It was a cold, cold day in January, so we did not meet in person at the downtown library.  In fact, it was cold everywhere, as Beth, Jim, Peggy and Christina can attest.  Instead it was back to Zoom where we could all stay nice and toasty warm.

AND!!!

Nathan joined us!  He was on Christmas break from school, so logged in to join us.  Always great to see Nathan.  Maybe … we’ll see him again at spring break?

Coleen and David did not join us.  David has been back in the hospital and the news is not good.  He had an MRI done on his brain (they’ve been doing them every three months) showed a lot of new tumors.  For a long time he has only had one they were concerned about. Now that the chemo drugs are not working, the tumors are having a heyday.  They had planned to do Gamma Knife radiation therapy on the one tumor, but now they are doing radiation on the whole brain.  The radiologist said that there were probably more tumors just waiting to show up so the broad radiation would be more effective.

They also drained 6 liters of fluid out of his lungs; now he has a tube to drain fluid that has accumulated in the pleural cavity outside his lungs.  That should help with breathing.  So, he’s not getting much reading done.

In all, 64 books were discussed/reviewed.  The full list can be found here:

https://www.mamensa.org/category/book-lovers-sig-book-talks/

Book Lovers SIG always meets the second Sunday of each month; in this case February 11.  We meet in person in the Chairman’s Office at the main branch of the Kansas City Public Library.  The room is immediately to your left as you enter the library.  Parking is free in the garage located west of the library, but make sure you use the garage’s east entrance.  Just bring your parking ticket into the library to be validated.

14 West 10th St., Kansas City, MO  64105

We generally start at 2 pm with a bit of a chat and some snacks.  Book discussions begin around 2:30 pm, more or less, or when Peggy says, “OK, Let’s talk about books!”.

To join us on Zoom, simply click on the link shown below:

https://tinyurl.com/BookLoversSIG

You can also open your Zoom app and use these parameters:

Meeting ID: 946 0436 4344
Passcode: 844358

Remember, Book Lovers is an ideal way for members who do not live in large metropolitan areas or who can’t make it to local events to get more out of their Mensa membership.

*****

Jim

Once There Was by Kiyash Monsef.  The story starts in Hyrcania (SW of the Caspian Sea, in current Iran): a unicorn is trapped in a trap.  A young girl frees it, and the unicorn impales her in the chest.  A thousand generations later, a girl is born with a crescent shaped scar above her heart.  Her father is a veterinarian, who keeps going on secret travels at little notice.  He never tells her why.  Then he gets killed (she’s 15), and a stranger arrives and says that she must take over his work.  This is a story about international secret trade in ‘mythical creatures’ that are alive and need medical care.  It is written by an Iranian author, partially based on Iranian folklore.  Many other mysterious happenings occur… It reads quickly and I couldn’t put it down!

Leaf by Niggle by J.R.R. Tolkien.   A short story written by Tolkien in 1938–39, and first published in the Dublin Review in January 1945.  It was reprinted in Tolkien’s book Tree and Leaf, and in several later collections.  Contrary to Tolkien’s claim that he despised allegory in any form, the story is an allegory of Tolkien’s own creative process, and, to an extent, of his own life, following the structure of Dante’s Purgatorio.  It also expresses his philosophy of divine creation and human sub-creation.  The story came to him in a dream.

Beth

Eve by Cat Bohannon.  Looking at human evolution from the female perspective.  How did the needs of the female/mothers and children drive evolutionary change in humans.  Lots of sex and genitalia, from whence the next generation comes.  Plus lots on social and cultural pressures.  Lots of information from a wide interdisciplinary search, much of it recent, because, you know, girls.

Defiance by C.J. Cherryh and Jane S. Fancher.  Book number 22 in the Foreigner Series.  This is political science fiction at its finest.  The overall story is a human colony ship gets lost in space and ends up building a space station base around a planet inhabited by a steam age culture that is close enough to human to be relatable and different enough to cause unending problems in interesting ways.  The world building draws you in and stays consistent, even over 22 books and a 25 year publishing history.  Every character struggles with flaws and strengths, the old ways, and the new challenges.  Delightful, complex, and sympathetic characters; even flat-out villains.  Some books are more politics, some are thrillers, and some are both.

Your Guide to Not Getting Murdered in a Quaint English Village by Maureen Johnson & Jay Cooper.  Cute little book that spoofs English murder mysteries.  I believe it would be quite funny if I read English murder mysteries.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson.  Using grim examples, she explores racism in the US as a caste system and how it permeates everything and appears not to be amenable to change.  Comparison to India’s caste system and how the American model was the basis for the Nazis, except they didn’t go as far.  Nazism stands out because it was implemented wholesale in real time, while America’s system has been with us from the beginning.  It mentions other groups but focuses on Blacks.  Women are mentioned in passing, and I posit that because women are required for the next generation, that is a separate and parallel system identified by the physical appearance and just as codified in law.  As a member of a “subordinate” caste, I had to read this in small sips.

Meru by S.B. Divya.  Post human apocalypse there are three types of beings: humans, alloys (human/machine hybrids), and constructs (sapient machines).  The hierarchy lives on in different bodies.  A space opera that examines the intersection of these three intertwined beings.  Very interesting look at moral and cultural growth, and who counts as “people”.

Salt and Broom by Sharon Lynn Fisher.  A retelling of Jany Eyre with witchcraft and other magic instead of outright lies.  There are plenty of those, but the moral character of Edward is a little more redeemable.

The Echo of Old Books by Barbara Davis.  This started out well, with a bookstore owner who can feel the emotions of people who have handled books.  She discovers some old books from an estate with overwhelming emotions, but with no publishing or author information.  This could have been about her power with books, but turns into a regular detective story.  It then turns into an old romance swaddled in a new romance and after much anguish, all is right in the end.  This is one of the reasons I don’t read romances.  Good book if you like romances.

Where Waters Meet by Zhang Ling.  A Chinese woman in Toronto tries to find the history of her recently deceased mother.  It leads to her aunt in China who is the only other witness to her mother’s story.  This was an interesting story about a family that lived through the China wars (Japan invasion, WWII, Chinese Civil War of 1945-49, and Korean war).  It opened my eyes to history I did not know, with the concomitant damage all around.  A tale of survival and the human spirit.

Nathan

The Master and His Emissary — Iain McGilchrist
Democracy in America — Alexis de Tocqueville
Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain — Oliver Sacks
The Lincoln Highway — Amor Towles
The Ocean at the End of the Lane — Neil Gaiman
The Triumph of the Therapeutic: Uses of Faith after Freud — Philip Rieff
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell — Susanna Clarke – reading for the fourth time, reading aloud to my 6-year-old.  [This is one of Nathan’s all-time favorite books.]

The Basic Laws of Human Stupidity — Carlo M. Cipolla
Four Quartets — T.S. Eliot
ESV Bible — leading a group of 50+ reading through it in 90 days.

(In progress) Oblomov — Ivan Goncharov – really appreciate Michael’s recommendation of this book a few months back.

Christina

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World–And Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling.  Thought-provoking but lacking in intellectual rigor.  Read for Stranger Than Fiction Book Club.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells.  The first novella in The Murderbot Diaries.  This was a re-read for me. I <3 Murderbot.

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.  I remember going to a children’s theatre production of this when I was a child and not understanding a blessed thing.  Now I understand that this is not actually a children’s book.  This is for Edwardian dudebros.

The Stranger by Agatha Christie.  This was Christie’s original stage adaptation of her short story “Philomel Cottage,” not to be confused with Frank Vosper’s 1936 adaptation, Love from a Stranger, or any of the subsequent screen or radio adaptations.   It has been a long time since I read the original story, but I feel this version was missing something.

Yellowface by R.F. Kuang.  A really interesting study of entitlement and cultural appropriation, especially if you can recognize the real people included as caricatures.  I’m sure I don’t completely agree with Kuang on some things, and I don’t know yet what I think of that ending, but it was mostly a fun ride.

White Trash Warlock by David R. Slayton.  This was a wild romp starting in rednecklandia Oklahoma and moving quickly to a Denver with a huge demon problem and a bunch of dead wizards.  With lots of side-trips to the world of the Fae.  And there’s a sweet gay romance.  This put me in mind of Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden series, but with a lot more depth and character development.

Beginner’s Mind by Yo-Yo Ma.  An Audible Original in the Words + Music series.  Zen philosophy with lovely cello interludes.

Kombucha Curious: How a Drink Transformed My Life by Duff McDonald.  Another short Audible Original, this time more than I ever wanted to know about kombucha and the author’s alcohol addiction and recovery.  And I am still not convinced that our underground lair needs to be a production facility for bad vinegar.

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine.  A powerful collection of poetry about racial conflict.  Excellent narration by Allyson Johnson.

The Scarlet Plague by Jack London.  I had no idea Jack London wrote science fiction.  An elderly professor in the post-pandemic wasteland of 2073 San Francisco reflects on the 2013 Red Death.  London got enough right to be really dang creepy from today’s perspective.  It’s sort of like Edgar Allan Poe meets Cory Doctorow.

Starter Villain by John Scalzi.  Be nice to cats.  Just sayin’.  Scalzi is an auto-buy author in our house, and he does not disappoint in this tale of villainy and labor disputes.

Aladdin and Other Stories by Audible Studios.  Three very short retellings of folk tales, coming in at well under an hour for the entire thing.  The other two stories are The Elves and the Shoemaker and Thumbelina.

Junkyard Cats by Faith Hunter.  Again, be nice to cats.  Another Audible Originals freebie.  A post-apocalyptic junkyard comes under attack and the owner (and her cats) must defend themselves and figure out whom they can actually trust.

See How They Run by Rachel Howzell Hall.  Short story about a glamping expedition near Zion National Park that sees our protagonist trying to outsmart a con artist.  And not get murdered in the process.

Handwritten by Vivian Caethe.  The author challenged herself to handwrite a vignette or flash fiction piece every day for a year.  These are the results she thought were the best.  Some interesting bits and bobs here, and I really appreciate the concept, but the overall effect was frustrating to me as a reader.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.  An exiled half-goblin Emperor’s son ascends to the throne when his father and brothers are all killed.  Much wackiness ensues.  Kinda steam punky.  Read for my mystery book club.

The Voyages of Cinrak the Dapper.  An orphaned capybara joins a pirate crew.  Much wackiness ensues.

Only Bread, Only Light: Poems by Stephen Kuusisto.  A blind man’s exploration of his world.

Ready When You Are by Gary Lonesborough.  Queer, Indigenous coming-of-age story in Australia.  Not my kind of thing but very well done.  Read for the Australian Readathon.

The Bullet That Missed by Richard Osman.  Thursday Murder Club #3.  Great fun yet has lots of moving character content.  It’s best to start with the first book.

Andujar: The Robot Gentleman of San Juan by Carolina Cardona.  Weird and atmospheric romance of sorts, kinda steam punky, set in Puerto Rico.  Read for Temporal Textual Talks.

*** That takes me to a grand total of 193 books finished in 2023. ***

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo.  A teenager in Chinatown in 1954 begins to realize she is a lesbian, and her doctor father is being threatened with deportation because of the red scare.  The writing wasn’t amazing, and the story got a little repetitive, but it’s a worthwhile read and important to keep available to teens.  (This one gets challenged a lot.)  Read for the Rainbow Book Club.

The Sun and Her Flowers by Rupi Kaur.  A poetry collection full of grief and angst.  Very good, but I really didn’t need a deep dive into the emotional aftermath of Kaur’s breakup.  I read this on Kindle, but I’m told her performances of her work are really well done, so I’ll look for one of those.

Patience and Not-Forsaken by Alix E. Harrow.  Short story about a teenager in the 1950s isolated on doctor’s orders, and she starts seeing another girl in her mirror.  Packs a lot into a tight story.

Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka.  I found out that “literary suspense” is not a hybrid genre that works for me.  I gradually warmed to the story for being what it was, a multi-faceted examination of what the death penalty does or does not accomplish, but the varied POVs worked against each other to kill any suspense there might have been in this story about a serial killer, his execution, and three women in his life.  Read for the Book Troop horror/thriller book club.

The Keeper of Stories by Sally Page.  This was a nice gentle romance about a house cleaner who collects stories.  It took me a bit to get into because I wasn’t sure how a house cleaner collecting stories would make a novel, but once she starts working for the old lady, the plot kicks in and I ended up enjoying it a lot.  Some readers complain that it’s too predictable, but even though I usually try to figure out where stories are going, I was content to just let this one unfold.  Read for High Tea Book Club.

I’m Just a Person by Tig Notaro.  Whoever nominated this for the Best Humor category in the Goodreads Choice Award obviously did not read it.  This is a memoir, and a really dark and depressing one, at that.  I almost didn’t finish it because it went into great detail about her mother’s death, which was almost exactly like my mother’s death just over a year ago (fell, hit her head, massive brain bleed, game over) and I did NOT want to relive that.  But I powered through it and am glad I did.  I hope Tig is still in a good place, and I will have to seek out some of her actual comedy.  Read for the LHR Society.  [One Mississippi, on Amazon Prime, is the television series based on this book.]

The Weirdies by Michael Buckley.  A fun story about three oddball siblings who are abandoned by their parents (and their entire household) and the ensuing orphanage wackiness.  Similar to the Lemony Snicket books but a lot better.

Snow, Glass, Apples by Neil Gaiman & Colleen Doran.  Amazing artwork in this graphic novel adaptation of Gaiman’s short story, which I have never read.  So I don’t know how the text of this compares, but I have to think Gaiman’s original made more sense.  It’s a dark and horrific retelling of Snow White, and this version at least can best be described as gruesome erotica.  Which is not my jam to begin with, but the involvement of a six-year-old child totally squicked me out.

Argylle by Elly Conway.  I just wanted to read a fun spy novel, and I got a fun spy novel.  Le Carre it ain’t, but it was fine for what it was.  And THEN the algorithms started lobbing the Theories into my feed.  Oh. My. Word.  For any Swifties out there, I promise you, Taylor Swift did not write this book.  All the stuff in the movie previews that have you all wound up?  Not in the book.  There are zero cats, Scottish Fold or otherwise, in the book.  There is no weird meta gimmick in the book.  Nobody in the book has an argyle backpack of any kind.  To be clear, I’m sure Taylor Swift is perfectly capable of writing a novel.  It would probably be better than this one.  My guess is that some movie production company wanted to have the next big mystery franchise, sort of 007 meets Knives Out, and decided to invent a Jessica Fletcher kind of character to “write” a series of spy novels.  It is pretty well established that “Elly Conway” is a pseudonym, and I would be very surprised if it turns out to be a single author.  This book is most likely just a product designed by a committee to promote another product.  Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  If you are in the mood to read a fun spy novel, you could do a LOT worse than this book.

Peggy

A Prayer for the Crown-Shy by Becky Chambers.  The second Monk and Robot Book takes the pair into towns that have never seen a robot.  Not as interesting a premise as the first in the series, but a sweet read.  My favorite section – when one of Robot’s parts breaks and town technology can repair it, what’s the ethical thing for Robot to do – allow a new part to be made or just continue a natural degradation.

The Wages of Sin by Harry Turtledove.  What if AIDS came from Africa to Europe in 1550?  How would the lack of medical care/prevention change lives, particularly those of women?  In 1850 England, women are allowed outside their homes infrequently and only in burka-like outfits.

Founding Partisans: Hamilton, Madison, Jefferson, Adams and the Brawling Birth of American Politics by H.W.Brands.  Good to remember that the founders had lots of feuds and differences and no one was expecting angelic behavior.

The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism by Tim Alberta.  As good as the press on it has been.  Alberta grew up in the Evangelical world, knows lots of the players, particularly at the intersection of religion and politics (the Falwells, Ralph Reed, Cal Thomas).  My favorite quote from an Australian theologian and historian of the early church: “There are Bible people, and there are non-Bible people.  I’m just not sure how many American churches are filled with Bible people.”

Brad

The Rabbit Hutch by Tess Gunty.  The Goodreads abstract is as follows:

“Blandine isn’t like the other residents of her building.

“An online obituary writer. A young mother with a dark secret. A woman waging a solo campaign against rodents — neighbors, separated only by the thin walls of a low-cost housing complex in the once bustling industrial center of Vacca Vale, Indiana.

“Welcome to the Rabbit Hutch.

“Ethereally beautiful and formidably intelligent, Blandine shares her apartment with three teenage boys she neither likes nor understands, all, like her, now aged out of the state foster care system that has repeatedly failed them, all searching for meaning in their lives.

“Set over one sweltering week in July and culminating in a bizarre act of violence that finally changes everything, The Rabbit Hutch is a savagely beautiful and bitingly funny snapshot of contemporary America, a gorgeous and provocative tale of loneliness and longing, entrapment and, ultimately, freedom.”

I found almost none of this to be true.  Just didn’t care for it. **

The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham.  A small village in England has an odd experience.  Everyone falls asleep, for several days.  Everyone.  The same thing happens to people entering the town.  They pretty much drop when they cross an invisible boundary.  The government is called in to investigate.  Using a bird in a cage, they discover this barrier is circular in nature.  Flying over and taking photographs, they discover a strange object has landed in town.  And still people sleep.  But just as suddenly the object is gone and the citizens wake up, with no memory of what has happened.  Things get back to normal, for a few weeks anyway.  But then women begin becoming pregnant.  ALL of them.  Even the ones that aren’t married.  Which causes quite the stir.  A theory develops that the object had something to do with this.  The government keeps it hush-hush, but carefully monitors the situation.  Then the babies come.  And they all have the strangest golden eyes.  And as the gradually get older we learn that what one learns, they all learn.  What one feels they all feel.  They have an ability, a mental ability, to control the adults around them.  Now no one is allowed to leave the village.  It is learned that there have been other similar landings around the world, but these groups have been destroyed before they could mature.  Then we learn that this is but a vanguard, a means of taking over the planet.  Can they be stopped before it is too late?

Terrific story. A bit ponderous with the frequent expositions, however.  One could easily transfer this story to modern times, swapping the Children for AI.  Hard to believe this was published in 1957.  Recommended.  ****

Translation State by Ann Leckie.  A bit difficult to explain the story, but great story-telling by Leckie.  Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Best Science Fiction (2023) *****

Into the Lion’s Mouth: The True Story of Dusko Popov: World War II Spy, Patriot, and the Real-Life Inspiration for James Bond by Larry Loftis.  Amazing true story of a wealthy playboy, recruited to spy for the Germans, who then doubles for British Intelligence.  The most remarkable bit occurs when Popov is sent by the Germans to rebuild a spy network in the United States.  His instructions were concealed on a microdot, which contained a detailed list of questions regarding Pearl Harbor.  At this point the Germans were collaborating with the Japanese; this information would be passed on to help them plan their attack.  Popov, with the support of MI-6, passed this information directly to J. Edgar Hoover.  Who withheld it from Army Intelligence.  Withheld it from Navy Intelligence.  Withheld it from President Roosevelt.  Hoover knew about the Axis plans FOUR MONTHS IN ADVANCE and did nothing.  Unconscionable.   Great read.  Amazing story.  *****

The League: The True Story of Average Americans on the Hunt for WWI Spies by Bill Mills.  It can’t happen here, but it did.  Just prior to the United States entering WWI, 250,000 men (almost all men) were recruited to spy on their fellow Americans by the nascent Justice Department.  Think the Red Scare, on steroids.  They tapped phones, conducted illegal searches, performed mass roundups of men to see who wasn’t carrying their draft card.  The Supreme Court allowed all of it.  A cautionary tale, to be sure.  ****

The Book of Charlie by David von Drehle.  Recommended to me by several people.  The author moves into a new home and meets his neighbor, Charlie, who happens to be 102 at the time.  He gets to know him and learn his stories.  Expect there really are very few Charlie stories in this book.  Mainly it is von Drehle’s interpretation/explanation of Charlie’s life.  Disappointing read.  The only thing I liked about it is that it takes place in Kansas City, so I recognized almost all of the places mentioned.  Other than that, meh.  **

Resurrection Walk (The Lincoln Lawyer #7) by Michael Connelly.  Pretty much standard Connelly.  He really keeps the story moving, so much so that you don’t want to put it down.  He has gotten a bit lazy in his last few books though, introducing false/misleading obstacles to extend the story.  In this case the ballistics expert in the trial uses a piece of software she developed to plot the trajectory of gunshots.  Only the name of the software has AI in it, and machine learning is referenced.  So the expert’s testimony is thrown out.   Expect ballistics is physics.  There is NO AI, no machine learning.  He just threw this B.S. in because it is in the news, with the expectation that the average reader has no idea what either of these are.  Like I said, lazy.  Or dishonest.  Except for that, good read.  ****

System Collapse (The Murderbot Diaries #7) by Martha Wells.  Immediate follow-on to her last Murderbot book.  The only problem was that came out several years ago and I had no memory of who the characters were, expect maybe their names.  This should have been part of the previous novel.  Other than that, Murderbot.  Except in my mind I see and hear Bender.  ***

I ended up reading 70 books on the year.  All books.  No pamphlets.  No manuals.  No comic books.  No children’s books.  No audio books.  Just reading books.  25,934 pages.  My goal for 2024 is to read a book a week. ~Brad