Friday, October 30, 2015

Letters of Note: An Eclectic Collection of Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience compiled by Shaun Usher

In this huge compendium of world history are collected notes, letters, and treatise from across the gamut of science, politics, art, and literature.

It's an interesting glimpse inside personal lives - most of these letters were never intended for the public to see. Elvis's letter to President Nixon offering to be a secret agent in the drug war, Kurt Vonnegut's letter home that explains his WWII POW experience (that later spawned the legendary "Slaughterhouse-Five"), Katherine Hepburn's agonized letter of loss addressed to her deceased beloved Spencer Tracy.

There's so much to learn here about the human experience and how similar we are, even separated by space and time: Leonardo da Vinci had to apply for jobs, and here is his letter of interest! She may be the Queen of England, but Elizabeth still has a killer recipe for scones. And a child advises Abraham Lincoln to grow a beard, and he takes her advice.

I read this book over the span of a couple weeks as my lunchtime enjoyment. It's perfect for reading a letter or two at a time (it's a really big book!) and it gave me plenty of mental fodder to accompany my meal.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

You'd think you only get half of a story if you're given only one person's letters, but in the case of college professor Jason Fitger we get a more-than-complete story reading only his hilarious, twisted, and sad outgoing correspondence. Trust me.

Through his rants, recommendations, and personal letters of reference we learn all about Professor Fitger's ex-wife, ex-girlfriends, ex-students, college friends, and coworkers. We know all about the building's remodeling project gone wrong, about Fitger's love life gone wrong, and about his career gone wrong.

It's a story of office politics, university backstabbing, and one insufferable man's attempts to do right by a promising young writer. I laughed out loud on several occasions. It's a very good pick-it-up-and-put-it-down book, and make sure you stick around for the end.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Daughter of Deep Silence by Carrie Ryan

When a cruise ship disaster wipes away a young woman's entire life, a wealthy, grieving father offers her the chance to be reborn by assuming his daughter's identity. But the desire to avenge her former life and make the guilty pay consumes her new existence.

This book is extremely compelling - it moves quickly, and there's a lot of engrossing drama. Love! Revenge! Attraction! Intrigue! It will sweep you away, and you'll want to know what happens next.

My only complaint was that the girls "died" at age 14, so all the love and romance they experienced was before that. Kids these days grow up fast (OMG did I really just say that?) ... but I've still got problems with this: when adult-Libby keeps getting all hung up on the taste and touch of Grey, she's remembering from when she was 14. That less-than-a-weeklong shipboard romance must have been seriously off the hook?!

Anyway ... this is a super-soapy, fun drama of revenge and insanity: Just how far will she go to reveal the truth and rain hell on the liars? Wow.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Funny Bones: Posada and His Day of the Dead Calaveras by Duncan Tonatiuh

I get asked all the time, "What's the deal with all the skulls?" And while it's a multi-faceted love affair for me, this book may help at least partially answer that question.

Mexican artist Jose Guadalupe Posada didn't get famous for his Day of the Dead artwork until after he died, and this children's picture book tries to explain both why he drew them and also why they eventually found such widespread popularity. Lots of Posada's art is used throughout the book.

But the book's author/illustrator, Duncan Tonatiuh, uses another native Mexican art form - Mixtec codex - as the inspiration for his own drawings, which means the book offers a wonderful "crash course" in heritage art and its inspirations in modern culture.

I love, love, LOVE this book - make sure you give it a look!

Monday, October 26, 2015

Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead

Friendships change when kids hit puberty and alliances shift quickly; that unsteady ground of middle school is the heart of this fantastic preteen novel.

The stories all converge, but it takes most of the book before it's all clear: Bridge can't really explain why she's wearing cat ears every day, except that it's comforting, somehow. Emily's got a new texting buddy who wants pictures - but, of what? His grandfather moved out, and Sherm isn't ready to forgive that abandonment. An unnamed high school girl ditches school to spend some time alone and instead she makes a new friend. Jamie's killing himself trying to win strange contests with a "frenemy" determined to crush him.

Kids will recognize themselves and others in the characters and situations here - heck, I'm a grownup and it's not unfamiliar territory for me, either! I love that it's not all bound up in a bow, but there are real consequences and concerns throughout the novel.

I will highly recommend this for middle schoolers and high school freshman everywhere. No one's immune the slings and arrows of puberty, but how you deal with it can make or break you.

Friday, October 23, 2015

The Painted Kiss by Elizabeth Hickey

In this lush, full historical novel we get a peek inside the art world in Vienna before World War II, as seen through the eyes of Emilie Floge, haute couture fashion designer and companion to famed artist Gustav Klimt. 

Emilie and Gustav meet when she's a girl, and she eventually became a beneficiary of his estate and guardian for his legacy. Between those times, it's well known they were friends and even family (another Floge daughter married Klimt's brother), but the full story of their relationship isn't told - which is where author Elizabeth Hickey set her book's narrative.

The story is told through the small, intimate conversations between two people - their thoughts, emotions, and conversations that aren't part of the historical record. She's given the pair a difficult, complex relationship that's neither friendship nor love but much more and also sometimes less. The story shifts back and forth from Emilie's wartime exile in Attersee and her reminiscence of Vienna and the heyday of the Secession movement.

I loved this book and since all the artists are real, it persuaded me to do some fantastic art history research to see the art they're discussing. Emilie is a strong and independent character, and I was fascinated to learn which parts of the book were really factual. Excellent!

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Cherokee Bat and the Goat Guys by Francesca Lia Block

How much trouble can a bunch of teenagers get into, being left alone in Los Angeles for an extended period of time? Turns out, exactly as much as you'd expect.

All the adults in the Bat family have gone to South America to make a movie. They've left Cherokee and Witch Baby home alone, but they can check in with Coyote if they need something.

The kids start a band (the Goat Guys of the title) and are given a boost by the special gifts Cherokee makes with help from their mystical sage guardian Coyote. The wings, pants, horns and boots hold special magic that may be more than they'd bargained on. Also, kids alone always discover sex.

This is the third book in the Dangerous Angels series, and it's maybe the one I've loved best yet. While there's a strong magical realism, it's not a stretch to see the cautionary message applicable to the real world, and even now more than 20 years after the book was written.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

The 13 Clocks by James Thurber

I'm sometimes inspired to go back and read classic children's books that I somehow missed during my own youth - this is one of those times.

The 13 Clocks stars an evil duke who has stopped time and is holding a beautiful princess captive. He assigns impossible tasks to each prince who visits to win her hand. But an unusual suitor takes upon the challenge with help from a truly unique plot device, and they may be the ones to overcome the duke's hurdles - or perhaps, not. I won't give it away.

The story is begging to be read aloud - even just reading the book, you can internally hear the wonderful cadence of the language. I'm putting this book at the top of my school-aged read-aloud list.

Additionally, I'd like to note this is the kind of intelligent children's literature that sneaks in advanced vocabulary and adult ideas to stretch kids, cognitively. I was reminded of Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," a personal favorite for the same reason.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Unabrow: Misadventures of a Late Bloomer by Una LaMarche

In this series of short, comedic essays, the author offers the advice she wishes she'd received from her mother - or the advice she's offering to youngsters after her (but not while they're still kids, because there's lots of wine guzzling and a few swear words).

Una was an awkward, pop culture-obsessed kid with an unfortunate unibrow. She eventually figures out how to navigate life and also to tame her brows, gets married, and births a son. And through it all, she maintains a wonderful sense of humor, along with the ability to poke fun at herself without becoming a joke.

I really enjoyed this, and it's a quick read with fantastic pick-up-and-put-down potential for those busy or short on attention.

Although I'll admit to being slightly scarred by the cover photo of childhood Una (I just didn't want to carry the book around with me).

Monday, October 19, 2015

An Irish Doctor In Peace and At War by Patrick Taylor

In this, the 9th book in the Irish Country series, the "modern" storyline about Ballybucklebo's residents takes more of a backseat to Dr. Fingal O'Reilly's reminiscence about his WWII service.

Young Fingal serves as a medical officer aboard the HMS Warspite, stationed out of Alexadria, Egypt. He's pining for his fiance back in Ireland, Diedre, who will become his wife at their next opportunity.

While we've come to love the much older version of Dr. O'Reilly as a wizened, experienced man, this book offers a wonderful look at his younger, more naive self, experiencing the world at large. He tries new food! Women pay attention to him! Bombs are dropped!

The 1960s storyline is less dramatic: babies are born, small problems are solved, and Barry's fiance meets his ex-girlfriend.

I adore this series, and even though it's getting more "warsy" than I would usually enjoy, it is very interesting to get some non-American perspectives on Hitler and the Nazi campaign in Europe. I sometimes get bored with ship and gun schematics, but as always the novel's appeal truly boils down to the people Fingal meets.

And as always, audiobook reader John Keating brings them all to vivid life with his characterizations.