Sunday, June 30, 2019

The Complete Father Brown Mysteries

The Complete Father Brown Mysteries by G.K. Chesterton  282 pp.

It took me forever to finish this book since I only read a few pages at a time before going to sleep at night. And despite the title, this version is far from complete at just under 300 pages. The actual complete version is over 750. Unfortunately, I found it disappointing. I greatly enjoy the PBS Father Brown series, with its light humor and affable priest, the brilliant cast of characters, and the Father's adversary/friend, Flambeau. However, with the exception of Flambeau, those characters don't exist in the book. And the Flambeau of the book is not the good hearted thief of the t.v. show. He is a former criminal turned Father Brown's assistant/consultant. There is little action in the stories and often it is Flambeau or Father Brown merely telling about an event they were once involved in. These stories have not aged well and I was disturbed by the amount of racism in some of them. This one should remain gathering dust upon a shelf -- although, in my case, deleted from my Kindle.

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Descendants

The Descendants / Kaui Hart Hemmings, 283 pgs.

Matt King has big stuff on his plate.  He is the descendant of Hawaiian royalty and has, with many cousins, inherited a large amount of land.  Somehow he has the biggest vote so the decision rests with him.  A lot of money is at stake.  At the same time, his wife is in a coma following a boating accident.  He realizes he has no idea how to manage the household or his two daughters who he barely knows.  Oh yea, and then he discovers that his comatose wife had been cheating on him. Lots to deal with along with the stark realization that he certainly hasn't been the best husband or father. Now decisions have to be made.  His wife is not going to recover and will be taken off life support. The deadline for dealing with the land is looming.  Can he reconnect with his daughters and let go of the anger at his wife?  I really enjoyed this book which shows Matt struggling yet aware of his issues. 

Cheer up Mr. Widdicombe

Cheer up Mr. Widdicombe / Evan James, read by Jonathan Davis, 277 pgs.

The Widdicombe's are a quirky bunch.  Frank and Carole and artistic gay son Christopher.  Add in a visiting friend, Gracie, their assistant Michelle and the gardener, Marvelous Matthews, and you get a great story about a group that isn't fact they are very functional.  Sure, they have a little issue here and there but nothing major.  Michelle likes a guy who is bad for her.  Marvelous hides that he is on the wagon from Gracie, and Carole thinks Frank is depressed (he isn't).  Is kind of refreshing to read a fun story where people are doing things but none of them seem like bad choices.

The Men Who United the States

The Men Who United the States: America's Explorers, Inventors, Eccentrics and Mavericks, and the Creation of One Nation, Indivisible by Simon Winchester  496 pp.

Historian Simon Winchester tackles the creation and evolution of his adopted country in an overview of the known and unknown who made important advancements possible. Many of those featured in this book are not names you learned in history classes although the well-known are also there. He begins with the Louisiana Purchase and Lewis & Clark expedition, through the building of the Erie Canal and other important waterways, the westward migration, the building of the railroad, the industrial age, and ends with the development of the Internet. Because of a suggestion by his mother-in-law, the sections are loosely connected to the Chinese five elements: wood, earth, water, fire, and metal. I listened to the audiobook which was read by the author. However, this probably was not the best way to experience this book as there was no access to the maps and illustrations.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Cats I've known

Cats I've known: on love, loss, and being graciously ignored / Katie Haegele, 191 pgs.

A series of short essays that each feature a cat but also tells the author's story and her love and respect for cats and life in general.  It seems like each encounter left a little something with the author...even if it was a casual cat relationship.  Of course she has lived long term with many cats as well.  An interesting way to frame some fairly mundane events presented well.

The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye / Toni Morrison, 211 pgs.

Toni Morrison's classic is beautiful and horrifying. Pecola Breedlove is the central character yet we see her only through others.  She is ugly, she knows she is ugly, she just wants to be pretty.  She wants blue eyes because all of the examples in her life are of pretty blue-eyed girls.  Pecola's life is not great.  Her family is poor and on the bottom end in every way.  She seems to be the thing people look at to think, "At least my life isn't as bad as Pecola's."  This isn't really an enviable position but then things just get worse for her.  Not easy to read but not easy to put down. Hard to believe this was Morrison's first book.  She is a national treasure.

The Beautiful Mystery

The Beautiful Mystery by Louise Penny (2012) 373 pages

A murder takes place in a remote fortress-like monastery housing 24 monks. There is no doubt that one of the monks is responsible for the murder of the monastery's prior. The prior was the monk who led the others in their most amazing chants, which had been recorded and sold to finance extensive repairs in the very old establishment. The chants were received with acclaim; there is something about the way this particular group of monks chants that is quite overwhelming. Chief Inspector Gamache finds a split in the thinking among the monks over whether they should continue to record their chants or whether they should stick with their quiet life of work, prayer and chants, and he and Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir wonder if this difference in thinking was the root cause of the murder.

Meanwhile, the story delves back into a horrible time in the past year when the chief inspector and many of his men were killed and injured in a warehouse, and the long-term ramifications from that, in addition to the corruption high up in the Surete du Quebec. The storyline had me feeling the highs of the chants, as well as the desolation of the investigators as they deal with their personal demons.

Louise Penny remains my favorite mystery writer. I have not been reading the series in order, and although it would make for better continuity if I did so, seeing the past and future in different order lends a perspective that works for me.

Wednesday, June 26, 2019


Queenie / Candice Carty-Williams, read by Shvorne Marks, 330 pgs.

Queenie is a bit of a mess right now.  She has just had a miscarriage with her long term boyfriend with home she has just gone on "break."  She can't afford to live in a very nice place and she can't focus much on work during this "break."  She does have a very strong network of girlfriends to help her through but mostly she is out making bad decisions and screwing every guy in sight.  I can't tell you how much I loved this mess of a woman. She is suffering now but is laying the foundation to figure out who she is and what she wants. If you are an audio listener, this is one of the best examples of great narration that I've come across.  Read it or listen to it but don't miss this fabulous debut novel.

Time After Time

Time After Time by Lisa Grunwald, 401 pages

On December 5, 1925, Nora Lansing was on the final leg of a trip home from a long trip abroad when the subway train she was on crashed just before the platform at Grand Central Station. Several years to the day later, rail worker Joe Reynolds found Nora trying to find someone to walk her home from the station. When he obliges, they get no more than a couple blocks before she disappears into thin air. But something about Nora has captivated Joe, and when he finds her again the next December 5, the two strike up an unlikely romance.

Billed as a readalike to The Time Traveler's Wife, Time After Time is a complicated romance that spans years and strange complexities that can't be explained elsewhere. But unlike Niffenegger's groundbreaking novel, this book is limited by place, with almost everything taking place within a block or so of Grand Central and thus limits the protagonists' experiences (though the intrusion of World War II into their lives certainly livens things up). Perhaps because of that, or maybe because of the book's reliance on the quirky (but real) Manhattanhenge phenomenon, I wasn't quite as taken with this book. Certainly, I loved all the info about Grand Central during the war, and the inner workings of the terminal, but I just wasn't totally able to warm up to Nora and Joe like I did with Time Traveler's Wife's Henry and Claire. That said, for those that aren't quite as smitten with Time Traveler's Wife as I am (it's one of my all-time faves) and don't mind getting Cyndi Lauper earworms, this is a good read.

Just the Funny Parts

Just the Funny Parts: ...And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking Into the Hollywood Boys' Club by Nell Scovell, 316 pages

In this sometimes funny, always honest memoir, Scovell recounts her experiences becoming — and almost always remaining — the only woman in the writers' room of TV shows in more than 30 years in Hollywood. The Simpsons, Late Night with David Letterman, NCIS, Newhart, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, Charmed, the Kennedy Center Honors... Scovell's career has plenty of credits that a lot of writers would kill for. This is a story of the lack of diversity behind the scenes in Hollywood (and more specifically in comedy), as well as the story of a woman coming into her own through her experiences. I particularly enjoyed seeing her more recent career, when she began speaking out about the lack of female writers in writing rooms and working with Sheryl Sandberg to help support women. My only regret is that this was written before the #MeToo movement took off, as I'd love to hear her thoughts on that. A great memoir for fans of humor and Hollywood.

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O.

The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson & Nicole Galland  752 pp.

A newly created agency called the Department of Diachronic Operations is created to provide a way to alter history in favor of the U.S. government. Magic, and therefore witches, have ceased to exist sometime during the Industrial Revolution. One lone witch with little power still exists after using a spell to prolong her life back in the 1800s. With her help and a complicated piece of machinery, time travel is possible and more witches are brought to the future to aid the process. But beneficial changes can only occur in subtle ways. If too big a change is made, a disastrous event called Diachronic Shear, a magical explosion that destroys people and places. When one of the witches goes rogue the future of technology is in danger and the founding members of D.O.D.O. must stop her. This novel is not as complicated and rich as many of Stephenson's books but there is plenty of scientific discussion and a wide variety of characters integral to the story. The ending is obviously left open for a sequel and, in his recent appearance in St. Louis, Stephenson said that Ms. Galland has begun writing it. I listened to the audiobook which is voiced by multiple narrators. The woman who read the character of Rebecca East Oda sounds so much like Katharine Hepburn I couldn't help but envision her playing that character.

The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison  215 pp

I first read this book six years ago and this was what I had to say about it. My opinion hasn't really changed. It is a beautifully written depressing story.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Disappearing earth, by Julia Phillips

Don’t you love it when a book so captures you that you can hardly wait to recommend it to your friends?  This is one such novel, a debut by author Phillips.  Set in a remote area that most people, certainly including me, know little or nothing about, it is ostensibly a mystery story – two young sisters have vanished – but that is just the framework for this deeply affecting book.  The Kamchatka Peninsula hangs down off northern Russia.  There are mountains, volcanoes, hot springs, small native settlements, and a few larger towns.  Travel is difficult outside of the cities – roads peter out and you can really only leave by ship or plane.  That’s one reason that the complete disappearance of 8 year old Sophia and 11 year old Alonya is so puzzling.  A complex cast of characters is introduced in separate chapters (a key at the front helps the non-Russian speaking reader keep track of the names and relationships), with an emphasis on the women.  Eventually these threads will all interweave.   The Russian mother, Marina Alexandrova,a has lost her two daughters in the major city’s center, but four years earlier, Alla Innokentevna, a native woman, also had her older teenage daughter disappear from their remote community.  Not surprisingly, the latter is dismissed as a runaway, while the Russian’s children are the focus of months’ long searches and media coverage.  The cultural divides in this remote area are also fascinating and feel familiar – older Russians are still somewhat nostalgic for the orderly days of the Soviet Union’s domination; native populations struggle with poverty and the loss of older ways as well; and younger people of all types despair of finding meaningful work or life partners.  Women are still an underclass.  Things shift under them, like the tsunami in 1952 that swept away a whole town.   Many of these individual stories are heartbreaking.  255 pp.

Friday, June 21, 2019

A Job You Mostly Won't Know How to Do

A Job You Mostly Won't Know How to Do by Pete Fromm, 325 pages

Taz and Marnie are young, in love, and so excited for the upcoming birth of their child. But on the day Midge is born, Marnie dies from complications in childbirth, leaving Taz alone with his grief, his shock, and his motherless child. A Job You Mostly Won't Know How to Do gives a very realistic look at the first year of Midge's life, showing Taz's daily struggles as a widower and new father. For a book that I picked up solely because of the western Montana setting and the fact that the author's name ends with an M, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed this simple, touching tale.

Thursday, June 20, 2019

Dead in the Water

Dead in the Water by Carola Dunn (1998) 250 pages

Daisy Dalrymple, newly engaged to Scotland Yard's Detective Chief Inspector Alec Fletcher, is covering a college regatta as part of her magazine writing duties. It's the year 1923. She's staying with her aunt, uncle and cousin Tish for the weekend. The captain of the rowing team is Rollo, who's dating Tish. Another rower is "Cherry," a cousin of Tish who is dating Tish's close friend. Early on in Daisy's visit, it's quite apparent that two of the other rowers do not get along, to the point where threats are made, so when the bully, DeLancey, dies during a race, and the doctors find that he has head injuries from perhaps the night before, Bott, a poor student who came to Oxford on scholarships, is a suspect, along with the other rowers.

Alec had joined Daisy for the race, and finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to question future in-laws and their friends while investigating the case.

Fast, light read, plus I learned something about boat races.

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune

Natalie Tan's Book of Luck and Fortune by Roselle Lim, 299 pages

Natalie Tan is a nomadic chef, traveling the world instead of staying at home with her agoraphobic mother. But when her mother dies unexpectedly, Natalie finds herself traveling home to San Francisco's Chinatown, and attempting to reopen the restaurant that her grandmother once ran. Despite her intentions to stay out of neighborhood life, when the local seer passes along Natalie's grandmother's cookbook with some very specific instructions, Natalie becomes intertwined with the lives of the people around her. Sprinkled with bits of magic and mouthwatering food descriptions, this was a wonderful summer read. Pairs well with dumplings and tea.

Monday, June 17, 2019

The making of

The making of / Brecht Evens, Translated by Laura Watkinson & Michele Hutchinson, 218 pgs.

A successful artist is invited to produce something in a small town first biennial, a planned festival that will focus on art.  The artist wants to get the locals involved but may have taken on more than he can manage.  In a swirling water color style, the story unfolds with characters delineated by colors, their dialog in matching tones.  Lots of little stories occur on the sidelines and you wonder if the project will ever be completed.  Sometimes hard to follow, you will pick this up for the art, not the story.

Notes from a Young Black Chef

Notes from a Young Black Chef / Kwame Onwuachi, read by the author, 271 pgs.

Onwuachi is a former Top Chef competitor but this memoir tells a much bigger story of a hard worker whose interesting childhood had him living with relatives in Nigeria in addition to his home base in the Bronx with his mother and step father.  An admitted handful as a child, he was not a strong student and ended up majoring in "drug dealing" in his first attempt at higher ed.  But then he became focused on food and cooking.  He started his own catering company and ended up studying at the Culinary Institute of America.  This path led to Top Chef but that is the least interesting part of the story that I enjoyed hearing from the horses mouth.

The girl he used to know

The girl he used to know / Tracey Garvis Graves, read by Kathleen McInerney and Fred Berman, 291 pgs.

A college romance ends but ten years later the couple meet up again on accident.  He is recently divorced, she has had a couple of other relationships but it soon seems like they need to explore things together again.  All of this seems pretty straight forward and, frankly, not that interesting.  But as we learn more about Annika, we figure out that she is someone "on the spectrum." The time frame of the novel puts this at a time when fewer are diagnosed and less is known.  The roadblocks are there but mostly minimal.  It is nice to see this handled adeptly. Ten years later, Annika has better coping strategies.  Has she changed enough to make a difference or is this relationship doomed?  The ending is gimmicky and unsatisfying. Despite some good points, this isn't something I would recommend highly. 

The Bluest Eye

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, 215 pages

Pecola Breedlove has what could generously be called a rough life. She lives in a two-room apartment (which is really just a storefront that's been converted, in name only, to an apartment) with her always-fighting parents and her always-running-away brother. She dreams of becoming invisible and of having blue eyes, both of which she believes have the ability to change her life. Told through the eyes of Pecola and one of her classmates, with backstories on some of the adults, Morrison's debut novel illustrates the world of a young black girl in a small Ohio town in 1940. It's a brutal story, beautifully told.

Around the World in 80 Trees

Around the World in 80 Trees / Jonathan Drori, illustrations Lucille Clerc, 240 p.

A book that exemplifies the superiority of bound print over other media, at least in certain circumstances.  Organized geographically, the book begins in England with the London plane tree and continues east, finishing with Canada's sugar maple.  Stops in between include lesser-known (to me) species such as Indonesia's Upas and the Blue Quandong of Australia, which produces  a marble-sized cobalt blue fruit. 

Each tree is accompanied by an essay which explores the tree's relationship to humans and other life forms.  One would think that 80 consecutive tree essays would become monotonous, but Drori is a gifted writer as well as a font of information.  Accompanying drawings are gorgeous, detailed and subtly colored, and printed on paper well worthy of the project.  I paged through this with a child's delight, truly.  Great pleasure in a compact package, reasonably priced. 

Sunday, June 16, 2019

Enchantress of numbers: A Novel of Ada Lovelace, by Jennifer Chiaverini

Ada Byron Lovelace was the only legitimate child of Lord Byron, from his brief marriage to her mathematician mother, Annabella.  After Byron scandalously abandoned the family soon after Ada was born, he never saw either again.  Annabella is determined that her precocious and brilliant child will avoid the madness of the her father’s family (Byron was famously called, “Mad, bad, and dangerous to know,” and his father was known as “Mad Jack”) so shields her from all fairy tales and fantasy.  But from the age of four, Ada is carefully educated in languages and the sciences and will prove to have a unique mind.  Her mother is often away and Ada is left with various caretakers and teachers so feels abandoned and unloved.  She and her mother engaged in a life-long struggle for dominance which will also shape Ada’s world.  After she comes out in society at eighteen, she meets Charles Babbage, inventor of the “Difference Engine,” a huge, cog-driven ur-computer.  It is Ada who will figure out that using  punch cards, which she observed in factories producing jacquard weaving, will solve the problems inherent in the mechanical machine’s limitations.  She will not be recognized for her contributions and insights until 1953, a hundred years after her death at the young age of 36.  The novel has rich material in the famous and fascinating historical characters.  But it proved to be too rich in research for me.  Every visit to a relative in a far-flung castle or stately home, every social call, every visit to a spa by Ada’s hypochondriac mother, is detailed. which slows the narrative down to a crawl. It finally limps to an anticlimatic, mercifully short, depiction of Ada's marriage, childbearing, and death.  Chiaverini is a talented writer and this is an interesting and timely story, however, it was badly in need of an editor.  430 pp.