Friday, January 19, 2018

A Casualty of War by Charles Todd

It’s November 1918, and rumors are rife around the Allied lines that the war might finally be ending. German forces are in retreat, the Kaiser’s resolve is wavering, and the Allies are consistently gaining ground. But the artillery is still pounding, the bullets are still flying, and Bess Crawford is still swamped with a never-ending crush of wounded men who need her nursing care.

Sent from the forward aid station to a base hospital with an ambulance filled with patients, Bess is waiting for transport back to the front lines, as is Captain Alan Travis, a British officer from Barbados, who had been called to HQ. Having enjoyed their brief chat, Bess wishes the Captain well as she climbs into the returning ambulance. She is distressed to see him again a few days later, bearing a minor bullet wound, though he is quickly patched up and returned to the front lines. But only a short while later, he’s back with a bullet wound to the head, and a wildly improbable story about having been deliberately targeted in the midst of a retreat action by a British lieutenant with a face familiar to him.

Bess is concerned about his state of mind, and promises to investigate, if only to calm him down and stop the Captain’s wild threats to find the man and kill him. Though Travis is evacuated farther behind the lines, she does her best, but turns up nothing but the fact that the man Travis accused had died in battle long before the event. The word among the nursing grapevine is that Travis is now strapped to a bed, labeled as a shell-shock case.

After the Armistice finally arrives, Bess accompanies injured troops back to London. She feels compelled to seek out Travis, now ensconced in what amounts to a military madhouse, but still swearing he was targeted. Bess, accompanied by her Colonel father’s aide, tries to learn about his distant English relatives to help him. There they stumble into a great deal of suspicion and danger, even home in the green hills of rural England.

This book is the 9th in the Bess Crawford series, written by Charles Todd, the pseudonym for a mother-and-son writing team. The series gives readers a satisfying mystery with a flavor of the period, and an appreciation of the dreadful costs of war to the soldiers and the people who care for them. This entry is particularly evocative of the bare smidgen of hope for an end in the days leading to the Armistice, and the raw grief of families at home who have no hope left. -DeeAnn

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Saturday, December 30, 2017

In appreciation: Sue Grafton and Kinsey Millhone

"The alphabet ends in Y."  -Sue Grafton's daughter, Jamie, announcing the author's death on
December 28th, 2017.

It's the age, I suppose.  I've reached the age at which the public figures I grew up with start passing away far too regularly.  Some of them cause me to be sad for an hour or a day, while some I mourn.  Then there are those that I will miss like a lost friend.  Grafton and her creation, I think, fall into this category.

Sue Grafton began her series in 1982 with A is for Alibi, which introduced California private detective Kinsey Millhone, a twice-divorced ex-cop who lived in a converted garage, drove a Volkswagon Beetle and was devoted to her landlord Henry and to the dive bar down the street from her apartment.  Through the years and each letter of the alphabet, she solved cases that often revolved around family relationships and she went through changes, though chronologically, she is still in the 1980's. The last completed book, Y is for Yesterday, was published this year and takes place in 1989.

The series was extraordinarily successful, and helped establish the female PI as a rich and varied sub-set of the mystery genre. If you are a fan of mysteries, this alone might be enough to recommend the series.  If you are a more casual mystery reader, the best reason in my mind to pick up a Grafton book is the characters at their center.  Led by narrator Kinsey, of course, they are a colorful group of cops, criminals, octogenarians, neighbors and Hungarian cooks.  In fact, it sometimes seemed to me that the author was more interested in chronicling the non-crime ridden aspects of her character's life than in the case at hand.  This is certainly true of X, the last book that I personally finished (just this week, in fact), in which three separate plots, only one of which involves murder, are held loosely together by virtue of Kinsey's doggedness in resolving them.  Though some entries are stronger than others, the series as a whole kept me coming back through the years to visit her world and enjoy her entertainingly dry narration, her toughness tempered with an awareness of vulnerability, and the quirky people that surrounded her, all told in Grafton's clean and witty prose. 

In 1989, Kinsey is 39; as my co-worker has said, when I started reading the series, I was younger than she was, and now I am much older.  I will miss her, and her creator, both as a librarian and as a reader.  -Barb

Check out Sue Grafton's alphabet mysteries in many formats.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Jaguars Ripped My Flesh by Tim Cahill

Summary (paraphrased from Good Reads):  Tim Cahill, a founding editor of Outside magazine, is a travel writer who lives near Livingston, Montana. His travel adventures have been described by the San Diego Union-Tribune as “exhilarating-and frequently hilarious”.  In “Jaguars Ripped my Flesh” he travels from South America to Australia, and from the caves of Kentucky to the mountains of Rwanda and places in between.

My review:  I have not been fond of travel books previously, but I think I'm going to read all of Tim Cahill's.  His prose can carry you from a sense of yearning for the land he is describing, to the hilarious effects drinking various kinds of booze can have on the individual unaccustomed to them.  He almost gets shot, sort of, in South America somewhere; he hates Hooty the Owl comprehensively and entertainingly, he jumps out of airplanes and dives into caves - and he is very skilled at taking you with him on the trip.  You can almost smell the abattoir of dead turtles, almost feel like you're drowning while diving in an underwater cave.  Contrarily, you feel the heat of the jungle, the pressure of the wind, see the remote reaches of the mountains - and breathe deeply of fresh clean air.  It's a fun trip, wherever you're going with him.  I enjoyed his travels very much.  Also, North Dakota jokes!  -Lynne

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Spider-Gwen Vol 1

I don't get much of a chance to read comics anymore. And even when I did have more of an opportunity, I never really read much Spider-Man. To be sure, I was an avid and weekly watcher of the 90's animated series, and as such Spider-Man is one of my favorite superheroes (although not nearly as interesting as his villains, which may actually be true of all the best heroes). So, as an adult, I figured if I didn't really read the comics as a kid, why start now? Enter Spider-Gwen.

To put it briefly (as I must, since I don't know a lot about the meta-story), Spider-Gwen is a series from Marvel that takes place in a universe where Gwen Stacy is bitten by a radioactive spider, and not Peter Parker. It is an off-shoot of the big Spider-Verse event Marvel had, in which every incarnation of Spider-Man across all mediums was under attack. It is my understanding there is even a Spider-Ham (a pig version of the hero), if you are so inclined to explore things further.

At any rate, Spider-Gwen follows Gwen Stacy as she copes with her powers and responsibilities, navigates the difficulties of youth, and avoids the further dilemma of having a father who is the police officer in charge of capturing the Spider-Woman. Familiar Marvel faces appear, although often in radically different roles from what fans would expect. Thus far, and I'm only through Volume 1, this is pretty typical Spider fare. Gwen is likable and convincing, and she has all the sarcasm you would expect from a Spider-person. The villains are good, the overarching plot is intriguing, and there is enough going on to keep readers entertained and invested. At the end of the volume, I liked what was going on. It's not groundbreaking stuff, but it's an interesting new take on a familiar hero. Any fan of Spider-Man, or just comics in general, would do well to check it out.  -Cody

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Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

In almost every love story you have/will ever read, the romance has its ups and downs. For a while, they live in a perfect, romantic fantasy world. Before too long, however, reality sets in. Love isn’t as easy as it looks. The relationship is tested, whether the causes are financial difficulties, personality clashes, wandering eyes, or simple trickeries. Let’s take a woman’s perspective on this matter by focusing on the life of Miss Havisham from Charles Dickens’ novel (and my personal favorite), “Great Expectations.” She was jilted at the altar and instead of grieving and moving on, she let her grief and pain drown her. Perhaps if she had been able to move on, she would have been able to lead a much different and more fulfilling life.

When Miss Havisham was a younger woman, she fell in love with a man named Compeyson. They soon became engaged to be married. She was warned that he was nothing but a cheating swindler and wanted nothing from her except money. Miss Havisham, too enamored to think clearly, was blinded by her love and devotion and went through with the wedding preparations anyway. The prophecy came true. As Miss Havisham was getting ready on the morning of the wedding, she received a note from Compeyson stating that he never loved her and refused to go through with the wedding. It was then that she realized that she should have heeded the warnings.

A majority of Miss Havisham died that day. She became frozen in time, while the world continued to spin around her. She never changed out of her wedding dress. The scene was left untouched, never to echo the joyous laughter that a marriage can bring. The furniture stayed in the same position, the place settings remained on the table, and the decadent wedding cake was abandoned, left to the rats to scavenge. As the years accumulated, so did the dust and cobwebs on Miss Havisham’s drafty house and heart. She deemed herself to a life of seclusion, driven by her grief and sense of vengeance. Her main motivation in life now is to punish the male population as a whole. She adopts a daughter, Estella, and raises her to believe that men are evil and making them suffer is the only way to get gratification.

Several years pass. Miss Havisham invites a young orphaned boy named Pip to her home. Pip goes, unwillingly at first, and is intrigued by everything he sees and witnesses when he gets there. Soon after he arrives, Miss Havisham introduces him to Estella. She has the two youngsters play together, observing and hovering over them closely. She frequently presses Pip for his thoughts and opinions of Estella, not wanting him to spare a single detail. She appears to be living vicariously through them.

Estella is a striking young lady and before too long, Pip takes a liking to her, much to the great expectation (see what I did there?) of Miss Havisham. She would have Estella gradually build his hopes up, and then break his heart. He, of course, is oblivious to Miss Havisham’s motives and schemes at first. As Pip grows up, he falls more and more in love with Estella. The older she gets, the more appealing she becomes. Miss Havisham continues to use her to toy with his emotions.

Before Miss Havisham passes away, she expresses remorse for the monster she had created. If Estella had grown up in a different environment, she would have turned out to be a better person. Pip forgives her reluctantly. The end of the story doesn’t give a clear indication of what becomes of him and Estella. Dickens leaves that to the readers’ imagination.  -Lena

This novel is available in many formats at the Library, and our collection also contains a film version or two! 

Monday, December 11, 2017

Quackery: A Brief History of the Worst Ways to Cure Everything by Lydia Kang & Nate Pedersen

Goodreads summary (modified):  Discover shocking-but-true medical misfires that run the gamut from bizarre to deadly. Like when doctors prescribed morphine for crying infants or when snorting skull moss was a cure for a bloody nose. Seamlessly combining macabre humor with hard science and compelling storytelling, Quackery is a visually rich and information-packed exploration of history's most outlandish cures, experiments, and scams.

This humorous book delves into some of the wacky but true ways that humans have looked to cure their ills. Leeches, mercury, strychnine, and lobotomies are a few of the topics that explore what lengths society has gone in the search for health.

My review: This was a fun read! Also entertaining, revolting, and gruesome. The authors have a very engaging style that pulls you right in to their book. The topics are clearly laid out and well covered. The information is fascinating - and that's where the revolting & gruesome come in. How much do you want to know about different kinds of enemas people used in the past to try and cure something?

Humankind has used some really horrible remedies in search of cures for various diseases, that not only didn't work, but could kill you more quickly than the disease. Blister, bleed, and purge was not just a catch-phrase; it was an actual prescription from respected physicians. The means they used to do those things were mostly awful, ranging from eewww! to aaarrrgghh!, after which the patient died. Dying of the cure was almost expected, except nobody blamed the cure, really.

I enjoyed reading this book, especially the radium suppository chapter, but I recommend you pick your reading time carefully. Don't read it just before or with meals, and don't read it just before bedtime. It has all the horrifying fascination of a train wreck; teenagers should love it. It really makes you appreciate modern medicine - all of a sudden, a vaccination shot doesn't seem so bad. -Lynne

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Tuesday, December 5, 2017

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles

I picked up this book late on a weekend morning, meaning to dip into it for a chapter or two before getting to some household chores. The next time I looked up, it was at the end of the book some 450 pages later, dark outside, and no chores had been completed. It’s the very definition of a book one can’t put down.  

Count Alexander Rostov is a young Russian aristocrat whose country has been overrun by the Bolshevik rebellion. No longer welcome in his homeland, but having given the new government no reason to actually dispose of him, he is now known as a Former Person, and sentenced to house arrest in his current residence, the Metropol Hotel in the heart of Moscow’s Red Square. This doesn’t mean he gets to keep his luxury suite, though – he is forced into a tiny attic room once used for ladies’ maids.

As a gentleman in the finest sense of the word, Rostov should like to face his fate with the graciousness he can muster. Determined to make the best of his new situation, the Count makes the acquaintance of a precocious 9-year-old guest, who leads him to explore the service areas of the hotel, and helps open his eyes to other possibilities. The grand hotel never loses its cachet and still caters to the elite, though who qualifies for that term has changed considerably. Over the years, Rostov builds relationships with the staff and other guests, including the seamstress, the chef and maĆ®tre d’, a steely Kremlin intelligence officer, a notable young actress, and a few members of the international press and diplomatic corps. As the Bolsheviks form their doctrine into a government, Rostov is in the hotel, as he is through the roughest years of Stalin’s regime, and into Khrushchev’s. Along the way, he is trusted with a friend’s most precious possession, a little girl he must raise in the confines of the hotel to venture into a much wider and more dangerous world where he cannot accompany her.

Author Towles does not focus on the worst travails and depredations visited on the people of the young Soviet Union, though they are occasionally related by hotel visitors, but he does explore what it means to remake one’s vision of one’s self and one’s life when circumstances have utterly changed. Count Rostov is a wonderful character, a man with memories of love and regret, and a gift for finding true friendships in the most unlikely places.  -DeeAnn

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