In The Martian by Andy Weir, the action is cranked all the way up to 11, which is an impressive feat for a story that unfolds over the course of a year and a half. Set in the not-too-distant future, this is the story of NASA’s third mission to Mars. A type of routine has set in with these missions to the Red Planet until a freak sandstorm causes NASA to abort the mission and evacuate the planet. As the astronauts prepare to leave the surface, one is struck and thought to be dead, so he is left behind by his crewmates. Knocked unconscious, Mark Watley awakes to find himself in a damaged spacesuit, alone, with no communications and no way to get off the planet. Smart, sarcastic, hard-working, imaginative and more than a little nerdy, Watley is the perfect hero. Left alone with limited supplies, Watley has to find a way to survive and meet his basic needs. Just as he starts to accomplish this, NASA realizes their mistake. As the world turns its attention to the drama unfolding across a sea of stars, Watley is forced to parry every challenge thrown at him by a harsh, unforgiving environment.
The Martian, with its roots in current space history, it is more a work of science “fact-ion” than science fiction. This debut novel by a promising new voice is a celebration of the esprit de corps and professionalism of NASA, as well as a celebration of the human spirit. Weir speaks to the basic human need to risk any danger, no matter the cost, to save another human in distress. The Martian will leave you breathless on its way to a fist-pumping-in-the-air conclusion, perfect for anyone who loved Apollo 13 or Gravity as well as readers of Mary Roach’s Packing for Mars.
Valentine’s Day will be here soon. However, you don’t need the calendar to read February 14 in order to share some heartwarming picture books about love with your little ones. In The Runaway Hug, written by Nick Bland and illustrated by Freya Blackwood, a little girl named Lucy asks her mommy for a hug before bedtime. This hug is special because it’s the very last one that her mommy has and because of that, Lucy promises that she will return the hug back to her. Lucy decides that she must share this very special last hug with everyone else in her family. She shares this last hug with her daddy, the twins and the baby before sharing it with the family dog, Annie. But when Lucy tries to get the hug back from Annie, the dog runs away playfully and takes Mommy’s very last hug with her. Will Lucy be able to keep her promise to return the last hug to her mommy? Bland’s text meshes well with Blackwood’s illustrations, depicting a loving and somewhat chaotic home to which parents will easily relate.
Even though love is not something that you can see or touch, love can be found all around us in Love Is Real, written by Janet Lawler and illustrated by Anna Brown. Using rhyme, Lawler tells a story about how love can be found in simple acts of kindness. Adorable families of forest creatures show how everything they do throughout the day, from helping you get dressed in the morning to putting a bandage on a skinned knee, are examples that love is real.
Another book about love featuring forest animals is Love You More Than Anything by Anna Harber Freeman. Children will love the simple rhyming text and bright, playful illustrations by Jed Henry. Whether it’s ladybugs, playing on the playground or a bubble bath, there is nothing that the chipmunk parents love more than their little kids.
Ever wonder what happens to your old cell phone when you e-cycle it? What about the everyday recycling that is put out on the curbs? Oddly enough, these items will likely make their way to China or other developing countries, where there are growing manufacturing bases and therefore large demands for recycled materials. In his first book, Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, journalist Adam Minter expounds on the convoluted routes of recycling, with particular focus on the history of the American scrap metal trade. Although these topics may not seem palatable for reading material, Minter creates a fascinating and readable narrative about individuals who have made it their business to see worth in what others discard, and the processes which have been created to recycle materials.
Statistics in Junkyard Planet are mind-boggling. Companies in one town in China, for example, recycle approximately 20 million pounds of American Christmas tree lights annually. In 2007 alone, U.S.-based Huron Valley Steel recycled over one billion pounds of shredded car parts, material that 50 or 60 years ago would have ended up in a landfill. Further, Minter goes behind the scenes and introduces us to many individuals, here and overseas, who have made a living in the recycling and scrap trades. It’s a profession with job security and very little worker turnover, where those who have dedicated their lives to the business take great pride in the work they do.
For those truly concerned about the health of the planet, however, Minter encourages people to reduce the amount of products they buy. As he puts it: “Recycling isn’t a get-out-of-jail-free card for consumption,” as the business of recycling is profit-driven, not motivated by environmental concern. Minter has personal knowledge of this topic as he grew up in a family of multi-generational scrap dealers. Anyone interested in environmentalism or economics will find Junkyard Planet an intriguing read. The photographs alone are worth a look!
On February 9, 1964, the Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show and more than 70 million television viewers tuned in. This landmark appearance transcended television and these photos offer a glimpse at history in the making. On February 9, CBS will air The Night that Changed America featuring performances from a wide range of musicians in a spectacular salute. Over the last 50 years, the Beatles have been the subject of much study, but two new titles offer fresh perspectives on the phenomenon, the era and the men behind the Fab Four.
The Beatles are Here! by Penelope Rowlands features essays and interviews with other musicians, fans and writers. Cyndi Lauper, Billy Joel, Fran Lebowitz and Joe Queenan are among those who share their personal recollections. Rowlands does an excellent job of not only depicting the hysteria but also recognizing the cultural and economic impact the Lads from Liverpool had on individuals and the American music industry. Rowlands herself was an ardent Beatlemaniac and this collection arose from her own experiences. She is one of five screaming girls captured in an iconic photograph that has been published around the world and serves as the book’s cover.
Historian John McMillian explores the Beatles in light of their relationship with that other band from Britain in Beatles vs. Stones. In the 1960s the two biggest bands in the world were the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The two were often depicted as rivals, but this was more media myth than actuality. In an effort to increase profit, managers fueled the flames of this fake feud through clever marketing. Thus, the Beatles were cute and likeable, despite their hardscrabble Liverpool backgrounds, while the Stones, mostly from the London suburbs, were cast as the edgy bad boys. McMillan’s primary source research adds to the engaging narrative, which transports readers across continents as he explores these two legendary groups, their relationships and their enduring impact.
Fans of mystery writer Maggie Barbieri and her Murder 101 series, rejoice! Her newest mystery, Once Upon a Lie, introduces us to her new series featuring protagonist and baker extraordinaire, Maeve Conlon. Readers will empathize with the family challenges that comprise her waking hours. She has two teenage daughters, one completely wild and the other fixated on achieving in school as her ticket out of their small town, an ex-husband who left her for one of her close “friends” and a cancer surviving best friend/employee with love-life issues. Add to this her dear father, a retired cop with Alzheimer’s who resides locally in a nursing home – except for when he manages to escape confinement to take walks along the river. She finds solace in the Comfort Zone, the bakery she owns and loves but which barely provides enough income to pay the bills. Maeve is a kind and compassionate person who tries her best to care for her family but constantly fears that she isn’t doing enough.
The story begins with the murder of Maeve’s cousin Sean, who is found in his car with his pants unzipped and a bullet in his head. Despite being raised in a close-knit Irish family where everyone lives within a block from each other, she feels very little sorrow at his death. She remembers him as a bully who tormented her as a child and only attends his funeral services out of family duty. She doesn’t give his death a second thought until investigating officers start to focus on her father as their main suspect. Unable to understand how the police could seriously believe an old man with dementia could be responsible she is determined to help prove his innocence. Unfortunately, circumstances are such that he could have had the opportunity, and Maeve begins to wonder if her father could be exaggerating the degree of his confusion.
The mystery of the killer’s identity will have readers guessing until the very last page. This novel explores family dynamics and how far a person would go to protect the people they care about. Maeve is a complex character that readers will find captivating, and will make them wish they could stop by her shop for a cup of coffee and a pastry.
Lives will never be the same again in Rachel Joyce’s Perfect when, in the summer of 1972, two 11-year-old boys convince themselves that the British government is adding two seconds to that year. Byron, a heartfelt husky lad, admires his lone friend, James, for his intelligence and diligent approach to life. When James informs him of this addition to time, Byron has no reason to doubt him.
However, when Byron witnesses a shocking incident within these extra seconds, the repercussions prove costly for everyone surrounding him, especially his captivating mother, Diana. Although she delights in nature, theater and small kindnesses, Byron’s thoughtful observations detect a deeper sadness under his mother’s delicate repose. Her husband expects her to dress in the refined styles of the ‘50s and lavishes gifts upon her, like a brand new Jaguar, for the sole purpose of instilling envy in the community.
Fast-forward two decades and we encounter Jim, a man living in a dilapidated trailer who is plagued by obsessive compulsive tendencies. Although he is well-meaning, his stuttering and fear of disasters keep him from developing any real relationships with others. As these alternating stories escalate, the two seconds become more mysterious and questionable, yet are vital to these seemingly unrelated plots in this latest work by the author of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry.
The Impossible Knife of Memory, Laurie Halse Anderson’s latest teen novel, tells the story of Hayley Kincain and her father. Hayley’s mother died when she was a baby, and ever since it’s just been Hayley and her dad. When Hayley’s father returns from war with severe post-traumatic stress disorder, her life gets turned upside down. In order to deal with the memories that haunt him, he becomes a truck driver, driving all over the country trying to outrun his memories. After years of homeschooling Hayley on the road, he decides they should move back to his hometown. Since they set out on the road years before, Hayley has had to be the responsible one, taking care of herself and her father. She hopes that moving home will mean that their life will settle down. Her father isn’t getting better at home either. He continues to self-medicate his PTSD with drugs and alcohol, forcing Hayley to run the house and keep her teachers and friends from noticing.
At school, Hayley struggles to deal with her zombie-like classmates and teachers who don’t accept her unorthodox education. Her only friend is Gracie, a friend from elementary school who barely remembers her. Finn, another classmate, has made it his mission to get Hayley to write for the school newspaper in order to become closer to her. As she begins to fall for Finn, her father takes a turn for the worse and her life falls to pieces.
Much like Anderson’s earlier novel Speak, The Impossible Knife of Memory deals with many heavy themes. Hayley’s distinct voice and vibrant personality make her a character readers will identify with and remember long after they finish the book.
The Today Show reinstated its book club in 2013, and the first two selections went on to be bestsellers. The newest selection is Under the Wide and Starry Sky by Nancy Horan, a fascinating portrayal of the unknown woman behind a famous man. In her new novel, Horan reimagines the lives of author Robert Louis Stevenson and his wife Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne. Although most of us are familiar with Stevenson’s work, few people know about the smart, independent woman who was his wife.
Fanny decides to leave her husband and her life in San Francisco behind to start over. Along with her three children, she travels to Belgium planning to study art. After a tragedy occurs during her travels, Fanny goes to an artists’ retreat in France where she meets Louis, a Scottish man 10 years her junior. Louis is captivated by the beautiful, opinionated and brash American woman. Although she is initially resistant to her suitor, eventually Louis wins her over, and their tumultuous love affair begins. The story takes them across Europe and America and through the South Pacific.
Many readers will remember Horan’s wildly popular first novel Loving Frank, which was the story of Frank Lloyd Wright’s love affair with Mamah Borthwick Cheney. Horan says that she is led to these women by first becoming fascinated by the men’s lives. She shares more about what inspires her to write about the lives of these fascinating women in this video.
Blogger, mom and wife, and, in her own words, “recovering Jesus Freak,” Addie Zierman writes the story of her evangelical adolescence and young adulthood in When We Were on Fire: A Memoir of Consuming Faith, Tangled Love, and Starting Over. Raised by parents who belonged to an evangelical church, Addie caught “fire” in her sophomore year of high school when she and her friends became devout Christians, first joining and then creating their own Bible study group at their high school. These were the 1990s, the days of WWJD?, mission trips to save lost souls and contemporary Christian pop music.
Divided into four sections, Zierman provides the reader with a glimpse into the mind of a young evangelical woman who believes she knows the path that her God has put forth. Pressing her along this journey is Chris, a young man three years older, who seems to Addie to have it all figured out. But as she eventually realizes, nothing she does is holy enough for Chris while he is in his own state of “fire,” and they part on bad terms. This breakup points Zierman toward her disillusionment with her beliefs; nonetheless, she enrolls in a conservative Christian college in the Twin Cities. She meets the love of her life, Andrew, who shares Addie’s propensity for standing out from the rest of their classmates. After their marriage, failed attempts to find a church that has everything they’re looking for results in her rebellion against everything. This includes forays into alcohol abuse, a minor infidelity and previously undiagnosed depression. Ultimately, she finds redemption in creating a spiritual center that is right for herself and her family.
Conversationally composed, with very little religious jargon that might bother the casual reader, When We Were on Fire is an exceptional memoir. Relatable to anyone who has ever become fixated on a topic, whether it involves matters of faith, a romantic interest or otherwise, Addie Zierman’s work makes her a writer to watch.
It’s hard work for picture book protagonists to get a decent meal these days. In Buddy and the Bunnies in: Don’t Play with Your Food, our hero is a monster to be reckoned with. All frantic mouth and teeth, wide eyes and pointy claws, Buddy announces his intention to eat a trio of peaceful, checkers-playing white rabbits. But these clever lagomorphs have other ideas for keeping Buddy busy, beginning with playing hide and seek and baking a dozen delicious cupcakes. Each day the horned, orange-striped monster returns for a rabbit repast, and each day there are more bunnies who are too much fun to eat. Children are guaranteed to laugh out loud at Buddy’s wild mood swings, from frightening and frantic to endearing and delighted, broadly depicted by author-illustrator Bob Shea. His bold, bright pastel palette adds to the story’s upbeat, energetic tone. Buddy and the Bunnies demands repeat read-alouds.
The trench-coated fox of Mike Twohy’s Outfoxed makes a midnight run to the chicken coop, mistakenly grabbing a duck in his haste. The two return to his den, where the exhausted predator is all set to cook his prey. But this is no ordinary duck! Thinking on her feet, the fowl proclaims that she is actually a dog. Duck jumps and slobbers and barks, working hard to convince Fox of her worthiness as a canine companion. Twohy, a longtime cartoonist for The New Yorker, uses a brightly inked comic book style to tell this comedy of mistaken identity. Young readers are sure to delight at Duck’s misbehaving dog act, while the book invites a debate of the merits of the old saying “if it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.” Outfoxed is sure to be a story time favorite.