Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth

Evolution: The Story of Life on Earth 
By Jay Hosler
Hill and Wang, 2011. 150 pgs. Graphic Novel

When Glargalian astronomers discovered Earth, they began researching the planet to understand how life evolved over billions of years so that they could better understand how their own species was changing. The scientist Bloort-183 has been tasked with showing the new holographic exhibit demonstrating Earth’s evolution to King Floorsh-727 and Prince Floorsh-418. Full of questions and answers, Bloort takes the King and Prince on a detailed journey of how life on Earth has evolved, and is still evolving.

When I first started this book I was a little skeptical. An alien species learning about Earth’s evolution because they don’t quite understand their own? It’s a little farfetched, but if you can put that aside it was actually a very interesting explanation of how life on Earth has changed and adapted to become what it is today. Clear visual representations and explanations make this book very accessible to a wide audience, and it’s great introductory material for the process of evolution. I especially appreciated the pop-culture references and puns. It made me laugh as I read. Overall, I really enjoyed this book and would easily recommend it.


Saturday, May 28, 2016

Shadows of Self

Shadows of Self (Mistborn #5)
By Brandon Sanderson
Tor, 2015. 383 pgs. Fantasy

Shadows of Self follows after The Alloy of Law in the Mistborn series. It picks up with Wax, Wayne and Marasi, as they continue to try to protect the citizens of Scandrial. The society is still not stable as technology and magic mix and four main religions vie for followers. Things become more unstable when strategic acts of terrorism threaten to stir up labor and religious conflicts. Wax must find the source of this unrest before the it puts a stop to all the progress Scandrial has made.

I liked seeing the further progress of Scandrial. I wish I would have reread The Alloy of Law again before reading this book because I had forgotten many of the characters and plot points that would have made this all make a lot more sense. There are many references to the original characters from the past society described in  Mistborn. Brandon Sanderson is a master of creating amazingly detailed magical societies and he doesn't disappoint with this book.


Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Conspiracy of Us

The Conspiracy of Us
by Maggie Hall
G. P. Putnam's Sons, 2015, 330 pages, Young Adult Fiction

Sixteen-year-old Avery West tries to live under the radar. But when Avery discovers her long-lost father is part of a powerful and dangerous secret society called the Circle, and that she just might hold the key to an ancient prophecy, everything changes. Suddenly, Avery is drawn into a world of money, privilege, and power. Determined to figure out her place in this new world, Avery follows a trail of clues spanning from Paris to Istanbul and back. But the more Avery uncovers, the more questions are raised, and Avery isn’t sure who to trust.

This is a fast-paced, action-packed book with a bit of romance that a few reviewers have described as a Young Adult version of The Da Vinci Code. The description is apt, although The Conspiracy of Us focuses more on the glamor and power of the society Avery’s been dragged into than it does on following clues to the final mystery. In fact, as the first book in a trilogy, there are a lot of unanswered questions as well as an intriguing cliffhanger ending, and I was glad that the second book in the series, Map of Fates, has already been released, and that the third book is set to come out next year.

Fans of Keira Cass, Ally Carter, and Marissa Meyer will love The Conspiracy of Us.

The Court and the World

The Court and the World
By Stephen Breyer
Knopf; Reprint edition (September 15, 2015) 400 pages Nonfiction

Justice Breyer’s analysis of the effect on and by the American justice system and the Supreme Court involving foreign influences appeals both to historical and contemporary examples. His hypothesis is that the reality of globalization necessitates the reliance on foreign law in decisions reached by courts in the United States.

Given the premise of the book and the author, it is no surprise that The Court and the World is packed with dense legalese. Breyer tries to be objective in his presentation of events and his arguments; when he discusses decisions in which he played a part, he notes how he voted and respects the dissenting votes of his colleagues. However, he gives little credence to the opposing view that drawing on international laws for domestic issues threatens the doctrine of self-governance. The Court and the World is an interesting read for any who are interested in the Supreme Court or in international politics, but it is neither a comprehensive nor a balanced view of the issue.

In light of Justice Scalia's death, I found the account of FDR's court packing scheme (which raised the number of justices from 9 to 15) and other historical information about the court as interesting as the concepts they were used to illustrate.


The Long Earth

The Long Earth
by Terry Pratchett
Harper Collins, 2012. Science Fiction. 336 pgs.

In the first of four collaborative works, Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter weave a tale of exploration in the modern age. When a way to ‘step’ east or west into an infinite series of parallel earths is published on the Internet, it sparks a wave of pioneers uprooting their lives to explore and settle the Long Earth. A gifted stepper pairs with a new AI to explore the Long Earth and see what new dangers await humanity.

Pratchett and Baxter work well together to create a curious if sometimes dry hypothetical scenario. Pratchett’s dialogue will remind readers of the dry wit of his Discworld series while Baxter’s ideas keep the reader grounded in the plausible given the premise of the story. The outlook of the plot is based on a negative view of human nature; the main characters are more cynical than they need be throughout the book. In addition, the two British authors focus on primarily American politics when the topic is raised; the result is clumsy and erring on the side on arbitrary villain. Religious questions are handled slightly better, but scorn or indifference are the rule. The is intriguing and full of surprises, but the personal bias of the authors overshadows some of the character development.

I listened to the audio-book narrated by Michael Fenton-Stevens, and he rises to the challenge of multiple perspectives. He uses unique voices for each character and manages believable accents for the different regional backgrounds.


Monday, May 23, 2016

Station 11

By Emily St. John Mandel
Knopf, 2014. 336 pgs. Fiction

Fifteen years after a pandemic flu wiped out most of civilization, Shakespeare lives on as the most requested playwright. Twenty-something Kirsten performs Shakespeare as a member of the traveling symphony, who tours the settlements of survivors throughout the US. She is asked often about her last real day before the pandemic hit, when famous Hollywood actor Arthur Leander died of a heart attack on the stage of King Lear. Kirsten would not have suspected that their stop in St. Deborah by the Water, home to a violent prophet, may be her last.

Station 11 is a quiet, meandering, and character-driven novel, contrary to how the plot summary may sound. Written in a nonlinear format, it alternates between the past, the present, and the perspectives of several different characters. The chapters are short and concise, and for the most part the transitions between them are seamless, although they didn't always hold my interest evenly.

The devastated world and the characters – all connected in some way to Arthur Leander and the graphic novel Station 11 - are strangely fascinating. For the most part I felt like it was a realistic interpretation of what a world without government, technology or electricity would look like. The loose ends come together poignantly at the novel’s conclusion, quietly proving the symphony’s motto: Because survival is insufficient.


Above the Waterfall

Above the Waterfall
By Ron Rash
Ecco, 2015. 252 pgs.  Mystery

Les is a retiring sheriff in a small Appalachian town.  Becky is a local park ranger who finds peace from a traumatic past through her love of nature and the wilderness she stewards.  Their relationship, tenuous and undefined already, is strained to a breaking point when a cranky mountain resident is accused of poisoning a trout stream.

Becky stands solidly behind the old man as he professes his innocence, but Les, having spent his life in the small community, understands better the deep resentments certain residents have for each other.  The small town is being torn apart by a flagging economy and a deadly crystal meth trade. Finding the truth will require all his years of experience.

Above the Waterfall was more of a detective story than I was expecting.  After reading Rash’s Serena and The Cove, I was expecting something a bit darker and more complicated, but still enjoyed the lovely prose and vividly described mountain setting.


Friday, May 20, 2016


By Colm Toibin
New York, Scribner, 2009. 262 pages. Fiction.

Set in 1950s, a young Irish girl, Eilis Lacey, is sent by her family to Brooklyn to seek an education and opportunities that she’d not be privileged to in her small Irish town. Though she’s not entirely keen on the move, and feels her older, more outgoing and adventurous sister might be better suited for the trip, she goes anyway. Eilis finds work in a storefront and enrolls in bookkeeping classes, and even meets a nice boy to spend time with. Things are going swimmingly for her, but as we know, it can’t always stay that way. 

The descriptions in this book were so engaging, they had a way of making the seemingly ordinary, even mundane aspects of life seem vibrant and vivid. Since much of the narration comes by way of Eilis’ thoughts, it was easy to feel connected to her and to commiserate with her coming of age tale, as she experienced life in a new place, far from the familiar. 

I was curious about this book as the movie adaptation was nominated for a 2016 Oscar. I’m glad I read the book first because I enjoyed it immensely. Now, to see if the adage “the book was better” holds up in this case as well.


Wednesday, May 18, 2016

The Summer Before the War

The Summer Before the War
By Helen Simonson
Random House, 2016. 496 pgs. Fiction

Beatrice Nash, in mourning for her father, moves to the tiny coastal town of Rye, England in the summer of 1914 to work as a Latin teacher. A single, well-educated (some say overly-educated) young woman with limited income, she struggles against the limitations her status and gender place upon her. As the summer passes and war looms, she develops a close friendship with Agatha Kent, a prominent and free-thinking member of Rye society, and Agatha’s two adult nephews, Hugh and Daniel.

I loved this book. The witty and pointed social commentary, clever characterizations, subtle feminism, and small-town English setting reminded me of a Jane Austen novel, and I was sad to say goodbye to the characters as it came to an end. Helen Simonson’s wry humor was delightful, but she also depicts the horrors of war with heart wrenching clarity. Downton Abbey enthusiasts who miss the Dowager Countess or fans of Simonson’s earlier novel, Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand are sure to enjoy this new release.


The Happiness Project

The Happiness Project
By Gretchen Rubin
Harper, 2009. 301 pgs. Nonfiction

I've read several of Gretchen Rubin's books already and have enjoyed each one. I actually read Happier at Home, her follow up to this title a few years ago, but finally picked up The Happiness Project. I've particularly enjoyed listening to Gretchen Rubin's books because she reads them and I feel like that adds to the experience of reading the book.

Rubin talks about spending a year living specific resolutions she set for herself. Each month she adds additional resolutions and recounts her successes and failures. Bolstered by her experience, I'm anxious to start my own happiness project, not just think about it as I have over the past few years!


Monday, May 16, 2016

More Than the Tattooed Mormon

More Than the Tattooed Mormon
By Al Carraway
CFI, 2015. 150 pgs. Biography

Al Carraway who blogs at alfoxshead.blogspot.com tells about her conversion to the LDS church and the trials and blessings that came with that decision. She talks about how her appearance made her feel judged by some members of the church and how she overcame the loneliness associated with her family and friends not agreeing with her decision to be baptized.

I have read several of Al's blog posts and even heard her speak when I lived in DC. Although I'd heard much of her story before, this book gave me a lot to think about. Al intersperses scriptures with her conversion story and encourages the reader to strengthen their own personal relationship with God.


Friday, May 13, 2016

Leviathan Wakes

Leviathan Wakes
By James S.A. Corey
New York: Orbit, 2011. 582 pp. Science Fiction

Far into the future, humanity has spread throughout the solar system, colonized Mars, the moons of Jupiter and Saturn as well as the asteroid belt. Tensions between these people have grown as they change and are changed by their adopted worlds.

Responding to a distress call from an abandoned ship, Jim Holden, the first officer of a interplanetary ice-hauler Canterbury, is sent to investigate the Scopuli. A mysterious ship appears and destroys the Canterbury without provocation.

Miller, a detective stationed on Ceres, a major trading hub in the Belt as well as being a hotbed of revolutionary fervor, is asked to track down the rebellious daughter of a major industrial clan. Immersing himself in the case, he discovers her affiliation with the the seditious OPA and tracks her last known location to the Scopuli.

Each man, initially pursuing his own agenda, finds himself enmeshed in a conspiracy surrounding an alien artifact that threatens to destroy humanity even as its potential tempts those who would use it for their own purposes.

This is the first volume in what is anticipated will be a nine volume series. A list of published volumes can be found here. This is a quite entertaining, fast paced read. It combines some hard sci-fi elements with a touch of horror and noir genres as well, resulting in some fascinating world-building. I would recommend this to anyone who loves epic, engaging multi volume science fiction. If you enjoyed this, you might also like John Scalzi's Old Man War series or Ann Leckie's Imperial Radch trilogy.


Thursday, May 12, 2016

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End
By Atul Gawande
Metropolitan Books, 2014. 282 pages. Nonfiction

Thanks to modern medicine, people are living long, full lives. But despite the many strides and miracles of medicine, the never-ending barrage of procedures and treatments can actually increase the pain of the dying. Medicine is about more than ensuring survival, it is about enabling well-being. Being Mortal discusses how our healthcare system has failed us and how medicine can be a comfort and asset in death as well as in life.

This book brought me to tears several times but its ominous title makes the subject matter sound more difficult than it actually is. I was hooked from the first chapter on the history of assisted living and nursing homes. The facts Gawande presents along with his personal experiences as a practicing surgeon are not only informative and engaging, but offer new perspectives on mortality. Upon finishing his book, I feel more empathy towards the aging and the terminally ill and better equipped to handle the eventual failing health of myself and those around me.


Tuesday, May 10, 2016

What is Not Yours is Not Yours

By Helen Oyeyemi
New York: Riverhead Books 2016. 325 pages. Fiction.

What do a flaming tyrant, a young puppeteer who enters the profession to woo his love interest, a man with a knife in his chest who calls to say he’ll be late for dinner, a teenage girl with a celebrity crush which turns to scandal, a woman who sneaks into a library at night, and a weight loss spa where patients are put into drug-induced comas have in common? Seemingly nothing, until Helen Oyeyemi gets a hold of them.

For a break from the traditional novel, I picked up this collection of nine short stories, where each is connected to the next by keys, doors, secrets, mystery, desire, and a little magic. The stories stands on their own well, but the book’s tone and themes carry throughout, drawing the reader in as move forward to see how the stories will connect or relate. Oyeyemi’s writing is beautiful and imaginative, and draws the reader in with ease. This was a book I could not put down and I would highly recommend. 


Monday, May 9, 2016

The Girl in the Red Coat

The Girl in the Red Coat
by Kate Hamer
Melville House, 2016. 336 pgs. Fiction.

Eight-year-old Carmel has a tendency to slip away from her mother, but she has always been easily found before. One foggy morning at a children’s festival, however, Beth and Carmel become separated. When the mist clears, Carmel is missing. As Beth searches endlessly for her daughter and tries to reconstruct her own life, Carmel endures a bizarre and transient existence with her new “family.”

I’ve heard The Girl in the Red Coat compared to The Girl on the Train or Gone Girl, but it didn’t seem nearly as intense as those reads to me.  From the beginning, you know what has happened to Carmel, and she doesn't seem to be in immediate danger.  Instead of writing a thriller, author Kate Hamer has chosen to beautifully explore the emotions of the separated mother and child. Because of this, fans of Room or The Lovely Bones are likely to enjoy this debut novel. I found it hard to put down and finished reading in only a couple of days. My only complaint is that I would have liked more, since the ending left me terribly curious about the aftermath.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016


Cover image for Eligible : a novel
by Curtis Sittenfeld
Random House, 492 pages, 2016, General Fiction

Returning with her sister, Jane, to their Ohio hometown when their father falls ill, New York magazine editor Lizzy Bennett confronts her younger sisters' football fangirl antics, a creepy cousin's unwanted attentions, and the infuriating standoffish manners of a handsome neurosurgeon.

Did you hear that? That’s the sound of a few of my co-workers yelling at me for writing this review. Usually when I know someone else in the library will likely read and review the same book, I’ll try to review something else. But I need to talk about this book with people! Please tell me what to think about it! I mean you, too, co-workers!

This book is the latest in a project to have different authors update Jane Austen novels, and it’s the most successful adaptation for me so far. Sittenfeld does something most Austen-inspired novelists don’t; she acknowledges Austen’s sharp wit. Liz and her family are all sarcastic and flippant, just as they are in Austen’s original novel (Pride and Prejudice). Sittenfeld also really updates the novel, filling it chock-full of contemporary issues ripped from the headlines.

Because the novel is so updated, I’m not sure it will appeal to everyone. In fact, it took me a bit to warm up to the novel. But the more I think about it, the more I like it because Sittenfeld did such a good job of staying true to the spirit of the original while also making it modern. I’d love to hear what others think of this.


Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Eat, Pray, Love

Eat, pray, love one woman's search for everything across Italy, India, and Indonesia
By Elizabeth Gilbert
Penguin Books, 2006. 334 pages. Biography, Nonfiction.

Eat, pray, love is an engrossing biography about finding oneself after tragedy and change. In rather rash turn of events, Elizabeth Gilbert finds herself newly divorced, heartbroken from a passionate love affair and in real need of some soul searching. She begins her journey in Italy where she has taken a vow of celibacy, focusing instead on learning Italian and eating- eating lots and lots of pizza. After gorging herself in the rich Italian culture, Liz makes her way to India where she spends time focusing on her spiritual self. There she practices meditation, yoga and sheds her newly acquired pizza weight, as she muddles through her emotional issues. Next she is off to Indonesia where she unexpectedly meets a man and slowly falls in love again. With each new place she meets people that help her learn and grow to arrive at a more confident, happy and self-aware state of becoming.

As I read this book I couldn’t put it down. Learning about the various countries made me have serious wander-lust and crave that kind of cultural immersion. I have been a yoga fan for years, so the idea of in-depth yoga retreat sounds hard and exciting. I am a sucker for a love story, especially when the woman is not expecting a relationship to appear.  However, since finishing the book the whole thing seems rather self-indulgent and fantastical. Most people cannot drop their entire life, no matter how hard it becomes, to go on this kind of exceptional adventure. It is an entertaining read, but I would caution readers to avoid equating themselves to the author, or aspiring to have similar experiences.


The Power of Everyday Missionaries

The Power of Everyday Missionaries: the what and how of sharing the gospel
By Clayton M. Christensen
Deseret Book, 2013. 152 pages. Nonfiction.

This book gives very practical ‘how-to’ advice to be a successful member missionary. After service as a full-time missionary,  life can easily become too busy for meaningful missionary service, but Christensen teaches, from personal experience, how to overcome obstacles inherent to modern life and missionary work. Finding people to teach is the hardest part of missionary work and most members of the church do not realize or accept responsibility that they should be the finders and missionaries are the teachers. By setting time sensitive goals, inviting strangers and friends to hear the missionaries, and by being genuine and forthright, great success can be found. It’s not about the number of people baptized but rather the intent of your heart and efforts in building the kingdom of God that matters.

While serving a full-time mission, I felt confident that when I came home I would just be the kind of member missionary that the missionaries hoped and prayed for. As I read this book I felt inspired and invigorated to share the gospel but also intimidated because it meant a lot more preparation and work on my end than I previously imagined. Christensen shares lifestyle changes and best practices that help him and his family share the gospel. This book is written in a very approachable and applicable way, making the never-ending task of missionary work seem doable and fulfilling.