Magpie Murders: rather a perfect mystery

Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz

3 words: character-driven, absorbing, metafiction

Sometimes you come across a book that’s a perfectly perfect example of its genre.

This is one of them.

If you like classic mysteries, but also like a modern take on a classic… this book is gonna make you very happy.

There’re all kinds of good things going on here.

First: a book within a book. And I kid you not: I got so absorbed in the book-within-the-book that I totally forgot it was part of a larger narrative.

Then the other story line came in, I had a moment of, “Oh, yeah!” followed by a moment of disruption, and then man did I fall into the wider story.

The story-within-the-story is a classic whodunit written by a fictitious author. It’s told in the third person, and it’s a completely engaging story of a 1950s murder in an English village that’s filled with all kinds of believable characters. There’s a larger-than-life famous detective on the case. Very Agatha Christie.

The wider story is also a classic whodunit, but told in the first person, by the current-day editor of the fictitious author. The fictitious author, who recently died a possibly suspicious death. She’s an unlikely detective, but as a mystery aficionada, she’s picked up some skills. And she brings us along for the journey.

It’s suspenseful, it’s literary, there’s a plot that’ll keep you turning the pages, and there are characters to care about.

Perfection, I’m telling you.

Brought to us by the guy who brought us Foyle’s War on the BBC, as well as the excellent Alex Rider spy fiction series for tweens (which I read along with my nephew, and which I liked way more than I expected).

I’m impressed.

Give this book a whirl if you like… classic whodunits, books about authors and book publishing, books within books, British mysteries, Louise Penny

What’s the best mystery you’ve read this summer?

I found my Strengths, and my Strengths won

 

My Strengths mug!

Strengthsfinder 2.0 by Tom Rath

3 words: descriptive, practical, personalized

Oh my goodness. When I was running a couple of months ago, I heard an episode of Side Hustle School where a guy started selling customized mugs that list a person’s top 5 strengths from Strengthsfinder. And I was all, “Must Have Mug.” (I’ve also been meaning to go for the Strengthsfinder thing for a while now, but it took a mug to tip the balance. Because: mugs.)

So I bought the Strengthsfinder 2.0 eBook via the Gallup website, which also includes the strengths evaluation. And I got my list of 5 strengths.

And now… back to the podcasts. I’ve been listening compulsively to the Gallup’s Theme Thursday podcast, especially to the episodes dealing with my 5 strengths. Oh, my.

The coolest thing is that when you buy this book, you gain access to the Strengthsfinder quiz, which reveals your top 5 strengths. And you also receive these great info sheets that tell you how to use your strengths to their best advantage.

Totally worth the $15 price of the eBook!

This book is full of concrete tips for each strength. While the sections about my key strengths spoke to me directly, it was also fascinating to read about all the other strengths. One nice feature is that each strength chapter contains a section called “Working with others who have [that strength]” — which makes each section more relevant to every reader.

So now I’m writing goals that align with my strengths, and I review them while sipping tea from my customized mug. It would be embarrassing if it weren’t so enjoyable. (Maybe it’s more embarrassing because it’s so enjoyable?)

Give this book a whirl if you like… personality types, building on your strengths, self-improvement books

What’s your favorite book about personality types?

Currently: pure summer

Learning | I attended the American Library Association conference, so: inspired! Also: delighted because Brene Brown and Ron Chernow! (I seriously flapped [metaphorically]. Then nearly cried for joy. Then pulled myself together.)

 

 

Reading | I’ve been doing some comfort reading lately. I’ve got My Mrs. Brown by William Norwich and The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin on my nightstand at the moment. They’re both lovely novels that are great before-sleep reading.

Listening | Podcasts: I’m completely hooked on Just the Right Book Podcast with Roxanne Coady. She’s smart and bookish and amiable, and I love hearing her interviews. And Elizabeth Craft, co-host of Happier, has a new podcast — Happier in Hollywood — that she co-hosts with her writing partner. They’re smart and funny, and I like hearing their take on life in Hollywood.

Listening | Audiobooks: I fell right into the wonderful storytelling of No One Is Coming to Save Us by Stephanie Powell Watts, which is terrific on audio. And I’m working my way through The Russian Debutante’s Handbook by Gary Shteyngart (though: at the moment, we’re on a break). I just picked up Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz, and I am loving it. Only partly because Lin-Manuel Miranda is the narrator (oh my land!) though I gotta say: his inflections are pitch perfect.

Loving | This amazing pizza, which is so good we revisited it even though there are dozens of other pizza places calling our name. (We just knocked off pizza place #73. But who’s counting?)

 

Receiving | The marvelous Bybee of Blue-Hearted Bookworm sent me Book Mail! 32 Yolks (on audio!) and Encounter with an Angry God landed happily on the top of my TBR pile. I’ve started reading Encounter and if I didn’t have a bedtime alarm, it would seriously keep me reading way too late.

Watching | I’m still working my way through the final season of Parks and Rec. I had a seriously Leslie identification moment while watching an episode the other day. (This is both delightful and terrifying.) And also, on Netflix, Elizabeth at 90: A Family Tribute, which is a fine companion documentary to The Crown.

Hamilton-ing | We’re at H Minus 3 Months (translation: seeing Hamilton in 3 months!) and I’ve just busted through the halfway point of Chernow’s magnificent biography. Goal is to finish it, and to re-read Hamilton: The Revolution. I think I got this.

Devouring |  Last weekend we visited some farmstands, and it always gets a little bit out of control when I’m near fresh sweet corn.

 

Anticipating | More canoeing!

 

So, my fellow readers… what’s on the books for the rest of your summer?

The Leavers left me wanting to discuss it

The Leavers by Lisa Ko

3 words: sympathetic, character study, emotional

Wow. This book packs a serious emotional punch.

I first saw it on the “Penned & Picked by Patchett” shelf at Parnassus Books in Nashville. Ann Patchett had written a shelf talker about it, and I took note.

And then she wrote about it in an article about summer reading books, so I hustled it to the top of my TBR.

And I'm here to tell you: the story is pretty darn heart-wrenching. It’s about a pregnant teenager from China who comes to America, and her life is hard. I kept wanting her to catch a break, but the hard times just kept on coming. But the book felt realistic — none of the false happy coincidences that a lesser writer would offer.

There are two storylines here: the back story of Polly, the mother, and the current-day story of Deming, her son.

When working at a nail salon, Polly was swept up in a raid and sent back to China because she had arrived without the proper documents. And her 11-year-old son never knew what had happened to her. She simply vanished.

Deming was adopted by a white couple who renamed him “Daniel,” and they tried hard to give him a good life.

Everyone is trying, but usually they’re not succeeding. There are so many dashed hopes here, yet everyone’s doing the best they can.

After reading this book, you’re going to want to discuss it. (If you can’t find someone IRL, come back here and leave a comment, and we’ll chat!)

Give this book a whirl if you like… reading about cross-cultural adoption, complicated and troubled lives, immigration, the Chinese-American experience, musicians

What book are you aching to discuss?

We’re All Damaged… and that’s kind of OK

(Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash)

We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman

3 words: wry, funny, open

This summer, our book club’s theme is Humor. And this is our lead-off book, and it was a home run.

Funny? Yes. In the things are really terrible but that makes them funnier way.

It’s set in the Midwest, so: bonus points. Living here in flyover country (don’t get me started), it always does my heart good to read a book with a solid Midwestern setting.

Andy had fled to New York after his wife left him for another man, but now his grandfather is dying, so Andy’s returned to Nebraska.

And his family’s hatched all kinds of (hilarious) new dysfunctions since he’s been gone, and he’s alienated from his best friend (aka his ex-wife’s brother), and basically his life is an unhappy mess.

Then a quirky young woman with a mysterious history pops onto the scene, and things get way more fun and way more complicated.

While his parents pursue their obsessive interests (his mom’s aiming to become a new talking head on Fox and he barely recognizes her, and his dad is preoccupied with an illegal motorcycle… and maybe something more), Andy bumbles around, trying to make things right.

Here we have a bunch of mostly good-hearted characters, all struggling in their own ways and crashing into one another and then trying to figure out the forgiveness thing.

It reminded me–in a good way–of This Is Where I Leave You. They both deal with loss and love with wry humor, and they both have the potential to make a person laugh out loud.

Give this book a whirl if you like… novels about returning home, post-divorce recovery, cringe-worthy gallows humor, quarter-life crisis, the Midwest

OK, if I’m looking for more books like this… funny about non-funny topics… Go!

Alas… that I hadn’t read it earlier

Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank

(Photo by Jeff Sheldon on Unsplash)

3 words: character-driven, unfolding, storytelling

Wow. I never knew I’d like this book as much as I did.

I know post-apocalyptic novels have been all the rage for a decade or more, but I kind of struggle with them. I mean, real life is hard enough, you guys! So tossing in a “this is the end of the world as we know it” scenario seems so freakin’ grim.

But I know: good drama makes a good story.

And in this book, first published in 1959, there’s some amazingly strong storytelling. It’s that good old Midcentury style, with a big story and well-drawn characters and an earnest social message.

I liked it so much.

Here’s what surprised me most: The characters really come first in this novel, even though obviously the plot’s drama is going to try to suck all the air out of the room. But the characters and their responses to a nuclear attack are believable and relatable. And while a person could dissect the story and describe each character as representing a different response to the nuclear winter, I didn’t feel like the characters were merely there to represent types. They felt too real.

So, the plot is basically this: the US and the USSR fire nuclear missiles at each other and lots of cities are destroyed, and outside the cities, people try to figure out how to survive. It’s actually pretty terrifying. If I’d read this book in middle school, back when we actually feared this crap would happen, I think I would’ve wanted to hide under the bed.

Though, ultimately this book offers some hope. There’s plenty-o-trauma, but in the end, some people actually survived.

Give this book a whirl if you like… post-apocalyptic stories, contemporary classics, Mid-Century novels, solid storytelling

So… anybody wanna talk me into tackling another post-apocalyptic book because: characters?

Making the Constitution completely fascinating

(Photo by Jomar Thomas on Unsplash)

The United States Constitution: A Graphic Adaptation by Jonathan Hennessey and Aaron McConnell

 

3 words: educational, lively, page-turner

Happy Independence Day, my fellow Americans!

While it’s fair to say I’m primed to love this book (political science major and Hamilton obsessive), there’s so much here to love.

But… I’m not a natural reader of graphic novels, so in order for this book to really work for me, it had to perform on a pretty high level. I need to be won over by a graphic novel, and this one accomplished that feat.

As I was reading, I couldn’t believe how fun the author and illustrator made this book. Yes, it’s about the Constitution, and yes, that could be on the dry side, but… they make it interesting. And colorful and visually engaging. I kept thinking of Schoolhouse Rock, and that ramped up my fondness even further.

The author makes the Constitution and the Bill of Rights downright relatable, and he makes it relevant. We learn the Why.

I gotta say: pretty darn fascinating.

But then, I’m also the reader who occasionally got verklempt while reading this book, because: our government!

It’s messy and sometimes it doesn’t look like it’s working well at all, but it’s built strong enough to endure some serious crap. And that’s a serious comfort, my friends.

And if you need a soundtrack, of course Hamilton provides one.

Give this book a whirl if you like… nonfiction graphic novels, American history, the Schoolhouse Rock approach to learning, the “why” behind the American system of government

 

My fellow readers… what book would you recommend for the 4th of July?

Audiobook so good it ruins you, doggone it

(photo credit: By Bea A Carson [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons)

The Nix by Nathan Hill

3 words: wry, family, storytelling

So this happened…

After finishing this book, I drove around resolutely dissatisfied by three audiobooks I tried to begin. Nothing worked (I will never be satisfied) because The Nix had totally spoiled me with its splendor.

As the Dear Man’s dear nephew said, “Magnum opus. That is all.”

Except: here we’re not gonna let that be all. More words!

This book is one of those big stories you just fall into, and it carries you away. I kept feeling surprised by each new turn the narrative took, but it all worked.

The tone captured me right away. When describing the way the media responded to a middle-aged woman hurling pebbles at a politician, the wry sarcasm completely delighted me. When I’m smiling out loud during the first five minutes of an audiobook, that’s a good sign.

We start with Samuel Andresen-Andersen, then meet his pebble-throwing mother, his mother’s lawyer, his worst student, his literary agent, a gamer who lives in the video game where they both spend too much time, and people from his mother’s brief (accidental) foray into the 1968 protest movement.

And there are even characters from Iowa. What more can a person ask for?

With a nicely balanced blend of cynicism and hope, this story unfolds through flashbacks and interspersed storylines.

And just when I thought I had it figured out… it surprised me one last time.

Big, literary, entertaining, and immensely satisfying.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like… literary novels with a modern tone and sense of humor, complex family stories, narratives that interweave the past and the present, stories of 1960s counterculture, the past coming back to bite you

 

What book was so good it ruined other books for you?

 

 

Boone boon

Boone: A Biography by Robert Morgan

3 words: myth-busting, detailed, literary

Travel-inspired reading: I’m kind of hooked on it.

 

Anyone else with me on that?

At the reconstructed fort

When the Dear Man and I were canoeing in Kentucky, we also visited Fort Boonesborough.

It’s a place where Daniel Boone lived and dramatic things happened there.

So: we history geeks were into it.

Result: I wanted to read a Boone biography.

During our visit to the truly spectacular Paris Public Library, I asked the wonderful librarian to recommend a biography of Boone, and she suggested the Robert Morgan. I’m so glad she did.

This book, written as it is by a novelist, is seriously narrative. Morgan’s one heck of a talented storyteller, and his writing is downright lovely.

Original site of fort

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed being immersed in this story.

Even beyond the drama (being captured by Native Americans and absorbed into the tribe as the son of the chief — who knew?!) Boone’s life offers plenty of food for thought.

There’s some major irony here. Boone loved hunting and exploring, but his efforts led to the destruction of what he valued most. By opening up the West to settlement, there went the hunting grounds.

And when a biography of Boone was published during his lifetime, he became a folk hero and lived with the weirdness of early 19th century fame.

Morgan’s warm, compassionate portrait paints Boone as a decent, talented man who was deeply loved by his family and friends. And that’s an angle I hadn’t really considered — the man’s personal life. Morgan brings him very much to life, and he made me care about this man whose legend has obscured his humanity.

 

Give this book a whirl if you like…exploration, stories of loners, the frontier, early American history, a nuanced and balanced view of a historical figure

 

So, good readers… have you ever read a book because of a vacation inspiration?

Listening to Lincoln

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

3 words: melancholy, gentle, eccentric

 

I’m guessing you might’ve heard this by now, but… this is The Big Audiobook of The Year.

And it’s not because there are more than 160 narrators, though that’s certainly a source of much of the buzz.

And it’s not because the cast contains tons of famous actors, though that’s true, too.

And it’s not because all of this fuss is over the author’s debut novel.

All of those things contribute, but for me, there are three other factors that make this thing so amazing.

First, the story makes you feel all the feels. At one point, I had to turn off the audiobook, because otherwise serious sobbing would’ve ensued, and I was pulling into the parking lot at work. That wouldn’t do.

This book is a magical realism-tinged look at the days following Willie Lincoln’s death in 1862. The Civil War is raging away, and then Lincoln lost his beloved son. And the way Saunders writes, you feel it.

But because this book is narrated by lots of dead people in the cemetery, you also feel lots of other things, because they represent a cross-section of humanity. So there are kind souls and there are brutes, and there’s gentleness and there’s crassness.

Second, the author tells the story in an inventive way. Not only is much of the book narrated by the dead, but there are also sections of knit-together excerpts of writings of the time, describing things like Willie’s death, and the Lincolns’ parenting style, and Lincoln’s personality and appearance. And the opinions differed widely, so you see the difficulty of getting at “the truth” of a person or a situation. But throughout, the greatness of Lincoln shines through.

And third, Nick Offerman. The man’s a narrating genius. He and David Sedaris read the two main roles, and I gotta say: Offerman’s subtle, understated way completely slayed me. The nuance in his voice conveys ten times more than dramatic flailings could even hint at. His character is in denial about his own death, and each time any of the ghosts is about to say “casket,” he substitutes “sick box.” It nearly choked me up.

If you’re going to read this book, I sure hope you’ll listen to it. The beauty of the narration — by all those 166 narrators — adds texture and emotion to an already remarkable story.

Give this book a whirl if you like…Lincoln, cemeteries, ghosts, books that include snippets of real historical accounts, sad stories, a bit of earthiness, The Graveyard Book, The Spoon River Anthology