The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery
Naturalist Sy Montgomery, author of The Good Good Pig, meets a forty pound octopus named Athena, and becomes fascinated by octopuses. She becomes an octopus observer at the New England Aquarium in Boston and meets aquarists, interns, and volunteers who bond while an octopus wraps an arm or two around their arms, and while they stroke her soft head. Octopuses (not octopi) are intelligent, very curious, and capable of changing the color, pattern, and texture of their skin many times in an hour. Boneless, they can and will fit in very tiny places and try to escape from their tanks to explore the world. The suckers on their eight arms can smell and taste, and are both strong and flexible. Over a couple of years, Sy gets to know four giant Pacific octopuses in Boston, travels to Seattle to watch octopuses mating, and learns to scuba dive. Sy observes wild octopuses in the Caribbean and the South Pacific. Poignantly, she also watches a favorite octopus, Octavia, grow old. After reading this absorbing, moving memoir, I look forward to spending time at aquariums observing the amazing octopuses.
The Way Life Should Be by Christina Baker Kline
Christina Baker Kline is best known for Orphan Train, her bestselling historical novel. Her new book, A Piece of the World, received lots of publicity, but I overlooked this appealing contemporary novel, published in 2007, until another librarian recommended it to me. Angela Russo, 33, an event planner in New York City, loses her job and heads to Maine to visit Rich, a guy she’s met only once. There’s not much to do on Mount Desert Island in the fall (except Acadia National Park, which barely gets a mention), and Angela starts working with Flynn at the local coffee shop. She rents a tiny shack, adopts a dog, and starts baking muffins and scones for the coffee shop. Angela inherited the gift of cooking from her Italian nonna, and hosts a few Italian cooking classes. Rich clearly isn’t her soul mate, but she’s surprisingly content. Back home in New Jersey for Christmas to visit her ailing nonna and the rest of her family, Angela has to decide whether to follow her head or her heart. Recipes are included, and they sound delicious. This is a good readalike for The City Baker’s Guide to Country Living, by Louise Miller, although Kline’s book is more cheerful.
Way Station by Clifford Simak
Enoch Wallace lives quietly on a farm in southwest Wisconsin. Except for serving in the Civil War, Enoch has lived in Wisconsin for all of his 140 years. Enoch, who looks 30, is given privacy by his neighbors, and his only regular contact is with the mailman. Well, his only human contact. Enoch runs a way station for interstellar travelers. He gets a message when to expect a visitor and what special requirements they have. Travel is by a sort of transporter. Enoch has regular visitors who have become friends, and this contact, along with his books and magazines make for a pretty satisfactory life. He also interacts with two 19th century holographic humans. The farmhouse has been remade to look old but is is impenetrable and basically indestructible. Enoch only ages when he leaves the farm house to take a daily walk around the property. One day a neighbor, a mute girl, needs his help, and his privacy is gone. Also, as is common in science fiction, the fate of the earth (and Enoch’s way station) is uncertain. A short, absorbing novel with a very likeable narrator; well worth reading. This novel was published in 1963, and won the Hugo Award in 1964.
The Scribe of Siena by Melodie Winawer
Medieval Italy comes to life in this debut historical novel about a neurosurgeon who time travels. Beautifully detailed descriptions of the people, places, and food of modern and 14th century Siena add appeal to a moving story about love, loss, and the Plague. Beatrice Trovato keeps meaning to visit her brother Ben, a historian, in Siena, but is too busy working as a neurosurgeon. Looking at her brother’s research about the history of Siena, exploring the city and its art, she travels back in time to 1347, the year before the Plague will arrive in Siena. Amazingly, she finds work as a scribe, and also meets widowed fresco painter Gabriele Accorsi, who’s a witness to a killing by one of the early Medicis. Beatrice, trying to figure out how to get home before the plague, falls in love with Gabriele and Siena. Readers who can accept the idea of time travel and some unlikely coincidences will be enchanted.
Hotel by Arthur Hailey
Published in 1965, this is a thriller about five eventful days at the St. Gregory Hotel in New Orleans. Peter McDermott, the assistant general manager, typically spends much of his time dealing with one crisis after another, as he’s responsible for keeping the hotel running smoothly, but can’t make major changes. Christine Francis, assistant to hotel owner Warren Trent, is a bright spot in his day, as is a distressed guest, Martha Preyscott. During the week, Peter deals with problems in the kitchen, an ill guest housed in the hotel’s worst room, a convention of dentists threatening to leave, a thief, and the looming threat of the hotel being sold. Tycoon Curtis O’Keefe is visiting with his sweet girlfriend Dodo, and is deciding if the St. Gregory will become part of his bland, efficient, and impersonal chain of hotels. The city is briefly but vividly described, with most of the focus on a back stage view of the hotel, from the kitchens to the elevators to the incinerator room, offices, and parking garage. A hotel staff member is blackmailing guests who may be connected to a hit and run, and Peter can only how he’d like to run the hotel. An elevator accident, hinted at early in the book, brings the novel to a dramatic close. While somewhat dated, this is still a plot-driven page turner with just enough background on the minor characters to give them appeal without slowing the intensifying pace.
Design for Dying by Renee Patrick
This is an appealing debut mystery, set in Hollywood in 1937. Lillian Frost, aspiring actress turned department store clerk, is shocked to learn that her former roommate Ruby Carroll has been killed. Lillian helps the police when she discovers that the gorgeous gown Ruby was wearing, along with the contents of a suitcase found at Ruby’s boarding house, were taken from Paramount Studios. At Paramount, Lillian meets costume designer Edith Head, who helps investigate the murder. Lillian is likeable, Edith is intriguing, Ruby had plenty of secrets and admirers, and the Hollywood setting and cameo appearances by movie stars make for a quick, engaging read. A sequel, Dangerous to Know, has just been published. This is a good readalike for Stars Over Sunset Boulevard, by Susan Meissner, and may also appeal to readers of All the Stars in the Heavens, by Adriana Trigiani. Renee Patrick is the pseudonym of writing duo Rosemarie and Vince Keenan.
The Lost City of the Monkey God: A True Story, by Douglas Preston
In this action-packed adventure story, thriller writer and reporter Douglas Preston joins documentary filmmaker Steve Elkins in searching for a lost city in Central America, first with lidar scans and later with archaeologists. The lidar, in which a small plane flies back and forth over the tree-tops firing laser pulses at the ground, has the team focusing on a few sites in the remote area of Mosquitia, Honduras, looking for the remains of pre-Colombian settlements. For centuries, there have been rumors of a Ciudad Blanca, or White City, although the author says that at least one earlier explorer, Theodore Morde, was panning for gold instead of searching for ruins. The site Elkin’s team travels to by helicopter is deep in the jungle, and they encounter spider monkeys, howler monkeys, and poisonous snakes before they even get to the archaeological site. Torrential rains mildew their clothes in just a few days, and they are wading through rivers and up slippery hillsides. They do find evidence of a large settlement, and hundreds of stone sculptures, possibly left when the city was abandoned. The story of the expedition makes for fascinating reading. The following chapter about the spread of disease in the early 1500s that all but wiped out many areas of Central America and the Caribbean is not such easy reading, but is followed by a contemporary medical mystery. Half of Elkin’s team come down with a hard-to-treat tropical disease, including Preston. Finally, Preston travels back to T1, where the president of Honduras is making an official visit. An incredible story that makes for exciting reading.