Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Brown, Daniel James (The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics)

A delightful read, all around. If I had any issues with it, they were at the beginning.

If you ignore the blather about rowing being the most difficult sport ever, the beginning is palatable. For goodness sake, there are tons of sports that involve folks pushing past the limits of their endurance to just. go. one. more. little. bit. further. Just ask any runner, for instance.

So, that was ridiculous, but after that it is beautifully written. At its core, it's showcasing the personal growth of one specific member of the boat, while simultaneously telling the tale of their journey to the Olympics (hey, if you don't know they won, you're not paying close enough attention) and the sheer horror of Hitler's administration. Because Brown got to speak directly with that crew member and his daughter, there is a consistently strong element of veracity that really shapes and brings meaning to the story he's telling.

There were several times in this book when he brought tears to my eyes - especially at the end when he describes how life treated each "boy" after the Olympics, but also during the lead-up to the games when you realize how many false starts occurred, how often chance intervened in their favor, and how difficult it was to become the team they wanted to be.

Read this book if you want to remember the value of cooperation and what it can do for the human spirit.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

King, Laurie R. (The Art of Detection)

This one tickled my fancy more than others she's written. What King did here was put ALL her feelings about the LGBT community into one smartly delivered package (although it's certainly true that her previous books have provided plenty of her thoughts in that area).

And, of course, she takes this opportunity to start merging her series together - in this case her Sherlock Holmes series and her lesbian detective series - by writing a short story a la Holmes inside a contemporary detective novel. At first, I was surprised that she was going to have Martinelli read the entire story, but when I had finished that part, I understood why she followed that course of action.

The short story is integral to the completion of the novel, mostly because they mirror each other but also because they contain precisely the same themes. There are all the hallmarks of the Martinelli stories - lesbian families, supportive cops and friends, descriptions of some of the best places in the San Francisco area (hello, Marin Headlands!), life-threatening situations only Kate can handle - but it is missing one common theme, which is religion. One of the things I have always liked about King stories is that they often contain theological themes. In this novel, she has supplanted that with something equally important.

The book also feels like it's wrapping up a lot of history (aka 5 novels in the same series) and I don't expect to see another one for Kate Martinelli for a long time, if ever. I think I'm okay with that, because of how she finished this one.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Towles, Amor (A Gentleman in Moscow)

This was a total delight to read, and mostly because it holds to its title throughout the entire book. Towles must be a gentleman in his own right, because he certainly does know how to write like one.

What I appreciated most about this book was its intent to tell a side of the communist revolution in Russia that we may not often hear about, i.e., from the aristocrat's point of view. Our protagonist learns how to live under house arrest in the new Russia, and almost the entire book is written inside the hotel he must never step foot outside. It's part cultural history lesson (but not preachy), part comedic adventure, and part "day in the life". It also ties everything up nicely, but I had rooted for the protagonist for so long, this did not bother me.

One thing surprised me: the book does skip across years, as needed for such a long tale, but there is nothing about the battle/siege of Moscow during WWII. In truth, there are some sentences around how the battle started and what it meant to both the Russians and the Germans, but there is no description of life inside the hotel during that time. I can't fathom why Towles would have left it out, unless it was simply too difficult to address how the effects of the battle would have impinged upon the hotel and those living there (there is very little "outside effect" in the rest of the novel).

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Hoffman, Alice (The Museum of Extraordinary Things)

The only reason I found this slow going to begin with was because I'd just read a book that contained a museum filled with odd and disturbing material (i.e., Geek Love). It almost made me want to put this down and try again after a few more months had passed, but in fact, the story took a different turn.

Hoffman wrote this book because she'd been commissioned to write a journalism piece about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, and this was an opportunity to build a fiction tale around this, as well as write a little about her own history (specifically, her grandfathers). At times the tale unfortunately starts to sound as if it's a lesson about both the importance of unionization as well as the perils of greed, but Hoffman is a good writer and knows to veer away from these problems at her first opportunity.

The most fascinating aspect of the novel, for me, was the swimming. In both the cold, the dark and the dangerous waters of the Hudson. What kind of person is willing to do this? I would suspect a very rare one, and it was clear she was also telling a tale with a large element of fantasy to it. Of course, the novel is set at a time in New York City's history when the skyscrapers did not rule the land, so having that as a backdrop created its own level of fantasy, or at least disbelief in that ancient state.

As usual for Hoffman, this book has a love story at its midst, and it is absolutely the glue that binds the book as well as the beautiful heart of it.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Leon, Donna (A Question of Belief)

It's been quite some time since I read a Donna Leon mystery, but I've realized I can't read them more than once every 9 months. Here's why:

1. She invariably paints Venice in a horrible light, be it bureaucracy or trash or smelly canals or the deplorable influx of tourists or whatnot. Well, I have loved Venice all 3 times I've been there, I'm obviously a tourist, and I don't really want to hear how awful it is while I'm reading something essentially fluffy.

2. I like that all the 'good guys' like each other, but I've known that for 10 novels, so stop telling me it.

3. She's starting to enjoy the sound of her own voice too much, so we now have to read puns, overly dramatic scenes, and ridiculously complicated conversations in which every nuance has to be described down to the nth degree.

4. There's just too much heavy English literature sprinkled throughout. Everyone reads James or Pinter or Brontë, and no one reads something... like this, for goodness sake.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Whitehead, Colson (The Underground Railroad)

This is one of those books that I want to call "simply delightful" and it's simply... not the right phrase to use at all. But not because it's not a delight to read.

What I mean by delightful is the manner in which Whitehead's intent slowly makes itself known to you as you read. I'm fairly certain I did not start to wonder what he was up to until the end of the first major section, after the first trip on the underground railroad. I remember my eyebrows reaching to the ceiling, and putting the book down, and pondering for a long while. If you know me, you know that doesn't happen very often!

After that, it was taking his journey, in which he re-envisions the South, slavery, the resistance movement, and the entire railroad itself. The result of taking that journey is to, quite honestly, be put inside the shoes of blacks both then and now, to get a better feeling for hurdles and troubles that are not always commonly understood.

For instance, what would it feel like to live in Indiana at this time (or a slightly modified time)? Or, what would it have been like to live in a supposedly enlightened Southern state? If anyone is able to create a book that engages the reader and teaches these carefully crafted concepts at the same time (as opposed to the last Pulitzer winner I read...), Whitehead is that man. And, if you've never heard him speak, absolutely go do that as well.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Nguyen, Viet Thanh (The Sympathizer)

This is obviously a super important volume in the history of American imperialism and aggression. I completely understand that, and I get that it needed to be written. But... it's bloody tedious.

The novel is written by a professor, and while the writing is absolutely a cut above average, it's once again my least favorite kind of novel. The kind wherein the author chooses an "important subject" and uses the novel to relay all the concerns about that "important subject," creating a plot that sets up the scenarios needed to teach about this "important subject". When you're done reading it, you feel like you've just taken a class and deserve a certificate for having finished it. I think these novels are very hard to write because they take a lot of finesse so that they don't seem like a lecture.

Nguyen gets most of the way there by creating a confused character, a double agent in the post-Vietnam war era, someone with real zeal for doing the right thing but not able to achieve it. However, there's just too much being tried here: the descriptions of the differences between America and Vietnam are overwhelming and repetitive, the objectification of women (especially Vietnamese women) is sadly behind the times, and the necessity of constantly having to remember who "won" that war and thus which side the character is really on is exhausting (and perhaps that was the point).

If the purpose of the book was to teach me about the Vietnamese-American experience, unfortunately, I think it missed its mark.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Hawkins, Scott (The Library at Mount Char)

Such a delightful romp! Enchanting! Heartwarming! Playful!
Nope. Not in the slightest. I still liked it hugely.

This is hands-down the oddest fantasy novel I've ever read. Best one-line description of the plot: a god passing his powers to the next generation, which he built through some of the most awful shenanigans you can imagine, such that this power transfer is not even close to smooth.

It's mostly black comedy, mixed with some truly horrific imagery (you could call it horror, yes), and a bizarro plot that meanders for literally 2/3 of the book, and then solidifies itself during the final pages. All in service to a strange concept that doesn't look like it's going to have an ending that we appreciate. Also, that 2/3 mark? That's when the book seems to strangely... end. Only to start up again.

Yes, I'm recommending this, but with lots of caveats. Bear with it? No, that's not really it. It's engaging from the get-go. Take a chance? There are enough mini-stories being told very well that there's no chance to take. Forget about the plot and just take the journey Hawkins gives to you? Yes, go with that approach and I think you'll enjoy it as much as I did.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Hanagarne, Josh (The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family)

You know I'm going to love a book written by a snarky librarian. What's fascinating here is that it's written by a librarian from the Mormon faith who lifts weights and has Tourette's syndrome.

My favorite part is actually the end of the book, where he showcases more than a remedy for Tourette's (if you can call it that) and instead something we can all get behind, as we move through life. I can't say much or it will give away all that uplifting joy prematurely. (See, now you really want to read the book.)

There were some spots that dragged, chiefly, when he talks a little bit too much about how both weightlifting and libraries are fabulous and wonderful and here's why and did I tell you enough about why yet? You better believe I think libraries are the bee's knees, but don't bore your readers. He works pretty hard not to - keeps it rather engaging - but each of these sections just goes on a bit too long. I enjoyed his childhood memories far more, and was definitely intrigued by his mother's parenting style, his faith and what it meant to him, and what it was like to grow up as a kid with Tourette's.

It isn't until far along into the book that he reveals that his writing started by blogging, which is obviously how he got this book deal. I appreciated that, since other books by bloggers seem to showcase how they got to this point. Writing a real book! I'm real now! Achievement unlocked! So, that was refreshing.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Stiefvater, Maggie (The Raven King)

I had a strange relationship with this final book in the series.

Mostly, I just wanted it to be done. It felt to me that Stiefvater was told to write a full-length novel when she really wanted to write a novella as the last book. There were too many scenes about the same thing. Oh, Cabeswater is in trouble? Golly, I couldn't tell. You already wrote 5 scenes about Cabeswater going through the wringer in this book, and one more isn't telling me anything more. Gosh, is Gansey upset about his approaching death? Holy cats, who wouldn't be?! Didn't you already tell us this at least a dozen times since the book started? It got sort of... dull over time.

Also, did she change up the narrative without a word of warning regarding Ronan and Adam? Have I been oblivious for 3 books? Does this bother anyone else? I like that she went in this direction, but it is not fully fleshed out, and shouldn't be just an add-on to the whole story.

And one last thing - why does Henry come in as a character only in the last book? He's appropriately sarcastically funny and does seem like a "knight" to Gansey's "king", but does he have to be this naive about the storyline? Wouldn't it have been better to include him earlier so that he isn't quite so much of a third wheel? I felt kind of bad for him during the last chapters.

I was, of course, hugely pleased with her intent in the ending, and I enjoyed Stiefvater's words as much as I normally do, but I wish I hadn't left this series with such a feeling of disappointment overall.