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Saturday, February 24, 2018

Hardcore Twenty-Four

Snakes, zombies, junk food - what's not to love in Janet Evanovich's latest Stephanie Plum, Hardcore Twenty-Four (#725)?  Oh, and did I mention totaling one luxury car after another (on loan from the ever patient Ranger) in various inventive ways?  I think I laughed the loudest at the woodchuck incident...

It's just another typical work day when Stephanie winds up promising to take care of a boa constrictor for one of her apprehended fugitives.  And that was pretty much the highlight of her day with headless corpses in the funeral homes, reports of zombies roaming Trenton, and her grandmother Mazur starting an on-line romance with a George Hamilton look-alike in Florida.  When the mysterious Diesel shows up at her apartment, Stephanie may be forced to give in to temptation; the only question is, with which eligible bachelor?

As always, the Stephanie Plum series is guaranteed to take your mind off your own problems, even if it's only for a few enjoyable hours!

Before We Were Yours

After reading Lisa Wingate's powerful novel based on a scandalous American adoption racket, I'd say the actual Georgia Tann must be doing a lot of explaining in the afterlife to justify her actions.  Before We Were Yours (#724) is fiction, but the five Foss children who were legally stolen away from their parents in the late 1930s are an amalgamation of documented cases of abuse, cruelty, and the most powerful motivator of all, the profit Tann turned from large sums of money for healthy children paid by desperate adoptive parents.

Rill Foss does her best to keep her siblings together after the police come to their Mississippi riverboat shanty moored near Memphis.  They claim to be taking the children to see their parents at the hospital in Memphis, but it soon becomes obvious that it is a lie.  Mistreated, starved and in real physical danger, the most appealing children vanish after "showing parties".  The unappealing and unwanted ones simply disappear. Rill struggles desperately to do what is best for her sisters and brother even if it means separation.

In the present day Avery Stafford has returned home to South Carolina from a promising career as a federal prosecutor in Baltimore.  She is being groomed to carry on her father's work in Congress  A chance encounter at a nursing home appearance with her father's campaign leads to some unsettling questions when the old woman claims to know her Grandma Judy.  No one else in the family seems to know anything about May Crandall, but the more Avery looks into it, the more she thinks May's claim maybe real.  The one thing the Stafford family cannot afford is a secret which could be used by the opposition party against her father.  Better that Avery finds the truth on her own.

In telling this horrific tale, Ms. Wingate has given the reader empathetic characters in Rill and Avery.  Everyone was exploited here; children, prospective parents, biological parents; it's difficult to know whose plight was the worst.  Since Before We Were Yours is a work of fiction, in the case of Rill Foss, she was able to create a happy ending, but for almost all of Georgia Tann's victims, this was not the case.  The only good that seems to have come out of the whole sorry mess is that her work did much to remove the stigma of adoption in the American public's eyes.  But then one must ask the question, was all the suffering worth it?  This novel makes you think about that.

I realize it's been a long time since I've said anything a book's cover, but I did think the composite photo cover on Before We Were Yours captured a moment in this book so perfectly I had to comment on it.  If you've read the book, you've probably had the same moment of recognition.  Kudos to the designer for perfectly embodying the bond of sisterhood.

Monday, February 19, 2018

Oil and Marble

What inspires an artist to create a masterpiece?  Stephanie Storey in her debut novel, Oil and Marble (#723) explores that question.  Set during the five year period when Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo Bounaroti were both living in Florence, Michelangelo was bury creating his marble colossus David, while Leonardo, remarkably, was immortalizing Mona Lisa.  The two artists were known to dislike each other.  Did their rivalry play a role in producing these renowned works of art?

We'll never know for sure, but it was interesting reading about them.  Ms. Storey alternates chapters between her two protagonists as each strives to best the other.  To be honest, I really didn't like either of them particularly, but if I had to choose just one as a dinner companion, it would have to be Leonardo, but only if that dinner were well chaperoned!  Michelangelo would have been way too intense, plus his smell would have  put any modern person off his or her meal.

My one nitpick about this book is that the author uses twenty first century slang throughout.  I just find that jarring when reading historical fiction.  It interrupts the flow of the narrative for me as I stop and think "They didn't use 'okay' in Renaissance Italy - it comes from American political slogans! (And if you're still not sure of the origin of 'okay', look it up!)  Count yourself fortunate if you've ever been privileged to see either or both of these masterpieces in person!  After reading this novel, you'll be longing to book your trip to visit them.

Monday, February 12, 2018

UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens; What Science Says

After you read Michael Shermer's Foreword to Donald R. Prothero and Timothy D. Callahan's book UFOs, Chemtrails, and Aliens; What Science Says (#722), it really isn't necessary to read any further, so I didn't.

His point here is that nothing has been proved in terms of alien encounters in any way, shape or form, despite claims to the contrary.  That's fine.  The authors pair this with a book-long recapitulation of P.T. Barnum's immortal words, "There's a sucker born every minute."  I believe much of the book consists of examples of how people have been taken in by false claims and outright scams because they want to believe in aliens and UFOs.  I got the message.

As for, I'll suspend my judgment.  The authors haven't proved they don't exist either.  Remember those in the scientific community who scoffed at the existence of the Higgs Boson particle not so long ago!  I suppose only time will tell.

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place

The Grave's a Fine and Private Place (#721) is Alan Bradley's ninth book in his Flavia de Luce mystery series, one of my favorites.  I don't think there's anyone else quite like Flavia in the literary world.  Her passion is chemistry, and as a precocious twelve year old living on an isolated estate in Post WWII England, she has the time to devote to scientific investigation and experimentation, whether that's tormenting her two older sisters, or poking into local suspicious deaths.  It's not as hard as it may seem, since trouble has a way of finding Flavia.

Flavia's father has recently died, and the entire household is having a difficult time adjusting to his loss  Dogger, his faithful batmen, suggests a driving trip in the country, now that gas rationing has been lifted.  An afternoon's quiet punting trip brings their holiday to a sudden halt when Flavia snags a body submerged in the river.  It just so happens that the corpse is found at the same village where the notorious Canon Whitbread had poisoned three of his elderly parishioners with communion wine several years previously.

Flavia just can't help herself by poking around the village, but she is showing signs of growing up.  She manages to make some brief, but real connections with her sisters Daffy and Feely.  Of course she does stir things up to the point where she nearly become a victim herself. 

One of the most surprising things to happen in this book, though, concerns Dogger, and a chance encounter with close friend.  Things may be looking up for all the residents of Buckshaw, now Flavia's property.  I just had to love a mystery that quotes the Anglican Communion Service so extensively.  Flavia is Roman Catholic herself, but her years of attending St. Tancred's in Bishop's Lacey pay off here! 

Just a note if you are thinking of reading this wonderful series; it's best read from the beginning (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie)  in order to really appreciate it, but you'll be glad you did..

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

The Afterlives

Another novel about life and death, Thomas Pierce's The Afterlives (#720) is peculiar, but in a much more interesting way than The Immortalists.  Jim Byrd, aged thirty, has suffered an electrical failure of his heart.  In fact, for five minutes, he was clinically dead.  So why didn't he see the bright lights or tunnel, or loved ones that others with Near Death experiences claim to have had?  Is there, in fact, an afterlife?  And if so, what is it like?  Jim spends the rest of his life looking for answers, much like the rest of us.  I don't know that all of us would go quite as far in exploring the issue as Jim does, but it makes for interesting reading.

Ghosts blend with a physicist's experiments with time and matter, and an unconventional church in Jim's Blue Ridge hometown.  His family and girlfriend are caught up in his search for meaning as well.  I found this cast of characters much more likeable and relatable than the sorry members of The Immortalists 's Gold clan.  The Afterlives doesn't answer any of the great questions of our day, but it's an enjoyable ride.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Red Clocks

The best thing I can say about Leni Zumas's novel about reproductive politics, Red Clocks (#719), is that I didn't have to finish reading it.  I almost gave up twenty pages in, but I did plow ahead for an additional forty pages before I finally gave up.

This dystopian near-future novel has been compared favorably to The Hand Maid's Tale (which I also did not like).  In an America only a couple of years down the road, a new Amendment has been added to the Constitution - The Personhood Amendment, which grants full rights of life, liberty and property to fetuses from the moment of conception.  Abortion is no longer legal, nor is in vitro fertilization - the embryo cannot consent to the process.  I did not have any trouble picturing Mike Pence as the presidential candidate who signs the bill the day after his inauguration, so I can very well imagine this happening.

What I did not like was the disjointed manner of jumping from unnamed character to unnamed character in their varying situations: mother, healer/witch forest crone, unwed teenage girl, single woman seeking to become pregnant before it is too late both biologically and legally.  The narrative never settles, blending in the story of a nineteenth century female Icelandic polar explorer.  Much of the imagery is distasteful to me.  Again, the ecstatic cover blurbs completely perplexed me.  It's up to you if you want to see for yourself, but I certainly cannot recommend Red Clocks.