Monday, July 29, 2013

Review: Hostage Three

Title: Hostage Three
Author: Nick Lake
Description: Amy and her wealthy parents are on a yacht trip around the world when they are captured by Somalian pirates and held for ransom. During the time they spend with their captors, eighteen year old Amy gets to know them as people, especially one who she might be falling for.  
Review source: ALA (and signed by the author, see photo below)
Plot: This book is very different from the first book I read by Lake, In Darkness, which is about Haiti. They do share an interest in Third World countries and how people act when they are desperate. It was a bit of a stretch for me, though, to imagine spoiled Amy falling for a Somali thug.
Characters: Amy is fairly unlikeable. For an almost-adult, she acts spoiled and spiteful for most of the book. I would have liked to see a change in her behavior earlier, though it does eventually come, I think. Lake does a marvelous job portraying the pirates. He humanizes them, but at the same time, their desperation makes them very scary.
Writing style: Very similar to the earlier book, which I loved. This one lacks the historical parallel story, though, and is told through Amy’s eyes.
Audience: It’s a young adult book, but it’s deep enough that adults will get something from it. I think that because of the love story, this one is more restricted to young people and less universal than In Darkness.

Wrap-up: Lake is just a very talented, very versatile young writer. Read something he’s written! 4/5*

Sunday, July 28, 2013

Review: Iron House

Author: John Hart
Title: Iron House
Description: Michael’s girlfriend Elena is pregnant, so he decides to leave the life he’s been living, that of a Mafia hitman. Not surprisingly, the Mafia isn’t crazy about this decision and decides to go after Michael using his younger brother Julian as bait. Michael and Julian spent most of their childhood in a horrid orphanage called Iron House, and it seems that this past is coming back to haunt them both.  
Review source: ALA
Plot: If you can’t tell from the description, this is a thriller, one of my not-so-favorite genres, but I really liked this one. There were enough separate plot threads to always keep me guessing about where Hart was heading next.
Characters: Michael was an interesting guy—a cold-blooded killer who becomes a hero. Elena wasn’t just a helpless victim.  Julian’s adoptive mother, Abigail, is also an interesting character.
Writing style: Pretty typical thriller I guess. There was one section that was quite graphically violent.
Audience: Thriller and mystery readers (Hart has at least two Edgar awards).

Wrap-up: After about midway through, I couldn’t let this one go. 4/5*

Saturday, July 27, 2013

Review: Transforming Information Literacy Programs

Author: Carroll Wetzel Wilkinson and Courtney Bruch

Title: Transforming Information Literacy Programs:  Intersecting Frontiers of Self, Library Cultures, and Campus Community
Description: This is a collection of essays on information literacy and its place in the academic library and within higher education. Rather than more tips and tricks on classroom management with the one-shot, these essays deal with the success in general of information literacy programs, librarians as teachers, and assessment issues, among other topics.   
Audience: Academic librarians and others interested in the teaching of information literacy as an academic skill.
Major ideas: Information literacy, despite its importance, is still struggling to make headway on many campuses. Library/librarian/administrative ambivalence and lack of faculty buy-in are a couple of reasons for the lack of success, as well as the difficulties inherent in assessment of these programs.

Wrap-up: This is probably the best book I’ve read on information literacy in the academic library setting. I really liked the focus on theory and research (rather than lore or local experience), and also the emphasis given to the big picture of information literacy programs. 4/5*

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Review: The Heart of Memory

Author: Alison Strobel
Title: The Heart of Memory
Description: Savannah Trover is a popular and well-known Bible teacher whose husband runs her ministry, but her personal life has been put on the back burner while she grew her career. When she becomes seriously ill, she is forced to slow down and realize that her daughter is alienated from her and her husband is hiding something pretty serious. On top of all that, she’s facing life-threatening illness. Savannah’s encounter with illness and the struggles it brings to her and her family are at the heart of this book.  
Review source:  Free for kindle
Plot: This was one of the better free books I’ve received on kindle. I was always interested in what was going to happen next, and Strobel doesn’t settle for easy answers.
Characters: Savannah is pretty irritating as a main character. She’s completely self-centered (well, her whole family is), and I don’t believe she does anything kind for anyone until maybe the last chapter or two.
Writing style: The pluses on this book: interesting story line and ability to resist the temptation to take the easy way out (Christian fiction-ly speaking).
Audience: I’d call it Christian women’s fiction.

Wrap-up : It was a good enough read that I’d recommend it to non-Christian readers as well, just because Savannah goes through so much in coming to grips with her illness. It would probably be helpful for anyone dealing with a serious chronic condition. I liked it. 4/5*

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Review: FabYOUList

Title:  FabYOUList: List it, live it, love your life
Description: Cross was about to turn forty and was feeling a little unfulfilled, so she made a list of forty things she wanted to accomplish before then. One of them was to write a book—this book, as it turns out, which describes each of the goals and how she accomplished it.   
Source: Library Thing Early Reviewers
Writing style: Cross appears to have began her writing career as a blogger, and the style is very much a blogging style. She combines a little bit of humor with a didactic “you can do this too” kind of vibe.
Audience: Women.
Major ideas: Cross changed her life by doing these forty things (for example, ziplining, acting, camping with her kids, sunbathing nude, etc.), and she thinks that everyone has the same opportunity.

Wrap-up: I had mixed feelings about this book. A lot of it comes across as a bit superior/preachy. Some of her stories are interesting, but others are not. The idea of a bucket list isn’t new (I know, this isn’t technically a bucket list, but close enough), so I don’t think it’s revolutionary for someone to encourage people to have a bucket list and try to fulfill it. The stories of how it was done are what make this book unusual. By the way, if you would like to do this yourself, here's a great website!  I also recommend Twenty Wishes by Debbie Macomber—a book on the same topic although it’s fiction. 2.5/5*

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Review: Coursera

                This summer I signed up for three MOOC’s (Massive Open Online Courses) through Coursera. Mostly this was because those of us who work in higher education keep hearing that the MOOC’s are our competition, so I was sizing it up. The courses I signed up for, though, were courses I was very interested in. So how did they go?
                First, a little bit about Coursera. Coursera is probably the best-known of the large MOOC-offering companies, and there seemed to be hundreds of courses for me to choose from. There were basically three ways to “take” a course: I could just hang out and do what I wanted; listen to as many lectures, do as many assignments, etc. This would be free. Or, I could attempt to earn a “certificate.” The certificate option requires the student to complete certain specific requirements which differed from class to class. I chose this option because I tend to be an achiever. For both of the courses I completed, I did receive the certificate, in spite of five weeks of travel during the time I was taking them. The third option is something called “Signature Track.” I didn’t investigate this one too much, but I think it involves getting something more like real college credit, but it involves some kind of cost.
                OK, the classes. I’ll start with the last one. I signed up for a course called History of Rock Part II. Once it started, I realized that the lecturer was (sorry) really boring. He basically just named the members of different rock bands. They couldn’t actually play any music during the class time/lectures because of the copyright issues. I did go to youtube and play some of the songs he mentioned, but that didn’t seem to add much, since the professor just (again) named songs rather than doing any in-depth analysis of them. I listened to the first three lectures and decided to cut my losses at that point.
                So now on to the two classes I liked and completed. First, a little about the mechanics of Coursera. The lectures are all on video. One of my classmates in the first course mentioned software he had developed for use with the lectures called It plays the lecture on the left side of the screen and allows you to take notes on the right side of the screen and coordinates the notes with the lectures. I got addicted to this software and used it for every lecture in both courses. It was a godsend.
                The courses are primarily built around these lectures. In order to get the certificate, both courses required me to take weekly quizzes over lecture and reading material and earn a certain score (80% in one class; 60% in another). Both classes also required written assignments. One required one 3-5 page paper, and the other required 6 2-3 page papers. In both classes, the assignments were scored by 5 other students in the class (and I would have to score 5 other students for each assignment). As you can see here, the requirements varied fairly widely, as did the amount of time spent on lectures and outside reading.
                The first course I took was on Greek and Roman Mythology, taught by Professor Peter Struck from the University of Pennsylvania. It was a 10 week course that required us to completely read the Odyssey, Hesiod’s Theogony, three tragedies, and about half of the Aeneid. There were usually about ten lectures per week, each 12-20 minutes long. Professor Struck was a great lecturer, and the course was definitely college level (my paper was on the Freudian implications of the Bacchae). I loved this class, took the lectures with me on a cruise, and thoroughly enjoyed the whole thing—and learned a lot!
                The second course, which will finish up next week, is an 8-week course called Archaeology’s Dirty Little Secrets. This class is no less fascinating than the mythology course, but it’s less “serious.” I don’t mean that it’s on a lower level educationally, but it has less serious reading and fewer lectures. On the other hand, it makes better use of the online format, I think. It has other videos besides the lectures: demonstrations of archaeological techniques and conversations with field archaeologists. This class has assignments every week, but they are shorter and more fun than the mythology assignment. The class is taught by Professor Susan Alcock of Brown University and many guest helpers. This class only has one or two lectures per week, but it always features several demonstration videos. Each week also has four interviews with archaeologists working in Abydos, Egypt, Montserrat, Petra, and the Mayan site of El Zotz. The assignments are the best part of this class. We’ve had a chance to do archaeological speculating from Google Earth, create online 3D models of artifacts, and analyze our own garbage.

                I loved these courses and intend to continue to take Coursera courses whenever I have time. I didn’t do much on the forums, which were optional in both classes, but they appeared to be active. They do take a good amount of time if you want to get the certificate. I would estimate that I spent 3-4 hours per week on each one, more if you count the reading for the mythology class. I don’t know that they are threats to my "real job" yet, though. They seem to serve a different purpose. They were also much easier than a standard college course, so I don’t know that I would take it too seriously if someone came to me wanting to receive “real” college credit for one of these courses. I did learn a lot and have fun in both of them, though, and I’m appreciative to Coursera for making this kind of learning available! Both courses: 5/5*

Friday, July 19, 2013

Review: Insatiable

Author: Meg Cabot

Title: Insatiable
Description: Meena knows how people will die just by meeting their eyes. She’s puzzled when she meets Lucien and does not know how he will die. Other odd things start to happen, and soon it becomes clear that Lucien has no death in his future because he is one of the undead. Meanwhile, the two fall in love. Lucien is being pursued both by rogue vampires and by a secret Vatican task force that kills vampires and that covets Meena as a potential operative.
Review source: RWA
Plot: The overly involved plot makes it clear that sequels will be forthcoming.
Characters: Meena is immature and materialistic. Lucien is too fatherly (after all, he is hundreds of years older than she is). Secondary characters are interesting, though.
Writing style: Cabot is famous for her YA books (Princess Diaries) and this book reads very much like a YA. I suppose it might be a part of the new genre of New Adult literature, though I don’t recall it being marketed that way.
Audience: YA and young adults. It’s sort of a Twilight rip-off, except one leg of the triangle is human.

Wrap-up: Meena’s special talent of knowing how someone will die is much more interesting than a girl falling in love with a vampire. I wish the book had been about that. 3/5* (There is at least one sequel; I won’t be reading it). 

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Review: Persepolis

Title: Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood
Description: A graphic memoir (graphic as in like a comic book) about a girl growing up during the Iranian Revolution.
Writing style: The graphic novel style allows the words to be understated because the pictures can show emotion.
Audience: Everyone should read this. Because it’s about a young girl, it’s appropriate for students from about ninth grade on.
Major ideas: Satrapi wanted to let the rest of the world know that what happened in Iran was more complex than the version that made it to the West. There wasn’t a simple good guys vs. bad guys conflict; good guys became bad guys, victims became oppressors, and you never knew when your number would be up.

Wrap-up: This book has been widely acclaimed and used for lots of first year reads and One Reads, and with good reason. It’s easy, it’s quick to read, and it tells a story that most people don’t know. It's also been made into a critically acclaimed movie. 5/5* 

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Review: Sideways on a Scooter

Author: Miranda Kennedy
Title: Sideways on a Scooter: Life and Love in India
Description: Miranda Kennedy moved to India to accommodate her job as an Asian-affairs reporter. This book is about her time living among the Indians. It’s about how they view foreigners, especially foreign women, and especially single foreign women (Kennedy had to make up a mythical husband just to get an apartment). It’s also about the condition of women in India in general. Kennedy’s servants, one a Brahmin and one a dalit, and Kennedy’s two closest Indian friends come in for scrutiny.
Writing style: Kennedy is honest about her own feelings and shortcomings, and especially about her trepidations as a single woman living in a foreign country. She is also compassionate as she tries to understand lives that are so different from hers.
Audience: One of my absolute favorite non-fiction genres is Americans living in foreign countries, so people who share that with me will love this book. In general , it’s a great travel memoir.
Major ideas: India is a really foreign place for Americans, especially when it comes to relations between the sexes. This book was written before the horrific rape case of this past year, but that situation was constantly on my mind as I read.

Wrap-up: I loved this book and highly recommend it. 4/5*

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Review: Goodnight Tweetheart

Title: Goodnight, Tweetheart
Description: Despite a brilliantly written first novel, Abby Donovan’s writing career is on the skids, and her agent prescribes a healthy dose of social media, so Abby lands on Twitter without a clue what she’s doing. English professor Mark Baynard offers to show her the ropes, so to speak, and the two strike up a flirtatious twitter relationship. The novel is written mostly in tweets.
Plot: I’ve got a weakness for epistolary novels, which is basically what this is. There’s a big plot twist at the end that I didn’t see coming, though that’s probably because I was reading so fast (this is one of those quick beach-read type books).
Characters: Both Abby and Mark have difficulties to overcome, but their friendship comes across as genuine.
Writing style: The novel goes into “cutesy” a little too frequently for me. That’s always a danger when authors try to write “witty banter,” which, what else can you do in a novel based on Tweets?
Audience: It’s a romance.

Wrap-up: A fun summer read, just what I needed for a change. 4/5*

Monday, July 8, 2013

Review: Best of Creative Nonfiction, vol. 3

Author: Lee Gutkind, editor
Title: The Best of Creative Nonfiction vol. 3
Description: A collection of creative nonfiction.

Writing style: There were multiple memorable pieces in this collection, the kind that you just want to sit and think about for a while.
Audience: There’s probably something for everyone here.

Wrap-up: Well, all of my recent complaining about lack of continuity and collections, here’s one I really enjoyed. Gutkind really knows how to pick them! 4/5*

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Review: Trip of the Tongue

Author: Elizabeth Little

Title: Trip of the Tongue: Cross-Country Travels in Search of America’s Languages
Description: Little is a language buff who decided to tour the country to find out about non-English languages and their survival. She visits Gullah-speakers, Native Americans, Haitian creole speakers in Miami, and more.   
Writing style: There’s a lot going on here: the book is part travelogue, part ethnography, and part linguistic tome. Little is very educated about languages, so sometimes she gets a little too technical in discussing parts of speech, but overall, it’s very readable and entertaining.
Audience: I’d recommend it mostly to people who are interested in language, but it’s also a good travel narrative.
Major ideas: Little was mostly wondering about language loss: how many people are left that speak a non-English language as their primary language (or at least are bilingual in the home)? She learns that in certain conditions (let’s say Miami), it’s questionable whether language loss is even happening. And is it a good thing or a bad thing?

Wrap-up: I really liked this book; the variety of languages that still exists in the U.S. is pretty amazing and interesting. I hope that enough native speakers (and language acquirers) will remain that these languages don’t die out. 4/5*

Saturday, July 6, 2013

Review: Invisible

Author: Lorena McCourtney
Title: Invisible
Description: Widowed senior citizen Ivy Malone has a couple of problems: there’s vandalism going on at a country cemetery, and even worse, a young neighbor turns up murdered. Ivy can’t resist investigating both of these problems.
Review source: Free on Kindle
Plot: This is a pretty well-constructed mystery, though Ivy gets away with an awful lot of interfering in police investigations and does some pretty foolish things.
Characters: This is definitely a cozy. Ivy and her friends are senior aged. Since this is a Christian mystery, Ivy tries to live up to her faith, and this is portrayed pretty realistically.
Writing style: The book was well-written, with clues doled out regularly. 
Audience:  Elderly Christian ladies?

Wrap-up: This book is apparently part of a series, and while the mysteries in this book are wrapped up, Ivy is left with a death threat that presumably will come into play in a subsequent book in the series. 3/5*

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Review: La Brava

Author: Elmore Leonard
Title: La Brava
Description: Joe La Brava, ex Secret service agent, is now a photographer who hangs out in Miami with his buddy Maurice who owns a hotel there. When Maury’s old friend, film noir actress Jean Shaw gets into trouble, Joe and Maury help her out. Still beautiful, Jean was Joe’s first crush, and he discovers that she’s gotten involved with someone who’s not especially good for her.  
Plot: I’m not a typical reader of South Florida crime fiction, but this was a pretty good intro to that type of novel, I think. I think Leonard was aiming for a film noir feel, to echo Jean’s movies. There’s a complicated scheme, but who’s conning who?
Characters: Leonard has a gift for fleshing out characters, though most of them seem to be on the shady side.
Writing style: This was on one of my lists that I’m reading through or I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. It was slow to get into, but the second half read really quickly. I’m not going to rush out for another Leonard title, though.
Audience: Hard-boiled crime, South Florida style.

Wrap-up: Cleverly plotted, vivid characterization—worth a read. 3/5*