Friday, October 30, 2015

What do you listen to on road trips?

Music is the only thing that will help me stay alert on solo road trips. Many of my friends and colleagues swear by them for entertainment and making the time fly by on long trips. One friend missed not just one exit, but three on a long trip home to State College from Illinois while she was listening to one of the Harry Potter books (I forget which one). I've tried listening to audio books, which I have enjoyed while walking, but they haven't worked for me when driving. Maybe I haven't tried the right ones, but listening to an audio book for more than 10 minutes in the car makes me drowsy.

So that leaves music to keep me awake for long drives. And not just any music will do; it has to be something that I can sing along with. No classical or jazz, and nothing that's slow; it has to be upbeat. Any music in the rock and roll genre from the 1950s through the present is a candidate for me, although when my husband's along I have to eliminate rap and heavy metal, both of which he passionately dislikes. On a recent solo trip to Fairport, New York, this was my playlist:

Pink. The Truth about Love. Almost every song on this 2012 album is good; these are my favorites:
  • Are we all we are
  • Blow me (one last kiss)
  • Try
  • Just give me a reason
  • True love
  • Slut like you
  • The truth about love
  • Beam me up
  • Walk of shame
Leonard Cohen. I'm Your Man (Soundtrack). I had never listened to Leonard Cohen before 2009 when I watched the documentary about him called I'm Your Man. It's an excellent film and features a lot of well-known and lesser-known artists singing his songs and speaking eloquently about how much they were influenced by his songwriting. I love the whole album but my favorite songs are:
  • Tower of song, sung by Martha Wainwright
  • Tonight will be fine, sung by Teddy Thompson
  • I'm your man, sung by Nick Cave
  • Chelsea Hotel #2, sung by Rufus Wainwright
  • Everybody knows, sung by Rufus Wainwright
  • The Future, sung by Teddy Thompson
The Killers. Sam's Town. Every song on this album is excellent.

Lenny Kravitz. Greatest hits. All good songs, but my favorites are:
  • Are you gonna go my way?
  • Fly away
  • It ain't over til it's over
  • Can't get you off of my mind
  • American woman (I might even like this version better than the original by The Guess Who)
Mark Ronson. Uptown Special. This is one that I can't listen to with Mike in the car, but it's really growing on me. It first came to my notice when I saw the video for "Uptown Funk" which features Bruno Mars. Then I read an article about the album and learned that one of my favorite authors, Michael Chabon, co-authored some of the lyrics (although not the lyrics to "Uptown Funk"). That was enough to convince me to give it a try.

King Crimson. In the Court of the Crimson King. I love this album but I had to switch to something else after listening to the first song "21st Century Schizoid Man." The rest of the album can be slow and melancholy and just not good for the car.

Imagine Dragons. Night Visions. I like every song on this album, especially "Radioactive" and "Demons." I'm astonished that a band's first album could have such a stellar lineup of songs. I've listened to this one so much that Mike's a little sick of it.

Metallica. Metallica (i.e., The Black Album). This is another one that I can't listen to when driving with Mike, but it's one of my favorites. When this album came out 24 years ago, I was working at the University of Pittsburgh, doing copy cataloging. I listened to this cassette on my Walkman and sometimes attribute my high statistics to listening to thrash metal while working. Just listening to this is like drinking three cups of coffee!

Macklemore & Ryan Lewis. The Heist. Another album that's only for my solo drives. I first became aware of Macklemore & Ryan Lewis during the 2014 Grammy Awards show when they performed "Same Love" with Queen Latifa and Madonna and staged a group wedding for dozens of couples, most but not all of them same-sex. You can see the video of that performance here. Here are some of my favorite songs:
  • Ten thousand hours. Perhaps the only song ever inspired by Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers?
  • Can't hold us
  • Thrift shop. As a big fan of thrift shops, I particularly enjoy this one. Check out the video here.
  • Thin line
  • Same love
  • Make the money
What do you like to listen to when you're driving?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

These Shallow Graves, by Jennifer Donnelly

In this historical mystery, aspiring writer Jo Montfort investigates the circumstances surrounding her father's death, first determined to be an accident, then suicide. But was it really suicide? It's not really adding up for Jo. Set in 1890s New York, These Shallow Graves manages to be a riveting mystery while it shows us what life was like for both rich and poor at that time.

Jo is a young woman in her final year of finishing school, destined to marry the son of wealthy family friends. She's fond of the young man but her greatest desire is to be a journalist like Nelly Bly and write stories about the plight of women and children in poverty. Her father's death throws all of this into jeopardy and her family makes sure that the cause of death is reported as an accident. Jo just can't believe this, knowing her father to be especially knowledgeable and skilled with his guns. As she begins to dig into his death, details emerge that show her father's business partners to have been involved in unethical and potentially illegal activities decades prior. Could someone from the past be blackmailing them?

In the meantime, Jo has befriended a young reporter at the newspaper that her family owns. Eddie is a writer who grew up in poverty; he's completely inappropriate as a companion for Jo and her reputation could be ruined if she's discovered spending time alone with him. At first she and Eddie work together to help solve what's looking more and more like a murder. Eddie introduces Jo to his contacts and friends from his past and they play key roles in Jo's search for the truth. As the deaths pile up and it begins to look like Jo's uncle might be involved, Jo doesn't know whom to trust.

These Shallow Graves was impossible to put down. Jennifer Donnelly is a good writer; she brings 1890s New York to life and makes even implausible plot turns believable. Anyone who enjoys mystery and detective stories will enjoy this adventure.

Jennifer Donnelly. These Shallow Graves. New York: Delacorte Press, 2015. Advance Reader's Copy. 482 pages. ISBN 9781101916247.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Eileen is a twenty-four year old misfit who lives with her father, a dysfunctional, alcoholic, former policeman. She works in a home for delinquent boys in 1960s Massachusetts. Abuse and neglect are rampant, and Eileen observes everything from her position as a receptionist. She narrates the story many years after the events in Eileen have passed.

Eileen's life is going nowhere, and she spends her free time drinking with her father or at the local pub, and fantasizing about disappearing and leaving everyone behind. Everything changes when a new staff member shows up at work. Rebecca is beautiful and fascinating, and Eileen instantly develops a girl-crush on her. She's intrigued as she sees Rebecca taking an interest in one particular boy's story, and finds herself getting caught up in a violent crime as Rebecca confronts and accuses the boy's mother of horrific abuse.

Reviews of Eileen have been generally positive. Those reviews include adjectives such as "black," "dark," "funny," "shocking," "bleak," "creepy," "satisfying," and "bizarre." I agree with many of those descriptions, but I have to admit that I didn't particularly enjoy reading it. In addition to the terms mentioned above, I would also describe the book as gross, disgusting, and repulsive. There are no characters, including Eileen, who have any redeeming value whatsoever. Everyone is mean, stingy, uncaring, and nasty. Nevertheless, Ms. Moshfegh's writing is very good. Part of what makes this book funny is the deadpan way that Eileen narrates her life, from her bathroom habits to the drinking and violence that made up her home life growing up. I will be very interested to see what Ms. Moshfegh comes up with next.

Ottessa Moshfegh. Eileen. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. Advance uncorrected proofs. 260 pages. ISBN 9781594206627.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

The Chess Queen Enigma, by Colleen Gleason

The Chess Queen Enigma is the third in a series of steampunk mysteries starring Evaline Stoker (sister of Bram) and Mina Holmes (daughter of Mycroft and niece of Sherlock). Evaline is a vampire hunter and Mina is a budding sleuth who practices Sherlock's methods of deduction. An important diplomatic mission from the Kingdom of Betrovia is visiting London, and the two friends are asked to keep the Princess Lurelia company for the duration of the visit. The mission is intended to repair relations between the two countries by delivering a letter that had been written by Queen Elizabeth and recently found in Betrovia. However, during the ceremony when the letter was to be handed over, the lights go out and chaos ensues. When the lights come back on, the letter is missing.

Mina and Evaline decide to solve the mystery of the stolen letter. They learn that the letter contains a clue that was to reveal the location of a missing chess queen which itself is the key to a lost treasure from Betrovia hidden inside a locked chess table that only the missing chess queen can open. In the adventure that follows, Mina and Evaline partner with Lurelia and learn that their nemesis "The Ankh" is somehow involved. Along the way they battle a small vampire invasion and work with their friends Inspector Grayling (from Scotland Yard) and Dylan Eckhert (from the future).

Not having read the first two books in the series I found it hard to get into the book at first. Characters are introduced without much background context. I think the writing is a little messy and could have used a more thorough edit to smooth over some of the transitions. However, I found the characters and story to be engaging and amusing. Fans of Sherlock Holmes may enjoy this take on the characters and setting of the original series. Fans of contemporary young adult fiction will enjoy this mash-up of steampunk, detective, and paranormal fiction.

Colleen Gleason. The Chess Queen Enigma. San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2015. 354 pages. ISBN 9781452143170.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

The Lake House, by Kate Morton

Police detective Sadie Sparrow has been forced to take four weeks vacation by her senior partner in order to try to salvage her career after she leaks information about a case to a reporter. Sadie has gotten too close to the case and can't believe that the missing woman she's been trying to find had abandoned her young toddler. Sadie's trying to forget the case while she's in the Cornwall countryside. She's staying with her grandfather Bertie who's recently retired after the death of Sadie's grandmother Ruth.

While in Cornwall, Sadie spends her time running through the woods and fields with Bertie's two hounds. On one such run she discovers an abandoned house near a lake; the house is completely furnished, and it appears that its occupants simply walked away from it. As Sadie inquires about the house in town, she learns that the family left after the youngest son Theo disappeared in 1933. Sadie begins to investigate what happened on the estate so long ago, using the resources of the public library and its helpful librarian for her research.

Sadie tracks down the last remaining daughter of the family who lived on the Cornwall estate and persuades her to help with her research. As Sadie cycles through one theory after another, she finds that her recent case in London continues to intrude on her thoughts. The missing woman's mother persists in calling her with clues and evidence that she believes proves her daughter hasn't run off, and Sadie finds her very convincing. While a long book (598 pages) this novel kept me turning the pages. It's well-written and lively, with authentic dialog and interesting characters. Anyone who enjoys detective fiction would like this book.

Kate Morton. The Lake House. New York: Atria Books, 2015. Advance uncorrected proof. 598 pages. ISBN 9781451649321.

Monday, October 5, 2015

Dragonfish, by Vu Tran

Oakland cop Robert has been blackmailed by his ex-wife's new husband Sonny to track her down. She's gone missing and as Robert begins his investigations he finds that she's also taken $100,000 from her husband's safe. Suzy emigrated from Vietnam when she was a young woman, enduring difficult circumstances on the boat leaving Vietnam as well as in the camp where the emigrants waited for someone in the U.S. or elsewhere to sponsor them. As Robert tries to find Suzy in the Las Vegas casinos and hotels that she frequented, he learns more about her past and the many secrets that she kept from his all these years.

Dragonfish alternates between first person accounts narrated by Robert and letters that Suzy wrote to her daughter Mai, abandoned with other family members not long after they settled in Los Angeles. As Suzy recounts her story to Mai through the letters, we learn about the death of her first husband, the violence they experienced in the camps, and her desire to be alone to start over again once they arrived in America. Present day events narrated by Robert are full of violence and anger, both Robert's anger over Sonny's abuse of Suzy, but Sonny's anger over Suzy's abandonment and theft of his money. Both Sonny and his son Junior are members of a Vietnamese underground crime world in Las Vegas where violence is common and expected.

However, parts of this book didn't ring true for me. All of Robert's actions are motivated by his unending love for Suzy, but nowhere does he explain what it was about her that was lovable. His memories about her are all based on her emotional ups and downs, her anger and violence. It's simply not convincing. I suppose the noir genre requires the man to make bad decisions in order to save a woman in danger, but Robert's a police officer and I expected him to be a little more sensible. In spite of all the twists and turns, the violence and action, I found Dragonfish to be a little slow moving. Nevertheless, it would probably be a good choice for fans of noir and it's getting some decent reviews on Amazon (although the average rating is 3.7 out of 5 stars).

Vu Tran. Dragonfish. New York: W.W. Norton, 2015. Advance reading copy. 296 pages. ISBN 9780393077803.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Best Boy, by Eli Gottlieb

Todd is a fifty-something resident of a living community for people with brain injuries. His parents are deceased and his younger brother isn't able to care for him at home. Todd has autism that is managed with medication and a routine that makes him feel comfortable. His world is upended when some changes take place in his community, the Payton Living Center. A new staff member has been hired who reminds Todd of his abusive father. Martine is a new resident who encourages Todd to stop taking some of his medication. Finally, Todd has a new roommate whose behavior is aggressive and frightening to Todd. All of these disturbances lead Todd to begin a journey home to be with his brother.

Best Boy has been marketed to people who enjoyed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, and I agree that those who like The Curious Incident would like Best Boy. However, I think this book will have broader appeal. The issues that Best Boy raises go beyond an exploration of an autistic mind and how someone with autism thinks. It addresses the institutionalization of people with disabilities, their vulnerability, the abandonment by family members, the frustration that people have when they're powerless to help another, and the difficulty of communicating with each other. The characters are well-drawn, including the scary new staff member, Mike, and Todd's brother and sister-in-law. I really enjoyed this book; it deserves a wide audience.

Eli Gottlieb. Best Boy. New York: Liveright Publishing Corporation/W.W. Norton, 2015. Advance reading copy. 246 pages. ISBN 9781631490477.

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Paper Towns, by John Green

As with yesterdays' post, my review of Rainbow Rowell's Landline, I read John Green's Paper Towns because I'd been hearing so much about him and the success of The Fault in our Stars. I resolved to read one of his books and I found Paper Towns on my shelves at home. It's about Quentin, who's been secretly in love with Margo all his life. As they grew up she became one of the cool kids while he's remained with his nerdy pack of smart kids. All along they remain friendly, however, and one day Margo shows up at his door to take him on a night of adventure after which she disappears. Quentin sets out to track down the clues and find Margo, learning a lot about himself and the world in the process.

Although I've recently resolved to read less YA fiction (too much drama), I really enjoyed Paper Towns. The characters are interesting and believable: Quentin's psychologist parents, Margo's little sister Ruthie and her uncaring parents, his friends Ben and Radar. The writing is good and keeps you reading. The mystery of what happened to Margo is intriguing and unpredictable; the reader is kept guessing as to whether she's  abandoned everyone in her life or something worse. Paper Towns is also very funny. This book would be good for both teens and adults. I look forward to reading more from John Green.

John Green. Paper Towns. New York: Dutton Books, 2008. Advance uncorrected proof. 305 pages. ISBN 9780525478188.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Landline, by Rainbow Rowell

Rainbow Rowell is the author of six novels, for both young adults and adults. I've been hearing so much about her lately that I decided it was time to read one of her books myself. I checked my shelves and found Landline, a book for adults about a woman who is struggling to balance her career and family. She backs out of a Christmas visit to her in-laws and instead stays home to work on a new project at work. Her husband Neal surprises her by packing up the two kids in the car and leaving her behind.

The rest of the novel consists of Georgie ruminating about her decision and delving into the past to figure out what went wrong. Her husband is avoiding her calls, although she gets to speak to her kids every day. We learn about Georgie's backstory, including her long-time friendship with her colleague, a friendship that never blossomed into romance, but which is nevertheless charged with potential. It's clear that this relationship has been an unwelcome presence in Georgie's marriage all along.

Balancing life and career is challenging for just about everyone. Rowell raises good points about our values, how we treat each other, and how we take our closest friends and family for granted in Landline. While the choices Georgie faces seem clear (of course she should put her family first!) they're easy because she's a comedy writer for a TV series she doesn't even like. What if she were a heart surgeon? The right decision might not be so obvious. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this light take on relationships and what makes them successful. I would recommend this to anyone who enjoys family drama and contemporary fiction. I look forward to reading more books by Rainbow Rowell.

Rainbow Rowell. Landline. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2014. 308 pages. ISBN 9781250049377.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The Seven Sins, by Jon Land

One of the side effects of attending BEA every year is a rapid accumulation of books, more books than I can read in any given year. Sometimes I acquire more than one book by a given author before I am able to read and review any of them, so one of my ways to trim down the books on my shelves is to focus on authors with multiple books on my shelves. Jon Land is one such author, and I've been eyeing his books up for a while. Recently I picked up The Seven Sins, named after a casino in Las Vegas where much of the action takes place.

The main character of The Seven Sins, Michael Tiranno, is a ruthless immigrant who rose from poverty to become the wealthy owner of the most spectacular casino in Las Vegas. This casino is so grand that its central feature is a humongous aquarium with multiple great white sharks swimming around in it. The story includes intrigues from the past, revenge, Islamic terrorists, and more. Michael is so powerful that he can even track down and kill terrorists on the streets and in the caves of Pakistan. I enjoy the occasional thriller, most of which strain readers' ability to suspend disbelief, but I have to admit that I found myself scoffing as the plot of The Seven Sins twisted and turned. The main character has no redeeming value whatsoever, and the story was so ludicrous I found it hard to care about it at all.

I decided to take a pass on the second book in my collection by Jon Land! Both books will go into the box headed for the State College branch of the AAUW Annual Used Book Sale. I know someone else will like them, as evidenced by the fact that Jon Land has published 38 books!

Jon Land. The Seven Sins. New York: Forge Books, 2007. 364 pages. ISBN 9780765315342.