Thursday, January 31, 2013

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars by John Green, 318 pages, YA

This was an excellent book, very sad, but never maudlin.
Kara wrote an excellent review a few months, ago, and it's late on the last day of the month and I'm falling asleep (and then I actually did fall asleep but the blog post counted. Hah!).
I don't even want to talk about it. I had to stop reading it on the plane back from Seattle, cuz no one wants a really large librarian weeping near them on a 737. I know that's true, I've asked
This is a beautiful story about Hazel and Augustus, the love they find, and how they and their families and friends deal with serious illness. Augustus's parents turn to their faith, famed author Peter Van Houten drinks a lot, Isaac eggs his ex-girlfriend's house, and Hazel and Gus turn to an angry and honest form of humor.
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Railsea by China Mieville

Railsea by China Mieville, 448 pages, 9 hrs 55 minutes on audio.

Sham Yes ap Soorap, a young man in search of adventure, takes to the great Railsea on the moletrain Medes. They hunt the moldywarpes, great blind beasts that burrow underneath the ground, but have to surface (for some reason) from time to time, which leaves them vulnerable to the train's harpooners. There are other fantastical creatures out on the Railsea, from ant lions to angels, and Sham sees a great many on his voyage. A lowly Doctor's apprentice on this trip, Sham dreams of making his fortune on one of the salvage trains.
When he and his Captain Ahab (her name is actually Naphi) take a break from hunting Mocker Jack, they find a wrecked train, and in that wreck, Sham finds a secret, a purpose, and the path to a disappointing end to an otherwise riveting and engaging story. Jonathan Cowley's narration of the audio book is great, but nothing can quite redeem this book that held so much promise. Moby Dick meets Jasper Fforde's Shades of Grey.

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Fobbit/David Abrams 372 pgs.

Fobbit is about the Iraq War but focuses on the group that stays "on base"  The FOB or forward operating base is where the desk jockeys write press releases and  everyone has a bed.  There isn't any front line action but there are still plenty of issues.  Not surprisingly, the troops out in the community kicking in doors and being hit with IEDs don't think all that highly of the troops stationed at the FOB and thus they are called fobbits.  This book is told from the perspective of several of those stationed in the FOB.  Parts of it are hilarious and entertaining and parts are disturbing.  No tour in Iraq seems like the the best way to sit out the war but for so many, they have had several tours.  Although a work of fiction, you can get a real sense of deployment in the FOB and the struggles of those who aren't the type of soldiers that get featured int he press.

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The Dog Stars

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller, 319 pages

A lot has already been said about this book, so I won't go into detail. If you want a better look at the plot, check out Linda's post). What I will say is that it took me a while to warm up to this sparse, stream-of-consciousness story. I wasn't immediately taken with Hig's "marking time" version of survival (nine years of flying the perimeter and minimal human interaction? Really?), but once he busted himself out of his rut, the story got much better for me. That's likely because I'm used to YA versions of dystopia (Faster paced! More people! Mockingjays!). Looking back on it though, I can say that I enjoyed the story as a whole.

[This is part 4 in the Unintentional Animal Series.]

Alice on Board by Phyllis Naylor 280 pages 9781442445888

This is the latest in the  loooong Alice series. I first met Alice in The Agony of Alice1985, the first of 27 books. She was an awkward sixth grade looking for a female role model since her mother's death. She feels unnumbered by males, namely dad and her older brother. Alice is now much more self assured. This is her last summer before college. She and her three best friends are having a last adventures sharing summer employment as staff on a Chesapeake cruise ship. Cruising may be a glamorous adventure for the guests; it is demanding, hard work for the employees. The early Alice books are on the series shelf in the junior fiction area; once she started high school her problems caused the rest of the series to move to the young adult area of our collection. There are problems with guests (including the male guest who likes to shock the housekeepers), as well as the bosses. The company is having major financial difficulties. Alice also doesn't know what to do about her boyfriend who will be studying abroad for several years. Her friends also have their problems, including a difficult mother who can't accept her impending divorce. You don't have to read the 26 past episodes; this will easily stand on it's own. Once reading, you probably will want to back track and read more about Alice.

The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen 342 pages 9780545284134

Red Hot revenge is the topic of this new fantasy.Nobleman Connor plots to produce a false prince to impersonate the kin's long lost young son. He plucks four orphans as candidates to hedge his bets. The first candidate to reject this plan is swiftly executed. The other three realize that refusal to play Connor's game is not an option. Sage seems to be the least likely prospect. Tobias is clever; Roden is ruthless. Sage befriends Imogen, a mute serving girl and gains the respect of Mott, Connor's second-in-command. He seems to have several characteristics of the lost prince including a strong dose of pride, quick response and a refusal to give in or give up. Rumors surface that the entire royal family (king, queen, and older son) have been executed. Connor claims to hold the proof of the absent prince's death. What his proof is and how he acquired it, he refuses to divulge. I don't want to give away too much. There are many mediocre fantasies out there. This is richly plotted and each of the characters deftly drawn. The author also wrote The Underworld Chronicles, a series that I have not read yet. I think the door may be open for a sequel as not all the loose ends have been tied up.I recommend this for 4-8th grades.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Astray, by Emma Donoghue

Herself an immigrant twice over (to England and then Canada), Irish-born Donoghue explains in an afterward to this collection of short pieces that all of the stories have something to do with having “strayed,” geographical, emotionally, or morally.  Each short piece also has an afterward which tells where the original idea behind the story came from.  All have some basis in fact – either a single sentence in an old newspaper, or a more completely reported incident.  The main characters are based on real people.  But it is the author’s imaginative retelling of what lay behind the dry or incomplete facts that make each vignette live.  Who knew that Charles Dickens befriended a woman forced into somewhat genteel prostitution and helped her, her young daughter, and the younger brother she was supporting immigrate to Canada to start new lives?  We actually don’t, until the afterward of “Onward.”   Or of the close relationship between Barnum’s “Jumbo the elephant” and his keeper?  Fascinating glimpses.  275 pp.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

A good man is hard to find and other stories

A good man is hard to find and other stories by Flannery O'Connor 252 pgs.

Another great short story collection.  The title story is the first one and the ironic title makes it easy to believe you could find a better man than the one in the story.  O'Connor is great at making everyday people become frightening in her stories.  This book was originally published in 1955 and several of the stories pre-date that year.  These are not for those who get offended at non-PC language or ideas about race or sex.  They are truly stories of their time and each a short little masterpiece.

This is the second Flannery O'Connor book that I listened to from our downloadable audio collection.  I can't praise the reader, Marguerite Gavin,enough.  She really does a fabulous job with accents and differentiating characters.  I think the stories themselves were much better for me in the excellent hands of this reader.   

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Dear life

Dear Life: stories / Alice Munro 319 pgs.

Alice Munro is the queen of short stories and I've always enjoyed her work.  Alice is still fabulous but her stories are more about real people and things and less about ideas.  I do like the real people aspect and how easily it is to relate to many of them.  The story about the woman refilling her prescription is excellent as she is starting to have some problems remembering things.  The story of Jackson and Belle makes you wonder about the nature of relationships.  There is a reason that Alice Munro wins prizes and praise.  It is always a pleasure to read her work.

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Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein, 343 pages.

Maddie and her friend (I should keep her name a secret, she'd want that) help the war effort in their own ways. Maddie is a natural-born mechanic. Her granddad made her take apart her motorcycle before he would let her keep it, I assume she then put it back together. As the book opens, Maddie rides and dreams of flying. After she rescues a downed pilot, the superbly named Dympna Wythenshawe, Maddie is able to obtain her pilot's license, and the widening war eventually gives her chances to use it-delivering messages, other pilots, and planes.
There's not much to say about the book, especially about Queenie, or Scottie, of whatever you want to call her, that's not a bit of a spoiler. She's Maddie's best friend, and even here I'm giving something away. The girls watch out for each other even as they know that they have to keep their own secrets.
It' a tightly wrapped book, with a lot of well-placed misdirection.
Code Name Verity can be a bit harsh, a bit of a bumpy ride, and it will make you cry. But it's a very good book and it's my favorite of this young year.

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Saturday, January 26, 2013

The Second Perimeter by Mike Lawson

The Second Perimeter by Mike Lawson, 312 pages, thriller.

I had read this, years ago, when it first came out and I had first started reading Lawson. I re-read The First Ring a couple of months ago, and then started listening to this in its downloadable form, in December. The reader did a credible job, and the story was even more interesting than I recalled. Joe Demarco, Emma, and Demarco's boss, Speaker of the House, John Mahoney, are all back again. The Speaker wants Joe to look into a contractor at a submarine yard. It's not something Joe would normally do, but there's a nephew of a Cabinet Secretary involved, and the Speaker is doing this as a favor. Joe enlists Emma's help and something that looks like mundane corruption is quickly exposed as something deeper, darker, and life-threatening. Joe and Emma take quite a beating as this interesting and well-written story progresses. I had forgotten how good this was.

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Elsewhere, by Richard Russo

The vagaries of when reserved books show up brought me a second “son’s-memoir-of-mom” within a week.  Unlike Will Schwalbe’s accomplished mother, however, Richard Russo’s mother, Jean, struggles throughout her long life.  Russo, from a young age, is her prop.  After her gambler husband left the family, they moved into her parents’ duplex in Gloverville, NY, the blue-collar tannery town where Russo grows up.  Although Jean has a decent job in at GE in nearby Schenectady, she doesn’t have a car and has never learned to drive.  Throughout the book, a major theme is her pride in “always living independently,” when in truth, she leans upon her parents, her son, and to a certain extent, “the kindness of strangers,” to maintain this fiction.  Russo doesn’t sugar-coat the emotional and financial difficulties of being her main support, and the real hardships it causes him and his wife and daughters until her death.  His relationship with his mother, and the dying town of Gloverville (whose occupants are also dying of the diseases caused by the industry that was its economic engine), has clearly shaped his life and are reflected in many of his successful novels.   It was, for me, a difficult book to read.  Can you imagine this:  your mother urges you to apply to college in distant Arizona rather than the perfectly adequate nearby SUNY branch, and then it becomes clear why – she’s coming with you!  It is her attempt to escape Gloverville and is, of course, a dismal and devastating failure, nearly bringing him down with her.   His love for his mother and his frustration with her constant demands for his attention are at war within him throughout the book.  Only after her death is he able to recognize what diagnosable mental problems she must have had and how this untreated illness lead to her rather sad life.  246 pp.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The light between the oceans, by M. L. Stedman

Tom Sherbourne has returned to Australia after serving in WW I, not as damaged as some who returned, but wary of keeping the demons at bay.  More comfortable with his own company than with others, he takes a job as a lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a fictional island between the Indian and Antarctic oceans about 100 miles off Australia’s western coast.  His only contact with the outside world is a quarterly visit from a supply boat and shore leave every two years or so.  Days are filled with record keeping and maintaining the light.  When he meets and marries Isabel, she quickly adapts to life on the island but their hopes for children are dashed after she suffers two miscarriages and a stillbirth.  Shortly after the latter, a boat washes ashore with a dead man and a crying baby wrapped in a woman’s cardigan.  The choice the couple makes to keep the baby and raise it as their own without reporting their finding shapes the novel’s exploration of moral choices.  342 pp.

The end of your life book club, by Will Schwalbe

When Schwalbe’s remarkable mother, Mary Anne, is diagnosed in her early seventies with advanced pancreatic cancer, the two turn her lengthy chemo sessions into a book club where they both read and discuss the same books.  Mary Anne was not only an actress, an educator at several prestigious schools and the first female admissions director at Harvard and Radcliffe; she left those jobs to take on a much more challenging task, as founding director of the Women’s Refugee Commission.  Her son obviously both admired and loved her and found writing this book cathartic.  Don’t necessarily read it as a guide for reading, but as a tribute to an interesting woman.   336 pp

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

When General Grant Expelled the Jews / Jonathan D. Sarna 148 p.

I love reading anything that leaves me saying, "Sheesh, I didn't know anything about that!"  This filled the bill.  Sarna reviews an infamous event in Grant's career, the General Orders No. 11 of December 1862 in the department of the Tennessee, in which the Jews, " a class violating every regulation of trade ...are hereby expelled from the department within twenty-four hours..."

In fact, due to serious communication breakdowns in the Tennessee at the time, very few families were actually expelled, and within a few weeks Lincoln had unequivocally revoked the order.  It was a watershed event, of course, for American Jews around the country, and the subject of intense debate during the election of 1868 when Grant was running for president.  Sarna does a great job pulling apart the threads of that debate, whether to vote for the man who offended the Jews but who favored principles of justice with respect to freed slaves, or to vote for a Southern Democrat who wanted to put an end to Reconstruction and restrict freedoms for blacks.  Sarna effectively connects these concerns with other ethnic and religious populations throughout U.S. history who have had to decide between voting for the interests of their group or for those of the country as a whole.

Most interesting was the story of Grant's regret and repudiation of his order, and the work he did throughout the remainder of his career to promote the interests of Jewish citizens.  He was evidently sincere, because when he died in 1885 he was mourned in synagogues across the country.  Sarna writes clearly and with economy, academic in tone but accessible for a wider audience.  Recommended.

1356 by Bernard Cornwell

1356 by Bernard Cornwell, 417 pages, historical fiction.

Cornwell, the most prolific of historical novelists, takes up the story of Thomas Hookton and his band of mercenaries once again. I had only read the first of these, The Archer's Tale, before, but this is a self-contained story.
There's a holy relic being sought in this book, it's St Peter's sword this time, a crude blade call Le Malice. Whoever wields this sword will either be invincible or cursed. Accounts vary. The French are looking for the sword, hoping to use it to drive the hated English from their land. The Earl of Northampton sends Thomas after Le Malice, mainly to keep it our of French hands.
All in all, its an enjoyable story, though the author is bit repetitive and the characters are drawn in broad strokes. It's a quick read, and a lot of fun for fans of battle-heavy historical fiction.

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The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar

The Barbarian Nurseries by Hector Tobar, Literary Fiction, 422 pages.

Araceli Ramirez finds her expected duties growing when her co-workers in the Torres-Thompson household are let go. Maureen and Scott Torres-Thompson have fallen on hard times. They're still rich, they still have the palatial house with a pool, the live-in staff, and the private elementary school whose tuition is about half that of Princeton annually, but they are having to cut back.
Maureen and Scott don't communicate too well, and a rather massive misunderstanding about their finances precipitates a confrontation that reverberates through the rest of the book. Steps are taken, and things are said that cannot be taken back, and soon the domestic drama becomes the center of a criminal case.
As the legal troubles mount, the story becomes somewhat more didactic and the characters lose a bit of their depth and recede toward caricature. It's still a compelling read, but Maureen, Scott, Araceli, and the DA all become more symbolic and less interesting.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Singer's Typewriter and Mine / Ilan Stavans 349 p.

A collection of essays and interviews by Stavans, all exploring in some way the intersection of North American Jewish experience and art. Particular themes are the work of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a literary hero of Stavans, as well as the importance of Yiddish as a literary language.

Hostage / Elie Wiesel 224 p.

It is 1975 and Shaltiel Feigenberg has been abducted from his Brooklyn home, seemingly at random, by an Arab and an Italian and will be released when Israel releases 3 Palestinian prisoners. During his time in captivity, he tells himself and his captors stories, mostly from his own life: hidden in the home of a wealthy German nobleman during the war to serve as his chess opponent, a brother in love with Soviet communism emigrates to Moscow only to later escape, a wife, beloved in spite of Shaltiel's infidelities, for which he makes flimsy excuses to both her and the narrator.

The narrative of Shaltiel's abduction is faintly drawn, only barely visible amidst the constant fog of Shaltiel's memories. I found myself unable to care whether S. survived or not, although his many back stories were interesting. His captors, Luigi the Italian and Ahmed the Arab, play good cop, bad cop with him. The portrait of Ahmed is pure caricature; of course there are many fanatically religious and violent young Arab men, but Wiesel never allows us to see anything remotely distinct or individual about him.

The weak frame of this story was obviously constructed for hanging Wiesel's philosophical and historical thoughts. Nothing wrong with that, of course; I frankly just didn't understand quite a lot of the writing.

Wait: The art and science of delay

Wait: The art and science of delay by Frank Partnoy 290 pgs.

Loved the premise of this book...that we make better decisions when we take as much time possible to make them.  The author then goes on to make the case by looking at professional athletes, business people, journalists, authors, military officials, etc.  I like anything that tells me not to rush as I feel like this is one of the biggest and least helpful message that we get from society today.  There are tons of great examples in the book where the "long view" pays off and where the overnight success story is debunked.

I love the economics of this and the psychology of this and the author's writing is a pleasure from start to finish.

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