Blogs: Books & literature

Death and Mr. Pickwick: A Novel

by Stephen Jarvis

Jarvis recreates the writing of Charles Dickens'  first novel "The Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club" giving us a flavor of 19th century London and the publishing industry of the time. For Dickens fans everywhere.

The Orpheus Clock: The Search for My Family's Art Treasures Stolen by the Nazis

by Simon Goodman

A dramatic story about a seventy year detective hunt for stolen family treasures which included works by Degas, Renoir, Botticelli and many more. A heartfelt tale of loss and redemption.

Once Upon a Time in Russia: The Rise of the Oligarchs --  A True Story of Ambition, Wealth, Betrayal and Murder

by Ben Mezrich

The bestselling author of "Bringing Down the House" brings us a tale of wealth and rivalry among the super-wealthy oligarchs who amassed great riches and power after the fall of the Soviet Union.

The Theft of Memory: Losing My Father, One Day at a Time

by Jonathan Kozol

Kozol, who has written award winning books on vulnerable children and education, tells the story of his father's life, a specialist in brain disorders, and his descent into dementia. A tender portrait of love and understanding.

Pirate Hunters: Treasure, Obsession, and the Search for a Legendary Pirate Ship

by Robert Kurson

An extraordinary tale of the search for the 17th century pirate ship Golden Fleece lost somewhere near the Dominican Republic. In thrilling detail, Kurson relates the excitement of the search for gold and the research involved looking at documents and maps in libraries around the world.



Leviathan Wakes book jacketLeviathan Wakes is the first book in the Expanse series by James S. A. Corey (a pen name for for co-writers Ty Franck and Daniel Abraham).  If you prefer to watch instead, it is currently being produced as a 10 episode series for the SyFy channel. My husband wanted to read the book before seeing the show so he started in on it.  After about a third of the book, he insisted I also had to read it before watching the show. He wasn't too far into the second book when he asked for the third.

In this universe, set a few hundred years in the future, humanity has managed to colonize the solar system but hasn't yet reached the stars. The crew of a small ice hauler responds to a distress signal, and it all goes horribly, horribly wrong from there. Earth groans under the weight of 30 billion hungry mouths and doesn't get along with Mars or Luna.  Those three all look down on the 50 to 100 million Belters living on asteroids in the outer solar system. The Belters live a hardscrabble life taxed into poverty by the inner system and resent the folks born into a gravity well. When the ice haulers point the finger at Mars for the death of the ship, they find that things get ugly very, very fast.  The more sensible scramble to keep systemwide war from breaking out but the rest just add to the chaos. Remember, you don't need bombs if you can just push a big rock down a gravity well, so the wiser heads are terrified of humanity wiping itself out.

Once I got my turn with book one, I found this to be an action-packed title that alternates between two main characters who feel like believable men.  You see a great deal of the life in the "Belt" and it's a rough place.  Mistakes very quickly equal dead and the justice is quite frontier in style. Pretty much any consensual vice you can imagine appears to be legal but nobody bats an eye that an engineer that neglected some life support systems fell out of an airlock with some pretty terrible injuries. The science part of the science fiction does have a great deal of "handwavium", but it feels real.  The reader is given little details like how many years it took to put a stable spin on a larger asteroid so it would have some gravity for the inhabitants.Firefly dvd cover

I think that the setting and flavor of Leviathan Wakes would appeal to anyone who has the good taste to have loved Firefly.  It’s nice to see a new set of “big damn heroes”! I don't know that I hold out the greatest of hopes for the tv. show being as good as the books, but if they stick to the exciting story and interesting characters there's hope!  Even the tv show turns out to be awful, the books are well worth reading if you like space-set science fiction at all.

Books are for chumps drawingAbout a year ago this picture landed on my desk. Drawn on the back of a library survey that had been given out to hundreds of middle and high school students. A hastily drawn angry face with a speech bubble that says “Books are for CHUMPS!” When I first saw the drawing I couldn’t help but laugh. Then I wondered, who was it who drew this? Do they really think that books are for chumps? What even is a chump? Since the creator of this drawing is an anonymous student, I will respond to their cry for bookish help in the form of an advice column.
Dear Books Are For Chumps,
I understand that you do not think that books are fun or interesting to read. I sympathize with your struggle. I was once like you until I realized that it wasn’t that books were boring, it was just that I hadn’t yet met the right book. I know very little about you other than that you do not like to read, you do like to express yourself, and you have a great sense of humor. So with those three things in mind, here are some titles that I think will change your opinion about books.
Ready Player One book coverLet’s start with Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Imagine that it is 2044 and the world has become a bleak place. Most people escape their extremely grim reality by immersing themselves in a virtual reality called the OASIS. The deceased creator of OASIS, James Halliday, leaves his inheritance to any gamer who can solve three puzzles that he has left within the OASIS. After years of isolation Wade Watts finds himself juggling real world danger, romance, friendship and 80’s nostalgia in a fast paced cyber quest.
Why read this: You love video games, Dungeons and Dragons, and 80s movies.
Grasshopper Jungle book coverIf you are in the mood for dystopian fiction with more of a  comical bend I recommend giving Grasshopper Jungle by Andrew Smith a try. This is a book that is hard to explain and impossible to forget. Grasshopper Jungle is a first person chronicle of the end of the world told from the perspective of 16-year old Austin Szerba. Austin is a normal teen living in a small Midwest town, hanging out, having fun and struggling with his affection for his best friend, Robby and his girlfriend, Shann. Meanwhile there are 6-foot tall praying mantis-like alien Unstoppable Soldiers (that Austin and Robby accidently let loose) poised to take over the world. 
Why read this: 6-foot tall praying mantis-like aliens. Need I say more?
Dorothy Must Die book coverDorothy Must Die is the first book in a  new series  by Danielle Paige (the second book The Wicked Will Rise came out earlier this year). This is a “what happens after” story and a twisted take on the Land of Oz. Amy Gumm is another girl from Kansas who gets swept away to Oz. But the land that she visits is not the same Technicolor fantasy from the 1939 Wizard of Oz movie. Oz is a gray, sad place ruled by a powerful and horrible tyrant, Dorothy. This series is an awesome spin on a classic tale. 
Why read this: You want to know what happens after the movie ends.
The Shadow Hero book coverMaybe a graphic novel is what you need. If so check out the Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang. The Shadow Hero revives the 1940s comic book story of the Green Turtle, the  first Asian American superhero. 19-year old Hank Chu is the son of Chinese immigrants living in a fictional 1930s Chinatown. After his mother is rescued by a superhero, she decides that it is her son's destiny to become a superhero. This is a comical take on the traditional superhero origin story.
Why read this: You have (and maybe stiil do) fantasized about being a cape wearing superhero.
So my challenge to you, B. A. F. C. , is to read at least two of these books over the summer, then get back to me and let me know if you still think that books are for chumps.
Great stories so often remind us that success is boring. It is the wretched tale of miserable failure which captivates and holds our attention. Here is one story I recently found to be worthy of both watching and reading.
The Homesman book jacketThe Homesman by Glendon Swarthout is a spare and ruthless picture of sodbusting subsistance in the Nebraska Territory. The writing draws stark and vivid lines of life for five women on the frontier. After various brutalities drive four of the women into debilitating mental illnesses, Mary Bee Cuddy reluctantly volunteers to drive them back over the plains and across the Missouri River to a charitable churchwoman when none of the menfolk are up to the task. Knowing she will need help on the six-week journey, she rescues a claim jumper from hanging and presses him into service. George Briggs is a cipher and the trip is harrowing: they face hostile weather and deprivation and grueling monotony along with their own inner demons.
Mary Bee is an educated and relatively successful single teacher-turned-farmer who is increasingly desperate to marry. Her success is also her failure in that she proves to be stronger in body and spirit than most of the men who surround her. George Briggs, an army deserter, materializes as something of the equal that has thus far eluded her. 
A window demonstrating the fragility of their mission opens when a group of unknown and possibly hostile Indians appear on the horizon. They are a "ragtag bunch" possessed of coats and caps and rifles indicating they have, at some point, killed some U.S. Cavalry. There is a tense stand-off:
The Homesman dvd
     "They won't turn us loose," said Briggs. "I count four rifles. If they think we're worth it and come on down here, we're dead."
     Again the bugle blatted. Mary Bee got gooseflesh. Indians were what she had most feared.
     Briggs decided. "All right, I'll try to buy 'em off." He jumped down, fished inside his cowcoat, and handed her his heavy Colt's repeater. "If they come, don't fool with the rifle. Get inside the wagon as fast as you can and shoot the women. In the head. Then shoot yourself."
The feature film based on the novel stars Tommy Lee Jones and Hilary Swank. Don't miss this movie. It is a reminder of the riches that lie buried, abandoned and forgotten, at the side of the road to success. 
The winners may ride into the sunset, but the losers hold the stories we remember.

There is so much good teen fiction that I have quite a time (and only moderate interest in) actually getting to the grown-up stuff. Here are two stories I recently discovered and enjoyed.

Seraphina book jacketSeraphina by Rachel Hartman
I discovered Dungeons and Dragons at age 17, and I remember getting pretty excited when my brother told me "There are FOUR kinds of dragons!"  I'd read The Hobbit, The Reluctant Dragon, and a few Norse myths by then, so I knew that all dragons were not the same, but there being actual kinds of dragons was very new to me. Dragon taxonomy, if you will. Years and lots of fantasy later, this book gave me a similar thrill.
Among many very cool things about this book (a wry and honest main character, strange dream beings starting to talk back, a sackbut), it has dragons that, by virtue of their ability to assume human shape, can communicate on a level with the humans. But although they look like regular people, Hartman does a great job with keeping them very different. Dragons have a hard time understanding human emotions, so it's a bit like interacting with aliens, or animals, or gods. This had a nice amount of intrigue, a very observant prince, questions of loyalty, medieval music, saints and sayings for all occasions, and a bit of a look at discrimination and hatred.  Good stuff, and the first e-book I read for fun (because it was available and the printed one wasn't). 
 An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir
I haven't quite finished this yet, but I'm thinking that I have a great recommendation for people who enjoyed reading The Hunger Games. This has some of the sameAn Ember in the Ashes book jacket themes - power vs. powerlessness, fate vs. choice, battle against friends, star-crossed love triangle. It's set in an empire reminiscent of ancient Rome, but this is not historical fiction. The magic of the desert pervades this story... ghuls, jinn, efrit... and yet it is mostly the tale of one young man expected to become a great leader, and of a young woman with nothing but a rebel pedigree, posing as a slave and struggling to save the last relative she has. The perspective changes back and forth between them with each chapter, and the pacing is used well to build suspense. It's on hold so I'll have to turn it in soon, but I'll finish this one quickly.


Lately I've been gravitating towards books that give me respite from working full time and going to school part-time. These are the books I've been loving lately:
Bee and Puppycat book jacketBee and PuppyCat by Natasha Allegri: Bee is a twentysomething woman who works for a temp agency fighting monsters with Puppycat in SPACE. It's a pastel dream just as gorgeous as the original cartoon.

Your Illustrated Guide to Becoming One With the Universe by Yumi Sakugawa: Sakugawa takes you on a beautiful intergalactic journey where you deal with little and big things like petty annoyances, self-hatred, and anger. Surprisingly calming.The Misadventures of an Awkward Black Girl book jacket

The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl by Issa Rae: This is the funniest book I've read in a long time. I loved reading about her family, '90s culture, and the endless embarrassments. As a POC (person of color), this is the kind of voice I've been wishing wasn't so rare.
I hope you can find as much solace in these books as I do. What kinds of books help you keep cool when under stress?

Book jacket: Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlinWhen I was approaching 30, I left a job in Seattle and moved to Portland to become a woodworker.  I spent the last of my cashed out 401k on a table saw, hung my hand tools neatly on pegboard and slowly and with great discipline became a master carpenter.  Not true.  I spent about a month dressed in overalls, creating little more than sawdust before stopping to admire my tools with a self-congratulatory glass(es) of wine. And then I panicked and signed on with a temp agency to do mind-numbing office work.

Nina MacLaughlin carried out what I only fantasized about.  After spending much of her 20s working as a journalist in Boston she realized that somewhere along the line, the work that had once inspired her, had grown oppressive.  Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter is her memoir of what happened when she quit her desk job and traded in her cubicle and computer for a hammer, a tile saw and a 50lb bag of grout.

Picking up Hammer Head, I felt an immediate kinship and let’s face it- envy for MacLaughlin.  We share an enormous satisfaction in mastering a new tool and an appreciation for the unique history and warmth that radiates off of a freshly-sanded plank of wood. But by the end, it was her boss Mary that I fell in love with. It was Mary’s Craigslist ad: Carpenter’s Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply, that started MacLaughlin’s journey.  Not much of a talker, Mary offered only the simplest instruction and encouragement (“Be smarter than the tools”), but abundant patience and quiet humor. McLaughlin's inspiring memoir is as much about her own leap of faith towards meaningful work, as it is a love letter to her straight shooting and unflappable mentor.

Oh why weren’t you in Portland in 2001, Mary?


Check out this list for more memoirs that will inspire you to follow your bliss.

Do you love urban fantasy? I do. I love that the stories are set in the real world with an action paced plots and supernatural beings. I connect better with a story if it’s set in our modern world. And if there is humourous dialogue-you’ve got me. I become a devoted fan!

Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles series is at times so funny I can laugh for a full five minutes about a scene. The stories are pageturners with a mix of supernatural beings that are Nordic, Celtic, Native American, Roman or Greek gods. There are vampires, witches, and werewolves thrown in too.

The Iron Druid is Atticus Sullivan who lives in Tempe Arizona with his Irish Wolfhound, Oberon when we first meet him in book one Hounded. The fact that the story is set in Tempe Arizona makes me giggle. Because then it is a nod to sunny noir.

The humor I love best in the series is in the discussions between Oberon and Atticus. There’s comic relief and diversion when Oberon and Atticus discuss snacks like sausage when they are worried about an upcoming battle. If you like your supernatural action story with a side of humor then you might love Iron Druid Chronicles series. I do.

cover image of alone in the kitchen with an eggplantFood is a lovely thing. Cooking and eating a meal can be one of the more pleasurable things in life, but if you're not sharing it with someone, it can feel like too much to bother. Though we are totally worth it, sometimes corners are cut and the end result can be a sad and pathetic excuse for a meal. Enter some hilarious accounts of What We Eat When We Eat Alone and other tomes like Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant. These are full of often innovative recipes that occasionally work and frequently don't.

Did you know there are cookbooks just for one? My personal favorite is by Judith Jones. The Pleasures of Cooking for One will have you cover image of the pleasures of cooking for onerediscovering the joys of cooking, without the drudgery of having to consume what you just made for the whole of next week's lunches and dinners.  

book coverCookbooks are inspiring. At first...

They are tomorrow’s mouth watering meal, a party spread that blows your guests away, and the leftovers you can't wait to dive into. However, good intentions pave a nice road but don't often lead to dinner. Too often, grand culinary aspirations are set aside when the everyday interrupts best laid plans. Soon, tempting recipes morph into overdue fines and dinner is created from a sad game of refrigerator potpourri roullette. Sound familiar?

Enter Pati's Mexican Table.  With easy recipes, accessible ingredients, and lighter takes on classic dishes, Pati Jinich has written a Mexican cookbook for the aspiring Diana Kennedy in all of us (until we have the time to tackle the decades of her genius.) Repeatedly I’ve ventured back to Pati’s world for "chicken a la trash" (trust me, it’s a complete misnomer), black bean and plantain empanadas, simple salsas, and green rice. They’re quick, easy for a weeknight, and delicious.



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