Tuesday, December 31, 2019

The Book of Dust Volume I: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

First, I have to say that it was fantastic to be back in Lyra's Oxford once again. I read His Dark Materials about 15 years ago and was blown away by the trilogy. It was like the best version of all the fantastical novels from my childhood. The worlds, themes, and personal journeys -- all excellent.

To be welcomed back with a prequel was very exciting. Finding out how Lyra got to Jordan College to grow up (a bit) in safety was not the story I thought it would be. The circuitous route she took to travel a few blocks is full of adventure, navigated by two very brave children devoted to the infant Lyra. 

Both passionate and overwhelmingly determined, Malcolm and Alice stare down the dangers of a massive flood, perilous magic, and one crazy mad man to safely deliver Lyra to her future.

When Lyra is brought to stay with the nuns next door to the Trout Hotel, young Malcolm is curious. Her origins are a hot topic for gossip and Malcolm's observant nature ultimately ties his fate to hers. Things heat up as more and more people come looking for and asking about the baby. As a natural judge of character and a pursuer of the truth, Malcolm assesses who's on the side of good just in time. An epic, somewhat supernatural flood descends on England forcing Malcolm to initiate a rescue mission in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage, with Lyra and his friend Alice.

With their combined wits and bravery the two children, with Lyra in tow, navigate a long journey that takes them through the flood waters of Oxford straight on to London. Natural and supernatural dangers fill their path, but they're not without friends to offer support. All forces push them onward in a fast-paced, intense journey full of battles, rescues, and an awakening into adulthood that Pullman frequently explores.

Fans of His Dark Materials will be happily convinced Pullman hasn't lost his connection to this world with his latest book. Newcomers can dive in here as well without any confusion. It's another enthralling piece to Lyra's story. Read it!

Friday, December 20, 2019

The Big Oyster: History of the Half Shell by Mark Kurlansky

Second book club book #7

I'm getting a little ahead of myself for book club, but that's mostly because so many library books I have on hold are about to become available. It's a crazy cycle, but I'm so thankful for our public library system.

This book is nothing if not straightforward. Among recipes, famous first-hand experiences, and a slow move through history, we're treated to the life of the NYC oyster. Once a plentiful and popular food for the masses, this sad tale concludes with the oyster's departure. The driving force -- pseudo spoiler alert -- is pollution, and humanity's lack of foresight when it came to dumping just about anything categorized as waste into our waterways.

A thorough account, what's most interesting is that oysters have only been the decadent indulgence we know today for a short time. For a longer line in history, oysters were a food that united classes. It was just as easily stewed and placed on a poor family's table as it was served raw in a fancy, French-inspired restaurant. 

Beginning with colonization, man's connection to the oyster is tighter than you'd expect, so it's interesting to learn more about the evolution of that relationship, narrowed down within one area, New York City. It also turns out, oysters are pretty fascinating creatures in their own right. Kurlansky does a good job of weaving unique oyster characteristics into the history of an emerging New York City.

It's an interesting journey for such a small animal and such a quick bite of food, so it's also an interesting read. But, if you're not a foodie, history buff, or New York enthusiast, it might not be the book for you. There were definite moments where you felt like you were reading a Melville novel, bogged down by the latin classifications for these shelled delights (only Melville does it with whales -- Thar she blows!) Overall, this was an enjoyable read, and I learned a lot about something I knew absolutely nothing about.

Monday, December 9, 2019

This Will Only Hurt a Little by Busy Philipps

I love a good storyteller. This shouldn't really surprise anyone, but mostly, I love people who can make up a good story. I find, often, that people fall a little short when they're retelling their own stories. This hasn't stopped me from gulping down a memoir every now and again. Mostly by a celebrity, mostly be a female. Even if the storytelling isn't amazing, the insight into a life completely not my own is entertaining. But, this book is different. Busy Philipps is an incredible storyteller, and a lot of her life doesn't feel so foreign. If I can't connect it to my own life, I see similarities between the experiences of people within my own circle.

The unique thing about Busy is that she's not afraid to tell you about all of it. She's a real, three-dimensional person in her memoir, hiding nothing. Her insecurities, her struggles, her doubts -- all are displayed in an artfully rambling style that gets you from late childhood to yesterday. It's fantastic. With a style that's all her own, you get to see a real person who's struggling to find work, be a mom, have a meaningful marriage, all while working in TV and movies now and again. Her celebrity is second to her emotional journey. Her acting credentials, a minor component of what makes her an interesting and complex person with a story to tell.

I have to admit that I picked up this book after having watched a few episodes of her talk show, Busy Tonight. The tone was different and I wanted to see if the book could capture that. Busy just seemed unapologetic and so confident. Not having Instagram, I had no idea about her presence there, but I liked what I saw on screen. Now, I like her even more after learning about her journey to this exact spot.

In my rudimentary estimation, Busy is a cool chic who's done a lot and seen even more. Her approach to the world, hardships and all, comes with a special clarity that gives her great cred to be a fantastic storyteller. This is a read I'd highly recommend. 

Sunday, November 17, 2019

An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

Second book club book #6

This was a good story, but I don't have any overwhelming feelings toward it. I liked the book, but nothing stands out for me to attach to and rave about. 

The novel takes the reader through the marriage of Roy and Celestial. It starts off regular enough, until Roy gets accused and convicted of a crime that sends him to jail for up to 12 years. All the emotions that come with being separated from your spouse, in an impossible situation, come through not just between Roy and Celestial, but the other people close to them -- parents, best friends, and other relatives all struggle to interpret what happens to a relationship in this situation. They also aren't uncomfortable offering their opinions when things aren't going the "right" way.

I can't imagine being separated from my spouse for years at a time. It would be so hard, regardless of what forces were keeping us apart. The struggle of having to decide what trajectory to take your life on when you don't have your partner as a consultant would be so rough, and you really feel all that in this book. The whole story feels extremely real, and is enhanced by the assortment of characters who come into play. It's also convenient that nobody seems to be exactly on the same page, so you get every point of view, leading up to the idea that maybe there is no such thing as a typical, "American Marriage."

This book could have gone in a completely different direction than it did. Because the characters are African American, the story could have been told as a social commentary. For me, that piece of the story, which is very valid, took a backseat to the emotional experiences of the characters. Through feelings, we're drawn into the lives of these characters, greatly impacted by the wrong that's out in the world.

For me, the point of this book is that an actual American Marriage is whatever you make of it to find happiness. It's not a marriage certificate or having kids, but rather finding that gut-wrenching love that almost puts you in the grave beside your spouse. It can even be found in the practical movements in everyday life. It's about surviving and finding where you really fit, not about forcing yourself into an ideal image that's really more about settling. Roy and Celestial go through some very tough times together, but in the end it helps them find their true happiness, so maybe the journey is what a relationship is all about, and marriage is irrelevant.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

After you finish rolling your eyes because the main characters are named Jo and Bethie (Hi Little Women, we get it,) get into this book. It's a great trip from the 1950's through to today as the lives of two sisters move through the world as it changes around them. 

The feminist theme is strong in this book, but it's primarily viewed through the situations the sisters experience. It feels more true-to-life than the more preachy tone that can occur. Although, by the end of the book, we're stuck with this blatant reflection on the woman's place that is definitely more in-your-face than the message is anywhere else in the book.

Those little issues aside, this is a great story of what women go through, and how real the struggle can be to find yourself among all the expectations and responsibilities flying at us. The book touches on so many central, feminine issues that aren't talked about enough -- family relationships, female relationships, abuse, the mom struggle, sexual identity, settling, self-care. These characters are very busy moving from one thing to the next or struggle with more than one issue at a time, but it's not contrived. It may be predictable, but it's natural for these characters to move through the phases of life Weiner lays out for them.

What I liked most about these sisters was the yin and yang of their stories. One stepped forward while the other got entangled and vice versa. Neither of them had it perfect, but with a sisterly connection, they made it through. As they age and bring more people into the family, you continue to see representations of the female struggle, but you also gain some insight into the fact that true female happiness is when you live your best life, make choices that bring your joy, and put yourself higher up on the priority list, even as you care for others. 

Moving through the decades in this book, underneath the female lense, was comfortable and emotional. I really liked and enjoyed it, even if I did wish the characters had different names. I highly suggest this one!

Monday, October 28, 2019

Recursion by Blake Crouch

Book club book #8

I used to read books like this all the time. My Dad and I would pass volumes of Robin Cook, Nelson DeMille, and Michael Crichton back and forth. Then I stopped. I took a break to do some rereading and delve into the classics. I had kids and reading became harder to do. I missed the genre of world-ending thrillers, where real science goes a step too far and an emotionally scarred detective jumps into the fray. I'm glad to be back.

Recursion was a great re-entry.

Helena is the scientist. Her work in memory mapping to help alzheimer patients goes awry when it opens the door to time travel. Barry is the detective, mourning the loss of his teenage daughter and his marriage. False Memory Syndrome is the disease, appearing one day, randomly. People are somehow being given a second set of memories that never happened. It makes many crazy since they're living two lives, but only within their own mind. There's no known cause or cure, until Barry and Helena team up.

Barry starts poking around and Helena realizes what she's created. Then, it's a rush to save the world in a way that won't ripple out these false memories, connected to timelines that technically never happened. Timelines that lead to mass suicide and worldly destruction. Barry and Helena try over and over until the very attempt to solve the problem becomes more of a struggle than watching the world end over and over.

This is a smart and intense read that had me carrying my Kindle around the house to read every spare minute I had. The struggle feels real. The characters are complex, flawed, and people I wanted to know. It was a painfully realistic look at how humanity could conceivably destroy itself.

It was great to feel so vested in a story that was well-written and well-thought. It has been a while for me. I highly recommend this book for a cold night's read by the fire this holiday season. It will be well worth the time.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Judgement Day: The Science of Discworld IV by Terry Pratchett

Rounding out this series of books, the fourth volume in Pratchett's set combines yet another humorous and crazy Discworld tale with real science and thought-provoking analyses of our world. This time there's even a trial, of sorts, as the ownership of Roundworld (aka our universe) comes under dispute.

More philosophical in nature than the other volumes, this is a book about thought and perception. It looks at a lot of science, but also delves into how the human ways of thinking have shaped our beliefs. From religion to how we interpret scientific facts, there's always the nagging feeling that certain questions simply don't have a "right" answer. 

Conviction is closely explored as well as the book asks if things are a certain way because we've created specific rules to defend our point. Does G-d exist because we've got a book that says so or did we write the book to support a belief that something specific made our world? It's a valid question even as I have my own convictions. I realize that most people disagree about some topic or at some level, so how do you prove what you can only theorize about? You can't. Even with science, if it's just theoretical, you can craft any equation to support an opinion and label it as fact. That is, until someone else comes along with a different formula and completely changes the game.

It's a fascinating way to approach just about anything.

While all this heavy thinking is going on, we get a good dose of silly on Discworld. Pratchett takes these serious questions about proof and thought and belief and converts them into an argument about the ownership of Roundworld. Even though the professors of Unseen University know Roundworld is their creation, because they were there when the world began, a religious group is laying claim to the universe because it proves their belief that the world is round. Discworld is actually flat, and it's a known and verified fact, but that doesn't stop this group from daring to think differently.

Does believing in something give you ownership over it? That's an interesting question, and in the end the ultimate decider for whether Roundworld returns to its spot on an academic wizard's shelf or becomes a tangible symbol of an entire religion. It's also something to think about in relation to our own universe, which we can never actually understand since we can't see the big picture. What else is really out there? Can we even predict it? The conversation could continue infinitely, unlike the decision about Roundworld. That gets an exciting conclusion, one that even involves a decent chase.

Before reading this book, make sure you hit the series from the start. The books do reference each other.

Sunday, September 29, 2019

Circe by Madeline Miller

Second book club book #5

This was definitely not what I expected. Accustomed to the stories of other characters famous in this same time period, Odysseus or Achilles, I imagined something, well more epic. Instead, this is a telling of a single life, memoir style. You learn about one immortal person, Circe, in the most intimate detail. You see her hardships, her loves, her quest of self-discovery. Most of it happens in the confines of just one island.

Yes, the elements of an epic are deftly included. Circe takes a few trips, battles some monsters, faces a god or two. She fights to survive and feels great joy and great sorrow. Her immortal life takes many twists and turns until she finally gets where she belongs. It's more of an epic journey toward self-discovery rather than a voyage where the "hero" completes a specific series of tasks. There's no golden fleece at the end of this tale, but there's a strong, smart woman who finds her voice and places herself into her ideal situation to live out her life happily.

The more I distance myself from the story and reflect, the more I like this book. Circe has so much humanity in her right from the start. She's a rule-breaker, but also the product of a family with absentee parents who don't care for her enough when they are present. She's the product of immortals, who Miller paints as very flawed right from the start. Yet, even with this genealogy, Circe seems to naturally rebel from those forces pushing against her. Her natural compassion makes her unique among the gods. It gets her in trouble too.

Banished to her own island, you expect Circle to spend eternity alone, but that's never the case. Even without the island animals who become her companions, she has visitors. Gods and humans alike dot Circe's life in a way that leave a lasting impact. They mold her impressions on who she wants to be and who she wants to be with as she interacts, connects, and fights with humans, gods, and goddesses. Her life is rough in a more extreme way than your typical person, but her internal struggles are very relatable.

This is really a book about a woman and how her experiences shape her. About how she finds courage to be herself. It's epic in its own way and presents a powerful tale that takes you on a journey that goes in unexpected directions, with a very comfortable conclusion.

Monday, September 2, 2019

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Book club book #7

This is not what you normally get from a post-apocalyptic book. With less focus on the panic which would naturally occur if a flu epidemic killed off almost all of humanity, Station Eleven is about survival and hope. Zeroing in on one string of interconnected people and the need for art to remain in the world, when almost all else is lost, this book follows a travelling caravan 20 years later. Their purpose is to bring symphonic masterpieces and Shakespearean plays to the remaining clusters of civilization along the northern US/Canada border.

Everyday comforts are gone. People no longer live in traditional homes, they group together in fast-food restaurants, gas stations, airports. Some have chosen to forget the past, let what they've lost go, while others consider it a time to honor and remember.

A loose connection between main characters is established through the life of Arthur Leander, a Hollywood actor. The unique experiences of these connected characters before, during, and after the apocalypse form an interesting narrative of the many directions life can go upon surviving this worse-case scenario. Sadly, Arthur dies the night the flu begins its horrible spread, so we only get to know him through flashbacks. He leaves behind Clark, his best friend, a few ex-wives, a son, Jeevan, the man who tries to save him, and Kirsten, a little girl sharing the stage with Arthur in a production of King Lear. Arthur dies in front of her, on stage, during the show. Each character is touched in some way by Arthur as well as the two copies of two issues of the comic series, Station Eleven, created by his first wife. None of these survivors live out the same life, but they end up intersecting within the story, though not always knowing they're connected.

Using the past to show the reader why these characters belong in the same story, along with the remnants of an old life they continue to hold onto, the story illustrates how one person's life can impact a series of choices made by others, driving their futures. It's a story that rewards the hopeful. People that don't give up and don't try to manipulate the system, but rather live in it to the best of their ability. It rewards kindness and true community -- survival in a way that supports others and invites moments of joy into a vastly altered life. It doesn't deny the existence of hardship, but refuses to allow humanity to get bogged down in the bad.

What survives after the world as we know it ends? What's going to make it above all else? Hope. We can all hope, through this story, that it's hope.

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Becoming by Michelle Obama

I have to lower my expectations to say I really enjoyed this book. While they weren't insanely high, I've heard Michelle Obama speak. I've seen the way she acts. She was the first First Lady I ever felt connected to as a person. I find her to be a poised, intelligent, kind, and genuine person. She was an accessible public figure and she was and still is cool.

While a lot of these traits come through in the book, along with her inspiring commitment to some very important causes, I couldn't help but feel like she was talking out loud, in written format, rather than writing a book. This created a disjointed feeling in the narrative for me. Although the flow was chronological, sections within chapters didn't easily connect, and transitions were few and far between.

The best part is the book takes you through the dynamics of Michelle's entire life. You see how each stage added onto the previous to move her down her own path. Even though she eventually must ride as a passenger on the path of someone else, she quickly makes even that situation her own. I love how she refuses to do things the way people did them before. I like that she pushed the envelope in the name of normalcy and never traded her compassion and natural self for diplomacy. 

Given a deep look behind the curtain, it was nice how prominently the Obama kids and Michelle's family featured in the book, and how little Barack's own experiences made an appearance. I appreciate that Michelle kept things solely from her perspective. What I didn't love was that her story gets interrupted by forced flourishes of language, smilies, metaphors, etc. You suddenly feel like you're reading an editor's words and not the author's, whose straightforward approach to storytelling is distinctive. 

Aside from the writing issues, I'm glad I read this book. It's an inspiring story about a woman who found normal even with it was almost completely out of sight. It's about someone who took their position seriously in the world and used it to speak out about her own passions and help those people who touched her heart the most deeply. I loved her connection to groups of people whose collective voices weren't loud enough to make a big noise on their own. She made the noise with them and for them, and that's important.

I only wish it was written differently. Michelle is an engaging and dynamic speaker. On stage and in interviews she has impact, but I kept tripping over the narrative while reading her. I still do recommend this book since it's a unique life story, but be prepared for a looser connection between sections, and more telling than showing as you learn about this incredible woman.

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien

Second Book Club, Book #4

This book was beautifully written. Whether or not you like novels within the military genre (I usually don't,) this is a must-read for the way the author weaves language together to create the perfect flow. 

Poignant words and powerful stories create a snapshot of the Vietnam War. Life over there, loss over there, survival over there. The emotional overload of war for any one person. A complete journey into war, from this most unique perspective. The realities of Vietnam aren't necessarily within the stories shared here, but the real feelings and fears, ups and downs are conveyed. You see into the puzzling experience war was for a young man, forced into a situation where the art of survival vastly changes.

As a collection of stories, The Things They Carried isn't about what actually happens to this one troop of soldiers, but rather what feelings evoked in you as the reader through your experience. O'Brien even goes so far to question the truthfulness of his own stories while he's telling them. What's true is of so little importance when compared with what was felt, what feelings never go away.

I think the point of this book is the same point that all war stories should have -- there's no moral. There's nothing to learn here about history or the human experience within war. We already know wars are horrible, and that Vietnam was a particular kind of harsh. We know soldiers came back traumatized and damaged in ways that an entire lifetime may not repair. What we're given here is what's often missing during war -- the connection between those really experiencing it and those continuing to live at home. Reaching out through the emotional baggage they're forced to carry into war and then bring home, we're given unique insight into this experience. It almost puts the residual effect of war, from a soldier's perspective, on a level, emotional playing field.

O'Brien's beautiful language and expertly composed stories didn't help me understand war, instead it opened the tiniest window into what it felt like to be there. That level of access, even through fiction, made such an impression and brought together an amazing read.

Monday, July 22, 2019

The Murmur of Bees by Sofía Segovia

Book club book #6

I wish I was fluent in Spanish so I could have read this in its original language. As a beautiful story in English, I bet it really shines in its native tongue. As is, Murmur of Bees is an intense and emotional tale of an agricultural family in Mexico at the early part of the 20th Century. Part of the wealthier sect as land owners, the trajectory of their lives is forever altered by the discovery of a newborn boy, left by the side of the road, covered in bees.

Adopted into the network of workers, servants, and the boss' family, Simonopio and his bees settle into their own little space. He's a special boy who see things, feels things, understands his life is leading up to a very specific moment.

While we wait for that moment, time passes and huge things happen. The Spanish influenza ravages Mexico and takes a massive swipe at the population. Farming in this particular region transforms with the introduction of orange trees. Land ownership becomes a high-risk occupation as government agencies seize what they want, no questions asked. So many forces push against a successful and healthy life, but with Simonopio's help, his family thrives.

All along, Simonopio continues to grow and wait for his moment, which comes alongside a great sadness. He does what he must, sacrificing much in his continued devotion to the family that cares for him. Without his intervention, the family would have had a history full of suffering instead of just moments of intense strife.

This was a beautifully told story by an unlikely narrator, who isn't even born until halfway through the book. His deep insight into his family allows you to really understand the emotional toll life takes during this time in Mexico's history, along with understanding what some felt they had to do -- good and bad -- just to get through it all.

The author draws on the real history of Monterrey, Mexico and the small, surrounding towns, as the backdrop for a little magic, much love, and a level of familial devotion that creates a great read. The suspense, slowly woven in and built up, makes it a page-turner as well. The payoff is perfect too. You really do have to wait until the end for complete closure of this powerful tale. 

A little slow at the start, the book quickly picks up. You'll have a hard time putting it down before you know it as you get to know each member of the Morales family, whether bound by blood or by the land. It's an exciting read and one I highly recommend.

Saturday, June 29, 2019

The Power of One by Bryce Courtenay

Second Book Club, Book #3

It takes a commitment to get all the way through this book. Five hundred pages isn't necessarily long, but this book is the definition of dense. This is one of the most detailed accounts of a single life I've seen. The sheer volume of life, Peekay, the main character, lives before reaching adulthood is overwhelming.

It's more than just what happens to Peekay throughout his childhood that got me, it's what he accomplishes. Born in South Africa as WWII settles in on the world, as a white, English person, he struggles with his place. He's hated by the Boer or Afrikaner whites, yet held as a superior to the black community, often referred to as The People. Each sect speaks their own variety of languages, honors their own superstitions, and manifests their own hate and prejudice. Peekay learns quickly that language helps bridge the gap and uses it to reach into the lives of others in a way that ultimately proves productive. He uses it to spearhead prison reform in his own town and help educate men in poor communities. It's also what makes him different, exposing him to pain, suffering, and abuse compounded by his heritage.

Starting out ignorant to the world, thrust into a community of young, aggressive boys, survival is hard for Peekay. Pain taints his early years at boarding school as he questions the best strategy for survival, but he makes it. With the help of some very intelligent, supportive, insightful, and kind individuals, Peekay learns how to not only get through the complicated life in South Africa, but how to thrive and inspire others. Education, compassion, and boxing end up serving as his tools, along with a willingness to challenge the system. As he gets older, Peekay becomes a symbol of a life where the lines between races blur and people help one another.

Through great sadness and great success, and a little luck, Peekay finds the power of one, the courage to be different and think for himself. It puts him into position to face down his biggest challenge and overcome his deepest pain. While the route he takes may be a little questionable in the end, this way of thinking sustains him through his childhood in a way that opens doors for his future.

This is a powerful book, exploring race in South Africa within the life of a single individual. A little disjointed in parts, with an ending I'm still on the fence about, if you've the time to put into this book, it's worth a read. I'd suggest getting a friend to read it with you though. I feel as if it's the kind of book you'll want to talk about as you go.

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Calypso by David Sedaris

Book club book #5

This is the first Sedaris book I've read, although they're a favorite to listen to on car trips. That being said, this is probably the first Sedaris book to have my undivided attention.

As a person, I love Sedaris' quirkiness and the ability he has to tell a really emotional story between the lines of his overly-comfortable-with-each-other family. He capitalizes on the sentiment of the old journalism lesson: Nobody wants to read a story about a dog biting the mailman, but if the mailman bites the dog, that's news!

Sedaris takes emotions we all feel -- loss, fear of aging, family strife, mental illness, obsession -- and wraps it up in a package of unconventional elements and silly sibling banter for truly entertaining tales.

Almost all of the stories in Calypso happen in, or include a visit to, Sedaris' vacation home. Aptly named the Sea Section, it's located on the Emerald Isle in North Carolina. It serves as a meeting place for his family since they've all spread out across the globe. Sedaris' homebase is in England. All of the stories illicit a smile or two, but my favorites revolve around the obsession contrived by the desire to please your FitBit and the idea that you could feed a benign tumor to a snapping turtle. 

The most touching element to the stories in this book is Sedaris' kindness. You can see it throughout his stories as he picks up trash in his hometown, buys a second home large enough for his entire family, interacts with fans while on tour, and cares for a wild fox, even though he's been told not to by his partner, Hugh. While the kindness isn't all-encompassing, Sedaris is vulnerable enough to show you where he might have slipped up, where he took the easier route of being cruel when maybe he didn't need to be, but more so there is his kind heart.

I don't really laugh when I read Sedaris. Classified as humor, his stories make me smile. They make me happy as I find the common thread that connects his experiences to my life, and that someone could tell that commonality in such an entertaining way. I don't think he's for everyone, but I do think he's worth a read if only to realize we all go through it, it's always awkward, and you're not the only one not totally comfortable in your life.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Time's Convert by Deborah Harkness

This is the fourth book, connected to an amazing series -- The All Souls Trilogy.

They've even turned it into a TV series, named, I think, after the first book. I'd be watching it if it wasn't on yet another, separate, streaming service. Anyway, start with A Discovery of Witches and go through the original trilogy. They're each better than Time's Convert. You also won't know who anyone is in this book without getting to know the characters within the other novels.

That being said, when you finish the trilogy, don't feel compelled to move on to this volume. It's disappointing because absolutely nothing happens. All the dire action and tense moments you have come to expect are absent. Instead, Time's Convert gives you a heavily-detailed account of one vampire transformation coupled with a robust history lesson in revolution. It's interesting. I liked the history. I liked learning the backstory of Marcus, a vampire with a central role in the first three books. There's also a little added insight into the lives of the main characters we previously followed -- a powerful witch and a really old vampire, but we're up in everyone's heads too much. And, nothing is happening! All the rash behavior, desperation, and fearful worry about the future is heavily muted by quick, benign defiance that's honestly a little boring.

As Marcus waits for his future vampire-mate Phoebe to move through the infancy stage of converting to a vampire, he shares his history. It's not something vampires often tell, opting to keep the details of their living lives to themselves. Marcus' warmblooded life began amid the American Revolution where his natural calling in medicine served a great many soldiers. His history also has dark moments though. Beginning with a horrible, but necessary act while alive, his story as a young vampire moves through moments of great passion, to youthful rashness, to sadness. Throughout the telling of his tale, Marcus struggles with being separated from his mate, who's having her own trouble adjusting to her new life. You'd never think of all the complications the conversion can create for a person.

Watching over both Marcus and Phoebe are members of the De Clermont family, which include Matthew and his witchy wife Diana, busy with their twin children. Experiencing their own growing pains of sorts, Diana and Matthew struggle with the best way to raise their children, who are exhibiting special gifts of their own, some not so easy to control.

I highly enjoy this world as a whole and really love the deep historical dives Harkness takes in her books. You can feel her settings as if you're there, no matter what era or country the characters are in, but that doesn't replace action. I just needed a little more.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple

Second Book Club, Book #2

This book made it into the rotation because it was on a list of "humorous" titles. I think that's a misnomer. It's not a funny book. You don't laugh. It's over-the-top, absurd, and silly enough to make you wonder what's going to happen next. It is not, however, what I'd call humorous.

Eventually, Bernadette, acclaimed architect/artist, denying her creative talent while Seattle suburbia seems to be swallowing her whole, disappears. Before that though, we meet a complicated woman, wife, and mom. Her husband is something of a tech genius. Her daughter is a well-adjusted teenager with a heart condition. They also have a dog, and a house that's literally returning to the earth with every invading raindrop and blueberry bramble. This is ironic, since Bernadette is well-known for an amazing home she once created that only used materials within a twenty-mile radius of the construction site. However, she's left that all behind to posture as a bit of a crazy lady.

Of course, she would look crazy compared to the parents of the private school her daughter, Bee, attends. They exemplify the stereotypical, social-climbing, gossip-hounds who must give off the impression of perfection to a point that's painful to me. At one point, Bee slaps one of them, and I cheered!

Now, I've only just set the scene, but craziness ensues with an improbability factor bouncing off the charts. This tiny bit of Seattle goes a little off the deep end and Bernadette runs out on what is supposed to be an intervention for her mental health. With a level of determination only a child can have, and plenty of resources, Bee plots the trip she just knows will lead her back to her mother, her best friend. Will it work? How much absurdity will have to take place first? That's what makes this book a fun read.

Maybe you laugh after you read it...because of how outrageous it all is...

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens

Book club book #4

Although a little contrived in parts, Where the Crawdads Sing focuses on the life of an extremely complex character and the misconceptions people, in general, have about a person based on their environment. 

Flashing primarily through a single decade (the 1950's,) a pretty typical small town, along the edge of a North Carolina marshland, exists as you'd expect it. The handsomest boy also happens to be the football star, the diner is the best place for gossip, and tales of a wild girl, living alone in the marsh, populates local lore. She's real, The Marsh Girl, but I wouldn't call her wild.

Living out on the marsh, Kya is slowly abandoned by her whole family. Ignorant in many ways due to lack of schooling and human contact, she's smarter than you think. Right until the end of the book, the extent of her intelligence surprises. 

Owens takes you through Kya's entire life. Focusing mainly on her transition to adulthood, you watch as she becomes more and more self-sufficient. You meet the people Kya deems worthy to allow into her world. There aren't many, but as with anybody, some are genuine and good, some make mistakes and repent, and others are devious. Unfortunately, almost everyone lets her down, moving on while she stays still.

Adapting to life out in nature, Kya thrives, but being separated from the town creates a stigma about her which feeds into suspicion when the town golden boy is found dead in the marsh. Did Kya kill him? They were lovers at one point. He jilted her to marry a more "civilized" girl. Her alibi in question, Kya's arrest puts her in the most miserable place she can imagine, locked away from the natural world she needs to survive. 

Waiting trial, we follow along as evidence builds, until the big day arrives. Prejudice walks alongside everyone into the courtroom. There's no reasonable doubt among the observers. The judge even has to chastise a witness to call Kya by her name instead of The Marsh Girl. She has no personal identity. The trial is intense, and all Kya wants is to go home.

The personal journey Kya takes in this book is really interesting. How she goes from simply surviving to creating a life for herself that's sustainable and allows her to improve herself was fun to read. Of course, it's helpful she seems to have a Fairy Godfather who shows up in time to propel the story forward (the contrived part,) giving her opportunities that allow her character to grow in a worthwhile way.

I can see why this is a popular book club selection. There's definitely a lot of talk about. I would suggest reading it with others, so you can have your own conversations.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Darwin's Watch: The Science of Discworld III by Terry Pratchett

Although a little more scattered in content that the previous two volumes, the third installation of The Science of Discworld doesn't disappoint. Focusing on Charles Darwin and his contribution to our understanding of evolution, the book tosses in a little extra, covering things like time travel and analyzing the Victorian Era's contribution to thinking. Among the facts, as always, there's the entertaining tangent into Discworld where external interference makes Darwin write the wrong book and everything goes haywire.

We join the faculty of Unseen University once again who, with the help of their amazing machine, Hex, untangle the web of events that lead to Darwin mistakenly writing Theology of the Species instead of Origin of the Species. This alternative book is all about divine design, and veers just far enough off the proper path of time to have far-reaching effects. This "wrong" book delays scientific advancement, which ultimately leads to the end of the human race. Through carefully calculated interventions in time, and one eye-opening oops, the wizards attempt to get Darwin back on the right track.

Between the chapters on the progress of this all-important mission, detailed commentary covers topics related to physics, time travel, evolution, and more. Can altering one tiny event make a significant impact on history for real? Will time travel ever be more than a theory? It's all very interesting, but I found the science in this volume harder to get through than in the previous two books. The topics were all fascinating, but the technical depth, at times, was just too deep. I felt a little lost, probably due to the hypothetical nature of a lot of the science covered. I struggled to visualize concepts when theories got too technical.

I did learn a lot though, alongside the silly adventure of Darwin and the meddlesome wizards at Unseen U. It was nice that at least this time, they didn't have a choice but to meddle. 

The truth and humor mixed in this series is perfectly done and allows you to learn and laugh all at once. 

Read these first:
The Science of Discworld (Volume I)
The Globe: The Science of Discworld (Volume II)

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

So I apparently have book club fever and am now a member of two book clubs. This one, I'm running, so it's a bit of a different experience.

Second Book Club, Book #1

Powerful. This is the most powerful book I've read in a long time. To call this book good isn't doing it proper justice, but I'd put it on my 'Must Read' list without question. 

The tragic and disturbing stories of four siblings, given a terrible gift that ultimately leads to serious consequences for each, are so well-told, so intense, you don't even pause to search for a nugget of positivity to pull you out of some dark places. You live their lives beside them, and they feel real and severe in all the ways you want fictional characters to be.

We meet the four Gold siblings on the cusp of the 1970's, while still in their youth. A typical, lower-middle class, northeastern, Jewish family until word of the arrival of a mystical woman who can tell you the day you'll die draws the children in, forever changing their lives. The knowledge they're each given individually clearly affects life choices, often to their detriment, but they all go on and live as long as they can. 

Among the nagging finality of knowing your death day, the author frames out other important elements. Somehow drawn out by the crux of the novel, gaining this information nobody should ever have, each sibling experiences some form of mental illness. With these character developments comes a subtle commentary on the topic, branching out into the necessity of human connection, the importance of experiencing love, and the horror of obsession.

Again, powerful comes to mind in how all these elements made me feel, how they combined to drive the story forward.

Prepare yourself for an intense read, but don't ignore this book. It has the goods.