It’s been quite a while since I’ve updated you guys on what I’m reading. I have some catching up to do! It’s been a busy summer, writing and traveling, but I’ve gotten quite a lot of reading done as well. My usual caveat: I read very eclectically, so not all these books will appeal to every reader. Also, if it looks like I love everything I read and am generous with five-star reviews, that’s only because I don’t mention the books I didn’t like. I discard many books without finishing them if I can’t get into them or simply find they aren’t for me. I figure we have enough negative book reviews out there without me adding mine. The books, below, however, I definitely enjoyed.
Note to self: This was probably not the right book to read before I went on that scuba diving trip. Cutter delivers a super-creepy tale about a research lab at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, which may be humanity’s only hope for finding a cure for the ‘Gets, a new Alzheimer’s-like plague that has decimated the world population. Unfortunately, the deep-sea station goes silent, then begins sending up strange garbled communications. Then one of the researchers resurfaces in a mini-sub, except he has died in a horrible, inexplicable way, and has scrawled a strange message inside the sub in his own blood. Sound gruesome enough yet? The authorities on the surface see no option but to send a two-person recon group down to the bottom to see what’s going on. One of these brave explorers is the brother of the main researcher, and plunging into the trench will also send him back into his darkest childhood memories. This is a quick read, with plenty of chilling, shocking passages. Some of the flashbacks slowed the pace for me, but it was still a terrific summer scare-fest. Just one warning: (SPOILER) If you like things that turn out wonderful in the end, er . . . you may want to adjust your expectations.
American history, nonfiction.
I devoured Ian Toll’s first two books about the naval war in the Pacific during World War II, so I thought I’d try his earlier book about the earliest days of the United States Navy. I don’t know if you have any interest in early American history or in naval warfare, but if you do, this is a great read. Toll is one of those historians who can bring history to life like a good novel, and that is no easy task. He covers the era made famous by the musical Hamilton, but adds some layers to the story that the musical missed. (There are, for instance, zero cabinet rap battles). He also covers the early naval war against the Barbary pirates and several thrilling accounts of early naval battles against the French and the British. What I found most interesting and helpful was the early and vicious rancor between the political parties of the day, Federalists and Republicans (not related to today’s Republicans). We live in such a polarized time right now, we tend to think that surely it has never been this bad. Wrong! Party politics has been threatening to tear our country apart since its inception, and has done so on at least one occasion (the Civil War, obvs.) Adams, Jefferson and Madison faced every bit as much bitter in-fighting, partisan hyperbole, and talk of certain doom as we see today. Fist fists in Congress. Duels. Name-calling. Cries of fake news. They had it all. I guess that’s . . . reassuring? Either that, or it just makes me wonder how we ever made it this far as a nation. At any rate, this is a fascinating look at how the U.S. Navy started from very humble beginnings — just six frigates, one of which is docked right down the street from my house in Boston: the U.S.S. Constitution. And now I know all about her story!
Children’s Literature, elementary grade and up.
This is one of those books that haunts you long after you read it. The premise is simple enough: A mysterious island with exactly nine inhabitants, all children. Every year or so, a self-piloting boat appears out of the strange fog that encircles the island. The boat drops off a new young child — so young he/she only has the vaguest idea of where he/she comes from — and the oldest child in the group gets in the boat and sails away forever, going to . . . whatever is beyond the mist. The second-oldest child then becomes the elder, responsible for mentoring the new young arrival, and life goes on. At least, unless our protagonist Jinny starts having second thoughts about how things work.
The island is a paradise. Nothing will kill you. The snakes won’t bite. The fruits are all edible. You can’t even hurt yourself jumping off the cliffs because the winds will push you back to safety. The children live in a collection of huts built by . . . well, they have no idea. They spend their days fishing or gathering food, playing games, telling stories, or reading books from the library, which was collected by a girl from the past that none of them ever knew. None of the kids know where they came from, or what awaits them when they leave, or why the island works the way it does. They just know a simple warning handed down from child to child over the years: If more than nine kids ever live on the island at the same time, the sky will fall.
Jinny becomes the elder when her friend Deen gets in the boat and sails off to his mysterious future. Jinny tries to be a good elder, but she chafes against her new responsibilities and can’t stop thinking about Deen. Eventually, she decides to rebel. She will not leave when the boat comes for her. And that’s when their paradise begins to unravel.
The book is, of course, a metaphorical look at childhood, and what it means to become an adult. On that level, it is thought-provoking and magical. I would add a couple of caveats to put you in the right frame of mind before starting this story, however: First, Jinny can be a very annoying heroine. This is by design. It makes perfect sense she would be this way. But sometimes I wanted to strangle her for her selfishness. Secondly (SPOILER ALERT) if you read this like I did, expecting it to be like a dystopian novel where eventually we find out the grand secret of the island, why it is there, how it works, and what sort of society would set up such a system for testing its young . . . you will not get those answers. That’s not what the story is trying to do. You have to accept the mystery/metaphor. It’s a book to be talked about and thought about. It’s a book to explore character and what makes us adults, or children, or family. But once that boat sails into the mist, you will not go with it. As Dread Pirate Roberts would say, “Get used to disappointment!”
British history, nonfiction.
I found this really interesting, but I’m a history nut. After Wolf Hall, I wanted to find out about Henry VII, the lesser-studied father of Henry VIII, who founded the Tudor Dynasty. The author does a good job drawing on his sources and bringing the characters to life while staying true to the history, but the subject matter is just not inherently as ‘sexy’ as Henry VIII’s or Elizabeth I’s reigns. Henry VII comes across as a talented micromanager and financier. He made huge gobs of money binding his subjects to him with loyalty bonds. For him, it was never about glory and battle. He had enough of that getting himself to the throne. For Henry VII, it was all about the money and stability. He spent his entire reign fixated on eliminating or disarming his enemies, and stabilizing England after the bloody, seemingly endless War of the Roses. In that, he was quite successful, but he was neither loved nor admired. He was a ruler to be feared, a ruler to be paid. Reading this, I got a much better understanding of where Henry VIII came from, and why he was destined to be the colorful ruler he became, as an antidote to his own father. An easy read? No. But definitely rewarding!
Children’s Literature, elementary grade and up. (Read in Italian)
This was a challenge and a treat — reading the original story of Pinocchio in Italian! It’s been a long time since I saw the Disney movie, but it was obvious to me that Disney, er, Disney-fied the story quite a bit. The original tale is a lot darker and a lot funnier. I loved the fight with Gepetto and the woodcutter at the beginning, where they are tearing off each other’s wigs. Pinocchio is indeed a rascal, a scamp, and all the other things they call him. I think I would have throw him in the fire a long time ago. I was also shocked to laughter when we meet Grillo-Parlante, the Talking Cricket who becomes Jiminy Cricket in the movie, and Pinocchio immediately gets tired of his advice, throws a hammer at the cricket, and smashes him flat against the wall, killing the poor insect instantly. I must say, I had the same urge when Jiminy Cricket started to sing in the movie. Talking animals, ridiculous incidents and escapes — I loved it! Would have been an easy read in English, but even in Italian it didn’t take me very long. Well worth checking out.
I read this because it is often recommended for those seeking to understand why so many disaffected rural whites would vote for the Current Occupant of the White House. (COOTWH.) Vance gives a poignant depiction of his upbringing in Ohio, with frequent trips to visit family in Appalachia. He does a good job presenting the desperate circumstances he grew up in, and makes clear how badly the odds were stacked against him in breaking the cycle of poverty and lack of education. He paints a grim picture of hollowed-out Middle America. What stuck with me most was the lack of self-awareness he describes in many of those he grew up with. They can rail against the unfairness of life and how hard it is to get a good job, but then fail to show up to work, or disdain the work that is available, and take umbrage if life doesn’t hand them what they want. This, of course, is endemic to human nature. It is not solely an Appalachian problem. And maybe that’s the best takeaway — that we have to try to understand our similar problems, our similar weaknesses and prejudices. It is SO easy to resort to tribalism and blame ‘the other’ for all our problems. This was why I picked up this book — to understand a point of view I detest, and try to understand why any rational person could hold it. I don’t claim to feel any less disgusted with the rise of the alt-right, but I do understand that this rise is fueled by the fact that a lot of people are hurting and angry — as was the case in Germany in the 1930s — and we, as a society, need to address root causes while rejecting the false and ugly solutions put forward by hatemongers. A worthwhile read of a very personal, very human struggle.
A fascinating story of a time I knew little about — the 1920s in Osage territory, Oklahoma, when the Osage became suddenly and tremendously wealthy thanks to the oil rights they retained on tribal property. During this time, Osage Indians started being murdered in mysterious ways. It soon became apparent the deaths were linked, but was it a serial killer? Multiple killers? As one can imagine, justice for Native Americans was not a high priority for white authorities, locally, statewide or nationally, until J. Edgar Hoover decided to use the Osage murders as a test of his new federal agency, which would later become the FBI. Grann brings that era to life with colorful descriptions and photos of many of the major players. Grann takes us through the investigation, which was headline news in the 20s, and even when we find out the results, Grann lays bare a deeper darker truth behind the murders that is even more chilling than what the contemporary investigators uncovered. No matter how much you think you know about the mistreatment of Native Americans throughout U.S. history, this story is cause for fresh outrage at just how badly the Osage were used, while at the same time affirming how resilient they were to survive it all. This is still living memory for the Osage people, even if most of the world has forgotten. A riveting true story.
I read this book as I prepared once again to write about my half-Cherokee demigod character Piper McLean. Before, I had drawn most of the Cherokee tales that Piper relates in the Heroes of Olympus series from James Mooney’s ethnographic studies from the 1890s, when Mooney, a white researcher from what would become the Smithsonian, lived among the Cherokee and recorded their stories, fearing that they would some day die out. Mooney’s transcripts are still frequently referenced by Cherokee storytellers (and outsiders, of course) but I was grateful to author Daniel Heath Justice for recommending this anthology, put together by contemporary Cherokee storytellers themselves, and offering a more authentic, living context for the lore of the Cherokee people. It was fascinating “sitting in” while the various members of the Liar’s Club took turns recounting stories that had been passed down to them, and newer stories that were from their own family histories. The book conveys the Cherokees’ dry sense of humor, their strong sense of community, and their understanding of man’s place in nature much better than any other book of Cherokee tales could do with just stories recorded in isolation. You will come away with the feeling that you were invited to sit on the porch with these storytellers and spent some time getting to know them and their lives. It is time well spent!
Adult sci fi.
Not to be confused with the sci fi TV show “Dark Matter,” this is the chilling story of a man who switches places with himself. Jason Dessen has a good life with his wife and son in Chicago, but he has regrets and ‘what ifs’. He gave up a potentially brilliant career in cutting-edge science research to be a father and husband. Now he teaches physics at a community college. His wife, similarly, gave up a promising art career. On balance, that’s okay with Jason, but one day he is abducted but a masked man who sounds oddly familiar. Jason is drugged and driven to warehouse in the woods. When he wakes up, he is in a laboratory. Everyone knows him, but there is something very wrong about his situation. He is no longer married to his wife. His son doesn’t exist. Everyone thinks he is a brilliant scientist who has invented a way to travel between parallel dimensions. In short, Jason has been forced to switch places with a different Jason, who wants our Jason’s quiet, happy domestic life. Now, our Jason has to find his way back, but how can he possibly do that faced with an infinite number of alternate dimensions? The idea of a man being removed from his family by an imposter upset me so much I almost couldn’t continue reading the book. I had to put it down halfway for several months. But I’m glad I went back to it. Alternate universes are standard fare in sci fi, but Crouch mines the idea in a refreshing way and delivers a gripping story.
Contemporary young adult.
Heartbreaking, uplifting, genuine and beautiful — those are the first words that come to mind about The Serpent King. The story revolves around three very different friends growing up in Forrestville, Tennessee. (Or Forestville, as our female protagonist insists on calling it, since the town was named after Klan founder Nathan Bedford Forrest, so ‘the extra r stands for racist.’) Lydia has the most functional family in our trio of heroes. Her folks are comfortably well-off. They support and love her. She isn’t popular at school, but she has another life on-line as a high-profile blogger on fashion and pop culture. Because of all this, and because of her strong self-confidence, her opportunities after high school seem limitless. She wants to go to NYU. She has already connected with high-powered fashion industry people there, and she looks forward to getting out of Tennessee for good.
Dill Early, on the other hand, is hopelessly mired in his family’s past. His father, a charismatic preacher who shares Dill’s name, is presently in jail for child porn. People in their small town either think Dill Jr. is a pervert like his father, or they blame him for letting Dill Sr. go to jail, since Dill Jr.’s testimony is what put his dad away. Dill has talent and dreams of being a musician, but his parents would never allow it, and he is expected to start working full time at the grocery store once he graduates high school to help pay the family’s huge debts. Worst of all: Dill is secretly in love with his longtime friend Lydia, who is about to move away forever and leave him stuck in his dismal life. What’s a guy to do?
Travis, the third member of our trio, is a sword-and-sorcery reader who is obsessed with a ‘Game of Thrones’ type series. Travis even carries his own ‘wizarding staff’ around with him wherever he goes. He’s a big guy, and his abusive drunk father wants him to play on the football team, but Travis has no interest in this. He would rather hang out with his two friends, work in the lumber mill, and spend the rest of his time in his worlds of fantasy. But how will the end of high school affect him, especially with Dill and Lydia’s lives changing too?
This book is the story of their senior year, which takes a horrible turn with a life-shattering act of violence. And of course . . . I can’t tell you what that is. You’ll have to read the book! Trust me, though — you will love these characters. You will relate to them no matter where you live. If you’ve ever felt stuck, confused, anxious . . . if you’ve ever struggled with your feelings and your dreams for the future, you can’t help but forge deep connections to Dill, Lydia, and Travis. One last bonus: the dialogue just sparkles. It’s punchy, smart and authentically teen. Or at least, it’s how we wished we might have sounded at our best in high school.
Cherokee/U.S. history, nonfiction.
Part of my research for getting ready to write about my character Piper McLean again, I figured I would read the history of the Cherokee Nation as written by Conley, a Cherokee author. This is the only such book endorsed by the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, and it was truly an eye-opener. If casual readers of U.S. history know anything about the Cherokee, it’s probably the Trails of Tears, the heartrending expulsion of the Cherokee from their traditional homes in the Southeast and their forced march across the west to Oklahoma. But of course, there is a lot more to the story, and Conley gives us the full tale from the Cherokee perspective. He takes us from the origins of the nation, as passed down through oral history over the generations, through the early encounters with Europeans, through the American Revolution and the rapacious expansion of white settlers, right to the present day. I had no idea about a lot of the later history, and I’m grateful to have read it. The book moves along quickly. Conley has a wry sense of humor and a good eye for character. (You can tell he is a novelist by trade.) I finished the book in a couple of days. If you want to know more about this amazing and resilient people, I highly recommend reading their history as they would want you to hear it.
Ah, yes. Nothing like an astrophysics book for beginners to remind me why I’m not an astrophysicist! Even at the basic level, with Tyson’s clear, funny and accessible writing, I found a lot of these concepts WAY over my head. Nevertheless, it is fascinating stuff. My big takeaway was humility: just how small humans are in the grand scheme of things, and there is something freeing about that. It reminded me of a fake headline on The Onion news satire site that made me chuckle: Obama Reassures Americans: ‘The future, and I’m talking three billion years from now, is still bright.”
The amount we don’t know about the universe is staggering. Dark matter, dark energy . . . how can we be completely unaware of forces that make up the bulk of our universe? But also, how amazing is it that we can find this stuff out from our little speck of a planet in the suburbs of Nowheresville, Milky Way Galaxy? This is a short book, perfect, as the title says, for people in a hurry. If you would like your mind exploded by science, and get a few chuckles out of the deal, check it out!
Winslow is such an awesome writer. He’s one of those people who makes storytelling look easy, even for other storytellers like me, who know very well that it is NOT easy. The amount of research he did for this book must have been staggering. It is a fictionalized telling of the recent drug wars in Mexico and beyond, with all the gore and horror that I remember from the headlines when I was still living in South Texas. It felt so real, so true to what happened, that I started fearing for the author’s safety. It seemed like he was getting dangerously close to telling things exactly as they happened. On the other hand, Winslow finds sympathy and humanity in all his characters, even the most hardened narcos who commit the most heinous atrocities. At heart, this is a story of a friendship gone bad between Art Keller, DEA agent, and Adan Barrera, scion of the most powerful drug cartel family in Sinaloa. Once friends, the two men are now bitterest of enemies, and the book follows them both as they try to outwit one another. Only one man can come out of these drug wars alive. It is not at all clear who will success, or even who is the hero and who is the villain. If you don’t mind grisly violence pulled right out of the news, you will find this a fascinating window into the world of narco trafficking.
Sci fi (zombie fiction)
You’d think by now we would have reached ‘peak zombie,’ right? I mean, there’s only so much you can do with a genre. But Carey mines the territory for new gold and finds it. The Girl with All the Gifts opens in the strangest classroom ever. (And as a teacher, I’ve seen some pretty strange classrooms.) After the zombie apocalypse in England, some infected children have, for reasons unknown, been turned into zombies but have also retained their human intelligence. Melanie is the research lab’s star pupil. Along with her classmates, who are all strapped in their chairs to keep them from, you know, eating the human teacher, they go through lessons and read stories, so the scientists can try to understand what makes these bright young zombies tick. Melanie is not really aware of what she is, or why she is there. This ‘school’ is the only life she’s ever known. But she is aware that once in a while her classmates disappear into the lab and never come back. She fears she may be called to leave sooner or later, and she doesn’t want to part with her beloved teacher.
Then one day, Melanie’s world changes. Class is dismissed forever. Melanie will have to decide where she stands. Is she one of the humans? Or are the humans her food? The book does a great (terrifying) job describing the sort of fungal infection that could plausibly mutate into a zombie-type disease. The characters are great. The death count is high, like worse than Walking Dead high, and the ending is both terrifying and beautiful. Like zombies? Check it out!
British history, nonfiction.
This book was both fascinating and difficult. The Norman Conquest was such a pivotal turning point in history, I wanted to try to understand how it happened. Morris does an excellent job sifting through the sources and trying to make sense of all sides of the drama. Unfortunately, as Morris points out, our sources are slim and biased. You can’t get a very good sense of the major players as living people. We can only speculate on their motives and feelings. We can’t even be sure what happened or when. For these reasons, I’d only recommend the subject matter if you have a deep and abiding geek obsession with history, as I do. But if you want to know about the Norman Conquest of Britain, this is the most accessible book I’ve found.
I was sold on this novella as soon as I read the premise. Based on an actual idea that was never executed by U.S. government, this book postulates a Wild West-era America in which hippos were introduced to the Mississippi River to be raised as a source of food. Unfortunately, some of these hippos have now gone feral, which means, Houston, we have a hippo problem. The government hires a crack team of hippo wranglers (who also have varied talents as demolition experts, assassins, con women and pistoleers) to clear a large area of the Delta of their mean, man-eating hippo swarms. Alas, as vicious as the hippos are, humans are even worse, and our heroes will encounter lots of opposition on their way to realizing their goal. I like to describe this book as The Magnificent Seven with hippos. It is a rip-roaring read with humor, violence, passion, revenge and a plausible alternate reality, all packed into a very compact story. Bonus points: The cast is wonderfully and refreshingly non-heteronormative, and nobody in this alternate Nineteenth Century blinks an eye. Of course, with man-eating hippos in the water, I guess they have more pressing things to worry about!