** A Game of Birds and Wolves by Simon Parkin

A Game of Birds and Wolves: The Ingenious Young Women Whose Secret Board Game Helped Win World War II tells an exciting story of well-timed war games that allowed the British navy to create new, successful strategies to overcome the dreaded German U-boats and allow supplies to flow into the UK. Unfortunately, the war games are buried into all kinds of other details and extraneous stories (and longish discussions of naval warfare, whichI found unbearably tedious).

 

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* The Other Mrs. by Mary Kubica

Yes, The Other Mrs. is a page-turner. But do we really need another split personality trick to power a mystery? And even if you are not allergic to that, I found the story full of inconsistencies. What (apparently loving) mom would not know that there’s something wrong with her teenager? Or, for that matter, move in with another teenager without addressing obvious behavior issues? There’s quite a list of highly improbable actions like that.

 

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*** The Address Book by Deirdre Mask

Those of us with physical addresses never think twice about it: of course, the mail carrier or the UPS driver will find us, of course, anyone visiting can just plug in the address into Google Maps, of course the property we live on is recorded in some official record. But  The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal About Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power reminds us that most of the world does not enjoy such luxuries (and it’s not just in the developing world, some rural folks in the US have no street addresses). It also shows how government developed addresses mostly to track its citizens, and tax them, and how naming streets is an essentially political act.

The book is full of interesting insights about the power of something as apparently simple as a street address.

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*** Sea Wife by Amity Gaige

In Sea Wife, the author and her husband leave everything behind to live on a boat with their two small children. She knows nothing about sailing, but the debris of her unfinished dissertation on poetry (and its attendant depression) make it relatively easy to go with the flow and set up house on a smallish boat. There, she discovers the drudgery of small-quarter living, the pressures on marriage and motherhood of being together all the time, and some of the delights of sailing, at least until it gets very, very dark.

Don’t be fooled by the apparent escapism of the first few chapters, it gets very deep into marriage challenges and life challenges.

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** Notes From Public Typewriter by Michael Gustafson and Oliver Uberti

One of the authors of Notes from a Public Typewriter placed an old typewriter in his bookstore and carefully gathered and chose a selection of the notes to share. There are funny notes and sad notes, deep notes and silly notes. It makes for a delightful and kind overall effect.

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** How Much of These Hills Is Gold by Pam Zhang

How Much of These Hills Is Gold follows two orphans in the Gold Rush years of the American West who pick their way through a hostile climate and even more hostile residents who can’t abide their Chinese origins. Dreams and symbolism figure strongly along with tigers (really!), which made it difficult for me to get into the  well-crafted family story but it felt arms-length to the end, which is not ideal for a novel.

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*** The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love

A New York-based journalist with utterly urban habits and tastes falls in love with a farmer and moves to a dilapidated farmhouse on rented acreage with him. A tough year ensues. That’s the story in The Dirty Life: A Memoir of Farming, Food, and Love–which has a happy ending (eventually, past that first year) and many stories of hard work and surprises. It’s a wonderful tale.

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*** The Last Taxi Driver by Lee Durkee

The Last Taxi Driver stars a cab driver who works for an unscrupulous taxi company and ferries people with lots of problems, from poverty to addiction to, well, complicated lives. His personal story is forgettable but the stream-of-consciousness descriptions of the passengers is not.

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* The Vanishing Half by Britt Bennett

The premise of The Vanishing Half is soap opera fodder: twins from a small Louisiana town split up. One will pass for white, the other not, and live out their lives in complete isolation, until of course they don’t The result is not quite as bad as I had feared, as the plot brings in plenty of extra characters and the women, at least, are nicely layered. (The men seem to come in two varieties only: perfect husbands and batterers, so we may have a bit of a nuance gap here.) The story is full of small details and historical references but I just could not see past that unlikely premise.

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** The Chiffon Trenches by André Leon Talley

I have no interest in fashion, and as a result I found The Chiffon Trenches both fascinating and deeply revulsive, with journalists being showered with (and expecting) free clothes, trips, and other generous gifts bestowed upon them by the very designers they cover. How could anyone think that this is ethically acceptable? That’s one part of this memoir.

Another is the intrigue at the various magazines the author worked for, in particular Vogue. The level of cattiness and underhanded politics at work there bored me thoroughly. The rest I found much more interesting, namely the personal journey and struggles of a gay African-American man from the South thrust into the New York fusion world–and who can remember each and every day of this life, it seems, by the specific outfit he wore, and what others wore. I guess that’s what makes him a fashion aficionado.

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