Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Bleed, Blister, Puke, and Purge

Bleed, Blister, Puke, and Purge: The Dirty Secrets Behind Early American Medicine
By J. Marin Younker
Zest Books, 2016. 110 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

When the first settlers came to America, educated doctors were few and far between, so medical practices were quite barbaric by today’s standards. This book details the changing landscape of American medicine from the 15th to 20th centuries. From education (or lack thereof), common practices and schools of thought, to the introduction of anesthesia and why cutting edge practices were ignored despite overwhelming evidence that such practices saved lives (like sanitizing instruments and washing hands). Sorry President Garfield, they just wouldn’t listen!

This was a fascinating read! The intended audience for this book is teens, and I would also recommend it to anyone who is simply curious about early American medicine. It’s easily readable for the layman and is full of fascinating facts and real situations. For example, I didn’t know that George Washington, when taken ill with a sore throat, had 80% of his blood removed because the doctors of the day thought that would cure him. Spoiler: He died. I also learned that many soldiers during the Civil War died from starvation as they lay wounded on the battlefield because the ambulance service was only just beginning and couldn’t get to everyone fast enough. This may be a little gruesome and morbid (lots of puke, puss, and blood), but it was really informative and I’m glad I read it. I learned a lot, and am very grateful for modern medicine!

ACS

The Singles Game

The Singles Game
by Lauren Weisberger
Simon & Schuster, 2016. 341 pages. Fiction.

Charlie is a consistent tennis star until she suffers a horrible injury at Wimbledon, with all the world watching. Miraculously she makes a fast and complete recovery, and she really changes things to reshape herself to be a champion. She hires a new coach, typically a men's only coach, who ruthlessly trains her to be the best. This coach insists on changes on and off the court that ultimately question Charlie's desire to continue life as a pro tennis player.

As a tennis fan, and a chick-lit fiction fan, this book was a good choice. It was easy to get into and I liked the personable and relatable Charlie character. I started to really feel for her when her choices on and off the court started to negatively effect her self esteem and her family. It was a quick, yet satisfying ending as she straightens her life out again. Weisberger writes with a witty, fast paced and engaging style but her inclusion of bad language seems gratuitous. I liked this book enough that I wanted to read some of her other books too!

LP

Bless Me, Ultima

Bless Me, Ultima
By Rudolfo A. Anaya
Warner Books, (1973) 1994. 250 pages. Fiction.

This widely acclaimed and award winning novel for Chicano literature, tells of a young boy in New Mexico in the 1940s as he experiences the ups and downs of growing up. Antonio bonds with Ultima, a curandera (native traditional healer) as she lives with his struggling family. Ultima takes Antonio on a spiritual journey as he learns about the grittier aspects of life.  Antonio must negotiate his parents differing backgrounds, religion. life and death, healing powers, post WWII realities, and good and evil, ultimately arriving at who he wants to become. Antonio credits the shaping of life to this kind old woman who taught him and cared for him when his world was a turbulent and confusing mess.

This book is a classic that sinks into your soul and changes you- I highly recommend it for all mature teens and adults. Anaya writes with imaginative description and visceral clarity about the realities of life so this novel is not a thematically easy or relaxing read. I enjoyed the insights into New Mexican life during this time period and how the different worlds colliding must have been hard for a young person to grow up in. Coming of age stories always resonate with me and since Antonio must grapple with so many big issues, I found myself going on the same spiritual journey with him as I realized my own feelings on the issues.

Author read alike page found here.

LP


Monday, January 30, 2017

Victoria

Victoria
By Daisy Goodwin
St. Martin's Press, 2016. 404 pages. Historical Fiction

This novel is based on Queen Victoria's first few years after becoming queen, as she leaves the controlling grip of her mother and her mother's advisor Conroy.  She must not only forge a new identity for herself but do it with little preparation for her role as queen.  Because of this, she leans heavily on her Prime Minister, Lord Melbourne, but the lines of advisor and someone far more meaningful begin to blur.  As she gets older, Victoria must grapple with expectations put upon her by her household, her government, and her people, while still trying to remain true to herself and her own desires.  The climactic decision of this book is whether or not she will marry her cousin, Prince Albert, and although we know from history what happened, Goodwin manages to make this debate suspenseful enough that the reader almost holds their breath to see how it all turns out.

While I enjoyed this book, I was a little frustrated with the portrayal of Victoria herself.  Though she had much to grapple with and needed to be strong in many ways, she most often came across as a very self-interested character.  Readers will want to cheer for Victoria as she faces each new challenge, but some might find it hard to like her at times.  In contrast, almost every other character in the book is complex, sympathetic,and interesting.  I also hoped to see more of Prince Albert, but his role in the book is much smaller in comparison to Lord Melbourne.  If you're interested in more of a historical fiction character study than a romance, this is a good choice.

BHG

Dark Matter

Dark Matter
By Blake Crouch
Crown Publishers, 2016. 342 pgs. Sci-fi

Jason Dessen is happy with his life. He has a secure job teaching at a small community college and a wonderful wife and son to go home to.  A part of him wonders if he could have had more or been more, but he rarely regrets any of his choices.
Then one night he is kidnapped, knocked out,  and wakes to very different life.  In his new life he has accomplished the ultimate professional success but seems to lack fulfillment in any other aspect of his existence.  Desperate to return to the life he loved, Jason will go up against impossible obstacles and face the worst in himself.
This is a fast paced thriller that will keep you reading through the night.  The premise is fascinating but required me to suspend disbelief a bit, which I usually don’t mind doing for a good story.  And this, is a good story!

CG

Diary of a Tokyo Teen

Diary of a Tokyo Teen
By Christine Mari Inzer
Tuttle Publishing, 2016. 127 pgs. Graphic Novel

When just fifteen, Christine travels to Japan alone to spend the summer visiting family and reconnecting with the country she was born in. Through illustrated journal entries, this travelogue written and illustrated by Christine, takes us through her experiences with planes, trains, food, geisha, sight-seeing, and the various people she encounters. Each page or two feels like its own journal entry, sometimes with photographs included along with the illustrations.

This was a charming and fast read. It doesn’t read like a continuous narrative, but more like disjointed, humorous journal entries. Most pages have pretty simple illustrations with descriptive text, explaining either what’s going on or why something stood out to the author. It was fun to see Tokyo through the eyes of this young Japanese-American. I feel like this was probably a very memorable way for Christine to capture her trip, and it inspires me to do something similar on my own future vacations abroad.

ACS

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Tea Planter's Wife

The Tea Planter's Wife
by Dinah Jeffries
Crown, 2016. 432 pgs. Fiction.

Gwendolyn Hooper, a naïve, young Englishwoman, follows her new husband to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he owns a tea plantation. The newlyweds love each other, but distance arises between them as soon as Gwen arrives. Mystery surrounds the death of Laurence’s first wife and their young son, and Gwen quickly becomes wary of her husband’s close relationship with a local socialite. One evening, jealous and drunk, Gwen leaves a family party and stumbles to bed. Nine months later, she gives birth, in Laurence’s absence, to a white boy and a mixed race girl. Shocked, confused, and terrified, she makes a decision that leaves her heartbroken and mired in secrecy.

The Tea Planter’s Wife definitely held my curiosity. As the novel progressed, I found myself making wild guesses about how the plot would work out, and I ended up being wrong on basically every count. It was difficult to discern who the “good guys” and villains were in this tale, which made the twists and turns more compelling. Jeffries takes on some difficult topics – race relations, colonialism, rape, infidelity, secrecy and trust, mental illness, and more, and I largely think she succeeds. She does an especially lovely job of painting the scene with her evocative, atmospheric descriptions of 1920s Ceylon. Her writing can be a little dense at times, but the plot pulled me in, in spite of (or maybe because of) the melodrama.

SR

The Bookshop on the Corner

The Bookshop on the Corner
By Jenny Colgan
Harper Collins, 2016. 368 pgs. Fiction

Nina Redmond loves finding the perfect book for a reader. She is a librarian at a small branch library when the library system decides to close her branch. Nina isn't really interested in working at the main library where the emphasis seems to be more on computers and cafes than books. She can't imagine not being able to put books in the hands of people on a daily basis.

She begins dreaming about what she does want to do if she's not going to be a librarian anymore. She knows that she wants to continue recommending books and decides to open up a mobile bookshop. Nina finds an advertisement for a van that looks perfect for her needs, so one weekend she takes a trip from her home in the city to the rolling hills of  rural Scotland. The van turns out to be much larger than it looks and the locals at the pub scoff at her ability to make this plan work. However after a lot of grit and determination, Nina's bookshop becomes a reality. Along the way she discovers how strong and tenacious she really is and finds love along the way.

I really loved this book! I enjoyed the descriptions of the Scottish countryside and seeing Nina's personal growth throughout the book. This was such a cozy read, particularly for someone who is bookish. I'm anxious now to read other books by Jenny Colgan.

AMM

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

This Adventure Ends

Cover image for This adventure ends
This Adventure Ends
by Emma Mills
Henry Holt and Co, 2016, 308 pages, Young Adult Fiction

Sloane isn't expecting to fall in with a group of friends when she moves from New York to Florida--especially not a group of friends so intense, so layered with private tragedies and secret codes, and so all-consuming. Yet that's exactly what happens. Sloane becomes closest to Vera, a social-media star who lights up any room, and Gabe, Vera's twin brother and the most serious person Sloane has ever met. When a beloved painting by the twins' late mother goes missing, Sloane takes on the responsibility of tracking it down, a journey that crosses state lines--and pulls her ever deeper into the twins' lives.

Emma Mills’ first book, First and Then, is a modern take on Jane Austen that was widely praised. In her sophomore novel, Mills keeps the light, witty banter Jane Austen is known for. This made the book a nice palette cleanser since I’d been reading a lot of books about people with capital I issues. I appreciated that This Adventure Ends was fun and quirky and light, but all of the characters dealt with real issues, too. Also, this book asks the important question: What if Nicholas Sparks got writer’s block and ended up finding his way back by writing Vampire Academy fanfiction? How could you not like a book like that?

MB 

Still Life with Tornado

Cover image for Still life with tornado
Still Life with Tornado
by A.S. King
Dutton, 2016, 295 pages, Young Adult Fiction

Sixteen-year-old Sarah thinks she's having an existential crisis. For one thing, she can no longer draw, and art is her life. For another, she keeps running into past and future versions of herself as she wanders the urban ruins of Philadelphia. As Sarah tries to figure out what’s happening to her, she becomes more aware of other things she’s been repressing from her memory. Specifically, Sarah becomes more aware of the tornado that is her family; the tornado that six years ago sent her once-beloved older brother flying across the country for a reason she can't quite recall.

This is my first book by A.S. King, and I can see why she’s so highly praised. In the hands of a less skillful writer, the appearance of past and future Sarahs could seem like a gimmick. King uses them to give Sarah the courage she needs to confront the problems she and her family haven’t been dealing with. I also appreciated that there are many different layers to Sarah’s problems, and that Sarah has to rely on others, as well as on herself, in order to conquer her demons. Although the resolution of the book felt a little rushed to me, I think King did a great job in slowly revealing different elements of the story to keep my interest throughout.

I listened to the audio book, and it was excellently read.  Those who are sensitive to strong language should know that there's a side character who swears a lot, but it makes sense in context and is not gratuitous.

MB

Monday, January 23, 2017

The Glittering Court

The Glittering Court
by Richelle Mead
Razorbill, 2016. 400 pages. Young Adult

Regency romance meets wild frontier life in this mashup of fantasy and historical fiction. Lady Elizabeth Witmore, Countess of Rothford is the eligible daughter of one of Osfrid’s (A.K.A Victorian England) most elite families. Unfortunately, the family is now almost penniless meaning that Lady Elizabeth must be wedded off to a wealthy husband. When Elizabeth’s grandmother arranges a marriage to her humorless distant cousin whose mother is meddlesome and controlling, Elizabeth longs for a way out.

Before the marriage is to take place, Elizabeth is forced to let go of all her maids. Becoming desperate, Elizabeth is intrigued when handsome Cedric Thorn arrives at her home to recruit her maid, Adalaide, for the Glittering Court. The Glittering Court enrolls beautiful young women to be trained as ladies. They are then taken across the Sunset Sea to the newly discovered lands of Adoria and auctioned off as brides to the highest bidders. Elizabeth has always longed for adventure, so when she discovers that Ada has signed a contract but does not want to go to Adoria, Elizabeth offers to take her place.

Now going by her maid’s name, Ada, it’s not long before Cedric discovers her subterfuge. Cedric agrees to keep her secret but has a dangerous one of his own. Soon, Ada is on her way to the frontier lands of Adoria where she must eventually choose to marry for money or love.

Though fantasy is listed as one of the genres, the only thing that really makes this fantasy is that the places are made up. I would say this book will appeal more to fans of historical fiction and fans of strong female characters. That being said, I think this book could have benefited from better developed, more likeable characters. I hesitate to be too critical because, overall, I did like the book. It just needed to be developed a bit more.

AJ

GURPS For Dummies

Cover image for GURPS for dummiesGURPS for Dummies
by Adam Griffith
For Dummies, 2006. 410 pages. Nonfiction.
If you are new to role playing games or if you are curious to try, GURPS for Dummies is a great help for creating characters, playing, and running a game. GURPS as a system is designed to be as flexible as possible, facilitating any game that players can imagine. It does this through a consistent and balanced set of what essentially constitutes the physics of the world, which players use to create characters and story lines. Because GURPS can be very math heavy in world creation, the For Dummies book is helpful to both new and experienced players who are looking to get the most of out the game.

Consistent with the For Dummies brand, GURPS takes a very conversational tone, taking pains to be simple without being condescending. I really appreciated the top ten lists (especially for the advantages section) because they offer great advice on a variety of play styles. The biggest downside is that it doesn't replace the Basic Set manual (itself a 200 page tome); it merely offers suggestions and explanations for rules. I would recommend GURPS to anyone who would like some help jumping into this great hobby or who is interested in learning more about table-top role playing in general.

JMS

All Is Not Forgotten

All Is Not Forgotten
By Wendy Walker
St. Martin's Press, 2016. 310 pgs. Fiction.

The attack and rape of young Jenny Kramer tears a small town apart.  Immediately following the attack, Jenny’s shocked parents agree to have a controversial drug administered to their unconscious daughter that is meant to keep her from ever remembering the events of that night. However, as months pass, Jenny falls apart, unable to cope with her inability to recall what was done to her.
Jenny is sent to a local therapist who fortunately has experience treating patients dealing with the results of this “forgetting treatment”.  Slowly he and Jenny work to recall those horrible moments so that she can begin to heal, but the secrets that rise to the surface spread far beyond that night in the woods and many lives are shattered as a result.
This book is filled with mature themes and situations.  It is certainly not for everyone.  However, it is also an expertly written mystery with a unique viewpoint.  I think I’d recommend it to fans of Gone Girl, though All Is Not Forgotten has a great deal more heart and much more relatable characters.

CG

Saturday, January 21, 2017

A Matter of Magic

A Matter of Magic 

by Patricia C. Wrede

New York: Orb, 2010. 448 pgs, YA Fiction

This book is a combination of two stories, set in Regency England. When a stranger offers Kim money to break into a traveling magician’s wagon, she doesn’t ask any questions. But then she gets caught and discovers the magic is not just a sleight of hand. To make things worse he wants her to come a long on his journey and be his apprentice. Kim gets caught up in the world of wizardry and learns more than she ever thought she would.

This is one of my favorite stories. Kim is a very relatable character who grows throughout the course of the two books in this series. Some of my favorite scenes in the book are when she reverts to her street cant while navigating through proper society. I love the side characters in this story just as much as I love the main characters because of the diversity of their personalities. Mrs. Lowe whom you meet in the second book is beautifully annoying, while Renee D’Auber is elegant and forward thinking. I also like the author’s take on magic in this particular series. It is fascinating how they use other languages to stabilize the spells they cast throughout the books.

MH

A Spy’s Devotion

A Spy’s Devotion

by Melanie Dickerson

Waterfall press, 2016. 314 pgs, Fiction

Nicholas Langdon came home from war injured in hopes of recovery and also to fulfill a promise to a fellow soldier to deliver an encrypted journal. He attends a ball at the Willherns one of the most powerful families in England, where he meets their ward Julia Grey. After the ball when he tries to deliver the journal he is mugged and the journal is stolen. When suspicions then point to the guardians of Miss Julia Grey he must find a way to get more information without endangering the woman he is beginning to fall in love with.

I enjoyed this story. It is more of a romance than a mystery, espionage sort of story, but it was fun to read. I don’t know that I would have fit in to society way back when, and it makes me grateful that I can have a job and take care of myself as opposed to having to climb the social ladder by marrying the richest guy who came along. I enjoyed Julia’s character because I think she is a good representation of what someone of an orphan class would struggle with during the time period. She is not lowly enough to be a servant, but she is at the mercy of her guardians to find a “suitable” match. There were not many opportunities for women at the time and there was no way to realistically balance standing up for yourself and fitting in with the norms of society, the ultimate catch-22.

MH

King of Thorns

King of Thorns
By Mark Lawrence
Ace Books, 2012. 449 pages. Fantasy

Revenge is sweet. Jorg has not only killed his uncle for the crimes he committed, but has taken control of his lands, naming himself King of the Renar Highlands. King is a good place to start, but if Jorg still wants to unite the Broken Empire beneath him he has a lot of work to do. Unfortunately, there’s another contender for the imperial throne: the charming, good-hearted Orrin of Arrow. Nobles flock to support him, soldiers rally to his cause, and every soothsayer and their grandmother predicts his glorious reign. The more people who tell him to roll over, though, the more stubborn Jorg gets, and when Arrow brings an army of 20,000 to his gates, surrender is the last thing on his mind.

This is #2 in The Broken Empire Trilogy, and I enjoyed it almost as much as I did Prince of Thorns. If you are a little confused at the beginning and feel like you’ve missed something, don’t worry. Like the first book, this one follows two timelines: the “Wedding Day” when Jorg is fighting off Arrow’s onslaught on his castle, and “Four Years Earlier,” which explains everything leading up to that. This volume reaches even further than the previous novel, though, and adds two additional storylines: pages from Katherine’s diary, and snippets of a memory Jorg has locked away in a magical chest. I saw this as a bit of a flaw, since the four competing timelines made it difficult to keep the stories straight or to maintain any sort of accurate chronology in my head. Additionally, I felt that a lot of the themes and problems in King of Thorns came out of nowhere instead of being nicely foreshadowed in the first book. Despite these imperfections, though, I still thoroughly enjoyed the book. Jorg’s character arc was excellent, and after seeing his stint as King I’m excited to see whether he will be able to grab and hold ultimate power in the next volume.


LLK

The Rent Collector

The Rent Collector
By Camron Wright
Shadow Mountain, 2012. 271 pgs. Fiction

Sang Ly lives with her husband and young son inside Cambodia's largest municipal garbage dump. They survive by picking through the garbage to find things that can be recycled. It is a treacherous way to live and it makes it even harder that their young son is sick. The embittered old drunk that comes around to collect their rent every month just might be Sang Ly's answer to creating a brighter future for her sick son.

This book was not at all what I expected. I have heard about it for years and finally decided to read it and I am so glad I did. This was a touching story of trials, loss, hope, and literature. Often we judge people before getting to know them well enough to understand their actions. When Sang Ly reaches out to the rent collector, she begins a journey that will forever change her family's life. She discovers the power of words and education and the strength of hope. I highly recommend this book.

AL

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Prince of Thorns

Prince of Thorns
By Mark Lawrence
Ace Books, 2011. 324 pages. Fantasy

At the age of nine, Prince Honorous Jorg Ancrath was thrown from his carriage and forced to watch his uncle’s men slaughter his mother and younger brother. Since then Jorg has been driven by his need for revenge. When his father accepts paltry reparations and refuses to pursue the justice Jorg  craves, the boy runs away from home with a band of bloodthirsty thugs. By thirteen he’s leading the band across the countryside in destructive pillage, but it’s not enough. He wants his uncle dead. And now that he has a taste for power, he wants more. He wants to reclaim his birthright as Prince of Ancrath, and he wants to unite the Broken Empire and become the first supreme Emperor in hundreds of years. And you know what? He might just be ruthless enough to pull it off.

I’m not afraid to say that this is the single best fantasy book I have read since The Way of Kings. I was up until two in the morning reading the very first night I checked it out, and the pace didn’t let up from there. It was engaging, well-written, clever, and had enough character to balance the action. One thing to know before jumping in: this book is dark. Sex, swearing, violence--it’s all definitely in there. In my opinion, though, it’s worth it. I would highly recommend this to fans of Game of Thrones and to Sanderson fans who don’t mind a bit of adult content.


LLK

One Week in the Library

by W. Maxwell Prince
Image Comics, 2016. 96 pages. Graphic Novels

Told from the perspective of a solitary Librarian, a man both custodian and prisoner of the endless Library that contains every word ever written, One Week in the Library tells a story of books rebelling and a universe falling apart, one week at a time. One Week begins as mildly philosophical and ends in the metaphysical; the final day culminates in an interview between the Librarian and the author, Maxwell Prince. Though the musings of the Librarian and the stories he parses are often dismal, the story itself and his reactions are a droll commentary on the stories we tell.

The artwork by Amor and Layno is beautiful. When the Librarian enters a story, there are both subtle and drastic variations to the illustration styles, primarily dictated by how foreign the current story feels to the Librarian. A section of the plot where the Librarian enters our world combines a drab, uncolored style with interjections of color and absurdities that expertly depict his distress. One Week is a fantastic comic for new adult readers. Fans of the genre will also enjoy it, provided they are comfortable with a philosophical based work. Strong language and a brief vignette about depression and suicide make One Week hard to read at times, but the story is enjoyable and thought provoking.  

JMS

Holding Up the Universe

Holding Up the Universe
by Jennifer Niven
Alfred A. Knopf, 2016. 391 pages. Young Adult

Told through alternating chapters, this is the story of two teens, Libby and Jack. Libby was once the fattest teenager in the nation. They actually had to cut her out of her house to save her life. Now, three years later she is healthy, happy, and loves to dance, though others still see her as grossly overweight. Now back at school after an absence of five years, Libby is intensely nervous about whether she will be accepted by her peers.

Jack is part of the “in” crowd, going along with the pranks and jokes, but his cool-guy behavior is just a façade used to keep people at a distance. Jack has prosopagnosia (face blindness) which is the inability to recognize and remember faces. He has been keeping this secret from everyone including his family. When Jack takes part in a cruel “game” called Fat Girl Rodeo, she punches him in the mouth, and they both wind up in detention. Forced to spend time together, Libby and Jack slowly begin to open up to each other. As their relationship evolves into more romantic feelings, Jack and Libby must face reactions from fellow students and their own fears and anxieties, but together they inspire each other to become stronger.

Though Libby and Jack’s stories are extreme versions of the issues teens face in high school, this is a thoughtful exploration of identity and self-acceptance filled with complex and nuanced characters. Be warned, however, there is extreme amount of foul language.

AJ

Thursday, January 12, 2017

A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls
By Patrick Ness
Walker Books, 2011. 216 pgs. Young Adult

Conor. Someone is calling his name. He was having a nightmare – the nightmare he has every night since the day his mother started treatments – but the calling is not part of the screaming, or the wind, or the darkness. The caller is a monster who looks like the yew tree from the churchyard on the hill near his house. This monster is not frightening but old, strange, and wild. He says there will be four stories. He’s come to tell the first three and help Conor tell the fourth: the truth. It turns out that knowing the truth might be more dangerous than the thought of living with his grandma, being bullied at school, or worse, the nightmare itself.

Since I am a fan of Patrick Ness I first read this book when it came out in 2011. In preparation for seeing the movie, I reread it, and it made just as powerful an impression. As YA author Siobhan Dowd’s last idea for a book and Patrick Ness’s tribute to Dowd, who died of cancer at age 47, it’s uncannily fitting. It seems natural that the stunning illustrations by Jim Kay (artist of the illustrated Harry Potter editions) reflect the beauty of the inside as well.

A contemporary novel at its core, A Monster Calls is about thirteen-year-old Conor O’Malley whose mother is losing her battle with cancer. Each of the stories the monster tells, set historically in Conor’s own backyard, is brilliantly complex, and not at all what Conor wants to hear. Nothing is black or white, which results in an uneasy journey to accepting the truth of his life, one that is raw, deep, and above all honest. In a narrative which includes a dramatic, commonplace disease like cancer, it would be easy for it to venture unawares into melodramatic or sentimental territory. But A Monster Calls steers far clear of it. It's a heartbreaking, real and moving depiction of grief, loss, and guilt. I recommend reading the book first of course, but the film adaptation is excellent as well. Just don't forget to bring tissues!

HSG

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

When in French

When in French: Love in a Second Language
Lauren Collins
Penguin Press, 2016. 256 pgs. Nonfiction.

Lauren Collins and Olivier, her eventual husband, met at a party in London. She was American, he was French, and England provided neutral ground: her language, his continent. Though Olivier spoke English fluently, an occasional language barrier arose between them. “Talking to you in English is like touching you with gloves,” he lamented.

The couple married and moved to Geneva, where Collins took on the formidable task of learning a second language as an adult. When in French is part memoir about her experiences and part study of how primary and secondary languages shape us. In one memorable passage, she explains that based on the differences in the way French speakers and Americans use the words aimer and to love, “I love my parents, my friends, my colleagues, the woman who gives me extra guacamole at Chipotle, hydrangeas, podcasts, clean sheets. Olivier has only ever loved me.” I enjoyed the personal stories, which were sometimes very funny, but I was just as struck by Collins’ beautiful writing.

Even more than that, I was fascinated to learn a little bit about how we interact with the world through the filter of language. Collins describes one culture, for instance, that only uses cardinal directions when describing where something is. They never use left or right or give directions in relation to landmarks. As a result, members of that culture have a constant, nearly flawless awareness of North, South, East, and West. When in French is filled with countless absorbing tidbits like this, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. I would recommend this book for readers who enjoys cross cultural memoirs or anyone who knows the struggles and joys of learning a foreign language.

- SR

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Sunshine

Sunshine 
By Robin McKinley
Jove, 2003. 405 pgs. Sci-Fi

Sunshine only wanted some peace and quiet, some time away from her life as the early morning cinnamon roll baker at Charlie’s, her stepfather’s bakery. The lake out in the country where her grandmother used to live seemed like a good choice. Since the VooDoo Wars devastated New Arcadia, there hadn’t been trouble out there in years. But before it would be possible for human ears to hear, Sunshine is abducted. Her drawn out captivity with one vampire Constantine as well as her unprecedented escape means she returns forever changed, forced to accept her experience and her new self.

Most read Sunshine because they are either Robin McKinley fans or fans of urban fantasy; for some, it’s both. For me, I’ve been an indifferent reader of McKinley for years. Her trademark character-driven fantasy novels full of internal monologue and description have never won me over. And it’s not like there is anything different about Sunshine. She is perhaps more tangential than many of her protagonists. I was joking with a co-worker that you know it’s a McKinley by glancing at just one page of any of her novels. Almost always you will see one or two long paragraphs. My eyes hurt just thinking about it. But that is her style. Go to McKinley’s blog and you will find in her long posts and use of asterisks, parentheses, and post scripts a reflection of her characters.

So what made the reading experience of this McKinley different for me? I finally connected big-time with the characters. Sunshine, in all her stubborn, loquacious glory and Con in his stoic, silent, complete vampire otherness felt real. Similarly, New Arcadia felt like a strange place which exists in another part of the world. Together, Sunshine and Con are something special. While the plot was still slow and meandering for my taste at times and there was some brief sexuality that felt out of place, I loved Sunshine immediately, just as I savored any interaction between her and Con. There were also unforgettable lines and an ending that exceeded my expectations. I agree with Neil Gaiman: Sunshine is “pretty much perfect.”

I read parts of Sunshine via audio book and it is an excellent way to listen to Sunshine’s internal musings.

HSG

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Dollhouse


The Dollhouse
By Fiona Davis
Dutton, 2016.  289 pgs.  Historical Fiction

Rose Lewin, a journalist whose professional and personal lives are on shaky ground, distracts herself by becoming obsessed with the history of the New York City apartment building she has recently moved into.  The famous Barbizon Hotel housed a host of aspiring young women in the 1950s.  Girls trying to establish themselves as secretaries, models, and editors roamed the halls and a few even remain today.

Rose’s downstairs neighbor, Darby McLaughlin,  is one such resident and when Rose hears rumors of her involvement in a decades old tragedy she sees its potential as a  killer news story.  The narrative also follows Darby from her move into the Barbizon Hotel through her growing friendship with a talented and ambitious maid, Esme.  Esme pulls Darby deep into the seedy world of bebop music far from the secretarial pool her mother expects her to join with disastrous consequences.

Multigenerational women’s dramas have become fairly common.  But what sets The Dollhouse apart is a vibrant sense of place and a well crafted mystery concerning Darby’s past.  The struggle Darby faced as she worked to establish herself in a post WWII world is described admirably with surprising parallels to Rose’s present day trials and aspirations.   A lovely combination of historical fiction and women’s literature.

CG

Barkskins


Barksins
By Annie Proulx
Scribner, 2016.  717 pgs. Historical Fiction

Barksins is the very definition of an epic novel.  It picks up the tales of two destitute Frenchmen late in the seventeenth century who travel to New France to clear forest land.  Contracted to three years of labor in exchange for their own land, René Sel and Charles Duquet struggle to survive in this strange land filled with endless forests.

The plot follows the lives of these two wood-cutters and then the stories of their children, grand-children, and on through generations to the present day.  Their lines merge with the indigenous Americans creating complicated relationships with the land, the trees, and the developing modern world.  These people will travel around the world to Europe, China, New Zealand, and across the United States.  Their journeys are often brutal and fierce, much like the wilderness in which they lived.

Annie Proulx has never been my favorite writer, but I absolutely loved this book.  I loved the history and the characters and the lavishly described settings.  As the generations proceed, one after another, powerful images take shape of the limits of our natural resources and how, bit by bit, we have cut down a world we may never be able to restore.  A simply amazing work by an already accomplished and respected author.

CG