Mini-Reviews: 24/6 and In the Woods

24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week by Tiffany Shlain

Are you addicted to your phone? Do you feel like your kids spend too much time on the computer or game console? Has your concentration, creativity, or sleep suffered compared to the days when you didn’t have a little computer in your pocket all the time? Do you stay awake past your bedtime watching endless episodes of your favorite show on Netflix? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then this book might be for you.

“Internet pioneer” (it says so on the jacket) Tiffany Shlain has made a very persuasive case for turning off screens for 24 hours during the week. Her family (husband and two kids) are Jewish and they practice a weekly “Technology Shabbat,” screen-free from Friday evening to Saturday evening. They begin the evening inviting people over for dinner, playing actual record albums on a record player, lingering over food and conversation to kick off every weekend. It sounds idyllic. Saturday begins with sleeping in, reading, writing in journals, even normal weekend activities like soccer games. She makes a plan beforehand, with phone numbers or directions written down on paper. (She does advocate the use of a landline telephone for emergencies.) After all, before cell phones we just consulted maps and planned meetings or outings beforehand, didn’t we?

In addition to telling her story, why she came to try this tradition, she goes into the science of unplugging from screens – what it does for your brain, sleep, stress levels, etc.

Though researchers don’t always agree on why sleep is so important, everyone concurs that it is. Sleep does so much for our bodies and brains. It’s when the pit crew comes in and gets everything ready for the next day.

One of the things that happens is a literal brainwash. While we’re asleep, our brains actually shrink in a process called “synaptic homeostasis.” This process makes room for the brain’s level of cerebrospinal fluid to rise dramatically, washing out the damaging proteins that have built up over a day of thinking. It also allows synapses, which grow and widen while the brain is awake and busy but cannot grow indefinitely, to return to their normal size.

At the end of the book she provides a guide to trying your own Tech Shabbat, with suggestions for activities broken down by age group and even a recipe for challah bread that her family often makes during their time. You can do yours any day that works for your family. She also included friends sharing their experiences trying the Tech Shabbat, what surprised them or challenged them. It’s a very practical book, and it’s quite short, so you could read it in an afternoon.

My family hasn’t gone so far as to commit to a full 24 hours of no screens, but for the past two weeks we’ve had “Tech-Free Time” on Sundays. For five hours we don’t use any screens at all. It might not sound like much, but it’s been a game-changer for me. We play outside, play board games or do puzzles, read, work on projects around the house, and just actually talk with one another without distractions. I feel so much more present, and time actually feels like it’s slowing down. I do leave my phone on in case of emergencies, as we don’t have a landline. But I don’t respond to texts and keep it away where I can’t see it. I keep a notepad for writing down things I need to look up or do online later. I am thinking we should try expanding our time. As Shlain writes, “You are the parent. You can make anything happen. ” I highly recommend this book if you feel like you or your family old benefit from screen-free time.                        ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

In the Woods by Tana French

I’ve been meaning to read Tana French for years. I finally did and I’m so glad! I was worried that the plot of this would be too disturbing, with kids going missing and/or murdered, but I found that I could handle it. (Is the steady diet of mysteries/thrillers/police procedurals finally toughening up my soul?) What I encountered here was lush, thoughtful, atmospheric writing, and a page turning plot as well. It reminded me of Donna Tartt’s Secret History, that sort of autumnal, almost elegiac feeling. The main character, Dublin Detective Rob Ryan, is the survivor of a horrific childhood incident, most of which he doesn’t remember. When a child turns up dead in the woods where Ryan was found twenty years previously, now the site of an archaeological dig and impending highway, he’s desperate not only to find the killer but to see if there’s a connection to his childhood trauma.

I loved the writing, found the characters credible and occasionally irritating in the way real humans can be, and was fascinated by the dual mysteries at the book’s center. I will definitely read more by Tana French.     ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Mini Reviews: Force of Nature by Jane Harper and Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi

As usual my reading pace is way ahead of my blog posting, so here are some quick mini reviews as I try to catch up!

Force of Nature by Jane Harper (Aaron Falk #2.) A solid, enjoyable, page-turning 9182oC-vCTLmystery. Federal Agent Aaron Falk and his partner Carmen are investigating money laundering when their informant goes missing in the Australian bush on a company-sponsored wilderness retreat. As she did in her debut, The Dry, Harper excels at atmosphere, with the dense mountain foliage and isolation of the setting practically becoming a character in the novel itself. I like that we get a little more of a glimpse into Aaron Falk’s past, specifically more of a focus on his fraught relationship with his late father. But there is still a lot to learn about Falk, and I’m still curious. I also think the light glimmer of a spark with his partner is intriguing. The specifics of the mystery plot are well-written, although perhaps one might have to suspend one’s disbelief a bit to buy the circumstances in which the woman goes missing. If you can do that, you will enjoy the second in this series. I look forward to the next one! Four Stars.

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi. How to describe this weird, magical book? I read this in earlyMr-Fox-Helen-Oyeyemi-Penguin April for my book group, although we were just able to meet last weekend to discuss. We all loved it. A riff on the Bluebeard fairy tale, if I had to summarize it briefly I’d say that Mr. Fox, an author, and his muse, the fictional (or is she?) Mary, write stories back and forth to one another. Mary wants Mr. Fox to stop writing misogynistic stories about women. Mr. Fox’s real-life wife, Daphne, is jealous of Mary and despairs about her marriage until she, too, begins writing herself into the story. I think that this book is about two things: the role of women in fiction and the challenges of vulnerable and equal romantic relationships. I’m not sure which one Oyeyemi is really emphasizing. But what resonated with me more was the love story between Mr. Fox and Daphne, and I have to say that the end left me with hope. This is one of those books that still perplexes me and challenges me, and I’d like to reread it again someday and try to puzzle it out some more. Four-and-a-half Stars.

Have you read either of these? Do they pique your interest?

 

Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (Classics Club #1)

A sense of purpose, strange and sweet to him, carried him along in an irresistible current. Merely in gazing out the window, he felt a new coordination of mind and eye. He began to realize what he intended to so. He was on his way to do a murder which not only would fulfill a desire of years, but would benefit a friend. It made Bruno very happy to do things for his friends. And his victim deserved her fate. Think of all the other good guys he would save from ever knowing her! The realization of his importance dazzled his mind, and for a long moment he felt completely and happily drunk. 

51eqhnR+VGL._SX322_BO1,204,203,200_My first pick from my Classics Club list was a good one. Patricia Highsmith’s debut novel Strangers on a Train was a creepy, tense, psychological read. I had watched the Hitchcock film for the first time a few months ago, and wasn’t quite impressed. I found it overly long and lacking in star charisma. The book was better in my opinion, because it gives the reader a more revealing look into the minds of both its main characters, Charles Bruno and Guy Haines. Tension builds slowly as both men become more and more unhinged.

Guy and Bruno meet on a train to Metcalf, TX, where Guy’s mother lives. Bruno is on his way to meet his own mother in Sante Fe. Bruno is pushy and lonely, fueled by alcohol, and convinces Guy to dine with him in his private drawing room. There he regales Guy with tales of how unfairly he’s treated by his father, who controls the purse-strings and disapproves of Bruno’s gadabout, lazy ways. Guy humors and observes him, and when Bruno tells him he’s committed a robbery, Guy believes him.

Bruno could be violent. He could be insane, too. Despair, Guy thought, not insanity. The desperate boredom of the wealthy, that he often spoke of to Anne. It tended to destroy rather than create. And it could lead to crime as easily as privation.

51YICz8X2yL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_Bruno gets Guy to open up about his own troubles, the fact that he’s trying to get his unfaithful wife Miriam to divorce him (partly so he can move on with his girlfriend, Anne, which he doesn’t tell Bruno at the time.) So Bruno offers what he considers an unbeatable idea: Bruno will murder Miriam and Guy can return the favor by murdering his father. They just met on the train, after all, so there will be nothing to connect them to one another in the investigations. A foolproof plan, right?

I don’t want to spoil any of the developments in case you’ve neither seen the movie nor read the book. As the two men’s lives become more entangled and things go awry, Highsmith does an excellent job conveying the deteriorating mental conditions of both men. Bruno is practically in love with Guy, hounding him for attention and friendship. Guy is repelled by Bruno and wants nothing to do with him but can’t seem to be able to tell Anne or the police what’s going on. At one point Bruno sends him letters detailing how Guy should carry out the murder of his father. Then he burns them, thinking no one would believe him. I exasperatedly wrote in my notes, “IDIOT!” But of course, if he had gone to the police, the novel would have ended at about 130 pages. Bruno keeps tightening the screws on Guy until he becomes a sleepless, depressed mess, and then…

Despite the ingenious plot device at the beginning, I wouldn’t say this was a plot-driven novel. It’s more of an interior, psychological character study of two men – one with an alcohol problem and deep-seated mental problems that reveal themselves over time and one who is seemingly “normal” but is slowly driven mad by guilt and secrets and perhaps his own unacknowledged rage.  It reminded me in a way of the standalone novels I’ve read by Ruth Rendell, one of my favorite mystery writers. She has a way of making unlikable and possibly deranged characters at the very least understandable. Highsmith wasn’t quite there yet, in my opinion, with this debut novel, but the quality of the writing and the depth of the main characters elevate it to four stars in my eyes. Can anyone really be capable of murder, as Bruno believes?

Have you read this or seen the film? Have you read any other of Patricia Highsmith’s novels?

Dead Scared by S.J. Bolton (Lacey Flint series #2)

Jesus, what was I thinking? I had no idea how to be an undercover officer. SO10 trained its officers rigorously. The programme was tough and not everyone who applied made it through. Whilst it wasn’t unusual for run-of-the-mill detectives to go undercover, they were rarely sent into situations that lasted any amount of time. Besides, I’d joined the Met to work on serious crimes against women. If I spent the next few months off the grid, I could miss the chance to transfer to one of the specialist units. Why had I agreed?

Like I needed the answer to that one. I was doing it for Joesbury.

13120860Here is a mystery series on which I have become good and hooked. S.J. Bolton knows how to write a page-turner. Dead Scared is set in the academic world of Cambridge, where an alarming trend of grisly apparent suicides and suicide attempts has set the University on edge. Most of the victims are attractive young women, and DC Lacey Flint is recruited to pose undercover as a student. The police think that perhaps someone is encouraging these vulnerable young women to end their lives, perhaps on an online chat room. What Flint uncovers is much darker than she ever imagined.

As with the first in the series, Now You See Me, Bolton includes some nice misdirection; I was sure that a certain character, to whom Lacey feels attracted, had something to do with the deaths. There is also an interesting secondary character, a professor named Dr. Evie Oliver, head of student counseling, who forms a bond with Lacey and is the only person on campus who knows that she is a detective. She’s treated some of the young women involved and feels a great interest in the investigation.  While Lacey is trying to settle into the routines of academic life, including a frightening episode of hazing (which actually disturbed me a great deal) involving a bucket of water on a cold night, Dr. Oliver is dealing with creepy things going on in her university-owned home. Pinecones (which hold significance for her) being left in a neat line in her driveway and in a pile on her dining room table, a wind-up “bone-man” going off in an upstairs closet, threatening message left in the steam of her bathroom mirror. But the police, for various reasons, don’t seem to exactly believe her. Things get scary for Lacey as well, as she deals with her feelings of inadequacy in the academic environment and starts having some vivid, terrifying dreams that feel all too real.

There is a tremendous sense of menace throughout this novel. While reading at night, I had to put the book down in a few places and wait to read it the next day in the safety and bright lights of my workplace break room! And I will warn you, the apparent suicides and attempts are very dark and gruesome. I normally don’t really go for stuff like that, but this series is so well-written and the relationship between the two main detectives, Lacey and DI Mark Joesbury, is so full of complicated and repressed attraction that I can’t help but be drawn in. I would say that if you’d not read the first in the series, you could still jump in with this one and be fine; there’s just enough allusion to the backstory that you’d feel up to speed and the plot is so engrossing you wouldn’t care. If you like British mysteries and can tolerate darker plot lines, I recommend you give these a try.

These Books Need To Go: a Mini-Review Round-Up

Having (regrettably) set my Goodreads Challenge number higher than I ever had in the past, I felt the pressure to read faster.  I have indeed turned on the jets and finished quite a few books in the past six weeks.  But I haven’t been reviewing them at the same pace.  So I’ve got this stack of books staring me in the face and, honestly, getting on my nerves.  Plus, they just need to get back to the library (where I procured them all.)  Because I’m sick of looking at them, here are some super quick mini-reviews to clear the decks.

Now You See Me (Lacey Flint #1) by Sharon Bolton.  Fiction Fan turned me onto this author.  I really enjoyed this one.  It’s got a strong female detective constable (Lacey,) a Jack the Ripper copycat killer with a mysterious connection to Lacey, and a nice slow-burning sexual tension between her and DI Mark Joesbury.  Very suspenseful, and I really didn’t know how it was all going to work out until the end.  High quality writing as well.  Definitely will be reading more of this series and this author in 2018!  Four stars.

Silent Nights: Christmas Mysteries edited by Martin Edwards (British Library Crime Classics.)  My pick for Christmas reading this year.  An uneven collection, but five of the Golden Age crime stories really stood out and made this a worthwhile pick.  Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock story, “The Blue Carbuncle” was entertaining as one might expect.  “Stuffing” by Edgar Wallace was short and sweet.  H.C. Bailey’s “The Unknown Murderer” featured an unlikely criminal and an unexpected twist.  “The Chinese Apple” by Joseph Shearing (a pen name of Marjorie Bowen) is a masterpiece of misdirection.  And my favorite, Ethel Lina White’s “Waxworks,” is a creepy delight.  A young female journalist investigates a hall of wax where two people have mysteriously died.  Determined to find out of the hall is indeed haunted, she sneaks in and gets herself locked in overnight on Christmas Eve.  Suspense builds as the night goes on and she finds herself imagining things – or could there be a murderer locked in with her?  I absolutely loved this one.  Overall, though, for the collection, Three stars.

White Rage: The Unspoke Truth of Our Racial Divide by Carol Anderson.  This book grew out of an op-ed in the Washington Post in response to the 2014 Ferguson, MO riots after the killing of Michael Brown.  I could call this book Important Stuff We Should Have Studied in High School.  In a short but well-researched 164 pages (and 60 pages of end notes) Anderson lays out a map of white oppression tactics to every gain in status that African Americans have won since the end of the Civil War.  From the unjust laws of the former CSA states during Reconstruction to the assault on voting rights after the election of our first black president, Anderson makes a persuasive argument that every time African Americans win a victory, there is always a well-coordinated and legalistic backlash by a segment of white people in power.  The chapter on the aftermath of the Supreme Court case Brown vs. Board of Education was especially good.  An eye-opening, enraging, important book.  Four stars.

What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons.  A debut novel about grief and identity.  Unusual structure – some photographs, some graphs, a few pages include only three or four sentences.  The main character is Thandi, born and raised in America to a mixed-race South African mother and a light-skinned Black American father.  Thandi’s mother has died of cancer (not a spoiler) and we get to see how the event shapes Thandi’s life as she tries to find her place in the world as an adult.  There were some beautifully written passages about grief, but it just didn’t come together for me as powerful, cohesive  narrative.  The most interesting sections of the book for me were explorations of contemporary motherhood and marriage.  Three stars.

The Burning Girl by Claire Messud.  I’ve loved Messud’s two previous novels, The Emperor’s Children and The Woman Upstairs.  This one wasn’t on par with those, unfortunately.  A portrait of two twelve-year old best friends on the cusp of big changes and growing apart.  It moved along quickly and I was engaged, but I couldn’t quite believe that the narrator was supposed to be a seventeen year-old looking back and not a middle-aged author.  The voice was felt too mature.  There are some intelligent observations about the physical freedoms that girls give up as they grow into women, and there are scenes as the girls explore an old abandoned asylum that are lovely and creepy.  Messud is a good writer, I just wanted more vitality from this book.  Three stars.

Hear me now – I’m setting my Goodreads Challenge number nice and low next year!  This (self-imposed) pressure is for the birds.  Three more books by the end of the year to meet my goal.  I can do it!  Hope you all are enjoying some good reading this weekend.  Will you meet your Goodreads Challenge goal?

Mini Reviews: The Late Show by Michael Connelly and Revolutionary by Alex Myers

She believed her was her man, and there was nothing quite like that moment of knowing.  It was the Holy Grail of detective work.  It had nothing to do with evidence or legal procedure or probable cause.  It was just knowing it in your gut.  Nothing in her life beat it.  It had been a long time coming to her on the late show but now she felt it and she knew deep down it was the reason she would never quit, no matter where they put her or what they said about her.

TheLateShowUSAI had to turn in my copy of Michael Connelly’s The Late Show before I could begin this review because it had holds on it and was OVERDUE – yes, sometimes when you’re waiting on a book from the library it’s your friendly librarian who is stopping up the works!  (I only let it go a few days past due, in my defense.  🙂 )  Anyway, it was terrific, as most of Connelly’s books are.  There’s something about his books that just soothe my itch for crime thrillers, and every time he comes out with a new one I am SO THERE.

This one is the start of a new series, apparently, introducing a new detective, Renée Ballard.  She’s an LAPD detective on “the late show,” which is what they call the overnight shift, just there to take reports and interview witnesses. Because of that, she has to turn over investigations to the day shift, and never gets to follow a case through to completion.  It’s a demotion in her eyes – she was a regular day time detective before she brought allegations of sexual harassment against her supervisor.  (This part did feel a little under explained to me – it was a “he said/she said” case with no corroboration from anyone else, but I wondered why she wasn’t just moved to another division elsewhere.  But I digress.)  You can feel her frustration from the first scenes.  There are two cases that happen the same night that are unrelated but Renée can’t seem to let go of.  One involves a brutal, near-deadly beating of a transgendered prostitute names Ramona; the other, a shooting at a night-club that killed five people, two of whom seem to be innocent bystanders.  As Ballard gets deeper into her (mostly unsanctioned) investigations, she gets closer and closer to what she calls “Big Evil” in the first case, and indications in the second that seem to point to one of LAPD’s own as the murderer.

I liked Ballard a lot.  Her back story was interesting (Hawaiian heritage, absentee mother, father who died in a surfing accident while she watched helplessly.)  She has a dog named Lola which she rescued from a homeless person and who is fiercely protective of her.  She paddle boards when she needs to relax or think over the direction of her case, and she will camp out on the beach when she needs sleep.  One thing I kept pondering again and again was, “When does this woman sleep?”  Another was, “Does she have a house?”  It wasn’t until later in the book that we’re told that her permanent address with the Force is her grandmother’s house, but she only stays there every couple of weeks to do laundry, eat a home cooked meal, and visit.   So she’s a strong, independent character, but there are definitely cracks beneath the surface.  I’ll be interested to see how she develops in future installments!  4 stars.

 

Deborah wrapped herself in her blanket.  Her breeches had dried, and her waistcoat too.  Only her shirt and the binding beneath remained damp.  She lay down and closed her eyes, feeking the constriction around her chest like a snake coiled about her.  I am Robert Shurtliff, she told herself.  She wanted to measure up to these men, to find her place among them.  Lord God, she prayed silently.  Deliver me through this trial.  Grant me faith and strength.  

81yA-ssxkULRevolutionary was a book I probably wouldn’t have read on my own.  I like historical fiction when I read it but it’s not an automatic go-to genre for me. It was our book group pick last month, and I’m glad that it was chosen.  Based on Deborah Sampson, a real life woman who dressed as a man and fought in the Revolutionary War, it’s a moving and detailed work of historical fiction with a.

In the final years of the Revolutionary War, Samson (as Myers, a female-to-male transgendered author chooses to call her – turns out he is a distant relative of the real-life heroine) is an unmarried young woman who has fairly recently become free of her indentured servitude.  (Her family life was troubled and they couldn’t afford to take care of her, so she was given away to work as an indentured servant.)  Her community sees her single status as a threat; her only friend is a fellow servant named Jennie.  Having been once discovered trying to pass as a man when she went to go register to serve in the war, a violent attack by a local man has her fleeing the life that she knows in search of freedom and a new identity.  Jennie cuts her hair for her and steals some clothing from her master, and Deborah binds her breasts and leaves in the night, without a real plan but convinced that she’ll be put in jail for what she’s done to her attacker in retaliation.

What follows is an interesting, immersive account of regimental life as Deborah fits in with the rest of the young men (and by this point in the war, some of them are very young, which benefits the whisker-less Deborah.)  How she manages to keep her identity secret is interesting and occasionally requires a lucky break.  But she is stronger mentally and physically then she ever knew, and relishes her newfound freedom to move and live as she pleases even within the restrictions of military life.

I enjoyed this so much more than I anticipated, and was deeply moved by an unexpected turn of the plot 2/3 of the way through.  About 100 pages in Deborah begins to be called Robert in the narrative, the name she has adopted for her new life.  And then again towards the end, it shifts back to Deborah, but this feels entirely seamless and organic with the story.  She continues to correspond as Robert with Jennie back home, a nice narrative strategy.  The reader is made aware of how stifling and hopeless the conditions of an unmarried woman back in the late 18th century were, relegated to a life of drudgery, constantly open to innuendo and the possibility physical and sexual abuse.  I also learned a lot about the late stages of the war and daily life of a soldier.  I thought there were a few instances where the emotional impact of events wasn’t fully explored – for instance, the rape at the beginning didn’t seem to be fully dealt with and I wondered if there was another way Myers could have sent the story in motion.  But overall, this was a good read that explored gender identity in a time period in which people perhaps lacked the vocabulary to acknowledge such things.  4 stars.

The Dry by Jane Harper (#20BooksofSummer Book 9)

I heard about this Australian mystery novel by way of Fiction Fan’s terrific review back in March of this year.  When she says she can’t find anything to criticize about a book, I take notice!  I have to say that I agree with her assessment:  The Dry is a well-crafted, absorbing, thoughtfully written mystery, and I’m glad to see that there’s another book coming out featuring Federal Agent Aaron Falk!

27824826Set in the drought-stricken small farming town of Kiewarra, the book opens with gruesome descriptions of blowflies not discriminating between a carcass and a corpse. Something truly horrific has happened.  Aaron Falk is reluctantly back in his hometown, a town he and his father were driven away from twenty years earlier.  He is there to attend the funeral of his high school friend Luke.  Everyone thinks that the drought and money problems made Luke snap and kill himself, his wife, and their young son.  Baby Charlotte was the only survivor, because as Falk grimly observes, “thirteen-month-old don’t make good witnesses.”  Luke’s parents, a second family to Aaron when he was younger, want him to quietly look into the investigation, despite Aaron’s protests that he works on the financial side of police work now.  Falk agrees to stay in Kiewarra for a few days and look over their accounts, partly out of a sense of guilt about something that happened when he and Luke were teenagers.

In flashbacks the reader discovers that Aaron’s and Luke’s friend Ellie Deacon supposedly drowned herself in the town’s river (a river that is now bone dry thanks tot he drought.)  Luke and Aaron gave one another alibis, but we learn that many in the town didn’t believe that the boys didn’t have something to do with her death.  Tension is thick all these years later, and Falk is the target of many unpleasant and threatening interactions upon his return to town.  So not only is the reader tracking what really happened to Luke and his family, but we are also trying to solve the mystery of what really happened to Ellie all those years ago.  Harper fills the story with lots of red herrings and good characterization.  I especially liked the new sheriff in town, Raco, who, as a relative newcomer to Kiewarra, develops a nice rapport with Falk and helps him in the unofficial investigation.

When the mystery was solved I wanted to smack myself in the head for not figuring it out sooner.  It all made such perfect sense.  But Harper’s deft sleight of hand obscured the solution for me.  She skillfully portrayed a community on edge and a devastated natural landscape that would test the most emotionally stable person.  Best of all, I’ve found an interesting, even-keeled detective with a lot of potential.  There’s much room for the reader to discover more about Falk and his past.  We know a lot about what happened to Aaron right before he was forced out of town but we know almost nothing of what transpired all the years in between.  I look forward to revisiting him next year when Harper’s new book comes out.