Book reviews

The Likeness

The Likeness
Published: 2008
A follow-up to In the Woods finds a traumatized detective Cassie Maddox struggling in her career and relationship with Sam O'Neill while investigating the unsettling murder of a young woman whose name matches an alias Cassie once had used as an undercover officer. 50,000 first printing.

A psychological, complex mystery where what's going on in the detectives' psyches is as much a part of the story - maybe more - as solving the central murder.

Cassie is a former undercover cop in Dublin who used to work in Murder but after an earlier case messed with her head, switched to Domestic Violence. When a body is found that looks just like her and has identification with a name she used to use when she worked undercover, her former boss from undercover (Frank) urges her to go undercover as the dead girl to identify suspects in her murder. Cassie's boyfriend, Sam, still works in Murder and is in charge of the case, and doesn't like the idea, but she agrees to do it. She moves in with Lexie's roommates, who are a pre-Raphaelite brotherhood kind of household: Daniel, who inherited a big house in an Irish village outside Dublin and invited his Trinity College friends to live with him; and Abby, Justin, and Rafe. The household is weird and compelling and dreamily appealing - they cook together, they study together, they play cards and discuss intellectual topics, and they present a united front against the outside world. As the story unfolds, we learn a little more about the Irish village; the students are outsiders, but there's also the history of Daniel's family's relationship with the village. And then there's Lexie, the dead girl: who is she, why did she take Cassie's undercover identity, was there something in her past that led to her murder? The four roommates slowly become more individual; they have a rule not to talk about their pasts, which suits Lexie fine.

Let me get my comparisons to In the Woods out of the way. I found this one more satisfying, because there were fewer loose ends left for me to wonder about at the end of the book. One of the things I had trouble with in In the Woods was also present here, although to a lesser extent: the main character's behavior in a couple of spots was frustratingly irrational. Cassie struggles with divided loyalties and conflicting motivations throughout; she gets sucked into her undercover role and falls in love with Lexie's friends, for one thing, but she's pretty aware of that, and mostly her inner battles over her job versus the undercover role felt real. The thing that was too far for me to go along with her was where her loyalty to Lexie and identification with the dead girl and sense that she's on a mission from a ghost drove her to take irrational risks. But like I said, this was only in a couple of spots.

If you're wondering whether you need to have read In the Woods first - I don't think so, and in fact I think I would have enjoyed this more if I hadn't, because I couldn't remember enough about what happened to Cassie in that one, and if I hadn't read it I wouldn't have spent time wracking my brain every time Operation Vestal was mentioned. I read ITW as an audiobook I got from the library and thanks to all the kind people avoiding spoilers, couldn't find any explanation of exactly what happened and how it messed her up. If I hadn't read it, I'd just accept it - okay, a previous case disturbed her and made her switch from Murder to Domestic Violence, let's move on and read the current story. On the other hand, since I don't remember ITW well enough to know, it's possible it would have added depth and nuance that I totally missed, if I'd read this right after I read the other one. (If anyone has an opinion and would like to mention it in the comments, I'd really appreciate it!)

The Library Book

The Library Book
Published: 2018-10-16
“A constant pleasure to read…Everybody who loves books should check out The Library Book.” —The Washington Post “CAPTIVATING…DELIGHTFUL.” —Christian Science Monitor * “EXQUISITELY WRITTEN, CONSISTENTLY ENTERTAINING.” —The New York Times * “MESMERIZING…RIVETING.” —Booklist (starred review) A dazzling love letter to a beloved institution—and an investigation into one of its greatest mysteries—from the bestselling author hailed as a “national treasure” by The Washington Post. On the morning of April 28, 1986, a fire alarm sounded in…

I love libraries and I loved this book.

The event that ties it all together is the 1986 fire in the Los Angeles Central Library, which didn't destroy the building but caused an enormous loss through fire and water damage. Chapters scattered throughout the book tell the story of the day the alarm went off and the aftermath, from the viewpoints of staff, patrons, firefighters, and the guy who was accused of setting the fire.

Mostly, though, it's the story of the library itself. Ocean tells the history of the library, in the context of the history of LA and the history of libraries, and the stories of the people involved in it, like the newspaperman who walked across the country to take the head librarian job. Part of the context is the history of women in the workplace: the colorful character who crossed the country on foot took that job from a professional librarian who had the misfortune of being female.

There's so much in here. Architecture: the Goodhue building was designed to tell a story through the building design, murals, sculptures, and even lighting fixtures. Forensic science: some of the techniques used by arson investigators are not much more reliable than old wives' tales. Social issues: libraries nationwide are havens for homeless people because libraries welcome everyone for free, so many libraries work with other agencies to help people sign up for needed services. The present and future of libraries: the 19th-century librarian who wanted to loan tennis racquets and board games, right up to present-day language and citizenship classes, computer labs, and maker spaces. The questions people still call the library with, some of which could easily be answered with Google - and then there's the patron who wanted to know which is more evil, grasshoppers or crickets. The branch libraries and the shipping department that handles 32,000 books a day, 5 days a week.

Orleans starts by telling her own story, how she used to go to the library regularly with her mother, but stopped when she left home. Researching and writing this book rekindled her own love of libraries. "All the things that are wrong in the world seem conquered by a library's simple unspoken promise: Here I am, please tell me your story; here is my story, please listen."

This is my first book by this author. After I finished it, I went to the library and checked out two more.


Published: 2016-04-05
The unmissable and highly anticipated new literary thriller from the author of the international phenomenon The Girl with all the Gifts. Fellside is a maximum security prison on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors. It's not the kind of place you'd want to end up. But it's where Jess Moulson could be spending the rest of her life. It's a place where even the walls whisper. And one voice belongs to a little boy with…

Prison novels aren't my usual cup of tea but boy, this was a good story. Jess wakes up in a hospital room with no memory of who she is or why she's there. When she finds out, she's horrified at what she seems to have done. Fellside is the name of the women's prison where she ends up. Jess is like that relative everyone has who can't seem to straighten out her own life, a bundle of weaknesses and bad decisions, but there's more to her than meets the eye.

I read this without knowing anything about it except that it's by the author of The Girl With All the Gifts which I remembered as one of those books you can't put down once you start. That's what I was looking for after finishing a frothy memoir, and wow, this delivered.

It's suspenseful and well crafted - you feel like you're always a step ahead of Jess, whose thinking is clouded by guilt, because of subtle hints that make you wonder just before you find out that yeah, what you were thinking was right. Very satisfying feeling. It's a ghost story and a mystery. And at its heart, it's about atonement. What do we owe to other people? How far would you go to keep a promise? And it's about good and evil - are you really good if you've never been faced with a temptation or a threat that could send you down the other path? At what point does the balance tip? And how much do you really know about the other people you're making judgments about?

It's definitely a prison novel. Fellside is a private prison with a CEO-style governor (we'd call that job warden where I live) and a mix of good people and bad ones on both sides of the warder (correctional officer)/prisoner divide. It's uncomfortable to read sometimes, but it feels like there's a lot of truth in it. It's obviously well researched. I hope it inspires some readers to feel a little more compassion for the people caught up in the system.

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life

Always Look on the Bright Side of Life
Published: 2018-10-02
From the ingenious comic performer, founding member of Monty Python, and creator of Spamalot, comes an absurdly funny memoir of unparalleled wit and heartfelt candor We know him best for his unforgettable roles on Monty Python--from the Flying Circus to The Meaning of Life. Now, Eric Idle reflects on the meaning of his own life in this entertaining memoir that takes us on a remarkable journey from his childhood in an austere boarding school through…

The title says it all.

Eric Idle had a grim childhood in a horrid boarding school, and various other troubles - divorce, addiction, people grasping for money - but he doesn't spend much time dwelling on any of those darker parts of life. He's 75 and his milieu is 1960s-70s era rock and roll, so he's lost a lot of friends, but he focuses mostly on the happy times he spent with them. At the same time, he's philosophical about death - you can feel his deep sadness over his friends' deaths, but as he says in the song, "life is quite absurd, and death's the final word."

This is a fun and cheerful autobiography. There are appearances by a vast array of musicians and actors, with photos throughout. There are glimpses of the jet-setter life, with luxurious travel on friends' private planes and yachts. Even more, though, I came away impressed with the boundless energy Eric Idle brought to his work. Movies, plays, silly songs, live performances with and without the rest of the Pythons. He seems to be constantly in motion.

Sadly, I also learned from this book that my idea of having Always Look on the Bright Side of Life played at my funeral is not the least bit original - turns out, it's the number one requested song for funerals, at least in England.


Published: 1994
In nineteenth-century England, Dorthea Brooke's wishes to defy social conventions are inhibited by the strict nature of her surroundings.

This enormous novel is satisfying in so many ways. I read it in paperback concurrently with listening to the audiobook, beautifully narrated by Nadia May.

Dorothea, a young idealist in the early 19th century, ignores advice and marries a dry stick of an older man. We can all see it's going to be a disaster and make her miserable, but she's determined, and her amiable uncle doesn't stand in her way.

Lydgate, an ambitious doctor who has new ideas about medicine, comes to a small town where a wealthy banker offers an opportunity to start a new hospital where he can do his research and test his ideas. When he gets tangled up with the mayor's daughter, the beautiful Rosamund, it's not so obviously destined for trouble, but trouble follows.

And then we have Dorothea's more ordinary sister Celia and her ordinary destiny; Rosamund's brother Fred who starts out feckless and impulsive but learns some things through the course of the narrative; Mr. Bulstrode the banker who has more in his past than we knew; the admirable Caleb Garth and his daughter Mary; the mischief-making Raffles; the exotic Will Ladislaw whose grandmother was disowned by Dorothea's dry-stick husband's family because she married a Polish refugee; and a whole enormous cast of various clergy and townspeople and business people and farmers.

Big political changes are afoot - this takes place in the early 1800s, just after the French Revolution, and Reform is in the air, which seems to involve more people getting the vote and Catholics being possibly considered to be people as well. The town has a surprising-to-me number of clergy and more variety of religions than I would have expected, given that everything I know about the English countryside comes from reading novels where the Church of England is the only game in town. (Or maybe I just didn't notice before.) Journalists and politicians seem to be new kinds of people. Money is as always a big deal, and it's incredibly complicated for the kind of people who don't expect to get jobs and get paid for them. Like, Lydgate doesn't get paid for his work at the hospital. He only gets paid by his patients, and since he disdains selling them pills, which is what they're used to paying for - nobody pays for the doctor's services - he gets into big financial trouble.

Running throughout though is the theme of what women are capable of doing, and the constraints the law and society put on them. Dorothea is strong-willed and intelligent, but believes the only way she can do good in the world is to marry a man whose work she can support. Mary Garth is just as smart and useful as her father Caleb, but it's obvious she can never do the kind of work he did. Rosamund embodies the feminine ideal, with her expensive finishing-school education, and her highest goal is to be admired by men (although we eventually see that even for her, that's not going to be enough).

And then there's communication, lack of communication, miscommunication, and gossip. Nobody in the upper classes ever says what they think, even to their spouses, except in a couple of special cases. People are constantly making assumptions and misreading others' motives. And then there's the catastrophe where some information from the past comes to light, and is blown up through gossip to ruinous levels.

On top of the story are the narrator comments sprinkled throughout. Pearls of wisdom. I was too caught up in the story to copy them out as I went along. Next time I read it, and I'm sure there will be a next time, I'll try to do better.

Station Eleven

Station Eleven
Published: 2014-09-09
The sudden death of a Hollywood actor during a production of King Lear marks the beginning of the world's dissolution, in a story told at various past and future times from the perspectives of the actor and four of his associates. By the author of The Lola Quartet. 50,000 first printing.
I thought I was done reading post-apocalyptic novels. I read a bunch when I was in high school and college. I don't know why, but that seems to be the age for post-apocalypse & dystopia. Somebody's probably written a dissertation on that. Why do they appeal at that age, and why do they lose their appeal as you get older (unless it's just me, which I suppose is possible, and unless it's written by Stephen King, who can write just about anything and I'll read it).

But a friend was enthusiastic about this one, and said it was different. There's a traveling theater and music troupe; there's an insane religious cult; there's a dreadful flu that kills 99% of humanity in the space of a few weeks; there are scattered settlements among the abandoned cars; and there's a good amount of pre-apocalyptic story about people who are or are somehow associated with the post-A cast of characters. The timeline bounces around a lot.

So what's different about it, and why five stars? For one thing, there's a lot of art in it - Shakespeare, classical music, and the comic book that's set on Station Eleven in space, not to mention the movie star world of one of the characters. There's an appreciation for the things we take for granted; not just the big things but the ordinary daily life stuff we hardly notice. A message about skimming across life without paying attention, buried in smartphones and speaking trite office jargon to each other, runs through the pre-A segments. It spans a period of 20 years after the flu plus an undefined time before, and the progression through breakdown of civilization to what comes next over that long period seemed plausible.

The spirit is hopeful, on the whole. I think that might be one reason I, at least, lost interest in dystopia and post-apocalypse: I stopped wanting to read anything that was going to make me feel hopeless and miserable. And the writing itself is masterful; it pulled me into the world of the book and never bumped me out.

I'm glad I read it.

The Outsider

The Outsider
Published: 2018-05
When an eleven-year-old boy is found murdered in a town park, reliable eyewitnesses undeniably point to the town's popular Little League coach, Terry Maitland, as the culprit. DNA evidence and fingerprints confirm the crime was committed by this well-loved family man. Horrified by the brutal killing, Detective Ralph Anderson, whose own son was once coached by Maitland, orders the suspect to be arrested in a public spectacle. But Maitland has an alibi. And further research…

This is classic Stephen King, and this is why I read almost everything he writes. (I haven't read Gerald's Game or the Dark Tower series.)

A decent police officer and a politically ambitious DA, a horrific crime, a popular teacher and coach, seemingly overwhelming evidence - but things aren't what they seem. Eventually the detective agency from the Mr. Mercedes trilogy gets pulled in.

I'm not going to try to summarize beyond that; other GR reviewers are much better than I am at summarizing without spoiling.

As always, the characters are real. The good ones have a bit of heroism mixed in with a lot of human flaws. The bad ones have resentments, self-pity, and anger that can be manipulated to make them even worse. We spend most of our time with the good ones, which is what makes it possible for me to enjoy reading a book with such terrible things in it.

And the plot is a page-turner. I read half of it Thursday night and got to about fifty pages from the end on Friday; finished Saturday morning. It's satisfying and wise.

I noticed a couple of places where a pop culture reference is explained, in contrast to earlier King where references are dropped in and readers are expected to pick them up without help. I wonder if it's because pop culture is more fragmented now - we don't all see the same tv shows and movies - or because King's older now, so his references are drawn from a bigger pool of time that younger readers might not be familiar with - or if it's just a new editor with different preferences.

An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Inspiring, entertaining, interesting, informative. Hadfield did the narration on the audiobook so I got to hear it all in his own voice.

I'm so glad there are people like Chris Hadfield in the world: hard-working, down-to-earth, smart, can-do, humble, friendly, and helpful. His book is a memoir with bonus lessons for living. There's all kinds of interesting stuff about things like the 40-minute process to collect urine for a research project he participated in on the International Space Station (Peeing For Science), and what it's like to adjust to gravity again after spending months in space. It's all in the context of the importance of the space program, and with a little coda about the importance of protecting the Earth.

The lessons for living are down to earth and practical, too:
* Enjoy the process - the only thing you can control is your attitude. If your sense of self worth depends on achieving your ultimate goal (like space flight), which is affected by lots of things outside your control, you'll never be happy. Study, learn, and appreciate every day.
* Practice negative thinking - visualize the worst and figure out how to prevent it
* Be humble - he calls this aiming to be a zero. Be competent and don't get in the way while you observe and attempt to learn, rather than trying to impress others.
* Sweat the small stuff - we all know how important this is in the space program, where a tiny error can lead to tragedy.
* Appreciate and recognize other people's efforts and sacrifices that enable you to work towards your own goals.