Book Review: Windhall by Barry

Windhall : A Novel by Ava Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Everyone loves a beautiful dead girl.”

Windhall is a novel about Hollywood, the way men treat women, fame, obsession, and Los Angeles. Hailey is an antisocial journalist at a counterculture zine turned blog (I think) in LA. He is obsessed with the decades old murder of a Hollywood star at the home of an infamous director. His obsession weaves in with his own family’s story, as well as the DNA of modern day Los Angeles. It’s hard for him to separate the glamour and allure of the city with the facts, and isn’t that the point of Hollywood?

While Hailey is obsessed with the historical murder, the mansion where it occurred is not much more than a tour-bus destination these days. However, all of that changes when someone murders two women at the foot of the mansion. The murders grab the city’s attention, and some of the players aren’t as keen as others to be back in front of the public’s eye. Hailey finds himself simultaneously drawn closer to the truth and repelled from the few friends he has.

If you like the following in at least some combination, I think you will probably like this book: Sunset Boulevard AND The Lady from the Black Lagoon AND neo-noir AND true crime podcasts. If those things are your jam – this would be a fun read for you.

By the way, I was curious about the author’s association with Los Angeles and the movie industry, and it looks like Ms Barry used to read scripts and work for Francis Ford Coppola’s magazine Zoetrope. I hope she continues writing about these themes because this was a fun read.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Camino Island by Grisham

Camino Island by John Grisham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The wildest thing about this John Grisham book is that it’s not about lawyers. Our man John instead focuses on writers, books, heists, and French furntiure. It’s a welcome and pleasant departure for the reader as much as I’m sure it is for Grisham. It’s a fun little novel that would probably make a nice little Netflix limited run series. Or Paramount+, mayhaps. If you like fun but relaxing beach reads with a little bit of danger and sexiness – here you go.

Mercer is a middling author stuck teaching English as an adjunct. When her adjunct contract isn’t renewed, she hits a new low point. What’s next? Finally get back to writing – find another teaching job – something else? Before Mercer can make a decision one is made for her. The myterious disappearance of several Fitzgerald manuscripts from Princeton’s library means that the feds and insurers for the ultra-rich need an inside (wo)man to infiltrate the world of shady black market book deals. Mercer is thrown fistfuls of money to take on that role, and then she’s thrown onto the shores of a lazy southeastern beachtown called Camino Island. As Mercer ingratiates herself into the local writer community, she becomes torn between making real friends and making real money.

The mystery itself is fine, but the book is most interesting when Camino Island’s little writing community is talking about the woes of writing, their love for books, and how annoying it is that romance sells so well. I’m not a Grisham expert, but I’m not sure if he’s written so much before about the quirks and frustrations and anxieties of writing. January Lavoy reads the audiobook and her excellent southern accent for Mercer reminded me a lot of young Andie McDowell. So if you like beaches, writerly nerouses, or Andie McDowell – this is one you can reserve at the library!

View all my reviews

Book Review: Charming as a Verb by Philippe

Charming as a Verb by Ben Philippe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I started this book I wasn’t sure how long I would continue reading. A teenage guy with a lot of swagger talking about “the hustle” and “the hunger” for making it – not really what I’m into. However, Ben Philippe’s charming novel and character are not what they seem on the surface – that’s the whole point of this enjoyable read.

Charming as a Verb is about first-generation Haitian-American Henry Haltiwanger. He lives on the Upper West side of NYC where his dad is the building super and his mom is a firefighter. His family isn’t wealthy by any means, but he attends a prestigious private school called the FATE Academy and he has his sights set on Columbia University.

Henry’s family isn’t rich by any means, and as the cover indicates Henry helps add to the family purse by walking dogs on behalf on one of those dog-walking company apps. One of the dogs he walks belongs to the family of the very “intense” Corinne Troy. The Troys live in the same building as the Haltiwangers, and Corinne goes to the FATE Academy with Henry. However, they run in different circles, to say the least. Henry is handsome, popular, and “charming as a verb.” Corinne is something of a tightly-wound loner. She doesn’t really have a place.

However, through a twist of fate Corinne discovers a (not very dark) secret that Henry doesn’t want coming out. She blackmails him and pulls a kind of reverse-10-Things-I-Hate About You – she won’t tell the secret if Henry helps her to develop a social life.

It sounds like a typical YA rom-com book on the surface, but the book is much more about what it’s like to be a Black teenager and professional trying to make it in a world where one’s presence isn’t exactly welcomed. The book uses the term O Generation, meaning exception like Oprah or Obama. I wasn’t familiar with the term until reading the book, but author Ben Philippe does a great job of helping the reader that Black teens must feel to be exceptional just to fit in, as well as the unique pressure and worldviews of first-gen Americans.

I’d recommend this book to anyone. (Just a quick heads up that there’s some swearing if you listen to the audiobook with your kids.)

Many thanks to Libro.fm and the publisher for providing me with a free audiobook listening copy of this novel because I’m an educator.

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Last Colony by Scalzi

The Last Colony by John Scalzi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reviewing books in the middle of a series is always tricky because, by definition, spoilers are inherent. The fact that the the cover of this book says it’s a sequel to Old Man’s War and The Ghost Brigades already gives away certain information about the plot, let alone the back cover summary. All that aside, I will try to just give the bare bones of this plot along with this statement of the trilogy – it’s a fun, entertaining, and satisfying series. Now, to The Last Colony.

This novel comes in at over 300 pages but was a quick and entertaining read. The Colonial Union, in classic action movie fashion, brings some hardcore military legends out of retirement for One Last Mission. This time, though, the glory isn’t on the battlefield but in the soul-crushing and mundane monotony of civil service. The legends are charged with helping to install a new human colony on a hospitable planet out amongst the stars. Why the military leaders for the role? Because other alien races aren’t too keen on human expansion. While the planet is hospitable for human live, the political climate may not be. The legends agree to One Last Mission, but quickly find that civil service life includes its own minefields. They have to navigate treacherous political waters amongst the various factions looking to join the colony, not to mention Colonial Union politics and, of course, actually creating a colony.

The book works for a lot of reasons – it’s smart and expansive without being as serious or Very Important as Dune or Foundation. Since it’s the third part of a trilogy, at least some of the characters are old friends by now. The reader is invested in their lives and fates. Plus, Scalzi is great at writing funny lines without dissolving the story into a quip-fest (I think he is less good at walking that line in other series.)

If you read Old Man’s War and enjoyed it, finish out the trilogy! I haven’t read the other books in the series, though, so I can’t vouch for those. I believe there are six total.

View all my reviews

Book Review: James Bond in VARGR by Ellis

James Bond, Vol. 1: VARGR by Warren Ellis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

My local library allows us to roam the shelves in thirty-minute increments, in limited numbers. It was recently my turn. For the first time in over a year I was able to take my time browsing the graphic novel collections (we have one in the general fiction section and one for teens). To my surprise, the library had acquired several new-to-me selections. The first one I grade was James Bond in VARGR. I’m a Bond fan and also a fan of spy comics; some of my favorites being Velvet, the fantastic Dark Horse Star Wars Agent of the Empire series.

Ellis’ James Bond book is set in contemporary times, but Bond is still young(ish). However, he is something of a goofy and respected legend in the spy world. His colleagues make fun of his silly tiny gun, his smoking habits, and the general sauveness that doesn’t have much of a place in what is essentially a desk job these days. However, his very particular set of skills turns out to be needed when a bizarre illicit drug makes its way into London and starts doing weird stuff to those who taking it. Bond uncovers a wider and more sinister plot – one only he can stop. It’s a fun book with clean art!

P.S. Veteran Goodreaders may remember that I’ve read and reviewed all of Ian Fleming’s original Bond books, with my favorites being Casino Royale, Moonraker (notoriously hit or miss for fans); and maybe The Spy Who Loved Me and You Only Live Twice, depending on the day.) You can track down those reviews on this site.

View all my reviews

Book Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Towles

A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was an audiobook listen for me, narrated by the wonderful Nicholas Guy Smith. It was also something of a journey. It took me most of 2020 and a month of 2021 to finish this fine novel. It took me so long not because it was a chore to listen, but precisely because it was a great story. It takes time to make sense of those.

It was a great read for last year because of both plot and theme. The plot’s connection to 2020 is immediately obvious – a man is sentenced to permanent house arrest in his own home. Many of us were also forced into isolation and removed from the freedom of movement that we took for granted. That’s relatable, but not necessarily compelling or desirable in a story right now. However, what the protagonist does with his situation is what inspires and emboldens the reader.

Count Alexander Rostov is a Russian aristocrat and jovial fellow, found wanting by the Bolsheviks (hence the house arrest). He’s forced to live in the Metropol Hotel. However, Rostov is the titular gentleman. The label doesn’t come from his wealth or family but from his character. There’s a sort of magnetic pull to his good nature, his manners (the purpose of which the Post family explains are to show care for others’ well-being), and his polite but stubborn refusal to let circumstances dictate his behavior.

There were plenty of times in 2020 when I wondered whether it was worth it or not to continue my social distancing when so many weren’t, or to let my words and actions devolve to match that seen from many national leaders, or to just give up altogether. Count Rostov is a beacon to the idea that “by the smallest of actions one can restore some order in the world.”

View all my reviews

Book Review: A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson

A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder by Holly Jackson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’m not sneaking up on anybody by reading and reviewing Holly Jackson’s A Good Girl’s Guide to Murder. It was definitely one of the most talked-about books of 2020, it’s going to be a series, and it even made Goodreads’ Best of YA fiction finalist list. Even with all of the accolades it was one I missed – you just can’t get to everything, after all.

Luckily for me, my wife short-listed this as one of my must-reads for 2021. (I’ve got five or six more on the list that I’ll be reading and reviewing over the coming months.) I am glad I got to read this one. It’s an exciting mix of modern dark suburban mystery flavored with a little bit of Veronica Mars.

The characters aren’t as interesting as Rob Thomas’ V Mars characters (well, maybe the lackluster season three ones), but it’s got that teenagers-solving-real-crimes thing, weird family dynamics, and some occasionally witty characters. However, it’s definitely more plot-driven than character driven. That’s probably a plus instead of a minus for many mystery readers.

The plot starts a little too closely to one of the Serial podcast’s real-world case for me, but it quickly moves away from the dead girlfriend-suspect boyfriend dynamic. It evolves into its own mystery quickly. While it’s nearly 400 pages, it’s a pretty quick read. Jackson does a great job of planting clues and red herrings all over the place. There were several times I was positive I solved the case, but I was never quite right. However, I do think it’s a solvable book and I think Jackson is fair and consistent with her clues.

As a mystery fan who doesn’t like thing too dark, I’ll definitely be happy to return to this series.

View all my reviews

Book Review: Life of the Beloved by Nouwen

Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World by Henri J.M. Nouwen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nouwen is one of my favourite Christian writers – simultaneously mystical, transcendent, encouraging, and practical. This isn’t at the top of my list of his books. However, it may be just the right book for someone struggling with finding worth, identity, or hope in dark times.

The genesis of this one is interesting – Nouwen was an already well-known writer and figure and was chosen to be profiled by a local paper. The local reporter obviously had very little interest in either Nouwen or the writing project, and so the conversation during the interview went in interesting directions. The interview flipped, in a way, and Nouwen was asking the writer about his own hopes and dreams. That weird meet-cute led to a long friendship between the two men – Nouwen a Christian mystic and Fred Bratman a Jewish secular writer. This book is an attempt by Nouwn to “write a book explaining the spiritual life in terms that [Bratman] and his friends could understand.”

The epilogue indicates the book was unsuccessful, much to the disappointment of Nouwen. While the book avoids a lot of explicit theology and technical church language, it did seem to remain unknowable to Bratman. The latter remarked that some basic questions still needed to be answered before the book would make any sense, whether or not the theology was only implicit. Nouwen eventually decided to publish the book because others found the manuscript useful.

The short book is broken into six sections – becoming the “beloved” (a being God loves no matter what), and what that practically means: being taken (chosen), blessed, broken, and given. If you’re familiar with church, those words may ring a bell. Nouwen compares being God’s to being like Jesus – to being like Communion for the world.

What I enjoyed the most in this book was Nouwen’s easy contemplation of death. A true mystic, the lines between heaven and earth, life and death, pain and joy – they’re all blurred and eventually just part of one whole. A very useful take for someone like me with thanatophobia.

Favourite quotes:

“The blessings that we give to each other are expressions of the blessing that rests on us from all eternity.”

“We often live as if our happiness depended on having. But I don’t know anyone who is really happy because of what he or she has. True joy, happiness, and inner peace come from the giving of ourselves to others. A happy life is a life for others.”

3.4/5

View all my reviews

Book Review: The Honor of the Queen by Weber

The Honor of the Queen by David Weber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Honor of the Queen is David Weber’s second installment in the Honor Harrington series. This military sci-fi series takes the Horatio Hornblower-type naval battle stories and places them hundreds of years in the future, as well as in spaaaaace. I reviewed the first book in the series several T-years ago, if you’re interested.

In this book, Honor is leading a ship on a diplomatic mission/proxy war front to an area populated by separatist groups called the Masadans and Graysons. These two splinter groups are sort of like the pilgrims coming to North America, or the religious zealots escaping earth in the new(ish) HBO series “Raised by Wolves.” They have issues with mainstream humanity’s ethics, related to tech or morals, and so they’ve separated themselves in new worlds. In particular, both groups are opposed to women in leadership roles (to varying degrees). Unfortunately for the Masadans and Graysons, they’ve relocated to a place now of tactical importance to Honor Harrington’s Manticoran nation, as well as their enemies, the Havenites. Therefore, it’s a cold war/proxy war in the vacuum of space, complicated by both sides’ views on women and theories of security and expansion.

The book excels in quickly explaining what are essentially naval tactics and play-by-plays in various battles. I’m no naval expert, but I was able to feel like I was in the middle of things and understood each broadside attack. The writing itself is more workmanlike than gorgeous. Don’t look for passages to highlights or insights into the human condition. Nonetheless, it was an enjoyable read. I expect I’ll return the Honorverse again when the time is right!

I also want to include a trigger warning related to sexual violence. As mentioned above, the book is about Manticore and Haven’s interaction with misogynistic societies. As is the case in real life, such societies produce horrific results. Be aware those kinds of discussions occur in this book.

3.5/5

View all my reviews

Book Review: Run with the Horses by Peterson

Run with the Horses: The Quest for Life at Its Best by Eugene H. Peterson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Faith invades the muddle; it does not eliminate it…clarities come from adventuring deep into the mysteries of God’s will and love, not by cautiously managing and moralizing.”

This is a lembas-bread-book for a couple of reasons. It’s dense and nourishing, which means it’s good. However, it’s dense and nourishing, which means it’s best absorbed in small bites. That’s mostly why it took me so long to finish this relatively short book. The other reason is the subject – this book is Eugene Peterson’s reflection on the life of the prophet Jeremiah – a person surrounded by impending calamity his whole life. Very appropriate for 2020. I should note that I read the second edition, which Peterson published in 2009 when he was in his late 70s. (He died about ten years later.)

Some of the key lessons I learned:

PERSISTENCE. Peterson spends a lot of time exploring the context of Jeremiah’s life, and how he spent decades preaching a message that fell on deaf ears. Trying to do good over a long period of time in the face of futility is a useful lesson for those of us feeling overwhelmed in 2020.

BE HERE NOW. Just as Jeremiah didn’t give up, he stayed engaged in sharing his prophetic message with his culture. He didn’t check out or only look to some future time. He very much existed in the middle of things and amongst real people. He was present, not apart from the world.

AMBIGUITY IS NORMAL. Jeremiah never got a clear win. It wasn’t outwardly obvious that his life was worthwhile. In fact, contemporary histories indicate he was killed by his own people after exile to Egypt. Is that success? Was it worth it? It’s a good reminder that we can’t always know the true fruits of our labor. A sub-piece of this is Peterson’s exploration of the mystery and otherness of God. While Jeremiah was close to God, he could never fully know the plans of God or why things unfolded as they did. Jeremiah doubted himself and God but never left. Something kept him going.

In a weird way, this book reminded me of some of Leonard Cohen’s later collections of poems – someone looking back on their lives and trying to make sense of it all. What I appreciated most from Peterson was his humble honesty and his comfort with ambiguity in his old age. Nonetheless, he seemed more convicted than ever that a life of faith was worthwhile.

View all my reviews