Monday, January 9, 2017

Winter Reading 2017 One Week in the Library

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Imagine a man living in a library. He has always been there; there are various stories of his arrival there and he cannot leave. What would his days be like? He would be surrounded by books all day, every day. Would his relationship with the books be different than ours? 

The creators of One Week in the Library have made a graphic novel that also mixes in infographics, pages of text, poetry, lots of references to other works, and some metafictional scenes, too. Each day of the week shows a trip to a different section of the library and a different experience. For instance, on Friday he meets a wooden boy very much like Pinocchio and Saturday he eats porridge in the company of Ursas Major, Medium, and Minor. 

I liked the graphics of Sunday's that show that the "library is an indeterminate number of protean quadrate galleries." All sorts of mathematical terms are thrown around - things like contranimbuses and perpendiculums. And the explanation that the books are not written in ink, but in "the very blood of the living stories held within that makes the pages readable - we call this hemo-fictive illumination." 

My least favorite day was Monday, which shows a frightful variation on Charlotte's Web in which the spider writes the word "Terrible" and the farmer ends up eating bacon. That one gave me the heebie-jeebies.

The many references to stories are like an Easter egg hunt for avid readers. There are mentions of the wardrobe to Narnia, Alice and the Looking Glass, even Morpheus offering little red pills. There are clever allusions in the names of the characters. Larry is the one who becomes Morpheus (Lawrence Fishburne), Hadder runs a board room that is reminiscent of the Mad Hatter's tea party, and Mr. Pilar smokes constantly like the caterpillar with the hookah in Wonderland. And the illustrations feed into this too. Even the Millenium Falcon and the Enterprise show up at some point.

Several statements in the book would make great quotes on bookmarks or posters. "There's always a better story. It takes just a tiny red pill...A stumble through the looking glass...A journey through the back of a wardrobe...The borders are porous, you see. Break on through to the other side."

Books like this help readers to break on through. Have fun on the trip!

I received an e-galley from the publisher for review purposes.

Winter Reading 2017 Spaceman: An Astronaut's Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe

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Mike Massimino, "Mass," has written a captivating memoir of his quest to become an astronaut and his life serving as an astronaut with NASA. He paints a clear picture for us of the 7-year-old boy in his homemade astronaut outfit clutching the Snoopy astronaut doll that his big brother gave him. Then he takes us through the events that encouraged him to pursue that dream and the obstacles he overcame in order to become a "spaceman." Everything from his fear of heights, passing the qualifying exam for his Ph.D. program, the freeze on flights after the Challenger was lost, and even the problem of correcting his eyesight are shown and put into the path of that small boy making his way to the shuttle. 

One of the things that really makes the book enjoyable is the "guy next door" personality of Mass. As he says, he was the most all-around in situations his whole life. He was the guy good enough at sports to talk to the jocks, the kid whose grades were good enough to hang with the smart students, etc. And that ability to fit in and be genuinely interested in other people is what we see as he tells his story. He pulls us in and makes us a part of his circle of friends.

Another fun thing is the references to pop culture. He talks about his reaction to watching the moon landing, "The Right Stuff," and other space related media up to the movie "Armageddon" and his own cameo appearances on "The Big Bang Theory." He mentions books he enjoyed as a child like the science fiction of Jules Verne, and the musical groups he loaded on his iPod to listen to during his shuttle missions. Mass even discusses what it was like to be the first astronaut to tweet from space. (Check out his Twitter feed at https://twitter.com/astro_mike.)

But the thing that really comes through is his love for space and his feeling of belonging to the greatest team that you could possibly want to join. Anecdotes about the ways in which the space community - and the astronauts in particular - support each other, are crowded into the pages. Mass credits his father and watching him work with the New York Fire Department with building his belief that "whatever you do in life, it can't just be about making money. It's important that you work to make the world a better place, that you help improve the lives of the people around you." And he also helps us grasp the majesty of space, the image of the Earth as a spaceship carrying us all, and the drive to expand human knowledge.

I will warn you that many of the stories will make you teary-eyed, or downright make you cry. I went through lots of Kleenex reading about the loss of the Columbia, his father's fight with cancer, and the other sad events. But I also teared up over his triumphs like making the cut to become an astronaut in training or his first spacewalk. This is a story that you cannot read without responding to it.

You may check the publisher's website for more information about the book and an author biography.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Fall Reading 2016 Fate of Flames (Effigies #1)

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Imagine a world subject to attack by Phantoms - strange creatures that resemble the giant things that the Chitauri fly around on when they attack New York in "The Avengers." There are supposedly safe zones with techie defenses that prevent the Phantoms from appearing, but they sometimes fail. And all bets are off if you're outside the safe zones. Got that pictured clearly?

Now, imagine that there are defenders called Effigies. They happen to be teenage girls and there are only four at a time. Each one wields a different element; earth, air, fire, and water. When one Effigy dies, her powers are passed to a successor. The girls are trained and given tactical support by an international group called the Sect. Still pretty clear?

So, in this world, an Effigy has just died and her successor has not told anyone about her new powers. That is our protagonist, Maia. As the tale progresses, we come to see more of her world, learn a little of the history of the Phantom and Effigies, and start to have some serious doubts about whether the Sect is being honest. Imagine a group that literally has the fate of the world in their hands. Wouldn't the temptation be there to keep things from the public and maneuver for political power? Is that part of what is going on? And on top of that, the Effigies are hormonal teenage girls with all the problems that a normal teen has, plus having to battle monsters.

There are bits to appeal to lots of different types of readers. There is the urban fantasy with the monsters and the elemental powers. There is intrigue and possible conspiracy theory about the Sect, and the source of the Phantoms. There is girl power and cat fights, with Maia trying to learn how to use her powers and get to know the other Effigies. It could also be seen as a super heroine story, although they don't wear masks and capes.

For readers who enjoyed The Naturals by Jennifer Lynne Barnes, this has a similar feel. The new recruit, the jostling for pecking order in the group, the murky history and secrets. It also reminds me of the Hunter books by Mercedes Lackey.

Recommended for ages 12+.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Fall Reading 2016 Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art


Reading Madeleine L'Engle is always a moving experience, whether it is one of her novels or her essays. This exploration of what it means to be an artist and, even more, to be a Christian artist, is full of the deeply thoughtful and thought-provoking. L'Engle shares stories of her family, her career, her faith, and quotes from favorite authors and theologians to illustrate what she sees as the artist's role. But she does not discuss art in isolation; she acknowledges the connection between art and life, chaos and order, faith and creativity. One particular idea she comes back to throughout the book is how children see the world and accept when inexplicable things happen, but how we lose that ability as we grow up. "The artist...must retain the vision which includes angels and dragons and unicorns and all the lovely creatures which our world would put in a box marked Children Only." It is insights such as this that make her work such a pleasure to read, and to ponder.

Highly recommended for fans of her work, and for those interested in the relationship of art and faith.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Fall Reading 2016 Under Rose-Tainted Skies

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Someone looking at the subjects that are included in this book might get the impression that it will be a very depressing read, but they would be wrong. Yes, Norah has agoraphobia and OCD. Yes, she cannot leave the house or deal with odd numbers. Yes, she obsesses over possible catastrophes, germs, and possibly choking on foods such as popcorn. In short, she is like a female teenage version of the TV character Monk. 

Gornall manages to maintain the personality of a 17-year-old girl who is highly intelligent and realizes that many of her own behaviors are ridiculous, even while she cannot break out of her obsessive habits. Readers hear all her internal debates and self-chastisement, witness the close bond between Norah and her mother, and then watch the developing friendship between this strong yet fragile girl with the new boy next door. 

What makes the story so easy to identify with is Norah's way with words. While watching her mother wrestle a suitcase down the stairs she thinks, "The whole descent has the elegance of an elephant performing Swan Lake on a pogo stick." She describes her own confused mental state as, "My head is a ball of wool after it's been mauled by a kitten." And after receiving advice from her mother and her therapist, she wonders, "Why do people keep telling me to be myself? Honestly. It's like they've never even met me."

Watching Norah struggle against her limitations, seeing her try to break out of them and face the world outside the front door is heartbreaking and inspiring. The author shares in a note at the end of the book that it is a reflection of her "own struggles with mental health." After reading that note and then thinking back on the story, it makes the reader even more impressed with how difficult a fight it is to face those battles every day. 

If you enjoy realistic fiction, books with serious topics worked in (OCD, agoraphobia, cutting, etc.), and stories where boy meets girl and there are real-life obstacles to overcome (or perhaps not overcome), then you should give this a try. Not as painful as The Fault in Our Stars, but just as honest.

I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Fall Reading 2016 In Such Good Company


Anyone who has ever watched an episode of "The Carol Burnett Show" will feel right at home as they read this book. Carol relates the events that led to her love of musical comedy and her start in TV, then looks back on the eleven seasons of her show. She shares memories of the cast, the rest of the crew, and the special guest stars. In some cases it may just be a quick highlight about a particular episode or person. Other times she may share some of the dialogue from a skit or a plot synopsis of one of the movie spoofs they did. (Most of us who have seen the show will automatically think of their take on "Gone with the Wind" and Carol as Starlett in that dress made of drapes.)

Reading through this history of such an iconic show is like going through a list of "Who's Who" in Hollywood. Guest stars like the Lily Tomlin, Roddy McDowall, Carol Channing, Jerry Lewis, and so many others kept the audience in suspense, waiting to see what character they would portray and how they would mesh with the regular cast. Recurring characters such as Mama and Eunice, the Old Folks (Bert and Molly), and the Char Woman will also be very familiar to fans of the show. 

One of the things that might surprise people is that Carol seems so "normal" and down-to-earth, while she is dropping names like Rock Hudson, Cary Grant, Sammy Davis Jr, and Bing Crosby. She also avoids sharing any stories that make others look bad. The one guest star that really didn't work out, she doesn't even name. She just mentions that there was a guest who was not a good fit with the show and was unhappy. In this age of "tell-all" memoirs, it is refreshing to read something written with good taste and restraint. The still photographs taken from the show may be a bit blurry here and there, but they will help to jog your memory of particular characters or skits.

If you have enjoyed Carol's humor while watching her perform, then you should enjoy this just as much. Her warmth and comedic sense are just as present in the book as they are on film. This would also make an excellent gift for someone who loved her show. I highly recommend it.

Visit the publisher's website for more information on the book and the author.

I received this book from Blogging for Books for this review.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Fall Reading 2016 The Christmas Tree

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Looking for a short holiday story to lift your spirits? Your search is over. Salamon's tale of the search for a perfect tree to place in Rockefeller Center takes us to a convent set in the wooded countryside. It also takes us on a journey through the life of Sister Anthony, one of the nuns at the convent. When the chief gardener for Rockefeller Center spies the tree and learns it belongs to the convent, he thinks his job is done. After all, nuns would want to help people celebrate Christmas, right? His visit to the convent does not get him the tree he wants, but it leads to his friendship with Sister Anthony.


The way in which the tale has the gardener returning to the convent over the years and learning about Sister Anthony's past, makes the readers feel as if we are also forming a relationship with this nature-loving woman. We are saddened at her early losses, glad for the comfort she draws from Tree, and holding our breath to see if she will ever part with her evergreen friend and share him with the larger world. 

I imagine that this story may become part of the Christmas tradition for many readers, alongside A Visit from Saint Nicholas or watching "Charlie Brown's Christmas." 

I received an e-book from the publisher through NetGalley for review purposes.