The Pioneers ~ by David McCullough

The Pioneers
by David McCullough
2019 / 332 pp
read by John Bedford Lloyd 10h 23
rating: 8 / US history

In some ways this book was much better than I expected. I’d heard rather disparaging comments about how the title seemed to imply the story of westward expansion in general, and readers were disappointed that their own ancestors places were not included. But the narrative was limited to the Northwest Territory, mostly what is now Ohio.

Years ago I read The Trees by Conrad Richter, but never goto around to the rest of the trilogy, The Fields and The Town. I was definitely reminded of The Trees as I read the first several chapters of The Pioneers and then McCullough mentioned the Richter books in his Acknowledgments. I felt vindicated (or something).

But it seems the Northwest Territory was plagued by a number of trials including settlement, Indian warfare, starvation, abolition, education and epidemics to say nothing of the antics of Aaron Burr and various other characters and personalities (the Blennerhasasett family for instance. Several were related to an original party, Manasseh Cutler.

The book has more interest than one would think and McCullough writes well enough to inform and entertain. There’s a bit of everything, politics, exploration, Indian fighting, medicine, technology and expansion, as well as family life and death – even weather and earthquakes along with education and canals. It’s not a great book but it was certainly worth my time and in its own way does McCullough’s reputation no harm. (I have enjoyed McCullough’s books since The Johnstown Flood (1968).

This is a book of limited geography but broad time frame. The story covers the area around Marietta, Ohio between the years 1787 and 1863. The title implies that it’s the story of American pioneers in general – and in general, it is that. What pioneer men and women experienced in those years was the pioneer experience as it played out in Maine, Minnesota, Kentucky, Texas, Nebraska, Oregon, Montana and even California at their own times and each with their own variations.

Reproduction of a print depicting the courthouse and jail in Marietta, built in 1798.
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The Testaments ~ by Margaret Atwood

The Testaments
by Margaret Atwood
2019 / 381 pages
read by a cast 13h 18m
rating: 9 / sci-fi?

I enjoyed The Handmaid’s Tale, the book to which this is a sequel,  but I wasn’t wow’ed even if Atwood is one my most admired writers.  I’d be hard pressed to say which of her books is my favorite – The Blind Assassin probably.  It’s possible that reading The Handmaid’s Tale is not a prerequisite for The Testaments but I can assure you that the reader will get a lot more out of it if it has been read.  

Anyway,  this is a hard book to follow – there are two 1st person narrators and their chapter  alternate within Parts which have distinguishable front pages with a graphic suitable to a character.  And each of these characters uses different names. The chapters of two characters are related via “transcript” while another character’s chapters are via Holograph.   It gets tricky in some places – I think it deserves a couple readings anyway.  Very imaginative.  

I was going to say that I don’t think two books should have shared the Booker Prize this year,  but maybe I’ve changed my mind, I’ll have to reread Girl, Woman, Other to decide. .

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Celestial Bodies ~ by Jokha Alharthi

I’ve read this twice now. The first time was very confusing and because I had a reading group discussion coming up I read it again. I had a feeling I’d really like it once I got the characters straightened out.

Celestial Bodies
by Jokha Alharthi
2019 / 256 pages
read by Laurence Bouvard
rating – 7.75 / historical fiction

 So I did read this book again, but it still wasn’t entirely clear.  It is historical fiction, but the time frames aren’t chronological. There is some magical realism in it. I guess the reader is supposed to figure out who these people are and their relationship to each other along with the sequence of events. That’s a rather tall order imo.. .

Another theme is women’s “liberation” as it applies the social scene of marriage. The women in Oman went from being slaves to careers and driving cars in a few decades.

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Long Bright River ~ by Liz Moore

This one is gritty but it got a lot of hype and it piqued my interest.  It’s essentially a procedural crime novel set in the Kensington area of Philadelphia.  Kensington is treated with a certain amount of love, hard as that might be to believe as it’s one of the worst drug slums in the nation. 

Long Bright River
By Liz Moore – 2020
Rating:  7.5 (general fiction)/ C (crime) 

Our first person narrator, Mickey Fitzpatrick,  is a street cop on those bad streets, the same streets her sister  Casey, a drug addict and part time hooker, frequents.  There have been missing women here, some dead, some murdered even, some never reported. 

On the job, Mickey is between partners, a long term guy now on medical leave, and the new one who’’s not working out, inappropriate.  At home Mickey has a small boy from a prior domestic partner.  

The plot unfolds very slowly as Mickey reveals her background and that of her missing sister.  There are demons which drive her and her sister as well as the grandmother who raised them after their mother died long ago from her own addiction.  

The whole thing Is very involved with the parentless girls growing up in poverty and the broken family relationships.  There’s lots and lots of padding to the point it becomes more a tale of addiction, crime and street life than a mystery.   

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Why We Sleep – by Matthew Walker

I have problems sleeping as much as I should so I saw this book in the recommendations of Bill Gates and went for it.

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams
by Matthew Walker
2017 / 369 pages
Read by Steve West 13h 52m

It’s not as much about how to get enough sleep although there is a fair amount of that. Most of it is devoted to the benefits of getting 8 hours of sleep regularly. Way, way more than I imagined.. I kind of thought sleep was a waste of time – now I certainly know better. And knowing better makes me more conscious of doing the things which will help me get it. (She said at 3 AM due to waking up too early.)

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Update and New Years

First, before I get started on my first book of 2020, I’m going to outline what I’m doing, how I’m changing. I’m too tired to keep all this up so rather than try to do a complete “review” (or whatever) each and every book I read, I’m going to do a couple of hopefully cogent sentences with a rating and quit there.

I do use the blog for remembering what I’ve read and what I thought of it. But I really don’t need to write pages of plot summary. The reason is that I’m still not completely recovered from my September surgery – it was major stuff. I may never be completely “healed.” I can get as good as I can – that’s it.

Also, I’ll be 72 in a few days and although I shouldn’t compare — one can’t really – I know I could be in better shape.

I find that my tastes have moved over to more nonfiction and less crime and fiction. With so much happening in the world it seems more relevant. My favorite subjects haven’t really changed – history and economics and current events with a tad of light science, math and philosophy thrown in. .

So that’s it folks. Here’s to another great year of great reading. Happy New Year!

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2019 –

With a few exceptions, 2019 was NOT a great year for my reading. I read about 50 books fewer than in 2018 which is actually fine because I get a bit confused when I read more than 20 books in a month, more than 16 actually which is what I was doing. And I forget what I’ve read, too. Sad .

So this past year I read 133 books total and it varied between 20 books in a month (November) and just 1 book in a month (September). But I was sick and that interfered. .

I read 54 crime novels, 38 fictions, 37 nonfictions, 4 classics, and 1 sci-fi. The best of the lot were Milkman by Anna Burns in fiction and New Iberia Blues by James Lee Burk in Crime. I want to make a special notice of A Lot Like Christmas
by Connie Willis being a wonderful book of Sci-fi short stories with a Christmas theme – really! A++!

My Nonfiction reading was generally more satisfying with the best being:
1. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe 
2. The Dreamt Land:  Chasing Water and Dust Across California by Mark Arax
3. The Map of Knowledge: A Thousand-Year History of How Classical Ideas Were Lost and Found: A History of Seven Cities  by Violet Moller 

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Maid ~ by Stephanie Land

Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay and a Mother’s Will to Survive
by Stephanie Land
2019/ 289 pp
read by the author

rating: 8 / memoir-social science

I think I’d heard about this book at some point because it did get a lot of very favorable reviews, probably due in part to Ehrenreich – see the Forward. Ehrenreich wrote “Nickeled and Dimed” which I read years ago. This is the same sort of thing thematically but from a real worker’s point of view – not Ehrenreich’s living in poverty. I got it because it was on sale and sounded interesting.

It is interesting although I’m hard pressed to say why. I think part of the appeal is that Land is real and she’s not excusing herself or defending herself and not complaining about the government. She’s just telling it like it probably is.

She’s a single woman with a child and no support from family. She’s immersed in a world of poverty with little or no hope. She’s someone we all see virtually every day in hotels or coffee shops or anywhere people work for minimum wage and women have children to feed and house.

Stephanie works as a cleaning lady for a company which pays minimum wage and cuts corners. Much of the book is devoted to her jobs. (It makes me wonder what my cleaning ladies have thought about my house.

It’s good reading but it’s kind of depressing. I almost didn’t finish because of that but there’s something compelling about it. And it picks up a lot at the end – reality for those living in poverty is usually crisis after crisis for a long time. It’s a good thing I just finished a streak of “feel good” novels and now I’ll go find another feel good or some escape thing.

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The Lager Queen of Minnesota ~ by J. Ryan Stradal

This book started out absolutely wonderful- like Great Kitchens of the Midwest, Stradal’s prior novel. And I was well entertained until probably 1/2 way through when the plot seemed to start wandering. Fortunately it came back together about together about 2/3rds so I suppose it was just a bogging down in the middle. And it did end in fine form.

The Lager Queen of Minnesota
by J. Ryan Stradal
read by Judith Ivy: 11h 13m
rating: 7.5 (liked most of it)

Edith and Helen are sisters growing up on a farm in southeastern Minnesota in the 1950s/’60s. Edith, who is younger, decides she wants to learn how to make beer and Helen decides she’s going to be the best at everything.

They grow up and Edith becomes the guardian of her orphaned granddaughter while Helen gets married to a guy with a brewery and she also gets the farm. Helen always wins – so far.

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The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek ~ by Kim Michele Richardson

Very disappointing. Probably ought to be a Young Adult book.  The idea behind the book was first introduced to me by the reviews of Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes which hit the hype machine. But several reader-reviewers mentioned The Bookwoman off Troublesome Creek as being much better and more historical or authentic as well.   

At first I was going with the Kindle only because the narrator’s voice was somewhat annoying but I ended up getting both the Audible and the Kindle versions because I love to read and listen simultaneously. And it really did sound interesting. Too bad –

The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek.  
by Kim Michele Richardson
read by Katie Shore

51p4v2ehuvl._sy346_ ** Rating 4 ( WordPress will no longer lets me use wrap around text even with the media/text block.  Even with a block set to Classic). 

The “historical detail” other readers wrote about in their reviews on Goodreads or Amazon includes the Blue People and that’s true and was quite interesting.  The rest of the “historical” is basically just the medicine, food, language and  other cultural features of Appalachian ways. There’s a lot off racism and that’s probably a theme.

Our heroine, “Cussy Mary” or Bluet as she is known, is a librarian for the local traveling library.  She has many troubles. 

The author, Kim Michele Richardson, is a native of Kentucky.  

If you want to know about the blue people of Kentucky, check out
* or

“The Blue People of Troublesome Creek” (probably a paper for a college science class – grad level?)

The Traveling Library links are: 


And here’s the place:

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Chrerringham: Death Trap ~ by Matthew Costello and Neil Richards

Cute – I actually bought a second in this series – another Christmas book reviewed now but read earlier. In this one a man is found dead after a snowed-in Christmas party. It’s very short but enjoyable enough in a simple and escapist sort of way.

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Don't Be Home for Christmas ~ by Richard Witcliffe

It was this or a James Patterson does Christmas and this sounded preferable. It’s an odd book – a serious crime is about to be committed and the perpetrators have set it up to look like the protagonist is going to do it. So there’s a massive manhunt.

That’s the start – The setting is New York City between a day before Christmas to New Year’s Eve. The tension is good and skillfully built, but it’s a bit light because this is Christmas, after all. There are lots of deaths though. And it’s pretty fun overall.

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