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Monday, October 29, 2012
The Age of Miracles is the story of Julia as she comes of age in suburban California, featuring bullies, young love, cliques, loneliness, parental troubles, bra shopping, soccer practice, grandpa, and reading in the library during lunch at school.
I forgot to mention that while Julia suffers the above, the rotation of the Earth is drastically slowing. Circadian rhythms are thrown off by the changing pattern of light and dark, affecting humans as well as birds and other animals. Weather and tidal patterns are altered, and there are other ecological tragedies seen through the eyes of the young narrator. The global problems are enough, but social problems arise from the changes as well--the definition of a day turns very political when you consider that financial markets must close some time, and normalcy in the economy is a requirement to prevent total chaos.
And there's so much more. The narrator is small, but this story is huge, yet somehow the author tells it in fewer than three hundred pages. I am amazed by this book, and it is easily my favorite of this year.
But a warning--this is not an adventure story. This is a coming of age story, told from the perspective of a middle-school student. I've seen criticism that the author could have spent more time and effort on documenting the changes that affect the planet were it to slow, but our narrator is not the scientist played by Jeff Goldblum in Independence Day.
I would, however, love to know what research the author did in constructing her setting. Did she talk to scientists or read reports projecting the outcome of such a situation? Or did she come up with this on her own? Either way, it's very imaginative and I would recommend it to anyone, especially to fans of Cormac McCarthy's The Road on account of the skillful writing and the similarity in placing something normal (a father/son road trip, a girl coming of age) in an apocalyptic setting.
Saturday, October 27, 2012
The short version: You like doing things outdoors--hiking, hunting, cross country skiing, etc.--and read up on those hobbies. You've had a close relationship with a pet. You don't mind reading about the end of the world as we know it. If that's you, you'll like this story.
The details: The world in Peter Heller's The Dog Stars is a lonely place. A virus has decimated the US population. In a small airport in Colorado, Hig, along with his dog Jasper and fellow resident Bangley, persists. He sleeps outdoors with Jasper snuggled on his leg. He flies his Cessna around on patrols once a day, playing through loudspeakers that anyone who comes near the airport will be killed. Sometimes, he helps Bangley enforce this death sentence. They don't trust any of the few other survivors who come near the airport.
Hig hunts and fishes. He flies to a nearby Mennonite village to visit and deliver Sprite, but keeps his distance--signs up warn that they have "the blood."
Three years ago, while flying, Hig picked up someone on the radio at the Grand Junction airport. Events in his life make him want to fly out now. Why, Bangley wants to know, what do you want?
That's the most important question of the book. It drives the narrative. Hig is alive almost without reason. He loves nature and poetry, he's not cold enough to be the sort of relentless killer Bangley is. He may not have survived to this point ten years after the virus hit if it weren't for Bangley. But what is he doing surviving? What does he want to continue living for? The story answers the question satisfactorily.
Heller's writing conveys his own love of nature. I confess to skimming his descriptions on occasion--I wanted to get back to the action. He also writes skillfully from the first person perspective of someone who's been mostly alone for a decade. Hig's thoughts wander and sometimes it's hard to tell if you're in the present or past, but it's not confusing for long. Sometimes it's hard to tell if Hig's thinking or speaking, which fits his state of mind perfectly.
If you enjoy nature writing and outdoor survival, or end of the world stories with a human slant like The Age of Miracles or The Road, you might see what you think of The Dog Stars.
Friday, October 26, 2012
The short version: This collection of the compelling first 12 issues of the mystery-horror comic book series set in a twisted boarding school is a satisfying hook that will make fans of readers who enjoy grim graphic stories with a dash of the fantastic, like The Walking Dead or The Unwritten. Enticed? Read on.
Nick Spencer's Morning Glories is one of those comics that keeps you in the dark about what's going on. I'd say it keeps you guessing, but it would be a rare success for any reader to guess the what's happening in an issue/chapter. And this is fun--an excellent hook.
This volume introduces six teens heading off to Morning Glories Academy, a prestigious college prep school, where they do few of the things you'd expect to see in a story set in a school, like attend class, go on dates, or give mom a weekly update phone call. Instead, they're cut off from communicating with their parents, nearly drowned in a locked room that fills with water, injected with green stuff, planning to make tear gas, and that's just in the first couple of issues.
The school is collecting teens who were born on May 4th. Why? Dunno. Some of them aren't the ones they're looking for--their eyes haven't been opened or something. More mysteries. Why do the school teachers seem to be evil and experimenting on kids? Who is the Headmaster they keep referring to? At this point, he's like Jacob from Lost--potentially an invisible being who expresses his dissatisfaction with teachers by slashing them up. And you'll read on because you want answers--it's apt that Damon Lindenhof wrote the intro, as the first season of Lost inspires the same sort of story-addiction.
The characters are interesting. At the beginning, they're brought in as stereotypes--the good, smart student; the spoiled rich boy; the catty snob; the Star Wars referencing, awkward guy; etc. Luckily, they develop a bit in these first 12 issues, while the torturer/teachers remain mysterious in their motivations and histories.
The story flows well and fast. There's action in addition to the mysteries, and Spencer will leave a scene hanging, brings a separate one to an equally compelling point and returns to the first, tugging each along a little at a time, driving you to zip through the pages to get to the end of a story arc. And it was good, so you start the next one. And probably finish it.
Which makes this a difficult book not to read in one sitting. The creepiness of the teachers, the mad science of the school, the surprising violence and intriguing back stories of the characters are all, in my opinion, the story's best qualities, but could be the worst if you prefer gentler fare. If you like horror stories/films, David Lynch-style mysteries where you've no hope of knowing what's going on, and stories featuring high school students/politics, you'll probably get into The Morning Glories.
Monday, October 22, 2012
The first sentence sets the perfect tone for this wonderful debut novel from Alice LaPlante. "Something has happened." With so much attention on Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia, this book provides a thoughtful but thoroughly terrifying portrait of a victim. Dr. Jennifer White is a renowned orthopedic surgeon. She has retired, and is doing volunteer work at a local clinic. She also has dementia, and doesn't quite remember how her neighbor ended up murdered, missing four expertly removed fingers. Her son, daughter and caregiver each deal with their own issues in addition to helping Jennifer navigate the foggy world that is her life.
Sunday, October 21, 2012
Ned Vizzini's The Other Normals tells the story of Perry Eckert, a young math whiz whose divorced parents' lawyers agree that it would be cheaper to send him to summer camp than to feed him at home, and since he got kicked off the summer math team, there's no reason to keep him around. Also, socializing with other kids at camp could be good for him--his parents and brother think he spends too much time alone creating characters and reading rulebooks for the role-playing game Creatures & Caverns. It's sadder than your usual stereotype of a tabletop role-playing game geek (and I use the term geek as a proud game geek myself) because RPGs are intended to be played by more than one person.
Perry goes to camp and runs into a fantasy creature like the one he plays in C&C who takes him to the world of the Other Normals--an alternate dimension version of earth that's still very closely tied to Perry's earth. He has adventures there, crosses back over to camp, goes back to the other normals, back to camp, continues to rack up adventures hand over fist, all supplemented with a healthy dose of Vizzini's humor.
It's a fun, light fantasy X coming of age story. I'll acknowledge that I'm not a young adult, and that this contributed to my personally finding the story to be less than satisfying. The humor was occasionally too similar to an Adam Sandler movie (or whoever the current equivalent would be--Kevin James?) for my taste. You do have to suspend belief for a magical conduit to another dimension that involves mushrooms and a car battery, but even so Perry sometimes behaves in an over the top manner that's forehead-slappingly unbelievable (SPOILER - highlight to read: a scene in which Perry's love interest at camp accuses him of being a boy, not a man, involves him dropping his pants in front everyone at the camp dance). If that sounds like the sort of thing that makes you chuckle, and you enjoy adventure and fantasy world building, visit The Other Normals for yourself.
Wednesday, October 17, 2012
The main character of this novel is one of the most despised people in America: he’s a lobbyist for the smoking industry. He’s not friendless, however. His frequent lunch companions include the chief representatives for the gun industry and the alcohol lobby. They privately refer to themselves as “The MOD Squad” (as in Merchants of Death). In this hilarious novel, Buckley not only skewers the tobacco industry, but Washington, Hollywood, the press, and modern society in general. The book is also the source of an excellent movie of the same name.
Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar (2012)
Monday, October 15, 2012
Wow. That's what I kept thinking as I read Cheryl Strayed's Tiny Beautiful Things. Just wow.This is the kind of book that is about so much more than simple advice for an individual. As Sugar, Strayed takes her readers' questions and uses them to examine larger questions about love and life that are in many ways universal . She does so in a gut-wrenchingly truthful way. I will be honest, this book is not always a comfortable read. There are stories in it that are painful and horrific. Yet even in these stories there is beauty and hope. It illuminates all that is beautiful and brutal in the world. Raw, powerful, emotional, tender, sorrowful, and hopeful, Tiny Beautiful Things touched me at my core, made me think deeply, and is staying with me in a powerful way. There is a fair amount of profanity (so if that is a deal-breaker for you, be warned) yet the writing is so luminous that it didn't bother me in the least. In fact, given the subjects, it seemed fitting, even necessary. This is a book that I will highly recommend to all my friends and family, but I will not loan out my copy for fear of it not being returned. It's just that good.
The essential guide to culinary creativity, based on the wisdom of America's most imaginative chefs (2008)
Wednesday, October 10, 2012
One night I was preparing dinner from a recipe and, tasting it, realized it needed something. I added an ingredient to a small portion of it – an ingredient I didn’t particularly like – and found it was the perfect flavor foil. This was a particularly favorable feat because I did not even consult my copy of The Flavor Bible but, instead, mentally retrieved its explanation of balancing flavors and considered how I could emphasize or ‘push’ the existing taste to a brighter level. My friend Anne can, amazingly, throw things together off the top of her head and it always tastes fantastic. After a particularly simple but yummy lunch with Anne, I decided I wanted to be able to cook like she -- something she said she’d learned from her mother. However, I wanted guidance to avoid making horrible concoctions and wasting food.
The Flavor Bible is a somewhat strange book to review and recommend. Aside from the first 2 chapters that are comprised of only 33 pages, you don’t read it straight through; the text is most useful in browsing fashion. The first two chapters explain the chef’s mindset. Chapter 1, Flavor = Taste + Mouthfeel + Aroma + ‘The X Factor’ : Learning to Recognize the Language of Food, deals with balancing flavors and understanding how various senses come into play to affect flavor. The first chapter also includes chefs’ personal strategies that not only give specific tips, but also show, in action, what they are considering and pursuing when creating new recipes. Chapter 2, Great Cooking = Maximizing Flavor + Pleasure by Tapping (Body + Heart + Mind + Spirit): Communicating via the Language of Food, discusses the importance of thinking about the occasion, weather, seasonality, weight (heavy or light), volume, and function. While the second chapter was not quite as practical as the first, it was interesting to learn that things I would have considered peripheral to a meal actually had an impact on – or could even aid in – planning, preparation, and the overall experience.
Chapter 3, pages 35 – 374, provide flavor-matching lists. For example, I can look up fennel and find a list of ingredients/flavors that go well with it. If something is listed in bold, it is a pairing frequently recommended by expert chefs; BOLD CAPS means it’s highly recommended; BOLD CAPS* (with an asterisk) means it’s stellar. That’s it. Lists of ingredients. Some entries include classic Flavor Affinities (e.g., fennel + lemon + mint + olive oil + olives + orange; plums + cinnamon + orange; plums + bay leaf + vanilla). Often there are Tips such as “Use to finish a dish” (fennel pollen) or “Gets firmer with longer cooking” (mushrooms -- Portobello). There might also be Techniques such as “Add early in cooking” (cloves), “Add at the end of the cooking process” (tarragon), or “Dry-heat cooking” (pork -- chops).
This is absolutely a time-intensive book, so if you are looking for quick meal ideas, this is definitely not it. If you enjoy spending a lot of time paging through cookbooks and would like to venture into creating some of your own recipes, this is a perfect resource.
(US 2012, UK 2010?!)
Saturday, October 6, 2012
The quick version: The most fun fantasy story--perhaps the most fun novel--that I've read all year, and despite it's "young adult" label, it doesn't feel like a YA novel. Keep reading for the detailed review.
Why is this series not simultaneously published in the US?
Jasper Fforde's The Last Dragonslayer is a perfect start to a humorous, imaginative fantasy series. In the Ununited Kingdoms, magic is on the wane, possibly linked to the dwindling number of dragons. That number has dwindled to one, and the once great wizards and sorceresses of Kazam Mystical Arts Managment have been reduced to using their powers for menial, mundane work, like finding missing cats or rewiring homes.
Jennifer Strange, foundling and indentured servant at Kazam, has been running the company since Mr. Zambini disappeared months ago. She's an enjoyable narrator and character, with all her smarts, independence, and well-delivered quips. Her good humor is very helpful as prophecies surface about the impending death of the last dragon. Does it mean magic will end? What will happen to the magical people in her service? Will the Transient Moose disappear?
This is a terrific blend of fantasy and humor, and though directed at young adults in the US market, it does not feel like a young adult novel--there's no coming of age, no message, no dominating insecurities, and blessedly no romance or love triangles. It's just a light, fun, fast read that I enjoyed so much that I could easily read it again. I'll have to get a copy for my personal collection.
A Practical and Theoretical Treatise on the Artisanal Craft of Pencil Sharpening (2012)
Thursday, October 4, 2012
In this book, or rather manual, Mr. Rees adds to the current artisanal fad by presenting (in great detail) the craft of manually sharpening a pencil. He covers ten different types of pencil sharpeners, complete with pictures, sketches and clip art to illuminate the written word. He includes such subjects as warm up tips for the artisan, detailed anatomy of a pencil (I learned that the crimped metal connecting the shaft of the pencil to the eraser is called the ferrule), tools used by the perfectionist, psychological risks of being an artisanal pencil sharpener and how sharpening pencils can enrich your senses.
Mr. Rees believes in taking pride in ones work and gains satisfaction from knowing that people appreciate and enjoy using a masterfully sharpened pencil. He even offers this service to those who desire a hand crafted sharpened pencil, but do not wish to put the effort into it themselves. He offers his own Artisanal Pencil Sharpening service, where for $12.50 plus $2.50 S&H, people can mail in their own pencils to be sharpened by him, or receive a sharpened pencil provided by the craftsman.
His love for his subject is illuminated in his following excerpt:
“Create the proper tension by drawing the faceplate away from the body of the sharpener. You should feel the strength of the faceplate’s springs as they struggle against your fingers to pull the faceplate back to its resting position.
‘Don’t worry, little springs,’ you may whisper, ‘you shall have your rest---but first I have a treat for you to draw into the body of the sharpening mechanism.
Sure enough, with its aperture open and its faceplate extended, the sharpener is finally ready to receive its pencil.”
It is a short book, but includes within its 200+ pages appendixes with recommended web resources, pilgrimage sites and wines that taste like pencils.
I first became acquainted with David Rees through his internet clip art cartoon called “Get Your War On” that became popular during the Bush years One can find this strip, along with other projects by Mr. Rees at his website http://www.mnftiu.cc/
Well worth a quick read for those who like their humor dry.
Tuesday, October 2, 2012
A co-worker gave this to me to read because she thought it was my kind of book. I had never heard of it, but boy am I glad she thought of me, this book is amazing! Julia, an 11 year old girl in California, is the narrator of the story and the tale she has to tell is riveting. The days on earth are inexplicably getting longer, what they refer to in the book as "the slowing". There is no explanation for why this is happening, but it is soon apparent that this is not an illusion and it also is not temporary. Each day is longer, as are the nights. Birds start falling from the sky, whales are beaching themselves on the shorelines, crops are being affected; but also neighbors are turning against each other and familial relationships are strained. Many of the events taking place in the book are things that may have happened anyway, but the fact that they are happening with "the slowing" hanging over everything makes you pause to think about it a bit more. An absolutely fascinating & satisfying read!! I loved it!
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