Eager reader of history, mystery, classics, biographies, steampunk, lit fic, science, scifi, and etc. My reviews are mostly positive--I rarely finish or write about books I don't enjoy. My TBR is too high for that.
My sister is having surgery and I'm here in Philadelphia to help so I needed light reading today--this is perfect.
Back in 1999, cartoonist and writer Jessica Abel wrote a slim but very interesting graphic novel-like book--maybe you’d call it a nonfiction comic book--about how the radio show This American Life creates its often irresistible stories, stories that lead to “driveway moments” where you’ve arrived home but can’t get out of the car because you must hear how those stories end. I’ve treasured my copy of Radio: An Illustrated Guide for years and now Abel has written a greatly expanded update.
At 200+ pages Abel’s new book, Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio, includes other American radio shows with high quality narrative nonfiction, shows like Snap Judgement, Radio Lab, Planet Money, The Moth, 99% Invisible, and Radio Diaries. The people who work on these shows are characters in the “story” of how they put together their various radio pieces, and Abel uses graphic images in ways that I didn’t expect but that really work well on several levels.
She shows herself interacting and in conversations with many of the radio people she interviewed for the book, creating dialog and pictures that give a sense of the personalities involved while also conveying information about the sometimes varied story processes the shows use--Snap Judgement and This American Life have very different philosophies for instance. Some of the picture panels are set in radio offices, meeting rooms, or broadcast areas, but Abel also puts her characters in a myriad of other more dramatic locations, including wandering around lost in a dense “German forest” and scaling a treacherously steep a rock cliff, images that vividly and charmingly illustrate the creative steps the characters are struggling through.
It’s both amazing and fascinating how much goes into making these shows as compelling as they are--it might take hours or even a whole workday to get 20 seconds right. I’m a big fan of radio, I think it’s natural for a bibliophile to treasure a medium where words play such a key role, so I already loved many of the radio shows in the book but I’m listening now with a lot more alertness and insight into the techniques behind the finished products.
The book is broken into chapters that explore how to: come up with story ideas that will work, find the right characters and voice, structure the story’s components, use sound and music to create images and scene breaks, and edit hours of tape (they still call it that, even in the digital age) into a tight radio segment. I think anyone interested in radio, the creative process, or what it is that makes stories riveting will find this book as fascinating as I did.
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher through the website LibraryThing. Review opinions are mine.
I didn’t think it would be possible for the second book in this series to live up to the first, which is a compelling personal story, a suspenseful mystery, and one of my favorite novels of 2014 (my review here), but this new book by Julia Dahl is at least as gripping as her debut. At the end of the previous novel Rebekah learns that her long lost mother would like to talk, but when this one opens several months later Rebekah still hasn’t been able to get herself to give her mother a call. Aviva Kagan was a troubled teenager when she left her Hasidic Jewish life in Brooklyn, ran off with a non-Jewish college boy, gave birth to Rebekah, and then fled to parts unknown, leaving her fiancé and infant daughter behind.
Rebekah is working her dream job as a journalist, but coping with anxiety (long term) and depression (new) is affecting her reporting skills and threatening to derail the career progress she’s made. When she’s contacted by an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man who hopes she’ll look into why his wife’s suspicious death hasn’t been investigated so she can write an article to prod the police, Rebekah gets involved with the insular religious community her mother grew up in and finds herself investigating a group of white supremacists.
For the first two-thirds of the novel Rebekah’s mother recounts her life to explain her actions in chapters that alternate with Rebekah in the present day until the two plotlines begin to converge. I was equally drawn to the stories of both women, and it’s all written so realistically and set so convincingly in a timeline of real events that it’s easy to get swept up. Characters with varied levels of religious belief and disbelief are all portrayed with insight and sympathy, and are allowed shortcomings as well as strengths. It’s a disquieting but potent story and I’m looking forward to the next book in the series.
With snappy dialog, off-beat teen characters, and a whip-smart high-speed plot, this book took me on a wild ride that I didn’t want to end, so the only thing that disappointed me was reading the last page which made me long for a sequel. I’m not sure if one is planned, but some questions are left hanging and the story could definitely continue.
Zoe Webster’s parents have just split up, forcing her to move to a small town with her mother, though she’s always been closer to her type-A father, and leaving her feeling displaced, resentful, and bored. Trying to make inroads into her new high school’s insular social scene has been a disaster, and then neurotic, intrusive, super-smart, utterly idiosyncratic Philip Digby shows up with his crazy ideas and rash schemes and things get even worse.
It’s not that trouble follows Digby, he chases it and for some reason includes Zoe in all his plans. She could refuse--and sometimes she does or tries to--but Zoe’s got nothing else to do, she’s tired of obsessively trying to strategize her future, and besides she’s intrigued. The book opens in the middle of their story with Zoe desperately and inexplicably trying to get inside a house wired with enough explosives to level the block, then jumps to the first day of school and Zoe’s initial aggravating, unsettling encounter with tell-it-like-it-is-to-the-point-of-rudeness Digby.
It turns out there’s some reason in Digby’s mad schemes, but we don’t find out what that is for a while. Digby has a difficult family situation and an unresolved tragedy in his past that drive his actions, which makes it sound like the book might be heavy but it’s almost absurdly funny.
A religious cult, a skeevy gynecologist, high stakes crime, and the jungle politics of high school all figure in the plot. There’s some romance, but it’s far from typical, and a crime is solved, but a mystery is left hanging. Front and center is Zoe’s maddening, enlightening relationship with Digby and their harebrained, rapidly evolving adventures. This is a debut novel--can’t wait for the next book.
I have a special fondness for stories about far from perfect, less than amazing characters. Throw in an insular small town setting and I’m generally hooked--which certainly proved true with mystery thriller Little Pretty Things; I could barely put the book down to get on with my own life.
Juliet Townsend was a promising track star in high school, but she always took second place because her best friend Maddy ran just a little bit faster. Never coming in first meant no scholarships to prestigious schools and when her father died suddenly Juliet dropped out of college and returned home, which is where she still is ten years after high school graduation. She works cleaning rooms in a dive hotel, barely supporting herself and her mentally fragile mother and compulsively pocketing random items left behind by guests. After a decade of no contact, her former best friend shows up with a huge diamond engagement ring and the desire to reconnect, but Juliet, full of resentment, brushes Maddy off. By the next morning Maddy is dead, and Juliet is a suspect in her murder.
Of course Juliet investigates, partly to clear her name but also to find out what happened to the friend she regrets rebuffing. This takes her back into the world of high school, this time as a substitute gym teacher coaching girls on the current track team, and being there gives Juliet new perspectives about her own participation in the sport. Juliet also spends time sneaking around in the dark, going after possible clues, and though I had a fairly good idea of who the murderer would turn out to be the story is highly suspenseful.
Without being didactic Little Pretty Things addresses some important issues, racial prejudice and teenage sexulity among them. The well drawn characters really made the story for me--I especially enjoyed the relationships between Juliet and Lu, the slightly older Hispanic woman who also cleans rooms at the hotel, and Juliet and the female cop investigating the murder, a testy former high school classmate Juliet had ignored when she and Maddy were track team celebrities. I’ll be looking for the next book from Lori Rader-Day.
Henry VIII sings the blues . . .
Pictured above and listed below are the books I enjoyed but didn't review:
And here are the books I reviewed, with review links below:
I didn’t so much read this novel about early aviator Beryl Markham as feel it, being swept up into the wild, diverse world of colonial Africa every time I opened the book. Normally I much prefer biography to any fictionalized version of a real person’s life, especially someone like Markham who’s penned a wonderful account of her own adventures, but Paula McLain brings Markham to life on the page by writing her rather amazing story with such insight and feeling that while I was reading the book it seemed impossible that McLain hadn’t lived it all herself. In an author’s note at the end she explains some of the strong connection she felt with Markham.
Circling the Sun covers the first part of Markham’s life, from her rough and tumble early childhood, through the beginning of her almost life-long career training race horses, until her record setting flight across the Atlantic--a time that extends from the turn of the last century to the interval between the two world wars. Her story is rich with rift valley scenery, intersecting cultures, and interesting people, including native Africans, Asian immigrants, and European colonials. Markham maintained a close, family-like like relationship with the Kipsigis man who was her best friend in childhood, and she mingled with the likes of Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen, author of Out of Africa), Denys Finch Hatton (a lover of both Blixen and Markham--Dinesen left Markham out of her book), the many times married Idina Sackville (Nancy Mitford’s model for The Bolter in her book The Pursuit of Love) and the future (if brief) King Edward VIII.
McLain, a poet as well as a novelist, writes with eloquent beauty. She made what I think is a bold choice to tell the story in the first person, but for me it worked, pulling me in so I felt like I was walking around under the Kenyan sun myself. Not being a big fan of Hemingway I hadn’t read McLain’s earlier book, The Paris Wife, when it came out, but I will certainly be getting my hands on a copy now.
I read an advanced review copy of Circling the Sun supplied to me at no cost by the publisher. Review opinions are mine.
Earth Flight is the third book in this series featuring Jarra, a feisty, junk food loving, slang savvy, far-in-the-future girl who’s handicapped by having an immune system that won’t allow her to portal off of the home planet, so if you haven’t read the first two books, this isn’t the place to start, but if you’ve enjoyed the others it would be nardle to miss this one because it’s a totally zan conclusion. At least I think it’s the close of a trilogy, but I’d love another book and this one ends with Jarra still having lots left to do. If this is the end I’m going to hate leaving this totally amaz universe behind.
In the previous book Jarra and her twoing partner Fian managed to send a message to the alien ship parked just above Earth, which keeps the young couple involved in the government’s first contact project, so now Jarra is juggling military duties, history of early humanity classes, dangerous dig site field work at the ruins of once magnificent Earth cities, and her relationship with Fian, which goes through a lot of changes in the story.
One of the things I’ve loved best about this series is how thoroughly Janet Edwards has developed the diverse cultures of the far flung off-Earth settlements, and we learn more them all in this book, especially the somewhat notorious Beta clans since Jarra has discovered she’s one of them. This isn’t a perfectly written series, but it’s “flaws” have actually seemed to enhance my pleasure. There’s info dumping, but it’s fascinating since the future Edwards imagines is so detailed and interesting, and Jarra can be a bit of a Mary Sue (though that’s less in this third book), but she’s utterly charming anyway because she’s so good natured and full of enthusiasm.
If you love this series check out Janet Edwards’s website for 8 free prequel stories that further explore all the off-Earth colonies. Link here
I am going to miss Jane and Vincent. Of Noble Family is the married couple’s fifth and final adventure in Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist History series set in an alternate Regency Britain enhanced by glamour, the loveliest system of magic I’ve encountered. But while their glamoured displays are often breathtaking, Jane and Vincent have taken ether-based illusions far beyond the ubiquitous drawing room decorations created by accomplished young women. In previous books they’ve found practical, if hair-raising, applications for glamour in the war against Napoleon, the Luddite riots, and an escapade involving pirates on the Mediterranean. For this last story the couple will be off to the Caribbean.
When the book opens, Jane and Vincent have been resting after their harrowing exploits on the Italian Island of Murano and enjoying the company of Jane’s family, especially her sister Melody’s new baby boy, who is already showing a precocious ability to see inside glamoured images. But things don’t stay relaxing for long. Vincent receives a letter from his brother Richard that turns their world upside down.
The first shocking piece of news is that Vincent’s father has died of a stroke at the family estate on the Caribbean island of Antigua. Lord Verbury fled to the island in an earlier book to avoid being imprisoned for treason. Since Vincent was badly abused by his father while growing up, the death wasn’t as upsetting to him as it might be, but the bad news didn’t end there. Upon their father’s death, Vincent’s oldest brother Garland inherited the title Lord Verbury, bought himself a new barouche-landau, and then died when the vehicle overturned on the badly maintained road leading to Lyme Regis. Vincent’s middle brother, Richard, was severely injured in the accident, losing one of his feet. In his letter Richard asks Vincent for a very large favor.
Apparently their father’s most recent will is in Antigua, and it will only be released to one of the sons. Richard’s injuries make it impossible for him to travel right now, so he’s asking Vincent to make the journey and straighten out any problems on the estate that need attention. Jane is completely against it. Why should Vincent go? She’s seen how poisonous anything to do with his father is for Vincent, and Vincent has already disassociated himself from his family by changing his last name.
But Richard has always been kind to Vincent and was just as badly treated by their father himself. Plus, being professional glamourists Jane and Vincent have no possibility of work in Britain for the time being anyway. Beloved Princess Charlotte, daughter of George IV, recently died in childbirth so the country is in mourning for a year and all glamour has been stripped from homes and public places. For these reasons, Vincent decides to help Richard by traveling to Antigua, and Jane of course goes with him, but nothing turns out as they expected. The boat journey across the Atlantic is much more difficult than any water trip they’ve made before, and once they reach the island they discover they’ve been lied to as shocking family secrets begin to come to light.
Of Noble Family is a heart-racingly superb conclusion to the series and includes all the charms I’ve come to expect from Kowal. I love that the books don't shy away from charged historical issues--here Jane and Vincent are confronting slavery, and grappling with their own prejudices and well-meaning but sometimes short sighted feelings about it--and I love that the stories aren’t set only generally during the Regency period--all the stories take place at specific times, this one during the mourning period for Princess Charlotte.
It continues to be a pleasure to see what happens after an Austen-like happy ending marriage. Jane and Vincent have a strong relationship but it’s not effortlessly wonderful and they have to work at it. Also, Of Noble Family is a richer story than it might have been in other hands because Jane and Vincent aren’t its only heroes. The slave characters practice their own forms of glamour, and act with agency, resource, and intelligence.
My only complaint is the one you’d expect--I wish there was going to be another book. But Kowal wraps everything up in a moving and satisfying way, and there is at least one more thing to look forward to. Kowal always narrates the audio versions of her books, but since Of Noble Family has characters with Caribbean accents this time she has the help of two other readers. I’ve listened to a sample and it’s wonderful, especially Prentice Onayemi’s deep, Mr. Darcy-like interpretation of Vincent’s voice. I’m going to enjoy revisiting the story in audio form.
I read an advanced review copy of this book provided to me at no cost by the publisher. Review opinions are mine. Originally posted on the Austenprose website.
The hardships of living in a once modern country that no longer has enough reliable electricity to cool its citizen’s home refrigerators or run the now defunct factories where they used to work are more than I could have imagined and heart-rending, but there is at least one advantage. When the sun sets the country goes completely dark, it’s a blank spot on nighttime satellite photos and the starry sky must be amazing to see, which provides cover to young teenage lovers who otherwise would be prevented from meeting by their scared conservative families, their class conscious society, and their frighteningly punitive government.
North Korea is one of the most culturally isolated nations on the planet, which makes this poignant and descriptive book about the personal lives and families of six former residents of Chonhjin, a city in a northern outpost of the country far from what any foreigner would see, a testament to Barbara Demick’s patience, perseverance, and humanity. While working as a journalist in South Korea Demick was able to meet and spend considerable time with of many former residents of that region--her reasoning was that she would be able to verify facts more easily if she talked to people who were all connected to one place--and she’s created a surprisingly complete and moving picture of their lives.
Part of what makes the book so interesting is how varied the six people Demick profiles are. Some lived on the fringes of North Korean society even before the famine and infrastructure breakdown, others were formerly loyal party members only gradually disillusioned by the dysfunction and corruption of their government, and two were teenage lovers who could only meet in darkness.
The North Korean government does not come off well in this book, but neither do the Allied powers who made such a mess of Korea after WWII and then followed it up with the devastating Korean War. Dystopian fiction pales next to the gripping real stories told in Nothing to Envy, but since the people Demick talked with were resourceful during their almost unimaginable difficulties and have all escaped to make new lives in South Korea the book isn’t flatly bleak.
I really enjoyed this, but couldn't begin to explain it. It's sort of like an appealing but absurd poem with religious and philosophical undertones.
I could not resist the narrative voice of this earthy, augury filled, family rich story set in the First Nations Haisla community of western Canada. Nineteen year old Lisamarie is generally fearless and never takes guff from anyone--she’ll launch herself at a gang of bullies without hesitation and her uncle affectionately calls her monster--but the nighttime visits she receives from a small, wild, red haired man terrify her because they always precede a death or tragedy. It’s a visionary “gift” she discovers runs in her family, though no one talks much about anymore so she’s mostly on her own with it.
When her younger brother Jimmy is lost at sea Lisamarie embarks on a solo speedboat trip up the Pacific coast driven by guilt, fear and grief, determined to find him or his body. Her vivid memories and visions along the way take the story all the way back to her early childhood and into the land of the dead.
The ending? It’s somewhat hallucinatory, not something I could confidently articulate, but I was swept along anyway. With writing that’s beautiful and raw, this book is a colorful, sometimes dizzying odyssey, filled with ghosts, poverty, kinship ties, Haisla culture, Sasquatch monkey men, and the grit and wonder of the natural world.
Many thanks to BrokenTune who brought this book to my attention. Her review is here.
2014’s Station Eleven captivated me with its story of life after a pandemic flu caused the collapse of society, and The Lola Quartet, an earlier novel by the same author, shares many of Station Eleven’s story elements, including a life during crisis theme, though here the disasters are on a smaller scale.
Gavin is unsettled by the news that he may have fathered a daughter by a troubled high school girlfriend who disappeared--so unsettled he makes mistakes that sabotage his NYC career as a reporter, though print journalism is in its death throes anyway and his paper shut down not long after he was fired. He moves back to Florida because an economic crash similar to (or the same as) the one of 2007-2008 has created a job opportunity for him with his sister, whose work involves foreclosing on homes--she has to use a punching bag to work off the stress. In his free time Gavin uses his investigative skills to try to find his old girlfriend and his daughter.
It’s a fraught enterprise, and he’s warned off it at every turn, but locating his missing daughter is not something Gavin can let go of. In the process he reconnects with the other members of his high school jazz quartet--his girlfriend’s half-sister was the drummer--but everyone’s life has changed drastically since the almost magical evening of their final concert outdoors on the back of a truck, and no one seems able or willing to help him.
As in Station Eleven there are several third person narrators, the writing is beautiful and evocative, and the story is riveting, moving, and complex. Both novels unfold while shifting back and forth in time, revealing information slowly--a technique that irritates me in some books, but author Emily St. John Mandel makes it feel artful. Though The Lola Quartet doesn’t involve the almost total disintegration of civilization, strangely it’s a darker, less hopeful tale than Station Eleven, with moral dilemmas and needless but inevitable tragedy giving it an uncompromising, maybe noirish feel.
Resourceful, optimistic, determined, and unflappable, Miss Marjorie Marjoribanks would make a delightful, though perhaps slightly controlling, companion. While staying dutifully--albeit perhaps a bit technically--inside the closely circumscribed boundaries of what is correct and proper behavior for a young Victorian woman, Miss Marjoribanks is able to manage just about every aspect of life in her little town, including politics, even though she can’t, of course, actually vote.
After finishing school and taking a brief tour of the continent, Miss Marjoribanks comes back home to “be a comfort” to her dear papa, a modest and selfless goal she mentions frequently at the most strategic times. Her mother had died a few years back and while her father, the town doctor, finds his life quite complete, Miss Marjoribanks is determined to make it better. She also has a quite a few other things in mind to improve the social life of the town as well, including holding lively and soon beloved Thursday evening gatherings in her father’s drawing room, which she had specially painted in a shade to flatter her complexion (she thinks of everything!).
Miss Marjoribanks decides she’ll continue on this course for 10 years, long enough to make up for papa having had the expense of redecorating the drawing room, before she thinks about getting married. But even Miss Marjoribanks can’t anticipate everything that will happen.
Some readers and reviewers have remarked that Marjorie Marjoribanks is like Jane Austen’s Emma but less irritating, and I concur completely with that sentiment. It’s a long book, and it did drag a little in the middle for me, but the story has a wonderful ending and it’s filled with a variety of spirited, humorous, mostly lovable characters.
My pleasure in this book was greatly enhanced by dialogue with reading partners--Miss Marjoribanks was an April buddy read with the Dead Writers Society on GoodReads and the Reading the Victorian Book Club on BookLikes.
This entertaining, often enthralling, mix of history, humor, travelogue, family memoir, and no holds barred social commentary reminds me of my favorite Bill Bryson books--especially A Walk in the Woods about Bryson’s (mis)adventures hiking the Appalachian Trail. When Rinker Buck discovered that large stretches of the Oregon Trail still exist, he had romantic visions of a back to basics journey across the western half of the continent and began obsessively and meticulously preparing for a mule-drawn covered wagon trip along the old pioneer route. Since he was divorced and his daughters were grown, why not? Rinker planned to go solo, but even replica wagons have breakdowns, so fortunately for both him and his readers Rinker’s handy, force of nature brother insisted on coming along too--a brusque, big-hearted, syntax challenged, mechanically gifted giant of a man who has some resemblance to Harry Potter’s Hagrid.
Rinker blends the fascinating if fraught history of the mass migration westward into the story of his own journey. Pioneer journals were his guides, and the sections devoted to their lively accounts of trail travel were some of my favorite parts of the book. Rinker also writes movingly about his father, an adventurous, family-centered man who inspired his trip. I found the chapter about the surprising (to me) importance role of mules in 18th and 19th century America--starting with George Washington as a savvy land speculating donkey importer and mule broker--utterly captivating, and it’s a good example of the atypical historical perspectives and insights that make this book so riveting.
But The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey is as much about the modern day West and its people as it is about the past, and as an Easterner I learned a lot--Rinker, his brother, and their mule team often spent their nights in open publicly maintained corrals where teenagers gather to hang out and practice rodeo skills, not something we encounter here in the Boston to Washington megalopolis. The writing about the actual trip is detailed but evocative, so I felt like I was watching the scenery and riding along in the covered wagon myself. I wasn’t quite so interested in the wagon maintenance aspects of their journey, but I’m sure those sections will delight some readers.