Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession and How Desire Shapes the World by Aja Raden

25817092Book – Every once in a while, a book picked up on a whim can be surprising in wonderful ways.  That was my reaction to Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession and How Desire Shapes the World.  I was expecting a conventional history of precious stones and jewelry.  I got both less and more than that, and wasn’t at all disappointed in the exchange.

Stoned is to traditional, chronological histories as a volume of short stories is to a novel.  Chapters jump around in time, but each is a fascinating and complete slice of history in its own right.  Chapter subjects are chosen not only to entertain and inform, but used to explore the larger question why human beings value what we value, becoming far less  mineralogical or artistic than social and psychological history.  For example, the first chapter explores the popular myth that the Dutch purchase of New Amsterdam (later New York) was somehow a swindle because Venetian beads were used as currency, pointing out that glass beads were, at the time, a rare and precious commodity with a globally recognized worth.  We wouldn’t balk today at someone purchasing land rights with a sackful of diamonds–why do we respect one variety of shiny bauble but look down on past peoples for prizing another?  And what’s going on in our brains that makes us value gems in the first place?

Author Raden does a great job choosing subjects that are both interesting and significant, from the pearl that changed Tudor history to the role of Faberge eggs in the Russian Revolution to the conquistadors’ emeralds to how cultured pearls helped Japan become a world power.  Her voice is entertaining and pacing is brisk, making Stoned a quick and fascinating read.  It’s perfect for anyone who loves popular and casual histories like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.

Forgotten by Cat Patrick

9415951Book – As a connoisseur of all things memory-books, I love sinking my teeth into any novel focused on an amnesiac.  My “Bookshelf of Memory” mainly contains adult fiction, but I’ve recently come across some prospective novels in the Young Adult and Youth departments.  That’s how I happened upon Forgotten by Cat Patrick.

Every morning, London reads the notes she left herself the night before–general facts about her life, as well as specific details about homework, school, and important reminders for her daily life.  Navigating high school is hard enough without waking up each morning with no memory of the day before.  However, London’s curse is also a gift, for while she can’t recall the past, she sees “memories” of the future.  She knows that her best friend will be unlucky in love, throwing herself at every guy she meets.  She sees snippets of what the future holds for herself and others.   Everything changes when she meets the new kid at school, Luke Henry, who in spite of her condition, London just can’t seem to forget.

The story had such an intriguing premise, but fell short of my expectations, mainly due to the high school romance scene.  As a high schooler, I probably would have appreciated this book a lot more, but now I could have gone without the lovesick puppy romance.  I wanted it to be more about London’s memories, and her crazy unique ability to see into the future.



What Are Big Girls Made of? by Marge Piercy

519y6ulTYBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book – Dealing with such topics as acrimonious family relationships, nature, and feminism, this collection of poetry has something for everyone. Particular standout poems are “A Day in the Life,” chronicling a typical terrible day for an abortion clinic worker, “Between Two Hamlets,” which takes a decidedly different perspective on the famous play, and the series of “Brother-less” poems, where Piercy explores her distant, regretful relationship with her half-brother.  Piercy’s poems are full of beautiful, memorable images, such as comparing troubles to “sweaters knit of hair and wire” and exhorting women to love themselves like “healthy babies burbling in our arms.”  I am not typically a huge fan of poetry typically but this collection is very accessible to the non-habitual poetry reader.

What Are Big Girls Made Of? will appeal to those who appreciate a lyrical, image-laden writing style in prose or poetry.  You can find Warrenville Public Library’s poetry collection filed in the nonfiction collection in the 800s.

Arrowood by Laura McHugh

28007948Book – Arden Arrowood moved away from Keokuk, Iowa, and her eponymous family home, when she was little, shortly after her twin baby sisters disappeared. She hasn’t been back for years, but now, with a Master’s degree in history all but finished and reeling from her estranged father’s death, the lawyers have told her that the house belongs to her. Moving home is all she’s ever wanted, but when she gets there she finds it more complicated than she’d like it to be. Her best friend and first boyfriend is engaged, the estate is running out of money to keep up the old house, and a writer working on a book about her sisters’ disappearance wants to explain to her why she’s wrong about what she always said she saw that day when her sisters went missing. Arden might be home, but she’s being haunted in more ways than one.

I read and loved McHugh’s first novel, The Weight of Blood, a couple of years ago, but I was even more excited about this one given the setting – I grew up in southern Iowa, not far from Lee County, where this novel is set. I wasn’t disappointed. I loved the focus on the trickiness of memory, how things can become distorted with time and repetition, and what that says about long-buried hurts. A little touch of the Gothic polished off this low-key thriller very nicely.

Then and Always by Dani Atkins

atkins_thenandalways_pb1Book – In Then and Always: A Novel, by Dani Atkins, Rachel Wittshire  seemed to have it all: a drop dead gorgeous boyfriend, a close knit group of best friends, and a promising future heading off to college.  But then  tragic accident shatters everything, leaving the lives of Rachel and her friends changed forever.

Rachel was left physically affected by the incident; unrelenting painful migraines and memories plague her constantly.  Five years later, Rachel’s life has continued but she never moved on from that night.  When a wedding forces her to return to her old hometime, Rachel must face the path she left behind whether she wants to or not.  A fall lands Rachel in the hospital, and suddenly she wakes up to a new reality that forces her to question everything she thought was true.

This novel deals with memory in a way I’d hadn’t experienced in a novel before, and it was a really intriguing read.  It’s a simple story, but there was plenty of drama and a touch of romance to keep my attention.  It’s about loss and moving on but also the age old question of What if? What if you could change the past?  Is it ever too late to start anew?  I would recommend this to anyone who wants a more lighthearted mystery/amnesiac drama with a romantic interest.

The Woman in Cabin 10 by Ruth Ware

Cover Image - The Woman in Cabin 10Book – Lo Blacklock, a journalist, lands a plum assignment to travel and report on the maiden voyage of the boutique, luxury cruise liner, the Aurora. Two days before her scheduled departure for the trip around the Norwegian fjords, Lo’s apartment is robbed while she is home asleep after an evening of drinking. The event triggers her anxiety and panic attacks, for which she has been formerly diagnosed and treated. Nonetheless, she is determined to take advantage of the opportunity the cruise offers in the hopes of getting a promotion. When Lo boards the boat, she discovers their are 10 cabins and a crew devoted to the passengers’ comfort. However, as she soon finds out, the guests may not be who them seem to be and it’s hard to get help when you are out at sea. One night, after dinner and drinks, she returns to her cabin and thinks she hears a body fall into the water. She reports the incident, but no one believes her and everyone seems to be accounted for. Lo’s panic, drinking and confusion kept me guessing about the outcome of this suspenseful tale. I’m certainly not in any hurry to take a cruise on a small ship after reading this book! Ware also wrote In a Dark, Dark Wood.


Being Jazz: My life As a (Transgender) Teen by Jazz Jennings

being-jazzBook – Before reading this memoir, I was only vaguely aware of the existence of Jazz Jennings.  I remembered a picture book titled I Am Jazz, featuring a transgender young girl and was intrigued to read a more in depth story of that little girls’ life and experiences growing up.

Being Jazz: My Life As a (Transgender) Teen chronicles author Jazz Jennings experiences growing up as a transgender girl.  Jazz’s story was initially featured on 20/20 with Barbara Walters at a time when there was little information or public support for transgender individuals.  She would continue to shine in the public spotlight throughout her youth through countless interviews, her personal youtube channel, a reality television show on TLC, a documentary, and a children’s picture book.  One of the youngest and most prominent voices in the discussion of gender identity, Jazz shares her trials and tribulations from childhood to young adult in this coming of age memoir about growing up transgender.

Many reviewers were dissatisfied with the writing in this memoir–wanting a more detailed, mature, and eloquent writing style, rather than the words of a fifteen year old teenager.  For the most part, I actually found Jazz’s voice to be surprisingly refreshing and well-worded.  I felt that her writing was very easy to read, and understandable, especially for the targeted audience: teens and young adults.

As a whole, I really enjoyed this memoir.  It was easy to follow, intriguing, and has a unique perspective.  It’s remarkable that Jazz was aware of being transgender–before even fully realizing what that word meant–at such a young age and her memoir makes me curious to read the stories of other transgender youth.

To learn more about the experiences of other transgender youth, check out: Beyond Magenta: Transgender Teens Speak Out by Susan Kuklin.


The Long Shadow of Small Ghosts by Laura Tillman

150110425X.01._SX450_SY635_SCLZZZZZZZ_Book – There’s a building in Brownsville, Texas, one of the poorest cities in the country, where something terrible happened. A lot of terrible things happen in Brownsville — right on the Mexican border, it’s a center for drug trafficking as well as immigration, both legal and not, and the usual urban crimes born of poverty and desperation — but this was bad enough that the whole building lies under its shadow.

This isn’t the usual kind of true crime book, and if you try to read it that way you’re going to be disappointed. The facts were never really in doubt. In the spring of 2003, John Allen Rubio, with the assistance of his common-law wife, horribly murdered his three children. The oldest girl was only three years old. Less than a day later, they both confessed to the police; Rubio believed the children were possessed. Or maybe, he admitted when questioned, it was the spray paint he’d been huffing.

But Tillman isn’t telling that story as much as she’s telling the story of the community in which that crime occurred. What did the neighbors think of John and Angela, both before and after the murders? What was it like, to be them, to live in their world? And if John truly, sincerely believed that the children were possessed when he killed them, does that make him not guilty by reason of insanity? What if he had schizophrenia? What if he had brain damage from long-term drug use, or a low IQ from his mother’s long-term drug use? If the state of Texas executes him for his crime, what does that say about us, and the world we live in? And can the community ever come to terms with what happened? Tillman doesn’t offer answers to these questions, but she asks them with care, and I think they’re important ones.

Prisoner of Night and Fog by Anne Blankman

17668473Book-It was a dark and foggy night. Gretchen Müller was in the car with her brother and friends when a Jew was seen walking across the street not too far ahead. Without warning, Kurt decides it speed up in order to hit the Jewish man. When that attempt failed, the boys left car with the sole purpose of beating the man to death. Why? Because to Gretchen and her friends, Jews were evil people. That is what Adolf Hitler told them and ‘Uncle’ Dolf would never lead them astray. Hitler was the man who took Gretchen and her family in after her father was killed saving Hitler’s life. They owed him everything.

But that night, instead of reveling in the idea of taking out the cancer of Germany, Gretchen found herself really looking at the Jewish man. His eyes were full of terror as he was about to be attacked by two members of the Nazi party. Going against everything she was taught by her parents and Hitler, Gretchen ran after the boys in order to stop them.

That night was the first small step on a journey of self-discovery that Gretchen goes on throughout this book. She takes her next step when a young Jew tells Gretchen that her father did not die to save Hitler’s life, he was murdered. In her pursuit of the truth, Gretchen learns some startling facts about Hitler and his party. Now she has to decide if her loyalties truly lie with Hitler and her family or Daniel, the Jew.

You can find Prisoner of Night and Fog on the Lincoln Award Shelf and on the Lincoln Award Kindle. Once you read it, check out the sequel Conspiracy of Blood and Smoke

The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero

18782854Book – A. never knew he had an eccentric millionaire uncle in America until his uncle died, leaving him an eccentric old mansion in America — with, as Edith Wharton says, supernatural enhancements. There’s the ghost in the second-floor bathroom, of course, but she’s nothing compared to the mysterious notes and encoded messages scattered around the house, the nightmares plaguing our narrator, or the growing implication that maybe A.’s uncle didn’t commit suicide after all. The mysteries only grow deeper as A. and his friend Niamh begin to uncover the details of the secret society centered around their new home.

The Supernatural Enhancements is told in an unconventional style – letters from A. back to Europe, transcripts of audio and video recordings, and conversations from Niamh’s notepad (she’s mute). This has the potential to get confusing, but I found that the story flows pretty seamlessly for the most part (except for a few places where it’s obviously meant to be confusing). More importantly, this gives the reader the chance to figure out some of the puzzles at the same time as the characters, if you’re inclined to that sort of thing. Me, I’m happy to let the characters do the hard cryptographic work for me, but if you like puzzles and ciphers, this is a great book for you.