Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Juniper: The Girl Who Was Born Too Soon by Kelley and Thomas French

Reviewed by Kristin

How do you decide whether or not to take extraordinary measures to save a baby born at twenty-three weeks and six days gestation, right at the very edge of viability?

Do you look at the statistics that say the overwhelming majority of babies born at this stage of development will either die or live with immense disabilities?  Do you pin your hopes on the small possibility that the child will have some kind of a normal life?  Do you wonder if the strain of taking care of that baby will tear apart your marriage, your finances, and your heart?

Kelley and Thomas French had to face all those questions and more.  After going through a wide range of fertility treatments, Kelley finally became pregnant via an egg donor.  At only twenty weeks, she began showing signs of pre-term labor.  Her doctors managed to slow down the process for four more weeks, but all too soon the baby had to be delivered by an emergency caesarean.  Kelley and Tom were heartbroken, but searched for a thread of hope that their child would live, would continue to grow, and eventually would thrive.

This is such a story of hope and of defeating the odds that I was kept breathless following the baby’s struggles for life.  It’s not much of a spoiler to tell you that the baby did survive, is named Juniper, and her smiling face is shown between her parents inside the back flap of the book.

However, before I even got to the part of Juniper’s conception and birth, I had serious doubts about her parents.  Tom and Kelley first met when she was a high school student attending a journalism camp, and he was a speaker at the camp.  Seeing as Tom was over thirty years old and was married with two children, I was glad that he was merely a teenage crush for Kelley at that time.  Almost fifteen years later the two met again.  Tom was divorced but was in a serious relationship with another woman.  Still, somehow Kelley and Tom had a connection.  As I read about how they continued to crash up against each other, bickering and sniping, I wondered how in the world these two people had ever gotten to the point of having a child, much less writing a book together about the difficulties of bringing a micro-preemie into the world.

If Kelley and Tom had been fictional characters in a novel, I might have given up on them.  But as their story developed, I became more and more immersed.  I began to care about their journey through infertility and the struggles they faced.  I began to respect them for being willing to tell their whole story without sugarcoating their behavior.  They faced difficult ethical choices about medical intervention while grieving the potential loss of their child.  With touches of levity between the anxious moments, Tom and Kelley’s journey to parenthood is full of hope and love. 

Monday, May 22, 2017

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Reviewed by Kristin

Rosemary is glad to head out into deep space with the crew of the Wayfarer.  While the Wayfarer is not the largest or flashiest of spacefaring ships, its assignment is extraordinary.  Ashby, the Captain, has taken on the task of punching pinholes through subspace in order to create shortcuts for travel through the universe.  Wanting to get out of the solar system, Rosemary jumps at the chance to join the multispecies crew as Ashby’s records clerk.

From grumpy Corbin, the algaeist who takes care of the fuel for the ship, to engineer Jenks who has a special attachment to Lovey, the ship’s Artificial Intelligence program, the crew works together.  Rosemary is fascinated by Sissix, the reptilian feathered Aandrisk who is enthusiastic and much less inhibited than most humans.  Dr. Chef with his multiple arms, well, what is he?  A doctor?  A chef?  Trained to be both?  Rosemary clearly has a lot to learn about the various cultures represented on the Wayfarer.

Not everything goes smoothly, but what kind of boring book would that be if everything did?

This is a fresh new look at the possible ways that humankind might launch out into the universe in future generations.  What if we do overcrowd the planet?  What if we do destroy our atmosphere?  Who knows, maybe there are feathered Aandrisks out there somewhere, already interacting with shimmering Aeluons.  Perhaps extraterrestrials are out there observing—as did the Vulcans in the Star Trek universe—waiting to see when humankind might demonstrate the capability of traveling between the stars.  Or, perhaps not.  But as a science fiction fan, I’d like to think that life exists beyond our visible horizons, out in the unknown.

Chambers’ characters face big moral and ethical questions.  They grapple and fall down, find their footing, make life changing decisions, and go in new directions.  Even though there are inter-species differences and confrontations, the Wayfarer crew members seem to care about each other.  Perhaps they care too much, some to the point of interfering when their efforts might cross boundaries that cannot be reclaimed.

Beyond The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, Becky Chambers has also written A Closed and Common Orbit.  Taking a couple of characters from the first book in another direction, the second also could be read as a standalone, but I encourage you to read them in order.

*Recommended for readers who also enjoyed the “space western” television show Firefly.

Friday, May 19, 2017

The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

Reviewed by Brenda G.

Grace is a 24-year old wife in a loveless marriage with two small children, who finds herself pregnant with a third. The story opens with a wet spring that is followed by a lingering drought of a summer and fall. Nature provides the setting for the first major event of the story, a wildfire that occurred in 1947, burning through eastern Maine to the coast. The men are called away to build firebreaks, which the fast-moving fire jumps as it moves on toward the shore.

Awakened by her young daughter’s screaming horror of the approaching fire, now only a block away, Grace is determined to save herself and her children. Taking the children and little else, she heads directly for the ocean. There she finds her friend and neighbor Rosie with a canoe and her own children. Grace takes charge, directing Rosie to shove the canoe out into the water, wet her own hair and that of the children, and finally to dig into the sand at the water’s edge, remaining partially submerged, to save themselves and their children. It works! But it is Maine in October, and they are not found until the following morning. 

After recovering from hypothermia and a resultant miscarriage at five months, Grace must learn to cope on her own. No one knows the whereabouts of her husband Gene or if he survived the fire. She has two young children to feed and house. All insurance papers were lost in the fire, and she knows nothing about the insurance they held. Friends take her in initially. She must learn to drive, find a job, and find a place for her mother and children. She proves to be impressive and resourceful, now that she is on her own.

The story cannot help but remind one of the wildfire in the Gatlinburg area in 2016 and how rapidly it spread. The 1947 wildfire in Maine claimed 16 lives; Gatlinburg’s fire claimed 14. Heroic tales of escape and survival emerged from both fires, as did tragic tales of loss. Though this tale is fictitious, the setting and the real wildfire provide a quick point of relevance for area residents, a touchstone of a sort.

The writing style is similar to that of the late Maeve Binchy, being rather spare but wholly satisfying. Shreve writes from third person limited, with Grace as the main character and narrator. Grace, who finds vast reserves of strength and resolve once she is forced from her traditional role of a dutiful homebody by the impact of a wildfire, is a satisfactory and convincing heroine.

Shreve, Anita. The Stars Are Fire. New York; Alfred A. Knopf, 2017. 241 pages.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Nevermore: Fur Person, Tennis Partner, Strong Leaders, Reader, Shoe Dog, & Ice Ghosts


First up this week was a feline classic:  Fur Person by May Sarton.  First published in 1957, the book tells the story of Tom Jones, cat about town, who decides to find himself a house and, of course, a housekeeper. The story is based on Sarton’s experiences with her own cat and has delighted generations of cat lovers with its observations.  Sarton was a journalist, novelist, and poet, and the quality of the writing reflects that.  Our reader loved it and recommends it highly.

Abraham Verghese is a doctor who first made his mark as an author with In My Own Country, a beautifully written book about his experiences practicing medicine in Johnson City, Tennessee during the early days of the AIDS epidemic.  Our reader was impressed enough that she picked up second book, The Tennis Partner.  After moving from Tennessee to Texas, Verghese becomes friends with an intern who used to be a pro tennis player.  Verghese is passionate about the game and enjoys playing against the young man, but soon realizes how troubled he is.  Much of the book has to do with alienation and isolation, according to our reader, both without our communities, our professions, and even our own families.  The writing was wonderful, but our reviewer was haunted by the sense of loneliness that permeated the book.

Archie Brown takes a thorough look at leadership in The Myth of the Strong Leader.  Our reviewer warned that this isn’t a casual read, but is geared more toward the academic.  A former professor at Oxford, Brown surveys a number of modern world leaders (he counts Theodore Roosevelt as the first of the moderns) and presents evidence that “strong” is not the same as “effective.” He examines the governing styles of a number of leaders, including several U.S. presidents, Charles de Gaulle, Neville Chamberlain, Josef Stalin, Nelson Mandela, and Deng Xiaoping. Described as thorough, solid, and dense, our reader felt Brown made the case that sometimes the best results are achieved when a leader commands from the middle of the pack instead of in front.

The Reader by Bernhard Schlink is set in post -World War II Germany and begins as a teenage boy, Michael, becomes ill in the street.  A woman names Hanna comes to his aid, and the two begin a relationship that ends when Hanna disappears suddenly.  The next time Michael sees her, she is standing trial in a courtroom.  Our reader said it was wonderfully written and heart-breaking.  She recommended it highly.

Phil Knight, who created the Nike brand, also wrote his own memoir.  Shoe Dog is the story of how a mediocre runner had a vision of creating a shoe for athletes.  The book has received much praise, but our reviewer said she didn’t like Knight as a person so she didn’t particularly enjoy the book.  She felt he was particularly unkind to his wife.

After John Franklin and his crew disappeared during their 1854 voyage to the Arctic, his faithful wife was relentless in seeking help to search for him. She financed several expeditions and offered rewards, but at her death in 1875, the crew and ships still had not been found. In 2014, photographer and journalist Paul Watson was on board an icebreaker which finally found one of the ships, the HMS Erebus. Our reader thought the story fascinating and the pictures amazing, but felt Watson was a better photographer than he was a writer. However, she invited others to judge for themselves by reading Ice Ghosts:  The Epic Hunt for the Franklin Expedition.

Monday, May 15, 2017

Cat with a Clue by Laurie Cass

Reviewed by Jeanne

Librarian Minnie Hamilton is shelving early one morning when she discovers a woman lying in the aisle.  Her first thought is that someone had been accidentally locked in the library overnight, but that momentary hope is dashed as she realizes that 1) the woman’s skin is cold and 2) there is a large knife sticking out of her back. It turns out that the victim isn’t even a local resident, but a visitor who was in town for a relative’s funeral.  So why did she end up dead in the library?

Meanwhile, the Library Board is interviewing candidates for a new library director. Minnie’s co-workers are all encouraging her to apply but Minnie knows that the director doesn’t get to do what Minnie loves most: drive the bookmobile.  Bringing books to those unable to get to the library is one of the joys of life for Minnie, especially when she’s accompanied by her cat, Eddie, who has his own fan club.

Then someone breaks into the bookmobile’s garage, scattering books everywhere.  Strangely, though, nothing seems to be missing.  Is this just random vandalism—or is there a connection to the murdered woman?

This is the fifth in the charming Bookmobile Cat Mystery series.  I know I can count on Cass for a light, fun mystery with a good dose of library and feline related material which is like catnip to me.  I enjoy the way spunky Minnie drops in the names of authors or book titles in the course of her day, and I am very fond of Eddie who is a bright little cat—and he is portrayed as a real cat, not a sleuth.   As with most cozy mysteries, there’s a good supporting cast of neighbors, co-workers, friends, and relatives to round out the story.  I’m especially fond of Minnie’s Aunt Frances, who runs a summer B & B where she selects visitors based on matchmaking potential. 

This is a fine choice for anyone looking to curl up with a good cozy; and if you like libraries and cats, so much the better!

Friday, May 12, 2017

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Reviewed by Kristin

Robin Sloan’s debut novel gives the reader a feel of actually entering an tall, narrow San Francisco bookstore, a bit dusty, an ancient computer sitting on the desk, an older bookseller in a button-down and cardigan appearing from the shadows.  Taller than they are wide, the shelves range upwards to dizzying heights.  Ladders climb upward to the ceiling for staff access to the books.

When Clay Jannon spies the help wanted sign in the window, he is a bit suspicious.  Who puts up actual signs anymore?  Isn’t that what Craigslist is for?  But Clay is desperate for a job after his marketing design job with the Old Jerusalem Bagel Company (formerly NewBagel, founded by ex-Google employees, who as it turned out were better at software than breakfast foods) flopped, along with the rest of the company.

Clay soon is wondering how in the world the bookstore stays afloat, as he is doing well to sell a single book per night.  The eccentric individuals who scurry into the store seem to be “members” rather than customers, borrowing cryptic tomes from the upper reaches of the shelves.  Mr. Penumbra has only three requirements: Clay must always be there to work exactly 10:00 pm to 6:00 am.  He may not read the special volumes.  And he must keep very detailed records of all customer interactions.  Not just what they buy, but also how they are dressed, down to the buttons, and what is their apparent state of mind.

Filled with intriguing characters, this is so much more than a book about a bookstore.  From Mr. Penumbra’s dimly lit rows to the crystal city of the Google complex to a secret society in New York City, Clay ends up on an intricately plotted adventure that he never would have imagined as he happened upon that help wanted sign.  As Clay continued deeper into his quest, I was rooting him on from the sidelines, or should I say from the printed page.  The story drew me along, making me want to read just one more page, one more chapter (…the curse of book lovers who have other less exciting, mundane responsibilities.)

After reading the book, I discovered that it grew from a short story originally published on Sloan’s website,  (Warning: spoilers in the short story!  If you are intrigued by the book, be sure to go back and read the story afterwards.)  Also, there is a later published prequel that builds the foundations: Ajax Penumbra 1969.