I haven’t written any book reviews since January, but I’ve been reading! These books are very different from one another, but a lot of the covers have a certain color scheme. Beige isn’t always boring! I really like some of these cover designs.
Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham
Rowan is a 21st-century teenager with a white father and an African-American mother, living in Tulsa’s affluent Maple Ridge neighborhood in the home her father’s family has owned for generations. The old servants’ quarters, long used for storage, are now being renovated–and some old bones are found under the floor.
William is a white teenager in 1921 Tulsa, helping his father run the Victrola shop that will pay for their new house in Maple Ridge. His crush on a girl and his friend Clete’s racist rhetoric get him into a fight at the speakeasy that breaks his hand and starts far more trouble than he expected. Meanwhile, he helps a black guy who wants to buy a Victrola but is being treated unfairly by Will’s father.
Rowan’s and Will’s stories alternate, building up a twisty murder mystery that’s a lot of fun to read. I caught some of the clues and figured out the solution before it was revealed in the book–but in a good way, so that I felt clever instead of feeling like the writing wasn’t clever enough.
The Women by T.C. Boyle
Such a complicated story really deserves a more interesting title! This historical fiction explores Frank Lloyd Wright’s relationships with his various wives and mistresses. Although I knew a lot about Wright as an architect, I had only a vague sense that his life also included some kind of adulterous drama, two major fires at his Taliesin estate, and a murder at Taliesin for which he was not present.
Well. Turns out that there were seven people murdered at Taliesin, and the whole thing was much more gruesome than I’d ever suspected–but I recommend that you not look up the details until after reading The Women because the book does such a great job of building up suspense! And this story is so much more than just a murder mystery.
As a crazy genius-type person, Wright was attracted to women who were passionate about some of the crazy ideas of the era, like feminism and free love. Unfortunately, his tendency to abandon one woman when he became infatuated with another led to legal trouble, danger, and drama galore.
I don’t know how close to historical accuracy Boyle’s portrayals are, but this book certainly depicts four very interesting women and a man whose attractions are obvious even as he’s sometimes appallingly callous and egocentric. The only thing I didn’t like is that Boyle felt the need to use a narrator whose perspective and frame story are almost totally unnecessary and kind of annoying.
Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee
Casey just graduated from Princeton and is expected to go to Columbia law school and be very, very successful so that her Korean immigrant dry-cleaner parents can be proud of her. She wanted to take a year of school and work in investment banking, but she applied only to the firm she wanted most, and they didn’t accept her. Now she’s at home in Queens, feeling rootless and disappointed, and gets into a terrible argument with her father. She storms out to live with her white boyfriend–and finds him having sex with two strange women. Now what??
That’s only 33 pages into this 560-page story of Casey and her family and friends in early-1990s New York City. It delves deeply into the details of even minor characters in a way that seems a little tedious at times but is mostly very effective at building up a vivid, empathetic experience of the real lives of many people connected to one another. Casey’s fascination with really expensive clothing and her choices in spending her time and money seemed bizarre to me, but I began to understand how it all made sense for her.
As a white person reading a book in which the majority of the extensive cast of characters are Korean-American, I enjoyed the descriptions of people’s appearances: With little variation in hair and eye color, you have to notice details like eyebrows and chins and think of the right words to explain them. I formed mental images of the Korean characters that were clearer than my images of the white characters, and I felt a sort of aching love for most of these people because they were just so human. They didn’t always do what I thought they should, and things didn’t always work out the way I or they expected, but it all made a lot of sense.
This is a perfect book for a day of sitting around the hospital awaiting test results. You will not get bored, you will be distracted from your own suffering, and you will not run out of reading material!
Girl on a Wire by Libby Phelps
As a granddaughter of Fred Phelps, pastor of the Westboro Baptist Church, Libby Phelps grew up picketing every institution or event that might be considered supportive of homosexuality. That was just normal life, as far as she could tell: The majority of church members were her extended family, they didn’t speak to relatives who’d left the church, and they were discouraged from having friends outside the church. Although she did attend local public schools, she picketed her own high school graduation before participating in it!
Libby began having doubts about Westboro doctrine in her teens, but she didn’t understand how to live in the world outside her family and might not have left on her own initiative. Then, at the age of 25, she was exiled from the church for wearing a bikini. That was her golden opportunity to learn that friends, the outside world, and gay people weren’t nearly as scary as she’d been taught.
This book strikes a great balance between shocking stories of life in the crazy cult and heartfelt reminders that Fred Phelps was a real person, a beloved grandfather, a child of God who sincerely believed he was doing the right thing. Libby’s extremely mixed feelings about her family and Christianity are very well explored.
The Empire Striketh Back by Ian Doescher
My favorite episode of the Star Wars saga, written as a Shakespearean play. It’s great! Much of it is just like reading a different version of a familiar story, but every so often the old-fashioned language and Iambic pentameter create a very funny rephrasing of a familiar line. My favorite thing about it is that some characters who have no lines in the movie get entire monologues here. For example, when Han Solo hides the Millennium Falcon in a cave on an asteroid, and then the cave turns out to be the mouth of a monster–who but my geeky boyfriend even knows that the monster is called an exogorth? Who ever thought about the exogorth’s needs or feelings? Doescher gives it this speech:
. . . To be a space slug is a lonely lot,
With no one on this rock to share my life,
No true companion here to mark my days,
And now my meals do from my body fly–
Was e’er a beast by supper so abus’d?
Was e’er a creature’s case so pitiful?
Was e’er an exogorth as sad as I?
Was e’er a tragedy as deep as mine?
I shall with weeping crawl back to my cave,
Which shall, sans food, belike become my grave.
I might get a bit choked up on its behalf next time I watch the movie.
It Gets Worse by Shane Dawson
I would never have heard of Shane Dawson if I weren’t the mother of a now 14-year-old who’s been a big fan of Dawson’s YouTube videos since he was 11 or 12. Nicholas has gotten me to watch some of his favorite Shane Dawson videos, and the guy does have a talent for cinematography and visual editing, but I often get impatient with his approach. This book of memoir-type essays gave me a better understanding of where he’s coming from and what it is that bugs me.
Self-deprecating humor is one of Dawson’s main tactics. Apparently he grew up fat, poor, and lacking in perception of what his peers thought was “cool,” so he got bullied a lot, so he thinks the way to get over that is to bully himself in public forever, as if repeating every disgusting nickname in his own book is a way of seizing power. I’m glad I kept reading, though, and learned that eventually his grandmother’s ghost appeared to tell him to quit hating himself so much. I hope he really takes that to heart. Self-deprecation can be insightful and funny, but it’s very easy to overdo, and I think this book overdoes it by about page 9.
One of the best essays is about how, after recognizing that he might be bisexual, Dawson jumped to the conclusion that he needed to test this hypothesis right away by having sex with a man, so he found one on Craigslist. This was, predictably, a terrible idea. He makes it a truly funny story about all the weird people he met, concluding with a man who gave him very wise advice. It’s a great cautionary tale for young people trying to understand what they really want.
I also appreciated the story about why Dawson dropped out of college, because knowing that he has zero journalism education explains a lot. Nicholas and I watched his recent “conspiracy” series, which attempted to be investigative reporting but had some weird gaps in background research and investigation–well, nobody ever taught him how it’s done! He was focused on majoring in film studies, thinking about how to tell a story visually, and he’d done some acting in high school–but he never studied reporting, never learned how to cover all the facts in writing and evaluate sources. His haphazard approach is more understandable now that I realize he’s self-taught.
Oath of Fealty by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle
In the not-too-distant future (as seen from 1981), the self-contained city of Todos Santos fills a gigantic building on the outskirts of Los Angeles. It’s clean, high-tech, and virtually crime-free . . . but the citizens are under constant surveillance. They enjoy customized conveniences wherever they go because their use of the systems allows their whereabouts to be tracked. Is the trade-off worthwhile?
When terrorists break into Todos Santos infrastructure, the executives have to take quick action to prevent disaster–but it turns out that they overestimated the threat and underestimated the status of the individuals. Now they’ve got a major political conflict with the outside world, as well as a love plot and an important visitor from Canada and some nagging concern about whether brain implants connected to the main computer are really a good idea.
My partner Daniel is a big fan of this prolific science-fiction writing team. He recommended this particular book because he thought the architecture and social issues would interest me, and he was right. As a denizen of the not-too-distant future, I thought it was pretty funny that although everyone in Todos Santos carries around a personal telephone, in order to use them they have to plug in to a phone jack!
Murder a la Mode by Patricia Moyes
This 1964 British mystery novel is not just a glimpse into the past and into another country but also a deep dive into the world of fashion magazines, back in the days when darkrooms, typewriters, physical page layout, and couriers all were necessary to conveying the important news of what was worn on the runways in Paris.
The staff of London’s hottest fashion magazine is in crazy deadline mode, turning the film and notes brought home from Paris into articles ready to go to press the next morning. Most of them have done their jobs by about 2 a.m. and leave the office to have some drinks together before going home to sleep. Only Helen is left behind, working alone with her Thermos of tea . . . and when the courier comes at dawn, Helen is dead. Why are the contents of someone else’s suitcase strewn around her office? Inspector Henry Tibbett is on the case–and he’s worried about his niece, Veronica, a lovely young model who works closely with many people on the magazine’s staff.
The final explanation of the mystery is kind of silly, and the deceptive method used to trigger confessions is absolutely ridiculous–but the earlier arrangement of clues and their gradual uncovering was great fun to read, and the characters are very well written. If you like watching “Perry Mason”, you’ll love this book.
Teatime for the Firefly by Shona Patel
I read about three-quarters of this book but then gave up on it. I might have forgiven the author for her big tease if the quality of her prose had held up, but when wooden dialogue and awkward narration started cropping up more frequently, I quit.
Layla was born with an inauspicious horoscope in 1920s India, and after her mother’s suicide, she was raised by her grandfather, a big believer in women’s education and in speaking English. Assuming she’d never be a good marriage prospect, she expected to become a teacher–but then she met Manik Deb, a very interesting and attractive man arranged to marry a neighbor. After a summer of long, intellectual chats with Layla’s grandfather, Manik quits his job and becomes a tea planter in a remote part of Assam. His arranged bride dumps him for that. He courts Layla by mail, returns to marry her, and takes her to Assam, where they have various adventures involving British people, wild animals, class struggle, monsoons, and politics.
If you like adventures and exotic cultures but don’t like to read sex scenes, I’d recommend this book. The big tease is that Layla and Manik are unable to consummate their marriage at first because of the many urgent distractions that get in the way of their having a chance to relax and work through her fear of sex . . . and when they finally get to it, 70 pages and 5 days later, the author totally skips over the part where Layla finally loses her virginity, leaving out so much that it’s not even clear that it’s happened! Yet somehow, all her fear is gone and she now loves sex. What happened here, some kind of last-minute censorship?
The Hypnotist’s Love Story by Liane Moriarty
Ellen is a hypnotherapist with a pleasant little home-based practice. Still single at 35, she’s turned to Internet dating, and when her current bloke says, “There’s something I have to tell you,” she’s ready to cope serenely with the breakup. But what Patrick has to tell her is that he’s being stalked by his ex-girlfriend, Saskia. She’s in the restaurant with them right now.
Ellen is more intrigued than frightened. Accustomed to getting to the root of people’s motivations to help them solve their problems with the power of their own minds, her instinct is to know and help Saskia. Of course Patrick doesn’t want them ever to meet; he wants to protect Ellen from Saskia. He and Ellen don’t realize that she already knows Saskia by another name.
This is a very interesting, twisty story of people and their motivations and different kinds of love. The parts told from Saskia’s perspective are especially insightful, explaining feelings that anyone could understand and then giving them just a tiny twist away from normal. Refreshingly, this book does not overdo the peak conflict that tips everything toward resolution–it’s just enough.