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review 2017-12-08 16:43
"The Bette Davis Club" by Jane Lotter - a fun, original road-trip novel with surprising emotional depth.
The Bette Davis Club - Jane Lotter

"The Bette Davis Club" is a larger than life comedy, structured around a chaotic road-trip in a classic 1938 MG that careens from Malibu to Manhattan by way of Chicago.

 

Margo Just, the main character, is a single woman in her fifties whose life is slowly falling apart. She's been a fully paid-up member of the Bette Davis Club for many years (I'm not going to spoil things by telling you what that means but I'm sure most of you will have met a member or two) and can't find a way to move on.

 

A New Yorker from the age of nineteen, Margo attends her niece's wedding in her childhood home inMalibu more for the free accommodation, food and drink than out of any sense of family connection.

 

When the bride jilts the groom and makes a run for it, Margo's financially straitened circumstances, combined with the impact of the several vodka martinis and the promise of the use of her dead father's classic little red sports car, lead to her accept a mission from her half-sister bring the runaway bride home. Ony after she accepts the mission does she discover that the jilted groom will be her driver and that her sister is as concerned to retrieve some things the bride took with her as she is to have her daughter return.

 

What follows is a riotous journey with some classic scenes, including a crazed attack on the highway and Margo, who is straight, doing the samba in a lesbian dance competition.

 

As a backdrop to all this, we learn Margo's backstory and how she came to join the Betty Davis Club. It's the backstory that adds emotional weight to what could have been just another light comedy. When we finally see Margo in her entirety, we meet a woman on the cusp of confronting who she is and what she's going to do with the rest of her life.

 

I'd expected the "The Bette Davis Club" to be a fast fun read. It met those expectations and then exceeded them by constantly surprising me and engaging me more and more deeply with Margo's story.

 

jane lotterSadly, there are no more books by Jane Lotter. She self-published "The Bette Davis Club" just before she died of cancer. She then wrote her own obituary. You can read it here.

 

It seems to me that Jane Lotter was an extraordinary woman who gifted us with one extraordinary book.

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review 2017-12-05 13:45
Duck the Halls ★★★☆☆
Duck the Halls: A Meg Langslow Mystery - Donna Andrews

A very cute, very light holiday mystery that starts with a series of silly pranks where a person or persons unknown are filling various places of worship with animals – skunks, snakes, ducks, etc – that eventually turns dark, and then someone is dead and it’s not a joke to anyone. Our protagonist isn’t a professional detective or sleuth for hire. As far as I can tell, she’s just an unashamedly nosy mom. But then, this is book #16 in the Meg Langslow series and there is probably a whole lot more to this character and her history than I was able to grasp in this one short book. Certainly there is a whole history to her extended family dynamics, which come into play throughout the story and bring us a really adorable holiday scene at the conclusion. This does work okay as a standalone, but I suspect the pleasure in it would be enhanced for readers who are already familiar with the series.

 

Many thanks to Themis-Athena and Murder by Death – I can’t remember which of you recommended this one to me, but you were right, this was a fun antidote to the string of unfinishable holiday-themed books that I kept trying to use to put myself in a holiday mood.

 

Audiobook, purchased via Audible, with a very good performance by Bernadette Dunn, although I think she does a much better job on all the Shirley Jackson books – maybe she needs that darker material to really sink her teeth into.

 

I’d have liked to use this for The 16 Tasks of the Festive Season, but I already have books lined up for all the book tasks and I already have a Christmas book for the Holiday Book Joker.

 

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review 2017-12-03 17:50
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress ★★★★☆
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress - Sijie Dai

This was an interesting story with an unusual setting – China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution in the 1970s – following two teenaged boys who are being “re-educated” in the country for the crime of being part of the bourgeoisie, as part of the Down to the Countryside Movement. In a political and social atmosphere that punishes independent thought and romantic ideals, celebrating ignorance and encouraging violence against dissenters, the boys discover a stash of forbidden classic Western literature and are transformed. Perhaps the best part of this story is the twist at the end, where they discover its true power that is so feared by the authorities: that this transformative power can’t be leashed to serve their own needs alone.

 

Audiobook, borrowed from my public library via Overdrive, with an excellent reading by BD Wong.

 

I read this for The 16 Tasks of the Festive Season; Square 7: December 10th & 13th: Book themes for International Human Rights Day: Read a book originally written in another language (i.e., not in English and not in your mother tongue), –OR– a book written by anyone not anglo-saxon, –OR– any story revolving around the rights of others either being defended or abused –OR– Read a book set in New York City, or The Netherlands (home of the UN and UN World Court respectively). This book fits several of the requirements: written by a Chinese author in French, with a theme of human rights and civil liberty abuses.

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review 2017-11-29 16:17
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu / Joshua Hammer
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts - Joshua Hammer

To save precious centuries-old Arabic texts from Al Qaeda, a band of librarians in Timbuktu pulls off a brazen heist worthy of Ocean’s Eleven.

In the 1980s, a young adventurer and collector for a government library, Abdel Kader Haidara, journeyed across the Sahara Desert and along the Niger River, tracking down and salvaging tens of thousands of ancient Islamic and secular manuscripts that had fallen into obscurity. The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu tells the incredible story of how Haidara, a mild-mannered archivist and historian from the legendary city of Timbuktu, later became one of the world’s greatest and most brazen smugglers.

In 2012, thousands of Al Qaeda militants from northwest Africa seized control of most of Mali, including Timbuktu. They imposed Sharia law, chopped off the hands of accused thieves, stoned to death unmarried couples, and threatened to destroy the great manuscripts. As the militants tightened their control over Timbuktu, Haidara organized a dangerous operation to sneak all 350,000 volumes out of the city to the safety of southern Mali.

 

I was fascinated by this account of the libraries/archives of irreplaceable old manuscripts in Arabic and other languages of North Africa and the Middle East. The first chapters introduce us to the main players in the manuscript biz, as they try to find & trade for these delicate, rare documents and set up local archives to store them.

I think many people forget how sophisticated the Arab world was, back when Europe was languishing in the Dark Ages. They were responsible for maintaining scientific knowledge, mathematics, medicine, and philosophy, while Europeans were being held back by a repressive Church. The Renaissance began when Europeans re-discovered the books that had been preserved by the Arabs.

I don’t know about you, but I remember being taught the history of civilization in grade school. I think it must have been about Grade 5 or 6 that we learned about Mesopotamia being the Cradle of Civilization and being part of the Fertile Crescent. And still, Western governments & researchers seem to be surprised to discover that non-European people had complex civilizations complete with books & universities. I was glad to see the people of North Africa hanging on to their patrimony and keeping these manuscript collections in their own countries, as they have the expertise to read and interpret them. Too often this kind of collection gets whisked off to some Western repository where it attracts limited interest and travel costs prevent African scholars from accessing them.

Reading about the history & variety of extremists in the area certainly gives one pause. So many of the names of the major players were familiar to anyone who follows the news, especially the kidnap victims. I was interested to fill in the details on why these events happened and what else was going on behind the scenes. I still don’t really comprehend the level of hostility of groups like Al Qaeda and the Taliban to art, culture, and literature, but I understand that they have a potentially mistaken idea of what early Islam was like (just as many fundamentalist Christians seem to have a skewed view of what early Christians were like). It seems like most fundamentalists have the same view of the world, i.e. that it is just a temporary waiting room before the real deal, the hereafter. What a limiting way to look at the world!

As a library worker who has dabbled in archival and museum collection description, I have to say that I was sincerely jealous of the people who got to work with the marvelous collections described in this volume. I would give my eye teeth to be involved in the cataloguing & digitization of such a significant resource!

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review 2017-11-29 12:01
Winter at the Door ★☆☆☆☆
Winter at the Door: A Novel (Lizzie Snow) - Sarah Graves

 

It started out well, promising to be an interesting police procedural about a tough female cop investigating the "accidental" deaths of several ex-cops. But I first got suspicious when the author spent an inordinate amount of time detailing the MC's appearance, right down to her lipstick and every article of clothing she's wearing. Then hints of a possible romantic interest, then love triangle. And now we have an assholish love interest where she's apparently more interested in getting nekkid with him than in solving crime. No NO NOPE. This is showing every sign of being a Romance disguised as a mystery/thriller and it's already using too many of the genre tropes that I really dislike.

 

DNF after 51 minutes, or 9% of total.

 

Audiobook, borrowed from my public library via Overdrive. Good performance by Kirsten Potter.

 

I was attempting to read this for The 16 Tasks of the Festive Season, Square 7: Book themes for Saint Lucia's Day: Read a book set in Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, Iceland, Sweden - and Finland for the purposes of this game) or a book where ice and snow are an important feature. Hopefully I won't have a hard time finding another book to fit this task.

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