Thursday, December 31, 2015

More Happy Than Not

More Happy Than Not
By Adam Silvera
Soho Teen, 2015. 295 pages. Young Adult

In sixteen-year-old Aaron Soto's near-future world, people can have painful memories erased by an outpatient procedure from the Leteo Institute, and Aaron has plenty of memories he'd like to run away from: Finding his father dead in a bathtub, the ache and struggle of poverty; the violence on the streets of the Bronx, where he's lived all his life; and most distressing of all, the memory of his own failed suicide attempt, which left him with a smile-shaped scar on one wrist.

But when Aaron meets a vibrant young man named Thomas, everything changes. Thomas understands Aaron on a level he never thought possible, and shares so many of Aaron's own passions: Fantasy fiction and television, comic books, and more. Their developing relationship forces Aaron to re-examine his assumptions about his own sexuality and the meaning of happiness; but when Thomas rejects him, Aaron must decide whether or not the Leteo procedure might be an option for him.

This book, while beautifully written, will rip your heart out. Silvera pulls zero punches with the subject matter, which can be gritty (especially when Aaron's friends try to "beat him straight"), and the most empathetic readers will probably find themselves needing tissues or cringing through the worst of what Aaron endures. However, this much-needed meditation takes a hard look at what it means to be yourself despite cultural pressures to fit in, while tackling big questions about life, relationships, and happiness. Absolutely fantastic.

CA

Alias

Alias
By Brian Michael Bendis
Illustrated by Michael Gaydos
Marvel Worldwide, 2014. 720 pages. Graphic Novel/Comics

Unable to become anything more than a second-rate superhero, Jessica Jones now makes a living working as a tough-as-nails private investigator. The girl's got a mean inferiority complex, a slight (okay, major) addiction to alcohol, and enough wit and grit to survive daily life in one of the toughest neighborhoods in New York City.

But when someone sets Jessica up to discover a secret about a fellow superhero--one that could bring both him and the country to their knees--Jessica's got to call in a few favors with old friends . . . maybe only sometimes using those old superpowers of hers to save the day.

I picked up Alias because I'd started watching Netflix's series Jessica Jones, but felt something vital missing from the television show. Namely, the overwhelming presence of the Marvel universe. While both projects are gritty and engrossing, their plots are vastly different in nature; while I personally prefer the grittier, less Marvel-saturated story of Jessica Jones, Alias definitely captured and held my attention. The artwork hasn't aged as well as the story and dialogue have; but overall, Alias is an exception comic book series that I'd recommend to anyone who enjoys the form.

CA


Humans of New York: Stories

Humans of New York: Stories
By Brandon Stanton
St. Martin's Press, 2015. 432 pgs. Nonfiction

Several years ago Brandon Stanton began a project to photograph 10,000 people in New York City and post them to a blog called Humans of New York.  He would sometimes include a quote from the person.  As the project progressed he realized it was the stories of these people that really resonated with his audience, and so he began to go more in-depth with the people he photographed, interviewing them sometimes for hours.  His readership has increased to over 12 million followers today.  His earlier book - Humans of New York - reflected his early blog, which is why he was eager to publish again, this time emphasizing the direction the project has taken: telling people's stories.

Devoted followers of Humans of New York will recognize many photos from Stanton's feed in this book.  But he has also set aside many new, unseen photos and stories just for this book.  I am a huge fan of Staton's blog, and was very eager to get a copy of this book.  I wasn't disappointed.  The stories are sometimes haunting - staying with me for hours after putting the book down. They are also sometimes humorous and inspiring.  Stanton seems to have a gift for finding something in everyone's story that people can relate to or at least recognize emotionally, and he often brings attention to serious issues that people can struggle with.

Recently, Staton's blog has taken a decidedly humanitarian turn, as he highlighted a troubled school in Brownsville, NY, then traveled to Europe to document the plight of Syrian refugees.  Most recently, he interviewed several families who fled from Syria and are now applying for citizenship within the US, bringing attention to both their struggle in leaving their native homeland, as well as the stigmas and bigotry they currently face and struggle to overcome.  If you are interested in this book, I highly recommend looking at Stanton's blog to get an idea of his work and the kinds of stories he tells.

BHG

Nimona

Nimona
By Noelle Stevenson
Harper Collins, 2015. 272 pages. Young Adult Graphic Novel

This graphic novel covers a lot of ground: fantasy, science, humor, love, loss, and redemption.  Lord Blackheart is a villain who is approached one day by Nimona - a young shapeshifter looking to offer her services to him.  Initially reluctant to take her on as his side kick, Blackheart changes his mind when he realizes how useful she can be.  But despite the professional nature of their relationship, and Nimona's reluctance to let Blackheart know the details of her life, they grow to have a meaningful friendship.  Blackheart's nemesis is Sir Goldenloin, and although Nimona offers to finish him off once and for all, Blackheart's history with Goldenloin prevents him from letting her.

With more depth than I initially realized, this book won me over as the story developed complexity and the characters became more endearing.  I also really enjoyed the illustrations - they were both fun to look at and quite expressive of the story.

BHG

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Cress (Lunar Chronicles #3)

Cress
By Marissa Meyer
Feiwel and Friends, 2014. 560 pgs. Young Adult

Cress has spent most of her life trapped alone in a satellite, orbiting the moon. Apart from occasional visits from the cruel thaumaturge Sybil, Cinder’s only contact with the human world has been through net dramas and the vast Lunar spy network she monitors across the Earth. When their ship nears Cress’s satellite, Cinder, Thorne, Scarlet, and Wolf attempt a daring rescue, but it goes awry. With one ally left behind and the others separated and hurtling toward the African desert, Cinder’s group of friends faces terrible danger.

I enjoyed this thoroughly original take on the Rapunzel story. Meyer’s fairytale retellings are some of the most creative I’ve come across, and I love the diversity in her characters. Both her main and secondary characters come from a variety of ethnicities and nationalities. I also love that Meyer’s female leads are fully fleshed out and often defy gender norms. Though Cress initially seems all too eager to take on the damsel in distress role, she grew on me as she proves her skills as a computer hacker and a surprisingly brave member of Cinder’s rebellion.

For me, the first part of Cress seemed slower than Meyer’s first two novels, which I think is a natural result of telling the story from the perspectives of an ever-expanding cast of main characters. At times when the perspective switched, I had to actively resist the temptation to skip ahead to follow the more exciting plot lines. The final conflict of the novel had me racing through the pages, though, and I was happy with the conclusion. Now I’m left impatiently waiting on hold for Winter, the final installment of the Lunar Chronicles!

SR

The Night We Said Yes

The Night We Said Yes
by Lauren Gilbaldi
HarperTeen, 2015. 293 pgs. Young Adult

When Ella agreed to go out with her best friend, Meg, on the first night of summer before their senior year, she was only hoping to forget about her no-good ex-boyfriend, Nick. Ella wasn’t expecting a crazy and incredible night where she and her friends spent the night saying yes to any reasonable suggestion for fun, and she certainly wasn’t expecting to fall in love with shy, slightly nerdy Matt who just moved to town.

However, after a blissful six months with Matt, he abruptly left town and then cut all communication with El breaking her heart in the process. So when he shows up one night a year after they first met with a plan to relive the night that brought them together, El has to decide if Matt is worth risking her heart again.

Told in alternating chapters between then and now, this is a story of the power of love, friendship, and ultimately following your own heart. This was an enjoyable, quick read. I appreciated Ella’s insight and perception into her own feelings and her friends’ emotions. It’s not the best writing and development of other characters beyond Ella but a good first attempt from debut author, Gibaldi.

AJ

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Dark Places

Dark Places 
By Gillian Flynn
Broadway Books, 2009. 349pgs. Mystery

On January 2, 1985 Ben Day massacred his family in their home in Kinnakee, Kansas. Youngest child Libby Day survived but was not unscathed. While Ben spends his life in prison, Libby is haunted by her family’s deaths and her role in convicting her brother. Some twenty years later, Libby is broke and desperate enough to respond to Lyle Wirth, the leader of the Kansas City Kill Club – a group fascinated by true crime stories like those of the Day family Massacre. With Lyle’s help, Libby begins questioning what really happened that cold January night.

This is the second novel I’ve read by Gillian Flynn – the author best known for Gone Girl. I found this story every bit as gripping and unpredictable. Similar to Gone Girl, Flynn jumps back and forth between narrators and time periods which keeps readers on their toes. Flynn has such a unique writing style, she can craft descriptions that are every bit as thoughtful as they are appalling. Readers will encounter twists and turns that make them flinch, but inevitably grip the book even tighter. This is a great read, but readers should be ready for some gritty content.

CNC
by Samuel W. Taylor
Signature Books, 1999. 406 pgs. Nonfiction

Originally published in 1976 by Macmillan as The Kingdom or Nothing: The Life of John Taylor, Militant Mormon is a bright, engaging biography of the 3rd President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Born in England in 1808, John Taylor joined the LDS Church in Toronto, migrated to Far West, Missouri, then to Nauvoo, Illinois. When the Mormons migrated west to Utah, Taylor headed to England on his second of four missions completed during his lifetime. He returned in 1847 and led a wagon train to Salt Lake. Besides two missions to England, Taylor also went to France & Germany and later to New York City. He supervised the translation of the Book of Mormon into French & German, he published a newspaper in New York City, and he attempted to begin the sugar beet industry in Utah. In this account, Taylor had at least seven wives and he became a staunch defender of the Mormon practice of polygamy. During the last few years of his life it was necessary for him to go underground to avoid capture by Federal officials. In this volume the entire story is related in satisfying detail.

That which stands out the most in this biography is Taylor’s capabilities and unflinching dedication despite any and all opposition and circumstances. Taylor has lightly documented the details in this biography with but few footnotes throughout. Included at the back are an adequate bibliography and index.

SML

Memory Man

Memory Man
By David Baldacci
Grand Central Publishing, 2015. 405 pgs. Mystery.

In his early years, Amos Decker was preparing for a career in the NFL, but in his first game a forceful tackle was so traumatic that not only did he die twice on the field, but he came away with a changed mind. Now, hyperthymesia causes him to remember everything perfectly. He became an excellent cop, and later detective, but when his family is brutally murdered and he can’t solve the case, his life takes a downward spiral. Sixteen months later a man comes forward and confesses to the murders, but things don’t add up. However, this could be the break Amos needs to start putting things together.

I find hyperthymesia a fascinating characteristic to give a detective, because when you can remember everything, how can you miss things? How could Amos really forget about a serial killer he dissed at some point? I really enjoyed this book, though it took me a little while to get into it. There was a fair amount of buildup that felt very typical and didn’t capture me, but once the ball got rolling I didn’t want to put the book down. I would recommend this for mystery and thriller readers, especially if you find near perfect memories fascinating.

ACS

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Her Name is Rose

Her Name Is Rose
By Christine Breen
St. Martin's Press, 2015. 290 pgs. Fiction

Iris Bowen lives in Western Ireland and is an avid gardener. She still mourns the loss of her husband, who died two years earlier, but she finds joy in her adopted daughter Rose. Rose is a gifted violinist and has moved to London to attend the prestigious Royal Academy of Music. When Iris receives an unpleasant call from her doctor she realizes she will have to keep the promise she made her dying husband and try to locate Rose's birth mother in the United States. This starts her on an unexpected journey with unintended consequences.

I really enjoyed this book. It is told from several different points of view which added to the overall story. The characters are intriguing, each in their own quiet way. At first, Iris bothered me because her thoughts were disjointed and incomplete but then I realized this is how she handled her own grief and fear. I liked watching Rose navigate the uncertainties of growing into adulthood and making choices that could effect the rest of her life. This was a story of love, in many different forms, but somehow all connecting us to each other.

AL

We Never Asked for Wings

We Never Asked for Wings
By Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Ballentine Books, 2015. 299 pgs. Fiction

Sometimes in life we are put in situations that force us to stretch and grow and become more than we thought possible. This is the case for Letty Espinosa. She had a promising future but became a teenage mother and soon finds herself working multiple jobs to support her family here and those back in Mexico. Her efficient mother takes care of everything so that Letty never has to really learn to be a mother or a homemaker. One day her parents decide to return to Mexico and leave her alone to learn how to care for her children. She is very tempted to run away and she is pretty sure she is the worst choice to raise her own children. Her son Alex is 15 and in many ways is more responsible than his mother, but he too is struggling with finding his way in the world and the limitations put on him by society.

This novel tackles a lot of tough topics like teenage pregnancy, poverty, immigration and the American Dream. This book gave me a glimpse into a way of life that many people struggle with here in America. It is amazingly difficult to get out of the vicious cycle of poverty, especially as immigrants, some documented and others not. I liked that this book made me stop and think about many of the advantages I take for granted on a daily basis. This would be a great book for a book club to read and discuss.

AL

The Orchardist

The Orchardist
By Amanda Coplin
Harper, 2012. 426 pgs. Fiction

In her debut novel, Amanda Coplin follows the life of William Talmadge from the time he is a young boy struggling with the sudden disappearance of his sister through his adult life as a reclusive orchardist living in the Pacific Northwest. The story takes a turn when Talmadge’s quiet and independent life is abruptly interrupted by two pregnant, teenage girls who appear on his property. Just as the skittish girls begin to accept Talmadge’s fatherly love and compassion, evil men come looking for them. In the wake of an unimaginable tragedy, Talmadge must once again pick up the pieces of his life and fight to protect the family he has left.

This book follows multiple characters, and although it's a slow moving novel the change in perspective keeps things interesting. I liked this book, Coplin does a good job of creating complex characters and the complex family relationships that they develop. Set at the turn of the twentieth century, Coplin’s novel is also an interesting examination of a changing culture and what happens to those who cannot change with it. This book is a great read, and will especially appeal to those interested in the American West.

CNC

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The Dream Lover

The Dream Lover: A Novel
By Elizabeth Berg
Random House, 356 pgs. Historical Fiction

In this beautiful historical novel, Elizabeth Berg tells of the passionate life of author George Sand. Sand, who was born Aurore Dupin, was raised on a large estate in the French countryside. She married young to a man who quickly seemed to tire of her and within a few years, despite bearing him two children, Aurore found herself desperate to escape her loveless marriage and dreary country life.

So, she left for Paris to become a writer. Her first job was writing reviews for theatrical productions. This assignment proved difficult since she could not afford the ticket prices charged for admittance to the seats appropriate for women. Her solution was to dress as a man and take advantage of cheaper ticket prices. This simple deception allowed George Sand to emerge as Aurore Dupin faded into memory. As an artist she was allowed eccentricities and continued dressing as a man, avoiding many of the limitations usually enforced on her sex.

Sand’s life seems to have been a desperate search for love as demonstrated by her complicated relationships with her mother, grandmother, children and wide variety of lovers. Her one constant was her writing, which brought financial freedom and emotional release. “The Dream Lover” is an interesting depiction of a very fascinating and complex woman.

CZ

The Gift of Failure

The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed
By Jessica Lahey
Harper, 272 pgs. Nonfiction

Jessica Lahey is both a parent and an educator. In “The Gift of Failure” she provides advice for parents using both personal and professional experiences. What her message boils down to is “Back off.”

Parents have a natural and understandable desire to help and guide their children past the difficulties of growing up. But Lahey is convinced that these instincts need to be reined in to allow kids to learn about consequences. They need to learn that success comes from hard work and taking chances. Children should never lose their desire to try new things and stretch themselves to the point that they may fail. But that failure can lead them to rising back up with confidence and without fear.

What I most appreciated in Lahey’s book were the real life examples and specific suggestions for parents to use with their children in different contexts and at different stages of a child’s development. Her conversational tone is upbeat and encouraging. She acknowledges that a change in parenting style is going to take hard work with plenty of setbacks and slip-ups. But being able to prepare your children to meet the challenges of adult life is well worth the struggle.

CZ


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Secrets of a Charmed Life

Secrets of a Charmed Life 
By Susan Meissner
New American Library, 2015. 409 pgs. Fiction.

Emmy’s dream of becoming a wedding dress designer seems to be close to coming true. Although she is only fifteen years old, she has earned a job as a seamstress at a dress shop owned by the sister of a renowned designer. It’s the perfect opportunity to rise above her mother’s sordid past and to make a better life for herself and her little sister Julia.

But then the Blitz begins.

As German planes near, Emmy and Julia reluctantly leave London and their mother behind for the Cotswolds. There they find safety and love, but Emmy’s ambition leaves her restless. When a once in a lifetime opportunity presents itself, she sneaks back to London, unknowingly risking the lives of those she loves best.

I really enjoyed Secrets of a Charmed Life. Emmy, Julia, their mother, and the supporting characters were fascinating and fully fleshed out, and the story drew me in completely. As a reader, I experienced Emmy’s ambition, her terror, and especially her guilt intensely. My only complaint is that the ending fell a little flat. After barreling along for hundreds of pages, frantic to know what became of Julia, I was disappointed by how quickly Meissner wrapped up that story line. Overall, though, this may be one of my favorite reads of the year.

SR

Walk on Earth a Stranger

Cover image for Walk on earth a stranger 
Walk on Earth a Stranger
By Rae Carson
Greenwillow Books, 2015, 436 pages, YA Western

"Lee Westfall has a secret. She can sense the presence of gold in the world around her. Veins deep beneath the earth, pebbles in the river, nuggets dug up from the forest floor. The buzz of gold means warmth and life and home--until everything is ripped away by a man who wants to control her. Left with nothing, Lee disguises herself as a boy and takes to the trail across the country. Gold was discovered in California, and where else could such a magical girl find herself, find safety?"

Without initially realizing I’d done so, this is the second book I’ve picked up this year about a girl who disguises herself as a boy and sets off across the prairie to find a new life in California. While both books have some obvious similarities, they also have some marked differences. Lee Westfall is a bit more successful at passing herself off as a boy. She already knows how to hunt, split wood, and ride a horse. This makes her a bit more capable of fending for herself, but I liked that the book still stressed the fact that Lee needed the help of other people to make her way. I also liked the commentary on the different expectations the time period had for boys and girls.

I enjoyed Under a Painted Sky because it told the story of the trip West through the eyes of diverse characters. The characters in Walk on Earth a Stranger are more typical, but they are a bit more fleshed out as well, and it will be interesting to see how each of these characters fare in the next book in the series. Read both of these books for great western adventure stories with a touch of light romance.

MB

Monday, December 7, 2015

A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade of Magic
By V.E. Schwab
New York, New York: Tor, 2015. 400 pp. Science Fiction

Kell is a magician, able to travel across parallel worlds, all of which have a city called London. A native of Red London, part of a world that is in balance with the forces of magic, he functions as a royal ambassador, sent on regular missions to realms he calls White London (a cold and colorless world struggling to retain an iron grip on magic) and Grey London (a world without magic with a mad King George III in the final years of his reign). In addition to his official duties, Kell indulges his passion for smuggling and exchanging curiosities to and from his Red London home. After agreeing a mysterious woman's request to carry a package back home, Kell quickly realizes that he has brought more than he bargained for. Travelling across Londons, he runs into and quickly partners with Lila Bard, a roguish young pickpocket with ambition. While not categorized as a YA novel, it reads as such. The story takes off quickly and is a page turner from start to finish. The milieu is clever and while somewhat lacking in detail, is well placed for further development as the series continues.

CHW

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Promise

The Promise
by Robert Crais
G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2015.  402 pgs. Mystery

I am not sure what a police procedural is called when it is private detectives proceeding rather than officers of the law, but this book is a crackerjack of the genre. Fans of Robert Crais will already know Elvis Cole and his mysterious sidekick, Joe Pike. Add to this mix, former Marine Scott James and his K-9 partner Maggie and we're ready to roll. Cole has been hired by an anxious employer to find a missing chemist - an unexceptional looking woman whose son was recently killed in a terrorist bombing. Amy Breslyn knows how to make explosives of all kinds and she has recently met with a "Mr. Rollins," a worse than shady character who may or may not be an arms dealer. A murder and an encounter at the crime scene put Scott and Maggie on Mr. Rollins' hit list, and Cole and Pike join forces with Scott and Maggie (against regulations) as they try to find Amy before she does something rash, or something worse is done to her. The heroes of Crais's fiction are nuanced and appealing, his dialogue and setting spot on, and his action crackling and suspenseful. A great read when it's cold out and warm inside by the fire.

LW

Illusionarium

Cover image for Illusionarium
Illusionarium
By Heather Dixon
Greenwillow Books, 2015, 361 pages, Young Adult

As apprentice to his father, the second-best medical scientist in the empire, Jonathan leads a quiet life in a remote aerial city until the king arrives, calling on them to find the cure to a plague that has struck the capital city and put the queen's life at risk. A newly discovered chemical, fantillium, may help find a cure, but it will also put at risk all that Jonathan holds dear.

I would have expected Dixon’s sophomore novel to be another fairy tale retelling (her first book, Entwined, told the story of the Twelve Dancing Princesses). However, the best way I can describe this novel is by calling it a steampunk version of Alice in Wonderland. Like the magical edibles in Alice, in Illusionarium, those skilled at using a newly discovered chemical, fantillium, can do amazing things: They travel to different lands simply by opening a door, and they can bring all sorts of impossible things into being. And as in Alice, there is a Red Queen who doesn’t want Jonathan to escape alive. But Jonathan has more at stake than just getting home: He is on a quest to find a cure for a plague that has his hometown in its grips. Because of this, the story is magical and also suspenseful, with a few wry jokes added in for good measure. I would recommend this book to anyone who likes their YA with light magic, steampunk, and suspense.

MB

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Surviving Hitler: the Unlikely True Story of an SS Soldier and a Jewish Woman


Surviving Hitler: the Unlikely True Story of an SS Soldier and a Jewish Woman
By O. Hakan Palm

Deseret Book, 2014. 227 pgs. Nonfiction


Little understanding all the consequences of his decision, Gustav Palm signed up to attend the police academy in Norway after the Nazis invaded Denmark, Norway and Sweden. He ended up on the front lines of the war as an SS soldier in the German army.  Agnes Erdos’ and her family were Hungarian ethnic Jews forced into a concentration camp in 1944 where her parents were sent to the gas chambers. In alternating segments Agnes' and Gustav’s wartime experiences are retold. Their near miraculous survival and their post-war difficulties are part of their touching story which was not told even to their own children until forty years after the war.  Their wartime struggles and post-war conversion to the LDS faith were told to Thomas S. Monson when he was visiting Sweden in 1984 and he later made their incredible story the subject of a talk at a local church conference. This is a unique Holocaust memoir, told by the son of this courageous couple. SH

In Order to Live

I
In Order to Live
By Yeonmi Park
Penguin Press, 2015. 273 pgs. Nonfiction

Yeonmi Park was born in North Korea where she suffered incredible hardship.  Escaping with her mother to China when she was thirteen, they discovered to their horror that North Korean women escaping into China were routinely sold into sexual slavery as brides to Chinese or as prostitutes. The alternative was being returned to North Korea where they would inevitably be sent to a prison camp or executed.  Yeonmi and her mother endured the brutality of their time in China and finally found a way to escape to South Korea.  Adjusting to modern life was difficult but Yeonmi worked hard to gain an education. She was afraid to talk about her past  but finally realized she couldn’t make a difference if she hid the truth. Now a human rights activist, Yeonmi tells her gripping but heartbreaking story so people can know about and work to stop human rights abuses in North Korea and China.  SH

Monday, November 30, 2015

The Total Money Makeover

The Total Money Makeover: A Proven Plan for Financial Fitness
By Dave Ramsey
Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2009. 259 pgs. Nonfiction.

With so many people sliding, or plummeting into debt, Ramsey offers a straightforward and uplifting method to help people get out of the debt cycle, start saving, investing, and making money. This book is broken up into the baby steps of his method, making it very easy to follow. He has also interspersed success stories in every chapter to help uplift the reader and illustrate how accomplishing each baby step can look.

Now with a student loan in my name, I wanted to start looking at becoming financially fit in general. Ramsey’s baby steps seem manageable and doable, if you’re willing to work at it. The success stories are truly inspiring, and Ramsey includes an element of spirituality to his reasons for becoming financially fit, but he never gets preachy. Ramsey himself states that much of what’s included in his book isn’t new knowledge, and that’s true. This isn’t new information, but it’s laid out and presented in a way that’s very accessible. If you want to get financially fit but have little financial knowledge, this is a great place to get started.

ACS

The Master Algorithm

The Master Algorithm: How the Quest for the Ultimate Learning Machine Will Remake Our World
by Pedro Domingos
Basic Books, 2015. 352 pgs. Nonfiction

This book discusses one of today’s hottest science topics, that of machine learning and the algorithms that allow it. In the digital age, algorithms are used for just about everything including how Amazon and Netflix recommend books and movies to email spam filters to how Obama’s 2012 election campaign used four simple questions to help win the election. However, our current algorithms do have their failings. They still fail to do seemingly simply things a human brain can do in an instant such as recognize a cat from any angle no matter how blurry the image.

In addition to giving you a basic understanding of how machine learning algorithms work, this book also discusses the quest to find the master algorithm. The one algorithm capable of discovering all knowledge from the data it is fed. This would include curing cancer, completely understanding evolution and genetics, and so much more.

I think this book would be the perfect read for anyone with a slightly better grasp of math and science than me. The author does try to write this for the average person and there were many fascinating parts, but I also found myself a little lost at times. Overall, a great read to better understand how important data is becoming in everyday life. Something we are all affected by and, therefore, should have a basic understanding of.

AJ

The Other Daughter

The Other Daughter
By Lauren Willig
St. Martin's Press, 2015.  296 pgs. Fiction

Rachel Woodley was raised by her loving and proper mother in a small English town.  She grew up believing her father was killed while traveling abroad, working as a botanist.  But when her mother unexpectedly dies, Rachel discovers that she may be the illegitimate daughter of an English Earl.  Angry about the deception, Rachel is determined to discover the truth.  To do this she must infiltrate the 1920's London "party crowd", a task made possible with the help of Simon Montfont, a gossip columnist with his own ax to grind.

"The Other Daughter" is a delightful novel.  Fans of Willig's "Pink Carnation" series should seriously consider delving into the authors' growing number of stand alone historical novels. While some of Willig's romances can get a little steamy, "The Other Daughter" can be safely added to most clean read lists.

CZ 

The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis

The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family’s Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis
By Simon Goodman
Scribner, 2015. 353 pgs. Nonfiction

The Gutmanns were once among the most wealthy and powerful banking families in Europe. This Jewish family had planted roots in Germany and multiple generations worked to build an impressive dynasty. However, their legacy and influence could not protect them from the Nazis and their property was stolen away piece by piece and scattered during both the war and its aftermath.

Simon Goodman, the grandson of Fritz and Louise Gutmann who were imprisoned and murdered by the Third Reich, discovered fairly late in life of his family’s grand legacy and of the treasures that were never returned despite his father’s lifelong efforts to restore them. After his father’s death, Simon picked up the standard and worked to track down whatever pieces of art he could find that once comprised his forebears’ priceless collections.

Goodman has an amazing story to tell and he tells it extremely well. His family’s rise to power and their experiences during the years of conflict and war were fascinating. Also fascinating, though a bit less gripping, were Simon’s legal battles to regain ownership of the stolen art.

“The Orpheus Clock” provides a very personal perspective on a topic recently highlighted in both the book and movie versions of “The Monuments Men.” History enthusiasts are sure to appreciate this recent release.

CZ

Saturday, November 28, 2015

The Lake House

The Lake House
By Kate Morton
Atria Books, 2015. 495 pgs. Fiction

The Edavane family is shattered when their toddler son vanishes on the night of the annual midsummer's eve party they hold at their estate. Seventy years later a young London detective stumbles on the abandoned house as she is on leave to sort out her own life problems and she can't help but wonder what happened to make a family leave such a majestic home. She triggers a series of events that will lead to many shocking revelations for herself and the Edavane family.

Kate Morton again weaves a story between generations that span from WWI to 2003. She expertly examines the anguish of a mother loosing her child, through several different scenarios throughout the book. I really enjoyed this book and will be recommending it to others. Because of the jumping from past to present, it helped that I was actually reading the book so that I could keep track of the dates and look back if I wanted to check when an event happened. My only complaint is that the author wrapped up everything a little too nicely and after all of the detail throughout the book I would have liked more at the end.


AL

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things

Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things
By Jenny Lawson
Flatiron Books, 2015. 329 pgs. Biography

Jenny Lawson has suffered with mental illness her whole life. In this candid biography she  explores what it means to really live life, not just survive it. She doesn't try to hide the fact that she has severe depression and anxiety and by being so honest in her book she makes others realize that they are not alone in their struggles.

This book is crazy and a little random and absolutely hilarious. This is a book that had me laughing so hard that I couldn't even read the words on the page. I think I actually snorted a couple times too. The thing I liked most about this book is that she shares many crazy experiences but then she has deeply profound passages about what it means to live life with depression and with all the very real, very scary thoughts that accompany it. As someone who has suffered from depression off and on over the years I recognized the truth in her words.  The author does use a lot of strong language throughout the book.

AL

The Sleeper and the Spindle

The Sleeper and the Spindle
By Neil Gaiman
Harper, 2015. 66 pages. Young Adult

Neil Gaiman's newest newest fairy tale is one part Snow White, one part Sleeping Beauty, and one hundred percent absorbing. On the eve of her wedding, a young queen sets off with three of her dwarven subjects to investigate the cause of a mysterious sleeping plague that's sweeping across a neighboring kingdom. As if a sleeping-plague wasn't odd enough, the sleepers are capable of talking in their sleep and lumbering after the travelers, almost zombie-like. 

The tale's biggest twist lies in the Queen's discovery of the spindle-pricked maiden who, as the key to the sleeping plague, waits to be awakened . . .

While the story leaves nothing to be desired -- Gaiman's storytelling is always masterful -- it's Chris Riddell's gilt-adorned illustrations that truly steal the show. While I had part of this story read aloud to me, I kept stopping the reader to admire the panels, and to take in the detail in the Queen's dress, or to point out some of Riddell's subtle humor in the art. This is not only a book to read, but one to savor and treasure.

CA


Big Data

Big Data: A Revolution That Will Transform How We Live
By Viktor Mayer-Schonberger & Kenneth Cukier
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 242 pgs. Nonfiction

You may have heard the term “Big Data” mentioned, but not fully understand what is meant by it. Well if you’d like to better comprehend this new process that is revolutionizing economics, science, culture, and government, then you should definitely read this book. Written to be understandable by the average person, the authors seek to explain what Big Data is, how it will change our lives, and the dangers and implications that exist.

In a way that was simply impossible before, the world is now able to capture and store massive amounts of data. This transition means that businesses and other organizations no longer have to rely on samples and estimates. Instead, they can analyze complete data sets quickly and cheaply making it far easier to see the whole picture and make decisions based on what the data is saying. Throughout the book, the authors use great examples to illustrate where Big Data is and the big changes to come. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in learning more about Big Data and understanding the technological world we live in.

AJ

Monday, November 23, 2015

S.P.Q.R.: A History of Ancient Rome

S.P.Q.R.: A History of Ancient Rome
By Mary Beard
New York: Liveright Publishing, 215. 606 pp. Non-fiction

Mary Beard, a Cambridge don specializing in classics, presents a fresh and enlightening history of Rome's first thousand years (approximately), starting with its uncertain beginnings as a refuge for vagabonds, runaways slaves,etc. and ending in 212 CE with the Emperor Caracalla decreeing that all freeborn men within the empire are Roman citizens. In this scholarly and somewhat revisionist work, the author reexamines and reevaluates famous persons, battles and political struggles as well as the more prosaic aspects of Roman society and domestic life. While it is a bit more academic in style, lacking the narrative flow one often experiences in popular non-fiction, this book is very interesting and highly readable. I would recommend this to anyone with an interest in ancient history. If you read and enjoyed The Rise of Rome by Anthony Everett or Stacy Schiff's Cleopatra, this would be a good choice as well.

CHW





Saturday, November 21, 2015

Silver in the Blood

Silver in the Blood 
By Jessica Day George
Bloomsbury, 2015. 368 pgs. Young Adult.

Seventeen year old cousins Dacia and Lou are thrilled to travel across Europe to meet their mothers’ noble Romanian family. Shy Lou is especially excited to escape her debutante responsibilities in New York society for a time, while Dacia is looking forward to flirting her way across the continent. Their Aunt Kate’s increasingly odd behavior and a series of mysterious encounters with a stranger who calls them The Wing and The Claw set their nerves on edge as they travel, however. By the time they arrive in Romania and meet their numerous cousins (all male), their stoic aunts and uncles, and their decidedly un-grandmotherly grandmother, Lady Ioana, the girls are suspicious of the Florescu clan and their family friend, Mihai Dracula. As they uncover the Florescus’ dangerous and magical secrets, Lou and Dacia must choose between following their family and doing what is right.

Fans of Jessica Day George may find Silver in the Blood a little surprising, since it differs from her other books in setting and tone. Unlike her fairy tale retellings and fantasy novels, it has a historical setting and a darker feel. The plot took a while to get going, but once the girls finally piece together what is happening, it gallops along nicely. I did find the diary entries and letters interspersed throughout the novel unnecessary, since they rarely revealed anything new. Overall, though, I enjoyed the story, especially the conclusion and the character development. In spite of the werewolves and vampires, Silver in the Blood is less a paranormal romance than it is a clever historical fantasy twist on Bram Stoker.

SR

Friday, November 20, 2015

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister

I Love I Hate I Miss My Sister
By Amelie Sarn
Delacourt, 2014. 152 pages. Young Adult

Intellectually gifted and studious Sohane, 18, has always taken care of her beautiful, athletic younger sister Djelila. As French-born Algerian Muslims, the sisters face different forms of religious persecution outside their home: The devout Sohane is expelled from her public school for wearing a head scarf; while Djelila, who wears tight jeans, smokes, and kisses boys in public, becomes a target for a Taliban-like teen gang that enforces Islamic extremism in their neighborhood. While the boys' taunting is merely sharp words and a slap at first, it escalates into a violent act that ends one sister's life, and changes the other's forever.

Sarn's novel was on my weeding list after only a year on the shelf; but in light of recent events, I wanted to spend an evening with it before deciding whether or not to discard the book. I expected to learn something about the Muslim faith; however, I did not expect to find such a nuanced and sensitive look at what it means to be Muslim, especially when one lives in the Western world. Sarn never gets too heavy-handed with her message; and the relationship between Sohane and Djelila is endearing, as are their relationships with the rest of their family. The grief the family endures after Djelila's violent murder feels realistic, as does Sohane's struggle to understand how she fits into the world as a hijab-wearing feminist, especially after her sister's death.

In short, we're keeping this one.

CA

Leaves on the Wind

Leaves on the Wind
By Zack Whedon
Dark Horse Books, 2014. 152 pgs. Graphic Novel

After being tossed around the 'verse by various circumstances, the crew of Serenity is forced to come out of hiding when one of their own is captured.

Fans of the show "Firefly" and the film continuation of the story, "Serenity," will be thrilled with this latest installment in the Firefly universe.  Brown coats will be especially pleased at the continuing storyline following the "Miranda" leak as well as revisiting beloved characters.  Be sure to check out one of the first three graphic novels if you haven't seen them yet.  Start with Those Left Behind.

Carry On

Carry On
By Rainbow Rowell
St. Martin's Griffin, 2015. 522 pgs. Young Adult

Simon Snow is the "chosen one," a young wizard who has been plagued through his entire education at the Watford School of Magicks by a mysterious evil nemesis.  It doesn't help that his roommate for the past seven years, Baz, might be a vampire as well as trying to kill him.  As he starts his last year at school, Simon seems to have more to deal with than ever: his wand doesn't work half the time and when it does, he blows something up.  His girlfriend might not be his girlfriend anymore and his nemesis has been running around wearing his face.  Worst of all, Baz hasn't bothered showing up for school and Simon can't imagine what kind of trouble he has been brewing in his absence.

Sound familiar?  This story has obvious - and intentional - parallels to Harry Potter, but with entirely its own spin and point.  Readers looking for a "grown up" version of Harry Potter will probably find this appealing (if they don't mind frequent language).  I would also highly recommend this to fans of Rowell's other books, her talent as a writer shines in this new (for her) genre.

BHG

Girl Waits with Gun

Cover image for Girl waits with gun 
Girl Waits with Gun
By Amy Stewart
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015, 408 pages, Historical Fiction

In 1914, sisters Constance, Nora, and Fleurette Kopp live on a secluded farm in the country, just outside Paterson, New Jersey. On a drive into town for supplies one day the sisters’ horse and buggy is literally run over by Henry Kaufman, a local silk mill owner, and his gang of thugs, all riding in his brand new car. While most people would stay away from such a high-powered man, Constance insists that justice be served. When she demands he pay for damages, Kaufman responds with bricks through windows, veiled threats, and even bullets. Instead of backing down, Constance rises to the occasion, taking her complaints to the county sheriff, doing a bit of investigating of her own, and learning to shoot a gun.

Based on a true story, and with an exceedingly interesting main character (Constance Kopp became one of the country’s first female deputy sheriffs), this book was a lot of fun to read. It was full of suspense, with many twists and turns, and it managed to be witty as well. Constance is a fully-fleshed character with many interesting motivations. Stewart’s research shines through with her use of text from newspaper articles of the time and seamless use of actual historical events. Historical fiction fans and fans of female sleuths will love this book.

MB

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl: A Memoir

Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl: A Memoir
By Carrie Brownstein
New York: Riverhead Books, 2015. 244 pp. Biography


Prior to her appearances in the fantastic comedy series, Portlandia, Carrie Brownstein was known as one of the founding members of the riot grrl/post punk band, Sleater-Kinney. In this book, starting with her childhood and continuing through the course of her music career, she relates her struggles growing up with an anorexic mother and a closeted gay father. Through music, both as a fan and performer, she was able to find a community where she could overcome her anxieties and find a path to self-discovery and self-expression. This was a fun and entertaining read, witty, engaging and heartfelt but never maudlin or narcissistic as celeb biographies can oftentimes be.

CHW

America's Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve

America's Bank: The Epic Struggle to Create the Federal Reserve
by Roger Lowenstein
New York: Penguin Press, 2015. 355 pp. Non-fiction.

Anyone who follows economic and financial news recognizes the pivotal role the Federal Reserve plays in our national economy and as a partner with other nations' central banks. This book explains the extraordinarily improbable creation of the Federal Reserve in the face of vociferous opposition to the creation of a central bank, both from within government circles and the public at large. The book is divided into two parts: the first covering the efforts of key players in banking and Congress to formulate a blueprint for a central bank, following the financial panic of 1907, that would be palatable to a country suspicious of the money power; the second part summarizes the legislative battles fought to get the Federal Reserve Act of 1913 passed. The author does a nice job illustrating both the pressures the new industrial economy was placing on a banking system no longer able to cope against a public highly suspicious of centralized power in general and financial power in particular. While the Fed has cemented its role in public affairs, it has been and remains a locus of controversy and conspiracy (see The Creature From Jekyll Island). This is a highly readable examination of a fascinating period of American history.

CHW

Monday, November 9, 2015

Hyperbole and a Half

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened
By Allie Brosh
Touchstone Books 2013.  369 pgs. Nonfiction.

In 2009, Allie Brosh launched a blog with a rant about her neighbors’ annoying music. By the end of the year, she had begun illustrating her entries using simplistic drawings she created in Microsoft Paint, and Hyperbole and a Half was born. Brosh’s hilarious essays and illustrations focus on her childhood, her dogs, her resistance to being an adult, and her struggles with depression. Even if you’ve never heard of Brosh, you’re likely familiar with her illustrations, particularly the “Clean all the things!” or “X all the Y!” meme. You may also have heard of the Alot, the fictional creature Brosh imagines to calm her rage whenever someone misspells “a lot.”

When I first discovered Brosh, I spent three days reading her entire blog, laughing so hard I cried. Brosh’s first book, which shares her blog's name, includes several of her most loved entries, as well as ten entirely new essays. I didn’t love the most of the new essays quite as much as my old favorites, but they still had me in tears of laughter. In particular, Brosh’s new essay “Motivation” spoke to my procrastinating soul on a profound level. A few other favorites:

• The Party (my all-time favorite)
• The God of Cake
• This is Why I’ll Never Be an Adult
• The Simple Dog
• The Parrot
• Depression Parts 1 and 2

Brosh’s book is a great introduction to her work, highlighting both her humor and her surprising emotional depth. Be aware that although the content is generally clean, Hyperbole and a Half frequently uses strong language. I’m already anxious for Brosh’s next book, Solutions and Other Problems, to hit the shelves in October 2016.

SR

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling

by Richard Lyman Bushman, with the assistance of Jed Woodworth
Alfred A. Knopf, 2005. 740 pgs. Nonfiction

There has long been a need for a well-documented, thoroughly researched, balanced account of Joseph Smith. Bushman provides a dense yet readable narrative and integrates recent research and discoveries into his work (recent at the time of publication back in 2005). There’s a lot of detail here and some interesting possibilities raised such as the location where the Church was organized (traditionally Fayette, New York—Bushman suggests Mansfield). Also the date when the Melchizedek Priesthood was restored (traditionally May-June 1829; Bushman suggests a data as late as late as June or July of 1830).

By a wide margin this is the finest biography available on Joseph Smith and will likely remain so for quite some time. Perhaps following the completion of the Joseph Smith Papers Project a new biography will appear, utilizing yet further sources and synthesizing additional strands from the life of this singular man.

SML

The Desert Between the Mountains: Mormons, Miners, Padres, Mountain Men, and the Opening of the Great Basin, 1772-1869

The Desert Between the Mountains: Mormons, Miners, Padres, Mountain Men, and the Opening of the Great Basin, 1772-1869
by Michael S. Durham
Henry Holt, 1997. 336 pgs. Nonfiction

This quick survey of the history of the Great Basin begins with geography and geology, the Native American presence, and the first Spanish explorers in the region. It then moves on to various explorers and mountain men criss-crossing the region. Lastly it tells of the pioneering efforts of the Mormons in the region, the “Utah War,” the short-lived Pony Express, and concludes with the arrival of the transcontinental railroad.

The narrative moves breezily and uses footnotes sparingly. If nothing else, this overview whets the appetite for further reading on such explorers as John Fremont and Jedediah Smith, tales of the fur trappers, and tragedies such as that of the Donner Party and the mountain meadows massacre.

SML


Friday, November 6, 2015

Thug Notes: A Street-Smart Guide to Classic Literature

Cover image for Thug notes : a street-smart guide to classic literature
Thug Notes: A Street-Smart Guide to Classic Literature
By Sparky Sweets, PhD
Vintage Books, 2015. 288 pages, Non-Fiction

Based on the YouTube channel Thug Notes, this book covers sixteen classics of literature in an un-classical way. Think Cliff Notes or SparkNotes with street cred. Each classic is covered in seven topics: A quick introduction of why the book is important (called So What’s the Deal?); a rundown of the cast of characters (Homies); followed by a fairly good, quick summary of the plot (What Went Down). Popular themes, images, and symbols are also covered, followed by popular quotes (Say What?) from both the book and from other famous authors (Shout-Outs) who have covered the same topics, all summarized and worded to make sense to a thug. Images throughout the book help drive the message home.

If you’re wondering how the marriage of classic literature and thug works, I’ll let this book speak for itself:

“To me, a thug is somebody who buck da system; who stand up and try to make they imprint on da world. A thug live how they wanna live, and do what they wanna do, even in da face of a world tellin’ ‘em they gotta act a certain way. Most of da novels and authors in this book you holdin’ ain’t no different. Some of da best works of lit can be thought of as expressions of rebellion or great dissatisfaction wit’ da world . . . and to me, plenty of rappers singin’ they heart out ‘bout da same thangs.”

While I personally see this book as more of a comedic book about literature than a helpful study guide, this book does give a good summary of each of the classics covered. Fans of Texts from Jane Eyre and other comedic literary pieces will probably also enjoy Thug Notes. Be forewarned,“thug” language is pervasive throughout, and includes some swearing.

MB