Shelf Life Blog

The Passage by Justin Cronin

I loved Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Dark Shadows on TV when I was a kid, Anne’s Rice’s rock’n’roll vampires, and I even discussed what team I would join in the ‘tween Twilight Saga. I also devour vampire novels with “punny” titles such as Undead and Unappreciated by Mary-Janice Davidson, but I put The Passage on request at the library because of an article I read in Time Magazine that stated that vampires are scary again, and I do love a character that bites.

Mockingbird by Kathryn Erskine

This is Week 12 of a 12-Week series of blog posts reviewing new young adult books. To see all of the reviews, click here.

In Kathryn Erskine's "Mockingbird," Caitlin’s world is black and white, and she likes it that way, whether it’s her view of life or her meticulous monotone drawings. Since The Day Our Life Fell Apart when her brother Devon was killed in a school shooting, she and her widowed father keep to simple routines. This is important to kids like Caitlin, a fifth grader with Asperger’s Syndrome. Clear boundaries make it easier to cope, especially when she’s trying hard to follow her counselor’s advice to Look At The Person and Mind Your Manners. 

As I followed Caitlin through her days at school – meeting with the school counselor when she has a TRM (Tantrum Rage Meltdown), trying dutifully to make friends even though she prefers to be a “team of one” – I began to see the world as Caitlin does. She may be socially inept and literal-minded, but she also has a startling gift for humor and truth-telling. 
 

War by Sebastian Junger

This is not the kind of book I normally read, but I'm glad I did. War by Sebastian Junger describes Junger's time embedded with the U.S. Army's Second Platoon, Battle Company during 2007 and 2008 while deployed in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, a small area seeing the heaviest fighting in the entire country.

My only experience with military/war literature is Jarhead, so it remains a little hard for me to see past all the jargon regarding weapons and combat maneuvers. Junger begins the story fast and furious, which left me feeling a little disoriented just as I can only imagine combat would seem to soldiers. Soon enough, though, a more cohesive picture emerges as he begins to fill in the gaps with background information about the area and our movements there and personal details about some of the soldiers. Junger uses humor and candor to describe the restlessness, tension and boredom that comes in times when attacks are less frequent, and the resulting pranks, hijinks and an odd kind of loving violence amongst the soldiers.

Bridget's Beret by Tom Lichtenheld

If you’ve ever had a lucky rock, special stuffed animal, or favorite hat that you felt gave you extra powers or that certain edge you need to be successful, then you will understand Bridget’s attachment to her jaunty French beret in Tom Lichtenheld’s new picture book, Bridget’s Beret. Bridget is an artist, and everyone in her family and neighborhood enjoys her talent. When she is drawing, she is truly “in the zone” – she won’t even stop for an ice cream cone. She doesn’t need fancy art supplies and is happiest painting outdoors on a simple table. She just requires one thing: her big, black beret that gave her that “certain je ne sais qoi.”

Flight from Monticello: Thomas Jefferson at War

If your early education taught you something about Thomas Jefferson, it likely included facts on his part in authoring the Declaration of Independence, the Louisiana Purchase, and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Jefferson was an ideas man—a deep thinker. Well-educated in the classics at the College of William and Mary, he stayed out of the usual undergrad troubles by keeping at his studies and socializing with the professors while classmates spent their time drinking, gambling, and racing their horses through the streets. As historian Michael Kranish relates in Flight from Monticello, he made plenty of friends, but they were from the same landed gentry class as himself.

He first encountered an upstart farmer named Patrick Henry at a friend’s dinner party. Jefferson was not impressed by his dress, candid manners or frank speech, which drew a crowd of admirers. Not so much the classical scholar, Patrick Henry was already a practicing attorney while Jefferson was still in school.  While Jefferson carried on learned conversations with his professors, Henry was winning cases—not with references to Greek and Roman scholars but by spelling out the plain merits of the case and the rules of law. Jefferson found his courtroom arguments crude but admired his ability to turn a phrase and set a crowd on fire.

Rick Bayless’ Mexican Everyday

I love the rich, warm flavors of Mexican food, but trying to create anything more than a simple, kid-pleasing taco or Sundays at Moosewood’s tortilla casserole (a family favorite) has left me uncertain as to how to begin.

The Daughters by Joanna Philbin

This is Week 11 of a 12-Week series of blog posts reviewing new young adult books. Check back each Monday for a new review.

Imagine that your mom is a world-famous supermodel or actress, like Angelina Jolie - constantly surrounded (and hounded) by the paparazzi. What would your life be like? How would your parent’s fame shape your own childhood, teenage years, and adult hood? This is the premise of The Daughters by Joanna Philbin, a new young adult novel that explores growing up in the shadow of fame, and it how alters (and in many respects doesn’t change) the trials and tribulations of the teenage years.
 
The Daughters follows the life of Lizzie Summers, daughter of a famous supermodel, and Lizzie’s two best friends, Carina and Hudon, daughters of a billionaire media mogul and pop star, respectively. In many respects they are just like many 14 year-olds, trying to navigate through high school academics, crushes on boys, and changing relationships with their parents. But in other ways, their parent’s fame is almost like another character to explore in the book, drawing constantly unwanted attention. 

The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, is one of those simple, spiritual tales that captures modern-day imaginations and becomes a best-seller. As I read it on the beach, I felt the brush of Jonathan Livingston Seagull’s wings—or perhaps those were the wings of the laughing gull trying to steal my son’s peanut butter sandwich.

In this extended fable, the teenage shepherd Santiago has chosen his free and lonely life over a more respectable one that would have bound him tightly to his community and family. Content as he is with the wisdom he gained while wandering the Spanish hills, he is nonetheless being drawn to change his path. The dark-eyed daughter of a prosperous merchant awaits his marriage proposal, but Santiago’s prophetic dream in an abandoned and ruined church leads him further away from his homeland than he ever imagined.

Cosmic by Frank Cottrell Boyce

You know how, once in a great while, you finish a book and it was so good that you want to start reading it all over again? That’s what happened to me with Frank Cottrell Boyce’s “Cosmic.”

As the book opens, Liam Digby is explaining that he’s not really on a school trip, as he told his parents. Instead, he’s lost in outer space aboard the rocket ship Infinite Possibility and he’s “all right…ish.” How did he get there?
 
Liam is a twelve-year-old kid who’s so tall that he’s easily mistaken for an adult, as he discovers when he and his classmate Florida wander around town together after school. Stopping by a car dealership, Liam is approached by the salesman, who assumes Florida is his daughter. Soon enough Liam finds himself invited to take a flashy Porsche for a test drive. To his relief, his taxi-driving father brings this unnerving experience to an end before Liam has to actually put the car in gear.  

WWW: Wake by Robert Sawyer

For science fiction aficionados, the premise of WWW: Wake by Robert J. Sawyer initially sounds, well, perhaps a bit contrived (even beyond the normal contrivances of science fiction).  But keep reading: the protagonist, Caitlin Dector, is a young blind millennial who has never known a world without the Internet, a world she can navigate with ease through the use of assistive technologies.  Caitlin becomes the subject of an experimental procedure to restore sight.  However, when her vision is "switched on" she does not see the physical world, but an abstract representation of the World Wide Web.  While exploring her strange new ability, she discovers a growing intelligence emerging from within the Web . . .   see what I mean?  My first thought after hearing this description was, "That sounds like the plot of a bad 90s Outer Limits episode."  After cracking the book open however, I found WWW: Wake tells a fascinating story, blending the best of both science fiction and hard science as well as cyberculture, blind culture, information theory, epidemiology, world politics, family dynamics, pedagogical theory, teenage culture, and probably a few other things I'm not thinking of.  All of that in one book.  And it's really, really good.