Monday, January 14, 2019

I Owe You One (Sophie Kinsella)

In this day and age, sometimes you just need a book you can get lost in for awhile. There's nothing really surprising in Sophie Kinsella's I Owe You One; it's just your typical formulaic love story. But that doesn't mean it's any less enjoyable.

Our main character is Fixie Farr, and no, I'm not even kidding. Fawn is nicknamed Fixie because of her tendency to want to make things right. She, along with her mother and siblings, are the owners of Farr's general store, a cute little place with loyal customers and a "Cake Club." One day, Fixie saves a handsome stranger's laptop from water damage in a coffee shop (don't even ask), and the stranger tells her if she ever needs anything to just ask. Fixie has no intention of ever taking him up on the offer until an unforeseen circumstance with her "boyfriend" gives her no choice in the matter. As is typical with these kinds of books, a bunch of horrible events then come together to give us the nice, sweet ending we all deserve.

Fixie starts off I Owe You One as a complete doormat, but I enjoyed seeing her grow into a stronger person. I have always love Kinsella's writing -- she can be hysterically funny or so sad you want to cry. Her latest is no exception, and it's the perfect book to cuddle up with some tea and a blankie.


Sunday, January 13, 2019

I See You (Clare Mackintosh)

One of my favorite books I read in 2018 was Clare Mackintosh's I Let You Go. It had a killer twist, and as I said in my review, "is a powerful tale of grief, guilt, and unimaginable horror." In I See You, Mackintosh continues that unbearable suspense she is known for, and while I didn't enjoy it as much as her masterpiece, it was still a worthwhile read.

Each day, Zoe Walker takes the exact same way to her train, waits for it in the exact same spot, and sits in the exact same seat. She comes across her picture in a newspaper advert for a dating site, but she has no idea how it got there. A new woman is shown in those adverts every day, and dangerous things begin to happen to them all. The police frantically work to solve these crimes and find out who is responsible before something happens to more women, including Zoe.

I See You doesn't let up on the dread, claustrophobia, and paranoia. Mackintosh is skilled at ensuring that each line she writes means something; there are no throwaway lines so readers better pay attention. I was able to figure out the main culprit pretty easily, but I definitely didn't have a clue about the shocking epilogue. All in all, I liked this one better than a lot of psychological thrillers I've read lately.


Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Finding Dorothy (Elizabeth Letts)

I have to admit that I was slightly skeptical when I read the premise of Elizabeth Letts's Finding Dorothy. If the "Dorothy" in the title refers to THAT one -- of The Wizard of Oz fame, then why is the book mostly about Maud Baum's life? Maud being the wife of L. Frank Baum, the famed author of one of the most beloved books of all time. The fact is that the two are interconnected more than anyone ever realized.

Even though Finding Dorothy tells us this story through historical fiction, Letts weaves in the thorough research she conducted on the life of the Baums and how one of the most famous movies came to be. So how does Maud's life get us to how L. Frank Baum "found" Dorothy? Maud was the daughter of Matilda Gage, one of the hardest-working suffragists you probably never heard of. Maud's mother taught her to be fiercely independent, and when Maud meets Judy Garland during the filming of the movie, she tries to teach her the same principles. Maud falls in love with Frank because of his creativity and kindness. No, he will never make much money (that is, until his magnum opus is published), but she adores him just the same.

It is incredibly interesting how Letts switches from Maud's early life and marriage to Frank and her elderly years when the movie is being filmed. All she wants to do is guard Frank's legacy and make sure the story he put on paper is the story the audience will see. The book is filled with delightful "Aha!" moments when readers understand that Frank did not just make up Toto, the Scarecrow, and the rest. And yes, the origin of Dorothy is explained, too. This is a terrific read and a must for all Baum fans!


Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Capitalism in America (Alan Greenspan and Adrian Wooldridge)

Alan Greenspan’s long tenure at the Federal Reserve coincided with two large periods of economic growth and two fairly notable recessions fueled by “irrational exuberance” (Greenspan’s favorite term) in various sectors of the economy. Greenspan’s knowledge of economic policy throughout American history helps to serve as the basis for his recent book, Capitalism in America, co-written with Adrian Wooldridge of The Economist.

Greenspan takes us back to the beginning of America and charts a 240-year voyage through its economic and capitalist development, buoyed by his opinions and analysis of key moments and trends throughout our nation’s history that have steered us through periods of dominance and into our current period of uncertainty. The book varies through a number of paradoxical statements when it comes to the role of the state, praising funding for science and innovation throughout our nation’s history while talking about entitlement spending in a negative light. Greenspan, while promoting a classical conservative lean, does take both Republicans and Democrats to task for much of the current state of affairs. The book ends with a modest discussion about where America goes in the future, shaped in part by some guarded optimism that its past history of overcoming challenges will help steer the country in a path to a better light.

From a historical standpoint of understanding capitalism’s role in America’s growth, Greenspan’s book reads reasonably well and provides a healthy balance of anecdote and textbook-like research. However, from a standpoint of fixing what’s ailing America’s economics, the book drifts into a set of inconsistent views without offering more concrete objectives on how to fix the things that are gunking up the economic machine. Capitalism in America comes close to delivering the whole package but sadly misses the ribbon and the wrapping paper in Greenspan’s gift of his take on economic history.


Thursday, December 27, 2018

Young Benjamin Franklin (Nick Bunker)

Much has been written about Benjamin Franklin’s life, especially the parts pertaining to his inventive side and his diplomatic prowess. He was also one of the early statesmen in the American colonies and soon-to-be American republic. However, capturing the evolution of Franklin into the preeminent American requires a dive into his early life. Nick Bunker’s Young Benjamin Franklin is a fascinating and ingenious read into a man that many could argue is the poster definition of a Renaissance Man.

Bunker takes us back to before Franklin’s 1706 birth, chronicling his family through its journey from Northamptonshire, England to London to Boston. Franklin’s evolution and rise to American prominence is paralleled in some respect by the life journeys of his uncle and his father, both moving upward and beyond in order to seek a better life. It was in Boston that Josiah, Ben’s father, cobbled through a life of Puritan idealism. Ben struck out on his own, alienating many in his family for his choices, as he moved from Boston to Philadelphia to London and back to Philadelphia over a several year period. Ben ultimately became the City of Brotherly Love’s dominant printer and helped forge many institutions that have carried on to the present day.

The early Franklin’s evolution into science is also chronicled, with the voyage ending just as his well-known electricity experimentation begins. Most of us are well aware of how the rest of the story ends up. But learning about Logan, Penn, Kinsey, Hopkinson, Allen, Potts, Nutt, and many other names that carry on to the present day in streets, schools, buildings, and communities throughout Pennsylvania helps us see Franklin’s astute understanding of relationships and alliances from an early age, with that knowledge helping shape him and our early nation in the years to come. Bunker does a great  job educating the reader about life in early 18th Century America and how Franklin evolved with the colonies and the times.


Monday, December 17, 2018

Nine Perfect Strangers (Liane Moriarty)

Wow, was I glued to this one -- but not always in the best way. Liane Moriarty has no rival in her ability to keep you reading long into the night. The problem is that when all her characters get together in Nine Perfect Strangers, it reads like the soapiest soap opera  -- or a trainwreck that I can't look away from.

The title couldn't be more perfect. Nine perfect strangers descend on a tucked-away health resort, having spent a ton of money in their quest for self help. A romance novelist, an ex-football player, a lawyer, a single mother, a couple in trouble, and a family in turmoil will all be at Tranquillum House for ten days. They will be led in their quest by Masha, and some of her methods are far from traditional.

Moriarty is slow to develop each character's past, and many of their secrets really pack a punch. This is where she excels. However, Masha is such a caricature character that I half expected her to be twirling a mustache behind the scenes. But don't let this deter you from reading Nine Perfect Strangers. It isn't my favorite by this author, but it's definitely a page turner.


Thursday, December 13, 2018

Marooned (Joseph Kelly)

European exploration (and exploitation) of what is now America has a long and (at times) mysterious history to it. We all know about the Pilgrims, the Mayflower, the first Thanksgiving, and the other lore that arose to help shape the American story. We were also educated on Jamestown, Pocahontas, John Smith, and the gradual rise of Virginia to colonial prominence, but many of us know little of the struggles that the Jamestown colony endured in its first years.

Joseph Kelly’s Marooned is a well-researched book that tackles the beginnings of Jamestown (and Bermuda) through the trials and tribulations of its first years, how a shipwreck helped create the first seeds for Bermuda’s founding a few years later, and how early Jamestown was marked by general incompetence, hunger, and an ebb and flow of relations with the native population. Kelly spends a lot of time talking about how many early colonists simply “melted away” into the wilderness and assimilated into the native communities that resided nearby, and how John Smith’s leadership in Jamestown was marked by a hybrid between a native chief and local warlord. None of this was the stuff of Plymouth lore or Puritan aspiration but much of it came out of necessity and in Smith’s case, because of a dash of ego and bravado.

Marooned’s strongest argument is the one Kelly puts forth at the end, stating “the truly American story is the lives of the discontents. We need to discard that image of a city shining on a hill . . . our city does not shine. It is messy. It is the nature of a free society.” From Smith to Paine to a gentleman of the name of Stephen Hopkins, Kelly shares the stories of the messy, the ugly, and often crazy early colonists who gradually became a part of our American story.