Monday, August 31, 2015

An Age of License

An Age of License
By Lucy Knisley
Fantagraphics Books, 2014. 189 pgs. Graphic Novel

Lucy Knisley has written another nonfiction graphic novel, this one being a sort of travelogue of a trip to Europe where she was invited as a speaker at a comics conference, experienced a romance, and visited friends in Germany and France. The trip was colored by Knisley's self-introspection, facing a point of her life where she is faced with many choices that have the potential to guide her into different paths of adulthood. The theme is nicely touched on throughout the book and reflected in the title. I enjoy Knisley's work, I related to a lot of her experiences, and I believe she is getting better at telling her stories with meaning and heart.


The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train
Paula Hawkins
Riverhead Books, 2015. 323 pgs. Fiction

Rachel takes the same train into London each morning, and as she stares out the window she looks forward to seeing "Jason and Jess" - a couple whose actual names she doesn't know, but who she frequently sees breakfasting on their deck.  She has begun to daydream about the ideal lives they must lead, until one day when she sees something shocking.  Unable to let the matter rest, Rachel tells the police what she knows, and unwittingly embroils herself into a chilling mystery.

Part character study and part murder mystery, this has been frequently compared to Gone Girl for its dark tone and thrilling pace. Though it starts slow, readers will want to stick with it to see how it all ends.


Royal Wedding

Royal Wedding
By Meg Cabot
William Morrow, 2015. 436 pages. Fiction

The Princess Diaries series gets an update with this book about Princess Mia, now twenty six, living and working in New York City and managing a number of royal engagements - including hers to her longtime boyfriend Michael.  But of course nothing is ever simple for Mia as family drama and media fervor intensify.

If you read the whole Princess Diaries series, you will probably enjoy this update into Princess Mia's life. Many familiar story arcs from the previous books show up along with one or two curve balls, but readers shouldn't expect anything too groundbreaking. The book is still "clean" although Mia does have a "modern" relationship with her boyfriend, so teens can still read this although it's labeled for the adult section now. Readers who enjoyed Mia's character will find her personality slightly more mature but still as kind-hearted as ever as she, sometimes clumsily, tries to improve the world and lives around her.


Mike's Place: A True Story of Love, Blues, and Terror in Tel Aviv

Mike's Place:  A True Story of Love, Blues, and Terror in Tel Aviv
By Jack Baxter
First Second Books, 2015. 189 pages. Graphic Novel

Mike's Place is a blues bar on the beachfront in Tel Aviv.  Jack Baxter and his assistant Joshua decide to film a documentary about the bar and how its patrons try to leave the conflicts of politics and religion outside and have a good time.  However, only a few weeks after they begin filming, Mike's Place is the target of a suicide bombing that leaves an indelible mark on the bar.  Jack, Joshua, and the owners of the bar decide to continue filming and finish the story of Mike's Place and its colorful cast of characters.

This is one of the better nonfiction graphic novels out there, weaving story and characters into a compelling narrative that kept me turning pages late into the night.  While this can be a hard story to read, it is told with a lot of heart and a moving resolution.


Friday, August 28, 2015

The Visitors

The Visitors
by Sally Beaumann Harper 2014, 529 pages, Historical Fiction

“The story of the friendship between delicate 11-year-old Lucy, sent from England to recover from typhus in sun-glazed Egypt, and a girl she meets there, the daughter of an American archaeologist who hover on the fringes of the 1922 discovery of King Tutankhamen's tomb in the Valley of the Kings.”

Tutankhamen! Although these are both topics I know little about, they are exotic and fascinating, and I enjoyed the picture Beaumann paints of the romance and excitement surrounding the discovery of King Tut’s tomb.  You can feel the heat in the air, and the tension over who will find the treasure first.  Beaumann also paints a picture involving the shadier parts of the time period (the problems of Colonialism, for one), which helped bring a richness and a fullness to the story it would have lacked otherwise.

The story lost me a little because it jumps back and forth in the timeline of the main character’s life instead of sticking with her time in Egypt. However, the story of the discovery of Tutankhamen’s tomb is fascinating enough that I stuck with it. Read at least the Egyptian parts if the other portions of the book drag for you.


Everything, Everything

Everything, Everything
by Nicola Yoon
Delacorte Books for Young Readers, 2015. 320 pages. Young Adult

Ever since she was diagnosed with Severe Combined Immunodeficiency, or "bubble baby" disease, eighteen-year-old Madeline Whittier hasn't been able to leave her house. Her world's made up of two people: Her physician mother, and her nurse, Carla. Quite literally allergic to everything, Maddy's days are full of tutors who instruct her via Skype, books (lots and lots of books, no matter how much you've read, Maddy's read more than you), and Fonetik Skabbl games with her mother.

It's not until a new family moves in next door--bringing Olly into Maddy's world, a boy seemingly made of kinetic energy--that Maddy has her first encounter with someone outside her very insular life. Through a series of jokes involving an indestructible Bundt cake, Olly manages to get Maddy's email address. Emails lead to late-night IM chats, which lead to Maddy persuading Carla to let Olly into the airtight house (secretly, of course) . . . which leads Maddy to question everything about her existence, including the validity of a life lived in a bubble, without risk or without love.

Everything, Everything has been one of the most buzzed-about young adult books of 2015, and deservedly so; it's not often I pick up a book with the intention to read the first few pages, only to find myself turning the last one hours later. Despite the trials she faces, Maddy is a relentlessly optimistic, witty, and intelligent narrator, and her love for literature is apparent from the first page. Her relationship with her mother and nurse, Carla, are warm and believable, as is the gentle development of her relationship with Olly. I especially appreciated the subtle parallels Yoon drew between Maddy and space travel/astronauts, highlighting Maddy's alienation and separation from the rest of the world.

The artwork and mixed-media presentation of IM chats, emails, plane tickets, and other miscellany make this a great read for reluctant readers, too. Also of note: Maddy is biracial, half Japanese and half African-American, and Yoon handles (and celebrates) Maddy's heritage beautifully on the page. A must-read for YA contemporary fiction fans.


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Finding Audrey

Finding Audrey
by Sophie Kinsella
Delacorte Press, 2015. 286 pgs. Young Adult Fiction

After an incident at school leaves fourteen-year-old Audrey with social anxiety, she wears dark sunglasses nearly all the time to keep from facing the world both literally and figuratively. Her therapist and parents are gently trying to help her progress but with few results.

When Audrey meets her brother, Frank's, computer gamer friend, Linus, he is exactly what she needs. Linus doesn't judge or pity her. Soon Audrey finds herself more determined to start the healing process. However, things go comically awry when Audrey's mother reads about the bad affects of computer gaming in the Daily Mail and forces Frank and his friends, who have been practicing nonstop for an upcoming international gaming competition, to stop playing.

Author of the popular Shopaholic series, this is Sophie Kinsella's first foray into Young Adult fiction. Many YA novels focus on family dynamics but usually with absentee or overbearing parents. Kinsella's novel focuses on the whole family with all of its humor and dysfunction. Though I found the ending to be a little too neat and tidy, overall I thoroughly enjoy this novel.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Lost Lake

by Sarah Addison Allen
St. Martin's Press, 2014.  296 pgs. Fiction.

Immobilized by the death of her husband, Kate Pheris has been living in a fog.  Her domineering mother-in-law, Cricket, has moved in to care for Kate and Kate's daughter, Devin, and now she wants them to leave their home for a fresh start with her.  As Kate prepares to move, however, she finds an old postcard from her Aunt Eby inviting her to Lost Lake.  On a whim, Kate packs up Devin and hurries out to the lake, only to discover that Eby plans to sell her property there.

Lost Lake was a charming read much like Sarah Addison Allen’s other works.  Her descriptions are beautiful and make me want to live in a little Southern town.  The nostalgic feel, romantic plot, and mildly magical elements of the story also add to its appeal.  Overall, Lost Lake is a great choice for someone looking for a pleasant end of summer read.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Princess of the Silver Woods

Princess of the Silver Woods
by Jessica Day George
Bloomsbury Children's Books, 2012.  322 pgs. Young Adult Fiction.

Though King Gregor’s twelve daughters still experience terrible nightmares, years have passed since they were freed from the curse that forced them to dance night after night at King Under Stone’s Midnight Ball.  Sixteen year old Petunia, the youngest princess, travels across Westfalin to visit an elderly countess and her handsome grandson, Prince Grigori.  Along the way, she is taken captive by a group of charitable bandits and uncovers terrible secrets.  In this loose take on both the Little Red Riding Hood and Robin Hood stories, Jessica Day George wraps up her princess series.

Even though I was a big reader of fairy tale retellings in middle school and high school, I somehow missed out on Jessica Day George.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed discovering her works as an adult.  Her fantasy world is well structured and easy to picture, and her characters are well-developed and relatable.  In Princess of the Midnight Ball and especially Princess of Glass, the endings felt rushed, and I had to reread a little to make sure I had caught what happened.  Because of this, I was especially happy to see that Princess of the Silver Woods had a detailed, well-paced, satisfying conclusion.

Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a Watchman
by Harper Lee
Harper, 2015. 278 pgs. Fiction

“Scout” Finch’s small town Alabama is brought back in “Go Set a Watchman” by Harper Lee.  The story picks up years after the events depicted in “To Kill a Mockingbird” with Jean Louise returning to visit her aging father, Atticus. People and places spark memories as Jean Louise recalls her years growing up happy and safe with a father she idolized and strived to emulate.  But the South is a complicated place, especially during the early days of integration, and the Maycomb of today is not the Maycomb of her childhood. The community’s reaction to the recent Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education shocks and dismays Jean Louise but not nearly as much as the revealed feelings of her beloved Atticus.

I hesitated to both read and then to review this book. I am not a literature major trained to analyze and intelligently critique works such as this. I am just a reader who grew up loving Lee’s classic novel, along with its film adaption. The circumstances surrounding the publication of “Go Set a Watchman” also gave me pause. However, I am so glad I picked it up.  Written as a draft before “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Watchman” is much less polished and, on its own, an inferior novel. On the other hand, I found it to be an interesting and thoughtful opportunity to evaluate a specific time and place and even more so, a wonderful illustration of the dangers of attributing perfection to men. We all have failings and faults. Were he real, Atticus Finch would be no different.  I truly enjoyed this novel despite its shortcomings and controversial origin and also recommend the audio version delightfully read by Reese Witherspoon.


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Advanced Genealogy Research Techniques

Advanced Genealogy Research Techniques
by George G. Morgan and Drew Smith
McGraw Hill Education, 2014. 206 pgs. Nonfiction

A common occurrence when attempting to do genealogy is to run into a “brick wall”—that point at which you just can’t seem to extend the line or find any more information. Morgan & Smith have fashioned their guide around the brick wall concept. First, examine the wall in detail (every crack & irregularity gets examined). The techniques for dealing with the brick wall are clustered around the following ideas: Use Brute Force, Go Around the Wall, Talk to a Friend, Use Crowdsourcing, Apply Technological Solutions, Hire a Demolition Expert, and Rest up and Attack the Brick Wall Another Time. The final chapter instructs on putting all the techniques to work.

This is a welcome addition to the small number of excellent books available that provide guidance to the novice genealogist tackling their brick wall. Clearly written, with examples & illustrations, this volume can serve as a fine introduction to family history. I would recommend this book to anyone beginning their genealogy—whether they’ve come to their first brick wall, or have only just started down the research road.


Johnny Carson

by Henry Bushkin
Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013. 304 pgs. Biography

Johnny Carson was the king of late night TV from 1962 to 1992. A frequent question during those years was “did you see Carson last night?” Charming and funny, Johnny was the best. This biography picks up when Johnny hires Henry Bushkin to be his lawyer in 1970 and continues through the life of their working relationship. Bushkin was not just Johnny’s attorney, but also his tennis partner, business advisor, fixer, confidante, and best friend. In some ways he probably knew Johnny better than Johnny knew Johnny.

A bundle of contradictions, Johnny Carson was preeminently successful as a comedian and talk show host, but detested small talk with people and was remarkably unsuccessful in most all of his business ventures outside of the Tonight Show. Comfortable with an audience he hated social gatherings. He was demanding, inscrutable, and cruel. He was also extremely generous and caring. Carson was complex and Bushkin does a good job telling the story, explaining some of the mystery, and sharing some laughs along the way.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Billion Dollar Spy: A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal

The Billion Dollar Spy:  A True Story of Cold War Espionage and Betrayal
by David E. Hoffman
Doubleday, 2015.  312 pgs.  Biography.

In February of 1978, Adolf Tolkachev, a design engineer for the Soviet military, stood outside the gates of the U.S. Embassy in Moscow waiting for a car to come out. When the section chief of the CIA emerged, Tolkachev tapped on his window and delivered an envelope filled with a startling array of secret Soviet military plans. Through succeeding years different operatives at the Moscow station worked with Tolkachev to convey information worth billions of dollars to the United States' military as they were able to spend their money to counter only those things which the Soviet Union was actually developing. Tolkachev, whose wife's parents had been killed in the Stalinist purges, was deeply disaffected with his country's repressive politics, and though he asked for money for the materials he was sharing, it was mainly to gauge their value, and he mostly requested rock and roll albums for his son, and Western books about Russia for himself. Taking extraordinary risks, Tolkachev reliably delivered state secrets for years until his downfall, not because he was caught by his own people, but because of treachery from an unlikely source in the West. The Billion Dollar Spy is a compulsively readable book about a brave, good man who acted upon his principles to change the course of the Cold War and of U.S.-Soviet history.


The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics

The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics
by Barton Swaim
Simon and Schuster, 2015.  204 pgs. Nonfiction

Barton Swaim worked for nearly four years as a speechwriter for former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford  (best-known for his disappearance several years ago when he claimed to be hiking the Appalachian Trail alone but was really in Argentina with his mistress). Swaim, with a doctorate in English, couldn't get a better job than sticking call numbers on the backs of books at the library (not that there's anything wrong with that), and was thrilled to get a slightly better paying job with the governor. He learned early on that it was not his responsibility to produce well-written talks, but to figure out what the governor wanted to say, as the governor would say it. Swaim got yelled at a lot for sometimes failing to do that, even though the governor could not articulate exactly how he wanted things written either. Governor Sanford was not a restful man to work with, but, refreshingly, Swaim's memoir is neither vindictive nor vengeful. He and his coworkers in the Communications Department of the statehouse do their level best to support their boss, but it is how they support each other that makes The Speechwriter such a funny, perceptive, and knowledgeable read about politics, in a season when politics weight heavily upon us.


Monday, August 17, 2015

The Affinities

The Affinities
by Robert Charles Wilson
Tor, New York, 2015. 300 pp. Fiction

In dire financial straits and facing the prospect of having to return to his backwater home town and much estranged family, Adam Fisk decides to take a battery of psychological tests to determine if he qualifies to join a revolutionary set of social groups called Affinities. He soon finds himself a member of the Tau Affinity, one of the largest of the twenty two cliques, and soon finds himself prospering due to this new network of like-minded people. As the various Affinities grow in size and influence, their financial and political clout threaten to destabilize states and societies. The plot takes off quickly and the story is a true page turner throughout. The author nicely plays with the themes of identity, the evolving nature of relationships and how social media and technology allow for increasingly specialized social groups to emerge.


Friday, August 14, 2015

The Truth According to Us

The Truth According to Us
By Annie Barrows
The Dial Press, 2015. 491 pgs. Fiction

In 1938, Willa Romeyn is thirteen years old and just discovering how much of the world she doesn't understand.  Through the hot summer months, she is on a mission to use her natural gift for stealth to discover the secrets kept by the adults in her life.  This same summer finds Layla Beck, daughter of a distinguished senator, banished to Willa's hometown of Macedonia, West Virginia, on relief and employed to write a history of the tiny community.  The lives of both Willa and Layla will never be the same as events during this pivotal summer bring to the light long kept secrets of both betrayal and love.

This is a new novel by the co-author of "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society".  I admit to loving her first novel more than this one, but I still enjoyed it.  It's longer and a little more meandering but takes place in a charming community filled with endearing characters.  Barrows also includes several letters and correspondence between characters which I loved.  I listened to the audio version, which was fantastic, and will surely be recommending this novel to readers who enjoyed "Guernsey" or are looking for light historical fiction.


Saturday, August 8, 2015

Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery

Do No Harm:  Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery
by Henry Marsh
New York: St. Martin's, 2014. 276 pgs.

Henry Marsh is a British neurosurgeon who uses this book to describe, by way of various cases throughout his career, how incredibly difficult brain surgery is, and how terrible the consequences of mistakes and bad luck. Although his tone and manner suggest that he has the ego necessary for someone taking on such a profession, he rats himself out plenty. Stories of a young woman who was paralyzed on her right side for no apparent reason, after his surgery or of a former patient he sees curled in a fetal position at a nursing home a number of years after an unsuccessful surgery haunt him. When he is chosen to be interviewed for a television show he tells so many stories of sorrows and disasters in the prep interviews that the producers finally ask him for something more cheerful, which he is able to provide an account of a young pregnant woman who was going blind from a tumor pressing against her optic nerve. Her baby was delivered Caesarean before the operation began, and the delicate operation was performed with such precision that she regained her sight completely. Though Dr. Marsh was very detailed in his explanations, I sometimes wished for something more - when the liquid has to be siphoned from around the brain to make room for the surgeon's instruments, how is it reconstituted, for example? Poignant stories of his own son's brain tumor, and his mother's death from cancer are deeply felt sections of Marsh's text. I really liked this book and learned a lot from it. It is sometimes heartening, and often sad; the controlling principle of the book seems to be that one must make mistakes to learn from them and to become better, but that mistakes in Dr. Marsh's business can have harrowing consequences. Dr. Marsh also takes sometimes humorous, often maddened exception to Britain's National Health Service stupidities.  An excellent read.


Friday, August 7, 2015

How We Got To Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World
By Steven Johnson
Riverhead Books, 2014. 293 pgs. Nonfiction

Examining by turns glass, cold, sound, clean, time, and light, Steven Johnson traces how technological innovations ripple out and create unexpected effects in human society. For example, improvements in the technology of glass making led to developments in lenses, from which followed telescopes to view the heavens and inexpensive mirrors to allow humans to look more closely at themselves. The book is fascinating and wonderful and could only have been improved by being longer. This is wonderful, readable nonfiction for adults and teens.


I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives

I Will Always Write Back: How One Letter Changed Two Lives
By Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda
Little, Brown and Company, 2015.  392 pgs. Young Adult Nonfiction

Caitlin, who was usually bored in school, was intrigued when her teacher offered students a chance to write to pen pals. She drew the name of a boy in Zimbabwe and immediately wrote to him.  Martin, living in extreme poverty, could barely afford the paper and stamps to write back but he did, promising his new pen pal that he would always write back.  The alternating chapters of this book, told by Martin and Caitlin, show how even a long distance relationship can change lives.  Caitlin gradually comes to realize how very poor Martin’s family is and decides to do something to help; Martin’s is amazed and grateful for Caitlin’s friendship, and redoubles his effort to always be at the top of his class and attend college. I highly recommend this wonderful book to adults and teens.


Wednesday, August 5, 2015

The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue

The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue
By David Sax
PublicAffairs, 2014. 336 pgs. Nonfiction

Have you ever wondered why kale was unheard of one day and everywhere the next? And why did fondue ever go out of style, but bacon mania seems here to stay? In this fascinating book, author David Sax tracks the history and influences of food trends throughout the last few decades. The result is a surprising and fun exposition of the farmers, media stars, marketing powerhouses, and corporate moguls who try to predict and sometimes decide what makes it to your supermarket shelves or drive-thru menu.

As both a food lover and sociology buff, this book was a fascinating read for me. It never crossed my mind before to wonder how kiwis went from an obscure fruit only found in New Zealand to something you could buy at any grocery store. This was an eye-opening explanation of the hidden forces that shape what we eat every day.


Tuesday, August 4, 2015

The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story

The Astronaut Wives Club: A True Story 
By Lily Koppel
Grand Central Publishing, 2014. 320 pgs. Nonfiction

Lily Koppel’s New York Times bestselling book is about the wives of the first American astronauts. The story begins with Louise Shepard -- whose husband was the first American in space -- Betty Grissom, Rene Carpenter, Jo Schirra, Marge Slayton, Annie Glenn, and Trudy Cooper who were the wives of the Mercury seven astronauts. These women were the first members of the Astronaut Wives Club, as well as the the first women to discover the ups and downs of being married to an American hero. Kopple’s story then expands to include the wives of the Gemini and Apollo Astronauts who pioneered everything from two-man space flights to moon landings. Koppel uses articles from Life Magazine as well as journal entries and letters to show what life was like for these fascinating women both while they were on the national stage and when they were behind closed doors.

Kopple’s book was a fun read. I enjoyed the overall look at American culture in the 1960s and 70s almost as much as the interesting little peeks into the lives of each individual woman. However, Kopple did have quite a bit of material to cover in so few pages and readers can tell. Although Kopple’s book is at times too much fact without enough story, it was still worth reading. I would especially suggest this book to readers interested in space, women in history, 1960s American culture, and of course any fans of the recently adapted television show.


Monday, August 3, 2015

At the Water's Edge: A Novel

At The Water’s Edge: A Novel 
By Sara Gruen
Spiegel & Grau, 2015. 369 pgs. Fiction.

Sara Gruen -- well known author of Water for Elephants -- is a master of transporting readers to a different time and place. In Gruen’s latest novel, she leaves behind the 1920s traveling circus and instead takes readers to the 1940s Scottish highlands. In this story, Madeline and Ellis Hyde escape social and familial chaos by embarking on an adventure to Scotland as they search for proof of the Loch Ness monster. Through the course of their adventure, Madeline is brought to startling realizations about the real toll of World War II as well as realizations about her marriage.

I enjoyed Gruen’s novel. As in her previous novels, Gruen creates characters and settings that really bring these periods to life. And similar to Water for Elephants, Gruen includes a prologue that will have readers hooked by page one! All in all this is a fun and engrossing read, but readers should be aware that this book contains language and sexual content similar to that found in Gruen’s previous novels.


Saturday, August 1, 2015

Rendezvous with Rama

Rendezvous with Rama
By Arthur C. Clarke
Spectra, 1990. 288pgs. Science Fiction

Just a few hundred years in the future, an enormous cylindrical object enters our solar system, making a beeline for the sun. As it’s the first proof of extraterrestrial intelligence ever encountered, Earth and its colonies nickname the mysterious vessel “Rama” and decide to send their nearest spacecraft to explore it. As the astronauts scramble to make a safe and scientific exploration of the vessel, they are racing against time as Rama hurtles ever closer to the sun.

Rendezvous with Rama is unique in its scope and execution for a science fiction novel. Instead of bizarre aliens, explosions, deep space, and ray guns, this book a small-scale, very realistic story of what would happen should an enormous alien vessel start passing through our solar system. Clarke’s language is simple but very descriptive as he takes you along on an incredible journey into an alien spaceship.


A Worthy Pursuit

A Worthy Pursuit
By Karen Witemeyer
Bethany House, 2015. 341 pgs. Romance

Stone Hammond is the best tracker around and he figures he'll make some easy money when a rich railroad investor hires him to find his granddaughter. What he doesn't count on is Charlotte Atherton. She was headmistress of Sullivan's Academy for Exceptional Youth before it closed its doors and now she will do anything to protect the little girl who was entrusted to her care. Stone soon discovers that things aren't as black and white as he thought they were and he must decide what to do about it.

I really enjoy Karen Witemeyer's books. Her characters are easy to relate to and I know that I'll be able to sit back and enjoy myself. This particular book was more suspenseful then some of her others but that made me enjoy it even more. I also like that I don't have to worry about any objectionable content when I read her books.