Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Brave Women

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This novella has the most lyrical prose I've read in a long, long time. It begins on a boat in the early 1900s, with dozens of young Japanese women who were being shipped to husbands in San Francisco to begin new lives. The women didn't know it yet, but they had been sold a bill of goods. They had been promised that their husbands were successful, handsome and rich, and that they would love living in America, but the truth is they would become migrant workers in California, and that the women might have been better off staying home in Japan with their families. The book gives a breathless, kaleidoscopic account of the women's hopes and fears and the hard-working lives for which they settled.

I will share the opening paragraph because I think it is gorgeous: 

"On the boat we were mostly virgins. We had long black hair and flat wide feet and we were not very tall. Some of us had eaten nothing but rice gruel as young girls and had slightly bowed legs, and some of us were only fourteen years old and were still young girls ourselves. Some of us came from the city, and wore stylish city clothes, but many more of us came from the country and on the boat we wore the same old kimonos we'd been wearing for years -- faded hand-me-downs from our sisters that had been patched and redyed many times. Some of us came from the mountains, and had never before seen the sea, except for in pictures, and some of us were the daughters of fishermen who had been around the sea all our lives. Perhaps we had lost a brother or father to the sea, or a fiance, or perhaps someone we loved had jumped into the water one unhappy morning and simply swum away, and now it was time for us, too, to move on."

Another section I loved is from the first chapter about where the women came from: 

"Some of us on the boat were from Kyoto, and were delicate and fair, and had lived our entire lives in darkened rooms at the back of the house. Some of us were from Nara, and prayed to our ancestors three times a day, and swore we could still hear the temple bells ringing ... Some of us were from Hiroshima, which would later explode, and were lucky to be on the boat at all though of course we did not then know it."

After the sea voyage, the stories progress to how the husbands treated their wives, and the children that followed and the hard work they endured. And, U.S. history being what it is, we eventually arrive at the bombing of Pearl Harbor (but I don't think that name was ever mentioned), and the last 50 pages of the book show their shock at suddenly being labeled traitors and the fear mongering that persisted, and by the end, the Japanese have disappeared from the town. I thought it was a nice touch that in her acknowledgments, Otsuka admits having reappropriated some lines of dialogue from Donald Rumsfeld in 2001 and inserted them as the "mayor" in 1941. Same principles, different war.

I hope I haven't made the book sound gloomy. I actually found it inspiring and full of beauty and hope. Each sentence is its own little story, and the writing is so rich and visual that I was utterly absorbed in the prose. Would I have had the courage to sail off to a foreign land and a strange husband at such a young age? I doubt it. 

You'll Laugh Till You Cry

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This book had me laughing so hard I started crying. I mean that as a compliment. 

Allie Brosh writes the popular blog Hyperbole and a Half, and this is a collection of her favorite web comics and a few new ones. I first found her blog when her post titled "This is Why I'll Never Be an Adult" was getting shared on Facebook and Twitter. It's about her occasional bursts of motivation to Get Stuff Done, but how exhausting and frustrating it quickly becomes to be so responsible. I was happy to see this comic included in the book. 

Besides the Adult chapter, some of my favorite pieces were about Allie trying to train her dog, her early obsession with cake, a hilarious and terrifying attack by a goose, and some letters she writes to her younger self. I was laughing so loudly and uncontrollably that I think I annoyed my husband, who was trying to work in the other room. Of course I had to interrupt him every few minutes and thrust the book at him, saying, "Read this! It's so funny and clever!" (He did admit it was funny.)

Some of the comics are also insightful, discussing her experiences with depression and identity in a self-deprecating way. I highly recommend the book to anyone who wants a good laugh.

Needful Things

Needful ThingsNeedful Things by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A store has opened in the Maine town of Castle Rock, a store selling objects a person most desires, at a price the buyer can afford. But are the goods worth the cost? Can Sheriff Alan Pangborn get to the bottom of Leland Gaunt and his Needful Things before he falls prey to the madness that's gripping the town?

In what originally was intended to be its final appearance, Castle Rock goes out with a bang in this Stephen King tome.

It reads like a love letter to Castle Rock at times. I caught references to The Dark Half, Cujo, Sun Dog, The Body, and I think Cycle of the Werewolf. Ace Merrill and Alan Pangborn are the only characters I remember from other books but I'm sure there were probably others.

The story starts off slow as, one by one, the citizens of Castle Rock fall prey to Leland Gaunt's charms, buying his trinkets for whatever cash they have on them and doing pranks for him. These pranks are as custom tailored to the victim as the trinkets he sells and soon the denizens of Castle Rock are fuming at one another. Once things escalate to the point of violence, there's no turning back, making Needful Things very hard to put down for such a heavy book.

There's not a lot more I can tell without giving things away. Alan Pangborn could have been a Gunslinger in another life and his relationship with Polly was pretty well done. Ace Merrill was a world class douche and fell into the #2 bad guy role pretty well. I thought Needful Things took the gossip and cattiness that's a staple of small town life and turned the dial up until it broke off.

Things I'm still pondering:
- Was the spider that appeared near the end a relative of the spider from It, only feeding on pain instead of fear?
- Are Leland Gaunt and Randall Flag the same person?
- What happened to Castle Rock after the conflagration at the end?

Needful Things is like cooking a pot roast in a crock pot. It starts out slow, begins to simmer, and is a churning cauldron of deliciousness by the end. Four out of five stars.

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Monday, December 30, 2013

Welcome Back Bernie!

Reviewed by James L. Thane
Four out of five stars

After an absence of nearly ten years, Bernie Rhodenbarr, burglar and bookstore owner, returns in The Burglar Who Counted the Spoons. For those who haven't yet made his acquaintance, Bernie is the creation of Lawrence Block, who is also known for his hit man series featuring John Keller, and his brilliant P.I. series that features Matthew Scudder.

The Rhodenbarr books are much more light-hearted that the Scudder books, and Bernie is blessedly free of the demons that have haunted his stable mate through the years. Bernie thinks of himself as the last of the Gentlemen Burglars and he's much quicker with his wit than with his fists or with any other sort of weapon.

These books generally follow a formula in which Bernie is burgling a house or an apartment, almost always belonging to someone who can well-afford to lose whatever it might be that Bernie is about to relieve them of. Then, in the course of things, a body inconveniently appears, though never as a part of Bernie's handiwork.

The case will be investigated by Bernie's nemesis, the fumbling police detective, Ray Kirschmann. Ray always assumes that Bernie is responsible for the homicide and Bernie then has to solve the crime in order to save his own skin. Almost always this involves gathering all the potential subjects together at the end, in the style of Agatha Christie, so that Bernie can explain the logic of the crime and finally point the finger at the Real Killer.

It's always a lot of fun to watch the story unfold and while this book deviates slightly from the traditional formula, it's certain to entertain anyone who's enjoyed the series through the years.

In this case, a man named "Smith" hires Bernie to commit a series of burglaries to retrieve objects of value to the client which he cannot obtain legally. Meanwhile, Ray Kirschmann is investigating a puzzling homicide and no one will be surprised when the two cases intersect. As always, along the way there's a good deal of banter between Bernie and his best friend, Carolyn, who is a lesbian dog groomer.

Readers who have enjoyed the earlier books will certainly like this one as well. Readers who find the concept intriguing but who haven't read the earlier books might want to start at the beginning of the series with Burglars Can't Be Choosers. While neophytes would probably enjoy this new entry, there's a fair amount going on that would be better appreciated by those who have watched Bernie's career and his relationships develop through the years. We can only hope that Bernie is not now in for another ten-year vacation.

Be Still My Heart!

Memoirs of a GeishaMemoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Cinderella romance that unexpectedly swept me away! Memoirs of a Geisha is a very picturesque and dramatic tale of a young village girl taken from her family and raised in Kyoto as a geisha.

Usually I don't go in for romance. Don't get me wrong, I love love. But I prefer my love stories to be true. There is something immensely powerful about real love. As far as I've been able to discover, much of this story is based on the actual events of the life of former geisha Mineko Iwasaki. Why do I think so? She sued Golden for defamation of character. Apparently he included details she'd told him during their interviews that were not meant for print. Well, that's good enough for me!

I was dazzled by the details and enchanted by the well-paced plot. It's not for everyone, but if you liked the movie version you shouldn't be disappointed by the book, being that the two are identical in most ways.

Around the time I read Memoirs... I got the chance to visit Kyoto and made a point, as many tourists do, of seeking out the Gion District. The preservation of the area makes it worth the effort and cost of traveling in Japan. Almost medieval in its narrowness, the main historical road is a delight to behold, with its architecture and decor stuck in time as it is and the occasional geisha shuffling to and from buildings. I highly encourage a visit. Go when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. Go see a tea ceremony. Just go. You'll be glad you did.

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Oh Mother, Where Art Thou?

The Secret Life of BeesThe Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Read it. Enjoyed it. Any day now I expect to be entirely swallowed up by my own home-grown vagina.

If you've read The Help, you don't need to read this. One contemporary coming of age book about a white southern girl amongst black women discovering life in 1960s is plenty.

Sue Monk Kidd's explosively popular (I'm going to go out on a very sturdy limb and guess that this was an Oprah book) The Secret Life of Bees is a perfectly enjoyable read that any mother would love. Oh the imagery, the ambiance, the estrogen! Halfway through I wanted nothing more than to curl up in my cardy on the couch with a cuppa herbal something-or-other and sip the sweet nectar of these succulent words. They flowed like honey: sweet, warm, and slow…

Oh so slow at times. There are only two or three moments in the 300+ pages that woke me from the pleasant droning (get it? the bees?) that entrances, captivating the reader's mind and attention. The soft ideas about religion, love and the mother-daughter bond hum against your ears, the buzz of thought never going beyond a distant whirring zzzzzzzz.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

Humans of New York. Recommended for humans.

Brandon Stanton
St. Martin's Press, 2013

Reviewed by Carol
 ★  ★  ★  ★  ★


I’ve been following Humans of New York on Facebook for some time now. As a long time NYC-ophile, it captures everything I love about the people-zoo that is my vision of New York. Although I’ve become a devoted library user in the interests of space, economy and the minimally acquisitive life, I recently decided I needed to make both space and budget for those I’ve been following for free on-line (The Oatmeal, Hyperbole and a Half and Sylvia, to name some others) and Stanton’s newly published collection from his HONY work was at the top of the list.

Humans of New York is a collection of a wide range of his works, both ‘earlier’ in his photography career and more recent. The only word I have for the variety of images is ‘amazing.’ I laughed out loud. I had moments of heart-clench and lip-biting. Many of the images in here are iconic New York: the homeless, the artists, the heavily tattooed, street performers, chess players in the park, the doorman hailing a cab, a boxer on the Brooklyn bridge and teens flashing gang signs. But Stanton’s style goes somewhat further, seeking to humanize the subject more than objectify. Many of his later photos come with a story: the drag queen who plans to become a rock star, the janitor who earned a Columbia degree after 11 years, elderly gay couples supporting each other through the snow, a child on a scooter escorting a grandpa in a wheelchair, a sidewise look from a dog while his owner works, a woman in furs in the park too busy painting to stop and chat, children hanging off fences for the camera after being stopped by a police officer. Stanton makes a point of asking permission, which occasionally interrupts spontaneity, but is ultimately respectful of his subjects.

Photos are loosely organized: sometimes a small collection of people holding hands, Central Park in spring, a collection of feet, a theme of success or love. He’s an all-opportunity photographer, sometimes seeking to including background as subject–subway tunnel steam rising around two child ballet dancers, a vacant lot, a cherry tree, graffiti, a field of flowers.

I can’t even say which one was my favorite, as it’s one of those books that has a favorite every other page. A man dressed suspiciously like Waldo and an Elmo costume in a net bag both made me laugh out loud, but I suppose if I have to choose, my favorites are the moments of wisdom from the elders (“I’m ninety-nine years old. Everything from my neck down is shit, but from my neck up is just as good as everyone else’s. How lucky is that?“) and the pictures of same-sex couples, the same-sexuality incidental to the visuals and the quotes. Stanton shows us the best of ourselves, celebrating our differences and emphasizing our humanity.

In Stanton’s more recent works, he’s branched out into interviewing, bringing another fascinating dimension to the visuals. Almost every day, at least one of his HONY posts move me, whether it’s with laughter, fondness, or compassion. The images remain fabulous, but it has been the quotes which seal the deal:

I didn’t sleep much last night. I’ve been feeling a little blue.”
“Why’s that?”
“Oh, you know. The holidays. Memories, memories…

Holiday memories

I could look poised in a paper bag. These are ladies’ pants, I don’t even care.

And finally:
Wendell is hands down the greatest homeless fashion designer who ever lived. He makes almost all his clothes from things he finds. I hadn’t seen him in awhile, so I was quite thrilled to walk up on him Tuesday, doing this to a Gandhi statue.

If you are a fan of New York, of the diversity of the ways humanity invents and re-invents itself, of those rare moments of self-exposure and sharing, you should check out Stanton’s site and his book.

Cross-posted at:  http://clsiewert.wordpress.com/2013/12/25/humans-of-new-york-by-brandon-stanton-recommended-for-humans/

Friday, December 27, 2013

North of Beautiful

Justina Chen Headley
Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Reviewed by:  Nancy
5 out of 5 stars


As he continued to stare, I wanted to point to my cheek and remind him, But you were the one who wanted this, remember? You're the one who asked-and I repeat-Why not fix your face?

It's hard not to notice Terra Cooper.

She's tall, blond, and has an enviable body. But with one turn of her cheek, all people notice is her unmistakably "flawed" face. Terra secretly plans to leave her stifling small town in the Northwest and escape to an East Coast college, but gets pushed off-course by her controlling father. When an unexpected collision puts Terra directly in Jacob's path, the handsome but quirky Goth boy immediately challenges her assumptions about herself and her life, and she is forced in yet another direction. With her carefully laid plans disrupted, will Terra be able to find her true path?

Written in lively, artful prose, award-winning author Justina Chen Headley has woven together a powerful novel about a fractured family, falling in love, travel, and the meaning of true beauty.

My Review

Terra Cooper is blonde, beautiful, a talented artist, and dating a popular and athletic boy. She has everything going for her, or does she?

Well, she has one physical flaw, a port-wine stain birthmark in the shape of Bhutan on her right cheek. Along with her daily exercise regimen, Terra skillfully applies an assortment of cosmetics and moisturizers to conceal the red stain that brings her shame.

She lives in a small, boring town in Washington, has a father who is controlling and overly critical, and a mother who is overweight and passive. She wants to escape by attending a college far from home. When she gets accepted, her plans are thwarted by her father.

While Terra and her mom are in Seattle for laser treatment to lighten her birthmark, they get into a minor collision and Terra meets Jacob, a handsome Chinese boy with a propensity for black clothing and a physical imperfection.

Terra and her mom and Jacob and his mom decide to travel to China. Terra and her mom will be visiting Merc, Terra’s older brother now living and working in China. Jacob and his mom will be visiting the orphanage he lived in. Freed at last from her father’s biting comments and in a country where language, culture and customs are unlike anything she’s ever known, Terra reconnects with her mom, grows, changes, and learns new ways of being in the world. She gradually gains self-confidence, learns to accept herself, and becomes more open to life’s possibilities.

This book was truly a joy to read. It is beautifully written, thought-provoking, sometimes sad, and ultimately uplifting. The characters were realistic, complex and well-developed with all their imperfections. The maps, geocaching sites, geographic details and cartographic information were all fascinating.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

When All Hell Breaks Loose

The Gates
by John Connolly
Published by Hodder & Stoughton

4 Out of 5 Stars
Reviewed by Amanda 

Not to put too fine a point on it, but I hate my neighbors. Yeah, I know I'm supposed to love them, but it would be easier if they were just a little more lovable and not so loathable. Between the late night beerfests, the trucks without mufflers, the pit bulls tied to trees, and the Jerry Springer style public arguments (not to mention just a general lack of hygiene), there's not a lot I can be thankful for. Until The Gates. Now I can at least say, "Well, they haven't accidentally opened a gateway between our world and Hell during a seance gone wrong." I feel confident that they'll never do this as they don't appear to be readers of books, and a book is indeed used by the Abernathys (who have the misfortune of living at 666 Crowley Road) to summon forth the legions of Hell.

When I bought the book, I had no idea that it was a young adult book, so that was a little disappointing. However, once I got over that fact, I really enjoyed the tale of precocious Samuel Johnson and his little dachshund, the only hope mankind has in the face of the apocalypse being brought about by Ba'al, who is preparing the way for The Great Malevolence. The book is often clever, frequently humorous, and just dark enough for the intended age group (although it might frighten some as this may be marketed as more of a "tweener" book than young adult novel). There are also footnotes aplenty (but not boring ones--my favorite explains how astronomers found a substance in a dust cloud in the center of our galaxy called ethyl formate, which smells of raspberries and rum--which I think is a pretty kick ass scent for a galaxy).

Overall, it reminded me of Neil Gaiman's writing for young adults (at one point I even thought it was like Good Omens--For Kids) and, like Gaiman, John Connolly never underestimates his intended reader's intelligence nor appetite for the macabre.

This Will Teach You Not To Offend the Gods

The Golden Ass
Original Title: Metamorphoses – Asinus Aureus

by Apuleius
Translator: Robert Graves

Review by Zorena

Five Stars


The story of The Golden Ass is that of Lucius Apuleius, a young man of good birth who encountered many strange adventures while disporting himself along the roads to Thessaly. Not the least of these occurred when Apuleius offended a priestess of the White Goddess, who turned him into an ass. The tale of how Apuleius dealt with this misfortune and eventually resumed human form is conveyed by Robert Graves in modern English.

My Review

I'll admit it. I like Robert Graves historical fictions and translations. I think it's because he manages to keep any humour found in them rather then make them just dry translations.

If you have no sense of the absurd this book is not for you. Go read the Iliad. I'm not saying I didn't enjoy the Iliad. I did! I'm just saying this is not your average ancient literature. This book is stuffed with more violence and sex then most summer movies but it's done in such a way as to not glorify either.

The unstructured telling of various tales woven into a grander story works remarkably well. I already knew the story of Cupid and Psyche but I enjoyed it as part of a larger scheme.

I'll also admit it could have perhaps ended better but I can see why it did. Most occurrences were attributed to the gods and goddesses then. They seemed to have a hand in everything from birth till death. The Greek and Roman worship of Isis was far different then the Egyptian's and I think the choice of those deities suited this story. So the five stars stand.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Merry Christmas To All, and To All a Good Night!

Working in a library, I come across a wide variety of books. Lately I've read several charming Christmas books for children, which I will happily share with you on this festive day. -- Diane K. M.

Christmas at Eagle Pond by Donald Hall
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

This is my favorite Christmas story. It is a lovely novella about a boy visiting his grandparents' farm in New Hampshire during Christmas in 1940. Donnie helps with the chores, makes popcorn balls to decorate the tree, listens to his grandfather's stories and gets to attend the church's big Christmas party. 

On Christmas Day they have a feast -- everything but the salt and pepper came from the farm -- and they share more family stories. And because there was plenty of snow, Donnie is even treated with a sleigh ride!

This book brought back fond memories of Christmas visits to my grandparents' farm when I was young, and if my grandmother were still alive, I would share this wonderful story with her.

Be sure to read the author's note at the end, for it makes the book especially sweet. 

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a cute book about a librarian who has to spend Christmas Eve working at the library. She's toiling away, shelving books and mending torn pages, when a red bookmobile driven by Santa appears! Santa and his elves jump out to help her.

"Nick was jolly and droll; a white man crowned his head,
And I could tell by his diction he was very well read.
'This place needs some cheer, so let's make a start.'
Then he whistled in elves pushing loaded book carts.

They stocked Hawthorne, Jane Austen, Steinbeck, and Millay,
And for the more macho, they supplied Hemingway.
They shelved new science fiction and tomes from the past
And sneaked in romances for sweet Molly McNast."

After restacking the books, reading to children and enjoying some hot chocolate, Santa and the elves get ready to leave.

"Nick winked at the cat as they dashed down the aisles
And yelled, 'Happy reading, you bibliophiles!'
He loaded his crew and sang from the yard,
'The best gift of all is a library card!'"

The drawings are lovely and festive, and I would recommend the book to any parents wanting to spread some bookish cheer with their kids.

A Christmas Tree for Pyn by Olivier Dunrea
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a marvelous Christmas story for children. It's about a mountain man named Oother and his daughter Pyn, who is excited to have her first Christmas tree. But first she has to convince her papa to get a tree -- he is resistant and frankly, a bit grouchy about the holiday. He doesn't even like Pyn to call him Papa -- she calls him Oother.

Finally, when he picks up his ax and goes out into the woods, Pyn tries to follow him, but the snow is so high that she needs help. Oother picks her up and they march into the woods to find the perfect Christmas tree. When they get it home, Pyn shows Oother how good she is at decorating it, and Oother surprises her by having a beautiful topping for the tree. The pictures are wonderful and Pyn's joy jumps off the page. I wanted to pick her up and give her a hug. The sweet ending brought a tear to my eye. Highly recommended!

Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree by Robert E. Barry
My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is an adorable children's story about a giant Christmas tree that Mr. Willowby buys, but it's too tall for the living room. He cuts off the top part and gives it to the maid. She takes it to her little room, but the treetop is still too tall. She snips off the top part and throws it away, and then the gardener finds it and happily takes it home to his wife. Of course, it's too tall for their little shelf, so the top part is cut off again and is found by a cuddly bear. Mrs. Bear likes the tree but it's too tall for their home, so the top part is again cut off, and so on...

I think children will enjoy the delightful pictures and the series of homes where the tree ends up. The book was first published in 1963, and it is a classic Christmas story, complete with lots of sharing, joy and an ending that refers to the beginning. It's the tree that keeps giving! 

The Long Walk

The Long WalkThe Long Walk by Stephen King
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Every year, 100 boys take part in a nightmarish pilgrimage called The Long Walk, the winner receiving The Prize and a ton of cash. Ray Garraty is one of the contestants. Will he win The Prize or be one of the ninety-nine dead boys on the road?

Wow. And I thought the six mile hike I went on in October was rough. Imagine walking non-stop, day and night, and getting shot if you stop too long? That's the horror of The Long Walk.

The Long Walk takes place in a slightly different reality, where Germany had a nuclear reactor in Santiago in 1953, and where the Major runs a spectacle ever year, The Long Walk. The Long Walk seems like an ancestor of The Hunger Games in some ways, although the Long Walk seems to be voluntary.

Unlike the Hunger Games, this book is pretty brutal. Imagine having to go to the bathroom in front of a crowd of spectators while continuously walking. And never being able to sleep. And seeing people gunned down in front of you after they've been warned three times. Like I said, pretty brutal.

As usual, Stephen King crafts an interesting cast. Garraty, McVries, Stebbins, Barkovitch, Scramm, the list is pretty long for a short book. Part of the brutality is that you don't know whose ticket is going to get punched next.

I really wanted to give this a five but I couldn't. My lone problem with this one was the dialogue. So many of the boys sounded like they were in their twenties or thirties rather than being teenagers. Usually, I find King's dialogue a lot more realistic but it pulled me out of the story a few times.

4.5 out of 5. I'm going to track down more of these Bachman books of King's now.

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Monday, December 23, 2013

My Ten Favorite Books from 2013

By James L. Thane

       It's that time of year again when everyone compiles their lists of favorite books, movies and music from the year just ending. So I thought I'd wade in and offer a quick look at my ten favorite books from 2013. Please note that these are not necessarily the "Best" books of the year, just the ones I enjoyed reading the most. Also note that most of these books were released prior to 2013--in some cases, years earlier--but I happened to read or re-read them this year, which is why they made it on the list. In no particular order, my favorite books of the year were:

1. Okay, so I lied right out of the box. William Kent Kruger's Ordinary Grace was easily my favorite book of the year. Set in a small Minnesota town in the summer of 1961, and populated with deftly-drawn characters, it's a brilliant meditation on the ties of family and community and on the nature of grace, whether granted (or withheld) by God or by frail and fallible human beings in times of crisis and terrible loss when any rational person might well doubt his faith in anyone or anything. This is a book that I'll be reading over again for years to come.


2. David Goldfield's America Aflame is an outstanding contemporary overview of the Civil War era, beginning in the 1830s and concluding with the nation's centennial celebration in 1876. What distinguishes Goldfield's treatment of the period from that of earlier historians, is his emphasis on the importance of evangelical Christianity in bringing on the crisis that produced the war. In essence, he argues that evangelical Christians, especially in the North, increasingly saw many of the important issues of the day, slavery in particular, as moral causes that could not be compromised. In consequence, American and their political leaders became increasingly inflexible and in the end, the nation was plunged into a disastrous civil war in which both northerners and southerners would be totally convinced that God was on their side. Goldfield eschews the notion of the war as a gallant, heroic effort and instead portrays in heart-rending and occasionally stomach-wrenching terms the brutal, ugly realities of this war that would cost 630,000 American lives--more than the lives lost in all of the nation's other wars combined.

3. Daniel Woodrell, The Maid's VersionIn 1928, the tiny town of West Table, Missouri, was shattered by the explosion of the Arbor Dance Hall. But although many explanations for the tragedy were put forward, the guilty party or parties were never identified and prosecuted. Alma Dunahew works as a domestic in the house of the town's leading banker. Alma's sister, Ruby, is a carefree young woman who uses and disposes of men as the spirit moves her, until the night she too becomes a victim of the dance hall tragedy. Alma has her own idea about what happened that night, and as the incident overwhelms her emotionally, she gradually loses touch with reality. She alienates members of her own family and many of the townspeople; she loses her job and has to cobble together a living as best she can. Years later, in 1965, her grandson Alek is sent to spend the summer with her and over the course of the summer, Alma slowly tells him the story of the events that led to the explosion of the dance hall. It's a riveting tale, told mostly in flashbacks and it grabs the reader from the brilliant opening line.

4. Joseph Hansen, A Country of Old Men.This is the twelfth and final entry in Joseph Hansen's excellent series featuring insurance investigator, Dave Brandstetter. Published over a period of twenty-one years, from Fadeout in 1970, to this book in 1991, the series was witty and very well-written, with cleverly-plotted stories and well-drawn characters. Set in southern California, the books also captured perfectly the geography and the social and economic currents of the place and time. What really set these books apart was the fact that Hansen created in Dave Brandstetter the first openly gay P.I. to inhabit a series like this, and neither Hansen, not his protagonist ever made a big deal out of it. Dave's sexual orientation was made clear from the opening pages of the first book, and it was simply a fact of life, just like the sexual orientation of any other detective. Dave had a love life and was active sexually throughout the series, but it never seemed intrusive or in any way out of the ordinary. In fact, Dave's romantic attachments were much more believable than those of many of his heterosexual fictional contemporaries. This was an engrossing and fitting conclusion to the series.

5. James Ross, They Don't Dance Much. This Depression-era novel was first published in 1940. The protagonist is a North Carolina farmer named Jack McDonald who is about as down on his luck as any man can get in the middle of the 1930s. The Boll weevils have destroyed his cotton; he can't pay the money he owes at the bank, and the county is about to seize his land for back taxes. Jack makes what seems to be the only logical decision at this point and decides to get drunk. He buys a jar of moonshine from a filling station operator named Smut Milligan. Smut is an ambitious man, and he tells Jack that he's planning to open a road house. He offers Jack a job as his cashier and, having no other viable prospects, Jack accepts the offer. Any reader will certainly understand that a character who signs on with a guy named Smut has probably got a lot of trouble in his immediate future. Milligan will gradually entangle Jack in a variety of evil schemes and in classic noir fashion, Jack slowly sinks before our very eyes, taking one ill-advised step after another until he's finally in the jam of a lifetime. A great read.

6. Don Winslow, The Kings of Cool. A prequel to Winslow's wonderful book, Savages, that shows how the three principal characters in that book, Ben, Chon and O came to know each other and how they grew into the people they would ultimately become. In this case, as in Savages, the profitable business that Ben and Chon have built as growers of prime weed is in jeopardy. The book bounces back and forth between the present day and the counter-culture SOCAL of the 1960s. As Ben, Chon
and O deal with their respective problems, we meet a group of surfer dudes, hippies and people involved in the early days of the dope business, which at that point, simply involved moving grass into Southern California and selling it. Over time, of course, the early days of the counter culture will evolve into something entirely different while back in the present day, the threats to Ben, Chon and O will grow increasingly complicated. Winslow weaves his way through these narratives brilliantly and you simply cannot put the book down as one surprise after another unfolds. The writing itself is inventive, as it was in Savages, and ultimately, the book ends way too soon.

7. John Sandford, Certain Prey. One of my favorite crime fiction series is Sandford's Lucas Davenport series. This is the tenth book in the series, first published in 1999. Sandford excels at creating excellent villains, and this book introduces my favorite of all his bad guys, hit woman Clara Rinker. She's a fantastic character and this is one of the best stories that Sandford has crafted. Anyone new to the series would certainly want to start with the first book, Rules of Prey, but this is a great one to look forward to down the road.

8. Robert Caro, Means of Ascent.  This is the second volume (of four thus far) in Robert Caro's magisterial biography of former president Lyndon B. Johnson. It treats the period from mid-1941, when Johnson lost a special election for the U.S. Senate, through 1948, when Johnson won election to the Senate in a hotly contested and heatedly disputed primary election. Johnson was crushed by his loss in 1941, and believed that the election had been stolen from him by an opponent who was more clever than he. He vowed it would never happen again and Caro describes here the steps that Johnson took to make sure it didn't. I think there are problems with the case that Caro attempts to make here, which I've detailed in my long review of the book. Still, there's no denying that this is a tremendous accomplishment.

9. Jamie Harrison, On the Edge of the Crazies. Beginning in 1995, Jamie Harrison, the daughter of novelist Jim Harrison, wrote four novels set in the fictional town of Blue Deer, Montana, located on the edge of the Crazy Mountains, very near where the real town of Livingston, Montana would be found. The main protagonist was a young archaeologist, Jules Clement, who returned home to Blue Deer and was elected to the office of County Sheriff, a position that had once been held by his father. Blue Deer is populated with a mix of eccentric characters, some of whom are long-time residents and others of whom are more recent arrivals, including a number of writers, artists and other celebrities who have found their way to Big Sky Country in the last few years. Among other things, Harrison cleverly explores the tensions that have developed between native Montanans and the new arrivals. This book opens when someone takes a couple of shots at a screenwriter named George Blackwater. George is wounded but survives, and the chaos that ensues is great fun to follow.

10. Robert Sims Reid, The Red Corvette. Leo Banks is recently retired from the police department in Rozette, Montana. He's living quietly and happily alone, fishing and doing some amateur geology. Then his old friends from college, Sarah and Gerry Heyman, show up in Montana on vacation. Their reunion is awkward, and it's clear that Gerry is a troubled man. He's now a successful doctor in a tiny river town in southern Illinois, and he's recently acquired a new elderly patient who's just been released from prison and moved into the nursing home in Mauvaisterre. The new patient, Mickey Cochran, is mildly retarded, and fifty years earlier, he pled guilty to the murder of the wife of one of the town's most prominent citizens. Now Cochran insists that he did not commit the crime and Gerry Heyman believes him. Gerry wants Leo to come to Illinois and investigate the old case. When Banks refuses, Gerry returns to Illinois and attempts to investigate the case himself and a few weeks later is found on a lonely road, beaten to death. Sarah believes that the local cops are not up the challenge of solving the crime and begs Leo, an experienced homicide detective, to come investigate it himself. Reluctantly Leo agrees, and before long, he finds himself knee deep in two homicide cases, one new and one old, in a town where there are lots of buried secrets. This is a great book with an excellent cast of characters; the plot is intriguing and moves along at just the right pace. I've insisted earlier that Robert Sims Reid is one of those writers who, sadly, did not enjoy nearly the reputation he deserved. It's hard to imagine anyone who might read this book and think otherwise.

11. Johnny Shaw, Big Maria. Okay, so I can't count, either. But after spending way too much time trying to whittle the list down to ten books, I just said the hell with it because I couldn't leave this one off. This is Shaw's second novel, and again he demonstrates his gift for weaving pathos with drop-dead humor and his ability to create memorable characters who are very sympathetic even though most of them are total losers. Big Maria basically amounts to Treasure of Sierra Madre meets a Chevy Chase vacation movie. Three down-on-their-luck characters go searching for a long-lost gold mine, the Big Maria. They press ahead in spite of impossible odds, determined to find the fortune that will set all of their lives on a brighter path. It's an incredible journey, often touching and hilariously funny within the same paragraph. And it speaks volumes to the dreams and to the bonds that drive and inspire all of us.

Saddest. Diary. Ever.

The Diary of a Young GirlThe Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
Reviewed by Jason Koivu
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ya gotta hand it to this teen girl who was writing about her life with such clarity and eloquence when her life was hanging by a thread.

I've read reviews of The Diary of a Young Girl that complained about how Frank ignored the bigger picture of the war and that her subject matter was trite, whiny and insular. What else could it be, this diary of a teen secreted away in the compact environs of an attic with the same people for years learning little-to-no outside information?

From the pure standpoint of the reader with all emotions set aside, the fact that the diary includes a love interest is a blessing. But even without it, it's a wonderful and at times intense read. Knowing what happens to all of them after the diary ends packs the punch that would've been included had this been a work of fiction, but it's not.

View all my reviews

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Zoo City

Zoo City
Lauren Beukes 
Angry Robot 2010

Reviewed by Carol
★ ★ ★ ★ 1/2

Zoo City is one of the more original, complicated fantasy books that I’ve read this year. I’m not even sure how to tag it, that’s how many elements come into play. Urban fantasy? Johannesburg is a major city, after all, and the animal angle is clearly unreal. Dystopia? Almost, but not quite; despite the animals, this is a current version of Johannesburg and African politics. Mystery noir? After all, there’s a missing person and an investigator of questionable character. Horror? A little witchcraft, a little mutilation, but mostly it’s only horror in that way that shows us our own hearts, evil enough to cut out.  Literary fiction? It thoughtfully explores the human condition, guilt and identity. Mostly, it’s just interesting, creative and just a bit uncomfortable.

You know you are in for a bleak ride from the first sentence:
“Morning light the sulphur colour of the mine dumps seeps across Johannesburg’s skyline and sears through my window.“

The main character is Zinzi, who divides her life into ‘now’–as of three and a half years ago–and ‘FL,’ for ‘former life.’ Zinzi’s past isn’t fully explored, but at one point she was a very wealthy young woman, a journalist, and a serious drug addict. A fatal mistake landed her in jail, forcing her to get clean and alienating her from her family. Mystically, it also burdened her with a sloth. An animal comes to people in a mysterious way, after committing a serious crime, so the ‘animalled’ are especially marginalized by society. Guilt seems to be a major component of having an animal, as we are told sociopaths and psychopaths don’t have them. Interestingly, it also comes with a extrasensory-type ‘gift.’ Zinzi’s is finding lost things: “The problem with my particular gift, curse, call it what you like, is that everybody’s lost something. Stepping out in public is like walking into a tangle of cat’s cradles, like someone dished out balls of string at the lunatic asylum and instructed the inmates to tie everything to everything else. On some people, the lost strings are cobwebs, inconsequential wisps that might blow away at any moment. On others, it’s like they’re dragging steel cables.“

Zinzi is currently living in Zoo City, a ghetto where the ‘animalled’ tend to cluster. She’s been dating a refugee with his own animal, a mongoose, but mostly she’s been skating under the surface, working free of her former drug debt by engaging in various computer scams, and freelancing as a finder of lost items. There’s a major client on the hook– Mrs. Luditsky has hired her to find a lost ring. Mission accomplished, she shows up to collect, only to discover a police barricade and two suspicious animalled lurking, one with a Marabou stork and one with a Maltese poodle. They have a job offer for her, one she wants to refuse, especially because it involves finding a missing person. Unfortunately, the police confiscate both the ring and Mrs. Luditsky’s down payment, leaving her severely strapped for cash. From there, the book centers around the missing-person case.

Sometimes, it is hard to dissect a book–is it the writing that unsettles me? Or is it actually a reaction to a well-crafted tale? Burkes has created one of the most morally-ambiguous female protagonists since Joe Abercrombie, in a setting that would bring out the worst in almost everyone. I think one of my struggles with Zoo City results from a lack of emotional connection, but I suspect that is because Zinzi herself is so well written as a broken person. She has lost too much, and has decided her best strategy for protection involves holding the world at arm’s length. The world of Zoo City and the underground is tough, and her survival strategy seems to be ‘use or be used.’ Her isolation is particularly poignant when romantic relationships are involved, but when she casually exploits the well-meaning. It’s real, it’s sad, and it’s rather hard to witness: “He only ever calls me ‘my love’ in Lingala, which makes it easier to disregard.“

Narrative was interesting, but might not work for everyone. Burkes uses Zinzi’s voice as a first person narrator the majority of the time, but intersperses other pieces of communication between chapters. Email and clippings from the newspaper’s ‘Police Files’ are the most common types, but there is also an email scam, a documentary back-story, a dictionary of terms and very moving ‘testimonials’ of the animalled from a documentary on prisons. It isn’t quite as frequent as every other chapter, and most of the time the pieces tie into the larger story. However, as they lack direct transitions, Burkes’ intention isn’t always clear, and it likely ends up increasing the distance between the reader and Zinzi. As a side note, I’ve seen people relate that this was particularly disconcerting in the audio version, so I advise consideration if you are an audio book-reader.

While I really enjoyed the writing, once again, it won’t work for those looking for an uplifting story.  With flavors of Clockwork Orange and Less Than Zero, it is a clear look at a hopeless future after tragic mistakes.  Although the voice is clear, straight-forward, much like Zinzi herself, the tone is reflective of her cheerless outlook. Most description matches the bleakness of the book:
“‘You must be…’
There are a lot of words I could fill in here. None of them quite match the cocktail of emotion burning a hole in my stomach right now: a mix of Stroh rum and sulphur acid.“

Burke is very much of the school of fantasy writing that does not seek to explain every detail, instead encouraging the reader to build their own picture of the world. Again, this works for my own reading preference, but I know for those that like more thorough explanations, it might be a sticking point. For instance, the whole reason for Zinzi’s animal is distilled down to a drug-induced memory and a police report reference, a minor plot point that is easily missed. Burke states in a GR Q&A that she’d rather trust her readers, and I think she largely succeeds at her choices. I enjoy gathering pieces of the world as I read, particularly as it leads to high re-readability, so I find it to be a positive. In addition, Burkes makes frequent use of South African slang.  Although I’m told you can find some of the words on the web, most of it works well in context, so I read without interruption.

Plotting/pacing is the most serious stumble, and one of the reasons this has less than five stars. I was sailing along, enjoying the development of the mystery, wondering if Zinzi would reach an emotional breakthrough, when all of a sudden pace and tenor shifted. It occurs shortly before “Part Two,” the final section that encompasses only one hundred pages.  More than a little rough in the transition, it almost seems to become almost a different story, a thriller-type race and climax. I read quickly, uncomfortably, and with puzzlement. There’s gore, a heart-pounding confrontation and an imperfect resolution.

I was going to throw in more spoilery thoughts, but I’ll leave that for later–if you happened to read, please, let’s discuss.

I think it’s also worth noting that Burkes, though a white South African, was able to respectfully reach outside her own experience and create a number of well-realized, complex characters from vastly different backgrounds. As I re-read for my review, I find myself lingering over the writing. I can’t get Zinzi’s tale out of my head. Remember when I wrote about dreaming of urban fantasy that pushes boundaries? This is it. Like it? Not entirely. Remember it? Definitely.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Little Girl Lost

Richard Aleas
Hard Case Crime
Reviewed by: Nancy
4 out of 5 stars


Miranda Sugarman was supposed to be in the Midwest, working as an eye doctor. So how did she wind up shot to death on the roof of New York s seediest strip club? It s up to detective John Blake to uncover his ex-girlfriend s secret life as a striptease queen. But the deeper he digs, the darker the secrets he uncovers, until a shattering face-off in an East Village tenement changes his life forever.

My Review

Little Girl Lost begins with private investigator John Blake scanning the headlines and learning of the brutal death of his high-school sweetheart, Miranda Sugarman, who was most recently working as a stripper. When they were in high school 10 years ago, she had ambitions of attending college in Los Alamos and eventually working as an ophthalmologist.

John Blake is young and idealistic, a refreshing change from the traditional hard-boiled, world-weary, cynical older detectives so prevalent in this genre. His youthful and clean-cut looks are out of place in the violent, sordid and grimy urban environment he has to work in. John encounters a lot of unpleasant characters while he is investigating this case, but he also has help from some good people, his boss, Leo, who is a former cop, and Susan, a stripper who knew Miranda and demonstrates a strong aptitude for detective work.

This was a very well-written, suspenseful, and atmospheric crime thriller. Some of the clues were a little too heavy-handed, making it relatively easy for me to figure out who the murderer was, but I enjoyed revisiting the city I grew up in, the characters, the situations, and John’s strong sense of justice and deep feelings for the woman he once loved.

This is the first Hard Case Crime book I read, and I look forward to more.

Also posted at Goodreads.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

The Times They Are a Changin

 The Help

Kathryn Stockett

Four Star

Review by Zorena


Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody's business, but she can't mind her tongue, so she's lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.

My Review

A lot of the events in this book are very unsettling to most of us. It's very hard to see such raw racism and not come out unchanged. That's what made this book both a difficult and an easy read at the same time. The words and story flow making us eager to turn the pages but the subject matter sometimes makes those same words very hard to read. The humour definitely helped to break a lot of the tension.

The three main women touch our hearts as well as each others although it's not always an easy love affair. There is much mistrust and even some hostility between them but a common goal brings them to see each other as women regardless of colour. Ms. Stockett has drawn her characters most carefully. They pull us in and make us care. Even her protagonist rings somewhat true although a little cliche. Having lived in the south I've witnessed some of it first hand. I still can't help feeling that Minnie and Aibileen were slightly shortchanged when it comes to a more in depth look at their lives. We see a lot of the surface and daily occurrences but not near enough of their feelings about their upbringing and history.

Now for the ending. This is where the book fell short for me. Things were a little too perfectly tied up and there was little to no mention of the still uncertain future that Minnie and Aibileen would face. It's a shame to say but not a lot has changed in the south. It's just hidden a lot better. Again we seem to just get a taste of something good.

I still liked this book a lot and would recommend it. I really enjoyed Stockett's style and would read more by her.