Monday, December 29, 2014

Best of 2014


This is my 2014 list in alphabetical order. I didn't want to make a numerical order decision because each of these books has its own great talking points. So, here they are with links to the posting.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. I liked this one because while it starts out as a mystery, it has great depth and remarkable characters.

The Cove by Ron Rash. My introduction to this southern author. 

Detroit City is the Place to Be by Mark Binelli. An honest look at the once great city.

Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer by Novella Carpenter.  The book and the author visit were part of our community's Reading Together program. Both the book and the author visit were great. 

Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan. A memoir about a summer au pair job that taught Corrigan about the nature of motherhood.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. The Pulitzer Prize winner for 2014 is a torturous and tortured story that is utterly compelling.

The Hidden Child by Camila Lackberg. Another mystery in Lackberg's series. Another great read.

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom. Stellar characters and a very quirky plot.

Selected Stories by Alice Munro. Vignettes of small town life from the master of the short story.

Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlen. An aging protagonist and a lovely story.

The Thing with Feathers by Noah Strycker. Everything you never knew about birds and how they reflect on human behavior.

Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta.  A riveting and scary mystery/thriller.

The Three by Sarah Lotz. Although the reviews were all over the place, I enjoyed the unique format and plot. You haven't read this book before.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Blond Cargo

by John Lansing
Gallery Books     2014
384 pages     Thriller

I am ending the year with a thriller. Jack Bertolino is an ex-cop turned PI who has taken on the job of finding a mob boss's kidnapped daughter. Readers find her right away, in the hands of an Iraqi mobster who is planning to export her to an Iraqi sheik. She's blond and statuesque, apparent just what Iraqi sheiks want as sex slaves. Bertolino figures out quickly who has her as well, but it takes the whole book to actually free her from her captors. 

There apparently are a lot of loose ends to tie up from the first book in the series, The Devil's Necktie, because it takes a long time for the action to begin, but once the plot gets rolling, it is non-stop raids, shootings and killings until the young woman is rescued. In typical form, the best is saved for last, and the final chase scene is absolutely riveting.

The characters in Blond Cargo are well drawn. Apparently the author, John Lansing had a career as a TV writer/producer before studying a real-life New York narcotics cop upon which he based his Jack Bertolino character. Jack Bertolino is very appealing, a Bruce Willis type. He's full of the aches and pains of being a middle-aged man doing a young man's job. He has a college-aged son who causes him worries and an on- and off-again girlfriend who doesn't approve of his current gig. His years as a narcotics detective make him a good hire as a PI, but they also put him in danger a good deal of the time. I also really enjoyed the kidnap victim, Angelica, who is feisty and inventive and is not about to be coerced by her Iraqi captors. 

Blond Cargo is a great diversion. You can read along a little at a time until you reach the last third of the book. Then you better set aside a block of time because there is no stopping until the shoot-it-out conclusion. Loved every nail-biting moment. 

The review in Kirkus Reviews.
John Lansing's website.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Detroit City is the Place to Be

 By Mark Binelli
Picador   2012, 2013
326 pages     Nonfiction

Eight Mile Road comes up again and again in Mark Binelli's look at his home city of Detroit. Eight Mile Road is the border between derelict, crime-ridden mostly-dead Detroit and the flourishing suburbs where the business of the East side of the state is conducted. 

When the big-three automakers floundered in the early 2000s, accounts of Detroit's demise became common. Although Detroit City is the Place to Be is another of these narratives, it is hard to believe that the other books could possibly be as fascinating as the narrative that Binelli has concocted. Binelli has crafted a funny, sympathetic, but also clear-eyed look at the city that once was one of the most powerful cities in the United States. What makes his stories honest and appealing is that he spent two years living in the city and meeting with the citizens of the city. He rode along with firefighters, sat with a mother who turned in her son to police for a murder charge, and closely followed a bizarre political campaign. He spent time visiting the schools, wandering the streets, and interviewing urban farmers. He shows up at every happening event and paints a vivid picture of a city both striving for a future and stuck in an untimely death. He intersperses his personal stories with documented looks at the history that brought the city to this point.

He was the only reporter that followed a bumbling and crazed murder trial, that while it appeared bumbling and crazed, must have been usual for Detroit because no other reporter chose to follow the trial. The most poignant moment in this story is captured when Binelli goes to visit the mother of the accused. They sit on the porch of her dilapidated house on a nearly empty street, and she recounts the woes of her dysfunctional children. Then she points to the only other house on the block, a tidy little bungalow across the street. She remarks that she could never understand why the children from that house all went to college while her children never even finished high school. 

He also tells the story of a unique high school in the city created for pregnant girls and new mothers. They created a farm in the city and all the girls work at the farm while they go to school. The principal is extremely demanding, but at the same time, most of the girls graduate high school and go on to further studies. It was an extremely heartening story which I had seen part of on an Anthony Bourdain episode about the city which aired on CNN in 2013. Bourdain's look at Detroit gives much the same view that Binelli's book does: there's a lot of screwy stuff going on in this city and nothing is going to get fixed very soon.

The bankruptcy case is over. Business saved the art in the Detroit Institute of Art, which was a relief to everyone in Michigan. The plan approved in November gave the city an outline to restructure and resurrect itself. The Detroit Free Press calls the bankruptcy plan "miraculous."

Native Detroiters love their city and don't like to have it painted in an unflattering light, but at this point there is so much to say. I highly recommend this book. Binelli's form of narrative nonfiction is delightfully unique. He is not just reporting. He has put himself squarely into every scene and every story. It is funny, and it is completely compelling.

My husband and I read Detroit City is the Place to Be for our morning reading, but I had read much of it for our book club  this fall. Our hostess was born and raised in Detroit, and she served Verner's ginger ale and Sanders bubble cake—memories of her childhood. My husband and I intend to drive over to Detroit for the day, go to the amazing Eastern Market, visit some of the scenes from the book. and eat in a couple of the good restaurants the city boasts about. 

A terrific review of Detroit City is the Place to Be from Slate.
An article from the Detroit Free Press about the bankruptcy.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual

 By the Editors of The Family Handyman
Readers Digest      2014
528 pages     Non-fiction
The Shortlist

This is just a shout out about a great Christmas gift!  

Have you seen the recent ad for Angie's List. A father is trying to put up a swing set in the back yard. He starts in the morning and 12 hours later, it's up but it's a disaster. The implication, of course, is that it is best to find a handyman on Angie's list to do the job. At the same time, we know that a homeowner can save hundreds of dollars if he/she can learn to do their own repairs. 

The Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual is a great holiday gift for the new homeowner—or the old homeowner, for that matter. With very clear pictures, drawings, and text, all of the common household repairs are explained. I particularly liked the part about how to use common household tools. Each tool is explained, and then when you see the tool at work in the later chapters, you can refer back to see how to use the tool.

Thanks to the publicity rep, this book is going to our son and his wife--new homeowners.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014


by Neal Shusterman
Simon and Schuster     2007
335 pages     YA

My 14-year-old granddaughters read this book for a class at school and insisted that I read it and write about it for my blog. I love it when that happens!

I then told my son about the book and remarked that the twins had read it in class. He suggested that dystopian novels are a great way to teach civics and social issues without the students knowing there is an ulterior motive to the reading. I hadn't looked at it that way, but he is definitely right. Unwind teaches a civics lesson about one of the great political divide the country finds itself in—abortion and abortion rights.

"Unwinding" is the political solution to the cause of a great civil war over abortion—fought not with words but with an actual war. At the end of the war, the solution was two-fold. First, no abortion. Second, unwanted babies could be left on doorsteps, and unwanted teenagers could be sent to a camp where their organs would be harvested. In unwinding, the teenagers are divided and their parts used to prolong life in the general population. Children are told that they will live on in a "divided state." While there is not much empathy in the book, Schusterman decries the ultimate sacrifice that can come from a political compromise. 

Three young teenagers are sent to an unwinding camp to be divided: Conner is unruly and his parents don't want to cope with him anymore. Risa has been raised in an orphanage, and she is sent to be unwound to reduce orphanage costs. Lev, on the other hand, was conceived to be unwound; he is the family's "tribute." After Conner stages a dramatic escape on the way to the unwinding camp, he drags along Risa and Lev, and they embark on a journey to keep themselves alive until they turn 18 and can't be unwound. They find themselves in a vast underground movement to keep unwinds alive, very similar to the Underground in the US Civil War era. 

Unwind is one of many dystopian series of novels that are capturing the interest of young adult readers. Although I have read only a few, Unwind seems to me to be the most overtly political. I suppose that is why it is being taught in the Oak Park Illinois schools. And, from the number of student projects on the Internet, it is used in middle schools and high schools across the country. Not surprisingly, it has caused a lot of negative book reviews from conservative groups that object to the books on several levels. Foremost among these objections is the scene in which an unwind is actually dismembered.

Unwind is philosophical by nature and political by intent. There is nothing subtle about the message. "You can't change the laws without first changing human nature. You can't change human nature without first changing the law." It made me want to look back at other dystopian novels that I have read and look closer at the political messages that are being taught through them. Although I agree with the message of Unwind, and I appreciate my granddaughter's enthusiasm for it, I wonder what philosophical and political messages students are being taught that are more subtle and less liberal in tone.  

Unwind is the first book in a four part series that is in development as a movie. I came across a trailer created by high school students as a class project. You can find it here

A good review in the Guardian.