Best of the Year

Taking a few minutes out of being a busy entrepreneurial executive at the hubby’s consulting biz to share my reading stats for 2018.  I finished 84 books — I read more than that, but I’ve made a separate list on Goodreads for “DNFs” (that means “did not finish,” for the uninitiated). I don’t rate those and I don’t include them on my list of what I’ve actually read.

I’m an avid audiobook fan and that led to my favorite discovery of 2018, Percival Everett. First I heard “The Appropriation of Culture” on Selected Shorts. Then, soon after, Levar Burton read “Graham Greene” on his wonderful podcast. After that, I went to the library and picked up a couple of Everett’s short story collections. I love his unique ability to combine a world-weary realism with an underlying sense of serenity. His stories feel kind of Buddhist in their world view.

Also “The Appropriation of Culture” manages to say some really important, insightful things about race while being freaking hilarious. Find it in his 2004 collection, Damned If I Do.

141202Besides Percival Everett, Levar Burton has featured works by Charlie Jane Anders, Octavia Butler and Daniel Wallace, among others. Burton’s podcast is a delight if you enjoy audiobooks. First there’s the creamy-smooth goodness of Levar Burton’s voice, but it’s also a wonderful forum for underrepresented authors. Many of the stories he’s chosen are by women and/or authors of color. It’s a fun way to discover authors who haven’t gotten as much exposure as they should have.

814-kplvc6lAnother great fiction discovery was Mick Herron. He’s been around for a while, but I finally picked up the first book in his “Slow Horses/Slough House” series and loved it. The Slow Horses are failed British intelligence agents. They’ve all done something egregiously wrong, but not quite criminal. Still, they know too much to be allowed back into ordinary society, so why not make use of them. The sad-sack screw-ups are relegated to Slough House (Slough House=slow horses, get it?!?!), where they are meant to shuffle papers and enter data until the end of time. They’re presided over by gruff, shambling, slobby Jackson Lamb, who may not be as washed up as he keeps trying to pretend to be.

And of course, they do NOT stay behind those desks and enter that data. They inevitably get drawn into various high-stakes adventures, which they botch up stupendously before generally getting their sh*t together in the final few chapters. It’s like Johnny English as written by Graham Greene (meaning the British novelist, not the Native American actor mentioned in the Percival Everett story cited above). Far less introspective than Percival Everett, but loads of fun to read. If you like a good caper story, especially of the “gang that couldn’t shoot straight” variety, read these.

Ironically, one of the worst novels I read this year was also by Mick Herron. Called This Is What Happened, it was an utterly unconvincing dystopian tale blended with the now tiresomely familiar twisty domestic thriller genre. Skip this one and read the entire Slough House series instead.

downloadAs for nonfiction, I read so many, many fascinating perspective-altering books this year, it kind of exhausted me. I highly recommend Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush. This book takes all the talk of climate change and brings it down to the personal level. Rush interviews people whose entire neighborhoods are now underwater and destined to stay there. She examines the faulty assumptions over the last fifty years that have made flooding even worse in places like New Jersey and New Orleans. It will definitely make you reconsider retiring to the seaside, I can tell you that.

9780252082122Another life-changing read was Goodbye iSlave by Jack Qiu. This under-noticed treatise is a bit dry at times but has so much important to tell us. Qiu writes about the morally questionable nature of our mobile device addiction — the slave labor that mines the materials, the toxic workplaces where people who are virtual prisoners assemble the things, the rising pile of toxic trash that comes from throwing all this crap away after just a couple of years. His book offers some possible solutions to the problems presented within the text, including the FairPhone, a repairable mobile device. I wanted so badly to get one after reading this book, but looks like they aren’t even available in the USA.

Last but not least, I read a lot more poetry than I have in years. Possibly this was because I was managing the poetry collection at the grouchy old-school library I last worked at. (You know the kind of library I mean: where the librarians all sit on stools behind a high desk, reading their own books and hoping you will go away and not ask them that question you’re about to ask. It was not a good fit.)

But at any rate, I got to read a lot of poetry. And what lingers with me now is Gabriel, the heartbreaking masterpiece of loss by Edward Hirsch. Published several years ago, this long poem/short book is a father’s elegy for the death of his beautiful, baffling, troubled son. Gabriel died at the age of 22, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, it was many days before Hirsch was able to find out what had become of his son and learn where the body had been taken. Truly, it is every parent’s worst nightmare turned into art. The poem will especially resonate with anyone who has a child struggling, as Gabriel did, with mental illness and developmental disorders.

Hirsch with Gabriel in happier times

And those are my most memorable books from 2018. Sorry if it’s a heavy list, but it was a heavy year.

Happy reading to all of you in 2019!

 

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Book in a Minute: Library Edition

27246115-_uy400_ss400_ I’m doing book reviews for the Baltimore County Public Library‘s Between the Covers blog under my real life name now. At some point in the indefinite future, I’m planning to merge the “real me” website with this site. In the meantime, it seemed to make more sense to post a link to my first review for the library blog here, since this is where I’ve posted all my other book reviews. So here you go, a little review of Delia Ephron’s Siracusa. Enjoy!

Delia Ephron is best-known for her humorous writing and for lighthearted screenplays like You’ve Got Mail and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. But her latest novel, Siracusa, displays a decidedly more cynical view of relationships.

Siracusa begins with Lizzie, who thinks a vacation in Italy is just what she and her husband David need to revive their flagging writing careers and their dwindling passion for one another. They’re joined on the trip by another couple — Finn, Lizzie’s fun-loving old flame from college, and his uptight wife Taylor. Dragged along for the fun is Snow, Finn and Taylor’s sullen preteen daughter. If bringing an old boyfriend and his family along for a vacation sounds like a bad idea to you, you’d be right. In fact, few vacation disasters can rival the nightmarish results when this group makes its way to the ancient island of Siracusa.

Each main character takes a turn recounting the trip’s gradual descent into tragedy.  Without exception, all of them are breathtakingly self-involved or delusional (or both). Thus none of them can see what the reader sees — the huge disaster heading straight for them.

Like The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl, Siracusa presents readers with difficult to like protagonists who never tell the whole truth. The crumbling city of Siracusa provides an excellent symbolic backdrop for Ephron’s well-written blend of dark domestic drama and deadly suspense.

And if you aren’t anywhere near the Baltimore County Public Library, find your own library here. Or if you’re in a spendy mood, here’s the Amazon link.

Book in a Minute: City of the Lost

City of the Lost (Casey Duncan, #1)City of the Lost by Kelley Armstrong

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is really more like a 2.5 star rating. I loved the concept of a city where people can go completely off the grid and disappear (victims of domestic abuse, witnesses to crimes, etc.) The pace was fabulous – even when the story started to come apart, I couldn’t put it down. And I mostly liked the heroine, Casey Duncan. The city has a creepy, insular feel that reminded me of the Village in the old “Prisoner” TV Series. However, all these elements were wasted for me when this whodunnit came apart in the big reveal.

Casey committed a murder in a moment of passion about twenty years earlier (not a spoiler, she reveals this in chapter one) and is basically atoning for it by being a cop. When her youthful crime catches up to her, she’s happy to disappear into this invisible city in the Canadian wilderness, and the town is eager to have her since it turns out there might be a grisly serial killer in their midst.

Unfortunately, a good heroine and a great setting are wasted late in the story when our heroine engages in a painfully ill-conceived romantic interlude and falls into bed with her strong silent stereotype of a boss. Said romance also includes some really uncomfortable “I said no but I didn’t really mean no exactly” chatter that made me like Casey a LOT less and wonder if E.L. James had stepped in to write a couple of chapters. From there, the story degenerates into a batsh*t crazy three-way girlfight, and of course, the reason for all that girl crazy is (you guessed it) those terrible menz and all the hearts they be a-breakin’.

Disappointing.

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Nathan’s Back and Alan’s Got Him!

nathan-fillion-alan-tudykSo no doubt like me, you are wondering what the HELL is going on with Castle, and why, if they will never let Castle and Beckett be together for more than five minutes at a time, why they don’t just kill off Beckett? I mean no offense to Stana Katic, who was a great kick-ass cop in the first few seasons, but her character’s storyline has gotten so convoluted and weird, I just don’t care anymore.

Personally, I kind of wish they’d just kill Beckett off already, then make a spin off show about a widowed novelist-turned-inept detective and his very ept daughter played by Molly Quinn (like a combination of “Remington Steele” and “8 Simples Rules for Dating My Daughter”). But maybe that’s just me.

Anyway, if you’ve given up on Castle and there’s a Nathan Fillion-sized whole in your life, cruise over to Vimeo and check out Con Man instead. Granted, Nathan only makes the occasional cameo appearance in this hilariously geeky new web series from Alan “I’m a leaf on the wind” Tudyk. But there are scads of other fabulous cameos too: Wil Wheaton, Sean Astin, Tricia Helfer and Sean Maher just to name a few.

The show is an acid-dipped love letter to all the geeky denizens of the SF Con world (I include myself in that universe, because even though I’m a lightweight when it comes to attending these things, my geek knowledge runs deep, people.) Alan Tudyk is very funny as one of those also-ran minor sci-fi celebrities. He’s higher ranking than a redshirt, but has not managed to parlay his time on cult show “Spectrum” into a flourishing film career. He has a sad, Eeyore-like demeanor while folks like Sean Astin keep showing up and trying to get him to enjoy the perks of being a geek icon. But even when he tries, it does not go well. There’s a little more bathroom humor in the first three episodes than I really like, but that goes away as Ray (Tudyk’s character) gets himself into weirder and weirder predicaments. Each episode is only 10-15 minutes long too, so you can easily check it out on your lunch break at the office. A definite thumbs up!

Here’s a link to Entertainment Weekly’s story about the series.

http://www.ew.com/article/2015/09/28/con-man-nathan-fillion-alan-tudyk-episodes-streaming

I think everyone can access the first three episodes now on Vimeo. I’m special, I helped my good buddies Alan and Nathan to fund this baby via IndieGoGo, so I’ve already gotten to see ALL the episodes, thank you very much. You’ll have to settle for those first three right now, but I’m sure the other episodes will be available to everyone soon. And you’re going to love them.

 

 

Book in a Minute: The Sea Garden

The Sea GardenThe Sea Garden by Deborah Lawrenson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Three stories that seem, on the surface, to have no connection give The Sea Garden a disjointed feel. But I think that sensation is intentional, meant to reflect the moods of the three women who serve as protagonists for these stories.

Lawrenson begins in the present day, with Ellie, a rather depressed landscape designer who has been commissioned to create a garden on an idyllic French island. Unfortunately, the estate owner is eccentric, to say the least, and the project goes from bad to worse. What some have seen as an abrupt ending to this story struck me as very moving and with definite supernatural overtones.

The next two stories travel further back in time, to Vichy France in World War II. One tells of a blind perfume designer named Marthe who aids the Resistance. The other recounts the story of Iris, an English girl hired to work for a top-secret code-breaking organization that’s aiding the French Resistance fighters.

It’s hard to give a lot of detail about this book without ruining the various surprises and twists. The biggest issue I had with the book is the jarring shift in mood from the first story to the the other two. While the first tale, “The Sea Garden,” creates an almost Gothic atmosphere (think du Maurier or Victoria Holt), the other two are firmly grounded in a very real world at war. This leads to the ending feeling a little “tacked on” and contrived, since the supernatural tone goes away for about three-quarters of the book and then suddenly returns.

Nonetheless, I really enjoyed these stories. I’m always happy to read stories about strong, independent women and Marthe and Iris definitely fit the bill. Ellie’s story is more problematic and sad, but that one makes excellent use of mood and setting.

On a peripheral note, I love that the third story, “A Shadow Life,” makes use of and calls attention to the very real and overlooked story of Vera Atkins’ Lost Agents.

Vera Atkins (Miss Acton in Lawrenson’s fictionalized account) oversaw a network of spies for one of Britain’s wartime intelligence organizations, the SOE. Over 100 agents, many of them women, were sent into France as radio operators and many of them vanished without a trace. Others are known to have perished in concentration camps within a few months of arriving in country. Their loss is a bitter lesson in the price of government incompetence and arrogance, since the girls repeatedly attempted to send coded messages warning their British handlers that the network had been compromised. Whether the messages were ignored due to incompetence or indifference on the part of their handlers is open to debate. In “A Shadow Life,” Lawrenson seems to come down on the side of incompetence on the part of the mission commanders. Whatever became of the real girls, Lawrenson takes this tragic piece of history and uses it to fashion an entertaining, original, and moving piece of fiction in The Sea Garden.

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Breaking Up With My Boyfriend

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In the beginning, he was a bad boy — but strangely irresistible. The sort of man you felt almost compelled to obey.

 

 

Then he reformed. He became dashing and daring, trim and handsome beyond belief. He rescued damsels in distress, followed his own quirky code of honor and wore some amazingly tight pants. fillionfirefly1

 

 

 

And sometimes no pants at all!

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Then he hit the big time, and for a while, it was grand. The book signings, the card games, the feisty, sexy sidekick who spoke Russian and knew how to handle a gun. I didn’t even mind that she was a girl, or that she wasn’t a very good actress.

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She was almost as cool as he was, and they seemed to be having such fun together. And she could kick some butt. It was a fun ride.

But now, six years on, the thrill is gone. The worst thing possible has happened to Nathan and to Castle — success. An excess of success, in fact. The old reruns are on constantly, and the network just keeps on renewing this ratings powerhouse. The writers keep producing scripts and the actors keep acting, but I have a feeling the incredible greed of everyone involved is the only real reason Castle continues to occupy airwaves. Does anyone really still care at all whether these two crazy kids finally tie the knot?

Around Season Four, I stopped caring. And frankly, it looked to me like Stana Katic and Nathan Fillion didn’t much care anymore either. But I kept watching, because they were like old friends. Boring old friends, but friends nonetheless. After all, they still sometimes made me laugh and Nathan was still Nathan.

This season, they really had me going for a few episodes. This was going to be the BIG SEASON. Finally, those two crazy kids really WOULD tie the knot! The entire season was built around it. And the finale was almost note-perfect. A return to the quirky humor and wacky shenanigans of early seasons. And a surprise visit from every sci-fi geek girl’s favorite lovable goof, Eddie McClintock. After discovering she’d drunk-married Eddie some fifteen years earlier and going on a quest to dissolve the marriage, Beckett at last stood in a palatial vacation home in the Hamptons, donning her mom’s wedding dress for the big day. The setting was perfect and the outdoor wedding in the garden could have been a lovely finish to the episode, the season, and even the series.

— SPOILER ALERT —

But no. The Powers That Be decided to repay six years of fan loyalty and an entire season of romantic build-up with a flaming car wreck and a missing Rick Castle. Because apparently, there is no fate more boring and wretched than finding your soulmate, recognizing that person as such, and — well, you know — settling down. Ewwwww! Better to make everyone think the hero is dead in a flaming car wreck than to do something as icky as have him get married.

I would like to think that Nathan did his part. I would like to think that he at least questioned it a bit, that he glared at the writers when they gave him the last page of the Season Finale script. Maybe he arched his eyebrow in that manly way and lowered his head (so that he could get down to their eye level). Maybe he even said: “Seriously? Are we seriously doing this?” And then probably he talked to his agent and cooler heads prevailed. And good for Nathan, because once this show ends, he’s probably going to be set for life financially. So I don’t blame him at all.

But I just can’t stay with him anymore. I’m breaking up with my boyfriend. Next season, I won’t be tuning in to find out what really happened to Rick Castle. Because as far as I’m concerned, he made it to the Hamptons on time and in one piece, married his sweetie and then Castle faded to black for good. THE END.

Cue spin-off series featuring Ryan and Esposito.

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Book in a Minute: The Revisionists


The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen

My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Billed as a science fiction tale about time travel, The Revisionists is really a political thriller with an intriguing subplot about the nature of reality. Despite that misleading publisher’s blurb, this was an awesome book. The kind that makes me say, “Why the hell do I write? Even this guy’s grocery lists are probably better written than mine.”

Zed is a sort of time cop from the future – or is he really? While the true nature of his identity is somewhat mysterious and open to interpretation, Zed manages to come across as a complex, sympathetic, and believable character — as are the two main female characters, Sari and Tasha. The weak link is Leo, a rather unbelievably gullible former intelligence operative.

To be honest, Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me was more of a true science fiction tale than this one. But even though The Revisionists wasn’t the book I expected it to be, I still enjoyed it immensely.

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