Spinning Silver, by Naomi Novik

Spinning SilverMiryem was tired of being poor. She was tired of being cold, scrounging for food, and listening to her mother cough. She had seen a better life. Her mother’s family lived in the city in an impressive house, and they gave her delicious food and fine clothes when she visited. In their little village, though, her parents were scorned and hated because they were the only Jewish people in town—and because they were moneylenders.

Panov and Panovna Mandelstam’s pity and kindness made them the worst moneylenders in the world. When her mother’s health plunged to frightening lows, Miryem took matters into her own hands and went door to door to collect the debts their neighbors owed them. She had observed her grandfather and had learned to read and do sums. The villagers found her quite intimidating. Not only did she collect payments, though, she also learned to trade shrewdly, and soon her family was well fed, and she was putting gold into a safe at her grandfather’s house. She hired servants, and their lives were changed.

Miryem’s success did not go unobserved, particularly by the king of the Staryk, an icy civilization that existed in a world parallel to hers. The Staryk usually kept to their own pursuits, but when they were greedy or irritated with the humans, one could see their frozen roads shining closer than usual to the people’s homes. One day, the Staryk king knocked on the Mandelstams’ door and handed Miryem a small sack of silver coins, demanding that she change them into gold. Miryem knew that she had no magic powers, but could only change silver to gold in the mortal way: trading material things for a higher price. When she succeeded the first time, the Staryk set higher and higher tasks for her, until the day came when he carried her off to his crystalline castle, where she would marry him, become his prisoner, and change all the silver in his kingdom into gold.

Novik, author of the bestselling Uprooted, tells this story in several voices, as Miryem’s life touches and changes many others. As forces both human and supernatural threaten to bring permanent winter to the land, Miryem bands together with the young tsarina in a fight to save their loved ones’ lives. The plan will take courage, trust in their co-conspirators, perfect timing, and the ability to move back and forth between parallel worlds without detection. Fiery demons and icy faeries move in a fantastical Russian landscape in this feminist retelling of Rumpelstiltskin.

For adult fans of retold fairy tales, this novel is fast-paced, thrilling, and even a bit romantic. Highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Deep Work, by Cal Newport

Deep WorkIt’s hard to argue with the fact that we’re all more distracted than we’ve ever been in history. At the same time, manufacturing and other manual labor jobs are going away, and today’s worker is increasingly employed in some sort of “knowledge work.” One would assume that knowledge workers need quiet focus in order to fulfill their career missions, but the very companies that lead the field are those that promote wide open workspaces, supposedly to foster collaboration. Even in more traditional companies, an open room filled with cubicles is the norm, and employees are expected to stay connected to electronic forms of communication at all times, sometimes even at home. How can we perform deep work in this sort of environment?

Cal Newport has employed strategies in his own life that enable “deep work” in order to become one of the most productive professors at Georgetown University, publishing far more than most of his colleagues in spite of his young age. Beginning with his personal experimentation and expanding to his research on top producers in several fields, Newport has distilled his findings in this book, subtitled Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. He realistically offers a range of suggestions that can be implemented by people in various vocations and levels of authority. A CEO may be able to roll out a new initiative for his entire company, whereas a single employee who undertakes that same strategy on his own may find himself unemployed very quickly, so Newport is sensible about each plan’s feasibility.

One of his main points, approached from several angles, is to reduce the number of interruptions that occur in one’s day, particularly from electronic sources. On one end of the spectrum, he tells of the award-winning author, Neal Stephenson, who does not even have an email account. This is even more amazing when one considers that Stephenson is a science fiction writer. He refuses to create an obligation for himself to respond to people he does not know. This level of disconnectedness is impossible for most people, though. Rather, Newport suggests ways to limit our Pavlovian response to the “new email” signal, still responding, but remaining in control of our concentration on more important tasks. He presents questions to ask yourself about whether you should be using Twitter, routines to follow to start and end your work day, and architectural ideas for owners to build better work spaces for higher levels of production from their employees. All of his strategies can be tailored to suit a variety of vocations that would benefit from more focused time, from artists and writers to entrepreneurs and computer developers.

I first heard about this book while listening to a young pastor discuss his church growth strategy on a radio talk show. When I researched it, I discovered that it was on many lists of the Top Ten Nonfiction Books of 2017.

Newport believes that the future belongs to the most focused workers, and that they are rapidly becoming the privileged few. Deep Work will empower and encourage you to incorporate new practices in your life that will ensure that you are part of that small group.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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For Everyone, by Jason Reynolds

For EveryoneJason Reynolds is the author of a number of brilliant novels for tweens and teens, including Ghost and Long Way Down, to name just two. I have had the privilege of hearing him speak several times, and he is always a moving storyteller, but more to the point, he reveals himself to be both a deep thinker and a hard worker.

This new title is in a different category than his novels. It made a perfect gift for a recent graduate of my acquaintance. It is a long, poetic letter to everyone who has a dream. Reynolds gleans from his own experiences for some of the content, relating the internal burning to express oneself and the collaboration with friends who are also yearning to realize their dreams. He talks about starting on his journey as a little child, but he also tells the story of landing back at home in his mid-twenties to discover that his mother, who had retired from her 9-to-5 career, had found her dream of helping children and caring for the needy. So, you’re never too old to begin. He is a creative person, but he extends the net to others who want to be athletes or entrepreneurs. He describes the fear and doubt that creep in, keeping us from leaving a place of bland security, and tells us to “jump anyway.”

Reynolds was on an author panel once when he was asked that perennial question: “What advice do you have for aspiring writers?” His answer was simply, “Do the work.” He keeps to an incredibly disciplined schedule and is a living mission statement for children’s authors. When he writes an inspirational book like For Everyone, it is not to encourage young people to keep on believing that all good things will fall into their laps. No, it is to encourage them to do the work, feed the burn, and jump anyway.

This is a small, inspiring book for all ages and all walks of life, everyone who needs a match to relight that candle. It is for everyone.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Death at La Fenice, by Donna Leon

Death at La FeniceAh, Venezia! Gondolas glide down the canals, palaces shimmer in the water, and opera maestros die between the first and second acts of La Traviata. Who did it? Was it the young, German wife? The diva soprano or her American female companion? How about the theatrical director with whom he argued just before the production began?

Never fear, Commissario Brunetti is on the case, conducting interviews between sips of espresso or prosecco. His schoolteacher wife is from a well-connected and wealthy family, and Brunetti reluctantly uses their help to gain access to the glitterati, ever aware of his own working-class childhood. Rounding out the cast are their precocious twelve-year-old daughter, an officious and politically obsequious chief, a couple of useless detectives, and several more intriguing suspects. The city of Venice is a character on its own, infusing every scene with faded glory, luxurious living, and proud culture.

Death at La Fenice is the first volume in the “Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery” series, and the reader will be eager to return to this beautiful place with such charming characters. Signor Brunetti stands in front of his suspects, reading from the notebook he holds open in his hand, when the actual writing on the page is a list of books that he would like to read. Who doesn’t love a man who keeps a “To Be Read” list? His wife is a brilliant, refined woman with an insatiable appetite for scandalous gossip magazines. She always wants to guess the killer in his homicide cases on the very first day, and she is always wrong. Their marriage is inspiring, and they treat one another with respect and a fun sense of humor.

The suspects were a diverse lot, and I did not guess the truth until fairly close to the end, unlike my husband, who always guesses the correct answer—Professor Plum in the conservatory with the lead pipe—in the very first act. (Do not go to the movies with him. He declares it out loud.) Donna Leon has a winner of a series here. Death at La Fenice was written in 1992,  and I look forward to 26 more trips to Italy with the commissario.

Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer.

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Vacation Reading

My extended family recently went on a quiet vacation to historic Virginia, and I chose a couple of light novels to read during the week.

Gods in AlabamaGods in Alabama, by Joshilyn Jackson

This was my second title by Jackson. I reviewed The Almost Sisters here. Gods in Alabama was Jackson’s first big hit, and a librarian friend had recommended it for me a couple of years ago.

Arlene Fleet is busy living in Chicago, working hard as a graduate assistant and happily dating an African-American man. In other words, she is trying her best to completely reject her white, Southern Baptist upbringing. Just as she thinks she has succeeded in leaving Alabama behind, one of the strangest girls from high school shows up at her door, hoping to involve Arlene in her attempt to cleanse her past and achieve perfect, holistic, self-actualization. Zany as this may sound, Arlene had serious reasons to leave home, and her classmate is veering dangerously close to uncovering a dark secret. Eventually, Arlene realizes that she has to go home, boyfriend in tow, to face her mentally-ill mother, her severe, overbearing aunt, and her beautiful, angelic cousin. Will her boyfriend still marry her if she’s headed to prison?

This book was far darker and grittier than The Almost Sisters. One of the major themes of the book requires some fairly graphic language and sexual content, so I spent some of the time feeling uncomfortable. On the other hand, Jackson sends the plot through so many twists and turns that the reader is constantly questioning her assumptions. Absolutely a page-turner, and the conclusion was not exactly what I was expecting.

Saturday Night Supper ClubThe Saturday Night Supper Club, by Carla Laureano

Rachel Bishop was too busy working as the star chef of a hot new Denver restaurant to pay attention when a friend told her that an article about her was going viral. Social media lit up over Alex Kanin’s essay, but Rachel figured it would all fizzle away if she ignored it and dealt instead with staffing issues and tomorrow night’s menu. When she walked out of the restaurant into a reporter’s microphone, she wasn’t prepared, and she said enough to be clipped and reworked into a very damaging statement. Before long, there was a social media movement against her, and her partners decided that the best way to save their shirts was to buy her out of her investment in the restaurant. Rachel went from rising star to unemployed in a day.

Alex had had one big hit book, but the contract on his next book was completely unfilled— and his agent was getting nervous. He kept on writing, mostly articles for good magazines, but the ideas he had for the book just wouldn’t come together. He was glad that his article about the anonymous chef had been such a success until someone told him that he had single-handedly destroyed her life. How could he make it up to her?

Good friends, food trucks, family, and the wealthy foodie scene in Denver keep this light romance moving. There is talk of faith and healing troubled pasts, but nothing gets too heavy or, actually, resolved in that arena. Readers who enjoy the writing process (check) or the food scene (check) will have fun with this novel, the first of a series.

Disclaimer: I read library copies of both of these novels. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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The Strange Fascinations of Noah Hypnotik, by David Arnold

Noah HypnotikNoah and the Rosa-Haas twins have been best friends forever. It got a little complicated when Alan told Noah that he was gay, and then Noah fell in love with Valeria, but now all that is behind them, and they all work to maintain what Alan calls “the delicate triangle.” It’s the summer before their senior year, and the three plan to go on to local colleges in Illinois so that they can stay close.

Noah is conflicted. He may not even want to go to college. Lately, all he’s been doing is writing his summer assignment, “A Concise History of Me,” which is becoming less concise by the day, and obsessing over his Strange Fascinations. His fascinations include an abandoned photograph dropped by a local rock star, an old man in the neighborhood with a goiter, a novel by his favorite author, and an online video called the Fading Girl. In the video, a woman took a photo of herself in the same place every day for forty years. She fades. We fade.

Since he would never do so on his own, Val convinces him to go to a party in a huge home, where he makes the mistake of tasting a cherry Hurricane and deciding that it is really quite nice, which leads to another and another. This is how he finds himself explaining to a lovely girl that yes, he wears the exact same pants and David Bowie t-shirt every day because it is much more efficient to do so— plus, Bowie. When she backs away, he exclaims that no, no, he has ten sets of the same pants and t-shirts, so he does wash them in between. When this does not convince her of his sanity, he wanders off and ends up in the library, where he meets Circuit Lovelock.

Circuit and Noah have a deep and meaningful conversation in which they deplore the shallow and meaningless conversations one normally has at parties. In the end, Circuit convinces Noah that he needs a change in direction, which he can give him at his house. Despite his misgivings, and under the influence of cherry Hurricanes, Noah walks through the neighborhood with him, passing the old man with his collie, Abraham, on his front porch. At Circuit’s house, things get weird, and Noah gets up abruptly and leaves, passing the old man with his Labrador, Abraham. Wait….

Suddenly, the world has changed. Not a lot, but subtly. His mother has a scar on her cheek he doesn’t remember. Val and Alan are going out of state to college. His parents watch Seinfeld instead of Friends every night. What is going on? The only one who hasn’t changed is his little sister, Penny. She is still obsessed with Breakfast at Tiffany’s and walks around quoting Audrey Hepburn.

While the reader is working hard to untangle the clues and help Noah back to his former life, Arnold treats us to continual streams of what he calls “the minutiae”: loads of delicious details, some true, some imagined, that create Noah’s world and consciousness. He weaves it all together so convincingly that he had me looking up Mila Henry, Noah’s favorite author, so that I could read some of her books. No go; she’s a fictitious character. As in every David Arnold title, it’s not just the plot that pulls the reader along. It’s the quirky but lovable characters and his distinctive writing style that make his novels such immersive and unforgettable experiences. The language is frequently foul in the style of an uncensored sixteen-year-old boy.

Just as I swore that I would not read another young adult novel anytime soon, Penguin Random House sent out an email about this third novel by one of my favorite YA authors. I had to get my hands on it, and I was not disappointed. Noah’s library chat with Circuit was so delightful that I wish I could quote parts of it, but since I read an advance reader copy, that is verboten. So, I will paraphrase one part where Noah relates a conversation between Alan and another boy about a band. One loved it and one hated it. When Circuit asked Noah what he thought, he said that he thought it was just okay, which is apparently no longer acceptable. Not having a strong opinion about something is now “a lost art.” One must either love or hate everything, and he just doesn’t. Exactly. And that was the moment that I decided to have a strong opinion about this book. I loved it.

Very highly recommended.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book, which I begged from my book distributor. It will be published in May, 2018. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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Blood Water Paint, by Joy McCullough

Blood Water PaintOnce her father had despaired of finding any talent in his sons, he put Artemisia to work in his studio, grinding pigments and preparing canvases. He soon realized that she could paint, so he allowed her to fill in the backgrounds on some of his paintings. Artemisia began encroaching further and further into her father’s figures, and then she struck out on her own. Her father’s signature was always in the corner, but his patrons knew that an old man would not suddenly become gifted. No, it was the silent girl in the shadows who brought life to the old, traditional pictures.

Judith and her servant with Holofernes

Artemisia reveled in painting the great heroines of the Bible. Although she could not read, her mother had made sure that her only daughter knew these stories before she died in childbirth with her second girl child, who also perished. All of the artists before her had portrayed Judith and Susanna as mild and pleasant, but Artemisia knew their fear and anger, and she painted their true emotions onto her canvases. Eventually, her father decided to nurture her gift, so he hired another artist to teach her perspective. Artemisia fell in love, and she thought that he was proposing marriage to her, but he was proposing something else entirely.

McCullough relates this true story in verse, with dialogue noted in italics. The reader sees through Artemisia’s eyes, with other characters’ dialogue appearing in a separate column. Artemisia Gentileschi was a Renaissance artist in a time when women were not encouraged to express themselves publicly. A quick Google search will display her prolific work in the familiar Renaissance style, with shimmering figures glowing out of the darkness. Although paintings of these Biblical—often apocryphal— stories were common, Artemisia’s women are different. Her madonnas love the baby Jesus, they are not ethereal and passive. In McCullough’s story, the artist identifies closely with Judith, so it is not strange that we see strength and vengeance in her eye as Judith cuts off Holofernes’ head. And here is Jael, enthusiastically driving a stake through Sisera’s head. There seems to be a theme here. Jael and SiseraFortunately for posterity, when she was not painting women murdering men, she turned to self-portraits. In this picture, she presents herself as the personification of Painting.

Artemisia self-portrait

Artemisia Gentileschi as the Personification of Painting

Released at the height of the #MeToo movement, Blood Water Paint is an important and brutal work. Young women, especially, can take heart that Artemisia Gentileschi survived rape and went on to become a great artist, against all odds. This story will provide an opportunity not only to learn about Renaissance art, but also about Biblical women who are characters in the part of the Bible that is called the Apocrypha in Protestant churches. Because of the mature subject matter, this book is best for older teens and adults.

Disclaimer: I read an advance reader copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and may not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.

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