An Embarrassment of Riches

An Embarrassment of Riches is a blog about the best the library has to offer. From audio books to movies, from novels to zines, library staff and guest bloggers will tell you about their latest library discoveries. Read. Watch. Listen. Chat.

Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer  by Siddhartha Mukherjee

There are loads of you out there who love to read a fat book (Hi, Mom!). You're drawn to authors like David McCullough, Robert Jordan and George R.R. Martin. I've always regretted that I'm not one of you. I was not at all looking forward to reading this fat book, but it was for a book club so there was no getting around it. I cajoled myself with thoughts like, 'it won the Pulitzer Prize--it'll be good for you,' like it was a giant vitamin, and 'c'mon, you really like science writing.'

So I did it. I read Emperor of All Maladies  because I had to. And sometimes when you read something you wouldn't normally choose, you stumble on something that will keep you thinking for weeks after. Like the little boys, as young as 4, who were apprenticed or indentured as chimney sweeps in England during the 17 and 1800's, working nearly naked in flues as narrow as nine inches square. If asphyxiation or burns didn't get them as kids, then dying in young adulthood from cancer caused by the soot that stuck to their bodies seemed almost guaranteed. I'm thinking of the sort of 'why don't we try this?' experimentation on cancer patients through history. I'm thinking of the horrifying, radical surgeries, done for decades, with the idea that cancer could be physically removed by surgeons if they just removed enough flesh. I'm thinking of the amazing discoveries of scientists that seemed almost random, like a light bulb suddenly went off over their heads in a very, very dark room.

We've all lost a loved one or friend or neighbor or coworker to cancer. Or maybe you're fighting its spread in your own body right now. Every week it's in the news. A new medication, a gene discovered, a warning about food or chemicals or the environment. Strangely, and I didn't expect this, reading Emperor was a comfort to me. That we really have made progress. That each form of cancer is so specific, working on the big picture is important. And working on the rare, one-in-a-million cancers is just as important, because the science behind a discovery is always connected to something else, even if we don't know what it is right away.

A six year old boy is bereft and lost when his father dies "after visiting friends". He begins to stake out a claim to his father's life. "Death hung over the house...Your absence is greater than your presence," he says. The family is complicit in the silence about this death.
I could feel the ache in this boy's heart as he seeks to conjure and reconstruct his father's life and to make him whole again.
The father, Bob Hainey was a hard-drinking, hard living newspaperman as was the custom in the newspaper world of 1960s Chicago. Now a deputy editor of GQ, Michael Hainey searches for clues and stories about his father.
In short, sharp, pointed sentences, Hainey paints a picture of his determined mother, his extended family and the Chicago world of newsmen and cops.
After Visiting Friends: A Son's Story is a quest for the truth. The lessons learned along the way and the discoveries awaiting the journey's end will keep you reading.

I don’t seek out dystopian novels: I’m not usually looking for a downer, but somehow I end up reading dystopian novels for young adults, and I like them. These books have appeal that crosses genres. Usually sci-fi, they have the intrigue of thriller, the creative world-building of good fantasy, and strong characters who are capable of facing hard times. Unlike those for adults, dystopian books for teens often have a more hopeful ending, or aren’t quite Unlike...cough...The Road.

Imagine living in a bottle two kilometers by two kilometers, and that people have been living there, reproducing, evolving as a society, well, forever now, and the small contained world is bursting at the seams. Maria V. Snyder creates such a space in Inside Out. Society is divided by the “uppers” in the upper two levels, and the “scrubs” packed into the lower two levels. Feisty scrub Trella tries to keep to herself, but ends up turning this world upside down, or is that inside out?

My first thought on encountering Uglies is remembrance of that old Twilight  episode in which the beautiful woman undergoes surgery so she can be as beautiful as everyone else - that is - ugly. At 16, everyone undergoes this surgery to be Pretty, except a few rebels. And that’s unacceptable.  Here we have the seeming elements of a utopia, with everyone happy, hoverboards and hovercars, ready-made food, and parties all the time. But then there’s that dark underside, that shadowy governing body that does anything to keep it that way. When Tally, so looking forward to her own Pretty-making surgery, is coerced to find rebels, adventure and coming-of-age hardships ensue.

A technological living prison gone rogue in which people inside have lost belief in the outside - that’s Incarceron. Outside, the prison world is also a myth. Outside, by royal decree, advanced technology is banned. Yet an insider and an outsider find a way to communicate. The insider’s memory has been wiped, but with clues that he once was outside. The outsider is a pampered daughter of the warden...the one person who has a clue about the forgotten experiment in incarceration. Of course, once the secret’s out to these two, action and intrigue develop.

I read a lot of books last year and kept a little list as I finished each one and gave them a point rating.  As the year closed I sorted them by rating looking for some really good titles I hadn't yet recommended. I finished out last year with the Grey Walker series by Kat Richardson.  Set in modern day Seattle, the series features Harper Blaine, a P.I. who develops the ability to move through the Grey after dying for a couple of minutes and being revived.  The Grey is the the realm of ghosts, vampires, witches, and magic that exists between our world and the next. Aside from this ability she's a very human and real-feeling character.  

Harper is possessed of human flaws and foibles.  She's touch too self centered: at one point when she has someone gunning for her, she hides out at the house of friends who have a little child.  She does keep trying though, and learns from her mistakes eventually. The secondary characters are also well-developed.  I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens to a certain major secondary character whose background and family history has been gradually revealed.  (I fear giving out the secondary's character name would be too much of a spoiler for early books in the series.) Sadly, now I've got to wait until August 2013 for book 8.  This is now one of my top ten favorite urban fantasy series.

Speaking of character driven urban fantasy, I'm currently enjoying the second season of Alphas.  In the short first season the viewer is introduced to a small group of characters who all have super-human ability, and a shrink who is studying/helping them.  None of the characters strike me as being very likable but they're all so very interesting that watching the unfolding story was one of my viewing highlights last year, not counting Game of Thrones of course!

It's said that history is written by the winners but many stories go untold, especially when they concern women. It's lucky for us when authors choose to highlight unfamiliar stories of accomplished women.

Take the recently released Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland's History-making Race around the World, by Matthew Goodman. I had a vague notion about Nellie Bly buried somewhere in my brain - 'a reporter, wasn't she?' - but I knew nothing more. As it turns out, she entered journalism at a time when the only role for female reporters was to contribute to the society pages. In a bold move to show her editor that women could do hard-hitting journalism, she volunteered to go undercover, and be committed to the notorious women's asylum on Blackwell's Island. Bly reported that if one wasn't insane when committed, one would most certainly lose one's sanity in the horrendous conditions on the island. Her work resulted in improvements to the facility and better care for inmates.

A good reporter can never rest on her laurels though, and so in 1889, Bly set out to race around the world in 80 days or fewer to see if the journey that Jules Verne imagined in Around the World in 80 Days could be accomplished. What she didn't realize was that a rival paper decided to make it a race by sending the young Elizabeth Bisland around the world in the opposite direction.

Goodman's book is a great chase by ship and train across many countries. The excitement of the race is nicely balanced by the historical detail, and satisfies the curiosity while reading like a novel.

There are many more suprising histories about women and their accomplishments, focusing on people like Hedy Lamarr and Gertrude Bell. Take a look at the accompanying reading list for more.

"Mom! I had a scary dream and now there's a scary noise!" (This from the child who sleeps with a giant plush albino python named Night Demon, aka Deathy.)
The clock reads 3:33 a.m. as I blearily think of horror movies and hope the walls aren't oozing. In Child the Younger's room, I sit next to his bed and prepare to activate my supermom extrasensory bat hearing to detect the noise. It turns out I can hear it just fine, no bats necessary. It is high-pitched and repeats steadily, something between a squeak and a wheeze. Sort of what I imagine a bat might sound like, drunk and asleep in front of a tiny bat television.
The noise is originating from the large cage in the hallway which houses our three pet rats. The Girls (as we refer to them collectively) are piled together inside their fleecy hammock, asleep.
They are snoring.
Blerg! I have all manner of Liz Lemon expletives for them as I reach in and gently jostle their bed to interrupt the noise. They poke their little faces out in my direction and blink their sleepy eyes at me, showily yawning in a ratty version of "What the what?"
By the hammer of Thor, after all this middle-of-the-night waking and yawning and walls that are decidedly not oozing (thank Thor), we all deserve some good movies that will not inspire another sleepless night. Something to wake us up, pick us up, make us believe in a future with much stronger coffee but not so strong as to induce nasty heart palpitations. Here are the movies of dreams gone right and wrong that have earned my attention lately:
First Position: Six serious young ballet dancers from five continents participate in the Youth America Grand Prix, a prestigious competition that could transform their lives overnight. Follow the progress of some amazing and talented children and teens as they compete with eyes wide open for places in the high-stakes international world of professional ballet. Even if you don't care one bit about ballet, the stories of these dedicated kids and their families will mesmerize you.
Mariachi High: This program documents a year in the life of Mariachi Halcon, a top-ranked competitive high school mariachi band in the rural ranching town of Zapata, Texas. These passionate teens and their devoted teacher will make you want to cheer as they pursue excellence and find strength in themselves and each other.
The Queen of Versailles: The riches to rags story of a billionaire and his wife seeking to build the largest house in the United States until the economic downturn flips the family fortune. Show up for the schadenfreude, stay tuned for the unexpected bits of compassion and insight that lend a surprising balance to what should be (and, yes, mostly is) an unmitigated train wreck of greed.
Dream away.
I spent most of last year reading non-fiction books for teens as a member of a booklist committee.  It was interesting and, for the most part, enjoyable. I learned a whole lot about the Titanic, Steve Jobs, the Civil Rights movement and rufa Red Knots, among many other topics.  When I finished up my work in late January, I started casting about for books written for adults, and found some new titles on the Lucky Day shelf.  
In Me Before You  by Jojo Moyes, Louisa loses her waitressing job when the 'Buttered Bun' closes and has a heck of a time finding a new one that doesn't involve dead chickens or tricking old people into buying something they don't need.  So when a job opening appears for a daytime companion to a thirty-something quadriplegic man, she decides to apply. It's a six month appointment, so if things don't go well, at least she knows it's only for a short time.  Will is not particularly easy to get along with, but as the weeks go by, they develop a quirky kind of relationship and suddenly six months seems like much too little time.  A publisher's representative told me that this was the best book she'd read in a while and although I'm not sure it will be the best book that I will read in 2013, it was a pretty good start.
I feel like I'm pretty aware of what's forthcoming in the publishing world, so I was a bit surprised to find two books on the Lucky Day shelves that I hadn't heard of, especially because they were by authors I usually enjoy.  Maeve Binchy died in July 2012, so presumably A Week in Winter is her last book, unless, like V.C. Andrews, she'll be writing from the grave.  It's classic Binchy with a wide cast of characters coming together for a week at a newly opened seaside hotel.  Each chapter tells the story of one of the guests, and all the stories dovetail at Stone House Hotel.  
Anne Lamott's latest foray into faith and spirituality is Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers.  It's slight in pages, but large in spiritual concepts, although I felt like I'd heard pretty much the same thing in Lamott's previous books.  Still, I can never hear too often how people struggle with big challenges and still manage with a little help from their friends, including the "big entity upstairs", especially when it's dished out with Anne Lamott's signature humor and humanity.
If you're hankering after something new, check out the Lucky Day shelves.  You might be surprised at what you'll find!

"Remarkable events often have ordinary beginnings. Never was this more true than with my talks with Dean Spanley."

The movie Dean Spanley is a tale of forgiveness, transcendence and reconciliation. Every Thursday, Henslowe Fisk makes his way through the streets of London to visit his ancient, curmudgeonly and nihilistic father. The elder Fiske grumbles that his son's visits are a burden, and that the only thing special about a Thursday is to keep "Wednesday and Friday from colliding."

Fisk begins to wonder whether the time couldn't be spent in more enjoyable pursuits. At his next visit he insists that he and his father attend a lecture on reincarnation, held by a guru on his vast estate. The senior Fisk is skeptical: "Do you think if we had souls, they wouldn't get in touch? Of course they would!"

While at the lecture they meet a local vicar, Dean Spanley. He's an odd character who makes some intriguing comments about the possibility of an afterlife. Henslowe's curiosity prompts him to invite Spanley to dinner to discuss the topic further. He discovers that, plied with the right amount of wine, the Dean is given to telling fantastic stories of another, half-remembered life. After recounting one such tale, Spanley pauses to reflect, "One moment you are running along, the next you are no more." As time goes by, Henslowe realizes that these stories sound vaguely familiar, and may hold the key to a more enlightened relationship between Henslowe and his father.

The role of the elder Fisk is given Scrooge-like depth by Peter O'Toole, a valid reason on its own to watch this gem. Sam Neill's portrayal of the Dean is by turns hilarious and moving. Add wonderful dialog and the gorgeous Edwardian setting, and you'll find a movie that bears repeated watching. You'll have plenty of time to do so, if, as the guru insists, "You are, my dear sir, in the anteroom of eternity."

I went to see The Hobbit ...twice... on the opening weekend. If you've read my other Embarrassment of Riches entries you may have guessed that I am the target audience for that movie. Having read The Hobbit for the first time as a little girl I was reminded of other adventure stories I first read long ago.  

Robin Mckinley's The Blue Sword and its prequel The Hero and the Crown were Newbery honor and Newbery medal books. Though they were written for children, they have appeal for adults looking for a light read. Much like The Hobbit they remind me of fairy tales. They could really begin "...Once upon a time" and both are set in a land where dragons and magic were once widespread but now have faded. In both of Mckinley's books the female lead saves the kingdom and just happens to find true love along the way. Both feature strong female characters and horses, ensuring a warm place in my heart for them as a child and a permanent spot on the shelves of my personal collection. 

Peter Beagle wrote two other favorites: The Last Unicorn and Two Hearts (which can be found in The Line Between). In these books all the characters are searching for something. The unicorn wants to join the rest of her kind, the prince wants to find love and so on. Two Hearts won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novelette. Don't read it without a tissue or three close to hand if you are prone to sniffling over a book.  (Since my husband doesn't read this blog I'll say that it brought a tear even to his eye....)




I finished reading my first novel of 2013 and I'm pretty proud of myself. (I won't bother confessing how much of the reading took place in 2012. Just be happy for me.) It's quite of feat for someone who lately gets to read a maximum two pages before being called to referee a fight over the last of the Nutella, or to star in the latest episode of Mom Cleans Up Cat Barf--Again!, or to read to someone before they go to bed. Child the Younger is learning to read, so bedtime stories have lately strayed from a variety of fun picture books to Green Eggs and Ham for the twenty-ninth time. I heartily endorse reading this loudly and with a British accent (think overwrought Shakespearean monologue) if you don't mind a small child pummeling you with his Ninja Fists of Annoyance as you do this. I promise, you too, will marvel at the wonder of green eggs and ham. There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy. And you can eat them here or there.

The novel I managed to finish is State of Wonder  by Ann Patchett.  It was that gift that every fiction reader hopes for - characters made real in an unforgettable story with luminous writing.  Marina Singh is a pharmaceutical researcher sent from Minnesota to Brazil and into the depths of the Amazon rain forest. Her mission is to uncover the fate of her research partner, Anders Eckman, and a team of drug-developing scientists led by Marina's former mentor, Annick Swenson, who has been largely uncommunicative with the drug company for two years. It is a story filled with poison arrows, devouring snakes, lost luggage and scientific miracles. Marina's journey into the jungle is one of finding herself and facing our collective human dilemma: how to co-exist with both unimaginable beauty and unfathomable loss. The plot is a seductive and wildly entertaining fever dream and the ending may haunt you for days. I have just checked out the audio CD to listen to while I do dishes at night because I cannot bear to leave the story behind just yet.
In that same amazing realm of biology, I would recommend the NOVA program Kings of Camouflage. This exploration of cuttlefish was absolutely fascinating, especially if you are already appreciative of cephalopods with the intelligence and dexterity to, say, unscrew the lid of that almost empty jar of Nutella you recently confiscated from your children and plan to scrape clean with your own tentacles while watching the premier of Downton Abbey after said children are asleep. Cuttlefish have enormous brains the shape of a donut, green blood, and the highest intelligence of any invertebrate. They flawlessly mimic their surroundings with the color and texture of their skin in seconds. Watch them hypnotize their prey, think their way through laboratory mazes, and attempt to match the artificial background of a checkerboard. 

From an observant, slightly snotty, artistic, dramatic hat designer comes this story of an escape from Hitler's Vienna. The human emotions are very real, though not always admirable. 

I felt like I was right there inside the story, eating in elegant cafes and attending fashion shows in Paris; and after Hitler's tanks rolled into Austria, plotting to leave Vienna; and staying awake nights, planning and scheming to bring elderly parents to the safety of London. I even envisioned the nightly German bombing raids beginning and then the trip down to the shelters.  
A story of courage, perseverance and resourcefulness,  Some Girls, Some Hats and Hitler is a glimpse into one woman's extraordinary survival during World War II.
Published in 1984 as a self-published edition, Trudi Kanter's memoir of her life as a hat designer was soon out of print and nearly forgotten until Virago Press edited and republished it. Virago Press has been unable to trace the copyright holder and "would be pleased to hear from anyone with any further information." 

I’m pretty sure that each and every one of us has odd culinary preferences that we only indulge when we’re alone. I often make a never-the-same-twice dish that very loosely resembles fried rice, created from various leftovers and my lazy determination to only dirty one pan; I indulge my sweet tooth with impromptu desserts made of various combos of peanut butter, honey, chocolate chips and raw oats. When I cook for myself I am both less thoughtful and more inventive than when I cook for others.

Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone (edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler) is an irresistible window into the many different ways we approach cooking for and eating by ourselves. “A is for Dining Alone ...and so am I, if a choice must be made between most people I know and myself,” M.F.K. Fisher admits, as she writes about learning to make and serve herself delicious meals; other writers talk about the ritual of dining out alone. Steve Almond, on the other hand, hones his cooking skills only “in the abject hope that people would spend time with me if I put good things in their mouths;” Rattawut Lapcharoensap laments that recreating the meals of his native Thailand can “reinforce rather than eradicate feelings of dislocation and homesickness” when there’s no one to share them with him.  Some people talk about the joys of eating the same meal day after day without any diminished pleasure:  Ann Patchett admits happily eating Saltine crackers for dinner many nights in a row; Jeremy Jackson finds comfort in black beans and cornbread; Phoebe Nobles proudly eats asparagus every day for two months. And while Erin Ergenbright admits that dining alone feels wrong to her, Holly Hughes, a mother of three, fantasizes about the delicious meals she would eat if she only had to cook for herself. Writers proudly include their recipes for everything from Yellowfin Tuna with Heirloom Tomatoes to White-on-White Lunch For When No One is Looking.

I have read this collection three times now, and each time I am once again comforted and amused by all of the ways we find sustenance when no one is watching. As Laurie Colwin says in the first essay, “People lie when you ask them what they eat when they are alone. A salad, they tell you. But when you persist, they confess to peanut butter and bacon sandwiches deep fried and eaten with hot sauce, or spaghetti with butter and grape jam.”

So what do you eat when you are alone, really?

*From the essay “Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant” by Laurie Colwin.

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis byTimothy Egan

Just finished it this morning and find myself in the sweet afterglow of my favorite book of the year. My thoughts haven't become solid matter yet and I blather on to friends the random, out-of-order pieces that come tumbling out.

I knew almost nothing about Edward Curtis. I knew a tiny bit about the history of photography. And pretty much all I knew about Native Americans came from my limited education on the Iroquois Confederacy, the result of my Western New York roots. I am blown away by something on almost every single page of this book.

It is glorious, velvety-rich history, fascinating in its details. Clearly, Egan had some amazing access to primary sources, including the Mazamas, the Rainier Club in Seattle where Curtis lived for years, the papers of Edmond S. Meany, and on and on. There are photos in the book but you'll want to see more.

The book is held gently in the hands of the first and last chapters. How did Egan do it? Make them paired so perfectly together, about two completely different people, the subject and the photographer, yet one and the same at the end of their lives? Astounding.

If you were to give one book this year as a holiday gift to the nonfiction reader in your life, you should give this one. Then get your game face on for next year, because you will have a reputation to uphold. 

I must have a thing for books that have books within them, as two of my most favorite novels have such. Let me amend that...the books within happen to be parables...perhaps that is the icing on the cake for me.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler could also fall under my favorite book variety of 'Tough
Girls You'll Love'. Lauren Olamina lives in a not-too-distant future where violence rules, people must guard their walled enclaves, and harvest their own foods, eating things like acorn flour bread. Lauren also has a dream, a purpose for humanity, which she chronicles in her parable, Earthseed: Books of the Living. It is our destiny, she tells us, to seed the stars. As she feeds us this vision, this foundation for a new faith, I found myself wishing for her new religion to become reality. She's rather insightful for her young age. Perhaps this has something to do with her hyper-empathy, through which she feels acutely the pain of others. Read or listen to it...both versions are great.

I loved Lovers and Beloveds by Meilin Miranda so much I went to the library's Suggest a Purchase page and asked the library to get some copies, and the collections mavens did so. (Yay! ...and let me say, this is something any of you can do.)

A young prince comes of age after a sheltered childhood. He must find his own way, irrespective of the pressures of his father the King, his mother the Queen, or even his notions of duty. His new training comes from his immortal Teacher, who activates a magic book called An Intimate History of the Greater Kingdom, stories of the queens and kings of his country's past. Through this book, Prince Temmin experiences everything the characters do, and he must consider theirs and his mistakes, as well as feel the very erotic elements contained therein. Meanwhile, he is seriously considering becoming a follower of the gods of love and desire called the Lovers, and his father the King will do almost anything short of heresy to stop him.

This book contains explicit sex scenes, but they are not gratuitous; they are essential to the story, and far from boilerplate. Without the scenes, this novel would be among the best of the fantasy books I've read, but with them, it becomes a rather unique, outstanding book. It makes you think about how sweet and natural sex is in this world MeiLyn Miranda has created, and how difficult it can be to find that unstained attitude in the real world. MeiLyn's wisdom of experience regarding the human psyche shines through every chapter.

The rain is back and it's another eight months until summer's return... (perhaps I exaggerate). All joking aside, winter is long, dark and damp so I've got some fun and light-weight fantasy to suggest.

I was pleasantly surprised by Shadow Kin: A Novel of the Half-Light City by M.J. Scott.  If one were to judge a book by its cover, this seems like a forgettable paranormal romance where the feisty, independent female lead will find love with a sensitive and likable hero - or a tameable bad boy. I picked it up anyway and found myself falling for the characters and the setting, where four species share a city and an uneasy peace.  I liked the second book, Blood Kin, even better and am hoping for a third.

Faith Hunter's Skinwalker is the first in a series about a female vampire killer/mercenary with a mysterious past. Jane Yellowrock is a skinwalker of Cherokee descent who can shift into any animal of which she has a claw, tooth or some other small piece. Then she is hired as a vampire hunter, by one of the oldest vampires in New Orleans. While tougher-than-tough female leads are a staple of urban fantasy, I found Jane more believable and fleshed out than most.

I just finished Angel's Ink by Jocelynn Drake. Gage is a tattoo artist and fairly decent guy doing a truly terrible job of hiding out from the evil witches and warlocks of the Ivory Towers that rule his world. He owns his own shop and works with a troll and an elf. The amount of trouble he gets into in one short book is a little over the top, but it was a fun page-turner with a hero so likeable that I was glad that the ending promises a sequel or three.

Every year, around this time, we compose a poem, which sometimes rhymes,
about ghoulies and ghosties and long legged beasties
who'll come to your door demanding a feastie 

This year is no different, and we think that you'll find,
some blood-curdling tales will focus your mind;

And keep you awake for those folks who'll come calling...
What can we say? Our poem is appalling!

Stories of vampires and unwanted guestscomic book horrorsbrain-eating pests
Of gruesome tales we have no lack, you just provide the pumpkin named Jack. 

Happy Halloween!

Visit Sunny Chernobyl: And Other Adventures in the World's Most Polluted Places by Andrew Blackwell

I thought it was a sarcastic title. That the guy who wrote it must have a cracked sense of dark humor. Why would anyone want to visit Chernobyl? See deforestation as it happens in the Amazon? Visit the most polluted river in India? Blackwell asked himself the same questions. Did he have a thing for industrial waste? Was he some kind of environmental rubbernecker?  What exactly was the point in going to some of the world's worst man-made, human caused devastation?

Some chapters really stick with me. The one on Port Arthur, Texas, for example, where the brown breeze has a rancid aftertaste; where the community is among the poorest and most polluted in the nation, yet is surrounded by multi-billion dollar companies. Back in the day, a huge oil gusher erupted from the ground near Port Arthur. The dirt-covered men who were witness looked at each other and asked "what is it?" Can you even imagine that? As Andrew Blackwell (irony of his last name is duly noted) traveled and researched this chapter, an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico exploded and sank, the start of the Deepwater Horizon spill.

In other chapters he travels to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch where he can't keep himself from channeling Hornblower's "Where away?"; the oil sands mining of Northern Alberta, Canada; Chernobyl of course (my favorite chapter)--did you know that, unbelievably, Chernobyl has become possibly the largest nature preserve in eastern Europe?. And there's plenty more environmental disaster where those came from, a little something for everyone.

And there is humor, and lots of it--I promise. It is wry and sweet, his use of language precise, sharp. I want to have a drink or two with Andrew Blackwell and ask about a thousand questions. He wrote the best armchair travel book I've read in a long, long time. There's no crumbling ruin, restored by wealthy retirees, true. Yet I find myself cruising the website with its jaunty black gas mask logo, just out of curiosity mostly, but you never know.

Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway is the story of an exceedingly careful man with the euphonious name of Joe Spork. His father was the king of criminal London. His grandfather was a genius with clockwork. Joe runs a modest clockwork shop and tries to make amends for his father’s sins.

But when he is asked to repair a particularly ornate and clever device he finds himself drawn into the flotsam of super spies, religious zealots, and vengeful despots that his family left behind. Whole worlds live inside this book, each with its own rich history, and together weaving the background for strong characters and their fantastic capers.

Next Best Thing is a wonderful story about Ruth Saunders and her grandmother Rachel, who move from Boston to Hollywood. Ruth wants to make it as a sitcom writer. Her grandmother wants to have fun and finds work as a an extra for tv right away. Ruth is twenty-three and a bit broken. Grandma Rachel is tough as nails and elegant. She totally supports Ruth in finding herself and her career. Their loving relationship is what moves the story.

Weiner certainly knows how to write a grandmother character (take a look at In Her Shoes). There’s a reason she is a bestselling author, and much of it is due to her fully formed characters and her great story-telling. This is a lively and moving story about two women finding their way in the challenging place that is Hollywood, California. I think you will find yourself rooting for them if you decide to read The Next Best Thing.

I'll try pretty much any science fiction or fantasy book that falls into my hands... at least for the first 50 pages. That's the window an author has to hook me. Superheroes aren't quite my thing. I'll go to the summer blockbusters, sometimes, if the reviews are good. I didn't read that many comic books growing up so I probably missed the golden window to really learn to love superhero stories. So when I was lent a copy of Prepare to Die! by Paul Tobin, a Portland comic book writer, I wasn't sure it was going to pass my 50 page test. The news is that it passed with such flying colors that I immediately set aside the other books I was reading in favor of this one.

Partially set in a fictional Oregon town, the crux of the story boils down to what happens when a super villain says "Prepare to die!" and the hero asks "How long?"

Steve Clarke, aka Reaver, was a small-town boy when an accident caused him to become super-powered. The book is funny and frequently tragic: consider the post-traumatic-stress resulting from being a very young superhero who is trying to defeat super-villains who slaughter passers-by just for fun. Often crude, the tone fits the character and story perfectly.

I really hope this Portland comic book writer has another novel or three in him because I'm really eager to read him again. I'm glad I wasn't too picky to try it because, out of the last 100 or so novels I've read, I'd put this very character-driven novel in the top 5.


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