October

Same Kind of Different as Me, by Ron Hall & Denver Moore, with Lynn Vincent, memoir, 2006. Denver Moore was a homeless man, a dangerous and embittered loner after years of hardship. Ron Hall was a wealthy, successful international art dealer. Their lives intersected and meshed at a homeless shelter in Fort Worth, Texas, where Ron’s wife got him involved in volunteering. I was moved and uplifted by this beautiful story of love, friendship, loss, and the power of God. Strongly recommended.

Did You Ever Have a Family, by Bill Clegg, literary fiction, 2015. Early in the morning before her daughter’s wedding, a gas leak causes an explosion that destroys June’s house and everyone sleeping inside it – her daughter, her son-in-law to be, her ex-husband and her lover. The aftershock of the explosion is felt way beyond the immediate families and community. Told by a variety of people, some close to the tragedy and some only incidentally connected, this story weaves a picture of pain, loss, love, forgiveness and relationship. Beautiful!

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, literary fiction, 2015. Rachel takes the same commuter train to and from the city every weekday. On the way, she watches the young couple in a particular house. She sees their lives unfold in a way that reminds her of the unraveling of her own life. From fantasizing about them, she is irresistibly drawn to engage with them – and this leads her back to the unresolved conflicts within her past marriage and other relationships. This story is a constant, unsettling series of shifting perspectives. Highly recommended.

The Limpopo Academy of Private Detection and The Woman Who Walked in Sunshine, by Alexander McCall Smith, humor/detection, 2012/15. These two books in the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series feature the same gentle humor and down-home wisdom of the rest of the series. You can’t help warming to the characters, or being drawn into their lives.

Make Me, by Lee Child, thriller, 2015. Jack Reacher wanders into a town with an unusual name that he has an urge to track down. To nobody’s surprise, he stumbles into a horrifying conspiracy. There is the obligatory gorgeous woman, mayhem, blood, broken bones, grisly stuff. Why do I keep reading these books? All I know is, as long as Child keeps churning them out, I’ll keep sucking them down!

Razor Girl, by Carl Hiaasen, humor, 2016. There’s a woman who lures men to their doom by ramming their cars and, when they jump out and scurry round to assess the damage, they find her in the middle of shaving her pubes and are so distracted they immediately follow her wherever she leads them. There’s a downgraded cop who wants to own his view of the lot next door, and will go to extraordinary lengths to prevent soulless rich people from building on it. There are mafiosi, and there’s a scam involving stealing beach sand to replace Florida’s beaches when the inconsiderate sea washes them away. Government larceny, mayhem, suggestions of riotous sex, and of course the continuing destruction of the Everglades. All Hiaasen’s stories seem the same to me, but I keep coming back to him because he is funny, albeit about painful subjects that tend to leave one feeling just a tad depressed.

September

(7 books)

Britt-Marie was Here, by Fredrick Backman, literary fiction, 2014 (translated from Swedish). The obsessive, irritable, socially-inept Britt-Marie leaves her cheating husband, finds a job in a failing small town, and learns how to think and function as an independent human being. First introduced as a secondary character in My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (reviewed in August), Britt-Marie isn’t immediately a sympathetic character, but the tender, affectionate humor of Backman’s portrayal reveals her so gently that one can’t help falling in love with her. I really loved this book.

God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison, literary fiction, 2015. This story weaves itself around Bride, a strikingly beautiful model whose lighter skinned mother rejected her for her extreme blackness. She has a lover, whom she loses because of her temper. Also wandering through the story are a white hippy couple and the child they stole like an abused puppy, Bride’s conflicted, guilt-ridden mother, and Bride’s bitter, traitorous best friend. This is the kind of book you want to come back to for a second read – beautiful, haunting, compelling.

Skinny Legs and All, by Tom Robbins, literary fiction, 1990. A bean can, a spoon and a sock join two ancient Babylonian religious artifacts in a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. In New York, a Jew and an Arab open an ethnic restaurant. An aspiring artist gives up and becomes a waitress. A young redneck is surprised by fame as an artist. These are the main elements of a rich, rollicking story, told in Robbins’ always lush prose. I can’t deny that his active loathing for Christianity – to which he gives full voice in this book – grieves and disturbs me … but he writes so damn well I couldn’t put the book down.

Top Secret Twenty-One and Tricky Twenty-Two, by Janet Evanovich, detective fiction/humor, 2014/15. Stephanie Plum rides again. Cars explode, Ranger and Morelli ooze sex appeal, bad guys stick out their feet for Stephanie to trip over but they get taken down anyway, Grandma goes to viewings and waves a gun around. It’s mayhem as usual. One of my favorite kick-back-and-ignore-reality series.

R is for Ricochet and S is for Silence,  by Sue Grafton, detective fiction series, 2004/5. I’ve complained in recent reviews of the Alphabet Series that I liked the Kinsey Millhone stories better when they were shorter, but with these volumes Grafton hits her stride. In Ricochet, Kinsey takes on an easy job – to pick up a rich man’s daughter from prison at the end of her term. An unexpected friendship develops between the two women – and as Reba Lafferty reconnects with her old world, inevitably Kinsey gets drawn into trying to rescue her. In Silence, which abandons Grafton’s usual usual ultra straightforward story-telling style, Kinsey tackles a multilayered missing persons case.

August

(10 books)

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach, science non-fiction, 2003. This is my third Mary Roach (I reviewed Bonk in May and Gulp in February) … and once again, I have to rate her as outstanding at getting one to go “Bwah-ha-ha-eeeuwww“. Stiff is a fascinating and frequently hilarious exploration of just what happens to human bodies when they die. Inter alia, it covers the use of cadavers in medical teaching and research, decay (and what we it can tell us), various options for body disposal, and head/body transplantation. As always, some of the best stuff is found in the footnotes. Warning: This is not a good book to read while eating.

My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry, by Fredrik Backman, literary fiction, 2013, translated from Swedish. When 7-year-old Elsa’s grandmother dies, she loses her strongest ally, a teller of magical tales who encourages her to revel in being “different”. But her grandmother leaves her a legacy – a treasure hunt that leads her into strong new relationships, deeper understanding of the people who make up her world, and a renewed ability to enter the world of magic under her own power. I thoroughly enjoyed this charming story, told from the point of view of an intelligent, articulate child. There were a few minor hitches in the translation, but once I realized the book was a translation they stopped being intrusive and became instead the sound of the author’s voice. The only real weakness was the ending; like so many authors, Backman works too hard to wrap things up in a neat parcel at the end. However, I will definitely seek out more of his work.

The Broker, by John Grisham, legal fiction, 2005. Responding to pressure from the CIA, the outgoing US president grants a pardon to Joel Backman, a notorious Washington power broker. The CIA smuggles him out of the country and provides him with a new identity … then sits back to see who will come after him when they leak the truth of his whereabouts. Backman is savvy enough to figure out what’s going in – but is he smart enough to get away? Classic Grisham – a page-turner.

The Fire Sermon and Map of Bones, by Francesca Haig, first two books in a post-apocalyptic fantasy trilogy, 2015 and 2016. Four centuries after a nuclear firestorm destroyed the earth, humanity has undergone a variety of mutations. One that appears permanent is that now all humans are born as twins – Alphas, who are completely normal and who form the ruling class, and Omegas, who are deformed in some way and are treated as outcasts. Cass is an Omega with a rare mutation – psychic foresight. Her twin, Zach, becomes increasingly powerful … and increasingly obsessed with the need to destroy Omegas by restricting them to a state of mere existence, just alive enough to keep their Alpha twins alive. However, a limiting factor is that whenever one twin dies, the other dies as well. Interesting premise, fair writing. Honestly I feel the author didn’t actually do full justice to the story – it could have been much richer and more complex. Still an enjoyable read, and I look forward to the final volume.

Bad Luck and Trouble and Gone Tomorrow by Lee Child, thriller, Jack Reacher series, 2007 and 2009. In BLT, people get thrown out of helicopters, and Reacher takes exception. In Gone Tomorrow, it’s Reacher versus a bunch of seriously ugly bad guys, as well as the Secret Service, CIA, FBI, and some others I’ve forgotten. In both cases, mayhem ensues. Fun reading!

P is for Peril and Q is for Quarry, by Sue Grafton, detective mystery series, 2001. Pretty soon I’m going to run out of these! I do enjoy them – although the later ones demand more effort than the earlier books in the series. I’m not sure that’s a good thing … I’m used to thinking of her as strictly lazy reading. Not going to stop, though!

The Kitchen Houseby Kathleen Grissom, historical fiction, 2010. Lavinia is a white orphan, indentured as a very young child and raised by slaves on a Virginia plantation in the late 1700s. Belle is the slave most responsible for her care. These two narrators tell a story that is bursting at the seams with all the elements of classic melodrama – rape, murder, incest, and a whole shitload of misery. I thought – as a non-American white English speaker – that Grissom did a believable job of speaking in Belle’s voice, if one ignores the fact that she spent her early years being educated like a white child. Lavinia’s voice is stilted, verbose, and lacking in nuance. I read the whole book because the story is fairly compelling and the bits told by Belle kept me going … but … meh.

July

(8 books)

Best Boy, by Eli Gottlieb, literary fiction, 2015. Todd Aaron is a middle-aged autistic man who has lived most of his life in a village-style institution. Gottlieb does a brilliant job of placing us inside Aaron’s head as he tells his story, which shifts easily between memories of his early life with an abusive father and a loving but bullied mother, and current relationships with his distant brother and within his community. I loved this book and can’t wait to read more by this author.

Under the Empyrean Sky, by Chuck Wendig, YA sci-fi thriller, Book 1 in the Heartland Trilogy, 2013. Cael lives on a bleak and dreary world, where the only crop is corn grown for industrial use and not even edible. The communities living within the corn and responsible for harvesting it are wholly dependent on a small class of wealthy elite, who live in airborne islands. Reprisal against anyone seeking to change the status quo is harsh and unforgiving, but Cael and his friends find themselves drawn into rebellion almost despite themselves. The story is engaging and Wendig’s writing is clean and believable. I’ll probably finish this series, because I want to know what happens next … but might not rush to find his other YA work. This simply doesn’t compare with the harsh grittiness of his Miriam Black urban fantasy series, which I discovered (and reviewed) in January … and which I really need to get back to.

N is for Noose and O is for Outlaw, by Sue Grafton, detective mystery, 1998. More about private eye Kinsey Millhone’s efforts to keep the bad guys from winning. At this stage of the series they’re getting longer and less like fluffy quick reads. The stories are still good – one just has to concentrate a teeny bit more to remember who’s who.

Micro, by Michael Crichton and Richard Preston, sci-fi thriller, 2011.  A Hawaiian microbiology technology company breaks new ground with a process that opens up the microcosm, both for study and for weapons development. A group of students becomes entangled in a dispute between Good Guys (scientists) and Bad Guys (evil scientists). Classic Crichton – exciting, well researched, and gets you thinking it could almost be real … if not now, then one day.

Airframe, by Michael Crichton, thriller, 1996. An airplane disaster triggers a media uproar, which complicates a mix of corporate politicking. What can I say … I just enjoy Crichton. His research is solid, his characters are believable, his stories are complex without being complicated.

One Shot and The Hard Way, by Lee Child, Jack Reacher thriller series. Still bingeing and loving it. I just love the way Reacher always wins against the bad guys.

June

(8 books)

The Jack Reacher novels, by Lee Child, thriller series. I’ve been bingeing again – decided to work my way through the series, and gobbled up Running Blind, Echo Burning, Without Fail, Persuader and The Enemy. Frankly, Child’s writing style leaves a fair amount to be desired … but nitpicks aside, he’s compelling, the stories are exciting, and you have to like Reacher’s approach to pretty much any difficulty. (You hit it until it falls down.) At a time when I’ve needed to escape the real world, it’s been good medicine.

Live Right and Find Happiness, by Dave Barry, humor, 2015. A collection of mostly funny, sometimes hilarious essays, each of which in some way relates to happiness. An easy, enjoyable way to while away an hour or two. (Or you could keep it on the back of the toilet, if you like to take your time in there.)

Hollow City, by Ransom Riggs, fantasy, 2014. The sequel to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, which I read last month. Miss Peregrine is trapped in the body of a bird and cannot defend her peculiar charges against the monsters who want to devour them. The children, taking the bird with them, set out for war-torn London, where they hope to find help and safety for Miss Peregrine and themselves. I’m loving this marvelous series!

Silver Star, by Jeannette Walls, literary fiction, 2013. When 12-year-old Bean Holladay and her older sister Liz are abandoned by their mother, they take a bus from their home in California to their uncle in Virginia. There they find security, but must also deal with the painful truths they learn about their mother, and also about their family’s role in this small, depressed town. Then something horrible happens to Liz…  In writing this book, Walls draws on her own life experiences (described in The Glass Castle, which I reviewed in March), but the story is fresh and intense. Bean and the other characters are well formed and believable. I loved this book and look forward to reading more by her.

May

(6 books, 1 movie)

AnJapanese period drama (watched with subtitles – English version is Sweet Bean), 2015. A very slow-moving, beautifully filmed and acted, character-driven story around the relationships between a Japanese seller of baked goods, an old lady who makes amazing bean paste, and a poor schoolgirl. I watched this on a trans-Atlantic plane flight, and it was still an extraordinary and moving experience that completely lifted me out of my surroundings.

Boogers are My Beat, by Dave Barry, humor, 2003. A selection of columns on politics, the winter Olympics, and random shit. Dave Barry is funny, particularly as a columnist. This was great medicine for an achey heart.

State of Fear, by Michael Crichton, thriller, 2004. The core theme of this story is that global warming fear-mongering is a political tool with minimal scientific basis. Like many of Crichton’s novels, it’s liberally bedewed with references to actual scientific articles, and it raises some interesting questions. As someone who is skeptical about large parts of the popular climate change story, I found it interesting – and, of course, it’s exciting and well written – classic Crichton.

The Bridge Ladies, by Betsy Lerner, memoir, 2016. Lerner wanders from memories of her childhood and adolescence, to musings on her relationship with her mother, to insights into the mores governing her mother’s peers, to tips on how to play bridge … and somehow it all comes together in a thoroughly delightful read. Both funny and poignant, it left me feeling as though I’d encountered someone I’d like to have as a friend.

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs, fantasy, 2011. When Jacob was little, he believed all his grandfather’s stories about monsters, and the strange children in the orphanage where he grew up. As he got older he angrily realized they were all nonsense, and the photographs his grandfather kept were fakes. Then, at sixteen, his grandfather’s frightening death forced him to reevaluate reality, and drove him to visit the eerie island where the orphanage stood, to face the truth about himself. A deliciously creepy story!

The Making of Us, by Lisa Jewell, literary fiction, 2011. Lydia, Dean and Robyn were born to different mothers who used the same sperm donor. Years later they meet through a website that links donor siblings. Then they meet their father just before he kicks the bucket. Meh.

Bonk, by Mary Roach, humorous non-fiction, 2008. Hilarious science writer Roach tackles the eternally fascinating subject of sex. She takes her readers from foreplay to orgasm, with numerous diverting side trips through masturbation, close-ups of various private parts, and pig farming. One of the best things about Roach is that she does her best to leave nothing out – she liberally scatters footnotes bearing random gems of information that don’t quite fit anywhere else.

April

(10 books)

Kinsey Milhone alphabet series, H-M, by Sue Grafton, detective fiction. I binged all the way through Homicide, Innocent, Judgment, Killer, Lawless and Malice. Grafton’s writing style is stiff and wooden, but the stories are bingeworthy and I have every intention of finishing the series!

We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver, psychological drama, 2003. This novel is written in the form of a series of letters from Eva to her estranged husband Franklin, as she tries to make sense of their son Kevin, who has killed seven of his fellow high-school students and two adults. It’s a harrowing, intense story that lays bare Eva’s inability to connect with her son and Franklin’s inability to recognize the truth of what he is, while Kevin himself remains a chilling yet heartbreaking mystery. Beautifully written – Shriver is extraordinary!

Porterhouse Blue, by Tom Sharpe, satire, 1974. Porterhouse College, Cambridge, is best known for its rowing team and its dining hall, rather than academics. A new Master determined to turn that state of affairs around finds himself going head-to-head with the Establishment, from the Dean down to the porter. Sharpe wraps up his caustic mockery of various sacred cows in a rude story that progresses from bizarre to impossible. I’ve long been a fan, and this was a most enjoyable reread!

The Lives of Tao, by Wesley Chu, fantasy thriller, 2013. When his host is killed in an ambush, Tao, an alien intelligence, has to move fast in less-than-ideal conditions to find another host. With little to choose between, he picks an out-of-shape, unhappy IT technician, Roen … and begins the tedious business of transforming him into a warrior to fight the ancient enemy of Tao’s people. This book is intense and exciting, and also fun. The writing can be a little sloppy, but it’s still good enough that I’ll be reading the sequel.

American Sniper, by Chris Kyle, memoir, 2012. Written by “the most lethal sniper in US military history, a US Navy SEAL who served four tours in Iraq. I found this book deeply disturbing. Kyle comes across as a likable, regular kinda guy … who loved his job. Which was to kill people. It was an interesting first-hand account of the war, well-written in a consistent and distinctive voice,  but I was more intrigued by the insight into the mind of a killer who is regarded (and regarded himself) as a patriot and a hero. His world was peopled with “us” and “them”, and he expresses no remorse or regret for killing as many of “them” as possible. Living in Smalltown USA I know people like this. It’s creepy.

March

(10 books)

The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, memoir, 2005. Walls paints a brutally clear picture of her deeply dysfunctional family. Both parents were brilliant and creative, but utterly self-centered and incapable of providing a secure home for their children. Walls and her siblings effectively raised themselves, clinging to life with ferocious determination in the face of hunger, inadequate housing, and ragged clothes. Yet however inadequate their parents were as parents, they were extraordinarily effective as teachers; Walls may often not have had enough to eat, but her father saw to it that she was smarter, more articulate and better informed than her peers ever thought to be. An intriguing book, well worth reading.

Perfect Match, by Jodi Picoult, family drama and legal fiction, 2002. Nina Frost is an ADA who prosecutes child molesters as part of her job. Then her own five-year-old son is traumatized by a sexual assault, and she cannot view his situation as just another case. A riveting story about a real world horror; one cannot but be fully absorbed.

The Full Cupboard of Life, by Alexander McCall Smith, detective fiction, No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency Series, 2003. Mma Ramotswe does some background checks on a rich lady’s suitors, while Mr JLB Matekone finds himself unexpectedly committed to a parachute jump on behalf of the orphan farm. The ultra-simple writing style reflects the slow-moving pace of life in Botswana, where there is always time to ponder and enjoy the thoughts and events of the day. These books are fun, easy to read, and as satisfying as a quiet cup of rooibos tea.

I am the Clay, by Chaim Potok, historic literary fiction, 1992. It’s war, and the Army of the North and the Chinese are sweeping south through Korea in devastating waves. An old man and his wife join the horde of refugees running ahead of them. As they pass through a village they encounter an injured boy and, to the old man’s bitter resentment, the old woman insists on rescuing the boy and taking him with them. The story shifts perspective constantly between man, woman and boy, revealing events through the lens of superstitious fear and awe, stubborn love born of loss, and bewildered dependence. A beautiful, heartbreaking story.

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee, coming of age literary fiction, 1960. I’ve read this book so many times, and all the talk about Go Set A Watchman (the prequel, which Lee resisted publishing for most of her life, and which I will not read) got me wanting to revisit it. It’s still a wonderful book – beautifully written, rich with story, character and atmosphere. If you haven’t read it, what on earth are you waiting for?

Children of the Jacaranda Tree, by Sahar Delijani, historic literary fiction, 2013. This story spans nearly 30 years after the revolution that put Iran under the theocratic leadership of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Set partly in Tehran and partly in Turin, it follows the interweaving lives of several families. The parents, many of them imprisoned and tortured for resisting Khomeini, raise a new generation of children who must determine where they fit in the context of their history and culture. A powerful, moving book. The story sometimes felt a little contrived, and the shifts in time and location weren’t always as easy to follow as one might like, but I would still consider this a worthwhile read.

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini, historic literary fiction, 2003. Amir is the son of a wealthy man in Kabul. Civil war and the Russian invasion, flight to America, and life as impoverished refugees provide the dark context of this story, which however focuses more on Amir’s relationship with his closest friend – the son of his father’s servant, Hassan – and on his efforts to come to terms with his sense of self. Amir is weak and cowardly, a traitorous friend and a disappointment to his father. Yet while it is hard to like him, Hosseini’s writing is so skillful and the story so compelling that one can’t help identifying with him. A powerful, painful book – I couldn’t put it down, and I can’t wait to read more by this author.

The Monkey’s Raincoat, by Robert Crais, detective story, 1987. Elvis Cole is a private eye – a wisecracking Vietnam veteran with a strange and silent partner. He reminds me of Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, which is a good thing since I’ve read all the Spenser books. Fast-moving, very readable. The plot is forgettable, but the read is fun.

In One Person, by John Irving, literary fiction, 2012. Billy Abbott is bisexual, with a variety of hangups. That’s pretty much it. I truly love most of John Irving’s books, but although I tried to read this one I simply couldn’t get beyond the first 100 pages. The writing dragged, the topic was tedious, the character was a bore. Meh. I said I wouldn’t give negative reviews but this is an established, respected author who isn’t going to be hurt by me … Seriously, if you want to read John Irving, reread something else.

A Wolf at the Table, by Augusten Burroughs, memoir, 2008. Burroughs writing is rich and vivid as he describes growing up with a psychopath father, neurotic mother and bullying brother. But although he hints at some chilling memories and describes disturbing incidents, ultimately this book failed to move me. Too much self-pity, maybe? I didn’t care greatly for Running with Scissors, either, so maybe it’s me.

February

(9 books, one movie)

Gulp, by Mary Roach, humorous non-fiction science, 2013. Who knew the human alimentary tract could be so fascinating, or so funny? Roach takes her readers on a meandering tour from mouth to butt, with side trips through how Herbert Hoover tried to lower the US national debt by chewing, how to survive being swallowed alive, and – of course – farts. This is probably not a book you want to read while eating, not least because it’s likely to make you blow your soup through your nose.

The House We Grew Up In, by Lisa Jewell, family drama, 2013. The Bird family seems pretty close to perfect – two boys, two girls, an artistic free spirit mother, a gentle, kind father. But a tragic death rips away the appearance of happiness. Lorelei, the mother, who has always invested heavily in creating a sense of occasion and preserving memories, is trapped by her obsessive need to hoard everything her hand touches – because each object becomes the repository of some important memory. The family disintegrates, until the need to deal with Lorelei’s death draws her children and her estranged husband back together. I found this book powerful and gripping. Jewell peels away the layers of her characters, and of her story, with compelling skill and beauty.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, by Jesse Andrews, YA coming-of-age novel, . Greg Gaines’ strategy for surviving high school is to remain on the periphery at all times. By sliding along the edges of all the cliques, he manages to be liked – or at least tolerated – by all, without ever being identified with any. The closest thing he has to a friend is Earl, a tough kid from a rough neighborhood who shares his geeky taste for making home-made movies. Then Greg’s mom forces him into a friendship with a classmate who has cancer, and staying uninvolved becomes a whole lot harder. I liked this book a whole lot more than I expected to. It’s written in teen-speak, but instead of being annoying that put me right inside the head of the teenage boy protagonist, which was an interesting place to be.

The Last Policeman, Countdown City, and World of Trouble by Ben H. Winters, sci-fi mystery, trilogy, 2012, 2013, 2014. How does a good cop deal with bad people during the apocalypse? An asteroid is heading toward earth. There’s no way to stop, deflect or avoid it, and as humanity faces its end, society crumbles. But for Detective Hank Palace, none of this is any reason not to investigate a crime. I loved this series. The writing is clean, the dialogue and characters believable, the pace tight, and it asks some real questions about The Meaning Of It All.

The Pelican Brief, by John Grisham, legal thriller, 1992. This is one of Grisham’s best – an intense, fast-paced story, clean writing, consistent and believable characters – an all-round good read. Darby Shaw is a New Orleans legal student who draws up a speculative legal brief that uncovers a presidential conspiracy. When people start trying to kill her she realizes she may have stumbled closer to the truth than she ever imagined.

Tracer, by Rob Boffard, sci-fi thriller, 2015. Riley Hale is a tracer – a fast-running delivery girl who lives on a huge and crumbling space station, which is home to the last remnants of humanity. And her world is falling apart. A secret group of fanatics believes the earth’s recovery from nuclear destruction will be secure only if all humanity is destroyed, and they are grabbing political and economic control. Somehow Riley finds herself at the heart of the conflict, holding the key to humanity’s survival. I enjoyed this book – it was fast-paced and well written, and the characters were consistent. Unfortunately it rather lost the plot toward the end. The denouement was exciting and all, but just not believable. This is a good read by a South African author, but I’m not burning up to read the sequel.

7 Days, by Deon Meyer, crime thriller, 2012 (translated from Afrikaans). I am just delighted to have found this author, and not just because he’s a fellow South African whose characters use accents and slang that are guaranteed to make me homesick! This book was intense and gripping, and the multi-dimensional main character – a detective who is also a depressive recovering alcoholic with self-esteem issues – had me wanting to give him a big hug. If you’re not put off by stories that are set way outside the cultural norms of modern literature, you’ll find this author worth reading.

Suffragetteperiod drama, 2015. In 1912 a young laundress accidentally gets caught up into the suffragette movement. Her story is a moving exemplar of the narrowness of women’s lives and expectations, and the crushing force of public opinion, before the first militant feminists forced change. Moody camera work intensified the message. Worth seeing – not just as a reminder of where we’ve come from, but as a warning not to let any group of human beings go there again.

January

(10 books)

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot, science non-fiction, 2012. In 1951 an African American woman, Henrietta Lacks, developed a particularly aggressive form of cervical cancer, which resulted in her agonizing death. During the course of her diagnosis and treatment, doctors at Johns Hopkins hospital removed some of her cells. When cultured for use in scientific research, these cells proved unique in that they didn’t die, but kept reproducing indefinitely. HeLa cells are still widely used in tissue research all over the world. Scientists have won awards for work done using these cells, and corporations have made billions of dollars, but Lacks descendants are still living in poverty and, until Skloot contacted them for her research on this book, were unaware that these cells existed. Skloot does a brilliant job of telling the intertwined stories of Henrietta, her living descendants, and the scientific, legal and ethical questions surrounding the cells themselves.

Blackbirds and Mockingbird, by Chuck Wendig, Books 1 and 2 in the Miriam Black series, urban fantasy/horror. If Miriam Black touches you skin-to-skin, she can see how you’re going to die. This unwelcome and uncomfortable “gift” both drives many of her choices and taints her relationships. I first encountered Wendig via his blog, which is almost always a great read. The Miriam Black books aren’t exactly easy reading … I’ve never before understood the descriptor “gritty” when applied to writing, but that’s what this is. His characters are not particularly likable and his world is harsh and ugly – but his writing and storytelling are so compelling you have to keep turning the pages. I need a break, but I’ll be back for more.

Three, Morningside Fall, and Dawnbreaker, by Jay Posey, post-apocalyptic fantasy thrillers comprising the Legends of the Duskwalker trilogy. Three rescues young Wren and his mother from a group of nasties who  want to use their strange powers for nefarious ends. While Three is the reluctant hero of the first book, the series is built around the story of Wren’s development into a man, a leader, and eventually a hero. I enjoyed these books despite being irritated by somewhat two-dimensional story telling. It reminded me of a computer fantasy game – strong but simplistic visuals, sound effects, and no other senses. I needed something easy and distracting to read and they provided it, but I probably won’t go looking for Posey again.

Skinny Dip, by Carl Hiaasen, satire, 2004. My main complaint about Hiaasen, since I read and loved Sick Puppy years ago, is that all his stories are essentially the same. And, indeed, Skinny Dip is set in Florida and its theme is the destruction of the Everglades. But it’s still a darn good read! It’s fast-paced and well written, with coherent characters that you can’t help wanting to get to know. And, you know … you have to admit, what’s happening to the Everglades is horrible, and we need to be reminded that it’s important. Plus it takes a lot of talent to punch you with that greasy reality with one hand, while tickling you until you laugh out loud with the other.

Interworld and The Silver Dream, by Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves, YA fantasy, 2007 and 2013. I thought I’d read all of Neil Gaiman (apart from the graphic novels – I just can’t get into those), so discovering his body of YA and children’s books is like finding a whole new continent to explore! One day Joey Harker accidentally walks out of his world and into another one, and finds himself at the heart of a savage conflict between magic and technology. It’s okay, he acquires a lot of extraordinary powers … but then he meets a girl who can do the impossible, and the story goes wild. It doesn’t matter how old you are, if you like fantasy you’ll find this two-book series gripping.

Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern, fantasy, 2011. Filled with characters who range from the fantastical to the creepy, this book draws you in and tangles you up in magic. There are two magicians – rather nasty characters. There are their protege-victims, ensnared by the magicians’ machinations, who capture your heart and have you worrying about how they’ll work things out. And there are all the other denizens of a circus so skillfully drawn you can smell the caramel apples every time you turn the page. Beautiful language, effective storytelling, believable dialogue – a must-read.

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