Category Archives: Uncategorized

“Hardcore Twenty-Four (A Stephanie Plum Novel)” by Janet Evanovitch

Product Details

Another romp through Trenton, NJ, and the wacky life of Stephanie Plum, bail bond enforcer and woman on the loose. Stephanie and her sidekick Lula are always tracking down miscreants, some of whom are dangerously antisocial. She’s helped by her three “boyfriends”, a police officer, a private security expert and a psychic superhero from another dimension. Everything goes wrong, as usual, but our heroine survives. Don’t stop writing, Janet. New Jersey loves you!

Advertisements

“The Book of Dust – Volume One – La Belle Sauvage” by Philip Pullman

Product Details

This book is a (sort of) prequel to Pullman’s “His Dark Materials” trilogy.

Pullman wrote this trilogy between 1995 and 2000. JK Rowling wrote the seven Harry Potter books between 1997 and 2007. Each series was oriented towards young people and each generated a well developed alternate (fantasy) world and world view.

People (like me) who raised kids born from, say, 1975 to 1995 were likely to find themselves immersed in one or both of these literary bonanzas and their associated alternate worlds. What began, for many families, as read aloud frenzies, later evolved into pitched battles over who got to read an eagerly awaited, newly released book first. Adults have been known to stay up until all hours with The Deathly Hallows or The Amber Spyglass.

Two copies of La Belle Sauvage (released October 19) turned up at our now all-adult Thanksgiving family gathering. Serious discussion was devoted to which alternative world is more compelling, Hogwarts or Lyra’s Oxford. Pullman beat Rowling by a narrow margin. None of us could resist the idea of having a daemon.

What’s a daemon? In Pullman’s alternate world, every human has an animal “familiar” which reflects aspects of his or her personality. In classical Greek mythology, a daemon is a “natural spirit which is less than divine”. (Loosely paraphrased from Wikipedia.) In Pullman, a child’s daemon changes animal form from moment to moment – an adult’s is fixed. A person’s daemon provides loving companionship, support, insight… To be separated from one’s daemon is unbearably painful. Pullman makes this complex conceit feel natural.

La Belle Sauvage is a fantasy/adventure story written for young adults. There is nothing condescending about it. The protagonists (a boy of 11 and a girl of 14) living in a place rather like Victorian Oxford, are drawn into adult conflicts that mix politics, religion, science and philosophy. They end up guarding a baby in the midst of a natural disaster. It’s the battle between good and evil, narrated with flair and energy. I couldn’t put it down.

Like the Harry Potter series, Pullman’s books have been labeled a “bad influence” on young minds. “Anti-religious” is one of the claims.

Read La Belle Sauvage! If you haven’t read the Dark Materials trilogy, go for it. I’m planning to order some of Pullman’s other books, and will report on them soon.

“Code Girls – The Untold Story of the American Women Code Breakers of World War II” by Liza Mundy

Product Details

I had high hopes for this book before I even opened it. Why? Because the group of smiling young women on the front cover seemed eerily familiar. A face very like theirs looks down from the mantel in my living room. My mother-in-law JRC was a “code girl”, an officer from the first group of women accepted into the Navy during World War II.

Mundy points out that the United States differed from Japan and Germany in its response to the challenge of global war. The US consciously and intentionally mobilized its women, taking advantage of a large pool of educated and willing workers. This was not done without considerable ambivalence. Mundy describes an assembly at which the women were treated to a detailed analysis of what was “wrong” with the use of women to serve military interests. Pretty much everything! The women refrained from expressing anger or amusement. I wonder if the speaker ever developed any insight into his own myopic boneheadedness.

I met JRC when she was almost 60, and contributed two of her (eventually) eight grandchildren during the next decade. Her death at age 85 (in 2005) was a grievous loss to me and all her large and loving family.

We all knew that JRC loved puzzles and codes. She said her interest started when she read Edgar Allan Poe’s popular short story “The Gold-Bug”. See Wikipedia for a good discussion of this thriller!

It’s tempting to continue with personal reminiscence, but I feel that my mother-in-law’s story is not mine to tell. Perhaps I’ll discuss this with family and ask how they feel about it. Like most of the “code girls”, JRC didn’t say much about her wartime military responsibilities.

In the meantime, I loved Code Girls and recommend it without reservation.

“Cryptonomicon” by Neal Stephenson

Goodness, I haven’t blogged for many weeks! I’m happy to report that most of this delay resulted from good things happening in my life, like travel. Then there were some troubles, but nothing really far out of the ordinary.

BUT also, I read a book that brought me to a bemused halt! Yes, Cryptonomicon.

First, it’s huge – 900+ pages. Perfect if you are crossing Siberia by train in winter. (I wasn’t.) And it’s written in a style that mixes fact and fiction, cutting back and forth through time.

The mixture of fact and fiction makes me wonder if Stephenson wants his work to be accessible only to cognoscenti. His description of, for example, the Hindenburg explosion might be incomprehensible to many people. (And maybe I misunderstood…)

One message of the book is “war is hell”, to which I reply (as usual) “If so, why wrap it in fiction?” I was somewhat reminded of Catch 22 by  Joseph Heller, but that was more linear in narrative style.

Why did I keep reading this sprawling, often confusing novel? For the characters and their relationships. And because I’m interested in “contemporary” history, the times I (and my parents) lived through.

I have not delved into the reviews of this book. On Amazon.com alone they number 1,685, cumulatively awarding Cryptonomicon 4+ stars out of five.

I read (and blogged about) three other books by Neal Stephenson: Anathem, Snow Crash and Seven Eves. Anathem was my favorite, closely followed by Seven Eves. I will await recommendations from friends before I tackle another.

“This Monstrous Thing” by Mackenzi Lee

This book (signed by the author, no less) was given to me as a cast off. It had been received as a door prize… Talk about low expectations! I was pleasantly surprised. It kept me entertained.

“This Monstrous Thing” falls into two categories where I seldom read – fan fiction and (so help me) “steampunk”!

I get the point of fan fiction. If you enjoy and deeply admire a book, you may want to extend, re-tell or enlarge upon it. A friend of mine created his own version of Homer’s Illiad. It was good. Lee builds on Frankenstein (The Modern Prometheus) by Mary Shelley. Often described as the first work of science fiction, Frankenstein is a tale worth careful consideration. What does it mean to be human? What do we, as citizens and family members, own to one another? When does science overreach itself?

I don’t know ANYTHING about steampunk! Falling back on my usual source (Wikipedia), I see that it is a “subgenre of science fiction or science fantasy” with 19th century underpinnings. Amazon will sell you steampunk costumes as well as books. Mackenzi Lee asserts (in her Author’s Note) that steampunk must invoke an altered past. The alteration she offers is the use of clockwork (gears, springs, etc.) to replace human limbs and organs in seriously injured people. It makes for a good story!

Since this falls in the category of Young Adult fiction, one can ask what lesson it teaches. I would sum it up as follows: if you harm a loved one, it makes sense to go to great lengths to make things right.

Why do I ask that question about YA fiction? Maybe because I question the existence of the YA category. Adolescents can and do read REAL books! Some YA fiction is strained and didactic. Some has broader appeal. “This Monstrous Thing” has enough narrative energy to transcend the YA fiction label.

Positive Micro (2)

In my blog entry dated November 14, 2016, I talked about words that start with “micro”, my favorite being “microadjustment”. I just remembered another important “micro” concept, also of five syllables. It’s the microexpression. (My text editing program wants this to be written as two words, but I’m CONVINCED “micro” by itself is not a word. Old fashioned of me, I suppose.)

This time I checked Wikipedia. This is a “real” word, not just slang. I didn’t make it up. It’s defined as a “brief, involuntary facial expression” that usually occurs in “high stakes situations”. Books have been written about microexpressions.

I remember an experience… Once I asked a friend how it really feels to use cocaine (which I have never done). I remember the look that flashed across his face, wistful and longing. Obviously he found cocaine amazingly wonderful. I don’t remember what he said, but it was far more guarded.

A friend named Mark recounted to me the following tale: He lived near Wilmington, Delaware, in the late 1960s, a time of racial tension there and in many American cities. One day Mark unexpectedly found himself face-to-face with an African American teenager carrying a baseball bat. Tension crackled between them. Is there such a thing as pre-violence? Both parties were in high fight-or-flight mode. But what my friend saw on the teenager’s face, just for one TINY moment, was FEAR. Not aggression. Not hatred. And, somehow, Mark mustered a smile and a little wave, and the two parties went their separate ways, neither giving in to the violence simmering in their surroundings.

Readers, has this happened to you? Has your life been touched by a microexpression? I’m curious about it. Please feel free to share a comment.

“The Book Shopper – a Life in Review” by Murray Brown

This book is fun, and useful to anyone looking for suggestions in the category of modern fiction and (to a lesser extent) non-fiction. Brown and I have several things in common. We’re both frustrated book reviewers. We both have blogs. His is at www.thebookshopper.org Neither of us is listed in Wikipedia. Or if Murray Brown IS there, he’s lost among a crowd of other people with the same name.

The memoir aspects of this book are as interesting as his opinions about books. One early influence was his grandmother, who loved books, patronized her local library and eventually asked her grandson to pass along his copies of the New York Times Book Review.

Did you ever hear of “competitive reading”? In eighth grade, Brown (unable to win distinction as an athlete) decided to read the most books of any pupil in his class. At the end of the school year, he received a trophy. Would he have been happier with a free meal at Pizza Hut, the bribe offered to my sons in elementary school?

One way or another, some of us get hooked on books.