Friday, January 23, 2015

Comics Friday: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll

From Goodreads:
'It came from the woods. Most strange things do.'

Five mysterious, spine-tingling stories follow journeys into (and out of?) the eerie abyss.

These chilling tales spring from the macabre imagination of acclaimed and award-winning comic creator Emily Carroll.

Come take a walk in the woods and see what awaits you there...
I went into this one knowing nothing but that it was reviewed as a super creepy collection of dark fairy tale-type stories.  I love fairy tales, especially dark ones, and I love graphic novels, so this was a perfect combination.  I honestly didn't go in expecting to be creeped out because it's just drawings, right?  And they're done in the same style as the cover - largely simply silhouettes with a very basic color palette, so we're not talking about horrific or graphically violent images.  

I was completely delighted to discover that the reports of how creepy this book is are not exaggerated.  In fact, the simplicity of the drawings really added to the creep factor.  It reads really fast, of course, and I couldn't put it down.  I wanted to devour it slowly, but I just couldn't stop reading.

The artwork is absolutely stunning and the stories are delightfully scary.  I loved it and think it will have a great appeal for fans of spooky ghost stories and things that go bump in the night.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Audiobook Review: The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession by David Gann

From Goodreads:
Each of the dozen stories in this collection reveals a hidden and often dangerous world and, like Into Thin Air and The Orchid Thief, pivots around the gravitational pull of obsession and the captivating personalities of those caught in its grip. There is the world's foremost expert on Sherlock Holmes who is found dead in mysterious circumstances; an arson sleuth trying to prove that a man about to be executed is innocent; and sandhogs racing to complete the brutally dangerous job of building New York City's water tunnels before the old system collapses. Throughout, Grann's hypnotic accounts display the power--and often the willful perversity--of the human spirit. 
Another book written by a successful journalist that combines my favorite aspects of interesting stories and quality reporting.  Each of these essays concerns a certain type of obsession (although some are more successful at this than others - see below) and Gann has clearly and thoroughly researched each piece.  He presents each story in an unbiased manner, and includes lots of quotes from interviews conducted with those closest to each story.  A great combination of quality reporting and a style that keeps the reader interested.

Entertainment Value
For the most part, I thoroughly enjoyed listening to these essays.  There were a few, however, that I felt were really trying to fit with them theme of obsessions and not quite making it.  There were times when I felt like the author maybe didn't have quite enough material for an entire book and just grabbed whatever he had that loosely fit (most of the essays were published previously in various journals and magazines).  I have no problem with the essays being pulled from the author's previous writing, but some just didn't seem to fit at all.  My favorites were the ones that fit into the murder or madness categories.  Only a few didn't concern crime and those were the ones I felt the most jarred by.  They were interesting essays (a search for a giant squid or constructing tunnels under New York City), but I didn't feel like they connected well with the rest of the book.

As much as I enjoyed the essays, the narration left a fair amount to be desired.  I thought the reader was fairly monotone and, in the less interesting essays, verged on dull.  I'd probably recommend trying it in print instead of on audio.  That would also give you an easier way to skip past the essays that you may not enjoy as much.

I learned about this on Book Riot's list of books to read after listening to Serial and I think it fits into that category pretty well, particularly the first few chapters.  Again, I'd probably recommend it in print rather than on audio because I was fairly disappointed with the narration.  That said, if you're a fan of mysteries or true crime or intrigue this is a great book to check out.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Book Review: Pilgrim's Wilderness by Tom Kizzia

From Goodreads:
Into the Wild meets Helter Skelter in this riveting true story of a modern-day homesteading family in the deepest reaches of the Alaskan wilderness – and of the chilling secrets of its maniacal, spellbinding patriarch.

When Papa Pilgrim appeared in the Alaska frontier outpost of McCarthy with his wife and fifteen children in tow, his new neighbors had little idea of the trouble to come. The Pilgrim Family presented themselves as a shining example of the homespun Christian ideal, with their proud piety and beautiful old-timey music, but their true story ran dark and deep. Within weeks, Papa had bulldozed a road through the mountains to the new family home at an abandoned copper mine, sparking a tense confrontation with the National Park Service and forcing his ghost town neighbors to take sides in an ever-more volatile battle over where a citizen’s rights end and the government’s power begins.

In Pilgrim’s Wilderness, veteran Alaska journalist Tom Kizzia unfolds the remarkable, at times harrowing, story of a charismatic spinner of American myths who was not what he seemed, the townspeople caught in his thrall, and the family he brought to the brink of ruin. As Kizzia discovered, Papa Pilgrim was in fact the son of a rich Texas family with ties to Hoover’s FBI and strange, oblique connections to the Kennedy assassination and the movie stars of Easy Rider. And as his fight with the government in Alaska grew more intense, the turmoil in his brood made it increasingly difficult to tell whether his children were messianic followers or hostages in desperate need of rescue. In this powerful piece of Americana, written with uncommon grace and high drama, Kizzia uses his unparalleled access to capture an era-defining clash between environmentalists and pioneers ignited by a mesmerizing sociopath who held a town and a family captive.
I love a good solid piece of investigative journalism, and Kizzia has delivered exactly that in this book.  He's found an incredible story set in an absolutely stunning locale and populated with characters that are so bizarre you know they have to be real.   In addition to having a fascinating and disturbing true story to tell, Kizzia has obviously done his work researching the family and their history and presenting all possible sides and angles, including those that are difficult to read (he conducts multiple interviews with Papa Pilgrim that are just chilling).  I can't say enough great things about how well the story is presented and how thoroughly Kizzia has investigated every angle.

Entertainment Value
I should start by saying that there is a special love in my heart for stories about crazy cults and religious ideas as well as any book that claims to investigate the dark side of a particular group of people, so it's like this was written just for me.  It also came on the heels of my addiction to Serial and it scratched some of that same itch for just totally having my mind blown with craziness.  I devoured this in just two sittings because I was so intrigued about where it would go and what would happen next.  The fact that this is non-fiction just made it all the more intriguing.

This has some hard material, so readers should be aware that there are depictions of domestic abuse and sexual abuse, although none that are graphic.  That said, it's a gripping true story and I think it will appeal to fans of true crime, investigative reporting, or just straight up crazy business.  It'll also be appearing on my upcoming list of books for Serial fans to read.

Thanks to Blogging for Books for providing me with a copy!

Monday, January 19, 2015

Bookish Ephemera Review: Silhouette Masterpiece Theater Postcards by William Staehle

These two adorable postcard books arrived courtesy of Quirk Books and the Silhouette Masterpiece Theater.  Each book has thirty hilarious postcards around the themes of Americana and Romance.  Who doesn't need sarcastic postcards featuring our Founding Fathers?  I'm not even kidding, my main problem has been deciding who will appreciate each card the most - they are absolutely hilarious.  These are my favorites from each set, but you can click here to see the Silhouette Masterpiece Theater website and get an idea of the author/artist's work.   

I'm super excited about these and think you should be too - especially if you're a bookish friend whose mailing address I have!  I've got a stack to send out this week, when I can force myself to part with them.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Book Review: 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened In Benghazi by Mitchell Zuckoff

From Goodreads:
13 Hours presents, for the first time ever, the true account of the events of September 11, 2012, when terrorists attacked the US State Department Special Mission Compound and a nearby CIA station called the Annex in Benghazi, Libya. A team of six American security operators fought to repel the attackers and protect the Americans stationed there. Those men went beyond the call of duty, performing extraordinary acts of courage and heroism, to avert tragedy on a much larger scale. This is their personal account, never before told, of what happened during the thirteen hours of that now-infamous attack.
I have absolutely no complaints about the quality of writing.  It's ideal for those who, like me, are coming to the table with a blank slate.  I hate to admit it, but I do a terrible job of keeping up with current events and I feel like there's very little media that can be trusted.  I came to this book knowing that Benghazi was a controversy and nothing else.  I feel like this book was written for someone just like me.  Zuckoff provides enough background information for the average reader to understand the situation faced by the security operators in Benghazi and why the attacks occurred.  I also found the reporting of the event itself to be clear and concise and easy to follow.  In terms of an analysis of the situation, I was pleased to see that the author left that to others and focused only on the events that occurred and the heroism of the men who were involved.

Entertainment Value
I think this book has a great appeal to others like me who just want to know what happened, without a partisan skew either way.  It's written in an engaging voice and is accessible to the average reader, even one like me who came to the book with no prior knowledge.  While the author sticks to the facts, he presents the story in a way that is hot-stopping and had me on the edge of my seat.  I am still in awe of the bravery the American men showed and how they responded to an unexpected attack calmly and courageously.

I highly recommend it for anyone who wants to be more knowledgeable about the attack itself and why it occurred.  I think it will also appeal to fans of spy/espionage thrillers and those who enjoy heroic accounts of bravery along the lines of Unbreakable or Flags of Our Fathers.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Book Review: Hell-Bent by Benjamin Lorr

From Goodreads:
Hell-Bent explores a fascinating, often surreal world at the extremes of American yoga. Benjamin Lorr walked into his first yoga studio on a whim, overweight and curious, and quickly found the yoga reinventing his life. He was studying Bikram Yoga (or “hot yoga”) when a run-in with a master and competitive yoga champion led him into an obsessive subculture—a group of yogis for whom eight hours of practice a day in 110- degree heat was just the beginning.

So begins a journey.  Populated by athletic prodigies, wide-eyed celebrities, legitimate medical miracles, and predatory hucksters, it’s a nation-spanning trip—from the jam-packed studios of New York to the athletic performance labs of the University of Oregon to the stage at the National Yoga Asana Championship, where Lorr competes for glory.

The culmination of two years of research, and featuring hundreds of interviews with yogis, scientists, doctors, and scholars, Hell-Bent is a wild exploration.  A look at the science behind a controversial practice, a story of greed, narcissism, and corruption, and a mind-bending tale of personal transformation, it is a book that will not only challenge your conception of yoga, but will change the way you view the fragile, inspirational limits of the human body itself.
While Lorr is certainly a skilled reporter and has clearly done his research, I had a few issues with the way the book is written.  I appreciated that the author was attempting to examine every aspect of Bikram yoga, but I found that he chased rabbit trails with such frequency that the book lacked an overall cohesion.  I would find myself intrigued in the author's story of finding yoga only to be derailed be several pages on the social and medical nature of pain.  Or I'd be ready to find out exactly what secrets Bikram was hiding behind his celebrity status only to find myself immersed in a side story about a friend of the author's.  It needed to be narrowed and focused.  All of the information was reliable and interesting, but it didn't fit together in an altogether logical way.

Entertainment Value
First of all, I have to start by saying that Bikram yoga and competitive yoga are so far from being my thing that they are not even in the same realm.  I love yoga (the yoga I practice, that is) because I don't get too hot and sweaty, I don't have to compete with anyone around me, and it's all self-focused and not about achievements but about stretching yourself.  That said, I totally respect that there are other types of yoga and other preferences and I am fascinated by the idea of Bikram and competitive yoga.

I loved the expose portions of the book and getting an inside look at the man who created Bikram yoga and is credited with starting the yoga craze in the United States.  I also enjoyed hearing the author's personal experiences with training and the intensity of living a Bikram lifestyle.  I was distracted to some degree by the rabbit trails, especially those I found less relevant to the theme of the book.

I think if you're into yoga, you'll probably enjoy the read.  It's always fun to read about something you love and aspects of it that are vastly different from your own experience.  I don't, however, think it's going to have much of an appeal to those who aren't interested in yoga as a whole.  I had hoped that there would be more about the author's transition from being overweight and merely curious to being competitive, but that's not really the focus of the book at all.  I'm hoping to read more from a beginner's perspective in Stretch: The Unlikely Making of A Yoga Dude - my next yoga read.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Book Review: Mr. Bones by Paul Theroux

From Goodreads:
A dark and bitingly humorous collection of short stories from the “brilliantly evocative” (Time) Paul Theroux.   A family watches in horror as their patriarch transforms into the singing, wise-cracking lead of an old-timey minstrel show. A renowned art collector relishes publicly destroying his most valuable pieces. Two boys stand by helplessly as their father stages an all-consuming war on the raccoons living in the woods around their house. A young artist devotes himself to a wealthy, malicious gossip, knowing that it’s just a matter of time before she turns on him.

In this new collection of short stories, acclaimed author Paul Theroux explores the tenuous leadership of the elite and the surprising revenge of the overlooked. He shows us humanity possessed, consumed by its own desire and compulsion, always with his carefully honed eye for detail and the subtle idiosyncrasies that bring his characters to life. Searing, dark, and sure to unsettle, Mr. Bones is a stunning new display of Paul Theroux’s “fluent, faintly sinister powers of vision and imagination” (John Updike,The New Yorker).
I feel like there are probably a lot of pretentious, writerly things to say about the quality of these short stories.  Thoughts on the way it reflects the conditions of modern humanity and its darker aspects, particularly those motivated by greed and consumption.  What it all comes down to in the end is that smarter people than me are just raving about this book.  And the writing is certainly well done.  Every aspect of short stories that I appreciate and admire are present: the set up, the subtle shifts, characters who are representative of humanity as a whole, etc.  So from a technical standpoint, things here are all looking fine.

Entertainment Value
You may have sensed above that I was less than enthusiastic about these stories.  I am.  I just didn't get it.  I was super excited to start this collection, given the description of "searing, dark and sure to unsettle" but if that was the measure of the collection, I have to say it failed.  Sure, it was dark.  And dreary.  And the outlook was bleak.  But it wasn't unsettling and nothing about it made me stop and think.  It wasn't the intriguing kind of dark, just the dingy, smoggy, poor kind of dark, if that makes any sense.  I was hoping to be unsettled and was, instead, just bored.  Selfish people do selfish things.  Some stories were more entertaining than others - I did actually find myself enjoying "Voices of Love" and "Long Story Short" - a series of vignettes.  And I also enjoyed "The Furies".  For the most part, however, I was bored and somewhat disappointed with the collection as a whole.

I think it's completely successful in terms of writing quality.  And they're largely what I think the more literary elite expect to see from an author describing the dark side of humanity.  Think lots of suburban ennui, working class woes, and dingy urban landscapes.  Theroux certainly has his place in literary fiction and in the genre of short stories, but it's not one that I personally enjoyed very much and it won't be earning a spot on my shelves.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review.