Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Bedside Baccalaureate: The Second Semester Edited by David Rubel

fpo  Every morning for the last six or seven years I have begun my day by reading a page from an nonfiction book that explains how some aspect of the world and/or human history works. The idea is to improve one's knowledge and education on a certain subject or subjects. I started with a book called The Intellectual Devotional. That book became a series with devotionals focused on American history, modern culture, health, and biographies, each of which I devoted a year too. For a change of pace one year I found a devotional for book lovers called appropriately enough, the Bibliophiles Devotional. Each page (365 in total, one for each day of the year) was devoted to a literary classic. Having finished The Intellectual Devotional series, for 2015 I looked for another similar type book and found The Bedside Baccalaureate. Skipping the first book in the series, I decided to begin my mornings in 2015 with a page from The Bedside Baccalaureate: The Second Semester.

Of these type of books I've read, The Bedside Baccalaureate might be my favorite. It is divided into four sections or syllabi. Each syllabus consisted of five courses, for a total of twenty courses. Broadly speaking the courses covered topics in art, literature, the classics, math and engineering, social science, history, economics, physical science, religion, environmental science, and philosophy. I learned a little about the anatomy of the Internet, electricity and magnetism, the roots of the Cold War, the epics of the Trojan War, the Protest Reformation, Sigmund Freud, and Italian Renaissance art. My favorite courses were on game theory, issues in feminism, the 1913 Armory Show, meteorology and climate, the history of modern China, and the origins of Judaism. Some courses or topics I still don't understand. (If there was a test of electricity and magnetism I would absolutely fail). Some topics whet my appetite for more and led me down rabbit holes to find more information. (Who knew game theory would turn out to be so interesting?)

I really enjoyed my morning reading ritual this past year. (Who am I kidding, I enjoy it every year or I wouldn't do it.) These types of books are a great way to learn something knew without it feeling like you're back in school. The small chunks of information (just one page) keep it interesting and remove any iota of intimidation I might have about tackling a new topic, especially one having to do with science or engineering, two things I generally know little about. The Bedside Baccalaureate had the added benefit of being divided into four sections, which meant I didn't spend a whole year on the topics I enjoyed less.

Eventually, maybe in 2017, I will read the first semester of The Bedside Baccalaureate.  For 2016, I'm going to switch things up and pick a nonfiction book from my way-too-big TBR pile. It won't be a devotional but something that hopefully I can divided into small chunks and read slowly. Hopefully it will be just as interesting and educational.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The Last Policeman by Ben H. Winters

fpo  The world is ending. An asteroid is set to collide with planet earth in six months or so. Some people choose to end their individual world prematurely with suicide. Others continue to hope for a last minute saving grace or take comfort in their religious faith. Some decide that if the world is ending they should make the most of what time they have left, whether that means traveling the world, spending time with loved ones, or taking drugs and smoking cigarettes because at this point there are no consequences tomorrow for today's bad choices. Still others continue to live more or less as they did before the idea of an asteroid colliding into the planet became a definite and certain reality. Police detective Henry Palace falls into the last category.

Palace is called to the scene of a hanging. It presents as a suicide, which in a time where the world is literally about to end, is all too common. No one is interested in investigating a death that appears by all accounts to be a suicide, no one except Palace. Something is off about the crime scene and he can't just let it go. So he starts an investigation in a time when almost everyone is asking, what's the point?

I am in an awesome book group called Mocha Girls Read. We used to have our monthly meetings at Mysterious Galaxy, a bookstore that specializes in mysteries and science fiction. Unfortunately it has since closed its doors in L.A. county. (I believe the flagship store in San Diego is still open.) One day about a year or so ago I asked the guy behind the cash register if he had anything to recommend, book wise. This is unusual for me. I have a ridiculously long TBR list and rarely ask people for more books to add to it. If anything I, the librarian, am usually recommending books to other people. But this time I asked and the guy (sorry I don't remember his name) recommended The Last Policeman. It took me awhile to get to it. In fact the third book in the trilogy was released before I got around to reading book one but I finally read it and I have to say, thank you bookseller, for this was a very good read.

The Last Policeman prevents a very interesting scenario - the coming end of the world. If you know with a fair amount of certainty that the world is going to end in six months what would you do with the rest of your life? What kind of person would you choose to be during those last few months. That's the question The Last Policeman presents (or, at least one of the questions). It's easy to say that you would live it up - quit your job and travel, spend time with loved ones, party, sex it up, whatever, but then again if everyone did that the world would kind of end sooner. I mean someone has to keep growing the food and running the electrical plants during those six months or everyone would die of starvation in the dark. So maybe you keep going as you did before you got the news that humanity was on the brink of extinction. You keep going to work, keep waiting for the light to turn green before crossing, and keep eating your vegetables. At least that's what Detective Palace does. The world is ending but he still believes in right and wrong, and that murderers should be brought to justice even if a life sentence only means six months in prison under current circumstances. It is against this backdrop that Palace tries to figure out what happened to Peter Zell, the man found hanging in the bathroom of a fast food restaurant.

The most interesting thing about this book is not the mystery of who done it, but whether asking that question even matters when everyone is going to die soon anyway. The impending end of the world and the associated fallout really ratcheted up the tension. When the world is ending, one can't help but question every one's motives, including that of the police. On the one hand it is admirable that Palace cares about right and wrong today even when tomorrow isn't coming. On the other hand, when most people have decided screw it and checked out mentally or physically the fact that Henry Palace cares so much about this case stands out as a little odd. Throughout the book I rooted for Palace to solve the case while also wanting him to take a vacation day. I can hardly wait to see what awaits Palace in the next two books. I want to see how he changes, if at all, as the date of impact approaches. Will he still be the same straight and arrow cop as death come closer?

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Trust Me, I'm Trouble by Mary Elizabeth Summer

fpo Trust Me, I'm Trouble is the second book in a series by Mary Elizabeth Summer about a young grifter who goes by the name Julep Dupree. It picks up not long after the events of the first book, Trust Me, I'm Lying, with Julep now living with a foster family and grieving over the loss of a friend. She's still taking on cases only now her client base extends beyond the halls of her private Catholic high school. When a woman asks for her help in finding out how her husband became an embezzler, Julep knows she should walk away. She doesn't of course, not even when it requires her to infiltrate a shady "leadership" organization. When her new case appears to be connected to her long lost mother, Julep is even more drawn in. Pretty soon it isn't clear who's the con and who's the mark.

Between vacation and National Novel Writing Month in November (my fourth year participating) I inadvertently took some time off from reading books. Trust Me, I'm Trouble was what I picked up when I started reading again and it was exactly what I needed. It's a smart, young adult mystery with some unexpected romance thrown in. It has a great main character in Julep (though I did get a little tired of her self-recrimination over the events from the first book). Julep straddles the line between criminal and hero well, helping others, helping herself and always trying to protect the people around her. The plot was well executed. It had more twists and turns than a roller coaster. Overall it was a very good read and exactly what I was looking for when I started reading again. I don't know what the plans are for this series, but I'm hoping there is more to come.

Friday, November 20, 2015

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

fpo  In Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life a woman called Ursula Todd is born, lives, and dies, and then repeats the cycle over again, and again, and again. Her first life lasts only a minute, maybe less actually, for she dies before even taking her first breath. The next time Ursula is being born the doctor makes it in time, and she lives a little longer. Each life is a little bit longer than the last, at least in the beginning.  

Ursula’s multiple lives were fascinating, especially the ones set against the backdrop of World War II. Through Ursula, Atkinson shows the War and its impact from different points of view. In one life Ursula is married to a German man she met before the war started and finds herself trapped on the wrong side when the fighting starts. In one life (or maybe it is more than that, sometimes I lost track when one life had ended and another had begun) she befriends Hitler’s mistress Eva. In some lives she is a single working woman while in others she is a stay-at-home wife. At least once she is a mother. Sometimes Ursula works for a branch of the British government having to do with the war effort. Still in other lives she is an ordinary Londoner trying to survive as the city is being bombed.

This may sound morbid, but Ursula’s multiple deaths were also interesting. She dies in all sorts of ways: drowning, falling, in an explosion, by suicide, to name a few. Sometimes her death is an accident; other times it is intentional.

This is not a supernatural novel, as the premise might suggest. Ursula doesn’t consciously know that she is repeating her life, although she does have a strong sense of déjà vu. Aside from the repeated life cycles, the story, or perhaps stories would be more accurate, is relatively simple. With each life cycle, we get to see the different ways a life can play out. It turns out a life is as much the result of a series of choices as it chance and circumstances.

I really liked the idea behind this book – seeing how difference choices, one’s actions and reactions to events, and random chance can lead down different paths. Though as much as I enjoyed reading about Ursula’s different lives, I wouldn’t say I loved this book. After a certain point, I started to lose track of the different lives and it became difficult to get invested in any one of Ursula's lives. In a certain sense, this novel seemed like a connection of closely connected short stories that were so similar to one another that after a certain point any single story lost the impact it might have had, had been a story on its own. Still, I do admire Atkinson's ambition and skill. While the novel as a whole wasn't my favorite there are some passages that will stay with me for a very long time.  

Monday, October 19, 2015

Jackaby by William Ritter

fpo  There's a blurb on the front cover of my copy of Jackaby that describes it as Sherlock Holmes crossed with the Buffy Slayer. Its two principle characters, R. F. Jackaby and Miss Abigail Rook are clearly inspired by Sherlock Holmes and there's enough of the supernatural thrown in to make the Buffy comparison fitting. Jackaby is the quirky detective who is always ten steps ahead of everyone else. His "Watson" is a young lady named Miss Rook. She has a thirst for adventure, having recently run away from home to chase dinosaurs and excitement. Miss Rook also has a talent noticing the ordinary and deducing details about a person or a situation, much like the legendary detective. Jackaby, in turn, has a talent for noticing the extraordinary. Of course, most of the townspeople think Jackaby is mad, or at least a little odd. It doesn't help that he has tendency to speak bluntly and without tact. Miss Rook is warned more than once against taking a job as Jackaby's assistant. But newly arrived in New Fiddleham and short on funds, Miss Rook can't afford to turn down the job. Even better, she finds she quite enjoys it! How could she not when her first mystery brings her fact to face with a banshee, a goblin, and other mystical creatures.

Jackaby was so much fun! It took just enough inspiration from Sherlock and then did something new with it. Hands down my favorite character is Miss Rook. I loved how independent and brave she is. Everyone, especially the men and even Jackaby, warn her that detective work is too much for the female temperament. Miss Rook makes it clear to them how she feels about that, standing her ground and proving herself to be more than capable of the job.

I would recommend this to anyone interested in historical mysteries with a paranormal twist. I know Mr. Ritter has written another book with these characters and a novella/short story. I hope there is more to come.

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Dewey's 24 Hour Read-a-Thon

Time for another read-a-thon. Last time I read a bunch of graphic novels. That will again be part of my strategy for this year.

First Book Finished: Fairest: Wide Awake

Fairest, Volume 1: Wide Awake

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona  Nimona shows up at the villainous Lord Blackheart's door, volunteering to be his new sidekick and help him defeat his arch nemesis Sir Goldenloin and the Institution of Law Enforcement. Adventure ensues. Bad guys end up having more good in them than bad. Good guys turn out to be less heroic than expected. There's friendship, science and a dragon!

There are so many things I liked about Nimona. The story surprised me, in a good way. The artwork perfectly matched the story. It was as funny and moving as the words were. Extra bonus for the lead heroine not being drawn with Barbie doll proportions. A plus for making her moody, kick-ass, independent, fearless, vengeful, loyal, and above all, a good friend.

If someone were to ask me who some of my favorite writers of mysteries or literary fiction are I could come up with a half dozen names pretty easily, maybe even a full dozen. I couldn't do the same if someone asked me to come up with a list of comic book or graphic novel authors. That's starting to change. This is the second comic book/graphic novel that I've read by Noelle Stevenson, the first being Lumberjanes. I am really enjoying her work. Can't wait to see what else she writes.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

When Dad Killed Mom by Julius Lester

fpo  Brother and sister Jeremy and Jenna were sitting in their respective classrooms as they would on any other Tuesday. Then the principal came in and it stopped being a normal Tuesday. Jeremy and Jenna's mother is dead, they are told, and their father is the one who shot her.

When Dad Killed Mom is told from the perspectives of Jenna and Jeremy in alternating chapters. Jenna is 14, Jeremy a little younger. There is no question as to their father's guilt. He shot his wife in broad daylight in front of plenty of witnesses and admitted what he had done as soon as the police confronted him. Jeremy and Jenna are left to wonder why. Jeremy was closer to his mother. The two of them shared a talent for art and how the light changed the way something look. He automatically despises his father for what he's done. Jenna was a daddy's girl. She wants to believe there is some explanation, some mistake but even she has her doubts.

I'm still working out what to think about this book. It is a heavy subject but it wasn't the gut wrenching story I was expecting. On the one hand I'm grateful for that because I really wasn't looking forward to reading about a husband killing his wife and the children who are left to deal with the fallout. (The only reason I read this book at all was for book club.) On the other hand, I feel like I should have felt more reading this book but it didn't really make much of an impact. The kids wonder what's going to happen to them, where they're going to live, who will take care of them, how they are going to go back to school and their regular lives. They wonder why if their father was so mad at their mother he couldn't have just divorced her like a normal person. The kids move forward with their lives relatively calmly as adults flutter around them planning a funeral and preparing for a trial.

One interesting thing about this book is that the murder victim isn't made out to be a saint. It is clear that she was flawed and that despite that, she didn't deserve what happened to her. Both of the kids paint their mother as someone who cared about her art above anything else. Even Jeremy admits that what connected the two of them the most was art, that when it came to him his mother seemed mostly interested in what he was able to draw or paint. I also appreciated that the two kids never really buy their father's excuses for his actions. As much as she wants to give her father the benefit of doubt, even Jenna can't accept their mother's (alleged) infidelity as a justification for her murder.

This story was told from the point of the view of the children which was an interesting idea. This is not story I have seen from a kid's perspective before. Still, I can't help but wonder how different and more interesting this might have been had it been from an adult's perspective or at least a more mature teenager. The two parents, Rachel and Eric, had a complicated marriage. He was a psychologist and she an artist. They met when she went to him for counseling. They had two kids. Eric seemed to favor their daughter while Rachel favored their son. Eric was married once before and his ex-wife and current wife were best friends. Eric and his first wife had a daughter that died and she did not die of natural causes. These are seeds of what could be a great literary thriller. I wish I could read that book.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Silverfin by Charlie Higson

fpo I don't write fan fiction but if I did it would probably be origin stories of favorite characters. When a literary character performs amazing or seemingly impossible feats on the page it can be fun to imagine that character's backstory, how that person came to be what they are. That is essentially what Charlie Higson has done with his Young Bond series - provided an origin story for the famous super spy. Of course, Higson didn't invent Bond's backstory out of whole cloth. The basics were already there in the books (presumably - I've only read one of Ian Fleming's original novels so I couldn't say for sure) and the movies.

Silverfin reveals James as a young boy. Readers learn how his parents died and what young James's life was life before and after their deaths. As the book begins James is beginning his first year of boarding school at Eton. One of the things I loved about this book from the start is that the super spy wasn't a super kid. James is not the perfect student or the most popular. What he is, is smart, brave, adventurous, determined, and in possession of a moral compass.

This is James Bond so it can't just be an origin story. There must also be adventure and mystery. Higson does not disappoint. When James visits his aunt and uncle for the spring holidays, he learns that Alfie Kelly, a young boy from the village, has gone missing. He was last seen in the vicinity of the heavily guarded castle on the hill, Lord Hellebore's castle. Many in the village revere Lord Hellebore as he has showered the village with money. Others are skeptical of the extremely secretive Hellebore, wondering what is going on in that castle that requires such heavy security. Having met his bully of a son, James falls into the latter camp. And so begins Bond's first adventure.

I have to admit I didn't have high hopes for this book. I have read only one of the original Bond novels and didn't love it, which is why years later it is still only one. I picked this up in order to fulfill the "middle grade/YA adventure" category of one of my reading challenges and because a podcaster I enjoy listening to mentioned this as one of his favorite series growing up. I'm so glad I gave this a shot. It was so much fun, and dare I say, better than the actual Bond novel I read.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Every Word by Ellie Marney

fpo  Every Word is the second book in Ellie Marney's young adult, Sherlock Holmes inspired mystery series, and it is so good! Rachel Watts and James Mycroft, the would be teenage detectives, were first introduced in Every Breath. Both were transplants to Melbourne of a sort. Rachel and her family had recently moved from the countryside when it became impossible to sustain the family farm. Mycroft (people rarely call him by his first name) moved to Melbourne to live with his aunt after his parents were killed in a car accident. In the first book, Rachel and Mycroft were friends who liked to play at detective work, Mycroft more so than Rachel. When a homeless man they frequently chatted with ended up dead, their detective work became more than game.

As Every Word begins Rachel and Mycroft are still recovering from the aftermath of the events in the first book. Rachel and Mycroft have grown closer, though her parents are not entirely happy with Mycroft or their daughter after their previous adventure left both teenagers with more than a few bruises. But overall, things are good. Then suddenly Mycroft rushes off to London without saying a word to Rachel. His boss - Mycroft works at the pathologist office as a junior assistant of sorts - has been asked to go to London and assist in a case involving a suspicious car accident and a very valuable missing book. Rachel takes off after him, half worried about Mycroft and the bad memories waiting for him in London, and half furious at him for thinking that he could leave without saying anything. Once again Mycroft and Rachel find themselves in the role of detective.

This is an excellent series, with great plotting and great characters. I like Arthur Conan Doyle's stories and novels - like not love. They're fun, but Sherlock Holmes always comes across as a character. Ellie Marney succeeds in channeling Holmes (and Watts), while making her characters feel real. James Mycroft isn't just an astute observer who can deduce where you're from and what you've been up by glancing at your shoes and tie. He is a gifted boy crashing into adulthood, while mourning the tragic death of his parents, who also happens to be very observant and have a strong practical interest in science. Rachel Watts is a full character in her own right as well; she isn't there just to record Mycroft's adventures. She operates independent of and in concert with Mycroft. At one point Mycroft remarks what a relief it is to have such clever friend. I concur, what a relief to have a clever young woman working along side Mycroft and calling him on his BS when necessary.

The next book in the series is Every Move and I can hardly wait. This series was originally published by an Australian press so there is always a delay before the books make an appearance in the the U.S. I hope the wait isn't too long.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Stone Mattress: Nine Wicked Tales by Margaret Atwood

fpo  Short story collections are not my strong suit when it comes to reading. I’m never quite sure what to make of them. Give me a 250-page collection of short stories or an 800-page tome, in 9 out of 10 cases I would pick the tome. Short stories often feel too short. Just as I’m getting into the story, it’s over and then I’m still holding the same book in my hands but a completely new story has started. So it was with some trepidation that I picked up Margaret Atwood's Stone Mattress. Actually trepidation may be overstating it. I have read two (yes, only two) books by the great Canadian author, and I liked one and loved the other, so I was fairly certain I would get through Stone Mattress okay.

My favorite stories were Torching the Dusties and the title story Stone Mattress, along with Alphinland, Revenant, and Dark Lady, a trio of stories that open the book. Torching the Dusties reminded me of The Handmaid’s Tale (a book I loved) in its bleak and not to unbelievable portrait of a future where a certain segment of the population is treated as disposable. Stone Mattress is a powerful revenge fantasy in which a woman enacts a plan to get back at the first man that wronged her. It is a truly a wicked and satisfying tale. Alphinland, Revenant, and Dark Lady are three connected stories about three people that once knew each other in their youth. There were some stories that didn't work for me but overall I enjoyed the collection.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Hawkeye by Matt Fraction

fpo I knew nothing about the character Hawkeye outside of the Avengers movies and cartoon series. People kept recommending Matt Fraction's Hawkeye but I ignored them. There is another character that shoots arrows that I adore and I didn't feel the need for another superhero with the same ability. But everything I read and heard said Matt Fraction's Hawkeye was awesome so I finally gave in and bought a copy of Hawkeye: My Life as a Weapon. Of course it was every bit as awesome as people said.

fpo Fraction's Hawkeye series is all about how Clint Barton (Hawkeye) and Kate Bishop (also Hawkeye because it turns out there are two of them) spend their time when they are not out avenging with Tony Stark and the other Avengers.

On his own Clint Barton is kind of a mess. He's emotionally disconnected, has a tendency to push people away, and trouble seems to always have a way of finding him. He lives in a semi-crappy apartment in an okay building and finds himself at war with a gang that has been buying up every building in the neighborhood. So far the gang has been successful in convincing tenants in occupied building to relocate, but their run of success hits a brick wall in the form of Barton and his neighbors who balk at being asked to vacate the premises. 
fpoThe other Hawkeye, Kate Bishop, is fairing better, well slightly better. Fed up with Barton, she heads out to Los Angeles for some fun in the sun. Within minutes she gets robbed and gets kicked out of her hotel. To make things even more exciting, someone is trying to kill her. But Kate is resourceful. She makes some friends, finds a source of income, and starts digging into the mystery of the people who are after her.

fpoI read four volumes of Matt Fraction's Hawkeye: My Life As a Weapon, Little Hits, L.A. Woman, and Rio Bravo. The end of Little Hits left me slightly confused but other than that I loved this series. I was also surprised to learn that the series incorporates deafness and deaf culture into the story line in an interesting and great way.

I think this might be the end of this particular story line. Hope the next one is just as good. Hawkeye has become a character of (my) interest.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Three Nights With a Rock Star by Amber Lin & Shari Slade

fpo  Earlier this year I read One Kiss With a Rock Star, which among other things, touched on how male and female bisexuality are often treated differently (female bisexuality okay, male bisexuality not so much). That book was actually the second in a series. Ordinarily I like to read things in order but decided to make an exception. Several months later I finally got around to reading the first book in the Half-Life series, Three Night With a Rock Star. In hindsight, it is probably a good thing I read the second book first or else I might not ever gotten to the second book, for Three Nights With a Rock Star is as steamy as it is ridiculous.

Here's the plot in a nutshell: Nineteen-year-old Chloe got a job selling merchandise for the rock band Half-Life as it crisscrosses the country on tour. Chloe leaves the tour and comes home pregnant. She refuses to identify the baby's father, telling her big sister Hailey that he's in a weird place in his life and not ready to be a father.

It's only been Hailey and Chloe for a long time. Their mother, who may have been a prostitute, disappeared a long time ago and neither of them ever knew their fathers. Having grown up as the daughter of the town trollop, Hailey is determined from having her future niece or nephew suffer the same fate. She simply cannot stand by and let her baby sister live with the shame of being an unwed mother. So church going, kindergarten teacher Hailey heads to the hotel where the band is staying, determined to find her sister's baby daddy and force him to do right by Chloe and take responsibility for his actions. Soon after getting to the hotel she meets Half-Life's lead singer, Lock. Within in minutes of meeting the sexy lead singer, Hailey signs a contract agreeing to be his sex slave for three days in exchange for having full access to his band and crew so she can find the no-good guy who impregnated her sister. Hailey and Lock have mind blowing sex. Then there are complications. Eventually they fall in love and everyone ends up coupled and lives happily ever after. I'll give it this, Three Nights With a Rock Star may be complete and utter nonsense, but it is steamy hot nonsense.

Friday, September 11, 2015

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls by Anton Disclafani

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls  Thea Atwell leads what many might called a charmed life, or as her mother says, a lucky life. She and her twin brother Sam live with their parents on a secluded farm in Florida. She spends her days riding horses and investigating the wonders of the natural world with Sam. Educated at home, Thea and Sam rarely spend time with other children.The only other child Thea and Sam see with some regularity is their cousin Georgie.

Their seclusion from the outside world seems nearly absolute. It is 1930 and even what would become known as the Great Depression is starting to make itself felt, Thea and her family barely feel its effects. This is partly because her father is a doctor and, after all, there will always be sick people. Her father's medical practice, however, isn't really where the family gets its money. That comes from the citrus groves on Thea's mother's side. But not even wealth can protect one from all the tragedies of life.

Thea is 15-years-old when she is sent away from home to the Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. She hopes it is just for the summer but as fall comes around she realizes her banishment will last much longer. Her banishment is the result of a family tragedy in which Thea played a significant part. (Contrary to her family or even Thea herself, I cannot hold Thea solely responsible.) She views the camp/boarding school as a punishment but it becomes a gift as Thea begins to grapple with who she is away from the isolated life of her family.

The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is a coming of age of tale set in 1930s Florida and North Carolina. In other hands this story may have filled with sentimentality and nostalgia. Anton Disclafani does not waste time with that here. Thea's transition from childhood to adulthood is messy and painful. Her actions hurt her and those around her but like often in the teen years, she can't quite seem to stop herself. She manages to be both insightful and naive, calculating and innocent at the same time, kind and cruel at the same time.

I'm still grappling with what to think about Thea and The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls. Thea as a character was strong and full of contradictions, which I felt was intriguing and accurate in the sense that people, particularly teenagers, are often full of contradictions. I liked that there was a lack of romanticising of the past. There was something missing, however. I wanted more about Sam in particular, as well as their parents but maybe that's unfair since this is Thea's story. I also wanted to know what kind of woman Thea was going to become. She makes one mistake, and then makes the same mistake again and it isn't quite clear what she has learned in regards to that situation. She does grow in other ways, but not exactly in the way that I would have wanted given the nature of the story and the tragedy that drives the novel.

If I am not mistaken this is Disclafani's first novel. Though it was not perfect it was quite good. I look forward to reading what she writes next.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Sweet Thing by Renée Carlino

fpo Sweet Thing is a complicated romance between a man who knows what he wants and a woman who doesn't, at least not at first. After her musician father dies, Mia moves to New York to take over her father's cafe and apartment. She meets Will, a promising singer/songwriter/guitarist, on the plane. The two of them hit it off instantly and quickly become friends and then roommates. There's a deep connection between Will and Mia from the get go, the kind of connection that leads to a life long friendship or maybe something more.

Will falls for Mia pretty quickly, desperately hoping their friendship evolves into a romance. Mia is less sure. Of course she is attracted to the handsome, charming, sensitive soul that is Will, but she isn't quite ready for a Will in her life and it shows, sometimes painfully. The first three-fourths of the novel can be summed up as follows: Mia and Will are friends. Mia and Will get a little closer. Mia freaks out and is cruel to Will, insulting him and pushing him away. All of their friends more or less side with Will, while trying to help Mia deal with her issues. Mia realizes the error of her ways and apologizes. She and Will resume their friendship, and the whole cycle starts again, rinse and repeat.

Truthfully, Will isn't the only thing Mia is unsure about. She is a 25-year-old classically trained pianist with a business degree from Brown. She hasn't really done much with her life since college. To be fair, Mia has a lot going on when she meets Will. She has just moved from Michigan to New York. She is mourning the loss of her recently deceased father while taking on the responsibility of running the business her father started. She is caring for her 13-year-old dog that is slowly dying. As if that were not enough, Mia discovers some long held secrets about her family and the circumstances surrounding her birth. Who can blame her not being willing or able to jump into a serious relationship with Will, even if he is a great guy?

If there was anything I would change about this story it would be for there to be more compassion for Mia. Will was great and Mia was often not so great. But in her defense, she was also 25 and dealing with the loss of a parent. Will was nearing 30 and at a point in his life when he was starting to think about settling down. Sometimes timing really is everything. Their friends could have been a tiny bit more compassionate about Mia's uncertainty under the circumstances. 

There was also one strange thing about this book - the prologue and epilogue. Both are from the point of review of a random woman Mia meets at the airport. The middle aged mother of two sees Mia and thinks about what she was like at Mia's age and the difficulties Mia will inevitably face as she grows older. Then this random woman appears again towards the end of the book and I wasn't sure why. It didn't really add anything to the story. I suppose the prologue and epilogue could be interpreted as a glimpse of Mia's life fifteen years in the future, but that wasn't at all needed. It was a little too on the nose. It would have been better to have left that out and left the audience guessing at Will and Mia's relationship would evolve.

Notwithstanding the unnecessary prologue and epilogue, I enjoyed Sweet Thing. The characters, Mia in particular, changed and grew emotionally throughout the course of the novel. The payoff was well worth it.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

The Man Who Smiled by Henning Mankell

fpo  It's been awhile since I read one of Henning Mankell's Wallander's novels. I can't think of why it's been so long. I think I wanted to save them and not read them all at once, lest I run out too quickly. Whatever the reason was, I'm back on the Wallander train - this series is absolutely fantastic.

This one begins with a deeply depressed Kurt Wallander. He killed a man in the line of duty and even though the shooting was justified, he feels horrible that he is directly responsible for someone's death. Let me just pause here and say how refreshing it is to have a police officer who genuinely feels guilty and sad about ending another person's life. This kind of remorse is often overlooked in novels. In real life it is even worse. For Wallander, an officer who rarely uses his gun, killing a human being, criminal or not, is devastating. And so as the novel begins, Wallander is on leave and dealing with his grief very badly. There's too much drinking, inappropriate behavior, and many solitary walks along cold foggy beaches.

He is all set to quit the police force. Then an old friend finds Wallander trudging along the beach on yet another cold and foggy day and asks for Wallender's help. The friend's father recently died in a car accident, only the son doesn't think it was an accident and ask Wallander to look into it. Wallander declines and assures his friend that the officer in charge of his father's case is quite good at his job. Not long after their encounter on the beach Wallander's friend is found dead, and this time it is clear it was murder. Racked with guilt at having refused his friend, Wallander abruptly changes his mind about quitting and sets out to find out who murdered his friend and his friend's father. So begins another international Wallander mystery.

The Man Who Smiled was a pleasure to read. One thing about Mankell, he doesn't waste time. So many books (that I enjoy) start off so slowly and I have to remind myself that the story will pick up soon. That is not necessary with Mankell. The Man Who Smiled grabbed my interest right way and held onto it. The murders Wallander is tasked with solving are never run of the mill cases with simple motives. There is often an international aspect and some degree of commentary about the state of the world at large. This book was no exception. I don't want to spoil the book for anyone so I'll leave out those aspects here and simply say this is a great read, especially for anyone looking for an international mystery.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Skeleton Women by Mingmei Yip

fpo  Camilla, the Heavenly Songbird with the angelic voice, is a skeleton women - a beautiful woman trained to seduce men, uncover their secrets, and if necessary, reduce them to corpses. She was plucked from an orphanage as a child and groomed to be the perfect spy. Her mission: to discover the secrets of the number one gangster in town, Master Lung, for her boss Big Brother Wang, the number two gangster in town. At the tender age of nineteen, Camilla has become a celebrated singer in Shanghai and Master Lung's mistress. Although she has been Master Lung's mistress for nearly a year, she has yet to complete her mission and Big Brother Wang is becoming impatient. Complicating matters are the amorous advances of two other men and the arrival of two women Camilla suspects to also be skeleton women, the mysterious magician Shadow and the androgynous journalist Rainbow Chang. But Camilla is not to be deterred. Using Sun Tzu's The Art of War to guide her, Camilla is determined to navigate her way through the choppy waters she finds herself in.

Skeleton Women was not quite what I expected. I was all set for a femme fatale thriller set in 1930s (or so) Shanghai, China. I'm not exactly sure what this is, but it wasn't that. There were lots of good ideas in this book, but they didn't go anywhere. Rainbow Chang and Shadow are good examples of this. Shadow is set up to be a skeleton woman to rival Camilla but she never is really much of a challenge to Camilla. All she appears to want is to become rich and famous. As for Rainbow Chang, much is made of her androgynous style of dressing but why this is an important detail is never explained or used to any effect. Then there are the multiple men who profess their undying love for Camilla. None of it ever felt real. They seemed more to exist to validate Camilla's status as a skeleton woman capable of seducing men.

The biggest problem with Skeleton Women was the tone.  If she fails to fulfill her mission, Big Brother Wang might decide Camilla no longer serves any purpose and have her killed. If Master Lung discovers her mission he will definitely kill her, so for Camilla the stakes are high. Nevertheless, between the constant quoting from the Art of War, that Camilla approached everyone and every situation like it was a game of chess, and every other man falling in love with Camilla,  it wasn't always clear if this was intended to be a comedy, a satire, or a realistic story. I think this story would have benefited from having a character that challenged Camilla's point of view. Without such a character to contradict her (or to contrast and compare her to), Camilla often seemed less like an adult women caught in a battle between two dangerous men, and more like a child playing a dress up game where she is the most popular and beautiful girl in town. I just couldn't tell if I should be taking Camilla seriously, or laughing at her blunders, or what.

I'm glad I read this if only for the sake that I wanted to try something new. One of my goals this year was to read more writers who were not from the United States or the UK (because historically most of the writers I read have come from those two countries). In particular, I have read very little from Asian (or even Asian-American) writers. This doesn't quite work for me but there are several others waiting to be read in my TBR pile. Better luck next time.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Living With the Dead by Kelley Armstrong

fpo Living With the Dead is a little different from the other books in Kelley Armstrong's Women of the Otherworld series. Usually one supernatural woman takes center stage. Here, the story is told from the points of view of multiple people. The three main characters are Hope, Robyn, and Adele. Robyn, a human, suddenly finds herself the suspect in a murder investigation when one of her PR clients is murdered. Luckily for Robyn her childhood friend Hope Adams, a half-demon journalist who specializes in weird tales, and her werewolf boyfriend Karl recently arrived in town. The third woman in this tale is Adele, a psychotic young woman with the power of clairvoyance.

This wasn't bad, but it definitely was not my favorite entry in the Otherworld series. Robyn plays a large role in the story which is problematic since she's a human who isn't aware of the existence of supernaturals. There ends up being a lot of running around in circles when a two-minute conversation could solve about ninety percent of the issues everyone has.

The best parts of Living With the Dead were those that involved Hope and Karl trying to figure out their relationship as they tried to save Robyn from herself and the supernaturals after her. I wish there had been more Hope and Karl and less Robyn. Oh well, in any series there is bound to be a few missteps. At least the ending hints at something big coming later in the series, something that could shake up the supernatural world. I'm excited to find out what that something might be.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Junk by Josephine Myles

fpo  Junk by Josephine Myles is a sweet M/M romance between a hoarder and the decluttering expert that comes to help. Jasper is a librarian who simply can't bear to let any piece of paper with words on it go into the trash bin without thinking about the potential information that may be lost to civilization. Any book or newspaper the library or a student (Jasper works at an academic library) wants to throw away is rescued from the trash bin by Jasper and taken home. His house becomes so overwhelmed with books and papers that there are whole rooms he no longer is able to enter. Luckily Jasper isn't so far gone that he can't see that he needs help. Knowing that he can't do it on his own, Jasper seeks professional help. That helps takes the shape of twin brother and sister, Lewis and Carroll (their mother is a serious Alice in Wonderland fan). Carroll may be bright and bubbly but it is Lewis that Jasper is immediately drawn to.

As a librarian and book collector myself (no books are cutting off access to any part of my home, thank you very much), Jasper's tendency to want to protect and preserve the written word was understandable. Obviously he had taken this a little too far. I've never been particularly interested in watching any of the reality shows about hoarding but it was interesting to see how Lewis and Carroll worked with Jasper and their other clients in helping them confront the various emotional issues that led to hoarding in the first place.

As for the romance, it was sweet if somewhat anti-climatic. That Jasper and Lewis would get together was never a question. In a romance, it is the journey that counts. Here the journey was both too quick and too drawn out. The two men have an immediate sexual attraction but Lewis has ethical concerns about getting involved with a client. So they do, but they don't, and then of course they do. Of the two lead characters, Jasper was the most intriguing, what with his hoarding and mother issues. Lewis didn't develop quite as much as I would have liked. He has issues with moving (and moving in) too fast in relationships and doesn't seem to have changed all that much by the end of the novel. Notwithstanding these quibbles, overall I enjoyed Junk. The hoarding angle was a new to me and it seemed to be handled well. This is the first book I've read by Myles and I look forward to finding what else she has written.

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Batgirl by Gail Simone

fpo  After finishing Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life, I needed something light, fun, and short. As I have said elsewhere on this blog, I only started really reading comics a few years ago when DC started their New 52 series. With regard to superhero comics, there are so many alternative stories it is hard to know where to start. The New 52 gave me a place to start. Unfortunately, I fell behind primarily because I don't like buying single issue comics and then I would forget when collections were published.

fpoAnyway, the new Batgirl series set in Brooklyn was mentioned on one of the podcasts I listened to and it sounded the life the perfect palate cleanser after the (literally and figuratively) heavy A Little Life. The only confusing thing was that I remembered reading a few Batgirl comics set in Gotham when the New 52 started. It turns out that the series got a new author and the series rebooted the right word? I am baffled as to how comics are published. I tried to look for a definitive list of Batgirl comics and found among other things that there are multiple volume ones. The newest series was written by Brendan Fletcher but since I like to read things in order as much as possible, I decided to start with Gail Simone's Batgirl.

Like I said earlier, I was looking for something light, fun, and short. Batgirl was relatively short, but I'm not sure "fun" is an apt description. "Light" definitely is not. I read all five of the collected comics written by Gail Simone as part of the New 52 (well as far as I can tell, again slightly baffled by how comics are published and republished). Most of these stories are pretty dark. One character gets his leg caught in a bear trap set up in parking lot to catch car thieves. Starving people are murdered with poisoned food. A missing family member turns out to be homicidal. Not exactly light reading. Then again, the last book I read felt so real and this was over the top bloody, so while it wasn't the palate cleanser I expected it still managed to serve its purpose. And there were some light moments.

fpoI love cartoons. Maybe because most of the cartoons I watch are aimed at kids and I tend to associate superhero stories with kids, I expected Batgirl to be light in tone. Yes, I've seen Christopher Nolan's Batman, but well, I guess I hadn't realized how much that darker version of Batman had carried over to other series.

fpo This isn't to say I didn't like Batgirl, I did. Simone's Barbara Gordon/Batgirl is strong, complicated, flawed, and heroic. I thoroughly enjoyed reading these comics. One of may favorite story lines is when Batgirl finds herself in a sort of utopia. Instead of being a vigilante that protects Gotham in the night when it is at its most vulnerable; she's a guardian angel that crisscrosses the city in daylight. I also loved Barbara Gordon/Batgirl as Bête Noire aka The Black Beast and the Batgirls. I would love to read a series that continues that story line!

fpoThe only time I thought it missed the mark was when vampires came into play, yes vampires. No surprise here, there is a lot I don't know about the DC universe so maybe supernatural characters are the norm in the Bat universe, but I tended to see Gotham and the Bat family of characters as dealing with human villains. They may be crazy, strange-gadget wielding villains, but human villains none the less.

All said it done, this was a great series. Looking forward to reading more of DC Comics New 52, as well as other comics and graphic novels.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

fpo  For starters, let me say that it is difficult to talk about this book without revealing anything. So if you don't want to know anything about this book, stop here.

Heart-wrenching, frustrating, beautiful, disturbing - Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life is all those things and more. It is a novel about friendship, abuse, survival, adulthood, and love in its various forms - romantic, friendly, familial, self-love. Four young men meet in college and become friends for life. JP, an aspiring artist, is the most ambitious and arguably the most self-involved. Malcolm, an aspiring architect, is perhaps the most confused and uptight. Willem, an aspiring actor, is the most kindhearted. Jude is sad and mysterious. He doesn't talk about his past, not even how he he came to have a limp. His friends suspect something terrible happened in Jude's childhood. They have no idea what. It ends up being worse than they could have imagined, than I imagined. There were a couple times when I had to put this book down and walk away.

Notwithstanding the very disturbing parts of this story, I'm so glad I read this. The writing is beautiful. Each character is thoroughly and richly drawn, even the secondary characters. Without being judgmental or overly simplistic, Yanagihara slyly comments on race, money, success, and relationships. A Little Life is partly a series of in-depth character studies and partly a social commentary, all wrapped up in a compelling piece of fiction. I can't recommend this highly enough (but with caution for those with trigger concerns).

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Bone Crossed by Patricia Briggs

fpo  Bone Crossed, the fourth book in the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs, picks up not too long after the events in Iron Kissed. Mercy is still shaken by what happened. She and Adam are taking tentative steps toward a relationship. Just as things are starting to get back to normal, a new set of problems pops up. Marsilia, the local vampire queen, has learned what Mercy did in Iron Kissed and she is not happy. Mercy may be prepared to accept whatever Marsilia has planned for her, but Mercy is not about to stand around while her friends suffer at the hands of Marsilia for her actions. In other news, Mercy inadvertently draws the attention of another vampire after being recruited to do some ghost hunting. There is never a dull day in the life of Mercy Thompson, that's for sure.

Mercy has always been different. Even in a world where werewolves, vampires, witches, and fae exists, Mercy is unusual. She is a walker. As a walker she can turn into a coyote, but there's so much more to it than that. Unfortunately since she is the only walker in existence as far as anyone knows, Mercy doesn't quite know the extent of her abilities, just that magic often has a different effect on her that it does on others. In Bone Crossed Mercy learns a little more about her abilities as a walker. While learning more about being a walker, Mercy has to deal with one vampire she considers a friend, two who are most definitely not, and a pack of werewolves, several of whom are none too happy at the prospect of their alpha dating a coyote. Fortunately, Mercy is not to back down from a challenge.

I have said it before, and I'll say it again, I am loving this series. Briggs is quickly becoming one of my favorite paranormal writers. All of her characters are so vividly drawn. The plotting is action packed. She even manages to touch on real world problems without it feeling forced or out of place. Can't wait for the next one.

Fifty Shades of Grey E L James

fpo  I resisted the pull of E L James's Fifty Shades trilogy for several years. The fact that it began as Twilight fan faction was a big reason for my aversion. To be clear, I read Twilight, all four books, and enjoyed reading them while at same time recognizing the many, many flaws contained within those four hefty volumes. The thing is, despite the repetitive writing, the sparkling vampires, and the at times disturbing nature of Bella and Edward's relationship, I wanted to know what happened next. So when Fifty Shades of Grey came out I said no because I didn't want to get pulled into another questionable, quasi-romantic trilogy about a young woman with a tendency to find herself in need of rescue and a controlling man.

Although I had not read Fifty, I did enjoy reading the reviews and criticisms of the trilogy. This series has inspired some truly great reviews. I half wanted to be able to participate more fully in the discussion surrounding the series, but kept finding a dozen other things to read instead. Then came the movie, which was unexpectedly funny. Favorite scene - Ana's phone call to Christian outside the bar. But I wasn't sure if it the comedy was intentional. I decided it was time to read the source material and find out what the fuss was all about.

As luck would have it, my mom had bought the audio version of the book a few months earlier, but she couldn't get through it. So she gave it to me. I couldn't get through the audio book either. This was partly due, no doubt, to my general apathy towards audio books. (Yes I know millions of people love audio books. I am not one of them. Not that I am unwilling to try again, perhaps something non-fiction.) The woman reading the audio was fine, but I kept wanting to speed through the slow parts but there is no way to do that with an audio book that I know of. I made it through one CD before giving up and checking out the paperback from the library.

Now I was prepared for repetitive writing about how cute Christian Grey was (inspired by Twilight remember). I was prepared for inner goddesses, the red room of pain, and sex that was always orgasmic and fantastic (even Ana's first time). What I wasn't prepared for was boredom. I'm all for trashy romance and erotica, so long as its hot. I'm all for books that offer little more than mindless fun, laughter, and pleasure. Fifty Shades of Grey gave me none of that. There are a few passages in the book that are funny, even warm but not enough to justify 500 plus pages. I was so bored with Fifty that I began and finished four other books before I finished this one. I remember after finishing a book in the Twilight series and thinking something along the lines of, "badly written, needed a better editor but can't wait to read the next one." There is no worry about that happening with this series. I will probably watch the next movie, but won't read the next book.

Friday, July 10, 2015

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis

fpo  Wow, Rainey Royal, not even sure where to start with this. It's 1970s New York. Rainey is a fourteen-year-old girl struggling to find her own identity against the backdrop of puberty, art, sexual assault, and friendship. Her biggest obstacle might be a horrible parents. Rainey's mother has abandoned her daughter to go live in an ashram in Colorado. Rainey's father, a famous jazz musician, is more concerned about the fawning students he brings into the house (to do much more than study music) than he is about the physical and emotional safety of his child. Despite careless parents and other harmful adults, Rainey shines. She is beautiful and artistic. She is also rebellious, trouble-making, and sometimes cruel. People are drawn to her and she uses that, not always for good.

Rainey Royal was a quick read. It was also raw and heart-wrenching at times. It started off on a shiny and bright and then dimmed a little towards the end. This was mostly because the perspective shifts from Rainey from those of her friends in the later stories. (Rainey Royal is a novel told through a series of short stories.) We get to see a different perspective of Rainey through her friends, but frankly their adoring takes just aren't as interesting as Rainey's own perspective.

I have to mention how I came across this book because I think it symbolizes the pull Rainey herself has. I was walking through the bookstore, just browsing because I needed a walk and more often than not a walk through my neighborhood leads to a stop at the bookstore. I picked up a lot of books and put them down again, because I had just ordered a couple books and my credit card needed a rest. I picked up this book and put it down, like all the others. The next day at work I couldn't stop thinking about this but couldn't remember the title or the author just that it was the "L" section because I had been looking for another book by an author whose name started with the letter "L". I entered dozens of search terms into Google and other databases trying to identify a book about the daughter of a jazz singer in 1970s New York who has a sketchy best friend. Several hours later I finally found Rainey Royal. Something about this book just wouldn't let me walk away.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

If You Feel Too Much by Jamie Tworkowski

If You Feel Too Much: Thoughts on Things Found and Lost and Hoped For   If You Feel Too Much is a collection of writings by Jamie Tworkowski. The blurb on the back of the book talks about a story Tworkowski wrote called To Write Love on Her Arms about helping a friend battling drug addiction and other issues. That story led to Tworkowski founding a non-profit organization called To Write Love on Her Arms (TWLOHA), an organization I had never heard of until I picked up this book. Not entirely sure what the organization does other than generally promoting hope and love and encouraging people struggling with addiction, depression, suicide, and self-injury to get help. In any case, it was that story that drew me to this book.

It is difficult to explain exactly what this book is, but I'll give it a shot. It is a non-fiction collection of essays, many of which (I think) began as blog posts. Some are really personal and seem like they could have been journal entries. Though the book is divided into chronological sections, I wouldn't call it a memoir. It is author writing about an isolated event or something/someone he saw/spoke to/ heard and then writing about how he felt about it. Ultimately all of that connects to TWLOHA's general message about the importance of mental health, connection to other people, and all the rest. It isn't a religious book though the author talks about God in a "there is something bigger than us out there" kind of way. I found this book on a display table dedicated to recent releases by Penguin at my local B&N. I wonder where it would be shelved normally. In the religious inspiration section? Self-help and addiction?

Books like always leave me a little bit hopeful and a little bit sad. Hopeful in that it is an encouragement to keep trying and keep hoping in the face of life’s disappointments and depressions, and further that there are others going through the same thing. But also sad because it is a reminder of just how hard life is.

A Few Quotes That I Love:

For the next five days, she is ours to love. (pg. 19)

From the story that led to the organization (TWLOHA)…when a girl is rejected by a rehab clinic because she is currently high, Tworkowski and friends stay with her for the next five days until she is clean enough to go to rehab. “She is ours to love” is such a beautiful and selfless way to characterize the situation, as if it were a gift to spend five days watching and making sure the girl didn’t do any more drugs or other harm to herself, like she was doing them a favor. People often say "happy to help." I often say that. This sentence sounds like Tworkowski and friends really were.

...he takes a knee on the Brooklyn Bridge, asks her for forever. (pg. 47)

Don't have to explain this one.

He would show her patience and kindness, wanted her to feel seen and known, appreciated and beautiful. His dream became to love her, and to be loved by her. (pg. 57)

For the romantic…what a beautiful and kind way to describe love. There is a book I have of everyday women talking about sex and love and the interview that always stood out to me was a woman who said her greatest wish was to be really known. I had never heard it phrased like that before but immediately felt it to be true. This quote reminds of that.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Which Brings Me to You by Steve Almond & Julianna Baggott

fpo  They met at a wedding. His friend, her great aunt's brother-in-law's sister's daughter. There was flirty banter, a not-dead cat, and groping in the coat check room. Before the coatroom hookup was completed, they pulled back with the realization that there was potential there, potential worth not ruining with sex under strangers' coats in a closet whose door could be opened at any moment. He proposes that they get to know each other. They live in different cities so he suggests they write letters to one one another. No emails, snail mail only. The deal is they will confess to one another. She agrees but secretly thinks she'll never hear from him again. The she gets his first letter.

I didn't want to be rich. What I wanted was the sense of ease I imagined rich kids possessed, of being able to relax, not having to try so hard all the time. I wanted to be loved, of course, but more than that I wanted to be able to receive love.

The podcast Dear Sugar has been around for ages, first as an advice column and then as an advice podcast, but it only came across my radar relatively recently. I listen to a lot of podcasts. This show quickly rose to the top of the pile. Each episode is a little treasure for my ears and my heart. Rather than deleting an episode after listening as I do with most episodes of a podcast, I'm saving them so I can hear it all again. After listening to ten or so episodes I started to wonder about these advice givers who were so full of empathy and handled every letter with such care. I knew both were writers and so looked up what they had written. I knew about Cheryl Strayed's Wild and Tiny Beautiful Things, in fact that was how I found my way to Dear Sugar, but hadn't read anything by her partner on the podcast, Steve Almond. Of the books attributed to Almond Which Brings Me to You, a story told through a correspondence of the confessional sort, sounded the most intriguing. It did not disappoint.

I love this concept and its execution. It was raw and emotional. John and Jane share their first loves, family baggage, and personal failings, romantic and otherwise, through letters and the occasional postcard. It's a different kind of love story. We don't see much of John and Jane together with each other. Instead we get a snapshot of how they got to that moment in the coat check room.

There was a certain unreal quality to this novel. Seriously, who would confess their deepest secrets in writing to a stranger on the edge of one's social circle, and even if one did such thing, who could do so with such articulation and adroitness on a consistent and continual basis? Still, however improbable such a letter writing campaign might be the emotional impact was real. With letters about first loves with first boyfriends/girlfriends, lovers that changed the characters and their world, broken hearts, and people John and Jane should have been nicer to, who couldn't relate to this, at least some of it?

Definitely a good read.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Iron Kissed by Patricia Briggs

fpo  This series just keeps getting better and better! Mercy Thompson is a lot of things: a VW mechanic, walker who can go shift into a coyote, and above all, a really good friend. The last is demonstrated by her willingness to go against powerful forces when her friend, mentor, and former boss Zee is arrested for a murder he did not commit. Mercy sets out to prove his innocence even though it may mean upsetting the very powerful and very vengeful fae. Years before the fae revealed themselves to the human world with mixed results. Many fae now live on reservations away from humans who are largely afraid of them.When a human is killed and Zee is found at the scene of the crime, he becomes the obvious suspect. The powers that be in the fae world know Zee is innocent but are willing to risk losing one of their own to appease human law enforcement and put the case to bed. That is not okay with Mercy.

Iron Kissed, book number three in the Mercy Thompson series, was really interesting. At the end it got really heavy, tackling issues like sexual assault, identity, and what consent really means. It blew me way. I didn't expect such intensity from a series centering around werewolves, vampires, fae, and ghosts. Paranormal might be seen as escapist fare, but this series is grounded in real emotions.

Mercy is quickly becoming my favorite paranormal heroine. She is such a richly drawn character. She is tough and vulnerable, lonely but resistant to entering a relationship, and always, always, a formidable challenge. People continually underestimate her to their detriment. She cares about everyone. Making her different from everyone else - she's not a werewolf, a vampire, fae, or entirely human - allows her a degree of empathy that extends beyond her own "family" or "species" in a way other characters aren't able to.

The guys of the Mercy Thompson series are pretty awesome too. Brigg does a great job of writing men who are strong and powerful without being too obnoxious and controlling, or at least who are confronted with their obnoxiousness when needed. Not that they don't have their issues, but on the whole the men in Mercy's life are good guys. There's Adam, the local pack alpha. He is a leader who understands the importance of taking the time to hear what his pack members have to say. He walks a fine line between being dominant without being excessively domineering, well most of the time. He wants Mercy as his mate but will not coerce her into it. Sam, Mercy's first love, still cares about her but is as unsure as Mercy is as to what the future holds for them. They are both protective of her but try to resist protecting her too much. Warren and Kyle's relationship is also refreshing to read about. Warren, not surprisingly, still has to deal with issues related to members of the wolf pack who don't accept his sexuality but it is clearly their problem, not Warren's. He has settled nicely into his relationship with Kyle. Even Ben, the British werewolf who was so obnoxious in earlier books, comes off rather nicely in Iron Kissed. I hope there is more of Ben in future books.

In sum, I am really loving this series.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Beautiful Blue Death by Charles Finch

A Beautiful Blue Death (Charles Lenox Series #1)  A Beautiful Blue Death is the first in a series of historical mysteries about an amateur detective in Victorian London. Charles Lenox is a gentleman who spends his time planning exotic trips he never goes on, reading by the fire, and solving mysteries. He is sometimes assisted by his older brother Edmund who not so secretly envies his brother's adventures and loves to help out if he can, and well as his butler Graham. His latest mystery comes about when his dear friend Lady Jane asks him to look into the death of her former servant Prudence "Prue" Smith. After leaving Lady Jane's employ Prue sought work in Mr. Bernard's house where her fiancee was also employed. All seemed well and yet a suicide note, a bottle of poison, and Prue's deceased body would indicate otherwise. Charles suspects that foul play rather than suicide was at play. Inspector Exeter is none too thrilled to have Charles poking around the case, but even he must admit that Charles has an impressive record when it comes to crime solving.

I had a difficult time getting into this story. It felt like it was written in accordance with a checklist. As in, wealthy, single male who solves crimes as a hobby, primarily through deduction and guesswork. Check. Sidekick who is smart but not as not smart as the detective and in some way socially inferior to the detective. Check. Police officer whose main purpose is to mock and get in the way of the detective. Check. Following a set of rules or basing characters on well-known literary tropes can be a good starting point but then the author has to add something more to flesh out the story, to make it unique, to make it memorable. That was missing here. The characters were more character types rather than characters who could be believable entities in their own right. The murder mystery had a promising start started but quickly got bogged down. The story did pick up towards the end, but not enough to redeem all that came before. This wasn't a very long book (309 pages in the edition I have) but it still felt bloated.

One thing that was evident in the writing was how much the author loves the era of Victorian England. I rather like this time period myself, which is one reason why I was looking forward to this book. Unfortunately, it just didn't quite come together. Overall, I'd say this was decent. Only time will tell if it was enough to compel me to continue with the series.

Monday, June 22, 2015

The Weed that Strings the Hangman's Bag by Alan Bradley

The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag (Flavia de Luce Series #2) Flavia de Luce is back at it again - roaming around the village of Bishop's Lacey on Gladys (her bicycle), dreaming up ways to vanquish her opponents (especially her sisters) with poisonous concoctions, having adventures, and best of all, solving murders. 

The Weed that String the Hangman's Bag is second in Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce series about an eleven-her-old English girl who has a passion for chemistry and a tendency to find herself in the middle of murder investigations. When celebrated puppeteer Rupert Porson is killed there is no shortage of suspects. He and his puppet shows may have been beloved by millions of children but with a propensity for romancing naive young women, regardless of whether they are married or not, Rupert is certainly not loved by all. When a shock of electricity ends his puppet show for good, some think it was an unfortunate accident. Flavia is quite certain it was not. Flavia may have thought her murder solving days were behind her once her last adventure (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie) ended, but it is not to be. How can she not step in to help when the police so obviously need her?

This is such a fun series! The mystery is good but the real draw here is Flavia. She's the youngest daughter of Colonel Haviland and Harriet de Luce. Harriet's mother disappeared and was presumed dead when Flavia was but a toddler. Devastated by the loss of his wife, Haviland spends most of his time working on his stamp collection. In between conducting chemistry experiments (and solving murders), Flavia spends her time sparring with her two older sisters, seventeen-year-old Ophelia (Fifi) and thirteen-year-old Daphne (Daffy). Fifi and Daffy repeatedly try to convince their little sister that she is adopted and Flavia retaliates by using her sisters as guinea pigs for her chemistry experiments. Rounding out the household are Dogger and Mrs. Mullet. Depending on how he feels that day, his experiences in the war having left its mark on him, Dogger is the butler, gardener, or simply the good friend both the Colonel and Flavia need. Mrs. Mullet is the family's housekeeper and cook. And who can forget Inspector Hewitt - the police constable who cannot help but be both impressed and exasperated by the precocious young detective.

Flavia reminds me of one of my favorite detectives, Miss Marple. She is incredibly observant, extremely intelligent and constantly underestimated by those around her. Still, like Miss Marple, she always manages to figure out who did what. I love being in Flavia's mind as she rides around the village, commenting on all she sees and gathering clues. She is such a curious girl with a sense of adventure who misses a mother she barely remembers. When her aunt tells Flavia that if she wants to know what her mother was like she need only look in the mirror, my heart smiled for her. It is awful for such a little girl to keep stumbling across murders, but it is such a delight to read.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen

Lost Lake  Garden Spells was the first time I heard of Sarah Addison Allen. It was the cover that got me. A woman in a fancy dress kneeling in a garden with big juicy apples scattered around. I was as captivated by words between the covers as I was by the front cover. Then there was The Sugar Queen which among other things featured a woman for whom books magically appeared around her whenever she had a problem that needed solving. Thinking about buying a house - poof! There's a book about first time home ownership on the nightstand that was previously empty. How could I not love that? I can't lie. The Girl Who Chased the Moon was a bit of misstep, although I did love the cover - a woman in a white dress kneeling and surrounded by butterflies. Though it was not my favorite it wasn't a bad way to spend a couple hours. All missteps were forgotten with The Peach Keeper, set in Walls of Water, a town Addison drew so vividly I wish I could visit. And now there is Lost Lake.

Eby first saw Lost Lake on a picture postcard. She and her husband George decided to make the lake resort their home, treating guests to their southern hospitality and charm. George has long since passed and Eby wonders if it is time to let Lost Lake go.

Kate is just beginning to wake up from a year of sleepwalking that followed her husband's death. Like anyone waking up from a deep sleep she fumbles around waiting for things to become clear. She might want to go back to sleep but she knows she can't. She has a daughter, Devin, to think about. During her sleep filled year, Kate let her mother-in-law Cricket take over and free spirited Devin has suffered for it. Kate must put a stop to that. On a whim Kate decides to revisit Lost Lake where she spent a memorable summer visiting her great aunt Eby many years earlier.

So wonderful! Oh how to count the ways? Lost Lake is about grief and recovery, choosing happiness, cutting toxic elements out of one's life and moving forward. I wanted to read this slowly, to savor each word but it was too hard to stop reading. Upon reaching the last page for just a moment I considered turning to page one and starting again. This was truly a good read.

Highly recommended:
Garden Spells The Sugar Queen The Girl Who Chased the Moon The Peach Keeper

Sunday, June 14, 2015

A Fatal Grace by Louise Penny

A Fatal Grace (Chief Inspector Gamache Series #2) CC de Poitiers was a miserable woman who made everyone around her miserable: her husband, her child, her lover, and just about anyone who happened to cross her path. Her philosophy in life was not to show emotion, though she herself showed a lot of emotion. Her favorite seemed to be anger. When she dies, electrocuted while watching a curling match on a frozen pond no less, no one is particularly upset. Still, Inspector Armand Gamache must discover her murderer and bring him or her to justice even if some might think the world is better off with CC de Poitiers. He is also tasked with solving the murder of a homeless woman as part of his annual ritual of swapping cold cases with a colleague in another city. No worries, Inspector Gamache is up for the job.

A Fatal Grace is the second book in Louise Penny's Inspector Gamache mystery series, a series I am very much enjoying. In so many police procedurals (televised and written) the police are characterized as skirting close to the line between right and wrong, legal and illegal, and often crossing that line. Viewers and readers are supposed to root for the police anyway because anything they do is all in the name of crime solving. Inspector Gamache is different. He is a cop with an ethical code. He tries to avoid making assumptions about people and jumping to conclusions. He apologizes when he is wrong. He understands that part of his job as the lead detective is to train and mentor younger detectives. He realizes that the people he comes into contact with, whether a suspect, victim, witness, or bystander are just that, people, capable of both good and bad and everything in between. This ethical code makes Inspector Gamache an officer with an impressive solve rate. It has also made him unpopular among some of his colleagues.

I quite enjoyed this. This mystery itself was interesting, though not particularly difficult to solve. (I figured it out about half way through.) Aside from liking a book about an ethical police officer, I really like the town of Three Pines that Penny has created. It reads like a sort of artist colony with quirky residents full of interesting stories. My one complaint is that Gamache's team are not so well drawn or interesting. Hopefully they will be fleshed out more in future books.

I am intrigued by the dynamic between the Anglo and Franco factions of Quebec as portrayed in this series. The casual, I don't know if racism is the right word, between them is no doubt meant to be funny. Sometimes it is, but is also rather jarring. In both this and the previous book, a character will remark how all Anglos/Francos are one thing or another, as if these are people they have never encountered before. I can kind of understand why people who live in Quebec might have stereotypes about people from one of other Canada's provinces and vice versa, but it is interesting that people living in the same province seem so foreign to one another.

Halfway through this book I went out and bought the next two books in this series. Aside from the current homicide investigation, there was a hint of something bigger to come. It is known from the prior book in the series that Gamache's career has stalled, despite how good he is at his job, because he pissed someone off higher up the food chain. In this book we find out a little more about the case that put a damper on his career. More importantly, it appears that simply stalling his career might not be enough for some people. Can't wait to see what happens next.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Pagan Spring by G.M. Malliet

Pagan Spring (Max Tudor Series #3) Pagan Spring is the third book in the Max Tudor mystery series by G.M. Malliet. Malliet's series is set in a bucolic English village led by MI-5 agent turned Anglican priest, Max Tudor. Tudor may have thought he was escaping the violence and ugliness of the world when he entered the priesthood. Instead with Pagan Spring Tudor encounters his third murder since arriving in Nether Monkslip. It all begins with a dinner party to welcome the recent addition of a minor celebrity to the village.

There is a British television series called Midsomer Murders that I enjoy. It is a standard police procedural set in a series of villages that at first glance would appear to be bastions of peacefulness in the English countryside but instead seem to have a homicide rate that would rival any major metropolis. Think Crystal Cove and Murder She Wrote, only British. Pagan Spring, and its two predecessors Wicked Autumn and A Fatal Winter, are more or less book versions of Midsomer Murders or Murder She Wrote, which is probably why I like them. There is nothing too complicated, just a comforting cozy mystery with a few quirky characters, a pretty little town and a mystery that needs to be solved. I like darker stories too, but sometimes the time is right for a gentle cozy. This series is perfect for those times.

Wicked Autumn (Max Tudor Series #1)   A Fatal Winter (Max Tudor Series #2)

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

What a Three Star Review Means to Me

I was on Book Riot recently and saw post about an author who had a meltdown on Goodreads because a person read his book and gave it one lonely star. He seemed to view this as a personal attack on him an on all that is good in humanity. I have also read/heard some authors say how they would much prefer five stars or one star over a three star review on the theory that a three star review means the book didn't provoke a strong interest in the reader one way or another. Love and hate are strong emotions and perhaps a three seems too boring. All this got me thinking about what a starred rating means to me.

Before Goodreads I never rated books. I kept a paper journal where I wrote what I thought and felt about a book. This never took the form of a rating, stars or otherwise. Then came Goodreads and its star rating system. I rarely rate books in my paper journal but feel kind of compelled to do so on Goodreads. Most of the books I rate on Goodreads are three stars. Three stars is good. It means I liked the book. It means I’m glad to have met the characters and spent some time in the world the author created. Three stars means that although reading the book so rated may not have been a life changing experience for me, my time was nevertheless well spent.

Remember when you were a teenager and everyday seemed like either the best day or the worst day of your life? I'm exhausted just thinking about being teenager. As an adult I find some days are spectacular, a few are truly horrible, but most are good. Perhaps even pretty good. In other words, somewhere in the middle. I feel this more or less applies to books as well. A significant portion of my reading consists of threes and that seems right to me. I hear people say that life is too short to not read great books but how do you know a book is great until you’ve read it? And how could it possibly be that every book you pick up ends up being truly great? If not for any reason besides statistics it seems that most would fall short of being great, but still might be good.

Favorite books I can’t stop thinking about, that I want to reread again and again, that spoke to me deeply in some way – those get a five. Four stars are pretty good books but not the best because every book cannot be the best or “the best” wouldn’t mean anything as a category and also because not all great books become favorite books. One star means I really didn’t like it, so much so that if I own the book I won’t own it for much longer. Two stars are where things get tricky. A two-starred book is a book I had issues with. I may not have particularly liked it but can see that it has some redeeming qualities.

When it comes to other people’s ratings, I take it all with a grain of salt and am amazed that anyone takes the Goodreads rating system with any degree of seriousness. For one thing, there is no agreed upon criteria for reviewing books. Anne might consider three stars a pretty good book while Betty equates three starts with mediocrity. You just never know. Every so often I come across people who have given every book on their Read shelf four or five stars and I think well this person likes everything and therefore cannot be trusted because who likes everything.

I do pay attention to the stars but mostly to get a sense of extremes. If I’m contemplating a book by an author I’ve never heard of before, particularly if the book came to my attention in a less traditional way, then I look for a five star review, a one star review, and a three star review. When you love something, it is easy to overlook the flaws, and vice versa, hence the one and five star reviews. As for threes, they tend to recognize the strengths and the weaknesses of a book. More importantly, I don’t just look at the stars. I read the review. That’s where the gold is. In the end the stars don’t mean much, but your thoughts do. 

Monday, June 8, 2015

What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding by Kristin Newman

What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding: A Memoir  What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding is Kristin Newman's memoir about how she spent her time from her mid-twenties through her thirties while many of her friends were off getting engaged, getting married, and having babies. A television writer, Newman spent much of her free time in between writing jobs traveling to destinations far and near. Okay, mostly far. She went to Paris, Amsterdam, Russia, London, Argentina (multiple times), Brazil, the Dominican Republic, New Zealand, Australia, Iceland, Israel, and Jordan. In every port, or at least most of them, there was a boy to help her pass the time, sometimes multiple boys in the same port.

Basically what Kristin was doing while her friends were breeding was trying to figure out her complicated feelings about marriage, kids, independence and "settling down" while traveling around the world and meeting lots of interesting people, a number of which she ended up in bed with. This is a memoir about being in one's thirties and not having a husband or kids, or even a potential prospect for either and wondering (a) why don't I have those things and (b) do I even want those things? It's about loving one's life but also half wanting a different one. There is a great passage in the book where Newman writes that often life isn't about choosing between a really great thing and a really horrible thing. More often it is about choosing between one really great thing and another really great thing. Whichever one you choose, you both win and lose. Throughout this book Newman is in equal parts hopeful, desperate, funny and fun loving, lonely, and above all filled with a sense of adventure and willingness to try new things.

A great travel memoir reveals something about the place traveled to and person traveling. Newman's book excels at the second task but falls a little short on the first. After reading this I feel I know a lot about Newman and just a little about Argentina, Amsterdam and the other places Newman traveled. The exception is New Zealand which is incidentally the place where Newman had the least sex, or at least the place where sex wasn't the primary focus of the chapter about the trip.

I feel like I've read multiple versions of books like this one over the few years: Wild, Wanderlust, All Over the Map, Eat Pray Love. With the exception of Cheryl Strayed's Wild, they general involve women contemplating the state of the their romantic lives as they travel around the world in an effort to run away from a relationship or find a new one. As I read What I Was Doing I kept thinking of new genre categories for books like these. Single blonde women who like to travel, travel sex memoir, and romantic crisis travel memoir are three that came to mind. Nothing against blondes, but I would love to read a travel memoir by a woman of color, or at least by a brunette.

An ex tells Newman with disdain that the hallmark of spinster (my words, not hers) used to be a house full of cats. Now it is a house full of souvenirs from around the world. Newman chose to take that as a compliment. So do I.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Queenpin by Megan Abbott

Queenpin  Queenpin is so good!  So very good. The unnamed narrator is a girl from a good Christian family. She was raised right, but all she wants is bad. Her hardworking dad gets her job at Tee Hee, a bar on his delivery route. She spends her mornings in accounting class, her afternoons keeping Tee Hee's books, and her evenings keeping house. She doesn't think twice when her bosses ask her to "cook the books." She knows her bosses aren't the real bosses and that this won't probably end well, but she's willing to go along for the ride.

When Gloria Denton walks into Tee Hee, the narrator sees everything she never knew she wanted. Gloria is a legend in the criminal world and everything our girl wants to be. Gloria sees something in our girl and offers her a chance at a different life, one with big risks and even bigger rewards. Our girl knows she should feel guilty but she doesn't, not really. She loves her new life. All she has to do is not make any mistakes, like falling for the wrong guy.

When she meets him she falls hard. What's crazy is that she knows he's bad news from the beginning. He's a gambler who never knows when to walk away from the table. He's so bad for her, and yet so good. She can't walk away.

It is usually pretty easy to explain why a book doesn't work for me. It is much harder to explain a book that's great. This is the fourth of Megan's Abbott's modern noir stories that I've read and they have ranged from good to great. Queenpin was great. Abbott has a way of capturing voice and setting a scene. Throw in a great plot and there is not much more a girl can ask for. 

The only thing sad about finishing Queenpin is that I'm running out of Megan Abbott books to read.