All Involved by Ryan Gattis


22756871In 1991, a black man named Rodney King was severely beaten by multiple white police officers after a high-speed car chase that ended in a suburb of Los Angeles, an event that might have escaped the eyes of the American public had a witness not videotaped it from his balcony. The officers were taken to court, but eventually acquitted, and thus spawned the 1992 Los Angeles Riots: six days of looting, arson, assault, and murder that spread from South Central LA into the Los Angeles metropolitan area, and only stopped after soldiers from the National Guard were called in as backup for the overwhelmed and vilified LAPD.

But on the streets of the South Central neighbourhood of Lynwood, the story played out differently than on the national news. In All Involved, Ryan Gattis weaves a narrative from the perspectives of people whose stories of the riots were never told–members of the gang underworld. Inspired by unprecedented access to the inner workings of these organizations, Gattis channels their experiences into a gritty, cinematic tale that is both shocking and devastating. Though the events of this book are fiction, every word is infused with authenticity and intimacy. Evoking the anger, the uncertainty, and the turmoil of those six days, Gattis turns Los Angeles from merely a setting to a living, breathing entity.


All Involved is set during the LA riots, but it’s not about the LA riots. If you want a detailed account covering all sides of the six day affair look elsewhere, as this is just a slice.

A juicy, engrossing, bloody slice.

When chaos broke out after the verdict in the Rodney King trial was announced some people saw it as an opportunity.

There are no rules now. None. Not with people rioting. I shiver when I realize every single cop in the city is somewhere else, and that means it’s officially hunting season on every fucking fool who ever got away with anything and damn, does this neighborhood have a long memory. I snort and take a second to appreciate the evil weight of it.

The story, told by 17 different first-person narrators, covers one thread of plot that very well could have happened. Gang members are rife, as you would expect, but there’s also a nurse, a homeless man, a firefighter. I thought things would feel fractured but it’s more like advancing the same story from a different angle. There’s no going back but now and then previous narrators reappear, allowing you to see them through another character’s eyes.

Be warned though, it’s violent. The worst is in the first chapter so if you can get through that you should be fine for the rest of the book. Gattis has faced violence in his own life and it shows in the visceral, unromanticized way death is detailed. His extensive research bases it in a gritty neighborhood that’s all too real.

I thought this book wouldn’t be for me – I was on the other coast, too young to grok the riots – but I read it in gulps while traveling. A hearty recommend if you have even a little bit of interest.

Tolstoy and the Purple Chair by Nina Sankovitch


9476292Caught up in grief after the death of her sister, Nina Sankovitch decided to stop running and start reading. For once in her life she would put all other obligations on hold and devote herself to reading a book a day: one year of magical reading in which she found joy, healing, and wisdom.

With grace and deep insight, Sankovitch weaves together poignant family memories with the unforgettable lives of the characters she reads about. She finds a lesson in each book, ultimately realizing the ability of a good story to console, inspire, and open our lives to new places and experiences. A moving story of recovery, Tolstoy and the Purple Chair is also a resonant reminder of the all-encompassing power and delight of reading.


Many “stunt” memoirs are about doing a crazy, unsustainable thing – making every recipe from a huge cookbook, living to the letter of the Bible, going without or making do with.

Sankovitch makes it clear from the beginning that she will not fail. For her reading a book a day isn’t a trial, but an escape and path to healing after the loss of her sister. By giving herself permission to take a year “off” and simplify her life she finds what she was looking for… and what she was running from.

If I found this book at a different point in my life – after a profound loss of my own, say – it would have been more meaningful. I live on the other side of the world from my family and have no sisters nor kids of my own, making it hard for me to identify with much of what Sankovitch talks about. Even so I was left misty eyed repeatedly… not good when you’re reading in a restaurant. But hey, at least it wasn’t crowded.

This would be a great read for someone that’s looking to restart their life after a death of a loved one. While many works are mentioned if you’re itching for book-on-book action you’ll probably be disappointed.

Tall, Dark, and Vampire by Sara Humphreys


15942629She always knew Fate was cruel…

The last person Olivia Hollingsworth expected to see at her Greenwich Village vampire club was her one true love, Doug Paxton—whom she believed to be dead for centuries. Olivia thought she had moved on, but when Doug reappears, her heart knows she’d rather die than lose him again.

But this is beyond the pale…

Ever since Doug can remember, a red-haired siren has haunted his dreams. He never thought she could be real until he goes to investigate a murder at Olivia’s night club. However, as the bodies keep piling up at her feet, he must fight to prove her innocence—even if it costs him his life…


I realize that much of the world has gotten over vampires but I haven’t. Paranormal escapism with sexy men and creatures humanoid enough not to set off my “ew creepy” gag reflex? Yes, please.

But let’s face it, a lot of novels are the same – strong guy vamp gets instalove for mortal girl and fights over the fate of the world ensue with lots of hot lovin’ on the side. There’s nothing wrong with hot lovin’ but the rest grows old after a while.

Enter Tall, Dark, and Vampire. Here the coven is a group of women headed by Olivia, a 300 year old kick butt vamp. None of her brethren dream but for the past twenty years she has spent her days romping around a dreamscape with Douglas, her human lover several centuries dead.

So imagine her shock when a lookalike shows up at the door of her New York City club, The Coven, in the form of detective Doug Paxton. Add in some suspicious murders, cute furry creatures, and the fact that Doug has been having the dreams, too, and we’re off and running.

From the start I knew this wasn’t a debut novel – Humphreys’ voice is self-assured and the world building early on shows promise. I love the gender role reversal and how strong Olivia can be.

As the story moved on a couple of things nagged at me, though. We’re both told and shown over and over again that Olivia has a thing for hopeless cases. Most of the vampires she’s turned were brutally attacked and near death, and even her two pets are rescues. This isn’t a bad thing in and of itself but more subtlety would have been appreciated.

Later on Doug makes a rash decision that deeply affects his relationship with Olivia and frankly, his ability to stay alive until the end of the book. Instead of explaining the consequences and helping Doug realize what he’s getting into Olivia just shrugs. Considering he’s the guy in all her sexy dreams I thought she would be a little more invested in his welfare.

I was hoping that this series would follow two main characters so I could watch them develop over time but their happily ever after comes easily enough. I’m guessing the other characters will get theirs at the series goes on but I’m not as interested in their stories (exceptions – Trixie and Damien).

All in all Tall, Dark, and Vampire is interesting for its premise and world building but tapers off into a more usual vampire novel. I won’t be continuing this series but I am interested in checking out more of Humphreys’ books to see if they’re more my thing.

The Passage by Justin Cronin (The Passage #1)


6690798An epic and gripping tale of catastrophe and survival, The Passage is the story of Amy—abandoned by her mother at the age of six, pursued and then imprisoned by the shadowy figures behind a government experiment of apocalyptic proportions. But Special Agent Brad Wolgast, the lawman sent to track her down, is disarmed by the curiously quiet girl and risks everything to save her. As the experiment goes nightmarishly wrong, Wolgast secures her escape—but he can’t stop society’s collapse. And as Amy walks alone, across miles and decades, into a future dark with violence and despair, she is filled with the mysterious and terrifying knowledge that only she has the power to save the ruined world.


There’s 300 great pages in this book – 100 at the beginning, 100 in the middle, and 100 right at the end. For most novels that would be perfect. For the 776 page The Passage, however, it leaves much to slog through.

Don’t get me wrong, they’re 300 really good pages. The world Cronin sets up is contained yet massive, crazy yet believable. The mystery kept me going but a third of the way through the whole thing goes POOF and we’re forced to restart with a ton of new characters in a completely different setting. I was so disgusted that I put the book down for a day, too demoralized to pick it back up.

I liked that:

  • The women were often on equal footing with the men in the later sections of the book. One of the female characters ended up doing most of the driving (gasp) and the best fighter was a woman. I felt like each person in the group filled the most fitting role regardless of gender.
  • Gender wasn’t ignored. In a post-apocalyptic world with few humans fertile females are a commodity, no getting around it.
  • The end was tied up neatly but let you know where the next book is headed.

I didn’t like:

  • How Amy was treated later in the book.  That’s the most I can say spoiler-free.
  • The sheer number of characters dumped on you a third of the way through. I still don’t feel like I have everyone straight.
  • At times the action scenes were confusing. One with moving vehicles in particular left me confused as to who was doing what where.

Part of me says this book should be a four star read for its “literary value” (whatever that is), but the fact that I had to drag myself to the page more often than not makes it a three.

Tales from Q School: Inside Golf’s Fifth Major by John Feinstein


2135568It is the tournament that separates champions from mortals. It is the starting point for the careers of future legends and can be the final stop on the down escalator for fading stars. The annual PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament is one of the most grueling competitions in any sport. Every fall, veterans and talented hopefuls sweat through six rounds of hell at Q school, as the tournament is universally known, to get a shot at the PGA Tour, vying for the 30 slots available. The grim reality: if you don’t make it through Q school, you’re not on the PGA tour. You’re out. And those who make it to the six day finals are the lucky ones: Hundreds more players fail to get through the equally grueling first two stages of the event. John Feinstein tells the story of the players who compete for these coveted positions in the 2005 Q school as only he can. With arresting accounts from the players, established winners, rising stars, the defeated and the endlessly hopeful, America’s favorite sportswriter unearths the inside story behind the PGA Tour’s brutal all-or-nothing competition.


First clue I made a mistake picking up this book – I did not know how many majors there are in golf.

It only went downhill from there.

This book tries to follow the course of one Q School, the PGA’s qualifying tournament. Feinstein is so loosey goosey with his stories, though, it’s hard to tell there’s any through line at all. Each chapter is filled with stories about players struggling through the three round tourney but most fall into one of two camps:

– Young hotshot gets into the PGA tour easily the first time, then ends back up in the Q School of Hard Knocks


– Older, established player becomes injured or otherwise loses their swing, requiring them to go back to Q School even though they were great

After a few chapters it felt like I was reading reruns. Add in Teflon names that just wouldn’t stick (from one page: Steve, Jeff, Joe, Brad, Patrick, Garrett, Steve) and it was reruns.

Feinstein’s memory seemed to fail him now and then, telling the story of Mize’s amazing Masters shot no fewer than three times while leaving out helpful clues when a player reappeared. A little intro like, “so-and-so, the mini tour player that injured his back so dramatically,” or whatever, would have helped immeasurably. I was lucky there were two Japanese guys in the pack or I wouldn’t have remembered anyone.

This book may have a little value for those who are already deep in the sport, but lay people should stay away.

Bollywood Fiance for a Day by Ruchi Vasudeva


22218056Winning the chance to meet the ultimate Bollywood heart-throb, Zaheer Saxena, is just what Vishakha needs to take her mind off her recent humiliation—being jilted the week before her wedding! And when gorgeous Zaheer offers to be her fake fiancé, the chance to save face with her family is just too tempting…

It’s a deal that benefits them both—Zaheer is warding off any unwanted female attention until his next film is finished—but can Vishakha trust herself not to hope that her dream fiancé for a day will be her forever man?


The good:

  • The entire plot didn’t turn on a Big Misunderstanding. Both the hero and heroine act rationally… misguided at times, sure, and missing information, definitely, but you understand where they are coming from.
  • It’s wonderful to read a book set in modern day India, written by an Indian author. I was able to slip away into another world, and not one ruled by the limited glimpses tourists manage.
  • While there are a bunch of Hindi words their meaning was always clear from context.

The neither-good-nor-bad:

  • I’m not used to Indian English and the pacing of some of the banter threw me off. I felt much the same way when I first got into Regencies so I know it’s me, not the author.

The not-so-good:

  • You can tell this is a first novel. Some parts just felt odd, and while I can place some of the blame on my lack of knowledge there are sentences that just go clunk. For example:

Not that there was anything easy about containing desire. The night he’d spent a quarter of in swimming away his restlessness, was proof of that.

  • I didn’t have a strong sense for how characters were moving through space as they talked. The basics were there – “I followed her inside” or “We walked along” – but huge chunks of conversation seemed to hang in the air, not rooted to anything. A few more phrases like “She leaned back in her chair” wouldn’t have been amiss.

It’s great that Mills and Boon/Harlequin is doing this Indian authors line – I’ll be keeping an eye out for more titles in the future.

Cul-de-sac by Daniel MacIvor


425189In his latest collaboration with director Daniel Brooks, MacIvor plays the role of Leonard, who narrates the events leading up to his murder while trying to understand them himself. Through the course of the play, we peer behind the curtains of his neighbourhood as MacIvor transforms into the multiple characters who bear witness to Leonard’s life and death. Yet each of their stories, while internally consistent, tells a subtly different version of what happened, progressively colouring and transforming our understanding of the characters as we think we had come to know them. In a headlong rush we understand that everyone’s story inevitably dead-ends at precisely the bottom of the preconceptions they brought to its telling.

Punctuated by brilliant lighting and a mood-setting soundscape, this dazzling one-man show is storytelling of the highest order.


I don’t think I’ve read a single play since my theatre classes in college, but it all came back to me – analyzing parts, coming up with different readings for the same line, imagining what this play must have looked like on stage.

I bet it was interesting. A one man show, Cul-de-sac slowly takes you through a series of character studies of people who all live on the same dead end street. They’re all talking, more or less directly, about an event that happened recently. I’ll just leave it there to avoid spoiling anything.

There are some downright beautiful lines and interesting insights sprinkled throughout. One of my favorites, from a 14 year old girl:

I wish I could be a lesbian. It would be easier. Girls are easier. I mean girls can be bitchy but so can boys just when boys are bitchy they call it highly motivated.

A short read even with the lengthy introduction, this play reminded me that there’s a whole world of drama out there waiting for me.

Fire Season by Philip Connors


9341909A decade ago Philip Connors left work as an editor at the Wall Street Journal and talked his way into a job far from the streets of lower Manhattan: working as one of the last fire lookouts in America. Spending nearly half the year in a 7′ x 7′ tower, 10,000 feet above sea level in remote New Mexico, his tasks were simple: keep watch over one of the most fire-prone forests in the country and sound the alarm at the first sign of smoke.

Fire Season is Connors’s remarkable reflection on work, our place in the wild, and the charms of solitude. The landscape over which he keeps watch is rugged and roadless — it was the first region in the world to be officially placed off limits to industrial machines — and it typically gets hit by lightning more than 30,000 times per year. Connors recounts his days and nights in this forbidding land, untethered from the comforts of modern life: the eerie pleasure of being alone in his glass-walled perch with only his dog Alice for company; occasional visits from smokejumpers and long-distance hikers; the strange dance of communion and wariness with bears, elk, and other wild creatures; trips to visit the hidden graves of buffalo soldiers slain during the Apache wars of the nineteenth century; and always the majesty and might of lightning storms and untamed fire.


This summer I decided to tackle a bunch of fire-related books I’ve been meaning to get to.  I figured that with the AC pumping and typhoons doing their best to aim at the island I call home they would be less threatening, and they sorta were.  Next up – Fire Season.

The book covers one year of lookout duty by Connors, starting with a five mile hike up the mountain with his dog, Alice.  His food and other supplies will be brought in by mule.  The wet spring quickly turns dry and he spends his time reading, writing, entertaining thru hikers, and looking for smoke (natch).  This account is interspersed with asides about the history of the area, the Forest Service, other writers who were lookouts, and the author’s personal life.  Forest management has changed a lot over the past 100 years and it got me thinking about public lands are being taken care of all over the country

Sometimes I liked these diversions better than the main narrative.  Connors talks about his mountain, his tower, his experience.  I would have liked him to take a step back and muse about, say, the human need for solitude instead of just his need for solitude.  Other lookouts are name checked but I’d like to know more about them and how their experience differs.  Is the female lookout as eager to invite hikers up to her tiny tower?  Connors makes it sound like you need to be like him in order to do this job when obviously that is not the case.

Faced with the prospect of training a relief lookout he says,

…the skills required of a person here, aside from the use of the Osborne Firefinder, are more intuitive than mechanical and therefore difficult to impart.  It’s one of those jobs you can learn only by doing.

Despite this we don’t get to see him mess up or learn much of anything.  The book covers his eighth season – he has all the mountain and valley names memorized, he knows exactly when he can get away with taking a nap, he clears rat nests out of his cabin without even wrinkling his nose because hey, he’s done it for the better part of a decade.  Connors meets bad circumstances but they’re acts of nature, not due to a misstep or bad planning on his part.  The whole thing comes off as macho and annoyed me more as the book went on.

I may sound negative but all in all I enjoyed the read.  Now I want to go on and read more about the history of the area as I’m woefully ignorant about the Southwest.  It also persuaded me to extend the Summer of Fire by one book – Smokejumper, here I come!

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn


16200Ella Minnow Pea is a girl living happily on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of South Carolina. Nollop was named after Nevin Nollop, author of the immortal pangram,* “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Now Ella finds herself acting to save her friends, family, and fellow citizens from the encroaching totalitarianism of the island’s Council, which has banned the use of certain letters of the alphabet as they fall from a memorial statue of Nevin Nollop. As the letters progressively drop from the statue they also disappear from the novel. The result is both a hilarious and moving story of one girl’s fight for freedom of expression, as well as a linguistic tour de force sure to delight word lovers everywhere.

*pangram: a sentence or phrase that includes all the letters of the alphabet


A clever book about the power of language that made me laugh out loud. While going through a feat of linguistic gymnastics it also touches on liberty, censorship, and what it means to fight the good fight.

I was blown away by the work and level of craft that went into this novel. After things get phonetic things got bogged down for a while, but it didn’t stop me from finishing the book in a couple of hours.

I only highlighted one quote, but I love it. Upon the imminent banning of the letter Q:

Before retiring, though, I shall turn to my dear husband and say, “Today we queried, questioned, and inquired. Promise me that come tomorrow, we will not stop asking why.”


Sad Suitcase on a Train Platform
Photo by Luke Strange, CC BY 2.0

My husband and I are finally going on our honeymoon, huzzah!  Planning is fun wrapped with worry – did I reserve the right dates?  How much rental car insurance do we need? Are bedbugs really that common now?! – but figuring out what books to bring  is the highlight, hands down.

With my ereader bulk isn’t a problem but there’s always the question of content.  Do I want to try out new authors or stick to my favorites?  Will I have the mental stamina for a long, nuanced read or will I need a gripping plot to keep me interested?

The best solution, of course, is to have a little bit of everything:

  • Something plotty for the plane, preferably the next book in a series I love.  A trans-Pacific flight is perfect for swallowing it whole.
  • Something funny for the plane.  Because, plane.
  • Some plane-adjacent non-fiction for the plane.  Think books written by pilots and cabin attendants or the history of air travel (but not disasters!).
  • Essays that I can dip in and out of, in case my attention wanders or I don’t have much time.
  • A book set in the place I’m traveling to.
  • Something meaty for the day it rains and we’re stuck in the hotel.

What kinds of books do you bring on a trip?  Is there anything I’m missing?