Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The Great Fire: One American's Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century's First Genocide

The Great Fire: One American's Mission to Rescue Victims of the 20th Century's First Genocide
by Lou Ureneck
HarperCollins, 2015.  488 pgs. Nonfiction

In recognition of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian genocide, Lou Ureneck has written a fascinating book about an extraordinary man. The Reverend Asa K. Jennings didn't have the look or demeanor of a hero. Just over five feet tall, he had barely survived tuberculosis, and walked with a limp. Sent to Smyrna, one of the great cities of the Ottoman Empire, he was largely shunned or ignored by those who should have helped him in his assignment to administer the YMCA there. Shortly after he arrived, Jennings found himself, literally and figuratively, in the midst of a great conflagration. Turkey had overcome Greece in their nationalist battles, and as Greek soldiers, Armenians, and other Christians fled to the harbor at Smyrna, no one seemed willing or able to help them escape the slaughter that was to come. The senior U.S. naval officer in the region liked the Turks and despised the Greeks, so ignored reports of the calamity at Smyrna, so it fell to a makeshift rescue committee, Reverend Jennings, and Lieutenant Commander Halsey Powell of the U.S. Navy to engineer the removal of thousands of refugees, mostly women and children, from certain death at Smyrna. Jennings established safe houses in the city and took as many people who would fit, and then some, negotiated to purchase as much food as he could, and when these measures were about to fail, he tirelessly negotiated with Greek merchants, British military officers, andTurkish administrators to get the refugees to safety. He had often to rely on bribes, half-truths, and Halsey Powell (who risked his career to help) because of the relentless courage, determination, and charity of a short, gimpy, plain-spoken man wearing a straw boater. Ureneck's descriptions of the massacre of Greeks, Armenians, and Christians at Smyrna are graphic and distressing, but provide a memorable picture of the savage times that would change our world forever.

LW

Nobody Walks

Nobody Walks
by Mick Herron
Soho Crime, 2015.  296 pgs.  Mystery

Nobody Walks is as well written a thriller--or book of any kind--that I have read in a long time, and one of the most painful. Tom Bettany has fled his past in England to work anonymously in a meat-packing plant in France, but when he learns of the accidental death of his estranged son Liam, he comes home to investigate. Liam, who fell from a balcony while smoking marijuana, may well have died by accident, or maybe he was pushed. As Tom calls upon all his old skills from his clandestine service days, he runs afoul of some formidable foes and former colleagues and must call upon all his wit and skill to arrive at the surprising discovery of what happened to Liam. I can't tell any more about this fine novel without giving too much away, but be aware that it arrives at difficult conclusions, not that least of which is that Lord Acton was right:  Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

LW

Still Foolin' 'Em

Still Foolin' 'Em: Where I've Been, Where I'm Going, and Where the Hell Are My Keys
By Billy Crystal
Henry Holt and Co., 2013. 288 pgs. Nonfiction

 In this book Billy Crystal tells about his life starting in childhood, his rise to fame, important people in his life, and recent events of the last decade that will have a lasting impact on him. These are all interspersed with humorous bits about aging and being a baby boomer in this modern age. I listened to the audiobook which I enjoyed immensely, Billy's inflection and presentation add to the story immeasurably.

 I was really impressed by Crystal's storytelling ability. Of course this book made me laugh, but it also made me tear up. It had a compelling narrative flow, with meaningful themes that reappeared throughout the text and came full circle in the end. It also helps that he seems to have had one of the most charmed lives I've ever heard of. If you can, I'd highly recommend watching a recording of Crystal's broadway show, 700 Sundays, in addition to this, as it fills in a few gaps in this story and is equally heartwarming (and sometimes heartbreaking) as this book was. Be aware that Crystal frequently uses adult language and suggestive jokes.

 BHG

Friday, June 26, 2015

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a Mockingbird
by Harper Lee
Warner Books, 1988. 296 pp. Fiction

This is one of those classic novels I somehow missed all through my school years. As did millions before me, I enjoyed this book quite a lot. Scout is one of the best literary protagonists ever conceived. Her precocious drive to comprehend her small town existence while struggling with the often baffling and frustrating demands of adults was wonderfully portrayed by the author. The dynamics of her relationships with her brother Jem and her father were particularly interesting. While there is a good bit of sibling tension, Jem never really questions Scout's tomboy nature. Their relationship with their father was fascinating as well, deferential and yet oddly familiar, referring him as Atticus rather than Dad, Father, etc. Her portrayal of small town life is wonderfully complex, acknowledging both the close sense of community while still recognizing the tendency toward insularity and narrow minded provincialism. While this is often required reading for high school or college students, this is definitely a book that should be revisited by adult readers as well.

CHW

Information Doesn't Want to be Free

Information Doesn't Want to be Free
by Cory Doctorow
McSweeney's, 2014. 162 pp. Non-fiction

In this book, Cory Doctorow builds on his already considerable reputation as a leading writer on technology issues in general and intellectual property matters in particular. He concisely lays out his critique of current copyright laws and related tools (such as DRM), their flaws and tendencies to result in the exploitation both producers and consumers of creative works. He presents his arguments in three laws followed by short thought pieces explaining each. For such a short work, Doctorow does a marvelous job of distilling complex issues and elucidating them clearly without a fog of technical verbiage. In laying out his arguments for a new copyright framework that is both fair and appropriate to the realities of the internet, he writes will real passion for the topic while avoiding diatribes and vitriol. This is a very thought provoking book, challenging the reader to grapple with an issue that is becoming, given the ubiquity of social media and digital content, increasingly relevant.

CHW

The Killer Angels

The Killer Angels
by Michael Shaara
Ballantine Books, 1974. 374 pages. Fiction.

I recently re-read this book and was reminded why I often recommend it for anyone interested in the Civil War or Historical fiction. This is the story of the Battle of Gettysburg told from the perspective of the generals and other leaders from both the Confederate and Union Armies. Though this is a work of fiction, the forward explains that Shaara, to be as accurate as possible, researched the personal letters and writings of the key men involved.

The first half of the book is slower in pace as the armies slowly converge on the small town of Gettysburg and position themselves. The book culminates with the intense and bloody Pickett's Charge up Little Round Top.

The book is far more than an account of this seminal battle. What interests me most is the look into the minds of these famous military leaders, how they interacted with each other, how war affected them, and the cost their mistakes had on themselves and their men.

AJ

Monday, June 22, 2015

Re Jane

Re Jane
By Patricia Park
Viking, 2015. 342 pgs. Fiction.

Jane Re is a half-Korean, half-American orphan who grew up in Flushing, New York among the second largest population of ethnic Koreans outside of Korea. Despite high expectations, the economic downturn forced her to find work in the family grocery store under her strict uncle. Jane doesn’t quite fit in and becomes desperate to get away from Flushing, so she takes a job as an au pair for two Brooklyn academics and their daughter.

A trip to Seoul for her grandfather’s funeral turns into an extended stay as Jane reconnects with family and discovers a modern Korea, completely different from the one her uncle left decades earlier. As her outlook on life changes and she tries to find a balance between the two cultures, Jane starts to wonder if the man she loves is really the right person for her.

As someone who is interested in all things Korean, I was really looking forward to this Korean-American retelling of Jane Eyre. Jane, and the struggles she had, felt real to me which probably has a lot to do with the author’s background and personal experiences. I enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in Korean culture, or retellings of classic novels. It was satisfying on both fronts.

ACS

Summer Campaign

Summer Campaign
By Carla Kelly
Sweetwater Books, 2015. 259 pgs. Romance

Onyx Hamilton should feel lucky to be marrying the respectable vicar Andrew Littletree but she accepted more out of duty than anything else. Her life has been full of heartache and she has resigned herself to a lonely future. Soon the handsome and charming Major Jack Beresford rescues her from a dangerous situation and she must, in turn, nurse him back to health.

The chemistry between the two is unmistakeable and their banter back and forth makes this a fun Regency romance to read even though it deals with some very heavy issues. This is a reprint of one of Carla Kelly's earlier books.

AL

A Desperate Fortune

A Desperate Fortune
By Suzanna Kearsley
Sourcebooks Landmark, 2015. 495. Fiction

Sara Thomas doesn't feel qualified to go to Paris to crack the cipher of a three hundred year old cryptic journal. She is a computer programmer with the ability to solve number games, cyphers and codes in part because of having Asperger's. She is told that the journal belonged to Mary Dundus, a Jacobite exile and that the journal should contain accounts of her everday life. Once Sara breaks the cypher she soon discovers that Mary took part in an unexpected adventure.

Suzanna Kearsley is a master at writing novels with duel timelines. The past is brought to life through the journal entries and I enjoyed learning more about the Jacobite rebellion. I also liked that the present day heroin struggled with Asperger's. It brought a different perspective to the story. This novel does not have a very fast moving plot but the characters are great and make it well worth reading.

AL

Friday, June 19, 2015

Joyride

Joyride
by Anna Banks
Feiwel and Friends, 2015. 278 pgs. Young Adult

Ever since her parents were deported to Mexico, Carly Vega's kept her head down and her nose clean. Between her dreams of attending college, a late-night convenience store job, and a family in need of every dollar she can earn, Carly doesn't have a lot of anything left over, especially money and time.

But when she stops a robbery outside the convenience store, her path collides with that of Arden Moss: The handsome, wealthy, popular Anglo son of the local sheriff (also known as the man who won his office campaigning on an anti-immigration platform). When Arden confesses the robbery was an ill-conceived attempt to prevent his uncle's drunk driving, Carly can't help the empathy she feels for Arden and for his uncle. And once Arden discovers Carly's tough, ballsy streak, he decides that she can fill the hole his beloved sister left behind when she committed suicide. But Carly's suspicious of the boy with a racist father and more money in his back pocket than she makes in a week, and less than thrilled about trying to squeeze him into her packed schedule.

Eventually, Arden convinces Carly to join him on the pranking spree of a lifetime, which turns into a humorous yet heart-wrenching journey to the things that matter most.

Joyride tackles a lot of big issues: Immigration, racism, socioeconomic disparity, rogue police officers, and family disputes abound in the novel, but Banks handles them with grace, care, and humor. Banks deftly handles Carly's first-person narrative and Arden's third, and both characters bound off the pages and demand the reader's empathy for different reasons. I don't often read contemporary YA novels, and I certainly don't read a lot of romances; but I enjoyed this book immensely, particularly Banks' sensitive portrait of a young Latina girl struggling between her family's needs and her own. Recommended.

CA

Sweet

Sweet
By Emmy Laybourne
Feiwel & Friends, 2015. 272 pgs. Young Adult

By a stroke of luck (or by way of having a wealthy best friend), seventeen-year-old Laurel lands a spot on the "Cruise to Lose," a seven-day trip that promises passengers they'll lose ten to fifteen percent of their body weight thanks to a revolutionary new sweetener called Solu. But despite a ship packed with glittering celebutantes and the fabulously wealthy, Laurel doesn't feel inclined to worry about her size 14 waistline. She knows that someday, someone will love her just the way she is . . .

 . . . She just didn't expect that someone to be Tom Forelli, former child star, Laurel's crush, and who happens to be the host of Solu's "Cruise to Lose." Both Laurel and Tom avoid Solu for their own reasons, and are the only ones on the ship to do so, besides several members of the ship's staff.

So when Solu turns out to be addictive enough to kill for, Laurel and Tom find themselves trapped on a ship spiraling into madness. Survival alone won't be enough -- if the teens can't find a way to warn the world of the dangers of Solu, they might find home as hellish as the ship they fought so hard to survive.

Reluctant readers, take heed. Told from two perspectives, Sweet is a whirlwind of a read, offering up enough romance, action, and zombie-like gore to please almost any reader. Laybourne wins bonus points for the inclusion of a heroine who knows her body doesn't fit the beauty standard, but loves herself anyway with no restraint. A great beach read for anyone who likes a side of satire with their sun.

CA

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War

The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War
By Richard Rubin
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 356pgs. Nonfiction

In the early 2000s, there was a lot of talk about the rapid expiration of living WWII veterans, and the need to preserve their names and stories. Richard Rubin, however, realized that there were a very few living veterans from the first world war, all aged between 101 and 113, and he set out to find and interview as many WWI vets as he could. Mr. Rubin weaves their individual stories into an amazing narrative that offers profound insight into the individual experience (and cost) of an entire world at the first industrial war.

This book is very moving. Not many people know the causes, conflicts, and outcomes of the first world war, although it continues to shape the world we live in to this day. It’s impossible to overstate the impact that WWI had on every aspect of life, both for individuals and for entire continents. I would recommend this book to everyone.

LC

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

First Frost

First Frost
By Sarah Addison Allen
St. Martin’s Press, 2015. Fiction. 304 pgs.

This sequel catches up with sisters Claire and Sydney Waverly more than a decade after the events of Addison’s debut novel, Garden Spells. Having put her catering business and personal needs on hold to launch an overwhelmingly successful candy business, Claire begins to question her Waverly identity and abilities. Sydney, meanwhile, is happy as a wife, mother, and hairstylist, but her desperation to have a second baby is starting to interfere with every aspect of her life. She is unaware that her daughter Bay, now a teenager, has not only discovered her special Waverly gift, but has also had her first taste of loneliness and love. When a dangerous stranger comes to town, he threatens the happiness of all of the Waverly women.

Like Allen’s other works, First Frost makes for a pleasant, mellow read. I found Sydney’s story a little less developed than either Claire’s or Bay’s, so readers who enjoyed that character in Garden Spells might be a little disappointed. I also wasn’t totally sold on the mysterious stranger storyline. Nevertheless, Allen’s sleepy, romantic, and magical portrayal of small town life remains as charming as ever. Overall, her books strike me as being overly similar to each other, but I’m a sucker for them anyway.

SR

Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style

Work Simply:Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style
by Carson Tate
Penguin, 2015. 286 pgs. Nonfiction

Time management is a myth—this is one of the first declarations made by the author, Carson Tate. She should know—she’s an expert on productivity in the workplace. She lays out four different styles of personal productivity: Prioritizer, Visualizer, Planner, and Arranger. There is an assessment included by which you can determine your predominant productivity style. The bulk of the book reviews many tasks in the modern business world and how they might be accomplished most effectively: handling email, working with others, delegating tasks, running  effective meetings, etc. Tate includes myriad tips and frequent references to software & apps that assist with specific tasks for each style.

The approach by productivity style is interesting and the tips and recommendations throughout this book would be useful to anyone feeling swamped with work or inundated with email. By discovering our own style and matching our approaches to that style, Tate demonstrates how each of us can increase our productivity.

SML

K-Pop: Korea’s Musical Explosion

K-Pop: Korea’s Musical Explosion
By Stuart A. Kallen
Twenty-First Century Books, 2014. 64 pgs. Nonfiction.

Korean pop music, or k-pop, didn’t start really taking off in the U.S. until Psy’s hit song Gangnam Style, but k-pop has been around for decades. This book tracks it from its start in the 1950s when US soldiers brought American pop music into Korea, all the way to its modern incarnation.

I’ve been swept up by Hallyu (the Korean wave), so I was really looking forward to checking this book out. It didn’t disappoint. It’s definitely a beginner’s guide and touches on some of the biggest k-pop groups from the past (which was new to me), as well as current big names like Super Junior, Girls Generation, Big Bang, 2NE1, Rain, BoA, and of course Psy. One of the features I particularly liked was that as it discussed the different idols, it also gave a short suggested playlist to help the reader become familiar with the artist’s music.

For anyone just starting to get into k-pop, I would highly recommend this book. For those already quite familiar with the genre, you probably won’t find too much new information.

ACS

H is for Hawk

H is for Hawk
by Helen Macdonald
Grove Press, 2015. 300 pgs. Nonfiction.

Helen Macdonald is a well known author and naturalist from the U.K.  "H is for Hawk" recounts her response to the sudden death of her father.  Devastated, she decided to escape the world for a while and try her hand at training a goshawk.  Already an experienced falconer, Macdonald acquired Mabel and began the challenge of taming and training her to hunt.  She found advice and guidance by revisiting "The Goshawk" written by T.H. White.  White's experiences and struggles in both life and in the taming of his own goshawk, strangely mirror Macdonald's own restlessness and isolation.  She first loses herself completely to the project but then begins to emerge as she heals during this strange period of loss and grief.

I am pretty sure I've never read anything quite like this.  It's a unique blend of nature writing, historical literary review, and bereavement memoir.  Macdonald is very self-aware when it comes to her admitted obsession and slight madness during her time training Mabel and recounts her journey with a nice dose of humor and honesty.  I also enjoyed learning more about T.H. White's life and the writing of "The Once and Future King".  Really an enjoyable and distinctive literary experience.

CZ

The Precious One

The Precious One
By Marisa De los Santos
William Morrow, 2015. 359 pgs. Fiction.

Wilson Cleary, a highly respected professor and businessman, has two daughters.  One, Eustacia, he abandoned along with a wife and son seventeen years ago to start a new family.  Taisy, now a successful ghost writer in her mid-thirties, has spent the past couple of decades recovering from the circumstances that led to the split and feels she's moved on.  But then Wilson calls asking her to visit, she feels unable to turn him down.  


Wilson's other daughter, Willow, has been raised with all the love, care, and attention that Taisy never enjoyed. Wilson home schools her keeping her safe from practically all the polluting influences of a world never quite worthy of her.  When Taisy responds to her father by joining his new family for a couple months visit, these two daughters will together learn what it means to be family and how to truly forgive and love.

I really enjoyed this heartfelt novel.  The narration switches back and forth between Taisy and Willow and they both prove to be entertaining storytellers.  While some aspects of the story were predictable, it was still enjoyable with just the right dose of romance along side an intriguing family drama.

CZ

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Anticancer Diet

The Anticancer Diet: Reduce Cancer Risk Through the Foods You Eat 
By Dr. David Khayat
W.W. Norton and Company, 2015. 288 pgs. Nonfiction.

Chapter by chapter, oncologist David Khayat analyzes various foods’ tendencies to either increase or decrease cancer risk. In addition to devoting chapters to broader food groups such as dairy, meat, produce, and fish, he provides a helpful appendix listing dozens of individual foods and their effect on cancer probability. He does gloss over grains and prepared foods, however, to focus solely on whole, unprocessed items.

I was impressed by Khayat’s oncology credentials in both research and patient care, and because of this I felt that his book was a more trustworthy source than other similar books might be. Apart from the omissions mentioned above, he carefully cites major clinical studies for every claim he makes. As a result, his writing could occasionally be a little jargony, but in these cases he warns the reader to skip ahead a few pages if desired to avoid especially detailed medical information. Overall, The Anticancer Diet was readable, informative, and a useful reference. Much of it was common sense, and I especially appreciated Khayat’s moderate approach toward food, which avoids the extremism one might expect from a book with “diet” in the title.

 SR

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation

Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation
By Michael Pollan
Penguin Books, 2013. 480 pgs. Nonfiction

What makes humans different from every other animal? In this fascinating book, the answer is: we cook our food. In four parts that explore each of the ancient elements of fire, water, air, and earth, Pollan discusses the techniques of how and the reasons why we transform raw ingredients into delicious food.

The most interesting aspects of this book for me were the discussions on why we as a culture have stopped cooking our own food, and the impact that has had on our health, our families, and our future. I didn’t realize how little cooking any of us do anymore; many of us open a package or a jar and heat something up. Cooked is an eye-opening exploration of the importance of food, cooking, and our rapidly disappearing culinary heritage.

LC

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Ms. Marvel. 1, No Normal

Ms. Marvel. 1, No Normal
By Willow G. Wilson
Marvel Worldwide, Inc., 2014. 120 pgs. Graphic Novel

Kamala is a teen living in Jersey City who dreams of being an Avenger and escaping the sometimes stifling atmosphere of her close Pakistani family. But when she finally gets her wish, she struggles with her identity - trying to discover if this is what she really wants after all, and if she will give up too much of herself to go after her dreams.

This is a great teen graphic novel and I can easily recommend it to fans of superhero comics and The Avengers. The main character is a Pakistani and a Muslim, and her culture and identity are strong themes in the novel. She desires to both surpass and still be a part of her culture and her family, and she struggles with how to do this in an authentic way. Kamala's parents also play a strong role both as supporters and sometimes antagonists (sound familiar, teens and parents?). I also appreciated how Kamala is portrayed as a realistic teen - she makes mistakes but ultimately wants to do good and tries her best.

BHG

Friday, May 29, 2015

The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House

Cover image for The residence : inside the private world of the White HouseThe Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House
By Kate Anderson

This is a fascinating look into the residential life of America's most powerful families who inhabit the White House as told through extensive interviews with the household staff - the maids, butlers, chefs, electricians, plumbers, and more. This is a world on which very little light has been shed over the years due to the intense code of secrecy the staff abide by, protecting the intimate details of some of the most public figures. Anderson worked hard to gain trust and access to their stories, and even in 'dishing' the staff she interviewed told very little in the way of salacious gossip or anything harmful to the families they served over the years. Still it is a rare glimpse that shows the strength, vulnerability, humor, and character of these very public presidents and their wives.

For me, just the intense structure in place to safeguard ensure total privacy and protection of the first family was so interesting. When a new president is sworn in, the household staff serve as the movers and move the leaving family out and the new family in - all during the inauguration so when the new first family comes to rest and prepare for the balls they are already moved into their new home. It was also hilarious and astounding to read about the idiosyncrasies of these iconic people - like Lyndon Johnson's obsession with having a shower that sprayed him with scalding water from all direction at the pressure of a fire hose; or Nancy Reagan's tight leash she kept on her husband. This is a fascinating read that is well researched and written in a very readable style.
ZB

Funny Girl

Funny Girl: A Novel
by Nick Hornby
Riverhead Books, 2015. 452 pgs. Fiction

Nick Hornby’s new novel is set in London during the 1960s. Sophie Straw is a beautiful young woman determined to escape her small town life and become a star. With "pinup" good looks, her desire to be a comedian takes most people by surprise. It takes a few strokes of brilliant luck to allow her the opportunity to star in her own series and introduce all of England to their newest sweetheart.

“Funny Girl” introduces readers to a host of very relatable and likable characters in an era of rapid change, especially in the entertainment industry. Sophie and her associates are smart and witty and they are forced to deal with real issues as they ride the wave of fame and success.  The question is, what comes next? No one stays on top forever and no one can stop the clock or avoid the changes that inevitably face us all.

CZ

Ghost Boy

Ghost Boy: The Miraculous Escape of a Misdiagnosed Boy Trapped Inside His Own Body
by Martin Pistorius
Nelson Books, 2013. 276 pgs. Biography

At the age of 12, Martin Pistorius slowly began to withdraw from life. His parents and doctor were mystified as to the cause and within 18 months he was completely unable to interact with the world around him. However, several years later, Martin’s mind started to wake up and he spent nine years fully conscious but unable to communicate with his family or caregivers.

Then one day, a new caregiver became convinced that Martin was aware and convinced his parents to have him tested. After tests confirmed he could understand what was being said Martin was given the technology and developed the skills he needed to communicate, and began to re-enter the world.
This is an inspiring story of dedication and love. Martin and his family survived heart-wrenching tragedy and seemingly insurmountable obstacles. But his emergence as a vibrant, happy and hopeful man, excited to face the world, and anxious to help others can’t help but lift the spirit.

CZ

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.

LW

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.

LW

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