Non-Fiction

I’LL BE GONE IN THE DARK by Michelle McNamara

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In the years leading up to her death, true crime writer Michelle McNamara diligently researched the serial killer and rapist that she labeled “The Golden State Killer.” Only two months after the posthumous publication of this book, a suspect was finally identified and arrested in connection with the decades-old crimes. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark reads partly as a police procedural mystery, with focus on the investigators, the collection of evidence, the piecing together of threads over the years, and the different theories swirling around the unsolved (at the time) case. It also reads as a bit of an autobiography of McNamara, with both the stories of her own life and her emotional connections to cold cases that she intended to share and the annotations about her writing process added by those close to her after her death. The interwoven plot lines of the investigators and writer in their relentless pursuit of justice made the book a gripping and powerful read at the time of its publication.

The arrest of Joseph DeAngelo only heightens the book’s appeal. Readers who may have been astounded that a cold case could be broken after so many years can see the inner workings of the investigation–the sometimes wild leads investigators followed relentlessly, some dead ends, but others astoundingly prescient given the investigation’s conclusion. The knowledge that the killer was finally caught also adds some catharsis to an otherwise unsettling ending where the killer remained free and the writer did not live to pursue her investigation further.

True crime is a tricky genre, especially for relatively recent crimes where in-depth studies may seem voyeuristic or insensitive to those loved ones still grieving. Through her focus on the investigation, McNamara gives a clear sense of purpose to every detail that she includes. The more graphic and salacious information is not provided to shock readers or to dramatize a family’s tragedy, but rather to build a wall of evidence with which to ultimately bring the killer to justice. If you are interested in this case or in true crime, I would highly recommend this book.

NORSE MYTHOLOGY by Neil Gaiman

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The world began in fire, ice, and mist.  This is also how it will end.  The gods who formed the earth by slaying a giant will in turn be slain by giants, and thus will end the reign of the Aesir and the Vanir, the gods of Asgard.  But before the end of the world, the gods went (or perhaps are still going) on adventures that still capture the imagination.

Neil Gaiman breathes life into the ancient stories of the Norse gods, embracing their crass and ignominious qualities along with their cleverness and nobility.  The characters and stories he explores are complex and humorous, told with his characteristic narrative style and masterful world-building.  In contrast with many mythologies, the Norse tales focus on the gods and their enemies, the giants, almost exclusively.  The gods fight their own battles rather than enlisting mortal heroes.  Although all of the tales are distinct and–as Gaiman notes in his introduction–occasionally contradictory, still a story arc sweeps from the world’s creation to its destruction and rebirth.  The short tales, however, make this book an ideal audiobook to listen to during start and stop activities, such as a commute, and the author’s reading of the audiobook is, as always, superb.

Highly recommended to mythology fans and fantasy fans!

MORE FOOL ME: A MEMOIR by Stephen Fry

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In the third installment of his memoirs, Stephen Fry briefly reviews the most formative events of his childhood and university years before meandering through the cocaine-laced journey of his career.  The memoir is littered with anecdotes about his own personal life and his star-studded friendships–although he makes a point not to tell any scathing or overly embarrassing stories about famous people other than himself.  The story of his initial introduction to cocaine and early, high-functioning usage is much more detailed and direct than the story of its negative impact on his life (told through the publication of a litany of his actual diary entries which focus primarily on people and events).  But he makes a point of telling the reader that cocaine dependency negatively impacted his professional and personal life, and he would recommend it to no one.

Fry’s non-chronological reminiscences follow thin thematic threads, which makes the book difficult to follow at times.  There is no real arc to the overall points he makes (they are somewhat scattered throughout), so the memoir reads more as a collection of anecdotes than a cohesive narrative of its own.  That said, many of the anecdotes are quite entertaining.  One of the highlights of the book is an anecdote about Prince Charles and Princess Diana paying a visit to Stephen Fry’s home over the Christmas holiday while he had house guests (including Hugh Laurie and Rowan Atkinson).  The majority of his anecdotes, however, will be of most (perhaps exclusive) interest to fans of Stephen Fry and his closest colleagues (Hugh Laurie, Rowan Atkinson, Emma Thompson, Kenneth Branagh, etc.).  I would recommend this memoir specifically to such fans.

 

 

LAST OF THE GIANTS: THE RISE AND FALL OF EARTH’S MOST DOMINANT SPECIES by Jeff Campbell

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How would you feel if you encountered a 12 ft. tall bird? Or a 6 ft. tall, 10 ft. long ox?  As strange and potentially alarming as they might sound, these and other giant creatures ruled their ecosystems until humans hastened their extinction.  In his book, Campbell describe the origins, history, role, and extinction of thirteen “giants” of nature.  Each account is incredibly interesting, but detailed and written with a sophisticated, scientific style that may not appeal to all of the teen readers to whom it is marketed.  Despite a few half-hearted and awkward references to social media, and an occasional break in tone for an attempt at teen-speak, the book reads like a scientific article.  So while it won’t attract a broad teen audience, it is fantastic for high schoolers and adults who are interested in the subject matter and looking for a well-researched, thorough narrative about the evolution, impact, and decline of each species–as well as a glimpse into the future of possible back-breeding to restore giants into the ecosystem. 

An engaging read which I recommend to older teens and adults who are interested in biology and/or history.

YOU’RE NEVER WEIRD ON THE INTERNET (ALMOST) by Felicia Day

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Before The Guild” and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, Felicia Day was an isolated, home schooled kid who discovered a community and her own voice on the then fledgling internet.  Her memoir goes beyond hilarious anecdotes from an unconventional childhood with the history of the Internet and online gaming from a user’s perspective, her experience with video game addiction, a glimpse into the life of an unknown actor trying to make it in LA, an account of creating a low budget Web series (“The Guild”), and her perspective on and experience with Gamergate.  A truly gifted writer, Day divides her memoir into semi-chronological sections by topic, giving each individual part its own arc in addition to the overall narrative arc of the memoir, which encourages readers to pursue their creative passions. 

I picked up this book as a Guild fan, thinking it would just be an interesting glimpse into Felicia Day’s life.  Instead I found one of the most interesting and entertaining memoirs I have ever read and a new audiobook favorite!  If you are not a Felicia Day fan already, the book may lack the “squee” factor it had for me, but if you are an Internet user who enjoys memoirs, you will probably still find her story engaging.  Definitely listen to the audiobook!

Pregnancy and Childbirth Prep

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My apologies for the unannounced hiatus from blogging. I was overly optimistic about my ability to continue reading extensively for pleasure as my pregnancy drew to a close and last minute baby preparations took over my life. But now I’m back to reading and this post hopefully marks the return of regular book reviews. I’ll kick things off with some quick evaluations of a few popular pregnancy guides.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel
Probably the most well-known pregnancy prep book on the market today, What to Expect covers pregnancy week by week, discussing symptoms, common issues, and things to think about: decisions that will need to be made about the birth and also decisions about what will happen in your early days of parenting. The writing style is informal and somewhat trendy with many light-hearted references to the “baby bump” and other common social aspects of the modern American pregnacy, such as designing a nursery. There is also an online community associated with the book, where expectant mothers can connect with other expecting mothers. This book will resonate with many pregnant women, but not all will relate to the writing style and some of priorities the book presents as universal. The book’s main weakness is its organization. Many useful tidbits of information and are interspersed throughout the week by week discussion, which can make them difficult to locate again.

The Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy
Although a new edition of this book has not been released in several years, the information included in it is still relevant and valuable. This book is well organized, including a section on pregnancy week by week, but also including chapters devoted specifically to different issues surrounding pregnancy so that if you are experiencing symptoms or thinking about issues at a different time than is typical, you can easily locate the information that you need. One of the more useful sections is an index of pains and other potentially alarming symptoms with an assessment of whether it is normal or worth an immediate call to your healthcare provider. The focus of the book is on physical and mental health, so while you will find broader topics such as choosing a childcare provider, you will not find as much of a variety as you find in What to Expect. The writing style is less playful, but still accessible and easy to read. I personally found this resource the most helpful.

Birthing From Within by Pam England and Rob Horowitz
The focus of this book is on mental and logistical preparations for childbirth with a heavy emphasis on natural, non-medicated birth. It includes strategies for overcoming or facing fears, strategies for natural pain management with suggestions for how to practice before labor, and a few pregnancy tips such as a nutrition guide. Not all of the stories, techniques, and beliefs presented in this book will resonate with all readers, but I highly recommend it if you have a lot of birth-related fears or if you are planning on a medication-free birth. There are chapters with practical strategies you may find very useful.

AUDACITY by Melanie Crowder

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Clara always loved learning. But in her small Jewish community, women were not meant to be scholars. And her father was determined that not even his sons would ever learn Russian, the language of their oppressors.  Still Clara dreamed of being a doctor, and taught herself in secret how to read and how to speak Russian. When a violent pogrom destroyed their community, Clara and her family moved to America, and the opportunity for her to pursue her studies seemed more real than ever. But when the need to support her family forced Clara to work in a sweatshop, she discovered the horrible plight of the working immigrant woman – and child – and her dreams of becoming a surgeon began to conflict with her desire to pursue justice for the oppressed women around her.  Still a teenager, Clara formed a union, and endured terrible hardships as she pursued her new dream.

Inspired by Clara’s real life love of poetry, Crowder tells the true story of Clara Lemlich as she imagines Clara would have experienced it in beautiful poetic verse. The story is exciting, informative, and inspiring. Teen readers may see parallels between Clara’s struggle for justice and many injustice is in our world today. The book concludes with a detailed description of what is true and what is fictionalized in the novel, as well as interviews with Clara’s surviving relatives. I highly recommend this book to teen readers who enjoy historical fiction.