Archive for the ‘Adventure’ Category

Red Seas Under Red SkiesScott Lynch is in the top tier of epic fantasy writers who are stretching the genre in new directions. Red Seas under Red Skies, the second book in his Gentleman Bastards series, like the first, The Lies of Locke Lamora, combines gritty epic fantasy with a buddy story and a heist crime story line. It’s a cinematic combination loaded with great banter between the lead characters, a twisty, suspenseful plot line, and exotic settings. The series is probably best experienced in sequence, but you could read the second book alone and have a satisfying reading experience.

Master thieves and swindlers Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen have gone on the run after their exciting and ultimately tragic adventures in the first book of the series, finally landing in Tal Verrar, a city state made rich by gambling. As the book opens, we find Locke and Jean in the midst of an elaborate scheme to rob the Sinspire, a seemingly impregnable fortress of a casino with increasingly exclusive action on each higher floor. To rob the most powerful players at the top, Locke and Jean first have to run a long con, winning at enough complicated games of chance to gain access to the upper floors.

But somehow their cover is blown and they come to the attention of Tal Verrar’s powerful political leader. I won’t give away too many plot points, but he traps Locke and Jean and forces them to pose as pirates in another elaborate scheme that will solidify his tenuous hold on power in the city state. There are some great comic scenes as the landlubber thieves try to learn enough seamanship to pretend to be seasoned sea dogs. Of course things go wrong, and the ruse becomes a kind of reality as the duo play for higher and higher stakes. They’ll have to survive pirates, politics, poison, a love triangle, and more, just to get back to the city where they hope to pull off an impossible crime that becomes as much about revenge as it does money.

It’s a complicated plot, but Lynch fills his books with so many great action sequences, so much razor-sharp repartee, so much good-natured derring-do, that it’s easy to forgive any moments where the story stretches credibility. He wraps up enough of these complicated plot lines cleverly that you will be more excited than you are bothered that there are cliffhangers leading to the third book, Republic of Thieves (which was published in late 2013 and has had great reviews as well). I know I’ll be among the readers following this masterful  yarn to its conclusion.

One caution: this series is very much part of the gritty school of fantasy. These are street-toughened characters leading a violent and dangerous life, and readers should expect language and levels of violence that realistically match that setting. It’s leavened with plenty of charm and humor, but come prepared for lots of colorful cursing and bloody action.

Check the WRL catalog for Red Seas under Red Skies

Or try the story on audiobook on compact disc

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RiddleLabyrinthDo you know which event was on the front page of The Times of London in 1953, the same day as an article about the first ascent of Mount Everest? Would you believe that the translation or “decipherment” of the ancient script of Linear B was seen as newsworthy as the heroic efforts of Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay?

Margalit Fox’s The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code is narrative non-fiction at its best, with mystery, and high drama. I had never heard of Linear B, and don’t worry if you haven’t either. You don’t have to be a devotee of ancient languages to be sitting on the edge of your seat to find out who, how and when Linear B was deciphered. Margalit Fox’s narrative thread focuses on the American Alice Kober who was a university teacher, but who worked on Linear B in her spare time on her dining room table. The book paints a picture of the academic world in the era before computers led to instant and easy sharing. Linear B aroused great passions and rivalries among academics and lay-people, even to the extent that they hoarded ancient clay tablets and didn’t let anyone else see them for forty years.  Also, as in the best nonfiction, I painlessly learned an enormous amount about Linear B, ancient languages and linguistics in general.

Linear B was written on clay tablets in the Mediterranean area that is now Greece for a few short hundred years around 3000 years ago. The Minoan and Mycenaean civilizations that used it collapsed then it was lost to the world until clay tablets bearing indecipherable text were discovered in 1900 by British Archaeologist Arthur Evans. The clay tablets and the inscriptions on them remained a mystery for the next fifty years. Many people tried to decipher them, but all failed until finally British architect Michael Ventris published his work in the early 1950s. Michael Ventris is usually the hero of this story, such as in books like The Decipherment of Linear B by John Chadwick in 1958  and The Man Who Deciphered Linear B: The Story of Michael Ventris by Andrew Robinson in 2002. Margalit Fox argues that the meticulous, painstaking and time consuming work done by Alice Kober was instrumental in him reaching his final conclusions. Alice Kober left behind boxes packed tightly with index cards systematically annotating and data-basing minute aspects of the known symbols.

Linear B was only used for administration. In the words of Alice Kober, “we may only find out that Mr. X delivered a hundred cattle to Mr. Y on the tenth of June, 1400 BC”, but the clay tablets still afford an unprecedented glimpse into the daily lives of people long gone. Only around 120 “hands” have been detected in Linear B tablets, which means not many more than 120 people knew how to write it. That contrasts to the huge gains in human development, because now it is estimated that 80% of the world population is literate!

Try The Riddle of the Labyrinth if you like riveting, historical non fiction with a touch of mystery about diverse topics such as The Professor and the Madman: a Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, by Simon Winchester or The Poisoners Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum.

Check the WRL catalog for The Riddle of the Labyrinth: the Quest to Crack an Ancient Code.

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wrinkleThe 1963 Newberry-award winning novel, A Wrinkle in Time, was a favorite of mine as a child. There was something so gently compelling about the storyline and I could relate so deeply to main character. Teenager Meg Murry doesn’t fit in, in school or seemingly anywhere else. She’s smart but stubborn, and fiercely protective of her family, even with its complete lack of normalcy. She is especially combative when anyone speaks badly about Charles Wallace, her youngest brother, who is definitely an odd child. Their father is missing, and his unexplained disappearance haunts the family, and leads Meg to be even more belligerent as she struggles to deal with the loss and the emptiness of not knowing what happened to him.

Although it has been many years since I last read A Wrinkle in Time, I was immediately swept back into the adventures had by Meg, Charles, their neighbor Calvin, with the Misses Whatsit, Who, and Which guiding them along their journey throughout the universe to save Mr. Murry from the terrible blackness that envelops him. The story, to use the words of Mrs. Murry, requires a willing suspension of disbelief, but the relationship between Meg and her brother Charles Wallace is poignant, and the storyline flows smoothly and quickly.

This work, adapted and illustrated by Eisner Award-winning artist Hope Larson, is the first time the iconic story has been presented in a graphic novel format. The illustrations are deceptively simple, and use a limited color palette of black, white, and sky blue. The blue hue serves to soften the starkness of the images, giving a dreamlike mood to the rapidly shifting number of worlds that they visit. Night and day have no definition here, as fighting the darkness without losing yourself or those you love is the only thing that matters.

This book is appropriate for all ages, but is especially recommended to fantasy readers and anyone who wants to revisit an old favorite from their childhood.

Search the catalog for A Wrinkle In Time: The Graphic Novel

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Doomsday BookConnie Willis is a favorite of the staff here at Williamsburg Library.  She combines interesting science fiction scenarios with literary sensibilities.  Her characters are quirky but believable, and she has an eye for the odd bit of detail that helps a story rise above cliché.  Her pace isn’t for readers that need one bit of action after another, but for those who like a steady, suspense-building progression.  She mixes humor and drama well.

That’s especially true in Doomsday Book, a novel that keeps the reader in suspense about the outcome of its central epidemic-and-time-travel adventure while inducing giggles at odd bits about demanding American bell ringers, a lusty student and his overbearing mother, or an intrepid young teen navigating difficult times with a strange, fearless grace.  Then it stops you in your tracks and wallops you with an emotional finish that underlines the great heartbreak that an epidemic can produce.

The story concerns Kivrin, a young Oxford history undergraduate in an alternate near future where limited forms of time travel are possible.  Kivrin’s desire to visit the Middle Ages is somewhat exploited by a don who takes too little care with the lives of time travelers.  So as she makes her voyage back in time, it’s against the protests and warnings of Dunworthy, a more careful man who is the story’s other narrator.  Dunworthy prepares Kivrin as best he can, but as the time machine is deployed, apparently successfully, he can’t escape feelings of dread.  As a Christmas-time epidemic descends on Oxford, with the time machine operator one of its first victims, and Kivrin’s location in time cannot be confirmed, his fears grow.

The story alternates between Kivrin’s narration in the past and Dunworthy’s efforts to bring her back in the present. Epidemics figure prominently in both story lines.  I won’t say more than that to avoid spoilers, but its a well-plotted story with just enough humorous detail to add variety.  The historical detail is just about perfect, and it captures an aspect of history seldom addressed in books like this: everyday struggles of regular people, with the currents of war, politics, and violence present, but in the background, not the foreground.

If you enjoy this you might go on to some of Willis’s other time travel novels, To Say Nothing of the Dog and the duology of Blackout and All Clear.

Check the WRL catalog for Doomsday Book

Or get Doomsday Book for an e-reader

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screaming“Of the first few hauntings I investigated with Lockwood & Co. I intend to say little, in part to protect the identity of the victims, in part because of the gruesome nature of the incidents, but mainly because, in a variety of ingenious ways, we succeeded in messing them all up.”

Ever since the Problem began (in Kent), no one goes out at night, not unless they’re armed with iron and salt to guard against spirits. For the last fifty years, nighttime is when ghostly Visitors come out to lament or avenge their untimely deaths, terrorize the living, drive down real estate assessments, etc. Because the young are particularly sensitive to paranormal energies, children and teens with psychic talents are prized as field operatives for the best ghost-investigating agencies.

Lucy Carlyle, age 15, is the newest hire at a not-so-reputable agency, Lockwood and Co., a small-time outfit run without adult supervisors by “old enough and young enough” Anthony Lockwood and his colleague George. Lockwood, proprietor, can see the residual death-glows where someone has died; Lucy can hear their voices, if she gets close enough; and George does research and cooks.

When their latest case results in not only failing to rid the premises of a ghost, but also burning the house down, Lockwood’s only chance at keeping the agency afloat is to land a really lucrative client. Say, the CEO of Fairfax Iron, owner of the most haunted private house in England, epicenter of dozens of rumored hauntings along its Screaming Staircase and in its sinister library, the Red Room. All the agents have to do is spend one night in the manor… and live.

This first book in a new series from the author of the Bartimaeus books has well-paced action and good old-fashioned swashbuckling with silver-tipped rapiers. Lockwood is dashing and cheeky, a Sherlock Holmes with two Watsons who, while inspiring his cohorts to their best work, never lets them in on his thoughts or his plan. He and Lucy and George are a camaraderie-in-the-making, if only they didn’t get on one another’s nerves quite so often.

“I’m being ironic. Or is it sarcastic? I can never remember.”
“Irony’s cleverer, so you’re probably being sarcastic.”

Fast moving, witty, and nicely creepy, the series is written for a middle grade audience, but entertaining enough for any age that appreciates a good ghost story.

Check the WRL catalog for The Screaming Staircase.

You can read the first chapter online at the author’s Tumblr.

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“The Time Lord has met many aliens, cyborgs, robots, and humans on his journeys through history and across the universe.”

DoctorWhoDoctor Who has clocked  almost eight hundred episodes over thirty-three seasons. If you add in the fact that the Doctor can travel to any time in history and any place in infinity, then it isn’t surprising that it can be a little difficult to keep all the characters straight. That is where the Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia comes in very handy. With more than two hundred entries from Abzorbaloff, the greedy shape shifting humanoid to the Zygons who met the fourth Doctor, it can’t claim to cover all of time and space, but it comes close.

November marked the fiftieth anniversary of Doctor Who–an extremely exciting event for Whovians. Those of us without BBC America on cable would have been left waiting for the Fiftieth Anniversary Special to come out on DVD except that, for the first time I have encountered, the Fiftieth Anniversary Special was kindly shown at movie theaters. Our closest movie theater showed it on IMax 3D on a Monday night, which is not my preferred format or time, but I had to go anyway. I didn’t dress up–unlike dozens of other Whovians young and old. They varied from around ten years old to well into their fifties or even sixties which is a very mixed fan base, but is not surprising for a show that started running before the moon landing and continues to attract fans.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a well-organized book in which you can search for characters by name, or browse the Table of Contents where they are categorized by type such as “Alien,” “Companion,” “Cyborg,” or “Entity” with color coding matching their main entries. Each character gets a full page spread with a description, details about their origins, homeworld, which Doctors they met and how they fit into the stories. Sharp, bright photos, typical of Dorling Kindersley publishers clearly show the attributes of each character.

The BBC obviously saw publishing opportunity in the interest around the fiftieth anniversary and this is an official BBC publication. If this book is out, our library has other books of background for desperate Doctor Who fans, such as, Doctor Who: A History by Alan Kistler or Doctor Who Whology: The Official Miscellany, by Cavan Scott and Mark Wright.

The Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia is a must-read (or a must-browse) for Doctor Who fans. If you are not a fan and are wondering what all the fuss is about try my review of the TV series of Doctor Who and check out some of the series on DVD.

Check the WRL catalog for Doctor Who Character Encyclopedia.

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butlerWe’ve had plenty of blog posts about Robert Olen Butler’s work, and if you go check them out you’ll see the incredible range and imagination that characterizes his work.  (We don’t yet have a post about A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain, the short story collection that won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993.  Alas, another sign that none of us can read or write about everything we’d like to.)  With The Hot Country, Butler’s narrative skill takes off in a new and wholly unexpected direction.

War correspondent Christopher “Kit” Marlowe Cobb has traveled to hot spots all over the world, but this time he’s covering one close to home. It’s 1914 and the U.S. has invaded Mexico in response to a diplomatic slight, and Kit is there to report on the heroic measures of the U.S. military. But Woodrow Wilson’s policy is to hold the port town of Veracruz, so there isn’t a whole lot for Kit and his colleagues to write about, except maybe the sporadic attacks on Marines visiting the local brothels.  (He’s still got to get that one by the censor.) Unlike his more staid colleagues, he goes out looking for material, and finds a big story that illustrates the turbulent background of Mexican politics.

Kit also learns that a German ship anchored in the harbor and reputed to be carrying arms to the Mexican army may have a dangerous cargo. Keeping in mind events taking place far away, Kit decides to dig deeper. As the nature of that cargo becomes more and more apparent, he takes it on himself to investigate further, then to act on his discovery. His efforts take him out of the city and into the Mexican hinterlands, where he barely escapes with his life. The scoop he carries is so explosive that he must cross the desert into the United States one step ahead of Pancho Villa’s men, and file from the first U.S. telegraph office he finds. But the response is far different from the one he expects.

Although the story is a genuine thriller, Butler makes Kit a dynamic character changed by the events he is part of. Although he is a war correspondent, it isn’t until his Mexican experience that Kit understands that he isn’t an immortal bystander, and the realization humbles him a bit. Kit is also the son of a renowned stage actress and readers come to understand how his upbringing has created the man he is—a restless chameleon entranced by words, capable at fighting but incapable of long-term relationships. In the course of the story, he also comes to grips with the fact that his mother is aging, and that the path she’s chosen has led her into a situation from which he cannot rescue her.

The Hot Country is followed by The Star of Istanbul, which has Kit heading across the Atlantic to cover the Great War, but getting sidetracked by historic events.  Its excellent reviews were what got me interested in reading the first of Kit’s adventures. At the same time, I’m hoping that Butler continues to allow his magnificent imagination to continue exploring the unexpected.

Find The Hot Country in the WRL catalog

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PurpleHeartMatt wakes up in a hospital bed in Iraq.  He remembers being on patrol, and he remembers an explosion, but he is blurry about what befell Ali, an orphaned Iraqi boy who had befriended him.  In the hospital he can’t remember what day of the week it is, forgets words like “trash,” and gets headaches that are a “bolt of pain.”  The medical staff tell him he has TBI (a Traumatic Brain Injury).  Usually mild cases get better on their own, and he’ll be back with his patrol in a few days. Matt struggles to remember what happened, but at the same time is terrified to recall, in case he remembers the unthinkable – that he purposely shot a child.

Purple Heart is marketed and classified as a teen book as Matt is only eighteen and enlisted straight from high school.  His hometown girlfriend writes him letters about school football games and pop quizzes.  She even says she is “sooo scared” of a bio pop quiz.  This highlights the divergence of their experiences and the disconnect between Matt’s old life and his new life.  Purple Heart is not a comfortable book and asks profound questions about war, as one of Matt’s buddies says, “We came over here to help these people and instead we’re killing them.”  And Matt thinks, “This is what war is all about.  It wasn’t about fighting the enemy.  It wasn’t about politics or oil or even about terrorists.  It was about your buddies; it was about fighting for the guy next to you.  And knowing he was fighting for you.”

Patricia McCormick says, “It isn’t an anti-war book. It isn’t a pro-war book. It’s an attempt to portray how three children ─ two eighteen-year-old Americans and a ten-year-old Iraqi boy ─ have been affected by war.”

Purple Heart asks (perhaps unanswerable) questions about the morality of war and how it changes people. I recommend it for readers of other Young Adult books about war, such as Sunrise over Fallujah by Walter Dean Myers.

Check the WRL catalog for Purple Heart.

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blackstallionThe Black Stallion is one of my all-time favorite films, and it stuns me to encounter individuals who have never heard of it, which sometimes happens when I suggest it to families looking for movies that will entertain viewers of all ages.  It often shows up on lists of great movies and also on lists of films containing minimal dialogue. The film is based upon Walter Farley’s children’s novel of the same name.

Visually mesmerizing, it’s also a great title for those learning the English language. The opening segment of the film is perfectly scored to music, especially a scene where the music is timed with the patient attempts of the boy to encourage “the Black” to join him in the sea so that he can finally ascend the horse’s great height to sit on his back and ride him. The reflections of light in the tropical waters, the endless sky, contrasted with the horse’s intense darkness and the pale yet sun-freckled flesh of the lonely shipwrecked boy are unforgettable. I admit, however, that at home with my DVD it is often during this scene that I find myself drifting off to sleep due to the relaxing atmospheric quality of the cinematography. It is for this reason that I always pop in The Black Stallion if I’m having trouble settling down for a good night’s sleep. It may work wonders for your rambunctious young ones when they’re in need of being calmed.

Check the WRL catalog for The Black Stallion DVD.

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My family discovered this story a few years ago during a road-trip stop at a popular restaurant and gift shop franchise where you can actually rent audiobooks on CD then return them at another location anywhere in the country. It delighted us that this alternative take, or prequel, on the lost boys, Peter Pan, pirates, magic, plus mermaids and a jealous fairy was equally appealing to the males and females, young and old, riding in our car. No one wanted to miss a single word as our car rolled along and it really helped pass the time!  We even couldn’t wait to get up the next morning from our hotel beds to hit the road and continue listening!

My kids have since taken up the reading of the complete series of five tales that concluded publication in 2011. This first audiobook is nine hours long.  I’d say this is the best road-trip audiobook ever and have recommended it to a lot of grandparents and parents seeking something to please whole carloads.

The book has boundless high-seas adventure, a mystery, and a heroic quest complete with a strong teen female character named Molly plus plenty of swashbuckling danger. Readers will learn the origin of the stardust that enables Peter and his friends to fly, and we get to know characters who feature in the timeless J.M. Barrie story Peter and Wendy. Humorist and novelist Dave Barry is a great storyteller and has ensured that the laughter almost never stops; Ridley Pearson’s skill with fantasy and fast-paced suspense is as adept in this young adult title as in his many books for adults.

Look for Peter and the Starcatchers in print or audiobook in the WRL catalog.

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ozDoes the Wizard of Oz need a plot summary? Thanks to Hollywood, everybody knows how the story goes. For many people, the 1939 movie has become the seminal adaptation of the work: singing munchkins, ruby slippers, a yellow brick road, an evil, water-phobic witch, and those monkeys. Creepy, creepy, flying monkeys.

When I heard that there was a new graphic novel representation of the original book I picked it up with a thrill of expectation tinged with fond nostalgia. I quickly found out how little I knew about the actual story. Shanower faithfully returned to the original text, which is darker and more involved than the movie portrayal. The munchkins don’t sing and there are a lot more winged monkeys. The famed ruby slippers are also nowhere to be found, with the original silver shoes taking their rightful place in the story. But Dorothy, Scarecrow, Tin Woodman, Cowardly Lion, and even Toto are all here, quickly joining together for their journey.

It was a daunting task for Eric Shanower and Skottie Young to take a story that has become so enmeshed in our cultural history and remake it. The introduction to this volume, written by Shanower, describes his lifelong passion for the works of Baum. This goes a long way towards explaining why he is so successful in his rendition. Only someone who so loves and respects Oz and the creatures that inhabit the world could pull this volume off. Young’s artwork is fantastic and his interpretation of the characters is both whimsical and humorous, which helps ease the scariness of some of the darker passages. The lion in particular is wonderfully puffy and squishy looking, and his face makes some of the best expressions as he vacillates between fearsome and frightened.

There are four volumes in this series so far, with a fifth being published in November. The series won Eisner awards for Best Limited Series and Best Publication for Kids. Recommended for children, teens, and any adult for whom this title is a fond link to their childhood. Especially recommended for people who didn’t like the movie’s (creepy, creepy) flying monkeys. They’re still hair-raising, but when their story gets told they are less sinister. One might even feel a bit sorry for them.

Search the WRL catalog for The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

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Game“Most people like to take apart their problems, look at them in smaller, more manageable pieces. Trolls, he mused, simply take this to the extreme.”

Thirteen-year-old best friends, who describe themselves as “two lobes of the same brain,” visit an eccentric uncle at his Vermont mansion, and in the tradition of such vacations, end up in peril. Gregory, the smart-alecky one, warns his friend Brian that Uncle Max is eccentric, but it becomes obvious when they arrive and he has the butler burn all of their luggage. Uncle Max prefers that boys wear knickerbockers and speaks like a character out of Dickens.

Exploring the house, the boys discover a curious board game without any rules but with a layout that seems to correspond to the old, Victorian house and its grounds. As the boys solve puzzles, the board expands to reveal more pathways and tests. It’s no Candyland, though… more like Zork, with gruesome monsters lurking in the dark, trolls, and a mysterious stranger with a bladed yo-yo. Someone really should have taught these boys not to get involved in a magical game before they know the rules… or the stakes.

A bit like Narnia by way of Lemony Snicket’s Series of Unfortunate Events, this first book in a series has marvelously despicable villains and writing that combines a real sense of malice with a wicked, nutty sense of humor. Like Philip Reeve’s Larklight, it’s published for kids and younger teens, but there are jokes for the adults mixed in.

I liked the friendship in this book. The boys are very different, but they “get” each other; Gregory’s off-the-wall sense of humor is balanced by Brian’s quieter, deep-thinking approach to problems. They may get on each other’s nerves, but neither doubts that the other will be there when it counts.

The ending has some nifty twists and sets the story up to continue in three more books.

Check the WRL catalog for The Game of Sunken Places.

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A 2013 Alex Award winner (meaning its a book in the adult section found to be highly appealing to teen readers), Where’d You Go, Bernadette is a laughable and adventurous satire packed with hilarious characterization and witty dialogue mostly in the epistolary fashion using email correspondence, letters, police reports, report cards, and other documents.  Modest readers might find some strong language offensive yet very in-character when utilized.

You’ll find hilarious characters, some to love, some to hate, and some to drive everyone crazy!  Semple pokes fun at Seattle’s subcultures of anti-fashionable, pro-geek, tech-talking, community-oriented, hyper-diverse, ultra-green, alternative-lifestyle embracing citizens.  Semple herself is a transplant to the Seattle region from Los Angeles, as is the character Bernadette, where she wrote screenplays for “Beverly Hills, 90210,” “Ellen,” “Mad About You” and “Arrested Development.”

Caution, spoilers (because the events are revealed asynchronously and non-chronologically): Bernadette Fox has escaped her failed career as a genius architect by isolating herself in a crumbling fortress of a home where she can’t sleep and torments herself with self-pity.  She’s become so anti-social that she’s hired a virtual assistant to handle even the most mundane logistics of her life.  For years, her precious 15-year old daughter Bee has been Bernadette’s only reason for living.  Bee’s been promised this trip to Antarctica as an award for her perfect report card (Her Microsoft-guru dad can afford it).  Now, she’s having a panic attack brought on by the prospect of accompanying Bee through the sea-sickening Drake passage, “the roughest and most feared water in the world,”  and this leads to a series of outrageous circumstances that culminate in a final resolution that just might restore Bernadette’s artistic passion.

The narration, and actual singing, by actress Kathleen Wilhoite, is extraordinarily energetic and adds much to the listening experience of the audiobook version, which I was whizzed through completely enraptured with joyous laughter.  When hearing her voicing the hysterics of the ‘gnats’ (aka the condescending moms of Bee’s classmates at Galer Street School), I was reminded of Tea Leoni’s over-the-top character in the movie Spanglish.

Check the WRL catalog for the print or large print versions, too.

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For the last review this week I am looking at a graphic novel. Refresh Refresh is by far the darkest and saddest of these stories. Like Operation Oleander, Refresh Refresh is set in recent history. Josh’s father and Cody’s father are Marine Reservists who are deployed to Iraq. They live in a small, unnamed Oregon town where a lot of the men have gone to war. For many of the families the men’s absence is a financial as well as practical burden. Cody’s power is cut off even though his mother has a job and his father is being paid by the military. His mother says that they are in financial trouble from losing his father’s overtime pay, although she works extra hours at the factory, so she is hardly ever home for him and his small brother.

The title, Refresh Refresh, comes from the action of refreshing the computer browser to see if any email has arrived and at the beginning both boys do this continuously, almost obsessively. As I said in my post on Operation Oleander, electronic communication is both a blessing and and a curse. In wrenching panels we see the boys repeatedly looking at their computer screens and seeing the cheerful but heartbreaking message, “Welcome! You have 0 unread messages.”

Refresh Refresh does a good job of portraying the complex feelings military service creates in the families left behind. Josh and Cody are about to graduate from high school, but in their small town there are not many opportunities open to them. Most of their friends feel they have to work in a local factory–”the plant”–or join the military. The boys resent that their fathers are gone and see the negatives of military service, but at the same time are proud of them, leading to ambivalence, “This is what we all wanted: to please our fathers, to make them proud–even thought they had left us.” Josh wants to go to university–a fact that he hides from his friends. His distant mother and stepfather are willing to pay for college, but if he gets bad news from Iraq what decision will he make?

The artwork reflects the dark subject matter, with severe lines and somber, drab colors, mostly in army green and grey. Try Refresh Refresh for a stark and uncompromising look at military family life, especially for reservists. Refresh Refresh is a violent and often disturbing graphic novel suitable for adults and older teens.

Check the WRL catalog for Refresh, Refresh.

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Sea of GloryNathaniel Philbrick is one of our most readable chroniclers of American history. While less well known than his breakout book, In the Heart of the Sea: the Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex and focused on a more obscure event than later works like Mayflower, The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, and 2013′s Bunker Hill: a City, a Siege, a Revolution, his book Sea of Glory: America’s Voyage of Discovery: the U.S. Exploring Expedition, 1838-1842 is one of his best. The fact that the history of this expedition has mostly been forgotten by modern Americans only makes the book more astonishing.

The Exploring Expedition, often known as the U.S. Ex Ex, would journey down the U.S. and South American coasts, continue into Antarctic waters, then cross into the Pacific and chart South Pacific islands and portions of America’s Northwest coast, including the mouth of the Columbia River before returning via the reverse route over four years later. It would make contact with many native populations, create sea charts that would be used well into the 20th century, and bring home an astonishing number of scientific specimens that would ultimately form the start of the Smithsonian’s collection. It would do all of this in an era when propulsion was still by sail, cold weather gear was substandard, and navigation was hazardous. Pretty good for an expedition unknown to most modern Americans!

But what makes the story even more astonishing is that it succeeded despite the inept, self-aggrandizing leadership of young Charles Wilkes. Wilkes was barely 40 years of age, only a lieutenant, but won command of the expedition through diligent campaigning and the general opposition to the expedition of most of the Navy’s officers. When political wrangling back at home refused him the honor of a Captain’s rank even after he was away with the expedition’s five ships, Wilkes became ever more of a martinet, pretending to have achieved rank that he didn’t have so he could play the other young officers of the expedition against each other. He would often arrange the traveling order of the ships so that he could claim personal discovery of major sites or ignore the successes of other officers. He resorted to corporal punishments at the least offense and subverted the work of the expedition’s scientists.

I’ll let you discover the expedition’s many events for yourself, but I will hint at a bit of the ending. Wilkes returned home to find a different president than the one who backed his expedition, many dismissed officers waiting to level charges against him, a Navy determined to have him court-martialed, and powerful enemies in the country’s political leadership. The last part of the book considers the events of the case made against him. Wilkes may have been a disaster, but modern readers will be enthralled by the adventures of this little known expedition. This is an enthralling history that reads like a suspense novel.

Check the WRL catalog for Sea of Glory

We also have Sea of Glory in large print or audiobook on compact disc formats

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seriesNot to stretch a naval metaphor, but I’ve been in a reading doldrums. Nothing satisfies. At these times I fall back on one of two tried-and-true authors: Terry Pratchett or Patrick O’Brian. Pratchett pops up pretty regularly on Blogging for a Good Book, but I am amazed to see that we have never written about O’Brian, whose 20-volume Aubrey-Maturin series fills an entire library shelf.

Set in the world of the royal navy during the Napoleonic wars, O’Brian’s novels are first and foremost the portrait of a lifelong friendship between Jack Aubrey, affable and resolute ship’s captain, and Stephen Maturin, surgeon, naturalist, and intelligence agent. The series pretty easily finds its audience of men (and women) who are interested in age-of-sail adventures on the high seas; I’m not sure it always finds its audience of women (and men) who enjoy Jane Austen’s prose style, well-crafted sentences and characters, or the complications of Regency-era manners.

sailsThe New York Times may have called them “the best historical novels ever written,” but I avoided this series for years based solely on the infernal diagram of sails that opens every volume. No one wants to have to memorize sailing terminology just to get into a good story. Even as I began to be won over by O’Brian’s carefully-chosen words and dry humor, I simply refused to care which sail was a spritsail.

Fortunately, there is so much more than sails to care about as you turn the pages: there are also debauched sloths. Battles, mutinies, French prisons, typhoons, desert islands, music, birds, rich vocabulary, and a whole Dickensian roster of colorful secondary characters. There is indeed a lot of naval jargon, but the reader is not beat about the head with it, or if he is, he has a sympathetic ally in his ignorance in the person of Stephen Maturin. Stephen is also a landlubber, an outsider looking in to the regimented world of the royal navy, and he does not care any more about how many masts a ship has than I did.

Jack is famously lucky at sea, a skilled, courageous ship’s captain who will take, burn, and destroy the enemy at every opportunity, while on land, he is easy prey for speculators or a pretty face. Stephen is an Irish-Catalan physician with a passion for natural philosophy, and is forever cluttering Jack’s ship with beetles, wombats, and diving bells. If you cross him, he will fleece you at cards. If you double-cross him, he will find you, he will shoot you, and then he will dissect you. Their world of naval battles and subversive intelligence work occasionally collides with the domestic sphere and the polite drawing rooms of Jane Austen, usually with disastrous results, and then they are back to sea to escape debt, lawsuits, wives, sweethearts, and mothers-in-law.

And if you do begin to care about spritsails, there are many fine books to help you explore Aubrey and Maturin’s world, whether you’re interested in the vocabulary, the geography, the ships, or even, heaven help you, the food (probably the only cookbook in the library with a recipe for rats in onion sauce).

Check the WRL catalog for Master and Commander.

Or try the audiobooks. Patrick Tull and Simon Vance are both fantastic readers.

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sagaA vicious intergalactic war rages on in this epic fantasy vs. sci-fi standoff. The inhabitants of Landfall, the largest planet in the galaxy, bear vestigial wings and are technologically advanced. They have forever been in conflict with the population of Wreath, Landfall’s moon, who have horns like sheep and a mastery of magic. Each side recruits other planets and races to join their side in the battle, constantly expanding the battlefield throughout the universe.

Alana was a Landfall soldier, sent to guard prisoners on the distant planet of Cleave. Marko was a foot solider for Wreath, but surrendered as a conscientious objector and was sent to Cleave. Within twelve hours of meeting each other, Alana and Marko flee together. Their union produces a daughter named Hazel, who serves as occasional narrator to the story, and has both wings and horns.

Treachery such as theirs can’t go unpunished, and soon both sides are tracking the new parents, who want nothing more than a peaceful place to raise their child. The fragility of the new life they have created strengthens their resolve to, somehow, survive. Landfall sends Prince Robot IV, a humanoid with a television set for a head, to bring them to justice while the Wreath military hires a freelance bounty hunter named The Will. For reasons yet unknown, the Wreath side wants Hazel brought back alive. Another bounty hunter, a former lover of The Will, is also sent by the Wreath forces to track down Alana and Marco. Prince Robot IV and The Will are soon at odds, with The Will swearing to destroy his blue-blooded nemesis.

The writing and the artwork for this series successfully contrast the tenderness and intimacy between the parents against the violence of the worlds around them. There are a lot of ideas introduced in this first volume, which can be tricky to maintain, but Brian K. Vaughan is an experienced writer and this volume is a promising beginning. Fiona Staples’s artwork is simple yet striking, and she manages to make several different, distinct alien worlds, bathing the images in contrasting teals and oranges and greens. Recommended for fantasy and science fiction readers, and anyone who enjoys an against-the-odds romance.

Check the WRL catalog for Saga.

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Crunch crunch crunch crunch tang tang tang tang crunch crunch.

Tang is the sound your boots make when you are stomping about in the Antarctic, and suddenly you are no longer stomping on solid ice, but rather on a thin layer of snow disguising a crevasse of unknown depths. Sometimes the snow “lids” are thick enough that you can walk over these pits without danger. Sometimes they aren’t.

Crevasses are the essential theme of Alone on the Ice, a riveting account of Douglas Mawson’s 1911-1914 Australasian Antarctic Expedition (AAE). The AAE was contemporary with Scott’s and Amundsen’s race for the South Pole; when Scott and his men were dying in their tent in the middle of nowhere, Mawson and his men were tentbound in the same blizzard in another part of nowhere. Geologist Mawson and his band of Australians and New Zealanders were not interested in the South Polar holy grail, however; they were in Antarctica for science. Amassing specimens and data, they scattered across the inner blank of the continent in several parties, mapping, geologizing, and falling into crevasses in every direction.

Irrepressible young photographer Frank Hurley, who would later take such memorable photographs of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition, actually admires the “unearthly beauty of the abyss” while he hangs about awaiting rescue. Mawson, starving and alone in his crevasse with no one to rescue him and no strength to haul himself up, has one great regret: that he didn’t eat all of the rest of his food the night before.

The first of Mawson’s sledging companions, Belgrave Ninnis, drops into a gaping abyss along with the strongest of the dogs, the tent, and nearly all of the food. Xavier Mertz succumbs to starvation, or possibly to vitamin A poisoning from eating dogs’ liver. Mawson continues on. Despite having no real hope of survival, he saws his sledge in half with a pocket knife and rigs a windsail out of his dead comrade’s trousers. He even gets out of his crevasse, quoting Robert Service as he climbs: “it’s dead easy to die, it’s the keeping-on-living that’s hard.”

Meanwhile, at base camp… Mawson’s men build their winter base in, literally, the windiest place on earth (you can watch them struggling in Frank Hurley’s silent film). Against all odds, they manage to erect a radio tower and establish rudimentary communications with the men staffing an almost equally cold and lonely outpost on Macquarie Island, but! in a Hitchcockian turn, the only man who knows how to operate the radio begins to lose his mind. Descending into paranoia, he accuses his companions of hypnotising him, threatens them with death and lawsuits, refuses to wash, and begins to collect his urine in small bottles.

Roberts, the author of several books on mountaineering, quotes from letters, diaries, and Mawson’s account, The Home of the Blizzard, to tell this story. Exciting, horrifying, and full of human interest, it’s a great read for anyone who enjoys tales of exploration, and especially for Shackleton fans, who will recognize many of the expeditioners. That’s right… some of them went back!

Check the WRL catalog for Alone on the Ice.

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