An Untamed State

An Untamed StateAn Untamed State by Roxane Gay

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not a book I would have chosen voluntarily – it was for a book club. Although I join book clubs because I want to read books like this that are outside my comfort zone. Giving this a rating is extremely difficult. The writing is quite good – the subject matter is horrendous and disturbing, so I’m not going to say “I really liked it”. Not a book I will forget, but I wanted to learn more from it about Haiti and the awful divide between rich and poor. Maybe there isn’t more to know. This doesn’t really fit my theme of “black-lives-matter.” Yes, it is set in a culture where such kidnappings happen every day, but it isn’t about race. Mireille could be any woman in any culture. Women are always the victims. You cannot feel sorry for the men who act out their anger and rage and their quest for power and money. This is the story of one such woman, her life divided starkly into “before” and “after,” and the people (and readers) who struggle to comprehend what she went through. Yes, I felt as helpless and as frustrated with her as her husband Michael. Which doesn’t make me a bad person. It’s just that the magnitude of damage portrayed (physical and psychological) is far, far outside my own experience. And God willing, always will be.

I loved the relationship between Mireille and her mother-in-law Lorraine. I’ve lived in Nebraska, and now rural Minnesota, and I know farm wives just like her, cautious, slow to warm, and self-deprecating, but it is Lorraine’s practical, no-nonsense compassion that allows Mireille the safe place and the time she needs to come to terms with her ordeal.

Book description: Mireille Duval Jameson is living a fairy tale. The strong-willed youngest daughter of one of Haiti’s richest sons, she has an adoring husband, a precocious infant son, by all appearances a perfect life. The fairy tale ends one day when Mireille is kidnapped in broad daylight by a gang of heavily armed men. Held captive by a man who calls himself the Commander, Mireille waits for her father to pay her ransom. As her father’s standoff with the kidnappers stretches out into days, Mireille must endure the torture and rape of the men who resent everything she represents. After her release, she struggles to find her way back to the person she once was.

Palace of Treason

Palace of Treason (Dominika Egorova & Nathaniel Nash, #2)Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book feels very much like a continuation of the first book, Red Sparrow. Even the recipes are continued at the end of each chapter. The title is a slang term for the Kremlin. It could possibly stand alone, but I would recommend reading in order. The first book was brilliant. This one feels not as tightly plotted. Some of the quirks of the characters, like Dominika’s synesthesia, are interesting, but this time around it seemed to have no bearing on the plot or her actions. Likewise, her ability to see the ghosts of dead friends. If there is a point to this, perhaps it will come out in the third book. Strong on characterization, insider knowledge, pacing, and humor. Warning for some readers – there is graphic sex and torture, and the action can be quite chilling at times.

Book description: Captain Dominika Egorova of the Russian Intelligence Service despises the oligarchs, crooks, and thugs of Putin’s Russia—but what no one knows is that she is also working for the CIA. Her “sparrow” training in the art of sexual espionage further complicates the mortal risks she must take, as does her love for her handler Nate Nash—a shared lust that is as dangerous as treason. As Dominika expertly dodges exposure, she deals with a murderously psychotic boss, survives an Iranian assassination attempt and attempts to rescue an arrested double agent—and thwart Putin’s threatening flirtations.

 

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

The Storied Life of A.J. FikryThe Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Funny, moving, uplifting, with a bit of romance and mystery thrown in. This is a tribute to books, the people who write them, the people who sell them, and the people who read them. My book club (elderly women) loved it. We have read many of the titles that happen to be mentioned in the text. While A.J. and Maya and their relationship is certainly at the center of this book, the side-characters of A.J.’s sister-in-law, Ismay, and his cop friend, Lambiase, almost took on main-character status for me. Even more so with the twist at the end of the book, which I won’t give away. Yes, this borders on being a cozy sort-of chick lit novel rather than being literary fiction. Nothing wrong with that! There are readers of crime fiction (Lambiase), readers of romance and chick lit, and readers of prize winners and literary fiction. And maybe that ends up being the whole point of this book. We are all unique, but we are all connected by a love of books and reading.

Book description: From Booklist
In this sweet, uplifting homage to bookstores, Zevin perfectly captures the joy of connecting people and books. A. J. Fikry, the cantankerous owner of Island Books, is despondent after losing his beloved wife and witnessing the ever-declining number of sales at his small, quirky bookstore. In short order, he loses all patience with the new Knightly Press sales rep, his prized rare edition of Tamerlane is stolen, and someone leaves a baby at his store. That baby immediately steals A. J.’s heart and unleashes a dramatic transformation. Suddenly, the picture-book section is overflowing with new titles, and the bookstore becomes home to a burgeoning number of book clubs. With business on the uptick and love in his heart, A. J. finds himself becoming an essential new part of his longtime community, going so far as to woo the aforementioned sales rep (who loves drinking Queequeg cocktails at the Pequod Restaurant). Filled with interesting characters, a deep knowledge of bookselling, wonderful critiques of classic titles, and very funny depictions of book clubs and author events, this will prove irresistible to book lovers everywhere. –Joanne Wilkinson

Ivory Vikings

Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made ThemIvory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them by Nancy Marie Brown

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A thoroughly enjoyable exploration of an archeological mystery, the history of chess, walrus ivory carving, Viking history, and the settlement of Iceland, interwoven with passages from the Norse sagas. Could Margret the Adroit of Iceland have made the Lewis chessmen? Certainly, but can it be proven? No. Still, Ms. Brown lays out the evidence, and I think the theory she presents can hold its own against those who insist on a Norwegian origin. The history of the pieces and their historical Scandinavian counterparts is fascinating! I listened to the audiobook, so I can’t speak about any accompanying maps and photos.

Book description: In the early 1800s, on a Hebridean beach in Scotland, the sea exposed an ancient treasure cache: 93 chessmen carved from walrus ivory. Norse netsuke, each face individual, each full of quirks, the Lewis Chessmen are probably the most famous chess pieces in the world. Housed at the British Museum, they are among its most visited and beloved objects. Questions abounded: Who carved them? Where? Nancy Marie Brown explores these mysteries by connecting medieval Icelandic sagas with modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. In the process, Ivory Vikings presents a vivid history of the 400 years when the Vikings ruled the North Atlantic, and the sea-road connected countries and islands we think of as far apart and culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, and Greenland and North America.

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The Martian

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Robinson Crusoe in space. Set a few years into the future, when the U.S. is sending manned missions to Mars. Mark is a likeable character, and I found his ingenuity and inventiveness kept me interested – for about half of the book. Then it just got too predictable as it went from one event that should have killed him to another. It was very heavy on the science, which didn’t go over too well with my women’s bookclub. On the whole, it’s a decent story, and an uplifting one as nations work together to bring Mark home, and his story captures hearts the world over. The movie left out a lot, which is probably a good thing. It got very repetitive stretched out into a full-length novel.

Book description: After a dust storm nearly kills him and forces his crew to evacuate the planet while thinking him dead, Mark Watney finds himself stranded on Mars’ surface, completely alone, with no way to signal Earth that he’s alive. And even if he could get word out, his supplies would be gone years before a rescue could arrive. Chances are, though, Mark won’t have time to starve to death. The damaged machinery, unforgiving environment or plain-old “human error” are much more likely to kill him first. But Mark’s not ready to quit. Armed with nothing but his ingenuity and his engineering skills—and a gallows sense of humor that proves to be his greatest source of strength–he embarks on a dogged quest to stay alive, using his botany expertise to grow food and even hatching a mad plan to contact NASA back on Earth.

The Boston Girl

The Boston GirlThe Boston Girl by Anita Diamant

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Review contains spoilers!

I enjoyed listening to this story of a woman growing up and finding a career and love in the 1920s, but I’m struggling to say anything much about it. It is written as an 85-year-old being interviewed by her 22-year-old grand-daughter. You would think she is much younger. Addie keeps it upbeat and optimistic. She never calls her sister’s death a suicide, for example, attributing it to being clumsy in the kitchen, (unless I’m reading more into it than there was). Topics like working in sweatshops, World War I, the Spanish flu, the Depression, and discrimination of Jews and immigrants are minimized. She skips almost completely over World War II and the Holocaust, which must have impacted the Jewish community even in the U.S. She fell into a wonderful career and married a wonderful man, and it’s all a little too good to be true. So consider this an uplifting, even inspirational tale, told by someone who could be your own grandmother, or great-grandmother. My own grandmother wrote short stories about herself and her ancestors for her grandchildren that sound very much like this, just on a much smaller scale.

Book description: Addie Baum is The Boston Girl, the spirited daughter of an immigrant Jewish family, born in 1900 to parents who were unprepared for America and its effect on their three daughters. Growing up in the North End of Boston, then a teeming multicultural neighborhood, Addie’s intelligence and curiosity take her to a world her parents can’t imagine—a world of short skirts, movies, celebrity culture, and new opportunities for women. Addie wants to finish high school and dreams of going to college. She wants a career and to find true love. From the one-room tenement apartment she shared with her parents and two sisters, to the library group for girls she joins at a neighborhood settlement house, to her first, disastrous love affair, to finding the love of her life, eighty-five-year-old Addie recounts her adventures with humor and compassion for the naïve girl she once was.

Dogs and Goddesses

Dogs and GoddessesDogs and Goddesses by Jennifer Crusie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Goofy, funny (the talking dogs are hysterical, and the narrator of the audiobook did a WONDERFUL job with them), interesting characters (although a couple of them were very similar) – just right for a beach read or when you need to clear your brain after a hefty/intense/intellectual read. Now I’m ready to tackle some of the medieval non-fiction I’m taking on for a library conference later this year…

Lots of explicit sex if you like that sort of thing. It didn’t make me cringe, so I guess that’s a plus. It’s a little disjointed with three different authors. I assume they each wrote one of the three main “goddesses.” My favorite was Shar, the middle-aged heroine and her dog Wolfie. The other two women and their romantic interests were not as well developed (and as I said, at times hard to tell apart.) The mythology was okay, but don’t expect anything historical (it was made up.) The romances really didn’t have enough tension (will they, won’t they?) to create a very satisfying ending (endings?) And the fate of Kamani Gula (the Mesopotamian goddess) and especially Mina (the evil priestess) was just silly. Like cotton candy – fun once in a while, but I wouldn’t want a steady diet of it.

Book description: Abby has just arrived in Summerville, Ohio, with her placid Newfoundland, Bowser. She’s reluctantly inherited her grandmother’s coffee shop, but it’s not long before she’s brewing up trouble in the form of magical baked goods and steaming up her life with an exasperating college professor. And then there’s Daisy, a web code writer, and her hyperactive Jack Russell, Bailey. Her tightly-wound world spins out of control when she discovers the chaos within and meets a mysterious dog trainer whose teaching style is definitely hands-on. Finally there’s Shar, professor of ancient history at Summerville College, who wakes up one morning to find her neurotic dachshund, Wolfie, snarling at an implacable god sitting at her kitchen table, the first thing in her life she hasn’t been able to footnote. What on earth is going on in this unearthly little town? It’s up to Abby, Daisy, and Shar to find out before an ancient goddess takes over Southern Ohio, and they all end up in the apocalyptic doghouse…