Saturday, July 31, 2010

Alive in the Killing Fields

Alive in the Killing Fields
By Nawuth Keat
National Geographic, 2009. 127 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

When Nawuth Keat was nine years old, his life changed forever. The Khmer Rouge (Red Communists) were gaining control and spreading terror in Cambodia, and Keat's family was targeted by the group. After the murder of several of his family members, Keat and his remaining relatives were forced to work for the Khmer Rouge doing farming projects while living on only a minimal amount of food. Facing starvation, Keat had to be creative in how to obtain food to keep himself and his loved ones alive.

Keat's story is a thought-provoking introduction to Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge genocide. While it focuses on his life, not providing an overview of the full impact of the Khmer Rouge regime, it will likely entice readers to learn more about the Cambodian people and the brutality they faced.

AE

Phineas Gage

Phineas Gage
By John Fleischman
Houghton Mifflin, 2002. 86 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

In 1848, Phineas Gage had an iron rod shoot through the roof of his head--and he survived the injury. However, the previous responsible, rational, hard-working man became illogical and short-tempered, indicating that while his body had healed, his brain had not, and the damage he sustained made him an important case in the field of brain science.

Phineas's accident is gruesome, but the author handles it without being overly gory. The discussion about the field of brain science is very interesting, comparing what doctors knew then and what they know now. This is a great book for teen guys or those interested in how the body works.

AE

The Oath

The Oath
By Frank Peretti
Thomas Nelson, 1995. 649 pgs. Fiction

The only way to categorize this book is "Christian Horror". Set in the small mining town of Hyde River, this story involves a "dragon" which is literally a physical representation of the sins of a community. Just as people are in denial about their sins--this community denies the existence of the dragon, although it is literally eating them alive...

When an outsider, a wildlife biologist named Steve Benson, arrives to investigate the death of his brother, he begins unraveling a mystery that goes back a century and permeates the unknowing lives of everyone in the community of Hyde River. This horror story is a bit gruesome, but the reader won't find anything here in the way of profanity or explicit sex.

Friday, July 30, 2010

A Savage Thunder

A Savage Thunder: Antietam and the Bloody Road to Freedom
By Jim Murphy
Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2009. 103 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

In September 1862, the Union and Confederate armies met in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Robert E. Lee's southern troops were outnumbered, but their daring commanders were more prepared to fight than George McClellan, the northern general who constantly worried that he would be outnumbered and defeated and who allowed his personal feelings (including a dislike for President Abraham Lincoln) to interfere with his chance to possibly end the Civil War once and for all.

Murphy uses first person accounts, photographs and drawings as well as his own prose to guide readers through the bloody battle as well as to show some of the repercussions, including Lincoln's announcing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Following the course of multiple advances on the battlefield may prove tricky for some readers, but all in all, this is a great resource for students looking to understand more about the Civil War and contains lots of intriguing tidbits (such as the mention of female soldiers disguised as males) that could spark a desire for increased reading and research.

AE

The Great Fire

The Great Fire
By Jim Murphy
Scholastic, 1995. 144 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

The great fire of 1871 burned for thirty-one hours, leaving an area of Chicago four miles long by one mile wide destroyed and thousands of people homeless. Here, Jim Murphy discusses the causes of the fire and the impact of it on Chicago and shares stories of people caught in the midst of the disaster.

Murphy uses clear language and excellent illustrations (including numerous maps to show the spread of the fire) to help readers understand the devastating course of events. This is a great introduction to an important piece of history for both teens and adults.

AE

Wild Orchid

Wild Orchid
By Cameron Dokey
Simon Pulse, 2009. 199 pgs. Young Adult

Mulan was destined to be different, since parents married for love rather than having an arranged marriage. However, when her mother died after giving birth, Mulan's heartbroken father never came home to see his daughter. Left in the care of servants and with only a neighbor boy for a friend, Mulan became good at not only womanly tasks, such as sewing, but things most girls would never dream of--archery, reading and writing, and horseback riding. When her long-estranged father finally returns home, he and Mulan have to adjust to each other, but soon, a summons arrives from the emperor: every household in China must send a man to fight against the Huns. Mulan is determined to protect her family, so she disguises herself as a boy and joins the army--quickly becoming friends with Prince Jian.

This is the first retelling of Mulan that I've ever read, and it leaves me with mixed feelings. I enjoy the story of Mulan (who doesn't like a girl who can hold her own with the boys?), but I felt like the writing was somewhat choppy and the style was a strange mix of a beautiful Eastern fairy tale with elements of Westernization thrown in. It's a quick read and still a good one for fans of fairy tale retellings, but some readers will find it less than fulfilling

AE

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Understanding the Holy Land

Understanding the Holy Land
By Mitch Frank
Viking, 2005. 152 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

Mitch Frank provides an introduction to the conflict in the Holy Land, discussing who Palestinians and Israelis are and what the opposing groups want to gain from their continuing conflict, as well as the history of the two groups and the Holy Land itself.

This is a very straightforward, easy-to-understand guide to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A timeline, glossary and index make this a very useful resource for students or a nice overview for adults who want to brush up on world events.

AE

Magic Under Glass

Magic Under Glass
By Jaclyn Dolamore
Bloomsbury, 2010. 225 pgs. Young Adult

Hoping to find a better life than that of a trouser girl singing in a rowdy dance hall, Nimira accepts the employment offer of a handsome, young sorcerer to sing with his piano-playing automaton. Despite rumors of the automaton being alive and the sorcerer’s dead wife haunting the house, Nimira starts singing with the automaton and discovers there is something truly different about him and his lifelike eyes. As she tries to sort this mystery out, she realizes the sorcerer is falling in love with her. Nothing special here, but this is a quick, enjoyable read that fans of fairy-tale re-tellings will like.

MN

Not My Daughter

Not My Daughter
By Barbara Delinsky
Doubleday, 2010. 338 pgs. Fiction

A pregnancy pact between three teenage girls puts their mothers' love to the ultimate test in this emotionally wrenching story of love and forgiveness.

This book was all about relationships. Susan, the high school principal’s relationship with the community, her relationship with her best friends, and ultimately her relationship with her daughter Lily. Lily discovers that even when you think you’ve thought a decision through; it can still impact others in ways you cannot foresee. I would recommend this book to those that like Jodi Picoult’s books.

AMM

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature

Evolution, Me and Other Freaks of Nature
By Robin Brande
Random House/Listening Library, 2007. 5 discs (72 minutes each). Young Adult

Mena Reece didn't plan on starting high school as a social piranha. However, since she's been kicked out her church group (a result of getting most of her friends and their parents sued for millions of dollars) even her parents aren't speaking to her and freshman year is looking pretty grim. One bright spot in her life is her science class, where she has a seriously awesome teacher, Ms. Shepherd, and a super smart (and funny and cute and nice) lab partner, Casey. When her former friends make Ms. Shepherd's class, particularly her lectures on evolution, the target of their newest protest, Mena has to decide how to balance her faith with her blossoming interest in science.

This is a very intriguing book, and the audio version is delightful. The narrator really makes Mena come to life. There's a little bit of language, but other than that it's a clean read. It's an interesting look at a girl discovering--and living--her beliefs.

AE

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Clearing

The Clearing
By Heather Davis
Graphia/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2010. 215 pgs. Young Adult

Amy is looking for a new life--something different from a life where her boyfriend is abusive. So, she moves to a trailer in the middle of nowhere to live with her elderly aunt. Henry, on the other hand, wants things to stay the same--and they have, for over sixty years. Henry's family is stuck in 1944, reliving the same day, over and over. Amy's and Henry's world collide when Amy pass through the thick mist near a clearing on her aunt's property and enters Henry's life. Soon, the pair find themselves falling in love, but each have to face the difficulties of their individual lives as well.

The idea of falling in love across the decades is intriguing, and I liked Henry's side of the story--his desire to protect his family and his fear of the future. Amy, on the other hand, was less appealing to me; while she warrants a certain amount of sympathy because of the abusive ex-boyfriend, there's not much about her that makes her a truly likable character. Also, there's something about the ending that fell flat for me. Still, for those looking for a somewhat supernatural twist without vampire, werewolves, or the like, this could be a fun read.

AE

God Went to Beauty School

God Went to Beauty School
by Cynthia Rylant
HarperCollins, 2003. 56 pgs. Young Adult

This short novel-in-verse takes a look at what God might do if He were to live on earth and what His motivations for those actions might be. God's adventures include getting a dog, making spaghetti, and rollerblading. Although some might not like this book for its of lack any sort of doctrinal base, the chance to think about what makes God tick is too good to pass up. A very thought-provoking look at what it would feel like to be God.

AE

Airs above the Ground

Airs above the Ground
by Mary Stewart
HarperTorch, 2004. 373 pgs. Mystery

Vanessa March's husband is supposed to be working in Sweden, so when he shows up on a newsreel of circus fire in Vienna--alongside a pretty young woman--Vanessa decides to investigate. Meeting up with the circus is easy enough, but soon Vanessa finds herself caught up in more than just the mystery of her husband's whereabouts, she also becomes entangled in the mysteries of the circus.

Originally published in 1965, this book is a gentle, clean read. Although there are mysteries to be solved, there is little suspense and not much to be afraid of, either. There is fun dialogue and some information about Austria's famous lippenzers horses. This is a good mystery for those who don't like being scared out of their wits.

AE

No Way Down: Life and Death on K2

No Way Down: Life and Death on K2
by Graham Bowley
HarperCollins, 2010. 253 pgs. Nonfiction

Graham Bowley’s “No Way Down: Life and Death on K2” is, alas, much more about death than life. When eleven climbers died on K2 on August 1 and 2, 2008, Bowley, a reporter for the New York Times, was asked by his editor to write up the disaster; his first thought was “why should we care?” Like many others, Bowley felt not so much compassion for those who put themselves at risk and their families to grief by wantonly placing themselves in harm’s way. But the overwhelming response to his front-page article made him think there was more to this story and he set out to discover what. The resulting narrative is frightening, suspenseful, and agonizingly prescient, as the tension between what the reader knows and what the climbers don’t makes this a compelling, heartbreaking book from the edges of human endeavor.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Romancing Miss Brontë

Romancing Miss Brontë
Juliet Gael
Ballantine Books, 2010, 416 pages, Historical Fiction

A blend of fact and fiction, the author paints a picture of three novelist sisters, Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë through the years in which they struggle to get published under pseudonyms to a time when the Brontë name is known throughout England. The Brontë sisters were the peculiarly strange daughters of a country parson in remote Yorkshire, England. They had no prospects of marriage and would likely have no place to live once their ailing father died. So with their unique genius and quiet determination they set out to get published.

As the title denotes, this story also follows Charlotte, who was no beauty, as the town’s curate, Arthur Nicholls, falls deeply in love with her over a period of many years, and how despite many differences and a fear that no one would ever truly love her, Charlotte does marry and then fall in love herself.

I quite enjoyed reading this book. There was a lot of interesting historical information, but what I liked most was the connection drawn between Jane Eyre and Charlotte Brontë. Jane Eyre has never been my favorite book, but now I will have to go read it again with a new understanding.

AJ

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Three Weissmanns of Westport

The Three Weissmanns of Westport
By Cathleen Schine
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010. 292 pgs. Fiction.

Sense and Sensibility lives again! You remember that the original featured three women who were forced to retire to the country and practice economizing while various love interests flitted in and out of their lives? In The Three Weissmanns however, the cast is not the three damsels of Austen’s 19th century England, but a modern-day family of Jewish New Yorkers who find themselves in similar economic woes. Betty is the family matriarch and after 48 years of marriage she finds herself being divorced from her 70-ish husband for “irreconcilable differences” (translation=another woman). Feeling completely at a loss she gathers her two middle-aged, (and single) daughters to her bosom and retreats to a dilapidated beach cottage on loan from wealthy cousin Lou where she waits for her husband to come to his good senses.

Adventures abound at the cottage and various bachelors are plentiful, ranging from the dashing young theater actor who rescues Miranda from the surf to the wealthy author who intermittently pursues the shyer and more responsible Annie. But the cast grows ever larger, due to the lavish parties hosted by cousin Lou, and the more people to which the Weissmanns are introduced, the more complicated their lives become. Until, as in good Austen form, most things manage to right themselves into a satisfactory ending. Austen would likely not approve the liberal interpretation of her original plot, but the story is nicely written, humorous and enticingly bitter-sweet.

DAP

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains

The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains
by Nicholas Carr
Norton, 2010. 276 pgs. Nonfiction

Is Internet use likely to make us smarter or stupider? Steven Johnson (Everything Bad is Good for You) says smarter, but Nicholas Carr's new research-based book tips the scale against the obsessively wired. While Johnson is correct in saying that gaming and Internet use fires up some quadrants of the brain that don't even register when the subject is reading, in most respects, Internet, Wii, texting, etc., rewire the brain to make concentration, logical thinking, and deep reading much more difficult if not impossible. Any kind of screen reading leads to lower comprehension than regular print reading, and the multitasking made so much easier by computer use actually lowers productivity and job performance. Even one's ability to remember is compromised, since the time the brain needs to transfer information from short-term to long-term memory is short-circuited by the rapid-fire nature of modern technology. Carr is no Luddite, and is pretty much of an Internet/gadget junkie himself, but it is instructive that he had to power down many of his "appliances" and move temporarily to Colorado in order to settle his brain down enough to write this book. The Shallows is an important, densely-textured, convincing volume. Too bad those who might benefit the most from it will be unlikely to pick it up.

LW

The Last Child

The Last Child
By John Hart
Minotaur Books, 2009. 373 pgs. Mystery

It's been one year since Johnny's twin Alyssa was abducted. The police are nowhere closer to solving her disappearance and rumors about Alyssa's mother and Detective Hunt, the cop on the case, are rampant. Johnny's life and family have fallen apart since the abduction, so Johnny focuses on finding Alyssa. Armed with a map of the city and a list of the pedophiles in the area, Johnny watches each one and makes notes of their activities. Then one year to the day Alyssa disappeared, a man who says "he found her" is killed in front of Johnny and another girl is kidnapped.

This is a dark and depressing look at what can happen to a family when they lose a loved one. This book was not engaging; the subplots and looks at mysticism and Native American spiritualism might hold interest for some, but not for all. The mystery is tight and suspenseful though. I finished the book solely to find out who did it.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Terrorist

The Terrorist
by Peter Steiner
St. Martin's, 2010. 224 pgs. Fiction.

Louis Morgon, aged 71 and recently diagnosed with prostate cancer, is approached by his former employers, the CIA, to reconnect with some of his former Middle Eastern contacts. Trouble is, Morgon was driven out of the CIA by an envious superior, cleverly discredited, and even accused of terrorism. He says no. Pressure is exerted when the son of a close friend is arrested for no reason and sent out of the States to prison in a country which has neither compunctions nor laws against torture. Between bouts of chemotherapy-induced illness and weakness, Louis meets with Abu Massad, gets a name, tracks down an al-Qaeda sleeper who does not believe in the movement anymore, and through a series of brilliant moves . . . . Well, you'll want to read that for yourself. Louis is an engaging character--introspective, having a piercing intelligence, loyal and determined. His newly-met friend Pauline is as well a treasure--a perceptive, sensitive, and deeply compassionate person. The Terrorist is a short read, but fulfilling in character, setting, and story.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Black Powder

Black Powder
by Staton Rabin
Margaret K McElderry Books, 2005. 245 pages, YA Science Fiction

If you were an exceptionally scientifically adept 14 year old boy and your forever best friend had been gunned down by his own gang, what would you do? Langston Davis is devastated. Then Mrs. Centauri, Langston's science teacher, invites him over to see her new invention, a time machine. Langston knows this is the answer to his grief. Go back in time to 1278, find Roger Bacon and convince him not to publish his black powder formula. He only has a few days before the asteroids will shift and he won't be able to get back home. Without permission, he uses the machine, leaves a shell of himself to take his place in the present while he is gone and quickly leaves for England 1278.

This was a fence sitter book for me. I didn't really like it BUT it did have its moments. Reading the author' explantions for writing the book did help a bit in trying to understand her vehement stand on gun issues. Unfortunately, I felt the author was trying too hard to make the story work. The constant reminder that Langston was black, dialogue that just didn't seem to flow, phrases stuck in to sound "cool" and the many plot jumps (I don't mean time travel jumps) without explanations as to what was happening or how we got there, made this a questionable read for me. There was just a bit of language. All that being said, there were some nice philosophical thoughts near the book's end about freedom and making a difference. mpb

Cupid

Cupid
by Julius Lester
Harcourt, 2007. 198 pgs. Young Adult

An anonymous narrator tells the story of Cupid and Psyche and throws in his own commentary on the story. Pysche is a beautiful mortal--so beautiful that people stop worshiping the beautiful goddess Venus. Venus is jealous and orders her mischievous and somewhat cruel son Cupid to make Pysche's life miserable. That sounds like fun to Cupid--until he sees Pysche and falls in love with her and even arranges a marriage to her. He has to keep his feelings for her a secret from his mother and his identity secret from his new wife.

This tale of love and desire is greatly enhanced by the narrator. Although you never know who exactly he his, his voice is rich, and his commentary on Cupid's immaturity, Venus's vanity, and more definitely liven up the tale. A good read for those interested in mythology and who enjoy "listening" to a good storyteller.

AE

Resistance, Book 1

Resistance, Book 1
By Carla Jablonski & Leland Purvis
Roaring Brook Press, 2010. 121 pgs. Graphic novel.

Paul Tessier and his family live in Vichy ("Free") France during World War II. Although they don't have the same troubles their countrymen do in Occupied France, they still find themselves in great danger when they try to help their neighbors, the Levys, who are Jewish. Paul and his sister Marie hide their friend, Henri, in the wine cellar after his parents are taken and then help smuggle him and some secret information from the Resistance to their northern compatriots. For tweens and teens, Resistance is a fine, suspenseful, personal introduction to the terrors of the Holocaust, and of the work of the Resistance in World War II. Although the book's cover is bland, the interior panels are richly nuanced, drawn, and colored. Young people should really enjoy this book, if they know to look inside.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Portable Dad: Fix-it Advice for When Dad's Not Around

The Portable Dad: Fix it Advice for When Dad's Not Around
By Steve Elliott
Running Press, 2009. 236 pgs. Nonfiction

This extremely helpful book covers all kinds of topics, such as: cars, computers, bicycles, moving, painting, yard work and tools. The author has a great sense of humor that makes it fun to read about somewhat boring topics.

After recently purchasing a house, I preferred looking through this little book to learn the proper way to paint and do small repairs than some of the larger, more in-depth books. There was just the right amount of information in each section.

I plan on purchasing this book to keep on my bookshelf for future repairs. My husband, who seems to be able to fix just about anything, also really liked reading through this book.

The Summer I Got a Life

The Summer I Got a Life
by Mark Fink
WestSide Books, 2009. 196 pgs. Young Adult

Andy Crenshaw is supposed to go to Hawaii on his summer vacation, but when his dad gets a promotion, Andy and his older brother Brad get shipped off to Wisconsin instead. Neither boy is excited about staying with their eccentric aunt and uncle in the middle of nowhere. When Andy meets a good-looking, talented, amazing girl, who happens to be in a wheelchair, he's a little surprised, but as he gets to know Laura, he finds this vacation is way better than he anticipated.

This book is a quick, fun read about first love and growing up. There are some very comical moments. There's a little bit of language, but it's really a fun book.

AE

Friday, July 16, 2010

Earth

Earth
By David Brin
Bantam, 1990, 682 pgs. Science Fiction

David Brin’s Earth is sprawling, lengthy, and complicated. The book has several story lines and many characters but the main plot centers around the threat to planet earth that is caused by a microscopic black hole created in a physics experiment. The black hole ends up in the earth’s core and threatens to destroy the planet. You’ll either love it or hate it- either way you’ll be astounded at the research that went into this novel and the way Brin could so accurately imagine the future when he wrote this book 20 years ago.

Skybreaker

Skybreaker
By Kenneth Oppel
Eos, 2006. 369 pgs. Young Adult

While apprenticing on a cargo airship, Matt Cruise along with his fellow crew members encounter the legendary lost cargo airship, Hyperion. According to legend, anyone who can catch her will find a fortune aboard. But the crew, with its run down airship is unable to reach the altitude to board the Hyperion before their airship begins to come apart causing the death of the navigator. Matt, being the only person alive who knows the last known coordinates of the Hyperion teams up with Kate de Vries to take on the adventure. Now they just have to find an airship and crew willing to put their lives in danger to reach the Hyperion.

Skybreaker is just as enjoyable as the first book, Airborn, with non-stop action. The humor picks up in the book as Matt finds he is competing with others for the affection of Kate. This is a great series to listen to on a road trip, it keeps your attention and you are glad you still have hours to go on the road.

KK

The Body Finder

The Body Finder
By Kimberly Derting
Harper, 2010. 329 pages. Young Adult Fiction

Violet, a junior in high school, has the inexplicable ability to sense the location of bodies of people who have been violently murdered. They call to her in an almost musical manner – not letting her rest until they are properly buried. Only Violet’s parents, best friend Jay, and Uncle Stephen (the local police chief) know her secret. When a serial killer begins targeting young girls in Violet’s hometown she feels obligated to help track the murderer. Because of Violet's connection with the police she is allowed on location in a man hunt and believes she has successfully targeted the suspect. The author builds tension by alternating chapters and points of view between Violet and the killer. Interspersed with mystery and danger in this novel is first love. Violet and Jay have been best friends since third grade. Now seemingly perfect Jay has grown up and other girls are taking an intense interest in him. Violet doesn't want to acknowledge what her conflicted and jealous feelings about this mean.

I liked the unique twist of Violet’s paranormal abilities, and the mystery of knowing the killer was hiding in plain sight. The contrast of the every day teen matters of homecoming dances and homework is nicely contrasted with the cold, distorted world of a serial killer. Although sixteen year old Violet seemed a complete character, her parents, and Jay were less complex. I particularly didn't like the excited seal of approval, along with closed bedroom door privileges, Violet's parents bestowed upon the new boyfriend relationship. This along with the cliche ending changed my feelings for the novel from enjoyment to exasperation.

ALC

In the Garden of Iden

In the Garden of Iden
Kage Baker
Tome Doherty Associates, 1997, 329 pages, Science Fiction

Deftly written, this is a simple tale of a girl’s first love woven into a much more complex story of historical intrigue, religious fervor, and time travel. The Company is a powerful organization from the future that claims to use its immense resources to save rare works of art, and extinct flora and fauna, thus preserving a better future. They did this at first by traveling back in time, but now the Company recruits people from the past by saving orphans, turning them into immortal cyborgs, and then sending them out into the world, under-cover, to do the Company’s work.

Mendoza is one such person. She was saved from the pits of the Spanish Inquisition in the 1530s. On her first mission, she is sent to England during Queen Mary’s bloody reign. Mendoza’s mission is to collect samples of an endangered holly bush that has properties to cure cancer from the garden of Sir Walter Iden. There she meets and soon falls in love with Nicholas Harpole, a proud Protestant in a time when the Catholics have regained their power in England. Mendoza wants nothing more than to be with Nicholas but as a Company operative she cannot meddle with his fate. However, love can make people do desperate things.

The first in a long series, this is a fascinating read with interesting characters and discussions on religion, morality, and responsibility to future generations. Another book to try if you are interested in Sci-Fi and Historical Fiction is The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

AJ

Spies of the Balkans

Spies of the Balkans
By Alan Furst
Random House, 2010. 268 pgs. Fiction

Costa Zannis heads a special branch of the Greek police force. He handles “political” cases which seem to be growing more complicated as Europe begins its descent into World War II. At first, he is able to ignore the spies and their intrigue since Greece has yet to be drawn into the conflict. But, he soon finds himself a key player in smuggling Germans across the Balkans as they try to escape the Nazi regime.

Having recently read a number of nonfiction books describing espionage activities during World War II, I was surprised to be a little bored during this novel. There were definitely parts of the book I really enjoyed but the story as a whole seemed to lack that special something books need to keep you turning the pages. I would still recommend this as a good work of historical fiction presenting an uncommon perspective of World War II.

CZ

Last Dickens

Last Dickens
By Matthew Pearl
Random House, 2009. 386 pgs. Mystery

James Ripley Osgood is a partner in the respected publishing firm of Fields & Osgood. Their recent success as the official American publisher for Charles Dickens is threatened by the author’s untimely death. Now Dickens’ unfinished serial, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”, is found to be surrounded in a mystery of its own and, when Osgood’s clerk is found dead in the streets of Boston, Osgood finds himself searching desperately for clues to why those involved with the publication are finding themselves in mortal danger.

In The Last Dickens, Matthew Pearl presents a cast of interesting characters, many of whom actually existed, and an intriguing story. Pearl’s books aren’t ‘edge of your seat’ but they keep a good pace and satisfactory ending. I can easily recommend this to mystery and literature lovers, especially anyone wanting something clean.

CZ

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes

The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness and Obsession
By David Grann
Books on Tape, 2010. 11 discs, Nonfiction

Truth is stranger than fiction. If the old adage can be trusted, then David Grann has compiled some of the more incredible stories which lay claim to that principle. Grann is a reporter and all his tales contain an aura of mystery that Sherlock Holmes could only dream of solving; however, that most revered detective figures only in the first anecdote and fans will have to be content with such as it is. (I, myself was hoping for more.) Yet, the story of an obsessed Sherlock Holmes fan—who just might have committed suicide in the hopes that it would be mistaken as a murder—is indeed worthy of Holmesian detection. Half the fun is using your own detecting skills to solve the puzzle in order to decide which it really was.

Moving on, Grann presents the reader (or listener as may be) with more tales of the unusual and macabre. He offers up the strange case of a Polish murder, which may or may not have been committed by an eccentric philosopher who published a book with remarkable similarities to the crime. Another tale offers the bizarre story of a chameleon-like Frenchman who posed over and over again as an orphaned teenage boy with the hopes of being loved. Thus, if the bizarre world of true crime suits your summer reading fancy then step into a world where the possibilities are often grisly.

DAP

The Dust Bowl Through the Lens

The Dust Bowl Through the Lens
By Martin W. Sandler
Walker & Co., 2009. 96 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

Martin Sandler provides a photoessay about the Dust Bowl and how the dust storms of the 1930s impacted the farmers who relied on the land for their livelihood. This is an informative book, and the photographs are incredible. However, in one regard the book is disappointing: the subtitle of this book is "How Photography Revealed and Helped Remedy a National Disaster," which would lead readers to believe that there would be a heavy emphasis on photography; however, the book is much less about photography than it is about the Dust Bowl. The information about photographers is sparse, compared with the rest of the text, and almost seems forced in places. Sandler would have done better to write a book about the Dust Bowl and include a page or two about photography. So, while the impact of photography of the Dust Bowl isn't explained as well as it could be, this book is worth reading for the interesting information and stunning photographs.

AE

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Ender's Game

Ender's Game
by Orson Scott Card
St. Martin's Press, 1985. 349 pgs. Sci-Fi

Ender's Game is the story of Ender Wiggin, born the third child in a future America where families are normally only allowed two children. Ender is the object of much abuse, which he ends by brutally beating the leader of the bullies. Due to his potential as a great military leader he is selected at the age of six to be enrolled in Battle School. Here he is trained to defend Earth from attacks by the Buggers.

This was a great story, and I enjoyed the morality questions. Was Ender's treatment fair? Do the ends justify the means in war? If you are one of the few that haven't read this book I highly recommend it, but, be aware that it does contain a great deal of violence and language.

The Double Comfort Safari Club

The Double Comfort Safari Club
By Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon Books, 2010. 211 p. Mystery

Detection knows no finer ally than Precious Ramotswe, founder of the No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency in the good country of Botswana. With her wisdom and genuine good sense, Mma Ramotswe is available to aid all her countrymen and women. This time, McCall Smith’s cherished detective must solve the mystery of a friend’s presumed infidelity, find and award an unknown safari guide and relieve her assistant’s fiancée from the grasping clutches of his odious auntie back into Miss Makutsi’s (of the 97 percent fame) grateful arms.

As usual, McCall Smith’s view of the world (even in far-off Botswana) is spot on. He deftly reaches inside the human heart and psyche to place his gentle, inky finger on humanity’s resplendent heroism and sheepish foibles. A favorite sentiment from the book reads, “That was the way the world was; it was composed of a few almost perfect people (ourselves); then there were a good many people who generally did their best but were not all that perfect (our friends and colleagues); and finally, there were a few rather nasty ones (our enemies and opponents)." Too true!

DAP

Shades of Grey

Shades of Grey
Jasper Fforde
Viking Press, 2009, 390 pages, Science Fiction.

Jasper Fforde does not lack for imagination. In his latest “colorful” creation, he has envisioned a world where people see only in shades of grey. If you’re lucky you might be able to see one color and the entire societal hierarchy is based on what color you can see and how well you can perceive it.

Eddie Russet is hopefully on his way up in the world. He is on a “half-promise” to the daughter of the prestigious Oxblood family. But when he gets in trouble at school and is sent to the Outer Fringes to perform a chair census, he meets rebellious Jane along the way, a working-class Grey with the cutest nose he’s ever seen.

In the Outer Fringes things are not so closely controlled by the Colortocracy as they are closer to the capital, and Eddie soon finds himself questioning the way things are done, but questioning things can get you into very deep trouble and trouble is exactly where Eddie is headed.

This is a superbly imagined story so rich in detail that the plot does get a little lost at times. That being said, I laughed out loud so much, it was worth the confusion.

AJ

Glimpse

Glimpse
By Carol Lynch Williams
Simon & Schuster, 2010. 484 pgs. Young Adult

Living with their mother who earns money as a prostitute, two sisters take care of each other and when the older one attempts suicide, the younger one tries to uncover the reason.

This was not a light book; it was a pretty heavy plot. However since it is written in verse it is a very quick read. I read it in a matter of hours because of the quick pace and the compelling story. While the story is often heavy, there is humor incorporated as well. I loved the “voice” of this book; I could really hear the southern accent of the characters as I read this novel.

I’m looking forward to hearing Carol Lynch Williams speak at the Provo City Library on July 27, 2010. This program will be held at 7:00 pm in the Bullock Room, # 309. Carol Lynch Williams will be the first author in our new Authorlink series!

AMM

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Lonely Polygamist

The Lonely Polygamist
By Brady Udall
W. W. Norton, 2010. 602 p. Fiction

It might be life's great irony, but with four wives and a couple dozen kids, Golden just can't seem to find true companionship. He's beset by worries about his failing construction company, which house he's supposed to sleep in on what night, how he's going to keep his kids fed and moreover, he can never find an empty bathroom when he needs one. It's a dog's life he's living and the paradox is that his dog is the only one who seems to be there for him. On top of all that, he's dallying with a married woman at his current building site--which happens to be the new headquarters for a thriving brothel instead of the retirement home he's told his wives and fellow brethren he's building. Golden knows the two lives he's living will eventually collide, he's just not sure when.

"The Lonely Polygamist" is a smashing success if you're looking for excellent writing on an original topic. The book is startling, laugh-out loud hilarious and ingenious in its ability to capture the humanity in a less-than-common family situation. Udall creates an immense variety of sympathetic characters that worm their way into your heart and leave you yearning for the chance to meet them all in person. It took me more than a few chapters to find myself hooked, but after that I was spellbound. Never has a writer managed to make polygamy seem so humane. Golden and his family face all the normal human crises, they're simply exacerbated by the number of people in the picture. However, the book is quite earthy, includes a wide gambit of situations and language that sensitive readers won't find appealing. But if you're not afraid of the ride, then saddle up and enjoy Golden's unusual, yet unforgettable world.

DAP

Linger

Linger
Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic Press, 2010, 368 pages, Young Adult Fiction

In this is the sequel to Shiver, Sam and Grace can finally be together now that Sam is permanently human. But all is not as they had hoped for. Grace must deal with parents who after a decade of neglect now want to control who she sees and what she does. Sam is also still dealing with his wolf past and present. On top of this, Grace is plagued by a mysterious illness that just might be turning her into a wolf. Sam and Grace just want to grow old together, but with so much against them, will they ever be able to attain it?

Musician/artist Stiefvater imbues her books with beautifully written, lyric like prose and well-developed characters. Her books are a cut above the loads of Teen paranormal romances out there.

AJ

The Ruling Sea

The Ruling Sea
Robert V.S. Redick
Del Rey, 2010, 616 pages, Fantasy.

High Seas Adventure and Fantasy rarely come together in one book. Add in plot-twists, double crosses, and evil sorcerers, and there is enough intrigue to make anyone happy. This is the sequel to The Red Wolf Conspiracy and continues the story where the first book left off.

Thasha and Pazel’s small band of conspirators have thwarted plans to bring two empires back to war, but it has left them exposed to the sorcerer Arunas and his machinations. They must now use their limited resources to find a way to stop to Arunas from using the Nilstone which is so powerful the wielder could subject the entire world to his will. All of this is going on while the giant ship Chathrand navigates the Ruling Sea, a sea so vast is has not been crossed in hundreds of years.

Overall, I enjoyed this book. However, I think it could easily have been a 100 pages shorter and sometimes the characters were a bit annoying.

AJ

Bellfield Hall

Bellfield Hall: or the Observations of Miss Dido Kent
By Anna Dean
Minotaur Books, 2010. 300 p. Mystery

As a young, maiden aunt, Miss Dido Kent is always at the beck and call of any family crisis. Thus, she's not surprised that a frantic summoning to "come immediately" arrives from her favorite niece, Charlotte. It appears that Charlotte had been thoroughly enjoying an English country house party when she was mysteriously abandoned by her wealthy and well-connected fiancée and Charlotte needs her dear aunt's comfort and level-head to sustain her during this catastrophe. But a disappearing fiancée isn't the only problem Miss Kent encounters when she arrives at Bellfield Hall and an unidentified dead woman in the shrubbery only makes the fiancee's absence more suspicious.

Miss Dido begs Charlotte to denounce the irascible man and get herself from Bellfield Hall as soon as possible, but Charlotte's obstinate loyalty to a man she barely knows forces Miss Dido to play the detective and find out just who the real murderer might be. Complications ensue when a charming widower and various family members become prime suspects in the case, but Miss Dido resolves not to let these disconcerting variables keep her from discovering the truth. Bellfield Hall reads like a cross between Agatha Christie and Jane Austen and admirers of both excellent writers should find themselves fairly satisfied.

DAP

The Art of Eating In

The Art of Eating In: How I Learned to Stop Spending and Love the Stove
By Cathy Erway
Gotham Books, 2010. 320 pgs. Nonfiction

Cathy Erway's timely memoir of quitting restaurants cold turkey speaks to a new era of conscientious eating. An underpaid, twenty-something executive assistant in New York City, she was struggling to make ends meet when she decided to embark on a Walden- esque retreat from the high-priced eateries that drained her wallet. Though she was living in the nation's culinary capital, she decided to swear off all restaurant food. The Art of Eating In chronicles the delectable results of her twenty-four-month experiment, with thirty original recipes included.

I loved this book. Not only did she investigate what it would be like to abstain from restaurant meals, take-out, and fast food, she also delved into other eye-opening food experiences, such as foraging for edible plants in central park, checking out the underground New York supper club scene, competing in local cook-offs, and she even investigates the "freegan" lifestyle - searching for perfectly edible food that has been thrown out (while it seems extreme, the impressions that she came away with were very interesting). But the real heart and soul of the book was the journey that her life took during this time and how it was shaped by her eating habits. Each chapter is also finished with a few of the recipes that spiced up her story. As someone with similar goals and interests, I loved reading about what she learned.

BHG

Monday, July 12, 2010

Years of Dust

Years of Dust
By Albert Marrin
Dutton Children's Books, 2009. 128 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

For nearly a decade, enormous dust storms rolled across the Great Plains, earning the 1930s the nickname "The Dirty Thirties." The largest drought in U.S. history combined with misuse of the land by man caused a disaster that deeply affected the U.S. Farmers couldn't get crops to grow, and many families were plunged into extreme poverty. Some migrated to other parts of the country, hoping to make a fresh start; others stayed put, hoping desperately for rain.

While Marrin does provide information about the effects of the dust storms, what is most interesting about this book is the information about what caused it. Marrin contests that the dust storms were not a natural disaster; rather, they were a man-made disaster--a disaster that could have been prevented and a disaster that can occur again if people continue to misuse the land. In fact, he points out areas of the world that are in danger of experiencing similar disasters. Easy-to-understand text combined with incredible photographs makes this a top-notch book.

AE

Hitler Youth

Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler's Shadow
By Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Scholastic Nonfiction, 2005. 176 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

Approximately 7 million German children had joined the Hitler Youth organization by the time World War II broke out. Boys and girls alike were indoctrinated with Nazi ideals, including a love for the Fatherland, a hatred of Jews, and a determination to sacrifice all for their homeland. Many of the boys fought in battles for their country, while girls did various work projects and were taught they should provide Germany with healthy children to continue their goals of domination.

Susan Campbell Bartoletti's Newbery Honor book allows readers to have a deeper understanding of what German youth were like by parring historical information with accounts from German youth themselves--both those who wholeheartedly accepted Nazism and those who came to realize that they didn't believe Hitler was right and actually worked to oppose him. Well-written and informative, this is a great resource for understanding more about why German citizens embraced Nazism.

AE

Friday, July 9, 2010

Talking with God

Talking with God: Divine Conversations That Transform Daily Life
By Robert L. Millet
Deseret Book, 2010. 149 p. Nonfiction

If you’ve ever felt like your prayers haven’t reached past the confines of your ceiling, then Robert Millet’s latest treatise on the merits and mysteries of prayer is sure to be a welcome read. Millet begins by cautioning us not to over-estimate the need for preparation before prayer and then moves on to examining “The Lord’s Prayer” as found in Matthew in the King James version of the Bible, specifically how this most famous prayer can guide an individual’s personal and specific conversation with God. He discusses the need to pray for our enemies and the problems with vain repetitions. A most interesting chapter explores the idea that family members who have died can be a means of answering prayers and Millet offers a personal example of when his own deceased father intervened during a severe family crisis. Millet examines the varied instances from the Bible where Jesus prays: in Gethsemane, with his apostles and for the people. The book also teaches that the spirit can and should guide the very words we use in prayer and points out that not all prayers are or should be alike. And perhaps most important, Millet reminds us that a prayer is a two-way dialogue—thus spending the time to listen and wait for answers from the Lord is just as critical as what happens on our end of the conversation.

DAP

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Writing Jane Austen

Writing Jane Austen
By Elizabeth Aston
Simon & Schuster, 2010. 298 pgs. Fiction

A missing manuscript, written in Jane Austen’s own hand, has been found. It contains the first chapter of an unfinished novel and Georgina’s agent wants her to finish it. Sounds like the dream commission for a rising author, but several obstacles loom before her. First, she has been suffering from a case of writer’s block since publishing her first critically acclaimed book. Second, she is only being given a fraction of the time necessary to write such a novel. And finally, she has never actually read any of Austen’s books. Despite these reasons to run from the project, financial obligations and a group of supportive friends convince Georgina to take it on anyway.

Aston is known for her Pride & Prejudice sequels starting with Mr. Darcy’s Daughters, which I loved. This book, I did not love. It actually reminded me a bit of Aston’s last book which seemed to be all build-up and no pay off. The romantic story line was completely unsatisfying and I didn’t feel a connection to any of the characters. Add to that the nervous feeling I was plagued with as Georgina continually procrastinates writing, despite deadlines quickly approaching, and you have an idea of the less than stellar experience I had while reading this book.

CZ

Soulless

Soulless
By Gail Carriger
Orbit, 2009. 373 pgs. Science Fiction

Alexia Tarabotti, a 25 year old spinster, hasn’t got a lot going for her. She and her entire family have all but given up her ever finding a man to marry her, what with her naturally tan skin, large nose, and propensity to enrich and speak her mind. What her family does not know is that she also lacks a soul--making her a preternatural, a rare being with powerful influence over supernaturals such as vampires and werewolves. One werewolf in particular, Lord Conall Maccon, finds himself constantly butting heads with Alexia and soon discovers he doesn’t mind the confrontations at all.

This book is a great introduction to the steampunk genre with aspects of romance, mystery, comedy, and supernatural fiction all mixed together. Both Alexia and Conall are fun characters to follow and the plot easily sweeps the reader up into this alternate version of Victorian London. This is the first installment in The Parasol Protectorate series and readers not wanting to acquire a new guilty pleasure may not want to risk being hooked.

CZ

Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake
By Aimee Bender
Doubleday, 2010. 292 pgs. Fiction

To celebrate her ninth birthday, Rose’s mother prepares a lemon cake. Her first bite becomes a turning point in Rose’s young life as she discovers her ability to taste the emotions of whoever prepares her food. This seemingly whimsical gift is immediately identified as a horrible curse as she tastes her mother’s dissatisfaction with life. Slowly, Rose learns to deal with these unwanted and sometimes unbearable revelations into the deepest feelings of friends, family, and strangers.

Bender is an amazing writer. Her phrasing and word selection make this book a joy to read. That said, this is one of those books that leaves you unsure of your feelings about the story or the characters. I am pretty sure I liked it but I have no doubt I will be thinking about it for a long time to come.

CZ

4 Things That Will Wreck Your Life and 4 Truths That Will Save It

4 Things That Will Wreck Your Life and 4 Truths That Will Save It
By Sheri Dew
Deseret Book, 2010. Book on CD. 56 min. Nonfiction

If you want a formula to destroy your life, Sheri Dew has the recipe. Dew is a prominent member of the LDS church, a former member of the church’s General Relief Society Presidency and a favored speaker for women. In this hour long talk, Dew outlines the 4 major things that she believes Satan would have women do if they want to ruin their lives. The first thing Satan would do is to encourage women to pick on each other, judge each other and gossip about each other. Dew acknowledges this is closely related to women’s divine role to care for and nurture each other, but the adversary easily twists an innate virtue into the malicious backbiting and rumor-monging that besets women. The second thing Satan would do is to confuse women about their true identities as children of God and allow them to feel bewildered about their gender and engage in competition with men. The third wreckage would be to keep the truth about Jesus Christ’s atonement hidden from women and not allow them to realize the power He has to bless and heal their lives in the present. The fourth ruination would be to keep women from realizing the reality of personal revelation and its saving grace.

These are the traps that Dew outlines will keep women from exerting their powerful influence on the world. It’s an inspiring call for Christian women everywhere to live up to their potential and stop engaging in behaviors that will assuredly wreck their lives. And of course, to find out the four truths that will save your life you’ll want to listen in.

DAP

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Black Potatoes

Black Potatoes
By Susan Campbell Bartoletti
Houghton Mifflin, 2001. 184 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

In 1845, a black cloud settled over much of Ireland, destroying the potato crop. Many of the Irish population were extremely poor and relied on the cheap and easy to produce potato crop to survive; while they might grow other crops such as wheat, those crops were immediately used to pay rent to English landlords. With no food and no money, the Irish were desperate for relief; however, the British government was slow to respond, and what little relief did come was inadequate to handle the extent of the problem. As the crop failures continued over the next several years, approximately 1 million Irish citizens died while another 2 million emigrated, leaving behind their beloved island.

Bartoletti does a great job with this book showing how it was only the potato failure that led to the famine; the system of landlords, lack of rights for Irish Catholics and other political forces also heavily impacted who had access to food. This book is very informative but not overly dense, which makes it a great read for teens or for adults who want to get some general information about the Irish famine.

AE

Endowed from on High

Endowed from on High: Understanding the Symbols of the Endowment
By John D. Charles
Horizon Publishers, 1997. 112 pgs. Nonfiction

Charles discusses the symbols found in the LDS endowment ceremony, relating them to LDS scriptures and expounding on such topics as the endowment ceremony, initiatory, temple clothing, the history of the ancient endowment ceremony, and more. Nothing in here was particularly earth-shattering; it was all pretty common sense and probably pretty familiar for most endowed LDS members. However, it would be a good book for those who are preparing to go the temple for the first time.

AE