Tuesday, November 21, 2017

something for everyone

Your Maryland: Little-Known Histories from the Shores of the Chesapeake to the Foothills of the Allegheny Mountains by Ric Cottom
Rating: 4 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction, history
Review: I grew up in Maryland, and had Maryland history in 4th grade, so a few of these stories, such as Frederick Douglass's early life and the battle that prompted Francis Scott Key to write the Star Spangled Banner, were already familiar to me.  But Cottom really delves deeply into Maryland history to justify the "little-known" part of his title.  For example, who knew that John Wilkes Booth was present at John Brown's execution?  Or the story behind the grant for the James Buchanan Brady Urological Institute at Johns Hopkins?  Who's ever even heard of the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, or knew that the very last man to die in battle in WWI was from Maryland?  Or, my personal favorite, who knew that Cab Calloway and Thurgood Marshall went to high school together?

Well, obviously somebody knew, and I'm glad that Ric Cottom put so many little gems together in this volume.  With tales ranging in time from the exploration of the New World though the publication of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, these stories cover a wide variety of topics, from battles to baseball.  Although originally written for radio, these pieces have been well-adapted for print, and if some are too short for your taste, there's plenty of source material given for further reading.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this e-book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Monday, November 13, 2017

couldn't care less

The Feed by Nick Clark Windo
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: science fiction
Review: Imagine that we have allowed the Internet to literally take over our brains, so that we don't even need to think about wanting information or remembering anything.  Everything we could ever want to know or remember is simply available with the hint of a thought question.  But what happens when "the Feed" collapses?  Supposedly, that's the question behind this book, but the real story takes place 6 years after "the Collapse" and we only see glimpses of the immediate aftermath.  We're to understand, though, that many people were so completely undone by the lack of the Feed that they couldn't function and died.  This premise is believable, since the Feed stored everyone's memories of everything and had even supplanted most verbal language.  So fine, population decimated, cities ruined, everyone left majorly traumatized, ok.  But Tom and Kate have found a haven, though a tenuous one, with a few other survivors.  That's all background.

The story really begins, or at least I think it's supposed to really begin when Tom and Kate's daughter is kidnapped and they go off in search of her.  Except that all that really happens is that they walk.  A lot.  Don't get me wrong, things do happen, some of them fairly dramatic, except the drama feels like mere blips in a boring landscape, and is so disconnected from everything else that I couldn't bring myself to care much about what was going on.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Saturday, October 14, 2017

wholly holey

An Unkindness of Ghosts by Rivers Solomon
Rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: science fiction
Review: I love a good generation-ship story.  The sociological (and technological) possibilities are endless when a self-contained group of people is left on their own for hundred or thousands of years.  There is so much room for an author to use their imagination on the fate of human society.  But there are rules.  To me, the most fundamental rule of world-building of any kind is that all the pieces have to hang together.  An author can't just throw in an arbitrary bit of the world just for the heck of it; it has to matter to the plot.  Otherwise it just hangs there like a vestigial organ.

Unfortunately, this book seems to have a lot of that.  Vestigial organs include:
  • gender identity - Solomon creates a structure where children on one deck are all referred to as girls (until they did something to indicate that they weren't actually a girl) and on another deck all children are referred to gender neutrally.  This is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, except that it doesn't seem to matter in terms of the plot, or anything else in the book.  It just sits there, like the proverbial gun that is introduced in Act One, but fails to go off by Act Three.
  • religion - Solomon seems to be trying to set up the system on the ship as being driven by a very strict theocracy, except aside from mentioning that leaders of the ship are supposed to given their power and authority by their god, religion doesn't actually seem to play much of a part of the story.  Except one character engages in some ritual self-flagellation.  There was that.
  • neuroatypicality - Our main character, Aster, is an interesting person, who displays symptoms of something along the lines of Asperger's Syndrome.  Whether that's the diagnosis Solomon intended Aster to have is neither nor there, because the question is why Aster is portrayed in this at all.  The only plot point for which her symptoms seem relevant is to create tension when she can't understand the motivations of the Surgeon, and to therefore create wholly unnecessary and artificial tension between them.
To say that all of this detracted from the story as a whole is an understatement.  If only the plot were strong enough to bear the weight of all that, but it's not.  I could never quite figure out what was supposed to be driving the plot.  Was it the plight of the people on the ship altogether, or specifically Aster's search for answers about her mother?  Or was the latter supposed to inform the former in the task of pushing the story forward?  I don't know, and by the time the book wrapped up, I didn't much care.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

can she move on?

George & Lizzie by Nancy Pearl
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: As a public librarian, Nancy Pearl is, of course, my hero (yes, I have the Nancy Pearl action figure).  Nobody does reader's advisory like Nancy Pearl does reader's advisory!  So when I heard she wrote a book, I naturally wanted to read it right away.  At the same, I was a little apprehensive, because knowing what goes into a good book doesn't necessarily mean that you can write a good book.  I needn't have worried.

Although the book is called George & Lizzie, this is really Lizzie's story.  One is tempted to say that she was raised by wolves, but of course that's not true.  She was really raised by behavioral psychologists, who treated her every action as an idea for further research.  Predictably, she acts out by doing some, shall we say, less-than-socially-acceptable things.  These things have repercussions, of course, in her later relationships, but we can't help loving Lizzie, even while she does everything possible to sabotage her own life and happiness.

Then comes George.  We learn enough about George's childhood and family to make him a believable character, but since the book still focuses more on Lizzie, the real question is whether she can get over herself long enough to actually make a positive long-lasting relationship with George.  There were a few plot points that I couldn't quite suss out (including the somewhat important point of why Lizzie agreed to marry George in the first place when she was still obsessed (yes, obsessed) with someone else), but those confusions were easily overcome in the excellent writing that continued to pull me forward.

And pulled forward I was, right up until the very natural and well-done ending.  Pearl never takes the easy road with her characters, and the whole book moves along without ever giving the reader the feeling that the whole thing is just one big contrivance.  Brava to Mrs. Pearl for making the leap from reader to author.  I look forward to reading more.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Sunday, September 17, 2017

powerful history

March trilogy by John Lewis
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: graphic memoir
Review: John Lewis's story is powerful no matter how it's told, whether in person (as I had the privilege of first hearing it), written long-form in his memoirs for adult audiences, or written more simply in this graphic format for younger audiences.

Setting his story within the frame of the day of Barack Obama's inauguration is such a powerful counterpoint that it gave me the shivers.  Thinking about his story in terms of what's happening in this country now makes me want to cry.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

no hook

Start Without Me by Joshua Max Feldman
Rating: 2.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Adam is nine months sober and still fighting for every day of it.  He's attempting his first family event in a long time, and it doesn't go well.  Flight attendant Marissa is the daughter of an alcoholic, and struggling with her own life choices, both good and bad.  She's attempting her husband's family gathering for Thanksgiving, and it doesn't go well either.  And there you have pretty much the entire story.  I found the characters to be lightly drawn on the page, and neither drew me in much at all.  I found the conflicts to be contrived and over-dramatic, and couldn't really bring myself to care how they got resolved, or what choices the characters made.  The book does zip along, and isn't poorly written, but it does lack that je ne sais quoi that engages me as a reader.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

trapped in the system

Reading with Patrick: A Teacher, a Student, and a Life-Changing Friendship by Michelle Kuo
Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir
Review: Michelle Kuo joined Teach for America after graduating college, and was sent to a last-chance school for "problem" students in the Arkansas Delta.  She is able to feel that she is doing something positive for her students, sometimes through merely showing that she cares about their academic success.  After she leaves Teach for America to go to law school, she learns that one student, for whom she had very high hopes, has been arrested for murder.  She returns to the Delta to find that Patrick has lost almost all of the reading and writing skills he had learned in her class.  Feeling that her calling is to help him while he's in jail, she puts her life on hold and returns to the Delta to help him.  They embark on a course of reading and writing together while they await his trial.

Kuo pulls no punches in talking about the conditions of Patrick's incarceration and the attitude of the justice system.  Mostly she reports on the institutionalized racism that trap her students in a never-ending cycle of poverty, crime, drugs, and hopelessness.  At the same time that Kuo tries to help Patrick, she must deal with the expectations of her own family, and make hard decisions about her own future.  Through it all she is able to take a clear-eyed look at her own situation and those of her students.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

you can do better

City Mouse by Stacey Lender
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: I'm so glad that Stacey Lender finally admitted near the end of this book that there might possibly be good people living in the suburbs, because I was starting to feel very discouraged.  Actually, I was starting to feel very grateful for my own suburban mom-friends, because Lender's characters, besides being mostly interchangeable, are also all mean and petty, not to mention serial adulterers.

Our heroine Jessica finds that out the hard way when she and her family move to Suffern from Manhattan, looking for more space and a yard.  Thinking she's hit the mom-friend jackpot when it turns out that right next door is a mom with a daughter the same age as her own daughter, Jessica gets pulled into the competitive sport of volunteering and car-pool.  Jessica and her husband both enjoy the social scene at first, but when Jessica is invited to join a mom's-only beach weekend, she starts to really figure out who these new friends are.

Lender is a skilled writer and this book kept me turning the pages, even though the subject matter is nothing new.  I look forward to seeing what she writes next, and hope that she chooses material that better showcases her talents.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Dear Julie

Nuclear Family: A Tragicomic Novel in Letters by Susanna Fogel
Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: This book is so clever/funny/witty, I don't even know how to review it.  But I'll try, for the sake of getting more people to read it.

First of all, poor Julie.  Her family is crazy.  I mean, everyone's family is crazy in their own way, right?  I think most families have one or two "normal" people in them, but not Julie's.  Or at least, those relatives never wrote her any letters.  But she gets letters (e-mails in later years) from a wide assortment of other relatives, as well as from her boyfriend's dog, her dead grandfather and great-great-great grandmother, and her own IUD.  These last are perhaps the funniest of the book.  I was afraid these antics would get tired as the book went on, but they definitely don't.  Fogel holds the book tightly together almost right up until the very end (which is part of the reason I only give this book 4.5 stars - the last few letters pierce the fourth wall too much).

But who is Julie?  Well, we never really find out.  And that's the other reason I give 4.5 stars.  I kind of wanted to hear Julie's own voice, although I couldn't decide whether I wanted to hear her give her own explanations, or just hear her losing it with some of the nonsense her family comes up with.  To do so would have totally destroyed the wonderfulness of this book, though, so I actually give Fogel credit for not giving us an easy way out of this book.  But if a book ever cried out for a contiguous sequel, it's this one.  Susanna Fogel - please write more!  Please write from Julie's perspective.  Or at least give us another compilation of letters from her family so we can know what happens next.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

not funny

Let There Be Laughter: A Treasury of Great Jewish Humor and What It All Means by Michael Krasny
Rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: non-fiction, humor
Review: Krasny could have saved his own time and effort, and better served his readers, by just giving us a compilation of Jewish jokes, without the so-called analysis in between.  His writing is very choppy, moving from one thought to another without much in the way of connectivity, and his analysis is shallow.  We all understand that humor is in the eye of the beholder, and that the same ethnic joke when told by a non-(insert ethnic group here) is, or can be seen as, racist, but might be considered hilarious when told by a member of that ethnic group, especially if being told to another member.  That certainly doesn't need to be repeated at least half a dozen times in the space of 300 pages.  But that's what most of the analysis seems to boil down to, whether he's talking about Jews as outsiders, Jewish stereotypes, or even the way Jews experience joy.

Overall, Krasny seems more interested in name-dropping (he told so-and-so a joke when he interviewed him on his radio program, his close friend so-and-so, etc.) than giving us any new or interesting material.

Thursday, April 27, 2017

writing about reading

My Life with Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues by Pamela Paul
Rating: 5 stars (out of 5)
Genre: memoir
Review: Dear Pamela Paul,
Please come and live with me and be my literary big sister.
I am,
Yours devotedly in reading.

No, for real.  Every reader must read this book.  Pamela's descriptions of the joys (and sorrows) of reading are beautiful.  She is exquisitely thoughtful in connecting the books she records in Bob (her Book of Books, in which she lists everything she's read since age 17) to her life, or to her reflections of the life she was living at the time she read a particular book.  She also discusses many of her travels, giving them equally thoughtful and literary treatment.  Seriously, this is the book about reading that I wish I could have written.

FTC Dsiclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Monday, March 20, 2017

what's going on here?

Ill Will by Dan Chaon
Rating: 2 stars (out of 5)
Genre: fiction
Review: Are we supposed to pity Dustin Tillman, because of what he went through as a child, hate him for what he did in response, or respect him for being able to put his life together afterward?  I don't know.

Dustin not only can't be relied upon to tell the truth, he doesn't even know what the truth is.  He is described by other characters as spacey, delusional, suggestible, and gullible.  So fine, I promise not to take anything he says at face-value.  This is not difficult because, among other things, he's unable to finish most thoughts, either in conversation or in his internal monologue.  Which makes it hard to take him seriously as the clinical psychologist with a successful practice he's supposed to be.  In the end, this was the most challenging part of the book for me.

So are we supposed to believe what he finally lets on that he really remembers about the night his parents, aunt, and uncle died?  Or perhaps the real question is, do we really care about what happened by that point?

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from the publisher in exchange for this review.

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

to make it up or not make it up

The Great Train Robbery by Michael Crichton
Genre: historical fiction
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)
Review: I'm used to reading non-fiction books that are written in such a readable way that it feels like reading like fiction (e.g. Erik Larson).  That's easy.  Reading a work of fiction, based on true events, and written in the style of narrative non-fiction is easy too, but much more confusing.  I had to look for reviews of this book to convince myself that it is indeed fiction.  I was able to find a article in which Crichton himself says that he did hardly any research, which answered the question for me.

Having settled that, I will say that in some ways this book was much less readable than other books, fiction or non, due to Crichton's (excessive?) use of slang.  In other respects, he does a wonderful job of painting of picture of the times, and I assume that having his characters speak in the slang they would have used is part of that effort.  Unfortunately, although clarity rarely suffers, since Crichton defines the slang terms used as they come, readability does.  Instead of drawing me deeper into the world of Victorian-age criminals, the slang distracted and annoyed me.  No harm in slang, of course, but everything in moderation.