Monday, November 11, 2019

Eyes to the wind

Eyes to the wind: a memoir of love and death, hope and resistance / Ady Barkan, read by Bradley Whitford, 281 pages

I picked this up not realizing that Ady Barkan is a well known political activist and social justice warrior.  Diagnosed with ALS at age 32, this is also a memoir of dealing with the physical issues related to the disease that is incurable.  Not wanting to give up on the work he was doing, he expanded his scope to include healthcare initiatives and the importance of continuing many of the provisions of Obamacare.  I enjoyed hearing about Fed-up, a campaign to reform the Federal Reserve.  Bradley Whitford narrates and does a good job.  Recommended to anyone interested in political resistance or even just finding meaning in life.

Saturday, November 9, 2019

The Brutal Telling

The Brutal Telling by Louise Penny (2009) 372 pages

A hermit living in a simple log cabin in the Canadian woods near the village of Three Pines is visited regularly by Olivier Brulé, who runs the local bistro. When the hermit ends up dead, found in Olivier's bistro, no one else knows who he was, and Olivier doesn't tell anyone that he knew the man. This is just the start of the lies and secrets that Chief Inspector Gamache and his team need to work through to solve this murder. They learn that the man hadn't been killed in the bistro. When they finally find the crime scene, they discover that the hermit had been using priceless crystal and china for his meals, he played a valuable violin, he read books that were valuable first editions, and he'd stuffed money in the cracks between the logs to keep out drafts. Where did he get his money and treasures? Some intriguing carvings depicting people on a journey, made by the hermit, tell parts of a story that sends Gamache on a journey to the Queen Charlotte Islands in British Columbia to learn more about totem poles and cabin-building.

There is much acrimony between Olivier and a married couple who have moved to Three Pines to open a hotel/spa. Chief Inspector Gamache delves into whether their ill-will somehow factors into the murder.

As always in the village of Three Pines, there are additional storylines that add fullness to Penny's work, including ones with Clara, a middle-aged artist ready for her break-out moment and crotchety old Ruth, a renowned poet with a horrible attitude. The Brutal Telling is the 5th book in this series.


Bad Unicorn

Bad Unicorn, Platte F. Clark, 423 pages

Bad Unicorn, written by Platte F. Clark, is an uproarious good time. It follows Max Spencer and his friends as they are flung forward in time by a magical book that only Max can read, a future in which robots rule the world, and a carnivorous unicorn named Princess the Destroyer is hunting them down. It has a dual plot line set up, with chapter alternating between Max's story and Princess's rise to power and hunt for Max. It's hilarious, full of warped fantasy tropes and clever word play. Max is also really easy to root for, as he's a lovable, awkward kid who really is unsure of what he is supposed to be doing, but keeps trying his hardest to keep everyone safe and alive. This is also the first in a completed series, and would be a definite interest to those young readers that are pushing the skill level between juvenile chapter books and young adult.

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Bookwoman of Troublesome Creek

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek by Kim Michele Richardson  308 pp.

During the Great Depression the Kentucky Pack Horse Library Project was created to bring books to the poor mountain people of the state. In this novel Cussy Mary Carter is one of a group of women who rode from shack to shack delivering books, magazines, newspapers, and human contact. Cussy is also one of the "Blue People" of Kentucky, suffering from the recessive gene disorder methemoglobinemia. Because of their skin color the "Blues" were discriminated against and viewed with suspicion the same as the African-Americans in the region. Cussy and her father live a life of poverty even though he works hard as a coal miner. Cussy is proud of her work and does her best for the people she serves often going above and beyond her duties by bringing food to the starving, medical aid to the ill, and providing companionship to the lonely in spite of her personal hardships. It's a nice story of some little known topics with a little romance on the side. Incidentally the area around Troublesome Creek is where many of the real "Blue People" lived.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

What if this were enough?

What if this were enough?: essays / Heather Havrilesky, 228 pgs.

At first I could not discern the link.  How does this collection relate?  Then I went back to the title and realized how it says it all.  Topics range from relationships to pop culture to family life.  Sometimes it is a matter of perspective.  Do we really need to spend a lot of our time every day being told that we need to change, improve, buy better stuff?  Sometimes we need to look around and at ourselves and be happy with what we see.  The author is an advice columnist so is well acquainted with human struggles.  I'm sure some of her comparisons and comments went over my head but lots of it strikes me as very wise. Interesting and relevant.

Nothing to See Here

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson, 254 pages

When Lillian was a teenager, she received a scholarship to attend a boarding school. There she quickly became best friends with Madison, her beautiful, talented, and equally weird roommate. But then Madison got caught with drugs, and Madison's rich dad paid off Lillian to take the fall and get expelled instead. Somehow, the two girls managed to stay friends, writing letter to one another over the next 20 years as Madison became the third wife of a senator and Lillian lived with her mom and worked one short-term job after another. But then Madison asked Lillian to come be the governess for her step-children, a task made all the more challenging by the fact that the two kids burst into flames whenever they get riled up. But Lillian goes.

This is a fantastic story of friendship, of self-doubt, and of found family. And it's funny as hell. Highly recommended.

Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big

Edwurd Fudwupper Fibbed Big by Berkeley Breathed (2000) 39 pages

This is the final of the three picture books I read by a favorite cartoonist. When Edwurd Fudwupper lies about an item he broke, he blames it on aliens. A nosey neighbor hears his claims and spreads the rumor until an alien finally shows up to find out who started the lie. Edwurd's sister Fannie tries to save him, even though he never really appreciated her. The pictures are so cartoonishly funny.

Mars Needs Moms!

Mars Needs Moms! by Berkeley Breathed (2007) 44 pages


Another picture book by one of my favorite cartoonists. Milo is a boy who doesn't appreciate his mother. When she sends him to bed without his supper for dyeing his sister fuchsia, as well as for sassing off at her, he's wakes up in the night and sees his mother being kidnapped by Martians. He follows along to see why the Martians would need her. The pictures are filled with charming details.

Pete & Pickles

Pete & Pickles by Berkeley Breathed (2008) 48 pages


Somehow I had missed the fact that a favorite cartoonist, Berkeley Breathed of Bloom County fame, had also created picture books for children. Pictures with exquisite details depict Pete, a pig with a very routine life and Pickles, a circus elephant who escapes the sad conditions of her confinement by hiding out at Pete's home. Pickles is quickly recaptured, but Pete finds her. The sweet story includes hints that Pete is still grieving the loss of his spouse, Paprika, but a crisis shows him how much he has come to love Pickles.


Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Olive, Again

Olive, Again: a Novel / Elizabeth Strout, 289 p.

She's back!  Olive is, of course, Olive Kitteridge, the main character (and title) of Strout's Pulitzer-winning book.  Strout is also the author of the wonderful My Name Is Lucy Barton and Anything Is Possible.

Structured similarly to the earlier work, this latest is a collection of loosely interlinked stories set in coastal Crosby, Maine.  While Olive is frequently only peripheral to a story, her narrative is advanced throughout the course of the book, from her widowhood from Henry, her first husband, to - well, you'll have to read it to see where life takes Olive.

I think of Strout as the master of that weird spot in human life that might be called the fulcrum: that place where we wobble and balance between loving and hating, between wisdom and foolishness, between disappointment and hope.  The stories are immediately absorbing, and realistically depict characters from across the class spectrum.  I love her writing, and while Olive, Again is not quite as strong as her earlier novel, it's still a great pleasure.

A Woman of No Importance

A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell, 352 pages

In the years before World War II, American Virginia Hall rejected the traditional housewife role her parents wanted for her and decided that she wanted to work abroad for U.S. intelligence community. She applied for, and was subsequently rejected for, every job that wasn't secretarial, eventually taking one of those secretary positions just so she could make it to Europe. Despite the boring work that was given to her, Hall never gave up on her ambitions, and ended up becoming a spy for England's Special Operations Executive in France. During her years in France (which took her through the end of WWII) the misogyny surrounding her was astounding, even as she built networks of informants, evaded the Gestapo, broke several of her colleagues out of prison, planned sabotage missions of German forces, and provided intelligence that helped Allied forces liberate France. Oh, and she did all that with a prosthetic foot that most of her colleagues didn't know about.

If she was alive today, Hall would probably be a bit miffed that Purnell had written this book about her — she wasn't one for glory or accolades, going so far as to never discuss her role in the war with relatives or even colleagues. But thank goodness this book was written! It's wonderful that this amazing woman's story has come to light. She's inspiring, her story is jaw-dropping, and her impact on the intelligence community continues on to this day. This is a fantastic story told in a fantastic book.

Beautiful on the outside

Beautiful on the outside / Adam Rippon, read by the author, 246 pgs.

America's sweetheart delivers!  Funny, heart warming, honest, and sassy. Olympic medals could be in your future too.  Adam gives up the details on how to be a successful athlete.  It boils down to having talent, working your ass off and banishing your mental demons. See how easy?  Along the way, it helps to have support from your family and friends and a sense of humor to help you cope.  Rippon was the first out gay athlete to compete in a Winter Olympics for the U.S. thus also the first to win a medal.  He has overcome some obstacles but his story is mostly a testament to hard work. Fun listening to hear about everything in his own voice.

Monday, November 4, 2019

The Windup Girl

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi, 359 pages

Bangkok of the future is terrifying — climate change has made the tropical climate more extreme; bioterrorism has decimated the population with plagues; foreign GMO agriculture companies dangle plague-resistant crops as bait for bribes; fossil fuels are all but gone and what energy resources remain are tightly controlled; and the ministries of Trade and Environment have created warring (and corrupt) factions within government, destabilizing an already precarious situation. This novel simultaneously follows:
  • one of those foreign GMO guys as he attempts to track down Thailand's seedbank while keeping up appearances of running a spring factory;
  • the refugee manager of that spring factory, who is always keeping an eye out for himself first;
  • the titular windup girl, a New Person genetically inclined to please her human master, whether she wants to or not; and
  • a pair of Environment Ministry officers, one of whom is something of a state-sponsored environmental terrorist against the Trade Ministry.
Is it hard to keep all of this straight? Yup. Are any of the characters particularly likeable? Not really. Is the payoff worth it? Eh, still up in the air about that. The last 80-100 pages of this book are really compelling, and focus on a few characters that are barely mentioned in the first 250 pages. The unevenness of this book drives me nuts and makes me wonder how this tied for the 2010 Hugo for Best Novel. It was OK, at best.

Will my cat eat my eyeballs?

Will my cat eat my eyeballs?: big questions from tiny mortals about death / Caitlin Doughty, 222 pgs.

Funeral director Doughty compiled questions from kids relating to death and the immediate after.  Here she answers them with facts and humor.  Kids ask the funniest things...but we are all thinking them.  In the titular essay, your cat may well eat your eyeballs but will probably start with softer skin first.  So goodbye lips!

Lots of fun to read even though you might get squeamish a few times.

Testimony

Testimony: A Memoir by Robbie Robertson  500 pp.

I am a big fan of guitarist/songwriter Robbie Robertson and this book opened my eyes to his amazing talent and life. Jaime Royal "Robbie" Klegerman Robertson grew up in Toronto. His mother was Cayuga and Mohawk and his father was a Jewish gambler by the name of Klegerman who was killed in an auto accident. He grew up using his stepfather's last name, Robertson. After playing in local bands he left Toronto at sixteen and headed south to be a musician. He ended up with Rockabilly legend, Ronnie Hawkins band The Hawks where he met drummer Levon Helm who would become a lifelong friend. The Hawks split from Hawkins and became the legendary group The Band who toured with Bob Dylan during the controversial 1966 tour and played with a wide range of amazing musicians. The book follows the development of The Band from their residency at Big Pink, the house/studio in Woodstock, N.Y. (and the base for the album titled "Music from Big Pink") to their relocation in Malibu, California. I did not realize how many well known songs recorded by big name performers were written by Robertson. Sadly the book ends after the "The Last Waltz", The Band's swansong album and film with only brief mentions of some of his work with other performers. It does not extend into his work on several film scores and the development of his Native American group The Red Road Ensemble and his albums focusing on his Native American ancestry among other recordings and performances. The book starts out slow but picks up speed once The Band is established. 

A Year in Provence

A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle  220 pp.

My first exposure to A Year in Provence was as a television series starring John Thaw (Inspector Morse). The saga of the Mayles first year living in Provence is chronicled in a chapter a month. They find themselves investing in many renovations to their 200 year old house while dealing with bewildering and amusing episodes of cultural differences with their neighbors. Their solution to get all the contractors to finish their work before Christmas is unique and amusing. In spite of the difficulties, they learn to love their new home and find much enjoyment in the food, wine, and characters who befriend them.

The Royal Art of Poison

The Royal Art of Poison: Filthy Palaces, Fatal Cosmetics, Deadly Medicine, and Murder Most Foul by Eleanor Herman  304 pp.

Royalty throughout the world feared assassination by poison. They employed servants to taste their food, check their clothing and bedding, and even their chamber pots. While many did succumb to poisoning by their enemies, many were poisoned by elements of their daily lives. Toxins and filth in in their homes were prevalent, including excrement in the hallways and corners. The medical profession was more likely to cause harm than good with their potentially deadly concoctions. Even commonly used cosmetics and beauty regimens could have deadly effects. Mercury, Arsenic, Lead, and other toxins were rubbed on skin and taken internally. The last section of the book chronicles actual poisonings of prominent persons and how they suffered and died. In spite of the grim topic this book is alternately cringeworthy and amusing while being informative.

Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Dutch House

The Dutch House: a Novel / Ann Patchett, 337 p.

Siblings Maeve and Danny spend early childhood in The Dutch House, a spectacular Philadelphia mansion.  They live there with their distant father and two loving servants after their mother disappears.  Maeve becomes a surrogate mother to Danny in their mother's absence, and life is good until their Dad surprises them with stepmother Andrea, a cartoon-like evil figure straight out of the Brothers Grimm. 

As they move into adulthood, Maeve and Danny remain extremely close to one another, and unable to leave the bitterness of their childhoods behind.  When their mother surfaces many years later, their equilibrium is tested. 

I loved aspects of this novel; Patchett's writing is always a pleasure, and Maeve and Danny's relationship is beautifully rendered.  Other elements were unsatisfying, though: the stereotypical Andrea was hard to believe, and the saintly (and complicated) mother Elna never came into focus.  Ultimately, while the surface plot of the novel seems to say that materialism is empty, the characters' lives revolve around material achievement in a way that gives the reading an incoherent feel.

The Sentence is Death

The Sentence is Death by Anthony Horowitz (2019) 373 pages

Another "meta" kind of murder mystery by Horowitz, in which he places his real self, the man who has many screenwriting credits and has written scads of youth novels and a handful of novels geared to adults. The beginning is a continuation of his book The Word is Murder, but there's no need to have read that book to enjoy this one. In this story, he continues his association with Daniel Hawthorne, an ex-cop who works with the police department when there are particularly tough murder cases to solve. A wealthy divorce attorney, Richard Pryce, has been murdered after being threatened by Akira Anno, the spouse of someone he was representing. But there are several other candidates for suspicion, including his client, Adrian Lockwood and Pryce's own spouse Stephen. Pryce was also a party to a caving accident in which a college friend died many years ago, which puts another line of investigation into the spotlight.

Hawthorne wants Horowitz to merely write about the case and not to interject his own questions when a witness is interrogated. Horowitz can't help but throw in a few questions, and sometimes his questions give info to the witnesses that cause problems down the road. Horowitz has his flaws, which are both annoying and endearing. Hawthorne remains somewhat of an enigma.
.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Advice for future corpses

Advice for future corpses (and those who love them): a practical perspective on death and dying / Sallie Tisdale, 240 pgs.

The title tells it all.  I have no spoilers here except to tell you what a deeply careful and practical book this is.  The audience is everyone and the content is helpful and clear eyed.  The author's insights and advice are good for avoiding saying the really dumb thing to a person who is mourning all the way to those who need to plan for their eventual end.  Experience has taught her much but there is still room for not knowing things too.  Many of us end up typical in the end.  If you want a preview read this book.  If you are dealing with a loved one, read this book.  If you need to develop your own end of life plans, read this book.  I think you get the idea.

Call your daughter home

Call your daughter home / Deb Spera, read by Robin Miles, Adenrele Ojo, and Brittany Pressley 347 pgs.

A trio of Southern women in the years leading up to the great depression.  They are known to each other but not exactly friends.  Rhetta works for Annie who hires Gertrude.  All are dealing with difficult circumstances with dramatic stories to be revealed.  In the end their relationships matter.  At times difficult to listen to, you can't help but admire the backbone of each of these characters.  The narration is expertly done.

High Achiever

High Achiever: the incredible true story of one addict's double life / Tiffany Jenkins, read by the author 369 pgs.

Falling deeper into addiction while outwardly living a happy life with her boyfriend who was a deputy sheriff, the need for drugs put the author on the path of stealing and turning tricks for her next hit.  Employed as a manager in a restaurant, everything comes crashing down one day when the cops who she personally knew, came to her house and put her in cuffs. Accustomed to talking her way out of any situation, it took awhile before she realized this was serious.  Time in jail was difficult, if not only for the detox.  Jenkins had now dropped from head cheerleader to inmate.  She went through many tough times that are not sugar coated in this book but mostly reveals her story with humor and candor.  Read by the author, the audio version is well worth your time.

Friday, November 1, 2019

October totals!

Christa  15/4419

Jan  5/1565
Kara  10/3367
Karen  14/4268
Kathleen  6/2746

Total: 50/16,365

And Kathleen gets a gold star because ALL of her books hit a wild card!

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Think Like a Freak

Think Like a Freak: the Authors of Freakonomics Offer to Retrain Your Brain / Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, read by Steven Dubner, 268 p.

More great anecdotes and thought-provoking observations in the vein of the earlier works.  The title oversells things a bit; no, my brain was not retrained.  But I enjoyed listening and definitely found some things to think about.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Armageddon in Retrospect

Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut  234 pp.

This collection of previously unpublished works was released in 2008, one year after the author's death. The introduction is by his son, Mark and the text of a speech Vonnegut was scheduled to make at Butler University which Mark gave in his place - Vonnegut died a couple weeks before. The remainder of the book is anecdotes and short stories about war, based on Vonnegut's World War II experiences. Much of the writing is grim laced with Vonnegut's quirky humor. As a long term (40+ years) Vonnegut fan, I think this is a marvelous book. I listened to the audiobook which was a less than stellar narration by actor Rip Torn.

Stoner

Stoner / John Williams, 278 p.

William Stoner was raised by hardworking farmers in rural Missouri at the turn of the nineteenth century.  He makes his way to the University at Columbia (not, apparently, called Mizzou at the time) and has an epiphany of sorts about literature and learning.  Effectively, he falls in love, and it's that love that keeps him in Columbia, studying and then teaching, for the rest of his life.  Other relationships, to his wife, daughter, lover, and friends could almost be called unconsummated.  The novel questions where the fault for this lies, and whether it matters.  A beautiful, simple text that asks the deepest possible questions.

Monday, October 28, 2019

The Chain

The Chain / Adrian McKinty, read by January LaVoy 357 pgs.

In this excellent thriller, cancer survivor Rachel gets a call saying her daughter has been kidnapped. Pay the hefty ransom quickly or you will never see her again.  But the money is only the start.  The second step is to kidnap ANOTHER child and serve as a conduit to those parents and "the chain" a shadowy group of victims just like you.  It is really a lot to have on your plate.  In addition, Rachel's last test results have her doctor worried about a recurrence of her cancer.  Can she meet all the demand made on her by "the chain?"' The more she learns, the more she realizes you can never escape.  She gets her daughter back but the demands continue.  How can she extricate herself for good?  An exciting story that, at times, will have you on the end of your seat.  Januay LaVoy is the perfect narrator.  If you enjoy audio books, this one is riveting.

The girl who could move sh*t with her mind

The girl who could move sh*t with her mind / Jackson Ford 482 pgs.

Teagan Frost is part of a secret government team fighting crime and other mayhem.  The front is a moving company.  Her co-workers aren't good friends but effective.  Teagan has special powers...she is the titular character and can move things with her mind.  But there are limits, of course. She has to be close to the item, she has no control over "organic" material, etc. etc.  When two guys end up dead with obvious psychokinetic involvement, Teagan becomes a suspect.  Her co-workers rally behind her and try to clear her name.  They are on the run trying to straighten everything out. Is there someone else out there with the "ability?"  This is an exciting read with a little romantic drama mixed in. 

Uniform Justice

Uniform Justice (Commissario Brunetti #12)  by Donna Leon  294 pp.

The more I read this series the more I like it. In this episode Commissario Guido Brunetti is investigating the death of a student at a local Venetian military academy. What appears to be a suicide becomes an obvious cover-up by the school. The young victim's family has been targeted because of his father's political activities and Brunetti is sure there is a connection to his death. While investigating this tragic death of a teenager, Brunetti also ponders his own teenage children's mental health and his family relationships. The juxtaposition of the crime investigations with everyday life in Venice is one of the things that keeps me coming back to this series.  This was a great way to spend a rainy Saturday.

Giovanni's Room

Giovanni's Room by James Baldwin  159 pp.

This book has been on my "to read" list for years. Why I never read it (or any thing else by Baldwin) I can't say. I am sorry I waited so long. Yes, it was a ground-breaking book a the time it was published. But the best thing about it is how beautifully written it is. It is the story of David, a young American living in Paris, who has fallen into a relationship with an Italian bartender named Giovanni while David's girlfriend is on a trip to Spain. The honest and tasteful way Baldwin writes of the characters and their expressions of bisexuality and homosexuality is not prurient. I look forward to reading more of Baldwin's works. 

Friday, October 25, 2019

Superfreakonomics

Superfreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life Insurance / Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner, read by Stephen J. Dubner, 270 p.

I know I told Christa I had had enough of these guys - in their quest to turn problems on their sides and look at them with fresh, data-enhanced eyes, they can be painfully glib about difficult human circumstances.  The desperate lives of Chicago street prostitutes are discussed in an almost jokey manner which feels cruel, regardless of the writers' intent.

And yet I keep listening, because there is much to appreciate in the 'freak' way of looking at complex and polarizing issues such as global warming, which they discuss at length in a way far more nuanced than most journalism I've read on the topic.

Dubner is an excellent reader and while the contents here sometimes annoy, they always entertain.

In Stitches

In Stitches by Anthony Youn, M.D.  271 pp.

Anthony Youn was a nerdy Korean-American teen with a physician father who relentlessly pushed him toward medical school. Youn describes his struggles and angst throughout the process with lighthearted self-deprecation. As a teen he had to undergo major surgery on a jaw deformity. This experience combined with that of a baby whose face was mutilated by an animal led to Youn choosing plastic surgery as his vocation. However, he first had to survive the rigors of medical school, sadistic instructors, his social ineptness, and failures at finding a girlfriend. This book ends at the point where he is selected to do his residency in Grand Rapids, Michigan. A second book, Playing God, follows him through his residency to becoming plastic surgeon in private practice. I may read that one someday.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

The Word Is Murder

The Word Is Murder by Anthony Horowitz (2018) 290 pages

What makes this murder mystery stand out is that the author, Anthony Horowitz, inserts his real self into the story, giving a synopsis of his work, including his Alex Rider series for youths, his work writing for television series, his later books for adults, and more. In The Word Is Murder, Horowitz is contacted by Daniel Hawthorne, a somewhat secretive ex-police detective who now consults with the police on hard-to-solve murder cases.

Diana Cowper, the mother of a famous actor, was murdered the same day she visited a funeral home to plan her own funeral. Complicating the story is the fact that ten years ago, this same woman had hit two children while driving, killing one and greatly injuring the other. Is the old tragedy connected to her murder? Hawthorne brings Horowitz with him to interviews, locales, and a funeral, trying to get the facts so that Horowitz can write about how the murder was solved; they've agreed to split the book profits. After a second murder occurs, Horowitz feels squeamish, noting how different it is to be at a murder scene that he had not created as an author. The relationship between the two men isn't completely cordial, as when Hawthorne laments that none of the other writers he'd contacted were willing to agree to this project. Horowitz quits and gets back on board more than once!

The pages practically turn themselves in this multi-layered, somewhat comedic story.

The Quest for Queen Mary

The Quest for Queen Mary by James Pope-Hennessy & Hugo Vickers  335 pp.

When I got this audiobook for cheap (via Chirp) I thought it was the biography of Queen Mary that was commissioned by the royal family after her death in 1953. That book is just titled Queen Mary. Pope-Hennessy researched the book for three years. He kept extensive notes during his research and those have been compiled into this book. Included are his meetings with members of the royal families of Great Britain, and other European countries, servants, staff members, and political figures. The wide ranging opinions of those interviewed give a broad view of Queen Mary who was labeled stern, caring, intimidating, charming, shy, and everything in between. Occasionally the interviews were confusing because nicknames for some of the royals differed depending on who was speaking. It also wasn't always clear if they were talking about Queen Mary or her mother, Mary Adelaide. It was a pleasant read while home on a sick day. Last year I read and blogged about Matriarch by Anne Edwards another Queen Mary biography. My interest in "good Queen Mary" stems from my father's admiration of her when he disdained the rest of the royal family. Parts of this book would have reinforced Dad's opinion of the rest of the royals because many do not come off well. Incidentally, the Vladimir Tiara Queen Mary is wearing in the cover photo is my favorite of the crown jewels exhibited at the Tower of London.

The Rosie Result

The Rosie Result by Graeme Simsion, 378 pages

In this third book focusing on genetics professor Don Tillman, we find Don, his wife Rosie, and 11-year-old son Hudson all struggling with awkward transitions in their lives. Rosie is attempting to convince her male colleagues that she's more than capable of being a mom and working full-time; Don has landed himself in hot water at work after committing a horrible race-related faux pas; and Hudson's teachers are pressuring Don and Rosie to have their son evaluated for autism. As he has always done, Don attempts to solve all of these problems methodically, with varying results.

After a bit of a dip from the second book in this trilogy, I'm happy to see Simsion return to form. Don's awkward but likeable; Rosie's understanding and strong; and Hudson seems like the kind of kid I'd like my own kid to hang out with. I think this series ended on the right note.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Dracula

Dracula by Bram Stoker  488 pp.

Another appropriate choice for this time of year. I read this many years ago but don't think I ever finished it. The story does bog down about 2/3 of the way through. When I saw the Audible version with Alan Cumming, Tim Curry, Simon Vance, Simon Prebble, Kathryn Kellgren and others I just had to try it. I was not disappointed. The classic story of the sinister vampire, Dracula, his unfortunate victims, and the efforts by their friends and spouses to defeat the monster is brought to life by the talents of the full cast of narrators. Through the use of accents, it is not obvious which actor is speaking because they fully inhabit the characters. The only exception was Alan Cumming whose voice and Scottish accent were easily recognizable, but not out of place in the story.

Mistress of the Ritz

Mistress of the Ritz / Melanie Benjamin, read by Barbara Rosenblat, 372 pgs.

Claude and Blanche are a little bit of an odd couple.  She is an American in Paris to work on her acting career.  He is the manager of a hotel.  He prides himself on his service.  They fall deeply in love and marry.  But when Claude tells Blanche how marriage works in France, she is less than impressed.  Claude ends up managing the Ritz and sometimes managing Blanche is as much work.  Then the Nazi's invade.  By now the couple has fallen into an uneasy truce but communication between them is poor.  Both, independently, start their own resistance efforts.  When Blanche makes a mistake and is arrested, Claude is heartbroken and tries to save her.  The narration is well done making the audio version a pleasure to read.

Monday, October 21, 2019

Off season

Off season / James Sturm, 215 pgs. 215 pgs.

Fairly bleak, this graphic novel features a family falling apart.  Single dad struggling to find consistent work that pays and deal with his 2 kids on his own when he has them.  He is in some shock that he and his wife separated, he is concerned about the outcome of the 2016 election.  A die-hard Bernie supporter, he didn't find the passion for Hillary once Bernie dropped out.  Now everything in his life is a bit gray just like the illustrations in this book.  A little slice of life.


My friend Anna

My friend Anna: the true story of a fake heiress / Rachel DeLoache Williams, read by the author, 288 pgs.

Anna seemed like such a great friend.  Generous, RICH, and "in the know." But sometimes she says she will buy drinks but then doesn't have her purse with her.  Sometimes she does pay.  Then she invites the author on a vacation to Morocco.  But then none of her money is "available" (mysteriously) and the author ends up putting the trip for 4 on her personal card and her work card because the personal card is limited.  Anna will wire funds by the weekend to cover everything. Ooops, through a series of excuses that last a year, Anna never wires funds.  Ooops, seems like Anna is a con artist, not a rich friend after all.  On one hand, not too sympathetic with the author, on the other hand, she did a good job investigating after she figured out that she had been conned.  Maybe a lesson learned? 

Wayward Son

Wayward Son by Rainbow Rowell, 356 pages

This follow-up to Rowell's fantastic Harry Potter-if-they-acknowledged-the-gay-undertones-and-gave-Hermione-her-due novel Carry On finds Simon Snow, his smart best friend Penelope, and his former-enemy-now-boyfriend Baz road-tripping through the American west in pursuit of their friend Agatha, who has suddenly gone off the grid. All three pals are a bit lost, emotionally speaking, and while it's certainly not their intention to find themselves on the road, like many fictional American road trips, that's certainly what happens here. In between fighting off vampires and visiting Carhenge and whatnot, that is. I loved revisiting these characters, and since it ends on a definite cliffhanger, I'm so excited to see what Rowell has in mind for them next.

Our Lady of Pain

Our Lady of Pain by M.C. Beaton writing as Marion Chesney  215 pp.

Lady Rose Summer is the problem daughter of an Edwardian aristocrat. To prevent her parents from sending her to India, Rose arranges to be engaged to a private detective named Harry Cathcart. Against her parents' wishes, she also becomes an employee at his detective agency. Fueled by jealousy at Harry spending so much time with a beautiful client, Rose threatens her in public. The next day she discovers the woman murdered and is accused of the crime. The rest of the story involves trying to keep the press away from Rose while trying to find the killer. Quite frankly Rose and her companion, Daisy, annoyed me with their sheer stupidity. The sappy romance angle and last minute addition of other characters at the end made it seem the author couldn't figure out how to end the book. I enjoyed Beaton's Hamish MacBeth series but this Edwardian Murder Mysteries series is meh.

The War that Saved My Life

The War that Saved My Life by Kimberley Brubaker Bradley  316 pp.

This was a re-read in preparation for the next Treehouse Book Club. My original blog about it is here. It's the story of a girl born with a club foot who lives with an abusive mother who keeps her hidden away. When her little brother is to be sent away because of the threat of London getting bombed by the Nazis, Ada runs (crawls) away with him. They end up in the care of a young woman who is bullied into taking them in but soon comes to love them and makes plans to get Ada's foot surgically repaired only to be thwarted by the children's mother. There is a sequel titled The War I Finally Won but I have yet to read it.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Twelve Dogs of Christmas

The Twelve Dogs of Christmas by David Rosenfelt (2016) 328 pages

Another fast-paced Rosenfelt mystery. In this story, attorney Andy Carpenter is assisting Pups, a crusty old woman, in her zoning fight against the city, to make an allowance for the puppies she helps save and find homes for regularly. Andy is successful in the process, but when the person who filed the complaint against Pups is found dead, she's charged with his murder.

Enough weird evidence comes up that Andy is sure that Pups has been framed. Pups is already close to death from cancer, but insists she wants to clear her name, so Andy's team pores through boxes and boxes of papers, making lists of properties that Pups's dead husband owned and which others had been eager to buy, with no success. They seem to fit into the frame-up. Andy's computer guru hacks into phone records to find additional information to help clear Pups's name. Meanwhile, twelve puppies and their mother, who had been in Pups's care were being taken care of by another of Andy's colleagues, while she's in jail, awaiting trial.

I suspect Andy's somewhat unhumble (although entertaining) personality mirrors that of the author as when Andy encounters his wife reading "a thriller by David Rosenfelt, one of the great writers of our time"!

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Campus Sexpot: A Memoir

Campus Sexpot: A Memoir by David Carkeet (2005) 137 pages

David Carkeet taught writing and linguistics at UMSL for 30 years; I took at least one of his writing classes. His chosen title first made me wonder if he was writing about his own experiences on campus, so I had to read it, but I quickly realized his title is rather ironic with regard to himself. Note the photo on the front cover, which was staged for his high school newspaper.

As a backdrop for his memoir, he uses a real novel titled the same as his, Campus Sexpot, which was written in 1961 by Dale Koby. Koby was formerly a high school English teacher in Carkeet's Sonora, California hometown. Koby's novel weaves a story from the viewpoint of Don Kaufield, a thinly disguised rendering of himself. The book was not marketed to the small town of Sonora, but once it was discovered, the residents clamored for it, to see who else in the story could be identified. It was a bit smutty for the time in 1962, and not a well-written story at that, but Carkeet's mother allowed him to read it. He was just 15 at the time, a four-and-a-half-foot tall trumpet player weighing 75 pounds with a self described baby face and inadequate sexual education.

Carkeet intersperses lines from the novel with his critiques of how poorly written they were; in some rare places, he applauds a well-composed sentence. But also the story allows for Carkeet's own youth and family life to be described while dissecting the book. It's often quite funny, but has sometimes serious commentary.


Thursday, October 17, 2019

Diamond Doris

Diamond Doris: the true story of the world's most notorious jewel thief / Doris Payne, read by Robin Miles, 266

Oh my gosh, this book is one heck of a good read.  Doris didn't want to "wipe people's butts" for a living so she became a jewel thief.  She was good enough to support herself and her family.  The adventures she reveals in this book are amazing and her salty language and attitude refreshing.  What a life!  Robin Miles does a good job narrating this amazing story.

The Saturday Night Ghost Club

The Saturday Night Ghost Club by Craig Davidson, 211 pages

Jake is a bookish kid growing up in Niagara Falls in the 1980s. He doesn't have many friends (OK, any friends) and he's the constant target of bullies. But the summer of his 12th year, all that changes when Billy and Dove Yellowbird move to town and the Saturday Night Ghost Club is born. Led by Jake's kooky Uncle Calvin, the club meets at theoretically haunted places around town a few times over the summer, though the haunted locales have a bit more effect on Calvin than they do on the kids.

Set at the same time as the uber-popular TV show Stranger Things and with a similar outsider narrator, this short book is a great, though much more realistic, recommendation for fans of the show. I loved the nostalgic feel, and Davidson captures that fading-magic-of-childhood so well. A wonderful book.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling, 222 pages

In this, her first memoir, Kaling muses on everything from childhood bullies and her early love of comedy to the state of marriage to her plans for her funeral (very solemn, no hot food, gift bags for all). She's funny, intelligent, and honest, and I absolutely loved this book. I particularly enjoyed the audiobook, which Kaling reads, though there is a bit toward the end that suffers, simply because listeners can't look at the photos included in the physical book. But that's a small price to pay for Kaling's narration.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

The Woman in White

The Woman in White / Wilkie Collins, 635 pp.

Written in 1850 and considered the first English thriller, this is terrific nineteenth-century-bleak-English-manor-house entertainment that's intelligently written and a true page turner.

Walter Hartright, an upstanding young man of limited means, takes a job as  quasi artist-in-residence and tutor to an eccentric nobleman.  He teaches the half-sisters Marian and Laura and becomes devoted to both, Marian for her wit and strength of character, and Laura for her delicate beauty.  On a journey back to London, he meets a third woman, the wraith-like Anne, who appears out of nowhere on a country road and bears a disturbing resemblance to Laura.

Mistaken identities, an Italian count, a conveniently-timed infectious fever, and inheritance tangles that any reader of Austen will appreciate round out a suspenseful, frequently comical, and just plain fun read. 


Stalingrad

Stalingrad / Vasily Grossman, transl by Robert Chandler & Elizabeth Chandler, 1,053 p.

Written prior to Life and Fate but only now available in English translation, Grossman's novel begins the story of the epic battle which concludes in Life and Fate and introduces us to the Shtrum/Shaposhnikov family and their circle.

I haven't read much of the novel's supporting material yet, but I presume that at the time of writing Stalingrad in the early 1950s, prior to Stalin's death, Grossman was too fearful of persecution and censorship to lay out the horrors of the Stalinist regime which are in full evidence in Life and Fate.  Grossman's many lyrical paeans to the Soviet people and the glories of the industrial and agricultural might produced by their labor would read like tinny patriotism were it not for the beauty of his writing, his acute sensitivity to human character, and his obviously sincere love of country.  If anyone has ever written more rapturously (and eloquently!) about electrical power stations, I have never read them.

A difficult read with an enormous cast of characters, most of whose stories are only developed in fragments, Stalingrad is nevertheless entirely absorbing, moving, and worthwhile.

The swallows

The swallows / Lisa Lutz, read by a full cast, 402 pgs.

Stonebridge Academy is a small New England prep school.  Alex Witt is a new teacher there who had a hard time at her previous teaching job.  This new school seems fine, the kids typical, the head master an old friend of the family.  But are things really as they seem?  A random creative writing assignment turns up some responses that make Witt wonder what is going on.  As she finds out more, she wonders why other teachers have not intervened, instead, one has used oddities at the school as plot for his new book.  The plot turns when an exploited population takes a stand.  This book is narrated by a cast that does a fantastic job of bringing the characters to life.