01 April 2019

Stacked-Up Book Thoughts: 6 Books to Read Right Now

Recommended books for spring 2019Gawk! How can it be April already??? And it's an April without the signs of spring. Here in Pennsylvania, we're just getting crocus and haven't yet seen daffodils or forsythia. Soon, soon--I know.

If you're wondering where I've been the last couple weeks, here's my sad (not really) story. March is a really busy editing month, which means I'm less inclined to read for pleasure. What's more, I read a long book and listened to a long book, which cuts down on the number of titles finished (though both were well worth the time investment).

One casualty has been my short story a week project. I had to let something slip, and that was it. Oh well, April gives me a fresh start, right? Or am I just fooling myself (ha, couldn't resist).

Review of The Sun Is a Compass by Caroline Van HemertThe Sun Is a Compass: A 4,000-Mile Journey into the Alaskan Wilds by Caroline Van Hemert (Little, Brown Spark, March 19). In this memoir, Van Hemert, a field biologist who studies birds, tells us about the incredible human-powered trek she and her husband made from Washington State to the far north of Alaska. Although they occasionally slept indoors and accepted hospitality, each inch of their journey was taken under their own power, sometimes rowing or kayaking, sometimes skiing, and quite often walking. Neither were new to Alaska or to living in the wilds. They planned their trip carefully, arranging food drops and delivery (and pickup) of various kinds of transport (boats and skis). They carried no guns or rifles but had a satellite phone, just in case. This isn't a dramatic survival story (though they had a couple scary moments); instead it gives us a glimpse of wilderness most of us will never experience: massive migrations, the changing tundra, biting flies, and close encounters with sea mammals. Van Hemert's keen eye and clear writing made me feel as if I were right there with her on this once in a lifetime trip. I listened to the unabridged audiobook (Hachette Audio; 9 hr, 2 min) wonderfully read by Xe Sands. Sands infused her performance with just the right amount of emotion, awe, and drama, matching Van Hemert's intent, without crossing the line into movie-of-the-week theatrical. If you like the outdoors or are curious about Alaska or wild places, try this in print or audio. For photos of this trip and others, visit Van Hemert's website. (audiobook copy provided by the publisher)

Review of Mama's Last Hug by Frans de WallMama's Last Hug: Animal Emotions and What They Tell Us about Ourselves by Frans de Waal (Norton, March 12). In a previous life, I was a physical anthropologist, and my undergraduate thesis was all about nonhuman primate behavior. Thus when I had the chance to review this book for AudioFile Magazine, I said yes without hesitation. De Waal is well known and well respected in the field of primate behavior, and in this book, he talks the monkeys and apes he's known and observed and what (as the subtitle says) his (and others') research can tell us about ourselves and about the other mammals around us. Are we humans the only ones who feel shame? How about empathy? Why is it that people are the only animals who blush? Are we altruistic or competitive? This is a fascinating book and I could barely stop listening. De Waal writes in a casual style that is easy to follow and understand. He makes his points by telling stories and giving us much to ponder. Besides apes and monkeys, we also learn a little bit about other animals, including rats, elephants, dogs, and cats. If you're an animal lover, you might want to give this a try. The unabridged audiobook (Recorded Books; 10 hr, 38 min) was read by L. J. Ganser, whose expressive delivery seemed to capture de Waal's intentions perfectly. De Waal himself reads the afterword. For more, see my review on AudioFile magazine.

Review of Bookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert HillmanBookshop of the Broken Hearted by Robert Hillman (Putnam, April 9). Sometimes you just need to escape, and Hillman's novel hit the spot. Set in two time periods--eastern Europe during World War II and rural Australia during the Vietnam War era--this is a story of three very different people trying to find stability and love in a wold that seems out to get them. Hannah is a Hungarian Jew who survived the war, a concentration camp, the Russian army, and two husbands. The hows and whys of how she ended up in Hometown, Australia, teaching music and dead-set on opening a bookstore in a community that isn't known for reading are told through flashbacks. Tom owns a spread and does okay for himself, despite his loneliness. His wife abandoned him, returning pregnant by another man. After her son was born she left again, returning only briefly four years later to reclaim the boy. Peter hates living with his mother, who is a member of a Jesus cult, and once he's old enough to figure how to pull it off, he runs away in hopes of being reunited with Tom. Can these three broken people find in each other the hope of healing and trust? The book contains some tough scenes and difficult issues, but I was totally taken in by the three main characters and their personal struggles. I especially rooted for Tom, who is a good man and deserves a good life. I liked the way Hillman ended the book, which seemed realistic and believable. The unabridged audiobook (Penguin Audio; 9 hr, 26 min), was read by Daniel Lapaine, who did a good job with the accents and characterizations. I bet you'll zip through this in either print or audio. (digital and audiobook copies provided by the publisher)

Review of Outpost by W. Michael GearOutpost by W. Michael Gear (Daw; Feb. 5--paperback). This is the first in the Donovan trilogy by anthropologist / novelist Gear, and the good news is that all three books are available now. Watch this space because I can't wait to start book two. If you aren't a science fiction fan, I hope you take the time to read the following paragraph, because you might be swayed to give this a try.

In the future, a colony of Earthlings are attempting to establish an outpost on the planet Donovan, which is rich in minerals and elements that people back home covet and need. Human life is ruled by the Corporation, which is supposed to free people from all worries about health, education, and housing. Donovan, however, seems to have been forgotten, and it's been years since a resupply ship has arrived. As a consequence, the colonists have developed their own rules for keeping order and for staying alive on a very, very dangerous planet. When a Corporate ship finally does arrive, the settlement is disrupted on a number of fronts, and the three people who keep the peace--especially security officer Talina Perez--are faced with dealing with newbies, colonists who hope to return home, and a ship's captain who clearly doesn't understand what she's up against. Although absolutely science fiction in the sense that we are dealing with extraterrestrial life, this novel really finds its foundation in Gear's professional background. The story focuses on how humans behave in a new environment. The feel is a little bit Wild West mixed with early European colonization of "new" worlds on earth. People have different motivations for immigration and different dreams for how they'll be in their new home. The book gives you things to think about and is very anthropological. The characters are well drawn and there's a ton of action. The planet Donovan is filled with unique creatures and poses a number of environmental problems. I don't really consider myself to be much of a sci-fi reader but I loved this book. (finished copy provided by the publisher).

Short Takes and a DNF

  • Short reviews of Figuring by Maria Popova / All That Remains by Sue BlackFiguring by Maria Popova (Pantheon, Feb. 5). If you like science, art, music, writing, or women's history you'll love this book as much as I did. Popova finds the sometimes surprising connections among music, science, writing, and art--across time and space--via the lives of women who faced the limits of cultural (men's) expectations. Among women she introduces us to are Maria Mitchell, Margret Fuller, Emily Dickinson, and Rachel Carson. Besides issues with pursuing careers, many of these women also struggled with unconventional sexual lives (including LGBTQ+ identities). This is perfect for fans of Ali Smith. I reviewed this book for AudioFile magazine, where you can find more of my thoughts. The audiobook was brilliantly read by Natascha McElhone (Random House Audio; 21 hr, 27 min)
  • All That Remains: A Renowned Forensic Scientist on Death, Mortality, and Solving Crimes by Sue Black (Arcade, March 5). This is another book that I reached for because I was once a physical anthropologist. Black is a forensic anthropologist, and in her book she talks about all kinds of fascinating things, such as our relationship with death (through time and across cultures) and her own journey to her profession. We also learn about the process of identifying human remains for research, solving crimes, during war, and after disasters. She also writes about her thoughts about what she hopes her own death will be like. Black is informative, respectful, easily accessible, and funny. This is perfect for anatomy nerds and CSI fans. (digital copy provided by the publisher).
  • Dark Blossom by Neel Mullick (Rupa, Dec. 10, 2018). This was a DNF for me. First let me say that the book has an average rating of 4.05 on GoodReads. Totally my fault for not checking out the publication details before accepting the book. I DNF'd because my copyeditor's brain couldn't handle the style decisions, but clearly I was in the minority, since almost 100 people at GoodReads really liked this thriller.


Daryl 4/1/19, 9:32 AM  

uh oh .. sci fi trilogy ... sounds great

Laurel-Rain Snow 4/1/19, 11:01 AM  

I love the look of The Bookshop of the Broken Hearted. Thanks for sharing, and for visiting my blog. Enjoy your week!

Kathy Martin 4/1/19, 2:11 PM  

Outpost sounds good. Come see my week here. Happy reading!

rhapsodyinbooks 4/1/19, 2:21 PM  

I also loved the Hillman book!

Vicki 4/1/19, 3:08 PM  

The Sun Is a Compass & Mama's Last Hug are going on my list to read, both sound amazing.

Sue Jackson 4/1/19, 6:23 PM  

Wow, sounds like some amazing books! The Sun is a Compass sounds fascinating and like it would make a good audio for our next camping road trip!

I've been hearing a lot about Mama's Last Hug, and it sounds fascinating - and important. I had no idea you were an anthropologist! I was a chemical engineer in MY previous life :)

And Outpost sounds amazing!! I'm putting that on my list for gift ideas for my husband (though it sounds like I would love it, too). Have you ever read The Sparrow? An older book but blew me away last summer! Sounds like some similarities in plot and themes.

Hope you have another great reading week -


Book By Book

Yvonne 4/1/19, 8:33 PM  

Nice selection of books! It sure isn't feeling like spring even though it's April.

I hope you enjoy your reading and have a great week!

pussreboots 4/1/19, 9:15 PM  

The Sun is a Compass sounds good. My weekly updates

Greg 4/1/19, 9:22 PM  

Spring does seem to be taking its sweet time getting here, even with April appearing today! I need some warmer weather! :)

That cover of Outpost freaks me out but it sounds good!

Harvee 4/1/19, 11:41 PM  

The Sun Is Also a Compass reminded me of a book I recently finished, a teen romance titled The Sun is Also a Star. Your book looks like a very interesting memoir, personal account.

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