Category Archives: Book Reviews

Book Review – Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly

Hello again book lovers! Sorry it’s been so quiet here lately. I’ve been dealing with some health issues and had to spend some time in the hospital recently.  I am home now and recovering but updates are probably going to be sporadic as I rest and recover. I also have to have an operation in a few weeks time so it will be a little while before things completely get back to normal around here. (Sorry about that). But with Black History Month coming to an end and since the film version of the book is up for a couple of Academy Awards this weekend, I wanted to pop on and share my book review of Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures. Enjoy!

 

Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space RaceHidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A few weeks back, my family and I went to see Hidden Figures. The film – the story of three African American women, Katherine Goble Johnson, Dorothy Vaughn, and Mary Jackson, and their contributions to the space race – was excellent and I highly recommend it. It was so good, in fact, that I wanted to know more about Katherine, Dorothy, and Mary’s story so – despite being an almost exclusive reader of fiction – I decided to pick up the book that the movie was based on, Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterley. If my goal was to know more about this topic, this book more than delivered. The book is a much broader and deeper look at the hidden figures of the space program. Rather than a feel-good story about just three remarkable women, the author gives a detailed and in-depth account of several generations of African American women who worked as computers, engineers, and mathematicians in the Space and Aeronautics program at Langley Research Center. The book also covers a much longer period of time than the movie did, celebrating the contributions the women made to Langley from World War II to the space race and beyond – rather than just focusing on the 1960’s – and placing those contributions in the social and technological context of the times. I am not very mathematically orientated so – I have to admit – I glazed over a little when the writer delved into the technical aspects of the women’s work, but otherwise I enjoyed getting to know more about the (until now) hidden figures of the space program and their contributions to history.

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Book Review – The Bear and The Nightingale by Katherine Arden

The Bear and the NightingaleThe Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It’s a snowy day here in New York, the kind of day that is perfect for gathering round the fire and listening to old tales of clever heroines having adventures in wintry Russian forests. Of course, if you don’t happen to know any old Russian folktales, you can get the same sort of effect by curling up with The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden.  There’s been a lot of buzz about The Bear and the Nightingale lately. I’ve seen it compared to the Night Circus and to Neil Gaiman’s work so I was extremely eager to get my hands on the book and see if it lived up to the hype. I am also a big fan of books that play with fairy tale motifs and this story, which plays with Russian folklore and stories, seemed to have a lot of potential.

The book tells the story of a young girl, Vasya, who is able to see and interact with the household spirits and various fey-like creatures in the fields and forests that surround her father’s home. This ability and Vasya’s family observance of the little offerings and rituals that honor these creatures keeps the family safe and ensures their prosperity. When Vasya’s father brings home a new bride – a hysterical, tortured woman who can also see the household spirits but who is convinced they are demons to be feared – the balance between their people’s Christian faith and the old ways is thrown off. And when a charismatic, fanatic of a priest arrives – bringing fear and threats of hellfire with him – the protections erode completely. The dead begin to walk, a cruel winter descends, and a dark force starts to rise in the forest. Only Vasya, with the help of Lord Frost, the spirit of Winter and of Death, can stand between her family and the Bear who is coming to devour them.

Now that I’ve read The Bear and the Nightingale, I must admit to having a more mixed reaction than I expected. I hated the one-dimensional, tired old trope of a villain, a fanatic, intolerant priest who, in his quest for glory and control, dominates the village with his message of fear and becomes an unwitting pawn of the darkness. But the world that Katherine Arden built is rich and interesting and I loved her use of Russian myths and fairy tales. From what little I know about Russian folk stories and the little details Arden weaves into the tale, especially the part of the story where Vasya is brought to Lord Frost’s home, there is room to delve deeper and explore in this world. It also seemed to me that The Bear and the Nightingale had every indication of being the first books in a series. If I am right about that, then all the interesting characters  that are introduced and then disappear, (like Sasha, Vasya’s brother who leaves home to become a warrior monk in the service of God and Russia’s Grand Prince),  and all of Vasya’s future adventures that are alluded to but never explored go from being a side note to potential books look forward to. So, while The Bear and the Nightingale didn’t exactly live up to my immediate expectations, I am willing to say that it is an excellent investment in future stories and I look forward to seeing what Katherine Arden does next.

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What do you think, book lovers? What’s your favorite book to curl up with on a snowy day? What should I read / review next? Let me know in the comments below. And until next time, take care and happy reading!

P.S. Looking for the perfect Valentine’s Day gift for your book-loving Valentine? There’s just a few days left in the C. S. Literary Jewelry Valentine’s Day Sale.

 

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New Year, New Books

The TypeThe Type by Sarah Kay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don’t know about you but I always have such a hard time getting back into the swing of things after the holidays. It’s partly because I need a little while to recover from the craziness of the last few weeks of the year but it’s also because I always get a pile of new books for Christmas and I can’t resist the temptation to spend more time than I should reading them once the holidays are over.
This year Santa was kind enough to bring me two new poetry books by the spoken word poet, Sarah Kay. Each book is a standalone volume containing a single poem, B and The Type. Neither poem is particularly new. B, sometimes called “If I Should Have a Daughter” is one of Kay’s best-known poems and was performed at the Ted Talks Conference in 2011. (You can see the video of that performance here.) And both B and The Type were included in Kay’s beautiful anthology of poems, No Matter the Wreckage, which I own and highly recommend!! But when I discovered that these poems came in their own books, beautifully illustrated by artist Sophia Janowitz, I knew I wanted to add them to my poetry collection anyway.

The thing I love about both these poems – and one of the reasons I am so glad they exist as their own books instead of nestled in among other poems – is that they are so very warm, empowering, and totally accessible even for folks who don’t read a lot of poetry. B, a collection of wisdom and life lessons that Kay would like to pass down to her daughter, if she should ever one, would make a beautiful gift for mothers and daughters alike. Full of encouragement for times of disappointment and struggle, this wonderful poem is a love-song to the power of optimism and a tribute to the mothers (and mother figures) who will always have our back. Meanwhile, The Type is a poem about womanhood and how we define ourselves and build ourselves up. A perfect gift for a girlfriend going through a break-up or struggling with relationship issues, The Type is also a beautiful way to recenter and refocus yourself when your self-esteem starts to drift.

All in all, I am so happy to add The Type and B to my library and would love to give a copy of each (along with Maya Angelou’s Phenomenal Woman) to every woman I know.

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Book Review: Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Hag-SeedHag-Seed by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Some of you may remember that this time last year I made a New Year’s Resolution to read every Shakespeare play by the time 2016 was done. I hate to admit it but I met my match this year. 2016 brought with it too much chaos and upheaval, both personally and in the world in general, and it seriously cut into my reading time. So now I am heading into 2017 with my head bowed and many Shakespeare plays still on the to-read pile. But even if I didn’t meet my reading goals for the year, I am very glad that I made time for Margaret Atwood’s Hag-Seed.

SYNOPSIS: A modern re-telling of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, Hag-Seed was a fascinating story of loss, revenge, and letting go of the past. Theatre director, Felix Phillips, grieving the loss of his infant daughter, Miranda, and obsessed with the production of The Tempest that he is planning as a tribute to her, is devastated when his right-hand man betrays him. Exiled from his job, powerless and bitter, he retreats from the world and plots his revenge. All alone, except for a vision of his daughter that keeps him company, he waits for his opportunity to strike back at his enemies and regain his rightful place. Eventually he gets a job at a prison, teaching Shakespeare and producing plays with the inmates there. When he learns that his enemies, now powerful government officials, will be attending the prison’s production of The Tempest, he sees his opportunity for revenge at last.

MY THOUGHTS: Ask anyone who’s read The Handmaid’s Tale and you’ll know that Margaret Atwood is a master story-teller in her own right so it should come as no surprise that an Atwood and Shakespeare partnership is simply spellbinding. Atwood added a play within a play aspect to the story that was interesting. It was fascinating to watch some of the characters shift roles as the book progressed, especially Felix’s Miranda who drifted back and forth from Prospero’s daughter to the spritely Ariel in a way that reinforced the dreamlike fantasy of the original story. I also loved how Atwood used the prisoners turned actors to add depth, context, and sympathy for the Hag-Seed, Caliban and to explore the deeper themes of the play.

I’ve been anxiously awaiting the upcoming adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale that is coming to Hulu in 2017 but I would also love to see a film version of Hag-Seed. With extremely visual, almost cinematic descriptions, and passages of the play adapted into rap music and dance, Hag-Seed, and especially the Fletcher Correctional Player’s production of The Tempest would translate beautifully to film.

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A Poetic Christmas

The Rain in Portugal: New PoemsThe Rain in Portugal: New Poems by Billy Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The holiday season is a crazy time with gifts to buy and wrap, holiday meals to prepare, and Christmas parties to attend so it can be a little hard to find a lot of time to read. When this happens, I like to pull out a book of poems. Poetry is perfect for hectic times because it can be consumed in small bites and because it reminds us to slow down and experience the moment rather than rushing through it. This year my poetry book was Billy Collin’s latest collection, The Rain in Portugal. I am never disappointed when I pick up a Billy Collin’s book but I particularly enjoyed this one because I had the opportunity to hear the poet read a few of the poems at a poetry reading a while back. (As a side note, I just want to mention that Billy Collins is a wonderful reader and speaker, as well as a wonderful poet, and if you have the opportunity to see him read in person, I highly recommend you go!)

Ask anyone who knows me and they will you tell that I have an obsession with T. S. Eliot’s The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock so it comes as no surprise that my favorite poem in the collection was “Note to J. Alfred Prufrock.” And “Note to Prufrock” wasn’t the only allusion to great poems and poets in this collection. One of my favorites things about Collins as a poet is that his poetry reads as a love letter to poetry, which makes it a poetry lover’s dream come true.

The Rain in Portugal also contains a playful look at rhymes, a wistful meeting between the poet and the sister he never had, and a interesting take on the cosmology of the universe involving Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones. All in all, The Rain in Portugal will make a wonderful addition to my poetry book collection and would make a lovely holiday gift for a poetry lover.

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Looking for more holiday gifts for poetry lovers? Check out this lovely gift guide: 15 Gifts That Poetry Readers Will Be Overjoyed To Unwrap This Holiday by bustle.com or visit the C. S. Literary Jewelry Etsy shop for handmade jewelry inspired  by your favorite poems and poetry.

Need more Christmas gift ideas for book lovers? These holiday gift guides have some great suggestions:

That’s it for me today but I would love to hear from you. What’s your favorite collection of poetry to read when life gets crazy? Let me know in the comments below. And until next time, take care and happy reading!!

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Book Review – Letters From Father Christmas by J. R. R. Tolkien

Letters from Father ChristmasLetters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There are many books and stories that I think of when I think of Christmas reading. There’s Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, of course, and O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi, which is one of my favorite Christmas stories! The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe has always had a very Christmas-y feel to me, especially considering that iconic image of the lamp-post beaming in the middle of a snowy wood and a personal appearance by Father Christmas, himself. But I must admit that, until now, J. R. R. Tolkien never featured heavily in my Christmas reading. And then I discovered Letters From Father Christmas.

A charming collection of letters that Tolkien wrote for his children each year, Letters From Father Christmas, is simply a delight to read! Each letter features the adventures of Father Christmas and the other inhabitants of the North Pool, most notably the North Polar Bear. From the mishaps of the well-intentioned but accident-prone Polar Bear to fighting off incursions by wicked goblins, each letter is filled with the latest news from the North Pole and is accompanied by images of the letters themselves, with the text in Father Christmas’ shaky handwriting and fun little illustrations that Tolkien drew as part of the letters.

My only complaint is that, since the letters were written to the Tolkien children, they sometimes include references to people, places, or pets that they knew well, but that the reader wouldn’t necessarily understand. A couple of well-placed footnotes would go a long way in these instances, but otherwise, I enjoyed Letters From Father Christmas very much and will definitely add it to my list of favorite holiday books!

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Book Review – Summerlong by Peter Beagle

SummerlongSummerlong by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Synopsis (From Goodreads.com): One rainy February night, while dining at a favorite local haunt, Abe and his girlfriend Joanna meet waitress Lioness Lazos, new in town and without a place of her own. Fascinated and moved by the girl’s plight, Joanna invites Lioness to stay in Abe’s garage. Lioness is about to alter the lives of Abe, Joanna and those around them forever.

My Thoughts: As a life-long Peter Beagle fan, I am always excited when a new Peter Beagle book is released so I was thrilled to discover his latest book, Summerlong. It’s hard to discuss this book in detail without giving away too much of the plot, so for those who are looking to avoid spoilers, let me just say that I enjoyed Summerlong for the most part. I went through a massive mythology-reading spree as a kid so, when I was pretty tickled when I realized who Lioness really was and what story Beagle was playing with. (I was also amused by all the great little details Beagle scattered throughout the story that seemed insignificant until that plot twist is revealed). I have my issues with the ending – which is the only thing that makes this a four-star review instead of a five – but I can’t go into that without some serious spoilers, so proceed at your own risk.
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So Summerlong is Peter Beagles’ take on the Persephone myth. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the story, Persephone was the daughter of Demetria, goddess of the Earth. She was stolen away by Hades, the god of the underworld and her mother grieved for her so much that it caused the world’s first winter. The other gods forced Hades to release Persephone from the underworld and Demetria is so overjoyed to see her that everything begins to grow and bloom again on Earth, bringing in the first spring. However, because Persephone ate some pomegranate seeds while in the underworld, she must return to Hades for several months every year – one for every seed she ate – and winter comes again.

In Summerlong, Lioness (aka Persephone) runs away from her husband, Hades, and hides out on this tiny commuter island, where an older couple – Joanna and Abe – take her under their wing. All hell breaks loose (pardon the pun) when Hades comes to retrieve his missing wife and this is the point where Summerlong goes off the tracks. Beagle paints Lioness as a woman on the run from an abusive marriage. She cannot bear the cold of Hades realm and is terrified when she realizes that Hades has come for her but then she does an odd about-face and is suddenly willing to return “home” to the underworld for no reason that I could understand. Not that Hades is all that bad. Even Lioness admits that he has always tried to be good to her but if there was just a dissonance between the panicked woman on the run and the way the story ended.

I was also less than thrilled with how the story ended for Abe and Joanna. Their unconventional relationship was one of my favorite parts of the book, with so much love, history, and understanding between them that it felt like a punch in the gut that it ended the way it did. If it had helped Lioness or if Joanna and Abe were able to still be friends and not lose everything that was between them, I would have been more reconciled to the lose but the feeling that it was all for nothing tainted the ending of an otherwise wonderful book for me. Don’t get me wrong, Summerlong is still more than worth the read – even a flawed Peter Beagle book is still an amazing book – but I don’t think Summerlong will be displacing The Last Unicorn or Tamsin as my favorite Peter Beagle novels anytime soon.

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Celebrating World Photography Day

Happy World Photography Day, book lovers! I don’t know if I’ve ever mentioned this before but back in the days before C. S. Literary Jewelry when I had a lot more time on my hands, I really enjoyed going out with my Nikon and looking for fun things to photograph. My favorite thing to shoot was portraits, especially at events like festivals, Renaissance fairs, and historic reenactments, but I also enjoyed shooting flowers, animals and pretty much anything else that caught my eye. In a lot of ways, photography is a lot like the Dr. Seuss book, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry StreetYou just need to keep your eyelids open and see what you can see.” In fact, the best shot I ever took, of a trumpet player leaning on a lamp-post in Central Park, was something I spotted while heading to shoot something else. I never made it to the event I originally intended to shoot but that unexpected moment more than made up for it! 

I don’t get much chance to get out with my camera anymore but in honor of the day, I thought I would share some of my favorite photos from my days as an amateur photographer.

And if you have an interest in photography, I recommend you check out this review of one of my favorite photography books, The Moment If Clicks by Joe McNally.

The Moment It Clicks: Photography Secrets from One of the World's Top ShootersThe Moment It Clicks: Photography Secrets from One of the World’s Top Shooters by Joe McNally
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I could sum this review up in three words. Seriously cool book!!!! Joe McNally’s The Moment It Clicks is the best photography book I have ever read. A must-read for any aspiring photographers, especially anyone who is interested in taking amazing portraits, the book features tons of incredible pictures, many of which you will recognize from magazines. For each shot, McNally shares the story behind it and the lesson he learned from it. You get to see the creative process behind his work, both the times when inspiration and circumstance aligned to produce an amazing photo and the times when he was left scrambling and improvising. McNally also shares the technical elements of each shot… how he lit it, what he used to shoot it, and why. These details alone makes the book worth it and believe me, I will be absorbing that wealth of information for quite a while.

But even if you have no interest in the technical aspects of photography, this book is fascinating. With it portraits of interesting people, both in front of and behind the camera and its insights into the challenges, sacrifices, joys and frustrations of being a professional photographer, The Moment It Clicks is simply an amazing read.

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That’s it for me today! Until next time, take care and happy reading!

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