Friday, November 13, 2015

Anya's Ghost by Vera Brosgol

What do you get when you mix a disgruntled teenager, a 90-year old ghost, and a murder mystery? A pretty great graphic novel, is what.

For almost a year, Katie has been reading graphic novels as quickly as I can drive them home from the library to her. I've flipped through a couple, but this is the first one I've finished. I can definitely see the appeal. It took me about an hour to read and I hurried up to finish before picking her up at the bus stop - I knew I wouldn't stand a chance once she got her hands on it.

Knowing she hadn't read it yet, I found myself wanting to censor the content or, maybe, not even give it to her in the first place. Some of the themes are above her current experiences - at least, I hope they are! There is smoking, underage drinking, and they use the word whore a couple times - mama cringe moment. But I'm glad I pushed past that instinct and finished the book because I realized the author had to take the story certain places to bring it back round to its beautiful ending. I trust my kid. I remember reading Judy Blume and feeling like she was the only one in the world who understood. Stories spoke to me as a child and I liked knowing I could read anything and explore topics on the pages that would be too scary to try out in real life.

I find myself thrilled my daughter is going to read this book (she started in the car for the five minute drive home.) It says things that every teenager (and tween) could stand to hear at least a hundred times. But it says it in a way that will be heard - not in parent-lecture form. Graphic novels like this weren't around when I was her age, but great stories were. Anya's Ghost would have made my young self happy - it makes my, ahem, older self pretty happy too.

Monday, November 09, 2015

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

So, I know it's been a while since I've been on the blog.  That doesn't mean I haven't been reading, it just means I've been too lazy to blog about it. But now I finally have a book that I think a lot of other people will like, not just me. And in her defense, mom, who was the one who recommended it to me in the first place.

When mom and dad were down recently for a visit, I kept talking about The Haunting of Hill House (which I really should blog about because it's the only book I remember reading that made me squeal aloud in fear.) One of the things I really liked about that book was the unreliable narrator. It made the whole experience even creepier - I wasn't sure what was actually happening because the main character was all batsh*t and stuff.

The Girl on the Train is similar in that the main character isn't very reliable about telling her story - mostly because she doesn't remember large swaths of time when she blacks out due to her alcoholism. But she's likable and interesting and from the get-go I wanted to know what really happened to the missing woman that aforementioned "girl on the train" eye-stalked every day on her way to and from an imaginary job.

Another interesting device the author used (besides unreliable narration) was giving three characters a first-person voice and limiting their narration to "morning" and "evening" snapshots of their days. This made me feel like I, too, was on a train and sneaking salacious peeks at their lives like a creepy gawker. Very nice literary style.

Thanks for the great recommendation, mom! If anyone else out there likes a good mystery, check this one out. I'll be curious if you're able to figure out whodunit very far before the end of the book. What a fun ride!

Thursday, October 08, 2015

In the Kingdom of Ice by Hampton Sides

Last week, in "the Martian", we had a science fiction book based on science fact of a single man stranded on Mars and trying to stay alive.  In "In the Kingdom of Ice", there is a true story of a voyage in the 1880s to determine if there really was a warm water sea at the north pole that could be reached by breaching an outer barrier of ice further south.

If the second story seems more fiction than the first, you are in for a treat.  A portion of learnered men  in North America and Europe were convinced that the North Pole was an open sea year round, due to a number of theories such as tunnels from deep in the earth (maybe the earth was hollow) feeding warm air or water to the pole and warm currents in the Pacific and Atlantic shooting under the ice encountered as you sailed further north and resurfacing at the pole.  The same New York newspaper that had Stanley find Livingston in Africa decided to fund a Navy expedition into the polar ice cap to determine if the warm water pole theory was true.

The newspaper owner funded the whole thing, including buying the ship, giving it to the navy, funding the refit in a west coast navy yard and buying all the supplies.  The ship sailed north, eventually became trapped in the ice for two years and then sunk.  The crew dragged everything they could south trying for the coast of Russia.  The story was a world-wide sensation at the time and the captain and crew were honored as heros.

Everything in this book is well documented and the story is compelling.  The tale is interesting enough at the beginning and by the end, I stayed up late to get through the last 70 harrowing pages.  It's that good.

Thursday, October 01, 2015

The Martian by Andy Weir

A year ago one of the more tech-interested readers of our book club recommended this book.  It didn't make the voting cut but the book has become a best seller and a movie, so it was worth giving a try.

The author is a computer programmer and space fan who made a hobby of understanding how you could send a manned mission to Mars.  Once he was into it, he wondered how you would deal with some disaster there involving the crew.  It led to him posting a story for free on line of a single crew member being stranded and left for dead.  That got enough interest that he responded to reader requests to have a kindle version.  Now it's a best seller in kindle and regular print, much to the surprise of the author.  It's not your normal version of an author's start in the business.

Science fiction has all kinds of angles, but usually involves an imagining of a technology that doesn't exist today (warp drive or flying cars) but at its best still has humans acting as we know them today but dealing with a different context.  Because of Mr. Weir's extreme interest in the science, this story of a crew being the third to reach Mars, experiencing conditions requiring a quick evacuation with one of the crew apparently dying in the process, and that crewman surviving thereafter is as close to the known science of space travel as is available today.  It is both a strength and weakness of the book.

The story is a good one that moves right along.  You really like the stranded crewman and admire his ability to survive under extreme conditions.  There are no bad guys here, just people acting as you hope they would when faced with the terrible knowledge that a person is stranded alone far away with no immediate vision of how he can survive.  If you are interested in things technological, then the many descriptions of the science that allows him to move forward will make the story more believable.  If you are not interested, then the story still works, but you may skip a lot of the technical description.  Either way, it's a quick read and a good adventure story.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Elephant Company by Vici Constantine Croke

A Boston Globe blurb described this as "...blending biography, history and wildlife biology ... [in an] account of [Billy] Williams, who earned the sobriquet 'Elephant Bill' and his unusual bond with the largest land mammals on earth."

That's a good description of this interesting book, starting with a WWI veteran who went to Burma in 1920 to make his fortune.  He always had a strong attachment to animals and especially looked forward to the prospect of working with elephants.  The elephants were used to harvest teak in a reasonably sustainable fashion, which means clear cutting was not an option.  The various crews would take individual trees in a jungle setting, skid them using elephants to haul them through the jungle to dry creeks and river beds and wait for the monsoon rains to wash them down to areas where they could be rafted to saw mills.

The majority focus of the book is how strongly he bonded with these highly intelligent animals and how it eventually led to him using the elephants to rescue many people fleeing the Japanese takeover of Burma in WWII.  The book is at its best when describing the elephants, the environment, the actions of harvesting the teak and the interactions of the elephant handlers and the varied complex tasks the elephants accomplished.  The book also verged into what the elephants were thinking and feeling, especially in the presence of Billy Williams, and that may have been true, but went a bit overboard in attributing a sort of ESP between those involved.  Still, given some of the actions of the elephants, you can't really fault the author for ascribing almost mystical powers when describing these animals.

This is a very enjoyable story and a fun read.  Everyone in the family would like this book.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

Just like the previous posting, reading this book was an attempt to have a fun read that's not too long at the end of Summer.  If you've read the other posts on the blog about Murakami stories, you might think this would be too complex or out of the mainstream for that kind of read.  That is not the case with this recent (Aug., 2014) addition to Mr. Murakami's varied selection of stories.

Tsukuru was a member of 5 students who were close friends in high school.  Their personalities meshed nicely and complemented the strengths and lesser abilities of each of the members to the point that they were almost one complete unit who continuously hung out together.  The four other members had names that can be interpreted to be a different color, while Tsukuru had no such association and was thus "colorless."  During his second year of college, the group suddenly shunned him for reasons Tsukuru could not understand and he became profoundly depressed and withdrawn.  Over the years he never forgot the relationship yet never contacted the members until events led him to get to the bottom of the mystery.

While there was little if any of Mr. Murakami's otherworldly parallel levels of existence or manipulation of events in this existence thru dreams and events in the other level, the story should still be very satisfying for Murakami fans and for the broader reading audience as well.  The story is told simply enough and yet it's resolution (to a degree) made for a touching tale and a beautiful look at the friendships of adolescence and how they do or do not linger into adulthood.  This is a very worthwhile read.

Monday, September 07, 2015

Roseanna by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo

After reading some long or mediocre books lately, I looked for something both good and not too long.  When reading a review of the latest in the "Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" series, the reviewer mentioned other Swedish authors, including a duo that changed the genre with their 10 book series starting in the early '60s with Roseanna.

This is crime fiction at its best.  You have a taciturn detective with a varied and capable detective crew who solve crimes without DNA, massive gun battles, or 1000 yard rifle shots with pinpoint accuracy.  In this first story, they don't even know the name of the victim, her nationality, or where she was murdered.  All they know is she was found in the water by a lock being dredged to improve boat traffic.

Through diligent police work, the name appears, which leads to the boat, which leads onward to more understanding of events.  Each character is drawn well and believably, the crime makes some sense in the end, and requires no suspension of reality to make the plot work. The writing is sparse and clean.

Perhaps after reading at least 100 detective stories over the years, I've gotten a little PTSD from the trend towards escalating horrific crimes and those who solve them thru lucky outcomes.  This police procedural may seem a bit quaint, but it deserves to stand alongside the best of Ross McDonald, Raymond Chandler, James Lee Burke, and James Ellroy.  If you like a good mystery, this is a great read.