Review: The Art of Map Illustration

Four artists share their techniques for mapmaking as well as samples of their work in The Art of Map Illustration. The book is full of beautiful illustrations by each of the artists, who employ a variety of media including pen, ink, watercolor and digital.

There are a number of map-making tips spread throughout the book, but it seems more time is spent describing how to illustrate map embellishments such as trees and buildings. Each of the artists share an almost whimsical style (as seen on the cover) with cartoonish illustrations and that probably accounts for the number of pages devoted to creating and placing those decorative details.

If the style suits you, the The Art of Map Illustration (Quarto Publishing Group, digital galley) is full of samples and would be a good book to reference for inspiration. Although the artists use a variety of media, the book feels a little repetitive because of the similar illustration styles.

Very short reviews of books

David Itzkoff’s compassionate biography of Robin Williams stands out among the books I read in May. David Sedaris’ wickedly humorous collection of essays is also worth picking up.

Robin: This intimate biography of Robin Williams tells the story of the meteoric rise, frenetic life and the sad final days of the comedian.(5/5 stars.) Read my full review.

Calypso: David Sedaris deftly handles a variety of topics including  middle age, shopping, gay marriage, language and family tragedy in this achingly funny book. (5/5 stars.) Read my full review.

The Shepherd’s Hut: A crisp story of survival, friendship and the search for peace in a brutal Australian landscape. (4/5 stars.) Read my full review.

Fear the Sky: A  covert team of scientists and soldiers work to undermine the advance team of an alien armada on the way to Earth in this fast-paced sci-fi novel.  (4/5 stars.)

The Paris Wife: Historical fiction written from the point of view of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley Richardson. Good for Hemingway fans, but so-so pacing. (4/5 stars.)

The Little Paris Bookshop: This love story following a bookseller calling himself the literary apothecary was a little pretentious for my taste. (3/5 stars.)

Warlight: In the aftermath of WWII 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister are left in the care of a mysterious man they nickname The Moth and his possibly criminal cohorts. An opaque novel that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. (2/5 stars.) Read my full review.

Review: The Shepherd’s Hut

Jaxie Claxton lives a miserable life in rural Australia, stuck with a savage father he hates. Then one day a violent accident leaves him with no choice but to pack what he can carry and strike out on foot as a fugitive.

Walking across barren western Australia with a rifle and a water jug, he eventually runs into a fellow outcast living in a shepherd’s hut. In this remote and deadly landscape Claxton forms an uncomfortable bond with this man, who has his own secrets to keep and on whom he becomes dependent.

The Shepherd’s Hut (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, digital galley) by Tim Winton is a short and crisp story of survival, friendship and the search for peace in a brutal world. Winton’s masterful use of language, peppered with Australian colloquialisms, made this novel a pleasure to read.

Review: Calypso

David Sedaris has mastered the ability to be dark, charming and funny at the same time. His latest collection of essays, Calypso, revolves around gatherings at his North Carolina beach house, the Sea Section. Sedaris deftly handles a variety of topics including  middle age, shopping, gay marriage, language and family tragedy.

It’s hard to go more than a couple of pages without belting out a laugh at some outrageous situation in which Sedaris has gotten involved. And he is capable of being shocking, as with a recurring tale that involves a homely snapping turtle and a tumor Sedaris needs removed

Sedaris’ unique powers of observation and his intimate descriptions of  human interactions are absorbing. This is among his best books and fans will want to get hold of a copy. Anyone new to Sedaris’ writing will find Calypso (Little, Brown and Company, digital galley) a fine introduction to his achingly funny stories.

Review: Robin

An intimate new biography of Robin Williams tells the story of the meteoric rise, frenetic life and the sad final days of the comedian. In Robin, New York Times writer David Itzkoff gives us a look at the creativity that fueled Williams’ seemingly spontaneous and endless comedic riffs. But he also tells of Williams’ substance abuse, repeated infidelities, failed marriages and a manic anxiety over the quality of his performances.

Itkoff recounts stories of Williams’ childhood, failed attempts at college, training at Juilliard and his early years on stand up comedy stages where he stood out among his peers. Robin (Henry Holt & Company, digital galley) is well-researched and full of stories from family, friends and fellow comedians that cover both the highlights and the low lights of Williams’ long career.

The story of Williams health decline and death is handled compassionately as Itzkoff tells of the depression, paranoia and confusion that Williams suffered from as a result of Lewy Bodies Dementia. And although Itkoff tries to give us a full measure of the man, even Williams’ closest friends acknowledge he never revealed all of himself to anyone. In Robin we may get the best look possible at comedic genius whose performances we know so well.

Review: Warlight

In the aftermath of WWII 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister are left in the care of a mysterious man they nickname The Moth and his possibly criminal cohorts. Warlight follows Nathaniel’s adventures with this eccentric lot and his efforts to discover why his mother seemingly abandoned him.

This coming of age story is unfortunately a disjointed and at times confusing novel. During most of the book we’re told his mother was involved with a secret government agency and that Nathaniel has heard stories about her war service. But these are only vague references for such a key plot point and we never get to hear those stories or discover their source.

Warlight (Knopf, digital galley) was written by Michael Onjaaatje, who also wrote The English Patient, which was turned into a movie. His latest effort, however, is an opaque and enigmatic book that leaves too many questions unanswered.

Very short reviews of books

The original, and surreal, Spaceman of Bohemia is highly recommended. The Mars Room and I am, I am, I am area also among my favorites from April.

Spaceman of Bohemia: Czech astronaut Jakub Procházka leaves his wife behind and heads on a mission to Venus where he befriends a possibly-real, alien spider. (5/5 stars.)

The Mars Room: A bad history with an obsessive strip club visitor leads a young mother to an unfortunate encounter and two life sentences in prison. This is a brutal, yet empathetic look at a life gone sideways. (5/5 stars.) Read my full review.

I am, I am, I am: A remarkable and captivating memoir that recounts author Maggie O’Farrell’s 17 near-death experiences.  (5/5 stars.)

The Immortalists: A family drama that follows the lives of four siblings who, as children, are told by a spiritualist the day they will die. (4/5 stars.)

Gateway to the MoonGateway to the Moon:  Mary Morris’ latest novel combines a coming of age story with historical fiction to explore ideas of identity and how history echoes across time. Set in a remote New Mexico town founded by crypto-Jews fleeing the Spanish inquisition. (4/5 stars.) Read my full review.

Final Girls: The “final girls” are a loose-knit trio of girls who were all lone survivors of mass murder. Now one of them is dead and the other two form a troubled bond in this psychological thriller. (4/5 stars.)

The Stars Are Fire: As Grace Holland reconciles the fact that she is in a loveless marriage, a fire breaks out in rural Maine and her husband disappears, and is assumed dead, while fighting it. Her chance at a new life is severely derailed after her husband returns disfigured. (3/5 stars.)

 

Review: The Mars Room

Rachel Kushner’s new novel The Mars Room is a heartbreaking and unsparing look at a life gone sideways. From a young age Romy Hall became acclimatized to life on the street in San Francisco and seemed like someone who could navigate the fine line between survival and self-destruction. But a bad history with an obsessive strip club visitor leads the young mother to an unfortunate encounter and two life sentences in prison.

Separated from and unable to get in contact with her son, Hall tries to reconcile her new life with her old. Kushner draws a vivid picture of a woman growing up only knowing poverty and getting caught up in a system that has little regard for her plight.

The Mars Room (Scribner, digital galley) alternates between the present and Hall’s earlier life. While at times brutal, the novel offer an empathetic look at prison life and the rich cast of characters who reside there.

 

Review: Gateway to the Moon

Mary Morris’ latest novel, Gateway to the Moon, combines a coming of age story with historical fiction to explore ideas of identity and how history echoes across time.  The remote New Mexico community of Entrada de la Luna is rooted in the history of the Spanish inquisition and converesos, or crypto-Jews, who fled from persecution. But the residents have lost touch with their past and don’t remember why they maintain certain rituals, such as shunning pork and lighting candles on Friday.

Gateway to the Moon (Doubleday Books, digital galley) primarily follows Miguel, a poor high school student who discovers some unexpected similarities between his own life and that of the transplanted Jewish family for whom he babysits. The novel alternates between Miguel and his forebearers, who made their way to Entrada along with Spanish explorers.

This unique novel works hard to wed the contemporary with the historical and for the most part succeeds. But the story of Miguel and his relationship with those around him is most captivating. The interludes into the past are brief, fill in the backstory and tie in nicely with a personal discovery Miguel makes at the end of the book.

 

Review: The Sun Does Shine

In 1985 Anthony Ray Hinton was arrested and charged with the death of two men in Birmingham, Alabama. Hinton was certain that because of his rock-solid alibi, everything would be cleared up and he would soon be released. But due to an ineffective and unmotivated defense attorney and a criminal justice system indifferent to the plight of a poor, black man, Hinton was wrongly convicted of murder and spent 30 years behind bars.

Written by Hinton with the help of Lara Love Hardin, The Sun Does Shine is an extraordinary testament to power of rising above hate and enduring hardship with dignity. Hinton stoically served as a source of hope to those around him on death row, even befriending and changing the beliefs of Henry Hays, a KKK member on death row for lynching a black man in Mobile.

As we read of Hinton’s ordeal we are left infuriated with a system that consistently turned a deaf ear to his appeals. But with the help of a relentless civil rights attorney, Hinton was eventually freed in 2015.

The are usually two or three books each year that I would recommend as must reads. And this inspiring memoir will certainly be among them. The Sun Does Shine (St. Martin’s Press, digital galley) is a powerful story that will serve as inspiration to anyone looking to live a life filled with grace and love.

Related coverage:

Very short reviews of books

A roundup of very short reviews of books I read in March. The Sun Does Shine is one of the books you must read this year. Everything else I read in March was also solid and worth your attention.

The Sun Does Shine: The are usually two or three books each year that I would recommend as must reads. This is first I’ve come across in 2018. In 1985 Anthony Ray Hinton is sent to Alabama’s death row for two murders he didn’t commit. This is his story. But it’s not a blow-by-blow account of the injustices done to him, it’s an extraordinary story of rising above hate and stoically serving as a source of light to those around him on death row. (5/5 stars.) Read my full review.

Feast Days: This eloquent novel by Ian MacKenzie offers a look at the social layers of Brazil and expatriate life. It’s a subtle examination of what constitutes a crisis versus what is simply the normal state of affairs. (5/5 stars.) Read my full review.

The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond: Physicist and futurist Michio Kaku explores the possible paths forward for humanity. Kaku explains the nearterm options for traveling to Mars and exploring our own solar system to what might be possible thousands of years from now when our ancestors may be masters of the universe. Especially interesting is the discussion of other intelligent beings in our solar system. (4/5 stars.)

Munich: A conspiracy to kill Adolf Hitler unfolds as the leaders of Britain and Germany descent on Munich in 1938 to sign an agreement over Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland. Robert Harris’ extensively researched historical-thriller follows two ancillary figures drawn into the dramatic events. (4/5 stars.)

The Nightingale: There seems to be an endless stream of WWII fiction. This sweeping novel is the story of two sisters trying to survive, and win their own personal wars, in occupied France. (4/5 stars.)

Sometimes I Lie: In Alice Feeney’s debut thriller, Amber Reynolds lies unresponsive in a hospital bed, seemingly in a coma. But Amber can hear everything around her as she tries to remember the circumstances that put her in the hospital. As the story unfolds the reliability of those around her, and of Amber’s own narrative, come into question. (4/5 stars.) Read my full review.

Review: Feast Days

Written in a brutally honest tone, Feast Days recounts the story of Emma, a young woman who moves with her husband from New York to Brazil, where he works as a financial analyst. While protests rattle the country, Emma tries to find where she fits in, immersing herself in the arts scene, lunching with other expat wives and volunteering to help refugees who are fleeing poverty and war.

Feast Days (Little, Brown and Company, digital galley) is so honest at times it feels like reading a personal diary. As the county boils around her, threatening to break, so does her marriage, and Emma seems adrift and uncertain of her future.

This eloquent novel by Ian MacKenzie offers a look at the social layers of Brazil and expatriate life. It’s a subtle examination of what constitutes a crisis versus what is simply the normal state of affairs.

Review: Sometimes I Lie

Amber Reynolds lies in a hospital bed, unresponsive and seemingly in a coma. But Amber can hear everything that is said around her.  She remembers an accident but has trouble unraveling the exact circumstances that put her in the hospital. As she listens to conversations and slowly begins to remember events, Amber becomes suspicious of her husband and others around her.

Sometimes I Lie (Flatiron Books, digital galley) moves between the present and past as Amber tries to piece together her story. But Amber’s narrative is often unreliable and, as the title suggests, everything she shares may not be the absolute truth.

Sometimes I Lie is author Alice Feeney’s debut and she and has many twists in store for readers of this thriller. Books with multiple twists can often be exhausting and frustrating, but Feeney handles the material adeptly and keeps the story moving to its unexpected conclusion.

Review: The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore

Kim Fu’s novel The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, digital galley) alternates between the stories of five young women who experienced a traumatic event at camp while girls. Unfortunately it reads as a disparate collection of unrelated stories, with the camp experience being the only thing connecting the women.

While each of the women’s future lives is interesting, it’s not clear what impact that camp event has had on the women, the drama is simply too subdued. Any one of the life stories would have been more compelling if flushed out as a full novel. But by combining the stories, all continuity is lost and just as we’re getting to know each of the characters their story is cut short for a flashback to camp.

Fu is clearly a talented writer and has a lot to say about relationships and how individuals deal with loss. The potential of this novel, however, feels unfulfilled.

Very short reviews of books

A roundup of very short reviews of books I recently read. Lincoln in the Bardo and Panorama are worth your attention.

Lincoln in the Bardo: This inventive, profound and humorous novel by George Saunders unfolds in unexpected ways and concerns the death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son, Willie. The audiobook features a cast of 166 narrators who portray the characters, living and dead, and I recommend it for the riveting performances. (5/5 stars.)

Zero Hour (Expeditionary Force Book #5): The adventure continues in this fifth installment of the Expeditionary Force series by Craig Alanson. This is the most entertaining of the last three books, but in the end it’s more of the same. It’s past time for Alanson to reveal some backstory about the artificial intelligence, Skippy, at the center of the books. (4/5 stars.)

Panorama: A life affirming, if heartbreaking, first novel that looks at the effects of a plane crash on survivors. (4/5 stars.) Read full review.

Turtles All the Way Down: The latest by John Greene feels contrived as the heroine, Aza, helps look for a missing billionaire while coping with a serious anxiety disorder. Featuring Greene’s exceedingly well spoken, widely read, clever and tragically brilliant characters.  (3/5 stars.)

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore: Kim Fu’s novel alternates between the stories of five women who experience a traumatic event at camp while young girls. Unfortunately it reads as a disparate collection of unrelated stories, with the shared camp experience the only thing that connects the women. (3/5 stars.) Read full review.

New Rules: In comedian Bill Maher’s 2005 book of musing on politics and culture he comes of as irritable, partisan, pessimistic and sometimes funny. In other words, a lot like cable news. (2/5 stars.)