Saturday, November 16, 2019

The Cottingley Secret (Hazel Gaynor)

Usually, a book about a fairy hoax wouldn't attract me that much, but for some reason, I was drawn to Hazel Gaynor's The Cottingley Secret. This is the perfect read for it's just starting to get chilly outside and all you want to do is cozy up under a warm blanket.

The year is 1917 and the world is at war. While her father is one of those fighting, Frances and her mother make their way from South Africa to Cottingley, England, where they have family. One day, Frances and her cousin, Elsie, claim to have captured photographs of fairies at the beck, only the "fairies" are really paper cutouts that Elsie has drawn. Soon, they draw the attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who insists that the photos are authentic and writes a piece about it in a magazine. The girls become a national sensation for those who desperately need something good to believe in in uncertain times.

You may be surprised to learn that all of this actually happened, but Gaynor weaves fictional characters, like Olivia Kavanagh, into her narrative to tell the girls' story. Olivia learns the story in modern days while she is taking over her late grandfather's bookshop. Soon, the timelines converge into a satisfying, hopeful conclusion.

While most of the Cottingley fairy pictures are a hoax, Frances has always insisted that she really did see fairies at the beck and that the fifth photograph is real. Gaynor does a wonderful job of telling the girls' story and reminding us that we could all use a little magic "fairy dust" now and then to help us get through hard times.


Saturday, November 9, 2019

Summer of '69 (Elin Hilderbrand)

Sometimes I'm a little strange about my reading habits. While many people are curling up by the fireplace with a cozy mystery in November, I am picking up a book by the beach read queen herself, Elin Hilderbrand. That's my way of warding off the chill.

As usual, Summer of '69 is set in Hilderbrand's beloved Nantucket. But what is quite unusual about this one is that it is set in a different time -- a time that included Senator Ted Kennedy and the scandal of Chappaquiddick, a music festival known as Woodstock, and the thrilling landing on the moon. Hilderbrand states in her author's note that she and her twin brother were born the day before the Apollo 11 mission launched, and so this is a very personal book for her.

Each year, the entire Levin family summers in Nantucket, but in 1969, there is trouble on the horizon. Kate is terrified about her son's safety while he is deployed to Vietnam. Kate's eldest, Blair, is in a tumultuous marriage, pregnant with twins, and stuck in Boston. The middle daughter, Kirby, decides to spend her summer on Martha's Vineyard instead where she becomes involved in an interracial relationship, scandalous for the times. The youngest, Jessie, is living in a world of first love and tennis lessons at her grandmother's country club. There are many characters to keep straight, but they are all well developed enough so that we come to care about them as readers.

There is nothing Earth shattering here, but there never is with Hilderbrand's novels. Her books  are reliable reads, but filled with heart. I thought I knew the direction she was taking certain characters at the end, but I was pleasantly surprised that I didn't. That is the hallmark of a good novelist.


Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Brilliant Maps for Curious Minds (Ian Wright)

Brilliant Maps for Curious Minds is a graphic book of 100 maps that Ian Wright created. The maps are used to highlight demographic, political, social, and other statistical information in a visual way.

Wright, the operator of, has over 350 maps on his website and has put many of those into this book. This includes “fun maps” like “Why you can’t dig to China from the US”, “All roads lead to Rome”, and “Map of the entire internet in 1969”.  There are more serious maps included as well, all of which provide a breadth and depth of visual context that often times tells a more effective story than merely seeing or hearing facts and figures.

This book’s only text section is the introduction, where Wright talks about the reasons he put this collection of maps together in a book and reflects that while maps can inform, sometimes they can mislead. He stresses the importance of context as part of explaining the story behind the map. Wright’s book is geared towards the geographically inclined and those who dive into the rabbit hole of Google Maps or any map-oriented sites. It’s an informative, descriptive look into the world from a mapmaker’s perspective.


Wednesday, October 30, 2019

The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 (Garrett M. Graff)

It's hard to fathom that it's been almost 20 years since September 11, 2001. Most of us can remember exactly where we were that day when we heard that passenger planes had hit the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania. In this day and age, it's easy to forget that after that horrible day, the nation was united in our grief, anger, and patriotism.

There have been countless movies, documentaries, and books that have come out since 9/11, but none has affected me so much as Garrett M. Graff's The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11. Graff walks the reader through the entirety of 9/11 by having the readers hear from those directly involved: the ticket agents who checked the hijackers in, the air traffic controllers, those in President Bush's administration, and the families of those who sat frantically by the phone.

For me, there were two parts that were most effective: reading about the normalcy of September 10 and the morning of September 11 and knowing what was to come and hearing from the 9/11 survivors. What stuck out the most to me was that much of the day was all about luck. Someone who survived may have made a left while exiting the World Trade Center, while their friend who didn't made a right.

Oral histories are always the most insightful way to tell what really happened, and The Only Plane in the Sky (which refers to Air Force One being the only plane in the sky when all the others were grounded) is one that will make you appreciate every second of your life.


Monday, October 28, 2019

Smoke Gets in Your Eyes (Caitlin Doughty)

In the past few months, I've been on quite the Caitlin Doughty kick. I recently reviewed her books Will My Cat Eat My Eyeballs? and From Here to Eternity and also went to hear her speak at the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia. In Smoke Gets in Your Eyes, she describes her experience working at a crematory; this, along with her time at mortuary school, gives her a very clear idea of what to do (and what not to do) to help families when they lose a loved one.

This is a fascinating book, filled with unforgettable and strange stories. From picking up the newly deceased to getting ashes on her clothes, Caitlin brings a sense of humor to the proceedings but never crosses the line into being disrespectful. What I've always loved about Caitlin is that she takes the "scary" out of death in such a matter-of-fact way and answers questions you've always wondered but have been too afraid to ask.

All of Caitlin's books (and her You Tube videos) are designed to help you face death head-on and take some of the fear out of it. I recommend any one of them wholeheartedly.


Sunday, October 27, 2019

Swede Hollow (Ola Larsmo)

Swede Hollow was a book that came across my husband’s radar about a month ago while he was reading up on news from his home state of Minnesota. He’s Swedish and loves history - a perfect combination for a historical fiction tale that highlights the tribulations, trials, and some successes of early Swedish immigrants to Minnesota.

Swede Hollow, written initially in Swedish by Ola Larsmo in 2016, was recently translated into English by Tiina Nunnally and subsequently published by the University of Minnesota Press. The book focuses on the Klar family, who emigrated from Sweden to New York and subsequently to Minnesota in the 1890s. Over the course of sixty years, we see the focus of the family and their squatter neighborhood in St. Paul. This neighborhood was eventually demolished in the 1950s and is now a park; however, for nearly a century it was the home of immigrants from a host of countries, most notably the namesake of the hollow, Sweden. The Klar family’s trials and tribulations as new Americans is woven through historical facts and events that parallel the timeline of the book. 

Larsmo’s work is very solid in quality and depth. For those who have Scandinavian heritage and live in or have family ties to Minnesota, it is certainly worth a read into seeing what Swedes in the Minnesota of 1900 lived through and in some cases, in, as part of their initial years here in America.


Thursday, October 24, 2019

Severance (Ling Ma)

When Shen Fever sweeps many parts of the world, Candace Chen is stuck in New York City. But this novel is not about your typical "zombie apocalypse," which, in my opinion, is very tiresome. There is no cure for this disease, and sufferers relive their day-to-day tasks (like setting the table and driving a cab) over and over again. Severance is even scarier than the zombie genre because you feel like it could actually happen.

Candace drifts along every day troubleshooting Bibles at a publishing company. Her life is so routine oriented that she barely notices when strange things start to happen. Little by little, people get sick, subways shut down, and people flee the city. Her manager gives a group of employees (including Candace) an offer they can't refuse to stay in New York to keep the company running. Soon though, even her coworkers flee, and Candace finds herself entirely alone.

Severance goes back and forth in time between when the fever was starting and when Candace joined up with a group of survivors. Learning about Candace's family history, along with seeing New York emptying out during the outbreak, was very interesting. The time with the survivors, not so much. And the unsatisfying ending is very frustrating. But, all in all, Ling Ma does a good job of creating a world outside of the ordinary.