Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The Bookseller

The Bookseller (Hugo Marston #1) by Mark Pryor  300 pp.

Hugo Marston is the head of security at the U.S. Embassy in Paris. During his time there he frequents the book stalls along the River Seine. He purchases a couple first editions from one named Max, one of which turns out to be extremely valuable. However, Marston witnesses the kidnapping of Max and the police refuse to believe him. After being told by his Embassy superiors that he must stay out of the local matter, Marston continues to search for Max while uncovering convoluted government agencies and sinister gangs trying to take over the area with the book stalls. The story is a good one but the author gets a little too caught up in his descriptions bogging things down. Not sure if I will venture into more of this series.

Norwegian by Night

Norwegian by Night by Derek B. Miller  303 pp.

Sheldon is an 82 year old widower who has been transplanted to Norway from New York City by his daughter and her Norwegian husband. He feels out of place, doesn't know the language, and is increasingly caught up in his memories of the Korean War which his doesn't believe. His life is further disrupted when he rescues a neighbor and her young son from the son's father but is unable to keep her from being killed. He takes the boy and goes off on a trek into the Norwegian countryside, trying to find his son-in-law's hunting cabin while avoiding the gangsters that want the boy and the police who are searching for the errant duo. Along the way he cons his way into a night at a high priced hotel, steals a boat, and a tractor. This was a slow starter and I almost quit on it but then the story grabbed me and I ended up enjoying it. In spite of the seriousness of the plot there were moments when I laughed out loud.

The Scandal at Bletchley

The Scandal at Bletchley by Jack Treby  236 pp.

In 1929, on the brink of the global recession, a group of MI5 personnel meet at the private estate, Bletchley Park to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the organization. Former secret service member, Hilary Manningham-Butler, is invited but is not sure why since he left employment there many years before. Hilary is a middle aged woman who has been masquerading as a man for most of her life and none of her colleagues know about it. But when someone in the party threatens to reveal that secret it could bring down the entire organization which is something members of Parliament would love to see. As mysteries go, this one is so-so at best. I got it as a cheap audiobook so I'm not out much. For some reason I am having trouble uploading pictures of the cover on my Chromebook so I will add it later.

Monday, March 30, 2020

Calling Dr. Laura

Calling Dr. Laura: A Graphic Memoir by Nicole J. Georges
262 pages

When Georges was in her early 20s, a palm reading led revealed a huge secret: her father, whom she'd long been told was dead, was likely still alive. Calling Dr. Laura explores Georges' journey in grappling with this information--why his departure from her life was conveyed to her as such, how the revolving door of father figures impacted her young life, and her relationship with her mother--all while navigating her own life as a young woman in Portland trying to maintain a job and relationship.

This was a terrific read--captivating, mysterious, and heart-wrenching. Georges' deep dive into her own personal history is raw and courageous. There were so many moments of triumph and cringe-worthiness alike. I loved the black and white palette with often spare frames--it lent the book an extra sense of gravitas. I'll be thinking of this book for a long time and can't wait to read more of Georges' work.

The Dating Charade

The Dating Charade by Melissa Ferguson, 321 pages

Cassie has just about had it with trying to find a guy through a dating app when Jett sends her a message about knowing her from high school. She ignores it, but her best friend Bree intervenes to match up the social worker and the hunky firefighter (who really did go to high school together) against Cassie's wishes. Turns out their date is nearly perfect, and they both are excited about their future together when fate intervenes. Both have a trio of children unexpectedly thrust into their care: Jett's wayward sister shows up with her toddler twins and an infant, while Cassie takes in a 14-year-old she knows from her teen program, as well as the girl's younger sisters. Both Cassie and Jett are under the impression that the other doesn't want or even like kids, and so both go to great lengths to hide the kids from each other. I'll bet you can figure out how this turns out.

This was a sweet story of two innately good people trying to do their best for each other and the kids in their care. Between its setting in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, and the fact that it takes place between Thanksgiving and Valentine's Day, this book feels like a Hallmark Channel movie in book form. And sometimes that's exactly what you need.

The City We Became

The City We Became by N.K. Jemisin, 437 pages

New York City is on the cusp of coming to life. Through all the multiple universes, that singular city we all know as New York is attempting to be born and claim its place among the great cities, including Sao Paulo, Hong Kong, Paris, and London. But the Enemy is fighting hard to stop this city from taking hold, and so it is up to the five boroughs as represented by human avatars that embody the soul of each borough to fight of the Enemy and help New York really take root as a living, breathing entity.

This book is about as far as possible from Jemisin's Hugo-winning Broken Earth trilogy, but that doesn't mean its any less amazing. The boroughs' avatars are stereotypes, yes, but loving ones that pay tribute to the history and soul of the city. It's a love letter to NYC, one that celebrates the city's attitude, its quirks, and its diversity. I loved this book, and I can't wait for the next book in this trilogy.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Golden Gates

Golden Gates: Fighting for Housing in Ameria / Conor Dougherty, read by the author, 285 pgs.

A deep reporting of anti-growth tactics that have been used by local governments that have lead to the housing crisis happening today.  When population increases as people move to an area, lack of housing construction will lead to a shortage. Sounds simple, but it isn't.  There are lots of forces at work and Dougherty covers many in this book.  I was fascinated from page one and never knew zoning could be so interesting.  Great for public policy nerds, activists, and those interested in the economics of housing and unintended consequences that result from policy and values of a variety of communities.  I listened to the audio book that is read perfectly by the author.


Weather / Jenny Offill, 207 pgs.

I love Jenny Offill and her writing is sublime.  You know she is smart and awesome because she has a librarian as the main character in this book!  This is a perfect example of the timing you read something having a effect on your thoughts about the book.  Lizzie is the aforementioned librarian and she is maybe a little depressed.  This has a contemporary setting and the troubles of the world are getting to her.  She is maybe a little tired of her life in other ways too.  Her husband is a "good guy" if maybe a little boring.  Her son is great but dealing with his everyday issues maybe a little taxing.  Her brother is seriously troubled but might be getting his life together...oh wait, I spoke too soon.  But as I read this during the second week of real life "social distancing" and staying away from people, it makes Lizzie seem very daring and adventurous.  Her husband is away visiting his parents and she goes out an has a drink and conversation with another man!  Oh my, she is putting herself at risk to catch the virus! Wait, that is just now in real life, not part of the book.  In the end, she and the other man don't even kiss each other.  Any other time Lizzie would have come across as the author intended.  Smart and nice but a little boring.  In the current environment, she seems like a complete daredevil. Enjoyable.

QR codes kill kittens

QR codes kill kittens: how to alienate customers, dishearten employees and drive your business into the ground / Scott Stratten, 196 pgs.

I knew better than to pick up any book that references QR codes...but there was that kitten...so now I've read the book.  I didn't realize the pub date was 2014 when I first checked it out and this was probably great in 2014.  Today we know that QR codes are a joke.  Anyway, this has lots of examples of bad signs, bad policies and silly stuff that nobody is doing any more...right?  Or course all that bad stuff still exists but maybe not as many large QR codes.  Still, that kitten is cute.


Rembrandt / Typex, 238 pgs.

A graphic biography of the great master, Rembrandt van Rijn with details that are a little fuzzy.  This book covers his painting career, love, and family life.  Rembrandt was popular in his day but managed his money and fame poorly.  He was cantankerous and perhaps a bit of an ass.  His work endures, however and he is considered one of the great masters.  More interesting is the way the art reveals something about Rembrandt's own style.  I think the pictures here are more important than the story.

Weekend With the Rabbi

Weekend With the Rabbi by Harry Kemelman 565 pages

This book is three mystery novels under one cover: Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1964), Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry (1966), and Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home (1969)

Rereading a favorite series is like eating comfort food. So it was with the first three novels in the Rabbi Small series. In the first book, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Rabbi David Small is nearing the end of  his first year as Rabbi for the Jewish congregation in the small town of Barnard's Crossing. When a young woman's body is found on the temple grounds, both Rabbi Small and Stanley, the temple's handyman, are for a time suspects in her murder. Rabbi Small and the town's Catholic police chief, Hugh Lanigan find a camaraderie: Lanigan is fascinated with the Jewish faith and pilpul, a critical analysis of talmudic reasoning, which Rabbi Small applies to the real world as well. Rabbi Small's reasoning helps to solve the crime.

In Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, Isaac Hirsh, a nonobservant Jewish scientist–also a recovering alcoholic–is found dead on the eve of Yom Kippur. After his burial in the Jewish cemetery, there are rumors that his death may have been a suicide, which upsets a rich elderly donor in the congregation who had been willing to finance a new chapel. This causes friction between Rabbi Small and the president of the congregation, because the Rabbi says the body should stay, but the president wants something to be done to keep the donor from changing his mind about the chapel. As the disagreement continues, the Rabbi and the police chief once again meet to suss out the situation, coming to the conclusion that Hirsh was actually murdered, and work from there to solve the murder.

In Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home, different philosophical views about how to deal with social justice issues are threatening to break the congregation apart. In the town, the police have been active, trying to stop drug trafficking. Meanwhile, the college-aged children of the congregation are returning home to Barnard's Crossing for Passover week. When an acquaintance of theirs shows up uninvited for a beach party, and later ends up dead, the students are in the spotlight. Rabbi Small's role is critical in reasoning out the who and why of the death.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

The Pure Gold Baby / Margaret Drabble, 291 p.

Globe-trotting Jess comes of age in postwar London, when the world seems to be opening up to young women.  But when the result of an affair with her anthropology professor is her beautiful, golden daughter Anna, things change.  Anna is sweet and happy, but as she grows it becomes clear that she has intellectual delays.  So Jess turns away from the wide world and devotes herself to mothering her child.  Softly plotted so as to be just barely a novel; still, it's an affecting meditation on difference.  Along the course of Jess' life, she interacts with a group of people in an experimental psychiatric hospital, as well as classmates of Anna's with various cognitive deficits, and through all of these encounters she examines their worlds with an anthropologist's eye.

Friday, March 27, 2020

The Door

The Door / Magda Szabo, trans. by Len Rix, 262 p.

I enjoyed all three Szabo novels released by NYRB: Abigail,  Katalin Street and this, the strangest and most compelling of the three.  The novel is the story of two women, Magda, an intellectual and writer living with her husband in a comfortable Budapest apartment, and Emerence, her cleaning lady.  Emerence is possibly one of fiction's more mysterious characters.  Of peasant stock, she is forbidding but loving, ferociously hard-working, apolitical and anti-intellectual and yet seemingly the ruler of the denizens of their Budapest neighborhood, regardless of their their social class.  Magda comes quickly to depend on Emerence to keep her home running, while no one is ever allowed to cross the threshold of Emerence's home. 

Operating on a number of levels, Magda and Emerence's dysfunctional, co-dependent relationship explores issues of class, education, culture, and politics in twentieth-century Hungary.  Alien but affecting. 

Murder is a Piece of Cake

Murder is a Piece of Cake by Elaine Viets (2010) 282 pages

Former St. Louisan Elaine Viets has a number of mystery series that I hadn't read, so I chose a couple of her books at random. In Murder is a Piece of Cake, Josie Marcus is a mystery shopper whose job takes her to a few wedding-related venues, useful since she's engaged to be married in 5 weeks. Her fiance is Ted, a veterinarian who has been stalked by Molly, a woman who insists that he is HER fiance, not Josie's. Ted's rich, pistol-packing mother is visiting from Florida, and saves Ted from being knifed by Molly in his office. When Molly later turns up dead, Ted's mother is the prime suspect. Josie, who is annoyed nonstop by Ted's mother, nevertheless works to find the real murderer, if only so that her own wedding to Ted will come off on schedule. This light-hearted read moves quickly, and is filled with St. Louis venues.

Get a Clue

Get a Clue by Jill Shalvis (2005) 297 pages

When it seemed that our library might be closing soon due to coronavirus concerns, I hurriedly stockpiled several books to keep me occupied. Little did I realize that one of the books I chose, Get a Clue, was a romance/mystery. This is not my usual choice. In spite of its genre (or perhaps because of it?), it was a fast read, grabbing my interest as Breanne, the heroine, goes on her honeymoon alone after being stood-up at the altar. She's determined to avoid men, based on her poor track record. She finds herself at a remote lodge in the Sierra Mountains in the snowstorm of the century, just before the power goes out. Her reserved suite has been double-booked by a burned out policeman. Cooper, the policeman, is having a life crisis, too. Start with two emotionally injured people with strong feelings, each insisting on their right to the bridal suite, add some suspense, a dead body and a lot of sex, and here is a somewhat predictable, yet entertaining read.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

This is going to hurt

This is going to hurt: secret diaries of a medical resident / Adam Kay, read by the author, 298 pgs.

As a person terrified to dealing with any medical issue (including minor bleeding or anything more than a cat scratch), I am fascinated by medical books.  This one is great.  The diary of a "junior doctor" in the UK, the equivalent of a medical resident in the U. S.  Adam Kay reads his own work and does such a great job.  There are some gross stories and some heart breakers but mostly this is just gold medal winning day-to-day doctor stuff.  I could not stop listening.

Transaction man

Transaction man: the rise of the deal and the decline of the American dream / Nicholas Lemann, 306 pgs.

Economic history, corporate culture and an explanation of why things are getting harder for the average citizen.  Lemann takes us from the rise of the corporation viewed through the lens of a neighborhood on the south side of Chicago.  The way the housing shifted, the jobs shifted and the difficulty of hanging on despite a lot of effort of the people featured in this book.  The economy has changed, is changing, will continue changing.  How do we deal with the people who get mowed over as the machine keeps moving.  This book doesn't provide answers, it is more a chronicle of the rise and fall of the system...but somehow the system hasn't changed much.  Interesting reading for econ nerds.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Death in Her Hands

Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh, 262 pages

Vesta is a 72-year-old widow who lives in a secluded cabin with only her big mutt, Charlie, to keep her company. When she discovers a mysterious note about Magda, a dead woman who was apparently not killed by the note-writer, Vesta's mind kicks into overdrive, spinning a backstory for Magda and the mysterious person who wrote the note, despite having no evidence of anything. As such, most of this book takes place in Vesta's mind, though the short excursions into the outer world with Vesta are unsettling at best. A mad mix of humor and psychological suspense create a haunting tale of a woman who is a mystery to everyone around her. The only question is: is that mysterious woman Magda or Vesta herself?

There You Are

There You Are (2019) by Mathea Morais; 304 pages

Spanning three decades, There You Are follows the lives of Octavian Monroe and Mina Rose as they navigate love, friendship, race, and music. They find solace with each other in grade school--Octavian, whose mother is dying of cancer and older brother whose behavior is becoming increasingly troubled, and Mina, a misfit who wishes she weren't white...experiences that inform much of their identities and the adults they become. Heartbreaking events bring them closer together, then tear them apart, until they must face one another again when they get the news that their beloved record store is closing.

The book centers mostly around University City and Rahsaan's Records, specifically--inspired by Vintage Vinyl in U. City's Loop district--and delves deep into the troubled race relations that have plagued St. Louis since its founding. This is certainly one of those books where you could call setting a character--anyone familiar with St. Louis will recognize much of the novel. That said, the characters themselves were vivid and charismatic, well-crafted by Morais to bring you right into the moment. A lot of big ideas are packed into these pages, but I was invested in the entire story arc and appreciated the closure at the end. I definitely look forward to more work by Mathea Morais.

Monday, March 23, 2020

The Last Smile in Sunder City

The Last Smile in Sunder City by Luke Arnold, 361 pages

Sunder City is full of elves, warlocks, goblins, vampires, fairies, and more. But the magic is gone. Six years ago, a human army found the source of magic, and out of (spite? jealousy? anger? pick your reason here) destroyed it, and in the processed, destroyed all of the industries that depended upon magic. Enter Fetch Phillips, a human who never really belonged anywhere, now scraping by as a private investigator/man for hire. He's tasked with finding a vampire teacher who has disappeared, and the job takes him to all of the less-than-savory parts of the crumbling city.

This book is a fantastic mix of detective noir and urban fantasy, like Jim Butcher's Dresden Files, but with the shoe on the other foot. Arnold created a gritty, lived-in world full of well-realized characters. I very much enjoyed this book, and I look forward to others in this series.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Normal People

Normal People  by Sally Rooney (2018) 273 pages

When the story begins, Marianne is rich and as smart as can be, but isolated from most people, having no friends at school, although she doesn't seem to mind that much. Connell is one of Marianne's classmates, also quite smart, but he is not in a privileged class—his single mother works for Marianne's mother as a housekeeper. He is quiet but well-liked at school. He picks his mother up from Marianne's house regularly and gets to know Marianne, starting off a quiet friendship and later a sexual relationship as well, but he will not acknowledge Marianne at school, where his friends are openly unkind to her. Marianne encourages him to apply for the college she plans to go to and he gets in, but at college, he is somewhat listless, feeling like he doesn't really belong.

This compelling story takes us through four years of their intersecting lives, sometimes from Marianne's point of view and sometimes from Connell's. Angst comes almost as a given, considering their youth, and the author shares their mindsets clearly, with few words. It's a somewhat haunting novel.

Girl Gone Viral

Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai, 384 pages

Katrina King has always suffered from anxiety and panic attacks, making getting out of the house difficult (even without heaps of emotional baggage that she acquired over the years). She's slowly making progress -- visiting her therapist at a cafe, taking short day trips, etc. -- though always with her strong, serious (and seriously sexy) bodyguard, Jasminder Singh, in tow. But when an innocuous trip to the cafe turns Katrina into a mysterious Twitter hashtag, her panic attacks return in full force, making Kat and Jas flee to a seemingly safer locale: Jas' family farm in northern California.

This is a sweet romance, full of kind people in a not-so-kind world. Kat and Jas both have their issues, none of which are completely solved by the end of the book. But that's OK. It makes it a bit more realistic, and gives a story that could easily swerve into COMPLETELY unbelievable some grounding. I enjoyed this book, and gobbled it up as quickly as Kat's friends eat her fabulous cooking.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

You Let Me In

You Let Me In by Camilla Bruce, 224 pages

Cassandra Tipp is a famous romance novelist and now she's dead (probably). Her niece and nephew are called to her house and told that if they want her money, they must first read the manuscript sitting on her desk and then give the lawyer a password that's hidden within Cassandra's last book. But this manuscript is no light-and-fluffy love story. Instead, it's Cassandra's life as she remembers it, complete with angry and manipulative fairies that may or may not be responsible for a string of gruesome deaths in Cassandra's past. Do these fairies really exist? Is she even remotely sane? Who knows!

This atmospheric tale of abuse, misunderstanding, survival, and ostracism is creepy to the max. Bruce has created a tale that is full of suspense and the reader is constantly second-guessing their assumptions. I tore through this book, and I suspect it'll keep me guessing well after I finished it. Recommended for fans of Shirley Jackson and unreliable narrators.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020


Finna by Nino Cipri, 137 pages

Ava and Jules just broke up, but they still have to work together at a big box IKEA knockoff. What makes it even more awkward is that they were the two employees chosen (AKA forced) to retrieve an old woman who, against all odds, slipped through a wormhole in the store and into another universe. In a trip that is WAY above their minimum-wage paygrade, the pair must battle carnivorous furniture, an army of clones, and their confusing feelings for each other during their mission. It's really a relationship story set against a science fiction backdrop, exploring self-doubt, wanderlust, love, trust, and identity. But it's also a quick, fun, and adventurous read. Recommended for fans of IKEA and Tor.com's awesome novella series.

Red Letter Days

Red Letter Days by Sarah-Jane Stratford, 384 pages

An up-and-coming screenwriter for a not-that-great crime show, Phoebe Adler is shocked when she's blacklisted. After all, she is just about the least political person ever, preferring to focus on her work and taking care of her sick sister, Mona. But blacklisted she is, and when she receives a subpoena to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Phoebe instead flees to England, where she can hopefully make enough money to be able to send some back to Mona. Enter Hannah Wolfson, a left-leaning journalist-turned-TV producer who is doing all she can to hire blacklisted writers at her new production company. She's convinced that HUAC can't touch them in England, but is she right?

This tale of two women dealing with the Red Scare and Hollywood blacklist is intriguing, and shows a side of this chapter in American history that isn't normally illuminated--that of the women impacted in this 20th Century witch hunt. I enjoyed the book, much more so when I read the afterword, which explains that Hannah is based on a real woman, Hannah Weinstein. A fun read for those who like headstrong women and historical fiction.

Monday, March 16, 2020

This Won't End Well

This Won't End Well by Camille Pagan, 287 pages

Annie Mercer's life seems to be falling apart. She was fired from her job as a chemist after breaking equipment in an attempt to avoid sexual advances from her boss. And just days later, her fiance, Jon, has left for a spur-of-the-moment month-long trip to France — and not only did he go without her, he asked her not to contact him for the whole time he's gone. So Annie has gone into cocoon mode, living with her mother, determined to avoid people she doesn't already know. Of course, that plan is derailed when an Instagram influencer moves in next door, and a creepy guy starts staking out the neighborhood.

Told through Annie's emails, journal entries, and the neighborhood listserv, this is an enjoyable story of modern relationships of all sorts, as well as a story of a woman figuring out her life when everything she's relied upon is swept out from under her. It's smart and funny, and I enjoyed seeing Annie grow up through her experiences.

Enter a Murderer

Enter a Murderer by Ngaio Marsh  245 pp,

This is the second in the Roderick Alleyn mystery series. Alleyn is an oddity in that he is an aristocrat who has chosen police work rather than the life of  leisure. While attending a play with an acquaintance a murder occurs onstage. A prop gun supposedly filled with blanks turns out to have live rounds in it and an actor is shot at point blank range. The entire cast, the backstage crew, and theater owner are suspects. Since Alleyn was on the scene and a witness to the murder, he is the prime investigator. In this book takes place before the Inspector married the artist Agatha Troy and he finds himself attracted to an actress who is also a suspect. This becomes a pattern for the Inspector in later books. 

The Splendid and the Vile

The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill and the Blitz by Erik Larson  608 pp.

This is the newest book by Larson which I was rushing to finish before the author's appearance last Friday, which was cancelled due to the current virus concerns. As always, Larson did a meticulous job of researching his material. All the quotes come from written sources. The book covers the period of 1940-1941 when Great Britain was going through the worst of the Blitz as Hitler tried to force the country to surrender to the Reich. While Churchill was dealing with the nightly bombings of London and surrounding areas, he was also trying to negotiate aid from the United States which was an uphill battle against the isolationist Congress. The large "cast of characters" includes Churchill's wife and children, members of the British Cabinet, American visitors Harry Hopkins, Averill Harriman, and others. Larson is a master of making non-fiction read like fiction and this book is no exception. He brings this important period in history to life.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Secret Lives of Bees

The Secret Lives of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd (2002) 302 pages

Fourteen year old Lily Owens lives in South Carolina with her often-angry father who owns a peach farm. She is cared for by Rosaleen, one of her father's employees. It's 1964 and when Lily accompanies Rosaleen to register to vote (now that the Civil Rights Act has passed), Rosaleen ends up beaten and arrested when she returns insults of racists by pouring the contents of her snuff jug on their shoes. Lily and Rosaleen hitchhike to Tiburon, SC, a city that Lily found written on the back of a picture that used to belong to Lily's mother, who died when Lily was four. The two are taken in by three sisters who live in a bright pink house and who raise bees. In order to earn their keep, Lily learns the art of beekeeping while Rosaleen helps with the cooking. August, the oldest of the sisters, encourages Lily to tell her story, knowing that Lily lied about who she and Rosaleen were, where they were from and where they were going. Lily resists, even as she feels drawn to August. Lily's biggest secret is her guilt over her mother's death. This is a moving coming-of-age story, with relevant quotes about bees at the start of each chapter.

Katalin Street

Katalin Street / Magda Szabo, Lex Rix, trans., 235 p.

A novel of three close-knit families residing on a comfortable street in Budapest, in sight of the Danube.  The children, shy little Henriette, sisters Iren and Blanka, and the only boy, Balint, are inseparable.  But as they grow older, romantic entanglements complicate things, and there is the small matter of Jewish Henriette's parents being 'taken away' in 1944, despite the efforts of Balint's father to save them.  When one of the group is killed soon after, the lives of all are forever separated from their youthful idyll, with lifelong consequences.

Szabo does a wonderful, strange thing here with foreground and background.  Most novelists would place the deportation (and murder) of Hungarian Jews, Soviet repression of Hungary in the 1950s, and the 1956 Revolution in the front of the story, and dangle their characters from these big, hulking events like ornaments on a tree.  But Szabo places the interior lives of her characters at the front, adopting their euphemistic ways of thinking about various horrors, so that the reader participates in their repressed, damaged mentalities.  Subtle and lovely.

Friday, March 13, 2020


Verge: stories / Lidia Yuknavitch, read by a full cast, 194 pgs.

A fantastic collection of short stories full of quirky characters and interesting situations.  Everyone here is damaged and imperfect yet some are getting past all of that and doing just fine.  In fact, probably best if you don't cross them.  It is hard to pretend these stories are too similar but they do convey a lot of interesting drama and will surprise you.

Heart of junk

Heart of Junk / Luke Geddes, read by a cast, 240 pgs.

This book about an antique mall in Topeka filled with odd duck "dealers" who are barely making it.  They love their collections more than anything.  Oh yea, but someone has kidnapped a young beauty queen.  Trust me, my description here doesn't make a lot of sense but I come from a family of collectors and for the first time, I really felt "seen" (on their behalf, I'm not a big collector).  This book made my day.  The audio is perfect.  Loved each character more than the last.

The scientist and the spy

The scientist and the spy: a true story of China, the FBI and industrial espionage / Mara Hvistendahl, read by the author and James Lurie, 321 pgs.

I hung on every word of this fascinating story about industrial espionage in the agricultural world.  Chinese national Robert Mo was working at a questionable company after failing to find work in his field.  His first priority was taking care of his family.  As his work assignments become more questionable, he sticks with it despite misgivings.  At the same time, he is being followed by the F.B.I. and tangling with big corporate ag businesses.  This book recounts in detail the case against Mo and the questions it brings up in our fight for intellectual property and what other countries are doing to gain an advantage.

Little weirds

Little Weirds / Jenny Slate, read by the author, 233 pgs.

I like Jenny Slate but this collection of 40+ essays is just a little too much for me.  I did finish it but maybe I shouldn't have. Some of the chapters are just snippets that are stream of consciousness including one about how her heart is really a plum.  Well mine is a little piece of charcoal and thus I can't appreciate this book.

The man without talent

The man without talent / Yoshiharu Tsuge, 237 pgs.

A semi-autobiographical graphic lit book by a famous Japanese artist, I found this a little off putting.  The character is trying to sell rocks for a living.  Rocks he has collected from the river right next to the stand where he is trying to sell the rocks. Not surprisingly, he isn't very successful and can't really support his family. You get the picture that his wife has supported him through several other schemes that went nowhere.  Nevertheless, he depicts the wife as a bit of a shrew.  Not sure I'm the best audience for this book.

Glass Houses

Glass Houses by Louise Penny (2017) 391 pages

Armand Gamache is now the Chief Superintendent over the entire Sȗreté du Québec. This story opens at a murder trial at which Gamache is a witness. The murder occurred in Three Pines, a tiny
village in which Gamache and his wife now live. A masked, black-robed figure had appeared in the village during a Halloween costume party at the bistro, and the silent figure continues to haunt the village green, disappearing at night and reappearing each morning. The villagers are quite spooked. The story alternates between this time in November and the trial the following summer. It's not even clear who was murdered or who is on trial. The acerbic prosecutor treats Gamache as if Gamache were the one on trial--why didn't Gamache take action to remove this robed person before the situation became a murder? Gamache's response that the robed person was not breaking the law didn't seem to suffice.

Meanwhile, we learn that in the year since Gamache had taken charge of the Sȗreté du Québec, the drug trafficking situation had gotten even worse than it had been already. The drug cartels were becoming quite bold. There was much criticism that Gamache, although he had a stellar career in routing out corruption in the Sȗreté itself, had gotten older and in over his head.

This novel, 13th in the series, unrolls tantalizingly, another fine example of the writing that keeps me coming back for more.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

If Beale Street Could Talk

If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin  197 pp.

This was Baldwin's only book narrated by a woman. Nineteen year old Tish is in love with a young sculptor named Alonzo, known as Fonny. Shortly after they become engaged Fonny is arrested for rape by a police officer who has it in for him. While Tish and her family fight to get Fonny freed, Tish learns she is pregnant with their child. The story addresses the frustration of navigating a justice system that is not favorable to people of color in the 1970s. The audiobook was read by Bahni Turpin who does an excellent job, as always. Now that I've read it I will see the film.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Eight Perfect Murders

Eight Perfect Murders by Peter Swanson, 270 pages

Several years ago, bookstore owner Malcolm Kershaw wrote a blog post about eight perfect murders in crime fiction. Now an FBI agent has appeared at his doorstep, convinced that someone is copying the murders from each book in his list. Does this murderer know Malcolm personally? Or did he just stumble upon this list at random? Or is the FBI agent simply grasping at straws to solve a handful of cold cases in one fell swoop?

This book is a bit of a love letter to classic mysteries, wrapped up with some hallmarks of today's popular mysteries, such as a possibly unreliable narrator. While the characters were a bit one-dimensional, I enjoyed the twists, many of which I didn't see coming. But there are hints, particularly if you've read the books referenced by title throughout. A fun, quick, twisty read.

Everywhere you don’t belong, Gabriel Bump

This debut novel by a young African-American author from the South Shore area of Chicago is a bit confusing to get into, but swiftly propels you along once it grabs you.  Claude McKay Love is being raised by his civil-rights era grandmother and her companion, a gay man named Paul, after both his parents took off for Missouri, leaving Claude behind without a moment’s thought.  She’s doing her best, but the environment is a challenge to a healthy upbringing.  South Shore is real, and where the author grew up.  The riot that occurs as a key moment of the book, when a young boy is shot by police who assume that he is robbing a house (he’s feeding his absent neighbors’ cat), is fictional however.  But it certainly could  have happened, there  -- or here.  Full of dark humor and compassion, and a difficult read for someone from the white suburbs of Chicago.  Recommended.  261 pp.

The giver of stars, by Jojo Moyes

When I need something a little light but also well-written, it is a pleasure to turn to a new Moyes novel, or an older one that I haven’t yet read.  Call her a guilty pleasure, I guess.  Her latest is set in the early 1930s in rural Kentucky and has particular appeal as it is based on the real-life story of women who served as “packhorse librarians” during the Depression.  This was a WPA program, promoted by Eleanor Roosevelt, to bring literacy, knowledge, and just plain entertainment to the often desperately poor residents of coal-mining Appalachia by way of circuit riding librarians on horseback.  When the son of a local coal baron meets Alice Wright during a visit to England, he falls in love and marries her, bringing her back to Kentucky.  Alice had been a bit of a trial to her parents because of her willfulness and independence, so they were relieved to have her safely off their hands and an ocean away.  But this isn’t mint-julep drinking city life Alice had imagined, rather like a "permanent Derby Day."  She and her new husband live with his widowed and imperious father in a small, tight-knit town far from genteel civilization.  This a disappointment, one that Alice is prepared to make the best of, but her husband seems oddly distant and the town unfriendly to her.  The one friend she makes is the even more independent and odd Margery O’Hare, who takes charge of the traveling librarians, who Alice eagerly joins.  She soon learns to love the wildness and beauty of her new homeland, and to appreciate the lives she touches with her book deliveries.  There will be blood feuds, floods, mining accidents, and a mysterious death before a happily ever-after ending for most.  Fun.  390 pp.

Monday, March 9, 2020

The Hidden Life of Trees

The Hidden Life of Trees: What They Feel, How They Communicate: Discoveries from a Secret World by Peter Wohlleben, 272 pages

In this charming and unexpectedly engrossing book, Wohlleben provides detailed insights into how forests survive and thrive as communities. From the minuscule details of how a single leaf allows the tree to breathe to the way in which trees migrate across continents in response to climate changes, this book examines trees in more detail than I ever thought possible. And it does so in a surprisingly approachable and readable way. Listening to this audiobook as I drove home every day made me look at the trees in my neighborhood in a new way, and I suspect it'll affect my view of trees for years to come. Recommended for fans of natural history and PBS nature documentaries.

The Priory of the Orange Tree

The Priory of the Orange Tree by Samantha Shannon, 830 pages

For one reason or another, the fire-breathing dragons have left the world alone for almost 1,000 years. But now, the wyrms and their brethren are awakening to wreak havoc across the land, and Queen Sabran of Inys must figure out a way to stop it, either by giving birth to a daughter (which is what the Inysh religion believes to be the only thing holding back the wyrms) or by ignoring her beliefs and seeking out the ancient tools that will allow her to banish the Nameless One (leader of the dragons) for good.

That's a really simple way to sum up this meticulously detailed and wonderfully realized tale of strong women fighting against evil in many forms. Nor is Queen Sabran the center of the story — that place is shared by Sabran's handmaiden (and disguised protector) Ead and the orphaned dragonrider of the East Tane, two complex and amazing women, full of potential, grit, and grace. Simply put, this book is amazing and it deserves to be a classic of the genre.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Blackfish City

Blackfish City by Sam J. Miller, 328 pages

A few hundred years in the future, climate change has changed the face of the planet, forcing people to get creative if they want to continue living. One of those solutions is Qaanaaq, an eight-armed floating city moored above an underground volcano in the north Atlantic. Here, the privately funded city is loose on rules but tight on space, especially in arms Seven and Eight, which are piled high and tight with slums. And it doesn't help that a mysterious sexually transmitted disease is running rampant. This inventive book follows four seemingly unrelated people — bureucrat Ankit, messenger Soq, journeyman fighter Kaev, and strung-out playboy Fill — as they make their way in this city, which is thrown into additional disarray by the simultaneous and unexpected arrival of a woman, an orca, and a polar bear.

Miller has created an immersive setting and multidimensional characters that are full of flaws and shades of gray. I particularly enjoyed the way their motivations shifted as they took in new information. I also liked the mysterious "City Without a Map" bits between chapters, which provided both useful background information and an air of mystery to the novel. I very much enjoyed this book, and I look forward to discussing it with the Orcs & Aliens group on Monday night

Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving

Mobituaries: Great Lives Worth Reliving by Mo Rocca and Jonathan Greenberg (2019) 375 pages

Mobituaries is the kind of book that can be slurped up all at once, or ingested more leisurely. Mo Rocca is a correspondent for CBS Sunday Morning, frequent panelist for the NPR quiz show game Wait Wait Don't Tell Me!, past correspondent for the Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and much more. He and Jonathan Greenberg have brought the podcast series Mobituaries to us in book format. I have not listened to any of the podcasts, but now I need to put them on my "to-hear" list.

Rocca brings his interests in geography, presidents, and history together to entertain the reader with less-known information about people who were famous, along with information about people who should have been famous. Sometimes the Mobits are not about people at all (e.g., see the chapter about medieval sciences). The subjects are handled with both heart and humor. I highly recommend this well-researched, entertaining book .

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

February totals!

 Christa 9/2374
Jan  5/1409
Josh  1/206
Kara  9/2621
Karen  10/3794
Kathleen  1/213
Linda  12/3556

Total: 47/14,173

(Yep, it's Leap Day William!)