Thursday, December 12, 2019

Review: A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President

A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President A Vast Conspiracy: The Real Story of the Sex Scandal That Nearly Brought Down a President by Jeffrey Toobin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this for two reasons: first, because of the planned season for American Crime Story based in part on this book. Second, having been alive during this time period, I was interested in how it was written.

This is about the Clinton impeachment. And as I read, I remember how it unfolded in the media; I remembered what I thought at the time. I learned things I didn't know, had a better grasp of what was and was not going on.

I'd read that Monica Lewinsky is a producer for the planned season, and I'll say this: this book is not always kind to her. So that she is involved in this makes me respect her all the more: and I do respect the hell out of her, for what she's gone through, and what she's done since.

Back to the book: I'm impressed with how much research was done, and how many people the author talked to, to get so much information, and then to put it together in a narrative that makes sense. If, like me, you're old enough to remember this, it's worth the read to discover what you didn't know. Or, also, to see if as time has passed, any of your judgments have changed.

And if this is "history" to you, it's worth it to read, because what happened then didn't end then. It's helped shape today's political landscape.









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Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Review: The Thirteen Problems

The Thirteen Problems The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My commitment to reading Miss Marple in order continues!

Except I read not this version, but the ones in the book of the complete Miss Marple stories.

I like the short stories very much, and I especially liked how these stories were told. A bunch of folks sitting around sharing mysteries they've encountered; Miss Marple manages to figure out each one. And she figures out each story from what is in the story itself; I was reminded of Encyclopedia Brown, actually. Now, some things a modern reader or non British reader may not get; but it was still all there, in the text, to figure out on one's own.

So far, the worst I'm seeing in the books is strong classism -- people knowing their place, as it were, and liking it that way. And of course the British looking down at everyone who isn't them, usually presented in how they view "foreigners."

This is the book I read; and for reasons I'll go into later, I think a Miss Marple read is best for adult and only for those interested in how Christie crafts stories.


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Thursday, December 05, 2019

Review: The Murder at the Vicarage

The Murder at the Vicarage The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As promised, I've begun my read of the Miss Marple mysteries. I almost wrote "reread" but I honestly am not sure which ones I've read and not read.

So: this was written in 1930 and is set in a small English village and I do wonder if that English country life depicted was true then or not.

What I found interesting:

Miss Marple is not the main character, or the person telling the story. The narrator is the vicar, and it's at the vicarage where the dead body is found. Miss Marple is one of the old ladies of the village, and she pops in and out of the narrative. Ultimately, she does solve the mystery, largely because she knows human nature, the good, the bad, and the ugly. And her knowledge comes from a life lived in a small village, and how living in that small area, living in place where you truly know your neighbors -- you learn that people are capable of terrible things. She's not naive.

I also found it interesting that, based on the publication date, Miss Marple mustn't have been intended as someone who anchors a long series because it was published in 1930. And as you'll soon see, the next Miss Marple novel was written in the 1940s.







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Tuesday, December 03, 2019

Review: Truly Devious

Truly Devious Truly Devious by Maureen Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a perfect mystery!

The setting: a remote boarding school for smart and unique teens. Stevie Bell is there for her first year and is a bit intimidated by her classmates. She's just an average kid from an average background; the specialty that got in her into the school?

Her expertise: true crime. Ellingham Academy is the site of an infamous case: back when the school was founded, almost 100 years ago, the school's rich founder lived at the school (or rather, the school was on his estate.) His wife and daughter were kidnapped; ransom was paid, but they were not returned. No one ever figured out who did it, with one of the only clues a note signed "Truly Devious."

Stevie is determined to solve the decades old crime. But in the meanwhile, there is school and classmates, adjustments, parties.

And then: someone is found dead. And Stevie has a real life mystery to solve.

Stevie finds out that death in person is a lot different than death in books, on TV, in podcasts.

OK, I am trying to avoid any spoiler of "who dies" and "who disappears" and what happened. Let me say: I loved this book. I adored the remote setting, very country house mystery in the set up. I loved how the old crime and its aftermath was discussed and portrayed: if you've read up on old crimes such as the Lindbergh kidnapping, you'll nod your head in recognition, in a good way.

I loved the mix of teens -- the school is just for juniors and seniors, and each is unique, and some are endearing and some are annoying. Just like any teen. I loved Stevie trying to figure out her surroundings. I also loved that Stevie has anxiety, and it's part of who she is, but it's not the point of the story.

This is the first in a trilogy. The death that takes place in the book is solved; but the Truly Devious mystery, that's part of the trilogy.

Any last words? I want to visit Ellingham Academy. Just without kidnappings and murders.






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Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Review: After the Fire

After the Fire After the Fire by Will Hill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Moonbeam is 17 and her story is told in “before” and “after.” After: injured, in a hospital, locked in, and so many people with questions about what happened.

Before: her life with Father John, where outside was forbidden, and people knew their places. Hers: the life of a promised bride, one day to be one of wives of Father John.

And the Fire: and the guns and explosions and now Moonbeam is in the hospital and so many of her Brothers and Sisters, so many of the people she grew up with, are dead.

Before: jumps back and forth a bit in time to try to explain the before. To explain why her parents brought their baby and themselves to a world with so many rules and so many restrictions. To explain why she stayed, why her mother stayed, when things changed and others left.
And also: to explain her secret, what she doesn’t want others finding out.

I liked how even thought this life was all Moonbeam knew, these people were all she knew, something inside her led to her realize what was wrong with her life “before” and how she could make different choices now.

I liked how we saw, as Moonbeam saw, things that were positive and wonderful about her childhood…. But that we also realized, sometimes before Moonbeam did, that there were things wrong with how she was living, and things wrong with the people she loved.

As a grown up, I’m not entirely convinced by her parents’ actions, but I found myself with sympathy towards her mother, and forgiveness, and I hope that means Moonbeam finds that, also.
And I loved how understanding and sympathetic the hospital staff and doctors and even the police were.

And if its not clear from the above, this is a child raised in an isolated cult, and then there is a siege similar to what happened in Waco, and Moonbeam is the voice of one of the teens who made it out alive.




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Thursday, November 21, 2019

Review: City of Ghosts

City of Ghosts City of Ghosts by Victoria Schwab
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Finally one for your younger readers!

Cass is twelve, but I’ll admit I at first thought she was a couple of years older so I think this can be enjoyed by your younger teens because it’s not “young.”

A year ago, when she was eleven, she drowned. She survived, but ever since, she can see ghosts – including her new best friend, the ghost who saved her from drowning.

And here’s a twist: her parents are the best selling authors of a popular series about ghosts. Her dad is the logical one with the science and history, her mother is the fanciful one with myths and legends. Neither know about her new found ability to see ghosts; neither see ghosts themselves.
And then: her parents start hosting a reality TV show. About ghosts.

And their first stop to investigate? Edinburgh, Scotland, homes of hundreds of ghosts: dead from plague, dead from execution, dead from cold, dead from illness.

Cass discovers there is more to her talent of seeing ghosts; and that ghosts can be dangerous. Very dangerous.

I really enjoyed Cass and her personality; and the adventures are just the right level of scary and dangerous.





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Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review: The Widow

The Widow The Widow by Fiona Barton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As you may recall, I read the second Kate Waters book a few months back, and then went back to read the first. It's not necessary to read in order; but had I done so, I would have recognized some of the author's storytelling techniques.

So, the "series" is anchored by Kate Waters, reporter. And reader, I like her. I like her because she's older (her sons are teens) and she and her life are messy and real. She is a good reporter, but she's not super brilliant. She's just... normal. Typical.

In this book, a man has died and the press swarm around his widow. Because a few years back, he was accused of kidnapping a small child. And while not convicted for the crime, everyone "knows" he's guilty. So the press want an interview, the one that will tell them for sure what he did.

This is told by Jean, the widow; and Kate, the reporter. And what I liked here is that I kept on going back and forth, as more details were shared, about whether or not Jean's husband was guilty or not. And if he was, how much Jean knew.

I'm eager to read the third!





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Thursday, November 14, 2019

Review: A Skinful of Shadows

A Skinful of Shadows A Skinful of Shadows by Frances Hardinge
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I do enjoy a Frances Hardinge book! Always different and fresh; but also always with so much depth and complication.

1640s. England. Makepeace, twelve, lives with her mother and her aunt's family in Poplar, a village outside of London. OK, first of all: Poplar! This is the Poplar that becomes the Poplar of Call the Midwife. Every time I heard it I smiled. I'm not sure if that was on purpose or not but I loved it.

Makepeace was born out of wedlock; her mother lives in compliance with rules and morals and beliefs of their Puritan community. It's not so much that her mother believes it: but it's where they live, the times they live. Where they hide -- from their past. From where her mother, unwed, pregnant, fled.

Makepeace has nightmares: ghosts attack her, at night. Her mother offers no sympathy: she wants her daughter to toughen up.

Then the unthinkable happens: Makepeace and her mother are caught up in a riot against King Charles in London, and her other dies. Before, one word is whispered about where her mother had come from, and Makepeace, full of grief, is sent to her father's home. A great home, a great family, and Makepeace is one of the illegitimate children given a home. A home as long as she works, of course.

It is here she learns the family gift: they can absorb ghosts. The ghosts become part of them. Only some in the family have this talent, and that - not compassion, not love - is why homes are offered to children like Makepeace.

And that's just the beginning! What does it mean to have a ghost within you? What does it do to the host and to the ghost?

Meanwhile all this is playing out against the battles between Parliament and King, between the different forms of religion practiced.

Makepeace: what can I say. She is determined and loyal and smart. And her adventures!

And, of course, now I want to know more about the English Civil War. As an American reader, I know the generalities, and I felt it was enough to understand the story and what was going on. That said, I imagine someone with a greater knowledge of that time period would get more out of it, have a deeper appreciation of the politics Makepeace observed.





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Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Review: Blanca & Roja

Blanca & Roja Blanca & Roja by Anna-Marie McLemore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So much going on, all good, but so hard to do justice.

Blanca and Roja, the del Cisne sisters, born into a cursed family. Two sisters are born, and one is always turned into a swan. Always.

This is a world set in the present, with cars and ice cream and high school bullies.

It is a world of magical realism, where girls can turn into swans and boys into bears.

It is a retelling of fairy tales: retelling, re-imagination, reinterpretation.

It is a story of families and competition and rivalry, and of love.

It is a world with prejudices and suspicion.

Blanca is fair haired and light skinned; Roja's hair is red and her coloring darker. Blanca is the good girl, the princess; Roja is tougher, the witch. They are close and vow to be the set of sisters who both survive, where neither get taken. But then the swans come and it becomes clear, one must be taken, and will this turn the sisters against each other?

Two local boys disappeared earlier this year: Barclay Holt, from one of the richest families in town. Page Ashby, whose family owns orchards. Best friends. Barclay had a fight with a cousin and went into the woods, became part of the woods, became a bear, and now is back. Page followed into the woods, and also now has returned. Barclay fled his family because of lies and violence. Page because Page isn't seen as they want to be seen: Page is a non-binary trans boy, tired of having to explain, of not being seen.

Blanca is told that she can save them both if a blue eyed boy falls for her. Barclay is blue eyed. But Page, Page is the boy Blanca has been in love with despite never talking, the boy Blanca wants.

And Roja: Roja knew Barclay as a yearling bear, still calls him yearling.

And so much more! How blue eyed is viewed as better than brown. How the sisters are treated in school, how Roja is treated differently than Blanca because she is the darker sister. How they love and compete. How their parents see them, how their town see them.

Can these two girls win? Or will the swans?







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Thursday, November 07, 2019

Review: The Disturbed Girl's Dictionary

The Disturbed Girl's Dictionary The Disturbed Girl's Dictionary by NoNieqa Ramos
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Wow. I listened to this and man, it was tough at times.

Because Macy.

Macy.

Macy tells her story in a dictionary, starting with "a." She jumps around a bit in time, telling now but also giving glimpses of her past so you understand, a bit more, her now. Now: her father is in prison. Her mother moves from one "Mr. Guest" to another. Macy cannot stand these men, but she doesn't want her father to know. Her brother has been "kidnapped" by child services and Macy wants him back. Her best friend is mad at her because Macy doesn't want to go to her friend's big birthday party.

This is a look at people who have very few resources. Macy's mother became a mother at fifteen; her own mother had abandoned her, and while Macy hates many of the things her mother does, she also knows that her mother had no role model on how to be a mother.

That Macy's life is difficult is an understatement. Which is part of the reason I had a hard time reading it.

Macy's school calls her "disturbed" and they aren't wrong, in that Macy is headstrong, stubborn, often willing to bite off her nose to spite her face, more in the now than the future which means in the future she deals with consequences. She is also loyal, logical, cynical, loving, and smart. She can be her own worst enemy. But it's also clear that from her life, "now" is the only time you can rely on.

This is a snapshot of a year in her life, of what she will do to regain her brother; but also what she will do when her best friend is threatened.

A tough read; yes. But worth it.







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Tuesday, November 05, 2019

Review: Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree

Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Written by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, a Nigerian journalist, and Vivianna Mazza, an Italian journalist.

We are introduced to the teenage girl narrating this book by what she wants; what her dreams are. A new pair of red shoes. A good harvest. A scholarship to university. Becoming a teacher. Getting married to a good man.

For the first half of this book, we learn of her life, the daily life of her village and family. She has dreams; she loves her family; she has a crush on her boy. She and her family are Christian, but one of her best friends is Muslim. Violence exists elsewhere in their country because of the terrorist group Boko Haram, but in their village, people of different religions get along.

Halfway through the book, Boko Haram attack the village. The narrator and her friends are among a group who are kidnapped. At first, she thinks she is lucky: she is not dead, like the rest of her village. Like some of her family.

The second half is her life as a captive. Boko Haram force all the captives to follow their own radical beliefs. She watches as friends are beaten; her name is changed; she is forced into a marriage. It is heart breaking.

This is a work of fiction, based on the real life kidnappings in Nigeria, and the real stories of some of the girls who have been kidnapped. I fell in love with this girl and her world and her voice, and I hope the world is kind to her.

A note on the violence: yes. It’s there. But it’s not explicit. Don’t get me wrong – it’s horrifying. But it’s the “one sentence” description, not pages of description.






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Thursday, October 31, 2019

Review: Monday's Not Coming

Monday's Not Coming Monday's Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Claudia returns from her summer vacation at her grandmother’s looking forward to seeing her best friend, Monday; and not looking forward to eighth grade. Her best friend, almost sister, will make being at school better.

But Monday isn’t at school. And there’s no answer at her house. Her mother and sister are around, and Claudia hears different stories: Monday is at an aunt’s. Monday is at her father’s. Monday is being homeschooled. Monday doesn’t want to be her friend anymore.

Claudia’s worry grows, even as the adults around her dismiss her concerns.

This is told beautifully, in different sections of time: Before. Before (that is, last year.) And After. Claudia is telling the story, always, but from different points of time: now, then, flashbacks. It is confusing at times, but Claudia is also confused, as she tries to find her best friend and tries to see if there were clues in the past, and also tries to survive a year without her best friend – a year without her only friend, to be honest.

In addition to a chilling mystery that made me go back and start rereading immediately, this is also a story of a close working class family in Washington DC, full of local details about places, music, food. Part of the details includes how willing the police and other adults are to ignore the pleas of one young black girl to find another young black girl.

Tiffany D. Jackson is now one of my favorite mystery authors. I recommend this highly; and to sneak in another recommendation, her book ALLEGDLY about a nine year old accused of killing an infant.







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Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Review: Agatha Christie: A Mysterious life

Agatha Christie: A Mysterious life Agatha Christie: A Mysterious life by Laura Thompson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A biography of Agatha Christie.

Christie was born in 1890 and died in 1976. I love a biographies because they tell about a person I'm interested in, but also, in so telling, tells me about the times they lived in. For example, I'm always intrigued by the certain class of folks who were not rich yet had servants, because there's no way one would do their own cleaning or cooking. Or, the education that women did or did not get. Or, I guess I should say, the formal education.

Reading this inspired me to read and reread Christie's mysteries.

Some background on me: I was one of those who, as a teenager, went through an Agatha Christie phase. Now, I know that the books were sent when they were written; or, in other words, decades before I read them. Some were written closer to when I read them. But I have to say I never quite realized that; that sometimes, I was being show a lifestyle that no longer existed.

Anyway, now I'm going to read and reread; and I've decided to start with Miss Marple.





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Thursday, October 24, 2019

Review: Leah on the Offbeat

Leah on the Offbeat Leah on the Offbeat by Becky Albertalli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A companion to Simon vs The Homo Sapiens Agenda; center stage is one of Simon's best friends, Leah.

It's senior year; Leah is bisexual, but hasn't come out to her friends. So she's going through her senior year -- people assuming she's only into boys -- working out friend dynamics -- and having a crush on a girl who is straight. Or is she?

I love how Leah addresses Leah's being bisexual, and why coming out matters, and how having this secret means she is never wholly herself around others.

I love Leah's crush and the heartbreak and how it resolves.

This book also addresses the particularities of a high school friends group and those dynamics. I'll be honest: as an adult reading this, I just wanted to say at times "folks, you all need to chill a bit." But this book isn't written for me, a fiftysomething adult.

But a teenager reading this will identify so much. Of particular, how invested friends can be in each other's relationships, and that so-and-so have to be together always, and what it means to the connections if so-and-so break up. The intense feelings and drama. The belief that it's all for always and forever. (Now that said... some couples were indeed together at the end, implying a certain amount of always and forever.)







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