Episode 112 – February’s Books

It’s been a long, cold month, with our province-wide Covid lockdown/stay-at-home order only lifted on the 16th. Thank goodness for the escape that books provide!

Our local library had some really interesting new arrivals, which I supplemented with recommendations from fellow bibliophiles. One of the few bright spots to this year has been the new on-line connections made with other readers, through Facebook groups and Goodreads. In times like these, connecting with other people is really important for our mental health. I find myself daydreaming about sitting 6 feet apart on the patio drinking wine – even that kind of in-person visit has become a distant (pun totally intended) memory.

So, here are my February book reviews, along with the fervent hope that March will inspire a new blog topic, as we all move closer to Covid’s eventual defeat:

(HIT) A Bad Day for Sunshine, by Darynda Jones (2020)

“Sunshine” Vikram finds herself – strangely, not by choice – the newly elected female sheriff of Del Sol, New Mexico, which is home to her parents, her old high school friends and flames, and a lot of quirky and interesting townspeople. Her relationship with her teenaged daughter Aurora is the kind of funny that can make you cry with laughter. Her mother’s book club, the high school antics, the town’s newest distillery run by a distractingly attractive former classmate, and a sheriff’s department staffed with keen young officers all serve to create a rich setting against which crimes occur and need to be solved… including perhaps a horrific one perpetrated against her years ago. I’m looking forward to the next book in the series to see if Darynda Jones can keep up the standards she has set here. As much fun as Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series, but with a heroine that has some extra depth.

(HIT) Black Buck, by Mateo Askaripour (2021)

Written in the first person, ostensibly as a combination memoir and instruction book for young people of colour wanting to climb the corporate ladder all the way to the penthouse, even the book’s “Author’s Note” is penned by “Buck”. Every chapter of his story contains one or more lessons in the art of selling, whether they come from the bizarre elite all-white tech start-up guru that recruits him, or the world-wise old guy who holds court on the street corner. Every chapter also reveals more and more about what in life is actually important. It’s a satire of the best kind: one that really makes you THINK. Plus, like any good story, it has plenty of twists and turns. I really hope white corporate America isn’t filled with the kind of people skewered in this book…. but I suspect it is. CAUTION: if lots of casual swearing bothers you, this may not be the book for you.

(HOME RUN) The Round House, by Louise Erdrich (2012)

I found this one riveting – in a “Stand By Me” kind of way. Within a wonderful description of family life on an Ojibwa reservation in North Dakota in the late 1980’s is a deeper message of how family and spirit are needed to overcome tragedy. The tragedy in the book is more than just the crime itself – it is also the tragedy of broken treaties, racist attitudes, and willfully biased and complacent governmental structures. The story is told as the memories of a Star-Trek obsessed indigenous boy who was 13 when his mother was brutally attacked, and follows the many ways in which he and his father, a judge, try to ensure the perpetrator gets punished for his actions. Look up the author – her story is novel-worthy in itself.

(WOW) The End of October, by Lawrence Wright (2020)

The author is a Pulitzer Prize winner and author of 10 non-fiction books. This novel, about a killer virus and global pandemic is almost too real given where the world is right now, but it’s a gripping, scary, fast-moving thriller. It’s style is a combination of Michael Crichton action and Dan Brown conspiracy (think Inferno). It is filled throughout with references to lots of actual events of 2014 through 2020, making the devastating end scenario even more plausible. The acknowledgments at the end certainly explain why the book seems so accurate; his research into how medical agencies treat infectious diseases is particularly evident.

(HIT) Still Life, by Louise Penny (2005)

How have I missed this series all these years? Now I’m going to have to binge through 15 more to be ready for #17 in the Chief Inspector Armand Gamache series being published in 2021. Wonderful, wonderful crime fiction set in the (fictional) village of Three Pines, Quebec. Thank you to all those who recommended this series to me – you were all right!!

(HOME RUN) The Gift of Rain, by Tan Twan Eng (2008)

This is a particularly beautifully written book, with some of the loveliest and most evocative prose that I have read in years.

The story is the re-telling of the main character’s life, which was heavily influenced by the one person who was simultaneously his aikido sensei, teacher, mentor, and best friend, but it is also a story about war, loyalty, betrayal, and survival. Set largely in (gorgeously described)Penang, Malaya in the years preceding and during WWII, the novel revealed a lot that I didn’t know about the events in Japan and China in the early part of the 20th century. This is not a quick read, due to the richness of the language and depth of content, but it is a truly compelling read.

(HIT) The Charmed Wife, by Olga Grushin (2021)

What did we expect? Cinderella’s happily ever after has become anything but after 13 and a half years of marriage and two children, so she asks the humorously pragmatic – and maybe not totally wicked – witch for a potion to rid her of her no longer charming Prince. Her drug-and-therapy-dispensing fairy godmother and a dynasty of frustrated caregiving pet mice also have roles to play in this tale, which manages to touch on the stories of many other familiar fairy tale characters. It’s a quick read: an anti-romance novel that manages to be simultaneously funny and quite sad, with a satisfying twist at the end.

(DEPENDABLE, BUT…) The Sentinel, by Lee Child and Andrew Child (2020)

I have thoroughly enjoyed all of Lee Child’s Jack Reacher thrillers, despite their often quite violent fight scenes. This is the 25th Reacher book, but the first of the series written with his younger brother Andrew (who also writes under their real surname, Grant). I’ve always found it interesting that the iconic American anti-hero Jack Reacher, a retired U.S. Army MP who now drifts from place to place dispensing his own brand of justice, was conceived by a British writer since the books have such a hard-boiled American vibe. In this instalment, Reacher is in Tennessee, and involved in protecting a small town IT manager who has become the target of some very bad people involved in a ransomware scheme. As always there’s lots of action, and a few casualties along the way to a resolution. As I read, I thought I could detect a slight change in the novel’s writing style this time that made it feel a bit more formulaic – but maybe I was just looking for a difference because it’s a collaboration. Apparently Lee is planning to retire from writing Jack Reacher and Andrew will continue the series.

If you’ve never read Lee Child’s books, I’d suggest starting at the beginning of the series. While they can be read as stand-alones, if you get hooked on them you’ll want to experience the character’s progression through the years.

(HIT) Orphan Train, by Christina Baker Kline (2013)

A beautifully told story of one of the thousands of children – abandoned, orphaned, often the children of new immigrants – transported to the American mid-west between 1854 and 1929 by the Christian Childrens Aid Society, where the lucky ones were adopted and the unlucky ones became little more than indentured servants. The story is made that much more poignant for being juxtaposed with that of a teenage girl in the current CAS foster system. The history is fascinating, and the journeys of the two girls (one now a woman in her 90’s) are a testament to what resilience combined with love and understanding can do.

(HIT) Snow, by John Banville (2020)

I’ve just finished watching Derry Girls on Netflix, the hilarious series set in Northern Ireland in the 1990’s during “the troubles”, so was ready for something more serious set in Ireland. Snow is set in 1957 in County Wexford, and puts a Protestant detective in charge of the investigation into the murder and castration of a Catholic parish priest. The language in the book is unusually lovely for a murder mystery; lots of glorious metaphors throughout, although the portion of the book written in the dead priest’s voice is extremely dark and disturbing. This is John Banville’s 18th novel, but the first to feature Detective Inspector St. John Strafford (“with an r”, as he keeps having to repeat). After reading this, I sincerely hope there will be more!


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