Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Telling

The Telling by Jo Baker
Vintage, 368 pages
eBook review copy, 368 pages
ISBN-13: 9780804172653

The Telling by Jo Baker is a recommended, atmospheric ghost story that alternates between two time periods, contemporary and Gothic.

Rachel's mother has died and she has went to pack up and clean out the house
called Reading Room Cottage that her parents had purchased for a vacation home for their retirement. She had planned to get the chore done quickly, especially since she left her husband Mark, and a new baby at home, but soon realizes that it is going to take longer. Two centuries before this, housemaid Lizzy had lived in the same house. Lizzy found the books of their new lodger, Mr. Moore, irresistible. Today, Rachel is inexplicably drawn to the bookcase and certain books and titles that Lizzy previously read.

Baker brings the lives of both women into sharp focus in alternating chapters, although the period details and class inequalities of Lizzy's time will appeal much more to those who enjoy historical fiction. While this is a ghost story, this is not a creepy novel. It consists more of two parallel stories that are set in the same cottage. The actual haunting doesn't really feel convincing to me.
Nothing firmly connected the two women beyond the cottage itself.

The writing is quite good and the historical descriptions interesting, but, even though I enjoyed the book, it ended up being a satisfactory read but nothing special for me.
Lizzy's story was more compelling than Rachel's for me.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Vintage for review purposes.

Dirt: A Love Story

Dirt: A Love Story by Barbara Richardson
ForeEdge: 9/1/15
eBook review copy, 200 pages
ISBN-13: 9781611687668

Dirt: A Love Story
by Barbara Richardson is a very highly recommended anthology for dirt lovers everywhere. For those of us who love soil/dirt, let's speak the truth right now. As Jana Richman so eloquently points out: "Gorgeous, sexy people dig in dirt. People who age well. People who collect beauty in the creases of crow’s feet. People with sturdy hands and good minds."
"The poetry of the earth is never dead." John Keats

In Dirt thirty-six artists, scientists, and renowned writers discuss and extol the virtues of soil, dirt, and the importance of it. The anthology contains essays by "writers, travelers, biologists, sculptors, green architects, terrestrial ecologists, geomorphologists, soil scientists, environmental economists, Sufi teachers, medicine women, farmers and the daughters and sons of farmers, and people who generally like to live close to the land." For all of them, well, us, the truth is that dirt makes us unaccountably happy.

This collection is divided into five sections. The first section "Land Centered," consists of essays by "flagrant dirt fanatics." The second section, "Kid Stuff" explores our early contact with dirt. The third is “Dirt Worship,” on claiming our ancestry with the dirt. The fourth is "Dirt Facts," which offers insights into the scientific processes within dirt. The fifth and last section, "Native Soil," talks about the challenge of loving difficult ground.

Those of us who love dirt and growing things understand the sentiments of Deborah Koons Garcia: "Soil is one of the true miracles of this planet." Everything that has ever been on the earth eventually returns to the dirt. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust is a fact. The transformation and processes to return to dirt encompass changes and processes that few people think about.

I know my love of gardening and landscaping seems to be inborn, an innate instinct that can only be met by digging in the dirt. The dirt calls out to me as loudly as it calls out to my children. When they were young, they were mud babies. They needed to play in the mud, getting covered head to toe. No scolding could keep them from this preoccupation with dirt. Perhaps there is an explanation for this. Peter Heller notes that, "I read that dirt has pheromones, or something, that come out of the ground and mix with our endocrine systems and give us a sense of well-being. In this way dirt is like potatoes and tobacco and opium."

This is a wonderfully organized and well thought out compilation of writing about dirt. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

Contents include:

Foreword: Scratching the Surface by Pam Houston
Preface: The God of Dirt by Barbara Richardson

My Life in Dirt by Edward Kanze, Naturalist
The Great Beneath by Linda Hogan, Author
Dirt Fantasies by Jana Richman, Author
Praise to the Transformers by Janisse Ray, Author
Glosses on Dirt by Erica Olsen, Author
Soil Versus Dirt: A Reverie on Getting Down to Earth by Kayann Short, CSA Farmer
Digging In by Elias Amidon, Sufi Teacher

Dirt Princess by Julene Bair, Author
The First Worm by John T. Price, Author
The Language of Clay by Roxanne Swentzell, Sculptor
Dirt: Imago Ignota by John Keeble, Author
Mud Pies by Chris Larson, Green Architect
Services at the Church of Dirt by Marilyn Krysl, Poet

Dreaming in Dirt by BK Loren, Author
Tao of Dirt by Liz Stephens, Author
The Life of Soil by Bernd Heinrich, Biologist
Dirt in Love by Barbara Richardson, Author
Dirt House by Peter Heller, Author
Sinking Down into Heaven by Jeanne Rogers, Artist and Author

The Soil’s Breath by Tyler Volk, Biologist
Earthmover by Lisa Knopp, Author
Worm Herder: A Q and A With Dr. Diana H. Wall by Carrie Visintainer, Journalist
Seeing Soils by Deborah Koons Garcia, Filmmaker
The Next Big Thing in Soil Science by Carl Rosen, Soil Scientist
A Badge of Honor by Tom Wessels, Terrestrial Ecologist
Dirty Business by David R. Montgomery, Geomorphologist
Feed Your Soil by Bob Cannard and Fred Cline, Sustainable Farmer and Vintner

Hostile Takeovers: An Ode to Guts and Gardens by Laura Pritchett, Author
Fight the Power by Eban Goodstein, Environmental Economist
Born Again: Loving the Least Worst Land in Mississippi by Donald G. Schueler, Author
Stewards of the Land by Wes Jackson, Agricultural Activist
We Are Soil by Vandana Shiva, Soil and Seed Activist
City Dirt by Karen Washington, Urban Farmer
Soil Versus Oil - Kale Versus Koch by Atina Diffley, Organic Farmer

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of ForeEdge for review purposes.

Sunday, August 30, 2015

A Beginner's Guide to Paradise

A Beginner's Guide to Paradise by Alex Sheshunoff
Penguin: 9/1/15
eBook review copy; 464 pages

ISBN-13: 9780451475862

A Beginner's Guide to Paradise: 9 Steps to Giving Up Everything by Alex Sheshunoff is a highly recommended humorous, anecdotal travelogue. This is the guide for those who want a hilarious look at someone who drops everything to move to an island.  He  lists the nine titular steps as: 1. Pick an Island; 2. Ask some Questions (but not too many); 3. Adjust Loincloth; 4. Find a Safety Pin... 5. And some Lucky Strikes; 6. Study the Art of the Rope Ladder; 7. Do as Chief Chuck does; 8. Reflect, Briefly; 9. And Hope for the Best.

After having a quarter life crisis, Alex left his dot com start-up business in NYC, broke up with his girlfriend, packed up 100 books he felt he should read, and took off for a South Pacific Island hoping to find paradise. He visits the islands of Yap, Pig, Palau, Angaur, and Guam. At the beginning of each chapter is a short, humorous "What You Can Expect to Learn in This Chapter" section that can take the form of quizzes, anecdotal information, or questions that will be answered in the chapter. For photos and much more information visit his website:

Alex didn't have much of a plan before he took off to discover paradise so this travelogue is more of a travel misadventure full of happenstance and surprises as he tries to negotiate his way among the islanders and find a place for himself. While nothing really startling actually happens (except for the turtle incident which some readers might want to skip) Alex tells the story of his travels and adventures, such as they are, in a self-deprecating humorous style that should keep readers entertained.  In the end he does, in fact, wear a loin cloth, find love, build a house, and diaper a baby monkey. While doing all of this there is a generous amount of humor along with some personal reflection.

This is a seriously funny book perfect for a relaxing night of escapism. The writing style flows smoothly in an almost conversational-story-telling style. Sheshunoff is not trying to change the world or come up with some profound thoughts during his navel gazing adventures (the book will explain that). He just needed a vacation and took it a little further than most of us would have done.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Penguin books and Penguin First Reads for review purposes. 

Waiting on God

Waiting on God by Wayne Stiles
Baker Books: 8/18/15
eBook review copy; 256 pages
ISBN-13: 9780801018459

Waiting on God: What to Do When God Does Nothing is a highly recommended combination Bible Study on the life of Joseph with anecdotal personal insights and applications by Wayne Stiles.

Sometimes God seems silent or absent in our lives and going to the Bible to study and consider the life of Joseph presents a perfect example of waiting on God for years. We can be confused as to why God hasn't answered our prayers, but God's answer often requires a more active role from us rather than just waiting for our circumstances to change. Stiles points out that God may be waiting for us to change - and our circumstances may even worsen while He patiently waits for us to make those changes. We need patience too. Patience is the art of waiting well.

Hard times and difficulties are normal. God's people were never promised a trouble free life and Joseph's life is a perfect example to consider. God does make promises to believers, but there are lessons we may need to learn in the in-between time of waiting. God never said we wouldn't have troubles. In fact, we should expect trouble and difficulties (1 Thess. 3:3–4; 1 John 3:13; 1 Peter 4:12) as a normal part of our lives... along with waiting.

Here Stiles goes through the life of Joseph and considers his life (as well as the lives of his family) in comparison to things and circumstances we might go through today. Stiles uses many personal examples to make the story more pertinent to lives today and help readers see how Joseph's story is applicable to their lives, their personal stories. This isn't really a devotional or a Bible study, per se, but a study of one story and how it can be interpreted to encourage, help, and challenge us in our Christian walk today.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Baker Books for review purposes.


X by Sue Grafton
Penguin: 8/25/15
eBook review copy; 416 pages
ISBN-13: 9780399163845
Kinsey Millhone Series #24

X by Sue Grafton is a very highly recommended 24th book in the series featuring private investigator Kinsey Millhone. I've read almost all the books in the series with the exception of the ones published in the last couple of years. It was great to have my memory jump-started on why I originally liked the character of Kinsey Millhone so much. A large part of that enjoyment is due to accomplished writer Sue Grafton's ability to present a complex plot and bring it to such a satisfying conclusion. Even if this is your first introduction to the series and the characters, I think you are going to enjoy X.

In a change of pace, the titular "X" stands alone. It could stand for several characters or words in this novel set in 1989 in Santa Teresa, CA. There is a drought and landlord Henry Pitts is busy trying to get their water consumption under control. Kinsey has met with a client, Hallie Bettancourt, who wanted her to find the contact information for Christian Satterfield. He's recently been released from prison. Hallie claims he is the son she gave up for adoption at age 15. Kinsey easily finds out the information only to discover, after she's passed it on, that Hallie is not a real person and she's paid for Kinsey's services with marked $100 bills.

At the same time she is trying to help her friend Ruthie Wolinsky go through a box of paperwork/files of her late husband to find some files for the IRS. Pete Wolinsky was also a PI and was shot during a robbery a year ago. Kinsey is sure he was crooked, but she likes Ruthie, so she is trying to help her. While going through the files she discovers a false bottom in the box that contains an envelope addressed to someone else and in the files a sheet of paper written in code. Kinsey inevitably ends up trying to finish/solve the case the Pete was working on before his death, which becomes much more dangerous that she ever would have imagined.

This makes it sound simple, but everything going on in Kinsey's life is always much more complex than the initial situation would suggest.

Sue Grafton is an exceptional writer. Not only does she provide us with another complex plot and several cases to solve, she imbibes the character of Kinsey with wry humor and insight into human behavior. This is a win/win situation: great writing and plot. Now that I have been reminded about how good this series really is, I need to go back and get the (few) letters I missed in the alphabet series.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Penguin for review purposes.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Drowned Boy

The Drowned Boy by Karin Fossum
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt: 8/25/15
eBook review copy, 240 pages
ISBN-13: 9780544483965

The Drowned Boy by Karin Fossum is a highly recommended eleventh book in the Norwegian police procedural featuring Inspectors Konrad Sejer and Jakob Skarre.  Be forewarned that the novel opens with a very graphic description of what happens when someone drowns.

Tommy Brandt, a healthy 16-month-old boy with Down syndrome, is found drowned in the pond behind his parent's house. Carmen Zita, Tommy's mother, claims he wandered outside when she was cleaning, or in the bathroom washing out some clothes. She had left the back door open because it was so hot and Tommy must have walked down to the pond and fell in. His father, Nicolai Brandt, was in the basement fixing a bicycle. He rushed outside when he heard Carmen yelling, after she found Tommy, but it was too late.

The problem is that something is not quite right about Carmen's behavior. She's crying, but it also appears to be an act rather than true mourning. The boy's father is seriously grieving and never considered a suspect. The two present a stark contrast in their different behavior. The drowning may be an accident, as Carmen claims,  but she seems to be having a hard time remembering exactly what she was doing when Tommy would have wandered down to the pond and drowned. She also seems very eager to pack up and move out all of Tommy's things.

Carmen's story changes after the autopsy. The inspectors are even more suspicious, but have nothing to definitively prove Carmen is lying. Complicating the interpersonal dynamics is Papa Zita, Carmen's father. Carmen's a daddy's girl, and her father is right there, supporting her every statement as fact and trying to help. Papa Zita owns a fast food restaurant where Nicolai and Carmen both work.

The writing in this series is very much to the point and concise. There is not a lot of extra verbiage and descriptions beyond just what is needed to propel the story forward. It should also be noted that The Drowned Boy is more psychological study than a police procedural. Carmen's odd behavior will stand out in stark contrast to Nicolai's grief. She is determined to move on, maybe have another child, while Nicolai is completely overwhelmed with grief. The incongruity between the two is startling. When the question is raised if it would have been better for Carmen to have aborted Tommy, she thinks it would have been better while Nicolai most decidedly says no. (Those following the series will also be concerned about Sejer's recent dizzy spells and his reluctance to go to the doctor.)

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for review purposes.

Thug Notes

Thug Notes: A Street-Smart Guide to Classic Literature by Sparky Sweets, PhD
Vintage: 8/18/15

eBook review copy: 304 pages
ISBN-13: 9781101873045

Thug Notes: A Street-Smart Guide to Classic Literature by Sparky Sweets, PhD is CliffsNotes and SparkNotes written in gangsta. With a wise-cracking street sensibility, it breaks down the plots and analyzes 16 literary classics. The titles analyzed include: Romeo and Juliet, To Kill a Mockingbird. Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, Invisible Man, Lord of the Flies, Moby Dick, A Raisin in the Sun. Hamlet, Fahrenheit 451, The Catcher in the Rye, Crime and Punishment, Things Fall Apart, The Color Purple, and The Scarlet Letter. There is also a Bibliography.

What you need to know is that Thug Notes began as a humorous online series presented by Sparky Sweets, PhD, and Wisecrack. Sparky Sweets, PhD, is comedian, writer, and actor Greg Edwards. The videos of this series have been used in classrooms to try to make classic literature accessible, which lead to this written guide. The guide does a good job breaking the selections down to the essential basics. He begins by introducing characters, and then does a walk-through analysis of the plot. Included are important themes, symbolism, and passages. But keep in mind all of this is written in "thug" or street language.

I, personally, struggled with reading the actual guide because of the language and phonetic spelling used in the conversational gangsta-street-talk-style. I think I can follow the videos easier than the written guide. (Some of my struggle also involved a technical issue with how the review copy interfaced with the eReader program I use on my tablet.)

While I think Thug Notes has its place and could be beneficial, I'm having a hard time rating this one. I think the videos are far easier to follow than the written guide. Recommended for those who need some gangsta interjected in their study of classic literature.

Disclosure: My eBook edition was courtesy of
Vintage for review purposes.