Fence: Striking Distance by Sarah Rees Brennan

I don’t know much about fencing, but luckily you don’t need to in order to enjoy Fence: Striking Distance by Sarah Rees Brennan. Based on comics by C.S. Pacat and Johanna the Mad, Fence tells the story of the skilled but disorganized fencing team at private school King’s Row as their coach tries to use a series of team bonding exercises to bring them together and enhance their effectiveness.

Aiden (flirt extraordinaire) hates the idea of team bonding, but loves Harvard (though he couldn’t possibly tell him that), so he tries to go along. Harvard (team captain) loves his team but isn’t so good at doing things for himself, so at Coach’s suggestion he tries to date. But he has no idea what he’s doing, so he asks Aiden for help – forcing them both to reckon with what their feelings really are. Freshmen Nicholas and Seiji are mismatched roommates and (according to Nicholas) also friends. For Nicholas, this means trying to measure up to Seiji’s last friend, fencing prodigy Jesse, in hopes that someday Nicholas and Seiji will be best friends – or at least fencing rivals. Seiji isn’t where he expected to be, not at King’s Row or in friendship with Nicholas. He’s not sure who he is or wants to be, but he knows he wants to be the best, at fencing and at teamwork (if he has to). So he’s going to do whatever it takes to be a good friend. Along for the ride is the fifth teammate, Eugene, who wants all his bros to get along.

The book didn’t actually include much fencing, but it did a great job showing each character’s perspective, making them each unique individuals with their own backgrounds and concerns. The best descriptor for all the characters is “oblivious”. They’re so oblivious it’s endearing; trying to do the right thing but failing to use basic communication skills leads the whole bunch on a comedy of errors that almost (but not quite) resolves by the end. Both characters and plot rely on stereotype and formula, but for me it was a restful experience. If you like character-driven sports stories, fencing, deep and adorable friendships, a bit of romance, and a lot of miscommunication, you might like this book as much as I did.

The original graphic novel series is also available to put on hold through our catalog and on Overdrive, and a sequel (Fence: Disarmed) was released in May and might be available soon through interlibrary loan.

Skincare: Science and Art

For me, the world of skincare has always been confusing, not least because my sensitive skin reacts to products unpredictably. Unfortunately, none of these titles really make skincare less a less baffling arena, but they do give some fascinating scientific or professional perspectives on just what to try in order to have healthy, clear, happy skin.

First, for a radical scientific take, try Clean: the new science of skin by James Hamblin. Hamblin takes a deep dive into the microbes that affect our skin’s health and proposes some serious overhauls to the skincare industry and practice, including showering less to avoid over-washing skin. He reportedly didn’t shower for the entire duration of writing the book.

An Atlas of Natural Beauty by Victoire de Taillac falls more on the beauty side of skincare, with a detailed encyclopedia-type description of how a wide variety of botanicals and plants can be minimally processed into effective beauty and skincare aids. A fascinating and aesthetically appealing version of the topic.

The Clear Skin Diet by Nina and Randa Nelson is part-memoir, part health manual, drawn from the twin authors’ experiences fighting their acne growing up. After trying all the medical and chemical interventions, the sisters Nelson found success by making radical changes to their diet. Apparently they were inspired by cultures and communities around the world who have no acne.

Goop Clean Beauty is more of an instruction manual from the lifestyle website / newsletter created by Gwyneth Paltrow. It highlights the ways that beauty starts with health, beginning with clean eating and moving into makeup and skincare recommendations.

The Age Fix by Anthony Youn is the work of a plastic surgeon who’s spent years compiling advice from his colleagues in plastic surgery as well as cosmetologists, dermatologists, dieticians, and more, all to give the reader a one-stop shop for advice on keeping skin looking young. Like the Nelson sisters, he encourages people to think about their diet in order to affect the look and feel of their skin; he also reveals that expensive creams and surgeries are not necessarily the most effective solutions. A refreshing take, coming from someone in his profession, if you ask me.

Younger by Harold Lancer is, similarly, the advice of a Beverly Hills dermatologist attempting to cut through all the confusing and contradictory advice. Apparently he also recommends products at various price points to support different budgets, none of which are as complicated or expensive as you might think. His main focus is on stimulating the skin’s own natural healing power in order to maintain or restore youthful, healthy skin.

If you want to dive into the world of skincare and get some different perspectives, try any combination of these titles to get started – and then double-check with your doctor.

Popular Manga Explained: My Hero Academia by Kohei Horikoshi

Have you ever wondered what the heck people are talking about when they rave about a series of manga (Japanese comics read from right-to-left) or anime (Japanese animation)? So have I – and luckily for you I have made it my mission to educate myself about things I never seem to stop hearing about. My latest escapade was into the wildly popular My Hero Academia manga series, which is also a smash hit anime available on DVD. Here’s my breakdown of what it’s all about, my reading experience and why all lovers of superhero stories and high school dramas should give it a try.

My Hero Academia is like The Karate Kid meets The X-Men. It imagines a world where 80% of people are born with a unique superpower, or Quirk, that sets them up for a life of superhero stardom or villainy (depending on their preference). In a world where amazing superheroes are commonplace, a boy named Midoriya (also called Deku) is their biggest fan and a dedicated memorizer of superhero trivia. He wants nothing more than to be a hero himself one day, but unfortunately for his dreams he was born without a Quirk – a fact his bully Bakugo (also called Kacchan) never lets him forget. Then one day, a chance encounter with All Might, the most legendary superhero of all, changes his fate and plunges him into the cutthroat world of the city’s best superhero training academy. Deku finds himself making new friends and enemies, meeting unusual classroom demands, AND struggling to master his new abilities without revealing how he got them. Action, hilarity, and inspiring determination ensue.

Personally, my main struggle with manga is getting into the right headspace – as translated works they have an entirely different culture built in which takes some getting used to when you start reading. Most obviously, you start at the opposite end of the book from where Western books begin, and you read from the right side of the page to the left. If you can make that switch, there’s Japanese names to master and a very dramatic art style. However, once I get my brain in the right gear, I love manga’s big-scale action and even bigger-scale emotions, not to mention the wildly creative character design. My Hero Academia in particular is the ultimate underdog story, filled with a wildly diverse set of characters, each with a very unique superpower to set them apart. I quickly got hooked and wanted more of Deku’s unending perseverance. Bonus: if you’re not into the different reading style, you can watch the anime to get the same story in color.

If you like teen dramas, superheroes, mutants, and/or underdogs, this may be a story for you. And the library has all the manga volumes AND anime seasons, so it’s never too late to jump in and experience the phenomenon.

The Year of Less by Cait Flanders

You’ve probably seen a book like this before – promising to tell you the secret to escaping the cage of your material goods, into a brighter and more fulfilling life. How-to manuals on this subject are everywhere, but that’s not quite what’s happening in The Year of Less by Cait Flanders.

More than anything, The Year of Less is a really good story. Cait Flanders tells her own tale of how she navigated her way out of various addictions, including buying things to try and make herself feel better. Her journey began when she decided to undertake a shopping ban for one whole year: for 12 months she would only be allowed to buy consumables like groceries and toiletries and other essentials. Buying new clothes, housewares, books, etc. was all off the table. Each chapter focuses on a month, in which she tells the story of her most significant epiphany from that month, and how her journey was affected by that month’s circumstances. Any advice or “how-to” feel seems to happen by accident as the reader is drawn along, fascinated by Flanders’ story.

As a blogger, Flanders knows how to structure each short chapter and keep the reader’s attention with bite-size anecdotes that all build into a larger, more profound narrative. Bits of wisdom and insight are scattered throughout, and it was these that gave me a sense of wonder and clarity. Flanders knows, as she writes, that the specific advice of what to get rid of and how are less important than uncovering the emotions and habits that caused the clutter to build up in the first place. Good tidbits include: sometimes we buy things for the ideal person we’d like to be instead of the person we actually are; buying things is a way of insulating against pain, so instead we need to learn to feel things and keep on living; a shopping ban is a countercultural lifestyle and as such will face digs and doubt and peer pressure from those around you.

If you’re interested in memoirs, minimalism, mindfulness, organization, or things like intentional consumerism and the zero waste movement, this may be the book for you.

Hidden Database Gems: MasterFILE Premier

Our available library databases have recently changed! Unfortunately, this means we no longer have Credo Reference, Chilton’s, or some Gale databases. However, we have gained a great new resource! With your library card, you now have access to MasterFILE Premier, a database of full-text articles, primary source documents, and more! Including publications like Consumer Reports, Kiplinger’s, and Newsweek, it’s perfect for research, and the interface will be familiar to anyone who’s used an EBSCOhost database before. If you haven’t, here’s how it works:

If you click on MasterFILE Premier on our list of Online Resources, you may be asked to sign in with your library card number, and then you’ll be taken to the basic search page.

To get the most and broadest results, put a general search term in here and hit search.

If the results aren’t what you’re looking for, try a similar search term or related words in the search box on the top of the results page.

If you’re looking to narrow your results down to what’s most relevant, you’ll want to click on Advanced Search underneath the search box. Here, you can search only in one particular publication, you can choose what kind of resources you want to find, you can limit to full-text results, you can specify a range of publication dates, and more! This is also where you can use Boolean searching, where you search multiple terms at once connected by words like AND, OR, and NOT – these limit, broaden, or define your search, respectively. The strategies and tools on this page will give you the most relevant items and cut down on the time you’ll spend sifting through the results.

When you have a list of results, you can narrow down your results list using filters along the left side of the page. Here, you can pick what kinds of publications to draw from, pick specific publications, narrow it down by language, publication date, category, and more.

Once you find something interesting, you have a few options: You can click on the title or on the Full Text version from the result list, as shown.

Clicking on the title will give you a detailed record of what the resource is, as well as some tools to save or access it AND the option to find similar results.

Choosing the full-text version, meanwhile, lets you read the resource directly, access more from the publication, and access the same tools to save or share it.

And as always, if you need any help using this or our other resources, don’t hesitate to contact us for some assistance! Our Book-A-Librarian service is available again, allowing you to reserve a dedicated session for help with any number of topics, including databases and digital resources.

For Small Creatures Such As We by Sasha Sagan

We all deserve holidays, celebrations, and traditions. We all need to mark time. We all need community. We all need to bid hello and goodbye to our loved ones… All our best rituals are a kind of performance about what we need or want most.

Sasha Sagan is the daughter of renowned cosmologist Carl Sagan and writer Ann Druyan, which gave her a uniquely scientific upbringing. Her parents focused on teaching her the wonders of the universe and the powers of critical thinking and the scientific method. When she became a parent, Sagan and her partner had to decide what philosophies and beliefs they wanted to teach their own child, and the result of that decision is her book For Small Creatures Such As We.

Sasha Sagan is presenting a secular worldview,  but is not hostile to religious perspectives. She expresses a warm curiosity and appreciation for the history of religious traditions around the world, and seeks to capture the spirit of religious rituals and festivals in her own life. Accordingly, she focuses each chapter on an aspect of life which has given rise to rituals in different religions: birth, coming-of-age, the changing of seasons, marriage, death, and more. She outlines how different traditions have celebrated these events, and offers meditations on their meaning alongside potential adaptations for secular or personal rituals. At its core, though, Sagan is urging us to really feel and celebrate the magic of being alive, however it works for us as individuals.

I enjoyed this book for the poetic descriptions of what living is, and I was moved by how honestly she talked about loving, losing, and grieving her father. I also thought she gave meaningful perspective on a lot of traditions and rituals that run through our lives. I came away feeling enlightened about the traditions that have shaped my life, and empowered to craft rituals that would add meaning to my own marking of time.

No matter your belief system, I think if you’re looking for a meditative read on how the sacred meets the everyday, there’s something in this book for you.

Better Than People by Roan Parrish

I’ve reviewed one of Roan Parrish’s earlier works before and while I loved it, it had some issues. I’m happy to report that in her more recent Garnet Run series many of my complaints have been fixed! The first in a duology, Better Than People is a sweet romance for animal lovers and mental health advocates alike.

Jack is a prickly artist who has surrounded himself with a menagerie of animals, finding their company more enjoyable and trustworthy after a recent betrayal. Unfortunately, he can’t find his usual joy in taking care of them after breaking his leg in an accident. He’s going to need help – his least favorite situation to be in. Enter Simon, a man burdened with crippling shyness soothed only by the company of animals and his recently-widowed grandmother. But that’s his problem: his grandmother is terribly allergic to animals, keeping him from having a pet of his own. Having Simon walk Jack’s dogs (and cat) solves both their immediate problems AND their underlying loneliness, as a business arrangement blooms into love. But there’s a reason they both prefer animals to people; can their love triumph?

Being a shy animal lover myself, I really sympathized with the characters in this case, and I appreciated that Parrish’s take on anxiety and shyness is NOT “they need to get out more”, but rather a compassionate observation that some people are just built differently and have different social needs. To have Jack respond empathetically to Simon and listen to what he needs was exactly what I, as an anxious mess myself, needed to read.

If you take comfort and company from animal friends, if you find other people difficult to navigate sometimes, and if you like stories of supportive, affirming love (with spicy scenes mixed in), this may be the book for you.

The Hate Project by Kris Ripper

The master of unconventional happily-ever-afters has struck again! Kris Ripper’s The Hate Project, follow-up to The Love Study, is another compassionate and honest look at love in the midst of anxiety, focusing on being honest with yourself about what you really want.

Oscar struggles with just about everything, weighed down by his almost-manageable mental illness. One way he copes is by being a grouch, avoiding people where possible and sniping at them when he can’t. Since Jack joined their friend group, he’s taken on most of Oscar’s sniping, and giving back as much snark as he gets. But all that changes after Oscar is laid off – again. In desperate need of a purpose and structure, he agrees to help Jack clean out his grandmother’s house so it can be sold, in return for financial payment and a no-strings sexual arrangement. But soon he’s seeing a new side of Jack, and of himself as he starts to actually enjoy being in someone’s company. Even stranger, Jack seems to enjoy HIS company. Oscar tries to run away, as usual, but he just can’t forget how good it was being with Jack (both in and out of the bedroom). Could it be possible to face his fears and ask for a second chance?

I read this book in a day, I was so charmed by how relatable, funny, and frustrating Oscar is as a narrator. Ripper doesn’t gloss over any of the realities of living with anxiety and depression, but while it’s hard to read Oscar’s depressive sections, it just makes it more gratifying to watch him grow, admit the truth to himself, and try something different. Moreover, the depiction of an unconditionally loving and supportive chosen family is very heartwarming, a good example of how to support loved ones with mental illness. AND, as is the case in The Love Study, Ripper does an excellent job showing alternative ways for people to be intimate and make a relationship that works for them.

If you’re looking for a compassionate romance with plus-size representation, good depictions of mental illness, sharp banter, and a couple you’ll root for, you might like The Hate Project.

Burn Zone by Annabeth Albert

If you like steamy romances with an age gap, a hint of danger and lots of angst, I may have a book for you!

Annabeth Albert’s Hotshots series features brooding smoke jumpers – firefighters who parachute into wildfires to keep them contained – falling reluctantly into love, and it starts with Burn Zone, starring Lincoln and Jacob, two smoke jumpers who have been fighting their attraction to each other for about as long as they’ve known each other. Lincoln is the older man, a veteran smoke jumper who was best friends with Jacob’s late brother. His difficult past has made him slow to trust and quick to leave, but Jacob makes him want to stay. Jacob is the new recruit, eager to get out of his brother’s shadow and prove himself, and just as eager to explore the heat between them. Lincoln wants to honor his friend’s memory, but can’t resist Jacob’s charms; neither man is prepared for the true and tender connection that blooms.

Now, for me, some of the writing and plot were a bit clunky, and I was less engaged by the steamy scenes than I might’ve expected. However, I was totally hooked by the emotional journey of the characters as they navigated the miscommunications and unspoken feelings threatening to separate them. The cultural immersion into the world of smoke jumping firefighters was interesting, and the threat of rejection from unsupportive family members and conservative communities was heartbreakingly real.

This might not be a masterpiece of the genre, but it’s a stirring and exciting story of love that just won’t quit. If you’re looking for an escapist read with heat both in and out of the bedroom, try Burn Zone by Annabeth Albert.

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir

Full disclosure: The Martian is my favorite book, maybe ever, so I’m coming into this review with a fair bit of bias. That said, in my opinion Project Hail Mary is a worthy follow-up to The Martian, with the same kind of humor, heart, high stakes, and rock-solid science.

Here’s the gist (without spoilers): Dr. Ryland Grace wakes up alone and confused in a spaceship (the eponymous Hail Mary) VERY far from Earth. He’s lost his memory, and his two crewmates died in suspended animation. It’s up to him to figure out exactly who he is, how he got there, what the ship’s mission is, and how he can complete it on his own. And he’d better hurry, because all of life on Earth is at stake.

If that sounds intense, it is – but Grace also makes jokes and laughs as much as he can, while not shying away from the huge responsibility, sacrifice, and loss he’s facing. I really thought this book was effective for several reasons: first, the science. As in The Martian, this book’s science reads to me like plausible and real explanations and solutions. It felt like a book that Weir had a lot of fun writing, with a ton of research to back him up. Second, the character of Ryland Grace was very well done; his emotions, backstory, and feelings of being overwhelmed, repeatedly, make him a relatable narrator that you root for to succeed, while his humor and determination keep the action moving forward at an addictive pace. Third, the narrative structure worked really well. If you’ve ever seen the DC TV show Arrow, you might recognize the strategic use of flashbacks to reveal key information at just the right time. Weir moves carefully and explicitly between Grace’s struggle in the present and all the events in the past that culminated in his being on the ship. It all works together brilliantly to create a story you’ll laugh your way through and won’t want to put down, right up to the very unexpected final pages.

Highly recommended for those who loved The Martian, Cast Away, and other lone-survivor stories of sci-fi or adventure, this is a book which will tug at your heartstrings and stretch your imagination to dazzling new heights.