Monday, June 30, 2014

Lehrter Station by David Downing

Lehrter Station by David Downing, 378 pages.
The war is over in the fifth volume of Downing's John Russell series. But because of what he had to do to save his family as the war was ending, the Soviets feel that they have him under control. Out of necessity, Russell agrees to spy for the Russians, but looks for a way to stay alive and out of prison. Really well done series, the characters are great and the setting is very believable.

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Squirrel seeks chipmunk

Squirrel seeks chipmunk: a modest bestiary / David Sedaris 159 pgs.

David Sedaris is his usual witty self in this slender volume of fables featuring animals that touch on many topics including bigotry, selfishness, loneliness and parenting.

I listened to the audio that included readings by several people including Elaine Stritch (the actress who plays Jack Donagy's mom on Thirty Rock)...she is really a hoot.  I think this is a good format for this book because of the inflections of the readers and since it isn't very long, a good use of time.

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Me before you

Me before you / Jojo Moyes 369 pg.

Louisa is a small town girl in a small town world and that is just fine with her.  She gets sacked from her job when the cafe where she works closes.  She doesn't have a lot of skills but gets hired to be a caretaker for Will a former "master of the universe" type who was left a quadriplegic after an accident.  Louisa finds Will incredibly depressed, sarcastic, and sometimes mean.  But all of this is better than not having a job.  As time goes on, the emotional connection between Louisa and Will deepens and part of the story is kind of predictable yet the way it unfolds is great.  The author has done a great job with her characters.  You care about all of them and hope the best for them.  This book is fun to read and very funny in places but really deals with some heavy subjects.  What will we become when we grow up?  When will we grow up?  Who has the right to make life and death decisions?  Why do people become attracted to each other? If you like charming characters that seem very real and have potential for growth, give this book a try.

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The power of habit

The power of habit: why we do what we do in life and business / Charles Duhigg 371 pgs.

A great study of habit and how it affects what we do everyday.  Everyone is looking to make changes in their lives and Duhigg does a great job of explaining why that is hard to do.  Our actions are a collection of habits that rule a lot of our day.  Beyond the individual, habits affect other social groups and business as we repeat things over and over...even things that weren't so successful. How to change?  You have to do some analysis.  What is driving the habit?  What can you REPLACE the habit with?  It is much easier to replace than to just get rid of a habit. So if we could all replace our destructive habits with positive ones...or at least non destructive ones, think of how better off we would be.

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The Fried Twinkie Manifesto

The Fried Twinkie Manifesto & Other Tales of Disaster & Damnation by Ryan Moehring  224pp.

This is a lighthearted collection of essays and short stories that covers a myriad of topics, some serious but most not. Let's just say it runs from marriage prenuptial agreements through talking twinkies to a Biblical discussion of uses for foreskins. With a bit of thought provoking material and some laugh-out-loud funny parts, it's an enjoyable light read especially as a $2 Kindle book.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The hare with amber eyes: A family’s century of art and loss, by Edmund de Waal

If you approach this book not knowing anything about either the author or the author’s family, as I did, you will be amazed as you turn the pages at his fascinating and unique heritage.  De Waal himself is, evidently, the premier potter working in England today.  This memoir begins and ends with the netsuke, 264 of them that were collected by his great-great uncle Charles Ephrussi.  De Waal now owns them, including the “hare with amber eyes,” and how these tiny, intricate ivory and wood Japanese carvings came to be handed down from one generation to the next is the center point around which the book revolves.  I did not know about the Ephrussi family – a Jewish family at one time as well-known and wealthy as the Rothchilds.  Charles not only collected the netsuke, but he collected, and commissioned, work from such friends as Renoir and Monet and was a model for Swann in Proust’s Remembrance of things past.  Charles is just one of many intriguing and important members of the extended family who we get to know.  With palatial homes in Paris, Vienna, and banks in other European capitals as well, the Ephrussis were an early target during the Anschluss, so this is also a Holocaust memoir.  

But overall it is a meditation on art and the importance of things, and the memories attached to them, in one’s life.  As the writer says, “If I choose to pick up this small white cup with its single chip near the handle, will it figure in my life?  A simple object, this cup that is more ivory than white, too small for morning coffee, not quite balanced, could become part of my life of handled things.  It could fall away into the territory of personal story-telling:  the sensuous, sinuous intertwining of things with memories.  A favoured, favorite thing.  Or I could put it away.  Or I could pass it on.  How objects are handed on is all about story-telling.  I am giving you this because I love you.  Or because it was given to me.  Because I bought it somewhere special.  Because you will care for it.  Because it will complicate your life.  Because it will make someone else envious.  There is no easy story in legacy.  What is remembered and what is forgotten?  There can be a chain of forgetting, the rubbing away of previous ownership as much as the slow accretion of stories.  What is being passed on to me with all these small Japanese objects?”  I suspect not everyone will be as enthralled with this book as I was, but I highly recommend it.  354 pp.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Bellman and Black

Bellman and Black by Diane Setterfield 328 pp.

William Bellman killed a bird with slingshot when he was young boy. This one cruel act sets in motion mysterious events which affect his life in disastrous ways. He becomes a successful business man with the textile mill he inherits but loses most of his family to an outbreak of "fever." His daughter, Dora, survives but is an invalid. An encounter with a mysterious man in black leads to Bellman creating a new business, a funeral emporium that sells all the accoutrements for a Victorian era funeral from mourning clothes to caskets. The business is wildly successful until it isn't. Bellman makes "Mr. Black" a silent partner in the business because he believes that is the agreement they had. But who is Mr. Black? Does he really exist? Is he the devil, a ghost, a man, a figment of Bellman's imagination, or something else entirely? This is a good mysterious story but I don't think it compares to Setterfield's previous novel The Thirteenth Tale.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

The Wishing Spell

The Wishing Spell  by Chris Colfer   304 pgs.

The Wishing Spell is book one in The Land of Stories series penned by actor Chris Colfer—yes, Kurt from the T.V. show Glee. It is the tale of twins Alex and Conner who through the mysterious powers of a cherished book of stories, leave their world behind and find themselves in a foreign land full of wonder and magic, coming face-to-face with the fairy tale characters they grew up reading about. The only way to get home is a convoluted scavenger hunt that requires them to collect eight tokens from various fairy tales—Cinderella’s glass slipper, a lock of Rapunzel’s hair, etc. The ending is never in doubt, but it’s a difficult journey as the twins meet the Big Bad Wolf Pack, are enslaved by trolls, and kidnapped by Snow White’s evil stepmother.

I listened to the audio version because it was narrated by Colfer--very enjoyable.  I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys varied slants to fairy tales.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Monuments Men

The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History by Robert M. Edsel with Bret Witter  473 pp.

After seeing the movie "The Monuments Men" which is a fictionalized version of the true story, I was interested in learning more. This book focuses on several of the people who were instrumental in creating the little known Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives section of Military Civil Affairs. The book focuses on a few of those who were instrumental in recovering thousands of works of art from the mines, warehouses, and castles where the Nazis had hidden them. Much primary source material is included. The fact that a small group accomplished so much in this tremendous operation in such a short time under horrible conditions is amazing. There was also a local connection in St. Louis born Walker Hancock. Hancock was the sculptor who created the four large statues flanking the stairs of Soldiers' Memorial among other famous works. Many of the monument men rose to prominence after the war by becoming museum curators and leaders in the arts. I listened to the audiobook version which means I missed out on the photographs in the book. There were also a few mispronunciations by the reader that were a bit jarring. In spite of that I found it a very interesting story.


Galveston / Nic Pizzolatto 258 pgs.

Roy Cady gets diagnosed with a terminal illness but he is still at work for his sleazebag employer doing "collections" and other jobs.  Roy gets the idea that his employer wants him dead when he sends him on a job but tells him not to take a gun.  Roy walks into a trap that turns into a bloodbath but he walks out with the only other survivor, a young hooker named Rocky.  They go on the run together after stopping off to pick up Rocky's younger sister.  They know they are in danger and need to stay smart but are also in need of money.

Roy is attracted to Rocky but she is basically just a kid so he works harder to protect her than anything else.  He knows he is short for the world so tried to make a nest egg by blackmailing his former employer.

This is a dark story but still has elements of hope.  I picked this up off our display for people who like "True Detective." The author wrote and produced the show and this book has the same vibe.

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

The land of steady habits

The land of steady habits / Ted Thompson 266 pgs.

As with many suburban neighborhoods filled with seemingly boring regular families, there is often more going on behind the scenes.  Anders is married to his college sweetheart and has two sons but he is deciding this isn't what he wants.  When his second son finally graduates from college, he tells his wife he wants a divorce.  His timing is a bit bad, she has just been diagnosed with breast cancer.  The story picks up after her recovery when they are split.  Anders doesn't really know what to do...all of their friends were her friends.  He never really liked them anyway yet he finds himself at a Christmas party of Mitchell and Sophie.  Their youngest (Charlie) is outside smoking dope and Anders joins him before making a scene at the party. Charlie ends up in the hospital that night because the dope was laced with PCP and he took a variety of other drugs. Christmas can always be stressful but each of our main characters has some epiphany or situation that leads to some growth.  Is this a coming of age novel?  Sort of.  I guess it doesn't really matter when you grow your 60's 30's or teens.  This book has all those ages covered.

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Better Nate Than Ever

Better Nate Than Ever by Tim Federle, 288 pages
A 2014 Stonewall Honor Book in Children's and Young Adult Literature
2014 Top Ten Best Fiction for Young Adults

Middle schooler Nate Foster has a dream to some day star in a Broadway show. So when his best friend, Libby, sees on Facebook that auditions are taking place for E.T.: The Musical, she and Nate hatch a plan for him to sneak away from his home in Jankburg, Pennsylvania and head to New York so that he can try out. Taking advantage of his parents going out of town and leaving his brother in charge of him (and more than happy to let Nate spend the night at Libby's), Nate is supposed to be in and out of New York by the early afternoon, but naturally, things don't run as smoothly as he plans. Between the arrival of his aunt Heidi, who his mother hasn't spoken to in years after a major falling out, and surprise callbacks, Nate is determined to do anything if it means stardom and a chance to tread the boards. And maybe, just maybe, he'll find himself along the way.

This is one of those books that kind of just rolls along, throwing a new mishap or obstacle in the way at every turn. In some cases, a story like this can strain belief, but Nate is such a likable character, that it's easy to suspend your disbelief and just roll along with him. Tim Federle does a great job making Nate seem real enough and drama-kid-crazy enough that all of this seems plausible (and if you've spent any time at all around theatre types, it'll definitely seem real). And even though Nate's immediate focus is on auditioning and getting the part, he's also hoping that all of this will catapult him into a bigger and better self. New York is basically one big It Gets Better video, a place where you can be you, and nobody cares, unlike Jankburg, where simply liking musicals is enough to get you shoved into lockers and picked last in gym class. Better Nate Than Ever is a charming, easy-going book, with a good dose of humor, even when dealing with a few serious issues.

(Read as part of YALSA's Hub Reading Challenge.)

The Beggar King

The Beggar King by Oliver Pőtzsch  466 pp.

This is book three of the "Hangman's Daughter" series and the second one I've read. I found this story to be better than the first book. In the mid-1600s the Schongau hangman, Jakob Kuisl, receives a message that his sister in the city of Regensberg is seriously ill. He travels to the city to find his sister and brother-in-law murdered. Jakob is arrested for the murder and will be tortured if he doesn't confess. Meanwhile his daughter, Magdalena and her lover, the medicus Simon Fronweiser decide to leave Schongau where their relationship is frowned upon. They head to the city only to discover her father imprisoned. Magdalena and Simon begin their own investigation in hopes of saving him but find themselves to be fugitives. With the help of the Beggar King, the one who runs the "guild" of Regensberg beggars, the pair finds much wrong in the town including a plot to destroy the German rulers. Their are plenty of plot twists and interesting characters as well as historical details. There is added material about the city of Regensberg with commentary on which historical buildings were used as locations in the story.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even / Chris F Westbury 312 p.

Isaac lives a narrow life, spending all day sitting in art museums, washing his hands, and generally avoiding the rest of humanity.  He makes friends 'in group,' his outpatient group therapy for those with OCD.  Together, he and his best friend Greg, who is obsessed with spoons and the artist Marcel Duchamp, hatch a plan to purchase an authentic chocolate grinder, made in the style of a portion of a piece by Duchamp.  (Don't ask - I didn't even try to follow some of the logic here, and I don't think the writer fully intends us to.  Just let it be.)

So the plan involves a brand-new sterilized Winnebago to make the drive from Boston to Philadelphia, where the bulk of Duchamp's work can be viewed.  But Isaac and Greg can't drive, so they hire Isaac's new non-group friend, Kelly, a doctoral student in religious studies who shares Isaac's love of a sculpture of the Biblical Abraham and Isaac that they've been gazing at together.

This is apparently Westbury's first novel, but it doesn't read like one.  Circuitous mental processes aside, this is delightful.  Westbury clearly is indulging some of his own obsessions, and yet his characters are full of sweetness and depth.  And the construction of the book is far more controlled than the wild thematic shifts would make it seem.  Not for everyone, but if you're looking for something unusual, give it a try.

Monday, June 16, 2014

What the family needed

What the family needed / Steven Amsterdam 262 pgs.

I read the jacket of this book and thought it had great promise.  A family who discovers in times of need that they each have a superpower.  Seemed like it could be REALLY FUN.  Well, instead, they use their powers to focus inward...the teen who can become invisible hangs out to hear what is happening in her family.  The guy who can make people fall in love, does so with is cousin then experiments with people who work at a coffee shop.  The woman who is suddenly very strong decides to swim a lot.  It isn't that I don't care about families but I really wanted them to do something a little cooler with super powers than hang around with each other.

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My Salinger year, by Joanna Rakoff

It’s the mid-90s and The Agency is stuck somewhere mid-century.  When 23-year-old Joanna moves to New York to pursue her dream of becoming a poet, she is thrilled to be hired as an assistant to a famous literary agent, whose clients include “Jerry,” J. D. Salinger to the rest of the world.  And part of her job is keeping the rest of the world away from him.  “Assistant” turns out to be an underpaid secretarial job.  The office has resisted any new-fangled technology and she spends her days typing up correspondence on an IBM Selectric while listening to a Dictaphone of the type that got Nixon’s secretary in trouble back in 1972.  The agents smoke and drink – often from coffee cups at their desks.  But she actually loves the quiet, dim, cloistered atmosphere much of the time, and becomes involved with some of the many correspondents who send heart-felt letters to Salinger – which are supposed to be answered using a form letter.  These letters are usually from veterans who shared WWII experiences or angst-ridden teens who identify with Holden and are finding life “phony.”  Oddly, she has never actually read any of Salinger’s work until near the end of her year at the Agency, and she does actually meet him once in addition to talking to him on the phone.  But mostly this is a memoir of a young woman finding her way – she is involved with an older man who is a socialist and would-be novelist while still longing for the college boyfriend her parents approved of.  She struggles to live on her meager salary.  She makes bad decisions, and ultimately good ones.  She grows up.  249 pp.