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Spark Reviews

Book reviews by the Portage District Library as featured in the monthly local magazine, SW Michigan Spark.

November 2014

Ancillary Justice
by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice is the first of a trilogy by Ann Leckie. Breq, its main character, is an artificial intelligence in a human body called an ancillary. Formerly part of a larger number of ancillaries and a ship constituting one being, Breq sets out on a personal quest for vengeance after an act of treachery destroys her ship and her other ancillaries. The author does a great job putting the reader in the mind of a very human-like artificial intelligence with all the emotions and thought patterns of a regular person, without sounding hokey. This is a splendid debut that is well worth the read


My Real Children
by Jo Walton

Have you ever wondered how your life would have changed if you had made one different choice? Jo Walton explores this very thought in her latest novel, My Real Children. Patricia Cowan has lived a very long life, and now that her life is near its end, she can recall two very distinct lives, one where she has three children and one where she has four. As she reflects on her life she can pinpoint the split came when she had to make a choice to marry her fiancé Mark or not.

This book reads easily but the writing is sophisticated. This book will touch your life.


Mr. Churchill’s Secretary
by Susan MacNeal

This riveting historical mystery captures the drama of London in 1940. Winston Churchill has just been sworn in, war rages across the Channel, a Blitz looms larger by the day, and there is a threat of betrayal and treachery from within the highest ranks. Despite her dexterity as a math wiz and because of her gender, Maggie Hope qualifies only to be a typist at No. 10 Downing Street, but it gives her the knowledge she needs to unravel a deadly plot to assassinate Mr. Churchill and destroy the will and confidence of the London people. Her courage to seek out factions even within her acquaintances who want England destroyed and her remarkable gifts for cod breaking expose her to a father she thought was killed years ago in a car accident. Susan MacNeal draws the reader into the constant fear and struggle to maintain an “ordinary life” which Londoners balanced. She revealed Churchill’s gruff and soft sides and created a determined, unwavering character in Maggie Hope who we will continue to root for in MacNeal’s succeeding novels.


October 2014

An Irish Country Village
by Patrick Taylor

This novel is the second of seven warm and enchanting novels taking place in the colorful Northern Ireland community of Ballybucklebo. Dr. O’Reilly has offered Dr. Laverty to become a partner in his practice. Dr. Laverty is becoming comfortable in the quaint town of Ballybucklebo, and his relationship with Patricia finds him head over heels “in love.” Both doctors and Mrs. Kinky Kinkaid who keeps the household buzzing and delicious smells coming from the kitchen live like an everyday family with their nasty, white cat named Lady Macbeth; and Arthur Guinness, the beer drinking, wellington boots stealing, lab.

When the sudden death of a patient casts a cloud over Barry’s reputation, however, his chances of establishing himself in the village are endangered, especially since the grieving widow is threatening a lawsuit. While he anxiously waits for the postmortem results that he prays will exonerate him, Barry must regain the trust of the gossipy Ulster village, one patient at a time. Meanwhile, Ballybucklebo provides plenty of cases to keep the two country G.P.s busy.


V-S Day
by Allen Steele

What would have happened if the race to space had happened during World War II? V-S Day is set in the present and past and tells of a story that might have been. German scientist, Wernher von Braun is ordered by Hitler to abandon his research on the V-2 rocket and instead develop a manned spacecraft capable of attacking the United States. British intelligence agents discover this plan and inform President Roosevelt in hopes the U.S. can start its own program and beat the Germans at their own game. Robert Goddard, inventor of the liquid-fuel rocket, heads the U.S. program and the race between two secret military programs and two brilliant scientists takes off. If you like a swift and captivating storyline, action and intrigue, and a whole lot of fun, then read this. V-S Day is a great addition to the Alternative History genre.


The House Girl: a Novel
by Tara Conklin

Josephine, a house slave on a Virginia tobacco farm, finally snaps one day when the Mister hits her in the face without warning or reason. The voice within her says “Run,” and she begins to plan her escape via the underground railroad. Despite the fact that she has a beetter life than most slaves, assigned mainly to Missus Lu, an aspiring artist, who teaches Josephine to read and paint, the precarious life she sees ahead of her as the Missus dies and the Mister disintegrates is unbearable, and she begins to plan.

Lina Sparrow aspires to become partner at a prestigious law firm, when her managing partner comes to her with a case rought to them by one of their most lucrative clients — a class-action suit for raparations for the descendants of slaves. Her job is to find a compelling slave story with traceable descendants who can be the face of the suit. As she begins to dig through records from historical societies, her artist father brings to her attention an arts page detailing a controversy over whether certain works attributed to the antebellum artist Lu Anne Bell might have been in actuality painted by a house girl. If Lina can trace this, and if there are descendants, this could be just what she needs.


September 2014

Delicious!
by Ruth Reichl

Ruth Reichl is known for her restaurant reviews and culinary memoirs. Tender at the Bone, Comfort Me With Apples, Garlic and Sapphires—all exhibit prose to make a foodie’s mouth water and character descriptions to pique a voyeur’s interest. In her first attempt at fiction, these attributes are still present: an expansive, somewhat obsessive cheese shop owner, a gorgeous, immensely talented chef, and a flamboyant travel editor are among the personages. Billie, the protagonist, goes to work as the assistant to the editor of Delicious! magazine, and her experiences there are what Reichl fans would hope. Then the publication shuts down and she remains the only employee—there to answer reader letters in the deserted mansion that was the magazine’s headquarters. In a search of the archives, she stumbles across a file containing the wartime letters of a young girl to James Beard, who worked at Delicious! at the time. Intrigued, Billie tries to learn more about Lulu’s eventual fate, at the same time that a dark secret in Billie’s past begin to surface. Bildungsroman and culinary travelogue, this book is a treat for Reichl fans.


The Tiger’s Wife
by Téa Obreht

Obreht, the youngest of The New Yorker’s twenty best American fiction writers under forty, has written a timeless tale finely textured with family legends, superstitions, secrets, and the loves and loss of war. The stories take place in a Balkan country mending from years of conflict. Natalia, a young doctor, arrives at an orphanage with her lifelong friend Zóra and begins to inoculate the children. When they try to nurse village children who are suffering from what appears to be tuberculosis, she feels age-old superstitions and resistance pushing against her.

Natalia is also searching for the reason her grandfather, suffering from cancer, set off for a small rundown settlement no one in the family knew about and died alone. Grieving for her grandfather and searching for clues, she turns to the stories he told her when she was a child from a worn copy of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book, which he was never without. He told her stories of his own encounters over many years with “the deathless man,” a vagabond who claimed to be immortal and appeared never to age. But the most extraordinary story was of the escaped tiger from a bombed out zoo who hid near his home town in the mountains and the deaf mute girl who sheltered and fed him and became known as the tiger’s wife. The rest of the story Natalia must discover for herself.


Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking
by Susan Cain

There’s an old saying about trying to put a round peg into a square hole and the waste of energy such an activity causes. Susan Caines’ Quiet illustrates how many American institutions, from schools to boardrooms, have done it for decades. How society can sometimes seem to idealize the center-of-attention, go-for-broke extrovert while making introverts feel as though they are broken and need to be fixed. She does not talk down to extroverts or introverts however, but seeks to explain the best ways for each to shine according to their strengths. How in one situation one may want a go for broke attitude whereas in another a more thoughtful approach is required. By using poignant personal examples, neurological and psychological studies, and current business literature, she reveals how introverts think and interact with the world. She goes into detail about how some of the most inspirational people of our day, far from being the center of the party, held a quiet strength that was not to be belittled. People like Gandhi and Rosa Parks who were able to put themselves forward in defense of their ideals. For people who want a comprehensive look at the mental worlds of the introvert and advice about how to succeed in an extrovert world while being true to oneself this book is for you. If you want to understand introverts and how they are helpful in various business and other settings, this book is for you. If you just want to understand people and how to better appreciate them, this book is for you. Essentially this highly readable book could be helpful to anyone who wants go beyond the misconceptions of what we’re told into a deeper understanding of the human psyche.


August 2014

At Home: A Short History of Private Life
by Bill Bryson

In At Home, Bryson, best selling author of A Walk in the Woods, answers the questions about private life: like why are pepper and salt are on every table instead of cardamom and nutmeg; why do we say room and board; why do forks have four tines. In order to answer these questions Bryson, who lives in a 150-year-old rectory in Norfolk, England, that “reeks of history”, decided to meander from room to room in his house and consider why each space was designed and maintained as it was and how it has evolved.

The book is, as he describes, “a history of the world without leaving home,” taking us on a journey through the invention of the telephone to toilets; the Eiffel Tower to lawn mowers; whale oil to electric lighting; and Longhouses to hoop skirts. It is a fact filled romp through our private and social history and proof that “Houses aren’t refuges from history. They are where history ends up.”


The Martian
by Andy Weir

In Andy Weir’s The Martian, Mark Watney is left for dead on Mars, but here’s the real kicker: he’s not. Now he is alone, on a planet that is not suited for human life, having no way to communicate with Earth. But Mark has one thing going for him: he’s smart. Smart enough to create communications, food and air long enough for a rescue? No spoilers here, you will have to find out by reading the book. This first novel by Weir is excellent. The reader has a genuine connection with Watney, and you will find yourself actually laughing out loud with his wit and cheering for him to survive. If you liked Gravity or Castaway, you will love this book.


The Outsmarting of Criminals: A Mystery Introducing Miss Felicity Prim
by Steven Rigolosi

After an attempted mugging, Miss Felicity Prim has had enough of her beloved New York City—even to the point of considering quitting her job of 30 years and giving up her spacious rent-controlled apartment in favor of moving to a cottage in bucolic Greenfield, Connecticut. Since she will no longer be the mainstay of the medical offices of Dr. Amos Poe, she will have the opportunity to pursue a new avocation—criminal outsmarter. She has read extensively and knows that she has what it takes to become a sleuth there. She is somewhat taken aback when her opportunity to use these skills occurs during move-in, when she discovers a corpse in the basement of her new home. From then on the search for the murderer and the corpse’s identity is on, as the Miss Marple of Greenfield gets to know the local townspeople, accompanied by Bruno, her boxer. The book is both an old school mystery novel and a terrific homage to the genre.


July 2014

Keep Calm and Carry a Big Drink
by Kim Gruenenfelder

The third of a group of novels that started with Misery Loves Cabernet and continued with There’s Cake in My Future, this book is an excellent exemplar of the chick lit genus, bridesmaid angst species. It begins as Melissa, a perpetually almost-laid-off math teacher, attends the wedding of Seema, one of her two best friends, and gets back in touch with Seema’s unbelievably hot brother Jay. Since Melissa is now the only one of the three best friends yet unmarried, she feels some pressure to make her time with her college roommate’s brother, a long term crush, into a happy-ever-after. Of course, the course of love ne’er did run smooth, and Melissa starts re-evaluating her childhood dreams of where she should be right now versus what is meaningful for the 33 year old Mel. Read this with an accompaniment of tall, fruity rum drinks.


A Fine Romance: Falling in love with the English Countryside
by Susan Branch

A Fine Romance is a perfect fit for the armchair traveler. It could almost be described as a cozy graphic novel with Susan’s photos and drawings on almost every page. The book is a journal that Susan Branch kept when she and her husband Joe sailed on the Queen Mary 2 to England to see National Trust houses, gardens, churches, pubs, tearooms and even a circus. They travel through the Cotswolds, the Peak District and the Lake District, through hill and dale, through hedgerows and ancient footpaths. A few places they visit include homes of famous writers like Beatrix Potter, William Wordsworth and Jane Austen. They stop at friendly pubs and tearooms along the way, eating gingerbread here and drinking pear cider there. Susan also describes the celebration of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee while they were there, buntings and all. Driving on the other side of the road is one of the only challenges they face. The author scatters little sayings she has gathered throughout the book that make it charming.


Archetype
by M. D. Waters

It is guaranteed that you will not be able to put this book down. Expert, suspenseful writing entices the reader to figure out what is really happening with Emma. She has everything a woman could want: a loving and attentive husband, a private place where she can explore her creativity, and money. So why does she continue to have these disturbing dreams about another woman and her life of war, camps, and a different man? Once you think you have the plot figured out, Waters throws another twist in just to make it interesting. A must read for any fans of suspense, sci-fi, and dystopian themes.


June 2014

Dukes, Dukes, and more Dukes
by Kieran Kramer

You need more Dukes? You have been through the Cynsters and are clamoring for more? Kieran Kramer is an author to take a look at. Her two series,_ Impossible Bachelors_ (When Harry Met Molly; Dukes to the Left of Me, Princes to the Right; Cloudy With A Chance Of Marriage; If You Give a Girl a Viscount) and House of Brady (Loving Lady Marcia; The Earl is Mine; Say Yes to the Duke; and The Earl with the Secret Tattoo) combine lush drawing rooms and sexy dukes with a sprinkling of the wit and contretemps out of a Georgette Heyer novel.

In Dukes to the Left of Me, Princes to the Right, Lady Poppy Smith-Barnes has sworn she will only marry for love, and to ward off her last 12 proposals, she has told them of her soon-to-be-announced engagement to the Earl of Drummond. He is a figment, so she thinks, of her Cook’s imagination, so she is safe. Imagine her consternation when Nicholas Staunton, Earl of Drummond, appears at a ball, armed with a mandate to become leg-shackled immediately so as to escape the public scrutiny that an “Impossible Bachelor” receives, attention that interferes with his work as a spy for His Majesty.

Neither of the two can be described as other than willful or magnetic, so the ensuing contredans is spark-filled and entertaining. Complications are introduced by a pair of Russian royal twin siblings, brother chasing Poppy while the sister stalks Nicholas. A fun romp.


The Doctor and the Dinosaurs: A Weird West Tale
by Mike Resnick

Mixing the Western with Steampunk, author, Mike Resnick creates a fun read of the Old West. Doc Holliday is given an extra year to live as long as he can stop two paleontologists, Edward Drinker Cope and Orthniel Charles Marsh, from digging in Comanche burial grounds. The threat is that the Comanche medicine man will resurrect the very dinosaurs Cope and Marsh are trying to discover and devour anything or anyone getting in their way. On his way, Holliday runs into his old friend, Theodore Roosevelt who can’t resist the adventure and joins Holliday on his quest.

While The Doctor and the Dinosaurs seems like a stretch at first, Resnick draws the reader into the story with his writing style and never lets go until the finale. Anyone who likes Westerns or Steampunk will be treated with an entertaining story.


Lillian and Dash
by Sam Toperoff

This novel explores the private and perhaps unknowable aspects of Dashiell Hammett, author of The Maltese Falcon and The Thin Man series, and Lillian Hellman who penned the plays Little Foxes and The Children’s Hour. Hammett and Hellman’s relationship evolves over three decades during Hollywood’s heyday, the New York literary scene, the Spanish Civil War, McCarthyism, and both world wars. Toperoff reimagines the ecstatic attraction and often emptiness of a fast-living, hard-drinking, creatively brilliant literary couple through their individual passions, politics, and literary creations. We experience the highs and lows of their popularity, literary masterpieces, political activism during world wars, the Spanish Civil War and later the McCarthy witch hunts.

As often happens in novels taken from actual lives, truth and fiction get twisted together. What one hopes to garner is a sense of who the characters and actual historical figures were and what it was like to live when they did. In the case of Lillian and Dash, Depression-era Hollywood through Hammett’s burial in Arlington National Cemetery in early 1961 is depicted intimately. Through letters, dialog, and narrative we feel the ups and downs of this tumultuous time mirrored in Lillian and Dash’s conflict-ridden, tenacious and nurturing relationship.


April 2014

The Girl You Left Behind
by Jojo Moyes

It’s 1916. Occupied France. The village of St. Peronne is in hard times, battling shortages, hunger, and missing the men who are away at the front. .Sophie Lefevre, whose artist husband Edouard is in the army, must keep her family together at the small inn and bar which has been chosen as the eating venue for German forces occupying the town. Their Kommandant becomes obsessed with a portrait Edouard painted of Sophie – and of its subject. Meanwhile, the townspeople are ready to stone anyone who might be guilty of the slightest sympathies toward the hated Germans. All Sophie wants is to get through this with her family intact and a chance to see Edouard again.

2006. London. One of the last things Liv Halston’s husband gave her before he died is a painting of a spirited young Frenchwoman. Her apartment is shown in a magazine and heirs of the Lefevre family say that this picture is something stolen by the Germans and thus they are the leal owners. Is tthis true? What is the story behind how it came to be in David Halston’s possession? What happened to Sophie, to Eduoard, and to the painting almost a century ago?

This novel is gripping in its depiction of the fears and horrors of wartime, the emptiness of bereavement, and the pain of loss. Both periods are convincingly portrayed, so that the reader travels back in forth in time, viscerally feeling the surroundings and the emotions of the two protagonists.


Lions of Lucerne
by Brad Thor

“On the snow-covered slopes of Utah, the unthinkable has just become a nightmarish reality: thirty Secret Service agents have been viciously executed and the vacationing president of the United States is kidnapped by one of the most lethal terrorist organizations in the Middle East – the dreaded Fatah.” But was the Fatah really responsible? Scot Harvath doesn’t think so but must fight against his superiors and a shadowy cabal (who doesn’t like a powerful shadowy cabal for a bad guy?) as he runs around the world determined to make this right. This is the first book in a series starting one Scot Harvath as an ex-naval seal and current Secret Service agent thrust into world changing events. And the action isn’t just man made, there are some great scenes in subzero temperatures in the mountains of the U.S. and Switzerland.


Jeeves and the Wedding Bells
by Sebastian Faulks

Things get turned upside down in this “homage to P.G. Wodehouse” by Sebastian Faulks. Due to a little misunderstanding Wooster and Jeeves switch roles. Jeeves becomes a certain Lord Etringham and Bertie Wooster plays his personal gentleman. They are invited to Sir Henry Hackwood’s country house in Dorset, where Bertie reacquaints himself with the beautiful girl he met on the Cote D’Azur, Georgiana Meadows. Georgiana happens to be Sir Henry’s niece, who is marrying Rupert Venables, a man with the means to keep the stately home in the family. Bertie is enlisted to help his friend “Woody” Beeching win back his fiancee, Amelia, who is Sir Henry’s daughter. Hysterical antics ensue when Bertie, who is posing as the manservant Wilberforce, works to reconcile Amelia and woody. During an amateur production of a Midsummer’s Night Dream Bertie comes to the realization that he is indeed in love. Naturally Jeeves is able to work his magic behind the scenes and manipulate things to everyone’s advantage.

It reads like the script of an opera buffa, with all of the hilarious confusion that comes with characters playing someone other than themselves. In addition, Mr. Faulks has done a splendid job with the dialog between Jeeves and wooster. He has taken our beloved characters, Bertie and Jeeves, and brought them back to life! A most successful pastiche! If you need a laugh then Bertie Wooster is your man.


March 2014

The Silence of the Rain
by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza

It isn’t often that a mystery categorized as a hard-boiled police procedural turns out to be not only an edge of the seat page turner, but an insightful, psychological look at a complex society with layers of corruption, struggling lower classes, and strong, independent women surviving in male dominated society. The mystery takes place on the tropical beaches, elaborate but crumbling neighborhoods and modern glass skyscrapers of Rio de Janeiro.

We know some of the plot before the main character, Inspector Espinosa, but then it starts getting more complicated. Events gradually unfold through the thoughts and meandering “fantasies” or speculations of Espinosa. the plot interweaves petty thieves with good hearts, women with brains and beauty cold as a martini or spontaneous and attentive as a pet fox. Murder and suicide, disappearances and an abundance of red herrings abound so that no one can be trusted leaving Espinosa to gather all the loose strands together as he dodges bullets. The short chapters leave the reader dangling like Espinosa and make for a quick almost breathless read.

In real life Garcia-Roza is a Freudian psychoanalyst and a professor of philosphy and psychology at Brazil’s Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Silence of the Rain received the Nestle Prize for literary awards available in Latin America.


We Will Destroy Your Planet: An Alien’s Guide to Conquering the Earth
by David McIntee

Trying to conquer a world or even just doing some basic reconnaissance can be a tricky endeavor especially when that world is full of belligerent, free-willed humans. Thankfully, all aliens have David McIntee’s guide to conquering the Earth titled We Will Destroy Your Planet. This book is chock full of useful facts about Earth and many tips ranging from what vector to approach the Earth to the care and feeding of your humans.

McIntee combines an equal amount of fact and fiction seamlessly to pull the reader into this book. Some of the content, for the less scientific, can be heavy, but he quickly adds a popular science fiction reference so the reader is once again entertained enough to continue reading. The content is streamlined, flitting from subject to subject in a logical, smooth fashion.

Like any good reference book, it is engaging yet informational. It can be dry in places, but there is an underlying tone of humor that makes the actual lessons about space and the Earth feel like a well taught science class. There is just enough of the absurd to ensure that any astute reader will be able to distinguish fact from fiction. A very fun read for a day inside.


Death of the Red Heroine
by Qiu Xiaolong

Inspector Chen Cao of the Shanghai Police Bureau must solve his cases in the complex Chinese society of the 1990’s. The new capitalists are gaining prestige, yet the old order’s children are still on top of the social ladder and close to untouchable. So when it appears that one of them has murdered a young role model of the Communist Party, Chen has to face ethical and moral questions and the threat of losing his job in solving the case. Chen, a published poet and translator, infuses classical and modern Chinese poetry into his decision making. He also loves good food so we learn about Chinese cuisine as well as the elite privileged and back alley life of Shanghai.

Qiu Xiaolong grew up in Shanghai and has a Ph.D in Comparative Literature. He is an award winning poet and teaches Chinese Literature at Washington University.


All titles are available here at the Library.

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