David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
by Malcolm Gladwell
Bestselling author Malcolm Gladwell has developed a following with titles like The Tipping Point and Outliers. His newest book, David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants follows his familiar formula of combining scientific studies with personal stories to challenge conventional wisdom and readers’ assumptions about the world.
Beginning with the biblical story of David and Goliath and progressing through Lawrence of Arabia and Martin Luther King, Jr., Gladwell shows how underdogs have throughout history used the false expectations of to their advantage.
He doesn’t generalize or judge as he looks at “the advantages of disadvantages (and the disadvantages of advantages)”. He examines the drive that financially disadvantaged children may develop and the corresponding lack of ambition in their progeny and follows up with studies showing that an unpredictably high proportion of very successful individuals lost a parent as a child as well as a high proportion of individuals in prison. Gladwell offers no explanation, leaving the reader to ponder what makes the difference.
Gladwell likes to take a counterintuitive approach to “hot” topics and two chapters in this book look at education. It is widely accepted that classes can be too large to effectively teach but can they be too small? Gladwell uses several studies to demonstrate that, yes, they can. Interviews with teachers help him zero in on the optimum number of students for a successful classroom. Students are routinely encouraged to enroll in the very best colleges or universities that will accept them. Again using statistics and compelling personal narratives, Gladwell shows the academic advantages being a big fish in a little pond.
Gladwell is an engaging writer who forces his readers to think and question. This book will appeal to fans of his earlier works and new readers alike.
The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789
by Joseph Ellis
Joseph Ellis has written a very readable history on the development of the Constitution of the United States, a process he termed the second American Revolution. He notes that the opening phrase of the Gettysburg address is in error – the nation was not brought forth at the Revolution. The states were operating under the Articles of Confederation which was essentially a gentleman’s agreement among the states for the purpose of conducting the War of Independence. However under the Articles many states refused to send sufficient soldiers and certainly didn’t send enough money, leaving the Confederation $70 million in debt.
Among many others, four major figures from the Revolution determined that the Articles were not sufficient to guarantee the success of the nation. These four (George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and John Jay) were instrumental in convening the Philadelphia Convention (later known as the Constitutional Convention) and guiding the ratification of the resulting Constitution.
Although the convention was originally intended to amend the Articles of Confederation, the “amendments” ended up being a complete rewrite, accomplished only with several major compromises. Hamilton, Madison and Jay wrote the Federalist Papers in support of the Constitution. As the rewritten document is adopted. the states propose amendments, 23 in all, they wanted added to the Constitution. James Madison consolidated these into Bill of Rights.
Ellis gives context to the Constitution’s development as well as several of the amendments, giving relevance to the entire process that deserves our attention in the present day.
by Ernest Cline
Ernest Cline’s first book, Ready Player One, became an instant classic in the speculative fiction world, winning awards and praise nearly across the board. His newest novel, Armada, takes the retro-futuristic vibe of his first book and adds in more complex voice with a uncannily realistic near-future. Once again Cline manages to enthrall readers with pop-culture references- this time video games instead of the 80’s- an everyman hero and world-shaking consequences.
Zack Lightman is an average high school senior with an obsessive love of a particular science-fiction video game. Nearly anyone with a gamer background will immediately recognize his passion for digital entertainment. His skill at this world-wide phenomenon of a game brings him to the attention of the creators of the game, a secret military organization who is using it to train soldiers for an incoming alien invasion.
Sounds familiar doesn’t it? Ender’s Game, The Last Starfighter and many other science fiction works come into play in the context of the story, as secret propaganda put out by this shadow-y group to prepare the world’s population for the eventual war. Zach, who has spent his 18 years absorbed in the habits and passions of his dead father (most particularly, video games, loud music and 80s movies) finally starts of come of age as he transitions from aimless teenager to battle-hardened warrior. Raised by a single mother with some mad gaming skills of her own and joined by his friends and the only girl who seems to get his references, Zach must transfer his skills from his imagination into the real world, just like his favorite characters.
A fast, fun ride into nostalgia, adventure and classic science fiction, Armada, is a great read for anyone with a geeky side (even a hidden one.
by Mary Kubica
Mary Kubica follows her debut novel, The Good Girl, with this psychological thriller about Heidi Wood. She is a very charitable woman helping immigrants and refugees through the Chicago non-profit for which she works. Her family didn’t expect Heidi to invite a homeless teen and her infant to live with them.
The book opens with Heidi wondering about a teen mother she sees standing in the pouring rain, clutching a baby at her “L” stop. She boards the train and is whisked away. Heidi can’t get the girl out of her head. Days later, Heidi confronts the homeless teen and offers to buy her dinner. The girl, Willow, refuses to take her baby to a homeless shelter, so Heidi invites them back to the condo she shares with her husband and teenage daughter. Heidi spends the next few days helping Willow get back on her feet, but as clues to Willow’s past begin to surface, Heidi is forced to decide how far she is willing to help this stranger before her life spins out of control. With this new mystery house guest, the Wood’s family life is turned upside down. Heidi and her husband, Chris, are forced to confront their long-buried marital problems. As household aggravations and suspicions of Willow’s past grows, Chris hires a private investigator to find out about her background and whether the baby, Ruby, is really hers.
Pretty Baby is skillfully woven together from the points of view of Chris, Heidi, and Willow as this heartbreaking tale about obsession, foster care, and the debilitating effects of unacknowledged grief builds to a stunning, page turning conclusion.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest
by J. Ryan Stradal
J. Ryan Stradal’s new novel is a unique story of family and food. Easily devoured by food lovers & literature lovers alike, the debut has ingredients inspired by Stradal’s Minnesota upbringing and his grandmother’s Lutheran church cookbook. Real family recipes are mixed among heartfelt, character-driven stories and a bit of cheerful satire directed toward the food-obsessed, offering an amusing, loving tour through the Midwest and a taste of foodie culture.
Stradal’s impressive first fiction is a type of coming of age story about Eva Thorvald, a prodigy who grows to become the most revered chef of her generation. It is told through eight linked chapters, each one from the perspective of a different character and revolving around a different dish. Among others, we hear from her father ("Lutefisk"), a cousin ("Sweet Pepper Jelly"), a boyfriend ("Walleye"), and from Eva herself ("Chocolate Habanero").
The stories describe Eva’s life as she journeys from a baby grabbing for heirloom tomatoes at a market to a preteen growing hot peppers in her bedroom to a young woman at the helm of a pop up supper club with a nearly 300-year wait list and a $5,000 price tag. She unfolds as a talented, likeable person, yet someone not without imperfections. Resilient and spirited, she meets the challenges of her childhood and tends to her real family — and her food family — with devotion.
For someone hungry for a wholly original and satisfying read, Stradal’s book is a big-hearted story about the power of family and food and the memories and connections they create. Eva’s last supper club that we read about is an assembly of hand-picked attendees, an emotional nod to the past that’s shaped Eva. Stradal explores the complicated way food can help shape one’s identity and showcases not only Eva’s story but a culinary portrait of the Midwest.
Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen
by Mary Norris
In her 30-plus years in the copy department of The New Yorker, Mary Norris has corrected the work of many of the finest writers of the time dedicating herself to maintaining the magazine’s high standards for grammar, spelling, and punctuation. It turns out Norris is a wonderful writer herself and in her book, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen, she manages to mesh a style guide with a memoir in a way that is fun, fresh, and engaging.
Norris shares her takes on everything from the use and misuse of hyphens and apostrophes to the problem of the dangling participle and the lack of an English gender-neutral-third-person-singular personal pronoun. Interspersed are accounts of her first jobs (“I didn’t set out to be a comma queen”) and hilarious anecdotes about the oddball characters who have inhabited the offices of The New Yorker.
The chapter devoted to spelling includes biographical information on Noah Webster, a tour of the Merriam-Webster headquarters, and her opinion on the print vs. online dictionary controversy (she prefers the print). Another chapter is devoted to Norris’ attachment to the softer, Number 1 pencil. As the pencils become increasingly hard to acquire, Norris begins a quest that ends in a tour of a pencil factory. Quick to poke fun at herself, she destroys any stereotype of the nitpicking copy editor. While precision is important, she notes that copy editors shouldn’t be so rigid they get in the way of the subtlety of a writer’s words, and that language and usage are constantly changing.
This book will appeal to anyone who is interested in language, writing, and publishing or just enjoys an enjoyable, funny memoir.
The Narrrow Road to the Deep North
by Richard Flanagan
Richard Flanagan’s Man Booker Prize winning novel The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a book that explores the atrocities of war. The novel starts out in Melbourne, Australia as Dorrigo Evans reflects on his childhood in Tasmania, and the time he spent as a surgeon in a Japanese POW camp. The POW camp was on the Thai-Burma Death Railway, and was part of the Japanese war effort. The narrative focus shifts from Dorrigo Evans, to his fellow POWs, to the Japanese officers in charge. This gives the reader a more encompassing view of life in a POW camp. Flanagan shows the way in which the POWs made sense of the senselessness. One prisoner rises early to work on memorizing Mein Kopf. Another paints pictures with stolen supplies depicting the horrors experienced. The Japanese point of view shows that even being in charge at a POW camp is miserable. It also tells of the pressure put on the commanders to finish the railroad, and as prisoners died and conditions worsened, the daily quotas increased.
Towards the end of the novel, after the war has ended, the reader gets a sense of how hard it is to return from war and lead a normal life. This is also told from multiple points of view; from Dorrigo Evans going on to become a famous surgeon, to fellow POWs trying to assimilate as best they can, to Japanese officers getting convicted of war crimes.
Readers who liked Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand would enjoy Narrow Road to the Deep North. This is not a novel for the faint of heart. If you like reading about World War II and don’t mind the carnage, try Narrow Road to the Deep North.
The Wright Brothers
by David McCullough
The Wright Brothers, Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and an airplane. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Not so, and David McCullough dispels that notion within the first few pages. Orville and Wilbur Wright were the sons of a bishop, lived in Dayton, Ohio, and owned a bicycle shop. With their time, funds and ideas, they worked long and hard to be the inventors of the first manned airplane. Often portrayed as a fait accompli, the flight at Kitty Hawk had a much more complicated history. They took multiple trips from Dayton to Kitty Hawk and conducted many tests over a span of 3 years before they were able to make their historic flight.
However, their accomplishment was not met with open arms in the United States. The government did not offer a contract to them, so they instead negotiated with France. The Smithsonian also tried to enshrine the Langley aerodrome as the first flying machine, claiming its failure prior to the Wrights’ success was due to the propulsion device, not the plane itself. The first Wright Flyer was therefore sent to England for display. Eventually it was returned to the United States and displayed at the Smithsonian.
By agreement, the brothers never flew together during the early years, believing at least one brother needed to be left to carry on. Orville was critically injured in a horrible crash in 1908, and their sister Katherine spent many months by his bedside while he recovered. The brothers finally flew together in 1910. At that same occasion, Orville took his father, Bishop Wright, on his first flight at the age of 82. His father’s only comment while in flight was “Higher, Orville, higher.”
Anyone familiar with the works of David McCullough will recognize his inimitable style of brining history to life in this wonderful book.
New Prairie Kitchen
by Summer Miller
A rich collection of recipes from real-life foodies all over the Midwest, this collection is a tremendous mix of stories, advice and lessons from the people who know real food best- those who grow it, cook it and obsess over it.
Farm-to-Table cooking has been a revolution in the culinary world and it is blindingly evident throughout this book that the Midwest is truly the heart of this shift in our tastes. Speaking to farmers who lovingly tend crops out of sheer joy, Miller takes the reader into the very beginnings of the luscious farmer’s market fare we all scramble for on Saturday mornings. From these humble beginnings we are treated to simple, stunning recipes for homemade sausage to ricotta made with freshly drawn milk to sweet strawberry shortcake with rhubarb. Farmer’s food- rich, hearty and as fresh as you can get.
The next step in freshness comes from the amazing chefs who pepper Iowa, Nebraska and South Dakota. Mixing traditional methods with new twists, they bring out the best of these wholesome ingredients with recipes like Sunchoke Gnocchi Spicy Brussel Sprouts.
Bakers, brewers and cheesemakers, oh my. Crafting the best quality products from produce, meat and milk found in their own backyards, talented artisans create award-winning, gourmet cheeses, sausage and jam. The New Prairie Kitchen shines an overdue spotlight on the people who carefully transform, bottle and enthusiastically sell the best of what the region has to offer.
In cozy restaurants, on acres of farmland and in homey workshops, people are taking the food we eat to a whole new level. Complete with gorgeous photographs, The New Prairie Kitchen is a must have for foodies and Midwesterners alike.
The Cherry Harvest
by Lucy Sanna
Featured as one of this month’s Midwest Connections picks, The Cherry Harvest is a coming - of - age novel and love story set in Door County, Wisconsin during World War II around the time of the cherry harvest. With food rationed and money scarce, Charlotte barters what she can to keep food on the table. Her teenage daughter, Kate, raises rabbits to earn money for college so that she may become a writer. Her husband, Thomas, strives to keep the orchard going while their son Ben fights over in Europe.
With the upcoming harvest threatened by the lack of local men to help, strong – willed Charlotte proposes that the local authorities allow the German war prisoners from a nearby POW camp to help pick the fruit. Thomas befriends one of the prisoners, a teacher named Karl, and invites him to tutor Kate in math. Charlotte finds herself unexpectedly becoming attracted to Karl and questions her love and duty towards Thomas. Kate is becoming a young woman and needs to rely on her own courage to achieve her goals – including a secret first romance with the son of a wealthy senator. This self - reliance is something that she learns from her mother, even though she realizes that her mother is not perfect and has secrets of her own. Ben returns home injured and bitter towards the Germans and Charlotte’s secrets threaten to change their world.
This book explores the tensions that war brings for those that are at home and not just fighting the battles overseas. It makes for a great summer read.
The Seven Good Years
by Etgar Keret
Internationally known Israeli writer Keret, award-winning author of short stories, graphic novels, & screen plays, offers his first book of non-fiction. His touching, insightful memoir is told in small, inter-linked stories, short yet powerful observations that reveal Keret's intelligent, compassionate views. The slim pieces cover the period from 2005-2012: Keret begins to write at the birth of his son & finishes at the death of his father, seven years later.<;p>
These seven “good” years are fraught with troubles & even tragedy, & it is through Keret's personal anecdotes that we're encouraged to think more broadly on life's--on the world's--bigger issues. When his son is born there is a terrorist attack on Tel Aviv, which puts “a damper on everything.” While traveling internationally for book events as “a stressed-out Jew,” he insinuates “semi-anti-Semitic events.” While at his 3-year old son's favorite park, the mothers there berate him for not having decided yet if his son will eventually join the army. Later, he learns his beloved father has inoperable cancer.
He gives a bit of a glimpse into Israeli life & his own personal & political issues, but there is no overt political commentary or heavy-handed points to be made. We read of his arguments with taxi-drivers, interactions with his Orthodox sister, discussions with telemarketers, & of his family's Angry Birds addiction; we are treated to heartfelt pieces describing his parents, both Holocaust survivors. In a story at the end of the book, one reminiscent of a scene in Benigni's Holocaust film Life Is Beautiful, Keret & his wife invent a game to ease their son's worry as they lie on the side of the road during an air attack. Through his humorous, sardonic recollections about his life during these seven years, Keret gives us plenty of material for thought & original, brilliant stories to read.
How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking
by Jordan Ellenberg
Would anyone other than a mathematician be likely to pick up a book about math to read for pleasure? Perhaps not, but even those not mathematically inclined will find plenty to enjoy in How Not to Be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking. Author Jordan Ellenberg grabs in the early pages as he explains his response to math students who sulkily ask how they will ever use the algebraic formulas he is trying to teach them. Many things, Ellenberg, a University of Wisconsin mathematics professor, explains, aren’t really fun or rewarding without hours of drill and practice. A professional soccer player doesn’t have to dribble a ball through rows of cones but he would never have reached his level of performance if he hadn’t spent years doing just that.
From there, Ellenberg takes a multi-directional approach to a subject he finds profoundly awesome. Throughout the book, he makes an effort to translate the work of famous mathematicians into the language of amateurs. He challenges readers to approach statistical studies with common sense. How is it possible 100% of Americans will be obese in 30 years? It isn’t. He demonstrates that improbable things happen all the time and calculates the odds that two people in a group of thirty will have the same birthday. It turns out they’re good.
Ellenberg is a lively and engaging writer who is clearly passionate about math and fairly bursting to share his enthusiasm for the beauty and elegance of his subject. Despite his best efforts to make the material completely accessible, there are parts that may leave some readers scratching their heads. Still, his fascinating illustrations of real life applications will keep them turning the pages and perhaps regretting not being more diligent about practicing those boring math drills.
The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey
by Rinker Buck
When Rinker Buck was a young boy in the 1950s, his father took him on a covered wagon trip “to see America slowly.” That trip was the seed that led to his book “The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey.” Buck and his brother Nick, an experienced team driver, go on the ride of a lifetime, a trip across America on the original Oregon Trail.
The journey is fueled by what he calls his “crazyass passion” to use the most basic means of transportation from the 1800’s, wagons and mules, to retrace the entire trail. Buck stresses the fact that this trip is not meant to be a period reenactment of the ride - he doesn’t expect to always follow old trail ruts since part of the history of the trail is how it has evolved. His intention is to be true to the original trail, which means that some of their travels will be on county roads or state highways. In a mule powered wagon, either way has its ups and downs.
This story is engaging on a variety of levels. Buck shares his meticulous historical research, details the amount of preparation and ongoing maintenance this type of travel entails, and is able to make the reader feel the humor, the dangers and the therapy of driving mules across the plains and into the mountains.
It also tells of the wonderful relationship between the brothers, who at first glance seem completely mismatched, even bipolar. Rinker is full of caution and prefers not to be dead, Nick is a fearless daredevil and proceeds with an abundance of risk. By the end of the ride, you won’t want to say goodbye to these characters or their mules.
The Perfection of the Paper Clip: Curious Tales of Invention, Accidental Genius, and Stationery Obsession
by James Ward
Stationery and history – this is sure to be a big hit for stationery aficionados. Various items you find on your desk everyday – how did they come to be? And why did they come to be? Although the book starts out as advertised – the history of the paper clip – there are many more stories to be read on all the various items we use every day.
Mr. Ward is an Englishman, so there are items in the book that have unfamiliar names and overall uses. The “pencil box” so ubiquitous to the English school child is more familiar to the American student as a Trapper, although the analogy is not exact. The first mathematical school set for English children carried a protractor, compass, set square, ruler, pencil and eraser.
Mr. Ward discusses paper, pen (from quill to gel pens of today), erasers, glue and all of the other items found on your desk. He delves into the history of each item, many of which were not surprisingly developed in European countries.
Especially interesting was the story of pens and ink. Their development had to parallel each other to meet the requirements of the new technology being developed. Treated separately, the history of the modern day highlighter included the development of fluorescent/phosphorescent inks. During World War II, phosphorescent paint was significant in the Pacific theater where fighters needed to land on small decks in the dark.
All of these normal items have interesting histories behind them. Mr. Ward has done well at developing their stories in a very readable volume.
East of West Volume 4: Who Wants War?
by Jonathan Hickman and Illustrated by Nick Dragotta
Comic books have been a lot more than cavorting caped crusaders and kitschy kids for decades now, yet serious artists and writers who go beyond superheroes and cartoons don’t always get the notoriety and readership they deserve. There are incredible indie comics, covering every genre imaginable, just waiting to be discovered by everyone from traditional comic fans, and truly, anyone with an appreciation of good art and a good story.
Looking for a gateway into the world of comics without a spandex-wearing superhero? East of West will blow your mind.
“This is the world. It is not the one we wanted, but it is the one we deserved.” Not for the faint of heart, East of West is an apocalyptic, horror-drenched work of art from the incredible mind of Jonathan Hickman and the equally brilliant pen of Nick Dragotta. Following the trail of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse as they herald the End of Times, the story focuses on Death, who seems to be our last hope. A split in the ranks and a tale of revenge carry through the story, much like a standard Western. But East of West is anything but ordinary. The remnants of the countries of Earth are haunting and sharp on the page as the reader is introduced to the characters and the twisted historical timeline, so different, but still recognizable. As the End draws near, war splashes over the world, the Great Beast comes to wreak havoc and still, the Message looms.
Haunting, mysterious and utterly beautiful, this Eisner Award nominated series has just released its fourth volume. Rumors of movie rights are already swirling so it’s a great time to join the rest of us rabid fans, eagerly awaiting the next issue.
At the Water's Edge
by Sara Gruen
Fantastical monsters, the Scottish Highlands, a complicated romance, and the events of World War II are all included in this coming-of-age story and period novel, At the Water’s Edge, written by Water for Elephants author Sara Gruen.
The story begins New Year’s Eve of 1944 at a Philadelphia high society party where the main characters, Maddie and husband, Ellis, disgrace themselves at the social event of the year; this leads to the financial cutoff from Ellis’s father, a former army Colonel who is already embarrassed by his son’s inability to serve in the war because he is colorblind. With the help of his friend, Hank, a wealthy socialite, the only way Ellis can regain his father’s favor and his inheritance is to come up with a scheme to succeed where his father publicly failed many years before. Ellis needs to hunt down and bring back proof that the famous Loch Ness monster does exist. Hank and Ellis drag a reluctant Maddie across the Atlantic in the midst of the war to a remote Scottish town where the locals show great contempt for the privileged and entitled Americans.
As the two men go off each day in search of the monster, Maddie is left alone at the small inn where food is rationed, fuel is scarce, and the postman can bring tragic news at any time. Maddie’s eyes are opened to the harsh realities of life, to the beauties of nature, to a connection to a force greater than herself, to female friendship and finally true love which is in contrast to her husband’s spiral into conceit and self-deception.
At the Water’s Edge captivates the reader with its drama, intrigue and glimpses into both the lightness and darkness of humankind.
The Jesus Cow
by Michael Perry
Michael Perry’s first adult novel takes place in the small rural town of Swivel, Wisconsin. Forty-something Harley is a bachelor living alone on the remaining 15 acres of his parent’s farm, the rest having been lost mostly to development. He works at a factory, keeps a few beefers, volunteers at the fire department, and has been known to attend a poetry reading every now and then.
All is fairly quiet for Harley as he moves toward his secret of happiness: “low overhead.” Then, on Christmas Eve, he opens his barn door to find a calf has been born in the manger, and it has the image of Jesus on its side. “Well, that’s trouble,” he thinks. He confides in his best friend, Billy Tripp, a hulking veteran forever in orange Crocs who lives with his books and cats in a trailer on the farm. Both bachelors, they often have “staff meetings” over “porch beers” or philosophize at the burn barrel. Billy sees potential in the calf and advises, “Get a lawyer…and start printin’ T-shirts.”
Harley--in honor of his modest, faithful parents and in deference to his goal of low overhead--tries to hide the calf, but it gets out. The mail carrier sees the calf, snaps some photos, and the Jesus Cow goes viral. Believers from all over start pouring onto Harley’s property, and he’s forced into immediate business. He reluctantly accepts the assistance of West Coast agent Sloan Knight who’s talent agency deftly handles the intense crowds. Harley sees his bank account start to inflate and realizes he could take Billy’s suggestion & “undevelop,” restoring his parent’s farm. He remains conflicted, “unsettled” by the people “who looked furtively faithful” and came in hope or desperation because he doesn’t believe he is offering them anything.
Spectacular, funny characters populate the novel: Mindy, the welding, motorcycling artist in work boots; Maggie, the widowed junkyard owner; Carolyn, the outcast environmentalist; and Klute, the bullying Hummer-driving developer. Perry’s hilarious novel offers a comic but respectful look at faith and fellowship. He writes affectionately of life in a rural community and showcases his personal connection to the people of such a place.
Equal Before the Law: How Iowa Led Americans to Marriage Equality
by Tom Witosky and Marc Hansen
In April 2009, the Iowa Supreme Court stunned the nation when it issued its decision legalizing same-sex marriage. At the time, marriage equality was the law in Massachusetts and Connecticut, but those were liberal, urban, coastal states. Iowa was viewed as conservative and rural and was in the dead center of the heartland. Furthermore, the earlier court decisions had been close; the Iowa decision was unanimous.
In Equal Before the Law: How Iowa Led Americans to Marriage Equality, former Des Moines Register reporters Tom Witosky and Marc Hansen assemble a complete picture of the events leading up to the historic decision and its aftermath, including the successful effort to remove three of the justices and, two years later, the unsuccessful effort to remove another. They explain that Iowa’s proud history of being at the forefront on civil rights gave proponents confidence that the state might able to take the lead on this issue as well.
When six same-sex couples applied for marriage licenses in Polk County in 2005, they knew they would be denied but were hopeful they would be victorious in the legal battle they were provoking. The legal maneuvering is intriguing, but the personal stories of the Supreme Court justices, judges, lawyers and most especially the 12 plaintiffs and their families, make the book truly compelling.
The authors note that the vast majority of court decisions that have resulted in marriage equality in subsequent states cite the Iowa Supreme Court decision. The release of the book is especially timely in light of the anticipated United States Supreme Court ruling later this month on whether all states must allow same-sex marriage or at least recognize marriages licensed in the 36 states where it is now legal.
The Last Four Days of Paddy Buckley by Jeremy Massey
“If there was a running motif throughout my brief life, it would be the close and present nature of death. I’d known it intimately from the start.” So begins the last day in the life of funeral home employee Paddy Buckley. His mother died when he was 4, his father when he was 33, and his wife and unborn daughter two years ago. When the story begins, Paddy has no idea his end is so near.
Three days earlier was quite a day for Paddy, a caring and upright young man. First, he visits a lovely widow to arrange her husband’s funeral, but after consoling her, it turns out he will instead need to work with their even lovelier daughter on the arrangements for a double funeral. Later, one of his colleagues comes to him in a panic after the wrong body is delivered from a mortuary in London, and Paddy is led to deceive that family to avoid having an open casket funeral. Then he is called out in the middle of the night to attend to a death in a nursing home. While driving home from that call at 3 a.m. in the rain, he accidentally hits a man. When Paddy gets out to check, he realizes that he has killed the brother of Dublin’s most notorious crime boss, Vincent Cullen. Worst of all, Paddy knows that if Cullen finds out, he’ll have Paddy killed. And as you can probably tell from the title, Cullen does indeed find out.
Jeremy Massey has drawn from his experience as a third-generation undertaker to write an edgy, sometimes violent and darkly comic thriller that I couldn’t put down.
Second Watch by J.A. Jance
This is a J. P. Beaumont mystery with a twist. J.P., or Beau to his friends, is having double knee replacement surgery. The surgery goes well, but in recovery he is visited by ghosts. It begins with the ghost of the first homicide he worked on as a young detective in the Seattle Police Department. Many years after the case became cold, he is now determined to reopen the case and solve the mystery of the young woman’s murder.
The second ghost that visited Beau is from an even more distant past. While in Vietnam, he had a superior officer who became a significant role model. Lennie D. was a voracious reader who loaned Beau a book when he first arrived. A thick tome, it was on Beau when military action sent a piece of shrapnel at him. It lodged in the book, saving his life. Lennie D. was killed in action that day, and Beau had wondered about contacting his fiancé to tell her of what a good leader Lennie had been. However, that had never happened.
Although both ghosts could very well have been hallucinations due to the drugs he had been given, Beau acted on both of them. The resulting solution to the old murder case brings both satisfaction and grief. His feeling of responsibility to his long ago Vietnam leader leads him to reach out to the fiancé, permitting a wonderful tribute to the many young lives lost in that long ago war.
The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo
I am a confirmed pack rat. Despite my propensity to move every few years, I still seem to justify hauling around the same stuff, over and over again. Boxes of pictures that could easily be scanned, art projects from third grade and oh, so many books! I claim sentimental attachment, perhaps, or that I really will use it someday. I may fit into that shirt, eventually? I know many people can relate to this mind trap, but at some point, it has to stop or you risk ending up on a reality TV show - and no one wants that.
In her new book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, Marie Kondo is changing my life. With great insight into why we keep the things we do, the methods we use to convince ourselves of the need for stuff and how to break the habits, this book is a must-have for anyone with a hoarding habit, a cluttered closet or a materialistic mind. Kondo offers a straightforward, focused plan for slowly, carefully and ruthlessly ridding yourself of anything that doesn’t have a purpose, bring you joy or fit into your carefully and simply organized life. There are no baby steps in this system, no going room-to-room or working on small piles, this is a complete overhaul that once complete, requires almost no maintenance. Think Spring Cleaning on steroids. The author brilliantly taps into the psychology of clutter and helps to change the readers thinking, so you can reclaim your life from your things. For me, it’s worked wonders; I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s a perfect gift for anyone contemplating a move or a big life change. What better time to tap clear out the clutter and start fresh?
Making Nice by Matt Sumell
Matt Sumell’s new novel is a collection of linked stories narrated by 30-year old Alby. Alby was the only person in the room with his mother as she died suffering from cancer, and his grief is profound. He is not good at “making nice,” and he is horrible at grieving. He barrels down a path of self-destruction, abusing alcohol and his mom’s pain pills and inflicting injury—bodily or emotional or, for good measure, both—on anyone in his way.
Aggressive, angry, and with a heart full of bitterness and hatred, he makes a string of bad choices. His vulgar, insulting attempts to pick up women easily fail, he leaves dead-end jobs regularly, and he can’t seem to maintain a connection with anyone except his immediate family. An unexpected compassion exists through the obscenity and brutal insults he throws at them. Though he swings punches at his sister Jackie, pitches his one-legged, drunk father over the side of a boat, and tries to rid his brother of his new wife, it’s evident he loves them and that their shared sadness and pain provide solidarity. In surprise tender moments that help break the stream of rage and anguish, Alby shows compassion toward creatures, too: a newborn bird that’s fallen from its nest and that he takes in to care for, his father’s mistreated cat, a grasshopper that’s fallen into the toilet bowl, his dog Jason.
Sumell’s debut, somewhat autobiographical, is a powerful, insightful look into a man’s life in the aftermath of his mother’s death. As Alby fights, drinks, & jokes along on his rampage of reckless self-hatred, he is a moving spectacle of the ravages of love & grief. Luckily Sumell provides a bit of humor to ease the intensity of this emotional story.
Descent by Tim Johnston
Iowa City native Tim Johnston has received very well-deserved rave reviews for his first adult novel, Descent. This page-turning thriller with its deeply developed characters and intense situations is one of the smartest, most engrossing reads I’ve come across in months.
Grant and Angela Courtland, from Wisconsin, have treated their children, 18-year-old Caitlin and 15-year-old Sean, to a vacation in the Rocky Mountains. Caitlin, who will be starting college soon on a track scholarship, is looking forward to testing her running skills at the higher elevation. Early in the morning, she wakes up her brother, and they head out, she on foot and he on a bike. Hours later, the parents receive a phone call that Sean has been seriously injured in an accident, but there is no trace of Caitlin. Sean tells the authorities he saw his sister being taken away in the vehicle that hit him. For the Courtland’s, the grandeur of the mountains turns horrific as the agonizing search for Caitlin begins.
In most books that I read, I usually think about why an author came up with the title he or she did. This one is brilliant, because the story addresses not just the Courtland family’s literal climb down from the mountains after the official search is over, but also the subsequent descent in the emotional lives of Caitlin’s parents and brother. The three of them grow more distant from one another, and their paths diverge, as they address a heartbreaking question -- at what point does a family give up on the search, the hope of finding their missing child?
Dead Wake by Erik Larson
Erik Larson, one of the most popular history authors writing today, has picked the sinking of the Lusitania as his next study. The centennial of the Great War began last year so the examination of the events that drew America into the war is very timely.
As is his style, Mr. Larson has paired two events in the same book. At the time of the sinking of the Lusitania, President Wilson was finding his way through the grief of losing his wife. He has met and is pursuing an interest in the widow Edith Boling Galt, a woman he met through Helen Bones, his cousin and proxy First Lady at the White House.
As the story opens, the Germans had provided warnings that passenger ships were in peril on the open seas, although many dismissed these warnings. Actions and inactions from that point forward doomed the Lusitania to its eventual sinking. Mr. Larson tells of the events from before the launch to the aftermath of the sinking by alternating the narrative from aboard the Lusitania captained by William Thomas Turner to aboard the German submarine, U-20, captained by Walther Schwieger.
The personal details of the passengers and crew provide the story with an immediacy that works very well. Mr. Larson in the past has covered many significant historical events in a very entertaining fashion. While it is difficult to call the history of the sinking of the Lusitania entertaining, he has provided an account replete with characters and details that are engaging and educational as well.
The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer
The Children’s Crusade by Ann Packer is the compelling story of a family growing up in the 1970’s in what will become Silicon Valley. In 1954, Bill Blair stumbled on an unimproved property and immediately began to imagine the home and family he would build there. A physician who had treated the wounded in Korea, he completed a second residency in pediatrics in order to focus on patients who would be more likely to recover. Quiet and reserved by nature, he met Penny who was working in her uncle’s watch repair shop, courted and married her.
ast forward a decade and a half and the story finds Bill and Penny living with their four children in the house he built on the property where, in the meantime, they had enjoyed picnics and then weekends in a small cabin/shed. Bill is an adoring father whose mantra is “children need care.” Penny is a disengaged mother who wants to be left alone in the shed/studio doing her art. While their father is at work, the children are often unsupervised and seem to be raising each other. Bill and Penny clearly encourage each child’s unique qualities with James, the youngest, self-identified as “the problem”.
The book goes back and forth in time, spanning five decades. All the characters are believable, likeable in some way, and very human; there are no villains and no heroes. Was James a problem because of innate qualities or because four children were too much for his mother to handle? Did Penny choose to withdraw from her family or did Bill drive her away? Leaving much to ponder, this would be an excellent choice for a book discussion group.
Where All the Light Tends to Go by David Joy
Deep in the Appalachian mountains near rural Cashiers, North Carolina, the McNeely family persists in their legacy of drugs and violence. 18-year old Jacob wants out but is resigned to his fate: “There was no escaping who I was or where I’d come from.” In his beautiful yet brutal novel, Joy insightfully portrays a young man ensnared in grim circumstances that leave little room for hope.
Jacob’s volatile father heads a meth ring and would “slip a knife in (his) throat while (he) slept if the mood hit him right.” His hopeless “crank-head” mother is rarely sober and lives out her days in a shack nearby, dope ransacking her body and mind. Resigned to his role in the family, Jacob drops out of high school to work for his abusive dad, wanting to believe that one day he’ll receive pay for the hours that his dad claims to log. With a remarkable, authentic voice Joy gives us a raw view of the uncompromising life Jacob sees no way of changing: “I’d let what I was born into control what I’d become. Mama snorted crystal, Daddy sold it to her, and I’d never had the balls to leave.”
When Jacob’s father has him dispose of a snitching employee and the murder goes awry in a horrifying scene, Joy intensifies the pace and we are carried along on a suspenseful, harrowing ride. Jacob’s dark, violent days are punctuated by his childhood friend and ex-girlfriend, Maggie Jennings. A bright contrast to what he faces at home, she is all that is good, pretty, & intelligent. Jacob has always known she has what it takes to get beyond their hometown. They reunite and create a plan that may get them both out, & their tenderhearted relationship eases the grim story.
Fans of Larry Brown and Breaking Bad, Daniel Woodrell and Justified will love this debut. Joy’s love for and knowledge of the region delivers a great sense of place. His lyrical prose and engaging characters provide a compelling read about a boy destined to a life of crime and poverty and held there by both family and fear. An absolutely haunting, stunning ending will resonate long after the book is closed.
My Name Is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira
My Name is Mary Sutter is the story of a strong-willed young midwife from Albany, New York who is determined to become a surgeon at a time when women were largely barred from that career path. When the Civil War breaks out, Mary defies her mother by traveling to Washington, D.C. to help tend the wounded. Although she is frequently nearly overcome by the horror she witnesses, Mary proves herself extraordinarily capable and in the end (spoiler alert) achieves her dream.
The book’s author, Robin Oliveira, is a Registered Nurse by profession and her knowledge of medicine and insight into its practice are evident in her vivid descriptions. With the germ theory of disease not yet recognized, surgery is performed in atrociously unsterile conditions spreading infection among the soldiers. The proportion of deaths which can be attributed to disease, malnutrition, and other conditions not related to combat is made staggeringly clear. A doctor with whom Mary works struggles to muster the resources for microscopic research, hoping advancements in medicine will somehow keep the hundreds of thousands of casualties from being in vain.
As in all the best historical fiction, Mary encounters a number of real-life historical figures including Dorothea Dix, Clara Barton, and even, briefly, Abraham Lincoln. Compelling family drama and several concurrent love stories add a human dimension to this absorbing novel.
My Name is Mary Sutter is the 2015 Iowa Center for the Book All Iowa Reads Selection.
Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League by Jonathan Odell
In writing Miss Hazel and the Rosa Parks League, Jonathan Odell drew on his childhood experiences growing up in Mississippi in the 1950s. Now living in Minnesota, his novel has been chosen as a March pick by the Midwestern Independent Booksellers, a well-deserved honor.
The story brings together two young women – one white and well-to-do, the other black and poor – who share two things. They each lost a son under tragic circumstances and they absolutely detest one another. Vida has been hired by Hazel’s husband to help in the house after Hazel returns from spending time in an institution to treat her alcoholism. Miss Hazel goes from a woman who takes her children joy-riding on drunken sprees through the Mississippi delta to living a drugged and sedated life in her bedroom. Vida, whose family and friends used to witness Hazel from their work in the cotton fields, has no pity for her. Unexpectedly, a friendship forms that shakes the foundations of their community.
The relationships between the deeply drawn characters make this an engrossing story. Besides Miss Hazel and Vida, there is the “senator” – a rich man who owns and rules the county; Billy Dean Brister, the racist sheriff; Floyd – Hazel’s eternally optimistic husband and Johnny, her stubborn, resentful son; Reverend Snow, Vida’s wise father; and the Rosa Parks League, a group of black maids who take the unheard of risk of trying to register to vote in Mississippi in 1955.
Reading this book was a wonderful way to celebrate Women’s History Month and to mark the 60th anniversary of the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Just as I was reflecting on how far attitudes have come, the evening news broadcasted the recent actions of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity. Obviously, we still have a long way to go.
The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Isaacson
This is an account of the history of the digital age, from Ada Lovelace’s mathematical writings in the 19th century to the emergence of the Internet that we have today. In between, there are many fascinating stories of the people who worked together to make it happen.
Isaacson’s theme of the importance of a team to bring innovation to the marketplace is demonstrated in two Iowans’ stories. John Atanasoff developed what could be considered the first computer. He was called away to serve in World War II, and with few collaborators at Iowa State University to carry on, the machine was stored away and essentially lost. Since a lawyer inexplicably failed to file a patent claim on it, the invention did not result in lasting credit or wealth. Another Iowan, Grinnell College graduate Robert Noyce, along with a team of men who had complementary strengths brought the microprocessor to life in the firm he created, Intel.
Women are among the unsung heroes in the growth of the digital age. During World War II, women provided much of the programming necessary to make the machines work. They worked together well as a team, but their efforts went unrewarded. At the apex of a successful effort, the men went off for a celebratory event and the women made their way home.
Mr. Isaacson’s book is a testament to the power of collaboration in innovation. Unlike his previous book, Steve Jobs, which concentrated on Jobs as an inventor, this book sets down the history of innovation as a team effort.
The Country of Ice Cream Star by Sandra Newman
I love post-apocalyptic fiction. A shattered land, the sputtering hope and the triumph of heroes in the most desperate circumstances draws me in like a moth to the flame. In The Country of Ice Cream Star, award winning author Sandra Newman delivers a stunning piece of post-apocalyptic literature, epic in scale and full of the roughhewn, unforgettably brave and achingly melodic characters.
This is a phenomenal book on many levels. The unrelenting plot is deep, varied and addictive. The story is told in first person narrative from the title character, Ice Cream Star's viewpoint. Her voice is unique but somehow bitingly familiar. The rolling, beautiful language is startlingly familiar and yet foreign; much like the remains of the ‘Nighted States’ that make-up the setting for Ice Cream Star’s journey.
The characters live in a world of children; before reaching the age of twenty, they all die of a mysterious disease, called Posies—a plague that has killed several generations of people, going back 80 years. The rumors of a cure draw Ice Cream Star on a treacherous journey to save her brother, her own life and the life she holds in such reverence. Along the way she is captured, treated with kindness and cruelty, encounters great love and great pain, all for the sake of freedom, the sake of hope.
Newman's descriptions of the Factions that have sprung up in this new world, the dialogues, the people, the half-remembered rituals and pieces of the past are incredibly vivid. It becomes a treasure hunt to find the bones of the past hidden in the remains Ice Cream Star lives in. This is an astonishing book that will stick with you long after the last page.
My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh
M. O. Walsh's astonishing debut novel takes place in the 80s & 90s along Piney Creek Road in the suburbs of Baton Rouge. Good meals & cold drinks are consumed to stave off the oppressive heat, lawns are well-manicured, & the neighborhood children attend private school. Amid the charming idyllic setting evil lurks, & as the book opens we learn that a horrible crime has been committed.
Our narrator, unnamed, is in his 30s & is recounting the last two decades in a type of confessional as he recalls his childhood: “And it is not until times like these, when...there are years between myself & the events, that I even feel close to understanding my memories & how the people I've known have affected me.” The summer of 1989, when he was 14, was a pivotal one: 15-year old Lindy Simpson, a pretty, popular track star & his first (unrequited) love, is raped under a darkened street light, just houses away from her own home, her innocence abruptly extinguished. The crime goes unpunished, although there are four suspects—including the narrator.
He “was turned completely inside out by what (he) thought...was love,” something “devilish,” less than appropriate, & more like an obsession. As his memories unfold, he divulges the identities of the other suspects & ultimately reveals who's responsible for the crime & why he has dealt with such guilt over the years: “I had not done a single thing about any of the terrible events in my life.” We also get a view into his family—a philandering father who abandoned them, a tragedy that befell an older sister, a heart-broken mother—and into his childhood friends & quirky neighbors.
With insight & expertise, Walsh depicts a lush sense of place with lyrical, gorgeous prose & keen detail. His characters are genuine, especially as he describes the idealism & insecurities, the bravado & vulnerability, the kindness & cruelty of adolescence. Intimate, riveting language propels the suspenseful story; we remain committed to the likeable narrator in spite of his faults & face a satisfying ending. Walsh wisely, compassionately, & at times even humorously offers a beautiful meditation on memory, family, forgiveness, & youth.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
The haunting World War II stories of a French girl and German boy are told in parallel in Anthony Doerr’s beautiful and best-selling novel, All the Light We Cannot See. Blind twelve-year-old Marie-Laure LeBlanc flees Paris with her father when the Nazi occupation of the city begins. Her agoraphobic great uncle, still suffering deep psychological wounds from the First World War, takes them in to his home in the walled city of Saint-Malo on the coast of Brittany.
Child prodigy Werner Pfennig lives in a German orphanage with his sister, dreading his inevitable future in the coal mines where their father lost his life. He finds his escape when his genius for repairing radios is discovered and he is given the opportunity to attend an elite school for young scientists. There he is torn between the boundless joy he takes in his studies and the shame he feels for not intervening in the brutality he witnesses. He is ultimately assigned to a team tracking Resistance radio transmissions.
Unbeknownst to either of them, Marie-Laure and Werner share a chance connection from childhood adding to the reader’s anticipation that their lives will somehow intersect. Until they do, the story bounces back and forth in time and place. Afterward, it fast-forwards to briefly summarize the remainder of the lives of the characters who survived. While the survivors move on and are able to lead fulfilling lives, the shadow cast by the war never completely disappears.
Short chapters alternate from the perspectives of Marie-Laure, Werner, and several other, more minor characters. A variety of subplots including the quest for a smuggled, purportedly cursed diamond contribute to the sprawling nature of this intricate, vividly detailed novel to make it a perfect winter read.
Vanessa and Her Sister by Priya Parmar
This intriguing work of historical fiction is told from the point of view of Vanessa Bell, a post-impressionist English painter who lived from 1879 – 1961. I have to admit, before reading this novel, I had never heard of her. On the other hand, her sister needed no introduction. She was the famously tortured writer, Virginia Woolf.
In the early part of the 19th century, Vanessa and Virginia Stephen began to play host to a rather unorthodox weekly gathering. Besides the two unchaperoned young women, the group included their brothers (Thoby and Adrian) along with male friends from Cambridge. This group became known as the Bloomsbury set, and the members included Lytton Strachey, Clive Bell, E.M. Forster, John Maynard Keynes, Desmond MacCarthy, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, and Leonard Woolf. They were a collection of graduates, poets and artists who grew into a group of influential thinkers and commentators on many social and cultural subjects. At a personal level, they also challenged the social norms of the day, including their views on open marriage and homosexuality.
Priya Parmar has written an engrossing tale of the years 1905 – 1912, told primarily in the form of Vanessa’s diary, supplemented with correspondence between other members of the group. Parmar has done an excellent job of describing Virginia and her madness, without letting that completely overwhelm Vanessa’s own story. But when Clive Bell convinces Vanessa to marry him, it sets off a disturbing triangle with the envious Virginia, and the close relationship between the sisters never fully recovers. Many members of the Bloomsbury set eventually became quite famous, and I enjoyed reading about these individuals during a time when they were still forming their ideas and opinions.
Abandoned America by Matthew Christopher
Abandoned America was featured recently on BookTV, piquing my interest in the history to be found in old abandoned buildings. The book did not disappoint. Although the impact of the photographs themselves is great, the author/photographer has included much of the history of each of the 30 sites. The combination of photos and background information makes for a fascinating read.
All sites are located in the Pennsylvania area and the types of structures range from power plants to factories to schools to churches and hospitals. The author documented a shocking amount of material and equipment left behind in abandoned factories: the coat factory with many coats still hanging on racks, some in protective plastic; the yarn factory where yarn was still threaded in the machines; or the lace factory where workers were told the factory was closed mid-shift and equipment was just left as it was.
The book also documented the way these buildings were managed after closure. In many cases, no maintenance meant there was “demolition by neglect”. This was the case for the motorcycle business where many motorcycles ended up being scrapped after cave-ins exposed them to the elements for an extensive time. This also was what happened to many churches, schools and hospitals. Exposure and the rush to demolition meant a permanent loss of wonderful architectural features. Corruption and fraud also played a significant role in the loss of some sites where promises of redevelopment never materialized.
The varied stories and photos are memorable, and this book will become a prized part of my library.
My Drunk Kitchen by Hannah Hart
Cookbook lovers are a special breed. Always on the look-out for something new, different or just with awesome pictures. We have stacks and stacks of books- never mind that the internet has all the recipes you’d ever need, it just not the same as those gorgeous, picture-filled manuals of timeless wonder. Rest assured, cookbook fanatics, I feel your pain and have a great new offering for you to add to your collection.
My Drunk Kitchen by Hannah Hart is chock-full of ridiculous tidbits of wisdom, deliciously simple recipes and fantastic cooking hacks for even the most skill-challenged chef. My Drunk Kitchen started when Hannah decided to get a little drunk and record a video for friend. The rest is internet history, as Hannah is a certified internet star and one of the most popular channels on YouTube. This book reflects her signature style, complete with pop culture references, rambling stories and words of advice for everything from hosting a party to romancing your crush. There is a rather large dollop of irrelevance throughout the book and the recipes very open to interpretation- a nice change from the traditional lists of ingredients and instructions. This is very much a source book for new ideas, concepts and creativity- a wonderfully refreshing change to traditional cookbooks.
While many of the references and ‘single twenty-something’ vibes may put off some people, there really is a great deal of humor and information to appeal to nearly everyone. And who wouldn’t want to drink few beers/whiskeys/vodka shots and try their hand at such culinary delights as “Things in a Blanket”, “Pastafarian” and my favorite- “Pizza Cake”?
The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton
Christopher Scotton has published a splendid debut novel, a coming of age story as devastating as it is hopeful. Scotton’s story takes us to the mid-80s to the small, impoverished coal mining town of Medgar, Kentucky. Kevin Gillooly, 14, has just moved there with his mother. His grandfather, Arthur “Pops” Peebles, invited them to stay the summer in the hopes it would help them heal from a horrific accident that killed Kevin’s 3-year old brother.
As Kevin’s mother languishes in bed in the throes of grief, he experiences the freedom and beauty of the surrounding hills and hollows. He meets Buzzy Fink, and their friendship & adventures help ease Kevin’s trauma and guilt. Pops, wise and respected among the townspeople and dealing with his own loss, helps guide Kevin through his grief & the rupture of his family. He boosts Kevin’s confidence by taking him out on his veterinarian rounds & letting him be a part of the regular evening whiskey-sipping gatherings on his porch or around the stove at the general store in town.
Mr. Paul, a dear old friend of Pops and a local businessman scrutinized by most for being gay & for leading the movement against the strip mining that others in Medgar depend on for jobs, is violently murdered. The brutal attack rattles the town, and Buzzy, who witnessed the crime, holds his secret close.
In the aftermath of Mr. Paul’s death, Pops takes Kevin and Buzzy on his annual weeks-long “tramp” to the hollow where he grew up. They experience at once the beauty and history of the area and the astounding ravaging of it as they see the age-old mountains leveled by strip mining. Deep in the wilderness, they are attacked by an ominous figure, and their survival comes to depend upon Kevin’s strength and resourcefulness.
A thrilling and intense story, it is very believable and ultimately optimistic. Scotton shows how love and respect can help restore one ransacked by loss: of loved ones, of sense of self, of land and history. Expertly developed characters and their pitch perfect voices and an insightfully described sense of place offer an authentic, graceful rendering of southern Appalachia by a talented new novelist whose admiration for the area and its people is obvious.
The Resurrection of Tess Blessing by Lesley Kagen
The Resurrection of Tess Blessing is a poignant, heart-tugging and often hilarious new novel from award-winning Wisconsin author Lesley Kagen. Tess Blessing is facing many of the normal challenges of middle-age, including sullen, teen-aged children with hair-trigger emotions and a husband going through his own mid-life crisis. She also suffers from a variety of mental issues - OCD, panic attacks, agoraphobia, and PTSD resulting from her childhood with a verbally and emotionally abusive mother. She blames herself for her father’s accidental death when she was 10 years old, and is estranged from her younger sister, who suffers to an even greater degree from the same mental illnesses. Finally, at the age of 49, Tess is diagnosed with breast cancer. Certain that this is her death sentence, she sets out to cross off items that make up her final to-do list.
This list turns out to be quite daunting. Aside from “buy broccoli,” Tess feels she needs to reignite the love in her marriage, repair her relationship with her sister, finally scatter her mother’s ashes, and help her children with their individual problems so they will be okay when she’s gone. She also desperately seeks a religious epiphany before she can cross out that last item – “die.”
The story is told in a third-person narrative. The narrator, Grace, is someone who has been with Tess her entire life, as a guardian angel, an imaginary friend, or maybe a portion of her own subconscious. While we don’t really get inside of Tess’ mind, Grace’s voice provides a look into the psychological complexity of a troubled soul and a heartwarming look at one woman’s chance to come back to life.
The Rosie Effect by Graeme Simsion
The Rosie Effect furthers the adventures of socially awkward genetics professor Don Tillman and his wildly unpredictable wife Rosie Jarman in a sequel to Australian Graeme Simsion’s acclaimed first novel, The Rosie Project.
Forty-one year old Don has abandoned his Standardized Meal System and relaxed much of his highly organized life in the interest of building a compatible marriage with Rosie, “the world’s most perfect woman.” They have moved from Melbourne to New York, where he is a visiting professor of genetics at Columbia University, and Rosie is furthering her psychology studies. Predictably in a first comes love, then comes marriage fictional world, Rosie unexpectedly becomes pregnant. Not one to do well with the unpredicted or anything inspiring emotion, Don is faced with an overwhelming challenge.
What follows as Don tries to cope is a sometimes laugh-out-loud funny string of events as he overthinks, over-studies, and over-quantifies the prospect of parenthood. An array of characters, some from The Rosie Project and some new, present new problems for him to solve. Without intending to, Don weaves a web of deceit which gets more and more complicated. The reader has the privilege of seeing Don’s odd behavior from both his perspective and from that of an observer who is able to read normal social cues.
As the events compound, both Rosie and Don question his ability to be a parent and Rosie makes plans to return to Australia. However, romantic comedies must end happily and this novel is no exception. Despite his odd reactions to almost everything, Don demonstrates in his own quirky ways his dedication to being a good father. None other than Bill Gates called The Rosie Project “one of the most profound novels I’ve read in a long time,” and this funny, sweet romance novel should not be missed.
Because I Said So by Ken Jennings
Answer: Because I Said So! Question: What do parents say when they are tired of answering the question, “Why?” The title is so appropriate for this book, which is a compendium of common sayings used by parents all over the country. The author, Ken Jennings, the champion of the game show, “Jeopardy”, has investigated the sayings, and evaluated them as true, false, and gradients in between.
He has covered such diverse sayings as the one from the holiday movie, The Christmas Story, “You’ll shoot your eye out!” (mostly true), and “If you crack your knuckles, you’ll get arthritis” (false). Each evaluation includes citations of studies and statistics and opinions from experts in the field. It is very interesting reading.
Some results he has found were surprising to me - “You need hydrogen peroxide on that.” (false) or “You need eight glasses of water every day” (false). And many of them are very enlightening:
“Don’t feed the ducks” (true). The bread that is commonly used is not a normal diet for ducks and results in the ducks fouling the water and surrounding territory. Some communities have even outlawed the practice. It’s a fun activity, but maybe not such a good idea! My personal favorite is “Always wear a helmet when riding a bike” (true). Our son’s parents enforced this rule in the 1980’s, before it was common and before helmets were stylish. We are sure there are residual traumatic effects from being the sole helmet-wearer among his friends, but Ken Jennings (and the AMA) agrees – kids protect their noggins by wearing helmets!
This book is going in our library alongside the dictionary, home medical guide and crossword dictionary to complete our reference section.
Divergent by Veronica Roth
Divergent is the next big thing in dystopic fiction — complete with conflicted heroine, dramatic setting, moral ambiguity and the ubiquitous passionate romance, this book will appeal to “The Hunger Games” fans. However, “Divergent” stands on its own thanks to nonstop action, a twisting plot and excellent writing.
The protagonist is Beatrice, who lives in a community that values extreme selflessness. Roth has created a society that divides its citizens up between five insular communities based on the attributes they hold in the highest regard. The issues inherent in the system are obvious. The allegory and conflict are sharp and defined, a rarity in the world of young adult books.
Beatrice is about to undergo a test that will help her determine which community she will live in for the rest of her life. The deceptive test reveals a lot more, however, showing her to be independent, incapable of having just one primary attribute. She is “divergent,” considered by the government to be dangerous, an aberration and a criminal. She must hide her status and does so by abandoning her beloved family and joining the Dauntless community, whose members value extreme bravery. What follows is a violent, passionate, exciting coming-of-age for the heroine, now known as Tris. In the process of finding her strengths, she uncovers secrets that could destroy her world.
Fast-paced, intense, romantic and gilded with lessons in learning to love thy self, this book is a gem in the world of young adult novels. Hurry and read it before the movie hits theaters this March!
1493 by Charles Mann
Globalization is a bad word in some circles. The idea of looking past (or through) the political and physical boundaries that separate the human race into pockets and looking at the world as a one big machine can be daunting and frustrating. Yet, it really is unavoidable in our current circumstances and we know this whether we like it or not. Once upon a time, however, the global view was brand new.
In the follow-up to his first book, 1491, Charles Mann takes a look at how the world was just after Columbus sailed the ocean blue, and turned the world from small, separate pockets of people into a global society. Using a combination of his own observations from traveling, extensive research and conversations with the foremost experts in relevant fields, Mann explores the process of globalizing the world.
Using fascinating examples like malaria, rubber plants and parasites, Mann explores the swift changes that took place after that fateful voyage. Written in straightforward, but by no means dumbed down, language and filled with pictures and endnotes for further reading; this book takes the bits and pieces most already know and expands them into a much broader story, the wider picture so many miss in history class.
The exchange of ideas, flora and fauna from place to place, the development of the global economy and the lasting impact these changes have had may sound like dry reading, but Mann does a superb job of engaging the reader. It is 500 of the fastest, most entertaining pages this science and history buff has ever read.
Sparrow Road by Sheila O'Connor
Twelve-year old Raine is confused when her mother moves them from the Milwaukee apartment they share with Grandpa Mac to a crumbling estate hours away. Her mother has mysteriously taken a summer job at the old mansion, a former orphanage that is now an artists’ retreat run by its stern owner, Viktor. Raine protests the new arrangements and suspects a secret is being held from her.
Raine builds relationships with the artists, and they shower her with attention. Josie encourages her to explore the orphanage, and they make visits to the attic where remnants of orphans’ beds, toys, and drawings remain. Diego offers encouragement and advice and helps foster Raine’s talent at writing.
Soon it’s revealed that Raine’s mother has brought her to the area because her father, who her mother has never spoken of, lives in the nearby town and wants to meet her. Raine must deal with the shock of this news, then with the range of emotions that surface as she meets her father. As Raine pieces together the history of the estate, she reassembles the history of her own life, its gaps and losses echoed by the orphans’ same.
O’Connor offers a beautifully written middle-grade novel with a smart, loveable heroine. All of her characters are well-developed and varied, & you are easily drawn into the world at Sparrow Road. Raine has a hard decision to make that will affect her “good life” as she knew it, but O’Connor leaves you with a satisfying feeling of hope.
Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss
Epic fantasy has always had a stigma, telling people your preferred genre is fantasy immediately invokes a label of ‘nerd.’ Times may be changing however, with the success of certain movies and TV shows, showcase the heartstopping drama, rich settings and truly memorable characters that populate some of the best-selling (and yes, nerdy) books around.
If you would like to hop on the fantasy bandwagon, the Kingkiller Chronicles by the incomparable Patrick Rothfuss is a fantastic place to start. The Wise Man’s Fear is the second installment, following the second day of Kvothe’s story of his extraordinary life as a man, a hero, and a myth.
Kvothe continues his tale of life at the University, where he is learning magic, much to determent of his pocketbook. Without giving too much away, Kvothe leaves the University without finishing his education and manages to find his way to the mythical fae people, where he learns much more than the University could teach him; about love, battle and what it will take for him to avenge his parents’ deaths.
Rich with world-building, written with superb eye for detail and filled with humorous interludes and wonderful secondary characters, The Wise Man’s Fear is a thrilling ride through traditional fantasy; spiked with twists and unexpected takes on the expected plot devices. Like many fantasy series, there is a long wait between books for the Kingkiller Chroncles; luckily it’s the kind of book that can be re-read, with tons of new details lurking in the shadows.
Go the F**k to Sleep by Adam Mansbach
In the world of parenting, bedtime should be an Olympic sport. The never-ending battle that so many dread is illuminated with biting, insightful wit in Adam Mansbach’s new book, Go the F**k to Sleep.
Its small size and soft, pleasant illustrations make this book resemble a familiar children’s bedtime story. It isn’t. To be clear, this is not a book for children, but it would make an excellent gift for new parents or parents-to-be, as long as they are not easily offended. Curses grace every page of this delightful book and fittingly so, as there is little in life more frustrating than a sleepless child.
The story is told in simple rhymes, featuring kittens, tigers and animals of all sorts- but the main character is a nameless, likely familiar, insomniac human child. The desperate parent who narrates the story is slowly losing their mind as the child does whatever it can to not sleep. It is a story as old as time- and side-splittingly funny, at least when it isn’t happening to you!
For even more fun, try to audio book, read by Samuel L. Jackson. Be prepared to laugh harder than you have in a long, long time. There is something about his pained, frustrated voice that fits this book perfectly. His dramatic reading is full of pauses and sighs that elevate the already ridiculous book to new heights. Go the F**k to Sleep has hit the bestseller list by storm, and it isn’t hard to see why. Do yourself a favor and pick up the funniest book of the year.
Things We Didn't Say by Kristina Riggle
Kristina Riggle’s new novel opens as Casey is poised to walk out of her finance’s home, leaving Michael and his three children—and what she thought was going to provide her a fresh start in life. The spark in their relationship has already diminished; they hardly speak at all, much less about a wedding date. Michael is stressed by an ever-threatening layoff and a demanding father, and Casey struggles to hide her former self. And perhaps her move into his home was premature and the responsibility of helping to care for his children and form relationships with them as their soon-to-be stepmother is overwhelming.
Before she can leave her ring and Dear John letter, Casey receives word that Michael’s 14-year old son Dylan is missing and temporarily abandons her plan. She stays with the family to keep vigil and help track Dylan down, and Michael’s tumultuous ex-wife tornadoes onto the scene, elevating the tension considerably. As Michael ventures out to find his son, Casey is left to battle with his ex-wife and his resentful teenage daughter, both of whom threaten to expose their newfound knowledge of the secrets of Casey’s past.
With outlandish yet believable scenes, Riggle lends an honest, raw portrayal of a dysfunctional family in today’s world and the realistic challenges they can face. Alternating chapters of the different characters’ perspectives showcases their emotions and compels you to read on. Funny and sad, with predicaments seemingly irresolvable, this moving story still leaves you with a sense of hope.
Annoying: The Science of What Bugs Us by Joe Palca
I once knew a woman who spent a day taking a licensing exam for her profession. When asked how the test was, she replied, “Annoying.” I remember thinking it was an interesting choice of words, and she never did explain what she meant. Nor did I ask.
But help has arrived – Annoying (the book) explains to us in science-can-be-fun terms why we find the little irritations we encounter on a daily basis to be so, well, annoying. The authors even begin by stating that “unlike simple topics such as string theory…the science of what’s annoying is highly complex” because it draws on natural science, social science, and humanities.
First up, of course, are cell phone conversations. Aside from the obvious, the authors take us through the three ingredients that form the basis of their theory: 1) We can only hear half of the conversations and our brains become frustrated trying to fill in the blanks; 2) They’re unpleasant; and 3) You don’t know when they’re going to end. Cell phone conversations meet all the criteria, although I’m still not sure about my friend’s test.
The authors guide us through a complete sensory feast, taking on chili peppers, bugs, skunks, fingernails and chalkboards (do people really do that, or is it just the idea?), and more. There’s a discussion on annoyance as an emotion, why pleasures can turn into pet peeves, and how one person’s comfort is another’s annoyance. We all have our lists.
Annoying fills my three ingredients for a good book: fun, relatable and informative.
Junonia by Kevin Henkes
Honoring his own traditional annual family trips, beloved children’s author Kevin Henkes’ new middle reader novel tells the story of Alice’s tenth family vacation to Sanibel Island. Each February since she was born, her parents take her from wintery Wisconsin to the Florida beach around the time of her birthday. This year will be extra-special since Alice is turning ten while they are there, and she hopes her wish of finding the elusive Junonia shell will be realized.
Her excitement is dimmed since they arrive on the island to find their regular holiday lineup has changed. Alice is disappointed to learn some of her favorite people couldn’t make it, and although she looks especially forward to spending time with her moms friend Kate, she is frustrated to have Kate arrive with her new boyfriend and his unruly, moody 6-year old daughter, Mallory.
Henkes deftly reveals the range of emotions young Alice confronts: she revels in a day spent alone with her parents, is awed by the Junonia birthday cake her mom made for her, and she lingers over her gifts … yet she must face her birthday party abruptly ending at the hands of Mallory, her grievance over her beauty mark, and the realization she may not find the Junonia shell. And, as much as she wants to preserve the comfort and closeness of her parents, newfound independence beckons.
In rich, quiet language reinforced by his beach imagery and studded by delicate, simple line drawings heading each chapter, Henkes’ tender observations offer an authentic portrayal of a young girl nearing adolescence.
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Witty, fascinating and complex; this book is riveting. Mukherjee takes a far deeper look at cancer than has ever been given to the general public; the awful but intriguing disease that has haunted the human race since the dawn of time. He discusses the evolution of the disease and the radical, sometimes unbelieveable ways it has been treated over the years. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, molecular biology, bioinformatics, immunology, epidemiology and supercomputers are just a few of the wide ranging topics that get touched upon as Mukherjee discusses all the ways cancer has affected our lives.
Siddhartha Mukherjee is one of those rare scientists who is able to speak so passionately about a subject, but still hold his readers’ attention. It is so nice to be taught by someone so knowledgeable and so very easy to read. The heart-wrenching tales from his patients that pepper the historical bits not only bring the abstract into focus, they force the reader to understand more than just the science; they understand the true magnitude of this generation defining disease.
1 of 4 of us will experience cancer in our lives. We will fight and strive against this ancient foe with the help of oncologists, nurses and ever changing drugs. Any general will tell you that understanding the enemy is a major key to defeating it and so this book becomes the much-needed biography to help us conquer cancer.
The Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction is justly deserved here; it would be a shame to miss it.
Bent Road by Lori Roy
Wanting to escape the riots developing in Detroit in the 1960s, Arthur Scott moves his wife Celia and three children to his hometown in Kansas. Arthur left the small Midwest farming town twenty years earlier after the mysterious death of his older sister, Eve. Although hoping for safer, less bleak surroundings, his family is immediately met with the isolation of the landscape and the harshness of life on a farm. They are soon greeted by tragedy and violence when a local girl goes missing and when it becomes evident that Arthur’s sister, Ruth, is being abused by her husband.
The disappearance of the young girl, who resembles Eve, is a sharp reminder of her death and the secrets that surround it. And, because they both look like Arthur’s littlest daughter, everyone is on edge. Ruth’s husband is suspected in the girl’s disappearance as much as he has been held to blame for Eve’s death decades earlier. Arthur attempts to protect Ruth and his entire family from the dangers that seem to blow in across the plains.
In her first novel, Roy deftly describes the sense of place and reflects the starkness of the area in the loneliness Arthur’s wife and children feel there and the dark fears, brutality, and family secrets that they confront.
Roy’s many strong characters are very well-developed, and you are quickly drawn in to the lives of the Scott family; her story has elegant twists that bloom suspense, and the tenseness keeps you turning pages to the thrilling end.
The Honk and Holler Opening Soon by Billie Letts
One you might have missed…
A wonderfully sweet and sad love story, The Honk and Holler Opening Soon, is Billie Letts sparkling follow up to the award winning, Where the Heart Is, her first novel. With her unique, quirky style, Letts brings the town of Sequoyah, Oklahoma to life; full of those hard-living, hopeful people that make small-town life such a barbed joy.
Caney is the proprietor of the local diner, where a misunderstanding when he ordered the sign results in the eponymous sign that has long since become a local joke. In the twelve years since the opening, Caney hasn’t left the diner, choosing instead to serve the locals from his wheelchair while nursing the memories and wounds he’s suffered.
Everything changes, however, when Vena Takes Horse appears, a thirtyish woman with Crow ancestry who pops up in town with a secret and a three-legged dog. Suddenly seeing things with fresh eyes, the town, Caney and the Honk and Holler all set about adapting to this woman and her unique outlook on life. It isn’t long before Caney realizes that love is within his reach and maybe hope isn’t such a bad thing.
Along with the Vietnamese immigrant Bui, Vena teaches the town about acceptance, secrets and the true value of community. The story is heart-warming and real, with a subtle set of lessons wound throughout. If you value good, solid story-telling and a real, if happy, ending, this book is well worth your time. Billie Letts is a fantastic writer and this is one of her best.
Bossypants by Tina Fey
Poignant, memorable, startlingly deep and above all, laugh-out-loud funny; Tina Fey’s brilliant memoir is a gloriously fun read.
The book winds its way through her surprisingly normal childhood in Pennsylvania, through her early days in comedy and finally up to her hilarious representation of Sarah Palin on Saturday Night Live. In between the vignettes on her career, Fey shows bits and pieces of her charming family and doesn’t hesitate to broach the topics that mean the most to her.
Women in comedy, in particular, is something Fey speaks about with humor of course, but also the kind of down-to-earth feminism that is seriously lacking in the entertainment industry. Recounting the difficult moments in her career and the delight she found in changing women’s roles in comedy is where Fey’s writing shines. It’s not just her career either, her comments and opinions on motherhood and the life of a working mom really hit home. She explains the ridiculousness of Hollywood, breastfeeding advocates and Republicans in a rich, gut-busting style that makes you think while you roll on the floor laughing.
This book showcase the comedy genius that made her a star but she retains so much humanity you can’t help but want to be her best friend. Fey is funny, sweet and smart: "I would not trade any of these features for anybody else's. I wouldn't trade the small thin-lipped mouth that makes me resemble my nephew. I wouldn't even trade the acne scar on my right cheek, because that recurring zit spent more time with me in college than any boy ever did.” Love it!
Mothers and Daughters by Rae Meadows
Meadows’ new novel presents the story of three generations of women; she interweaves their tales convincingly. As their stories alternate, we have the opportunity to see each woman as both children and adults and perceive how their lives are shared and connected.
Samantha is a new mother, caught off guard by the way motherhood has changed her, altered her relationship with her husband, and preys upon the desire she once had for her work.
We meet Iris as she prepares to die. Immobilized by cancer, she spends her time reflecting on her life and dealing with the emotions she’s before now chided. Sam, pregnant with the granddaughter Iris will never meet, stays with her until the end, and Iris has a shocking plan for her final moments.
The most compelling and well-developed story is of Iris’s mother, Violet. At the turn of the century, 11-year old Violet is neglected by her mother and joins the urchins on the streets of NYC until she decides to board an orphan train to head West in the hopes of a better life.
Nearly a year after Iris dies, Sam goes through a box of her mementos, and she is reminded of how little she knew of her mother and grandmother. While we learn the secrets these three women kept, little was revealed between them.
Meadows skillfully portrays how the histories of these women affect and shape one another; it’s intriguing to realize how the various choices these women made impacted each other’s lives.
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Quirky and deep are not adjectives that usually apply to the same book. Neither is lyrical, punk-rock, cheeky, sweet, sad and subversive. All of these and more apply to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad; a cunningly wrought set of intertwined stories of music, nostalgia, passion and the sneakiness of time...
Highly deserving of the copious amounts of praise from critics, including the just awarded Pulitzer Prize for fiction, this book hits just the right combination of literary flair and universal emotion. This line from the opening chapter hooked me instantly and then it got even better: “I’m always happy,” Sasha said, “Sometimes I just forget.”
Attachments by Rainbow Rowell
As we move from the season of hearty soups and stews, it’s also time to take a break from heavy reading. Attachments fits the menu perfectly.
Beth and Jennifer are friends and co-workers at a newspaper. When they’re not reviewing films or editing copy, they communicate with each other by highly personal and brutally honest email.
Lincoln works the night shift in the IT department. His job is to read emails that have been flagged for inappropriate content. He’s has two master’s degrees but is still nursing a broken heart from college. He lives with his mother and meets friends for Dungeons & Dragons marathons on weekends.
As Beth’s and Jennifer’s emails are constantly flagged, Lincoln comes to know all about them – Beth’s boyfriend and his commitment issues; Jennifer’s husband and their pregnancy issues; the Cute Guy in the office (Lincoln himself). He soon realizes he is falling for Beth, but he can’t exactly tell her that he’s been reading her emails all this time. We’re along for the ride as the novel alternates between the emails and the narrative.
Ultimately, this is Lincoln’s story as he starts having a social life, gets an apartment, and eventually comes clean to Beth. The characters are likeable and we wish them well. Then there’s the subtext of how we tend to email the person in the next cubicle rather than speak with them, and the fact that we give up all privacy when we login at the workplace. Attachments will put a spring in your step.
Earth (the book): A Visitor's Guide to the Human Race by Jon Stewart
A hilarious new book from Emmy winner, Oscar host and Daily Show anchor, Jon Stewart; Earth is a nonstop laugh from cover to cover. A superb follow-up to his bestselling America (The Book): A Citizen's Guide to Democracy Inaction, Jon Stewart ably shows the comedic genius and insightful commentary for which he has become so famous.
Set in the form of a narrative to extraterrestrial visitors who land here after the humanity tears itself apart, Stewart pulls no punches as he describes civilization to the aliens. All of our foibles, inconsistencies and strangeness are on display- from environmentalism to parenthood, cities to religion. Nothing is sacred and nothing is off-limits.
Full of pictures, graphs and sidebars; this book is a visual delight, upping the hilarity to new levels. This is also an excellent title to listen to on audio book, as Stewart and a whole cast (familiar to those who watch the Daily Show) are wonderfully funny and the dry, text-book like tone just adds to the laughs. In fact, it’d be a great book to both read and listen to, as the experiences are just as funny the second time around.
While this is obviously a book of satire and humor, it holds a much deeper message. It’s this dark, ominous look at the near-future; where we are headed as a species, a society, a world- that truly makes this a must-read. The premise itself is a comment on the fact that no one is around to meet the aliens- we’ve destroyed ourselves. It’s a strong message for such a funny book.
Dead Witch Walking By Kim Harrison
Kim Harrison’s first entry into her wildly popular Rachel Morgan series; Dead Witch Walking is a dark, fantastical romp through a twisted alternate world. Instead of heading to the moon, earth scientists focused on bio-engineering instead. Naturally, this led to a major screw-up and a virus got out, nearly wiping-out the human race. In the meantime, the Inlanders- (witches, vampires, werewolves and other magical sorts) came out into the open and filled in society.
Into this strange world we are introduced to smart-talking Rachel Morgan, witch and runner for the paranormal police department, the FIB. It is not an easy job, nor is Rachel all that fond of the place, in spite of being their best runner. One thing leads to another and she ditches the job, which results in a price on her head and no where to go.
Throw in a brooding roommate, hilarious secondary characters and a non-stop pace and you’ve got this powerhouse of book, ready to knock you off your feet. Tons of snappy, sparkling dialogue and action scenes speeding along the narrative, the back story and surprisingly detailed alternate history that Harrison has built almost seems to sneak in, fleshing out the story without stalling it.
In sum, this book combines the best of both worlds- solid, pitch-perfect writing and awesome thrills and chills to keep readers of all kinds interested. It is a great time, part Harry Potter, part Xena: Warrior Princess and all fun. A great start to a wonderful series.
The Fates Will Find Their Way By Hannah Pittard
Hannah Pittard’s stunning, quiet debut novel begins with the disappearance of teenager Nora Lindell. When she goes missing on Halloween evening, the news filters through her eastern town, and the young boys she left behind are forced to conjecture as to what happened to Nora that night.
Pittard deftly used the cumulative voice of Nora’s male classmates to narrate her captivating story, and this unique format makes for a bright, fresh read and a creative tool to offer the reader the different perspectives the characters have on what became of Nora. Someone saw her get into a beat-up car driven by a man whose description always changes. Someone else saw her at the bus station. She left willingly. She was abducted. She is believed to be living in Phoenix, the mother of twin girls. Someone else saw her with the children at an airport in Arizona. And wasn’t that a glimpse of her on the news, sitting in a café in Mumbai?
Even as these boys grow into men, marry, and have families, the memory of Nora’s disappearance lingers and continues to affect them as they go about the routine of their daily lives, imagining scenarios of her fate. Appearances by Nora’s younger sister spark both the plot and the imaginations of the boys.
Pittard’s language and descriptions are spot on, so clearly expressing over the course of the novel the steady grip Nora has on the memory and imaginations—on the lives—of these boys.
The Lake of Dreams By Kim Edwards
Kim Edwards, author of the acclaimed The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, presents her second novel. It features Lucy Jarrett, who returns home to upstate New York when she receives word her mother was in a minor car accident. Lucy is confronted by the changes that have taken place in her family & in their town, & her surroundings conjure memories of the tragic evening her father died. She encounters her high school boyfriend & must face those elements of the past as well.
Lucy discovers old papers locked in the cupola of her childhood home and is compelled to research their history. Her curiosity is further sparked when she notices a connection between them & the design in stained glass windows recently resurrected from a chapel on nearby land.
The journey Lucy takes to understand the history behind what she’s found reveals a long sequestered family story. The new information permits her to think about her father’s death and her past in a fresh way. It sheds light on the reasons why she left town after her father’s accident and why she has since wandered country to country, pushing herself career-wise & distancing herself in relationships.
Edwards provides a compelling and entertaining story with plenty of rich detail that prevents one from getting lost as Lucy pieces together her ancestry and as multiple surprises are exposed. Edwards finishes the puzzle in a persuasive way so that one can believe Lucy’s discoveries allow her to move forward, empowered and grounded in the future by news from the past.
The Name of the Wind By Patrick Rothfuss
With plenty of clichés filing out this thick book- the epic journey, the revenge quest, the dragon and even the oft-used formula of a story within a story- it would seem to be a blip book. A blip book? That’s my personal term for books that read once and forgotten. However, The Name of the Wind by the exceedingly talented Patrick Rothfuss is far more than a typical, mindless, fantasy novel. None of the familiar devices used seem old or worn. Every aspect, from the characters, to the world-building to the plot itself seems fresh and new. This book, the first in a projected trilogy, is full of action, adventure and the kind of characters that jump of the page.
The tale begins in that fantasy institution, an inn. We meet the seemingly ordinary innkeeper; rough, grouchy and a little too innocent. Soon, the innkeeper is spilling his guts to a chronicler, recounting the deliciously complex story of his childhood. With a hearty dose of tragedy along the way, the young man we now know as Kvothe (pronounced like ‘quothe’) starts to become something much more than ordinary.
This is a wonderful book, a great example of literary skill making something extraordinary out of a common, well-used form. For those who think they don’t like books with magic and dragons, or those who think genre fiction is repetitive and poorly written; this could be a bridge into the wide, weird and wonderful world of fantasy fiction.
1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
by Charles C. Mann
In the same vein as the hugely popular Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond, this interesting history discusses the newest finds with regard to the indigenous peoples of America before the arrival of the Europeans. With an easy reading style and an involving narrative, Charles Mann takes the reader through the development of the native cultures and what it meant for them when Columbus and the many that followed interrupted the evolution of their cultures.
This book takes a heavy look at the newest studies and excavations that seek to answer the questions that abound about what these continents were like before they were discovered by the white man. This eye-opening new evidence challenges the idea that before Europeans, Native tribes were sparse, backward and underdeveloped. There is vast evidence, for example, that the vast forests of South America were man-made. There is also some interesting research into the philosophical traditions in the Aztec empire that suggests they could rival their European counterparts. Mann is attempting to give a clearer picture of the Native Americans than many receive, even in higher education. This picture allows us to see not only what life was like when Columbus landed, but the vastness of the culture and how it was built.
These cultures were highly civilized and complex; there were large cities with organized agriculture, advanced science and intense politics. These continents were not wildlife preserves with a few people, but thriving cultures. It’s this window into the past that makes this book a must read for any fan of history.
Every Dead Thing by John Connolly
Dark, gruesome and wickedly plotted, this is a classic crime story with a deep, melancholy twist. NYPD detective Charlie Parker comes home to a horrific scene- the murdered and mutilated corpses of his wife and daughter. Leaving his life in blue behind, he devotes his time to finding the killer. Parker is flawed, as all the best literary detectives are and is consumed with guilt. The specter of his failure to protect his family hangs heavy throughout the book.
On the surface, the plot seems like a typical serial killer hunt, but there are many more threads, pulling tight, as the plots align and destiny seems at hand. Parkers introspective, wavering mental state adds to the almost supernatural atmosphere of the story. That atmosphere is brought even deeper as Parker travels to New Orleans, the queen of spooky cities, to discover what he can about the ‘Traveling Man’ the man who killed his family.
This first book by Irish journalist John Connolly is a twisted, elegant ride.. Written with a measured pace and subtle, brilliant prose; this is the mystery book for people who don’t like mysteries. It will also appeal to the wide swath of mystery fans looking for something new and just a bit different. Lucky for us, Connolly didn’t stop here; this is only the first of the Charlie Parker novels, but even as a stand-alone, the beauty of the prose and rich storytelling of Every Dead Thingwill resonate with readers of all types.
Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters
by Barack Obama
The history of thirteen amazing, talented, important Americans is told in lovely, flowing prose by the leader of the free world. Illustrated by the incomparable Loren Long, award winner for his fantastic Otis, this dreamy but powerful letter is a top seller this holiday season for many good reasons.
Beginning with the line, “Have I told you lately how wonderful you are?” and continuing on this lovely, positive note, the book tells the tales of historical heroes such as Georgia O’Keefe honored for her creativity, Jackie Robinson chosen for his bravery, Sitting Bull portrayed as a healer and Abraham Lincoln, picked to show the importance of family. There are lessons here, and stories to be told, but the text is simple and short, rather than intense or preachy. There is a light, rhythmic quality to the writing that touches on important topics and times in history without being dull. It truly captures the imagination.
This gorgeous book, filled with subtly beautiful pictures, would be a wonderful addition to any young child’s library. The graceful, almost old fashioned artwork suits the cadence of the words perfectly and retains enough complexity that it will take more than one or two reads to really appreciate the beauty Loren Long has created. Regardless of politics or the position of the author- this book was actually written before he was president- this powerful book can show children how the contributions of a single person can inspire millions, change the course of history or even just fuel the imaginations of children.
Simple Times: Crafting for Poor People By Amy Sedaris
In the words of humorist Amy Sedaris, “Being poor is a wonderful motivation to be creative.” With that statement in mind, dive into her wonderful new book, Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People. The follow-up to her best-selling, I Like You, Sedaris’ new book complements and expands on the crafts and projects of her entertaining first book and is filled with her special brand of over-the-top humor.
The photo spreads in this artful book are absolutely amazing. It isn’t surprising to learn a team of crafters and designers went into the design. While many of the crafts depicted garner more laughter than an actual desire to make them, it is that whimsical, crazy humor that makes this book so great. For example- ‘Poor Man’s toffee’ consists of boiling a can of condensed milk for a few hours and eating the result right out of the can. To beautify this dish, Sedaris recommends removing the label from the can. There is the lovely, ‘Rusty Nail Wind Chime’ and the useful, ‘Decorative Fly Strips.’ The recipes include angel food cake, a variety of crock-pot delights and even sausage. True to the title, most the recipes and crafts are made with found or super cheap materials. In these difficult economic times, this type of cheap crafting and the celebration of the “joy of poverty” is hard to beat. It would make a great gift for a crafter or fan of Sedaris, either sibling. Buy one for yourself too; after all you’ll never know when you’ll need a salt igloo or tinfoil bracelet!
Merit Badges By Kevin Fenton
Minnesota author Kevin Fenton’s intelligent book offers a unique style, superbly built characters, and a refreshing dose of humor. Fenton’s debut novel follows four friends from junior high into their forties. Each of these four strong voices narrates the book, with the narrator changing each chapter. Each chapter has a title that is the name of a Boy Scout merit badge and its requirements; this wittily sets the scene for the tender story to follow.
The friends meet as teens in the small town of Minnisapa, Minnesota as they wade their way through junior high. Their characters are so expertly developed that if you don’t recognize yourself in one of them, they’ll easily call to mind someone that they remind you of. Slow is a teenage father figure, smart and responsible; he watches over everyone else. Quint dives into self-destructive rebellion after he learns of his father’s death, turns to drugs and drinking, & inevitably meets up with the law. Chimes is the mainstay—laid back, fairly untroubled, steady; he grounds the others. Barb simultaneously vies to be one of the boys while bucking against them; she gets out of the town to escape it yet soon hustles right back to its security.
A masterful blend of the funniness and the type of gut-wrenching pain that can crop up as you make your way through life, Fenton’s novel shows that as hard as it was for the four to get through life in Minnisapa, it just may be the best place for them still.
Storm Front (The Dresden Files #1)
by Jim Butcher
The only wizard in the Chicago phone book, Harry Dresden is half hard-boiled PI and half Merlin the Magician. With a wry sense of humor and a fantastic cast of characters, the first entry into the long-running series is a blast from page one. Action, adventure and mystery, what’s not to like?
Working in his part-time role as weirdness consultant to the Chicago PD, Harry takes on a gruesome case that is obviously steeped in magic, the bad kind. Detective Karen Murphy handles the mundane side of things and Harry tracks down fairies, vampires and mob bosses; trying to get to the bottom of things before he loses more than just his paycheck. The story is a fun little mystery and the world Butcher has created is just real enough to believe, with enough of a twist to make it fun. However, the real star is Harry and his cadre of friends and associates. All the characters are well-drawn and fully fleshed out, with quirks and attitudes that jump off the page. Harry’s downtrodden pessimism has just enough hope to make him truly endearing. Detective Murphy’s women-in-a-man’s-world attitude makes her easy to cheer for and the friendship she has with Harry is a real and fallible.
This book is a winner, highly recommended to anyone who loves mysteries, magic or thrillers. The series is a bestseller for a reason. Its hard resist lines like, “…just because you're paranoid doesn't mean that there isn't an invisible demon about to eat your face.
Instructions By Neil Gaiman
Instructions is a poem, intended to tell the reader, "everything you'll need to know on your journey." Be that a journey through a fairy tale, a dream, a story or even just through life. It is a wonderfully whimsical poem, filled with adventure and excitement, told with an enchanting rhythm and style that quickly envelops the listener. It is one of the most amazing children’s poems ever written.
Illustrated by the incomparable Charles Vess, the accompanying illustrations bring the poem to life. From the wooden gate at the beginning of the journey to the colorful animals and characters met along the way; the charming castle and fantastical garden- the artwork whisks the reader into the poem and enhance the wonderfully lyrical words. The world of the poem isn’t a particular land or place, but it contains bits and pieces of familiar tales and stories, as it tries to elicit the general feeling of a fairy tale without narrowing itself to one. That feeling of an old, timeless tale pervades the poem and the beautiful pictures.
Neil Gaiman is an international treasure, regularly crossing genres with his enormous talent and brilliant style. He has managed to enchant the hearts and minds of millions through his incredible variety of works. In Instructions he once again informs and teaches while entertaining in a book that is really suitable for all ages. After all, the chief lesson of the story applies to everyone, young or old- “Trust dreams, trust your heart and trust your story.”
Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary By David Sedaris
In this hilariously strange and insightful collection of fables, David Sedaris transfers his trademark wit and charm from humans to animals. Using his talent for exposing foibles and faults in painfully humorous ways, Sedaris has managed to make some wickedly dark and honest statements about humanity using animals for characters.
The Squirrel and The Chipmunk, for example, is a bleak look at racism where a chipmunk’s family talks her into breaking up with a squirrel because he isn’t like them. The Mouse and the Snake is a grotesque parable about a mouse who keeps a snake as a pet, with a predictable ending. The Parenting Storks is a dark and disturbing view of modern parenting with a vividly drawn ending. The illustrations through out the book are wonderfully amusing and a little chilling, which fits the stories perfectly.
Ultimately, the tales in this book are stark observations of human weakness and the wide-range of shortcomings found in everyday situations and interactions. The style is definitely different than past Sedaris works, but the tone and style we know and love are still present. It almost seems as thought the translation to fictional animals, as his writing device has made the work even more distilled and honest. Humanity is not always pretty, and using animals as stand-ins, Sedaris is able to expose that darkness with startling clarity. These stories are not for the faint of heart, but there is a haunting wisdom to be found here, that is worth the cringe-worthy moments.
Stork By Wendy Delsol
Following the adventures of the spunky Katla as she adjusts to life in Norse Falls, Minnesota; Stork is a fun and quirky read from a great new local author, Wendy Delsol.
Firmly in the ‘young-adult’ category that is so popular these days, this breezy story begins with the 16-year old main character missing her action-packed life in LA. Unfortunately for her, she’s stuck in the freezing north of Minnesota, where her fashion sense gets her stares instead of admiring looks. Add in a few social hiccups, including a run in with the popular boy in town and a weird connection to the apple delivery boy and Katla really feels out of place. The strangeness takes on a whole new level when Katla learns she is a ‘Stork,’ a member of a society that's responsible for choosing to whom a baby will be born.
Combining lots of wonderful Norse mythology with humor and a bit of romance, Stork is a quick, pleasant read suitable for preteens and teens, especially girls. The writing is sharp and funny with a style that will appeal to the younger generation for sure. However, there is enough substance and creative world-building to capture the attention of adults as well. The unusual bits of magic and interesting uses of mythology are really were this book shines. Delsol has a fantastic imagination and all of the characters have plenty of realism and depth. I am already excited for the sequel. It’s really great to have such a talented author here in Des Moines.
Manhood For Amateurs: The Pleasures and Regrets of a Husband, Father, and Son By Michael Chabon
Pulitzer-prize winning novelist Michael Chabon presents his second collection of essays, a volume of autobiographical pieces showcasing his reflections on being a husband, a father, and a son.
He offers personal insight into his childhood, writing about growing up in the 1970s in suburban Maryland & comparing those unfettered times with his own children’s experience in Berkeley, California today. There are candid stories of drugs and sex, beautiful reflections on religion and writing, wry and witty observations on the expectations of gender in terms of family roles and responsibilities. Almost all of the essays are humorous, and each is wholly insightful
Chabon arranges the book into sections housing themes such as Strategies For the Folding of Time, where he discusses Legos & Captain Underpants; Styles of Manhood, in which he takes on carrying a man-purse, or murse—his version of a diaper bag; and Studies in Pink & Blue, a piece where he contemplates the differences between his sons and daughters—indeed, men and women—as they all sit drawing at the kitchen table.
He describes himself as a passionate amateur, someone devoted to exploring the imaginary world and oneself, and is so pleased to join his wife in raising their four children to be likeminded in their enthusiasm for connecting with the world and all it offers. And his writing here points always to his passion for his family.
Look also into his wife’s book, Ayelet Waldman’s Bad Mother—simultaneously out in paperback this past May—for another response to parenthood and marriage.
Mockingjay By Suzanne Collins
The final book in the bestselling Hunger Games Trilogy explodes off the first page and doesn’t let up until the subdued but ultimately satisfying epilogue. Even more so than first two books, this stunningly well-written finale is full of action and adventure, heartbreaking moral questions and the kind of twists that take your breath away.
Having once again survived the arena and emerged victorious, Katniss is taken to District 13, the shadowy league of rebels who no one knew existed. The only problem it, Peeta isn’t with her. Caught by the capitol, Katniss can barely keep herself together, let alone lead the rebels as she is being asked to. Still in turmoil about her feelings, Katniss must take up the mantel of the Mockingjay and become the symbol of the rebel movement- it is the only way the uprising stands a chance. Together with the questionable rebel leaders and some old friends, Katniss must decide what is really important and make some soul wrenching sacrifices along the way.
Katniss and the reader are taken on a nonstop emotional rollercoaster as the story thunders to its conclusion. The twists and turns develop the already strong story even more and the characters become even more complex. The ethical issues and political themes become even broader as an entire nation fights for survival. The fight of the individual against oppression takes a backseat this time to the plight of humanity under tyranny and what it really means to be free. This is a fantastic conclusion to a must-read trilogy.
Silencing Sam by Julie Kramer
Minnesota mystery writer Julie Kramer is back with the third installment of the Riley Spartz series. In “Silencing Sam,” Riley, an investigative reporter for a Minneapolis TV station, has her hands full right off the bat. A headless corpse has turned up in the city, her boss puts the new reporter on the case, and she has a run-in with a gossip columnist from the newspaper.
Things go from bad to worse for Riley when the gossip columnist is murdered. Not only were there witnesses to her run-in with him, but she has no alibi for when the murder took place. Her Homeland Security boyfriend was out of town on a hush-hush case himself and Riley cannot prove that she simply went to bed early that night. She secretly investigates both cases, but wonders where the new reporter is getting his information.
Meanwhile, on the Iowa-Minnesota border, mysterious things are happening on a wind farm. Who has the grudge – environmentalists concerned about the turbines’ effects on the bat population? Residents who don’t want the turbines on the landscape? Farmers who feel left out because they did not get turbines on their property?
A former TV news reporter herself, Kramer shines with her timely behind-the-scenes newsroom stories. When a consultant insists that all news staff establish Facebook pages, the race is on among the reporters to see who can acquire the most friends. Internal and external competition, youth vs. age, secret fact-gathering and some fun subplots make this a good read while there is still deck time.
The Quickening by Michelle Hoover
Enidina Current is weeding her new farm rows by hand when a strange woman calls to her from the fields. Enidina, heavyset and sturdy, covered in soil, faces Mary Morrow, birdlike and delicate, wrapped in a gold-threaded shawl. It is the turn of the century as Michelle Hoover’s first novel opens, and the two women are meeting as neighbors, living less than half a mile from one another on adjacent Midwest farms.
They have little in common, differing not just in physique but in temperament and beliefs. Enidina turns to her land, animals, and family, matched by her husband Frank, with his easy ways, humor, and staunch work ethic. Mary is uncomfortable in the rural setting, immerses herself in the local church with religious fanaticism, and is at odds with her husband Jack, who ardently works their farm and fumbles with his raw, violent nature. Yet the women are bound by the times, and as the Great Depression looms—their livelihoods and families further threatened by weather and other events—they struggle through these hardships and tragedies as much as they struggle with one another.
The women share the narrative, and Hoover deftly creates their separate worlds and describes with intensity how they battle between needing one another for comfort and help during trying times of loss and conflict and bucking this reliance as secrets and betrayal surface.
Ames, Iowa native Hoover delivers an emotional debut novel based on her great-grandmother’s journal; it pulls you immediately and fully into the lives of these two women.
Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
The second book in the bestselling Hunger Games Trilogy, Catching Fire is a deep, emotionally charged book with wonderfully complex character development and a fast paced plot. Full of moral quandaries and achingly stark writing, it takes this already brilliant series to a whole new level.
Crowned as the first pair of victors in the 74th Hunger Games, Peeta and Katniss have become world famous celebrities for their star-crossed love story. Katniss struggles with the reality of that love story throughout the book, challenging her feelings at every turn. Starting when they spend weeks traveling to the other districts on their victory tour, things begin change. They learn about their world and what it really means to be under the Capitol’s thumb. Meanwhile things have changed drastically back home in District 12 and not in a good way. When her best friend Gale is gravely hurt, Katniss is thrust into even more moral and emotional turmoil as she wrestles with what is real, what is right and what has to be done.
Conspiracies and romance, ethical dilemmas and heart pounding action; Catching Fire has something for everyone. This series may be marketed towards young adults, but the charming characters, political overtones and sharp writing will appeal to adults and children alike. Catching file is a worthy sequel, filling out the story and deepening the reader’s connection to the characters. It matches The Hunger Games perfectly, including the almost painfully wrenching cliff hanger at the end.
One More Theory About Happiness by Paul Guest
At the age of twelve, Paul Guest was injured in a bicycle accident while celebrating at a teacher’s home with other gifted students at the end of the school year. Misguided efforts at first aid resulted in surgeries and physical therapy that did nothing to save him from quadriplegia.
Now 27, Guest is an accomplished poet. But in this work of prose, he offers up his story of his past, present and future with a candidness that does not ask for sympathy or admiration. He simply lays it out – the dashed hopes of getting better, the intimacy of having aides tend to every need, the hurriedness of bus drivers pulling up to the stop only to tell him the chairlift is broken (which happens more than you might imagine). He tells us that “disability isn’t about the loss of control as it is about the transferal of it.”
Guest goes off to college, then graduate school, and on to becoming a published poet and college instructor. And while each stage of his life comes with its own set of challenges, he addresses them with startling insight.
His emergence as a poet and writer is a story in itself – the first poem he writes doesn’t mean what he thinks it means, but he is able to draw something out of it. He can’t just jot down a though or an idea as it comes to him; something most of us take for granted. The memoir doesn’t contain any poems, but I’ll be seeking out “My Index of Slightly Horrifying Knowledge” to read more.
The Strain by Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan
In the first literary offering from well-loved film director, Guillermo Del Toro, The Strain delivers the kind of face paced action and fantastical horror one expects from a Hollywood master. As is so often the case though, the written story goes much deeper than anything the silver screen can deliver. The Strain is an impressive feat with vivid scenes and smooth writing and a great addition to the horror genre.
The first in a proposed trilogy, the story starts with a creepy Eastern European folk tale about a feeble man who disappears, only to return strong and healthy with no explanation. That tale quickly becomes much more haunting as the action begins in the present day and a plane landing at JFK turns into a national mystery as all the people on board are dead. Dr Ephraim Goodweather of the CDC begins to investigate the incident, but soon it becomes clear the issue is not just limited to a few people on a plane. Soon Dr. Goodweather, with the help of Abraham Setrakian, a pawnshop owner and holocaust survivor, is drawn into an epic battle against a disease out nightmares.
Written very much like an action movie script, but still retaining the extra depth of a novel, this book is full of brisk, sharp writing and snappy characters who quickly earn sympathy as they fight to save the world. Attention-grabbing from the first page, The Strain is difficult to put down and makes for a great vacation read, just not a plane!
The Passage by Justin Cronin
The Passage is the big blockbuster book of the summer with good reason. It’s a huge 700+ pages and even bigger in terms of action and great storytelling. Peppered with endearing characters, a surprisingly fast pace and crisp writing, The Passage is everything you could want in a summer read.
The Passage opens with the sad story of a little girl from Iowa, told in the hauntingly stark prose Cronin does so well. From this short tale, the reader is launched into a near-future that is almost too plausible, until a secret government project goes awry. Suddenly, life on earth is forever altered by the horrific destruction wrought by a science experiment gone wrong. Those left to strive and endure in the post-apocalyptic world and their trials make up the bulk of the story. It is these well-developed characters and their epic journey that really hooked me. Their voices served to intensify the action scenes and provided a depth that lifted a good story into a classic I know I’ll re-read.
Set to be turned into a movie, this book has earned a huge following already and I urge you not to skip it. It may seem like a daunting task but it is well-worth the effort. Rich and complex, but written with a deceptively simple style; full of action but still character driven; beautiful writing with a hearty dose of science; this book really can appeal to anyone. Besides, you wouldn’t want to be the only one who hasn’t read it, would you?
Never Land: Adventures, Wonder, & One World Record in a Very Small Plane by W. Scott Olsemn
Join Olsen in the right hand seat of “Two Nine Bravo,” his tiny white & red aircraft, as he happily flies over prairies, rivers, roads, and barn tops. Beyond preflight routines, takeoffs, and landings, Olsen lyrically describes the allure of flying a small plane as an extension of himself, an intimate adventure with no boundaries. The restrictions of low altitude & slow speed as he pilots his small Cessna 152 are preferable to him, as they feed his curiosity by allowing a personal and unique view of the world below.
You’ll learn more practical aspects of flying as well as the technique & language of pilots. By the end of the book, you’ll recognize a metar reading, have a decent idea of how to fly a roll, and understand the danger of a spin. Olsen also explores the history of flying and the stories that follow, including descriptions of what the first airmail pilots encountered in the early 1900s, an interview with a veteran pilot regarding his 42-year career, and excerpts from others’ philosophical writings on flying & exploration.
Olsen even sets the mark for a world speed record in his Cessna, a graceful and silly jaunt at nearly 78 mph. And although he can poke fun at himself, it’s evident he’s passionate about his plane and in awe of the infinite reach flying provides.
After reading this narrative, the next time you notice a small airplane flying above you may offer a wave…and understand why you’ll be honored with a dip of the wings on your behalf.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
Sometimes a story will just click with me and I’ll read until my eyes burn. The next thing I know the book is finished, but I can’t get it out of my head. It will end up haunting me for years, hovering in the back of my mind; Cutting for Stone is that kind of book.
The story is a gripping, almost biblical saga of two brothers born in the fifties in an Ethiopian hospital. Their unexpected birth kills their mother and causes their father to abandon them. They are left in the care of two doctors who decide to raise them as their own. The ensuing story is almost like three books in one; a fascinating and wonderfully written medical memoir; a vividly real family drama, and a fascinating travelogue describing the culture and politics of Ethiopia. The writing and story are hypnotizing, told through the eyes of the elder brother, Marion. The story weaves through the tragedies and triumphs of the family and then follows when shifting politics send Marion to the US as a medical student. The story draws to a close in the city hospital where Marion learns about medicine, family and forgiveness.
The rich, deep prose is breathtaking; Marion’s voice is so lyrical it's almost too easy to fall into the rhythm of the story. Verghese, a graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, is a true master. Cutting for Stone has left an indelible mark on me as a reader; if you miss it, you'll regret it.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
Rose Edelstein is about to turn nine, and as she takes a bite of the birthday cake her mother has made for her, she discovers she has a strange gift – she can taste the emotions of the person who prepared the food. As Rose tastes disappointment, despair, and emptiness in the cake, she realizes that her mother is not the happy person she presents to the world.
Rose’s gift soon becomes a burden, and as she grows tired of angry cookies and guilty vegetables, she learns to rely on processed and packaged vending machine food just to keep from being overwhelmed by the emotions of adults. Meanwhile, her older brother Joseph fulfills his role in their dysfunctional family by disappearing for days at a time; her father, who has an irrational fear of hospitals, is barely present, and her mother continues her charade. Joseph’s best friend (and fellow physics geek) George becomes Rose’s touchstone throughout it all. As she copes with all the strangeness in her life, Rose also learns to accept her family for who they are.
Aimee Bender has created a thoroughly original and entertaining work of magical realism. While I thought the story lingered on Joseph’s issues more than I wanted it to, I found myself realizing I was reading a page-turner. Bender ties it all up very nicely at the end, and leaves you wondering: what if you had Rose’s “gift?” Or even: what would the food you prepare reveal about you?
How High the Moon by Sandra Kring
Isabella “Teaspoon” Marlene is a 10 year old spitfire with far too much talent and energy for sleepy Mill Town, Wisconsin. After her mother takes off for Hollywood, leaving her in the care of her estranged boyfriend, Teddy, Teaspoon settles into life in 1950’s suburban America, but of course never quite fits in. Her nonstop observations and near-constant singing both annoy and astonish the small town residents. She is brutally honest, often embarrassingly funny and witty in the way only a child can be. Sandra Kring manages to bring Teaspoon’s voice out in every page of the book, so much so it nearly drowns out the secondary characters, all with their own stories that cross into Teaspoons, sometimes hilariously, sometimes painfully, but always with an important lesson for our wild Teaspoon.
These secondary characters are what really make the story: the shy boy next door, the small town beauty queen with the world on her shoulders, the bratty neighbor kids and of course the loving but bumbling Teddy, have their own adventures, all seen through the unflinching eyes of Teaspoon. They all learn from each other, building their lives and learning what family really means. The writing is lovely, the language caught somewhere between child and adult, much like Teaspoon herself, without falling into many of the pitfalls that can occur when adults write as children. The story isn’t flashy or action-packed, but sweet and charming and filled with characters that jump off the page. It’s a great pick for a lazy summer afternoon.
How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly by Connie May Fowler
In her newest work of fiction, Fowler takes you through one day with Florida novelist Clarissa Burden. On the morning of the summer solstice in 2006, the longest, hottest day of the year, Clarissa is standing at her kitchen window, watching her husband cavort in her garden with the naked women he’s hired as models for his photography…and who knows what else. Knowing her marriage is loveless & failing—& facing a bout of writer’s block—she is also afflicted with painful childhood memories of her abusive mother.
As Clarissa leaves the house & sets out for the dump in a dilapidated truck piled high with trash, she encounters a series of characters & scenarios that in turn lead her toward momentous change.
Although the narrative does meander & you may find yourself swirling in Clarissa’s inner monologue & wishing she’d jump to action a bit more quickly, these things do mirror the sweltering, swampy day that Fowler so adeptly describes. Her unique characters are memorable, from the spirits Clarissa encounters while stopping by a cemetery, to Cracker Bandit, a one-eyed motorcyclist, to Money Dog, member of the dwarf circus premiering in town. The poignant inclusion of a slightly intervening ghost family, who owned Clarissa’s home nearly two centuries before, is especially compelling.
Spurred by all these—and an evening spent with a sexy, encouraging fellow writer—Clarissa finds the courage to confront her husband, setting into motion an even wilder string of events & just may change her life forever.
The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
District Twelve, the mining district, is dangerous and life is hard. 16 year-old Katniss is the sole provider for her unstable Mother and young sister. She manages with the help of her best friend Gale, hunting illegally outside the fence surrounding their district. Then disaster strikes. Katniss is forced to go to the Hunger Games; along with a District Twelve boy she barely knows named Peeta. They will soon contend with twenty-two other children in the Games, a horrific battle to the death, played as entertainment for wealthy city-dwellers and a reminder to the peasants in the districts; there is no escape, no chance for rebellion against the government.
The story is heart-wrenching, set in a dystopic remnant of North America. The culture seems alien at first, but becomes more hauntingly familiar as the story continues. Katniss and Peeta travel to the city and learn far more than they ever wanted to know about the truth of their world. They must also prepare to fight to the death in the Games. They must be strong, fast, smart and resourceful to pull it off. Winning means fame and fortune, but also means murdering the other contestants and eventually each other.
The book is action packed and impossible to put it down. The writing is sparse and lovely, the characters flawed and real. The cliffhanger ending will leave you breathless for the sequel. The moral dilemmas faced by Katniss are horrific but endlessly fascinating. Ask yourself: how would you survive The Hunger Games?
The Pioneer Woman Cooks by Ree Drummond
The Pioneer Woman Cooks is exactly what one would expect from Ree Drummond’s first foray into print; it’s a combination cookbook and photo essay of her life on a working cattle ranch, just like her blog. ThePioneerWoman.com receives 10,000 hits a day from people looking for her amazing recipes, spectacular pictures and the sweet stories of her life on the ranch. The recipes are stunning; each step is captured with photos, making even complex processes seem simple. None of the recipes are too difficult however; this is country food, meant to be served on paper plates and in huge portions.
The book is divided into sections (like Supper and Dinner) and most of the recipes have a figure of a cowgirl or cowboy, indicating which dishes are perfect for starving ranchers (PW Potato Skins) and which are more suited to a cocktail party (Potato-Leek Pizza). Interspersed with all this deliciousness (don’t miss the Macaroni and Cheese) are funny stories and hundreds of pictures. The book is really a work of art. Be sure to read her fairytale-like switch from city girl to rancher’s wife. The story is so perfect for Hollywood it is being developed into a movie starring Reese Witherspoon.
This book is easy to recommend for the yummy food and for the heartfelt stories and gorgeous pictures of the ranch that bring this book to life. Get two copies, one for the kitchen and one for the coffee table. But whatever you do, don’t skip the last page, trust me.
Keeping Watch: 30 Sheep, 24 Rabbits, 2 Llamas, 1 Alpaca, & a Shepherdess with a Day Job by Kathy Sletto
Moving to an 80-acre farm & inheriting a spinning wheel, along with her love for all animals—with a particular weakness for those with quirks & flaws—finds Kathy Sletto with an ever-expanding & diverse flock of wool-producing livestock.
As she & her husband face the demands of their day jobs, seasonal chores, & family, they realize—much to Kathy’s excitement—that she needs to quit her full time job in order to become their shepherdess. Their agreement is that their farm need turn a decent profit by the end of the year in order for them to keep the animals…& her beloved newfound shepherdess position.
Her book takes you through the seasons of a year on their farm & introduces many of the animals—as well as neighbors, relatives, & colleagues—through delightful & humorous anecdotes that reveal their distinct personalities. Among others, you’ll fall in love with Lamp Chop, the lamb with an identity crisis who prefers humans & dogs to sheep; Tony, the humming alpaca with a passion for newborn lambs; & Steve, the wayward rabbit who is ever-escaping from his cage, only to be found mimicking road kill alongside the drive.
From drought to breeding issues, challenges arise, & Kathy must begin to work part-time to veer the farm from financial loss. As the year closes & winter settles in, its clear that she values their small farm lifestyle & all it entails, & you’ll be crossing your fingers that they’re in business another year.
So Much For That by Lionel Shriver
Shep Knacker had it all figured out. If you retire to a third world tropical country, your money will last longer and you can go there earlier. He sold his business and his home, only to find himself working for his old company and still renting a home ten years later. Finally he’s ready to go – with or without his wife and son.
But Glynis comes home one day with devasting news. A silversmith by trade, she was exposed to asbestos in art school and has been diagnosed with mesothelioma. And although she had no idea Shep was planning his getaway, it’s now clear that they need to stay where they are for the health insurance.
What follows is a tale of health insurance hell as Shep watches his retirement fund applied to deductables, co-payments, out-of-pocket and out-of-network expenses for Glynis’ care. The medical drama is compounded by Shep’s best friend Jackson, who has a daughter who suffers from a rare genetic disease, and Shep’s father who requires long-term care.
Even in light of recent health care reform, Lionel Shriver has crafted an all-too-real narrative that skewers the system and the corporations that run it. The characters are flawed and not totally sympathetic and for the most part have caused their own problems - particularly Jackson, who can tend to get annoying with his diatribes. And while Glynis is initially portrayed as an angry and unhappy woman who failed to live up to her potential, her eventual submission to her disease as her friends abandon her is heartbreaking. A satisfying – if predictable – ending will give you a lot to think about.
The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni
When I find my favorite book of the year by March it has to be pretty special, and Des Moines native Peter Bognanni doesn’t disappoint in his first novel The House of Tomorrow.
We meet 16-year-old Sebastian Pendergast with suction cups strapped to his hands and knees as he is attempting to scrub the panels of the geodesic dome he lives in with his Nana, a disciple of R. Buckminster Fuller. She is homeschools Sebastian in Fuller’s futuristic principles, and on weekends the dome is available for tours. It is during one of these tours that Nana suffers a stroke, and it falls upon the “tourists” – local harried mom Janice Whitcomb and her son Jared – to get Nana to the hospital and see that Sebastian is cared for.
The Whitcomb family has their own set of problems: Janice’s husband has left her, Jared recently had a heart transplant, and both he and his sister Meredith act out in ways to conceal their insecurities. As Sebastian tries to fit in with the family, he discovers the wonders of grilled cheese sandwiches, friendship, and first love.
Central to the plot is the punk rock band that Sebastian and Jared form. Your older and wiser self will chuckle at the delusions these two have about their band, and their debut performance at a church talent show will have you laughing out loud.
Rich, complex and refreshing all at once, The House of Tomorrow is a must-read. Bognanni’s characters and dialogue simply sparkle, and the careful reader will find all sorts of hidden gems in its pages.
Irreplaceable by Stephen Lovely
How many people does it take to replace a heart? Iowa City author Stephen Lovely delves into the complexities of organ transplants and those affected by them in his debut novel Irreplaceable, now in paperback.
We meet Isabel only briefly, riding her bicycle on a country road, racing home to beat a storm, when she is struck and killed by a truck driven by Jasper. Isabel’s husband Alex, dealing with his grief over the loss of his wife, cannot reconcile with her wish to be an organ donor. As Alex and Isabel’s mother, Bernice bond over their shared loss, they also disagree about letting the recipient of Isabel’s heart, Janet, into their lives. They also have to redefine their relationship when Alex allows himself to move on and let another woman become part of his life.
Lovely capably juggles the intersecting stories of each character, and its not always pretty. The novel was inspired by his time spent working in a Pediatric Intensive Care Unit and also give an insider’s view of what it is like to be waiting for an organ donor. Irreplaceable is thought-provoking and makes a good selection for book clubs.
The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter
Matt Prior quit his job as a business journalist to start a website combining his two passions: investment advice and poetry. Unfortunately, poetfolio.com never quite took off and he was forced to return to his old job, only to be laid off four months later due to his lack (and loss) of seniority. He has a balloon payment due on his mortgage, two kids in private school, and a wife who spends her evenings reconnecting with her high school sweetheart on Facebook.
When a late-night run to a convenience store for milk ($9 a gallon!) gets him involved with some questionable characters and illegal activities, Matt thinks he has found the solution to his woes. He plans to start selling drugs to his cohorts who miss their 1970’s college years, and as it turns out the market is good. He’ll quit once he digs his way out of debt.
A series of twists and turns keep this fast-paced book from becoming a “Weeds” or “Breaking Bad,” and Walter’s humorous prose is both poignant and biting. The contemporary issues of the economy, the newspaper business, and social media make this a story that the most law-abiding readers can relate to.
Ultimately, this is a story about choices, as Matt reflects on all the bad choices he has made in his life while trying to teach his young sons to make good ones. As a bonus, readers are treated to Matt’s good (and bad) poetry.
The Cry of the Sloth by Sam Savage
The dark side of the writing life is explored in the character of Andrew Whittaker through his correspondence over the course of a 4-month period. The literary magazine that he edits is third-rate at best, his wife has divorced him, his mother is dying and he is missing pieces of his childhood, the tenants who occupy his properties would like improved living conditions – the list goes on. Yet he still thinks of himself as above it all, even as we watch his descent.
That’s not to say that Savage doesn’t inject plenty of humor into his first novel after Firmin. Whittaker’s accounts of his run-ins with the local literati and his made-up letters (Complete with anagram/pseudonyms) to the editor are prize-worthy; Savage’s way with language is refreshing in an old-school sort of way. You might even want to keep a dictionary handy as you read this.
Laura Rider's Masterpiece by Jane Hamilton
If you saw Jane Hamilton when she was in town last spring, you heard her talk about her writing classes being filled with: 1) students who want to write, and 2) students who want to get published. Laura Rider is one of the latter – in fact she doesn’t even like to read, because books are "too wordy." She’s determined to get published, however, and devises an elaborate scheme involving her husband, a public radio talk show host, and bogus email to fashion her plot. In the end, Laura gets a lot more than she bargained for.
In a departure from her previous dark, issue-laden works, Hamilton has created a farce that will have you laughing out loud. Laura’s musings (If Holden Caulfield had had access to Prozac, would there still be a Catcher in the Rye?) reveal the mind of quirky yet manipulative woman who goes after what she wants at all costs. It’s a good quick read for a dreary day.
Labor Day by Joyce Maynard
Thirteen-year-old Henry lives with his mother who rarely ventures out of the house. His father has a new wife and baby, and his step-brother is everything Henry’s not – handsome, athletic, and popular. On Labor Day weekend, when he and his mother are shopping for new pants for school (his fault for growing so much), a stranger approaches and asks for help.
They take Frank home, later to find out he’s an escaped convict. But as they absorb him into their lives, he seems to offer a kind of normalcy that is new to Henry and brings life back to his mother. When the inevitable happens, all of the characters are better for it.
Maynard capably keeps the story believable through all the ups and downs, and the voice of Henry is both pure and wise. Ultimately, Labor Day is a story about love, trust, betrayal and forgiveness.
That Old Cape Magic by Richard Russo
What do you do when your life goes exactly according to plan? If you’re Jack Griffin, the answer is: Change the plan.
The son of two academic snobs, Griffin thinks he’s pretty content with his job, his dream home, his wife and daughter. His father has recently died and it falls to him to scatter the ashes, which he plans to do while on a trip back to Cape Cod to attend a wedding. This is also the place where he spent his childhood summers, and when a conversation with his wife alters everything he ever believed, he is forced to examine his past. But how much of the past is really just your own version of it? How reliable is memory? And why does it have so much power?
Russo’s latest delivers a good story with his characteristic down-to-earth prose, wry humor, a few anvils and a hopeful ending.
Missing Mark by Julie Kramer
Looking for a fun summer read?
Minneapolis TV news reporter Riley Spartz is intrigued by a classified ad: “For Sale - Wedding Dress, Never Worn.” Turns out the groom has disappeared. She’d like to cover the story on the news, but it’s sweeps month and there are more pressing issues. Namely, the theft of Minnesota’s largest bass from a local aquarium. Riley persists in her investigation, however, and after dealing with a drug-sniffing dog, the bride, her mother, and their rare affliction, an animal rights group and a neighbor who holds 24-hour garage sales, she finally gets her answers.
Kramer has created a fun, funny, and smart character in Riley, whom we first met in Stalking Susan. Much of the inspiration and background comes from Kramer’s own experience as a news producer, and some of the more interesting parts take place behind-the-scenes in the newsroom. What makes a story newsworthy? Why do some missing persons cases get more coverage than others? What are the ethics and legalities involved? Missing Mark covers them all.
The Food of a Younger Land by Mark Kurlansky
What did people eat before the proliferation of fast food restaurants and the catch-of-the-day wasn’t flown in from the coasts? They ate what was seasonally and locally available, and this book describes regional cuisine in all its mouth-watering glory. Based on research from the Federal Writers’ Project (created in the 1930’s as part of the WPA), the book is as much a travelogue and cookbook as a commentary on society and culture. Regional rivalries are apparent: Manhattan or New England clam chowder? What state claims to have invented Kentucky’s famed mint julep? And should the mint be crushed or not?
The WPA writers had free reign over what they could include in the project, from New York City diner slang to a poem entitled “Nebraskans Eat the Weiners.” Kurlansky does a fine job of putting it all together like a wonderful museum collection. Recipes are included, though some are in the “grandma’s cooking” category of “mix all ingredients and bake.”