Friday, October 9, 2015

Forty Signs of Rain by Kim Stanley Robinson

There’s a new genre of fiction that is becoming ever more popular – climate fiction, or cli fi. Plots are focused on the environment and especially our planet’s climate. Climate fiction is benefitting from the fact that dystopian and apocalyptic novels are super hot right now – or maybe climate fiction is helping drive that popularity.

The Galesburg Public Library’s Food for Thought book discussion group found the water shortage dystopian novel Not a Drop to Drink by Mindy McGinnis to not be scientific enough in explaining how we as a society could reach such a crisis. Then we discussed Kim Stanley Robinson’s Forty Signs of Rain, and we found it to be a little too scientific. We all at times felt a little overwhelmed by the facts, background information, and explanations of primate behavior and how the scientific proposal and grant process works.

Still, those who finished the book were glad they had done so, and we all agreed it could make a great movie.

Most of the book is set up – the flooding crisis in Washington DC does not take place until the last 100 pages. But there are two more books in the series so Robinson could take his time introducing his characters. Scientists, politicians, biomathematicians at a start-up, and refugees from a low-lying island nation all meet and interact as we are fed the circumstances driving the planet toward an environmental crisis.

It’s refreshing to have a male author writing about a lactating working mother whose husband works from home and assumes most of the childcare. Their toddler is a real character in the book, not just a plot device.

The politics in the book (published in 2004) seem all too real. The animals in the Washington zoo are released to fend for themselves as the city floods, something that recently happened in the country of Georgia. I often wonder how so many Americans can vote against their own interests, and one of Robinson’s characters agrees:  “You work every day of the year, except for three lousy weeks. You make around a hundred thousand dollars. Your boss takes two thirds, and gives you one third, and you give a third of that to the government. Your government uses what it takes to build all the roads and schools and police and pensions, and your boss takes his share and buys a mansion on an island somewhere. So naturally you complain about your bloated inefficient Big Brother of a government, and you always vote for the pro-owner party….How stupid is that?” (p. 74)

Quite a few times as I read Forty Signs of Rain I found myself thinking “Yes, that’s so true!” Another example:

“The battle for control of science went on. Many administrations and Congresses hadn’t wanted technology or the environment assessed at all, as far as Anna could see. It might get in the way of business. They didn’t want to know. …And yet they did want to call the shots. …On what basis did they build such an incoherent mix of desires, to want to stay ignorant and to be powerful as well? Were these two parts of the same insanity?” (p. 114-115)     
If you agree that climate change is a real planetary issue that needs to be addressed and don’t mind a fair amount of facts and figures, you might enjoy Forty Signs of Rain. If you think climate change is a load of bunk or just don’t think we can afford to do anything about it, the book would probably just make you mad.

The Galesburg Public Library owns all three books in Robinson’s Science in the Capitol series.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson

From the publisher: In September 1941, Adolf Hitler’s Wehrmacht surrounded Leningrad in what was to become one of the longest and most destructive sieges in Western history—almost three years of bombardment and starvation that culminated in the harsh winter of 1943–1944. More than a million citizens perished. Survivors recall corpses littering the frozen streets, their relatives having neither the means nor the strength to bury them. Residents burned books, furniture, and floorboards to keep warm; they ate family pets and—eventually—one another to stay alive. Trapped between the Nazi invading force and the Soviet government itself was composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who would write a symphony that roused, rallied, eulogized, and commemorated his fellow citizens—the Leningrad Symphony, which came to occupy a surprising place of prominence in the eventual Allied victory. This is the true story of a city under siege: the triumph of bravery and defiance in the face of terrifying odds. It is also a look at the power—and layered meaning—of music in beleaguered lives.

I had this book sitting on my dining room table for months while I tried to convince myself to read it. First of all, it is WWII nonfiction. Not My Thing. And second, it generated a huge amount of hype among advance reviewers. I am always wary of the overhyped, especially within YA literature where every book is the "next big thing." But finally I gave in, and I am so glad I did. Symphony for the City of the Dead more than lives up to the hype.

M.T. Anderson has achieved what I found to be a perfect blend of history, narrative, and springboard for questioning. The prose is suitable for older teens - accessible but not "dumbed down" in the slightest. Photos and maps are integrated throughout (helpful for readers who, like me, are geographically impaired). And so many layers! The role of music and art during wartime, the lengths to which people will go to survive atrocities... I will never forget the depiction of the Leningrad orchestra, starving and weak and almost dead, straggling in to play the seventh symphony to an audience of people who sacrificed their bread rations to buy a ticket.

Symphony for the City of the Dead is available for loan at Galesburg Public Library.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

From the publisher: In 1945, World War II is drawing to a close in East Prussia, and thousands of refugees are on a desperate trek toward freedom, almost all of them with something to hide. Among them are Joana, Emilia, and Florian, whose paths converge en route to the ship that promises salvation, the Wilhelm Gustloff. Forced by circumstance to unite, the three find their strength, courage, and trust in each other tested with each step closer toward safety. Just when it seems freedom is within their grasp, tragedy strikes. Not country, nor culture, nor status matter as all ten thousand people aboard must fight for the same thing: survival.

Has everyone else out there already heard of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff? Because I most certainly had not, before reading this book.  I'm talking never - not a thing.  And to find out that it represents the largest loss of life in a single ship sinking in history... from a YA novel? Amazing.

Salt to the Sea works on a variety of levels. First, just as a narrative, it's gripping in all the right ways for a teen reader: the story is told from multiple points of view (each of which is easily identifiable), has lots of drama, moves along at a very quick pace, and has a sense of closure at the end. Second, the book works as a straight-up history lesson. And finally it serves as a lesson in the importance of history, of how if we don't pass along stories of atrocities people are doomed to repeat them.

Historical fiction has always been a poison in my reading life, and Ruta Sepetys appears to be the antidote. I have loved everything she's written and always look forward to seeing what she does next. I read an advanced reading copy of Salt to the Sea; it comes out in stores on February 2nd, 2016.

Slade House by David Mitchell

"Keep your eyes peeled for a small black iron door. Down the road from a working-class British pub, along the brick wall of a narrow alley, if the conditions are exactly right, you’ll find the entrance to Slade House. A stranger will greet you by name and invite you inside. At first, you won’t want to leave. Later, you’ll find that you can’t. Every nine years, the house’s residents—an odd brother and sister—extend a unique invitation to someone who’s different or lonely: a precocious teenager, a recently divorced policeman, a shy college student. But what really goes on inside Slade House? For those who find out, it’s already too late. . . . ."

That's the premise behind the newest offering from bestselling author David Mitchell. This fall, nine public libraries in Central Illinois partnered to celebrate reading through a program called Central Illinois Reads. Penguin Random House generously donated 100 advance reader copies of Slade House for us to distribute, and discussions will be taking place over the next month.

I've never read Mitchell's Cloud Atlas or The Bone Clocks, but I don't think that affected my reading of Slade House too much. While Slade House does not bristle with originality, I was pulled in to the story after a slow start, and it is a very quick read. The language is rich and playful, and I was even surprised by some English phrases I didn't recognize. If you are looking for a short, spooky, seasonal novella to creep you out this October, look no further than Slade House. It's like a sweet but insubstantial Halloween treat.

Bonus points for mention of the abbey on the Hebridean Isle of Iona (which I have visited and is suitably spooky) are slightly reduced by an eye-rolling mention of Hotel California (which I've been singing on and off since I first read the description of Slade House).

Thank you to Penguin Random House and for advance reader copies of Slade House.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Genres: Superpowers, Graphic Novels
Release Date: May 12th, 2015
Publisher: HarperTeen
Source: Checked out book from GPL

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Nemeses! Dragons! Science! Symbolism! All these and more await in this brilliantly subversive, sharply irreverent epic from Noelle Stevenson. Featuring an exclusive epilogue not seen in the web comic, along with bonus conceptual sketches and revised pages throughout, this gorgeous full-color graphic novel is perfect for the legions of fans of the web comic and is sure to win Noelle many new ones.

Nimona is an impulsive young shapeshifter with a knack for villainy. Lord Ballister Blackheart is a villain with a vendetta. As sidekick and supervillain, Nimona and Lord Blackheart are about to wreak some serious havoc. Their mission: prove to the kingdom that Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin and his buddies at the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics aren't the heroes everyone thinks they are.

But as small acts of mischief escalate into a vicious battle, Lord Blackheart realizes that Nimona's powers are as murky and mysterious as her past. And her unpredictable wild side might be more dangerous than he is willing to admit.

I only really started hearing about Nimona a couple months before its release. I didn’t even know about the webcomics so when I dove into Nimona, all I knew was that it was a very hyped book and had even been nominated for the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature. That is HIGH praise but I was more curious than scared. And really, I had no need to be scared because Nimona was just as amazing as everyone said it was.

Nimona is the new sidekick for an infamous supervillain Ballister Blackheart, and she decides she wants to take it upon herself to come up with evil schemes to destroy the world. Unfortunately, her ideas tend to mess with Ballister Blackheart’s plans.

There is more to both the characters than you would think and this short graphic novel turns into so much more. It is so heartwarming and makes you want to curl up in a ball and munch on brownies. (why brownies you ask? Because this mini-review is brought to you by brownies)

I love that even though this is a graphic novel, Stevenson manages to develop a very thorough plot arc and develops relationships so beautifully.

The only thing that bothered me was that all the people of color in this graphic novel were very minor (like they showed up in one scene, had no lines and didn’t really affect the story in any major way.) I had hoped that given the hype, the graphic novel wouldn’t be so whitewashed but alas.

Don’t let that turn you off though, there is some diversity in the novel and the book is so adorable and so worth the read. I mean, it is one of my favorites of the year...

Thursday, October 1, 2015

An Inheritance of Ashes by Leah Bobet

The narrative of An Inheritance of Ashes grabbed me right away. It is hard to figure out what’s going on, but still I wanted to know. Hallie is 16. She and her older sister Marthe are trying to hold on to the family farm. Marthe is pregnant with her first child, and her husband has not returned from the far-off war he travelled to fight. Marthe and Hallie have an angry, uncommunicative relationship. Their father forced his own younger brother off the farm years ago, and now Hallie is afraid her sister will do the same to her.

The world building is, frankly, odd. It’s dystopian, but whatever returned civilization to a more primitive time happened decades ago. Now, strange, “twisted” creatures that burn whatever they touch have come into our world from another. A hero named John Balsam ended the war against them by tearing a hole through the other world, but the twisted things are still showing up on the farm.

Hallie, her neighbors, and a mysterious veteran who arrived at the farm seeking work and shelter for the winter must band together to figure out what is happening and save not only the farm but their entire community.

I found the twisted creatures on top of the dystopia a bit much. It seems unlikely that both scenarios would happen – the twisted things are never connected to whatever events crashed civilization in the first place. It might have been more effective to set the story in an unnamed primitive society rather than a fallen civilization. It just really didn’t make sense to me, but it  also didn’t bother me *that* much. I still enjoyed the story.

I liked some of the overwritten but unusual language, such as “Heron stood before me, stiff and unshaken, his peculiar grace bleeding into the very air. It wasn’t just northern manner, it was his sense of calling: the way a person held themselves high when they were devoted, without compromise, to something greater than themselves.” (p. 45 of the advance reader copy) There is some cringe-worthy dialog, especially between Hallie and the young man who wants to court her, to balance out the nice stuff.

The relentless negative relationship between Marthe and Hallie was hard to take at times, and the identity of the mysterious veteran is likely to be obvious to every reader even though it is not to the characters in the book. But I raced through this book and recommend it to readers who like dystopian coming-of-age stories. (Also, it has a gorgeous cover!)

I read an advance reader copy of An Inheritance of Ashes from It will be published on October 6 and will be available at the Galesburg Public Library.

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

In the Dark by Deborah Moggach

At the risk of a weak pun, Deborah Moggach's In the Dark is a darker story about the owner and people of a boarding house in WWI London than her other two books about tenants and owners, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Heartbreak Hotel. They are more lighthearted and this book is more serious and tense. In the Dark is scheduled to be published in a hardback edition in the U.S. in November 2015. It actually was first published in an international paperback edition in 2007-08.

In this story the realities, consequences and naive concepts about the war are woven into the lives of the characters in subtle and stark ways. The war is an ever present element, either in the background or coming darkly forward. The main character, a war widowed mother of an adolescent boy, runs a boarding house for a collection of aging and injured people on the margins of life, each with some sort of handicap or loss. The story follows Eithne Clay as she tries to hold together her life and theirs by providing shelter and food for them, as well as income for herself and her son, with very little resources. Seeming good fortune comes her way in a raw, passion-filled marriage to the local butcher.

How this all unfolds reads like a script for an old Alfred Hitchcock TV show episode. There are a few Hitchcock-like twists, partly dark yet with ironic hope. Moggach has a sensitivity toward the emotional and personal stresses of life reflected in her characters and their difficulties, even if they play only a minor off-focus role. The butcher, Neville Turk, however, seems a little stilted and mechanical.

The title applies in a multitude of ways. Characters, soldiers, lovers, armies are each, literally and figuratively, in the dark, clueless at some time or another. Unfortunately the story seemed a little rushed in the wrap-up push to the conclusion of the book which comes at the close of the war.