Thursday, April 27, 2017

Alcatraz versus the Shattered Lens

Alcatraz versus the Shattered Lens
By Brandon Sanderson
Scholastic Press, 2010. 292 pages. Young Adult

The kingdom of Mokia is under siege by Librarian forces, and it might take a Smedry to save it.  Alcatraz has a hare-brained scheme to rescue the capital of Tuki-Tuki, but things might not go according to plan. He’ll need the Knights of Crystallia, some Nalhallan flying machines, and his grandfather to join the fight as soon as possible. Knowing that Levenworth Smedry is involved, however, they’ll probably be late.

This book is the crowning gem of the Alcatraz series. I don’t know yet what book 5 has to offer, since it just recently came out, but Alcatraz versus the Shattered Lens kicks the trash of all the previous volumes. The plot is more intense, the characters are more developed, and everything is WAY funnier. Sanderson experiments with form, making fun of writing conventions and twisting them on their heads. He references classical literature with a sardonic edge, messes with dialogue, and gives his chapters totally ludicrous titles. In my reread of the series there have been very few things that made me laugh out loud (a joke is never as good the second time you hear it), but during this one I was giggling my head off late into the night. Highly recommend. Even if you were starting to get tired of the series, push through. It’s worth it.


Tuesday, April 25, 2017

When Breath Becomes Air

By Paul Kalanithi
Random House, 2016. 228  pgs. Biography

At age seventeen Paul Kalanithi was sure he would be a writer because literature gives us the opportunity to think about life.  After finishing his undergraduate studies and then graduate degrees in history and the philosophy of science and medicine he realized that his deepest interest was in the brain – the organ that allows humans to create and communicate meaning.  He spent years training to be a neurosurgeon but just as his future as a surgeon and professor of neurosurgery finally came into view he was diagnosed with stage IV cancer.

Published after his death from cancer in 2015, his memoir profoundly communicates meaning and eloquently describes his passion for medicine as his way to face the human struggle between life and death.  His moral and personal approach to the practice of medicine sets a high standard of practice for all in the medical profession. This beautiful book is impossible to put down until finished.  It has been on the New York Times Best Seller list for the last year.

Monday, April 24, 2017

I Liked My Life

I Liked My Life: A Novel
By Abby Fabiaschi
St. Martins Press, 2017.  262 pgs. Fiction

The unexplained suicide of, Maddy,  a devoted wife and mother, leaves her teen-aged daughter Eve and husband Brady mired in grief and guilt.  To be honest, Maddy isn’t dealing with it very well either.

This debut novel in ingeniously told through the alternating perspectives of each member of the family.  First through Maddy’s ghost who is determined to haunt her family long enough to make sure they will be okay.  Then through Eve who is struggling to return to her normal life when it seems nothing will ever be okay again.  And finally through Brady who is completely lost as a single parent dealing with the devastation of losing his wife.

With such a heartbreaking premise, I did not expect the humor and heart I discovered on each page.  I loved hearing the inner thoughts of people experiencing the same events with such disparate interpretations. The difficulty of truly knowing and understanding another person is demonstrated along with the depth to which we can love.  I can enthusiastically recommend I LIKED MY LIFE to fans of Liane Moriarty, Jojo Moyes, and Elin Hilderbrand.


The One-Minute Workout

The One-Minute Workout: Science Shows a Way To Get Fit That’s Smarter, Faster, Shorter 
By Martin Gibala
Avery, 2017. 263 pgs. Nonfiction

Just as his career in exercise physiology began, Martin Gibala found that he had less and less time to stay in shape.  So, he decided to study efficient exercise methods.  His research led him to HIIT or high-intensity interval training and THE ONE-MINUTE WORKOUT is a highly readable summary of his findings.

Gibala learned that small intense bursts of exercise can provide the same health benefits as longer, less intense workouts.  For example, one study found that sedentary individuals spending 150 minutes each week performing regular endurance training can gain the same fitness improvements by using interval training that takes 80 percent less time and just a few minutes of “hard core” exertion.

This is all fantastic news and I’ve loved putting these theories to the test over the past few weeks. Finding ten minutes, not to mention the motivation to take ten minutes, to exercise is a lot easier than finding an hour plus.  Also, interval training has introduced much needed variety into my workouts.  I hadn’t sprinted in years and it was kind of fun to sprint for one minute and then walk for three instead of my regular stead 4 mile slog...I mean jog.  Interval training is not a new concept, but Gibala presents it extremely well. A great book to pick up if your fitness resolutions need a little spring boost.


Saturday, April 22, 2017

Lost City of the Monkey God: a True Story

Lost City of the Monkey God
By Douglas Preston
Grand Central Publishing, 2017.326 pgs. Nonfiction

Tantalizing rumors of lost cities in the jungle have impelled explorers into remote areas of Central and South America since the Spanish conquistadors.  The lost “White City,” deep in the Honduran interior, has been one of the last of these lost places. But with the help of clues from previous explorers and a valuable new laser imaging technology called LIDAR, a team of explorers has found extensive ruins in a remote and dangerous area of Honduras.  Douglas Preston, a writer of fiction and nonfiction, considered himself lucky to be part of the expedition that uncovered the location of the ruins and retells the adventure in “Lost City of the Monkey God.” The expedition began and ended in controversy, with many archaeologists condemning the expedition as ignoring the knowledge of the indigenous inhabitants of the area and exaggerating their findings.

Preston’s account is fascinating and delves into the controversies as well as portraying the adventure and grueling aspects of survival in the hostile jungle.  This gripping true life adventure story will appeal to archaeology buffs and survivalists as well as technophiles. 


Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower #1)

The Gunslinger (The Dark Tower, #1)
By Stephen King
New York: Signet, 2003. 300 pgs. Fantasy.

“The man in Black fled across the Desert, and the Gunslinger followed.” So begins the epic multi-volume Dark Tower series. In this first installment, Roland Deschain, the last Gunslinger, tracks down his adversary, encountering dust-swept and hostile towns, the boy Jake brought from another world, demons, mutants, and a talking raven.

Considered by Stephen King himself to be his magnum opus, The Dark Tower series is full of King’s rich, grandiose prose, and dark atmosphere of the macabre. Fans of Clint Eastwood style old Westerns will appreciate the tall, silent, and brooding Roland, as well as the hard and bleak atmosphere reminiscent of the old West. Get ready to be swept up in a genre-bending saga of epic proportions when you pick up The Gunslinger.


Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate

Edible Wild Plants: Wild Foods from Dirt to Plate
By John Kallas Gibbs Smith, 2010. 416 pgs. Nonfiction

Whether you are a foraging enthusiast, or simply have a budding interest in botany or gardening, this book is for you. John Kallas covers a wide variety of wild greens and informs the reader about important stages in plant development.

Each plant described in this book has its own chapter filled with beautiful color photographs, maps, and engaging description to help even the most novice of enthusiasts. Kallas even provides information about poisonous look-alikes, as well as nutritional information. With this great reference in hand, a wild food adventurer can up their game both in the wilderness and in the kitchen.


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Luke Skywalker Can't Read: And Other Geeky Truths

By Ryan Britt
Plume, 2015. 224 pages. Nonfiction
Ryan Britt is more than a geek or a hipster; he was both before it was cool (and if you asked him, he’d say it still isn’t). Raised on Barbarella and Star Trek, Britt discusses a lifetime of study of pop culture and what science fiction means to the real world. Half memoir and half analytical essay, Luke Skywalker Can’t Read asserts, among other observations, that the Skywalkers are illiterate, Sherlock Holmes is science fiction, and that monster movies are romantic comedies.

Written in the comedic style of Klosterman and Rooney, Luke Skywalker… demonstrates the benefit of not taking culture too seriously. Though he tackles topics like literacy and religion, he does so light heartedly, not as an expert. My favorite essay was about Back to The Future, where Britt discusses why BTTF is riddled with paradoxes and how this makes it universally loved. Though his understanding of some of the heavier topics is a little light, his wit is not, nor is his research; Britt goes to great lengths to prove his points, though without delving into the overly academic. Luke Skywalker is a great read for nostalgic adults or for older teens curious about why all robots in movies are murderous. 


The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds

Cover image for The undoing project : a friendship that changed our minds
The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds
by Michael Lewis
W.W. Norton & Company, 2017, 362 pages, Non-Fiction

In a follow-up to his best-selling book Moneyball, Michael Lewis dives even deeper into the human psyche, exploring the psychology behind how people make decisions, and how our gut instinct is usually wrong. The psychologists who pioneered this method of thinking, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, spent much of their lives exploring this theory together. Lewis tells the story of these two highly influential psychologists, and the effect their work has had on the way we view decision-making today.

One of Michael Lewis’ strengths is telling a factual story in a narrative style. The reader joins Kahneman and Tversky on their journey as they dig further and further into their theories about how people make decisions. Lewis includes examples of questions these scientists asked their test subjects, and it was interesting to catch myself making the same mistakes everyone else did. Interviews with those who knew Kahneman and Tversky also fleshed out the story to make these two brilliant men more relatable.

Oddly, it wasn’t until I got to the notes at the end of the book that I found out Kahneman has written his own book about the research he and Tversky have done. While Lewis focuses on the story of Kahneman and Tversky’s collaboration, those who are more interested in the theories Khaneman and Tversky came up with will probably enjoy Thinking, Fast and Slow.


P.S. I Like You

P.S. I Like You
By Kasie West
Point, 2016. 329 pages. Young Adult

Sometimes you just need a light fun book to read and this book fits the bill.

Quirky Lily Abbott has always felt a little insecure at school. She buys her clothes from the thrift store, listens to Indie music, and dreams of being a songwriter. So, it doesn’t help when wealthy, cool-kid, Cade teases her. Cade and Lily have been enemies ever since he dated her best friend, Isabel. Not like Lucas who she has crushed on for years, and he is even in a band.

One day while spacing out in Chemistry class, Lily scribbles some lyrics down on the desk. The next day she is surprised to see a reply. Soon, Lily and her anonymous pen pal are exchanging letters, recommending bands, and opening up to each other. The letters quickly become the best part of her week as she struggles with her crazy family and her evolving friendship with Isabel. It doesn’t take Lily long to realize she is falling for this unknown boy, but will he be everything she dreams of in real life?

Kasie West excels at writing funny, relatable characters. This sweet love story is maybe a bit predictable but oh so enjoyable.


Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Easy Labor: Every Woman's Guide to Choosing Less Pain and More Joy During Childbirth

Easy Labor: Every Woman’s Guide to Choosing Less Pain and More Joy During Childbirth 
by William Camann
Ballantine Books, 2006. 311 pgs. Nonfiction

 If you are undecided about the pain relief you want to use for childbirth and are looking for information about your options, this book is for you! It starts out with how to choose the facility you will give birth in, then what labor feels like and common fears women have. Next it dives into in-depth information about all the medical options for pain relief and their pros and cons. The chapter for complementary and alternative approaches to pain relief offers a brief overview of different popular methods, what people have said about using each method, and their pros and cons. There’s a chapter just about cesarean sections, and then it moves to a history of pain relief, birth stories from those that attend births, and a chapter about how your healthcare provider can affect your options.

 I liked how easy it was to find information in this book. The chapters on medical pain relief were surprisingly detailed and contained a lot of information. I was hoping the chapter about complementary and alternative approaches would be as detailed as the medical chapters, but it makes sense that this book just contains an overview for the alternative methods because they are more complex and require more preparation than medical options. However the book does give enough information about each alternative method to make an educated decision on which approach to look at further. I would recommend this book to anyone looking for enough information to make an educated decision about medical pain relief during childbirth, or someone who is undecided about using an alternative method and would like one place to go to help them make a decision.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Dreamland Burning

Cover image for Dreamland burning
Dreamland Burning
by Jennifer Latham
Little, Brown and Company, 2017, 371 pages, Young Adult Fiction

When Rowan finds a skeleton on her family's property, investigating the brutal, century-old murder leads to painful discoveries about the past. Alternating chapters tell the story of William, another teen grappling with the racial firestorm leading up to the 1921 Tulsa race riot, providing some clues to the mystery

There wasn't much I didn't like about Jennifer Latham’s Dreamland Burning. Latham writes with a poetry and a rhythm that made me feel like I could hear the characters' voices in my head as I read. She did so without writing colloquially or degradingly, which is no easy feat. The story switches between present-day Rowan and 1920s Will seamlessly, and I was equally engaged in both plotlines. Also, for a mystery with only two or three possibilities, I kept changing my guesses as more information was revealed. This is great story with the bonus of covering an important moment in history that shouldn't be forgotten.


Thursday, April 6, 2017

How to Celebrate Everything

How to Celebrate Everything
By Jenny Rosenstrach
Ballantine Books, 2016. 288 pgs. Nonfiction

I love learning about the various traditions families have. This book was a really fun look at blogger and author Jenny Rosenstrach's family traditions and celebrations. From holidays to birthdays to vacations and everything in between we get a glimpse into the reasons those traditions and rituals have formed and the delicious recipes surrounding the occasion.

I enjoy reading cookbooks that have the story behind the recipe and this book was one of those perfect books for me. This book is filled with bright photographs, engaging text, and lots of yummy recipes! I've been meaning to read (and actually began, but had to return it before I'd finished) Rosenstrach's first book Dinner: A Love Story. After reading this book, I'm re-committing myself to finish that title too!


Monday, April 3, 2017

Skyrim Special Edition

The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim Special Edition: Prima Official Game Guide
By Dave S. J. Hodgson, Steve Stratton & Steve Cornett, et al.
Prima Games, 2016. 1117 pgs. Nonfiction

This official game guide for the Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim includes complete game information for training, inventory, creatures, quests, maps, as well as everything that’s included in the Dawnguard, Dragonborn, and Hearthfire DLCs (downloadable content). With over 1000 pages of game information, color graphics, and walkthroughs, this guide is an excellent companion for anyone playing Skyrim.

I wouldn’t call myself a gamer in general. I dabble in a few things, but Skyrim is the first console game I’ve ever played. After about 100 hours of playing without this game guide, I picked it up and was able to learn a lot more about the world and game than I otherwise would have bothered with. I’ll readily admit that all of the information in this guide can be found online, but it was so much easier and more convenient to have the book open in front of me and flip pages as needed, rather than drain my phone or laptop battery. If you’re into Skyrim, I can’t recommend this guide enough.


Saturday, April 1, 2017

A School for Unusual Girls

A School for Unusual Girls 
by Kathleen Baldwin
New York: For Teen, 2015. 351pgs. Young Adult Fiction

Georgiana Fitzwilliam has never fit in. In her world in the early 1800’s it is not appropriate for girls to have an interest in science or to ask too many questions. After accidentally burning her father’s stables down while conducting an experiment to find a new invisible ink, she is sent to a boarding school where her parents are not to interfere with any of their methods. This school is supposed to turn problem girls into cultured and refined marriageable young women. This school actually is a house that trains girls to fine tune their talents and skill into something that is useful for society, spies.

This was a fun book to read I loved how the author handled the fact that these girls would not have been accepted in society. Most historical fiction almost seems to put it off that if a few more people were willing to try then they would have been able to find a place to fit in when in reality that was not the case. I liked the balance of skill and I also liked that the book pointed out, there are consequences for mistakes. The consequences don’t just impact your life but they have the potential of impacting a lot of other people. The other interesting part of this book is that it plays with the “what if’s” in history. It is not perfectly historically accurate and so, I will be fascinated to see if/how it plays out in the future books.


Long May She Reign

Long May She Reign 
by Rhiannon Thomas
Harper Collins Publishers, 2017. 422 pgs Young Adult Fiction

Freya unexpectedly becomes queen when the entire court gets poisoned. Freya loves science and would much rather be in her laboratory than learning the niceties of court. Her first few days are fraught with intrigue as she tries to discover who poisoned the court, who is going to try and kill her next, and what policies of the old regime should she keep in place.

I enjoyed this story; I like the growth that Freya goes through as she tries to discover what kind of queen she will be. Her feeling as she tries to deal with being manipulated into being a figure head are a fascinating element of the story. There is some romance but it is not the main focus of the entire book.


Thursday, March 30, 2017

Alcatraz versus the Knights of Crystallia

Alcatraz versus the Knights of Crystallia
By Brandon Sanderson
Scholastic Press, 2009. 299 pages. Young Adult

After an extended detour to the Library of Alexandria, Alcatraz finally makes it to the Free Kingdoms. Turns out the librarians haven’t been idle in the meantime. They’ve sent ambassadors to Nalhalla with a treaty that could end the war… as long as the Free Kingdomers are willing to give up Mokia. Though some people think it might be worth it, Alcatraz knows there’s something suspicious going on. After all, you should never trust a librarian.

Sanderson really hits his stride with this third installment in the series. Not only is the plot an interesting change of pace with a bit of political intrigue, but Alcatraz’s comedic asides really come into their own. Each interjection actually enhances rather than detracting from the narrative, and there’s plenty of new material rather than tired tropes. My particular favorite is the way he undercuts the formulaic moral lessons learned throughout the story. Alcatraz is surprised to find that he is a celebrity in Nalhalla, for example, and lets the fame go to his head. Instead of turning this into an unbearable teaching moment, however, Alcatraz’s snarky interjections keep things real. Overall an improvement on #2 and a strong installment in a funny series.


Tuesday, March 28, 2017

One Blood Ruby

One Blood Ruby 
by Melissa Marr
Harper Collins, 2017. 368 pgs. Young Adult.

In this sequel to Seven Black Diamonds, it appears not everyone is happy with Lily Abernathy’s new status as heir to the faery throne or her plan for peace with the human world. Deadly attacks on humans continue with methods that are obviously fae in origin and execution. Then Lily and her friends become targets themselves as they wait for her grandparents to officially declare peace with the humans. As tensions rise in both the Hidden Lands and the human world, will Lily and her friends be able to achieve peace between worlds?

 While not the most engaging read, I did like the follow-up and closure this book gives to Seven Black Diamonds. One Blood Ruby acceptably takes care of the loose ends from the previous book. I enjoyed learning more of the backstory about Lily’s parents, and I liked the added perspective of my favorite character, Lily’s aunt Eilidh. Overall, those that enjoyed reading Seven Black Diamonds should also enjoy the sequel, One Blood Ruby.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Dear Mr. Knightley

Dear Mr. Knightley
By Katherine Reay
Thomas Nelson, 2013. 327 pgs. Fiction

Samantha Moore has had a rough life. The foster care system has failed her more than she can count, and to survive, she has learned to hide behind some of her favorite literary characters, even borrowing their words. These fictional characters have given her an identity so that no one can know the true Sam and cause her even more pain.

After college she has the amazing opportunity to receive a full scholarship to earn her graduate degree from the prestigious Medill School of Journalism. All she has to do is write letters to the anonymous "Mr. Knightly" to tell him of her progress. It is through these letters that she begins to discover her own identity and starts to recognize and strengthen her connection to people around her.

I wasn't sure what to expect when I started this book. I probably shouldn't admit this, but I am not a Jane Austen fan.  This book has so many references to Austen's books, that I wasn't sure I would enjoy it. I loved this book! Sam is a complicated character that is so vulnerable and real. I adored a lot of the side characters too. This is a much deeper novel than I expected and I'm so glad I decided to read it. Who knows, maybe I'll actually start reading some Austen, or at least watch the movies.


Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy
by J.D. Vance
Harper, 2016. 272 pgs. Biography.

Part memoir, part sociological analysis, Hillbilly Elegy tells the story of J.D. Vance, his family, and the poor, discontented rust belt culture in which he was raised. As a young married couple, J.D.’s grandparents moved from Appalachian Kentucky to Ohio in search of a middle class life. In some ways, they succeeded - J.D.’s grandfather found a good job in manufacturing, their children finished high school and some college, and J.D.’s grandmother became a nurse. But in other, more profound ways, the culture of poverty loomed over their lives and the lives of their neighbors, most of whom were also Appalachian transplants. Alcoholism, drug addiction, violence, family dysfunction, and abuse remained, and as manufacturing jobs left the area, poverty returned.

Through the support of his MaMaw, his own hard work, and several fortunate opportunities, J.D. graduated high school, joined the marines, and eventually graduated from Yale Law School. Hillbilly Elegy is at turns moving, funny, and eye opening. I felt like the writing could have benefited from a little more editing and direction, but Vance's insights were so interesting that it didn't bother me too much. His story offers an honest, personal look at poor, white America and a unique perspective on the forces shaping culture and politics today.

- SR

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Alcatraz versus the Scrivener’s Bones

Alcatraz versus the Scrivener’s Bones
By Brandon Sanderson
Scholastic Press, 2008. 322 pages. Young Adult

Alcatraz is back for another sinister library adventure. This time he has to follow a clue about his long-lost father, even though it might lead him to the dreaded Library of Alexandria. The ghoul-like curators are after his soul, and a half-mechanical monstrosity known as a Scrivener’s Bone is after his life. Alcatraz is going to have to outsmart them both, but fortunately he has some allies. Two new Smedries—one with a talent for getting lost and the other with a talent for waking up incredibly ugly in the morning—plus two Crystin make for a formidable team. The team fight their way through the booby-trapped library and even learn a little more about the Smedry Talents on the way.

This volume is very much in keeping with the first book in the series, Alcatraz versus the Evil Librarians. It’s just as silly and ridiculous, and has just as many bizarre asides from Alcatraz. In the first book, Alcatraz attempts to prove that he is not a good person; in this second volume he tries to demonstrate that he is a liar. It actually gets a little irritating that he stops the action at the beginning of each chapter to interject some unrelated nonsense, but if you read the first book then you’re already used to that. The comedy isn’t quite as stellar since the far-fetched librarian conspiracy and the ridiculous Smedry Talents have already been established, but Sanderson definitely keeps things going in a good direction. Overall I think that this is a solid installment and the series is something I’d recommend to anyone looking for something light and humorous.


Monday, March 20, 2017

Lady Cop Makes Trouble

Cover image for Lady cop makes trouble
Lady Cop Makes Trouble
by Amy Stewart
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016, 310 pages, Historical Fiction

When Constance Kopp becomes one of the nation's first deputy sheriffs, she has already proven that she can't be deterred, evaded, or outrun. But when the wiles of a German-speaking con man threaten her position and her hopes for this new life, and endanger the honorable Sheriff Heath, Constance may not be able to make things right. Now she's on the streets of New York City and New Jersey tracking down victims, trailing leads, and making friends with girl reporters and lawyers at a hotel for women. Cheering her on, and goading her, are her sisters Norma and Fleurette.

The first book in this series, Girl Waits with Gun, was one of my favorite books of 2015. Not only is this a fun mystery/action/adventure series, it’s based on the true life story of one of America’s first female sheriffs. While Lady Cop Makes Trouble isn’t as lighthearted as its predecessor (although it still has its moments), it’s still meticulously researched. I was also glad to see that all of the characters had become more fully fleshed-out from the previous book. This is a great book for those who like historical fiction, strong female characters, and intriguing mysteries.