Monthly Archives: August 2021

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Riot Baby by Tochi Onyebuchi

Tor Books (2020)

176 pages // 3 hours & 46 minutes on Audio

Link to the book in LFPL’s catalog

Riot Baby came out in January 2020 to much acclaim and nominations to many of the most respected science fiction awards (Nebula Award Nominee 2020, Goodreads Science Fiction Choice Award Nominee 2020, Hugo Award Nominee 2021, Locus Award Nominee 2021). But this book is so timely I had to triple check its release date as I was listening to the audiobook–its prescience for the summer of 2020 is as apt as the future sight of the protagonist, Ella.

Ella is only about 5 when her brother Kev is born during the Rodney King riots in 1992 Los Angeles, but she can already see flashes of the future. Ella and Kev grow up protecting each other, developing their skills, and trying to escape the effects of racism, but by adulthood Kev is incarcerated and Ella has to leave to find her full power. But how will she handle having that much power in the face of a system that’s hurting her brother and their community so much? At once hopeful and devastating, Riot Baby is strongly recommended, especially the wonderfully done audiobook version narrated by the author himself. This book is for readers who want to further explore the effect racism and the prison industrial complex has on families and individuals, including one who happens to have superpowers.

– Review by Valerie, Newburg Branch

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates
A New York Times Notable Book, 2013

Recently, a friend placed before me a request: please read The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates.  You see, she herself had read this novel and was interested in discussing it with someone, a situation with which I can relate.  So I agreed, despite its plot type residing well outside my typical reading boundary.  And I am so glad that I did.

Set in the year 1905 and in Princeton, New Jersey, the story is ostensibly the work of a historian who has acquired new materials related to the terrible happenings of that year, which involved several prominent families of Princeton.

At this time, much is taking place in the normally tame town of Princeton and its famous university.  Woodrow Wilson, university president, is embroiled in a power struggle with an influential dean, the daughter of one of the oldest Princeton families leaves her groom at the altar for a recently arrived visitor of dubious origin, and ghosts have begun to make their presences known.

Following the storylines of several characters, Ms. Oates crafts an incredibly engaging story, which takes twists and turns that constantly pique the interest of the reader.  What is real?  What is imagined?  And will the reader ever learn which is which?  Along the way, historical personages with ties to Princeton, including Grover Cleveland and Upton Sinclair, make their cameos and reveal aspects of the history of Princeton not well known.

And while at a length of six hundred sixty-nine pages this is not what one would consider a short book, the plot pushes the reader along at a remarkable rate.  An exceptionally novel story, Ms. Oates awes the reader with her imaginative characters and wonderful prose.

Reviewed by Rob, Crescent Hill

Everything Sad is Untrue by Daniel Nayeri

Everything Sad Is Untrue: (a true story): Nayeri, Daniel: 9781646140008:  Amazon.com: Books

Inspired by Daniel Nayeri‘s real life, Everything Sad is Untrue is the phenomenal story of twelve year old Khosrou or as his American classmates call him, Daniel. Settle in as Nayeri weaves a tale that is all things magical, beautiful and dangerous. Daniel and his mother and sister have fled Iran and ended up in Oklahoma to start a new life. Daniel sets out to tell his story at school to his disbelieving classmates and we have the pleasure of joining them.

In a world where Daniel feels untethered, where details and dates are fuzzy, he makes connections and builds his history with stories of his relatives and ancestors. Gathering inspiration from 1001 Nights and the tradition of Scheherazade (a story about stories), Nayeri shares the rich and vibrant stories of Persian myths and legends. He weaves in his own story with literary mastery in the most moving way.

This is an adventure story filled with kings and drug lords, persecution, and carpets woven with gems. The story makes it’s way from Iran to London, Abu Dhabi, Italy, and the United States. When finished, the reader will sit with stunning imagery of Persian culture. Although this story is written from the perspective of a twelve year old boy, the rich language and cultural references, along with Khosrou’s struggles make this a stunning book for all ages.

An important component of this novel is the art of storytelling and unearthing what makes a good story. It’s about how stories blend together and how people’s stories in particular connect and in turn bind humanity together. It’s a commentary on how the stories of our past and of ourselves live on and mold us into who we are and who we are becoming. This book celebrates not only Persian literature but the writer in all of us. As Nayeri says “Every story, is the sound of a storyteller begging to stay alive.”

For this work of art, Nayeri has been recognized with the following:

– Review by Catherine, Main Library

Katherine’s Bookshelf – Atomic Energy in the Coming Era

Bohr model atom in gold on a dark blue cover.
Nothing warms the cockles of my heart like old timey stylized Bohr atomic model atoms on an old book cover.

I love it. Everything about this book is great. Look at this stylish cover. You know exactly what it’s about: ATOMS, and THE FUTURE. Check out the spine:

The spine of the book with the title Atomic Energy in the Coming Era. Nice.
ATOMIC ENERGY in the Coming Era. Perfect. Just perfect. I can feel the boundless optimism, the promise of cheap, bountiful electricity radiating off it like… well, ionizing radiation.

This next paragraph is going to be bibliophile heresy, so you might want to sit down first.

Most of the time, you CAN judge a book by its cover. This is because publisher’s marketing departments exist for a reason. They exist to sell books, and get those books into the hands of the people who will want to pay for them, as quickly as possible. One of their methods is cover design. It’s actually a very rare cover that does a truly terrible job at conveying what the book is about, commercially, in a target audience sense, rather than a plot sense. Imagine a romance novel cover. Imagine a sci-fi space opera book cover. Imagine a teen dystopian fiction book cover. Imagine a shojo manga cover. You can. You know what these books look like, because they’ve all drifted into similar designs, so that someone expecting a romance novel doesn’t get stuck with a dry, navel-gaze-y sci-fi book instead. You know what you want and you know what it looks like. This book looks like pure, uncontaminated optimism and faith in a future that is only going to get better. Through SCIENCE.

If there’s any scientists reading this post, please keep reading and talk to some historians. This epic tragedy of the late 20th Century and the use of scientific cachet for marketing is a piece of the puzzle of why a good chunk of the American public has lost trust in scientific messaging. Throughout the century, there was a whole endless parade of products and innovations sold to the public with the promise of science. A lot of which turned out to be terrible ideas (ironically often discovered to be so with more science): DDT, plastic everything, throw-away culture, tetraethyl lead in the gasoline, eugenics (don’t get me started on the intensely creepy history of beauty pageants), radium suppositories. Not kidding about that last one. There were a few decades there in the early 20th Century when they were putting radium in everything. Including butts. In case you think this was an isolated thing, here’s a completely different brand of radium suppositories. Both of these courtesy of Oak Ridge Health Physics and Instrumentation Museum Online exhibits. Fun!

Yet, every once in a while, I read a very depressing article from scientists wondering why the public has so much skepticism about important issues. There’s a history here, which is part of the problem that I rarely see explored or even acknowledged by scientific publications. Never underestimate cultural memory or the power of marketing, whether to sell a product to the public, or to distract the public from the damage that same product is causing. Look to the tobacco industry for a history lesson in marketing and using scientific authority – or the appearance of it – as a means to shield an industry against the interests of defending public health. This is why academic disciplines need to talk to each other. Go read The Cigarette Century, and learn.

The title page of the book. 1945!
1945! That’s some blisteringly fast research and writing. Also, it’s a very good looking book inside as well.

Here’s the punchline: this book, written in 1945 – when atomic energy was a mere possibility on the horizon – is eerily, stunningly accurate. This is in fact a very sober and measured accounting of the possibilities and challenges of using nuclear reactors to generate electricity. Weren’t expecting that, were you? I bet that giddy images of mid-century futuristic flying cars and jetpacks and moon colonies were practically dancing through your head up to this point. NOPE. I was so shocked and impressed by how grounded this book was, and how disciplined its journalism, that it’s one of the few vintage books I own that I have read absolutely cover to cover. In this case, science got it right at the dawn of an age, even in conjecture.

— Article by Katherine, Shawnee

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

Do you find yourself looking at your cellphone multiple times a day? Enjoy access to Wi-Fi, GPS, or Bluetooth? Would it surprise you to know that these inventions that we take for granted everyday were made possible by a woman?

This woman didn’t get the recognition that she deserved until the 1990s for something she created during WWII. A woman that the majority of the US wrote off as nothing more than a pretty face. She is the Hollywood actress, Hedy Lamarr. But Hedy was more than just a pretty face, she also had a deep interest in science and a personal history that made her determined to find a way to to defeat Germany in WWII.

The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict, who’s also written Carnegie’s Maid, tends to write historical fiction about lesser known women or women who historically were standing in their husband’s shadows. However, in the case of Hedy Lamarr, you cannot exactly say she’s lesser known or standing in her husband’s shadow. In Hedy’s case it’s simply being overlooked as just a pretty face. Hollywood and history saw her as an actress and a pretty face because, gasp, at the time many believed that a woman couldn’t be both beautiful and smart.

The novel focuses on the years 1933 to 1942. It may only be a brief period of time but Hedy had a heck of life in those nine years. It shows what life in prewar Vienna was like for a Jewish woman hiding in plain sight. We see how Hedy went from the darling of the Vienna stage to the wife of an arms dealer to Hollywood’s it girl.

I do have to say the first few chapters aren’t the most exciting to read, but they do have you turning the page wanting to know what happens next. The book picks up the pace once she marries Friedrich Mandl and Hedy comes into her own. Though trapped in a dangerous marriage she used both her beauty and brains to escape. And once Hedy did escape, she knew she had to speak out, had to do more if possible.

“I had stared the leaders of our enemies in the eyes and turned my ear to their voices, and I knew the terror they meant to wreak upon our world.” (The Only Woman in the Room)

Benedict was able to take this amazing woman off the screen and out of Hollywood legend, highlighting her brains instead of her beauty. I love that Benedict shows readers that these aren’t mutually exclusive qualities. The book made me want to find out more about Hedy so I’ve also picked up a few of the biographies the library has in the system, such as Hedy’s Folly: The Life and Breakthrough Inventions of Hedy Lamarr, The Most Beautiful Woman in the World by Richard Rhodes, and Hedy Lamarr: The Most Beautiful Woman in Film by Ruth Barton.

– Reviewed by CarissaMain Library


In Vino Duplicitas by Peter Hellman

For whatever reason I’ve spent most of my life thinking of the true crime genre as play-by-play retellings of gruesome murders and unsolved disappearances, and have only dipped into that section when in the mood for something really spooky. Recently however an account of the Isabella Gardner Museum heist came across my desk, and now to my great delight I have a backlog of thirty-something books on great art and jewel heists, solved and unsolved, ancient and modern. Likely for the same reason Robin Hood movies keep getting made, there’s just something addictive about stories of fabulous thefts, especially ones where the wealthy get a comeuppance (and nobody is really hurt once the insurance companies pay out anyway) that captivates the imagination…if told with that sense of adventure in mind. In Vino Duplicitas, a summation of the greatest wine fraud event in this century, doesn’t disappoint when it comes to a criminally twisted tale or imaginative telling.

As a wine journalist and appreciator himself, author Peter Hellman’s talent in explaining a fairly blue-blooded hobby to the everyday reader is evident from page one. He doesn’t just toss names and dates around and expect the reader to understand his context like elite wine collectors: Hellman leverages his experience describing wines and what makes them special to draw the reader in from the preface, before even diving into the story of infamous wine forger Rudy Kurniawan. An immigrant to the United States with an expired student visa and alleged access to a family fortune abroad, Kurniawan began infiltrating the world of wine in the early 2000’s. Armed with easy charm, a naturally talented palate, and enough real rare wines to generously uncork for his friends at every opportunity, he was accepted as a comrade and expert by elite names in predominately older, wealthy, white circles. They saw the passionate young man with a formidable collection of his own who hosted large parties at expensive restaurants (with a notable habit of always having the empty bottles and corks shipped back to his home as “mementos”) as a breath of fresh air, and once accepted by the wine connoisseur boy’s club, Kurniawan exploited their trust in his taste to mix counterfeit rare wines and unload them at auctions in the U.S. and internationally for untold millions of dollars.

Had his reach of his scheme not exceeded its grasp, he might have gone on counterfeiting wines for years longer than he successfully did: his marks found it unthinkable that another hobbyist would be so blasphemous as to violate the integrity of the hobby they loved, but after a point it was also unthinkable that so many bottles of wines thought lost or extinct could suddenly be procured by one person. Once the proprietors of the French wineries Kurniawan specialized in replicating started talking to each other and investigating the source of the “Frankenstein wines,” Kurniawan’s days were numbered and the FBI agents who had been dogging his tracks closed in. The book then recounts how the situation devolved into several millionaire wine collectors suing each other alongside Kurniawan in a legal flurry of betrayal and wounded pride, desperate to make an example out of anyone they could. Even a member of the politically recognizable Koch family was swindled by Kurniawan.

Despite his admissions of the lasting damage Kurniawan dealt the rare wine world and many testimonies from angry hobbyists, Hellman even still seems to hold a note of respect for something about him – perhaps his undeniable palate, perhaps the sheer amount of chaos he sowed, or perhaps like many of us who will read this book, the understanding that sometimes it’s fun to see the underdog triumph over the decadently wealthy, even if that underdog is just a shady little criminal. As the author himself supposes, “…do these folks not bear some responsibility for not doing their due diligence before throwing silly quantities of money at Kurniawan wine? Absent the guile of a consummate con man, they would have held tight to their money and their common sense.” Hellman, who includes his own conversations with Kurniawan during the time he was active among the scores of referenced others who once counted him as friend and confidante, clearly researched his book extensively as a labor of love for years during and after the fallout from Rudy Kurniawan. Using his professional profile as a wine writer the way Kurniawan used his gifted palate, Hellman was able to conduct incredibly candid interviews with almost everyone touched by Kurniawan’s schemes, from legacy winemakers to federal agents to lifelong connoisseurs, everyone who contributed to the book seemingly eager to spill the beans on the fraud that had walked among them.

In Vino Duplicitas is juicy enough as a crime story to stand on its own, but what really made the ride enjoyable for me was Hellman’s passion for the art of wine, a subject I’m generally ignorant of as a fancy hobby for the rich with little impact on me, personally. But Hellman takes us on a leisurely tour through his narrative, pausing at useful intervals to explain the story behind the 1945 Chateau Mouton Rothschild, harvested just after the Germans were driven from France and its label emblazoned with a “V” for “victory”, and to recount the raptures of one of Kurniawan’s mentors after the con man shared with him a 140-year-old Volnay Santenots the man described as, among other things, a “mythical creature”. If a wine is rare or special, Hellman will describe for you in lush detail exactly what it is that makes that wine unforgettable. Hellman takes the reader by the hand and invites them to the lavish dinners at which Kurniawan wooed his marks, gatherings of supposed friends dining in the kind of decadence most of us can only dream of, and as a wine journalist given a glimpse of this world as an outsider himself (a working professional, not there for pleasure), Hellman seems to relate to the reader in that regard. He certainly taught me several things about wine over the course of the story I would otherwise never have picked up. Other writers without a personal interest in the world Hellman crafts for us could not have told the story of Rudy Kurniawan with half as much charm or intrigue.

I would heartily recommend In Vino Duplicitas to any fans of crime or heist television such as Catch Me If You Can or Leverage; to anyone who enjoys the schadenfreude of witnessing extremely bamboozled billionaires; and to anyone who’s always wanted to know more about the exclusive art of wine, perhaps from a helpful friend willing to share with us just what makes wine special enough for some to risk everything for.

– Review by Sarah, Middletown Branch