Saturday, May 21, 2011

Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell

Woe to Live On by Daniel Woodrell

Straightforward in its violence, this book was difficult to read but Woodrell deserves credit for taking facts about bushwhackers, secessionists and Jayhawkers and creating a compelling tale.  Woodrell is a genius at showing the humanity, or lack of humanity, in those around us...our neighbors, ourselves.  The main character, Jake, travels with killers, displaying his own savagery but still there's something humane about him.  Woodrell shows us how hard it is to retain any humanity in the midst of a mob and it's only when Jake has time away from the larger group that he begins to understand what compelled him into the fight and what it has cost him.
I think Daniel Woodrell is a genius and reading one of his books is necessary, even when it kind of hurts.
Oh, I forgot to say that the movie, Ride With the Devil, was based on this book.  Also the book was re-published as Ride With the Devil but apparently both versions of the title are out of print.
Kim F

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Maze Runner

by James Dashner, 375 pages

Thomas wakes up in a moving metal box and sits in the disorienting dark for nearly half an hour before the door open to the outside.  He finds himself in the Glade, a place populated by teenage boys who have a rigid order for survival, but who refuse to answer any questions. He can't remember anything beyond is name, and neither can anyone else.  Beyond the relative safety of the Glade lies a maze with horrifying creatures that attack anyone daring enough to enter.  The day after his arrival a girl turns up in the metal box with a horrible message that everything will change.

I'm really mad at this book.  I spent most of it wondering what the heck was going on and hoped that by the end I'd have a solid idea of what the Maze was and why the boys were trapped there.  Guess what?  There will be two more books in this series, so the author decided to hold off on answering any of those pesky questions until later.  The last pages wrap up with a few teasers which lead to more questions.  This is a 2011-2012 Truman Nominee and has gotten a really good response from the teens at Republic.  One of the girls told me "just keep reading... and when you're done read the next one!"  I put it on hold, so we'll see how it goes.

Nowhere Near Respectable

by Mary Jo Putney, 352 pages

 Lady Kiri Lawford knows that some in society dislike her half Indian blood, but she is proud of her royal heritage despite its foreign origins.  When she hears her potential fiance's mother disparaging her mother and her ancestry, Kiri leaves his house in a fit of temper.  Her ride quickly turns dangerous when she crosses paths with a group of smugglers.  Captive and plotting her escape, Kiri takes her chance when a stranger arrives and distracts her captors.  Damain Mackenzie doesn't realize that Kiri is the sister of one of his brother's closest friends when he helps her escape.  The moment he finds out, he rushes her to safety and promises to put her out of his mind.  Kiri, however, is determined to pay him back for his assistance.  The good deed leads to another as she interrupts a kidnapping and suddenly becomes part of a group charged with foiling a royal assassination plot with Damian by her side.

Mary Jo Putney is one of my favorites for historical romance.  Her characters and settings are richly drawn, and her plots are always fast and intriguing.  This is part of her Lost Lords series and adds one more piece to a larger puzzle that began in Loving a Lost Lord.

Drums of Autumn

by Diana Gabaldon, 880p.

The fourth book in the Outlander Series, 'Drums of Autumn' follows the Fraser family as they settle in the mountains of North Carolina.  After the many sacrifices made in this saga, Jamie and Claire are finally able to make a home for each other with their extended family, despite being without their daughter, Brianna.

As Brianna and Roger discover more and more about Claire's future, the more Brianna longs to travel to the past to be with her parents.

Diana Gabaldon's fantastic tale about the Fraser clan lives up to previous standards.  I can't wait to finish the rest of the series!

Eleven Scandals to Start to Win a Duke's Heart

by Sarah MacLean, 384 pages

Juliana Fiori is billed as scandalous from her first introduction to society.  Everyone assumes that she's just like her mother who abandoned her highborn husband and sons then later married an Italian merchant, Juliana's father.  Juliana tolerates this closed mindedness impatiently, paying only slight attention to the rules and living the way she pleases.  The only person whose opinion she can't quite ignore is the stuffy Duke of Leighton who prizes reputation above all else.  Juliana sets out to prove to him that there is more to life than following society's rules, but she might just lose her heart in the process.

This is the third in a series, Juliana's story coming after her two older brothers.  MacLean is great with creating lovable characters and tugging on the heart strings.  Eleven Scandals was full of the drama that comes with falling in love and figuring out what matters in life.  It wasn't quite the romp that the title suggests, but I'll happily trade that for the lovely emotional story that emerged instead.

The geeks shall inherit the Earth : popularity, quirk theory, and why outsiders thrive after high school

by Alexandra Robbins.  436 p.

Robbins follows six "geeks" through the most torturous American institution: high school.  Instead of being the typical 'follow high school students to show that they're all the same, really' that many documentaries and books of late follow.  Instead, 'The Geeks' main point is that being nerdy is ok and that, in the real world, the geeks and nerds end up being the innovators and leaders people look up to (think Mark Zuckerburg, Lady Gaga, President Obama).

Robbins follows the six geeks as they deal with social pressures in and around school, but also challenges them to work to change their perception of the outside world without sacrificing who they are.  Follow the Loner, the Popular Bitch, the Band Geek, the Nerd, the New Girl, the Weird Girl and the Gamer as they struggle with the twisted hierarchy and messed up rules that govern adolescent and high school society.  To complement Robbins' investigative reporting, scientific data is woven into the narration is a witty, socially conscious manner.

This book was truly shocking.  My high school life wasn't so long ago, but reading these books made me realize just how much I don't want to remember about it.  Despite it's moving message, I still found my anxiety and stress levels increasing since I could relate so much to what the participants were going through.  Robbins' use of the cafeteria as the centerpiece for much of the anxiety in these geeks' worlds (the place where statuses are made and lives are ruined) rang true, both in personal retrospect and as current social commentary.  By maintaining this cliquish, mean-spirited society bent on stifling creativity and uniqueness, we're not helping anyone.

"Girl in Translation" by Jean Kwok

293 pages

Eleven-year-old Kimberly Chang and her mother are supposed to feel blessed and grateful after Kim's aunt Paula arranges for them to follow her from Hong Kong to the United States. Her father died in an accident when Kim was young, and she and her mom don't have many options for getting out of poverty back home. However, Kim quickly learns that things aren't as easy in America as she's been led to believe. She finds herself leading a double life: star student during the day, sweatshop worker in the evenings. The tiny Brooklyn apartment she shares with Ma is infested with roaches and doesn't have heat. As the years go by, Kim becomes more and more determined to use her intelligence to take herself and her mother on to better things, but her intense romantic feelings for another young factory worker force her to make some huge decisions that will affect not only her own future but that of the people she loves.

I though that this story was a little slow at the beginning. My heart broke for Kim and the horrible position she found herself in, but I think the author spends too much time focusing on the obstacles she faced--it gets repetitive. However, the pace really picks up in last quarter of the book and the plot takes some unexpected twists that made the story more complicated and interesting. There are so many great elements to this book that lots of people will be able to relate to, at least indirectly--Kim's relationship to her mother; the conflict between her Chinese identity and her desire to be American; her struggle to balance her ambition with her loyalty to the people around her. I also like that this story draws attention to the fact that a lot of people are essentially enslaved in the United States today, with incredible obstacles preventing them from escaping from that situation. I'm still not sure exactly how I felt about the ending, but it didn't turn out the way that I expected and it made me think, and I always like those two things.

Torchwood : Into the Silence

by Sarah Pinborough.  239 p.

Just as a Welsh national singing competition is gearing up in Cardiff, new Rift activity is coinciding directly with grisly murders of contestants.  The Torchwood crew, still reeling from the loss of Tosh and Owen, try to figure out who or what is massacring the musicians before another is lost.

No bones about it:  this book is scary.  Lots of violence and gore are becoming Torchwood standard, but that is to be expected.  Torchwood is definitely for adults or those that can handle a more mature sci-fi experience.

The Magic Half

by Annie Barrows.  211p.  

Miri is an only child stuck between two sets of twins.   While her dad says this is part of what makes her special, she feels left out and different.   But after discovering an old glasses lens that transports her to her home during the Great Depression, Miri discovers something wonderful - her very own twin!  Now that they've found each other Miri and Molly must figure out how to get back to the present with out getting hurt - and by bringing down Molly's evil cousin Horst.

Annie Barrows, co-author of the 'Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,' creates a wonderful, magic-filled world that any kid can get sucked into.  And who hasn't spent hours wishing they had a secret twin that they had to save?  


by Kristin Cashore, 461 pages

Fire is the last of her kind, a human monster, both incredibly beautiful and able to control the minds of the people around her.  In an attempt to live down the horrors that her father, also a human monster, visited upon the Dells, Fire keeps a low profile and avoids the politics of a kingdom on the verge of war.  Until the arrival of foggy-minded strangers and increasing tensions between the lords of the Dells force her to take center stage in the unfolding battle.

When I started this book, I thought it was a sequel to Cashore's first book Graceling.  It's kind of linked- Fire is set in a bordering land and has one connecting character, but seems to take place a couple of decades before the events in Graceling.  It didn't take me long to stop looking for connections between the two books.  Fire is a compelling character and the world in which she lives is untamed and less oppressive than the world in Graceling.  This book works well as a stand alone- I actually liked this story better than the first.  It's layered with intrigue, threats and blood and has just enough romantic tension to be interesting.  I did figure out a couple of the plot points well in advance, but that didn't bother me... it just made me feel smart!

The Four Agreements by Miguel Ruiz

My friend, Erin, recommended this book almost two years ago and I did what any of our patrons would do.  I looked it up on google and read what the websites had to say!  I loved the idea of using these four simple rules to live by and I started thinking about how I could incorporate them into my life but I didn't get around to reading the book until now.  Although my husband would probably characterize some of the language in the book as "self-help mumbo jumbo" the agreements make plenty of sense to me and have already helped me to reframe some of my thoughts in a more positive way.  So, I don't mind a little mumbo jumbo if it leads to greater happiness!
1.  Be Impeccable with Your Word-tell the truth-to yourself and to everyone else. 
2.  Don't Take Anything Personally-(my personal nemesis) Nothing others do is because of you.
3.  Don't Make Assumptions-Be courageous enough to ask when you don't know something and to express what you really want.  Communicate clearly with others to avoid misunderstandings, sadness and drama.
4.  Always Do Your Best- Your best might change from minute to minute but just do the best you can, always.
Kim F

Thursday, May 19, 2011

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games: 1)

by Suzanne Collins
(2008 | 374 p)

In an undefined future, North America has undergone radical changes. For starters, there is no more North America. Instead there's Panem. Panem is, for the most part, not a lot of fun. It's divided between the Capitol and 12 Districts (there were 13 Districts before the Capitol saw fit to wipe the unlucky number out). The Capitol is a massive, glamorous city that serves as the playground for Panem's elite. The rest of the population lives in the Districts and do the grunt work that supports the lifestyle of those in the Capitol. Some Districts have a bit more privilege than others. Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, they mine coal for the Capitol and are not afforded any privilege at all.

As with any dystopian society worth its weight, there are various population control measures at work in Panem. The Districts are kept strictly isolated from each other, for one. And the population is regularly starved to death. But the most twisted power enforcer ever comes in the form of an annual event called the Hunger Games. With much fanfare (and television coverage) each District is forced to select a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to take place in these “games.” It is a highly anticipated to-do for the residents of the Capitol -- and even celebrated in a few of the better off Districts where there are resources to produce well trained participants. Once selected, the children are thrown into a hostile environment and left to kill one another. The last one alive wins. The entire bloodbath is televised and required viewing for the entire population of Panem in an extreme case of reality television gone wrong.

So Katniss from District 12 is only 16-years-old and has been the sole provider for her mother and little sister, Prim, ever since her father died in a coal mine explosion. Since the Capitol never supplies enough food to her District, Katniss regularly sneaks into the surrounding woods to forage and hunt. She's also a fair hand at bartering. In a nutshell, Katniss is a survivor. When the selection time for the Hunger Games arrives, Katniss is horrified when Prim is selected and quickly volunteers herself to go in Prim's stead. Katniss is then shipped off to the Capitol with Peeta, the baker's son who was unlucky enough to draw the other lot. And that's the happy part of the story.

This novel had all the dystopian elements that I enjoy but, ultimately, was just too dark for me. I realize that this book is crazy popular and there's clearly something wrong with my literary tastes. I couldn't really move past the fact that children were butchering each other. Aside from the unsettling plot the writing and characters are well done. The story is fast-paced and well told. Katniss isn't a whiny push-over, which is generally all that I ask for in a heroine. Despite that, I still don't think I liked her very much. With so little to draw me back in, I doubt I'll be reading books 2 and 3.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Akata Witch

by Nnedi Okorafor
(2011 | 349 p)

Akátá: A Nigerian term used by some African immigrants to the United States to describe African Americans and their descendants. Over time it has come to have derogatory connotations due to perceived tensions between some African immigrants and African Americans. [Source: Wikipedia]

Since she was born in New York to Nigerian parents, twelve-year-old Sunny is well aware that she's an akata. Now that her family has moved back to Nigeria, that and her albinism are facts her classmates won't let her forget. Finding out that she's also a witch, however, comes as a total surprise.

With the help of new friends, Sunny discovers that she's a "free agent," a person who possesses latent magical abilities. These magical folks refer to themselves as Leopards. The realization that Leopards not only exist, but that she also happens to be one, opens up a new and juju-filled world for Sunny. Her magical studies are three times as hard as her regular classes, that's to be expected. But Sunny is still shocked when she and her friends are assigned the most difficult assignment of all – to stop a serial killer.

Parts of “Akata Witch” read like a concise, African-style, Harry Potter series. Rather than a Knight Bus there's a Funky Train to transport Leopards to and fro. And non-magic folks aren't called Muggles, they're Lambs. But while these elements make the story feel familiar, it's clearly not. “Akata Witch” provides an imaginative sprinkling of magical realism in a locale that is largely ignored by the fantasy world. And Okorafor's leading ladies steal the show with their quick thinking and fortitude, something I love to see in young adult literature.

"Fever: 1793" by Laurie Halse Anderson

256 pages

Fourteen-year-old Mattie Cook helps her mother and grandfather run a coffeehouse in Philadelphia in 1793. In the late summer, a yellow fever epidemic suddenly breaks out. Her friend Polly is one of the first to succumb to the disease, but Mattie barely has time to mourn. Immediately she and her family have to make life-and-death decisions: Stay in the city or flee for the countryside? Trust the blood-letting Dr. Rush or adopt the unfamiliar medical advice of the French? In the few months that the yellow fever rages, Mattie is forced to grow up quickly and prove that she is mature enough to handle adult situations as she fights to save herself and her loved ones.

I didn't know much about the Philadelphia yellow fever epidemic before I read "Fever: 1793." This book does a great job of telling an engaging story with charming characters while at the same time educating readers on a historical event that isn't often discussed. There's also a really handy appendix that includes info about the actual event and the people who appear in the story who really lived. I also think it does a good job of portraying daily life for Americans during the 1700s. The pace of the story moves quickly and there's a balance between tragedy and hope, which I think is a good combination for introducing historical events to young readers.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A.D. : New Orleans After the Deluge by Josh Neufeld

Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana and Mississippi with its strength and our government's lackluster response is well documented. Instead of focusing on these staggering events, Neufeld brings to life, in graphic format, five stories from real folks in New Orleans that survived the storm and its aftermath. From Denise, who tells a very different tale of the NO Convention Center than the media to Abbas and Darnell who stayed behind to protect Abbas' grocery store; each story tells a unique perspective on the storm of the century. The stories focus on the humanity and resiliency of a people who love the city they call home.

This was a somber read that builds the tension as the stories unfold. We all know the havoc Katrina wreaked in New Orleans but we may not have paid attention to the individual stories. The panels are colored minimally, usually with one or two colors with each day being portrayed by a different color. This minimal style lends to the emotional impact of the events unfolding and the characters will stick with you long after you've turned the last page. 2009, 193 pages.

The Book of Tomorrow by Cecelia Ahern

“I make it easier for people to leave by making them hate me a little.”
Tamara Goodwin has always gets everything she wants and lives a life of spoiled luxury in Dublin, Ireland. Everything changes when her father commits suicide and she is forced to move with her mother to the Irish countryside. Tamara is used to a great deal of freedom and bristles under the ever-vigilant watch of her Aunt Rosaleen. Life is never going to be the same but when Tamara finds a book on the traveling library that appears to tell the future, maybe she can find the life she was meant to live.
This is a classic coming of age story with a magical twist. The story has a relaxed pace and is character driven. The secondary characters are interesting enough that you really want to know more about them but their back stories are absent. What I like about Ahern is the way she throws her characters into everyday life that everyone can relate to with a touch of magic that adds a sense of wonder to it all. What I didn’t like about this specific book is the feeling that the author wanted to dabble in creating a suspense novel with Rosaleen and her odd behavior. For this reader it was just awkward. 2011, 312 pages.

The Murder of King Tut

by James Patterson & Martin Dugard
p 332

Every 8 years I read a James Patterson offering, whether I need to or not. The last time was 2003 and the book was The Court Jester, a pleasant change of pace from the prolific and predictable thrillers I have come to expect. When The Murder of King Tut came my way I was hoping for another break from the norm. "The Plot to Kill the Child King - A Non-Fiction Thriller" was jointly written and extensively researched by the authors to put to rest the ancient mystery of King Tut.
The book is written in 3 areas - the life and death of Tut, the discovery of his tomb almost 600 years later and the present day attempt by Patterson to solve the mystery shrouding Tut's life and death. The historical evidence presented was interesting and engaging. The story behind Howard Carter's discovery in 1922 is equally intriguing, a well-documented curse that surrounded the expedition that was fraught with problems and mishaps. The present-day tale of writing this book was somewhat self-absorbed and I could not help but feel that Patterson's view of his work is much more important that what I have given him credit for.
I did not feel that his effort really shed that much new light on the subject, though he uses a variety of sources to draw his own conclusions, thus "solving the mystery of Tut". All-in-all this book is a quick and easy read, which Patterson excels at. But ultimately it was not the page-turning thriller I would have expected.
Giving it a Rock and a Chalk!

Monday, May 16, 2011

"Alice in Lace" by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

139 pages

Lately I've been continuing my trip down memory lane by rereading the Alice series, which I enjoyed as a kid. In "Alice in Lace," Alice and her boyfriend Patrick are getting married, Pamela's pregnant, and Elizabeth has to buy a car. No, they haven't gone insane--these are assignments for their eighth-grade health class. As they work through their projects, they discover how complicated adult decisions can be. Meanwhile, as Alice observes her father's and brother's love lives, she learns that although it's essential to be prepared, some things can't be planned for. I think this book has a great message and the characters are as charming as ever, but I don't think this story is as funny as the other Alice books I've reread so far.

Blitz : the story of December 29, 1940

by Margaret Gaskin, 430 pages

While I was reading and listening to Connie Willis's time travel duo set in WWII London, I came across Margaret Gaskin's book about the worst day of the Blitz, December 29, 1940. In a technique reminiscent of Walter Lord's work on the Titanic (A Night to Remember), Gaskin focuses on a group of survivors of the bombardment. On that particular night, it seemed as if the Luftwaffe would succeed in utterly destroying the City of London. The bombers dropped countless bundles of incendiary bombs on the rooftops of the ancient City's buildings. Many of those venerable buildings had survived the Great Fire of London in 1666.

It's an amazing story of grit and true courage. What is so striking is that Londoners really did "take it" and carry on as best they could, sheltering in Tube stations, warehouses, church crypts. Sometimes they were burned out of one shelter and had to move to the next. Fleet Street was hit especially hard, with all the warehouses of paper so close. But above all the smoke and flames, the dome of St. Paul's rose in sooty splendor. That black and white photo became a symbol of Londoners' resolve and defiance under the most daunting attacks.

If you are interested in WWII or British history, Blitz is a stirring history of one of London's darkest nights.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

"Can You Survive the Zombie Apocalypse?" by Max Brallier

384 pages

Remember those "Choose Your Own Adventure" books that used to be popular for kids? Here's an adult--a very adult--version. You start out as a 20-something male working in a boring Manhattan office job when the zombie plague breaks out. What happens after that is up to you. With 100 different paths to 50 endings, there's plenty of variety. You could find yourself killing a Nazi, beheading zombie strippers, flying to safety in a NY Yankee's private jet, riding with Hell's Angels, being saved by a museum curator/ninja, and/or many other crazy things.

This unique format is a lot of fun. At first I just dove in and made choices that seemed smart, and later I went back and marked the pages as I went to make sure I followed all of the paths. Flipping around every few pages was kind of annoying to me, but it was well worth it. My only other complaint is that some of the endings don't seem like real endings to me--sometimes the storyline ends while it's still uncertain what is going to happen in the long term. That said, I still loved this book. In addition to the fun of making choices, the writing itself is pretty funny. I especially enjoyed the goofy chapter titles, such as "Chivalry Isn't Dead (But You Might Be)" and "Making Tom Berenger Proud."

Radical Homemakers: Reclaiming Domesticity from a Consumer Culture

by Shannon Hayes
(2010 | 300p)

Families nationwide are struggling with how to manage a growing sense of powerlessness as our world undergoes climate change, our economy flounders and public health worsens. Shannon Hayes, author of the manifesto “Radical Homemakers,” is not alone in her decision to return to the home – the foundation on which a healthy community is built. But this is not a call to return to well-coiffed housewives who wear heels as they keep house and bake pies. Not at all. Hayes is talking about turning homes back into net producers, about turning our backs on the corporate culture that has morphed us into the net consumers that keeps the corporations thriving even as the rest of us struggle to get by.

While researching this book Hayes did extensive research. And it shows. Her passion for the cause is punctuated by well thought out arguments and cold, hard facts. You won't know how to can tomatoes or milk a goat after reading this book. “Radical Homemakers” isn't a how-to back-to-the-land manual. This is an overview of how the radical homemaker movement came about and how it has manifested itself in diverse households. It's a rallying cry for anyone who has been tip-toeing their way toward this way of life.

I don't often read works of non-fiction from cover to cover. “Radical Homemakers” was an exception, once I started I couldn't put it down.