Posts tagged ‘250-299 pages’

My Year of Running Dangerously

My Year of Running DangerouslyTitle: My Year of Running Dangerously
Author: Tom Foreman
ISBN: 9780399175473
Pages: 276 pages
Publisher/Date: Blue Rider Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC, c2015

My descent into the madness of ultrarunning began with a Thanksgiving conversation. The dishes had long been cleared, we’d watched some TV, and I had returned to the kitchen when my eighteen-year-old daughter, Ronnie, asked that question every father dreads.
“How would you feel about running a marathon with me?”
My heart jumped. My pulse raced. A bite of leftover stuffing fell from my fork. […] I had the flexibility of a stepladder, and my weakness for cinnamon rolls had convinced me that covering any sizable number of miles would forever more involve a combustion engine or a plane ticket. […]
I sighed the way a man might when the judge asks if he understands the charges.
“Okay. When do we start?” (5-7)

Tom Foreman is an Emmy Award-winning CNN Correspondent (so proclaimed on the cover of the book). He used to run (used to being the key word there), which consisted of disappearing during high school track practice and getting lucky during meets and four ill-trained for marathons with his brother after college. Using a 4 month training schedule, Foreman works in runs during east coast winters between covering breaking news and constant travel. He finds himself in the most unlikely of places pursuing the pavement. Then, after that first marathon with his daughter, he’s hooked, and keeps going farther and farther distances, until the end of the year arrives and he’s set his sights on a fifty mile ultramarathon. The biggest question waiting for him is if he’ll finish.

More anecdotal and motivational then instructional, Foreman avoids giving any specifics regarding his training process, such as the name of the first or any subsequent schedule that gave him guidance. Foreman mentions the bad and the ugly when it comes to running, including inclement weather, injuries, fatigue, and hunger. While running is typically a solitary sport, he also relates the camaraderie he experiences when in a race, meeting people who share this strange passion and looking out for each other, taking turns cheering for the other. It’s a self-deprecating display of what happens when outlandish ideas take hold and the impossible becomes possible. You can almost hear the “Anything you can do I can do better” challenge issuing from the pages, questioning readers “What’s holding you back from accomplishing your goals?” So lace up those running shoes and take that first step towards your own goals. You may be surprised where they lead.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.

After Dark

After DarkTitle: After Dark
Author: James Leck
ISBN: 9781771381109
Pages: 252 pages
Publisher/Date: Kids Can Press Ltd., c2015.

I lowered my hand toward the opening and eased the tweezers into the patient. When I was sure that I had a firm grip on the heart, I took a deep breath and began the extraction. A drop of sweat slipped down my left temple. A hush fell over the room. The patient’s heart was more than halfway out when the door flew open and the lights came on.
“What is going on in here?”

Fifteen-year-old Charlie Harker’s first day of summer vacation starts poorly when his mom announces that they, along with Charlie’s twin sister Lilith and older brother Johnny, are moving to Rolling Hills (population 1251) to renovate his great grandfather’s inn. It gets even worse the first night at the inn, when town crier Miles Van Helsing comes running up to them seeking sanctuary from the “humanoid creatures” supposedly chasing him. While the UFOs Miles has claimed to have seen never materialized, Charlie has to admit there are some weird things happening in town, including people with superhuman strength who avoid the sunlight and wear huge sunglasses even inside. Is Miles’ paranoia spreading to Charlie, or are the headaches and lethargy plaguing the town mysterious symptoms of something worse to come?
This is a page-turner by all standards! When I read The Undertakers by Drago way back in 2012, I mentioned the dearth of realistic zombie novels, wanting more Walking Dead then Warm Bodies. Some readers might be disappointed by the lack of a body count, but the tension and action is strong enough to warrant adding it to the short list. It encompasses sarcastic quips and thrilling chase scenes along with real danger of being changed into … well into whatever the residents are becoming.

Look Miles, it doesn’t matter if they’re crazy, on drugs, or if they’re vampires –“
“More like zombies,” he said, cutting me off.
“Vampires, zombies – call them zompires for all I care!”
“Zompires? That’s a ridiculous name.” (111)

The book reads like a script for a movie, with lots of action and tense scenes after the set-up of the very normal family (or at least, as normal as you can be with a superstar brother and martial arts trained sister) assuming the role of newcomers to an almost abandoned stretch of a small town. The crazy kid’s vigilance is vindicated and then he’s forced to confront what he was always imagining existed but never dreaming he’d have to face on his own. The characters are typecast but recognizably relatable, with Charlie’s mother becoming more exasperated at the antics of her son and this noisy, nosy neighbor kid. There’s a rational explanation for everything they claim to have seen, which prolongs the plot and anticipation. Readers and Charlie and Miles know better, but convincing everyone else is going to take time, quite possibly more time than they have until they too are assimilated. The technology is current without name dropping, with not a single Apple iPhone 6, only cell phones and surveillance videos, which get dropped, damaged, and discarded over the course of the plot. Is the ending convenient, yes, (thank you Kirkus review for reminding me of the term deus ex machina) but in the same way the movie Red Dawn ends conveniently, and that became a classic and an updated remake. Just when you think everything has been resolved, the twist ending sends new chills down your spine and has you looking over your shoulder. Read this as one last homage to the scary Halloween season, or put it on your list for next year.


NimonaTitle: Nimona
Author/Illustrator: Noelle Stevenson
ISBN: 9780062278234
Pages: 266 pages
Publisher/Date: HarperTeen, an imprint of HerperCollins Publishers, c2015.

“The agency sent me. I’m your new sidekick!”
“That makes no sense. Why would they send some KID to be my sidekick?”
“I don’t know, something about helping your image? They want you to appeal to today’s youth.”
“Did the Agency really send you?”
“Where’s the letter?
“I left it in the… uh… FIIIINE so the Agency didn’t send me.”
“I KNEW IT.”(1)

Ballister Blackheart, “the biggest name in supervillainy” has just become the unlikely recipient of a surprisingly bloodthirsty sidekick named Nimona. Not because he really was looking or wants one, but he has to grudgingly admit that she has some traits that could be useful. While they both have their own ideas about villainy, they find common ground in fighting against the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics, specifically Ballister’s nemesis Sir Ambrosius Goldenloin. Everyone has secrets though, and when those secrets are discovered, they lead to questions regarding who is good, who’s bad, and who can be really trusted.

An award-winning web comic gets the graphic novel treatment and I’m so glad it did. While I’ve gotten more involved in graphic novels and web comics in the past couple years, I am by no means an expert and it’s fortunate I can expand my exposure to them when they get printed through traditional means. Noelle Stevenson does an admirable job of embracing the stereotypes and tried and true troupes of the genre while still breaking tradition and flipping them on their head. Yes there is a bad guy and a good guy, a plucky sidekick and a secret agency, but there is also an overly secured secret lair that everyone knows about and double and triple cross traps that fail, succeed, and then fail again and are openly discussed. Oh how I love plucky sidekick Nimona! Her dialogue is spot-on, she’s all over the place with energy, and then she has this other side of her that you get to meet that makes you sit up and take notice of her in a whole new light.

The thought-provoking plot provides lots of surprises, with questions of good versus evil, personal identity, friendship, and science, most of which I can’t talk about without ruining the joy of discovering them for yourself. The artwork is just as stunning, with action-packed panels at every turn, filled with explosions but just as frequently zooming in on quieter character development, subtle hints and details, and back stories. This being originally a web comic, you do notice a change in the rendering of the characters, but I think they change for the better, and the sheer number of panels rendered for each page is impressive to say the least. Stevenson put a lot of effort into this, and it shows!

This is one of my favorite graphic novels of the year in a crowded field of girl-powered themed exploits that were published this year. I’m fan-girl fawning over her, and if I was to ever cosplay someone, I think Nimona would be my first choice, although I have no idea how I would do her hair style justice. Pick this up, get acquainted with her, and — since the ending ties up everything but still leaves an opening for more adventures — we all need to hope like heck Nimona will receive the sequel treatment.

Listen, Slowly

Listen SlowlyTitle: Listen, Slowly
Author: Thanhha Lai
ISBN: 9780062229182
Pages: 260 pages
Publisher/Date: HarperCollins Children’s Books, a division of HarperCollins Publishers, c2015.

Dad is waiting for me to turn toward him. Yeah right. One little glance would encourage another diatribe about connecting with my roots. They’re his roots, not mine. I’m a Laguna Beach girl who can paddleboard one-legged and live on fish tacos and mango smoothies. My parents should be thanking the Buddha for a daughter like me: a no-lip gloss, no-short shorts twelve-year-old rocking a 4.0 GPA and an SAT-ish vocab who is team leader in track, science, and chess. I should at least be able to spend the summer resting my brain at the beach. Instead, I get shoved on this predawn flight.
My parents slapped me with the news just last night when I was floaty and happy because sixth grade was finally over. I was thinking summer vacation, sunsets, bonfires. But noooo, with buggy eyes and stretchy smiles, they cooed out the news that I “get to” escort Ba, Dad’s mom, back to Vietnam for six whole weeks. (1-2)

Twelve-year-old Mai (known as Mia at school) is being forced to fly halfway around the world to help her grandmother Ba come to terms with their grandfather’s disappearance during the Vietnam War. Never mind that it happened years ago, and that Mai had plans for this summer, that she doesn’t understand the language, and that her own father isn’t staying with them due to previously scheduled charity work. The detective is struggling for specifics, so in the meantime Mai meets her many, many cousins, including Anh Minh who learned English with a Texas accent at an American boarding school, and Ut, a reluctant tour guide who is more interested in caring for her frog than her newfound family member. The culture shock is incredible, resulting in a misunderstanding about thongs and powerful smelling herbal remedies for lice and stomach aches. But as time passes, Mai begins to see the beauty in this alternate way of life, discovering that it might be up to her to re-acquaint her grandmother with seeing the good things of today instead of focusing on the past.

The details in the book are incredible. You can feel the heat, you can smell the medicines, and you can experience a world that probably few readers would ever consider visiting before reading this book. Mai’s changing moods, spoiled nature and trepidations, but also her awe of this whole new environment, are convincingly displayed.

Away from the airport, it’s green and more green rice paddies. This doesn’t seem right. The documentary showed the airport was right in the middle of the city. Ba stirs, reaches inside her bag, and [… her] other hand twists a knob in the air. Dad agrees, of course. The air conditioner, which makes her even more carsick, goes off. Windows down. Invisible flames whip into the taxi. I feel like on of those desserts Mom blows a torch on. […]
I stick my head out. No it doesn’t feel any cooler. Then I can’t believe it–right on the roadside, not behind a fence or anything, stands a real live water buffalo. Chewing on grass, mud on its back, nostrils the size of golf balls, mega croissants for horns. […]
“Stop, Dad, tell him to stop. STOP!”[…]
“This is so cool!”(15-16)

I am slightly unsure about the portrayal of some of the older Vietnamese ignorance about modern-day conveniences, but it seems like it’s plausible based on details presented in the book, such as the lack of reliable and widespread Internet. It does however show that there are some benefits behind traditional ways, which I think balances out those portrayals. I learned quite a bit about Vietnamese language and history, as Mai and her cousins exchange vocabulary lessons. I’m not attempting to duplicate those symbols and lessons here because I wouldn’t know how. Conversations in Vietnamese are designated by italics, and translated into English with more frequency as the book progresses. While the contextual clues make it clear what is being said, I do wish a glossary and/or author’s note had been included for quick reference and further information.

The final reveal of the truth of Mai’s grandfather’s whereabouts and life during the war is something that will pull at people’s heart-strings. Mai’s turn around is convenient but appropriate after spending so much time among her Vietnamese family. This is a coming of age story for sure, but also a story of coming home and coming to terms with your past. Highly recommended.

Better Nate Than Ever

Better Nate Than EverTitle: Better Nate Than Ever
Author: Tim Federle
Narrator: Tim Federle
ISBN: 9781442374157
Discs/CDs: 5 CDs, 5 hours 54 minutes
Pages: 288 pages
Publisher/Date: Simon & Schuster Inc, c2013.
Awards: Odyssey Award Honor (2014), Stonewall Book Award Honor (2014)
Series: #1 (there is a sequel, titled Five, Six, Seven, Nate)

Thirteen-year-old Nate Foster has a dream of being on Broadway which is difficult to fulfill when you are one of two Broadway geeks in the entire town of Jankburg, Pennsylvania. His best friend Libby has taught him everything he knows (everything he thinks he needs to know anyways) and Nate is confident in his acting ability, even though he’s never had formal lessons. So confident that when his parents head out of town for the night and leave Nate’s brother in charge, Nate and Libby hatch a plan. Nate’s going to take the bus to New York, audition for the newly scripted E.T. The Musical, wow the producers, the directors, the choreographers, and whoever else he needs to, and prove once and for all that his true place in life is on Broadway. Nothing could possibly go wrong, right?

Things definitely go wrong for Nate, including underestimating his budget and his time frame, not having directions before his arrival in NYC, and believing everything everyone says and that everyone is his friend. I found myself comparing him to Jack from the television show Will and Grace; over the top (he swears using the names of Broadway flops) and unable to take care of himself (he’s miraculously saved from both homelessness and an uncharged phone multiple times). His awkward “monologue” explanation for why he’s out alone is completely unrealistic, and the author forces him to “perform” not just once or twice but multiple times, getting more awkward each time. A lot of the plot seems to be on repeat, as Nate’s experiences are a push and pull of emotions as his hopes and reams are real, then dashed, then restored, then dashed, and readers are left with no resolution to the “Does he or doesn’t he” million dollar question. This roller coaster continues for much too long and I started to loose interest in the plot, which seems to place me in a minority among the multitudes of fans this book has garnered. My sympathies towards Nate were the only thing that grew because I felt his overly-enthusiastic antics were being used as entertainment for the mean-spirited adults who relished his peculiarities rather then  as an opportunity to teach the craft and profession.

This straight read through by author Federle was campy and over the top, just like his character Nate Foster, although it is difficult for me several weeks later to remember anything remarkable about the narration specifically. Nate is a laughably naive person, from his clothes choices to his interactions with children and adults. For someone who so desperately wants to be involved in a Broadway show, it’s unbelievable that he would know so little about how the industry works and how optimistic he is regarding his chances of making it big. In this way I guess one of the values of this book is that it teaches readers how the industry work, but at the expense of poor Nate. While his antics remind me of book characters geared towards younger readers, similar to maybe Ramona or Wimpy Kid, the content is skewed much older, with Nate not “choosing a sexuality” yet, drunkenness (both adult and teen drinking), and several homophobic slurs being repeatedly dropped. I’m usually pretty open-minded regarding book content (I was reading teen fiction alongside my Animorphs books in 5th grade), but if a library has a tween section it would make sense to put it there. The 13-year-old character is too young for most teens in young adult areas but the content limits it’s appropriateness to readers under 13 and I think adults may find more enjoyment from this book than children. Case in point: Our copy has been checked out only 6 times in two years

Older Faster Stronger

Older Faster StrongerTitle: Older, Faster, Stronger: What Women Runners Can Teach Us All About Living Younger, Longer
Author: Margaret Webb
ISBN: 9781623361693
Pages: 296
Publisher/Date: Rodale, c2014.

My impulse was to say no. But how could I say no? My sister is 13 years older than I. And the beauty queen was honing in on my territory. Yet the thought of running a half-marathon–I didn’t even know how far one was at the time–seemed inconceivable, overwhelming, impossible. […]
My instinctive response to my sister’s challenge was to admit defeat before even trying to declare that I was well beyond my athletic prime and saw no chance of redemption. (3-4)

On that fateful day, author Margaret Webb, 42-years-old at the time, took up her sister’s challenge in honor of her elderly mother, who legs were affected by polio. That first run was all it took, and Webb continued to run, race, and train. Years later, when she was approaching 50, she wanted to use running as a spring-board to achieve her best health yet, like she saw other older runners, especially women, achieving. Working with physicians, nutritionists, other athletes, and her regular running crew, Webb sheds a light on the history and health benefits of women taking up physical activity later in life, spotlighting those who have paved the way, the differences between female and male athletes, and the science behind this athleticism.

The science behind this journey can be confusing. Webb attempts to break it down into less jargon and more layman’s terms, and sometimes succeeds. Starting with a checklist of things that aging contributes, such as more injuries, loss of lung capacity, dexterity, flexibility, bone density, balance, estrogen and muscle mass, and increase in fat. Where she lost me was discussing VO2, which she explains is the “maximum amount of oxygen my body can use to make fuel” (19) Those readers not scientifically inclined should be prepared to read these sections two or three times in order to fully grasp the information. For instance,

I’m hauling in air, but my heart and lungs are still unable to supply enough oxygen to my working muscles, tipping them into oxygen dept. Lactic acid floods my bloodstream as my body shifts to anaerobic metabolism, away from burning energy-rich fat-which requires oxygen– to burning a thinner (less productive and plentiful) energy source, carbohydrates, which are stored in the muscles and liver as glycogen. […] When all the glycogen in the muscles is used, the body will suck glucose from the blood, which will run out even faster.” (35)

Her chapter titled “Eating Smarter” is much easier to understand. It discusses specific snack options (like midmorning and midafternoon snacks of 1/4 cup of nuts) and stresses a nutritionist recommended diet of cutting out simple carbohydrates instead of carb-loading before a race. It works for her, and emphasizes the difference in men and women’s ability to process carbs and the ongoing habit of doctors and researchers to apply study results to everyone when studies splitting male and female participants have shown that those findings can not be universally applied. This was surprising to me, because I mistakenly believed that since women’s athletic abilities and health issues (like risks of heart issues or cancer) have always been compared to men, that studies concerning healthy living would follow-up to prove these assumptions. It’s also interesting to hear the history of women’s running, where women were banned from marathons, with Kathrine Switzer becoming the first female runner of the Boston Marathon in 1967 while facing down the race director who tried to throw her out.

The book is filled with statistics and studies that stress the importance of adapting an active life-style, so if you weren’t convinced before picking up this book, you just might be by the time you finish it. While we all wish that we could achieve the health and fitness levels of not only the author but of the other women she features throughout the book (including world record holders and trail blazing feminists), this book may not be best for casual runners. Webb revels that she spends 10 to 12 hours training each week and travels the world running Iron Mans and marathons. I wish she had spent more time on how she got started, and what her running habits were starting at square one. For the beginner, this might be something to aspire to, but not something they should attempt to duplicate immediately.

The Family Romanov

Family RomanovTitle: The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion & the Fall of Imperial Russia
Author: Candace Fleming
ISBN: 9780375867828
Pages: 292 pages
Publisher/Date: Schwartz & Wade Books, an imprint of Random House Children’s Books, a division of Random House LLC, a Penguin Random House Company, c2014.
Awards: Sibert Honor (2015), YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult Finalist (2015)

Now, learning from advisers that the palace guard had deserted, he finally grasped the situation. There was, he concluded, no other choice. He would have to give in and appoint a government acceptable to the people. He immediately telegraphed Rodzianko with his offer. Minutes later, Rodzianko answered: “His Majesty . . . [is] apparently . . . unable to realize what is happening in the capital. A terrible revolution has broken out. . . . The measures you propose are too late. The time for them is gone. There is no return.” (173-174)

There was no return for Tsar Nicholas II of Russia. For years the Russian nobility had turned a blind eye to the crippling poverty overwhelming the populace. Instead of consulting with his advisers, he relied heavily on the advice of his wife, Empress Alexandra, a foreigner who married him under the dark mourning cloud of the former emperor’s death. She in turn was driven by “a deep belief in the miraculous and mystical” and consulted a questionable character named Rasputin, who was also looked upon with suspicion by everyone except the royal family (28). It didn’t help that the heirs were isolated, and the only son’s illness was kept a secret. Breeding suspicion and discontent among the famine, frustration, and fear of the first World War, those feelings soon followed the royal family into hiding, but the worst was yet to come.

Anyone who has seen the movie Anastasia is at least partly familiar with the story of the last Russian Tsar and his family. I had the refrain of “Rumor in St. Petersburg” stuck in my brain through most of my reading. Most people probably never realized how inaccurate the plot of the movie was to history. As always, Fleming’s research is thorough, quoting extensively from the diaries and correspondence that have been miraculously saved for all these years. The details were surprising, including first hand accounts of what happened when the murders took place and a photograph of the room where the deed took place.

It’s an intentionally disheartening read, almost like when reading about the Titanic, because history tells you that this is not going to end well for the family. I found myself shaking my head in amazement that Tsar Nicholas II could be so out of touch and purposely naive regarding his responsibilities, to the point where he stopped opening telegrams from his advisers and took the word of his wife over his generals. Probably the best decision that Fleming made was to include the final chapter regarding life after the Tsar, the rumors of survival, and the final nail on the coffin so to speak when the bodies were revealed, 25 years after their initial discovery. A fascinating read, this one will intrigue and inform.

nonfiction mondayThis review is posted in honor of Nonfiction Monday. Take a look at what everyone else is reading in nonfiction this week.


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