Saturday, May 23, 2015

Tigerman

Tigerman
by Nick Harkaway
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014.  337 pgs. Fiction

     Lester Ferris is a British soldier assigned, after terrible tours in Afghanistan, to the former British colony of Mancreu, which has recently been given a death sentence due to a large pool of biologically poisonous magma below its surface, which occasionally erupts in the form of noxious gas clouds. Ferris is told to mind his own business and turn a blind eye to troubles on the island, and to the menacing presence of the Black Fleet, a collection of ships in the harbor where businesses ranging from espionage to off the records tortures are conducted. But Lester is drawn into the island's business when he befriends a young comics-obsessed boy whom he comes to care for enough the he hopes to adopt him - if he is indeed an orphan. When one of Lester's best friends is killed in front of him and the boy, and then the boy is casually beaten and his comic books destroyed by a Ukrainian smuggler, Lester becomes Tigerman, dressed in decorated body armor and a gas mask, to scare and shame the Ukrainian. But soon Tigerman becomes much more, a totem of the islanders, and a shadowy figure who nevertheless stands reluctantly but firmly against the considerable forces of evil in a land about to die. Any description of this book will fall short of truly conveying its tension, good humor, deep sorrow, the depth and richness of its characters and setting. It is a tour-de-force, whatever that means and you should not miss it unless you want to avoid some sexual references and a fair amount of swearing. It is the kind of book one regrets having finished because then it is over; the book you don't want to take back to the library even though you have already read it.

Swan Song 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich

Swan Song 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich
by Walter Kempowski
W. W. Norton, 2015.  479 pgs. History

     Walter Kempowski has here assembled an extraordinary collection of first-hand accounts of the end of World War II in Europe, as told by eyewitnesses in Germany. Prison camp detainees, Russian soldiers, German civilians, Hitler himself, are all represented here in letters, diaries, published accounts, speeches, and war councils. Dispatches and speeches of the famous are interesting - Hitler assuring his confederates that he will still be able to lead them out of this mess, that he is the only man who can do it; Goring demanding that Hitler yield command to him since he is second in line and Hitler is no longer able. But the most fascinating accounts come from previously unknown civilians, such as Olga Gindina who thanks her soldier husband for arranging for someone to come fix her stove, or an American soldier describing the initial awkwardness of the American and Russian meeting which soon gave way to smiles, handshakes, and pats on the back. The fear of the German people and their disgust with their leaders is palpable, as many flee from East to West, hoping to be captured by the Americans rather than the Russians. Swan Song is an instantly indispensable piece of World War II history. For a similar account from the other side of the pond and more civilian oriented, read Studs Terkel's The Good War.


Friday, May 22, 2015

The Children Act

The Children Act
by Ian McEwan
Nan A. Talese/Doubleday, 2014. 221 pages. Fiction.

Presiding as judge over family law in the London High Court, Fiona has passed down judgments in many high-profile, highly controversial cases. She has built an enviable reputation of fairness and intelligence.  Now she faces the interesting case of a young 17-year-old boy about to die because his parents' religious beliefs forbid the treatment that is almost sure to save him.  This case comes at a time of personal upheaval and what seems an important but not landmark case, is destined to be a turning point in Fiona's life.



Though I haven't read his entire back list, I believe this is my favorite of Ian McEwan's books.  It is not a long read and, though certainly deep and thought-provoking, it moves along at a good steady pace.  Fiona is not an immediately engaging character, but as the reader learns more of her past and her thoughts, she becomes more and more relatable.  Her stern judge’s facade hides a very complicated and human woman and I found myself hoping she would find peace and happiness despite the difficulties of life. 

Monday, May 18, 2015

Little Beach Street Bakery

Little Beach Street Bakery
by Jenny Colgan
William Morrow, 2014. 424 pages. Fiction.

Polly Waterford's life has fallen apart. Her boyfriend's business, which she has spent years building up, has gone bankrupt and her relationship with her boyfriend is over. Penniless and looking for a new start, Polly moves from Plymouth against the advice of her friends and takes up residence over an abandoned bakery in Mount Polbearne, a fishing village on the Cornish coast that is completely separated from the mainland when the tide comes in. Polly soon rediscovers her love of baking and slowly begins to create a business where she thought none was possible.

While this book does have its fair share of romance (of course there are two handsome and eligible men chasing after Polly), a good deal of the plot focuses on Polly's reinvention as she changes from someone who lived the high life to living a quiet rural existence and making a business out of a simple act that brings her joy. This is a book that makes you want to step back and reexamine your own life, to find the kind of simple pleasure in a simpler lifestyle that Polly has. It's a book that will make you want to put down your phone, step away from your computer, and enjoy the world around you.

JH

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle For the Great Society
by Julian E. Zelizer
Penguin Press. 2015 370 pp. Non-fiction

In the legislative session immediately following the landslide election of 1964, Congress enacted a slew of legislation in order to advance LBJ's Great Society program, ending years of political stalemate and obstruction. Looking back, this achievement is often ascribed to the towering personalities of the time, President Johnson most of all. In this book, the author takes to task our flawed historical memories of these events and attempts to consider politics in a more realistic light. Instead of focusing on individuals, their particular gifts of persuasion, such as Johnson's infamous Treatment, or nebulous attributes such as leadership, the author contends that the political climate and landscape were much more influential in getting Great Society legislation enacted. It was not so much Johnson's leadership and mastery of the legislative process that got his agenda passed as the overwhelming size of the liberal majority in Congress, the crushing defeat of Goldwater and public pressure applied by civil rights groups and the media. When political fortunes turned and the conservatives regained much of their losses in the 1966 midterms, the liberal agenda faltered accordingly. There is an implicit comparison to the Obama administration and his critics who complain that the persistent political deadlock and partisan vituperation are due to the president's inability or unwillingness to reach across the aisle, demonstrate leadership, etc. Individuals matter and each person's gifts and foibles play their role, but success or failure of any political agenda are determined by circumstances and the relative strength of the political coalition pursuing that agenda.

CHW

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

On the Fence

On the Fence
by Kasie West
HarperTeen, 2014. 295 pages. Young adult fiction.

Growing up with just her dad and three older brothers, Charlie (short for Charlotte) has always been more interested in sports than fashion. But then Charlie gets a job at a clothing store and becomes an accidental makeup model, she soon finds herself living two lives. She can't let her brothers see her wearing makeup and trendy clothes, but she also doesn't want her new friends to know about her extreme sportiness. And when Evan sees her all dolled up and asks her out it seems to prove her conclusions: boys don't want to date sporty girls. As she works these questions out in her evening talks at the fence with her surrogate brother, Braden, will Charlie find a way to link her two lives together?

West has written a fun summer romance (be warned, there are several love triangles to navigate here) that actually has a lot of interesting thoughts about getting to know yourself, showing your true self to others, and finding friendship and romance with people who really appreciate all aspects of who you are. Readers will root for Charlie as she comes to understand that she doesn't have to be all girly or all sporty, but that she can be a mix of the two that best represents her. The characters are well-drawn and, while there are some seriously awkward moments in keeping with the fun summer romance premise, the overall result is a nice light read that will get readers thinking about how they see themselves.

JH

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Of Noble Family

Of Noble Family (Shades of Milk & Honey #5)
by Mary Robinette Kowal
Tor, 2015. 575 pages. Science fiction.

In the final book in the Glamourist Histories series, Jane and Vincent are asked by Vincent's estranged brother to travel to Antigua to settle the family estate upon the passing away of Vincent's father. Although reluctant to have anything to do with his abusive father, even in death, the couple feels obligated to perform this last service for Vincent's family. But when they arrive, things are not as they appeared from European shores - and this time, the intrigues and machinations of the House of Hamilton could prove deadly.

Kowal has meticulously researched the time period for this last book and has provided a lot of interesting details about the West Indian slave trade and practices as part of her narrative. Indeed, the author admits that she had to drastically change her storyline in order to remain consistent with her research. Although some details seemed a little irrelevant to the plot, overall the story pacing was magnificent and provided a great balance of action and character development to keep the reader interested. An action-packed conclusion to a very unique fantasy series.

JH

Monday, May 11, 2015

Saint Anything

Saint Anything
by Sarah Dessen
Viking, 2015. 417 pages. Young adult fiction.

Sydney has always been overlooked in her family, always second to her charismatic older brother, Peyton. But when Peyton is imprisoned for hitting a boy on his bicycle while driving drunk, Sydney suddenly learns just how far out the picture she is as the family focuses on Peyton's prison term. It is in this lonely circumstance that she meets the Chatham family, who welcome her into their tight-knit family and make her feel safe, protected, and seen for who she is.

I think this may have been one of my favorite book by Dessen yet. The theme of loneliness is so subtly written that you can truly empathize with Sydney without ever feeling like she is exaggerating or being selfish or whiny. And yet you can feel a lot of sympathy for Sydney's parents, too, who are in an indescribably difficult situation themselves, even while you wish they would open their eyes to see what is going on around them. The well-rounded characterization makes this more than a teen drama; it is a family drama, as Sydney and her parents try to come to terms with how Peyton's actions have changed everyone's lives. This was really beautifully written. And, unlike some of her other books, this was a pretty clean read, with only a handful of instance of strong cursing.

JH

Friday, May 8, 2015

Better Than Perfect

Better Than Perfect
by Melissa Kantor
HarperTeen, 2015. 324 pages. Young adult fiction.

Juliet has a perfect life: beautiful and ambitious parents; a brother at Yale; an impending early admission letter for Harvard; a boyfriend who is just as driven as she is. Their motto has always been "Don't make a scene." And Juliet has always lived for the security that perfection gave her. But when her father suddenly moves to an apartment in the city and her mother overdoses on prescription medications, Juliet begins to see how imperfect her perfect life is.

This book was a hard choice for me as a staff pick, mostly because for a lot of the book I was really angry with Juliet and a lot of the poor choices she was making. But the point of the book is not her poor choices; in the end, Juliet is searching for joy in her life that transcends the mere illusion of perfection. As a recovering perfectionist myself, this theme was really powerful to me. The point of this book is to emphasize that life is messy and cannot always be tightly controlled. Readers, while they may deplore the choices Juliet is making, will see how she is genuinely searching for a more effective way to live her life and new ways to relate to her no-longer-perfect family. A hard read, but very satisfying in the end.

JH

We Can Work It Out

We Can Work It Out (Lonely Hearts Club #2)
Elizabeth Eulberg
Point, 2015. 312 pages. Young adult fiction.

Get over a scheming boy? Check. Start a fabulous girls club to support girls who are leaving their scheming boyfriends? Double check. Find an amazingly supportive and understanding new boyfriend? Oh, yeah. Penny Lane Bloom has it all - great friends, a new outlook on life, and a boyfriend who doesn't seem to mind that she is the head of a rapidly growing group (The Lonely Hearts Club) that is revolutionizing the way teenage girls approach romantic relationships. But will Penny be able to balance all of her conflicting interests or will she end up alienating all of them?

Fans of the original Lonely Hearts Club will love seeing the interaction between the driven Penny Lane and her practically perfect boyfriend, Ryan. The circumstances and lack of communication often make it rather awkward reading (I often wanted to shake Penny, who seemed absurdly obsessed with trying to make her relationship with Ryan look casual so as not to offend her girlfriends.), but Eulberg does a great job showing how to have a boyfriend without losing your identity and how to have strong outside interests without alienating your boyfriend.

JH

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Bookseller

The Bookseller
by Cynthia Swanson
Harper, 2015. 338 pages. Fiction.

It's Denver, 1962 and Kitty is an independent woman, running a bookstore with her best friend, living on her own, and satisfied with her life, even though romance does not seem to be in her future. However, when she goes to bed, in her dreams it is 1963. She has a wonderfully attentive husband, a beautiful home, adoring children...everything she could ever have wanted. The more she dreams, the more the lines of reality are blurred, leaving both Kitty and the reader wondering what is real.

Swanson writes an interesting story around a theme that is common in Spanish magical realism circles (check out Julio Cortázar's short story La noche boca arriba [The Face Up Night] for the quintessential work using this theme - you can find a lot of English translations on the Internet), but pretty innovative in an English-language setting. What she is able to do is analyze the life of a 1960s housewife and a 1960s single woman at the same time, comparing and contrasting the existence of the same person in different circumstances. And she does an amazing job blurring the lines between the two lives. Both are written with enough detail to leave the reader wondering where dream begins and fantasy ends. Between the innovative styling and the fascinating subject matter, this book will keep you interested and keep you guessing. I consider it a 90% clean read - there are some instances of strong language and one short scene of intimacy.

P.S. - You'll definitely want to compare this to the Cortázar story I mentioned earlier - but read the short story after you read the book. You don't want anything to give away the ending.

JH

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The UnAmericans

Cover image for The UnAmericans : storiesThe UnAmericans
by Molly Antopol
W. W. Norton & Company, 2014. 261 pages. Fiction.

The UnAmericans is a brilliant collection of stories that take you from present day Isreal and America to periods of strife and struggle in Belarus, Russia and beyond. Each setting gives a sharp focused window to people deeply shaped by pivotal historical times and events. Each story is distinct, yet themes of political unrest, persecution, and human connection, and disconnect prevail. There is a visceral emotional quality to each story and it is easy to understand and empathize with the well drawn characters. The pain, fears, triumphs, humor and insights gained through their experiences makes each story feel almost like reading a novel.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and each story drew me in completely. From the brothers struggling for the love of the same woman, to the young woman striving to reinvent her career as a journalist rather than marrying and settling as her parents wish I felt their yearnings, sorrows, and complex emotions. This is a collection I can see myself returning to again and again like old friends. ZB

Barefoot Dogs: Stories

Barefoot Dogs: Stories
by Antonio Ruiz-Camacho
Scribner, 2015. 146 pages. Fiction.

Mexico City at the start of the new millennium was one of the most colorful and exciting cities in the world. It was also one of the most violent. Kidnappings were common and the kidnapping of José Victoriano Arteaga, patriarch of a well-connected family in the city is the center point of the stories penned by Ruiz-Camacho. In each one, the reader sees the fear and uncertainty of different family members as they struggle with their new status - refugees from the violence that claimed father and grandfather - and seek to find peace in a world that greed and hate have shattered.

This book may be short, but it packs a powerful punch. The stories are both deeply moving and deeply disturbing, contrasting love and hate, fear and power in poignant ways. Ruiz-Camacho is especially adept at using the naivete of children in the stories to counteract the fear of the adults who surround them. This is a masterpiece of storytelling and brings an intimate voice to a powerfully distressing aspect of Mexican society.

JH

Emma: A Modern Retelling

Emma: A Modern Retelling
by Alexander McCall Smith
Pantheon Books, 2015. 361 pages. Fiction.

In this modern retake of Jane Austen's classic, Emma Woodhouse, the youngest daughter of the anxiety-ridden Mr. Woodhouse is home for the summer after completing her university degree. At loose ends, Emma decides to make it her business to improve the lives of the people around her. But does her interfering cause more harm than good? This is the third book in the Austen Project, a writing challenge where some of Britain's top authors are creating modern versions of Austen novels.

I think Emma is one of Austen's most difficult books to adapt to a modern setting, especially for an author who simply focuses on the romantic aspect of the book. Austen herself felt that Emma was a character that no one but she could ever love, most likely because what really motivates Emma the majority of the time is a good-natured selfishness. It is hard to figure out why Mr. Knightley would ever fall in love with the self-centered Emma, when romance is made the central theme of the book. The genius of McCall Smith's adaptation, then, is that it is not a romance novel he is writing; he writes a coming-of-age (or, better, a coming to awareness) book that happens to have some romance on the side. As McCall Smith himself says, this a book where Emma gains moral understanding and kindness - gaining George Knightley in the bargain is just a side benefit. By following Austen's original premise and focusing on social issues and personal growth, the author is able to keep the same feel of the original while encapsulating it in modern storylines and characters. The writing is pure McCall Smith and his regular readers will love hearing his voice in a new type of novel.

JH

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure

The Biographical Dictionary of Literary Failure
by C.D. Rose
Melville House, 2014. 175 pages. Fiction.

We hear a lot about published authors - those who have achieved fame and, sometimes, fortune through their production of the written word. However, the traditional biographies have traditionally shied away from including the almost published - those who had potential to write, but never actually achieved their goals. In this book, C.D. Rose seeks to redress this wrong, bringing to light 52 authors who had the genius to achieve greatness but who, through a variety of circumstances, never managed to succeed. From avant-garde literary movements that never got off the ground and magnum opuses written in lost languages, to lost manuscripts and artists still gathering material, words, or a building sufficiently grand in which to house their future works, this tome is a celebration of all the books that could have been, but never were.

Even though the biographies in this book are completely fictional - after all, who remembers writers who never actually produce anything readable - the collection actually makes the reader think about the nature of writing and why good writing is so valued. Beyond that, the writing is just good, clean fun and easy to relate to. This is a fun book for people who have thought about the mechanics of writing and the road to literary fame.

JH

Friday, April 24, 2015

The Start of Me and You

The Start of Me and You
by Emery Lord
Bloomsbury, 2015. 376 pages. Young adult fiction.

Paige Hancock is ready to start her life anew, more than a year after her boyfriend was drowned in a tragic accident. Tired of being just "The Girl Whose Boyfriend Drowned," she decides it is time to take her life into her own hands - joining new groups, going out with her friends again, and dating. She decides that she is going to set her sights on her long-time crush, Ryan Chase. Things get complicated, however, when she finds herself becoming more attracted to Ryan's cousin, Max.

This was a really interesting book. Lord does a great job dealing with the effects of grief on teens and learning to find joy in life again. It is also a fabulous example of how real relationships develop. Even though she's "loved" Ryan from afar for years, it is not until she starts spending quality time with Max that she understands how pale her love for Ryan really was. All in all, this was both a fun and satisfying read. It may have had a few instances of strong profanity, but they were so rare that I don't even actually remember them.

JH

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Cat Out of Hell

Cat Out of Hell
by Lynne Truss
Melville House, 2015. 163 pages. Fiction.

Alec Charlesworth, grieving the sudden death of his wife, finds himself in a lonely seaside cabin with just his dog, Watson, his laptop, and a series of strange files his wife, Mary's, colleague has sent telling the story of Wiggy, his missing sister, and a talking cat named Roger. As Alec's investigation becomes more personal, he learns about a group of interconnected nine-lived felines whose intentions for human-kind may not be well-intentioned.

I will admit that there was nothing about this book that was expected. Satanic cats controlled by Beelzebub? Anti-human conspiracies? An all-powerful Cat Master? This book definitely delivers surprises and I'm still waiting to see how I feel about it. It was a very creepy book (I may never own a cat as a result, for my own safety), but combined with a good dose of very dry humor that kept it from taking itself too seriously (if that is even possible to do - we're talking about talking cats controlled by the devil). There was some strong language and more graphic violence than I would have preferred, but I am notoriously unable to stomach violence, so it may not be that graphic to other people. And, if you have read her outrageously funny grammar book, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves, you will be glad to know that her grammar and punctuation were both impeccable.

JH

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The Royal We

The Royal We
by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan
Grand Central Publishing, 2015. 454 pages. Fiction.

Rebecca Porter has never been one for a fairy-tale ending, but when her study abroad at Oxford ends with her dating the heir to the British throne, everything in her life changes. Bex must learn to adapt to a life in the spotlight and discover if her love for Prince Nicholas is enough to counteract the constant intrusions of the paparazzi.

This was an interesting take on a theme that has exploded since the marriage of Prince William and Lady Catherine in 2010. Rather than focusing on the sheer romance of marrying a prince, this book looks deeply into how hard it would be to adjust to a life in the public eye and to carry on in the face of misinformation and sensationalist journalism. It made me feel quite sorry, actually, for the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge (although I don't actually know that this will stop me from admiring the Duchess's wardrobe when pictures come out online - I know, I'm feeding the beast). It covers a long period of time (8 years), so the reader is really able to explore the feelings of Bex as her life changes completely. I did feel that it seemed to run on about 150 pages longer than necessary, but, other than that, it was an interesting read.

JH

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Bark

Cover image for Bark : storiesBark
by Lorrie Moore
Alfred A. Knopf, 2014. 192 pages. Fiction.

Bark is a much anticipated second collection of short stories by Lorrie Moore, heralded as one of America's premier short fiction writers. In these eight stories Moore plumbs a host of heartbreaking situations and the raw emotions of her characters as they navigate divorce, disappointment, mental illness, loss and even a ghost.  Her writing is poetic and in some places almost stream of consciousness, which results in the reader feeling as though they are right in the room/place with the characters. The heavy themes are broken up with strange absurd hilarity and dark humor that sheds life on the idiosyncrasy of American life today.

As you can imagine from that description, this is not a sit down and enjoy it all in one session. These stories are heavy and sometimes painful to read, but Moore is a master of exploring complex dynamics and keeping the reader engage to mostly empathetic characters. That being said it took me awhile to get through this collection, while I enjoyed the writing, I was not excited each night to grab my book and read the next story. ZB

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

How the Light Gets In

How the Light Gets In (Three Pines #9)
by Louise Penny
Minotaur Books, 2013. 405 pages. Mystery.

Chief Inspector Armand Gamache, head of homicide for the Surete de Quebec, receives a call from his good friend, Myrna, in Three Pines, asking for his help to discover the sudden disappearance of a friend who never showed up for Christmas. But this is not everything going on in Gamache's world. Forces are at work in the Surete, determined to destroy Gamache and his department. His second in command and long-time friend, Inspector Jean-Guy Beauvoir, has turned on him and the rest of his department has been parceled out in various parts of the Surete. Gamache is in a race against time to find what happened to Myrna's friend and the darkness at the bottom of the changes in the Surete, before it is too late.

Wow. I mean, wow. This book blew me out of the water. Penny has taken the gorgeous prose and supremely human and relatable characters that have been the hallmarks of her books from the first and combined them with some intricate plotting to pull off this coup of a mystery. This is a series you will definitely want to read in order, as issues you thought were resolved early in the series suddenly reappear, not as resolved as you thought they were. And there were several twists at the end that had me gasping in surprise. You don't even realize how much of a long game Penny has been playing until you finally see the resolution at the end of this book. Be warned that there is a fair amount of swearing in the series, but the mysteries are never graphic and there is no sexual content. If you like beautiful writing and intricate plotting, this series is definitely for you.

Also, this is an awesome audiobook series with a fabulous reader. Side effects of reading include a sincere conviction that you speak French (or, at least a few words of French - I feel like I'm a pro with Jean-Guy's name now and can use the word Quebecois in a sentence) and an overwhelming desire to go to Montreal and the Quebec countryside, as well as some serious plot obsession. 

JH

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Dreaming Spies

Dreaming Spies (Mary Russell #13)
by Laurie R. King
Bantam Books, 2015. 331 pages. Mystery.

Mary Russell, back in Oxford after a long time away from her studies, is startled to find a young and injured Japanese woman in her rooms. But Haruki-san is not there for a social call; she has come to finish a case that started a year earlier, when Holmes and Russell are enlisted to help Haruki and her father, Sato, recover an item for the Prince Regent Hirohito. Haruki was pivotal in helping them acclimate to Japanese culture and succeed in their venture. Will the second half of their venture prove to be equally successful?

King has shown an amazing amount of forethought in her Sherlock Holmes/Mary Russell series by leaving holes in her narratives that she can later go back and flesh out in full-length stories. Thus, while the series does not move in a linear fashion, she is able to keep her characters at a regular and believable age. In this book, King has gone a step further: the first half of the book is set in the time between the books The Game and Locked Rooms, which received only a brief mention at the time; the second half of the adventure is set after the narrative in Garment of Shadows. (So don't try to read this one out of order!) The writing in this book was spectacular and the adventure really set the stage in pre-WWII Japan, introducing the world to the enigmatic young man would would one day become the Sun Emperor. This is a great addition to the series. I would consider this a mostly-clean read. There were just one or two instances of strong language, but nothing more.

JH

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The First Bad Man

Cover image for The first bad man : a novelThe First Bad Man 
By Miranda July
First Scribner, 2015. 276 pages.

Miranda July is a celebrated author, filmmaker, actress, visual and performing artist--basically there isn't a creative field she doesn't excel in. So I was curious to read her first novel (her previous publications have been collections of short stories and several non-fiction books). The First Bad Man is the story of Cheryl, a high strung, eccentric woman in her mid-40's who lives alone, abiding by her own very particular quirks and habits. Suddenly here world is thrown into chaos when her bosses require that she take in their wayward daughter who they cannot control. 21-year-old Clee refuses to abide by any of Cheryl's rules and quickly takes to mocking, insulting and eventually physically bullying Cheryl in her own home. In an even more bizarre turn of events this unhealthy dynamic leads Cheryl to love and the role of mother that she has been chasing since she was nine years old.

This is a very modern book reminiscent in some ways of Dave Eggers, David Foster Wallace or George Saunders. The circumstances and characters feel like hyperbolic versions of reality, and the circumstance too bizarre to be real, and yet achieving in the end a core message that is very relate-able. The writing is filled with hilarious and heartbreaking prose, and July is a master at creating a vivid and detailed world. There is a fair amount of adult content in this novel, and it definitely not for every reader, but if you enjoy somewhat avant garde, literary fiction, this book is for you. ZB

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil

Sidney Chambers and the Problem of Evil (Grantchester #3)
by James Runcie
Bloomsbury USA, 2014. 287 pages. Mystery.

It's the 1960s and Sidney Chambers has never been happier, with a new wife and new responsibilities in the community. But, even so, he still finds himself thrown in the way of mysterious happenings in the cathedral city of Grantchester. From the mysteriously nude French girl who appears just in time to distract gallery goers from an art theft in broad daylight to an odd drowning on a movie set, between a tragic baby stealing from the local hospital and a madman who seems to have it in for the clergy, Sidney manages to plumb the depths of the human mind to find answers.

I love where Runcie has taken this series and the depth of character that Canon Chambers has gained as his life has grown and evolved through the series. And I think that one thing, above all, that I like is the passage of time. Most mystery series take place over exceptionally short periods, often making one small town look like a hotbed of crime. Runcie, however, has spread these three books over the course of 10 years, which seems more in keeping with realistic crime statistics and doesn't make the reader wonder how Sidney can do so much investigating and still keep his day job. It also allows the author to show a greater range of evolution for his characters, as they grow through mundane experiences. Even though this book deals with a lot of tragic crime, it just made me happy to read it.

JH

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Blind

Blind
by Rachel DeWoskin
Viking, 2014. 394 pages. Young adult fiction.

After being blinded in a horrible firecracker accident, Emma Silver must relearn everything about her life, from how to make her way around to how to read and write using Braille. Going back to her school for the start of tenth grade, after spending the last six months at a school for the blind, Emma learns about how to adapt to her new world and the kind of strength it takes to be different.

I thought this book has a lot of good, thought-provoking information about the nature of disability and how a person can adapt to their environment. I thought the plot was muddied significantly, however, by the introduction of a girl who commits suicide at the school and the teens' efforts to process the information. Although it did give Emma opportunities to wonder why she didn't commit suicide at her lowest moments, it just made the plot more convoluted. I would have preferred to focus more exclusively on Emma's journey without the excursion into teen suicide.

JH

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Coming of Age in Somoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization

Coming of Age in Samoa: A Psychological Study of Primitive Youth for Western Civilization
By Margaret Mead
Morrow, 1961. 304 pages. Nonfiction

After reading Euphoria, the novel based somewhat on the famous Anthropologist Margaret Mead, I was curious to read some of Mead's work. Coming of Age in Samoa was her first published work and summarizes nine months of ethnographic study she conducted while living among the Samoan people when she was 23 years old. Mead's particular interest was studying the experience of adolescents in a more primitive, tribal society. She wondered how much of the difficulty experienced by Western youth is owed to culture, and how much is biological. She felt by studying adolescent behavior in a culture so different from American culture she would be able to more fully understand the roles culture and biology play. The result was a ground breaking, seminal work that made her name in the burgeoning field of Anthropology.

The book reads much like a college text (and in fact is a staple of all Anthropology 101 courses) and is divided into chapters where each examines a different part of the adolescent experience. Being female herself, she focused her study on the girls of the tribe since taboos prevented her from having full access to the experiences of adolescent males. Mead has a meticulous and approachable style, and in many ways created a voice that is still used today in ethnography. Throughout the years Coming of Age in Samoa has endured fierce criticism and has been denounced by some other scholars; but by in large these criticisms are largely unfounded and the predominant view is of the value of Mead's contributions to the field of Anthropology. This is an interesting read for those who enjoy scholoarly nonfiction. ZB

Lady Emma's Campaign

Lady Emma's Campaign
by Jennifer Moore
Covenant Communications, 2014. 212 pages. Romance.

In a sequel to Becoming Lady Lockwood, William and Amelia Drake are horrified to learn that their good friend, Sidney Fletcher, has been killed in action in Spain. Their horror becomes even deeper when members of his crew come to tell them that Captain Fletcher was not killed, as reported, but is being hidden in a Spanish fortress by the French, unbeknownst to the authorities. William immediately sets sail for Spain. Little does he know his younger sister, Emma, has stowed away, desperate to save the man she loves from a terrible fate. Will Emma be able to find Sidney and bring him to safety at last?

This was another entertaining read from Moore, with plenty of action to keep the pace going. While some of the plot was a little unrealistic, the author does paint a very realistic portrait of the horrors of war and the desperate situation the Spanish were in at the hands of the French. With this as a backdrop, she was able to reach emotional depths she was unable to probe in her first novel. This was a fun and satisfying read.

JH

Veronica Mars: Mr. Kiss and Tell

Veronica Mars: Mr. Kiss and Tell (Veronica Mars #2)
by Rob Thomas and Jennifer Graham
Vintage Books, 2015. 330 pages. Mystery.

Veronica Mars is back on the case as she investigates the case of a young woman who is attacked and left for dead at the Neptune Grand Hotel. Meanwhile, her father, Keith Mars, continues his investigation into the rampant corruption that has taken over the Balboa County Sheriff's Office. Will Veronica and Keith be able to find answers in time?

Fans of the Veronica Mars franchise will enjoy Rob Thomas' latest venture into the world of Neptune, CA. The story is gripping and moves at a quick pace, although some of what happens in the course of the investigation can be a little disturbing. You will want to have seen the TV show, the Veronica Mars movie, and read the first book before attempting this one - the new narrative references a lot of plot points from all three sources. I found that the writing wasn't quite as good in this book as it was in the first, but, overall, it was great to see what all the fine citizens of Neptune were up to one more time.

JH

Magnolia

Magnolia
by Kristi Cook
Simon Pulse, 2014. 306 pages. Young adult fiction.

Jemma and Ryder have known each other all their lives. Their great-granddaddies saved each other during the Civil War. Their mothers have been best friends since college (at least). Their houses are seven minutes apart and Sunday dinners are always a joint affair. But Jemma and Ryder have never been able to get along, in spite of their mothers' life-long dream to unite the two houses through their marriage. Will it take a hurricane traveling up the Mississippi coast to bring these two together?

This was an interesting reversal of a Romeo and Juliet theme and the Mississippi scenery was beautiful. Cook's description of the realities of living through a hurricane and the resulting aftermath was really intense and thoughtfully done. However, at times, the characters' rigid determination to never do something their mothers would approve of (like fall in love with each other...even though they are) just became more grating as the book went on. It was a cute read, but very forgettable.

JH

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Can't Look Away

Can't Look Away
by Donna Cooner
Point, 2014. 264 pages. Young adult fiction.

Torrey Grey is a fifteen-year-old Internet sensation, with her fashion and beauty video blog reaching hundreds of thousands of viewers. But Torrey quickly learns that fame is fleeting when her younger sister is hit by a drunk driver after a terrible fight, which is caught on camera and uploaded for the world to see. Suddenly Torrey's fans become her worst critics, leaving streams of vitriolic condemnation for her actions. Torrey hopes that moving to a new state and a new school will mean a new beginning for her entire family. But how will Torrey know who to trust in this new environment?

This book had a lot of really good messages to it. It is very clear about the dangers and pitfalls of having an online persona, teaching teens the importance of filtering the information they allow about themselves online. It also talks about real grief and regret and how to continue living when tragedy strikes. It talks about the most important kinds of friendships and choosing to surround yourself with people who build and uplift. The only real drawback to this book, in fact, was Torrey herself, who made herself so difficult to like through all but the final 10 pages of the book that it was sometimes a chore to read on. I know she was supposed to be grieving and grasping for something solid in her life, etc., but she often just came off as the selfish girl everyone was saying she was and Cooner tied up her sudden transformation at the very end really quickly. My advice to readers who are struggling with Torrey's personality like I was is to keep pressing on. There are some touching moments at the end that make it worthwhile.

JH

Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night

Sidney Chambers and the Perils of the Night (Grantchester #2)
by James Runcie
Bloomsbury USA, 2013. 356 pages. Mystery.

In his second installment of 6 stories following the life and criminal investigations of Canon Sidney Chambers, vicar of Grantchester, Runcie delves more deeply into the political, social, and academic world of Cambridge of the late 1950s. Beyond solving crimes, Sidney also has to investigate his own heart and feelings about two very different women: his good friend, the socialite Amanda Kendall and Hildegard Staunton, an intriguing German widow. Through it all, Canon Chambers' charismatic relationship with his parishioners, his sympathetic manner, and his faith all serve to open doors to him that are not available to the police.

I got on to this series through Masterpiece Theater's Grantchester series that premiered this January. While the BBC made several changes that are not in the books, I assume to add more drama, I have found the books to be very dramatic on their own merits and have a good combination of excitement and introspection. These are very peaceful stories, in spite of the sometimes terrible things that are happening to people. This book was particularly interesting in its description of Cold War Germany, especially in the final story where Sidney travels into Russian-controlled East Germany on a visit to Hildegard. The writing is open and honest, which makes it a joy to read.

JH