Saturday, September 20, 2014

Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

The year is 1945. The war has just ended, and Claire Randall, an army nurse, has been reunited with her husband Frank after a long separation. Claire and Frank head to Scotland, in the hopes of rekindling their relationship, as well as researching Frank’s ancestry. But when Claire touches a mysterious circle of stones, she is magically transported 200 years into the past. Finding herself right in the middle of a war brewing between England and Scotland, Claire is desperate to get to the stones to find her way back to Frank. Taken in by the Clan MacKenzie, she is known as a “Sassenach,” or Outlander, an English woman who doesn’t belong. But thanks to her medical talents, she is soon viewed as useful, and takes up residence as the local healer. But she is never truly trusted, and finds herself in extreme danger when the English want to imprison and interrogate her as a possible spy for the Scots. Thrown into an alliance for protection with Jamie Fraser, a Scotsman with a price on his head, Claire begins to wonder if she will ever make it back to Frank, or if she really wants to. 

Like many, I finally picked up this book when I saw that they were making the book series into a TV series. It took a bit to get into, but once I did, I couldn’t put it down. I have never been a huge history fan, and historical fiction enables me to stay engaged with a story while also learning a little history at the same time. The love story between Claire and Jamie is epic, and I can’t wait to read more about their adventures in future books. At 850 pages, this book is not for the faint of heart, or arms, as it does contain a fair bit of violence and some sexual content. But you will not be disappointed. I would recommend this book to fans of Sara Donati and Karen Marie Moning. -LT  

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The New Rules of Running: Five Steps to Run Faster and Longer for Life

Vijay Vad has written a number of books in the realm of sports medicine. The New Rules of Running
is his first book on running that give tips and guidelines for runners of all ages and abilities. Most of the information presented in this book has been widely discussed in running books by other authors. However, seasoned runners will appreciate the chapters on injury prevention and recovery, injuries to the lower body, injuries to the knee and thigh area, and injuries to the hip and back. Anyone who has experienced running injuries can appreciate Vad’s clear explanation of injuries, causes, symptoms and prevention. Being sidelined by injuries is extremely frustrating and will send any runner searching for relief from debilitating pain. From this book, runners suffering from injuries can get answers to their questions and advice on how to recover. 

Other information in The New Rules of Running pertains to runners new to the sport who are training for their first marathon or half marathon. Chapters on strength training and stretching provide useful information for any runner regardless of their experience. Black and white photos show the how-to of each exercise. Overall, Vad presents solid running information to novices and experienced runners alike.

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Sunday, September 14, 2014

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman

Youthful indiscretions are not usually catastrophic, life-altering events.  But in Piper Kerman’s case, her past does catch up with her many years later.  A college graduate settling into a career with a steady boyfriend and a bright future, she is unexpectedly confronted by customs officials with news of her impending indictment for a brief role in a money-laundering/drug-smuggling scheme.  After years of agonizing legal delays, her world shatters when she is sentenced to 15 months in federal prison.
Kerman’s account of her time “on the inside” is a frank, entertaining, but also gut-wrenching look at a system most of us know very little about.  She spares no details describing the indignities of being an inmate--loss of privacy, the cacophony of noises and smells, strip searches, arbitrary, senseless rules, and power-hungry prison guards.  She develops odd but deeply meaningful relationships with other prisoners, a racial mix of women with disadvantaged backgrounds who are serving longer sentences.  Kerman is touched by the kindness and generosity of others who share her miserable circumstances.  She learns quickly how to navigate her bizarre, cruel surroundings and develops a resilience that is truly remarkable.

Part of the author’s reason for writing the book was to advocate for corrections reform, especially for those who have committed non-violent drug offenses.  She saw first-hand the detrimental effects of prison on these women and their families, the waste and the huge social cost of what she terms “overincarceration.”   Since her release in 2005, she has become an activist for criminal justice system reform. 

This book is a compelling and unforgettable read, good to the last page.  -MS
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This title is also available as a book club kit, here.  And if you enjoy it, you might want to check out the series produced by Netflix.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

How do you re-find your place in life after leaving a psychiatric hospital?  How much harder might it be if you are an introspective teenager returning to school for the first time, to former friends who now ignore you?  Our story begins here.  Luckily, 15-year-old Charlie (Logan Lerman) is befriended by Seniors Sam and Patrick, a sister and brother (played by Ezra Miller and Emma Watson) who draw him into their world.  He deals with the aftermath of his best friend's suicide and his own mental illness over the course of the school year while falling in love with Sam.

Stephen Chbosky wrote and directed this poignant film; he is also the author of the YA novel that is its source, a feat which puts him in rare company.  I did a quick search and only came up with a few authors who had done the same, among them Michael Crichton, Jean Cocteau, and David Mamet. Of course, this begs the question, "how did he do?"  The answer is "quite well,"  though some of his story choices seem reductive to me.  Without spoiling the twists, I have to say that there are a few moments of character revelation that move complex psychological issues into simplistic--and well-trod--answers.  Nonetheless, the film is a welcome quiet pause in the midst of the blockbuster noise that fills our movie screens much of the time.  It is also unexpectedly funny, well-acted, and visually astute.  I believe it captures the joys, obsessions and traumas of this group of teens without resorting to undue sentimentality. -BR

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Jingo by Terry Pratchett

The horrible Klatchians have intruded on Ankh-Morpork territory - Ankh-Morpork must make them pay! Only the territory in question is not quite what it seems, and A-M has no army. What to do? Why, form regiments and conscript the City Watch into the army. This does not go over well with the Watch, or its commander, or the Patrician. Lord Rust doesn't care and will do what he wants regardless.

I do love the City Watch books, among the Discworld book series, best of all. Jingo is lovely, and hilarious. When you want to stop a war, who ya gonna call? Vimes, that's who. This book features the Patrician in a more visibly active role than most books in the series - he goes to Klatch in disguise (more or less) and juggles. His companions are Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobbs, and the combination is hysterically funny. Nobby gets in touch with his inner female…sort of, to the horror just about everyone around. Leonard of Quirm gets to test his Going-Under-the-Sea-Boat. Captain Carrot wins the football match thru sheer force of personality, and Vimes gets to arrest the top echelon of both Klatch and Ankh-Morpork. It's great.  -LP

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Discworld is a rich, diverse, absurd and well-documented place.  To explore more of Pratchett's world, click here.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Winter Wheat by Mildred Walker

Winter Wheat chronicles Ellen Webb’s coming of age shortly before World War II.  Raised on a dryland wheat farm in Eastern Montana, she struggles to understand her parents’ complicated relationship and herself as she prepares to leave for college in the fall of 1940.  Events of the next year and a half, some of which are tragic, significantly influence her growth toward maturity.

Much of the novel’s narrative deals with Ellen’s thoughts and inner reactions to the world around her.  The book has been criticized for its slow pace, but the introspection is fascinating and well described.  Ellen’s progression toward young adulthood held my interest to the very last page, and I didn’t want the book to end.
In the story, a good crop is needed to fund Ellen’s college education, and thus the wheat is literally a significant element in the book.  But it also provides a metaphor for people’s growth and strength.  Ellen finds that adversity, instead of ruining her life, has made her stronger, just as harsh winters do not destroy the planted wheat underground.  It emerges with strong roots in the spring in spite of what it has endured.

Although she was a native of Philadelphia, Mildred Walker Schemm wrote several of her books while living near Great Falls, MT.  Winter Wheat was a 2003 One Book Montana selection.  -MS

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Fortune like the Moon by Alys Clare

Set in the time of Richard the Lionhearted, Sir Josse d'Acquin teams up with Abbess Helewise of Hawkenlye Abbey to find the killer of two young nuns. This is an interesting tale with a completely unexpected final twist. I thought it very interesting, and there was no jarringly un-historical outakes - the story held together with the technology of the time. The author spins a fine tale, and I'm reading another of this series because I liked it.  -LP

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