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Book Review: Every Heart a Doorway

Title: Every Heart a Doorway by Seanan MacGuire

Genre:: Fantasy

The story: What happens to children who fall through magical doorways into fantastic realms and then return to our earth? Many of them don't know how to adapt, and most long to return to what they consider their real home. Eleanor, a woman who fell through a doorway and returned to Earth long ago, operates a boarding school for her fellow survivors. Nancy, the protagonist, recently returned from the underworld and immediately falls under suspicion for the murder of one of her classmates.

My review: Cool world building, but not actually a good book. The author is so focused on exploring her premise that the characters mostly feel like puppets moving through the plot. 160 pages isn't really enough for a murder mystery, and there is a lot of random extraneous material about the protagonist's asexuality. If it had connected to the plot, it would have been fine; since it didn't, it felt like a public service announcement about what asexuality is. It was reasonably entertaining while I read it, but I wasn't very satisfied by the end.
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Book Review: I'll Be Gone in the Dark

Title: I'll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

Genre: True Crime

The story: The Golden State Killer, who was recently captured with the help of a DNA website, was among the most prolific serial killers in America. Michelle McNamara, Patton Oswalt's late wife, was an amateur detective drawn into the case by an internet message board. Over the course of several years, she became an unofficial partner in the investigation and began writing a book about her quest before the killer. She died of an accidental overdose before the book could be completed, and Oswalt hired another writer to finish it for her.

My review: This book hooked me from the first sentence: That summer I stalked the killer from my daughter's playroom. While the lurid details of the Golden State Killer's crimes are riveting, what sets this book apart is McNamara's beautiful prose and her empathy for the victims. There's a story within a story within a story -- the investigation, McNamara's obsession with it, and the book's life after her death. Notes tell you which sections were reconstructed by the writer Oswalt hired, and some chapters are transcripts of interviews she conducted by never got to write up. The whole book is suffused with poignancy because you know the investigation killed her. McNamara was so disturbed by what she learned that, unbeknownst to her husband, she began self-medicating with a cocktail of prescription drugs. This combination ultimately killed her. The book is an odd yet beautiful tribute to her life, and the lives of the Golden State Killer's victims.
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Book Review: Finding Samuel Lowe

Title: Finding Samuel Lowe by Paula Williams Madison

Genre: Memoir

The story: Paula Williams Madison's mother was half-Jamaican and half-Chinese. Her grandfather, the Samuel Lowe referenced in the title, was a Hakka Chinese man who owned a general store in Jamaica in the early 20th century. Eventually, he began a relationship and had a baby -- Paula's mother -- with a Jamaican woman. This happy family idyll shattered when Samuel's family sent him a Chinese bride. Infuriated, his common law Jamaican wife took their child and hid her in the countryside to ensure that she would have no contact with her father again. More than sixty years later, Paula Williams Madison set out to trace her mysterious Chinese grandfather and locate her aunts, uncles, and cousins still living in China.

My Review: I love books that transport me to new and different places, and this book delivered in a big way. The author's meticulous research transported me into the life of an immigrant shopkeeper in Jamaica in the early 20th century. It taught me about Jamaican history, Hakka Chinese culture, how slavery affected concepts of family in Afro-Caribbean communities, and even what it was like to grow up poor in Harlem during the Civil Rights Movement. The book flags a little when the author tries to fit the entire history of 20th century China into a couple chapters, but that one flaw is easy to overlook. This is a complex story with a happy ending, and very enjoyable to read.
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Book Review: Salvage the Bones

Title: Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Genre: Literary fiction

The story: Esch is a 15-year-old African-American girl who lives in desperate poverty in the deep south. Each of her family members is on a desperate quest for hope and escape, whether by breeding prize-winning pit bulls, winning the love of a neighborhood boy, or hanging onto the memories of a dead mother. Each of the characters tries to go on living a normal life with Hurricane Katrina on the horizon, ready to shatter everything they know.

My review: My enjoyment of the book suffered because the jacket copy set me up for a different story from what I got. I expected it to be an entire novel about preparing for and surviving a hurricane, with each character trying to hold onto whatever gives them hope. It is actually about 75% about the characters' day-to-day lives with a hurricane at the end. The writing is gorgeous, and the main character is achingly human, so I think I would have liked the book if the story line hadn't been misrepresented. As it was, I kept getting impatient for the hurricane and the suspense it promised. Read the book if you want to witness a slice of life that's probably very different from your own. Do not read it if you want to read a daring tale of surviving a natural disaster.
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Keep Swimming

I started my second eight-week swimming course tonight, and they put me in the advanced class this time. Eek! I mean, I was getting frustrated in the beginner's class last time, but I thought I might go in the intermediate group? I am in over my head. Literally. We are practicing in the deep end of the pool.

The thing I like about swimming is that I am good at figuring it out. I've never felt like I was good at anything physical before -- and objectively, I'm still not a good swimmer, but I am good at figuring out what I'm doing wrong and how to improve. Tonight I wasn't getting my left arm to rotate correctly, so I started practicing with only that arm. Then I made up a drill where I passed a kick board back and forth between my hands, and by the end of the night I was using both my arms much better. Usually, when I try physical things I can't improve like that.

Anyway, it's fortunate that I took swimming lessons before the big Panama snorkeling trip (which I will make a separate post about this weekend). It was not drifting lazily around near a boat. It was stuff like, "jump out of the boat here, then swim between these two islands and come around the rocks. The boat will pick you up on the other side. PS the current is really strong." I would have been in real trouble without the lessons, but I made it! Sometimes I was even ahead of the rest of the group!
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Book Review: Radium Girls

Title: Radium Girls: The Dark History of America's Shining Girls by Kate Moore

Genre: Narrative Non-fiction

The story: Americans once viewed radium as a "wonder element" that could cure almost any illness. It was used in countless inventions, including paint to make glow in the dark watches for soldiers in World War I. While the scientists at the paint factory took precaution, the female painters were encouraged to use their mouths to hone radium-dipped brushes into fine points for painting tiny watch faces. They allowed radium dust to fall on their clothing. They used leftover paint to create glowing designs on their faces and even their private parts -- all without a word of warning from the factory owners who employed them.

My review: I was riveted by the medical drama of diagnosing the women's myriad illnesses and the legal drama of getting compensation from their employers. The glimpses into women's lives in the twenties were equally fascinating - not just the factory workers, but the whole hidden array of women in the medical and legal professions who eventually helped them. Occasionally the prose is overwrought, but not enough to get in the way of the subject matter. Sensitive readers should beware that some medical content is graphic, and there are disturbing medical pictures in the middle of the book.
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Book Review

The Title: Blindspot by Jane Kamensky & Jill Lepore

The story: Stewart Jamieson, a Scottish painter, flees his debts by sailing to Boston. As soon as he sets up shop in America, he advertises for a painter. Fanny Easton is a "fallen woman" from a prosperous family who longs to paint, so she dresses up as a boy and takes the job. The situation becomes complicated when Stewart falls in love with Fanny, still thinking that she's a boy.

My review: The authors could have cut out a good 100 pages without losing anything, but overall I quite enjoyed the book. It's written by two Harvard history professors, so they really excel at bringing the period to life with small details. I enjoyed the book as both a love story and a satire of Jane Austen-ish tropes, and it was interesting to read about a queer character in a time period when they are very rarely portrayed.