Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Wow, no thank you

Wow, no thank you: essays / Samantha Irby, read by the author, 319 pgs.

Oh yea, Samantha Irby still has it.  Profane and hilarious.  I'm so glad I got to listen to her read her own work.  On to moving, marriage, and still having the realistic attitude we all love.  I wish she could publish a book every few months.

Dead Man's Folly

Dead Man's Folly by Agatha Christie (1956) 178 pages

Murder mystery writer Ariadne Oliver has been hired to create a Murder Hunt, one of the activities to be part of a festival on the property of an estate now owned by Sir George Stubbs and his beautiful, but somewhat mentally deficient wife, Lady Hattie Stubbs. Mrs. Oliver creates a cast of characters for the game, including a murder victim. Those who play the game will try to locate clues on the grounds of the estate, and if they are successful, they will find a key to a boathouse, unlock the door, and see a a person pretending to be dead. Mrs. Oliver's concern is that she feels that the people around her on the estate are manipulating the game somewhat. (For instance, she had planned for a young woman to play the role of the deceased, but circumstances changed and now a teenager is to play the role.) Mrs. Oliver's concerns are great enough that she calls Hercule Poirot to come and help make sure all is well, even though she can't quite put her finger on what's wrong.

Poirot arrives by train and gets to know the people on the estate the day before the festival, including Mrs. Folliat, a woman whose family used to own the estate before it was lost to death duties when her husband and sons died. Others on the estate, besides Sir George and Lady Hattie Stubbs, are an architect, the secretary/housekeeper, a young couple who are living nearby in a cottage for the summer, and a few townspeople who are helping with the festival.

Sure enough, in spite of Mrs. Oliver's and M. Poirot's careful attentions, a real murder is committed during the process of the game. Another oddity is that Lady Stubbs goes missing during the festival. It's all a real stumper, and Poirot is still mulling it over several weeks later back at home. He likens the solution to that of a jigsaw puzzle: the pieces don't look anything like what they are, until they are properly arranged.

I'd read this book long ago, and forgot enough that it was new to me. Reading Poirot is always a treat!

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

God on the Rocks

God on the Rocks / Jane Gardam, 195 p.

A strange and oddly powerful story of a young girl, the daughter of a slightly-fanatical clergyman, and her coming of age in the midst of the disintegration of her parents' marriage in the period between the World Wars.  Her revelations come from multiple sources, most movingly those of a gifted painter living with Alzheimer's in a sort of 'rest home.'  A cast of oddball characters and thoughtful, idiosyncratic dialogue make this engaging.

The Hollow Land

The Hollow Land  / Jane Gardam, 158 p.

I can think of very few reads that serve as a better antidote to quarantine and fear than this, the story of two boys, one country and one city, who become fast friends in a sparsely-inhabited former mining area near England's Lake District.  They have adventures, meet quirky characters, and grow, all under a soft English sky.  A fantasy, an idyll - maybe.  All the better!

The People on Privilege Hill

The People on Privilege Hill / Jane Gardam, 196 p.

I have found my quarantine reading groove with Gardam, whom I and others have blogged about in the past.  This collection of short stories is varied and delightful, even featuring a brief visit to the Old Filth characters of Filth, Veneering, and Fiscal-Smith.  Very nice.

The Shadows

The Shadows by Alex North, 323 pages

When he was 15, Paul Adams was briefly accused of a horrible murder of one of his close friends, let off the hook only when another classmate walked out of the nearby woods covered in blood and holding the murder weapon; a second classmate who was involved never came out of the woods. But the crime took its toll on Paul's life, and when he left for college a few years later, he never came back. Not until 25 years later, when his senile mother is on her deathbed. Paul's return has stirred up not only his own feelings but also some haunting events in the town. Could the second murderer still be alive in those woods? And if so, could he want something from Paul after all these years?

A creepy, atmospheric tale, this thriller blends teenage theories about lucid dreaming with all-too-real psychological trauma. I'm not sure how I felt about the end, which seemed to wrap up a little oddly, or the mix of past and present first-person chapters with some third-person chapters about a detective--these became particularly difficult when Paul and the detective were interacting directly. But it was definitely creepy and didn't make it any easier for me to sleep at night. Good if you want a scare.

A Long Petal of the Sea

A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende, 318 pages

While his gregarious and rebellious brother Guillem enthusiastically charged into battle, Victor was a bit more reluctant to join the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War, serving as a medic on the front lines. Guillem's girlfriend, Roser, is a piano prodigy who lives with Victor and Guillem's parents in Barcelona, and is pregnant when Guillem is killed in action. Thus begins a decades-long story of Victor and Roser fleeing the fascist country, spending time in concentration camps at the Spanish border with France, eventually escaping to Chile, and after settling there, once again becoming swept up in politics against their will. This is a straightforward tale of these two intertwined lives and the global political situations that affected them. While I sometimes wished for a bit more dialogue to break up the walls of text, Allende created an engaging and sympathetic story that truly made me care about these two very realistic people.

Monday, April 27, 2020

Tales of the City

Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin  419 pp.

This was a re-read of the first book in a series I adore. It is the beginning of the tales of the residents of the apartment house at 28 Barbary Lane in San Francisco and their charming, quirky, and much loved landlady. The first three books in the series became a PBS series with Olympia Dukakis playing the indomitable pot growing Mrs. Madrigal. Taking place after the "Summer of Love" but before the AIDS crisis, the novel covers subjects like free sex, drugs, infidelity, race, and LGBT/Queer identity before the advent of the letter salad. I was fortunate to meet the author many years ago and he is as charming and gracious as his famous landlady character. This time around I listened to the audiobook read by Frances McDormand with an introduction by Rachel Maddow.

The Anatomist's Apprentice

The Anatomist's Apprentice (Dr. Thomas Silkstone Book 1) by Tessa Harris  321 pp.

Set in 18th century England, during a time when anatomists had to pay grave robbers for corpses to work on, Dr. Thomas Silkstone is called on by Lydia, the sister of the deceased on to investigate the poisoning death of Sir Edward Crick. Rumors throughout Oxfordshire have led to the accusation of murder by Lydia's husband. When it seems that Silkstone has found the answer he is brutally attacked to prevent him from testifying at the inquest. In the meantime other clues to the death come to light, not the least of which is the sleazy character of the deceased himself. This is a good mystery with lots of twists before coming to a satisfying ending.

The Library of the Unwritten

The Library of the Unwritten by A.J. Hackwith  382 pp.

Deep in the bowels of Hell is a neutral zone which contains the Library. Claire is the Head Librarian in the Unwritten Books Wing, where all unfinished writings are held until their authors finish them. Her job is to repair damages and age wear as well as keeping track of characters who attempt to escape to find their authors. When the Hero (thereafter given the name Hero) escapes to the realm of Earth, Claire, her assistant/former muse Brevity, and a somewhat bewildered demon named Leto must leave Hell to find him and return him to his book. While there they are attacked by a fallen angel named Ramiel who believes they have the Devil's Bible in their possession. This is the first book in the "Hell's Library" series which blurs the lines between the existence of good and evil. I enjoyed this more than the The Devil's Detective and it doesn't have nearly the gore.

The Delightful Life of a Suicide Pilot

The Delightful Life of a Suicide Pilot (the final Dr. Siri Paiboun mystery) by Colin Cotterill 288 pp.

Kara brought me an ARC of this book a bit ago. I kept putting off reading it because it is the last Dr. Siri mystery and I was afraid of how it would end, after all the dear doctor is an elderly gentleman. No spoilers but Dr. Siri receives a mysterious diary from an unknown sender. It was apparently written by a kamikaze pilot during the World War II Japanese occupation of Laos. Siri is intrigued by the diary, half in Japanese which he cannot read, and half in Lao. He and his wife, Madame Daeng, coerce a U.N, worker into taking them along to southern Laos to solve the mystery and find a Japanese translator. In the meantime their friend Inspector Phosy finds himself held hostage while on a police mission. Without giving things away, Madame Daeng's use of her old spy/commando skills come into play in a side plot involving the U.N. worker. And of course, Dr. Siri''s contact with the spirit world gives clues to a possible ending. To be honest, this is not my favorite book in the series. It seems to be lacking some of the humor of the previous novels but it is the last.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Adult and other children: Stories

Adults and other children: stories by Miriam Cohen, 238 pgs.

A set of interrelated stories that include some Orthodox Jewish families, women who find themselves at odds with the lives they thought they would have, and overall a lot of issues that identify most with women.  Each main character shows up in many stories, at different ages and in different situations.  The linked stories can also stand alone but together they make for great reading.

Saturday, April 25, 2020

Dying to Call You

Dying to Call You by Elaine Viets (2004) 270 pages

I've heard that St. Louis native Elaine Viets took on a series of menial jobs to provide research for her Dead-End Job mystery series. In Dying to Call You, the third in the series, she so realistically portrays the work life of boiler-room telemarketers that reading the book before bed made me too depressed to sleep one night. But after a hiatus, I got back into the story: Although telemarketers deal with rejection and verbal abuse, Helen Hawthorne sells enough septic tank cleaners that she is sometimes invited to work in the more palatable part of the business, doing surveys. In the midst of doing one survey, she is certain that she has heard a woman being murdered. Even after calling the police, who report back that no one has been killed at the address corresponding to the phone number, she doggedly stays on the trail, even finding the name of a woman who has disappeared, and is presumably the murder victim.

The story has a most interesting cast of characters, including Helen's landlord Margery, a couple of fellow tenants named Fred and Ethel Mertz, and Savannah, the sister of the missing woman, who brings household products along as weapons when potential witnesses need to be encouraged to talk. The story moves quickly, keeping me wondering just what would come next.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

The St. Louis Anthology

The St. Louis Anthology / Ryan Schuessler (ed), 240 pgs.

A collection of poems, prose and essays about St. Louis by people with a St. Louis connection.  This book shines a light on the diversity of the city, immigrants, lifers, those who love the city and some who don't.  I saw a lot of library life in this book, not only the essay about the Carpenter library branch but stories about people we see in libraries every day.  This book didn't necessarily reflect my St. Louis reality but that is a good way to be reminded how limited our experiences can be sometimes. 

Such a fun age

Such a fun age / Kiley Reid, read by Nicole Lewis, 310 pgs.

Emira is the beloved babysitter of Briar, a little girl she adores.  One late evening, she is summoned by her employer to take Briar out of the house after some vandalism prompts a call to the police.  That night, Emira is accused of kidnapping Briar by a security card prompted by a white woman who observes them.  After a minor confrontation, Briar's dad comes by and resolves the issue.  Briar's mom, however, it horrified and realizes she has done little to support he sitter.  She starts on a campaign of "caring" that mostly irritates Emira. In the meantime, Emira also gets a boyfriend.  A good looking white guy, he works very hard to prove how "woke" he is.  Inevitably the white employer and white love interest take center stage both convinced they know what is best for Emira.  Does this become a book about the white people?  Well, not really but I won't tell you how it ends up.  Enjoyable listening.

Funny, You don't look autistic

Funny, you don't look autistic: a comedian's guide to life on the spectrum / Michael McCreary, 169 page.

Diagnosed at age five, McCreary hasn't let autism dictate any aspect of his life.  He has learned about it and himself and tells us in this short memoir what he has learned and how he deals with people.  There are some awkward experiences but more times you will recognize his intelligence and humor.  I appreciated his perspective and am reminded once again that there are no standards to which everyone in a group conform.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

The Worst Best Man

The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa, 359 pages

Max was reluctant at best to be his brother's best man, but when he wakes up on Andrew's wedding day and learns that his brother has left him in charge of calling off the wedding, he REALLY hates it. The bride, Lina, is thankfully good at keeping her emotions in control, and handles the disappointment with anger, yes, but enough grace that Max feels he can get out of the room safely. Fast forward three years, and Lina has found her calling as a wedding planner, handling all the minutiae and last-minute problems for a wide variety of couples. She's pretty happy on her own, but then gets a chance to run all the wedding business at an upscale hotel. As one of two finalists, Lina has to pair up with a marketing specialist and pitch herself to the new owner. Too bad the two marketing specialists are Andrew and Max. Choosing the lesser of two evils, she and Max pair up, despite their uncomfortable background, and try to make the best of it. Shockingly, this leads to awkward situations and sparks flying.

This is the book version of one of the bridal-based romantic comedy movies that pop up every few years. It's fun, it's flirty, it's highly unlikely to ever happen in real life... you know the drill. That said, when so many romance novels hinge on a problem that could be solved by a five-minute talk, Sosa created a pretty realistic and complex problem for Lina and Max to get past: will their relationship ever make it past a comparison between Max and Andrew? Best of all, it's fun to find out the answer. I devoured this book.

Kinsey and Me: Stories

Kinsey and Me: Stories by Sue Grafton (2013) 280 pages

Kinsey and Me: Stories is split between short stories featuring Grafton's detective Kinsey Millhone (a person that Grafton says she might have been if she hadn't married young or had children) and short stories about Kit Blue (a person she calls a younger version of herself). The Kit Blue stories were written in the decade following her mother's death.

The Kinsey Millhone stories are crisp and sometimes great fun‒they include a story Grafton wrote for a Lands' End catalog contest. In the story, Kinsey wears a Lands' End Squall Parka (with a temp rating of -10/-30℉) as she tails suspected killers.

The intro to the second half of the book, and the Kit Blue stories which comprise it, are the dessert, though. The tales make up an often, but not always, heart-squeezing look into Grafton's early years, providing a window into her life with alcoholic parents. I felt trusted as a reader invited to look inside as Grafton processes the lives of her parents and herself.

World War Z

World War Z, Max Brooks, 342 pages

For those familiar with the Brad Pitt movie released in 2013 that claimed to be tied into this 2006 book, well, they really have nothing in common outside of a name. The book is presented as a series of oral histories documented by an unknown government worker who is creating a report upon the fall and rise of a civilization after a zombie apocalypse, aka World War Z. The book explores various cultural viewpoints and responses, from Israel walling itself off and allowing amnesty for everyone it can to enter as the first country to recognize that zombies existed, to a finacial "hot shot" who is hiding out in the Antarctic after he made boat loads of money selling a vaccine that was for an entirely different disease but sold on the hype of being a zombie preventative. There are triumphant stories of human endurance and some first rate zombie survival as political satire. All in all, I really enjoyed Max Brooks' take on not just what a zombie apocalypse would be, but the steps needed to rebuild a society after a catastrophic failure.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Master of Sorrows

Master of Sorrows by Justin T. Call, 562 pages

At 17 years old and nearing the end of his schooling, Annev is on his last chance to prove himself to his schoolmasters and become an avatar. Competition is fierce, as only one of the remaining acolytes can become an avatar, and even those of his age who have already achieved the role are able to compete as spoilers. With enemies among his masters and his peers and the love of the beautiful Myjun on the line, Annev is determined to win this time. But Sodar, the priest who took Annev in and has been teaching Annev magic on the sly (using magic is grounds for execution), may not be so keen on Annev's ambitions. Something is up here, and it's up to Annev to reconcile it with his ambitions.

The first book in what will undoubtedly be a sweeping trilogy, Master of Sorrows sets the scene for the complex creation of a dark lord that is destined to ruin the world. But who's to say what's truly good and truly evil? I enjoyed this nuanced origin story, and I look forward to seeing what comes next in the series. I'd recommend it to fans of Patrick Rothfuss' Kingkiller Chronicles, seeing as they've had (and will continue to have) a long wait for the next book in that series.

A Deception at Thornecrest

A Deception at Thornecrest by Ashley Weaver, 288 pages

Amory Ames is eight months pregnant with her first child when a woman knocks on the door, claiming to be Mrs. Ames, wife of Milo Ames. As in, Amory's husband. What begins as a confusing case of mistaken identity soon turns deadly when Bertie, a groom in the Ames stables, is found dead during the annual spring fair. Who in the small village could have wanted the amiable groom dead? The vicar and his wife? The earl's daughter? Amory's newfound rakish brother-in-law? All we know for sure is that Amory's detective work will be much harder with a baby coming so soon.

I'm not sure what I thought of the solution to this mystery, though it was certainly unexpected. However, a cozy mystery set in a Downton Abbey-esque setting in the 1930s? Definitely what I needed right now.

This book will be released to the public in September 2020.

Little Secrets

Little Secrets by Jennifer Hillier, 340 pages

It's three days before Christmas, and Marin is trying to finish up some shopping when she lets her attention slip for a second. Just that quickly, her four-year-old son Sebastian is kidnapped, throwing her into the worst situation she's ever been in. Sixteen months later, Sebastian still hasn't been found, and Marin's life is a wreck. She's self-medicating with a bottle of wine every night, attending a support group that really just helps parents of missing kids avoid moving forward, and just found out that her husband is cheating on her with a 24-year-old grad student. It's this last bit that has changed Marin's overriding emotion from depression to rage, and she is suddenly a loose cannon. What she'll do when given access to a criminal "fixer" is anyone's guess.

Hillier really knows how to ratchet up the adrenaline and hit the hard emotional notes in this book. The panic and subsequent depression of a missing child, the anger and desperation of being cheated on, even the young mistress' mix of worries about her finances and manipulations of Marin's husband... everything seems emotionally believable. I don't know what I would do in any of these situations, but I don't doubt the characters' motivations at all. A heck of a thriller.

Trouble Is What I Do

Trouble Is What I Do by Walter Mosley, 166 pages

Private eye and "fixer" Leonid McGill is minding his own business when he receives a blast from the past: a notorious assassin has sent a 94-year-old man to McGill to ask him to help deliver a letter to a soon-to-be-married southern belle. What seems like a simple task is soon revealed to be more complex and dangerous than McGill suspected, as the bride's white supremacist father has taken a hit out on the old African American man.

The story's a bit muddier than it needs to be, with lots of recollections breaking in and no chapters to sort them out, but this is a noir novel that handles a lot of racial issues with care and nuance. I like it more in retrospect than I did while reading it, I think.

Saturday, April 18, 2020

Nobody will tell you this but me

Nobody will tell you this but me: a true (as told to me) story / Bess Kalb, read by the author, 220 pgs.

A heart warming story of the relationship between a grandmother and granddaughter.  Neither gets along great with the woman in between (the authors mother) but have such a strong bond there is no room for another.  Told in the voice of the grandmother, we get snippets of phone conversations, emails, and voice mails.  Through this we learn about Bobby Bell's life, mother and daughter.  The author tells her own story. In some ways the perfect Jewish grandmother, she gives lots of advice to her granddaughter and reveals so much about herself.  I loved listening to this audio wherein the author takes an authentic voice for grandma and makes you feel like you know her a bit by the end.


Loudermilk or The Real Poet or The Origin of the World / Lucy Ives, 334 pgs.

A hilarious take on an MFA program somewhere in small town Midwest.  Troy Loudermilk shows up to town with his friend Harry.  Loudermilk is a good looking guy with more interest in free money and being surrounded by girls.  Harry only has one friend, Loudermilk.  He is sort of agoraphobic and a social misfit but also the brains behind the poetry.  Loudermilk loudly attends class and turns in Harry's brilliant poems.  He doesn't escape the notice of the husband and wife writing professors nor their underage daughter Lizzy.  Anton Beans had himself figured for the role of brilliant writer and is insanely jealous. After interacting with Loudermilk, he is convinced he can't be writing the work he turns in and decides to investigate further.  This book is a fun read.  If you attended an MFA program and was not really impressed with it, you will not be able to put this down.

Library of Small Catastrophes

Library of Small Catastrophes / Alison C. Rollins, read by Janina Edwards 96 pgs.

It is poetry month and thus the perfect reason to read some poetry.  Even better reason?  Find an author from St. Louis who is a librarian, then you know you really have something. Rollins writes about race, women and all sort so tragedies.  I am still a poetry neophyte but enjoyed listening to this collection. There is even a MARC record poem so you know this has to be good.

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Mirror Crack'd

The Mirror Crack'd by Agatha Christie (1964) 208 pages

Actress Marina Gregg and her husband Jason Rudd buy and renovate an old estate in Britain near the village of St. Mary Mead. They offer their residence as a venue for a fundraiser for a local charity. Some of the more-honored guests and dignitaries are invited to the second floor to meet the actress and her husband. Soon after villagers Heather Badcock and her husband are greeted and offered drinks, Heather Badcock collapses and dies. As it turns out, her drink, which was going to be the drink for Marina until Heather's own drink was spilled, was laced with a heavy dose of a prescription medication.

Miss Jane Marple, recovering from some vague infirmity, was not on hand to witness the tragedy, but her good friend Mrs. Bantry was. Mrs. Bantry's very thorough observations, in conjunction with information shared with Miss Marple by Chief Inspector Craddock of Scotland Yard, help Miss Marple focus on what seem like small details to help solve the murder, which includes figuring out if the murderer killed the intended victim. A classic Agatha Christie novel.

Circe, by Madeline Miller

I happened to turn from reading about seventeenth century Norwegian “witches” in The mercies to a novel centered on the ur-witch in Greek mythology, the enchantress, Circe.  Although the cast of characters and the plots will be familiar to anyone who took a little Latin or had a course in mythology, the author has reworked these well-known stories into something quite new.  The writing is lush, like the island that Circe is banished to after angering the mighty, with rhythms echoing the “wine-dark sea” and “dawn’s rosy fingers” of the ancient retellings.  I found I couldn’t put it down, even though in most of the time I knew what was coming next.  Most will remember Circe, a daughter of the Titan sun god, Helios, and a minor naiad, as the witch who turned Odysseus’ men into swine and cast a spell on him to make him forget about his wife, Penelope, back in Ithaca to keep him on her island as her lover.  So many mythical figures touch on her story in the Greek traditions, from Daedalus to Jason and the Argonauts to Medea to the Minotaur, and most make an appearance in the novel, which is told in first person by Circe.  There is a definite feminist undertone to her tale.  The reader will come to admire her and her difficult choices, including her final one.  The power of these ancient stories may be in their ability to be bent to other cultures and still have important things to say.  Pretty amazing book.  420 pp.

Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Mysterious Affair at Styles

The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie  296 pp.

This was a re-read of the very first Agatha Christie mystery, written on a dare from her sister. I first read it in the 1970s-80s during which time I read all 80+ Christie mysteries. I decided to revisit it when I found an audiobook version read by Hugh Fraser, the actor who portrayed Captain Hastings in the David Suchet Poirot television series. The story itself is told from Hastings' point of view so it is ideal to have him read it. It takes place during WWI when Hastings is recuperating from injuries he suffered in the war. He is invited to stay at the manor house called Styles, by an old friend, John Cavendish, whose father owned it. During Hastings' stay Cavendish's stepmother is the victim of a poisoning. Hastings who believes himself to be a detective of sorts begins to investigate. Then he runs across Poirot, who he met while in Belgium. Poirot has relocated to England with other war refugees, Hastings then consults Poirot for assistance in solving the murder. Short and sweet and a good start to a long and successful mystery career for Christie.

Monday, April 13, 2020


Mythos: The Greek Myths Retold by Stephen Fry  416 pp.

I often find books of classic myths to be written in dry prose but that can't be said for this one. Actor/Author Stephen Fry has given his spin to the old stories while staying true to their essence. While most of the myths were familiar to me there were a few that I had not heard before. Fry's explanatory sections are also clear and help explain the relationships between the origin stories, tales of the Olympians and their offspring, and the mixing of the deities and humans. I found it all very enjoyable as well as informative. Fry narrates the book himself and it seems more like a chat than a reading.

The Mirror and the Light

The Mirror and the Light (Thomas Cromwell Trilogy #3) by Hilary Mantel  784 pp.

This book was a long time in coming. The first installment, Wolf Hall came out in 2009 and Bringing up the Bodies was published in 2012. Possibly the reason for the delay is the length of this final installment. It brings the total pages of the trilogy to over 1700 pages. This part of the fictionalized life of Thomas Cromwell begins with the beheading of King Henry VIII's second wife Anne Boleyn and Henry's immediate marriage to Jane Seymour. Cromwell, the king's most trusted adviser quickly rose in rank in Henry's Cabinet, eventually rising to the office of  Lord Privy Seal, given membership in the Order of the Garter, and named the first Earl of Essex. However, Cromwell had many enemies in the king's court with many resenting Cromwell's common background. They ultimately led to his downfall and execution with Henry blaming Cromwell for his unfortunate marriage to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Of the three books I liked this one the best. It goes into much more detail of Cromwell's personal life and beliefs. While it is helpful to read the first two, this volume could be read as a stand alone since there are flashbacks to events earlier in Cromwell's life. I listened to the audiobook which is very well performed by Ben Miles and clocks in at a hefty 38+ hours.


Oligarchy: a Novel / Scarlett Thomas, 230 p.

Natasha (Tash) has been vaulted from a life as a poor Moscow teen living with her single mom to being a student at a posh English boarding school, thanks to the intervention of her mysterious father, a Russian oligarch whose existence Tash has only just learned about.

Tash adjusts to her new life quickly but becomes swept up in the cruel behavior and obsessive eating habits of her classmates.  When one of the girls dies and a teacher disappears, Tash begins to wonder whether there is more going on than anorexia. 

Tash has an intriguing voice that definitely captures the perfectly blended folly and wisdom of adolescence, and much of this novel is darkly comical.  An unusual niche read.

St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets

St. Francis Society for Wayward Pets by Annie England Noblin, 351 pages

In the course of 24 hours, Mae has lost her job, lost her boyfriend, and been mugged. Forced to move in with her parents, she's ready for a good long sulk and pity-party when she learns that her biological mother has died and is leaving everything she owns to the daughter she hasn't seen since birth. With nothing to lose, Mae decides to head to the tiny town of Timber Creek, Washington, and learn a bit about her biological mom and the town where she lived her whole life.

This book is in turns sweet, stark, and funny, peppered with flashbacks to Mae's mother before Mae was born. I enjoyed the characters, and Mae's growth, though everything seemed to happen a bit too quickly to feel real to any degree. But the quirky small-town characters (including Mae's new cat and dog) were enough to make up for it. A quick, engaging read.

The Sea of Lost Girls

The Sea of Lost Girls by Carol Goodman, 294 pages

Tess seems to have it all: a wonderful marriage, a wonderful job, a wonderful son. But a middle-of-the-night call from her teenage son and the discovery of his dead girlfriend shatters that image, dredging up Tess's own history and a creepy past for the elite boarding school where Tess works.

This book has twists, turns, and plenty of backstory to make the reader doubt everything. It's a fast read, and one that will keep the pages turning.

Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing

Mrs. Mohr Goes Missing by Maryla Mzymiczkowa, 349 pages

It's 1893 in Cracow, and Zofia Turbotynska is BORED. She's the wife of a university professor and the only thing to keep her occupied is a charity auction she's spearheading with the sole purpose of climbing the social ladder. It's in pursuit of prizes for this auction (and a countess to help sponsor the endeavor) that she ends up at Helcel House, a retirement home for both the very well-off and the destitute, where she learns that the titular Mrs. Mohr has gone missing. Zofia fancies herself a bit of a detective, and working on the correct assumption that Mrs. Mohr is dead, Zofia starts investigating...and filling her time.

This is a fun historical murder mystery, filled with observations about the social world of Poland in the 1890s, vibrant characters, and a heroine reminiscent of Miss Marple. I enjoyed the escape provided by this book.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

My Squirrel Days

My Squirrel Days / Ellie Kemper 253 pgs.

St. Louis native Kemper takes on the memoir as instructed - at least that's what she indicates at the beginning of the book.  Can she pull it off?  Well, I listened to the audio and she does a fine job telling her story.  The story itself is occasionally funny but mostly, really, a little unremarkable.  Sure, she is a big actress but still with her usual St. Louis sensibility.  Enjoyable and fluffy, just like her personality.

My favorite thing is monsters

My Favorite Thing is Monsters / Emil Ferris 410 pgs.

Ten year old Karen is investigating the murder of her neighbor.  She lives in Chicago in the 1960's and this book does a good job of showing us the backdrop of her life and neighborhood.  She is not popular at school, believes she is a monster but that doesn't get in the way of her investigation.  She lives with her mom who is dying of cancer and her older brother who she idolizes.  This book takes us to a lot of places.  The illustrations are incredible.  It was hard to put down. It is a little bit scary so beware.

Deep State

Deep State / Chris Hauty, 281 pgs.

Hayley Chill is an army vet who is serving as an intern in the White House. She is a little older than the other interns and the West Virginia native has less schooling so she is discounted by her mostly Ivy League counterparts.  What Hayley has, of course is extensive hand to hand combat training, a photographic memory and a sharp shooter certificate.  The president's chief of staff is sure about one thing..."they" are out to get him and the president.  Political enemies are not happy with the direction the administration is taking.  When the chief of staff turns up dead, Hayley is the only one who discovers a snowy foot print that leads her to believe the massive heart attack was not entirely natural.  Jump through about 15 absolutely unbelievable plot points to get to the final twist at the end to take it to the next level of silly.  That ending almost makes this story so bad that it is good.  Regardless, it is mindless entertainment that got me through another day of quarantine.

Saturday, April 11, 2020

The mercies, by Kiran Millwood Hargrave

Who knew that Norway had an even darker past with witch trials than our country?  In the early 1600s, fifty-two witch trials leading to the deaths of over 90 people were held in Finnmark.  Fourteen of these deaths were men, all Sami, the indigenous people of that area and Finland, who are wrongly and insultingly called “Lapps.”  All the women were Norwegian and from the area, the most northeasterly corner of the country, where this engrossing novel is set.  Based on actual events – there was a sudden and unusual storm that killed 40 fishermen from the same small island village instantly – and featuring some historical figures who were responsible for these trials, the author skillfully evokes that time and place.  After the loss of the men of the village, women are forced to take on responsibilities not traditionally done by them in order to survive.  This attracts negative attention from men ranging from King Christian IV, to a witch-hunting Scotsman named John Cunningham, to the fictional commissioner Absalom Cornet.  The strong characters, the historical detail, and the vivid descriptions of the harshness of life on the edge of the Arctic Circle, make this book hard to put down.  Fear and intolerance.  Hmmmm…. sounds familiar.  Highly recommended.  340 pp.

The third man, by Graham Greene

This novella was not originally intended for publication but written as a treatment for the Orson Welles movie of the same name.  I read it in conjunction with my first ever viewing of the movie, which was a revelation – what an amazing film.  Prior to the pandemic, I had planned to discuss both with a friend when he next came to St. Louis – which was not to be.  I loved the film, which is better than the book, and has a much stronger ending.  120 pp.

The women in black, by Madeleine St John

A charming book first published in 1993.  Set in 1950’s Sydney, Australia, the “women in black” are the employees of Goode’s department store who work in the women’s dress departments.  They are required to wear store-issued black dresses.  Young Lisa takes a temporary job there during the holiday rush while she awaits the results of the exams that will determine if she is admitted to university – something her father doesn’t even know she aspires to and which he is unlikely to support.  She works in the Ladies Cocktail Frocks department along with Patty, married to Frank and longing for a baby – but Frank is always “too tired” -- and Fay, who at 29 longs to marry but keeps dating the wrong men.  A step above them, Magda, a Slovenian post-war émigré, lords over upscale Model Gowns, where one-of-a-kind designer creations are sold.  When Magda takes the young Lisa under her wing, all three of the women’s lives will be changed.  It is a fun and funny look at a bygone time and a delightful read.  The author, who died in 2006, published three other novels, and one was the first by an Australian woman to be shortlisted for the Booker. I would like to seek out and read her others.  209 pp.

The Rosie result, by Graeme Simsion

The final book in the trilogy featuring Don Tillman, which began with The Rosie Project and his quest, at forty, to find a mate.  By book three, Don and Rosie have been married for years and have an eleven-year-old son, Hudson.  Rosie has accepted her dream job back in her home country of Australia, so they relocate from New York to Melbourne.  There Hudson has trouble fitting in.  Like his father, still technically undiagnosed after two other books that make it quite clear that he is “on the spectrum,” Hudson exhibits behaviors which make his new school’s administration conclude he may be autistic.  Hudson’s only friend is girl his age who lives with her anti-vaxer parents and is albino.   Don finds a new job at a university but is soon in trouble after a student accuses him of racism (a misunderstanding caused by his lack of social awareness) and is placed on leave.  With time on his hands, of all things, he starts a cocktail bar, one that will appeal to people, like himself, who are introverted, hate crowds, and are bothered by noise.  The book is both funny and thoughtful, and will speak to anyone, and lately that seems like most of us, who know someone, or are ourselves, a bit on the spectrum.  A nice ending to the series.  376 pp.

Books & Islands in Ojibwe Country: Travelling through the land of my ancestors, by Louise Erdrich

This slim volume was sent to me by an 85-year-old friend with whom I share memories of our own ancestors up in Deer River, MN, where my family’s cabin is located.  Erdrich’s heritage is Ojibwe, or Chippewa as we knew them when we were young, and Deer River is on the edge of the large Leech Lake Indian Reservation near where this book takes place.  It was written in 2003, and I was startled at the beginning of the book to learn that Erdrich was travelling with an 18-month-old toddler – her former husband had been dead by suicide for several years at that time.  As it turns out, she had this baby, at 47, with a man many years her senior, Tobasonakwut, an Ojibwe elder, sun dancer, and healer.  Leaving her home (and three other late-teenaged daughters) in Minneapolis, the author and baby Kiizhikok head north towards Ontario and Lake of the Woods, where she will meet Tobasonakwut.  They will visit islands in Lake of the Woods that are decorated by ancient Ojibwe pictographs.  Her travels will also take her to the Boundary Waters area east of there, between Minnesota and Canada, to another island where a man named Ernest Oberholtzer established a huge personal library of books.  Throughout these journeys, Erdrich, who is also striving to master the very difficult Ojibwe language, meditates on her ancestral heritage, record-keeping through written word and pictographs, and the connections between culture and language.  An interesting glimpse into the life and mind of this well-regarded author.  127 pp.

Thursday, April 9, 2020

Red Queen

Red Queen by Christina Henry (2016). 291 pages.

Red Queen continues where Alice left off. Alice and Hatcher leave the clutches of the Old City to find Hatcher's long lost daughter. They look forward to the idyll of the verdant fields beyond the city, but find only ash and desert...a land destroyed not by wildfire, but some dangerous power. As they head deeper into this ravaged land, they learn of the hold the White Queen has over it and that they've unwittingly become the pawns in her cruel game against the Black King. The only way out may be to ally with the Red Queen, whose magic runs deep and dark.

I must admit that I did not like this sequel nearly as much as its predecessor...I think, in part, because it focused too much on a romance between Alice and Hatcher that felt a bit too teen angsty and forced. It took me out of the action and terror that I so enjoyed from the first novel. Additionally, it's been a long time since I've read Through the Looking-Glass, and I've read that fewer times than Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, so it was more difficult to make the connections between the stories (that's on me). I also think that Alice was such a twist on the original that perhaps the shock value wasn't there for me. That said, I did enjoy watching Alice come a bit more into her own in this book, and I'm looking forward the upcoming collection of novellas set in this universe as well as Henry's other twisted reimaginings of classic children's tales.


Alice by Christina Henry (2015). 291 pages.

This is not the wonderland you remember. Alice has resided in a mental hospital for the past ten years, abandoned by her family after returning from a mysterious absence from which she can only remember a man with long ears and a knife. When a fire takes hold of the building, Alice escapes with the madman Hatcher into the sour, cruel, and illegal magic of the Old City. They are thrown into a harrowing spiral of events to discover the truth behind what they've tried to forget and what that means for who they are now.

Wow! Alice was unforgettable. I've been so curious to read this, but I put it off for years because of my particular allegiance to Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and knowing that it was a dark fantasy/horror twist on the classic scared me a bit (that genre is usually not my cup of tea). However, I could not tear myself away and devoured the book in a day. It is grim and violent (filled with too many trigger warnings to count), but also compelling--to grow with Alice and Hatcher throughout the course of events, to watch Alice become a real badass, and, as a reader, to fit this interpretation into its inspiration like a strange puzzle piece. Many retellings of classics/fairy tales fall flat for me when they stick too close to the original, but I found that Alice was wildly creative and it worked. It made me want to reread the originial and then dive into this once more.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 by P. Djèlí Clark (2019). 130 pages.

In an alternate history of Cairo, the world of reality and fantasy is blurred, and the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities operates to ensure the proper behavior between the two. A mysterious, violent creature, initially presumed to be a djinn, is found terrorizing a tram car, and it's up to Agent Hamed and Agent Onsi to find out exactly what is happening and how to contain it.

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 was a quick, fun read. I am not usually one for steampunk, but I love Clark's steampunk worlds, which are generally set in less traditional steampunk locales and feature a much more diverse cast of characters. I also enjoyed how the backdrop of women's suffrage informed the story. And will you take a look at that cover? That is worth the price of admission, for sure (cover art by Stephan Martiniere). This novella has gathered some significant accolades with a Nebula nomination last year and a Hugo nomination just a couple days ago, and it's easy to see why.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

The Middle Ground

The Middle Ground / Margaret Drabble, 277 p.

Another enjoyable Drabble read, this one the story of Kate Armstrong, a successful London journalist in the middle of her life, complete with teen children, aging parents, ex-spouses, and now, a crisis in the form of a lost unexpected pregnancy.  A careful look at Kate and her many close friends moving through a difficult passage separately and together.  Observant and warm, Drabble as always maps a woman's interior landscape beautifully.

Into the Abyss

Into  the Abyss: a Neuropsychiatrist's Notes on Troubled Minds / Anthony David, 215 p.

An unfortunate title for an interesting (and not particularly depressing) read.  Dr. David has had a long career in medicine in the UK, and recounts some of his most interesting cases, including that of Emma,who has now spent years in a vegetative state which has no clear physiological explanation, and Christopher, a healthy teen who developed paralysis with no discernible cause.  These and other anecdotes explore the ways in which dualistic ideas of body and mind often fail to help patients such as Emma and Christopher.  Not Oliver Sacks, but nevertheless intriguing and thoughtfully written.

Our Fathers

Our Fathers / Rebecca Wait, 267 p.

On the remote island of Litta in the Hebrides, the community is abuzz when Tommy Baird arrives on the ferry.  Tommy left as a child nearly twenty years earlier in the wake of a horrible crime committed by his father, John, that no one on the island can ever forget.  Why has Tommy come, and what will he learn about the past?  Will others be hurt in the process?  Well-drawn psychological insight in a quiet, atmospheric tale.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Minding the Store

Minding the Store: A Big Story About a Small Business by Julie Gaines; illustrated by Ben Lenovitz (2018). 176 pages.

Minding the Store is a charming piece of graphic nonfiction, chronicling the rise and fall (and rise again?) of Fishs Eddy, a famous local business in New York specializing in the resale of hotel industry flatware. Julia Gaines recounts how she and her husband rode the tumultuous waves to operate the store they love so dearly--from making a business out of their niche collection interest to the business's expansion to its near demise, attempts to employ family, encounters with celebrities, weathering the September 11 attacks, and on--and thus cemented its place in New York's history in its own right.

I had a lot of fun reading this, mostly because I'm a NYC-phile and love reading histories of how the city's neighborhoods have developed over the years. Minding the Store puts you right in it and has a lot of really funny moments while you're along for the ride. I can't believe I've never visited the store before, but my fingers are crossed that it will weather this storm so that I can visit it in the future.

Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars

Fierce Femmes and Notorious Liars: A Dangerous Trans Girl's Confabulous Memoir by Kai Cheng Thom (2016). 188 pages.

A young Asian trans woman runs away from a city called Gloom to the vibrant Street of Miracles. There she quickly finds herself amid a crew of other trans women with whom she can confide, laugh, day form a gang to exact vengeance upon the transphobes committing hate crimes. This is also a novel full of mermaids and ghosts and nothing is ever quite what it seems. Thom challenges the memoir genre by muddying the waters of fact and fiction and ends up weaving such a stirring tale that it won't matter if she's lying to you or not.

This was one of the most unique memoirs I've read (the other being Carmen Maria Machado's In the Dream House). It is most definitely fact, but it is also most definitely fiction. It has a lot of difficult moments, but its fantastic framework acts as almost a cushion to soften the blow while at the same time lending it extra gravity. So much is packed into this short novel that it left me feeling a little like I had just awoken from a dream. Highly recommended, especially if you like a bit of genre bending.

The Bromance Book Club

The Bromance Book Club by Lyssa Kay Adams, 339 pages

From the outside, Gavin Scott has a perfect life. He's a professional baseball player for the Nashville Legends, whose walk-off grand slam is the talk of the post-season. He has a gorgeous wife and two beautiful daughters, and life looks fantastic. But not everything is as it seems. Turns out Gavin's wife Thea has been faking it both in the bedroom and out for their whole marriage, which is rapidly unraveling. Desperate to do anything to save his marriage, Gavin turns to his teammates, who introduce him to the Bromance Book Club: a group of Nashville's biggest male celebrities who read romance novels to get a better handle on their real-life relationships.

What a clever take on romance novels! I loved seeing a romance focus on an already-established relationship that's on the rocks, and I really liked seeing it from the mostly male point of view, both of which are rare in the world of romance novels. This book was funny, sweet, and a bunch of fun.

Monday, April 6, 2020

Rock Steady: Brilliant Life from My Bipolar Life

Rock Steady: Brilliant Advice from My Bipolar Life by Ellen Forney (2018). 200 pages.

Following her brilliant graphic memoir Marbles, in which she explored the relationship between mental health and creativity, Ellen Forney continues to explore mental health issues in Rock Steady, this time providing a handbook of sorts, detailing concepts and helpful practices that have helped her manage bipolar mood disorder. While Forney uses bipolar as a foundation for the book, most of the advice she gives is practical for anyone wishing to manage their mental health. Rock Steady is full of Forney's signature wit and funny cartoonish style of drawing, making it a joyous read on a big subject.

This was a reread for me. Forney is one of my favorite comics creators, and so I made sure to devour it as soon as it was published. It felt really good to come back to it, and I made sure to take more time with it so I could be sure to take her advice to heart during this difficult time. Her tips and tricks throughout the book have stuck with me over the past couple years (SMEDMERTS forever!), and this refresher will make them even more present in my mind as we navigate these uncertain times.

The Black God's Drums

The Black God's Drums by P. Djeli Clark, 111 pages

In the midst of a long Civil War, the autonomous city of New Orleans is the one place that people of all races, creeds, and colors can walk free. It's in this port city that we find Creeper, a teen girl that lives on the street, picking pockets to stay alive, when she overhears plans to kidnap a scientist who has the ability to create the Black God's Drums, a weapon that has the power to rain terror down over the city. Teaming up with a Haitian airship captain, Creeper is determined to save her city, using her connection to Oya, goddess of the wind, if she has to.

Though it's short, this mix of steampunk, voodoo, orisha, and Creole is exactly what you'd want of a New Orleans science fiction novella. I'm not usually a steampunk fan, but I loved this book and I can't wait to dive into it with the Orcs & Aliens next week.

This Is How You Lose the Time War

This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone (2019). 201 pages.

Amid the wreckage of a destroyed world, two agents, from either side of a war, begin an unlikely correspondence as they race back through time, each taunting and trying to one-up the other. As their communication progresses, something more emerges from their letters, and what was once rivalry turns into affection as they experience history in reverse. As their bond deepens, so does the threat that they will be discovered and face certain death for their treachery. How will one win the time war if it means losing the other?

This was SUCH a unique and entertaining read. I loved it from beginning to end, from the insults hurled at one another, to the burgeoning romance, to the slices of history and the creativity each character mustered to continue the correspondence. I loved it so much that I wanted to start rereading it as soon as it ended.

We Ride Upon Sticks

We Ride Upon Sticks by Quan Barry, 384 pages

It's 1989 in Danvers, Massachusetts, and the varsity field hockey team is having their first winning season in AGES. The team's turnaround dates roughly to their summer camp, in which the goalie wrote a dark pledge and signed her name in her Emilio Estevez-adorned journal, soon pressuring her teammates to do the same. Are the two related? The team certainly thinks so, given their town's history as the original location of the 1692 witch trials. But is it that or just young women starting to stand up for themselves?

This is a funny, sharp, and surprisingly complex look at teen life in the late 1980s. Barry follows each team member for a chunk of the book, by the end, giving the reader a full scope of their lives. It's equal parts The Cruicible and My Best Friend's Exorcism, with a bit of Heathers thrown in, and it's absolutely fantastic.