Great Reads

Willis, Meredith Sue. Out of the Mountains

All of the stories in this slender collection are set in the same part of West Virginia, high in the Appalachian mountains.  Willis, herself a native of the region, brings a decidedly modern, contemporary voice to the genre of small-town Appalachian life. Her stories lack any hint of the saccharine over-sentimentality so common to stories set in this region, being instead focused on the very real problems faced by convincingly textured and flawed characters.  Many of the stories feature the same characters at different points in their lives, showing how things have changed—or not—and interweaving the lives of these diverse, three-dimensional people in intricate ways that reward careful reading. Stand-outs include the first story, “Triangulation” and the interlinked duology of tales “Pie Knob” and “On the Road with C.T. Savage.”  Highly recommended.

Switek, Brian. Written in Stone: evolution, the fossil record, and our place in nature

Early proponents of evolution by natural selection were hampered by their inability to provide “transitional” fossils demonstrating the stages of change from one species to another. Darwin theorized that human ancestors would be found in Africa—rightly, as it turned out—but none had yet been discovered. In many other species lineages, similar gaps in the fossil record led to misunderstandings of those species’ histories and the connections between species.  Switek ably and clearly traces what I might call “the evolution of evolution” in this popular-science work. Each chapter focuses on a particular type of animal…horses, whales, reptiles, etc…tracing a path from scientists’ early understanding of that species and its place in nature through to our current views, explaining the importance of the transitional fossils that have been discovered while never losing sight of areas in which science’s understanding is still limited.


Written for the layperson, the book nevertheless does not “dumb down” the science, instead laying out the facts clearly and allowing the careful reader to see the connections for him or herself.  Fascinating portraits of some of the early naturalists and evolutionary theorists, including Darwin; Cuvier; Lamarck; and Lyell fill out this able survey of the history of evolution and natural science.

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Scalzi, John. Old Man's War

On John Perry’s 75th birthday, he did two things: he visited his wife’s grave, and he joined the army.  The Colonial Defense Force, to be precise.  When humanity reached the stars decades previously, they found that the universe is a very crowded place.  Countless other intelligent species fight to colonize the same planets humans want, and some of those species have developed a taste for human flesh along the way. Thus, the Colonial Defense Forces were formed to protect those colonies humans have already secured and to toss the aliens off planets humans want to colonize.  The CDF only takes fully mature adults, however, age 75 and up. Everyone assumes they have some secret rejuvenation technology to make the old young again, but no one knows what it is…no one but the CDF soldiers themselves, that is.

John quickly makes friends with a group of the other 75-year-old new recruits and they manage to stay in touch through training and beyond, from battle to battle with strange and diverse alien species.  But when John encounters a Special Forces supersoldier who looks exactly like his long-dead wife but has none of her memories, he realizes that there is more to this endless war and to the CDF than he or anyone on Earth ever suspected.

Riffing on such sci-fi classics as Starship Troopers and Time Enough for Love, Scalzi’s Old Man’s War is nevertheless a fully-realized and unique view of humanity’s future among the stars, and was voted one of the Top Ten most influential science fiction books of the last decade by poll respondants on popular speculative fiction blog

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Just a Thought...Lad Lit

Sure, we’ve all heard of chick lit (sometimes called “the pink books.)  Generally dealing with the lives of urban women in their 20s and 30s, with a heavy emphasis on fashion, friendships, and relationships, the genre is booming.  But have you heard of its male-oriented counterpart, lad lit? Probably not!  Books with this label generally focus on the same age group, but with male characters, fewer descriptions of the characters’ shoes, and just as many coming-of-age relationship troubles.  So if you can’t stand one more “pink book,” why not take a look at how the other half lives and pick up some lad lit instead?


Chabon, Michael.  Wonder Boys

Gayle, Mike.  Mr. Commitment

Hornby, Nick.  High Fidelity

Lethem, Jonathan   You Don’t Love Me Yet

Meno, Joe.  Hairstyles of the Damned

Perrotta, Tom.  Joe College

Pickett, Rex.  Sideways

Tropper, Jonathan.  How To Talk to a Widower

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Hunt, Rebecca. Mr. Chartwell

Winston Churchill fought a life-long battle with clinical depression. He characterized that depression as being a big black dog that bedeviled him. In "Mr. Chartwell," Rebecca Hunt takes that metaphorical description and makes it literal. Churchill's depression is literally a big black dog who gives his name variously as Mr. Chartwell (Chartwell being the name of Churchill's home estate) and Black Pat.

When widowed and lonely young librarian Esther Hammerhans advertises for a boarder, she is unprepared for who turns up to take the room. A huge, talking black dog who walks on his hind legs and cracks impenetrable jokes and whose name is Black Pat is not exactly whom she expected. But she finds herself unable to say no and he moves into her spare room, and, from there, into the rest of her life and her house. After an encounter with Churchill in which each recognizes the other as an unwilling companion of the obnoxious dog, Esther comes to realize that if she cannot find the willpower to deny Black Pat entry into her life, she will be trapped with him for the rest of her life...which might not be terribly long under his baleful influence.

A dark subject, lightly treated.

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