Monday, April 29, 2019

The Municipalists

The Municipalists by Seth Fried, 264 pages

Henry is a civil planning bureaucrat at the U.S. Municipal Survey, happily writing up proposals and filing paperwork detailing his implementation of waste-cutting measures for cities across the country. But when the USMS headquarters' operating system cuts out at the same time that USMS drones begin dropping from the sky above Metropolis and the USMS agent in charge of Metropolis goes missing, Henry is sent into the field to figure out what's gone wrong in this too-much-of-a-coincidence situation in Metropolis. He's not sent alone, however: the USMS operating system, OWEN, has been given a personality and a projection that will accompany Henry on his mission, providing data and access whenever needed.

I honestly wasn't sure what to expect with this book, but what it is is a buddy copy/action story between the too-serious Henry and an alcoholic, shape-shifting operating system that loves classic movies and faints at the sight of blood. It felt more like I was reading a movie recap than a novel. I'd definitely watch the movie, though I don't know that I'd read the book again.

The Library Book

The Library Book by Susan Orlean  317 pp.

Overshadowed in the news by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, the Los Angeles Public Library suffered a devastating fire that destroyed 400,000 books and damaged a further 700,000 in materials. Orlean examines the circumstances surrounding the fire, the possible intentional or unintentional arsonist, the history of the Los Angeles library system, and the recovery and rebuilding of the library. I was fascinated that there is the technology available to save water soaked books. It's obvious the author is a great lover of libraries and what they do. This book is a love letter to the library and libraries as institutions necessary to our society. Previously blogged by Kara and Linda.

Eva Luna

Eva Luna by Isabel Allende  307 pp.

This is an older novel by Chilean author Allende who is one of my favorites. The title character is the daughter of a mixed race woman who was raised in a Catholic orphanage and a man who was dying of snakebite. Eva grows up in the household where her mother works for a professor who doesn't realize Eva exists until her mother's death. Eva is a born storyteller who wraps her dreams and real life into amazing tales. Allende creates a world with interesting characters including a transgender actress, a revolutionary guerrilla fighter, and a filmmaker who is a survivor of Nazi oppression and parental abuse. They all weave together in stories of wealth, poverty, love, hate, war, and peace leaving the reader to wonder what is truly  Eva's life and what are the stories she creates. While this isn't my favorite Allende novel, it is one of the best.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

Totally amazing facts about cats

Totally amazing facts about cats / Nikki Potts, 112 pgs.

Cats can move their ears 180 degrees (and separately). Cheetahs are the fastest mammals reaching speeds of 62 miles per hour but a domestic house cat can reach 30 miles per hour.  Get these and other TOTALLY amazing facts from this fun book.

A doll for throwing

A doll for throwing: poems / Mary Jo Bang, 76 pgs.

Carefully read for poetry month, I had to look up more information about this book to understand the subject and intent.  Very interesting creative way to give voice to an artist run out of Germany before the war.  She was a member of the Bauhaus school and found it difficult to reclaim her work after the war.  I enjoyed reading but still have very low abilities to interpret and understand poetry.

No beast so fierce

No beast so fierce: the terrifying true story of the Champawat tiger, the deadliest animal in history / Dane Huckelbridge, 280 pgs.

This book tells what is known about a famous tiger hunt at the turn of the 20th century.  With dwindling habitat and severe injuries that left this apex hunter at a disadvantage relative to her usual prey, she took to hunting people.  With a body count over 400 and people too scared to leave their homes to farm or hunt, an expert was called to take the tiger out.  Jim Corbett was an unlikely hero.  An Irish man who grew up in India, he was of slight built but immense bravery and skill.  Corbett dispatched with this, his first of many man eaters.  Later in life he became a vocal conservationist and did what he could to save the tigers. The author did a lot of research and this story shows the fruit of his labor is good.  An engaging read.

We cast a shadow

We cast a shadow / Maurice Carlos Ruffin, read by Dion Grahm, 324 pgs.

What would you do to make life better for your child?  How sure are you that your actions are for the best?  How can we add a satirical twist here that forces the reader to reflect on race and society?  I am amazed by this book and the path it takes. In the future, there are a few successful black people.  They, like our protagonist, are striving to be "the one" chosen by their law firm or other profession.  The books starts with several black associates viewing for the one shot at becoming a partner in the firm.  What would you do to achieve?  But the condition of blackness (as well as other ethnic conditions) is treatable.  You can get get rid of the dark skin through "demelanization."  Surgery can "correct" the shape of your nose, lips, and eyes.  Another of the firms exceptions is the Asian woman who is trying to repress her Asian characteristics because she is sick of being treated like the answer to every man's fantasy.  But I'm off track here.  Our protagonist is trying to help his child by erasing his blackness.  But does his son want to be "non-black?"  As the book goes on, we see desperation, cajoling, and retreat.  I'm convinced this book is brilliant and the audio was perfectly read by Dion Graham.

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg (1967) 162 pages

I'd been meaning to read this Newbery Award winner for the past dozen or so years, ever since my daughter enjoyed it in grade school. Claudia, the oldest of four children (and the only daughter) is coming up on age twelve, feeling unappreciated and bored with life. She saves her money and recruits one of her younger brothers, Jamie (age 9), to accompany her in running away from home. (Jamie has saved almost all of his allowance, plus he regularly wins money in ongoing card games of War with his friend.) He agrees, and with extra underwear and socks stashed in their musical instrument cases, they take a train to New York and take up residence in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. They're smart kids who have pre-planned how to avoid detection. The reader is kept alert by the periodic insertions of the narrator, whose identity we learn near the end of the story. I can empathize with Claudia's general blah feeling about her life, and I appreciate how the story wraps up.

Saturday, April 27, 2019

The Global Economy as You've Never Seen It

The Global Economy as You've Never Seen It / Thomas Ramge and Jan Schwochow, 205 p.

A collection of infographics and text on a variety of econ topics, very attractively designed and with (mostly) clear explanations suitable for the general reader.  Fun and informative.

I'll Be Gone in the Dark

I'll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman's Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer / Michelle McNamara, 328 p.

McNamara, who died in 2016 at the age of 48, was the author of True Crime Diary, a blog of her efforts to research and solve crimes in general and one especially horrible series of crimes in particular.  The Golden State Killer, who is also known as the East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker (EARONS), raped and killed an extraordinary number of Californians in the 1970s and 1980s.  It took years before the many disparate law enforcement jurisdictions involved connected his attacks, and he was only caught in 2018, after McNamara's death. 

Given the extent of McNamara's work and the strenuously well-documented ferocity of her obsession with the GST, it's understandable that her family (and publishers) wanted to bring her work to fruition in book form as quickly as possible.  Without McNamara, though, it's clear that editors and other researchers struggled to give the story, in its tremendous complexity, the top-down feel it needs to produce a satisfying read.  Too often the zigzags in time and place don't make sense to the reader, and certainly don't aid in either comprehension or suspense.

What's impressive here are the long passages on the GST's 'work' in Sacramento, which sometimes experienced multiple home invasions and rapes in a week, and whose residents became understandably terrified and paranoid.  The GST was brutal but he was also efficient, and the extent of his crimes is breathtaking.  One can now Google the Golden State Killer and see photos of the man in custody for his crimes.  He looks depressingly ordinary, and I suspect one could write another book about why seeing this nondescript old man in an orange jumpsuit feels profoundly disappointing.

The Shakespeare Requirement

The Shakespeare Requirement by Julie Schumacher (2018) 308 pages

The Shakespeare Requirement is a clever clever book that I had trouble getting into at first. Although I  enjoyed the numerous puns on the name of the university that provides the setting (Payne: "Celebrating 100 years of Payne," etc.), I found no character I could sympathize with (including all of the English department professors and secretary), except for Angela, a freshman who had previously been home-schooled by a very religious mother.

Jason Fitger is the newly established chair of the English department, which is in the lower portion of a building that is truly awful: rodent-infested, desks propped up on blocks, not well heated and not air conditioned, spotty electrical service, etc. Fitger finds he has no budget because the previous chair had never submitted a Statement of Vision (SOV), and because the SOV is now late, it is required to have unanimous department approval. When Fitger assembles his team to vote on a proposed SOV that had been put together the previous year, the Shakespeare professor, Dennis Cassovan, objects. It turns out the SOV, put together while Cassovan was on sabatical the previous year, removes the requirement for English majors to study Shakespeare for one semester. This is unacceptable! Fitger can't get any agreement with his staff to amend the Statement of Vision because (1) they all have their own gripes about their working conditions (why should they approve something Cassovan wants) and (2) they just don't like each other. Meanwhile, the chairman of Economics, Roland Gladwell, whose department is upstairs in the same building, is enjoying his newly remodeled (and air-conditioned) surroundings, courtesy of outside benefactors, and is looking to expand his territory.

After I decided to go with the flow and just enjoy the academic-political intrigues and relationship foibles all around, it turns out that the characters and the plot started to develop more and more, culminating in a truly satisfying ending.

Thursday, April 25, 2019


Dodger by Terry Pratchett  360 pp.

On a stormy night in Victorian London, scruffy lad named Dodger emerges from the sewers to rescue a young woman who has thrown herself from a carriage to escape from the men assaulting her. Young Dodger is a tosher, one who scours the sewers for things of value that has washed in and settled in the muck. Saving the young woman starts him on a path that leads him to a friendship with Charles Dickens (to be a model for the Artful Dodger, perhaps) and acquaintances with Sweeney Todd, Benjamin Disraeli, Robert Peel, Queen Victoria, and Prince Albert. Happenstance turns him into a hero in the eyes of the Londoners. All Dodger wants to do is keep the young woman from being sent back to her abusive husband and hopefully claim her for himself. In the process he finds himself dining with the "Nobs" and being sought by an assassin known only as the Outlander. This is one of a handful of novels by Pratchett that is not part of the Discworld series but is still full of the author's signature humor. The audiobook was read by Stephen Briggs, a master of English dialects.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

The Altruists

The Altruists by Andrew Ridker, 308 pages

Never really a cohesive unit, the Alter family has further unraveled since the death of mother Francine two years ago. Sure, father Arthur has managed to hang on to his "visiting professor" position at the prestigious Danforth University for the last 15 years, but he's now down to teaching just two poorly-rated classes a semester. Son Ethan had a well-paying, if soul-sucking, job in New York, but since his mother's death, he quit and has slowly become a hermit who spends way too much money shopping online. And then there's daughter Maggie, who has somewhat vapidly spurned her inheritance and dedicated her life to helping out her neighbors for a few bucks here and there. When Arthur invites his children home for a weekend visit, it becomes an unofficial individual self-absorption rises to the top

I'm always up for a good dysfunctional-family story, and Ridker delivers in this St. Louis-set novel. Between the awkward flashback sequences and the awkward present-day interactions, this whole book is hilarious in a cringe-worthy way. I definitely enjoyed reading it. Good for fans of Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeny's The Nest, Andrew Sean Greer's Less, and Patrick DeWitt's French Exit.

Monday, April 22, 2019

The Invisible Library

The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman  341 pp.

Kara K is the expert on this book and the series it opened having blogged about it here and here. Patrick also gave his take on it here. I am obviously late to the party on this one. Irene is a librarian for a mysterious library that connects with alternate worlds to collect and preserve books that bind the worlds together. Too soon after returning from a mission, Irene is handed another one and given a trainee assistant named Kai, who has secrets of his own he is trying to preserve. The "alternate" they land in is a steampunk version of Victorian London complete with fairies, dragons, vampires, and a Sherlock-style detective. Their goal is to retrieve an original manuscript of Grimm's Fairytales while avoiding a defector librarian. This one took a little time to get into but was worth it in the end. I'm undecided about diving into the rest of the series because do I really need one more series to keep up with?

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman

Revenge of the Middle-Aged Woman by Elizabeth Buchan (2002) 341 pages

Rose is is her mid-forties, happily married with two children in their early twenties. She is the editor of the Sunday book section of an English newspaper, has a nice garden, good relationships all around, etc., when she gets a double whammy: her husband announces he is leaving her because he's in love with her assistant at work and then her boss sacks her, saying he's looking to freshen the book section by replacing her with that same assistant.

The book deals with Rose's tailspin and leveling out, showing realistically the turmoil that the breakup of a long marriage can encompass. This is the second time I've read this novel and it still resonates with me.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Library Book

The Library Book by Susan Orlean, 317 pages

In this fascinating book, Orlean simultaneously traces the history of the Los Angeles Public Library; provides insight into the fire (and most likely suspect in the arson) that devastated the central branch in 1986; and profiles the library system as it is today. What results is a love letter to not just the Los Angeles library system, but to all public libraries. This is simply a wonderful book, and I'd recommend it to everyone: library lovers, those who have no idea what librarians actually do, people interested in social issues, true crime fans, history buffs. It truly has something for everyone.

The City in the Middle of the Night

The City in the Middle of the Night by Charlie Jane Anders, 366 pages

January is a tidal-locked planet, where the Earthborn colonizers have settled into two cities in the dusky area between the absolute light and the absolute darkness. Xiophant is a highly regulated place with bells tolling the hours and automatic shutters creating "nightfall"; a crazily complex economy with ten different kinds of currency; and a rigid language and social structure. Argelo, on the other hand, is a chaotic, time-free, slap-dash mess of a city ruled by nine competing crime families. The story, however, revolves around two women: Sophie, a lower-class student in Xiophant, who takes the fall for a crime that she didn't commit; and Mouth, the last member of a nomadic people that once traveled through the dusk, but is now a smuggler braving the wilds between the two cities. As the tale unfolds in its many twists and turns, we see outlaws and uprisings, threats both human and non-, and the toll that ignoring the past can play on people on both the micro and macro scale. Anders has created here an odd world full of strange flora and fauna, yes, but she's also created a story that resonates much much closer to home. While it took me a bit to get into, I loved this book, and I'll be ruminating on it for some time to come.

Friday, April 19, 2019

Dreyer's English

Dreyer's English: an Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style / Benjamin Dreyer, 291 p.

A witty and well-organized style guide, one so nicely written it's a pleasure to read.  Because Dreyer clearly sought to write something both useful and entertaining, he occasionally risks providing examples that are clever and funny but not always clear, at least to me.  More than once I found myself having to re-read to sort out which line was the mistake and which was meant to be the improved version, and why.  And I'm sure the long section on commas was enlightening but I fear not likely, in my case,  to stick.  Thankfully I have one or two colleagues who can help! 

Girls' Poker Night

Girls' Poker Night by Jill A. Davis (2002) 227 pages

Ruby Capote is a feature writer in Boston who decides to change up her life, which includes weaning away from Doug, her sweet but sometimes annoying boyfriend of a few years, and getting a new job. She persistently stakes out a New York newspaper, eventually sending copies of her columns along with a 6-pack of beer to the editor, getting the interview and nailing the job.

These big moves don't automatically fix Ruby's life. Family relationship issues from her past keep resurfacing. Her relationship with Michael, her editor, is tricky; she really likes him, but isn't sure about the signals she's getting from him. Meanwhile, once a week, a diverse group of her friends gather at her apartment for poker and talk.

For a light, fast read, there's plenty of substance in this story.

The Six Wives of Henry VIII

The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir  643 pp.

I started reading this mistakenly thinking it was the book that the 1970 PBS series by the same name was taken from. But the series predated the book by 20 years. Oh well, my junior high age self loved the series. It's still a pretty comprehensive coverage of Henry and his unfortunate wives: 3 Catherines, 2 Annes, and a Jane. Well over half the book involves the Catherine of Aragon/Ann Boleyn drama which was the longest marital episode in the king's life. There are many details throughout the book that correct common assumptions about the various queens including the discrepancies in Anne Boleyn's birthdate and the fact that she was much older than portrayed in many films. This version is frequently rather dry history interspersed with Henry's philandering, trials, torture, beheadings, and unsuccessful births. I listened to the audiobook read by Simon Prebble.

Elements of Family Style

Elements of Family Style: Elegant Spaces for Everyday Life / Erin Gates, 355 p.

Designs for families with young children and animals, including advice on carpet and upholstery types best suited for frequent cleanings, wear and tear,etc.

Yes, there is practical information, but mostly there is design: attractive, creative, whimsical, and fun, but almost certainly costly.  Occasional suggestions of items that can be found at Ikea and Home Depot, as well as breakouts of things appropriate for splurging and those that are best for saving, aren't enough to make this book more than eye candy. 

Good Talk

Good Talk: a Memoir in Conversations / Mira Jacob, 355p.

Observant readers of our blog know that I am not a great consumer of graphic lit.  In the case of Good Talk, however, I found the marriage of text, image, and concept so perfectly melded that I barely noticed the genre.  (Yes, for me, this is a good thing.)  Mira is East-Indian-American, and she and her Jewish-American husband Jed have a 6-year-old son Z, whose questions: Was Michael Jackson brown or was he white?  Was Daddy always white?  Are white people afraid of brown people? frame her personal narrative. She grew up a minority in Albuquerque while handling the pressure to be a 'good' first-generation American daughter, moved to New York, and became a writer.  I loved her reflections on the elections of 43,44, and 45, and the challenge of being in relationship with in-laws with political views opposite to her own.  A perfect blend of the personal and the political; plus, Z is adorable and hilarious.  Strongly recommended.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           

Thursday, April 18, 2019 / Nathan Englander, read by Rob Shapiro, 203 pages

When Larry's father dies, it is his duty to recite the Kaddish for a year.  Unlike the rest of his Orthodox family, Larry is an atheist so he finds a service online who will take on his duty and pray for his father.  The belief is the prayer will pave the way to heaven.  Like many others, Larry finds his life and beliefs changing and so he has to figure out a way to recover his birthright and get the responsibility back from his Internet service. This book is a fantastic journey that we take with Larry.  Funny at times, reflective and philosophical at others. A fantastic story that is perfectly read by narrator Rob Shapiro.

Nine Pints

Nine pints: a journey through the money, medicine, and mysteries of blood / Rose George, 353 pgs.

From leeches to transfusions to blood borne illnesses, this book covers you in blood.  How, for so long, did people think the key was to drain it? Blood is our life giving force, it caries nutrients and oxygen to our cells.  Bleeding out is one of the fastest ways to death.  Discovering how to transfuse blood has saved so many people.  George covers so many topics here, our attitudes, our fear of, the way blood products are handled.  She does it with a deft hand, a little tongue in cheek at times but quite comprehensive in the research and even provides a list for further reading. 

Monday, April 15, 2019

Normal people, by Sally Rooney

Conversations with friends, Rooney’s first book, published when she was only 27, was rapturously received when it came out in 2017.  This new novel, set in western Ireland, has also been very well reviewed.  As in her first book, the main characters are very young – by the end of Normal people they’ve barely graduated from college.  Beginning in high school, wealthy but friendless Marianne and popular, working class Connell form an emotional and physical relationship.  Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s house and Connell begins to take interest in the troubled, bright girl when he picks his mother up from work.  Soon they are sleeping together regularly, but completely avoid each other at school to hide this connection.  When Marianne decides to go to Trinity to college, she convinces Connell, who is also very bright but conceals it, to apply as well.  At college, their roles reverse – suddenly Marianne has a host of friends, boyfriends, and lovers, while Connell struggles to find his place and feels left on the outside.  College seems to consist of boozy parties, hooking up, and smoking.  Somehow course work is fitted in as well.  The book covers four years and during this time Marianne and Connell’s relationship will wax and wane, but always be in the background of each other’s thoughts.  Miss Rooney seems to be a voice of her generation.  Like her first book, this novel will probably speak much more to readers a lot younger than I.  273 pp.

Sunday, April 14, 2019

Golden Child

Golden Child / Claire Adam, read by Obi Obili, 281 pages

Peter and Paul are twins, Peter is a genius, Paul lost oxygen at birth and has a few problems.  Joy and Clyde are their hard working parents.  They will do anything to make sure Peter has the success that he is destined for.  Paul is pulled along to better schools because Joy doesn't want the boys separated.  When they are 13, robbers break in and steal everything they can.  Later, the same crew kidnaps Paul, thinking he might be Peter.  The kidnappers learned from a relative that there is money saved for Peter's education and now they want it.  Instead, Clyde sells his house, his car and everything else he can to pay for Paul's freedom.  How will this turn out?  The audio version is perfectly done by Obi Obili.  Listen to hear the way Trinidad must sound.

Professor Chandra follows his bliss

Professor Chandra follows his bliss / Rajeev Balasubramanyam, 349 pgs.

At 69, Professor Chandra is still chasing the illusive dream of the Nobel.  He has that and not much else now that his wife left him for Steve, and this three kids have turned out to be so strange to him.  His youngest is finishing high school and not heading in a good direction.  His middle child has not been in contact for two years after one last blow up.  His oldest is focused on making more money than his father running some sort of meditative business school.  Why can't any of them love economics and follow in his footsteps?  When an accident and silent heart attack make him take stock of his situation, he decides to cut back and take it easy for awhile like his doctor advises.  He heads to California for a visiting professorship and tries to patch things up with his ex-wife and kids.  Along the way, he experiences some growth and self-discovery.  Maybe he ISN'T right about everything?  I enjoyed this humorous look at a guy who has it all or maybe has nothing at all.  How can you tell?

American Spy

American Spy / Lauren Wilkinson, read by Bahni Turpin, 292 pgs.

The book begins with Marie Mitchell fleeing with her 4 year old twins after dispatching an assassin who broke into her house.  Marie has quite an interesting story.  She is a former F.B.I. agent who was used in a secret operation in Burkina Faso that lead to the death of charismatic leader Thomas Sankara.  The journey that lead her there is complex and interesting.  Marie's older sister Helene started on her path to a career in intelligence, her father's career in law enforcement lead the way for both daughters.  But nothing is simple for Marie.  She is smart, talented, and oddity in the cold war era intelligence agencies.  She is an obvious choice for an operation in Africa but bristles at the idea that her main job is to seduce a man to open up an avenue for blackmail.  Once she meets the man, though, she finds herself interested on another level.  Is there more to this assignment that she accepts to find out more about the untimely and seemingly accidental death of her sister? In the tradition of all good spy books, of course there is more.  The audio version of this book is perfectly done by Bahni Turpin.

Once upon a river

Once upon a river / Diane Setterfield, read by Juliet Stevenson, 464 pgs.

A bit of a mystery, a bit of a miracle.  A young girl and a man wash up during a storm.  The girl is dead but the man may survive.  Rita is an extremely competent nurse who cares for him and then discovers the girl too is alive.  Who is this girl and the man?  He has identification in his pocket but the girl is not his daughter.  Is she Amelia, a daughter of a nearby couple that was kidnapped 2 years ago?  Is she Alice, the daughter of Mr. Armstrong who split with his wife a year ago and whose mother met with a bad end very recently? Or is she someone else?

No matter, we follow the workings of the town while we try to figure out where this little girl belongs.  She is rendered silent by her traumatic situation but she is well liked by all.  Although I've done a poor job of describing this book, I will say that the audio version is so very good, it may move into my favorite spot.  I mean, my favorite of all time.  I savored every minute listening and was sorry when it ended.

Saturday, April 13, 2019

The Scent of Rain and Lightning

The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard (2010) 319 pages

Jody Linder is confronted with the release from prison of the man her extended family believes killed her parents when she was three years old. In small town Rose, Kansas, the population had mixed feelings over Billy Crosby's conviction. Even though almost everyone agrees he was a lousy person–an alcoholic who drove when drunk and beat his wife–there was evidence that was withheld from his defense attorney that could have helped show he was not guilty of the murders. Jody and her family are reeling, filled with concern that Billy is returning to their town, and might want to get revenge for the prominent family's part in his conviction. The novel takes us back twenty-three years and fills in the picture before and after the murder of Jody's father and the disappearance of her mother, who is presumed dead. We learn that Billy's son Collin is now an attorney who has been instrumental in his father's return, despite his dislike of this man who hurt his mother.

The tumult that Jody experiences and her actions based on it ring true. I found this novel suspenseful in part, with startling revelations as the story wraps up.

Midnight Robber

Midnight Robber by Nalo Hopkinson  329 pp.

This is an richly and believably detailed novel of two planets: Toussaint, a Carib colonized planet of extreme nano-technology, and New Half-Way, an alternate version of Toussaint without the technology that serves as a place of exile for convicts. The tale is told in and all the human characters speak in an Afro-Caribbean patois which makes the audiobook a joy to listen to. The main character is Tan-Tan who begins the story as a young girl. When her father kills her mother's lover with a poisoned machete he takes Tan-Tan and escapes to New Half-Way. Soon he becomes a dissatisfied, bitter man who begins to abuse Tan-Tan. The teen-aged Tan-Tan escapes into the bush to live with the Douen, a race of non-humanoid creatures native to the planet who take her in reluctantly. In the short time that she is there she struggles with the guilt she is living with which increases when her presence causes destruction in the lives of the Douen. No spoilers about the ending. This is the first book I've read by this author and I look forward to reading more.

Friday, April 12, 2019

All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014) 530 pages

Marie-Laure, a blind girl in pre-WWII Paris, learns to get around her community after her father builds an intricate model of the neighborhood and teaches her to notice the landmarks and count her steps. He works at the Museum of Natural History. When the Germans begin to occupy France, they flee to the coast, to the walled town of Saint-Malo, where her father's uncle lives.

Werner, an orphaned German boy, dreads coming of age, when he'll be expected to work in the coal mines, where his father died. But the scientific and mathematical aptitude of him and his younger sister gets Werner involved with learning how to fix radios. One of their joys is to listen to music and podcast-like science lessons from far away. Werner's technical skills are noticed, and he is accepted into a training camp for boys, where in addition to Nazi indoctrination, he helps develop ways to locate the source of radio broadcasts.

The stories of Marie-Laure and Werner alternate. Food, fuel, and other necessities become scarce everywhere. People disappear, including Marie-Laure's father. Bombing occurs. An evil Nazi with cancer is looking for a gem with mystical healing power, which Marie-Laure's father may have been given for safekeeping. When Marie-Laure and Werner's lives finally begin to intersect, the story becomes even more riveting.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

The Stone Sky

The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin, 416 pages

As with most concluding entries in trilogies, it's difficult to talk about The Stone Sky without giving away all the twists and turns of The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate. What I can say is that 1. You REALLY NEED TO READ THOSE BOOKS and 2. this one finds Essun and her daughter Nassun using their orogenic powers to achieve their goals — which are, of course, in direct opposition to one another. In this (literally) groundbreaking series, Jemisin weaves together a story that resonates on multiple levels, from the complexity of the relationship between a mother and a daughter, to the functioning of communities in the face of disaster, to the systematic oppression and dehumanization of those who are different. That, along with the fact that the world and the characters are so well constructed, makes it abundantly clear why Jemisin became the first author to win three consecutive Hugo Awards for Best Novel for this series. Well deserved, and HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Wednesday, April 10, 2019


Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man by Mark Kurlansky, 251 pages

In this biography, Kurlansky delves into the life of Clarence Birdseye, a man best known for his innovations in fast-freezing food, changing the nature of kitchens, grocery stores, and meal-planning forever. Not a lot is known about Birdseye, who was a gregarious, curious, and adventurous man, but one who was paradoxically very private about himself. As Kurlansky notes in the book, while it's easy to find records of what Birdseye ate, hunted, and experimented on, it's nearly impossible to find any details about his marriage, his political leanings, or his relationships with his family.

Perhaps because of this, the book seems a bit thin on the ground in places — at times, I felt I was reading passages that were rewritten or perhaps leftover from Kurlansky's other books, specifically Salt. That said, when I picked this one up, I didn't expect to be hearing about adventures in Newfoundland, New Mexico, and my hometown in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana (I found that last bit particularly fascinating). While I can't say this was my favorite biography, I did enjoy it, and definitely learned a lot along the way.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019 a novel / Nathan Englander, 203 p.

Larry's beloved father has just died. During the period of shiva, spent at his devout sister Dina's house, Larry is pressured to agree to the duty of an observant son and commit to saying the prayer of mourning every day for eleven months with a minyan of ten other Jews.  A rather louche advertising exec, Larry finds a loophole in a website that offers to take on the duty for him to assure his father's status in the afterlife.

Twenty years later Larry is Reb Shuli, happily living a devout life in Brooklyn with his wife Miri and two children.  Through an encounter with a young student, grieving the loss of his own father, Shuli comes to realize what he has lost in forsaking his commitment to his father.  Frantically, he travels to Jerusalem to find a way to regain what he gave up twenty years earlier.

A sweet and amusing look at what it means to be observant, and what we owe ourselves and those we love, I enjoyed this while missing the heft and gorgeous craft of Englander's earlier What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank and Dinner at the Center of the Earth.

Eucalyptus, by Murray Bail

This 1998 novel won the 1999 Miles Franklin Award and the 1999 Commonwealth Writers' Prize.  It was recommended to me by a friend who had the luck to live in Australia for some time (as well as New Zealand), where the author is from and the book is set.  Eucalyptus is one of the largest species of trees and shrubs and originated mainly in Australia.  Specimens of various kinds are now found many places around the world and are even rather iconic, like those in California.  A man named Holland arrives in a small town some distance outside of Sidney.  There he buys a large piece of property which has been logged over by the former owners.  He begins to establish a virtual living museum of the various types of eucalyptus, large and small, rare and common, by planting young trees and shrubs around the denuded property.  Eventually he has over 500 varieties.  He also has a young daughter, Ellen, who over the years he is planting is herself growing into a remarkably lovely young woman.  As she approaches twenty, Holland decides that in order to marry her, a suitor must be able to correctly identify all of his eucalypts, rather like a fairy tale.  As contenders come and go from near and far, and most fail completely, it begins to look like no one is up to the challenge.  Then an older unprepossessing man named Mr. Cave arrives and begins to go walkabout on the property with Holland, discussing the trees and properly naming them.  Ellen at first is not too concerned, but as time goes by, begins to fear that Mr. Cave will be successful.  As Holland and Cave are slowly making their way around, she runs into a young man sleeping under one of the trees.  They also begin walking in different parts of her father's land and he begins to enchant her over the days with one after another story.  Like the marriage challenge, this is all rather like a fairy tale, or Scheherazade.  Who will win the fair princess?  A very literary and slow moving book which I suspect spoke more to my friend, who knew the landscape, than me.  I did enjoy it however, and you might too.  255 pp.