Disrupted | What a Short Strange Trip It Was

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble
Dan Lyons (2016)

I really got a kick out of this book. Sure, it reminded me a tad of my former lifetime working in a tech start-up, but we were never this cult like, cutthroat, or crazy. Dan Lyons’ memoir begins when he loses his job as a tech writer at Newsweek. At fifty, he decides to try the tech sector from the inside and takes a job at HubSpot, a start-up in Boston lousy with venture capital cash and rabid enthusiasm for their mission.

Lyons, nearly twice as old as most of his colleagues, is a stranger in a strange land. Through his hilarious observations, we get a glimpse into the bizarre corporate culture, strange personalities, dysfunctional and sometimes downright hostile work environment, and blatant ageism at HubSpot, as well as the whacked-out business practices of the start-up economy. Following Lyons on his cockeyed HubSpot roller coaster ride is edifying, surprisingly suspenseful, and thoroughly entertaining.

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Britt-Marie Was Here | And You’ll Be Glad You Knew Her When

Britt-Marie Was Here
Fredrik Backman (2016)

As I collect my annual recommended reading list, folks are going to notice author Fredrik Backman is well represented. A Man Called Ove bowled me over early in the year, and a few months later, I devoured Britt-Marie Was Here, the story of a middle-aged woman whose life is upended when she leaves her cheating husband and starts over, a stranger in a new town. Similar to Ove, Britt-Marie is a quirky, extremely well-defined, somewhat rigid, and not completely likable character—and I loved every minute spent with her. Shortly after landing in town, Britt-Marie unwittingly finds herself in charge of the community rec center and inherits with it a rag-tag, losing youth soccer team. No matter that she doesn’t know the first thing about the game.

Opinionated at best and passive-aggressive at worst, Britt-Marie isn’t one to make friends easily or quickly. As the story progresses and Britt-Marie becomes more enmeshed in the goings-on of this backwater town and all its Backmanesque characters, her past is revealed, deepening the story’s emotional core. Things continue to get interesting when the rival soccer team plays dirty and Britt-Marie’s contrite husband shows up on her doorstep.

Author Fredrik Backman’s unique voice, comical characters, and narrative heart make this another book to be enjoyed and shared with friends.

In the Woods | Kicking off a Promising Detective Series

In the Woods
Tana French (2007)

First book in the Dublin Murder Squad series

If you ask me, police procedurals on American TV are a dime a dozen—dull, cliche-ridden wastes of time. On the other hand, set the murder in the United Kingdom, put a flawed detective with a tortured past on the case, have their story told with literary style and well-crafted prose, perhaps add a dimension of psychological thriller, and I’m eagerly along for the ride. So it was for the Jackson Brodie novels of Kate Atkinson (see my reviews for Case Histories, One Good Turn, and Started Early, Took My Dog here) and so it is with the Dublin Murder Squad series by Tana French. On a whim, I read In the Woods (the series’ debut novel) and that whim is going to cost me considerable hours of reading time—I’m hooked and look forward to tearing through the next five installments in the foreseeable future.

Irish detective Rob Ryan is assigned a new partner and a case that hits a bit too close to home. When he was 12, Rob (who then went by the name Adam) witnessed the brutal murder of two friends. He was found days later in the woods, bloodied, traumatized, and suffering from amnesia, unable to recall crucial details from the unsolved crime. Two decades later, when a girl is murdered in the same woods, Ryan and his partner Cassie Maddox catch the case, and he’s forced to revisit old ghosts while keeping his secret past from his colleagues. As the investigation develops (along with the working relationship between first-time partners Ryan and Maddox), Ryan struggles as the line blurs between personal and professional mysteries.

Author Tana French’s writing elevates story, dialog, and atmosphere to deliver a book that satisfies as a character drama wrapped in a mystery.

Review | Pax :: A Fox and His Boy Come of Age

Pax
Sara Pennypacker (2016)
Illustrated by Jon Klassen

Here’s why dust jacket art matters. I was first encouraged to pick up Pax when I caught a glimpse of its striking cover. Flipping through, I saw illustrations peppered throughout the book and thought this was just the ticket to encourage a budding young reader I know to sink her teeth into the story of a fox and his boy. Well, my young friend was unimpressed and never cracked the cover. I, on the other hand, was hooked from the start by the most heart-wrenching opening chapter I can ever recall reading. It was so devastating, I had to close the book and put it down for a while before I was ready to read on.

The titular character is a fox, raised from a kit by a boy named Peter. Motherless, Peter lives in the country with his father, where he and Pax can spend long hours rambling together. When an unnamed national conflict arises (the author is careful not to date the action), Peter’s father enlists, forcing the boy to release Pax back into the wild and leave his best friend far behind when he goes to live with his grandparents.

Over the course of this duel coming-of-age story, Peter struggles to tame his wildness (his anger) while Pax must foster his wildness in order to survive. The narrative excels because author Sara Pennypacker conveys the fox’s story and his communication with others (human and animal) without resorting to sugary anthropomorphizing. The spare and evocative pen and ink illustrations by Jon Klassen (he of the awesome Hat series of children’s picture books) are perfectly matched to the story.

In Pax, author Sara Pennypacker and illustrator Jon Klassen have created a Charlotte’s Web for a new generation, a rich experience that will resonate with readers of all ages.

Review | The Sport of Kings :: A Book to be Reckoned With

The Sport of Kings
C.E. Morgan (2016)

I’m adding this book to my pantheon of very challenging pleasure reads, alongside Middlemarch (which I didn’t much like) and Moby-Dick (which I loved.) The Sport of Kings will sit on the fence between them, at least for now, as I continue to mull over my reaction to this book.

Having read C.E. Morgan’s first book (All the Living, 2009), which came as an amazing surprise, I looked forward to revisiting her distinctive writing style. Kings, clocking in at over 500 pages, is an equally rich, rewarding, and challenging read, but it’s also at times ponderous and meandering. Spanning multi-generations of multi-characters, primarily set in the moneyed horse country of Kentucky (but also the impoverished inner-city of Cincinnati), this book reads like a hybrid of Faulkner, Melville, Steinbeck, and Shakespeare, as it grapples with race, class, entitlement, money, poverty, slavery, and the responsibility (and imprisonment) of one generation to the next.

None of the main characters are particularly likeable, but they’re human—complex, puzzling, and imperfect. There’s Henry Forge, who inherits his father’s Kentucky farm (land that has been in his family since after the Revolutionary War) and builds his fortune by switching from crops to thoroughbreds (over his daddy’s dying wish), hellbent on a quest to build the next Secretariat. Henry grooms his daughter Henrietta to be the next to add luster to the family’s good name. Henrietta is a tragic character, whose life is charted by her family tree before she’s even born. Then there’s Allmon, a bi-racial ex-con hired to work as a groom, who has a distant and unknown connection to the Forge family. The sun around which they all revolve is a thoroughbread filly named Hellsmouth, the likes of which has never been seen.

The Sport of Kings is a book that demands complete attention, and you want to give it, as you absorb each sentence with care. Morgan’s prose is a master class in description, lush and evocative without pretension, but for a book of this length, such verbiage can get a wearisome. While I marveled, for instance, at the way Morgan accelerates time, propelling a character through the years with the brevity of a page or two, like a verbal film montage, by the end of the book I couldn’t take another hyper-florid description of day’s end. Just set the dang sun already!

To say there’s a lot going on in this book is an understatement, as characters attempt to stake their claim while trying to escape and reshape their pasts, at times with the weight of the world’s problems upon them. Reading Kings is worthwhile but difficult, and it takes time. It’s a book you could get through quickly by skimming, but you don’t want to. The expressive writing invites you to slow down and savor the language; there’s just so much of it.

While not a great book (and I really wanted to love it), The Sport of Kings is a book that will spark interesting discussion. (I have no doubt it will be taught in American literature courses alongside the greats.) I keep asking others if they have read it, hoping to find an impromptu book discussion that will certainly enhance the reading experience.

Review |The Book I’m Currently Recommending to Everyone

A Man Called Ove
Fredrik Backman (2012)

When I reluctantly turned the last page and closed this book, I told myself I’d just finished the best book I’ll read all year. This December, when I’m compiling by annual recommended list for 2016, I’ll be extremely surprised if I don’t feel the same way.

This book, which I thought was going to be merely an entertaining, light read about a lovable curmudgeon, unexpectedly grabbed me by the heart and wouldn’t let go.

The eponymous sourpuss, who gains small comfort in policing the rules of his neighborhood, is continually irritated by just about everyone who crosses his path and in his droll internal monologue, Ove dubs them with descriptive names such as the Lanky One and the Pregnant Foreign Woman. He doesn’t mince words nor suffer fools gladly. Just to follow Ove as he goes through his daily routine would have been entertaining enough, but then a wonderful thing happens, and the book reveals itself to be much more than a delightful romp through Grumpville.

I don’t want to say any more, because to know too much gives away the pleasure of discovering Ove for yourself. And to know Ove, is to love him and his story.

Review | Journal of a Novel :: Witness to the Great American Novel

Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters
John Steinbeck (1969)

Of the books I read last year, East of Eden was my favorite. So, when I learned that author John Steinbeck had kept a writer’s journal in 1951, during the ten months he spent composing the novel, I knew I had to read it too. I’m glad that I did, and so close on the heels of finishing the book, as it perfectly complimented my enjoyment of the novel.

The journal, written as private letters to Steinbeck’s editor friend Pascal Covici, wasn’t intended to be read until after the book was completed. The entries were never intended for publication; they served instead as Steinbeck’s warm-up before each day’s writing and were only made public after his death. Equal parts daily diary, deconstruction of a novel, and glimpse into the mind of a writer working at the peak of his powers, Journal of a Novel is a fascinating companion to the process and the product of East of Eden. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys this book in particular or the author in general.

Review | The War That Saved My Life :: A Young Girl Finds New Life Escaping the Blitz

The War That Saved My Life
Kimberly Brubaker Bradley (2016)

Ten-year-old Ada lives a lonely existence, locked away in a London apartment by a heartless mother too ashamed of her daughter’s club foot to let the girl be seen by others. When Ada’s younger brother Jamie is evacuated to escape the Blitz, she sneaks off with him and so begins their new life. The children are sent to a rural village, where they’re housed with Susan Smith, a grieving woman reluctant to take in a couple of kids. As Susan gradually emerges from her depression, Ada blossoms in a world where she’s not defined by her physical challenge. But years sequestered in a one-room flat, at the whim of her mother’s sometimes violent moods, has taken a toll on the girl’s ability to form new and loving attachments. Over time, as the feared bombing of London fails to materialize, relocated children are pulled back to the city by their families and Ada fears for her new-found freedom. Is it too much to hope that her mother will see her in a new light? All the while, the Battle for Britain looms ever closer.

Written with heart, sensitivity and an attention to period detail, this work of historical fiction for younger readers gives a genuine impression of life during wartime in an English coastal village at the start of WWII. The War That Saved My Life is emotionally candid; author Brubaker Bradley doesn’t shy away from complex themes of loss, abuse (both psychological and physical), and the conflicted bonds of family (that which you’re born into and that which you create.) Complete with triumph over adversity, horses, and German spies lurking off shore, this book would be the perfect adaptation for a Masterpiece Theater for young adults.

Review | Tambora :: The Eruption Felt Round the World

Tambora: The Eruption That Changed the World
Gilles D’Arcy Wood (2014)

In 1815, Mount Tambora, a towering peak on the Indonesian island of Sumbawa, roared to life, spewing an incredible geyser of fire and hot ash into the air as the earth trembled with a deafening noise. Fiery stones and sizzling rain fell from the skies, boiling magma flowed down the mountain, and hurricane-force winds blew. In a matter of hours, idyllic villages populated by tens of thousands of islanders were erased from the map. When it was all over, and Tambora had sunk back into itself, the island was left a charred wasteland and Tambora entered the history books as the most powerful volcanic eruption in recorded history.

In this fascinating and immensely readable book, author Gilles D’Arcy Wood explains how Tambora’s eruption rippled out over the next three years to affect weather around the globe and alter human history in locations as far away as Europe and North America. Continue reading

My Favorite Books Read in 2015

Took a while, but here it is, my 23rd annual recommended reading list. In no particular order, my favorite books read in 2015.