Friday, June 17, 2016

Small Bones by Vicki Grant (2015)

I got this copy of Small Bones by Vicki Grant (2015) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program quite some time ago but, to be honest, kept putting off reading it since the cover looked so chick-lit-y. This, my friends, is another case of "don't judge a book by its cover," because instead of an insipid chick lit romance, what we have here is a compelling coming-of-age mystery with some great characters and a satisfying twist.

Dot grew up in an orphanage in Ontario -- she was left on the doorstep wrapped in a man's coat as a premature baby during WWII. She is happy enough at the orphanage until the place burns down and 17-year-old Dot is sent out into the world to make it on her own. It's 1964 and she heads to the resort town listed on the tailor's label of the coat she was found in. She gets a job as a seamstress at the resort, and doesn't tell anyone what she is doing there. Quickly befriended by a cute local boy, Dot learns about a local ghost story featuring a tiny baby that was found in the woods 17 years ago. She convinces Eddie, who writes for the local paper as a side gig, that they should investigate the story and see what really happened. As they get closer and closer to the truth, old wounds open up in the small town and Dot quickly feels in over her head.

The book is a page turner with nicely placed clues and good characterization. Dot in particular is a perfect young adult -- a mix of confident and awkward, she is extremely endearing. The final answer to the mystery of Dot's parents involves a twist that I didn't see coming until it was on me. The book moves to the twist logically and it ends up feeling satisfying and not like a trick on the reader.

If you are looking for something entertaining and just a little dark as a summer read for you or a young adult in your life, this is a good one.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Midnight Assassin: panic, scandal, and the hunt for America's first serial killer by Skip Hollandsworth (2015)

For our next depressing read, The Debbie Downer Book Club selected The Midnight Assassin by Skip Hollandsworth (2015) a rare (for us) brand new hardcover selection.

But how could we resist? This well-researched look into the series of brutal murders of Austin women in the 1880s was both sad, local, and involved historical research -- as a group of archivists / librarians / information professionals in the Austin area, we were in!

The murderer, who killed women in Austin between 1884 and 1885, has been alternately known as The Midnight Assassin and the Servant Girl Annihilator. He (or they?) killed seven women (five black and two white) and injured six other women and two men. The crimes were brutal, bloody, and violent, often committed with an axe or by sticking a sharp narrow object into the ear. Women were attacked in their homes late at night, often in the small cottages where servants lived in the backyards of their employers. As the murders continued and eventually affected white women in the town, Austin became increasingly frantic, with people buying guns and early home alarm systems to protect their families. The police were hampered by ineffective forensic techniques and the pretty intense racism that led them to haul in any black man who looked like trouble and then try to beat a confession out of him (sound familiar?). When two white women were killed on the same night, a political scandal opened up and shined a light on the dark side of upper-class Austin life. Newspapers around the country focused in on the wild happenings in this small Texas town, and the mayor and city boosters tried to deflect attention away from the crimes and towards the growth and business opportunities the city afforded. Eventually the murders just stopped. Some contemporary journalists drew a connection to the string of violent murders of prostitutes in London by Jack the Ripper, and detectives there even spent some time tracking down Americans in the area (including some Native Americans who were left behind during a wild west show) in case they might be a link between the two cases. The city of Austin installed the Moonlight Towers (many of which are still in use today) as a way to light up the night and, potentially, prevent this kind of crime from happening again.

Hollandsworth gives us a nicely researched and journalistic look into the time of the murders, pulling out details from the history of Austin that give depth and context to the reactions of the town at the time. His descriptions of the murders themselves, supported by his research in newspapers and police files, are brutal and effective, and bring the terror the town must have felt back then to life for the reader. While there is a general consensus on who the murderer was (hint: not Jack the Ripper), Hollandsworth doesn't come to any conclusions on that front, and just presents the theories and evidence as they were collected and presented to the public.

I really enjoyed this book, and if you have lived in Austin, like true crime, are interested in history, or just enjoy a good read, I think you will like it too. And now on to the next sad selection!

[A great source for pictures and more detail on the people and places involved in the murders, check out this site.]

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Under the Paw: Confessions of a Cat Man by Tom Cox (2008)

I first discovered Tom Cox through his truly excellent My Sad Cat Twitter account, and later discovered that his other accounts, including the one under his own name, are equally charming. After quite some time of freely enjoying his writing and his cats, I decided to throw a little money down on his first cat book,Under the Paw: Confessions of a Cat Man (2008).

Now, it is no secret that I love cats. Lovelovelove cats. I always have. Cats have been my "thing" since I was a little kid, and if you spend more than half an hour with me, you will probably hear some adorable story about the amazing Fern and Loretta. Even with all that, though, I've never really gotten into people writing about cats. The cute cat in the bookstore that teaches you lessons about how to live your life, the adorable kittens that bring a broken family back together, the everyday cat minutia that I love going over for my own cats -- none of these things have ever appealed to me in book form. (Internet cat videos, on the other hand, are great).

But this book is about as far from a traditional "cat book" as you can get. First of all, Tom Cox is a man. He's also a former music critic and a great writer. While the book follows the journey of him, his girlfriend, and their many cats, it also covers issues like: buying a first house, dealing with eccentric parents, London vs. the countryside, getting along with your neighbors, earning a living, real estate nightmares, and just keeping on keeping on. And it's great! Cox has a natural writing style and a keen sense of humor, particularly in cat-related anecdotes. After seeing so many pictures of The Bear, Ralph, and the rest of the gang on Twitter, it was wonderful to hear more about where they came from and how their personalities evolved.

I could do without most of the jokey little listy interstitial chapters (which almost seem stuck in to gratify the traditional "cat book" crowd), but they aren't a deal breaker. If you like cats, are in your late 30s/early 40s, or just enjoy good writing, this is a good one to check out. Men who love cats should particularly pick this one up. I'm adding the sequels to my "to read" list for sure!

Friday, May 06, 2016

The Puma Blues: The Complete Saga in One Volume by Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli [1986-1989] (2015)

Guys, in case you couldn't tell, I'm a fan of book clubs. So much so that I've joined another one. The Four Color Fabulous Book Club was organized by my friend Joe so that we could all read cool graphic novels and then talk about them at a bar. I'm in!

Our first selection is The Puma Blues: The Complete Saga in One Volume by Stephen Murphy and Michael Zulli (2015), a comic that was originally published in the late 80s, but brought together for the first time with some supplementary material and a newly written final chapter that brings us up to the present.

The most obvious (but probably not the most important) quality of this book is that it is FREAKING HEAVY. Do not bring this to read on a plane and if you are moving house, wait to buy a copy until you are settled in your new place. I'd say that is an argument for buying the electronic copy, but this is also a damn nice book, so just do as you see fit.

Murphy gives us a prescient narrative that is simultaneously mind-expanding and a little claustrophobic. The comic starts in the year 2000 (which would have been about fifteen years in the future when it was first published). The U.S. experienced a devastating act of domestic terrorism in 1995 when a nuclear weapon was set off in the Bronx. The environment is also going haywire and U.S. Agent Gavia Immer (our hero) is leading a solitary life in the woods tracking mutating animals (flying. manta. rays.) and measuring the ph levels of the water. He fills his time with video phone calls to his mom and some gut wrenching watching of old VHS movies his late father made that explore the existence of alien life forms. The amazing drawings by Zulli [do yourself a favor and check out a little Google Image search] perfectly match the (sometimes pretty abstract) tone of the writing, and his drawings of animals and the natural world are some of the best I've ever seen. The scenes from nature give the sometimes pretty dense narrative the room it needs to take effect, and also give the reader a little time to breathe.

The story is often universal, but sprinkled throughout are pretty intimate-feeling vignettes of lost parents, sexual encounters, weird dreams, and unspoken thoughts. It has a very 80s feel in its politics, technology, philosophies, and sexy ladies, but since domestic terrorism and environmental collapse are still pretty relevant topics, there is plenty to chew on here. This is a weird and wonderful book and I'm so glad I fell into it. Plus my arms are super strong now from carrying it around.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle (1963)

My Debbie Downer book club (only sad books need apply) recently met to discuss A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L'Engle (1963). Actually, when we picked this one, none of us were really sure how much of a downer it even was (although it did show up on some "sad young adult books" lists). I'm not sure how, but I somehow avoided reading this book for my entire childhood, even though I have been reading pretty much constantly (with short breaks for eating, sleeping, and working) since I was 4, and this book would have been right up my alley!

Never fear, guys, it does have some solid downer content, including: missing father, bullies, scary physics-involved space travel, realization that adults can't save or protect you, isolation and loneliness, potential loss of favorite sibling, etc. And things don't really wrap up happily until the last three pages!

In case you are a weirdo like me who never read this one before, the basic outline is that Meg's father, a scientist for the government, disappeared mysteriously. She is teased at school because of her father and her temper is a little out of control. Her brother, Charles Wallace, was a baby when their father vanished. He is five going on twenty-five with some unusual psychic abilities. They, together with Calvin O'Keefe, a popular kid from school who has some of the same psychic connections as Charles Wallace, are whisked away by the very unusual Mrs. Whatsit (and soon joined by her colleagues, Mrs. Who and Mrs. Which) and set out on the adventure of finding Meg's father and saving the world from evil / darkness / the cloud / IT.

There is some solid sci-fi in here, as well as a good dose of Christianity (which I totally would not have noticed as a kid) and some pro-American / anti-communist mindsets. I was particularly into a nice little homage to Flatland, one of my favorite mathematically-based science-fiction books. The characters are types, but they are lovable types, and there is a lot to enjoy in Meg's journey towards independence and (of course!) the power of love. This is the first book in a short series, and I'm down for checking out the rest.

Finally, thanks to my book club, I did discover the existence of this really horrible and extremely dated 2003 film version of the book that features possibly the weirdest line delivery, most awkward special effects, and downright creepiest Charles Wallace ever.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

The Children of Men by P.D. James (1992)

We read P.D. James' dystopian science fiction novel, The Children of Men (1992) for my free-form book club (go DAFFODILS!). I was very into this choice since I (a) like dystopian science fiction and (b) really liked the movie version and figured if nothing else I could day dream about Clive Owen while reading it. I did end up really enjoying the book, although it has little in common with the movie version beyond the general premise and the character names.

The book takes place in 2021, 26 years after all the men on the planet became infertile. The last generation of humans, known as the Omegas, are beautiful nihilistic jerks and our narrator, Theo Faron, is a cynical and disconnected history professor who sometimes tries to teach them. Theo is divorced after his shaky marriage fell completely apart with the death of their daughter in a tragic accident that was his fault. He lives alone and is comfortable but dissatisfied. He is thrown into the politics of post-Omega England when he is approached by a young woman from one of his classes who asks him to talk to the Warden of England on behalf of her and a small group of protesters. They want to stop the government regulated mass suicides of the elderly, the mandatory fertility testing, the unsupervised prison islands, and the poor treatment of immigrants from other countries. Theo is in a place to help because his cousin, Xan, is the Warden -- a replacement for the prime minister and the King who makes all the decisions for the country, together with a small council. The meeting with the council doesn't go well, but now Theo has a cause and something to actually do, and he can't separate himself from the work of the rebel group. When the unimaginable happens, he finds himself willing to sacrifice everything for the cause.

This is a pretty philosophical and extremely British book with digressions on politics, theological implications, and moral and ethical tests of its characters and readers. While the plot and the action move the story along quickly, this is no sweaty Clive Owen action-filled story like the film. Wikipedia tells me that the late P.D. James was pleased with the film version even though it was so different from her original novel, and I can see why she liked it. It captures the world she created, but comes at it in a way that plays better on the screen. The novel, on the other hand, is the perfect way to explore the cold, intellectual, privileged mind of Theo and experience the slow warming and opening that he undergoes as he becomes more and more involved with Julian and her friends. Literary science fiction doesn't always work for me, but in this case, James really pulls it off. There is a lot to think about here, and it's a rewarding read.

And the cats! The cats!

Thursday, March 31, 2016

In a French Kitchen: Tales and Traditions of Everyday Home Cooking in France by Susan Herrmann Loomis (2015)

I got an advance reader's copy of In a French Kitchen: Tales and Traditions of Everyday Home Cooking in France by Susan Herrmann Loomis (2015) through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. The concept sounds right up my alley, and the LibraryThing algorithm usually doesn't steer me wrong, but in this case the book and I just did not connect.

Loomis is an American who has lived in France for decades. She is well known for books on French cooking and a well-received memoir about her live abroad. I haven't read her other books, but a generous interpretation of In a French Kitchen might be that she was resting on her laurels a bit and that fans who are familiar with her history and style will like even the most casually written combination of anecdotes and recipes.

The recipes almost save the book -- they are without exception interesting, well composed, hearty, simple, and very French. I could see fitting many of these into my regular cooking routine, and I'm glad I had a chance to look through them.

Unfortunately the "tales and traditions" part of the book reads more like a rambling blog post (a familiar format for Loomis) and don't translate well to the printed page. Sweeping declarations about all the French and all Americans rubbed me the wrong way and one more description of a beautiful Frenchwoman who had a challenging job and came home to throw together an economical and delicious meal from scratch for her lovely children AND THEN created a multi-course dinner party for her friends after the kids went to bed and I would have had to throw the book off a bridge. This scenario really happened more than once in the book. The secret: the French are 1) organized and 2) don't eat processed food and 3) learn everything from their grandmothers. And maybe just the atmosphere of France. Also, men don't cook and if any Frenchmen do cook, the author notes that it is the exception and not the rule.

I don't know, maybe I was feeling cranky when I read this, but the tone really did not work, neither as a memoir nor as a cookbook. Fans may have a different view, but this was not a good introduction to Loomis for me.