Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

When the monster under the bed or in the woods turns out to be real—when the people who told you it was only a dream turn out to be wrong—when you see children float or bonelessly stretch or possibly commune with insects—then you know you’re at Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

In this new book by Ransom Riggs, sixteen year old Jacob has just lost his beloved, crazy, story-telling grandfather to what everyone says was a wild dog attack. But Jacob was the only witness, and that’s not what Jacob saw. Despite the best efforts of his shrink, he knows what he knows, and he knows he needs to find out more.

With his inept and vacillating father, Jacob visits the remote island where his grandfather was sent as a child for safety during World War II. He discovers a world of peculiarity, a world where he doesn’t have to stamp down his belief in the magical or his taste for the bizarre. But it’s a fragile world that very much needs Jacob to be a hero, and being a hero is never easy.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children is illustrated with atmospheric and extraordinary vintage photos which help develop a certain grimly fantastical aesthetic reminiscent of Edward Gorey’s work. If you enjoy that sort of thing, (and really, who wouldn’t?) you may also find another of our upcoming acquisitions rather thrilling-- a book of photography called Strange Vintage Fictions: the world of Haggis Vitae by Julie Miller.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Zone One by Colson Whitehead

Mark Spitz (not his real name) is a sweeper: an armed and armored warrior tasked with a building-by-building hunt, clearing zombie stragglers from the part of Manhattan called Zone One.

The rest of Manhattan, like the rest of the world, is overrun with the undead. The global zombie apocalypse has come, and only a tiny percentage of humanity remains. Like Mark Spitz, the survivors are traumatized wrecks; they have lived not because they are the best and brightest, but because they are the most ruthless, the most stubborn, the most able to walk away from everything they once loved. Mark Spitz was a slacker in a meaningless job before the end of the world; now he is a lean and hardened killer, ready at any moment to grab his pack and move, and only troubled a little by hallucinations.

Zone One by Colson Whitehead is a zombie apocalypse novel; but its real subject is the struggle of the shattered remainder of humanity to rebuild society after the apocalypse. Whitehead views this prospect with a cynical eye. He notes that the new provisional government has given itself a theme song, entitled "Stop! Can You Hear the Eagle Roar? (Theme from Reconstruction)".

The effort to resuscitate Manhattan may be a bright beacon of humanity's struggle to create a new future; or it may just be a publicity stunt, designed to distract those who remain from their imminent destruction.

Colson Whitehead is the author of one of my very favorite novels ever, The Intuitionist. (See my review here.) Zone One is not quite that good; it tends to proceed in a scramble of interlayered flashbacks. The reader sometimes has to stop and sort out when and where she is, which drains away the book’s forward momentum.

But there are a lot of novels about zombies out there, and this is one of the best. Whitehead is terrific writer, and for darkly funny grimness, there's no one better.

I recommend a two-book binge: for a detailed, harrowing account the unfolding apocalypse itself, start with World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks; and for the shambling aftermath, Whitehead's Zone One.

And then, you can probably in all fairness say that you have done the zombie thing, and move on to the next hot trend.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Storyteller

What kind of man can drive women to murder? Meet Darling Jim, a stranger who rolls into Castletownbere, County Cork on his red, 1950 Vincent Comet motorcycle. Jim, whose amber, wolf-like eyes, languorous gait, and hypnotic voice cast a spell over men and women alike. He comes to life in a pair of diaries, written by Fiona and Róisín Walsh, sisters who were imprisoned and slowly poisoned by their Aunt Moira.

Fiona’s diary is found by Niall, a young postal worker who sketches comics when his boss isn’t around. One quiet evening he is drawn to the dead-letter bin, where he opens a package that will change his life forever.

Fiona Walsh and her two sisters, Róisín and Aoife, were orphaned when a fire claimed their parents’ lives. They were raised by their Aunt Moira, and they continue to meet her once a week for dinner.

When Fiona first meets Jim on his motorcycle she knows he is trouble, but she is attracted to him. She sees him later that evening in a pub, when he announces to all that he has been “bid, in the ageless storytelling tradition of the seanchaí, to favor you all with a tale of love, of danger, and of sorrow.” He enraptures his audience with a story of an ancient castle, two brothers, murder, lust, and wolves.

Fiona begins to suspect that Jim is responsible for several recent murders of young women, but cannot convince anyone else, so thoroughly has he charmed the locals. He courts her Aunt Moira, who is totally besotted and transformed by love, and the Walsh sisters endure him for their aunt’s sake. After Jim brutally rapes Aoife, the three sisters plot their revenge.

When he finishes the diary Niall is so shaken, he heads west to learn what happened to Jim. The diary revealed that a third person had been imprisoned in Moira’s home but escaped. Was it Aoife? Did she survive?

Niall’s journey to the truth is full of risks, and not a few coincidences. He acquires Róisín’s diary which reveals more of the story, and he stumbles upon a secret that echoes Jim’s tales. I found the book satisfying and gripping, in a gothic, Grimm Brothers kind of way.

Darling Jim, by Christian Moerk, can be reserved here. It is also available as an audiobook from Library2Go.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Cool website of the day

A couple weeks ago, newspapers reported that an asteroid the size of an aircraft carrier was passing nearby. If you're like me, you heard that news and wondered what it would be like if that hit the earth.

Well, you don't have to wonder. Scientists at Purdue University have created Impact Earth, a meteor-strike simulator that's a lot of fun to play with.

You control the parameters: how big is the meteor, and what is it made of? Does it strike head-on, or at an angle? How fast is it going when it hits, and what sort of surface does it land on? And, crucially, how far away are you when it hits?

Then you click "calculate impact," and learn what sort of damage your pet meteor has done.

For instance, I just dialed up a school bus-sized chunk of ice and had it strike, head-on and very fast, into deep ocean about five miles away.

I learned that my meteor would break up into large chunks when it entered the atmosphere - some of these would probably fall to earth. A tsunami of less than ten centimeters would be generated, but the loud noise and blast of air would be clearly audible.

Hmm. If you're like me, you'll be less than satisfied with this result, so you might decide to up the ante a little. Let's make that meteor a little bigger - about 30 miles in diameter - and let's say that it's made of iron, not ice. There we go!

If this meteor hits, "The Earth is not strongly disturbed by the impact and loses negligible mass." That's good! But "your position was inside the transient crater and ejected upon impact." Oh. That's bad.

If you enjoy physics, disaster scenarios, or cool websites, I urge you to check out Impact Earth. For more fun, click "famous craters" at the top of the page to see what some of the great meteor strikes of history would be like, should they happen today.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Billy Boyle by James R. Benn

William Boyle's career with the Boston PD is on track - sort of. His father helped him get a crib sheet for the detective test; and his uncle sits on the promotions board. Coming from a family of slightly-crooked cops made Billy's rise to detective inevitable, regardless of his ability to investigate crimes. Then Pearl Harbor is bombed, and Billy is off to war.

The Boyles aren't about to let Billy become cannon fodder, of course. They pull some strings, and Billy lands a nice safe job on the staff of his Aunt Mamie's husband, who works in the war department.

And that's how Billy Boyle came to be the detective on the staff of General Dwight D. Eisenhower, at the headquarters of the U.S. Army European Theater of Operations in London.

Eisenhower is planning an invasion of Norway, and worrying about a possible spy. When an important member of the Norwegian government-in-exile is murdered, the pressure is on Billy to find the killer - and find out if there's an espionage connection. No family connections can help Billy with this one.

"I'd probably screw up this investigation and never find the murderer, much less the spy. I was feeling pretty bad. Maybe I should come clean and get it over with. Admit what I did, what my family did, was wrong. Face the music. Easier said than done, if you want my opinion ... Maybe I was being too hasty. Why agonize over it? So what if the murderer got away? It had happened before and would happen again. Uncle Ike might not be too happy if I didn't take care of this little problem, but he'd be a lot madder if he found out the truth about me. "

Billy Boyle is a fun mystery, set in the thick of World War II. It's not a perfect crime novel - I think it's James Benn's first book, and that sometimes shows. A more experienced author would have helped me keep the cast of Norwegian suspects straight, for instance.

But I enjoyed Boyle as flawed, floundering detective, who somehow finds a little character as well as a killer. The next book,
The First Wave, takes Billy to Vichy-held Algeria; I'm looking forward to it.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Got brains?

We all have a brain, right? And most of us have gone through the process of growing up. Which is why Aamodt & Wang’s fun and accessibly written book, Welcome to your child’s brain: how the mind grows from conception to college is fascinating reading for everyone, not just parents. Understanding brain development can give us greater insight into human behavior. And for those of us not in the habit of reading medical journals, how often do we come across up-to-date, comprehensible information on the brain?

Aamodt and Wang are both experts in the field of neuroscience, and include a detailed bibliography and an index in the book, which gives me reasonable confidence in their authority: always a good thing when reading about medical issues. Their tone is light but grounded in common sense.

Each of the seven parts of the book focuses on a different aspect of brain development, with practical tips and myth-debunking featured under each topic. Sample chapter headings include:

o Beyond nature vs. nurture
o It’s a girl! Gender differences
o The best gift you can give: self-control
o Learning to solve problems
o Hang in there, baby: stress and resilience

Some of my favorite trivia gleaned from the book: Did you know chimpanzees in the wild display empathy toward injured birds, trying to fix broken wings? And listening to classical music absolutely does not make children smarter? Oh, yes, and contrary to popular belief, birth order has no strong impact on a child’s personality-- guess that stubborn streak was always meant to be!

For more friendly and accessible info about the brain, try Welcome to your brain: why you lose your car keys but never forget how to drive and other puzzles by the same authors.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Puzzles, Tricks, and Illusions by Lost in Time

Lost in Time presents “Puzzles, Tricks, and Illusions” at the Newport Public Library on Sunday, November 20, at 2:00 p.m.  Corlu Collier, Jane Boyden, and Eileen Flory are the musicians of Lost in Time, a consort drawn from members of the Oregon Coast Recorder Society.  They performed “Puzzles, Tricks, and Illusions” in June of 2011 as part of the Atrium concert series in Eugene.

“Puzzles, Tricks, and Illusions” showcases ingenious and playful ways that composers from medieval times to the present have structured music, including hocketing (the sharing of notes in a melody between two instruments); a roundlike piece that is played forward and then backward; a piece written in the shape of a heart; a piece played right side up and upside down simultaneously; barking dogs, hissing snakes, and cooing doves; and intriguing contemporary pieces using percussion and unusual rhythms.  Throughout the performance, the musicians will comment on the pieces, their composers, and their musical context.

Corlu Collier is an accomplished player and teacher. She has performed with various ensembles, including the Amici Musicae, the Baroque Players, and the Berkeley Consort. She currently directs the Oregon Coast Recorder Society. At any time, when asked about her activities, she will reply “Music, music, and music.” She also publishes contemporary and new arrangements for recorder under the imprint “Lost in Time Press.”

Jane Boyden has played chamber music most of her life, primarily as a pianist. She was one of the three founding members of the Oregon Coast Recorder Society and continues to acquire more recorders against her better judgment. Jane and Frank Boyden founded Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.

Eileen Flory has played stringed instruments since the fourth grade and almost majored in music. Instead, she went into languages, anthropology, and museum .

For information on the Oregon Coast Recorder Society and for a calendar of OCRS and Lost in Time performances, visit  For more information about events at the Newport Public Library, call (541) 265-2153, go to the library’s website,, or the library’s Facebook page at

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Imagine a future - it isn't hard to do - in which the oceans are rising, there's no oil, and biotechnology has mutated out of control. Genetically modified diseases and pests have swept the globe, and the world is transformed by famine and violence.

Calories are the basis for the new economy. Machines are designed to be powered by springs, and it takes calories to wind those springs. Since food is just as precarious a resource as oil ever was, agricultural companies, with patents on the genetic codes of crops, enforce their calorie monopolies with armies.

Anderson Lake is a covert agent for one such company. He is embedded in the Kingdom of Thailand, which is surrounded by walls: sea walls to keep out the rising tides, and trade barriers to keep out foreign products that might be tainted. A military force called the white shirts brutally suppresses any sign of disease or infestation. But some Thais are interested in foreign trade, and some white shirts take bribes. Thailand is on the brink of change, and Anderson is on hand to take advantage.

The Windup Girl grapples with big ideas, but one character succeeds in bringing it down to earth with her very human plight - and ironically, she is not human. She is Emiko, a Windup, genetically manufactured to be the beautiful companion to a wealthy Japanese businessman. But she has been abandoned in Thailand, where alien genehacked beings are not only illegal but regarded with revulsion. She survives nightly humiliation and abuse in a Thai brothel, dreaming of freedom.

The Windup Girl swept the 2009 Hugo, Nebula, and John W. Campbell Memorial awards for best science fiction novel. It won the Locus Award for best first novel. Time Magazine called it one of the 10 best books of 2009.

I struggled with it at first – it’s not an easy book to get into – but soon found that I was hooked. The Windup Girl full of ideas about the future of genetic engineering, and peopled with flawed, interesting characters. It is a grim book, fierce, complicated, and worth the effort.

Friday, November 4, 2011

...For mother will be there

Alexandra Fuller's parents loved Africa. In her memoir, Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood, she describes her strange and difficult childhood as the daughter of white British farmers in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). Fuller's father fought in Rhodesia's long civil war, struggling to keep the country "white-run." They called the opposing fighters, the Africans who wanted to control their country, "terrorists."

"In 1974," she writes, "the Rhodesian civil war was eight years old. In a matter of months, terrorist forces based in Mozambique under the new and guerrilla-friendly Frelimo government would be flooding over the border to Rhodesia to conduct nightly raids, plant land mines, and, they said, chop off the lips and ears and eyelids of little white children."

In 1974, Fuller turned five. I, too, turned five in 1974; we are the same age. While I was growing up in a small American town, Fuller was worrying about having her eyelids cut off. A dental hygienist came to my school to teach us how to brush our teeth properly; Fuller's school was visited by a soldier, who taught them how to avoid land mines. Her mother took an Uzi with her on her daily farming chores; Fuller knew how to strip, clean, load, and fire one by the time she was seven.

The most striking figure in Fuller's memoir has to be her mother, a vivacious and strong-willed woman with a truly devastating drinking problem, who refused to coddle her children and instead exposed them to danger and neglect.

Fuller portrays her parents with love. She also reveals, with unflinching honesty, their unthinking belief that whites should control Africa, that Africans are by nature unfit to do so. As a child, Fuller innocently accepted the racial superiority she was taught; as an adult, her memoir is infused with the knowledge that her parents were, at best, profoundly misguided.

Don't Let's Go to the Dogs Tonight tells the story of Africa's violent struggle, as seen through the eyes of a child who knows no other world. It's fascinating. Fuller's follow-up, Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, was just published in September.