Sunday, November 10, 2019

Review: Recursion

The premise on the book jacket of Recursion is intriguing: people are being flooded with false memories.

Blake Crouch's story goes further than you could possibly imagine — and it will keep you turning pages long into the wee hours of the morning.

NYPD Detective Barry Sutton comes face-to-face with a person afflicted with False Memory Syndrome as she contemplates her own demise from the side of a high rise building in Manhattan. For her, the memories are real, vivid, and heartbreaking. But how can they be, when reality provides different facts? 

Sutton isn't convinced she is right — but he also is not convinced she is wrong. On a hunch, he pursues the case to Long Island, a decision that changes his life.

Time is running out for Helena Smith's neuroscience research: her mother is losing all of her memories due to advancing Alzheimer's. She wants to find a way to save her mother's memories and halt the devastation of the disease. One night, she is offered a chance to work on her project in a way she never thought possible.

Alas, in Blake Crouch's thriller, nothing is as it appears. With twists, turns, and amazing leaps, characters careen near disaster in ways that keeps readers riveted.

I literally did not put this book down once I started it. I buried my nose in it and walked slowly from room to room, propping it up for meals, moving it off my lap to make room for a cat from time to time. I stayed up way past my bedtime — and only when I was exhausted did I find a safe place to slip in my "quitter strip" until the next morning.

I liked the characters: a police officer with tragic loss and soaring opportunity, a desperate neuroscientist racing for a cure to a heartbreaking disease, a handful of good-intentioned scientists who try to do the right thing, a sad spouse with all-consuming grief. I even liked the villains: the person who removes all limitations so Helena can save the world, the good-intentioned bureaucrats who have no choice but to follow bad decisions or lose all access to the tool they should not have loosed in the first place.

The ending was perfect, and the acknowledgements were charming; Crouch seems like a good friend as well as a bang-up writer. I have one of his earlier novels on my shelves; once I get my breath back, I may step into those pages, if I dare.

Read this book if you like excitement, wonder, just enough science to make the fiction believable, and just enough fiction to make the science approachable. 

Sunday, November 3, 2019

Review: Evvie Drake Starts Over

Evvie Drake lives a life of layers, mostly hidden from everyone — including herself. She is a local, the wife of a beloved local doctor, the daughter of an adoring lobsterman, and the best friend to Andy. (Some may say "too" best.)

But she is none of these. She is a woman who, when she finds the strength to do what's right, receives an awful gift that takes away her power and replaces it with something insidious: expectation.

Linda Holmes' amazing, compelling, and powerful novel Evvie Drake Starts Over shows readers how someone can evolve from what she was into what she intended to be all along — with a little unexpected help from unexpected people in her life.

Evvie (which rhymes with "Chevy") has taken the literal first step to leaving her life when she gets a surprise phone call from the hospital where her husband works. She isn't leaving after all.

As Evvie rattles around her huge house in her hometown, trying to avoid well-meaning people who want to help her mourn her loss, she is stuck. Her late husband is beloved as the local kid who made good and came home to serve his community. Only Evvie knows how different his public and private personae were — and readers discover it as Evvie herself has the courage to think about it.

Along comes Dean Tenney, a former major league baseball pitcher drummed off the diamond and retreating to his hometown. Evvie's best friend Andy proposes a win-win: Dean moves into Evvie's adjacent apartment to get away from prying eyes while Evvie gets some company (and a little cash). Dean and Evvie agree to two things: he will live there for a short time, and they won't talk about their elephants in the room.

Evvie's commits small (and not so small) acts of deception, whether it's telling people what they want to hear or not admitting to unhappiness while living in a perfect life. Or just not saying anything at all. And readers very well may understand: Whether we doubt ourselves or the support we may (or may not) receive, whether we feel believed or even seen, we have the ability to cover up so many things. Evvie is a Master Illusionist, with the willful ignorance of those around her, and her life could have continued with dishes she didn't want in a house she didn't want and the (late) husband who also was a Master Illusionist. I totally bought Evvie's angst: she could't come clean, but she couldn't live with the image — so she just limped along and hid as much as possible.  Linda Holmes captured Evvie's situation with compassion and honesty.

Even better than the build-up was the resolution. Evvie found an unexpected ally. Could this friend provide enough support to coax Evvie out of her non-life? Help her dispatch her demons? Could Evvie find her way back to herself? Could she discover the courage to build the life she wanted and adjust the relationships in her life to be more honest and meaningful? 

At every turn, Evvie's cast of characters were rich and robust, fairly portrayed, and compassionately developed. I liked Evvie and ached for her hidden pain. I liked Dean, a decent and honest man who needed to be told that he asked for things in ways he didn't realize. I liked Andy, despite the unbalanced (and surprisingly unhealthy) relationship. 

I recommend this book. It's full of surprises, and chances are readers may see themselves occasionally. Maybe some of Evvie's courage will rub off on, or at least spark awareness. And if not, it's still an enjoyable debut novel.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

Halloween Poetry: Bats

Celebrate Halloween properly with this amazing poem, courtesy of


unveil themselves in dark.
They hang, each a jagged,

silken sleeve, from moonlit rafters bright
as polished knives. They swim

the muddled air and keen
like supersonic babies, the sound

we imagine empty wombs might make
in women who can’t fill them up.

A clasp, a scratch, a sigh.
They drink fruit dry.

And wheel, against feverish light flung hard
upon their faces,

in circles that nauseate.
Imagine one at breast or neck,

Patterning a name in driblets of iodine
that spatter your skin stars.

They flutter, shake like mystics.
They materialize. Revelatory

as a stranger’s underthings found tossed
upon the marital bed, you tremble

even at the thought. Asleep,
you tear your fingers

and search the sheets all night.

by Paisley Rekdal, from The Invention of the Kaleidoscope, 2007

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Review: Sheets

Brenna Thummler's world in Sheets is familiar to anyone who's been a child, or who has tried to slog through loss. Loss means change — and what's more bewildering to a child than the "real" world that changes from moment to moment? 

In Sheets, everyone encounters rules, and situations, that make no sense, like the Laws of Ghosts and clean sheets, relationships and adolescence. Everything is new.

Add to that a devastating loss.

Add to that an unreliable guide, whether involves someone who is intentionally unreliable for their own benefit, is unsuitable for the situation, or just broken.

Add to that responsibilities beyond your capabilities, and no apparent options.

What you have is a poignant, touching, and revealing graphic novel that captures the confusion and angst of growing up without those who you most trust to guide you through this ever-shifting landscape of youth.

Marjorie is the teenage adult of the family. Her father, still reeling from the death of his wife, spends most of his time sleeping or hiding in his bedroom. Owen has just started kindergarten and can't remember a time when things were different — so he understands, but doesn't.

It's up to Marjorie to keep Glatt's Laundry running and keep the family together. But how can she do that when she can barely keep herself together? Adolescence is hard enough when you have everything together, and Marjorie's loss has left a chasm out of which she has no map to navigate.

Enter Nigel Saubertuck, a charlatan who wants to build a resort in his hometown — and needs the Glatt's property to do so. He's in a tight spot, and needs things to move fast. How far will he go to close down Glatt's Laundry?

Wendell is a lonely little ghost in a town full of forgotten ghosts, who finds himself drawn to Marjorie (whose business is the perfect cover for a ghost among linens). He knows the rules of Ghost Town, and he really wants to follow them — but even the best intentions of a youthful, immature ghost can go awry. 

With a few deft strokes, Thummler shows us Marjorie's pain with her memories and current-life troubles. She captures Marjorie's desperation to not reveal her troubles, no matter how reliable the adult appears, and her natural protectiveness of her privacy and her crumbling family. Readers see Marjorie having to grow up way too soon and taking on burdens she wouldn't have had to face without the loss of the person who made her feel loved and safe and precious.

Thummler shows us the dark sides of small towns, the pain of adolescence, the cruelty of loss, and how children try to protect themselves from anything that will chip away at the tiny ledge they cling to in their whirling, confused world. The book cover captures the isolation, fragility, and abject loneliness loss brings to old and young alike. Thummler show us how children try to keep pain and confusion secret, whether it's their own or someone else's, in a world that makes no sense on the best of days.

Thummler wrote A Sheets Story, which was given away on Free Comic Book Day 2019, and announced a Sheets sequel to be published in 2020. 

This touching novel deserves a close read, and a slow and leisurely re-read. I would strongly recommend it to readers of all ages. Reading it right around Samhain feels about right, but any time of year is perfect for this tome.

Have you read it? What did you think? Leave your comments below, or send me an email with your thoughts.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

Summer Reading in Review: Quantity and Quality

This summer, I read a whole lot of books. Many of them were short and sweet, quite a few were graphic novels, and most were worth the time and energy. Not all, definitely, but I found quite a few diamonds in the rough on the library and bookstore shelves.

I have great memories of reading many of the books on this list. 

I finished most of the Nickel Boys as I paced along the river's shore in a Virginia state park. No Visible Bruises took most of the summer, but I took my time due to the subject matter. I listened to The Lost Gutenberg  as I walked to and from the library under darkening skies. I wanted to savor The Testaments, but instead spent much of a blistering summer weekend in Gilead, curled up in my favorite chair. I paused How to Be a Good Creature when Tess starting showing signs of old age.

I read more titles this summer than in years past, but the total pages is probably close to my average — this summer I consumed a generous amount of juvenile fiction, picture books, and other short books. (Please note: "picture books" are not the same as "graphic novels." Which you know. But it bears repeating.)  

The list below includes a mix of print books πŸ“–, audiobooks πŸŽ§, e-books πŸ“², library loans πŸ€“, graphic novels πŸ–Ό, and juvenile fiction and non-fiction πŸ‘§.

  1. I Could Pee on This Too πŸ“²
  2. Fortunately the Milk πŸ“–πŸ‘§
  3. Sorry I Barfed on Your Bed (and other heartwarming letters from Kitty) πŸ“²
  4. Only Human πŸ“²
  5. Rupert Can Dance πŸ“–πŸ€“πŸ‘§
  6. Mr. Putter and Tabby Smell the Roses πŸ“–πŸ€“πŸ‘§
  7. Sheets πŸ“–πŸ€“πŸ–Ό
  8. The Testaments πŸ“–
  9. Mr. Putter and Tabby Hit the Slopes πŸ“–πŸ€“πŸ‘§
  10. You wouldn’t want to be sick in the 16th Century πŸ“–πŸ€“πŸ‘§
  11. No Visible Bruises πŸ“–
  12. The Ghost Studies πŸ“²
  13. Mr. Putter and Tabby Turn the Page πŸ“²πŸ‘§
  14. The Nickel Boys 🎧
  15. Summer Hours at the Robbers Library πŸ“–
  16. Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery - the graphic novel adaptation πŸ“–πŸ€“πŸ–Ό
  17. The Someone New πŸ“–πŸ‘§
  18. The Psychology of Time Travel πŸ“²
  19. Waking Gods πŸ“²
  20. Behind the Scenes at the Museum πŸ“–
  21. Never Split the Difference 🎧
  22. Vincent πŸ“–πŸ€“πŸ–Ό
  23. The Confessions of Max Tivoli πŸ“²
  24. The Baltimore Book of the Dead πŸ“–πŸ€“
  25. City of Ghosts πŸ“² πŸ€“
  26. Anything is Possible πŸ“–
  27. Martina the Beautiful Cockroach πŸ“–πŸ€“πŸ‘§
  28. Probable Paws (Mystic Notch Book 5) πŸ“²
  29. Severance πŸ“–
  30. The Last Dragon πŸ“–πŸ€“ πŸ–Ό
  31. Maneater Vol. 1 πŸ“–πŸ€“ πŸ–Ό
  32. Underground Airlines πŸ“²
  33. Ghosted πŸ“² πŸ€“
  34. The Lost Gutenberg 🎧
  35. Nine Perfect Strangers πŸ“–
  36. Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love And What to Skip on Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits πŸ“–πŸ€“
  37. Storm of Locusts πŸ“²
  38. The Lost Man πŸ“²
  39. How to be a Good Creature 🎧
  40. Dogs of War πŸ“–πŸ€“πŸ–Ό
  41. Where’d You Go, Bernadette πŸ“–
  42. The Lemoncholy Life of Annie Aster πŸ“²
  43. The One Hundred Nights of Hero πŸ“–πŸ€“πŸ–Ό

I have quite a few "favorite" books this year. I can't decide between Storm of Locusts; Underground Airlines; No Visible Bruises; The Testaments; and the Themis Files books.

 What did you read this summer? Share your list in the comments below, or email me your list and I'll share it with our group.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Review: The Psychology of Time Travel

Time travel? 

Women scientists? 

Animals not harmed in the making of the book? 

The description of "the perfect book for Chris" should have been a fabulous read. Instead, Kate Mascarenhas' The Psychology of Time Travel was surprisingly dull, with undeveloped characters and confusing storylines.

First of all, there was no sense of time or place. Four women discover time travel in 1967. They could have discovered it at a farmhouse in Idaho or the French countryside for all the attention the setting received. In 1967, women had no standing in the world of science — and yet these women are not only embraced by the scientific community, but also have the power to privatize time travel to their financial benefit.

This book introduced new time-travel rules; after Avengers: Endgame, I am almost numb to the tangled ideas and brutal liberties people take with this fictional practice. It's like sparkly vampires: if you write the fiction, you invent a world in which you can hang out with yourself, or multiple versions of yourself (or do whatever with yourselves, and Mascarenhas describes plenty of whatever). There is no sense of excitement or discovery.

Readers learn a lot about the Conclave, the proprietary corporation/society created by Margaret, to benefit her world order. There are strange rules, weird law enforcement, and a most unique monetary system. That's all well and good, but what did time travel do?  It was never clear to me.

Only a few characters were memorable — and with multiple versions of time-travelers interacting with each other, it was easy to get overwhelmed. When it wasn't confusing, much of the interaction was dull. It's a workplace with strange rules.

There wasn't a "main" story. The author tried to weave a couple of stories together, but the connections are almost desperate. Odette was traumatized by a murder scene she encounters at the toy museum where she works, and decides that working as an investigator for the Conclave would give her closure. Bee dies, and her granddaughter Ruby finds out how and why from her lover Grace.

Time travel is becoming the storyline du jour, and not everyone follows the rules, or even the new rules they set up. I'm a huge fan of time travel, but after this book, I'm ready to take a break. What a shame.

Did I miss something about this book that you think makes it a great read? I'd love to know, and we can discuss: leave a comment below, or send me an email.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Surrendering The Iliad

In recent years, new translations of classic works by women translators have been hitting the shelves. That inspired me earlier this year to listen to the latest translation of The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson (and narrated by Claire Danes).

As I listened, I realized I was looking for a feminist telling of the tale. The book's forward provided the story's historical perspective and examined the role of women in this ancient society. Aaaaaand, that was it. The rest was Odysseus sexing Greek goddesses and killing lots of people — oh, and whining about how tough his life was.

As I listened, I wondered: What makes this story a classic for today? Does it stand the test of time? What about it is relevant and culturally significant today? I met some Greek gods, very interesting. I learned the background of some cultural touchstones and concepts, interesting.

When I didn't quite understand the story, I turned to the graphic novel by Greg Hines. I shared that book with my friend Melanie, who also listened to the dulcet tones of Claire Danes (and got lost once or twice along the way).

In the end, Odysseus' bloody battles and reading cultural references in the original text didn't inspire me. Although I could say I read The Odyssey, I couldn't honestly say I enjoyed it, or found it culturally relevant and inspiring.

Homer's first tome, The Iliad, also recently was translated by a woman. Caroline Alexander tackled the story about the last year of the Trojan War, so I figured I'd give it a try.

And I tried. I tried to care, I tried to understand it, and I tried to appreciate its cultural relevance to the modern Indo-European society.

Yet, my mind kept asking me why I was reading this book: Because everyone said it was a classic? What makes it a classic? And do I have to spend my time reading it?

In the end, the answer is no, I don't have to spend my time reading The Iliad. Cultural significance changes. The same people who kept The Iliad in the halls of academia also thought Lolita was culturally imperative — and that fact alone gives me permission to think outside the canon.

I may come back to it someday. I may read a chapter here and there. Never say never (except about Lolita, and I can't emphasize that enough), but if it is never, I am okay with that.

Are you in Camp Iliad? Why or why not? Leave your comments below, or email me your thoughts, and I'll share them with the rest of the group.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Review: The Lost Man

I enjoy Australian literature, which features a language and culture familiar enough to make it comfortable, but with enough difference to make it "other" and slightly exotic. 

To be fair, my exposure to Australian culture is rather limited to pop fiction (think Liane Moriarty, Geraldine Brooks, and Colleen McCollough) and, I am realizing, very white. If anyone has suggestions  for a more diverse Australian reading list, I'd be much obliged.

Now, on to The Lost Man and all of the bleached Australian whiteness as the Outback can provide.

First of all, Jane Harper offers for our consideration a Caucasian Australian culture that sports a very casual relationship with skin cancer. Everyone has it, or has some cut out, or is intimately inspected by a health care professional on a regular basis. I don't have an outdoor-enough lifestyle to have that kind of relationship with a dermatologist or oncologist, but I suspect I would be if I was an Aussie. The intensity of the Aussie sun is as intense as the close-knit community in this book.

Australians also seem to have a strained relationship with women and women’s personal safety. Cam was the "nice" brother, Bub was immature and self-absorbed, Nathan the most troubled — and yet their relationships with women were very different than their community assigned them. Cam's sexual abuse of ranch-hands was overlooked (probably as much out of fear as acceptance of the behavior), but Nathan's momentary disregard of his former father-in-law's safety was so severely punished, it seemed to make up for Cam’s physical and sexual abuse of the women around him.

The “mystery” of the story was teased out a little too long. Nathan kept “almost remembering” clues and actions beyond my patience. The question of Cam’s boyhood attack on the ranch hand was teased out a little too long. The final reveal of whodunit — and the clue that led to the revelation — was a bit of a surprise, but only because that relationship hadn’t been examined much in the book.

I liked the characters, but I wasn’t really invested in them. I didn’t necessarily see them as full-fledged people, so the abuse was painful, but I didn’t feel indignation on behalf of the characters who suffered at the hands of Cam and his father.

The world of the stark, blistering Australian Outback felt very alien to me, and I kept thinking about Mars the entire time I read the book.

This was my first Harper novel. I like her storytelling style: enough detail to get the point across, but otherwise spare and lean — bordering on emaciated. To be fair, I was reading a non-fiction book on domestic abuse at the same time I read The Lost Man. Unfortunately, as much as I enjoy a good thriller, I'm not sure I want to keep reading about dead women and children. The plethora of dead and abused women was the very reason I stopped watching police procedurals on television.

To Harper's credit, her details were not lurid and voyeuristic — at least, in this book. Are her other books as spare and respectful? I'd love to hear your comments: post them below, or feel free to email me

Sunday, September 22, 2019

Review: Behind the Scenes at the Museum

   Get a glimpse behind the faΓ§ade when Ruby Lennox shows us what it takes to make and live in a family in Behind the Scenes at the Museum. The titular museum is York Castle Museum, which exhibits faΓ§ades of local houses, much like the one occupied by the Lennox family. As Kate Atkinson weaves her tale, Ruby’s first day is spent in part at the Museum Gardens, with her mother and sister, Gillian.

I loved the structure of the book: beginning with her conception, Ruby is very much in the “now,” and everything feels immediate and new, with glimpses of foretelling the future. Coupled with these current events are  “appendices” interspersed non-sequentially, revealing family secrets that challenge the fictions perpetrated in the family history Ruby tells. She knows what she knows, so her tale is limited to her scope of knowledge, what she sees and believes.

Ruby is our narrator, but is she reliable? Clues pop up indicating that something is flickering just beyond her reach, a memory she can’t quite grasp, that perhaps she is more than she seems. In fact, Ruby’s reveal near the end of the book was seeded through the entire novel, with clues that Atkinson at times thought were heavy-handed. (I didn’t.) Other characters weave through the story in surprising ways, such as Auntie Doreen, Sister Blake, Jack, Edmund — even inanimate characters, like Alice’s buttons, mantel clock, and silver locket.

I enjoyed reading the wartime tales. Atkinson captures the abject terror and drudgery of both world wars, the second of which she explored in two other amazing books: Life After Life and A God in Ruins. I saw Teddy in Edmund, and now I feel as though I must  re-read the bomber scenes in the Todd Family series.

People die all the time, or disappear, or are wounded, or show up at unexpected times and places. Ruby’s loss of sisters in this tale is sad, but her attitude toward Gillian makes a lot more sense as the family story unfolds. Auntie Babs’ breast cancer, Ada’s diphtheria, Tom’s hand, Lawrence’s bad timing on the English coast, all amazing tragedies befallen by the Lennox forebears.

Death was definitely a character. Ruby didn’t shy away from it, but she experienced it as was appropriate for her age. The sisters were not present for Gillian’s funeral and the finality that part of the mourning process provides, so to Ruby and Patricia, Gillian was “if not exactly alive then not exactly dead either.” The timing and circumstances of George’s death were unfortunate, but Ruby knew he was dead — she witnessed and was a part of it differently, and at a different age and life stage, than she was for Gillian.

The people I loved most were Lillian, the strong-minded single mother who bravely hopped on ocean liners and cross-continental trains; Lucy-Vita, an affectionate cousin and patient friend; and Adrian, the hairdresser who just lived his life and loved his family (and proved to be a loving caretaker for Bunty). I despised Rachel’s black heart and Bernard’s cruelty, and had little sympathy for Bunty (despite Ruby’s story arc). Bunty and George were a pathetic pair, and I am at a loss as to how they managed to keep as many of their children alive as they did for as long as they did. The Ropers were hysterical, as much because their own absurdity as by George and Bunty’s responses to them.

Atkinson had some brilliant moments, coupling Ruby’s story reveal with the Lost Property Cupboard, poignantly and gracefully bringing sisters together and parting them, capturing the energy and dynamics of an extended family. There were a few beautiful observations, that the past is what you take with you, that nothing is lost forever, that everything resolves itself (Adrian’s identity, marriage entanglements, leavings and returnings, motherhood). As Ruby shows us, the deft distribution of family throughout the world — intentional or accidental, known or unknown, secret or revealed — create a unique, powerful, perfectly imperfect mosaic.

The British, when talking about their family members, use the term “our,” such as “our Gillian” or “our Pearl.” I first read this in Good Omens, and wondered if it was made up for the scene in which it was used. It wasn’t, and I find it utterly charming.

Did anyone else get lost from time to time when trying to keep track of who was in which generation? What a huge cast of characters!

For the record, the paperback copy I own features the cover at right, which is very different than the cover I posted at the top of the review. I prefer the parrot cover.

I think — I am a bit of a purist when it comes to covers, and this debut novel doesn't need to mention future works by the same author. Do you have a preference? What's your take on covers: do you prefer the original covers, or do you like redesigns as the author's canon evolves?