Saturday, April 30, 2016

Book Review: The Silkworm

Note: This thing is filled with spoilers. Proceed with caution.

The Silkworm - Robert Galbraith (Cormoran Strike #2)

For background on the Cormoran Strike novels and my thoughts on the first book in the series, check out this post

Plot: Cormoran Strike is approached by Leonora Quine to find her husband, Owen, who has been missing for 10 days. Owen Quine is a struggling author, prone to disappearing to fancy hotels for periods of time while his wife and special needs daughter are left at home, wondering where he is. In his attempts to track down Quine, Strike stumbles upon the writer's dismembered body in a gruesome, ritualistic murder scene. Leonora is the Met's main suspect, and Strike sets out to prove her innocence.

Thoughts: Like The Cuckoo's Calling, this book starts out slowly. It took me awhile to get into it. The story is really intricate, something I think JKR excels at executing. The mystery was a bit anti-climactic. You knew there were only a finite number of suspects and it turned out to be one of the main options,so there just wasn't much of a surprise. I have to pat myself on the back here though because [SPOILER SPOILER SPOILER -- TURN BACK NOW IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW THE KILLER!] Elizabeth Tassel's cough always seemed to me to be a very likely side-affect of having breathed in strong acid, which she did when she was destroying evidence.

The book within the book (Bombyx Mori) was a gross, but imaginative. I was a little confused by it at first, but I listened to most of the story a second time and it made more sense once I saw how the pieces came together in the end.

Speaking of listening: I "read" this book via Audible. Wow, this series is definitely one you should listen to (as opposed to reading regularly, which is how I did The Cuckoo's Calling). The guy who narrates them is called Robert Glenister and he is great. I love how he does Cormoran, but he even manages to do women's voices really well (so many male narrators butcher women's voices). I actually scrolled through Audible just looking for other books he's read to see if there was something that peaked my interest, cause I could listen to him all day.

Favorite part(s):

1. Robin turning out to be a kick-ass driver. I really like Robin and I want all the success for her.

2. Nina. I don't know if she was intended to really be a positive character, but I just loved her and thought she was really cool. Maybe she'll come back in a future book, though she didn't seem too thrilled with Cormoran (rightly so) at the end.

3. Cormoran getting some quality time with his brother Al, and seeing how jealous Al was that Cormoran is successful with almost no help from their wealthy father. Logically, Cormoran should be the one jealous of Al and the luxury in which he he grew up, but I love that the tables were turned.

Least favorite part(s):

1. [SPOILER] The fact that Tasssel fed Quine's intestines to her dog. Just writing that out (and then reading back through the chapter near the beginning when Strike goes to her office and the dog has thrown up everywhere) makes me queasy.

2. The taxi scene at the end. Dumb.

3. Basically anything involving Matthew. He is the worst. Especially when he told Cormoran that he dated Robin in high school because he didn't have other options. Gross. I hate him.

4. [SPOILER] The side plot of Matthew's mother's death. It made absolutely no sense that Robin didn't go down to Yorkshire for the whole week with him. I felt like Matthew had every right to be annoyed with her and I don't like feeling sympathetic toward him.

My grade: A-

Who would I recommend it to: Mystery-lovers, anglophiles, and people interested in the dramatic behind-the-scenes of the publishing world.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Book Review: The Nightingale

Note: I've got major spoilers in here. I'll call them out before you get there, but just be aware.

The Nightingale - Kristin Hannah

Plot: [SPOILER] Two French sisters work with the French resistance during World War II in very different ways: one by shepherding fallen Allied airman over the Pyrenees and back to safety, and the other by saving and hiding nineteen Jewish children in her home and in a convent orphanage while a sadistic German soldier is billeted with her family.

Thoughts: Oh, The Nightingale. This book was a hard read because the subject matter was so heavy, but it was excellent. I've read a lot of books about World War II (it seems like that's all we read in high school) and have seen many of the movies, but this story was different to me for two reasons: 1. the focus was on the women who were left behind when the men went off to fight and 2. the main characters weren't people that we typically think of as victims of the Nazi regime (Jews, communists, gays, mentally impaired), but their lives were most definitely destroyed (either temporarily or permanently) by the Nazis.

I am the first to admit that I don't usually think much about the people left behind in the occupied countries and what their lives must have been like. This book illustrates how very, very hard their lives were. [SPOILERS from here on] It also reminded me that women were so important to the fight.

Isabelle is the obvious heroine and I really did love her, but I think Viann is the more interesting character because she made so many mistakes (like giving a list of Jews and communists to the German soldier billeted with her because he told her it was simply "clerical" information). She was incredibly naive, and she was also terrified. On a personal level, I relate much more to Viann than someone like Isabelle who is automatically brave and heroic and unstoppable.

After all her mistakes and hemming and hawing, Viann takes a stand and does the right thing; she felt redeemed to me and that made the whole book. She didn't give into her fear and guilt and failure. She just tried to make things right. She risked her life and her sanity to save her own daughter, her friends' children, and children she didn't even know. She nursed her dying sister. She forgave her absentee father. She lived her whole life keeping a terrible secret from her husband and son to protect them from pain.

I have to admit that I didn't expect Isabelle to die. She seemed so unbreakable to me, and for at least the first half of the book, I though she was the old lady narrating the 1995 chapters. I hate that the Nazis ultimately broke a person that was so forceful and larger than life, but it's probably the most realistic way the author could have closed out Isabelle's story. I found it very unbelievable that Gaeton would have survived the war, but that scene was a sweet, romantic touch.

Favorite part: I loved so many parts. Julian's letter to the girls was really beautiful. And when Isabelle describes the unparalleled pride she felt sending her first telegraph to Paul saying, "The Nightingale has flown," I felt proud for her. The end was lovely, especially when Viann and Ari see each other. Admittedly though, I cried for hours afterward and had a "sadness hangover" (got that from Renee :-)) for days.

Least favorite part: I hated the scene with Beck panicking and terrifying Viann because of the missing airman (I could write a whole essay about my conflicted thoughts on Beck). The fact that Isabelle and Viann killed him felt like a mercy in a way because it probably wouldn't have been so quick if the Nazis had done it. He also seemed like an ok person that did not agree with the Nazi agenda and his death prevented him from having to be a part of that regime as it grew worse and worse. And then the airman died anyway and it was such a punch in the gut because it was like all of those dominoes fell for no reason.

Just about every scene with Von Richter was horrifying. Worse than anything though, were the scenes when Isabelle is tortured by the Nazis and those where she is travelling to and is in the concentration camp. I had a couple sleepless nights filled with nightmares because of these parts. Every time I see a movie or read a book about World War II, I feel so scared of what humans can do to each other.

My grade: A

Who would I recommend it to: Everyone.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Book Review: The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling - Robert Galbraith

: A young supermodel allegedly commits suicide by jumping off her balcony in a wealthy neighborhood in London. Cormoran Strike, an ex-military police officer turned private eye (and the estranged son of a famous Mick Jagger-like rock star) investigates the case on behalf of the model's bereaved brother, who believes she was murdered.

Thoughts: I liked this book. It's a murder mystery that takes place in London - oh, and it's written by J.K. Rowling (under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith); it's got a lot going for it. I enjoyed both of the main characters, Strike and his "girl Friday," Robin Ellacott. I think JKR is really great at writing dialogue and I think she's funny. Both of these skills are on display in this book. But it's dark-ish (not anywhere approaching, say, this Gillian Flynn horror though).

The ending is just a tad silly, but I have to say I did not see it coming. And it does employ a classic JKR deus ex machina plot device. However, the book is super engaging and I felt myself looking forward to reading time each night.

As a side note - very often when I'm reading a book, I try to cast it in my head to make the characters come alive more for me. I can't always think of a perfect actor for every character, but I know the perfect Cormoran Strike: Chris O'Dowd. BBC is turning this into a series and I'm afraid I simply will not be able to watch it if CO'D doesn't play Strike, because he is just so perfect for the role.

Favorite part: I loved the scene where Strike goes to visit Guy Some. Their dialogue was so natural and fluid and funny at times. JKR is so great at writing different voices.

I also loved the scene with Robin and Cormoran in the clothing store. I felt second-hand pride for Robin as she realized that she really has a knack for this profession.

Least favorite part: The reveal of the killer. I really don't want to give anything away here because I do think the killer is one that most people wouldn't guess, but the explanation just seemed a little silly and unlikely.

My grade: B+

Who would I recommend it to: Anglophiles who appreciate snappy, witty dialogue and a good mystery.

Thursday, March 31, 2016

Book Review: Devil in the White City

Note: I've got very minor spoilers in here. I'll call them out before you get there, but just be aware.

The Devil in the White City - Erik Larson

: A non-fiction account of the planning, development, building, and execution of the 1898 World's Colombian Fair in Chicago, interspersed with the true story of Herman Mudgett (aka H.H. Holmes), America's first documented serial killer and contemporary resident of Chicago

Thoughts: I chose this book because it's apparently a must-read if you're involved in the planning / architecture / engineering fields (I'm in transportation planning) and it was a bit misrepresented to me as an exciting murder mystery. I love mysteries; this book is not one. It is almost entirely focused on the minutiae of the politics and logistics of the Fair, which actually is a complex and exceptional - but dry - story.

The portions of the book about Holmes were extremely peripheral. I don't know this for sure, but I would estimate that the Fair-focused chapters outnumbered the Holmes-centered chapters 2:1. I read a review by someone else who said (I'm paraphrasing) he had the feeling that Erik Larson really wanted to write a book about the World's Fair, but knew the subject was basically a snooze-fest, so he ham-fisted Holmes's story into the narrative to make the plot sound more exciting. That is an accurate assessment, and it is so clear that the portions about the Fair are what Larson is really interested in.

It's not a bad book and I did enjoy it for what I learned from it, but it's not light reading. I actually listened to the audio version and this probably was the only reason I was able to finish the book. The guy who read it has a really good narrative voice and I was a captive audience when driving, running, and walking my dogs. This meant I couldn't really make excuses for not finishing it, like I almost certainly would have done if I had been reading the text version. Overall, I'm glad I read it, but I wasn't chomping at the bit to get back to it each day.

Favorite part: I was pretty excited to learn about Frederick Law Olmsted, the father of landscape architecture and designer of many, many famous public and private parks. He was from Boston and he designed Forest Park in Springfield, Massachusetts! Growing up in western Mass, I always heard that Forest Park was pretty glorious in its heyday, and I just think it's so cool that it was designed by the creative mind behind Central Park and the landscape architect of the 1898 World's Fair.

Least favorite part: The parts about Carter Harrison and Patrick Prendergast only seemed related to the rest of the story by the thinnest thread and I don't think they really needed to be in there.

[SPOILER] Also, one of the few scenes in the book where Larson takes some creative license and imagines how one of Holmes's killings went down happened when Holmes killed his wife's sister. Reading about her terror at realizing what was happening was heartbreaking.

My grade: B-

Who would I recommend it to: Urban planning and/or architecture nerds, or Chicago history enthusiasts.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Book Review: Shadow of Night and Book of Life

Note: I've got very minor spoilers in here. I'll call them out before you get there, but just be aware.

Shadow of Night and Book of Life by Deborah Harkness
I feel kind of bad writing this negative review because I've seen interviews with the author and she seems really fun and nice, someone I'd like to sit and have a glass of wine with. I should also note that my mother-in-law devoured these books and there is a huge cult following surrounding them, so I may be all alone in disliking the series. But these books, the second and third in the All Souls trilogy, are not for me. I cannot explain why I stuck with and finished them (I read the first book, A Discovery of Witches, over a year ago).

Plot: Diana, a modern witch who doesn't want to use her magic, meets and falls in love with Matthew, a 1500-year old vampire who is super handsome and rich and possessive and has anger issues. It's adult Twilight except the main character is a little less bump-on-a-log (but still pretty ridiculous). There's time travel, a lot of very over-wrought dialogue, and an insane number of near-death experiences. And there are a ton of historical references.

Thoughts: The historical references border on the ridiculous, really. Harkness is an admitted history nerd (and a history professor I think?). It felt like she was worried that she'd never get the opportunity to write another book, so she crammed EVERY.SINGLE. western European and a bunch of early American historical events and characters into these volumes. A lot of it takes place in England and France, which I really like. Maybe that's what kept me going.

Favorite part: [SPOILERS] Meh, I don't know. Maybe the part where Gallowglass tells Diana he loves her, even though that's kind of sad. Or the parts with Chris and Miriam; those are pretty cute.

Least favorite part: Anything involving Benjamin. Or the ridiculous part where she springs on her library colleague that she's a witch and is going to magick some of the priceless, ancient documents she's sorting through. Or any scene involving the awkward and stilted dialogue between Diana and Matthew.

My grade: C+ for Shadow of Night, C- for Book of Life

Who would I recommend it to
: Fans of witch / vampire fiction (Practical Magic, Twilight, things like that) who are also into modern European history, read fast (these books are long) and don't mind really overly dramatic writing. 

Sunday, March 27, 2016

San Antonio Sights: The Pearl

The Pearl is an old brewery near downtown San Antonio (they used to brew....wait for it...Pearl Beer). It is now a mixed-use shopping, dining, and residential development along the San Antonio River and it's awesome.


Chris and I went there when we first came down here last year, but we went back in February with Bob and Pam after visiting a couple of the nearby Missions.

We ate at La Gloria, a Mexican restaurant with cool steel sculptures out front, reminiscent of Mexican folk art. The food was ok. I'd like to go back and try a different dish than the "Mexican pizza" I tried that was really just a big tostada loaded down with way too much shredded lettuce. The patio seating is awesome, though, because it's right on the river and it's dog friendly.

We then got delicious ice cream at Lick. It's based out of Austin, but they have a store at The Pearl. The ice cream was extremely expensive, but super tasty. I'd say worth it because you don't have ice cream of this caliber every day.

Monday, March 7, 2016

Hill Country Sights: Bandera

This is a post coming at you almost 6 months late! I've been reluctant to spend time uploading photos, but I finally got a little un-lazy. Way back in October 2015, we went out to Bandera, Texas with our friends Bob and Pam. Bandera, a small town northwest of San Antonio, is the self-proclaimed "Cowboy Capital of the World."

So we saw cowboys (and Bob got to play dress up with them!). Surprisingly (to me at least) there were tons of international visitors. At the cowboy show, we were practically the only people from Texas. There was a family from Sweden and a huge group of Brits, plus Americans from Arizona.

We saw some extremely classy bars...

And even snuck in a bit of culture, passing by their pretty courthouse (Bandera is the county seat of Bandera County) before eating comfort food at the Old Spanish Trail Restaurant.

Oh, and of course, there was a horse "parked" on the street with the motorcycles. Because, Texas.

It was a fun day.