Saturday, July 13, 2019

The Soul of an Octopus

The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration Into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (2015)

In truth, I put this book about octopuses on my To Read list after hearing a couple of co-workers talk about how good it was, but I didn't think I'd ever actually read it. Recently though, I impulsively picked it up at the library and actually read it.

It's not just a book about octopuses, but rather a memoir about one person's experiences with octopuses. This made it much more readable, though maybe not as informative. Sy Montgomery began visiting with octopuses at the New England Aquarium in Boston, hanging out with the staff there and getting good quality time up close and personal with the octopuses. She also learned to scuba dive so that she could observe octopuses in the wild. Along the way she learned a lot about the creatures and formed attachments, which made it pretty painful when they died, sometimes unexpectedly.

The book lacked some basic information that would have been helpful. Like she refers to them as mollusks and as cephalopods, but doesn't ever explain how those two categories relate to each other (cephalopods are a class of mollusk, but I had to google that.) She also doesn't go over basic anatomy, just making a reference to the head and body not being where we expect, or something along those lines, and says that the beak is in the armpit - these are confusing concepts and a basic diagram would have helped. Again, I just googled.

What bothered me the most - and almost caused me to abandon the book - is that she talks about how intelligent and complex and emotional octopuses are while not acknowledging the cruelty of removing them from the wild and keeping them in captivity for the education and enjoyment of people like her. In one case, an octopus was kept in a small, dark pickle barrel for around 7 months, with little access to mental stimulation aside from visits from humans. She kept talking about the octopuses trying to escape, saying they were "uncooperative" or "mischievous" when in fact they were basically imprisoned and just wanted to get out and go home.

But I stuck with it anyhow because it was interesting and I find sea creatures fascinating. Ultimately I'm glad I did read the whole thing. There was actually a point where another person in the book spoke to the idea of keeping the octopuses in captivity, saying that this is how people learn about these animals and, in turn, come to care about protecting them and the oceans they live in. Which, ok, I've mulled this over in relation to zoos too, and I'm not completely on board but I do kind of get it.

The most immediate affect of the book is that it gave me an overwhelming desire to watch Finding Nemo again (we own a copy and have watched it about 47 times and no, we don't have kids) and I immediately did so the very evening I finished reading the book. Man I love that movie. I also want to read more books about ocean life, so if you know of another easy-to-read book along these lines, please let me know.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Mr. Kiss and Tell

Mr. Kiss and Tell (Veronica Mars #2) by Rob Thomas (2015), narrated by Rebecca Lowman

A young woman, close to death, was found in a field after being raped and beaten. She had been a guest at the Neptune Grand and when she regained part of her memory she accused a staff person from the hotel of the crime. The hotel hired Veronica Mars to investigate the claim, which is especially difficult since the afore-mentioned staff person has already been deported so Veronica can't talk to him. The victim herself, someone Veronica knows from her past, also isn't speaking much, refusing to tell Veronica who she was meeting at the hotel that night. With so few witnesses and a victim who won't talk, it's a tough case to crack, but of course we know that Veronica will get to the bottom of it.

The victim is Grace Manning, younger sister of Meg who died after the bus accident in season 2, leaving behind a newborn fathered by Veronica's ex-boyfriend Duncan Kane. Veronica remembers finding Grace as a child locked in a closet in her house by her religious fundamentalist parents. Now Grace is a young woman, an aspiring actress, and she won't say who her mysterious boyfriend is so that Veronica can talk to him about the parts of the evening that Grace can't remember.

Veronica enlists the help of her friend Mac and they spend a lot of time with security footage and hotel guest lists until they come up with a likely suspect. The tricky thing is that the person smuggled the unconscious Grace out of the hotel without it being on any of the footage, but these are smart women so they have a pretty good theory about how it happened. The hard part is finding evidence to support that theory, and as usual Veronica encounters a lot of surprises along the way and ends up in some fairly dangerous situations.

Meanwhile, Logan is on leave from the Navy and they are enjoying their time together. But when a tragedy occurs aboard his ship, he may be called back early and this causes some stress in their relationship. I fear it will never be smooth sailing for this couple, but at least this situation didn't have the drama that their early relationship did. Oh, and they got a puppy! That was a fun part of the story.

I thought this was a little better than the first book, The Thousand Dollar Tan Line. It was a more interesting mystery with a more satisfying conclusion and I think the plot was better crafted. Rebecca Lowman is one of my very favorite narrators and I'm always happy to listen to her. Some people who reviewed this on Audible seem to hate her and it's true that she reads very differently than Kristen Bell, but she's still great. And it didn't have the awkward feeling that Veronica Mars is talking about herself in third person. All in all, this was a very fun and satisfying book to listen to and now I feel prepared to watched the new season of Veronica Mars when it comes out later this month.

Monday, July 8, 2019

My One and Only

My One and Only by Kristan Higgins (2011)

Harper James is a divorce attorney who is skeptical about love. She's never gotten over her youthful failed marriage to Nick Lowery, and now she spends her days urging people to get their "hearts to accept what their heads already know." Suddenly her younger stepsister Willa is getting married to a guy she just met and Harper has to leave her home in Martha's Vineyard to attend the wedding in Montana. And it turns out that Willa's groom-to-be  is none other than Chris Lowery, Nick's brother.

Harper, along with her dog Coco and her boyfriend Dennis, heads to the wedding, dreading running into her ex-husband. Especially now that Dennis has so recently turned down her marriage proposal. She's also very upset that Willa is getting married for a third impulsive time. By the end of the weekend, Harper and Dennis have broken up and Harper finds herself unwillingly on a road trip with Nick who is just as attractive as he ever was.

I'm already a fan of Kristan Higgins, having read my way through the Blue Heron series and the more recent (non-romance) Good Luck With That. This is an older stand-alone romance that I picked up at a used book store ages ago, and I kept putting it off because I was afraid it wouldn't hold up to Blue Heron. (I had cause for concern as I tried reading Just One of the Guys from 2008 and couldn't get through it.) I needn't have worried. This novel was not only as good as my other favorites of hers, it may have been even better.

This story is complex. We have Harper's history with Nick, their passionate young relationship and disastrously short marriage, which has left them both a mess emotionally. Harper's problems go even deeper, back to her mother walking out on the family on Harper's 13th birthday. This story is a big part of the novel too, coinciding with marital troubles between Harper's dad and his wife BeverLee. Not to mention Harper's current relationship with Dennis, a sweet firefighter who she wants to marry only because it seems practical somehow, having long ago lost any romantic notions about true love. Dennis sports a rattail and calls her "dude," but she is grudgingly willing to overlook these details. He's really not a bad guy at all, and honestly deserves somebody who loves him more than Harper does.

I like how unusual the premise of this story is: it's a romance between people who used to be married, and when the story begins one of them is still in another relationship. Their (half- and step-) siblings are marrying each other, and Harper disapproves. When they meet at the wedding, she and Nick immediately start bickering with each other, volleying insults that were, frankly, kind of hilarious. Plus she lives in Massachusetts and he lives in New York so they have that whole Red Sox vs. Yankees thing going on. But also there's all this interesting family stuff, like with Harper's mother - who she ends up seeing for the first time in decades during this story - and her stepmother. BeverLee is from the south and she's very bubbly and chipper and uses a ton of hairspray and is super excited that her daughter is getting married, even though she barely knows the guy. But she's also loving and loyal and, as Harper eventually realizes, more of a mother to her than her biological mother ever was.

I just loved all of this - the emotional depth, the difficulty of these relationships, the acknowledgement of how hard you need to work to make relationships last. Nick and Harper have a whole painful history they need to grapple with, and even that is not enough because if they're going to start up again they have to figure out how to make it different this time. When they were married, Nick worked all the time, leaving Harper feeling alone and neglected. She, in turn, made a life for herself that was very separate, not even telling her new friends that she was married. They need to make sure they won't fall into the same patterns.

Other elements that added to the story were the beautiful descriptions of Montana and Harper's comparisons between its natural beauty and that of Martha's Vineyard, and Higgins's trademark humor. I could have used a few less instances of the word "boobage" (zero would be perfect), but her funny zings and quips more than make up for it. This is probably one of the better romances I've read, and I highly recommend it.

As I said, I've had this paperback sitting around for a while, so I put it on my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge. Amazingly, I only have 3 more books to read for the challenge this year.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Growing Things

Growing Things by Paul Tremblay (2019)

I've never read Paul Tremblay before, but saw him speak on a panel at the Massachusetts Library Association Conference in May. I went to the panel because Peter Swanson was on it, but also enjoyed hearing from Paul Tremblay and Katherine Hall Page, and grabbed copies of all their recent/upcoming books. Tremblay's Growing Things was just released this week.

The collection begins with the title story, in which two girls and their father are holed up in their house while some sort of out-of-control plant seems to be taking over the world. We don't get a lot about the bigger picture since we're just hearing from the girls' perspective, but of course that makes it all the more creepy and mysterious. And as I look back at it now, I realize the characters have the same names - Merry and Marjorie - as those in the final story in the collection, "The Thirteenth Temple." I can't immediately see how they're related, but I understand from the notes at the end of the book that Tremblay often writes stories set in worlds he has created previously.

"Growing Things" isn't the only story with an apocalyptic feel. In "Where We All Will Be," Zane is troubled by his father's suddenly odd behavior and compulsion to get in the car and drive towards...something. Everyone else seems to be doing the same thing, but Zane seems to be immune, perhaps because his brain is somehow different from other people's as they learned when he was a kid. "It's Against the Law to Feed the Ducks" is about a family on vacation, told from the perspective of a young child who can see that something very strange is happening, and we can tell it's some sort of doomsday scenario, but what? In a way, I'd love to know more about what is actually going on in this stories, but I don't think any explanation could improve upon the feels of uncertainty and apprehension Tremblay cultivates.

While those may be my favorites in the collection (I do love a good apocalypse) there are others that were also especially...effective. I can't say I love them since they make me so uncomfortable but they certainly do what they set out to do and I have a great appreciation for that. "------------" (which is an annoying title for a story) begins with a man enjoying a day at the beach with his kids. A woman shows up, acting super familiar like they know each other. He tries to figure out where he knows her from, feeling a little uncomfortable as she acts more and more like they are close, and he kinda wishes his wife was there. She also acts familiar with the kids, like she's their mom, and as the guys packs up to leave, she's all like "wait! don't leave me behind!" and gets in the car with them. All this time he's asking himself who this woman is and why she's acting like he should know her. It's so very unsettling.

A few of the stories are pretty experimental in form. "A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken" is told like a choose-your-own-adventure, and "Further Questions for the Somnambulist" is pages and pages of three columns of questions and I don't quite understand it. "Notes for 'The Barn in the Wild'" reminded me a bit of House of Leaves, with its diary format and footnotes and underlined and crossed out sentences, like you're hearing the story in real-time, a stream of consciousness, complete with tangents and asides.

Some of the stories worked more for me than others, as is always the case with a collection of short stories, but I could almost always at least appreciate it on some level. I read the collection fairly slowly over a couple of weeks and was very unsure how to rate it on Goodreads, which is also generally a problem with short story collections. But now as I look back and remind myself about everything that I read, it seems clear to me that it's a pretty solid 4 stars. I think it's worth pointing out that Tremblay is a high school math teacher when he's not writing, and I love that his day job is so incredibly different - English teacher we'd expect, but math? He's most well known for The Cabin at the End of the World which recently won the Bram Stoker award, and which I should probably consider reading. He's clearly a very talented horror writer and I'm sorry I missed him up until now. I'm glad I impulsively grabbed a copy of his book!

Monday, July 1, 2019

The Big Rewind

The Big Rewind by Libby Cudmore (2016)

Jett Bennett opens her mail one day to find a mix tape addressed to her neighbor, KitKat. When she goes downstairs to deliver the misdirected package, she finds KitKat dead on the floor in a pool of blood. Her boyfriend is the first suspect, of course, but Jett is convinced the mysterious mix tape is a clue so she decides to try and solve the case herself.

This neighborhood and all its inhabitants seem to be super retro hipster, and at first I was a bit put off by the vibe. But that changed pretty quickly as I got into the story. Music is a big theme here so there are lots of artists and songs mentioned, some of which I even recognized. (I am not nearly as cool as Jett and her friends.) Jett listened to Warren Zevon a lot actually, which really takes me back.

Although Jett moved to New York because she wanted to be a music journalist, she was temping as a proofreader (and sometimes a purchaser and launderer of women's lingerie for a guy who wanted discretion regarding his choice of undergarments.) She was BFFs with a guy named Sid who falls in love with a stripper just as Jett starts to realize she is falling for him. So, little bit of murder mystery, little bit of angsty love, lots of fun.

Interestingly, Jett's proofreading job is for a PI firm, and she occasionally tries to get some advice from one of her coworkers about the case. Mostly she was on her own though, following the path of a mysterious song on a mix tape, hoping it will bring her closer to KitKat's murderer. I liked how this story shaped up, and how I didn't expect it to end up where it did. I also like that it didn't have the suspenseful tone of other mystery stories I've read. It was a fun enjoyable novel that happened to be a mystery.

Jett was easy to like, totally relatable in that young person figuring themselves out kind of way, and a witty observer. At one point she describes "one of those boutiques that carries only four items, none of which are in your size." She also mentions being stressed out and trying to calm herself with breathing exercises she learned in a yoga class in college. "I got a B in that class. Who gets a B in yoga? Someone who can't calm down, that's who." At other times I felt like she might be a different species, like when she described a "tall, skinny blond guy with combed-back sharkfin ridges and rimless cheaters." I think she's talking about his hair and glasses? But suddenly I feel like I'm about 90 years old. I was surprised at one point to realize she's actually in her 30s, because she felt so far from me. I guess it's just because she's so hip.

I've had this book sitting around for a while - it was a gift I was planning to read last summer. Then recently I saw a blogger post about how much she liked it and it reminded me that I had a copy. It was a quick read, fairly light, fun, and refreshing.

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Farm

The Farm by Joanne Ramos (2019)

Jane is a young divorced Filipina mother bouncing from job to job until her cousin Ate finds an unusual opportunity for her. She'll go to a fancy resort-like place called Golden Oaks and be a surrogate mother. The only catch is that she can't see her family, including her daughter, while she's at the heavily controlled and monitored facility. Jane leaves Amalia with Ate and checks into Golden Oaks, embryo safely implanted and cooking away. It's a luxurious place, but of course there's a lot the highly-paid Hosts don't know and Jane struggles with being away from her daughter for so long without even a visit.

The girls all get paid for being there and then will receive bonuses when they deliver, the amounts dependent on the wealth of the clients. Not every woman knows who their client is, but it becomes known that one of the girls will be receiving a life-changing billion dollars upon delivery. The Hosts are speculating about their potentially changed life circumstances, but also trying to get through each day, pushing the limits at Golden Oaks and trying not to get caught breaking the rules.

When I first read about this book I thought it was going to be some Handmaid's Tale-style dystopia, but that's not it at all. This is something that could easily exist already - a very special residential home for surrogate mothers to the extremely wealthy. Run by the ambitious Mae Yu, Hosts sign strict contracts and although they're very well taken care of, their lives are also quite restricted and regimented. If they don't abide by all the rules, they are punished however Mae Yu sees fit.

Mae isn't a villain though. She's a young woman focused on her career and her impending marriage, who just wants to build more business for Golden Oaks. Her job means balancing some pretty strong personalities and entitled people. She lies to the young Hosts carrying the babies, but she's not a monster, just a little ethically questionable.

Jane is a high school dropout who has made some bad decisions, including marrying Amalia's father, but she wants to make a better life for herself and her daughter. She's not very assertive and is easily influenced by others, like her new friends Reagan and Lisa at Golden Oaks.

I picked this up on a whim and liked it, although it somehow lacks momentum. There wasn't a mystery I was dying to have solved or a situation I was nervous about the resolution of. I did want to know how Jane fared in the end but there wasn't something compelling really pulling me through. Still, I obviously kept with it and that's because I didn't know what was coming and wanted to find out, and I found it interesting to spend time with Jane, Reagan, Mae, and Ate. I liked reading it, but there were no real surprises.

Monday, June 24, 2019

Daisy Jones & The Six

Daisy Jones & the Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (2019)

Daisy Jones & The Six were a hugely popular rock band in the 70s until they broke up at the height of their career. Daisy Jones was a striking young woman really into the party scene, and who also had a fantastic voice and a flair for songwriting. The Six were a band fronted by Billy Dunne, also a talented singer and songwriter. Their first tour began just after Billy found out his girlfriend was pregnant and they got married. He went totally wild on tour. After the tour when he was getting himself cleaned up and trying to strengthen his marriage, the band was looking for what to do next. The answer was teaming up with new performer Daisy Jones, in a combination that was going to result in a phenomenal new album.

This book, the latest from one of my new favorites, Taylor Jenkins Reid, is unusual in that it's told in interview style. There aren't descriptions or anything like that, just the story told years later by the people who were there. It's kind of like reading the transcript of a documentary. A lot of people really love this style and think it worked fantastically well; I'm not actually a huge fan of it. It worked, but just wasn't really my style.

It's a good story though. A behind-the-scenes look at the rise and fall of a 70s supergroup is pretty compelling, especially when it's populated by such a volatile combination of characters. Billy Dunne gets into booze and drugs early on, and goes to rehab. It's after this that they team up with Daisy Jones, a big drug user herself. Much of the band's problems are from Billy and Daisy's relationship, which is kind of doomed from the start since it's not healthy for Billy to be around her so much. His relationship with his wife and kids is also a big part of this book and made me like him a lot. Camila was a total rock, and hearing her talk about her love for Billy and her loyalty to him, juxtaposed with the way he talked about the importance of his family was pretty great. There was also a secret relationship between two of the band members, and some jealousy and hard feelings from those in the band who felt like their voices were never heard. There was a lot going on with these people and it was fascinating to watch.

The 70s aren't a decade I like to immerse myself in and I don't like much of the music. Oh, that was another thing about this book - so much of it was about the music but I have no idea what it's supposed to sound like! Anyway, it's not my ideal time period or storytelling style, so consequently it's not one of my favorites of Reid's books, but it's still pretty solid. I read it in just a couple of days because, despite its drawbacks for me, it's still a pretty compelling story. If you're more into the narrative style and time period than I am, you might love it as much as everyone else seems to.

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy

Once Ghosted, Twice Shy (Reluctant Royals #2.5) by Alyssa Cole (2019)

Back in A Princess in Theory, Prince Thabiso had an assistant named Lakotsi who I liked a LOT and now she has her own story. It's just a 120-page novella but I'll take it. During the events of A Princess in Theory, Lakotsi spent a weekend with a woman named Fabiola while in the US, knowing that it was just a fling because she'd be returning to her home of Thesolo. But during that short time she fell for Fabiola, and was hurt on the last night they were supposed to get together when Fab sent her a text just cutting her off. Now, back in New York again, she runs into Fab by chance on the train.

The story shifts back and forth from their first weekend together to the present day, and we get both Lakotsi and Fab's perspective. We know that the reason Fabiola cut contact with Lakotsi had to do with a family situation that arose suddenly, but that story comes out slowly over the course of the novella. In the present day, Fab convinces Lakotsi to go to brunch with her, and then do a couple of other fun things, all the while evading answering the obvious question of why she ended things so abruptly. Lakotsi still wants answers but she goes along with the activities, warning up to Fab again as she remembers why she fell so hard for her in the first place.

Lakotsi is very dapper and suave, always impeccably dressed, and her practice has always been to hook up with women in her free time, wherever in the world she happens to be. She's very dedicated to her work and considers her long-standing job as Prince Thabiso's assistant to be a lifetime career. She's really good at anticipating the needs of others, which she needs for her job, but which also serves her personally. I love her and was so glad she got a book of her own. Initially I was disappointed that it's just a novella, but the length was right for this particular story.

Fabiola is a jewelry designer trying to build her craft into a career, but now she has the added pressures of her current family situation to contend with. I won't spoil it, but will just say that she has become responsible for caring for a family member, which is a huge change for this young single woman. Her artistic and spontaneous personality comes through in this novel, as she leads Lakotsi around the city doing different interesting and fun activities, but she's clearly not flighty or irresponsible as one may be led to believe based on the last time she and Lakotsi were together.

This was short enough that I didn't get as invested as I would had it been a full-length novel where you can really get to know the characters and their histories more and have a slow build-up of the relationship. But for what it is, I thought it worked well - it was fun, had an interesting story that I wanted to know more about, and I really wanted things to work out for Lakotsi and Fabiola because they're both great people who deserve love. It's a romance novel, so of course it had a happy ending. All in all, it was a win! I'm actually behind on this series, having read only A Princess in Theory and this one, and I think there are two more full length novels now and another novella. This was a great reminder to get back to this series!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Stepsister

Stepsister by Jennifer Donnelly (2019)

I heard of this book quite recently, just before publication, and immediately requested it through my library system. I don't read many fairy tale retellings but I'm very intrigued by them and Jennifer Donnelly is a fantastic author. She wrote The Tea RoseThe Winter Rose, and The Wild Rose, and the teen novel A Northern Light, which I loved before I had this blog or Goodreads. So when I heard she was releasing a book about one of Cinderella's ugly stepsisters, WELL.

So, Isabelle cut off her toes so her foot would fit in the glass slipper, and she almost got away with it. But it's just as well that she didn't because she's not interested in the prince. She's interested in things like sword-fighting and a boy named Felix who she lost long ago. She has disappointed her mother because she's not pretty enough or feminine enough or demure enough. Now her stepsister Ella has left to marry the prince, and Isabelle and her sister Octavia are left at home with their mother.

The whole town has turned against them now that they know how the family treated Ella. Both stepsisters and their mother are harassed and ostracized, and ultimately they lose their house and must depend on a stranger who is pressured into taking them in. The conditions are inhumane, but the girls do their best to take care of themselves and their mother, whose health is failing. This all could have made them more bitter, but they recognize that they brought a lot of this on themselves with their unfair treatment of Ella.

Isabelle feels like things would go much better for her if she were pretty. Pretty girls are always given the benefit of the doubt, seen as having more value than girls who aren't pretty, and liked by everyone. One day Isabelle encounters a fairy queen who promises to grant her wish to be pretty, but Isabelle has to first find the missing pieces of her heart. Meanwhile, there are others who are trying to control her path. Fate has drawn a map of her life, which will soon end in bloodshed. Chance has stolen the map and is trying to alter the path. Both Fate and Chance have now come to the village of St. Michel to try and alter her life, but perhaps Isabelle will wrest control and determine her own destiny.

I loved this take on what happened after the events of Cinderella, and the new dimensions of Ella's stepsisters. There was adventure, magic, and love. Isabella and Octavia dealt with their former mistreatment of Ella and I don't think it's too much of a spoiler to say that the three girls came together for a reckoning. Isabelle grew so much as a human being during the course of this story, which was incredibly empowering. I loved her trajectory! Even Octavia, who wasn't the focus of the story, came through as a real person here, one who is completely uninterested in romance (with the prince or anyone else) but is devoted to math and science. Neither of these girls fit in with what was expected of young ladies, nor were they taken seriously by anyone around them, but ultimately they grew into confident young women, sure of themselves and demanding to be respected. It was incredibly satisfying!

Sunday, June 16, 2019

The Thousand Dollar Tan Line

The Thousand-Dollar Tan Line (Veronica Mars #1) by Rob Thomas (2014), narrated by Kristen Bell

Bear with me while I prepare for the return of this excellent show in July. I've rewatched all the original episodes, watched the movie, and now just need to listen to both of the books. One down, one to go!

It's spring break in Neptune, and the partiers have descended. But when a young woman disappears, it's bad PR for the town and Veronica is hired by the Chamber of Commerce to help find her. It's only complicated more when a second girl disappears. Veronica's investigation takes her to a mansion belonging to two very dangerous men, and also involves someone from her past.

This felt very much like watching an episode of the show, which makes sense since the same person writes it. It was so much fun to revisit Neptune and its inhabitants. Logan is away during this book and although he and Veronica Skype, their relationship isn't really in the foreground. What is, is her family because one of the missing girls is related to a family member she hasn't been in touch with and this brings up a lot of interesting developments.

I've got a couple of really minor criticisms. One is that I thought Veronica figured out way too many things near the end that didn't really have clues. She's smart - I get it - and often puts things together that I don't see, but it just seemed to happen far too much here, and with things that didn't always have real clues. The other tiny issue I had is that the title of the book is kind of a red herring and I don't know why it was chosen. But neither of these things really diminished my enjoyment of the story. I didn't have a ton of expectations, to be honest, because even though I know that Rob Thomas is a real writer who has written at least one book before, this is a book based on a TV show and somehow I just don't expect a lot from that kind of thing. (His young adult novel, Rats Saw God, was very good, by the way.)

Of course Kristen Bell is the perfect person to narrate since she's the voice of Veronica Mars herself. Since the book is written in third person it sounds like Veronica is talking about herself in third person, but that was only weird for a short time and I got over it. Hearing her voice added to the feeling I already had that I was immersed in another episode of the show. Because it's already a show I pictured everyone the way they appeared on screen and it just made it feel all the more real.

I've heard from a friend that the second book is better so I'm really looking forward to it. It's narrated by my favorite audiobook reader, Rebecca Lowman. The reviews on Audible aren't great, I think because her voice is so different from that of Kristen Bell. Hopefully that won't impact my experience.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things

All the Ugly and Wonderful Things by Bryn Greenwood (2016)

This rather divisive book is about an unusual and troubled young girl named Wavy, whose parents don't really look after her. A family friend, Kellen, who works for her dad starts to help her out, driving her to school and whatnot. She becomes pretty attached to him and by the time she's 13 they're pretty much having a romance. It never really says how old he is, but presumably he's in his early or mid-twenties.

Wavy's father is a meth dealer who is technically still married to her mother, but lives down the hill with some other women. He's pretty horrible. Her mother is just a mess, drunk and passed out all the time. Wavy and her little brother are pretty much left to fend for themselves. Also, her mother drilled some things into her head early, the result of which are that Wavy refuses to eat in front of anyone and hates to be touched. Kellen is really the first person who ever really took care of her, and I can see why they developed an affection for each other so early. At any rate, a lot of things happen that I won't mention but things come to a head and there's a reckoning, and that's still only halfway or so through the book. So it's not just about their relationship, but lots of other family stuff that's wrapped up with jealousy and violence.

The story is told through many different perspectives and, surprisingly, the many points of view worked here. We got Wavy's perspective a bunch, and Kellen's, and Wavy's cousin Amy's, but also people like cops and court reporters who only appeared once. Generally I find that confusing because it's too many characters to learn, but Greenwood did this in a brilliant way because you don't have to get to know all those minor characters or keep them straight. Their perspectives are just there to give you another part of Wavy and Kellen's story from an outsider's viewpoint.

So yes, it's about a relationship between an adult and a 13-year-old so I guess it's not for everyone. Judging from the Goodreads reviews there are people who find the very idea so horrific that it doesn't matter how well the story is told, how nuanced the characters, or how fictional. Interestingly, the author also had a relationship with an adult when she was that young, one that she describes as loving and consensual, an experience that informed the relationship between Wavy and Kellen. Although some would insist that any relationship between people of these ages are wrong no matter what, I think there are all kinds of people and all kinds of relationships. Human experience is diverse and full of possibility. Greenwood expertly captured one of those possibilities in this story, and I won't forget it for a long time.

Friday, June 7, 2019

The Borrower

The Borrower by Rebecca Makkai (2011)

Lucy Hull is a children's librarian who has befriended a 10-year-old boy named Ian. His parents are religious and start being very strict about what he can and cannot read. Fearing that he may be gay they start sending him to some group run by Pastor Bob, a guy known for being anti-gay and trying to convert people to be straight. Ian becomes increasingly unhappy and manages to stay overnight in the library one night. When Lucy finds him in the morning and tries to take him home, they instead end up driving across the country together.

So yes, she absconds with a kid, which is a terrible idea. She knows it will be considered kidnapping and tries very hard not to leave any tracks. He sort of manipulated her into it, but she didn't really try to resist. The whole thing was questionable and while bad ideas often turn into great stories, that wasn't my experience in this case.

It's not that it wasn't amusing or entertaining. It was! Ian was a clever and quirky kid and I can totally see why Lucy wanted to protect him. Their from Missouri continued to Lucy's parents' house in Chicago, and her father is Russian with crazy stories and ties to some pretty sketchy people. He tells her that since she's driving east she should deliver a box from him to his Russian friends in Pittsburgh, and that's another entertaining visit. All the while, she sticks to her story about Ian's mother being in the hospital and entrusting Lucy with her care. Back home, her coworkers are starting to suspect she might have something to do with the boy's disappearance but she staves off their questions as much as possible. It's all written in a fairly humorous lighthearted way.

But in addition to the dubious premise, it never really went anywhere. I mean, road trips are always fun and they definitely had some adventures, but in the end it was all rather a letdown. I don't know that anyone learned much or grew from the experience - it was just kind of over.

I really should like this book more than I did. I feel like it's similar in many ways to a number of books that I really do like - book lovers are always great to read about, and I love quirky characters and road trips and humor. But somehow it just didn't do it for me. I feel bad giving it only two stars on Goodreads because it's not a bad story and the writing is totally fine. But what I keep thinking is "it was ok" which is literally the definition of two stars on Goodreads. So two stars it is.

Stupidly, what made me pick up this book is all the attention that her newest book The Great Believers has been getting. Rather than just reading that one (which I still may) I thought that if that one was good, then surely I'd love the one that has something to do with book lovers, right?

I think I've been in something of a reading rut, because I wasn't excited about this book when I started but there wasn't nothing else in my tall pile of books that was looking more compelling to me. And that tall pile is still here and I don't know what I'm going to read next. So book, maybe it's not you, maybe it's me. Lots of people really like The Borrower so this is one perhaps you all shouldn't take my word for.

Monday, June 3, 2019

Garden Spells

Garden Spells by Sarah Addison Allen (2007)

The Waverley family is known for the magical properties of the plants they grow, especially the closely-guarded apple tree. The property is now occupied only by Claire Waverly, a young woman who runs a catering business and has no interest in relationships. When her sister Sydney arrives after being gone for ten years, young daughter Bay in tow, Claire knows her life is about to change. But she also fears that her sister will inevitably leave again. Meanwhile, her new neighbor is obviously interested in her and although she keeps trying to avoid him, Sydney only makes things worse by befriending him and encouraging him in Claire's direction.

Sydney won't tell Claire much about where she's been since she last left their hometown of Bascom, North Carolina. The truth is that she moved around a lot, but for the past several years was in an abusive relationship and had to plan extremely carefully to get away. It was seriously terrifying to read about. Luckily she had been living under a different name and was able to adopt her true identity again when she came back home, but she knows Bay's father will do everything he can to hunt her down. She had always wanted to get away from Bascom, but now she knows it's where she really belongs. And so does Bay - like the other Waverley women, Bay has a sort of special power. Hers is that she knows where things, and people, belong.

Claire feels abandoned, tied to her home while everyone else leaves. Her mother, her sister, probably her neighbor Tyler Hughes, which is why she doesn't want to get involved with him. Her focus has always been on her business, which is where she uses her special power. She gardens, and then uses the plants in her cooking, tailoring the recipes to what people need based on the magical properties associated with different ingredients. The center of the garden is the old apple tree, which is the reason there's a tall fence around the property - kids are always trying to sneak in for one of the apples because they've heard they are magical. They are, but Claire wants to protect people from the magic. If someone eats one of the apples, they have a vision about the biggest event of their life, which can really screw up the rest of it, depending on what they see. The tree sometimes throws apples to the ground deliberately, wanting people to eat them. Claire gathers them all up and buries them.

I've seen this book around for years and I've always really liked the cover, but didn't think it was my kind of book. Recently a book blogger I follow read it and loved it so I thought I may as well try it. In a way I think I was right and it's not exactly my kind of book, but I did enjoy reading it for the most part. Magical realism is hit-or-miss with me, but here those parts worked well. The folkloric aspect of magical plants is appealing, and I liked the story of the sisters, one sowing her wild oats around the country while the other stayed at home quietly tending her garden and keeping to herself. Certain aspects felt dated to me, but I can't put my finger on them - something about the way the romantic relationships worked. It only bothered me because I couldn't quite identify what felt so old-school about them.

For some reason I feel like I would have loved this book had I read it as a teenager or in my twenties, but of course it hadn't been published then. Maybe it just reminds me of other books I read at that time. But I did like it. Once I started, I got pretty invested in the characters and their relationships, including the one between Claire and Sydney. They had never been close and I just wanted them to finally be good sisters to each other. I also really liked their elderly distant cousin, Evanelle, whose power was to give things to people just before they would need them. She didn't know why she kept collecting things or why she had to give a particular object to someone at a particular time, but it always turned out to be something they needed. The ending was a bit abrupt for me, a scary thing happening that (intentionally, temporarily) wrecked the safe, magical atmosphere of the whole story, but it was something I had more or less expected. All in all I'm glad I finally read it and I do still love the cover. I also love the cover of Allen's book First Frost, which turns out to be a sequel to this one. Maybe I'll read that too.

Thursday, May 30, 2019

May Wrap-Up and Plans for June



Reading and Listening


I read a total of 7 books this month, including two for my TBR Pile Challenge- We Are All Shipwrecks and Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. Strangely for me only one was an audiobook, Pride by Ibi Zoboi. My bus commute has gotten nightmarish so I've been driving a lot instead and since it's a fairly short drive I haven't had as much listening time.

There are occasional mini-challenges as part of the TBR Pile Challenge and I won the last one! I got to pick a copy of a book from Book Depository and I went with Outlander. I couldn't find a trade paperback copy from the library that wasn't a movie tie-in version, plus it's so long I thought it would be nice to have my own. I'm picturing myself reading it outside this summer but honestly, I'm picturing myself reading many different very long books outside this summer and there just won't be that much time before the snow falls.

Sun-kissed doggo

Watching


I've finished the third season of Veronica Mars and watched the movie. Now I'm almost ready for the reboot that's happening in July! I do have the two books to read first, and I'm going to try and do them on audio because Kristen Bell narrates the first one herself and my favorite narrator, Rebecca Lowman, reads the second.

Cooking


I had a couple of interesting cookbooks from the library this month. One was Jamie Oliver's new 5-ingredient Quick and Easy cookbook. I made 3 dishes from it: Hoison Chicken Lettuce Cups, which were delicious; One-Pan Fabulous Fish, also great though it made a lot more rice than I was anticipating; and Mango Rice Pudding, tasty but maybe a bit too strong-flavored for me.

An odd combo, but it's delicious!
I also had a copy of 30-Minute Mediterranean Diet, which I had to return after trying only one recipe. It was good though - Easy Italian Orange and Celery Salad. I only picked it because I had a lot of celery hanging around but boy, it was good. It also has red onion, blood oranges, and olives which sounds like it wouldn't be delicious together but it is. I'll definitely make it again as I very much enjoy a crunchy salad rather than a pile of leaves. It has very few pictures compared to most modern cookbooks, but I would really like to get it again and try out some more of the recipes.

Other recipes of note that I made this month include the Hearty Tuscan Bean Stew from the America's Test Kitchen Cooking School cookbook, which was very good but would have been better if the beans were fully cooked. You use dried beans, soak them overnight, and then cook them for quite a while but I guess you really need to try a few before determining that they're done. I also made Tomato Sauce with Butter and Onion from Food52 Genius Recipes, which I'm pretty sure I'll be adding to my repertoire. It was super easy and pretty delicious.


Doing

Finally some sun

All the tv watching and some of my audiobook and podcast listening has provided a good backdrop for knitting, so I've made some real progress on my Na Craga sweater. I haven't yet really worked on my second sock though.

I attended the Massachusetts Library Association conference and attended every session of every day. It was one of the better conferences I've been to in a while, but so exhausting!

I also recently we went to see a new musical called We Live in Cairo. It was all about the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, and I learned a lot about that situation and its aftermath that I didn't know and really enjoyed the music a lot too.

My month is ending with a camping trip, which I'm very much looking forward to. We got a campsite that requires hiking 1/2 mile to get to and that means carrying all our stuff in frame packs but I'm very excited that we'll be fairly isolated from other campers. I keep joking that we're all going to get eaten by bears, but in reality I'm actually really afraid of bears. But I won't let it stop me from having a good time.

Plans for June


Honestly not a lot that I can think of beyond the camping trip. I just want nice weather!

How was your May?

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017)

Eleanor lives with an unwavering order and routine. She goes to the same job she's had her whole adult life, and where she maintains a professional distance from her coworkers. She goes home and eats the same dinner every night. She does the crossword puzzle, reads a book, listens to the radio. On the weekend she drinks vodka and stays in a haze until it's time to return to work. On Wednesday evenings her mother calls her from prison and they talk for 15 minutes.

But then two things happen that begin to break Eleanor out of her routine: one, she develops a mad crush on a musician and becomes convinced that he is her destiny; and two, Raymond from the IT department befriends her and they end up in the right place at the right time and help out an elderly man who has collapsed in the street. Now Eleanor has a social circle including Raymond, the older man, Sammy, and his family. Meanwhile, she has begun a project of self-improvement meant to help her secure the musician with whom she is obsessed. These changes disrupt the order she has been accustomed to, and dredge up feelings and memories from the past that she has forced to stay buried for far too long.

Eleanor is socially awkward, not at all self-aware, and judgmental. Early on, she described her office manager Loretta: "She has overinflated ideas of her own administrative abilities, and in her spare time makes hideous jewelry, which she then sells to idiots." She often makes such proclamations, sure of her opinions and using a formal, lofty language that she apparently got from her mother, who also has firm ideas about how things should be done and lives should be lived.

But her honesty and pragmatism are endearing. She is nothing if not sensible, her carefully-maintained routines assuring fiscal responsibility and a generally low risk life. Although she keeps a careful distance from people and is often bewildered by them, she has more of an understanding with animals. "If I'm ever unsure as to the correct course of action, I'll think 'What would a ferret do?' or, 'How would a salamander respond to this situation?' Invariably, I find the right answer."

It's not hard to see why her colleagues kept their distance, but not so with the new IT guy, Raymond. From the first time she called upon him for help, he reached out in friendship, apparently unbothered by her polite but cold demeanor. He kept reaching out to her and despite her initial distasteful view of him, she warmed up to him a little. They were together one day when they saw an older man collapse in the street, which set off a chain of events that resulted in more human contact that Eleanor was used to. They visit Sammy in the hospital, where they meet his grateful family who befriend both of them and begin inviting them, together, to family occasions. This leads to Eleanor meeting Raymonds mother, a stark contrast to her own. "She was, quite simply, a nice lady who'd raised a family and now lived quietly with her cats and grew vegetables. This was both nothing and everything."

Her hard shell begins to crack, her meticulously crafted life melting in the warmth of human companionship. This only works to dredge up the dark secrets she has kept buried for so many years, and reveals the full extent of the toxic relationship with her "Mummy." She has put off dealing with the truth of her life for so very long, but now she is able to handle it with the help of the friends she has finally allowed into her life.

Both heartbreaking and humorous, this is a novel about the ultimate unlikable, quirky character. I knew I'd like this book from the time I first heard about it but somehow just didn't get around to reading it. I finally got to it for my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge. It reminds me a lot of books like The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, Where'd You Go, Bernadette, and Sourdough: books about socially isolated people going through transformations, told with a certain quirky humor that I like. I don't know what you call this genre, but I want more of it.

Monday, May 27, 2019

There There

There There by Tommy Orange (2018)

In Tommy Orange's award-winning debut novel, a large cast of Native Americans will be attending a powwow in Oakland, California. This is a big money event, and one group sees it as a opportunity. Armed with 3D-printed guns, they plan to rob the organizers.

We first meet Tony Loneman, recruited to help smuggle the bullets to the coliseum. Tony was born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome but wants people to see him, not just what he calls the Drome. In the next chapter we're introduced to Dene Oxendene, a filmmaker applying for a grant. He'll be interviewing Native Americans to hear their stories, especially urban stories, and he'll do some of this at the upcoming powwow. Next is Opal Viola Victoria Bear Shield, caretaker for her sister's grandchildren including one of our other narrators, Orvil Red Feather, whose mother, Jacquie Red Feather is a substance abuse counselor and an alcoholic and yet another narrator.

And so on and so forth, each chapter focusing on a different character, not repeating one until probably halfway through at which point I couldn't even remember who was who. I had to go back and skim some of the chapters to remind myself who a particular character was. Some of them were connected, like the members of the Bear Shield/ Red Feather family, while others had more tenuous connections to each other. But all were somehow involved in the powwow that the story led up to.

Predictably, the robbery went awry and you know when a gun appears early in a story it will be used to shoot at least one person before that story concludes, so there are no real surprises here. Unfortunately it all ends rather abruptly when the big event occurs, leaving unanswered questions and no resolutions. I don't mind an ambiguous ending, but everything was left so suspended in mid-air that I question the whole point of this story and what I was supposed to get out of it. Here I go talking myself down from a 3-star rating to a 2-star.

Had there been more opportunity to get into any of the characters, I would have liked this much more. I thought the first hundred pages or so were great, but then I realized that ever more characters would be added without revisiting the ones we already met (well, we do revisit them, but only briefly.) The result was that it was too disjointed for me to fully get into and ultimately the whole thing fell rather flat.

This has been a very popular book since it came out and I tried it despite not being hooked by the description. I know it's hard to tell from a summary so I like to try a book for myself when there are so many positive reviews, in this case from friends as well as reviewers. The author is definitely talented and if he writes a novel that sticks with a character longer, I would be happy to read it. This one, though, just wasn't for me.

Saturday, May 18, 2019

We Are All Shipwrecks

We Are All Shipwrecks by Kelly Grey Carlisle (2017)

When Kelly was three weeks old, her mother was murdered. She grew up with her grandfather and his much younger wife, sometimes staying with her grandmother and her friend Dee. Her grandfather owned a porn shop and as he got older and less able to work, his wife Marilyn assumed most of the responsibilities of running the business. At one point he bought a boat and because of the costs of fixing it up, they ended up giving up their house and living on the boat full-time. In her memoir, Kelly Grey Carlisle documents her unusual childhood and adolescence, while trying to unravel the mystery of her mother's life and death.

Her grandfather, Richard Grey, was British and insisted he was titled, calling himself Sir Richard Grey. He claimed a lot of things about his life, some of which were true. Although he took good care of Kelly, he was an angry man, what some called verbally abusive. The little he told Kelly about her mother was not necessarily true. She had mixed feelings about her grandfather and so did I by the time I finished reading.

Marilyn put up with a lot, and I was struck by her devotion to taking care of Kelly. She married Kelly's grandfather because he was stable and she very much wanted a baby. Since she didn't have children of her own, when Kelly's mother was killed, Marilyn was the person who most wanted to take care of her. She wasn't happy with some aspects of her life and I really think she would have left had it not been for Kelly.

The idea of living on a boat in the marine seems very foreign to me, but apparently it's not that unusual. For one thing, they had lots of neighbors who also lived on their boats and they made up a pretty tight-knit community. While reading this book I happened across a new book called The Tiny Mess, which documents people who cook in tiny kitchens. Their living quarters vary from tiny houses to vans to converted water towers, but I was struck by how many people live (and cook!) on boats. They're primarily in Southern California, which is also where Kelly grew up. It's a whole world that I didn't know existed.

Mostly this book was slice-of-life in that there weren't major events or catastrophes she was documenting, but just what it was like to grow up the way she did. Always in the background though were the questions about her mother and the years leading up to her murder. Kelly got conflicting stories from family about why her mother was living on her own so young, and what her relationship with her family was like. As an adult Kelly got in touch with the investigators assigned to the case and finally learned some answers to her questions. Ultimately it was a satisfying story that explores themes about family, both blood-related and not.

We Are All Shipwrecks first caught my eye because of the title - I do love a good title - but it has languished on my To Read list for quite a while. It was the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge that finally got me to pick it up. If you're interested in delving into a quirky life filled with complex people and relationships, you may also enjoy this story.

Pride

Pride by Ibi Zoboi (2018), narrated by Elizabeth Acevedo

Just after finishing American Street, I downloaded Ibi Zoboi's newer book, Pride. Given how much I liked the first one, I suspected I might also like her Pride and Prejudice retelling.

Lizzy Bennet is now Zuri Benitez, who lives in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn with her older sister Janae, and younger sisters Marisol, Layla, and Kayla. It's very easy to see who's who. Their names are similar to those in the original, as are their personalities, but in an updated way. Marisol is the serious one, but her specialty is finance. Layla and Kayla are just ridiculous, boy-crazy younger sisters, much like Lydia and Kitty. Their mother is very interested in the Darcy family who just moved in across the street and encourages her daughters to pursue the brothers, Darius and Ainsley.

Although the characters are plot are similar to the classic we all know and love, Pride is very much its own story. The Benitez family has Haitian and Dominican roots, and her culture is very important to Zuri. So is her neighborhood. When the Darcys move in, she can tell right away that they don't belong. They are rich and dress like dorks and talk like white people. She's very protective of her neighborhood and way of life; in fact, she has a pretty limited worldview and isn't even interested in experiencing life outside of Bushwick. She doesn't like Darius, but keeps running into him, especially since her sister Janae is so smitten with his brother Ainsley. Of course it's inevitable that Zuri and Darius will get together eventually, but without ruining anything I'll say that the ending wasn't what I expected. Much like the classic upon which it is based, Pride is about growing up and how your family changes, and there's are some pretty big changes for her family.

The audio narrator was great! In fact, Elizabeth Acevedo is the author of The Poet X. I suspect she was chosen for this book because there's poetry in it. Zuri is a poet and even ends up reading a poem in public while visiting the campus of Howard University. I was very glad I chose to experience the audio version.

I probably got a little too distracted comparing Pride to Pride and Prejudice, but it's pretty hard to avoid if you're familiar with the Jane Austen story. Just know that even if you're not, you're still in for a good story that stands on its own.

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Dolefully, a Rampart Stands

Dolefully, a Rampart Stands by Paige Ackerson-Kiely (2019)

I was drawn to this book of poetry when I read that it was set in the rural Northeast. According to the description the poems are about "isolation, captivity, and vanishing." I can't ever get past the words of poetry to find the themes so I can't really talk about what I'm supposed to get out of this collection, I can only talk about my own response.

I was struck by the language of these poems, and by the unusual form of some of them. One of the earliest poems in the book, "The Lesson," is written like a prose paragraph. I didn't expect this, nor did I expect later another poem written in the same style that extended for 20 pages, one solid paragraph on each page. It's described in reviews as having a noir style which isn't how I would have thought to describe it, but I suppose it's apt. It's called "Book About a Candle Burning In a Shed" and it's about the investigation of the murder of a young woman. The narrator maybe be a police officer, and I alternately thought he was and was not the murdered woman's ex-boyfriend. I kept getting confused on that point. Although this poem went on a bit long for me and I couldn't quite make sense of it, I really liked the narrative voice.

Other poems written in a more traditional style stood out to me because of their vivid and unexpected imagery. Here's a bit I like from "Shine":

The stars do not eat my breakfast.
A man eats my breakfast. Like the stars
he cannot take care of me very well.
But oh does he burn.

I don't know why I like that so much, but I do.

"The Rose Bush" might be my favorite. I want to quote it in full, but will just share this part:

Dieback all the way back
before you were born ugly 
in the cradle, pretty at the table.

Something about that sounds like a song, the whole poem does, and I want to keep reading it over and over. It appears fairly early in the collection and I think it was here that it all began to feel somehow familiar. When I was in high school I wrote poetry - not terrible poetry either, poetry filled with sharp images and words that just sounded satisfying when you put them together. Had I continued to write poetry, I'm convinced it would have been a lot like some of the poetry in this book. What a strange response to reading someone else's book, but there it is.

I want to just continue through the collection, quoting all my favorite passages here, but I'd be here all night re-reading the entire thing. Suffice it to say that I'm very glad I picked up this book. For a while there I was trying out various recently-published books of poetry and not really finding anything I loved so I almost cancelled my library request for this one, only changing my mind at the last minute.

I may come back to it again sometime, and I may seek out another of her books. One of them is titled My Love Is a Dead Arctic Explorer and I can't imagine anything with that title wouldn't be good.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Five Days at Memorial

Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink (2013)

When Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans, Memorial Medical Center was flooded and lost power. Backup generators were of limited help. Temperatures rose. The occasional rescue vehicle came and could only take a few people at a time, and staff had to make decisions about which patients should leave. As the situation became more desperate, the hospital was in survival mode. Treatments and routines halted as the focus was just on keeping people alive and hopefully getting evacuated. But poor communication and lack of disaster protocols both inside the hospital and out meant there was no clear directive and staff didn't necessarily know what was going on. It seemed as though some of the sickest patients were doomed to prolonged suffering and, ultimately, a certain death. Somewhere a decision was made to inject them with drugs that not only eased their suffering but hastened death.

It seemed like an impossible situation, one without clear leadership or a coherent plan. The hospital's parent company told staff to wait for the National Guard. But the government was also responsible for trying to rescue everyone else in New Orleans too, and didn't have the resources needed. Poor organization surrounding the rescues: helicopters, to save time and fuel, transported evacuees to just beyond the flood zone where, it was hoped, ambulances would meet them to take patients to hospitals. But those ambulances didn't materialize. Some helicopters were being turned away when they approached the hospitals helipad, but by whom? And why? There were still patients inside in poor shape who needed to leave.

All this was described in the first part of the book; the second part was devoted to the investigation and legal fallout that came later. One doctor in particular, Dr. Anna Pou, was implicated in possibly euthanizing patients and she became the focus of the investigation. She was a well-respected head and neck surgeon who was known to care deeply for her patients. Could she have possibly taken lives? Was the situation that desperate?

Fink provided a lot of context for the story and the issues. She began with a brief history of Memorial Hospital, described how some of the patients were actually patients of LifeCare, another hospital that had space in the Memorial building, a setup that didn't help communication when crisis came. She also described the medical community's code of ethics as it pertained to euthanasia, and the history of why it's not a popular idea in the professional medical world. The investigation into the events at Memorial during Katrina was also meticulously described. I didn't actually find the second part of the book quite as page-turning, but I can't deny it was all helpful relevant information that was necessary to tell this story.

It's no wonder this book won a Pulitzer. The myriad issues make it so complicated, and Fink did an excellent job of bringing in different perspectives. The result is not an argument for whether or not Dr. Pou should have been sent to prison, but a nuanced examination of the situation and surrounding issues without any clear answers. As I read, I found myself agreeing with conflicting perspectives. When doctors talked about the importance of never doing harm and how clear that directive is under all circumstances, I agreed that wrongdoing occurred. But when one of the evacuated doctors is taken to an airport and realizes that's where patients would have ended up - not at another hospital - and they would have died from lack of care, I agreed that the situation was extraordinary and the regularly rules did not apply. When family members had been forced to leave the hospital bedside of their loved ones to evacuate, only to find out later their loved ones had been injected with morphine and died, I felt the injustice along with them. And so on. When all was said and done, I think I came away feeling like people made mistakes, but they weren't heartless killers. They were doing the best they could under the circumstances and truly didn't want their patients to experience prolonged suffering only to die anyway.

There is so much to unpack and discuss in this book. I'll be thinking about it for a very long time.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Before She Knew Him

Before She Knew Him by Peter Swanson (2019)

Hen and Lloyd have just moved into their new house in the (fictional) town of West Dartford, Massachusetts. When they realize that their next-door neighbors are the only other couple around without kids, they decide to try and strike up a friendship. The neighbors, Matthew and Mira, invite them over for dinner. While touring the house, Hen spots a fencing trophy in Matthew's study and instantly recognizes it as having belonged to a guy who was murdered. Everyone notices her acting strange, but even though she tries to cover it up, Matthew knows she's onto him.

But Hen has her own history with the law, and one that doesn't make her any kind of a reliable witness. It doesn't help that the only reason she recognized the trophy as the one stolen from Dustin Miller is that during a manic episode (she has bipolar disorder) she had become obsessed with his case. So of course Matthew gets rid of the trophy and Hen can't convince anyone, including her husband Lloyd, that Matthew is a murderer.

We know by about page 12 that Matthew is a murderer, so this is no traditional crime novel. But Peter Swanson's never are. The real mystery is what Hen is going to do with the information she has, and what Matthew is going to do about the fact that she knows he's a murderer. This is all very psychological, which is exactly what I like in a crime novel.

Matthew is so interesting. His early life was completely screwed up and he is very influenced by his sadistic father. His father was horribly abusive to Matthew's mother, and the result is that Matthew only wants to kill men who harm women. It's hard to argue with that, I guess, but it's a pretty harsh sentence when the harm is defined as things like cheating on a girlfriend. Matthew's brother Richard was also influenced by their parents but in a different way. The less said about that the better.

Hen was the perfect person to have dirt on Matthew, as far as the plot goes. Because of her mental illness and how that manifested in paranoia previously, she cannot convince anyone that what she observes is true. She can see Matthew murder a person in front of her and there is still doubt about her as an eyewitness. Matthew is a beloved teacher; Hen is a mentally ill woman who suffers delusions. Who is going to be believed?

If I had to criticize anything at all about this book, it's just that I wanted more from Mira. We get her perspective at one point, a point at which she is becoming suspicious about her husband, but I would have loved more from her later. I just found the whole situation so fascinating and screwed up and there was more I wanted to know about. But if my worst criticism of a book is that I want more of it, that's the sign of a pretty good book.

If you like crime novels and haven't read Peter Swanson yet, get to it! I'm very much looking forward to seeing him in person at a conference I just signed up for. He'll be on a panel with a couple of other Massachusetts mystery/thriller authors and I can't wait hear what he has to say!

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Paradox Bound

Paradox Bound by Peter Clines (2017)

In the town of Sanders, Maine an eight-year-old boy named Eli has an encounter with a mysterious woman wearing a tricorn hat and driving an old Ford Model A. He sees her again when he's 13. But when he next meets her as an adult, it's followed later by a visit from a faceless man. He asks Eli about the woman, forcing him to give answers about where she was headed, so Eli decides to head to Boston to warn her. He soon learns that the woman, Harry, is a searcher traveling throughout history looking for a literal incarnation of the American dream and that the dangerous faceless men are after her. Eli ends up hopping aboard the Model A with Harry and joining the dangerous search.

Honestly, it's so hard to describe this book because it sounds kind of ridiculous, but believe me when I say it's worth reading. I've been a fan of Peter Clines since I read 14 and he hasn't disappointed me yet. I don't actually want to go into too much detail because half the fun is figuring out what the hell it's all about as you go along. And I wasn't super clear on a lot of it, to be honest. I didn't understand what form the dream took - was it an actual object? And Harry was very particular in saying that she traveled through history, not through time, and correct Eli if he referenced time travel. I'm not sure of the difference. But none of this really matters, and it didn't make the story confusing for me.

Sanders was sort of a sleepy little town that hadn't completely caught up with the modern day, and Eli had lived there all his life so far. I think he was 29 when he leaves to travel with Harry. He always wanted to get out of his town but never quite got motivated. His childhood bully, Zeke, grew up to be a cop which can't have made things easier. He also had a relationship go South recently, so his life situation was pretty perfect for a grand adventure. As much as Eli was sort of obsessed with Harry, it wasn't a romantic thing, for which I am grateful. But they were a great duo as they traveled through history searching for the dream, encountering some famous actual people from history, and evading the creepy faceless men.

This is a page-turning adventure that moves quickly, but not so quickly that there's not good character development. It's very well thought out and well-crafted, which is exactly what I've come to expect from Peter Clines. The fact that a town in Maine features so prominently led me to look him up and discover that he is, in fact, originally from Maine. Turns out he has worked as a props master on Veronica Mars, which I am currently rewatching and somewhat obsessed with. Worlds collide.

Paradox Bound is on my 2019 TBR Pile Challenge, which I am almost ashamed to admit since he's an author I always read now so I don't know why it took me so long to get to this one. It was fun and entertaining and unexpected and strange. I've never read a story quite like it. I think I've said that about his other books too. As always, I'm very much looking forward to seeing what he writes next.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

April Wrap-Up and Plans for May


Reading and Listening


I finished 8 books this month, which is pretty typical. It was a good reading month! I read three very different nonfiction books that were all quite good: I Think You're Wrong (But I'm Listening), which is all about having productive political conversations with people who may have different perspectives; Mayflower, the history of the first Europeans who came to New England and their relationship with the native people; and An Everlasting Meal, which is about food and cooking.

Both audiobooks I listened to were great: The Upside of Unrequited and American Street. Really, everything I read and listened to this month was quite good!

I managed to get to one book from my TBR Pile Challenge at the very end of the month, Paradox Bound by Peter Clines, which I'll be posting about soon.

Watching

 

Ridiculous dog photo of the month
 I watched the first season of The Great British Baking Show without Mary Berry or Mel and Sue. In many ways it wasn't the same, but the bakers were great and the new people can't help that they aren't the old people. Plus, baking!

I'm also re-watching Veronica Mars in anticipation of the reboot that's coming in July. I've watched season 1 and am now on season 2. It's so funny to watch a show I've seen before that I remember bits and pieces of, but there were a lot of things I had totally forgotten. Such a great show!

Earlier this month I made a visit to an actual movie theater to see Jordan Peele's Us. I was afraid it would be super creepy and freak me out, but although it had some creepy moments I found it more thought-provoking than scary. It's the sort of movie that as soon as I finished it I immediately wanted to go back and watch it again knowing what I know now.

Cooking

 

Nice-looking loaf of bread. Tasty, too!
I think the only new things I tried were Chile and Bell Pepper Quesadillas from Moosewood Cooks at Home and Sloppy Joes from the Pioneer Woman both of which were pretty easy and tasty. I also finally tried a no-knead bread, or I guess it's technically Almost No-Knead Bread, as the recipe in Bread Illustrated is called, since there's like a minute of kneading. It came out quite well! Otherwise I cooked and baked things I've made before.

Work lunches are always a struggle and I've made grain bowls a couple of weeks recently. I used this recipe once, I think back in March, but then another week I decided to just make up my own since it's all components. I roasted some broccolini and carrots, cooked arborio rice and mixed it with pesto, added sauerkraut leftover from the previous bowls, and topped it all with chopped radishes and hard-boiled eggs. It was pretty good. I like the idea of just cooking components and throwing them all together. I look at a lot of grain bowl recipes but usually there are things I like and don't like about them, so I may start just mixing and matching components and sauces and whatnot. One thing that frustrates me about these recipes is that they often top them with avocado, even the ones suggested to take for lunches on the go. It's like they don't realize that avocados will brown. I love avocados and would love to have them in my lunch, but it's not realistic. Anyhow, we're also getting into main dish grain/pasta salad season so I look forward to finding some new options to eat outside in the park during my lunch while reading. I can't wait for those days!

I also got together with a friend to do some cooking and we made a stir-fry. I learned from this experience that the best way to stir-fry is to cook each ingredient separately and then combine them at the end. In the past, I've followed recipes that try to time it so that you put in the longest-cooking things first and then add the others gradually so that they'll all be done the right amount at the end, but it never quite works out. I think that's because you can't necessarily anticipate how long something will take and it's very easy to overcook ingredients. So now I may try stir-frying again because I really like eating stir-fries and now I feel like I have a handle on how to do a better job of it.

Doing

 

I did finish physical therapy, not because my shoulder is 100% healed but because I reached the point where my insurance cut me off. Yay, America. I'm glad it's over though. They were lovely at the physical therapy place, but it was hard. It was a lot of exercise, and also I had to use part of my lunch break twice a week, so I'm glad to have that off my schedule. I have some exercises to do at home, though I haven't been great about actually doing them.

First al fresco dining of the year, at Twyrl in Arlington
With physical therapy over, I've begin doing other exercise again. I've gone to Zumba a few times and I've been running once or twice a week, though it's been hard with all the rain we've been having. (I don't run in the rain. Or snow. Or ice.) But when I've run it's been for 2 miles or a little more, which is pleasantly surprising.

I also finally bit the bullet and ordered a new laptop, since mine has had multiple horizontal lines running across the screen for a couple of months now since I dropped it. I couldn't bear to pony up for another Macbook so I ordered a cheap laptop that was recommended in an article. Honestly I didn't do a ton of research because computers are boring, but I also didn't spend a ton so it doesn't feel very risky.

I've made pretty good progress on the sweater I began knitting. I actually screwed up near the very beginning and didn't realize it until a few inches later, but I ripped back and re-knit it correctly because I knew it would drive me nuts if I left it, even though it probably wouldn't be noticeable to most people.

Plans for May

 

Now that I'm out of the bleak winter I feel like I need to reassess and refocus on goals for this year. Right now I don't remember what any of those goals even were.

I'm attending the Massachusetts Library Association conference later this month, which I'm looking forward to. I also have a new person starting at work who I have to train and get up to speed, so I think it's going to be a busy month!

I booked a camping trip at the very end of the month that I'm excited about because we're actually getting a camp site that requires a half mile hike to get to, which means we won't have lots of people and dogs and radios on top of us. I'm just hoping the weather holds! It feels like we got a year's worth of rain in April so hopefully we'll have nice weather for May.

How was your April?