Monday, December 30, 2013

Chimera, by David Wellington

David Wellington, Chimera. New York: William Morrow, 2013. 432 pages. ISBN 9780062248770.

Afghanistan war veteran Jim Chapel has been working a desk job since he lost an arm while on duty, although his highly sophisticated prosthetic arm allows him to operate almost as usual. Chimera starts when Jim is asked by Admiral Hollingshead, of the Defense Intelligence Agency, to help round up, capture, or kill four individuals who've escaped from a high-security facility in New York State. These men have gone their separate ways after their escape; each with a list of people they've been told to kill.

Jim has to start his mission without knowing even the basics: Who are the men? Why were they being detained? Why are they killing the folks on this list? Why is the CIA involved in a DIA project? As he tracks down the four men, one by one, he begins to put the clues together, and learns that the four men are the result of a genetics experiment that was intended to create a new race of humans, in the event of a nuclear holocaust. When the cold war ended and the likelihood of a nuclear war diminished, these men weren't needed, and were simply locked away and forgotten.

This is a fast-paced thriller, with Jim working with Julia Taggart, the daughter of one of the victims, and Angel, a woman assigned to help him but whom he only knows through his cell phone. They are followed and endangered by a CIA crew that is trying to cover up all evidence of their assignment, including them. I recommend Chimera to anyone who likes a fast-paced thriller!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Never List, by Koethi Zan

Koethi Zan, The Never List. New York: Viking, 2013. 303 pages. ISBN 9780670026517.

At the age of 12, Sarah and her friend Jennifer were in a car accident that injured them both but killed Jennifer's mother. Inseparable friends, they compile a list of things to avoid in order to stay safe. When they head off to college, they continue their careful approach to life, but make one mistake that puts them in the hands of a kidnapper and sadist who keeps them captive for three years. Sarah survived her ordeal, but Jennifer never got away. Ten years later, their kidnapper is up for parole, and Sarah is asked to testify at the parole hearing.

Agoraphobic and psychologically frail, Sarah overcomes her fears and begins to investigate clues that she believes her kidnapper has sent her in his periodic letters from prison. She convinces her two fellow victims to help in her search for answers, and they begin to uncover evidence of many more crimes than were previously realized. As they track down their kidnapper's friends and colleagues, they begin to put the pieces together, but at the same time they attract the attention of folks with men who don't want what's going on to come to light, and these men will stop at nothing to prevent their exposure.

I found this book almost impossible to put down, and I read it through in two sittings over the weekend. I recommend it to anyone who likes a good thriller.

After I'm Gone, by Laura Lippman

Laura Lippman, After I'm Gone. New York: William Morrow, 2014. 334 pages. ISBN 9780062309563.

Laura Lippman's latest novel, After I'm Gone, demonstrates how pernicious lies, secrecy, and deception can be to one's family and relationships. The story focuses on five women who have mourned the loss of their respective husband, father, and lover for decades. Felix Brewer runs away from everyone he loves to avoid conviction and imprisonment for gambling charges. He made arrangements to help and financially provide for both his lover and his family, but those plans go awry and the reader can only speculate throughout much of the book what might have happened to his fortune.

Felix's lover, Julie, goes missing ten years after he disappeared, and everyone suspects that she left to join him. When her body is found many years later, it's clear that she never joined him, but it's unclear what might have happened to her and who was responsible. The novel is framed by the cold-case investigation of Julie's murder by Roberto "Sandy" Sanchez, a consultant with the Baltimore Police Department. As he investigates her disappearance and murder in the present, the novel takes us back in time to show us the backstory. Did Felix's widow or daughters kill Julie?

Ms. Lippman's writing is strong as usual, and the reader can't help but empathize with everyone in Felix's life whom he left with nothing but questions. Everyone has something to hide in this story and their secrecy and deception leave each other open to suspicion and distrust. I was guessing who was responsible up to the very end.

After I'm Gone is due out in February, 2014. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good mystery with well-developed characters.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Before I die, by Candy Chang

Candy Chang, Before I Die. New York: St. Martin's Griffin, 2013. 303 pages. ISBN 9781250020840.

Candy Chang is an artist who decided to use an abandoned house to create a public art project that would engage a community. She painted the outside of a house in New Orleans with chalkboard paint, then stenciled "Before I Die, I Want to..." and left spaces for people to write whatever they wanted. Within days the space had filled up and created an emotional gathering spot for community members. She's documented her work on a web site: and also in this book.

Ms. Chang describes why she was inspired to start this project, and how it grew to be emulated in hundreds of similar installations around the world. The book is composed mostly of photographs of her project and the many others that followed. Ms. Chang begins the book with her own project, then spotlights dozens of similar projects from around the world. She concludes with a chapter "By the Numbers" that provides a number of statistics about the project, and instructions on how to create a similar wall. This was a fascinating and fun book to read; I particularly liked reading about the people who lead efforts in various locations to create similar walls. I recommend Before I Die to anyone who is interested in public art or community projects.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Fortunately, the Milk, by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman, Fortunately, the Milk. Illustrated by Skottie Young. New York: HarperCollins, 2013. 113 pages. ISBN 9780062224071.

Neil Gaiman is one of the most versatile writers I know, writing in multiple genres and for all ages. My favorite book of his is The Graveyard Book which was a big success a few years ago and is in development for a movie by Ron Howard. Other books by Mr. Gaiman that I've read include Anansi Boys, Stardust, and Coraline, all of which I've enjoyed. I received an advance reader's edition of Fortunately, the Milk at the May 2013 Book Expo America convention in New York City. It included a post-it note inserted inside the cover with Mr. Gaiman's signature on it.

Fortunately, the Milk is an entertaining tall tale that is told by the father in the story. He goes out for milk one day and tells his children a tale to explain what took him so long. His story includes an alien spaceship, pirates, piranhas, a stegosaurus, a volcano, vampires, and more. The illustrations are well-drawn and amusing, and the writing is excellent as is usual with Mr. Gaiman. If you like kids books (as I do), this is a great purchase.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Short Movie Reviews: The Counselor; Catching Fire; The Desolation of Smaug

Once in a while I will use this space to write short movie reviews. While I used to go to the movies about once a week, after we moved to Albany our weekends have been dedicated primarily to three activities: working on the new house, exploring the Albany area, and visiting relatives who are now much further away than they were when we lived in State College. Things are starting to settle down a little and we've been getting out a bit to local theaters. Although we haven't been out to the movies much, our Netflix viewing has continued as usual, and we've managed to watch about 40 movies from Netflix this year (so far).

The Counselor. With Javier Bardem, Penelope Cruz, Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, and Brad Pitt, how could a movie go wrong? Directed by Ridley Scott, this movie is fast-paced and keeps the viewer guessing about what's going to happen next. It made me cringe as I watched Michael Fassbender's character, the counselor, make one bad decision after another. I'm a big Ridley Scott fan, but this didn't feel like a Scott film; to me, it seemed more like a Quentin Tarantino film, with tricky dialogue and bizarre asides. Some of the action was over-the-top violent; the film could have been just as good with a lot fewer grisly scenes. I still liked it, though, and would give it a B.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. The second installment in the Hunger Games trilogy was just as good as the first. I loved these books by Suzanne Collins, and the films have both done the books justice. While they may have changed a few details, or left a few minor scenes or characters out, the films have been just as I'd imagined the books. All of the actors have done a wonderful job with their characters, and remained true to the vision expressed in the books. Some YA literature, when made into films, comes across a little cheesy or campy (e.g., Twilight). Catching Fire is a thrilling fantasy adventure that would be appealing to both adults and a YA audience. The director, Francis Lawrence, has made an excellent film. I give it an A.

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug. For the record, I am a huge fan of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, both the books and the movies. I also love The Hobbit (the book); it was my first introduction to the world of J.R.R. Tolkien, and I've re-read them several times. Peter Jackson's decision to turn The Hobbit into a trilogy was a colossal mistake. I've read interviews in which he defended this decision and described how he included story lines from other works by Tolkien, etc., but I don't buy any of it. The Hobbit is a short book; shorter than any of the individual volumes in The Lord of the Rings. It should have been made into one action packed film. Stretched into three, it's bloated and slightly boring. I can't believe I'm even saying that, because I couldn't wait for this film to be made, and made specifically by Peter Jackson. It's a real shame. To be fair: the CGI is great; the actors are quite good; the scenery is beautiful. Smaug's design and portrayal is truly wonderful. Nevertheless, I can only say that I'm disappointed by this (and the first) film in the trilogy. I give it a C.

Songs of Willow Frost, by Jamie Ford

Jamie Ford, Songs of Willow Frost. New York: Ballantine Books, 2013. 331 pages. ISBN 9780345522023.

Songs of Willow Frost is Jamie Ford's second novel, after Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. While I had hoped to read his first novel, I never got around to it, so I was pleased to be given a personalized advance reading copy of his second book at Book Expo America, in May 2013. Songs of Willow Frost was released in September 2013, and my book club selected it for our December discussion.

Songs of Willow Frost is about William, a 12-year old boy who has been living in an orphanage for five years. He's been told that his mother is dead, so he's surprised and thrilled when he thinks he sees her during a rare group outing. He begins to plan his escape from the confines of the orphanage so that he can track his mother down, and he does so with the help of his friend Charlotte, a fellow orphan who has been blind from birth.

As William tracks down his mother, in two forays from the orphanage, he learns his mother's story and how he came to be left at the orphanage. Life in Seattle during the 1920s and 1930s for his mother Willow, a Chinese-American, was extremely difficult. When her mother dies and she's left alone with her step-father, her life takes a turn for the worse. As a single mother, she becomes even more vulnerable when her employer has to close his business and she loses her job.

I enjoyed reading about Seattle in the 20s and 30s; it's a reminder of how difficult life was when there were no social safety nets. In reading William, Willow, and Charlotte's life story, one begins to see how fragile our way of life can be. Jamie Ford writes in clear, engaging, prose that brings that time period to life. The characters are believable, and their stories are compelling. I recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Lowland, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Lowland. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2013. 339 pages. ISBN 9780307265746.

Jhumpa Lahiri's earlier books include The Namesake (which was made into a movie), and two collections of stories, Interpreter of Maladies, and Unaccustomed Earth. Having read and very much enjoyed both The Namesake and Interpreter of Maladies, I was looking forward to her new novel. Lahiri does not disappoint with The Lowland, the story of two brothers who are only 15 months apart in age, but who take very different paths as they grow to adulthood.

Subhash is the older brother, and he is very close to Udayan as they grow up and enter college. It is in the 1960s, and India is experiencing unrest with Maoist student and revolutionary factions competing with each other and protesting, often violently, against government injustice. Subhash doesn't want to become involved in politics and revolution, viewing the violence as wrongheaded, and pursues graduate education in the United States. Udayan takes another approach, and gets deeply involved in a Maoist party that plans and undertakes violent acts. Although he marries and is ostensibly living a responsible life, his revolutionary actions result in his arrest and death. Subhash returns home for Udayan's funeral, and offers a different life to Udayan's widow Gauri, who is pregnant with Udayan's child.

The novel follows Subhash, Gauri, and their daughter Bela, as they make a life in Rhode Island. But Gauri is harboring a secret that will not allow her to love Subhash and Bela as she should, and she abandons them when Bela is 12. As the story progresses, we can see how that abandonment takes root and affects all of them as the decades pass. As a reader, I felt empathy for all of the characters, even as they made choices that I think were heartless and cruel. As the years go by, they grow and come to a sort of peace with their lives and choices.

Lahiri's writing is beautiful and her characters are well-drawn. She writes from the viewpoint of all of the major characters, most often from the perspectives of Subhash, Gauri, and Bela. She describes the culture shock that anyone must feel going from one culture to a very different one, especially in the 1970s when we didn't have so much access to mass media and communication. The historical perspective is very interesting, but it doesn't weigh down the book at all. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys contemporary fiction.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Night Film, by Marisha Pessl

Marisha Pessl, Night Film. New York: Random House, 2013. 596 pages. ISBN 9781400067886.

When I heard that Marisha Pessl had a new book out I was thrilled, and I have to say that I'm not disappointed. I loved her Special Topics in Calamity Physics, which was published in 2006 to overwhelmingly positive reviews, and became a best seller. Night Film is a worthy successor, and is every bit as engaging and compulsively readable as Special Topics was.

Night Film's protagonist is Scott McGrath, an investigative reporter who's struggling financially and personally after being set up by an anonymous source. The target of that investigation, Stanislas Cordova, sued him, resulting in McGrath losing both his job and his wife. He is intrigued when, years later, Cordova's young daughter Ashley commits suicide under mysterious circumstances, and he begins his investigation into Cordova's activities again. This time he has two amateur assistants, both of whom had come into contact with Ashley in the months and days before she died. Hopper spent time with Ashley during a camping experience with other wayward youth. Nora met Ashley the night before she died at the hotel where Nora worked as a coat check clerk.

McGrath, Nora, and Hopper begin to follow a trail of clues to track Ashley's last movements, discovering a bewildering web of relationships and lies. The tension builds as they delve deeper and deeper into her actions and try to determine her motivations.

I'm impressed with Pessl's writing; I can hardly believe that this is only her second book. The characters are well-drawn, and I found myself wanting to know more about them and what happened to them after the book ended. It was impossible to put this book down and I'll be recommending it to all of my friends who likes mysteries and thrillers.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Confessions of a Hater, by Caprice Crane

Caprice Crane, Confessions of a Hater. New York: Feiwel and Friends (an imprint of Macmillan), 2013. 358 pages. ISBN 9781250008466.

As much as I like YA publishing, I tend to stick to fantasy and science fiction, so this book was a little outside my usual reading patterns. It's about a young girl, Hailey, who finds her older sister's diary, and begins to follow its rules for how to be popular. Hailey has just moved to Hollywood from New York, so she can start fresh with a whole new set of friends. As she builds her influence, she begins to realize that she has become the type of person that she always resented, the popular girl who bullies others. After she pulls a prank that went too far, she has to find a way to make it up to everyone who cares about her. Complicating everything is the undercurrent that her parents are not happy and there's a rift developing between them.

I enjoyed reading Confessions of a Hater; it's a fast read and I was eager to see how it all turned out, although it was a little predictable.

For more reviews, check out

Monday, November 25, 2013

On Reading Tom Wolfe

Recently I was reading an article that mentioned something that Tom Wolfe wrote and published in Harper’s Magazine in November 1989. Wolfe’s article was about the decline of realistic novels in 20th century American fiction, and was written soon after he had published his first novel, Bonfire of the Vanities. Since I’m a big fan of realistic fiction, I looked up the article and read it. It’s called “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” and in it he recounts how he was planning to write a novel set in New York City for many years; this would be a novel in which the city itself is a major character. He wrote about how it’s difficult to come up with imaginary characters or events when there are such outlandish characters and events in the news every day, but claims that we should still try. I recommend this article to anyone who’s interested in trends in contemporary fiction.

I first read Tom Wolfe when I was in college. I was lucky enough to make some friends who had read a lot of what was popular among college students in the early 1980s. I particularly remember one conversation that took place at a party. A friend of a friend was there; I remember what he looked like, but can’t remember his name at all. He recommended that I read Carlos Castenada’s The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. I spent the next few years reading these and other books by the same authors. I read Wolfe’s Radical Chic, and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, and much later, Bonfire of the Vanities. I liked his non-fiction a lot, and while I enjoyed reading Bonfire, I did think that he went on for too long in many places; he could have condensed the book somewhat, without losing anything. I bought A Man in Full, but I never read it; I think the size has put me off. One of these years I’m going to get to it!

I’ve seen Tom Wolfe speak in public a couple of times. I attended a reading and lecture at the Three Rivers Lecture Series in Pittsburgh back in the 1990s. This may be how I ended up with the copy of A Man in Full. I also attended a presentation by him that was hosted by Book Expo American around the time that he came out with I am Charlotte Simmons. That appealed to me a bit less, and I do not have that book. There was something a bit off-putting about a man his age who was so interested in portraying the life of college students and the hook up culture they enjoy… Nevertheless, he’s an amazing writer!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Swamplandia, by Karen Russell

Karen Russell, Swamplandia. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. 316 pages. ISBN 9780307263995.

I know I'm two years behind everyone else who read and loved Swamplandia when it was first published. Every time I read a review of it I was sure that I had it at home. I never found it, and I guess it seemed so familiar because it was reviewed frequently and positively, and seemed to make it on a lot of lists for best books of the year. It was listed in the New York Times 10 best books of 2011 list, and was one of three finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction (sadly, none of the books won that year).

Swamplandia is about a family in difficult financial straits after their mother dies; she is their amusement park's star attraction. Their father, Chief Bigtree, takes off for the mainland, and the oldest brother, Kiwi, leaves in an attempt to earn money at another amusement park in order to save his own from financial ruin. This leaves the two daughters, Ossie and Ava, who are 16 and 13, respectively, to fend for themselves and to take care of the park's dozens of alligators. Ossie is suffering from romantic delusions, and runs away to get married to an imaginary lover. Ava sets off to find and rescue Ossie, pairing up with the Bird Man who promises to help her. The tension increases as Ava begins to realize that she may have made a mistake by trusting a stranger.

I found this book to be highly imaginative and very readable. I appreciated how the author delved into the characters of all three children, especially Kiwi and Ava. Kiwi's a scholar who has read only outdated books that he's found on an abandoned library boat. He learns how to navigate the real world when he goes off to earn his keep. Ava is a trusting and naïve young girl who is wise beyond her years. I highly recommend this novel.

Friday, November 22, 2013

A Pocketful of Poems: Vintage Verse, volume 1

David Madden (ed.), A Pocketful of Poems: Vintage Verse, Volume 1. Boston: Thomson Wadsworth, 2006. 221 pages. ISBN 1413015581.

The Pocketful series was designed to provide students with low-cost textbook options. They are much smaller than many anthologies, yet contain a significant amount of material. These books are intended to be used as the sole textbook for a course, but could also be combined with other books.

I received this copy at Book Expo America many years ago, and have just read it a month or so ago. I'm not an expert by any means on poetry; I like reading it, but I find that poetry is fun and interesting to read at the time, but most of it doesn't stick with me for long. I suppose it's meant to be read over and over, but there are too many other things I want to read, so I'm reluctant to read the same thing over again.

There were many poems in this book with which I was already familiar, but also many that were new to me (not surprising since I don't read poetry very often). Selections ranged from the 16th century to the present.

These books are well-designed; the cover is a glossy black, and the paper is good quality and  substantial, unlike the paper in many denser anthologies. It should hold up long after the semester's over! I would recommend this book and series to anyone who enjoys literature or poetry.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Rustication, by Charles Palliser

Charles Palliser, Rustication. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2013. 323 pages. ISBN 9780393088724.

I found this book to be compulsively readable. The main character, Richard, has been kicked out of Cambridge for opium use and debts. He arrives home for the Christmas holidays to find his family in difficult circumstances due to a scandal surrounding his father's dismissal from his life's work and his subsequent death. Richard behaves erratically, and draws suspicions upon himself when anonymous letters begin to appear and violent crimes against animals are discovered.

The book is written in the form of a journal, so the reader is left wondering throughout whether Richard is responsible for these crimes. In the meantime, Richard is ostensibly trying to find the culprit, his suspicions falling on one neighbor after another. The reader will be left guessing until the end, and even then, one wonders about the conclusion.

This is an excellent mystery; I recommend it to anyone who likes atmospheric, gothic-style mysteries.

Quiet Dell, by Jayne Anne Phillips

Jayne Anne Phillips, Quiet Dell. New York: Scribner, 2013. 456 pages. ISBN 9781439172537.

I really enjoyed this historical mystery, set in Chicago and West Virginia in 1931. It tells the story of a Chicago widow who is in dire financial straits. To secure a future for herself and her three children, she puts an ad in a matchmaking publication, begins a correspondence with a man, and makes plans to marry him and move with him to West Virginia. It's clear from the beginning of the book that this doesn't turn out well for her or her children, so this isn't a spoiler. The story is told from multiple perspectives, including her children, her boarder, her banker, and the reporter who investigates the story and learns the truth.

Quiet Dell is wonderfully written and thoroughly researched; it is based on a true story, although the author creates some of the characters as a way to tell the story. The only part of the book that I didn't like as well were the dream sequences and the scenes in which one of the dead children seems to be watching the action. But that's a small detail, and it doesn't take away from the power of the narrative.

Ms. Phillips has published six previous novels, although this is the first book of hers that I've read. I recommend this book to anyone who likes historical fiction, mysteries, and true crime. It's being heavily promoted and will likely turn out to be a best seller.

The Ha-Ha, by Dave King

Dave King, The Ha-Ha. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2005. 340 pages. ISBN 0316156108.

I remember reading book reviews of The Ha-Ha when it first came out, but I'm sorry to say that I didn't read the book until just a few months ago. When I moved into this house in December, I took the opportunity to reorganize my fiction collection and put everything in order by the author's last name. That's how I discovered that I had two copies of The Ha-Ha, in two different editions, both purchased at the AAUW annual used book sale in State College, probably in different years. I gave one copy to my sister Denise, who is a total reading fanatic, and she read it right away and really liked it, so I read it soon after.

The Ha-Ha is about a man (Howard) who lost the ability to communicate after an injury to his brain during the Vietnam war. Twenty or more years later, he has a quiet life, living in the home that he inherited from his parents, and renting rooms out to several acquaintances. Everything changes when he is asked by a former love interest to take care of her son while she goes into drug rehab for several weeks. Those few weeks turns into several months during which Howard comes to care for the boy and learns that there are good reasons to want to communicate. He has shut people out for decades, but recognizes that he has feelings that must be acknowledged. He struggles with his own demons, including alcohol and drugs, and hits bottom before his friends can help him up.

This book is funny and sad; it's impossible to put down and makes the reader root for Howard, Ryan, and the other characters. The only quibble I have with the book is that when Howard hits bottom, he stays there for too long! I got a little impatient with the book at that point. But that is a small detail, and I would recommend this book to anyone.

For those who might be interested in the AAUW book sale, it's one of the largest used book sales in the country. More information about it can be found at this web site:

Next year's sale is going to be May 10 through 13, 2014. Books are half price on the third day and go for $5 a bag on the last day.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Visitation Street, by Ivy Pochoda

Ivy Pochoda, Visitation Street. New York: Ecco (an imprint of HarperCollins), 2013. 304 pages. ISBN 9780062249890.

Visitation Street is the first book published under Dennis Lehane's purview at HarperCollins. As a big fan of Mr. Lehane, I was interested to see what kind of book he selected for his line. I am happy to say that I wasn't disappointed with this book. It tells a story that weaves the actions of a number of characters together. Set in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn, Visitation Street tells us about the events that lead up to and follow the mysterious disappearance of a young girl named June. An immigrant shop owner, an alcoholic musician, and a schoolgirl and other local characters provide much of the action. Everyone wants to know what happened to June and they try various ways to learn more about her fate, which is revealed in the final pages.

Visitation Street is Ms. Pochoda's second novel (after The Art of Disappearing), and it is well written and engaging. Readers will have a hard time putting this book down. I'll be looking forward to more books by Ms. Pochoda, and more books discovered and brought to us by Dennis Lehane.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

Hannah Kent, Burial Rites. New York: Little, Brown, and Company, 2103. 321 pages. ISBN 9780316243919.

Burial Rites was the inaugural book of my book club, and it turned out to be popular among all three of us. It's a historical novel, set in Iceland but written by an author from Australia. I heard about this book at Book Expo America, New York, in May 2013. The author spent part of her college years in Iceland and heard the story of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person to be executed in Iceland. The story remained with her for years until she decided to write a novel about Agnes' situation.

Because there were no prisons in Iceland, people who were accused and convicted of committing crimes were placed in households until their sentencing. This happened to Agnes, who was placed in a farmstead for several months prior to her execution. While communications between officials about her sentencing plays out, Agnes becomes more integrated into the life of the household. Readers are able to see Agnes' impact and influence on others in the home as well as the priest who is assigned to hear her confession. Although this is a work of fiction, it is bolstered by actual documents and letters associated with the case. These short interludes provide a chilling touch of reality to the reader who is treated to instructions for how the axe that will be used in her execution should be made, and how much will be allotted to pay for it.

This is a very strong first novel; I recommend it for anyone who likes historical novels.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

Liane Moriarty, The Husband's Secret. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2013. 396 pages. ISBN 9780399159343.

This book will draw you right in as it did me. First I had to know what the secret was, and then I had to know what the wife was going to do about it. The Husband's Secret is really the story of three women whose lives intersect at a crucial point. Cecilia learns something about her husband that she would never have imagined, Tess finds out that her husband is in love with her cousin, and Rachel is still trying to find out who killed her teenage daughter decades ago.

I found this book impossible to put down. The writing is clear and engaging, the characters are well-developed, and the plot is irresistible. I hadn't ever read anything by Ms. Moriarty before, but I will be looking for more of her books (she's already published four novels). I was lucky to have gotten this book at the May 2013 Book Expo America convention, held in New York City's Javits Center, although I didn't meet the author. The setting is primarily Sydney, Australia, which was also a refreshing change for me, since I haven't read many Australian authors.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem

Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens. New York: Doubleday, 2013. 364 pages. ISBN 9780385534932.

I was very much looking forward to reading the latest book from Jonathan Lethem, Dissident Gardens. I had heard Mr. Lethem give a reading and talk at the New York State Writers Institute visiting lecture series, which is hosted on the University at Albany campus, where I work. I had enjoyed his reading and the question and answer session that he held afterwards. I had gotten a copy of Mr. Lethem's book when I attended the Book Expo American convention in New York City's Javits Center in May, and gotten his signature on the title page at that time. I was very fond of two of Mr. Lethem's books that I'd read in the past: Motherless Brooklyn, and Fortress of Solitude, especially the former.

So I was a little disappointed when I realized that I wasn't enjoying this book quite as much. It took me a while (days) to get even a few dozen pages into it, but I attributed that to being distracted with some work-related reading that I was trying to fit in at home. Once I did get more fully engrossed in the book, I realized that I didn't like the characters very much, and I didn't like the plot very much either. Some of the members of my book club felt that there were too many characters and the author shouldn't have gone into so much detail with every one of them. I didn't feel that way, but I just wished there was a character that I liked at least a little bit and whom I could root for.

Each of the characters is selfish in his or her own way. Albert runs off when his daughter is very young, and never returns. Rose is a stubborn, melodramatic, protective, and possessive mother who argues about everything. Miriam is a stubborn, reckless, and careless woman who goes off to join a revolution, leaving her young son behind. How is that different from her father, whom she criticizes for abandoning her? Cicero is an unlikable man who hurts everyone around him. Sergius grows up resenting the only grownup who ever really helps him, and the book ends with him making one foolish decision after another.

Jonathan Lethem has a deep knowledge of 20th century culture, history, music, and literature, and that comes through loud and clear in the book which is jam-packed with one factoid and cultural reference after another. It's a bit exhausting! At times I wished he would just tone it down a bit.

One thing about this challenging book: if you finish it, which I did because of my commitment to my book club, it certainly gives you a lot to talk about!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Diane Setterfield, Bellman & Black: A Ghost Story. New York: Atria Books, 2013. 337 pages. ISBN 9781476711959.

As a big fan of Ms. Setterfield's first book, The Thirteenth Tale, I was really looking forward to reading her new novel. It had a promising start, with a young boy who kills a rook, setting in motion...something. We're never sure what exactly, except that one by one, everyone around him dies. But this action takes place over decades, and isn't that what happens to everyone over time? When William, the boy in question, kills the rook, he thinks that he sees a young boy near the dead rook. Since the book is subtitled "A Ghost Story" it seemed to me that this mysterious boy would come to haunt William. But the story goes in another direction, with a mysterious man appearing at funerals, and William is the only person who can see this "Mr. Black." I thought for a while that Mr. Black is death himself, the grim reaper, coming to claim his victims. It never really becomes clear, and the story meanders all over the place. The ending is unsatisfying.

Ms. Setterfield is a good writer, but I wish she had come up with something a little more substantial for her second effort. I'm afraid that most readers will be slightly disappointed in this book.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Hit Me by Lawrence Block

Lawrence Block, Hit Me. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2013.

When I started this blog I thought that I would only write positive reviews, but I realize now that I will occasionally have to write reviews of books that I'm less enthusiastic about. This is one of those times. I've read at least one Lawrence Block book in the past; it was one of his Bernie Rhodenbarr books, I believe, and I remember liking it a lot. However, when I started reading this book I was immediately put off by the premise and plot.

The premise is that Keller, Block's protagonist in this series, is a hit man and a stamp collector. The entire book consists of him going off to stamp conventions where he makes big purchases with the money he earns from his hits, which are always conveniently close to a stamp convention (are there really that many?) He's very sweet to his wife and daughter, teaching them about stamps, but one of the cheesiest parts of the book is his wife's reaction when she finds out he's back to killing people for money (you'll have to read it yourself to see how bad it was).

I don't know if the reader is supposed to empathize with Keller, but I found it a little hard to do. The worst thing one of his victims appears to have done is be mean to her maid. Even Dexter had a code that allowed the viewer to not feel bad about the victims; he killed people who were much worse than he was: murderers, rapists, etc. But Keller will take just about any job, as long as it's not a kid. I guess that makes him ok...

I found the writing to be simple, made all the worse since I had just finished a Jonathan Lethem book that was more difficult to get through.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

On Catching Up

I periodically get behind on some of my reading; this usually happens with newspapers and magazines. I love to read all kinds of journalism, from the very light Entertainment Weekly to the New York Review of Books. Of course, working in a library, I have access to many of these publications in print form at work.  Because of this, and my thrifty nature, I fluctuate between either 1) subscribing to a lot of magazines at any given time and 2) letting the subscriptions lapse while convincing myself that I will read them at work during my lunch hour. Of course, I never actually do that, so I go back to subscribing.

Right now I subscribe to these magazines and journals:

New York Review of Books
Publishers Weekly
Library Journal
Martha Stewart Living
Country Living
Entertainment Weekly
Chronicle of Higher Education
Information Today

This is much abbreviated since I'm in one of my cutting-back phases. Magazines that I would really like to subscribe to include The Economist, Rolling Stone, Vogue, The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and Time.

I read The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Chronicle of Higher Education, The Daily Beast, and more online.

I also get a number of journals because of my professional memberships:

Library Resources & Technical Services
Library Administration & Management
Library & Information Technology
College & Research Libraries
College & Research Libraries Newsletter

And I get Cataloging & Classification Quarterly because I'm on the editorial board.

I don't read the professional journals cover-to-cover; there's not enough time and I'm not interested in every article. I'm much more likely to read the fun magazines and journals cover-to-cover. The question is when do I read them!

When we began to plan our move to Albany last year, I started to get behind on a number of my magazines and journals. I did my best to keep up, but getting the house ready to sell took up much of our weekends, prime reading time for me. I refused to toss months' worth of New York Review of Books, so I carefully packed them up and shipped them all to Albany. After the move, which took place on December 28 last year, it seemed like every weekend was taken up with stuff around the house, exploring the Albany region, and travelling to see family that we're now much further away from. It took until late summer before I was able to carve out time to catch up on them, and I plowed my way through well over a year's worth of NYRBs! Of course, I couldn't read them all cover-to-cover, so I focused only on the book reviews and essays that I was most interested in.

I recently uncovered another small stack of unread magazines that I had bought at the State College Barnes and Noble. I occasionally go to a bookstore and buy a bunch of magazines that I don't regularly read, just for variety. I can't blame this backlog of unread magazines on the move, though, since they're from October 2011. Mike refuses to read even a day-old newspaper, because "it's old news," he claims. I, however, enjoy reading older publications. This set of magazines was particularly fun, since they were published during President Obama's first term and the political coverage was interesting given how things turned out in the 2012 election. One item in particular was fascinating: a condemnation of President Obama's unwillingness to stand firm against the Republicans in the 2011 debt ceiling crisis. I couldn't read the whole article, since I found the recent related events too stressful. I'm glad he held firm this time around!

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Book Expo America

I've mentioned Book Expo America (BEA) a couple of times already; in this post I will share a little more information about it.
According to its website, BEA is the “#1 Book and Author Event in the U.S.” It’s the annual gathering of the American Booksellers Association and includes over 2,000 exhibitors, more than a thousand authors, over 80 educational sessions, and more than 30,000 attendees. Its audience is intended to be independent booksellers, publishers, librarians, educators, authors, agents, and rights professionals.  If you like books, then this is the convention for you!

The convention is usually scheduled in May or June of each year, and has been held in New York City for the past several years. Previously it had been held in larger cities around the country such as Los Angeles, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. In 2014 and 2015 it will continue to be in New York; in 2016 it will be going back to Chicago.
The convention usually runs for four days with the first being reserved for educational programs, although they can also be found scattered throughout the following days as well. The next three days are the highlights of the convention: when the exhibits are open. There are also many special events scheduled throughout the convention, some of which cost extra; others of which are free to all attendees.

I published an article in the PaLA Bulletin a few years ago that was called "Book Expo America: Tips and Tricks to Make the Most of Your Experience" in which I shared ten tips for getting the most out of the meeting. As I update that article, I will post the tips here. I would encourage all librarians, authors, or other book industry professionals to take advantage of BEA and give it a shot!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Returned by Jason Mott

The Returned by Jason Mott is a quiet, thoughtful novel about a phenomenon in which people who have been dead, some for many years, return to life. They are the same age and in the same form as when they died. The story revolves around Harold and Lucille Hargraves, whose son Jacob died at age eight more than 40 years ago. It is impossible for them to reject their son when he is brought to their door by an agent of The International Bureau of the Returned, or simply, The Bureau. But questions linger in their minds about who he really is and whether he could truly be their son, who drowned on his eighth birthday in 1966.

The Returned is an exploration of the many ways that people react to the unknown or what appears to be the miraculous. Some folks welcome their lost friends or family members; others are frightened of them; still others are filled with anger because their own loved ones didn't return. A major theme throughout the book is how the returned are treated by others or by the government. Civil rights issues are front and center as the returned are rounded up and confined to prison camps.

Harold, Lucille, and Jacob are memorable characters who will remain in your heart long after you finish this book. The Returned is being heavily promoted in Publisher's Weekly, Booklist, and other book review publications. I received my copy in May at BEA. This is Jason Mott's first book; he's someone to look out for!

The Returned was published by Harlequin Mira in 2013 (ISBN: 9780778315339)

Monday, October 14, 2013

Raising My Rainbow by Lori Duron

Never having had young children of my own, I'm not normally drawn to parenting books. Although I do have stepsons, they were already teenagers when I met my future husband. So when I saw a promotional advertisement for Raising My Rainbow on the Shelf Awareness list, I ignored it. But I was intrigued enough by the subtitle to pick it up and begin paging through it when I saw the book at my local Barnes & Noble.

Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Fabulous, Gender Creative Son is based on a blog of the same name written by Lori Duron. It describes her experiences raising her son, C.J., who is drawn to all of the things usually more attractive to girls: dresses, dolls, princesses, and the colors pink and purple. Ms. Duron shares both the worries this brings to her and her husband, but also the humor. The book covers two years of their lives after she began to notice his interest in "girl" things at age 3. She relates conversations that she's had with C.J.'s teachers as well as doctors and psychologists with whom she consulted.

Ms. Duron chose to write a blog about her experiences, a decision that has helped put her in touch with others who are experiencing similar challenges. She describes some of the intolerant behavior that she and C.J. have encountered, but also the positive relationships they've developed.

When I picked up this book in Barnes & Noble, I was waiting while my husband took his son shopping. I sat in the café with a cup of coffee, and managed to read close to 50 pages before we left the mall. Once at home I quickly read the rest of the book within a few hours, probably a record for me. It's very readable, with clear, concise prose. Ms. Duron has honed her writing skills well on her blog, which she continues to maintain at: Raising My Rainbow. This book would be an excellent read for parents, anyone who works with children, and teens. It's impossible to read this book and not come out of it rooting for C.J.!

Raising My Rainbow was published by Broadway Books in 2013 (ISBN: 9780770437725)

Sunday, October 13, 2013


Welcome to Books High and Low, a blog intended to provide reviews of new books, but also film, television, and more. My goal is to post 3-4 times per week and I will be reviewing both fiction and non-fiction. I read a wide variety of fiction, including contemporary and historical fiction, literary and popular. I enjoy mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, and more. My non-fiction interests include history, memoir, and biography, and anything else that catches my interest. I've kept a journal of all of the books that I've read and films that I've seen since 1994. I start three new lists each year: films, fiction and non-fiction. I've enjoyed going back over the years to see what books I read and when, which ones stuck with me, and which ones I can't even remember.

Here's a list of the five most recent fiction books that I've read:

1. Jason Mott The Returned.
2. Hannah Kent Burial Rites.
3. Dave King The Ha-Ha.
4. Ivy Pochoda Visitation Street.
5. Louise Penny How the Light Gets In.

Some of these I received when I attended Book Expo America, held in New York in May, 2013. This is a great convention for booksellers and librarians; it's possible to get advance reading copies of upcoming fall titles, and there are hundred of authors in attendance, speaking at special events and signing their books. To find out about the 2014 BEA convention, check out their website:

Book Expo America

Here's a list of five recent non-fiction books that I've read (I'm not counting the books that I read for work):

1. Lori Duron Raising My Rainbow: Adventures in Raising a Fabulous, Gender-Creative Son.
2. Gwen Cooper Homer's Odyssey. (This is actually about a cat!)
3. Nica Lalli Nothing: Something to Believe In.
4. Chelsea Handler Are You There Vodka: It's Me, Chelsea.
5. Molly Katz Jewish as a Second Language, 2nd ed.

So, you can see that there's a bit of variety!

In my next post I will write about some of these books.