The Martian, by Andy Weir

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I never expected to enjoy a survival story set on Mars so much! Mark Watney is an astronaut on a mission to Mars and has been included on the crew because of his expertise in botany and his all-around fix-it skills. These skills and more come in extremely handy when the crew is blindsided by a fierce dust storm and forced to abandon the both the mission and Mark, who is impaled by a communications antenna and left for dead. Like everything else in the story, the idea that Mark could have survived the piercing of his spacesuit seems highly implausible until you learn about the science of blood coagulation in an environment like Mars. Andy Weir does an outstanding job of making science fiction read like contemporary, realistic fiction, and he does it with such a quirky, science-geek voice that the reader chuckles the whole way through this otherwise fast-paced science/math-packed adventure story. Much of the story is told episodically through Mark’s daily log entries, which is how you come to know, love and root for our resourceful hero in the face of impossible odds. Mark has the equipment to supply adequate oxygen and water for an extended stay, but no where near enough food to last the projected four years it would take for a rescue mission to arrive. Add to that the fact that he has no way to communicate with Houston, who thinks he’s dead and therefore has no intention of mounting said rescue, and you see how dire it looks for our hero. Nonetheless, Mark’s indomitable spirit coupled with his incredible resourcefulness and vast STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) knowledge make this a decidedly hopeful read. This will be particularly popular among space geeks and science nerds with a good sense of humor. ~ Ms. Dimmick

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The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls

The Glass CastleThe Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I admit to being pretty late to the party on this memoir, which was first published back in 2006, so I doubt that I have anything fresh to say about it. In fact, once I finished I found myself trolling the web to see if there had been any revelations or exposés about the book’s veracity since it came out. I did this because the saga of Jeannette Walls’ upbringing is so appalling, and her reaction to it as a well-adjusted adult professional is so bereft of emotion or judgment towards the parents who inflicted it upon her that I found myself doubting her story. Jeannette Walls and her three siblings were raised by two brilliant but unstable and unreliable parents who led the family in a nomadic existence in the American South West, “skedaddling” out of each progressively more poverty-stricken town the moment the bill collectors, child welfare authorities or other trouble got too close. Jeannette’s mother, Rose Mary, is a highly narcissistic and probably bipolar artist who resents and therefore largely neglects the responsibilities of motherhood. Jeannette is closest to her charismatic father, Rex, who despite his considerable intellect is unable to hold down a job due in part to his raging alcoholism. As parents Rose Mary and Rex emphasize the importance of independence and self-sufficiency to a fault. The Walls are the antithesis of today’s helicopter parents, leaving their children to fend for themselves in consistently squalid and food insecure environments. After years of traipsing across the South West, the family ultimately returns to Rex’s home territory in a poor coal mining town in West Virginia where the reader gets a glimpse of what is likely the root cause of Rex’s damage. The book is well written and compelling, but I can’t let go of my incredulity. That Walls presents the story of her childhood so matter-of-factly without judgment, reflection or analysis left me with an uneasy feeling about her future. Nonetheless, I enjoyed reading this memoir, and recommend it to those who want to read a true story about how much adversity a child can endure and still achieve success as an adult. ~ Ms. Dimmick

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Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran, by Roya Hakakian

Journey from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary IranJourney from the Land of No: A Girlhood Caught in Revolutionary Iran by Roya Hakakian

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Roya Hakakian’s memoir sheds light on the experience of a little known population of Jews in Tehran during the time of the revolution agains the Shah and the ultimate installation of the Ayatollah. Roya’s coming-of-age was unique, even from that of many of her peers in Iran, due to her minority heritage and faith. It is fascinating to learn about the time before the revolution, when her tightly knit community coexisted peacefully and respectfully with its Muslim neighbors, and all the more poignant to view through the eyes of a precocious and naive child. After a brief euphoria following the revolution, things begin to go downhill for Roya and her family, and the reader witnesses the simultaneous repression of the state and blossoming of Roya’s journalistic talent. The story is told in hindsight from the safety of Roya’s position as a journalist for 60 Minutes who has been contacted by the New York Times to provide context for more recent student rebellions in the country. Aside from its educational value, however, I did not find this book to be a compelling read. The memoir format did not lend itself to the rising action, climax, falling action associated with a really good story, and the writing seemed to contribute to the drag on the narrative. Read this to learn more about the Iranian Revolution, and about this unique group of citizens, but not if you’re looking for a page turner or riveting read. ~ Ms. Dimmick

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Code Name Verity, by Elizabeth Wein

Code Name VerityCode Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Truly great historical fiction weaves a compelling story with vibrant characters so stealthily that you forget you are learning about history. This is one of those books. Set in England, Scotland and France during World War II, this is the tale of two unlikely best friends with even less likely careers. One is a pilot and the other is a spy. Their names are Julie (a Scottish aristocrat born in a castle and educated in Switzerland) and Maddie (a working class girl from Manchester who learned dis- and re-assemble a motorbike engine from her grandfather, a motorbike dealer). The story is largely told by Julie, who proves to be an unreliable narrator, as she pens the account by way of confession to the Nazis who have captured and are torturing her for information about Allied communication codes. While the story starts out somewhat slow, and there were perhaps too many details about flying and aircraft for your average teen reader, it is well worth sticking with, as the girls’ relationship deepens and the drama intensifies. The plot twists later in the book took my breath away. This is not a happy story, but it is not as unbearable as one might expect a book featuring Nazi torture might be. Actually, it’s a beautiful story with plenty of humor, love, action, adventure and well researched history to earn it a special place on my bookshelf of favorite WWII stories. ~ Ms. Dimmick

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The Round House, by Louise Erdich

The Round HouseThe Round House by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I found The Round House to be at once captivating and elucidating. Told through the eyes of a 13 year-old Native American boy coming of age on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota in the 1980s, this story includes a wonderful mix of magical realism and contemporary teen angst. Joe’s mother has been brutally beaten and raped, and her resulting depression thrusts Joe and his tribal judge father into a seemingly futile quest for justice. Joe’s quest involves his close friends and numerous unwitting relatives, while his father’s focuses on the convoluted intricacies of tribal vs. state and federal law. The story is part mystery, part Native American fable, part reservation life exposé and part young adult coming-of-age novel. The reservation is so full of delightfully distinctive and peculiar characters that the reader cannot help but be entertained, despite the dark topic at the core of the story. If you liked The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, and want to spend more time on a Native American reservation with teen boys, but are ready for something more literary and challenging, I strongly recommend The Round House by Louise Erdich. ~ Ms. Dimmick

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Cry, the Beloved Country, by Alan Paton

Cry, the Beloved CountryCry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Alan Paton’s classic, Cry the Beloved Country, is one that will stay with me for a long time. His simple, lyrical prose, beleaguered yet dignified protagonist and rich portrayal of South Africa combine to create a tragic tale of human struggle and loss. Zulu Stephan Kumalo is a humble Christian pastor in rural South Africa who is forced to travel to the bewildering and intimidating city of Johannesburg to search for his sister and son who have stopped writing home with no explanation. Kamali loses much more than he finds on this ill-fated journey during which the reader is exposed to the racial tensions and consequences of apartheid era South Africa. Despite facing tragic loss and shame, the tender-hearted Kumalo’s faith in humanity is restored by the selfless acts of a few key characters, both black and white. Religion is central to understanding this book, but it stops shy of preachiness. The prose is as spare as can be, boiled down to the bare essence of its intent. Poetic. Lilting. Haunting. It takes some effort to get into its rhythm, and to get past the lack of quotation marks in the dialog, or the unpronounceable African names and titles, but it is well worth the time. Before you know it, you’ll be lost in the mist on the veld, crying yourself for Paton’s beloved country. ~ Ms. Dimmick

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The Light Between Oceans, by M. L. Stedman

The Light Between OceansThe Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of reading this book. It sucked me in from the first page and left me a wrung out rag on the last. This book contained all of the main ingredients for me: a really compelling, riveting story, characters you wished you knew in person, serious moral challenges, and exquisite prose. What more could you ask for? You want more? Okay, let’s set it in a far off land (a tiny, remote island 100 miles off the coast of Western Australia), during a historically important time period (immediately post WWI), and lets sneakily teach you about a subject you would otherwise never be exposed to (lighthouse keeping in an age before automatic lights were invented). Now for the premise. An emotionally scarred young WWI veteran seeks escape from his demons by taking a job as a lighthouse keeper and sole resident on Janus Rock, with his only human contact coming by mail/supply boat every three months. Fortunately for Tom, his self-imposed exile is brief, for he falls in love with and marries Isabel, a young and impulsive girl from the mainland, and they build a peaceful and idyllic life together on the island, hoping to build a large family together. After suffering three successively demoralizing miscarriages, a miracle occurs. A boat washes up with a dead man and live baby. Isabel and Tom are both, separately, certain about what they should do. This is only the beginning of a series of morally complex challenges they face as one decision inevitably leads to the next. Read this one for the romance, for the mystery, for the suspense, and most of all for the writing. ~ Ms. Dimmick

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Eleanor & Park, by Rainbow Rowell

Eleanor & ParkEleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It’s hard not to just repeat what John Green says in his NYT book review of Eleanor & Park, because as is usually the case, I am in full agreement. Rainbow Rowell has created a touching and luscious romance framed by the gritty reality of what it’s like to be both poor and heavy, or mixed-race and different, and in high school in Omaha in 1986. Eleanor is overweight, has lots of freckles and bright red, frizzy hair which she has to wash with dish soap because her family can’t afford shampoo. She dresses in an eclectic, clownish wardrobe in part to hide her size, but also because dressing from Goodwill requires creativity and a unique sense of style. She has just returned from a year of exile in another home because her alcoholic, abusive stepfather threw her out. She lands on the bus next to a “stupid Asian” Park, who despite his unfriendly reception to her unwelcome presence on the bus was the only kid willing to allow her to sit. Park is half Korean, half Irish and comes from a loving family with deep roots in their lower-middle class Omaha neighborhood. Park’s history grants him relative immunity from the relentless school bus bullying, but his love of comics and punk music and his sensitive nature isolate him. As Eleanor begins to take refuge in reading Park’s Watchmen comics over his shoulder, Park surreptitiously slows his page turns to accommodate her reading pace. This is the start of something beautiful, as their bond over comics, and later music, and much later over one another’s physical presence grows and intensifies. Rowell perfectly captures the earnest and breath-taking emotions of early first love and yanks the reader along with her characters for that perilous roller-coaster ride. The language in the book is sometimes graphic, but always true to the characters, the era and the situation. The writing is well crafted. My only complaint is that some of the dialog and manners of speech are scripted for today and not 1986 (e.g., things like ending a sentence with “right?” or emphasizing single words with periods like, “Prom. As if.” I was young in 1986. We. Didn’t. Do. That.)  Read this book if you want to know what it feels like to fall in love when you’re 16. It’s awesome. ~ Ms. Dimmick

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The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

The Age of MiraclesThe Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’m not sure where the title for this book comes from, as it contains no miracles that I could find, only disasters. The story is about age though–the coming of age of a Southern California tween, and the premature aging of our planet. Actually, aging isn’t the right metaphor for what happens to the Earth in this book, but it’s the best I could do and since the author seems to enjoy using sloppy metaphors and clichéd similes, it feels fitting. The more I think about writing this review, the more I think that perhaps the book doesn’t deserve a full three stars. More like two or two and a half. The stars are for the premise that sucked me in. Imagine that our Earth slowly, almost imperceptibly starts to slow its rotation on the axis so that seconds are added incrementally each day. Over the course of the novel, the Earth’s slowing expands our predictable 24-hour day to over 100 hours, which means that there are 50 hours of daylight followed by 50 hours of night. This slowing messes with the Earth’s gravity, which in turn wreaks havoc with everything from the arc of a soccer ball to birds’ ability to fly and the magnitude of tides. Humanity becomes divided between the majority who commit to living on “clock time” (e.g., sticking to the routine 24-hour clock, regardless of light or darkness) and the minority “real timers” who try to allow their natural circadian rhythms adapt to ever-changing patterns of sunrise and set. Throughout all of this, our middle-school protagonist is navigating the typical trials of being an insecure teen. You might think that coming of age during an apocalypse would result in a totally unique experience, but this is apparently not the case. The fact that the planet is dying and that humanity’s days are numbered seem incidental to Julia as she struggles with getting a training bra, falling for the cute boy on the bus and losing her best friend to a real timer’s commune. I found that I cared a lot more about the fate of the planet than of Julia, but the author kept forcing me away from the really cool science (which I’m not convinced was thoroughly researched), and back to the shallow story of Julia and her bland family. It was, however, a quick read, and the premise of a slowing planet is indeed a provocative one that I will not forget quickly. ~ Ms. Dimmick

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The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I read this under pressure from my son (age 18) and my husband (age not relevant) who deemed this their “best book of 2013.” I admit to being somewhat reluctant, as I am not a fantasy fan and am among a minority who did not swoon over Gaiman’s other works. But how can I not share a beloved book with my family? Gaiman does an exquisite job of capturing the innocence of youth and contrasting it with the harsh realities of adulthood. Literary and mythical allusions abound, and the senses are bombarded with food and nature throughout the tale. This is a chilling page-turner crafted by someone with an extremely vivid imagination that will appeal most to those with equally active and hungry imaginations. It is meant for those who can transport themselves into Gaiman’s nightmare, vs. simply appreciate its cleverness. I’m afraid I docked the final star due to my own shortcomings of imagination; my persistent inability to suspend disbelief. Sadly, I would be cast as a Gaiman adult and never a child. 5 stars if you are a lover of fantasy, mythology, or just being terrified. ~ Ms. Dimmick

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