July – September

Brother Odd, by Dean Koontz, fantasy thriller, 2012. Odd Thomas goes off to rest and recuperate in a monastery, but spooky things happen there too, and his supernatural gift pulls him back into the action. Having now read three of the Odd Thomas books, I’ve probably had enough. The writing in this one was better than in the second volume, but still plodding … Koontz is one of those writers who limits his paragraphs to two or three sentences and then breaks them, regardless of rhythm or sense. Odd Thomas’ character remains fairly flat, and the supporting characters are strictly two-dimensional. This book highlighted Koontz’s interest in Catholicism, which added a somewhat new dimension, but frankly I couldn’t be bothered to read any more. Maybe when I have the flu and need something I can doze over without missing any important action…

Forrest Gump, starring Tom Hanks, directed by Robert Zemeckis, comedy drama, 1994. Forrest Gump (Hanks) isn’t too smart intellectually, but he can apply his mom’s homespun wisdom to pretty much anything life sends his way – which just happens to meander through most of the highlights of the Sixties and Seventies. I’ve loved this movie every time I’ve watched it … The wit doesn’t age, and the simple, unsentimental humanity of the characters gives me hope for the rest of us.

Cloud Atlasby David Mitchell, literary fiction, 2004. I dunno … maybe I’m just too thick for this book. I realized, after starting it, that I’d tried to read it before and given up. I persevered this time because Mitchell’s writing really is beautiful, and the individual story lines were compelling, and I was curious to see whether he could pull off whatever he was trying to do (assuming I could figure out what that was). Having come to the end, I can say definitively that I enjoyed reading it (because of beautiful writing and compelling stories) and it was worth hanging in there, but as to what he was trying to achieve … frankly, that went right over my head. (How embarrassing!) I’m sure I could pick it apart and analyze the heck out of it and figure it out, but I read for pleasure, y’all. Essentially, Cloud Atlas is six novellas. Five of them are told in two parts. They go A-B-C-D-E-F-E-D-C-B-A. A and B are historic; C and D are contemporary, E and F are futuristic and post-apocalyptic. The writing style and characterization varies significantly between the stories, and Mitchell does a great job of maintaining his characters’ integrity and the internal logic of each story. Apart from that … there are stories within stories, and hints about the circular yet chaotic nature of time that I think have to do with the core theme of the book … but shit, I dunno. Recommended if you enjoy a challenge, and like reading several books at a time.

The Blind Side, starring Sandra Bullock and Quinton Aaron, directed by John Lee Hancock, fact-based drama, 2009. Big Mike is the neglected teen son of a meth addict, whose mentor helps him get into a high-end school based largely on his talent as a ball player. Leigh Anne Tuohy is a wealthy woman with kids at the school, who takes him under her wing. I was moved by this account of how one privileged family, simply by paying attention and being willing to step outside their comfort zone, completely changed the direction of a young man’s life. Moments of humor and some fine, empathetic acting prevented the moving from degenerating into glurge. Instead, it was good entertainment that was also pretty darn uplifting. Recommended.

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson, post-apocalyptic sci-fi, 2015. The moon blows up in a cloud of debris, and a deadly 5,000-year bombardment of the earth begins. Humanity sends its best and brightest into space in an effort to ensure the survival of the species. Over time, threats from without and within whittle them down to a small group of survivors – seven women hunkered down in a chunk of lunar rock whirling in orbit. These are the mothers of the new human races whose descendants must eventually choose between repopulating the earth, or remaining in the orbiting habitat they have built over the eons. A fairly slow read that was nonetheless beautifully written, intensely imagined, with strong and consistently developed characters. Highly recommended.

Forever Odd, by Dean Koontz, fantasy, 2012. Well, I enjoyed Odd Thomas, the first book in this series … but the writing in this one was beyond bad. Clumsy, verbose, with plodding attempts at humor .. dang, it was hard to finish. On the other hand, the story was pretty good, and although Odd the character is beginning to annoy me, I’m still intrigued by his predicament as someone who sees ghosts and tries to help them resolve their issues so they can cross to “the other side”. In this story his best friend is kidnapped and taken to a haunted hotel, so of course Odd has to rescue him. Based on the quality of the writing in this book I honestly can’t recommend it … but on the other hand I’ve taken the next one in the series out from the library. I’m going to give Koontz the benefit of the doubt and see if the writing improves.

June

(6 books, 3 movies)

The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne M Harris, fantasy, 2014. Loki, aka the Trickster, was a demon spawned in Chaos who was kidnapped and adopted as blood brother by Odin, the Allfather of Norse Legend. This book is a history of the gods of Asgard, told from Loki’s perspective, A sharp, witty, well-crafted tale that almost has you empathizing with the thoroughly amoral narrator. I’m not sure why I didn’t love it, but I did enjoy it enough that I’ll be reading more by this author.(She also wrote Chocolat, which was adapted into one of my favorite movies starring Johnny Depp and Juliette Binoche.)

The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl, directed by Bill Condon, fact-based drama, 2013. The critics panned this movie but I found it both informative and gripping. It tells the story of Wikileaks up to the release of highly confidential information submitted by Pvt Bradley Manning. Having previously been intrigued and disturbed by this story I found the movie informative and gripping. Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (Cumberbatch) is portrayed as an intense and dedicated but damaged man, while his sidekick Daniel Berg (Bruhl) appears to be more sympathetic but is revealed as a weaker personality. The movie has reopened some ethical questions that I haven’t thought about in a while, and I’m still chewing over them.

The Martian, by Andy Weir, sci-fi, 2011. Mark Watney is one of a team of astronauts intended to spend one month on Mars. Days after they land, a severe storm forces them to abort the mission. Believing Watney dead due to a freak accident, his teammates leave without him, and he comes round to find himself facing certain death by starvation when the mission supplies run out … or maybe not. It turns out that Watney is a pretty resourceful guy. This book is pure fluff – a quick, fun read. Written in log format, it puts you right inside Watney’s head – and I won’t hesitate to say that if I were stuck in a spaceship with someone with his juvenile sense of humor I’d probably strangle him. On the other hand, I enjoyed the way he MacGyvered his way out of a variety of harrowing situations, always providing enough technical detail to keep the story surprisingly believable without sending non-technical me to sleep. Recommended for when you need something to occupy your mind without requiring it to work too hard.

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, starring and directed by Ben Stiller, cult comedy, 2013. Walter Mitty appears to be a little grey man in a boring job, with a crush on one of his colleagues and a habit of zoning out in wildly improbable daydreams. Then his company is bought out, his job is on the line, and a comment made by his crush sends him off on an equally improbable real-life adventure. This remake completely changes the setting and plot of an old classic, which may bother purists. I, however, didn’t care for the original movie, and I thoroughly enjoyed this one. Highly recommended.

Cheap Shot, by Ace Atkins, detective thriller, 2014, second to latest in the Spenser series created by Robert B Parker. Seriously, why not just let the guy rest in peace? I’m referring to Parker, who was buried in 2010, not to Spenser, who will live forever in the 40 novels Parker wrote about him. Atkins is apparently an author in his own right but for some reason he’s now taken over where Parker left off – and the result is overly complicated plots, clunky storytelling, and dialog that consistently falls flat. Spenser fans, you have been warned!

Gone Tomorrow, by Lee Child, thriller 2013. Jack Reacher takes on pretty much the whole world, and wins. As a literary light Child flickers, but he’s a great storyteller and I’m more than a little in love with Reacher – even knowing that I’m so not his type.

Love Actually, starring Hugh Grant and others, directed by Richard Curtis, romantic comedy, 2003. A bunch of people fall in and out of love. Very sweet, often funny, not a good choice if you’re feeling at all sad or unfulfilled in your own romantic life but a good example of its type.

Seed, by Lisa Heathfield, YA fantasy, 2015. Having grown up in a tiny, isolated cult community, 15-year-old Pearl finds herself confused when a single mother and her two children join them. As she becomes closer the teenage newcomer Ellis, he introduces ideas and values from the outside world that challenge her preconceptions, and force her to look at her beloved Papa S., the scary-creepy leader of the group, with new eyes. An excellent read on many levels.

Leaving Time, by Jodi Picoult, 2014. Part ghost story, part family drama, part conservation message, this is the story of both a daughter’s search for information about her dead (or possibly just missing) mother, and of the joys and challenges surrounding elephant research and rescue. The characters are complex and well-drawn, and the stories that make up the whole are powerful, poignant and occasionally funny. But ultimately the book was a disappointment. I’ve read several of Picoult’s novels and am a confirmed fan, but this time she didn’t quite pull it off. It was well written, but the different elements of the whole failed to gel.

May

(6 books, 4 movies)

Bellwetherby Connie Willis, science fiction, 1996. Dr Sandra Foster is a sociologist engaged in a study on fads, within a company that is in constant flux as Management adopts the latest fads. The geeky Dr Bennett O’Reilly wants to set up a study on how information is disseminated through a group of monkeys, if only he can figure out how to complete the increasingly complex funding application processes dreamed up by management. The terminally incompetent Flip serves as a random force in the lives of everyone in the organization. Also, there are sheep. This is a fun, well-crafted read, satirical and entertaining, and only a little bit disturbing. Highly recommended.

The Mountains of the Moon, historical drama, starring Patrick Bergen and Iain Glen, directed by Bob Rafelson, 1990. Based on the story of explorers Richard Burton (Bergen) and John Hanning Speke (Glen) and their search for the source of the Nile. Illness, injury, bad weather and hostile tribes made for enormous challenges, but ultimately the greatest challenge these men faced was the bitter conflict between them after they returned to England. A beautifully filmed, powerful movie, evocative of an era that frankly sets this anti-colonialist’s teeth on edge. It was interesting, when I read further about Burton and Speke, to learn that the version of events presented by the movie has been quite strongly challenged by Speke’s biographers. In retrospect it’s a pity the movie presented such a simplified, one-sided version of the story, but I found it still well worth watching.

The Thin Blue Line, BBC comedy series, starring Rowan Atkinson, Seasons 1 and 2, 1995. The officers and detectives at Gasforth Police Station bumble about keeping the peace and tripping over each other. What can I say? I love Rowan Atkinson’s comedy (yes, even Mr Bean – sneer all you like, I don’t care!) and I simply cannot understand why producers will churn out endless reams of absolute crud, and stop after two seasons of something so genuinely funny. The only regrettable aspect was the canned laughter, but you just have to tune that out. Recommended mindless entertainment.

The World Turned Upside-Down, collection of science fiction short stories written 1933-1967, edited by David Drake, Jim Baen and Eric Flint, 2005. The editors’ goal was to pull together stories that impressed and influenced them as young readers of sci-fi, and the collection includes pieces by such greats as Clarke, Kornbluth, Sheckley, Asimov and Heinlein, as well as numerous lesser lights in the sci-fi firmament. While many of the stories are, inevitably, dated, I thoroughly enjoyed revisiting some old favorites and discovering some new golden oldies.

Divergent, post-apocalypse sci-fi, starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James, directed by Neil Burger, 2014. Inside the walls built around Chicago after some undefined apocalypse, a society has risen that has divided itself into five “factions”, each responsible for a different aspect of life. But human nature being what it is, one of the factions is seeking to discredit and take over the role of another faction. Tris Prior (Woodley) is caught in the middle, because she is a “divergent” – a person whose personal abilities equip her to join any faction. It’s good escapism, with good enough performances and fast enough pacing to hold one’s attention. In retrospect, of course, the logic of the story is full of holes and, frankly, there’s nothing new here. Meh. I enjoyed it but there are better ways to kick back.

The Cold Equations, by Tom Godwin, collection of science fiction short stories first published between 1953 and 1959, compiled by Eric Flint, 2003. Most of these are pretty dated in terms of their science and the story concepts. They make for an enjoyable walk down memory lane for a sci-fi afficionado, but I won’t go looking for any more by Godwin. Although most of the stories are enjoyable, requiring only that one temporarily set aside much of what we now know to be true about the universe, his style is ponderous and he tends to drive home every point with a sledgehammer. As a result, the surprise endings invariably fail to surprise.

The Black Moth, by Georgette Heyer, historical romance, 1929. Jack has taken the blame for his brother’s cheating at cards, and is disgraced and permanently outcast from Society. After knocking about Europe for several years, he returns to England and becomes a highwayman. In this guise, he rescues the beautiful Diana as she is being abducted by the wicked Duke of Andover. Of course, they fall in love, leading to delicious scenes of renunciation and heartbreak before it all works out happily ever after. This was Heyer’s first book, started when she was only 17 years old, and despite an impossible plot and lots of stuff to make a modern feminist’s hair curl, it’s an absolute delight.

Frederica, by Georgette Heyer, regency romance, 1945. Rich, bored and self-absorbed, the Marquis of Alverstoke has made a virtue of selfishness all his life. The unexpected advent of independent-minded Frederica, her beautiful but dimwitted sister, and two young brothers into his life results in a series of uncomfortable, inconvenient surprises, not the least of which is Romance. After a series of intense reads I needed something light and certain to make me laugh out loud. Where better to look than Georgette Heyer?

Saving Grace, comedy drama, starring Brenda Blethyn, Craig Ferguson and Martin Clunes, directed by Nigel Cole, 2000. When Grace’s husband commits suicide she learns that, far from being comfortably well off, she has been left neck-deep in debt and at risk of losing her Cornwall home. So she tosses out her orchid collection and gets busy raising marijuana. This is a fun, uncomplicated movie with a rich cast of characters and zany humor.

Dark Places, by Gillian Flynn, psychological thriller, 2009. When Libby Day was seven, her mother and two sisters were murdered by satanists. She escaped, and testified that her 15-year-old brother, Ben, was the killer. Now in her early thirties, people who believe in Ben’s innocence and are campaigning for his release are forcing Libby to face the past. There isn’t a single likable character in this whole book – and Flynn is unrelenting in her determination to show her characters at their darkest and most ugly. Just when she has you loathing them, she gives a subtle twist to the view, and you’re forced to empathize, or at least pity. A compelling story, brilliantly written.

Personal, by Lee Child, a Jack Reacher action thriller, 2014. The CIA calls Reacher in to help identify which of the world’s four top snipers might have taken a shot at the President of France, in what is believed to be a precursor to the assassination of other world leaders at a planned summit in London. Teamed with rookie Casey Nice, who reminds Reacher of other women he’s worked with and failed to save, and set down in London, he goes about causing various sorts of painful mayhem for a wide range of bad guys. Classic Reacher – an intense and gripping read. Recommended if you like having your adrenals tweaked.

Bumped, by Megan McCafferty, YA post-apocalyptic fantasy, 2011. A virus renders everyone sterile from the age of 18, and new cultural groups have arisen around their different views on how to use fertile teens to maintain the population. Melody and Harmony, aged 16, are identical twins who were separated at birth. Melody’s adoptive parents raised her with every educational and material privilege, to ensure that her babies will be highly prized and will fetch top prices. However, Melody is still a virgin, because the couple who have contracted to buy her first baby have been dithering over which of the new breed of celebrity – fertile teen boys – to use to impregnate her. Meanwhile, Harmony has been raised in a walled religious community, where teen girls are married off by the leaders of their groups. The girls meet for the first time when Harmony shows up on Melody’s doorstep. This frighteningly believable novel completely gripped my attention. McCafferty does an excellent job of placing the reader inside her protagonists’ heads, grounded solidly within their world.

April

(4 books, 6 movies)

Unseen Academicals, by Terry Pratchett, satirical fantasy, Discworld series, 2009. Football comes to Ankh-Morpork and, with some gentle prodding by Lord Vetinari, the wizards of Unseen University find themselves up against a team pulled off the streets. That, of course, is only one-tenth of the story, which also discusses celebrity culture, romance, politics and racism. Like all the Discworld series – particularly the later books – this story follows a tangled web of plot lines that reflects earthly society in a disturbingly funny mirror. Highly recommended, of course.

Nonstop, action thriller starring Liam Neeson, directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, 2014. While on a flight, US Air Marshall Bill Marks (Neeson) receives a text message from a killer, who warns that he will kill one person every 20 minutes unless $150-million is deposited into an account. As the countdown begins, Marks goes up against his own internal demons and the machinations of a skilled manipulator. The storyline is as nonsensical as these things tend to be, but it’s gripping and intense all the same. This is an entertaining way for a Neeson fan (which I most enthusiastically am) to while away an idle hour.

Sprig Muslin, by Georgette Heyer, regency romance, 1956. Beautiful, willful and utterly naive Amanda has run away from home in an effort to prove to her grandfather that she is capable of taking care of herself, and should therefore be allowed to marry the soldier she loves and follow him to the Peninsula. She runs into the highly eligible Gareth, himself en route to offer for his chosen lady. He recognizes that she needs to be protected from the potentially disastrous consequences of her naughty behavior, and forcibly takes her under his wing. There follows a classic Heyer romp, featuring witty dialog, absurd situations, well-drawn characters, and a clear sense of the social realities of the day. I’m no fan of typical romance fiction, but I love Heyer’s humor and her ability to give life to her characters and her period. Highly recommended, if you can set your feminist sensibilities aside and simply take the story on its own terms.

The Imitation Game, historical drama, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, directed by Morten Tyldum, 2014. Alan Turing, now recognized as the father of computer technology, is one of a small team of brilliant puzzle-solvers drawn together by British Intelligence Agency MI6 to break the code used by the Germans during the Second World War. The dramatic conflicts between the characters is highlighted against the global conflict of the war. This film is so much more than a gripping thriller; it’s also a heartbreaking indictment against the social and political forces that twist and consume humanity’s best. Highly recommended.

Equal Rites, by Terry Pratchett, Discworld series, fantasy humor, 1987. Feminism on the Discworld, where Granny Weatherwax’s protegee Eskarina proves that in fact a woman can become a wizard, as well as being a pretty good witch. Classic Pratchett, this book shoots sparks of wicked humor, whacky imagery, a diverse cast of unforgettable characters, all spinning in the weird magical logic of a disc-shaped world resting on the backs of four great elephants which are standing on a giant turtle swimming through space. Highly recommended, as is the rest of the Discworld series.

The Shiralee, drama, starring Bryan Brown and Rebecca Smart, directed by George Ogilvie, 2-part miniseries, 1987. Macauley (Brown) is an itinerant drifter and fighter in the Australian Outback who returns home to find his wife in bed with another man, and their 10-year-old daughter Buster (Smart) passed out after her mother fed her alcohol. In an angry impulse, he takes Buster and heads back out. A close bond develops between them as she learns to walk the empty roads with him. In revenge, wanting merely to spite him, her mother tries to get her back, even as Buster is in a hospital fighting for her life following an accident. A strong story, this show was apparently very popular in Australia. Smart is brilliant, and the camera work is beautiful. At the same time, I found it dragged a little. Maybe it was a mistake to watch both parts in one sitting; also, as someone who has limited knowledge about Australia, I may have enjoyed it more if I’d previously read the book.

We are Water, by Wally Lamb, literary fiction, 2013. The Oh family hits crisis when Annie, a highly successful artist, leaves her 27-year-old marriage in favor of a lesbian partnership with her agent. As her husband and three adult children, and Annie herself, work through this change, long-hidden secrets begin to break loose, realigning all the characters in terms of their relationships with each other and with the outside world. This book got off to a very slow start and for a while I thought I was going to be disappointed, but then Lamb hit his stride. The point of view shifts between different characters, and Lamb is effective in sustaining their different voices. I was engaged right up to the last few chapters … and then, dang it, the whole thing broke down as Lamb attempted to tie it all up with a nice neat bow. He introduced a dab of philosophy, explained the title, and let us know that everything had worked out, if not exactly happily for everyone, basically fine. Meh.

Touch, starring Kiefer Sutherland and David Mazouz, 2012, Season 1. Martin Bohm (Sutherland) realizes that his non-verbal 11-year-old son, diagnosed as autistic, can foretell the future, and periodically needs to intervene in events to ensure that things work out “right”. It’s an interesting concept, playing with an eerie scientific truth, but after watching the first four episodes I can’t be bothered to continue. First, there are the cliches – such as (but not limited to) the “wise African man” who spouts delphic wisdom to the effect that Bohm’s purpose in life is to do what his son wants, plus the guilt-stricken single father desperate to win the son’s unattainable approval, the supportive social worker who may or may not develop into a romantic interest. Then, there are the subplots focusing on wrongs that need to be righted – a case of corporate fraud (the bad guys pay), a kid in Africa who wants to win some international dance contest (he does), a kid in Iraq who offers himself up as a suicide bomber so that his family can have the money to buy a new stove (he changes his mind when someone promises to connect him with a rich American). Et cetera. It’s not a bad series, as junk goes … but life’s too short.

Hachi: A Dog’s Tale, starring Richard Gere and Chico+Layla+Forrest, directed by Lasse Hallstrom, 2009. A music professor (Gere) finds a puppy on a railway station on his way home from a business trip. He takes the pup (played by Akitas Chico, Layla and Forrest) home, and they develop a close bond. After the professor’s death, Hachi waits for him at the train station for 10 years until he too dies. I had very mixed feelings about this movie. I wanted to watch it because I understood that it was based on a true story about a faithful dog. I expected – and got – a heartwarming tearjerker. But I was angered by the Hollywoodification of a perfectly good true story. Did the producers think their American viewers would respond more favorably to a story set in the US, featuring an American professor living in a neat little American town, rather than the Japanese reality? Maybe so – but even while enjoying the performance by Gere and the other cast members, I felt it was a sellout. I was also angered by the sentimental approach to Hachi’s end. The real Hachiko may have been something of an icon to his village – but the fact is, nobody took responsibility for him, and so while on the one hand he was permitted to live out his life according to the drive of his big dog heart, on the other hand he died in horrible pain of cancer and heartworm – and, judging by his photograph, he also had a pretty bad ear infection. There is nothing romantic about that. So … basically, if you want to watch something that will make the tears run, this will do it. But don’t analyse it too deeply.

Chef, starring Jon Favreau and others, directed by Jon Favreau, 2014. A gifted chef (Favreau), his creativity stifled by a controlling restaurant owner, is devastated by a negative review that goes viral, and quits his job. With help from his ex-wife’s ex-husband he invests in a food truck serving Cuban cuisine. Accompanying him on the road as he drives the truck back home is his social media-savvy 10-year-old son, who uses Twitter to draw in eager customers. A fun, sweet, whacky movie with some genuinely funny moments, it nonetheless fell short due to being just a little too sweet. A twist of tension would have added piquancy that might have taken it from being merely enjoyable to really good.

March

(11 books, five  movies and television shows)

Odd Thomas, by Dean Koontz, fantasy, 2003. Odd Thomas is an ordinary and self-effacing fellow who sees dead people and other creatures of the netherworld, so he’s the first to know when his small town is threatened by bloody murder. This gripping, eerie tale is the first in the Odd Thomas series, and introduces various intriguing and well-drawn characters with whom I hope to become better acquainted. An easy read, well-written and fast-moving right up to the last few chapters – what is it with authors and endings? This one is all but wrapped up in shiny packaging and tied with a bow! However, the events that led up to this too-tidy ending were compelling enough that I’ll be looking for the next book in the series. Recommended.

Dodger, by Terry Pratchett, humor, 2012. Set in Victorian London, featuring Charles Dickens as the rescuer of the Artful Dodger and … some woman. I’m not sure who she is or what happens to her/them, because I couldn’t read this book. I know it’s probably in bad form to say rude things about a beloved, gifted, recently deceased author … but dammit, when he wrote this his judgment was clearly impaired, and as for his collaborator – who I believe was his daughter – what was she thinking?  Can she really not tell the difference between the scampering, laugh-out-loud wit of the Discworld novels and this piece of clunkery? Apparently there’s another Discworld book due out this year … I will read it, of course, but with trepidation. As for Dodger – no. Just no.

My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante, translated by Ann Goldstein, 2012. Elena and Lila grow up close friends in a poor neighborhood on the outskirts of Naples. Elena is very bright, likeable and pretty, and very much a follower. The much more dominant Lila is extraordinarily brilliant, becomes beautiful as she grows up, and is generally disliked. While Elena’s parents are unwillingly persuaded to let her progress with her education, Lila’s parents refuse to consider such a thing. The story follows the shifts and changes in their friendship from childhood into their teens, as well as the ways in which they change in response to their environment. Ferrante paints a heartbreaking picture of the effects of poverty and ignorance, especially on women living in a misogynistic culture. The translation appears to be excellent; at any rate, the English version is beautifully written. All that said, the ending left me feeling cheated. Ferrante started the book with a mystery, and the promise of an explanation – and she ends abruptly on a thoroughly depressing note that fails to deliver on the original promise. The implication inherent in the ending is that the rest of their lives could be deduced from where they were at age 17 – which, from the perspective of my mid-fifties, is clearly nonsense verging on the offensive. I won’t say I’ll never read anything else she writes – her style, even in translation, is beautiful … but I won’t go looking for her other work either.

The Carpet People, by Terry Pratchett, juvenile fantasy, 1992. The Carpet is a whole world, inhabited by pugilistic tribes leavened by occasional philosophers and idealists. First invented when Pratchett was only 17 years old, it was picked up and had its dust a bit shaken up in 1992. It’s a silly bit of fun, which I enjoyed mainly because I was sad about Sir Terry’s recent death, and I wanted to read something by him that I hadn’t read before. Thank you Herman for telling me about it! I will be sharing it with all the young readers I know, and hope it will serve to introduce them to a wonderful story-teller and satirist.

Rabbit-Proof Fence – drama based on a true story, starring Everlyn Sampi, Kenneth Branagh and others, directed by Phillip Noyce, 2002. Between 1909 and 1969 the Australian government forcibly removed thousands of Aboriginal children from their families and placed them in institutions, to separate them from their indigenous cultural background and train them as servants and laborers. In 1931, three girls who had been taken more than 1,000 miles from home escaped and headed back across the Outback, following the rabbit-proof fence that extended thousands of miles across the country and passed directly through their village. This gripping story made my heart ache. The cinematography is stunning, and the acting is consistently both understated and compelling. Very highly recommended.

Cowboys and Aliens – science fiction, starring Daniel Craig, Harrison Ford and Olivia Wild, directed by Jon Favreau, 2011. Sometime in the 19th century aliens invade the wild west. (Not like the aliens causing resentment in the remnants of the wild west today – these ones came in a flying saucer.) Bad and not-so-bad cowboys join forces with noble injuns and, of course, take out the evil oozy slimeballs. We hired this movie on the basis that if Harrison Ford is good enough for Callista Flockhart, he’s good enough for me. Oh, Harrison, how far you have fallen! Nuff sed. (Although some bits were funny. They weren’t meant to be … but these days I’ll take my chuckles where I can find ’em.)

The Year of Magical Thinking, by Joan Didion, memoir, 2005. A few days before Christmas 2003, Quintana, the daughter of Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, fell ill with flu, then pneumonia, then septic shock that put her onto life support in intensive care. Days later John collapsed and died of a massive heart attack. Over the months that followed, Didion tried to process her grief while at the same time supporting Quintana through a series of serious complications arising from her illness. This book chronicles the process, and as Didion struggles to understand and come to terms with her loss and learn how to mourn, she allows the reader to enter into the process with her. A powerful and moving book by a fascinating woman, it has left me with a desire to read more of her work.

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay, essays and memoir, 2014. Once in a while one reads something that demands a response. I spent my time with this book wanting to get Gay into the room and shout, “Fine, but what about …?” In other words, I found this an unexpectedly engaging read, despite a strong focus on popular culture, which is of little interest to me. Most of the essays are written in part as responses to or critiques of books, movies and television shows. Ms Gay clearly buys into most of the popular feminist beliefs, although her attitudes tend to be more inclusive than radical. While I would be inclined to argue with her about several issues, I found the book a stimulating challenge to rethink some of my own attitudes and ideas.

Transcendence – science fiction, starring Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Morgan Freeman, Paul Bettany, Kate Mara; directed by Wally Pfister; 2014. A group of guerrilla luddites murder various scientists who are working to develop artificial intelligence. Dr Will Caster (Depp) survives the attack long enough to be uploaded into the AI being he has created, which his wife (Hall) sets free onto the internet. Caster’s vastly enhanced intelligence and limitless resources enable him to transform society, individuals, and the world, leading his friends and supporters to fear what he has become. An entertaining, exciting movie that raises challenging questions about just where technology might take us, whether or not we want to go there, and what we’d be willing to do about it. Of course the logic breaks down here and there – it’s Hollywood, not a MIT lecture – but hey, Johnny Depp AND Morgan Freeman; it doesn’t get a lot better than that!

Vanishing Girls, by Lauren Oliver, YA psychological thriller, 2015. Nick and her sister Dara have always been best friends, with neighbor Parker completing the threesome. An accident when Nick is driving leaves Dara permanently disfigured and in pain, and their relationship is further shattered by a developing romance between Dara and Parker. This was an intense read, featuring lots of adolescent angst, intensified by dysfunctional divorced parents. It’s well written, and although elements are predictable I didn’t see the ending coming. The main characters are reasonably well drawn, and overall I believe a teenager would relate well to both the main characters. I tend to like YA novels, but this one didn’t especially set me on fire.

The Job, by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg, crime drama, 2014. I was in the mood for light entertainment and usually that’s what Evanovich delivers – at any rate, with the Stephanie Plum series. This is the second book I’ve read in the co-authored Fox and O’Hare series, and it will be the last. Not amusing, not exciting, not believable … not worth finishing.

Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut, dramatic satire, 1969. The core of the story is the American and British firebombing of Dresden during WW2. Vonnegut, of course, does a masterly job of depicting the unforgivable horror of that attack, and the vileness of war in general – and he does so without any hamfisted polemics. Most of the story is told through the eyes of Billy Pilgrim, who was a chaplain’s assistant in the war, and who is also “unstuck in time” – whether as a result of shell shock or of being kidnapped by aliens in a flying saucer is left to the reader to decide. His story skips back and forth between earth and the planet Tralfamadore, and bounces around between the various stages of his life – returning again and again to Dresden, and the war. Rereading this book after many years reminded me how much I enjoy Vonnegut. I’ll be revisiting more of his books before too much longer.

The Last Anniversary, by Liane Moriarty, 2005. Sophie Honeywell is rapidly approaching 40, her biological clock is ticking like a geiger counter, and she’s questioning her good sense in turning down her handsome, successful, stable ex-boyfriend’s marriage proposal. Then she learns that his Aunt Connie has died and left her a house on Scribbly Gum Island, near Sydney, Australia. The island comes with an unsolved mystery that Connie and her sister Rose had used to power a successful tourism business for the family – and Sophie finds herself drawn in. Moriarty has populated her book with a varied cast of delightfully eccentric characters who drive the story in various unexpected directions. Highly recommended – I can’t wait to read more by this author!

Maleficent – fantasy, starring Angelina Jolie, directed by Robert Stromberg, 2014. Two neighboring kingdoms: the one inhabited by humans ruled by a power-hungry king, the other inhabited by the wild and fantastical creatures of faerie. A wild fairy girl befriends a human boy, and as they grow into their teens they fall in love. But the boy becomes a man who serves the king and develops the same craving for power, and this leads him to betray the fairy in order to win the throne of the human kingdom. Her revenge is to curse his baby daughter – at the age of 16 she will prick her finger on a spindle and fall into a sleep from which only the kiss of true love (which, as the fairy knows, doesn’t exist) can wake her. I thoroughly enjoyed this different take on an old fairy story. The animation was mostly highly effective, and the splashes of humor offset the darkness in the tale. I didn’t expect to like Angelina – I confess, I’ve been influenced by the front covers of tabloids read while waiting in line at the supermarket – so I was very pleasantly surprised by her intense and powerful acting. Very definitely recommended!

One Day, by David Nicholls, literary fiction, 2009. Well, I thought Nicholls could do better than Us (see February 2015 reviews) and I was right. The literary equivalent of a time-delay video clip, One Day is the story of the 20-year relationship between Dexter Mayhew and Emma Morley, told as snapshots of their lives taken annually on the anniversary of their meeting. Completely different personalities, they become unexpectedly close friends who nonetheless spend much of their story not quite managing to connect. Dexter is the privileged golden boy whose innate weaknesses cause him, over and over again, to make choices that drag him down toward self-destruction. Emma is the one true constant in his life, yet she has struggles of her own arising out of a lack of self-confidence that constantly pushes down her potential. The annual snapshot approach to telling the story means that the reader rarely intersects with the characters at a moment of crisis; rather, we see the crisis coming, and then flip forward to learn how they coped – or failed to cope – with it. It’s an interesting approach that works well, although it did make for a sometimes slow pace. There was a period around the middle of the book that I wondered whether this, too, would prove disappointing – but I stayed with it and am glad I did, because the ending brought me to tears. Highly recommended!

Downton Abbey – English period drama, starring and directed by a whole bunch of people, Season 5, 2014. Yes, I know it’s very ordinary of me, but I thoroughly enjoy the drama and color of Downton Abbey. And while the overall plot and tone becomes increasingly like a soap opera, the sheer variety of the characters, the multiple sub-plots weaving together, and the depth of most of the individual personalities does hold interest. I found myself irritated by the elder sister Lady Mary, whose languid air, constant posing and predictable nastiness have become tedious. The Countess continues to purr in a completely unconvincing American accent (which is odd since she grew up in Illinois), and is also annoyingly two-dimensional. On the other hand, the anxious and dithery Lady Edith is revealing hidden depths, and nasty Thomas Barrow lets his nice side slip out often enough to keep him interesting. And, of course, the Dowager Countess is a sheer delight, with her dry wit. Both upstairs and downstairs, lots happens in this episode; it was fun to watch, and we’re looking forward to Season 6.

February

(Eight books, three movies and television shows)

The Divorce Diet, by Ellen Hawley, humor, 2015. While picking at the fabulous birthday cake she baked him, Thad informs Abby that he’s “having trouble with the whole idea of marriage”. Abby takes baby Rosie and moves back in with her parents while she figures out just where to point her life next. There is nothing remotely funny about her situation – but add a temperamental invisible diet guru, sprinkle with several irresistible recipes (offset by appropriately nauseating suggestions from Abby’s diet book), and stir in a generous dollop of human absurdity and, yeah, this book is a fun, enjoyable read that will make you chuckle. The characters are fully three-dimensional, the writing style is highly readable, the story is believable right up to a satisfying ending, and it all adds up to a great way to spend an afternoon. I’m off to find more books by Hawley. Also, you can read her several times a week if you follow her blog, Notes from the UK. There’s lots more good stuff there!

Keto Clarity, by Jimmy Moore, with Eric C. Westman MD, non-fiction, 2014. I have found this book an invaluable resource as I’ve educated myself about the ketogenic lifestyle. Moore writes from the basis of personal experience – he used the ketogenic diet to shed 180 lbs and dramatically improve his health. But this book isn’t just one man’s opinion; he and Westman drew on the knowledge of 22 experts in the field of low carb, moderate protein, high fat therapeutic diets. Moore offers a readily understandable introduction to what the ketogenic diet is (and isn’t), common pitfalls, techniques and suggestions to help the reader succeed, and some scrumptious recipes. An aspect of his approach that especially appeals to me is his low-maintenance, non-prescriptive approach to this lifestyle. I’d call this book a must read for anyone interested in achieving and sustaining nutritional ketosis.

Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple, literary fiction, 2012. Bee Branch is the bright, articulate eighth grade daughter of Bernadette, a brilliant and mysterious recluse, and Microsoft guru Elgin Branch. After Bernadette disappears, Bee compiles a stack of information to try to work out what happened to her. The story evolves through this compiled data, which includes emails between Bernadette and her virtual assistant, Manjula Kapoor, who manages her life from the other side of the world; reports and meeting notes; emails between Elgin and Bee’s teachers;  emails between Elgin’s administrative assistant and the neighbor with whom Bernadette is feuding; and Bee’s own diary-style observations. It may sound like a mess, but it’s a brilliant, often hilarious, piece of writing. Semple does an amazing job of revealing and sustaining her characters through their writing. The story line requires almost complete suspension of disbelief, but it works because ultimately it’s a fantasy, with high IQ points and seemingly unlimited cash in place of magic. Highly recommended!

Us, by David Nicholls, literary fiction, 2014. Geeky Douglas Petersen is shattered when his free-spirited wife, Connie, tells him their marriage has run its course and she’s ready to move on. She’s not exactly in a rush to go – first, she wants the two of them and their son, the artistic and resentful Albie, to go as a family on a planned “grand tour” of Europe, before Albie leaves home to go to university. Douglas agrees, hoping that he can manage to make the trip so perfect that she’ll fall in love with him again, and at the same time that Albie and he will somehow manage to establish an amicable relationship. But his plans fail and the family spins off in separate directions. I started out loving this book because of the exceptional skill with with Nicholls places the reader inside Douglas’ mind. His rigidity and desperate need for control is delightfully offset by his quirky worldview and unexpected sense of humor. For the first half of the book I was fully engaged in his profound sense of loss and bewilderment, yet the humor literally had me laughing out loud. It was disappointing, then, that Nicholls wasn’t able to sustain his grip on the character. Increasingly in the second half of the book I was reading about Douglas, rather than experiencing his reality, and the absurdity of his perceptions had pretty much melted away. An enjoyable read and I’ve already requested another Nicholls book from our library, but ultimately not as good as expected.

I am Having So Much Fun Without You, by Courtney Maum, literary fiction, 2014. Richard, a British artist living in Paris, cheats on his French wife Anne, who reacts with hurt and anger. The story follows Richard’s efforts to win her back, woven into his efforts to abandon his success as a commercial artist in favor of producing more challenging but less commercially easy work. The writing is clean and readable, the mood shifts engagingly between humor, sadness and poignancy, and the characters are well-drawn. Apart from an overly tidy ending it’s a very human story, and one cannot help identifying with the characters. On the other hand, having finished it, I find myself thinking “Meh – so what?” So … an okay read, and probably a reasonable choice if you’re offended by crappy writing but don’t want to have to think too hard.

The Longest Day – docudrama-style war movie, stars included John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery and Richard Burton, directed by Ken Annakin, Andrew Martin and Bernhard Wicki, and produced by Daryl Zanuck, 1962. The story of the Normandy Invasion on D-Day, seen through the eyes of Allied and German military players ranging from generals to foot soldiers. I’m not usually a fan of war movies; the flag-waving “let’s be hero” ones set my teeth on edge, and the uber-realistic “war is hell” ones don’t tell me anything I don’t already know. Frankly, I expected to sneak off and leave Himself to it pretty early on. Instead, I was riveted by the sheer scope of the story, and the power of the telling. The shock of learning how close the Allies came to losing this battle – and, with it, the war; the the grief of moments of tragedy that flared to life within the broader narrative; the stunning hugeness of what this battle cost made viewing this movie among the most intense experiences of my life. This is one I want to own – not because I’ll want to watch it all that often, but simply because it really is that good.

Wonder, by RJ Palacio, juvenile fiction, 2012. Yep, I’m one of those adults who enjoys kids books – and this one was just a delight. August Pullman was born with a severe facial deformity, and even after years of surgery he is still hard to look at. He now enters mainstream school for the first time after always having been home-schooled, and has to deal with the often insensitive, sometimes cruel reactions of his fellow pupils. I was completely absorbed by this unsentimental story of how he lives and grows through the challenge of  learning to accept himself and hold his own in the tough world of middle school. The characters are true to life, with concerns and a language typical of that age group. Strongly recommended!

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – romantic comedy, starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, directed by Michael Gondry, 2004. I tried, honestly I did. Rave reviews told me I had to, and when I hated it the first time I tried I figured that was my fault, so I tried again. Joel (Carrey) finds that his girlfriend Clementine (Winslet) has had their relationship erased from her mind, so that she no longer recognizes him. He goes to the inventor of the process for the same treatment, but as his memories fade he regrets this decision because he still loves her. So … it’s a cool concept and I should have loved it, but the truth is I just couldn’t stand the way Carrey handled the role. Way too much loud shouting and arm-waving! Such a pity.

Some Luck, by Jane Smiley, literary fiction, 2014. I have mixed feelings about Jane Smiley. Her prose – both the language and the stories – fails to soar, and I generally don’t engage deeply with any of her characters. And yet on the rare occasion that I read one of her books, I just have to keep turning the pages. “Some Luck” is the first in a planned trilogy, and covers 33 years in the life of the Langdon family, starting in 1920. Smiley offers a fly-on-the-wall perspective of the vastly different characters within the family, dipping in and out of their lives and offering brief glimpses of the needs and desires that motivate them. An interesting feature is that the story she tells is mainly about what happens in between life-changing events. We see the forces of external events and internal pressures driving the characters toward some sort of crossroad or climax, and then the story skips and we next see them on the other side of that moment. It’s an interesting approach; the lack of intensity gives  an unexpected depth. So … yeah, this is one I recommend, and I’ll be looking out for the sequel.

The 100 – post-apocalyptic science fiction TV series, Season 1, 6-10, see January (below) for review of first five, director’s motto: “Who needs continuity?”. After the apocalypse, Dawson’s Creek meets Lord of the Flies. Yeah, it’s not getting a whole lot better. The most striking absurdities are … hmmm … they manage to fix a radio, which suddenly and inexplicably turns out to have video capacity. And since much of the action takes place at night (and apparently it didn’t occur to the adults on the space station to equip more than one or two of them with a flashlight) they make really, really good flame torches that burn brilliantly and consistently, no problem. (Have you ever tried to do that? Not possible, really – not without chemical assistance!) They find a cache of rifles, and it turns out that gun-hating liberals do indeed survive the apocalypse, but despite their objections a few of the 100 become skilled snipers overnight. Also, lots of teenage hormonal angst, political angst, angsty angst, some dead people, and some who should die only then where would the story be? One more disc is winging its way usward from Netflix, and then Season 1 is done. I’m thinking I’ll pass on Season 2. UPDATE, episodes 11-13: The absurdity continues. Himself is enjoying the show, however, and maybe after six months – when Season 2 is available from Netflix – I’ll be in the mood for more of this silliness. To be honest, in a totally weird and mindless way I kinda enjoy it too – otherwise Himself would have been watching it with headphones on!

The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt, literary fiction, 2013. 13-year-old Theo Decker loses his mother when a bomb goes off while they are visiting a museum. In the intensity of the moment the track of his life fuses irrevocably with that of Pippa, another young survivor of the blast, and also with a remarkable small masterpiece, Carel Fabritius’ “Goldfinch”, which he steals. Already emotionally damaged, Theo world spirals into darkness as he loses himself in anguish over his mother’s death, obsessive anxiety over the painting, and the torment of one destructive relationship after another. It’s a powerful and gripping book … but ultimately I came away disappointed. At first I was absorbed by the Theo’s pain led to soul-destroying choices that, in turn, drove his life further out of control. But I found myself less and less able to empathize with him. I don’t know whether that was my failure of imagination, or Tartt’s failure to maintain him in three dimensions – but it’s worth mentioning that, by contrast, Theo’s friend Boris never became tedious, even though I didn’t personally identify with what drove him. I would say the book is worth reading if you enjoy literary fiction and read fast (it’s a long, slow read, so not for the distractible). But be warned, the ending is disappointing. I won’t say how the story itself ends, but the final chapter or so wander off into a dissertation in which Tartt explains the theme and philosophy of the book, I suppose to spare us all the trouble, and that was annoying.

January

(Five books, five movies and television shows)

Guardians of the Galaxy – space opera movie, starring Chris Pratt, Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper, director James Gunn, 2014. Green-skinned, blue-skinned and people-skinned petty criminals and a mutant raccoon versus a seriously bad guy. Lots of loud shouty voices, explosions, juvenile humor. I’m not entirely sure what it’s about because I kept falling asleep before finally leaving Himself to it. Presumably the good guys win. Meh.

The 100 – post-apocalyptic science fiction TV series, starring and directed by a whole bunch of people that I don’t want to list here, Season 1, 1-5. The remnants of the human race, descendants of the survivors of a nuclear holocaust, are living in an orbiting space station, when something technical goes wrong and their oxygen supplies start running out. Engineering needs six months to fix the problem, and they have air for four months. There are only two solutions: reduce population to conserve air, or send some down to earth to see if it’s safe to return. They send 100 juvenile delinquents, all of whom are wearing bracelets that will beam their vital signs back to the ship as long as they’re alive. The delinquents promptly start taking off the bracelets by way of giving the adults on the space station the finger, so with much angst and political infighting the leaders up in space make plans to off 300 people, give or take a few. Down on earth, various adventures happen, lots of drama, political infighting, people dying, and of course mutants. If you are a detail-oriented perfectionist, don’t watch this series sober. On the other hand, it could be fun to throw popcorn at the screen every time you spot some absurd anomaly … like, how was it easier to equip each kid with a one-way radio bracelet than to supply them with a radio? And why send them without any kind of first aid kit? And, back on the space station, why keep “floating” highly skilled individuals, like doctors and engineers, for political misbehavior? And if they were short of air, how about shutting down some of the vast empty spaces all over the station? And … ah, forget it. The truth is, I’m loving the series and can’t wait for the next DVD to arrive from Netflix. So there.

Coming Clean, by Kimberly Rae Miller, memoir, 2013. This story about growing up as the only child of extreme hoarders is shockingly powerful. Forget mere clutter; Miller’s father was so obsessed with gathering together all the world’s junk until there was no room left in their home for the humans living there. She describes walking on garbage that squished with rot, feeling rats scamper over her when she was in bed at night, living on fast food because the filthy kitchen was unusable, and going months without running water at home. Eventually her mother, deeply depressed, stopped resisting the hoarding and began compulsively shopping herself. What makes this book exceptional, in my view, is Miller’s ability to take the reader beyond the filth, into the heart of a child whose life was broken into two pieces that could never meet – the shameful secret that lay behind the front door of her home, and her life as a brilliant and ultimately driven student. Through it all, she constantly reminds us of her parents’ humanity, and affirms how much she loves them despite the damage done to her as a result of their illness.

Election – comedy movie, starring Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, director Alexander Payne, 1999. Generally I steer clear of comedies about American teenagers, but Broderick and Witherspoon make a great combination. Jim McAllister (Broderick) is a popular high school history and civics teacher who dislikes and distrusts the bossy, over-zealous Tracy Flick (Witherspoon). He goes to work to prevent her from winning an uncontested bid to be student president. Chris Klein, as Paul Metzler, the popular football hero McAllister persuades to run against Tracy, puts on a meh performance – he’s just too nice to be believable. Jessica Campbell, as Paul’s sister Tammy, was far more pleasing. I’m not going to spoil the story by telling the plot here. For the most part it’s fun, entertaining, and lightweight. And although, sitting here writing this, I find myself disturbed to refer in those terms to a movie in which two marriages break down, several people are seduced, and lies are told … well, I’m probably taking it way too seriously. It was funny. Go ahead and watch it.

Oz the Great and Powerful – semi-animated fantasy movie, starring James Franco, Mila Kunis, Rachel Weisz, and Michelle Williams, director Sam Raimi, 2013. Set about 20 years before “The Wizard of Oz”, it tells the story of how Oz the wizard (Franco) comes to power. Originally a womanizing charlatan, he flees his place as a magician with a traveling circus and is caught up by a whirlwind, which dumps him in the land of Oz. Here he encounters three witches: naive and trusting Theodora (Kunis), who tells him his coming has been foretold in prophecy; power-hungry Evanora (Weisz), who demands that he prove himself by killing their sister; and Glinda (Williams), the good witch who challenges him to do his best to fulfil the prophecy. There are bright colors, amusing interludes and cute critters. The wicked witches are clearly too powerful to overcome, but Oz overcomes them anyway, largely by mistake, because – duh – goodness may be imperfect and blundering, but it always wins. It was a sweet movie, and if I’d been watching it with a few young children I would have had a blast – but having sat down expecting a rather more sophisticated fantasy I found it predictable and slow-moving.

The Grand Budapest Hotel – dramatic comedy movie, starring Ralph Fiennes, director Wes Anderson, 2014. I greatly enjoyed this movie, but suspect it will get better upon repeated viewing – which means this is one DVD I plan to own. The humor is sharp, witty, occasionally dark, and with only a hint of farce. The story-line is clever and demands attention, and the camera work and editing are excellent. It’s a story about a story about a story that starts in 1932, when the Grand Budapest’s concierge, Gustave H (Fiennes) learns that one of the ladies who visit the hotel (and enjoy his personal attentions) has died. Taking his young protege, the lobby boy Zero, he rushes to attend her wake. Here he learns that she has bequeathed him a valuable painting. Her family is enraged, but he and Zero take off with the painting. Soon Gustave finds himself in jail, accused of her murder, and meanwhile news of another alternate will emerges. What follows is far too convoluted to detail here, and anyway what would be the point? Just … if you like your funnies a tad more complex than you’ll find in sitcomland, go see the movie for yourself!

We Are Not Ourselves – Matthew Thomas, literary novel, 2014. I really wanted to like this book, and to be honest I didn’t want to put it down. I didn’t identify with the main characters but I’ve known an awful lot of people like them – ordinary people motivated by a desire for more that translates to more stuff and status, people who never quite figure out why they don’t fit despite their constant efforts to do so. I wanted to know what happened to these people, especially as Thomas did a good job of creating a sense of looming disaster. But in the end, although they experienced tragedy the disaster didn’t quite happen, and the story pretty much petered out without any real sense of growth, epiphany or resolution. The result was Babbitt or Prufrock in a disappointing shade of beige. This is Thomas’ first novel and it has some stylistic weaknesses; the one that bothered me most was the random shifts in point of view between the wife/mother, Eileen Leary, and the son, Connell. All that aside, I do think this author may have some good stuff in him, and I’ll be watching for his next book.

Heartburn – by Nora Ephron, humorous novel, 1983. This was my first Ephron novel but it won’t be my last – it was a lightweight, funny, easy read. When seven months pregnant the main protagonist, Rachel, learns that her husband is in love with another woman. And while there is nothing remotely funny about her situation, Ephron draws her characters with wry humor and tosses them into painfully real situations that have one going haha-ouch all through the book. Rachel is a writer of cookbooks, so of course this work is spattered with recipes – and although I’m not usually a fan of that literary trend I can report that the pot roast is both easy and excellent, and I plan to try the key lime pie just as soon as I’m ready to munch on carbs again.

Next – by Michael Crichton, fantasy thriller, 2006. After the literary intensity of Tibetan Peach Pie I needed an easy roller-coaster sort of read, and that’s what Crichton is guaranteed to provide. The theme of the book is the politics of genetic manipulation, and like most of Crichton’s books it chases a real modern boogeyman out of his hole, hunts him down, and dissects him. The book weaves together the stories of several individuals who are engaged in or affected by developments in biotechnology, and their stories are interspersed by “news reports” – some of them genuine. It might be easy to lose track of the various plot twists and characters if you take your time over this book. When I read Crichton I glom through it as fast as I can, which is easy to do – his writing style is fast-paced and clear, and the story is intense, thought-provoking and engaging.

Tibetan Peach Pie – by Tom Robbins, memoir (although he says it’s really just a bunch of stories that he likes to tell about his life), 2014. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed Tom Robbins’ novels, but after reading his memoir I rushed out to buy Even Cowgirls Get the Blues as a birthday gift for a friend. I’ll be working my way through all his books … because, although I find his constant poking away at Christian faith wearisome (I remember now that I stopped reading him after reading Another Roadside Attraction), his writing is just so good. He has an astonishing ability to weave together absurdity, tragedy and satire in ways that generate characters who are larger than life. All that said … while Tibetan Peach Pie reminded me of why I like to read his fiction, and while it’s well written, sometimes poignant and often funny, I can’t deny that some bits jarred. Not the writing – that can only be described as wonderful; but I found I didn’t like him much as a person. I guess it’s difficult to look back at a lifetime (Robbins is now in his 80s) of being exceptionally good at what you do, and of living consistently by your own rules, and not be a tad complacent. And it’s probably impossible to insist on living by your own rules and not occasionally give the rest of the world the finger. So do I recommend this book? Yes, I do – he’s an interesting person who lived through a fascinating period of recent American history, and he writes about it fluently and entertainingly. But on a personal level, I’d rather get to know his created characters than the man himself.