Thursday, November 30, 2017

Moby Dick by Herman Melville

One of my reading goals this year was to read more classics.  Back in the summer I read Bleak House by Dickens and enjoyed it immensely as I'm a big Dickens fan.  One day while scanning my shelves, Moby Dick seemed to jump out at me and I decided to give it a try.  I'd only heard negative things about it outside of English teachers who declared it a masterpiece but I decided this was the time.

What I never expected to find was how little of the book was about the epic battle between the whale and Captain Ahab.  In a book of around 550 pages, only the last 50 detailed that struggle although it was foreshadowed throughout.  The other thing I never expected was how much I enjoyed this novel.

If you ever wanted to know anything about whaling, this was your textbook.  The author spends pages detailing the types of whales, the skeletal features of whales, what whales ate, how they swam and their family lives.  He went into the same detail about the whaling industry, talking about what the sailors specifically did, what they ate, their relationships, their weapons, etc.  It is one of the most detailed looks at a topic I've ever seen examined.

Then there is the epic struggle.  No one who is a Type A can fail to relate to Captain Ahab.  That monomaniacal determination to win against all odds and no matter what the cost is what propels society forward and what leads to epic tragedies.  I didn't come away loving him, but boy did I relate to him. 

Bottom line is that it was definitely a wonderful reading experience.  This novel won't be for everyone but those who power through to the end will have a marvelous time.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction, those interested in the whaling industry and those struggling with control issues. 

Monday, November 27, 2017

American Wolf by Nate Blakeslee

In American Wolf, the reader is introduced to the wolf reestablishment program for wolves in Yellowstone Park.  Hunted almost to extinction, this program has been a success, bringing wolves back to their habitats throughout the Rockies in states such as Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.  While the program was a success with environmentalists who were heartened to see an ecosystem restored, it was greeted with anger and dismay by the ranchers who wanted the same land to graze their cattle and the hunters that felt that the wolves would threaten their livelihood of arranging elk hunts.

This controversy is illustrated through the life story of one particular wolf.  She was the alpha female of a pack and was known as O-Six for the year of her birth.  Park rangers and wolf-watchers followed her life from her infancy through her childhood to her mate selection and establishment of her own pack.  They watched as she hunted, fought off other wolves interested in her territory and as she successfully raised several litters of puppies.  She was a favorite of the watchers for her skill and grace and her intelligent creation of her pack.

But the book doesn't just talk about the individual wolves.  The author also explains the legal battles going on in court between those interested in saving the wolves and those who wanted to eradicate them.  He also explains the environmental benefits of the wolf introduction program.  While some say that it hurts the elk population, others talk of species that benefit.  For example, the beaver population exploded.  This happened because as the elk adjusted to the new predators and moved upward in the valleys, the willows they ate in the creeks had more chance of survival.  Since the willow is an important part of the beaver life, it helped more beaver to survive.  The coyote population was reduced to a more stable number as the wolves were the superior predators and as the coyote population lowered, that of small rodents who were their prey, rose. 

The author also talks about the humans involved.  He explores the work of specific park rangers, men who have dedicated their lives to rescuing and assisting wildlife.  He talks about the men and women who have made wolf-watching their life work, going out every day without fail to observe the wolves and make copious notes of their observations.  The arguments of hunters are examined along with an in-depth study of one specific hunter.  The reader will walk away from this book armed with an extensive knowledge of all sides of this compelling topic.  This book is recommended for readers of nature books and those interested in environmental topics.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

Commonwealth by Ann Patchett

It all starts at a party in Los Angeles, California.  The Keatings are having a christening party for their younger daughter, Franny.  Everyone has come, a large contingent from the local Catholic church, tons of policemen who the dad, Fix Keating, works with, family members and even guys from the District Attorney's office.  It's a large party that spreads throughout the house and yard.  At the end of it, something has happened that will insure that things will never be the same.

Sometime during the party, Burt Cousins, a local D.A. meets Beverly Keating, the mother of the baby.  Sparks are apparent immediately and before the party is over, the two share a lingering kiss.  This kiss sparks a family tragedy as the two families are broken up.  Burt who has four children and Beverly, with her two girls, each divorce and they marry each other and move to Virginia.

There are now six children involved.  Over the years, they get to know each other and share summer vacations and irritation at their parents.  The novel follows each family over the decades.  Marriages come and go, there is a death that traumatizes everyone and the six children and their parents do a dance in which they come closer and then move farther apart, over and over.  When Franny is in her twenties she has an affair with a celebrated writer.  He takes the stories she has told him about her family and turns it into a successful novel that exposes all the family secrets and forms the basis of new relationships that are now built on truths long hidden.

Ann Patchett has a long history as a celebrated writer.  She has won both an Orange Prize for her novel Bel Canto and a PEN/Faulkner award.  Under her accomplished guidance, the reader learns about the Keating and Cousins families and how they are blended and torn asunder.  It is a paean to family and all the relationships that come from them.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

World-renowned mystery writer Alan Conway has finished his latest mystery.  That's the news that awakes book editor Susan Ryeland when she returns from a business trip.  She takes the manuscript home for the weekend and is soon thoroughly engrossed as she is a big fan of the series, although not necessarily the author himself.  She didn't hit it off to him so her partner has always handled him.  She gets to the end of the manuscript and realizes that the ending chapters are missing and there is no solution.  Ah well, some mistake must have happened and she'll get it straight on Monday.

Monday comes but there is no solution.  Instead, there is the shocking news that Conway has died in a fall at his home.  Susan's partner, Charles, gets a letter from Alan which is basically a suicide note and the police are ready to mark it down as one. 

But when Susan goes to Alan's house to look for the missing chapters, she starts to wonder if Alan has really killed himself or if someone else has done it.  The more she looks into his life, the more she realizes what a totally unpleasant person Alan is.  There are tons of suspects if its a murder; the boyfriend who was about to be pushed aside, the former wife and son who were shocked when Alan wanted a divorce to come out as gay, the neighbor who was involved in a dispute with Alan, the vicar who remembered him as a bully and the former student who claimed Alan stole his book idea.  With all the suspects, can it really be anything but murder?

Anthony Horowitz has written a stunningly good mystery novel.  The concept of writing a book within a book is unique and draws the reader in.  As Susan's investigation deepens, it soon appears that anyone who knew Alan had a reason to wish him gone.  The reader will turn the last pages satisfied to have resolved both the novel murder and the real-life one.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Flesh And Blood by Jonathan Kellerman

Dr. Alex Delaware remembers her.  She was one of his failures.  Lauren was a sullen teenager, forced into seeing him as a therapist by her parents.  She was totally uninterested in what he had to offer, coming late to appointments, leaving early and just quitting after a few sessions.  Underneath the attitude, Delaware sensed real issues that he'd have liked to help her explore but sometimes therapy is like that.

He saw Lauren one more time.  Having gone to a bachelor party, he was shocked to see her as part of the entertainment, dancing nearly nude for the jeering men greedily watching.  She showed up at his house a few days later, insisting on paying him in cash and bragging about how well she was doing.

Now Lauren has disappeared.  Her mother comes to Alex, asking him if he can help find her.  In the intervening years, Lauren seems to have matured.  She is going to college and working on a psychology degree.  Then one day she goes out the door, telling her roommate she would return shortly and never comes home.

As Alex and his friend on the police, Milo Sturgis, investigate, more questions than answers appear.  Lauren has significant investments and is paying for school herself.  Where did the money come from and does it have anything to do with her disappearance?  Is her disappearance linked to that of another beautiful blonde girl from the same university a year or so earlier?

This is the fifteenth Alex Delaware mystery.  Fans will be interested to read another of Alex's cases, although this one seems to have too many coincidences to hang together as well as others.  The interplay between Alex and Milo is always interesting; that between Alex and his long-time love, Robin, significantly less so.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Orfeo by Richard Powers

Peter Els has lived a life of music.  While he went to college to be a chemist, music was always large and came to be his major.  He is a composer and totally immersed in the musical world.  His friends are all musicians.  When he falls in love, it is with a musician.  Over the years, Peter has spent his time in bursts of creativity followed by fallow years when he fears the music has deserted him.  After his marriage fails and he loses his wife and daughter, he lives at times for years in isolation, emerging when his muse returns and he is in a creative cycle.

Now in his seventies, Els has a more serene life.  He spent his last working years as a music professor in a small liberal college and it was a content time for him.  He has taken back up his old interest in chemistry and created a home lab where he tickers with gene cells, wondering if their mathematical absolutism can be translated into music.  One day he opens his door to find police there.  With the rise of Homeland Security, his home lab had been noticed and when there is an outbreak of a disease no one can immediately diagnose, he comes under suspicion.

Alarmed by the visit and emotionally wrecked by the death of his longtime pet, Els is off-kilter and takes off, a move that again, makes him look more suspicious.  As he runs from the police, he retraces the steps and relationships of his past and the reader slowly learns what makes this man who lives in a world so far removed from what most of us experience, is all about.  His primeval need is to create and he sees music in everything around him.  He wants to use music to challenge, to push people past their normal barriers.

The twenty-four news cycle takes up the hunt for Els as he flees, having gained the nickname 'the biohazard Bach'.  Since he cares nothing for normal life and is used to solitude, he manages to evade the hunt as he moves from past icon to past relationship, always clarifying in his own mind the urge to create and share what he has learned.

Orfeo is a modern retelling of the myth of Orpheus.  It was a Man Booker nominee in 2014 as well as a National Book Award nominee.  It confirms the status of Richard Powers as one of our best modern novelists, one who is not afraid to take readers on a voyage of great thoughts and to challenge them.  In this work, the reader who is not musical gets a glimpse into what is so compelling about this world and about how creation is everything to those who inhabit it.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Living The Dream by Lauren Berry

Emma is a writer.  She knows she is; it is what feeds her soul.  But she spends her days as a 'creative' at a London marketing firm where they have high hopes for her talent and intuition but where she feels she is slowly dying.  Her boss is a joke whom she has to kowtow to on a daily basis and she only has one person there she considers a friend.  She has a blog with a small readership and she wants to take the next step but is paralyzed by the fear of striking out on her own.

Clementine has just returned to London from her college days in New York.  She got her degree in theatre and has a play that was well received by her professors.  She is working a dead end job in a bar while she shops her play around to various agents, hoping to make a breakthrough of all the piles of work they routinely get.  Best friends from their childhood, the two women support each other in matters of love, friendship and trying to carve out a career.

There are various men who come and go, are just passing encounters or desired relationships that never quite materialize.  There is the common friend who is about to get married so that the women get the full Bridezilla experience as she wends her way nearer her nuptials.  Above all, there is the deft touch of the author who makes these characters believable and ones that the reader is delighted to cheer on.

This is the author's first novel although not her first work.  She created a feminist 'zine Knockback and spends her time writing about the female experience.  Her work has been featured in English newspapers and magazines.  Readers will, at the end of this novel, hope that she will also continue to write novels as this first one is a delight.

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Hum And The Shiver by Alex Bledsoe

In a remote valley in rural Tennessee, a group of people live quietly, keeping to themselves and uninterested in contact with a bigger world.  Collectively, the group is known as the Tufa and rumors are spread about them.  All the Tufa have long, black, shiny hair, dark eyes that shine with light and are dark-complected.  The other thing known about them is that music plays an integral part in their lives and most of them are accomplished musicians.  Some say that when the first settlers made their way to the valley, the Tufa were already there in place.  Some say they have supernatural power.  But the Tufa don't say much at all. 

Things are stirred when one of their own is returned as a military hero.  Unlike most Tufa, Bronwyn Hyatt left and joined the army, serving in Iran.  When she is injured and rescued after killing ten of the enemy in an encounter, the nation wants to know more about her and how she did what she did.  She is returned with great fanfare, injured to the point where months of recuperation and rehabilitation will be necessary.  Or at least that's what conventional medicine would say.

The Hyatt family wants only to be left alone.  Chloe and Duncan have been married for many years, raising their children, Kell, Bronwyn and Aiden.  They don't want the fanfare surrounding Bronwyn's return.  They just want to return to their own ways.  Signs have been brewing that trouble is coming and they need their family to be intact and ready to face whatever is on the way.

Two outsiders come into the valley at the same time.  Don Swayback is a reporter, his career waning as he just hasn't been that interested in years.  He's heard family talk that he is related to the Tufa somewhere back in his history and that as well as Bronwyn's return sparks his interest.  Craig Chess is a total outsider.  He has been assigned to his first post after his ordination as a minister and he knows he has a tough road ahead trying to interest the Tufa in his religion.

As Bronwyn settles in with her family, trouble mounts.  Her wild boyfriend from before her military service is fresh out of prison and determined to get her back.  She is equally determined to resist him.  Is this the trouble that the omens are warning of?

Alex Bledsoe grew up in Tennessee so it is not unusual that he has chosen it as the locale of this fantasy series, currently at six novels with this one as the introduction to the Tufa clan.  The Hum And The Shiver was chosen as a Kirkus Best Novel in 2011, and the series continues to win praise.  This novel is recommended for readers of modern fantasy.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

The Husband's Secret by Liane Moriarty

Ceceila has it all.  A gorgeous husband, three healthy happy girls, a great house.  She is the head of the school parent organization, runs a home business that is thriving and is the queen of organizing.  Her house and life run on a right schedule and everyone envies her and how smooth her life proceeds.

Tess also has her own business.  She started an advertising firm with her husband and her best friend, who is her cousin.  Their talents were complementary and the business is producing quite a good income.  But Tess has just been handed a body blow.  Her husband and cousin have announced that they are so very sorry, they don't know how it happened, but they are in love and want to live together.

Rachel has no issues with relating to body blows.  Years ago her daughter was murdered on her sixteenth birthday.  The murderer has never been found, although Rachel has her suspicions about who might be the culprit.  She works as a secretary at the elementary school and has found solace in her son's new baby, a toddler who loves his grandmother. 

All these women are brought together when one of them opens a letter that should never have been opened.  It contains a secret that wasn't meant to be revealed until after the writer's death.  Now that it has come out in the open, it will affect each of these women and change their lives forever. 

Liane Moriarty has written a novel with three distinct plotlines that comes together in a complex fashion with everything resolved at the end.  Most female readers can relate to at least one of the women and most have known examples of each model.  It leads the reader to speculate on how they would handle such life-altering revelations and what strength they might have to face a crushing disclosure in their own lives.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Day I Died by Lori Rader-Day

Her name is Anna Winger.  Or at least that's her name in this town, one of a series of towns she has run to over the years.  Anna is hiding from her ex-husband, the man who beat her repeatedly and who she finally escaped from when she realized she was pregnant.  Now, thirteen years later, she has settled into a little town in Indiana with her teenage son, Joshua.  They are here for a while, all their belongings ready to pack up and flee at a moment's notice.

Anna makes her living on the computer.  She is a writing analyst and does work for large corporations vetting employees and for what she calls her 'lonelyhearts', women who want to know if the men they love are good and kind.  It is a profession that she fought to attain and one that allows her to support her family without personal entanglements.

But all that is about to change.  A two year old boy has disappeared in the small town Anna lives in.  Against her will, the police have her name from an FBI contact who steers corporate work her way, and they want to know what she can tell them from the note left behind.  Anna recognizes the writing of a woman who is also fleeing for her life and it draws her into the case against her best judgment.  Can she help find this child, or will looking for him cause her to lose her cover?  She is alternatively intrigued and repulsed by the sheriff heading up the investigation and senses that he might be the person that blows her cover forever.  Will she continue knowing the risks to herself?

Lori Rader-Day's writing has won several mystery awards, such as the Anthony Award for Best First Novel and the Mary Higgins Clark Award.  Her work has appeared in mystery magazines and she has written several other best selling mysteries.  In this novel, the reader is intrigued by the mystery in Anna's own background and is drawn into her life.  One can't help but hope for Anna to find more than she has managed to claw out of life so far and the novel is compelling for that reason.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Welcome Home Diner by Peggy Lampman

Two women, cousins decide to open their dream diner in Detroit and attempt to rejuvenate a distressed neighborhood.  Addie is driven, determined to match her life to the schedule she laid out for herself years ago and not willing to stop until she has everything she wants.  Sam is more laid-back, taking life as it comes.  She does the baking while Addie does the books and runs the front.  They hire neighborhood residents as kitchen and wait staff and their goal is to provide healthy, tasteful meals in the farm to table tradition so popular currently and to provide an alternative to the fast food choices the residents have now.

The two women grew up sharing summers on their Polish grandparents' farm, learning to cook from their grandmother.  She taught them the traditional Polish dishes handed down from generation to generation in their family.  Sam's parents were also farmers, former hippies who came back home to start their own farm and raise goats.  Addie's parents were more into money and influence and their marriage broke apart while Addie was still a young girl.  For both girls, the summers were beacons in their lives and strengthened the bond between them until they were more like sisters than cousins.

The diner is a huge undertaking but it seems that it is going to make it.  Then stresses start to hit.  The tables are crowded but it is white professionals that discover the diner and rave about it.  The neighborhood people they hoped to serve want no part of them, seeing them as interlopers.  They run afoul of a business that preys on new start ups and when they cut their contract, try to intimidate them.  Worst of all, they develop a mystery stalker who gives them bad reviews on social media, making outright lies about the diner such as their water is tainted or their food is underdone making customers sick.  Will the stresses they face and their differing personalities pull the women apart and put an end to their dream?

Peggy Lampman has written an entertaining tale about how to make a dream come true.  She doesn't sugarcoat the hard work that goes into it, or the difficulty of working with people unlike you towards a common goal.  The various cultures represented by the women and their employees as well as the traditional neighborhood are presented in a valuing way.  The love lives of the women, which match their basic personalities, are explored as well.  The book ends with some of the recipes talked about in the story of the diner.  This book is recommended for readers of women's literature as well as those who enjoy reading about food related topics.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel

A little girl goes exploring in the woods and falls down in a hole.  When she is discovered, she is curled up on the surface of a giant hand.  The little girl grows up to be a scientist, and her crowning achievement is as the head of a group that is put together to explore the amazing metal hand she had discovered as a child.  The hand was excavated and discovered to be constructed of a rare metal and half the weight that it should be from what was known of the metal's characteristics.  Over time, other parts of the figure were discovered all over the world, and it is put together to form a massive woman robot.

Next comes the ability to study it and determine its purpose.  A team is assembled.  Rose Franklin is the scientist who originally found the hand and now heads up the research team.  A pair of pilots from the military are drafted into the program to actually enter and steer the robot.  The woman pilot is a strong personality who is a natural leader but who will break rules when she sees a way forward.  Her co-pilot is a man who is more ready to follow the rules.  Then there is a Canadian linguist graduate student who is brought in to decipher the symbols written on the robot.  Controlling them all is a shadowy figure whose name and purpose is never revealed.  They discover that the robot is capable of either saving or completely destroying the human race.  Which will it be?

This is a fascinating novel that is a quick read and is the first book in a trilogy.  The story is told through a series of interviews with the overseer and journal entries from the various individuals involved.  The interplay of personalities and the potential for either advancing civilization or destroying makes for an engaging read that is hard to put down.  This is a debut novel and a fascinating start for this author.  This book is recommended for science fiction readers.