Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt

Patton Oswalt warns you.  He tells you in the beginning that this isn't a typical addiction memoir.  You might think that a comedian/actor writing about his addiction would involve drugs or drinking or dangerous intrigue.  Silver Screen Fiend includes all of those things but they're mostly in the films that Oswalt watched every week.  And every week is putting it lightly.  Oswalt describes going to double features as many as three times a week at the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles.  He watched classics, obscure gems, campy horror and sci-fi, and anything else he could check off in his multiple cult movie guides.  He spent the mid-90s writing and performing comedy and watching movies - hundreds of movies.  He even got to the point where he associated seeing all of these films with the rising success he was having in comedy and that is where the addiction came into play.

So, not only is this not a typical addiction memoir, it's not a typical movie guide either.  Oswalt mentions many of the films he went to see and describes a few scenes that had an effect on him but this is a memoir first and foremost.  Silver Screen Fiend is just as much about stand-up comedy and figuring out who you are as a performer as it is about Casablanca or Sunset Boulevard.  Oswalt is very self-aware throughout.  He doesn't make excuses for his mistakes or gloss over them.  He tells you directly that he screwed up and wasted time waiting for inspiration to strike instead of writing the scripts he thought he could or working on his comedy.  I listened to the audiobook version which is read by the author.  It doesn't quite have the timing and raucous laughs of one of his comedy albums but it shouldn't.  What his voice does, is lend an even more personal touch to a unique memoir about the time just before he "made it."  Anyone interested in film or comedy or not waiting for opportunity to find them will discover plenty to enjoy here.

If you like Silver Screen Fiend, you might be interested in Zombie Spaceship Wasteland, Patton Oswalt's first memoir.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Wildflower by Mark Seal

I broke the cardinal rule.  I judged a book by its cover.  I walked by a shelf where Wildflower was facing out and I did a double take.  I was instantly smitten.  I'm a sucker for a girl in a sundress and when you add in the gorgeous locale and that she's being nuzzled by a baby elephant; it was all too much.  So, I started this book for the silliest, shallowest of reasons but my dumb luck won out because the woman on the cover was an incredible person who led a remarkable life.

If you know the name Joan Root, it is probably from the nature documentaries she and her husband made in the 1970s.  Joan was of a generation raised in Africa but of English derivation.  She grew up in a beautiful and wild natural setting and she ended up marrying one of the more wild elements of nature - Alan Root.  Alan was loud and careening and was just as likely to be bitten by a snake as he was to fly his plane through a tiny canyon just to give his passenger a scare.  He was the opposite of Joan in every way -- except for their love of nature.  And their love of nature (and complimentary personal natures) helped them create countless documentaries for British television.

The reader comes away from Wildflower feeling as though there were two loves of Joan Root's life:  Alan Root and the African countryside.  While one of those loves slipped away from her (dalliances is probably the most polite word to use), she spent the second half of her life defending animals and the unsullied landscape with everything she was.  She spent her time and money trying to prevent an ecological collapse near her home and she was murdered for it.  I'm not doing a great job of describing how impressive Joan Root was or how well Mark Seal put this book together.  There's too much to include in this review and just now thinking back on it so many images come flashing through my mind that I have trouble getting across what I would like to say.  So I'll say it as simply as I can, Joan Root was a phenomenal person and this book gave me a fantastically vivid sense of her.  I haven't done it justice but I promise you it's worth your time.

If you like Wildflower you might like The Man in the Rockefeller Suit also by Mark Seal.  You might also be interested in Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen which is about a similar group of English settlers in Africa, just a generation earlier.  All of these are available from the Virginia Beach Public Library.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Grumpy Pants by Claire Messer

Grumpy Pants

This penguin is in a bad mood, and he can't explain why.  Standing out in the rain on a rainy overcast day, he decides he is grumpy from the top of his hat to the bottom of his rain boots.  So he does what any logical penguin would do.  He strips off his grumpy boots, his grumpy pants, and yes, even his grumpy underpants.  When this fails to cheer him sufficiently, he counts to three and jumps into a nice cold bubble bath.  After spending some contemplative time in the company of his rubber ducky, and the introduction of a few of penguin's other favorite things, he starts to feel his disposition progress slowly away from grumpy and into more peaceful territory.  

Grumpy Pants came across my desk one Monday morning and was exactly what I needed to snap out of my bad mood. Penguin serves as an adorable reminder that there are few things in life that a nice bubble bath, your favorite pajamas, and a steaming cup of hot chocolate can't cure.  Messer's minimalistic prints in a few choice colors match the overall tone of the story. This simple story is a perfect introduction for children struggling with their own bad moods for no good reason and makes a great read aloud for an emotion themed storytime.   

For other children's books about grumpy moods, check out Grumpy Pets by Kristine Lombardi and Scowl by Steve Smallman. 

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Elephant Company by Vicki Constantine Croke

If you’ve read my reviews in the past you know that a number of those included books about animals. I’ve covered cats, dogs, bears, apes, even owls. Elephants get their turn in the spotlight this time. Actually I wrote a review six years ago with elephants at the heart of the story, but because I admire and marvel at these magnificent creatures I couldn’t resist sharing another elephant tale with you.

Vicki Constantine Croke’s gripping book chronicles the riveting life of James Howard “Billy” Williams. In 1942 Williams was called upon to join the British elite Force 136 with a mission to organize and lead a company of elephants in Burma after its invasion by Imperial Japanese forces. Prior to World War II, Williams enjoyed a 20-year career as a “forest man” for the Bombay Burmah Teak Company in colonial Burma. His work took him on a circuit of jungle camps where he supervised the local workers and cared for the health and medical needs of the huge elephants that hauled massive teak logs from forest to river. Williams soon found that his lifelong love of animals extended to elephants as well and absorbed himself in learning all that he could about these incredibly intelligent beasts. Because of his tireless devotion to them he gained their trust and loyalty. But a job such as his was an arduous task. As Croke so vividly depicts, life in the Burmese jungle proved extremely dangerous – intense heat, poisonous snakes, deadly vegetation and insects, life-threatening malaria, seemingly endless monsoons.

Williams’ considerable experience, intimate knowledge of the territory, and his remarkable ability to communicate with the elephants made him the ideal candidate to operate behind enemy lines assisting the allies in pushing back the Japanese. With suspenseful detail, Croke describes the heroics of Williams and his company of elephants as they transport and position logs to build bridges for supply lines and guide refugees through treacherous conditions into ultimate safety. Croke’s superb storytelling brings to life the remarkable tale of this fascinating man. Yes, this is a story of war and elephants but mostly it’s one of understanding, determination, trust and valor.

Find Elephant Company on VBPL’s catalog. If you enjoy Elephant Company, you may also want to read Andrew Martin’s Flight by Elephant – World War II’s Most Daring Jungle Rescue or try Sergeant Stubby - How a Stray Dog and His Best Friend Helped Win World War I and Stole the Heart of a Nation by Ann Bausum.

Review by Diane B.

Monday, June 20, 2016

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

Nora Shaw wakes up in the hospital with the faint, nagging memory of running through a snowy wilderness in blood-saturated clothes. At first she has no idea what has happened, but she gradually begins to piece together a terrifying scenario. She remembers being a guest at a weekend “hen” party in honor of Clare, the bride-to-be and Nora's childhood friend. The hen is to be held in a sleek, modern, isolated glass house deep in the woods of England. Nora, a reclusive novelist, does not particularly want to go, especially since she hasn't spoken to Clare in years, but she reluctantly agrees to accompany Nina, an acquaintance from the past who has also been invited. The situation feels strangely uncomfortable from the moment they arrive. The hostess, Flo, seems more than a little wacky and tightly wound; and, for various reasons, emotions are running high among the odd assortment of guests. As Nora’s memory slowly returns and she realizes that the police view her as a suspect in a crime investigation, she becomes obsessed with finding out exactly what happened during that ill-fated get together in the bleak English countryside…and why.  

Are you are in the mood for an edgy whodunit set In a Dark, Dark Wood? If so, try Ruth Ware’s debut novel, soon to become a motion picture. If you still haven't had your fill of psychological suspense, two more tawdry tales are The Hand that Feeds You by A. J. Rich and Precious Thing by Colette McBeth.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Lost Cat

Ending my week of cat book reviews with stories about cats who got lost and the humans who are lost without them!

Lost Cat by Caroline Paul and illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton

"A true story of love, desperation, and GPS technology" was what caught my attention and convinced me to read this pet memoir.  It is a quick read with short chapters, plenty of charming illustrations, surprising humor, and engaging writing. The author, Caroline Paul, was injured and home-bound.  Her two cats, Tibby and Fibby, are the high point of her recovery, until one month in, Tibby disappeared. Caroline was devastated over his disappearance, and then he came back more than a month later. After the initial relief and joy, she felt confused and betrayed, not knowing where her cat had gone. She made it her mission to find out, and this book chronicles her methods, which include a psychic, GPS on his collar, tiny camera on his collar, letters attached to his collar, pet detectives, and classes on communicating mentally with pets.

Paul writes with an engaging, conversational tone. The coolest thing is that as ridiculous as this account sounds, it is true, but the way she tells the story sells it. She captures the emotions and events with humor, self-awareness, and sincerity, even the darker moments.  She sees the humor in her situation, like trying to buy a GPS small enough for her cat and explain to the store clerk that she is not trying to track a straying lover but a cat. There are images from the GPS and camera to also provide more information (or not) about where lost cats go. It sort of reinforces the idea of the mysterious cat.  Paul ties her quest to the joy and heartbreak of having pets, life, love, trust, and relationships in general, all with a healthy dose of humor and sincerity.

Lost Cat by C. Roger Mader
Did you know that “puppy dog eyes” is in the dictionary, but, somehow, “kitty cat eyes” seem not to have the same reach, yet both can make people go “aww.”  Slipper’s big cat eyes on the cover of this picture book just grab you.  This charming story is told from Slipper’s point of view about her getting accidentally left behind when her Mrs. Fluffy Slippers moves, so she attempts to find a new person to adopt, but everyone who finds her wants her.  The view is mostly from the cat’s perspective, which means she sees everyone and everything closer to the ground, though there are a couple of shifts (the one looking down on Slipper is particularly cute—you will know it when you have to rotate the book to see better).  Slipper (and the readers) learn about the people she meets by their shoes and surroundings.  The illustrations are charming and express so much emotion.  The story is sweet and captures how it is the cat who adopts the human.

Look for both Lost Cat books in the VBPL Catalog.  For more true cat stories, try Nancy Davidson’s The Secrets of Lost Cats: One Woman, Twenty Posters, and a New Understanding of Love and A Letter to My Cat (see review).  For a few more wandering cat picture books, there is also C. Roger Mader’s TipTop Cat, Joy Harjo’s The Good Luck Cat, and Henry Cole’s Spot, the Cat.

Review submitted by Tracy V.

It seems appropriate to end the week with our own former lost cat, Rascal, who adopted us and has found a special place in our hearts (and that of quite a few others).

Last Song Before Night by Ilana C. Myer

A Song of Fire and Ice (aka Game of Thrones) has become a recent benchmark for fantasy, and, though this fantasy debut may not have the doorstop amount of books and pages, it does pack a surprising amount of violence and high death rate that does not exempt major characters behind its pretty cover.  It is a solid fantasy about the power of music and poetry that offers strong character development and refreshing takes and twists on standard fantasy elements.

In the land of Eivar, poets used to have magic but were shackled and hamstrung a long time ago when their magic got out of hand. Now, poets concern themselves with traveling, writing poetry, and performing, with the goal of competing at the tournament for the Silver Branch (kind of the Olympics for poets and the highest honor a poet can earn that comes every eleven years). It starts with a typical-seeming cast set up for a drama-filled fantasy: Darien is the golden-boy poet, Marlen is Darien’s best friend in his shadow, Rianna is Darien’s star-crossed noble-born love, Ned is Rianna’s best friend and her fiancĂ© in an arranged marriage, and Lin is a poet with a secret past who wishes to compete when women poets are not allowed. There is a black magic-based plague sweeping the land.  You can almost see that coming of age expectation: true heart and talent win in an epic tournament, true love wins, characters join on a quest to fight this evil, and that is where Myer shakes things up.

Myer introduces the villain early on, but the rest is a toss-up, leaving the story and tournament to switch gears quickly. It becomes practically a thriller, and Myer sets a nice suspenseful pacing.  She jumps between different characters and their stories, moving them forward and connecting them with other characters.  There are weeks between events in the course of this book, and Myer is able to maintain momentum with the different characters. It is not a quest or adventure that is over in days, and it gives more time for the characters to get into situations or do things that change them and they can learn from.

The story is character-driven with the characters being one of the biggest appeals.  The characters grow and develop as the story progresses, making it harder to guess what they will do and where the story will go when the characters have changed from when they were first introduced. There are unexpected moments of sincerity and nobility, as well as moments of brutality and less noble ones that create more human, flawed characters overall. Except the villain, the rest of the cast, including a traitor and his prostitute-turned-mistress, continue to surprise and intrigue.  There is a strong female presence, and they grow as characters and have their share of the action.

Look for Last Song Before Night on the VBPL Catalog.  For more fantasy with music themes, try Patrick Rothfuss’ Name of the Wind (see review) and Anna Smaill's The Chimes. For similar in teen works, try Emma Trevayne’s Coda and Patricia A. McKillip’s Riddle-Master trilogy.

Review by Tracy V.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Cat poems

Poetry can sometimes go over my head with its dense imagery, difficult language, strict structures, and rules. With the subject focusing on cats and experiences with cats, I found I could relate to these poems more, plus many of the poems are fun, accessible, and meant to charm.  These books of poetry could be a way of introducing poetry to new or reluctant readers of poetry or charm readers with its observations on cat behavior and antics.  Look for these books in the VBPL Catalog, and be sure to try other cat poetry books.

Doesn’t the title just grab your attention?  This little book is a charming collection of original poems about cats.  It is a cute idea to get into a cat's head and experiences. As with any collection, the poems vary, and some are funny, sweet, insightful, or kind of silly. There are plenty of photos to complement the poems.

Curious Cats: In Art and Poetry edited by William Lach

This is a collection of cat themed poems and artwork from all over the world and different time periods, giving readers a wide range of styles.  The foreign ones are a treat, as they usually do not make it into cat poetry compilations.  The variety of artwork presented is also worth a look at, as they capture the human fascination with cats rather than just illustrate how cute cats are.

A Curious Collection of Cats: Concrete Poems by Betsy Franco and illustrated by Michael Wertz

This collection of concrete poems is a fun and accessible way to read poetry and enjoy some humorous quirky cat moments. The illustrations are clever and suit each poem, and they move around the page, so readers will have to turn and rotate the book to follow the poem!

Cat Haiku by Deborah Coates

“Cats are, simply, the animal embodiment of haiku. Both are subtle, elegant, succinct; every nuance is fraught with meaning.”  Coates’ haiku give readers a bite-size dose of poetry on humorous observations about cats and their behaviors with simple line drawings to complement the poems. This collection makes poetry enjoyable and easy to relate to.

Review by Tracy V.

Central Station by Lavie Tidhar

“But he knew too, that there is more than one story in the world at a time; and that her story was not his. Their stories had entwined, but they had different trajectories, different conclusions” (234).  

This line about stories captures the experience of reading Central Station.  It is a collection of short stories set in a futuristic version of Tel Aviv featuring different characters who interact with each other and are sometimes supporting characters in one story and main characters in another, but all connect together by their interactions and shared existence. Its diverse cast features robots, cyborg soldiers, aliens, AIs, Others, data vampires, strange test tube babies, alte zachen men (junk gypsies), a god artist, a bookseller, and a scientist from a family with a strange memory curse.  

Being connected short stories, the reading is fragmented, and Tidhar immerses readers into this world without info dumps.  With each story read, it is like fitting together puzzle pieces to build a bigger picture of a futuristic world that has evolved so differently with advanced sciences and virtual existence, all told by individual characters' stories that also are more than just personal events, telling the story of how Central Station and this different future came to be. 

This world has made advances with cyber tech, AI, and genetic engineering, humanity has spread far into space, and the definitions of human and living have become more fluid.  It is a future where everything is online, and everyone is connected to the data stream (the Conversation) with their virtual lives taking on their own existence.  Tidhar is not afraid to think outside of the box for this imaginary future and explore interesting ideas.  The definition of humans have stretched with cyborgs, modified humans, robots, AIs, and alien presence.  Same with the definition of living, there are virtual-only existences and some hybrid of virtual and physical.  Just the way they think of themselves and what they worry about is so different and intriguing and, at the heart of it, still something human that readers can relate to. 

Tidhar’s writing establishes a strong sense of place with Central Station.  He draws strongly on Tel Aviv's present-day heritage and culture and its mingling of other peoples to build this imaginative version.  There is a strong international flavor, with cultural foods, sights, language, and even religion.  The writing is literary and poetic.  His prose grounds the story and ties all these elements together into one convincing and believable package.  His writing establishes the feel of this world better than any technical details.  He writes with conviction and captures the way the different characters experience their world, their interactions, and their dialogue--all as insiders rather than an outsider looking in--adding to that immersive experience. 

Look for Central Station in the VBPL Catalog.  Try some of Tidhar’s other works.  For more literary speculative fiction, read Chaz Brenchley’s Rotten Row and Kai Ashante Wilson’s Sorcerer of the Wildeeps, and, for that plus multiple, interconnected stories, try Brasyl and River of Gods by Ian McDonald.

Review by Tracy V.