Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Almost Astronauts: 13 women who dared to dream

Almost Astronauts: 13 women who dared to dream
by Tanya Lee Stone
Candlewick Press, 2009, 133 pages, YA Nonfiction

While many have heard of the Mercury 7 (original NASA astronauts), few have heard of the Mercury 13. These were the 13 women who, during the 1960s when women could not be a police officer or rent a car, dared to believe they could become astronauts. They were unwavering in their pioneer spirit subjecting themselves to brutal physical and mental tests, lobbying NASA and the government and fighting blatant prejudice.

 This Young Adult book follows the difficult road these 13 women went down for nearly 20 years before women were to become an accepted part of NASA. The author makes sure we understand all the prejudice these women faced and just how strong these women were in their fight to make their dreams a reality. Good book for anyone interested in the history of the space program and also an encouraging book, especially for girls, on following their dreams.

mpb

An Invisible Thread

An Invisible Thread: The True Story of an 11-Year-Old Panhandler, a Busy Sales Executive, and an Unlikely Meeting with Destiny
by Laura Schroff and Alex Tresniowski
Nashville, Tenn. : Howard Books, 2011. 238 p. Nonfiction

When Laura Schroff, a harried sales executive, brushed past a young eleven-year-old panhandler on a New York City corner one rainy afternoon, something made her stop and turn back. She took the boy to lunch at the McDonald’s across the street that day. And she continued to go back, again and again for the next four years until both their lives had changed dramatically. An Invisible Thread is the heartwarming true story of a friendship that has spanned three decades and brought meaning to an over-scheduled professional and hope to a hungry and desperate boy living on the streets.

Nothing dramatic moves this story along, it is filled with the everyday events of two very different people, but the fact that they are friends is all that that this book needs to captivate readers. Schroff’s spur of the moment decision to to turn back changed her life as well as the young boy’s. It is definitely a story that gets you thinking about the small changes we can make in our lives that might end up having a huge impact.

HB

All Our Yesterdays

All Our Yesterdays
Cristin Terrill
New York : Hyperion, 2013. 360 p. Young Adult Fiction

Em must travel back in time to prevent a catastrophic time machine from ever being invented. Only she can do it, the proof is in the list she has never seen before written in her own hand. Each failed attempt of changing the past has lead to the same terrible present - imprisoned and tortured by a sadistic man while a war rages outside. In another time, Marina battles to prevent the murder of the boy she loves. Even if it means opening her eyes to a truth so terrible that she may not survive it … at least, not as the girl she once was. Marina and Em are in a race against time that only one of them can win.

Told in a split narration between Em and Marina All Our Yesterdays is a wrenching, brilliantly plotted story of fierce love, unthinkable sacrifice, and the infinite implications of our every choice. The author manages to explain time travel without confusing the reader. The plot is well-structured and complex with parallel story lines that merge as events progress and the action heats up. The characters are as mesmerizing as they are multi-dimensional and add depth to the story. A must-read in the YA genre.

HB

Rare: Portraits of America's Endangered Species

Rare: Portraits of America's Endangered Species
by Joel Sartore
National Geographic Society, 2010, unnumbered pages, Nonfiction

In true National Geographic style, the stark stunning photos are why you pick up this book. 68 portraits of American endangered spices from the Alabama Canebrake Pitcher-Plant to the Yellowfin Madtom are included. Some species are familiar like the Red Wolf and others like the Red Knot are not. Information for each entry is brief including only the scientific and common name, location of photo shoot, approximate number of species left and reason for declining numbers. Your eyes glance at the words then rivet on the photos.

I recommend this visual feast to anyone who is curious, cares or just wants to view some incredible photography of America's endangered species.

mpb

All There Is: Love Stories from StoryCorps

All There Is: Love Stories from StoryCorps
by Isay, David
New York : Penguin Press, 2012. 157 p. Nonfiction

Since 2003, StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 45,000 interviews with nearly 90,000 participants. Each story is archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind, and millions listen to their weekly broadcasts on NPR’s Morning Edition and on storycorps.org. All there is, StoryCorps second publication, is a compilation of stories that carry us from the excitement and anticipation of courtship to the deep connection of lifelong commitment, we discover that love is found in the most unexpected of places--a New York tollbooth, a military base in Iraq, an airport lounge--and learn that the course it takes is as unpredictable as life itself.

The book is separated into 3 sections: Found, Lost, and Found At Last. Though varied in circumstances and details, these stories all have something that makes them universal and deeply touching. This powerful collection bares witness to real love, in its many varied forms. If you get a chance to listen to the audio book, I would take it. It is really neat to hear the voice of each original storyteller in turn.

HB

Crazy Rich Asians

Crazy Rich Asians
By Kevin Kwan
Doubleday, 2013. 403 pgs. Fiction.

Rachel Chu an ABC (American-born Chinese) had no clue what she was agreeing to when her boyfriend, Nicholas Young, invited her home to Singapore for the summer and to attend his best friend's wedding. They'd never really talked about money so it was a complete shock to learn that Nic was not only heir to one of the most massive fortunes in Asia but considered one of the most eligible bachelors to boot. The latter being the reason for the dislike of Rachel among the super-rich and pedigreed Sinaporean families.

What ensues over the course of the summer is a voyeuristic look into the scheming, gossiping, and backstabbing  lives of the fabulously wealthy Southeast Asian set.

Debut author, Kevin Kwan, doesn't quite pull this book off. There are certainly funny parts, and it is interesting reading about Singaporean culture (especially the food), but there are far too many characters and not much of a plot line. This book was mostly interesting to me in relation to other Asian pop-culture I have been learning about. On its own, I'm not sure I would recommend it.


AJ

Arranged

Arranged
By Catherine McKenzie
William Morrow, 2012. 390 pgs. Romance.

About to publish her first novel, Anne Blythe's life should be looking up, but when yet another relationship ends in disaster and shortly after that her best friend announces her engagement, Anne begins to second guess her ability to find a lasting relationship. So when by chance Anne comes across the card of an exclusive dating service called Blythe & Co. Anne believes it is a sign.


Anne sets up an appointment with Blythe & Co. only to discover that it is actually an exclusive, and pricey, arranged marriage service. After initially rejecting the idea she gradually warms to it and within a few months finds herself at a resort in Mexico where she is to meet her future spouse and marry him the next day.

This is a cute, beach read kind of novel. If you enjoy chick-lit like Sophie Kinsella and Hester Browne then I think you will like Catherine McKenzie.

AJ

The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in a Extrovert World

The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in a Extrovert World
By Marti Olsen Laney
Workman Publishers, 2002. 330 pgs. Nonfiction

This book was actually published before the now popular Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, but I was actually unaware of it until after I read Quiet. I was concerned that the book might cover all the same ground as Quiet but decided to pick up the audiobook (which was revised for 2013) and listen in the car.

Interestingly, I found this book to actually be more self relevant than Quiet. Although, as explained in both books, there is quite a spectrum for introverts so that may not be the case for everyone.

The author, a self-proclaimed introvert herself, begins the book by dispelling commons myths about introverts. We are not all shy, anti-social loners. The book then goes on to discuss that most "Innies" have been brought up to believe there is something is wrong with them and that with enough effort and will, they can be "normal" like everyone else. Laney discusses why this view is wrong and how to turn being an introvert into an advantage by offering dozens of tips including how to deal with relationships as work and home.

Most interesting to me was the section on the scientific research into the genetic differences between introversion and extroversion. I had no idea that the reason it is so hard for me to recall words sometimes is that, as an introvert, I actually use my long-term memory where extroverts use their short-term memory.

AJ

Monday, December 30, 2013

Songs of Willow Frost

Songs of Willow Frost
By Jamie Ford
Ballantine Books, 2013. 331 pgs. Historical Fiction

William Eng is a Chinese-American boy growing up in a Seattle orphanage during the Great Depression. One day while watching a movie with the other boys from the orphanage he sees an actress and is convinced that it is his mother. He soon sets out with his friend Charlotte to try to find the movie star and discover why he was left at the orphanage. Through flashbacks to the life of Liu Song during the 1920's we start to discover the true story of heartbreak and loss.

This book dealt with many heavy subjects like incest, suicide, orphans, and prejudice but in a way that actually made me want to keep reading. Usually I would put down a book like this because I read to escape, but I couldn't stop reading this one. It is fun to once again see a historical glimpse of Seattle.

AL

Blackmoore

Blackmoore
By Julianne Donaldson
Shadow Mountain, 2013. 286 pgs. Romance

Kate Worthington has decided that she will never marry and instead would rather travel to India with her aunt. Her mother has other plans and they finally settle on a bargain where Kate can go to India if she receives and then rejects three marriage proposals. In order to do this she travels to the manor of Blackmoore where she asks for the help of her longtime childhood friend Henry Delafield. The plan seems simple in Kate's mind but things don't go as planned and she must face some hard truths about herself and those around her.

This is another great Regency romance from Julianne Donaldson. It is a little darker than her first novel, Edenbrooke, but it is still enjoyable. Kate and Henry are by far the most likable characters. I would recommend this to anyone looking for a good clean romance with some unexpected twists.

AL

Orphan Master's Son

The Orphan Master's Son
By Adam Johnson
Random House, 2012.  443 pgs.  Fiction

"The Orphan Master's Son" won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2012. It tells the story of Jun Do, a government-sanctioned kidnapper who grew up in a North Korean orphanage run by his distant and damaged father.  Life is hard for most North Koreans but it is particularly difficult for orphans. And though he is technically not an orphan, Jun Do will never be able to shake the prejudices against his upbringing.

Jun Do's life is anything but uneventful as he finds himself repeatedly thrown into odd and disturbing situations. Still, he manages to successfully navigate them, partially due to his ability to reinvent himself when necessary.

I am not sure exactly what I was expecting when I picked up "The Orphan Master's Son." It had won a Pulitzer, so I figured it was worth reading. But what I found was an unexpectedly tender story of identity, family, and love which takes place in a society incredibly foreign to our own. Johnson's work is worthy of the accolades it has already received along with a wide readership for years to come.

CZ

Gulp

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal
By Mary Roach
W. W. Norton & Company, 2013.  348 pgs. Nonfiction

From corpses to space exploration, Mary Roach has already provided us with fascinating adventures into places we never knew we wanted to go. And in her new book, "Gulp," she takes us on another such journey.  I  certainly have never longed to study my digestive tract in any great detail. But Roach has shown me the light. As I turned the last page, I was almost as entranced by the miracles of what happens inside each of us as she was. (Her fascination was proven when she had a colonoscopy without sedation. My enthusiasm fell short of that, but still.)

Roach is always funny, never dull, and often irreverent. She dares to ask the questions no one else seems able to and then reports her fascinating findings back to her readers. She spares few details, which is great since the details are often the best parts.  You will find yourself equally disgusted and intrigued and, if you're like me, unable to pull yourself away. "Gulp" is another masterpiece of science writing to add to an already impressive backlist.

CZ

The Boys in the Boat

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
By Daniel Brown
Viking, 2013. 404 pgs.  Nonfiction

The pursuit of Olympic gold has produced many inspiring stories of discipline, teamwork and triumph. Daniel James Brown's "The Boys in the Boat" is one such story, detailing the exploits of nine young men from the University of Washington who made up what some consider to be the best eight-oar crew team to take to the water.

Brown tells this story by focusing on the journey of Joe Rantz, an impressive young man who overcame a challenging childhood. Rantz found a way to put himself through school and became a huge asset to the crew team he came to love like family. However, there are many fascinating individuals who played vital roles in getting the team members from their Seattle homes to the Berlin games. Their stories are vividly related against the backdrop of the Great Depression and a world on the brink of World War II.

Nonfiction that can capture the fiction reader is a priceless treasure that doesn't come along nearly enough, and "The Boys in the Boat" is one such book. Those who enjoyed Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken" and are looking for an inspiring story of conquest over obstacles should add this to their reading list.

CZ


Saturday, December 28, 2013

Inherit the Dead

Inherit the Dead
Ed. by Jonathan Santlofer
Touchstone, 2013. 265 pgs. Mystery

Julia Drusilla’s daughter, Angel, is about to inherit a fortune but disappears without a trace. So Julia hires Perry Christo, a PI with a past, to track Angel down, but no one will tell Perry the truth, and he isn’t the only one looking for her. Danger and deception will keep you guessing until the end.

This book is the collaborative effort of twenty distinguished crime authors: Mark Billingham, Lawrence Block, C.J. Box, Ken Bruen, Alafair Burke, Stephen L. Carter, Marcia Clark, Mary Higgins Clark, Max Allan Collins, John Connolly, James Grady, Heather Graham, Bryan Gruley, Charlaine Harris, Val McDermid, S.J. Rozan, Jonathan Santlofer, Dana Stabenow, Lisa Unger, and Sarah Weinman. Although each author writes only one chapter and maintains their own personal writing style, the plot progresses smoothly. I found the story style(s) enjoyable, though nothing extraordinary. That being said, I think the more familiar the reader is with these authors, the greater their appreciation will be.

ACS

Friday, December 27, 2013

Code Name Verity

Code Name Verity
By Elizabeth Wein
Hyperion Books, 2012, 354 pgs. Young Adult Fiction

A spy’s confession to her Nazi captors after a crash landing in France grips the reader in this dark and dramatic story of two young women engaged in highly unusual roles during World War II. Who is Verity, how did she end up in Nazi hands; what is her mission and is her confession truthful? Historical fiction at its best, this young adult novel is complex and gritty with heroines who speak to the reader in unforgettable voices. The purity and intensity of friendship contrasts with the brutal inhumanity of war in this highly recommended book.

Code Name Verity won the 2013 Edgar Allen Poe Award for Best Young Adult mystery and was also a Michael Printz Award Honor Book.SH

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Three Can Keep a Secret

Three Can Keep a Secret
by Archer Mayor
Minotaur Books, 2013. 321 pgs.  Mystery

"Three can keep a secret if two of them are dead," as the saying goes, but in Archer Mayor's latest Joe Gunther novel, more than two get dead before the killer is identified. No one would have known there was a secret in the first place if Hurricane Irene hadn't stormed (you'll excuse the expression) through Vermont, tearing up roads, bridges, homes, and flooding a state mental facility allowing a patient to walk out through the rising water in the basement. And if that weren't enough, Joe Gunther's Vermont Bureau of Investigation team is also dealing with the discovery of a coffin full of "rocks instead of remains" unearthed from a local cemetery. Carolyn Barber, the missing patient, has apparently alarmed someone by roaming free, as several people involved in her past are suddenly dead under suspicious circumstances. The rock-filled casket means that someone who was thought to be dead is not, which could be good news . . . or not. Joe Gunther is a great guy--plain-spoken but polite, and a fine investigator and comrade. A tad bit of generalized sexual activity is Scotch-taped into the narrative, apparently to satisfy whatever the quota is these days, but for the most part this is a clean read, occasionally language-y, though not from Joe, and a story you won't want to put down once you have begun.

LW

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Reconstructing Amelia

Reconstructing Amelia
By Kimberly McCreight
HarperCollins, 2013. 382 pgs. Fiction

Kate Baron is a successful litigation lawyer and a single mom. She knows she spends a lot of time at work but she prides herself on trying to have a close relationship with her daughter. She is shocked to receive a call telling her that her daughter was caught cheating on an English paper. She is even more shocked when she arrives at the school and discovers that her daughter died when she fell from the roof of the school. Everyone assumes it was a suicide, even Kate, until she starts to uncover some ugly truths about the last few weeks of her daughters' life.

This is a heartbreaking story of loss and grief. The story unfolds through text messages, emails, social media and flashbacks. There is a lot of language and certain situations that may make more conservative readers uncomfortable. 

AL

The Tilted World

The Tilted World
by Tom Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly
HarperCollins, 2013.  300 pgs. Fiction

The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927, which flooded 27,000 square miles and buried 1.5 million acres under water, is the setting of this deeply literary mystery/romance/historical novel. Ham Johnson and Ted Ingersoll are revenuers, sent by soon-to-be president Herbert Hoover himself to find out what happened to two missing agents in (fictional) Hobnob, Mississippi. Amid the constant threat of overtopped levees and relentless precipitation, the two encounter the additional complication of discovering a baby at a crime scene, both parents dead. Ingersoll delivers the baby to a recently-bereaved mother, little knowing that her husband may well be the key to the missing agents. Tension rises with the river, as a plot to blow the levee emerges and Ingersoll must decide whether to give his all to the investigation and perhaps save many lives, or to try to save the woman he has come to love. Beautifully well written, The Tilted World is a fascinating look at an oddly forgotten moment of American history, during the worst flood we have ever had.

LW


    

Friday, December 20, 2013

The Raven Boys

The Raven Boys
By Maggie Stiefvater
Scholastic, 2012. 412 pages. Young Adult

Sixteen-year-old Blue Sargent's been born into a family of psychics, but has no psychic talent to call her own . . . outside of amplifying the abilities of other psychics, that is. To make matters worse, her gifted family members have been telling her for years that if she kisses her true love, he'll die. So when Blue accompanies her eccentric Aunt Neeve on their annual St. Mark's Eve pilgrimage to take stock of the dead, both women are surprised when Blue has her first clairvoyant experience and sees the ghost of a young man named Gansey . . . a boy Blue fears she is responsible for killing.

So nothing prepares Blue for meeting Gansey in real life -- or for the unforgettable adventure Gansey and his prep-school "Raven Boys" are about to drag her into . . .

First in a four book cycle, Maggie Stiefvater's The Raven Boys will captivate readers with magic, adventure, defiantly loyal friendship, and some of the most dynamic (and sympathetic) characters I have ever encountered in a young adult novel. Stiefvater's poignant, lushly-wrought, and wise prose is a delight as well -- it's an almost pitch-perfect container for the story it holds.

Recommended for readers aged fifteen and up, due to some domestic violence and strong language.

CA

The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America

The Age of Edison: Electric Light and the Invention of Modern America
By Ernest Freeberg
Penguin Press, 2013. 354 pgs. Nonfiction

Maybe the information age began with the invention of the electric light bulb in 1879. Edison’s brainchild changed everything: humans' hours of work, play and sleep; their relationship to nature; the way cities work. People were surprised, delighted, “shocked,” and also understandably afraid of electricity and even artificial light.

This fascinating social history helps the reader imagine the wonder of seeing a city street lit by electricity for the very first time, surveys the rapidly evolving technology of electricity as a utility, and describes the technical and economic impact of this invention that triggered an endless wave of innovation. Interested readers might also want to spend time with Brilliant: the Evolution of Artificial Light, by Jan Brox, which describes the history of man made light sources from prehistory to the modern day.

SH

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live, Work, and Think
By Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier
Houghton Mifflin, 2013, 242 pgs. Nonfiction

This book is a layman’s introduction to new tools and techniques that are being used to “crunch” the data that is the defining characteristic of our “information age.” Using fascinating examples the authors introduce the challenges and rewards of processing large piles of data. They contrast digitization with “datafication” and show how recombining data from different fields can yield innovative results. For example, the Danish Cancer Society combined data on cellphone subscribers with data from cancer registries to determine if cellphone users have a higher rate of cancer (the answer is no). And big data is key to internet marketing strategies - think Amazon.

The volume of digital information gathered each day is nearly impossible to quantify and is growing exponentially. We created the tools to gather it now we need ingenuity and creativity to use it. I highly recommend this book to nonfiction readers.

SH

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

The Gods of Guilt

The Gods of Guilt
by Michael Connelly
Little, Brown and Co., 2013.  387 pgs.  Mystery

Mickey Haller, the Lincoln Lawyer, is back, cruising the streets and haunting the courtroom in defense of his often sleazy clients.  In this outing, Haller is called upon to defend a kind of virtual pimp, Andre La Cosse, a guy who arranges liasons with prostitutes by computer.  He is supposed to have killed one of his "girls" in a dispute over money. Haller takes the case because he thinks La Cosse innocent, but he also knows the victim, a former client whom he thought he had helped to a better life. Haller is not the most likeable of Connelly's characters.  He spends considerable narrative strength telling the reader how amazing and tricky he is in the courtroom, including squishing a fake blood capsule in his mouth to get a mistrial. Still, this puzzle mystery has its charms, with Mickey for once defending the innocent and following a crooked and dangerous path into the realms of power. Connelly is one of our finest writers of police procedurals and legal thrillers, so The Gods of Guilt is a fine diversion for the dark of the year.

LW

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Leaving Everything Most Loved

Leaving Everything Most Loved
By Jacqueline Winspeare
Harper, 2013. 352 pgs. Mystery.

In her most recent book, Maisie Dobbs is contacted by an Indian gentleman who is looking for the man who killed his sister two months previously. He feels the case was mishandled and ignored because of his sister's race. Things become even more tangled when another Indian woman is found dead just before she was supposed to meet Maisie. Will Maisie be able to discover who is killing these women in time?

Winspeare's real talent is in setting a scene and describing an era, and she succeeds marvelously in this novel. The author paints a realistic, if sometimes gritty, reality of post-WWI England, with unemployment rife and racism rampant. Yet Maisie always treats every person she meets with dignity and respect, giving a brightness to a story that could be consumed in gloom. This was one of my favorite books of this series.

JH

A Spear of Summer Grass

A Spear of Summer Grass
By Deanna Raybourne
Harlequin MIRA, 384 pgs. Fiction.

When Delilah Drummond's notorious ways bring her too much into the spotlight, her favorite stepfather exiles her to his manor house in Kenya. And she tries to bring the frivolity of her Parisian life to the savannah. Contrast her carefree life with that of her neighbor, Ryder White, a shell-shocked WWI soldier who ekes out a living taking the rich and idle on big game hunting trips. In the danger of Africa, with the two of them discover what is really important?

I probably would have liked this book better if I hadn't read Raybourne's Lady Julia series first. I found myself constantly comparing the characters to the characters from her mystery series and they came up lacking. The plot also seemed a little tired. She writes engagingly, though. It would probably be a better read if done before reading any of her other books.

JH

Ironskin

Ironskin (Ironskin #1)
By Tina Connolly
Tor Books, 2012. 304 pgs. Science Fiction.

In this steampunk version of Jane Eyre, Jane Eliot has been disfigured by faerie magic during the Great War, forcing her to wear an iron mask to hide her fey-curse from the rest of the world. She finally finds employment in the far off home of Edward Rochart, teaching his daughter Dorie how to mask her own faerie proclivities. But as she becomes more a part of the family, Jane discovers that Edward is keeping secrets, secrets he will guard at any price.

Connolly presents a very unique take on the classic book. The reader will still see the original Bronte influence in many aspects of the novel, but should not expect the author to slavishly follow the plot to the last detail, although more details may become clear in the second book which should be coming out soon. She also creates a new world with intricate detail. A fascinating read for anyone who loves science fiction, classics, or both.

JH

Trains and Lovers

Trains and Lovers
By Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon, 2013. 240 pgs. Fiction.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you started a conversation with your fellow travelers? Alexander McCall Smith answers that very question in his book Trains and Lovers, where four travelers from Edinburgh to London share with each other (and sometimes just the reader) important stories of both trains and lovers that changed their lives.

McCall Smith has a wonderful lyric style and a way of creating characters that are very real to the reader. His books - this one included - are not action-packed, but they are soothing to read, like talking to an old friend.

JH

The Good Dream

The Good Dream
By Donna VanLiere
St. Martin's Press, 2012. 320 pgs. Fiction.

At 30, Ivorie Walker is an established old maid. In Tennessee in 1950, there is nothing else for her to be. Living all alone at the family homestead after the death of her mother, Ivorie is lonelier than she could have imagined until a half-starved boy from the mountains starts stealing from her garden. As she takes him into her home and tries to learn about his background, Ivorie finds herself learning more about love and her own strength than she ever imagined.

VanLiere's prose is musical, making the book easy and enjoyable to read, even when the plot takes us places we would rather not be. Her characters are endearing and make the reader wish for a good ending for everyone. This is a beautiful story of strength, courage, and love that will touch your heart.

JH

How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance

How the French Invented Love: Nine Hundred Years of Passion and Romance
By Marilyn Yalom
Harper Perennial, 2012. 416 pgs. Nonfiction.

In this fascinating analysis, Yalom starts with the earliest instances of French literature and oral storytelling traditions and demonstrates how each era of writing has created different aspects of the French national identity and culture of love that is completely unique from the love culture in any other part of the world. From Proust to Voltaire, from the French troubadours to modern authors, Yalom's analysis shows how each has made an important contribution to making the French the symbol of love internationally.

Even though I am not an expert in French literature by any means, Yalom's exposition was clean and precise, and accessible to the lay reader. She may be an expert, but she generously does not expect her audience to be one, providing concise summaries of the works she cites and explaining French culture to the rest of us. A fascinating and unique insider's look into how the French became the icons of love that they are today.

JH

Forgotten

Forgotten
By Catherine McKenzie
William Morrow Paperbacks, 2012. 448 pgs. Fiction.

After being stranded for months in Africa after a devastating earthquake, Emma Tupper returns to her life in the city, only to discover that everything she had is gone. Believing she was killed in the aftermath, her friends, family, and coworkers have sold all her things and moved on in their lives. Now Emma faces a decision: should she try to return things to how they were or find a new path in life?

This book was fascinating to read and think about how I would react in that kind of situation. McKenzie does a wonderful job highlighting the insecurity Emma feels at finding how ephemeral her life really was and her decision to create a life that is fuller now that she can see a different way to live. Beautifully written and thought-provoking.

JH

Austensibly Ordinary

Austensibly Ordinary
By Alyssa Goodnight
Kensington, 2013. 320 pgs. Romance.

Cate Kendall is a Jane Austen fanatic, dreaming of finding a brooding hero with the charm of Austen's heroes outside the pages of her books. The chance discovery of Jane's lost diary, however, changes her game plan. She creates a new, sexy persona and sets out to find the man of her fantasies. But could it be that love is closer than she ever imagined?

I will admit candidly that I love Austen and can sometimes read Austen knockoffs with a great deal of simple pleasure. But this book infuriated me. What starts as a completely unhealthy obsession with Austen turns quickly in to madness when she starts receiving special messages from Jane (from the dead?) through the lost journal that guide her in her path to find true love. What started out as a nice plot quickly degenerated into absurdity.

JH

A Murder at Rosamund's Gate

A Murder at Rosamund's Gate
By Susanna Calkins
Minotaur, 2013. 352 pgs. Mystery.

It's seventeenth century London and, amidst all her duties as a chambermaid, Lucy Campion finds herself thrust in the middle of a murder when a fellow servant is found brutally murdered in a nearby field. As Lucy's investigations take her throughout the city, danger stalks the streets...and may come looking for her next.

I found this book unique because of the time period, especially. It is nice to see some Shakespearean England at a time when most authors are focusing on Austen-esque settings. The history is very well researched and extremely detailed, sometimes at the expense of the mystery. A fascinating look at how a murder inquiry might be conducted in Elizabethan times.

JH

Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest

Slouching Toward Adulthood: Observations from the Not-So-Empty Nest
By Sally Koslow
Viking, 2012. 258 pgs. Non-fiction.

In this incisive series of essays, Koslow attacks the problem that helicopter parenting has produced: a generation of young adults who are unwilling to grow up. Increasingly willing to rely on their parents far into their twenties and even thirties, these new adults are putting off responsibilities their parents embraced for as long as possible. Koslow examines both the cause and effect of this new trend and speculates on the future of our new idealistic but unmotivated workforce.

Koslow relies heavily on humor in this book, often using the bewilderment of the parents she interviews heighten the ludicrous nature of the situations they have created. But she also uses her print media background to present hard facts and figures regarding this new trend in adulthood. This is a fascinating read.

JH

Friday, December 13, 2013

The Arrivals

The Arrivals
By Melissa Marr
William Morrow, 2013. 274 pgs. Fantasy.

Melissa Marr has created an incredible world and amazing characters that you can't help but root for in this odd land of monsters, recently deceased humans, and a Wild West setting. The "Arrivals" are people from all over time that wake up from a bad circumstance to find themselves in this desert with a group that includes a bootlegger, a hippie, a Prohibition Era gangster and even a 1950s housewife. That doesn't even cover all the interesting and magical characters throughout the book.

There are so many twists and turns in the book sense the plot develops from Chloe, the new girl's arrival, Kitty's special abilities, and of course a villian that they have to keep a town and themselves safe from. There are showdowns and tricks, romance, and the entire time I may not have known exactly why people were there, but it didn't matter because it was so much fun to read. Marr made the novel a great story and I didn't need all my questions answered.

EW

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution

Bunker Hill: A City, a Siege, a Revolution
By Nathaniel Philbrick
Viking, 2013. 398 pgs. Nonfiction


 Nathaniel Philbrick is my favorite nonfiction writer and I love listening to the audiobooks. He writes history in a way that makes it entertaining and grabs my attention every time. This audio book was just as great as the others I have listened to. This particular book focuses on the events leading up to the Battle of Bunker Hill and the details of the bloody battle and political manuevers to try and rid the city of British troops.

Philbrick has found a way to create different stories in his well researched book and even brings characters and moments that aren't well known in the retelling of this battle but make it an important part of the story. He takes the battle from all sides and his retelling of the geography as well as factors in the battle scenes, makes for a great book and an even better listen!

EW


Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns

Revenge Wears Prada: The Devil Returns
By Lauren Weisberger
Simon & Schuster, 2013. 381 pgs. Fiction

Lauren Weisberger's sequel may have the same characters but the flow of the story and the direction of the plot was not like The Devil Wears Prada. It actually made it more difficult for me to read because I couldn't connect to Andy like I did in the first one or even feel the situations she was put in with Miranda Priestly were at all plausible. It's too bad because the first book was so different and at the end I felt like Andy could really move on. This sequel puts her in the same, scared, unsure frame of mind as before.

In Revenge Wears Prada, Andy has a job running a magazine with her old co-worker. Her nemesis, Emily, has turned in to her best friend and their business is successful and they are in somewhat stable marriages. Their magazine is a bridal magazine and of course at some point, Miranda Priestly wants to buy it. The plot is weak as far as Miranda meeting the girls and pretending not to remember them and then the resulting encounters throughout. There is plenty of drama to add stress to Andy's life and it just wasn't deep enough to really have any story in the end.

EW

Someday, Someday, Maybe

Someday, Someday, Maybe
By Lauren Graham
Ballantine Books, 2013. 344 pgs. Fiction.

Someday, Someday, Maybe is read by the author Lauren Graham of Gilmore Girls and Parenthood fame. I think that is what made it so enjoyable since she wrote the book and has the skills as an actress to really narrate the story in an entertaining way. I really liked the storyline and I thought it was just an easy book to listen to with a happy ending. It was really funny in parts and had great character interactions.

Franny Banks wants to make it as an actress in New York but for now is a waitress. She gave herself a three year deadline to become an actress and as it nears starts panicking about what to do. She wants to become an important actress and the commercial jobs just aren't satisfying to her. Franny lives with her best friend, Jane, and a writer named Dan. Some of their interactions as roommates were so great. Franny struggles with her choices, her dating and everything else that could go wrong. Overall, I just felt like it was a great chick lit listen.

EW

The Cuckoo's Calling

The Cuckoo's Calling
By Robert Galbraith
Mulholland Books, 2013. 455 pgs. Mystery.

This mystery is written by J.K. Rowling using the pseudonym Robert Galbraith and I picked up the audio book after hearing about how good it was. I thought it was interesting enough and did enjoy the main character, Cormoran Strike. He is ex-military and lost is leg in Afganistan and has a failing private detective business and complicated personal life. He is losing clients when the brother to a famous supermodel hires him to refute police rulings of Lula Landry's suicide.

Each character he interviews, works with or suspects is intriguing and entertaining. The world of movie stars, musicians and models isn't like the one in  other books I have read. His assistant, Robin, also plays a great role as at first just an assistant he doesn't really want, then they become a detective team. The mystery is great because there was more of the process in talking to people and discovering clues and not necessarily the violence of other mystery books. You really did have to think on it in parts. Some of it moved slowly but it picked up again in the end. There is language throughout so just be warned.

EW

Fangirl

Fangirl
By Rainbow Rowell
St Martin's Press, 2013. 433 pgs. Young Adult.

After being blown away by Eleanor and Park I was really hoping Rowell's second Young Adult novel would be the same for me. I enjoyed it but some of the storyline arcs were a little tedious for me. It is an easy read and it had great characters. The main character Cath is a fan fiction writer for the Simon Snow series (it is like our world's Harry Potter) and the excerpts of her fan fiction as well as parts of the Simon Snow novels seemed a little much and I ended up skipping many of these parts.

Cath and Wren are twin sisters that go off to college and Wren has other ideas of what she'd like in her college life. The book focuses mostly on Cath and then her interactions with her sister, father, new friends, and of course the cute guy that comes in to the story. There are some heart warming moments and overall it was a good book. This is a great YA novel because it deals with life changes, trying to hold on to things you loved from the past, and moving on in many ways.

EW

The Outcasts

The Outcasts
By Kathleen Kent
Little, Brown and Company, 2013. 326 pgs. Historical Fiction.

This book has the unique narration of two main characters that switch in each chapter. It was a really fast read because you knew at some point these two characters must meet up and I wanted to find out why and when. The book focuses on Lucinda, who has escaped her life in a brothel to meet with a man who swears he loves her. He is of course, not all he seems and they are planning to steal gold that they've heard stories of. Lucinda is a strong, if not always likeable character, that has plans and secrets and only towards the end shows signs of weakness.

The other character is Nate, a Texas State Policeman, on the search for a murderer that has terrorized the state. In his story, there is a sense of innocence to the lawlessness of Texas and his desire to follow procedure even when his partners won't. The struggles of all the characters made this book intriguing as each plot line unfolded to make the connections. Between the hunt for gold, the hunt for a crazy man and the lives they lead in between, I think it was a great read. The end falls a little short for the build up but it still was a clever conclusion.

EW

Thursday, December 12, 2013

When I was a Child I Read Books

When I was a Child I Read Books
By Marilynne Robinson
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012. 224 page. Nonfiction

I was drawn to this book by it's cover and would have never guessed the depth & breadth of the book's content. This is a collection of essays such as "Freedom of Thought" and "Austerity and Ideology." This is certainly one of the most interesting, thought-provoking, and engaging books I have ever read. Beautifully written essays in which myriad important ideas are slipped in. Robinson is well-read and articulate. The depth and breadth of her thought is remarkable.

SML

Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And All the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Moore Show a Classic

By Jennifer Keishin Armstrong
Simon & Schuster, 2013. 336 pages. Nonfiction

I grew up in the seventies and watched the Mary Tyler Moore show regularly. And loved it. While recently re-watching the series this new book was published and gave additional perspective on this award-winning sitcom. In the seventies I had no idea how ground-breaking this show was. Mary plays a single, independent, professional woman. This had never been seen on television before. Behind the scenes this show was also the first to employ a team of women writers. The show was entertaining and funny with an occasional serious edge to it.

Armstrong gives her readers a well-written, informative and entertaining story of how the Mary Tyler Moore show came to be, excelled, and influenced future television. Readers will enjoy the background information on the main actors and descriptions of the dynamics between the actors during the course of the show.

SML

A Tale for the Time Being

A Tale for the Time Being
By Ruth Ozeki
Viking, 2013. 422 pgs. Fiction

A Tale for the Time Being switches perspectives between Nao, a teenage girl living in Japan, and Ruth, a middle-aged woman living on the pacific coast of British Columbia. The connection between these two unlikely people is a diary that Nao writes and Ruth finds washed up on her beach. As Ruth reads the diary, she forms a bond with Nao and starts to feel an urgency about helping her, even though the diary is years old. Nao writes of her isolation, her father's attempted suicides, and of her grandmother, a Buddhist monk.

Ruth Ozeki writes a careful, considerate novel with beautiful prose and life-like characters. The unusual structure, switching between a book and the person reading the book, may seem modern, but it adds an incredible depth to the work. The book changes from ultra-realism, dealing with issues of bullying and dysfunctional families, one moment and an almost magical realism the next.

Recommended for people who like modern literature and reading about different cultures and issues; however, readers should be aware that this book is not for the light of heart - Nao uses her diary to describe some very disturbing scenes.


-JM

Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England

Plantagenets: The Warrior Kings and Queens Who Made England
by Dan Jones
Viking Adult, 2013. 534 pgs. Non-fiction
This was a fun, engaging and interesting book. I would recommend this to anyone with a general interest in history and British/medieval history more specifically. The book maintains good pace as it illustrates the trials and challenges of the Plantagenet dynasty as it struggles to grasp and hold power and territories. The emphasis is on war, diplomacy and the tensions between the monarchs, lords and commons. The evolving role of Parliament and the constitutional crises I found to be particularly interesting. For those who prefer a history of society and culture will find this to be somewhat disappointing. The ladies of the dynasty are by and large neglected. The fan of historical fiction will find this an interesting resource to compare the writings of Sharon Kay Penman, etc. against. All in all, a good book and a fun quick read.

CHW

Richard the Third

Richard the Third
by Paul Murray Kendal
W.W. Norton, 2002. 602 pgs. Non-fiction

I thought this was a quite decent biography of Richard III. The author took some pains to avoid being biased in either direction. As such both passionate Ricardians and Tudor sympathizers will feel some disappointment. Richard is depicted as a loyal brother to Edward IV, providing good government and stability to the north (score one, Ricardians). However, he is ultimately undone with some lapses in judgement and misplaced trust is those around him, most notably Buckingham. His critical errors in judgement seem to be with regard to the fate of the Princes and his decision to not marry off Edward's daughters, giving Henry Tudor the means by which to cement his authority after seizing power by force. The author concludes ambiguously, given the poor evidence available. He suggests that Richard might have had them killed, or acquiesced to it, but then Buckingham had at least if not more motivation. However, by seizing the throne, Richard (in the author's view) ultimately doomed the Princes. Every monarch ever deposed soon found themselves in the grave. Not just for the mystery of the Princes should this book be read. It is also a vivid chronicle one of England's most notorious monarchs, the end of a dynasty and a fascinating turning point in British history.

CHW

The City & the City

The City & the City
By China Mieville
Ballantine, 2009. 312 pgs. Science Fiction

The City and the City is a brilliant piece of noir crime fiction set in two cities, Ul Qoma and Besźel, whose boarders are crosshatched and intertwined in the same physical space. Since the two cities are actually in their own countries, residents of Ul Quoma cannot legally see, hear, or smell a resident of Besźel, even if they are walking side by side, or sleeping in adjacent apartments, unless they legally enter into the other city though a single boarder checkpoint. Inspector Borlú, of the extreme crime squad in Besźel, investigates Mahalia Geary, a foreign student found dead in what appears to be a Besźel street. As Borlú delves deeper into Mahalia Geary's life and studies, he uncovers unsettling truths about the two cities: what separated them in the past, and what keeps them together now.

Though the two city set-up may boggle the mind in a similar way that science fiction can, Mieville never actually steps into that genre. Instead, The City and The City is a classic murder mystery, solved by the grounded and insightful Inspector Borlú, with a setting so clearly and viscerally invoked that the reader will remember the cities as if they once lived there.

-JM


I, Claudius

I, Claudius
By Robert Graves
Vintage Books, 1961. 432 pgs. Fiction

Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus, also known as poor stuttering Clau-Clau-Claudius, the fourth emperor of Rome, tells the story of his life and his relations. After the Oracle at Delphi tells him to 'speak true', Claudius decides to set down his life in plain prose, with nothing hidden from posterity. Fortunately for the reader, plain prose means charming mid-century British prose, so the book never lacks a nicely turned phrase. Claudius spends most of the story chronicling the lives, murders, and marriage of his extended relations; how they rose to power and fell from it.

I hardly know how Robert Graves managed to make an accurate portrayal of ancient Rome so interesting. The only literary trick he uses is a thin first-person perspective, yet the book never ceases for a moment to be fascinating. The reason must be that ancient Rome was run like a modern soap opera: with so many executions, lies, and affairs that even the most sophisticated person cannot fail to be entertained by them.

-JM

Heirs and Graces

Heirs and Graces (Royal #7)
By Rhys Bowen
Berkley Hardcover, 2013. 295 pgs. Mystery.

In the latest book in the Royal Spyness series, Lady Georgiana Rannoch, thirty-fifth in line for the British throne, is putting her finishing school lessons to use: grooming Jack Altringham, an Australian sheep herder, how to be the duke he was never raised to be. But when Jack's knife is found in the current Duke's back, the house party gets a little more exciting than Georgie was planning on. Will she and Darcy be able to find the real killer, before he strikes again?

Rhys Bowen gives the reader a unique look at 1930s England's aristocracy, as seen through the eyes of an impoverished heir to the throne. While the plot focuses on the mystery, she also is able to infuse a great deal of British history into the picture in an engaging fashion. The characters are bright and witty, making the story a pleasure to read.

JH

Miss Grimsley's Oxford Career

Miss Grimsley's Oxford Career
By Carla Kelly
Cedar Fort, Inc., 2013. 352 pgs. Romance.

Ellen Grimsley is very put out. While her army-crazy brother gets to go to Oxford, she is forced to stay home and hope to make a good match instead of learning geometry and Shakespeare. When an opportunity to go to a girls' finishing school in Oxford opens up, Ellen jumps at the chance. And when her brother, Gordon, needs help writing his papers, she thinks nothing of dressing up like a student in breeches and gown to experience some of what Gordon takes for granted. Will Ellen and Gordon be caught? Will Ellen's papers be well-received by the college? And who is the mysterious Lord Chesney who has suddenly taken an interest in Ellen's education?

Kelly manages to maintain a light tone in the book while at the same time pointing out the educational injustices inherent in Regency England. While the reader will probably not mistake the writing for that of Jane Austen or Charlotte Bronte, it is an enjoyable read and the characters are very engaging.

JH

Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe: A Novel with Recipes

Meet Me at the Cupcake Cafe: A Novel with Recipes
By Jenny Colgan
Sourcebooks Landmark, 2013. 410 pgs. Fiction.

When Issy Randall is unexpectedly laid off from her desk job, she decides to take her future in her hands and do what she's always wanted - she opens a bakery. She knows she can bake circles around anyone, but will she be able to out-market and out-sell the competition? And will she be able to impress the bank financier who has taken a chance on her business plan (and is pretty cute, to boot)?

In this book, Colgan has managed to capture a lot of the charm I love from Hester Browne's Little Lady Agency books, but without making the characters as loveable as Browne manages to do. I also wonder where she is going to take the series (the second book was just published in the U.K.), since it felt like she wrapped things up pretty well at the end of this one. Overall, an enjoyable read and one that will tempt you to bake a lot of cupcakes.

JH

The Bughouse Affair

The Bughouse Affair: A Carpenter and Quincannon Mystery (Carpente #1)
by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini
Forge Books, 2013. 272 pgs. Mystery.

Muller and Pronzini, both well-established mystery authors in their own right, team up to bring us the Carpenter and Quincannon mysteries. John Quincannon, and ex-Secret Service operative, joins up with Sabina Carpenter, a former Pinkerton agent, to form a private investigation bureau in 1890s San Francisco. While Carpenter chases a pickpocket who uses brutal means to get the gold, Quincannon finds himself staking out the homes of wealthy businessmen in search of an elusive, and deadly, housebreaker. But Carpenter and Quincannon will soon find that their two cases may not be as separate as they believe. And is the man who is always hanging around really the notorious (and probably fictional) Sherlock Holmes?

As a first joint effort, this book was not bad. The use of 1890s slang was really forced and often made the narrative hard to follow. (I, for one, still could not tell you what exactly a "bughouse" is.) But, overall, it was an amusing book and I would be excited to see the second in the series, especially if they toned down the detective slang a lot.

JH