“Welcome to Night Vale” is perhaps one of the best-known podcasts out there. It’s no surprise, then, that a book set in that universe has been released. If you’re a fan of the podcast, this book has a lot for you.

Night Vale is a town where weird things happen. Secret government organizations are not-so-secret, the dog park is strictly off-limits, and the Glow Cloud holds a seat on the school board. Night Vale’s public radio station host Cecil Palmer narrates the city’s happenings on his show. This novel, however, takes place outside of usual world of Cecil’s show, emphasizing other residents of Night Vale.

The story in “Welcome to Night Vale” focuses on Jackie Fierro, a pawn-shop owner who has been 19 years old for as long as she can remember. Jackie likes her simple life running the pawn shop. But everything changes when the mysterious man in the tan jacket visits.

He leaves Jackie a slip of paper that reads KING CITY, the name of a neighboring town. Her life is turned upside down. She cares about nothing but discovering the secrets of King City, a place that is so close but which no one has ever visited. Jackie decides she must go there to solve the mystery.

Jackie meets Diane Crayton, a single mother who is trying desperately to be a good mother to her shapeshifting son Josh. Josh has run away to King City in search of his father. Diane wants nothing more than for Josh to avoid his father, but why? Together, Jackie and Diane must get to King City, no matter the cost.

Their journey takes them through the treacherous public library, where they must uncover secret documents and fend off attacks from the venomous librarians. Then, Jackie and Diane must try to get to King City itself, though no roads will take them there. Using the power of a pink plastic flamingo, Jackie and Diane set off to save the day.

“Welcome to Night Vale” is full of little inside jokes that will make sense to podcast fans. You’ll see cameos from John Peters – you know, the farmer – and Old Woman Josie. Even Steve Carlsberg shows up. Ugh.

About halfway through, the book loses a little steam. I think the longer format of the book (instead of a 30-minute podcast) makes wacky Night Vale harder to digest. There are some surprisingly poignant scenes about parenthood, being a teenager, and what it means to grow up, even if it takes you centuries to turn 20.

Overall, this is a fun book if you really like the “Welcome to Night Vale” podcast. I must warn you, though: if you’ve never listened to the podcast, you will likely be confused by the weird world of Night Vale.

The ocean at the end of the lane

I need to begin this review with an apology to high school English teachers everywhere – especially the ones I had. I confess and apologize for having hated having to analyze all the symbolism, types and anti-types, foreshadowing and the like in what we read. I wondered, perhaps rightly, why an author couldn’t pen a good story to be just that. A good story.


So, to humor them, I would make up the most outlandish interpretations of symbolism in the books we were reading, only to have other students act like my ideas were interesting, brilliant, and likely meanings the author intended. I apologize.


Enter today’s book, “Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman. Perhaps Gaiman has just written a good story. Perhaps he inserted some symbolism and allegory into this book, a la C.S. Lewis or Tolkien. Either way, I keep seeing things in this book.


“Ocean at the End of the Lane” draws the reader in. It is a story about growing up and beginning to understand grownups. “Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. . . . Truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”


By the end, however, it becomes a story showing the colossal battle between good and evil, with a trio reminiscent of the Trinity.


The narrator is a 40-something man returning to his childhood home area for a funeral. Killing time between obligations, he ends up wandering to Sussex where he grew up.


Without conscious thought he finds himself at the dilapidated farm house pond (that Lettie, who we will meet later, calls an ocean) at the end of the lane near where his house once stood. He encounters an old woman who invites him in for a cup of tea. Unbidden, the memories begin to return.


The narrator’s family had a boarder, an opal miner, who committed suicide in the family car.   This act was “lighting a fuse on a firework” that led to an opening for evil to come into their world.


After an encounter which was too bizarre to share with adults, our narrator found Lettie, an eleven year old girl who may have actually been thousands of years old; her mother, Ginnie Hempstock, and her grandmother, Old Mrs. Hempstock. Each Hempstock seems to be ageless and forever.


The evil that was unleashed into the world revealed itself in Ursula Monkton, a being from another reality who arrived to earth, leaving a wormhole inside the seven year old narrator so she could come and go between realities at will.


Ursula becomes the family’s babysitter and housekeeper, releasing darkness that is unfathomable, un-understandable, and downright terrifying to our narrator.


Lettie Hempstock however, in her magical and mystical way becomes his guardian and protector, occasionally relying on assistance from the older Hempstocks.


In the battle to remove the evil from the world, Lettie makes a supreme sacrifice to protect the narrator and is released into her “ocean” to return again at a time unknown to all.


Throughout the book, I saw pictures of sin, good and evil, pictures of the God-head, redemption and sacrifice. I saw pictures of the transfiguration and the Second Coming. The price Lettie paid to save the nameless boy invokes Biblical themes of sacrifice for salvation.


Gaiman writes a story a hard to summarize because there are so many layers and complexities to it. Not everyone will enjoy it, but I certainly enjoyed the audio version. Gaiman is a skilled narrator which unusual for authors reading their own works. JPL has the book in print and downloadable audio.


Read it, savor it, and look for meaning in this book. Or perhaps, it’s just a good story meant to be only that. A good story. You read it and decide.



Boy was I wrong about this one.

Those who read my reviews know that I have a less than systematic method for choosing my reading materials. Today’s book is no exception: I chose to listen to the audio version of “The Sandcastle Girls” by Chris Bohjalian, thinking I was getting a cozy read about some girls on a resort shore building sand castles.

I could not have been more wrong! Instead of finding myself on some idyllic seashore somewhere, I found myself in the vortex of the 1915 Armenian genocide.

This 2012 book opened my eyes to a portion of world history previously completely and entirely unknown to me.

I found it timely to be reading this book in 2015 because this year marks the centennial of the beginning of the Armenian genocide.

I have always enjoyed historical fiction because it piques my interest in a subject, it provides me a framework for understanding a period of history and it causes me to search out what truly happened.

“The Sandcastle Girls” is written in multiple times on purpose by the author. The author felt that the horrors of this genocide would be too intense of a storyline, so he has interwoven a current story into his account.

Laura Petrosian is a novelist living in suburban New York. Although Laura recognizes her Armenian heritage, she has given it little thought. Then one day, a friend claims to have seen Laura’s grandmother in an old newspaper photo in an exhibit at a Boston museum. At least the woman in the photo has Laura’s same last name.

Thus begins Laura’s journey to find her family history.

Laura knows little about her grandparents other than they lived in the family home affectionately called “Ottoman annex.” She also knows that her grandparents had a dark side to them, with moods that could frequently become dark. Her parents know equally little about their parents in their lives as young adults.

Laura’s quest to discover secrets uncovers love, finds loss and discovers heart-rending secrets that have been buried for generations.

Alternating with Laura’s quest is the story of Elizabeth Endicott. In 1915, freshly graduated from Mount Holyoke and having received minimal nursing training, Elizabeth leaves with her father for Aleppo, Syria, to offer humanitarian aid.

World War I is spreading across Europe, and as a part of the Friends of Armenia, she and her father go to deliver food and medical assistance to refugees from the Armenian genocide.

While offering this aid, she sees the horrors of the genocide. She sees women and children being marched across blistering deserts, many dying and many others being raped and tortured, arriving as living skeletons when they get to Aleppo.

There, she becomes friends with Armen, a young Armenian engineer, who is searching for the answer to what has become of his wife and child.

Escaping Aleppo to join with the British in their fight against the Ottoman Empire, Armen begins a correspondence with Elizabeth; the two of them falling in love with each other.

Questions I will not answer in this review: What secrets does Laura find out about her grandparents? What is it that her grandfather never ever shared even with his wife? Or that her grandmother never shared with her husband? Do Armen and Elizabeth ever see each other again?

You will have to read the book to find out.

As with much historical fiction, this book set me searching for more facts. For instance, did you know in 2007 Turkey was ready to cut ties with the U.S. over a resolution in Congress to recognize the 1.5 million deaths as a genocide? Somehow I missed out on that one.

Forty-three states have resolutions calling these deaths a genocide, but the United States itself will not recognize it as such.

Also, some historians link the Nazi Holocaust to the Armenian genocide. It is reported that Hitler said prior to his invasion of Poland, “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?”

This is a beautifully written and thought-provoking novel. It is haunting and foreshadows what has happened multiple times throughout the past century and continues in places today: the systematic annihilation of a people group for what they believe or what is their background.

This book is available in print, audio or downloadable audio. Read it if you dare.

icebreakerFor children in grades 4 through 8

On the Oyster, an ancient and giant icebreaker ship, everyone belongs to one of three groups—there is Grease Alley for the engineers; Braid for the officers; and Dufftown for the cooks. There is little intermixing between the groups, except to trade goods and services and to make sure the ship is safe.

As an orphan whose parents were thrown overboard when she was a baby, twelve-year-old Petrel belongs to neither group. She spends most of her time hiding from bullies and trying to scavenge enough food to survive. To most of the ship’s inhabitants she is invisible, and to those who notice her, she is simply known as the Nothing Girl. Her only companions are two talking rats, Mister Smoke and Missus Slink.

The ship’s tribes occasionally fight, but they are united in keeping the ship moving along the same course it has been following for 300 years and in protecting it against the Anti-Machinists—a powerful group who believes anything mechanical is evil and should be destroyed. And while all the documentation of the ship’s original purpose has long since vanished, many of the Oyster’s residents believe a “sleeping captain” will return to lead once the reign of the Anti-Machinists ends.

One to avoid trouble and stay hidden, Petrel suddenly finds herself thrust into the limelight after her actions cause an unconscious boy to be rescued from an iceberg and brought aboard the ship. Untrusting and fearful of strangers, the ship’s crew have little patience for the mysterious boy who claims to know neither his name, nor how he came to be alone on the ice.

Fearful that they will soon return him to the ice, Petrel rescues the boy and hides him. Little does she know the boy has his own secret agenda and he may end up destroying her and all she holds dear.

Book one is a powerful start to Tanner’s latest trilogy. Petrel and the supporting cast are well drawn and readers are sure to be hooked from the beginning thanks to the author thoughtfully parceling out the clues. Placing the Icebreaker and her tenants in a world where the powerful subscribe to anti-technological way of thinking is an intriguing scenario and makes for a dramatic build up and a satisfying conclusion. Readers are sure to anticipate the next episode in this enthralling adventure series.

Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg have recently published the latest in their Fox and O’Hare series. If you are not familiar with the series, Nicolas Fox is a charming con man and thief. Kate O’Hare is the FBI agent whose been chasing him for years and has finally caught him. Fox agrees to work with the FBI, with Kate as his handler, to bring down the criminals the FBI can’t touch. Their work is secret; so to the rest of the FBI and the world Kate is still chasing the elusive Fox.

The Scam has them off to Las Vegas and Macau. Their target is casino owner Evan Trace. Trace launders money for mobsters, terrorists, and evil dictators. The plan is to beat him at his own game and is aided by their usual crew: Kate’s dad, a frustrated actor, a retired Somali pirate, and an ex-soldier. So what could go wrong?

Like the others in the series this is a fun read. There is chemistry between Nic and Kate and this installment changes their relationship. Unlike the first 3 in the series this one ends on a cliff-hanger. Did their scam backfire or has the past caught up with them?

John Sandford’s latest novel will be somewhat of a surprise for his many fans. He is a master of the crime thriller with his Minnesota based Prey and Virgil Flowers series.

His new offering, Saturn Run, is not a crime thriller. And while Minnesota makes an appearance early, the bulk of the story takes place in the far reaches of the galaxy. Written with photographer and science fiction aficionado, Ctein, Sandford is taking his fans to outer space.

I’ve read a few science fiction novels but it’s not my favorite genre. However I like the way Sandford writes and decided I’d give it another try. The year is 2066 and the U.S. has an orbiting space station, USSS3, which maintains an observatory with 4 telescopes. Astrophysicists at Caltech monitor the feeds.

Sanders Heacock Darlington is an intern, not an astrophysicist, whose job is to check the output of one the telescopes, Chuck’s Eye. Ambling in late for what he thinks will be another dull shift, Sanders discovers that Check’s Eye has picked up a critical anomaly.

An object that is 99% real, kilometers long and wide, and emitting hydrogen is decelerating as it approaches Saturn. It will be orbiting the planet in 13 hours. Fifteen hours later scientists confirm that Sandy Darlington has discovered an alien spacecraft.

When the destination of the spacecraft appears to be a space station the U.S. secretly begins a mad scramble to repurpose the USSS3 into an interplanetary vessel. However keeping their activity and the discovery from other nations proves impossible.

China was already preparing a ship to send a crew to colonize Mars. The mission is changed and the ship stripped down for the long trip to Saturn. The race is on. Who will reach Saturn, the space station and the potential technology first? China is ready first and launches the Odyssey.

It takes another 9 months before the U.S. ship, renamed the Richard M. Nixon, is ready to go. The task for Captain Naomi Fang-Castro and her crew is to not only overtake the Odyssey but travel the billion plus miles in a fraction of the time it takes China. The new power plant developed by Dr. Becca Johansson will have the Nixon travelling at a steadily increasing speed. Will the increasing speed and the plotted course, which takes them perilously close to the sun, be enough?

The novel begins slowly as the explanation of the science and the assembling of the crew is essential for the story but it’s not the fast start I’m used to from the author. I had doubts I would finish the almost 500 page novel in my 7 day checkout period but once the Nixon is prepped and launched I was hooked.

Besides intriguing characters like Sandy Darlington, Crow and John Clover there is sabotage, peril, piracy and treason. What more could you ask for in any novel?

I’m always interested in medicine, so I was intrigued when I spotted “The Shift: One Nurse, Twelve Hours, Four Patients’ Lives” by Theresa Brown, RN. Brown, who writes a “New York Times” opinion column, is a clinical nurse in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It also happens that she was born and raised in Springfield, Missouri. This book, her second, covers one shift in the hospital that she works in, 7 a.m. to 7:30 p.m.

Brown has followed an unconventional career path. Before becoming a nurse, she earned a PhD in English and taught writing at Tufts, Harvard and MIT. Her writing skills come in very handy here. Written in a narrative style, we begin as Brown prepares to bike to work, then go through her day as she shares her thoughts and feelings and interactions with patients and their families as well as various hospital staff, from escorts (odd title for staff who move patients from place to place) to attending physicians.

If you’ve ever wondered what nurses spend all their time doing, aside from administering medications, checking vital signs, and answering call buttons, it would appear that an enormous amount of time is spent charting: entering onto a computer anything and everything that happens with a patient. Much of this Brown finds reasonable and necessary, but some information seems rather useless to her and she wishes she could use some of that time for time with her patients, really getting to know what they need and just being there as a comforting presence. As it does with many things, the bottom line interferes with the level of patient care she would like to be able to give regularly.

Speaking of patients, on this day in the oncology/hematology department, Brown has four patients. The workload in this department generally is three or four patients, which might not sound like much until you begin to see all the procedures and charting and interactions with patients, family and staff that occur constantly. The 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift handle more patients, but often the patients are asleep for most of the shift, so it’s generally much less hectic.

As to the four patients she has for most of this shift, Brown has Sheila, who’s in for a rare blood clotting disorder and who has some sort of undiagnosed abdominal pain to boot; Dorothy, who is ready for discharge following a six-week stay for chemotherapy treatment; Richard, an elderly lymphoma patient who seems to just want to sleep; and Candace, who’s coming in for a transfusion of her own previously collected cells to treat her cancer.

So, the book chronicles the shift as it happens, with asides about the general experience of hospital nursing, ruminations about the advisability of 12-hour shifts, the imbalance in doctor/nurse relationships (and the difficulty sometimes found in trying to do the best for a patient when the doctor won’t listen because the speaker is “just” a nurse), the struggle to treat patients who are rude or hostile, and so on.

I found “The Shift” to be an interesting look at a world that I have seen a bit of from the “other” side, as well as something akin to a hospital procedural: “why is this patient behaving like this” or “what is medically wrong with her,” like a real-life episode of “Gray’s Anatomy,” without the suds. So, if you are drawn to peeking behind the curtain of other people’s work lives or to mysteries, this may be just the book for you. I found it well-written, accessible, and thought-provoking.


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