07 March 2017

January and February Book Report

Before we get much more into March, I thought I should post about books I've read during the first two months of the year.

Is it only me, or does January seem like  really really long time ago?  When I was getting the titles together, I kept thinking "I read that in January?  I thought it was longer ago than that!"  
Anyway, here you go.

Iron Lake, by William Kent Krueger.  I forget now where I found out about this book, but I put it on my to-read shelf, and decided to give it a try.

One thing as an aside - I like to read holiday-themed books at different holiday times.  I had no idea the story in this book took place in the week leading up to Christmas Day, so it was actually a nice way to end my Christmastime reading.

Corcoran "Cork" O'Connor is a Chicago police officer, currently living in northern Minnesota, in the lake country.  He is the former sheriff of the small town of Aurora.  Being part Irish, and part Anishinaabe Indian, he has a unique outlook on local life and politics, and is usually able to see issues from both sides of the topic.

He learns that a local young man, an Eagle Scout of Indian background, has disappeared in a blizzard while delivering his newspapers.  This leads to a discovery of the death of a prominent local judge, who Cork believes was murdered and not a suicide as the locals believe.

As he tries to find the young man, and starts learning more about the judge, he uncovers lies, corruption, and conspiracy that he would never have expected to find in his new home town.  Each clue needs to more  troublesome findings, and puts his life and that of his family in danger.

I gave this book four stars because I thought it did a good job of illustrating life in an area where the locals and the Native Americans live in an uneasy co-existence.  Each group feels that the other one is treated "special" and is taking away some of their lands, rights, etc.  The tension is palpable in the story.  It also gives the reader an idea of how some of the groups work that feel the government in DC has no right to tell them how to live.

This book was really interesting, and in some ways illuminating.  The mystery was well-done, as it allowed the author to include the background of the characters and the area as a natural progression.  I will definitely take a look at others in this series.

Doc, by Mary Doria Russell.  An interesting, often poignant look at the last couple of years in the life of John Henry "Doc" Holliday.  Born to a wealthy Georgia family, he was a young boy when the Civil War began, and saw much of the family, life, and world he had experienced disappear during those years.  He traveled north to Philadelphia where he attended dental school, and then returned home, to set up practice and marry his sweetheart.

But, like his mother, Doc suffered from tuberculosis, at a time when there was no treatment, and it was suggested that he head west where the air was drier for his lungs.  He started out in Texas, but most of the story takes place where he headed after that, and where his legend began - Dodge City, Kansas.  The book is populated with others there at the time he was - Wyatt Earp, Eddie Foy, Bat Masterson, etc.  

Holliday was a gentleman who was not really prepared for the rough and tumble life of the Wild West.  His struggles with his health and his dental practice led him to become a faro dealer at one of the local establishments in order to make ends meet.  The quiet, literary dentist was quick to anger, and had a definite desire for justice, which he felt the North never had to deal with at the end of the Civil War.

Russell really fleshes out a lot of the characters, and gives us a detailed insight into Holliday's last years.  We see the vulnerability of someone so very ill, who tries so very hard to still live a full and useful life, who is dying by inches at such a young age, when most others are just getting started.

It took me a little while to get into this book, but at a certain point, I was really sucked in and thought it was a valuable look into time and place and gave the reader an appreciation for the characters and their lives.

Hijacking the Runway, by Teri Agins.  An interesting book, discussing how celebrity has been taking over fashion.   The author also suggests that social media is making it easier for many new, trained designers to go out on their own, rather than the usual method of serving an "apprenticeship" at a known design house.

I have long suspected that most celebrity brands are banking on the name of the celebrity only, without actual knowledge, expertise, or even involvement on their part, and Agins points out that this is largely the case.  Though some celebrities were actively involved in creating fragrances, few are involved once things launch, and even fewer understand or have background in the garment business.  

Using actual examples, from Jessica Simpson, all the way to Donald Trump, we learn how these "designer" lines come into existence, and why.  I found it to be incredibly interesting, and in some ways sad (the Kardashian/Sears example) how so many people become personally attached to these brands, some of which are affordable to the everyday person, others that like to remain at a higher tier of pricing.  I never thought that I would be impressed by Ashley and Mary Kate Olsen, but I have to say that their efforts with their designs showed them to be actually  interested, very involved, and eager to learn the "language" of haute couture and design.

It was also interesting to read Agin's points about fast fashion from places like Zara and H&M.  

Though I will never be able to afford haute couture, and don't even like a lot of it anyway, I do prefer the world where people designing clothes are doing it because it is what they love, and what they have been trained to do.  

This book was a good read.

Somewhere in France, by Jennifer Robson.  I chose this book to read because it took place during World War I, a time period that fascinates me.  And it starts at a time when the possibility of war overshadows everything.  Lady Elizabeth - "Lilly" - Ashton becomes reacquainted with a friend of her older brother's from university, who is from humble beginnings and now is a surgeon at the London Hospital.  There is a spark ignited, which Lilly's mother immediately dampens, since she wants Lilly to marry well.

Once the war begins and both Lilly's brother and Robbie (the brother's friend) go to fight and to work in the field hospital, respectively, Lilly becomes determined to somehow make a contribution to the war effort.  She had had a lady's education, so is not really prepared to do any specific type of job, and her parents are opposed to her doing anything beneath her station.

She and Robbie begin a correspondence, and he encourages her to do some volunteer work as part of the war effort.  She finally decides that she must lead her own life, and leaves her parents' house, moving in with her former governess and becoming a "clippie" - one who punches tickets on a streetcar.

Eventually, she is able to sign up to be an ambulance driver at the front in France.  And frankly, this is where the book turned boring to me.  Up to this point, it was clear that Lilly and Robbie were falling in love, etc., so I expected there to be that part of the story, but I was really hoping and expecting the war experience to be the primary focus of the book.  Instead, it became a love story, and not even an interesting one at that.  

So although it started well for me, I really can't recommend this as a good book about life during World War I.  Apparently there are following books in the series, but I'm not interested in them, based on reading this one.

A Siege of Bitterns, by Steve Burrows.  I don't remember where I heard about this book, but I'm glad I did!

Inspector Domenic Jejeune, originally from Canada, but now in the UK, is the new guy in the police force in the Norfolk town of Saltmarsh.  He is somewhat of a celebrity, though in this book we don't really know why.  Anyway, he has been recruited to join the Saltmarsh force, and soon after his arrival, a local conservationist/birder is found murdered, hung from a tree near his home.  Everyone expects that Jejeune will be able to immediately solve the case, and expectations are high from the community.  His colleagues though, find him to be an unusual detective and are not at all sure he lives up to the hype that precedes him.

Jejeune begins his investigation, and uses his birding knowledge to try and determine what happened.  While he is doing this, another murder occurs, and everyone is getting testy because Jejeune seems to be getting nowhere.

As things continue, we learn how there were various things going on in the community, related to conservation efforts, wind power, and land use.  In addition, the close-knit community is reluctant to open up to Jejeune, though of course everyone seems to have secrets.  

I enjoyed this book so much.  It was interesting on several levels, not just as a murder mystery.  I liked that the author worked in actual information related to the environment and work to save it as part of the story, not just as information in the background.  And Domenic Jejeune is an interesting character, in that even at the end of the book, you are not quite sure what to make of him.  But you want to see where he is going with his way of doing things.

I also liked that - at least to me - this remained a mystery until nearly the end, and the resolution of the story was interesting while also being in some ways surprising.

The Precious Present, by Spencer Johnson.  This is a short, quick little read, about learning how to appreciate living and being in the present.  It is presented as a parable.

I think this would be a good book to have and to pick up every once in a while, as a reminder to be in the here and now.

Valentine Murder, by Leslie Meier.  An easy, enjoyable read.  Maybe I particularly liked it because the main action was related to death of the town's new librarian, and how the library board was dealing with it.

Lucy Stone is the newest member of the town's library board, and on the day of her first meeting, she discovers the new librarian has been murdered.  At first everyone feels it must have been someone from the woman's personal life, but when a few days later, one of the other board members commits suicide, they determine he must have killed her and then couldn't live with the guilt.

Lucy is not convinced, and does some asking around, thinking that the murderer was another board member, and that suicide was not the cause of the second death.  Things start to get dangerous the more she looks into things, to the point where her husband's life is threatened.

As I said, this was a quick enjoyable read, and the parts about the library board and what they thought/expected should happen was interesting to me.

Big Little Lies, by Liane Moriarity.  I gave this book 4 stars not because it was amazing literature, but because of the way it tells a story.  

On the surface, it's the story of well-to-do uber-mothers in a well-to-do coastal Australia town, and their individual obsessions with their children and their appearances to others.  There are cliques, backstabbing gossip and accusations, affairs, and other suspicions.  

The three main characters - Madeline, Celeste, and Jane - are part of this community, each with their own stories and secrets.  We get to know them better than most of the other characters, and though in another book they might have come across as human cliches, they are treated as real humans in this one.  

The story is told in vignettes, all a result of a terrible thing that occurred at a parents' school fundraising events.  As the story moves along, you find out *what* happened, but you don't learn who it happened to, or any other details until the very end.

A very readable, fast-paced book that in the end makes you realize that you don't necessarily know things about your friends or yourself that you think you do.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders.  I am a sucker for books about Lincoln, and even more of a sucker for book about Lincoln and his son Willie.  In elementary school I read a book about them, and it just affected me so much, it's something that has stayed with me.

In this book, Willie has been buried in a borrowed crypt.  The other souls in the cemetery are curious because Willie claims that his father came to visit him, and promised to come again.  In fact, Lincoln did return on the evening of Willie's interment, and took his body out of the "sick box" (the souls' names for coffins) and held him for a while.  The others are skeptical, because nearly all of them have heard their loved ones say they would return, never to actually do so.

The book is really more about the characters of the other souls and their stories, and interpretations of the world.  Willie and Lincoln are kind of the center of the story, but most of the narration and activity happens around them, rather than *to* them.  

I liked this book, though I am sure that I missed a lot, since it is not really written in a "regular" way.  I do enjoy reading books where the dead have their own communities, and where there thoughts and commentary mirror the living world.  

Willie and Lincoln are portrayed as humans like we would all hope to be.  The story - as well as the whole truth of their lives and relationship - is beautiful, sad, and touching.  Overall, this was a good book that reminds you of the value of being among the living.

The Guest Cat, by Takashi Hiraide.  This is a lovely little book.  A couple rents a guest house in Tokyo, where they both hope to be able to work quietly as writers.  It is in a compound where an older woman and her husband live in the main house and maintain the gardens.  One day, a cat shows up and the couple determine that it belongs to the neighbors.  Not thinking they are interested in a pet of their own, they pay some attention to it, but not a lot.

Over time, Chibi - as they have now named the cat - becomes not only a regular visitor, but a huge part of their lives and they individual psyches.  

The book is the story of not just a 'guest cat,' but one of changing thoughts, attitudes, and how loss and change can have an effect not just on your life, but on your memories.  


Reading has been even more of a life-saver these past few weeks than ever.  Things have been especially terrible at work, to the point where even if I don't have the energy left to write a post here, at least I can read for a bit.  I always wonder what people to who don't like to read do in cases like that, but I imagine they have some other way of shaking things off so they can live their lives.  

Anyway, feel free to share any good books you've read recently in the comments (or even share ones that should be avoided, that's equally as important, right?).


Vera said...

Thanks for the reviews Bridget. I read "Doc" and like you, it took awhile to get into it, but then I really enjoyed the story. My reading has slowed a bit. I did (finally) finish "The Underground Railroad." It was good...not great in my opinion. I actually had to stop reading it for a little while because some of it bothered me too much (and I couldn't read it right before bed or I would wake up in the night thinking about it!). I'm now reading "News of the World" by Paulette Jiles. If you have not read "A Gentleman in Moscow" by Amor Towles, I highly recommend that. Sorry work is so sucky!

AsKatKnits said...

Big Little Lies is on my read list! Excellent reviews, thank you!

Anonymous said...

You were a reading MACHINE!!!

Araignee said...

I love the idea behind Guest Cat. I'll have to go look for that. We have many guest cats here and they affect our lives everyday for better and for worse.
I am watching Big Little Lies on HBO as we speak. I have no idea where any of it is going but I am enjoying the ride.

handmade by amalia said...

This is so great, Bridget, I love book reviews.

Kym said...

I couldn't agree more with your comment about how non-readers "cope" in the world! I've always wondered that . . . I've been really looking forward to reading Lincoln in the Bardo -- and your review makes me want to jump right in! Thanks for your thoughtful reviews and comments. (Hope your work settles . . . ) XO

sprite said...

I'm on the hold list for the audiobook version of the Saunders novel, which I understand is done like a radio play with 150+ actors, including some well-known ones. I'm a sucker for radio plays, so figured I'd bypass the print version until I get a chance to listen to it.

Nance said...

I have read dozens of Lincoln books and focused mostly on Mary Lincoln, who I view as a terribly tragic and vastly misunderstood person. I read a lot of the reviews of Lincoln in the Bardo, and I'm still on the fence about whether or not I want to read it.

It's not really a Lincoln book, per se, if I understand it correctly. And as sprite, above, said, it's more like a radio play, even as a book. It's highly stylized, right? with long stretches of the other characters speaking monologues about their lives. It's a lot like the poem anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, Spoon River Anthology, in that way.

I read parts of it online at Amazon. The writing is very good, but again, I'm not so interested in the cast as I am in Lincoln, although I know Saunders used terrific sourcing. We'll see.

KSD said...

I just finished "Lincoln In the Bardo" --- I thoroughly enjoyed it.