Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 359 pgs
On Amazon and on Kobo

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz is a brilliant coming of age story that examines not only how tough it is to be a young boy — a young Mexican American — but also how these boys struggle with cultural stereotypes of what becoming a man should be.  Dante is an optimistic boy who sees the beauty of the world all around him, while Aristotle (Ari) seems himself as a loner and a pessimist.  These boys meet one summer in 1987 in El Paso at a local pool, and Dante offers to teach Ari how to swim.  Dante loves the water and he wants to share that love with someone who could become his best friend.  These boys are exploring their lives, learning that their lives are not their own, but often dictated by the parents who care for them and they wonder when they will get to create and be in lives wholly their own.

“There is a famous painting, Nighthawks, by Edward Hopper.  I am in love with that painting.  Sometimes, I think everyone is like the people in that painting, everyone lost in their own private universes of pain or sorrow of guilt, everyone remote and unknowable.  The painting reminds me of you.  It breaks my heart.”  (page 185)

In Ari’s home, his brother is dead to them because he is in prison, but Ari knows that he must have loved him and doesn’t understand why there are no pictures of him in the house, why he is never spoken of, and why he doesn’t know what happened to him.  This void is huge and hard to fill, but he’s also impacted by the silence of his father, a Vietnam veteran forever changed by a horrifying war and other deeply felt losses.  Dante’s family is different, it is affectionate physically and emotionally, and his parents are well-educated intellectuals.  But there are secrets here too, secrets held close by Dante, who only wants to share them with someone who could understand — Ari.  Being 15, these are in between childhood and becoming men, and that is a tough time for any adolescent, but its even tougher when you are confused about who you are and who you want to be.  Dante and Ari’s friendship is far from easy, but the understand one another.

“‘Sometimes don’t you just want to stand up and yell out all the cuss words you’ve learned?’
‘Every day.’
‘Every day? You’re worse than me.’ He looked at the hail. ‘It’s like pissed off snow,’ he said.
That made me laugh.” (page 104)

Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe by Benjamin Alire Saenz is an award winning book for great reasons. It is never forced, it is as easy as a friendship between two boys can be, but it also tackles that harder issues that we as a society continue to struggle with. At its heart, it is a beautiful love story, one that will stay with readers long after turning the last page. Another contender for the Best of 2014 list.

***I want to thank Beth Kephart for her review of this book in August.  She always has the best recommendations.***

About the Author:

Benjamin Alire Sáenz is an award-winning American poet, novelist and writer of children’s books.  He was born at Old Picacho, New Mexico, the fourth of seven children, and was raised on a small farm near Mesilla, New Mexico. He graduated from Las Cruces High School in 1972. That fall, he entered St. Thomas Seminary in Denver, Colorado where he received a B.A. degree in Humanities and Philosophy in 1977. He studied Theology at the University of Louvain in Leuven, Belgium from 1977 to 1981. He was a priest for a few years in El Paso, Texas before leaving the order.

In 1985, he returned to school, and studied English and Creative Writing at the University of Texas at El Paso where he earned an M.A. degree in Creative Writing. He then spent a year at the University of Iowa as a PhD student in American Literature. A year later, he was awarded a Wallace E. Stegner fellowship. While at Stanford University under the guidance of Denise Levertov, he completed his first book of poems, Calendar of Dust, which won an American Book Award in 1992. He entered the Ph.D. program at Stanford and continued his studies for two more years. Before completing his Ph.D., he moved back to the border and began teaching at the University of Texas at El Paso in the bilingual MFA program.

76th book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.

The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel, Bret Witter

Source: Hachette Books
Hardcover, 473 pgs
On Amazon and on Kobo

The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter expertly combines the search for art with the internal mechanics of military operations.  These Monuments Men are struggling to justify their mission to their compatriots and superiors, even though they are given a mandate from the U.S. government, and they are forced to get creative as they are continually denied the resources they need to locate, transport, and protect the art they are searching for.  Stout at one point decides to place signs on monuments that will ensure they are not disturbed: “Danger — Mines!”  Through a series of chapters that not only delve into the fall of the Third Reich but also the confusion of orders from Adolf Hitler with regard to the Nero Decree, Edsel and Witter personalize the stories of these unassuming and dedicated men.

“But with that, the portrait was complete.  Balfour the British scholar.  Hancock the good-natured artist.  Rorimer the bulldog curator.  Posey the Alabama farmboy.  And, lurking somewhere in the back, dapper, pencil-mustached George Leslie Stout.” (page 58)

“This was not to say the job was easy: far from it.  The men had all realized that they really were on their own in the field.  There were no set procedures to follow; no proper chain of command; no right way of dealing with combat officers.  They had to feel each situation out; to improvise on an hourly basis; to find a way to finish a job that seemed more daunting every day.  They had no real authority, but served merely as advisors.”  (page 86)

These men are not only dedicated to their mission, but some are longing for home and the future they have dreamed about.  Like other soldiers in the war, their lives are at risk as the military meets sustained combat and pockets of resistance even as the Nazis retreat into the Alps.  Even after the art has been found and collected, it takes more than six years after the end of WWII before the art would be returned to the museums, owners, and countries from which they were taken.  In many cases, the success of the mission was aided by luck, infiltration of key French personnel, and the meticulous record-keeping skills of the Germans themselves.

“‘A number of our officers went up to see the camp,’ he wrote.  ‘I did not go, because much of my work depended on friendly relations with German civilians, and I feared that after seeing the horrors of the camp my own feelings toward even these innocent people would be affected. …'” (page 310)

The Monuments Men by Robert M. Edsel and Bret Witter brings to life a part of WWII history that had been buried and forgotten for far too many years, and it pays tribute to the modest and dedicated men who fought to preserve not only works of art but entire cultures in the face of great evil and destruction.  These men were hardly alone in their fight to save the art, but they continued to have the courage to push onward and achieve their goals in spite of the obstacles they faced.  As Jacques Jaujard, one of the integral players in France, said, “It matters little that you are afraid if you manage to hide it.  You are then at the edge of courage.”  Moreover, he said, “There are fights that you may lose without losing your honor; what makes you lose your honor is not to fight them.”

About the Authors:

Robert M. Edsel is the best-selling author of Saving Italy, The Monuments Men and Rescuing da Vinci and co-producer of the award-winning documentary film The Rape of Europa. Edsel is also the founder and president of the Monuments Men Foundation, a recipient of the National Humanities Medal, and a trustee at the National WWII Museum. After living in Florence for five years, he now resides in Dallas, Texas.

Bret Witter has co-authored eight New York Times bestsellers. His books have been translated into over thirty languages and sold over two million copies worldwide.
26th book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; (Set in Austria/Germany)
30th book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 293 pgs
On Amazon and on Kobo

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury, which I read as part of a read-a-long and for the RIP Challenge, is an odd little book about a strange carnival that enters a Midwestern town and silently creeps through the streets and feeds off of the people in that town.  Will and Jim are your typical boys, about 15-yrs-old, who look for fun and sometimes find it in the wrong places.  They stumble upon a lightning rod salesman who warns them of an upcoming, devastating storm — a storm that is likely to hit someone’s house and destroy it.  Is this foreshadowing of what is to come when the carnival arrives? Perhaps, but Bradbury’s prose is dense in places and cryptic, leaving many readers lost as to what is going on and which boy is which.  Perhaps the similarities are done on purpose to signify that it could have been any set of boys in the town targeted, but readers may want more to go on, a greater connection and an ability to differentiate between the two boys as the story moves forward.  Readers will get some of that when Will’s father enters the picture.

“Dad winked at Will.  Will winked back.  They stood now, a boy with corn-colored hair and a man with moon-white hair, a boy with summer-apple, a man with winter-apple face.”  (page 15)

“‘The library,’ said Will. ‘I’m even afraid of it, now.’  All the books, he thought, perched there, hundreds of years old, peeling skin, leaning on each other like ten million vultures.  Walk along the dark stacks and all the gold titles shine their eyes at you.  Between the old carnival, old library and his own father, everything old…well…” (pg. 188-9)

A lot of the fear permeating the pages is atmospheric from the dark carnival and its sinister cast of characters lurking in the dark, around corners, and popping up when least expected, but there also is a sense of psychological fear, particularly when it comes to the boys and those targeted by the carnival.  Despite the issues with the oddities in the prose and the dialogue, as well as the indistinguishable characteristics of the boys, this story is haunting in its use of spiritual lore and mythology, creating a deadly combination of foes who can be reborn and reconfigured.  There is a lack of detail about the boys’ relationships with their fathers and mothers, but it is the relationship between youth and old age that is the broader picture.

Something Wicked This Way Comes by Ray Bradbury is about a loss of innocence, the things we do as we age, the things we forget as we grow older and begin families of our own, and about the longing in us to recapture those carefree days and relationships.  What is the something wicked coming for you?  Only you can know the answer, and only you know how to fight it.

About the Author:

American novelist, short story writer, essayist, playwright, screenwriter and poet, was born August 22, 1920 in Waukegan, Illinois. He graduated from a Los Angeles high school in 1938. Although his formal education ended there, he became a “student of life,” selling newspapers on L.A. street corners from 1938 to 1942, spending his nights in the public library and his days at the typewriter. He became a full-time writer in 1943, and contributed numerous short stories to periodicals before publishing a collection of them, Dark Carnival, in 1947.

His reputation as a writer of courage and vision was established with the publication of The Martian Chronicles in 1950, which describes the first attempts of Earth people to conquer and colonize Mars, and the unintended consequences.

Deadline by Mira Grant

Source: Public Library
Paperback, 581 pgs
On Amazon and on Kobo

Deadline by Mira Grant is the second in the NewsFlesh series; see my review of Feed and be aware that could be spoilers in this review.  Following the presidential campaign of Peter Ryman, the news blog After the End Times has grown exponentially, and Shaun Mason hardly keeps track of the day to day administration of the site or who actually works for the business.  He’s still in mourning, but he knows that he has a team to lead, and he does it as best he can, while being mentally haunted by the dead.  No longer an Irwin who pokes zombies for ratings, Shaun has jumped to lead the Newsies and has no desire to return to the field.  Unfortunately, stumbling upon a larger-than-life conspiracy significantly changes his plans to hide in the background, pushing him and his team out into the field and on the run.

“‘Mahir, my main man! You sound a little harried.  Did I wake you?’
‘No, but I really do wish you’d stop calling so late at night.  You know Nandini gets upset when you do.’
‘There you go again, assuming that I’m not actually trying to piss of your wife.  I’m really a much nicer person inside your head, aren’t I? Do I give money to charity and help old-lady zombies across streets so that they can bite babies?’
Mahir sighed.  ‘My, you are in a mood today, aren’t you?'” (page 25)

Combining zombie infestations, anxiety, and conspiracy theories with humor, Mira Grant has built a world in which bloggers have replaced traditional news mediums and surviving zombie infestations is an everyday battle.  Kellis-Amberlee is the result of two bio-engineered viruses combining into something unexpected, and it it causes amplification in any mammal of 40 lbs or more to transform them into zombies.  Shaun and his team report on infestations, outbreaks, and other newsworthy items, as well as post fiction poems, stories, etc. on zombies and other things in their lives.  Generating ratings is a tough business following a successful president election.  Grant includes enough background in her second novel that it could be picked up without reading the first, but there could have been additional editing, as there was too much backstory included from the previous novel.

Deadline by Mira Grant is a fun romp in zombie infested waters, and will be a delight for those who love novels with government conspiracies.  While there is little that is resolved in this book, as there is a third book in the series, there is enough here to whet readers’ appetites for more.  Grant’s world is a unique post-apocalyptic rendering in which not only is surviving essential, but the world has irrecoverably changed from politics and media to how families cope and communities interact.

About the Author:

Born and raised in Northern California, Mira Grant has made a lifelong study of horror movies, horrible viruses, and the inevitable threat of the living dead. In college, she was voted Most Likely to Summon Something Horrible in the Cornfield, and was a founding member of the Horror Movie Sleep-Away Survival Camp, where her record for time survived in the Swamp Cannibals scenario remains unchallenged.

Mira lives in a crumbling farmhouse with an assortment of cats, horror movies, comics, and books about horrible diseases. When not writing, she splits her time between travel, auditing college virology courses, and watching more horror movies than is strictly good for you. Favorite vacation spots include Seattle, London, and a large haunted corn maze just outside of Huntsville, Alabama.

Mira sleeps with a machete under her bed, and highly suggests that you do the same.

Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them by Isaac Fitzgerald, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton

Source: Public Library
Hardcover, 144 pgs
On Amazon and on Kobo

Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them by Isaac Fitzgerald, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton and introduction by Cheryl Strayed, is fantastic for those who are interested in not only body art but personal stories.  Some of the stories behind the tattoos illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton are silly, while others are sad and some are inspiring.  The illustrations are colorful and fantastic, though readers may almost prefer to see photos of the stunning art work of the tattoos.  But that’s a minor complaint given the personal stories behind the tattoos.  It is not just that the tattoos tell a story but that these tattoos contain memories for their bearers.

Isaac Fitzgerald says in the preface, “My tales of driving trucks through small Massachusetts towns, drunk and with no license, made me who I was.  I learned that people define you by your stories.”  And in many ways, it is not just your stories that others use to define you, but it is also how you define yourself.  Tattoos are an expression of those stories and those memories you hold dear and choose to share, and those tattoos and memories also can define you.

From the introduction by Cheryl Strayed, “Each of the stories is like being let in on sixty-three secrets by sixty-three strangers who passed you on the street or sat across from you on the train.  They’re raw and real and funny and sweet.  They speak of lives you’ll never live and experiences you know precisely.  Together, they do the work of great literature — gathering a force so true they ultimately tell a story that includes us all.”

Pen & Ink: Tattoos and the Stories Behind Them by Isaac Fitzgerald, illustrated by Wendy MacNaughton and introduction by Cheryl Strayed, could become a series of books with other tattooed professionals, students, and non-professionals that provide a look into not only the variety of people who get tattoos but the various reasons that people get tattoos.  How these individuals feel about their tattoos now is irrelevant to why they were added to their bodies in the first place — whether a tribute to a loved one or a passion for an unwritten future.

About the Author:

Isaac Fitzgerald has been a firefighter, worked on a boat, and been given a sword by a king, thereby accomplishing three out of five of his childhood goals. He is co-founder of Pen & Ink, co-owner of The Rumpus, and the editor at BuzzFeed Books.

About the Illustrator:

Wendy MacNaughton is an illustrator and a graphic journalist based in San Francisco. Her documentary series Meanwhile tells the stories of communities through drawings and the subject’s own words, and is being published as an anthology by Chronicle Books in 2014. She’s illustrated two other forthcoming books: Lost Cat: A True Story of Love, Desperation, and GPS Technology, by Caroline Paul and Wendy MacNaughton (Bloomsbury, 2013) and The Essential Scratch & Sniff Guide to Wine, by Richard Betts (Houghton Mifflin, 2013).

She has degrees in fine art/advertising and social work from Art Center College of Design and Columbia University. When they let her, she likes to talk with students at Art Center College of Design, and she is an artist in residence at Intersection for the Arts.

About the Introduction Writer:

Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, will be published by Knopf in March 2012. It will also be published in Brazil, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and Italy. Her novel, Torch (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) was a finalist for the Great Lakes Book Award and was selected by The Oregonian as one of the top ten books of the year by writers from the Pacific Northwest. Strayed’s writing has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post Magazine, Allure, Self, The Missouri Review, Brain, Child, The Rumpus, The Sun and elsewhere. The winner of a Pushcart Prize as well as fellowships to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, her essays and stories have been published in The Best American Essays, The Best New American Voices, and other anthologies. She holds an MFA in fiction writing from Syracuse University and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota. She’s a founding member of VIDA: Women In Literary Arts, and serves on their board of directors. Raised in Minnesota, Strayed now lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband, the filmmaker Brian Lindstrom, and their two children.

74th book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Source: Public Library
Audiobook, 11+ hours
On Amazon and on Kobo

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson, narrated by Orlagh Cassidy, chronicles the disjointed life of a woman who has lost her memory in an accident.  Each night, while she is sleeping, she loses all her memories of her present and past.  She remembers her life up until about her 20s, but only the journal she keeps helps her remain grounded in the life and the husband she no longer recognizes.  This is a fast-paced debut novel that examines the role that memory plays in how we identify ourselves and our own happiness.  Christine Lucas is a writer who is struggling each day to remember her life before an accident wiped out her memories, an accident she doesn’t even remember.  As she begins keeping a secret journal and meeting with Dr. Nash to try some treatments to regain her memory, dark secrets about her life, her past, and her current situation bubble to the surface.

Watson has carefully crafted a character adrift in her own life, and while some of the details are needlessly repeated as she wakes from sleep each morning and struggles to remember her life, readers are swept up in this mystery.  As the book is told from Christine’s point of view, the reader has only her knowledge to draw conclusions from, and this can be frustrating.  While the cues are there to unravel the mystery beforehand, readers will likely enjoy this crazy journey as well as become frustrated with the main character’s stupid decisions from time to time.  There are times when reading the journal should have taken much more time than it seems to, which would have left her little time to do much else in a day, especially for someone who wakes up with a blank slate every morning.

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson, which was out October book club selection, was an interesting debut, and it did mirror the feel of the movie Memento, but the ending was disappointing and some parts in the middle dragged a bit.  While this is fast-paced toward the end when everything starts to fall in place, there could have been further editing in the middle that would have tightened this up more and made it even more thrilling.

A note about the narrator, her voice really grated on my for some reason and she seemed to lose the tone when speaking as a male character, slipping back into Christine’s voice, which made it hard for me to follow along at certain points.

About the Author:

S J Watson was born in the UK, lives in London and worked in the NHS for a number of years.  In 2011 Watson’s debut novel, Before I Go to Sleep, was released to critical acclaim. It has now been published in over 40 languages, and has become an international bestseller, winning numerous awards.   The movie of Before I Go To Sleep, starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong, is due for worldwide release in Autumn 2014. Watson’s second book is out in Spring 2015.

What Book Club Thought (Beware of spoilers):

Most of the book club felt that this was a quick and entertaining read, even though many of us didn’t think the mystery was much of one.  The writing was well done for the most part, and with it being made into a movie a few people expressed interest in seeing it, either on video or on Netflix, etc. I personally thought a better twist would have been to have Dr. Nash be her son. While one person couldn’t even get into the book at all.  There was quite a bit of repetition, which may have grated on people early on, but when a main character has no ability to make new memories, they tend to repeat things.

73rd book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.

By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review by Pamela Paul

Source: Henry Holt & Company
Hardcover, 336 pgs
On Amazon and on Kobo

By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review edited by Pamela Paul, foreword by Scott Turow, is a collection of question-and-answers from The New York Times Book Review with authors, scientists, and more.  Some of these questions stay the same, like what their favorite books are, what genres are their guilty pleasures, and what books disappointed them.  Any book lover who does or does not read the Book Review (though why wouldn’t you) will want this book to get the inside scoop on writers and their writing and reading lives.

Pamela Paul knows just what questions other readers want answered from their favorite authors, and she knows that starting conversations about what people are reading can lead to some in-depth and interesting questions — even philosophical ones.  “Asking someone what she’s read lately is an easy conversational gambit … It also serves an actual purpose: we may find out about something we want to read ourselves,” Pamela Paul says in the introduction.

As Turow says in his foreword, “whether a given writer likes or abhors a given book, all writers probably would concede that … they are who they are because of every one of the books with which they’ve ‘stoofed’ themselves during their lifetimes.”  Book lovers of all ages will love this compilation because they will find something else to read, increase the size of their stacks, and experience the deep appreciation writers and artists have for one another and their work.

By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from The New York Times Book Review edited by Pamela Paul, foreword by Scott Turow, is a fantastic compilation of interviews.  Some interviews are humorous, while others are more serious.  The book itself is likely to garner The New York Times Book Review a few more subscribers.

About the Author:

Pamela Paul is the editor of The New York Times Book Review and the author of Parenting, Inc., Pornified, and The Starter Marriage and the Future of Matrimony. Prior to joining the Times, Paul was a contributor to Time magazine and The Economist, and her work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Washington Post, and Vogue. She and her family live in New York.  Visit her website and her on Twitter.

72nd book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.

Land of Dreams by Kate Kerrigan

tlc tour host

Source: William Morrow and TLC Book Tours
Paperback, 336 pages
On Amazon and on Kobo

Land of Dreams by Kate Kerrigan, the third book in the Ellis Island trilogy (Ellis Island and City of Hope), could be read alone as Kerrigan provides enough background on Ellie Hogan that new readers could pick this one up without a problem, but readers may find a richer reading experience when they read all three.

(If you haven’t read the other 2 books, this review could contain spoilers for those books)

Ellie Hogan has come into her own as a wife, mother, and artist, only to have her life disrupted when her oldest adopted son Leo runs away from his upstate New York boarding school.  Ellie is a first generation Irish immigrant who has lost a lot to the Irish war against the English, but she’s also gained a sense of purpose in America, learning to make her own way.  Her artist’s life is very isolated on Fire Island, and with her son, Tom, she has a quiet existence among the people who have become like family.  But when her son, Leo, runs away to Hollywood, she has to make a choice — send the police or go after him herself.  Making her away across the United States, Ellie tries to keep her fears at bay while being thankful that her youngest son is in the care of good friends while she makes the journey.  Along the way, she meets Stan, a composer who escaped from Poland before the Nazis took over.

“Yet surely the desire for fame was not so different from the desire to be loved, and everyone in the world wants to be loved.  The desire for fame and love is born from a deep human need to be seen, and I felt as if I could really see this young woman now, beyond the mules and the dye and her ridiculous ideas and affectations.  So I started to draw her.”  (pg. 122)

Ellie may have been a quintessential landscape painter with her own signature for delivering paintings to her clients, but in Los Angeles, she’s a mother in search of a star-struck son.  She must decide whether at 16 he should pursue his dream or return to New York and school, and it is a tough decision for any mother with a son who has finally found something to be passionate about.  Ellie’s experiences in a restrictive Catholic home in Ireland inform her ultimate decisions, as she decides that she would rather be more open-minded than her parents had been with her.  Kerrigan easily tackles the ideas of nature versus nurture in Ellie’s parenting, touches upon the seedier side of Hollywood — though not as much as some readers would expect — and incorporates significant details about World War II and the internment of Japanese-Americans.

Land of Dreams by Kate Kerrigan is a satisfying conclusion to this trilogy about seeking out a home and family, but also stability.  But it is also about the realization of dreams across generations and having the gumption to take the leap.  While everything is not as it appears in Hollywood, the facades of the city also mirror those of Ellie’s own adopted country — a land of freedom and opportunity that still oppresses certain minorities and immigrants seeking a better life.

About the Author:

Kate Kerrigan is the author of three previous novels. She lives in Ireland with her husband and their two sons.  Visit Kate’s website at www.katekerrigan.ie and follow her on Twitter: @katekerrigan.



35th book for 2014 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.





29th book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.




4th Book for the Ireland Reading Challenge 2014.

Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming

Source: Dey St. and William Morrow
Hardcover, 304 pgs
On Amazon and on Kobo

Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming is one of the most honest, heartfelt, and engaging memoirs out there.  Cumming is the son of a Scottish family, and his father was verbally and physically abusive, but that’s just part of this story.  Despite the abuse, Cumming had dreams, dreams that he ultimately hoped to achieve and did, even if they just began as fantasies of escape.  As a young boy, he was given impossible tasks by his father on a Scottish estate where they lived as caretakers, and really they were given so that he could fail and be the subject of his own father’s wrath. His escape from that life was acting and school, but he was careful after several early incidents to never show too much passion or love for anything because his father would take it away.  Although his relationship with his father shaped some of his anxieties that he took with him later in life, it is his relationship with his mother that solidified his confidence in becoming the talented actor he is today.

“You see, I understood my father.  I had learned from a very young age to interpret the tone of every word he uttered, his body language, the energy he brought into a room.  It has not been pleasant as an adult to realize that dealing with my father’s violence was the beginning of my studies of acting.”  (page 4 ARC)

Parallels between Cumming’s past and that of his mother’s father, the grandfather he never knew, are drawn easily in his mind and throughout the memoir after he agrees to uncover the truth about his grandfather’s death in Malaysia sometime after WWII.  Like his mother, Cumming did not have a real relationship with his father, but unlike his mother, his father lived with him for most of his life until he left for Glasgow for acting school.  Shifting between past and present in his own life, Cumming also examines his relationship to his deceased grandfather and how memory is subjective and that most people remember in an emotional way.

Not My Father’s Son by Alan Cumming is not about how his father drops a bombshell on him that he is not his son.  The memoir is about how Cumming is his own man and nothing like the abusive, angry father he had, and in many ways how he is more like the grandfather he never met.  This is a contender for the Best of list this year because it is told with such honesty, self-reflection, and humor that readers will not be able to avoid examining their own lives and familial relationships.

About the Author:

Alan Cumming is an award-winning actor, singer, writer, producer and director. He recently starred in an acclaimed one-man staging of Macbeth on Broadway, and appears on the Emmy Award-winning television show The Good Wife. He won a Tony Award for his portrayal of the Emcee in the Broadway musical Cabaret, a role he is reprising in 2014.  He hosts PBS Masterpiece Mystery and has appeared in numerous films, including Spy KidsTitusX2: X-Men UnitedThe Anniversary PartyAny Day Now and Eyes Wide Shut.  Photo by Ricardo Horatio Nelson.

25th book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; (Set in Scotland and England)





71st book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.

War in the Balkans: The Battle for Greece and Crete 1940-1941 by Jeffrey Plowman

Source: Pen & Sword Books
Paperback, 160 pgs
I am an Amazon Affiliate

War in the Balkans: The Battle for Greece and Crete 1940-1941 by Jeffrey Plowman is a photographic history of the year in which the Balkans became the battleground for the Nazi’s in World War II as it worked with Italy and sought to advance on Russia.  Plowman is very detailed in troop movements and the artillery used, but the pictures were more helpful in ascertaining what tanks, bombers, etc., he was talking about.  Most of the book is photographs that were not been used previously or published before, and the text is a backdrop to these photos.  Plowman clearly has done his research as he follows the accumulation of weapons as they prepare for war, and the unexpected strength of the forces the Nazi’s encountered, even when they were outnumbered.

“This led Britain to discuss the possibility of a coordinated defense of Crete but the Greeks would not allow any landings on their soil without a declaration of war.  Nor did the Italians have much luck either in their discussions with Germany.  When they sought German support for an attack on Jugoslavia, Adolf Hitler was adamant that he did not want to see the war spread to the Balkans.”  (page 11)

There were a high number of casualties in this battle for Greece and Crete, and those were accounted for by nationality — British, Australian, etc. — in the epilogue.  The stance of the major leaders of these governments shifted over time as it looked like the British would enter the war and the Nazis could face harsher opposition than from those of smaller nations’ armies.  This is a book that would be best read over a longer period, with readers taking in small amounts each time.  War in the Balkans: The Battle for Greece and Crete 1940-1941 by Jeffrey Plowman is a fascinating look at one series of battles in WWII, and the pictures flesh out his text well.

24th book for 2014 European Reading Challenge; (Set in Greece and Crete)





28th book (WWII) for the 2014 War Challenge With a Twist.





70th book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.

The Lollipop Monster’s Christmas by Eric T. Krackow, illustrated by Heather Krackow

Source: Schiffer Publishing
Hardcover, 64 pgs
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The Lollipop Monster’s Christmas by Eric T. Krackow, illustrated by Heather Krackow, is a children’s story about the meaning of Christmas through engaging colored pencil drawings.  Reading this together, my daughter and I talked about the presents the monsters receive from one another, the cocoa they drank, and how they opened their hearts and home to a monster who was spending the holiday alone in the woods.  Larry’s favorite holiday is Christmas, not because of the gifts, but because he can spend quality and fun time with his friends.

At 64 pages, this was a little long for a young toddler, but she did take to heart what we discussed as Larry made the monster at home in his house and among his other friends.  She learned that holidays — and generally, most ever day — should be about spending time with friends and family and enjoying one another.  The text was not too much for her per page, which was nice, and the illustrations were colorful, but not overly vivid.

The Lollipop Monster’s Christmas by Eric T. Krackow, illustrated by Heather Krackow, is an engaging story, though we would have liked it a little bit shorter.  Otherwise, the story has a good message for young kids learning about the holidays and what is truly meaningful about spending time with family and friends.

69th book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.

Children’s Activity Atlas by Jenny Slater, illustrated by Katrin Wiehle and Martin Sanders

Source: Sterling’s Children’s Books
Hardcover, 31 pgs
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Children’s Activity Atlas by Jenny Slater, illustrated by Katrin Wiehle and Martin Sanders from Sterling Children’s Books, is chock full of information about landscapes, national flags, and industry.  This volume focuses mainly on the large continents, and each region is depicted over a two-page spread, complete with mountains, lakes, rivers, and topography like desert and grasslands, etc.  The book comes with a passport that kids can use to answer questions about specific items on the regional maps using the map key and once those questions are completed, the kids can place their seal on the passport page.

Each page is colorfully illustrated, includes local industry and culture on each nation, as well as a key to the land and other facts about those nations.  The back pages have stickers for the individual flags of each nation, which kids can add to each map and stickers for a variety of industries, animals, and local sites.  My daughter and I have started doing a region every few days and placing the stickers and answering the questions, but we’re also talking about what I learned about those nations and where I’d like to visit someday.  She points to things that interest her on the map and we make sure that we fill out the passport together where the questions are and affix her seal when she’s done.  Rather than be a one-time use atlas, this book contains information that can be referred to again and again, and there are postcards included for kids to share with family and friends.

Children’s Activity Atlas by Jenny Slater, illustrated by Katrin Wiehle and Martin Sanders from Sterling Children’s Books, is an interactive look at other countries and regions that kids and parents can use together to discuss different cultures, topography, and industries, etc.  My daughter gets excited when I ask if she wants to bring out the atlas and check out some other countries and regions.  I would recommend this for parents with toddlers eager to learn and interact, as well as older kids who are in school.

68th book for 2014 New Author Reading Challenge.