Thursday, March 31, 2016

No Country For Old Men

No Country For Old Men
By Cormac McCarthy
New York: Knoff, 2005. 309 pp. Fiction

While out hunting along the Texas-Mexican border, Llewellyn Moss stumbles upon mysterious crime scene, with a number of men dead or dying and pickup trucks riddled with bullets. After examining the results of this shootout, he discovers a large cache of heroin and a satchel containing millions in cash. He quickly grabs the money and flees the scene. Unbeknownst to him, this will set in motion a relentless and ruthless manhunt, with two men tasked by the competing groups behind the apparent drug deal gone bad to track down the man who stole the money and a county sheriff struggling to keep Moss alive and protect his community.

After years of having Cormac McCarthy on my mental TBR list and hearing so many rave reviews, I finally picked up a copy of this book after one of my colleagues said it was one of her all time favorites. I really quite enjoyed this book. It is possibly the most masculine novel I have ever read. While it is set in contemporary Texas, it has the feel of a western, populated with men of few words and much action. Each of the characters are driven to act according to his particular notions of how men are and/or should be. Once set upon a path he doggedly treads it even unto death, with little or no hesitation, circumspection or consideration of self-interest let alone the interests of others. The writing is extraordinarily lean and even Spartan, stripped of even some basic elements of punctuation, reflecting the uncomplicated perspectives of the principal characters. This book is a really page turner and thought provoking examination of the male psyche that nicely avoids being a mere agglomeration of trite alpha male clichés.

CHW

Summerlost

Summerlost 
By Ally Condie
Dutton Children’s Books, 2016. 249 pgs. Young Adult Fiction

Internationally best-selling author, Ally Condie is best known for her Matched trilogy. But Condie's latest novel, Summerlost, is quite different from what readers are used to. Summerlost is a contemporary novel about 12 year old Cedar Lee. Cedar is facing the first summer since the death of her father and brother when Cedar's mom decides to move what's left of their family to the small town of Iron Creek. One day, Cedar see a strange boy, Leo Bishop, ride his bike past her house in an old fashioned peasant costume, and she decides to follow him. Before long Cedar has a new job at the Summerlost theater festival, a new mystery to solve involving one of Iron Creek’s most famous residents, and perhaps a new best friend.

I loved this book! The main character is well written and a genuine portrayal of a young girl adjusting to new circumstances and finding happiness in spite of tragedy. I also liked the development of Cedar and Leo’s friendship, and the theme it portrayed of understanding those around us even when they seem so different. The balance Condie creates between Cedar’s bittersweet self-reflection and the exciting twists in the mystery Cedar and Leo must solve make this a story both teens and adults will enjoy!

CNC

Re-Gifters

Re-Gifters
By Mike Carey
DC Comics, 2007. 148 pgs. Graphic Novel

Dixie, a Korean-American teenager in LA, loves Hapkido and is looking forward to participating in the National Championship, but her feelings for Adam, a classmate and fellow fighter, throw off her groove. Her ability to fight is faltering, and a bad decision makes her participation in the National Championship uncertain. Dixie must come to terms with her feelings before she can progress, and thankfully she has many people cheering her on.

 I thoroughly enjoyed this graphic novel. Anyone who’s been a teenager will be able to understand Dixie’s feelings, and remember how what seemed like a good idea in one moment, turned out to be a bad idea the next. The reader can easily see these mistakes coming, while Dixie is temporarily blinded by her feelings. If anything, her relatability and wit make me wish this book was longer because Dixie is such an enjoyable protagonist. This is an easy book to recommend to nearly anyone, though I think teens may appreciate it most. It was published in 2007 so some of the references may be a little dated, but shouldn’t detract from the main story.

ACS

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Forest Feast: Simple Vegetarian Recipes From My Cabin in the Woods

The Forest Feast: Simple Vegetarian Recipes From My Cabin in the Woods
By Erin Gleeson
Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 2014. 240 pgs. Nonfiction

This is a gorgeous cookbook using mixed media illustrations. Photographs mixed with watercolors and hand lettering make for a very picturesque presentation.  Although  this book is focused on vegetarian dishes, many could be used as side dishes or even modified to include meat.

In the introduction, Gleeson talks about her process of making this book a reality and her love for art and nature. I liked this quote, "I am drawn to color and shape, so often my dishes will start with that in mind. We could have mashed potatoes, or we could have purple mashed potatoes. Adding color makes it just a little more fun!" I made and enjoyed both the Garlic Knots and the Butternut Caprese Salad and would recommend this book to anyone interested in beautiful cookbooks or delicious food!

AMM

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Lights Out

Lights Out: A Cyberattack: A Nation Unprepared: Surviving the Aftermath
By Ted Koppel
Crown Publishers, 2015. 279 pgs. Nonfiction

Disaster preparedness is not a new issue.  Hurricane Katrina brought to the headlines our nation's ability to respond to large scale national disaster.  But what happens if the disaster is not brought on by Mother Nature?  What happens if our power grid is compromised due to terrorist attack?  In "Lights Out", veteran journalist Ted Koppel explores both the possibility of this eventuality (it is scarily possible) and how long it would take for effected areas to recover (a lot longer than any of us would like to believe). 

Koppel presents a very well argued and thoroughly researched argument.  The United States is grossly unprepared to survive a cyberattack.  His message is definitely a little terrifying but he spends a good portion of the book reporting on the preparations of preppers, survivalists, and those crazy Mormons with their food storage and neighborhood emergency networks.  This is an excellent piece of investigative journalism and a timely warning to our nation, government emergency agencies, and citizens alike.

CZ

Higher Call

A Higher Call: An Incredible True Story of Combat and Chivalry in the War-torn Skies of World War II
By Adam Makos
Berkley Books, 2013. 392 pgs. Nonfiction

"A Higher Call" follows the story of two World War II pilots.  One, Charlie Brown, a B-17 captain from a farm in West Virginia, and the other, Franz Stigler, a German 2nd Lieutenant flying a fighter for the 3rd Reich.  They meet in the air over Germany when Brown's seriously damaged bomber makes a desperate attempt to fly home.  Stigler's sense of duty and honor are challenged and an unprecedented interaction takes place between the two airmen.

Books about World War II are plentiful.  What made "A Higher Call" stand out to me was Franz Stigler's story.  Hearing the experiences and a German pilot fighting for Hitler while despising the Nazis and their policies was incredibly interesting.  Both pilots' perspectives show the difficulty of war and its affect on the men and women fighting in it, but also the goodness of mankind and resilience of the human soul.  I highly recommend this book to nonfiction readers especially those that enjoyed "Unbroken".

CZ

Monday, March 28, 2016

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates

Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates: The Forgotten War That Changed  American History
By Brian Kilmeade
Sentinel, 2015. 238 pgs. Nonfiction

Did you know that pirates were one of the first challenges facing the newly formed United States of America?  It’s true.  As this young nation began to build its economy, its merchant ships increasingly became the target of Barbary pirates.  Other, wealthier, nations avoided the some of these dangers by paying large ransoms and bribes.  The United States could not afford the staggering amounts demanded.  Diplomacy, negotiations, and, finally, all-out war with a freshly built U.S. Navy was required to establish safe trading routes for American merchants.

“Thomas Jefferson and the Tripoli Pirates” is a great look at a lesser known aspect early American history.  Familiar figures like John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison make appearances. But less known American heroes are given a chance to shine through this story of adventure, sacrifice and bravery.  A perfect book for history buffs and armchair adventurers!

CZ

My Name is Lucy Barton

My Name is Lucy Barton
By Elizabeth Strout
Random House, 2016. 193 pgs. Fiction

“My Name is Lucy Barton” centers around the nine week hospital visit of a young mother and aspiring writer.  During this period, her estranged mother comes to visit and sit with her, stirring up memories and emotions from a childhood of poverty.  Lucy describes being ostracized and teased for her inadequate hygiene, a result of her family’s lack of running water.  But a youth spent in solitude opened doors and Lucy escapes to a university and a better life.

Elizabeth Strout is a remarkable storyteller.  Lucy is possibly the most human protagonist I have ever encountered in literature.  She tells her story with honesty and a bit of wonder that I found completely charming.  She is a daughter, wife, and mother but she is also this self-contained individual discovering herself, as most of us do, slowly and throughout a lifetime.  I highly recommend “My Name is Lucy Barton”, especially for book clubs that lean toward the literary.

CZ

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg
By Irin Carmon & Shana Knizhnik
Dey Street Books, 2015. 240 pages. Biography.

Inspired by the tumblr of the same name, Notorious RBG is not an in depth history, but a glimpse into the life of a feminist icon and activist who has made America better through her work as a lawyer and famously the second female Supreme Court Justice. In addition to personal accounts, the book includes interviews with colleges, former clerks, family, and friends, bringing an intimate portrayal of this inspirational woman in both her personal and professional life.

This book is a fun read, and certainly educational. Though some of RBG’s famous opinions and dissents are printed and broken down in the book, it’s not all legal jargon and law review. Some of the most enjoyable aspects are the lighter and historical fare, recounting her early struggles with sexism in law school as one of only a few women in the program, stories of her loving and supportive relationship with husband Marty Ginsberg (also a lawyer), the photos of both current and past RBG, ever stylish and bespectacled, and of course a chapter dedicated to her iconic lace collars.

RC

Thursday, March 24, 2016

The Queen of the Night

The Queen of the Night
by Alexander Chee
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016. 561 pgs. Fiction.

The life of famed Falcon soprano Lilliet Berne has been one of reinvention. Beginning her life as a poor Minnesota farm girl, she transformed in turn into a circus equestrienne, a prostitute, an imperial seamstress, a courtesan, a spy, and finally an opera star. Only five people know the secrets of her past, so when she is offered a role in an opera that mirrors her own history, Lilliet must discover who has betrayed her.

For those who love a lot of period detail in their historical fiction, The Queen of the Night is a perfect choice. Chee provides lush descriptions of the clothing Lilliet wears, the operas she sings in, and the events of her day. Second Empire France comes alive in his narrative. I found Lilliet to be a surprisingly emotionally flat character, but I was nevertheless completely swept along in her story. This isn’t a book with a single, central conflict, but rather a winding story of Lillet’s Scarlett O’Hara-like determination to survive. Her experiences are completely improbable, perhaps in an echo of opera itself.

I also have to say that I love the cover of The Queen of the Night. Though it features a historic photograph of the Comtesse de Castiglione (who happens to figure prominently in the story), the dress, the pose, and especially the mask perfectly represent Lilliet Berne.

SR

Monday, March 21, 2016

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth

An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth
By Chris Hadfield
Little, Brown and Company, 2013. 295 pgs. Biography

Chis Hadfield, the first Canadian astronaut to walk in space, talks in detail about his path to becoming an astronaut and his experiences while working with NASA. I first heard about this book while listening to an NPR story about how food is prepared and eaten in space. In addition to  learning those fascinating details, I was enamored with Hadfield's descriptions of the space program and all of the hard work it takes to become an astronaut.

Hadfield has posted multiple entertaining YouTube videos recorded during his time floating above the earth that helped me get a better mental picture of what it would be like to live in zero gravity. Learning about the training, dedication, and time involved in becoming an astronaut strengthened my respect for those in the aeronautics field. I would recommend this book to anyone!

AMM

Monday, March 14, 2016

A School for Brides

A School for Brides
By Patrice Kindl Viking, 2015. 251 pgs. Young Adult

A School for Brides is the loosely connected sequel to Kindl’s Regency era novel, Keeping the Castle. Both take place in the tiny Yorkshire town of Lesser Hoo, but Brides has a new set of quirky, fun characters. The Winthrop Hopkins Female Academy teaches young ladies in the finer arts of how to make a good marital match. The only problem is there are no eligible bachelors in that remote part of England. Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, a young man traveling through the area manages to break his leg forcing him to convalesce at the school. When his friends learn what has happened and where he is staying, they are most intent on visiting to make sure he is doing well.

While the first book is more an homage to Jane Austen, you’ll find this book to have far more tongue-in-cheek humor in which contains some laugh out loud moments including pretty much every scene with Wolfie, the giant fearsome dog who looks terrifying but just wants to love people.

AJ

Keeping the Castle

Keeping the Castle
By Patrice Kindl
Viking, 2012. 261 pgs. Young Adult

In the hope of saving her beloved family estate, an ancient crumbling castle, so her infant brother can one day inherit the property, Althea Crawley must marry rich. Althea has the beauty and the brains to pull it off, but sadly there are few eligible suitors in the remote Yorkshire town of Lesser Hoo. Fortunately, the young, dashing, and very rich Lord Boring arrives so Althea can set he plan in motion. However, things go amusingly awry whenever Althea encounters Lord Boring’s brash, outspoken, and entirely too vexing cousin, Mr. Fredericks.

Using period-specific language and pitch-perfect characters, Kindl has created an entertaining romp through Regency England with witty dialogue and wry observations. This book is not to be missed for any Jane Austen fan.

AJ

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Magonia

Magonia
By Maria Dahvana Headley
Harper, 2015. 309 pages. Young Adult Graphic Novel

Since she was a baby, Aza Ray has been suffering from a mysterious lung disease that makes it incredibly difficult to breathe, or talk, or live, for that matter.  She always felt that she must not have been made for this world, but when ships appear in the sky calling her name she doubts her own sanity.  She travels to the world of Magonia, a place where she can breathe for the first time, but when everything she loved back on Earth is in jeopardy Aza will have to decide where her loyalties lie.

This is an interesting mix of the modern day world and fantasy elements that would appeal most to fans of Daughter of Smoke and Bone.  The pace can drag a bit but hang in there because it all leads up to a very exciting conclusion.  This is the first in a series.

BHG

Roller Girl

Roller Girl
By Victoria Jamieson
Dial Books for Young Readers, 2015. 239 pages. Young Adult Graphic Novel

Twelve-year-old Astrid goes to a Roller Derby tournament with her mom and best friend Nicole, and her life is changed forever.  Astrid begs to join a roller derby summer camp, but when Nicole says she'd rather not come along Astrid isn't sure what this will mean for their friendship.  As she trains at the camp, she has to come to terms with mistakes she has made and learn how to be a better friend, a better daughter, and a better teammate.

This is an excellent graphic novel for pre-teens and younger teens.  There are a lot of positive themes around these girls, who are proud of who they are and how hard they work, as well as the heartening lessons Astrid must learn.  I think there are great messages in this book and I enjoyed it immensely. 

BHG

A Wicked Thing

A Wicked Thing
By Rhiannon Thomas
HarperTeen, 2015. 337 pages. Young Adult

Princess Aurora wakes after a hundred year sleep to find a handsome prince who has just kissed her.  Her century of sleep has become legend, and all of the books written about her tell her that this man is her true love and she has happiness ever after awaiting her.  However, Aurora is stricken to find that her family has been dead for many years, and her waking has set in motion a political struggle for power that she's forced to be a pawn in.  As her wedding day draws near, Aurora questions everything in her new world, and struggles to decide where she will stand in it.

This is an interesting twist on the Sleeping Beauty story that challenges some popular fairy tale tropes.  This is the beginning of a series and while there are some slow parts where we examine what Aurora is thinking and feeling, ultimately it leads up to a very exciting conclusion.  This is one for fans of fairy tale retellings.

BHG

Sunny Side Up

Sunny Side Up
By Jennifer Holm
Graphix, 2015. 216 pages. Young Adult Graphic Novel

Sunny has flown to Florida to spend the summer with her grandfather.  She initially believes there's potential for lots of fun - after all, Disney World is there, right?  But after a few days it becomes clear that the Florida Sunny will be experiencing is full of old people.  Luckily Sunny meets a comic-book-obsessed boy and they begin to have adventures around the retirement home, but as they do Sunny reflects on the reasons she has come to stay with her grandfather in the first place, and the troublesome situation she left behind her at home.

This is a fantastic graphic novel for young teens and tweens.  You gradually learn the reason Sunny is in Florida over the course of the novel, and while it's a bit sad, the ending is very hopeful.  This book would be a fantastic pick for discussion groups with young readers.  The story and the main character are also very easy to relate to.  Highly recommended.

BHG

In a Dark, Dark Wood

In a Dark, Dark Wood 
By Ruth Ware
Gallery/Scout Press, 2015. 320 pages. Fiction.

Crime writer Leonora Shaw hasn’t spoken to her old friend Clare in ten years. As such, it came as a surprise when an invitation to Clare’s hen night (the UK’s version of a bachelorette party) was extended, but Leonora made the trip to the English countryside, to a remote cabin in the woods with no cell service anyhow. When Leonora wakes up injured in a hospital room, she must struggle to recount the events that lead her there and pick from a list of old friends and new strangers to determine who might be dead, and who could be the murderer.

 The story flashes between Leonora’s present in the hospital, trying to unwind the mystery, and the hen party’s events in the woods. The pacing is fast and the narrative gripping, keeping the pages turning as Leonora’s past, the relationships she thought she left behind, and an unknown future are revealed.

This psychological thriller would be a good choice for fans of books of the same ilk, like Girl on the Train, Gone Girl, and Before I Go to Sleep. The book is being adapted for film, so I’d recommend reading it before it hits theaters to see if the adage of “the book was better” holds true in this case as well.

 RC

Me Before You

Me Before You
by Jojo Moyes
Penguin Books, 2013. 369 pgs.  Fiction

When the café Louisa Clark works at closes suddenly, she is at a loss.  Without ambitions or any other work experience, Lou struggles to find a new job.  Will Traynor has spent most of his life as Lou’s total opposite – a driven, adventurous, and successful businessman – but a terrible accident has left him partially paralyzed and unwilling to live.  After being hired as his caregiver, Lou sets out to rekindle Will’s passion for life.

After seeing the trailer for the film adaptation coming out in June, I was excited to read Me Before You. It definitely delivered the charm I expected based on the trailer, but I was surprised by its complexity.  Lou was especially likable and well-developed as a character, and I enjoyed how gradually and believably her relationship with Will developed.  Although readers might immediately make comparisons with A Walk to Remember or The Fault in Our Stars, Me Before You struck me as being less sentimental and more complicated than those books.  It discusses ableism and personal choice insightfully (though not entirely unproblematically).  I’m still thinking about the book days afterwards and haven’t quite made up my mind about how I feel.  This is a book you need to talk about after reading, making it a good choice for book clubs that don't mind occasional strong language.

SR


Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Welcome to Night Vale

Cover image for Welcome to Night Vale : a novel 
Welcome to Night Vale
by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor
Harper Perennial, 2015, 401 pages, Science Fiction

In the mysterious town of Night Vale, young pawn shop owner Jackie Fierro is handed a message by an even more mysterious man. At the same time, local PTA treasurer Diane Crayton is confused that she’s the only person who remembers a man who everyone else claims doesn’t exist. When Jackie and Diane discover they’re actually trying to track down the same person, the two join forces in hopes that life can go back to normal. This won’t be an easy feat, because Night Vale is anything but normal.

Full disclosure: I’ve never listened to a single episode of the podcast this book is based on. I still thought this book was both fun and accessible, but regular listeners will probably get more of the jokes simply because they’re already used to Fink and Cranor’s absurdist humor.

Night Vale seems to be a place situated in Area 51 or a surrounding neighborhood. Mysterious lights flash in the sky at night and otherworldly beings have taken over places like the City Council and the library. The book switches viewpoints every few chapters, following Jackie, then switching to Diane. Every once in a while a summary of what’s happening is given by a radio announcer, who I’m told is the regular narrator of the podcast.

Weird yet fun, this book helped me get out of a slight mid-winter funk. If you like Terry Pratchett, Monty Python, or the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you’ll probably enjoy both this book and its podcast.

MB

Friday, March 4, 2016

The Oregon Trail

Cover image for The Oregon Trail : a new American journey
The Oregon Trail
By Rinker Buck
Simon & Schuster, 2015, 450 pages, Non-Fiction

Buck's epic account of traveling the length of the Oregon Trail the old-fashioned way--in a covered wagon with a team of mules, an audacious journey that hasn't been attempted in a century--tells the rich history of the trail, the people who made the migration, and its significance to the country.

This book reminded me a lot of Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods. Although not quite as humorous, it does include a quirky sidekick in the form of Buck’s foul-mouthed brother, Nick. The two play well off each other, and make an interesting combination. While there are settlements almost all along the trail now, and the brothers weren’t too far from civilization, they still encounter many of the same difficulties as those faced by the pioneers.

Some of my favorite parts occurred when Buck delves into the rich history of the trail. I was particularly interested in his discussion of the importance of mules in settling most of the U.S., and in the complex story of Narcissa Whitman, one of the first women to travel the Oregon Trail.

Buck does occasionally veer off into territory that doesn’t quite relate to his main purpose. However, the travelogue and history portions of the book were fascinating enough that I was able to overlook some of these small incongruences.

I listened to the audio version of this book, which is read by the author. He has a slightly halting voice, but once you get used to his rhythm the book is easy to listen to. I especially liked his impersonation of his brother Nick.

MB

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Simply Anna: A Regency Romance

Simply Anna: A Regency Romance
By Jennifer Moore
Covenant Communications, 2015. 209 pgs. Romance

Philip has a broken heart and welcomes the chance to take over his father's Jamaican sugar plantation. He hopes that if he throws himself into the work he will be able to avoid further heartbreak. His plan is working until he discovers a bruised and battered woman washed up on the shore of his property. When she regains consciousness she has no memory of who she is or where she came from. The only clue they have is a necklace she was wearing inscribed with the name Anna. As they grow closer over the coming weeks they face many challenges together as they witness the cruelty of slavery, attacks by renegades and a swashbuckling fight with a band of pirates. They live with the uncertainty of wondering when Anna's memory will come back and what will happen when it does.

I enjoyed this different take on a Regency romance. The Jamaican setting gave it a unique feel. There wasn't all the formality of being set in Europe and it gave the characters more opportunities to interact. I also appreciated the way the author handled the reality of slavery. There was just enough detail to make you realize the atrocities but not so much that it made the book impossible to read.

AL