Book review: The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Only an author as talented as Erik Larson could seamlessly weave together stories about the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a serial killer during that same time period and make both suspenseful and compelling. It is such a highly readable book that I had to double-check that it was non-fiction rather than historical fiction.
There are connections, not the least being that the vast influx of people into Chicago to work and view the World’s Fair made a few missing young women here and there difficult to trace back to a single killer.
The fact that the author makes the World’s Fair (which almost didn’t happen) almost as suspenseful as the serial killer is further testament to his writing skill. His ability to effortlessly weave facts and portrayals of the main players together and combining two disparate plots is uncanny. The book shouldn’t work in its format (alternating chapters of alternating plots) but, somehow, it does, and the result is an excellent and very compelling book.
I highly recommend it!

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Book review: The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

The Anthropocene Reviewed by John Green

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

For those of you who are familiar with John Green because of books like “Fault in Our Stars,” the author also does a podcast called “The Anthropocene Reviewed,” a mix of the scientific and the personal. If you like the podcast, you’ll like this book. Many of the chapters are based on the podcast, and the format is similar as well.
I found the factual essays to be interesting, and the personal essays to range from mildly interesting to incredibly moving. It’s a fast and easy read. Fans of John Green will enjoy the book immensely. And if you’re new to him, this is a good place to start (with a minimum of angst included). 🙂

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Book review: Rise and Kill First by Ronen Bergman

Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations by Ronen Bergman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a fascinating book about the history of Israeli intelligence and policies of targeted assassinations. The author is an Israeli investigative reporter, and the book is written originally in Hebrew. The translation is excellent, however, and the book is very readable and incredibly interesting. In addition, the author is surprisingly even-handed about the foreign policy, operational, and tactical policies and decisions of the Israeli government and intelligence agencies. He is critical of the blunders made and of the decisions taken, especially in recent events, but he is also realistic about the choices faced by the Israelis.
If there is one quote that epitomizes the philosophy of the Israeli intelligence agencies, it is this one: “Let’s admit the truth: most of the Jews in the Holocaust died without fighting. We must never reach that situation again, kneeling, without the ability to fight for our lives.”
The title of the book comes from a Babylonian Talmud, “If someone comes to kill you, rise early and kill him first.”
Read the book.

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Graduation 2021 and Hawaii

Two joyous events, especially in a year like this one.

In mid-June, we celebrated our daughter’s graduation from Stanford (total brag: she graduated with a degree in math, with distinction, and phi beta kappa). The graduation was a limited in-person event (two fully vaccinated guests per student). Issa Rae was the graduation speaker, and she did an excellent job. In addition, we had two VERY lovely friends who opened their home for a reception after the ceremony for Jade and her friends and their families. It was a truly celebratory day, and I think everyone appreciated the moment even more than they usually would.

Graduation 2021

Our summer trip was to Honolulu a few weeks later. We rented a house and enjoyed spending time with family and friends. There was a beautiful ocean, there were many beautiful rainbows (Hawaii isn’t called the rainbow state for no reason), there was fabulous food (fancy and not fancy), and there were wonderful guests who stayed with us. It really was a perfect time to relax, eat, and have fun.

I cannot tell you how wonderful Hawaii is. I can feel my blood pressure going down after landing at the Honolulu airport. My east coast friends wonder why we don’t go to the Caribbean for sun and ocean since it’s so much closer. I’ve concluded that it’s best to smile and keep the magical island paradise of Hawaii as a west coast secret. 🙂

sunrise over Koko Head
Moon over Koko Head
Pali Lookout

Book review: Cleopatra’s Heir by Gillian Bradshaw

Cleopatra’s Heir by Gillian Bradshaw

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve enjoyed Gillian Bradshaw’s historical fiction for many many years. This book has an interesting premise: if Cleopatra and Julius Caesar’s son survived after Cleopatra’s defeat and death, what might have happened to him? Would he have tried to take his throne back? Would he have been content to live like a normal person? How might he have done that?
The author explores this premise, exploring the possible mindset of Caesarion as a privileged (in the non-21st century meaning of the word) member of the royal family to someone with no family, no money, and in danger of his life. The book is charmingly written (as is all of the author’s books) and informative about life in the Egyptian court. If there is any criticism, it is that there is a little too much teenage drama and angst from Caesarion. But perhaps that is more about my impatience with and intolerance of teenage angst than it is a criticism of the book. 🙂
The book also takes an interesting perspective on Octavian, Cleopatra, and Mark Anthony and makes them more human than legend has made them. I liked the angle.
In the end, as the Author’s Note made clear, Caesarion was almost certainly killed by the Romans. But this book fascinates with the “what if” alternative. It’s definitely a worthwhile read!

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Book review: The Woman Who Smashed Codes by Jason Fagone

The Woman Who Smashed Codes: A True Story of Love, Spies, and the Unlikely Heroine who Outwitted America’s Enemies by Jason Fagone

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is a fascinating biography of Elizebeth Smith, a woman who, along with her better known husband–William Friedman–was responsible for the creation of the field of cryptology. She pioneered methods of decryption, broke German codes (including Enigma machine codes that the Germans thought were unbreakable), and changed the role of intelligence gathering forever. Needless to say, by both her own choice and society’s preferences, her role in the field of cryptology is relatively obscure. (It didn’t help that J. Edgar Hoover made sure that the FBI received credit for many of her successes.)
The author uses materials from Elizebeth’s own files, newly unclassified materials from World War II, and interviews of her to tell her story. The result is a highly engaging, highly readable story of a formidable woman who took little credit for herself, her pioneering role, and her resounding successes, which played a pivotal role in the Allied victories over Germany.
I highly recommend this for anyone who is interested in cryptology, World War II, and/or the role of women during this period.

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Book review: The Cecilia & Kate Novels by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

The Cecilia & Kate Novels: Sorcery & Cecilia by Wrede & Stevermer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Instead of starting a new series, complaining about starting a new series, and not finishing a new series, I decided to read ALL THREE of the books in this series consecutively. (No applause necessary.)
The conceit of this trilogy is that the entire set of books is written as letters between two cousins, Kate and Cecilia. Very clever, very well done. The authors give you a distinct sense of the personalities of both writers, and their letters are written vividly enough that the plot moves engagingly along and secondary characters are also brought to life.
The world-building is also done cleverly through these letters. The books take place in Georgian England so it is a Regency-ish trilogy with magic. I would describe it as if a Georgette Heyer novel married a W.R. Gingell novel and had a baby. My only complaint is that the magic isn’t always well explained and sometimes oddly integrated, which I think stems from having two authors, but this flaw seldom detracts from the charm of the novels.
The trilogy is light and frothy and fun, and a fast read. If you’re looking to take an escapist break from the world, this is definitely worth reading.

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Book review: A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book (the first in a series) is based on a clever premise: what if there was a female detective agency and what kind of women would be part of that effort? And off we go, launched into the story. A young woman, Mary, is headed for the gallows but is rescued by the head of the all female detective agency. Mary is educated, trained, and given her first assignment. Who would suspect a woman, after all?
Whatever the reality is, the book’s premise is a fun one, and it enables the author to write convincingly about Mary’s background and the era, one where the role of women is extremely circumscribed, with few outlets for a strong, smart woman.
I really didn’t want to start yet another series (my TBR pile is yet again out of control), but the first book, at least, is a quick read, as the series is geared towards YA. It is also a fascinating read of the role of women, the historical period, and of Mary herself. I highly recommend it!

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Book review: Sunshine by Robin McKinley

Sunshine by Robin McKinley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really dislike vampire novels. I find them clichĂ©d and silly (other than Bram Stoker’s Dracula, of course). And, if it weren’t for the fact that Robin McKinley is one of my favorite fantasy writers, I wouldn’t have read this one either.
But I’m glad I did. This book is a bit different than many of the author’s other books. The language of the book is more colloquial than is typical, and her world building is a bit more casual, too. Also, unusually for her, the book is narrated in the first person. But the plot is interesting and original and ambivalent. And, as a baker myself, I like that the main character is also a baker. (She’s evidently also a morning person–we do NOT share that character trait.)
Vampires are a central theme in this book, obviously, but not either good and or evil. And the book is a thoughtful study on what happens when you are confronted with a stereotype that you discover not to be true.
It isn’t perhaps my favorite of the author’s books, but it is perhaps the most thought-provoking of her works so far. I would have given it 3.5 stars but rounded up as she is one of my favorite fantasy authors.

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Christmas 2020

In an act of foolhardiness, we decided to go to Hawaii for Christmas. This was foolhardy for several reasons: first, Hawaii has imposed some stringent covid testing requirements in order to be permitted to come; second, there were no non-stop flights to Honolulu due to the lack of flights, which added another wild card to the equation; and, third, we would have to be masked for the entire set of flights.

We decided to rent a house, feeling that it would be safer, especially for Jim’s mom, who was coming as well. It was a beautiful house in the Portlock area, right on the water, with plenty of space for everyone.

Hawaii’s testing requirements were that you have to have a negative covid test within 72 hours of your departing flight to Hawaii from an approved partner. We ended up taking 2 different tests from 2 different partners. Jim received his negative test on Thursday morning, but the rest of us didn’t receive our test results until late Thursday night (our flight to Honolulu left Friday morning). It was rather stressful. But at least we were all negative!

It was a very different trip to Honolulu than any of our others. We rarely left the house, other than to exercise or go grocery shopping. Jim and I did our traditional 7 mile walk around Diamondhead every morning at oh-dark-thirty. (Hawaii is the only place where I am a morning person, and that’s only because we don’t generally bother to change time zones.) We “rented” surfboards (and it’s in quotes because the surf shop actually just lent the surfboards to us without charge), and Marcus went out surfing every day.

Yinan and I taught everyone how to play mahjong, and we now have mahjong addicts as children. Yay for parenting!

The weather was sunny and 80 degrees every day except for the day we left. Not a bad way to spend Christmas!

view from the house

Christmas in Hawaii

Christmas star