Books Read in 2017

 

Origin by Dan Brown
I'm not sure how to rate this book.  I think if I were writing on the star system I would give it 3 stars (out of 5).  When I told my friend Steve (a friend of Brown's) the overall plot of the book he said "Ah, the origin of life with murders and racing thru scenery. Sounds like him."  It has the suspense and page-turning elements you associate with Brown, but it also has some terribly aggravating things.  The overall plot is that eccentric gazillionaire Edmond Kirsh has discovered the answer to the questions "where did we come from; where are we going," in other words proof that there is no God.  He shares the secret with 3 top religious leaders, a Catholic bishop, a rabbi, and an Imam.  And of course Robert Langdon, because he's the guy who will save the world.  He also plans a big reveal to the world at an amazing ceremony at the Guggenheim library in Bilbao, Spain (I recommend reading this book with Google Images handy!)

But 2 of the 3 clerics are killed, and as he starts his presentation, Kirsch himself is killed.  That's when the action begins.  But that is about half of the way into the book.  I call the first 40 or so chapters "plotus-interruptus" because you have this scene and builds and builds and builds and just as it's about to reach its climax, the chapter ends and the next chapter deals with two other chapters whose scene build and builds, etc.  For nearly 40 chapters.

When we get into being chased around Barcelona (I am SO that that I have been to Barcelona, as it helped greatly to imagine where they were) it became a page turner and I was hooked.  But when we get to the denouement, Kirsch finally getting to reveal his discovery (by film), it goes on endlessly, starting with before creation and feeling at time like it's happening in real time. The reader wants to know where we are going and how he knows, but of course, this is an author writing his opinion, so however logical it may or may not seem, it really means nothing.

I say if you liked DaVinci Code and Angels and Demons (which I did) you will probably like this book, but it is not his best.


The Late Show by Michael Connelly
I had not read a Michael Connelly book in awhile, so when choosing which book to listen to in the car on our 8 hour trip to Santa Barbara, I was pleased to see that this was a new to me title.  I love Michael Connelly, especially his Harry Bosch series.  But this was a stand alone novel and one reviewer on Amazon wrote that it was good, but not his best.  That is what I thought too through the first seven or so chapters, which went into exhaustive information on police procedures, chain of command, and that sort of thing and gave minimal focus on any of the people.  But never feel complacent about a Connelly book.  Once he go into following Detective Renee Ballard as she works two assignments, which may end her career ... or her life ... it was a "gripper."  Just the thing to make the miles fly by!


10 Days in an Insane Asylum by Nellie Bly
In 1887 journalist Nellie Bly accepted an assignment by New York World publisher Joseph Pulitzer and went undercover in a lunatic asylum on Blackwell Island, America's first municipal mental hospital.  She discovered the nightmares the inmates experienced -- terrible inedible food, lack of heat, abuse by the staff, physical illnesses ignored, etc.  Her article began the improvement in treatment of mentally ill patients.  This is a no-holds barred account of her experience..


unbelievable by Katy Tur
This book has the subtitle "My front row seat to the craziest campaign in American history."  She was assigned to cover the Trump campaign on the day he announced he planned to run for the presidency.  NBC figured it would be a two month assignment at most but it ended up being a 500 day nearly 24/7 assignment during which she was publicly shamed by the candidate, actually physically accosted by him (grabbing and kissing her) and had so many hate threats from the audience that she needed a security guard.  Anyone from a foreign country who knew NOTHING of our 2016 election, would be horrified, on reading this book, to think that this man was elected president.  We all saw a lot of this stuff during the nightly news, but to read it all collected in one place like this was a real eye opener and just deepens my horror at the man now "the most powerful man in the world" and what he is in the process of doing to our country.
 


I Know a Secret by Tess Gerritsen
This is #11 in the Rizzoli and Isles series and once again Gerritsen does not disappoint.  Two separate murders, for all intents and purpose unrelated, with nothing in common between the victims, yet the bizarre conditions of both the murders leads Rizzoli and Isles to consider it possible the murders were committed by the same person.  Investigation takes the sleuths to a 20 year old criminal case and more murders, as well as the one witness to the old case who might help find the current murderer, but for personal reasons is refusing to speak.

The problem with Gerritsen books is that they are so well crafted that it is virtually impossible to put a book down once you have started it.  This one was no exception.  Five stars.
 


Never Caught:  The Washingtons' Relentless Pursuit of their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge by Erica Armstrong Dunbar
This is the story of a courageous woman who found a way to escape slavery to live as a free woman.  It also sheds light on Washington's view of slavery in his pursuit of the runaway for the rest of his life.  Meticulously annotated with articles and letters of the time (many of which are reprinted in the text), this gives a painful history of the life of enslaved persons after the Revolutionary War, and puts the current renewed disputes over glorification of Civil War heroes in the South in a much different light.  Quite an eye-opening account.

At the end of her life, she reflected that no matter what hardships she had endured after she left the Washingtons, it was better because she was free.


Triptych by Karin Slaughter
This is Book 1 in the Will Trent series.  I read Book 2 awhile ago and wanted to know Trent's back story.  I think the best thing I can say about this book is that if I had read Book 1 first, I would never have read Book 2.  Obviously Slaughter learned from Book 1 and improved with Book 2, though not enough for me to want to continue the series. Trent is a detective with dyslexia, which he seems to have handled better in Book 2 than book 1.  The story is "meh" and so convoluted that I couldn't keep track of who was who.  Having two characters with similar names didn't help either.  The one thing I got from this book is that reading the accommodations Trent goes through to hide his dyslexia from the rest of the world made me wonder if...just maybe...Donald Trump is dyslexic.  It would explain a lot.


The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night by Mark Haddon
I ran into a friend who had just seen the stage show based on this book. He raved about it (liked it better than "Hamilton") but said that if I am going to see it, I should read the book first so that I didn't have to spend the first third of the show trying to figure it out. He also told me that he could ot put the book down when he started it.

Well he was right about that. This is a unique, funny, dramatic, and puzzling story of Christopher, who is on the autism spectrum and sees the world quite differently than the rest of us. He attends a school for special needs children. In a way, with a mother who has dementia and is starting to exhibit signs of paranoia, I found it interesting to see how Christopher's mind worked and wondered if this helps to explain how her mind works.

The plot of this book is more or less irrelevant. Christopher discovers a dog has been killed and he determines he is going to solve the mystery of who killed the dog. This involves conquering many of his fears and speaking with people he is terrified of.

Learning who killed the dog only sets in motion a whole different series of experiences, where Christopher must use his love of prime numbers and his powers of observation to move forward.

Perhaps the two most important figures in Christopher's life are Siobhan, one of his teachers, who understands him, and Tony, his pet rat.

When you arrive at the end of this book, you realize that you have had your sensitivities for autistic people raised a bit and that's a good thing.


Fractured by Karin Slaughter
In a mansion in an upscale neighborhood of Atlanta, a mother comes home to find her daughter murdered and mutilated, with her attacker still standing over her.  She attacks the man and chokes him to death.  This is the second in a series of Will Trent books (and now I have to read book 1).  With Will on the scene, it is discovered that the young man murdered was not the attacker, but rather trying to rescue the young woman.  And the young woman is not the daughter after all but her friend, and the daughter has been kidnapped.  Sorting through all the evidence and figuring out what happened and who is to blame was a fasinating read, and concentrates more on police procedure than "blood and gore" (though there is enough of that too)


A Man Called Ove by Fredrick Backman
I read somewhere that this was the New York Times "most charming book" of 2014.  I can understand that.  I'd seen the book for a long time and had heard good things about it.  All Ove (pronounced OO-va) wants to do is commit suicide so he can be with his deceased wife, the only person he's ever loved.  But whenever he tries, something interrupts him.  He is described as a "cranky old man whose world is black and white. He is a rule follower who has no patience with people who are not." He's the town curmudgeon who has lived a very organized, regimented life but feels responsibility so that when someone needs help, he steps in, even if it postpones his suicide for yet another day.  Along the way, he grudgingly makes friends of some of the people in his neighborhood.  (I was shocked to discover about 2/3 of the way through the book thata the "cranky old man" is 59 years old!...closer to my daughter's age than to mine!!!)

The book follows his life and his grudging acceptance of some people, though always crusty and grumbling outside.  What happens at his death is a wonderful surprise.


Prince Caspian by C.S. Lewis
After finishing "The Horse and his Boy," which I didn't realy like, I was ready for this book, as my granddaughter says it's her favorite.  And I liked it very much.  It is set man years (perhaps as many as 1,000) past the time when Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy ruled Narnia, yet they are only 2 years older and are whisked back to Narnia ("where the animals talk and the trees walk") by means of magic at a time when help is needed to rid the country of the evil king and restore Prince Caspian to his rightful place on the throne.  In the end, it is a battle between two men that will determine the fate of the entire country.


The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis
Back to Narnia in this, the third book in the series.  This was perhaps my least favorite of the three I have read before.  There is more emphasis on negative things, mostly war with a little torture thrown in.  The reader does learn about the worlds of which Narnia is only one part.  A boy named Shasta is living in Calormene with a cruel stepfather, who plans to sell him into slavery.  Shasta excapes and meets Bree, a Narnia talking horse, who must pretend he can't talk because animals in Calormene don't talk and they set out for Narnia.  On the way they encounter Aravis, a young girl who has been betrothed to an old man.  She and her talking horse are also trying to escape and make their way to Narnia.  The four join forces and encounter many adventures on their way. We also see a lot more of Aslan, the lion God-figure, who helps the group make to Narnia. 

Some have said this is their favorite book of the series, but I just didn't get into the war and with all the weird names it was difficult to figure out who was who and which land was which.  (I did chuckle at the place called Stormness and wonder if C.S. Lewis was paying homage to the Orkney town of Stromness.)


The Restaurant Critic's Wife by Elizabeth LaBan
I needed to read something written for someone over the age of 10 for a change, so chose this, one of Amazon's $3.00 specials awhile ago.  I have lots of mixed feelings about it.  I'm glad I finished it because of how so many threads came together at the end, but I could not relate to the heroine Lila Soto, at all.  It's a generational thing.  Her views on parenting and children in the 21st century didn't ring true with me, from the 1970s and her husband Sam's (he's the critic) insistence on absolute anonymity condemns her to a life on a street filled with children she can't meet because their parents might own a restaurant Sam might someday review.  Lila is torn between motherhood and the very successful career she left when she married Sam.  One of Sam's obsessions is that he is never to be called by name when they review a restaurant and it is an inconsistency in the book that though he's furious the first time it happens, it happens over and over again and he never seems to mind.

It was a nice break from the tales of Narnia, and it was a quick read, but nothing I would rave about. 


The Black Stallion by Walter Farley
This is my week to read kids books, apparently.  After I finished "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," I really wanted to share my favorite kids' book, which I read at about Brianna's age, with her.  But I was a horse fanatic at that age and she's into fantasy and I wasn't sure if she would like it.  So I read it.  And no, I don't think it's the book for her, but I was hooked on re-reading it.

The tale of Alec Ramsey and the wild stallion who is shipwrecked on a deserted island with him, the tale of the development of their unlikely friendship, their rescue, finding a home for a wild stallion in Flushing, NY, and the Black's ultimate race against the two fastest horses in the country was just as gripping to me today as it was more than 50 years ago.  But, I don't think it's for Bri.


The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
I'm all set for my first "book club meeting" on July 1 with my granddaughter.  I have finished this book!

This is apparently the real start of the Narnia stories, where four kids accidentally discover an entrance through the back of a wardrobe into a magical world of wizards and witches, of Aslan the Lion, the god figure, of centaurs and giants.  They have many adventures, good and bad.  There are lots of Bible parallels in the book, some more blatant than others.  In the end, the kids return to the wardrobe, just seconds after they first entered Narnia.  Magic!  So now on to Book 3 and getting ready to discuss the series with my granddaughter (and others).

Lewis frequently breaks the book equivalent of the 4th wall, stopping to make comments to the reader. Not sure how I feel about that, but I did smile when he said something about how if he wrote what really happened, their parents wouldn't let them read the book!


The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis
I never read the Narnia books as a kid but my daughter-in-law suggested that we form a book club to discuss books with Brianna (age 9), who is now plowing through books at a regular rate. She is on Book 6 of the 7 Narnia books and wants to discuss them and then go through the Little House on the Prairie books.  I'm thrilled to be in a book club with my granddaughter!

This book introduces us to the magic other world that two children find thanks to a discovery by Digory's uncle and the magic rings that whisk them back and forth between world.  We meet Aslan, the "god" of the other world and get to witness the big bang there, we learn the powers of the magic apple tree and the temptations of the evil witch to eat the apple (does sound a bit familiar!)  Apparently this book is the prequel to the real story of Narnia, which begins with "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," which I will be starting today.

Lewis' powers of description are wonderful and again, I wish I could write like that!


Silent Footsteps by Sally Henderson
An experience in Botswana with an elephant she credits with saving her life was a turning point for Henderson.  She developed a passion for preserving the species and, with husband Jer, moved to Zimbabwe to study elephant behavior.  I love books like this and Henderson's gift for description makes this one of the better ones.  In addition to learning about the elephants she observes, you learn a lot about the other animals of Africa (lions, for example).  As much as I enjoyed this read (and the last chapters about driving across several African countries right after the cessation of conflict are gripping!), it made me cross "trip to Africa" off of my bucket list.  It has long been my dream to go and while I know that physically I would not be able to make the trip now I still had my dreams.   But the very clear picture of conditions in Africa, the dangers faced, and how tourists are viewed by the locals was enough for me to feel confident that it was probably a good thing I never went.

On the Amazon review of one reader, I chose NOT to read the epilog and leave things as they were when Sally and Jer left Zimbabwe and not read what is apparently a depressing tale of how things were when they returned several years later.


The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson
In 1995, Bryson wrote "Notes from a Small Island," a salute to his adopted country (England) before his return to the U.S.  In that book he traveled around lesser known parts of England and wrote about what he liked, what he didn't, and what he found peculiar (more than a little amount).  I bought that book when I found it in the Cambridge University library when we were doing the same thing, driving around England.  I loved the book because it was almost as if we were seeing it with him.

Twenty years later Bryson decided to revisit his old haunts and see how things are now.  I started this book a long time ago and then got distracted and didn't get back to it until this week.  The almost unanimous negative reviews on Amazon tell me maybe why I set it aside.  I enjoy Bryson and I did enjoy this book, but it lacked the joi de vivre that I have found in his previous books (and I have read most of them).  There are still a lot of snickers, a lot of interesting bits, a lot of "OMG--I didn't know that!" but seen through the eyes of an aging travel writer who is upset that things aren't as charming as they used to be and that quaint villages now have Starbucks and wifi. 

Don't get me wrong--I enjoyed this book.  I just didn't enjoy it as much as I hoped I would.


Are You Anybody?: A Memoir by Jeffrey Tambor
In reading a book, I am particularly impressed by writing style and Tambor is a very good writer.  He is clear, concise and erudite.  He is funny and serious and brutally honest.  He does not shy away from the dark times in his life (Scientology, alcohol) and he teaches the non-acting reader more about acting than you might ever learn otherwise.  His style is not straightforward, "I was born..and here we are today..." but more like a ping pong ball bouncing around the room, he might discuss his award winning performance in Transparent in Chapter 2, and his father's quirks later in the book.  But it all works.

I was sorry that I never watched Arrested Development or The Garry Sanders Show (his break out role, after years on Broadway and smaller roles elsewhere), so I had to stop reading and go to Netflix and find Arrested Development and watch a few episodes to get an idea of who this George Bluth character was.

But the most fascinating part of the book was learning how he created the character of Maura Pfefferman, retired college professor, who finally admits to his family that he identifies as female.  How Tambor, self-described as a cis-male, learns about gender identity and how Maura feels as she goes through her transition is brilliant.  The show, while billed as a comedy, is not so much a comedy as it is a slice of life, with funny parts to it.  The book itself is delightful.


The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
Though this classic has been around since 1986, it took the Trump administration to get me to read it.  This dystopian tale of the Republic of Giliad, which is not too far in the future from "today," is the society that forms after a repressive takeover by the uber-Puritans.  prior to the takeover, birth control and abortion has so reduced the population that young fertile women must be recruited to be Handmaids, to bear the children for infertile couples.  How this is done is shocking in and of itself.  The story is told through the thoughts of Offred and Atwood's writing is so eloquent it is mesmerizing.  SPOILER ALERT -- I found the ending unsatisfying, as it leaves us with a "Schroedinger's Handmaid."

Reading this in 2017 is doubly chilling because the society that has formed doesn't seem so dystopian any more, and seems a real possibility unless someone does prevents the developing totalitarian theocracy.


The Rage of Plum Blossom by Charlotte M. Whitehead
Amazon gives its Prime members who own Kindles the opportunity to download a free book each month.  They are written by lesser known authors.  This was the book I chose a couple of months ago.

Quinn Jones is an attorney living the good life with her successful businessman husband Jordan Chang in a high rise New York apartment. One morning she goes off to work and then receives word that her husband has committed suicide by jumping off the balcony of their apartment.  As she begins to adjust and look at the evidence, she becomes convinced that this was not a suicide, but a murder.  The book traces her search for Jordan's killer, the people she meets along the way who help her, the surprising revelations she uncovers about Jordan's life before she met him, and in the process she begins to come to peace with her husband's death and the special surprise he left for her to give her a reason to go on.

This was an enjoyable light read, with some cliché moments, but mostly kept my interest throughout.


The Guilty by David Baldacci
Will Robie is a professional assassin working for a secret organization within the (?CIA).  On his latest assignment things go wrong, and thought he assassinates his target, he doesn't see the child standing behind him, and the bullet, which does through the victim, kills the child too.  This affects his next kill and causes his handler, Blue Man, realizes he has issues to work out with his past and sends him back to his hometown of Cantrell, Mississippi, to work out problems with his father, a judge who is in jail on murder charges, a man with home Robie has not spoken in more than 20 years.  In the process, a crime is discovered, which leads to a spate of murders all of which in some way point to Robie's past.  In truth, the actual denouement was horrendously complicated and stretched the bounds of credulity a bit, but it was a riveting story, as are all of Baldacci's.  Baldacci is such a good writer!


A Long Road Home: A Memoir by Saroo Brierly
This is the book on which the movie Lion is based.  A five year old boy living in poverty in India, goes to the railway station with his older brother.  The two boys get separated and Saroo ends up locked in a train car that is headed for Calcutta, 1800 miles away.  He does not know his real name, his town or the name of the railway station where I got on the train.  He survives six weeks in the train station before he was picked up and taken a youth home, where conditions are brutal, and eventually to an orphanage from which, after all attempts to find his family fail, he is adopted by a couple from Australia.  He grows up Australian, but never loses the hope of finding his family in India.  How he did it, which took years of searching on the internet, using Google Earth (when it became available--he began his search in the days of dial-up!), and following every inch of the country he could find, he eventually finds a place he thinks is the right place.  It is, and he is ultimately reunited with his family (this is no spoiler, since it is part of the promos for the movie!).  The story is amazing and reads like a novel, though it drags a bit during the years he was searching the Internet for hours every day.


Tupelo by Alec Clayton

Whenever I finish an Alec Clayton novel I again suspect that this good ol' boy raised in the South is secretly a Russian author. His novels are filled with so many characters -- many of whom are called by more than one, or even more than two different names -- that you might as well be reading Dostoyevsky.  Ah...but Dostoyevsky wasn't as much fun.  The problems with this cast of thousands and the episodic nature of the story is that it becomes difficult to care about any one person.  This is the story of a town and its residents, particularly the friends of the narrator, Kevin, who is the identical twin to Evan and with whom he has a life-long love-hate relationship.  It follows the kids through the segregated 50s and the tumultuous 60s and the beginning of the civil rights era.  It shows events through the eyes of kids, who were kinda sorta aware of what was going on, but not really.

What keeps you going is Clayton's style, which flows beautifully.  His descriptions are fun to read.  And if I have any real complaint it is that as a professional writer and newsman, he really, really should have had a better proofreader.  Too many really sloppy grammar and spelling mistakes ("site" when he means "sight", "Evan and I" when he means "Evan and me.")  There aren't a lot of these mistakes (and most occur in the last quarter of the book), but enough to make me cringe when I stumble on them.


I want to grow hair, I want to grow up, I want to go to Boise by Erma Bombeck

I was so depressed about tomorrow's inauguration when I got to the book store, I was slightly nauseous. I decided I needed to read something light to take my mind off of things. Then I saw Erma Bombeck's book on the humor shelf. Who better to cheer me up than Erma? Well, this book about kids and cancer wasn't exactly the funny book I expected, but it wasn't really a downer either. The title refers to what a child, suffering from cancer, said were his/her three wishes.

Bombeck was approached to write an upbeat book about children with cancer. She wasn't sure she could do it until she visited a camp for children with cancer and got to know them. What she has written reminds me of the book "When Someone You Love Has Cancer," by DanaRae Pomeroy. You get to "know" kids with cancer, you get to know their parents, you get a sense of the joy and the tragedy, and you get a feel for how someone who cares can help -- what to do and what not to do. Not Bombeck's usual belly laughs, but a wonderfully thought out and written book (I would have expected nothing less of my hero). And I didn't think of Donald Trump all afternoon.


The Geography of Bliss by Eric Weiner
This has the "or" title of "One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World."  Travel writer Weiner sets out to find the happiest place in the world.  (Spoiler alert:  It's not the U.S., which  ranks 23rd in happiness on world charts. "The United States is not as happy as it is wealthy."

His travels take him far and wide, from his home in Florida to Iceland to India, to Qatar.  No, he didn't discover that happiness was to be found in his own backyard, but he did learn how relative it is and what is happy to one person may not be to another  (given the choice of spending eternity in Iceland or in Hell, for example, Iceland natives chose Hell because at least they would be warm!).  He discovered that wealthy people were no happier than poor people, as a general rule.  He found that the key to happiness was the camaraderie of friends and relatives, and a feeling of love in your life.

He did find Moldova the most unhappy place of all those he visited, and he seems to have found the greatest happiness in Bhutan. He received hate mail from Moldovans after his book came out so maybe they just hide their joy very well.  It did take me forever to finish this book, not because it was not interesting but because somehow I never sat to actually finish it.  I'm glad I did, tho.  It was a fun read and I learned a lot about some countries around the world.


Pronoun by Evan Placey
This is a play about a female-to-male transgendered teen in mid-transition. While the issues that transgendered people, especially young people, encounter are many, this play focuses primarily on the interpersonal relations, with his parents, his sister, and his friends, especially, Josh, his former boyfriend, who is still in love with the girl he dated for so long. This is a powerful play which explores the difference between "tolerance" and "acceptance"

Dean's monologue about tolerance before the school board is powerful and poignant and nicely sums up the whole point of the play. 


Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
This was a crazy long book to have read accidentally!  It has been in my audio queue for a long time and when I recently talked with Walt's sister about a book she was reading by "Jeri's favorite author" I remembered that I had this book by her too, so I started reading it.  It seemed a strange book to have been written by Jeri's favorite author, but I thought maybe it just wasn't her best.  I was almost finished with the book before I found out that Jeri's favorite author is Ann Patchett not Jodi Picoult, but I finished this book anyway.

While the story was good, it just seemed overly long, at 500 pages.  The middle section seemed to drag on and on.  The story centers around Peter, youngest son growing up in the shadow of his talented older brother and bullied by classmates his entire life.  The brother's death in an accident was a terrible trauma for all, and when the bullying escalates, Peter finally loses it, takes a gun and runs rampant throughout the school, killing several of his classmates.

Also important are Josie Cormier, daughter of Alex, the judge who will be assigned to the case, and girlfriend of Matt, one of the shooting victims.  Josie was once Peter's friend, but had turned her back on him when she became Matt's girl, but her testimony may help gets Peter a lighter sentence under a 'battered wife' defense, the first use of such a defense in a bullying case.

This is a study in how a small town is torn apart when a tragedy likes this takes place, examines bullying and its effect on the victim, and looks at the emotional effect of friendships.  The ending came out of the blue and was completely unexpected.

Now I'm going to have to check out Ann Patchett!



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