Early Warning | by Jane Smiley

early warning

Early Warning by Jane Smiley
(Knopf, 2015, 476 pages)

Early Warning opens in 1953 with the Langdon family at a crossroads. Their stalwart patriarch, Walter, who with his wife, Rosanna, sustained their farm for three decades, has suddenly died, leaving their five children, now adults, looking to the future. Only one will remain in Iowa to work the land, while the others scatter to Washington, D.C., California, and everywhere in between.”
Amazon.com

While the writer describes in detail the lives of the family over the decades since Walter’s death, I found this story hard to hold my interest.

The Killer Next Door | by Alex Marwood

The Killer Next Door

The Killer Next Door by Alex Marwood
(Penguin Books, 2014, 400 pages)

The rooming house located at 23 Beulah Grove appears at first glance to be an average dwelling with average tenants, but they are not average at all. Each of them is hiding a secret and one of them is a serial killer. The landlord is used to taking in those who are down on their luck and have nowhere else to go. He’s a Peeping Tom too. Collette is on the run from her ex-boss. Upon closing the club one night she witnessed her ex-boss sexually brutalize a client. Cher is a children’s home escapee. After being battered by her mother’s boyfriend she decided to take to the streets rather than wait to be sexually abused. She resorted to prostitution to come up with the money the landlord required monthly. Thomas lives on an upper floor after separating from his wife and children. He’s an odd fellow, who tries to make friends with his neighbors. The gorgeous Iranian is attractive to Collette, but there is something mysterious about him. Unknown to her, he is an asylum seeker who wants to stay under the radar. Then there is Vesta, a mature spinster, who knows everything that goes on in the house. Her parents reared her there and she continued to let the apartment when they died much to the dislike of the landlord. Vesta thought she knew everything, until the night when she and the others accidentally kill the landlord. Now, they must hide their secret. But there is something more sinister – multiple murders have occurred right under their noses.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns | by Frank Miller

Batman

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns
by Frank Miller; with Klaus Janson and Lynn Varley
(DC Comics, 2013, 224 pages)

I was drawn to this graphic novel because I’ve heard it cited as the best version of the Batman comics and a classic graphic novel – in fact, the back cover has Stephen King calling it “probably the finest piece of comic art ever published in a popular edition.” The story has Batman, fifty-five years old and semi-retired, coming back to try and bring order to a Gotham City that has been decimated by crime. He’s old, broken down, and cynical; but he is still driven to bring justice to the city. Besides psychotic criminals, like the Joker, Batman has to deal with a police force that views his own vigilante actions as criminal acts. The novel culminates with a showdown between Batman and Superman.

How to Write a Sentence | by Stanley Fish

How to Write a Sentence

How to Write a Sentence: And How to Read One by Stanley Fish
(Harper, 2011, 165 pages)

Stanley Fish makes big claims for the potential of well composed sentences. “They promise nothing less than lessons and practice in the organization of the world” (7). He claims that writing and enjoying a well written sentence is not a matter of simply memorizing and following grammatical rules, but rather, of grasping and practicing some basic forms that are common to many well-structured sentences. Practicing how to write good sentences, understanding sentence structure, and appreciating effective sentences are all tied up together. Fish communicates this in a pithy formula: “Sentence craft equals sentence comprehension equals sentence appreciation” (11).

Fish insists that mastering the basic forms that sentences come in is more important (at least initially) to good writing than the content of the sentences themselves. If you don’t know how to communicate something, the content of what you’re communicating won’t matter much. Fish offers the examples of the subordinating style (which ranks, orders, and sequences its contents in a highly organized way), the additive style (which adds one thought after another in a more informal style), and the satiric style (which is harder to define, but still tied to forms). These different styles are illustrated by sentences from great writers like Martin Luther King, Jr., Gertrude Stein, and Oscar Wilde. Fish then breaks down how these sentences are formed to show a structure that can be imitated and appropriated. This is stated in the form of a personal “theology”: “You shall tie yourself to forms and the forms shall set you free” (33). The content of a sentence is ultimately the point, but you can’t make that point unless you first master the forms.

In addition to being a guide to writing, the book functions as a primer on rhetoric and an introduction to literary criticism. The two chapters that deal with first and last sentences – focusing on what novelists can do with the first and last sentence of a book – are guides to and examples of meditative reading, turning sentences over until every sense has been drawn of them. The book may not be for everyone. I can see how it could come off as the kind of over-analysis that kills the joke or ruins the mood. However, I find Fish’s emphasis on intuiting the logical structure of sentences over memorizing grammatical rules very helpful. He uses excellent examples – I particularly enjoyed the sentences he included from John Donne and Anthony Powell – and his love of good writing is contagious.

Changing Habits | by Debbie Macomber

Changing Habits

Changing Habits by Debbie Macomber
(Mira, 2014, 400 pages)

This is a true-to-life story about three young women Kathleen O’Shaughnessy, Joanna Baird, and Angelina Marcello. The three of them come from different backgrounds but they share the desire to love and serve God. This story tells their separate journeys of joining a Catholic convent, St. Bridget’s Sisters of the Assumption, in the late 1960s. Their experiences while they were nuns and the personal tragedies that ultimately caused them to withdraw from their vocation was told in such an enthralling way that it was hard to put the book down. The support cast enables the reader to understand their motive for entering the convent as well as the individual crises for ultimately leaving.

It is a very interesting story that delved into the procedures of the convent and the convent life. Macomber’s historical research of the Second Vatican Council and church policies for this book adds depth to the story. For me, this was a book that I was sure of the outcome, but I was completely captivated with not only the story itself, but also I found the facts about the life of a nun fascinating and insightful.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane | by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
(William Morrow, 2013, 192 pages)

I actually read this book last year and wasn’t wowed by it because it wasn’t at all what I’d expected. Then it was selected as a book club read for a new group I’m part of so I decided to give it another chance and I’m really glad I did. Coming into it with an understanding of what it was supposed to be helped me appreciate the story and Gaiman’s writing on a level I hadn’t before.

I’ll leave you with a summary of the book from Goodreads:

“Sussex, England. A middle-aged man returns to his childhood home to attend a funeral. Although the house he lived in is long gone, he is drawn to the farm at the end of the road, where, when he was seven, he encountered a most remarkable girl, Lettie Hempstock, and her mother and grandmother. He hasn’t thought of Lettie in decades, and yet as he sits by the pond (a pond that she’d claimed was an ocean) behind the ramshackle old farmhouse, the unremembered past comes flooding back. And it is a past too strange, too frightening, too dangerous to have happened to anyone, let alone a small boy.

Forty years earlier, a man committed suicide in a stolen car at this farm at the end of the road. Like a fuse on a firework, his death lit a touchpaper and resonated in unimaginable ways. The darkness was unleashed, something scary and thoroughly incomprehensible to a little boy. And Lettie—magical, comforting, wise beyond her years—promised to protect him, no matter what.

A groundbreaking work from a master, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told with a rare understanding of all that makes us human, and shows the power of stories to reveal and shelter us from the darkness inside and out. It is a stirring, terrifying, and elegiac fable as delicate as a butterfly’s wing and as menacing as a knife in the dark.”

Feel free to check out my previous review (which also links back to another review of the book by Sadie). Just know that having an understanding of the intention behind the book led to a much more enjoyable and immersive reading experience for me.

Reading Magic | by Mem Fox

Reading Magic

Reading Magic by Mem Fox
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008, 208 pages)

As a new mom I’ve wanted to make sure I raise my daughter to (hopefully) be a reader. For this reason I’ve been researching books on literacy and reading to children so I have an idea of how best to introduce my daughter to the amazing world of books and reading. Mem Fox is a well-known children’s book author. I’m not sure where I learned about her adult books on literacy and children, but I’m glad that I did.

In Reading Magic Fox explains the many benefits of reading out loud to your child. She highlights what to look for in books to make sure you keep your child’s interest and encourage them to love language. She also points out the three secrets of reading: the magic of print, the magic of language, and the magic of general knowledge. You want to put all three of these “secrets” together to successfully approach reading in a positive way with your little one.

Fox writes accessibly and regularly emphasizes the key points of reading aloud. She also provides great examples and really just makes you eager to go read with your child. A lot of the book will most likely seem like common sense, but one of the key things Fox talks about is that you can always find the time to read a book with your child. It will be beneficial to you and them.

Sex Criminals, volume 1 | by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

Sex Criminals

Sex Criminals, vol. 1 by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky
(Image Comics, 2014, 128 pages)

In case the title of this graphic novel isn’t descriptive enough, this is definitely a book that earned it’s “mature” rating. And not that I need to validate my reading choices (no one should ever have to do that) but this title was selected by TIME as one of their top 10 graphic novels for 2013 ;)

Suzie is a young librarian with an interesting gift. When she has sex she has the ability to literally stop time. At first she’s not sure what to make of this ability, but then she learns how to make it work to her advantage. Then she meets Jon at a party and learns that he shares this same gift! They can’t believe they’ve found one another and then they get a brilliant idea for using their “power.” While time is stopped they’re going to rob banks… Nothing can go wrong, can it?

This is an ongoing series and volume 2 came out in March of this year. This was a unique read, for sure. It was quick and there was humor throughout. Just make sure if you decide to pick this up that you’re prepared for a fair amount of nudity (in case the title, cover, and summary didn’t clue you in). Happy reading.

A Touch of Stardust | by Kate Alcott

A Touch of Stardust

A Touch of Stardust by Kate Alcott
(Doubleday, 2015, 296 pages)

A Touch of Stardust is a fictionalized account of the making of the epic film “Gone with the Wind.” We are on set with Clark Gable, Vivien Leigh, David O. Selznick, and more as they struggle to make a film that was under constant scrutiny and constant change. The reader experiences this world through the eyes of young Julie Crawford, a girl from Ft. Wayne, Indiana who has moved to California with dreams of being a screenwriter. She ends up being offered a job as Carole Lombard’s assistant which puts her in a great position to hopefully make it in her dream profession.

A central part of this book is the relationship between Carole Lombard and Clark Gable. Julie also has a romantic storyline but it doesn’t really have the same feel as Lombard and Gable. You can tell that Alcott did her research on this book. The behind-the-scenes information about “Gone with the Wind” was really interesting. If you’re a fan of the film, the book, or just this classic period in film history I think you’ll have fun reading A Touch of Stardust.

BiblioTech | by John Palfrey

BiblioTech

BiblioTech: Why Libraries Matter More Than Ever in the Age of Google
by John Palfrey
(Basic Books, 2015, 288 pages)

As the digital age progresses and grows ever more complex, it is not always clear whether we should talk about the plight of libraries or of their growing importance. Do the continually diversifying channels through which we are permeated with information make libraries more or less relevant? John Palfrey, the former director of the Harvard Law School Library, perceives a definite crisis for libraries, but this crisis encompasses both challenges and opportunities. He calls for libraries to redefine themselves in a “digital-plus” era – an original and very descriptive term. Libraries must find new ways to function more effectively as a public option for knowledgeable and personal guidance to information. Finding new ways to promote democratic access to information becomes increasingly important as the privatized interests of Amazon and Google continue to dominate…

To read more of Andrew’s insightful review, check out his post at The Englewood Review of Books.

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