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American Gods by Neil Gaiman

American Gods by Neil GaimanAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman
Published by William Morrow on June 21st 2011
Pages: 565
Goodreads

First published in 2001, American Gods became an instant classic—an intellectual and artistic benchmark from the multiple-award-winning master of innovative fiction, Neil Gaiman. Now discover the mystery and magic of American Gods in this tenth anniversary edition. Newly updated and expanded with the author’s preferred text, this commemorative volume is a true celebration of a modern masterpiece by the one, the only, Neil Gaiman.
A storm is coming...

Locked behind bars for three years, Shadow did his time, quietly waiting for the magic day when he could return to Eagle Point, Indiana. A man no longer scared of what tomorrow might bring, all he wanted was to be with Laura, the wife he deeply loved, and start a new life.

But just days before his release, Laura and Shadow’s best friend are killed in an accident. With his life in pieces and nothing to keep him tethered, Shadow accepts a job from a beguiling stranger he meets on the way home, an enigmatic man who calls himself Mr. Wednesday. A trickster and rogue, Wednesday seems to know more about Shadow than Shadow does himself.

Life as Wednesday’s bodyguard, driver, and errand boy is far more interesting and dangerous than Shadow ever imagined—it is a job that takes him on a dark and strange road trip and introduces him to a host of eccentric characters whose fates are mysteriously intertwined with his own. Along the way Shadow will learn that the past never dies; that everyone, including his beloved Laura, harbors secrets; and that dreams, totems, legends, and myths are more real than we know. Ultimately, he will discover that beneath the placid surface of everyday life a storm is brewing—an epic war for the very soul of America—and that he is standing squarely in its path.

I decided that the time had come to read this in preparation for the Starz series, which looks amazing. I’ll start by saying that I really liked this book, although I don’t think that it has tipped The Graveyard Book out of it’s Numero Uno spot as my favorite Gaiman. One of the most noteworthy things about Neil Gaiman is that each of his books is so unique. American Gods is very much an adult novel, and not simply because of the sexual content. The themes are grittier, and it lacks that undercurrent of sweetness that runs throughout The Graveyard Book.

American Gods is ambitious, setting out to do nothing less than put gods in the context of America. The book begins with an epigraph:

One question that has always intrigued me is what happens to demonic beings when immigrants move from their homelands. Irish-Americans remember the fairies, Norwegian-Americans the nisser, Greek-Americans the vrykólakas, but only in relation to events remembered in the Old Country. When I once asked why such demons are not seen in America, my informants giggled confusedly and said “They’re scared to pass the ocean, it’s too far,” pointing out that Christ and the apostles never came to America.

At the end of the book, Gaiman mentions that the question he’s never been asked, that he thought he would be asked, was “How dare you.” But the “how dare you” isn’t the one that I personally expected, in the sense of “how dare you be such a heretic, talking about small g gods in the old U.S. of A, the most Christian nation in the world,” but the question was “how dare you – as someone who is not an American – write a book about America.

I don’t have a problem with the idea of Gaiman – someone who very much stands outside of America – writing a road trip novel set in America. I think he did a terrific job of getting at some of what makes America inexplicably different:

“No, in the USA, people still get the call, or some of them, and they feel themselves being called to from the transcendent void, and they respond to it by building a model out of beer bottles of somewhere they’ve never visited, or by erecting a gigantic bat-house in some part of the country that bats have traditionally declined to visit. Roadside attractions: people feel themselves being pulled to places where, in other parts of the world, they would recognize that part of themselves that is truly transcendent, and buy a hot dog and walk around, feeling satisfied on a level they cannot truly describe, and profoundly dissatisfied on a level beneath that.”

I’m not sure, are we the only place with roadside attractions? The corn palace, the Wall Drug, the bizarre shrines that pop up in the middle of nowhere, where people towing travel trailers stop in enormous parking lots to buy tiny commemorative spoons, paperweights and elephant ears? Maybe. I thought that aspect of the book was simply wonderful.

And, I loved the old gods. This was a whirlwind tour of folklore and myth, with Whiskey Jack, Czernobog and Mr. Nancy. Reading the book on kindle was tremendously helpful to me – I could highlight a name and wikipedia would whip out an entry that gave me an origin and a basic outline of the myth. Gaiman’s creative use of non-standard mythology was inspired. I also enjoyed the roadtrip with Shadow – this book unfolds in layers, peeling back one at a time.

There were, however, two areas that I felt like the book struggled. First, while the old guys were drawn with depth and drama and pathos and humor, the new gods were . . . not.

“Now, as all of you will have had reason aplenty to discover for yourselves, there are new gods growing in America, clinging to growing knots of belief: gods of credit-card and freeway, of internet and telephone, of radio and hospital and television, gods of plastic and of beeper and of neon. Proud gods, fat and foolish creatures, puffed up with their own newness and importance.

Perhaps that was Gaiman’s point: what we worship now, in 21st century America, is all flashing lights and emptiness. But, I have to say, there was nothing about the new gods that convinced me that they were actually being worshipped. If the gods come into being and power from belief and sacrifice, then the new gods should have had power. They should’ve been electric with it. And yet, they were bland and boring and ultimately sterile beings of nothingness. A dead woman dispatched them with ease, and they were outsmarted by the diminishing old gods. The most minor kobold operating in Lakeside had more power than the most powerful new god. And then, what happens when the new gods die? I’d like to know. Did the lights blink out? Did the television go black? Did the credit card machines stop functioning? Or are all of the gods, ultimately, sound and fury signifying nothing? Illusions, brought to life?

And, the other problem that I have with the book – and it’s a biggie – is the utter absence of Christianity. Gaiman has him as just a guy walking down a road in Afghanistan. If Americans can conjure a god out of their credit cards simply by believing in them, then it is inconceivable that American Jesus wouldn’t have a presence among the American Gods. We are a consumerist society, it is true, and Gaiman nailed that part of us, but we are also a deeply religious society. Much more so than his native England.

For better or for worse, for truth or for lie, for sacred or for profane, for sincerity or hypocrisy, American Jesus was absent from this book and that did not make sense to me. If this book were possible, I would expect there to be a hundred slightly different versions of Jesus presiding over parts of America, like the images in a funhouse mirror receding into mirrored infinity. You’d have your Lutheran Jesus, who eats jello salad with shredded carrots in church basements all around the midwest, and you’d have your angry abortion-clinic-picketing Jesus wandering randomly around the south with a gun, ready to shed blood for the babies, and your capitalist Jesus, dressed in an Armani suit, preaching the virtues of selfishness, a la Ayn Rand, surrounded by acolytes who all resemble Paul Ryan and who can’t wait to shove the impoverished Americans out of the lifeboat. Without the many versions of Jesus Christ who are ubiquitous in American religion, the book feels incomplete.

What I’m trying to say is that America is like that. It’s not good growing country for gods. They don’t grow well here. They’re like avocados trying to grow in wild rice country.”

Gods may not grow well here, but old time religion certainly does, and that was absent from this book. I feel like it should’ve been in there, although that would’ve been a dangerous narrative choice for sure. Although anyone who would read this book would have to be willing to tolerate heresy, so I’m not sure that it would’ve made the book more likely to be controversial.

So, overall, I really liked this book, but I feel like it left some money on the table. It could’ve been better and didn’t fully realize its promise. But it was damned good anyway!

The Labors of Hercules by Agatha Christie

The Labors of Hercules by Agatha ChristieThe Labors of Hercules by Agatha Christie
Series: Hercule Poirot #26
Published by William Morrow on 1947
Genres: Classic Mystery/Suspense, Mystery
Pages: 412
Source: Borrowed: print book
Goodreads
five-stars

In appearance Hercule Poirot hardly resembled an ancient Greek hero. Yet—reasoned the detective—like Hercules he had been responsible for ridding society of some of its most unpleasant monsters.

So, in the period leading up to his retirement, Poirot made up his mind to accept just twelve more cases: his self-imposed 'Labours'. Each would go down in the annals of crime as a heroic feat of deduction.

Many long time Christie fans know that Hercule would go on and on about retiring (at least it felt like it) well in this collection we have Hercule talking about going into retirement and growing the perfect vegetable marrow. This makes me think that the events in this collection all occur before the events in “The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.” Poirot’s conversation with his friend, Dr. Burton leads into the Greek hero named Hercules and his 12 labors that he undertook. What did make me laugh was Poirot finding Hercules to be a brute who was not smart at all (I tend to agree when you read the Greek myths, Hercules sucks a lot). But, Poirot decides that he will investigate 12 more cases that interest him before setting in the country.

The Nemean Lion (5 stars)-This one tickled my funny bone a lot. We have Poirot becoming intrigued by the case of a gang of thieves who appear to abduct rich women’s Pekingese dogs. Reading about how Poirot has to deal with each of these rich women (there are two in this story) and how many of them are pretty terrible people was fun. Due to Poirot being called in to investigate by one of these women’s husbands was what made Poirot intrigued. The main reason why I liked this one besides the awesome solution though was that Poirot revealed something about someone else in this story and I loved it. Great ending.

The Lernaean Hydra (4.5 stars)- Poirot investigates when a dentist is being hounded by gossip about being behind the death of his wife. Of course it doesn’t help that the man was not really in love with his wife and had fallen for his assistant. The only reason why this case is not five stars was that I guessed at who was behind the whole thing.

The Arcadian Deer (3 stars)-This one was weird to me. Poirot gets stranded in a remote village and is asked to find out about a missing maid. Poirot travels to Italy and Switzerland in this one. And I had so many questions about how much money Poirot has that he is able to do things like this. The solution to this one was pretty odd I thought.

The Erymanthian Boar (5 stars)-Due to Poirot still being in Switzerland due to his last case, he is called upon by a local policeman in helping to track down a highly wanted criminal. I do have to say though, there is a side character called Schwartz who I did find highly annoying. He and Poirot’s comments on women traveling alone was aggravating. I imagine that Christie was drawing some ire towards Poirot and this other fictional character. The solution to this one I found to be pretty clever.

The Augean Stables (5 stars)-This once again was a pretty cool case. Poirot was called in to help out the current Prime Minister who is trying to get ahead of the scandal due to his predecessor who is also his father in law.  How Poirot goes about dealing with the scandal was quite clever and the ending that came with Poirot almost getting throttled for the first time in his life cracked me up.

The Stymphalean Birds (5 stars)-This story starts off a bit differently. We follow a man (Harold Waring) who is on vacation where he befriends an older woman (Mrs. Rice) and her daughter (Mrs. Elise Clayton) who are also vacationing. Harold becomes increasingly afraid of two older Polish women who seem malevolent to him. Harold also finds himself becoming increasingly attracted to Elise and feels sorry for her based on what her mother has said about her marriage. When Elise’s husband shows up and accuses her of having an affair with Harold. Murder ensues. We have Poirot who also seems to be vacationing who comes along and meets Harold who is freaking out over the whole situation. When Poirot reveals all once again you are left surprised. Or at least I was.

The Cretan Bull (3 stars)-This one was a lot of nonsense to me. A woman (Diana) comes to Poirot due to the fact that her fiancee (Hugh Chandler) has called off his marriage claiming that he is going insane. Apparently it’s genetic (yeah, not touching that at all) and he has seen signs that he has done some things. Poirot goes down to visit with Diana, her fiancee, and her fiancee’s father and his best friend and of course gets to the bottom of things. I have to call boo towards the solution though. Also we have Poirot and his odd brand of justice taking place in this story.

The Horses of Diomedes (2 stars)-A friend of Poirot’s, Dr. Michael Stoddart calls for his help. Poirot arrives and Dr. Stoddart tells him about a possible cocaine epidemic going through a crowd. Stoddart is particularly worried about a young woman named Sheila Grant. Sheila is the daughter of a retired general and has three other sisters. Stoddart is worried that Sheila will become addicted which can lead her towards ruin. Poirot meets with Sheila’s father and others nearby to see who could possibly be bringing drugs into the area. I have to say that the solution to this one did not make any sense to me at all. And who would even set up something like this?

The Girdle of Hippolyta (3 stars)-A man called Alexander Simpson asks Poirot for help when a painting goes missing. Poirot is told that the painting is most likely on it’s way to France and Simpson wants him to find it before it is carried off. On top of this case, Poirot is asked to look into a kidnapping of a teenage girl called Winnie King. Winnie goes missing on a train (Christie and her trains) and is later found drugged up. Winnie was supposed to be heading to France to school and what happened to her and why leads Poirot down a long winding path. I just didn’t buy the solution in this one at all. It made very little sense to me. Then again maybe I was getting flashbacks to “Mystery of the Blue Train” and got irritated.

The Flock of Geryon (5 stars)-A character we meet in the Case of the Nemean Lion is back in this one. I won’t reveal this person’s name since it may clue people into the solution in that one. I did enjoy though that Poirot had a side kick again in this one. Poirot is asked to look into a cult and the leader’s possible connections to the deaths of some of the older members of the cult who were thinking of leaving money to him.

The Apples of Hesperides (2 stars)-Honestly I was bored with this one from beginning to end. I guess the moral of the story is that rich people get sad too. I don’t know. I just was glad to be done with it.

The Capture of Cerebus (3 stars)-Even though this one stars one of Poirot’s favorite women, the Countess Vera Rossakoff, I found myself bored. Poirot is invited to visit Hell (a new club in London) and once within its gates he finds that not all is what it seems. He meets a fairly aggravating girl that is engaged to the Countess’s son who is away in America. And Poirot also meets a very large dog which would have given Cerebus a run for his money.

 

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five-stars

Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie

Murder is Easy by Agatha ChristieMurder is Easy by Agatha Christie
Published by William Morrow on June 1939
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 320
Source: Borrowed: print book
Goodreads
four-stars

A new 'signature edition' of Agatha Christie's thriller, featuring the return of Superintendent Battle. Luke Fitzwilliam could not believe Miss Pinkerton's wild allegation that a multiple murderer was at work in the quiet English village of Wychwood -- or her speculation that the local doctor was next in line. But within hours, Miss Pinkerton had been killed in a hit-and-run car accident. Mere coincidence? Luke was inclined to think so -- until he read in The Times of the unexpected demise of Dr Humbleby...

I love me some Christie. She is getting me through some bad times right now. I plan on reading the rest of her backlist and didn’t realize until after the fact I grabbed up the Superintendent Battle series (this is number 4) and am reading out of order now. I will correct that later.

“Murder is Easy” confused me a bit since I recall this being a Miss Marple television episode. So when I started reading about Luke Fitzwilliam and there was no sign of Miss Marple anywhere I was not pleased. But the story grabbed me and I found myself rushing to finish it.

Luke is back in England after being a policeman out East. He ends up talking to an elderly woman named Lavinia Pinkerton who proceeds to tell Luke that she is going to Scotland Yard to report someone she thinks is a serial killer in her village. Luke though he doesn’t say it to Ms. Pinkerton’s face thinks that she may be imagining things. However, the names that Lavina provides him stick in his head, especially a man she said would be the next victim, Dr. John Humbleby. Luke puts the whole thing out of his mind until he reads how Ms. Pinkerton was killed by a hit and run driver. And when he then reads later that Dr. Humbleby is dead as well he decides to dig deeper into Wychwood under Ashe.

Due to a connection that Luke has, he is able to pretend to be a cousin of a woman named Bridget Conway that lives there and is to be married soon to Gordon Whitfield.

I honestly liked how Luke goes about investigating whether a potential killer is on the loose in Whychwood under Ashe. He pretends to be there to investigate some potential witchcraft/death ceremonies that I don’t know how in the world anyone bought that. I would have been all:

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Luke ends up getting a lot of gossip and feelings and starts to think that Lavina was right that there is something darker going on with one of the residents. Of course Christie throws in some some random I hate you, but I love you story-line between Luke and Bridget and it doesn’t quite work because I honestly don’t even get why either one of them is attracted to each other.

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Hmmm, I may go watch the Notebook later. And I tend to loathe all things Nicholas Sparks.

So we have Luke trying to figure out who killed previous residents and also barely able to contain his loathing for Bridget’s ridiculous fiancee.

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I loved the writing in this book. The atmosphere that Christie evokes in the village is creepy as anything. I maybe turned on more lights while reading this book. I just felt like someone was reading over my shoulder and had a very sharp knife ready to stab me with it.

The flow in the book is a bit off though. I think that’s because we have Luke running around and then we go to Bridget for a bit and then back to Luke. And we get a quick appearance by Battle who does nothing really in this book.

The ending and reveal of the villain was creepy and very well done. If I were Luke and Bridget I would have thrown some holy water at the murderer, they were one of the most memorable villains in one of Christie’s books for me.

four-stars

The Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie

The Murder on the Links by Agatha ChristieThe Murder on the Links by Agatha Christie
Series: Hercule Poirot #2
Published by William Morrow on November 23, 2004
Genres: Classic Mystery/Suspense
Pages: 240
Source: Purchased: ebook
Buy on Amazon
five-stars

An urgent cry for help brings Poirot to France. But he arrives too late to save his client, whose brutally stabbed body now lies face downwards in a shallow grave on a golf course.

But why is the dead man wearing his son's overcoat? And who was the impassioned love-letter in the pocket for? Before Poirot can answer these questions, the case is turned upside down by the discovery of a second, identically murdered corpse . . .

I realized this year that I have never read this book. I could have sworn I had since I did my Poirot readings a few years back, but then realized nope that I must have confused this book with another. Either way, I am thrilled that I got a chance to immerse myself back into the world of our egg-head shaped detective and his “little gray cells.”

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Told in the first person POV by Hastings (Poirot’s mostly bumbling and honestly dumb as anything assistant) in this one. We have Hasting and Poirot go off to investigate after Poirot receives a letter from a Monsieur Paul Renauld. Renauld believes he will be murdered and asks for Poirot to come as quickly as he can. However, when Poirot and Hastings arrive, they find the police on the scene since Renauld was found murdered and his wife bound by unknown attackers.

We have Poirot getting into a mental pissing match with another detective named Giraud who hates Poirot and seems him as old and outdated. I did want to shake Hastings a bit here and there since he wants Poirot’s deductions to be correct since he doesn’t want Poirot to look foolish which would mean he would look foolish. Speaking of Hastings, he falls in love at first sight with a young woman he calls Cinderella. I hope you like that name, because she is referred to as such throughout mostly the entire book. We even have a connection to the murder and we have Hastings acting a fool (IMHO) cause of love. I don’t know. I may be heartless, but if I think you committed a crime I am going to get the heck away from you.

This is not one of Poirot’s locked room mysteries, but it does leave a lot of intrigue into who killed Renauld and why. Also I have to say that once again I was totally in the dark about who the villain was in this one. I guessed wrong (twice) and just gave up on who dun it until Poirot revealed all.

The ending in it’s own way had a HEA which surprised me.

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five-stars

Hidden Figures : The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hidden Figures : The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee ShetterlyHidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly
Published by William Morrow on September 6, 2016
Genres: African American, Nonfiction
Pages: 368
Source: Borrowed: ebook
Goodreads
five-stars

Set against the backdrop of the Jim Crow South and the civil rights movement, the never-before-told true story of NASA’s African-American female mathematicians who played a crucial role in America’s space program—and whose contributions have been unheralded, until now.

Before John Glenn orbited the Earth or Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, a group of professionals worked as “Human Computers,” calculating the flight paths that would enable these historic achievements. Among these were a coterie of bright, talented African-American women. Segregated from their white counterparts by Jim Crow laws, these “colored computers,” as they were known, used slide rules, adding machines, and pencil and paper to support America’s fledgling aeronautics industry, and helped write the equations that would launch rockets, and astronauts, into space.

Drawing on the oral histories of scores of these “computers,” personal recollections, interviews with NASA executives and engineers, archival documents, correspondence, and reporting from the era, Hidden Figures recalls America’s greatest adventure and NASA’s groundbreaking successes through the experiences of five spunky, courageous, intelligent, determined, and patriotic women: Dorothy Vaughan, Mary Jackson, Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and Gloria Champine.

Moving from World War II through NASA’s golden age, touching on the civil rights era, the Space Race, the Cold War, and the women’s rights movement, Hidden Figures interweaves a rich history of scientific achievement and technological innovation with the intimate stories of five women whose work forever changed the world—and whose lives show how out of one of America’s most painful histories came one of its proudest moments.

Wow. Just wow. I saw this movie two weeks ago and was blown away by it.  Reading the book just gave me even more details about the African American women who came out as human computers (I had no idea that was where the word computers came from, they computed so were seen as computers) and helped shaped the United States space program.

Shetterly has historian disease (yeah I use to suffer from this as well, historians unite!) so the flow was off a few times. And there are details sprinkled in sometimes that I honestly didn’t think were adding anything to what central point I think she was trying to get across. That said, I was blown away by the time I got to the end of this book. I am embarrassed that I had no clue about any of these women (Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson, and Dorothy Vaughan) that Shetterly follows in “Hidden Figures”.

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Shetterly does a great job in her prologue in setting up the town of Hampton, Virginia, where she grew up as a kid. Can you imagine a town full of African American scientists, teachers, doctors, mathematicians? I honestly was astonished reading about how Shetterly grew up. It sounds like paradise to me. This introduction is a great set-up to what caused Shetterly to find out more about Katherine Johnson, one of the central figures in “Hidden Figures.” From there Shetterly goes back to the U.S. during World War II where many agencies were looking for anyone that had any mathematician skills to apply.  The National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) needed people and due to a lot of legislation that was being passed at the time, it was a good time for many African Americans to apply since they could be assured more money than what they would receive teaching.

Shetterly then moves between the years of NACA eventually becoming NASA, the space race with the Russians, and the African American women who were there for it all.

This book primarily focuses on Dorothy Vaughan and jumps back and forth between her being the central figure and adding in details about Katherine Johnson and Mary Jackson. I honestly would have loved to read one book for each of these women. Shetterly does a great job of showing the growing Civil Rights issues that were going on that seemed to not affect NASA personnel much. If you could do your job that is all anyone cared about. There were still little things like colored tables to eat at in the cafeteria, separate bathrooms, etc. but I loved how most of the women Shetterly mentions ignored it or just blatantly took down signs. There were also issues with some of these women having to take a step down in order to go further once they were all at the end of their promotion opportunities they could have at certain jobs. Do not get me started talking about the GS-schedule. I can be here all day.

The writing at times had me sitting up and saying amen.

“As a child, however, I knew so many African Americans working in science, math, and engineering that I thought that’s just what black folks did.

“But before a computer became an inanimate object, and before Mission Control landed in Houston; before Sputnik changed the course of history, and before the NACA became NASA; before the Supreme Court case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka established that separate was in fact not equal, and before the poetry of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech rang out over the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, Langley’s West Computers were helping America dominate aeronautics, space research, and computer technology, carving out a place for themselves as female mathematicians who were also black, black mathematicians who were also female.”

“Through its inability to solve its racial problems, the United States handed the Soviet Union one of the most effective propaganda weapons in their arsenal.
Newly independent countries around the world, eager for alliances that would support their emerging identities and set them on their path to long-term prosperity, were confronted with a version of the same question black Americans had asked during World War II. Why would a black or brown nation stake its future on America’s model of democracy when within its own borders the United States enforced discrimination and savagery against people who looked just like them?”

“She trained the girls in her Girl Scout troop to believe that they could be anything, and she went to lengths to prevent negative stereotypes of their race from shaping their internal views of themselves and other Negroes. It was difficult enough to rise above the silent reminders of Colored signs on the bathroom doors and cafeteria tables. But to be confronted with the prejudice so blatantly, there in that temple to intellectual excellence and rational thought, by something so mundane, so ridiculous, so universal as having to go to the bathroom…In the moment when the white women laughed at her, Mary had been demoted from professional mathematician to a second-class human being, reminded that she was a black girl whose piss wasn’t good enough for the white pot.”

As I said earlier, the flow was not that great. I think that Shetterly had a tough time deciding what to include and what to take out. I can see how she tried to make some of the pieces fit so you can see how each of these women were important to the space race and how they worked together. Also Shetterly includes details about how African American men in the military at the time were still treated horribly by white Americans who saw them in uniform. Reading this right before Martin Luther King, Jr. weekend definitely made me appreciate all of these men and women who went first in order to make it easier for those in my generation. We are not there yet, not by a long shot, but when I read about what went on back in the 1940s-1970s I don’t know if I could have been that brave or strong to deal with it.

The setting of Hampton, Virginia during this time sounds great. It really does sound like the nerdiest place alive and I loved it.

The Virginia Air and Space Center, the official visitors center for both Langley Air Force Base and NASA Langley Research Center.

For me, this book was deeply personal. I honestly didn’t even think I could be anything more than a wife and mother. I was raised to believe that was the best job out there. College was something that the white kids I went to school with aspired to. Just because I was one of the smartest kids in school did not figure in at all to it. My parents flat out did not have the money to send me to college. My older brother luckily got an athletic scholarship to go to college, and even he did not graduate on time due to him not watching to make sure he met all of his requirements to graduate. However, lucky for me, my parents via financial aid and scholarships that my church told my mother about made sure I got into school. And luckily for me when I was about to graduate from college, I was given the opportunity to interview for graduate school. Due to my GRE schools and undergraduate grades and other activities I managed to go to graduate school for free. Even now at the age of 36 I realize that even though I loved to read, was seen as one of the smartest kids in school, my life could have so easily went another way if I didn’t have someone stepping up along the way to make sure that I got the same opportunity that many people take for granted.

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Thank you to all three of these women and other women that the book mentions for doing the impossible.

This is definitely going to become one of my permanent books on my bookshelf at home.

five-stars

Towards Zero by Agatha Christie

Towards Zero by Agatha ChristieTowards Zero by Agatha Christie
on June 1, 1944
Pages: 233
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads
four-stars

What is the connection among a failed suicide attempt, a wrongful accusation of theft against a schoolgirl, and the romantic life of a famous tennis player?

To the casual observer, apparently nothing. But when a house party gathers at Gull’s Point, the seaside home of an elderly widow, earlier events come to a dramatic head. As Superintendent Battle discovers, it is all part of a carefully laid plan — for murder.

This is the fifth, and last, of the Superintendent Battle interconnected mysteries. Superintendent Battle wasn’t one of Christie’s favorite creations, apparently, since she only wrote 5 books with him, but to my mind, they are five of the most enjoyable! He does exist within the same universe as Hercule Poirot, as he appears with Poirot, Colonel Race and Ariadne Oliver in Cards on the Table, although none of them appear in this book. Superintendent Battle does, however, make reference to Hercule Poirot while he investigating the murder of Lady Tressilian, noting Poirot’s attention to detail and its usefulness in crime solving.

The obsessive need for revenge takes center stage in this book. Agatha Christie has previously plumbed the depths of the obsessive personality, in books like Death on the Nile and And Then There Were None, and she will return to the theme in her psychological thriller Endless Night. The more I read – and reread – Agatha Christie, the more convinced I am that she had a way of cutting through societal niceties to see the blood and bone beneath, and frequently the true sight was terrifying. Her character sketches are quite compact, and while the negative or positive traits can be exaggerated, they are also remarkably perceptive given their brevity. This book demonstrates the devious and malicious undercurrents that can flow between two people – a victim and a perpetrator – while society sees something entirely different. And, until the very end, as is so often the case, Christie hides the truth in plain sight.

There are several supporting characters in this book that I particularly like, including Mary Aldin. About Mary Aldin, Christie said:

She has really a first-class brain—a man’s brain. She has read widely and deeply and there is nothing she cannot discuss. And she is as clever domestically as she is intellectually. She runs the house perfectly and keeps the servants happy—she eliminates all quarrels and jealousies—I don’t know how she does it—just tact, I suppose.”

If there is one thing that this book needed, it was more Mary Aldin!

One significant weakness to this book, I think, was Christie’s failure to develop the character of Angus McWhirter, using him as a prop to jump in and save the day, and the damsel, at the end. Christie had a thing for literal (not figurative) love at first sight, in which her male characters are constantly plunged into deep passionate love with a pretty face at first glance. While I am perfectly willing to buy lust at first sight, or infatuation at first sight, the shallow manner in which her characters profess love at first sight annoys me, and demeans the emotion. I also didn’t care particularly for the ending, although the promise of a legitimate happy ending for Mary was pleasant.

If you’re a fan of Dame Agatha, and you’ve somehow missed this one, I recommend it. If you are coming to Christie as a new reader, there are others that I would recommend before Towards Zero, although it is an enjoyable read and shows many of her skills to advantage.

A note on the television adaptation: the Miss Marple series grabbed this one for an adaptation, along with several other of the non-Marple independent mysteries, a fact which I personally consider a travesty. It was poorly done, so don’t bother with it. I really wish that someone would do a solid adaptation of the Christie mysteries that don’t involve Marple and/or Poirot. There are some really good books, and trying to shoehorn them into the Marple series doesn’t do them justice!

four-stars

There Was A Crooked Man

There Was A Crooked ManCrooked House by Agatha Christie
Published by William Morrow on 1949
Genres: Mystery
Pages: 236
Goodreads

The Leonides are one big happy family living in a sprawling, ramshackle mansion. That is until the head of the household, Aristide, is murdered with a fatal barbiturate injection.

Suspicion naturally falls on the old man’s young widow, fifty years his junior. But the murderer has reckoned without the tenacity of Charles Hayward, fiancé of the late millionaire’s granddaughter.

This is one of Dame Agatha’s stand-alones – not associated with either of her two primary detectives, Marple and Poirot, or with any of her repeating characters in the vein of Colonel Race or Inspector Battle. I was ready to accuse Ms. Christie of channeling her inner Shirley Jackson with this one, but she wrote it a full decade and a half in advance of We Have Always Lived in the Castle, of which it reminded me.

This is supposed to have been one of her ten favorites, along with:

And Then There Were None
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
A Murder is Announced
Murder on the Orient Express
The Thirteen Problems
Towards Zero
Endless Night
Ordeal by Innocence
The Moving Finger

I think she had a pretty good sense of her own work, actually, as I tend to agree with her with respect to And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express, and Endless Night. I am personally rather fond of Death on the Nile, which didn’t make the list, and I didn’t find A Murder is Announced to be among her best. I’ve not read The Thirteen Problems, Towards Zero, Ordeal by Innocence or The Moving Finger. Roger Ackroyd was a solid puzzle, but just doesn’t make my top list.

I highly, highly recommend this one. It is gripping – I inhaled it in less than an afternoon. It is written in first person narration, dependent upon the perspective of a young man who is an outsider looking into the Leonides family – the fiance of Sophia, beloved granddaughter of Sophie. The patriarch of the family, the successful Aristides has been murdered, and every member of the clan, living under the roof of the crooked house, is a suspect:

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile.
He found a crooked sixpence upon a crooked stile.
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

Everyone in the house is just a tiny bit off kilter. This is really a character study of a true sociopath, a person who lacks a sense of empathy, and who is able to look at his/her fellow human being as an insect, under the microscope, pulling off the wings to see what will happen next.

I associate Christie so strongly with Poirot and Marple that I forget she was an accomplished story-teller in other contexts. As in Endless Night and And Then There Were None, some of her best writing comes in her stand-alone tales.

The details:

Year of publication: 1949
Setting/Locations: primarily London
Narration: first person
Investigator: Charles Hayward (non-recurring)
Motive: pure sociopathy & curiousity
Murderer: [Yeah, right]

Endless Night by Agatha Christie – Agatha does psychological suspense

Endless Night by Agatha Christie – Agatha does psychological suspenseEndless Night by Agatha Christie
Published by William Morrow on 1967
Genres: Mystery, Thriller
Pages: 303
Source: Purchased: print book
Goodreads

Strapped by a chauffeur's wages, Michael Rogers' want of a better life seems out of reach. Especially elusive is a magnificent piece of property in Kingston Bishop--unil a chance meeting with a beautiful heiress makes his dreams possible. Marrying her is the first step. Building the perfect home is the next. Unfortunately, Michael ignored the local warnings about the deadly curse buried in the tract of land, and living out his dreams may exact a higher price than he ever imagined.

Praised as one of Agatha Christie's most unusual forays into gothic, psychological suspense, this novel of fate, chance, and the nature of evil was a personal favorite of the author's as well.

This is a really interesting book, and manages to be both representative of Christie’s work and something very different from most of her books – simultaneously.

I have marked this review with a spoiler tag, because, although I don’t intend to provide a play-by-play of the book, I will reveal a pretty important plot device that, if you haven’t read this one and you are a fan of Christie, you shouldn’t have revealed.

Let me say here, so I can get it out of the way, this book is well worth reading for fans of Dame Agatha. It is outside of her series – Hercule Poirot makes no appearance, nor Inspector Japp, Miss Marple, Colonel Hastings, or Tommy and Tuppence. This is 100% stand-alone. So, if you are a Christie fan, stop reading, track down this book, and read it.

Then come back and tell me what you thought!

In terms of the similarities, well, it’s set in the same sort of place as most of her other books. It is a piece of domestic fiction, with descriptions of houses and rooms and British life that are consistent across most of Christie’s books. The characterizations are pretty standard early twentieth century British. It was published in 1967, but honestly, it could have been set in the ’20s through ’40s, which are the time periods that I most associate with her books. It bore a strong similarity – plotwise – to Death on the Nile, which is one of my favorite Christie novels.

In terms of differences, though, it is a barely a mystery. It is much closer to a thriller, and represents one of a few forays by Christie into using an unreliable narrator. And it worked beautifully – I can be pretty ambivalent about this particular plot device. I liked it here.

I called it pretty early, though, within the first 25% of the book.

This book was under the tree for my daughter. She is a huge Agatha Christie fan, and this is one I don’t already own. It is also one of Dame Agatha’s ten favorites, along with Murder on the Orient Express, And Then There Were None (both of which I have read) and Crooked House (which was also under the tree for the girl, actually, and which I have not read). She was completely blind-sided by the ending – she is a less sophisticated suspicious reader than I am, apparently.

Anyway, it’s good! Recommended.

Somewhere in France by Jennifer Robson

Somewhere in France by Jennifer RobsonSomewhere In France by Jennifer Robson
Published by William Morrow on December 13, 2013
Genres: Historical
Pages: 400
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads

Lady Elizabeth Neville-Ashford wants to travel the world, pursue a career, and marry for love. But in 1914, the stifling restrictions of aristocratic British society and her mother’s rigid expectations forbid Lily from following her heart. When war breaks out, the spirited young woman seizes her chance for independence. Defying her parents, she moves to London and eventually becomes an ambulance driver in the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps—an exciting and treacherous job that takes her close to the Western Front.

Assigned to a field hospital in France, Lily is reunited with Robert Fraser, her dear brother Edward’s best friend. The handsome Scottish surgeon has always encouraged Lily’s dreams. She doesn’t care that Robbie grew up in poverty—she yearns for their friendly affection to become something more. Lily is the most beautiful—and forbidden—woman Robbie has ever known. Fearful for her life, he’s determined to keep her safe, even if it means breaking her heart.

In a world divided by class, filled with uncertainty and death, can their hope for love survive. . . or will it become another casualty of this tragic war?

Recommended for fans of historical fiction, Rosamund Pilcher, Jennifer Donnelly’s “Rose” series, and Judith Kinghorn.

This book reminds me strongly of Ms. Kinghorn’s The Last Summer, which I read (and reviewed) last year and very much enjoyed. It is neither groundbreaking nor terribly original, but is an entertaining and well-written historical novel with strong romantic themes.

The heroine, Lilly, was extremely likeable – brave and assertive. The World War I setting worked well, and I enjoyed the secondary characters, especially Lilly’s fellow WAAC friend, Constance. There were a couple of scenes that made me smile, and more than a few scenes that caused me to sniffle a bit.

This book doesn’t possess the depth of, say, Cather’s One of Ours. But it is highly entertaining, seems to be historically solid, and I spent a very enjoyable couple of hours devouring it. I would recommend it to anyone who likes their historical fiction with a happily ever after.

The Passing Bells by Phillip Rock

The Passing Bells by Phillip RockThe Passing Bells by Phillip Rock
Published by William Morrow on 1978
Genres: Historical
Pages: 516
Source: Purchased: ebook
Goodreads

"The guns of August are rumbling throughout Europe in the summer of 1914, but war has not yet touched Abingdon Pryory. Here, at the grand home of the Greville family, the parties, dances, and romances play on. Alexandra Greville embarks on her debutante season while brother Charles remains hopelessly in love with the beautiful, untitled Lydia Foxe, knowing that his father, the Earl of Stanmore, will never approve of the match. Downstairs the new servant, Ivy, struggles to adjust to the routines of the well-oiled household staff, as the arrival of American cousin Martin Rilke, a Chicago newspaperman, causes a stir.

But, ultimately, the Great War will not be denied, as what begins for the high-bred Grevilles as a glorious adventure soon takes its toll—shattering the household's tranquillity, crumbling class barriers, and bringing its myriad horrors home."

Recommended for fans of family sagas, books set during the Edwardian period, and multi-generational epics, The Passing Bells is one of those long sagas that was extremely popular during the 1970’s and 1980’s. Given the number of those that I read in high school, I am honestly surprised that I missed this one. Like many books in that style, it is a mile wide and an inch deep. Honestly, though, it is a satisfying inch.

Phillip Rock was a screenwriter and a novelist, and wrote novelizations of Dirty Harry and The Cheyenne Social Club. The Passing Bells was the first in a trilogy of novels about the Greville family. It begins during that last golden summer before the crisis in July, followed by the August madness and the declaration of war.

“All I know for sure is that everything is going to bloody well change.” “That might be a blessing,” Charles said quietly.

The beginning of the book focuses on the events at the Pryory, introducing us to the three children of the manor and their friends and romantic interests, certain members of the servant class, and an American cousin who also a journalist. From there, the book follows each of them, from England to the fronts, to the devastation that is the trench warfare.

My favorite two characters were Martin Rilke, the American journalist who comes to visit and Ivy, a downstairs maid who takes advantage of the new opportunities for women offered by the war, and becomes a nurse. Every character in the book is changed by World War I, and, in a fictionalized fashion, the sweeping changes to British society, to the youth, to a way of life that cannot survive the war, are explored. Things cannot stand.

The last of the young maids had departed after Christmas, answering their country’s call for women to take over the jobs that men were leaving. Men and more men. Kitchener had asked for one hundred thousand volunteers to form the nucleus of his New Army. Over a million responded.

Rock does not shy away from a gut punch or two, leaving the greatest of them for the end of the book. I can’t help but reminded of the lyrics from Children’s Crusade, from Sting’s Dream of Blue Turtles album:

“Children’s Crusade”

Young men, soldiers, Nineteen Fourteen
Marching through countries they’d never seen
Virgins with rifles, a game of charades
All for a Children’s Crusade

Pawns in the game are not victims of chance
Strewn on the fields of Belgium and France
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed

The children of England would never be slaves
They’re trapped on the wire and dying in waves
The flower of England face down in the mud
And stained in the blood of a whole generation

Corpulent generals safe behind lines
History’s lessons drowned in red wine
Poppies for young men, death’s bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed
All for a Children’s Crusade

The children of England would never be slaves
They’re trapped on the wire and dying in waves
The flower of England face down in the mud
And stained in the blood of a whole generation

Midnight in Soho, Nineteen Eighty-four
Fixing in doorways, opium slaves
Poppies for young men, such bitter trade
All of those young lives betrayed
All for a Children’s Crusade

A “passing bell” is defined as a bell tolled to announce a death or funeral service —called also death bell. An apt title.

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