Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: Becoming Madeleine

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Becoming Madeline is a biography of the author Madeleine L’engle, written for middle-grade readers by her granddaughters Charlotte Jones Voiklis and Léna Roy.

Like most people, I first encountered L’engle through A Wrinkle in Time. I was in the 7th or 8th grade and it was unlike anything I had read before. The small book was weird, comforting, wise, and life-affirming in a way that was at the same time both familiar and radical.

Over the next few years I devoured most of her work. Discovering L’engle during my middle and high school years had a tremendous impact on my outlook on life.

Alike and equal are not the same thing!

Your greatest faults can also be your greatest gifts!

In the end, all will be well!

When I took a trip to New York in 2007, I visited the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, where L’engle worked as writer in residence for several years.

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My grandmother, a librarian, was also a fan of L’engle’s writing.  When I would buy and read a new book I’d lend it to her and we would discuss it. After she passed away, I took her copy of Bright Evening Star and found an inscription on the first page, a testament to the impact L’engle’s words had on her.

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I approached Becoming Madeleine with excitement and yet was sure that I would find nothing new here. Madeleine L’engle wrote a number of autobiographical works, so I wasn’t sure what else could be said about her life that I hadn’t already read. However, by telling L’engle’s story in chronological order, rather than through the random snippets as they are presented in her own work, allowed me to see her story in a different light. Anyone familiar with L’engle’s work knows how important time, and the order one experiences it in, can be!

Of particular fascination to me was the inclusion of Madeleine’s diary entries. Not only was it intriguing to get a look at her private writing, but it also allowed the reader see how the themes that permeated her work (time, love, God, faith, science, and the horrors of war) were at the forefront of her thinking, even at a young age, and were always evolving.

The biography stops just after the publication of a Wrinkle in Time. This was disappointing, as I would have liked to have seen how Madeleine moved through her later years. However, the book is written for middle-grade readers; therefore, the story focuses heavily on her younger years when she was the same age as the intended audience.

Voiklis and Roy have written a loving and satisfying account of a writer that has impacted many people and continues to impact more each day. If you are a long-time L’engle reader or just discovering her work, this is a book you won’t want to miss.  

 

–Sunday, February 11th, 2018

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: Why We Write by Meredith Maran

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Why We Write by Meredith Maran is a collection of twenty essays written by published novelist on the topic of why (and sometimes how) each author goes about the crafting fiction. Each essay is preceded by an introduction of the author and a “Vitals” bulleted list of highlights about the author (born, education, where they live, complete list of works, etc.). Each essay concludes with a “Wisdom for Writers” section, a bulleted list of take-away points the author made in his or her essay.

A portion of the proceeds of the book are given to support 826 National, a youth literacy program.

The editor pulled together a diverse collection of authors. Some of them include Sue Grafton, David Baldacci, Gish Jen, Armistead Maupin, and Terry McMillan. Not only are they diverse in gender, sexual orientation, culture, and race, but they are exist on various points of the “literary vs entertainment” spectrum of publishing. This topic comes up in a number of the essays. Some authors embrace the literary or entertainment camp to which they belong, others take the opportunity to bash the opposing side.  More than a few authors dismiss this continuum as a marketing or hegemonic device designed to pander to a certain demographic. The later essays were the most interesting.    

While the book presented a diverse collection of viewpoints, I couldn’t help but notice that certain genres were left out. There were authors from “mainstream” literature as well as the mystery and thriller genres. However, there were no authors of speculative or YA books.  Why We Write was published in 2013, during the time when these genres were rapidly gaining in both popularity and recognition as quote-unquote “serious” forms of literature. It could be that the author reached out to some of these authors and they weren’t interested or couldn’t fit a contribution into their schedules. However, I can’t help but feel that including authors from these backgrounds would further round out the book and the discussion of why individuals feel compelled to write fiction.

The twenty authors in the book state a wide array of reasons behind why they do what they do. However, one central theme crops up in each of their responses: Writing sucks, but not writing sucks worse; one never feels that a piece is completely finished, but having written is a wonderful feeling.

As someone who dabbles in writing and is always looking for more time to complete larger projects, I completely agree. And, in it’s own dark way, it is comforting to read twenty writers state that they belong in the same mental hell that is being a writing human. I think I’ll keep the book on my desk for inspiration and comfort the next time I find myself banging my head against the wall when writing gets difficult.      

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Book Review: Biblio Tech by John Palfrey

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Libraries have been around for a while and will go extinct if they do not adapt to modern society.

That, in a nutshell, is the thesis of Biblio Tech. The author, John Palfrey, a law professor and library director discusses several factors that have changed  the way we procure information. Most notable, and no surprise to anyone reading I’m sure, is the internet.  The author comes down strong on the case that libraries can no longer be large storehouses for books and other information, waiting for people to come to them. Rather, libraries must take a more active role in becoming information synthesizers and distributors.

Within the ten chapters of the book, Palfrey expands on his vision that libraries must become interconnected through the internet and technology and thus become “hubs” of a giant information database. He describes ways in which some libraries are already doing this. He also discusses how libraries have failed in procuring a role in the “Digital Age”. Then, he lays out a plan for libraries to move forward. Each library contributes its specialized collection of information into a comprehensive whole that is available to anyone with access to technology (Something libraries can continue to offer as well!) The book makes the case for libraries continuing to be both a physical space for hard copy media while expanding their online presence and offerings. The book takes a strong stance against doing away with librarians or allowing the field to be flooded with professionals with backgrounds in areas other than information science. The giant “hub” of information would be a wonderful accomplishment. However, we’ll need trained professionals to help the rest of us navigate this world of information and find what we need. In our post-truth and “alternative facts” society, librarians play a very important role.

Throughout the book, Palfrey sprinkles in a defense of why libraries should continue to exist in the era of Google, Facebook, and numerous for-profit online databases. Libraries, in the purest form of the institution, are truly free, open to everyone, and exist without a double-motive. They are simply there to provide people with the information they want and need.

I’ve always been an on-again off-again user of libraries. However, after reading Biblio Tech, I’m going to make it a point to utilize more of the resources my local library has to offer.

The book ends with a potent passage on the importance of libraries:

“It is not too much of a stretch to say that the fate of well-informed, open, free republics could hinge on the future of libraries. Maureen Sullivan, then-president of the American Library Association and one of the great librarians who give me hope, told me: “The reason I think the future of libraries is so important is because I want to ensure that every child in AMerica has access to the information he or she needs to be well-informed before casting a vote.” Our public, institutions have every reason to work together on a common, bright, delightful, digital-era future. Libraries matter too much to democracies for us to fail at this task.”

–John Palfrey, Biblio Tech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google

 

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Book Review: The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

 

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Psychological thrillers aren’t my usual cup of tea. I enjoyed Gone Girl, but haven’t read any of the other books in that vein that have been released recently. If I’m in the mood for a mystery, I tend to lean towards the Agatha Christie and Alan Bradley side of the spectrum. I stumbled across The Girl on the Train sort of by accident.

I was making plans for an upcoming trip that would take about three hours by car, and I was looking for things to listen to during the drive. I’m a big podcast fan but have never really gotten into audio books. I wish I could. I salivate when I think about the amount of books I could tear through if I listened to them will I cooked dinner, folded laundry, or completed paperwork. But every time I listen to them my mind wanders. By the time I’ve realized this and brought my attention back to the book, I’ve missed several minutes and have to rewind it. It’s just not my brain’s prefered way to soak up a narrative.

Nevertheless, I have a hard time taking no for an answer. Every so often I’ll give another audiobook a try. I’d recently moved to a new county and gotten a library card for a new system, so I explored their Overdrive selection and Girl on the Train was one of the few books that seemed interesting and was available. So, I gave it a try.

Two things came out of that experiment. First, I learned, again, that I’m not an audiobook person. Second, once I got back from my trip, I went to Barnes and Noble and snatched up a paperback copy of The Girl on the Train because I had to see how it ended.

The novel follows a woman named Rachel who is divorced from a husband who cheated on her, has lost her job (but hasn’t told her landlady/roommate) and who is suffering from alcohol addiction. She takes a train every day into London (hence the title) to sit in the library or a bar and kill time so that her landlady doesn’t find out she’s unemployed and kick her out. While on the train, she passes the house she use to live in that now belongs to her ex-husband and his new wife. Another couple lives down the street from the house. Rachel begins to watch the couple every time she passes the house and crafts a story around their lives. In her head, the couple, who she names Jessica and Jess, have a storybook marriage. However, when the train passes by one day and Rachel spies something disturbing going on at their house. Soon after, the woman turns up missing. Rachel feels she must get involved, and from there the novel gets twisty and turny real quick!

I won’t say anything else, but a lot more happens in the novel. I enjoyed the character of Rachel. She’s not a likeable character, and in fact some of her choices had me yelling at the book in that don’t-go-in-the-house-the-killer-is-waiting-for-you sort of way. But her alcoholism is depicted very realistically in the book. I believe that Rachel, for all of her problems, really wanted to help in the situation presented in the novel; however, her drinking problem made it difficult for her to focus or make the best decisions. Throughout the novel, she is caught up in a cycle of drinking, trying to pick herself up, realizing she needed to stop drinking, then drinking again. After a while it began to get redundant and I felt like the author was repeating the same scenario over and over. But then I realized that was the point. Someone suffering from alcoholism does become trapped in that cycle.

While I read the novel, I thought about the state of mental health services in our country, and our “suck it up and power through it” answer to people suffering from mental health issues. I don’t think The Girl on the Train is the best book to depict alcoholism. There are other books that tackle the subject more head on than this novel’s fast-paced thriller plot allows. But the book does let us inside the head of someone suffering from an addiction. It shows us that for people with this problem it’s not as simple as wanting to put down the drink and just trying really hard to not pick it up again. And I think that’s an important narrative to read.

The novel is told in first person from the point of view of Rachel and two other characters. Like I said, audiobooks are not for me, but I did enjoy how each character’s chapters were read by a different narrator in the audiobook version. If you are an audiobook person, I’d recommend it.

I think I’ll check out the move soon and see how it compares to the book.

Posted in Book Reviews

Book Review: The Love Interest by Cale Deitrich

 

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This book was fun! Good summer reading fun! 

If you’re looking for something heavy with plusable world-building and a slow moving plot then this book is not for you. However, if you’re in the mood for a novel with an angsty M/M/F love triangle, teenage spies, a secret organization, and killer robots (killer robots!) then this is a must read.

Caden is a spy for the Love Interest Incorporated, an organization who sends highly trained teenagers into the field to make their assigned targets fall in love with them. The goal is that they will eventually get married. The corporation then uses the spies to influence their targets, always people who show signs that they will grow up to become top players in their professional fields.  

When pairing the target with their love interest spy, the corporation always sends a Nice( a boy-next-door type) and a bad (a wrong-side-of-the-tracks type). The two spies complete for the targets affection until they make a choice. Once that happens, the losing love interest is killed by the corporation (talk about an incentive to work hard). Caden is determined to win, but there is a problem: he starts having feelings for his rival love interest, Dil.

Though the book contains science fiction elements, the plot stays focused on the relationships between the two love interests and their target, a girl named Juliet who has a knack for inventing complex technological gadgets. There’s a lot of introspection as the main character sorts out his feelings for his target and his rival. The past few YA books that I’ve read that feature gay characters showed teenagers who understood their sexual identity from an early age. The Love Interest is different in that it depicts Caden realizing he has feelings for a boy and coming to terms with them. As I read, I couldn’t help but feel that this probably rang true for the many teenagers who don’t grow up realizing their gay at an early age. It was nice to see this represented in YA fiction.

The dialogue is light, the plot is fast moving, the characters are likeable, and, in short, this was a very entertaining novel.  If Hollywood wasn’t so scared of putting gay characters on the big screen, it would make a great summer blockbuster style action movie.

If I had any complaints with the book, it would be with some of the story elements in the third act. Some of the dialogue and character actions felt like they had been included to extend the page length and simply for the sake of building tension. They didn’t add to the plot or flesh out the characters. But this is a minor gripe. Overall, the book was great!

I can’t wait to see what Deitrich writes next!