Monday, February 29, 2016

Read Harder Challenge

By Ambrea

This year, I decided to make a New Year’s Resolution:  I’m going to read more books and I’m going to read a wider range of books.  Thanks to the Read Harder Challenge of 2016 by Book Riot, I can do just that.  Book Riot, which caters to readers and writers and lovers of books, has published this challenge for a few years now, providing readers with 24 categories to help them broaden their horizons and dip their toes in a different genre.

For 2016, the list carries a number of interesting challenges, including:
·         Read a nonfiction book about science.
·         Read a book out loud to someone else.
·         Read a book originally published in the decade you were born.
·         Read a book under 100 pages.
·         Read a book that is set in the Middle East.
·         Read a book that was adapted into a movie, then watch the movie.  Debate which is better.
·         Read a play.
·         Read a book with a main character that has a mental illness.

The list has much more with some challenges proving more difficult than others, but it’s an entertaining way to jumpstart the reading year and read beyond the boundaries of one’s comfort zone.  I have a habit of slipping into paranormal and/or fantasy novels with a pinch of historical fiction and romance thrown in for a little variety; however, with the Read Harder Challenge, I’m branching out with books that I never would have found if I hadn’t decided to pick a book I wouldn’t normally read.

With the Read Harder Challenge, I’ve finished a number of new books and stumbled across some others that, while they won’t go on my challenge list, I’ve enjoyed for the pure pleasure of reading.  I’ve also managed to:

1.      Read a middle grade novel.
2.      Listen to an audiobook that has won an Audie Award.
3.      Read a non-superhero comic that debuted in the last three years.

For my middle grade novel, I completed Flora and Ulysses:  The Illuminated Adventures by Kate DiCamillo.  A fun little book with amusing illustrations, Flora and Ulysses was a pleasant discovery.  I admit, I picked it up for the simple fact that it had a squirrel on the cover—I mean, who would be enticed by a book that has a squirrel as a main character?—and finished it with an appreciation for DiCamillo’s work.

DiCamillo, who is also the author of Because of Winn Dixie and The Tale of Despereaux, weaves heart and wit into yet another children’s classic.  Flora and Ulysses caters to a younger audience, yes, but it’s accessible and enjoyable to read even as an adult.  It toys with more mature themes, like divorce and loss; however, it does so in a way that’s understood by children and appealing to parents.  It’s a good book with a good story—an odd story, but a good one, nonetheless.  Overall, I’m glad I read something out of the ordinary for me.

As for my audiobook requirement, I actually revisited World War Z by Max Brooks.  I originally listened to the audiobook simply because I loved World War Z, as can be attested by my previous review of Brooks’ novel, and I was intrigued to see what it would be like to listen to an audiobook with a full cast (especially since I discovered it featured Nathan Fillion, Martin Scorsese, and, of course, Mark Hamill).  It was a happy accident that I happened to stumble across an Audie Award winner from 2007.

I highly recommend actually listening to World War Z for fans of the novel.  Having a full cast makes World War Z a singularly entertaining way to spend a number of unhurried afternoons, folding laundry or walking a pet.  It’s still full of the same stories, the same diversity and detail that made it such a wonderful novel for me, but, now, I had the chance to actually listen to those stories and more fully imagine the characters behind them.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I will note that I think I picked up an abridged version of the novel.  I’m not positive if the abridged novel is the only one available, or if I simply couldn’t get my hands on a complete copy with ever chapter intact, but, regardless, I recommend finding a full copy of World War Z for the greatest effect.  My only complaint was that it left out a handful of my favorite chapters.)

Last, I picked up my non-superhero comic:  Lady Killer by Jamie S. Rich and Joelle Jones.  I picked up Lady Killer at my local comic bookstore on a whim, because I liked the cover (oddly enough) and I really liked the idea of reading about a housewife who worked part-time as a hired killer.  It was a fascinating dynamic that intrigued and, eventually, compelled me to pick up a copy for myself.

Josie Schuller is far from being a superhero.  She’s pragmatic, ruthless, and absolutely cold-blooded.  She’s a survivor, which means anything goes when it comes to protecting herself and her own (including her darling twin girls).  While I enjoyed the plot and the pace and the characters involved in Lady Killer, I also loved how Rich and Jones pulled from iconic fifties advertising, making the novel as historically accurate as possible and rendering the story with beautiful illustrations.  It’s terribly gory, I admit, but such careful attention to detail and quality made me fall in love with Lady Killer.  It’s probably one of the best comics that I’ve read within the last year—and it might simply be one of the best I’ve ever read.  Period.

For more on the Read Harder Challenge of 2016, check out

Note:  We will be updating Ambrea's progress on the challenge throughout the year.  If you decide to participate, please let us know in the comments section!

Friday, February 26, 2016

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

Reviewed by Ambrea
In Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass describes the atrocities he was forced to face and the horrific conditions he endured—and from which he fled—as a slave.  Born in Tuckahoe, Maryland, sometime in 1818 (Douglass never did uncover the exact day of his birth), he spent his entire adolescence and much of his young adult life as a slave.  He recounts how he learned to read and write—in part, thanks to the attentions of Mrs. Auld, who was kind-hearted in her own way—as well as his good fortune in escaping through the written word, and how he learned to fight back against an institution that harbored only brutality and prompted excessive violence.

Douglass’ narrative is incredibly detailed and exceptionally well-written.  Besides illuminating the various wrongdoings of slaveholders—which, by the way, Douglass shows no fear in naming names (such as the heinous Mr. Covey, the more mild-mannered Mr. and Mrs. Auld, and Colonel Lloyd, among others) and revealing the very worst crimes against humankind—and offering an intimate glance into the conditions under which slaves suffered, Douglass weaves an impressive tale of human survival and, more importantly, hope.

His constant struggle, his never-ending fight to achieve freedom from slavery and ignorance, and his flight from oppression are guaranteed to pluck at a reader’s heartstrings.  He has inspired many people throughout history and, more importantly, has spurred the formation of schools, including a local high school, the Douglass School High School, of Bristol, VA—which you can read more about here: Douglass School Remembered.   

Personally, I enjoyed reading Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.  Although it feels dense, being a reflection of the style of the time, I found it to be deep and thought-provoking, and more than a little impressive.  Douglass has written a narrative well worth reading, and certainly excellent in telling the true story of one man’s suffering in slavery.

I highly recommend reading it, at least once, if not for the historical education, then for the human aspect of it—for the impact it has emotionally.  Douglass’ narrative reveals the sheer barbarity of slavery and provides a detailed recollection of unprovoked cruelty toward African American men and women.  He reveals every terrible facet of slavery, and he does so without ever altering his purpose or concealing real facts behind vague language.  He adamantly refuses to mask the monstrosities of slavery as he saw and experienced them.

It’s a small book, but it packs a wallop.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Nevermore: McCall-Smith, Heather Lende, The Revenant, Heinlen, Atwood, and more!

Reported by Ambrea

This week, our Nevermore readers started out with a favorite book series by Alexander McCall Smith:  The Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café.  Continuing the adventures of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Grace Makutsi opens the Handsome Man’s De Luxe Café in Gaborone, Botswana—and just shortly after she becomes a full partner in the agency.  But creating a business plan is a far cry from dealing with the daily pressures of restaurant ownership, and Grace will need all the help she can get.  Our reader was thrilled with her selection.  As an ardent fan of McCall Smith’s series, she was tickled with the continuation of the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency and she absolutely loved listening to the audiobook.  Her only complaint is that the story seemed to end too soon, like the characters had so much more to say.

Next, our readers traveled to Haines, Alaska, in If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name by Heather Lende.  Lende, a commentator for NPR and journalist, has spent many years writing the obituaries and social column for her local newspaper.  With her first-hand accounts of small-town life in rural Alaska, Heather Lende offers keen insight into a community comprised of aging hippies, quirky neighbors, fishermen and native Tlingit Indians—among the plethora of wildlife that share their borders.  If You Lived Here, I’d Know Your Name is a sweet story that’s part memoir and part biography of the author’s tiny hometown—and, according to our reader, altogether enjoyable and enlightening.  As a traveler, our reader was fascinated by the way Lende was able to evoke the surrounding landscape of her native Alaska and provide insight into the way one tiny town managed to survive in an inhospitable, but undeniably beautiful, wilderness.

Speaking of wilderness, our Nevermore readers also ventured into the depths of the American frontier of 1823 in The Revenant by Michael Punke, which chronicles the life and legacy of Hugh Glass.  An experienced frontiersman and trapper for the Rocky Mountain Fur Company, Glass was often hired as an expert tracker—and then, one day, he was unexpectedly attacked by a grizzly bear and left for dead.  Abandoned by the other men in his company, Glass is left alone to survive in a terrifyingly hostile wilderness.  Only one thought keeps him going:  revenge.  Based on the remarkable true story of Hugh Glass, The Revenant is an exciting tale of survival and desperation that has captivated readers—including our own—and inspired an Oscar-nominated film.  Our reader was especially excited to pick up Punke’s novel.  She thought it was fascinating to how people, like Hugh Glass, managed to face so much adversity and survive a harsh, unforgiving landscape.  She plans on seeing the film featuring Leonardo DiCaprio now that she’s finished the book, and she highly recommends reading the novel before seeing The Revenant in theaters.

Next, our readers looked at a science fiction classic, Robert A. Heinlen’s Orphans of the Sky.  Hugh Hoyland has spent his entire life on the Ship and, like most, he believes all of creation is contained within the ship—feed the sacred Converter, fulfill the Creator’s Plan.  But Hugh is about to have his entire world turned upside down when he learns—from the muties (mutated humans who live in the weaker gravity at the center of their world), no less—that the Ship is in fact a spaceship, and Hugh must be the one to actually fly it.  Our Nevermore reader was intrigued by Heinlein’s novel, saying he enjoyed Orphans of the Sky, and he found the entire theology that Hugh and his people have built around the Ship thoroughly fascinating.  However, he noted that it “plays fast and loose with the details,” providing only the barest minimum and allowing readers to fill in the gaps for themselves.  It didn’t detract from the novel, he said, but it sometimes made the story difficult to follow.

Like Robert A. Heinlein, Margaret Atwood provided an interesting future for our Nevermore readers to contemplate.  In The Heart Goes Last, Stan and Charmaine are caught up in the middle of a terrifying economic and social collapse.  Threatened by gangs and living out of the trunk of their car, they’re desperate to get back on their feet and find a safe haven in the midst of chaos.  Enter the Positron Project.  Set up in the city of Consilience, the Positron Project ensures that everyone has a job and everyone has a comfortable home.  There’s just one catch:  six months out of the year, residents have to spend time in the Positron prison system before they can return to their civilian homes.  Although Stan and Charmaine are willing to exchange their freedom for safety, they begin to learn that the Positron Project is more dangerous than they ever believed.  Our reader said Margaret Atwood’s novel was intensely interesting, but she pointed out that it isn’t exactly a “happy story.”  Although a bit strange and riddled with an unusual sense of humor, it offers a fascinating—if terrifying—look at a possible future and it’s definitely worth checking out.

Last, our Nevermore readers looked at Trailersteading:  How to Find, Buy, Retrofit, and Live Large in a Mobile Home by Anna Hess.  A relative of one our members, Anna Hess provides an insightful look into homesteading with a twist—reusing a mobile home.  The author provides information on affordable homesteading, tips and tricks to take advantage of low-cost and free housing, full descriptions of home and outdoor projects, and much more.  She profiles thirteen different families, revealing how they manage to rebuild a home and how they become self-sufficient.  Our reader said the book was really enjoyable.  It’s full of interesting information and, more importantly, offers projects and recommendations for the industrious homesteader.  She especially liked how the author managed to look at the stigma that often comes with owning a trailer and turns it on its head, highlighting the positive aspects (less debt, smaller energy bills, smaller ecological footprint, etc.) that trailersteading can bring to one’s life.

Monday, February 22, 2016

When Bunnies Go Bad by Clea Simon

Reviewed by Jeanne

Bunnies abound in this new entry in the Pru Marlowe Pet Noir series.  There’s the wild bunny being kept illegally by an elderly woman who calls on Pru because she’s heard of Pru’s skill as an animal behaviorist; there’s the bunny in the painting stolen in a recent art heist; and then there’s that fixture of the resort slopes, the ski bunny. 

The latter is Cheryl, the arm-candy girlfriend of an obnoxious businessman type named Teddy Rhinecrest.  Pru encounters the couple while out with her sometime boyfriend and full time police detective Jim Creighton.  What should have been a nice dinner is spoiled when Rhinecrest picks a fight with his girlfriend Cheryl, the aforementioned ski bunny.  Creighton steps in to calm things down, but it won’t come as any surprise to readers when Teddy turns up dead.

For once, Pru doesn’t have a personal stake in the investigation.  She really doesn’t want to be involved, but then Cheryl calls Pru for help with her King Charles Spaniel.  Pru goes to help the dog and finds things are more complicated than she expected. . . not to mention the appearance of an old acquaintance who brings both old world charm and menace.

I’ve enjoyed this series from the start. For the uninitiated, Pru is more than a behaviorist.  She’s an animal psychic, able to pick up bits of information from a variety of animals.  The communication is disjointed, bits and pieces of things that Pru struggles to understand.  It can also be very distracting because she can’t turn it off.

One of the things I like the most about the series is the way that the characters continue to evolve.  At the beginning, Pru was all but shattered by this sudden gift of inter-species communication.  She was so convinced that she was mad that she checked herself into a mental health clinic.  She lives in fear that someone else will find out about her ability.  Add this to her history of unhappy and unfortunate personal relationships and Pru is one defensive and prickly lady, given to consuming large amounts of alcohol to deaden the pain and fear.  Her one confidant is Wallis, her opinionated tabby cat who functions as advisor and commentator, whether Pru wants to hear it or not. (No pun intended.)
However, over the course of the series Pru has begun to open up just a little.  She is learning to question some of her own assumptions and to figure out that maybe, just maybe, she doesn’t have to face everything alone.  She’s also getting better at trying to decipher the messages she gets from the various creatures.

That’s not to say that this is a series that has to be read in order.  Each is a standalone, though some characters carry over for several books.  

The murder actually takes a bit of a back seat to some of the other mysteries in the book; while there is a resolution, it happens off camera so to speak.  Thinking it over, I still found it a satisfying read as I was more interested in some of the other things that were going on.  I admit I often read more for character than for plot, and this one was particularly well done in that respect. This isn’t to say that the mysteries got short shrift, just that as a long time reader I was more attuned to the character development.

This series just keeps getting better and better.

Full Disclosure:  I was sent an ARC (Advance Reader’s Copy) of the book.  I was under no obligation to review the book and receiving the ARC did  not affect my review.