Sunday, February 8, 2015

Black History Month - Ida B. Wells

"I felt that one had better die fighting against injustice than to die like a dog or a rat in a trap" 
Ida B. Wells

      In honor of it being February, and therefore Black History Month, I wanted to do a special entry highlighting a major historical figure of note, both in the struggle for civil rights and the struggle for women's rights: Ida B. Wells.
      Ida B. Wells was born in July of 1862, in Holly Springs, MO to James and Lizzie Wells. Ida and her parents, as well as the rest of the people still held as slaves in the Confederate states, were declared free by the Union six months after Ida's birth with the issue of the Emancipation Proclamation. Ida's parents were active in the Republican party during the Reconstruction, and her father helped to found  Shaw University (now Rust College) and served on the first board of trustees for this school dedicated to educating the newly freed former slaves. Ida recieved her early schooling at Shaw, but was forced to drop out when her parents and one of her siblings died during an outbreak of yellow fever--leaving Ida as the head of her family to care for her other siblings. Though tragedy ended her education at Shaw, she was a resourceful and very intelligent person, and Ida convinced a nearby school administrator that she was 18 in order to gain employment as a teacher in order to provide for her siblings. Later, she moved with her siblings to Memphis to live with an aunt. Here, she continued her education at Fisk University.
      In 1884, Ida encountered a turning point in her life on the road to becoming a journalist and an activist. Having purchased a first-class train ticket to Nashville, she was confronted by the train crew and ordered to move to the car for African Americans. Outraged, Ida refused on the principle that she had legally purchased a ticket for the car in which she was riding. When the train conductors forcibly removed her from the train, she bit one of them. She sued the railroad, and initially won the settlement--but the Tennessee Supreme Court later overturned the decision.This experience inspired Ida to begin writing and publishing about the issues of race and politics, especially race and politics in the South. Under a pseudonym, her articles were published in black newspapers and periodicals, and she eventually became the owner and editor of the Memphis Free Speech and Headlight and of the Free Speech.
      While working as journalist and a publisher, was an avid and extremely vocal presence in the campaign for equal rights. Drawing from personal experiences and observations of things happening t her friends and family, she wrote powerful articles condemning the inaction of the justice system with respect to the wrongful deaths of black community members, such as the lynchings of Tom Moss, Calvin McDowell, and Will Stewart. Her writings were powerful enough to cause enough anger in the white community of Memphis that a mob stormed her news office and destroyed all her equipment while she was traveling gathering information on other lynching incidents in the country. Threatened with death should she return to Memphis, Wells relocated to the North where she wrote an extremely in-depth report on lynching in America for the New York Age. She began a lecture series in Europe, in an attempt to gather support among reform-minded white supporters, and continued to write powerful expositions on inequality, life, and misrepresentation in America, with support and funding from her associates Fredrick Douglass and Ferdinand Barnett. She brought her anti-lynching campaign all the way to the White House in 1898, leading a protest in Washington, D.C.
      Ida B. Wells established several civil rights organizations in her lifetime, including the National Association of Colored Women in 1896. She is also considered one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), however she later cut her ties with the organization, stating that she felt the organization had lacked sufficient action-based initiatives. She created the first African-American kindergarten in her community, and was an active member in the fight for women's suffrage. In 1930, she attempted to run for the state senate, however poor health caused this endeavor to be unsuccessful. She died of kidney disease in March of 1931 at the age of 69, in Chicago, leaving behind a legacy of social and political heroism--fighting injustice and prejudice, no matter the cost to her personal safety.
      ***
     Kate Beaton, author of the webcomic Hark! A Vagrant penned a collection of comics summarizing Ida B. Wells' life.
      For more information on Ida B. Wells, as well as some concise and informative videos, check out her entry on biography.com
     For more information on Black History Month in general, check out the Ocean City Free Public Library's subject guide on Black History Month.
    

Monday, January 26, 2015

"Landline" by Rainbow Rowell

      Landline is the latest novel by Rainbow Rowell, and author who has written both adult and YA romance novels. Landline follows the story of TV writer Georgie McCool as she struggles to balance her work life and her home life, while the state of her marriage declines. When she attempts to postpone a family holiday vacation as the result of an emergency at work, her husband, Neal, insists on taking their children home for Christmas anyway without Georgie. During the holiday week, Georgie tries to call Neal at his mother's house--however Neal's habit of never charging his cell phone leads to Georgie resorting to her parent's old rotary land-line phone to call Neal's mother's land-line. What Georgie soon realises is that this land-line connection allows her to call Neal in the past before they were ever married. Georgie now has an opportunity to either fix her marriage before it begins or to end it and see if they would have been better off never being married in the first place.
      I first discovered Rainbow Rowell's novels when her YA novel Fangirl hit the library shelves and I found myself faced with another author who's novels I wanted to binge read. Unfortunately until July of 2014, there were only 3 novels to binge read--and it's very difficult to binge read slowly when you're a speed reader. So when Landline was published in July, I jumped on it. Immediately I realised that this wasn't going to be like her other books. This one seemed to be darker, and less idealistic that Attachments, Fangirl, or Eleanor & Park had been. Not to say that it crosses the border into Gone Girl territory--not at all. Rather, it paints a picture of the "what happens after the happily-ever-after" that all her other novels end at. While all of her novels have an element of realism and identifiable situations andcharacters (that's what hooked me in with Fangirl, after all), this one takes it a step further and describes a romantic relationship that has already reached the happily ever after stage and now has to deal with the reality of...reality. It made the story of Georgie and Neal much more emotional. 
      Landline by Rainbow Rowell, as well as her three other novels, are available at the Ocean City Free Public Library.
  

Sunday, January 25, 2015

"The Cure for Dreaming" by Cat Winters


      ***
      The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters presents the story of Olivia Mead--a young suffragist in 1900 Portland, Oregon whose headstrong and determined ideas regarding women's rights cause her father to hire a performing hypnotist to hypnotize Olivia into being a more docile and submissive woman. Unbeknownst to her father, the hypnotist instead unlocks Olivia's mind to the ability to see people beyond their physical appearance and into their souls to see their true nature and intentions, while continuing her fight for women's rights.
      I was drawn into this story right away with the presentation of Olivia Mead. She is the daughter of a dentist who is a prominent man in the city of Portland, and has to live up to her father's expectation that she be the perfectly well behaved and content with her place in society of being subservient to all the men in her life. Unfortunately for her father and his expectations, Olivia is also incredibly smart, well read, a progressive thinker, and determined to achieve more in her life than marrying high in society. She has dreams of going to college, having her own career, and standing with the suffragists on the courthouse steps, demanding the right to vote.
      While the story focuses on the story of one girl during this time in women's history, it is without a doubt a fantastic metaphor for the experience of women as a whole. Olivia's father hiring a hypnotist to alter his daughter's mind in order to silence her free will and her expression speaks to the suffrage movement and how people opposed to the movement and opposed to women being granted the same rights as men were striving to oppress and stifle the voices of an entire segment of the population.
      The very essence of this story is that it is a fictional story illustrating a very real period in time when women were fighting for their right to vote, their right to be heard, and their right to be equals. Cat Winters has drawn in elements of the supernatural in order to highlight an important historical moment.
***
      The Cure for Dreaming by Cat Winters is available as an audiobook at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

Friday, January 16, 2015

"As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust" by Alan Bradley

***
      As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is the latest installment in the Flavia de Luce mystery series by Alan Bradley. And is the first book in the series that takes place in a location other than the large English estate of the de Luce family. Set in a girls boarding school in Canada, 12 year old Flavia de Luce once again finds herself in the middle of a mystery after discovering human skeletal remains in one of the chimneys of her new home. The story follows her attempts to once again solve a murder, while also unraveling more of the mystery that surrounds her deceased mother's enigmatic past, and the secret government agency of which she was a part.
      I was turned on to the Flavia de Luce series by a friend who knows that I enjoy all things science, as well as strong well written female characters. It has quickly become one of my favourite mystery series. This newest one is almost a complete reinventing of the series, come at just the perfect time when I was beginning to wonder if the entire rest of the series would always be set up in the same way. As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust introduces the reader not just to a new location for our intrepid heroine, but also to an entirely new cast of characters to interact with her. In fact, the only familiar character is Flavia herself, while everyone else is a stranger. 
      The Flavia de Luce series is wonderful because it takes the notion that all mysteries written for adults must have adult protagonists, and breaks it apart. You see a girl who seems to be equal parts Harriet-the-Spy and Violet Baudelaire dealing with issues and situations in an adult world while maintaining her fiercely independent and fiery personality. The series is captivating, and wonderfully written, and it is quite easy to find yourself three books into the series without realising it. I definitely read this new one too quickly and now have to go back and reread the series from the very beginning (The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie) until he publishes the next one.
***
      As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust, the latest adventure of Flavia de Luce, is available at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

Monday, January 12, 2015

"The Voices" by F.R. Tallis


      The Voices by F.R. Tallis is a horror story set in England in the 1970s. It tells the story of a young married couple expecting their first child, and the old Victorian house into which they have just moved. Chistopher, the husband, is a movie score composer and plans to use the spacious rooms of the house to set up his recording studio, while Laura is a former model who wants to step back from the fast paced world of fame in order to raise their daughter, Faye. Christopher soon discovers that when he plays back the recordings he makes in the house, he can hearvoices on the tape reels. Further investigation into the history of the house leads Christopher to believe that one of the voices on the tape belong to the former owner of the house, an illusionist who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Rather than be overly concerned with the fact that recording in the house seems to be picking up the voices of the dead, Christopher decides to use the ghostly recordings as part of a new composition. Laura, meanwhile, becomes concerned when one of the voices begins to take an interest in their infant daughter.
***
      To anyone who might be an avid fan of horror movies, this plot may seem familiar. I definitely have seen similar plots before, on the screen. However, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that I did not become bored with the plot at all. In fact, it was somewhat reminiscent of the first season of American Horror Story, in which anyone who died in particular house was then stuck in that house as a ghost. In the case of The Voices, it seemed to be a similar case, except the ghosts could not be seen, only heard through an recording or other electric medium (there are times when the voices can be heard through the baby monitor static). But as stated previously, the concept of the haunted house occupied by a new family is a plotline that is very well used, so much so that it could be hard to muster up a proper scared reaction to it. So where then, does this feeling of horror come from?
      For me, it came from the feeling of helplessness exhibited by Laura. Throughout the book she is aware that something is wrong with the house, that something has targeted her baby, and that something is physiologically affecting Faye to the point where Laura begins to seek medical attention for her child. And at each point, when Laura exhibits her concerns or her fears, she is brushed off by all of the men around her. Christopher thinks she's overreacting and trying to stifle his artistic expression, the doctor refuses to give any credence to her concerns and is condescending and dismissive, and even their friends don't believe her fears to be anything more than over protectiveness. This sense of helplessness and frustration at being marginalised when the lives of your loved ones are at stake elicits a different kind of horror than a normal jump-scare would. The book focuses less on the history and nature of why the house is the way it is, and focuses more on the devolving relationship and mental states of Christopher and Laura and what can happen to a person when everything and everyone around them is determined to work against them. 
***
      While it may not necessarily be the outright scariest horror story I've ever experienced, it has a definite sense of apprehension and dread that kept me determined to see how the story played out. See if you feel the same: The Voices by F.R. Tallis is available at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

Friday, January 9, 2015

"Paper Towns" by John Green

      Paper Towns by John Green was first published in October of 2008, and was his third novel. With the announcement that Paper Towns was going to be adapted for the screen, following the success of the film adaptation of Green's latest novel, The Fault in Our Stars, I decided it was a perfect time to reread the book.
      Paper Towns follows the story of a highschooler named Quentin "Q" Jacobson and his friendship with an eccentric girl named Margo Roth Spiegelman. The bulk of the novel is Q following clues left behind by Margo after she runs away from home several weeks before they were to graduate. Along the way Q finds himself forced to reevaluate his perspective about his town, his friends, his classmates, and his idealised image of Margo.
***
      Rereading this YA novel, I immediately remembered what it was about Paper Towns that set it apart from other YA novels. There are a lot of stories in the YA literature designation that involve the idea of a quiet, nerdy boy finding the eccentric, wild, and damaged girl and "fixing" her with the power of his love; thus perpetuation the notion of female characters being present solely for the purpose of furthering the development of the male characters, without having a background or purpose to the story otherwise. This manic pixie dream girl trope is essentially the opposite of the Bechdel Test, the test determining if a work of fiction features at least two women who talk to each other about something other than a man.
     John Green takes the idea of Margo existing as a "broken" girl for Q to improve his life by "fixing" and pretty much smashes it into the ground. While Q is the protagonist of the story, and we are seeing everything from his point of view while Margo is physically present only at the beginning and end of the story, it becomes obvious that there isn't going to be the tearful dramatic love story ending that one might be expecting. Or that Q is expecting, since he spends a majority of the story picturing this kind of reunion with Margo. 
      But when [SPOILER WARNING] he does find Margo at the conclusion of the book, he is given a giant reality check. Margo makes it very clear the "clues" Q was following were not intentionally left by her to be used to find her, that she in fact did not want to be found at all. When Q realises that his idealised image of Margo is not the reality of Margo, he at first reacts angrily and blames her for causing him to waste so much of his time worrying about her. It's only after Margo accuses him both of holding other people accountable for how he thinks of them and of idealising her depression into something that he could "fix" by "saving" her, that he realises how damaging (to both of them) his idolising of Margo was and that he needs to value her friendship more than the image of her he has spent so long building. 
      John Green [END SPOILER WARNING] uses the set up of the manic pixie dream girl story to essentially and ultimately destroy the romanticised image of a troubled girl needing to be saved or fixed by a boy. And that is why I love Paper Towns.
***
      The Paper Towns movie comes out in June of this year. You can get ready by reading the book first! Available, as always, at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

"The Map of Time" by Félix J. Palma


     What would you do if you could travel through time? Would you change the past or take a daring trip into the future?  

      The first book of the Trilogía Victoriana (Victorian Trilogy), The Map of Time is a time twisting, fantastic journey of the life of the famous author H.G. Wells and how his novel the “Time Machine” influenced not only just the people of London but the world. The narrator, a time traveler perhaps or an all knowing being, guides the reader into three different stories that are all interwoven with each other. The snippets of Well’s life gives the reader a different dimension of the writer and the why he wrote the Time Machine. Also, it shows how Wells has gotten himself to be involved in all these lives, even if it was against his will for some of those moments.

     This book has a little bit of something for everyone to enjoy including an alternate universe, a large dose of steam punk, some historical elements, and much more. Going between major events from Jack the Ripper, to helping to heal a suffering individual, bringing couples together, this book has some very complex but intriguing story lines. Félix Palma’s way of interweaving many elements and stories made this book not only an interesting find but a very enjoyable read. The twist at the end of the story was quite unexpected. This was truly a book that grabbed my attention from beginning to end. I cannot wait to read what the other two books may bring.


The Map of Time by Félix J. Palma is available at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

Monday, January 5, 2015

"Yes Please" by Amy Poehler

 
      Yes Please is a memoir self-authored by SNL actress, writer, and comedian Amy Poehler. 
      Sort of.
      When I say it's sort of a memoir, I mean that it is autobiographical in nature and there are mentions of Poehler's personal life--however, she does not dive deep into detail about her life. The parts of her life that she talks about, she does so matter-of-factly and briefly before moving onto the next topic. In addition to this, there are sections that she hands over to other people in her life in order that they might weigh in on her ideas...or maybe just because she was tired one night and needed additional chapters, she she handed the reins over to Seth Meyers and Mike Schur who give some outside perspective about what working with Poehler and being her friend is like. 
***
      But the autobiographical bits are not the focus of the book. I put myself on hold for this book before it was even published, because I am a fan of Amy Poehler in general--her acting, her writing, her general niceness, etc. I was expecting a straight forward autobiography. What I got was so much better than that. The focus on the book is really more life advice, tips on succeeding in the world as a decent human being, and how to be really really good at what you do. With chapter titles like "Talk to Yourself Like You're Ninety," "Gimme That Pudding," "Don't Forget to Tip Your Waitresses," "Treat Your Career Like a Bad Boyfriend," and "The Robots Will Kill Us All: a Conclusion" Poehler lays down some straight forward advice about living your life the way you want to, making the best decisions about what is best for yourself, and getting away with stating the truth with minimal repercussions. Even the title of the book is advice on how to not be a terrible person, and still have a powerful presence:
      "It is called Yes Please because it is a constant struggle and often the right answer. Can we figure out what we want, ask for it, and stop talking? Yes Please. Is being vulnerable a power position? Yes please. Am I allowed to take up space? Yes please. Would you like to be left alone? Yes please. I love saying "yes" and I love saying "please." Saying "yes" doesn't mean I don't know how to say no, and saying "please" doesn't mean I am waiting for permission. "Yes please" sounds powerful and concise. It's a response and a request. It is not about being a good girl; it is about being a real woman. It's also a title I can tell my kids. I like when they say "yes please" because most people are rude and nice manners are the secret key to the universe." 
***
      And lest you think that this book lacks the comedic wit and lightheartedness of other comedic biographical works--if you listen to the audiobook, Poehler turns the narration briefly over to Sir Patrick Stewart in a section containing haiku about plastic surgery. The whole book is layered with Poehler's wit and comedic timing, even though it is more of a life-advice book than a memoir. It's what makes it stand out from other comedic memoirs. Basically, I read this book as a how-to manual on how to become Amy Poehler. And I can think of way worse things to be.
***
      Yes Please by Amy Poehler is available at the Ocean City Free Public Library.
     

Saturday, December 27, 2014

"Not My Father's Son" by Alan Cumming


     Not My Father’s Son is a memoir written by Alan Cumming, a well-known Scottish actor who has graced various forms of entertainment from film and television, to plays and Broadway.  When approached by the producers of the Who Do You Think You Are? (BBC), of course he fully threw himself into the show in hopes it would solve the family’s mystery that revolved around his maternal grandfather’s death. What was unforeseen was that a very similar path of finding out the man who was his grandfather, he was also figuring out the puzzling nature of his father. In a series of events that happened during the filming for the show, Alan had to confront his father and the painful memories of his past, in particular remembering the abuse he had suffered much of his life from his father. Being a successful person, it is hard to imagine the sort of pain that Alan has gone through in his younger years. In his book, the memories of his childhood and younger years are paired with moments in the present time.  Showing how each memory and emotion he was feeling during this time were truly reflections of each other.

     Not My Father’s Son is quite an emotional roller-coaster. From laughing to feeling utterly heartbroken, it is a memoir that not only focuses on the pain  he suffered in life but how he embraced those moments and the ridiculous and heartwarming moments in life to become who he is today. As he mention many times in the book, his childhood became the foundation to his acting career. 

     I truly enjoyed reading this book. It brought tears, shock and much laughter while reading this book. It is witty and the style of the book is a good reflection on Alan Cumming acting style. It has given me a new perspective on the actor and a new deeper appreciation for him as well. It is surprising to see how someone was able to grow with many emotional setbacks in life, to become not only successful but happy in their life with a past that is haunting and heartbreaking.  

Not My Father’s Son is available at the Ocean City Free Public Library.


Friday, December 26, 2014

"Doctor Who/Star Trek: the Next Generation: Assimilation², Volume 1" by Scott Tipton (illustrated by J.K. Woodward)


        Assimilation², Volume 1 is the first of a two volume crossover story between the universes of Doctor Who and Star Trek: the Next Generation. It presents what happens when the Cybermen of Doctor Who join forces with the Borg Collective of Star Trek: the Next Generation.
      The graphic novel begins with the bow-tie wearing, time-traveling alien, (the Doctor) and his human companions (Amy and Rory) as they find themselves landing the TARDIS in what they think is California in the 1940s but turns out to in fact be a holodeck simulation aboard the Starship Enterprise. The reader then follows the adventure as members of both ships realise that the reason the TARDIS was able to slip into this universe was on the heels of Cyberman army (notorious for dimension/universe jumping at this point), which has now joined alliances with the Borg Collective for the mission of converting the universe. 
      This is the crossover that seems as though it should have been done years ago. And while it may have happened many times in the writings of dedicated fanfiction authors, it only  happened in the official canon storylines of both franchises(2012) very recently. Not only does it involve the crew of Next Generation and the 11th Doctor & companions, but it flashes back to the original Star Trek series characters and the 4th Doctor for extended sections of the story.
      Assimilation², Volume 1 definitely captures the attention of the reader and provides an engaging and captivating story. It definitely intrigued me enough to continue on to Assimilation², Volume 2 to see the story through to its conclusion. I mean, it has Star Trek, and it has Doctor Who, it has Data the android piloting the TARDIS with his mind--what more could a sci-fi media fan ask for?
***
Doctor Who/Star Trek: the Next Generation: Assimilation², Volume 1 is available at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

      

Monday, December 22, 2014

"The Hobbit: Or, There and Back Again" by J.R.R. Tolkien


      The Hobbit: Or, There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien is by no means a new book, however with the release of the latest installment of the Hobbit movie trilogy, I find myself growing nostalgic for the original text. For many people, this book tends to hold a special place in their heart as it has become one of the classic introductions to the fantasy literature genre--a story to keep returning to when other sources of fantasy literature have become exhausted.
***
      Tolkien originally wrote the story for his children, however after it was published in 1937 it attracted a large and enthusiastic following of adult readers. And it is absolutely clear why this is the case, as the story of magic, danger, adventure, and battle has the addition of a main character who so often seems so out of place in this world of magic, danger, adventure, and (eventual) war. As a principle character, Bilbo Baggins is small, unassuming, and ordinary; possessing no fantastic magical talents, no supernatural strength or speed, no real superpowers of any kind (beyond that of being rather clever). He is average: a metaphor for the every day person who may not see themselves as extraordinary. 
      But Bilbo is extraordinary. Indeed in the course of the story, the reader sees Bilbo pushed into situations of extreme danger and fantastical adventure and using his cleverness and wits he manages to talk his way out of the danger. Rather than constantly relying on being a 100% morally upright person, Bilbo quickly realises that he is going to need to adapt his cleverness to be somewhat morally ambiguous in order to achieve victory. Bilbo becomes a metaphor for ordinary people, who are capable of extraordinary things and who are pushed into situations that require the use of alternative thinking in order to circumvent bad situations and gain results that are beneficial for the greater good. And indeed Bilbo is identifiable with such ordinary people wishing to engage in an epic adventure. He becomes a source of catharsis, allowing people to live this desire for adventure vicariously through an unlikely literary hero.
      The Hobbit is a story that focuses on the dual nature of situations: loyalty and betrayal, appearance and deception, peace and war, truth and lies, etc. It is often relegated to the backseat, labeled frequently as "just a prequel" to The Lord of the Rings, however it is the story that doesn't just lay the groundwork for the story line in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, but has practically become the definition of the fantasy genre itself. Tolkien's writing has influenced authors such as Neil Gaiman, Terry Brooks, and Stephen R. Donaldson and musicians such as Led Zepplin, Rush, and Mostly Autumn. Tolkien's writing generated and ensured an audience that would latch onto later fantasy works by such authors as J.K. Rowling, Terry Pratchett, and Phillip Pullman. The fantasy genre has become a massive subculture of fantastical worlds set in the past, present, and future, and magical culture--and it all points back to one author's imagination, wit, and research into ancient literature. J.R.R Tolkien's The Hobbit started it all.
***
The Hobbit: Or, There and Back Again by J.R.R. Tolkien is available at the Ocean City Free Public Library.
   

Friday, December 19, 2014

"Night Film" by Marisha Pessl



      Night Film by Marisha Pessl follows the story of disgraced journalist Scott McGrath as he attempts to unravel the mystery behind the death of the daughter of an enigmatic horror film director, Stanislas Cordova. To solve the mystery of Ashley Cordova's death, McGrath must also unravel the mystery of Stanislas Cordova himself--an endevour previously undertaken by McGrath, which resulted in the loss of both his marriage and his career. In his attempt to expose Cordova, McGrath enters "a hypnotic, disorientating world, where almost everyone seems afraid" (Goodreads).
***
      If, during the course of this novel, you begin to experience a very faint case of déjà vu, you wouldn't be alone. The descriptions of Stanislas Cordova and the films for which he is famous in this novel, are a bizarre hybrid of Alfred Hitchcock meets Orson Wells; a deliberate choice on the part of Pessl, I believe, in order to allow the reader to be able to have a sense of familiarity with this enigmatic, elusive character (never seen, but always talked about) right from the start of the story. Stanislas Cordova might not be a real person in outside of this novel...but he stands as a representation of familiar figures in the suspense/horror film industry. He stands as such a powerful figure of mystery and questionable action, that it almost is possible for McGrath's question to uncover the mystery of Cordova to be carried without the addition of the mysterious death of Cordova's daughter. Almost. 
       The questionable death of Ashley Cordova brings into the story what it would lack without it--namely, a reality check. McGrath seeking answers regarding the death of Ashley reinforces the idea that Cordova is in fact a singular person who marks the lives of those around him. Without Ashley and her death, it would have been easy to explain Cordova away as just the face of an massive organisational conspiracy, but not actually a real person. Ashley confirms to the audience that Cordova is a real person, steep in mystery, but a tangible person nonetheless. Ashley keeps the story grounded in reality.
      Sort of. 
     I say "sort of" because eventually you'll reach a point in the novel where it starts to read like the most intense H.P. Lovecraft story ever written, and reality flies right out the window. This is right around the time that people in the story are lacing everything with powerful hallucinogenics, diving into dark magic, and summoning demons.
      However, it is still a compelling story that I am glad I stuck with until the end. It is a story about a man who chose dark suspense films as his artistic medium, and in the process of revealing his character, reads just like one of those dark suspense films--giving the reader the same adrenaline rush.
***
      Night Film by Marisha Pessl is available at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

Monday, December 15, 2014

"Proof: the Science of Booze" by Adam Rogers

       Proof: the Science of Booze caught my eye when I was looking for something new to read in the science section--specifically in the topic of chemistry. Adam Rogers presents a book that is a comprehensive look at the science behind alcohol and the mystery of why it has the effect that it does...all leading the reader to the grand conclusion of: "we still don't know." Serious examination and studies all lead to the same result of "we know what it does but we don't know why."
      So why would anyone be interested in a book that takes eight chapters and almost 250 pages to tell you that much about alcohol? Well, for starters there's a ton of information that is just downright cool to learn about; like the physiological effects of what is happening to your body during a hangover, a molecular explanation about what yeast is doing to the sugars and why it is vital to the final product, or a history of prohibition that you wouldn't find in a high school history class. There's also a witty, journalistic writing style, and the science passages are written to appeal to readers who want to know about chemical reactions but might not have a PhD in molecular chemistry. Also it contains such gems as:
“If dust disperses through the air it behaves like an explosive gas -- any spark can ignite a particle, which then sets fire to all the particles near it, and so on, in a three-dimensional, fast-moving exothermic wave, which is a fancy way of saying "fiery death explosion.” 
      also:
“The CO2 has to come out, which it does by forming bubbles. Now, champagne is pressurized to six times the atmospheric pressure on earth at sea level, enough to propel a popped champagne cork faster than 30 miles an hour. Lesson: letting the cork shoot out of a bottle when you open it is both tacky and dangerous.”
      and let's not forget:
“You have to be smarter, let’s say, than the German researchers who found liquid in a centuries-old container and simply drank the stuff, figuring they’d be able to taste anything interesting.” 
***
       It's less of scientific explanation as to the "why" of alcohol, and more of a scientific explanation as to the "how." There is a "why" present, but it is the closer examination as to alcohol's effect on the development of human society. “William Faulkner is supposed to have said, "Civilization begins with distillation," but I'd push even further -- beyond just distilled spirits to wine, beer, mead, sake ... all of it. Booze is civilization in a glass”(Adam Rogers). This is not a book about why people should or should not drink, nor is it a lecture. This book is a history of the human story...as seen from a glass of fermented grain, which makes it an interesting combination of a history book and a science book. I would absolutely recommend this book to anyone with an interest in chemistry or history, as it shows the development of a product that seems to always come back to the central consciousness of civilization.
***
      Want to see what else Adam Rogers has to say about the science and history behind humanity's love of fermentation? Proof: the Science of Booze is available at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

Friday, December 12, 2014

"The Silkworm" by Robert Galbraith



      The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (pseudonym of J.K. Rowling) is the second in a mystery/suspense thriller series featuring Cormoran Strike, an young English military veteran turned private eye after a significant wartime injury resulted in the loss of one of his legs, and Robin Ellacott, Strike's secretary, assistant, and detective-in-training. 
The plot of the book picks up not very long after the conclusion of the first novel in the series (The Cuckoo's Calling), with Strike's private investigative services seeing a rise in business following his minor celebrity status due to his successful resolution of the Lula Landry case (the main plot of The Cuckoo's Calling). Strike is hired by the wife of a formerly prominent author with the job of finding said formerly prominent author who has gone missing.
The novel follows Strike's investigation into the disappearance of Owen Quine, and as a result gets drawn into the cutthroat (sometimes literally) world of the publishing industry--and what starts out as a simple missing person investigation becomes a complex and dark race to uncover the identity of a murderer, blackmailer, and literary forger before they ruin the lives of Quine's family, and end the lives of Strike and Robin. 
***
      Having grown up during the boom of Harry Potter popularity, and having centered a great deal of my life around awaiting the publication of each Harry Potter novel, it is very very difficult to not compare everything else that Rowling will ever write to her original series. Indeed this is what happened with A Casual Vacancy; her first publication following the conclusion of the Harry Potter series. Each review I read of that book seemed to contain some variation on the phrase "not like Harry Potter." But I feel that comparing everything that Rowling writes to Harry Potter is a surefire way to ensure that nothing will ever succeed. Which is why her decision to publish this series under a pseudonym makes sense.
      That being established,
     The Silkworm surprised me by catching my attention moreso than its predecessor The Cuckoo's Calling did. While I did like The Cuckoo's Calling, I was so focused on learning about the characters and remembering which name coincided with which description and set of character traits, that I was less focused on the plot of the story and ended up missing significant plot events--and thus would then be confused when the next significant plot event hinged on the plot event that I had missed. This issue was solved when I went back and re-read the book a second time, and I loved it. But in The Silkworm, I ended up not having this problem at all. The characters came off as more developed, and I was more interested in the case being investigated. I attribute this to the fact that there was less time spent establishing the main characters as main characters (i.e. less time spent blocking out their back-stories separate from the plot of the story) and more time spent developing their characters as a part of the story itself. This meant that I found myself sinking more of my emotions and commitment into the story, and less time deciding if I liked the characters.
***
      I think that where The Silkworm succeeds as a mystery/suspense thriller story, is that the setting of the story is laid out to be intensely realistic and able to be imagined by the reader to give a sense of inclusion to the story. Too often I will read suspense thrillers and mysteries and feel disconnected from the story because I can't well picture what or where things happen in the story. With this series, the setting is vivid and the detail given to the actions of the characters makes for an almost tangible sense of anxiety with the rise in tension. This is what allows for the necessary feeling of catharsis that comes from the emotional connection with the characters within a story--that feeling of having undergone great stress and trial, without having to actually undergo the actions themselves. Which is what I primarily look for when seeking out new reading material. 
***
      The Silkworm is the second book in the Cormoran Strike series, and is the third book written by Rowling post-Harry Potter to be geared towards an audience of adults. You can find it, and many of Rowling/Galbraith's other books at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

Monday, December 8, 2014

"Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore" by Robin Sloan

"The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon away from life as a San Francisco web-design drone and into the aisles of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after a few days on the job, Clay discovers that the store is more curious than either its name or its gnomic owner might suggest. The bookstore’s secrets extend far beyond its walls." (from the Goodreads review page.)
***
      Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan drew me in with a description of a millennial-ish aged person reevaluating their options and transitioning from the mindset of "I need to find a career that highlights my talents and specific training" to "I need to find a job--any job--because I need to pay my rent. Also food would be nice." Once again, I stumbled upon a character with identifiable traits and personality development. The narration style employed by Sloan was also very reminiscent of the narrator from Ernest Cline's Ready Player One; which, incidentally, was another book that a) I personally loved and b) has been highlighted on this blog previously
      The story progresses into a plot that sounds like a set-up to an Indiana Jones story: a bookstore out of which ancient secret society operates, combing through the bookstore's secret collection in search of the code that cracks the society founder's secret to eternal life. I will admit that at this point, I almost put the book down since this is a plot that is starting to wear thin--having read it multiple times, each time I pick up a Dan Brown book. However I have a (sometimes frustrating) habit of doggedly determining to finish any book I start reading. So I kept reading. And I'm very glad I did, because the story took a turn that I did not expect and wound up being one of my favourite discoveries of the year. What you think is going to turn into a story about a search for a paranormal and supernatural secret to eternal life, actually becomes a metaphor for the continuing quest to obtain, preserve, and display information in the form of words and writing. It's a story about the development, progress, and importance of words.
***
      This book is an allegory for the paper book vs. e-book argument/battle happening everywhere all the time over the last five years. The split between the two primary leaders of the ancient society (The Society of the Unbroken Spine) over the methods by which the society members decode the codex is eerily familiar; the store owner, Mr. Penumbra, in favour of embracing the emerging technology in order to better access the hidden facets of the codex, while the society leader struggles to keep the society strictly in the dark ages and only rely on the methods used by the society's founder with no outside aid from any technology other than a pen and paper. There's a moment in the book when Clay and Penumbra are in the secret underground vault of the society, where Penumbra remarks what a hassle it was to get the leader to agree even to install electric lighting in the vault to aid those doing the bulk of the code breaking work. Someone wanting to using technology to advance a society forward, versus someone struggling to keep a society firmly entrenched in the past? Sounds so familiar, almost like I've had that exact argument before. Repeatedly. Every day.
***
      And the protagonists of this book are not simply in favour of technology replacing analogue sources--that's usually the argument that anti-tech. people resort to when attacking new technology. That would be a weird argument to make, considering I read the print copy of this book, and not the e-book (though that exists as well). Rather, the story in this book is a metaphor for using the emerging technology to improve the access to information provided to people, not to replace way the information is provided. It's to take information that once was difficult to access, or obtuse to wield, and make that information available easier and more reasonably. 
      Mr. Penumbra's mindset regarding wireless technology and computers is one that I share and try to verbalize every time I am confronted with the phrase "Why get your library degree? Won't e-readers make your job obsolete in the next [insert arbitrary time frame here]?" This comment is usually met on my part by a heavy sigh before launching into a long and detailed explanation of "No, librarians don't just read books all day, there's actually a lot of work involving computers that happens, there's also reader's advisory, collection management, cataloging, reference advisory, and quite frankly there are tons of different non-public library jobs that require a library degree like for example archive management, lots of digital records management, or sometimes even museum curator (depending on the museum)--wait why are you leaving? Come back, I haven't even gotten to databases yet!"
***
      Computers, e-readers, the internet...these technologies are not the enemy of books and libraries. They won't make print sources obsolete, they won't put libraries out of business, there won't be abandoned landfills full of paper books. What this technology is doing is taking the information provided and making it easier and faster to access, so that it is possible to find more and advance society in a better direction. This book is a metaphor on the dangers of trying to halt development in favour of glorifying and remaining entrenched in the past instead of acknowledging the both the accomplishments and the mistakes of the past and building on them in order to build a better future.
*** 
You can find Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

Friday, December 5, 2014

"Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened" by Allie Brosh



      Hyperbole and a Half is a blog written and run by Allie Brosh in which she uses a combination of web comic and narrative prose to describe stories of her childhood, incidences with her dogs, and advice based on her observations of adulthood. Using an intentionally artistically crude drawing style (rendered in the Mac Paintbrush program) coupled with observational and absurdist humour, Brosh has gained internet popularity since 2009 as a blogger willing to speak bluntly and openly about her own struggles with depression, social anxiety, ADHD, chronic procrastination, and other conditions. Several of her comic drawings have exceeded well beyond her blog and achieved meme status on social networking websites like Reddit, Tumblr, and Imgur.

***

      In October 2011, Brosh made a blog entry which displayed in detail her experiences with depression, which was praised both by followers of her blog and by practicing psychologists as one of the best non-medically written, and insightful descriptions of depression from the point of view of someone suffering from the illness rather than from the point of view of a medical professional observing the effects of the illness. After this post, Brosh’s blog went silent with no new material posted for over a year, causing concern among her readers. While she issued a statement regarding her absence from the blog, and answered questions during a Q&A thread on Reddit, it wasn’t until May of 2013 that a follow-up comic “Depression Part Two” was posted on her blog continuing the narrative and including a discussion on her suicidal feelings. The popularity of Brosh’s blog was seen when the post got 1.5 million views in a single day.
***
      In October 2013, Brosh’s book Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened was released. This book contains several of the classic and popular comics/posts from her blog (including Depression Parts One and Two), plus about ten new stories not ever published on the blog--like the first chapter in which Brosh tells of the time when (at age twenty-seven) she found the time capsule she had buried at the age of ten containing a letter written to her future self. The letter concludes with the request that her future self “please write back”; a request with which Brosh not only complies but also expands to include letters to her past self at various other ages as well. For example: “Dear Two-year-old, face cream is not edible--no matter how much it looks like frosting, no matter how many times you try--it’s always going to be face cream and it’s never going to be frosting. I promise I wouldn’t lie to you about this. It’s honestly never going to be frosting. For the love of ****, please stop. I need those organs you’re ruining” (pages 8-9).

***
      I think that what so many people (myself included) find appealing about Brosh’s writing/comic style is how approachable it is. While she's telling stories about her own life and her own weird experiences, they hit so close to home for so many people in the millennial generation who are approaching or already in their mid-twenties. When I first started following the Hyperbole and a Half blog and then later was reading the book, I started to loose track of how many times I found myself thinking "There are other people who think this way? Oh thank goodness I thought I was alone and weird." But I'm not alone, there are apparently millions of people who have similar experiences and mental processes. And we're all pretty weird. And are drawn to Brosh's deliberately simplistic drawing style and hyper-descriptive narrative text. Her story-telling method is very fluid, inserting the Paintbrush drawings so seamlessly that they are so much a part of the story that to remove them and replace them with strictly typed words describing what the drawing was attempting to convey would be akin to removing one of your kidneys and replacing it with a balloon filled with pudding. Sure it’s still vaguely kidney-shaped, and you’d still have the other kidney to take up the slack, but pretty soon you’re going to notice something’s missing. Also, you’ll probably get some kind of infection. And if that metaphor sounded weird and slightly disturbing then I’ve successfully conveyed the type of humour Brosh uses in her writing.
***
      Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things that Happened is available in the catalogue at the Ocean City Free Public Library.

Monday, December 1, 2014

"American Elsewhere" by Robert Jackson Bennett



“Some places are too good to be true. Under a pink moon, there is a perfect little town not found on any map. In that town, there are quiet streets lined with pretty houses, houses that conceal the strangest things…” (taken from the Goodreads summary)
***
      American Elsewhere by Robert Jackson Bennett follows the story of former policewoman Mona Bright, as she tracks down information regarding her deceased mother and finds herself in the small town of Wink, New Mexico. Suddenly the benefactor of her mother’s old house, Mona decides to temporarily reside in the town of Wink while she decides what to do with the house. The town is strange, mysterious, and dangerous as a whole, and even stranger as individual residents are introduced. The undoubtedly human residents seem quite content to make arrangements and conditions for strange unseen forces while never ever venturing out of their houses after dark; staple community members are unquestionably fey, otherworldly, and know more than they’re telling; and clusters of residents seem stuck in a pseudo Stepford-like haze without any clue as to what they are doing or what constitutes normality. Mona finds herself interacting with all these bizarre townspeople while trying to unravel the mysteries of how her mother fit into this small town dynamic, what role the abandoned scientific research facility on the mountain looming over the town plays, and the reason why her mother chose to end her life  so abruptly and without warning.
***
      American Elsewhere at first appears as a work of urban fiction--an ex-cop turned drifter, disillusioned with the justice system dealing with the loss of both her parents--but quickly starts to twist into an otherworldly invasion story worthy of an episode of The X-Files. Or Sanctuary.  Or a bizarre hybrid of both. As the story progressed, the town began to twist into a bizarre nightmare world. The laws of physics start to warp and it starts being less like a  mystery and more along the lines of a sci-fi mad scientist backstory gone horribly horribly wrong. I discovered this book when looking for long fiction that embraced the Lovecraftian narrative style of writing. And American Elsewhere definitely has Lovecraftian narrative running throughout its plot. In fact, as I was reading I started to picture the town of Wink, NM as a sister town to Night Vale--the fictional desert community of Welcome to Night Vale, the CommonPlace Books podcast heavily influenced by the works of H.P. Lovecraft.  
      And once my brain made this comparison, I was hooked and desperate to read it all in one sitting. Unfortunately, since I had started reading it on a one hour lunch break, that wasn’t going to happen so for the rest of the day I kept gazing longingly at my satchel bag and making whimpering noises.
***
      American Elsewhere is most definitely, unquestionably, and without a doubt, weird. There’s no other one word description for it. Which was great for me, because I tend to deliberately seek out and embrace the weird. It’s weird, it’s twisted, and it delves into the dark recesses of human thought to poke at the lingering fears humanity has stored in the backs of their minds. The base story that Bennett presents is not necessarily new--on the contrary, there have been so many sci-fi stories that rely on the infiltration trope, i.e. humanity’s slow replacement with otherworldly duplicates or subversive enemy agents that it’s pretty much become its own branch off of science fiction. We’ve seen it in so many times in movies (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Faculty, The Invasion, The Thing, Little Shop of Horrors, Oblivion, Slither, The World’s End, etc.), in comics (Marvel’s  entire Skrull Invasion comic series), in television (the long-running Syndicate story-arc in The X-files, multiple story-arcs in Doctor Who, Star Trek: The Next Generation, The Outer Limits, Stargate SG-1), in literature (Animorphs, The Puppet Masters, The Bone Clocks)--it’s a very well known plot device for sci-fi creators. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s a worn-out plot device. On the contrary, Bennett uses it to his full advantage. Combining a classic creation-style myth with the infiltration trope, gritty urban fiction style writing, and plenty of aberrant Cthulhu-esque monsters, at the end of this book I found myself wishing that I could wipe it from my memory completely so I could read it again and experience it for the first time .
***
      American Elsewhere was Robert Jackson Bennett’s fourth novel, and you can find it in the fiction section at the Ocean City Free Public Library. Or put a hold on it in our online catalogue.