Friday, March 30, 2012

Find it on a Map

Maphead by Ken Jennings

Are you the sort of person who knows all your state capitals? Do you long to hit the road with an atlas and a sense of adventure? If so, you may be a geography nerd. Don’t worry. You are not alone. Ken Jennings, famous for his record-breaking winning streak on Jeopardy!, is right there with you.

As a child he studied the atlas the way other children studied Saturday morning cartoons. When he grew up he found others just like him, and Maphead is the book about their world, which is lusher and more diverse than you probably imagine. As he journeys further into the realm of geography-lovers, Jennings discovers much more than the history of physical maps.

From the belief that Americans are terrible at world geography, to a chapter set at the National Geography Bee showcasing kids who are brilliant at it, he leads us through the esoteric world of academic geography. He also visits rare map collectors, interviews people who create maps of non-existent places, examines modern digital maps, takes a stab at geo-cacheing, spends time envying extreme world travelers, and more. It's a fun book, and not just for geography wonks.

If you’d rather spend some time imagining life on a remote island, we’ve got just the book.

Atlas of Remote Islands by Judith Schalansky

Just like Ken Jennings, Judith Schalansky grew up poring over an atlas. All of that information! Such a big, wide world! She told herself she would travel to these places and learn their secrets. As she grew up, however, she came to realize that there’s no way to see them all. But she could still learn some of their secrets. This book is the distillation of her knowledge of farflung places. The sub-title is "Fifty Islands I Have Never Set Foot On and Never Will."

While that may seem like a bleak title, it turns out that existence at the edges of the world often comes with a tinge of tragedy. The snapshots she provides allow readers to mentally transport themselves to these lonely places. There are islands with buried treasure, marooned sailors, and bizarre animals. You’ll read stories of volcanoes and space shuttles, unlikely rescues and unfathomable losses. You’ll read the story of the last people to hear Amelia Earhart’s voice before she disappeared forever, and of a child who discovers his made-up language is actually spoken in French Polynesia. Each of the islands has a history, even one in the Antarctic Ocean on which no one has ever set foot.

Each description is accompanied by a map of the island, to give you a better sense of place.

Says Schalansky: "It is high time for cartography to take its place among the arts, and for the atlas to be recognized as literature, for it is more than worthy of its original name: theatrum orbis terrarum, the theatre of the world."

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Stunning Debut

The Taker by Alma Katsu
Review by: Kathleen

This is just a truly mesmerizing, enthralling tale. From the ethereal cover to the majestic gold end papers you can sense that this book is going to be different, and it is! Author superlatives on the back cover include Jamie Ford, Kresley Cole, and M.J. Rose, to give you a taste of the novel’s broad appeal.

The Taker is the story of Lanore McIlvrae and her best friend Jonathan St. Andrew. It is indeed a friendship and a love that lasts for 200 years. Lanny, as Jonathan calls her, is in love with him, but his father is the founder of their Puritan settlement in Maine and Lanny’s family is working class, so their match would never suit. Lanny is capable of a deep and abiding love. Jonathan is but a pawn of his father and has a hard time differentiating between love and lust. The book is by turns historical novel and supernatural page turner but it is always compelling.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

A Time and a Place

Gods Without Men by Hari Kunzru
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"I've been through the desert on a horse with no name, it felt good to be out of the rain." 

The lyrics to that song might as well be playing in the background as you read Gods Without Men, because it's all about the desert. 

In the middle of the Mojave there's a butte topped by three spires of rock called the Pinnacles. It's the sort of a place that has a power all its own, and the characters in this novel find themselves drawn there. Skipping through time, from Spanish missionaries in 1778 to a burned out British rock star 2009, Hari Kunzru's novel weaves together the lives of people affected by this desert formation. 

If you'd like to hear more about this book, click here to read my full review. Or if the Pacific Northwest is more your speed, keep reading below.

West of Here by Jonathan Evison
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In 1890 Ethan Thornburgh is determined to dam the Elwha River to provide power for Port Bonita, a small settlement clinging to the coast of what is soon to be the state of Washington. Not far from the town, a group of idealists strives for a Utopia that's a far cry from the drunken brawls and rough living of the typical frontier town. The encroachment of these groups is upsetting the balance of the native Klallam Indians, who are waiting for a sign from a silent child they've named the Storm King. Then James Mather arrives in town, planning to explore the wilderness, trekking up the path of the Elwha into parts unknown, seeking land unseen by any other man. The mantra of Point Bonita in these days is "Onward!" as each resident searches for a better life. 

Now, flash forward a century to discover how the current residents of Port Bonita are faring.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Downton Abbey Withdrawal?

I admit it. I'm in Downton Abbey withdrawal. For those who do not watch Downton Abbey, it is a popular Masterpiece Classic series on PBS. This period drama follows the Yorkshire country household of the Earl of Grantham. Beginning with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the story follows the Earl's family as well was their servants.

I was hooked from the first show and have been obsessed ever since. Luckily for me, the library has titles to appease my Downton Abbey appetite while impatiently waiting for season three to film.

The first is Below Stairs: The classic kitchen maid's memoir that inspired Upstairs, Downstairs and Downtown Abbey. This memoir, written by Margaret Powell, describes Margaret's life in service. Starting as a kitchen maid (think of Daisy in Downtown Abbey), she eventually works her way up to cook. Margaret tells her story with humor, though some of the conditions she endured were no laughing matter. This read is easy and quick, and Margaret comes across as spirited and plucky.

The second is The World of Downton Abbey. The publisher describes this title as: "a companion book to the popular British series about the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants offers insights into the story and characters and background information on British society in the early years of the twentieth century." I am impatiently waiting for this one - but I have leafed through it and the pictures are great.

Two other titles you may be interested in are Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: the Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle and Rose: My Life in Service to Lady Astor.

To learn more about Downton Abbey, you can always visit PBS.

If you are craving more TV series or films like Downton Abbey to watch, here are my recommendations: Masterpiece Classic Upstairs, Downstairs (the original and the new), North & South (the British one), The Forsyte Saga, and Gosford Park. Happy watching!

Monday, March 19, 2012

"This Is A Story About Control, My Control"

My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It has been a while since a book grabbed me by the throat and dragged me into the story. This was the case with Heft.

The story focuses on three characters: Arthur Opp, Charlene Turner, and Kel Turner, Charlene's son. Arthur is a former college professor who has not left his house for years, due to his obesity.  The story explains his retreat from society and the reasons for it. Charlene, a Yonkers native, came into Arthur's life as a student. Their relationship has mainly been through letters, but they have not corresponded in several years. An unexpected phone call to Arthur from Charlene is the catalyst for these three people understanding how they are bonded together. Kel, a promising athlete, struggles with the constant change in the world around him. The story weaves the past and present, and the reader follows Kel's journey of discovering himself due to events beyond his control.

For me, the book is about control, and the journey of either taking it, surrendering it, surrendering to it, or commanding it. Moore's style made me feel like I was in the book with these characters, and I came to care for them deeply. This is a quick and easy read. Just be prepared to not want to put it down until it's finished.

If you enjoy this book, you might enjoy Lisa Genova's Still Alice, or Kody Keplinger's The DUFF. Keplinger's book is young adult, with mature themes, but the story has stayed with me longer than most.

The title of this entry was quoted from the Terry Lewis and James Harris hit song "Control" that they wrote for Janet Jackson.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Change the Past and the Future Will Follow

The Revisionists by Thomas Mullen
My Rating: 4 of 5 stars

I always tell people I don't really read science fiction anymore, and I mean it. But it's not quite true. I don't devour one space opera after another like I did in high school, but then again I don't read anything the way I did in my teens. Who's got that kind of time or focus with a job, a home, a family? Anyhow, a quick scan of my Good Reads account recently opened my eyes to the fact that I do still read science fiction, just not as much or as exclusively as I used to. The science fiction I read these days looks a lot the rest of the novels I read: ambiguous, high concept, inward, "literary."

The Revisionists is all that and a thriller too. It's the first book I've read from Atlanta resident Thomas Mullen, and it won't be the last. The Revisionists follows a government agent from the future sent back to present day Washington, D.C. on a final mission to protect the integrity of the timeline and prevent rogue time travelers from averting a looming apocalypse just one terrorist incident away. Zed, the protagonist, is a kind of "time cop" whose job it is to ensure that the Holocaust does take place, that JFK, RFK and MLK are assassinated, that the Twin Towers do fall. But then, despite his best efforts, things start going inexplicably not according to plan, and doubt creeps in.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Running Down a Dream

Shiny Objects by James A. Roberts
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Has the American Dream been perverted by the lure of easy money? Have the old-fashioned values of hard work, thrift and moderation given way to sloth and envy and shop-till-you-dropism? Is there any way out of the tar pit of mindless, endless compulsory consumption in which America seems to be trapped?

Yes, yes and yes, says James Roberts in his provocative Shiny Objects: Why We Spend Money We Don't Have in Search of Happiness We Can't Buy.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Move Over Stephanie Plum

Claire DeWitt and the City of the DeadClaire DeWitt and the City of the Dead by Sara Gran
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Claire DeWitt didn't go to some fancy college. She didn't even finish high school. She grew up on the streets of Brooklyn with a yen for investigation and a knack for being in the right place at the right time. Somehow she wound up apprenticed to one of the greatest detectives alive, and she learned everything she could.

Now she's on her own, trying to solve a crime in post-Katrina New Orleans. She's not here to make friends, and she doesn't make them in abundance. She also doesn't play by the rules most detectives follow. Her clues come in dreams, or from throwing Chinese coins. Sometimes she'll find inspiration by reading a mysterious book by a French detective. (No, she won't let you see it.)

One of Claire's maxims is that no one likes a private eye, because people don't really want to know the truth. That may be true for the people she comes across in the course of her investigations, few of whom seem to be fond of her. But if you like a hardscrabble detective who has a few substance abuse problems, a few more enemies, and quite a lot of confidence in herself, then Claire DeWitt is the detective you've been looking for.

Of course, Claire Dewitt is just one of a number of female sleuths out there. If you're looking for someone a little less rough around the edges, try Tai Randolph. To read more about her, keep reading below.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Casualties of War

The Quiet TwinThe Quiet Twin by Dan Vyleta
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a book that fell from nowhere and blew me out of the water.

It's 1939 in Vienna, Austria, and the residents of a large, rambling apartment building are uneasy. The professor's dog has been violently killed, and a number of murders in the area seem to share the same hallmarks. Across the yard the professor's niece, the doctor, the janitor, the drunk's daughter, the trumpet player, and the clown all stare and wonder. Who is responsible? Who will be next?

When the police start nosing around, the tension mounts, and loyalties will not last long under the pressure.

More than a mystery, this book examines the atmosphere of suspicion in a country ruled by the Nazi party. How can anyone feel safe when the people in charge are wolves in military uniforms?

For another exploration of living in Europe during World War II, continue reading below.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

London Secrets Falling Down

The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

While I liked this book, it took a while to get rolling. This tale centers around London - in the 1950's to modern day. It leaps back and forth from past to present, which was a bit confusing at first.

Lexie Sinclair, bored with life in the country, moves to London in the 1950's after being encouraged to live there by Innes Kent. Innes, a magazine publisher, met Lexie after his car breaks down in the country. He was instantly enchanted with her. He is married, and while that brings complications to their relationship, it doesn't dampen how much they love each other.

Elina, a young painter in present day London, has recently given birth and is upset to discover she can't remember the event of the birth. She is also losing time during her day. While she adores her newborn son, she doesn't recognize the new person she has become since his arrival. Tom, her fiance, is struggling as well. He is starting to have memories that do not coincide with his upbringing, causing him to have panic attacks. He and Elina are both fighting suppressed memories that puts a strain on their relationship.

The present and past weave together to form a story of a family who has buried secrets that are coming to light.

Request it here. Read alike authors include Fannie Flagg and Alice Hoffman.

View all my reviews