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08 Mar, 2018

American Panda

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading American Panda American Panda by Gloria Chao
on February 6th 2018
Pages: 311
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
Published by Simon Pulse
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library

An incisive, laugh-out-loud contemporary debut about a Taiwanese-American teen whose parents want her to be a doctor and marry a Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer despite her squeamishness with germs and crush on a Japanese classmate.
At seventeen, Mei should be in high school, but skipping fourth grade was part of her parents' master plan. Now a freshman at MIT, she is on track to fulfill the rest of this predetermined future: become a doctor, marry a preapproved Taiwanese Ivy Leaguer, produce a litter of babies.
With everything her parents have sacrificed to make her cushy life a reality, Mei can't bring herself to tell them the truth--that she (1) hates germs, (2) falls asleep in biology lectures, and (3) has a crush on her classmate Darren Takahashi, who is decidedly not Taiwanese.
But when Mei reconnects with her brother, Xing, who is estranged from the family for dating the wrong woman, Mei starts to wonder if all the secrets are truly worth it. Can she find a way to be herself, whoever that is, before her web of lies unravels?


This book is so good!  

Conflict between immigrant Asian parents and their American-born kids is a staple in a lot of books.  What I appreciated about this book is that it took a deeper look at the people involved to figure out their motivations.  Mei is trying to be the perfect daughter because she has seen real world consequences of disobedience.  Her brother was cut out of the family years earlier for dating a woman with some health issues that may impact her fertility.  His parents would not accept a potential daughter in law who might not produce grandchildren.  Mei is raised on stories of a local Taiwanese-American woman who was cast out of her family and the horrible things had (supposedly) happened to her.  From an outsider’s perspective it is easy to wonder “Why doesn’t she stand up for herself?”  This book does a great job of showing where she gets the idea that she has no other options.

The book features other characters who have been in these situations and examines the results of their decisions.  There is:

  • A woman who became a doctor because her family decided she would be
  • A female relative whose life is taken up by caring for her mother
  • Mei’s boyfriend, who is from a Japanese-American family that has been living in the United States for several generations
  • Mei’s mother 

Mei’s mother’s story was amazing.  At the beginning she is portrayed as an overbearing, neurotic mother who has Mei’s schedule memorized and panics if she doesn’t answer her phone when she knows she should be out of class.  Her phone messages are played for laughs.  As the story deepens though we start to see her conflicts.  She’s the daughter-in-law of a very traditional family in an arranged marriage where her role is very sharply defined.  As she sees Mei start to branch out, she opens up a little about her life and you develop a lot of compassion for a character who very easily could have descended into a caricature.  

It’s great.  I would recommend this one to everyone.  Go get it and read it and pass it on.

06 Mar, 2018

Love Unleashed

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading Love Unleashed Love Unleashed: Tales of Inspiration and the Life-Changing Power of Dogs by Rebecca Ascher-Walsh
on March 6th 2018
Pages: 160
Genres: Nonfiction
Published by National Geographic Society
Format: Hardcover
Source: Book Tour, From author/publisher

A book for dog lovers everywhere. Celebrating the amazing relationships shared with our four-legged friends, each story recounts the love of dogs and the powerful ways dogs impact our lives.

In this heartwarming collection of stories, readers meet 38 incredible dogs who have gone above and beyond the job description of best friend. Each uplifting story provides an inspiring look at the animals who change our lives. Meet rescue dogs who learn to serve others, working dogs who go beyond the call of duty, and underdogs who surmount extraordinary challenges on the road to finding their forever home. This treasury of man's best friend features photographs and personal anecdotes from those who have been touched by the selfless love of a beloved pet.
Readers will be inspired by...* Extraordinary reunions: A dog is rescued from Aleppo, Syria, and reunited with his family in Canada, where they had relocated in 2015 after a missile destroyed their home.* Friendships meant to be: When a prosthetics clinic scheduled appointments for 9-year-old Avery and shelter puppy Hattie Mae on the same day, a fateful encounter leads to a lifelong friendship built on combatting disability. * Heroic acts: Shaya, a crime-fighting dog trained to track illegal poachers, hurt his leg chasing an injured rhino. The leg had to be amputated, but Shaya goes right back to work protecting animals.* True devotion: As he was participating in China's Four Deserts Gobi March, a six-day foot race, Dion Leonard met a dedicated pup who accompanied him for about 120 miles. Afterward, he decides to adopt the dog.



Of course I loved this book.  How could you not? This is a book filled with beautiful pictures of dogs as you’d expect from National Geographic. 

Each dog has a story that is 2-3 pages long. It describes how the dog was taken out of a shelter and found a job that they love to do.  There are therapy dogs, security dogs, actors, medical dogs, and anything else you could think of. There are probably dogs doing jobs that you’ve never even thought of before.

I’ll be taking this book to my office for people to look at in the waiting room.

22 Feb, 2018

The Belles

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading The Belles The Belles by Dhonielle Clayton
on February 6th 2018
Pages: 448
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
Published by Disney-Hyperion
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library

Camellia Beauregard is a Belle. In the opulent world of Orléans, Belles are revered, for they control Beauty, and Beauty is a commodity coveted above all else. In Orléans, the people are born gray, they are born damned, and only with the help of a Belle and her talents can they transform and be made beautiful.
But it’s not enough for Camellia to be just a Belle. She wants to be the favorite—the Belle chosen by the Queen of Orléans to live in the royal palace, to tend to the royal family and their court, to be recognized as the most talented Belle in the land. But once Camellia and her Belle sisters arrive at court, it becomes clear that being the favorite is not everything she always dreamed it would be. Behind the gilded palace walls live dark secrets, and Camellia soon learns that the very essence of her existence is a lie—that her powers are far greater, and could be more dangerous, than she ever imagined. And when the queen asks Camellia to risk her own life and help the ailing princess by using Belle powers in unintended ways, Camellia now faces an impossible decision.
With the future of Orléans and its people at stake, Camellia must decide—save herself and her sisters and the way of the Belles—or resuscitate the princess, risk her own life, and change the ways of her world forever.


I wanted to love this book so much more than I did.  I’ve been hearing about it for so long and have heard such glowing praise of it that when I finished it and felt a bit blah towards it, I was disappointed.

The Hype

This book has been super hyped because of the use of a black model in a gown on the cover.  It was celebrated as a great step forward for representation in books and it is.  But because of that I thought that race would play a bigger part in this book than it does.  Skin color in this world is decided on a whim.  There is no change in status/power/importance placed on the skin color that you have.  It is a fashion accessory.  It just seemed like it went from “Yay for Black Girls” on the cover and in the promotions to “But actually, this doesn’t have anything to do with you specifically” in the story.  If I didn’t know anything about how this book was promoted, it probably wouldn’t have felt strange to me.


The author does a great job in the opening of setting up the world.  It is imaginative and vivid.  After that though the world building just seems to stop.  This is a long novel at 448 pages.  In most fantasy books that size you’d know about countries around the area, the basis of the economy, how people of different classes live, what is their technology based on, etc.  The main character is very sheltered but that isn’t unusual in fantasy.  Usually they find out more about their surroundings that she does in this book though.  At least they show some interest in what is going on around them.  Camillia really doesn’t.

Wishy Washy Heroine

Events happen to the characters in this book.  They do not direct the action.  I think this is the key to my dissatisfaction with this book. 

Every time she is asked to make a decision, she puts it off for days. Eventually she makes a decision but it is usually irrelevant by then because events have moved on.  When deciding between what is right/hard and what is easy/cruel, she always chooses easy/cruel if forced to make a choice in the moment.  She seems like she is supposed to be a nice person – she remembers servants’ names! – but she is so very weak.  Only after witnessing and participating in abuse after abuse does she start to think that something might be wrong.  I would be much more interested in reading a story about the one of her fellow Belles who threw a fit about what she was being made to do almost from the beginning.  

Series vs Stand alone book

It is fine to have a book designed to be part of a series but I hate it when there is no resolution at the end of a book.  Even just wrapping up some side storylines is more satisfying than a totally open-ended book.  In a way this feels like the story is just starting and the pages run out.  That’s fine if you can move right on to the next book but it is annoying here.  At the end I kept thinking of questions that weren’t answered and thinking, “Maybe that’s in the next book” instead of enjoying what was in this one.  


I think the idea was good.  There are some very creative details in the world building like teacup elephants and mail being delivered by small balloons.  It may turn out to be the beginning of a good series.  But it doesn’t stand alone well as a single book.  

08 Feb, 2018

Waking the Spirit

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading Waking the Spirit Waking the Spirit: A Musician's Journey Healing Body, Mind, and Soul by Andrew Schulman
on August 2nd 2016
Pages: 304
Genres: Medical, Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs, Science
Published by Picador
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Setting: New York

Andrew Schulman, a fifty-seven-year-old professional guitarist, had a close brush with death on the night of July 16, 2009. Against the odds—with the help of music—he survived: A medical miracle.
Once fully recovered, Andrew resolved to dedicate his life to bringing music to critically ill patients at Mount Sinai Beth Israel’s ICU. In Waking the Spirit, you’ll learn the astonishing stories of the people he’s met along the way—both patients and doctors—and see the incredible role music can play in a modern hospital setting.
In his new work as a medical musician, Andrew has met with experts in music, neuroscience, and medicine. In this book, he shares with readers an overview of the cutting-edge science and medical theories that illuminate this exciting field.
This book explores the power of music to heal the body and awaken the spirit.


Andrew Schulman was a professional classical guitarist.  He went into the hospital to have a biopsy but an allergic reaction to medication while in surgery led to him spending time in a coma in the surgical ICU.  He was nonresponsive to anything until his wife started playing his favorite playlist of music for him.  After his recovery, he started to research the links between music and healing.  He also returned to the surgical ICU three days a week to play for an hour.

I’ve been lurking on some music therapy harp groups on Facebook.  I like the types of music that these musicians seem to play and I was actually looking for good sources of music for relaxing harp pieces. I know a lot of it is improv.  In this book, Andrew Schulman does some improv but finds himself mostly playing three types of music – Bach, Gershwin, and The Beatles.


There are a lot of stories in the book that show how small of a world the New York music world must be.  He meets family members of composers, Gershwin scholars, and people who performed on his favorite recordings.  Along the way he is shocked to find that he starts to heal the brain damage that his time in a coma caused.

I liked the incorporation of the science along with the stories.  He will talk about seeing music calm pain responses and then will get a scientific opinion on why that works.

You’ll finish this book believing that Bach should be playing in every recovery unit in the hospital.  Even if you don’t play an instrument, this is an uplifting story about how the body can heal itself and how not every medical intervention needs to be using drugs.

02 Feb, 2018

When They Call You A Terrorist

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading When They Call You A Terrorist When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Asha Bandele
on January 16th 2018
Pages: 272
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Published by St. Martin's Press
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Setting: California

From one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement comes a poetic memoir and reflection on humanity. Necessary and timely, Patrisse Cullors' story asks us to remember that protest in the interest of the most vulnerable comes from love. Leaders of the Black Lives Matter movement have been called terrorists, a threat to America. But in truth, they are loving women whose life experiences have led them to seek justice for those victimized by the powerful. In this meaningful, empowering account of survival, strength, and resilience, Patrisse Cullors and asha bandele seek to change the culture that declares innocent black life expendable.


The phrase “When They Call You A Terrorist” refers to two episodes in the author’s life:

  1. When Black Lives Matter is referred to as a terrorist group by people who oppose them
  2. When her mentally ill older brother was charged with terrorism for yelling at a person during a traffic accident

This memoir focuses more on her life leading up to the founding of Black Lives Matter than the aftermath.  It tells the story of living in a community that is very heavily policed.  When her brother starts showing signs of mental illness his interactions with the police increase.  He is taken away and no one is able to find out where he is for months despite constant searching.  He isn’t treated but just medicated to keep him quiet.  He is repeatedly beaten by the police.

I immediately compare this to police treatment of my mentally ill step daughter.  She’s 14.  She has been repeatedly restrained by the police both at schools and at home because of her violence.  She has sent adults to the hospital. She has destroyed property.  The police will not ALLOW her to be charged with a crime despite multiple requests because “she has a diagnosis.”  Wanna guess the other differences between her and the author’s brother besides access to healthcare to get a diagnosis?  Yeah, she’s white and lives in an affluent suburb. 

I’m not sure how so many white people can continue to think that unequal policing doesn’t exist. Even if you aren’t involved in a situation that highlights it, so many videos exist.  It has to be just willful ignorance to deny the evidence.

The author helped organize a bus trip into Ferguson after Mike Brown’s death.  A church was offered as a staging place for the 600 people coming in.  I thought about that for a while.  My brother works at a church that would be perfect for that sort of thing.  It is right off the interstate.  It has a huge parking lot that could hold a lot of buses.  There is a school attached so maybe there are locker rooms so people could shower.  Then I laughed and laughed.  I can’t imagine a white majority church EVER opening their doors to a protest group.  They’d have to fight about it in committee and through the church gossip networks for months before they could even begin to make a highly contested decision.  Then the pastor would be fired. 

My mental tangents aside, this book is ultimately about the power of love and what it looks like to try to live out that love in the real world.  It is a short, lyrical book that can help open people’s eyes to the needs in communities that have adversarial relationships with police.

18 Jan, 2018

Son of a Trickster

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading Son of a Trickster Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson
on February 7th 2017
Pages: 336
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction, Young Adult
Published by Knopf Canada
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Setting: British Columbia

Everyone knows a guy like Jared: the burnout kid in high school who sells weed cookies and has a scary mom who's often wasted and wielding some kind of weapon. Jared does smoke and drink too much, and he does make the best cookies in town, and his mom is a mess, but he's also a kid who has an immense capacity for compassion and an impulse to watch over people more than twice his age, and he can't rely on anyone for consistent love and support, except for his flatulent pit bull, Baby Killer (he calls her Baby)--and now she's dead.
Jared can't count on his mom to stay sober and stick around to take care of him. He can't rely on his dad to pay the bills and support his new wife and step-daughter. Jared is only sixteen but feels like he is the one who must stabilize his family's life, even look out for his elderly neighbours. But he struggles to keep everything afloat...and sometimes he blacks out. And he puzzles over why his maternal grandmother has never liked him, why she says he's the son of a trickster, that he isn't human. Mind you, ravens speak to him--even when he's not stoned.
You think you know Jared, but you don't.


This is not the book that I expected from the blurb.  I expected urban fantasy with Jared finding out he’s supernatural in the beginning of the book and then he has adventures.  That doesn’t happen.  Instead this is a hard look at the life of a First Nations teenager who lives with his unreliable and violent drug dealer mother and her boyfriend.  This book takes you up close and personal into a life of poverty and crime.  There is almost no magic happening for the first 2/3 of the book.  

It even has two of my automatic DNF plots.  His dog dies of heartworm at the beginning of the book (with a very odd veterinary clinic scene that isn’t anything that would happen for real).  There is also a scene of his mother killing a dog with her truck on purpose.  Animal abuse is a DNF.

I also absolutely hate stories of teenagers who do nothing but drink and take drugs.  I hate it in real life and I hate wasting my time on that type of plot in books.

So, knowing all that, why did I finish this book and think it was great?

The writing pulled me in and kept me engaged with the story.  Jared looks like he has nothing going for him.  His mother is an addict and dealer.  He is doing some low-level dealing.  But he is trying to keep his mother’s bills paid while also trying to keep his father and his new wife’s rent up to date.  He even helps his elderly neighbors with their chores.  None of the adult relatives in Jared’s life are responsible so he feels that he needs to be.  The only person he feels like he may be able to rely on is his paternal grandmother but his mother has forbidden him to talk to her.  He does anyway and he really wants to go live with her in order to finish school but he feels that it would be a betrayal of his mother, even when she is continuously betraying him.  By the end you want to protect him from yet another person who lets him down.

As Jared starts to see manifestations of his traditional beliefs appearing before him, he decides that he has been doing too many drugs and decides to get clean.  I love that that was his response to an invisible bear in the living room and cavemen in his bedroom.  But the magic is real and has always been there even if it is just starting to get through to him.

The author did a good job depicting the charm vs the dangerous irresponsibility of a drug-involved parent.  Jared’s mom obviously loves him and dotes on him but she also exposes him to men who hurt him and she will disappear without warning.  She relies on him to get her through bad trips and lavishes presents on him when she is manic.  She’s horrible but draws you into her self-absorbed world. 

Jared’s friends feel real.  They are a mix of popular and unpopular kids.  Native and non-Native also.  Each is well fleshed out and are unique characters.  

Of course this book really started to pick up for me when the magic became more apparent.  And then it was over.  I feel like there wasn’t a resolution.  This is part one of a series so I know that there will be more to the story but I would have liked to see more of an ending than this.  


10 Jan, 2018

Heart in the Right Place

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading Heart in the Right Place Heart in the Right Place by Carolyn Jourdan
on June 15th 2007
Pages: 304
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Published by Algonquin Books
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Setting: Tennessee

Carolyn Jourdan had it all: the Mercedes Benz, the fancy soirees, the best clothes. She moved in the most exclusive circles in Washington, D.C., rubbed elbows with big politicians, and worked on Capitol Hill. As far as she was concerned, she was changing the world.
And then her mother had a heart attack. Carolyn came home to help her father with his rural medical practice in the Tennessee mountains. She'd fill in for a few days as the receptionist until her mother could return to work. Or so she thought. But days turned into weeks.
Her job now included following hazmat regulations for cleaning up bodily fluids; maintaining composure when confronted with a splinter the size of a steak knife; distinguishing between a "pain," a "strain," and a "sprain" on indecipherable Medicare forms; and tending to the loquacious Miss Hiawatha, whose daily doctor visits were never billed.


At first glance this is a funny memoir of life in a small town medical office.  Stories of men who try to operate on themselves or get injured doing ill advised things abound.  There are also heart breaking stories of the deaths of beloved patients and friends.  If you like stories full of small town characters, this would be a great read for you.

On a deeper level though, I found it quite disturbing.  The author’s father is a doctor.  He has a practice with one nurse and his wife is the receptionist/office manager.  His wife is unpaid for this more than full time job.  She also has a doctorate but has spent her life doing unpaid work to support her husband’s job.  When she gets sick her daughter comes home to take over her job.  Her daughter is a lawyer working for a Senator and is an expert on U.S. nuclear policy.  She gives up that job to become her father’s unpaid helper.  The reason they can’t hire anyone else is that the practice doesn’t make enough money to support a paid receptionist.  So now you have two highly educated women who have given up their careers to support this practice and you are denying a job to a person in the community who could be a fine receptionist if the job was paid.

The reason the practice isn’t making any money is because the patients are too poor to pay for healthcare.  Now we get into the failures of the U.S. health care system.  Unfortunately, that isn’t what people tend to take from memoirs like this.  They see a fine doctor who cares enough not to charge for services if people can’t pay.  That’s admirable but not sustainable.  If you can’t pay to keep the electric on, then the community loses its only health provider. 

(This is a touchy subject for me.  I work in a low cost, walk in veterinary clinic in a poor area.  I am basically living this doctor’s life in the veterinary world but with better staffing and hours.  People come in and regale us with tales of TV shows they’ve seen where the vet cares so much about animals that they don’t charge people.  The implication being that if we do charge, then we don’t care.  We just nod because no one wants an economics lesson or to hear about my massive pay cut to work here or the fact that the owner isn’t getting paid yet because the clinic just opened…)

The answer for communities like this is to find a better way for people to afford health care, not to emulate this model.  It isn’t possible moving forward.  Student debt is too high for newer doctors to be able to afford to live on what a practice like this makes.  I looked at buying a practice like this once.  The vet was making about $100,000 a year being on call 24/7.  I wasn’t willing to do that because that type of stress will kill you and once you figured in paying back a loan to buy the practice and doing some way past due maintenance to the building, I would have almost been paying to work there.  I had been out of school long enough not to have any student loans left.  If I had had the debt of today’s graduates, I could never have even considered it.

So, yeah, the book is cute and funny and sweet as long as you don’t look too closely at why a practice like this is needed. 



03 Jan, 2018

That Inevitable Victorian Thing

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading That Inevitable Victorian Thing That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E.K. Johnston
on October 3rd 2017
Pages: 330
Genres: Alternative History, Fiction, Young Adult
Published by Dutton Books for Young Readers
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Setting: Ontario, Canada

Victoria-Margaret is the crown princess of the empire, a direct descendant of Victoria I, the queen who changed the course of history two centuries earlier. The imperial practice of genetically arranged matchmaking will soon guide Margaret into a politically advantageous marriage like her mother before her, but before she does her duty, she'll have one summer incognito in a far corner of empire. In Toronto, she meets Helena Marcus, daughter of one of the empire's greatest placement geneticists, and August Callaghan, the heir apparent to a powerful shipping firm currently besieged by American pirates. In a summer of high-society debutante balls, politically charged tea parties, and romantic country dances, Margaret, Helena, and August discover they share an unusual bond and maybe a one in a million chance to have what they want and to change the world in the process —just like the first Queen Victoria.


This is a YA alternative history book that imagines that the British Empire is still alive and well.  The decision that made the difference was that Queen Victoria named her eldest daughter heir and then married off all her other children to people in the Empire instead of other European royal families.  Now, the Empire is predominately made up of mixed race people.  Canada has a high percentage of people originally from Hong Kong.  The Church of England consists mostly of a DNA database that chooses the best DNA match for people.

The Crown Princess Victoria-Margaret wants one summer away.  She decides to make her debut in Canada while passing herself off as a cousin to one of the leading families there.  She makes other friends though who aren’t in on her secret and this leads to romantic entanglements that aren’t what she expected.

I thought the world building was interesting in this book.  It was intriguing to think about what might have happened if the British had treated their subjects as people worthy of respect.  If you pick too much at the assumptions made in the book though it might all fall apart.  My recommendation is just to enjoy it and go along for the ride. 

At the end of the book the main characters are hatching a plot.  It doesn’t seem very well thought out to me so I will be interested to see what happens in upcoming books. 


17 Nov, 2017


/ posted in: Book ReviewReading Hiddensee Hiddensee: A Tale of the Once and Future Nutcracker by Gregory Maguire, Tbd
on October 31st 2017
Genres: Fiction
Format: Hardcover
Source: Book Tour, From author/publisher
Setting: Germany

In this imaginative novel rooted in the rich soil of early-nineteenth-century German Romanticism, beloved New York Times bestselling author Gregory Maguire twins an origin legend of the famous Nutcracker with the life of Drosselmeier, the toymaker who carves him.
Gregory Maguire’s novels have been called "bewitching," "remarkable," "extraordinary," "engrossing," "amazing," and "delicious." Having brought his legions of devoted readers to Oz in Wicked, Wonderland in After Alice and Dickensian London in Lost, Maguire now takes us to the Black Forest of Bavaria and Munich of the Brothers Grimm and E. T. A. Hoffman. Hiddensee recreates the backstory of the Nutcracker, reimaging how this entrancing creature came to be carved and how it magically guided an ailing little girl named Klara through a dreamy paradise on a snowy Christmas Eve. It also brings to life the mysterious godfather Drosselmeier—the ominous, canny, one-eyed toymaker made immortal by Petipa and Tchaikovsky’s ballet—who presents the once and future Nutcracker to Klara, his goddaughter.
But Hiddensee is not just a retelling of a classic story. Maguire discovers in the flowering of German Romanticism a migrating strain of a Hellenic mystery-cult, and ponders a profound question: how a person who is abused by life, short-changed and challenged, can access secrets that benefit the disadvantaged and powerless. Ultimately, Hiddensee, offers a message of hope. If the compromised Godfather Drosselmeier can bring an enchanted Nutcracker to a young girl in distress, perhaps everyone, however lonely or marginalized on the eve of a winter holiday, has something precious to share.


I came at this book with no idea of the story of The Nutcracker.  I’ve never seen it.  I know there are mice and some soldiers.  That’s all I know.  I didn’t even know that there was a grandfather who made a nutcracker. 

If you aren’t like me (several hundred years out of date with your pop culture), you may see more allusions to the story you know.  For me this was just a series of vignettes in the life of a boy named Dirk.  He was a foundling who seems to move randomly in and out of different people’s lives in Germany.  My favorite part was the subtle, dry humor that is slid into the narrative.

For me this book didn’t stand up to the love that I have for Wicked.  I keep waiting for a book from this author to reach those heights for me.  Hoping for this level of love did decrease my enjoyment of this book somewhat.  It is harder to let this book try to stand on its own without the expectations placed on it. 

This would be a good book for fans of The Nutcracker who want to delve more deeply into the world.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Books Set in Europe
18 Oct, 2017


/ posted in: Book ReviewReading Disrobed Disrobed: How Clothing Predicts Economic Cycles, Saves Lives, and Determines the Future by Syl Tang
on October 16th 2017
Genres: Nonfiction
Published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers
Format: Hardcover
Source: Book Tour, From author/publisher

We may not often think of our clothes as having a function beyond covering our naked bodies and keeping us a little safer from the elements. But to discount the enormous influence of clothing on anything from economic cycles to the future of water scarcity is to ignore the greater meaning of the garments we put on our backs. Disrobed vividly considers the role that clothing plays in everything from natural disasters to climate change to terrorism to geopolitics to agribusiness. Chapter by chapter, Tang takes the reader on an unusual journey, telling stories and asking questions that most consumers have never considered about their clothing. Why do banker's wives sell off their clothes and how does that presage a recession? How is clothing linked to ethanol and starvation on the African continent? Could RFID in clothing save the lives of millions of people in earthquakes around the world?
This book takes an everyday item and considers it in a way that readers may not have previously thought possible. It tackles topics relevant to today, everything from fakes in the museums to farm-to-table eating, and answers questions about how we can anticipate and change our world in areas as far-reaching as the environment, politics, and the clash of civilizations occurring between countries. Much like other pop economics books have done before, the stories are easily retold in water-cooler style, allowing them to be thoughtfully considered, argued, and discussed.



 This is a pop-economics book examining the impact of clothing on various aspects of life now and in the future.  The author is a futurist who uses clothing to help predict future trends.
How does that work?  For example, the rate of rich women reselling designer clothing goes up as they start to have financial concerns.  This shows up before some other indicators of impending recessions.  Likewise, the number of bankers wearing their “lucky clothing” increases with financial instability.
I thought this book was strongest in its first few chapters.  These discuss superstitious clothing trends, how museums fall for buying fakes, and predictors of recession.  In the later chapters on environmental impacts of clothing I felt that the ideas needed more development.  Yes, there are major problems with disposable clothing and its impact on water and agriculture.  But this book just seemed to rush to skim over the surface of many ideas instead of taking the time to develop a few ideas fully.  The ideas are intriguing but the discussion felt half-hearted and left me wanting more details and nuance.
This book would be best for people who have never considered these issues before.  It can serve as an introduction to the topics surrounding clothing and the economy and environment.  It may spur deeper research into the subject and a search for books that dive deeper into the cause and effect of the topics presented here.

About Syl Tang

Syl Tang is CEO and founder of the 19-year old HipGuide Inc. A futurist, her focus is how and why we consume, with an eye towards world events such as natural disasters, geo-political clashes, and pandemics. She has written hundreds of articles on the confluence of world events and soft goods for the Financial Times, predicting and documenting trends such as the Apple watch and other smart wearables, lab-made diamonds, the Department of Defense’s funding of Afghan jewelry companies, the effects of global warming on South Sea pearls, and the unsolved murder of tanzanite speculator Campbell Bridges.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Books Set in North America
  • POC authors
13 Oct, 2017

The Third Plate

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading The Third Plate The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food by Dan Barber
on May 20th 2014
Pages: 496
Genres: Nonfiction
Published by Penguin Press
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library

Barber explores the evolution of American food from the 'first plate,' or industrially-produced, meat-heavy dishes, to the 'second plate' of grass-fed meat and organic greens, and says that both of these approaches are ultimately neither sustainable nor healthy. Instead, Barber proposes Americans should move to the 'third plate,' a cuisine rooted in seasonal productivity, natural livestock rhythms, whole-grains, and small portions of free-range meat


This is the kind of book that I absolutely love.  It is a detailed look at ways of growing food with environmental sustainability in mind.  It gave me warm fuzzies every time I picked it up.

The author runs a restaurant on a farm in New York.  You would think that would be great for the environment but he starts to realize that they plant want he wants to use instead of him using what it is best for the farm to grow.  For example, there are cover crops that are ground to help fix nitrogen or add other nutrients to the soil that are just plowed under because they don’t have a commercial use.  Why shouldn’t he try to use those crops because it is part of what his farm needs to grow to survive instead of forcing the farm to grow the few things that he wants?

He visits a community of organic farmers in a small town in New York.  They are doing extensive work on their soils by using crop rotation.  They grew from one family doing this work who spread the word around the town.  I loved this part.  There is something about reading about building healthy soil that thrills me every time.  I accept that I might be weird.

Then he visits the area of Spain famous for jamon iberico.  This is a ham made from free-range pigs that ate a lot of acorns.  There is a farmer here who is trying to do the same thing with geese to make fois gras without force feeding his ducks.  Also in Spain he visits a fish farm next to a national park that is helping to rebuild an estuary to house their fish.  Birds use the area as a stop over in migration.  The fish farmers consider losing fish to avian predation a sign of a healthy farm ecosystem. 

These were stories were interesting to me but I kept thinking about how unnecessary they are.  If you really want to get into environmentally healthy eating, why eat meat at all?

At the end the book went back to plants and I was so happy.  It discusses heirloom vegetable raising versus breeding for better varieties.  So much of the plant breeding going on is for durability.  Flavor isn’t considered.  This section covers some people who are trying to fix that.

This book reminded me a lot of Omnivore’s Dilemma, especially the section on Joel Saladin.  If you loved that book, you’ll love this one. 

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Backlist Books
  • Books Set in Europe
  • Books Set in North America
05 Oct, 2017

Some of the Things I Haven’t Told You

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading by Anna Yates, Bernard Scudder, Laura Gallego García, Lindsey Davis, Vivian Shaw, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir
Genres: Contemporary, Fantasy, Fiction
Published by Arthur A. Levine Books, Hachette UK, William Morrow
Format: Hardcover, Paperback
Source: Library

I’ve been reading.  I’ve been reading a lot.  But, I haven’t been writing reviews.  Honestly, I got a bit bored with them and I know they aren’t favorites.  It is especially hard when the book is entertaining but nothing mind-blowing.  How many ways can you can up with to say, “It was good.  I enjoyed it enough to read the whole thing. That is all.”

The thing is that I did enjoy these books.  Most of them I haven’t heard much about so they need to get some exposure.  I should stop slacking and write up some reviews.

So here are some books that I haven’t told you about from August.  Seriously, August, people.  Slacking.

Some of the Things I Haven’t Told You Strange Practice by Vivian Shaw
on July 25th 2017
Pages: 400
Genres: Fiction, Fantasy, Contemporary
Published by Hachette UK

Meet Greta Helsing, doctor to the undead.
After inheriting a highly specialised, and highly peculiar, medical practice, Dr Helsing spends her days treating London's undead for a host of ills: vocal strain in banshees, arthritis in barrow-wights and entropy in mummies. Although barely making ends meet, this is just the quiet, supernatural-adjacent life Greta's dreamed of since childhood.
But when a sect of murderous monks emerges, killing human undead and alike, Greta must use all her unusual skills to keep her supernatural clients - and the rest of London - safe.


This is a great idea.  A lot of the monsters from old horror stories are here.  Dr. Helsing is trying to keep a practice afloat while having to keep her patients a secret.

I had a hard time remembering at points that this is a contemporary story.  It kept feeling like it was a Victorian to me and then there would be modern technology.

It was well done.  There are sequels planned and I will definitely read them.

Some of the Things I Haven’t Told You The Third Nero (Flavia Albia #5) by Lindsey Davis
on July 11, 2017
Pages: 321
Series: Flavia Albia #5
Setting: Italy

In 90 A.D., following the Saturninus revolt in Germany, the Emperor Domitian has become more paranoid about traitors and dissenters around him. This leads to several senators and even provincial governors facing charges and being executed for supposed crimes of conspiracy and insulting the emperor. Wanting to root out all the supports of Saturninus from the Senate, one of Domitian’s men offers to hire Flavia Alba to do some intelligence work.
Flavia Alba, daughter and chip off the old block of Marcus Didius Falco, would rather avoid any and all court intrigue, thank you very much. But she’s in a bit of a bind. Her wedding is fast approaching, her fiancé is still recovering―slowly―from being hit by a lightning bolt, and she’s the sole support of their household. So with more than a few reservations, she agrees to “investigate.”


I’ve loved everything I’ve read by this author, which is over 20 books now.  This one seemed to have a lot of historical backstory that needed to be explained in order to understand the significance of The Third (Fake) Nero.  It wasn’t as well woven into the story as she usually does.  It felt like a bit of slog to get through all that in order to get to the story.

That said, I continue to love this series and its take on everyday life in Ancient Rome.

  Some of the Things I Haven’t Told You My Soul to Take (Þóra Guðmundsdóttir, #2) by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Bernard Scudder, Anna Yates
on April 28th 2009
Pages: 352
Published by William Morrow

“Top notch crime fiction.”
Boston Globe
American readers first met Icelandic lawyer and investigator Thóra Gudmundsdóttir in Last Rituals. In My Soul to Take, internationally acclaimed author Yrsa Sigurdardóttir plunges her intrepid heroine into even graver peril, in a riveting thriller set against the harsh landscape of Smila’s Sense of Snow territory. A darkly witty and continually surprising suspense tale that places Yrsa Sigurdardóttir firmly in the ranks of Sue Grafton, Tess Gerritsen, Faye Kellerman and other top mystery writers, My Soul to Take is ingenious Scandinavian noir on a par with the works of Henning Mankell and Arnaldur Indridason. Stieg Larsson (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) fans should also take note.


The heroine of this book is a lawyer who did a land purchase deal for a client who wanted to build a spa.  Now he is claiming that the place is haunted and wants to sue the sellers.  The lawyer heads to the spa for a weekend to try to calm him down and gets mixed up in the mystery of what happened on the land years before.

This book was good.  It was the first Icelandic noir book I’ve read.  I read it for Women in Translation month.  I enjoyed the historical aspects of the story more than the present.  The lawyer was a bit too much of the pushy, “let’s hide things from the police” kind of mystery heroine for my liking.

Some of the Things I Haven’t Told You The Valley of the Wolves (Crónicas de la Torre, #1) by Laura Gallego García
on April 1st 2006
Pages: 336
Published by Arthur A. Levine Books
Setting: Spain

Dana attends a school of magic with only one other student. She has a great love only she can see. And only she can unravel these mysteries and become mistress of the Valley of the Wolves.
Ever since Dana was a little girl, Kai has been her best friend and constant companion--even though she's the only one who can see him. Then the mysterious Maestro comes to her farm and offers her the opportunity of a lifetime: the chance to study sorcery in the Valley of the Wolves. And Dana knows she must go, for the Maestro can see Kai too....


This was another Women in Translation month read for me.  This book reads like a fairy tale.  There is a boy that only the girl can see.  Is he real or not? 

A magician comes and takes her away because he says that she will be a great magic user someday.  He trains her in his castle that is surrounded by vicious wolves who come out at night.  After years of training she realizes that she may not be able to leave if she doesn’t figure out the secrets of the castle and the valley.

This book is all about growing up and seeing your life and the people in it for what they really are.  It is a quick read with lots of fun fantasy and magical elements. 

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Books Set in Europe
05 Sep, 2017

Map, or Holy Cow I Like a Poetry Book!

/ posted in: Reading Map, or Holy Cow I Like a Poetry Book! Map: Collected and Last Poems by Wisława Szymborska, Clare Cavanagh, Stanisław Barańczak
on April 2015
Genres: Poetry
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library, Owned
Setting: Poland

A new collected volume from the Nobel Prize–winning poet that includes, for the first time in English, all of the poems from her last Polish collection
One of Europe’s greatest recent poets is also its wisest, wittiest, and most accessible. Nobel Prize–winner Wislawa Szymborska draws us in with her unexpected, unassuming humor. Her elegant, precise poems pose questions we never thought to ask. “If you want the world in a nutshell,” a Polish critic remarks, “try Szymborska.” But the world held in these lapidary poems is larger than the one we thought we knew.
Carefully edited by her longtime, award-winning translator, Clare Cavanagh, the poems in Map trace Szymborska’s work until her death in 2012. Of the approximately two hundred and fifty poems included here, nearly forty are newly translated; thirteen represent the entirety of the poet’s last Polish collection, Enough, never before published in English.Map is the first English publication of Szymborska’s work since the acclaimed Here, and it offers her devoted readers a welcome return to her “ironic elegance” (The New Yorker).


I am not a fan of poetry.  I think that is mostly because I am not a person who is in touch with my feelings or who wishes to have other people spilling their feelings all over me.  I read poetry and if I understand it at all I end up mostly thinking, “Ugh, no one cares about your feelings.”  I am Scrooge.

So why did I request this book of poetry?  It was Women in Translation month.  I heard about this collection somewhere on Twitter.  I’m always on the lookout for books from or about Poland that aren’t mired in World War II.  I’m 1/4 Polish and I want to learn more about it but it is hard to find anything that isn’t miserable.  Granted they’ve had more than their fair share of trouble but there has to be some literature that isn’t just depressing, doesn’t there?  Also, my library happened to have this book which I thought was a bit odd for some reason.

This collection starts in the 1940s and continues to the 2000s.  I’m not going to pretend that I understand every poem but I do get most of them.  A lot of them are about things that I haven’t seen written about in poetry before.  They span a range of emotion from happy to sad.

One of my favorites is about talking to an uppity French woman who is dismissive of Poland as just a place where it is cold.  The author spins a crazy fairy tale in her mind about freezing writers struggling against the elements while herding walruses but then realizes that she doesn’t have the French vocabulary to be insultingly sarcastic back to this woman so has to just say “Pas de tout (Not at all).”

This is a huge collection. I’ve renewed the book once but I’m not getting through it fast enough. To let you know how much I’m enjoying it I’ll say, I ordered a copy of myself. Yes, I bought a poetry book. I even thought about buying the hardcover because it seemed like it needed that kind of respect. Then my cheap side of my brain reasserted itself and I got the paperback.

I want the husband to read this too. He likes poetry. He’s into feelings. I’ll impress him by pretending to be classy and reading poetry.  We’ll sneak the walrus herders up on him. 

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Backlist Books
  • Books Set in Europe
17 Aug, 2017

Ocean Adventures – Junk Raft and The Soul of an Octopus

/ posted in: Reading Ocean Adventures – Junk Raft and The Soul of an Octopus The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery
on May 12th 2015
Pages: 261
Genres: Nonfiction
Published by Atria Books
Format: Audiobook, Hardcover
Source: Library, Playster
Setting: Massachusetts

Octopuses have varied personalities and intelligence they show in myriad ways: endless trickery to escape enclosures and get food; jetting water playfully to bounce objects like balls; and evading caretakers by using a scoop net as a trampoline and running around the floor on eight arms. But with a beak like a parrot, venom like a snake, and a tongue covered with teeth, how can such a being know anything? And what sort of thoughts could it think?
The intelligence of dogs, birds, and chimpanzees was only recently accepted by scientists, who now are establishing the intelligence of the octopus, watching them solve problems and deciphering the meaning of their color-changing camouflage techniques. Montgomery chronicles this growing appreciation of the octopus, but also tells a love story. By turns funny, entertaining, touching, and profound, The Soul of an Octopus reveals what octopuses can teach us about consciousness and the meeting of two very different minds.


I love octopuses.  I think they are fascinating.  I’ve never had the chance to meet one though like this author did.  She got to know three octopuses over the course of a few years.  It was amazing to hear about the ways their physiology lets them interact with the world. They can taste with their skin, camouflage even though they are color blind, and work through complex puzzles.

She also lets you get to know the people working behind the scenes in the aquarium who love these animals.

This book is wonderful for anyone who is interested in finding out more about these animals.  I am looking forward to reading more from this author.

Ocean Adventures – Junk Raft and The Soul of an Octopus Junk Raft: An Ocean Voyage and a Rising Tide of Activism to Fight Plastic Pollution by Marcus Eriksen
on July 4th 2017
Pages: 216
Length: 8:05
Published by Beacon Press
Setting: Pacific Ocean

News media brought the "Great Pacific Garbage Patch"--the famous swirling gyre of plastic pollution in the ocean--into the public consciousness. But when Marcus Eriksen cofounded the 5 Gyres Institute with his wife, Anna Cummins, and set out to study the world's oceans with hundreds of volunteers, they discovered a "plastic smog" of microscopic debris that permeates our oceans globally, defying simple clean-up efforts. What's more, these microplastics and their toxic chemistry have seeped into the food chain, threatening marine life and humans alike.
Far from being a gloomy treatise on an environmental catastrophe, though, Junk Raft tells the exciting story of Eriksen and his team's fight to solve the problem of plastic pollution. A scientist, activist, and inveterate adventurer, Eriksen is drawn to the sea by a desire to right an environmental injustice. Against long odds and common sense, he and his co-navigator, Joel Paschal, construct a "junk raft" made of plastic trash and set themselves adrift from Los Angeles to Hawaii, with no motor or support vessel, confronting perilous cyclones, food shortages, and a fast decaying raft.


Plastic pollution in the ocean is a huge problem but it doesn’t manifest in exactly the ways that it has been portrayed in the press.  Most of the ocean is polluted with microparticles of plastic that make any clean up operation almost impossible.  The author’s goal is to require companies to take on more of the burden for reusing or recycling plastics they produce.  Now they are freed from responsibility by requiring consumers to recycle if they don’t want the plastic going into a landfill.

This book used the framework of the several month journey on Junk to tell the story of the Earth’s plastic pollution problem.  It is full of ideas for making the problem better but there needs to be buy in from a lot of people to make it happen.

The stories in the book are scary.  So much damage is being done through human carelessness.  Getting the word out about what needs to be done is important.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Books Set in North America
28 Jul, 2017

Good Friday on the Rez

/ posted in: Book ReviewReading Good Friday on the Rez Good Friday on the Rez: A Pine Ridge Odyssey by David Hugh Bunnell
on April 25th 2017
Pages: 288
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Published by St. Martin's Press
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Setting: South Dakota

Good Friday on the Rez introduces readers to places and people that author, writer, and entrepreneur David Bunnell encounters during his one day, 280-mile road trip from his boyhood Nebraska hometown to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to visit his longtime friend, Vernell White Thunder, a full-blooded Oglala Lakota, descendant of a long line of prominent chiefs and medicine men.
This captivating narrative is part memoir and part history. Bunnell shares treasured memories of his time living on and teaching at the reservation. Sometimes raw and sometimes uplifting, Bunnell looks back to expose the difficult life and experiences faced by the descendants of Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, and Sitting Bull while also illuminating their courageous resiliency.


The first thing that needs to be made clear is that this is not written by a Native American author.  I didn’t realize that until I started reading the book.

The author is a white man who has lived on or near the Pine Ridge Lakota reservation off and on through his life.  He is going to visit a man who he met when the author was teaching school on the reservation.  Vernell White Thunder was one of his students in the 1970s.

The road trip is used as a narrative device to comment on events from history and current events that affect life on the reservation.  As the author passes towns where events occurred, he discusses them.  This is a good introduction to the history of United States military treatment of the Native people.  He also touches on:

  • systemic and institutional racism faced by the tribe
  • poverty
  • the effects of alcoholism
  • the importance of Wounded Knee (both the massacre in the 1800s and the uprising in the 1970s)

As he gets closer to the reservation, he gives more information about Vernell.  He is looking for Perrier and Dinty Moore beef stew to take to Vernell.  He tells some jokes that Vernell tells that are very self-deprecating.  I have seen reviews that tear this book apart because of this.  In every case, the reviewer stopped reading the book at this point because they felt that the author was negatively portraying a native man.  I thought that was interesting.  I think it is more of a statement of the inherent expectations of the reviewer than the author.  They seem to assume that Vernell is going to be a poor man living on the reservation who needs beef stew as charity and that this author is exploiting him. 

When you meet Vernell, you find out that he is:

  • an entrepreneur
  • a mentor to local teens
  • the owner of a resort that gets guests from all over the world
  • a successful rancher raising buffalo and horses
  • a large landowner on several reservations
  • the son of a respected chief who was was taking over more of his father’s duties as his father’s health declined

Vernell White Thunder is so cool that he’s almost a rock star.

The author discusses the changes that he has seen in younger Native generations.  He hopes that today’s young people are the Seventh Generation since the military suppression of the tribes that were foretold as the generation who will live up the tribes again.  He is hopeful because of the resurgence of tribal language speakers and young people proud of their history.

The author died before publication of the book so it was bittersweet to read about the wonderful things that he wanted to live to see this generation accomplish.  Although it discusses a lot of dark history, at the end this is a hopeful book.  It is a testament to the people of Pine Ridge and one enduring friendship that started there.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Books Set in North America
14 Jun, 2017

How Dare the Sun Rise

/ posted in: Reading How Dare the Sun Rise How Dare the Sun Rise: Memoirs of a War Child by Sandra Uwiringiyimana, Abigail Pesta
on May 16th 2017
Pages: 304
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs, Young Adult
Published by Katherine Tegen Books
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Setting: Congo, Burundi, Rwanda, U.S.

This profoundly moving memoir is the remarkable and inspiring true story of Sandra Uwiringyimana, a girl from the Democratic Republic of the Congo who tells the tale of how she survived a massacre, immigrated to America, and overcame her trauma through art and activism.


Sandra and her family are part of the Banyamulenge tribe.  Originally the tribe lived in Rwanda but migrated to the Congo.  They are not considered citizens of any nation and they are persecuted in the Congo.

War was a constant backdrop in her life.  Her family often had to flee because of an outbreak of fighting wherever they were living.  It got worse when her oldest brother was kidnapped along with 200 other boys and taken to be used as a child solider.  Her father dedicated himself to rescuing her brother.

Sandra was 10 when fighting forced them to flee the Congo and cross the border into Burundi.

Screen Shot 2017-06-12 at 9.20.08 AM

They were in a refugee camp in Gatumba on August 13, 2004 when armed men singing Christian praise songs came into the camp and started killing people.  Tents were set on fire to force people into the open where they were shot.  Most of the people in her tent including her aunt and cousins were killed.  Her mother was holding her six year old sister when she was shot repeatedly at point blank range.  Sandra had a gun held to her head but her captor let her go.

In the morning she found out that her mother had survived because she was tossed into a pile of corpses and managed to crawl away before they were burned.  Her little sister was dead.  Her brother was severely injured.

The family eventually moved to Rwanda and then was resettled in the United States.  They thought their lives would be fine then.  They didn’t realize the problems of being a refugee in the United States.  They had lived a comfortable life in the Congo.  Now they were living in poverty.  People asked her what it was like to learn to wear shoes assuming she had never done that in Africa.  Although she was fluent in three languages, people ridiculed her poor English.  The family survived numerous setbacks in America.  Sandra emerged as a spokesman for her tribe.  She educated groups at the UN about the massacre and the hardships of being a refugee.

Then when she was in college, it all came crashing down on her.  The feelings she and her family had supressed for so long were too much.  She describes her problems with survivor’s guilt, depression, and PTSD.  How do you get help for this when you are ashamed to speak of it especially to your family?  Her mother had endured so much and seemed fine.  Sandra was ashamed for not being as strong as her mother.   Opening up a dialogue with her family about what happened was the hardest part of her mental health journey.

This book is written very simply.  It is very matter of fact without a lot of embellishment.  It is geared towards YA readers.

I hadn’t heard of the Banyamulenge or the Gatumba massacre.  The man who claimed responsibility for it has since run for President of Burundi.  No charges have ever been brought against anyone for the murder of 166 people.


Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Books Set in Africa
  • POC authors
13 Jun, 2017

Book Versus Movie – How to Survive A Plague

/ posted in: Reading Book Versus Movie – How to Survive A Plague How to Survive a Plague: The Inside Story of How Citizens and Science Tamed AIDS by David France
on November 29th 2016
Pages: 640
Genres: History, Nonfiction
Published by Knopf
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Setting: New York

A riveting, powerful telling of the story of the grassroots movement of activists, many of them in a life-or-death struggle, who seized upon scientific research to help develop the drugs that turned HIV from a mostly fatal infection to a manageable disease. Ignored by public officials, religious leaders, and the nation at large, and confronted with shame and hatred, this small group of men and women chose to fight for their right to live by educating themselves and demanding to become full partners in the race for effective treatments. Around the globe, 16 million people are alive today thanks to their efforts.
In dramatic fashion, we witness the founding of ACT UP and TAG (Treatment Action Group), and the rise of an underground drug market in opposition to the prohibitively expensive (and sometimes toxic) AZT. We watch as these activists learn to become their own researchers, lobbyists, drug smugglers, and clinicians, establishing their own newspapers, research journals, and laboratories, and as they go on to force reform in the nation s disease-fighting agencies.
With his unparalleled access to this community David France illuminates the lives of extraordinary characters, including the closeted Wall Street trader-turned-activist, the high school dropout who found purpose battling pharmaceutical giants in New York, the South African physician who helped establish the first officially recognized buyers club at the height of the epidemic, and the public relations executive fighting to save his own life for the sake of his young daughter.
Expansive yet richly detailed, this is an insider's account of a pivotal moment in the history of American civil rights. Powerful, heart-wrenching, and finally exhilarating, How to Survive a Plague is destined to become an essential part of the literature of AIDS.


Think back to a time not that long ago when:

  • The New York Times banned the use of the words gay and lesbian in the newspaper
  • Hospitals and funeral homes turned away people they suspected were infected with AIDS
  • Weekly meetings of gay activists included a list of names of people who had been at the last meeting and who had died since

This book tells the story of ACT UP.  This was a group founded to pressure scientists, politicians, and drug companies to increase the number of drugs being investigated for possible treatment for AIDS.

One of the main problems in the beginning, besides a lack of funding, was government scientists’ insistence on doing double-blind controlled studies.  They weren’t wrong from a science perspective.  These trials have patients in two groups.  One group gets the treatment and the other gets a placebo.  Neither the patient or the doctor knows who is in each group.  The problem was that people with AIDS were dying so quickly that being in a placebo group for a few months, especially if you were required to go off all other medication, was basically a death sentence.  There are stories of trials in this book where all the placebo group died in the course of the trial.

Without these studies to cover them from liability no one was willing to go on record and recommend using drugs off label.  Doctors in the field, especially if they didn’t handle many AIDS cases, then didn’t know that giving a common antibiotic decreased the chances of patients dying of opportunistic pneumonia, for example.  This was the leading cause of death in AIDS patients.  It was almost entirely preventable and no one would officially say so.  ACT UP worked to streamline and humanize the drug trials.

They were able to:

  • Stop people having to go off all other medications (like antibiotics to prevent pneumonia) to be in the trial
  • Allow drugs to be tested on women and people of color
  • Allow a parallel track where sick people who couldn’t wait for formal drug approval could try the drugs in the trial at their own risk and data could be collected about their experiences
  • Get drug companies to stop increasing prices of the drugs as demand went up. 

I don’t remember hearing anything good about ACT UP at the time.  I only knew of them from news coverage that was always negative because of their dramatic demonstrations.  The first time I ever heard of ACT UP in a positive light was when I started watching Gay USA on TV.  One of the hosts talked about being in ACT UP.  Her name is Ann Northrup and she is in the movie a lot more than in the book.  The associate producer of Gay USA is named Bill Bahlman.  I know that because he does the intro to the podcast that I listen to now.  What I didn’t know is what all he did during the early days of the AIDS epidemic to reach lawmakers.

This book is a long, slow read.  It is very densely packed with names and actions and committee meetings.  The author was a young, gay journalist reporting on AIDS in New York at the time.  It is very focused on New York.  Occasionally it talks about San Francisco but you could get the sense that except for occasional mentions of Africa, that AIDS was only a New York/California problem.  It is also focused primarily on white gay men.  This was one of the criticisms of the drug trials.  They wouldn’t enroll women, people of color, or drug users.  Although ACT UP seemed to give equal representation to women, those women aren’t discussed much in the book with a few exceptions.

When I was almost finished with the book I watched the documentary that the book came out of.  It is also called How To Survive a Plague and is available on Netflix.



I don’t think that I would have understood the documentary as much if I didn’t already know what they were talking about from the book. Especially at the beginning of the documentary, there wasn’t a lot of context given for the video being shown. I understood where they were and what they were protesting from reading the book. It was interesting for me to see what I had read about but I don’t think the documentary did a good job of really explaining all the issues that they were fighting for.

This book is a must read for anyone interested in the history of medicine or the gay rights movement in the United States.  It is heartbreaking and inspirational.  This is civil action on so many levels.  It is interesting to look back now and see how far the United States has come in just the last 30 years – even when we feel like there is so much that needs to be better.

Other books that I like on this subject are And The Band Played On and My Own Country.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Books Set in North America
  • LBGTQ authors/characters
06 Jun, 2017

Allegedly – An Emotional Rollercoaster

/ posted in: Reading Allegedly – An Emotional Rollercoaster Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson
on January 24th 2017
Pages: 387
Genres: Fiction
Published by Katherine Tegen Books
Format: Audiobook, Hardcover
Source: Library
Setting: New York

Mary B. Addison killed a baby.
She didn’t say much in that first interview with detectives, and the media filled in the only blanks that mattered: A white baby had died while under the care of a churchgoing black woman and her nine-year-old daughter. The public convicted Mary and the jury made it official. But did she do it? She wouldn’t say.
Mary survived six years in baby jail before being dumped in a group home. The house isn’t really “home”—no place where you fear for your life can be considered a home. Home is Ted, who she meets on assignment at a nursing home.
There wasn’t a point to setting the record straight before, but now she’s got Ted—and their unborn child—to think about. When the state threatens to take her baby, Mary must find the voice to fight her past. And her fate lies in the hands of the one person she distrusts the most: her Momma. No one knows the real Momma. But who really knows the real Mary?


This book…wow.  Go get it and read it.  Seriously. 

I started out listening to this on audio.  The narration by Bahni Turpin was incredible.  She really brought the characters to life.  I’m glad I had those voices in my head to help keep the characters straight.  She made the adults in books seem even more vile than they were on the page.  But about 1/3 of the way through I had to go to the library and get a hard copy.  It was just too stressful to listen to the audiobook.  There was such a sense of foreboding that I needed to know what happened at the end in order to be able to concentrate on what was going on in the middle.

I’m not even ashamed of grabbing the book and reading the last few chapters to settle my poor nerves. 

Then I went back and read the rest of the book straight through from where I left off on the audio.

Mary’s life is absolutely tragic.  She has been in jail since she was nine years old.  Not juvenile detention.  She was in adult prison.  She couldn’t be with the general population so she was kept mostly in solitary confinement for years.  Now she is on parole in a group home full of viscous teenage girls who hate her for the notoriety of her alleged crime. 

No one is on Mary’s side in life.  The story is told in part through transcripts from interviews and passages from books written about what a monster she is.  There is always the racial subtext of a black girl killing a white baby.  She’s had death threats from people who seem to think that the correct penalty for killing a child is killing yet another child.   

Her mother is horrible.  Oooh, I hated that woman.  She needs to be the center of attention at all times.  It isn’t surprising that Mary feels that it was her role in life to do whatever would be necessary to take care of her mother.  It would have been nice if her mother felt the same way about her.

All the adults in her life judge her as a murderer and they seem to think it is worse than any other murder because she killed a baby.  She is physically, mentally, and sexually abused in jail and/or the group home.  No one cares except for her boyfriend, Ted. 

Through all this you see her trying to better herself, especially now that she is pregnant.  You root for her all through the book.  She needs to learn to stand up for herself.  That’s hard when you have never had any control of anything in your life. 

This book will leave you emotionally wrung out over the way Mary was treated.  I’m a huge fan of books that have just one more twist than you were expecting right at the end.  I’ve seen a lot of reviews that absolutely hate that but it is one part of this book that made me think this is a masterpiece.  I just had to sit a while and let everything sink in. 


Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Books Set in North America
  • POC authors
24 May, 2017

Noteworthy – Acapella with a Twist

/ posted in: Reading Noteworthy – Acapella with a Twist Noteworthy by Riley Redgate
on May 2nd 2017
Pages: 400
Genres: Fiction, Young Adult
Published by Amulet Books
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library

Jordan Sun is embarking on her junior year at the Kensington-Blaine Boarding School for the Performing Arts, hopeful that this will be her time: the year she finally gets cast in the school musical. But when her low Alto 2 voice gets her shut out for the third straight year—threatening her future at Kensington-Blaine and jeopardizing her college applications—she’s forced to consider nontraditional options.
In Jordan’s case, really nontraditional. A spot has opened up in the Sharpshooters, Kensington’s elite a cappella octet. Worshipped…revered…all male. Desperate to prove herself, Jordan auditions in her most convincing drag, and it turns out that Jordan Sun, Tenor 1, is exactly what the Sharps are looking for.


Reading this book was so stressful for me.  I’m not a fan of books that depend on misunderstanding or lies as a plot device.  I’m always wondering when the other shoe is going to drop.  That isn’t the fault of this book.  It is one of the few books that I felt did a good job with this type of story line.

There is a lot going on in this novel.  Jordan is a Chinese-American girl from a poor family in San Francisco.  Her father is disabled and her mother is having a hard time keeping a job while caring for him.  Jordan has a scholarship to this boarding school on the East coast but it doesn’t cover all her expenses.  This is a hardship for her family.  It also sets her apart from the other students who tend to be wealthy.

This story takes place at a high school.  I had a hard time remembering that since it is a boarding school.  It seems more like a college story until they discuss not being able to drive.

Jordan starts to live a double life – a girl during the day and Julian, the newest male member of the Sharps at night.  This leads to a lot of thoughts on gender and sexuality. She gets a lot of advice on how to pass for male from websites for transgender people.  She is uncomfortable with this.  Is she using other people’s real lives for her own selfish gain? Later, members of the Sharps decide that she must be a gay man.  She lets them think that instead of having them find out the truth.  Again she has to think about what it means to appropriating another group’s identity.

I wasn’t a fan of the romance aspect of this book.  It didn’t feel like it needed to be there.  It seemed like since she had spent a lot of time with a group of guys than obviously she had to fall for one of them.  I would have liked this more if it hadn’t happened.


Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Books Set in North America
  • POC authors
19 May, 2017

Who Thought This Was A Good Idea?

/ posted in: Reading Who Thought This Was A Good Idea? Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House by Alyssa Mastromonaco, Lauren Oyler
on March 30, 2017
Genres: Nonfiction, Personal Memoirs
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Setting: Washington, D.C.

Alyssa Mastromonaco worked for Barack Obama for almost a decade, long before his run for president. From the then-senator's early days in Congress to his years in the Oval Office, she made Hope and Change happen through blood, sweat, tears, and lots of briefing binders.
But for every historic occasion-meeting the queen at Buckingham Palace, bursting in on secret climate talks, or nailing a campaign speech in a hailstorm-there were dozens of less-than-perfect moments when it was up to Alyssa to save the day. Like the time she learned the hard way that there aren't nearly enough bathrooms at the Vatican.
Full of hilarious, never-before-told stories, WHO THOUGHT THIS WAS A GOOD IDEA? is an intimate portrait of a president, a book about how to get stuff done, and the story of how one woman challenged, again and again, what a "White House official" is supposed to look like. Here Alyssa shares the strategies that made her successful in politics and beyond, including the importance of confidence, the value of not being a jerk, and why ultimately everything comes down to hard work (and always carrying a spare tampon).


This isn’t a run of the mill political memoir.   This is the story of what can and will go wrong.  It is the story of friendships forged in stress and sleep deprivation.  It is finding out how to stand up for yourself and your ideas when you are young and female in a job that has always been dominated by older men.

I loved a story that she discussed early in the book.  She was in charge of scheduling Barack Obama’s time.  During the 2008 campaign there was bad weather forecasted.  She decided to have him go ahead with a live outdoor event in spite of the weather.  It ended up being worse than expected and he was getting hit in the face with sleet through the whole speech.

We watched (in horror) as the event drew to a close, and Obama reached his hand to Reggie.  As we were turning off the TV, my phone rang.

“Alyssa, it’s Obama.”

“Hi!” I said, with my head down on the desk, girding myself for the inevitable and deserved.  “The event looked AWESOME! You heard John McCain canceled all of his events, right?  He looked like a total old man!”

“Alyssa, where are you right now?”

I was not sure where he was going with this, but I knew it was somewhere bad.  “My desk,” I replied cautiously.

“Must be nice.”



She doesn’t shy away from discussing the very personal aspects of the job.  One of her proudest moments was getting tampon dispensers in the bathrooms of the White House.  Most of the people working there had been men and post-menopausal women so it hadn’t been thought a priority.  She also discusses her IBS and the problems that causes in a job where there is a lot of stress and questionable food choices.

She talks about the questions she gets about not having children.  She was working all the time during her twenties and thirties.  She didn’t marry until she was 37.  People ask her now if she is sorry that she didn’t have children.  I love that she is unapologetic about not being sorry.  She proudly proclaims her status as child-free and having cats instead.

Her job encompassed everything from setting up the schedule for the President to coordinating federal emergency response to Hurricane Sandy and the Haitian earthquake.  Where do you go from there?  She talks about how hard it is to leave the White House and decide what to do with your life.

One of the hardest parts of reading this book was remembering what it was like once upon a time.  You know, back when the U.S. Presidency wasn’t a total embarrassment.  I liked hearing about the personal side of Obama.  He introduced her to Mindy Kaling at an event because he knew she had been reading her book.  He got Bruce Springsteen to call her from a campaign event because she had to stay at the White House after setting up the concert and she was a huge fan.  He called her a year after she quit working at the White House because he heard her cat died that day.  (Everyone knew her cat.  He was famous.  She had a conversation about his health problems with George W. Bush on the way to Nelson Mandela’s funeral.)

This is a short book and a quick read.  I read it in one sitting.  I’d recommend this book to everyone who wants to know what it is really like to work in the White House.

I just have two criticisms.  First, she uses a lot of nicknames for people.  It can be a bit hard to remember who these people actually are when she is using nicknames long after introducing them by their full names.  Second, I feel like she underplays her accomplishments a bit.  She talks about women being conditioned to not stand up and present their ideas and it seems like she is still doing that some here.  If a man wrote a book about doing this job, I feel like it would be a lot more about “Look at me!  I was awesome!”  I wouldn’t necessarily like that book as much as I liked this one but what she did was pretty amazing and sometimes that gets lost. 



About Alyssa Mastromonaco

Alyssa Mende Mastromonaco is the Chief Operating Officer of Vice Media. She is also a contributing editor at Marie Claire magazine. She previously served as White House Deputy Chief of Staff for Operations in the administration of President Barack Obama from 2011 to 2014.She was the youngest woman to hold that position. Mastromonaco had worked for Obama since 2005 when he was on the United States Senate as his Director of Scheduling.

Reading this book contributed to these challenges:

  • Books Set in North America