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Highly Recommended by Tessa: The Midnight Watch: A novel of the Titanic and the Californian by David Dyer

It took me three tries to finally get into this book, but it was so worth it. The Midnight Watch is a fine work, carefully crafted and rich with images and emotion. Dyer sticks closely to the known and the facts, and these inform the book with poignancy and immediacy.

Over here is the Californian caught up in the frigid darkness and a treacherous ice field, stopped, telegraphing to alert other ships to the danger. Over there is the new and renowned cruise liner telling them to shut up, shut up, shut up, they have passenger messages to send out. Everyone on the Californian goes to bed, leaving their Midnight Watchers to the cold and dark. Everyone on the Titanic wakes up to peril and bitter death.

I originally gave it five stars, but after thinking about it for a week, I lowered it to four. Maybe 4.5. The main character just never became vivid nor central enough for me. Other characters felt out of focus and changing, as if subject to unknown currents. But the sea and the sky are so real and vivid. They feel seductive and dangerous and hard and intense and so much else. “The stillness pressed in…the ice seemed to suck everything from the world.” Daylight brings “a torrent of white light,” a “burning, unforgiving light.” Sunshine becomes a masterful literary device, torturing the vulnerable guilty parties.

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This will be an excellent choice for book groups, who will be able to discuss the literary devices expertly wielded in the book, as well as the many issues that arise. The carelessness exposed by this account is breathtaking, even when one knows that radio communication was in its infancy. The lack of oversight and attention to the life boats and evacuation are a glaring contrast to our own overly reactive, overly protective culture. The interplay between the captain’s cold character and the weakness of the third officer are great for discussing how we affect those around us, for good or bad.

Even though it has no love story, no war, only sunshine, tragedy, and cold darkness, this story is one for the ages. “The midnight watch: a time of loneliness, demons and trances.” ~ Tessa 4.5 out of 5 Stars August 2016

Not Recommended by Tessa: Slade House, or any book, by David Mitchell

Over the weekend I finally finished, sort of, reading Slade House. I say sort of because I got bored at the halfway point and skipped towards the end, dipping in and getting bored again before finally finishing. This is very similar to my reaction to Cloud Atlas, also by David Mitchell, which won several awards, including the Nebula Award, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. I gave that book 100 pages—more than usual. Since science fiction is one of my favorite genres, these were both surprising disappointments.

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Before writing this review, I scanned Goodreads for several of Mitchell’s books’ reviews, including this one. I was taken aback to find lots of the GR people I follow abandoning Mitchell’s books, too! Some of these readers are literary enthusiasts, some are science fiction fans, but most of them have read a lot of books, both widely and deeply. Therefore, I feel it is justifiable to say these books affect many people as they did me. That is, they don’t affect us. They bore us and fail to pull us into the story or characters.

My main issue with Slade House in particular is the content. Grotesqueries are NOT what I want. I have created a new Goodreads shelf for them, since many current authors seem to be falling into this category. Neil Gaiman, Mitchell, Paulo Bacigalupi, and China Miéville are on the shelf for sure. Also Cherie Priest and James S. A. Corey. (Even though I like Corey’s Expanse series a lot. See my November 9, 2015 review.)

But the biggest problem with Mitchell’s books is his habit of nesting stories. I find them not so much nested as scattered. Mitchell and some literary types think this is great literary mechanism. But most people seem to find Mitchell’s jolting POV changes pretty tiresome. I think he just gets bored (yeah, me, too) with a piece of his own writing and jumps to his next plot outline point. As I said, I jumped, too, about halfway through both the books. There were no surprises and nothing that I couldn’t understand. I just didn’t really care to. Sad, really, cause the guy’s got skills. Not recommended ~ Tessa 2.5 out of 5 stars August 2016

Tessa Talks About Dissonance | new novel by JSO Composer-in-Residence Jonathan Bruce Brown

Amazing! It is truly hard to believe Dissonance is Bruce Brown’s first book. There would be little for an editor to do with this work, since it already has great plotting, atmosphere, and dialogue, and few weak areas. By the end of this suspenseful adventure, the main characters are vivid and as real as any neighbor.

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Both Wil Walker, the composer who claims to being framed in the murder, and Peter Jones, the detective who wants to believe Wil despite all the evidence, are finely drawn and sympathetic individuals. This mystery is neither gritty nor cozy: it is just right. And halfway through I commented that I had no idea who the killer was—a sure sign of a great mystery!

Rich with music and creativity, the book reflects the author’s own musical life. The descriptions of the symphony members’ lives give authenticity and originality to the book’s bones. The scenes are saturated with glowing images and rhythmic impressions, and the gorgeous Lake Michigan scenery doesn’t take a back seat to anything. It is as much a character in the book as any of the humans. If you love our state’s green places, this book won’t disappoint.

Overall I am delighted give this gripping debut a well-earned four stars. It built in intensity throughout and had me rushing to the final breath-taking chapters. I hope he’ll write more! Encore! Bravo! ~ Tessa 4 out of 5 stars

Tessa Recommends Tana French’s book: The Secret Place

In her fifth book, The Secret Place, in what is now dubbed The Dublin Murder Squad (DMS) series, Tana French brings familiar characters into a new Dublin setting: an expensive girls’ boarding school. This exceptional atmospheric suspense begins when a familiar figure visits Detective Stephen Moran at work. Holly Mackey has come bearing a card with a photo and caption. The caption says, “I know who killed him.” The photo is of young Chris Harper, murdered the previous year on the grounds of Holly’s school.

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Unfortunately, this case isn’t actually one of Moran’s. Currently assigned to Cold Cases, Stephen desperately wants onto the Murder Squad. Card in hand, Stephen visits the newest Murder Squad detective, Antoinette Conway. She allows him to come along to the school and investigate this new development. In a non-stop tense ordeal, they interview the students again, while flashbacks tell the story from the girls’ point of view, gradually approaching the night of the murder.

Two groups of girls quickly become the focus—Holly and her friends and a clique that hates them. As we sit in on the interviews and experience the flashbacks, we become immersed in the life of these eight teenagers—its drama, cruelty, risk-taking, and experimentation. In a fascinating step into magical realism, French describes Holly and her friends discovering secret powers and the whole school seeing the boy’s ghost. Many aspects of the girls’ lives are left open to speculation, so I wonder if we will see more of them in the future, as we often do with French’s DMS characters. Five out five stars for this fifth book! French hasn’t written a dud yet. (Her next one, The Trespasser, comes out in August!) Highly recommended. ~ Tessa June 2016 5 out of 5 stars

Tessa’s Recommendation: A Light-Hearted SciFi Adventure Trilogy: Earth Girl by Janet Edwards

EarthGirlDon’t expect too much from this trilogy by English author Janet Edwards, and you’ll love it. Earth Girl is written with young adults in mind, it isn’t terribly complicated, but the world-building works for me. There were no glaring errors or inconsistencies, which is always nice. And Edwards’ characters were pretty great. The basic story is built around Jarra, a reject of society because she is Handicapped. Orphaned, Earth-bound, and brought up in care because of her physical inability to step through a portal to another planet, Jarra has never had a family and never been off Earth. She has resented her status all her life, even attempted to portal anyway and almost died, and worked hard to show that she isn’t an Ape, as the Handicapped are often called. Many otherworlders actually believe the Apes are throwbacks–smelly, ugly, and stupid. They aren’t aware that the Handicapped don’t even have the right to vote on how things are run on Earth.

Now ready for college, Earth Girl begins with Jarra’s plan to pretend she is from another planet, join an advanced off world class studying at an archeological dig, and prove to everyone that they can’t even tell she isn’t one of them. She does such a good job, that she gains lots of responsibility on the dig, and makes some great friends. She even falls in love with one of them. (Who’s surprised?) But will they still be her friends when they find out the truth?

Along the way, we learn some great future world slang, get oriented to the way future college works, and begin to figure out which planet everyone is from and what that means. There are some typical college shenanigans, and we discover that Jarra’s professor is a fine human being. Others in the class, not so much. We’d be nardle to expect everything to be blizz, wouldn’t we? No romantic triangles, but lots of adventures from across the galaxies that Jarra and friends solve. Of course. ~ Tessa June 2016 4 out of 5 stars

Tessa’s Nonfiction Recommendation: Pandemic by Sonia Shah

Even after reading lots of books on infectious disease, I’m still always interested in a new one. Shah’s newest book, Pandemic, covers new developments and old patterns clearly and factually—and it is, at times, ominous and chilling. The current status of contagions and public health which Shah exposes is riveting, with fascinating details and previously unknown conclusions (to me, at least).

Shah loops the book’s history with the current day by tracing cholera’s two-hundred-year global attack from the Sunderbans, Bay of Bengal, in 1817 to Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. She traces the history of Manhattan from Native American fishing grounds to cholera-breeding slums to the creation of the Manhattan Water Company, which become today’s JP Morgan Chase & Co. Her own family’s battle with the nearly indestructible MRSA infection becomes another datum in the appalling recital, revealing more unsettling contemporary difficulties, mostly due to how little we know about this awful condition.

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The third chapter, Filth, is full of fantastic fecal facts. For instance, snuff was not always a tobacco product. Many in the 1700’s used powdered fecal matter in their noses, called poudrette. Martin Luther, in the 1500’s, took a spoonful of his own feces daily, for his health. (Before you get too critical, remember that some among us today think eating our baby’s placenta is healthy. And leeches are making their way back into medical practice, too, I hear.)

The chapter Crowds makes the case that the world has changed radically in the manner livestock are handled, contributing hugely to the current problems of contagion genes reasorting themselves into new mutated forms that can infect more species, more efficiently, more often. I was convinced.

Corruption examines the political influences and ramifications of disease outbreaks throughout history, and it is the most alarming factor of all. The current state of the UN’s World Health Organization as laid out here explains a lot about recent poor handling of outbreaks.

“Between 1980 and 2000, the number of deaths pathogens caused in the US alone rose nearly 60 percent…Excluding HIV, …by 22 percent.” I’m still reading this excellent book, but I strongly recommend that every single adult, all citizens, read the chapter on corruption. Our survival as a country, and as a species, may well depend on important changes in the handling of global disease. ~ Tessa May 2016 4 out of 5 stars

Tessa’s Book Recommendation: How to Be a Perfect Stranger: the essential religious etiquette handbook

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Now in its 6th edition, How to be a perfect stranger is a unique and essential resource for the cross-cultural guest. Voted Best Reference of the Year, I highly recommend checking out this book as needed. Anyone who is invited to a wedding or other service of a religion other than their own will be completely assured of their dress and behavior after consulting this terrific introductory resource.

Each chapter answers the questions in the essential checklist: How should I be dressed? What will happen during the service? What will happen after the service? Should I bring a gift? Will I be expected to participate in any way? In addition, there is a very brief history with a few main beliefs, a short description of a basic service, a section on holy days and festivals, then a section covering life events including marriages and funerals and specifying when and what gifts are appropriate. A final section on home events is included, although it doesn’t apply in many instances. Certain sections vary in length due to the intricacy of a service or rite.

Many different Christian groups are covered in the book, including African-American Methodist, Roman Catholic, Mormon, Seventh-Day Adventist, Baptist, Pentecostal, and more than a dozen others. In addition, other religions included are Native American, Baha’i, Buddhist, Hindu, Islam, Jehovah Witnesses, Judaism, Sikh, and Unitarian Universalist. One humorous note–every group was asked if people could or would contribute, and almost all said that, while not necessary, a contribution of $1-$10 was appropriate. The Baha’i, Christian Science, Islam, and Native American groups were among the exceptions–Baha’i do not permit non-Baha’i to contribute. The others don’t take up contributions.

Two great features of the book are the contact information for a main organization and several resources to which one can go for more information. In addition, useful vocabulary and phrases are given along with descriptions of appropriate greetings in different circumstances.

5 out of 5 stars

Tessa’s Regency Romance Recommendation: Frederica by Georgette Heyer

Known as the creator of the historical romance and the Regency (England) Romance in particular, Georgette Heyer was a prolific writer her entire life, having 48 titles in print at the time of her death. Years ago, I wrote a review of one of her mysteries, Envious Casca. Now I want to you to try her Regency gem Frederica. It is a perfect delight. Be prepared for some vocabulary and phrase challenges, since Heyer uses authentic language. Some of them are evident from context, others, well, you just have to Google them. Or skip them.

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Heyer’s heroines are lively, irrepressible, and intelligent. In Frederica we find all those qualities, plus she has a noble lack of self-interest. She considers herself, at 24, past marriageable age and on the shelf. The whole purpose in Frederica’s moving her small, orphaned family to London is to give her lovely little sister her London season. To that goal, Frederica will attempt anything and approach any contact, no matter how distant, for help. She must bring her two half-grown brothers along to town, since she has rented out their home. And, of course, the big mangy dog. Enter hilarity and escapades with the scamps, and cutting quips to make you gasp from her distant connection, the Marquis, of course.

This book is such a treat, with lots of humor and lighthearted teasing. The unpleasant and grasping get what they deserve; the poor get rich—most everyone is pleased at the end of the book. It would make a wonderful movie! ~ Tessa April 2016 4.5 out of 5 stars

Tessa’s New Book Review: City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett misses the high mark

In 2014 Robert Jackson Bennett published City of Stairs, an amazingly drawn and vivid world build with a story that was equal parts fantasy, mystery, espionage and character studies. The plotting was well-paced and intriguing, with multiple storylines that are clearly defined while still unfinished at the end of the first book. city-stairsAfter finishing City of Stairs, I knew I would want to follow the great characters in the next entry, City of Blades.

Unfortunately, Bennett’s second book almost goes out of its way to earn the term sophomoric. While entertaining, the book is predictable, the characters somewhat stiff, and the plot so much less than amazing. I enjoyed the main character, General Turyin Mulaghesh, yet I felt her role was more narrator than actual participant in the events. The book lacked the mesmerizing quality of the first, partly because we already know what to expect of the continent and its dead deities.city-blades

Also, I missed the first book’s main character, Shara Thivani, and was saddened by the few glimpses of her we were given. For her to survive the huge difficulties in the first book just to be found weary, harried, and cornered as she is in this one was a severe disappointment. I can only hang on to small threads of interest, believing that Bennett will bring her back in the third book, as canny and fortuitously prescient as ever.

Finally, and this is a warning to the sensitive, I rate this one as extremely violent. The violence is intensely graphic, as well, and several times there were anachronistic fighting methods and means. The author uses some of these to make very pointed analogs to recent Middle Eastern involvements by the US. They caught me by surprise and ruined the reading for a while. I had to get my head around these, fume about it for a while, then get back to the book. Not that I disagreed with him, not sure about that, just that they were so blatant in the middle of a good story. Quite jarring.

All in all, a pretty good read, but very disappointing in light of the first, masterpiece that it was. If he follows the usual arc, the next one will be better albeit still not equal to the first. But I’ll be waiting for it. Recommended, but with several reservations. ~ Tessa March 2016 3.5 out of 5 stars

Tessa Recommends Entertaining Biography–Born Round: the secret history of a full-time eater by Frank Bruni

Unlikely as it seems, a food memoir by a gay man is one of my favorite reads recently. I picked it up towards fulfilling a reading challenge list, and I immediately found Born Round engaging, funny, refreshing, and fascinating. Frank Bruni was born to an Italian environment that encouraged family, food, and festive times. Frank took to that enthusiastically, and his mother noticed pretty early that little Frank loved his food. His appetite launched the odyssey of a man not much younger than myself who endured years of secret trauma obsessing over his weight.

The Brunis were very competitive, and that helped Frank throughout his life. From high school swimming champion to Outward Bound to a Morehead Scholarship at UNC Chapel Hill and beyond, Frank worked hard. Unfortunately, he did that in private, too, using Metamucil, speed and purging to keep the weight off.

His will and drive take him beyond his weight, however, from the Detroit Free Press, to the NYT reporter assigned to the Bush presidential campaign, to Rome as bureau chief, and finally back to NYC as the New York Times’ restaurant critic. The disguises and efforts needed to outwit the restaurateurs are hilarious and amazing. Who knew?

Don’t read this expecting outrageous behavior or graphic scenes (except for the food)—Bruni has dignity, discretion, and is most kind. He is proud to treat wait staff well in a restaurant; he does the same to friends and partners throughout this biography.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t funny or captivating! Fun ranges from descriptions of one roommate who yells out the apartment window for his cat and kills the aquarium crayfish for murdering the fish, to Bruni and his sister harassing their mom with fictional book titles such as “My Mother and Other Christian Martyrs.” But most of all, this is a book about food and Bruni’s obsessions with it. Most people will find much to enjoy here.

Frank Bruni takes you on adventures into his Italian upbringing, across the globe, and into the streets with this embodiment of what it means to be a journalist and a food critic. Highly recommended. ~Tessa 4 stars out of 5 February 2016

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