Archive for the ‘Jeanette’s Picks’ Category

cuckooLula Landry, a beautiful mixed-race supermodel, has fallen to her death from her third-floor flat onto the snow-covered walk in a posh section of London. The paparazzi and press go wild; everyone in the world is shocked. A woman who lives in the same building swears she heard a male voice arguing with Lula right before the fall, but the police investigate and determine Lula’s death a suicide. The witness, they conclude after lengthy investigation, is either a delusional coke-head or is in it for the publicity; she could not have heard anything through the triple-glazed windows of the high-end flats.

Three months later, young Robin Ellacott, newly engaged and newly arrived in London, is working for a temp agency as a secretary and is thrilled to find that her new assignment is for a private investigator, as she has always secretly wanted to be a private eye. Her first encounter with her new boss, the large, hairy, one-legged veteran of the war in Afghanistan, Cormoran Strike, however, is not a pleasant one, and she learns on the first day of her week-long assignment that Strike is in a great deal of debt, is getting death threats from a former client, has only one current client, and is apparently living in his office.

It is fortunate, then, that a new client shows up at Strike’s meager office. The brother of Lula Landry, John Bristow, is convinced that Lula’s fall was not suicide, and has come to hire Strike to investigate. Strike at first says no; his conscience tells him he cannot take the money to investigate something that he is confident has been so thoroughly looked into that any investigation on his part will change the outcome. Bristow, fuming, says he had been willing to pay double Strike’s fee. Strike relents, his debts and living conditions weighing into the decision.

J.K. Rowling can create wonderful characters, and many populate this mystery novel. Almost anyone Strike and Robin look into in the course of their investigation could be a suspect: Lula’s rock star ex-boyfriend Evan Duffield; film-producer and neighbor Freddy Bestigui; Rochelle, a down-and-out friend Lula met in rehab; Guy Somé, a designer for whom Lula modeled; American rapper Deeby Macc who was supposed to stay in the flat below Lula’s the night she died; relatives, drivers, doormen, fellow models, and even strangers could have had a motive. As I listened to this audiobook, I was constantly changing who I believed the killer was, or even if there was a killer.

The reader for the audiobook, British actor Robert Glenister, is excellent. Though I am no expert on British accents, from my point of view, he nailed the various accents. I could easily tell who was speaking, and his inflections added so much to the story that I would recommend listening to the audiobook over reading the book for the immersive pleasure of Glenister’s outstanding storytelling.

According to news reports, a sequel is planned for publication in 2014. I am hoping Rowling, either using her own name or that of her pseudonym, Robert Galbraith, will continue what promises to be an excellent mystery series where the complex, very likable, and extraordinarily adept Cormoran Strike and his proficient and enthusiastic assistant Robin Ellacott investigate many more cases.

Check the WRL catalog for the print version of The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Check the WRL catalog for the compact disc audiobook version of The Cuckoo’s Calling.

Check the OneClickDigital catalog for the downloadable audiobook version of The Cuckoo’s Calling

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amy_falls_downIn 2008, I wrote a review of The Writing Class, by Jincy Willett. That story revolved around Amy Gallup, the aging teacher of a writing class in which one of the students turned out to be a murderer. Willett’s latest novel continues Amy’s story, but does not involve a murder. As in her previous book, in Amy Falls Down, Willett dispenses fiction writing advice to readers while constructing a biting satire of the publishing industry.

The normally withdrawn Amy, a writer who had a few titles celebrated twenty or so years ago, has agreed to give an interview to a reporter from the San Diego paper doing a “where are they now” series about local authors. Before the interviewer comes for the afternoon appointment, Amy takes a Norfolk pine out to her raised garden. Keeping an eye on her aging basset hound, Alphonse, and her mind on other things, she loses her balance and falls, hitting her head on the bird bath. The interviewer comes and goes, and Amy later finds she has given a somewhat crazy interview that makes her sound like a quirky genius. Thanks to the Internet, her interview goes viral, and she becomes a celebrity. Her old agent Maxine calls her up and gets her booked on popular radio and television programs, and once again— twenty years since she was celebrated for her literary skill—she is in the public eye.

She does not like what the industry has become, where hot, new fiction is churned out rapidly and is pushed aggressively by publishers even if the books are drivel. The interviews she gives and the things she says on the panels that Maxine lines up for her are not just funny, but are inspiring to readers like me who love good writing and roll their eyes at most mega-best sellers. “Suppose there were a de facto moratorium on the brand-new printed word. Suppose all we were left to hold in our hands and read were the books that were already out there,” Amy says during one interview. The interviewer asks, “Wouldn’t that be terrible?” Amy replies, “For the first time in a hundred years, readers would have time to read all the books they’d been meaning to get to and the tens of thousands more that they never even heard of. Nosebleed-inducing farces. Horror stories guaranteed to rob us of sleep. Pulse-pounding page-turners. Sprawling, sumptuous histories. Best of all, those books that critics have told them were essential to our lives. Insightful novels of intoxicating ferocity. Intoxicating novels of ferocious insight. There’s a million of them and each one ‘compelling.’”

In some of the interviews, Amy discusses the state of fiction with a young, mega-bestselling writer and an old, alcoholic author who used to be lauded for his literary talent. She also stays in touch with some of the students from her old writing class and newer students who join them at a newly-established writers’ retreat of sorts at one of the older student’s houses. Each student has a unique personality and favors a different type of writing, which Amy skewers or admires as she reads from their manuscripts.

There are unexpected plot twists, especially near the end, that keep the book from merely being a polemic on the publishing industry. And while the novel is funny, there is a strong, emotional thread throughout as Amy frequently remembers her late, gay husband Max and his death from AIDS several years earlier. The book is hard to characterize. It has a pink cover, and, as I told anyone who saw me reading it, “I do not usually read pink books.” It may be packaged for women, but it should be a treat for anyone who loves books, especially anyone critical of pop best sellers and how they’re hyped.

Check the WRL catalog for Amy Falls Down.

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Blister rust. Cibiscosis. Genehack weevil. Plant and human diseases mutate quickly in the 23rd century, where genehacking by the powerful calorie companies runs the economy. Staying ahead of the plagues can cause otherwise honorable people to justify acts they would never believe they were capable of committing. Major cities, including New York and Mumbai, were drowned as the planet heated; the capital city in Thailand is protected by levees and pumps. Fossil fuels were mostly spent out generations ago. Most power is now human- or beast-created and stored in springs; computers are driven by treadle; radios are hand-cranked. Bicycles, ships, and dirigibles provide transportation.

Anderson Lake manages the SpringLife kink-spring factory in the capital city of Thailand. Megadonts, huge beasts of burden that have been genehacked from elephants, power the factory. SpringLife kink-springs, when finally manufactured, should hold and disperse many more joules than regular springs. This huge factory, with its workers, its megadonts and their handlers, is failing, though Anderson keeps it running. It’s a cover for his real purpose in Thailand. He works covertly for AgriGen, a calorie company based in Des Moines. He’s in Thailand to figure out how the kingdom is growing disease-resistant crops independently of the calorie companies. Potatoes, tobacco, and other nightshades flourish in the markets in Thailand—how can that be when most natural plants succumb to the diseases that thrive and mutate in the age of genetically modified produce of AgriGen, PurCal, RedStar, U Texas and other calorie companies?

Emiko is a windup girl—one of the New People—a genetically modified humanoid “born” in a crèche in Japan and bred to serve her master. She began her life as a kind of secretary for her owner, Gendo-sama, but after he brought her to Thailand on a business trip, he discarded her; dirigible fare back to Japan is exorbitant and Gendo-sama, who had once told Emiko she was beautiful and perfect, found it more economical to simply purchase a newer model once he got back to Japan. As an unnatural species, Emiko is illegal in Thailand, but Raleigh, her new owner, pays bribes to the Environment Ministry to keep her in his club.  She earns her keep as an entertainer in a sexually humiliating show for the pleasure of the patrons of the club. For the most part, Emiko can blend in with humans, though her engineered stutter-stop motions give her away, and her specifically designed small pore structure, fine in cooler Japan, causes her to overheat in Thailand.

When Anderson meets Emiko, Emiko reveals a vital clue to him about the plague-resistant foods, and he tells her something that changes her life forever—and ultimately leads to a rebalancing of power between the Thai government and the calorie companies.

Anderson and Emiko are just two of the many complex characters in the richly-developed Thai kingdom of the future that Bacigalupi has created. Anderson’s assistant, Hock Seng, a “yellow card” refugee from an environmental disaster in Malaysia, has plans and secrets of his own. The head of the White Shirts, the Environment Ministry enforcers, Jaidee Rojjanasukchai and his lieutenant, the unsmiling Kanya Chirathivat, play their parts in this dense and detailed world. Trust and loyalty, kamma or karma, love, regret, and identity are themes that run throughout the novel. Religious beliefs and practices—Christian and Buddhist—have evolved also with the changing environment. The world described in The Windup Girl seems frighteningly possible as we ignore environmental concerns and allow corporations to patent seeds and genes.

The Windup Girl is novel that can be read multiple times without losing its surprises. It’s one of the best novels I have read in many years. It tied with China Miéville’s The City & the City (also a great novel) for the 2010 Hugo Award for best novel.

Check the WRL catalog for The Windup Girl.

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Robert M. Hazen’s exciting explanations of how the Earth and its geologic and biologic systems formed and changed had my head spinning with growing knowledge and dawning comprehension. About five billion years ago—several billion years after the Big Bang, which Hazen explains well enough for me to finally grasp, somewhat—an event such as a shock wave from an exploding star caused a cloud of gas and dust to collapse into a star system, our Solar System. “Like a twirling ice-skater, the big cloud rotated faster and faster as gravity pulled its wispy arms to the center. As it collapsed and spun faster, the cloud became denser and flattened into a disk with a growing central bulge—the nascent Sun.” Scientists can’t say for sure how the planets formed, but because all the planets more or less rotate in the same direction and are more or less on the same plane, Hazen explains, most scientists speculate that the planets formed from the same rotating gas and dust as the Sun, and were not objects hurtling through space captured by the Sun’s gravitational pull, as was once thought.

The Earth has gone through many drastic changes since forming. The names of the chapters in The Story of Earth illustrate this: Black Earth: The First Basalt Crust; Blue Earth, The Formation of the Oceans; Gray Earth: The First Granite Crust; Living Earth: The Origins of Life; Red Earth: Photosynthesis and the Great Oxidation Event; The “Boring” Billion: The Mineral Revolution (Surprise: these billion years were anything but boring!); White Earth: The Snowball-Hothouse Cycle; Green Earth: The Rise of the Terrestrial Biosphere. I’ve never really imagined our planet as anything other than a grey ball of rock slowly turning blue and green as life began. This book shows how that view is far from accurate.

The Moon, too, has changed over the billions of years. Did you know that it is moving away from the Earth by about 3.82 centimeters per year? Scientists know this because Apollo astronauts left mirrors on the surface of the moon in the 1960s and 70s, and scientists measure the distance very accurately by bouncing laser beams off them. If the moon is moving away from the earth at that rate, can you imagine how close the moon was to the earth 4.5 billion years ago? It would have looked gigantic. The surface of the Moon was quite different back then, too. According to Hazen, “The early Moon was a violent body of intense volcanism, quite unlike the static silvery-gray object we see now. Its surface would have appeared black, with glowing red magma-filled cracks and volcanic basins easily visible from Earth.” Hazen explains the current theory of how the Moon was formed by what he calls “The Big Thwack,” or the giant impact theory.

4.5 billion years is an unfathomably long time. In 283 pages, Hazen is able to clarify to someone like me, who never took many science classes, the current theories of how Earth and the Moon formed, how life began, how mineralogical forces influence life and how life in turn influences mineralogy, and many other fascinating phenomena. One of the more interesting sections was of the Great Oxidation Event, something I had heard about but had never understood. He writes about how he and his colleagues figured out that many of the minerals we see today—turquoise, azurite, malachite, and thousands of others—could never have occurred without the Great Oxidation Event, and thus how such minerals would never be found on a non-living astronomical body like the Moon or Mars.

If you have an interest in this planet on which we’re living, and you want to know more about how it got here, how it has changed throughout the estimated 4.5 billion years since it formed, and where it may be going, read this book. It’s fascinating.

Check the WRL catalog for The Story of Earth

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I started reading the title story in Dan Chaon’s dark and mesmerizing collection, Stay Awake, before going to sleep. I thought it was an interesting little story about a deformed baby with two heads. The parents had decided not to name each head, but only the “host” one, the one that might survive the inevitable and extremely risky surgery. The surgery would bring an end to whatever consciousness was in the “parasitic” head, which was capable of blinking and smiling and probably not much else, and may in fact kill Rosalie, the head that was more alert. I was tired and, frankly, looking forward to finishing the story and putting the book aside so I could sleep. When I got to the end of the story, and, with a jolt, understood what happened, I could not sleep. As befitted the title, I lay there awake, contemplating consciousness, thought, emotion, self, life — what exactly is this stuff that goes on inside a person’s brain?

Probably my favorite story is “Slowly We Open Our Eyes.” Two brothers are driving cross-country in the semi truck one of the brothers drives for a living. They think they have hit a deer, though the drugs and peppermint schnapps they’ve consumed may have twisted their perceptions.  In “I Wake Up,” an older sister — at least she says she’s his older sister — contacts her younger brother after being separated for years when their mother drowns two of their other siblings.  In “St. Dismas,” a young man kidnaps the son of his meth-addicted girlfriend and takes him on a cross-country trip, breaking and entering into people’s houses. What is he to do with the boy? He hadn’t thought the whole thing through. When he gets to his own isolated boyhood home in the country, ripe with memories, he makes a decision.  In “Patrick Lane, Flabbergasted,” a young man tries to get through life after his parents leave him a suicide note on the front door of the house in which he thought they were a happy family. The living space in the house narrows bit by bit as memories and mementos he can’t face force him to shut himself into a smaller and smaller space.  In the story most akin to a ghost story — “The Farm. The Gold. The Lily-White Hands” — three sisters contemplate how their lives would be different if their Daddy had succeeded in killing them twenty years earlier.

The stories in this collection could be called horror stories, though there are no monsters, no aliens, no scary chases. There are, perhaps, some ghosts. The real terror comes from losing control of your mind, of not quite grasping what is going on around you. The horror comes from the inside:  confused states stemming from grief, separation, guilt. These twelve stories are mostly inner dialogues — somber, sometimes philosophical narrations by family members who have been through hell at the hands of someone who should have loved them. They start out gently, with little hints dropped throughout the narration that something just isn’t quite right and, by the end of the story, the reader realizes how utterly horrible the protagonist’s circumstances have been. Chaon powerfully describes the warped senses and circumstances of his characters, subtly weaving horror into what at first appear to be commonplace situations.

Check the WRL catalog for Stay Awake

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I remember seeing the news about the mass suicide in Jonestown, Guyana, when I was a student at William & Mary. I stood watching the television in the cafeteria, unable to believe that the story was real. My friends tried to convince me that it was real, that the story had been in the news and they’d been following it, but I was convinced they were pulling my leg. I thought it was a bad tv movie using real network news reporters as actors. When a reporter said a California congressman had been shot and killed, I was convinced it had to be fiction. Nothing like that could ever happen in real life.

But, no, it was real. Almost a thousand people had “killed themselves” by “drinking Kool-Aid.” As Scheeres’s book emphasizes, it wasn’t really Kool-Aid but an off-brand flavored drink to which had been added enough cyanide to kill everyone in the commune in Guyana, and many of the people who ingested the poison that night did not do so willingly. Many were in Guyana against their will and had been led to Guyana under false pretenses. None-the-less, the phrase “drinking the Kool-Aid” has come into popular use to mean, according to Wikipedia, “a person or group’s unquestioning belief in an ideology, argument, or philosophy without critical examination.”

For the thirty-four years between the news reports of the tragedy at Jonestown in 1978 to the time I read Julia Scheeres’s book, I hadn’t really thought about the individuals who died that night. In “A Thousand Lives,” Scheeres concentrates on a few of those thousand, and shows how they ended up as part of Jim Jones’ sick cult. For the most part, individuals and families joined Jones’ Peoples Temple because they thought it was a community of racial and social equality, and that Jones was a powerful, positive healer who was in communication with God himself. By the time they found out that things were not as they’d been led to believe, they had been manipulated into giving Jones all their money and could not afford to escape. Some had been coerced into signing fake confessions to sexual crimes they did not commit; Jones threatened to make these “confessions” public to ensure the followers’ allegiance to the Temple.

The individual stories put faces to tragedy. Hyacinth Thrash and her sister, Zeporah, were black women who had grown up in segregated Alabama. Hy saw the Peoples Temple as a congregation of racial equality and saw Jones as a healer. The sisters followed Jones from Chicago to San Francisco and ultimately to Guyana as he moved his Temple as it grew. Stanley Clayton was a black seventeen-year-old foster child living near San Francisco when he heard Jones preach. He thought Jones was a savior that would help keep him off the streets. Edith Roller, an older white secretary, felt strongly that she needed to help the hungry and work toward peace and justice. She saw the Peoples Temple as a place that matched her ideals. Jim Bogue was a father who found the Peoples Temple after the accidental death of one of his sons pushed him to reevaluate his beliefs and his spiritual commitment to God. Tommy Bogue, Jim Bogue’s teenage son, was sent to Jonestown by his mother to be with his father. With his friend  Brian, Tommy tried to escape the cult in the jungle. (Photos of Hyacinth, Stanley Edith and Tommy are at http://juliascheeres.com/index.shtml)

Scheeres also paints a picture of Jones himself, and attempts to explain how, with the help of a handful of others he appointed to positions of power, he was able to control the 900-some people who joined the Peoples Temple. It is still hard to believe that nearly a thousand people would join Jones’ community, and would stay once they realized it was not a socialist paradise, but Scheeres’s book helps make clear how cults are formed. Powerful people make promises to pull people in, and use threats, fear and poverty to keep them in line. The story of Jonestown is much more complex than a flock of sheep following a man without question.

Written as a novel, but with detailed references in the back, Scheeres’s story of Jonestown was hard for me to put down.

Check the WRL catalog for A Thousand Lives



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I don’t think I’d ever heard of dog agility before I scrolled through the library’s non-fiction ebook selections and saw Robert Rodi’s Dogged Pursuit: My Year of Competing Dusty, the World’s Least Likely Agility Dog. Dusty, a funny-looking, grayish Sheltie, looking happy and proud in mid-jump over a bar, was pictured on the book’s cover. I was intrigued.

I learned that dog agility is a sport in which dogs and their handlers move through a series of obstacles, competing with other dogs and handlers for speed and accuracy. Some of the obstacles include bars to jump over, plastic tunnels to run through, A-frame structures to climb over, weave poles to run in and out of slalom-like, and (dreaded especially by Dusty) a teeter-totter that slaps down to the ground when the dog runs up to the middle of it.

Rodi had been entering another Sheltie, Carmen, in agility competitions, and had earned a few novice titles and ribbons until Carmen developed canine hip dysplasia. Carmen had seemed to enjoy the agility circuit in her prime, but her condition meant she could no longer compete. Rodi found himself missing the weekends on the circuit—something he never thought he would enjoy when he first started, as he thought of himself as an outsider, a “blue-state guy in a red-state world.” Rodi is an epicure, a sophisticate, and at first didn’t identify with the Midwesterners he thought of as “fanatics chasing ribbons.” Oh no, not him.

After Carmen was side-lined, Rodi looked for another Sheltie. He found Dusty on the website of the Central Illinois Sheltie Rescue. “…[W]hen I first glanced at Dusty’s photo, the phrase that came to mind was ‘heroin chic.’ A moment later, I changed my mind and dropped the ‘chic’.” It was not love at first sight, even when Rodi met Dusty in person and Dusty cowered under a chair. But the Rescue’s description of Dusty as a fast runner, able to jump over six-foot fences, helped persuade Rodi to sign the adoption papers and bring Dusty to the home he shared in Chicago with his partner Jeffrey.

Dusty was not another Carmen. He didn’t catch on quickly to the doggie track and field and didn’t seem to care either about getting ribbons or, really, about Rodi. Still, Rodi persisted for a year, taking Dusty to trials and competitions, making the circuit with their buddies from the dog training classes. Rodi’s very funny descriptions of what the two went through that year kept me chuckling. It wasn’t just Dusty having a hard time adjusting to the demands of the circuit, but Rodi, trying to fit in socially with people he felt he had little in common with.

Dusty gave Rodi mixed signals about whether or not he liked the agility work. On the advice of a fellow trainer, Rodi took him to an animal communicator, a.k.a., a “dog whisperer,” who translated Dusty’s thoughts to his owner. It’s interesting to read what people will spend money on for their dogs. Aromatherapy, too, is sold to dog owners and agility trainers.

Some trainers employ other unorthodox methods of preparing their dogs for the track, and if you’re easily offended, you may want to avoid the whole chapter on “Magic time.” Dusty gets car sick, and Rodi may drink a bit much at times. He writes about unpleasant bodily fluids almost as often as he describes the delicious-sounding gourmet meals he prepares at home.

If you read this book, you’ll learn what dog agility is all about, and you’ll probably have a few good laughs along the way.

Check the WRL catalog for Dogged Pursuit, or download Dogged Pursuit from WRL’s collection of ebooks.


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