Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Caesar's Last Breath by Sam Kean

  • THE BOOK
    • Caesar's Last Breath: Decoding the Secrets of the Air Around Us by Sam Kean
    • Published July 18, 2017
    • Other works by author: The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements; The Violinist's Thumb: And Other Lost Tales of Love, War and Genius as Written by Our Genetic Code; and The Tale of the Dueling Neurosurgeons: The History of the Human Brain as Revealed by True Stories of Trauma, Madness and Recovery.

  • THE PREMISE
    • The story starts with the idea that when we breathe in we might very well be inhaling a molecule or at least an atom that was exhaled by Julius Caesar as he died on the floor of the Roman Senate. When we inhale and exhale sextillions of molecules enter and leave our lungs. 
    • The book covers the various atoms that make up our air: oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, and the rest. In this respect it's a history of the air starting with the beginning of the universe.
    • But the author always includes interesting stories about the people involved.
      • The usual suspects like Einstein, Lavoisier and the Curies as well as the lesser known like Humphrey Davy, Henry Cavendish, Fritz Haber, Le Petomane, and more.
    • Many fascinating topics abound: Mt. Saint Helens (which had its big eruption 2 days before I graduated from high school), spontaneous combustion, nitrous oxide, refrigeration, anesthesia, and Roswell.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • I have read every book by the author so I am obviously a fan of his work.
    • This is just a fun way to learn about science: history well seasoned with anecdotes and entertaining stories.
    • The footnotes in the back are worth reading as well because they often have a side note to the main tale. (As opposed to strict scholarly footnotes that are no fun to read at all.)
    • Recommended for those who enjoy science and/or the history of science. And for those who just enjoy a good non-fiction book.
    • ★ ★ ★ ★

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling

  • THE BOOK
    • The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
      • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
      • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
      • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
      • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
      • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
      • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
      • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
    • Published from 1997 through 2007
    • Other works by author include The Tales of Beedle the Bard, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, The Casual Vacancy, and several books of the Cormoran Strike series under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith.

  • THE PREMISE
    • Harry Potter is an orphan who lives with his aunt, uncle and cousin. At age 11 he finds out that he is actually a wizard and will attend Hogwarts for training in the magical arts.
    • Harry has an enemy in Lord Voldemart. He killed Harry's parents when Harry was a baby but he couldn't kill Harry for mysterious reasons. Harry was left with a lightning bolt-shaped scar on his forehead.
    • Over the course of the seven books Harry contends with school and the threat of Voldemort with the help of his two closest friends Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger.
    • By book seven all plot threads have come together and the final confrontations occur between Harry and Voldemort.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • For Father's Day 1999 my mother-in-law gave my husband a book, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, because she had heard it favorably compared to A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L'Engle, a book my husband likes.
      • I read it first because he was reading a different book at the time. I really liked it and went online to see if there were sequels. At that time there was only one, which Amazon.com tells me I purchased on June 24, 1999, four days after Father's Day.
      • The third book was due to publish on September 8, 1999, in the United States. I ordered that one on September 9, 1999.
      • This was all just as (or just before) popularity of the books exploded.
    • Eventually my family (me, my husband and my 1993-born son) all read the books as they came out. 
      • Because they were a huge publishing event they were published and delivered on Saturdays. (Books normally come out on Tuesdays.)
      • We would get the new book and read it in this order: me, my son, my husband. The fastest reader got it first!
      • By the last couple of books the order changed to my son, me and my husband!
    • We all saw and loved the film versions too.
    • I have read these books several times but this was the first time I read them in one uninterrupted flow, over the course of a couple of weeks.
    • I remember having a completely satisfied feeling after reading the final book in the series. I feel the author did an amazing job of tying everything together by the end.
    • The world-building is phenomenal. The characters are well drawn.
    • We named our first two pet rats after characters from the Harry Potter books. My son wanted a pet but I didn't want a cat or a dog. He wanted an owl like Harry's Hedwig but owls don't make good pets. So we settled on a rat because Ron had one named Scabbers. (This was before we knew who Scabbers really was!) Our first two rats were named Fred & George after Ron's twin brothers.
    • I might quibble that Professor Dumbledore left a bit too much to chance over the course of the seven books given what's at stake to defeat the bad guys.
    • My favorite book is the last one, where everything comes together. I also love the first one for its sense of wonderment, introducing us to the wizarding world.
      • My least favorite is the fifth book, the Order of the Phoenix. Harry is left in the dark by Dumbledore for the whole book and gets a bit too mopey and angry because of that.
        • That said, it features the great villain of Dolores Umbridge ("Hem, hem."), but it makes the book almost relentlessly downbeat. Not bad by any stretch, just kind of depressing. It still gets 4 stars from me!
    • Recommended for all children as well as adults who like fantasy stories about witches and wizards.
    • Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
    • Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets ★ ★ ★ ★
    • Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
    • Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
    • Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix ★ ★ ★ ★
    • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince ★ ★ ★ ★
    • Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Monday, August 21, 2017

Monument 14 Series by Emmy Laybourne

  • THE BOOK
    • The Monument 14 Series by Emmy Laybourne
      • Monument 14
      • Sky on Fire
      • Savage Drift
    • Published 2012 through 2014
    • Other works by author include Berserker and Sweet.

  • THE PREMISE
    • Some spoilers included.
    • Monument 14:
      • A worldwide disaster occurs when a mega-volcano explodes in the Atlantic Ocean causing a tsunami to destroy the Atlantic coastlines, killing millions of people.
        • That's not what this book is about.
      • In Monument, Colorado, two school buses are suddenly pounded with "hail" which is the rock chunks of the volcano explosion falling back to earth from the sky as the cloud spreads over the planet.
        • One bus crashes and the other bus driver rescues the survivors and takes the students into a Greenway store (think Wal-mart superstore).
        • The bus driver goes for help, leaving 14 students ranging in age from 5 to 17.
      • But the disasters keep coming: a huge pair of earthquakes.
        • The earthquakes cause damage at NORAD releasing several compounds into the air.
        • It turns out the compounds attack based on the inhaler's blood type:
          • A: skin blisters until it basically dissolves the body into goo
          • B: sterility and impotence
          • AB: paranoia and hallucinations
          • O: mindlessly violent with urge to kill
      • The students all get exposed briefly to the chemicals and then (after tying up the type O's) close up all openings with tarps and plastic sheeting after the riot doors automatically lock them in.
      • Meanwhile the outside world is going crazy and other people want to get in to the store too.
    • Sky on Fire:
      • Some of the students leave on the school bus to get medical attention for one of their own. They all wear many layers of clothing and use breathing masks to minimize the chemicals they breathe in. 
      • Some stay behind (the type O's) because they can't be sure they won't kill everyone else.
      • Both groups face problems. 
        • The bus is basically carjacked (busjacked?) and the students are stranded out in the open trying to get to the Denver Airport where they hear that evacuations are happening.
        • The store group is busy fighting off interlopers.
    • Savage Drift:
      • The rescued are in refugee camps in Canada but one of the type O's is at a camp in Missouri where conditions are deplorable.
      • The older teens mount a rescue mission.
      • Meanwhile the "drifts", clouds of the chemicals flitting about the country, are still causing trouble even though the government says there are no such things.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • Interesting premise that's been tackled before: kids during a disaster, which goes back to Lord of the Flies.
    • Having the group of younger children, both kindergartners and first graders, was an interesting addition, especially in the first two books as five- and six-year-olds won't be going on rescue missions.
    • There are a few tropes: the serious guy, the popular guy who takes drugs and gets wasted every chance he gets, the pregnant teen girl, the 13-year-old girl who wants to be treated like an adult, the teen electronics prodigy, the sensitive teenage boy, and the bully.
    • This would probably make an interesting movie series.
    • The action takes place over about 6 weeks, each book approximately during each two-week period. This seems like an awfully short time for everything to happen, given the supposed destruction of the East Coast. It only took a few weeks to set up secure camps for the type O's? Given how long it took for real disaster victims to get help from the government (Katrina, Sandy, etc...) it seems unlikely that it would all happen this quickly in the 2020s.
    • It takes place in the year 2024. Cory Booker, current senator of New Jersey, is the president. Interesting but I think the books might have been better off with a nameless president or a fictional one.
    • Monument, Colorado, is a real place, located north of Colorado Springs. I have driven through it twice, on my way to and from Colorado Springs. Greenway stores are fictional.
    • The whole thing has issues but I really enjoyed reading the books. I was entertained. 
      • One example issue: an earthquake happens with an 8.2 magnitude and is supposedly the foreshock before an even bigger earthquake that happens shortly after the first. I don't think you can know it's a foreshock until the main event occurs. Okay, fine, but then no more earthquakes happen or are even mentioned in the books. In real life there would be hundreds of aftershocks for weeks or months, especially at that large magnitude. Says someone (me!) who lives in an earthquake-prone area.
      • The map in the third book amused me greatly. Who can spot why?!
    • All the books had maps on the end-pages which I really liked. But this map was the one that made me laugh out loud.
    • Recommended for young adults who like these series: The Hunger Games, The Fifth Wave, Divergent, the Tripod books, Last Survivors, No Safety in Numbers and the like. It's a quick read to get through all three books.
    • All three books: ★ ★ ★ ★

Friday, August 18, 2017

Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley

  • THE BOOK
    • Jane Austen at Home by Lucy Worsley
    • Published May 18, 2017
    • Also known as At Home with Jane Austen or Jane Austen at Home: A Biography
      • Depends on the publisher/country
    • Other works by author include: Hampton Court Palace: The Official Illustrated History, The Art of the English Murder: From Jack the Ripper and Sherlock Holmes to Agatha Christie and Alfred Hitchcock, The Courtiers: Splendor and Intrigue in the Georgian Court at Kensington Palace, and If Walls Could Talk: An Intimate History of the Home.

  • THE PREMISE
    • A biography of English author Jane Austen (1775-1817) with special emphasis on the way she lived and details of the places and towns she lived in.
      • She is, of course, famous for 6 works: Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility, Mansfield Park, Northanger Abbey, Emma and Persuasion
    • It also details the times she was able to work on her novels. As a women in the 18th and 19th centuries she had duties in the home that tended to get in the way of writing:
      • Entertaining the constant stream of visitors; taking care of the nieces and nephews; making visits away from home.
    • The book also covers the details of her romantic involvements and puts it all in context of the times. And the assumption is that Jane could never have written her novels had she become a wife and mother instead.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • I first saw Lucy Worsley earlier this year on a show called "Six Wives with Lucy Worsley", about King Henry VIII and his marriages. I really enjoyed her presentation so I was happy to see this book about Jane Austen, an author I love.
    • I knew the basics of Jane's life but this book really filled in the blanks.
      • Jane's mother would have her children, and after keeping the infants home for the first few months, then send them to a local woman to nurse for another one to two years.
      • One of Jane's brothers, George, was apparently epileptic as well as developmentally disabled. He was sent away to live with caretakers for the rest of his long life.
      • Another of Jane's brothers was allowed to become the heir of a childless couple, wealthy distant relations. He changed his last name to Knight and inherited a fortune. This enabled him to eventually provide a home for Jane, her sister Cassandra and their mother after Jane's father died.
      • Cassandra destroyed most of Jane's letters because she didn't want the other family members to read Jane's sharp comments about them. Jane wrote over 3,000 letters, mostly to Cassandra, and only 160 or so still exist.
    • Learning about the ways of life in those times was fascinating. What they ate, how they decorated, what the chores were, and more. I can't get enough of that kind of thing.
    • I am not as agog about Jane's romantic life as some people seem to be. The book delves into the topic with great detail and it's interesting enough.
    • There is great detail on all the homes Jane ever lived in and whether they still exist. Those parts would be a great companion for those visiting Jane sites.
    • Perfect for Jane-ites and anyone interested in what life was like in the early 1800s in England for the gentlefolk.
    • ★ ★ ★ ★

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis

  • THE BOOK
    • The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis
    • Published August 25, 2016
    • One other work by author: The Address

  • THE PREMISE
    • Darby, whose father is deceased and mother is remarried, comes to New York City from Ohio to attend the Katherine Gibbs (Secretarial) School. The year is 1952 and young Darby will be living in the Barbizon Hotel which is for women only. 
    • The Barbizon was a famous place and still exists. It is the building shown on the book cover.
      • Many real-life famous women stayed there early on in their careers but the book only seems to care that Sylvia Plath lived there once for a few weeks in 1953.
      • The hotel converted to condos in 2005. Supposedly some of the older residents were grandfathered in and still live in rent-controlled apartments. 
    • The second main character is Rose who lives in an apartment with her boyfriend in 2016.
      • The boyfriend dumps her and she ends up staying in one of the older ladies' apartments upstairs. 
      • The lady is away for a few weeks and might be...Darby!
    • Rose, a journalist on hard times, decides it would be a good story. She starts trying to piece together the past along with a hunky war photographer. She does this by going through Darby's things in the apartment Rose is squatting in.
    • Back in 1952 Darby's story and the big mysteries of the woman who leapt to her death (or was pushed) from the hotel and the woman who got her face slashed and scarred are revealed.
    • The story alternates between Rose in 2016 and Darby in 1952 but by the end is mainly focused on Rose.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • I was so excited to read this book but was disappointed. So much promise in the premise!
      • Darby!
      • New York City and the Barbizon Hotel in 1952!
      • Katie Gibbs secretarial school!
      • Snooty models on whose floor Darby is assigned a room when the Katie Gibbs floor is full!
      • Darby is supposedly plain as well as a country hick. Her favorite dress is laughed at by the snooty models!
      • Darby and her new friend Esme, one of the cleaning staff, going to a jazz club!
      • And then the real focus of the story is Rose in modern day.
      • Bah.
    • I wanted WAY MORE Darby and friends than I got. And a subsidiary character, one of the models named Stella, is more fleshed out in the current day story than in the past but you really learn nothing of the in-between.
    • Rose is a very difficult character to like. Therefore I don't care about her love life. I don't think this was the best framing device because it took over the whole story.
    • This book is not remotely trashy like Valley of the Dolls or Scruples (more's the pity). But in those books I really enjoyed the parts where the characters --- Anne in Valley and Billie in Scruples --- are living life in New York while working as secretaries or going to Katie Gibbs. I wanted more of that in this book.
      • I wanted to meet all the models!
      • See if Darby got a makeover!
      • I wanted Darby to make real friends.
      • Read about the 1952 romances!
      • Bah.
    • It's not a BAD book, just not what I hoped to read.
    • Recommended for anyone interested in a small slice of fiction that takes place in 1952 New York. 
    • ★ ★ ★

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Word by Word by Kory Stamper

  • THE BOOK
    • Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper
    • Published March 14, 2017
    • First book by author

  • THE PREMISE
    • The author works for Merriam-Webster as a lexicographer. She writes definitions for words in the dictionary.
    • There are chapters about every facet of definition writing: meaning, pronunciation, etymology, part of speech, usage and more.
    • Everything you wanted to know about dictionary writing but were afraid to ask...for fear someone might tell you.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • The author is funny and sometimes a bit profane, bringing some liveliness to what many might think a dull subject.
      • For a bunch of people, especially readers (including me), the idea of writing for a dictionary or an encyclopedia is a dream job.
      • The author has a blog and a Twitter feed. I follow both and here's a recent tweet:
        • "Dear Mr. Man, Thanks for writing. Rest assured I did see the comment you left on my blog. I have not approved it because it's stupid."
    • One chapter covers the usage of the word "irregardless". Many people would tell you "it's not a word" but because it is used often to replace the correct word "regardless" it gets a place in the dictionary because of its usage. 
      • Irregardless is incorrect because it has a prefix (ir-) and a suffix (-less) which both mean "not". 
      • "Regardless" is equivalent to "not regarded" or "without regard".
      • That means "irregardless" is equivalent to "not not regarded" or "not without regard" which, as a double negative, takes you back to "with regard". That's why it's incorrect usage. But many people still USE it so it needs to be in the dictionary.
      • The point is that the dictionary is a snapshot of the language at the time it is written.
    • I find the history and meaning of words to be fascinating so I really enjoyed this book.
    • Recommended for people who love words. Also enjoyable for those who read World Book Encyclopedias as kids.
    • ★ ★ ★ ★

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

The Chilbury Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan

  • THE BOOK
    • The Chilbury Ladies Choir by Jennifer Ryan
    • Published February 14, 2017
    • First novel by author

  • THE PREMISE
    • Taking place in 1940, just after the start of World War II, the story concentrates on the fortunes of the women in the town of Chilbury, England. 
      • It is located in Kent, notable because it is between London and the coast, where German bombers will soon be passing over.
    • With the men off to war the vicar cancels the church choir because he doesn't think it will work without men's voices.
    • A female music professor comes up with a way to keep the choir going, now called --- you guessed it! --- the Chilbury Ladies' Choir.
    • Due to class differences some of the women have a hard time adapting to new circumstances but most of them rise to the challenge.
    • By the end of the story the bombs have started to fall.
    • The novel is told from the point of view of several characters via their letters and diary entries so is thus an epistolary novel.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • I really enjoyed this book and hope for a sequel someday. The story only goes up to September 1940 and there is so much more war to come for the women in town.
    • The level of description that the writers include in their letters or diaries is somewhat unrealistic: very, very detailed in the way of a novel but not a 13-year-old girl's diary!
      • This did not take away from my enjoyment of the story but I can see that it might be a dealbreaker for those who prefer strict realism.
      • To me, it's a novel told in a different form. I say, go with it and enjoy the ride!
    • I just love the slice of life stories that take place in England and this one is no exception.
    • Recommended for those who enjoy novels about England and World War II. Some people have mentioned in their reviews that it reminds them of The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (I read this but too long ago to recall specifically). Others mentioned the PBS series "Home Fires" which I haven't watched.
    • ★ ★ ★ ★

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel

  • THE BOOK
    • The Roanoke Girls by Amy Engel
    • Published March 7, 2017
    • Author's first novel for adults. Also wrote two books for the young adult series The Book of Ivy.

  • THE PREMISE
    • The story takes place in two time frames. 
      • One occurs when 15-year-old Lane Roanoke moves to her grandparents' home in Kansas after her mother's suicide.
        • She meets her cousin Allegra, who already lives with her grandparents after her mother "ran off" after Allegra was born.
        • Lane also meets a guy and starts a romance with him.
      • The second occurs 11 years later. Lane now lives in California but her grandfather calls and asks her to return to Kansas because Allegra is missing.
        • She searches for clues as to Allegra's whereabouts and rekindles her romance with the guy she left behind.
    • We learn, bit by bit, and through the 2 time frames, what the backstory is on the whole family of Roanoke girls.
    • And incest. LOTS and LOTS of incest.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • You kind of know incest is going to be a thing early on in the narrative but you don't really understand the whole thing until the end.
      • Spoilers in inviso-text (highlight with your cursor to read them): The grandfather molested his two sisters, his daughters, AND his granddaughters. He does this by grooming them so that they all come to believe that this is what they WANT. (Until they catch on to the whole sick thing and leave or kill themselves.) His granddaughters are thus also his daughters. Lane ran away as soon as she figured it out, the same summer she arrived, and wasn't molested. Grandma knew about the whole thing and murdered her last daughter as a baby so Grandpa would  love her again. 
    • The only real mystery is what happened to Allegra. The solution is appropriate to the story. The story is not a true mystery book however.
    • Not my favorite book but I liked parts of it. That would be the parts where we learn about life in the small town where the story takes place. 
    • The ending is hopeful.
    • Recommended for those who like mysteries but with a strong sexual element to them. Or if reading Flowers in the Attic didn't bother you.
    • ★ ★ ★

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Prince Charles by Sally Bedell Smith

  • THE BOOK
    • Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life by Sally Bedell Smith
    • Published April 4, 2017
    • Other works by author include: Elizabeth the Queen: The Life of a Modern Monarch; Diana in Search of Herself: Portrait of a Troubled Princess; and For Love of Politics: Bill and Hillary Clinton: The White House Years.

  • THE PREMISE
    • This is an up-to-date biography of Great Britain's Prince Charles.
    • It includes his long-time relationship with Camilla, the marriage to Diana, his relationship with his parents and siblings, and his interests in gardening, architecture and running his many charities.

  • MY THOUGHTS
    • Prince Charles seems to be exactly the way you think he'd be: stuffy and modern all at the same time. Stuck in tradition but also forward looking and ahead of his time on some issues (global warming, non-GMOs, and farming without chemicals, for example).
    • It is obvious in hindsight that he should never have married Diana but rather married Camilla in the early 1970s when they were originally together. But he was told to marry an aristocratic virgin, someone without a past, and Diana fit the bill. Camilla, alas, did not.
      • It seems to me that many of Diana's "mental issues" were more immaturity than anything else. (The bulimia and cutting that she later suffered through were definitely mental conditions but they weren't developed in a vacuum.) She went into it thinking they were in love. He still loved Camilla; Diana wasn't imagining things. She just didn't have the tools to deal with it at the age of 19.
      • She was royally screwed. (Pun intended.) Even if someone had sat down to say, "This is your job: have a couple of babies (the heir and the spare) and then live your life as you want, but discreetly, while Charles goes back to his mistress, and someday you will be the queen of England," her only real choice would have been to stop the wedding.
      • These opinions aren't in the book, by the way. They are mine.
    • As I read through Charles' story I found myself wondering if any of this would someday be included in the TV series "The Crown". Let's hope so!
    • You come away for quite a bit of sympathy for Camilla who seems like a great broad by every account. I think she will indeed be called queen someday rather than "princess consort" but time will tell.
    • Recommended for royal fans but not a must-read. Some parts are a little slow.
    • ★ ★ ★