Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Milkman by Anna Burns

The place is Northern Ireland during the time of The Troubles.  The conflict is everything and every aspect of life is filtered through the prism of which side you sympathize with and whether any action or thought of yours can be construed as supporting the enemy.  Everything is scrutinized and the result is a claustrophobic existence in which even names are valuable secrets that cannot be bandied about with freedom.

One girl tries to make her way through the cloudiness and restrictions.  We never learn her name.  We learn that there is a man called The Milkman who has staked a claim to her.  He is fairly high up in the paramilitary that controls everything so even though she has no interest in him, the community assumes she is his mistress and then condemns her for it.  Every family she knows has lost children to the conflict; she has lost a brother, another is exiled as is a sister.  She still lives with her mother whose only concern is getting her safely married and her younger female siblings. 

She learns lessons.  She has a maybe boyfriend who never comes to her neighborhood and whose existence she keeps secret.  There is a woman who poisons those around her but since the police and medical establishment are considered agents of the state, the community tries to handle the situation and cure those poisoned by themselves.  She learns that you can never expect love to work out and you marry someone who can suit rather than the one you really love as it will be too painful to lose them as you inevitably will.  You must fit in with no actions or thoughts that make you stand out.  The community is everything, the individual nothing.

Anna Burns has written a book that will be long remembered by readers.  It won the Booker Prize in 2018 and is deserving of that honor.  It shows the results of a land torn apart in a way that is like a blow to the heart.  Those who see the division that has struck our own country can read this book as a warning of what can occur when we lose the ability to even interact with those we disagree with.  This book is recommended for readers of literary fiction.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Orphan Master by Jean Zimmerman

The year is 1663 but all is not well in the city of New Amsterdam.  Someone is taking orphans and the colony prides itself on looking after these lost souls.  The children are found later, murdered, mutilated and even cannibalized.  Who could be doing such horrific acts?

The orphan master comes under suspicion as he has the most access to the children as he arranges work or families for them.  But suspicion also falls on others, from wealthy black sheep from the best families to a huge former slave to an Indian who believes himself to be the witika, a spirit which lived on human flesh. 

The governor, Peter Stuyvesant, realizes that this is a crisis and informs his rudimentary police force that the killer must be discovered and captured.  But there are others working on this as well.  Edward Drummond is an Englishman new to the colony.  He presents himself as a trader but in reality is an English spy sent to America to find the whereabouts of three men who signed the death warrant for King Charles I.  Blandine van Couvering is a female trader who has gained her living after starting as an orphan herself.  She looks after the African Americans in the colony as well as befriending Kitane, the Indian whose illness makes him believe in the witika.  Blandine and Edward fall in love and race to find the killer at great personal cost.  Blandine is named as a witch while Edward's spying is discovered and he is condemned to hang for treason.  Can the killer be found in the midst of this uproar?

Jean Zimmerman has written both a compelling colonial mystery as well as giving the reader an accurate peek into the daily life of a Dutch American colony.  The Dutch settlers were different from the English in many ways, one of which was their tolerance of more freedom for women as displayed by the women traders to be found.  The intermingling of the various factions is also displayed in a positive fashion as well as the inevitability of the Dutch losing their foothold in the Americas.  This book is recommended for readers of historical fiction and mystery.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Girls Like Us by Cristina Alger

Nell Flynn couldn't wait to get out of Suffolk County.  She doesn't have good memories from her childhood there after her mother was murdered when Nell was seven.  Her father was a homicide detective and was briefly suspected but he and Nell were miles away, camping in the forest.  Afterwards, though, her father was cold and distant as her mother had supplied all the warmth and color a little girl loved. 

Now Nell has returned after the death of her father in a motorcycle accident.  Nell is now an FBI agent; she lives her life on the road, consulting with police departments across the country on serial killers.  The life suits her; she has no interest in forming relationships with anyone.  Her last case left her wounded so she is out on leave to heal and has time to settle the estate and decide whether or not to sell the house and sever the last ties with her childhood.

When a body is found, a detective who was a childhood friend comes calling.  Lee wants Nell's help and expertise.  When Nell finds that there was another body found a year earlier and that her father was working on the case, her interest is piqued.  Soon she finds the pattern.  Both victims are young Hispanic women, both were occasional escorts hiring out to party with the wealthy men who inhabit Suffolk County and its beaches in the summer.  Both were dismembered then tied up in burlap and buried.  Is there a serial killer at work?  And horrible as it sounds, was that killer Nell's father?  The clues could point his way and he was hiding a lot of secrets.  Can Nell discover the truth?

Alger has written an interesting novel about how our childhood influences our choices in life.  Nell is wounded by her early loss and her father's coldness and distance.  Her mother's murder pointed the way to Nell's career and her father's skills and early influence made her a skillful investigator.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Booksie's Shelves, December 24, 2019

Christmas always means lots of books coming into the house.  I tend to give everyone I know books for gifts and while I'm buying for them, I often buy a couple for myself.  Then there are the best of lists that proliferate this time of year and I often end up buying books from various lists. Friends give me books they think I'll like and of course, I sometimes win books or various publishers send me books.   I wish everyone a happy holiday with lots of great books to read in the new year.  With that being said, here's what has come through the door lately:

1. From A Low And Quiet Sea, Donal Ryan, literary fiction, purchased
2.  Beginning With Cannonballs, Jill McCroskey Coupe, literary fiction, sent by publisher
3.  Amnesty, Aravind Adiga, literary fiction, won in contest
4.  A Queen In Hiding, Sarah Kozloff, fantasy, won in contest
5.  The Outsider, Stephen King, thriller, purchased
6.  The Other Gloria, L. A. Villafane, thriller, sent by publisher
7.  Look Me In The Eye, John Elder Robison, memoir, gift
8.  Midwinter, Fiona Melrose, literary fiction, purchased
9.  Death Of A Rainmaker, Laurie Loewenstein, mystery, purchased
10.  Delicious Foods, James Hannaham, literary fiction, purchased
11.  Miss Austen, Gill Hornby, literary fiction, won in contest
12.  House On Fire, Joseph Finder, thriller, sent by publisher
13.  When I Hit You, Meena Kandasamy, literary fiction, purchased
14.  The Guardians, John Grisham, legal thriller, purchased
15.  The Dark Lake, Sarah Bailey, mystery, purchased
16.  Crime Scene, Jonathan and Jesse Kellerman, mystery, purchased
17.  The Lonely Witness, William Boyle, mystery, purchased
18.  Beatlebone, Kevin Barry, literary fiction, purchased
19.  Bent Road, Lorie Roy, mystery, purchased

Here's what I'm reading:

1.  Ancestral Night, Elizabeth Bear, Kindle Fire
2.  The Orphanmaster, Jean Zimmerman, paperback
3.  The Third Wife, Lisa Jewell, audio
4.  Milkman, Anna Burns, paperback
5.  Storm Prey, John Sandford, hardback
6.  Lions Of The West, Robert Morgan, hardback
7.  Once Upon A River, Diane Satterfield, Kindle Fire

Happy Reading!

Thursday, December 19, 2019

If You Tell by Gregg Olsen

No one ever really knows what goes on in a family once the doors are shut.  Sometimes things are wonderful and everyone gets their needs met and the family is a happy, supportive environment.  But sometimes that place that should be the happiest is a place of terror where everyone walks on tiptoes around an abuser who can go off at a moment's notice.  That was the case in the Knotek household

Shelley, the mother, was the queen bee, her every thought and word law to the rest of the household.  There were three children, Nikki, Sami and Tori, all by different husbands.  There was a nephew, Shane, who Shelley and Dave took in and raised.  Finally, there was Kathy and Ron, two people who were on their own.  Shelley insisted she was helping Kathy and Ron but in reality, she used them as slaves around the house and property and over months, slowly tortured them until they died.  Her husband lived away, just supplying his paycheck to Shelley and coming home on some weekends where she used him as an enforcer.

The girls were all subjected to abuse.  Beatings were routine and they always wore long sleeves and pants to school.  Shelley would tear up their homework, burn their books.  She would wake them from sleep and push them outside, nude, to spend the night in the cold Washington weather.  She tried to keep them from talking to each other, as isolation was one of her tools.  She told them lies and coached them until they could tell the stories as she had recreated them.

The girls kept their bond, even in secret, from Shelley.  After the first death, that of Kathy, Nikki was old enough to get away.  She told her grandmother and then the police about what was happening but nothing seemed to get done.  Shane disappeared and none of the girls believed Shelley's story about that.  Finally, after Ron's death, all the girls came forward and finally the police got involved.

Shelley and Dave were both jailed.  Dave has been paroled and Shelley has a release date of 2022.  Doctors believe that her sadistic, narcissistic personality won't have changed and worry for the next isolated person Shelley comes across.  Olsen has written a chilling narrative of a true American monster, one who managed to evade the law for years and will be released back on society in the future.  The sisters have managed to create successful lives for themselves and that is another take away from the book.  This book is recommended for true crime readers.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Gods Of Jade And Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Casiopea Tun has been dealt a bad hand in life.  Her mother, daughter of the richest man in their town, had married for love.  The family never accepted her husband, a poor Mexican, as they had pretensions of wealth and their standing in society.  When he died, he left Casiopea and her mother penniless and they had to move back in with the family where they were treated as servants and looked down on by the rest of the family.  The young scion of the family, Martin, was Casiopea's biggest burden.  He spent his days thinking of chores for her and ways to make her feel less than.

Everything changed the day Casiopea opened a chest in her grandfather's room when he was away.  It held the bones of the God of the Underworld, Hun-Kame.  Hun's kingdom had been stolen from him by his twin brother, Vucub-Kame.  Hun needs Casiopea's help to reclaim his kingdom.  If she succeeds, her every wish will be granted.  If they fail, she will die.

Casiopea and Hun start on their journey.  Hun's brother had taken valuable items from him and he needed to track each one down and get it back.  As they traveled, the relationship between the two, god and mortal, became blurred and evolved into friendship and maybe even love.  Gods don't feel friendship and love but one of Hun's bones had splintered and a part went into Casiopea's hand.  It made her essence slowly move from her to him, making him less godlike as the mortal spirit entered him.  Will Casiopea and Hun manage to overcome all the obstacles and take back Hun's birthright?

This retelling of Mexican folklore is magical.  Casiopea is a remarkable young woman.  Although put down and degraded by those around her, she manages to retain her wonder at all the things in the world and to keep her dreams alive.  She helps a god and dares to try to change his nature to make him more charitable and in the process, she finds a way to forgive her own family.  This book is recommended for readers of fantasy and those interested in the Latin viewpoint.

Friday, December 13, 2019

The Finishing Touches by Hester Browne

Betsy Phillimore returns to London for a sad occasion.  Her adoptive mother, Lady Phillimore has passed away and this is the memorial, held at the finishing school that was her love and passion.  Betsy came to the Phillimores when she was left on the doorstep in a box with a note asking them to raise her as a lady.  The Phillimores adopted her and she was raised at the school.  Betsy had a happy childhood but now lives in Edinburgh as she wanted to make it on her own.

Things have changed or more accurately, haven't changed along with the world which did.  The furnishings are looking a bit tatty.  The hordes of elegant women who have returned to honor Franny Phillimore are much more put together than the house which is tired looking.  When Betsy talks with Lord Phillimore, she finds that the school is having financial difficulties.  The curriculum is as tired as the house and is still teaching the students how to be a lady according to etiquette and standards of the sixties and seventies.  As the world changed, fewer and fewer families want that standard for their children and attendance is down.

Betsy resolves to do something to help.  She also wants to stick around and see if she can finally find out anything about her birth parents.  With the help of her best friend Liz, Matt who is the bursar of the academy and Jamie, Liz's dreamy brother who Betsy has always had a crush on, she works on updating the curriculum to offer advice on what a young professional women newly out on her own needs to know.  The lessons seem to be catching on but there are existing administrative employees that work to undermine Betsy and her ideas.  Can she turn around the school and discover her own life story?

This is an interesting, light-hearted romance that will have readers smiling as they read.  Betsy is an indomitable spirit who anyone would love to call their friend.  The tension between Betsy and Matt and Betsy and Jamie is delicious as there is more than a hint of love in the air.  The reader is also compelled to find out along with Betsy the story of her origins.  This book is recommended for romance readers.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

The Van Apfel Girls Are Gone by Felicity McLean

The year is 1992 and the place is a suburb in Australia.  It's summer and the hottest one in memory.  Five girls live on a cul-de-sac in the suburb and are inseparable.  Tikka Malloy is 11 that year; her sister Laura 14.  Their best friends are the Van Apfel girls.  Hannah is Laura's age, Cordelia is a year in school above Tikka and Ruth is the youngest.  The five girls are inseparable.  They go to school together and afterward, spend hours in the Van Apfel pool, eat ice creams, talk and tell secrets.

But there is one secret no one is talking about.  The Van Apfel family are religious and religion defines their lives.  Mr. Van Apfel controls everything in the house and the thing he most likes to control are his girls.  As time goes by, the Malloy girls start to guess the secret.  The secret of why Cordelia fell out of a tree breaking her arm.  The secret of why she sometimes had bruises or hair missing.  The secret behind the fact that the girls are going to run away.

And they did.  At the annual school Showstopper event, the girls vanished.  Did they run away?  Were they taken by someone?  Why aren't they being found, after days and weeks of searches and police investigations?  Their disappearance changed everything in the development and defined the Malloy girls' childhood which ended that night.

Now Tikka is back home for a visit.  She now lives in the United States and works as a lab technician.  While she is back, she and Laura work through that summer and their memories, trying to make sense of all the clues that they were too young to understand back then.

This is a debut novel and it's success makes Felicity McLean an Australian author to watch for in the future.  It was a highly buzzed book with such publications as Cosmopolitian and Entertainment Weekly calling it the book of the summer the year of publication.  I enjoyed the coming of age aspect of the novel and the slow unfolding of how Tikka came to realize that something was very wrong next door.  This book is recommended for thriller readers.

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Broken Prey by John Sandford

The first body is that of a woman.  She has been left displayed, her naked body scourged by something like a wire flail.  Lucas Davenport gets a bad feeling about the crime as soon as he sees it, a feeling shared by his counterpart Sloan.  Sloan is about to retire and he doesn't want a major crime in his last days to investigate.  The second body is that of a young father and his son.  Again the man's body has been displayed and whipped.

Davenport gets his team together and they start to investigate whether other crimes have occurred and somehow flown under the radar.  As the body count starts to mount, the seasoned investigators realize that the crimes mimic those of some of the worst killers they have encountered in the past.  Those men are all still in prison.  Is their a copycat killer and if so, how does this new killer have all the details of the past?

The investigation moves to the prison and interviews are held with the men Davenport and Sloan have put away.  They leave convinced that the killers have coached someone to kill as they did, but who?  Is it a former prisoner?  A prison guard or other staff member?  A visitor?  As the investigation becomes more focused, the bodies continue to come and the plot moves through twists and turns.

This is the sixteenth Lucas Davenport novel.  Lucas' wife, Weather, is in London during this book with the couple's children on a surgical exchange.  Lucas is left to his own devices, pushing himself longer and harder than he usually does as there is no brake on his actions.  The plot is full of twists and the reader will be hard pressed to guess the ending.  This book is recommended for mystery readers.

Friday, December 6, 2019

Comanche Empire by Pekka Hamalainen

This work is the definitive telling of the rise and fall of the Comanche tribe and how it became the preeminent tribe of the Southwest.  At the start of its rise, the Comanche were just another tribe of many others.  Hamalainen shows evidence that the tribe's rise to prominence came from its ability to entirely remake it's culture and daily living routines.  It went from a hunting gathering society to one based on horses, raising and trading them, using them to become master hunters of buffalo and changing from a stationary to a mobile society.

The area of land the Comanche claimed was claimed by other cultures as well.  Both the Spanish and the French had claims on the territory as well as the Americans after the Louisiana Purchase.  The Comanche were able to play these competing claims and governments against one another to aid them in creating their trade empire.  They also used the settlers in these areas as a resource for more stock; raiding and taking off hundreds and sometimes thousands of cattle and horses annually.  Some of these were kept while the vast majority formed the basis of their trade and a means to gain produce to make up for the end of their farming activity as well as the guns and other metal tools needed for their daily activities.

At its peak, there were approximately forty thousand members of the tribe.  The fall of the empire came from various catastrophes.  There were periodic epidemics of diseases such as smallpox that the natives had no immunity to.  There was the incessant migration of settlers, determined to claim and farm land the Comanche had used as free range.  Finally, there was the extermination of the vast buffalo herds, due to natural causes such as long droughts which impacted grazing ability and the indiscriminate hunting of both the Indians and those who would kill massive numbers of buffalo just for the skins or some small part of the animal.

This book is part of the Lamar Series of Western History and the author is an associate professor of history at the University of California.  It explores the intricate causes that allowed the Comanche to succeed and those details that eventually insured their defeat as a nation.  Along the way, the reader is exposed to a myriad of knowledge about topics such as daily life, the use of slaves in the society, the role of men, women and children in this society and how the negotiation style allowed the elders to interact with the interlopers threatening their way of life.  This book is recommended for history readers.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Body Leaping Backward

It was a typical family in the suburbs in the 1970's.  Maureen Stanton was born into a middle class family in Walpole, Massachusetts.  Her dad was a computer programmer and her mother stayed at home with the seven children.  There was a hot meal every evening and sing alongs with her dad playing the piano.  There were family trips and bedtime stories.

Then everything changed.  Maureen's parents separated and nothing was the same.  The just enough money became not enough money.  Her saintly mother now routinely shoplifted clothes and food with the children watching.  Her dad was relegated to infrequent, strained time with the children.  There was little supervision of the children and no more sing alongs.

The children spiraled downward.  One of the main features of their town was the infamous Walpole Penitentiary, where such criminals as The Boston Strangler were incarcerated.  Over the years, the children had various friends who ended up there as well.  They were left basically without supervision as their mother went back to work and then started dating; often leaving for entire weekends with her new boyfriend.  As is often the case, unsupervised children find bad things to do.

In Maureen's case, it was angel dust and alcohol.  For about two years in high school, she was high daily, smoking dust right before school which was not much more than a haze that occasionally interrupted her highs.  She and her friends lived to party.  They did dangerous things for money for drugs and sold them.  They hitchhiked and took rides from men all the time, usually so impaired that it was only by the grace of God that they weren't harmed.  Her mother and teachers didn't seem to notice or at least never seemed to intervene.  Maureen was left to work her own way out of her addictions and hopelessness. 

This memoir was meant by the author, I think, to highlight the issues surrounding drugs and how they can impact young people's lives.  What came through to me, instead, was the incredible lack of supervision and help she encountered from the adults in her life.  Today the helicopter parent gets lots of bad press and every generation has it's own way to get parenting wrong.  But the way that Maureen was left to flounder around steeped in alcohol and drugs without adult intervention was far worse in my mind.  This book is a warning to parents and recommended for readers of memoirs and those interested in social issues.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Night Boat To Tangier by Kevin Barry

They sit on the benches in the ferry depot, waiting.  They appear to be typical middle-aged men in their fifties, still full of life but with some issues.  One has a significant limp and the other man has a ruined eye.  They sit and chat, waiting for it emerges, the daughter of one of the men.  But Maurice Hearne and Charlie Redmond are not typical Irish men out for a pleasant outing.  They are longtime friends/enemies and the daughter they are waiting for won't be pleased to see them.

As they sit, they talk and over the course of hours, their life stories emerge.  It's a tale of modern day smugglers; their cargo the drugs that ruined a generation in Ireland.  It's a tale of love and betrayal, friendships forged in love yet betrayed in an instant.  It's a tale of women loved and cheated on, families left behind or put in danger, violence when necessary and months of hiding out from those who would do them harm.  It turns out the daughter has fled to escape the chaos of daily life around these two and will not be glad to see them if she appears.  They are sitting there on the basis of a rumor that she might be passing through, hoping to find her if she appears and that she will be willing to speak with them.

This novel is a Booker nominee this year and one of the best books I've read.  The slow unfolding of the men's stories, of their long friendship and casual betrayals, of an entire generation of crime and hopelessness in Ireland is unforgettable.  These are not cuddly men but they are men the reader will not soon forget.  This book is recommended highly for readers of literary fiction.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Dogs Of Christmas by J. Bruce Cameron

Josh Michaels is a loner.  An IT guy who works from home, his social life had been his girlfriend Amanda.  When she leaves him for another man, Josh pulls even further into himself, living in the house he grew up in, friendly enough but not putting himself out to make much human contact.  Then his neighbor shows up at the door.  Josh has never much cared for the man as he is a party guy and kind of sketchy.  The guy begs Josh to take care of his dog for a day or so until he can find someone to take it on a more permanent basis.  He says he has to go overseas at a moment's notice and that this dog was his girlfriend's dog and she deserted it when she left him.

Josh knows nothing about taking care of dogs but reluctantly agrees.  The dog, Lucy, he notices, is about to have puppies so that is an even higher level of commitment.  When Lucy goes into labor, he takes her to the vet to have her puppies but the vet comes out and tells him all the puppies were stillborn due to the bad food the mother has been eating.  Heartbroken, Josh and Lucy drive to his cabin in the start of a snow storm.  As he builds a fire, Josh notices Lucy is sad.  When he goes out for more firewood, he notices a box has been left in the back of his truck.  When he opens it, there are five little almost frozen puppies; someone had brought them to the vet.

Josh and Lucy's lives are changed.  Lucy now has five puppies to raise and Josh starts to meet new people through the puppies.  Kerri works at the local rescue and helps him raise and socialize the puppies while encouraging him to adopt them out.  He meets people who fall in love with the puppies.  Is this the changing point of his life?

I've had this book for years but avoided it.  I don't particularly like books centered on a holiday and while I've always had a dog, I'm not a fanatic about it.  But this book was more about Josh and his struggle to overcome his introversion and make a new life than about Christmas or being devoted to a dog to the exclusion of other things.  It was predictable but that is the point of feel good books; you know whatever happens things will work out in the end.  This book is recommended for reading dog lovers.