Thursday, July 28, 2016

Fuzzy Mud

Fuzzy Mud by Louis Sachar,181 pages

Tamaya has to walk to and from school with her neighbor, Marshall.  However, Marshall has decided today to go home through the woods because another boy, Chad, threatened to beat him up.  The kids aren't supposed to go in the woods but Tamaya decides to follow Marshall because either way she'd be breaking the rule.  Unfortunately, Chad also finds them in the woods and tries to make good on his threat.  Tamaya is scared but picks up a handful of mud and throws it in his face, giving her and Marshall time to get away.  Later that night Tamaya gets a rash on her hand.  And the next day Chad isn't at school.  This was a lot scarier and less funny than Sachar's usual books but it was a great story and I would recommend it to any elementary age kid that likes realistic fiction.

Lair of Dreams

Lairof Dreams by Libba Bray, 613 pages

"The longing of dreams draws the dead, and this city holds many dreams.  After a supernatural showdown with a serial killer, Evie O'Neill has outed herself as a Diviner. With her uncanny ability to read people's secrets, she's become a media darling, and earned the title "America's Sweetheart Seer." Everyone's in love with the city's newest It Girl...everyone except the other Diviners. Piano-playing Henry Dubois and Chinatown resident Ling Chan are two Diviners struggling to keep their powers a secret--for they can walk in dreams. And while Evie is living the high life, victims of a mysterious sleeping sickness are turning up across New York City. As Henry searches for a lost love and Ling strives to succeed in a world that shuns her, a malevolent force infects their dreams. And at the edges of it all lurks a man in a stovepipe hat who has plans that extend farther than anyone can guess....As the sickness spreads, can the Diviners descend into the dreamworld to save the city?" I really enjoyed this book.  Teens who like scary fantasy and aren't put off by the length will definitely want to read this series.

An Eye for an Eye

AnEye for an Eye by Irene Hannon, 299 pages

Mark Sanders, FBI agent, has just run into an old flame, Emily Lawson, in the park.  Minutes later, Emily is shot by an unknown assailant.  Unsure if he or she was the target, the local police and the FBI have both of them under protection.  During this time, Emily and Mark begin to rekindle their old romance.  But both are hesitant.  Emily has already lost someone who worked in a risky job and doesn't think she can go through that again.  Mark isn't sure he's ready to make a commitment and he is supposed to go back to Quantico in a few weeks anyway.  And nothing can be completely settled until the gunman is found.  This is a typical story for Hannon but well written and entertaining.  Readers of Christian romance books will probably like it and so will fans of mild suspense.

Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person

“In this poignant, hilarious, and deeply intimate call to arms, Hollywood's most powerful woman, the mega-talented creator of Grey's Anatomy and Scandal and executive producer of How to Get Away with Murder reveals how saying YES changed her life--and how it can change yours too. This wildly candid and compulsively readable book reveals how the mega talented Shonda Rhimes, an unexpected introvert, achieved badassery worthy of a Shondaland character. And how you can, too.”  I read this book to see if I could get some insight into this person because I don’t always like the way she handles her shows.  In fact, I had decided that I wasn’t getting caught up in any more shows she has a hand in.  I liked the book, I think she’s pretty interesting and I admire what she’s accomplished.  But I’m still not watching anymore of her shows.

The Fault in Our Stars

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green.   313 pages.

I think just about everyone knows what this book is about, so I'll give a quick synopsis.  Two teens meet, both in a support group for really sick kids, and fall in love.  Awesome and awful things ensue, but there's some hope at the end.

I read this book for the Booked for Lunch book group, and it was a re-read for me.  I had read it when it was first published and remembered liking it.  This time around, I found myself noticing some things I hadn't remembered.  Overall, I like the book and I think it's an important books for teens, especially, to read because it brings up some good, thought-provoking things.  It's a book that can generate good discussion, as well.

Thinking about it, I wonder if I'm responding differently to this book because I am not the actual audience it's written for; I am not a teen.  I think if I had encountered this book at 13 or 14, I would have been all over it (like fur on a bunny, as I say).  However, reading it as an adult, I find myself wondering about whether teens actually think or talk like Hazel and Gus (even though they are quite mature for their age).  But, overall, I can breeze over that and just enjoy the story.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Trespasser

The Tresspasser by Tana French,   464 pages.  On sale 10/4/2016 (I read an e-galley of this book courtesy of Edelweiss).

The Murder Squad is nothing like where Detective Antoinette Conway came from. Apart from her partner, all the other detectives on the squad seem to have it out for her and while’s she’s holding on, she’s close to the breaking point.  When a new case lands in her lap, Antoinette and her partner dive right in to what appears to be a typical lovers’ fight turned murder, with young Aislinn Murphy discovered dead in her flat.  However, as she uncovers more details, it becomes clear that this murder isn’t typical.  Why is the rest of the squad pushing for Antoinette to arrest Aislinn’s boyfriend when it seems clear he isn’t the murderer?  And what is one of the squad detectives really hiding?  There’s clearly more to Aislinn than previously thought.  This taut, quick-paced thriller will have you looking in dark corners and following Antoinette as she determinedly digs out the truth.

This is the 6th book in the Dublin Murder Squad series, and although I hadn’t read any other books in the series, I dove right into this story with no problems.  There’s just enough background on Antoinette to make you understand her current situation, and feel like you get a good grasp on her as a character.  The author uses descriptive writing, as well as deft use of language and slang, to put you firmly in the Dublin setting and make everything feel quite real.   This is the kind of story where although it’s tempting to whip right through, it’s important to slow down a bit and pay attention to the details.  Because the information about some of the characters unravels, it’s key to be able to remember things to understand what’s happening to them in the story, and how they play a part in the bigger picture.  What I found interesting was I was equally vested in the main character as I was in finding out who committed the murder and why.  Antoinette is a complicated character, and this adds depth to the entire story.   After reading this one, I’m thinking it would be a good idea to go back and start at the beginning of the series, just because I enjoyed this one so much.

I’d give this book (and probably the whole series) to readers who enjoy books by Mo Hayder.

Plot to Kill God

Cover image for The Plot to Kill God: Findings from the Soviet Experiment in Secularization by Paul Froese, 199 pages

When the Bolsheviks seized power in 1918, their Communist ideology predicted that with the destruction of the old political order religion would gradually but inevitably wither away - an especially plausible theory for Russians, for whom the Orthodox Church and the tsarist regime were virtually indistinguishable.  When this did not happen, the Soviet perspective on religion shifted from that of symptom to that of disease, resulting in a more active persecution.  Attempts to destroy religious belief ranged from the desecration of churches and mass murder of clergy to the integration of atheist propaganda with every subject in the school curriculum and the institution of atheist rituals to replace the traditional religious ceremonies solemnizing birth, marriage, and death.

Froese takes the results of this Soviet attempt to impose atheism on its population as an empirical test of various theories of secularization.  In his view, the Soviet experience invalidates theories which attribute religious belief to ignorance, indoctrination, political utility, social pressure, or mass enthusiasm.  According to Froese's economic model, although the Soviets were somewhat successful in diminishing the supply of religion from traditional institutions, they were utterly unable to eliminate the demand for religion.  This suggests that the Soviet regime never correctly understood the nature of that demand.

The Plot to Kill God is not a history of Soviet anti-religious policies, but an analysis of the results of those policies.  There are a number of typographical problems ("Protestants sects", "League of Militant Atheist", "ingenuity in alluding authorities"), but those mostly disappear after the first dozen pages.  There are also some suspect claims and sweeping generalizations ("secular alternatives to religious marriage ceremonies, for example, have always existed") somewhat sloppily thrown about without support.  Neither of these flaws affects Froese's argument, which is strong enough to deserve more thorough study.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Dare Me

Dare Me by Megan Abbott.  304 pages.

Aren't cheerleaders sweet?  If you read that and thought, "not so much, actually," then this might be the book for you.   Addy Hanlon, our main character, has always been Beth's best friend.  Beth calls the shots and Addy carries them out, on the squad and off.  Now that they're seniors, they rule the school, right?

When a new coach arrives, things start to turn in a different direction.  Coach French seems to be from a cool, adult world, and starts to draw Addy and the others into her personal circle of friendship. However, her expectations for the girls are pretty high and Beth, unsettled by Coach's new regime, starts to wage a vicious campaign against her.   When a suicide rocks the community, the police focus on Coach French and the cheerleading squad.  Question is: just who is really involved, and why?

I found this book to be a taut pageturner.  I didn't really like Addy too much, or Beth, but it's like watching a car wreck on tv: you're repulsed, but at the same time, you can't look away.   I don't have any personal experience with cheerleaders; my high school had a pretty small squad and they were no big deal.  However, I know that cheerleading has become a seriously competitive sport, so it was interesting to read the descriptions of how the girls in this book were learning the different skills, and how dangerous some of the moves were.  I think that's the thing that makes the book really interesting: the underlying sense of danger and unease that runs beneath the surface of the story.

I picked this up because I'm curious about Megan Abbott's newest book, You Will Know Me, which has been getting a lot of advance praise.  I don't know if I would have picked it up, otherwise, but it made for an entertaining read.

Gravity and Grace

Gravity and Grace by Simone Weil, translated by Arthur Wills, 236 pages

Simone Weil was born into a French Jewish family in 1909, but renounced the faith in which she was raised to live her life on the periphery of Christianity, while rejecting nothing she came across which seemed of value to her in her studies, pulling in sources ranging from Virgil to Racine to the Upanishads.  Her relentless search for Truth was a search driven, above all, by her conviction that only an understanding that made suffering make sense could make the universe bearable.  The result is a via negativa so dark that it resembles Buddhism by way of Plotinus, regarding the cosmic void as the self-giving of God, and the object of the spiritual quest.  She died in exile in England in 1943, her death hastened by her fasting in solidarity with her countrymen living under German occupation.

Gravity and Grace collects items from her notebooks as fragments towards a never-finished work in the tradition of Pascal.  In another writer, it might be possible to blame the approach for decontextualizing her more unconventional beliefs - especially her Marcionite separation of the "God of the Christians" and "Jehovah" and her deep antagonism towards society and the political community (understandably exaggerated given the times in which she lived) - but with Weil those views become even more pronounced in her more developed work.  The presentation does have the effect of emphasizing the mystical aspects of her life and thought - in addition to some solid aphorisms, the best of Weil's fragments possess an uncanny Sibylline quality, promising wisdom to those who explore their mysteries.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

The Woman in Cabin Ten

The Woman in Cabin Ten by Ruth Ware.  352 pages.

Lo Blacklock, a travel journalist, has landed a great assignment: a week on a luxury cruise on a small boat.  At first, it seems absolutely lovely.  However, as the week continues, some of the guests seem less than friendly and then Lo thinks she witnesses a woman being thrown overboard.  However, all of the guests, as well as the staff, are accounted for and none of them seem to be the woman that Lo met in Cabin 10, who has vanished.  Or did the woman in Cabin 10 ever exist?  As Lo continues her pursuit of the truth, it's clear that something has gone terribly wrong on this boat . . . and now her own life is in danger.

I had gobbled up Ruth Ware's last book, In a Dark, Dark Wood, and had been eagerly anticipating this newest story.  I wasn't disappointed, and found this book to be just as dark as the previous one.  Like the previous story, as well, we have a main character who doesn't seem like she has all of her s__t together, and thus is a somewhat unreliable narrator.  Right before Lo goes on this cruise, she encounters a burglar in her house.  Suffering anxiety, and self-medicating with alcohol, Lo isn't sleeping well.  In her first evening on the cruise, she's also drinking heavily and suffering from lack of sleep, so by the time she thinks she seems a woman go over the side of the boat, you aren't sure if it's real or not.  Compounding this is the revelation that she also takes anti-anxiety medication.  While Lo is quite sure that she met a woman in Cabin 10, she only has tiny pieces of evidence of this mysterious woman, and when those vanish, it's hard to know if Lo really is telling the truth.

However, I trusted my gut and sure enough, there was a big twist partway through the book.

That's all I'll say --- but if you're looking for a nice pageturner to settle in with over a weekend, this might be the book for you.

Deep State

Cover image for The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government by Mike Lofgren, 277 pages

According to former congressional staffer Lofgren, the elected government of the US is only the visible tip of the proverbial iceberg - the bulk of which is invisible, unaccountable, and actually responsible for the direction of policy.  This "deep state" is made up of dense networks of lobbyists, consultants, contractors, bureaucrats, senior military officers, and lawmakers, all of whom move so easily between the public and private spheres that the boundary has effectively ceased to exist.  Far from moving into the much-feared era of the "imperial presidency", there has been a slide into a "ceremonial presidency", where a figurehead president acts as a lightning rod for controversy while real policy is made elsewhere.

It is expected that any book of this sort is going to be cynical - cynicism and its sibling, wounded idealism, are the former insider's stock in trade.  It is a fine line, however, between cynicism, with its claim to cold realism, and bitterness, which suggests the settling of personal scores.  Lofgren zigzags back and forth across that line through the book.  The book is further handicapped by its Beltway provincialism, which tends to regard everything as ultimately caused by action from Washington, and important only insofar as it affects Washington.  The limitations this imposes become clear when it comes time for Lofgren to offer some positive solutions to the systemic problems he has vaguely outlined, and all he can recommend is measures that would only strengthen the same system.