Have You Heard

Post date: Wednesday, April 29, 2015 - 12:05am

Have You Heard About... Zen Pencils

… motivational posters with “inspiring” quotations and pictures? Zen Pencils, by Gavin Aung Than, is what they want to be when they grow up. Mr. Than takes wonderful quotations by a wide variety of people and draws cartoons to accompany them. The resulting artwork is truly inspirational. He has been sharing his work online for several years and recently collected more than thirty pieces in an amazing physical book.

One of the wonderful things about this collection is the diversity. The quotations come from a wide range of people, including Marie Curie, Vincent van Gogh, Bruce Lee, Neil Gaiman, and Brené Brown. The people depicted in the cartoons are even more varied — men and women, boys and girls and aliens, white and black and Asian and latino and Native American — people like you and me. The other wonderful thing about this collection is what unites every piece. They’re all about being true to yourself, being creative, not just accepting who you are but reveling in it. Don’t let others force you into the mold of being average. Fight for who you are inside, whether that’s an artist or a scientist, a teacher or an activist, whether you want to travel the world or reach for the stars, wrestle other people or your own fears.

Zen Pencils doesn’t lie and tell you that it will be easy. But it does remind you that it’s worth it.


Reviewed by Fran (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, April 22, 2015 - 12:48am

Have You Heard About... The Age of Miracles

…what happens if the earth’s rotation starts to slow?  Karen Thompson Walker gives us a thoughtful and bittersweet answer in her literary apocalyptic debut novel, The Age of Miracles

The novel asks us an unusual yet profound question: What happens when our concepts of “day” and “night” no longer exist? In the story, scientists have discovered that the Earth’s rotation is slowing, to the point where society no longer operates on a 24 hour schedule. Crops start dying. Sickness and disease start spreading. Some people abandon clocks all together and attempt to function using their circadian rhythms. The Earth’s gravitational force starts to shift. No one knows what’s causing it, and no one knows how to stop it.

The plot occurs during the first year of the slowing and centers around eleven-year-old Julia. Julia is the story’s only narrator, but she is recalling the events of that first year from a point many years in the future. 

The emphasis is on complex, unanswerable questions, lyrical writing, nostalgia, and a bittersweet remembrance of how life used to be before the earth slowed.  I imagine it as a reading journey - the story captures you at the very beginning and leaves you with an ache in your heart and more questions than answers. 


Reviewed by Katie (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, April 15, 2015 - 12:35am

Have You Heard About... Jurassic Park

… why genetically engineering dinosaurs is a bad idea? (Of course you have - who isn’t familiar with Jurassic Park by this point?)

I got hooked on Michael Crichton’s novels in middle school, so it’s really strange to review a book I’ve read as often as Jurassic Park.

The plot is fairly well known by this point: genetically engineered dinosaurs are created and placed in a nature reserve/park in Costa Rica. Chaos ensues. But it’s not the plot that will determine whether or not you enjoy this book - it’s whether or not you enjoy Michael Crichton’s writing style.

He masterfully fuses science and science fiction with high-adrenaline thrillers, and does a great job of explaining the science and technology to the average reader, who probably doesn’t know much about genetics or supercomputers or paleontology. In fact, I always feel smarter after reading a Crichton novel because of how he never dumbs down his material. And even though the technology he describes is quite antiquated, his novels still manage to feel current.

The book, like the movie, has aged remarkably well. If you’ve seen the movie but not yet read the book, now is the time to pick it up. Crichton is a master and Jurassic Park is a novel that everyone needs to read at some point in their lives.


Reviewed by Katie (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, April 8, 2015 - 12:17am

Have You Heard About... What If?

… what would happen if we all pointed lasers at the moon, or everyone on the earth went to the same place and jumped at the same time, or how to make a jetpack out of machine guns? Randall Munroe explains the results of all of those situations and many more in What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions. Real-world scientific principles are used to explain the (probable) outcomes of a wide variety of questions related to physics, chemistry, meteorology, and more. They’re livened up by Mr. Munroe’s wicked sense of humor and deceptively-simplistic cartoons.

In fact, “serious scientific answers” may be overstating the case just a bit. For example, in the question about everyone jumping in the same place at the same time, the basic answer is that it has very little effect on the Earth. However, Mr. Munroe goes on to examine the issues that would be caused by having the entire population of the planet gathered in one location, including the quick collapse of civilization as we know it. Ok, that does sound pretty serious, but the way he describes it is incredibly funny.  You really need to read this one to understand it!


Reviewed by Fran (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, April 1, 2015 - 12:49am

Have You Heard About... The Dinner

… the civilized dinner between two families that slowly dissolves into violence and savagery? The Dinner by Herman Koch has received a good mix of positive and negative reviews and was named one of the Best Books of 2013, so of course I had to give it a try.

The first third of the book feels like a work of “slice of life” literary fiction, which I generally avoid. We know at the beginning that the characters are ultimately unlikeable, including the narrator who comes off as pompous, overbearing, and hypocritical. The story feels like it’s a satirical commentary on civilized society and privilege, played out in an elite restaurant between two brothers, who are dining together with their wives. But then we learn that two of the family’s teenage boys have committed a heinous act and slowly the layers of civility and privilege are excruciatingly peeled away. We start to understand what happened, what the implications are for each of the family members, and how far they will go to protect themselves and their sons’ futures.

This is a book built around discovery - slow, gradual reveals that paint a picture of a horribly dysfunctional family with a lot to lose. There aren’t any big plot twists, but in this case, it works. All of the reveals work together to draw the reader towards a horrible and inevitable conclusion. The facts are shocking, yet deep down, we feel like we “knew it all along.”

This novel is what you call a nasty piece of work – vicious, brutal, and chilling. It’s not a book meant for everyone, but if you enjoy dark, suspenseful fiction, give The Dinner a try. At the very least, it’ll give you a lot to think about after you finish.


Reviewed by Katie (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, March 25, 2015 - 12:04am

Have You Heard About... Catification

… the great things you can do to make your home better for your cat? Jackson Galaxy and Kate Benjamin got together to write Catification: Designing a Happy and Stylish Home for Your Cat (and You!) It starts with an introduction to the history and psychology of cats — what they need to be happy and why. The bulk of the book involves catification in action, with examples of how different people have modified their homes to be more cat friendly without sliding into “crazy cat person” territory.

Some of the catification examples come from the TV show My Cat from Hell, so they give good examples of how to avoid or solve serious problems. Many others were shared by viewers around the world, giving us a look at how real people have made their homes better for the cats they love. I’ll admit that when I first flipped through this book, I was mostly looking at the pretty pictures and dreaming of what I could do with tons of money, time, and/or carpentry skills (none of which I have). However, when I actually read through it, I discovered lots of great tips for simple projects and step-by-step instructions for more complex ones. Even a klutz like me can put a cushion or folded blanket in a large ceramic planter to make a cozy, attractive nest for my cat who likes to hide in plain sight!


Reviewed by Fran (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, March 18, 2015 - 12:37am

Have You Heard About... The Never List

… the woman who spent three years in the basement of an intelligent and ruthless psychopath? Thankfully, I’m talking about a fictional novel: The Never List by Koethi Zan. Sarah is a young woman in her early 30’s who spent three years in her abductor’s basement. Her best friend, Jennifer, was also captured and forced to live in the basement, but Jennifer never made it out. Sarah knows deep down that he murdered Jennifer, but no one has been able to prove it. Now, ten years later, Sarah’s captor is up for parole and she knows that in order to keep him behind bars, she needs to uncover his secret life and prove that he is a murderer in addition to a torturous psychopath.

Readers often talk about pacing when they describe the novels they’ve read: fast, leisurely, couldn’t put it down, etc. The Never List goes beyond that. It’s not action-packed or full of chase scenes, but the terror and revulsion that the story evokes is genuine. Sarah and Jennifer’s captor liked to academically study the effects of torture on the human body, both mentally and physically, so there’s a lot of stomach-churning content here. If it’s possible for a book to make you feel like you’ve just plummeted to the earth at 100 miles an hour, this is that book.

Readers have dubbed Koethi Zan as the next Gillian Flynn, and while I think it’s a bit too early to make those types of comparisons, this is a book that thrill-seeking readers do not want to miss. It’s truly unforgettable.


Reviewed by Katie (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, March 11, 2015 - 1:03am

Have You Heard About... Wickedly Dangerous

… Baba Yagas? They may have their roots in Russian folklore, but these witches are perfectly comfortable in the present-day United States. More than a name, “Baba Yaga” is now a title shared by several women around the world, including Barbara Yager, the heroine of Deborah Blake’s Wickedly Dangerous*. She may live in an Airstream RV rather than a hut with chicken legs, but she’s still a powerful magic user who doesn’t suffer fools lightly.

Ms Blake writes an excellent modern-day fantasy/romance/mystery blend. Both Barbara and her gentleman of interest have complex histories that make them (and their mistakes) believable. Their romance mixes well with the magical action and mystery as they have to work together to find out who has been kidnapping local children. The author even manages to work in some environmental activism without getting overwhelming. Everything ties up neatly at the end, with future books in the series focusing on Baba Yagas in other areas.

* The series continues with Wickedly Wonderful.


Reviewed by Fran (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, March 4, 2015 - 1:03am

Have You Heard About... The Snowman

… the serial killer who leaves behind snowmen as a calling card?

The mystery behind Jo Nesbo’s novel, The Snowman, is pretty standard: police investigator Harry Hole stumbles across a series of gruesome murders and disappearances. Two things stand out about these crimes: the women all disappeared on the first snowfall of the year, spanning multiple decades, and there was a snowman present at each of the crime scenes. (Seriously, I had no idea a snowman could be so creepy.)

Harry Hole is a very flawed protagonist with self-destructive tendencies and a stubborn streak a mile wide, but he also has a rugged independence and a strong sense of justice, which comes in handy when everyone else has written off the case. He’s not exactly a likeable character, but he’s certainly compelling, and I found myself rooting heartily for him by the end of the novel.

Pacing is steady, and there are a lot of red herrings throughout, which I liked because it kept me from guessing what was going to happen next. And by the time the real solution presented itself, I was turning pages so fast I thought sparks would fly out from under my fingers. The story just seemed to become even more compelling the farther in I got.

Like most Nordic fiction, The Snowman is dark, bleak, and atmospheric, and with some top-notch writing to boot. I’m not generally a fan of mystery series, and I’ve never considered myself a fan of Nordic fiction, but this is a series I definitely plan on following.


Reviewed by Katie (staff)

Post date: Wednesday, February 25, 2015 - 1:25am

Have You Heard About... Nocturne

… the creatures that roam the night? No, not supernatural horrors, Nocturne: Creatures of the Night features real nocturnal animals. Traer Scott has put together a beautiful book with photographs of mammals, birds, amphibians, insects, and more. The selection ranges all over the world, from animals that are familiar to us in the Midwestern US (like raccoons and opossums) to those we have probably only seen in zoos or books (like snow leopards and capybaras).

The animals are shown against completely black backgrounds, emphasizing their connection with the night and making them absolutely stunning. Each animal’s entry includes a paragraph about it — where it lives, whether it is endangered, and other interesting facts. A few of the animals are technically crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk) rather than nocturnal, and some are becoming nocturnal due to pressures from humans, but that doesn’t detract from the theme of the book or its beauty. The introduction and appendixes include some additional information about how the artist got the photos and about the effects humans are having on nocturnal animals.


Reviewed by Fran (staff)