Archives for category: Book Reviews

As someone with a subterranean-level threshold of all things scary or grotesque (the sharks in Finding Nemo are about my limit), I still can’t believe I read To Stay Alive by Skila Brown.  This book is billed as historical fiction written for teens.  However, it is a compelling rendering of a real-life American horror story—the plight of the Donner Party.

The story of the Donner Party is one of harrowing survival and a fixture of American history.  This group of pioneers, led by George Donner and James Reed, consisted of multiple families and individuals traveling west to California from Missouri in the spring of 1846.  Delayed by multiple mishaps and unfortunate decisions (including an ill-conceived “shortcut”), they found themselves in the Sierra Nevada Mountains in mid-October, low on supplies and weakened by previous efforts crossing the Wasatch Mountains and the Great Salt Lake Desert.  The group, ill-prepared for surviving winter, was forced to hastily make camp when snow blocked the mountain pass.  Exposure, starvation, and illness heightened the nightmare.  A small detachment of the group set out in December 1846 attempting to cross the mountain and send back help; its remnants made it to safety on January 17, 1847.  The first rescue party made to the pioneers’ camp on February 18; the final person out of the camp made it to safety on April 29.  Only 48 of the approximately 90 members of the original group survived. Fewer than 100 miles from their target, many of them had to resort to cannibalism to live.

The Donner Party’s experience has fascinated and horrified audiences for over a century.  Skila Brown’s book To Stay Alive is an intriguing departure from past efforts to explore the topic.  It’s a novel in free-verse form, consisting of over 200 short poems, told from the point-of-view of 19-year-old Mary Ann Graves who made the trek.  Real-life pioneers, Mary Ann along with her parents and eight siblings left Illinois in April 1846; their hideous journey ended nearly a year later.  The poems describing Mary Ann’s experience blend narrative with inner reflection, their forms advancing the story while mirroring her emotions.  The book is divided into the four seasons of the journey, the final chapter jumping ahead to four months after Mary Ann’s life-changing hike over the mountain.

Brown’s verse doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to the subject matter.  She wields it like a camera, panning exterior and interior landscapes.  In places, it reads smoothly like the easy part of Mary Ann’s journey—text is almost like prose, and the character’s thoughts are fluid, sequential.  Further in, the economy of verse reflects the hardships faced by Mary Ann; here, words are spaced out to reflect the wide expanse of country or peppered with pauses the length of a hard swallow while crossing the desert or tumbled about the page mimicking the bump wagon ride.  Brown’s sparse poetry conjures up the horrors experienced by the Donner Party without resorting to sensationalism.  Reading the poems depicting Mary Ann suffering from starvation and exposure, the desperation is vivid and the terrible solution becomes apparent.  It begs the question, “What would you do to survive?”

As the author notes, “Historical fiction requires a careful balance of real and embellished, a base of facts with a sprinkling of supposition and imagination”. Skila Brown has done her research.  Her details are spot on whether describing the pioneer experience in general or situations specific to the Graves family.  In addition to the story, the author offers some helpful resources.  An epilogue adds a postscript of Mary Ann’s life.  An author’s note summarizes the events befalling the Donner Party, analyzes the literal and metaphorical wrong turns they took, and offers multiple perspectives on the consequences of manifest destiny.  Here, the author relates what drew her to this story and why she believes it relevant over 100 years later.  An easy-to-read map shows the group’s path compared to the routes traditionally taken by pioneers.  The author also provides a photograph of Mary Ann Graves and a list of the entire Donner Party, noting deaths and survivors.

While a departure from the usual fare of historical fiction, To Stay Alive has a great deal to offer.  It doesn’t give up its gifts easily though.  The topic is difficult—it’s not for everyone.  And, although this one is much more accessible than most, novels in verse may require more effort from readers than narrative prose.  Move past these challenges, and the rewards are apparent—powerful messages of perseverance in the face of overwhelming circumstances, survival amidst suffering, heart-breaking sacrifice.  To Stay Alive is a great choice for mature secondary students and lends itself more to discussion than pleasure reading.  Beyond that, give this one to teens who are hardcore fans of historical fiction, have the patience to follow a narrative in free-form verse, and can handle the subject matter.

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matchup  More than 3800 suspense writers are part of an organization known as International Thrill Writers. They don’t pay dues but support the organization by publishing an anthology every few years. In 2014 the Faceoff anthology pitted popular characters from some of the most read male writers against each other.

The sequel published in June, MatchUp, pairs male and female writers together. The Booklist description says “Think Dancing with the Stars, but with mysteries.” The task for each pair of writers was to create a suspenseful short story starring their well-known characters.

Lee Child was the editor and also gives an introduction for each story. This information on the authors/characters and insight into the writing process is an interesting addition to an entertaining collection.

I am not familiar with all the characters depicted but for the most part that didn’t affect my enjoyment of the stories.  I saw the movie but have not read the Rambo series by David Morrell.  I was also unfamiliar with Gayle Lynds’ character Liz Sansborough but I thought their collaboration, “Rambo on Their Minds”, one of the best in the book.

“Midnight Flame” by Lara Adrian and Christopher Rice not only had characters I was unfamiliar with but also a genre I don’t usually read, the paranormal. The authors did an excellent job of taking two characters, Lucan Thorne and Lilliane, from different time periods and creating an entertaining tale. I probably won’t delve any further into the world of vampires and Radiants but I enjoyed this foray.

Child’s partner in prose was Kathy Reich with his character, Jack Reacher, coming to the rescue of Temperance Brennan. Brennan is charged with murdering a reporter who was going to expose her as inept or corrupt in her examination of the death of Army Colonel Calder Massee. As soon as he hears the news report Reacher knows she is being framed and heads her way to help.

In “Deserves to Be Dead” John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers is (to no one’s surprise) on a fishing trip when he becomes involved in a murder. Lisa Jackson’s Regan Pescoli is the investigating officer. In the intro Child’s identifies Sandford as the main author but surprisingly Regan Pescoli is the driving force for this dark tale.

Karin Slaughter and Michael Koryta teamed up for the longest and in my opinion the best tale in the anthology called “Short Story”. The two authors take their characters back in time to younger days hinted about in the series.

Slaughter’s Jeffrey Tolliver has just received his shield and is in the north Georgia mountains for a romantic getaway. He is stood up but that doesn’t mean he goes without female company. His companion for the night tries to steal his car and winds up dead. Tolliver, who had given chase wearing his t-shirt, Auburn underwear and one shoe, is arrested.

At the same time Koryta’s Joe Pritchard and Lincoln Perry are sent to the same place to find a Detroit drug dealer who is in Georgia to meet his supplier. It doesn’t take long for Joe and Lincoln to get involved and determine Tolliver’s innocence. The three team-up to find the killer and the drug dealer during an all-time record snowstorm.

There are 11 total entries with something for everyone in this engaging collection of short stories. You may even find some characters and authors to add to your reading list. The library has both regular and large print editions of it as well as the eaudiobook for download.

“Every day I watched how a bare metal frame, rolling down the line would come off the other end, a spanking brand new car…Maybe, I could do the same thing with my music.  Create a place where a kid off the street could walk in one door, an unknown…and come out another door, a star.”          –Berry Gordy, Jr., Motown founder

After seeing this quote from Berry Gordy, Jr., I couldn’t resist the chance to read Andrea Davis Pinkney’s book Rhythm Ride: A Road Trip Through the Motown Sound.  It’s a nice introduction to the story behind one of America’s iconic record labels and an interesting contribution to non-fiction written for teens.

Rhythm Ride provides an overview of Berry Gordy, Jr.’s career from his roots in an entrepreneurial family in Detroit through the height of Motown’s success to his relocation to the West Coast and the sale of the company.  The book digs into the history of Motown Records beginning with Gordy’s desire to bring African American music to the forefront of American culture.  The author explores Gordy’s influences and how he, in turn, influenced a wide variety of artists.  She details the early years of Motown with its nurturing, family atmosphere when a teenager could literally answer the phones then turn right around to become one of its hit-makers. (Martha Reeves!)

While she takes her readers behind the scenes at Motown, Angela Davis Pinkney doesn’t delve into gossip.  Instead, she summarizes prevailing opinions just enough to show how public opinion and employee perceptions led to artists departing the record company.  Despite her generally positive approach to Gordy, she isn’t afraid to point out when his judgment or actions weren’t in Motown’s best interest.  She also puts the label’s story into context by relating it to events of the time such as the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.  Rhythm Ride lures readers with the 1960s vibe of its cover and offers a variety of vintage, black and white photographs inside its pages.  An informative timeline and discography round out its resources.

For the most part, Rhythm Ride is written as an accessible introduction to a pivotal time in America’s cultural history.  The author, however, adds an unexpected layer to her researched text.  The first chapter introduces an imaginary narrator named The Groove who proceeds to address the reader throughout the book, acting as a transition between chapters and offering commentary on historical events, on the premise that it and the reader are on a road trip together through music history.  The effect can be disconcerting as the book vacillates between approaches, and it could make or break the book for some readers.  Those who enjoy this extra voice will enjoy the whole package.  Those who are able to look past this technique will find an interesting, readable book.

Whether you appreciate the author’s approach or not, Rhythm Ride offers a solid history of Motown Records as well as a glimpse into a pivotal time in American history.  Offer this title to teens who are deeply interested in pop music history or the 1960s and ‘70s.  Or, read it yourself while enjoying the Motown sound.  It’s a great excuse to enjoy some amazing music!

index.aspxWorking at the reference desk I often learn about books by readers asking for help – either in locating the desired title or finding the next title in a series. Some titles peak my interest but with so many good books to read I lose track of the title/author.

Such was the case with Jill Eileen Smith’s historical fiction books on women of the Bible. Fortunately, I spotted the latest on the New Fiction shelves reminding me of my interest.

Redeeming Grace: Ruth’s Story is actually the third in the Daughters of the Promised Land series. However, the series is a theme not a continuation so you can read out of order and not feel as though you are missing anything. If you are a stickler for order, the library has the first two in the series “The Crimson Cord: Rehab’s Story” and “The Prophetess: Deborah’s Story”.

Ruth’s story is also the story of Naomi. Naomi lived in Bethlehem with her husband Elimelech, sons Mahlon and Chilion, and their extended family. In 1296 B.C. Bethlehem and Israel were suffering through drought and eventual famine. Elimelech’s brother Boaz had convinced him to keep working the land despite the drought.

But after 2 years he stopped listening to Boaz and gave up hoping and praying for rain. He made the decision to take his sons to Moab and work the fields there. Naomi did not want to leave Bethlehem but would not let them go without her so the whole family made the journey to Dibon. Ruth and her friend Orpah were at the marketplace when the family arrived and were the first to offer a welcome.

Elimelech was able to secure land from the governor and soon prospered in Moab. His crops flourished and he was able to build a home for his family. Naomi remained true to her faith but her husband and sons were seduced by the festivals and lifestyle of the Moabites spending more and more evenings in Dibon. One such evening Elimelech didn’t come home. Naomi found his body in the road; he had been mauled by a bear.

With the death of her husband Naomi tried to convince her sons to return to Bethlehem. However, the beauties Ruth and Orpah had caught the eye of her sons and they declared their intention to stay and marry.

The custom in Moab was for fathers to choose husbands for their daughters. Ruth and Orpah had both lost their fathers in the war with Israel meaning they could make the choice of who they would marry. Ruth’s mother and the governor planned for Ruth to marry his son, Te’oma. She wanted no part of that arrangement and readily accepted Mahlon’s request to marry.

Ruth’s story truly begins when she marries and becomes Naomi’s daughter-in-law.  Ruth’s devotion to her new family and the growth of her faith sustain her through the many trials she faces. Heartache, loss and hardship test both women but Ruth remains hopeful for a better life and a second chance for love.

This dramatization of Ruth’s life is well done and an engrossing read.  Smith’s research on life and customs of the Israelites and Moabites offers readers a glimpse into what life was like during Ruth’s time.

You can enjoy it without ever having read Ruth in the Old Testament. If you have read it, you’ll find that Smith has crafted a novel that captures the lesson of love exemplified by Ruth in the book.

photoarkWow! Hundreds of amazing photographs fill the pages of The Photo Ark: One Man’s Quest to Document the World’s Animals by Joel Sartore from the fine folks at National Geographic. Sartore has spent most of the last decade travelling around the world to zoos, wildlife centers, private homes and wherever animals live under human care to photograph as many species as he can. So far, that’s over 6,000 species, several hundred of which are included here. He is the founder of National Geographic’s Photo Ark which hopes to add photos of every species under human care to its archive. In his introductory essay, Douglas Chadwick (wildlife biologist and journalist) points out that while Earth’s human population nearly doubled from 3.7 billion in 1970 to 7.5 billion now, during that same time, the number of large land animals fell by half. Ninety percent of the living land animals today are humans and their livestock. Fifty-nine percent of all large (over 33 pounds) and sixty percent of herbivores over 220 pounds are officially threatened with extinction. If pollution and other effects of human existence do not change, one-third of all species could be gone by 2100. Aside from the awful statistics and anxieties about extinctions and ecological disaster, it’s a lovely essay about biodiversity and what makes it a good thing, including how beautiful and interesting so many animals of all sorts are.

In his own essay, Sartore explains the genesis of the Photo Ark project. His wife was diagnosed with breast cancer which caused him to take stock of his life and work as well as to try to figure out what he could do for work while staying close to home (as he normally travelled for months at a time to find animals in remote locations to photograph). He decided to do something worthwhile—photographing as many endangered animals as he could—as well as work that would not require such long trips, which made zoos and the like great places to work. He began his photo ark with a naked mole rat at the Lincoln (Nebraska) Children’s Zoo, a mile from his home. His wife has recovered, and his work continues. He plans to photograph all 12,000+ captive species over the next 15 years, making this a 25-year project.

The animals are photographed in front of either black or white paper backgrounds in studio portrait style and the layouts vary, but are carefully thought out. For instance, in Chapter One (Mirrors), one page might be a bird with various shades of blue plumage while the facing page is a similarly colored butterfly, or a praying mantis on one side with an arctic fox on the other, both with their heads cocked or a giant deep-sea roach appearing to face off with a very similarly shaped Southern three-banded armadillo.  Chapter Two (Partners) features either photos of paired/grouped animals (breeding pairs or friends or littermates, mother and cub and whatnot) or opposite pages of “birds and bees” or “owl and pussycat” and so on. Chapter Three (Opposites) focuses on the unlike or antagonistic (snail and cheetah, Siamese fighting fish, a tiny katydid and a huge stick insect, etc.). “Curiosities” are featured in Chapter Four, your echidnas, platypuses, tarsiers, and other unusual animals along with strangely posed animals or pairings. Finally, Chapter Five presents “Stories of Hope.” Animals like the Bali mynah, rescued by a captive breeding program and re-introduced to the wild or our own Kirtland’s warbler, the rarest songbird in North America. A happy accident (a controlled fire that got out of hand) enabled scientists (in cooperation with nature) to reclaim the habitat necessary for their survival. The birds only nest in 10-foot tall or shorter Jack pines and, given those again via fire and plantings, are now making a comeback. Golden Lion tamarins are being bred in captivity and released to the wild in a repopulation effort that appears to be paying off. By the way, their “cousins”, the cotton-top tamarin, are the focus of Springfield’s Dickinson Park Zoo’s Proyecto Titi, a conservation effort to help preserve it, one of the most endangered primates in the wild.

Each photo is captioned with the animal’s species and its level of existential threat according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature. So, EX equals extinct, EW is extinct in the wild, CR is critically endangered, EN is endangered, VU stands for vulnerable, NT is near threatened, LC means least concern, DD indicates data deficient, and NE means not evaluated.

There are a few scattered pages of “behind the scenes” looks at some of the photo shoots, capturing some of the methodology used in getting these extraordinary photos. Also distributed throughout are several “heroes” who have dedicated themselves to assorted conservation efforts, including raptor recovery, endangered primates, extinct in the wild pheasants, and others. The book concludes with an index of the animals photographed including the zoo or other center where the animal was photographed along with their web address.

Open to any random page and enjoy and, to cap it off, learn a bit about conservation efforts and why we need them.

 

Make: Getting Started with 3D Printing by Liza Wallach Kloski and Nick Kloski

Raspberry Pi Electronics Projects for the Evil Genius by Donald Norris

Unscrewed: Salvage and Reuse Motors, Gears, Switches, and More from Your Old Electronics by Ed Sobey

The library is chock full of excitement this May.  In addition to preparations for our move to the new building, we are gearing up for the annual summer reading program.  This year’s summer reading slogan is “Build A Better World” highlighting design, construction, and other STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Math) activities—a great match with the opening of the new facility.  All ages are welcome to participate in the reading program or events or both.  Stay tuned to the library’s website http://joplinpubliclibrary.org/ and Facebook page for details about summer reading and the move.

Summer reading fervor has prompted me to explore STEAM books at the library.  Here are a trio of teen and adult non-fiction titles written for novice-to-intermediate tinkerers interested in technology.  All of these books are informative, helpful, and designed to support project-based creative endeavors.

Make: Getting Started with 3D Printing by Liza Wallach Kloski and Nick Kloski comes from Maker Media, the publisher of Make: magazine and creator of the Maker Faire events showcasing innovations in the maker movement.  The publisher defines the maker movement as a grassroots, “tech influenced DIY community” of “hobbyists, enthusiasts or students” creating, innovating, and “producing value in the community”.  In general, makers are people who engage in hands-on learning through tinkering.  Their creative explorations may lead to innovations or new understanding of the world around them and may involve new technologies or low-tech tools and equipment.  This particular book focuses on 3D printing, the process of building a three-dimensional object by a machine adding layers of material from the object’s bottom to its top.  Getting Started offers a nice introduction to the 3D printing process.  It is less an in-depth history or background of 3D printing than it is an overview with specific tips for project development.  The authors discuss basic “hows” and “whys” of the process then move on to examine different printers and filament.  There are helpful chapters describing the process of choosing an object to print, creating a virtual model of it, and preparing the model for printing.  Additional chapters outline working with specific modeling software—some big names are mentioned, but the offerings are narrowed to a few.  Full-color illustrations throughout are an asset.

For something a bit different, the Raspberry Pi is an accessible entry to computer coding and electronics.  About the size of a library card, the Pi is a fully-functioning computer (albeit with a smaller memory than a laptop) complete with ports for accessories and portable file storage.  Some models have Wi-Fi capability.  Raspberry Pi Electronics Projects for the Evil Genius by Donald Norris presents ideas for activities starting at the intermediate level.  Although there is a brief introduction to the technology, the book is written for those with some background knowledge or experience in computers or electronics.  Project directions and discussion are clear, concise, and direct.  Like the writing style, the black-and-white illustrations are serviceable and relevant.  Snippets of computer code are included where needed.  The author offers two approaches to exploring the Raspberry Pi—discovering a concept or component related to the Pi and implementing a project designed around it (adding a touchscreen and creating a demo of the screen) and building a specific project (create a nighttime monitor for your garden).

My favorite book in this trio is Unscrewed: Salvage and Reuse Motors, Gears, Switches, and More from Your Old Electronics by Ed Sobey.  Tinkering is a key component of the maker movement, and Unscrewed is the road map to tinkering for the uninitiated.  The book’s premise is that inoperative or unwanted gadgets are a treasure trove of hands-on learning.  The author presents basic instructions for dismantling 53 items ranging from a hair dryer to a VCR to an electric toothbrush to a bar code scanner.  Each chapter includes a list of the tools required for the job and a “Treasure Cache” detailing the particularly useful pieces of the gadget.  In “What Now?” the author suggests uses for parts of each device.  Useful safety tips and black-and-white illustrations are used throughout.

Whether you are new to the maker movement or are an expert in the world of STEAM, the library has titles for you.  Join us this summer for loads of fun and a wealth of information!

joanWhen I read the description for THE BOOK OF JOAN, I thought, “oh, interesting, a science fiction retelling of Joan of Arc.” But that’s maybe the most basic a description that could possibly be attributed to Yuknavitch’s book. Not to be trite, but this story is about the nature of humanity and love, and whether those two concepts can ever really coexist.

Humanity has nearly come to an end. Aboard the space station CIEL, the remainders of Earth’s population work to find a way to survive. As they’ve been exposed to radiation from the atmosphere, humans are pale and hairless. Standard interpretations of sex and gender have become irrelevant. They can no longer reproduce. For means of entertainment, they turn to extreme body modification, aka “grafts”.

Grafts come in different types, including elaborate skin grafts that replicate 17th century French powdered wigs. The higher one’s status, the more extreme the graft. Different artists on CIEL create these grafts. Christine is one of these artists and specializes in branding stories into skin. On her body, she has branded the story of Joan.

Joan is a rebel who fights against the leader of CIEL, Jean de Men. Joan’s story, as you can imagine, mirrors the life of Joan of Arc. As a little girl, Joan has a strange encounter where she more or less connects spiritually to a tree. From this encounter, she receives a glowing light on her right temple. This light defies all explanation; no doctor can discover where it originates. But it connects Joan to the Earth and grants her power over nature.

On CIEL, the official story is that Joan was burned at the stake for being an eco-terrorist. (In this future world, even executions are theatrical events.) But Christine discovers that Joan escaped and lives on the wasteland of Earth below. Both Joan and Christine fight against the sadistic Jean de Men, but in different ways. As the stories of Christine and Joan spiral together, the book comes to a dramatic, though not uplifting end.

More than anything, THE BOOK OF JOAN is a piece of feminist science fiction. Yuknavitch deals with bodily autonomy, reproductive rights, and gender expression in what I would describe as lurid detail. I have to admit, this is not a book I’d recommend to everyone. It’s definitely a book for readers who don’t mind a bit of the grotesque. There are scenes that vividly describe torture of various kinds, including human experimentation. Yuknavitch pulls no punches. But if you’re brave enough to give it a chance, THE BOOK OF JOAN will provide you with a lot to think about.