Saturday, March 18, 2017

March 2.0

Lucky Boy by Shanthi Sekaran
Her first book in eight years, Sekaran has written a humdinger of a story that is getting tons of buzz out there in the publishing world.  Charged with provocative themes of race, class, illegal immigration, and familial rights, this is a winner.  You'll need to get past the first 40-50 pages for the characters to gel, but be patient; it is worth it.  In this modern day re-telling of King Solomon and the mothers who both claim one child, Sekaran gives us two different mothers:  one, a young Mexican girl who has come to America, through the help of coyotes and generous parents, and who experiences horrific tragedy to give herself and her family a better life; the other woman, well educated at Berkeley, with a steady job, Silicon Valley husband, who desperately wants a child but is denied by her biology.  Throughout the book, we see the story of Solimar, an illegal immigrant, the fear that forces her to run through sidewalks in case ICE is around, who takes far less pay for her work as a nanny due to fears of IRS issues, and who is imprisoned for a nonsensical reason, in danger of losing the child she bore.  However, we also see Kavya, a woman who so longs for a child she can think of nothing else, who is a sincerely loving woman, who bonds deeply with the child in her care.  I found myself having to starkly and honestly confront my own embedded of class and race,  about what a child needs, or deserves - this is a powerful story that will provoke great conversation.

The Orphan Keeper by Camron Wright
Wright's previous book, The Rent Collector, was a favorite of mine a couple years ago, and he writes another interesting, heartwarming book on his second outing.  Based on a true story, just like his previous book, this time the focus is on India and its troubling past with illegal adoption practices.  We first meet Chellamuthu as a seven year old boy, part of an extremely poor Indian family.  While he is sometimes physically abused, due to cultural beliefs in his village, Chellamuthu is loved.  However, when his father leaves him on a street corner, unaccompanied for a short time, kidnappers take the small boy and deliver him to an orphanage in the big city.  The motives of the head man are questionable and provoke questions:  does he know the boy has a loving family?  does he care? does he care for the orphans to save them? or does he use the orphanage to fleece American families?  It is an intriguing dynamic.  As Chellamuthu then transitions to an American boy in his newly adopted family, he becomes Taj and we watch the years go by and his past fade.  Eventually, Taj must confront old memories and search for his past.  The only problem with this book?  At times, it does taste a bit saccharine, occasionally the story line drags a bit, and if you have seen the movie Lion, yep, it is a similar plot.  However, it is a heartwarming, multicultural story that would be appropriate for all ages.

I See You by Clare Mackintosh
Looking for your next vacation read, the one you cannot put down, the one where you want the world to stop tugging on your shirt sleeve? Look no further - Clare Mackintosh's latest (I Let You Go) is a serious page turner, as was her last one.  Written up in the New York Times book section for hot new mysteries, this one deserves all the accolades.  Playing on the real fears surrounding CTV, social media, and our obsession to let the world know everything about our lives, Mackintosh weaves a tale of suspense.  Two women take center state:  Kelly, a police officer, dying to be more than just on patrol and to work in the 'majors,' a dark past that keeps her back, and an insatiable curiosity and spot-on memory; Zoe, an ordinary mum, stuck in a dead-end job, torn between the current husband and the cheating ex, who sees a picture of herself in a newspaper advertisement as she rides the subway home.  As Kelly begins to piece together the pattern of rapes and murders, Zoe must protect not only herself, but her nineteen year old daughter.  Macintosh throws in numerous possible suspects, leading us down one dark alley after another, with a shocker of an ending.  This book does not disappoint.

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
George Saunders, labeled "one of our greatest living writers" is back after his spectacular book of short stories, The Tenth of December.  His latest book will likely win a Pulitzer, American Book Award, etc etc etc.  It was an immediate bestseller and raved over in the New York Times and various book blogs.  Yet...I must be missing something.  On one hand, it is a highly creative plot line.  In 1862, President Lincoln visits the tomb of his eleven year old son, Willie, two days after his death of typhoid fever.  The book unfolds as various spirits, stuck here on earth in the 'Bardo' (a Tibetan term for the state in-between life and death), share their past lives and their perspectives on the current situation between Willie, who is desperate to see his father one last time, and Lincoln, who cannot let go of his beloved child.   Each chapter begins with numerous small tidbits of facts from historical diaries, news tidbits, etc., followed then by back and forth conversations from the spirits.  Many of their past lives are fascinating, humorous, terrible, you name it.  Admittedly, I had a hard time following all the strings of conversation and keeping characters straight; I also found myself more intrigues by the historical facts, rather than the ghostly tales.  I listened to the audio version which had tons of famous actors and has been highly reviewed; perhaps the written version where I could visually see the spirits' names might have been better?  I am looking forward to my Village Books bookclub discussion so they can clue me in to all the nuances I am sure I missed!

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley by Hannah Tinti
If I were to just scratch the surface, this is not my kind of book.  It has guns, and I mean a lot of guns; it begins with a child shooting a gun, chapters about each of the twelve bullet holes placed on Samuel Hawley's body, and minute description of his large gun collection.  However, below the surface, this is a powerful story of a wounded man, both physically and emotionally, loyalty to friends and family, and the unending search for love in this world.  I honestly did not think this book would be as deep as it became; I was figuring a bang-bang, shoot-em-up thriller, but I was so wrong.  The story swerves back and forth in time, spooling out the story of Hawley's life through each of his twelve wounds:  his beginning steps into the criminal world, the marriage and loss of his wife, his complicated relationship with his daughter and mother-in-law, and his search for heroism.  Tinti is a talented author, who uses the threads of Hercules and his twelve labors, the desire to be heroic when one is riddled with flaws, and the call of not only nature but the wisdom in the stars to show each character the way home, both literally and figuratively.  Do not put this book down, do not skim the surface and think it is a thriller - dive deep and swim through this rich and exciting book.  It is well worth your time.

Ill Will by Dan Chaon
This book gets lots of buzz, but honestly, I did not find it worth the hype.  Premise:  young boy named Dusty with a newly adopted fourteen year old foster brother named Russell who is abusive towards him, and oh yeah, spends decades in prison for killing the boy's parents as well as his aunt and uncle. Now that Dusty's wife has died and left him with two teenage sons, brother Russell returns to emotionally abuse the older son.  Yep, I stopped reading there.  I felt like I needed to take a shower - such ugly characters and a plot line that repulsed me.  One star...don't waste your time.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

March Books

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
For those of you who were first entranced by Lisa See's debut back in 2006 (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan), you will be happy to know...she's back, and I mean really back.  I loved her first book, 'meh' on her second book, liked her Shanghai Girls series, and heartily disliked her latest, China Dolls.  However,  in her latest book due out in March 2017, Lisa See has hit another home run.  This time, she sets her story in the tea mountains of rural China in 1989 where we first meet Li-yan, a little girl part of an ethnic minority group called the Akha.  This community has never been touched by the modern world, with no electricity, a spiritualism based on nature, and strict traditional rules that go back thousands of years.  The tale moves back and forth between Li-yan's life, and that of her daughter, adopted into an American family after a tragic decision forced upon the young mother by her culture group.  As the novel delves into the secret and hidden world of the tea trade, it exposes the corruption, the wealth, and the fascinating details of how tea is not only grown and then fermented, but marketed and sold to the greedy collectors.  I read voraciously and ceaselessly, and finished with a satisfaction I had not felt for quite some time in See's novels.  What a pleasure to not only be entertained, but to take a peek into another world and their ancient traditions.

Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister
Perfect timing for a historical fiction that highlights a bad-ass woman, doing a man's job, and kicking ass.  Oh...and it is based on the real woman.  Many of us have heard of the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, born in Chicago, and hired by presidents, railroads, and banks to recover stolen goods or track down criminals.  However, did you know they hired women?  Kate Warne, the main character and real-life widow, applied and was hired as the first woman detective, ultimately heading a department of women investigators.  Macallister's story covers Kate's first cases, the discrimination of the men, the attempted assassination of Lincoln, and ultimately, the incredible system of Union spying the Pinkerton detectives did during the Civil War.  This was an eye-opening saga into a little-known piece of American history.  Yet, more than that, it is an incredibly engaging book with a stellar main character leading the charge into women's rights through her actions, her bravery, her sass, and her intelligence.  This book is suitable for teens as well - no bad language, minimal sex, and an inspirational bit of history by which younger readers can be inspired.  Greer Macallister knows how to write and make you turn pages; her first novel, The Magician's Lie, was a winner as well.  Girl in Disguise is another hit - thanks Net Galley!

A Colony in a Nation by Christopher L. Hayes
Thanks to Net Galley, I was able to read this fascinating new book by MSNBC anchor, Chris Hayes. Hayes writes a scholarly yet engrossing new book looking at the various nuances of law and the explication of so-called 'order' in today's America.  Borrowing the quote from Richard Nixon for his title, he explores the great divide in our country between the disenfranchised of our nation who still live as if in a separate colony, while the privileged 'nation' attempts to maintain the status quo. While he focuses on people of color, poverty and the inequities of the educational system also play a role.  It begins in Ferguson, where Hayes was on the ground reporting the aftermath of the shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown.  His insight into the past history not only of Ferguson, but also the surrounding areas, highlights information that is pivotal to the understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement.  American history is used to inform the reader of past practices in law enforcement: the fall out of tariffs all the way to revolutionary times, the statistics of stop-and-frisk, the community policing movement, the 'broken windows' policy, and many more.  Hayes also fully embraces his own white privilege and his Ivy-league background, honestly and provocatively displaying his own prejudices and forcing the reader to look in his or her own mirror.  This is not a book for the reader who wants a fast, thrilling mystery, but it is a book for our time, a book we should all read, a book that will not only make you smarter, but will force you to ask questions of yourself and the rules of society.  Do we want order or do we want to be safe?

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
When I picked up this book, I needed escape.  I was tired of politics, of satire, of real life tragedy.  Thirty pages in and my skin began to tingle; I had been transported to a magical world of monsters, storytellers, gods, and warriors and it was just what I needed.  Taylor sets her story in a magical city renamed 'Weep,' after the goddess of forgetfulness wipes away its memory. The cast of characters is extraordinary: Lazlo, the orphan child apprenticed by librarians, fascinated by the unseen city, and a gifted storyteller; Eril-Fane and Azareen, citizens of 'Weep,' victims of the gods, tortured by their past; the 'godspawn' children, trapped in the citadel above, waiting for a chance for vengeance; and Sarai, the Muse of Nightmares whose humanity is stronger than her godlike magic.  The writing is simply gorgeous, as are the well-developed and thoughtful themes of humanity, of compassion, of justice.  If you like fantasy, if you like writing that will take your breath away, if you want to turn pages late into the night, do not miss this book.  It is magic.

Mercies in Disguise: A Story of Hope, a Family's Genetic Destiny, and the Science That Rescued Them by Gina Kolata
Admittedly, I do love a good medical story:  The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese, Better by Atul Gwande, The Remedy by Thomas Goetz.  If you are interested in genetics, medical research, impact on families, then this book is your thing.  The Baxley family is one of those "All-American," stereotypical, quintessential Southern families, the type whose father was the small-town doctor, church attendees, and tight ties with one another.  However, a mysterious genetic disease has ruined the picture for generations.  This book is the search for an answer, not a cure.  Author Gina Kolata does a masterful job of looking back at the history of this strange disease, one that causes the sufferer to slowly lose control of his or her body, speech, and brain.  Kolata goes far back in time and space to New Guinea where a young doctor sees a people devastated by disease and isolated culturally.   Kolata slowly builds the puzzle as doctors fight charges of quackery, advances in testing creates more questions, and false roads are taken.  As DNA testing evolves, we see all the pieces start to come together, all while the story of the Baxleys is threaded throughout.  It is a profound look at how science can impact a family, what one might do if given a chance to see their future, and the often futile attempts for normalcy in the face of great challenges.

One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel
A story of a mentally ill, drug-addicted father who takes his two sons away from their mother, this was a tough book for me. As a former teacher, I understand tragedy surrounding a dysfunctional family. I have seen children with bruises, angry-at-everything students, and I have met with some 'interesting' parents. I could see the great sorrow in this family as well as the effects of drugs and mental illness, yet I also saw great anger. My problem with this book was two-fold. First, I did not find the writing admirable; lots of choppy sentences and repetitive beginnings of sentences with little variety. Perhaps that was the author's intent; however, I found it unappealing. Secondly, I found little in these static characters to admire, to cheer for, to wonder about, or to even like even a little bit. None of the characters seemed to grow or change, creating little tension in the book. I was, to be honest, thankful it was so short as it was just one chapter after another of a crummy life for the two boys, leaving one with no hope for their future. I don't need a picture perfect ending, all tied up in a bow; I love complex, frustrating endings that make me think. This one just left me with a 'meh' feeling.

Friday, February 24, 2017

February 2.0

All Our Wrongs Today by Elan Mastai
Wow, just wow - this book is a bit mind-blowing. Author Elan Mastai, Hollywood screenwriter and first-time novelist, has written a unique, creative take on time travel and all the inherent problems involved in not only going back in time, but in attempting to right past mistakes.  Does this sound a bit Back to the Future - ish?  Perhaps, but that would be like comparing Dr. Seuss to Emily Dickinson.  Mastai's take on time travel is deep and puzzling and mind-bending and exciting and humorous and dark...all in just one book.  Main character Tom, who becomes John and then Victor, thanks to different mishaps in time, is a 32 year old whose father invents a time machine that takes him, accidentally, back to the inception of the greatest invention of all time - a generator that has unlimited energy, that creates a 2016 that is reminiscent of the Jetsons.  However, in Tom's time travel, the world is disrupted and he ends up back in our 2016, a world of questionable food choices, lack of environmental protection, and archaic automobiles that stay on the ground.  The voice for Tom is highly engaging, drawing us in to his world through his humor, his frustrations, his eventual insight into what life ultimately should be.  What a provocative choice for a book club as well as a fantastic read on your own; I highly recommend this debut novel!

The Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
Cyber bullying, nasty gossip, and treacherous friendships all located in...where else, a public high school!  As a retired English teacher, this was right down my alley.  I confess, I was underwhelmed by the first few chapters; I did not find it particularly well written, nor full of depth. Yet as I kept reading, I realized that these teenagers are more complex than I had at first thought.  The book begins with the suicide of a bullied young man in eighth grade and then follows the bullies as they enter high school.  Each student has dealt differently with the death, either becoming someone they never thought they would be, hiding their feelings under baby fat and criminal behavior, using their parent's money to protect themselves, or chasing popularity through wild partying.  Sound familiar?  My one complaint would be the young innocent teacher who wants to save the world, be her students' best friend, and ignore the cynicism of the veteran teachers. I was once that curmudgeonly veteran, and occasionally, we actually  have some wisdom for the newbies.  However, I do agree with many of the reviewers out there that this was a fascinating, yet disturbing, look at high school life in the 21st century.  It would be an interesting book to read with your own teenage child and see where their life connects with the vision of this author.

Himself by Jess Kidd
Ah, tis a beautiful little Irish tale found within the pages of this debut author.  Set in County Mayo, a poor young Irish lass is viciously murdered and her child taken to the church orphanage in Dublin.  Years later, Mahoney, the babe all grown up, returns to his hometown of Mulderrig to solve the mystery of his mother's death.  Steeped in Irish folklore, this beautiful little book recounts the town's reaction to this citified young man as it also remembers the life of his teenage mother.  The prejudice towards the poor is on full display here, making my skin crawl at times and my anger awake.  Mahoney is not the perfect hero; he has some criminal tendencies, is a bit loose with his affections, and batters at the lines drawn by the town.  Yet there is beauty in Mahoney, in his friendship with the ancient old stage actress who takes him under his wings, in the love he shares with a young woman, in the interactions he has with the many ghosts he encounters in Mulderrig. And yes, many ghosts flit through the scenes and become well-loved characters of this beautiful book.  Jess Kidd can write not only beautiful prose, but is adept at creating characters who sing with life, who make you smile at their conversations, and make you care about both their past and their future.  Heading to Ireland in the near future to explore small villages?  This is the book for you:)

The Fall of Lisa Bellow by Susan Perabo
Meredith, a very typical eighth grader, is low on self-confidence, longs to be part of the popular crowd though she protests that she does not, has an older brother she adores, parents who are in her business too much, and ultimately gets caught in a 'moment' that will change her life.  As she stands in a convenience store next to Miss Popularity, Lisa Bellow, a robbery ensues, ending up with Lisa being kidnapped while Meredith lays on the floor, unmoving and terrified.  As the news of Meredith's involvement slowly leaks out, her hum-drum life changes as she attempts to deal with the trauma this incident does not only to her social identity, but to her psychological identity as well.  Thrown into this mix is her brother, Evan, dealing with the aftermath of a terrible accident that ended his baseball career, the grieving mother of Lisa Bellow who is unable to move on, and the parents, dentists who are rightfully concerned about the traumatic changes in both their children's lives over the past year.  The plot premise is creative, yet the character development lost me, as did all the tangents taken throughout the story line.  I kept searching my brain for some compassion for any of the characters and came up empty; the mother has nary a redeeming quality, dad has no backbone, and Meredith is beyond annoying, when I wanted her to be more complex, heroic, intuitive, you name it.  About the only character I could stomach was Evan, the brother.  Ultimately, I skimmed through the last quarter of the book, hoping for an ending that could redeem a rather 'meh' book for me.  Sadly, I was disappointed.

Monday, February 6, 2017

February Reading

Kill the Father by Sandrone Dazieri
A huge bestseller in Italy, it has finally been translated for the American market.  Think Girl With the Dragon Tattoo meets Law and Order.  The two main characters are highly appealing:  Dante Torre, a middle-aged man who was kidnapped and psychologically tortured throughout his childhood, living now in an open-air apartment to deal with his claustrophobia, addicted to chemical relief and high-end coffee, highly sensitive reader of body language, provides help with kidnapping cases; his sidekick, Columba Caselli, deputy captain of the Italian police on medical leave, suffering from PTSD, tenacious, intelligent, and courageous, pulled back into police work when a child is taken and his mother viciously murdered.  This is not a mystery for the faint-hearted or impatient (it is loooong), but it is well worth it.  The story line, while extremely complex, is creative and compelling, filling in the pieces right when needed and pushing one to turn pages faster and faster.  As a connoisseur of mysteries and thrillers, I often know 'who dunnit' before the end, but not in this case.  This is an extremely well written and well developed novel that should find it a loyal audience here in America.

The Blood of Emmett Till by Timothy B. Tyson
As a teacher of English literature, I would delve superficially into the story of Emmett Till when we read Toni Morrison novels; the emotional beginning of the civil rights movement still had interest to my students of the 21st century.  However, I 'did not know what I did not know.'  Having read Tyson's previous book, Blood Done Sign My Name (it is also excellent),  I knew this author was a perceptive researcher and a powerful, honest writer.  The first page of Emmett Till and I was hooked.  This is an in-depth look at the story of 14 year-old Chicago boy, visiting relatives in Mississippi in 1955, whose body is found beaten, shot, and drowned in a river.  His mother's decision to hold an open casket, to show the world what was 'done to my boy,' mobilized the nascent movement for civil rights in the south.  WWII had opened up the power of resistance, but the laws of the South, as well as the purposeful blindness of the North, demanded a passionate call to action.  Emmett Till's murder was it.  Tyson does a masterful job of detailing the life of Mamie Till and Emmett's other relatives, the background on the many heroic NAACP workers at the time, the arrest and trial of the two perpetrators, and the life behind the woman who accused the young boy of verbally and physically assaulting her.  At times the long lists of organizations and occasional repetition, particularly in the epilogue, slowed the book down.  However, the historical significance of this event, the tie-in to today and the Black Lives Matter movement, and the powerful story-telling of Timothy Tyson makes this a book that I believe deserves, and needs, to be read.  It would be a powerful tool in a classroom, as well as a worthy book club choice to provoke conversation and connections.

Born a Crime by Trevor Noah
As a die-hard Jon Stewart fan, I was heartbroken when he left the Daily Show.  I was also 'underwhelmed' when South African comedian Trevor Noah took over for him.  While I do not watch Noah as religiously as I did Stewart, he is starting to grow on me. However, after listening to his autobiography (he reads it himself and is MONEY), I do believe I will be taping his show more.  Noah does a masterful job in this book, and that means a lot coming from me as I am not usually one to pick up memoirs.  Born to a Swiss white man and an African black woman, his birth was quite literally a crime under apartheid, and those laws and beliefs did not just merely vanish when Mandela took over.  Noah's childhood in Johannesburg was in turn scary, fascinating, heart-wrenching, poignant, and quite often, gut-busting hilarious.  As in, I would be walking the dog, listening to this book, and literally shrieking with laughter.  His extremely religious mother makes for some riotous moments, and his alcoholic stepfather creates some pretty scary tension.  I cannot recommend this book highly enough; it would be fantastic for a book club, providing humor as well as conversation.  In addition, for those of us who need some laughter right now with the dark cloud of tyranny seemingly paused over our country, this book will hit you right where you need.

The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero by Timothy Egan
For those of you who have not yet read Seattle writer and New York Times editorialist Timothy Egan (Pulitzer prize winner The Worst Hard TimeThe Big Burn, Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher, etc.), and you like narrative history, I would high recommend picking up any of his books.  Yet, admittedly, his newest book about famed Irish and American patriot Thomas Meagher is just truly fantastic, and struck me at a visceral level as I watch the plight of refugees and immigrants in America today.  Read in a delightful Irish lilt, I listened to this 14 hour book rather quickly.  The life of Meagher begins in the middle of the 19th century in Waterford, Ireland.  Egan does a masterful job of weaving in the previous Irish history to give the reader a sense of how Ireland operated when the great potato famine hit.  We see the beginnings of the Irish independence movement, the use of Australia as a penal colony, the treatment of Irish immigrants in 19th century America, and yes, even their participation in the Civil War and the movement West to conquer the great frontier, and all through the life and times of one extraordinary man. This is a sweeping novel that eloquently tells the story of an immigrant: the despair when leaving one's beloved homeland, the prejudice of an adopted homeland who creates laws and cultural barriers to full citizenship, the fight to be seen as loyal to one's new country.  These are all themes America continues to struggle with today, as we see orders being carried out to deny a religion access to a safe and free homeland.  Egan has written another historical masterpiece and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of this 'immortal' Irishman's life.

Dead Letters by Caite Dolan-Leach
I am rather torn in my review for this debut novelist (thank you Net Galley).  On the one hand, Dolan-Leach has created a creative and intriguing plot line.  Identical twin sisters, estranged for two years, are brought back 'together' through the seeming death of the eldest one, Zelda.  Ava, the younger twin, is led on an alphabetical chase through her past, attempting to uncover what happened to Zelda, while at the same time trying to draw some conclusions about her own life and past decisions.  Dolan-Leach segues through time, jumping around a bit much, as she tries to draw the strings together.  The characters are not wholly sympathetic, which is not a prerequisite for me, yet I would have liked to see more depth with not only the two girls, but also some of the peripheral characters.  Although the voice of the girls was sassy and appealing, I felt no connection to either, thus prohibiting me from cheering on either one of them. The ultra-long paragraphs hurt my high-school teacher's heart; it was at times like reading a student's essay and wanting to put the paragraph editing symbol in to remind her to create more of those little beauties.  I was ultimately disappointed in what I saw as a rather cliche ending, but I do have hope for the second of this author's book as I see great potential in her creative plot development.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

January 2.0

Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
An 84 year old woman steps out of her New York apartment on New Year's Eve 1984 and sets off on the walk of her life...literally.  As Lillian walks, we experience her past through her reminisces, her stories, the familiar places she sees, and the people she meets.  And oh my, the people she meets: the security guard at the docks, the young pregnant woman, the three young muggers.  These conversations are at times hilarious, but also pointed and rich in wisdom.  Yet, this entire book is so much more than just the story of an old woman; it is the story of any feminist who fought for her place at the table with the men, who tried and failed to live without love in her life, who struggled with depression and relationships and parenthood, and who lived her life with wit and her eyes wide open.  A phenom in the ad game, Lillian is reminiscent of a Dorothy Parker, with short sassy poems sprinkled throughout the book, showing her incisive intelligence about life and what people 'need' to have, or not.  Lillian reminds us, "The point of living in the world is just to stay interested." I loved, loved, loved this book - I only hope I can stay as 'interested' in life as our gal Lillian.

White Trash:  The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg
Waste. Rubbish. Clay eaters. Mudsill. Hillbilly. Trailer trash. Redneck.  Throughout the lifetime of America, these are the names given to the lower class white, the working poor, the rural inhabitants.  I confess, I chose to listen to this book in order to gain some understanding of the great shift that occurred in politics this last November. This book absolutely sheds light on that, but more importantly, it highlights the long history in our country of subjugating a class of people, of passing judgment due to income level, and of the struggles and prejudices against poor whites.  While there are some connections made to race, ultimately this is a book about just what the title states...white trash.  It is a dense tome, hundreds of pages long, and a bit dry in spots; I would highly recommend listening to it (great narrator).  Admittedly, I was less interested in the puritan and revolutionary time periods and was much more engrossed from 1850 and onward.  The 20th century was fascinating, with its focus on the eugenics movement, political figures whom we all know, and scandals that had more to do with social class than one would have guessed.  Who knew the movie Deliverance was such an iconic statement that still lives on today? Am I smarter after reading this book?  Absolutely.  Did it give me insight into a world in which I should have more empathy?  For sure.  Is the knowledge of our history necessary for further advancement in civil rights, the rights of the poor, the freedoms we all have been guaranteed in our founding documents?  Undoubtedly.  Therefore, this book is well worth the fifteen hours of listening.

The Girl Before by J.P. Delaney
My one plea to these authors/editors, is to STOP using the word "girl" in every freaking title.  We readers are not machines that are only attracted to a book because of a word in the title; give us good writing, complex characters, and a creative plot line, and we will read it.  Okay, now onto this book. Another thriller that will make us turn pages faster than Gone Girl and Girl on the Train?  Yes, it is good, yes it deserves the buzz surrounding it, and yes, Ron Howard should continue his task to bring it to the big screen, regardless of the fact that the title annoys me.  J.P. Delaney, a 'new' author, is a bit mysterious.  Listed as being a pseudonym for a best-selling fiction writer, it is obvious that he/she knows how to write a solid mystery.  The setting is London, with two parallel story lines driving the story:  Emma, a young woman from 'before' who is looking for a safe flat after being burgled and threatened at knife point in the flat she shares with her boyfriend, Simon; and Jane, the woman from 'now' who needs a sanctuary after having a stillborn child.  Enter the architect and owner of One Folgate Street, a flat offered for let with some invasive rules attached, and the story starts to go off in some creepy, mysterious, all together page-turning directions.  Twists and turns abound, some cynical yet kind police detectives come into play as do neighbors, co-workers, and an empathetic psychiatrist.  If you're looking for a great beach read, or a book to dive into on a cold rainy night, or just your next great thriller, I would highly recommend this one.

The Heavens May Fall by Allen Eskens
I loved Esken's first book , The Life We Bury, a classic mystery with rich characterization and suspenseful plot line.  In his latest book, he brings back some of the same characters and spins a new tale with some surprising twists and turns + it is not necessary whatsoever to read the first.  Still living in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, Detective Max Rupert has a new murder that needs solving - the stabbing of prominent attorney Ben Pruitt's wife.  The detective has a shady past with this attorney and is still suffering from his own wife's sudden death three years ago, which may or may not impair his judgment of this investigation.  His long-time poker buddy, Professor Sanden, decides to come out of retirement and defend an innocent husband being railroaded for his wife's murder.  It sounds like many of the other mysteries out in the market place today, but Eskens is an especially talented writer.  Not by pretty word choice or turn of phrase, but through his ability to get inside a character, to flush out the motivations, the desires both good and bad, and make the reader want to explore each person in more depth.  The plot drives this story, but the detective, the lawyers, even the research assistant makes us care about the direction of the story.  When you find yourself saying to your dog snuggled up next to you as you read, "Wow, didn't see that coming!", it's a good one:)  Highly recommend!

Dracula by Bram Stoker
Looking for a classic for your book club?  This could just be it.  While familiar with the basics of Dracula, having watched the Bela Lugosi classic years ago, as well as Dark Shadows of course,  this novel gives a much greater depth of knowledge into the beginning tale of the vampire and also defines the origins for so many novels of today.  Yes, Twilight rips off a great many of the ideas from Bram Stoker, as does Justin Cronin's Passage trilogy, and even a little Stephen King.  The original characters such as Van Helsing and the Harkers read as a bit stereotypical, yet that was the style back in the 19th century.  It is surprising, therefore, the blood and violence found in this book; it is definitely not for the faint-hearted and made my hair stand on end as I read in the dark of night.  It is long, and a bit more descriptive in the beginning than what I can usually take, but I foresee a spirited and in-depth book club conversation around its many themes and it's diary-oriented plot line.

Two Days Gone by Randall Silvis
Another thriller, this one focuses on a grizzled, life-beaten, middle-aged detective in a small college town on Lake Erie.  A famous best-selling author, who happens to be a writing professor as well, is missing while his wife and three young children are found butchered to death in their home.  Nope, not a book for the faint-hearted.  The story plays out through both men's eyes. Tom Huston, the author, plays 'catch me if you can' in the woods, attempting to get food, shelter, and some assistance as we see his mind devolve.  Detective Ryan, who had a past friendly relationship with Huston, follows every lead, realizing as he pieces the story together, that perhaps the police have the wrong killer.  Ryan's past with his wife, the death of his son, his time on the vice squad all influence his actions.  Author Silvis uses his own prodigious knowledge of writing skill and poetry to imbibe this book with legitimacy as well as beautiful writing.  It is a solid page-turner, with some great twists throughout.  My only complaint is the following:  why, oh why, must we continue to be bombarded with all-male stories, continuing the myth of strong silent males who do all the saving, and weak females who are seen as good only for office assistants, mothers, or sex workers?  Seriously?  It is 2017 - I think we can move beyond the stereotypes.  Just my two cents:)

The Afterlife of Stars by Joseph Kertes
Before even opening this book, I was filled with hope:  creative plot idea (Hungary 1956), themes of freedom and familial bonds, and even a thumbs up from one of my favorite authors, Tim O'Brien (The Things They Carried).  Yet hope was dashed not far into this debut novel, and however more I read (yes, I did finish it), I could not find redeeming qualities.  First, while the idea of setting the story in Hungary during the fight for freedom is unique, it was severely under-developed.  Kertes does far more 'telling' of the story than 'showing,' leaving the reader with a great many questions and confusions.  The plot line reads like a pinball game...shoot the idea out there, have it ping-ping-ping against different historical figures, veering into places we do not care about, and glancing off thematic ideas with no development as it disappears into the hole.  It might have been saved with some rich character development, but alas the family members were two dimensional, flatter than paper dolls.  Even the two brothers who we should have been rooting for started out unlikable and annoying, and never convinced me they were other than shallow, thoughtless beings.  Perhaps if it had been told using two different time periods, before WWII and after, we could have felt, seen, heard, and empathized more with this family. Perhaps if the two boys had been flushed out, to help us understand the quirkiness of the older one, Attila, and the softness of the younger boy, inexplicably named Robert in a Jewish Hungarian family? Perhaps others are not so particular, but this book needed far more to gain my attention, my empathy, and my recommendation.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

January Books

The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama XIV, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Carlton Abrams (translator)

A birthday party, two of the most beautiful souls still living today, and a narrator who steps back and just lets these two men converse, all come together in one of the most significant books I have read in many years.  Whether you are a person of faith, or no faith, this book can speak to your heart.  These two men discuss the many varying processes of how to bring joy into our ordinary life, how to sustain ourselves during times of great grief, and most importantly, how to impart kindness and compassion out into the world.  I learned a great deal about two men that frankly I did not know:  the struggles of Tutu during the years of apartheid, the grief of rebellion and his refugee status of the Dalai Lama, the delightful and infectious sense of humor of both men, and the incredible quiet they both seek in order to bring them closer to their own souls.  This is truly a life-changing book.

The Dark Room by Jonathan Moore
Over the years, I have eschewed the American detective story, opting instead for the Scandinavian writers who seem to have a monopoly on twisted, exciting thrillers with well-defined police detectives.  However, if you missed Jonathan Moore's earlier novels as I did, you will want to buy them all after reading his latest, The Dark Room.  Moore has created some wonderfully complex characters, starting with his main detective, Inspector Cain, one of San Francisco's best investigators.  The story begins with he and his partner watching a coffin brought back to the surface after thirty years, to discover upon opening it that another body had been placed inside.  Thus the mystery begins that ropes in the current San Francisco mayor, his consistently inebriated wife, the daughter who has a penchant for walking around naked, and a plethora of detectives that bring both humor and tension. My personal favorite was the female FBI agent, in whom Cain trusts and confides. Add to that Cain's personal life with a woman who has some demons in the closet, both literally and figuratively, and you have a gripping mystery that will keep you up well past midnight.  

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood
Winner of the Book of the Month Club "Book of the Year," as voted on by BOTM members. Rated 4.21 stars on Good Reads.  Rave reviews all over the place.  Yet...I must have missed something, as this is a book I found profoundly disturbing.  I typically have no problem reading 'disturbing' books; I will read seriously messed up thrillers, non-fiction books that make one want to take a shower, fiction books that rip your guts out and make you weep, yet this book was beyond all that for me.  The main story line focuses on an acutely dysfunctional family:  serial cheater father who cooks meth as a business, drug-addicted and mentally ill mother, controlling and inflexible aunt, tragically sad Native American young man searching for love, and a little girl named Wavy who has chosen not to talk or eat, due to the disturbing parenting techniques of her mother.  This story sucked me in from the start, and lost me about one-third in as it focused on the burgeoning love story between the twenty-something year old Kellen and young Wavy, culminating in a sexual affair when she is thirteen.  As a public school teacher who witnessed the fall-out of behavior like this, I just could not buy into the so-called 'beauty' of this love story, nor the very detailed prose of the sexual acts themselves.  And I am not a prude - I just could not stomach this.  Nor was I convinced the writing style was so beautiful that it made me ignore the ugliness of the story.  And yes, I understand that was the point of this novel, hence the title; it is just not something that I could celebrate.

Caraval by Stephanie Garber
For lovers of Harry Potter, Six of Crows, or any other fabulous fantasy, this new book out in January 2017, should be added to your "to be read" list immediately.  The story begins with two young women, sisters raised by a controlling father, far from other civilization.  Scarlet has always dreamed of receiving an invitation to the "once-a-year" game called Caraval, yet the reality is far more sinister than her dreams had led her to believe.  The mastermind behind it all, a mysterious man named Legend, has taken her beloved sister, Tella.  Thus, her older sister becomes the pawn in a magical, diabolical game and Scarlet must brave dangers, untrustworthy companions, and numerous deadly obstacles save her.  The most difficult part for both Scarlet and the reader is discerning what is part of the game, and what is real?  Is it all fantasy? What are we to believes? This is a wonderfully creative, beautiful, exciting book; if you are a YA fantasy lover, do not miss this one.

Ever the Hunted by Erin Summerill
Another YA fantasy to add to your magical "to-be-read" list, this is a solid outing for this debut author.  The lead character is a young woman named Britta, left alone by her father's death, shunned by her village for being an outside, and starving to death as the end of the two months of mourning are almost over.  Caught poaching on the king's land, Britta must make a deal with the devil, or in this case, a rather unpleasant soldier.  Mix in a love story with her father's old apprentice, Cohen, some rather nasty men hunting the two teens, a mysterious illness of the young king's, and a search for Britta's own magical talents in her native land, and it's a good story.  I am, however, a bit critical and hope for some further depth in the second of the series, titled Ever the Brave, which is due to come out in December 2017. I want to know more about her father and his need for secrecy; I want to know more about the history between these two countries; I want more on the Channelers and the Spiriters and their influence in politics, etc; I want to know more about the political intrigue at the King's court in the land of Malam; and I want more development of the secondary characters.  With that said, I still read this book in just two days, admiring the strength in the female lead and intrigued by the mystery surrounding the magical skills, seeing great potential in the furthering of this series.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The "Trump-Era" Required Reading List

I attempt to stay apolitical on this book blog, yet I decided it was time to share some books that will not only provide some education and provocative thinking, but also some salve to the souls for those of us profoundly worried about the direction of our country. Plus, I entertained myself by looking, and thinking back, over years' worth of reading:)

The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World by Dalai Lama XIV, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Carloton Abrams
Two of the great souls of modern times, being interviewed for days concerning the search for joy, this is palliative care for our wounded hearts.  Men of faith, who accept and love people of all faiths, as well as people who choose no faith, teach us that kindness and compassion will bring us more joy than money, power, and prestige. Could DT put this on his reading list?  Oh. that's right, he brags of not having read a book in years...sigh.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
A provocative and highly entertaining look at how social media bullies and wounds, how a person's reputation is destroyed in an instant, and even how the lack of shame provides its own protection. Our 'tweeter-in-chief' might want to actually pick up a book, this book, and receive some enlightenment.

Lexicon by Max Berry
A thriller that focuses on the power of words and how words are manipulated to seize power, control people, and yes, even commit murder.  It is a scary look at how fake news/words empower demagogues. Hmmm...let's be wary.

Catch 22 by Joseph Heller
If you have never read this classic, or you have not picked it up in years, you really should.  The parallels to today will pretty much freak you out.  It's a crazy plot line, spiraling in circles, satirizing WWII, government subsidy programs, the legal profession, the medical community, you name it - Heller skewers it. Think SNL on intellectual steroids!

Evicted  by Matthew Desmond
A deep expose on the housing issues in Milwaukee, that directly relate to issues of race and income inequality across our country today.  Heartbreaking, frustrating, infuriating, and ultimately extremely educational - highly recommend.

This is How it Always Is (fiction) by Laurie Frankel / Becoming Nicole:  The Transformation of an American Family (biography) by Amy Ellis Nutt
Two profoundly moving books that inform the reader on the powerful issues biologically, psychologically, socially, and emotionally on children and young teens who deal with gender dysphoria.  Our LGBTQ community needs love and support, not medieval laws that sanction them for close-minded reasons.

Grace:  A Novel by Natashia Deon / Beloved by Toni Morrison/ The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
A reminder of the true horror and degradation of slavery, and the powerful women who rise above - a reminder that though the new HUD secretary stated that "Obamacare is the worst thing since slavery," NO, slavery was a nightmare for hundreds of years, an institution whose effects are still felt today.

Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
A deeply moving and engrossing story of an NYU law professor, the Equal Justice Initiative he began and continues to run today in Alabama, and the corruption of our justice system for those who are young, who are mentally handicapped, or who are people of color.  You will never look at our justice system with the same set of glasses again, and you will be persuaded on the critical need for reform in our country.

Blood at the Root:  A Racial Cleansing in America by Patrick Phillips
The story of a county in Georgia who purposefully and consistently kept black people out of their county for over one hundred years - a good reminder of what happens when people look the other way, say "it's not my business,' who forget that we are all members of the human race.

Hillbilly Elegy by JD Vance
Yes, if you want to understand rural Ohio and how the Democratic party and the economy left them behind over the last thirty years, this is your book.  It will also make you howl with laughter, as well as want to pull your hair out.  Well worth it!

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult/ Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
Yes, racial bias exists.  No, no matter how 'enlightened' we are, we are prejudiced in some way, shape, or form, regardless of what race, social class, or income level we inhabit.  And yes, the history of black people, both in America and Africa, still impacts our living history of today. Two different takes on the issues of race, both well worth it.

Faithful by Alice Hoffman
I read this one the week after the election and it was just what I needed to assuage my wounded heart: a young woman whose life turns upside down in an instant, crawls her way back to life through her own dogged strength, intelligence, and the ever-changing tides of fate.

An Ember in the Ashes series by Sabaa Tahir
A fantasy series where the lower class is kept uneducated, the rich and powerful employ "Masks" to keep the peace through violence and intimidation, and rebellion is the only escape.  A modern take on the Fall of Rome, this should inspire us all to be the heroes needed in the coming four years.

When the Moon is Low by Nadia Hashimi
A story of a middle-class Afghani family destroyed by wars and upheaval in Kabul, forced to flee and become one of the millions of refugees, this is a story of a mother who must choose life on the run or the death of her children.  It is a powerful story of how fear and anger creates racial hatred towards people who need our kindness and compassion. It's a good thing to remember when we hear about the possibility of a "Muslim ban" or see video on television of the horrors of Aleppo.

Heat and Light by Jennifer Haigh
A fiction book that delves deeply in how fracking impacts a mid-west community, this beautifully written novel will remind us of the need to protect our environment, that once it is gone it is not replaceable, that we must fight the climate deniers placed in the new cabinet, that our descendants' future literally depends on us wearing the super hero cape.

Harry Potter series, particularly the last three books by JK Rowling
Yes, I know...who hasn't read these?? But seriously, this is the ultimate hero's journey to defeat a truly evil, manipulative entity through greater intelligence, the loyalty of friends, and the power of love.  And besides, the females in the series are pretty much bad-asses, not just humans who should look beautiful and have large breasts so yes, go back and read HP - it will inspire you to pick up your metaphorical sword of Gryffindor and do battle for all that is good in our world.