Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Gross Anatomy

Gross Anatomy: dispatches from the front (and back) / Mara Altman, 312 pgs.

Altman has had issues with her body and decided to learn more about it.  Topics include body hair, lice, boobs, sweat and the functions of the anus.  Yes, many things you probably wonder about yourself.  Altman's style is irreverent but also serious at times.  She is open to some "new age" ideas about dealing with body issues and is working towards better acceptance of her own body.  I enjoyed her style and learned a few things.  It's fine to say over and over "it's natural" or "it's normal" but accepting that for yourself is a bigger step.

Two Girls Down

Two Girls Down / Luisa Luna, 304 pages.

Single mom Jamie runs into a shopping center to get a birthday gift for a party she is taking her girls to.  Ten year old Kylie and eight year old Bailey are gone when she returns.  Soon bounty hunter Alice Vega is called in from California.  Local police are understaffed and overwhelmed by the case but reject assistance.  Alice, however, is working for the family and has a knack for finding missing kids.  Alice teams up with local PI Max Caplan.  He knows the area and is a former cop.  Max is a divorced dad to sixteen year old Nell, a significant force in her own right.  The action is good, the characters are great and the writing well done.  In the end, the story strips you of any hope for the goodness of (some) people.  It seems fairly realistic as far as the motivations of the perpetrators even if the actions of a couple of the characters seem a little fantastic.

Monday, January 14, 2019


Unlocked: An Oral History of Haden's Syndrome by John Scalzi, 143 pages

A companion to his novels Lock In and Head On, Unlocked gives the backstory of Haden's syndrome, the debilitating disease that forms the center of those two novels, through people who researched the disease; the people who live with Haden's; politicians who funded the moonshot effort to cure it; and the journalists who covered it.

Considering this is a fictitious disease, it's a well-structured story, as any documentary or oral history would be, and it answers a lot of questions that the Orcs & Aliens book group brought up during our discussion last September, showing just how much Scalzi has thought out this disease. As fantastic as this novella is, I would definitely recommend reading Lock In first.

The Cassandra

The Cassandra by Sharma Shields, 281 pages

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was a seer whose prophecies were never believed. During World War II, Mildred Groves is in that same situation, treated horribly by her mother and sister; pitied as a sleepwalking simpleton by the other women at the Hanford research center (the scientific research base where she takes shorthand for a military physicist); and disregarded by the men of Hanford, who only see her curves. Yet Mildred is tormented by her prophetic dreams, which warn of the looming destruction that will be caused by the dangerous products being created at Hanford.

Based on a real research compound on the banks of the Columbia River in Washington state, The Cassandra presents a sobering and enlightening look at the inhumanity of war, the suppression of women's voices, and the environmental impacts of ignorance in the face of "progress." This was a fascinating glimpse into history, and at the same time, has powerful resonances in modern day. An excellent book.

*This is an advanced reading copy. The book comes out next month.

My Sister the Serial Killer

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite  226 pp.

This book has been making the rounds of the library and has been blogged here and here. This story of a pair of Nigerian sisters is unusual and intriguing. Just how far should a sister go to protect her irresponsible younger sibling? Is cleaning up and disposing of the body after she kills someone enough? What if it happens more than once? What if the man you want for yourself may be the next victim? And should a book about this be so enjoyable? I will be on the lookout for more from this new, young author.

Up Jumps the Devil

Up Jumps the Devil by Michael Poore  360 pp.

John Scratch aka the Devil has lived for thousands of years and in the U.S. for the past few hundred. He has involved himself in historical events, including assisting George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Later he finds himself managing a rock band while driving around the country in the Kennedy Assassination limo. The love of his life has returned to heaven and he wants her back. He keeps assisting in "improvements" to civilization in hopes of bringing her back. In the mean time he falls for Memory, the amnesiac lead singer of the band. John also keeps getting killed (unsuccessfully) but as he ages it takes longer to come back from his injuries. The flashbacks and characters are interesting and it is an amusing story, for the most part. 

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Death in Connecticut

Death in Connecticut by David Linzee (1977) 245 pages

I wanted to read an early book by this local author, but I did not find the main character in Death in Connecticut sympathetic. Arthur Jr. had been floating about the country, a hold-out from Vietnam protests/campus office takeovers. When his father did not rush in to save him from his own judgement, and when his girlfriend didn't drop what she was doing to validate him, he found himself in a downward spiral until we meet him on a bus three years later, with no food, no clean clothes, but near his father's law office.

His father gives Arthur Jr. access to his apartment, where Arthur finds his father's guns and decides to kill himself. By chance, out in the country where he was going to kill himself, he sees his ex-girlfriend's car parked and stops what appears to be a theft from the car. From here, the confusion grows as he thinks it's possible that drugs are in the package: His ex works for his father's firm; do they deal in drugs? He finds a new zest for life in trying to take his father down. Meanwhile, some shady characters are paying him ominous visits. The action ramps up from there!

The library book, by Susan Orlean

A love letter to public libraries. The red and gold book cover, resembling one of the fancier types of rebinding popular in the 1960s; the faux book pocket and date due card; and the Dewey Decimal headings at the beginning of each chapter are very clever.  The main topic of the book is the serious fire at the headquarters of the Los Angeles library system on April 28, 1986.  Why, I wondered, was I not familiar with this major library event that raged for seven hours, destroyed 400,000 books and damaged another 700,000, and did extreme damage to the historic building?  Well, the fire shares this date with the Chernobyl disaster, when the world waited to see just how widespread this nuclear catastrophe would become.  Orlean charts the growth of the city of Los Angeles, the development of its library system, the building of its unique main library, and introduces all of the directors who have guided it with greater or lesser effectiveness.  She explores the biography of Harry Peak, a gay pathological liar, wannabe actor, and troubled soul, who may or may not have set the fire intentionally that day. We learn about the "science" of arson investigation.  She ropes in library history, the changing place of libraries in their communities, and the advance of technology, including a long chapter about OverDrive which seemed rather extraneous,  She's obviously a big fan of public libraries.  Perhaps I just know too much about libraries, but I found the book a bit of a slog.  Our oddball patrons are just as weird, if not weirder, than any that hang out in LA.  Maybe a bit less West-Coast-colorful overall, but just as strange.  However, readers who are patrons of libraries, not librarians, will find much interesting information here.  Makes our profession and those that practice it look very good – but we knew that!  313 pp.

Thursday, January 10, 2019

All Systems Red

All Systems Red by Martha Wells, 152 pages

An android (with some organic parts) that calls itself Murderbot has been rented out as the security detail for a small surveying expedition on a far-off planet. Unbeknownst to the humans in the expedition, Murderbot has hacked its own governing module, allowing it to do as it pleases. For the most part, this means doing its job as normal but watching soap operas in the background. But when communications with a second surveying crew go dark, Murderbot's abilities become apparent to the crew.

This is the first in four novellas that make up the Murderbot Diaries, and while I'm not quite as taken with the book as all of the praise and accolades suggest I should be, I am intrigued by the main character's personality. There are elements of the autism spectrum that pop up in it, and I very much look forward to discussing this on Monday with the Orcs & Aliens book group.

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

At the End of the Century

At the End of the Century: the Stories of Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, 439 p.

Jhabvala is one of my all-time favorite writers.  As a young person, she was a refugee from Eastern Europe to England, where she later met and married her husband, an Indian architect.  She spent most of her life in Delhi, but in later years also lived in New York, and most of  her fiction is set in one of these two locales.  After her death in 2013 her children collected this volume of some of her most important stories, and they reflect her frequent themes of gurus and charismatics who hold others in thrall, to everyone's detriment.  All are told with the beautifully precise observation of someone who spent her life as an outsider.  The collection contained many stories I had read previously, but there were a few that were originally published in The New Yorker that I had missed.  As always, these are a pleasure.

The parking lot attendant

The parking lot attendant / Nafkote Tamirat, read by Bhani Turpin, 225 pgs.

On the mysterious island of B____, our protagonist tells the story of how she and her introvert father ended up there.  The story starts in Boston where the Ethiopian community is kind of closed off.  Our unnamed girl falls under the spell of Ayale, an enigmatic parking lot attendant that shows her a lot of attention but also uses her.  He takes advantage of her youth, inexperience and loneliness.  She isn't really sure of the bigger plot but she knows it is nefarious.  As she learns more, she realizes how much danger she is in.  What an interesting story told so well.  As always Bhani Turpin's narrations ADDS to the whole.

Bring it!

Bring it!: tried and true recipes for potlucks and casual entertaining / Ali Rosen, 239 pgs.

A great collection of things you can make ahead and take with you.  I'm intrigued with some of the interesting combinations of ingredients along with some regular stand-byes that have been created with portability in mind.  I think there are a lot of good ideas and I've copied several recipes to try soon.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Half-Drowned King

The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker, 431 pages

In the 9th Century C.E., Norway had not yet been united under a single ruler and instead was a land of many, many kings with many alliances and blood feuds between them. Hartsuyker's novel takes us into this almost magical land of fjords and Vikings, gods and warriors, telling of the days leading up to the reign of King Harald, the young gods-blessed man who would eventually unify the country. This novel focuses on Ragnvald, a young man who survives an assassination attempt by his stepfather; Solvi, the sea raider whose father contracted him to commit the murder; and Ragnvald's sister, Svanhild, whose wanderlust and beauty immediately captivate Solvi, much to Ragnvald's chagrin.

As the storyline weaves among these three main characters, it also spends plenty of time in battle, in feasts, and in the mundane (and somewhat scary) spheres inhabited by women. I found this a fascinating tale, richly told. It makes me want to go to Norway and see this wild land myself, though while I plan this dream journey, I'll have to satisfy myself with reading Hartsuyker's sequel, The Sea Queen, which came out last year.

The Bat

The Bat by Jo Nesbø  369 pp.

This is Nesbø's first novel featuring the chain-smoking, alcoholic, Norwegian detective Harry Hole.  Hole is sent to Australia to assist in the investigation of the murder of a young Norwegian woman. Soon the investigating officers realize her death is just one of a series of deaths involving young blonde women. While the investigation progresses, Hole finds himself in a romance with an ex-pat Swede. When things go wrong both romantically and the investigation goes deadly wrong, Hole falls off the wagon and must drag himself back into sobriety to figure out a way to catch the killer. This book was originally published in 1997 although not in English until 2012. I kept thinking how different the story would have been had cellphones and surveillance cameras been in common use. The audiobook was expertly narrated by John Lee who does a great job of differentiating the different accents although I'm sure native Aussies would criticize his attempt at their patois.

Monday, January 7, 2019


Fear: Trump in the White House / Bob Woodward, 428 pgs.

Woodward is always amazing and doesn't speculate but most of what is here is what you already know if you are paying attention.  If you don't have even a "West Wing" level understanding of how government works (and I'm talking about having watched the television show), and you have no interest in learning, this is how we end up.  Whatever your feelings are about the ideas coming from this administration and the policies they would like to enact, the reality is, they have no idea how to do it.  If you don't understand the basics of international trade and facts don't interest you, you might make up something that you think is good for Americans.  If you think immigrants are in top three of problems we have, you might want to stop people from coming here. But there are laws in place, systems in place, treaties and agreements, legal ramifications and you would have to understand those to effectively put a stop to immigration.  It was interesting reading about staffers who spend their time trying to focus the attention of our chief executive and play interference on short term topics that get blurted out or tweeted.  It would be nice if this ended on a hopeful note, instead it ends looking at reality. 

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret

Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret / Craig Brown, 423 p.

I am not a great reader of biography/memoir, but this was well-reviewed enough that I was intrigued.  Margaret was (Queen) Elizabeth's younger sister.  At her birth she was high in the line of succession to the throne.  But when Elizabeth ascended and proceeded to have children and grandchildren of her own, Margaret's position continued to drop, leaving Margaret to feel (presumably)increasingly irrelevant.  As a minor royal, she was left to preside over the dedications of schools, nursing homes, and traffic circles, and to find meaning in whiskey, cigarettes, men, and, above all, insisting on the privileges of rank.

On the whole, then, I found the subject odious but the writing superb.  Ninety-nine brief chapters, most of them anecdotes told by the many people great and small whose paths crossed Margaret's, and only roughly in chronological order, build a kaleidoscopic picture of both a woman and an era of British history.  As a non-tabloid reading American, there were cultural references I missed - Margaret's great love, Group Captain Peter Townsend, is definitely not associated with The Who, for example.  Good fun and fast.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Front desk

Front desk / Kelly Yang, 297 pgs.

Mia and her parents have been in the US for a couple of years but they are still trying to find their way.  They end up running a motel close to Disneyland but are working for a horrible boss that constantly rips them off.  Mia is in 5th grade and the hotel is quite a source of education for her.  She works the desk when not in school where she and her bestie Lupe bond over their dislike of Jason.  Mia's mom is pushing her into math but Mia has a way with words and is working on her English.  She is confident and can figure things out.  She is entering an essay contest to WIN a motel so her family can move up a rung on the ladder.  Mia has some 5th grader problems but mostly her issues are bigger.  Her family is poor, her parents work hard but make little.  Her friends at the motel suffer from discrimination.  She starts helping other people when she can.  She writes letters on their behalf.  She has a lot of ideas.  What a fantastic book that covers so many important modern issues.  Highly recommended.

New Minimalism

New Minimalism: decluttering and design for sustainable, intentional living / Cary Telander Fortin & Kyle Louise Quilici, 201 pgs.

Turns out new minimalism is a lot like the old minimalism.  GET RID OF THE JUNK.  Actually the authors give us much more than that.  You can uncover your emotional style of relating to your stuff.  This actually is very interesting and speaks to WHY it is difficult for you to get rid of certain things.  I'm sure many will relate to one or more of these archetypes.  I've never met a drawer I can't shove one more thing into so I appreciate the idea of determining when something is full. Like so many things, we would be better off quitting and being ahead.  Great for all you New Year resolution readers.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Space Opera

Space Opera by Catherynne M. Valente, 294 pages

What would humanity do if we were told that our existence as a species depended on the performance of a single musical act? How would we even decide who should represent us? Thankfully(?) for us, in Catherynne M. Valente's Space Opera, our sponsoring alien race has chosen the defunct glamrock pop group Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes to create a brand new song to perform at the 100th Metagalactic Grand Prix. Perform admirably, and Human sapiens sapiens is determined to be sentient and left alone; come in last, and we're annihilated. Fun stuff!

And I really mean that: this is a fun book. Valente goes full Douglas Adams in her logic-defying book about the alien races competing in the Eurovision of the Milky Way. It's zany, rambling, and infinitely inventive. I love Valente's snark, and I particularly love Capo, the cat. My only complaints are that the book is a bit lacking in the way of a plot, and I really wish we'd spent even more time with Capo, who is really the best.

Thursday, January 3, 2019

White Houses

White Houses / Amy Bloom, read by Tonya Cornelisse, 218 pgs.

A fictionalized account of the relationship between Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, a journalist assigned to cover her.  Hickok is an interesting woman, raised in horrible conditions, she reinvents herself as a prominent woman reporter.  She does NOT do weddings.  She bonds with Roosevelt and ends up working for FDR's administration.  The relationship between the two women has been the source of speculation but this book openly discusses their feelings for each other and situations that are historically accurate. I picked this up on a whim and enjoyed it very much.  Tonya Cornelisse does a great job voicing "Hick" and I could picture her throughout the book.

The Mars Room

The Mars Room / Rachel Kushner, 338 pgs. read by the author

The Mars Room is a seedy strip club in San Francisco.  Romy Hall, a stripper known as Vanessa is the main character in this book.  She is serving a couple of life sentences for killing a man who stalked her.  She is flawed as is the justice system that ignores her circumstances and provides only an overworked public defender to decide her fate.  Romy's story is not the only one we hear. There are fellow prisoners, staff, some people whose connection is not obvious to me.  Everyone is quirky and interesting with a unique story.  I think the book makes clear there isn't an easy way to classify the people, their situations and the circumstances that bring them to the novel.  At first I was unsure of the author reading this book but ended up enjoying the audio version very much. The voice of Romy comes through very convincingly.

Space Opera

Space Opera, Catherynne M. Valente, 294 pages

Do you like Eurovision, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and David Bowie? Then you'll probably enjoy Catherynne M. Valente's Space Opera. It is fully of quirky humor, wonderfully absurd descriptive phrases, and all the kooky times that one could only get if the fate of the world depended upon a washed up pop star singing in an alien organized test of sentience based solely upon a species being able to produce music. Space Opera is a quick, enjoyable read, perfect for a post holidays recharge.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Peace like a river, by Leif Enger

Having read Enger’s recent book, I decided to go back to the one that made his name as an author in 2001, and, frankly, I don't quite understand the rapturous contemporary reviews.  In the 1960s, a family somewhere in rural Minnesota is eking out their existence.  Father Jeremiah Land has three children, Davy, who is sixteen, eleven-year-old Reuben, and a precocious daughter, Swede, who is four years younger.  Reuben was pretty much dead on arrival when he was born, but his father miraculously revives him.  However, the baby is left with damaged lungs and asthma.  Jeremiah had been a medical student when he married, but after this miracle at Reuben’s birth, he quits school and takes a lowly janitorial job at the school the children attend.  His puzzled wife abandons the family.  Like his later book, Peace like a river includes a good bit of magic and mythology.   Butch Cassidy is a major character.  When Davy shoots two bullies who intrude on the family’s home after both Jeremiah and Davy have had run-ins with them (precipitated by their assault on Davy’s girlfriend), he is arrested.  Then he breaks out of jail and the novel turns into something like a Western crossed with a chase movie and a religious experience.  There were just a few too many miracles for me.  I didn't hate it, but I much preferred his newest book.  311 pp.

December totals!

Christa  21/5648
Jan  7/1753
Josh  3/1071
Kara  15/4982
Karen C  13/2912
Kathleen  8/2290
Linda  2/588
Naomi  4/1713
Patrick  18/6939

Total:  91/27,896

(For anyone who cares about our calendar year blogging totals, this brings UCPL up to a whopping 822 books and 254,058 pages for 2018.)