Book group tips, reading lists, & lively talk of literary news from the experts at Booklist Online
Friday, November 29, 2013 11:28 am
Little Bird of Heaven
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr
This year’s overall arc to our crime book discussion at my library is “duck and cover.” My idea was that we would read novels wherein the characters would be better served to avoid plunging into a crime investigation rather than what occurs in a typical mystery where we expect the protagonist to jump in feet first.
Perhaps the poster children for this idea are the two narrators of Joyce Carol Oates’ Little Bird of Heaven. The book’s structure is divided into two narrative voices. The first is Krista Diehl. Krista is eleven at the time of the death of local waitress and bluegrass lead singer Zoe Kruller. The murder occurs in a small town in New York state and might normally be just of local interest to a young lady like Krista. What is the deal changer here is the slow realization that her father Eddy has been sleeping with Zoe and is one of two suspects for her murder. Krista’s confession includes her obsessive loyalty to her father and the consequential behavior that makes her a great character to analyze in the book discussion.
The same can be said of the second narrator, Aaron Kruller. Aaron is Zoe’s son and is the person who discovered her murdered body. He has issues and that makes him equally interesting to dissect as Krista. Aaron also has a estranged father who might be as big a suspect as Eddy Diehl. Eventually Aaron and Krista’s paths cross and the resolution of the novel does have to deal with how the two individuals handle a crime in their lives.
This novel is a bit more challenging to read then your typical mystery or average crime novel. It is dense, wordy and moody. There is a repetition to the text which I equate to two things. The book incorporates a bluegrass song call Little Bird of Heaven by Martha Scanlan so some of the repetition is almost like hearing the chorus of a song multiple times over a performance of it. The other obvious truth is that repeating a story chances it especially if there is any dissembling going on.
This novel was not our groups favorite read but it was one of those discussion that is self-guided and ran on forever. I would challenge any book discussion group to tackle this complex novel of character if you want to have a great book discussion.
Thursday, November 28, 2013 5:07 am
All for the Love of Nick
Posted by: MaryKate Perry
If Nick Hornby would just answer my calls, then I could propose. We both have spouses, but perhaps some accommodation can be made. This man has written three of my favorite novels (High Fidelity, About and Boy and Juliet, Naked) and the screenplay to An Education. This embarrassment of riches would all be enough for me, BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE. Each month for the last several years, he has written a column for the San Francisco-based magazine The Believer, a McSweeney’s publication.* “Stuff I’ve Been Reading,” is collected in a series of consistently excellent volumes: The Polysyllabic Spree, Housekeeping Versus the Dirt, Shakespeare Wrote for Money and More Baths Less Talking.
I am currently reading More Baths Less Talking, and I could rhapsodize without ceasing, but I don’t know if you want to read a post about a book about books because you would probably rather be reading actual books. Or perhaps not. You see, I find that after reading Hornby’s columns, I almost never read the books he writes about. I don’t feel that I have to. I have benefitted from his thoughtful, intelligent reflections. I have wept with him over the pathos and chuckled at the cleverness and well, why spoil it? My husband – that pesky impediment to my nuptials with Hornby - told me this is a common phenomenon: a person reads a book review, feels they can discourse knowingly about the book reviewed, offers witty and insightful references to it amongst friends and strangers and eventually adds the title to their personal list of books read.
Each of Hornby’s columns begins with a list of Books Bought and Books Read. These categories may overlap partially, or not at all. He reads books I probably never will (and not just because I don’t have to, now that he has read them for me). Titles such as: Austerity Britain 1945-51, The Conversations; Walter Murch and the art of editing film – books like these are far afield for me. Hornby also reviews a great deal of fiction, classic and contemporary.
Just a word about Hornby’s own fiction: at times he may be a bit raw for me, though not for most people. But he is better than almost everyone (yes, you heard me) at creating flawed/lovable characters. A lot of writers create flawed, despicable characters and wonderful, lovable characters and there’s a place for all that. But Hornby surprises me, always, with who he is able to make me fond of. That shallow nothing of a main character, Will, in About a Boy? I love him. That womanizing, aging rock star, Tucker, in Juliet, Naked? I love him, too. Usually, these are the kinds of guys I make a habit of not loving. And all his novels and columns make me laugh, hard. I think Hornby has a gift for making us happy with intelligent humor. I know that “naked-guy-leaping-from-trunk” scene in The Hangover was funny, but laughing at Nick Hornby will make you happy and smart.
Do not miss this: Ten Years in the Tub: Collected Columns, 2003-2013, Nick Hornby
*The headquarters of McSweeney’s are in the Mission district, and have been, in years passed, housed behind “San Francisco’s only independent pirate supply store.” This shop has everything you need for swash-buckling and shivering your timbers – except cutlasses, because children’s writing groups meet there. I found myself there once, and as I was browsing the hand-replacement hooks and contemplating a perfume called “Buxom,” the sales clerk asked me if I wanted to thumb wrestle. Besides doing a brisk business in eye patches, McSweeney’s is responsible for ScholarMatch, whose mission is to connect under-resourced students with donors.
Friday, November 22, 2013 9:53 am
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr
The fall Greendale Reads title we selected was Shanghai Girls by Lisa See. Years ago every book club seemed to be reading See’s earlier novel, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan (2005). Shanghai Girls, published in 2009, was popular but did not garner the attention that Snow Flower did. I am not sure why, as the novel proved to be an excellent book discussion title for our community.
The Shanghai Girls are Pearl and May Chin, two daughters of a successful businessman living the high life in Shanghai in the 1930s. Then a series of incidents impact the girls’ lives: their father’s debts bankrupt the family, marriages to Chinese-Americans are arranged, and the Japanese invade the area.
Readers should be aware that See is not shy about showing the brutal impact life will have on these two “beautiful girls.” While best friends, they each have strengths and weaknesses which are clearly exacerbated by the struggles their plight forces on them. If this is a character study of Pearl and May, the central question becomes what kind of character they will have in order to survive.
Beautifully written, rich in historical detail and sprawling in its coverage of the two girls, this novel kept our group talking past the deadline to end. I would highly recommend it for any book discussion group.
Friday, November 15, 2013 5:47 am
The Year of Flunking Sainthood
Posted by: MaryKate Perry
In the past year I have had the pleasure of encountering an excellent read-alike pair. If you are a librarian, or if you read like one, then you know the shiver of delight this engenders. The Year of Living Biblically is Esquire editor-at-large A.J. Jacobs’ account of twelve months spent in earnest and hilarious attempts to follow the Bible, literally. Prior to beginning his quest he spends a month reading the Bible and recording every rule he finds (over 600!) then sets out to keep them. As his year progresses and changes occur in his family life and facial hair, Jacobs chronicles his moral quandaries and epiphanies.
A secular Jew and agnostic, Jacobs is fascinated by the Bible, Hebrew and Christian Scriptures alike. Jacobs’ book projects are always full immersion affairs (see The Know-it-All and Drop Dead Healthy) and this time he employs his signature method in an attempt to fill the “God-shaped hole” in his heart. He has the good fortune to be acquainted with several learned members of the clergy, from whom he seeks guidance and insight. As he allows his beard to burgeon, he observes the Sabbath, ties tassles to the corners of his clothing (apparently that’s in the Bible), wears no garments that mingle wool and linen, attempts to stone adulterers (hey, you can’t pick and choose the rules) and wends his way through a fascinating cast of characters: Amish, Jehovah’s Witness, Hasidic Jew – you name it. Jacobs is thorough, and thoroughly entertaining. He traverses this terrain of religiously devout people without seeming condescending or flip, although his tongue spends some time in his cheek.
Jana Riess’ considerably shorter work, Flunking Sainthood, also chronicles a year of spiritual practice and is funny, personal and instructive as well. Riess spends her year reading great Spiritual works and attempting a new practice each month. She makes mashed potato-laden attempts at going meatless, tries Benedictine hospitality, hourly prayer, fasting, keeping the Sabbath and practicing gratitude (and finds true thankfulness to be ”slippery as trout”).
I think these books absorb and engage us in the way that travel memoirs do (if they are wildly entertaining and informative in the style of say, Bill Bryson). There are places we will never go and tasks we will never undertake, but it is inspiring and entertaining to read others’ accounts of their journeys. I probably became enamored of this type of non-fiction way back with Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. And if you are judging that book by the unwatchable movie version then don’t be a snob; go read it. Perhaps the common thread here is humor. Almost anyone could recount a year in their life and be dirge-like in the process, but these authors know which moments to linger over, when to laugh at themselves so we laugh with them and how to affectingly crystalize their moments of hard-won insight.
At times, Jacobs feels the futility of being a partially-informed follower: why would God ask us to perform all this nonsense? At other times, clad eccentrically in all-white garments as instructed by the book of Ecclesiastes, he feels more spiritual; “the outer affects the inner.” Rather than waiting for his belief to change his behavior, he finds that his behavior can affect his beliefs. How do we cross that membrane between the action and the spirit to ensure that rituals are not wrote and meaningless? The realization that Reiss comes to in the epilogue of her book took me by surprise and moved me to tears. Suffice it to say that in the midst of her ”failed” attempts to find God’s way, God quietly finds her. And as for the the hirsute Jacobs, he emerges from his Biblical odyssey a “reverent agnostic.” He may not be religious, but not for lack of trying.
Tuesday, November 5, 2013 10:09 am
The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr
For October, our monthly crime fiction book discussion group read The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey by Walter Mosley. While I still feel satisfied to list this novel as a work of crime fiction, it is so much more.
Ptolemy Grey is a 91-year-old man living in Los Angeles in squalor, suffering the early effects of Alzheimer’s disease. This portion of the book is so difficult to read because of the way that Ptolemy exists. His conditions are deplorable and a reader could easily decide to not like the character because of it but Mosley prevents that by instantly given Ptolemy a magical appeal.
We discover that he survives through the kindness of his great grandnephew Reggie who helps him shop and do his banking. Perhaps a more important mentor in his life is Ptolemy’s long dead mentor, Coydog McCann. The parables that Ptolemy remembers receiving at the feet of Coy are some of the few memories he can cling to and prove to be still relevant today.
When Reggie stops coming and things deteriorate even further, Ptolemy is rudely given the news that Reggie has been killed in a drive-by. Totally lost, he is pull from the depths of despair by a seventeen-year-old woman named Robyn Small who takes him on as a cause. What helps make the book so discussable are the choices Robyn and Ptolemy make about how he will live out the last few moments of his life, they strike a significant deal that alters everything but leads them to the truth.
Lessons about truth, grief, guilt and justice abound in this work. It is a fertile field for a book discussion leader and I recommend this book to any book discussion group.
Wednesday, October 30, 2013 1:58 pm
Posted by: Neil Hollands
One of the ways to identify a true book lover is to find the person who secretly enjoys building up a much longer “to-read” list than time will possibly allow one to read. I know I’m talking to a fellow bibliophile when someone confesses loving the hunt for good books almost as much as the books themselves.
For that inveterate title hunter, I highly recommend Read This!: Handpicked Favorites from America’s Indie Bookstores. Editor Hans Weyandt of Micawber’s Books in St. Paul Minnesota collected lists of fifty favorite books from the buyers and booksellers at other independent bookstores across the country. These lists were originally published in blogs online, but in book form you get concentrated power, and besides, proceeds go to the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression.
Some of the titles in each list go without comment (more’s the pity) but in many cases the listmaker explains why the choice was made. Other tidbits about the bookselling life add variety to the volume. It’s a little book, but it could easily keep your book club in great selections for years to come.
Monday, October 28, 2013 8:38 am
Tea & Conversation: Talking about Jane Austen
Posted by: Kaite Stover
There are certain books that will never lose interest for book groups and Jane Austen’s works easily fall into that category.
The beloved and layered characters, the intricate plots revolving around the social conventions of the times, the attention to detail regarding the differences in the classes, the witty dialogue which can deftly hide what a character truly means to say contribute to novels rich in discussable content and undiscovered surprises upon almost every reading and re-reading.
Jane Austen scholar, John Mullan, has a new work, What Matters in Jane Austen? which presents some new ways to look at familiar characters and plot devices in Austen that should refresh any book group discussion of the author.
All of the chapter headings are posed as questions and a book group facilitator could select two or three and have enough to fill a lively hour or two. One of the most intriguing chapters, “Why Is the Weather Important?” will have Jane-ites mulling over the ways the weather impacts the plot and how Austen uses it to let the reader know that time is marching on. Weather can also tell a reader about a character’s personality, particularly if a character is affected by the weather.
One of the most delightful chapters asks “Which Important Characters Never Speak in the Novels?” It’s easy for readers to gloss over characters who are not contributing to the conversation in a given scene, however, as Mullan points out, readers will learn a great deal if they note when characters are not talking and what they likely are not saying. And occasionally, who is doing the talking for them.
Facilitators looking for a new resources to bolster discussions about Jane Austen should not miss this book. Mullan’s conversational style and strong observations about Austen’s canon make a this a book that any Jane Austen fan would love to read for pleasure and one that book group leaders can turn to in a pinch for fresh conversation starters.
Saturday, October 26, 2013 1:50 pm
Meeting of Mystery, Pt. 2
Posted by: Neil Hollands
Let me finish my report on some of the great books discussed in the Williamsburg Regional Library staff book group’s mystery meeting. The first half of the books were described here.
Connie from Outreach Services began with the debut by Luke McCallin, The Man from Berlin. It’s a murder mystery set during WWII, with a detective who is a military intelligence officer trying to uphold justice during a time when violence and death are everyday occurrences and political and personal vendettas run rampant. Perhaps what makes McCallin’s book unusual, though, is that the detective here is a German officer, Captain Gregor Reinhardt. He’s in occupied Yugoslavia investigating the death of a German officer and a beautiful filmmaker. With a conflicted hero and a puzzle box of competing motives and forces, this is a promising start to a new writer’s career.
Connie’s other choice was a paranormal mystery, the first book by James P. Kimmel. The Trial of Fallen Angels features Brek Cuttler, a successful wife, mother, and lawyer who suddenly finds herself in the afterlife and asked to present the cases of souls awaiting their final judgment. In the process of doing so, she also begins to find clues to what happened to her on the train platform where her own fate changed so drastically. The book is somewhat reminiscent of titles like The Lovely Bones that find a way to make sad events less so by following the victims into life after death.
Ann Marie from Outreach also had two titles. The first was The Crossing Places, the first of the Ruth Galloway mysteries by Elly Griffiths. Ann Marie enjoyed the down-to-earth protagonist, a sarcastic but introverted middle-aged woman of spreading girth who makes her living as a professor and forensic archaeologist. She’s brought into a plot concerning a small body in the Norfolk marshes that may be very old or rather new and some letters about ritual sacrifice. Four more novels have followed in this strong English series to date.
Ann Marie’s other choice, also highly recommended, was Now You See Me, S. J. Bolton’s first Lacey Flint mystery. Bolton writes in a contemporary gothic style and her Flint is a young woman Detective Inspector who works in London and has many personal issues, past and present (these are introduced over the course of the book, so I won’t give them away up front). She discovers the first body from a Jack the Ripper-copycat serial killer and ultimately becomes a target herself. Dead Scared and Lost have followed in the series.
Susan from Youth Services decided to explore the long running and popular Kinsey Millhone series, starting at the beginning with A is for Alibi, which she enjoyed. Sue Grafton’s California PI was one of the forerunners for contemporary female detectives and 22 books later, (but not nearly that many life years for the detective, who has stayed in the 1980s), she’s still going strong, with W is for Wasted, and the most recent publication, a story collection called Kinsey and Me that features the author’s alter ego, Kit Blue as an important character. The end of the alphabet is nearing!
Gail, a recent retiree from Adult Services, chose Persona Non Grata, the third in Ruth Downie’s series about Roman army doctor Gaius Petreius Ruso. This time he’s called from his post in Brittania with his friend, companion, and slave Tilla to his home of Gaul. Gaius wants to introduce the British Tilla to the family (which doesn’t go well) but his pulled into a plot that involves the death of his brother-in-law, the near bankruptcy of his family, the new Christian sect, and gladiators. Downie writes with humor, creates strong characters, makes good use of her historical backdrop. In a series that began with Medicus and so far stretches to five books with Semper Fidelis.
I hope you found as many new authors and series to check out in this collection of mysteries as I did. Now I’m on to our next topic, novels about family dysfunction in time for the holiday season!
Wednesday, October 23, 2013 5:49 am
It’s Good to be Odd
Posted by: MaryKate Perry
It is my fate to be caught up, belatedly but inevitably, by my husband’s obsessions – typically anywhere from seven to ten years after he succumbs. This happened with J.K Rowling, Lost, Terry Pratchett…eventually it’s a life of football, martinis and The Walking Dead for me – but not yet! In the meantime, I have again been ensnared by one of my husband’s loves: Neil Gaiman.
Gaiman, like Terry Pratchett (who I posted on previously, and with whom Gaiman co-authored Good Omens), writes for children of all ages. My husband is mad for American Gods, my ten-year-old prefers Coraline and my seven-year-old adores Odd and the Frost Giants. Odd is a funny, sweet and strange story that asks some hard questions like, ”Why do we want what we want?” Odd, the young boy who takes a journey with three talking animals, who are Norse deities, is a quirky and likeable lad, a bit “off,” but touchingly brave and wise.
Created by Mike Andereck for Burning Through Pages
This is a pleasant and thought-provoking book worth reading to a child. It could also be a light read for an adult group that enjoys children’s fiction and fantasy. My Gaimanite friend Daniel, who gave me the book, says that all fairy tales have a creepy or unsettling element in them, an “unease.” Gaiman, he says, manages to convey that mood in a way that isn’t frightening or graphic, but eerie nonetheless. He manages to get “under your skin without being overly creepy.”
After I talked to Daniel on the phone, he offered to send me another book to read. May we all have friends with big bookcases and bigger hearts.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013 8:40 am
Meeting of Mystery, Pt. 1
Posted by: Neil Hollands
I treasure the meetings of the staff book group at Williamsburg Regional Library. My colleagues are always a font of interesting choices, books that I wouldn’t necessarily gravitate to myself. When our subject matter is broad, as it was when we met this month to discuss our mysteries, I know the meeting is going to add some new titles to my to-read list. Here’s a selection of the books that came to the table this month:
Sheila from Technical Services got us started with Lis Wiehl’s Waking Hours. It’s a blend of mystery and urban fantasy. A forensic psychiatrist investigates the murder of a Westchester County teen at a party that the other teens in attendance can’t remember. She ends up teaming with a former NFL linebacker whose romantic advances she avoided back in high school in a story that involves demonic possessions, mystery, and a touch of romance. It’s the kind of book that will leave a group of librarians giggling a little bit at the plot description…. and then racing to the catalog to put it on reserve after the meeting.
We all miss Lisa after her recent retirement, but she was back for book group with a junior fiction selection, Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life. It’s the story of Jeremy and his friend Lizzy, two kids who seldom leave their NY apartment building or city neighborhood, at least until his 13th birthday brings a present from his father, who died several years ago. It’s a puzzle box that leads Jeremy and Lizzy on a voyage of discovery. A fan of Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me, or someone looking for something in John Green’s style but oriented to slightly younger readers, might give this book, by Wendy Maas, a closer look.
Laura, newly promoted to head our Automated Services division, is most definitely not a fan of cozy mysteries. So she got a kick out of G. M. Malliet’s Death of a Cozy Writer. Perhaps best known for her Max Tudor series, Malliet’s first book concerns an obnoxious English writer killed in a locked room in his English manor house, probably by a member of his own dysfunctional family. What makes this notable is the glee with which Malliet dissects her own genre.
On a much different note, Laura also praised Matt Rees’s first book in the Omar Yussef series, The Collaborator of Bethlehem. Yussef is a history teacher in Bethlehem, who tries to quietly teach his students the wisdom of peace between Palestine and Israel. When one of his former students is accused of collaborating with the Israelis, Yussef goes to his defense, must do so with great care not to bring the danger back to his own family. This is a mystery series that not only entertains, but gives readers insight into the complicated world of modern Palestinians.
Cela, the retired head of our Technical Services department, has discovered the joys of Louise Penny’s Three Pines series and its detective, the cultured Armand Gamache of the Montreal Sûreté. She reported on the first book Still Life, but had been racing through the titles and already had the fourth of the series in front of her. These books mix elements of the traditional village cozy, the police procedural, and psychological suspense. They’re my current first choice for a sure bet for mystery readers. If you’re not reading them, by all means get started.
My choice was Junkyard Dogs from the Walt Longmire series, a book that balanced humor and a serious murder gracefully. You can see a longer report here.
My boss Melissa read the first book in the new series from Women of the Underworld creator Kelley Armstrong. Omens features Olivia Taylor Jones, a wealthy, Ivy League-educated young woman, whose engagement to a CEO fiancee is thrown into chaos when she discovers that she was adopted, and that her real parents are accused serial killers. Hounded by the press, she finds herself in little Cainsville, Illinois, investigating the crime her birth mother says will clear their name. In her new series, Armstrong’s paranormal elements are more subtle, and mysteries will be part of each plot.
Our group leader Cheryl prefers nonfiction, and when she reads fiction, she often returns to classics. Gaston Leroux is best known for The Phantom of the Opera, but it was preceded by one of the first locked room mysteries, his 1907 classic The Mystery of the Yellow Room. Cheryl found this one more historically notable than pleasurable for a modern reader.
Her other choice was from Josephine Tey’s classic Alan Grant mysteries, The Mystery of the Singing Sands. This entry finds Scotland Yard’s Grant on forced vacation in Scotland, but he still finds a mystery, a murder on the train up that proves to be much deeper than first assumed. Tey’s Golden Age classics should appeal to fans who are still reading Agatha Christie and Dorothy Sayers.
My post is getting long, and I’m only halfway through this meeting of great, diverse reading choices. I’ll be back later this week with the remainder.
Sunday, October 20, 2013 10:05 am
Read for what ails you
Posted by: Kaite Stover
Every reader understands the concept of picking up a book in times of stress, sadness, anxiety, and sleeplessness. Sometimes it’s far more convenient to reach for a book than the aspirin.
Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin have a firm grasp on bibliotherapy in all forms and they’ve written a 420 page prescription, The Novel Cure: From Abandonment to Zestlessness: 751 Books to Cure What Ails You.
The authors have cataloged a plethora of mental, physical, and intellectual maladies such as Change, Resistance To and Idiot, Feeling Like An and Misanthropy. Clearly these are common grounds all readers have shared at one time or another and frequently these issues rear their therapy-inducing heads during book discussions.
For those book group leaders who have members who insist on using discussions as opportunities for free group counseling, get out this book and start plotting some remedies.
Suffering from a loss of faith? Crack open Salmon Fishing in the Yemen or The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. Tired of listening to the group hypochondriac? Read The Secret Garden. Ingested too many drugs? Start flipping through Trainspotting or Less Than Zero.
Readers have their own special infirmities. Sometimes we suffer from overhype of a book. Our authors have a cure for that. Shelve the book in the tool shed. Wrap it up in old wallpaper. Tuck it somewhere out of the way. When you next discover it, you’ll be surprised to find it and reminded that you always wanted to read it.
Perhaps you have a partner who is a non-reader. The good book doctors suggest converting or deserting. Find a book that appeals to your partner, introduce audiobooks during a long car trip. But above all, caution the authors, protect your own reading time.
No matter what’s bothering you, headache or heartache, there’s a novel that speaks to your condition.
Saturday, October 19, 2013 10:25 am
I’d Know You Anywhere
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr
The crime fiction book discussion at my library had Laura Lippman’s stand alone novel, I’d Know You Anywhere, as its monthly selection. Lippman is one of our group’s favorite contemporary crime novelist and we find her works are always discussable. This proved true for this novel which was published in 2010.
The basic storyline of the book is that Eliza Benedict is a thirty-eight year old mother of two living in Bethesda, Maryland, who wants nothing more than to be normal. This is a challenge to a woman who is the only surviving victim of a serial killer named Walter Bowman who committed his crimes twenty years prior to the start of this novel. Now, after two decades of appeals have run out, Walter is about to be put to death by the state and he decides to reach out to Eliza one last time.
The question becomes: what does he want? Perhaps even more important is the question: what does Eliza want? The strains in her life are enormous. The fact that she carries such tremendous survivor guilt is one of the issues that haunts the reader as well. We want to be Eliza’s ally but not if she is truly guilty of committing a horrendous act of moral turpitude.
The author is able to play with time by jumping back and forth between the actual criminal events surround Eliza and her current life of regret. It deals with big issues like capital punishment and small issues like how to satisfy the demands of your children. Parenting is a central issue in the novel and I like how this sentence sums up the dilemma: “She knew there was no spell, no magic, that could keep a child a child, or shield a child from the world at large.”
This psychological suspense novel is more than just a recounting of a past crime. Its literary merit is earned by the way the author deals with the long lasting effects of the crime on both the sole perpetrator and the many victims left in the wake of his crimes.
If you are looking for a comparison story or a read-alike, I would suggest this novel has flavors of Thomas Harris’s Silence of the Lambs and Minette Walter’s The Sculptress. I think this is the type of book that should not be restricted to groups who only read crime fiction but could be discussed by all groups interested in books with a strong literary merit.
Friday, October 18, 2013 9:46 am
Your bookmobile could look like this
Posted by: Kaite Stover
It could happen. If the pilot project in Australia is a success, I can’t imagine libraries not considering using drones for delivery services. Homebound and outreach services are an obvious choice for a drone pack mule, but how do you think book groups could use this new technology?
I’m thinking that a book group could have the selected title delivered to each individual member. Or a library could dronelift a book group kit to the home of a member.
And just think of the adorable branding a library could do with one of these little bookbots.
Libraries could have a lot of fun with drone-cart drill teams in parades and at ALA Annuals.
The future. It’s so bright, we gotta wear shades.
Thursday, October 17, 2013 12:42 pm
Discussable Duets: Teenage bullies–actual, virtual, and fictional
Posted by: Kaite Stover
Rare is the person who doesn’t have a painful memory of the teen years to share when the topic comes up in conversation. One place where many folks feel safe talking about the teen years is a book group.
Expect lively conversation from readers of this pair of books, Reconstructing Amelia by Kimberly McCreight and Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character of Empathy by Emily Bazelon.
Bullying among teens has always been a compelling topic and has garnered extra attention in the news with the added element of social media.
Debut novelist McCreight brings this subject into the daily life of a family in Reconstructing Amelia. Kate Baron is a single mother with a teenage daughter and a demanding career as a attorney in a high-powered New York law firm. Amelia attends a prestigious private school until the day she is suspended for cheating. Dashing from a crucial meeting with a challenging client, Kate arrives at the school in time to learn her daughter’s body has been found in the school’s courtyard, an apparent suicide after leaping from the school’s roof.
In the midst of her grief, Kate receives an anonymous text “Amelia didn’t jump”. This sets Kate off on an investigation into her daughter’s private life that has her sifting through text messages, Facebook posts, and emails, only to learn that the Amelia Kate knew is not the same Amelia her classmates knew.
McCreight has constructed a tightly plotted suspense story with sympathetic realistic characters. Readers will be right along with Kate as she uncovers facets of her daughter’s life and personality she never knew existed and will be stunned at the lives teens live in the hallways of their school and the wallways of their Facebook pages.
Match this novel with Bazelon’s first book, Sticks and Stones. The senior editor at Slate has written a compelling narrative of the history of bullying using accessible, thought provoking prose. She frames much of her research and reporting using the stories of three typical American teens who were all involved in bullying situations.
There’s so much to discuss with both of these books, it may take a while before readers get around to sharing their own memories of the horrors of teendom.
Monday, October 14, 2013 9:30 am
Posted by: Kaite Stover
I love that the folks at Buzzfeed are readers. Their witty and literary lists make me think about grouping books in quirky ways.
One of their most recent lists, “65 Books You Need to Read in Your 20s” should be mined for titles that might attract a younger demographic to the book group, and if it doesn’t do that, it will certainly generate conversation about youthhood, how it’s changed, if its changed, and at the very least, how reader perceptions of their 20s and 30s have changed.
I’d never heard of these novellas from Nella Larsen, Quicksand and Passing, written by a half-Danish, half-black women and published in the 1920s.
Look for some well known classics and memoirs on this list and also be reminded of other books that you meant to read or reread. And take note of the collections of essays and poetry. I’m fascinated by Actual Air by David Berman, a former front man for a rock ‘n roll band.
Plenty here to fuel a reading list for eager book group members.
Friday, October 11, 2013 4:06 pm
LibraryReads for Book Group Reads
Posted by: Kaite Stover
I’ve been so remiss in not posting about this great new list of hand-picked books from the brilliant hiveminds of librarians across the nation.
I’m talking about LibraryReads, the list of top ten favorite forthcoming books published each month. The list is generated by nominations submitted on Edelweiss. Learn more about LibraryReads and how you can join the reading hordes that make the list happen. You read, you vote, LibraryReads listens, and lists it!
Here’s the newest list for November. I’ve already found at least three books that will be on next year’s short lists for book group favorites. Not the least of which is the Top Favorite.
Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield–Setterfield’s follow up to her smash debut, The Thirteenth Tale, has been eagerly anticipated by her fans and librarians clamored for advance reading copies in print and digital formats. Bellman & Black looks poised to follow suit.
Through the Evil Days by Julia Spencer-Fleming–a police procedural featuring a delightful married couple who experience a honeymoon full of murder and mayhem.
The Death of Santini by Pat Conroy–a memoir from the author of book group favorite Prince of Tides. Touching and powerful.
Someone Else’s Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson–Jackson writes novels with a Southern flair and likeable women with sass, smarts, and heart. Book groups always heart Jackson.
The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan–it’s been 8 years. Book groups will be salivating.
Lies You Wanted to Hear by James Whitfield Thomson–How does a marriage fail? And is it sometimes inevitable despite all the best intentions?
The Cartographer of No Man’s Land by P.S. Duffy–historical fiction with a literary twist, a World War I setting, and compelling characters.
The Raven’s Eye by Barry Maitland–A British police procedural flying under reader radar. Not for long.
Death of a Nightingale by Lene Kaaberbol and Agnete Friis–Readers who can’t get enough of those Scandanavian thrillers will not be disappointed with this latest entry in the Nina Borg series.
Parasite by Mira Grant–Just in time for Halloween, creeptastic medial horror from the author of the Newsflesh Trilogy. Fasten your bookbelts. Grant writes thought-provoking horror that would work well for any book group that doesn’t mind a little, well, maybe a lot, of gore.
Friday, October 11, 2013 5:28 am
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
Posted by: MaryKate Perry
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle is a beautifully told tale of a sensitive young boy, mute from birth. Edgar lives a simple and purposeful life with his parents, Trudy and Gar, the keepers of the Sawtelle dog-breeding legacy. Disaster arrives in the person of Gar’s estranged brother Claude, cleaving Edgar from the security of his family and home.
The story is primarily told from Edgar’s point of view, but it does cross over, at times, into the thoughts of other characters. I always appreciate an author’s decision to let us see into the toughest characters, such as Trudy, offering readers a chance to sympathize with a complex and frustrating player in a story.
If you are someone who finds setting to be a powerful appeal in writing, this book is exemplary. You will swear you have tramped through the north woods of Wisconsin before the book ends; Wroblewski has a blade-by-blade-of-grass eye for detail. This style will be pleasing to many, though not all; my book group felt that though the story was meticulously told, it was, at times, overtold and they fatigued a bit on the prose style.
Portions of the novel, perhaps some of the most heart-wrenching, are told from the perspective of a dog, Almondine, an animal so perfectly suited for companionship that, as Edgar sees is, she is the keeper of his soul. These passages are so sweet and sorrowful that for anyone who is soft on dogs (or isn’t made of stone) they will have remarkable power. I do recommend this novel to lovers of language, and of dogs, but with a caveat: (SEMI-SPOILER ALERT) this is a tragedy and the stage will be littered with corpses before the curtain falls. My book group ended up emotionally drained after reading it. Following the group, I had to take refuge, for the weekend, in a mystery novel. But I found that I missed Wroblewski’s use of language, of that feeling of being drawn in by plot, yes, but so much more.
David Wroblewski has chafed somewhat at the comparison of his book to Hamlet. This is an intriguing choice of complaint, since he based the plot on that same Prince of Denmark and several of the characters’ names are derivative of the cast. I found myself wishing, in fact, that he had strayed a bit farther from that play and veered into say, All’s Well That Ends Well. This is such a remarkable book and it remained with me so powerfully that I couldn’t help but wish it hadn’t been so incredibly sad. But our hearts are made to be won and broken by great characters as they lift us up – and let us fall – with their remarkable tales.
Thursday, October 10, 2013 1:47 pm
A Friend in “Deed”
Posted by: Neil Hollands
The Texas author Elizabeth Moon has had a long and successful career in science fiction and fantasy, but my favorite books by her are still her first trilogy of novels, collected in omnibus as The Deed of Paksenarrion or beginning with the first title, The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter.
In the first chapter, young Paksenarrion has been sold into an arranged marriage by her father, but rather than settling for the dull life of a farmer’s wife, Paks has more excitement in mind. She runs away from home to become a mercenary. So begins a life of adventure that will lead her through victory and tragedy; meetings with dukes, generals, elves, dwarves, and magicians; and ultimately, into training as a paladin.
First published in the late 1980s, these books show the influence of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings (as most fantasy of the time did), but in the end Moon finds her own way. She weaves her own experiences as a marine, as a fencing master, and as a horsewoman into her story, and this shows in telling detail. Paks is a wonderful character, naive but goodhearted, strong and noble but self-effacing. Her story is full of humor, excitement, and many poignant moments as well. With secondary characters who demonstrate a variety of good and bad behaviors and many interesting dilemmas, this is a fantasy that can support a group discussion. Readers who are less ambitious can read just the first book, while the more adventurous or those who become fans will want to finish the trilogy.
Moon went on to pen two successful science fiction space opera series with great female protagonists (start with Hunting Party or Trading in Danger if SF is more your style). Beginning in 2010, she returned to Paks’s world with Oath of Fealty and three more titles in the Paladin’s Legacy series. Elizabeth Moon is a dependable author without a bad book in her lengthy canon. If you like traditional speculative fiction and haven’t discovered her yet, by all means seek out this fantastic writer.
Tuesday, October 8, 2013 12:49 pm
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr
Would you be surprised if the best work of science fiction in 2012, according to the Hugo and Locus Award voters and the reviewers at Romantic Times, was a comedy?
Don’t be. The recognitions went to John Scalzi’s Redshirts (2012). Scalzi is a novelist from Ohio who also has written many nonfiction books and articles as well as published a very popular blog called Whatever.
This story begins with an away mission by the crew of the Universal Union starship Intrepid, heavily laden with senior offices and one ensign in the wrong colored uniform. Readers familiar with the science fiction cliche already know who is going to get it before this adventure ends. After the inevitable happens, we are introduced to the newest additions to the Intrepid’s crew including the main character in this novel, Ensign Andrew Dahl. New additions are needed because of the continuing high casualty count on the Intrepid.
The hook in this novel is that eventually Dahl and the characters that surround him are going to become self-aware that their kind is an endangered specie. To tell more about what is going to happen would only spoil the surprise of what Scalzi has done to earn these major awards.
The book is oddly structured. It does have a 230 page novella about the characters that is fast paced, humorous and captivating in how it tells their stories. The novella contains many appealing elements for a science fiction reader including alternate worlds, time travel, space technology and space opera elements.
Then there are three long codas attached to create another 90 pages of reading. The codas have a radically different pace then the novella but can be captivating to those who want to know more about the characters. In a sense, the three codas are almost like those scrolling film credits at the end of a movie that tell you the future fate of the movie’s characters. They also add pathos to what had been a fairly broad approach up to this point.
The reviews at the time of publication on this novel were mixed in part because I am not sure the “idea” was fully appreciated that the dialogue and action in this novel are driven by the underlining plot device (which will not be revealed in order to allow full access to the author’s manipulations of the reader).
This title was selected by our staff as our October Reader’s Advisory genre read. Most of us are not science fiction readers while we are almost all science fiction watchers. The book found universal (ha-ha) appeal amongst our staff and we would recommend it to libraries with adventurous book clubs, science fiction readers and for teens.
Sunday, September 29, 2013 2:15 pm
Middle Age Crisis
Posted by: Neil Hollands
What if we had the capability to travel back in time to see what life was trulylike in distant eras? Pretty exciting, huh? Wouldn’t it be great to be a witness to history?
Well, maybe not.
Connie Willis’s classic The Doomsday Book was published in 1992. It’s a work of science fiction, but is written in a style that should appeal to historical fiction readers, literary fiction readers, or anyone who just loves immersing themselves in a great book. In the world Willis creates, travel back in time is possible, not to change history, but just to witness events. As the book opens just before Christmas, an Oxford student named Kivrin is sent back to the Middle Ages. While a little bit of “slippage” is always possible, the target for her trip is in the 1320s. She’s going to observe the locals, then return to the rendezvous point a few weeks later where she’ll be returned to the present.
Kivrin’s adventure quickly goes awry. In the present day timeline, we see through the eyes of Dunworthy, Kivrin’s mentor who has objected to the trip’s high level of danger since its conception. The historians planning her trip aren’t entirely competent in his eyes and there is too much risk in a trip to an era where women were often the victims of violence, where superstition and accusations of witchcraft ran rampant, and where disease and accidents were common. He’s overruled, but his worries become very real when the technician who sent Kivrin back comes down with a mysterious illness before he can confirm the success of the drop.
Meanwhile, in the past, Kivrin’s immediately in trouble. She’s ill (which wasn’t supposed to be possible given the antivirals she received before the trip) and immediately loses the location of the rendezvous point when she is rescued by a somewhat mysterious middle ages family.
I don’t want to give away too much, but the problems escalate as plagues wreak havoc in both the past and alternate present timelines. Willis draws wonderful, sympathetic characters and includes a fair dose of comedy of manners as Dunworthy tries to cope with a missing department head, an undergraduate Lothario and his overbearing mother, a touring group of American bell ringers, and the unexpected visit of Colin, a fourteen-year old boy stranded by the outbreak.
Willis’s book is at turns funny and deeply poignant. Her history is spot on and very easy to believe. She takes her time with the pace: this isn’t a book for readers who want all plot and instant gratification. It’s for readers who like slow building suspense and deep characterizations. Willis uses the same theory of time travel to good effect in other adventures as well. To Say Nothing of the Dog (1998) is a more comic book that involves a trip back to 1940 to gather details for a restoration of Coventry Cathedral, destroyed in German bombing runs. The duology Blackout and All Clear (2010) may be the best books ever written about life during the London Blitz. Seek out Willis for your book group, and get ready for armchair time travel adventures unlike any others.
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