WAMC Reviews January 9th, 2018

The Soul of an Octopus
Sy Montgomery
Reviewed by Phil

I have a distinct childhood memory of the first time I encountered grasshoppers. I was four and a half and lying in a grassy field. The grass stems were alive with these strange creatures rubbing their hind legs together so that the air was filled with a glorious buzz. I was filled with a sense of wonder: What were these fabulous insects singing the summer away? Twenty years later, I felt the same sense of awe when I visited Australia for the first time: with its koalas, echidnas and platypus, Australia is a place of wonder. Everything was so new and different. It was like being a child all over again, discovering the world for the very first time.

The Soul of an Octopus is about wonder. It’s been out for a while, tempting from the shelves, and recently made it back onto the bestsellers list. The book is full of curious facts about octopuses – not octopi, as the author points out on the very first page. Did you know octopuses have three hearts? That they can regenerate limbs if they lose them to a predator? That they are masters of disguise, changing not only the colour of their skin to hide, but its texture, too, and the shape of their bodies? This book had me going to you tube repeatedly to play videos of octopuses shape-shifting to become a piece of coral, or a rock, or a clump of seaweed. Fascinating.

Montgomery details her interactions with four octopuses through her time spent at the aquarium in Boston over a period of several years. The book is at times funny, at others sad, but, overall it’s a heart-warming read about the connection that can form between different creatures. It’s about intelligence, and personality, and love, and loss and life.

Note: The Soul of an Octopus was a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award for Nonfiction. Her latest book, Tamed and Untamed, recently came out in paperback.

Charles Frazier
To be released April, 2018
Reviewed by Phil

I read Charles Frazier’s earlier book, Cold Mountain, when I first moved to the mountains of North Carolina 10 years ago. It provided a great introduction to the history and culture of my new home. Frazier’s latest book, Varina, (to be released in April) returns once again to that time period. The book, a fictional retelling of parts of Varina Jefferson’s life, powerfully evokes the chaos and destruction in the aftermath of the civil war.

Seventeen-year-old Varina, the book’s namesake, marries the much older widower, Jefferson Davis, expecting to live out her life on a Mississippi plantation. Instead, her husband takes up politics, eventually becoming president of the Confederacy. As the confederacy falls, Varina, her children and a small band of helpers, flee Richmond and head for Florida, with a plan to take a boat to Cuba, and then on to Europe. With bounties on their heads, and the widespread belief that they are running off with the last of the Confederacy’s gold, the fugitives are chased across the country by motley groups of union soldiers and bounty hunters.

Central to the story is the relationship between Varina and James, a homeless boy of uncertain background whom Varina adopts on impulse after feeling guilty about abandoning a slave who was being sold away from her family. She raises James as one of her own, prompting many raised eyebrows amongst her friends and acquaintances, and he is part of the group that flees Richmond with her at the end of the war. The book begins with an elderly Varina, coming down to the lobby of the Saratoga Springs hotel where she lives to meet James, whom she last saw decades ago. Over the next few weeks, James visits Varina each Sunday, and Varina relates her experiences of their flight.

Through the telling, Frazier explores key questions about guilt and complicity and consequences, and examines the nature of ownership and property. This is a powerful read.

White Houses
Amy Bloom
To be released March 2018

Reviewed by Linda

White Houses is a fictionalized telling of the love story between Lorena Hickok and Eleanor Roosevelt. Hickok is a seasoned reporter who meets Eleanor Roosevelt in 1932 while reporting on Franklin Roosevelt's first presidential campaign. The women's connection initially develops into an intimate, passionate relationship that later evolves into a complicated, lasting love. The story is told from Hickok's perspective -- she has an unforgettable voice and shines a new light on historic events. Bloom has done a masterful job conveying the strong bond between these women and their unique roles in shaping the events of that time period. But more than anything, she has told a truly powerful love story.

Only Killers and Thieves
Paul Howarth
To be released February 2018
Reviewed by Phil

Paul Howarth is a British-Australian writer. Only Killers and Thieves is his first novel. The book skillfully evokes the harshness and brutality of the Australian Outback, the grim setting for this story of savagery and race, injustice and honour.

It is 1885, and a crippling drought threatens to ruin the McBride family. Their land is parched, their cattle starving. When the rain finally comes, it is a miracle that renews their hope for survival. But returning home from an afternoon swimming at a remote waterhole filled by the downpour, fourteen-year-old Tommy and sixteen-year-old Billy meet with a shocking tragedy.

Thirsting for vengeance against the man they believe has wronged them, the distraught brothers turn to the ruthless and cunning John Sullivan, the wealthiest landowner in the region and their father's former employer. Sullivan gathers a posse led by the dangerous and fascinating Inspector Edmund Noone and his Queensland Native Police, an infamous arm of British colonial power charged with the "dispersal" of indigenous Australians to "protect" white settler rights. As they ride across the barren outback in pursuit, their harsh and horrifying journey will have a devastating impact on Tommy, tormenting him for the rest of his life--and will hold enduring consequences for a young country struggling to come into its own.

The Italian Teacher
Tom Rachman
To be released March 2018

Reviewed by Phil

Pinch has grown up in the shadow of his father, the internationally renowned artist Bear. When Bear abandons his family, Pinch attempts to gain his father’s attention by trying to be a painter himself. When that doesn’t work, Pinch sets out to write his father’s biography. But the task is too much for him, and, sadder, if not wiser, he finally settles into a job as an Italian teacher in London. Then Bear dies, and Pinch conceives a scheme to make his own mark on the world.

Tom Rachman’s earlier novel, The Imperfectionists (2010), was an international bestseller and has been translated into 25 languages. Rachman was born in London in but raised in Vancouver. He now lives in London.

The Flight Attendant
Chris Bohjalian
To be released March 2018
Reviewed by Phil

I am not sure how to classify this next book. Is it a thriller? Or a mystery? It’s Chris Bohjalian, so, regardless, it starts with a bang.

Cassie Bowden, the flight attendant of the title, wakes from a night of booze and sex to find the man with whom she partied the previous night is in the bed beside her. He is dead, his throat cut. The last thing Cassie remembers is sharing a shower with the man. Everything else is a blank. Cassie panics and runs from the hotel. She has a reputation for fast living and faster loving, and her flight attendant colleagues would have seen her flirting with the man on the flight into Dubai the day before. To cover her tracks, she spins a web of lies about her whereabouts the previous evening. But she quickly realizes that she, too, could be a target of the man's assassin...

And so the scene is set for a fast-paced novel of international crime, the temptations of alcohol, and the vagaries of memory. This is another great read from Vermont writer Chris Bohjalian.

A Midsummer’s Equation
Keigo Higashino
Reviewed by Phil

A man is found dead on a rocky shore just outside the once thriving resort town of Hari Cove. The police first rule the death an accident, but then discover the man has traces of sleeping pills in his bloodstream and that the real cause of death is carbon monoxide poisoning. Was his death an accident, or murder? Regardless, how did the body end up on the beach? And how is it connected to a murder in Tokyo 16 years ago for which a man has already done time? These are the questions that face police consultant Manabu Yukawa, in town for a forum on a planned underwater-mining operation that is dividing the local community.

This book is deftly plotted, with no red herrings, just a gentle unraveling of the twisted knot of the history and circumstance that is life. It’s very well done.