04 April 2018

Book Report for January, February, and March 2018

Because my brain is apparently unable to remember things I want to do, instead making lots of room for things I really don't care about at all, I didn't think until now to tell you about what I've been reading.  So here is three months' worth.  Hopefully I can get back on a monthly basis, but I'm not making any promises ...

All Roads Lead to Austen : A Yearlong Journey with Jane, by Amy Elizabeth Miller.  This read was a nice way to start the new year.  It wasn't quite what I was expecting, but that was just fine.

The author is a college professor in California, with a particular love for Jane Austen and her work.  She decides to take a year of travel and teaching for a research project, to see if people in other countries have the same kind of relationship with Austen as the Anglo world.  She visits Guatemala, Mexico, Ecuador, Paraguay, and Argentina, armed with pretty-good-but-not-great Spanish and copies of Austen's works.  In each place, she wants to have a group of readers read one of Austen's works and discuss it.   Can the people identify with the topics and issues that Austen addresses?  Do they feel any connection to her world?

The visits to each country are in and of themselves fascinating, and give the reader a chance to learn so much more about Latin America than [probably] most of us know.  As most of us probably would, she finds that in spite of her best efforts, she has made incorrect assumptions, and learns about the culture and develops some lasting friendships.  Her descriptions of the people and their lives are pretty fascinating.

When she has a chance to actually discuss Austen's work with readers in the various places, she is surprised and grateful to learn that for the most part, they are engaged and definitely have opinions related to Austen and her world.  Some of the universal themes - the roles of women, class struggles - come up across the board, but interpretation of the characters often really differs.  There are only a few times that she feels the readers found the world of Jane Austen completely foreign.

I was also amused by her continued efforts to find copies of the Nancy Drew books in Spanish.

I was sad to learn that public libraries are few and far between in the places where she visited, and also to learn that Paraguayans revere Rutherford B. Hayes!  Sometimes the tidbits were as interesting as the main thrust of the book.

I always wonder if I had the wherewithal if I would have the courage to travel alone to a place completely unfamiliar to me, with a language I did not fully know, for any length of time.  I would like to think I would do it, but I am not convinced to be honest.  Amy Elizabeth Smith provides the opportunity to let her try it while I experience vicariously.

Miss Kopp's Midnight Confessions, by Amy Stewart.  This book is the third in a series where I have yet to read the first two - however, even without the background of those, this was a good read.

Constance Kopp is an official under deputy in Hackensack, NJ in 1916.  She is a media star (a female sheriff?   Allowed to actually arrest people?  And she carries a gun!), and a woman who takes her job very seriously.  She is fortunate in that her supervisor, Sheriff Heath, is very supportive of her work. 

Her primary responsibility at the Hackensack jail is to oversee and help the female prisoners.  At a time when the current moral outrage is about young woman being forced into a life of white slavery, Constance has to convince judges that two women in her care in particular are not criminals - rather, they are young women who left home for something better, and willingly.  One of them was reported missing by her parents, and the other found in living as "man and wife" with a man that is not in fact her husband.  In reality, they were both looking for something more than their everyday lives.  The first woman, Edna, has brothers who are soldiers.  Since she can't join them at the front, she gets a job in a munitions factory.  But her mother wants her at home.  The second woman, Minnie, is younger (technically underage) and just wanted to get away from an unpleasant home life and have some adventure.  Constance does the work of a social worker as well as a cop in order to try and resolve the situation.

On a personal level, when her younger sister Fleurette leaves home to go off with a vaudeville troupe, Constance's beliefs that women who are old enough should be able to determine their own fates is tested.  Especially when her other sister Norma sees trouble, kidnapping, and conspiracies everywhere. 

I liked that Constance is tested in her beliefs and sticks to them even when her personal situation makes it hard to do so.  The series is based on historical facts and incidents (the Kopp sisters were real), and that makes it interesting as well.  I'll definitely go back and read the first two books leading to this one.

Faithful, by Alice Hoffman.  Shelby Richmond and her best friend Helene Boyd are in their final year of high school and ready to take on the world.  Until the night when the car that Shelby is driving on an icy road crashes.  Shelby survives - Helene is in a long-term coma. 

This is a book that looks at the "what ifs" and "whys" of surviving when someone else did not.  Shelby finds that she is no longer interested in life, feeling that she does not deserve love, friendship, or any kind of consideration.  The book is her story of what it is like when, in spite of your desire, you keep just going on.  You can't change the past, but you also just wish your future would stop.

Hoffman succeeds at making Shelby seem like an actual person.  She has faults, she makes some questionable decisions, but even against her better judgement, she tries to live some kind of life.  She doesn't do it on her own - people come in and out of her life and change it .

I think one of the best things about the book is Shelby's realization at the end that she is *allowed* to have a life of her own, and be happy.  Helene's parents understand this much better than she does, and as you are reading it, you also realize that sometimes the people who most understand the world are those who should be railing against it instead.

No Cats Allowed, by Miranda James.  I enjoy this series not just because the main character is a rare books librarian, but because the author actually seems to understand and know how libraries work, and whose job does what more than in other books I've read.

In this installment, Charlie Harris becomes the interim Director of the Library where he works in the archives and cataloging rare books, after the new director - a truly unpleasant man, hired from the finance world to clean up a mess left by the previous director - is found murdered. 

This book has a lot of twists and turns, but most importantly actually proves that the author knows library work.  A lot of the action involved Technical Services, the part of libraries that are behind the scenes, and handle things like acquisitions, cataloging, and serials. 

As more murders occur, and Charlie himself seems to be the target of the murderer or at least someone hoping to intimidate him, Charlie takes on the temporary role but wants to see if doing some digging into the files of the library provide any leads as to the what/where/why of the first murder, and to learn if later events are related.

This was a good installment, as there were enough things happening that the readers' suspicions kept moving from character to character.  I enjoyed this book.

The Best Kind of People, by Zoe Whittall.  This book was riveting.  It asks the question:  What happens when a family man, and respected community member is accused of something terrible?

George Woodbury, a science teacher at a private high school in a wealthy town in Connecticut, has a happy family, a beautiful home, and years ago, prevented a shooter from carrying out his plan at the high school.  On his daughter's 17th birthday, he is arrested, accused of improper behavior and sexual impropriety with some young girls at the school, at a recent ski trip where he was one of the chaperones. 

The book details how the community reacts, but more importantly, how his family is affected from the arrest through to his trial, a year later.  Isolated, mocked, and harassed, his wife and high school senior daughter see their perfect lives crumble.  His son, an attorney who escaped the small town surburbia life and now lives in New York City, tries to help his family understand and figure out what to do, even if he is at sea about it all himself.

The book is [unfortunately] very timely, but also interesting since it gives you an idea of the inner workings of each family member's mind and how they deal with not just the initial shock, but the seemingly never-ending horror of what is their new normal.

I don't want to give anything away, but I found the book to be extremely readable, sad, upsetting, and even surprising in places.  I think the author managed to capture the shock, the panic, and the eventual feeling of being worn down of each family member.  No one comes out of it unscathed, though each one of them finds a way - for better or worse - to go on with their lives.

My Life with Bob : Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues, by Pamela Paul.  Reading about other people reading fascinates me, and this book was really interesting.  The author is the editor of the New York Times Review of Books, and has been a reader all of her life.  She started keeping a Book of Books (aka Bob) when she was young, and continues to this day.  This book is a collection of stories of some of the books she had read and added to Bob, and memories connected to them. 

It can be said that she has written an autobiography, not just in book form, but formed by books.  I enjoyed reading the various types of books she has liked and disliked during the course of her life and her adventures, thereby also learning how much books mean to her.  As someone who counts on books to be my best friends, I an appreciate her memories of important life events and how a book or certain books were just right at the time.

I do have to say that I am tiring of books where the writer has the kind of life - even as a "poor" college student - to drop everything and spend months traveling.  I mean, I'm sure that's great, but as someone who could never even have fathomed such an opportunity, it's kinda hard to feel bad for someone who is doing this and has "struggles."  However, that is a personal beef of mine, and would not likely even register with a lot of people.

Murder in an Irish Village, by Carlene  O'Connor.  Siobhan O'Sullivan's life is much different than she thought it would be a year ago, when she was making plans to go to college in Dublin, away from the small village where she grew up and where her family lives.  But then her parents were killed by a drunk driver, and she stayed in Kilbane to not just watch over them, but keep the bistro that her parents owned afloat. 

One morning when she comes downstairs from the living quarters, she finds a dead body in the bistro - and not just any dead body, it's the brother of the man from the village who drove his car drunk into her parents' car.  The fact that she had run into him the day before after he had left town after the accident, and had a bit of an argument with him, makes her nervous.  Who killed him and why?  Is it at all related to her?  When her older brother James (a reformed alcoholic) is arrested for the murder, as he was seen fighting with the deceased, Siobhan decides it's up to her to find the person who is actually guilty.

I liked this book.  The story was well-paced, and it was not clear (to me at least) until the very end who was behind the mayhem caused in the village.  The main characters were pretty well-fleshed out, and the feel of the small town - good and bad aspects - was clearly presented.  Though there were occasional instances of the characters being "fake Irish" (aka most Americans' interpretations of them), they were overall believable.

This was a interesting and entertaining read, especially after I'd finished a couple of more intense books.

The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, by Alan Bradley.  I do enjoy the adventures of Flavia de Luce.  When her mother's body is returned to the family for burial, Flavia decides she wants to use her chemistry skills to bring her back to life.  This way, her father will not be sad or lonely anymore, and maybe her sisters will not hate her as much.  Sadly, her experiment is interrupted, and she moves on to trying to determine who pushed a man with a mysterious message off the train platform, and what exactly is happening in an old family movie she finds.

As usual, Flavia's thought processes and commentary are worth the read alone.  But with the added intrigue and possible involvement of the British government, Flavia has much more happening than usual.  Besides which she is dealing with actual feelings of grief and bereavement over the loss of her mother.

I really enjoyed this book.

A Stash of One's Own : Knitters on Loving, Living with, and Letting Go of Yarn, by Clara Parkes.  I was really looking forward to reading this book, as I really enjoy Clara Parkes' writing.  A friend had a copy of the book and was sending it along from friend to friend to read.

I liked Clara's essay at the beginning.  The other essays just did nothing for me.  I completely read a few and then skimmed the others, and then gave up.  I'm not sure why I wasn't engaged, but I wasn't, so on to the next person it goes.

Twelve Angry Librarians, by Miranda James.  Charlie Harris has a lot going on - both of his adult children are ready to welcome his first grandchildren, he is busy with his position as interim director of the college library where he works, and a colleague has asked him for help during the annual meeting of a regional librarians' group.  Just prior to the start of the conference, he learns that someone he knew and loathed in library school has applied for the director's job, and will be attending the conference.  Their initial encounter doesn't go well, but when the man is later fatally poisoned, it's up to Charlie to find out who the killer is.  The thing is, practically everyone who had ever encountered the deceased had found a reason to dislike him.

I've said it before, but this author clearly has either worked in libraries or is close to someone who has.  In particular in this book, the issue of whether or not catalog librarians have a place in the future with everything being online comes up, and you really have to understand a lot of subtleties to even begin to adequately address the issue.  Miranda James "gets" it.

Another enjoyable outing for Charlie and his cat Diesel.  If you want an enjoyable read, especially when you are feeling stressed, this series fills the bill.

Chocolate Covered Murder, by Leslie Meier.  When one of the partners of a new, upscale chocolate shop is found murdered (and covered in chocolate!), Lucy  Stone is certain it's related to another recent murder in the town.  Her investigation leads to an international drug ring - and all of this leading up to Valentine's Day!

This is another enjoyable, light read.  Since I have not read any of the books in this series in order, I'm amused by how Lucy's children are in elementary school in one book, and then suddenly married with children of their own. 

If you enjoy cozy mysteries and holiday themes, these are worth checking out.

Word by Word : The Secret Life of Dictionaries, by Kory Stamper.  For a word/language nerd like me, this was a really great read.  It falls into the category of things you know, but you don't really know.  I mean, we all know how a dictionary works, and that there are people who are the ones actually creating the content.  But I doubt any of us realizes what is actually involved in being a lexicographer.

It was so interesting to read about the processes involved in putting together a dictionary, and the hidden pitfalls out there.  Now I wish I'd been able to be a lexicographer, but I also don't think I would have made the cut.

In any event, this is the kind of book that you really have to be a certain kind of person to enjoy - if it would upset you to know there is an entire chapter devoted to whether or not "irregardless" is actually a word (spoiler alert: it is), you may want to skip it.  Or you may want to read it so you can prepare your arguments against the decision ...

The Devil Drinks Coffee, by Destiny Ford.  I read this book because I've had it on my Nook for a while, and couldn't decide what to read next after finishing "The Goldfinch."  As I recall, it was a 99-cent promotional book.

Kate Saxee returns to her small-town hometown to become editor-in-chief of the local paper, after breaking up with her longtime boyfriend.  When she is sent to cover a story involving the discovery of a body in a local lake, it leads her to a full-fledged personal investigation of what happened.  The victim is a young girl who belonged to a prominent family and is found drowned.  But as Kate learns, there was actually more to it than that - the girl was pregnant. 

In the small, Mormon town, this story is pretty hushed up - which is very unusual, especially given the fact that Kate's every move, and every interaction with a male seems to be headline gossip.

This book was OK.  I wasn't really fond of Kate, and I'm glad I don't live in a small Mormon town.  I mainly finished it to see what really happened to the girl.  I'm unlikely to seek out other books in this series.

Slow Knitting, by Hannah Thiessen.  This is a relatively short, informative, and accessible book for anyone who knits.  The author discusses what knitting is and should be - and why we should pay attention to not only what we are making and/or whom we are making it for, but where the yarn came from, who produced it, and how the animals were raised.

Each section has a different theme - for instance, ethical sourcing or environmental impacts.  The language is both engaging and informative, and several designers and yarn company entrepreneurs are profiled.  Each section is followed by a knitting pattern using the yarns or type of yarn discussed.

I enjoyed this book.  It suggests that you should pay attention to your knitting as an extension of yourself, and related to the seasons.  Without being touchy-feely, suggestions to help the knitter be mindful of what they are doing are presented.

The last paragraph of the book is one of the more striking things I've ever read about knitting and/or making:

"Knitting is a small thing, but it is not simple - each time that we draw wool back from the wheel, bring yarn around the needles to make a stitch, or pin down the corner of a finished garment, we are touching thousands of lives.  The lives of knitters who have come before us: family, friends, and craftspeople.  The lives of those who have moved herds of fiber animals across the land, who have woken up in the middle of a February evening to tend to a lambing, who have expertly sheared a sheep.  The lives of those animals themselves.  This craft is not a lonely one, but one as warm and alive as the garments we make.  It is meant to be worn, meant to be shared, and meant to be gifted.  It is a meditation, a passion, and a necessity."

I highly recommend this book.

The Girl in the Ice, by Robert Bryndza.  Erika Foster is assigned to solve a murder case upon her return to work after a raid in which her husband, also a detective, was killed.  She is eager to prove that she can do the job, if still a bit personally shaky.  The murder victim is the daughter of a prominent member of Parliament, and Erika's supervisors want a resolution to things NOW.

This is an interesting story about a damaged detective who is still enough "on the job" to want to do the right thing and bring the killer to justice - however, she is not willing to take the easy way out, and just accept the first person who is brought in due to circumstantial evidence.  And in the meantime, the real killer is in no mood to stop - even if it means ending Erika's investigation and her life. 

This was a suspenseful, psychological thriller as much as anything else.  It was a real page-turner, and you really started to want Erika to be given a fair shake.

Do Penance or Perish : Magdalen Asylums in Ireland, by Frances Finnegan.  I read this book a few years ago for a class, and to be honest, forgot a lot of it.  So when I saw that a friend was reading it, I thought I'd give it a re-read.

This is a survey of the Magdalen Asylums, originally opened in the mid-19th century as part of a movement to remove "fallen" women from society and reform them.  Originally the emphasis was on removal of prostitutes from society, both related to the Contagious Diseases Acts in England and Ireland, but later it included unmarried pregnant girls or girls whose families found them troublesome or hard to control.  The women were forced to live lives according to the nuns' rules, mainly were employed in laundries and often never returned to live in outside society.   Those who gave birth were forced to give up their children, having never even held them.  The last Magdalen Asylum closed in 1996, which is astonishing.

This book is an academic feminist work, so it is not quite "popular reading," but it's still very interesting.


Have you read anything really good or for that matter, really bad lately?  I'm always happy to get suggestions or warnings.  :-)


Kym said...

Wow, Bridget! Thank you for such throrough and thoughtful book reviews. You've read quite a collection of books this year -- and many titles I haven't heard of yet. Thanks for the recommendations. :-)

AsKatKnits said...

I agree with Kym... excellent reviews! Clara's book fell very flat for me as well. I have moved Kory Stamper's book up on my read list! Thank you for these excellent reviews!

Juliann in WA said...

Thanks for the reviews. I have a few on my list that will get bumped up a bit

Araignee said...

That's a lot of books! I love your reviews. I need to print them out and take them to the library. I'm always like a deer in the headlights when I get in there.

Tired Teacher said...

Thanks for sharing these books. I'll look for them.

Anonymous said...

I wasn't in love with the Clara Parke's book either. I did read it all, but I didn't enjoy much of it.

My current book is awful and after about 50 pages it is going to a Little Free Library. That is generous. I really think it should just go in the trash.

Vera said...

Always enjoy your reviews Bridget! I agree with you (and Kat and Dee) on Clara's book. I did read it all, but I found it very, very boring. And I agree with your review on Slow Knitting. I recommend it highly!

kathy b said...

SLOw KNitting sounds lovely. I loved the paragraph you shared. Just loved it

pam said...

I just added several books to my TBR list!