Thursday, May 30, 2019

Man-eaters, volume 1

Man-eaters [vol. 1] by Chelsea Cain, art by Kate Niemczyk, 128 pages

In the only-slightly-unreal world of Man-eaters, a mutation of the (absolutely real) housecat-transmitted disease toxoplasmosis is causing girls to transform into wild panthers when they get their periods. Understandably, the world is horrified by this development, and responds in the most predictable way ever: by regulating the pubescent girls of the world for the safety of the boys.

This is a sharp, timely, and wickedly good comic, made even better by the inclusion of three 13-year-old girls among its creators, who provide excellent haiku, stories, and drawings to the volume. I love this, and I will be reading more. For fans of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, Naomi Alderman's The Power, and any other works that fight the patriarchy.

The Devil Aspect

The Devil Aspect by Craig Russell  414 pp.

The setting is Prague in 1935. The Nazis are beginning their encroachment into surrounding countries.  Viktor Kos├írek, a psychiatrist who studied with Carl Jung, comes to the creepy mountain castle that houses the Hrad Orlu Asylum for the criminally insane. The country's six most notorious  killers are housed there. The six, known as the Woodcutter, the Clown, the Vegetarian, the Sciomancer, and the Demon, are going to be subjects Viktor will study in an effort to find what he calls "The Devil Aspect", an archetype shared by all that caused them to commit their horrific crimes. He also begins a romance with a secretary working at the asylum. However, the police in Prague are dealing with a brutal serial killer called "Leather Apron" by the press. Police investigator Lukas Smolak enlists the help of the doctors at the asylum in his investigation. Then Viktor begins to suspect that an old friend may be the killer. The story is appropriately dark and somewhat gory and even though I predicted the ending twist before it happened, it is a page-turner of a story. I listened to the audiobook which was nicely performed by Julian Rhind-Tutt.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Tourist Season

Tourist Season by Carl Hiasaen  378 pp.

This is an early novel by Hiaasen and he hadn't developed the voice of his later works. Even so, it is another send up of the "Florida Culture" he writes of so well. A series of seemingly random deaths have been occurring in the Miami area. A visiting Shriner, a woman from a senior living community, the Chamber of Commerce president, are all victims of a crew of oddball terrorists intent on driving the visitors and invading transplants that are ruining the state of Florida. The protagonist, Brian Keyes is a private detective and former newsman. The perpetrators are a motley crew calling themselves The Nights of December (Las Noches de Diciembre) which includes a newspaper reporter, a former pro football star, and a failed "Cuban" bomb maker, and the Seminole mastermind of the Native American casinos in the state. There are more deaths in this book than in Hiaasen's later novels but each occurs in a different and somewhat interesting way. The later books, especially the ones that feature the character Skink, are better efforts.

The promise of elsewhere, by Brad Leithauser


Louie Hake is forty-three and recently separated from his second wife, Florence.  She has decamped to the Virgin Islands with the director of the theater group she was active in and with whom she was caught in flagrante delicto.  Louie  teaches art history in Ann Arbor, not at that Ann Arbor, but at Ann Arbor College, a small, undistinguished liberal arts institution.  To add to his woes, he is bipolar and has recently been diagnosed with an eye disease that may eventually take his sight.  Who wouldn’t want to escape?  So off he goes on a tour of great architectural monuments in Rome, Istanbul, and as far away as Japan, leaving behind such modern conveniences as his cell phone.  Reaching Rome, however, he goes off his meds and similarly his tour plan goes go off track.  Our hero will take a side trip to England, put his travel itinerary on hold, and will end up, oddly, living in a sketchy B and B called the Rotten Egg in Qaqqatnakkarsimasut, Greenland with an strange man named Bendiks and his two beautiful children.  As time goes on, however, these children more and more begin to remind him of those in The turn of the screw.  Although the book is skillfully and often beautifully written, and is billed as “comic,”  there is way too much inner angst going on to keep some readers trudging on, although trudge I did. The ending seemed particularly anti-climactic.    352 pp.

Middlegame

Middlegame by Seanan McGuire, 528 pages

More than a century ago, a gifted alchemist named Asphodel Baker became convinced that she had figured out the key to complete power and universal control — in effect, to becoming a god. Much like other women of her day, however, her efforts were largely ignored. So she created a tall, handsome alchemical man to carry on her work for her. Eighty years later, her creation, James Reed, is zeroing in on the idea of embodying universal opposing ideals in pairs of twins — Erin and Darren embody order and chaos, for example — though most have failed. But Roger and Dodger (embodiments of language and math, respectively) hold some promise, possibly because Reed adopted them out to families on opposite sides of the country. Middlegame follows this brother-sister pair as they find each other and learn about their true selves.

This is the first novel I've read by McGuire, whose Wayward Children series of novellas is one of my favorites of recent years. It's perhaps for that reason that I found this a bit uneven. I love the complicated relationship between the siblings, and I enjoyed the overall premise of the book. But it seems like a lot of the back-story was shoved into the last 100 or so pages, which left me feeling more than a bit confused until that point. So this one wasn't my favorite of McGuire's, but it definitely won't keep me from reading more of her books in the future.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling, 652 pages

Well, my daughter and I are almost through our read-aloud of the Harry Potter series, having finished Half-Blood Prince. While this is, in my opinion, the darkest of the books — what with Voldemort rising, mysterious and nearly deadly accidents occurring at Hogwarts, Snape toeing the line of good and evil, and Harry's obsession with Malfoy — my daughter loved it. We're both excited to start on the final volume of this series, and sad that our journey is coming to an end. But we've both loved our time spent curled up on the couch with Harry in the books and Harry our cat snoozing nearby.

Friday, May 24, 2019

Good talk

Good talk: a memoir in conversations / Mira Jacob, 355 pgs.

I loved the graphic format of this memoir.  Author Jacob places drawings of speakers over a series of photos and drawings.  The effect is amazing.  I really got a feel for the people by viewing the cartoon versions of them.  But aside from the visual presentation, the memoir is excellent talking about growing up a super minority in New Mexico (supposedly the 3rd Indian family to move there).  Figuring out what it means to be a minority as you grow up. Marrying and having a son who is bi-racial and trying to figure out how to teach him what that means.  Then real life historic events including 9-11 and the election of the last few presidents.  This is really an impressive memoir.

The Dog Who Knew Too Much

The Dog Who Knew Too Much by Spencer Quinn (2011) 308 pages

Bernie Little, a private detective, is asked to pretend to be a divorced woman's boyfriend while visiting her son at an overnight camp, where the woman, Anya, expects to encounter her ex-husband. She's a bit taken aback when she learns that Chet, Bernie's over-sized dog will come along. But Chet has to come along: he's Bernie's co-investigator as well as the one who tells the story! When they arrive at the camp, the boys haven't yet returned from an overnight hike. When the boys and Turk, their leader, do return, it's without Devin. The leader says that Devin disappeared during the night. Bernie and Chet spring into action, retracing the hike along with a reluctant Turk. They stop to camp for the night, but Turk is gone in the morning. What follows is a saga of murder, drugs, small town corruption, and Bernie's false arrest for murder. Suzie, Bernie's real girlfriend, a newspaper reporter, tries to find out why Bernie has abandoned Chet, which is unthinkable. The action is nonstop and Chet's commentary is always endearing.


Thursday, May 23, 2019

Find where the wind goes

Find where the wind goes: moments from my life/ Mae Jemison, 196 pgs.

The first woman of color in space didn't even need that on her resume to be amazing.  Reading about Jemison's childhood and academic accomplishments, he hobbies and interests...this is a person impressive on so many levels. I loved reading about her relationship with her siblings and how they protected each other from outsiders but were merciless to each other when together.  Jemison is the type of person who takes advantage of every opportunity, she was involved in tons of activities in school at every level.  When attending Stanford working on her Chemical Engineering degree, she managed to keep up with several of her favorite hobbies and earn enough credits for a second major.  Truly a lovely person who, I noted, was one of seven women voted most likely to become President of the U. S.  I would love to see her interests move to that position!

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Unbecoming

Unbecoming: a memoir of disobedience / Anuradha Bhagwati, read by the author, 321 pgs.

Bhagwati always chaffed against her conservative Indian parents (both economists) and spent her younger years feeling like she did not fit in anywhere.  Somewhat inspired by the movie G. I. Jane, she abandons grad school and joins the Marine Corps.  When her training begins, she realizes the movie might not have been exactly accurate.  She is subjected to racism, sexual violence, sexism and harassment at a level she was not anticipating.  She works hard at overcoming obstacles and standing up for herself, often pushing herself to her limits.  Post Marine life is spend dealing with her various traumas and advocating for changes.  She throws herself into political activism and makes progress changing laws and attitudes affecting military women. This memoir is so different because the author has done things that so few of us have done.  Certainly a lot of insight into problems for women in the military and the many changes that are still needed.  Personally a story of struggle with a lot of triumph but sometimes more struggle.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

The Lost Man

The lost man / Jane Harper, read by Stephen Shanahan, 340 pgs.

The cover says "three brothers, one death, no answers..." but that isn't exactly true.  We are lead to believe we know the answers but then sometimes we realize we went the wrong direction.  Nathan, Cameron and Bub are the three brothers.  The story opens with Cameron dead from what seems to be suicide.  Everyone around him said he has been having a hard time, he was worked up, something was bothering him.  But he was well liked and successful in his community.  He has 2 beautiful daughters and a solid marriage.  His brother Nathan who lives several hours away on his own believes Cameron had it all.  But then we find out there a few cracks in this story.  Things aren't always as they seem.  Nathan and his son Xander are poking around a little because they find the suicide a little hard to believe.  The more they poke, the more they uncover.  Maybe Cameron had more going on than anyone knows.  As with any good mystery, that is always true.  I listened to the audio book and it is just perfectly done by Stephen Shanahan. 

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors and a Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman  339 pp.

This is an account of refugee Hmong Family in Merced, California and the unfortunate battles with the medical establishment that led to their daughter's existence in a persistent vegetative state in the 1980s. The book, written in 1997, chronicles Lia Lee's sudden onset of severe epilepsy and the lack of communication between the hospital staff caring for her and the parents. Due to lack of competent translators, the non-English speaking parents could not understand most of what the hospital staff told them resulting in accusations of non-compliance with medical orders. Frequently the medical orders conflicted with the Hmong way of life and their animist beliefs. Many of the hospital staff were extremely prejudiced against the Hmong, convinced they were just stupid. Even when they did "follow orders" and administer medication properly, Lia suffered "the big one", a seizure that left her essentially brain dead. After removing her from life support the family took her home to die but she survived to age thirty before succumbing to pneumonia cared for by her family the entire time. Alternating with Lia's story, Fadiman gives a historic overview of the sad history of the Hmong people. Sadly, this award winning book was done no favors by the audiobook narration which I nearly abandoned mulitple times. The mispronunciations in the recording were horrendous with multiple instances in each chapter. I gave the narration a bad review on Audible.

Monday, May 20, 2019

The 27*Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders

The 27*Ingredient Chili Con Carne Murders by Nancy Pickard (based on characters and a story created by Virginia Rich) (1993) 296 pages

Mrs. Eugenia Potter is the widowed owner of a cattle ranch in southern Arizona very near the Mexican border. While staying in Maine for a few weeks, she receives a call from Ricardo, the manager of her ranch, asking her to return immediately, but when she returns the next day, she learns that he and his granddaughter Linda are both missing, having left their home on horseback in the middle of the night. Added to this concern is that Mrs. Potter doesn't know why she was summoned back – Ricardo wouldn't tell her over the phone because of the party line in their small town.

Based on some notes Ricardo left in her house, Mrs. Potter feels more and more sure that Ricardo and Linda were the victims of foul play rather than an accident. There are plenty of suspects: neighboring ranch owners as well as those who work on the various ranches.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Potter learns that Jed, her college sweetheart from forty years ago, is staying at a fancy dude ranch nearby while in the area on business. Jed's presence is a unexpected surprise in the midst of her worries, making Mrs. Potter wonder whether Jed wants to re-establish a relationship.

I had my pet suspects, but as usual, Pickard (and Rich) fooled me. The thorough details sometimes seem more than needed, but they set the stage quite well.




Southern lady code

Southern Lady Code / Helen Ellis, 203 pgs.

Helen Ellis is at it again...saying what she thinks about EVERYTHING including living a slob life, a tidy life, a creative life.  Appreciating gay men, serious women and silly stories.  Stealing coats, watching pornography, and dressing appropriately are all included here.  Watching your friend prosecute the hell out of a murderer, going for a mammogram and how to avoid getting mugged...All this and more leave you with some of the best advice you will get this year.

Freefall

Freefall / Jessica Barry, read by  Hillary Huber, Karissa Vacker, & MacLeod Andrews, 350 pgs.

Allison Carpenter is aboard her fiance's private plane when it crashes.  The pilot is dead but Allison survives.  She is injured but knows she needs to get a move on because she knows someone is out to get her. On the other end of the country, Maggie Carpenter learns of her daughter's probably death and is saddened that they have not healed the rift that has left them not communicating for two years.  It doesn't take long for Maggie to question the details of Allison's death and whether she is even dead.  They haven't found her body, after all, but did return the locket she has worn for years that was given to her by her father. As Maggie researches her questions, Allison is struggling to survive.  She is in the wilderness, then finally gets to civilization but is afraid to contact anyone.  She decides she must make her way to her mother in Maine.  This book is told in alternating viewpoints.  It has a few interesting spots but is mostly so unrealistic with ridiculous lines that you might want to skip this one.

The Lost City of the Monkey God

The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story by Douglas Preston, 326 pages

For ages, the people of Honduras and the world at large have heard the whispers of a lost city of a long-gone civilization: Cuidad Blanca, or the Lost City of the Monkey God. About a decade ago, American researchers and explorers thought they'd finally come up with a location in the remote jungles of Mosquitia, a region of Honduras and Nicaragua. This book tells the tale of that exploration, first by groundbreaking scanning technology, then by physical ground-mapping in the snake- and insect-infested jungle, and then of the aftermath of the exploration, which includes everything from angry archaeologists to a slow-moving and horrifying disease caught by most of the people who traveled to the site in Mosquitia. I enjoyed listening to this book, which at times felt like a true-life Michael Crichton novel. A fun book, though it certainly makes me think twice about any notions of heading into the jungles of Honduras. *shudder*

Saturday, May 18, 2019

Life

Life by Keith Richards with James Fox  574 pp.

At one point in his career as the guitarist and co-songwriter for the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards was named the rock musician most likely to die. And yet, he is still around, still performing and writing songs at the esteemed age of 75. This extensive autobiography tells his life from childhood on with the good and the bad detailed in all its disreputable glory. Richards details the gift of his first guitar from his grandfather, the musicians that influenced him, formation and success of the Rolling Stones along with various problems within the band. There is also great detail about Richards drug use, various attempts a detoxing, arrests, and assorted serious injuries over the years, some life-threatening. He also includes lots of musicianship, mostly in the form of how he used various alternate tunings on his guitars, and the use of five string guitars on many of the Stones' hits. If anything in this book surprised me it was his personal life which included the two long term relationships (to Anita Pallenberg and his wife, Patti Hansen whom he married in 1983) and his five surviving children who have been an active part of his life. This is a well written, if dense, account of his life. Unfortunately the audiobook leaves much to be desired. The parts read by Johnny Depp are done in mostly monotone while the parts read by Joe Hurley is mostly an exaggerated imitation of Richards. The few parts read by Keith Richards were much better but I can understand his not wanting record a book of this length by himself.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Playing in the Dark


Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination / Toni Morrison, 91 p.

Essays based on a series of Massey lectures given at Harvard, the topics explored here link strongly to ideas we hope to discuss this summer when we read Morrison's The Bluest Eye and Melville's Moby Dick.  We hope to see the ways in which a canonical work of 19th century American literature written by a white still contains what Morrison calls an "Africanist" presence, and how this awareness might change our understanding of that book, as well as inform our reading other more contemporary texts such as The Bluest Eye.  Some of Morrison's thoughts:


  • “…until very recently…readers of virtually all of American fiction have been positioned as white.”
  • “How is ‘literary whiteness’ and ‘literary blackness’ made, and what is the consequence of that construction?”
  • “Living in a nation of people who decided that their world view would combine agendas for individual freedom and mechanisms for devastating racial oppression presents a singular landscape for a writer."
  • “There is no romance free of what Herman Melville called “the power of blackness,” especially not in a country in which there was a resident population, already black, upon which the imagination could play…” 
And perhaps most importantly:
  • “My project rises from delight, not disappointment.”

River of Teeth

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey, 175 pages

Facing a nationwide meat shortage just over 100 years ago, Congress considered a plan to import hippos to the U.S. and create hippo ranches. This is absolutely true, though it ultimately didn't come to fruition. Thankfully, Sarah Gailey heard about this ludicrous plan and decided to write a Western-esque adventure story of revenge set in the marshy lands of the Mississippi delta.

This novella features a rowdy bunch of outlaws hired to wrangle the feral hippos out of the area and into the Gulf of Mexico. But their leader, a British transplant and former hippo rancher, has an ulterior motive that not all of the crew members are on board for. While I have a few quibbles with transitions, for the most part this is an enjoyable, rollicking ride. The second book, Taste of Marrow, has moved up to the top spot on my TBR list.

The Westing Game

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin (1978) 217 pages

The Westing Game is a juvenile mystery, winner of the Newbery Award. The premise is that 16 people are lured to live in or work in (or both) Sunset Towers, an apartment building owned by Samuel Westing on the Lake Michigan shore. A few months later, Westing, from the nearby Westing estate dies and his attorney assembles the 16 people at the Westing estate, calling them beneficiaries to his will. The estate is worth  200 million dollars. A letter read by his attorney indicates that Westing was murdered and that Westing knows who killed him. The beneficiaries will be paired up and given clues to determine which of them killed Westing. The winner of the "game" will receive the 200 million dollars. Some of the characters knew Westing and some did not. They are from different walks of life and different ages. The youngest, Turtle, is only twelve.

This is the kind of book where I like to write down all the people's names and clues to see if I can figure out whodunnit. The clues come in fast, not always so obvious, and the people are not always who we think they are. Lots of fun and surprises.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

The Damascus Road

The Damascus Road: a Novel of Saint Paul / Jay Parini, 347 p.

A convincing imagining of the life of Paul, told in alternating passages narrated by Paul himself and his companion, the author of Luke's Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles.  Unlike Peter, or Judas, or Jesus himself, scriptural Paul always seems distant, a disembodied voice exhorting the faithful.  Parini fleshes him out in a way that makes him seem real, if still not always likeable.  Parini is an academic as well as a poet and novelist, and he manages to straddle the line between a novelistic presentation of scholarship and an actual work of the imagination.  A nice exploration of the tensions between the Greek/Gentile followers of Jesus and the Jewish apostles who knew him in life.

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me

My Grandfather Would Have Shot Me: a Black Woman Discovers Her Family's Nazi Past / Jennifer Teege and Nikola Sellmair, trans. by Carolin Sommer, 221 p.

Teege, the daughter of a white-German mother and a Nigerian father, was placed in an orphanage as an infant and later adopted by a white German family.  As an adult she stumbled across a library book that pointed her to the truth about her biological mother, and her beloved grandmother, with whom she remained in contact throughout her childhood.  Her grandmother was the mistress of Commandant Amon Goeth of the Plaszow concentration camp, whose character was portrayed by Ralph Fiennes in Schindler's List.  This was Jennifer's biological grandfather.  To make the (true) story just a little more incredible, as a young adult, Jennifer lived for several years in Israel, obtained a degree there, and had very close Israeli friends.  The book is a deliberate unwinding of Jennifer's process of coming to grips with this past and moving forward.  A highly accessible, straightforward account. 

Cozy Minimalist Home

Cozy Minimalist Home: More Style, Less Stuff / Myquillyn Smith, 205 p.

A well-organized guide to decorating or re-decorating your home affordably and with an eye to minimizing clutter.  While the author's aesthetic doesn't quite match mine, I did appreciate her presentation of ideas.  Her reference to a newly cleared space in a room as a 'Sabbath' made me think of freshly emptied corner of my kitchen I think of daily as my Zen, because I feel so peaceful when I look at it.  She talks of quieting a room, which involves emptying it to its bones to get a better feel for next steps.  A worthwhile read.

Shuri vol. 1

Shuri [vol. 1]: The Search for Black Panther by Nnedi Okorafor, art by Leonardo Romero and Jordie Bellaire, 113 pages

I know this is supposed to be a book review, but indulge me for a minute as I talk about a movie. When Black Panther came out last year, I was grossly unaware of the Wakandan king and protector. But the movie was awesome, and my favorite part was T'Challa's brainy, bold, and funny as hell little sister Shuri. Whatever happened after that movie, I wanted more Shuri!

So imagine my sheer delight when I found out that the brilliant Nnedi Okorafor was writing a Shuri comic! I love Okorafor's Binti trilogy (and I love following her and her cat on Twitter), so I had high hopes for this dream team pairing of an awesome writer and an awesome character. Thankfully, this volume (which collects the first five Shuri issues) lives up to my expectations. Shuri is as brainy as ever, and I loved her interactions with other Marvel characters, particularly the sequence in which she astral-projects into Groot. (Sounds weird, I know, but just go with it.) I will definitely be reading more of this series. It's fantastic!

Reincarnation Blues

Reincarnation Blues by Michael Poore, 371 pages

Milo is an old soul. He's lived thousands of lives and not one of them has reached Perfection. But when his 9,995th life ends, Milo is shocked to discover that he only has five lives left to achieve Perfection. If he can't manage it by then, he'll be cast into the Nothing. So Milo embarks on these last five chances with a renewed purpose, one that's complicated by the fact that Milo is happiest in the afterlife, where he has fallen in love with Death (who prefers to be called Suzie).

This is a wonderfully funny and refreshing story that explores human nature, perfection, Buddhism, and the elusive ability to meditate successfully (according to Poore's version of the Buddha, it's OK if you keep getting distracted by thoughts of cats). I enjoyed Poore's style, which seems like a quirky combination of Neil Gaiman and Christopher Moore (particularly Moore's Lamb, which is one of my all-time favorite books). Coming from me that's high praise. I will be reading more of Poore.

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Marriage of Opposites

The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman  369 pp.

I've read a number of Hoffman's novels and they have been hit and miss but I liked this one a lot. The Caribbean setting is reminiscent of Isabel Allende's Island Beneath the Sea. In the early 1800s Rachel grows up on the island of St. Thomas in a small community of Jewish Inquisition refugees. She dreams of going to Paris, a dream shared by her best friend and confidante, Jestine, daughter of the family servant. To save her father's business she enters into an arranged marriage with an older widower with children. On his death, everything they own, including her late father's business,  goes to her husband's family. When his nephew, Frederick, arrives from Paris to claim the inheritance, it is love at first sight between the two and they go on to have a scandalous relationship. The Jewish congregation refuses to allow them to be married because the relationship is considered incestuous. They remain together and have several children to add to the children and step-children Rachel already had. Eventually their youngest son is sent to Paris to study. He ends up becoming a world renowned by the name of Camille Pisarro.

Becoming, by Michelle Obama


It is hard for me to imagine a woman more suited to becoming the first African-American First Lady or one who could handle the strains and challenges of this most public position with greater grace.  Her memoir is beautifully written as well as fascinating.  We were lucky to have her and I hope she continues to engage in our national discourse.  But, of course, and I also mean “course,” it’s also so sad to compare it to our current administration.  Worth the endless hold list (and I actually finally found it on the Hot Reads after two months of waiting).  426 pp.