Book Review: Love Letters to the Dead

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Posted by Andrew | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 17-01-2014

loveLove Letters to the Dead
Ava Dellaira
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
April 2014

ARC provided by NetGalley

Laurel is your typical average teenage girl…well mostly. Her parent’s are divorced, her mother is now living in California for some reason, her old sister–May–died young and tragically, and she’s a new kid at the school. So…yeah typical. And for English class she has to write a letter to a dead person. Just one. And Laurel chooses Kurt Cobain because her sister May loved him and he died young…like May did. And Laurel begins to share pieces of herself in the letter. And she keeps writing and soon has a notebook full of letters to those that have died–Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse, Amelia Earhart, Heath Ledger, and more. She shares with them what its like starting high school, of finding new friends, of trying to emulate May and at the same time be herself, and of falling in love for the very first time. And as the year progresses Laurel is able to begin to share the truth that she has kept hidden for so long and to discover her own path in life.

Every generation seems to have, and to need, this type of book: “Dear Mr. Henshaw,” “Catcher in the Rye,” and “The Perks of Being a Wallflower.” And “Love Letters to the Dead” most definitely falls into this category. It’s that book that you read, and whether you admit it out loud or not, you can recognize aspects of yourself in it. That struggle between being a kid and an adult, of fighting parents, of friends that don’t quite get you, of some secret…of some thing that is just beyond the edge of your grasp that you want to share, but you don’t know how. It’s that book that years latter will still be on reading lists and you might make fun of the words, of the strange things that they do for fun, but you recognize the people in them and can relate to them. They aren’t the cool popular kids or the stars of the sports, they are the common person. Like you. And that’s what this book is.

Told entirely through letters to the dead, Laurel begins to share with us what its like to begin anew, to be in high school, to be lost and not know what the heck your doing and of trying to figure it all out. Its that feeling, that sense, that we can all recognize, no matter what our gender maybe. We know what its like to start over and to wonder where we fit in and that first time, that very first time that we figure out what love is. You can’t help but laugh and weep as you progress through the letters. Ava has captured the very essence of humanity, not only in the letters but the characters as well. So often when you read a book like this everything is solved by the end or there’s that one perfect character that can do no wrong and is completely awesome and makes everything seem right. But that’s not the case here. Here, here you have the parents that admit they don’t no what they’re doing, that they thought about themselves over their own kid, that are just as lost as their kid. If you knew a parent like this in real life you’d want to question their sanity upon saying things like that, but be honest…what would you do in that situation? Unless you’ve been through it, you can’t say. I can’t say because I have no idea.

Laurel’s friends are just as flawed as she is. Her two best female friends, in love with each other. But they don’t always show it out of fear of what their families will think, of what other friends will think, of what might happen or could happen. It’s something that is real and recognizable because you know there are kids going through this exact same thing right this very minute. The emotions, the way these two characters express themselves, aren’t the polished perfect pitches that we hear in the movies, or those long speeches that we tell ourselves in our head, they express themselves just as we might. Fear, trepidation, honesty, stumbling over our words, but getting it out there. And Laurel’s first love, isn’t this perfect guy. Nor is he that quite guy that seems so cool and mysterious that everyone falls for that says “Hey” and girls swoon. Yes he’s quiet. Yes he seems to have his shit pulled together a little bit better than everyone else, but he isn’t perfect. He does things, he says things that he later regrets, his mom is weird…in other words he is someone you could meet outside. Even better than that…the romance isn’t the main focus of the book, nor is it perfect. Neither of them knows quite what the heck they’re doing, they’re figuring it out as they go. It’s an imperfect, awkward, teenage relationship.

This…this is one of those books that when you try to explain and when I started to review, I stumbled over my words because I want to recommend it that much. Because I want people to read this book and to understand it and cherish it as much as I have. This will be one of those books that makes “best of” lists at the end of the year, that will hopefully be nominated for awards, but more importantly it will be one of those books that 15 years from now teachers are making students read and write about, because it is that powerful.This is one of those books that you should read, no mater your age, your gender, your sexual orientation, whatever…the characters are genuine, real, and three dimensional. I give the book 5 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: The Riverman

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Posted by Andrew | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 15-01-2014

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Picture 4The Riverman
Aaron Starmer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
March 2014

ARC provided by NetGalley

Alistair Cleary is the kid that everyone knows and likes. Your parents thinks that he’s the kid from down the street and while he creates a little bit of mischief, he’s an OK kid. Fiona Loomis on the other hand…well she’s a bit strange. She’s the one that you might talk to one day and she carries on a conversation very seriously about how snuffleworms have been seen recently. Alistair and Fiona used to be pretty good friends when they were younger, but they haven’t talked much in the last few years. But now…she wants him to write her biography. Fiona says that in her basement is a portal that leads to a magical world where all of your dreams can come true. And that there’s a creature called the Riverman who is stealing souls of children and hers could be next. Fiona believes that everything she says is true. Alistair fears that she maybe losing it. But what if it’s the truth? And will he be able to separate fiction from reality before it’s too late?

When I saw the description for this book, I thought…well it sounds interesting….eh it’s a worth a read. I mean a strange girl, who goes into another world, and in this other world is a villain named The Riverman who is stealing the souls of children. And I was wrong. Not that the book isn’t interesting, because it is, but that the book wouldn’t be able to keep my interest. This one of those stories that I had to keep reading just one more chapter, just one more to find out what happened. Because like Alistair I thought I had figured out who the Riverman was, and boy was I wrong. Starmer does an excellent job of building up characters that we grow to care for, because we can recognize either ourselves or someone that we know in them, and creating a tale that captivates you to the very end.

I suppose there are many things that I could say about the twists and turns that this book takes, ones that you’ll never see coming. But honestly? You need to read the book to see those, because I can’t do justice attempting to describe the journey you go on. Instead I’ll mention a couple more things about our main characters, Alistair and Fiona. When we meet them, they’re comfortable from the very beginning. Not because they’re the cool, popular kids or the everyman that fits into life no matter where they are. No…they’re comfortable because we can see ourselves in them. The being unsure of who we are, of wondering who are friends are, and do we really want to hang out with that kid that no one else likes, even if he’s been our best friend for a few years now? We eagerly follow them and relate to them, because they are at least in some way part of who we are. How many of us wouldn’t have loved to have a portal to a different realm, where all of our dreams seemed to come true? Not that our lives were bad, but in that world we didn’t have to worry about what others thought of us…that’s what you’ll find in this book.

I’ll briefly say that the ending might leave you restless and searching for answers, but it will be worth it. While some might compare this type of tale to Neil Gaiman or Stephen King, I think you’ll enjoy this book no matter what type of story that you like. Give it a whirl and you’ll likely find yourself coming back for more. I give the book 4 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: The Opposite of Loneliness

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Posted by Andrew | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 10-01-2014

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Picture 5The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories
Marina Keegan
Scribner
April 2014

ARC provided by NetGalley

Writing an honest review for any book can be difficult, but this type of book is especially difficult. Marina was already garnering praise before she graduated: her essay “Opposite of Loneliness” went viral, she graduated magna cum laude from Yale, a job all lined up, things being published…and she died tragically five days after she graduated. It’s not the type of book that you want to write and say that you didn’t like, for fear of pitchforks and torches and shouts. But, here’s the thing…I don’t have to write that type of review. Honestly.

This book is many things: a grieving process for the family, a memorial to a friend, and more importantly a powerful monument to a writer that is able to distill the essence of humanity onto paper. The book is composed of several different parts: the introduction essay that the book takes its title from “The Opposite of Loneliness,” several of Marina’s short stories, and several of her essays. Intermixed in are quotes and snippets from poems that she wrote, although these are not shown in full, at least not in this galley copy. All in all it captures some of the best work of this young writer.

The first quote we see is from Marina’s poem Bygones: “Do you wanna leave soon?”No, I want enough time to be in love with everything. And I cry because everything is so beautiful and so short.”

The title essay, “The Opposite of Loneliness” went viral after it was published. And you really don’t have to stretch to understand why, as its something that many of us can relate to. While it is written about graduating from college, it also applies to the leaving of home, of a comfort zone, of going off into the unknown. And while there have been hundreds of writers that have written about this topic before, Marina’s take is different. She states simply, and eloquently, that the feeling of leaving the known is scary. Of walking away from having friends right next door, of structure, and everything taken care of is one of the scariest things possible. And all of these people saying “oh this is the best time of your life, cherish it” makes you afraid of what’s to come. But Marina stands up and says, my life isn’t over, I’m going to continue to have fun until I’m old. And while there are many things to quote this one “What we have to remember is that we can still do anything. We can change our minds. We can start over.” Life isn’t over because of moving on, it’s just beginning.

While there are several of Marina’s stories in the book, they didn’t stand out to me as much. Not because they aren’t good, but because her essays are that much better. In the essays that are shared, it seems obvious a couple of them are school assignments. The first one is about her first car. Now in the hands of most college students they would write about how awesome and cool the car was, or how stupid it was they were driving the station wagon that had been in the family for 10 years. Probably something with a few laughs, but not memorable. Marina’s essay though…is different. Marina doesn’t just write about the car, but she connects it to her essence. We learn how the car came to her after her grandfather passed away and her grandmother wanted to only have one car. That when she got the keys for it she and her grandmother drove stopped, listened to an old tape of a favorite artist, and opened the moonroof to look out, and smiled. That the car had the scent of her grandmother’s perfume in it for a long time, that it was organized like her with a spare sewing kit and other items, until gradually it became Marina’s. The tin foil balls from breakfast biscuits on the way to school on the driver’s side door, the dents in the steering wheel from her fingernails after crying because a boy just wanted to be friends, the smells and papers that lived in the car. Until it was time to pass it on to her brother and she wondered if she could recapture the scent of her grandmother’s perfume one more time. You can’t but help be entrapped by that overwhelming feeling of humanity. She paints a picture with her words and you can see it before you and get swept up in it all.

And her other essays are no less powerful. We read and nod along as she describes growing up and wanting to fit in and she could…except for her diet. Because she needed to be gluten free, before anyone else knew what that meant. And we understand and cringe at the embarrassment she felt as her mom tried to keep her healthy and safe, but made her feel singled out. We understand the constant struggle of wanting to belong, but of having to follow a diet, but balancing the needs of family, but wanting to be normal college girl and not worry about kissing a boy after he drank a beer or ate a pizza. Or in the essay where she writes about beached whales, and the tens of thousands of dollars spent in rescuing them, but we do nothing for the homeless in front of us, but the whales are special, but are fellow humans are right there. Marina makes us proud and sad of our humanity. She captures it so expertly and shows us what we’re doing that is so right…and so wrong.

Marina died young and while we may mourn that, we are left with her essays and other writings that have the power to change the world. And while that may be an over used phrase, I think it accurately describes Marina’s style. Her ability to capture the very essence of humanity! and to distill it onto paper, to share raw emotions with you via words and make you feel what she does…tis a rare gift and talent. While Marina may be gone, we need to read and reread what she has written and take it to heart. Let it give us chills, fear, hope, anger…whatever emotion it brings to you, let it come.

I highly recommend this book to all readers. 4 out of 5 stars.

Book Review: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

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Posted by Andrew | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 10-01-2014

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Picture 4Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy
Karen Foxlee
Random House Children’s
January 2014

ARC provided by NetGalley

Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard doesn’t believe in anything that can’t be proved by science. Magic? Unicorns? Bigfoot? Science says it isn’t there, so it isn’t. So there! After her mom dies, her dad takes a job in a strange museum, where it always snows, and curator is a bit…off. Ophelia and her sister Alice explore the museum and on their very first day, Ophelia wanders down a few forgotten passages, goes under a velvet rope, and finds a locked door. And behind the door she finds…the Marvelous Boy. Who is a prisoner of the Snow Queen. And he’s been waiting for Ophelia’s help for a very long time. The two together must stop the Snow Queen before the clock chimes again…and she wins.

On the surface the description seems…quaint. A girl that doesn’t believe in magic, who discovers a hidden boy and they must defeat an evil queen. Sounds like something from long ago does it not? But if you look past the surface you discover a story that is pure magic and is often unlike anything that you’ve read before.

And it all starts with Ophelia. Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard is one of the strongest heroines to come out of literature recently. Not because she doesn’t believe in magic, or that she advocates science, but because she is very real. From the first page we can imagine Ophelia standing before us, a young girl, mourning the loss of her mother and attention from her sister and father, but staying strong. Holes in her pockets as she worries at them, full of curiosity at what’s around her, and a strength and courage that defies her size and age. She’s not some sheltered prep school kid, or someone that can do magic, or has an IQ of 150 and does chemistry in her spare time. She is someone that we can imagine as being our younger sister or our cousin or the girl next door. And that is phenomenal thing. While we can find plenty of strong female characters in recent YA lit, so many of them rely on other things or have tools at their disposal that we lack in the real world. Ophelia doesn’t.

And while I could devote the entire review to Ophelia, I suppose I should discuss other aspects of the book. The story itself is phenomenal. Its one that keeps you turning that next page, never quite wanting to put the book down because you have to know what happens next. And even though at times you think you can guess what might happen next, Karen’s tosses twists and turns in that are never quite what you expect. And I know so many stories try to teach you “don’t judge a character by its cover” and it becomes corny how there’s always that one character that changes…that corniness doesn’t occur here. The characters feel natural, and real, and that’s in part because Karen is honest and open about them from the beginning.

There’s so much more I want to say, but I’m afraid if I continue I’ll spoil the book and I don’t want to do that. The book is described as a modern fairy tale. And that’s true it is, but it is oh so much more than that as well. And it’s a story for all ages. While Ophelia may not believe in magic, this book will help you find and believe in it once more. I give the book 5 out of 5 stars and highly recommend it to everyone.

Book Review: Running Lean, 2nd Edition

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Posted by Andrew | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 05-01-2014

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rleanRunning Lean, 2nd Edition: Iterate from Plan A to a Plan That Works
Ash Maurya
Publisher: O’Reilly Media
February 2012

In today’s world of startups, popup business, and new fads in the work place it seems like a lot of folks are missing the basics. Namely that we’re not creating or marketing the right product. It’s great to have a cool new app that tells you the time in multiple languages, but is it worth the money to develop it? And will people want it? I remember in my hometown of about 34,000 a new business opened up that dealt exclusively with selling pool tables. No repairs or anything like that, just selling the tables. Needless to say it went out of business quickly and the owners likely could have gotten a lot from Ash’s book. While he sometimes states the obvious, conducting market research anyone?, he does a great job of explaining how to go about finding out what’s needed and creating a plan to get start or improve your place of work.  Ash takes us through his process step by step by explaining how he used it to write this book.  From the idea, to the testing, to the final publishing and marketing of the book, he shows us this process can make things work.

I have to admit this title (and some of the other books in this series) are a bit of strange choice to me. In part because I’m not a pure coder, but more so because I’m not likely to have a startup venture any time soon. So why did I choose this book then? Because even though I’m not likely to have a startup, I can still take the lessons from this book about problem solving and engagement, and put them into practice in my current job as a librarian. In addition, I can take some of what Ash talks about and relate it to User Experience, which is a passion of mine. There are always problems to solve and in this book Ash offer some great tips and inspiration on how to go about solving them.

For me what stands out the most about this book is that Ash provides a roadmap of how to proceed with getting things started to launching your new product. Although this sounds like something that everyone should already know, and honestly they should, Ash does a great job of laying out the steps so that it’s easy read and understand how to move forward. He starts off with basic, finding a problem that is worth solving and devoting your time to. Don’t find a solution for something that isn’t important, and this is something that everyone struggles with whether they’re a new startup or an established business. The other major thing that stood out to me, is that Ash talks about creating a plan A….and then being prepared to change and adapt it as you go along. Because by the time you succeed you might be on plan Z-12. Do your customers need to know this? No…but it’s nice that you know that you’ve made it and you did your homework throughly before launching.

Even though this book states some of the obvious, like talking to users to find out problems, it’s still a great book and Ash does provide different ways to combat problems. This concise and well written book is worth a read, whether you’re starting a new business or if you’re just looking to find ways to improve your current place of work. I give the book 4 out of 5 stars.

Review copy provided by publisher

I review for the O'Reilly Blogger Review Program

Book Review: Aphrodite Goddess of Love

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Posted by Andrew | Posted in Uncategorized | Posted on 04-01-2014

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Picture 4Aphrodite: Goddess of Love (Olympians #6)
George O’Connor
First Second
December 2013

Aphrodite. The Goddess of Love. The Goddess of….troublemaking? That’s right, Aphrodite the Goddess of Love, is a troublemaker. Because what else is love, but something to stir the pot and create jealousy and envy…and even hatred. Not just amongst the humans of the world, but of the gods as well, for all feel the power of passion and love and anger that Aphrodite brings forth. For she has always been around. Longer than the gods, she is the same age as Gaia, the earth goddess.  And while Aphrodite has just taken physical form and does not know the powers she carries, Zeus foresees the troubles that will come…and must make decisions that will cause chaos within the heavens themselves, to keep the world turning another day.

This is a fantastic tale. I’ve always been fascinated by Greek and Romany mythology and I love how O’Connor puts this book together. It’s an easy read, but gives so much information to it and is so much better than the boring old books I remember reading about Greek myths. O’Connor makes the world come to life and gives personality to the gods that we meet so that we can understand why they did what they did. This is the first book though that we begin to get a hint that there’s a greater plan in place, not just in Greek mythology, but within this series itself.  Towards the end of the book Zeus has a chat with Eris, the goddess of strife and discord, discusses the power that love has to create chaos, and destruction, and even war.  To me this is just a great bit of information, and well written, to add to the story so that readers understand that just because this book ends, the characters and the stories continue on.  And what happens here can have a wide range of influences that are yet to come.

I’ve always enjoyed George’s artwork in these books with his great use of shadows and bold colors, and even a little bit of foil, makes the characters and the story come to life. And Aphrodite is no exception. The character of Aphrodite is more than just being one of the most beautiful women alive, its also about her movements, her voice, the way that she carries herself and George is able to capture this so that we get a good sense of just who she is and the power that she holds.  Even better O’Connor really highlights the gods and goddesses faces in this volume, where we can see their confusion their hurt, anger, and all of the other emotions that come about because of Aphrodite.  It takes a skilled artist to be able to pull that off and O’Connor is able to capture it in the nuances of the characters expressions with a raised eyebrow and a slight tilt to the head.  It really helps make the characters come to life.

One of the great features of this series, is at the end O’Connor has a section that talks about the different characters, who they are, and other details to help learn more about the Greek world.  This is the perfect companion for people that have been enjoying the Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan and want to know more about the Greek/Roman gods and how they work. It would be ok for elementary school age (3rd and above) but they would probably need to read it with a parent. But this would be an excellent book for a middle or high schooler (or even adult) that wants to learn more about the world of Greek mythology. I can’t wait to read the next volume. I give this book 4 out of 5 stars.

ARC provided by Gina at FirstSecond