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Year of Wonders

The last in my Geraldine Brooks series, this one is about a favorite topic: the plague. This book is historical fiction about the Plague Village, a place that wound up with plague in 1666 and quarantined itself to keep the plague from spreading to other villages. As with Brooks' other books, this one has a strong central female character and a lot of other interesting folks. Also like her other books, the ending that you think you’re hoping for isn’t the one she gives you and you wind up liking this one more. I enjoyed the detail-oriented look at a 17th century village complete with superstition, class fractitiousness and lots of messiness. A great read and possibly my favorite of the three even though People of the Book was more up my alley.


I love how I can be a librarian and still not know about an author who I absolutely love. This was the second of three Brooks books I’m working my way through, a historical fiction account of Mister March from Little Women and what happened to him when he went off with the soldiers. It’s a really interesting look at the South during the civil war, along with the abolitionist North’s reaction to some of it. Great story, lush with detail and the added aspect of somewhat unreliable narrators made this book--a book I wasn’t so sure I’d like at the outset--into one of the better books I’ve read this year.

People of the Book

Ask MetaFilter had a thread with someone asking for historical type mysteries, listing other books I’d read and enjoyed. This book was suggested and my sister is a Brooks fan so I figured I’d try it out. Loved it. It’s a historical fiction piece about a book restorer working on some of the “who/what/where/why” stuff concerning the Sarajevo Hagaddah. The lead character is an interesting and unusual Australian woman and she travels the world doing research and finding clues. I have to say I was worried that this book would trail off into some sort of romance or other pat historical wrap-up but the ending of the book actually caused me to enjoy the build-up to the ending that much more.

Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual

A short, interesting to read book by Michael Pollan who wanted to sum up what he’d learned about food and nutrition and make it into bite-sized bits of information. So here, on one rule per page or so, are the things he’s learned. These aren’t just “aw shucks” bits of folk wisdom, this is stuff that has science and real background behind it, but is delivered in ways you can easily understand and abide by. Pollan is not an enemy of birthday cake, he just wants us to make generally smarter choices with our eating to be healthier and live disease-free longer.

Encyclopedia of the Exquisite

Loved this. A little book full of interesting anecdotes about a lot of stuff I knew almost nothing about, or things I thought I knew something about (tassels?) but didn’t really. Each entry is a few pages or less and I defy anyone to not find something interesting about each and every entry, even the ones that look like they might not be very interesting at all (strong?). Best of all, there’s a rich bibliography at the end of it so if a particular entry strikes your fancy you can go read about it to your heart’s content. It’s tough to write a good book about niche-y little subjects like this without everything sounding precious or twee and Jenkins does a wonderful job with it.

Rules of Deception

A good Switzerland-based spy thriller with enough technology and crossing and double-crossing to stay lively until the end. I enjoyed this better than Reichs other book that I read.

Zero History

This book seems to be getting only “meh” reviews overall but I quite liked it. Same characters from the last book and a bit of the same old story, coolhunting of esoteric brands and topics and some crack teams of superagents who have to pull off a caper. Enjoyable to Gibson fans, possibly disappointing to people who were looking for something newer and fresher?

Weird Hikes

Enjoyed this book which I found on the new shelf of the public library. Bernstein is an author of many hiking manuals and this book is a collection of odd stuff that’s happened to him while hiking. These can range from the supernatural [saw a lady at a cabin in the woods who others claim had died decades earlier] to the mundane [broken leg] to the inspirational or amusing. Bernstein is an interesting guy with a knack for telling a story but I got hung up on the factualness of some of the stories and didn’t always find this as enjoyable as I might have, and there’s one fictionalized account of a young bullied boy dying while hiking which I found unsettling. Still it’s a neat look at a topic that doesn’t always inspire essay collections and a quick and fun read.

The Scalpel and the Soul

Really enjoyed this book since I like reading about medicine but it was sort of all over the place. The doctor is a guy who went to medical school, went off to the war, came back to be a surgeon and then retired from active surgery to help doctors make fewer medical mistakes. If you read a lot of medical books you’ll recognize some fo the traditional marks of arrogance which are explained and somewhat apologized for but still seem somewhat jarring out of context [referring to child burn patients as “it” instead of by their gender, a seeming lack of empathy for patient deaths, a bit of self-absorption] and this is balanced somewhat by the author’s reflection and contemplation of the more spiritual side of medicine. Now, I temd to bristle when I feel that someone is requiring me to accept woo-woo approaches to things that science can explain but the doc in this case is talking about things that science deosn’t explain, or doesn’t explain well. There’s not a lot of “let’s looks into what could have been happening, scientifically...” here but a lot of connected stories that the author reflects on. I enjoyed the book with some reservations.

Little Nothings: The Curse of the Umbrella

Loved this. These little comics are filled with small autobiographical sketches of Trondheim, a well known French cartoonist. He draws himself and his wife and children as anthropomorphic birds and makes small slice of life one-pager comics about the things they do including deciding to get cats, the ins and outs of public transportation and concerns about malaria. It’s quite amusing in a droll sort of way and the illustrations are marvelous.

The Giant’s House: A Romance

I picked this book off the library booksale shelves and did not know it was about a librarian. It’s not only that, it’s by a former (sort of) librarian turned novelist. She writes quite poetically about this smalltown New England librarian living a life of solitude who becomes somehow connected to the local boy who has a growth problem, eventually reaching over eight feet tall. The boy is clearly based on Robert Wadlow, the tallest man who ever lived, though there are similarities, this is not biographical but rather historical fiction. I kept pulling out phrases in this book that i found particularly evocative as a librarian and the added quirky romance if you could call it that propels the book forward fairly well. A quick, easy and fascinating read.

Kingbird Highway

This book was a natural follow-up to The Big Year which I read a few months ago and which is coming out this weekend as a major motion picture. It talks about Kaufman’s attempt to make and win a big year in 1973, doing it almost entirely by couchsurfing and hitchhiking. Along the way he talks about many of the famous birders he gets to meet, talks about the formation of the ABA and does a lot of ruminating about the nature of bird “collecting” and life on the road generally. I really enjoyed this book even though I was sort of thinking I might not, might find Kaufman indulgent or too hippie to empathize with. I was totally wrong. This book is a delight and should be read by anyone who has read or seen Big Year.

La Perdida

Found this at a library book sale and it was a totally pleasant surprise. Jessica Abel is always one of my favorites but I didn’t know much about this one. It’s a really interesting story about a woman who decides to go down to Mexico and the people she meets and interacts with there. it doesn’t go anywhere you expect it to go and the illustration and the entire storyline are all really high quality. Highly recommended.

Figuring it Out

This book is a collection of essays about math. They are shorter than many of the other essays I’ve read and slightly more interesting though less deterministic [often the reader is left with things to think about rather than drawn to one conclusion]. This book was originally published in Portugal and reprinted in the US. I’m not sure what happened between there and here, but all the graphics in the book are jaggedy and weird, as if they were blown up from really small images. Not a huge deal, but fiarly distracting [and in some cases problematic] in an otherwise really nice looking book.

From Hell

Loved this. I forgot that way back when I was a sort of serial killer enthusiast of a sort and a lot of the little bits of this story came back to me as I was reading it. Moore and Campbell have created a terrific alternate-but-supported history of what may have actually been going on in London in the summer of '88. The librarian in me thrilled to the lengthy afterword which was filled with Moore talking in casual detail about the sources that he’d consulted and talking about which panels were real which were based on good guesses and which were fabricated entirely. A gripping and interesting read.


This book was recommended to me by people who I told that I enjoyed .. I think The Passage? I had a hard time getting into it. I enjoyed the first chapter or so which seemed Gibson-esque, sort of cyberfuture sort of thing but then it went WAY off into future tech sorts of things and it kind of lost me. When everything is taking place in sort of some sort of sim or another, it can be hard to keep track of what is real and what is not real and I wound up not really feeling connected enough to the book to stay on top of real vs. sim stuff. Maybe a great book for other people, did not do it for me.

The Informationist

Thought this was going to be more librarian-y but this African thriller is a pretty interesting romp through a mysterious disappearance coupled with a hard-edged cross-dressing “fixer” who won’t stop until she’s solved the problem.

Cannabiz: The Explosive Rise of the Medical Marijuana Industry

An interesting look at the larger business concerns that surround the legalization of marijuana including some historical and cultural context, but mostly talking to the people who grow and sell marijuana for a job and what that sort of thing is like. I’m not sure if this book is more or less objective or if it just has a slant that I agree with, but I enjoyed this look at California’s struggled to legalize marijuana and what that’s meant in terms of trickle down effects with other industries. Readable and interesting.

Growing Up Amish

Enjoyed this coming of age tale of a young man growing to adulthood and having a sort of love/hate relationship with both his family and the community that exists within an Amish community. Ira Wagler is the son of a well-known Amish journalist and found hmself increasingly disenchanted with what he saw as his future. Not content just to head off for a few years of Rumspringa, Wagler leaves and returns and leaves again, narrating what his life is like all the while. He’s a bit of a mess through parts of it and it can be tough to read him giving the church and his loved one hope that you as the reader are pretty sure is false hope, but the narration is lively and even though it sort of ends abruptly [spoiler: he finds Jesus for real and for true and this enables him to finally leave for good] it is a quick and captivating read.

The Passage

[review pending]

Lost Bar Harbor

A poignant look at the “cottages” of Bar Harob that represented a particular place and time in the evolution of this popular vacation spot. Lots of lovely pictures of interesting looking homes along with the eventual “what happened” denoument.

Castle Waiting

I half loved this and half sort of didn’t. It’s a great epic fairy tell full of fanciful characters, a lot of funny and wry jokes and some really great tales. However, for some reason the main tale sort of splits off about halfway through to become the secondary tale which, while also a great story, didn’t seem like the main story. So I kept waiting to get back to the main story which basically came back for a few pages at the end. Weird. Not a reason to not read it, just worth knowing it’s coming up.

Engine Summer

Crowley has written one of my favorite books and I was hoping there would be some of the same flavor to this earlier book of his. Instead, I found it confusing as if I were failing to grasp subtle metaphor after subtle metaphor and the whole book never really cohered for me.

Roadstrips: A Graphic Journey Across America

I didn’t read the description too carefully and I thought this was about road trips, but it’s actually a bunch of cartoonists, people you’ve heard of and a few you probably haven’t, talking about when they sort of had their “Aha!” moment about realizing they were American. The strips are distributed and introduced geographically and of course there’s a preponderance of strips about places you’d suspect cartoonists would live, but they’re all really interesting, reflective and of course really well drawn. Enjoyed this a lot even though it wasn’t about road trips after all.

Town Boy

Enjoyed this book about growing up in Malaysia. Not a lot going on, but the author’s quirky illustrations and little vignettes with so much going on visualy are evocative of Sergio Aragones and a joy to look at.

Stitches: A Memoir

[review pending]

The Eternal Smile: Three Stories

[review pending]

Chance in Hell

I had a hard time getting my head around this story of a girl who is raised in some sort of favela/dump and claws her way out of it only to find herself in a bunch of other strange circumstances. I sort of disliked everyone in this story and wasn’t quite even sure how I should feel. Interesting certainly but not as good at other stuff I’ve enjoyed by Hernandez.

American-Born Chinese

Not everyone likes this graphic novel about being a Chinese kid born in American trying to deal with racism and otherness and at the same time trying to meet girls and just be “normal” I enjoyed the way it had three interwoven stories each of which told smal parts of the larger issues of assimilation and striving in different metaphorical ways. One of the stories involves a super-racist stereotype which seemed to press people’s buttons in the Amazon reviews that I read. It’s easy for me, from the outside, to say “well I didn’t think it was offensive” but I guess I didn’t. I’d be interested to know what other people thought.


Another great combination of illustration and storytelling by Hernandez. This one is a high schoolish tale of romance and rock and roll and one [two?] character who is in a coma for a year and emerges ... slow. Also an evil lemon grove and the mysterious things that happen there.


I had the rare delight with this graphic novel where I was so into the story and scooting along thinking “Oh what HAPPENS” that I almost didn’t stop to appreciate the illustrations which are truly terrific. I loved this tale of a ghost hunter and the kid that gets sent to the ghost world by accident and the campaign to either get/detroy him or get him back. A lot of overlapping narratives, great pictures not constrained by boring-old-reality and enough of a feelgooder that it’s good for people who don’t usually like “eternal conflict” types of books. So good. Go read it.

Fun Home

Too many similarities to list in this autobiographical novel of growing up in a weird house with a weird dad and a fractured family situation. I enjoyed this difficult story about Bechdel’s growing up.

Bad Science

An excellent book explaining not just why bad science is bad but HOW bad science is bad. Goldacre has a column in the Guardian in which he talks about people doing science badly. This book is a nice summary of some bad scientific claims and movements [from the antivax stuff to homeopathy] in which he comes back to the same point over and over “Look at the SCIENCE” and explains, somewhat repetitively, but again with humor, what good science would look like and the errors and missteps and out and out fraud that many people do in the name of making money and hoodwinking people. Highly suggested.

The Mind’s Eye

Another inteersting book by Sacks. If you’ve read him before you sort of know his thing and you either like it or you don’t. This book explores the neurobiological aspects of vision and, as usual, explores historical, modern-day and Sacks' own personal experiences with the quirky nature of the intersection of our eyes and our brains.

The Big Year

A book lent to me by a firend who is a fellow casual birder. I really enjoyed this story of three competitive type birdwatchers and their quest to see the most different types of birds within the confines of US territory. This includes multiple pelagic trips out to see birds that never come to land, and a necessary trip to Attu, waaaay out on the end of the Aleutian Islands where you hope for birds to be blown over from Asia. The writing in this book is sharp and lively without being too jokey or bird-nerdy. The author assembled the narrative form the journals and hundreds of interviews of the three main characters but has also complemented them with his own research into bird trivia which added greatly to my enjoyment of this book. Whether you’re really into birds or just wonder what all the fuss is about, you’re likely to enjoy this book.

Possum Living: How to Live Well Without a Job and With (Almost) No Money

Mixed feelings about this one. It’s a reissue of a 1980’s classic in which Dolly Freed, homeschooled girl living outside of Philadelphia, talks about how she and her dad live more or less off the wage-slave grid, raising their own animals for food and growing most of their own vegetables. There’s something really captivating about it in its own way - living without a job! the good life! -- and at the same time it just seems a little weird. There is an entire chapter (later recanted by the author in this reissue) about how to “convince” people of things, mostly by going to their house late at night and scaring them. There is also an awful lot of space dedicated to how to distill your own liquor. Which, hey, to each their own and maybe I’m just a fussy prude, but with the added afterword by the author about how her father eventually drank himself pretty much to death, the book seemed framed in a fairly different way.

There is a lot of lip service given to how you just need to want to do something and you can do it when they discuss going without health insurance and how Dolly eventually got a job at NASA, but her adult self is a lot more mellow and forgiving about things. People who are interested in this particular book and Dolly Freed in particular should check out some of the meta-information that’s available about this book including this documentary short and this longer article.

The Bullfighter Checks Her Makeup

Loved this. Orleans writes very well about people so normal that they become fascinating. Her character sketches are at one sort of commonplace -- here is the guy who runs the fan store, here is a ten year old boy and what he does, here is a lady who sells buttons -- and totally captivating. Part of this is her low drama but also very intense way of describing her subject. Everyone becomes three-dimensional under Orleans' eye and she seems to know both what makes the characters interesting to themselves as well as what a random reader might want to know. Each chapter is better than the next. It’s worth trying to track down this book.

The Magicians

I enjoyed this. Grossman’s last book that I read was Codex which some people likened to a Da Vinci Code ripoff btu I actually liked it better than the Da Vinci Code. This book was terrific in that Harry Potter sort of “kid goes to Wizard School” way but I’m afraid it sort of petered off for me at the end when the kids grew up and got fighty and then had to fight som sort of WAR in the magical world they found themselves in. Excellent characters, excellent sense of place, the plot wasn’t my thing.

Whatever Happened to Pudding Pops?

A terrific and fun book that takes the nostalgia thing we all feel for the toys and gadgets of our childhood and makes a smart and entertaining book out of it. These sorts of books are popular, so it’s easy to phone it in when writing them and you’ll still have a hit, but these writers really dug for background information and amusing anecdotes that makes you excited to turn to the next page. Great gift, great book, highly recommended.

Faithful Place

I was lucky in that when I finished French’s second book, this one was immediately available at the library. So, I read them back to back which was good for remembering small details about the characters since there is a little overlap between books, but not much. This was a terribly sad novel outlining the backstory of Cassie’s boss the guy who runs undercover and how he came from a ratty working class neighborhood and about the teen mystery/disappearance that haunted him and his family. Quite good, very chilling but well done and not at all tawdry. Can’t wait to read her next one.

The Likeness

Enjoyed this book by French which is not quite a sequel but has some of the same characters from her first novel In The Woods. This story has a weird murder with an improbable twist: the dead girl looks exactly like one of the detectives. This sets an undercover plot in motion which, like in the last novel, goes somewhat wrong because the characters are people with real feelings and emotions, not dull cop automatons. Whether this works for you or not will probably affect how much you like it, but I enjoyed it a great deal.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable

Not really sure what the problem was but I absolutely couldn’t stand this book and couldn’t get more than a few chapters into it.

Archimedes' Revenge: The Joys and Perils of Mathematics

Another fun poppy book about math. Enjoyed it though my eyes started to glaze over towards the end of it when he devotes a lot of time to social choice theory and voting behavior. While I understood the examples, I had a hard time reading about voting options in any sort of narrative way. Otherwise this collection is surprisingly chatty and occasionally amusing for a collection of short essays about various math topics. I learned that 153 may be my favorite number and I learned about friendly and amicable numbers and a lot of other stuff that I may not use in my real life. I’ve read a lot of these sorts of books and this is one of my favorites.

Worldmakers: SF adventures in terraforming

Picked this up at a library booksale because I liked the cover. Was a bit disappointed when I found out it was from 2001 because I figured some of the stories would be pre-internet. I should not have worried. This is one of the best sorts of anthologies. Dozois has carefully selected stories, they’re arranged well and fit together nicely, and he gives enthusiastic introductions to almost all of them, intros that make you want to read more. I enjoyed every single story here, and they are all over the map from family tales with incidental terraforming to heavy science stories talking about ecopoesis. Reading this collection was a delight and I’m hoping to be able to track down his other collection about transhumanism.

Fun With Terrarium Gardening

The Howe Library’s loss is my gain. This book about the “trendy” hobby of terrarium gardening is a great how-to though with regrettably murky black and white photos for the most part. If you’re interested in this sort of gardening, you can track down a copy of this book pretty mch anywhere and get a really thorough list of how to do this sort of thing right. A good read with a ton of resources.

Gang Leader for a Day: A Rogue Sociologist Takes to the Streets

[review pending]

The Invention of Morel

[review pending]

All That I Have

[review pending]

All Clear

This was the second book of Willis’s two-parter that began with Blackout. Unfortunately I did not know this when I started Blackout and so I got to the end of it and then realized the story would be wrapped up in a second book, a second book that was only held by three libraries in Vermont. I am a bit of a pill about buying new books, I just don’t do it, so I was immensely grateful when a friend gave me an advanced reader copy of this book. It was terrific. It actually resolved without killing off too many main characters. I enjoyed the story. Willis’s theme of missed messages makes a lot of this book -- the main plotline of which involves time travelers from 2060 going back to the Blitz and getting a little stuck there -- really tensemaking. Sometimes almost too much so. Every time chatacters walked past each other or just missed eachother I was reading it going AAAAAAAAGGGGHHH. So I guess htis means it was well-written and I love Willis’s writing generally, but I find the ongoing tension in this pair of books somewhat tough to deal with. So well written, so much great historical information, but a little nail-bitey for my tastes.

My Family and Other Animals

Someone suggested this book as a good book for people who like animals and naturalist writing. Durrell was a noted naturalist and conservationist and this book outlines his teen years when his family was living together on Corfu in Greece in the late thirties. It’s a story about Durrelll and his family but also about the animals and bugs and birds that he encounters and how he learns to think somewhat scientifically about them while at the same time driving his family nuts


This book is the first in a two-partner which I really really wish I’d known before I started it. It’s a great combination of some of Willis' earlier time travel sorts of books along with the weird missed signals theme that carries through a lot of Passages. This book takes us to the London area during the Blitz where three (possibly four) time travelers are doing different historical research topics all of which get a little messed up. The book is rich in history and Willis' excellent writing though it’s a little ... tense for me and especially now that I’ve gotten to the end of it and realize I have to start trolling the libraries to find a way to get the second book or wait for it to be out in paperback. Another great book by Willis, wish I’d had both parts.

The Calculus Diaries

This book helps you understand calculus. Rather it probably helps you understand why you don’t already know calculus. Ouellette has an approachable likeable tone and uses a lot of interesting contemporary examples to help you understand things like derivatives and integrals and why you might care to even know this stuff. She delves into a lot of interesting math history and really works hard to make examples that are real-world and relevant, using such locations as Disneyland, a surfing beach in Hawaii and Las Vegas.

That said, I still don’t know calculus and I think it’s not her fault. The book, while upbeat and “you can do it” in tone is also sort of a popular approach to the work and so is sometimes jokey when maybe it should be more explanatory. Ouellette’s husband is a physicist and she admits herself that she was not the most eager of math students herself. So there’s a camraderie aspect that didn’t resonate with me [probably because I am a grouch] and every time they went to a new fancy location to illustrate some principle or another, I’d jadedly think “Oh I guess that vacation is a tax writeoff then.” Most people who are not grouches will enjoy this book.

The Underground House Book

This book was written in a time when oil was getting mroe expensive and people believed that lifestyle changes such as underground living were the only way they were going to be able to surivive. With this in mind Stu Campbell starts researching what it takes to build an underground house. This book is part research, part boosterism and part hippie fantasy [complete with photos of cozy underground bunkers]. The last chapter of a book has Campbell excitedly preparing to build the underground house of his dreams in collaboration with noted designer Don Metz.

I was curious whether Campbell really did live out his dream and was both happy and sad to see that he and his wife lived in a “radically earth-bermed house” in Stowe for almost thirty years until his death in 2008. Nice work.

Silent on the Moor

This is the last in a trilogy of pretty interesting Victorian-era mysteries. The covers make them look a bit like bodice-rippers but they’re really pretty tame as far as that sort of thing goes. I enjoyed the period attention to costumes and locations and the endless analysis of what and what wasn’t “proper” for the times as well as the strong female leads. The stories both wrap up tidily and also leave room for more exploration of the characters so readers can feel a sense of closure but also look forward to more books.

Silent in the Sanctuary

Somehow I read this and forgot to write it down. It was good. I just got the third one and was trying to figure out if I’d already read it. This is a placeholder for the second book which I read sometime last year.

All Fall down

A student gave me this book when I told her I liked mysteries. I have no idea why the cover has dominoes on it or what the title is about. I enjoyed it, but it seemed to hit all the hot-button issues: sexual abuse, kink, lebianism, lady cops, sisterhood, a bunch of others. It was fine, I wasn’t unhappy that I read it, but sort of made me appreciate the regular authors I enjoy more than I already do.