Posted in Book review, Books, Reading

Book review: The Witch Elm by Tana French

The Witch ElmThe Witch Elm by Tana French

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have yet to read a Tana French book that I didn’t love, or at least like very much. The Witch Elm is no exception.

Toby has led a charmed life: popular, handsome, athletic in school; hip job, beautiful girlfriend, nice flat as an adult. There have been no hiccups worth mentioning throughout his life. Toby never even thought of his life as “lucky” until, after an evening out with “the lads,” he walks into a burglary in progress in his flat. The burglars nearly beat him to death.

As Toby struggles to recover, he decides to stay with his uncle Hugo — recently diagnosed with brain cancer — to help care for Hugo and further his own healing process in the quiet of the family estate. His girlfriend Melissa accompanies him. They settle into an easy routine: Melissa commutes to her job in town, Toby helps Hugo with his genealogy research, the rest of the family — aunts, uncles, cousins, parents — congregate on Sundays for a congenial lunch that lasts most of the day. It’s all very homey and comfortable…and then the children discover a human skull in the bottom of the garden.

All congeniality and comfort disappears in the path of the police investigation. And Toby — whose memory is unreliable with gaping holes after his near-fatal beating — does not come over well in the eyes of the detectives on the case. Convinced he is their prime suspect, Toby decides to do a little investigating on his own.

The novel sets a meandering, leisurely pace: we are nearly a third of the way through the book before the body in the garden makes an appearance. This is perfectly in keeping with storytelling from Toby’s point of view: Toby is damaged and it takes him considerable time to process information. He often has to wander down several mental tracks to get to a particular conclusion. The languid pacing didn’t give me as much of an issue as it did some reviewers, although I will admit to the middle third of the novel being somewhat of a slog. Regardless, the slow build-up in tension and deliberate spacing of the reveals worked for me.

Only one piece of action didn’t ring true — can’t discuss because it’s a spoiler, but it takes place close to the end and sets up the final drama of the story. When I read it, I thought: “No way, I can’t see that person reacting in such a fashion.” But even with that quibble, I was satisfied by the ultimate resolution.

Nice job, Ms. French. Bring on the next novel, please.

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Posted in Book review, Book stash, Books, Reading, Year in review

2019 in review: Books

Last January, I set my usual annual goal of reading an average of a book a week, or 52 books in a year.  I met that goal with 67 books read or attempted.  10 of those books went into the “didn’t finish” category, so 57 books were read in full.  Some of those were reviewed, but not many. I also included the plays I read or performed, because in my life, that counts.

One of my unstated 2019 goals was to read more non-fiction.  Of the 67 books, six were non-fiction. Two of those were left unfinished: one was character research for a play, and the other was Women Rowing North by Mary Pipher. It wasn’t that I didn’t like Pipher’s book; I did, but I also felt like I was not the right age to read it yet. I got halfway through, and then turned it back in at the library. I’ll come back to it in a few years.

Of the rest of the non-fiction, two were standouts.

First, Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat is hands-down the best cookbook I’ve ever read.  The spouse and I were introduced to Ms Nosrat and her cooking through the Netflix series of the same title.  We binged all four episodes in an afternoon, and I ordered the cookbook the same day.  Ms Nosrat is utterly delightful in both the show and the book.  She thoroughly explains why and how the four elements of her title are critical to good cooking, and how they all work together to create sumptuous savories and sweets.  My cooking has definitely improved, thanks to this book.

The other knockout non-fiction title actually scared the pants off me, as its title might suggest: Fear: Trump in the White House by Bob Woodward.  Now, it’s no secret my politics lean leftward, and I have always thought Donald Trump was an asshole, dating from wayyyyy back in the 80s when he made such a splash on the gossip pages with his marriages, affairs, and failed business dealings, but I think anyone who approaches this book with an open mind and a respect for Woodward’s reporting will come away absolutely terrified that such an unqualified, incurious, hate-mongering, self-dealing, anti-intellectual, prevaricating dipshit currently holds the highest office of the land.  But it’s 2020, election year; maybe the rest of the country has learned its lesson by now. We’ll find out in November, if the Senate doesn’t remove him from office first (not holding my breath on that happening, though).

Okay, fiction-wise: I read some good stuff, but honestly, not many lingered in memory once I finished them.  Here are the few that did.

My friend Alice recommended The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss to me several years ago. This year I finally decided to act on that recommendation, and picked up the book at the library.  Wow.  In a tavern in a quasi-medieval society where magic (of course) is real, over a period of one night, or maybe two, the bartender and owner of the establishment tells a scribe the story of his life, starting with his wretched childhood and then his unlikely enrollment at the local university of magic.  Along the way, we are given some hints as to our hero’s, um heroic past, and vague references to how he wound up as a humble tavern owner in hiding.  This is the first of a series. As soon as I finished this one, I read the second book (and the series companion about a secondary character) in rapid succession, and currently await the next installment. However, I understand Mr Rothfuss is struggling with writing Book 3, and thus it is delayed.  Hopefully we won’t wait as long for Book 3 from Mr Rothfuss as we’ve been waiting for Book 6 from George R.R. Martin.

As I’m sure you and the rest of the English-speaking world know by now, The Testaments by Margaret Atwood is the sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale. As I waited for my turn at the top of the library waiting list for The Testaments, I re-read The Handmaid’s Tale for the first time in probably 20 years. It’s still as horrifying as when I first read it back in the 1980s.  The Testaments is equally as horrifying, albeit it a tad more hopeful.  Telling the tale from the perspective of everyone’s favorite villain, Aunt Lydia, some 15 years after Offred got into the back of a van and vanished from the narrative, we dive into the inner workings of Gilead and learn, among other things, how Aunt Lydia came to her position of power.  Things are not always as they seem in Aunt Lydia’s sphere of influence: even the Aunts play politics.  I saw the twist coming, eventually, but enjoyed it nonetheless.

David Mitchell is on his way to becoming one of my favorite authors.  I’d previously read and loved Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks, so when Slade House popped up on my radar, I grabbed it at the library at the first opportunity.  The titular residence either exists or doesn’t exist, and is inhabited or abandoned, all depending on the time of day, the year, and one’s unique personality.  Those who permitted to enter the grounds are forever altered.  A fascinating take on the haunted house trope.

My friend Jenny says Black Swan Green is her favorite David Mitchell novel.  Since I’ve yet to be disappointed in anything Mr Mitchell has turned out, I think I’ll put that one on the list for this year.

Speaking of “the list,” for 2020, I’ve again set a goal of 52 books.  This will include plays, of course, because I read a lot of them. In fact, I’m taking part in a challenge to read Shakespeare’s complete works this calendar year.  The organizer has come up with a schedule that gets us through all the plays and the poetry between January 1 and December 31.  Epic!  Twelfth Night is up first.  If you care to join in, visit The Shakespeare2020 Project and sign up.

And if you’re interested in the complete list of books read in 2019, click here.

Posted in Books, Reading

Banned Books Week 2019

BannedBooks2019

I suppose there are some individuals out there who are NOT aware of the American Library Association’s annual celebration of the freedom to read. If you, dear reader, are among them — or if you’re not and want more information anyway — click the badge above to be taken to the ALA’s webpages and learn everything you ever wanted to know about the subject.

I was lucky. My mother read to me all the time, probably from the moment I was born. I honestly don’t remember when I learned to read myself. I know I was already reading by the time I entered kindergarten at age 4, although it must have escaped the notice of my kindergarten teacher. Mom told me once that my first grade teacher called her shortly after the start of school and asked her if she knew I could read. Mom said, “Of course.” Teacher said, “No, I mean really read, not in a halting one-word-at-a-time fashion, but easily? In flowing sentences?” Mom said, “Of course, why wouldn’t I know that? I taught her.”

My mom rocks.

This was the library when I was a kid. Now it's the home of the Paso Robles Historical Society.
This was the library when I was a kid. Now it’s the home of the Paso Robles Historical Society.

Every Saturday in the summer, when Mom went into town to do the grocery shopping, she dropped my sister and me off at the public library. I still remember running up the big stone steps and then down another set of stairs that led into the basement where the children’s section lived. Sissy and I would spend a couple of hours reading and picking out new books to take home. We always checked out as many books as we were allowed, devoured them through the week, and brought them back the following Saturday. During the school year, we had access to the school library and didn’t visit the public library all that often.  I read an average of a book a night all throughout the school year — I’d check it out at lunch time or recess and bring it back the next day.

My folks never questioned the appropriateness of any book we brought home from the school or the public library. We were reading and that’s all that mattered. And I read everything as I grew up: Walter Farley‘s horse books, abandoned children books (such as Island of the Blue Dolphins and Green Mansions), Mother West Wind stories, science fiction, biographies, horror, fables, fairy tales, books about science and rocks and dinosaurs and geology. I read the books my parents had read: mysteries and crime fiction, mostly, with the occasional steamy romance tossed in for good measure. I was forbidden to read a book only once. When I was 12 years old, The Exorcist was the hottest title on the bestseller lists. Mom bought it for herself. When she finished reading it, she told me, “You may not read this book until you are older.” “Okay, Mom,” I said, and never gave it a second thought. With the wide open freedom I had to choose my own reading material, being barred from one book in which I had only a vague interest was not a big deal.

So how is my being barred at age 12 from reading The Exorcist not censorship? Simple. My mother exercised her parental prerogative to control the reading material of her minor child within our family unit. And then she stopped. She didn’t try to prevent other people’s children from reading it. She didn’t mount a protest with the school or public library to have that book removed from their shelves. She and Daddy didn’t write letters to the editor of the local newspaper proclaiming that devil worshippers and Satanists were trying to indoctrinate the youngsters of San Luis Obispo, so stop them, stop them, stop them now!

Parenting. Yeah, they did it right.

That’s where the line gets drawn, you see. At the edge of the family unit. No one, I repeat, no one, other than my spouse and I, has the right to restrict what our children (if we had any) will read. I applaud those librarians who tell the naysayers and it’s-for-your-own-good-niks to stuff it. I weep for the school boards who cave under the pressure of a very loud and vocal minority. I want to buy a copy of every book removed from a middle school or high school reading list or library for every student in that school (you hear that, you silly Nashville Catholic School principal?) I want to tell every single one of those parents who object to any book their child brings home to leave their objections at the door of their house. They have no right beyond that. My goodness, if they’re that afraid of what their children might be reading in school, why are they sending them to school in the first place? Home schooling is an option in every state of the Union, you know.

Books are the best weapons

Books open minds, point in new directions, reveal different viewpoints, question received wisdom. Books encourage thought. Books are powerful. This power threatens certain individuals. I get that. But be afraid in your own house, and stay out of my library or bookstore.

By the way, some 40-plus years later, I still have not read The Exorcist. Not because my mother still forbids it. In fact, when relaying this story at a family gathering several years ago, Mom said, “Well, you’re allowed to read it now if you want to.”

Thanks, Mom.

(This more-or-less annual piece was originally written for 2012 Banned Books Week, and updated slightly for 2019.)

 

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Book review: The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks

The Traveler (Fourth Realm, #1)The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The following is the cover blurb: “In London, Maya, a young woman trained to fight by her powerful father, uses the latest technology to elude detection when walking past the thousands of surveillance cameras that watch the city. In New York, a secret shadow organization uses a victim’s own GPS to hunt him down and kill him. In Los Angeles, Gabriel, a motorcycle messenger with a haunted past, takes pains to live “off the grid” – free of credit cards and government IDs. Welcome to the world of The Traveler – a world frighteningly like our own. In this compelling novel, Maya fights to save Gabriel, the only man who can stand against the forces that attempt to monitor and control society. From the back streets of Prague to the skyscrapers of Manhattan, The Traveler portrays an epic struggle between tyranny and freedom. Not since 1984 have readers witnessed a Big Brother so terrifying in its implications and in a story that so closely reflects our lives.”

You are being watched.

Of course, in 2018, we all know that, and we willingly participate in the surveillance (Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, etc.). When this book was written (2005), social media was in its infancy, and, while cell phones were everywhere, smart phones were just beginning to penetrate the public consciousness. This book takes the idea of ubiquitous surveillance and runs with it, creating a multi-tiered society: the civilians — we ordinary folk who go about our daily business blissfully unaware or simply not caring how closely we are tracked and manipulated; the Tabula — a mysterious cabal of wealthy no-goodniks who do the tracking and manipulating, for the good of society, of course; the Harlequins — an equally mysterious class of bodyguards-cum-assassins whose only purpose in life is to protect… the Travelers — people with the ability to psychically travel to other parallel dimensions.

Over centuries, the Harlequins and Travelers developed an “off-grid” lifestyle: as far as the government knows, they don’t exist. They live “off-grid” under assumed names and false identities.

To live off the grid, one must be completely dedicated to avoidance of the usual comforts, such as an established residence, electricity, and running water; or one has sufficient wealth or knowledge to provide one’s own infrastructure for those comforts (e.g., paying cash for a home, buying solar panels and generators, digging wells and buying pumps, etc.); or one has a vast network of trusted acquaintances with access to stolen identities that enable one to hide in plain sight.

Their off-grid habits weren’t perfect: the Tabula hunted the Harlequins and Travelers mercilessly and have nearly succeeded in exterminating them. The few remaining Harlequins believe there are no Travelers left. They spend their time in hiding, protecting the knowledge of their class. Then they hear that the children of the last known Traveler are still alive. The ability to travel between realms is hereditary, and thus is launched a global search for these now-grown children. Unfortunately, the Tabula also become aware of their existence, and finding the potential Travelers quickly turns into a race between two warring enemies.

A decent story, as far as it goes. Not particularly well-written, but not a complete dud.

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Book review: The Trespasser by Tana French

The Trespasser (Dublin Murder Squad, #6)The Trespasser by Tana French

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoy Tana French’s Murder Squad series, and this installment is no exception.

Antoinette Conway and her partner Stephen Moran tackle their latest assignment, the murder of Aislinn Murray. It appears to be a slam-dunk the-boyfriend-did-it case, but the inconsistencies lurking around the edges keep hinting at another solution. Conway and Moran poke at the inconsistencies, start running into roadblocks, and begin to suspect corrupt cops and organized crime are somehow connected to the murder. Then the constant harrassment and pranks Conway suffers in the squad room lead her to believe her partner is sabotaging their case.

Antoinette Conway is a difficult character to like, and the whole Murder Squad comes off as an abusive dysfunctional unit. That makes this a rough read. But persevere. It’s worth it in the end.

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Book review: Kindred by Octavia Butler

KindredKindred by Octavia E. Butler

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Giving this 3 1/2 stars.

You all know the plot by now: Dana, a modern black woman, is inexplicably thrust back into the antebellum South, time after time, where she is presumed to be a slave based on the color of her skin. Eventually she figures out she is drawn back to that particular plantation and that particular time to protect the life of the young son of the plantation owner. Said son is her ancestor — a twist on the Grandfather Paradox: she must keep him alive long enough to father a child with a particular slave or she will not exist.

Ms. Butler pulls no punches in her graphic detailing of the brutality of slavery. Said brutality makes this a difficult read. It’s a worthwhile read, regardless. If I have a quibble, it’s that the time travel mechanism is left completely unexplained — a trick of the cosmos, a spiritual connection, a genetic memory? Who knows? Although the “how” of Dana’s multiple trips to the early 19th Century isn’t relevant to the story Ms. Butler wanted to tell, I still wanted a bone to chew on, some pseudo-rational gobbledegook, however implausible, that my brain would accept as working within the confines of the story.

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Dual book review: This Way to the End Times and The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter

This Way to the End Times: Classic Tales of the ApocalypseThis Way to the End Times: Classic Tales of the Apocalypse by Robert Silverberg

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A diverse collection of short stories covering a wide variety of ways the world may end, or the aftermath thereof. I’m a sucker for apocalyptic fiction, and this was right up my alley. As with all short story collections, some were better than others, but all were worth reading. Presented in mostly chronological order by date of publication beginning with the early 20th Century, the reader can see how the apocalypse changes as technology advances. That all by itself makes for fascinating reading.

The Heart Is a Lonely HunterThe Heart Is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A book I read because it’s on a bunch of lists of “Books You Must Read Before You Die.”

I won’t say it was a waste of my time, but truly, I didn’t care that much about John Singer, the fellow identified by cover copy as being the main character. I was much more interested in Mick Kelly, the young girl whose family owns the boarding house in which Mr. Singer resides. Maybe that’s because I remember reading The Member of the Wedding when I was a teenager and was expecting something similar.

Maybe I’ll just reread that book.

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Book review: The Power by Naomi Alderman

The PowerThe Power by Naomi Alderman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Time: Five minutes into the future. Women, especially young women, have developed the unexpected ability to generate powerful electric charges, at first randomly when in danger, and then at will, as they learn to control their newfound talent. Over the course of several years, more and more women begin to make use of this skill — for protection, for power, or both — and some men begin to organize against them, leading to a grand showdown that is foreshadowed by the interchapter archaeological discussions of ancient artifacts.

A brutal and stark portrayal of a world being flipped on its head.

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Book review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

The Collapsing Empire (The Interdependency, #1)The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Good science fiction is a joy forever. John Scalzi writes good SF.

In this first installment of a new series, humanity has spread across the cosmos, and each world is united with all others under a single umbrella called The Interdependency. Interstellar travel and the spread of humanity was made possible by the discovery of a force known as The Flow, accessible at designated points in space-time. The Flow changes and shifts, opening up new areas of the universe and, occasionally, cutting off others.

The Flow is currently in a period of flux, and this fluctuation seems to be more volatile than other previous shifts. In fact, it seems that The Flow may disappear entirely within a very short time, thus leading to the collapse of the empire of the title.

The house of the Emperox, the leader of the Interdepency, is also in flux.  The Emperox died suddenly and his daughter, the new Emperox, was not quite prepared to be thrust into leadership so soon.  That, and the expected Flow catastrophe, makes for an uneasy start to her rule.  As you may have anticipated, all the uncertainty leads to much political maneuvering — read that as plotting and backstabbing — among the rest of the ruling houses of The Interdependency.

So, politics, impending doom, human foibles, space travel, and lots of foul language. Vintage Scalzi. I can hardly wait for the next volume.

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Book review: The Dry by Jane Harper

The Dry (Aaron Falk, #1)The Dry by Jane Harper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Aaron Falk returns to Kierrawa, his small hometown in southern Australia, to attend the funeral of his erstwhile best friend Luke. Decades earlier, Luke was the only person who stood up for teenage Aaron when he was suspected of murder; the unending suspicion drove Aaron and his father out of town. Now Luke’s death drags Aaron back; and Luke’s parents guilt him into staying, reluctantly, to investigate what they say cannot have happened: that Luke killed his wife and daughter and then himself in despair over their financial circumstances. The relentless heat and the bone-dry countryside are as integral to this novel as the still-suspicious townfolk who resist Aaron’s probing into old and new wounds.

Nicely executed whodunnit. I’ll look for more in this series.

Read on May 27, 2018

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