Book Review: White Tears by Hari Kunzru


AuthorHari Kunzru
TitleWhite Tears
Narrators: Lincoln Hoppe, Danny Campbell, Dominic Hoffman
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

This novel is narrated by Seth, a young white man working as a studio engineer as a partner to Carter, a friend from art school who shares his love for music.  Carter comes from a wealthy family and is a douchey bro who claims to only listen to Black music from the analog era because of its “realness.”  Seth is the narrator but Kunzru leaks through that he’s also not the most admirable person.

As part of his work, Seth records ambient sounds around the city that are digitally edited into musical recordings. On one occasion, he records a man singing a blues song and on Carter’s prompting, Seth edits it to sound like a scratchy 78 from the Twenties and they release it as a lost blues song by a musician named Charlie Shaw.  They are then contacted by a record collector who informs them that he last heard this recording in 1959 and that Charlie Shaw is real.

This sets off the narrative in which Seth loses everything, possibly even his mind.  It’s never clear if he’s beset by a phantasmagorical punishment for cultural appropriation or if it’s a story told by an unreliable narrator suffering mental illness. Seth’s narrative is interrupted by the record collector’s story (one in which he has a subservient relationship with a partner paralleling Seth and Carter) and Charlie Shaw himself.  It’s a clever and creepy and gory and unsettling book, that’s nevertheless hard to stop reading.

Recommended booksWelcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson, Ghost World by Daniel Clowes, and Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Rating: ***

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Book Review: Astral Weeks by Ryan H. Walsh


Author:Ryan H. Walsh
TitleAstral Weeks
Narrator: Stephen Hoye
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

This book’s title is named after Van Morrison’s seminal 1968 album Astral Weeks. The Irish singer/songwriter and his newlywed wife Janet Planet spent much of 1968 living in Cambridge where he wrote many of the songs that appeared on Astral Weeks as well as latter releases such as “Moondance.” The connecting thread of this Secret History of 1968 is Morrison touring New England with a band of Boston musicians, shifting from rock & roll to a folk jazz sound, and being awfully cantankerous and drinking too much while doing so.  The actual album was recorded in New York City with jazz session musicians, Morrison’s Boston band mates only allowed to observe what was happening in the studio, as much as Walsh tries to sell this as a Boston-based album.

A better title for the book might be Things that Happened in and Around Boston in 1968 (and a Few Years Before and After for Context).  What the book lacks in having a cohesive narrative it makes up in having lots of interesting stories of Boston in the age of the counterculture. This history is often overlooked compared with what was going on in San Francisco, Chicago, New York, and elsewhere that year, but it is no less interesting for being forgotten.

The other major thread of this book is the Fort Hill Community, a commune or cult based around the Cochituate Standpipe in Roxbury lead by the messianic Mel Lyman.  The Lyman Family seemed to have their finger into every aspect of the Boston counterculture including the folk music scene (Jim Kweskin was a member), avant guarde filmmaking, and the popular underground newspaper Avatar.

In addition to Van Morrison, Walsh covers the Boston/Cambridge music scene which was shifting from the folk revival to psychedelic rock.  Unfortunately, MGM executives targeted Boston as the next big music scene and marketed a number of Boston bounds as the “Bosstown Sound.” Fans and critics saw through the cash grab and roundly rejected the Bosstown Sound.

While Boston bands were flopping, a New York band, The Velvet Underground gained a large following in Boston and played many shows in the area.  A teenage Jonathan Richman recognized Lou Reed on the street and became the VU’s superfan/mascot.  Walsh notes that in later years as original members of the Velvet Underground left the band they were replaced with Boston artists so that the final Velvet Underground album in 1973 was actually the work of a Boston bar band.

The Velvets home away from home was the South End night club The Boston Tea Party (pictured on their White Light/White Heat album).  The Boston Tea Party became the go-to place to see the latest and best music acts of the late 60s.  At the same time WBCN-FM began experimenting with a freeform rock format, first on overnights, then 24-hours a day, playing many of the same bands that performed at the Boston Tea Party and broadcasting concerts.

On television, WGBH broadcasted the experimental television program “What’s Happening, Mr. Silver?” which was part talk show, part film collage, and featured an episode that could be watched on two stations at the same time if you happened to have two TVs.

Boston also played a role in four widely diverse films in this period:

  • The Boston Strangler – a real crime drama starring Tony Curtis filmed at the time the case against Albert DeSalvo was still active.
  • The Thomas Crown Affair – a heist film with lots of scenes shot on location in Boston and vicinity.
  • Titicut Follies – a controversial documentary exposing the poor conditions at Bridgewater State Hospital (or would have if the movie hadn’t been banned for two decades).
  • Zabriskie Point – Italian director  Michelangelo Antonioni’s attempt at a American countculture drama that cast a non-actor found at a Boston bus stop as a lead character.  Both the youthful leads in the movie ended up associated with the Fort Hill Commune.

Late in the book, Walsh recounts the night James Brown saved Boston by playing a concert at Boston Garden broadcast live on WGBH.  The negotiations with the square Boston mayor Kevin White and his young assistant Barney Frank are particularly amusing.  This plays into the bigger story of racial tensions in Boston and a shift to more radical civil rights actions in the African-American community.  The Lyman Family ties in once again as the all-white commune had strained relations with their Black neighbors in Roxbury.  Surprisingly, Walsh does not cover the Tent City protests in the South End which were one of the most significant events in Boston in 1968 (unless I dozed while listening or something).

If you’re interested in Boston history and/or the counterculture, this is a good book that will fill in some overlooked parts of history.

 

 

Recommended booksBaby, Let Me Follow You Down: The Illustrated Story of the Cambridge Folk Years by Eric Von Schmidt, Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen, and Storming Heaven: LSD and the American Dream by Jay Stevens.
Rating: ****

Book Review: The True Flag by Stephen Kinzer


AuthorStephen Kinzer
TitleThe True Flag
Narrator: Robert Petkoff
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2017)

Previously Read by the Same Author: All the Shah’s Men

Summary/Review:

This book explores the strains of American foreign policy which veers over the course of history between imperialist and interventionist goals and isolationism. Kinzer argues that these two positions have a long history, and the tension between them has repeated since at least the turn of the twentieth century.  The imperialist urge emerges with the outbreak of the Spanish American War and the United States taking control of foreign territories for the first time in the Philippines, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. The interventionists argue that the peoples of these lands will find freedom under American control, seemingly at odds with the democratic ideals of our own Revolution.  Anti-imperialists then as now try to get Americans to cling to these principles and restrain their militarist impulses, with Mark Twain the most prominent voice.  Theodore Roosevelt stands as the icon of imperialism in this book, although Kinzer describes Henry Cabot Lodge as the actor working behind the scenes of the imperialist cause, up to and including engineering Roosevelt’s rise to the presidency.

Recommended booksThe Bully Pulpit by Doris Kearns Goodwin and The People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Island at the Center of the World by Russell Shorto


AuthorRussell Shorto
Title:The Island at the Center of the World
Narrator: L.J. Ganser
Publication Info: Prince Frederick, Md. : Recorded Books, p2004.
Previously Read by the Same Author: Amsterdam: A History of the World’s Most Liberal City
Summary/Review:

Shorto composes a brief, popular history of the Dutch colony of New Netherland, specifically focusing on the settlement on Manhattan island.  He contends that the Dutch colony is often overlooked in American history and what is known about it is generally based on English sources that downplay the significance of the Dutch. A decades-long project to translate and publish Dutch records in the state archives at Albany has opened a new understanding of the times when “old New York was once New Amsterdam.”

The narrative examines the history of the Dutch settlements between English New England and Swedish Delaware starting with the exploration by Henry Hudson of the river once named for him.  Relationships within the colonies, to the Netherlands, with other European colonists, and with the indigenous peoples are explored.  Some familiar names such as Peter Minuit and Peter Stuyvesant pop up, but the key figure is the less well-known Adriaen van der Donck, whom Shorto considers a candidate for the founding father of New York.  He’s remembered indirectly by way of his honorific Jonkheer, became the name of the city built on his former estate, Yonkers.

Shorto argues that what the Dutch created in New Amsterdam ended up having lasting influence on the future United States.  Coleslaw and Santa Claus are just a couple of things that the Dutch colony introduced to the Americas. More specifically, Shorto illustrates how Manhattan became an early center of religious tolerance, cultural plurality, and free trade, all things embraced by Americans, albeit awkwardly in balance with the Puritan traditions handed down from our New England forebears.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

 

Book Review: Ghostland: An American History in Haunted Places by Colin Dickeyi


Author: Colin Dickey
TitleGhostland: An American History in Haunted Places
Narrator: Jon Lindstrom
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2016)
Summary/Review:

This book is a travelogue of haunted places in the United States, but it’s not the anthology of creepy stories you may expect.  While the author is skeptical of ghosts and hauntings, this is also not a work of debunking.  Instead it’s a deeper analysis of the stories as folklore that explain the hidden parts of the human psyche as well as how Americans deal with the past (or more commonly, how we hide from it).

Stops on his tour include places known for traumatic events and exploitation, such as brothels, prisons, asylums, ghost towns, sites connected with slavery, and even hotels.  Dickey visits several cities that have made an industry of monetizing their traumatic history as ghost stories for tourists, including Salem, Savannah, and New Orleans.  These stories can sanitize past tragedies while clearing us of wrongdoing. Then there’s the message of the ruin porn of Detroit where the message is that someone’s hubris is definitely to blame, although that may also be a deferral.

In short, one may open a book of ghost stories and find oneself reading a social justice critique of the United States instead.  And a good one at that.

Favorite Passages:

“… all of these stories, in one way or another, respond to history.  Ghost stories like this are a way for us to revel in the open wounds of the past while any question of responsibility for that past blurs, then fades away.” – p. 48

“If the Kirkbride asylums are haunted, they are haunted by the difference between how history is conceived and how it plays out.” – p. 185

“Surely ghosts will follow wherever there is bad record keeping.” – p. 200

“Ghosts stories, for good or ill, are how cities make sense of themselves: how they narrate the tragedies of their past, weave cautionary tales for the future. ” – p. 248

Recommended booksBeloved by Toni Morrison, The Vanishing Hitchhiker: American Urban Legends and Their Meanings by Jan Harold Brunvand, and Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong by James W. Loewen
Rating: ****

Book Review: American Amnesia by Jacob S. Hacker


Author: Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson
TitleAmerican Amnesia 
Narrator: Holter Graham
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2016)
Summary/Review:

Two political scientists discuss the history of the “mixed economy” in the United States, how it was dismantled, and why our current political and economic malaise is due to it’s absence.  The mixed economy was ascendant in the United States from roughly the 1910s to the 1970s and at it’s height received wide bipartisan support and was recognized as unchallengable norm by even the most right-wing Republicans.  Mixed economy is defined as one in which corporations have wide ranging freedom to control the means of production and accumulate capital but the government has strong powers of regulation while also providing extensive public services.

During the long progressive period when the US was under a mixed economy, government was generally looked upon in a positive light.  The “American amnesia” is the state we are in today where most Americans are anti-government and have completely forgotten our ancestors’ admiration for government.  This is due to a five decade campaign spearheaded by individuals such as the Koch Brothers and corporate interests like the Business Round Table and the Chamber of Commerce whose Randian ideology of free market libertarianism required debasing and then dismantling the government and the mixed economy.  These views soon were adopted as the Republican Party platform and by the 1990s, even Democrats echoed anti-government sentiments.

This book is important work of political science, economics, and history that shows where Americans once were in a time of more generally widespread prosperity, how we lost that, and what we can do to regain it.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson


Author: Joshilyn Jackson
TitleGods in Alabama
Narrator: Catherine Taber
Publication Info: Hachette Audio (2005)
Summary/Review:

This is a novel I saw highly recommended but didn’t know too much about going into it.  And since it jumps among many genres – romantic comedy, mystery, Southern gothic – it kept me guessing what would happen next (in a good way).  The narrator Arlene Fleet leaves her hometown in rural Alabama after a “miracle,” and promises God three things: never to lie, never to fornicate, and to never return to Possett, Alabama. 10 years later, an old classmate from Possett appears in Arlene’s life and forces her to make the decision to break all three promises.

Accompanying Arlene on her journey back to Alabama is her African-American boyfriend/potential fiance, setting up a confrontation with Arlene’s racist relatives. Arlene also has to contend with her strong-willed Aunt Florence, who raised her when her own mother suffered mental illness.  And she has to contend with the legacy of the popular high school quarterback, Jim Beverly.  There’s also an unsolved murder.  The murder is mentioned early in the book, so this is no spoiler, but the how and the why of the murder unfold over the narrative.

It’s an interesting and entertaining book that shifts from funny to dark on a dime.  I think it gets a bit too contrived toward the end, but by that time I was too invested in the characters to be bothered too much.  Of course, not knowing what exactly type of book this is helps in not anticipating its many twists.

Recommended books:

Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote, Kate Vaiden by Reynolds Price, The Cold Song by Linn Ullmann,  and Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell by W. Kamau Bell


Author:W. Kamau Bell
TitleThe Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell
Narrator: W. Kamau Bell
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

W. Kamau Bell is a stand-up comedian, podcaster, and television host.  I’m aware of him through his terrific Politically Re-Active podcast with Hari Kondabolu (currently on hiatus).  I liked him enough from that to want to read his book.  Much of The Awkward Thoughts is straight memoir.  Bell’s parents divorced when he was young and he grew up in Boston attending predominately white private schools.  He describes himself as a “blerd” or Black nerd and distanced from the identifiers of Black culture. Since Bell and I were born in the same year, I found I could relate to a lot of the pop culture events he recounts.

As a teenager he moved to Chicago at a time when Harold Washington was mayor and Michael Jordan and Oprah Winfrey were beginning their reign as world changing Black super-celebrities.  Bell attended University of Pennsylvania, but dropped out, and then moved to San Francisco in the 1990s to attempt  to break into the stand-up comedy scene right as the big stand-up boom of the 70s and 80s went bust.  He finds his niche in a one-man show in which he made comedic observations on the state of racism in America.  This lead to work on television, hosting Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell on FX and then United Shades of America on CNN, as well as many, many podcasts.

Among the memoir bits, Bell reflects on many topics including sports (and why he doesn’t enjoy them), Denzel Washington as the greatest actor of all time, the significance of Doc McStuffins, and the Rocky movies.  He also worries about racism in America and the very real threat of a Black man like himself being killed by police or a vigilante.  He details a significant incident when he was harassed by the staff of a coffee shop in his hometown of Berkeley, CA when he stopped to talk to his wife (who is white) and her friends at the sidewalk cafe.  As a white reader, I was grateful that Bell takes the time to address what white people can do to confront racism (and give us a pep talk in the process) while relating his own experiences of what definitely does not help with racism.

This is a funny and insightful book, and the audiobook is extra special in that Bell reads it in his warm voice.

Recommended booksNerd Do Well by Simon Pegg
Rating: ****

Book Review: Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury


AuthorRay Bradbury
Title: Something Wicked This Way Comes
Narrator: Jerry Robbins and the Colonial Radio Players
Publication Info: Blackstone Audio, Inc. (2007)
Summary/Review:

This is a book a read as a child and I revisited it through this dramatization by the Colonial Radio Players.  All I could remember was a mysterious carnival and a dust witch (which is different from a sand witch).  The material lends itself well to dramatization with the exception of characters constantly having to describe what they’re seeing.  The story captures that frightening feeling in a child’s life when they know something is wrong and for the first time realize that the grownups can’t fix it.  I also really came to appreciate the father and son relationship of Charles and Will Holloway, and how Charles tries to do his best despite not knowing the answers.  The story works well at maintaining a sense of dread and horror which is then released with laughter and joy.

Recommended booksThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman and The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
Rating: ***

Book Review: All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr


AuthorAnthony Doerr
TitleAll the Light We Cannot See
Narrator: Zach Appelman
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2014)
Summary/Review:

This novel set in World War II and the years immediately preceding the war focus on the parallel lives of two individuals.  Marie-Laure LeBlanc, who loses her vision as a child, evacuates from Paris to her shell-shocked uncle’s house in Saint-Malo once the war begins.  Werner Pfennig is a German orphan in the country’s mining region who learns to repair radios and whose talent with circuitry earns him a spot in an elite but draconian Nazi training school.

Marie-Laure eventually ends up helping her uncle broadcast messages to the French Resistance using a secret transmitter, while Werner ends up working in a military unit that tracks  illegal radio transmissions and shuts them down.  Their paths are obviously set to converge from the earliest pages of the book, and when they do it is a wonderful and unexpected encounter.  There’s also a story about a precious gem intertwined with their stories, but it seems a bit of a macguffin to me.

This is a wonderful novel that illustrates very personal stories of war, and especially the effect of war on limiting the options of children and forcing them to make choices they’d not otherwise be ready to make.  The characters, even the minor characters, are very well-developed and I enjoyed spending time with them.  It’s a beautiful book and likely to make one cry a little bit.

Recommended booksThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and The Book of Everything by Guus Kuijer
Rating: ****

Book Review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson


AuthorErik Larson
TitleThe Devil in the White City 
Narrator: Scott Brick
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2003
Also Read By the Same Author: Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, and Isaac’s Storm
Summary/Review:

I revisited one of my favorite books with this re-read of The Devil in the White City. The book tells a lively and engaging history of two concurrent events in late 19th-century Chicago: The World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the chillingly efficient murders of numerous people in a purpose built hotel by a man calling himself H.H. Holmes.  It reads as a preview of the 20th Century, a time when visionaries changed the world through new technologies while at the same time unprecedented horrors inflicted bloodshed worldwide.

Having read some of Larson’s other books and not being as impressed, I was wondering if this book would hold up, but it turns out it is still Larson’s masterpiece.  I admit that the part about the fair is my favorite as I’d admire the work of Daniel Burnham, Frederick Law Olmsted and others who contributed to the fair.  I also enjoy the anecdotes about about various incidents and peoples’ experiences at the fair.  Larson often uses literary license in the Holmes’ parts of the book to make a compelling crime drama.

So this remains among my favorite books of all time.

My review from 2003:

This is a great historical work about America’s dreams and America’s nightmares both of which came to a head during Colombian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago. Great visionaries like Daniel Burnham and Frederick Law Olmsted present all that America could be at the fair. Nearby Henry Holmes sets up a gruesome factory of death to murder unknown numbers of young women. I have to say that I was more taken with the history of the fair than the salacious details of a mass murderer, but both stories do tie together well, and the narrative is well-written.

Recommended booksThe Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester,  The Alienist by Caleb Carr, and Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt

Rating: *****

Book Review: How to Stop Time by Matt Haig


Author:Matt Haig
TitleHow to Stop Time
Narrator: Mark Meadows
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

The narrator of this novel Tom Hazard has a genetic condition that makes him age physically at a significantly slower pace than the typical human.  In the present day he is over 400 years old but only appears middle-aged.  The narrative switches back and forth from Tom’s present day attempt to make a normal life for himself as a history teacher in London and memories of his past.  These include the horrors inflicted upon him by superstitious people, his one true romance with his wife Rose in Elizabethan England, and his recruitment into a club of similar people who age slowly in the late 19th century.  It makes for a charming mix of historical fiction and a contemporary romance.  Haig is good at filling in the details of what it would be like to live, work, and love over the time of centuries, accumulating memories and experiences.

Recommended booksThe Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro, and Time and Again by Jack Finney
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon


Author: Nicola Yoon
TitleThe Sun is Also a Star
Narrator: Dominic Hoffman, Bahni Turpin, Raymond Lee
Publication Info: Listening Library, 2016
Summary/Review:

This beautiful and romantic young adult novel tells the story of two teenagers who share one significant day together.  Daniel is the Korean-American son of immigrants, an aspiring poet, and in order to fulfill his parents’ aspirations is heading to an admissions university for Yale University.  Natasha is an undocumented immigrant from Jamaica brought to New York due to her father’s quixotic dreams of becoming an actor, is passionate about science, and is meeting with a lawyer in a last ditch effort to stave off deportation.

They meet by happenstance, then meet again, share their dreams and philosophies, and fall in love.  This book is completely unrealistic in that there’s no way that Daniel and Natasha could do all the things that they do in a single day, and the coincidences are too many.  But Daniel and Natasha are REAL, their thoughts and conversations spectacularly illustrate them as fully fleshed and specific teenage human beings.  Natasha and Daniel alternate as narrators offering different perspectives on the same situations, and there are also chapters from a third person omniscient narrator who fills in the details on the seemingly minor characters and family members who play a big role in the story.

This is a terrific and  thoughtful novel.

Recommended booksLet the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, White Teeth by Zadie Smith, and Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell
Rating: ****

Book Reviews: Alcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia by Brandon Sanderson


AuthorBrandon Sanderson 
TitleAlcatraz Versus the Knights of Crystallia
Narrator: Ramon De Ocampo
Publication Info: Recorded Books (2012)
Previously Read By the Same Author:  Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians and Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones
Summary/Review:

The third book in this series sees Alcatraz Smedry finally arrive in the Free Kingdoms where he learns he’s quite a celebrity (lots of not so subtle jabs at Harry Potter here) and that there are currently evil librarians meeting with the kings and queens of the Free Kingdoms on a treaty.  Alcatraz’s frenemy and protector Bastille is stripped of her knighthood due to Alcatraz breaking her sword in the previous book.  Alcatraz and a whacky crew – including a daft prince and a “recovering librarian” – work to uncovers suspicious goings on while the librarians are in town.  Central to the plot is the Royal Archives (Not a Library), a running gag that makes me laugh as an archivist who has attended professional conferences, but maybe won’t be as funny to other readers.  As usual, this addition to the Alcatraz series is clever, witty, funny, and still a rather ripping adventure.

Favorite Passages:

“The love books.  However, to them, books are a little like teenage boys.  Whenever they start congregating they make trouble.”

Recommended booksA Series of Unfortunate Events by Lemony Snicket, Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer and Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins.
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: The Rook by Daniel O’Malley


AuthorDaniel O’Malley
TitleThe Rook
Narrator: Susan Duerden
Publication Info: Dreamscape Media, LLC , 2012
Summary/Review:

This book was recommended to me as being something I might enjoy as a fan of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series.  While there are similar approaches to a detective novel with supernatural elements sprinkled with humor, I found this book darker and grimmer than anything Fforde has ever written.  The novel begins with a woman waking up in a park surrounded by dead bodies with no memory of who she is.  From letters she finds in her pockets and more letters found elsewhere, it is revealed that she is Myfanwy Thomas (or was Myfanwy Thomas, since the conceit of the book is that she is a new person born into an old body) and that she is part of a covert organization of people with superpowers who protect England from paranormal forces.  She holds the title of Rook in an organization based on chess pieces called the Checquy, hence the title of the book.

It turns out that the old Myfanwy was shy and obedient, but losing her memories has made her forget the traumas of her youth and more willing to explore using her powers to their full extent.  Thus, Myfanwy is set on finding the traitor in her organization who caused her amnesia while simultaneously dealing with the threat of the Grafters, a Belgian group that has learned how to augment and modify human bodies.

This is a very high-concept book, and I feel like at least the first third of the book is a slog because it’s mostly in the form of Myfanwy’s letter to herself that explain her past in a very tell, not show manner.  If you manage to  make it through that part of the book, though, the letters and Myfanwy’s present day adventures both get entertaining with a wry mix of humor, clever concepts, and gross outs.  There’s a sequel to the book I’ll check out, albeit I’m not rushing to get it right away.

Recommended books: The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, The Portable Door by Tom Holt, A Soul to Steal by Rob Blackwell,  Who Could That Be at This Hour?” by Lemony Snicket and Bloodsucking Fiends: A Love Story by Christopher Moore
Rating: ***

Book Review: The Well of Lost Plots by Jasper Fforde


Author: Jasper Fforde
TitleThe Well of Lost Plots
Narrator: Emily Gray
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2012)

Other Books Read by Same AuthorThe Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good BookShades of GrayThe Last DragonslayerThe Song of the QuarkbeastOne of Our Thursdays is Missing, and The Eye of Zoltar.
Summary/Review:

I’m revisiting the Thursday Next series and struck by how Fforde can keep at least five plots going simultaneously, interweaving them, and somehow bringing them all together at the end.  First there’s Thursday’s apprenticeship with Miss Havisham at Jurisfiction and getting caught up in the Ultraword conspiracy.  Then there’s Aornis Hades’ memory worm, and Granny Next’s efforts to help Thursday remember Landen.  Then there’s the plot within the book Caversham Heights where Thursday gradually reshapes a derivative detective novel into the setting for Fforde’s Nursery Crime novels. And then there’s the the hysterical evolution of the generic characters Lola and Randolph. There are no plots lost here.  I was delighted to read this book again (in Emily Gray’s voice) and surprised to look back at my original review when I didn’t think too highly of this installment in the series.

Rating: ****

Book Review: The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau


AuthorJeanne DuPrau
TitleThe City of Ember 
Narrator: Wendy Dillon
Publication Info: Listening Library (2004)
Summary/Review:

This book is the first part of a series about a subterranean city built for reasons not yet explained over 240 years before the events of the novel.  By this time, the people of Ember have forgotten about their origins and are dealing with crumbling infrastructure and dwindling supplies (a very clear analogy to climate change).  The protagonists of the novel are Lina and Dina, two young people who have reached the age where they are given their “Assignments,” their jobs they have to do to contribute to the survival of the community (I don’t think the novel specifies their age, but they seem to be around 12 years old).  A curious pair, Lina and Doon piece together instructions left behind by the “Builders” of Ember, and find a way out of the underground city.  They are a clever and likable duo, albeit a bit one-note.  The plot is very simple but it should be readable for it’s target age group.  The book ends on a massive cliffhanger which makes of course makes me want to read the next book, but also a bit resentful because I didn’t find the book engaging enough on its own to want to read more.

Recommended booksGregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins, The Last Dragonslayer by Jasper Fforde, and The Inventor’s Secret by Andrea Cremer
Rating: **

Book Reviews: The Sisters Are Alright by Tamara Winfrey Harris


AuthorTamara Winfrey Harris
TitleThe Sisters Are Alright
Narrator: Tamberta Perry
Publication Info: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2015

Summary/Review:

This short collection of essays focuses on how Black women in the United States are maligned and held to toxic stereotypes of being oversexed, irresponsible, and irrationally angry.  Winfrey Harris breaks down these stereotypes historically and in the present day, and holds up the beautiful and accomplished reality of Black women.  It’s very short but powerful so it’s worth finding a little time to read or listen to this book.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Reviews: Drinking Coffee Elsewhere by Z.Z. Packer


Author: Z.Z. Packer
TitleDrinking Coffee Elsewhere
Narrator: Shirley Jordan
Publication Info: Highbridge, 2013
Summary/Review:

This is an excellent collection of contemporary short fiction.  Packer is great at quickly establishing characters, and while the stories tend to be more slice-of-life than a traditional beginning-middle-end format, they’re all the better for capturing the nuance of character developments.  Stories range from a conflict among troops of Brownies – one black, one white – to a teenage girl who runs away to Atlanta and is taken in by a pimp, to a boy forced by his father to try to sell birds at the Million Man March.  All the stories are from an outsider’s perspective and thus feel very relatable.  I’ll be looking out for future work from Z.Z. Packer.

Recommended booksKrik? Krak! by Edwidge Danticat, Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston by Zora Neale Hurston, and Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell
Rating: ****

Book Review: A Burnable Book by Bruce Holsinger


AuthorBruce Holsinger
TitleA Burnable Book
Narrator: Simon Vance
Publication Info: HarperAudio (2014)
Summary/Review:

This historical novel is set in post-plague London during the reign of Richard II.  The key character in this novel is John Gower, a real life poet who Holsinger has also earning his keep by trading in information and intrigue.  The events of the novel kick off when Gower’s friend Geoffrey Chaucer (Gower and Chaucer were friends in real life too) asks Gower to find a book that has prophecies of the deaths of English kings that would be dangerous if it fell into the wrong hands.  Gower’s investigations take him into brothels and the criminal underworld of London which Holsinger describes in all their gritty details.  Too often Holsinger tells instead of shows, so the narrative gets paused while a character explains exactly what has happened. The plot gets too complicated as loose threads are tied off too soon and new contrivances are added to keep the narrative moving.  Holsinger is good at getting the feel of medieval London and has a few good ideas, but the book never lives up to its ambition.

Recommended booksCompany of Liars by Karen Maitland, The Plague Tales by Ann Benson, and Dr. Johnson’s London by Liza Picard
Rating: **