Saturday, November 30, 2013


Templar by Jordan Mechner, LeUyen Pham, and Alex Puvilland, 473 pages.

Mechner and company have done a great job with this graphic novel. His characters, some based on actual people, and some made up, are all solid and consistent throughout this work. The story itself, that of the Knights Templar, their legal trouble in France, in 1291, is based on fact. Many of the scenes within the book are fictional, or at least imagined.
When the King of France sends his troops to investigate the
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The Great War July 1, 1916: The first Day of the Battle of the Somme

The Great War: July 1, 1916: The first Day of the Battle of the Somme an Illustrated Panorama  by Joe Sacco, 20 pages
An intricate, interesting and informative piece of graphic literature that shows detail and imagined detail of one of the deadliest battles of the great war. There book is really one long page. There is no text in this elaborately  folded single page work between the covers. There is an accompanying 16 page booklet, though. Adam Hoschild, who wrote part of the booklet for this work, also covered this ground recently in his
To End All Wars:A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918.
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The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, 181 pages.

At his childhood home for a funeral, our narrator walk down the lane to visit a girl he knew when he was a child. His memories of Lettie Hempstock, who had been eleven to his seven, are a bit confused now. But as he walks and reminisces about his time in this place with his family, we get a picture of a lonely and sad childhood. At first anyway. As he recalls more about Lettie, the opal miner's suicide, and the thing that called itself Ursula Monkton, the story gets otherworldly and scary. A short, but really wonderful book, wistful, nostalgic, magical and terrifying. And the audio is read by Gaiman.
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Once a Spy

Once a Spy by Keith Thomson, 326 pages
When  a social worker calls Charlie Clark to tell him that his semi-estranged father, Drummond, a retired appliance salesman, is showing signs of dementia, he heads back home to see him. If Charlie can convince the old man to give him power of attorney for his affairs then Charlie might be able to get the loan sharks of his own back while he sorts out Drummond's affairs. Charlie has a bit of a problem with the ponies.
While Charlie's prepared to help his father out while trying to figure a way out of his own mess, he's not prepared for his father's assault on a man claiming to be an attorney, his dad's hitherto unknown ability with all sorts of weapons, nor is he ready to find out what really happened to his mother, whom he had been told had died years ago.  Since the title kind of gives the main plot point away none of these come as a great surprise to the reader.
It's fast-paced fun, but the book does go over the top, with Charlie's gambling problem quickly fading away and the characters' relationships healing miraculously as they blow stuff up. Overall, it's pretty good, and the newly released Twice a Spy has gotten good reviews.

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30 days in Sydney

30 days in Sydney: a wildly distorted account / Peter Carey 248 pgs

Peter Carey visits his hometown to collect stories about the earth, wind, fire and water.  It turns into a crazy adventure reconnecting with old friends, studying some history and exchanging stories.  Can you ever really capture a place?  This book may or may not achieve its goal but it is an interesting and fun read.

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Go: A Kidd's guide to graphic design by Chip Kidd

Chip Kidd does a wonderful job with this beginner's guide to graphic design, especially designed for kids but still useful for those of us a few years past that age.  He covers the basics in a straightforward manner with plenty of examples and ideas. He invites you to experiment and also to post your work on the companion website.  Great stuff for the budding artist.

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Blood Bones and Butter

Blood, Bones & Butter:  The inadvertent education of a reluctant chef by Gabrielle Hamilton 291 pgs.

I listened to the audio version of this book which is read by the author.  By the end, I felt like I really KNEW her.  This is a great memoir by a great woman chef whose childhood could be described as "gritty".  Actually it sounds pretty idyllic until her parents get divorced and sort of abandon her and one of her brothers.  The older kids are already on their way.  There are some years of "trouble" including a lot of drug use and thieving as a waitress in New York.  Then comes the cooking and that is all interesting and made me want to be adventurous and try new foods.  I still, however, do not want to try butchering anything.

Wonderfully written with a great sense of humor, this book affirms the huge amount of work and LABOR that is necessary to run a restaurant.

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The Rosie Project

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion 295 pg.

This book is a lot of fun.  Don Tillman is a brilliant professor of genetics but socially he is a little bit "off" or maybe on the spectrum.  He does realize he has oddities but isn't willing to go off schedule for too much self reflection.  Don figures it time to find a wife so he comes up with a questionnaire that with rigorous analysis, find him the perfect mate.  Rosie shows up as a reject from the pile but she has a project of her own.  She is unsure of the identity of her father but knows he was in the same graduating class of medical students as her mother.  Don and Rosie embark on a series of adventures to collect DNA samples from the potential fathers so Rosie will know the truth.  Although Don already knows from the poor results from his wife questionnaire that Rosie is not a suitable mate, he finds himself having a really good time with her.  No need to spoil the ending, you will see it coming a mile away but you will also have so much fun getting to the end.

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The Finkler Question

The Finkler Question/Howard Jacobson 307 pg.

Only a few years behind reading the award winners.  I actually checked this out because I found it on Overdrive and needed a few things for a trip.  I probably should have made a different choice.  This just wasn't my kind of book.  Julian Treslove is a navel gazing guy who spends time with his two Jewish friends who are more successful than he and I think that is where the problem originates.  He leaves a dinner with them and gets a woman no less, and it convinced SHE though he was Jewish and that this was an act of antisemitism.  This is kind of where the book lost me.  Now Julian is convinced that he *is* Jewish and this leads to more self reflection and brooding than should ever be allowed.  We learn Julian is a guy who has loved lots of women and many of them end up running away from him.  Gee, I wonder if it has something to do with the fact he doesn't seem to see past the tip of his own nose?  He has two sons by two different women but admits he hasn't been much of a father.  Well who would have time when you are wrestling with the big questions...about yourself?  I probably missed all kinds of deep meaning here...after all, it won the Man Booker Prize but all that depth was wasted on me as it would be on Julian, unless we are talking about how much he thinks about himself.  But don't let me dissuade you, I'm somewhat of a Philistine. 

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3 Gates of the Dead by Jonathan Ryan

3 Gates of the Dead by Jonathan Ryan, 311 pgs.

From the book jacketSometimes, the most evil things come from the most holy…
Conflicted with his faith in God and the hypocrisy of the church, Aidan Schaeffer, a young assistant pastor, is in a constant state of spiritual turmoil. When Aidan learns that his ex-fiancĂ©e is the first victim in a string of ritualistic killings, he finds himself in the middle of an even deeper fight. Tormented by demonic threats and haunted by spirits, Aidan throws himself into investigating Amanda’s death; all the while supernatural forces have begun to attack the people around him. The more questions he asks, the more he is drawn into the world of a mysterious Anglican priest, a paranormal investigation group and a rogue female detective investigating the murders. As the gruesome rituals escalate, ancient hidden secrets and an evil long buried threaten to rip Aidan’s world apart.

This is the first book in a new series by St. Louis author Jonathan Ryan.  It has been described as “a Harry Potter novel for adults”.  I might add a very dark and sinister version of that series but it flows and plays out in the head of the reader as if watching a movie on screen. Ryan’s novel receives a starred review from Library Journal and pronounces his writing style to be “a real attraction for fans of The Exorcist and the darker fiction of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams”.  Readers will eagerly anticipate the next volume in this series:  The Dark Bride.

Variant by Robison Wells

Variant by Robison Wells, 373 pgs.
2013-2014 Truman Reader Award Nominee
In a chilling, masterful debut, Wells gives the classic YA boarding school setting a Maze Runner twist, creating an academy of imprisoned teenagers who must fight to survive when the rules change daily, and the punishment for breaking those rules is death. Seventeen-year-old Benson Fisher, tired of foster homes, applies for a scholarship to Maxfield Academy in New Mexico, hoping for a fresh start. Instead, he is trapped with roughly 70 other teens divided into three factions, with no teachers, no real classes, and no chance of escape at a school overseen by the mysterious and sinister "Iceman," who doles out punishments and awards points. Though Wells doesn't provide much detail about Benson's past, his honesty and determination to escape make him a compelling protagonist, and it's easy to get drawn into his fellow students' plights as well. There are plenty of "didn't see that coming" moments and no shortage of action or violence. With its clever premise, quick pace, and easy-to-champion characters, Wells's story is a fast, gripping read with a cliffhanger that will leave readers wanting more. Ages 13–up.
From PW Reviews 2011 August #4


Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Fifth Wave by Rick Yancey 457 pages 9780399162411

Hold on to your seats for this rockin’ sci-fi adventure tale. The aliens are systematically attacking the earth with the intent of destroying its human inhabitants. Many are murdered in the first two waves. Cassie’s mom bites the dust in the third wave and her father doesn’t survive the fourth wave. To encourage her brother to climb the bus with the other young survivors, Cassie promises that she will meet up with him at the survival military base. Once the bus hits the road, their military “rescuers” begin killing all the teens and adults left at the camp. That Cassie escapes speaks to the training her father gave her. She is armed and tells herself to trust no one. Ben, Cassie’s former classmate is at the survival military base and it is rather grim. The adults are ripping away each child’s identity. Their training is more rigorous and inhumane than any boot camp I have seen on film or read about in books. Ben Is tagged as a leader although he has no grand expectations. So, this tale is told from several points of view. The pace is frenetic and Yancey does a splendid job of introducing a bunch of characters. Subtitled:  Book One, the reader is warned not to expect all of the plot strings to be neatly tied in bows. The pacing is quick, once you turn the last page you will be dying for the next installment.
The challenge? Surviving the genocide of the human race when aliens attack Earth in the not-too-distant future. Sixteen-year-old Cassie, her brother Sam and her dad survived the first four gruesome waves of the attack. Together, the three wait out the titular fifth in a military base for survivors until school buses arrive to take all children to safety, including her brother Sam. Cassie, her dad and the rest of the adults are then divested of their weapons and marched into a bunker by their protectors. Cassie escapes, only to see her dad (and everyone else) brutally executed by their so-called protectors. She then embarks on a mission to rescue her brother. As in his previous efforts (The Monstrumologist, 2009, etc.), Yancey excels in creating an alternative world informed by just enough logic and sociology to make it feel close enough to our own. The suspension-of-disbelief Kool-Aid he serves goes down so easy that every piece of the story--no matter how outlandish--makes perfect sense. The 500-plus-page novel surges forward full throttle with an intense, alarming tone full of danger, deceit and a touch of romance.

Quiet: the Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking / Susan Cain 333 p.

If you're on the I team you're bound to enjoy this, full of research and anecdotes about all the ways being an introvert has advantages.  Primarily, but not exclusively, focused on the professional realm, Cain makes important points about why many American businesses with open collaborative workspaces may actually be minimizing their companies' creative output by forcing introverts into environments where they can't get anything done.  I especially liked the chapters on chidren and education.  If you can remember being irritated with group work as a kid in school, Cain's observations will come as no surprise.  She argues that with today's increasingly heavy emphasis on collaborative learning we may be leaving a generation of students behind. 

In Pursuit of the English: a Documentary / Doris Lessing 239 p.

Nonfiction by recently deceased novelist and Nobelist Lessing tells of her arrival in England in the 50s after growing up in Southern Africa.  Specifically, she takes us inside the multi-family London house where she and her toddler son rent a room.  Her housemates are a colorful bunch, but, as always with Lessing, it's her almost scientific insight into their characters that sets her writing apart.  Her closest friend, Rose, for example, dresses, talks and behaves in a certain way which is emblematic of the London street where she grew up, her experiences during the Blitz, and the types of boyfriends her mother had when Rose was a child.

While the prose here is less than elegant, I nevertheless enjoyed this window into postwar London, its disappointments and privations, its con men and prostitutes, and its imminent changes.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells

Jeeves and the Wedding Bells: An Homage to P.G. Wodehouse by Sebastian
Faulks  243 pp.

As a lover of the Jeeves & Wooster stories, I was a bit skeptical when I learned of Faulks' resurrection of the beloved characters. Faulks does not claim to be in the league of Wodehouse but I have to say he has done an excellent job of emulating his style, complete with silly nicknames, the ubiquitous country estate, and a cricket match. As in most Jeeves stories, his employer Bertie Wooster gets himself involved in a harebrained scheme to help a friend with his love life difficulties. Of course, the scheme is not successful necessitating further schemes. In the process, Jeeves ends up pretending to be a Lord Etringham with Wooster masquerading as Jeeves valet, Wilberforce. Added to that is the beautiful Miss Georgiana Meadowes who has captured Wooster's heart but is to marry another. As an homage to Wodehouse, Faulks has nailed it.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Night Film by Marissa Pessl

Night Film by Marissa Pessl, 602 pages.
Pessl's second book, or at least her second big one, Night Film is a slick and polished book. It's well-paced and the surprises are just right. It didn't grab me like I had hoped it would, I put it down for a week or so when I got half-way through it, but I was satisfied with the end.
Scott McGrath, a reporter whose life was ruined years ago, when he was set up by the man he was investigating, horror-filmmaker Stanislas Cordova, finds himself drawn into Cordova's world again when the filmmaker's daughter commits suicide.

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Boxers and Saints: Boxers by Gene Leung Yang

Boxers and Saints: Boxers by Gene Leung Yang, 328 pages.
Yang provides an understandable and sympathetic treatment of the Boxer Rebellion in China from the very end of the nineteenth century into the beginning of the twentieth. This first volume of this two-volume work is told from the point of view of Little Bao. Bao is the  youngest son of a man who was looked up to by all of the residents of their village, until, while on his way to protest the treatment of their people by Christian missionaries and their followers, he is savagely beaten by foreign soldiers. Bao's brothers join a nascent resistance movement, and though Bao is told he is too young, he trains in secret and ends up as one of the movement's leaders. The Saints volume covers the same ground from the Chinese converts' point of view. Good art and an engaging story.

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Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile by Nate Jackson

Slow Getting Up: A Story of NFL Survival from the Bottom of the Pile by Nate Jackson, 243 pages.
Jackson spent six years with the Denver Broncos, the Cleveland Browns, and the San Francisco 49ers. He was a starter for part of his last season, but to hear him tell the story, he was never going to make it. He comes across as a relatively humble professional football player. He doesn't really dish the dirt on anyone here. There's none of the Richie Incognito, Jonathan Martin sort of horror stories here. He holds small grudges for the way he was cut on a couple of occasions, but he doesn't hold on too tight, as he's always reminding the reader that it's all just a business. Lots of shoulder pain and torn ligaments, tendons, and muscles for the author, but uncluttered and uncomplicated fun for the reader.

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Laika by Nick Abadzis

Laika by Nick Abadzis, 205 pages.

Laika was the first dog in space; sent up by the Soviets in Sputnik II in 1957. She was sort of a terrier, samoyed mix. In this richly imagined graphic novel by Nick Abadis, Laika was loved by some people in her life and abandoned by others, and then loved again before she was lost in space.  One of too many puppies born to a wealthy Muscovite, she is sent off with her siblings to a poorer Russian family, where she is loved by the little girl of the family who is eventually forced to give her up, Laika then begins a journey that sends her off into history. Abadis does a wonderful job telling the story of Kudryavka, as Laika is first named here, and of Sergei Korolev, head of the Sputnik program, and  of Yelena Alexandrovna Dubrovsky, Laika's handler, care-giver and last friend.

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Friday, November 22, 2013

Miracle Mud: Lena Blackburne and the secret mud that changed baseball by David A Kelly Illustrated by Oliver Dominguez.978-0-7613- 8092-4

Can ‘mud’ be considered an “invention”? Lena Blackburne yearned to be a star baseball player. He tried playing just about all the positions: first, second, third, shortstop, pitcher and coach. He was not destined to be a great player. Instead he caught an off-the –cuff comment from an umpire about the sad condition of baseballs. New baseballs were too shiny and slick; old balls were too soggy and soft. He discovered “magic mud” near his home in New Jersey. He started selling it in 1938 and it is still being “farmed” today. Fascinating trivia for the true baseball buff.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

The Rosie project, by Graeme Simsion

A short, amusing, and diverting tale of a bright but awkward man’s search for love via “The Wife Project,” a multi-paged survey designed to weed out smokers, annoying vegans, and others who might not fit into Don Tillman’s rigidly constructed world.  Yes, he’s very much “on the spectrum” and has just two friends, a married couple in an open marriage in which the husband is striving to have sex with at least one woman from every country in the world.  However, Don knows he’s odd and socially awkward and he is also more self-aware than one would assume.  Then he meets Rosie, who fails virtually every question on the survey.  She is looking for her biological father, who her free-spirited late mother has never named.  Don is a brilliant geneticist and his knowledge may help her surreptitiously test the field of candidates.   There’s a predictable happy ending.  Fun.  295 pp.

The circle, by Dave Eggers

I wish I had back the hours I spent plowing through this book.  It is just bad – wooden characters, stilted dialog, a female protagonist who is totally unbelievable, and then there’s its needless length, 491 pages to get to a curiously anticlimactic end.  An excerpt from The circle that was the lead article in a recent New York Times Magazine seemed intriguing.  I thought it was probably the first chapter.  However, I discovered after the first few pages of the novel that it takes 180 more to get to point where the NYT abridgement ends and not enough happens in between to justify the verbiage.  The Circle is a Silicon Valley Internet firm that is a mash-up of Google, Microsoft, Twitter, Facebook and Apple, controlling access to information, inventing cool new technological gadgets, and led by the charismatic three Wise Men.  Tiny cameras begin tracking everyone.  Wrist bracelets record the wearers’ physical health and their every move.  Everyone spends their waking hours “zinging” (tweeting) or sending “frowns” and “smiles” (likes).  Soon the Circle will control the world.  There’s a clunky device involving a transparent shark, some seahorses, and an octopus kept in an aquarium.  These previously unknown creatures are supposedly brought back from deep undersea in the Marianas Trench by a vessel invented by the Circle – wouldn’t they need major water pressure to survive, not just an aquarium?  A good, or even great, novel about the erosion of privacy and the trivialization of human interactions by “friending” random strangers in the digital age may yet be written.  This isn’t it.  Yes, 491 pp.