Tuesday, February 28, 2017

The Last Queen

The Last Queen 
by C. W. Gortner
Ballantine Books, 2009. 378 pgs. Fiction.

Juana’s childhood abruptly comes to an end when her parents, Queen Isabella of Castile and King Ferdinand of Aragon arrange her marriage to the Hapsburg Prince, Phillip. Even though she is their third child Joanna is still expected to marry a foreigner for political gain, much to her disappointment. Once she meets Phillip she is quickly entranced by their passionate, although shallow, relationship. She is content with her life in Flanders until tragedy takes the lives of both her older siblings and their children, leaving her the heir to the Spanish crown. This sets off a chain of betrayals and abuse as her husband and others see her only as a means to power, while Juana is determined to secure her own rights as queen.

 I was fascinated by this novelization of the story of Juana la loca of Spain. The most interesting thing about it to me was how the author portrayed claims that Juana was insane as a political tool used against her by her enemies rather than a wholly legitimate condition of hers. I appreciated that at the end of the book the author explains where he deviated from actual historical record and why. I would recommend this book to anyone that enjoys historical fiction, especially about European monarchs.

ER

One Week in the Library

One Week in the Library
by W. Maxwell Prince
Image Comics Inc., 2016. 96 pgs. Graphic Novel

In this experimental graphic novella, Allen has lived his entire life in the Library, a place where all the stories ever written are kept. There’s no way out, but he’s not alone. The stories are alive and don’t always do what they’re supposed to. It’s his job as the librarian to keep things in order. In seven short stories, one for each day of the week, literary rebellions keep Allen busy.

This is a hard book to describe. It’s very unique and I can easily see why this is considered “experimental.” I love that it takes some literature and movie imagery and throws them in as characters. From the Pinocchio and Charlotte’s Web, to Castaway and The Matrix, it feels like finding a bunch of Easter eggs and the more well-read you are, the more you find. The weirdest part though, is the ending. Readers will either love it or hate it. The author himself realizes the ending is weird and explains why as he’s writing it. Personally, I loved it and felt like I could relate in a lot of ways. For a mind-bending graphic novel with plenty of literary references, this is a quick read that I can easily recommend.

ACS

The Siren

The Siren
By Kiera Cass
HarperTeen, 2016 (originally published 2009). 327 pages. Young Adult Fantasy

Kahlen is a teen girl whose 1930s ship sank due to mysterious circumstances.  However, Kahlen was spared by the Ocean if she promised to serve for 100 years as a Siren, a beautiful creature whose voice would lure countless strangers to their deaths.  80 years later, Kahlen is trying to cope with her troubled life when she meets Akinli.  Though she can't speak to him, she can't help feeling inexplicably drawn to him.  But falling in love with a human is a breach of the Ocean's rules, and Kahlen must hide her feelings in order to protect Akinli, and herself, from the Ocean's wrath.

Cass's 2009 book The Siren has been republished under HarperTeen and is experiencing renewed interest since the rising popularity of her Selection series.  Fans of that series will probably also enjoy this, although her writing is a bit less polished as this was one of her first works.  Readers who can easily suspend reality and are looking for a light love story that overcomes the odds will enjoy this.

BHG

Monday, February 27, 2017

Frontier Grit

Frontier Grit: The Unlikely True Stories of Daring Pioneer Women
by Marianne Monson
Shadow Mountain, 2016. 198 pgs. Biography

Frontier Grit gives readers brief biographical sketches of twelve amazing women of the American frontier.  Author Marianne Monson, inspired by stories of strong pioneering women in her own family histories, desired to tell the story of the American West from the eyes of women who struggled to make a home for themselves.

While I enjoyed all twelve sketches, I particularly enjoyed the colorful life of Nellie Cashman who mushed a dog sled 750 miles in seventeen days when she was in her 80s! Or, closer to home, there is Martha Hughes Cannon who served as the first female State Senator in the United States after a sensational campaign in which she defeated her own husband who was also on the ballot.

I loved the variety in Monson’s subjects.  She does an amazing job of showing diversity among the brave souls who ventured into the unknown.  At the conclusion of each biography, Monson editorialized a bit, pointing out how the struggles faced by these women are not so different from the struggles faced by women today.   I would particularly recommend it to book clubs because it is such a quick, easy read containing so many wonderful topics for discussion.

CG

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead

Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
By Brené Brown
Gotham Books, 2012. 287 pgs. Nonfiction

Dr. Brené Brown is a researcher. She studies people and what makes some succeed while others fail. In Daring Greatly she explains how most people see vulnerability as a weakness, but it is the ability to be vulnerable and imperfect that leads to being able to live wholeheartedly and be fully engaged in meaningful connections. 

Being vulnerable is hard, Brené even admits that although she has become an expert on the subject, she still struggles with it in her personal life. I appreciated that fact that she was honest. It made me more willing to listen to what she had to say. This book has the possibility of changing the way you live and all of the relationships you have. If you don't have time to read the book, I recommend watching her TED talk on the subject. It is amazing! I listened to the audiobook which was fantastic but I plan on going back and reading the actual book so that I can really absorb the concepts and take notes. I highly recommend this book!

AL

The Lady of the Lakes: The True Love Story of Sir Walter Scott

The Lady of the Lakes: The True Love Story of Sir Walter Scott
By Josi Kilpack
Shadow Mountain, 2017. 338 pgs. Historical Fiction, Romance

Young Walter Scott falls in love with Mina the first time he sees her. Walter knows they are from different social classes but he is confident their love will be able to overcome any obstacle. She is flattered by his attention and treasures each love letter he sends, but isn't sure if she is truly in love with him, especially once she meets the handsome William Forbes.

Charlotte Carpenter is a Catholic-born Frenchwoman with a scandalous family history. She does not expect to ever marry and has come to terms with that. She is making arrangements to become an independent woman by managing her own household and decisions. It is at this point that she meets Walter Scott and they both discover that there may be more in their futures than either of them expected, but only if Walter can make room in his heart for someone besides Mina.

I didn't know much about Walter Scott before reading this book but I loved getting to know his personality and his struggles and how he overcame heartbreak to find love again. Josi Kilpack did a lot of research into Scott's life and the book includes notes at the end to explain which parts of each chapter were based on facts and which parts she made up to help the story progress. This is a slower paced book but it kept my attention all the way to the end.

AL

Dragonsong

Dragonsong 
by Anne McCaffery
New York : Atheneum, 1976. 202 pgs YA Fiction

 Menolly has a talent for music. A talent not appreciated on a fishing island in Pern where time is best spent on doing practical things. When the Master Harper on her island dies, Menolly no longer has someone to encourage her in her craft. When Menolly has finally had enough of being told that her music is a waste of time, she runs away from the hold. With the help of nine fire lizards she makes a life for herself in the country living off the land.

 I love Anne McCaffrey’s books they are such an imaginative Sci-Fi series. She does an excellent job of combining dragons, space ships, and some really imaginative ideas in this world of Pern that she created. This is probably my favorite miniseries within the series. I love the personalities that are shown in the different characters in this series.

MH

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Vanished: True Tales of Mysterious Disappearances

Vanished: True Tales of Mysterious Disappearances
By Elizabeth MacLeod
Annick Press, 2016. 184gs. Young Adult Nonfiction

Do you remember watching the TV show Unsolved Mysteries in the 90s? While I always found the host and the stories slightly too creepy to really enjoy, I was always intrigued with the facts behind the mysteries portrayed.

This nonfiction book discusses six true mysterious disappearances. From the lost colony of Roanoke in 1590 to the icy Franklin Expedition in 1848 and the Mary Celeste, a legendary ghost ship which disappeared in 1872. Next the mystery of the missing Russian Amber Room in 1941, the Alcatraz Prison break in 1962, and finally the art heist at the Gardner Museum in 1990.

I was familiar with the Gardner Museum after vising Boston a few years ago, and I had a general idea about Alcatraz, but the other stories were largely new to me. The section on the Amber Room was my favorite of the bunch. Filled with color pictures, sidebars, and maps, this book is perfect for anyone that enjoys a true mystery tale.

AMM

Avalanche

Avalanche
By Melinda Braun
Simon Pulse, 2016. 263 pgs,  Young Adult

What starts out as a fun back-country ski trip during Spring Break quickly takes a terrifying turn. Matt and Tony, high school seniors from Florida, meet up with Tony's brother Sid and some of his buddies just outside their Colorado college town for a weekend of skiing and having a good time.

The morning starts off great, but an afternoon avalanche has these adventure seekers fighting for their lives. This book begins being told exclusively from Matt's perspective, but as the group splits off to get help after some of their party is injured in the avalanche, we begin to see and hear the events from the other skiers viewpoints.

This book is filled with non-stop action. While I felt at times that it was a little too dramatic and unrealistic, the traumatic events ensured that I couldn't put this book down until I'd learned who, if anyone, would make it out alive.

AMM

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

1632

1632
by Eric Flint
BAEN Books, 2001, 597 pages, Science Fiction, Historical Fiction. 

A small West Virginia town is mysteriously uprooted and displaced in time and place, finding themselves in the middle of the Thirty Years War. The citizens of Grantville do their best to bring American values and superior rate of fire to 17th century Germany. 

Flint skillfully depicts the horrors of a war torn Europe while juxtaposing it with a character study of small town America. The West Virginians come from a United States somewhat different than our own; published seven months before 9/11, 1632's characters bear less resemblance to an independent Appalachian community and more to citizens of metropolitan areas like New York City. Flint's one concession to life in a small town is the ubiquity of firearms, though this seems parodiable in its extremity. The real strength of the novel comes from the depth of knowledge and detail of 17th century German life. Though Flint's characterization of the Americans is simplistic (the minor antagonist of the main character, his metropolitan father-in-law, is laughably one dimensional), the Europeans are diverse and well-developed. If a bit long winded at times, 1632 is a great read for enthusiasts of historical and alternative fiction. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Emperor of Thorns

Emperor of Thorns
By Mark Lawrence
Ace Books, 2013. 434 pages. Fantasy

Jorg is back for a third and final volume, and the question is… will he finally ascend the Empire Throne? Defeating the Prince of Arrow has earned him seven kingdoms, but when it comes time for Congression, that’s only seven votes out of a hundred. An Emperor must win a majority of votes, and we all know that diplomacy is not Jorg’s strong suit. Sure, he may have mastered the ancient technologies of the Builders, but that’s not going to convince a room of noblemen who hate his guts to play nice. Not to mention the fact that everyone is distracted from the business of emperor-making by the fact that the Dead King and his army of necromancers are practically breaking down the door. Is this where Jorg’s quest for ultimate power ends, or will he continue to cheat, lie, and murder his way to the top?


This book was just as great as the first two, and provided me with the perfectly satisfactory conclusion I was looking for. If anyone read my review for King of Thorns, you’ll remember that my one complaint was that Lawrence jumped between four different timelines and it was hard to keep them all straight. This book was a little better—it had three timelines instead of four, and two of the timelines converged toward the end. It was still a little irritating, but I didn’t struggle near as much to remember what was going on. The focus of this book is definitely more on Jorg’s character than in the previous volumes, and I found it interesting to watch as he developed a little self-awareness before his final bid for victory. That being said, there’s definitely more than enough swordplay, torture, and assassination to keep things interesting. All around an excellent trilogy that I would hardily recommend to anyone charmed by a classic anti-hero.

LLK

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Caraval

Caraval
by Stephanie Garber
Flatiron Books, 2017.407. YA Fiction

Scarlett and her younger sister live on a remote island with their abusive and controlling father. Now Scarlett’s father has arranged a marriage for her with a duke, and she feels like it is her only hope to protect herself and her sister from her father. But it also seems that her dreams of attending the games of Caraval will soon be over. This year Scarlett’s invitation arrives, and with the help of a sailor Scarlett and her sister escape to the island where the games will take place. As soon as they arrive though Tella Scarlett’s sister gets kidnapped, and the terms of the game are whoever finds her first is the winner. Scarlett has to remember it is only a performance, but she must find her sister before the five nights of the game are over her sister may disappear forever.

I really enjoyed listening to this book. My most favorite aspect of the book was the growth that Scarlett went through. Because of her abuse she was initially very timid and unwilling to take control of her future, and over the course of her story she begins to learn how to be willing to try different possibilities even though the outcome may not be the most ideal. I also really enjoyed the dynamics between the characters. I specifically liked the complexity of the relationship between Scarlett and her sister Tella. As a sister she loved her and would do anything for her, but there were also those points where Scarlett was ready to throttle Tella because of her willingness to plunge into everything head first. Overall a very compelling YA read.

MH

Into the Storm

Into the Storm
by Taylor Anderson
Roc, 2009, 416 pages, Historical Fiction, Sci-fi. 

On the run from the vicious and inexorable Japanese advance in Pacific, the crews of two outdated destroyers find themselves in a strange parallel earth where the catlike Lemurians fight the reptilian Grik for the right to existence itself. Captain Matthew Reddy and the crew of the USS Walker have to decide how to proceed in a war where their ships are the most advanced technology in the world. 

The first in an ongoing series, Into the Storm introduces a diverse cast of characters and explores how this rough group of sailors and soldiers would adapt to something so incredible world altering. Though a Japanese commander also transported to this new world becomes a recurring antagonist, Anderson takes pains to demonstrate the variety of morals among both the Americans and the Japanese, though the alien species almost exclusively delineates into mammals good, reptiles evil. As the series progresses, both the world exposed to the reader and the plot expand in complexity and scope. Anderson writes spectacular naval and land battle scenes, which are only enhanced by the characters discussions and efforts to integrate advanced technology into primitive society, as well as recreate advanced manufacturing. If that sounds dry in description, rest assured that Anderson makes it dramatic and compelling. I would highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys either science fiction or World War era historical fiction. 

JMS

You Bet Your Garden Guide to Growing Great Tomatoes

You Bet Your Garden Guide to Growing Great Tomatoes

by Mike McGrath
Fox Chapel Publishing, 2012. 111 pgs. Nonfiction

From seed to harvest this book gives clear, detailed instructions on every step from choosing your tomato variety and preparing your soil to natural pest control and harvesting your crop. McGrath focuses on heirloom tomato varieties and organic gardening methods, but he also gives usable information about hybrids and commercial fertilizers. Throughout the book he also describes common pitfalls experienced by would-be tomato growers, what causes them, and how to avoid them.

This book was one of the most entertaining non-fiction books I have ever read! The writing style is engaging and laugh-out-loud humorous, making it an incredibly enjoyable read. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who wants to grow tomatoes from the beginner to the experienced gardener, and even to anyone who has ever had a passing interest in gardening and enjoys a good laugh.

ER

Kingdom of Ash and Briars

Cover image for Kingdom of ash and briars
Kingdom of Ash and Briars
by Hannah West
Holiday House, 2016, 350 pages, Young Adult Fiction

Bristal, a sixteen-year-old kitchen maid, lands in a fairy tale gone wrong when she discovers she has elicromancer magic in her blood. Elicromancers are an ancient breed of immortal people, but only two remain in Nissera after a bloody civil war. Bristal joins the ranks of elicromancers Brack and Tamarice without knowing that one of them has a dark secret . . . Tamarice is plotting a quest to overthrow the realm's nobility and take charge herself. Together, Bristal and Brack must guard the three kingdoms of Nissera against Tamarice's black elicromancy. There are cursed princesses to protect, royal alliances to forge and fierce monsters to battle--all with the hope of preserving peace.

From the above description, it might come as a surprise to find that West pulls heavily from fairy tales such as Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and Mulan to tell this story. However, this book is its own tale and it is not focused on finding a happily ever after. Instead, West deals with classic fantasy themes like the battle between dark and light and the idea that “with great power comes great responsibility.” As a lover of fantasy and fairy tale retellings, this book had a lot of the elements I look for in a good book, along with giving me a brand new story to enjoy.

MB

Highly Illogical Behavior

Cover image for Highly illogical behavior
Highly Illogical Behavior
by John Corey Whaley
Dial Books, 2016, 249 pages, Young Adult Fiction

Sixteen-year-old Solomon is agoraphobic. He hasn't left the house in three years, which is fine by him.

Ambitious Lisa desperately wants to get into the second-best psychology program for college (she's being realistic). But how can she prove she deserves a spot there?

Solomon is the answer.

Determined to "fix" Sol, Lisa thrusts herself into his life, sitting through Star Trek marathons with him and introducing him to her charming boyfriend Clark. Soon, all three teens are far closer than they thought they'd be, and when their walls fall down, their friendships threaten to collapse as well.

This is a great coming-of-age tale about accepting people for who they are. John Corey Whaley’s skill at crafting a novel is fully evident here. He could have easily painted Lisa as a villain (her reasons for befriending Solomon are horrible), but by telling the story from the perspectives of both Solomon and Lisa, in alternating chapters, everyone becomes more relatable. This book is also one of those rare young adult novels with characters who are funny and clever without the dialogue seeming forced. Fans of books like All the Bright Places; Me and Earl and the Dying Girl; Everything, Everything; and the writings of Matthew Quick and Rainbow Rowell will enjoy this book.

MB

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Case Against Sugar

The Case Against Sugar
by Gary Taubes
Knopf, 2016. 384 pgs. Nonfiction

In the name of heart health, federal guidelines have urged Americans away from saturated fat for decades. Claiming that a calorie is a calorie, regardless of its source, experts have argued that the obesity and modern diseases are the result of overeating and insufficient exercise. Now, investigative journalist Gary Taubes is taking on those claims and arguing that processed sugar, far more than saturated fat and even overeating, is the simplest explanation for our health woes. New research reveals that obesity, heart disease, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, even cancer – any of the so-called Western diseases – have insulin resistance caused by processed sugar consumption at their root.

The Case Against Sugar is not a diet book or even a health book, really. Instead, it is a journalistic investigation into where nutrition research went wrong. Taubes traces claims about sugar’s harmlessness to their earliest sources and points out how a hypothesis with limited support became accepted nutrition fact through repetition by successive generations of food scientists. He also reveals the conflicts of interest that have almost always tainted studies into the health effects of sugar, showing how the sugar industry has funded much of the existing research. He bookends The Case Against Sugar with information about how sugar and insulin resistance affect the body and how cutting out processed sugar improves health far more dramatically and rapidly than reducing calories or saturated fat intake. Though his writing can be a little dry at times (listening to the audiobook helps), the information Taubes provides is fascinating and sometimes startling. It’s a book worth reading for anyone who enjoys reading about nutrition, health, science, or the food industry.

SR

11/22/63

11/22/63
By Stephen King
Scribner, 2011. 846 pages. Sci-Fi

Meet Jake Epping, ordinary high school English teacher. Meet Al Templeton, owner of the local diner and creator the infamous Fat Burger. Their plan? To go back in time and stop the JFK assassination. When the two discover a mysterious time-travel portal at the back of Al’s diner that opens onto 1958, it seems like a chance to become the heroes who saved history. The only problem is that the assassination doesn’t take place until 1963, and so whoever makes the jump will have to wait five years to stop the crime. Jake reluctantly agrees to be the one to go back, but soon finds that life follows you wherever—or whenever—you go.

This was the first Stephen King book I’ve ever read and I definitely thoroughly enjoyed it. It alternates between dramatic action scenes and much slower descriptions of the mundane life Jake builds for himself in “the land of ago.” Both were compelling, though in very different ways. Though the slow parts drag a little bit in places (as you might expect from an 800-page novel), they do a great job developing the characters so that when you get to the action scenes you’re really invested. I loved Jake’s romantic interest and all of his friends and students, and so when protecting JFK started to threaten those relationships I was genuinely distraught. I listened to the audiobook on this one and I thought the narrator was excellent. He really brought Jake Epping to life for me and made the whole book fly by.

LLK

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

The Serpent King

The Serpent King
by Jeff Zentner
Crown Books for Young Readers, 2016. 372 pages. Young Adult

When you live in a small town set in the deep south named after the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, even being slightly different isn’t going to go down well. Dillard, Lydia, and Travis are best friends entering their senior year of high school. Dill is living under the shadow of his charismatic father, a Pentecostal snake-handler who was recently incarcerated for child porn on his computer. He yearns for more in life but is fearful of losing his friends. He also feels compelled to honor his domineering mother’s wishes, who has suggested he drop out of school to help pay for his father’s legal fees.

Candid and offbeat Lydia comes from a wealthier family and has found success as a fashion blogger which she hopes will catapult her to New York where she can attend NYU. While Lydia is determined to realize her dreams, she is unaware of the cost this is taking on her friendships.

Travis, large of body and gentle of soul, is happy to work at the local lumberyard and lose himself in a Jordan-esque fantasy series called Bloodfall. He has even met a girl online through a Bloodfall fan site but struggles under his father’s emotional and physical abuse. As they each grapple with these concerns, a shocking act of violence sends their lives into a tailspin.

With an openness and grace, Zentner explores difficult issues teens face such as struggling under the failings of our parents, adjusting to life after high school and the fear of the unknown, and how to strive for lasting friendship. Fans of Rainbow Rowell and John Green should definitely consider picking up this touching debut.

AJ

Monday, February 13, 2017

Three Dark Crowns

Three Dark Crowns
by Kendare Blake
Harperteen, 2016. 398 pages. Young Adult

On the magical island of Fennbirn, a set of girl triplets is born to the Queen every generation. Each one has a different magical ability. The sisters are separated and raised on different parts of the island by factions who share their ability. Mirabella is a powerful elementalist who can manipulate fire, water, and air. While, Katherine who can make and ingest poisons and Arsinoe, a naturalist who can control plants and animals have manifested only weak versions of their gifts.

Now nearing their 16th year, the sisters are in the final days of preparing for a bitter fight to the death. It is the custom for only one to survive to become Queen Crowned. With Mirabella’s formidable magical skills, it seems obvious who will win, but there are other intricate machinations and deceitful plots at play.

Blake has created a twisting dark fantasy full of complex characters with mysterious motivations. The vicious game played through the lives of each queen is intensely fascinating to watch unfold. While this isn’t an exact read-alike, I think fans of Sarah Maas’s Throne of Glass series could find much to like here.

AJ

Where Am I Now?

Where Am I Now? True Stories of Girlhood and Accidental Fame
by Mara Wilson
Penguin Books, 2016. 272 pgs. Biography

You might not know Mara Wilson’s name, but you’d probably recognize her face. She spent her early years as one of the most popular child stars of the 1990s, with credits including Matilda, Mrs. Doubtfire, and Miracle on 34th Street. For years, she was everywhere, and then suddenly she disappeared from Hollywood. As the title suggests, Where Am I Now? describes Wilson’s difficult transition away from stardom and into adulthood. It also includes wonderful behind-the-scenes information about her time on movie sets and her relationships with costars.

If you enjoy celebrity memoirs, Where Am I Now? is worth the read. Wilson is a clever writer (as evidenced by her Twitter account), and, in general, her life has been an interesting one. She included a few high school stories that I found uninteresting and a little off-putting because they seemed like typical, petty teenage experiences. She writes beautifully, however, about her mother’s death during the production of Matilda, her own experiences with OCD and anxiety, and the pain she felt when Hollywood rejected her in adolescence based on appearance. Overall, this funny, candid, and poignant book is an enjoyable read that can be finished in just a few hours.

SR

Friday, February 10, 2017

Lab Girl

Lab Girl
by Hope Jahren
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 290 pgs. Biography

Hope Jahren is an acclaimed botanist.  From her early childhood she loved the world of science and worked hard to build a lab she could call her own.  On her way she becomes lab partners and best friends with Bill, a wounded but brilliant researcher who joins Hope in her adventures and discoveries.  In Lab Girl she describes her battle to establish herself in a male dominated academic field, find continual funding for her research through extremely competitive grants and contracts, and overcome episodes of mania and depression due to struggles with mental illness.

I think my favorite parts of Jahren's insightful memoir were the chapters about the plants she loves so much.  These chapters were interspersed with chapters following the author's life through decisions, triumphs, and disappointments.  I gained an entirely new perspective on the inner life of trees.  I wanted to go right out and plant a big oak in a nearby park.  Lab Girl is a fantastic memoir for anyone looking for inspiration and new insights to life in our beautiful world.

CG