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Witches of America

posted by: October 29, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Witches of America by Alex MarWitches of America is in some ways the antithesis to other spiritual narratives that have been popular recently, such as Unorthodox by Deborah Feldman, which focus on practitioners reinventing themselves outside of their respective religions. It is author Alex Mar’s narrative as she investigates Pagan worship in contemporary American society, first as a documentarian for her film American Mystic, which profiles different practitioners of alternative religions, and then as an initiate into the Feri, a self-decribed “sex cult,” struggling against her inherent skepticism and upbringing as an atheist to experience transcendence for herself.

 

While Mar has a down-to-earth attitude in the face of mysticism that many readers will relate to, she is also honest about her biases and attempts to approach the weird without judgment. In spite of the sensationalism the subject matter inherently conjures up, her exploration reveals how practicing Pagans are seeking answers to questions all spiritual people ask, including what it means to have a higher calling and what actions it takes to live a “good” life. As an investigator, Mar comes across as a sympathetic interlocutor, actively trying to immerse herself in a society that is extremely conscious of its outsider status and protective of what that status entails. As she puts it, “Groucho Marx would have understood the witches: their clubs do not necessarily want you as a member.” The results of her mining are revealed in her personal development and include several thoughtful observations regarding skepticism and faith.

Liz

Liz

 
 

Alphabet Books: Not Just for Toddlers

posted by: October 28, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Rad American Women A-Z by Kate SchatzCover art for A to Z Great Modern Artists by Andy TuohyWriter Kate Schatz and artist Miriam Klein Stahl pair up to make their wonderfully colorful and informative book Rad American Women A-Z. Each woman gets a two-page spread with a graphic illustrated portrait and a few easy-to-read paragraphs. There are a myriad of different women including actresses, artists, scientists and activists. In addition to showing a variety of careers, Schatz and Stahl feature women with different socioeconomic backgrounds, races, ages, gender identifications and disabilities. Notable features include Kate Bornstein, a transgender writer and performance artist, “who reminds us to bravely claim our true identity,” and Temple Grandin, an autistic animal science professor, “who shows us the power of a brilliant mind.” Although the text is written at a fifth-grade level, the women featured can be shared with any age group, from kindergartners to adults.

 

A to Z Great Modern Artists, drawn by Andy Tuohy and with text by Christopher Masters, is the kind of aesthetically pleasing book to have on your coffee table for when you want to get absorbed into something interesting but don’t quite feel like engaging yourself in a novel or magazine. Each featured artist has a portrait drawn by Andy Tuohy that replicates the style of that artist—Piet Mondrian’s portrait is drawn in the signature geometric style of his artwork, while Andy Warhol’s portrait is done in his famous pop-art style. In addition to Tuohy’s creative portraits, each letter of the alphabet feels like its own exhibit and includes notable works of art from the featured artists. You’ll want to move through the book slowly, like you would when walking through an art museum, in order to fully appreciate all of the nuances of Tuohy’s creative design.


 
 

1944

posted by: October 27, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for 1944 by Jay WinikJay Winik chronicles the final push toward a WWII victory in 1944: FDR and Year That Changed History. By 1944, the Allies expected to win the war. There were no illusions: They knew the terrible cost it would entail. Franklin Delano Roosevelt maintained a coalition of contentious rivals who, in ordinary times, would have been natural enemies. Roosevelt faced some of the biggest challenges in our history: a struggling economy that threatened our democracy, an isolationist sentiment that shunned foreign involvement and the insatiable greed of fascism as it gobbled up country after country. All the while, the presidency took its toll on his health. FDR was clearly dying.

 

The book also discusses the atrocities being committed to Jews. The dread of Jewish families as the full meaning of their plight is understood is heartbreaking. The detailed account of the escape of two Jewish men from Auschwitz is taut and gripping.

 

Winik skips back and forth through the era, documenting events in 1944 and then backtracking to FDR’s political rise. Winik indicts FDR and his administration for failing to take direct action against the Nazis’ diabolical “Final Solution.” Historians have long debated whether Roosevelt could have done more militarily to disrupt or alleviate the Holocaust. His choice to concentrate on winning the war will remain controversial.

 

Jay Winik is a respected historian and his writing well executed. He is the author of New York Times bestselling April 1865 and The Great Upheaval. World War II enthusiasts will enjoy the backseat view of a beleaguered president as he maneuvers through the minefields of war and politics.


 
 

This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

posted by: October 26, 2015 - 7:00am

JThis is Your Life, Harriet Chance! coveronathan Evison’s new novel This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! introduces our heroine Harriet on the day she is born, and through shifting narration and flashbacks, tells us of her life story. Using the format of the popular 1950s game show This Is Your Life, we meet all the characters and memories that have shaped Harriet’s existence. By all appearances, she has played it safe: a husband, housework, children and a couple of close friends. So when she discovers that her late husband bid on and won an Alaskan cruise at a silent auction, she decides to go ahead and have the adventure on her own at age 78.

 

On the cruise, she gets much more than she bargained for: the reappearing ghost of her husband, her estranged daughter showing up to share her cabin and a letter that reveals that so many parts of her life were never what they seemed to be.

 

The lighthearted and shifting narration isn’t just a fun ride of a novel (at parts, it really is), it is a complex and deeply moving look at a flawed, earnest character finally trying to come to terms with what has been her life. Even though one chapter is set in present day and the next may be set in 1954, Harriet is very much a product of her age. She gives up on her dream of being a lawyer to settle down with her husband, Bernard. She spends all her time and energy on the house and their children. She becomes Bernard’s sole caregiver as he battles Alzheimer’s at the end of his life. She makes many mistakes in the process. Through the replay of the good times (which are few) and the not-so-good times (which are many), it is impressive that Harriet is still searching for a positive outcome.

 

At its heart, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! is a novel about relationships and the choices we make to keep those relationships going, especially our relationship with ourselves. A great choice for book clubs, this novel will resonate with fans of Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings.

 


 
 

Armada

posted by: October 26, 2015 - 7:00am

Armada coverEver wished life was more like a video game, where you could save the world with your friends and triumph over evil alien invaders? Ever wanted to be the hero, making all the right choices and saving the day?

 

Ever thought that maybe, just maybe, there’s more to the story than the player gets to know?

 

Ernest Cline brings his pop culture-referencing, video game-playing and '80s nostalgia-inducing strengths to his second novel Armada. Following the success of his first novel Ready Player One, Cline’s newest hero is Zack Lightman, a senior in high school who holds the ranking of sixth best player in the video game Armada. Armada’s gameplay consists of defending the Earth from attacking alien forces; during missions players control drones instead of flying a manned flight suit. Outside of playing Armada, Zack has no direction in life and little interest in the outside world. He does enjoy listening to music and reading the journals his father left behind when he died. The journals detail his father’s conspiracy theory – all of the popular science fiction movies and video games over the past couple of decades are preparing humanity for an inevitable confrontation with an alien race. The video games in particular are being used to train gamers for future combat.

 

Zack thinks this all sounds rather far-fetched until the day he spots a spaceship hovering over his school. A spaceship that looks like one of the enemy alien ships in Armada. Suddenly everything Zack knew about reality has changed, and he’s whisked off to a secret government base to take part in defending Earth from the Europans, an alien species set on the destruction of humanity. And he’s thrilled, in a sense, because it’s exciting to be called upon to defend Earth. Except for the niggling voice in the back of Zack’s head that thinks the Europans are acting a little too much like a scripted video game villain. That maybe things aren’t as they seem, or as Zack’s commanding officers think they seem. But what can one video gamer do?

 

Armada blends the classic coming-of-age story with an alien invasion packed with action and thrills. While not as strong of a storyline as Ready Player One, Cline’s use of pop culture still provides plenty of chuckles. His action scenes make this a good book for any science fiction or video game fan.


 
 

My Cousin Momo and Nerdy Birdy

posted by: October 23, 2015 - 7:00am

My Cousin Momo cover.Nerdy Birdy coverMy Cousin Momo is Zachariah OHora’s latest lovable picture book about a flying squirrel named Momo who is visiting relatives. His cousins have been anxiously awaiting his arrival, but he isn’t quite what they expected. In fact, Momo is a little weird. He doesn’t fly, his favorite superhero is Muffin Man, and he doesn’t even know how to play the simplest games, like Acorn-Pong! However, he manages to show them that being weird is cool and doing things differently is actually pretty awesome. Kids will relate to this delightful, simple story which encourages readers of all ages to look at the world a little differently. The quirky, fun illustrations are a big bonus as well.

 

In Aaron Reynolds new picture book, Nerdy Birdy doesn’t feel like he fits in anywhere. With his giant glasses and odd allergies, he just isn’t cool enough to hang with Eagle, Robin and Cardinal. Just when he thinks he’s doomed to be friendless forever, he meets a group of birds just as nerdy as him. They even like to play World of Wormcraft! When a different kind of outsider wants to join their flock, Nerdy Birdy needs to persuade his new friends to accept misfits of all sorts. This is a great book about making friends and welcoming everyone. Reynolds manages to make this sometimes difficult topic truly giggle-worthy.

 


 
 

George

posted by: October 22, 2015 - 7:00am

George coverAs societal awareness of the transgender identity grows, the conversation on what it means to grow up transgender is also gaining new voices. First-time author Alex Gino’s book George puts readers inside the mind of a transgender child struggling to understand her gender identity and to convey that identity to those important to her.

 

George is a fourth-grader with a mother and older brother, a best friend and a secret – she’s a girl who wants to be called Melissa, not the boy named George that everyone thinks she is. It’s distressing for her to have to use the boy’s bathroom, to keep her hair cut short and to be called “young man.” George’s greatest fear is that her family won’t understand or accept her if she tells them the truth. She decides, instead, to hide her identity, causing her to continue to feel isolated and frustrated.

 

This changes the day her teacher holds auditions for the class play of Charlotte’s Web. George desperately wants to play Charlotte. Not only does she admire Charlotte’s strength, but also believes that if she can land this key role she can show everyone, especially her mom, the girl she is. However, her dream is dashed when her teacher won’t let her audition for the part; after all, Charlotte is a girl role and to her teacher George is a boy. When her best friend Kelly comes up with a plan for George to be able to perform as Charlotte, George has to gather her courage to show everyone who she is.

 

While the book is recommended for middle school readers, George is the story of a child discovering and accepting herself that everyone, child and adult, transgender and cisgender alike, can relate to. George’s quest to be accepted for who she is gives readers insight into her world in a way that is equally heartbreaking and heartwarming. Readers interested in children’s books with a transgender protagonist should also read Ami Polonsky’s Gracefully Grayson.


 
 

Big Magic

posted by: October 22, 2015 - 7:00am

Big Magic coverIf you’re an artist of any kind, if you aspire to live a life driven by curiosity, if you believe that inspiration and creativity are literal magic, then you will find a kindred spirit in Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

 

Gilbert is best known for her 2006 memoir Eat, Pray, Love about her life-changing travels to Italy, India and Indonesia. But Gilbert advises that it’s not necessary to pack up and travel the world for the sake of your art—you can and should make room for creativity and magic in your everyday life, and Big Magic provides the roadmap. She also warns against putting unnecessary pressure on your creativity or burdening it by asking it to financially support you. This advice could feel inauthentic coming from a writer who does support herself with her art, but Gilbert is so earnest in her beliefs, it’s impossible to begrudge her success.

 

Instead of advocating fearlessness, Gilbert says that we should allow plenty of room for our fear, but realize that it should not control our creative lives. She also dismisses the popular stereotype of the tormented artist. Instead, she suggests that your work should be a positive collaboration between you and your creativity. Gilbert theorizes that ideas are incorporeal entities longing to be brought into existence and that if we aren’t receptive to them, they will knock at the next artist’s door. She relates an anecdote about a novel she failed to write, only to discover years later that a very similar idea had magically found Ann Patchett.

 

After writing Big Magic, Gilbert didn’t feel like she was finished with the subject of creativity and began a podcast called Magic Lessons where she and guests, including Patchett and Cheryl Strayed counsel writers and artists who are having issues in their creative lives.

 

Beautifully written and full of fresh ideas on the nature of creativity, Big Magic is sure to become recommended reading along with classics like Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way and Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird.


 
 

Pretty Girls

posted by: October 21, 2015 - 7:00am

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter coverDo bad things happen to pretty girls? Yes, they do according to Karin Slaughter’s latest novel, Pretty Girls. A gripping, fast-paced, intense thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat. From the first page she grabs you by the throat and does not let go until the very last word.

 

Pretty Girls begins with Claire Scott witnessing her husband Paul’s brutal murder. Paul was her provider, lover, soulmate and family for 20 years. She even disowned her sister, Lydia, when she accused him of attempted rape. She trusted Paul implicitly, while Lydia was a thieving alcoholic and drug addict. But how well did she really know him. Yes, he was by her side when her father committed suicide and endlessly filled the hole in her heart from her eldest sister’s disappearance. But now, 20 years later, another pretty girl has gone missing in their town and Paul has been murdered. Are these two events connected? Was Lydia telling the truth? As she moves forward from his death, Claire learns that Paul had secrets. But how deep are those secrets and how do they affect her and her sister Lydia? Who can she trust to help her find the truth? Masterfully told through both Claire and Lydia’s voices with excerpts from their father’s journal before his suicide, Slaughter weaves a tale of both deception and shock.

 

Filled with plenty of “aha!” moments only to be followed with “but what about…?” moments, Slaughter keeps you guessing to the very end. As you learn more about Paul Scott with each page, discovering the truth will become your mission as much as Claire’s. So much so that you may even suffer a sleepless night or two, but you will not regret it!

 

Looking for other twisting tales of deception like Pretty Girls? Try The Good Girl by Mary Kubica and Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll.

 


 
 

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