Thursday, June 30, 2016

Andre the Giant: Life and Legend

Andre the Giant: Life and Legend
by Box Brown
First Second, 2014. 240 pgs. Graphic Novel

Andre Roussimoff, better known as Andre the Giant, was known both for his role as Fezzik in The Princess Bride and for his work and showmanship as a pro-wrestler.  At his peak he weighed 500 pounds and stood nearly seven and a half feet tall.  But his gigantism ultimately ended up costing him years of pain and eventually, his life.  This graphic novel draws from historical records and interviews to paint a picture of this little understood figure.

The author has a real love of the world of pro-wrestling and lovingly recalls moments of excitement and drama from critical matches in Andre's career.  But the book fails to tell the rest of Andre's story with much insight.  It ends up being more of an episodic collection of stories about him.  It's interesting, though, to learn more about the life of this man who so many of us know of but whom we know little about.


Sleeping Giants

Sleeping Giants
By Sylvain Neuvel
Random House, 2016. 373 pgs. Science Fiction

On her eleventh birthday, Rose Franklin leaves her home in Deadwood, South Dakota to go for a bike. Rose suddenly falls through the earth and accidentally discovers the most important artifact of all time – a giant metal hand. Seventeen years later, Rose is an accomplished physicist at the University of Chicago when the artifact finds its way back into her life. Now, with the help of a renegade military pilot and an conceited linguist, Rose must unlock the mysteries behind this artifact and decipher what it might say about those who left it behind.

Sleeping Giants is Sylvain Neuvel’s debut novel, and it is fantastic! This book has already been compared to The Martian and World War Z. The story is told through mission logs, journal entries, and most often through interviews between the main characters and a mysterious interviewer. Because of this format, the reader finds out about key plot points after they've already happened. Despite this removal from the action, the story is extremely compelling and thought provoking. Neuvel kept me guessing right up until the end, and left me anxiously awaiting the sequel -- Waking Gods.


Wednesday, June 29, 2016


by Melissa Landers
Hyperion, 2015. Young Adult 356 pgs.

In this sequel to Alienated, Cara has been shipped off to be an exchange student on Aelyx’s home planet, L’eihr, but Aelyx must remain on Earth to try to improve human-L’eihr relations. Like in the first book where we get to see what humans customs are like through the austere eyes of alien Aelyx, now we get to see what L’eihr is like through human eyes. As if the strict school curriculum and social isolation in her new home weren’t enough to deal with, Cara begins to notice odd things happening on L’eihr and a possible cover-up some of the members of the Way that leaves her suspicious of their true motives. Meanwhile, on Earth, Aelyx narrowly escapes several attempts on his life as he too becomes begins to suspect something is amiss with his superiors.

The mystery as to why the L’eihr are determined to form an alliance with Earth who are their inferiors in every way keeps the plot moving and the chemistry between Aelyx and Cara smolders from a distance. This is a fun read with spunky characters and a creative take on extraterrestrials.


Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less
By Greg McKeown
Crown Business, 2014. 260 pgs. Nonfiction

If you are looking for a straight forward approach to simplifying your life, give this book a try. McKeown, an MBA graduate from Stanford and a motivational speaker succinctly explains how we can start taking control over our own lives. Rather than continually adding to our to-do lists, we need to be more selective in what we say yes to. Although this may be hard at first, in the end we will be happier and more successful.

I enjoyed listening to the author read this book. I found myself agreeing with him on many points and evaluating how I can improve my own life by being selective in what I let into my sphere of influence. The author focuses on how to implement these practices primarily in the business world, but the principles definitely apply to all aspects of our lives.Now comes the hard work of putting these things into practice!


Monday, June 27, 2016

Sword Art Online: Aincrad

Sword Art Online: Aincrad
by Reki Kawahara
Yen Press, 2014. 378 pgs. Graphic Novel

In the near future virtual reality gaming has progressed to become a fully immersive experience through NerveGear, a system that uses signals in the brain to simulate all five senses. The first MMORPG to take advantage of this unique system is Sword Art Online. On the day of its launch, everything seems to be going well, until players realize they can’t log out. They’re stuck in the game until all 100 levels have been beaten, and death in the game will cause them to die in the real world. With 10,000 people stuck in this virtual reality world, how many will make it out alive?

Sword Art Online started out as a Japanese light novel, and has since become a manga series and anime. I saw the anime before I read the manga so I was familiar with the story already. It's exciting and interesting that really makes you think about the future of virtual reality and where the virtual might become a little too real. That being said, this volume is very specifically the main story arc and doesn’t include any of the side stories, though some are very briefly mentioned, which gives this volume a somewhat incomplete feeling. For fans of either the anime or novel this is an easy recommendation. For everyone else, I think it might be missing a little too much.


The Crown's Game

The Crown’s Game
Evelyn Skye
HarperCollins Publishers, 2016. 399 pages. Young Adult

In 1825 Russia, with unrest among the Kazakhs and the Ottoman Empire pressing from the South, the Tsar needs more help than his army and advisors can provide. Though few still believe in magic, Russia still has the ability to call an Imperial Enchanter. The problem is, there are currently two enchanters, Vika Andreyevna who has been training her entire life to become Imperial Enchanter and Nikolai Karimov, best friend to the Tsarevich, Pasha, but who does not know of Nikolai’s ability. Because their powers come from the same source, only one can become Imperial Enchanter and wield this incredible power. To decide who will become Imperial Enchanter, the Tsar sets in motion the Crown’s Game, an ancient duel of magical skill where each enchanter must show his or her inventiveness and strength. The victor will be declared the Imperial Enchanter and the Tsar’s most respected adviser. For the loser--instant death.

This is not just a typical duel to the death. Vika and Nikolai take turns crafting imaginative exhibitions throughout St. Petersburg to honor of the Tsarevich for his upcoming birthday. Each creation, however, also has some sort of trick to attack the other Enchanter. However, as Vika and Nikolai show their inventiveness and skill, they begin to fall in love with each other. Despite their attraction, there is no way to get out of the Crown's Game without someone dying.

Stunningly imagined, this extraordinary story has everything from vividly described acts of magic to political intrigue, romance, and drama. Reminiscent of The Night Circus, this book is atmospheric and over-the-top, but it has been one of the most enjoyable reads of the year so far.


Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Forbidden Orchid

The Forbidden Orchid
By Sharon Biggs Waller
Viking Books for Young Readers, 2016. 416 pgs. Young Adult

Elodie Buchanon lives in a small English village, where she cares for her frail mother and nine younger sisters. Her father, a famous naturalist, spends most of the year exploring the globe in search of rare flowers. Elodie shares his passion for botany and adventure, but Victorian society demands that she remain at home and give up her interest in orchids. When her father refuses to return to his family after a mysterious tragedy, Elodie embarks on a journey that takes her around the world to save him.

Maybe I’ve just been in a good reading mood lately, but I really enjoyed The Forbidden Orchid. I had a little trouble getting into it at first, but once I switched from the print version to the audiobook, it was smooth sailing. Elodie is a likeable character who is an interesting mix of traditional and adventurous, and I felt like reader Katherine McEwan was a great choice for her voice. I enjoyed watching Elodie grow throughout the story, and I was fascinated by the thorough historical detail about nineteenth century China and England. A leisurely-paced but interesting YA historical novel from the author of A Mad, Wicked Folly.


Thursday, June 23, 2016

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster

Into Thin Air: A Personal Account of the Mount Everest Disaster
By Jon Krakauer
Anchor, 1997. 337 pgs. Nonfiction

On May 10, 1996, only Martin Adams, an experienced airplane pilot, recognized the crowns of thunderheads in the cumulonimbus clouds rolling up the summit of Everest. Writer-mountaineer Jon Krakauer, like the others, saw only harmless skies during his brief stay on top of the world. Eight climbers would die that day and several others would narrowly escape with their lives. Up until 2014, the disaster was the deadliest in Everest’s history.

After seeing the recent movie about this disaster called Everest, I became fascinated by the tragedy and wanted to know more. There isn't a better-written first-hand account than Krakauer’s, who is a journalist and one of only two climbers on his team who reached the top and survived the descent. He gives just enough backstory on the critical players to engage the reader but not enough to slow the story down. Gripping, haunting, and well-researched, this is nonfiction at its best.


You Are Here

You Are Here
By Jennifer E. Smith
Simon & Schuster, 2012. 251 pgs. Young Adult

Emma has always felt different from the rest of her family. Her siblings are quite a bit older than she is and have moved away from home. Meanwhile, her parents are both very involved in their careers as professors at the local collage. When Emma finds a birth certificate in the attic for a twin brother she has never know about, she decides to take matters into her own hands. Emma travels with the boy next door from New York to North Carolina to discover what she can about her brother and learns a lot about herself along the way.

I've loved everything I've ever read by Jennifer E. Smith and this book was no exception. This is a light summer read!


Monday, June 20, 2016

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States
By Sarah Vowell
Riverhead Books, 2015. 274 pgs. Biography

Sarah Vowell is my favorite history teacher.  She never takes her subject too seriously and manages to dig up all the juicy bits making the past seem much more real and relatable.  In her newest book, she tells of the teenaged General Lafayette whose search for honor and glory leads him to the battlefields of the American Revolution.

Lafayette’s journey introduces him to compatriots like George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and a host of his countrymen when he returns to France for its revolution.  These are all familiar topics but Vowell masterfully uses original letters to allow these historic characters to tell their stories, in their words, without the gloss of retelling.

Everyone’s definition of a “beach read” is a little different, but this is my favorite kind.  Not too long, incredibly interesting, the right amount of humor, and the perfect pace for leisurely reading.  I actually listened to the audio version of this book and recommend it.  Sarah Vowell narrates it herself and her tone is perfect.


America's First Daughter

America's First Daughter
By Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie
William Morrow, 2016. 590 pgs. Historical Fiction

Authors Dray and Kamoie consulted thousands of letters and primary documents while researching for this rich historical novel of Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph, Thomas Jefferson’s oldest daughter.

Patsy was a fascinating woman whose life provides a unique perspective of the early days of our country.  Her father’s legacy was larger than life even while he lived and Patsy grew up with the eyes of a nation constantly upon her.  But, the sacrifices and struggles of her life were brought on as much by personal loss as by the upheaval caused by the revolution.

America’s First Daughter presents Patsy as a complex and conflicted personality.  She is vividly described along with the turbulent time she lived in.  A wonderful novel with substance, worthy of the woman it depicts.


Saturday, June 18, 2016

The Hedge Knight: The Graphic Novel

The Hedge Knight: The Graphic Novel
By George RR Martin
Jet City Comics (November 5, 2013) 184 Pages, Graphic Novel

The history of Westeros comes to life in this adaptation of the Knight of Seven Kingdoms stories by GRR Martin. A squire's itinerant master dies, but not before knighting him 'Sir' Dunk. Dunk tries to enter a tournament of the realm to prove his strength and skill before his poverty catches up with him. Dunk's sense of honor is repeatedly tested as the landed knights and lords fail to live up to the chivalric code they are all sworn to uphold. 
The graphic novel medium can be a hard adjustment for some authors, but Martin adapts well, allowing the dialogue to flow unstunted and clearly. As one of the uninitiated to the world of Westeros, it was easy for me to care about Dunk and his erstwhile squire, Egg. The political appeal of Game of Thrones is still present, but the focus of the story is how a poor and obscure knight rises to meet the challenge of living virtuously in a world of intrigue and excess. Old fans and new of GRR Martin will enjoy this look into the history of the quest for the Iron Throne.


Friday, June 17, 2016

A Gathering of Shadows

A Gathering of Shadows
By V.E. Schwab
Tor Books, 2016. 512 pgs. Science Fiction

In an alternate world where parallel Londons exist – magicless Gray London, magically-balanced Red London, magical chaotic White London, and magic-overran Black London – there is only one magician left who can travel between the worlds, and that is Kell.

It’s been four months since Kell destroyed the mysterious obsidian stone, and his life has been purposeless since. The king keeps him on a short leash and Kell dreams constantly about dark magic and Lila, the enigmatic thief who walked away as soon as the stone was gone. But with the Element Games about to begin in Red London, she, along with some of their old enemies, won’t be able to resist the festivities, and Kell and Lila will be facing dark magic together once again.

This follow-up to A Darker Shade of Magic has a different feel than its predecessor but never falls into common middle-book pitfalls such as being filler or set-up for the final book in the trilogy. The games gave Schwab a chance to flesh out her Londons and the different races within them as well as giving the characters a chance to come into their own. Even without the cliffhanger, I will impatiently await the next book.


Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Queen of fashion: what Marie Antoinette wore to the Revolution

Queen of fashion : what Marie Antoinette wore to the Revolution
By Caroline Weber
Holt, 2006. 412 pages. Nonfiction, biography.

In a unique approach to biography, Caroline Weber applies Marie Antoinette’s interest in fashion to tell the story of her life. This tragic queen’s life is punctuated with interesting fashion choices and became both her means of expressing power and her ultimate downfall. Beginning with her arrival to Versailles as a young girl, and ending with her death during the French Revolution, we see Antoinette’s human and courageous side as she faces internal and foreign political opponents. This books adds a new facet to Marie Antoinette scholarship and tells her tale in a very approachable, almost novel-like readability.

I had a very skeptical view of Marie Antoinette before this book but Weber’s biography gives new light to why this French queen behaved as she did, and more importantly why she dressed how she dressed. I grew more sympathetic towards Antoinette and even though I knew she would be killed, I dreaded and mourned that outcome as the book progressed. Learning how fashion choices can shape culture and political outcomes is especially fascinating to me because it is an ever present undercurrent of society but so often discredited or forgotten. I would recommend this book to those interested in a more scholarly biography or an interest in fashion, French history, art history, or influential women.


Saturday, June 11, 2016

Forever and Forever: The Courtship of Henry Longfellow and Fanny Appleton

Forever and Forever: The Courtship of Henry Longfellow and Fanny Appleton
By Josi S. Kilpack
Shadow Mountain, 2016. 327 pgs. Romance

Fanny Appleton is nineteen and on a European tour with her upper-class family when she first meets Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. He is 10 years older than her and still grieving the death of his first wife. She enjoys the conversations she shares with him and the value he puts in her intellect but she does not let her heart feel anything more for him. She has suffered too much pain already because of the recent deaths of her mother and brother. Henry, on the other hand, is in love. He can't stop thinking of Fanny and wants very much to pursue a relationship with her. She makes it very plain to Henry that he is below her level of consideration for a future spouse and she does not want any kind of relationship with him. Henry does not give up easily though, and he is willing to wait patiently for Fanny to change her mind.

I enjoyed this most recent addition to the Proper Romance line of books by Shadow Mountain Publishing. I honestly did not know much about Henry Longfellow before this book. Josi Kilpack thoroughly researched her characters and provided a chapter by chapter explanation at the back of the book that tells what is fact and what she had to make up in order to carry the story forward. I love watching characters change over the course of a book and this is definitely the case in Forever and Forever.


Eat That Frog

Eat That Frog!: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time
By Brian Tracy
Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2007. 128 pgs. Nonfiction

Brian Tracy starts this book by saying that there is no way to ever get to everything that we want to in life. The important thing is to prioritize your tasks and get the most important ones done first. I know that this is not anything new, but I liked the way he created a visual picture for the reader. He compared getting things done to knowing that you have to eat a frog every day. The best thing to do is to get up in the morning and eat the frog right away. That way, everything else you do the rest of the day will be easier and you won't waste as much time trying to avoid it.

There are a lot of books about procrastination. The thing I liked best about this particular book was that it was short and I was able to finish it quickly. I also liked that he didn't spend time on the psychology of procrastination, he just jumped right in to giving practical tips that I can apply to my life right now. This book, while not groundbreaking, is a great reminder of little things we can all do to become more productive. The tips have already made a difference in my life.


Of Dice and Men

Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons & Dragons and thePeople Who Play It
David M. Ewalt
Scribner August 20, 2013 288 Pages Nonfiction

David Ewalt gives an historical account of the making of Dungeons and Dragons and the tremendous effect it has had on popular culture. He blends personal anecdotes of his own experience with the historical context of the game to illustrate the evolution of D&D from its origins in board and war games to the collaborative entertainment form it is today.

As someone who is new to gaming, I really enjoyed Ewalt’s perspective on D&D. His writing is entertaining, and translates the jargon of the hobby into understandable terms for the laymen. While I wish the historical analysis drove deeper, Of Dice and Men delivers a clear history of the hobby and sneaks in a brief history of gaming in general. The last chapter veered into autobiographical territory and discussed how Ewalt feels about his hobby, and it was nice to hear his perspective despite the tonal shift. This is a great read for those who are new to gaming or are just curious to find out more.


Thursday, June 9, 2016

Far From the Madding Crowd

Far From the Madding Crowd
By Hardy, Thomas
Oxford University Press, 2002. 433 pages. Fiction.

Bathsheba Everdene is a spirited, beautiful, independent woman who loves the attention from her three suitors, but needs to grow up and realize the consequences of an inconstant heart. Gabriel Oak, a shepherd, competes for her love against the debonair soldier Sergeant Troy and the respectable, middle aged farmer, Mr. Boldwood. Set in the rural countryside of 1870s Wessex, England,  Thomas Hardy tells the heartwarming coming of age story with rich descriptions of the beautiful countryside lifestyle, as well as modern sensibilities about relationships and social customs.

I had already seen and loved the BBC movie, and rarely does the book impress if I have not read it beforehand, but this is an exception! I really enjoyed Hardy’s lush descriptions of the landscape and the detailed perspectives, especially about the various suitors in this novel. It is fairly long but keeps a good pace as you meander through the countryside and the story line.  If you like 19th century England, strong independent female protagonists, love stories, or any sort of BBC classic then you will enjoy this title!


Wednesday, June 8, 2016

The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: and their race to save the world's most precious manuscripts

The bad-ass librarians of Timbuktu : and their race to save the world's most precious manuscripts
By Joshua Hammer
New York : Simon & Schuster, 2016. 278 pages. Nonfiction.

A passionate collector and archivist, Abdel Kader Haidara, spent several decades journeying throughout Northern Africa to locate and purchase ancient texts in order to preserve the literary history of the area. He secured grants and established a conservation and preservation library with the abilities and technology of the most advanced institutions around the world, eventually amassing over 350,000 items.

When the region fell under the attack of Al Qaeda militants in 2012, the safety and security of the volumes was jeopardized as the jihadists threatened to burn and otherwise destroy the collection. Haidara amassed group of librarians and archivists to sneak all the manuscripts out of Timbuktu and into hiding in safe houses over 400 miles away in Southern Mali.

While I expected something different from this book, the author, a journalist who has visited the Mailian region several times over the past few decades, gives a broad account of the history of the jihadists in Africa and in the Malian region. It helped to emphasis the threat and the urgency of the situation, but I’ll admit hoped for more information about the actual collection and the preservation efforts. None the less, it was an engaging and enlightening read and I learned a lot about the global efforts to combat the extremists there, and the affect it has on the people and culture.


Our Souls at Night

Cover image for Our souls at night
Our Souls at Night
By Kent Haruf
Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, 179 pages, General Fiction

In the fictional town of Holt, Colorado, Addie Moore pays an unexpected visit to her neighbor of forty years, Louis Waters. Her husband died years ago, as did his wife, and the two have lived alone ever since. Now Addie has a proposition: She asks that Louis come over every evening and stay with her in bed, just to get through the lonely nights. Louis is lonely too, so he agrees. Soon they find themselves talking of not just trivial things, but exchanging confidences and memories.

I heard Kent Haruf give an author talk a few years ago, and his talk was so engaging I’ve been meaning to pick up one of his books ever since. I find it ironic that my first Haruf novel is his last. All of Haruf’s novels are set in the small fictional town of Holt, Colorado, where everyone knows each other, and everyone has an opinion. This causes the driving conflict of the novel. While Addie and Louis are fine with the idea of sleeping in the same bed, not everyone understands their need for companionship, and everyone feels the need to share what they think.

Haruf’s writing is spare and eloquent, and while not much actually happens plot-wise, it’s the writing that will keep you reading. I listened to the audiobook version, and I loved the narrator, Mark Bramhall. His voice fits the character of Louis so well, and he read with just the right tones, inflections, and speed. I could listen to him read all day.


Be Frank with Me

Cover image for Be frank with me
Be Frank with Me
By Julia Claiborne Johnson
William Morrow, 2016, 287 pages, General Fiction

Reclusive literary legend M. M. "Mimi" Banning has been holed up in her Bel Air mansion for years. But after falling prey to a Bernie Madoff-style ponzi scheme, she's flat broke. Now Mimi must write a new book for the first time in decades, and to ensure the timely delivery of her manuscript, her New York publisher sends an assistant to monitor her progress.

When Alice Whitley arrives at the Banning mansion, she's put to work right away--as a full-time companion to Frank, the writer's eccentric nine-year-old, a boy with the wit of Noel Coward, the wardrobe of a 1930s movie star, and very little in common with his fellow fourth-graders. As she slowly gets to know Frank, Alice becomes consumed with finding out who Frank's father is, how his gorgeous "piano teacher and itinerant male role model" Xander fits into the Banning family equation--and whether Mimi will ever finish that book.

This book was a lot of fun to read. Julia Claiborne Johnson’s wit shines through, setting up each joke then making you wait a moment before the punchline drops. Frank especially is a firecracker, acting adorably and precociously one minute, then getting into scrapes as only a young boy can the next. While this book is a comedy, each character is fully fleshed-out with flaws and private ghosts. Johnson does a great job of keeping some surprises for the very end. Like Alice, I too was fascinated by the different characters and the story behind how they found each other. Those who enjoyed Where’d You Go, Bernadette? will also enjoy Be Frank with Me.


Monday, June 6, 2016

Etta and Otto and Russell and James

By Etta Hooper
New York : Simon & Schuster, 2015. 305 pages. Fiction.

Etta has never seen the ocean and abruptly decides to remedy that by setting out on foot, East across Canada. Her husband, Otto, understands her desire and does not go after her, but instead tries to fill his time on their farm and sends letters to her, although he doesn’t know her exact whereabouts and whether the letters will make it to her. Their long-time friend and neighbor, Russell, decides that an 83 year old woman with minor dementia should not be venturing across the country on her own, and attempts to track her, though leaving the comfort of his farm and the familiar is not something he is used to doing. 

Told from three different perspectives and in letters and flashbacks throughout their youth and into the present, this book masterfully and beautifully weaves the experience of the characters together. The story explores memory, self-exploration and fulfillment, and relationships in a wonderfully compelling and gratifying read. It has been a long while since I’ve enjoyed a book as much as this, or read anything as unique. I would highly recommend picking it up!


Friday, June 3, 2016

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
By Ransom Riggs
Quirk Books, 2011. 352 pgs. Young Adult Fiction

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children is the first of three books in the recently completed series by Ransom Riggs. In this book Jacob Portman starts out as an utterly ordinary boy. The most peculiar part of his life are the fantastic stories his grandfather tells -- stories Jacob used to be naive enough to believe. One day, Jacob's life takes an unthinkable turn when he witnesses a tragedy that causes him to question everything he thought he knew about his family. Jacob sets out to find answers by visiting an island off the coast of Wales that just might hold the key to his grandfather’s past.

When I heard this book was being made into a movie, I knew it was time to bump it to the top of my reading list. I am glad I did! I liked the low fantasy world that Riggs created and then crossed with a historical setting; it was the perfect balance for a reader like myself who doesn't read much fantasy. I listened to the audio book of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children, and while the narrator did a fantastic job I would recommend looking at a paper copy of the book so you don't miss all the creepy photographs.