The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
Is the universe out to get Alex Woods? Read this book and you could see why Alex wonders about it. At 11, he is struck in the head by a meteorite falling through the roof of his house. When he regains consciousness, he discovers that the blow has led to epileptic seizures, and he stays home for months recovering. He studies on his own, but mainly about the brain and astronomy. When he goes to a new school, there is no hope of fitting in. Of course, his hair won’t grow over the scar. And then there’s the issue of his mother being a witch, running a small occult gift shop, and reading Tarot cards.
So, Alex is bullied. When he runs away from bullies, he gets in trouble and has to make reparations for what they did. This results in spending Saturday mornings with Mr. Peterson, who writes letters for Amnesty International and introduces Alex to the books of Kurt Vonnegut. Later Alex confronts the same bullies and gets in even bigger trouble. He attracts unusual friends, mostly adults. He starts a book club to read Vonnegut. And then, he has to make a choice whether to help Mr. Peterson even though his mother would never allow it. This results in Alex getting stopped at 17 trying to re-enter England with lots of money, a significant amount of marijuana, and while having a partial seizure. It doesn’t look good for Alex. But ultimately, he finds that he has free will, and finds his own path in life. Here’s more about Alex and the author.
Death of a Dyer by Eleanor Kuhns
Will Rees has returned to his farm near Dugard, Maine. A traveling weaver since his wife’s death years ago, he has learned that his farm and his son David were neglected by his sister and brother-in-law. Now teenage David is basically running the farm while Will prepares to set up his loom, and former Shaker Lydia Jane is the new housekeeper. Will has strong feelings for Lydia, but isn’t ready to commit to marriage yet, so she lives in a cottage on the farm, and they try to avoid company. While serving in the Continental Army, Will learned he had a talent for solving crimes, demonstrated in the first book in the series, A Simple Murder, set in a Shaker community. When his childhood friend Nate Bowditch is killed, lawyer George Potter tells Will that Nate’s wife Molly would like him to clear her son Richard of suspicion of murder. The investigation pays for help with the harvest and in the kitchen, so Will is free to travel by wagon and investigate. He learns that Nate was greatly changed from the last time Will saw him, and preferred to live in a weaving cottage on his farm, researching dyes yet neglecting his family, and he also gambled. Richard has disappeared, but his half-brother, son of a slave, is also a suspect, and Will protects him from slave catchers. Many secrets in the Maine community of Dugard are unearthed, and Will’s life is threatened more than once. Reluctantly, he accepts Lydia’s help in his investigation, and even David’s input as well. Will and David have a complicated relationship that feels authentic. The late 18th century small town Maine setting is refreshingly different, and appealing. I listened to the audiobook, narrated by Richard Waterhouse, and didn’t want the story to end. Lydia and Will are excellent company, and I hope for many more mysteries for them to solve.
The Son: A Novel by Philipp Meyer
During the Westward expansion of the United States, also known as “Manifest Destiny” no group of Indians gave the settlers more problems than the Comanche. They dominated an area of Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico that was called “Comancheria” In “The Son”, Eli McCullough, the thirteen-year-old son of a rancher in West Texas is captured by the Comanche after his family is killed. Along with his brother they are taken, naked, on a two week ride back to the Comanche home base. The Comanche are fierce and warlike, and love going on raids against the whites, the Mexicans, and other Indian tribes. They bring back horses, booty, and slaves. At First Eli is consigned to hard manual labor with the women of the tribe, but as he proves his worth as a hunter and warrior, he is promoted to going on raids, and even earns his first scalp.
Eli’s experiences are just the beginning of the story covered in this book. The history of Texas is laid out in the stories of Eli and his descendants. Eli’s son Peter is caught up in a blood feud with the Mexican Garcia Clan over Cattle. Later when the cattle use up all the resources of the land, oil is discovered, dotting the landscape with drilling rigs and saving the families fortunes. Eli’s great granddaughter, Jeanne is raised on the ranch and can hold her own with her brothers. However when she takes over the family oil business she encounters old fashioned sexism in the nineteen sixties.
The history of the Comanche have been covered in other books and films. “Empire of the Summer Moon” by S.C Gwynne tells the story of Quanah Parker, the half breed son of Cynthia Parker, who was actually abducted by the Comanche and became a member of the tribe. Quanah was the last great Chief of the Comanche and presided over their eventual destruction and consignment to the reservation.
In the movie, “The Searchers” John Wayne plays Ethan Edwards, a civil war veteran whose niece, Debbie, is captured by the Comanche, thus starting a three year odyssey by Ethan and his adoptive nephew Martin to find and bring Debbie back home.
In the movie “A Man named Horse” Richard Harris plays
I’m usually not big on family sagas, but this one really interested me because of the Comanche connection.
Storm Front by Jim Butcher
I was inspired to read Jim Butcher’s first book, entitled “Storm Front” in his Dresden Files Series, after a friend excitedly introduced me to the main character, Harry Dresden–wizard extraordinaire! I am now a fan and am sure to read more in this series. Thrillers with car chase scenes just don’t grab me the way a giant scorpion (“an orthopod version of Frankenstein’s monster”) chasing a wizard does. I read this book on audio and the narrator James Marsters sounds as smooth as Butcher’s portrayal of Dresden. While this book didn’t center too much on the Chicago landscape, the series overall does. I think I’ll enjoy that aspect of the other novels that I’ll eventually get to. Some of the most pivotal points in the story take place outside of the city at a lakefront home where Harry Dresden confronts dark magic in an effort to solve two converging mysteries. The first case is of a missing person and the second is of a baffling killing spree, in which the murderer left a distinct signature mark. Lieutenant Murphy of the Chicago PD Special Investigation Unit suspects that only Dresden, her trusted wizard friend and private investigative colleague, can offer insight to this grisly case.
Other suggested audio reads of dark fantasy that has lighthearted, witty humor mixed in are Neil Gaiman’s “Anansi Boys,” read by Lenny Henry who is superb at speaking with multiple dialects. Jim Dale’s reading of the J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” audiobook series is also intense and versatile.
On the Noodle Road: from Beijing to Rome with Love and Pasta by Jen Lin-Liu
Chinese American food writer Jen Lin-Liu, founder of a cooking school in Beijing, is looking for her next project. She decides to travel the Silk Road from China to Europe, eating noodles, meeting chefs, and researching the origins of pasta. No, Marco Polo didn’t bring pasta to Italy from China, but both countries have similar noodle dishes. Jen has recently married American writer Craig, and isn’t sure how her desire to travel will affect their marriage, and where they will settle down to live as a couple. Traveling to western China, she asks two chefs from the cooking school to accompany her, and they eat and cook their way west. On the rest of her journey, sometimes her husband accompanies her, and for a while his parents, but the rest of the time she travels alone. Her journey includes Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Iran. She meets hospitable people almost everywhere, and enjoys many home-cooked meals and access to restaurant chefs and kitchens. A variety of regional foods are vividly described, and a number of recipes are included. While the spices and meats change, many of the dishes are quite similar. Unexpectedly, rice and flat breads replace noodles for a good part of the trip.
As much a memoir as culinary travel narrative, Jen is curious about the role of women in the different countries she visits, and how they mix work, marriage, and raising a family. She learns that even seemingly modern men expect their wives to be very traditional, and that mother-in-laws rule in Central Asia. There is a funny scene when Jen doesn’t take her Western mother-in-law’s good advice, and is sorry the next day. In Iran, Jen and Craig feel uneasy, partly because they are required to have a government sponsored tour guide. After reaching Istanbul, they fly home to Beijing for the winter. Jen returns in the spring to visit Turkey, Greece, and Italy, where Craig joins her for the end of the journey. No questions about the origins of pasta are resolved, but many excellent meals are enjoyed along the way.
Approaching 70, author/journalist Philip Caputo decides it’s time to realize a dream; to drive from Key West, Florida to the Arctic Ocean in Alaska. He reads up on the history and literature of the places he might visit, rents a vintage Airstream trailer, and finally asks his wife Leslie if she can join him on the trip and help take care of their two dogs. Leslie, a magazine editor, had already figured out a plan to work part-time while on the road.
They try to avoid expressways, but sometimes use them. Traveling the Natchez Trace Parkway, they are amazed by its beauty and lack of commercial development. A highlight is traveling the Lewis and Clark trail. Along the way, Caputo interviews 80 Americans, asking them what unites or divides us as a country. Their answers are varied, and thought-provoking. They visit small towns, national parks, reservations, historical monuments, and sample lots of regional food specialties. Traveling and camping with a small trailer and two dogs isn’t always easy, but it’s often funny, such as when Leslie meets “Mothra”, a huge moth, in a campground shower.
While I enjoyed reading about the road trip, it was the historical background Caputo shares with the reader that made the biggest impression on me, from learning about the Lewis & Clark expedition, the Nebraska setting for Willa Cather’s books, researching a soldier at the Battle of Little Bighorn, information about the national parks, and more. The small towns in decline were quite a contrast to communities like Grand Island, Nebraska, a multicultural melting pot with immigrants from many parts of the world recruited for factory jobs. References to other travel writers and memories of growing up in Chicago and Westchester round out the book. I think both history buffs and armchair travelers would find The Longest Road well worth reading, as well as anyone interested in reading about what other Americans think about our country today. Read more about the book and watch a book trailer on the author’s website.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
This is flat-out a great book. It took the author ten years to write in his spare time. When the manuscript was put up for auction the price was bid up to $650,000 dollars. There even was a book published about the making and marketing of this book, entitled: Vanity Fair’s How a Book is Born: The Making of the Art of Fielding.
The plot centers around the struggles of the main characters on a baseball team at Westish College called the Harpooners. Henry Skrimshander is a preternaturally gifted shortstop who is recruited out of High School by Mike Schwartz, the Harpooners’ catcher. Although Henry is brilliant on the baseball field, he is shy and introverted and has a hard time adjusting to college life. Also in the mix is Guert Affenlight, the College President, whose staid life is upended by an unexpected romance with one the students. The student in question happens to be Owen Dunne, a gay intellectual, who also happens to play on the team. Pella Affenlight is Guert’s daughter from a previous relationship who shows up on Daddy’s doorstep after a marriage that goes sour.
According to Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times: Mr. Harbach has the rare abilities to write with earnest, deeply felt emotion without veering into sentimentality, and to create quirky, vulnerable, and fully realized characters who instantly take up residence in our hearts and minds. He also manages to rework the well-worn, much allegorized subject of baseball and make us see it afresh, taking tired tropes about the game (as a metaphor for life’s dreams, disappointments, and hopes of redemption) and interjecting them with new energy.
I enjoyed this book for its small college setting, and for the baseball stuff, but mainly for the affecting characters. I did not want this novel to end.
The Cabinet of Curiosities by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
Natural history fans that are willing to suspend their beliefs and delve into the supernatural world, mixed with some horror, may really enjoy this fast paced and entertaining thriller. FBI Special Agent Aloysius X. L. Pendergast, a rather dark, yet nonthreatening and serene character, persuades archaeologist Dr. Nora Kelly to suspend her work at the American Museum of Natural History in order to help him investigate the mysterious serial killings from 130 years ago that have just come to light. Pendergast, Kelly, and William Smithback (Kelly’s boyfriend, a journalist for the New York Times) become obsessed with solving this historical case once they become certain that recent, similarly gruesome serial killings are related. As the plot thickens and the investigation goes beyond their wildest expectations, their own lives are threatened by what appears to be a mad scientist who is hell-bent on concocting an elixir for the greater good of mankind even if it means torturing innocent, human beings. At the beginning of the book, I skeptically focused on the stereotypical attributes that the characters were assigned—yet the fast pace and natural history theme kept me engaged. Almost seamlessly, the characters were later developed into complex beings that I didn’t want to leave behind when I set my book down for the day. Although the story involves the supernatural, the twists and turns that take place as new evidence is introduced during the investigation make perfect sense and chances are you will not be disappointed in the story’s end. Terms that best describe this book are: page-turner; character driven; and conclusive. Readers of this fantasy, investigative series may also enjoy the Harry Dresden series by Jim Butcher, or if the fictional interplay between different centuries and the archaeological aspect intrigues you, give Timeline by Michael Crichton a try.
Discover more on the authors’ website.
Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan
This is a book that has been well researched and cited by the author to argue his point that “Jesus of Nazareth” was the “real, historical” Jesus, versus “Jesus the Christ” which was an “interpretation” of Jesus’s ministry that would sell well to its prime audience which was the Romans, in Rome, and not the Jews of Palestine. “Jesus of Nazareth”, a fire breathing nationalist, was transposed into “Jesus the Christ”, a pacifist, who preached loving thy neighbor and doing good works to enter the “Kingdom of Heaven.”
The chief architect of this interpretation is made out to be Paul of Tarsus, who was called Saul before he converted to Christianity, writing many years after Jesus’s death. As Aslan states: “Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history. That is a shame. Because the one thing any comprehensive study of the historical Jesus should hopefully reveal is that Jesus of Nazareth – Jesus the man—is every bit as compelling, charismatic, and praiseworthy as Jesus the Christ. He is, in short, someone worth believing in.”
Regardless of where you stand on the Divinity of Jesus this is a worthwhile book to understand both Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Christ.
The Sound of Broken Glass by Deborah Crombie
Juggling a blended household and their jobs at Scotland Yard is challenging for Gemma James and Duncan Kincaid. It’s Duncan’s turn to go on leave and take care of Charlotte, their young foster daughter. Weekend plans are put on hold when Gemma is called to a hotel in South London where a lawyer has been killed, along with Detective Sergeant Melody Talbot. When their colleague Doug Cullen falls off a ladder, Melody and Duncan both pitch in, but when Melody falls for Andy, a young musician with a troubled past, it complicates the case, especially when another lawyer is killed. The mix of police work and juggling responsibilities at home make for an appealing mystery. As we learn about Andy’s background, the connections between the killings starts to become clear. The first book in the series is A Share in Death, but I find that this series has gotten even more interesting, as the characters develop and change from book to book. I enjoyed listening to the audiobook, narrated by Gerard Doyle.