Reviews by Current and Former Staffers:
Fiction/Literature YA/Children’s Books Non-Fiction
~ General ~
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“Whenever you read a good book, somewhere in the world a door opens to allow in more light.”
Watership Down, by Richard Adams
To say that this is a book about bunnies is to say that To Kill a Mockingbird is about birdies: one completely misses the point. Watership Down is a saga about a society with all of its strengths and weaknesses, a society under siege and forced to move to an unknown place with unknown denizens. You’ll find among these rabbits kin in their trials and joys; indeed, it is a very human story (not to cast aspersions on rabbits.)
Katherine’s Review ∆
Reservation Blues, by Sherman Alexie
Blues legend Robert Johnson mysteriously appears at a crossroads at night in the Spokane Indian Reservation, and bestows his enchanted guitar to unwitting Thomas Builds-the-Fire, and modern native struggling with his own identity as a Spokane alongside with the rest of the western world. Johnson wanders on to the reservation in search of powerful medicine to break his mythic curse (as blues lore would tell you, Johnson supposedly sold his soul to devil in order to become a guitar master), and Thomas forms his own “all-Indian band” named Coyote Springs and embarks on a nationwide journey of fame and eventual downfall. Alexie’s first book is rife with magical realism and Blues-lore and is an absolute blast to read. At the time I read it I cared little about Alexie, but this book made me a fan.
James’ Review ∆
Daughter of Fortune, by Isabel Allende
Allende will whisk you all over the globe with this one! It makes my head hurt to think of all the research she must have had to do, because although the primary parts of the book take place in Chile and California, she manages to includes facts from nearly every corner of the world. Right, the plot: an adopted mestiza girl living with a wealthy English family in Valparaiso, Chile, has some sort of conflict (you must read to find out! Oh how I am a tease!), and sneaks off to the Gold Rush in California. Along the way she befriends a Chinese fellow and they have all sorts of crazy adventures with prostitutes and destitutes, empanadas and fruit in the Wild Wild West! Phew. Not quite as swashbuckling as her Zorro, and not as “wowza!” as The House of the Spirits, Daughter of Fortune really does have a little bit of everything.
Molly’s Review ∆
The House of the Spirits, by Isabel Allende
Considered by many to be this Chilean author’s magnum opus, The House of the Spirits is a beautiful, tragic, magical account of one family’s journey through history. Although Allende never mentions Chile by name, it is easily inferred. It begins in colonial times and goes right through to the fall of “the candidate” (Salvador Allende) and the ensuing disappearances, tortures, and massacres of the Pinochet regime. It even describes the funeral of “the poet” (Pablo Neruda). This book is not necessarily “light” reading material, but it is a page-turner and a great introduction to Magical Realism. I have yet to meet a soul who dislikes it.
Molly’s Review ∆
Persuasion, by Jane Austen
I am, at the end of the day, a harpsichord playing, tea-sipping, Mr. Darcy loving, Jane Austen kind of girl. If you have not enjoyed Austen novels, I will not suggest that you read Persuasion. However, if you like your Emma with milk and two sugars, you will find this book to be lovely. Her last completed novel, Persuasion shows a marked maturity from her earlier works. (For a startling comparison read Northanger Abbey immediately followed by Persuasion, the contrast will blow you away!) As in all of her work, Persuasion showcases Austen’s immaculate skills of social observation, coupled with a light romance in high society settings (Lyme-Regis and Bath). Persuasion is a must-read for the classic English literature fan.
Molly’s Review ∆
The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank
The Wonder Spot follows the book’s narrator Sophie Applebaum from the beginning of her adolescence, into adulthood. This book is a very compelling atypical coming of age story. Bank writes in a way that gives the reader a glimpse into the defining moments in Sophie’s life which end up shaping the person she becomes in each chapter. These chapters are like short stories themselves, and every character is unnervingly realistic. What I loved most about this book is how easy it was to relate to Sophie. She’s curious about what motivates her family and friends to easily make huge decisions in life that seem so hard for her to make. Even though I wasn’t completely satisfied with the ending, this is a wonderfully written and engaging pick up-put down book.
Hillary’s Review ∆
Griffin and Sabine, by Nick Bantock
Griffin and Sabine, by Nick Bantock, is not just a book. It is an experience. The book consists of correspondence between two people in different countries, one a designer of cards and another artist who can “see” his work as he produces it–and even as he erases it. The format is enchanting with the deepening dialogue expressed through postcards and envelopes with actual letters inside of them. The entire book, and most especially the correspondence, is profusely and lovingly illustrated by Nick Bantock in the guise of these two characters. This is a book to be shared, and to be slowly savored. Katherine’s Review ∆
Ocean Sea, by Alessandro Baricco
Alessandro Baricco rocks my world. I love his style, and his ideas, and his characters, and his hair…actually, I’ve never seen his hair, though I’m sure I’d love it if I did. But his books are just awesome. This one was a bit of a surprise for me–somehow, not quite what I was expecting, but so, so cool. As usual for a Baricco novel, everyone is crazy…or maybe they’re not crazy…that’s the thing: you really can’t tell. The plot is incredibly elusive, yet fascinating. Not for the faint of heart or the concrete of mind, perfect for the stream-of-consciousness postmodern art-loving sailor. To coin a phrase.
Kirsten’s Review ∆
The Double Bind, by Chris Bohjalian
When college sophomore Laurel Estabrook is attacked while riding her bicycle through Vermont’s back roads, her life is forever changed. Formerly outgoing, she withdraws into her photography and begins to work at a homeless shelter. There she meets Bobbie Crocker, a man with a history of mental illness and a box of photographs that he won’t let anyone see. When Bobbie dies suddenly, Laurel discovers that he was telling the truth: before he was homeless, Bobbie Crocker was a successful photographer who had indeed worked with such legends as Chuck Berry, Robert Frost, and Eartha Kitt. As Laurel’s fascination with Bobbie’s former life begins to merge into obsession, she becomes convinced that some of his photographs reveal a deeply hidden, dark family secret. Her search for the truth will lead her further from her old life– and into a cat-and-mouse game with pursuers who claim they want to save her. ∆
Midwives, by Chris Bohjalian
Don’t let the fact that this was featured by Oprah either win you over or deter you. It’s a quick, very compelling read about a midwife on trial for negligent homicide: the mur
der of a pregnant woman whose child she successfully delivered by an impromptu c-section. Bohjalian tells this story through court records, the midwife’s journals, and the observations of the midwife’s own daughter. The very last pages are fantastic, so don’t spoil it by reading those first! Katherine’s Review ∆
Wuthering Heights by Emily Bronte
I first read this book last year because I’m on a “classics” reading kick. It wasn’t one I was excited about as I thought it was a romance novel because the only people I knew who had read it were women and they all referred to it as “a great love story”. But I was determined to read it anyway and I’m glad I did. Wuthering Heights is now one of my three favorite books. This story is more about revenge and obsession than the love between Heathcliff and Catherine. The characters are strong willed, well written and developed, so I spent a lot of time fuming and yelling and shaking my head in disappointment and confusion. They’re selfish, jealous and manipulative. Because of the choices they make they ruin the lives of decent people around them.
Heathcliff is a young orphan in the city when Mr. Earnshaw finds and takes him to Wuthering Heights, his homestead on the moors, and to his own children Hindley and Cathrine. Hindley resents how much his father prefers Heathcliff. Cathy and Heathcliff spend all of their time together, become thick as thieves and fall in love. Until, that is, she meets neighbor Edgar, who is well bred and comes from a decent family. And this is where our “great love story” turns into a dark tale of revenge, and regret. I wasn’t expecting any of the things that happen after that fateful meeting on the moors, and that is what kept me engrossed with this story. Characters are driven to madness, drunkenness and eventually death while servants watch and their opinions fall on deaf ears. In the end, everyone at Wuthering Heights gets what they deserve, both bad and good.
Hillary’s Review ∆
March by Geraldine Brooks
In the beloved classic Little Women, Louisa May Alcott tells the story of the March family. Marmee and her four daughters shoulder the burdens of poverty and learn the grace of womanhood while their chaplain husband/father is gone to offer his services to Union soldiers during the Civil War. (It’s a beautiful book that I’m reading to my daughter, Isabel, at bedtime. Since I can stay up late, I’ve already finished March, the story of Mr. March.) I was enthralled. This book is compelling enough to stand on its own but the reading experience was especially rich coupled with Little Women. We learn that the innocent-sounding letters Mr. March wrote to his wife in Little Women were purposely crafted to shield his family from the horrors of war and slavery, which Brooks skillfully details. In March, we watch a man struggle with truth and courage and the guilt that comes from feeling he lacked both at key moments. This great work of historical fiction was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 and is a surprisingly fast read. You’ll enjoy it whether or not you’re a Civil War buff. (It also makes me want to read more of the New England Transcendentalists like Emerson and Thoreau, who were both characters in this novel.)
Cinnamon’s Review ∆
Closing Arguments, by Frederick Busch
If you desperately need linear plot and clarity, then by all means put this book down and slowly back away. If you can handle a smart, legal thriller–in which defending counsel struggles with his own mid-life breakdown that his wife thinks resonates back to his time as a POW in Vietnam–then go for it. A defendant is accused of murdering her lover. The lawyer becomes involved outside the courtroom. There are flashbacks and spirals and violent sex and betrayal…but you should remember that I said this book was smart.
Cinnamon’s Review ∆
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
How I’ve gone so long without recommending a Raymond Carver collection of short stories is beyond me. Carver’s brilliance is his subtlety. His minimalist style crescendos in the great majority of these works to perfection; a writer obviously in love with short stories. He is an author who can pinpoint the normalcy of life and turn it into something amazing. I cannot say enough. Ray inspired a generation of readers, writers and poets. I rank this in the “put-aside-whatever-you-think-you-have-to-read-and-read-this” category.
Matthew’s Review ∆
The House on Mango Street, by Sandra Cisneros
“At school they say my name funny as if the syllables were made out of tin and hurt the roof of your mouth. But in Spanish my name is made out of a softer something, like silver…”
This is a tiny book–110 pages full of interwoven vignettes about a girl growing up in a Latino part of Chicago. I like it because Cisneros captures her character’s age well–a kaleidoscope of sass and wonder and poignancy. Growing up means entering the world and becoming conscious of the brutality and the beauty and trying to find your place. How does Cisneros get all of that into this tiny book?!
I recommend this book to all kinds of people. It’s a trim, powerful read and you won’t regret the couple hours you spend with it in the least. However, it has the added bonus of being appropriate for those precocious, mid-teens. I look forward to handing it to my daughter when she gets old enough. I think she’ll like reading about Esperanza, a girl who is deciding for herself.
South of the Pumphouse by Les Claypool
South of the Pumphouse is the first novel by Les Claypool, the bassist of Primus. It starts out as a plan for a simple fishing trip between Ed, the main character, and his brother Earl. Ed hadn’t seen his brother since their father died, and Earl had become a junkie. When
Earl invites his childhood friend (and Ed’s tormentor) along, things get a little strange. In a hallucinogenic mushroom trance Ed and his brother witness something amazing, just before a huge twist that will leave you stunned.
The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon
Raymond Shaw, winner of the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions in the Korean War, is living a lie…but he doesn’t know it. He’s been brainwashed by the Communists to become a perfect killing machine, an assassin, controlled by a deck of cards wielded by his “handler” to influence American politics and the Presidential election. Richard Condon created this character in his 1959 novel, The Manchurian Candidate, and later on many people thought it prescient of the Kennedy assassinations, as well as epitomizing the 1950’s, focusing on psychological manipulation and the Red Scare.
I set myself the task of reading this book, feeling that I “should,” and enjoyed it quite a lot though I didn’t want to. There is ample evidence that Condon plagiarized Robert Graves in this novel, and his writing style can be generously described as mercurial. In spite of that, I was sucked in to the story and even found myself feeling pity for Shaw, who is as unlikeable a character as one could meet. The pacing is good and the conspiracy is surprisingly compelling. It’s also a great introduction to the temper of the times. Read the book before seeing the movie (either one!)
A Home at the End of the World & The Hours by Michael Cunningham
This has happened to everyone: You read a great story, a truly great story. It haunts you. The characters and events are forever embedded in your brain. The title–and the name of the story’s author, however, are forgotten. It becomes one of those *dammit* things. You can’t find the book with the story in it. You remember it was some kind of anthology. You think it had a yellow cover. You go to bookstores and drive the clerks a little crazy. (Come on, don’t try to tell ME you don’t.) Well, I admit it. I did this too. In 1989. Before the internet. Imagine my delight, that when reading Michael Cunningham’s A Home at the End of the World, I found that story was a chapter in the novel. *aha!*
I love these Cunningham books for the beautiful way they portray the desperation and struggles of the characters. The man knows his way around the language. But he doesn’t stop there. A “haunting” book is something that scares you a little. It has to let you watch characters do things that you’ll say to yourself you would never do. And it has to draw those characters well enough so that you say that to yourself over and over – in attempt at reassurance. Cunningham comes through. These are not books about destruction and annihilation. They are full of hope and fragility and beauty.
So, WRITE DOWN the titles and the author’s name before you come shopping. There’s really only so much we bookstore clerks can take.
White Noise, by Don DeLillo
Jack Gladney has a few secrets, so does his wife. Set at a college on a hill, White Noise offers humorous accounts of academics, family life, and looming, man-made environmental threats. My favorite moment in the novel captures Gladney’s family eating fried chicken from buckets in their car. Although fiction, he seems to capture any American family silently devouring greasy, cheap food in the parking lot of a fast-food chain. Spanning every topic from Hitler to pharmaceuticals, this novel winkles out the new American story. Winner of the 1985 National Book Award, White Noise should be on your shelf next to The Canterbury Tales and A Midsummer Night’s Dream for DeLillo’s ability to understand humanity in all of its frivolities. A must read!
Stones for Ibarra, by Harriet Doerr
Richard and Sara Everton, hovering around age 40, decide to leave San Francisco for rural Mexico. The plan is to revive an old copper mine abandoned by Richard’s grandfather a half-century before. They hope to reconnect to family history and each other. It is mid-life idealism. No surprise, the North Americans don’t mesh perfectly into their new community. They are a culture unto themselves and are keenly observed by the locals. Later, Richard becomes ill. Sara’s imagination grows in proportion as she loses him.
Harriet Doerr wrote this novel, her first, when she was in her seventies. I believe that it was that vantage point that allowed her to write her characters with such wisdom and tenderness. This book is gentle–but never boring. Stones for Ibarra was given the National Book Award in 1985, an honor Doerr richly deserves.
Room by Emma Donoghue
Jack is five years old and he has never been outside. His mother was abducted as a teenager and is forced to negotiate with her captor for healthy food and other necessities. After weeks of planning, Jack escapes, finds help, and rescues his mother. A happy ending, right? This is the story Emma Donoghue writes in her astonishing book, Room . The story itself is captivating, but the fact that Donoghue has made Jack the narrator, and a very convincing one, is mesmerizing. What happens to a little boy who has spent his entire short life in captivity and is then exposed to the outside world? What is his world? What is the definition of “normal?” What makes this book incredible is Emma Donoghue’s ability to create five year old Jack’s voice. Cognitively, I knew I was reading a novel – but I would frequently forget this. Instead, I lived in Jack’s world, saw through his eyes, and was convinced I was listening to his thoughts. Do not miss reading Room . It is an unforgettable experience.
The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas
When I first started The Three Musketeers, I was completely absorbed. I was expecting to see lots of esoteric language from the era, making it hard to read, but I was pleasantly surprised and found that the story is incredibly accessible. Dumas gave each and every character he created their own personality, and in this way, made them truly come alive. The masterpiece Dumas created has everything. I remember at some points biting all my nails down, while laughing out loud at some scenes, and in addition I felt every emotion each character felt. Combining real people from history, and even real events with a clever and fictive hand, this sweeping novel takes you in from the very start and will not let you go, even after the final sentence.
Chris ‘s Review
Rebecca by Daphne DuMaurier
Whenever anyone asks me what my favorite book is (impossible to answer for a bibliophile!) my knee-jerk reaction is always Rebecca. I first read it when I was eleven, and I have reread it several times since. It is set primarily on the dazzling and craggy coast of Cornwall, in the southwest of England, which is one of my favorite spots in the World. More than just the setting, Rebecca is equal parts murder-mystery, love story, adventure, and courtroom drama. I always tell people that the first thirty pages are a little slow, but after that it picks up and does not stop. The characters are unforgettable; the narrator’s husband shows shades of Rochester from Jane Eyre, and the housekeeper is obsessively frightful. It is a haunting and memorable read.
Geek Love, by Katherine Dunn
Geek Love is a challenging novel. It challenges our beliefs and assumptions about what a family is or should be, how we define normalcy, and what constitutes love. This is a strangely funny and disturbing book, partly because what is disturbing here is also funny. Be forewarned, but read it. You’ll find lots to think about.
Ella Minnow Pea: A Novel in Letters by Mark Dunn
On a small island off the coast of South Carolina, Nevin Nollop is celebrated as the sovereign country’s founding father as the author of this sentence: The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog. One day, a letter from this sentence falls from the monument honoring Nollop, and the town council decides it means that Nollop himself has decreed that letter should be banned. As more letters fall, language disintegrates and the country devolves as well – into a police state. Neighbors report on each other, whole families are banished from the island or escape themselves, and the letters exchanged get shorter and increasingly garbled. Language itself will disappear when the last letter falls.
A novel about letters told through letters (appreciate the pun?), this book will delight language lovers. I appreciated the relationship between literacy and freedom that Dunn portrays, and the idea of language being held hostage to both the whims of circumstance and the machinations of government. A great read!
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
This novel is a composed of interlinked stories, told by characters who surface and recede. We begin with Sasha, a kleptomaniac who works for music producer Bennie Salazar. From there, we peek into the lives of tertiary characters as the book takes us back and forth in time. We see Bennie as a high-schooler, in a struggling band with the charismatic Scotty – and later, we see Scotty as a musing janitor who fishes from the East River for dinner. We go on African safari with a music mogul, his current sweet-young-thing, his seething daughter and the reckless rock star he manages. We go inside the mind of a girl who watches her autistic brother and well-meaning but hapless father wildly misconnecting. (In this section, Egan abandons traditional narrative in favor of flow-charts a la power point – an innovation that works really well.) All in all, though, this is a novel about inclusion/exclusion and power – something we contend with on the playground, in the boardroom…everywhere. The longing to belong is hardwired into all of us. People will go to astonishing lengths to be included. However, no matter what, the goon squad of time visits us all.
Someone described this book to me as painfully dark. It’s true that this isn’t a ‘peaches and cream’ sort of read – but it won’t pull you into a vortex of depression, either. It’s a captivating read – and one of the most interesting novels I’ve had in awhile. A writer of lesser skill probably couldn’t even attempt a book like this, but Egan is a master. A Visit to the Goon Squad was awarded the Pulitzer. It’s a great book for discussion!
Cinnamon ‘s Review
The Gathering, by Anne Enright
This novel won the 2007 Booker Prize, which is what drew me to it. It’s about a woman coping with her large, dysfunctional Irish family and the recent suicide of her favorite brother. The narrative is beautiful and disjointed. It flows back and forth between watery childhood memories of witnessing a pivotal event and current experience in her disconnected marriage. The style bothers many readers and spurs complaints that “nothing happens in the book.” If you’re looking for a rip-roaring read, keep looking through our staff recommendations and come back to this when you’re more in the mood for it. In this novel, Enright portrays how a death in the family could drive Veronica into the removed world of her own mind, from which she begins to emerge at the end. Sometimes raw, sometimes tender, it is a quiet, poignant read.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
We could not keep this one in stock for the first year or so after it was published. There was the usual Pulitzer buzz, but this one was different. Tons of younger readers, incredibly taken with the author’s debut novel, The Virgin Suicides, were clamoring for his newest work. Fans of Sofia Coppola’s movie adaptation of The Virgin Suicides also wanted a taste. Anyone with any interest at all in gender issues had to get their hands on it as well. Requests were piling up around the bookstore, and I was running out of patience. So I checked it out from the library. And it almost didn’t make it back in time (oh no! cardinal sin!), as I lent it out to several people during the three weeks that it was in my possession. Middlesex has a lot to offer, and covers an immense amount of ground. Far too much for five people to take in in three weeks, alas… The coming-of-age story of the intersexed Calliope Stephanides provides the centerpiece of the novel, but the family drama behind Cal’s condition is constantly woven in with the action. It’s all about choices, choices, choices: how their repercussions ripple through the generations, how they can ruin everything, how they can save our lives. Good read.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Based in the mid 1970’s in Michigan, The Virgin Suicides is a story of five teenage sisters and their attempt at living a semi-normal but isolated life, under the pressure of their over protective parents. Had the circumstances changed, would it have changed the outcome of the girls? The narration by neighborhood boys infatuated with “the Lisbon girls” leaves a bit of mystery to the story. You find out what an impact one’s life, even your own, can have on someone, perhaps for the rest of their life. I thoroughly enjoyed this book! Captivating from the beginning, I was hooked to the very end. If you’re looking for an uplifting read this probably shouldn’t be next on your list. However, I loved it! Beautifully written, a tear jerker at times; an enthralling read. You will be surprised to learn this is Jeffery Eugenides’s first novel. I highly recommend this book!
The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner
Total Southern Gothic extravaganza! It’s a family drama unlike any that you’ve ever read. Despite the fact that Faulkner combines aspects of just about every literary movement of the last two hundred years within his tangled web of narrative, The Sound and the Fury manages to remain completely unique in its complexity. And the four-part structure of the novel provides something for everyone! Each section has its own narrative voice and extremely particular style, ranging from random stream of consciousness to suicidal depression to linear jerk to what I’m pretty sure is referred to as third person limited omniscient. It gets kinda complicated… and you kinda have to go real slow and repeat the same paragraph over and over at times… but man, is it worth it. I actually read this for the first time when I was just a kid, and had a real thing for Macbeth, and couldn’t resist the title when I found it while digging through the piles of scifi on the closet shelves. I had absolutely no idea what had happened when I’d finished it, but I had a vague feeling that the whole thing was almost unbearably pretty, and I kept reading it again every few years until I finally understood why. These are lousy people in a lousy world, but they’ve got that sick-sweet smell about them, you know? Like the apple you left too long on the windowsill that hasn’t lost its shape and still seems shiny, but you know it’s no good. We’re all afraid of rotting on the inside. It’s easy to connect with the Compson family.
Plum Bun by Jesse Fauset
Plum Bun by Jesse Fauset is a Harlem Renaissance novel about passing. Like Dickens’ novel Great Expectations, the protagonist Angela Murray has a dream to be rich; however, to accomplish her dream, she must marry a white man. The story unfolds like a fairytale with simple, direct, and economic language. It is not a hard read. It is also a novel of development. Masked as a Cinderella story, the novel has fairy-tale elements, but although it blends fairy-tale romance with nursery rhymes, the novel poses powerful questions. The most powerful question is the question of race, which is a central theme in the novel.
This novel just jumped off the shelf one day when I was shelving literature, and I was drawn to its theme. Fauset wrote, like so many women writers, using the expected female genre of her time, and the novel could be read simply as a romance; yet, Plum Bum is no mere romance novel. The romance genre, in a way, keeps the reader safe. This novel is a wonderful but powerful examination of how we view, contribute to, and construct racial, economic, and gender differences. We can all learn something by reading this novel.
Carolyn ‘s Review
Then We Came To The End by Joshua Ferris
If you’ve had the opportunity to talk with me at any length (“opportunity” may not be the word you would use, especially if you have talked with me at any length) you know I can be a tad cynical. So when I see Mr. Ferris has written his first novel in (almost) completely first person plural, I think this is a cheap trick. I read the first few sentences already annoyed realizing, “Oh nice, it’s about an office and all the quirky, white-collared antics that happen there. How cute.”
However, it’s not a cheap trick. It works. And it continues to work for the rest of the novel. And it ‘ s not ” The Office ” or ” Dilbert ” or ” Office Space ” . It is infinitely more genuine. It is rare to read a book ‘ s blurbs and get a feeling that those reviewing the book actually read it, let alone liked it, and beyond that honestly think YOU should read it, too. The trade paperback copy I picked up of Joshua Ferris ‘ s book is littered with blurbs. Surprisingly, after having read the book, they all seem sincere and true.
It takes maybe two pages to sense the subtle humanity unfolding in each paragraph. This author takes out no blunt instruments and I never felt like I was reading through “filler”. Tangents do flare out, however they are delicately circled back into the main storyline and only add, not distract from the narrative. It is a marvelous book packed with humor and tragedy, courting the profane and the miserable, and honorably detailing the dynamic, the dull, and the eclectic 9-to-5 community.
The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
Perfect beach reading for the snooty intellectual. Embrace your elitist tendencies, friends, and have a good laugh! Welcome to an alternative 1985 in which the Crimean War still rages, cloning has made resurrected dodos the pot bellied pig of the day, and bizarre Brit Lit allusions run rampant through the pages like dingoes through the nursery on a hot Australian night. (Help! Police! Wackford Squeers stole my baby! Wherever is that damned Lestrade when a person needs him?)
SpecOps agent Thursday Next has a helluva job regulating literary crime now that the Prose Portal allows avid readers and supervillians alike to enter the pages of any book ever written. England’s streets are dangerously full of Baconians and Marlovians debating Shakespearean Authorship gangwar-style, and her masterpieces are suspiciously empty of several pivotal characters. Throw in some eccentric Next family drama, an amusing dash of time travel, and a thorough reworking of Jane Eyre, and you’ve got a series-opener that’ll keep you coming back for more. Fforde has produced four fantastic Thursday Next novels so far, with a fifth (better be fantastic, or else…) coming out this July. Fans of the Brontes, Monty Python, Dickens, Asimov, Romantic poetry, Douglas Adams, Orwell, Monopoly and a good time in general will be delighted. Folks looking for more dingo jokes may be disappointed.
Bridget Jones’s Diary, by Helen Fielding
And speaking of English social comedy… this is a quick read and great fun, whether or not you’ve read Pride and Prejudice and are already familiar with the characters and plot. Bridget has more girlish worries than Jane Austen’s Elizabeth, and the book is satisfying in that “Sex in the City” sort of way. Bridget is 30, single, and would like to lose 7 pounds, stop smoking and develop Inner Poise. Bridget fumbles and makes mistakes and keeps us laughing. Cheerio!
White Oleander, by Janet Fitch
I avoided this for awhile due to the big “Oprah” stamp on the cover. Don’t let that dissuade you. I was convinced to read it when a friend gushed about the beautiful language in the book. “It’s like going into a flower shop and taking a deep breath,” she said. She’s right. It’s poetic and exciting. It’s not a “chick” book. The guys to whom I’ve recommended it have loved it.
The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Let me start off by saying that Fiction is not my strongest suit in the book world. I find it difficult most times to get sucked into stories of make believe. With that said, I got sucked right into the Great Gatsby. Fitzgerald’s prose combined with his sharp wit was just what the doctor ordered for this Non-fiction fan. His acclaimed masterpiece was a real delight of a read. Makes me wish I didn’t skim ho-hum through it when it was required reading back in high school. As it takes place over a summer in the “Roaring 20s” it’s sure to be a great summer read for a lazy afternoon.
Everything is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran-Foer
I laughed out loud for the first half of this cleverly narrated book. I cried uncontrollably for the second half. In between, I drank heavy amounts of Earl Grey tea whilst re-evaluating my life. This book is just exceptional. Difficult to describe, it is narrated in part by a story the protagonist is writing about his Ukrainian Jewish ancestry, and in part by his Ukrainian translator/tour-guide that learned English from bad hip-hop and an overuse of the thesaurus a la Joey Tribianni. Everything is tied together by letters between the two, which take the reader on a sentimental and outrageous trip through the Ukrainian countryside with a crotchety grandfather and his three-legged dog. Everything is Illuminated is refreshing and heartbreaking at the same time.
A Room with a View, by E. M. Forster
I love English social comedy and how the plots of novels like this twist around convention. I like the manners and the fussiness of propriety – and the rebellion of a character like Lucy Honeychurch, whose mother says that playing the piano always makes her “peevish”. And, of course, I love Lucy’s adventures traveling through Europe while chaperoned by her older cousin. She is foolish and passionate – and I “took great delight” in reading about her. I enjoyed the Merchant-Ivory film, too. Helena Bonham Carter is sooooooo young! Cinnamon’s Review
Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
Billy Lynn and his fellow Bravo squad soldiers, whose Iraq war heroics were captured on video by an embedded journalist, are home in the US on a two-week “Victory Tour”. The final event of the tour is a Dallas Cowboys game on Thanksgiving weekend, where they are to be part of a halftime show featuring Beyonce. Funny and absurd, this well-written novel is reminiscent of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22. It has a lot of heart and there’s a poignancy to Billy’s character that contrasts sharply with the machinations of the Hollywood producer who wants to broker the sale of their story, the owner of the Cowboys who showcases them for entertainment value and the government who puts them on a public relations parade through ‘Merica. This book will make you shake your head and roll your eyes at those who control the gears – but it will also make you laugh out loud. I enjoyed it immensely. As soon as I finished reading it, I gave it to my father-in-law. This compelling novel was the recipient of the National Book Critics Circle Award and a finalist for the National Book Award. A good book club choice.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
I have been really enjoying reading Spanish authors recently, such as Perez-Reverte and Coelho. I asked a classmate of mine who was buying a Garcia Marquez book which one I should start with and he recommended this title to me. He was right. I had never really tried reading a love story before, but I think that this was a great book to start off with. The story follows three main characters, from their younger days all the way through to old age. It involves a love triangle, but with the third being distant and close to unacknowledged by the other two. The third, Florentino Ariza, had been madly in love with young Fermina Daza, who realized that their love was nothing but an illusion. She grew up to marry a famous doctor, who could give her everything in the world, Dr. Juvenal Urbino. This never dissuades Ariza from his delusions that he was still meant to be with Daza, and he lives his whole life around a woman who barely realizes of his existence. Garcia Marquez uses a masterful hand to create the pain, anguish, and happiness of all the characters he brings to life and if you like a sad story, but one with hope throughout, I highly recommend this title.
Provinces of Night by William Gay
William Gay was not on my radar at all – and then a customer recommended this book. I’m so glad he did. It’s beautifully written – language junkies like me will fall for it right away. This is a great southern novel, set in Tennessee in the 50’s – banjo music, drunken ramblings, knife fights in boxcars, moonshine in jugs hidden in the backyard, five promiscuous sisters rumored to bury their unwanted babies in fruit jars – the sort of life-in-the-shadows we love to read about in William Faulkner or Cormac McCarthy novels. Fleming Bloodworth is a 17 year-old bookish guy abandoned by his mother (who ran off with a peddler) and then also abandoned by his father (who took a knife and set out to kill his wife’s suitor). Fleming has two uncles – one a drunken philanderer and the other a voodoo practicing soothsayer. Not much help there. He’s an extremely likeable character and I found myself bracing for his tragic end or bitter disappointment – the stuff we read about in Faulkner or McCarthy. I was delighted to find so much humor in this book. One section in particular had me laughing out loud. Fleming makes some surprising choices and I did not anticipate this novel’s ending. Fans of Southern Gothic will like this a lot. Booksellers desperate to satisfy readers craving more Faulkner and more McCarthy will find William Gay a saving grace.
Cinnamon ‘s Review
The Lord of the Flies, by William Golding
One of the most exciting reads of all time. Your heart will be pounding toward the end. It’s a page-turner of an adventure novel but it doesn’t stop there. You’ll be thinking about good/evil, nature/nurture, instinct, intellect, society and government long after you finish the last page. If you haven’t revisited this book since it was assigned to you in high school, pick it up again. I just re-read it and found that, even knowing what happens, I couldn’t put it down. A fantastic book club selection!
Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen
When Timothy Schaffert told me he was teaching a weekend seminar called “Hooking Up” and was getting feedback about novels that really hook the reader, I suggested this. It grabs you from the start with a catastrophe – and you’re drawn into the book to find out what events led up to it. Jacob Jankowski is a ninety-something nursing home resident who spent the Depression years working in a second-rate traveling circus. He takes us back and forth in his memory which is filled with trained horses, sequined women, angry men in top hats – and one very special elephant. This was recently named as a finalist for the 2007 One Book, One Lincoln selection. I highly recommend it!
Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, by Mark Haddon
The book begins with a “mysterious incident” of our narrator’s neighbor’s dog’s death…though this novel is not your usual whodunit. The story’s protagonist, a 15 year old autistic boy, navigates through his world searching for clues to the canine’s untimely demise. Mark Haddon has been lauded for bringing the inner workings of an autistic child’s mind to light. This a novel you (trying not to sound to cliche here) really do experience. I have a severe aversion to 1st person narratives, though this book is one I latched into and truly felt engaged in. It is quick, it is intelligent, it is raw and empathetic…one of those few books I can hand to almost anyone and know they will enjoy.
Roots: The Saga of an American Family by Alex Haley
For my first staff recommendation I decided upon Roots because it is one of my favorite books. I first read it many years ago because I had become a fan of the author after reading The Autobiography of Malcolm X: As Told to Alex Haley. If I had been impressed with Haley after Malcolm X it was nothing compared to how I felt after reading Roots. Rarely have I been as moved by a book as I was by this one. There were times when I was literally crying as I was reading. Even though it is a very long book and the subject matter is intense and disturbing (Kunte Kinte’s ocean crossing is harrowing to say the least) I simply could not put it down. And in spite of its serious subject matter, when I finished the book I couldn’t help but feel uplifted. For this is ultimately the story of one family’s triumph over adversity through sheer determination to hang onto what is most important to them: their roots. If you want a challenging but ultimately emotionally gratifying read, this book is for you.
Liz ‘s Review
Tinkers by Paul Harding
In college, I took a class called “Drugs & Society”. I learned that everyone, in all cultures, seeks to alter their reality and experience the world a different way. Children do this by spinning. Adults fast for days, get on rollercoasters, spend time in sweat lodges or take mood/mind-altering substances. This book is a mind-altering substance. Its opening sentence is: “George Washington Crosby began to hallucinate eight days before he died.” The book visits and revisits the membranes between one world and the next – the thin line of change between living and dying, sleeping and waking, one season and another, the still surface of a pond that separates the known world above from the murky world below. It demands a unique attention from the reader, who won’t be carried through on plot. I didn’t have that kind of attention to offer it at first. I set the book aside for a week. It isn’t a long book – 191 pages – but it’s a lot like reading Faulkner or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Ponderous and rewarding – but you must take time to ponder. In the first few pages, George is in a hospital bed in the living room of the house he built. He imagines that he and the bed fall through the floor and, from the basement where he lands, he looks up to see the gaping hole with its jagged lumber and nails. It becomes a vortex and all of his life is sucked in to fall on top of him until “the vast blue of the sky followed, draining from the heights into that cluttered concrete socket. Next fell the stars, tinkling about him like heaven shaken loose. Finally, the black vastation itself came untacked and draped over the entire heap, covering George’s confused obliteration.” This is Harding’s first novel. It won the Pulitzer Prize and is no less than brilliant.
Cinnamon ‘s Review
The Distracted Preacher and Other Tales, by Thomas Hardy
Do you like the classically macabre but can’t stomach a whole “drenched in untimely death with constant suffering” Hardy novel? Then take your Tess of the D’Urbervilles trauma in small and practical doses and read The Distracted Preacher. These short stories are all set in Hardy’s traditional Wessex and each offers a rather macabre plot with often startling endings. Though not as grisly as Poe, this collection’s subtlety gives me a different (and oddly enjoyable) kind of creeps. Do yourself a favor and skip the first story, as it is rather bland, and go on to the others. I particularly enjoyed “The Withered Arm”, “A Mere Interlude”, “Barbara of the House of Grebe”, and “The Son’s Veto”. If these stories happen to be a bit too cheerful for you (and they might, if you happen to be the Prince of Darkness or like read The Bell Jar for a giggle), or if you end up craving more of Hardy’s talent, just try Jude the Obscure on for size. Then come to me after you’ve read it and I will reassure that you are not meant for a strange and untimely death, give you a box of tissues, some chocolate and a Family Guy DVD, and send you on your merry way once more.
The Sun also Rises, by Ernest Hemingway
As a Hemingway fan, I’m among the last of a dying breed. Lots of people take issue with his writing for whatever reason- staccato sentences, male-dominated narratives, his chauvinistic attitudes etc., but frankly I love everything about the guy. The Sun Also Rises is the best of his novels; Hemingway follows Jake Barnes, a wounded veteran from the Great War, around the Pamplona festival in Spain. Extremely lean yet with gorgeously painted images of Spain in the 1920s, the story follows the thread of the ‘damned good-looking’ Brett and her numerous suitors, including Jake despite his inability to lead a sexual life thanks to his never fully explained war wound. It’s got bull-fighting, fishing, expatriates, alcohol, beautiful women and much more squeezed into relatively small novel- is there much more you could ask for?
The Bone People, by Keri Hulme
This book is a little tough to get into. The brief, introductory sections leave you with a “What the hell?!” kind of feeling. But hang in there. I found this to be a very rewarding book whose characters are still with me. It’s set in New Zealand where the native Maori and European cultures blend and clash. (Did you see the movie “Whale Rider”?) Kerewin Holmes is a reclusive artist who lives in a strange tower she had custom-built. Simon is the odd, mute little boy who sneaks in one day. Joe is Simon’s foster father, a Maori man with a broad smile and plenty of baggage. The complexity of the characters is what will have you thinking about them off and on for years after you’ve read it. Everyone is wonderful. Everyone is terribly flawed. This novel won the Booker Prize in 1983. It’s innovative and challenging. Read it using the buddy system. Being able to discuss it with someone will add much to your reading experience. It’s a great pick for a dedicated book club.
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
I just finished reading Aldous Huxley’s novel, Brave New World, and I can comfortably say that it is unlike any book I’ve read before. Even though it falls into the category of Dystopian novels, the world Huxley presents is actually quite Utopic.
It takes place in London in the year 643 A.F. (Annum Ford), where the global society is eternally peaceful and stable. There are plenty of resources and plenty of space because the population has been permanently limited and everyone is conditioned to be happy. Efficiency, homogeneity and predictability are the virtues everyone strives to live by and promiscuity is thought to be healthy.
For as bleak as I was expecting this book to be, it was actually quite humorous! I found myself simultaneously charmed at Huxley’s wit and terrified by his vision of the future. I can understand why the Modern Library ranked Brave New World fifth on its list of the 100 best books in the English Language of the 20th Century. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in stepping outside of their favorite genre.
The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey
Alaska is a remote, sometimes harsh, beauty. This book is set there in 1920. Jack & Mabel have lost a child and, in their grief, have come to homestead in the Alaskan wilderness. The hard work of life there uses sadness as a foothold and wedges in between them. One night, in the first snowfall of the season, both of them are captured in a rare moment of silly happiness. They play in the snow and build a snowgirl. Jack carefully sculpts her face and Mabel lends her scarf to the figure. The next morning, the snow child has disappeared – but there are tracks in the snow. They catch a glimpse of a girl with long blonde hair. She travels swiftly over the fallen snow. They are captivated, wondering how this child can survive alone. Over time, they coax her into their home, where she might remain for an evening but she never spends the night.
Ivey gives us a tender portrait of a marriage following great loss – and the struggle for intimacy and contentment afterward. It is full of wilderness adventure and survival. What I loved most, though, was its strong fairy tale aspects. A beautiful read. Although poignant at times, this book won’t depress you. It’s a lovely thing. Read it with a good cup of tea – and then go for a long walk in nature! (This is also a good “cross-over” book for young adult readers. A good choice for mother-daughter reading.)
Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
While not the most light-hearted book out there, this 176 page collection of interweaving stories will keep you enthrall. Its twists and turns startlingly open up the characters of the narrator’s psyche. Sometimes tragically funny, always cynically serious, it’s never for the faint of heart. While easy to finish in a night’s sitting, you will find yourself seeking out more of Mr. Johnson’s work to get another taste of his unique style.
The First Bad Man by Miranda July
The First Bad Man, the first novel from performance artist, filmmaker and author Miranda July, revolves around what I like to think of as a unifying theme across all of her work: the never-ending search for missing pieces of ourselves in others. Despite the nobility of such a quest, there’s no guarantee that a viable relationship bond will develop even if one does encounter a kindred soul – and it is this ambiguity that drives the story of Cheryl Glickman, the unassuming hero of The First Bad Man. Effortlessly upending norms while reveling in our endearing mundanity, July’s crackly prose forms an unshakable thesis: that despite our tightly wound vulnerability and haunted obsessions – or rather because of them – we are at all times the truest expression of ourselves. Drawing assurance from that understanding is a perilous journey of self discovery, and Cheryl’s path veers between confusion and clarity, heartbreak and joy before its final glide into quiet revelation. The First Bad Man is an unruly triumph.
No one belongs here more than you by Miranda July
Sometimes I just don’t have the attention span for an entire book, which is why I have a shelf for short story collections. A recent favorite of mine to pick up is Miranda July’s No one belongs here more than you. This little gem has 16 stories, mostly centered on romantic relationships. In The Swim Team, a woman recounts her time spent teaching elderly people how to swim to an ex-boyfriend; in The Sister, a retired man keeps missing opportunities to meet a co-worker’s sister with whom he has developed a slight obsession; in I Kiss a Door, a woman has a crush on her best friend’s father.
July’s story-telling style is very direct without sparing emotion. For the most part, the narrators are emotionally damaged. The characters they interact with are usually the opposite. It’s almost like reality television, but more poetic. These stories are so engrossing that before you know it, you’ve read most of them and only 30 minutes have passed. If you saw Miranda July’s movie Me and You and Everyone We Know then you will love No one belongs here more than you.
Hillary ‘s Review
Satori in Paris by Jack Kerouac
As I sat in my hammock reading Satori in Paris, I found myself practically following Kerouac’s footsteps across France. This is a fast paced story (it is only just over 100 pages) and Kerouac takes you from the bustle of the city of Paris to the dark, foggy coastal area known as Brittany. Kerouac’s stated purpose of the trip is to learn about the history of his name. Satori is a Japanese word meaning “sudden awakening.” My satori came when I realized that I could in essence follow in his footsteps, as my mother’s side of the family is originally from Brittany (although my trip to France would probably be spent slightly more sober than Kerouac ‘s.) Overall, Satori in Paris is a great quick read – especially if you are into the idea of drunken escapades through a foreign country on a quest to find your heritage.
Chris ‘s Review
Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes
Like most of you, I first read Flowers for Algernon in middle school. While I enjoyed it at the time, my understanding of it was of course at a middle school level. And like many classics of children’s literature, Flowers for Algernon has emotional and intellectual levels that can only truly be appreciated by an adult. So when I re-read it recently I was struck by how differently I viewed a work that I had thought I so thoroughly knew. The very first thing that I noticed was the craftsmanship and detail of the work. The novel is written entirely as journal entries by Charlie, an adult male in his thirties with an IQ of 68 who undergoes an experimental procedure that ends up giving him an IQ of 185. The reader is able to watch Charlie’s intellect grow as the journal entries change from the understanding and abilities of a child to those of a genius. The second thing that I felt was extreme pain and grief for Charlie as his growing intellect gives him the ability to understand other people’s thoughts and motivations. One of his first realizations is that people whom he had considered friends were in fact cruelly laughing at him. And then comes the cruelest twist of fate, Charlie’s discovery that he will deteriorate just as Algernon has, and with his increased IQ he has the ability to understand just what that loss will mean for him. If you haven’t read this book since your school days I recommended reading it again as soon as you can. You will be surprised at how complex and moving this book for children really is.
Liz ‘s Review
Animal Dreams, by Barbara Kingsolver
The narration shifts from character to character. It’s set in gorgeous New Mexico. It has a political and an environmental message. These are all good reasons for liking this book. But come on, ladies, admit it. Loyd Peregrina is HOT. You can have your steamy scene in the New Mexican hot springs–and still have all the literary and socially-conscious elements that aren’t present in your typical “take your shirt off, Fabio” novels. It’s a solid deal. You should go for it.
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
This novel centers around a missionary family in The Congo in the mid-1950’s. The narrative shifts chapter by chapter between the female family members, lending a variety of perspectives. Great fiction entertains while it educates, and this book does just that. Whether you’re in it for a historical perspective on The Congo or the psychology of and relationships between the characters, you’ll enjoy this book. I think Kingsolver could have ended the book when the family leaves The Congo but the writing is so good you won’t mind staying with the characters a little longer.
The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera
In possibly his best-known work, Milan Kundera provides readers with the complicated relationships of four people living in and around Prague, back when it was still Czechoslovakia*. Basically, what appeals to me so much about The Unbearable Lightness of Being is how accurately Kundera describes the imperfect nature of human relationships; he is so very insightful. For fellow Historical Fiction fans, the story unfolds during the Prague Spring and its aftermath, where a prominent womanizing doctor is reduced to a prominent womanizing window-washer, and eventually forced to relocate to a collective farm. Also, there is a delightful dog as well as a bowler hat. How could you not like it?
*The two nations of Czechoslovakia separated very peacefully in 1993, and are now the Czech Republic, and the Slovak Republic. Prague is the capital of the Czech Republic, Bratislava that of the Slovak Republic. Thank you. Class dismissed.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
This is a must read, a re-read, a re-re-re-re-read even. Cinnamon likes to say Harper Lee knew she had one book in her; one fabulous book and once she got it out that was all she needed to do. She thus gave our American society a spectacular gift. The book is narrated by Scout, a Mississippi born woman reflecting on her childhood during the Great Depression. She focuses on one year in particular, in which her widowed father, Atticus Finch (who is the definition of courage, by the way), agrees to be the attorney of Tom Robinson, a black man on trial for raping a white woman. We all know the chances of a happy ending here are slim, despite mounting evidence that proves Tom’s innocence. Throughout the book Scout and her peers have countless adventure
s; from unwittingly curing a grumpy old woman’s morphine addiction, to discovering that their ghastly neighbor, Boo Radley, is really a hero in disguise. The book climaxes with a very tense courtroom scene at the peak of what has to be the hottest, most miserable summer in the literary history of Mississippi. Oh, how I wish the world was ruled by Atticus Finches.
As She Climbed Across the Table by Jonathan Lethem
We had some more Lethem make its way into the shop, and as soon as Kat pointed it out to me, I scooped it up and took it home with me. As She Climbed Across the Table is the one I chose first through an extensive series of tests (read: it was the one my cat sniffed first when I laid them all out for him). The book is set in modern times at a university, where a physicist has accidentally created a wormhole to a new universe that only lets certain things through. The narrator’s girlfriend, another physicist, ends up falling in love with this semi-intelligent wormhole, dubbed Lack, and leaves the narrator. The story moves at a smooth, somewhat relaxed pace, but is nonetheless captivating. I couldn’t put it down. The scenario is incredibly unusual, of course, but the narrator describes the events in such a human fashion that I actually had my own fondness for Lack, the wormhole that would eat up strawberries and slide rulers but not sandwiches. This book has a quirky, lovable cast of characters and a fun, interesting plot with a satisfying ending. Grab it as soon as you can!
Gun, With Occasional Music by Jonathan Lethem
I picked this book up on a whim, as it turns out. I’d seen it a couple of times in the store and finally made the decision to nab it. This book is about the private inquisitor Conrad Metcalf. Let me start by saying that this is no ordinary noir fiction. It might have seemed odd that I called Metcalf an “inquisitor,” and not an in-vestigator – this is because in the world this novel is set in, it is considered taboo to ask questions of some-one, unless you have a license for inquisition. This alone I found fascinating. Add to that the fact that it is against the law to play verbal news in the morning, so musical news is played instead; I was hooked.This book focuses equally on the strange world (not so unlike a possible projection of our own) and the mysterious murder of Metcalf’s most recent client. The two mesh together incredibly well, which pleased me to no end. I loved discovering more about the twisted world these characters lived in, as well as how some of these facets played a direct part in the mystery of the plot. That part, too, was executed wonder-fully. I’ve read some mysteries where clues and insights feel contrived, or something the detective reveals feels too much like deus ex machina. Lethem sets up the pieces, showing you just what he wants, but neither does he purposefully hide anything from the reader. Don’t make me beg: just read it!
Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem
This book is one of my lil’ darlings — so much my darling, in fact, that Ms. Cinnamon turned over the signed copy we found last year to yours truly, even though she was kinda achin’ for it herself! So I did the happy dance, and then wiped my drool off of the archival mylar dust jacket cover. I think that Jonathan Lethem would appreciate that. Anyone who could write a book starring a Tourette’s-suffering wise guy-turned-private-eye who is calmed only by the artist formerly known as The Artist Formerly Known As Prince and compulsive sandwich consumption would appreciate my happy dance. You really have to read this–it’s got bullets, broads, and Buddha…what more could you want?
Life of Pi, by Yann Martel
This is by far one of the best books I’ve read in the last year. It handles all the big themes — religion, the nature/nurture argument, the truth in fiction — and wraps them in a highly entertaining adventure story. It’s a “love it or hate it” book with long philosophical passages. I loved it. Loved it. Loved it. Loved it.
Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
In 1974, with America still vibrating from the shock of Watergate and the Vietnam War, Frenchman Philippe Petit performed a tightrope walk between the two towers of the World Trade Center. (This historical event was the subject of a great documentary film called Man on Wire . Check it out.) Onlookers held their breath and were amazed to see him leap and spin, seemingly suspended in mid-air hundreds of feet above. This (illegal) act of irreverence and beauty provides the cornerstone for this novel. In it, the stories of an Irish street preacher, heroin-addicted hookers, mothers who lost sons in Vietnam, artists, and a judge all intersect, separate and overlap in the city of New York, which surges and churns around them. McCann writes beautifully and the multiple voices we hear are distinct – yet he poignantly reinforces the idea that our human joys, sorrows and needs are universal. I loved this book!
Cinnamon ‘s Review
All the Pretty Horses, by Cormac McCarthy
I have a little crush on John Grady Cole, the main character of this novel. He’s resourceful, smart and strong. And as much as I respect Matt Damon, he just wasn’t right for the part in the movie version. (Neither was Penelope Cruz.) Set in Texas and Mexico, this is a western that breaks the borders of its genre. An adventure full of horses, guns and romance, this book uses language so beautifully that it’s no surprise it won the National Book Award in 1992. Don’t be thrown off track by the movie version. This is an epic journey. The movie tried to cover the bases–but it condensed the time frame and squashed the life out of the story. Pick it up and be patient with it until you get the hang of the dialogue. Once you’re in step with the book, you’ll want to make the trek.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy’s The Road is a powerful post-apocalyptic novel about a father and his young son. It is a story of survival and the human will to live. Their goal is the coast, but with few supplies and no knowledge of what is there it seems like an impossible goal. After several run-ins with lawless bands of violent men and cannibals, will they make it to the coast and what awaits them there. I was drawn in to this book after the first chapter, it is incredibly well written and the story is one that will keep you from putting this book down. I would recommend this to anyone looking for something that is a little darker but at the same time something very moving and powerful.
The Memory of Running, by Ron McClarty
Meet Smithson “Smithy” Ide, an overweight, friendless, chain-smoking, forty-three-year-old drunk who works as a quality control inspector at a toy-action-figure factory in Rhode Island. By all accounts, especially Smithy’s own, he’s a loser. Then, within the span of one week, his beloved parents are killed in a car crash, and Smithy learns that his emotionally troubled, long-lost sister, Bethany, has turned up in a morgue in Los Angeles. Unmoored by the loss of his entire family– Smithy had always hoped Bethany might return– he rolls down the driveway of his parents’ house on his old Raleigh bicycle into an epic journey that will take him clear across the country. As Smithy pedals across America– through New York City, St. Louis, Denver, and Phoenix, to name a few– he encounters humanity at its best and worst and begins to remember an early life that too many beers have blotted out. The baseball games, the home-cooked meals, the soothing presence of his salt-of-the-earth parents; none of it could transform the dark truth of his sister’s madness.
One Book, One Lincoln’s Review
Atonement, by Ian McEwan
This is a very well-written coming of age story. Seen largely from the eyes of the pre-pubescent Briony, the story unfolds in an old English estate just before the Second World War. This book reminds me of a long, warm summer coming to an uncertain end. It is often a tragic comedy of errors (tragedy of errors? Eh… I’m not a lit major), and McEwan’s prose is low-key and very readable. The harsh realities of adulthood and war seem to reach Briony at the same time, and the reader slowly discovers how both shape her life.
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
My God, what a book. One of the best books of American fiction – and sadly ignored by people who think of it as just a Western. McMurtry, at his best, can manage to convey such a sense of place that you can feel the hot wind on your face and taste the dust in your mouth – but he also excels at drawing real, complex characters. (An attribute I also enjoyed in his books The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment.) Gus and Woodrow are former Texas rangers – as gritty as they come – and it is their enduring friendship that provides the narrative thread of this novel that takes them on an epic journey from Lonesome Dove, Texas to Montana. There are scores of books celebrating friendship between women; and, although Hollywood has made a feeble attempt to shine light on male friendships with its new “bro-mance” genre, there just isn’t anything like the relationship between these two characters in Lonesome Dove. This book will take the reader through a range of feelings: excitement, laughter, horror, admiration, and tenderness. Ultimately, you’re left with, “Wow…”
Cinnamon ‘s Review
Moby Dick, by Herman Melville
Why lookie here, if it isn’t *the* Great American Novel. Aside from being a tale of time immemorial (Boy meets Whale, Whale eats Boy’s leg, Boy begins obsessive quest for revenge on said Whale), the scope and breadth of Melville’s defining work is on a level that I personally do not feel any other 19th century writer was able to accomplish. You probably had to read it in high school or college, and there’s a pretty good chance that you hated it, but I’m here to say that it’s really worth another shot. Whaling lore, brutal depiction of life at sea, Christian allegory, criticism on the whole of humanity, beautiful language and deeply rooted pathos all really make the novel for me. The word “novel” hardly does it justice. If you have more than a passing interest in American Literature and its philosophies, this should be your bible.
Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
The best and briefest summary of Gone with the Wind I have ever seen is the paragraph at the beginning of the film:
There was a land of Cavaliers and Cotton Fields called the Old South…
Here in this pretty world Gallantry took its last bow…
Here was the last ever to be seen of Knights and their Ladies Fair, of Master and Slave
Look for it only in books, for it is no more than a dream remembered
A Civilization gone with the wind.
Reading this masterpiece was a goal I set for myself in high school and I finally got around to finishing it this past Christmas break. Set in Georgia during the time of the American Civil War, this novel centers around Scarlett O’Hara, a Southern Belle who is stubborn and determined to have things her way. We see Scarlett grow from adolescence to adulthood as she struggles to adjust to life in a world that is completely different than the world of her childhood. It deals with many dark themes including rape, war, slavery and survival, but more than that, Gone With the Wind paints a picture for us of the Old South, and shows how it was changed unalterably by the Civil War and Reconstruction. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1937and inspired the classic film by the same name. Although it is very dense, it is completely worth the time it takes to read. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has an interest in American history or who is looking for a novel that is challenging yet rewarding.
Lamb by Christopher Moore
How I beat Katherine to the punch on recommending a Christopher Moore book, I will never know. She is the one who advocates everyone read Mr. Moore. So consider this a double-recommendation. This story follows the little-written about childhood of Jesus (a. k. a. Joshua) from the point of view of his best friend, Biff. I understand right now, some of you are crying blasphemy. Seriously, though, it’s the right kind of blasphemy. The author seems to have an intimate familiarity with even the most minor stories in the Bible and with that knowledge, this parody seems almost respectful. Biff trails Joshua as the messiah-to-be finds his footing. Anyone of us who have dared to following any ‘calling’ knows that in the formative years, hilarity does ensue through trial and tribulation. This is no different for the savior of mankind. And for those of you who believe the man upstairs has a good sense of humor (really, the duck-billed platypus proves it) this book is definitely for you. I usually don’t have a sense of humor or fun (read my previous recommendations), however this is laugh-out-loud funny.
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
A friend recommended this to me a while back and I filed it away with no real priority. When I found a copy here, I knew that providence had shown its hand. As soon as I was done reading the book I was on at the time, I immediately began this one. I think I honestly loved everything about this book. The sort of style, wherein magic hides behind the scenes of normal life, is always one of my favorites, and such is the basis for the events in The Night Circus. The simplest description of the plot is that two magicians are forced into a challenge against each other, that they don’t know the rules to, and that has higher stakes than either of them imagined.
The descriptions in this book are absolutely enchanting. I often struggle with descriptions, finding them either too droning or too minimal, but Morgenstern illustrates scenes I found not only simple, but actually tempting to just sit back and imagine. Her characters nearly all change and grow through the course of the novel, some for worse, some for better. Romance plays a strong role in the main plot, and if you asked me, I’d say I’m not a romance reader, but I really couldn’t help falling head over heels for this book.
The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Why would you recommend a book about unfathomable evil, you might ask? My answer is that I believe it is important that we know the past to not repeat it in the future. In this remarkable novel, based on a true story, we meet Lale, the man who tattoos the numbers onto the wrists of thousands of concentration camp prisoners during the Holocaust. He falls in love with Gita, a fellow prisoner, and for a period of 2.5 years, we follow their fierce love story inside the camp, as they vow to survive and spend their lives together. What particularly struck me about this book is that the reader is invited to get an insight into the everyday life inside a concentration camp for a long period of time. As we follow unimaginable horrors, we are sustained by a remarkable through-line of hope and resilience. I highly recommend it to everyone, regardless of how many previous Holocaust accounts you have read.
Song of Solomon, by Toni Morrison
Another work of magical realism, and another novel that turned me on to an author entirely. Song of Solomon is the first book by Toni Morrison I read and reading it was a wonderful discovery. Song of Solomon is the story of a family named “Dead” , their sordid past and their troubled present. The main protagonist is Macon “Milkman” Dead the 3rd, who from an early age earned the reputation of a “mummy’s boy” which haunts him to this day. Milkman searches for his own personal identity whilst sifting through and piecing together the mysteries of his family’s previous generations. Take out the “blues lore” and replace it with “christian allegory” and you’ve got something not too dissimilar to Reservation Blues. The best part is the blatantly obvious allegoric names for Solomon’s cast of characters- you’ll run across characters such as First Corinthians, Aunt Pilate, and Magdalene, among others, each one filled with potential for extrapolation and research to find the heart of the character. A great read and quite moving, I’d recommend this to anyone.
South of the Border, West of the Sun by Haruki Murakami
If the fantasy and surreal elements that Murakami usually offers are what you’re looking for, the lack of them in this book will surprise you. There are still some of his trademarks – self-centered men and mysterious women. However, this quieter, more realistic book is no less effecting than his other masterpieces. Hajime, now a married father of two and owner of a successful jazz club, is approaching that wistful, ponderous point of middle age. He has a good life, yet satisfaction is still somewhat elusive. One night, his first real love – from elementary school – comes into his bar. Shimamoto is well-dressed, intriguingly beautiful – but she refuses to talk about her life. Hajime is thrown back into memories, and lives for her unpredictable, late-night visits to his club. Soon, he is certain that he loves her more than anything. Shimamoto carries secrets that weigh on the fragile other-world the two of them have created together. This poignant novel offers a glimpse of the attraction that beautiful tragedy holds for us. I loved this subtle, brooding story. It’s a good introduction to Murakami. Fans of The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes will also enjoy this little book.
The Time Traveler’s Wife, by Audrey Niffenegger
The absolute very best, fantastically superior, number one book that I read in all of 2005. It is now in my Top 20 Of All Time (known in some circles as the K T-20 O.A.T.)
Here is a picture of how I felt 20 pages into it:
Here is a picture of how I felt halfway through the book when I realized what was going to happen:
And here is a picture of how I felt while reading the last few paragraphs:
And then I burst into tears, flipped back to the front of the book, and started it all over again. Because it’s just that good.
The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht
The Balkans is a region of much conflict and confusion. Home to several ethnicities, national identities have shifted through several wars. In this novel, we watch a young woman sifting through her memories, the stories told to her by her grandfather and her current experiences as a doctor crossing borders to care for orphans. All of it has a dream-like quality. The stories are mythic – a tiger’s wife…a deathless man…an elephant walking through a war-ravaged city…love songs played on the gusla by a man deceived in marriage…a little girl with patent leather shoes standing on a railing outside a tiger’s cage, held securely by her loving grandfather. The tales are beautifully told.
We read about Natalia’s grandfather, also a doctor, and the copy of The Jungle Book he was given as a boy and carried until his death. Like Kipling’s book, this novel’s stories are interrelated and capture the imagination. In The Tiger’s Wife – set in a confusing time, in an uncertain state of mind, in a place with shifting borders – we are left to wonder about what is real and what is not. But in the end, we are left knowing there is meaning and truth to be found in all stories. This is a book to get lost in. It’s a great addition to modern literature and an impressive debut from Obreht, born in Belgrade in 1985. Reading this was a rare pleasure and I look forward to her next book!
Cinnamon ‘s Review
1984 by George Orwell
Wow! This is one of those eye-opening, life changing, amazing books that one comes across only a handful of times in one’s life. The book offers truth so clearly and so plainly that you can’t ignore it. The message is like a concentrated beam of light shone in your eyes during a migraine…magnified, brilliant, and almost too painful to bear. It’s scary to see the ways that our current culture mirrors 1984…the language we use to text-message, the CCTV’s in London, the torture of prisoners of war…This is one of the classics of literature that you cannot afford to skip. Be warned, Big Brother is watching!
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
I am Chris’ astonishment.
Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club is perhaps the best debut novel I’ve ever read. In it lies the story of Tyler Durden. Durden starts the first underground fight club. It is a place where men can go to fight; not for money, anger, or honor but rather only to fight, to see how far they can push themselves and each other. Fight clubs spring up around town as people violate the first rule of fight club.
“The first rule of fight club is, you don’t talk about fight club.”
They are everyone, clerks, waiters, and station attendants. They are accountants, lawyers, and insurance agents. Fight Clubs begin to form across the country as the second rule of fight club is broken.
“The second rule of fight club is, you don’t talk about fight club.”
But what happens when these men no longer get the same rush from fights, where else is there to go?
Oh, and if this is your first night; you have to fight.
Lullaby by Chuck Palahnuik
Our narrator, Mr. Streator is on the hunt for a killer lullaby; that is, a lullaby that kills whomever hears it. But Mr. Streator is not alone. There are three other people who know about this particular lullaby, and the ancient grimoire it comes from, and they all have their own agenda for it; Helen wants the tome for monetary gain, Mona believes the spiritual power found inside can make the world a better place, Oyster wants to use the words inside to take down corporate America, and Mr. Streator just wants to burn the book up. But first, they have to track it down.
Lullaby is fast paced, and the characters are vivid and not entirely likeable. You get to know them as Mr. Streator relates them to you; his observations are your guides. I really enjoyed the details Palahnuik makes important to Mr. Streator, like what the characters are wearing, and the specific colors of Helen’s various suits; it’s not just red, it’s “the red of a strawberry mouse”. They may seem like unnecessary details, but considering his situation they keep him grounded. Palahnuik is known for his self-destructive characters and dark, minimalistic style of writing. If you like Bret Easton Ellis, I highly recommend giving any of Palahnuik’s books a read.
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
Once again, I binged on a book. I took this one with me on a family trip to the Lied Lodge in Nebraska City. In between the pool and dinner in the dining room, I found time to take a seat in the mission oak rocker by the giant stone fireplace and disappear into this novel. I liked Patchett’s book, Bel Canto, which I read when it was selected as the One Book One Lincoln choice in 2003. This one is even better and I finished it within two or three days.
Dr. Marina Singh, a pharmaceutical researcher, is tasked with retrieving the remains and effects of a colleague, who died mysteriously while on a project in the Amazon. While she’s there, she has also been instructed to make contact with the elusive Dr. Annick Swenson, another researcher who has been working to unlock the reproductive miracles belonging to a tribe in which women continue to bear children into their 60’s. I was drawn in by the initial mystery and kept by the gorgeous, lyrical writing. After finishing the novel, I was dying to talk to someone else who had read it. This would be a great book club selection and would inspire discussions about whether we are driven to discover the unknown or compelled to fear it; the benefits and detractions of science; the points at which the spiritual and scientific intersect; what motivates us as people – and the relativity of relevance. Brilliant.
The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl
This novel will take you to Civil War era Boston, where Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes and James Russell Lowell are taking on the controversial task of producing the first American translation of Dante’s Inferno. Soon, people are found murdered in ways that exactly mimic the tortures of hell represented in Inferno and the academics put their minds together in attempt to solve the mystery of what’s happening in their world. It’s a great period novel that reminds me of Caleb Carr’s The Alienist (another great read) but this has more literary interest. Pearl is a Dante scholar. However, if you like a good thriller and aren’t squeamish, you’ll enjoy The Dante Club whether or not you’ve already read Inferno. It’s a well-crafted page-turner that’s genuinely spooky in spots! Pearl’s second novel, The Poe’s Shadow , is on the shelf in my office and I’m looking forward to reading it soon. Cinnamon’s Review
The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte
The book that inspired the movie, The Ninth Gate, Perez-Reverte takes you into a thrilling suspense filled with murder and deceit. The Club Dumas delves into a literary whodunit based off of Dumas’ classic, The Three Musketeers but also includes the addition of the fictional book The Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows, which is reported to have the ability to raise the devil. Set mostly in Europe, Corso, a sort-of book detective leads you on an masterfully designed and intelligent chase filled with twists and turns that will keep you turning page after page. You will love this book if you have a taste for a darker thriller.
The Flanders Panel, by Arturo Perez-Reverte
The world is one giant chessboard, and we be but mere pawns in the great game of life. This is what Perez-Reverte’s novel seems to imply. The Flanders Panel is one of those European art/historical fiction books that I am so fond of. Although set in Madrid, one could easily confuse the setting for Sherlock Holmes’ dark and drizzly England were it not for the occasional mention of the Prado and other Spanish cultural references. The book starts when Julia, a talented young art restorer, discovers a mystery within a painting done by the fictitious artist Van Huys. When the mystery soon becomes interwoven with her life and her loved ones start to be curiously killed off, Julia, her flamboyant antiquarian father-figure, and an eccentric chess genius begin to play a real-life game of chess in order to solve the mystery and stop the killer. Fans of The Da Vinci Code, rejoice! Infused by jazz music and plenty of gin and tonics, The Flanders Panel offers you just as good an art-history mystery read, though slightly less controversial.
The Rapture of Canaan, by Sheri Reynolds
This is a great choice for book clubs. It was published in 1996 and if you didn’t catch it when it first came out, stop waiting. The narrator, the teenaged granddaughter of the leader of The Church of Fire and Brimstone and God’s Almighty Baptizing Wind, provides a lyrical story filled with themes that are perfect for discussion with your good friends. You can talk for hours about the concepts of spiritual life, family structure, power and the status of women. It’s a book that will pull you through–and you’ll enjoy every minute. The simple task of writing this paragraph has taken me hours because I got sucked into the pleasure of reading it again.
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
This novel is set in the India of the 1960’s when the new ideas of Communism were clashing with the traditions of India’s caste system. It’s a family drama amid a changing political backdrop that fans of books like Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits are bound to enjoy. With rich lyricism infused with the spice and sounds of Indian culture, Roy expertly captures the child-like mindset of the twins, Rahel (girl) and Estha (boy). Their experiences and choices influence events like the drowning death of their cousin, Sophie Mol, and the end of their friend, Velutha. It’s beautiful and tragic…and the beauty makes the tragedy bearable. Friends who have also read this book tend to say, “Oh…it’s SO good…it’s so sad but it’s SOOOO good.” It won the Booker Prize in 1997. I loved it.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, translated by Lucia Graves
Simply enchanting! The story takes place in Barcelona, just after the Civil War and WWII, a time of secrets. Daniel, the 10-year-old son of a widowed bookshop owner, is taken to a mysterious place called the Cemetery of Forgotten Books, and told to choose one that has special meaning for him. He is then the keeper and protector of that book. After reading the book he has chosen, The Shadow of the Wind, he wants to know more of it’s author, Julian Carax, but someone has been systematically destroying all copies of his few remaining books. Over the next ten years Daniel discovers the story of Carax’s past, and finds eerie parallels to his own life, and finds he is being followed by a strange character with a burned face. The language in this book is beautiful. My favorite rebuttal in the book, to someone who says he finds books boring is: “Books are mirrors: you only see in them what you already have inside you.” This book has childhood friendship, first loves, betrayal, espionage, horror, mystery, and so many twists at every turn. I couldn’t put this down! A wonderful read!
The Sparrow, by Mary Doria Russell
This is one of the best books that I’ve read. And I’ve read a ton of books, folks. I just did the math on that: taking into consideration my average number of books read per week (different numbers for childhood and adulthood) and the average weight of a book (also different numbers for childhood and adulthood), I have read approximately 2395 lbs. of books. Which, by the way, is a more than a ton in both the US and the UK, thank you very much. Why is a ton heavier in Britain, anyway? That has never made sense to me… hey – maybe I should read The Sparrow in Gloucester, and see if it’s even better there! Though I’m not sure that that’s even possible, as the only complaint that I have about this book is that there aren’t any explosions. Aside from nothing blowing up, this is just a stunning piece of work. It’s got aliens, and mobsters, and mutilated priests, and biology, and linguistics, and food, and music, and, well, pretty much everything but bombs. If you still ask more from a book, guess what? There’s a sequel! Children of God fully lives up to the quality of The Sparrow, and carries its themes through to a thoroughly satisfying, if desperately sad, conclusion. Terrible, horrible, no good, very bad things happen to every major character in each of the books, and it is impossible to assign blame for any of them. Nothing is really anybody’s fault. I’ve never talked to anyone who’s read this and not loved it. So if you read The Sparrow and you don’t like it, or you’ve read it and you remember there being explosions, let me know, okay?
Empire Falls, by Richard Russo
Reading a book is somewhat analogous to riding a bike. If the book/bike is well-made it is SO much more satisfying. This book racks up almost 500 pages but its good writing makes for smooth travel. Miles Roby runs the Empire Grill in a run-down Maine community that has been struggling since the mill closed. The book is about relationships and finding one’s place in the world. It is poignant but often fall-out-of-your-chair funny. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, it was made into a movie with Ed Harris–whom I adore. I haven’t seen the movie yet because I’m a chicken. I don’t want to alter my impression of this book–or Ed Harris. Somebody should email me and tell me if I should go out on the limb and rent it.
Death with Interruptions by Jose Saramago
Nobel laureate Saramago’s story appears to be a fanciful – yet stinging – account of life and death in an unnamed country. At midnight of some new year, Death decides to stop taking lives. What would happen, if people were no longer allowed to die? Some live in a state of suspended life (“arrested death”?). Various industries are affected. Even religious entities realize that they have lost their persuasive power, when congregations no longer fear death and cannot even pray for resurrection/eternal afterlife. I have not read Saramago’s other works (Blindness, The Year of the Death of Ricardo Reis), so I’ll admit, I did not expect such acidic commentary in the first half of the novel. There is humor here, if one has a mind to read it that way. The romance of the second half, starring death (with a small ‘d’) and a bachelor cellist whose breath she has been unable to steal, is somewhat more light-hearted. Does death ever work again – and is her hiatus a blessing? Saramago’s style is entertaining. Dialogue is separated by commas and capital letters, but written in paragraph form. If you’re used to reading other “stream of consciousness” style writings, you will enjoy following this story. Death with Interruptions is the epitome of dark humor, presented with compassion (or so I like to think). I’ve heard that this work is quite different from Saramago’s early work (other reviews hint at the deconstruction of themes presented in his 80s and 90s lit) but I prefer (as a new reader) to see this work as a grandiose contemporary contemplation of death’s place in life. If you’re looking for a quick read to make you think, this may be the perfect fit!
Katie ‘s Review
The Fur Person, by May Sarton
The Fur Person can be found in either children’s literature or in adult fiction. Sarton was a novelist and poet who also happened to be an avid diarist, and this book echoes all of these genres. Both kids and adults will enjoy this book about a gentleman cat who adopts a family after living on the street and shares his reveries and his songs.
“If you wish to see Tom Jones, I’m he, This Jones victorious
Glossy and glorious, Lordly and lazy And catnip crazy,
Yes, glorious Jones Is me!”
The Coffins of Little Hope by Timothy Schaffert
Some of my friends have teased me about being biased for liking the work of one of my favorite professors so much, but the fact still stands that I am always enchanted by Schaffert’s style. To begin, The Coffins of Little Hope is the story of a missing girl and how a small town used that story to keep itself alive. The narrator is an elderly woman, the obituary writer for the local paper. It seems, perhaps, an odd choice, but really, who better to relate the problems of fighting against the tides of modernity? As is the trend for Schaffert’s work, the characters are what I feel drawn to the most. Each one is incredibly real, complete with flaws and quirks. Schaffert has a great flair for the quirky and the odd – and the people he writes are like gems, beautiful and multifaceted. Aside from heaping praise on the writing style of the novel, I would also like to say that this novel has a particularly interesting psychological question, which is left unanswered at the book’s end. I won’t reveal it, of course, but I will warn readers not to feel upset about this ending. Ultimately, a purse-string ending leaves little room for discussion. With Coffins ending as it does, I’m sure you’ll want to recommend it to a friend so you can talk about it together!
Allan ‘s Review
Naked by David Sedaris
I’ve always enjoyed Sedaris’ work, and I’m glad I recently decided to add Naked to my list. This book, as its title implies, strips naked many parts of family life. I never thought I’d laugh at the blatant fun-making of someone with a mental disorder, but as Sedaris teases about his own OCD, from his mother choosing to interpret his head jerks as nods to her requests, to his college roommate confusing his rocking back and forth in bed as a more dubious activity, I couldn’t stop laughing. Hitchhiking is prominent in this book, and as Sedaris catches rides from complete strangers, we see a cavalcade of strange folks, ranging from hilarious to hilariously terrifying. Dynamics between people are explored, always with a good amount of humor; be it Sedaris’ mother and father enjoying the predictability of the things they hate about each other or the one-sided banter between a devout(?) Christian and God. Naked is cleverly written, brutal and bitter at times, but always in a way that you can’t help but find amusing. If I haven’t got you hooked already, the last essay in this book goes furthest of all when Sedaris decides to live in a nudist community for a week. It’s mortifying, of course, but also riotously funny and surprisingly revealing (pun intended–it’s a nudist colony; I had to).
When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
David Sedaris has done it again: He has embarrassed me in public. I picked up his new collection of short stories, When You Are Engulfed In Flames, for my trip home, and I found myself laughing uncontrollably at the gate in Omaha, at the gate in San Diego, and in my coveted aisle seats there and back again. The ear buds attached to my silent I-Pod did not make me invisible. At one point, on the flight from Denver to San Diego, I laughed so hard I began to choke. Fellow travelers seemed nervous. Was it my behavior of laughing, spitting, trying not to laugh, and eventually choking? Was it the Swine Flu scare? Either way, flight attendants seemed eager to see me go.
Sedaris returns to stories about his friends and family and his linguistic struggles while living in France. My most embarrassing laughing fit occurred when reading his story about a visit to a French hospital. And, while there is much to laugh about, Sedaris continues to tell endearing tales about pet spiders and loving, but fanatic, relationships. He kneads stories that give us just a little more insight into humanity: our obsessiveness, our acerbic responses, and our decency. When You Are Engulfed In Flames is worth picking up; however, take my advice and read it in private– I narrowly escaped one flight attendant with a taser.
Where’d Ya Go Bernadette by Maria Semple
Maria Semple wrote for the hit TV series “Mad About You” AND the hilariously funny series “Arrested Development”. I was heading into a busy holiday season and decided some humor was in order – and I found this quirky book very satisfying. Bernadette Fox is an eccentric former architect who lives in Seattle with her husband, Elgin Hunt, a top dog at Microsoft. Their precocious daughter, Bee, is enrolled in a private school, which is trying to up its game with a campaign to attract “Mercedes” parents instead of its current cadre of “Subaru” parents. Much like “Arrested Development”, this funny book delves into the absurdity of a family’s world.
When Bee claims a family trip to Antarctica as her reward for getting straight A’s, Bernadette disappears – and Bee sets out to find her mother by compiling the puzzle pieces of email correspondence from her family – and supporting characters. Highly entertaining, with plenty of humor and a few well-placed poignant moments. I gave this book to my sister when she visited at Christmas.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer & Annie Barrows
I was in the mood for something light but not fluffy – and I picked this up. It suited me perfectly. This is a novel written in letters – from author Juliet Ashton to her publisher, to her beau, to her best friend…and eventually to residents of Guernsey. Dawsey Adams, of Guernsey, has purchased a book Juliet previously owned and writes to ask if she happens to have a companion volume. This whimsical act leads Juliet into the world of the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, formed during the German occupation during World War II. Captivated, Juliet proposes to her publisher that she write her next book about Guernsey and how members of the community endured the war – and how their literary connection made the hardships bearable. This book is often described as “charming” – and it is. But it isn’t inconsequential. The World War II sacrifices described in the book have the ring of authenticity and the characters, although imperfect, are the kind of people I enjoy. This book was satisfying – not haunting, mesmerizing or luminous – but satisfying , like a good meal. I enjoyed it and feel like I can recommend it to a wide range of people.
Cinnamon ‘s Review
The Stone Diaries, by Carol Shields
The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields follows the genesis and death of Daisy Goodwill-Flett. Winner of the 1995 Pulitzer Prize, Shields explores how one woman fulfills and, in quiet ways, transcends her roles of daughter, wife, widow, and mother, as she looks for connections and purpose. The novel’s use of first and third-person accounts, letters, photographs, and newspaper articles inform us powerfully and poetically about how expectations and roles can define us. I have read and taught this novel several times, each time with a new appreciation for Shields and the story she tells. I consider Stone Diaries an approachable feminist and postmodern novel that can be read layer by layer–simple in its telling, yet boundless.
The Fig Eater, by Jody Shields
Yay for period pieces and Freudian theory! This is a great plane/airport read. Set in turn of the (19th) century Vienna. Shields weaves a very gripping tale of murder, “female hysteria”, and the secrecy that surrounds the upper class Viennese. She also includes interesting traditions of Hungarian folklore, as the protagonist is Hungarian. I would imagine that anyone who has been to Vienna would enjoy this book because Shields is constantly place-name dropping, which allows the reader to visualize the city very well. Or maybe I just have a ridiculously good imagination. Either way, this book is beautifully written and quite colorful.
We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver
Kevin, the teen-aged son of Eva and Franklin, has gone on a rampage at his school and killed nine people, including a cafeteria worker and a teacher. Now Eva, in a series of letters to her estranged husband, tries to sort out what has happened and why. In often painful detail and brutal honesty, she examines her life with her disturbing son, their shared history leading up to the murders and beyond, and reveals how she has felt about him all along. Eva unflinchingly questions her ability to be a good mother to Kevin as strongly as she questions his ability to be human, a devastating conundrum.
It is difficult for me to recommend a book about which I have such mixed feelings. I’m not sure I even liked We Need to Talk About Kevin, but then again, I’m not sure that this is a book you can just tepidly like or dislike. I do think Shriver’s book is an important one and I’m glad I read it, as uncomfortable as it made me. That discomfort reflects the novel’s intelligence and power, and I believe that it is supposed to make one uncomfortable. It encourages deep introspection and challenges the reader to walk in Eva’s shoes with both judgment and sympathy. This isn’t an easy read, but I will read it again…after a bit of recovery.
Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, by Dai Sijie
This is a beautiful little book set during the harsh time of China’s Cultural Revolution. Two young men are sent to a rural village for re-education. They discover another boy’s stash of banned books, meet a lovely girl and show her the magic of literature. This is a book about our practical purpose and our dreams, the confines of the body and mind, and the kinds of freedom we can choose. It is about love and yearning and the various kinds of danger. Dai Sijie directed a film adaptation of this book, which I also recommend.
Regarding the Pain of Others, by Susan Sontag
I miss Susan Sontag, and I can’t tell you how happy I am that she gave this book to the world before she left it. If you didn’t get a chance to know Sontag’s work while she was alive, now is a great time to do so and this is a great place to start. As with all of her monographs, this ‘un is slim, dense, and incredibly readable. That last is, I think, what I’ve always liked most about her work; it’s not easy, it’s not nice, but it’s surprisingly fast despite its subject matter. Reading this is like sprinting through a minefield, terrified and tired and elated by each successful step, knowing that the horror will catch up with you as soon as you catch your breath. Sontag was insanely in tune to the intricacies of human nature and culture, and her words are impossible to ignore.
The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
This book should be mandatory reading for everyone in the United States. No joke. It is at the same time humbling and shocking. Steinbeck chronicles the journey of one family as they leave Oklahoma’s Dustbowl and head west to California in search of a better life. The book has useful intercalary chapters that illustrate what the rest of the emigrants are going through, allowing the reader to have an idea of the bigger picture during the Great Depression. This is not a happy book; I was almost unable to believe that such abominable things took place in this country; it seemed too “Third World” to be possible. But it was possible and it is a reality for many people today in all parts of the world. So, yeah… not a happy, book but an imperative one when trying to understand society and human nature, past and present.
The Wayward Bus by John Steinbeck
Dawn breaks across the Southern California homestead of Rebel Corners, illuminating the lives of a group of strangers pulled together with shared purpose: getting away from the place. As Juan Chicoy steers Sweetheart the bus through Steinbeck country, each passenger (and Alice, back at the diner) faces crises of identity in near-cosmic proportions. The Wayward Bus is often hailed as either a work of character-driven art in motion, or a tale in which nothing really happens. It’s a short work, a 24-hour story, and a satisfying introduction to a classic American author. Does the ragtag group of people (aged 18-70, of varying socioeconomic and political backgrounds) reach their destination? “‘I’ll keep my word,’ he whispered. ‘I’ll get through if I can.’ He felt the wheels slip in the mud and he grinned at the Virgin of Guadalupe.” Steinbeck handles the emotional states of each character with ease. Each of us could be an Alice, a Kit, an Ernest Horton. We may have not-so-secret crushes on Clark Gable, like Norma. If you’ve ever asked, “How did I get here? Where am I going?” or simply had to answer with, “We’ll see how it goes,” The Wayward Bus is well worth a read.
Katie ‘s Review
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
There was such a buzz about this book when it came out that I went to Indigo Bridge Books (a new bookstore in the Haymarket) and bought it. It’s set in Jackson, Mississippi in the 1960’s and revolves around the lives of women – the White ladies of “society” and the Black women who serve their households as “the help”. The narration changes between characters, so we view the story from a variety of perspectives. I was drawn into this book and enjoyed it. However, it’s important to note that it does not tell the whole story of race relations in Mississippi in the 1960’s. This book glosses over a lot of violence. For instance, the sexual harassment/assault/rape that was known to happen in some households was not addressed in this novel. Roxane Gay has a great essay about this book and the subsequent film in which she talks about who is able to tell what story. Also, the Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche has an eye-opening TED talk about the danger of a single narrative. Taken together, you could have a fantastic book club. Cinnamon’s Review
Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Again, I’m recommending something that doesn’t necessarily have WIDE appeal – no car chases, no murder, no hot sex scenes. (You’ll have to browse my other recommendations for those books…) However, Olive Kitteridge is really great. It’s a novel of stories that gets to the beating heart of life. Sections of the book are presented from various characters’ points of view, and our early information about Olive Kitteridge herself does not lead us to like her much. The wonder of this book is the kind of tenderness we develop for Olive, despite her flaws. Strout has given us someone very real. Olive Kitteridge is not someone to idealize or idolize…but she is someone to love. Strout is a masterful storyteller and this is a deeply empathetic book. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.
Cinnamon ‘s Review
A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
Every time I think of this book, I can’t help but chuckle to myself. A book this deliciously cynical and sarcastic rolled in a sweet intellect and stuffed with hilarity does not last long on our shelves (also, I haven’t had breakfast yet). Slap Dickens, Twain, Bernard Shaw, and Matt Groening together and you have an almost suitable combination for the brilliant, hap-hazard, and naive Ignatius Reilly – 0ur protagonist in this story. His mother is forcing him out of the basement and into the workforce. Ignatius struggles through the world in an attempt to appease her. This novel offers strong narrative, great vocabulary, and characters who sincerely belong in the story. Treat your brain and yourself. Pick this one up immediately!
The Innocents Abroad by Mark Twain
First a confession: I don’t just love Mark Twain; I adore him. I think he is one of the most brilliant writers ever to put pen to paper. I feel that a good test of any writer is if, after reading one of their books, you feel you have been profoundly changed. That is exactly how I feel after every Twain book I read, and The Innocents Abroad is no exception. First you come upon the full title of the book: The Innocents Abroad, or The New Pilgrims Progress: Being Some Account of the Steamship Quaker City’s Pleasure Excursion to Europe and the Holy Land; with Descriptions of Countries, Nations, Incidents and Adventures, as They Appeared to the Author. Then you discover the eight pages, and please allow me to repeat that, EIGHT PAGES of contents. There you find that you will be reading about such topics as “Bearding a Moorish Garrison (Without Loss of Life),” “How They Rob the Mail in Africa,” and “The Sailors Burlesque the Imperial Visitors.” Turn another page and you will find the preface. Here Twain writes “This book is a record of a pleasure trip. If it were a record of a solemn scientific expedition, it would have about it that gravity, that profundity, and that impressive incomprehensibility which are so proper to works of that kind, and withal so attractive.” Absolutely classic Twain. And the rest of the book doesn’t disappoint. Twain uses his immense powers of observation, his unique understanding of the human species, and his razor sharp wit to bring us along on this once-in-a-lifetime adventure. While the world that he describes has long since vanished (the book was first published in 1869), Twain’s descriptions are so vivid you can almost see the scenes he describes flash before your eyes. And, as always with Mark Twain, somehow in describing what is exterior he makes us turn our gaze inward to discover what is within us. I recommend this book to absolutely anyone who has a love of adventure, humor, and discovery – both of others and of self.
Abel Sanchez by Miguel de Unamuno
I picked up a random book (Abel Sanchez and Other Stories) by an author I’d never heard of (Miguel de Unamuno) at a book sale in Kansas City five years ago. I picked this book up because the description mentioned something about “ethical fables”, and that’s right up my alley. After having read Abel Sanchez, I have to say I’m glad I randomly grabbed that book. This story takes place in Spain and is about two life-long friends, and jealousy, and seems to be a retelling of the story of Cain and Abel. Joaquin Montenegro, our narrator, has known Abel Sanchez for his entire life, often referring to him as his brother. Things become decidedly different after Abel and Helena, the object of Joaquin’s affection, fall in love. Joaquin becomes consumed with envy, seemingly beyond his control. I really loved the way Joaquin would struggle internally over his jealousy of Abel, an artist who seems to get everything in life. Joaquin wants without having to do much for it, even though Joaquin has an equally comparable life. Joaquin is aware of what this powerful envy is doing, ruining his enjoyment of his own life’s accomplishments, his marriage, his success as a doctor. You have to keep reading this story because you know Joaquin is going to do something awful and unforgivable…but does he? What would you do?
Yes Man by Danny Wallace
Here’s a good one for anyone looking for a good-hearted and humorous read. Its a true story of when the author decided that he would abstain from turning anything down and just reply to every yes or no question that came his way with “yes.” After becoming nearly a shut-in for a period of time he becomes inspired by a man he meets on the subway (or whatever they call it in London) to just say “yes” to anything and everything that comes his way. This takes him on some pretty wacky adventures. I found myself laughing aloud quite often (which is rare for me when it comes to Brit humour) and it even made me shed a tear! So…do I think that you should check this book out? Hmm…”Yes!” (Ok, that was lame but at least I tried…ha, ha…) If you love this book, then check out Join Me.
Kevin ‘s Review
Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward
My friend Jen & I share a similar taste in books, so I took note when she said she loved this. I bought it at the famous Prairie Lights bookstore (one of the best new bookstores in the U.S.) when Jon & I were in Iowa City. I started reading it that night at our hotel – and kept reading until 5a.m. At breakfast the next morning, I read a page every time Jon got up to refill his coffee. I did NOT read while he drove the 5 hours back to Lincoln, because that would be rude. But I finished the book the next day.
It’s about a 15 year-old girl in Bois Sauvage, Mississippi. She has three brothers. Their mother died giving birth to the third and her absence is felt daily. Their father can feel the hurricane coming in his bones and begins to prepare. Still, no one expects the disaster of Katrina. Most of the book is spent on the ten days before the storm hits: (Brother 1) Randall’s basketball aspirations, (Brother 2) Skeetah’s pit bull training, (Brother 3) Junior’s attempts to peek into the world of his older siblings – and (The Lone Girl in the Family) Esch’s newly discovered pregnancy. Some of the tones in the book are reminiscent of Faulkner – however, these characters leap off the page in a way that is uniquely their own. Winner of the National Book Award, this is a finely constructed novel worthy of much discussion. It’s excellent.
Cinnamon ‘s Review
Montana 1948, by Larry Watson
If you know me well, you’ve already heard me go on and on about this book. I push this book. I think that everybody who teaches upper high-school classes or early college courses should add this to his/her syllabus. It’s 175 smoothly written pages that your students will love AND their brains will start clicking in. It’s about small town life and the fluctuations in moral choice that happen because people know they must get along. The narrative is so intimate you’ll feel you’re having coffee with this guy, listening to him tell you a story about how it was for him when he was twelve in Montana, 1948. Fantastic.
Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
Trainspotting takes place in 1980’s Scotland, where heroin use in the big cities is rampant. It follows several young friends through different phases of their addictions, including overdoses, withdrawal, HIV, and death. They find a chance to make it big but their greed will tear them apart. I like this story because it is gritty, and at some points downright atrocious but shows the power of addiction and how it tears people apart. One piece of advice for this book though is that it is written as if the characters have Scottish accents, it can be very challenging at first but stick with it through the first few chapters and you’ll get it down.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde
I first discovered Oscar Wilde on a quotations site, by accident. On further investigation of his sayings, I found that nearly everything he was listed for was some sort of biting, amusing critique. I was quite surprised when I found out he was responsible for the Picture of Dorian Gray. I knew the story as one of those classic horror tales, like Dracula and Frankenstein, and it didn’t make sense that this hilarious, cynical man could have been the author.
Backstory aside, you simply must read this. The character of Lord Henry is something of a speaker box for Wilde’s cynicism and wit, peppering the story with amusing commentary. The rest of the story, though, is a good deal darker, more horrific, than I may have thought at first. The novel is an exploration of what becomes of us when we are free from moral consequences. Dorian Gray stays ever youthful and handsome while his inside grows dark and decayed.
Whenever I recommend this book, I always recommend a movie to go with it: the 1945 adaptation of the film with George Saunders and Angela Lansbury. The film is probably the best adaptation of the book, despite a few changes. I actually like to think about why certain changes were made, what purpose they might serve in a visual media. It’s a fantastic companion to the book.
Crackpot, by Adele Wiseman
Wiseman introduces Hodaleh (Hoda), a new heroine who rivals Jane Austen’s Emma and Henry James’ Isabel Archer. Instead of conforming, Hoda invents and reinvents herself in a sometimes bawdy but always endearing way. This novel based in the Lurianic tradition embodies, through Hoda, the idea of a cracked pot with light shining through it. She is strong, independent, funny, loving, giving (in many ways), and courageous. Her concept of love is one of sacrifice and selflessness, even if, sometimes, she might enjoy it. Crackpot is an intelligent story that plays with words, carries Canadian history, exposes social stereotypes, and quietly provides its readers with a new way of seeing. A story of heartache, poverty, sacrifice, social bullying, and loneliness, Crackpot is not merely about Hoda’s development, but folds and unfolds several times to reveal the town’s, and maybe the reader’s, development as well. I sincerely love this novel’s character Hoda, as she embodies traits of a true, independent heroine. Move over Ms. Archer; make room for Hodaleh .
Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell
In this novel set in the back country of the Ozarks, the culture of criminality goes back generations. In the Dolly clan, boys are commonly named from a short list (Jessup, Haslem, Milton), partly with intention to confuse The Law. Ree Dolly is the 16-year-old heroine who, when her father took off, dropped out of high school in order to care for her mentally ill mother and two small brothers. When she learns that her father, Jessup, put up the family home and timber acres as his bond to get out of jail, she takes it upon herself to find him and make sure he appears in court.
This is an absolutely beautifully written book. It is raw, relentless, poetic and mythic. Ree makes what amounts to a hero’s journey into a community that is unwelcoming to strangers and possesses a strict, somewhat sinister, code of thieves’ honor. The Winter landscape is unforgiving and the poverty is crushing. Ree longs for a different life. But when push comes to shove, blood proves thicker than water. This would make an excellent book club selection.
The movie showcases Jennifer Lawrence, who gives a stunning performance in the lead role. I really enjoyed it – however, the language of the book and the depth of the written story is not to be missed. Pick up a copy soon!
~ Mystery ~
General Mystery Science Fiction Horror Graphic Novel Poetry & Drama
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
This is a great mystery – set in 1950 England, just after World War II. Quick-witted Flavia de Luce is eleven and her penchant for chemistry developed when she discovered an abandoned laboratory on the top floor of Buckshaw, the estate that “has belonged to the de Luce’s since the War of the Roses”. Flavia’s widowed father is a well-meaning but somewhat distant stamp collector who is suspicious of devices like the telephone. Her sisters, Ophelia & Daphne are, respectively, gazing into mirrors or books. The preoccupations of her family allow Flavia plenty of time to range about the village of Bishop’s Lacey on her trusty bicycle, Gladys. When Flavia discovers a body in the cucumber patch near her bedroom window, she turns her attentions to sleuthing. I sped through this book, first in a series of Flavia de Luce mysteries, and headed straight through the second book, The Weed that Strings the Hangman’s Bag . I loved both and await the third in the series with happy anticipation!
Cinnamon ‘s Review
Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain
Cain is one of the greats when it comes to the hard-boiled novel – and many of you are familiar with his other works like The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity . Mildred Pierce brings in some of Cain’s signature elements – tough-but-flawed characters and dysfunctional relationships. Mildred is a great character and I loved reading about her rise from marital strife and poverty to business success as the owner of several restaurants. She’s smart and persistent – but she has two huge blind spots that eventually drag her down. One is her relationship with her conniving daughter, Veda, whom Mildred loves to her own detriment. The other is her taste in men, especially Monty Beragon. Monty & Veda are both arrogant snobs who turn out to have a lot in common. This book, published in 1941, is set in Depression-era California. It has a distinct feel of the time – highballs served by the fireplace in the den – and it captures the slippage of social classes after the crash and the subsequent desperation to keep up appearances. Mildred is a poignant combination of tenacity and innocence. As you watch her making mistakes, you want to simultaneously protect her, slap her and forgive her. Cain’s taut style brings out the complexity of her character – and stirs up a complex combination of responses in the reader. Kind of like Scotch. It burns a little – but it’s really good.
Where Are the Children? by Mary Higgins Clark
I had never considered myself a fan of the mystery genre until I read Mary Higgins Clark’s first novel Where Are the Children? It is the story of a woman named Nancy who is convicted of murdering her two young children, Peter and Lisa. After being released from prison on a technicality she relocates to Cape Cod, Massachusetts where she changes her name and her appearance and starts to rebuild her life. Things seem to be going well; Nancy has remarried, has two more small children, Michael and Missy, and has finally started to heal from her previous ordeal. Then one day the local paper prints her picture and the story of her first two children’s murder. When Nancy rushes outside to find Michael and Missy she discovers that they are missing and the nightmare seems to be starting all over again. Now Nancy must rush to find Michael and Missy before they too end up dead. Not an easy feat when the police (along with everyone else in town) think you are a murderer. The story twists and turns from there, and the ending will leave you gasping. I recommend this book to all mystery lovers, and especially first-time mystery readers. It will definitely get you into the genre!
Demolition Angel by Robert Crais
I’m not hugely interested in reading about bombs in fiction, perhaps because I read about them every day in the newspaper. Regardless, I became thoroughly engrossed in Demolition Angel by Robert Crais, a mystery about a former bomb squad technician who got a little too close to her work one day and is dealing with the aftermath. I’m infatuated with characters whose strengths and flaws are both strongly developed and Robert Crais has a flair for this. Folks familiar with Crais’ “Elvis Cole” series will find the same character depth in this stand-alone novel. For those unfamiliar with Elvis Cole, go visit him in Crais’ other mysteries. He is a private eye with humor and a heart too big for his own good.
A Maiden’s Grave, by Jeffrey Deaver
I was stuck in an airport without a book, believe it or not. So I picked up a Jeffrey Deaver novel. I like the Deaver books that feature Lincoln Rhyme, a forensic investigator that became quadriplegic during an accident while working on a case. This book features Arthur Potter, a hostage negotiator. A group of young Deaf women are the hostages — the title comes from a misunderstanding of “Amazing Grace”. It’s a great quick read that will teach you a lot about the Deaf communities and the art of hostage negotiation. I’m glad to see an author write characters with disabilities in a way that focuses on their strengths. It works to educate the public and challenge our assumptions in a subtle way that is most effective.
One for the Money, by Janet Evanovich
Stephanie Plum is a kick in the pants. Having been laid off from her job as a lingerie buyer, she’s so broke that she’s considering pawning her refrigerator. She asks her cousin Vinnie for a job as a bond hunter–and we’re off! Plum is full of Jersey sass and manages to be vulgar and vulnerable at the same time. Joe Morelli is a cop with plenty of “bad boy” appeal and Stephanie’s had a few tangles with him in the past.
First in a series that’s funny, sexy, good-natured and suspenseful, One For the Money is a great mood enhancer. Next time your friend is in the hospital, recovering well but on drugs that make it hard to concentrate, skip the flowers and bring this book. (You might find out first if laughing hard is bad for her health.)
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
I needed a good page-turner – and this book, a taut psychological thriller, fit the bill. Nick & Amy are writers who lived in New York City until financial crisis pulls them to Nick’s hometown of North Carthage, Missouri. The strain on the marriage is compounded by the culture shock – especially for Amy, who finds it hard to relate to the local ladies & their seemingly endless casseroles. Nick, in turn, struggles with his feelings of failure and not measuring up to Amy’s standards. When Amy goes missing, Nick is the prime suspect – and all the small town eyes are on him.
If identifying with, and liking, characters is important to you, I’d steer you away from this one. Nick and Amy have both made questionable choices that may be hard for some people to look past. However, they are fascinating characters – and the twists and turns in the plot kept me guessing. I gave this book as a Christmas gift to a Mystery fan and she liked it, too. (You have to know your audience when giving books. Who on your list sees murder & mayhem as fine holiday fun? Ha!)
Gillian Flynn ventures into the darker regions of the human psyche in this book and she goes even farther in her novel Sharp Objects. Sweetness and light, she is not. But if you’re looking for suspenseful grit, she’ll give you what you need.
Mistress of the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin
I was intrigued by this when I first shelved it into our Mystery section. I enjoy forensic mysteries – and reading about the Medieval period. The reviews were good. The cover was attractive. Then, I shelved a few others in this series – also bearing good reviews and attractive covers – and I kept hearing good things from customers. It was a new year and I was in the mood for a new read. I thoroughly enjoyed this.
The protagonist, Adelia, has traveled from Salerno to Cambridge. Her talents in the science of deduction and the art of death prove useful to uncovering the secrets surrounding the mutilation and death of four local children. Although the deaths are violent, the reader is not put through the experience of the killings. We follow Adelia on her path of examining the remains. Very squeamish readers will want to stay away – but if you can handle an average episode of “Bones”, you’ll be just fine.
What I enjoyed most was the setting – and how Adelia, as a woman doctor, dealt with prejudices that impeded her work. Serious historians will note that Franklin made some minor changes to place names for the readers’ ease – but this does not diminish the pleasure and intrigue of reading about medieval medicine, crusaders and cloistered nuns, which Franklin renders accurately. This book struck me as a mash-up between The Name of the Rose and Cutting for Stone – with a dash of Patricia Cornwell and Merchant of Venice thrown in. All in all, you’ll enjoy this medieval page-turner!
Cinnamon ‘s Review
Faithful Place by Tana French
I really like Tana French. I discovered In the Woods as I was headed to Ireland – and the Dublin mystery was perfect vacation reading. Her books are all satisfying who-dunnits tied to Dublin’s Murder Squad. Although characters are shared between books, they aren’t written as a series and don’t have to be read in any particular order. They are distinctly Irish and are steeped in contemporary Irish culture, which is fun. Faithful Place features Frank Mackey, head of the Murder Squad, and delves into unresolved events in Frank’s teen years, growing up in the neighborhood, Faithful Place. For decades, he has lived with the pain that the love of his life, Rosie Daly, stood him up on the night they were to run away together. And then a body is discovered in the old neighborhood. Frank is motivated to unravel what really happened that night and his personal interest conflicts with his professional life as a detective. What really happened that night amid beers in the kitchen, cigarettes on the porch, angry shouts at wives & children, kids partying in abandoned houses and Rosie Daly’s smile? Faithful Place has great characters and a sense of place that makes it all fit together. It reminds me of how Dennis Lehane creates a Boston neighborhood in his mystery Mystic River. Fans of that book are sure to like this one from Tana French!
Cinnamon ‘s Review
In the Woods by Tana French
I picked this up for my plane ride to Ireland. I wanted something captivating and set in modern Ireland, and this Edgar-award winning mystery set in and around Dublin was perfect. Rob Ryan & Cassie Maddox are detectives who land their first major case when 12 year-old Katy Devlin is found ritualistically murdered just outside Dublin. Only Maddox knows that Ryan was involved in a child-abduction mystery 20 years ago in the same wooded area – and this provides a good sub-plot. The book is more psychological thriller than police procedural but it’s smart and isn’t gruesome…and it was compelling enough for me to keep reading in the Dublin Hotel lobby while my dad went off to explore St. Stephens Green! The ending is ambiguous, which is a problem for some readers – but I’m okay with ambiguity. I also enjoyed Tana French’s second book, The Likeness, and am looking forward to her third, Faithful Place!
Cinnamon ‘s Review
Sookie Stackhouse Series by Charlaine Harris
Okay, I’m the first to admit that my reading habits can be compulsive. I’ll get hooked on a subject like sharks, epic survival, the evolution of the common garden gnome – and I’ll read anything I can find on the subject. Then the inevitable burnout occurs and I’m off to the races on another tangent. So perhaps it’s normal after all to read seven of Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse series in a row – within one week. I love this series. The characters are well-developed and charming (even the vampires), the style is breezy and witty, and many of the situations Sookie finds herself in are hysterical. Sookie never asked to be psychic and attractive to vampires, but certainly that doesn’t mean she can’t be polite and show good old-fashioned Southern hospitality. Go visit Sookie: she’ll treat you very well.
The Beekeeper’s Apprentice, by Laurie R. King
The first in King’s Mary Russell series, this is the best addition to the Holmesian Mythos that I’ve read in years. Seriously, the Russell books are now tied with Fred Saberhagen’s The Holmes/Dracula File and Nicholas Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution for my Very Favorite Sherlock Spinoff Award. Holmes fits quite comfortably in King’s world, Mary has spunk to spare, the plot carries itself remarkably well, and the dialogue is fantastic. I might even describe this one as “charming”, and we all know how hard it is to charm a Kirsten! Man, if this had been around when I was a ten-year-old girl, I would have been even more in love with Sherlock Holmes than I was back then. Back then? Who am I kidding! Mmmmm…Sherlock.
Darkly Dreaming Dexter, by Jeff Lindsay
Jeff Lindsay’s “Dexter” series is extremely dark and screamingly funny. Dexter works in the police crime lab, investigating blood evidence, and helping his detective sister solve homicides. He’s also a serial killer who gets annoyed when good people die and bad people go free. Pretending to have a conscience is a once-in-a-while hobby with him, though he prides himself on dispensing justice in his own inimitable way.
Dexter’s sense of humor is predictably dark and deeply sarcastic. While laughing hysterically at his puns and dry wit, I found myself feeling slightly guilty, but not too guilty. If morgue humor is not your thing, skip Jeff Lindsay. But if you occasionally think of some people among us as walking train wrecks and you can’t help giggling, you’ll find this an almost cathartic experience.
Bone by Bone by Carol O’Connell
Many of you are familiar with the way I have enthusiastically drooled over Carol O’Connell’s mysteries. I just finished her latest book, Bone by Bone, and I am more a fan than ever. O’Connell is a writer of tragedies, and her archetypes feel familiar, like old friends. In Bone by Bone we find the prodigal son returning home, the father visited by the past, the love set aside by indifference (or ignorance), the ghost of one who can’t stay dead. Ah, Hamlet. Alas, I knew him. As usual, O’Connell describes rich characters and a depth of theme that blows other mystery writers out of the water. She defies the narrow definitions of genre fiction.
Mallory’s Oracle by Carol O’Connell
For superb character development, as well as accelerating suspense, check out Carol O’Connell. The title character in her debut novel is a deeply flawed and perhaps slightly unorthodox police sergeant out to find the person responsible for a series of murders: murders her adoptive father was investigating when he died. Mallory is an incredible character, ruthlessly drawn and relentlessly driven. I have not yet been able to put down an O’Connell novel. You’ll ignore friends, skip meals, go to bed obscenely late in order to finish one more chapter. Ask Cinnamon. I took one of O’Connell’s novels on a book-buying trip and I barely spoke to her. Go ahead. Ask. (In case you were wondering, it was The Judas Child.)
Murder in a Nice Neighborhood , by Lora Roberts
This mystery novel starts a series of cozies featuring semi-homeless freelance writer Liz Sullivan, who has been living out of her VW van and struggling to keep herself fed. Sullivan is fiercely independent, driven to survive on her own terms in a life that hasn’t exactly been kind to her. With her personal space issues and her demand for privacy, I fell in love with her in a few pages. With her self-honesty and intolerance for fools, she reminds me of my inner curmudgeon. Liz Sullivan gets into a surprising amount of trouble for someone who just wants to be left alone, but at least she’s never bored…
The Killer Inside Me, by Jim Thompson
When I was 13, I’d do pretty much anything that the Dead Milkmen told me to do. Seriously – they helped me realize that I truly was born to love volcanoes and wanted nothing more than to become a punk rock girl. I spent Halloween of 1993 dressed as The Thing That Only Eats Hippies. Smoking banana peels, on the other hand, turned out to be not a very good idea. Anyhoo, it was (again at 13) about the coolest thing in the world to understand the more “mature” allusions scattered throughout their lyrics, like this one: “Let’s call the sheriff a ****-******/See if he’s read The Killer Inside Me“. Finally, some semblance of relevance! And you can see now what I mean about the overwhelming maturity.
At that point, I’d never delved deeper into the world of crime noir than Dashiell Hammett, and had never heard of Jim Thompson until I looked this one up by title at the library. I only read it once before returning it, because it freaked me out a little bit. But I’ve gone back to it a few times over the years, and it gave me a taste for some of the better-known authors in the genre. Fortunately for all of us, Black Lizard was still reprinting all of Thompson’s books at my last check, even though they’ve replaced Goodis and Gifford with Chandler and Cain.
Presumed Innocent by Scott Turow
Before John Grisham there was Scott Turow, whose 1987 debut novel, Presumed Innocent, established him as a formidable courtroom drama writer. Turow knows the intricacies and politics of the legal system, and his prose is detailed and engaging. This book is a fascinating character study of a district attorney accused of the murder of one of his deputies, a woman with whom he had had a passionate affair. Did he kill her, even as he still loved her? Scott Turow paints courtroom strategems with a skillful brush. In addition, he creates vivid players with complexity and investigates how the smallest deeds can cause repercussions of unimagined intensity. As in reality, no one in this story is truly demon or angel, villian or hero. For an account of Scott Turow’s journey in law school, check out his first book, One-L.
Maisie Dobbs by Jacqueline Winspear
I doubt this book will change your life. The characters are charming but not all that complex – with very few, if any, flaws. For me, however, it was the perfect airplane read. I love books set between the World Wars. I love stories about the ‘grand manor’ – and all the upstairs/downstairs goings on. I love reading about people with few prospects who, by grace, luck and their own ability, rise above their station. This book hits all those notes – and that makes it easy for me to enjoy it.
We meet Maisie Dobbs in 1929, as she is setting up shop as a kind of private investigator. As she pursues her cases, we are drawn back in time to her origins as the daughter of a vegetable-seller. A young Maisie gains a position as a maid to Lady Rowan, who comes to realize Maisie has great potential and takes her under wing. Then, Cambridge University. Then, service as a nurse in World War I. The impact of the war on England still resonates in 1929, and Maisie finds herself involved in the intrigues surrounding a home for terribly scarred veterans. In pursuit of this mystery, she confronts her own past. Maisie Dobbs is the first in a series that will entertain adults but this is also a good ‘cross-over’ book – perfectly appropriate for inquisitive teenage readers.
Cinnamon ‘s Review
~ Science Fiction & Fantasy ~
General Mystery Science Fiction Horror Graphic Novel Poetry & Drama
“A book is a dream that you hold in your hand.”
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, by Douglas Adams
If you haven’t read this yet, you owe it to yourself to do so as soon as possible. Seriously, what’s the hold up? It’s only 120-some pages and it’s the funniest book you’ll ever read. While there are five books in the series and some of the later ones I prefer to this one (but only just a little bit!), like all series volume one is an excellent place to start. Arthur Dent, a noodly, somewhat boring and tragically average English commoner and his best friend Ford Prefect (who is in fact a marooned journalist from Betelgeuse) get whisked away on to a Vogon space ship just moments after the Earth is destroyed to make way for an Intergalactic Superhighway. From there the Hitchhiker’s Guide provides detailed entries on extraterrestrial culture and other things of significance while Ford and Arthur get sucked into a journey to find the mythic world of Magrathea, joined by the two-headed, three armed president of the Galaxy, a chronically depressed android and worst of all, Arthur’s old crush back on Earth.
Geist by Philippa Ballantine
“Geist”, meaning spirit or ghost, is a German word which tends to evoke feelings of both foreignness and familiarity, since most people have heard the word in one place or another. I feel that this is the same kind of reaction I had to Ballantine’s world. The central established conflict in Geist is between mortals and the spiritual entities that inhabit the Otherside. Once separate, the two worlds now touch at moments, causing breaches which these spirits escape from. The Order of the Eye and Fist is a group of monk-like warriors and scholars who fight in pairs against these beings. What makes this order more interesting to me is that although their titles are familiar to us as those of religion, these people are firmly atheist.
Geist’s plot is full of mystery and intrigue, claimant to the throne with a grotesque curse, love, and betrayal. Now, these elements can be difficult to manage all at once without making things melodramatic or predictable, and while I may have seen certain things coming, I think Ballantine did a great job of keeping the flow nice and smooth. Things could be surprising without seeming like a deus ex machina. I enjoyed the action of this novel immensely. If you like the concept of mystic warriors fighting the Otherside, or a heroine who kicks butt and takes names, I totally recommend this one.
Brothers By Ben Bova
Ben Bova has written some great works of science fiction; this one is no different. Taking a step away from some truly ‘hard’ Sci Fi elements, Bova weaves a story that is thoroughly character driven. I am not a big first-person POV fan; this is one of the rare books I enjoyed as it even switches the point-of-view between two brothers as they are questioned regarding their remarkable breakthrough: they have created the ability to regrow limbs, organs, etc. and through this discovery edge toward immortality. This is a fun and thoughtful novel to get into; part brain-candy, part serious science fiction. While unlike some of the other works I have read by Ben Bova, this one is a great and quick read, perfect for an airplane or sitting in a park.
The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer-Bradley
I am generally not a fantasy reader, but I love this book. To this day it is the only version of the Arthurian legend that I will accept as plausible truth. In Mists, Bradley retells this legend from the point of view of the women involved; the Lady of the Lake, Morgan La Fey (Morgaine), and Gwynafar, just to name a few. Set in the midst of turmoil between the new church and the old pagan religion, England needs a leader who can unite both groups to successfully rid the island once and for all of the Saxons. Mists tells how the Goddess-worshiping priestesses of Avalon placed Arthur on the throne and were largely responsible for the best bits of this legend. I refuse to believe that Morgan La Fey was pure evil. The end.
The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card
I came across The Lost Gate by accident, but it was one that I actually put aside the book I had been reading for. The Lost Gate features magic as a power brought from another world by a powerful mage who could make Gates, or portals. This process gave them great power and they were treated as gods, many of whom we are familiar with through mythology. However, the link was broken and the remaining families were cut off from power and home and now live in divided societies. I liked the concept very much, and it was helped by the main character having the power to create Gates himself. Now I don’t know why, but I’ve always enjoyed the idea of portals. A shortcut between home and work, or a way to take a cheap trip to Paris. I liked the interesting ways the character found to use portals, which you’ll have to find out for yourself when you read the book. Magic takes a new and interesting spin in The Lost Gate, requiring no spell books but instead innate talent and practice. Card does not disappoint in the first novel of this new series of magic in the modern world! Allan’s Review
Childhood’s End, by Arthur C. Clarke
If The Left Hand of Darkness is in the Top 10 of the “Most Important SF Books Ever” list, I’d put Childhood’s End here in at least the Top 5. You know that fading dream of the world being a utopic, fantastic, all-around-really-awesome place that I talked about? Arthur C. Clarke exemplified Utopian science fiction. 2001 and Rama touched upon Clarkes ideas that “mankind can rise up from it’s pettiness” but Childhood’s End does it in the most elegant and powerful way. An intergalactic species invades Earth, withstands our resistance, and swiftly claims dominion over the world without harming a soul. These “Overlords” then proceed to greatly advance our technologic progression in a matter of decades, as well as solve most of our world’s social/economic problems. All’s fine and dandy right? It wouldn’t be a story if there wasn’t some kind of tension, and naturally Clarke raises the questions if this Utopia is desired, as mankind grows lethargic and inert. The story’s finale is where the real kick is, and with Childhood’s End Clarke shows us his vision of the future of humanity and the far larger, more important role we may eventually play in the universe.
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Dubbed as “Harry Potter for adults,” Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is so much more than that. Clarke fashions up a deeply realized alternate history of England where magic was once prevalent in society. Providing legitimacy to her alternate history are dozens of footnotes and imagined texts that are tapped to explain historical occurrences or terminology and so on. England has been without magic for years and, while magicians are still around, they simply research and study magic without being able to perform it until a Mr. Norrell demonstrates that he can.
What begins is a sprawling quest through England and Faerie Land in search of the legendary and evil Raven King. More similar to the downplayed fantasy of John Crowley’s Little, Big than the magical roller coaster of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, the magic is subtle and not the absolute focus of the story. Clarke also has flavors of Austen, Peake and Dickens in her writing. Fans of those authors will find the book among the best around but someone looking for a more fast-paced and hyper-realized novel may be disappointed.
The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
The Hunger Games, the first book in Suzanne Collins’ young adult trilogy, took the reading world by storm. Readers young and old eagerly waited for the next two installments of the series and the first book is now being made into a film. The reason is not so much the excellence of the prose, but the compelling and descriptive story Collins tells.
Katniss Everdeen lives in a post-apocalyptic world where actions are circumscribed, work is difficult and dangerous, and hunger is rampant. It’s a world with little hope for the future and indeed, a fear of the future. Enter “The Hunger Games,” a gruesome reality television program sponsored by the rulers in which all the districts have a stake. Two young contestants from each district are chosen by lottery to compete for food for their district and lifelong comfort for their families. The catch is that the competition is a battle to the death.
In The Hunger Games, the first whispers of rebellion begin, continuing through Catching Fire and Mockingjay with Katniss at the center. How she deals with her sometimes unwitting and certainly unenviable role forms most of the rest of the story. Collins treats with themes of torn loyalties and betrayal, choices made without choice, the greater and lesser of evils, and the many struggles that embody change.
Suzanne Collins has created a powerful trilogy that holds appeal for any age, especially reluctant readers. As she writes an action-packed story, she doesn’t hesitate to tackle larger concepts that echo many of the realities and fears of today’s society. There isn’t a “happy” ending as in a fairy tale, but it’s one to live with, as we all do.
Kat ‘s Review
The Passage by Justin Cronin
Reminiscent of The Road by Cormac McCarthy and The Stand by Stephen King, The Passage by Justin Cronin is an apocalyptic epic charting the destruction of the world as it is known. The novel moves back and forth through time, slowly revealing the secrets of Homeland Security in trying to develop a super-soldier with a virus, and how the experiment roars desperately out of control. Because this virus doesn’t kill – it changes people into contagious monsters.
One of the most compelling themes in post-apocalyptic literature is how people recreate a society from the ashes of the old one. What kind of hierarchy is developed and how much does it borrow from aspects of history? How are resources allocated? And how do people explain what happened to them, and why? The Passage explores all of these questions during the ongoing war against the monsters those infected have become. This book was an addicting read with a cast of thousands, and I’ve moved on to the second book in the trilogy. Stay tuned!
Alas, Babylon by Pat Frank
I first picked up this book in high school, and it’s one of those books that I like to re-read from time to time. Each and every time I do I am amazed at just how good it is and how after over fifty years (it was published in 1959) it is still relevant today. That’s because unlike some ‘sci-fi’ or ‘apocalypse’ books its main appeal is not in the technology or the disaster itself, but in the human relationships. The characters in this book deal with matters of love, loss, family and friends, race, and the economy – matters which we are still dealing with today. The people in the small town of Fort Repose, Florida survive ‘the end of the world’ by repeated simple acts of kindness, charity, and community. There is a scene in the book of no great plot importance, but one of my favorites, where two men are at a sort of trading fair. One man has honey, the other liquor. The honey dealer tells the man with liquor that while he does not drink alcohol, he will give the man some honey without payment so that his children might have something sweet to eat. This to me sums up the moral of the book. In a disaster of any kind the way we will survive is if each of us is able to give without thought of our own benefit. Even if you don’t
care for ‘sci-fi’ or ‘apocalypse’ books, give this one a try. Its message of hope is certain to inspire all.
American Gods by Neil Gaiman
This book is everything I love about fiction. Gaiman masterfully crafts a novel in which gods from various mythologies are real and trying to survive as immigrants in a modern America. While the novel does deal with some fantastic notions, it isn’t thick with bizarre lands or races like a typical fantasy novel. Rather, the supernatural goes unnoticed by most people in this world, which makes the struggles of the characters all the more interesting. Never before have I read a book in which reality and fantasy were so neatly at odds with each other without really knowing
it. This book is a treasure and a must-read!
Allan ‘s Review
Fragile Things by Neil Gaiman
Those that keep up with my staff reads may think, “Another Gaiman book?” The only real answer is of course. Fragile Things is a collection of short stories and some poems, all written by Gaiman. The best way I can describe this book is like a box of chocolates. Quick, sweet, fun. None are coconut filled, thankfully. I really enjoyed the stories. At first, my thought was that I might not like short stories as much as Gaiman’s longer works, seeing as how I love nothing more than to be engrossed in his worlds. But Fragile Things is really a perfect title for this collection. The stories and snippets contained within are dreamlike, hints of wonder among the normal world. They’re short glances into wonderful thoughts and ideas, not unlike short examinations of preserved insects or treasures. This is a fantastic book for anyone looking for a sort of inspiration. You can read just one of the many stories from the book, and you can let it steep, or percolate, or whatever it is you like to let ideas do, and before long it’s made you think of something new and exciting. I hazard to say ‘best’ when they’re all great, but best of all for me was the return of a character from what is probably my favorite novel ever. It’s at the end of the book (if you feel like cheating) and came as a happy surprise to me.
Now, I like to notice interesting patterns or styles when reading, and many of the stories in this collection have a cyclical motion about them, either because they begin at the end and end at the beginning, or something in the story is reborn, or a character winds up where they started. Even I, in reading the book straight through, wound up feeling the same way I did after I finished the original novel featuring the character in the final story. Read the stories, see what you make of the cycles. Is it accident or coincidence, or is it simply only that question that matters?
Allan ‘s Review
The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman
I had held off on reading this book for a time because I knew it was geared toward young adults. It’s a silly prejudice -one, in fact, that I was sorely sorry for allowing to cloud my judgment in this case. The Graveyard Book is a fantastic work of fiction that readers of any age can enjoy. Now, when I tell someone who wants to know the premise of the book that it’s sort of an adaptation of The Jungle Book, I’m a little bit right, but I’m also doing the book a large disservice. The Graveyard Book is the story of Nobody Owens, a boy raised in a graveyard by ghosts, but it also has just the right amount of secrecy, revenge, love, and magic to really shine as a work of its own. The community of ghosts in the graveyard is as much of a work of art as the book itself. Despite being dead, each of these characters feels very alive. One of my favorite touches Gaiman gave the story are the epitaphs on the graves of the ghosts, given to the reader upon meeting the phantasmal character. It struck me as such an ingenious, fresh way to give flavor to a character (perhaps in part to the exact nature of an epitaph, being rarely found on those living), at the same time reinforcing the world that the author has created. The Graveyard Book is a treat, truly, and like many treats, can be enjoyed quickly – but I suggest slowly savoring each morsel.
Allan ‘s Review
Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman
I am not usually a Fantasy reader, but this book got me hooked forever on Neil Gaiman. It is his first solo novel, and still my favorite. It is a tumble through a parallel world of the London Underground. The protagonist is an unlikely hero, paired with a popadum munching elfin girl. Their journey is truly incredible, and remarkably told. After reading Neverwhere, you will think twice the next time you travel on the Tube, and you may be tempted to give pigeons just a little respect. I have heard that the BBC television series is pretty shabby, so if you have seen that don’t let it dissuade you, the book is phenomenal.
Wheel of Time Series by Robert Jordan
Perhaps you are a Lord of the Rings fan. Or perhaps not. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series very much exists as a modern day telling of the Lord of the Rings. The settings of both stories are more or less identical (foot travel is the main mode of transportation in a mythical world) and both involve the protagonists on the run from the monsters and ghouls that are trying to get them. The first book, The Eye of the World starts with three country bumpkins (much like Tolkein’s hobbits) who are sought by evil wizards because they are unknowingly ta’veren which means they more or less create fate for themselves and everyone around them. Throw in a good guy female wizard and her bodyguard and you have a grand adventure right off the bat!
While I dig both Lord of the Rings and Wheel of Time , I can’t help but feel that the latter is oh so slightly better than the former. For one thing, The Eye of the World was written in 1990, so the writing is a little more modern and easier to understand as opposed to when my eyes would just glaze over when reading The Two Towers whenever I didn’t understand what was happening (which if memory serves was quite often). This series is also ongoing. At last count it was up to book eleven…and these are some meaty books, so rest assured, there’s a lot of continued reading to be had until the end…whenever that may be.
Kevin ‘s Review
The Left Hand of Darkness, by Ursula K LeGuin
If someone were to draw up a list of “The Most Important Science Fiction Books Ever”, The Left Hand of Darkness would undoubtedly make the list, possibly even in the top 10. LeGuin’s finest work of SF hails from the Golden Age of the genre, where the pulp adventures of the early years were beginning to fade out and writers still had some optimism about the future (though this would eventually be crushed during the cyberpunk/dystopic SF of the 70s/80s). At the same time, LeGuin’s work heralded in a new era of thoughtfulness in the genre, tackling ideas such as feminism and sexuality with the androgyny Gethenian that populate the story. Excellent world building and intellectually stimulating, this is one of the SF greats.
The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin
I recently reread the novella The Word for World is Forest by Ursula K. Le Guin and was reminded of how much I love her work. The best word to describe her writing style is “graceful.” Her language flows elegantly across the printed page like water and she cradles her reader as she journeys to alien worlds that are oddly familiar. Le Guin is the daughter of anthropologists and this informs much of her work, most especially this novella. The Word for World is Forest examines the clash between a colonizing power and and an indigenous people on a distant planet, and both sides’ perspectives are fully explored. Le Guin’s tales are illuminating and cautionary, but she doesn’t lecture. She describes and allows her readers to draw their own conclusions. In true anthropologic spirit, she invites us to look through the lens of another culture in order to understand our own better. Yum! I would recommend almost anything Ursula K. Le Guin has written, but start with this novella!
Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley
Spindle’s End by Robin McKinley is magical, really. I have wanted to write this review for a very long time but was having trouble with all of the fairy dust that puffed out when I closed it. McKinley retells the story of Sleeping Beauty in a surprising and reinvigorated way. The novel is enchanting. It would be fantastic to read aloud to any younger readers, but is better suited for readers who read Harry Potter novels, as it is almost 400 pages. The fairies, the enchanted animals, the magical plants, the human characters, and, yes, the bothersome fairy dust, all contribute to well-told alternative fairytale. Oh, and another reason I like this book is that it really is G-rated (some scary scenes with mean fairies and enchanted vines, but quite mild). Refreshing!
Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan
Altered Carbon was a happy accident for me. The book that happened through our shop had a nice shiny cover – book sellers know full well how much you can judge from a book by its cover. I started this book at the Thai Garden after work and did not set it down until the following dawn. It is a fast-paced, action-packed science fiction work with touches of Philip K. Dick, William Gibson, and Tim O’Brien. This is also Richard Morgan’s first novel – and his first dealing with Takeshi Kovacs, who appears in two sequels (both are excellent). What I appreciate about this author in particular is his ability to get into the really ugly/violent side(s) of his protagonist; the violence never used for shock value, but to enhance the dimensions of his characters. Thoughtful, smart, and balanced writing; not always for the light-hearted, but always good storytelling.
Fractions by Ken MacLeod
This novel contains Ken’s first book The Star Fraction and its sequel The Stone Canal. The writing is gritty, blunt, and sets a rough tone for a dim European future. What has kept me involved in this book (and in this author) is his ability to create a really bleak tone. However, he’s careful not hit you over the head with it. This book starts off his Fall Revolution series but instead of attempting (or devolving) into a grandiose and cliche space opera – it tightly follows the actions and the effects this broken, future world has upon his characters. Mr. MacLeod is quickly becoming one of my favorite science fiction authors.
Mort by Terry Pratchett
I’ve been told since high school (hint: a long time ago) that I should read Terry Pratchett. For some reason, I have only recently begun. I read Good Omens – also great, by the way – and loved it, and I decided I wanted to read some of the Discworld books. Mort is about Death taking an apprentice, which causes Death to become interested in activity outside of work while allowing the apprentice to accidentally cause a rip in reality.
This book is full of hilarious quirks, one-liners, and situations. One of these involves a man being quite upset and cursing, which is written as “——-” a fairly common practice for expletives. His friend responds to him, repeating the word, and is described as effortlessly repeating a series of dashes. This sort of dry humor is Pratchett’s forte, and I couldn’t get enough of it. Expect almost every page to get a chuckle out of you, if not a full laugh. There were plenty of sections I had to save so that I could read them to friends, and I only resist here so that you can do it for yourself.
Mort is a great read if you’re looking for something light; it has fairly quick pacing, making you want to read on to see what misadventure comes next. What’s great about it, I think, is that this book is part of a series of sorts, but it doesn’t require any of the other books to be read. Everything is sufficiently explained for the reader to grasp the world the characters interact with. Of course, if you happen to enjoy it as much as I did, there are other books that feature Death, as well as many others featuring other characters. Expect great reads and many laughs!
Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
The first novel in a Hugo, Nebula, and BSFA award winning trilogy spans a rich landscape of an unknown planet; focused on the desires and fears of its first colonists. Robinson explores characters of depth, a plot of realistic complexity, and a foreign terrain centering it all. What has continued to amaze me as I continue through this series is the fullness in Mr. Robinson’s writing style. He leaves nothing out and yet everything advances a very complete plotline. Slowly becoming a personal favorite – don’t be surprised if you see me recommending other Kim Stanley Robinson books in the future.
The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson
The author of the absolutely incredible (and hilarious) Snow Crash really outdid himself for his follow-up The Diamond Age. Set more or less in the same future universe, The Diamond Age extrapolates the next evolution in technology after the advent and initial luster of cybernetics and complete virtual reality. Stephenson goes head first towards the idea of nanotechnology, coming up with ideas I would have never thought to imagine. As the least talked about novel in Stephenson’s recent works, I find it hard to believe it’s under so many readers’ radars- it’s my personal favorite of his novels- take one part hard science fiction, one part social fiction via Victorian ideals, and the trademark Stephenson humor and you’ve got The Diamond Age.
Zodiac: An Eco-Thriller by Neal Stephenson
First published in 1988, this Sci-Fi thriller reads as current as today’s news. It’s a well-paced book that even this non-sci-fi reader enjoyed. Sangamon Taylor, a former chemist who now works for an environmental protection group, spends time zooming around Boston on an over-clocked Zodiac, looking for illegal pipelines and the toxic sludge that they dump, then going after the corporate baddies. He’s smart and an egoist, with an interesting network of friends and allies. He also has some pretty big muscle after him, including a group of satanic, heavy metal dustheads. The book is full of chemistry and tech, but doesn’t get hung up on it, and it’s a great description of traveling around Boston by water. The main character almost seems like a James Bond / Sam Spade-type eco-warrior. The action never stops in this book. You’ll definitely know more about PCBs and organic chlorine after reading this, but might never swim in any suburban waters again!
Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, by Tad Williams
Epic high fantasy with a capital E-P-I-C! Truly, these books are huge. The Dragonbone Chair pushes 700 pages. Its successor, Stone of Farewell backs off a bit with barely 600. But the last volume in the trilogy, To Green Angel Tower, was so massive that the paperback printing had to be split into two volumes. Poor Mr. Williams lovingly refers to it as “The Book That Ate My Life.” It was well worth it, though. You’ve got your swords, your dragons, your wandering princes, your elf-type-things, your evil priests, your strong-willed princesses, your age-old prophecies… really, it more than fills all of the requirements for a seriously rockin’ fantasy series.
Better than that, it manages to turn a lot of the reader’s expectations completely upside down. The ending is so spectacularly good and stupendously surprising that even folks who’ve had a hard time getting into the beginning of the series have become die-hard Tad Williams fans. Trust me, I’ve talked to them! So if you find yourself wishing that Robert Jordan would just wrap it up already, or that Dennis L. McKiernan would use language that comes a bit more naturally to him, Memory, Sorrow and Thorn is exactly what you need.
The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror Edited by Terry Windling and Ellen Datlow
I love reading short story anthologies because they give me a glimpse into an author’s work; I can choose who to pursue in the future. At swimming pools, I dip my toes into the water before I go in. Lack of commitment? On the contrary: I inevitably dive, but I like to know what I’m getting myself into.
For those who enjoy magical realism, fantasy, and horror fiction, there is no better guide than the yearly anthology of The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. Originally edited by Terry Windling and Ellen Datlow, this collection is entering its 22nd year. Aside from the amazing short stories these volumes contain, the editors include lists of “must-reads” from the year of publishing, provide updates on writers’ histories and activities, and give information on related sub-genres (music, graphic novels, movies, manga and anime, etc.) Anyone interested in the fantastic will appreciate these volumes (any of them!) for the wealth of information and the depth of the writing. You will find authors whose works you wish to further explore, as I have. Dip those toes!
~ Horror ~
General Mystery Science Fiction Horror Graphic Novel Poetry & Drama
“Books are a uniquely portable magic.”
Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse ed. by John Joseph Adams
Need an anthology of short stories about dystopian/post apocalyptic/dark apocalyptic futures written by an all-star cast of award winning authors? This is your book. Sometimes anthologies can get a bit tired toward the end (or unfortunately way before the end), however the subjects dealt with are so varied and the styles so different, it is easy to burn through a tome like this effortlessly. The list of authors presented is a veritable who’s who of genre fiction: Stephen King, Orson Scott Card, Octavia Butler, Elizabeth Bear, Jack McDevitt – and that is just a few names topping the page in this 22 story volume. You will definitely find yourself going back to this collection for a reread.
Imajica, by Clive Barker
Imajica is big. Really big. It’s so big that it takes 5 parallel universes (and about 900 pages) to fill it. Luckily though, Clive Barker filled those 900 pages and 5 universes with something interesting, and the result is one of the strangest, coolest, mind-blowingest novels I’ve read in a long while. Imajica is a 4-tiered dominion that Barker has imagined, with Earth existing as the fifth “unreconciled” dominion.
Separated by an abyss of magic, every 200 years it’s possible to reunite Earth with the 4 others with magic — however, the last time it was attempted went horribly awry, resulting in magic and magical artifacts being wiped from existence and the history books on Earth. Now, 200 years have passed and it’s pretty much the last chance to try again for fear that Earth would destroy itself through nuclear war or some other means. A huge cast of characters, interweaving storylines and plenty of horrific and fantastic imagery fill the entire novel, leaving the reader entranced.
Storm Front by Jim Butcher
This is one of those books that I’d been recommended a thousand times over, both directly and indirectly. I have a friend who eats the Dresden Files books up like potato chips. And of course, there are the many good folks who frequent the bookstore that ask for them all the time. By a stroke of luck, I finally got my hands on it and read it. Now, characters are one of my favorite elements of story, and at first, Harry Dresden himself rubbed me the wrong way. He’s an incredibly stubborn professional wizard. But as I read on, I found that he grew on me. Despite some of the things that make you groan when he does them, there are also a good number of things you can’t help but laugh at. For me, a highly interesting use of a cleaning spell was the thing that made me realize I had to have more.
Storm Front is the first of the Dresden Files books, and it does a great job of easing the reader into this modern-day world of magic. Information is given as needed, instead of all at once in a giant, difficult-to-swallow hunk. At the same time, we get to know the central characters, especially Harry Dresden, quite well, though there are thankfully still mysteries left in solved enough to encourage reading the next volume, which I, for one, am going to do very soon!
Allan ‘s Review
The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King
So you’re not a fan of Stephen King? It’s okay, I wasn’t either. However, this series is truly epic in scope. Some of you may have even started this series and stopped (usually around book 4 is what I hear most often). Do yourself a favor, push yourself through. When I had completed this series the first time, I was disappointed – but glad I did it. Now, having reread it, I think it is amazing. The scale, the size, the depth of the world of Roland is great. If you are looking for a good (and LONG series) to sink your teeth into, this is definitely thousands of pages of brain candy to feast upon!
The Green Mile, by Stephen King
When I was on the One Book, One Lincoln selection committee, I rolled my eyes when I saw this on the list of nominations. In the end, I found myself championing it into the top five. I’m ashamed of having judged it before reading it. I enjoyed this book for its compelling narrative, its strong characters and the way it explores the issues of capital punishment and the divine. We read to be entertained. We read to have cause to ponder how we would behave if placed in the characters’ shoes. I enjoyed this book. (Put it under someone else’s name and slap it into a gorgeous trade paperback with a matte cover…people would not judge it so harshly.)
Street Magic by Caitlin Kittredge
I picked up this book wanting to try out the supernatural noir genre. Jim Butcher endorses Kittredge on the front of the book, and while I haven’t personally read Butcher, I know from plenty of friends that he’s a great writer of this type of fiction. Street Magic takes place in modern London, where a string of mysterious child kidnappings has female detective Pete Caldecott haunted by images of her past. Kittredge does a great job in keeping suspense in character development. I’m a big fan of character dynamics, and I was happy to see the skill with which Kittredge keeps things between the main characters tense and interesting. The language Kittredge uses in the novel is refreshing and imaginative. For example, Pete meets a character that is actually fey, and she begins to feel as though she can hear ancient battle cries; her blood starts to pump hotter and faster. I found moments like these in the novel to be wonderfully descriptive, so much better than simply stating that Pete found something odd about the man. There is an aspect of magic in the book as well, and I was glad to find that its introduction was paced well to the reader – things were kept surprising, but not so much as to be unbelievable. This facet helped the reader identify with Pete’s unwilling belief in the unknown side of London. Overall, I would recommend this book to anyone looking for a fun, somewhat dark book, touched with magic and excellent writing technique.
Allan ‘s Review
The Haunted by Bentley Little
I grabbed this one from here at the shop because I thought it looked interesting. Now I may just have to find more by the same author! The Haunted is about a family that moves into a haunted house. Of course, I knew that it wasn’t exactly the most original premise, but as I read, I found that Little had managed to put a unique twist on the “haunted house” genre. There’s more going on than just the ministrations of an angry ghost, and I was happily surprised by this.
Little delivers on the creepy narrative, too; I found myself having to turn the television on just to have some background noise! The scenes in the book aren’t just gross and gory like so many horror films today. Instead, they’re bizarre, twisted things that happen, and watching those events unfold is more frightening than the explosive type of horror I see too often these days. Another thing I enjoyed was the background exposition of the haunting. One of the characters does some research and finds that weird, horrible things had happened there numerous times, spanning years and years. The depictions of some of these events are chilling, to say the least. The Haunted provides a new and unusual scene of horror, one that’d I’d recommend to anyone looking for a good scare.
At the Mountains of Madness by H.P. Lovecraft
Despite its origins as an early twentieth century story, this novella held a greater power of gripping horror over me than many modern novels or films. Lovecraft wrote many short stories involving supernatural and psychological horror, a good deal of them belonging to what is known as the “Cthulhu Mythos”, a set of stories involving horrors from beyond the stars. In this short novel, Lovecraft deals with these themes in the vast, frozen Antarctic. The story is told as a reflection of events, a warning to others, and it is through this technique, wherein the narrator purposefully hints at horrors to come, that I found myself unable to put the book down. The story is not simply frightful because of the supernatural creatures found within, but also because of the psychological themes it deals with: madness and humanity. The mystery with which the story is told excites both suspense and the ultimate horror as the narrator delves into an eons-old city, compelled forward as curiosity overpowers sanity. Lovecraft is touted as being the key player in 20th century horror, and this book is a shining example of his skill.
Allan ‘s Review
Night Watch by Sergei Lukyanenko
I saw this as a movie about a year ago with a friend, and decided that since I didn’t have any other books burning a hole in my shelf, I’d try it out as a book. Of course, the movie didn’t do the book justice. Lukyanenko paints a thrilling world set in Moscow, Russia, in 1998. Thankfully, the novel is not overfull with references to Russian things an American couldn’t understand. Instead, we are presented with a dark cityscape in which supernatural beings wage an eons-long war: Light vs. Darkness. With a treaty in place that stops an all-out war, each side takes its choices very seriously.
The standard Good vs. Evil is seen here, but Lukyanenko provides a struggle that is not as black and white, odd as that may seem in a world where “Others” must choose whether to be on the side of Light or Darkness. While presenting this unique philosophical treatise, the novel is also a breathtaking thriller where magic can only go so far in helping the characters know just what will happen next, and which side can prevail.
Allan ‘s Review
Interview with the Vampire By Anne Rice
I was looking over my old staff recommendations the other day and was shocked to discover that I have yet to review an Anne Rice novel. She is one of my all time favorite authors. I first discovered her as a young adult and I’ve been hooked ever since. Her writing is intelligent, lush, and meticulously crafted. One of my favorite things about her is that her novels contain many different time periods in history, and each era is thoroughly researched and well fleshed out. My only problem in choosing her to recommend was deciding which of her novels to feature. I chose Interview with the Vampire because it is the first book in the Vampire Chronicles series and is a great introduction to her work. (Side note to those of you who have only seen the movie based on the book: the book is SO much better. But isn’t it always?) Anyway, Interview with the Vampire is at its heart just that: the story of a young man interviewing a vampire. But in the course of the vampire telling his story the reader is drawn into a world full of intrigue, beauty, and eroticism. The vampire’s story starts out in Louisiana of the late 18 th century, travels throughout Europe, and finally ends in late 20 th century America. (This 200 year time span is actually quite short compared to some of Rice’s other books, which can cover time periods of thousands of years.) Along the way issues of life, death, and the nature of good versus evil are all investigated. If you are a fan of some of the newer vampire novels that have come out you will be amazed at the quality, depth, and scope of Rice’s writing. And if you have never considered reading a vampire book, I think you will find this novel to be the perfect introduction to the genre.
Headhunter by Michael Slade
Usually when I recommend a book it’s because I think absolutely everyone should read it. Not so with this one. First, this is a book strictly for adults. Second, this book should not be read by anyone who is squeamish about… well, anything at all. Filled with not only gore and violence (the title refers to a serial killer’s trademark – enough said there) but also with a large dose of sexual psychosis and perversion. So why recommend it at all? Because the writing is superbly intelligent, the plot suspenseful, and the ending will leave you gasping and frantically flipping back looking for clues you may have missed on the first reading. Think the pure psychological terror of Stephen King combined with the detail and creepiness of Thomas Harris. Written by three lawyers (Slade is a pen name) as a work of experimental fiction, the story gives one the feeling of an actual investigation into a serial killer’s murders. At its heart a whodunit murder mystery, the novel is full of flashbacks and subplots and parallel story lines that will keep you guessing till the very end. If you’re brave and have a strong constitution, pick this one up. I guarantee you won’t be able to put it down.
~ Graphic Novels ~
General Mystery Science Fiction Horror Graphic Novel Poetry & Drama
“Graphic novels are not traditional literature, but that does not mean they are second-rate. Images are a way of writing. When you have the talent to be able to write and to draw, it seems a shame to choose one.”
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
There are graphic novels, and there are memoirs. A growing trend in book publishing is the graphic novel memoir, as illustrated (no pun intended) by Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. I highly recommend Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home as a superlative example of this genre. Bechdel explores her relationship with her father, a volatile and closeted gay man, through memories, photographs, and newspaper articles; she discovers herself by translating her father. Bechdel’s artwork is evocative and her writing is excellent, with references to Homer and F. Scott Fitzgerald. I’ve already read it twice and have plans to read it again!
Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman
A friend of mine, knowing how much I like graphic novels, introduced me to this debut novel about superheroes: their origins, their strengths, their careers. Who knew what dirty little secrets these folks have kept hidden away all these years, what secret pains and doubts they have suffered?
Soon I Will Be Invincible shifts between two super-human perspectives. The first is that of Doctor Impossible, the craftiest villain the world (and galaxy) has ever seen. Juxtaposed with the bad Doctor is Fatale, a woman transformed into a cyborg after a horrific accident and subsequently farmed out to various intelligence agencies and crimefighting organizations. Doctor Impossible wonders why he always gets caught as he’s about to take over the world; Fatale wonders how the hell she got here in the first place. Their existential crises are exacerbated by their cohorts with their failed marriages, drunken tendencies, delusions of grandeur, aging bodies, and juvenile attitudes.
Austin Grossman brings the realm of the super-human back down to just plain human in a really comical way. They’re just like us, after all, except they might be more…invincible.
I Kill Giants by Joe Kelly
I picked this graphic novel up at the bookstore recently – it was new in the store and headed to the shelf, but something about it grabbed me and I decided to buy it on the spot. I Kill Giants is about a young girl, Barbara, who lives with her brother and older sister. Barbara is an outcast: she has big glasses, always has her nose in a book, has poor social skills, and is a self-proclaimed giant hunter.
This graphic novel employs a unique and interesting storytelling style. Our viewpoint follows Barbara primarily, and so we are privy to her insights and secrets. However, we are also kept unaware of the vital problems she faces but chooses to block out. Some words are deliberately scribbled out as Barbara’s psyche refuses to process them. I Kill Giants is a coming-of-age story that has elements of comedy, drama, fantasy, and perhaps even romance. I particularly enjoyed that the fantasy element of the story, while certainly part of the plot, isn’t completely what drives it. Barbara is an unreliable narrator, and so we must decide for ourselves how much of what she tells us is true. This is a quick, delightful read; pick it up as soon as you can!
Watchmen, by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
I was drawn to this graphic novel after we had several people request copies, and realizing that my best friend had owned a copy for years and raved about it. What sets “Watchmen” apart from other superhero-type stories is that the characters aren’t these perfect savior-types. They are wonderfully flawed and sometimes all too human. It is wonderfully written, with layer upon layer, so that you can read it repeatedly and get some new insight each time. With the movie adaptation coming out on 03/06/09, I highly suggest you read the graphic novel first–there’s a lot going on, and you won’t be disappointed!
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi
Persepolis chronicles the experience of a young girl in Iran in the wake of the Islamic Revolution. In this autobiography that takes the form of a graphic novel (storyboarded like a comic strip), we see how Marjane’s world of relative freedom shrinks under the restrictions of the new regime that requires women and girls to wear the veil. It’s a fantastic book, reminiscent of Art Spiegelman’s Maus (graphic novel about the holocaust) but wholly its own in terms of how it portrays the frustrations of a teenager forbidden by law to express teenage angst in the usual ways. Marjane offers tragedy but also humor – as well as a historical view of Iran from someone who lived it. If you liked Reading Lolita in Tehran, you’ll devour this book in a single night. (Also appropriate for mid-late teens.)
Fables by Bill Willingham et al
When I was a little girl, I loved mythology and fairy tales. As an adult (or so they tell me), I enjoy them all the more. Folklore has deep roots in history and culture, and we come closer to understanding and appreciating ourselves and others when we listen carefully to the stories we tell, the wind in the treetops. Reworkings of traditional tales hold a special allure for me, especially when they’re told tongue in cheek. This is one of the reasons why I enjoy the Fables series of graphic novels so much.
In Fables, the familiar (and some not so familiar) characters of fable and folklore have been driven out of their homelands by The Adversary, and are now living among us ‘mundanes’. Their Fabletown society is secret, their goal is survival, and their hope is to defeat The Adversary and return home. Snow White, Little Boy Blue, the Big Bad Wolf, Old King Cole, Beauty and the Beast – they’re all here, along with Baba Yaga, Robin Hood, and Tam Lin.
This series is cheeky, with the characters true to form but displaying their less than heroic natures at times. Hey, anyone living in exile and under siege can be forgiven for occasional lapses in manners, right?
Katherine ‘s Review
~ Poetry & Drama ~
General Mystery Science Fiction Horror Graphic Novel Poetry & Drama
Two AND Two: Poems by Denise Duhamel
Clever. Witty. Funny. Two AND Two by Denise Duhamel is a wonderful book of poetry. Covering everything from Noah to Woody Allen to an ABC Americano, Duhamel reminds us that serious poetry and serious ideas can come from jovial sources. Using Mobius strips, word play, and warning labels, her poems laugh out loud and hold a mirror to our world. Her ingenious use of words and style, her inspirations for her poems, and her ability to play on the page are the reasons I pick up this book weekly. I wonder. I miss her poems. I have to open her book again.
Different Hours by Stephen Dunn
Stephen Dunn has risen through the ranks as my favorite poet thus far and Different Hours sees him at the top of his game. Witty, sarcastic, and heart-breakingly compassionate, Mr. Dunn has the unique ability to speak from places seemingly autobiographical yet reflect on our shared commonality. This is a collection I have read over and over again. There are a great many collections of poetry out there filled with the “hits and misses” but Stephen is reliable throughout. I would dare anyone to read his opening poem “Before the Sky Darken” and not desire to keep reading. Did I mention he won a Pulitzer Prize for this book? There is a reason. My friend, Heather, has snagged my copy for the time being (and is rereading it), so I can’t lend it out; however, stop in the store and maybe we can get you your very own!
The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees, Edited by Donald Justice
About 6 years ago, A Novel Idea (along with the Sheldon Art Gallery, the UNL libraries and music departments, and the Journal Star) took a week to celebrate one of Nebraska’s lesser known artists. As one looks through Mr. Kees’s life, you find he inspired a generation of successful, well known poets, musicians, authors, and artists. His poetry is described as depressing, sarcastic, satirical, and complex. If you like poetry with lots of layers (even more layers when you learn about the man and his life), you would do yourself a favor to pick up this collection. Each poem begs for another reading. There are many gems like this short poem:
“Small Prayer” By Weldon Kees
Change, move, dead clock, that this fresh day
May break with dazzling light to these sick eyes.
Burn, glare, old sun, so long unseen,
That time may find its sound again, and cleanse
Whatever it is that a wound remembers
After the healing ends.
The last 10 years has seen a surge of interest in Weldon Kees and his work; this collection presents you with 180 pages of reasons why.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
A Midsummer Night’s Dream is my favorite work by Shakespeare. I just adore the combination of magic, comedy, and of course, love. Now I know that many people are immediately intimidated by Shakespeare, and believe me, I am definitely among the people that the No Fear Shakespeare series was created for. If you are like me, and the play format and the dated language of Shakespeare sometimes seem to be too much to overcome, give this one a try. The mix of the star-crossed-lovers with the comedy genre is just perfect. Even better is the magic and mischief added by the woodland fairies and sprites. The quick action, the outrageous situations and mix-ups, and the upbeat tone of this play will quickly make you forget that you are reading at all, as Shakespeare weaves this magical tale. If your only memories of Shakespeare are of torturous sessions reading the tragedies in high school English, I highly recommend this book. It will forever change your opinion of Shakespeare for the better!
The Poem That Changed America: “Howl” Fifty Years Later edited by Jason Shinder
I came across this book at A Novel Idea recently and knew I had to have it. Not only does the book include Photostats of a 1956 mimeographed copy of Howl, it also comes with a CD of the first known recording of Allen Ginsberg reading the poem, at the Town Hall Theater in Berkeley, California. I of course rushed home and listened to the CD, and if reading the poem is amazing, hearing the author read his own words is astounding. Once I calmed down from that, I started to read the essays by distinguished writers such as Frank Bidart, Andrei Codrescu, Vivian Gornick, and Robert Pinsky. The twenty-five plus essays each have a different take on the poem, its inspirations, its effects on its own time, and how it continues to effect America to this day. But I think some of my favorite parts of the book are the three very small sections titled Talking Howl. These sections contain excerpts from letters to Ginsberg, reviews of Howl, introductions to editions of Howl, testimony and judgments from court cases, and even something from the diary of Anais Nin. If you are a fan of Howl, pick this book up; it will give you an enhanced understanding of, and appreciation for, this iconic poem.
Fiction/Literature YA/Children’s Books Non-Fiction
Children’s & Young Adult
~ Picture Books ~
Picture Books Chapter Books Young Adult Children’s Non-Fiction
“It is a great thing to start life with a small number of really good books which are your very own.”
~ Arthur Conan Doyle
Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs by Judi Barrett
Here is a fun, silly, imaginative tale that is likely to be enjoyed by any child. It was one of the most reached for books on our bookshelf growing up – by all four of us kids. It all begins in the small town of Chewandswallow, a town, for the most part like any other small town except for the strange weather they have there. For when it storms it doesn’t actually rain water. You never know what the weather might bring- there may be a “brief shower of orange juice, with low clouds of sunny side up eggs.” I like how clever this story is and the illustrations are detailed and awesome. It isn’t necessarily for toddlers but it’s certainly a book worth keeping on your shelf until your kids can really enjoy it. It’s a good, wholesome, silly story that leaves you happy in the end. Everyone should have a copy in their home!
Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown
Do I even need to say what a wonderful, classic book this is?! I hardly think so but I will go on just in case. This book is very simple and I say that in a positive way – it’s important when trying to keep the attention span of a toddler. Clemet Hurd does a magnificent job illustrating. Bright yet warm colors on one page and black and white on others. When I was taking care of a special needs girl, we used to read this book over and over every time I saw her. Honestly, I never got tired of it. She especially liked “the quiet old lady who was whispering hush!” and “the kittens and mittens” and “bowl full of mush”! One of the first books I had growing up (that I didn’t have to share with my older siblings) was another book by Brown, The Runaway Bunny, which still holds a dear place in my heart. She has written MANY children’s books and she is in the top three of my favorite children’s authors!
Horace and Morris by James Howe
Horace and Morris stories are about two best friends and the little adventures they encounter while growing up. They go to school and are friends with a girl named Dolores. So far there are 3 Horace and Morris books: Horace and Morris but Mostly Dolores is about the boys joining an all-boys club, which leaves Dolores feeling left out. Dolores then decides to make her own club just for girls – but is it really more fun when everyone can’t play together?! Horace and Morris Join the Chorus (but what about Dolores) is about when Horace and Morris make the chorus but Dolores does not. With determination and some practice, along with the help of Moustro Provolone (did I mention these are mouse characters?!), Delores develops her talent for songwriting and is able to participate. Horace and Morris Say Cheese is about, yup you guessed it, cheese! To them swiss is bliss, muenster is magnificent, and nothing’s better than cheddar. I’m sure you can already tell how funny these books are. For the most part, these are simple stories and they will easily hold a 4-5 year old’s attention. Each book has some type of problem but in the end they figure out how to fix it or better deal with the situation. There is problem solving and lessons to learn. These are great books for boys and girls, and would appeal equally to both.
The Birthday Book, Cats You’re Going to Love! by Suzanne Green
It’s Julie’s birthday party and kitty has to get ready. He starts by taking a bath. Then it’s time to wrap the present, and his friend mouse helps out. I found this book at a library sale. The book was pretty beat up – but the cover had pictures of kittens, so I had to read it. The pictures are realistic, with real kittens that really fit their part. They are all dressed in fancy doll clothes and the scenes are set with miniature furniture. After I had the book home and sitting on my coffee table, a couple of my friends came over, picked it up and got just as excited as I did when reading it and seeing how it was illustrated. After some searching I found Suzanne Green has written four books with these adorable kittens: Busy Day, Seasons, Going to School and The Birthday Book. These books, with their bright and fun pictures, would not only be great for very small children but also for the adult reader. It will brighten your day!
The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey; illustrations by Gustaf Tenggren
This was my absolute favorite book when I was a toddler, probably due in no small part to the fact that I was a bit on the “poky” side myself. My Mother has told me many times how I used to repeatedly ask her to “read it again!” I loved it so much, I even still have that very copy from when I was a little girl. Looking past my nostalgia, I still find this to be an endearing book. The simple, soft illustrations are colorful and yet soothing at the same time. In addition the text is fun and engaging, especially when the four little puppies go “roly-poly, pell-mell, tumble-bumble” to see what their poky sibling is up to. This classic children’s picture book is a perennial favorite at the store. When the subject of the Little Golden Books comes up and I mention The Poky Little Puppy, people always get the same nostalgic look on their faces and say “I remember that book; I loved it!” And no wonder – first published in 1942 as one of the first few Little Golden Books made, it was the bestselling children’s book of all time as late as 2001. I recommend this book for all small children (quick or poky!) and to any adult who wishes to revisit a sweet, small place and time from their own childhood.
Little Bunny on the Move by Peter McCarty
A bunny on the move! Past one brown cow, past five fat sheep, this bunny would not stop! Peter McCarty, whom I was unfamiliar with until I happened upon this book while perusing the shelves of A Novel Idea, Chapter Two’s Children’s section – as I often do for books I think my nieces and nephews might enjoy. I instantly loved this one! Peter McCarty is the author as well as illustrator – which is half the appeal for me when it comes to Children’s books. The illustrations have this sort of whimsical feel to them and somehow make you feel peaceful and at ease. The pictures in a sense are detailed but yet still very simple and would be great for small children that need that ‘simple’ quality to a book. Little Bunny on the Move was named New York Times best illustrated book of the year, for good reason. This particular story reminds me a lot of a most beloved story to me, The Runaway Bunny by Margaret Wise Brown. And not just because of the bunnies. Both aren’t too lengthy and both show the importance family has. Other books by McCarty are: Night Driving, Hondo and Fabian, T is for Terrible plus, a few others. I’m going to keep an eye out for the rest!
Love You Forever by Robert Munsch
“I’ll love you forever, I’ll like you for always, as long as I’m living my baby you’ll be.” This is a very sweet and loving story about the the special bond between mother and child. It’s starts off with the mother and her newborn and continues as he grows and goes through the typical stages of “having strange friends, wearing strange clothes and listening to strange music!.” It’s a touching story. I recently purchased a copy of this book for my own collection for when the nieces and nephews come to visit and my friend who is currently visiting expressed how much she loved this book. She told me when she was little her mother used to read it to her all the time and she plans to get a copy herself one day for her own children. I also had a copy growing up and it was very dear to my Mom’s heart. Rarely do I read it without having a tear in my eye at the end. (It’s a good tear though!) I enjoy the fact that the illustrations are on one page and the story is printed on the opposite page. I think you can appreciate the pictures more and I feel it makes it easier to read. I think kids of preschool age would best enjoy this particular read, but I have memories of it at an earlier age. Robert Munsch has written over 40 children’s books including, Mortimer, Promise Is A Promise and Put Me In A Book.
The Kitten Book, by Jan Pfloog
Having this picture book as a child is probably the reason that I am such a cat lover today. Also, it is one of the few books that I can remember having as a child, remembering the wonderful drawings exactly as they were from all those years ago. The first thing you notice are the big eyes staring back at you, and that the book isn’t squared off like others , it takes the shape of the cats on the cover! It takes you through kitties – development from their eyes being shut to discovering their world. The illustrations are colorful, expressive and full of movement, just like kittens should be. My favorite is the one of two kitties discovering a turtle. This is just right for a child around 4-years old and they’ll treasure it for years to come.
The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
With the recent loss of our beautiful store cat, Silas, my thoughts have naturally turned to dealing with grief and the process of acceptance. Someone once asked me what I do when I feel lost and drifting, and my answer was heartfelt: I go back to my children’s books, as they hold wisdom in simplicity while not being simplistic. I took my own advice and opened up The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst. In this picture book, a boy is mourning Barney the cat, who has just died. The boy’s mother suggests he think of ten good things about Barney to say at the funeral…he can only think of nine. His process of discovering the tenth is his story about traveling through grief and coming to terms with his loss. This is a fantastic book to share with a young person undergoing his or her own coping journey and I believe it excellent for us older folks as well. Simple, not simplistic. As I thumbed through The Tenth Good Thing About Barney last night in preparation for writing this recommendation, I learned when I had last opened this book. Falling out of the book were photographs of our first great store cat, Mr. O.K. It seems I had taken my own good advice before, and before this book closes again, it will have a picture of Silas resting next to the photograph of O.K.
~ Chapter Books ~
Picture Books Chapter Books Young Adult Children’s Non-Fiction
“The more that you read, the more things you will know. The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.”
~ Dr Seuss
Tuck Everlasting, by Natalie Babbitt
A family drinks from an everlasting spring of water – and becomes immortal. This family moves from place to place over the years to escape attention – and comes upon a girl who needs some attention. Learn about what can happen between them through this book, and what wisdom people can have as they travel through their lives – however long they last.
Because of Winn-Dixie by Kate DiCamillo
This is a wonderful book to read aloud to your kids. Isabel was 5 the winter we read Because of Winn-Dixie . Every night for a week, we curled up to read for an hour or so. She loved Opal (10), who has moved with her preacher father to a new town. Opal has questions about her absent mother and feels out of sorts in her new environment. She finds a dog that she names Winn-Dixie. Winn-Dixie offers humor and companionship and gives Opal a sense of responsibility. Because of Winn-Dixie, Opal meets new friends and draws closer to her father. Kate DiCamillo creates great characters. This is a touching and entertaining book. After our week of reading, Isabel & I watched the movie based on the book. It was a good adaptation, and a great experience to see my daughter notice differences between the book and the movie. That launched a conversation about decisions writers/directors/costumers make when adapting a book for the screen. (“EVERYTHING in movies is a choice? Even the CLOTHES people wear? Whoa!”) Yeah…whoa. One of the best things about parenting is opening up their little minds!
The Hundred Dresses, by Eleanor Estes
Wanda has 100 dresses but she always wears the same plain blue one to school where the other girls tease her. When she moves away suddenly she leaves behind some precious gifts, tangible and intangible, for her classmate Maddie. Teaching compassion, tolerance, and the value of not making assumptions, this book is perfect for a girl between 7 and 11 years old.
The Music of the Dolphins, by Karen Hesse
This remarkable book, suitable for children ages 9 and up, raises several important questions about the primacy of human society over animal society and how we define families. At the age of four, Mila is shipwrecked and raised by dolphins. When she is rescued as a teenager she is taught human language, music and social mores, but yearns for her “true” family. Hesse describes the journey Mila takes very effectively and the story sweeps you along. I highly recommend Karen Hesses other books as well.
Bunnicula, by James Howe
Its hard to beat a vampire bunny for sheer entertainment value. One who sucks vegetables white. Beware, crispers of the world! Toss in a paranoid cat and a somewhat less concerned dog, along with an innocent human family, and you’re ready for mayhem around the house. Check out the sequels as well, including The Celery Stalks at Midnight. My copy notes and 8-12 year old age range, but dramatic readings from this book on road trips with your friends make the time fly by.
Nancy Drew Mysteries by Carolyn Keene
Whenever I finish what I consider to be a heavy book and am looking for something a little lighter, first that comes to mind is Nancy Drew. There are plenty of titles to choose from and I have yet to get bored with them. Also, you don’t have to start with book #1. With each case, the reader is briefed about the prime characters and a bit of their history. Each case is easy to slip into. These books are great for a range of ages – young adult and up. I enjoy a good mystery as much as the next guy, but more times than not, I find they can be too much for me and I wind up huddled under the covers at night! With Nancy Drew, on the other hand, I can read and sleep in peace. Mystery and suspense, I keep turning the pages! Growing up, my friend Sarah and I had our own idea of a slumber party – which consisted of good food and staying up late, reading as many Nancy Drew mysteries as possible before falling asleep … or as many as we were allowed to check out at the local library. They still have not gotten old for me!
Ronia the Robber’s Daughter by Astrid Lindgren
One day Ronia, who lives in the forest with her family and their robber clan, was out exploring the woods. While in the woods she meets Birk, the son of a rival robber and enemy to Ronia’s father. Enemies at first, they soon become friends and must keep their friendship hidden. It is only a matter of time before the plot thickens and their secret is revealed. You’ll find all sorts of characters in this book. Ronia’s story is full of fantasy, imagination, adventure, danger and fun. It will teach you important lessons such as to love, to forgive and to never give up! Ronia is a headstrong heroine who will capture your imagination instantly! I first read this story when I was a teenager along with my best friend. Even though it is a children’s chapter book, it didn’t take away from the enticement of a well written story. This tale always makes me want to go exploring in the woods and find my own adventure. I still have hopes of becoming a forest child! This is just one of Astrid Lindgren’s classic children’s stories – Pippi Longstocking is another book you have probably heard of! I am ready to reread Ronia’s tale the moment I finish it. Definitely in my top 10 favorite books. I love it and I think you will too!
A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry
Many people know Lois Lowry from her most famous works Number the Stars and The Giver, but fewer have read her very first novel A Summer to Die. I first read the book when I checked it out from my grade school library and I have never forgotten it. The book starts out seeming to be a story about a very typical sibling relationship. There is jealousy, clashing personalities, and the usual amount of bickering. However when one of the two girls falls ill with leukemia it quickly becomes apparent that this is an entirely different type of story. While Meg is forced to watch as her sister Molly suffers from both the disease and the treatments designed to fight it, life goes on for the family and those they know. Meg learns about photography and Molly about wildflowers. When a pregnant couple moves in next door it causes a small scandal amongst the townspeople who incorrectly assume the couple is unmarried because they have different last names. The girls become friends with the couple, who even invite Meg to photograph the birth of their baby. When Molly is rushed back to the hospital she makes Meg promise to tell the baby to wait to be born until she returns. I won’t spoil the ending, but I promise it will make you both laugh and cry. This is a touching story that I recommend to adults and children old enough to deal with issues of life, death, and the varying emotions that accompany both.
Island of the Blue Dolphins, by Scott O’Dell
This Young Adult selection is a former Newbery Award Medal winner. My fifth-grade teacher read it aloud to our class, and when I saw it on our shelf at the store, I decided to re-visit this classic. It is based on true events, about a young woman who was found to have spent 18 years alone on the island of San Nicholas.
As it starts, Karana is only 12 years old, and is the daughter of the chief of Ghalas-at, as they called San Nicholas. In the spring, a group of Aleuts led by a Russian came to hunt otters on the island. They made a deal with the chief to give half to the tribe. As they were leaving, they reneged on their deal, and there was a fight between the Aleuts and the tribesmen. Many were lost.
Life is hard on the island after that, and the workload is redistributed between the remaining men and the women of the tribe. The next spring, one of the elders decides to find a new island to the East for them to live, with the white men. A ship returns with white men to take the tribe to the new land, but Karana is left behind. And now she must learn how to survive – how to find food, make shelter, make clothes, make weapons, repair canoes, and fend off wild animals. But what will be her biggest enemy – the wild animals, or loneliness? This is a beautifully written book – you can almost picture the island in your mind, it is so well described. Even after so many years, I still remembered parts of it. If you like this book, you might also like “Julie of the Wolves” by Jean Craighead George.
Bridge to Terabithia, by Katharine Paterson
One of the reasons why I like this story is because it involves a close friendship between a boy and a girl at an age when these relationships tend to be discouraged a child’s peer group. Written for children ages 8-12, the book still has appeal for me as an example of thinking outside of the box and the power of imagination. Paterson also deals very tenderly and realistically about loss. One of the many children’s books I reread.
Lizard Music, by D. Manus Pinkwater
Imagination. This is the most important element of children’s books. Imagination nurtures brain development, addresses worlds children live in, and provides a vehicle for education. D. Manus Pinkwater lives and works in a world of imagination for children of ages up to fourteen and beyond, and one of my favorites is Lizard Music. Think Home Alone with musical lizards, an enterprising “street person,” Claudia the chicken, and Walter Cronkite. Guaranteed to surprise, satisfy, and stimulate the imagination. Wait until you see Thunderbolt Island.
The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery
Not since Rebecca’s World by Terry Nation (which I have been looking for a copy of for years now) have I been so absolutely absorbed by a children ‘ s story. This book actually forms a dichotomy between an adult and child ‘ s understanding of the story. To a child, it is a great adventure; there are deserts, small planets in outer space, and of course lots of imagination. For an adult, it is an allegory on life, love, and society, seeing what ‘ s not really there, using your heart. Did the sheep eat the rose? This book is required reading for, well, everyone.
The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden; drawings by Garth Williams
This was one of my favorite books as a child. It is a sweet story of friendship, self-sacrifice for the good of others, and finding your place in the world. While a few parts of the book can seem dated (it was first published in 1960), these central themes are timeless. I also love that some of the friendships in the book are between animals that in reality would be more likely to have a predator-prey relationship: a cat, a mouse, and a cricket. I think my favorite scene is when Chester the cricket gives his final concert in Times Square, and blocks of New York City fall silent to listen. I have a distinct memory of that giving me goose bumps as a small child. While the ending is somewhat wistful, the book still leaves me with a happy, content feeling. The book is such that it can either be read to a small child who cannot yet read on their own, or given to an older child who can read chapter books (although, again, due to the era it was written in, some discussion of race and stereotypes might be necessary for older children). If you can find one, I highly recommend getting an edition with the original drawings by Garth Williams; they are precious!