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.



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.


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.



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.


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Cress (Lunar Chronicles #3)

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!


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.


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.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



Cover image for 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.


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

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