Friday, October 25, 2019

Atkinson, Kate (Big Sky)

An excellent continuation of the Jackson Brodie series, in that it puts Brodie in perilous and strange situations, and also at least one prior character shows up (now all grown up).

There is a different flavor to this novel, though, since Atkinson is attacking a supremely difficult subject - human trafficking. I have a feeling that using this as a subject matter has limited Atkinson in some ways, in that she spends so much time making sure she's doing justice to the seriousness of the crimes that she loses sight of what makes the Brodie novels so fun to read - that air of mystery that places Brodie and his companions in the oddest of situations. Not that the situations here are not odd, but you can see where the road will end, which you never could in the previous 4 novels.

At least in this one you get to meet Brodie's son as a nigh-adult, and that is both fun and funny - it's Atkinson riffing as a parent, obviously. Our previous character (from a previous novel) is also delightful - in her essentially grownup ways - but a little too sketchily drawn. Why has she broken up with her boyfriend? How did she get to be a police detective, and why? And I certainly don't remember her being blond & petite, so that's a confusing image.

I deeply desire that this is not the last Brodie novel, but then again, I never thought this one would exist. Crossed fingers!

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Herron, Mick (Slow Horses)

I was super skeptical starting this book, as I often am with British spy novels. I've seen enough British TV spy dramas to assume the storylines that the UK can throw at me.

I wasn't completely wrong here, as the situation described is a common enough one in the terrorism theme, with its intricate twists and kinds. But this isn't why I continued reading. I kept reading because the characters as written were fresh, detailed and super strange. The strangest is the head of the "Slow Horses" unit of MI5 - this was not someone I'd like to meet in real life. He is slovenly, acerbic & seemingly flaky (the worst of all worlds). It was only Herron's morphing of the character that drew me into the story further.

You can tell what each plot twist will contain before it arrives - there's no true surprise, as it's written like a true pageturner. You expect a certain something to occur, and something entirely different (or opposite) does instead.

There seem to be other books in the series, which I ended up putting on my list in the hopes that the next books will also be fun and character-driven.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Orlean, Susan (The Library Book)

Orlean is an outstanding writer - she manages this by inserting herself into the story, in the tradition of the best non-fiction writers (such as Mary Roach or Rebecca Skloot). First, she tells you why she didn't want to write the book (or any book), and then she tells you why she had to write this one. Along the way, she tells you the story of libraries, writ large.

It's no surprise that there are a billion reasons for the need and service that libraries perform, from the kind and quantity of questions that are asked of LA Public librarians on a daily basis to the preservation efforts of all libraries, even when there isn't a natural disaster to contend with. (Yes, I'm a librarian, but that's still all true.)

The LA Public Library fire was and remains one of the worst in history. A heartbreaking number of unique and irreplaceable items were lost, and as with many fires, there's no doubt that the age of the building and its construction played a part in the difficulty of extinguishing the fire. Orlean tells the tale from the vantage point of being new to town and giving her son an introduction to the town's services. She also tells the tale with a sense of disbelief at how invisible the story of the fire has become over the years.

She interlaces fact and storytelling as only she can do. There's nothing dry about this book, and nothing poorly described. You will learn a ton about the value of libraries and their services, but you will learn more about one of the more absorbing "hidden in plain sight" tales out there.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Obama, Michelle (Becoming)

It might be true that Michelle Obama wrote this with a speechwriter from the White House. It's difficult to tell from the acknowledgements, and it's one of the few times that this book feels even a little bit disingenuous.

And that's the best thing about this memoir. She describes her life, she tells you what made her afraid, what made her happy, what circumstances of her life made it possible to become what she is. And I don't mean just marrying Barack Obama, although that is obviously a huge part of it. She describes some of the actions taken by first her parents, then herself, to lift her away from environments and settings that were only proving barriers to her obvious intelligence and skills. Because she was smart. She doesn't toot her own horn, but she tells you why those choices worked - and why she cares so much about giving children in the same circumstances as her childhood a fighting chance.

Of course, another marvelous thing she does is not let Barack Obama get away with anything. It is humorous, it is real, it is what you expect from a long-standing marriage of equals. And it has the added bonus of showcasing the human side - and the humanity - of his presidency.

She spends a lot of time also describing her concerns over raising her daughters in the White House, and that follows naturally into describing what programs were her causes during her time there. But we can't roll our eyes or take umbrage at her chance to do this, because the entire memoir has led up to it. It feels as real as the rest of the book.

There's a reason this book is a bestseller. She sells her tale and she sells us on her.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Block, Lawrence (In Sunlight or in Shadow: Stories Inspired by the Paintings of Edward Hopper)

Mr. Block, you have collected a stellar set of writers to showcase Hopper's paintings. Not all of them have written you a stellar story, but all of them have done what you asked - written a story that tells a tale of the painting in question.

Which ones are my favorite? Here are the ones I liked the most, from least favorite to most favorite:

1. Autumn at the Automat (Lawrence Block)
Not the Hopper painting you're thinking of - the other famous one. Block writes an adequately mysterious story, very Block-like, but not particularly memorable.

2. The Music Room (Stephen King)
No question that this is a King creation, with the creepy twist you've come to expect!

3. Office at Night (Warren Moore)
Much, much more subtle than the previous two. I haven't read anything by Moore before, but I should start. He weaves an astonishingly sweet and sad story from Hopper's painting of an office inhabited by a man and a woman, and not much else.

4. Rooms by the Sea (Nicholas Christopher)
This one would have taken top prize if the next one hadn't made me laugh out loud. Rooms by the Sea is the epitome of an intricate tale told lovingly and with a definite purpose. In addition, the mystery surrounding these rooms & the house itself keeps you guessing the entire way.

5. Taking Care of Business (Craig Ferguson)
There's a reason Ferguson is known as a go-to screenwriter. Short, sweet, kooky, simplistic, and with two - not one - bang-on endings. Also, really freakin' funny.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Milford, Nancy (Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay)

I expect my book club is going to hate this book.

There are several reasons for this, but chief among them is its length. I understand that it's difficult to write a biography of a celebrity without including everything about their life - and especially if it's an author so you want to include samples of their writing - but this book just drags on forever. It's a fascinating life at a fascinating time in US history, but Milford makes odd choices at times on what she includes and what she doesn't include.

She doesn't explain a lot about Millay's life. Meaning, she details and describes it, but doesn't provide context and milieu except when absolutely necessary. At times, that leaves us adrift (such as when Millay struggles with an illness, we're expected to understand the context with very few clues as to what it was).

However, it is fair to say that what Milford is trying to do here is to write a biography that Millay herself would appreciate - in her style and with her panache. Millay was an outstandingly excellent writer and this shows in every poem and every letter showcased in this book. She was also damn snarky, pushed the feminist and anti-war agendas hard, and lived a pretty wild life. I understand why Milford is trying to match that, but it doesn't always work - it leaves us adrift again.

I admit that I was a bit depressed to read about her struggles in the 1920s-1940s to get her work appreciated as a poet, not as a woman poetess. She struggles with some of the same things we still struggle with today, and it's utterly frustrating that the needle is still moving imperceptibly.

On a happier note, I will definitely be using Scramoodle and Skiddlepins in my conversations with my hubby from now on!

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Franck, Liana (Passing for Human: A Graphic Memoir)

Well, this'll be short.

Not because it's a graphic memoir (which often takes less time because there's less to actually read versus a lot more to view). But because I only have one lingering impression: whining.

OK, actually a few lingering impressions: whining, overly navel-gazing, art-for-art's-sake (to me, being obtuse is not art). What was my overall impression? Just grow up already. This memoir felt like I did when I was 25. Why would you write a memoir at that age? Also, the art isn't stellar, and while the pacing and design of the pages is intriguing, overall it didn't engage me whatsoever.

At least it was over quickly.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Chambers, Becky (Record of a Spaceborn Few)

What...? That was my overwhelming thought process as I read this book. (Granted, not a deep one, but I was deeply confused, at least.)

I could not figure out where I was or whether I had been here before or whether the people I knew from her previous two novels were here or not. Chambers does give you an overview of the world at the beginning, but at least for me it it was insufficient. Being told what was happening in real time versus the prelude to real time didn't help because I didn't remember the prelude from before! (Was I supposed to remember it? I'm still unsure.) So, I read this as a standalone novel, as a result. I'm not sure it bears up on its own.

The strength of the previous two novels was in explaining how humans fit into an alien system. Yes, there is an undercurrent of that in this novel (in fact, it is an important part of the final analysis) but the story itself is about humans fitting into their human system. It was certainly fun to learn more about how humans developed a society on ships, instead of a planet. But it always felt... scattered. I wanted to focus on the team that I remembered from the beginning.

Will I read the next novel? Probably? It won't be high priority, but I do enjoy her writing style.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Powers, Richard (The Overstory)

I have taken as long as humanly possible to write this review. Because this is one of the most intense novels I've ever read, and deserved rumination.

At its core, this novel is The Great American Tree Novel. What the author tries to do here is write the definitive novel about trees. And I mean that quite literally. The characters he's created, what he has them do over the course of the novel, and how they interact to tell a complete story, describe everything you will ever need to know about trees.

That sounds flippant. And as if it's unnecessary. It isn't. Everyone should know all these things about trees. What it means to plant a new forest. What makes a tree activist. What trees look, smell, feel and taste like. What their history with humans has meant and foretells. And, last but certainly not least, how trees talk to each other over the aeons.

Regarding the structure of the novel, I don't want to give too much away. But be forewarned - he starts the entire tale by setting the scene for each character, almost like a set of short stories. About 1/3 of the way through, he shifts the focus to describe their interactions, and that carries for the rest of the book. Try not to be distracted or upset by that shift in focus. It's deliberate and justifiable.

I will also say that I may have disagreed with the path he took for a couple of the characters - and his reveal on one that was vastly more understated than it should have been - but I still fully understand why he took all those paths. This is a tour de force. My tiny quibbles are barely worth noting.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Smith, Dodie (I Capture the Castle)

I feel deficient because I didn't enjoy this as much as I thought I would. Like, I've been kicked out of the Jane Austen Fan Club because of it.

It was a slog for me. If I try to pin that down, I think it's because I wasn't expecting a re-telling of Pride and Prejudice - which it isn't in many ways but this is obviously the tale that inspires it - especially one set after World War I with vastly different mores and social settings, and an odd interplay between the British and the Americans in the tale.

I kept struggling to pick it up and read more. The castle in question is very romantic - dark and spooky and dank and lacking in furniture... On second thought, I think the castle never seemed romantic, it seemed horrible. Was it supposed to be both?? I remain confused on this subject, and think it's an important point because Americans are likely to think - "Ooh, abandoned castle, sounds like a fun adventure!" - way more than the British will. Americans will be conflicted, as a result, while the British can squarely place this novel in its rightful place - as a discussion of the changing role of women, how family dynamics changed over the decades, and what a successful life looked like in the 1930s vs. in the 1800s.

Also, I didn't like anyone in the book. Except maybe the poor stepmother, but even she exhibits some  behaviors that were... unsettling. And I don't just mean the naked meanderings on the castle grounds.