Wednesday, November 2, 2016

A Lesson in Secrets, by Jacqueline Winspear

After reading Maisie Dobbs I discovered that I had two more books from that series on my shelves at home. Although twelve books have been published so far, I decided to jump in on this book, which is the 7th. It turns out that it's not necessary to read them in order; it was easy to pick up with Maisie's life even though books two through six must have been very eventful. This book takes place in 1932 when Maisie is asked to investigate possible espionage activity at a college in Cambridge. At the same time Maisie takes on a case investigating the murder of a friend. As with the earlier book, Ms. Winspear really brings the time period to life. A focal point is the rise of Nazism, even in England, before people realized how dangerous it really was. A great read!

Jacqueline Winspear. A Lesson in Secrets. New York: HarperCollins, 2011. 325 pages. ISBN 9780061727672. Uncorrected proof.

Maisie Dobbs, by Jacqueline Winspear

Maisie Dobbs is the first book in a series about a WWI nurse who opens her own detective agency. Through alternating chapters we learn about her early years working as a servant, and then attending college and serving as a nurse in France during WWI. In the meantime, she begins to investigate the mystery of how some badly disfigured veterans ended up dying all the same way. Jacqueline Winspear is an excellent writer, and brings the 1920s to life in this debut.

Jacqueline Winspear. Maisie Dobbs. New York: Penguin Books, 2003. 292 pages. ISBN 0142004332.

Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell

I finally got around to reading this book, although I read so many reviews of it I felt like I'd read it before. As with his others, it was a fun romp through a lot of anecdotes and some research. It was also a bit inspiring to know what it takes to become a true expert at something. At this point in my life, I can say that the only things that I have spent 10,000 hours on is reading and perhaps writing!

Malcolm Gladwell. Outliers: The Story of Success. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2008. 309 pages. ISBN 9780316017923.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Interpretation of Murder, by Jed Rubenfeld

Sigmund Freud's 1909 visit to New York and Boston serves as the backdrop to this page-turner of a mystery novel. Doctor Stratham Younger is asked to psychoanalyze a young woman, Nora Harcourt, who was brutally attacked but has lost her memory of the crime. It quickly becomes apparent this was not the first attack of this kind. As Younger investigates the crimes from his viewpoint as a doctor, Detective Littlemore begins to investigate the crimes as well, working under the supervision of Coroner Hugel. Bodies go missing, other bodies are found, and the plot twists and turns with first one likely suspect and then another. Throughout Younger applies Freudian theories in his attempts to learn the truth from Nora. I found the depictions of early 20th century New York City and its citizens fascinating, along with the discussions and dispute between the various factions of psychiatry, leading up to Carl Yung's break with Freud. Younger uses Shakespeare's Hamlet to develop his theories about the crime and its solution.

Jed Rubenfeld is a law professor at Yale. This is his first novel but not his first book. Among others he co-authored (along with his wife Amy Chua) The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, reviewed here. He's written a follow up to The Interpretation of Murder, another work that explores Freud: The Death Instinct, which I look forward to reading soon.

Jed Rubenfeld. The Interpretation of Murder. New York: Henry Holt, 2006. 367 pages. ISBN 9780805080988. Advance Reader's Edition.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Think: Why You Should Question Everything, by Guy P. Harrison

Author Guy P. Harrison provides a thoughtful analysis of why it's important to be a skeptical thinker. His thesis is that our memories are not trustworthy, and people are too easily swayed by questionable arguments. He recommends asking questions to get at the truth behind all statements. Throughout the book he shares research done that demonstrates that our memories change over time, and in fact, may not even be memories at all. Sometimes something we watched on television or saw in a movie becomes part of our memory, as if it happened to us. Many studies have been done that show how we don't even see what's right in front of us, especially when we're focusing on something else. I found the chapter on brain health particularly interesting. He recommends diet and physical exercise as ways to keep the brain healthy and alert, as well as stimulating mental exercises such as studying languages and learning new skills.

Guy P. Harrison. Think: Why You Should Question Everything. New York: Prometheus Books, 2013. 300 pages. ISBN 9781616148072.

Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple

I really loved Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple. It's about one day in the life of a woman whose life is spinning out of control. Her son is faking an illness to avoid school. Her husband has taken two weeks vacation but has left work every day as if he's going to work. She has missed her manuscript deadline by years, and can't seem to manage to get anything done. This book is laugh out loud funny. I enjoyed it as much as I did her earlier book, Where'd You Go, Bernadette? It's only been out for a few weeks; with 63 reviews on Amazon it's only earned 3.3 out of five stars; however, I think it deserves a much higher rating than that. I would recommend either book to readers who enjoy good and funny writing, along with memorable characters and slightly-outlandish plots.

Maria Semple. Today Will Be Different. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016. 272 pages. ISBN 9780316403436. Advance Reading Copy.

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, is a riveting novel about runaway slaves in the south just before the Civil War. Mr. Whitehead has worked in some elements of alternative history or fantasy, in that different regions of the country have reacted to slavery in different ways, and the underground railroad is not metaphorical, but literally an underground railroad. Mr. Whitehead's depictions of violence and betrayal are painful to read, but his writing is excellent and his characters are fascinating. An Oprah pick, The Underground Railroad has 910 reviews on Amazon, with the average rating being 4.1. Mr. Whitehead is also the author of The Intuitionist. I would recommend either book to readers who enjoy thoughtful fiction that addresses contemporary and historical issues of race.

Colson Whitehead. The Underground Railroad. New York: Doubleday, 2016. 320 pages. ISBN 9780385542364. Advance Reading Copy.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Triple Package, by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

As I mentioned in my last blog post, when I read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (reviewed here), I was inspired to pick up Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Amy Chua had served as a mentor to Mr. Vance when he was struggling with whether or not to continue his studies at Yale Law School. When I was looking into Ms. Chua and considering whether to read Battle Hymn, I noticed that she had also co-authored a book with her husband Jed Rubenfeld. The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America picks up on some of the themes in Battle Hymn, by addressing what it is about certain groups, primarily immigrant groups, that cause their children to excel in education and business.

According to Ms. Chua and Mr. Rubenfeld, the three traits that most of these groups have in common are a sense of superiority, a sense of insecurity, and impulse control. They address each of these traits in turn, using historical and contemporary examples to illustrate their claims. They highlight the groups that have out-performed and debunked claims that their success has anything to do with genetics or innate intelligence. Not only do they explore the traits that cause groups to succeed, but they also describe how most of these traits are lost in subsequent generations. They discuss how some trends, such as the self-esteem movement, have hurt children's ability to excel. They also convincingly point out that when some groups do poorly, it is often as a result of society's active attempts through bigotry and discrimination to prevent them from improving. This book is heavily researched and convincing. It would be a valuable read for anyone who's interested in how to improve everyone's chances to excel and succeed.

Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld. The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. 336 pages. ISBN 9780143126355.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

When Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother came out in 2011, I read a number of reviews and articles about it, most of them criticizing author Amy Chua for her extremely strict style of parenting. Many reviewers were offended by how hard she pushed her daughters to excel, always expecting the highest grades, insisting that they practice their musical instruments for 4-6 hours a day, and not allowing them to participate in typical childhood rites such as sleepovers because they were a waste of valuable time. They seemed to be most offended by her rejection of her children's homemade birthday cards as not good enough, and her insistence that they re-do them. I read so many articles about the book that I felt like I didn't need to read the book itself. That all changed when I recently read Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D.Vance, which I reviewed in this blog post. Author Vance wrote briefly about how Amy Chua had been a powerful influence on him during his years at Yale Law School, and that piqued my interest in Ms. Chua and her books.

What I found while reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was that Ms. Chua is a very funny writer. Although she is absolutely committed to helping her children succeed, she is also very reflective about her own motivations and considers at every step whether what she's doing is right. She pushes her kids as far as she can, but finally has to give in when her younger daughter declares her need to make her own decisions about what instrument she wants to play and other extracurricular activities she wants to explore (e.g., tennis). I found the book charming and funny, and although she may go further than most parents are willing to go, every parent could probably learn something about pushing their children a little harder.

Amy Chua. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. New York: Penguin Books, 2011. 239 pages. ISBN 9780143120582.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me is a powerful meditation on race in America. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates shares what it was like for him growing up in America where the color of his skin makes him more vulnerable to violence and death. Written as a letter to his teenage son, it exposes truths that many have denied and avoided. Throughout the book Mr. Coates shares personal stories that reveal how his thinking about being black in America has evolved during his life.

We learn about growing up in the violent Baltimore of the 1970s and 1980s. His mother was a teacher and his father was a librarian and publisher. We learn about how he met his wife, and his years at Howard University. But what stands out most are the wrenching personal stories such as how his friend Prince Jones, an outstanding student and born-again Christian, was shot and killed by police. Or the time he was traveling and a white woman pushed his four-year-old son out of the way in an airport because he was walking too slowly. When he rebuked the woman for pushing his son, bystanders acted like he was the one in the wrong. The anger and even rage that episodes like those invoke are completely understandable, as is the ceaseless feeling of vulnerability and hopelessness.

Mr. Coates' book is wide-ranging, discussing history, current events, personal stories, and much more. It's a short and well-written book, but it's painful to read, realizing how much we need to do to make things better for everyone, not just white people (or as Mr. Coates would say "people who think they are white"). Reading this book in the current political climate is even more painful, with so many bigots and racists being given so much attention on the news every day. He ends the book by encouraging his son to continue to struggle, but not to change white people who have to learn to change themselves. It's not a very hopeful ending, but perhaps more realistic. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand more about the forces and feelings that shape our country.

Ta-Nehisi Coates. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. 156 pages. ISBN 9780812993547. Advance Reader's Edition.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Lunch at the Piccadilly, by Clyde Edgerton

This short novel revolves around Carl, a middle-aged single man who is taking care of his favorite aunt, Lil Olive. After falling in the bathtub (twice) she's been placed in a convalescent home to recover. She hopes to return to her apartment one day, and drive again, but Carl knows that her hopes are not likely to materialize. As Lil and Carl chat with the many residents of her home, we learn about their very different personalities and back stories.

This is a low-key but charming book. The ladies' adventures and conversations are humorous, spiced up with their eccentric personalities and hearing difficulties. A newcomer (a retired preacher) makes waves with his sermons, but he also befriends Carl and teaches him how to play the guitar. Carl develops a crush on one of the home's employees, Anna, and takes her out on a date. His Aunt Lil steals a car and takes her girlfriends out shopping. As the story progresses it's clear that Lil is in the beginning stages of dementia. Lunch at the Piccadilly is humorous and touching. Edgerton's writing is enjoyable and fun, but also empathetic and caring. He doesn't try to tie up all the loose ends of the story; like real life, we don't always know how things end for everyone.

Clyde Edgerton. Lunch at the Piccadilly. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2003. Advance uncorrected proof. 251 pages. ISBN 1565121953.

Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension, by Samuel Arbesman

According to the blurb, Overcomplicated "offers a fresh, insightful field guide to living with complex technologies that defy human comprehension." Author Samuel Arbesman is "Scientist in Residence at Lux Capital, a science and technology venture capital firm." He begins Overcomplicated by giving many examples of how technology has gotten so complex that in many cases, no one entirely understands how certain things work. As examples he gives the 2015 crash of the New York Stock Exchange and the grounding of United Airlines planes on the same day. Computer bugs were blamed for these problems, and Arbesman uses these and other examples to show that computer code that has been developed and added to over decades may have bugs that cause significant problems over time, but which no one truly understands.

Arbesman takes the reader on a philosophical and theoretical journey. He distinguishes between the meanings of "complex" and "complicated." He explains the differences between the approaches of biology and physics to learning and discovery, and places technology in the biological realm. He discusses the difference between a sense of mystery and a sense of wonder in the face of technology. Mystery implies a sense of magic; when we don't understand how something works, it appears to be magic. Wonder, on the other hand, is the "ability to marvel and to feel a sense of the numinous in the world around us" (p. 172). He concludes with a discussion of humility, and recommends that we retain a sense of wonder and humility in the face of technology that is too complicated for us to understand.

Arbesman's goal seems to be to allay readers' fears about the ever-increasing complexity of technology today. Although this was an interesting book, in my case he didn't quite succeed. His tales of technology gone wrong and explanations that no one truly understands how things work were not reassuring. His recommendation that we accept technology's complexity with humility and a sense of wonder isn't comforting at all!

Samuel Arbesman. Overcomplicated: Technology at the Limits of Comprehension. New York: Current/Penguin Random House, 2016. 244 pages. ISBN 9781591847762.

Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance

With Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis, J.D. Vance reveals what drives a large swath of our population from the south to the upper Midwest. By telling the story of his own extended family, he helps readers understand how geography, religion, and culture have created an environment that is both impoverished and proud of itself.

Vance's grandparents grew up in Eastern Kentucky to families that were large, poor, and tough. His grandmother (Mamaw) and grandfather (Papaw) fled Kentucky for Middletown, Ohio, when she became pregnant. They wed at a very young age, and although they lost their first baby, stayed together for decades. Two of their children managed to do well, but Vance's mother struggled with alcohol, drugs, and too many relationships throughout her life (and continues to do so). Vance shares his life story with us, recounting how he and his sister survived in spite of their circumstances. He attributes his sister with acting as the parent throughout much of his childhood, and his Mamaw with being the force that helped him overcome it all. When he was close to dropping out of high school, his Mamaw insisted that he move in with her and she forced him to straighten out and finish high school. When they began to look at colleges, the financial aid forms and high cost of college proved overwhelming, so Vance decided to go into the Marines. He attributes his four years in the Marines, some of which he spent in Iraq, with giving him discipline and helping him learn about the world. After the Marines, he powered through an undergraduate degree at Ohio State in two years, and enrolled at Yale University Law School, where he met his future wife.

Aside from Vance's personal story, what I found most interesting about Hillbilly Elegy is the historical and sociological background. He compares the migration of poor, working class whites from Kentucky and similar regions to areas in Ohio and Michigan to the migration of African Americans from the South to the North earlier in the 20th century. These displaced, working class whites moved to take advantage of the growth of industry in these areas, and then their descendants were left with no prospects when the factories closed decades later. Many of these areas in the Midwest then became drug-ridden, economically declining areas of poverty. Vance's depiction of the depression and hopelessness of this region is unforgettable.

J.D. Vance. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. New York: HarperCollins, 2016. 264 pages. ISBN 9780062300546.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, by Dan Lyons

Dan Lyons was a journalist for many years, most recently for Newsweek, before he was fired in 2012. He worked for a while as a writer for a technology news website, but it was less than ideal because it required him to commute to San Francisco from Boston every week. Eventually he decided to leave journalism and take a job in marketing for a technology company called HubSpot.

Disrupted tells the story of Mr. Lyons' 18 or so months at HubSpot, where in his early 50s, he's an old man surrounded by co-workers whose average age is 26. His job is to write the kind of click-bait blog posts that will get readers to provide their contact information. They will later be cold-called by a sales representative who will try to sell them web content management and other services. Mr. Lyons is disappointed that the job was not as creative as he had hoped, and every suggestion that he makes to managers is rejected or co-opted by someone else. His slightly cynical attitude doesn't go over well with his co-workers who have been brainwashed into thinking they're working for the best company in the world. He finds some of the company's management techniques ludicrous, such as bringing a teddy bear to meetings to represent the customer, and he makes the mistake of sharing his opinions about them. Over time, Mr. Lyons is marginalized and given work that is more appropriate for an administrative assistant. The environment becomes so toxic for him that he begins to look for another job. Once he has an offer, he gives six weeks' notice, but then is immediately fired.

While I found his culture shock and personality clashes humorous, what I liked most about this book was its analysis of what seems like a scam in the technology industry. Companies are formed, they offer a product or service, most of the influx of cash from venture capitalists go into marketing and sales so that they can demonstrate an increase in revenue, and then they go public. Meanwhile, they never make a profit. The founders and venture capitalists make a big profit, but the employees and investors make very little. Many of these companies have existed for years but have never made a profit. I don't know how they get away with it! I recommend this book to anyone who's interested in the technology industry, business, management, or marketing.

Dan Lyons. Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble. New York: Hachette, 2016. 258 pages. ISBN 0316306089.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, by Stephen King

Trisha is a nine-year old girl hiking on the Appalachian Trail with her mother and brother Pete. Post-divorce, her mother is always arranging weekend outings with her two children. Trisha loves the outings, but Pete complains constantly. Tiring of the bickering going on between them, Trisha allows herself to fall behind, and then becomes lost when she leaves the trail and tries to find her way back by a short cut. As night approaches, she realizes that she has to conserve her food and find someplace safe to sleep. She becomes convinced that she's being watched by something in the woods, and as she finds the corpses of animals that have been killed, her fear grows. Over the course of the week that she wanders in the woods, she faces falls, insects, hunger, thirst, and rain. She sees the monster that's following her, and we're never sure whether she's hallucinating from the effects of fear and weakness, or whether there's really a monster out there.

Throughout Trisha's ordeal, she uses her Walkman to keep her courage. She's a big fan of the Red Sox, and especially of pitcher Tom Gordon. He becomes her conversational companion as she walks miles every day trying to find civilization again, and the broadcast Red Sox games help her in the evenings when she's alone. She's careful to conserve her batteries to make them last as long as needed, but she falls asleep one night with the radio on, and she's finally all alone in the woods.

This is a short novel (224 pages) but completely riveting. Almost no monsters or supernatural happenings at all; the most frightening things in this book are being completely alone in the dark, and completely lost in the world. Stephen King is always an excellent writer and this book is no exception. I would recommend this to anyone who is a King fan, or enjoys a good fright.

Stephen King. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. New York: Scribner, 1999. 224 pages. ISBN 0684867621.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson

Another Brooklyn begins as middle-aged August returns home for her father's funeral. She spends some time with her brother, but is drawn back to the past where she remembers her friends from childhood when she first moved to Brooklyn from Tennessee. August, her father, and her brother lived in an apartment building in Brooklyn during the 1970s. Through these flashbacks we learn that August's mother became severely depressed after her own brother was killed during the Vietnam War. August believes that eventually her mother would be joining them in Brooklyn. In the meantime, she and her brother are enrolled in school and begin to build a life in Brooklyn.

August's most important childhood memories come from her friendship with three other girls, Gigi, Sylvia, and Angela. Through their stories, she shares with the reader the many facets of life in Brooklyn in the 1970s. From music to politics, religion, romance, drugs, and crime, she explores the many forces that affected her and her friends and family. It is only later that we learn that her mother committed suicide before they left Tennessee, and it took August many years to accept that fact herself. Most heart-wrenching for August, however, is the way her small group of friends came apart as they grew up. It seems that she has never had another close friendship since that time in her youth.

This is a very slight book, but it packs a big emotional punch for the reader. What comes across the most is the sense of sadness and loss. How losing a parent at a young age and being thrown into a difficult new situation can be so isolating to a young child. Author Jacqueline Woodson usually writes for a young adult audience, so it's understandable how she can write so eloquently about childhood sadness and suffering. At the same time, she's able to bring 1970s culture in Brooklyn to life. I really enjoyed Another Brooklyn and highly recommend it.

Jacqueline Woodson. Another Brooklyn. New York: Amistad, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2016. 171 pages. ISBN 9780062359988.

Monday, August 22, 2016

The Sleep Revolution, by Arianna Huffington

I'm always interested in reading about the benefits of embracing a healthier lifestyle, so I was intrigued by Arianna Huffington's new book about sleep, and its ability, according to the subtitle, to transform "your life, one night at a time." Ms. Huffington begins by recounting her own epiphany regarding sleep, when she was running herself so ragged that she collapsed in exhaustion one day, fracturing her cheekbone in the process. After her realization that she couldn't continue to live the way she had been, she began to explore and research sleep, through reading and interviewing doctors and other sleep professionals.

The Sleep Revolution consists of two parts, "Wake-Up Call" and "The Way Forward." In the first part, Ms. Huffington discusses the current sleep crisis in the U.S., with far too many people getting far too little sleep every night. She discusses the sleep industry, with its heavy reliance on sleeping pills, resulting in the subsequent heavy reliance on caffeinated drinks the next day. Further chapters cover sleep throughout history, the science of sleep, and sleep disorders.

In the second part, Ms. Huffington provides a lot of advice, tools, and techniques that can be used to help you get better at sleeping. She discusses the reluctance of couples to sleep apart, even when it would improve both partners' sleep experience. She provides many tips and techniques you can try to help you fall and stay asleep. She discusses the many changes that are taking place at work, school, and in professional sports as employers, teachers, and coaches begin to realize how much performance improves when someone has gotten enough sleep. Finally, she addresses the ubiquity of television and our many devices, and recommends keeping them out of the bedroom altogether, if possible.

There are a number of appendices that provide helpful information, such as a questionnaire to help you learn whether you need to change your sleep habits, guided meditations to help you fall asleep, hotels with the best sleep environments, and which mattresses are the best. There is also a robust notes section with citations to supporting research, as well as an index. Overall I found the book very informative, well-written, and entertaining. It's a worthwhile read for anyone who is interested in how they can improve their own well-being or that of their child.

Arianna Huffington. The Sleep Revolution: Transforming Your Life, One Night at a Time. New York: Harmony Books (an imprint of Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House), 2016. 392 pages. ISBN 9781101904008.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Sea Miner, by Chuck Veit

Sea Miner: Major E.B. Hunt's Civil War Rocket Torpedo, 1862-1863 is the story of the little-known development of a torpedo during the Civil War. Author Chuck Veit's research on this topic was inspired by the mention of a mysterious wooden box that was on Brooklyn's Naval Yard in the early days of the Civil War. His research reveals that the box contained a prototype of a rocket that had incredible range. However, its top-secret nature has prevented it from becoming more widely known, and likely prevented it from being completed after its inventor, E.B. Hunt, was killed in an accident.

Although I enjoy reading history, this was a narrower subject than I usually select. However, I found the writing to be very good, and the many images and drawings to be helpful in describing and showing how the rockets and torpedoes of the time were constructed. The book is heavily researched with lots of footnotes, an index, a bibliography of E.B. Hunt's scientific publications, and bibliographies of primary, secondary, and picture resources. Anyone interested in Civil War or military history will find this book interesting.

Chuck Veit's research specialty is naval, nautical, and Civil War history. His day job is as a graphic designer, which explains the high quality of this self-published book. Sea Miner was published through, which allows authors to "create, publish, and sell your books for free." Sea Miner doesn't have the appearance of a self-published book; rather, it looks very much like a scholarly monograph published by a University Press. More about Chuck Veit's other books can be found here.

Chuck Veit. Sea Miner: Major E.B. Hunt's Civil War Torpedo, 1862-1863. Chuck Veit, 2016. 214 pages. ISBN 9781329736382.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Crawling Out, by Casey Morley

The subtitle of Crawling Out, "One Woman's Journey to an Empowered Life after Breaking a Cycle of Abuse No One Should Have to Endure" pretty much sums up this book. Casey Morley was one of six children whose alcoholic father abandoned them, and whose mother took up with an abusive, alcoholic boyfriend. At 16 years old, Casey leaves home and moves in with a family for whom she babysat. At 18 she had to move out and try to survive on her own. She succeeded in completing a course in cosmetology, and began working in a salon.

The focus of Crawling Out traverses her abusive childhood through two significant abusive relationships as an adult. In the first she was physically and emotionally abused by her boyfriend, Tony. In the second, she was emotionally abused and manipulated by a man whom she refers to as The Foreman, in an attempt to protect his identity. Throughout she tries to gain control over her life and actions, but she continues to allow them back into her life. Many times she is the one who reaches out to them in times of need or when she's feeling lonely. Her portrayal of herself as a victim, not really acknowledging how she herself perpetuated her unhealthy relationships by calling them, answering their calls, continuing contact with their family members, etc., wears a little thin. Of course it's easy to see this as an outsider, and perhaps harder for a victim of abuse to see clearly when they're in the middle of a situation.

This book is self-published; although the author did use a professional editor. I found the writing passable; however, the story could have been pulled together into a more coherent narrative. The author hints at a number of circumstances without making clear what she means. For example, when she is asked at 18 to move out of her house by Mrs. B (the woman who had taken her in at 16) she states " truly was time to leave. History had started to repeat itself." It's not clear what she means by that, although the implication is that Mr. B had perhaps begun to be abusive. There were some other grammatical or vocabulary issues throughout the book as well, although they weren't excessive. One that I noted a number of times was the author's use of the word "smirked" when she must have meant "smiled," as "smirked" has a negative connotation that wasn't appropriate in context. One thing I don't understand is that she refers to her son Nicholas throughout, but the book is dedicated to her son "Michael James." There is no explanation for this.

Overall, I found the steady recitation of one bad decision, experience, or health crisis after another to be fairly dreary reading. Nevertheless, this book may be helpful to women who are in a similar situation.

Casey Morley. Crawling Out: One Woman's Journey to an Empowered Life after Breaking a Cycle of Abuse No One Should Have to Endure. Bloomington, Ind.: Balboa Press, 2014. 308 pages. ISBN 9781452514307.

Monday, August 1, 2016

A Pocket History of Scotland, by Blair Millar

During a recent trip to Scotland, a place that I've wanted to visit for many years, I realized how little I knew about Scotland's history, so I picked up this small, heavily illustrated history of Scotland to give me a quick overview. From prehistoric times to the present day, it gave me a good idea of how Scotland developed as a culture and nation. Since my recent vacation was only a week long, there was a lot that I missed while there. I really enjoyed reading about both the sights we were able to visit and the ones that I missed. The book is illustrated with  photographs as well as original drawings and paintings. This is a fun introduction to Scotland's history!

Blair Millar. A Pocket History of Scotland. Dublin: Gill & Macmillan, 2013. 255 pages. ISBN 9780717153725.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

A Great Reckoning, by Louise Penny

In Louise Penny's 12th mystery, A Great Reckoning, Inspector Gamache has taken on the leadership of Montreal's police academy in an effort to root out the corruption that he knows is there. At the same time, he begins an investigation into a map that was found stuffed into the walls of the bistro in his little town of Three Pines. He brings four of the academy students together to help him solve the mystery of the map, and they also become deeply involved in his search for the root of the corruption at the academy.

Louise Penny is a master at creating fascinating characters and revealing their inner struggles. This book also highlights an important part of Canadian history when the map is revealed to be related to soldiers who fought in the First World War. The characters who live in Three Pines add both levity and depth to the story; they include Ruth, a crazy poet, and her pet duck Rosa; Myrna, the book store owner; Clara, an artist; Gabri and Olivier, the bistro owners. Inspector Gamache's wife, Reine-Marie, as well as his daughter and son-in-law continue to figure strongly in the plot. Although I've only read three of the books in the series, I am very fond of these characters and how they've developed from one book to the next. This is one of those series that I find myself compelled to go back and start from the beginning; I can't wait to start!

I received this book at an event sponsored by the Association of American Publishers at the 2016 BookExpo America convention, held at the McCormick Center in Chicago, Illinois.

Louise Penny. A Great Reckoning. New York: Minotaur Books, 2016. Advance Readers' Edition. 389 pages. ISBN 9781250022134.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Before the Fall, by Noah Hawley

In this riveting, suspenseful novel by Noah Hawley, artist Scott Burroughs and a four-year-old boy are the only survivors of a plane crash off the coast of Long Island. Scott manages to swim to shore with the boy, but then becomes the focus of a media storm that questions how he was the only adult survivor. Was the crash an accident, or was the plane's owner (and the boy's father) the target because of his high-profile position as the owner of a news corporation? Was Scott having an affair with the owner's wife? Was someone after the vast fortune that the boy is set to inherit?

Many players enter the scene, trying to find the answers to these questions. The FBI, the NTSB, the media, and Scott himself are all trying to find out what happened. The novel explores each of the plane's passengers in turn, allowing the reader to become familiar with each character on the plane, and one by one eliminates them from consideration as a suspect or target. The author keeps us guessing until the end, when the culprit is revealed with a surprisingly banal motive. The writing is very good, with excellent character development and thoughtful explorations of how the media can create a story out of nothing.

I received this book at the 2016 BookExpo America convention, held at the McCormick Center in Chicago, IL.

Noah Hawley. Before the Fall. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2016. Advance Reading Copy/Uncorrected Proof. 390 pages. ISBN 9781455561780.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Catching up, July 2016

I've gotten a bit behind in my book reviews, so I'm just going to mention each book briefly. I wish I had more time to discuss them; there were a lot of good reads in this batch!

Aline Ohanesian. Orhan's Inheritance. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2015. 340 pages. ISBN 9781616203740. Advance reading copy.

I loved this book about a middle aged man who learns that his grandfather left his home to an Armenian woman and then decides that he has to track her down to learn her story.

Celeste Ng. Everything I Never Told You. New York: Penguin Books, 2014. 297 pages. ISBN 9780143127550.

This is an excellent debut novel about a young girl who never let herself be known by the people closest to her. Includes an interview with the author.

Sunil Yapa. Your Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016. 306 pages. ISBN 978031638653. Advance reading copy/uncorrected proof.

This is about a bunch of characters who come together during the 1999 World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle. I thought I would like this book more than I did, as I'd read a number of good reviews. Still worth reading.

Marie-Helene Bertino. 2 a.m. at the Cat's Pajamas. New York: Crown Publishers, 2014. 261 pages. ISBN 9780804140232. Advance readers' edition.

A little girl spends a night getting in and out of trouble, along with a big cast of characters including one of her school teachers. I wanted to like this book, but it just wasn't happening for me.

Colm Toibin. Nora Webster. New York: Scribner, 2014. 373 pages. ISBN 9781439170939.

This was a book club selection, and stars a minor character from another one of our book club books, Brooklyn. I had the same reaction to Nora Webster as I had to Brooklyn. The book seemed to be a reporting of the main character's activities; just a recounting of one thing after another. There is no narrative arc, and little build up of drama or tension. I found it hard to care about the characters, almost none of whom were likable. Not one of my favorites!

Lauren Groff. Fates and Furies. New York: Riverhead Books, 2015. 390 pages. ISBN 9781594634475.

This book reveals how a love story and marriage evolve over the decades, and how two people can still have so much that they don't share with each other even after many years together. Well written, but a little uneven. Also includes a number of really unlikable characters.

Lawrence Douglas. The Vices. New York: Other Press, 2011. 343 pages. ISBN 9781590514153.

This is the story of a man who becomes obsessed with his best friend's family. He digs up information about their history (much of which they made up). Oddly enough, I had read this book a few years ago but neglected to give the book away. When I picked it up last month to read I kept thinking that it seemed familiar, but it took a while for me to realize that I had actually already read it. I liked this book, although I found myself frustrated with the narrator and the poor choices he was making!

Elinor Lipman. The Family Man. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2009. 305 pages. ISBN 9780618644667.

I loved this funny book about a retired lawyer whose estranged ex-wife and step-daughter come crashing back into his life.

Janwillem van de Wetering. Outsider in Amsterdam. New York: Soho Crime. 265 pages. ISBN 9781616953003.

Originally published in 1975, this book is part of the Soho Crime Passport to Crime series. Interestingly dated, and imperfectly translated, this was nevertheless an enjoyable detective story.

I got this book at a Soho Press special event at the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando.

David Downing. Jack of Spies. New York: Soho Crime, 2014. 338 pages. ISBN 978161952686. Advance uncopyedited edition.

Another Soho Crime book! I liked this spy thriller set in 1913, on the eve of the First World War.

Peter Robinson. In the Dark Places. New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2015. 326 pages. ISBN 9780062393081. Advance reader's edition.

Drug deals gone awry, people who've gone missing. This book is an especially well-written mystery and thriller. Lots of interesting characters, many of whom it's easy to root for.

Karin Slaughter. Pretty Girls. New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2015. 388 pages. ISBN 9780062429056. Advance reader's edition.

When Claire finds what appear to be snuff films on her recently-deceased husband's computer, she begins to investigate what he was into. This is a riveting suspense mystery that kept me glued to the pages.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Last Brother, by Nathacha Appanah

The Last Brother is by far the best novel that I've read so far this year. It tells the story of Raj, a young Mauritian boy, and David, a Jewish boy from Prague who's being detained in the Beau-Bassin prison on Mauritius during the Second World War. Fleeing Europe along with 1,500 other Jews on the Atlantic, 10-year old David was turned away from Palestine because he didn't have the appropriate immigration papers, and sent to Mauritius, then a British Colony, where he was imprisoned.

Raj meets David at the prison when he delivers his father's lunch. A guard at the prison, Raj's father is demeaned at work, taking out his anger against Raj and his mother at night. Raj is lonely, having lost both of his brothers in a flash flood, and he becomes attached to David, overcoming cultural and language barriers. After a cyclone causes significant damage to the island, David escapes the prison and comes home with Raj. After hiding David there for a few days, Raj becomes afraid that his father will find out and convinces David to run away with him. They walk for three days, getting lost in the jungle and hiding from prison guards. David gets sick and on the third day dies from his illness, only hours before they are found by the guards (this is not a spoiler; we learn early on that David dies young). The novel is narrated by an elderly Raj, who only learned the true facts of what happened on Mauritius many years later, when he reads a newspaper article about Jews who returned to visit the Jewish cemetery where David and others were buried.

Although very short, this novel touches on many themes: family love, parental love, abusive fathers, the friendship of young companions, the tragedy of Jewish exiles during the Second World War, and more. The writing is wonderful, and the translation is superb. Everything rang true. Author Nathacha Appanah is incredibly talented. According to the author's biographical information on the back cover, she is "a French-Mauritian of Indian origin" and worked as a journalist before becoming a novelist. This is her fourth novel, and was published in The Lannan Translation Series, which funds "the translation and publication of exceptional literary works," according to the series page near the end of the book. Anyone who enjoys historical or literary fiction would love this book.

Nathacha Appanah. The Last Brother. Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2011. 164 pages. ISBN 9781555975753. Uncorrected Proof.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Secret Daughter, by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

This is the story of two families, American and Indian. Somer and Krishnan met while in school, fell in love and married. Krishnan assimilated completely to American life, rarely visiting India in the 20 years since he left. Somer made no effort to learn about her husband's culture, and has only once visited his family. Both physicians, they adopted a baby from India when they learned that they couldn't have children of their own. Kavita and Jasu were a young couple living in poverty in India. When Kavita gave birth to their first child, a daughter, Jasu took the child away and presumably killed her. Brokenhearted by this, she made arrangements to give her second child up for adoption when she learned that it was a girl as well. Asha is adopted by Somer and Krishnan, grows up in America, and only when she is grown does she decide to take a year off of school to work in India and meet her Indian family. This precipitates a crisis in Somer and Krishnan's marriage, and Somer moves out to work through her feelings about motherhood and her relationships with her husband and daughter.

Secret Daughter is very readable; however, I found a number of aspects of the book hard to believe. These include Krishnan's complete American assimilation; that he almost never visited his family; that Somer made absolutely no effort to learn anything about her husband's culture; that she was so shocked by aspects of Indian culture when they did visit; and that her friendship with a few women who did yoga was all it took to help her overcome her fears and get in shape. At the same time, I found Asha's actions and curiosity about her biological family, and the relationships she forms with her adopted Indian relatives, credible and touching. Overall, this was a good first novel that illuminates the differences in culture and how we might embrace and transcend them.

Shilpi Somaya Gowda. Secret Daughter. New York: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2010. 346 pages. ISBN 9780061928352.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

In the Shadow of the Banyan, by Vaddey Ratner

Author Vaddey Ratner was five years old when the Khmer Rouge took over Phnom Penh and forced all of the city dwellers out of the city and into the countryside in an attempt to establish a communist agrarian utopia. In the Shadow of the Banyan is a novel that's closely based on her experiences as a child during the time the Khmer Rouge was in power, 1975-1979.

The main character of the book is Raami, the 7-year old daughter of a Cambodian prince. As a member of the royal family, they would have been immediately targeted for execution if her father hadn't concocted an alternate identity for them. Since he was well-known, however, he admitted his own identity, resulting in his removal from his family and presumed execution. Raami and her family are moved from place to place in the countryside, forced to do manual labor in rice fields and to construct levees. The mismanagement of all aspects of the government and agriculture resulted in widespread famine and millions of deaths. Anyone who was considered educated was targeted for the worst treatment and often assassination. Over the ensuing four years, Raami loses almost everyone important to her. This book tells her story, and by extension, Ms. Ratner's story as well. Much of what occurs in this novel did in fact occur to Ms. Ratner and her family members.

While this story is immeasurably sad, it is beautifully written. I couldn't put it down, and only did so to look up interesting details about the Khmer Rouge and Cambodia to help with the historical context. Ms. Ratner's journey to safety lead her to the United States, and I'm glad she was able to tell her own and others' stories through her fictionalized account of her ordeal. This book is enhanced by the inclusion of an "Author's Note" and "A Conversation with Vaddey Ratner," in both of which she discusses her own story and how it differs from Raami's.

Vaddey Ratner. In the Shadow of the Banyan. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012. 334 pages. ISBN 9781451657708. Advance Reader's Edition.

What They Found: Love on 145th Street, by Walter Dean Myers

This collection of 15 interconnected short stories are about a group of characters centered around 145th Street in Harlem. The central theme of the collection is love of all kinds. Including parental love, romantic love, the love between close friends, and the love of siblings for each other, these stories are emotionally satisfying while not being saccharine. They explore the challenges of poverty, war, single parenthood, and more. Many of the characters pop up in different stories. This book is a followup to an earlier collection by Mr. Myers, 145th Street: Short Stories, and many of the characters appeared in that collection as well.

I found all of the stories to be well-written. While dealing with serious subjects, there is still a lot of humor in this book. Although Mr. Myers often writes for the young adult audience, this collection would be appropriate for all ages. I haven't read the earlier collection, my prior experience with Mr. Myers' fiction being limited to Sunrise over Fallujah, mentioned here. The war in Iraq, written about so eloquently by Mr. Myers in Sunrise, reappears in the 15th story in this collection, "Combat Zone," which is about soldier Curtis Mason and the friendships and love he finds in Iraq.

Walter Dean Myers. What They Found: Love on 145th Street. Wendy Lamb Books/Random House Children's Books, 2007. 243 pages. ISBN 9780385321389. Advance Readers' Copy.

The Heart-Led Leader, by Tommy Spaulding

Everything you need to know about this book is summarized in the title: The Heart-Led Leader: How Living and Leading from the Heart Will Change Your Organization and Your Life. Author Tommy Spaulding makes the case that operating from the heart and with love will improve your chances to succeed in both your work and personal life. Throughout the rest of the book he elaborates on this central theme by sharing dozens of anecdotes about people that he has known who have done just that.

Mr. Spaulding discusses 18 principles or qualities in the second part of the book; these correspond to the 18 inches that he writes is the distance from the head to the heart. These principles address love, humility, caring, passion, selflessness, authenticity, self-awareness, faithfulness, character, vulnerability, forgiveness, purpose, encouragement, empathy, generosity, honesty, trust, and transparency.

While there's nothing ground-breaking about this work or his presentation, The Heart-Led Leader is a useful discussion about what makes leaders successful, and what makes them worthy of emulation. Mr. Spaulding describes valuable leadership qualities and illustrates them with many anecdotes. This is clearly a heartfelt and honest look at what it takes to be successful in work and life. Those who aspire to be leaders will find this book a useful reminder of the values that make people great.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Tommy Spaulding. The Heart-Led Leader: How Living and Leading from the Heart Will Change Your Organization and Your Life. New York: Crown Business, 2015. 238 pages. ISBN 9780553419030.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

January and February Reads

I first became aware of Walter Dean Myers when I was in graduate school at the University of Pittsburgh and attended an event at which Mr. Myers spoke, co-sponsored by the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. Sunrise over Fallujah is a novel, yet, it too brings history to life for readers. Published in 2008 by Scholastic, it's intended for readers 12 years old and up; however, I found its themes of war, violence, and friendships under difficult circumstances make it entirely appropriate for adults as well. Mr. Myers' writing is excellent, and his characters and dialog are believable.

Mr. Myers spoke about his love of reading and how he tried to hide the fact that he was bringing books home from the public library by carrying them in a brown paper grocery bag. Author of more than 100 books for children and young adults, Mr. Myers is best known for his non-fiction, in which he brings history to life for young readers.

Walter Dean Myers. Sunrise over Fallujah. New York: Scholastic Press, 2008. Advance Reader's Copy. 281 pages. ISBN 9780439916240.

Euphoria by Lily King was my book club's January pick. The main characters in Euphoria are modeled after Margaret Mead and two of the men in her life. The book opens with Nell Stone and her husband Fen leaving a remote area where they had been living with a dangerous cannibalistic tribe, on their way to another area to find and study another tribe. During their journey they meet up with and befriend Andrew Bankson, another anthropologist, and he helps them find a tribe not far from his own. His motives are driven by his loneliness; he wants friends nearby who understand his work. Nell and Fen simply want an interesting tribe to study and write about. As they spend more time with each other, Andrew begins to see the tensions in Nell and Fen's marriage, some stemming from Nell's more successful career, and some from Fen's recklessness. This book was impossible to put down; the writing is excellent and the characters are fascinating.

Lily King. Euphoria. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2014. Uncorrected Proof. 253 pages. ISBN 9780802122551.

The title Dark Dude is based on a slur used by some in reference to a person of color with light skin. Rico is a first-generation Cuban-American living in Harlem in the 1970s. Facing financial difficulties, he changes from a private parochial school to a public school in his neighborhood, but is challenged by the violence he sees and experiences there. After skipping school one too many times, his parents decide to send him to Florida to attend military school under his uncle's supervision. Fearing that, he convinces his friend Jimmy to run away with him to live with their friend Gilberto on a farm in Wisconsin. The next year brings many challenges to Rico's and Jimmy's friendship, and they learn about the importance of family, friendships, and education.

Oscar Hijuelos. Dark Dude. New York: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, an imprint of Simon and Schuster Children's Publishing Division, 2008. Advance Readers' Copy/Uncorrected Proof. 435 pages. ISBN 9781416969457.

In spite of the fact that John O'Hara was a Pennsylvania native who left his archives to Penn State, where I worked for 12 years, I've never read a John O'Hara novel until this past month when I pulled The Instrument off of a shelf. It tells the story of Yank Lucas, an aspiring writer, who almost dies when the flame on his stove goes out and his apartment fills with gas. Saved by a neighbor, he uses this experience as inspiration for the third act in a play he's writing, which turns out to be the best thing he's ever done. He becomes an overnight sensation and his play is overwhelmingly successful. Throughout the development and rehearsals for his play Yank begins an affair with the leading lady of his play, Zena Gollum. She leaves her husband for Yank and hoping for marriage, she's crushed when he leaves on opening night, not even watching the play to its successful conclusion. Yank drives until his car breaks down, then takes a room in a rural Vermont town. Known as the now famous writer, he becomes a focus of attention for the women in town, leading to another disastrous affair. Yank uses women as his muses, then finds that he has to leave them after the conclusion of each play. Although I like the writing, I have to admit that I don't like O'Hara's characters very much. The dialog reminds me of TV sitcoms in which the characters constantly banter and bicker; I don't know anyone who speaks like that in real life. Yank's misogynistic views on life and his mistreatment of women are unappealing; I found the character almost unworthy of a book-length study.

John O'Hara. The Instrument. New York: Random House, 1967. 308 pages.

The February pick for my book club was Bich Minh Nguyen's Short Girls. Van and Linh Luong are second-generation Vietnamese Americans. Written in chapters that alternate their points of view, Short Girls tells how they came to live such wildly different lives in spite of their childhood closeness. Van has grown up to become an immigration attorney and has what appears to be a dream marriage. Linh is a college dropout who has moved from job to job and who's dating a married man. Both of their lives come to a crisis point when Van's husband Miles walks out on her, and Linh tries to leave the married man she's been having an affair with. At the same time, their father is demanding their help and attention as he becomes an American citizen and finally succeeds in getting some interest in his inventions, in the form of a reality TV show that showcases inventors. I loved this book; the writing is excellent and the challenges the sisters face are recognizable to all women. Height is a theme throughout; Mr. Luong's inventions all try to improve life for short people. The challenges of assimilating into another culture are also thoroughly explored.

Bich Minh Nguyen. Short Girls. New York: Penguin Books, 2009. 292 pages. ISBN 9780143117506.

I picked up The Cry of the Dove at the State College AAUW book sale, and not being familiar with the author, I think it must have been the striking cover that caught my attention. Salma is a Bedouin Arab in Jordan who has sex out of wedlock and gets pregnant. Denied by her lover, she is taken away into protective custody to have the baby. Essentially, protective custody means prison, and it's necessary for Salma to protect her from an honor killing by her brother or father. Her daughter is taken away from her as soon as she's born, and Salma remains in prison for six more years before a nun arranges with the prison to take her away after a midnight release. She's spirited out of the country and eventually to England. Salma changes her name to Sally and lives an impoverished existence, first in a hostel and later renting a room from a drunken elderly woman. She gets a job as an assistant tailor and dreams of returning to get her daughter. The narrative goes back and forth among many time periods, from the time when she met her lover, to prison, to her early existence in England, to the present. As the characters and story develops it becomes clear how devastating life is for someone who loses her family, not to violence or death, but through ostracism and indifference. This sad story is all the worse for it being true to real life.

Fadia Faqir. The Cry of the Dove. New York: Black Cat, 2007. 282 pages. ISBN 9780802170408.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

AAP LibraryReads BookTalk Breakfast at 2016 ALA Midwinter Meeting

The third book-related event that I attended during the 2016 ALA Midwinter Meeting was the AAP LibraryReads breakfast, held on Monday, January 11, at the Seaport Hotel in the Lighthouse I room. I bumped into a colleague in the hotel lobby and we were directed back outside and across a parking lot to another building where the Lighthouse rooms were. Upon arrival we were greeted by the organizer and encouraged to take galleys of the books that were being promoted that day. After about 15 minutes of eating and chatting at our tables, the program began. Authors who were speaking and the books they were promoting included:

Photograph of author Chris Cleave
Chris Cleave
  • Adam Haslett. Imagine Me Gone. Based loosely on his parents' lives, with his father suffering from severe depression.
  • Ann Leary. The Children. Four step-siblings deal with the fallout from their father's death.
  • Simon Van Booy. Father's Day. An irresponsible man adopts his niece after her parents' deaths; as an adult she plans a trip to Paris to honor and thank him.
  • Helen Simonson. The Summer Before the War. Ms. Simonson is the author of Major Pettigrew's Last Stand; this is her second novel.
  • Lawrence Hill. The Illegal. An African immigrant making his living by running and winning races.
  • Chris Cleave. Everyone Brave Is Forgiven. Mr. Cleave is the author of Little Bee.

I always appreciate the Association of American Publishers and the events that it holds for librarians at the ALA Midwinter and Annual Conference. Teaming up with LibraryReads, they promote the books and authors that are going to be of great interest to library patrons in the upcoming year. 

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Bitter Sweets, by Roopa Farooki

In this 2007 first novel, author Roopa Farooki tells the story of three generations of a Bangladeshi-Pakistani-British family. Truth and deception are the major themes of the book. It begins when Henna, a poor 13-year old, conspires with her father to marry wealthy Rashid. His disappointment is immense when he found out the truth but he commits to the marriage, waiting until she's an adult before they begin a family. Their daughter Shona learns that deception is often more convenient than the truth and her children follow in the family tradition of telling lies. All of this deception leads to many years of unhappiness and unnecessary suffering for all.

In spite of the sober themes of this book, it's written in a lighthearted way that is very compelling for the reader. The characters are well-developed; their motivations clear albeit misguided. Most of them are quite likable which made me root for them throughout. At the end, Shona comes to realize the price that they've all paid for their many deceptions, and begins the healing process by telling the truth about key events in their lives.

I found the writing to be excellent and the pace good. The story never dragged, but it wasn't rushed either. Ms. Farooki takes her time letting us get to know each of the main characters. I enjoyed the book very much and intend to read more of Ms. Farooki's works. Bitter Sweets was short-listed for the Orange Award for New Writers in 2007.

Roopa Farooki. Bitter Sweets. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2007. 354 pages. ISBN 9780312382063.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Debbie Doesn't Do It Anymore, by Walter Mosley

Walter Mosley departs from his more well-known crime fiction with this exploration of a woman's transformation as she leaves her career as an adult film actress. Debbie Dare's husband dies in a freak accident as he's "auditioning" a young girl in their home, and Debbie realizes that she no longer wants to continue the lifestyle that she stepped into when she was just fifteen years old. As she learns about how her husband has mismanaged their finances, she realizes that she has to pull together all her resources to be able to afford the funeral and pay off his debts.

As Debbie makes the transition back to Sandy (her real name), she reconnects with her mother and brothers, and makes plans to take back her five year old son who's been living with her sister-in-law. She calls on friends both inside and outside the porn industry to help her manage her affairs and fend off debt collectors. She begins to make new friends, always insisting that they know and understand her past. We go along with her as she struggles with keeping it all together or just giving up and committing suicide. I found myself rooting for her as she faces her challenges and tries to find out who she really is. I enjoyed this well-written novel that illuminates the difficulty and the courage it takes to turn one's life upside down.

Walter Mosley. Debbie Doesn't Do It Anymore. New York: Doubleday, 2014. 265 pages. ISBN 9780385526180.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Antelope Wife, by Louise Erdrich

The Antelope Wife tells the interconnecting stories of many characters across generations. It begins with the tale of a post-Civil War raid on a Native American village. As soldiers kill the Native Americans, one of them notices a dog running away with a baby strapped to its back. He follows it for days before catching it and freeing the baby, which he ultimately raises as his own daughter.

Another story relates how a man fell so deeply and suddenly in love with a woman that he kidnapped her, in the process ruining both of their lives. He fails at everything he tries from that point forward until he eventually realizes that he has to free her.

One chapter is written from the point of view of a dog named Almost Soup. As a puppy he came close to being served up as dinner, but was saved at the last minute by a young girl who raised him.

There's an element of magic realism that runs throughout The Antelope Wife. I found it challenging to keep all of the characters straight, especially as the stories go back and forth in time and the characters' back stories are told from different perspectives. The stories are beautifully told and Ms. Erdrich shows her compassion as she illuminates the struggles that her characters face with love, hate, revenge, and daily life.

Louise Erdrich. The Antelope Wife. New York: HarperFlamingo, 1998. 240 pages. ISBN 0060187263.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

AAP LibraryReads Best in Debut Authors: 2016 ALA Midwinter Meeting

The Association of American Publishers collaborated with LibraryReads to host an event that spotlighted six new authors. Each author spoke for about 10 minutes about what libraries mean to them and how they got started with their first books. The books presented were:
  • Kaitlyn Greenidge: We Love You, Charlie Freeman.
  • Shobha Rao: An Unrestored Woman.
  • Trudy Nan Boyce: Out of the Blues.
  • Steve Toutonghi: Join.
  • Victoria Kelly: Mrs. Houdini.
  • Steve Rowley: Lily & the Octopus.
It amazes me that an author can talk about their background, love for libraries, and inspiration for their first book in just 10 minutes. Some of their comments were so heartfelt that they brought tears to my eyes. Shobha Rao spoke very passionately about the women who were kidnapped during the 1947 partition of India, and how they were "recovered" but never "restored." Steve Rowley discussed his love for his dachshund Lily and how writing the fictional Lily & the Octopus helped him heal after her death from a brain tumor. All of the authors were engaging and funny speakers. A great program!

Saturday, January 9, 2016

HarperCollins Title Presentation: 2016 ALA Midwinter

One of the benefits of attending the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting is having the opportunity to attend publisher presentations of new and upcoming titles. Usually they promote books that they think will be big hits over the next year, and which they're hoping libraries will acquire. I really enjoy these meetings because the editors are so enthusiastic about the books they're discussing. This morning I attended the HarperCollins title presentation, and learned about a lot of upcoming books, many of which I look forward to reading.

Some of the most exciting of their upcoming books are:
  • Louise Erdrich: LaRose. Especially exciting since I've been reading her lately.
  • Joe Hill: The Fireman. I loved his Heart-Shaped Box, and NOS4A2.
  • Jennifer Haigh: Heat & Light. She also wrote Mrs. Kimble, The Condition, and Faith, all great reads. 
  • Jacqueline Woodson: Another Brooklyn.
  • Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney: The Nest.
  • Paul Tremblay: Disappearance at Devil's Rock.
  • Nadia Hashimi: The House with no Windows.
  • Sally Thorne: The Hating Game.
  • Robin Wasserman: Girls on Fire.
  • and many more....
In addition to breakfast and handouts listing their upcoming books, HarperCollins generously provided each attendee with a tote bag containing four advance reading copies.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

More recent reads

Photo of Bailey and Bella, two Lhasa Apsos
Bailey and Bella (sitting up)
After adopting two Lhasa Apsos in November, I'm finding it difficult to keep up with my writing! These are Bella and Bailey, two 7-year olds whose original owner passed away. Their second family didn't keep them long because Bailey nipped at their grandson. So now they live with us and we're all trying to get acquainted. Incorporating two dogs with four cats has been interesting to say the least!

I've tried to keep up with my reading; it's just the writing that has suffered. Here's a list of my recent reads:

Robert Galbraith. The Silkworm. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2014. 455 pages. ISBN 9780316206891. For my book club: we all loved it.

William Styron. Lie Down in Darkness. New York: The Viking Press, 1951. 400 pages. I picked this up for 50 cents at the State College chapter of the AAUW annual used book sale. It's been on the end of the shelf nearest my bed for a while, so after looking at it every day for nearly a year I broke down and read it.

Suzan-Lori Parks. Getting Mother's Body. New York: Random House, 2003. 257 pages. ISBN 1400060222. Loved it!

Terry McMillan. Mama. New York: Washington Square Press, 1987. 260 pages. ISBN 0671745239. Given how popular Terry McMillan is, I expected to like this a little bit more. This was her first book, so maybe her later efforts are better.

Sherman Alexie. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2007. 232 pages. ISBN 031600202X. I wasn't bowled over by Alexie's novel Indian Killer, so I resisted this book for 8 years, but I loved it. I plan to read more now.

Colm Toibin. Brooklyn. New York: Scribner, 2009. 262 pages. ISBN 9781501106477. While the setting and historical realities described in Brooklyn are fascinating, I felt that this story was a little flat.

Louise Erdrich. Tracks. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1988. 226 pages. I didn't care much for Love Medicine, Erdrich's first novel, so I've put off reading others by her, but I loved this book. I will have to give Love Medicine another shot.

Michel Faber. Under the Skin. San Diego: Harcourt, Inc. 2001. 319 pages. ISBN 0156011603. I loved this creepy sci fi!