Stumbling Onto Something Wonderful


Have you discovered the pleasures of our library's electronic book collection yet? You never need to be stuck at home with nothing to read as long as you can download books to your device. Sometimes I am patient enough to place an e-book title "on hold," but when I want a book right away on my tablet computer (because I am stuck at home with nothing to read), I browse through the titles that are "available now."  This has led me to some books I might not have found otherwise.


This month I found an masterfully written book: Heading Out to Wonderful by Robert Goolrick.  He also wrote A Reliable Wife, which was on bestseller lists a few years ago, so obviously I'm not the first to be drawn to his writing style. I'd describe it as evocative, poetic, reminiscent of William Faulkner or Raymond Chandler.  Like much of Faulkner, the tale is set in the South: in Brownsville, Virginia, a  town where "no crime had ever been committed." The narrator looks back on disturbing events that took place sixty years before, in the summer of 1948. Like Chandler, there is a "noir-ish" sense of foreboding, as Charlie, the new town butcher (who has a set of very sharp knives), falls for Sylvan, the pretty young wife of the richest man in town.

The doomed love affair is set against a vivid cast of small town characters and details of that time and place. One of the most memorable characters is Claudie, the town's black seamstress, who shares Sylvan's obsession with Hollywood fashion and has the talent to recreate it. And throughout, there is the distinctive voice of Sam, the narrator who was a child witness forever changed by what he saw.

I can't wait to see what other books I discover by trying what is "available." Have you stumbled across any wonderful reads lately? Share them in the comments below.

 

The Zombies are Coming! The Zombies are Coming!


"You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake." - Jeannette Rankin
"I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones." - Albert Einstein

"The most successful war seldom pays for its losses." - Thomas Jefferson



While the zombie genre is popular right now among many TV audiences with shows like The Walking Dead, and movies like Zombieland, it may seem like beating a dead horse with another zombie novel and coming big-budget movie entitled World War Z by Max Brooks.  Many a previous author and screenwriter have had their take on the zombie genre.  Anything from the macabre to the comic, the zombie genre has seen it all.  Given the plethora of zombie fare out there and given the proclamations of the coming catastrophe of the over budget, soon-to-be film based upon the novel by Brooks, I certainly approached the story with a little anxiety and trepidation.  It took all of three pages to get me to eviscerate any preconceived notions of impending peril and drudgery over an almost 350 page novel.

Brooks begins his zombie treatise with an introduction.  While only three pages long I was very tempted to skip it, but was very glad that I did not.  Brooks' narrator begins by telling us he is piecing together a series of interviews about the whole of the zombie war.  Instead of having a straight forward narrative of nightmarish creatures attacking and being repulsed or eventually conquering their human meals-on-wheels, you are introduced to a rich tapestry of stories from individuals, a decidedly human element in a tale about the undead.  Each tale intricately weaves around the previous "history" and then adds its own element, driving the narrative forward with every story told.  Every new angle brings a complexity and richness to Brooks' overall story arc.  Questions like how did the plague get started, how was it not quashed quickly, why did it spread so rapidly, and how, once these undead creatures dominated the planet, was humanity able to beat back such a worldwide infestation are subtly and deftly answered with every passing tale, interweaving stories of the rich and powerful with the poor and destitute.

After reading the novel I began to fully grasp why the zombie genre is so popular.  Anytime a society has a chance to collapse there are a myriad of themes and ideas that have the ability to be mined.  What is morality?  Why should we be stewards of the planets fragile ecology?  What responsibility do scientists bear in their pursuit of knowledge?  What things are of ultimate importance?  There are so many different questions that can be mined within such a tale that it provides authors and artists alike a rich palette of themes and ideas with which to explore.  Brooks' World War Z narrator describes this conflict as a war, not because it is what the governments and participants would want you to think and believe, but because of what it was.  And in war, humanity is often the first casualty, but also its most precious commodity.  I believe the exploration of this theme is what makes the novel brilliant and definitely worth a look, whatever fate may befall the movie based on its pages.

 

The Miseducation of Cameron Post


When Cameron Post’s parents are killed in a car accident, Cameron’s aunt and grandmother move to Montana to take over as her caretakers. Set in the early 1990s, the book evokes the essence of the time period. 

The music, the clothes, the teen lifestyles depicted in the book are all spot on. I especially like how the Montana landscape is a character itself, Cameron’s experiences unfold with Montana snow and tumbleweeds as a backdrop. At almost 500 pages the book is quite a long read, but I didn’t feel like there was anything excessive or unnecessary included in these pages. To me, the author placed every scene and nuance for a reason and as a reader I appreciated it all. An interesting topic and complex realistic characters make this a good book, but absorbing writing and a compelling main character make this a great book. I appreciated Cameron’s sarcastic sense of humor; she is a smart and relatable protagonist. This book is both a coming of age story and a coming out story. Given numerous great reviews and nominated as finalist for various book awards, this is emily m. danforth’s first and only book and I can only hope she will write more great books in the future. I recommend The Miseducation of Cameron Post for older teens and adults.

 

Good Stuff



I know it’s not officially summer yet, but I feel like I have already kicked off my summer reading, and you will want to, too, with Ann Leary’s new novel, The Good House. If you read J Courtney Sullivan’s Maine a couple of summers ago, and enjoyed the New England setting, the intergenerational story, and the view into family dysfunction that won’t ruin your holiday barbecue, you will love The Good House – it has all that plus Leary's pitch perfect humor, but Hildy is a much more likable character than Alice.

 
Hildy Good is a divorced real estate agent in her Cape Cod hometown; things have been better - business is down, her ex-husband left her for another man, and her daughters staged an intervention about her drinking which leaves her with a cellar full of secrets. Hildy is a flawed yet irresistible narrator, as unreliable as she is wise, witty, and genuinely funny.

 
This is Leary’s second novel, and my only regret is that I’ve already read her first, Outtakes from a Marriage, and An Innocent, A Broad,  her memoir of her son’s premature birth in England, so I just have to wait for her to write another!

 

A Remarkable Memoir!



Sonia Sotomayor’s autobiography My Beloved World is the classic American success story.  Growing up poor in the South Bronx, she narrates the numerous obstacles she had to overcome as she journeys her way through life to become the first Hispanic and only the third woman appointed to the United States Supreme Court.

This is an intimate story, candidly told.  Her father was an alcoholic, and her mother carried the financial burden of supporting the family by working long hours as a nurse’s assistant.  Sonia realized at an early age she was going to have to depend upon her own grit and determination to succeed in life.  Diagnosed with juvenile diabetes at age 7, she teaches herself how to give her own insulin shots. Despite the poverty and hardship, Sonia grew up in a loving household with an extended family of recent Puerto Rican immigrants. Not knowing any professional role models, she first becomes enamored with law by watching the television show Perry Mason.

Sonia excelled at school, was valedictorian of her high school, and was accepted at Princeton.  Her college years at Princeton, and how she adjusts to this new environment, are especially poignant.  Princeton had been admitting women for only three years, so there were few female students, and even fewer Latinos in her class.  She discovers that even though she is able to keep up with the academic workload, she has many gaps in her knowledge due to class and cultural background.  For example, when describing how out-of-place she felt at an Ivy League University her room-mate says, “You must feel like Alice in Wonderland,” to which Sonia replies, “Alice who?”  And when Sonia is informed that she is graduating summa cum laude, she has to look up the Latin phrase in the dictionary to learn she is graduating with highest honors. 

After Yale Law School (where she was editor of the Yale Law Journal) Sonia worked first for the New York District Attorney, and then later on in private practice.  The book ends with her appointment as a judge to the Federal District Court.  I can't wait for the sequel where she describes life as a Supreme Court Justice.

My Beloved World is an inspirational book about an extraordinary life.  It is a story of human triumph told with much humility.  I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book and can't say enough good things about it.
    

 

Poison




 

Poison, Bridget Zinn's debut novel, is packed-full of action, propelling the reader into the thick of things, as soon as the book starts.  It keeps a steady pace with a potent mix of mystery, magic, old and new friendships, and of course, romance!  Kyra was a respected potions master, a scientist!  Now the black-clad teenager is the most wanted fugitive in the kingdom.  She tried to kill her best and only friend, Ariana, the future Queen.  But her dart missed, the princess is now in hiding, and Kyra is hunted, while trying to plan her next move.  Kyra also has a secret! 


As the story moves from present to past and back, it reveals that the failed assassination attempt earned Kyra the infamous, albeit inaccurate, title of "Princess Killer."  Although a fugitive, Kyra does not come across as evil despite her quest, using her potions as her weapons, especially her sleeping potion, her main form of defense.  Time is running out, and in order to find the princess, Kyra in desperation asks the despised criminal Arlo, a man who hates her, for help.  As a result, in an unexpected twist of fate, Kyra ends up with an unusual and helpful sidekick:  Rosie, an adorable small, pink pig.  Rosie is a person-sniffing pig, who can hopefully help her find and kill the princess, before it is too late, and evil takes over the kingdom--a task that Kyra believes is up to her alone to achieve.
Before long Kyra and Rosie come across a good-looking boy, Fred, and his dog, Langley.  Yes, Fred is the romantic interest and Kyra’s source of agony and self-doubt.  Zinn saves Kyra from overt social ineptness, meshing Kyra's strong, independent driven side with the awkwardness and insecurities of a teenager, creating realistic layers to Kyra’s personality.  But, not all is teen angst.  Humor plays a big part in keeping the story light and charming, when for example Kyra finds herself in ridiculous situations, like crossing a river in lacy underwear with a pig on her head!  And Kyra and Fred's interactions are dynamic, witty, fun-filled and often zany, with repeated puns like mentions of ladies' underthings growing from bushes.  Twists and discoveries pop up, and revelations come forward and explain the events leading up to the start of the story. 
The story eventually reveals that Kyra is a witch who is trying to deny her power, and has visions of a scarlet river of blood, involving the princess that she is trying to kill, her former friend.  The witty dialog and great mix of literary and familiar fantasy elements of kingdoms-in-peril, princesses, goblins, invisibility spells, potions, gypsies, witches and magic, as well as the confusion of young romance, shape Poison into a richly woven story of adventure, without making it excessively dark.
In Poison, Zinn created a fascinating world.  The addition of the Master Trio of Potioners and their value to the kingdom, the contrast between the good and bad witches, the gypsies and even Rosie, the pet who wasn’t, create multiple layers of reality.  It all adds up to an exciting read which reads and feels like a fairy tale.
This is a stand-alone novel.
The author Bridget Zinn was a writer, librarian, and teen literature enthusiast.  Bridget Zinn passed away shortly after finishing Poison.


 

Two For Adventure and Suspense


Navigating Early by Clare Vanderpool touched me with the same heartaching appeal of her Newbery award-winning Moon Over Manifest. The period is after the end of World War II. It features Jack Baker, sent to a boarding school in Maine by his military father after his mother's death. As a boy from Kansas missing his hometown and his life before everything changed, Jack struggles to fit in. The school is all about rowing.  Jack is afraid of water. He is drawn to Early Auden a boy who for various reasons lives in the basement of the school and does as he pleases. Early is strange, perhaps, as the author explains, in our time might be called high functioning autistic and a savant.  His stories about a boy named Pi and his appreciation of the period music such as Benny Goodman, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holliday enrich the story.

There is a legendary great Appalachian bear, a school hero and a brother lost in the war, the extinct timber rattlesnake, and  a theory that the never-ending numbers of the mathematical pi will end. The story becomes a quest as the boys escape with the most revered canoe in the school's history, "The Maine", for Early is determined to seek his own counter beliefs about these things.  Introduce dangerous waters and crossings, pirates, snake bite, the bear and a lone woodsman who Early insists is his brother who was declared dead after battle, and there is enough adventure here to keep the pages turning until the end. Much more about Clare Vanderpool may be seen on her webpage here.

[Cover]
Fourmile by Watt Key is a book of incredible suspense that I might recommend to reluctant readers.  Foster is a twelve year old that senses that his mother's boyfriend, Dax, is dangerous, increasingly mean and drunk, and not to be trusted.  But a stranger hiking cross country whom he does befriend and connect with might bring even more trouble than that.  Foster longs for a father figure.  And he finds it in Gary, the traveling Iraq veteran, who is allowed to stay temporarily in the barn while he lends the help on the farm that Foster's widowed mother needs and gives her the courage to turn away the bullying Dax. But even though Gary is becoming the hero and protector that Foster and his mother need, it seems that he must be running from something that he will not reveal.  And Dax will not stay quietly rejected.  This book was given a Booklist starred review.

Watt Key is the author of Alabama Moon, an award-winning survival story which was also made into a movie, and Dirt Road Home, a story of institutionalized boys which continues the story of the reform school friend of the boy Moon featured in Alabama Moon.  Watt Key, a master of the survival story, is a good next author for those who enjoy Gary Paulsen.  His website is found here.

 

Discovering Oneself


The narrator of Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s recent young adult novel, Aristotle and Dante Discover theSecrets of the Universe, is Aristotle (Ari) Mendoza, an adult looking back on his teen years in El Paso, Texas in the late 1980s.  Yet Sáenz’s writing style is so immediate in its realistic dialogue and the honesty of Ari’s thoughts, that it feels as if Ari is speaking to us as a teen in the present moment.  For this and many other reasons, it is clear why this novel is a 2013 Printz Honor Book.  Printz Honors are awarded annually by the Young Adult Library Services Association to a few select books which exemplify “literary excellence in young adult literature”. 

As the novel starts, Ari, a fifteen-year-old, is bored.  Summer vacation has just started and he has nothing planned, no friends to hang out with.  Despite the fact that he can’t swim, he decides to go to the community pool to cool off.  There he meets Dante Quintana, also a fifteen year-old Mexican-American boy, who offers to teach him how to swim.  From this meeting, a strong friendship -- a kinship really -- develops between the two.

Dante was also previously friendless, but unlike Ari, he has confidence in himself, knows himself, including the fact that he is gay.  In contrast, Ari feels that he doesn’t understand himself well at all, nor the members of his immediate family.  Ari just knows that he often feels different to others.  He has a feeling that this is somehow connected to the facts that his Vietnam War veteran father often seems distant and that his incarcerated older brother is never discussed by either of his parents.

The novel is about Ari’s process of self-discovery.  But Sáenz lets us in on this slowly, naturally, in a way that is completely unforced.  Sáenz simply relates the events that happen in one year of Ari’s life, through Ari’s eyes.  Ari does not truly begin to consider what his own sexual orientation may be until the final chapters of the novel -- but this timing feels right for a character like Ari, as he has had to work hard to find certain things that he had previously hidden from himself.  It is rare that a book is written in an easy-to-understand, highly readable style and is also so insightful about human nature  – this is one of those books.  I very highly recommend this novel to anyone who is a teen or who remembers what it was like to be one, trying to find yourself in uncharted territory.