Read Harder: Cocaine Blues

8 02 2015

Do you know about the Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries? It is a fantastically fun Australian crime series set in the 1920s. Miss Phryne Fisher is a very modern, wealthy woman making inquiries and solving cases in Melbourne. With a wardrobe to die for and some forward-leaning morals, Miss Fisher makes quite the impression on Melbourne society, both high and low. You can find Miss Fisher, the TV show, on Netflix.

For the Read Harder independent press challenge, I was delighted to pick up a digital copy of Kerry Greenwood’s original Miss Fisher book, Cocaine Blues. The book is the basis for the first episode in the TV series, so you might want to hold off on watching the series until you have whipped your way through the book.

In this book, Phryne leaves England to investigate the mysterious illness afflicting the daughter of an acquaintance. Along the way, she stumbles across a cocaine ring and a dangerous illegal abortionist.

Greenwood’s style is brisk but evocative, full of interesting 1920s and/or Australian slang. I found myself looking up such exciting terms as “gasper” and “camiknickers.” The language really sets the scene, including some particularly gorgeous descriptions of Phryne’s fashions.

Fans of the TV series will still find plenty of new tidbits to entertain, such as a bit of interesting backstory on Dot, Phryne’s maid, and the circumstances that led Phryne from destitution to opulence.


Read Harder #3: Unfamiliar Fishes

1 02 2015

Once you have seen Hawaii, it is hard to shake it off. Hawaii captures the imagination, so foreign and so familiar. We have visited Hawaii twice since moving to Japan, and we will miss the close proximity when we move back to America. So when I needed to choose a book about native peoples for the Read Harder challenge, a book about Hawaii was a no brainer.

I have enjoyed several of Sarah Vowell’s other books, so I was eager to check out Unfamiliar Fishes. In this book, Vowell’s recounts the tumultuous period between the arrival of the first Westerners and the ultimate annexation of Hawaii. The time scale is shockingly short for such an extreme change in circumstance. Captain Cook’s arrival in 1778 to annexation, only 120 years had passed.

Visiting Hawaii means slowing down; everything seems a bit more relaxed. Which makes the rapid course of events even more amazing. The native Hawaiians are initially cautious but interested in adopting elements of western culture. Despite being a terrible choice for the climate, Hawaiian nobility were soon wearing black, Victorian clothes. Covering up also served the needs of the mail “civilizing” force, Protestant missionaries sent to convert the “heathens.”

In fact, more so than the many sailors that pass through the Hawaiian islands, it is this group of missionaries that shape Hawaii’s course to Americanization. Many arrive with good but imperialist intention. However, after a few years, when support for the organization that sent them wanes, the missionaries must find new lines of work. Many turn to business or politics, shifting their focus into influencing more than just the spiritual life of Hawaii. Descendants of these missionaries will eventually overthrow the monarchy and successfully petition the U.S. to take over.

Vowell’s descriptions of the beautiful places and cultural objects of native Hawaii provide a great sense of what exactly was lost when Hawaiian autonomy was taken away. The wistful writings of Queen Liliuokalani during and after her overthrow and imprisonment are nonetheless gracious and warm.

If you are looking to understand more about Hawaiian history, this is a great opening. My one pet peeve, however, is that the book contains no chapters. It is a 230 page meander through history, which can make it hard to follow at times and difficult to refer back to specific sections for information.

Read Harder #2: Olive Kitteridge

19 01 2015

There is always more going on than you can see on the surface. In Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout creates a detailed portrait of a woman, and a whole town, through related vignettes. Each exquisitely crafted short story highlights the moments, mostly small and unremarkable, that fit together to make a life. Olive Kitteridge, a middle-aged woman best described as difficult, nonetheless profoundly impacts those around her. Reading about her is like real life: you may not like her, you may not want to spend a lot of time with her, but she is always around, drifting in and out of your path. When you find yourself tiring of Olive, the next short story will allow you to visit with another neighbor.

This book fulfills the prize winner category of the Read Harder challenge for me. It won a well deserved Pulitzer for its careful, beautiful language and unique construction.

Not Your Average Princess

4 01 2015


I just finished another book. Though it doesn’t fit well into the Read Harder challenge, I liked it so much I thought I should share. I picked up Princess Academy – Amazon because I have enjoyed several of Shannon Hale’s other books. B loves The Princess in Black, and I have enjoyed her Austenland books. (Go check these out!)

I was expecting a fun take on the princess trope, somewhat like The Princess in Black, but Princess Academy is a complete departure. To start with, the girls in the titular academy are not, in fact, princesses. It has been foretold that the prince will marry a girl from a small mountain territory. To prepare the simple country folk for low country life, all eligible girls must attend year-long princess training.

For a children’s book, this story is full of nuance. Many of the girls struggle with whether they would even want to be the princess, facing competing pulls of home and power. Miri, the main character, searches for ways to use her newfound knowledge to benefit her community.

There’s a wee bit of action, a lot of heart, some convincing mystical elements, and a wide range of emotions. This book well deserves its Newberry Award.

Read Harder: The Prague Cemetery

2 01 2015

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/1c5/35856733/files/2015/01/img_0094.jpgWe are kicking the Read Harder challenge off with a bang! My first book, The Prague Cemetery – Amazon by Umberto Eco is a doozy. It is a dense, dark, historical novel exploring the rise of Anti-Semitism. So why did I choose it first?

Well, for starters, it had been sitting in my Kindle books for a while, and I am hoping this year to really work through my digital and physical book shelves. But what really grabbed me is the general framework of the novel. A man, Simonini, wakes up to realize he can’t remember the previous several days and at the same time discovers that he is sharing his house with another man, AbbĂ© Della Piccola, of whom he also has no memory. The two never meet but begin piecing together their recent and distant pasts by writing notes back and forth.

The concept is brilliant. The mystery holds. The characters are unlikeable, pretty much without exception. The conclusion is fairly satisfying. However, I felt like the book was bogged down with way to much detail of all the bizarre conspiracies (and conspiracy theories) relating to the Jews, Jesuits, Masons, and others. However, it that is your kind of thing, I think you would love this book.

The Prague Cemetery is filling the “originally published in another language” category for me. Eco released this book in his native Italian, with an English translation published the following year. Perhaps Italian readers would be more familiar with the historical and political details of the first half of the book (lots on Garibaldi), but I found it fairly accessible. I appreciated Kindle’s integration with a dictionary and Wikipedia to help me fill some of the gaps.

Bottom line: Check out The Prague Cemetery if you love digging into historical details and conspiracy theories.

Read Harder #1: Challenge Accepted

2 01 2015

Happy New Year! 2015 is under way, and with it, a new reading challenge for me. This year I am undertaking the Book Riot Read Harder challenge. The goal is fairly modest — 24 books in a year. What makes it challenging is the breadth of reading selections. Books are chosen from 24 categories (age of author, geographic location, genre, etc.), encouraging each reader to pick up something that is a bit of a stretch.

The world is overflowing with media, things to read, watch, hear. Ironically, the greater the options, the more likely it is that you will find your perfect little niche — and stay there. This year I am branching out, reading books that have been on my list for years and books I have never heard of. It is my sincere hope that I come through 2015 having learned more about the world, and about myself.

Stay tuned. I will briefly update as I complete each book. I also plan to provide a children’s book selection for each category so that kids can join along.

Care to join me?

A wild walk

19 06 2014

As you may know, I am helping out as a bunkhouse leader for Camp Aloha Friends this summer. (There’s still time to join in, and I can’t recommend it enough, if you could use a bit of creative and natural inspiration plus a lot of camaraderie!) One of the keystones of camp is developing the habit of walking and enjoying nature each day. I was actually able to get away by myself for a little while! I used the rare alone time as a chance to walk deep into the woods. I wanted to share with you a few of the surprising things I found on my very first walk.

As I was climbing a steep hill, I grabbed onto a tree trunk for stability and almost squished this little guy! He was about 3 inches long, and a bright vibrant green. Even though I am certain no one has been in that part of the woods in months or even years, he didn’t seem fazed by my stomping through (or his near death experience).


At the bottom of the hill, I found a road I had never seen before, though I have occasionally seen headlights moving through the forest in that direction. This is the view from the middle of the road. Just gorgeous!


There was a small forest fire nearby a few weeks ago. I decided to wander through the fire damaged area for the first time. The ground is charred and smells strongly of burning, but life is already beginning to return. Here you can see the fire damaged stump of a large fern. New shoots are beginning to unfurl into a beautiful new undergrowth.


This seems to be the summer of deforestation in my neck of the woods. All around my walk I found hints of trees being cut down. From a bed of fresh wood chips to this perfect slice of timber, the trees are coming down. I hope they stop before all the local trees have been removed. So far, all the trees right around my house seems safe. I love how vivid the rings are on this cross section!


It can be hard to see, but if you focus on the left side of the twig in the middle of this picture, you should be able to see one of the millions of very large spiders that live all around here. The stick was very helpful in leading the way through the many spider webs on my route. (As I said, not a path in sight!)


These beautiful flowers — azaleas? — were going in a wild bunch right in the middle of a clump of tall wild grasses. I loved the unexpected pop of color in an otherwise green part of the world.


Somebody’s babies waiting to grow up! A very sticky spit bubble found under a leaf.


I had a fantastic time exploring all the untraveled woods around my house. I look forward to tromping through again! Today is rainy, but a rainy walk can be just as great, especially when it is warm.