Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

When their mother takes sick, three adult sisters return to the roost. But each has ulterior motives for her stay - pregnancy, thievery, insecurity - which make their challenging familial relationships even more fraught.

I enjoyed the story - it's about self-discovery and how we limit and define ourselves based on our family - but it's pretty much contemporary chick-lit for the literate.

The "weird sisters" of the title refers to Macbeth's witches, rather than any real oddity in the novel's main trio. That said, you'd best be familiar with Shakespeare's life works to be comfortable in this novel - it's overflowing with people named after characters and conversations filled with quotes. Additionally, the story contains layer upon layer of references and analogies to the bard's work.

Also of note: the story is told from a very unusual point of view. The omniscient narrator speaks singularly as all three sisters collectively (first-person plural). Everything is "we" even when talking about one sister's secrets that she's keeping from the others. It's workable, but a little awkward sometimes.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

In the Shadow of Blackbirds by Cat Winters

It's not often I give up, but this is one of the big FAILS.

Perhaps I could have liked the book if it weren't for the horrible inflection and rhythm of the audiobook reader, Angela Goethals. It annoyed me from the start - her faux dramatic, hokey, hitching delivery - but I thought I could get used to it or get past it. But after 2 discs (somewhere about 2 hours of listening), I decided this was an aggravation I could do without and quit.

The book's about fake mysticism in turn-of-the-century America and a teenager's struggle to survive in a country turned upside-down by war and rampant racism. I kept waiting for the story to really grab me and ultimately I failed to find a hook.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency: The Interconnectedness of All Kings by Chris Ryall nad Tony Akins

Everything's related, and if you just wait a minute you'll probably see how. At least, that's what "holistic detective" Dirk Gently believes. The answers will fall right into your lap, if only you let them. Do what you want, it will all come around.

This is a new graphic novel series based on the character created by the late, great Douglas Adams. I discovered Dirk years ago after devouring the Hitchhiker's Guide books, and I was pleasantly surprised to see a new addition to the series in this graphic format.

This Dirk is a little different - leaner, younger, hipper - but that's fine because even Adams was known for contradicting himself and revising, revamping, and otherwise swapping up known characters and settings for new formats and versions.

The time-travelling ancient Egyptian part of the storyline felt a little bit like an episode of Scooby Doo to me, but overall didn't detract from my enjoyment. Other threads - the teashop owners, the murderous tourists, the homeless and their cell phones - wind around in typically absurd ways until they all merge (through interconnectedness) in the end.

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

In a primitive world changed by a flu pandemic, a band of minstrels and actors wander the American midwest performing Shakespeare to the survivors. As the novel's timeline flashes back and forth - before and after the Georgia Flu - we see the interconnectedness of the survivors, whose stories link back to a celebrity actor, Arthur Leander.

This book was on a lot of best of 2015 lists and was a finalist for the National Book Award. The author went on record saying she doesn't consider it sci-fi because there's no technology and gadgets involved. She says it's literary fiction.

While the "no technology" is technically accurate and the traveling symphony-and-Shakespeare troupe offers a bit of high-brow flair, I think it's cutting a pretty fine line to say this post-apocalypse novel isn't really in the sci-fi genre. The book is at heart a look at the invisible links between people, man's ability to adapt to survive, and a look at what the world could be like without "modern technology."

I enjoyed the book. The shifting perspectives keep the narrative moving along without getting bogged down in the minutia of survival, plus allow some dramatic tension as story threads cut out and return again later. I was pleasantly surprised a couple times as the connections back to Arthur were revealed.

Plus, now I know that living in the airport may be the best option, post-plague.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

The Big Rewind by Libby Cudmore

The horror of discovering her downstairs neighbor's bludgeoned body soon turns to curiosity as a young urban hipster strives to learn about the woman who was more acquaintance than friend - and uncovers a musical mystery that may lead to the real killer.

With a few minor tweaks, this could have been a teen book - as it is, I think it's targeted at the new "young adult" category that's become trendy in publishing: intended for those out of school, but still early in their careers and adulthood.

Jett and her neighbor KitKat live in a super trendy part of Brooklyn where neighbors hardly use cash and instead barter services and goods. Jett's scraping by, working only as a temp but living cheap in her honeymooning grandmother's rent-controlled apartment. Her passion for vintage vinyl means she's shopping the dollar bins and debating whether 1990's solo Sting is hot or not while drinking Two Buck Chuck with her friend-not-boyfriend Sid.

For all its ironic pop culture and snarky musical references, I really enjoyed this book. The mystery at its heart is twisty and dark without an obvious end, and the will-they/won't-they tension with Sid adds a bit of salty-sweet. Super-short chapters keep the action clipping along briskly, and you'll probably burn up iTunes hunting down the lesser-know lyrics and bands spread liberally through the story.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The war that saved my life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley

Audio version read by Jayne Entwistle

Think of all the atrocities you've heard from WWII.  Now imagine someone whose life actually improved because of that war.  Seems a little far-fetched, doesn't it?

Ada has been scorned by her mother since the day of her birth.  For ten years, she's never left their one-room apartment in London.  Still, she's a smart young lady, and knows she must evacuate when the other children do.  Her daring move to leave the city with her younger brother leads her to Kent and a woman named Susan.

For the first time in her life, she's seen as more than a child with a twisted foot. Suddenly, Ada and Jamie are part of a community.  There are many things to learn, including how to ride a pony, and watch for German spies. While Jamie is young enough to still love unconditionally, Ada and Susan both must learn lessons of love and trust. These things allow Ada to believe in herself even more than she did while hidden away in London.

Can Ada see her self-worth even through the shroud of shame that cloaked her for a decade? Can this makeshift family endure the tragedies of war and the constant wonder about Ada and James returning to their cruel mother?

Friday, March 4, 2016

Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

While many have tried to simplify Elon Musk down to a real-life Tony Stark (Iron Man), this biography shows that there's more to the man than "playboy millionare who will save the world" ... although that is certainly a goal of his.

Musk's got extraordinary vision and dreams way larger than most - and thanks to early investment in tech startups that paid off, he's also got the money to give it a go. While SpaceX may be the first commercial company to take payloads to the International Space Station, that's just a lilypad in the leapfrog to Mars.

But I feel very sorry for his employees, who must be willing to give 110% on everything at the expense of their personal lives. He's the kind of guy who leads by example - but ill health, crappy diet, extreme stress, work-a-holic tendances, and lack of empathy aren't something to which you should aspire.

I'll nitpick that the book's not truly a biography of Musk - there's great info about his early days, then once we get into his big businesses there's not much detail about his personal life anymore. For example, there's a minor aside dismissed quickly like, "And then he married his second wife again." I'd like to have known more about that decision and the change-of-heart one or both experienced; that's a pretty big reversal for a guy who's always moving forward. And what is he REALLY like as a dad to 5 young boys with 4-day-a-week custody, a private plane, and an overbooked schedule? How does he parent?

This book fired in me a personal obsession with Tesla cars (how will I find the kind of money to buy one?!), and Musk's drive to make green energies more affordable is interesting and commendable. I was fascinated by the subject and enjoyed this book immensely - and thankfully I don't have to like the guy all that much to have loved the book.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Even in a marriage, there are two sides to every story. But unlike other books that tell two sides of hardly-the-same-marriage, in this novel it's not about twisting the scene or misrepresenting a shared experience - it's all about the secrets and lies of omission.

Lotto lives a blessed life - his family has money, he's a true lover of the ladies, and he's got a charisma people just can't deny. When he meets and marries the ethereal Mathilde, it looks like his charmed life is on it's way through the stratosphere.

The first half of the book (fates) tells Lotto's story: about his family, his marriage, his successful career. The second half (furies) reveals Mathilde's origin story, plus her life with and without Lotto.

It's a fantastic story, absolutely captivating - I listened to the audiobook while I quilted, and I was really taken by the characters, the friendships, and the story of their lives. And even knowing there was a twist in the unfolding of the story, I was still surprised at the end! A truly remarkable novel.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Angels Burning by Tawni O'Dell

Dove Carnahan has done pretty well for herself despite staying in the town where she grew up - she overcame the shame of her bloodlines, made sure her siblings survived after their mother was murdered, and has become the liked-if-not-always-respected chief of police.

The horrific murder of a local teenager is stirring up all kinds of emotions and memories in Dove, but it's not just the job that's causing her turmoil: the man who went to prison for her mom's murder is back from prison, and her long-lost brother returns with a surprise. A lot of the things she's been trying to forget are springing up right in front of her face.

I've read several of O'Dell's books - she gives great voice to interesting characters with profound struggles in modern-day Appalachia - and I was excited to take this one home. I read it in about 2 sittings, and I really enjoyed the shifts in the story from the modern murder investigation to Dove's teen years.