Review of “The Kill” by Jane Casey

This is the fifth in the crime series based in London and featuring Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan and it is excellent.

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Most of the very topical story based on tension between the police and poor people of color actually focuses on the relationship with Maeve and her frequent Murder Squad partner, Detective Inspector Josh Derwent. The complexity and nuance with which Casey limns both Maeve and Josh, and the two of them together, is riveting.

Josh often behaves like a sexist churl, and while it annoys Maeve, she understands it is in part a defense mechanism for Josh, whose rage and apparent lack of compassion is a shield, “hiding what he really felt, as if anyone would think less of him for being upset at what we were about to see.” Nevertheless, Maeve can’t keep herself from sparring with him, as in this exchange after he basically felt her up while dancing together at a colleague’s wedding, which he claimed was her fault for wearing a provocative dress:

“‘Oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t realize that gave you a license to grope me. What should I have been wearing? A suit like this, so you didn’t accidentally forget I was your colleague?’ I dropped the sugar-sweet sarcasm. ‘It was a wedding. A party. I wore a party dress. Maybe I should have got hold of a burqa since you find it so hard to control yourself when confronted by a fucking frock.’”

Nevertheless, while both of them attack each other when alone, both also come strongly to the other’s defense when attacked by a third party. We sense an attraction between them, even though Maeve is deeply in love with her partner, Rob.

The book begins with the murder of a policeman, and as the story unfolds, there are more casualties. But are they related? And if so, how? Interoffice politics threaten to undermine solving the mystery, but Maeve’s unusual insight into human behavior and motivations helps unravel the threads of the crimes.

Discussion: Casey is excellent at detailing the small aspects of police duty that often get lost in crime stories:

“Tea, the answer for every problem. Burglary? Tea. Missing child? Tea. Dead husband? Tea. No one ever seemed to drink it. For us, the cups were a prop, something to do with your hands while gently delivering the bad news and easing yourself back out to the street. Nothing ever felt as good as the first breath of fresh air when you walked out of a house filled with grief.”

Casey is also very good at characterization – especially with respect to complicated relationships, of which Maeve has quite a few. I also admire the way Maeve is growing on the job. While this book can be read as a standalone, you won’t want to miss the pleasure of following the evolution of Maeve and Josh, their superintendent Charles Godley, and others on the squad.

Evaluation: I think this is Casey’s best yet.

Rating: 4/5

Published in the U.S. by Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, 2015

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Review of “The Other Daughter” by Lauren Willig

Rachel Woodley has been a nursery governess in France for seven years when she receives a telegram that her beloved mother is dying. Her employer won’t give her time off to go back to England, so she quits, and hurries to her mother’s house, but she is too late. Moreover, her landlord is now evicting her, as her mother was behind in the rent.

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When cleaning out her mother’s things, Rachel gets yet another unpleasant and unexpected surprise: she finds, under her mother’s pillow, a newspaper picture from just five months previously – December, 1926, of a man who is clearly her father. But her mother always had told her her father died twenty-three years ago, when Rachel was four.

Moreover, this man is not identified as Edward Woodley, botanist, who she believed her father to be, but Edward Standish, Earl of Ardmore, shown with his daughter Olivia on his arm. She races up to Oxford to see her cousin David, who has always been a doting godfather, to find out what he knows about the truth. David astonishes her by admitting Edward Standish is her father. He confessed that her mother thought his leaving would be easier for her if she believed he had died.

Upset, she turns to leave, and runs into Simon Montfort, a former tutee of David’s, who had overheard what happened. As he shows her out, he explains he has connections and can help her meet her father. He offers to introduce her to the Standish’s social set as a Vera Merton, a distant cousin of his. He further arranges to house her at his mother’s empty flat and bring her socially appropriate clothes belonging to his (also absent) sister. He even sets up an appointment for her at a salon so she can get a hairdo more suitable to a society lady than a governess.

While even Rachel references the story of “Pygmalion,” there are more complications to the story than George Bernard Shaw’s play. The Great War has ended, but hostilities still loom on the horizon and occupy the thoughts of many of the characters. Everyone in the social set to which “Vera” gains entry accepts her readily, but they all have shared histories and secrets to which she is not privy. And what Rachel thinks she now knows is only the tip of the iceberg. Her world is indeed upended, but not at all in the way she (or we) anticipated.

Discussion: This turned out to be a good story, not as predictable as it seemed it might be in the beginning. The author manages to limn Rachel as naive and judgmental without making her unlikeable, and is adept at evoking the appearance of superficial decadence of the monied set:

“Cece dragged in deeply on her cigarette, trailing ash and ennui.”

I liked too how she had her characters query the nature of memory and of truth. Rachel’s insights about her recollections from her early childhood were especially appealing:

“Life, at four, had been a sea of knees and ankles, chair legs and the undersides of tables. She wished, desperately, that she had paid more attention, that she had lifted her head and looked up.”

Evaluation: The further I read, the more I got pulled into the story. It turned out to be an entertaining and engrossing book.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by St. Martin’s Press, 2015

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Review of “Jacksonland” by Steve Inskeep

It is ironic that Andrew Jackson, a murderer, kidnapper, slave owner, slave trader, land speculator acting on inside information, and last but not least, the cruel architect of Indian genocide, should hold such a revered place in the pantheon of American presidents – so much so, that when the question arose of who’s image to replace on money, it was the image of Hamilton that garnered the most attention. [Ironic as well, since it was Jackson who was obsessively opposed to a federal bank, vetoing a bill to recharter the Bank of the United States, which led to an economic depression, and Hamilton, a fiscal genius, who championed the idea.] As much as Americans have been shocked or disappointed over the behavior of some of our recent presidents, their actions are minor peccadillos compared to the abhorrent and morally horrific activities of Andrew Jackson.

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Steve Inskeep, a cohost of NPR’s Morning Edition, and someone who has received multiple awards for investigative journalism, tells Jackson’s story, juxtaposing it to the story of the leader of the Cherokee people, John Ross. It is not hard for Ross to come off looking better.

It was truly difficult to listen to all the outrages committed by Jackson, and against the Native American people, and yet it is essential to understand this part of American history.

Evaluation: If you only read one nonfiction book this year, I hope you will make it this one. It is critically important that Americans understand what kind of man Andrew Jackson really was, and what was done to the Native Americans who occupied the land he coveted. It is an outstanding book, and a pleasure to experience via audio.

Rating: 5/5

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

It’s almost unfair to compare other narrators to the cohost of one of the most widely heard radio news programs in the United States. Inskeep knows how to “read for the ear” and his impassioned narration hits all the right notes.

Published unabridged on 10 CDs (12 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2015

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Kid Lit Review of “This Moose Belongs to Me” by Oliver Jeffers

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This is a very funny story about Wilfred, a young boy who thinks he owns a moose he encounters. He names the moose Marcel, and explains to Marcel “the rules of how to be a good pet.” Most of the time, it seems like Marcel isn’t paying attention to him, but sometimes, he is an excellent pet.

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One day, however, Wilfred made a terrible discovery: someone else thought she owned the moose. Moreover, this lady had named the moose Rodrigo! And the moose acted like she was correct!

Embarrassed and enraged, Wilfred rushed off for home, but tripped and got all tangled up in the string he used to keep track of his way. It got dark, and he was beginning to think about all the monsters that would be out soon, when along came the moose, who rescued him.

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“All was forgiven. And perhaps, Wilfred admitted, he’d never really owned the moose anyway.”

The final panel of the book adds a hilarious epilogue to the story.

The illustrations by Jeffers are creative and entertaining, as always. Most unusually, he puts the cartoon-like characters of Wilfred and the moose in front of gorgeous realistic oil painting landscapes in the background.

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Evaluation: This offbeat entertaining story has won several awards (including CBI Book of the Year Awards 2013 – Honor Award for Illustration). It could be read as a book with a message about how you can’t “own” those you love, or it could just be read as a very original, humorous story. Either way, it’s well worth it!

Rating: 4/5

Published by Philomel Books, a division of Penguin Young Readers Group, an imprint of Penguin Group (USA), 2012

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Review of “The Water Knife” by Paolo Bacigalupi

In The Doubt Factory by Paolo Bacigalupi, the author based his book on a real article about the ways in which businesses systematically cast doubt on scientific studies that might interfere with their profit-making enterprises, allowing many dangerous commodities to stay on the market long after they should have been banned. Analogously, in this story, Bacigalupi uses as his basis the 1986 book Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner (turned into a four-part PBS documentary series in 1997), which tells the story of the politics, money, and inevitably, corruption, behind the massive irrigation projects for the driest sections of the Southwest.

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Cadillac Desert has four parts, also relevant to Bacigalupi’s “retelling”: (1) the creation of Los Angeles; (2) how the Colorado became, as PBS described it, “the most controlled, litigated, domesticated, regulated and over-allocated river in the history of the world”; (3) the political and environmental battles over the irrigation of California’s Central Valley; and a report on the ways in which water availability and manipulation of that availability affects the daily lives of millions of people around the globe.

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In The Water Knife, the book Cadillac Desert is known as “the bible”:

“The beginning of everything. When we thought we could make deserts bloom, and the water would always be there for us. When we thought we could move rivers and control water instead of it controlling us.”

But The Water Knife is set in the future, one in which global warming, aberrant weather patterns, and drought has returned much of the southwest to a “wild west” of dog-eat-dog competition over water. One of the characters laments:

“We knew it was all going to go to hell, and we just stood by and watched it happen anyway. There ought to be a prize for that kind of stupidity. … This was never about believing. ..This was about looking and seeing. Pure data. You don’t believe data – you test data. … If I could put my finger on the moment we genuinely fucked ourselves, it was the moment we decided that data was something you could use words like believe or disbelieve around.”

In contrast to the story limned in Cadillac Desert, the oasis that rises out of the desert in this book is in Las Vegas rather than Los Angeles (although California’s power in every sense is central to the story), and the person in charge is fictional Catherine Case, also known as “The Queen of the Colorado.” Together with her real estate husband and a Chinese construction group, Case has been building “arcologies” in the Southwest.

[As Wikipedia explains, arcology, a portmanteau of “architecture” and “ecology”, is a vision of architectural design principles that create self-contained and self-sufficient living habitats. Everything is balanced: people, animals, water, food, energy, and waste. It is, as one character in the book explains, “a whole big living machine.” The concept was popularized by architect Paolo Soleri, and was explored as well by both Frank Lloyd Wright and Buckminster Fuller. It has successfully been developed on a large scale, however, only in works of science fiction.]

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As with Bacigalupi’s previous books, greed, fear, and a thirst [sic] for survival drive the characters to extremes of behavior.

The main character here is Angel Velasquez, tough and smart, who works as a “water knife” for Catherine Case. That is, he is the muscle who makes sure Nevada gets all of the water rights it can, not only from its own state, but from other states which tap the Colorado River. He gets all the support he needs from Case, including a Tesla, a slew of helpful false identities, and basically a James-Bond-like cache of accoutrements – that is, as long as she feels she can trust him. When something goes awry with her agents in Arizona, she gets suspicious, and sends Angel to Phoenix to see if he can figure out what is happening. Soon she finds reason to lose confidence in Angel as well, and then he is basically a fish out of water, in almost every sense of the phrase.

Angel allies with a Phoenix reporter, Lucy Monroe, who is also trying to uncover what is happening with water rights in Phoenix. They pick up two unlikely confederates in their race to find out the truth or be killed it the pursuit of it: Maria Villarosa, a young refugee from Texas, and Toomie, an older guy who tries to take care of Maria in contrast to the usual me-first stance of everyone else:

“‘Why?’ she asked, finally. ‘Why are you so nice? It doesn’t make sense. I’m not your woman. I’m not your people.’

‘We’re all each other’s people. … We forget it sometimes. when everything’s going to pieces, people can forget. But in the end? We’re all in it together.’

‘Most people don’t think that way.’

‘Yeah.’ Tommie sighed.”

In fact, none of them can survive without each other, and maybe none of them can survive anyway. But Toomie is the closest anyone in this book comes to an evolutionary biologists’s conception of the altruistic individual.

Discussion: Case is an interesting character. She is a villain, but also a savior; the line is never clear. She will stop at nothing, including murder on a rather grand scale, to get water rights for her arcologies, and yet her arcologies are truly edens, and the only means left to survive in the Southwest.

The alternatives to the arcologies in the fiery Hellscape of the Southwest are few: vicious narco gangs use intimidation to steal from others; addlepated religious fanatics out of Texas (“the Merry Perrys”) try prayer; and girls who emigrated from devastated Texas sell their bodies for access to water.

The cruelty of some of the characters in this book knows no bounds, and there are a number of discussions of their evil by their victims: is this tendency for evil innate? At what point will people turn on even those they love to save themselves?

Evaluation: Once again Bacigalupi forces us to take a hard look at the consequences of our irresponsible stewardship of the Earth with a bleak thriller in which the outcome is never certain. Fiction? This is the Page One Story from The New York Times of June 13, 2015:

Farmers with rights to California water dating back more than a century will face sharp cutbacks, the first reduction in their water use since 1977, state officials announced Friday.”

Water.org reports that 750 million people around the world lack access to safe water; approximately one in nine people. Diarrhea caused by inadequate drinking water, sanitation, and hand hygiene kills an estimated 842,000 people every year globally, or approximately 2,300 people per day. The World Economic Forum names “water crises” as the highest societal risk in the next ten years.

Bacigalupi is a consistently intelligent, prescient, and compassionate writer. If we just stand by, as we are now, and watch it “all going to go to hell,” it won’t be for want of trying by Paolo Bacigalupi.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2015

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Review of “The Coincidence of Coconut Cake” by Amy E. Reichert

This book is two love stories in one: the first involves the main protagonist, Lou, and a man she meets, and the other is about love for the city of Milwaukee, which is, as their tourism center justifiably claims, “a great place by a great lake.”

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Lou Johnson is working hard as owner and chef at her small French restaurant named after her grandma, Luella’s, in downtown Milwaukee. But business falls off drastically after a scathing review by the popular restaurant critic A.W. Wodyski, the pseudonym of Al Waters. Lou was indeed having a bad night when the critic came there: she had gone to her fiancé Devlin’s apartment that morning to surprise him for his birthday, bringing her trademark coconut cake (and accidentally running into Al on the way). The surprise was on Lou, however, when she discovered Devlin running out of the bedroom to bring clothes to his intern, Megan, wearing a nightgown. Lou dropped the cake and ran out, bumping into Al the second time that day. Later, at the restaurant, Lou could hardly cook a dish, between her anger, humiliation, and despair.

After Al went to the restaurant and submitted his review panning it, he went to a nearby bar to celebrate yet another snarky triumph. Lou was there drowning her sorrows. They talked – not knowing each other’s true identity, and Al, a transplant from England, revealed how little he liked Milwaukee. Lou offered to show him around, if they could promise not to talk about their work.

Yes, it’s all a bit like “You’ve Got Mail,” but it’s just as entertaining and charming. And for fans of Milwaukee, like I am, it is even more of a delight. Lou introduces Al to such beloved Milwaukee institutions as Alterra coffee, Sendik’s Grocery, cheese curds, Summerfest, the gorgeous Calatrava-designed art museum, baseball at Miller Park, butter burgers, and frozen custard, inter alia.

The coconut cake, which continues to weave in and out of the plot, features prominently in the resolution as well. And to sweeten the deal, the author includes a recipe for it from her own Grandma Luella at the end.

Evaluation: If you like coconut cake, Milwaukee, and/or just endearing romances, this book is a rewarding confection.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Simon & Schuster, 2015

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wkendcookingThis post will be linked to this Saturday’s Weekend Cooking, hosted by Beth Fish Reads. Weekend Cooking is open to anyone who has any kind of food-related post to share: Book (novel, nonfiction) reviews, cookbook reviews, movie reviews, recipes, random thoughts, gadgets, quotations, photographs. where bloggers share food-related posts. Stop by her blog and see what’s cooking this week!

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Review of “Half the World” by Joe Abercrombie

Note: There will be spoilers for Book One, Half A King, but none for this book, Book Two.

Half the World continues the fantasy saga that began with Half A King. I re-read Book One before reading this one even though I really didn’t need to, but Half A King is so good – and even better the second time around!

In Half A King, we met Yarvi, the youngest prince of Gettland, who was training to become a minister (a celibate advisor and healer in service to the King). But when both the King and Yarvi’s older brother were ambushed and killed, Yarvi was required to step up the plate and serve as King. He was an unpopular choice however, because he had a hand with only one finger (considered anathema for a would-be warrior/king). Yarvi’s Uncle Odem led him away from the palace and tried to have him murdered, but Yarvi escaped. Unrecognized, he was captured and made a galley slave on a merchant ship. There, he met those who would become his most faithful friends when they managed to escape. At the end of Book One, the small group makes their way back to Gettland, and together with Yarvi’s mother, Queen Laithlin, they wreak vengeance on Odem who was now King.

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Book Two begins with a focus on two new characters: Thorn Bathu, a 16-year-old girl who wants to be a warrior to avenge the death of her father who died in battle, and her training mate Brand, who is after the riches of raiding to help support himself and his sister Rin. After Thorn defeats Brand and others on the training ground, Master-at-Arms Hunnan set Thorn against three others at once. It was not only unfair to do that to Thorn, but in a tragic accident, Thorn killed one of the boys with her wooden training sword which had splintered and become needle-sharp. Hunnan accused her of murder, and it was decreed she would be crushed with stones. After the sentencing, Brand went to Father Yarvi and pleaded for Thorn’s life, explaining what happened. Yarvi rescued Thorn from the prison and told her she was now in his service. He took her with him on the ship “South Wind” on a mission to win allies for Gettland’s battle against the High King, who aspired to have hegemony over all the kingdoms around the Shattered Sea. Brand, despondent after being thrown out by Hunnan for talking to Yarvi about Thorn, was also recruited for the voyage.

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Both Thorn and Brand were put together at the oars of the ship, but Thorn had other duties as well. When she wasn’t rowing, Yarvi insisted she train with a mysterious old woman on board named Skifr to be a better fighter. Skifr may have been a grandmother, but she had extraordinary skills, and worked Thorn hard until no one on board could best her. Brand, too, proved his battle worthiness when the crew had to fight natives of other lands during their quest.

Discussion: Abercrombie is just excellent at creating characters, especially those who need to prove worthy of inclusion in an “epic” saga. Yarvi has grown in many ways since the first book, but still retains humility and humanity in addition to his universally acclaimed “deep cunning.” His old friend and ally Rulf is also a great character, and Brand proves himself a staunch defender of right and wrong that transcends political advantage.

It is the women, however, that stand out in this series. In Book One, we met very powerful women – Yarvi’s mother; the Captain of the ship on which Yarvi had been taken captive; and the navigator, Sumael; not to mention the ministers to the Kings, all of whom were female except Yarvi. In this book, we encounter women no less powerful but in different ways. Safrit, a wonderful surprise character, serves as the storekeeper and cook on the South Wind. Skifr, who trains Thorn, is like no grandmother you ever knew. And Thorn, with her perfectly appropriate name recalling the blustery sensitive rose from The Little Prince, will win your admiration and your heart as well. And OMG! A female character who actually has to deal with her period! When has this happened before – in this male-dominated genre, at any rate? Queen Laithlin appears again, taking over with commanding grace when her King is ailing, and even Brand’s sister Rin is a force to be reckoned with, and stands out along with Thorn in one of the most memorable scenes of the book.

Abercrombie employs common enough themes from epic fantasy sagas, such as the voyage that tests the characters and brings them to new worlds – both physically and mentally; the heart-stopping battle scenes in which the heroes fight against seemingly insuperable odds; the quest for power; romance; the inevitability of loss and grieving. Yet he adds such richness to his characters, and heart to their actions, that he elevates his stories far above the run of the genre.

If you have avoided fantasy for whatever reasons but are considering trying it, I think Abercrombie is an excellent way to start. I recommend beginning with the first book, even though this one, like the first, can be read as a standalone. But it would be a shame to miss the first, although the series has absolutely no diminution in quality with the second book. Abercrombie’s characters are unforgettable, as are the stories they tell.

Evaluation: Half The World is the second book in the Shattered Sea Trilogy, and all I can say, is What! There will be only THREE?!!!! Nooooooooo!

Rating: 4.5/5

Published by Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, 2015

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