Blogging for a Good Book
Ten years ago, Quinn was interrupted right before she walked down the aisle by her fiance’s brother, Frank. Frank felt compelled to tell her that Burke, her fiance, had had an affair (or two) while they were engaged. After calling off the wedding, Quinn and Frank leave town for a couple days of drowning sorrows and steamy sex. When Quinn comes back to her senses, she returns home alone and settles into a quiet rut. Which is where the story picks up.
Quinn has a successful business making original bridal gowns (as penance for walking out on her own wedding?) She prides herself on being able to create the perfect gown for the bride and her party.
When Dolly, the grandmother of the two brothers decides to get remarried, she comes to Quinn for her gown. And Quinn realizes she’s not as over the high school romance as much as she thought she was.
With the help of her best friend Glenn, she tries to change her life. He gives her a mission every day for a month (experience speed dating, eat breakfast out, try a new hairstyle, etc.) There are some laugh out loud moments as Quinn tries new things to shake up her perspective. (I made a mental note not to try all of Glenn’s suggestions!) And with the brothers back in town for the wedding, there is certainly opportunity to confront the past and put it behind her.
In many ways it reminded me of the movie The Runaway Bride. Like the Julia Roberts character, Quinn needs to figure out who she is before she can take the steps to be with someone else.
Harbison’s characters are imperfect, and that’s what makes them appealing. I felt like I knew people like them in “real life”–and ended the book hoping they would find their happily ever after.
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If you enjoy television shows like Criminal Minds or CSI or Cold Case, or any of the many TV dramas that involve solving criminal cases in an hour, you should pick up the YA novel The Naturals by Jennifer Lynn Barnes.
Cassie is a 17-year-old with a gift for reading people. At the beginning of the book she’s working in a diner using her gift of picking up subtle details to figure out what kind of eggs a customer might order, or if they are likely to skip on the check. She catches the attention of an FBI agent named Briggs who has developed an experimental program that uses gifted teens to help solve cold cases.
He asks Cassie to join his group of “naturals” so she can develop her skills. Cassie doesn’t have anything to lose. Her dad is serving overseas in the military and her mother, who taught her much of what she knows about reading people, was murdered years ago. With little to keep her in Denver with her grandmother and the hope that maybe she can learn something about her mother’s unsolved murder, she agrees to join the eclectic group and work for the FBI.
The “naturals” live together in a house in Quantico, Virginia, near FBI headquarters. She meets Michael, the handsome rebel who reads emotions, but doesn’t like to be read himself; Dean, the other profiler, who is the son of a convicted murderer; Lia, who specializes in deception and sarcasm; and Sloane, the computer nerd whose gift is numbers and probability. The characters are easy to distinguish and likeable–if also somewhat stereotypical.
The plot moved along quickly and kept me entertained. Interspersed with the training exercises and the teens getting to know one another (in part through a risky game of “Truth or Dare”) are chilling chapters from a serial killer–a killer who seems to be escalating in the number and brutality of murders… a killer who targets Cassie as the next victim.
The Naturals is listed as the first in a series. I couldn’t find out when #2 is due, but will stay on the lookout.
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Nancy from Circulation recommended this book to me. In particular, she said the audiobook was really enjoyable — and she was right — I loved it! It is narrated by two different women playing the role of the main characters. The voices were perfect for the story, and I was quickly drawn in. But I don’t think I would have picked it up without her glowing review. Here’s what Nancy has to say about this book:
In the small southern town of Plainview, Indiana, there are three female childhood friends, Odette, Clarice, and Barbara Jean, who have lived through the 1960s, one adventure after another. Nicknamed “The Supremes” at an early age due to their looks, attitude, and regular meetings at the same table at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat diner.
The story begins as the girls reach middle age. Their group includes their husbands, and they meet regularly after church for dinner at Earl’s, now managed by his son. You soon find out Earl’s is much more than the first black-owned business in a racially divided town. It is a place of refuge, peace talks, and forgiveness.
The first of the wonderfully charismatic, strong-willed women you meet is Odette who is the “say it like it is and don’t take no guff off of anyone” member of the trio. I fell in love with her sense of humor and her realistic viewpoint when she describes an early morning bout with hot flashes and her refrigerator remedy. She states, “I opened the refrigerator door to get the water pitcher and decided to stick my head inside. I was in almost to my shoulders, enjoying the frosty temperature, when I got the giggles thinking how someone coming upon me, head stuffed into the refrigerator instead of the oven would say, ‘Now that’s a fat woman who is completely clueless about how a proper kitchen suicide works!’” Her adventures include visits from her pot-smoking mother and Eleanor Roosevelt (who, by the way, are both dead), and a life-altering event that requires the strength of her family and friends to get her through.
Clarice is the wife of a charming, handsome, but unfaithful, husband. He probably loves her, but can’t seem to manage to be monogamous. She realizes she is following in her mother’s footsteps–and struggles with the thought of how her life might be without him. She has the perfect marriage in the public eye, but a not so private truth has to be faced eventually.
Beautiful Barbara Jean, the last of the trio, seems to be the one who has dealt with many of her life decisions poorly and struggles to hide her drinking as a result. The loss of her first love, marriage to a much older man, and losing a child are things even the best of friends cannot always fix. Luckily for her, Clarice and Odette don’t give up trying.
The story is told by intertwining tales from the past with the current lives of the three and the multitude of friends and family characters they encounter daily. The author invites you to step into the lives of these amazing women as they face racism, greed, emotional and physical tragedy, all the while demonstrating the bond of true friendship. There will be tears of joy and sorrow shed for the characters one minute, and the next you’ll get the giggles–as Odette would say.
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Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook of The Supremes at Earl’s All-You-Can-Eat
When Maxine Cambridge is dumped by her controlling husband for a younger woman, she moves in with her mom. The divorce is messy. She describes it as being at DEFCON 5.
In her desperation to get a job, any job, she unloads the whole story to the luckless manager of the Cluck Cluck Palace–so right from the beginning of the book, you know what Max is up against. There’s a prenuptial agreement. Her husband cheated on her. She left their home with their teenage son, but few clothes, very little money, and not a glimmer of self respect–and she needs a job desperately. Now imagine the scene as she attempts to keep a hapless teen from entering the restaurant until she convinces the manager to hire her. Actually, just read the book, it’s as good as anything you could imagine.
Moments after the most humiliating experience of her life, an old high school classmate notices her. And this is not just any guy–this is a guy who leaves Max speechless as she gazes up at his handsome face. She doesn’t recognize him as the geeky kid who had been her lab partner senior year. But now Campbell Barker exudes sex appeal and success. It really hits home for Max how little she has accomplished since high school. She can barely make excuses for why she can’t have coffee with him to catch up on what’s been happening in their lives since high school before she breaks down.
As fate would have it, Campbell is helping his dad do odd jobs–at the same senior citizens retirement village where Max’s mom lives. Max and Campbell run into each other again and again. And finally things start to look up in her life, not just because of Campbell’s attention, but because she gets a job and starts building her self-esteem.
The book has a good bit of romance, some steamy sex, a number of laugh out loud moments, and a dollop of self-analysis as Max remembers how she doesn’t have to give up all her hopes and dreams just to be with a man. Let me tell you, Campbell is a treasure to put up with all the self-doubt Max has to work through!
I liked the characters and appreciated that they were more mature than the 20- or 30-somethings that seem to dominate the romance genre. The dialog is snappy and fun. The supporting characters are interesting and provide some depth to the story (though this is still a breezy read). There’s a great twist to the divorce at the end. It made me feel good to spend a few hours in Max’s world.
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A few months ago, on the recommendation of a friend, I read The Magicians. After finishing it, I picked up the sequel, The Magician King. This book picks up immediately after the previous story ends, although you don’t necessarily need read the first book to follow the second one. In The Magician King magic is real, but mostly kept hidden, at least on Earth. That sounds like the world of Harry Potter, but it is not. For starters, the characters in The Magician King are much edgier, and the dark places Harry Potter characters delve into are shallow in comparison to where this book goes. This is modern fantasy fiction, set in the present day, featuring 21st century people.
Here, author Lev Grossman revisits many of the main characters from his earlier novel, including protagonist Quentin, his Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy classmates Eliot and Janet, and his public high school friend Julia. The author also centers this book on the world of Fillory, a delightful land written about in a series of children’s books that any reader familiar with C S. Lewis will recognize as Narnia-esque. It turns out Fillory exists; you just need to know how to get there. Quentin and his friends have found out how. In fact, as The Magician King begins Quentin, Eliot, Janet, and Julia are the royalty of Fillory. Keep in mind that Fillory is to Narnia as Brakebills is to Hogwarts, which is to say, both of the former places are much less safe, secure, and pleasant than the latter locations. Fillory is not as idyllic as it seems on the surface. There is turmoil, terror, and evil with which to contend. In Fillory, quests are a part of life. Quentin recognizes and embraces this fact and is determined to discover and pursue his quest to the end.
I hesitate to give more away about the plot, since this is a book that is enhanced with each turn of the page. The basic story is simple: A man has a worthy quest and follows it to its conclusion. Grossman takes that simple thesis and forces the reader through some scary, unappealing, and challenging machinations. His characters are both flawed and powerful and the combination has serious consequences.
The Magician King also provides the reader with numerous underlying philosophical, or perhaps metaphysical, questions about power, life, elitism, what is important, love, death, and responsibility. These topics are not directly explored, but are, nevertheless, present throughout the story. A reader can try to grapple with them or simply set them aside.
Grossman has written The Magician King in an engaging and fluid manner. At times I put the book down because the story was a little too intense for my mood. But, I always picked it up again. Pieces of this book are haunting, other portions are illuminating. Either way, reading The Magician King is a kind of dark magic all it own.
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Topsy: The Startling Story of the Crooked Tailed Elephant, P.T. Barnum, and the American Wizard, Thomas Edison, by Michael Daly
I looked at the title of this book and I thought, “Elephants, this could be a heartwarming story, a la Disney.” I was wrong. It was dark and disturbing, as well as revealing and intriguing. It also is not so much the story of Topsy the elephant, but the stories leading up to the story of Topsy the elephant.
Topsy has two main themes running through its pages. First it traces the tawdry history of elephants as center pieces in American circuses. These largest of land mammals have amazed and terrified audiences in America since 1795. Second, Daly relates the dawning of the electric light bulb, including Edison’s perfection of the bulb and Westinghouse’s successful commercialization of electricity. The author brings these seemingly disparate topics together under one big top for a show you probably have not seen before.
Daly uses his pages to weave together an interesting account of the rise and rivalry among the largest nineteenth century circuses, integration of pachyderms into that form of entertainment, and the history of the electrification of America. Along the way Daly examines the development of the electric chair, competition between circus greats P. T. Barnum and Adam Forepaugh, and the bitterness felt by Thomas Edison toward George Westinghouse. Barnum and Forepaugh competed using all resources available to them, including guile and humbug, to present the most profitable circuses in the world. They told outrageous lies, fleeced their guests, and activity worked to outdo one another. Edison viewed himself and his inventions as unimpeachable and incorruptible. He activity sought to discredit Westinghouse as an inventor and businessman. Even as Edison resolutely refused to face reality, his name remained synonymous with the brilliance of his light bulb.
Daly’s timeframe spans the entire 19th century. Among many topics he touches on are politics, economic, crime, transportation, animal welfare, geography, racism, alcoholism, public entertainment, and capital punishment. Clearly a great deal of research went into writing this book. He writes in an easy style that keeps your attention, although often examines disturbing events. Most of those events relate to what today is nothing short of unrepentant animal abuse, especially with respect to circus elephants. It was tempting for me to skip these parts, however, they are an integral part of Topsy. This popular history includes plenty of fact and figures, but it is more story than history. That is to say, the goal is to illustrate how various people and events interacted during the 1800s to “make history.”
Whatever you do, don’t read this book expecting the glamour of circuses or the genius of inventors. Daly’s text strips away both. I sought both and found myself disappointed. Not because Topsy failed to deliver a compelling and interesting tale, but because it’s not a sweet and innocent account.
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Over the past few years there seem to have been a number of movies related to professional magicians. Starring an ensemble cast that includes Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Mark Ruffalo, Isla Fisher, Dave Franco, Mélanie Laurent, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine, Now You See Me takes its place among them, providing some strong performances and an unexpected plot for the audience.
The movie starts by introducing us to four magicians (Eisenberg, Harrelson, Fisher, and Franco), each making a living at their chosen profession, however, not all of them necessarily in the most ethical manner. In turn, each illusionist mysteriously receives a Tarot card that includes an invitation to gather in a single location, at a particular time. The magicians, for whatever reason, feel compelled to heed the call and find themselves in an enigmatic apartment. Smoke fills the room and the next thing we know a year has passed. They are transformed into the Four Horsemen, the top magical act in Las Vegas, playing to a sold out theater. The Four Horsemen are in the midst of their greatest performance. They promise that before the show ends, they will rob a bank. And they do. This all happens in the first twenty-five minutes of the film. From there, it gets exciting.
While the magicians soon are wanted criminals, they also continue to perform, eluding agents Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) and Alma Dray (Laurent), and staying ahead of professional illusion exposer, Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman). Filled with entertaining repartee, creative magic, and plenty of sleight of hand, like any magic show, Now You See Me, keeps the audience guessing. It is a fast-paced, crime, mystery thriller. What it lacks in character development it makes up for in story arc.
I enjoyed the plot, characters, writing, and concept of this film. However, as much as I enjoyed Now You See Me, I admit to personally being disappointed by parts of the final resolution. That shouldn’t stop anyone from watching this movie. I know others liked the ending just fine. Now You See Me is a fun example of a film filled with magic, but not encumbered by wizards. It has sophisticated themes appearing throughout the story, although nothing too risqué. So, if you enjoy a good show magic show you may want to sit down and watch this one.
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Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s history-making race around the world by Matthew Goodman
In 1873 Jules Verne published his novel Around the World in 80 Days in which Phileas Fogg wagers his fortunate that he can circumnavigate the globe in 80 days. In 1889 a brash young female reporter who went by the pseudonym Nellie Bly convinced her bosses at the New York World (owned by Joseph Pulitzer) to send her around the world. Her goal was to complete the trip in under 80 days. Reading about the trip the morning of Bly’s departure, Cosmopolitan magazine owner John Brisben Walker, convinced Elizabeth Bisland to undertake a similar trip. Both women left New York within hours of each other on November 14, 1889. Bly sailed east and Bisland trained west. The “race” was on. Eighty Days is a well researched, truly enjoyable, retelling of their travels, triumphs and defeats.
This is a captivating and fascinating story. First, neither traveler had more than two days to prepare for their amazing adventure. Second, both traveled alone at a time when very few women did so. Third, the publications sponsoring the tours did so entirely for their own profit. Fourth, the race around the world became a national sensation and made the names Bly and Bisland world renowned for a time. In 1890, when woman’s equality was shunned by most, these ladies became international celebrities.
Goodman bases his text entirely on the words of the protagonists, using their writings and published articles. He goes to great lengths to provide useful and interesting background information to help the reader see the whole picture. Eighty Days helps the reader comprehend how exciting this undertaking was to Americans across the country. This was akin to any major modern sporting event in terms of the enthusiasm of the fans and excitement it generated. The anticipation of the outcome is palpable as you read.
There are numerous details that make Eighty Days a wonderful read for anyone interested in history. The nature of their trips ensured contemporary discussions about Victorian mores and gender roles, as well as constant instances of ingenuity, romance, greed, and intrigue. It is fascinating to consider how technological advances made it possible to complete the rapid tour.
Both women made it around the world in under 80 days, however, you will have to read the book to find out who won and how the race changed their lives. The fact that few of us know about this great race proves the adage that history is quickly forgotten, but relearning it is worth the effort. If you want further proof consider the following:
As I read this book, I recalled that early in this library’s history a donation of quality books was given to the Williamsburg Public Library. After finishing Goodman’s book I confirmed my suspicion that it was none other than Elizabeth Bisland Wetmore (she married Charles Wetmore in 1891), and one of Bisland’s relatives, who made the gift of 250 books to our library in 1910. How cool is that?
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Also available as an ebook
This week, WRL Development Officer Benjamin Goldberg takes a look at some fascinating books and films.
This is a sweet movie. As school children Albert and Anthony found each other in the school cafeteria. They instantly became best friends and magicians-in-training. And so began the story of Burt Wonderstone (Steve Carell) and Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi). As adults they transformed into full-fledged magicians, having crafted a Las Vegas magic show that delivers them to the pinnacle of their profession. But, where can they go from the top?
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone follows a familiar buddy film storyline. There’s nothing innovative in that respect, but the well-rehearsed construct does not detract from the enjoyment of the movie for me. It makes it comfortable to watch. As with many films of this ilk the story includes a love interest, Jane (Wilde), a nemesis, Steve Gray (Carrey), and a guiding light, Rance Holloway (Arkin).
Early into the story the duo’s popularity is vanishing, their act is stale, and their friendship has all but disappeared. Smaller audiences and the rising infamy of street magician/competitor Steve Gray force them to try to freshen things up. The attempt is a complete failure and presto chango, even the illusion of friendship is gone. Like a woman in a box, their friendship is sawed in two. You see it coming because Burt has become an egotistical, self-absorbed, fool. The rest of the film is about putting the friendship back together (focusing more on Wonderstone than on Marvelton, as the title suggests) and saying abracadabra to magically reunite the act. Carrell and Buscemi are wonderful as best friends and angry partners. They have a chemistry together that is fun to watch. Carrey’s character is classic Jim Carrey. He’s obnoxious, loud, annoying, and witty. Wilde and Arkin fill out the cast with nice performances that add to the story.
While a straightforward storyline, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone includes some inside jokes about (and I suspect for) magicians, that suggest the script was Informed by someone familiar with the world of illusionists. Some of the lines and attitudes offer glimpses into the world of performing magicians. In fact, the production notes reveal that world renowned magician David Copperfield served as a special consultant on the movie.
The Incredible Burt Wonderstone was a delightful family (PG-13) movie. We made our ice cream disappear while watching it. There are some scenes that are suggestive, but nothing too racy. The plot provides a simple, positive moral that leaves the audience ready to pick a card, any card.
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Volume 22 of the Graphic Novel Classics series contains twenty-three stories and poems written by famous early black authors and poets, including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others. Each tale is then adapted and illustrated by notable contemporary black writers and artists including Jeremy Love, who wrote and illustrated the stunning Bayou graphic novel (review here), Trevor Von Eeden, who wrote and illustrated the two-part graphic biography The Original Johnson about the early boxer Jack Johnson, and Mat Johnson, who wrote the graphic mystery Incognegro (review here). With such a talented group of contributors, I had high hopes as I turned the pages of the first story, and I was certainly not disappointed.
Without a doubt, the stories are still as powerful today as when the words were first put onto paper. Sometimes sober, sometimes funny, and always heart-searing, even without the artwork this volume would stand alone as a fantastic collection of literature. But it is the illustrations, framing and woven into the lines of words, that really make the selections shine. Each artist brings their own unique style of lines and coloring to their work, which helps separate the stories from each other in tone and pace. Authors who have multiple contributions have their work drawn by different artists, and the contrast of styles give each piece a different life.
I would be hard pressed to select an absolute favorite among the works, but The Two Americans starts off the book with a powerful, wrenching emotional blow. In contrast, The Negro is simple, beautiful, and cosmic in its elegance. Each of its mere six panels could be justifiably framed and put on a wall as standalone art, something you don’t often get from a graphic novel.
Recommended for readers of poetry, short stories, and/or with an interest in American culture presented by the unflinching voices of those who experience it’s ugliest side.
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It cannot be more appropriate for a biography of Hergé, the author of the Tintin books, to be rendered in a graphic novel format using ligne claire, which is French for “clear line,” an iconic style of illustration that is immediately recognizable as his. Tintin has been enjoyed by readers for decades, and interest was recently reignited by the 2011 computer-animated film, The Adventures of Tintin, directed by Stephen Spielberg.
Hergé was the pen name of Georges Prosper Remi, a Belgian cartoonist who was born in the early 20th century, and the book, with some artistic license, traces his love of drawing back to his earliest years. Each chapter comprises a vignette covering a particularly notable piece of his life. While the book is presented in chronological order, several years often separate each fragment of life that is portrayed. The result is a thorough, focused story that allows for a smooth flow of narrative without an exhaustive overload of minutia.
A fun aspect of the book, for any reader of the Tintin adventures, is the real-life people who served as inspiration for some of the colorful Hergé characters. Hergé’s father had an identical twin brother, and the two share a scene that immediately calls into mind the comic relief provided by the bumbling detectives, Thompson and Thomson. The back of the book has short biographies for several of the notable people who played a part in the life and work of Hergé. Although I usually skim over parts like this, I found the bios filled with interesting tidbits that perfectly complemented the story itself. One such was the brother of Hergé, portrayed only as a baby in the book, being the evident inspiration for Captain Haddock, due to his habit of using colorful language after a stint in the army.
An enjoyable and absorbing read, recommended to readers of biographies and graphic novels.
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The 1963 Newberry-award winning novel, A Wrinkle in Time, was a favorite of mine as a child. There was something so gently compelling about the storyline and I could relate so deeply to main character. Teenager Meg Murry doesn’t fit in, in school or seemingly anywhere else. She’s smart but stubborn, and fiercely protective of her family, even with its complete lack of normalcy. She is especially combative when anyone speaks badly about Charles Wallace, her youngest brother, who is definitely an odd child. Their father is missing, and his unexplained disappearance haunts the family, and leads Meg to be even more belligerent as she struggles to deal with the loss and the emptiness of not knowing what happened to him.
Although it has been many years since I last read A Wrinkle in Time, I was immediately swept back into the adventures had by Meg, Charles, their neighbor Calvin, with the Misses Whatsit, Who, and Which guiding them along their journey throughout the universe to save Mr. Murry from the terrible blackness that envelops him. The story, to use the words of Mrs. Murry, requires a willing suspension of disbelief, but the relationship between Meg and her brother Charles Wallace is poignant, and the storyline flows smoothly and quickly.
This work, adapted and illustrated by Eisner Award-winning artist Hope Larson, is the first time the iconic story has been presented in a graphic novel format. The illustrations are deceptively simple, and use a limited color palette of black, white, and sky blue. The blue hue serves to soften the starkness of the images, giving a dreamlike mood to the rapidly shifting number of worlds that they visit. Night and day have no definition here, as fighting the darkness without losing yourself or those you love is the only thing that matters.
This book is appropriate for all ages, but is especially recommended to fantasy readers and anyone who wants to revisit an old favorite from their childhood.
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Does anyone get out of their high school years unscathed? Free from uncomfortable memories of interactions they mishandled due to their own unnerving awkwardness? If you did, then you will not be able to understand the brilliance of Same Difference. The action in this novel is not about the present existence of the two main characters, but rather of the juxtaposition between their past deeds, clumsy with the emotional over-eagerness of youth, and their current ability to reassess those actions and desires through the lens of their adult experiences and maturity.
Simon and Nancy are two early-to mid twenty-somethings living in Oakland. For Simon, it has been seven years since he graduated high school and he dreads each return to the town where he grew up due to the embarrassment and unease of constantly running into people he went to high school with. Though Nancy teases him, she is just as reserved about her high school experience and fights any invasion of her privacy related to those gawky years. They both know that when you are young you are stupid and lack the experience to deal with the flood of emotions you are faced with on a daily basis. Neither wants their present judged on the transgressions of their past.
Nancy’s meddlesome response to some letters meant for a previous tenant of her apartment serves as the vehicle for a road trip for her and Simon back to Simon’s hometown. There Simon must face people and situations he thought he had long put behind him. I was especially drawn to his conflicted feelings over his meeting Eddie and Jane, two married members of his high school class who used to torment him in their separate and devastating ways. Seeing them walking down the street with one baby in a stroller and another on the way left them toothless and oddly, ordinary. Would you want to hang out with someone who tormented you in high school and called you a nerd? It would seem not, but time is an antiseptic which, if not heals, certainly numbs old wounds.
A winner of the 2004 Eisner Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition, 2004 winner of the Harvey Award for Best New Talent, and 2003 Ignatz Award, this title came to me with high expectations, but it far exceeded them. Recommended for readers of graphic novels and anyone who enjoys a coming of age story in all its painful clarity.
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Maggie is starting high school. That is a terrifying prospect for anyone, but especially for Maggie because she has, until now, been homeschooled. The youngest of four children, Maggie’s mother taught each of them at home until they were old enough to enter high school, but in Maggie’s case, things are painfully different. Her mother recently left, and none of the kids know why or where she went. The hole left by her mother’s absence remains unfilled as Maggie begins to navigate the emotional minefield that is public schooling.
Her older brothers, Daniel and twins Lloyd and Zander, have already navigated their first day in a new school, but things are not as easy for Maggie. For one thing, she’s a girl, and she’s been used to having her brothers for protection all these years. She slowly makes friends with punk girl Lucy and her older brother Alistair, who seems to bear the burden of past misdeeds concerning Daniel and the captain of the volleyball team, Matt. In case matters weren’t complicated enough, there’s also the matter of the ghost who Maggie has been seeing since she was about seven, but the specter refuses to speak or explain itself.
As with so many high school relationships, there are layers of memories and interactions. People change and grow up and the set of friends you have at the beginning of high school are often not the same as the ones you have at the end. But the inevitability of such breakups doesn’t make them uncomplicated, or any easier to understand for the participants. Maggie is stuck somewhere between factions. She’s not a cheerleader or jock like Matt, nor is she in the drama club like her older brothers. And she’s not really a punk like Lucy or Alistair, though those two serve as her only friends.
I fully admit that my love of graphic novels creates a deep bias, but I love how deep and meaningful emotions can be encapsulated so completely in the ephemeral expressions of characters in this format. The artwork can allow for profound emotions to be expressed without being overly saccharine in character all while incorporating humor to lighten otherwise weighty and insightful realizations about the character of man.
I would recommend this book to readers of YA literature, graphic novels, and coming of age stories who don’t have all the answers nor do they want them handed to them.
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I’ve written before about a Civil War novel that explores the effects war has on the survivors, but from the Confederate point of view. Although “nostalgia” knows no faction, race, or even gender, authors can explore how time and place affect the treatment sufferers face. Dennis McFarland has chosen to focus on the experiences of a Union private. In doing so, he brings to life such diverse topics as military hospitals, baseball in the Civil War era, and the sacrifices made by one man for the wounded veterans of the Army of the Potomac.
Summerfield Hayes is nineteen years old when he enlists in the Union Army. It is Christmas 1863, and the casualty lists have reflected the appalling toll—after battle deaths at Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chickamauga and countless others, and losses from disease, there is no false sense of glory. Summerfield’s sister Sarah is distraught when he makes his announcement. The two have relied on each other since the deaths of their parents three years before and are closer than most brothers and sisters. She isn’t the only one unhappy with his enlistment. Summerfield is a star player for the Eckford Club base ball team in that championship year, and the team’s fans want him to continue his pitching and hitting for the club. But Summerfield is disturbed by the way his home life is progressing and determines that enlisting is the only cure.
Within five months of his enlistment, Summerfield is cast into the Battle of the Wilderness, a chaotic clash that marked the first battle between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. The dense woods and narrow roads did not allow large units to maneuver, so the battle devolved into a never-ending series of hand-to-hand clashes. Many of the wounded were lost when the woods caught fire and they could not escape. Comrades were separated and wound up fighting alongside strangers. Summerfield endures the battle but wakes up to find himself alone and wounded, his last memory of a man on horseback ordering him left behind. He stumbles through the woods in search of help but wakes a second time in a military hospital outside Washington. The hell of battle is replaced by the hell of bodies destroyed in every conceivable way, suffering men treated with varying levels of competence and compassion.
Worst of all, no one seems to know who Summerfield is—he is unable to speak, unable to hold pencil and paper. Every attempt to make him speak fails and aggravates his wounds. He has many torments, but few consolations—one is the soldier in the bunk next to his, but who suffers from Soldier’s Disease in addition to his amputated arm. Another is a grey-bearded man who visits him almost daily, reading to him from Dickens, talking to him, and caring for him when the nurses can’t. As Summerfield heads to a crisis—what will the medical staff do with him when he’s cured, will he be treated as a deserter?–the old man becomes his advocate and comforter.
From vivid descriptions of camp life and battle and of New York’s bucolic urbanity, to Summerfield’s internal struggles with his battle injuries, to the way base ball was played—no limit on pitches!—McFarland brings 1864 to life. Innocence sits alongside experience, and compassion goes hand in hand with cruelty, but few people have the clarity to tell which is which. McFarland does a wonderful job of making that a universal and timeless struggle.
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In one life, Mark Helprin is a writer of fantasy; in another, the writer of fiction that alternates between overwrought and stunning. A Soldier of the Great War is a wonderful realization of the latter.
The story of Alessandro Giuliani, a 70-year old veteran of World War I, is told by the old man himself to a much younger companion. Like the Wedding Guest, Nicolo Sambucca finds himself in company with The Ancient Mariner (although through the Mariner’s charity), where he receives an education in Italian history, politics, and the wonderfully indeterminate study of aesthetics. It is Alessandro’s own story, told by him for the first time as the two trudge across the Italian hills to their separate destinations.
The child of privilege, Alessandro took advantage of every opportunity to immerse himself in art and literature in school, while making time for mountain climbing and horsemanship. From an early age he also took risks, and each risk prepared him to face more difficult challenges. As he enters his young manhood, he also extends that risktaking to courting women, with whom he falls in love easily.
Since the story takes place in the first part of the Twentieth Century, and since the title references The Great War, we know that Alessandro is headed into the maw of World War I. Although he joins the Italian Navy, he winds up serving both in trenches and on mountaintops, and fighting against both the Austro-Hungarians and his fellow Italians. Blown by the winds of fate and battle, he travels from the Mediterranean to Vienna, from lonely outposts to crowded hospitals, and through despair, love, rapture, and loss before finally returning to his beloved Rome.
But Alessandro’s destiny is not always as random as it seems. Back in Rome, a twisted dwarf named Orfeo Quatta is pulling strings that affect Alessandro’s life and the lives of hundred of thousands of men. The senior clerk in the Giuliani family law firm, he was displaced by the typewriter but wound up at the Ministry of War, where official documents are still executed in skilled penmanship. But Orfeo is the only person who sees the originals, so he changes the texts to suit his whims, and his revised orders extend the war and increase the suffering of soldiers and civilians.
In his travels, Alessandro meets many people, but Helprin succeeds in creating in each a layered character who instructs Alessandro in his search for beauty. Despite the senseless violence, cruelty, and degradation of the war, Alessandro’s search for beauty, and for the God he sees in beauty, continues. Helprin captures Alessandro’s life in an effusion of language rich in imagery and philosophy, layered with drama and irony, creating a love story with a hero in love with life and with being in love.
Check the WRL catalog for A Soldier of the Great War.
Unreliable narrator? Check. Quirky characters? Check. Fish-out-of-water? Check. Funny scenes? Check. The Rosie Project manages to push all these buttons, plus add a semi-sweet love story, a bit of a mystery and some academic humor. No wonder it’s been a surprise international hit for debut author Graeme Simsion.
Don Tillman is a genius geneticist, the kind who makes other genius geneticists (and geniuses of all other specialties) look like…well, like me. Part of his success is an ability to focus on the work at hand; part of it is an eidetic memory; part is a determination to win at anything he turns a hand to. But those qualities also add up to an inflexible loner, probably with Asperger’s Syndrome and no idea why he never has a second date.
Stymied by women who smoke, who are never on time, who eat apricot ice cream, are adamant vegetarians, or show any conflicting values, Don decides he’s going to weed out those who are demonstrably unsuited for him. His method? A 16-page questionnaire covering every conceivable idiosyncrasy that might affect his ability to be around that person.
One of Don’s test subjects is Rosie Jarman, a barmaid, smoker, chronically late, pretty and opinionated young woman. Obviously not a match for Don on any count. However, she presents him with a puzzle he cannot resist—the opportunity to collect DNA from a limited but scattered population to find her natural father. The technical part is easy, but he’s intrigued by the difficulty of finding the subjects. Thus begins the Rosie Project.
Simsion perfectly captures the interior voice of a man with Asperger’s, and in multiple comedic scenes demonstrates why Don doesn’t get along with those who are conditioned to follow social conventions (as he sees it), or those who have learned to interpret the myriad of clues that lubricate social interaction (as everyone else sees it). The Apricot Ice Cream Disaster, the Jacket Man Incident, the Pig Trotter’s Disaster, the Flounder Incident, the Bianca Disaster, the Aspie Lecture—all point to Don’s seeming inability to function in public. But gradually, and in small ways, Don learns to look for and interpret, and finally to empathize with, distasteful human emotions.
If this sounds like a formula Hollywood script, it’s because it started as one (a script, that is), but Simsion realized that dialogue alone wasn’t enough to portray Don without making him an object of ridicule. The result of his move to the novel form is a romantic comedy with depth and original characters, and an unsympathetic narrator we quickly come to cheer for. It comes across initially as a light read, but I think readers will remember Don Tillman for quite a while.
Check the WRL catalog for The Rosie Project.
A team of researchers finds something unusual frozen in the ice of an enormous Arctic berg. When they reanimate it, it wreaks havoc on the researchers and breaks loose into the larger world where its existence threatens all of humanity. Sounds like the plot of a science fiction movie, right? In The Curiosity, Stephen P. Kiernan takes that trope and turns it into a love story, a commentary on modern science, religion, and culture, and wistful insight into days long gone.
Although this discovery was an accident, the search that led to it was not. A private research facility run by the imperious Erastus Carthage sent a ship to search for “hard ice,” which forms so quickly that specimens’ cells don’t have time to freeze. Carthage’s theory is that such flash-frozen animals might be revived with a protocol he’s developed and is working to prove. Who knows what he expects as a payoff, except a Nobel Prize and scientific immortality? Having succeeded with krill, he hopes to extend the lifetime and complexity of the subjects he reanimates.
Then a research team led by Dr. Kate Philo finds an infinitely more complex creature and the stakes of reanimation skyrocket. With painstaking effort under dangerous conditions, Kate cuts the ice surrounding the specimen away and discovers a human body, cells intact, a perfect candidate for reanimation. When the “Lazarus Project” is announced, Carthage and his arrogant team of physicians provoke the critics, especially the religious activists, ensuring ongoing attention from around the world. Relegated to the sidelines, Kate and much of her team become a liability for the project but fight to retain some role. Thus it is that Kate is on hand when Judge Jeremiah Rice regains consciousness and moves from his 1906 drowning to a 21st-century laboratory and an expedition into unimaginable territory.
The judge is still a young man, but dignified and erudite in a way that her peers lack, and Kate becomes fascinated with him. She also recognizes that Carthage is keeping Jeremiah a virtual prisoner, and begins sneaking him out of the lab to see the changes time has wrought. As he recovers strength, their expeditions become longer and more elaborate, their conversations more intimate, and their reliance upon one another more profound.
In the meantime, the world wants to know about Judge Rice and claim kinship with him. He becomes a celebrity, with attendant privileges and loss of dignity he cannot comprehend. The nature of scientific and cultural progress becomes debatable among the team members who show him both the dark and light sides of that progress. And aspects of that progress overshadow the Judge and Kate, as we learn in the opening chapters.
Kiernan brings us the evolving story through the voices of four narrators—Kate, Jeremiah, Carthage, and the odious Daniel Dixon, a second-rate science writer given exclusive access to the project. As the book moves to its inevitable conclusion, each character and his or her changes are illuminated through their voices and through the observations of the others. The cast of supporting characters—especially a computer genius/stoner/Deadhead, a cell biologist, and Carthage’s flunky—flesh out the background.
Kiernan does not use Rice’s voice to condemn modern society or praise the past. His role as a judge gives him the poise to deal with contentious issues and people (of which there are many in this more relaxed time), but he also connects easily with those who crowd around him and finds ready allies wherever he goes. His entries are poignant with both the grief he feels for the world and people he left behind, the naive way he approaches the modern world, and his growing feelings for Kate. (Interestingly, I don’t believe Kiernan ever has him quote Miranda from The Tempest!)
Check the WRL catalog for The Curiosity.
Barry has written about Wendell Berry and the Port William Membership in earlier posts, and while I’m usually reluctant to encroach on another WRL blogger’s turf, in this case I must. Full kudos to Barry for introducing me to Berry.
Watch with Me is a collection of short stories centering on Ptolemy “Tol” Proudfoot, a reticent man proud of his farming skill, but without the need to expand beyond the beautiful and successful farm he can run by himself. The last leaf of his family tree, he doesn’t have the joyfully rambunctious persona that Port William remembers of the Proudfoots (Proudfeet?), but he does have deep feelings whose few expressions become affectionate stories shared among his neighbors. His late-to-wed wife, Miss Minnie, is the pole star of his life, and Berry’s descriptions of their wagon rides together are simple and affecting. Tol has a mischievous side that emerges in one particularly funny tale of deadpan revenge. But the story that gives the collection its name is a tension-filled hike through the mountains and valleys around Port William as Tol and several neighbors try to keep an emotionally distraught man from harming himself. The fact that Thacker “Nightlife” Hemple is eating and quenching his thirst while the followers go without adds a measure of humor, but Berry sustains the suspense.
Berry’s descriptions of Tol—how his clothes are eternally rumpled no matter how well Miss Minnie cares for them, the hair that pokes out in all directions regardless of his grooming, his quiet strength, his steadfastness—are accomplished in brief passages that nonetheless give the reader a lasting impression of Tol. Miss Minnie is better known to us by her actions than her physical presence, so I always thought of a younger Aunt Bee when I read about her.
The narrator relates these tales with an intimacy that pulls the readers in and makes them part of the Port William community, even if only for a short time. The outside world intrudes very little, but Tol and Miss Minnie use their innate grace to recover when it does. Those incidents only serve to remind us that people who are regarded as unsophisticated hayseeds really do have a place in this world, even if it is shrinking.
Check the WRL catalog for Watch With Me.
Connie Willis is a favorite of the staff here at Williamsburg Library. She combines interesting science fiction scenarios with literary sensibilities. Her characters are quirky but believable, and she has an eye for the odd bit of detail that helps a story rise above cliché. Her pace isn’t for readers that need one bit of action after another, but for those who like a steady, suspense-building progression. She mixes humor and drama well.
That’s especially true in Doomsday Book, a novel that keeps the reader in suspense about the outcome of its central epidemic-and-time-travel adventure while inducing giggles at odd bits about demanding American bell ringers, a lusty student and his overbearing mother, or an intrepid young teen navigating difficult times with a strange, fearless grace. Then it stops you in your tracks and wallops you with an emotional finish that underlines the great heartbreak that an epidemic can produce.
The story concerns Kivrin, a young Oxford history undergraduate in an alternate near future where limited forms of time travel are possible. Kivrin’s desire to visit the Middle Ages is somewhat exploited by a don who takes too little care with the lives of time travelers. So as she makes her voyage back in time, it’s against the protests and warnings of Dunworthy, a more careful man who is the story’s other narrator. Dunworthy prepares Kivrin as best he can, but as the time machine is deployed, apparently successfully, he can’t escape feelings of dread. As a Christmas-time epidemic descends on Oxford, with the time machine operator one of its first victims, and Kivrin’s location in time cannot be confirmed, his fears grow.
The story alternates between Kivrin’s narration in the past and Dunworthy’s efforts to bring her back in the present. Epidemics figure prominently in both story lines. I won’t say more than that to avoid spoilers, but its a well-plotted story with just enough humorous detail to add variety. The historical detail is just about perfect, and it captures an aspect of history seldom addressed in books like this: everyday struggles of regular people, with the currents of war, politics, and violence present, but in the background, not the foreground.
Check the WRL catalog for Doomsday Book