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As of my "maternity leave," here are the stats of the past year: 74 books reviewed 9 guest posts 4 independent bookstores 3 d...

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Witches Protection Program: A Novel

I have reviewed some Michael Phillip Cash before, and I put Witches Protection Program on my TBR shelf when it came, and during the nice weather I decided it would be a great read in the park during the nice weather.

Wes is the black sheep of his family of overachievers, and when he fails at the task of protecting a witness assigned to him by his father, he is told to report to an address that he can't find in Brooklyn. Once it's revealed to him, he finds himself in the Witches Protection Program and paired with Alistair, a veteran of the secret program. Wes can't believe it, and treats his new job with the same disdain he wears on his face. That is, until a beautiful young cosmetics heiress finds herself on the wrong side of her CEO aunt's wand. Through a series of events, Bernadette Pendragon seeks to not only retain full control of her company, Pendragon Cosmetics, but she also seeks to take over the world. She just needs her niece to cooperate.

This book was fun. I was surprised at how much fun I had reading it, because you all know I'm a little back and forth on how I feel about the paranormal. However, I also realized that I tend to really like Cash's paranormal, so I jumped in feet first. He did not let me down with this one, and I found myself just enjoying my time reading this novel. Every character is a bit of a trope and it adds to the fun, because even though I could tell which direction the story was going in, the pages were laced with a goofiness that was lighthearted and full of enjoyment. Wes was unbelieving at first in his job (and don't worry, he comes to be a believer), Alistair is staid and time-honored, Wes's dad is a hardass, Bernadette is a cold, calculating lady-on-top, and her henchwomen are exactly what you expect them to be. The two main female characters, though, were by far the most fascinating. Morgan at first comes across as a ne'er-do-well heiress brat and becomes anything but. Junie is an unexpected tour-de-force in the book and is quite an enjoyable character to watch unfold. This would have been a fun day-long beach read if I had saved it for that purpose, so that's my recommendation to you. 

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Big Mouth & Ugly Girl: A Novel

How I got to Joyce Carol Oates's Big Mouth & Ugly Girl is a fun story. I was in Chicago for Book Expo 2016, and I went to a bookstore as I am wont to do. I found this in the used section and thought it would make a good read. At checkout, there was no record of the store ever having the book in stock. How peculiar, they said. Someone must have left it behind and it was shelved by accident. I could just take the book. That is how I found myself in possession of JCO’s first YA novel. 

Big Mouth is Matt, a high school junior who is semi-popular. One day he is dragged out of class by police officers investigating a threat to shoot up his school. He can’t imagine who on earth would have said such a thing — it’s not in Matt’s nature to be violent. No matter. The long-hanging stench of scandal holds on to him with the tentacle grip that only a scandal can. Ugly Girl is Ursula, a tall basketball player who hides behind her invented persona in order to avoid being hurt by anyone — friends, romantic interests, even her family. However, she know that Matt isn’t guilty. They aren’t friends, but Ursula does what’s right, and that’s sticking up for the wrongly accused. Soon Usula realizes she is Matt’s only remaining friend. Neither of them bargained for this.  

I was surprised at how charmed I was by this novel. I have been hesitant lately about the school shooting genre, what with one happening in our world every couple of days. In fact, I put a mass market paperback away for a while because it was just too real to read for fun right now. However, this story was much deeper than a gory, graphic portrayal of a bullied kid getting payback. Matt is the opposite of a bullied kid — he has friends, or at least kids he thinks are friends. He is well-liked and a sweet person. It’s only after he is wrongly accused (we find out who did it toward the end) that he learns this friends are of the fair-weather type. They don’t want to be associated with his scandalous name, and as we know, those who kick you when you are down aren’t really your friends at all. 

This pushes Matt into a period of self-discovery where he has to look past all that shimmers and see what he really needs in a friend. Ursula is hesitant to be that person, because her fear of rejection is too deep to open up willingly. It’s only when she literally saves Matt’s life that she can open up to him. It’s a sweet moment, and JCO has captured that youthful terror or wanting a friend but holding on to a deep-seated fear of rejection. I loved watching the friendship of Matt and Ursula grow, and how it blossomed in the middle of such a tumultuous period for them both. I remember those hormones and the put-of-control feeling that comes with being an adolescent, and JCO has written that in so lovingly in this novel. It’s like it was yesterday for her own self. 

I’m a JCO fan, and I have been for some time. I am impressed at her foray into young adult literature, and I’m glad I got my hands on this book. It reminded me to dive back into her cannon with gusto. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Dan Brown's Origin

I happen to quite enjoy Dan Brown's work from a relaxed reading perspective. The subject matter is terribly interesting and I like being challenged with learning new things. Origin is no exception.  

Edmond Kirsch has discovered a secret that will change the how humans believe in supernatural forces. He claims it will even turn the masses away from religion. The winderkind computer scientist, a former student of Robert Langston’s, is about to present his discovery to the world when he is shot down moments before hiring “play” on his presentation to the world. Langdon (as usual, frankly) is immediately suspected and must go on the run with the stunning Ambra Vidal, curator of the museum and fiancĂ© of the future King of Spain, also suspected in the gruesome plot to kill her friend Edmond. What was Kirsch’s discovery, and what other secrets was he keeping that deeply affect the future of mankind — and what does his militant hatred of religion have to do with it all? 

How on this green earth does Langdon find himself in these ridiculous quagmires? Exactly how many times in the span of a decade must be run for his life while solving a great mystery that puts the fate of millions in his hands? While I quite enjoyed this book, I had to wonder as I was halfway through how much longer Brown can put Langdon in these odd positions without us starting to catch on. I mean, how am I supposed to trust Tom Hanks the next time I see him? I am definitely not getting on a plane with that guy. 

All that being said, I quite enjoyed this book. While I don’t think it’s necessarily one of Brown’s intellectual best thrillers (I leave that still to Angels and Demons), I was quite fascinated by his weaving together a tale around the origins of life, which were actually quite plausible. By the time we got to the heart of the matter, which was Kirsch’s discovery of the origins of life (I will say no more), I was ready to jump into the science of entropy. I appreciated Brown’s ability to come up with such an intricate and heady scientific concept, and I was digging it. (As one guy I only went on one date because, well, you see, he constantly said, “I Dog, I dig.” Like, always twice in a row. I’m giggling now as I write this.)

There were some eye-roll inducing parts, such as Brown’s constant reference to the discovery that would shake religious belief forever — see, this went on for the better part of the book and I wanted to just tell, “Tell is the fuck about it already.” It was quite overwrought and we could have dealt without the melodramatics by, I would guess, 40%. But hey, this is Brown’s book and not mine. 

Weaving together this detailed story, it was nice to see it all come together at the end into a semi-loose narrative. There were some things that I think were extra (like motivations of red herrings, and you will just have to accept my lack of spoilers here), but overall I enjoyed myself and that’s really why I come to Brown’s novels when it comes down to brass tacks. 

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

Kid Scientists: True Tales of Childhood From Science Superstars

I knew the second I saw Kid Scientists: True Tales of Childhood From Science Superstars by David Stabler and Anoosha Syed that I had to have it on my son's bookshelf. When David signed the book, he remarked that it was to David, from David. I swooned.

Neil Degrasse Tyson. Jane Goodall. Rachel Carson. Benjamin Franklin. Katherine Johnson. Temple Grandin. Sally Ride. What do all of these very different people have in common? They are all scientists, but more importantly, they were all kids once. The grown ups in their lives encouraged (and sometimes discouraged!) their curiosity about the world around them, all of which gave them the encouragement and support to make the discoveries that shaped our world as we know it. These stories were each a perfect length with large font, allowing my son and I to read the stories together and having them move fairly quickly. We read one every night before bed, and I fell madly in love with this book chapter after chapter.

I was really blown away by this book and the focus on famous scientists' childhoods. Their accomplishments later in life did come up at the end of their stories, but the focus was really on their early lives and how their futures were shaped by their childhoods. Some faced great adversity while others had great privilege. All of them had in common, though, a curiosity that ran deep. This was a huge reminder that it is absolutely vital that we allow kids to feed their curiosity and dig into whatever they are interested in and want to investigate. Not everyone is destined to become a scientist, but every child has a scientist within them. We are so quick to beat out curiosity in our kids in favor of being able to do well on assessments, and we lose sight of the forest for the trees. I would always rather have a curious kid than one who scores well on a silly exam.

This book made such an impression on me that I am going to purchase some of the other books in the series, including Kid Artists, Kid Presidents, and Kid Authors.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World

One of the top five adult buzz books at BookExpo this year was Sarah Weinman's The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel that Scandalized the World. I nabbed myself a copy and was hooked as soon as I started reading. Sally Horner was a young girl -- not even twelve years old, who was coerced into running away with a man four times her age. A simple act of youthful rebellion -- stealing something from the dime store -- set off a series of events that removed her from her family for two years and pushed her into a nightmare that would define her life.

It might seem odd to many of us that a young girl could be "kidnapped" but not picked up and hauled off. She went with Frank La Salle (a name among many he used) willingly because he told her that he was an FBI agent who required her to come with him on a road trip to avoid being arrested and telling her mother for the petty theft. We as a society underestimate the fear and the power that adults have over children, and how likely it is that children feel obligated to those in power will do what they say, even if they get a creepy gut feeling that they shouldn't. (I will put a plug in here to say that teaching children compliance as opposed to autonomy contributes greatly to being picked as a victim by predators -- they know to look out for this type of child who willingly goes along and fears getting in trouble for "telling.") Ten years ago I would have not believed that Sally went along so willingly with a convicted child molester; a decade, some degrees, and a lot of reading later I understand how easy it was for La Salle to take her and convince her poor mother that he was the father of a classmate.

Sally's time with Frank is only known somewhat, although there are details from witnesses who knew them in the neighborhoods in which they lived. The long-term effects of her ordeal, though, were not to be seen, as she died young in a tragic car accident. Her experience didn't just affect her, however. It affected her mother and sister, and her friends that she had both before the experience and after. However, the most wide-ranging impact Sally's kidnapping had was on the public at large, as she served as an inspiration for Vladmir Nabakov's Lolita. While he would deny it until the day he died, Weinman's detailed and painstaking research shows that he was quite familiar with the story, even weaving details too small for the public to recognize into his narratives.

This book was gripping and I couldn't put it down. Weinman is an outstanding narrative non-fiction writer and she tells a tale that is winding and confusing in as close to a linear manner as she can, while still keeping us totally involved in the story. It reads like a novel until  Weinman brings you back out of Sally's story and reminds you that Nabakov was living a parallel life at the time. It is the best way to tell Sally's story; otherwise, it's incredibly difficult. She was sexually assaulted the entire time she was gone, and she was captive to a man who worshiped her in the creepiest way you can imagine. Weinman has crafted a gorgeous retelling of a time in a young girl's life that was horrific, yet iconic. It's well worth sinking your teeth into and getting to know the other side of a book you may know, whether you like it or not.

I need to read Lolita now, as I have never read it. I never had a desire to, but reading Weinman's take on the book and her deep connections to Sally's story makes me intrigued as to what my take of the book would be. Will it be a sordid tale that makes me shiver, or will I despise Humbert Humbert in the way that Nabakov possibly intended his audience to feel toward a man who is clearly a sexual predator? I love a good unreliable narrator, so I will look out for it soon on my next few jaunts to the used bookstore.

Tuesday, October 2, 2018

The Library Book

Susan Orlean's latest book, The Library Book, was a hot ticket at Book Expo this year. I didn't get a hard copy, which was a bummer, but I was approved for an electronic copy so I jumped for joy. And what a joy this book was. 

One spring morning in 1986, a fire broke out at the main Los Angeles Public Library. It was so intense, so all-consuming that 30 years later, residents remember it well. No one knows exactly how or where it started, only that it was arson. A suspect began to emerge — a man named Harry Peak, an aspiring actor and a generally confusing man who lived to spin tall tales. Orlean, a recent Los Angeles transplant, hears about the story after re-finding her childhood love of libraries at the venerable Los Angeles institution. Part narrative non-fiction, part historical record of the Los Angeles Public Library, and part love letter to libraries everywhere, this book focuses in on a place we all know and love yet rarely dig deep into: the oublic library. 

I wanted to read this book, but I can also say from looking into the rear view mirror that I wasn’t quite expecting what I got with this book. It was so much more than I was expecting, which was an historical account of this fire that destroyed millions of books and brought out the best in Los Angelenos. Orlean has put together a beautiful book that closely examines the history of libraries in general and the LAPL in terms of its origins, it’s sexist history, and the current societal position it holds as a welcome mat for the masses regardless of race, color, creed, gender, or even itinerancy. The library is open to all who can get through their doors while they are open. Orlean focuses on this and breathes life into a building that is so much more than that, as it is the lifeblood of the city to so many. 

The trips that Orlean takes with the staff of the LAPL, to other branches both closed and in use; into meetings about how to better serve their constituencies; and to library conferences where staff from all over the world seek ways to improve what they do in a changing world all serve to elevate the story of the fire and give us, the readers, a full-bodied and overt understanding of why we need public libraries. This was an absolutely fascinating read, and I can’t recommend it highly enough. And if you aren’t already a partron of your local public library, make it a point to go before the month is out. See the good these places do for all of our communities, no matter where we are in the United States.