The Astronaut Wives Club, by Lily Koppel

The Astronaut Wives Club Lily KoppelThe Astronaut Wives Club
by Lily Koppel
Pub Date: June 11, 2013

Unless you’ve been pretty much buried under a rock for the last number of months, you’ve probably heard about the best-selling book The Martian by Andy Weir and the new Matt Damon-starring film adaptation coming out this coming weekend. It was one of my favorite books to come out last year, and I highly recommend it, especially if you’re not much of a sci-fi person, because Weir writes his tale so entertainingly you will actually *enjoy* the way he explains science.

But this isn’t a review of The Martian. This is a review of another book to read if, like me, you have developed an affinity for space-age era books that center on the people involved, enjoyed the film Apollo 13, like anything retro, or just want to hear more gossipy behind-the-scenes tidbits about the space program. Continue reading

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Steelheart, by Brandon Sanderson

Steelheart coverSteelheart
by Brandon Sanderson
Pub Date: September 24, 2013

What if Superman and people like him really did exist? Would the world be better?

Steelheart examines the idea that superheroes would use their power for their own selfish reasons instead of constantly saving the world. The protagonist, David, lives in Chicago after something happened which changed the atmosphere so that the sun doesn’t shine and certain people have strange powers, like the ability to fly or the power to create illusions. People with these powers are called Epics, and the most powerful rule different major cities. Regular people live in constant fear that an Epic will kill them or the people they love. The only people who dare to challenge Epics is a group known as the Reckoners—normal people who study Epics and discover their weaknesses in order to kill them.

Steelheart is the most powerful known Epic, and he rules Chicago with an iron fist while also maintaining it as the most powerful and stable community in the world. David, the protagonist, is a young man who watched Steelheart murder his father and then grew up in Chicago under Steelheart’s reign. David wants revenge against Steelheart, so David joins the Reckoners in order to study Steelheart, learn his weakness, and kill him.

I did not realize how much I would enjoy this book. I knew Brandon Sanderson was a great author, but I am not always a fan of science fiction or blow-em-up action-packed books. Yet, this story grabbed my attention and kept it long past the last page. I found myself on the edge of my seat, wondering what would happen next and how the Reckoners will get out of each scrape. I also loved cheering for regular people working as a team to fight for their freedom against all odds. There is a lot of action, and this action is supported with distinctive characters, strong plot, and a unique premise.

I highly recommend this book for people who like superhero stories, especially since normal people are the heroes in this version. It is also a great book for those who like a lot of action, strong characters, and good surprises with unseen twists and turns. I am excited to read the second book in this series, Firefight, which is already in print.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin

Storied Life of A.J. Fikry Gabrielle ZevinThe Storied Life of A.J .Fikry
by Gabrielle Zevin
Pub Date: April 1, 2014

Almost any book that is set in a bookstore or library is at least going to get my attention. Before I was a librarian I was a bookseller, so those two settings and professions pique my interest. If a book fails to portray library life or bookstore life properly, I practically throw it across the room. I’m very hard-nosed about this. When I heard about this book, featuring a curmudgeon of a book store owner on a small New England island who finds himself caring for an abandoned child, I figured I needed to give it a read. And it turned out to be one of my favorite books of 2014!

A.J. Fikry owns the only bookstore on Alice Island, and it’s revealed that ever since A.J.’s wife Nic, a native of the island, died in a car accident, the bookstore hasn’t been doing so well, and neither has A.J. But he has a relationship with books, and in particular a rare copy of Edgar Allan Poe’s Tamerlane that at least keep him a little grounded in reality, if a little more esoteric than those around him. (Every chapter in the book is named after a novel, along with a review by A.J.) If you’ve ever seen the show Black Books, A.J. is a softer version of Bernard Black.

Despite the fact that he loves books and owns a bookstore, A.J. does not particularly care for writers. He finds them to be unkempt, narcissistic, silly, and generally unpleasant people. He tries to avoid meeting the ones who’ve written books he loves for fear that they will ruin their books for him.

And then one day, returning from a run, A.J. finds that someone has left a toddler named Maya in his store with a note to take care of her. And suddenly A.J. finds himself a father. As the story progresses, the little town and grumpy bookseller who all miss Nic blossom with the effect of the little girl left in the bookstore. This is a book that has a plot that slowly reveals itself – you’re in it for the experience and the characters. And for all the bookish references that make this former-bookseller-turned-librarian take notice and smile. Personally, I enjoyed the appearances of the local police chief about as much as the rest of the book.

Not everything is peachy on Alice Island, and if you’re of a certain disposition you may shed a few tears by the end, but overall you’re going to fall in love with these characters, and relish watching A.J. develop as a person through the people around him. This is a sweet and tender book that makes it a *perfect* choice for book clubs. Very much a comfort read, and I am just fine with that. (Normally these kind of cozy reads aren’t my cup of cocoa, but because this is set in a bookstore with a cast of quirky characters, and well-written on top of that, I couldn’t put it down.) If you need a relatively quick read to give you some warm and fuzzies, that may also give you pause on the importance of family and service, I recommend The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry wholeheartedly!

The Selection, by Kiera Cass

SelectionThe Selection
by Kiera Cass
Pub Date: April 24, 2012

I have always loved princess stories. I guess it goes back to childhood when my mother called me “her princess” and I dreamed of meeting a Disney princess. I devour books like Shannon Hale’s Goose Girl, Gail Carson Levine’s Ella Enchanted, and Margaret Peterson Haddix’s Just Ella. I also enjoy dystopian novels like Hunger Games, The Giver, and Divergent. When the teens at my library told me about a new dystopian series that is also a princess story, I knew I needed to read this. I am not disappointed.

America Singer, the protagonist, lives in a future America but with a different government and a different name, similar to Hunger Games. Unlike Hunger Games, there is not a horrible game where children murder each other every year. Instead, there is a game of “who will be princess?” every two decades or so. Thirty-five single, young women are chosen from around the country to live at the palace until the prince and future king chooses one to be his bride. Kind of a future royal version of the tv show The Bachelor, this one is called “The Selection.”

I enjoyed getting to know America Singer. She is a strong, intelligent protagonist who has a lot to learn about herself and the people around her. I also really liked Prince Maxim. He takes his role as future king seriously, including finding his future queen in the selection. Still, he is a kind, responsible, regular kind of guy with a great sense of humor. I especially love watching their relationship develop, although sometimes I couldn’t believe all that Prince Maxim forgives America for.

This is a book I have recommended to one of my favorite mature ten year olds all the way up to adults looking for a fun new series. The romance does not move beyond kissing, there wasn’t any swearing, and any violence happens behind the scenes. I definitely recommend it as a book for both mothers and daughters who want an entertaining romance without having to worry about skipping pages or words.

                                                    

In the Language of Miracles, by Rajia Hassib

In the Language of Miracles Rajia HassibIn the Language of Miracles
by Rajia Hassib
Pub Date: August 11, 2015

I heard too many good reviews about this book to not want to pick it up. The story follows an Egyptian American family a year after a tragedy that left their oldest son Hasaam and the daughter of their neighbors, Natalie, dead. Being Muslim, you can imagine the implications this family faces. They learn there will be a memorial held to honor Natalie, and not-yet-healed wounds resurface again as they once again face the prejudices of their affluent community.

What stunned me about this book is the way each of these family members handles their grief. Middle child Khaled seems to retreat into himself more. Father Samir, a respected doctor, wants to move past it all and make a speech at the memorial for Natalie, much to the chagrin of his family. Mother Nagla ponders on what she did wrong as a mother that affected her oldest son so badly. And there are flashbacks to the family when they first came to America and began raising their young family. Nagla’s mother from Egypt has been staying staying with the family for nearly a year, since the death of their son. She is a devout Muslim and also quite superstitious in her own way, and she and Nagla engage in discussions on how the family is handling their grief, and how Nagla interacts with her husband. Slowly the actual events that led to the deaths of Hosaam and Natalie are revealed.

One of the chapters featuring Khaled really stuck out to me. In it he ponders the concept of prayer, and how much control we have on the future with our prayers. Why do we pray? What does prayer do? How does it relate to the superstitions his grandmother holds? Once again, I do appreciate reflections on faith from those not of the LDS persuasion. Having a different perspective, a different lens to look at ideas of doctrine and faith can give a much richer faith-promoting read. And Khaled’s fascination with butterflies, reflected on the cover, should be a point to keep in mind as one reads.

The novel allows for the reader to follow the course of events leading up to Natalie’s memorial, and ponder on how one would react under similar circumstances. How have we treated our neighbors who are different from us? How would an LDS family face these predicaments this Muslim family faces? Would it be different, do you think? The narrative also causes you to confront your assumptions about the Muslim son who caused the tragedy, and why.

Knowing that the whole plot revolves around the tragic deaths of two young people, this might be a difficult read for some. This is no light-hearted read. But this is the kind of story that has affected many people of color in our country, and it’s something to be aware of and mindful of, especially if you are not a person of color. But the emotions that are explored are universal. This read should give you pause.

 

Searching for Sunday, by Rachel Held Evans

511Xwfec5PL._SY344_BO1204203200_Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church
by Rachel Held Evans
Pub Date: April 14, 2015

I love reading about people’s faith journeys. If they return to faith, if they turn away from faith, if they have answers by the end or more questions, if they’re of my faith or not. I love reading them. Expect to find more of them featured on this blog in future. What I appreciate about them is identifying with the author’s struggles, coming to terms with my own doubts and questions, and being able to better frame my own beliefs from wrestling with theirs.

I discovered Rachel Held Evans three years ago when her previous book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, came out. I devoured that book, and it was like a big light bulb appeared over my head when I read it. (I will definitely review this one in future.) She’s a Millennial Christian, a smart woman raised in an academic, theological home, who opens herself up to plenty of discussions about faith. So I was very excited to learn through her blog that she was working on a new book, and eagerly anticipated its arrival. I read two chapters, and then I had to put it down for a bit. I guess I needed to be in the right frame of mind to really get into it, and the past couple of weeks it’s been part of my Sunday reading. For me, I couldn’t read it in one sitting – I needed time for it to digest.

Evans details her struggles with the evangelical faith she was raised with. For many readers, this may be very familiar territory, and for others this may be more eye-opening. As a person of LDS background approaching this title, there are a number of doctrinal differences, but I still noticed quite a bit of overlap with some of the cultural practices. Some of these episodes I recall reading on her blog, or in her past books. Here she organizes her book, and her faith journey, following the seven sacraments as used in some Christian traditions of baptism, confession, holy orders, communion, confirmation, anointing of the sick, and marriage. For someone heartily raised LDS (I tend to say “both sides go back to Nauvoo”), this seems familiar and yet unfamiliar. But overall there’s a sense of familiar with her stories of culture, her questions of doctrine and practice, and in the people she meets along the way.

…we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. […] We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our heart and minds behind, without wearing a mask.

To be quite honest, I kept thinking of President Uchtdorf talks through reading a lot of this book, particularly a CES Devotional entitled “What Is Truth?,” and “The Gift of Grace” from our last General Conference. No doubt other talks and stories will come to your mind, but these are what kept returning to my mind as I read.

One of the big takeaways for me was how we, collectively as Christians, need to be more aware of how we tote the name “Christians.” Evans observes some very un-Christlike behavior in some, and exceptionally Christlike behavior in others, and what would you want to be remembered in someone’s memoir for? I recall a former roommate of mine saying when she first converted she attended some Sunday blocks where there was no mention of Christ. None. The speakers and teachers certainly touched on gospel topics, but Jesus was not among them. And she’s made it a point ever since to always bring up Christ in whatever talk or lesson she gives, and I think that’s a great rule of thumb. This was a thought that came to me a few times while reading. How am I bringing Christ into the conversation?

This is definitely a book to read with a pencil handy to mark passages. I found many that I found inspiring, “Faith is about feeding as well as being fed” and “I can’t be a Christian on my own. Like it or not, following Jesus is a group activity” being some of them. This is a book to engage with – to not only hopefully gain some spiritual solace and confirmation of struggles, but also to take this person’s definitions of Christianity and see how it holds up to ours. That’s what I like about books from those of another faith – gaining on new perspective on my own.

This book is a nice, lighter addition to your gospel studies, if to just give you another point of view. Checkout Rachel Held Evan’s blog or Twitter for plenty more food for thought. And though I did not read along with the study guide, Evans provides one on her blog that may make the reading more fulfilling.

The Oregon Trail, by Rinker Buck

The Oregon Trail Rinker BuckThe Oregon Trail: A New American Journey
by Rinker Buck
Pub Date: June 30, 2015

I never had the opportunity to go on Trek while I was in Young Women. I’ll no doubt get the chance later in life if I get a calling in YW or have kids who go on Trek, but right now my outdoorsy adventures have been Girls Camp and exploring historic sites with Civil War reenactors. I did play a heck of a lot of Oregon Trail back in grade school, so my primary association with the Oregon Trail is “caulk the wagon!” and “David has died of dysentery.”

So I was delighted to hear about this book being published! The author, Rinker Buck (what a fabulous name!), is a curmudgeonly unemployed journalist leaving middle age who decides he’s going to take a covered wagon and a team of mules and retrace the pioneer’s trek along the famed Oregon Trail. Because why not?! This is a total nerdfest for history buffs! His younger brother Nick (the epitome of a kind of redneck renaissance man) joins him on the journey, along with Nick’s smelly but lovable dog Olive Oyl, and Buck not only recounts the trials, tribulations, and triumphs of the trek West, but also gives robust histories of various aspects of pioneer life and the Oregon Trail, like the breeding and raising of mules, how the pioneers packed their wagons, the variety of covered wagons, and recounts a number of biographies of colorful pioneer characters.

Speaking of colorful, I should warn you that the language in the book is a little blue. Buck’s brother doesn’t have much of a filter, and Buck isn’t all that much better. So if that’s really going to bother you, maybe pass this one along, but I found the history and the story arc of the journey well worth it. There’s also two chapters where he talks about the Mormon migration and visits what sounds like a multi-stake Trek. It might be best for some to skip those chapters because he’s pretty sarcastic in tone, and though he gets some facts right in his history, it’s through a very skeptic lens. But he does thank the LDS Church in the acknowledgements for help with his research.

Throughout the story, Buck recalls a similar endeavor he made with his father in 1958, heading from New Jersey to Pennsylvania in a covered wagon. On the back of the wagon his father made a sign that told any impatient motorists that they were going to “See America Slowly” and to pardon the delay. I love that. My great-grandparents raised sheep for a time, and one of the favorite places to play when we were kids was in the old sheep wagon parked in the back of their house. It was basically a primitive RV in the form of a covered wagon, and just delightful (but not much fun to sleep in when you’re a seven-year-old used to air conditioning and nearby bathrooms). Buck shares a number of memories of that trip and of his father, seeking some reconciliation with their rocky relationship. It’s very clear where the Buck brothers get their personalities, and reaching the points in the narrative where Buck talks about his father were highlights for me.

Another thing that struck me and the author is how incredibly friendly people along the route were. They were delighted to see a Real Covered Wagon pass by, and offered advice, places to stay, food, wagon repairs, and loved on the mules. You get a real sense of the kind of America we all want to experience.

This is a highly entertaining travelogue of two middle-aged guys with a fierce determination to travel the route of their pioneer forebears. And though they never got to actually “caulk the wagon,” they do run into some dangerous and nerve-wracking situations that will keep you moving along with them. If you’re looking for a book that gives some nitty-gritty details about pioneer life, and are really into Trek, this may be a fun read for you.

Readalikes: If you’re a fan of history buffs going on journeys, I highly recommend Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America by Andrew Ferguson and Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz. While both are obviously Civil War-centric, the authors do describe a past America, correct common misconceptions, and see how much or how little certain aspects of American life have changed in 150 or so years.