 pgs.

Can you live without social media?  Can you live without your phone?  SHOULD you live without either?  Cal Newport makes the case that moderation is the key here and that social media addiction makes you feel less connected.  He thinks you should try a media "diet." Don't get rid of your phone, get rid of the apps.  He makes a case for cultivating other hobbies and spending time alone, reflecting and thinking.  Common sense advice to improve your life.

Dog Tags

Dog Tags by David Rosenfelt (2010) 360 pages

Andy Carpenter is an independently wealthy defense attorney who takes only the cases that really interest him. If a dog is connected to the case, he is interested. In this case, Billy Zimmerman, an army veteran who lost his leg in Iraq, returned to the US after his injury, only to find that his police job wasn't waiting for him anymore. He was able to keep Milo, the beloved police dog he'd worked with, now that Milo was considered too old for police work. Billy trained Milo to work a few thefts with him to survive. But when Billy found his former Army commander acting suspiciously and chose to send Milo after him to get an envelope out of his hands, the Army commander was shot by someone else and Milo took off with the envelope. Billy waited with the dead man, only to be arrested for his murder.

Andy Carpenter first took the case to protect the dog, and later Billy. What looks like a revenge murder (Billy supposedly killing his commander because he thought the commander cost him his leg in Iraq) turns into an international intrigue with several murders and something big on the horizon that must be stopped, if only Andy's team (and the FBI) could figure out what it is.

I've found Andy Carpenter mysteries to be fast-paced reads; some chapters with Andy's first person accounts and others with a third person description of other events to add background and suspense.


Wednesday, September 4, 2019

The Lager Queen of Minnesota

The Lager Queen of Minnesota / J. Ryan Stradal, 353 p.

A worthy second novel from the author of the much-loved Kitchens of the Great Midwest.  Sisters Edith and Helen Calder grow up in 1950s small-town Minnesota.  Their lives diverge sharply when their father dies and leaves the farm to only one of his daughters.  While one struggles to make ends meet baking fantastic pies for a nursing home, the other establishes a successful brewery.  Of course, the fates won't allow the two to remain estranged forever.  Much of the novel's plot feels contrived but that's more than offset by the strong and likable characters.  The in-depth knowledge of brewing techniques on display is surprisingly interesting and the conclusion satisfying.

The Dearly Beloved

The Dearly Beloved: a Novel / Cara Wall, 342 pp.

Two couples, Lily and Charles and Nan and James, live and raise their families as part of New York's Third Presbyterian Church, where Charles and James are co-pastors in the 60s.  Their relationships to one another and to their faith or its absence form the novel, a quiet, thoughtful and realistic story.  Carefully drawn characters and a well-paced plot make for an absorbing read, recommended for fans of Kent Haruf and Marilynne Robinson.

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

August totals!

Christa  19/5671
Jan  7/2115
Josh  5/1266
Kara  13/4715
Karen  5/2333
Kathleen  5/1967

Total: 54/18,067

And that's a wrap on another book blogging year! Stay tuned to find out how we did, and to find out the new wild card categories! Thank you bloggers!

To Say Nothing of the Dog

To Say Nothing of the Dog or How We Found the Bishop's Bird Stump At Last by Connie Willis  434 pp.

As I listened to the audiobook version of this book I couldn't help thinking this was a lighter version of Neal Stephensen's The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. crossed with a Jeeves & Wooster story.  In 2057 time travel has been mostly perfected for research purposes. However, it has been commandeered by Mrs. Schrapnell to help with her pet project of reconstructing Coventry Cathedral which was destroyed by Nazi bombs in World War II. The main character, Ned Henry, is suffering mental confusion from time-lag due to making too many time jumps. He is sent to Victorian era England to correct an error which could cause a change of history and ends up causing a romantic entanglement which could impact history further. Meanwhile the search for the elusive "Bishop's Bird Stump", a hideous Victorian vase, goes on since Mrs. Shrapnell demands it be found in time for the dedication of the new cathedral that went missing at the time of the bombing. The convoluted story is perfect for fans of science fiction, P.G. Wodehouse, and British mysteries of Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, and other authors of the first half of the 20th century.

The 13 Clocks

The 13 Clocks by James Thurber  124 pp.

Neil Gaiman mentioned this book as a favorite from childhood in his book The View from the Cheap Seats.  I remembered reading it as a child (I went through a "Thurber phase") but could not recall anything about the story. It's the story of an wicked duke and his niece, the Princess Saralinda. The duke is so cold that the thirteen clocks in his castle have stopped. Any potential suitors for the princess are given impossible tasks to complete before they can marry the princess. A new suitor appears disguised as a minstrel and, with the help of a mysterious person/creature called the Golux, finally outsmarts the duke and the clocks ran again. What sets this book apart from similar fairy tales is Thurber's writing style.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Turbulence

Turbulence / David Szalay, read by Gabra Zackman, 145 pgs.

Twelve short vignettes that tell a story of a person who has traveled for a variety of reasons.  They interact with each other, mostly tangentially so the thread that connects them is thin.  The characters circle the globe while we briefly circle their situations.  I thought this was brilliant and Gabra Zackman perfectly embodies everyone featured here.

Revenge of a middle aged woman

Revenge of the middle aged woman / Elizabeth Buchan, 341 pgs.

Rose Lloyd gets a double whammy.  Her happy marriage of 25 years turns south and her husband leaves with his much younger lover. Said lover is also Rose's assistant who replaces her when she gets sacked from her job.  Now husband-less and job-less, Rose needs to re-invent herself.  In the end, less reinvention than just living well.  Sure, we have heard over and over how this is the best revenge but I was hoping for something a little more petty. 

The body in question

The body in question / Jill Ciment, read by Hillary Huber, 173 pgs.

A jury is picked for a murder trial.  It is fairly grisly and they are sequestered.  Jurors C2 and F17 start an affair but try to keep it secret.  Does this make them less effective as jurors?  C2 is a photographer and has doubts about the accused.  F17 is a doctor who seems convinced.  The rest of the group is a rag-tag bunch not detailed enough in the story.  The relationship between C2 and F17 then C2 and her husband is a bigger story than the trail itself.  A satisfying thriller.  Hillary Huber is the perfect narrator here.  At times detached and emotionless but able to play each part to perfection.

Moby Dick

Moby Dick / Herman Melville, 654 pgs.

I hate to publish spoilers in my posts there but I don't mind telling you all that Moby Dick is a whale!  Probably not a huge surprise to most of you.  What I did find surprising was the tale of obsession, loyalty and doubt.  Our summer reading selection was one of my favorites.  The detailed descriptions of ship life and whaling were fascinating but most of all I love the idea that when something that is hunted fights back, it can be seen as evil. 

Truffle underground

The truffle underground: a tale of mystery, mayhem and manipulation in the shadowy market of the worlds most expensive fungus / Ryan Jacobs, read by Ari Fliakos, 289 pgs.

Investigative reporter Jacobs digs into the full story surrounding truffles, one of the delicacies that take center stage in high end restaurants.  Truffles are a fungus that is demand...so much so there is a fair amount of criminal activity surrounding the trade. Also a lot of fakery and deception.  I found this book so fascinating I could not turn it off and finished it in only 2 days.  Expertly narrated by Ari Fliakos.

Carry On

Carry On by Rainbow Rowell, 522 pages

Did you ever read Harry Potter and think, "Wow, Harry's such a boring 'chosen one.' It'd be so much better if someone actually acknowledge that, as well as the way that Dumbledore seems to just use him for his 'chosen one-ness,' letting him take care of the bad guys instead of better trained adults! Oh, and this whole series would be better if someone acknowledged that there's gotta be something deeper to the mutual obsession between Harry and Draco Malfoy." If so, Rainbow Rowell has answered your call.

In Carry On, "chosen one" Simon Snow is a not-so-great hero, who only survives multiple clashes with dark beings by relying on his much smarter and more talented best friend Penelope Bunce. Snow's roommate is the snobbish, old-magic, old-money Baz Pitch-Grimm, who has sworn to destroy Snow and everything he stands for — complicated only a *little* bit by the fact that Baz is head-over-heels in love with Simon.

This is fun, funny, and refreshing, and I can't believe it's taken me almost five years to read this fantastic book. The sequel, Wayward Son, comes out this fall, and yes, I do have it on request for myself. These books are fantastic.

This Perfect Day

This Perfect Day by Ira Levin (1970) 317 pages

Chip (real name: Li RM35M4419) lives in a world where the people are fed, housed, assigned occupations, and given periodic injections to keep them docile. They also must touch scanners that keep track of their location. Their deaths will come at age 62, no matter how good their health.

Chip's grandfather gave his family members nicknames, which isn't normal in a world where there are only 4 or 5 names used for each gender.  Even more unusual, his grandfather–in spite of having worked on UniComp, the computer system that keeps everything humming along–seems to dislike UniComp, although he doesn't actually say so with words. Likely because of his grandfather's influence, Chip wonders what kind of assignment he would choose, if he could choose. When he voices his thoughts about this, he's considered ill and sent for an extra treatment. As Chip grows older, one of his goals is to find other people who think like him, but to do so in a way to avoid notice and thus extra treatments.

This is the first dystopian novel I ever read, quite a while back. I hadn't realized until recently that Ira Levin is also the author of Rosemary's BabyThe Stepford WivesThe Boys From Brazil and many more.



Friday, August 30, 2019

Moby Dick

Moby Dick: Or, The Whale by Herman Melville  654 pp.

Is a description of the obsessive Captain Ahab's relentless search for the malevolent white whale that took his leg? I originally read this book for high school English class. I wasn't impressed then. I can't say I'm much more impressed with it now. However, I do enjoy attending the Big Book discussions every summer. Participating in the discussions somewhat increased my opinion of Melville's famous tale. And there were many parts of the book that I just didn't remember from reading it as a 16 year old. I can't help thinking Mrs. Maupin would be proud of me for reading it again.

The Raven Boys

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater   409 pp.

Blue, the daughter of a psychic, has no psychic powers of her own. However, she does have the ability to increase the powers of others just by being near them. She also knows that if ever she kisses her true love, it will cause his death. She is pretty sure this means Gansy, a student at nearby Aglionby, a private school for wealthy boys, whose students are known locally as the "Raven Boys."
Gansy and fellow student, Adam, are searching for a way to access a local ley line which will lead them to Glendower, an ancient Welsh king. In addition to the search there is the discovery of a murder, a student who isn't really alive, an abusive parent, and multiple conflicts between the haves and have nots in the small town of Henrietta, Virginia. This is the first book in a trilogy. It didn't impress me enough to make me want to continue with the other books.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

A Bend in the Stars

A Bend in the Stars by Rachel Barenbaum, 456 pages

Miriam is the first female surgeon at her hospital in Kovno, a position made possible by her innate skill for medicine paired with intense tutoring (and some personal sacrifice) from her fiance, Yuri. Her brother, Vanya, is one of the great mathematical thinkers of the time, puzzling out relativity at the same time as Einstein. Despite their sizeable talents, the siblings are convinced that the best choice for them is immigrate out of Russia to the United States, something that is becoming increasingly difficult for Russian Jews on the eve of World War I. Vanya is convinced that if he is able to photograph the upcoming solar eclipse — which will illustrate his not-yet-complete equation perfectly — he'll be able to secure passage to the U.S. for his sister and their grandmother, as well as himself. But when all able-bodied Jewish men are conscripted to the Army before he can complete this task, Vanya's plan goes sideways and the family is suddenly on the run in search of safety and science.

I read this book on the recommendation of a long-time patron, and I'm glad I did. Barenbaum's debut novel beautifully weaves together stories of physics and impending war, religious persecution and love, medicine and betrayal. I'd recommend it for fans of All the Light We Cannot See.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Exit Strategy

Exit Strategy, Martha Wells, 172 pages

Martha Wells' Exit Strategy is the final installment in the Murderbot series. It nicely wraps up all the loose ends and plot lines of the series in a very tidy way. Murderbot's ongoing struggle with its emerging human emotions and difficulty in parsing out human interactions still resonate with me. The entire series has had wonderful quips from Murderbot, and this novella is no exception. There were plenty of times Murderbot made me smirk as I was reading, often at its characterization of an incident.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Jade City

Jade City, Fonda Lee, 495 pages

Fonda Lee's Jade City is a pleasant blend of Godfather and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Family intrigue and clan conflicts are set in a world where a magical jade provides high energy kung fu action. The various character plot lines are well thought out, and the way they interweave is well written. This is the first in a series, and the second book was just published recently. I'm looking forward to starting that book shortly.

The spies of Shilling Lane

The spies of Shilling Lane / Jennifer Ryan, read by Entwistle, Jayne  355 pgs.

Scorned after her divorce, village Queen bee Mrs. Braithwaite visits London to reconnect with her adult daughter Betty.  She and Betty have not been close lately but Mrs. Braithwaite has a secret to tell her before the village gossip gets to it.  Arriving in London, she finds Betty is missing.  Her landlord and the other girls who rent on Shilling Lane have not seen her for days.  Mrs. Braithwaite takes matters into her own hands and starts investigating.  What she finds is a thrilling story that makes her re-evaluate her life and attitudes.  This book is perfectly narrated by Jayne Entwistle.  Very entertaining.

Reasons to be cheerful

Reasons to be cheerful / Nina Stibbe, 279 pgs.

Lizzy is 18 now and finds a job as a dental assistant to JP, a subtly racist dentist who promoted the last assistant to future wife.  Sharp and observant, Lizzy figures out how to do many procedures herself.  She begins a relationship with Andy, the guy who makes and delivers dental appliances to the practice.  In the way that this summary tells nothing important about the book, the inner thoughts of Lizzy and her foray into adulthood in the 1980's make this perfectly relateable.  The real reason to be cheerful here is another great book by Stibbe whom I wish could churn them out a little faster.

The woman in the dunes

The woman in the dunes / Kobo Abe translated by E. Dale Saunders, 239 pgs.

A school teacher and amateur entomologist misses a bus and if forced to seek shelter in an odd sea-side town.  He lodges with a widow who lives at the bottom of a vast sand pit.  When he tries to leave the next day, it becomes apparent that the townspeople have other plans.  He is held captive in the pit with the woman who shovels away at the endlessly sifting sand.  He plots his escape but finds himself in a relationship and with a new understanding of the meaning of life.  Eerie and odd, I'm tempted to watch the movie of the same name to get a better feel for the endless shoveling.

Saturday, August 24, 2019

The Marriage Clock

The Marriage Clock by Zara Raheem (2019) 342 pages

Leila Abid is an only child, age 26, still living with her parents as she works as an English teacher. Her parents' long marriage was arranged in India, before their move to the U.S. Their love for each other has them making the case that since Leila hasn't yet found a husband, she should agree to an arranged marriage herself. As the parental pressure ramps up, Leila agrees that if she doesn't find a husband in three months, she will let her parents choose a husband for her. Much of the story follows the various dates she has, including some that her mother insists on arranging for her, and how unsuitable Leila finds them. Some heart-to-heart talks with friends attempt to hone in on qualities that Leila finds important in a potential mate.

I found Leila to be headstrong and opinionated (much like her mother) and hard to sympathize with, especially when she sets herself up for a task that is already difficult, even without such a hard time constraint. However the novel was a fast read and kept my attention while I waited to see whether Leila would indeed find a spouse within three months.

Biloxi: a Novel

Biloxi: a Novel / Mary Miller, 255 p.

Louis McDonald, Jr. is 63 and at loose ends in his Biloxi home.  Retired and lonely since his wife Ellen left him, he impulsively brings home a stray dog, names her Layla, and, little by little, feels a change in himself and the world.  Not at all a sentimental dog story thanks to Louis' flawed personality and Miller's plain-spoken style, this was a realistic, funny, small story about incremental change.  I recommend it.

A Man Called Ove

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (2012) 337 pages

Get into the mind of a grumpy Swedish man named Ove. He's 59, widowed six months ago, and just was laid off at work to make room for the next generation. Patroling his neighborhood, looking for people who disobey the parking (and other) rules, is no longer going to occupy him enough now that everything else he once did has ended. However, a young family moves in nearby, breaking the rules for bringing a trailer into an area where it shouldn't be, which causes Ove to crab at them, which in turn starts a relationship that the old man can't really extricate himself from. This starts a mass of changes in the way he relates to the rest of the people he interacts with. Interesting writing style which really flows.

Thursday, August 22, 2019

One for Sorrow

One for Sorrow by Mary Downing Hahn, 293 pages

It's 1918 and Annie Browne is the new girl at her school when Elsie Schneider decides to be her friend. Trouble is, Elsie is the "weird kid" that nobody else likes, and after an afternoon playing with her, Annie can see why: Elsie is rude, possessive, and mean. Annie is determined to drop her as a friend, and succeeds — until Elsie dies from the Spanish flu and becomes a possessive ghost determined to be Annie's only friends forever.

I read this on the recommendation of my 10-year-old son, who's on a bit of a horror kick. This was a good spooky tale, with plenty of creepy scenes and an ending that was very satisfying. I probably won't be reading more of Hahn's books (I'm far from her target demographic), but I'll happily watch my son devour them.

My Squirrel Days

My Squirrel Days by Ellie Kemper, 240 pages

In this short and funny memoir, The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt actress Ellie Kemper offers up stories from her childhood growing up in Ladue; her post-collegiate years doing improv; and her eventual break in Hollywood as "the 18th most popular character on The Office." Her stories are hilarious, awkward, and fun, as is her narration of the book on audio (which I highly recommend). This is an energetic, cheerful, and effervescent memoir that is a perfect break from the world at large. I loved it.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

This Is How You Lose the Time War

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone, 198 pages

Red and Blue are agents fighting on opposite sides of a never-ending war that spans all of time and the multiverse. They're equally cunning, and when Blue leaves a letter for Red at a site that they've both touched, she means it as a good-natured prod at a talented adversary. But as this letter turns into dozens sent between the two agents, their mutual respect turns to friendship and eventually love, despite the danger of being found out by their superiors.

This epistolary novel is under 200 pages, but demands a slower pace to savor the poetic writing of the authors and the creative delivery of the letters. It's a lovely book, and one that begs to be read aloud — I wouldn't be at all surprised to learn of a stage adaptation. Well worth the read.