All I need to be entertained are cats within ear-scratching distance and a good book . . .OK, maybe that's not ALL I need, but it's a good start.

I love to read. And I love to get recommendations for books to read.

I started Cats and a Book to share the books I read with others. Some I love, some I don't, but you may love the ones I don't, so you're welcome to post your own comments and suggestions.

To make it easier to purchase books you may read about on the blog, I've linked to through The Cats and a Book Bookstore, which is located on the bottom of this page. Your purchases are fulfilled and handled through Amazon. To assure your privacy, Cats and a Book doesn't handle any of your payment or contact information.

Happy reading!

Sunday, December 22, 2013

The Return: A Steve Dancy Tale, by James D. Best

The Return:  A Steve Dancy Tale, by James D. Best, is the latest installment in the Steve Dancy series, and finds our intrepid shopkeeper back on his home turf on the East Coast.  Far from the rough and tumble West, the setting for the three previous books, Dancy isn’t safe from treachery or gun play.  The reader can be assured The Return is as fast-paced and entertaining as the books leading up to Dancy’s latest adventure. 

Favorite characters like Jeff Sharp and Captain McAllen make return appearances, although both are a bit out of their element in New York City, which leads to a few lightly comical scenes.  The typically taciturn and assured Captain McAllen, for instance, finds the closed-in spaces and city crowds disconcerting, while Sharp gravitates toward the docks to uncover information by finding drinking partners.

 In The Return, Dancy and Sharp, along with their Leadville shop manager, Virginia Baker and local business owners, confront a protection racket in Leadville.  The three, along with Captain McAllen and his Pinkertons, banish the gang leader and travel to New York City to investigate a alleged plot to sabotage Edison’s electrification project.  With Dancy’s investment in Edison’s efforts, he is particularly interested in ensuring Edison’s success.  And, of course, the reader shouldn’t assume that any former Dancy nemesis is completely vanquished, even Dancy’s own mother. 

The Return is a lively, old-fashioned style Western—clever, entertaining, and full of period references to give it authenticity.  Best paces his stories so well readers will find it difficult to put down.  The Return was published in 2013 by Wheatmark.  

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, by Alexander McCall Smith

For fans of Alexander McCall Smith, the latest installment in the adventures of Precious Ramotswe and the "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" was anxiously anticipated. Their reward is The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon, released this month by Pantheon Books.
In this episode, the tactfully named Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon suffers from a slander campaign, and its owner asks the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency for help in identifying the culprit. A local attorney approaches Mma Ramotswe to disprove a young man is the heir to an estate, and Precious’ husband, Rra Matekoni, is coaxed into taking a course on becoming a “modern” husband. The case workload proves a challenge to Mma Ramotswe, the owner and chief detective at the agency, without her trusted associate detective, Grace Makutsi, who has given birth to her first child and is on leave.
As is typical of Smith’s detective novels, Mma Ramotswe arrives at fair resolutions for her cases, although not without unusual twists, turns, and good humor. Fans of this series enjoy the books not only for their story lines, but for Smith’s care for the accuracy and development of the characters. Mma Ramotswe is kind, wise, and humble and in this book, readers will see a different side of the ne’er-do-well mechanic apprentice, Charlie.
The Minor Adjustment Beauty Salon could be finished quickly, but readers may want to parcel it out, treat-like, until next time.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Kindred Beings: What Seventy-Three Chimpanzees Taught Me About Life, Love, and Connection, by Sheri Speede

Kindred Beings:  WhatSeventy-Three Chimpanzees Taught Me About Life, Love, and Connection, by Sheri Speede, is a story about Speede’s transformation from a local veterinarian to founder of the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center in Cameroon, Africa.  Dr. Speede once practiced in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, prior to relocating to the west coast, where she was a co-founder of In Defense of Animals-Africa.  Visits to Cameroon sealed her commitment to saving chimpanzees  after witnessing how captivity affected three adults housed in cages outside a small hotel.  Later, Pepe, Becky, and Jacky would be the first three she and her team are able to relocate to the Rescue Center. 

Dr. Speede shares her struggles gathering resources and support, working within the cultural and political boundaries, and acquiring help, either volunteer or paid.  Skilled labor was extremely difficult to find in her remote location, so training was essential.  Resources were negotiated for or donated, and from time to time, chance brought people into her path who offered help.  As Dr. Speede introduces the animals to the reader, one can’t help but urge her along in her quest to create a safe haven for these mistreated, abused, and orphaned animals.

Dr. Speede shares how she builds trust with the animals, even those thought of as dangerous, by participating in mutual grooming and sharing treats.  She describes mischievous
Becky, who was not above “borrowing” items left in her reach that have to be bargained for to be returned.  She describes how Jacky, once thought to be insane, becomes the strong, wise leader of the group after he is acclimated to the Center.  She writes how friendships among animals previously separated by the bars of steel cages grew, and their joyful reunions and introductions to other animals.  Dr. Speede isn’t unrealistic in her portrayal of the chimpanzees.  She has no illusions about their strength and unpredictability.  Chimpanzees are not pets.  Her foundation provides animals an opportunity to be safe while educating the population against poaching and hunting. 

Kindred Beings is evidence of Dr. Speede’s commitment to positively affecting the lives of these animals and the community in which her sanctuary is home.  It’s a moving story, but it hasn’t ended yet.  It is ongoing in Cameroon, on the Sanaga-Yong Chimpanzee Rescue Center sanctuary.  You can learn more about Dr. Speede’s work at

Kindred Beings was published in 2013 by HarperOne.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars, by Peter Heller, tells the story of a world ravaged by a flu virus.  Hig, the central character in the novel, is a pilot and the guardian of a small airport near Erie, Colorado.  This post-apocalyptic setting is marked by rising temperatures, depleted animal communities and species, roving bands of scavengers seeking provisions and weapons, and a highly contagious disease referred to as “the Blood.”

Together with Bruce Bangley, a ruthless tactician with a mysterious past, Hig defends a “perimeter” around the airport.  He plants and maintains a garden.  He fishes and hunts, although fish are not as prevalent, deer are, so Hig is able to supply them with food.  Flying “the Beast”, a 1956 Cessna 182, he scouts for wildlife, watches for marauders, and occasionally stumbles on salvage he can take back to Bangley.  In the meantime, Bangley manages the weaponry and the defense of their installation. 

Hig reaches out to others as humans in need of contact, against Bangley’s counsel.  He visits the Mennonite families who suffer from “the Blood,” sharing his garden’s bounty and salvaged soft drinks.  When a faint signal from an airport closer to Grand Junction reached him, Hig was determined to know whether civilization survived somewhere else. 

The Dog Stars is written in a stream of consciousness style: poetic, narrative, emotional.  It is a compelling and gripping story that leaves the reader with a sense of hopeful resignation. 

The Dog Stars was published in 2012 by Vintage Books.  

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Yes, Chef by Marcus Samuelsson with Veronica Chambers

Yes, Chef is the memoir of the winner of the 2010 Top Chef Masters competition, Marcus Samuelsson.  Written with Veronica Chambers, the book follows Samuelsson’s culinary trajectory to the ranks of Executive Chef, restaurateur, and James Beard Award winner. 

Readers may recall Samuelsson from the television program “Chopped” where he is often a judge on the cooking competition program.   Samuelsson’s demeanor—calm and measured—comes across in his memoir.  The reader doesn’t get the sense that he is exaggerating or overstating the facts or manipulating his readers’ emotions with maudlin stories of his growing up years. 

Samuelsson was born in Ethiopia and believed to be orphaned along with his sister when their mother died.  They were adopted by a Swedish couple and raised there, which imbued him with a rich sense of culinary experience.  Although his early exposure was to Swedish food, as he began training as a chef, his exposure to new food cultures and flavors extended throughout Europe and eventually to the United States.  As Samuelsson explores his birth heritage, he discovers the flavors of his native Ethiopia, along with an extended family he didn’t know existed. 

Samuelsson is forthright in sharing his experience as a chef of African descent in the kitchens of Europe and North America, allowing the reader to draw her or his own conclusions and experience their own emotional reaction to his treatment.  His focus is on food and cooking, so that unfair treatment, slurs, and outright bigotry are like annoying gnats to him, not nearly powerful enough to deter him from his ultimate goals. 

Yes, Chef is an enjoyable read.  Samuelsson is likable and intelligent, and readers can’t help but root for him as he reaches each milestone along his culinary journey. 

Yes, Chef was published in 2012 by Random House.   

Saturday, August 17, 2013

The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout

The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout, is a novel for modern times.  Strout doesn’t sugar coat reality; she revels in it, showing the reader manipulation, fear, bigotry, and deception.  But Strout’s gift is her ability to make that which seems on the surface to be clear—clearly right or clearly wrong—as a much more complicated matter, affected by a myriad of influences, and interpreted through the eyes of others in different ways. 

The boys for whom the book is titled are Jim and Bob Burgess, who together with their sister Susan, grew up in a small town in Maine.  Their father was killed accidentally when the children were young and this event weighs heavily on Bob and Jim into their adulthood.  The incident upon which the novel’s action is centered involves Zach, Susan’s son.  Zach is a loner.  The reader gathers that he is searching for approval, is depressed, and somewhat aimless.  What Zach does feeds bigotry against Somalis in his community but simultaneously lays a foundation for understanding. 

Strout allows the reader to anguish along with the characters in the book, hearing “their side” of the conflict and gaining understanding of their actions.  Zach offends and frightens the Somali community, yet the reader is allowed to see him as a sympathetic character who claimed to not fully understand the impact of what he had done.  Susan is an often absentee mom who is disconnected from Zach, yet the reader sees her as the struggling and loving parent she is, raised by an overly critical mother.  A prominent Somali leader in the community is angry and fearful following Zach’s offense, yet readers know that he yearns for reconciliation and understanding, not revenge. 

The Burgess Boys invites readers to adjust their perceptions, without leading them to choose one perspective over another, just as the characters do in the novel.  And greater understanding is truly a noble objective in these modern times.

The Burgess Boys was published in 2013 by Random House. 


Sunday, July 28, 2013

Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, by Susan Gilmore

Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen, by Susan Gilmore, is the story of Catherine Grace Cline, of Ringgold, Georgia.  Growing up with her sister Martha Anne, Catherine can’t wait to move to Atlanta on graduation from high school, to a big city, and away from the small town world.  Her animosity toward the town is clear.  As she tells her sister when a tornado threatened the town, “Martha Ann . . . if that twister hits this town, nobody’s even going to notice it’s gone.” 

The girls’ mother, Lena, drowned when they were small, so they were raised by their father, a third-generation protestant preacher.  But Catherine is also mentored by the next door neighbor, her mother’s friend, Gloria Jean Graves, who channels Lena’s independence and helps the girls learn about the mother—how beautiful she was, and how she could sing.  But Gloria is also a little too brash and colorful for Catherine to feel proud of her, and the story of the Mother’s Tea at school is particularly poignant. 

Upon graduation, Catherine leaves for Atlanta and finds a job in a large retail store.  She lives with an elderly lady and her maid, themselves in, what readers may feel is an uncomfortably stereotypical arrangement, until Catherine’s father dies suddenly.  Catherine’s return to Ringgold, and a visit to the local Dairy Queen she frequented growing up, reveals much more to Catherine about her family and her destiny than she had discovered in her beloved Atlanta. 

Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen was published in 2008 by a subsidiary of Random House. 

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24 -Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan, is a quirky, modern fantasy/mystery set in the digital age.  Sloan’s novel features books of clues to the wisdom of the ages and a curious cadre of young computer geniuses to unravel the mystery. 

After losing his job during a downturn in the digital design field, Clay Jannon takes the night shift job at a 24-hour bookstore.  He quickly determines that the store gets very little business but contains tall shelves of dusty old tomes that are borrowed but not purchased.  Occasionally, a “new” one of these books arrives but he is cautioned against opening the books by the store’s manager, Mr. Penumbra.  However, he is asked to make specific note of the person who borrows one of these books, down to their appearance, demeanor, and clothing.  It doesn’t take long for him and a daring friend to start exploring the books, which they discover must be written in a type of code, and to determine that the borrowers are checking out the books in a specific order.  Using his computer skills (and working with a new lady friend from Google), he is able to construct a face in the design of the bookshelves, following the pattern of borrowing.  Things become stranger when Penumbra disappears to meet with a mysterious benefactor, and Clay and his friends follow and learn about the underground world of the “readers” and their life stories. 

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is an entertaining book with likable characters.  Although the resolution may not be as satisfying as some readers might like, there are parallels between this group of “readers” and other secret societies driven to find meaning and preserve it for their members.   Sloan also raises the philosophical issue of introducing artificial intelligence to solving mysteries that had been taxing to human bandwidth.       

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was published in 2012 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.  

Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, by David Sedaris

David Sedaris' most recent collection of stories and essays, Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls, is a quirky, honest, and hysterical collection of his work. While Sedaris admits he loves the attention of being on stage and reading from his work, he also reveals himself as a flawed character in the story of his life--flawed, but very also very funny, and some of those "flaws" may explain his unique approach to recording life.
Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls is an upbeat collection overall, and made even more enjoyable if readers have an opportunity to hear Sedaris read from his collection in person, either by audiobook or at a local appearance. 
This collection was published in 2013 by Little, Brown and Company

Inferno, by Dan Brown

Inferno, by Dan Brown, is one of his typical thrillers.  Although "typical" isn't a fair descriptor of this page-turner, it’s only “typical” for Dan Brown.
Robert Langdon, Brown’s recurring hero, returns to solve a new nail-biter. A mad scientist, intent on saving the world from its own population explosion, has created a viral time bomb. Accompanied by a smart and pretty blonde, Langdon attempts to decode the clues left by the suicidal scientist while being chased by corrupt government officials and a virtual private army through the streets of Florence and the canals of Venice. His task is complicated by the fact that he awoke in a hospital in Florence with amnesia, having no memory of how he got there or why. Visions of the dying and of a mysterious silver haired woman haunt him, and a tiny projector sewn into his jacket leads him to Dante's Divine Comedy. The only thing the reader knows for sure is that Langdon is the good guy, as always, and the other characters Brown introduces could be playing for either side. In fact, Brown cleverly pulls the rug from under the reader more than once, with unexpected revelations that induce literary gymnastics and the desire to return and reread sections of the book so the reader can be “in on” the surprise, too.
Brown's books are smart and engrossing. The action in this book primarily occurs in just a day’s time, and is gripping from the first page. Made for a movie, it’s not difficult to picture Tom Hanks reprising his role as Langdon.
Inferno was published in 2013 by Doubleday.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Emma Jean's Bad Behavior, by Charlotte Rains Dixon

Emma Jean’s Bad Behavior by Charlotte Rains Dixon is an appropriately titled romp opening with best-selling author Emma Jean Sullivan pitching her latest novel, “The Winemaker’s Wife.”  Readers quickly get a sense of Emma Jean’s self-centered character during a book signing.  She alternately gushes to fans in her affected Southern accent or snaps at them, including turning on a customer with a crying child.  Unfortunately, Emma’s newest novel isn't selling quite as robustly as her previous novels.  This she attributes in part to an Oxford Review article that calls her narrative snarky, among other less charitable adjectives.   Her “bad behavior”—rudeness to staff, store patrons, and fans—takes a turn for the worse when she falls at first sight for a fan’s husband, who is buying the book for his wife.  A brief but torrid affair follows, which forces Emma Jean to reconsider her long-held “baby hater” reputation. 

Emma Jean’s “bad behavior” isn’t limited to rudeness and unfaithfulness to her husband.  After determining that she should try to be kinder to people (in response to the snarkiness review) and that she should cultivate a best friend (after mentally polling her acquaintances and discovering that none of them currently qualified), she turns on a writing student while under the influence of a few glasses of complimentary wine on her plane home.  Unfortunately, her sharing that the student’s memoir was likely fabricated leads to an expose that beleaguers Emma Jean’s student, whose book has topped the best-seller list. 

As Emma Jean’s idyllic life unravels spectacularly—her book sales flounder, she learns that she’s pregnant by her lover and not her husband, her bank account is dwindling as her soon-to-be-ex-husband spends her money for his new wine business, and her lover leaves her—she flails about for help.  Emma turns to her Aunt Cleo, who raised her after her mother was killed running with the bulls, and relocates to help her aunt in her art gallery business.  New characters are introduced into her life who seem willing to reach out to Emma Jean—something she is unaccustomed to.  As Emma Jean learns to give more than to receive, Emma Jean’s good behavior brings her healing and reunion with the people she loves. 

Dixon has written more than a spicy romance.  Emma Jean is smart, with colorful analogies, and a redemptive story line for a character that readers may not like very much in the first few chapters.  After all, she does demonstrate astoundingly bad behavior and has character flaws galore.  However, “Judge not, lest ye be judged,” is a suitable theme for this work, since Emma seems to fall short of the high standards she continuously set for those around her, and when she was finally able to forgive herself and others for their faults, Emma found herself surrounded by the people she valued most.  

Emma Jean's Bad Behavior was published in 2013 by Vagabondage Press.  

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, by Rita Leganski

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow, by Rita Leganski, is the story of Bonaventure Arrow, a baby boy born mute to the newly widowed Dancy Arrow.  Bonaventure doesn't make a sound, but his hearing is astounding—he can hear the tiniest sounds far, far away, sounds of colors, or sounds of events that had happened long ago.  It is his supernatural hearing that helps him identify his father’s murderer. 

Bright, thoughtful, and spirited, Bonaventure’s unique abilities seem almost believable as he communicates with his father, William Arrow, now in Almost Heaven.  Dancy Arrow’s young husband is murdered before Bonaventure is born by a man Leganski calls “The Wanderer.”  The shooting seems random and unplanned, carried out by an unstable and damaged man who has no identification and is unable to communicate sensibly after his arrest.  William’s mother is unable to rest until the murderer’s identity is known, and when the police are unsuccessful, she hires a private detective. 

In the meantime, Dancy wallows in her grief, raising Bonaventure with the help of William’s mother and their hired help, Trinidad Prefontaine.  Trinidad is their cook and housekeeper, and has knowledge of hoodoo—the use of charms and plants to bring about good fortune.   She is inexplicably connected to Bonaventure, but as the family secrets unravel and the murderer’s identity is revealed, readers will learn about this connection and others which will bring release for William and healing to those who grieve. 

The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow was published in 2012 by HarperCollins.  

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Last Night at the Lobster, by Stewart O'Nan

Last Night at the Lobster, is another Stewart O’Nan gem.  O’Nan has the ability to portray life as it is, with all its warts--disappointments, unhappiness, irrational ire, and even bad weather—but also with  its beauty marks—lasting friends, the love of someone special, the care of a stranger, and good luck.  Only 160 pages long, Last Night at the Lobster is another example of O'Nan's ability to tell a story that feels real.      

Manny DeLeon is the manager of a Red Lobster restaurant which is slated to close.  As with any business taking its dying breaths, employees have either found other employment and resigned or simply disappeared in search of new opportunities.  Others leave angry and resentful, taking out their frustration on the long-suffering manager.  Manny is left with a skeleton crew on a snowy night, the last night of the restaurant’s existence, with little or no business.  Any former and current restaurant employee will appreciate the situations that arise, and those who haven’t worked in a restaurant will gain a new appreciation for the professionals who work there.  More than that, readers will appreciate Manny’s calm leadership and sense of responsibility. 

Manny is dedicated to the end, saving only a few souvenirs but taking nothing of value, working multiple stations in the place of missing employees, and rallying the troops to make it through to an early close.  We learn much about Manny’s character through his relationship with his pregnant girlfriend and one of his waitresses, with whom he had an affair—and how he accepts his duty—to close the restaurant that had been his to care for, to help find jobs for his employees, and return to his girlfriend. 

Last Night at the Lobster was published in 2007 by Viking.  

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter, is a delightful surprise.  A reader might discount the potential for a meaningful plot line and well-developed characters when introduced to the young and ambitious producer’s assistant Claire and her porn-addicted boyfriend.  Fortunately, the author introduces Pasquale, an innkeeper in the tiny oceanside town of Porto Vergogna, Italy, in the book’s first chapter.

Pasquale is a young Italian dreamer, son of the only hotel’s innkeeper, who inherits the property after the death of his father.  Pasquale aches to build the property into a resort, complete with a mountainside tennis court, which will attract famous and wealthy Americans to the tiny town and mostly nonexistent beach.   When a Hollywood starlet arrives under unusual circumstances, he falls in love with her during her short visit.    

Dee Moray is cast in a minor role in the Elizabeth Taylor-Richard Burton film “Cleopatra” but leaves the set when she is diagnosed with stomach cancer.  Sent to Porto Vergogna to remove her from the attention of Burton, Moray learns that it was not a tumor that she has but a baby, and the film’s PR head, Michael Deane, conspires to remove Dee as a distraction to Burton since movie fans were enjoying the fiery relationship between the film’s lead stars. 

Stitched between modern day and the early 1960s, Pasquale and Moray lead separate lives which are eventually reunited through the help of Claire, Michael Deane’s assistant, and an aspiring screenplay writer.   Both Pasquale and Dee learn to accept what’s possible and what isn’t—like building a tennis court on the side of a mountain or luring Richard Burton away from Liz Taylor—but are still able to  find enrichment in the families they built while away from each other. 

Walter does a masterful job telling a story about making things right, healing old wounds, and coping with events that are outside of our control.  The characters are likable and grow in the face of challenges.  Beautiful Ruins is a moving story, and was published in 2012 by HarperCollins. 

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Canada, by Richard Ford

Canada, by Richard Ford, is the story of Del Parsons, who was abandoned at age 15 after his parents decided to rob a bank.  Del is eventually transported across the border to Canada, where most of the plot unfolds.  It’s there that Del learns about life—he is exposed to his benefactor’s mental illness, becomes an unwilling accomplice to murder, and reflects on how his parents’ flaws formed his and his sister’s lives. 

Del is one of a set of twins, his sister being the larger of the two, more worldly, and less timid than Del.  Del’s father Bev left the military after an under-the-table deal selling beef was discovered, and subsequent stints as a car salesman weren’t successful enough to keep him out of the black market business.  When a deal goes bad and Bev is left with a substantial debt to pay, the notion of a bank robbery takes root in his mind.  His wife Neeva (who characterizes herself as “weak” in her diary) agrees to be his accomplice.  The robbery is not as successful as Bev had hoped, and resulted in his and Neeva’s arrest several days later.  Del and his sister Berner are left alone in the house, and after a day or two, Berner decides to strike out on her own, presumably to follow a boyfriend to California.  A friend of Neeva’s arrives later and takes Del to her brother’s hotel in a small town in Canada. 

Canada encompasses a broad range of emotions.  Bev’s romance with becoming a bank robber after his bumbling attempts at selling meat to a railroad buyer is wryly comical.  Neeva is miserable in her marriage, feeling like she is blown about by circumstance, from her obligation to marry Bev because she was pregnant to participating in the bank robbery.  Del is abandoned, more or less, after his parents’ arrest, and experiences more than a 15-year-old should be exposed to, which the reader senses makes him emotionally aloof. 

Ford, whose previous book Independence Day, won the Pulitzer Prize and the Pen/Faulkner Award, has another award-worthy novel in CanadaCanada was published in 2012 by Ecco.  

Saturday, March 2, 2013

The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin

The Orchardist, by Amanda Coplin, is a novel about a lonely orchardist who enters into a tenuous relationship as caregiver for two runaway, pregnant teens.  After Jane and Della take up residence in his apple and apricot orchards, Talmadge discovers the reason for their flight—a cruel hermit who enslaves and tortures young girls and women.  Only one child of the two girls survives, Angelene, whom Talmadge raises with the help of Miss Caroline Middey.  (Coplin almost always refers to Talmadge soley by his last name and Miss Caroline Middey almost always by both names and title.) 

After the tragic demise of Della’s babies and Jane’s suicide, Della seems incapable of raising her niece, Angelene.  In fact, she is plagued by a desire to flee, to do something dangerous, to tempt fate.  The narratives of her life after leaving the orchard are fraught with near disasters, while Angelene lives in the safe and placid orchard. 

Coplin’s characters are complex.  Talmadge is haunted by the death of his mother but mostly by the disappearance of his sister when they were both youths.  His obsession with bringing Della back into the fold at the orchard speaks to his desire to find and reunite his lost family.  Della is damaged beyond recovery by the hand of her enslaver, and despite Talmadge’s efforts, cannot keep from creating her own undoing.  The pace of the novel is often slow, echoing the tone of life in the orchard.  When the action reaches a climax, Coplin speeds through the scene at a nearly chaotic pace, so that readers need the interjected newspaper accounts to help understand what actually occurred. 

Coplin recreates the life of the orchardist well in her novel, having grown up on her grandfather’s orchard in Washington.  Along with the historic elements of the novel—the coming of the railroad, the growth in industrialized harvesting and shipping practices—readers will sense Coplin’s sincerity and honesty.  The Orchardist was published in 2012 by HarperCollins. 

Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Worst Hard Time, by Timothy Egan

The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl, by Timothy Egan, is a cautionary tale about the dust storms that swept the great grasslands of the United States in the 1930s.  Egan interweaves the stories of individual settlers, immigrants, homestead-seekers, and displaced city folks, with the history of the former Native American lands in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and Nebraska. 

Thousands relocated to the grasslands in the early 1930s seeking a new life, lured by false promises of vibrant new cities, rich land, and abundant water.  Few arrived to much more than flat grasslands fit for grazing, which formerly fed bison.  Many of those who arrived set out to tame the grassland into farms and for a time, were successful raising crops while rain still came.  With their newfound prosperity built on rising grain prices, the settlers moved from dugouts and makeshift shelters to real homes, bought luxuries, and enjoyed a comfortable life. 

But grain prices dropped, the rain stopped coming, and a years-long drought cast a pall on the growing communities.  Temperatures that varied with the seasons from baking to bitterly cold combined with harsh winds to whip the soil into huge, rolling dust storms, with enough static electricity to kill small animals and crops.  What were once acres of cultivated fields now looked like sand dunes, with the dust defeating all efforts to keep it out of their homes.  Farmers began to suffer from “dust pneumonia” as their lungs struggled to breathe through dust that made visibility so low that during the height of storms, it was impossible to see at all.  Settlers died in their yards, smothered by the dust, unable to see well enough to find the shelter of their own home.   

Neighboring states were unreceptive to farmers who tried to relocate there.  The country’s economy was struggling everywhere, but the plight of the dust bowl farmer was too distant to spur the nation’s lawmakers into action--that is, until the dust clouds reached the capital.  Efforts more serious that the rainmakers hired by locals had greater effect—in particular, the soil conservation initiatives that sought to change the way the land was used and cultivated.  With a collective effort by many landowners, some of the land could be reclaimed so that dust storms were less frequent.   

There are lessons to be learned from Egan’s book that are applicable to finite natural resources other than the prairie grass and soil it protected.  His book is well researched and empathetic to all parties—those who encouraged settlement as well as those who turned the prairie grass into ill-fated fields.  The Worst Hard Time won the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2006, and was first published by Houghton Mifflin in 2005. 

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Flight Behavior, by Barbara Kingsolver

In Barbara Kingsolver’s most recent novel, "Flight Behavior," she interweaves a natural aberration with her character’s struggle for freedom. The tenuous life cycle of the Monarch butterfly and the life of Kingsolver’s central character share many characteristics: a displacement to an unforgiving environment, an unlikely opportunity to flourish, and an opportunity to escape, along with a colorful appearance—fiery orange wings and fiery red hair. Dellarobia, the story’s heroine, describes herself as having skipped the frosted pink lipstick of innocent teenage girls, “heading straight for Immoral Coral and Come-to-Bed Red.” Trapped into an early marriage by an unplanned pregnancy Dellarobia struggled to live the life she’d chosen, with overbearing in-laws nearby and no clear means of escape.
Dellarobia, the unhappy wife of Cub (son of Bear), lives in the rural mountains of Tennessee in a community called Feathertown. Dellarobia and Cub live hand to mouth, subsisting on his meager take-home pay, while raising two small children, shopping at the second-hand store, and splurging on shakes at the local fast food restaurant. Dellarobia is considering leaving Cub when she sees an amazing sight—the trees on the mountain behind their home “on fire” but not burning—millions of Monarch butterflies roosting in the trees. This makes her home not only a tourist attraction, but the hallowed site of a religious awakening, the center of an anti-logging campaign, and the draw for an intriguing scientist and his crew.
Ovid Byron sees Dellarobia’s natural penchant for science and detail, and enlists her help in leading teams of volunteers who count and catalog the data from butterfly research. The troubling element is the butterflies’ appearance in Tennessee at all, since their usual migratory routes are much further away. Ovid hypothesizes that the butterflies are doomed, since temperatures in the mountains of Tennessee would be too harsh to support them. In the meantime, Dellarobia is entranced by Ovid and the breadth of potential he sees in her, and battles to protect her privacy from the onslaught of national media and sort out the scientific from the superstitious.
Flight, escape, and survival are repeated themes throughout the book, as well as birth and death. Kingsolver’s descriptions are spot on. She describes a congregation singing an old time hymn like they were “dragging it like a plow through heavy clay.” Dellarobia’s “every possession was either unbreakable, or broken.” She masterfully describes Dellarobia’s environment in a way that helps readers feel her frustration while dramaticizing the effect of potential climate change.
"Flight Behavior" was published in 2012 by Harper Collins.

Sunday, January 6, 2013

The 44 Scotland Street Series, by Alexander McCall Smith

Alexander McCall Smith is something of a marvel among authors. He isn't the author of a book series, he is the author of at least four series of books, in addition to multiple other novels, story collections, and children's books. And while a reader might expect the quality of the novels to be lacking, the complexity of the story lines and the plots of the novels are well developed and engaging.
The 44 Scotland Street series is an example of Smith's storytelling ability. Set in Edinburgh, Scotland, the novels focus on inhabitants of the flats at 44 Scotland Street and their friends. Domenica is a widowed anthropologist, Bruce is a surveyor, and Irene is the ambitious mother of six-year-old Bertie. Pat, who rents a room from Bruce and is on a break from her university studies, works for Matthew, an art dealer. Angus, who is a portrait painter and friends with Domenica, frequents Big Lou's coffee shop near Matthew's art gallery.
Although the pace of action is fairly slow--keep in mind that these books were written as serial novels and originally published chapter by chapter in a newspaper--topics are deeper than one might expect. Discussions of free will, politics, relationships, art, and poetry are interspersed with the everyday activities of the characters, so that readers gain a sense of life in Edinburgh while getting to know them.
And the characters inspire emotion. For example, Bertie's "space" is painted pink (his mother wants him to disassociate colors from gender), he attends yoga and psychotherapy (which he dislikes), is nearly fluent in Italian from taking weekly lessons, and is ready to test for an advanced level in tenor saxophone. He complains that he doesn't have time to play, so his mother arranges for weekly play dates with a girl from his school whom he dislikes. Smith relates that Bertie is one character whom he is often asked about, with readers desiring some relief for him from his mother's rigid schedule.
The 44 Scotland Street series is engaging and easy to pick up between other books. There are currently eight books in the series, beginning with "44 Scotland Street" and the most current edition, "Sunshine on Scotland Street." Smith's other series include The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, The Sunday Philosophy Club, and Corduroy Mansions. His books are published by Little Brown.