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The Life of a Modern Monarch (2012)
Monday, December 10, 2012
Smith presents a richly detailed account of this remarkable woman and her fascinating family. Readers will recognize Elizabeth’s father, George VI, as he was the lead character portrayed in the recent film, The King’s Speech. He died at the age of 56. Following his death Elizabeth ascended to the throne. She was in her middle twenties when she became queen in 1952. Her Diamond Jubilee was celebrated in 2012. Queen Elizabeth continues to play an active role at age 86. Her grandmother was Queen Mary and her Mother was called the Queen Mother. Both of these women played important roles in the life of Queen Elizabeth. Each of the Queen’s prime ministers is brought to life. Elizabeth endured the deaths of her sister, Margaret, and her Mother during the same year, and the death of Diana. Elizabeth enjoyed a life-long appreciation and love for horses and dogs. The author speculates whether Charles will be the next king or will his eldest son, William succeed his grandmother. What is the future of the Commonwealth of Nations? What is the future of the British monarchy? These questions will be answered in time.
Wednesday, December 5, 2012
I really loved this book! One of the blurbs on the back references Charles Portis, and the voice of this story's narrator, Eli Sisters, reminded me very much of the narrator of True Grit. I feel like I got to know Eli better, and liked this story better than True Grit, not that they need to be compared as they are both enjoyable stories. But, if I'm left with only the two books to read and have to choose one to read first, this would be the one.
Eli and Charlie set out from Oregon City on a mission to assassinate a man for the Commodore, who claims the man stole from him. The story is the journey to get to that man, with a lengthy satisfying resolution afterward. Along the way, the brothers engage in a couple scuffles, Eli grows attached to his horse as well as tooth powder and brushing his teeth. Charlie frequently gets drunk and rides hungover.
It's the character of Eli that keeps the story going. His narration provides insights on his growth, and the evolution of his character will resonate easily with readers. He's a quiet character that comes off as simple to others he encounters, despite his complexity. But his simple actions make him so human--he falls for women he's only just met, diets on a whim, is hurt by cutting words from his older brother who he still looks up to, and goes into a rage when he loses his temper.
Combine all that with deWitt's skill in composing scenes. There tends to be only one scene in a chapter, which can make them very short and create an episodic effect when reading. It's almost like a well-done television series in that each chapter could be an enjoyable story on its own, but the larger story arc of the characters has you return for each episode.
DeWitt paints humorous, tense, gruesome, and violent scenes with equal skill, keeping a consistent tone and avoiding exaggeration. It's very skillfully done, and I love how easily shifts would occur. One moment you're chuckling at the image of Eli brushing his teeth with another enthusiastic convert to tooth powder, and the next you're fearful about how he could behave toward her.
I'd recommend this title to any lover of fiction. Even though it is a Western story, its character-driven nature should make the story appeal to readers who avoid the genre. And the jacket art definitely helps to sell it as "not your grandfather's western" (although he'd probably enjoy it, too).
Wednesday, December 5, 2012
Middle school student and troublemaker Donovan Curtis is well known for his pranks around school. Due to a big mistake and miscommunication, Donovan is transferred from his "normal" middle school to the "Academy for Scholastic Distinction" for highly gifted students. Multiple characters, including adults, take turns telling the story, and it becomes clear than Donovan doesn't belong at ASD due to his ungifted status, but could it be that the students at ASD need Donovan, as he slowly leads them to normalcy? In this entertaining yet thought-provoking novel, Gordon Korman asks us to evaluate what it means to be normal, and Donovan Curtis does just that.
For grades 5-8
Tuesday, December 4, 2012
The short version: A science fiction and fantasy adventure featuring excellent characters, intrigue, and deceptions that will grip your attention such that you'll neglect the things you need to do in order to read more.
Orson Scott Card's Pathfinder is a fantastic science fiction/fantasy adventure story that slowly unfurls in such a way as to make it difficult to describe without ruining the pleasure a reader would derive from reading it all themselves. I'll try to avoid spoilers, but aim to do better than the vague jacket copy, reproduced verbatim at the top of the book's Goodreads record.
Pathfinder tells two stories simultaneously. Each chapter begins with a little bit of Ram Odin's story. He's commanding a spaceship loaded up with humans in stasis, traveling to a distant habitable planet so that, should something horrible happen on Earth, the humans won't go extinct. The ship is run by various AIs--computers handling the complex calculations required to make an experimental leap through a fold in space and expendables (robots) who provide artificial human interaction to help keep Ram sane, as well as act as interpreters between the ship's computers and Ram. Ram's ship is supposed to arrive at the new planet before the others, and should the experiment jump through the space fold work, it will take much less time than the hundreds of years the other ships are expected to take. But something doesn't go quite as planned during the jump through the fold.
After Ram's story, each chapter then follows a young man named Rigg, who at the beginning of the story works as a fur trapper with his father. As the two go about laying and checking traps, his father schools him on languages, sciences, history, culture, and more, much to Rigg's annoyance. What goes does it do a fur trapper to understand the banking industry in the distant capital, Aressa Sessamo?
That's not the only odd thing about Rigg's life. He also has something like a magical ability. He can see the paths that people and animals leave. Seeing isn't the right word--he can sense them, as well as their age and vaguely the sort of person or creature who made them. Almost. He can't see his father's path.
It's not long after you meet Rigg that he finds himself traveling with village friend Umbo off to bigger cities to discover more about himself and his past. His father had kept secrets from him, and while this story does not build up to big reveals, it is definitely more fun for you to read the story and learn about these secrets yourself.
Card's characters are excellent and the adventure is fun. The world he's built in Pathfinder is fascinating and stirs the imagination--I would wonder after putting the book down "what would it be like if this happened," and enjoy the Card's answer to it. There's also an enjoyable amount of speculation about time/space travel and physics that have the potential to make readers curious enough to seek out other information on the topic. I'd recommend this to teens and adults who enjoy adventure stories, especially those who like fantasy and/or science fiction adventures. If you're in this category, be warned that you may get sucked into this story and need to exercise some self-control to put it down and do chores or go to sleep. I'm really looking forward to reading the next book in the series, Ruins.
Wednesday, November 28, 2012
Another just plain fun read! If you like the Stephanie Plumb books, you'll like this series too. Diesel, one of Ranger's employees, breaks out on his own set of adventures. They are full of the same madcap mayhem we see with Stephanie, Morelli and Ranger, but these add a layer of magic and mystical powers. Lizzy is a pastry chef in Salem Massachusetts who also happens to be a "finder". Her talent is sensing special properties of inanimate objects. Lizzy and Diesel are off on a mission to find another one of a set of magical stones before Wulf or any other bad guys can get it. (His full name is Gerwulf Grimoire, and he's Diesel's evil cousin.) The cast of characters continues on and on. There's Glo, who works at the bakery, has a magic broom, and is trying very hard to learn magic spells. There's Ms. Wortley, who owns Ye Olde Exotica Shoppe for all your wizarding and spellcasting needs. There's Carl, Diesel's pet monkey who has an amazing vocabulary for a monkey. And yes, there's a cat! This is the second in the series, be sure to start with Wicked appetite so you don't miss a thing!
Monday, November 26, 2012
From the 1920s to the 1960s, Edna Ferber was one of America’s most popular writers, turning out a string of best-selling novels, such as So Big (Pulitzer Prize winner), Show Boat, Come and Get It, and Giant, many of which became equally successful plays and films. Ferber herself also wrote successful plays (Stage Door, The Royal Family) with theatrical legend George S. Kauffmann, and was peripheral member of the famed Algonquin Round Table of notable wits.
All of this is quite interesting enough, but what makes Ferber’s memoir of particular appeal is that she grew up in Appleton. In the book, Ferber offers a glowing account of life in turn-of-the-century Appleton, from working in her father’s dry goods store on College Avenue to her first paying job ($3.00 a week) as a reporter for the Appleton Daily Crescent (later the Post-Crescent), which provided the opportunity to interview another former Appletonian, the great escape artist Harry Houdini.
A Peculiar Treasure is an appealing account of another era, and of a talented, tough, and sometimes prickly woman who rose from a small Midwestern town to international success.
Wednesday, November 21, 2012
Russian Winter is a novel about jewels, ballet, love, betrayal, and secrets. It centers on Russian ballerina Nina Revskaya, The Butterfly, a star of the Bolshoi Ballet in communist Russia. The tale weaves back and forth from her life in Russia to present day America, where she is auctioning all of her jewels. Drew Brooks, an associate director at the auction house, finds herself unusually intrigued by the unknown backstory on the jewels (a backstory that Nina is not eager to share), and when Russian professor Gregori Solodin donates an amber necklace that belongs to a suite of The Butterfly's jewels, they begin to unravel the mystery that surrounds them, a mystery that has great personal meaning for Solodin. Kalotay beautifully captures life behind-the-scenes in the ballet world as well as the fear and uncertainty of the Stalinist regime. I will admit that I found this book a little hard to get into, but I am glad I persevered. Once it takes off it is a haunting tale of humanity at its best and worst.
Monday, November 19, 2012
The short version: The story of a break up from the very beginning of the relationship, starring authentic characters and presented in a unique format--each chapter starts with an object from a box of mementos Min collected and is giving to her ex-boyfriend, Ed. For more details, read on.
Minerva Green is being driven to the home of her ex-boyfriend Ed by her best friend Al to deliver a box of mementos she collected over the course of their short relationship. Each chapter of Daniel Handler's Why We Broke Up begins with a painting of an object from the box and is followed by Min's written explanation to Ed of what the object and its significance is. Frequently, these objects are launching points for the narrative of their relationship. The movie ticket leads into the story of their first date and the poster Ed steals from the theater continues the story of that day. Other items are one-offs, with a single story attached to them. It's a fun and unique way to tell this story, and Handler writes very convincingly as a young woman in high school.
Despite the structure of the book around these objects, the story flows easily. Ed and Min meet at a party that Ed wasn't invited to, have an instant attraction, and exchange numbers. They are from different social circles, Ed being a captain on the basketball team and Min spending most of her time with a small group of film aficionados. She wants to be a film director. He wants to win the state championship. There are times while reading the story that Min feels like a friend who you realize cannot see that this is not a long-term relationship, which is a big credit to Handler's ability to make her, Ed, the other characters, and the details of their relationship so authentic and Min's love for Ed so genuine.
One element of Handler's writing I enjoyed involved Min withholding the information about an object until late into her writing about it. There's a suspense of curiosity that builds around the object--How does that play a significant role in her story?--and it's a fun change to the formula of a chapter.
I'm struggling to think what readers I'd recommend this to. It would appeal to both teen and adult readers who like realistic fiction, obviously, but they would also have to enjoy a story that breaks the mold.
the surprising new science of psychological change (2011)
Monday, November 19, 2012
This is definitely one of my favorites; it is not, however, a self-help book (if you peruse Amazon reviews, many readers’ expectations were defied and disappointed by that fact – most likely due to a misinterpretation of the sub-title). Rather, Redirect presents the practice of story-editing to effect successful interventions in personal and social issues. The first chapter describes story-editing and how it can help turn negative thinking patterns into healthier ones (there are clear parallels to cognitive-behavioral therapy). This act of redirecting or, in some cases, making sense of a situation, can be accomplished through three different methods: “the writing exercise, in which people reinterpret a problem by writing about it; story prompting, in which people are directed down a particular narrative path with the hope that it will bump them out of a self-defeating thinking pattern”; and the “do good, be good approach, which involves changing people’s behavior first… In other words, people’s behavior shapes the personal narratives they develop” (17). Don’t be fooled, though; this book is not positive thinking, touchy-feely fluff; it investigates numerous scientific studies and also points out the lack of a scientific framework and analysis for many popular interventions (for example, the D.A.R.E. program).
Quite notable to me in the first chapter was the author’s look at CISD (Critical Incident Stress Debriefing), commonly used for a time with first-responders. The author points out that controlled studies have repeatedly found that CISD worsens the stress and outcomes in an individual who was peripherally or directly involved in a traumatic event. “In short, one reason CISD fails is that it makes it harder for people to take that step back and gain some perspective on what happened. Forcing people to talk about the traumatic event right after it happened can even solidify memories of it, which makes it harder for people to reinterpret the event as time goes by” (13-14; emphasis mine).
Each successive chapter focuses on one specific issue – parenting, teen violence, academic improvement, teen pregnancy, drug and alcohol abuse, etc. – and investigates current, popular interventions and their non- or even ill-effect, contrasting them with simple story-editing interventions. The author repeatedly points out the importance of scientific, validly constructed intervention strategies that incorporate control populations to produce accurate evaluations of efficacy. The story-editing interventions are designed and implemented along such guidelines, producing results that are extremely valuable and encouraging. One of my favorites was an extremely simple intervention with struggling college freshman who sat through a one-time, thirty-minute “session in which students learned that lots of people struggle academically at first but then improve their grades. [There was] no attempt to delve into participants’ academic history, inquire about their study habits, or counsel them on how to manage stress. In fact, participants didn’t even know that the purpose of the study was to help them improve their academic performance” (16). The results -- compared not only to the no-intervention control group, but also a control group enrolled in the standard, intensive study-skills program that many colleges employ for such students -- were astounding: very small measurable difference between the control group and the study skills group, but the story-editing-intervention students experienced huge academic improvement over the course of their college careers. “…These results are particularly dramatic considering how small and seemingly inconsequential the intervention was – the students took part in a thirty-minute psychology experiment in which they were shown some statistics and saw brief videotapes about other people’s grades” (17).
Other passages I found particularly interesting:
I’ll leave it to you to read the book if you want to know the author’s stated findings on that last bullet point.
Thursday, November 15, 2012
The short version: This is an excellent collection of articles by the author of The Men Who Stare at Goats and The Psychopath Test that will satisfy fans of those books, as well as those who enjoy off-beat journalism and stories like those that air on This American Life. For more details, read on.
Lost at Sea collects past articles by writer Jon Ronson. I like Ronson, having read and enjoyed both Them: Adventures with Extremists and The Psychopath Test, in addition to enjoying his appearances on This American Life. His reading voice is infused with curiosity and mystique.
On his recent Daily Show visit, Ronson was dubbed by Jon Stewart an "investigative satirist," which is wrong. His articles and essays do carry humor, but he doesn't mock his subjects. It just happens that Ronson is drawn to odd, outside of the mainstream subjects. Like a sports writer follows sports, Ronson follows potentially cult-like groups, conspiracy theories and theorists, celebrities gone awry, and such.
A few examples from Lost at Sea. "The Name's Ronson, Jon Ronson," documents his attempt to live a James Bond film via a road trip in an authentic Aston Martin. "A Message from God," concerns the Church of England's Alpha Course, a controversial Christian conversion course aimed at Agnostics that some call brainwashing. "Stanley Kubrick's Boxes" documents his search through the deceased reclusive auteur's extensive and detailed archive. "Santa's Little Conspirators" takes him to North Pole, Alaska, shortly after a Columbine-like plot was foiled where he finds sixth graders responding to letters sent To: Santa, North Pole. "Is She for Real?" questions the authenticity of Sylvia Brown's psychic predictions, which Ronson attempts to ask Brown about directly while on a cruise with her. The title story, "Lost at Sea" is one of those investigations of potential conspiracy, as Ronson investigates Disney Cruise Lines's seeming lack of effort to uncover what happened to a young woman who disappeared from one of their ships.
Ronson's articles are fantastic. A writer who puts himself in his stories, he knows true objectivity is impossible, yet gives space for the various viewpoints he presents without mocking his subjects. There is an element of British humor on occasion, that display of cringe-worthy discomfort when he presses a question you might be thinking as the reader, but couldn't bring yourself into such a conflict in reality.
This is a very satisfying collection of Ronson's articles that will appeal to fans of his books, and those of Sarah Vowell (to whom this book is dedicated), Jack Hitt, and listeners of This American Life.
Monday, November 12, 2012
A hilarious take on a 7th grade boy's life from the pen of Tim Carvell, head writer at The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. The book is in diary format and follows Tad on various adventures & life lessons throughout the year.
Whether he is fighting with his younger sister, Sophie, disagreeing with his utterly uncool parents, or getting into trouble with his friends Chuck & Kevin, Tad's observations and escapades deliver solid laughter. A typical day in Tad's life goes something like this: "JANUARY 11 [mood: annoyed] Today, Mr. Parker had us diagram sentences again. I told him that I didn't want to have to keep doing this, because the only job where you have to diagram sentences is middle-school teacher, and I plan on being something better than that. He didn't say anything. He just got very quiet and gave us all a pop quiz on diagramming sentences. I got a D."
Clearly, anyone who is (or was) a teenager can relate to Tad. He is a very likable and insightful kid - without any knowledge of either trait, which makes him even more endearing. Parents, if you have a child who is a reluctant reader, especially if they are a middle or high school boy, get this book in their hands! If my review doesn't sell it to them, point out that parts of this book were originally published in MAD magazine. That ought to hook them. And if you, like me, are an adult or teen who appreciates the type of humor Carvell doles out with amazing skill, don't hesitate to read this for yourself.
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