Monday, December 31, 2012

Dodger

Dodger
by Terry Pratchett
HarperCollins, 2012.  360 pgs. Young Adult.

Dodger is a tosher and a thief, whatever it takes to keep body and soul together in Victorian London. He lives with a man named Solomon whom he saved from misfortune and as the book begins, he saves someone else--a young lady trying to escape from ruffians carrying her off in a coach, against her will. Along comes help in the form of one Charlie Dickens (you will have heard of him), and Henry Mayhew, who takes the girl home to be attended to, and Dodger along with them. Soon the 17-year-old is caught up in a foreign plot to bring the young lady home to a so-called husband who despises her, but needs her for some sort of alliance between nations. England is in a tough spot, not wanting to give her up, but bound by international law to return her to her husband.  Dodger must save the day, with the help of lots more historical characters including Sir Robert Peel, Sweeney Todd, the demon barber of Fleet Street, Benjamin Disraeli, and Queen Victoria herself. Saints be praised that Sir Terry's early-onset Alzheimer's is of the slow-advancing variety, so that he can still bless us with stories such as these--funny, a bit naughty, filled with wordplay (keep an eye out for titles of Dickens' novels worked into the text), and nourishing. 

LW

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Violins of Autumn

Violins of Autumn 
By Amy McAuley
Walker, 2012. 326 pgs. Young Adult

After lying about her age, Betty has become a Special Operations Executive, alias Adele, and parachutes into France to serve as a courier for the French resistance. Adele has been well-trained but at the same time, nothing can quite prepare someone for the dangers of spying on and opposing the Germans, and Adele, who has been isolated and lonely for most of her life, isn't prepared for falling in love or even forming friendships with her fellow agents.

I really liked this book! It's similar to Code Name Verity, but I actually liked it better. There's a good mixture of adventure and suspense, with a little bit of romance. Adele's a great, well-developed protagonist, and supporting characters are great as well. Highly enjoyable.

AE

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Girl Who Owned a City

The Girl Who Owned a City
By O.T. Nelson; adapted by Dan Jolley; illustrated by Joelle Jones
Graphic Universe, 2012. 125 pgs. Graphic novel.

When a deadly virus kills everyone over the age of twelve, the kids of the world have to scrounge and fight to survive. Lisa Nelson decides to take matters into her own hands and organize a group which evolves into a city of children banded together, working for the same goals of peace, order, and safety.

Adapted from what was originally a children's chapter book, this graphic novel is an excellent take on the story. I usually don't enjoy graphic novels, but this particular one captivated me. The artwork is a much higher caliber than is standard for many graphic novels and the story was pared down in a way that made a good length for a graphic novel and yet still did justice to the original book. Fascinating read.

CW

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Impossible Rescue

The Impossible Rescue: The True Story of an Amazing Arctic Adventure
By Martin W. Sandler
Candlewick Press, 2012. 163 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

In September 1897, winter came early in Alaska, and eight whaling ships became stuck in the rapidly-forming ice at the northern tip of Alaska, leaving 265 whalers trapped with few supplies and little food. When word got out about their predicament, none other than U.S. President William McKinley ordered that they be rescued and provided the outline of just how that was to be undertaken: three men were to land on the Alaskan coast--as far north as they could go--and then cross the 1700 miles to the stranded men, along the way convincing two reindeer herders to let them buy their herds on credit and help bring the deer across mountains and ice through the blizzards of the Alaskan winter to the stranded men. Although the daring rescue seemed impossible, men volunteered to be the rescuers and set off to face the brutal conditions and harsh terrain in order to try to save their fellowmen.

This real life adventure is a must-read for anyone interested in fascinating but overlooked stories from history. It's made all the better by the fact that Sandler has included photographs of the expedition. Readers will enjoy following along as the three rescuers, and the Alaskans willing to help in their journey, race against time and the weather to make it to the stranded men in time.

AE

Friday, December 21, 2012

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars

Jepp, Who Defied the Stars
By Katherine Marsh
Hyperion, 2012. 369 pgs. Young Adult Historical Fiction

Jepp is a teenage dwarf living in the 1500's. His early childhood is spent in a small village but he soon finds himself entertaining in a royal court and discovers that life can be very cruel. Through all of his struggles he misses his mother and wishes he knew the identity of his father. This quest eventually sends him all over Europe. Jepp spends much of his time trying to decide if our fate is predetermined by the stars or if we can decide our own destiny.

Jepp is a very likeable character and I just really wanted his life to turn out well. There are several historical figures that play a role in this story and it is interesting to see a different side of court life. I was a little surprised that this was a Young Adult novel, not that there was anything objectionable in the story, just that the writing style and topics seem like they would appeal more to adults.

AL

Envious Casca

Envious Casca
By Georgette Heyer
Sourcebooks Landmark, 2010. 396 pgs. Mystery

Fans of Heyer’s historical romances may be interested to learn that she also wrote mysteries. Set in early 20th century England, the setting and characters are permeated with period dialog and descriptions, just as readers of her romances have come to expect. Here, Uncle Joseph is throwing a Christmas party, inviting the whole family with all of their quarrels and discontent. The first third of the book solely describes the festivities and family dynamic; the victim and detective aren’t even revealed until after page 100. Though this may be strange for a mystery book, it makes for excellent reading as the reader gets to experience the British culture of the time and try their own hand at guessing who might be the murderee and murderer.

Though second in the series about amiable detective Hemingway, this particular book is perfect for the holidays even if you haven’t read the first. Taking place over the days surrounding Christmas, the book involves familiar family fights, awkwardness, and cheer; but all in a pleasant British background. Though I wouldn’t consider myself to have a huge amount of experience with mysteries, I liked how the solution of this one involved psychology as opposed to some detective trick or accidental discovery. Even a seasoned reader will have trouble picking out the killer, yet by the end will wonder how they could have missed it.

JM

The Black Box

The Black Box
by Michael Connelly
Little, Brown and Company, 2012.  403 pgs. Mystery.

During the Los Angeles riots of 1992, much of South Central L.A. was a crime scene, and in Michael Connelly's latest, Harry Bosch and his team are moving at breakneck speed from homicide to homicide gathering only the most essential information and evidence and then moving on to the next shooting.  But one murder stands out for him--a Danish journalist, shot to death execution style in an alley somewhat removed from the worst rampaging. Harry does as much for her as he can, as quickly as he can, but then must move on and leave the case to others.  Twenty years later when the L.A. cold case division is asked to look into homicides from that era, Harry picks out Anneke Jesperson's file and revisits the crime scene he once so hastily secured. Few contemporary writers do
police procedurals as well as Michael Connelly, and The Black Box is no exception. Harry's patient but relentless fitting together of the puzzle pieces of Jesperson's death is deeply satisfying, and though a host of lucky coincidences lead to the story's  unlikely ending, this is still a terrific book, great escape fiction for the dark of the year.

LW

The Secret Keeper

The Secret Keeper 
By Kate Morton
Atria Books, 2012. 484 pgs. Fiction

 While hiding in a tree during a family picnic, 16-year-old Laurel watches a stranger approach her mother. She sees the conversation escalate and then sits stunned as the exchange turns deadly. Decades later, Laurel is compelled to investigate the man, her mother and the mysterious set of events that preceded what occurred that summer afternoon. Her efforts to uncover the secrets her mother has obsessively guarded for so many years feels to be both a betrayal and a service, but Laurel is determined to find the truth.

In "The Secret Keeper," Kate Morton provides us with another entertaining mystery that spans generations and provides plenty of unexpected revelations. While not my favorite of her works, "The Forgotten Garden" maintains that designation, I still enjoyed this new novel and enthusiastically recommend it to almost anyone.

CZ

Hallucinations

Hallucinations 
By Oliver Sacks
Alfred A. Knopf, 2012. 326 pgs. Nonfiction

Dr. Oliver Sacks has spent his career studying bizarre cases that illustrate the mysterious and unpredictable nature of the human brain. His past books, including "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales" and "The Mind's Eye," have informed and entertained readers regarding his fascinating experiences and discoveries. In "Hallucinations," Sacks provides a detailed look at the science of seeing, hearing and feeling what isn't actually there.

While it is certainly all fascinating, the most interesting portion to me was the one discussing hallucinations experienced by those using recreational drugs. Dr. Sacks himself spent a number of years experimenting with and growing addicted to some of these substances. This very personal insight is both fascinating and terrifying. "Hallucinations" should probably be avoided by any readers prone to hypochondria. More than once I thought I glanced things out of the corner of my eye as such phenomena were described and explained. It was almost as bad as reading a well-written ghost story at times, but instead of a vengeful spirit, my own mind seemed to be haunting the periphery of my vision. An entertaining, thrilling and intriguing medical survey.

CZ

The Book of Mormon Girl

The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith 
By Joanna Brooks
Free Press, 2012. 209 pgs. Biography

 Joanna Brooks grew up a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Her home life was filled with support and spirituality established by parents firmly anchored to their religious beliefs. She thought she knew exactly what she wanted from life and where she would end up; eternally married to a return missionary, and establishing a loving Mormon home. But, as she stepped out on her own, attending Brigham Young University, she started to question some of the decisions and policies of ranking church officials. Her journey to come to terms with the truths she was raised embracing and the conflicting beliefs she felt compelled to fight for, paints a fascinating scene of heartache, forgiveness, and faith.

 I had expected Brooks’ autobiography to include more of a portrait of the Mormon faith. Instead I found a depiction of the Mormon culture, an important distinction I felt was completely overlooked. Her conflicted feelings concerning the church are eloquently shared, though I did feel she inappropriately described the experiences of her youth as the experiences of all LDS children. Definitely an interesting memoir describing a unique perspective of the LDS culture.

CZ

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Princess Elizabeth's Spy

Princess Elizabeth’s Spy
By Susan Elia MacNeal
Bantam Books, 2012. 369 pgs. Mystery

After doing an outstanding job in helping save the Prime Minister’s life in Mr. Churchill's Secretary, Maggie is sent on a secret assignment to guard Princess Elizabeth as an undercover math tutor. Though restless in her new position, she takes it upon herself to solve a murder that occurs at Windsor Castle because it doesn’t seem as cut and dry as the authorities are making it out to be.

The war continues but it is the insight into the royal family that makes this an interesting read. I am anxiously waiting for the third book, due out in May, to see how a plot line hinted at near this book’s conclusion plays out.

KK

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Home Front Girl

Home Front Girl
By Joan Wehlen Morrison
Chicago Review Press, 2013. 252 pgs. Biography

Joan Wehlen was just your average American girl, growing up in the Great Depression and then on the eve of, and during, World War II. She had a hard time getting to school on time and went through quite the series of crushes on boys, but she also worried about impending war and how those she knew would be impacted. While she worried about things like test grades, she also was a pacifist who didn't see how peace could come from war--and yet worked in aide movements to help the war efforts.

Covering from 1937 to 1942, this book is a compilation of Joan's diaries and school notebooks, which were found by her family after her death. Providing a day by day look at this time period, this is a fascinating look at the pre-war era. Although not as dramatic as The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank, it's similarly poignant and also features a thoughtful teenager just trying to figure life out.

AE

Christmas Spirit

Christmas Spirit: A Collection of Inspiring True Christmas Stories
Covenant Communications, 2012. 81 pgs. Nonfiction


This collection of twelve Christmas stories ranges from funny to touching, as the authors share stories about topics such as learning to receive, learning to look beyond the tangled Christmas lights and other obstacles to see the true meaning and spirit of Christmas, and other such topics. This short little collection can be read all in one sitting, or stretched out to enjoy one story per day, but either way, most readers should find a story here that touches their hearts with the Christmas spirit as well.

AE

Thursday, December 13, 2012

A Land More Kind Than Home

A Land More Kind Than Home
By Wiley Cash
William Morrow, 2012. 309. Fiction

I love stories that take place in the Appalachian Mountains, whether they are historical or contemporary. Wiley Cash has written a fantastic semi-mystery set in a small North Carolina town. The language of the characters is what drew me in first, since it was so real that the author didn't need a lot of background on the characters to start off with an exciting and somewhat troubling story. Using three different people as his narrators, it creates a fast paced story where each character lends some clues to what has happened not only in the current situation ( I can't say much or it gives it away!) but also enough flashbacks to show how the three main people as well as others have influenced each other and the town in the past.

By taking the secretive services of a church and turning one evening bad, all the characters either have to show their good or evil in them, and many times it is both. I think by combining a child's point of view, a woman who left the church for obvious reasons, and a sheriff with some hard feelings towards some of the characters, Cash has made this story so intriguing I didn't want to put it down. The book doesn't really have a twist since you can tell where the story is headed, but at the same time you want to know who turns out okay. It really is a story about the people and the choices they make based on their beliefs of if they are good or not.
EW

A Game for Swallows

A Game for Swallows
By Zeina Abirached
Graphic Universe, 2012. 188 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction


Zeina was born in the middle of the civil war in Lebanon, so she's lived with bombings and a divided Beruit for all of her life. Her family's apartment is a gathering spot for the tenants of their building in the evenings as the war goes on around them. One night, as Zeina and her brother anxiously await their parents' return from their grandmother's house, the neighbors try to keep the kids entertained and distracted from the fear that this time, something bad has happened to them.

Done in graphic format, this black and white look at one night of life in war-torn Lebanon is a touching, important book, as it tells the stories of not only the children but also the neighbors and how they've been impacted by the war. Readers not familiar with the details of the war might need to do a little background research elsewhere, but those who just want to read straight through will still be able to grasp what's going on and appreciate Abirached sharing her story with the world.

AE

Monday, December 10, 2012

Mr. Churchill's Secretary

Mr. Churchill’s Secretary
By Susan Elia MacNeal
Bantam Books, 2012. 373 pgs. Mystery

Maggie Hope, an American in London during the onset of WWII, is a mathematician skilled in ciphers, but being a woman, her only job opportunity is to be a secretary. However, she ends up being a secretary to none other than the Prime Minister himself—Mr. Churchill. Things are not boring at 10 Downing, and she might be in the perfect position to help her adopted country after all.

This is a great historical mystery with lots of detail of London life during the war, without bogging down the plot. Fans of Kathryn Miller Haines will enjoy Maggie’s strong-willed character in this edgier mystery series, and those who enjoy Jacqueline Winspear’s works but would prefer a lot more action will find what they’re looking for here.

KK

The Yellow Birds

The Yellow Birds
by Kevin Powers
Little, Brown, and Company, 2012. 230 pgs. Fiction.

A promise made to a dead man's mother is the fulcrum upon which this story of young men at war tilts and turns. Private Bartle and Private Murphy are deployed to Iraq together, their sergeant suggesting that eighteen-year-old Murphy find a place in Bartle's back pocket and stay there, and that Bartle look after the younger boy. The horrors of war enfold them as soon as they arrive, soldiers whose only goal has become to stay alive, though their military goal is to take and hold the city of Al Tafar. The soul-destroying circumstances of their lives are brilliantly portrayed by Powers, himself an Iraq veteran and a Michener Fellow in Poetry from the University of Texas at Austin. The Yellow Birds is as sad and important a book as I have ever read, the beauty of expression defining and delineating the profound sorrow of fighting and dying.  One of The New York Times' ten best books of the year, and well-deserving.

LW

Friday, December 7, 2012

The Hunters

The Hunters
By John Flanagan
Philomel Books, 2012. 403 pgs. Young Adult

In the third book in the Brotherband Chronicles, Hal and the crew of the Heron have just missed capturing Zavac the stolen Andomal and set off to follow him once more. Zavac creates traps for them along the way, and the Herons find themselves facing mounting obstacles, until finally, knowing that Zavac has reached the safety of Raguza, a pirate cove, they must figure out how to get safely in the cove, defeat Zavac, and make it out again.

Flanagan provides just as much action, excitement, adventure and humor in this book as in his others. Fans of the series will not be disappointed--and while the book does wrap up the first main plot line of the series, there's just enough left open to leave readers hopeful that there will a whole bunch more books it the series. Set aside enough time to read this all in one day if you can, because once you dive in, you won't want to stop.

AE

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Small Woman

The Small Woman
By Alan Burgess
Buccaneer Books, 1959. 221 pgs. Biography

In the 1930s, Gladys Alyward was an English housemaid who felt compelled to go to China as a Christian missionary. However, when she tried to be placed as a missionary, she was told she wasn't educated enough and most likely wouldn't be able to learn the language. Rather than accepting defeat, she worked and saved her money until she could afford a train ticket to China and set out on dangerous journey, through warring countries to make it to China where she worked with an elderly missionary to establish the Inn of the Eighth Happiness. Over the next twenty years, Gladys worked tirelessly as a missionary and also become a foster and adoptive mother to many Chinese children, and, following the Japanese invasion of China, led nearly 100 children on a grueling journey through the mountains to safety.

This book is an oldie but goodie. It was fascinating to see Gladys's determination be a missionary and some of the impressive work that she did, which ranged from calming a prison riot to working at the foot inspector in charge of making families unbind their daughters' feet. This is an inspiring account of a woman putting her faith into action as well as a great look at this era of history in rural China.

AE

Monday, December 3, 2012

Friends with Boys

Friends with Boys
By Faith Erin Hicks
First Second, 2012. 169 pgs. Graphic Novel

Having been homeschooled for her entire life, Maggie isn't exactly ready to make the transition to high school. Add in the fact that her mother has recently left, she's got three older brothers, and she's haunted by a ghost, and her life's a little complicated.

I really liked this graphic novel. Maggie's an easy character to relate to, and her brothers add some good humor. The two friends Maggie manages to make are lovably flawed, and I'm really hoping there will be a follow up to this book soon.

AE

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Sapphire Blue

Sapphire Blue
By Kerstin Geir
Henry Holt, 2012. 362 pgs. Young Adult

Gwen's life has been flipped upside down since it turned out that she, and not her cousin Charlotte, was the gene carrier for the time traveling gene. The secret society that protects the secret of the time travel is out to gather the blood of all the time travelers in history but they don't trust fully trust Gwen so they are selective in what they tell her, leaving her trying to piece things together on her own. The fact that her time traveling companion, the incredibly good-looking Gideon, wants to kiss her one day and then barely speaks to her the next, makes things all the more complicated. Not knowing who she can trust, Gwen is desperate to find out what is really going on and who is telling her the truth.

The second book in the Ruby Red series will be gobbled up by teen readers. Readers who loved the first book will be excited to see the developing romance in the second, and although Geir doesn't give many answers in this book, it does set things up nicely for the third book. This is a fun series, and I can't wait for the next installment.

AE

Thursday, November 29, 2012

The Last Dragon Slayer

The Last Dragon Slayer
by Jasper Fforde
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.  287 pgs. Young Adult

Jasper Fforde's usual literary snortfest, but this time for teens and older elementary school kids.  Jennifer Strange runs an employment agency and boarding house (Zambini Towers) for magicians whose power is fading, which would be pretty much all remaining magicians because all magical power is disappearing in the Ununited Kingdoms.  Those few magicians who are left have to make their living rewiring houses and replacing plumbing (no plastic, thank you very much) without actually having to tear anything out or up. But suddenly magical power flares up again, and various practitioners begin to have dreams and visions of the death of the last dragon at the hands of the Last Dragonslayer.  At noon.  On Sunday. And most surprising of all, Jennifer turns out to be that dragonslayer. Even better than Fforde's sparky plot are his mind-boggling array of characters:  The Sisters Karamazov (Deidre and Deidre); the Quarkbeast; the Transient Moose; and Mysterious X.  If you don't laugh out loud at least once while reading this book, Fie upon you! Ye dinna have a humorous ( humerus, maybe) bone in your body.

LW
    

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

The Diviners

The Diviners
By Libba Bray
Little, Brown Publishers for Young Readers, 2012, 592 pgs. Young Adult

Libba Bray has combined the currently popular themes of the roaring twenties and paranormal teens in this large novel. Fans of her Gemma Doyle series (like me) will get some of the mysterious magic that was so entertaining, but this one seemed to have a much more grim twist. The murderous character, Naughty John, was extremely dark and creepy. However, she did have a strong heroine in Evie O’Neill. Knowing that this is going to be a series, I felt the other characters lacked depth and were introduced only to be given more story in future books. There were a lot of things happening for Evie all at once, and this led to some slower moments as Evie dealt with her feelings, powers, and friends. The supernatural plot was enticing since many characters will obviously have a purpose later, but for almost 600 pages, there wasn’t a whole lot to the “Diviners”.  I know I will eagerly wait for the other books in order for it to all come together.

Even though it wasn’t my favorite Libba Bray novel, I know teens and adults will enjoy the mystery of the mystical origins of Naughty John’s cult and will look forward to seeing if Evie and her companions can save the world. As a 1920s setting, it did add to the fun presented in Evie and her rebellious ways. The first book may have been overdone in plot and dialog at times, but I hope it means the second will just start with the action!

EW

Monday, November 26, 2012

Against the Tide

Against the Tide
By Elizabeth Camden
Bethany House, 2012. 368 pgs. Romance

Lydia Pallas has a stable life working as a translator for the U.S. Navy, but her aptitude for language takes her on journeys she never expected when Alexander “Bane” Banebridge, a powerful man working to end the opium trade in the United States, asks her to do some translating work for him. Not only does the work pull her into more dangerous tasks than she is used to, but she also quickly falls in love with Bane, even though he has vowed never to marry as it would put his wife in too dangerous of a situation.

Fans of historical romance with a bit of mystery will enjoy Camden’s latest book. It has a little bit darker tone than a lot of inspirational novels do, simply because of the opium element, but it still offers the hope and romance that fans of the genre will need to be satisfied.

AE

Saturday, November 24, 2012

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character

How Children Succeed:  Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character
By Paul Tough
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012. 231 pgs. Nonfiction

One would have to have his/her head buried in a Sahara full of sand not to know that educational opportunities in the United States are sharply split along the lines of poverty versus plenty. And what has been most discouraging in recent years is that even the most determined, compassionate, and well-financed efforts to address those differences often don't make enough of a difference.  Recent research shows that often poor children are unable to overcome their disadvantages because of the way a young child's body responds to stress; in this case, to the relentless stress of not enough to eat, gunfire and sudden death in the neighborhood or in one's family, little access to health care. Actual changes in brain chemistry and an amped-up bodily stress management system do damage at a very young age to children raised in a relentlessly crisis-ridden environment. Research suggests that interventions to give children intellectual and character education--helping them to learn to be resourceful, self-calming, optimistic, conscientious, curious, and gritty--make a world of difference to kids in difficult circumstances as do loving nurturing parents or other adults. "How Children Succeed . . ." is an essential book in better understanding how to close the achievement gap and give our children--all our children--the opportunity for a good and happy life.

LW

The God Who Weeps: How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life

The God Who Weeps:  How Mormonism Makes Sense of Life
By Terryl Givens and Fiona Givens
Ensign Peak, 2012.  148 pgs. Nonfiction

Terryl and Fiona Givens illuminate LDS theology in this rich consideration of what Mormons believe as compared with other faiths and philosophies. The title references Enoch's vision as recorded in the Pearl of Great Price of God weeping over his wayward and suffering children, and the God the Givens describe "has made us His central concern, and as long as humans live--He will share in all our sorrows . . . in all our triumphs and joys.  For He has set His heart upon us." In this book, Mormonism's core beliefs are highlighted by considering them in light of alternate philosophies and beliefs, and by sharing the reflection of LDS belief from other sources. For example, even as the Givens repudiate  Jonathan Edwards' fearful descriptions of "sinners in the hands of an angry God," of a father who "abhors" his unforgivable children, they share the quieter vision of Edwards' wife Sarah who, feeling "a strong desire to be alone with God" withdraws to her chamber where "God the Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ, seemed as distinct persons, both manifesting their inconceivable loveliness and mildness, and gentleness, and their great immutable love to me. . . ."  The Givens have drawn from an apparently encyclopedic knowledge of history, belief, literature, and philosophy to outline LDS belief  in the richest possible terms, both for members and other interested readers.

LW

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

The Black Count

The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo
By Tom Reiss
Crown Trade, 2012.  414 pgs. Biography.

Any time I am asked for my all-time favorite book, I easily answer The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas. So, when I learned that parts of Edmond Dantes's story was based on the life and travails of the author's father, I knew that was a biography I had to read. I was not disappointed. In The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo author Tom Reiss describes General Alexander Dumas as a legendary soldier of mixed race that fought for his beloved French Republic and was eventually promoted to leading 50,000 men. The father's adventures and courage proved to inspire his son's most remembered literary scenes such as D'Artagnan's three-duel day and Edmond's unjustifiable prison sentence.

Much like Dumas's work, Reiss includes a great deal of historical detail and context as he presents General Dumas to his readers, but again like Dumas, the depth is rewarding. Any fan or student of the beloved author will want to learn more of his father, an inspiring man whom history has almost forgotten.

CZ

Sandcastle Girls

The Sandcastle Girls
By Chris Bohjalian
Doubleday, 2012. 299 pgs. Historical Fiction

In 1915, Elizabeth Endicott decided to leave her home in Boston and travel with her father to Aleppo, Syria. Their mission was to aid the refugees fleeing from the Armenian genocide. What they found was a nightmare of death and torment far beyond anything they could have imagined. But amid the despair and violence, Elizabeth also found friendship and love. Friendship with an Armenian woman Elizabeth rescues from the camps, and love with an Armenian engineer whose wife and child have disappeared somewhere in the desert.

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian is a beautiful historical novel set during a period of history that few Americans are familiar with. Bohjalian's lovely prose and heart-wrenching story of loss is captivating. Elizabeth's story is narrated by her granddaughter, which gives it a very personal touch. Novels of World War II and the Holocaust abound in recent literature, but here is a chance for readers to learn more about another equally tragic period of world history.

CZ

The Light Between Oceans

The Light Between Oceans
By M.L. Stedman
Scribner, 2012. 345 pgs. Fiction

The Light Between Oceans, the debut novel of M.L. Steadman, tells of Tom Sherbourne, a young man returning to Australia from the bloody battlefields of World War I. With no ties to family, he seems extremely well suited for his new job on a solitary island manning a lighthouse. His post requires that he survive months without seeing another person, which suits his weary, war-ravaged soul. On a shore leave, he meets and falls in love with Isabel and after a year of exchanging letters they marry and set up house on the island. Isabel manages the solitude, but when she experiences repeated miscarriages her longing for a child drives her to the edge of sanity. While in this desperate state, Isabel comes across a small beached boat with the corpse of a man and a small crying newborn. The series of events that follow cannot fail to break your heart again and again.

The story told is one of the love of a mother, the meaning of family, and the difficulty in distinguishing right from wrong in a world filled with so many shades of gray. The Light Between Oceans is easily among the best books to be published this year and an easy recommendation.

CZ

Life Itself

Life Itself: a Memoir
By Roger Ebert
Grand Central Pub., 2011. 436 pgs. Biography

After decades in front of the camera telling America what movies to watch and what movies to skip, Roger Ebert lost his ability to speak due to a cancer that required his lower jaw be removed. However, thanks to modern technology, he once again found his voice through blogging. This memoir, "Life Itself," grew from that blog. He begins with his childhood and then early career, his path to prominence as a film reviewer, as well as his marriage and prolonged battles with cancer.

"Life Itself" is a particularly great memoir for people who know a lot about the movie industry. I, unfortunately, am not one of those people and I believe a great deal of this book was lost on me because I didn't know the people or films referred to. But even with that handicap, I still enjoyed many of the essays, especially those describing the golden age of journalism and film. By far the best chapters are those about some of the famous people Ebert had the pleasure of interviewing, like Robert Mitchum and John Wayne. Those two chapters alone made the whole book well worth the read.

CZ

The Boy in the Suitcase

The Boy in the Suitcase
By Lene Kaaberbol
Soho Crime, 2011. 313 pgs. Mystery

Responding to a plea for help from an old friend, Nina Borg is sent to a terminal locker where she discovers a large suitcase. It’s heft feels odd in her hand and she doesn’t even get it to her car before she feels compelled to look inside. Not knowing what to expect when she unlatches the case, she could in no way prepare herself for the shock of finding a small, drugged, naked child. Unable to trust the police, Nina pursues all other avenues available to her to identify the child and return him home.

This is a satisfying and exciting mystery from another Scandinavian author making her way to an American audience. A second installment in the Nina Borg series, Invisible Murder was recently released in the U.S.

CZ

Hello Goodbye Hello

Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings
By Craig Brown
Simon & Schuster, 2012. 356 pgs. Nonfiction

Hello Goodbye Hello could be considered the literary equivalent of the six degrees of Kevin Bacon. Brown begins by telling of the afternoon when John Scott-Ellis, a British peer, ran his car into Adolf Hitler, followed by John Scott-Ellis’s childhood walks with Rudyard Kipling, and on to Kipling’s meeting with his hero, Mark Twain. And so these little vignettes go, one meeting leading to another. Familiar names include Marilyn Monroe, Richard Nixon, Elvis Presley, Harpo Marx, Mick Jaggar, Queen Elizabeth, and Walt Disney.

I think the most fascinating aspect of this odd book is how real the people represented seem. They have prejudices, grudges, and insecurities that show in strange ways as they interact with one another. Originally published in Britain, some names will be unfamiliar to an American audience, but even without the celebrity these brief interactions display a fascinating view of how peoples’ lives cross and collide.

CZ

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Song of My Heart

Song of My Heart
By Kim Vogel Sawyer
Bethany House, 2012. 348 pgs. Romance

When Sadie Wagner's cousin writes to tell her he has found jobs for her working at a mercantile and singing at the opera house in Goldtree, Kansas, she's excited to be able to help out her family by earning money while her father is injured and can't work and even more excited to be able to fulfill her dream to sing. When she arrives in Goldtree, she finds the extra perk of handsome sheriff Thad McKane, who has recently been brought to town to track down a bootlegger. However, just as their relationship is blossoming, Sadie finds that her job at the opera house isn't quite what she expected, but she doesn't know how to give it up and still help her family. She's in over her head, and to make matters worse, Thad realizes that something is amiss and that somehow his sweet Sadie may be involved with the bootlegger he's trying to catch.

This is a satisfying story, a good choice for fans of western settings, outlaws, and inspirational romance.

AE

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Mrs. Bridge

Mrs. Bridge
by Evan S. Connell
Knopf, 1969. 369 pgs. Literature

Mrs. Bridge is a beautifully written, often overlooked, classic by one of America’s best mid-century writers. It is an intense character study that shows the personality of the lovely India Bridge over the course of her life. Told in a series of exquisite vignettes, Mrs. Bridge marries Mr. Bridge, raises two children, suffers being an empty-nester, and then lives alone for the remainder of her life. The reader gets a privileged insight into India’s daydreams, her reasons for conformity, and her staunch loyalty to her family and husband. It is not always a happy book, but each sentence is a worthwhile read.

 If you are a lover of the classics, if you like character-focused works and superb language, you cannot miss this book. Fans of Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway or Jane Austen will be especially pleased to find another author that satisfies their desire for perfect, well-plotted language. In my estimation, this is one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, and I can’t help but run to the bookshelf to grab it if anyone ever mentions a love of quiet, slow works. Most have not had the pleasure of reading it, and are grateful for the nudge. Follow it up with the equally charming Mr. Bridge; you’ll find the same story, shaped from a different perspective.

JM

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Red Ink

Red Ink: Inside the High-Stakes Politics of the Federal Budget
By David Wessel
Crown Business, 2012. 204 pgs. Nonfiction

In an attempt to be a conscientious and informed voter in the upcoming presidential election, I decided to read David Wessel's slim new book discussing our federal budget. In five concise chapters I learned shocking fiscal facts, how the U.S. achieved our federal indebtedness, where our tax money goes, where the money actually comes from, and why something must be done to save us from our spendthrift ways.

I think what I most appreciated about "Red Ink" is the attempt Wessel makes to be as fair and balanced as possible, steering clear of political polemicizing (and also avoiding overmuch financial jargon). The result is a comprehensible and somewhat terrifying portrait of the dangerous sword of indebtedness that could skewer us all at any moment. The good news is that this big mess is still fixable, but it will require sacrifice and compromise. "Red Ink" is the perfect primer for understanding the ongoing debate about the federal budget and debt.

CZ

Taste What You're Missing

Taste What You’re Missing: The Passionate Eater’s Guide to Why Good Food Tastes Good
By Barb Stuckey
Free Press, 2012. 407 pgs. Nonfiction

Author Barb Stuckey is a professional food developer who has spent years tasting and testing the products that fill grocery stores. In her book Taste What You’re Missing, she imparts her expansive knowledge on why things taste good, why things taste bad, and how to make each bite count. What’s really fun about this book is that she doesn’t just tell you about the food you’re eating, but each chapter includes experiments and exercises you can do at home to learn more about the concepts she introduces. And who can complain about homework that involves eating?

You wouldn’t think there could possibly be 400 pages worth of stuff to say about taste, but there really is. I particularly enjoyed the scientific information given concerning things like how the diet of a pregnant or nursing mother can affect her child’s likes and dislikes later in life. This is a great book for foodies, future foodies, or even just the curious.

CZ

Beautiful Ruins

Beautiful Ruins
By Jess Walter
Harper, 2012, 337 pgs. Fiction

Pasquale Tursi is determined to turn his newly inherited hotel, the only hotel in his tiny Italian coastal village, into a destination spot for wealthy Americans. All he needs is a little bit of beach and a tennis court to make the Hotel Adequate View start making a profit. One morning, as he’s waist deep off the shoreline creating a breaker for his proposed beach, a beautiful American actress arrives and he is suddenly questioning both his past and his desired future. Decades later, a jaded movie producer, a screenwriter desperate for his first break, a disillusioned production assistant, and a has-been rock star will each play a role in the conclusion of Pasquale’s search for a love that was never given a chance.

This is another addition to a growing number of books which tell their stories by skipping around in time, providing a piece of the puzzle here, and a piece of the puzzle there. For this story the technique works very well and the author has crafted a beautiful novel of greed and selfishness along with love, forgiveness, and the beauty that can blossom from broken hearts and shattered dreams.

CZ

The Mark of Athena

The Mark of Athena
By Rick Riordan
Disney/Hyperion Books, 2012. 586 pgs. Young Adult

As the third book in the Heroes of Olympus series opens, Annabeth, Jason, Piper, and Leo are flying aboard the Argo II into enemy territory--the camp for the Roman half-bloods. Although they manage to successfully find Percy Jackson, along with two new friends of his, Hazel and Frank, they also inadvertently attack the Roman camp, which leads to the Roman half-bloods setting out to destroy the Greek half-blood camp, which fits in nicely with Gaea's plan to cause chaos and war among the demigods. Added to this complication is the prophecy of seven, and Annabeth's disturbing conversation with her mother, Athena, who has sent her on a quest to avenge her. The seven demigods must figure out what Athena even wants from Annabeth, save Nico di Angelo, who is being held captive by two of Gaea's minions, and try to figure out how to stop Gaea's return.

Another exciting novel from Riordan. Told from the viewpoints of four of the seven demigods, readers get a chance not only to follow along with the action but also to experience the characters' fears and insecurities. Per Riordan's usual style, there's enough humor, adventure, and interesting twists to keep readers going through nearly 600 pages of reading...and longing for the next book in the series.

AE

Monday, November 12, 2012

Burning Blue

Burning Blue
By Paul Griffin
Dial Books, 2012. 293 pgs. Young Adult

Nicole Castro is beauty pageant beautiful--until someone sprays acid in her face and destroys one side of her face. Jay Nazzaro, an accomplished hacker, has been an outcast ever since a seizure left him with wet pants in front of the entire school a couple years before. Jay, rather than staring at and gossiping about Nicole like everyone else does, decides to use his hacking skills to try to figure out who it was that attacked Nicole. As he does, he gets to know Nicole and realizes that she isn't the snob he thought she'd be--and he also realizes that the mystery behind who attacked her is more complicated than he anticipated.

I liked the hacker mystery aspect, seeing how Jay uses his skills to figure out pieces of the story. However, what really made me like the book was Jay. His character is so well written, from his insecurities over his seizures to his sensitivity toward Nicole and her situation, both of which will endear him to readers. The characterization is deep and the plot moves quickly. Overall, this is very, very well done.

AE

Guitar Notes

Guitar Notes
By Mary Amato
Egmont USA, 2012. 296 pgs. Young Adult

Lyla Marks is one of those practically perfect girls--straight A student and an amazing cellist. Tripp Broody is a guitarist who is failing his classes. When the two are assigned to share a music practice room, Lyla on even days and Tripp on odd days, they initially irritate each other. However, as they leave notes for each other in the room, at first expressing that irritation but then genuinely getting to know each other, they find that they manage to bring out the best in each other--and in one another's music.

 This is a fun and satisfying read for those looking for a contemporary realistic fiction book. Tripp and Lyla are both characters that readers will be able to relate to, and the format, with lots of short chapters and the notes the two write to each other, makes it a quick read as well.

AE

Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Battle of New Orleans: Andrew Jackson and America's First Military Victory

The Battle of New Orleans:  Andrew Jackson and America's First Military Victory
By Robert V. Remini
Viking, 1999.  226 pgs. Nonfiction

Baby-boomers may remember Johnny Horton's rendition of "The Battle of New Orleans" topping the charts in the late fifties, a perky little stick-in-your brain number, but the whole truth of that pivotal battle in the history of our country is laid out with precision and immediacy in this fine book. Andrew Jackson's regulars, and his sharpshooting Tennessee volunteers made hash of the regimented, battle-tested Wellington brigades of British thrown against them and proved to the larger community of nation's that the United States was capable of defending itself as a sovereign nation. Remini lays out in convincing detail the role weather played in the battle, the shortsightedness of British arrogance, the joining of all the separate "societies" of New Orleans in support of the troops, and the terrible losses of the battle itself. Remini's book is a remarkable work of history, the victory he describes attended by two sharp ironies:  slaves were used to dig the moats and build the breastworks in this battle for freedom, and an end to the war had already been negotiated in Ghent some days before the battle began. A book well worth reading on the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.

AJ

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Crucible of Gold

Crucible of Gold
By Naomi Novik
Del Rey, 2012. 323 pgs. Fantasy

In this seventh installment of the fantastically entertaining Temeraire series, Former Captain Will Laurence finds himself reinstated as Aviator Captain to the dragon Temeraire in the British Aerial Corps. Laurence and Temeraire have been tasked to travel to Brazil to persuade their ruler to joins sides with the British against Napoleon.

En route, they encounter one disaster after another until they find themselves in Incan Territory only to discover that the Incas have allied with Napoleon.

As usual Temeraire and the other dragons don’t quite understand human reasoning and happily go about doing what they think best causing all kinds of hilarious havoc.

If you're looking for great characters and a fun, adventurous story, I highly recommend this fantasy / historical fiction mash-up.

AJ

Tigers in Red Weather

Tigers in Red Weather
By Liza Klaussmann
Little, Brown and Co., 2012. 356 pgs. Fiction

Tiger House, a family estate on Martha’s Vineyard was a wonderful place for Nick and her cousin, Helena to grow up. Now at the end of World War II, they both feel the excitement of starting new lives. But what seems so promising quickly turns to bitter disappointment. Nick’s husband, Hughes, has been cold and distant ever since the war. Helena, who lost her first love in the war has remarried but to a man who has an obsession.

Fast forward a dozen years. Nick and Helena each have a young teenage child, Daisy and Ed. Every summer the cousins return to Tiger House in hope of recapturing what they have lost. But the summer Daisy and Ed discover a brutal murder victim quickly sends their fragile existences spinning.

Told from five points of view (Nick, Helena, Hughes, Daisy and Ed), Tigers in Red Weather is not what it first appears to be. This is a much darker look at the lives of the wealthy, New England summer set. One that both intrigued and repelled me.

AJ

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar

A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar
By Suzanne Joinson
Bloomsbury, 2012. 374 pgs. Fiction

In 1923 Eva English, her beautiful sister Lizzie, and Lizzie’s friend Mildred travel as missionaries to distant Kashgar (I had to look it up. Kashgar is in modern day Western China). Though Kashgar is not their final destination they stop to help a young girl give birth. When the girl dies, the local villagers accuse them of witch craft and they are forced to stay in Kashgar until the proper bribes can be arranged.

Since no one is willing to care for the newborn baby, Mildred, in her usual controlling way, demands that Eva take care of the child. As their stay in Kashgar lengthens, Mildred begins to turn the town against them with her fanatic Christian zealotry.

In present day, Frieda Blakeman, finds a Muslim man sleeping on her door step. Taking pity on him, she gives him a pillow and blanket. The man, Tayeb, an illegal immigrant from Yemen and Frieda begin a friendship when she offers to let him stay in an apartment she has just inherited from a woman she has never heard of before.

The book gradually weaves the two stories together to finally reveal their connection. In this debut novel, Suzanne Joinson, attempts to create a provocative look at cultures colliding both historically and in current day. However, I was a bit disappointed with the result. I loved the book cover. I loved the title, but not the book.

AJ

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Double Cross

Double Cross: The True Story of the D-Day Spies
By Ben MacIntyre
Crown, 2012. 399 pgs. Nonfiction

During World War II, German leaders believed they had an entire network of reliable spies working in England, sending regular reports concerning what the British were up to. In reality, half that network was comprised of completely fictitious informants and the rest were indeed spies -- but they were double-crossing the Germans, actually working for the Allies. This network of double agents played a key role in the success of the Allied invasion of Normandy on D-Day. They spent months spinning an intricate web of half-truths and daring lies misleading the Nazis concerning when and where the imminent attack would be made. "Double Cross" is the story of these brave spies and the British agents who ran them.

Ben Macintyre is a completely entertaining author whose focus on World War II British spies has now yielded three captivating books including "Double Cross," "Agent Zigzag" and "Operation Mincemeat." Each of these books will please any World War II enthusiast and, really, anyone who loves a good spy novel. Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction, and the unlikely success of this network of double agents is a perfect example.

CZ

The First 20 Minutes

The First 20 Minutes: Surprising Science Reveals How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, and Live Longer
By Gretchen Reynolds
Hudson Street Press, 2012. 266 pgs. Nonfiction

How, in this day and age, can our bodies continue to be such a mystery to us? Just keeping abreast of current nutrition and fitness findings can seem like a full time job. And that’s not even including the time it takes to actually cook right and exercise regularly. In The First 20 Minutes, Gretchen Reynolds gives us 250 pages of concise and fascinating information on how to best remain fit and healthy. She has waded through the research for us and shares the best and most effective practices for good health, hopefully saving us from that chore so that maybe we can actually find the time to get out and get active.

This isn’t a weight loss guide, but it is a fitness guide and may provide readers a little jolt of motivation. I felt that Reynolds’ dominant theme was that it takes just a little effort to greatly improve our longevity and quality of life, which is something many Americans fail to understand. Her audience could easily range from someone just beginning an exercise regimen to marathon runners looking to improve training practices.

CZ

Monday, November 5, 2012

An Unlikely Match

An Unlikely Match
By Sarah M. Eden
Covenant Communications, 2012. 171 pgs. Romance

Nickolas Pritchard has just found out that a distant relative passed away, leaving him as the heir of his estate in Wales. The formerly penniless Nickolas is thrilled to have a fortune at his disposal, as it will allow him to court Miss Castleton. He invites her and her family, along with some other friends, to visit his new estate, against the advice of his housekeeper and the neighborhood vicar, who warn him that the ghost who haunts his estate, Gwen, doesn't like unauthorized visitors. Nickolas, not believing that the ghostly Gwen even exists, moves ahead with his plans...only to find, when Gwen begins causing disturbances and makes appearances, that she does indeed exist. And not only does she exist, but she's beautiful and kind and funny, and his growing feelings for her are undeniable, but it's also impossible that they can ever amount to anything.

I was a little skeptical of a ghost story-romance, but I was quickly pulled into the the banter between Nickolas and Gwen and to the mystery of Gwen's death. The ending came a little too quickly for me; I thought the way things were resolved was interesting but then the epilogue at the end wrapping everything up wasn't entirely satisfactory. Overall, it's my least favorite of Sarah Eden's books, but it's still a fun Regency romance.

AE

Beyond Courage

Beyond Courage: The Untold Story of Jewish Resistance During the Holocaust
By Doreen Rappaport
Candlewick Press, 2012. 228 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

Rappaport shares stories of Jewish resistance during the Holocaust, from well-known stories like the Warsaw ghetto to never-before-published accounts of resistance. She tells of sabotage against the German forces, smuggling children out of Nazi-occupied countries, and many other stories of resistance. While in many cases, those resisters lost their lives, their bravery saved the lives of many others and disrupted or delayed the Nazi's work.

This book does a good job showing various type of resistance during the Holocaust and is a valuable addition to the Holocaust genre. The book is broken up into 21 different stories, so readers can read through all of it or just browse a few.

AE

The Prisoner of Heaven

The Prisoner of Heaven
By Carlos Ruiz Zafon
Harper, 2012. 278 pgs. Fiction

Prisoner of Heaven returns readers to the mysterious and almost magical world first introduced in The Shadow of the Wind and The Angel’s Game. This latest visit to Barcelona occurs in 1957, but the story requires our heroes to revisit the past to learn why a dark man has come to the Sempere bookshop to threaten the future happiness of Fermin Romero de Torres. With his friend Daniel Sempere, Fermin will need delve into his painful past to uncover dangerous secrets that could destroy them all.

Zafon’s Barcelona is a setting I will happily visit any time. Its dark alleys and mysterious Cemetery of Forgotten Books provide plenty of mystery and intrigue, but its really the reappearing characters that draw you in and entice you to return.

CZ

15 Seconds

15 Seconds
By Andrew Gross
HarperCollins Publishers, 2012. 324 pgs. Fiction

It only takes moments for our lives to be completely derailed. This is demonstrated tragically in the first few pages of 15 Seconds when a self-medicated young woman kills a mother and her newborn. Months later, in a different state, a seemingly unconnected plastic surgeon is on his way to a tee time with a friend when he is pulled over for running a stop light. This small event triggers a series of situations that force Dr. Henry Steadman to run for his life. Unable to turn to the police for help, Henry must figure out why he is being targeted and how to prove his own innocence.

15 Seconds is a fast paced thriller with enough twists and turns to keep readers riveted from start to finish. Gross does manage to include a few deeper issues into the story. Questions of cause and effect, ultimate accountability, and who the real victims are in a society of blame and permissiveness.

CZ