Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Gatsby’s Oxford: Scott, Zelda, and the Jazz Age Invasion of Britain: 1904-1929, by Christopher A. Snyder. Pegasus Books, 2019

This book loosely- very loosely- ties the fictional Jay Gatsby to Oxford. The author posits that being an ‘Oxford man’ is very important to Gatsby’s image and ability to enter high society; he would not be able to pursue Daisy without this in his background. The author then carries this to show that, were Gatsby a real person (and if the character had really gone to Oxford, which is dubious given some clues in the story) he would have seen certain places, met certain people, and examined certain ideas. Given that, the author then tells us about those people, places, and ideas in detail.

He tells us about the various castes that inhabit Oxford: the athletes, idealists, poets, and enlisted men. He tells us about the medievalism and romanticism of Oxford of the time. And he tells us about Tolkein, Waugh, C.S. Lewis, Woolf, Yeats, Eliot, Huxley, and Churchill, among many others.

The text wanders and goes into great detail. The author seemed intent on showing us every single influence that might have touched Fitzgerald (who was at Oxford with his wife, Zelda, for a few months) and Gatsby, the history of that influence, and possibly the influences brother-in-law. We get how Princeton was set up to be like Oxford, how race was dealt with, the Jazz Age, and even what businesses were run later by Oxford men. It really seemed like he was carrying things a bit far at times.

Because of this, I found some parts of the book very interesting and some, well, less so. The chapter on Tolkein & Lewis I loved, as well as the one on the Jazz age. The one on American Rhodes scholars really lost me a few times, as did the one on Princeton. I suspect many people will wish to pick and choose which chapters to read- although there is so much wandering even inside chapters one risks either missing something really interesting or being bored to tears. Four stars.

Sunday, November 24, 2019

The Devil’s Slave, by Tracy Borman. Atlantic Monthly Press, 2019

This book continues the story of Frances Gorges, a real person, which was started in The King’s Witch. Now, in 1606, Frances finds herself pregnant by Thomas Wintour, who has been executed. She retreats to the estate she grew up on, which is now being run by her greedy brother, hoping to hide her pregnancy. Then Thomas Tyringham, Wintour’s best friend, asks her to marry him. He will raise the child as his own. He’s a decent man, and treats her very well, but as the ‘Master of the Buckhounds’ he is tied to the king and this requires Frances to be in the king’s presence frequently. The king has not forgotten her being accused of witchcraft because of her herbalism, and she can’t seem to stop herself from utilizing her talent, putting herself in danger again.

I had mixed feelings about this book. Frances acts naïve and selfish at times. At one point, she sends her supposedly beloved attendant to gather herbs for her, so that she herself won’t be caught doing it. The aging attendant goes into the swamp, putting her health at risk, as well as risking being accused of witchcraft. This does not fit into the image of her as a caring healer. She takes chances that could have nasty consequences for not just her, but her husband and child. On the other hand, the author’s ability with pacing, description, and plot tension holds just as well as it did in the first novel. Another four star read.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

100 Times: A Memoir of Sexism, by Chavisa Woods. Seven Stories Press, 2019

This book is laid out with a very simple format: Woods has put down on paper 100 different instances of sexual harassment and sexual abuse, ranging from discrimination, to verbal abuse to groping to out and out assault. These instances are laid out chronologically, from age 5 to her mid-30s. These have happened everywhere; in school (by a teacher), in places of employment, in bars, and even in her own apartment – by her male roommate who refused to wear pants. And they are not by any means *all* the problems she has had with sexist men. She writes plainly and simply, just laying out what happened with no melodrama attached.

Most women reading this will be horrified, but will also recognize their own lives. Most of us have endured these kinds of discrimination, harassment and assault. I cringed, because I certainly have, from the mildest to the worst. And despite the fact that these things happen to almost all of us, a huge segment of men- even men who are feminists- do not believe that sexual harassment happens. It is so ingrained in our society that it’s become invisible. We mostly shrug it off.

I wish this book were given to each and every middle school student in some kind of health or even civics class. These problems need to become visible, before the kids get out there navigating adult life. Five stars, and kudos to the author.

Hope: A Memoir of Survival in Cleveland, by Amanda Berry and Gina DeJesus with Mary Jordan and Kevin Sullivan. Viking, 2015

In the spring of 2003, 17 year old Amanda Berry, walking home from work, was lured into a van by the father of a schoolmate. She was then taken to his house (still believing he was taking her to see her friend), where she was grabbed, brutally raped, and then chained up in the basement. She, and later Gina DeJesus, would remain in this house until 2013. Also there was Michelle Knight, who decided to tell her story on her own, so she is largely absent from these pages.

For ten long years, they were held inside without even a window to look out of. They were chained up, repeatedly raped, not fed nearly enough, terrified the whole time. Amanda had a baby girl while captive. Her rapist, Ariel Castro, was very proud to be a father and doted on the baby- while still keeping Amanda chained up. Amanda tried to raise the little girl with some sense of normalcy, teaching her to read, write, and do arithmetic. Castro enjoyed allowing the girls to watch the TV news when their families were on, begging for the return of their loved ones- an extra little bit of sadism.

The story is nothing short of horrifying. Castro and his treatment of the young women was viscerally revolting to me. The families and the police searched for them for years without finding anything. They despaired that they would never be found, never get out. Castro lied to each of them, telling them how he liked each one better than the others and that the other girls were saying bad things about them, driving a wedge between them so they could only look to him and not have warm feelings for the others. Now, Amanda and Gina are best friends- who else could understand what they have been through?-and have the support of their families again. I’m amazed at how well they have settled back into normal lives. They are very strong people to have survived as they did- I know I could never have survived in their situation.

The book alternates points of view, not just of the two girls, but also third person sections that show what their families, the police, and Castro himself were doing at the time. Amanda kept a diary of sorts; she intended to remember every detail and wrote in notebooks Castro bought her; when she filled those, she wrote on pizza boxes, receipts, and any other piece of paper she could find. The book was riveting; like a bad auto accident, I wanted to look away but couldn’t. Five stars, but very, very hard to read.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Hungry: Eating, Road-Tripping, and Risking It All with the Greatest Chef in the World, by Jeff Gordinier. Tim Duggin Books, 2019

Author Gordinier, Esquire food and drink editor, was having a bit of a mid-life crisis. His marriage had just ended, and he was restless and depressed. Then Rene Redzepi, owner of world famous (but I’m not enough of a foodie-or at least, not a rich enough foodie, to have heard of it) Noma restaurant in Copenhagen. It was 2014 and Redzepi was burnt out, looking for new inspirations, and scared of losing his status as the world’s greatest chef. He decided it was time for a road trip, and Gordinier was invited. The multi-year road trip was hectic, strange, and it pulled him out of his slump.

There were three main stops on the tour: Sydney, arctic Norway, and Mexico. Redzepi wanted to get into what the natives of these places ate, to try and bring something new to the elite world’s palates. He went with the natives of the areas to dig deep into their cuisines, dining on blood sausage, chicken hearts, prickly pears, avocado leaves, tropical fruits, chiles, nuts, palm sugar, tamarind paste, kelp, seawort, ant eggs, and grasshoppers. Then he planned a popup, and gathered his crew of fellow chefs. They tried the things the people brought them, they made new combinations, and they tried cooking them in various ways. Redzepi seems to have a hyperactive energy that he transmits to his crew. The popup runs into troubles, of course, and it ends up costing the select clientele $600 a plate. Which they happily pay, because they revere Redzepi in almost a cult like state.

I found it interesting, but choppy to read. The saga takes place over a couple of years, so Gordinier necessarily jumps in and out of Redzepi’s adventures and his own life. I loved the parts about the food itself. I’m enough of a foodie that it made me hungry to try new foods and make up new combinations, to taste all these great things- minus the ant eggs. I’m not *that* much of a food adventurer. Four stars.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Paris, 7 a.m., by Liza Wieland. Simon & Schuster, 2019

In 1937, two years after graduating from Vassar, Elizabeth Bishop went with some college friends to France. During this time, there was a three week stretch in time where she did not write in her life-long journal. Wieland has taken a look back and imagined what might have happened in that time. She and her friends move around and end up in Paris. Bishop tries to write. An artist friend has a tragic accident. She meets other artists and writers, including Natalie Barney. She falls for a woman who is not available to her. An older woman takes her on as a replacement for her deceased daughter- and as an aide in saving Jews from the invading Nazis.

Even though I realize this is a well written book, it really didn’t draw me in. It’s written in the third person present tense, which I found a bit off putting. Besides that, I was never pulled into the story, and never took to any of the characters. Wieland’s writing has a dreamy quality, like watching the story through a veil of chiffon. I can only give it three stars.

Saturday, September 14, 2019

The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield. Hachette Book Group, 2019.

The plump and oddly coiffed dictator Kim Jong Un seems to make the world laugh. This book will change the mind of anyone who reads it. Fifield, who was a correspondent in North Korea for over a decade, is uniquely placed to reveal the horror of North Korean totalitarianism and un-comic a person Un really is.  She talked to sources as varied as his aunt and uncle who raised him while he went to school in Switzerland, the man who was sushi chef for the Kims, who befriended Un when he was a child, and various people who have escaped the country or who do business there. It’s dangerous to speak to reporters if they have any relatives in the country.

It wasn’t easy to learn about Un. He was brought up out of the public eye, entitled amidst vast, showy wealth but lonely. Obsessed with basketball and weapons, a bizarre cult of personality was created around him- that he was an expert marksman at age 3, that at age 8 he drove a truck 80 mph. He wasn’t the obvious choice for heir to the Kim dynasty; he wasn’t the oldest son and he wasn’t son of the first wife. But his mother was ambitious and pushed him to the, well, throne. Family members who might challenge his right to the throne wind up dead- one uncle was quite publically assassinated. Importantly, he understands the modern world of computers and cyber spying.

He supposedly knows everything about everything and runs every aspect of the country, from the minutia of the economy to how nuclear weapons should be built. Despite being raised in insane luxury and having access to whatever he wants, he plays man of the people, meeting the crowds and hugging people. But he is scrupulous about having hotel rooms and other places totally wiped down when he leaves, removing any stray DNA that might give a clue to his health.

Under Un’s rule, there has been a rise in entrepreneurism and markets. Cell phones, bikinis, and plastic surgery are becoming common, and there is a private transport industry to make the markets possible. Businesses are run for profit, and the owners can hire or fire employees, rather than having them assigned by the government. But before this openness took place, he had sealed the borders and cracked down on the internet and TV to terrorize the nation. Freer markets are allowed because, in the end, it boosts Uns income- there are kickbacks and bribery at all levels. With the more open markets has come a drug problem; in a country where most people are still hungry, meth, with its appetite suppressing quality, is hugely popular.

The freeness and prosperity of North Korea is, in many ways, illusory. While huge high rise apartment buildings are being built, they are already falling apart. No one wants to live on any floor above the third or fourth, because the elevators are probably turned off or broken. There are self-criticism sessions every week (shades of Maoism) and huge concentration camps in the areas of North Korea with the worst climates.

But this man stroked Trump’s ego so that Korea got good concessions and Un got to keep all his nukes. The man is not a raving madman- well, not *just* a raving madman- he’s a smart, coldly calculating despot who knows exactly what he’s doing as he builds up his ability to nuke anyone, anywhere. A very interesting book with good research, that I think everyone should read, but it is choppy and jumps around. Four stars.

Friday, September 13, 2019

Clover Blue, by Eldonna Edwards. John Scognamiglio Books, 2019

Blue is not quite 11 when one of his mothers in the communal family gives birth. Made to watch the process, it makes him ask which one of the women he came out of. The Olders get uncomfortable; the leader of the commune, Goji, tells Blue that he’ll find out when he turns 12. On Blue’s 12th birthday, the commune is disrupted by the arrival of two people. After, Goji tells Blue that he didn’t mean exactly on Blue’s birthday; he’ll tell him when it’s time. Blue finds this odd, because Goji normally treats Blue as an equal and tells the truth about things.

Set in the 1970s in northern California, Blue tells the story of his upbringing and coming into awareness of his past. Blue loves the members of the small commune. He finds out he was adopted when he was 3 but he remembers nothing of his prior life. He doesn’t even know what his birthname was. He only knows his life in the Saffron Freedom Community, which contains a guru, a surfer, a midwife and healer, a Grateful Dead groupie, a Vietnam deserter, and his best friend, a same age girl, Harmony. They live on a few leased acres, growing their food and living simply. All but Goji live in a large treehouse in an oak tree. They believe in peace, love, kindness, and reverence for all living things and the natural world. They all partake in the work needed to keep things running. There is no electricity or running water; they carry water from the springs. They stay off the radar because the State of California does not recognize the way the commune is set up; they’d have pesky questions like who one’s mother is, and why are they living under a tarp with no toilets other than an outhouse. It seems like heaven. Then things get upset when they get a new member and Goji falls for her.

The story is well paced. I loved the characters. The author really got the widening awareness that Blue has as he grows up. The setting is so well depicted I could feel and see the dry grasses and the rains. She shows that all was not sweetness and light; the commune runs into racism, violence, disdain for the hippie’s lifestyle, and the tragedies that can occur when herbal healing just isn’t enough. She also shows how well adjusted a child can be coming from a non-average up bringing; Blue and Harmony are educated well beyond their age level compared to those in regular school.

Basically the story is a coming of age and a search for identity- a search that’s a little harder for Blue than for most kids. He learns that the Olders are not as perfect as he thought, especially Goji. But they have taught him self-reliance, and that’s what he really needs, in the end.

I loved this book. I sat up until 1 a.m. for two nights reading it because I couldn’t put it down. Then, when I went to start this review, I flipped through it to refresh my memory because I read it two months ago. I ended up sitting up until 1 a.m. for two nights again, rereading, because it immediately sucked me in. And I haven’t reread anything for decades! The writing is such that I lived inside Blue, feeling his feelings. A wonderful piece of nostalgia for those of us who grew up in that era, even if not in the way Blue did. I’d give it 6 stars if I could.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Identity Theft: Rediscovering Ourselves After Stroke, by Debra Meyerson, PhD, and Danny Zuckerman. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2019

‘Identity Theft’ refers to the way that a stroke takes away from who you are- or who you think you are. Suddenly a fit, quick witted person cannot walk, or remember names, or may even lose the ability to talk at all (and the ability to write frequently goes with that, too). The long distance runner cannot get to the bathroom. The family bread winner cannot go to work. The musician can no longer use their hand. And it doesn’t just affect the person with the stroke; it affects the whole family.

Meyerson lost a lot, both physically and mentally. She was an athlete, an author, and a college level lecturer. Eight years on, after very intensive rehab that continues even now, she still struggles to talk or write at times, walks with a limp and a cane, and has limited use of her right arm. She has had to seriously redefine herself. The battle of recovery is both physical and psychological.

This book tells us about her own firsthand experience with stroke. Meyerson’s voice is blended with that of other stroke victims, too, telling their unique stories. Every stroke is different; everyone is different in how they recover and what treatments they are given. The book is part memoir, part textbook on stroke, and part philosophy of life. The emphasis is not just on the physical experience of having and recovering from stroke, but the psychological experience of stroke. There is info on the resources available and the limits of what medicine can do. They point out that improvements can be gained year after year, whereas physical therapy, speech therapy, and occupational therapy usually end after a year.

All in all, it seems like what is important is determination, resilience, positive attitude, and having a supportive network (and good insurance) are most important to recovery. Despite losses in identity, the person must feel they still make a positive difference to others. Meyerson is lucky; her husband’s support is unending, her three adult children are super supportive, and she has the resources to still be taking physical therapy. Excellent book from the victim’s point of view.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Tidelands, by Philippa Gregory. Atria Books, 2019

I really enjoyed “The Other Boleyn Girl”, so I was very happy to get a pre-release copy of ‘Tidelands’. I was disappointed I read it; I felt it wasn’t nearly as well written as TOBG was. It’s the first in a series, so there is a lot of stage setting to be done, and it was done well and in detail. But the pace is slow, although that may have been on purpose, to put the reader into the feeling of life for the poor in 1648.

In the Sussex tidelands, Alinor Reekie, a 27 year old herbalist and midwife lives in a shack right in the muck and mud. Her two children work for the biggest employer in the area, the farmer and owner of a tide-driven mill. Alinor has an odd status; her fisherman husband disappeared months ago, so she is not a widow but she has no man to support her. Her brother Ned runs the human powered ferry. They live in Dickensian poverty, but at least they have shelter and *some* food. This is during the time of the English Civil War, when Charles I was exiled on the Isle of Wight- nearby to where Alinor lives. Parliament was running the country, and Catholicism was outlawed. Royalists practiced their faith in secret, and plans were always afoot to restore Charles to the throne.

One night Alinor meets James as he flounders about in the tide flats. She leads him to the manor of Sir William. In thanks for that, he persuades Sir William to hire Alinor’s son, Rob, on as companion to his own son, to be educated by his side, giving him a chance to obtain a job inside. William also pays Alinor some money, in thanks for keeping some secrets. Alinor’s daughter, Alys, at 13 has turned into a beautiful young woman who is attracting the eye of the miller’s son. The family’s sudden good fortune- and Alinor’s profession- makes the area people jealous and suspicious that Alinor is a witch- a common fear in that time and place- the ruling Puritans really seem to have hated women. There are plots brewing and there are secrets that could lead to death.

For a book this long, there is a strange lack of character depth. Even Alinor is not really fleshed out. I felt sorry for her, but she never came to life for me. Alys comes off as just annoying, the son barely exists, and I ended up despising James in the end. My biggest complaint, however, was the ending. It all happens suddenly, after over 400 pages of slowness, and with a Deus ex machina appearing. It was very unsatisfying. I loved all the details of life on the tideflats- the setting itself came alive for me- but that didn’t make up for the other deficits. Only 4 stars.  

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Outrages: Sex, Censorship, and the Criminalization of Love, by Naomi Wolf. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019

It wasn’t until well after I read this book that I found out how controversial it is. In gathering her facts, she misread court records. Where she saw the words “Death recorded” she took it to mean that the accused was hanged. In reality, that shorthand meant that the death sentence had been commuted, and the accused allowed to live. She also missed that in those days, ‘sodomy’ did not just apply to anal sex between males, but also applied to child abuse. There were probably no executions for consensual sex- but there *was* hard labor, as Oscar Wilde discovered.

Wolf writes that 1857 was a year when being gay became a crime, or became more of a crime. The laws against homosexuality had been on the books for years. It was the year when the Obscene Publications Act was enacted; it allowed the courts to seize books on the mere suspicion of being obscene- without defining obscenity. The Contagious Diseases Act was put in place in 1864. This act allowed the police to seize any woman force her to submit to a vaginal exam; if they felt she was infected, she was imprisoned. The act also allowed them to examine male anuses; if dilated, the man must be gay. So it was a time of anti-sex legislation.

The author uses the lives of a few gay men to demonstrate what life was like them, and the book does give you a feel for the era.

The book has been withdrawn by the publisher; I have no idea if Wolf will rewrite it, if it will be published as is, or if its publication will be canceled.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Ghosts of Gold Mountain: The Epic Story of the Chinese Who Built the Transcontinental Railroad, by Gordon H. Chang. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019

Most Americans learn in school that there were Chinese workers on the transcontinental railroad project, but that’s usually where it stops. Chang, professor of humanities and of history at Stanford, the director of the Center for East Asian Studies and co-director of the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America project, has gone to primary sources to shine a light on the lives of the some 20,000 workers who came from China to work on the tracks.

When the Transcontinental Railroad project was put together, a competition arose between the Union Pacific railroad working from the east and the Central Pacific railroad working from the west. They started in 1864 and finished in 1869. Union Pacific had it fairly easy; they covered a lot of fairly flat states. Central Pacific, on the other hand, started at Sacramento and went right up into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. There were no machines to do any of the work; it was all done with shovels and picks, moving rocks and soil in buckets. Differences in elevations had to be smoothed into easy slopes, sharp curves had to be made wider. Once the rail beds were done, ties and steel rails had to be laid. They went right on up through the Donner Pass, working night and day, summer and winter. It was dangerous and horribly hard work. They were paid submarket wages and were treated badly by the whites, especially by the settlers they worked around- settlers afraid the Chinese would want to stay there once the railroad was down.

Not all the Chinese in the project were railroad workers; some were vendors, while some made livings farming and providing familiar foods to the RR workers. While there were very few Chinese women involved in the project, what there were tended to be enslaved as sex workers.

Sadly, no first-hand account has ever been found. Chang has had to resort to ship manifests, immigration lists, business records of the Chinese community, old newspapers, family stories, and oral histories. He’s put together a solid history that, while dry, is good and fairly easy to read. There were sections that I found slow and boring, but most held my interest well. Four stars.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Neuro Fitness: The Real Science of Peak Performance From a College Dropout Turned Brain Surgeon, by Rahul Jandial, MD, Phd. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt 2019

Dr. Jandial is a brain surgeon who was originally a drop-out. But he is no Nick Riviera; he is a highly esteemed doctor with a PhD in neurobiology, with 20 years of post-high school education. So he knows what he’s talking about when he talks about the brain.

This book covers a lot of territory: memory, intelligence, language, creativity, smart drugs (and others), sleep, head injuries (a constantly changing field at the moment), diet for the brain, implants, stem cells, how the brain differs in youth and old age. Turns out the real science of peak performance is pretty much the same as the prescription for general good health: get enough sleep, eat healthy, do what you can to reduce stress, avoid head injuries, and don’t take street drugs or the ones touted on line as ‘smart drugs’. And hope that new treatments for dementia come down the pipeline before you get it. Neurologists and neurosurgeons are doing some amazing things, but there is still so much that can’t be fixed. Hedge your bets by following his prescription.

Pretty easy to read and very interesting. I love reading about medical cases, especially neurology ones, and he does this very well. Of great interest to me was his use of deep brain stimulation (DBS) to abate a case of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder-as a life time sufferer of OCD, the thought that there might actually be a non-chemical cure is exciting! This is a book for any fan of Oliver Sacks or of medical tales in general, and for anyone looking to get the best out of their brain.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Burn the Place: A Memoir, by Iliana Regan. Midway Books, 2019

Iliana Regan is the owner of the Michelin Star restaurant “Elizabeth”, named for her sister who died in a jail holding cell. She was exposed to food a lot as a child- they lived on a farm and grew, foraged, baked, and preserved most of their food, but until the point her mother rebelled at having to do all that and they moved to a city. Oh, and they also helped out in Regan’s grandmother’s restaurant, too. Little wonder her mother got exhausted! But Regan loved working with food. When she grew up, she worked for other restaurant and worked in every station, learning the ropes inside and out. For a while, she ran a small restaurant out of her home, foraging the daily ingredients right in the city.

But the book isn’t all about her incredible food talent. As a child she struggled with gender identity. She also had a problem with alcoholism and addiction. She could not sustain a relationship. She was working in a male dominated profession. Being a lesbian didn’t make her any more acceptable. She battled all these things and came out a winner. She’s been married to Anna for several years now, and running a restaurant and a Japanese inspired pub.

The book was a little hard to read. While divided into four parts, the story is all over the place, in the present at one point and then skewing into the past. The writing is raw and blunt- descriptions of slaughtering animals, rampant drug taking, and alcohol binges. But it has something that held me. I do wish I’d learned some about her process of recipe creation; one of the most compelling things is that even as a small child she had a connection with food- when it was ripe, how to combine it, how to serve it up. She has an almost mystical connection with the earth and its edibles. Four stars.

Saturday, August 10, 2019

Gertrude Stein Has Arrived: The Homecoming of a Literary Legend, by Roy Morris Jr. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019

I tend to be interested in biographies of artists and writers of the early parts of the last century, so even though I’ve never managed to read one of her poems I requested this book. I may now attempt to read The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (written by Stein, not her life partner Toklas, she of the infamous brownies), after finding out that it’s a lot more readable than her earlier works. The fact that she was a self-declared genius seems, well, scary, but people really did find her talks and advice brilliant and interesting.

Although both were from the Bay Area, Stein and Toklas left America and lived in France- which was more welcoming to lesbian couples- for most of their lives. Here she collected art, wrote, and held salons for writers and artists. Many came to her for advice about their art or writing. It was when Stein published The Autobiography that she suddenly became known in America, and was asked to come over for a speaking tour. For over six months the duo went all over the US, to 37 cities. They had tea with Eleanor Roosevelt, met Charlie Chaplain and Mary Pickford (who wasn’t impressed with her), had a ride-along in a police car with a homicide detective, met with the Raven Society in Edger Allen Poe’s old room, visited several Civil War battlefields, had their first airplane ride, had Oysters Rockefeller in New Orleans- suddenly everyone loved this couple. She gave both literary and social issue speeches. The title comes from the “Gertrude Stein Has Arrived” message that was put on the New York Times reader sign.

If you know nothing about Stein, this is a great little biography. They don’t leave France until halfway through the book, so we get a good picture of their lives pre-lecture tour. Then we find out the things that she and Toklas saw, and the things that they said, while in the US. Stein came away with new admiration for the country she had so long disdained, stating that she was in love with the US now. I found the book a very interesting and fairly quick read; it’s full of celebrities like Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and even Walter Cronkite interviewing her while in college! Five stars.

Friday, August 9, 2019

The Song of the Jade Lily, by Kirsty Manning. William Morrow, 2019

In 1938, on the day that will live in history as Kristallnacht, 12 year old Romy, her brothers, and her parents try to flee Austria as Nazi troops start rounding up Jews. One brother is shot for standing up for himself; the other is captured and taken away. Romy and her parents manage to make their way to a train station; they find they cannot flee into any European countries. Their only hope of escape is a boat to Shanghai, as China is still taking in refugees. On the boat, Romy becomes friends with Nina, whose parents die on board ship. The Bernfelds want to take Nina into their own shattered family, but her uncle, who cares nothing for her, takes her away. In Shanghai, the Bernfelds become friends with the Ho family, with Romy and Li becoming fast friends. Li becomes a beautiful singer, while Romy is intellectually gifted.

In 2016, Alexandra is returning to the Australian home of her grandparents, Romy and Wilhelm. She has a broken heart, and it is about to be broken more: Wilhelm is dying. He and Romy feel it’s time for Alexandra to know something of the family history, which has been kept from her so far. She knows that her mother was adopted by Wilhelm and Romy, and that she died in a car accident when Alexandra was very young. But she knows nothing of her mother’s origins, and Romy isn’t telling her that. So she sets out on an information gathering mission…in Shanghai.

I loved reading this book. The author paints pictures of Shanghai complete with scents and flavors. It’s rich in details. Shanghai is painted as an amazing place- the Paris of the East. And it’s not just the pretty side of it; this takes place during the horrors of the Japanese Occupation. I didn’t find Alexandra’s story completely absorbing, but Romy’s story sucked me in. Told in the now common format of duel timelines and narrators, the stories fill each other in. I was able to figure out what happened before the end, but not very far before. I had never heard about Jewish refugees in China before and that fascinated me. I loved the details of life; the food, the healing methods, the grim conditions in the town and especially in the hospital where Romy works with her father in Shanghai. Diary entries and letters from the war add dimension to the tale. Manning did a lot of research to write this novel, and it shows. Five stars.

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

Death of a New American, by Mariah Fredericks. Minotaur Books, 2019

In Fredericks second in this historical mystery series, it’s 1912, and ladies maid Jane Prescott is accompanying her charge, Louise, to the Long Island mansion of the Bentleys. Louise is marrying William Tyler at his aunt and uncle’s home, and they are going early to get everything set up properly. Uncle Charles is the prosecutor notorious for going after the Black Hand, the Italian organized crime ring of the time. Because of this, and also because of the recent death of one of their children, his wife Alva is intensely worried about the children’s safety. She doesn’t want them outside, even with the armed guards patrolling the property, and the windows are shut and locked most of the time (although it is odd that, for all her worries about their safety, Alva spends very little time with the kids!). When the nanny, Sofia Bernardi, is murdered one night in the nursery, with the window left open and baby Freddy out of his crib, everyone’s minds assume it was an attempted kidnapping, or an attempt to kill the baby.

Jane sets out to solve the crime. Once again, she encounters journalist Michael Behan and her Marxist friend, Anna. She also has the assistance of 6 year old Mabel Tyler, who is precocious and smart. Along with the mystery, the author touches of woman’s suffrage, racism, and classism. Even Behan, who is supposed to be a good guy, shows a nasty bigoted side to himself. The sinking of the Titanic, and the loss of life, hangs as a shadow over the proceedings. Not to mention pre-wedding jitters on the part of Louise and William.

Despite the classism of the day, Jane is pretty much accepted as an equal by her employers and the other high class folks, and she seems to have an awful lot of spare time for a ladies maid, which made it hard to see this as taking place more than a hundred years ago. The story is very slow. The story is full of great historical detail, but, sadly, the characters never really come to life. Three and a half stars, if I could give that.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Mistress of the Ritz, by Melanie Benjamin. Delacorte Press, 2019

Based on a real couple, Mistress of the Ritz tells the story of Blanche and Claude Auzello. In the early 1920, they meet in Paris, have a brief affair, and marry very quickly. Blanche is American, a brash, talkative, foul mouthed American flapper. Claude is French, and the manager of the greatest hotel in the world, the Ritz in Paris. Their impulsive marriage has lots of problems; Claude takes the traditional view that he should be able to have a mistress, while Blanche has, shall we say, a huge problem with that. She comforts herself with lots of alcohol, down in the hotel bar, spending her time there talking with the celebrities, like Hemingway, the Windsors, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. She frequently passes out down in the bar, where they sit her in a corner, hopefully out of view of the guests. Claude’s days at the Ritz involve long hours and intense work, meaning he just doesn’t have time for a wife (especially when he has a mistress).

Things get worse when the Germans invade France, and Hermann Goering sets up headquarters in the Ritz. Now everyone must really mind their manners, never letting on what they think of the Nazis. Meanwhile, the French Resistance is active in Paris, which Blanche finds out about from her ragtag friend, Lily, a misfit in the bar but interesting. Soon Blanche is risking her freedom and life…. And Claude has secrets of his own.

The story is as much about a troubled marriage as it is about World War 2. Almost the first half of the book is about this, and, frankly, I did not like it; it is all about arguments. I found it boring, and I did not like either Blanche or Claude. It got better when the Nazi’s moved into Paris, and the French Resistance gets active. Told in the first person, with three different points of view and told in the present tense, it allows a lot of tension. The writing itself is beautiful most of the time. It is based on a real couple, about which very little is known, so the ‘historical fiction’ is very heavy on the ‘fiction’. One thing I liked is that the Germans were portrayed as real people, some sympathetic, even though what they are doing is evil. Three stars.

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Elderhood: Redefining Aging, Transforming Medicine, Reimagining Life, by Louise Aronson, M.D.. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2019

There are a number of problems with the way society deals with aging, and Aronson covers them here. There are few drug trials that use older people; most trials are designed around middle aged, white, males. There is no one storage place of medical records, which creates a problem when a patient must go to a new provider or seeks emergency treatment. Medicare won’t cover hearing aids or glasses, but will cover cochlear implants or eye operations, much more expensive and invasive options. It’s easier to get chemotherapy paid for than palliative care (and hospice is underfunded; ours has to do fundraisers for all the things it provides that Medicare doesn’t pay for). Geriatricians are paid lower than most other medical specialties. And many more.

Sadly, Aronson does not offer solutions for all these things. Some things- such as affordable housing for the aging population that keeps them safe but allows independence- probably have no easy solutions. But she offers a lot to think about, a lot of things to start the conversation about these problems and how to remedy them.

The author is a geriatrician and has been caregiver to an aging mother. She, herself, is officially ‘old’. For a good while, she was a home visit physician and saw all manner of situations the elderly were living in- some horrific, but with no affordable way to change them. She is well placed to write about the care of the aging population.

It’s an interesting and accessible read, despite the technical subjects. But it has its flaws; it wanders at times, and it’s a bit long on the author’s education and how she found her way to gerontology. I found some sections slow reading- but that is due to my own interests, not a problem with the writing. I feel it’s an important book; 10,000 people turn 65 every single day in the US alone, and all should be treated with dignity and good care (as should everyone, of any age or medical status). This book stands as a wake-up call.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Wild and Crooked, by Leah Thomas. Bloomsbury, 2019

When Kalyn’s grandmother has a stroke, she and her unstable mother must move back to the small town Kalyn was born in. Due to circumstances, Kalyn enrolls into high school under an assumed name, Rose. Her last name, Spence, is dirt in this town; her teenaged father killed another teen, the high school hero, and has been in jail ever since.

Kalyn also takes on an assumed personality; normally foul mouthed and in your face, she now braids her wild hair and becomes a total sweetie pie, a girl acceptable to all, including the ‘cool’ girls. But she soon becomes best friends with Gus, a young man with cerebral palsy which gives him hemiplegia and a speech impediment. These two couldn’t be any different; Kalyn’s mother doesn’t care about her, while Gus’s mother is over protective, constantly treated Gus as fragile and younger than he really is. And, worst of all, Gus’s late father was the person Kalyn’s father killed. Gus’s mother keeps the house decorated as a shrine to the man. But to everyone’s surprise, when the truth comes out and they realize who the other is, they stay friends. Then there is Phil, Gus’s best friend, who is a self-declared sociopath. These three take turns narrating, as they find out that there is a chance that Kalyn’s father didn’t kill Gus’s dad, and seek to prove it. Like many small towns, this one has a story that it has hidden for years.

The first part is extremely slow as we get to know Gus and Kalyn. The story is almost totally character driven. There is a lot of queer representation, with Kalyn being gay, Gus being pan, and Gus’s mother married to a woman, but that is not the focus of the story, any more than Gus’s CP is. They are simply traits of the characters, as it is in real life. What is an important part of the story is classism: Kalyn’s father was poor, his family owning and living at the town junkyard, while the boy he killed was the town’s golden boy: well to do, football star, headed for college. The town closed ranks against any effort to find the truth about the murder. For once, the boy-girl relationship was strictly friendship, which I found very refreshing. I really liked the writing style, other than the slowness. Four stars.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf, by Katharine Smyth. Crown, 2019

Katharine Smyth idolized her father. He was her hero and the person with who she had long talks, both growing up and as an adult. She also idealized her parent’s marriage. But her father, and the marriage, had a rather large dark side. He was an alcoholic who was a tyrant to her mother, one who raved and threw things. To make things worse, after his cancer diagnosis, he continued to drink and smoke.

Smyth went on a quest to discover who, really, her father was, back before he met her mother or was her father. She interviews people from his past. And then she pairs her own story of love and loss with that of Virginia Woolf, the author of Smyth’s favorite book “To the Lighthouse”. THL acted as a map for her own grief.

This book is a meditation on not just Smyth’s own loss, but everyone’s losses, “Loss” with a capital L. It provides a clear look at death. It would help, I think, if one has read “To the Lighthouse” (a book about Woolf’s grief over losing her mother when she was a child) prior to reading this book; I had not, and frequently felt I was missing something.

Most of the book is about the author’s father and his death- in great detail. Little is written about her mother until after the father dies. Smyth and her mother had always walked on eggshells, because her father could be a real nasty drunk. One minute he’d be warm and wonderful, the next he was in a rage. I found the author’s idolization of her father rather disturbing. Why not, instead, worship her mother, who put up with so much? But you can’t apply logic to love. It is what it is. This book is a great example of how books can help us understand ourselves, our families, and our emotions.

Friday, July 26, 2019

How it Feels to Float, by Helena Fox. Dial Books, 2019

Teen aged Elizabeth (Biz) has problems. She has depression, panic attacks, PTSD, and obviously something more. She’s unsure about her sexuality but her kiss with her best friend didn’t turn out well at all. An evening around a bonfire on the beach has her branded as having had sex while there and is therefore a slut. Her father talks with her about things every evening while sitting on her bed. This is probably her biggest problem; her father has been dead ever since he committed suicide when she was 7.

When she walks out into the ocean, she is saved by the new boy at school, Jasper. They don’t seem to get along very well. When Biz takes an interest in photography, she meets octogenarian Sylvia, an avid photographer. They become friends, and Sylvia teaches Biz about photography. She also turns out to be Jasper’s grandmother. Awkward. Then an adventure ends up with Biz in the psych ward of the hospital.

A pall of sadness hangs over the whole book, and one of uncertainty. The story is told by Biz, who is an untrustworthy narrator, so we are never sure of what is real or imagined. The pace is slow. While I feel this is a good book, an example of coming of age with mental illness, it never took fire for me. It felt like an obligation to keep reading, rather than a treat. I can only give it three stars.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones, by Micah Dean Hicks. John Joseph Adams, 2018

This book is…. weird. It’s a strange mashup of sci-fi, horror, fantasy, and family. The town of Swine Hill (Swain Hill), already in decay from loss of industry, has become a mostly deserted, post-apocalyptic, ruin of ghosts, pig-men, corporate greed, and angry, despairing people. The only industry still operating is the slaughter house, run by a mysterious corporate entity.

Our protagonists are teen-aged siblings Jane and Henry. Their whole family is possessed by ghosts; Jane’s tells her everyone’s secrets and Henry’s is a genius engineer who compels him to build amazing machines- and work on living flesh, too. Jane considers her ghost a sort of friend, while Henry’s takes over his body and leaves Henry missing time when the ghost departs. Lately, Henry has been working at the meat processing plant, on what, he doesn’t know. But of late, a person named Walter Hogboss has been promoted to plant manager, and he’s calling Henry.

Swine Hill is a horrible place. There are no safe spots. I wondered at times if the whole world was afflicted like Swine Hill was. It’s a story of racism, grief, whether it’s all right to eat intelligent animals, ethics, slavery, and much more. It’s a hard book to read; I found myself wondering if there was any spot of beauty in this world of dirty air and falling down buildings. There is, in some character’s souls-and not just the human ones. Five stars, even though it’s not a comfortable book to read.

Sunday, July 14, 2019

The Familiars, by Stacey Halls. Mira, 2019

It’s 1612, in the reign of King James I, and Fleetwood Shuttleworth (a real historic person) has not had an easy life. She’s 17 and enduring her 4th pregnancy, the first three having ended in miscarriages and a still birth. She’s found a letter from a doctor to her husband saying that she will not survive another pregnancy. Her first husband, who she was married to at age 4, molested her. She’s never had a friend in her life.

By accident, she meets Alice Grey, a poor young woman who knows herbs and midwifery. Fleetwood becomes convinced that Alice is her only hope of surviving the coming birth, and ending with a live baby. But her husband’s best friend, Roger Nowell, is investigating witches (the Pendle Hill witches, to be exact), and his eye is on Alice. Convicting some witches would give Roger brownie points with the king, and enrich his retirement. In time, Fleetwood finds herself regarding Alice as a friend. She’s willing to go to any lengths to save her from being hung.

The pace is very, very slow in the first half, and then speeds up dramatically. There are several threads running through this novel, some of which don’t come to light until well into the story. Fleet herself starts out as rather a boring character- immature, naïve, and uneducated- who matures and grows through the story. At the start, she has no idea how the ‘other half’ lives, and is shocked at the conditions that exist outside her manor house. But she learns fast. I give five stars for atmosphere; the descriptions of the forests, people, villages, and homes are wonderful. While I loved Alice, the characters I was less taken with. I disliked Fleetwood’s husband a great deal, even at the end when all the threads are tied off. In the end, I give it four stars. This is Hall’s first novel; I assume her writing will mature and I will give any second book she writes a try.

Saturday, July 13, 2019

Outsiders: Five Women Writers Who Changed the World, by Lyndall Gordon. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019

The ‘outsiders’ that the author has selected are Mary Shelley, Emily Bronte, George Eliot, Olive Shreiner, and Virginia Woolf. They were outsiders in the way they lived their lives, and in the things they wrote. All were motherless and learned the ways of being a woman through books. Three of them published under an assumed man’s name, in order to get their work taken seriously. All were feminists. All but Woolf lived in social isolation. And even though they never knew each other, there are connections between them that Gordon makes, looping back to reference something in a different chapter.

Each woman’s life and work is explored in detail, one per section. In some ways, the book reads as if it were five separate thesis or lecture; things we’ve already been told in one section get restated in another. But there is not enough of that to get tiresome.

All these women stepped beyond the common boundaries of the time that were prescribed for women. Some lived ‘in sin’. Some lobbied for women’s and human rights. Gordon describes their lives in detail, and also tells about how the world reacted to their writing, and how the writers who lived after them were affected by their work. She also shines a light on who influenced them, be they absent mother, father, husband, or sister.

I enjoyed the book (although it wasn’t a fast or easy read), but I think I would have enjoyed it more if I had known more about the women beforehand. I was lost a few times because I had not read this or that of their works. While I’ve read Shelley and Woolf, I have barely read Bronte and Eliot; Shreiner I had never even heard of. Gordon’s writing expects the reader to be widely-read. Four stars.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Lies Sleeping, by Ben Aaronovitch. Daw Books, 2018

This is the conclusion of the Faceless Man (ver. 2.0) arc that has carried through all the previous Rivers of London books and graphic novels. Narrator Peter Grant has had a lot of adventures through the series, but this arc has always hung over him. Finally it comes to a close.

This installment uses pretty much the entire cast of characters that have been introduced through the years, both police and river gods. The Faceless Man has pulled together his own army, too, in a very different way than the good guys have. The good and bad guys clash a number of times through the book before the final battle, and the energy stays high most of the time. Of course, all these people and events and of course the great descriptions of places and history gets confusing, at least for me, and I found myself looking back at pages before – and wishing I had the entire series to check things in. But I loved the book. Peter Grant is one of the world’s great characters; the attention to details that Aaronovitch gives him is wonderful, and his dry humor is great. And I have loved seeing him mature through the books; in his abilities, his character, and in his relationship with Beverly. The author has started a different series set in the same universe, and I do hope this doesn’t mean the last of Peter Grant and co.! There are still things that have not been tidied up, even some things just started in this book. Five stars!

Thursday, June 20, 2019

The October Man, by Ben Aaronovitch. Subterranean Press, 2019

I’ve been waiting impatiently for the next episode in the “Rivers of London” series, so I was delighted to spot this on the library’s ‘new books’ rack. Then I discovered that even though it’s considered part of that series, it’s not set in London and the characters are all new.

When a dead body is found enveloped with fungus, specifically the one that causes the ‘noble rot’ on wine grapes, Tobias Winter is called in. He’s the agent from the German version of the Folly. He’s assigned Vanessa Sommer as a regular police partner for the case. Soon more bodies turn up, and the signs point to a secret hundreds of years old, and involves a river goddess who has reincarnated, ghosts, magic, and a vineyard.

This is a short book- a novella, really- so a lot happens in a short time. Vanessa (and the readers) are brought up to speed on the magical situation during drives from place to place and a dinner scene. Tobias has a different voice from Peter’s; he’s much more serious and doesn’t have the wit when describing things that Peter does. It took me a while to warm up to him. Vanessa has promise; she catches on to things very quickly. While I really hope to see more of Peter Grant and Nightingale, I look forward to seeing more of Winter and Sommer (really?!?!), too. Four stars; good magic and murder plot but too rushed.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

A Night in the Lonesome October, by Roger Zelazny & Gahan Wilson. Avon Books, 1993

Roger Zelazny- a favorite author of mine for his ‘Amber’ series and ‘Lord of Light’- has written a marvelous romp of a horror story. The large cast of characters includes figures from horror stories, Victorian mysteries, and vintage monster movies. You figure out who these folks are as you go along; a couple I never figured out. Apparently there is a large site on the web where people have discussed all this!

Written from the POV of Snuff the dog, who is really the familiar of Jack; the tale has 31 chapters, one for each day of October. The characters have a countdown; on the 31 is a full moon, and a great magical working will take place. Some characters are Openers, who seek to open a portal for the Elder Gods to enter the world. Some, like Jack, are Closers, who seek to keep them out. Each has an animal familiar- Graymalk the cat, Bubo the rat, and so on.

Snuff is not just a guard dog; he’s a worker of magical mathematics. He seeks to find out where exactly the battle must take place; to figure it, he must know how many individuals will be there and whether they are Openers or Closers. He talks with the other familiars to see what they have seen and heard. And he tries to figure out who is murdering some of the contenders… killings that have not taken place before on any of the previous events.

Until the very end, the story takes its time, then it happens in a rush. In the beginning, there was a point where I was thinking “Where is this all going?!?” and then it started to make sense. It’s witty along with creepy and I really enjoyed it. The illustrations by Gahan Wilson (a rather morbid cartoonist) are nice, and I really love the cover illustration (not by Wilson) that shows most of the main characters. I heartily recommend this for reading in October to get in the Halloween mood!

Monday, May 13, 2019

The Haunted, by Danielle Vega. Razorbill, 2019

Teen-aged Hendricks Becker-O’Malley and her family move to a small town so that Hendricks can start over after a traumatic event with her ex-boyfriend. The run down house they choose to redo is the Steele House, where some horrible deaths occurred years before- deaths that were not exactly on the disclosure list at sale.

Hendricks is basically living in the house alone with her baby brother- her parents are still spending most of the time in the city, and even when they are at Steele House they barely interact. A sitter watches the baby during the day, but when Hendricks gets home, it’s her and the kid, which she barely interacts with. She also lucks out at school: she is immediately invited into the group of Cool Kids. They eat together, get together after school, and drink together. There is a lot of drinking, and it seems to be okay with all the parents.

Not only does Hendricks get immediately accepted by the Cool Kids, but the football star young man immediately likes her- maybe too much? Then there is the neighbor boy, Eddie, a dark haired Goth who the Cool Kids all ridicule and scorn because he is poor- I frankly found this to be damn near as horrifying as the supernatural parts. But he seems to know somethings about Steele House, and Hendricks finds herself strangely drawn to him. Is he part of the deaths? Can he be trusted? There is almost as much tension around the male characters as there is around the supernatural ones. And there is a lot of tension in this story.

It really is pretty scary; the supernatural sections are well done. I was less impressed with the regular teenage interactions. I could not bring myself to like the Cool Kids (although perhaps this was intentional?), having met those sorts myself back in school. Hendricks parents are remarkably detached from parenting and are virtually nonexistent. While I felt for Hendricks, with her past, the PTSD, and the supernatural frights, she’s kind of a Mary Sue. Three and a half stars, I think.

Saturday, April 20, 2019

The Flavor Thesaurus: Pairings, Recipes and Ideas for the Creative Cook, by Niki Segnit. Bloomsbury, 2010

This is a book about food, and has recipes in it, but it’s not a cookbook as one usually thinks of it. The author set out to classify all the possible flavor elements, describe them, and list the foods that contained them. She lists flavors such as roasted, meaty, mustardy, green & grassy, spicy, woodland, fresh fruity, citrusy, floral fruity, marine, and sulfurous- there are a huge number of possible flavors. Some I already knew; a few surprised me- I would have never guessed ginger root went under ‘citrusy’! The recipes are right in the thesaurus, put down as one would tell a friend how to create the dish rather than as a list of ingredients & quantities followed by instructions. The book includes an extensive bibliography, recipe index, ingredient index, and a regular index, so you can find anything easily. I wouldn’t recommend reading it straight through like I did (I was getting a bit restless by the ‘T’s, but what can I say, it was a library book) but rather to keep around for inspiration when faced with an ingredient and no ideas. It’s a fun read, though- it’s like listening to a friend describe what she’s eaten in places and how those things were made.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Hollow Kingdom, by Kira Jane Buxton. Grand Central Publishing, 2019

This is an end of the world as we know it, zombie apocalypse, quest novel… narrated mainly by a human-raised crow named S.T. – Shit Turd. There are occasional short passages by whales, polar bears, and others- including Genghis Cat, a true ninja. S.T.’s human has gone zombie, his eyes have fallen out of his head (and neatly saved for later by S.T., just in case Big Jim wants it back), and he’s lunging around dangerously and S.T. is afraid he’ll eat him if Big Jim catches him. So S.T. and Dennis, Big Jim’s bloodhound, take off into the great new landscape of Seattle, post zombies.

Big Jim may not have been very good with naming pets, but he taught S.T. to speak human, turn on cell phones, and a lot of other things that the average crow doesn’t know. And, when S.T. concentrates, he can also hear the Aura, Web, and Echo- the extra-sensory strands of animal communicate via.

S.T.’s quest is at first one for food, as he travels around the Seattle area standing on Dennis’s back, he starts to realize he has to do more. All around, pets – the Domestics- are trapped in houses, some with zombies inside. How can he and Dennis free them from death by starvation?

This story is several things- an epic fantasy quest tale, an ecological statement, humor, a statement on human’s over dependence on technology, a story of learning to trust, and a coming of age for S.T. as he learns who he really is. It’s sort of like if Watership Down was written by a team consisting of Tolkien, Hunter S. Thompson, an ecologist, and a zoologist. I loved it and couldn’t put it down, but it is uneven in places and is heavy handed on the ecology and technology issues. The book could have used a good edit. But S.T. is such a great narrator that (almost) all can be forgiven.

Thursday, April 4, 2019

The Witch’s Kind, by Louisa Morgan. Redhook Books, 2019

A magical realism/historical fantasy story, The Witch’s Kind completely captivated me. It’s the story of Barrie Anne Blyth, a young woman in the time of WW 2, and her aunt Charlotte, who raised her. Barrie has a past with a man who turned out to be not what he seemed: a college man who joined the service when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.  This past led her to a run-down farm that her husband bought without telling her; while she knows nothing of farming, she quickly learns from neighbors, books, and just doing. Soon she has a thriving food garden and flock of hens, right on the Hood Canal. When her husband disappears, she continues the farm on her own. When her dog, Willow, finds a new born baby on the beach, she takes it in, and Aunt Charlotte comes to stay with her a lot of the time.

The baby, Emma, isn’t quite “normal”, but Barrie loves her. She lost her own baby after only a few hours, so she’s ready for a baby, no matter what. Her long lost husband, Will, returns and has his own plans for the child. Government agents hang around the small town and the farm. Barrie and Charlotte invent stories to cover Emma’s origin, and try to keep her secret covered. There is never a time to feel secure and relax.

I LOVED this book. It’s a hard one to classify; my first thought was magical realism, but there is also sci-fi, women’s fiction, historical fantasy… so much, blended together to get a book that I sat up most of the night reading. The descriptions of the town, the farm, the canal, Port Townsend, the Olympic Peninsula, are all wonderful and bring things to life. It’s an area I love anyway, and to see it through the lens of the 40s was great. I loved Aunt Charlotte. I liked Barrie, too, although I was impatient with her in much of the flashbacks, as she was learning about life and growing up. Five stars.

The Lost Coast, by Amy Rose Capetta. Candlewick Press, 2019

When Danny and her mother pick a random spot on the map to move to, they have no idea that Danny’s hand with the pin in it was being controlled by others. Now, in a small town in Northern California, the people who guided that selection need her to help them find their lost friend, Imogen. This group, a small sort of coven that the local kids call the Grays, are in high school and hang out together doing magic, which comes naturally to them. Being with them leads Danny to discover her own magic- she is a dowser, a finder. She must find the lost Imogen- who is, in fact, physically present, but with her soul gone. There is someone or something in the redwood forest that is willing to kill; can Danny overcome it and find Imogen? And is she anything more to the Grays than a useful tool? She is falling in love with one of them and really wants to know…

This sounded like a book I’d love, even though it’s YA- northern California? Check. Girls working magic? Check. Quest? Check. But I had a hard time really getting into the book. The book has good atmosphere, good descriptions of location, and good diversity of characters (racial, sexual orientation, gender). But the characters still blended together when the action got going and I had trouble remembering who was who. The never seemed to be in school, and other than Danny’s mother and the parents of Imogen, never seem to wonder where they are. Even Danny, who constantly breaks curfew to be with the Grays, mostly does as she pleases. The move to California was brought on by Danny doing something that required a ‘clean slate’- it’s never said *what* she did, but it seems to have something to do with her falling in love with another girl. What her mother thought about her joining a group of queer girls is never stated! Three stars.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Josephine Baker’s Last Dance, by Sherry Jones. Gallery Books, 2018

Josephine Baker, born in 1906 to a poor family in St. Louis, was used pretty much as a slave from the time she could walk. Her mother put her out to white families as a live in servant, with Josephine’s pay going to her. Josephine never saw anything of it. Worse, she was sexually abused starting at an early age. But she was determined that she would be a dancer and singer; it was the one way she could see out of her impoverished situation. She just needed to get a chance….She was told by producers that she was too skinny, too dark, and didn’t have a strong enough voice to be a chanteuse. She was relegated to the chorus line in all people of color reviews.

But in 1925 she sailed to Paris and started breaking down barriers. She was the first woman of color on a Paris stage, the first to star in a movie, the first to sing in an opera. But her most famous act is, sadly, something that started as sarcasm. She was designing her own costumes in Paris. The man in charge, however, thought she was trying to dress too elegantly. So she drew her next costume as a skirt (a belt, really) of bananas and nothing else. That, of course, is what the costume maker produced and that is what she danced in for many performances, and that is the picture that will come up first when you Google her.

In Paris she was received as an equal, not some subhuman servant like she was see in the US. She was the center of any party, the star of the stage. She rubbed elbows with the American ex-pats. Of course, the Nazis came and everything went to hell. So she did what any rebel would do- she joined the French Resistance. As a star and party giver, she had access to the Nazi bigwigs who didn’t know she spoke German. She risked her life giving information to the Resistance- and then spent time flying supplies for the Red Cross.

This was all exciting. After the war she led a much quieter life. She adopted 12 children, of different races and cultures. She tried to come back to the US, but found herself denied service in restaurants and denied rooms in hotels. She was treated like dirt.

I loved the book, but the last part of her life was rushed over. What became of all her children? What kind of relationships did she have with them? After her last big performance- a production that frames the story- what did she do? I know she worked for equality.  How did she die? Who was with her then? But it’s still a five star book, because I couldn’t put it down. She was a fascinating woman, and lived her life to the fullest.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

The Woman in the White Kimono, by Ana Johns. Park Row Books, 2019

Tori Kovac, in present day America, watches her father die right after he gives her a letter that was written by him to someone in Japan, and it was returned in the mail. Who is it to, and what does it mean?

Seventeen year old Naoko Nakamura, in 1950s Japan, is being pressured into an arranged marriage to improve her family’s financial stability. But she is in love with someone else… an American sailor, Jimmy, a gaijin still hated in this decade after the war. And, furthermore, she’s carrying his child. This does not go over well with her family. With only her frail mother for an ally, she does not realize how far her father and grandmother will go to prevent losing face.

In alternating chapters, Naoko and Tori narrate their stories. Naoko relates her trials of the next year of her life, which include people she thought she could trust betraying her. After a quick wedding that isn’t binding, Jimmy/Hajime is taken away from her by naval maneuvers, and without him to protect her, a tragedy puts her back into her family’s hands. Tori’s story is how she unravels the mystery of Naoki and her father.

It’s not a spoiler to say this doesn’t end happily for Naoko and Jimmy; it’s right there in the beginning. But the road that Naoko has to travel is not easy, and her story is quite suspenseful. I was really cheering for her! Tori I didn’t care so much for- the author didn’t put as much into her, I felt. Four stars for a good tale and a plucky protagonist.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

The Ash Family, by Molly Dektar. Simon & Shuster, 2019

As someone who came of age in the late 60s/early 70s, I’ve always been fascinated with communes. Not fascinated enough to ever even think about joining one, but being torn between admiration for the hard work it took to make a successful one and astonishment at how people could fall for the blatant mind control that held others together. In this story, the author creates a cult that includes both those traits.

Nineteen year old Berie’s mother thinks she’s on a plane to college, but she’s not. Berie is waiting at a bus stop when an intriguing man named Bay strikes up a conversation with her, telling her about the farm in the North Carolina mountains he lives on with other like-minded individuals. The live in the ‘real world’, rather than the ‘fake world’ of most people. They share everything, there are no couples and no children, they live in poverty, and produce all their food from the land. She is welcome to visit, but the rule is: you can visit for three days and leave, or stay for the rest of your life. No other way. No one leaves; in fact, people who leave tend to not survive. After meeting the family and their charismatic leader, Dice, she throws in with them. They are, she feels, are just what she’s been looking for.

Of course there is culture shock. Her clothing is all taken away from her, and she is given clothing from the common pool, which is filthy. Renamed Harmony, she is immediately put to work herding the sheep, something she knows nothing about. She even has to sleep in the barn with them. The family only bathes once a week (if that), and they owe strict obedience to Dice. There is to be no asking of questions. There is no medical care. No one is to speak about their own past. And, as it turns out, things aren’t quite what she is told. They ‘live off the land’, but go into town to steal and go dumpster diving. They are for peace, but blow things up.

I loved parts of this story. The descriptions of the land, and the work they do, is written in loving, beautiful detail. It’s a very dark story, though. And in some places it really drags. I didn’t much care for Berie- frankly, she was boring- and certainly not for Dice and some of the other family members. There were a couple who I took a liking to- firstly Pear, the 60ish healer and bread baker. I would have liked to have read about how she, who would supposedly be older and wiser, got sucked into the family. I liked Berie’s ex-boyfriend. I liked Queen, another family member. I give it four stars because while I couldn’t put it down, there were some places where I really wished the story would move faster.

Friday, March 8, 2019

The Five: The Untold Lives of the Women Killed by Jack the Ripper, by Hallie Rubenhold. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019

In 1888, five women were killed by the person who would be called Jack the Ripper. The killings were horrific- they weren’t just killed, but disemboweled- and the newspapers of the time made a mint writing sensational stories about them. They characterized the women as ‘prostitutes’, and nothing more was known about them. The image was that they were out on the street and were slain while working. In reality, while all the women were frightfully poor, only one was a sex worker, and she was killed in her bed at home.

The author brings the five women to life. I was amazed at how much could be learned about these women from existing records. Census records, records in the old workhouses, prison records, pension records, ledgers for various businesses, military discharge papers, school records, registers of births, deaths, and weddings- she must have spent a huge amount of time, combing through these primary resources. Then a huge number of books that were about conditions in Victorian days, which painted the backdrop for the lives of these women. It turns out that they led hard lives; that they had been homeless at times and had to sleep outside, they had been in workhouses, that they were all victims of alcoholism, and that society was pretty much set up against them from the start. The poor rarely had access to schooling, so jobs other than manual labor were closed to them. Women were paid very little for their labor; they almost had to have a man for the income if they wanted to live inside. If their man cheated, beat them, spent all the money on alcohol, or left them, they were up creek. One of the women *did* have a man, but on her last night there was only enough money for one of them to sleep inside, and it was her turn to sleep outside.

This book portrays them women who didn’t always make the right choices, but they had precious few to choose from. They had all the hopes, dreams, and cares that everyone has; they were not just put on earth to be victims of the Ripper. It’s about time they are shown to be human beings. ‘The Five’ does this admirably.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Mosquitoes, by William Faulkner. Horace Liveright Inc. 1927

“Mosquitoes” was the second novel Faulkner wrote. It’s a satire set in New Orleans, and while it’s amusing it’s not really laugh out loud funny. It’s a sort of “Ship of Fools” but with a smaller boat and possibly more foolish people.

A woman of means, Mrs. Maurier, who wields power in the art buying world, arranges a boat party for a few artists and writers. Her niece and nephew are also included, and they snag a couple of other people they’ve never even met before, right off the dock. This mismatched group, who apparently didn’t think things through, finds themselves on Lake Pontchartrain for several days. Mrs. Maurier seems to expect artistic conversation and jolly dances. Instead she gets people who stay consistently drunk and who try and seduce each other. And complain about the fact that they are served grapefruits at every meal. The boat runs aground, some of them try and swim to shore and walk back to the Big Easy, another someone disappears.

These are some of the most annoying people on earth. If I were stuck on a boat with them for days, I’d go overboard, too. It’s fun to read about them at times, but I have to admit I was bored part of the time, too. There is a good bit of repetition. I had trouble remembering who was who- three of the men seemed interchangeable (one was even called “the Semitic man” instead of named most of the time!) and a couple of the young girls did, too. They are the true parasites of the story, not the mosquitoes which, while biting constantly, are never named. None of the women are portrayed in a good light. Three stars.