Friday, May 31, 2013

MetaMaus

MetaMaus by Art Spiegelman, 299 pages

In this dense but incredibly interesting book, Spiegelman takes a hard look at Maus, his seminal graphic novel that details Spiegelman's father's experiences during the Holocaust. In a Q&A format, Spiegelman addresses questions regarding the format of the novel, his decisions to portray Jews as mice and Germans as cats, and how the 20-year process of creating and publishing Maus has affected his life. This isn't a graphic novel, though it does have plenty of Spiegelman's early sketches (and even some final panels from Maus and other artists' work) to illustrate the discussion. Two regrets about this book: that I read it so long after I read Maus, and that I didn't get a chance to check out the accompanying DVD, which has a reference version of Maus, as well as transcripts of Spiegelman's interviews with his father and who knows what all else. There was so much information packed into this book that I find it hard to believe that it was just 299 pages. Felt so much longer, but in a good way.

Tiger: a True Story of Vengeance and Survival / John Vaillant 329 pp.

Tiger demonstrates the value of reading outside your comfort zone.  I would never have picked this up without a recommendation from Christa, but it was one of the most enjoyable reads I've had in awhile.  A man is killed in the taiga in Russia's Far East, by a tiger who, by all appearances, has lain in wait specifically for him.  Will he strike again?  How many times?  Can he be caught?  Suspense, mystery, ecology, and a quick primer on the breakdown of the Soviet Union and its aftermath, all wrapped up in a true story featuring memorable men and women surviving in incredibly tough circumstances.  Vaillant takes you right into the heart of this dangerous and fascinating part of the world.  Intelligent and accessible, the prose is only occasionally overblown (do we need to be told that the nearby roar of a tiger is 'bowel-loosening?')  The audiobook, read by Vaillant, is terrific too.

The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout



The Burgess boys are Jim and his younger brother, Bob.  Both lawyers, the elder is married and has defended a famous case which made him a household word during the trial. Bob has a twin sister, Susan, who neither brother is too fond of.  Bob is divorced and working for Legal Aid.  Jim has always denigrated the less successful Bob.  The brothers have escaped to Brooklyn from their hometown, the small mill town of Shirley Falls, Maine, but Susan has remained behind.  She is also divorced and has a troubled son, Zach.  Shirley Falls has had an influx of Somali immigrants who are Muslim and not well accepted or understood in the community.  For no real reason, Zach pitches a frozen pig’s head into their small mosque during Ramadan, causing a situation which reaches the nightly news.  When the brothers return to Shirley Falls to help with Zach’s legal defense, family secrets and tensions are revealed.  I liked the book less than the author’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Olive Kittredge, but it is still a good study in sibling relationships and the tensions between immigrants and small-town Americans. 320 pp.

Wonder, by R. J Palacio



Written for a young audience, one presumes since the main character is in the fifth grade, this book would be appropriate for middle-schoolers as well.  August Pullman, who lives in New York, is the son of a Brazilian mother and a father whose heritage is Eastern European Jewish.  Unfortunately, though from very different parts of the world, each parent carries a recessive gene that in combination produces a rare and very deforming facial anomaly in their son August.  Auggie has survived many major surgeries, but even after these, his appearance still makes him an object of curiosity and sometimes horror.  Home-schooled until now, he is to enter a regular classroom in the fall.  Wonder is the story of his first foray into coping with the world outside his protective family.  His older sister, Olivia, known as Via at home, is also in transition from childhood to young adulthood as she enters high school.  Readers will sympathize with the struggles of both children and their parents.  The book hits the right note between compassion and humor and the author’s ability to see the world through Auggie’s eyes (which are set, like his ears, too low) is remarkable.  His favorite holiday is Halloween, when he can hide behind a mask, like other children who are temporarily odd looking and still accepted.  Olivia is torn between her love and protectiveness for her brother and her need to fit in with her peers.  Well done and affecting.  315 pp.

The Golem and the Jinni / Helene Wecker 486 pp.

I really wanted to like this book.  It's the story of Chava, a freshly-made Golem who finds herself all alone on the streets of late 19th century New York until she meets Ahmad, a centuries-old Jinni in much the same circumstances.  And Wecker wrote a terrific beginning, setting the stage for a story that promised suspense, romance and fairy tale magic.  The end was not bad either, wrapping things up in a satisfying if unsurprising way.  But the middle!  It went on for far too long so that finishing the book became a chore.  More disappointing was the inability to warm to either of the main characters. Yes, Chava is meant to be a destructive automaton made of clay, and she transcended that, but not by enough.  And Ahmad is peevish and 2-dimensional.  (A good trick, since his essence is fire.)  Wecker also seems to have backed away from the promise of the title: shouldn't such a book have something to say about the intermingling of the two cultures represented by all the Golems and the Jinnis of the world?  I couldn't find any strong contemporary resonance here, only hints of a better book that never materialized.

Vacationland, by Sarah Stonich



Unlike The end of the point, this similarly themed story of a resort in far northern Minnesota was a full of unique and colorful characters.  Granted, I’m prejudiced in favor of the area, which I know well, but even if you have never battled mosquitoes, endured outhouses, or spent your summers at a small, decaying resort, you will love the interwoven stories of the year-round residents and the summer people who have returned through the years to vacation there.  The central story revolves around Meg, who lost her parents in an airplane crash when very young, and her paternal grandfather, Vaclav, the Czech immigrant who owns the resort.  But the cast of characters includes amongst others Meg’s ex-husband, an Englishman; a Sarajevo refugee who is sponsored by two churches who can’t afford “their own refugee;” a young girl who copes with her ADHD by turning situations into haiku; a lonely Ojibwe who is a master craftsman; and Polly, a retired science teacher who arrives at the resort to write a memoir, finds it bores her, and stumbles into a second career as a novelist.  And never leaves.  I didn’t want to either.  288 pp.

The end of the point, by Elizabeth Graver



A pleasant but not distinguished entry into the “generational summer place” themed book.  The Porter family has gathered at the house on a rocky coast in Massachusetts for many years, but in 1942, World War II intrudes when a military base is established there changing both the area and the people who summer there.  The characters are followed up through present time.  Although I generally love this kind of book, this did not engage me as much as most such stories do.  352 pp.

Impulse

Impulse/Steven Gould 368 pgs.

Cent is a special teen, she can teleport just like her parents Davey and Millicent.  They keep a low profile ever since Davey was kidnapped and controlled for awhile.  Nobody is aware that Cent exists as they have been off the grid for all of her life.  As Cent grows weary of homeschooling and hiding out, the family figures out a way to send her to a "regular" school.  Cent is discovering and developing her powers just as a school bully things she is an easy target.  Teenage hi-jinks ensue.  What nobody knows is that the bully is associated with a bigger organization and Cent's activities are bringing unwanted attention on this special family.

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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Fantastic Mr. Fox by Roald Dahl 90 p. 0140328726

Many readers cite James and the Giant Peach or The Witches or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as their favorite Roald Dahl book. Mine is Fantastic Mr. Fox. Mr. Fox is a loving family man who also enjoys the fine art of stealing his neighbors' crops. His neighbors, greedy and vile farmers want to catch and kill Mr. Fox. Fortunately, Mr. Fox has a superior brain. Droll and whimsical, this is a fine book to read aloud. Only after you finish this book should you check out the animated movie based on this book. Both will have you cheering for crafty Mr. Fox.

Tunnels by Roderick Gordon 472 pages 9780439871778



Will and his father share an interest in tunnels. When his father disappears, he and his friend, Chester follow his trail and discover an underground city, the Colony.Its people have their own theology, social hierarchy, and a cruel attitude of superiority. The Colonists and Styx (the more powerful, arrogant, malicious class) fear and revile "Topsoilers," This fantasy combines archaeology, political theory and gore. Gordon has created a complex society. This is the first of a four star adventurous trilogy. 

The Lost Treasure of Tuckernuck by Emily Fairlie 283 pages 9780062118905

Laurie Madison would much rather change schools to follow her best friend to Hamilton Junior High, but both her parents are Tuckernut alumni. They are passionate Tuckernut supporters -- even though the school is bleeding money and its school board wants to shut it down. Legend has it that the school's founder hid a treasure. Laurie likes a challenge and wants to prevent her nemesis, Calliope from claiming the treasure. She is joined in the search by Bud Wallace, most unpopular student (since his last year's science project on nutrition caused all sweets to be banned on school premises). They have been chosen to be this year's gerbil handlers. They have different reasons to dig into the treasure hunt and  don't really like each other, but they each have unusual strengths that help solve clues strewn about the school.Tuckernuck is not your typical school; the school mascot is a chicken and they wear silly chicken hats at school functions. Light mystery with chuckles along the way.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

The Mongoliad Book One

The Mongoliad Book One by Erik Bear, Neal Stephenson, E.D. deBirmingham, Mark Teppo, Greg Bear, Joseph Brassey, Cooper Moo  502 pp

What began as a social experiment between a group of authors was turned into a trilogy called The Foreworld Saga. The Mongol horde is ravishing Eastern Europe. A group of former Crusaders called the Shield Brethren is trying to stop them though vastly outnumbered. The Brethren are being guided by C'Nan, a young Chinese woman who is usually a messenger. While this is happening, assassins are trying to kill the Khagan, Ogedei who is Genghis Khan's successor. In addition, one poor Mongol warrior named Gansukh has been sent by Ogedei's brother to to keep the Khagan from drinking too much. Gansukh becomes enamored of Lian, a slave in the Khagan's household who is assigned to teach him court protocol. Add fifty other characters and you have an uneven, rather confusing tale. I haven't decided if I'm going to continue with the trilogy although, while I wouldn't call it a cliffhanger, the story ended unresolved.

Monday, May 27, 2013

The world's strongest librarian

The world's strongest librarian: a memoir of Tourette's, faith, strength, and the power of family by Josh Hanagarne 191 pgs.

Of course I picked this book up because it is about a librarian.  Also of interest a STRONG librarian...and with Tourette's what could be more interesting?  Josh Hanagarne has written a great memoir with some very familiar library stories, some less familiar strong man competition stories, and the very unfamiliar Tourette's stories.  At 6' 7" and built like a body builder, it amazes me that he has ever had to call security at his library.  Don't people in Salt Lake City fear the looming tall man?

Josh displays the sense of humor required to keep your sanity while working with the public.  I hope this is the first of many books from him.

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Underwater dogs

Underwater dogs/Seth Casteel 132 pgs.

Seriously, the cover is all you need.  This book of photographs is just amazing and entertaining and essential.

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Sunday, May 26, 2013

Gulp

Gulp: adventures on the alimentary canal by Mary Roach 348 pgs.

Another from the worlds best science writer.  This book takes a look at your digestive system, from start to finish.  If you feel like this volume starts out slow, stick around to the middle where she focuses on the "back end" of the alimentary canal. 

Mary Roach has the ability to make it all relevant, interesting, and understandable.  Learn something about the human body...read this book today.

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Batman: City of Owls & Night of the Owls




Batman:  City of Owls (Batman:  The New 52 vol. 2), by Scott Snyder; graphic novel; 208 pages

Batman:  Night of the Owls, by Scott Snyder; graphic novel; 368 pages

I'm writing about these in one post because they're both about the same event, and there's a lot of overlap between the two.  Both volumes follow the Court of Owls kick-off that launched the Batman side of the New 52.  For those who missed it, the Court of Owls is a shadowy secret society that rules Gotham from behind the scenes.  They have a pet assassin, called the Talon, who is traditionally recruited from Haley's Circus (yes, the same circus that Dick Grayson grew up in).  In the first volume, Batman managed to get inside the Court, and cause some serious havoc.  City and Night are the Owls way of retaliating.  Using a regenerative compound developed by Mr. Freeze, the Court raises ALL of its past Talons and sets them loose on Gotham.  A number are sent after Bruce Wayne in his home, while others still go after the people who control the city--police officers, city officials, prominent doctors, and more.  City of Owls collects the Batman issues of the story:  Bruce's fight with the assassins both at the Bat-cave and on the streets of Gotham; Night of the Owls is a crossover event, collecting the experiences of Nightwing, Catwoman, Robin, and the Birds of Prey.

Both the writing and art in both volumes are excellent (Nightwing no longer looks like a 16-year-old!), though readers should be warned that Night collects some of the same Batman issues as City, so there's a lot of overlap.  This is great for the collector, or for someone who's just picking up one of the volumes, but was mildly annoying for someone reading the two books back to back.  Night does a great job of introducing us to more of the changes in the New 52 (Poison Ivy's a Bird of Prey now???  Also, Arkham seems to have been moved to an island in the heart of the city--ala Batman Begins--rather than its traditional place in the middle of nowhere).  One of my favorite changes is the alteration of Freeze's backstory (to say more would be a spoiler, but rest assured that this was the first Mr. Freeze story I've EVER really enjoyed, and I was glad to see it was collected in both volumes).  If I had to change one thing, it would be to add more Red Robin into the mix (he's in ONE PANEL of one issue, and doesn't even speak, despite the fact that he's the main person on the cover of that issue).  Some of the crossover stuff was a bit of a stretch (Jonah Hex?  Really?), and I was disappointed the Red Hood got such a prominent role, but not Tim Drake.  But all in all, this is a strong continuation of the reboot storyline.  I can't wait to get my hands on Death of the Family

Fairest: Wide Awake

Fairest, vol. 1: Wide Awake by Bill Willingham, art by Phil Jimenez, 160 pages



Wide Awake is the first in Willingham's Fables spinoff, Fairest, which shines a spotlight on the female fables. As can probably be inferred from the title, Wide Awake centers on Briar Rose (AKA Sleeping Beauty), taking her on an adventure with Ali Baba, a bottle imp, and the Winter Queen while learning her true origins. I enjoyed the way Willingham told the tale, particularly the back-and-forth between Ali Baba and Jonah, the bottle imp, who inserts all kinds of modern references (Firefly!) that nobody else gets. Particularly fantastic though is Jimenez's artwork, which is just awesome. The detail is incredible.

One last thing: in the final section of this volume, Willingham hands over the reins to a different writer and artist to tell a short story of Beauty and the Beast. The 40s noir style of this story is awesome, though a big jarring and kind of cartoony after the detail of Jimenez's work in the rest of the volume. But the story is cool and once you get used to it, the artwork is too.

Swimming at Night

Swimming at Night by Lucy Clarke, 372 pages

Sraightlaced Katie is distraught when she finds out her sister, the free-wheeling Mia, has been found dead at the base of a cliff in Bali. Mia was on a yearlong around-the-world trip, skipping from hostel to hostel, and while she and Katie never saw eye to eye, Katie just can't believe the Balinese authorities when they tell her the death has been ruled a suicide. Going against her fear of flying and the wishes of her fiance, Katie sets out to follow in Mia's footsteps, armed only with Mia's threadbare backpack and detailed travel journal. Along the way, Katie learns a lot about her sister, herself, and their relationship.

This was a really quick read, and not completely predictable, so that was nice. But Clarke's writing was tired (it seemed like she was writing a screenplay instead of a book, spelling out every action), as was her habit of flashbacks in EVERY. SINGLE. CHAPTER. It seemed like the writing got better later in the book, but it could be that I was just used to it by then and more able to ignore the myriad faults. This book gets a solid "meh."

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Batman: Secrets

Batman:  Secrets by Sam Kieth; graphic novel; 128 pages

Mixed feelings about this one--kind of like my mixed feelings about the author.  anyone who's ready Sandman will recognize Kieth's name.  He was the artist for the Preludes & Nocturnes storyline, which I've always felt was some of the weakest art in the series.  But then a few years ago, I read Kieth's other Batman story:  Arkham Asylum:  Madness.  It remains to this day one of my favorite Batman books, both for the excellent storytelling and perfect art.  Secrets falls somewhere in between these two extremes:  the art tends more towards the kind of thing I remember from Sandman (good, but not to my taste--though Kieth's depictions of the Joker are great, and vaguely reminiscent of Dave McKean's Joker from Arkham Asylum).

The story here is good, but felt kind of derivative of The Dark Knight Returns.  As in Miller's book, The story starts with the Joker, newly released from Arkham, and claiming to be rehabilitated.  He's touring the talk show circuit promoting a new book that explains his change of heart, while secretly, of course, plotting Batman's downfall.  While the vapidity of the media is an underlying theme throughout Miller's work, here it takes center stage, and the Joker manipulates different print and electronic outlets to chip away at Batman's public image.  Also interesting to me was the inclusion of a love interest for the Joker, an assistant D.A who believes that she understands him and that they're meant to be together (this story is SO, SO SIMILAR to Harley Quinn's backstory that I wondered why they bothered to introduce this new character when they had the same thing already in the DCU.  Plus, Harley's one of my favorite characters; writing her out to make room for this stranger was just plain annoying).  This was a fun read, but mostly because it reminded me of other books I enjoyed.  It has the makings of a good book on its own, but never quite strikes out on its own enough. 

Sister Queens

Sister Queens: The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana,
Queen of Castile by Julia Fox  480 pp.

This dual biography of two of the daughters of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain, Katherine of Aragon and Juana of Castile. Much has been written about Katherine and her marriage to King Henry VIII. Less is written about Juana, wife of Philip of Burgundy and mother of Charles, the Holy Roman Emperor except to call her "Juana the Mad." When they were young their powerful parents arranged politically advantageous marriages for them. Katherine to Arthur of Wales, the heir to the throne of Henry VII, and Juana to Philip of Burgundy. After the death of Arthur, much political wangling, Katherine's marriage to Henry was arranged. Much has been written about how that turned out. Juana became a queen in her own right only to have her power usurped by her father, her husband, and her son. The stories of her madness, including the story that she lived with her husband in his casket, were propagated by her son and his officials as an excuse to keep her sequestered from the people she should have been ruling. (She did keep him in his casket but only because her son would not let her go to Granada to have him buried.) These sisters were strong enough to endure the hardships they encountered but could not overcome the betrayal and mistreatment by the men in their lives.

I listened to the unabridged audiobook version and it is very well done. However, I could have used a scorecard to keep track of all the Henrys, Philips, Charles's, and how they were all related to each other.