Monday, January 28, 2019

Get Weird: Discovering the Surprising Secret to Making a Difference by CJ Casciotta, 2018

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Most of us grow up believing it's more important to fit in than to stand out. But there's something different about you...and it matters.

What if your weirdness was the key to changing everything? What if the outrageous, imaginative, crazy ideas that live inside your wildest dreams are actually there on purpose, divinely preinstalled to help others?

Knowing what makes you weird is the best thing you can offer your art, your business, your friends, your family, and yourself. It's the essence of creativity, the stuff of movements, and the hope for humanity. It's time to quit painting by numbers, conforming to patterns, and checking off boxes. It's time to GET WEIRD.

(241 pages)

I find that self-help type books are often a mixed bag. Sometimes, the author is just kind of obnoxious and pushy with their advice and it's not fun to read. Other times, the book is full of so many slightly irrelevant anecdotes that it feels like it's not really going anywhere, and that someone just needed to plump up their page count.

I'm happy to report that Get Weird does not fall into the usual traps of other books like it. It does have anecdotes, yes, but each chapter actually has a distinct point about standing out, following your passion, being your true self, etc., so the stories never feel boring or repetitive. Plus, they're all such interesting (and often personal) stories that I actually enjoyed reading them and cared about Casciotta's point.

I think the bottom line with these books is that you'll only enjoy them if you "click" with the author. By that I mean that you feel like they're a normal, decent person with some pretty good advice and you'd probably like to be friends with them in real life. I think, overall, that this is the vibe that I got from Casciotta. He never sets himself up apart from the rest of us, and in fact some of his stories (including breaking his ankle trying to jump a moving train!) are pretty embarrasing for him. I love that he doesn't stick to wagging his finger at others.

As for the core tenent of the book–"Get Weird!"–I like the idea, but I'm honestly not sure what my weirdness might be. I don't have any random passions (besides reading and history, neither of which are all that out of the ordinary). My quirks don't seem that useful either, but maybe I'm just missing something. Anyway, I was pretty inspired by Casciotta and I enjoyed reading the book. If you're interested, definitely give it a go!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, January 25, 2019

Secret Soldiers: How the U.S. Twenty-Third Special Troops Fooled the Nazis by Paul B. Janeczko, 2019

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What do set design, sound effects, and showmanship have to do with winning World War II? Meet the Ghost Army that played a surprising role in helping to deceive -- and defeat -- the Nazis.

In his third book about deception during war, Paul B. Janeczko focuses his lens on World War II and the operations carried out by the Twenty-Third Headquarters Special Troops, aka the Ghost Army. This remarkable unit included actors, camouflage experts, sound engineers, painters, and set designers who used their skills to secretly and systematically replace fighting units -- fooling the Nazi army into believing what their eyes and ears told them, even though the sights and sounds of tanks and war machines and troops were entirely fabricated. Follow the Twenty-Third into Europe as they play a dangerous game of enticing the German army into making battlefield mistakes by using sonic deceptions, inflatable tanks, pyrotechnics, and camouflage in more than twenty operations. From the Normandy invasion to the crossing of the Rhine River, the men of the Ghost Army -- several of whom went on to become famous artists and designers after the war -- played an improbable role in the Allied victory.

(304 pages)

Okay, this is actually really funny. When I read Secret Soldiers, I made a mental note to mention another book that I read for review last year which was what first taught me about the role of deception in wars, including World War II. I just looked it back up, and it's called Double Cross: Deception Techniques in War (here's my review).

The funny part? It was also written by Janeczko! The man clearly has a focused passion for deception tactics in combat, which is a strangely specific topic, but I said in my review of Double Cross that I learned a lot from reading it and enjoyed myself in the process and I would say that holds roughly true for Secret Soldiers as well.

It was a bit harder to keep track of all the moving parts since the Twenty-Third was split into several smaller groups that specialized in different parts of the deception (building the dummies, playing the audio sounds, etc.). It almost became a bit tedious at times, too, since several of their missions basically consisted of showing up, getting all set up, and then leaving pretty soon afterwards. And then, because of miscommunication with the regular soldiers they were working with, they were often not deployed where they could be the most helpful so all of their efforts may or may not have actually done anything.

There were certainly some times when they definitely made a difference, though, and it was cooler to learn about those. And I appreciated Janeczko's thoroughness, for the sake of a complete history book, even if it didn't all thrill me.

He does a good job of including details about all the people in the Twenty-Third. There were so many people who would go on to be famous artists, or actors, and he gives many of them their own inserts so we get to learn their unique stories alongside the story of the "Ghost Army" as a mass.

All in all, this is a well-researched and cohesive book that will be perfect for some readers, and perhaps a bit dry for others. If you're at all interested in the Ghost Army, though, then this is definitely a great place to start.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, January 21, 2019

Something Worth Saving by Sandi Ward, 2019

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A boy and his cat. It's an unconventional friendship, perhaps, but for Charlie and Lily, it works beautifully. It was Charlie who chose Lily from among all the cats in the shelter. He didn't frown, the way other humans did, when he saw her injured back leg, the legacy of a cruel previous owner. Instead, Charlie insisted on rescuing her. Now Lily wants to do the same for Charlie.

She's the only one who's seen the bruises on Charlie's body. If she knew who was hurting him, she'd scratch their eyes out. But she can't fix this by herself. Lily needs to get the rest of the family to focus on Charlie--not easy when they're wrapped up in their own problems. Charlie's mother kicked his father out weeks ago and has a new boyfriend who seems charming, but is still a stranger. Oldest son Kevin misses his father desperately. Victoria, Charlie's sister, also has someone new in her life, and Lily is decidedly suspicious. Even Charlie's father, who Lily loves dearly, is behaving strangely.

Lily knows what it's like to feel helpless. But she also knows that you don't always have to be the biggest or the strongest to fight fiercely for the ones you love . . .

(309 pages)

I hate to quit a book before I've finished it, but once in a while I just can't make myself get through a book. This is one of those times.

I like the premise: the story of a dysfunctional, separated family is told through the eyes of the family cat. Unfortunately, right out the gate I took a disliking to the narration. It's cute, the idea of having a cat tell the story, but Lily is the most un-cat-like cat I've ever read about. She acts more like a dog than the family dog does, honestly, and it's really disorienting.

I was willing to brush that aside, though, so I kept reading. I actually made it about 2/3 through the book. I pushed past the growing implication that Charlie was gay and the bad language, interested in the nuanced portrayals of Charlie's father (a hero and a cop who was injured and developed a crippling addiction to alcohol) and Victoria's boyfriend (a bad boy who is a real, flawed, hurt person who sometimes enjoys hurting others).

Then Charlie's mother slept with someone, and Lily was observing the whole thing. And describing their dialogue and everything. And that was it.

So I put the book down, and I'm not planning on picking it back up. I'd hardly recommend anyone else reads it either, which is a shame because there actually was a very strong core story about the different stories of all the people in the house as it was being torn apart. It's a nuanced tale, just such an explicit one, and it could have been so much greater.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Dreaming in Code: Ada Byron Lovelace, Computer Pioneer by Emily Arnold McCully, 2019

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This illuminating biography reveals how the daughter of Lord Byron, Britain's most infamous Romantic poet, became the world's first computer programmer.

Even by 1800s standards, Ada Byron Lovelace had an unusual upbringing. Her strict mother worked hard at cultivating her own role as the long-suffering ex-wife of bad-boy poet Lord Byron while raising Ada in isolation. Tutored by the brightest minds, Ada developed a hunger for mental puzzles, mathematical conundrums, and scientific discovery that kept pace with the breathtaking advances of the industrial and social revolutions taking place in Europe. At seventeen, Ada met eccentric inventor Charles Babbage, a kindred spirit. Their ensuing collaborations resulted in ideas and concepts that presaged computer programming by almost two hundred years, and Ada Lovelace is now recognized as a pioneer and prophet of the information age. Award-winning author Emily Arnold McCully opens the window on a peculiar and singular intellect, shaped -- and hampered -- by history, social norms, and family dysfunction. The result is a portrait that is at once remarkable and fascinating, tragic and triumphant.

(176 pages)

As a girl studying computer science, I have become more and more aware of Ada Lovelace's name over the past few years. Going into Dreaming in Code, I knew that she was considered one of the forebears of computer science, and that she had worked alongside a man named Charles Babbage to develop an early prototype.

Those facts, I've found, are only partially right. I have to admit that I'm not as impressed with her as I hoped I'd be. Ada Lovelace was a very intelligent woman, with a passion for math and engineering, who basically kept up a correspondence with Babbage while he was working on his inventions. She was remarkable in her ability to comprehend the complex working of his machines and his ideas, in a time when almost no one else did, but the only real advancement that she herself ever really made in the field was her series of observations about Babbage's machines in the end notes of a translation she did of L. F. Menabrea's "Sketch of the Analytical Engine Invented by Charles Babbage." It's pretty cool to read the very first algorithm, in Note G, and to see her use the concepts of looping and branching that we still use all the time in programming today. But other than that, and an assertion that computers can only ever do what we already know how to program them how to do (something which has been contested since Alan Turing, and which machine learning has certainly destroyed), she really didn't do much else for computing.

I hate to say it, because I loved the idea of learning about this kick-butt woman defying all the odds to become the mother of computing, but it sounds like Babbage was actually much more dedicated, productive, and, frankly, important to the history of computing. Lovelace got obsessed with Babbage's work and was a good sounding board for him, and she certainly made some important leaps of logic that he might not have been able to find, but I don't really see why her work is considered so pivotal. If she hadn't been involved, it sounds like computers still would have developed just fine.

Anyway, I'm sorry I come across so negative in this review. I'm just disappointed that the famed Ada Lovelace I've heard so much about didn't quite live up to the hype. But anyway, I did really like this book which took a practical, chronological approach to describing her life. I recommend it for anyone interested in her work, though I do have to warn you that it may not be suitable for children. There are quite a few references to infidelity, both on the part of Ada's father, Lord Byron (quite egregiously) and, to a much lesser extent, Ada herself. There is also a mention of the rumors that Byron fathered a girl with his own half-sister, which is just so yuck. Also, this isn't so inappropriate but still very frustrating, her mother was a completely narcissistic controlling monster who didn't even tell Ada that her father was Lord Byron until she was an adult. So there's that.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, January 11, 2019

The Day War Came by Nicola Davies, 2018

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A moving, poetic narrative and child-friendly illustrations follow the heartbreaking, ultimately hopeful journey of a little girl who is forced to become a refugee.

The day war came there were flowers on the windowsill and my father sang my baby brother back to sleep.

Imagine if, on an ordinary day, after a morning of studying tadpoles and drawing birds at school, war came to your town and turned it to rubble. Imagine if you lost everything and everyone, and you had to make a dangerous journey all alone. Imagine that there was no welcome at the end, and no room for you to even take a seat at school. And then a child, just like you, gave you something ordinary but so very, very precious. In lyrical, deeply affecting language, Nicola Davies's text combines with Rebecca Cobb's expressive illustrations to evoke the experience of a child who sees war take away all that she knows.
(32 pages)

This book arrived the day I left for college in September, so it's taken me a while to get back and get around to reviewing it. My parents and sister did read it, though, and they reported over FaceTime that they found it actually kind of hilarious–hilariously depressing, that is. My sister actually read the whole book to me while I was in the airport, half laughing at it the whole time.

It's not that my family takes pleasure from the pain of children, or that my sister actually thinks the book was meant to be a humorous one. The Day War Came is a very sad story about a girl whose entire world is destroyed, and who struggles to find a place to belong because people don't care about immigrants. Davies is very much making a statement with this book, and she tells a gritty, depressing story to make that statement.

And I think that's what my sister–and I–find so ridiculous about this book: it's a picture book. It's written for kids who barely know how to read. Each page has just a few lines for a child to potentially struggle through on their own. And yet the story it tells is not really age-appropriate for children that small, nor is the tone one that they would enjoy. I can very easily see this book (supported by Help Refugees) traumatising children in its target audience, and for what? Toddlers have absolutely no control over immigration, and stories like this are only going to upset them (or, at best, bore them). And the political agenda is so blatant that it's definitely not going to convince anyone to change their stance on immigration. I suppose the best to hope for is that it might soften the parent's behavior toward an immigrant child they might meet someday?

As an example of the tonal issue, I flipped to a random page and found a picture of the protagonist kneeling in the rubble of her destroyed home. Ash rises to the sky, lumps of rubble surround her, and the words on the two page layout are as follows:
I can't say the words that tell you / about the blackened hole / that had been my home.
All I can say is this: / War took everything. / War took everyone. / I was ragged, bloody, all alone.
I surely can't be the only one, politics aside, who has no interest in reading this to any child, ever.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Another D for DeeDee by Bibi Belford, 2018

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Life for Dinora Diaz, DeeDee for short, is full of D's. Missing her dad, who's disappeared. Being diagnosed with diabetes. Feeling dumb in fourth grade at her new school, which she transferred into--leaving behind Sandro Zapote and all her other friends in Miss Hamilton's class--after her family's trailer burned down. It's so many D's that DeeDee's sure she'll never really fit in, much less find the perfect best friend she's always wanted.

Then DeeDee meets River. He's a lot like her: River loves skateboarding, art, and dancing, just like she does, and he misses his dad, too. But they're also different: while DeeDee's still struggling to adjust to life with diabetes and has sworn off her Mexican heritage to get back at her dad for leaving, River seems to have totally adjusted to--even learned to love--being deaf. River promises to help search for DeeDee's dad and to compete with her in the spring skateboard exhibition at their local skate park. Finally, DeeDee has something to look forward to.

But when River transfers into DeeDee's fourth grade class, DeeDee makes a huge mistake, putting not just the exhibition, but her entire friendship with River, on the line. Now she has to make a choice: stand up to her classmates and accept being an outsider, or give up her best friend for good? To keep the best friend she's always wanted, DeeDee will have to learn to love difference--not just River's, but also her own.

(208 pages)

Last year, I read Belford's Crossing the Line last year and really loved it. She dealt very sensitively and thoughtfully with the race issues of the early twentieth century through the eyes of a white boy who befriended a black boy and his family.

That's why I was interested to read her latest novel, Another D for DeeDee. This one is set in the present day, and actually manages to impressively mimic the lifestyle of modern kids (communicating by text and everything). It touches on racism lightly, since DeeDee is Mexican-America, but DeeDee also struggles with the aftermath of a fire, living in a trailer park, fitting in at a new school, finding out where her father has gone, and dealing with her new diagnosis of diabetes.

It's a lot of content to smush into a book written for a younger audience, but once again Belford manages to keep the story humming along engagingly. Even though I normally would have gotten so disgusted with DeeDee's bad behavior (especially toward River) that I would have come away from the book with a bad taste in my mouth, somehow Belford manages to keep DeeDee a sympathetic and relatable character. In fact, the reader also learns from DeeDee's bad behvior: Belford makes an excellent point that sometimes mistakes must be forgiven–and that real people are full of nuances, not all good or all bad.

There are too many things going on in this book to go through all of them, but one story aspect I really resonated with was DeeDee and River's conversations about representation. When DeeDee says she might want to enter the talent show as a skateboarder, her nurse is thrilled because she will be a representative of kids with diabetes, showing how her condition is not holding her back. DeeDee is very uncomfortable with this, and indeed spends some time worrying that she could win the competition for her diabetes, because the judges feel sorry for her or want to seem inclusive, rather than because of her actual talent. She doesn't want it to define her. River also grapples with the fine line between personal achievement, representation/paving the way, and handouts.

It's a fascinating question, dealt with in a pretty thoughtful way. I have some very limited experience with these sorts of questions because I am a girl in computer science. There are a lot of extra resources for encouraging women in technology, including special workshops and networking events and even internships. I have always been uncomfortable about taking advantage of these opportunities, and have largely turned them down, because I don't like the idea of getting special help just because of my gender. I can definitely relate to DeeDee and River's thoughts on the topic, and watching them explore the issue actually helped me some.

Anyway, Bibi Belford is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. Do go back and read Crossing the Line, then read Another D for DeeDee, then join me in waiting for her next book. I'm sure it also will be an engaging and thought-provoking read!

Friday, January 4, 2019

Second-Chance Dogs by Callie Smith, 2018

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Everyone loves an underdog, and nothing gives us warmer feelings than seeing someone get a second chance in life. A problem pup who flourishes under the right kind of training. The struggling veteran who finds unconditional love wiggling around at the end of a leash. The lonely child who finds comfort in the steady breathing of the warm, furry friend at her side. Each of us needs to be rescued from something--and each of us has the capacity to rescue someone, or something, else.

This collection of more than thirty contemporary, true, feel-good stories spotlights the beauty of being rescued--dogs rescued by people, people rescued by dogs, and even dogs who rescue other animals. It's the perfect companion--well, besides the four-legged, tail-wagging kind--for your morning cup of coffee or an evening curled up on the couch. Contributors include Susy Flory, Dusty Rainbolt, Lauraine Snelling, Melody Carlson, Wanda Dyson, Suzanne Woods Fisher, and many more.

(224 pages)

I'm a huge sucker for sappy stories about amazing animals, especially about dogs. That's why I always jump at the opportunity to review books like this, which tell stories about great dogs.

What this book does different from similar books I've read, however, is it focuses on sweet redemption stories about dogs who were rescues or rehomed, showing how they went on to live rewarding lives or help a human through a rough time in their life. There are no stories about dogs saving their families from fires, or preventing snake attacks. These are stories instead about dogs who helped their family deal with grief (after the loss of both human and canine family members), or became constant companions to lonely people, or simply added a bright spot to someone's life.

On one hand, I really like these more humble, personal stories. These are the stories of dogs like my own Daisy, a Boxer who passed away a few months ago. Daisy was no miracle dog, she never saved any of us from anything worse than a baby bird she once accidentally caught (and then immediately released), but she was a smart and loving member of our family and we all miss her very much. Some of the stories of the dogs in this collection made me tear up a bit, actually, because either the dogs reminded me of Daisy or their loving stories reminded me how amazing it is to have a dog in your family.

My only real complaint about the book is that, at times, the stories are so everyday that I almost began to wonder why they were published. And a few of the dogs didn't really seem like rescue dogs–they were adopted as puppies off the internet, or from friends who had planned to buy them but had plans fall through at the last minute. I think the author wanted to include stories from as many famous people as possible, whether or not their stories really fit the narrative of the book or not. I don't mind too much, since the stories are still pretty sweet, but it's just something that stuck out to me while I was reading through them.

There are flashier books out there, but if you're looking for a collection of sweet stories about sweet dogs, then this should be right up your alley.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.