Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Wednesday Quick Picks

Some random good things from the literary world and beyond for a rainy, slow Wednesday afternoon:

- An Off Year by Claire Zulkey
Fresh, funny, and disarmingly honest study of an average girl's minor breakdown upon facing down the first year of college. Zulkey never gets melodramatic, which can often cause the emotional center of a book to go flat, but instead, the reader is treated to minor epiphanies as they occur, as small as our protagonist, Cecily, getting out of the house for once.

- The Wordy Shipmates by Sarah Vowell
Just released in paperback, I tried all last fall to relate my feelings on Vowell's labor of love. While not as funny as her other books, its perhaps all the more affecting for how closely she relates to the subject material. For Vowell diehards and early American literature buffs, this is a must read. For anyone else, pick up Partly Cloudy Patriot and Take the Cannoli first.

- The Indie Rock Coloring Book by Yellow Bird Project, illus. by Andy. J. Miller
Because your kids aren't taking nearly enough psychedelics, nor are their coloring books groovy enough to serve as poster art. Lots of cool bands represented with zany, incredibly designed illustrations. And it benefits a good cause! What more could you ask for in your hipster kids coloring book? Here's a taste:

- The Bicycle Diaries by David Byrne
Admittedly, I haven't read it yet, but it's Byrne's writings and musings on cities, travel, urban societies, all from the point of view of his handy collapsible bicycle. Maureen wrote up a killer marketing plan to get Byrne in our store when he goes on his book tour - maybe this shout out will help things a bit. Hey, Mr. Byrne! Come to our store for a signing! We'll buy you delicious food from the OTB Bicycle Cafe and just generally do your bidding.

- Brief Interviews with Hideous Men - based on the book by David Foster Wallace
Just watched this last night. John Krasinski directed and adapted for the screen the book by David Foster Wallace. While a film adaptation of Wallace's short story collection is well-meant tribute to the late writer, and Krasinski really does all that he can on this first try at directing, this is a piece meant - I mean, really, just meant - for the stage, but not quite so suitable for 80 minutes of movie watching. Krasinski does a nice job of instilling a tension in scenes that could have felt long and aimless, and the performances mostly deliver - the touch of stunt casting fails, as Ben Gibbard (of Death Cab for Cutie fame) mostly looks like he can't believe he's in a movie (and neither can we) - but it just falls short of something. Could imagine this being absolutely electrifying on stage - and it has been, back in 2000, as part of the New York International Fringe Festival.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Finds

A combination of cold, bad weather, and general weariness kept me from using my break for book hunting. I haven't been to my favorite used book store, Caliban Book Shop, since I moved to the West End, so I had planned on attempting a trip sometime during my three days off.

If it was sickness and bad weather keeping me from venturing out of doors and out of my area, it was general unease about utilizing public transportation during G20. Which turned out to be mostly overblown paranoia, aside from a few notable protest escalations here and there. My routes were pretty much unaffected, for which I was very, very thankful. If I was still living in the Bloomfield/Lawrenceville/East End area, I may have not been able to say the same thing.

Because this is primarily a book and reading related blog, I won't go on about G20, the protests, the general abounding hoopla surrounding two intense days in Pittsburgh. Many arrests were made, some justified, many definitely not. I don't go in for catchall, everybody-in-the-pool protests. Too many disparate voices lobbying at the same unseen forces just starts to feel like generic slogan slinging. I believe in well-planned, well-reasoned, focused protests where large amounts of people can bring attention to a single aim or overall cause. I also abhor protesting that amounts to little more than property damage and vandalism. Buildings can't listen to what you have to say, but business owners, especially small, independent business owners won't care, because they'll be too busy figuring out how to compensate for your needless destruction.

What is especially disconcerting about destructo-protesting is that it so often contradicts what it claims to stand for. If you're protesting the invasion of your private life, the oppression wielded by government forces, the things that affect you on a daily basis and that you cannot control, what better way to reinforce those very same offenses than to inflict the same damage upon someone else's stuff? Bashing windshields, dumping over garbage cans, breaking windows... what does that prove other than the fact that you can cause oppression of your very own? If you're not smashing the windows of the finger of government, than you are taking it out on an innocent person. What implicates someone better than absence, right?

It is important to note, however, that not all G20 protests were made alike. For every unpermitted march, there were demonstrations and marches done peacefully, with full permits, that disproved all the talk about potential rioting and massive destruction to the downtown area. Okay, maybe not in equal ratio, but a lot of people were willing to express themselves without putting others (and the property of others) in danger.

The summit has yielded little interesting news coverage, but this story in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, concerning an impromptu demonstration in Oakland Friday night that turned into a giant, arrest-laden mess, is particularly compelling. While it doesn't give a clear time line of the night's events, it did clear up some questions as to where portions of the people were, why some of them were there, and how things might have gotten swiftly and unfortunately out of control.

So, this tumultuous week has not really done much for my book buying. The little bits:

An Off Year by Claire Zulkey
After returning The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo - which I loved - to the store, I decided to check out this debut novel by a writer I know primarily from The Onion AV Club. Well, I'm about a third of the way through, and I'm really enjoying it. Cecily is a fairly average teenager, amiable enough to coast through her high school years without dissent. But within moments of her arrival to college, she makes the swift but certain decision that she wants to go right back home. And so she does. What follows is rare for a lot of teen books, whose protagonists always seem to have flaws that aren't really flaws, devoted, understanding best friends, and either horrible parents or parents that are unbelievably cool. Cecily's flaws are very, very real, and also, as is typical of that age, almost unrecognizable to her own insight. But I'm only a portion through the book, so more on that one later...

You Suck by Christopher Moore
A hardback copy of this was sitting at my desk, seemingly fallen from the heavens for my reading enjoyment. I've been wanting to follow up on my minimal Christopher Moore reading, and due to a longstanding disinterest in vampires, I never really chased after this one, but if some unforeseen forces want me to read it, who am I to resist?

I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to Be Your Class President by Josh Lieb
Delivered in a box of ARCs, alongside a bundle of awesome buttons that say "I am a Genius of Unspeakable Evil and I Want to be Your Bookseller." This book poses the question: What if you were rich, supremely intelligent, and lacked a moral compass, but your 7th grade peers still wouldn't vote you Class President?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

It's hard to hold a book while you're blowing your nose...

Maybe it was the recycled, shared air in the Dealers' Room at Horror Realm on Saturday. It was probably the inevitable consequence of everyone around me getting sick. Both colleagues and friends have been succumbing to the same cold for the past few weeks, and I somehow managed to evade it... until now.

Being sick during time off isn't ideal, but at least I don't feel any pressure to do stuff. Lacking a significant stretch of time or abundance of funds, a sleepy staycation seemed like a decent idea. Having a cold makes homebody-ness necessary.

Reading while sick has its ups and downs. Not all books are cold-day books. It's too easy to be distracted from reading that is particularly dense or dry. Eyes are quick to tire of very small type and minimal margins. Even the coloration of a book's pages can affect its readability.

A lot of people use their sick day reading to indulge in guilty pleasures, cheesy romances or mysteries featuring a weekly knitting club's members set in a small, New England town. While I'll use being sick on the couch as an excuse to watch terrible, unforgivably bad movies (I have Fear Net and I'm not afraid to use it), my patience for clumsy or convoluted writing is worn especially thin when sick. That's not to say I'm paging through Violence by Slavoj Zizek or attempting, for the umpteenth time, James Joyce's Ulysses. Rather, things that will escape my notice when I'm reading amidst a current of activity are more likely to trigger my annoyance when being read in a vacuum of lonely sick time in bed.

Bad writing can be exhausting. So can really good writing. When you're sick, the last thing you want to do is struggle with what you're reading. I tend toward the humorous, subtly crafted literary fiction (Zadie Smith is a good example - an author of extraordinary talent, but whose work doesn't itch with trial or writerly posturing), magical children's fiction, and light or pop culture-centered non-fiction.

Food writing is fairly safe - During a particularly bad cold last year, I devoured several food-related biographies and chronicles, including the enchanting Alice Waters and Chez Panisse by Thomas McNamee, as well Waiter Rant, The Devil in the Kitchen by Marco Pierre White, and My Life in France by Julia Child. The episodic nature of most food-related tales lends itself to the pick-up-put-down habits of sick reading. Plus, it's fun to think about frivolous things like a nice meal when you're drowning in snot-clotted tissues and orange juice.

Short stories are suitable in similar fashion - finish one, and you feel fairly accomplished in your sick state. Go for writers whose simplicity works on multiple levels of sophistication, and whose plots and characters are good enough to make-up for the possible delay of mental faculties to put together more complex thoughts of symbol, theme, and tone. Raymond Carver is a perfect example. I'm also a longtime devotee of Alice Munro - any of her collections will do, but I cut my teeth on Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories. Two very good recent short story collections: Barb Johnson's New Orleans tapestry More of This World or Maybe Another and Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, a spectacular debut collection of short fiction by Kevin Wilson.

Graphic novels are always good - the emphasis on visuals relieves strain on the eyes. I go for lean serials in favor of longer tomes. I've mentioned it before, but Y: The Last Man will make anyone a convert to the comic form. A sharp, funny, and surprising series surmising what would happen if a global plague wiped out every male on Earth... except one. I've recently dug into Vertigo's other big series, Fables, a clever take on well-known fairy tale characters and tropes.

Any sick day reading suggestions? How do you spend your sick days?

Monday, September 21, 2009

My television is anti-literacy.

I'm taking a three-day mini vacation from work... and I'm already bored. Of course, I've got a stack of books to read... about three or four stacks. But digital cable is a harsh temptress, rewarding watchers with quality entertainment and enthralling trash, and I've found myself sucked into another viewing bout of... Misery:

I'm giving myself a pass on this one, mostly because it's really entertaining, an over-the-top thriller that, although teetering on the edge of ridiculousness, never goes off the rails completely. Also, and this is kind of hard to explain, I have a weird crush on Kathy Bates from watching Misery.

Yes, she's psychotic. Homicidal. Maybe she doesn't have the best grip on reality (or, at least, not a grip as good as the one on her sledgehammer). She seems to be obsessed with a fairly mediocre romance series, which doesn't exactly indicate the best level of reading taste (but who am I to judge?). Obsessive? Absolutely.

But, other than being a homicidal maniac, Annie Wilkes has some redeeming characteristics. Seriously! She's brave, strong, resourceful. She's an avid reader. She's caring and even hospitable. But more than anything, her intense obsessiveness is party to her even more intense observational talents. She has a keen eye and devotion to continuity and will not settle for less than the best from her favorite writer:

So, most viewers witnessing that would say, "What a whackjob! It's just a stupid movie. Bitch is crazy."

Indeed. Bitch is crazy. But that doesn't mean that bitch is wrong. Despite her craziness bringing about all kinds of physical and psychological torture on Paul Sheldon, there's a strange clarity to her comments on his work. Yes, he's being forced to bring his character back from the dead by a lunatic that has him virtually shackled and imprisoned. But that's no reason to be lazy. Your number one fan is reading this, Paul, and she's keeping track of everything, every character, every move, every comment. It's a credit to Annie that she is as critical a reader as she is crazy a person. This clip cuts it off, but Annie gives Paul a bit of simple, but astute advice: "Misery was buried in the ground at the end, so you'll have to start there."

Plus, I kind of love her overwhelming, creepy enthusiasm. "I've known from the very first book that Misery had to be born of nobility, and I was right!" "Misery's alive! Misery's alive! This whole house is going to be filled with romance!" Annie's also got a kind of folksy charm. "I'd have to check which one of my legs was being pulled!"

Unfortunately, she so often seems to go from extreme high to psychotic low. Oh, and she's a killer.

I'm not saying it excuses her behavior, but it's rare to meet a killer whose also an avid, enthused reader.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Heart is a Lonely Giveaway

Woot! Let's put on our happy faces - it's time for the very first Heart is a Lonely Reader book giveaway.

First, how to enter: For the first giveaway, I'm not doing anything fancy. Just your standard "Leave a comment with your email so I can get in touch with you if you win."

I will be posting this contest on West of Mars, so hopefully these books will go to a good home. Thanks to Anastasia of the great book blog, Birdbrain(ed) Blog for her excellent suggestion. If I get any new readers here, it will be thanks to her insight.

Enough preamble! Up for grabs is a set of two recently released hardbacks. Both are works of adult literary fiction, one from Harper Collins, one from Simon & Schuster. Because I don't have too much time for the adult and serious these days, I'm putting them out there for someone else to enjoy.

Songs for the Butcher's Daughter by Peter Manseau.
From the publisher:
"Summer, sweltering, 1996. A book warehouse in western Massachusetts. A man at the beginning of his adult life -- and the end of his career rope -- becomes involved with a woman, a language, and a great lie that will define his future. Most auspiciously of all, he runs across Itsik Malpesh, a ninetysomething Russian immigrant who claims to be the last Yiddish poet in America. When a set of accounting ledgers in which Malpesh has written his memoirs surfaces -- twenty-two volumes brimming with adventure, drama, deception, passion, and wit -- the young man is compelled to translate them, telling Malpesh's story as his own life unfolds, and bringing together two paths that coincide in shocking and unexpected ways.

Moving from revolutionary Russia to New York's Depression-era Lower East Side to millennium's-end Baltimore with drama, adventure, and boisterous, feisty charm to spare, the unpeeling of this friendship is a story of the entire twentieth century. For fans of Nicole Krauss, Nathan Englander, Richard Powers, Amy Bloom, and Lore Segal, this book will amaze at every turn: narrated by two poets (one who doesn't know he is and one who doesn't know he isn't), it is a wise and warm look at the constant surprises and ineluctable ravages of time. It's a book about religion, love, and typesetting -- how one passion can be used to goad and thwart the other -- and most of all, about how faith in the power of words can survive even the death of a language.

A novel of faith lost and hope found in translation, Songs for the Butcher's Daughter is at once an immigrant's epic saga, a love story for the ages, a Yiddish-inflected laughing-through-tears tour of world history for Jews and Gentiles alike, and a testament to Manseau's ambitious genius. "

Bird in Hand by Christine Baker Kline
From Publishers Weekly:
In her fourth novel (after The Way Life Should Be), Kline traces the construction and collapse of two long-term relationships. On her way home to New Jersey after an awkward party for her lifelong friend Claire's highly autobiographical first novel, Alison gets into a car accident that kills a boy in the other car. Even though the accident wasn't her fault, Allison, a mother of two young children, is wracked with grief and guilt. Her husband, Charlie, also struggles with the impulse to blame his wife, especially as he longs for any excuse to escalate his nascent affair with Claire and end his marriage.

Episodes detailing the inevitable collapse of Alison and Charlie's marriage, as well as Claire's marriage to her well-meaning husband, Ben, are interspersed with vignettes revealing the four friends' 10-plus-year history together. Shifting perspectives and thoughtful interior monologues reveal just how isolated, and in some cases misguided, the characters are. Kline's unflinching gaze and lovely prose sets Kline's novel apart from the herd of infidelity/marital ennui novels. It's well-done, thoughtful and thought provoking.

These books will come lovingly packaged, sent right to your doorstep, and who knows? There might be all kinds of other goodies packed up inside. I have a lot of random stuff around. You might just win it.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday Finds

My bookshelves are going to break.

After two slow weeks of finds, this week erupted with boxes of galleys, upcoming releases, even published comps. We always get a bit bombarded by stuff in the Fall - between current releases and upcoming Winter/Spring titles, there's no end to the stuff publishing reps want you to take note of. I'm more than happy to oblige them, but... seriously, I need to get rid of some books. If I had more blog followers, I'd do a giveaway. Maybe I should offer them to other bloggers for their giveaways. Hmm... not a bad idea...

Possible bloggers reading this, take note! Want a giveaway for your blog? Need a promotional or free book for attracting readers? I'm your girl! Want a galley for personal perusal? Right here! Just leave me a comment or email me.

Come one, come all. Free books! Free books!

Okay, now that the histrionics are out of the way, my Friday Finds. This is a somewhat abbreviated list (I got a ton of Macmillan upcoming kids releases, but I won't go into all of those right now)....

- Six Suspects by Vikas Swarup
If you're starting to recognize that name, it's probably due to Slumdog Millionaire. A year ago, Swarup's Q&A was a blip on the radar, nothing much more. That book, modified and re-titled, became an Oscar-winning smash. This is Swarup's follow-up, a murder mystery set at a posh New Dehli restaurant.

- The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo
I finally got hip to what a lot of librarians and teachers have known for a long time - Kate DiCamillo is awesome. I just checked this one out from the store, but I have a feeling I'm going to love it. A story of a boy searching for his sister by following the clues given to him by a mysterious fortune teller, clues that lead him to a magician, his elephant, and a world of magic. I'm a sucker for anything having to do with magicians or circuses, and this promises to have a little of each flavor.

- Past Imperfect by Julian Fellowes
Snapped this out of a Macmillan galley box. I've been meaning to read a book by Julian Fellowes, whose screenplay for Gosford Park ranks among my very favorites. A mystery involving the rich elite of 1960s London. I'll just assume that it sparkles with wit.

-Blame by Michelle Huneven
I know nothing about Huneven, I've never read anything she's written, and I'm not even sure that I know what this book is about. But Richard Russo recommends her, so why not give her a try.

- You Better Not Cry by Augusten Burroughs
A flasher Santa marks the cover of this upcoming Burroughs Christmas-themed collection. Guaranteed to be as heartwarming as Holidays on Ice. I think I will read both, back-to-back, while drinking whiskey and writing Christmas cards to exes.

-The Man Who Loved Books Too Much by Allison Hoover Bartlett
Truthfully? Picked it up because of the title. I held onto it because its subtitle is, "The True Story of a Thief, a Detective, and a World of Literary Obsession." The book concerns the true story of John Charles Gilkey, literature nut and unrepentant rare book thief, and his rise and inevitable fall, as well as the overall culture of literary obsession. As my bookish tendencies sometimes grow to out-of-control proportions, I am interested in Bartlett's perspective and analysis of literary obsessives.

- The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam
I don't have much bias toward publishing houses, but I carry a torch for the Europa Editions. We were sent two copies of this newest release by the Whitbread Prize winner, whose Old Filth has had a spot on my "to be read" list for years. Here's hoping I have a more successful follow-through with this one.

- The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan & Peter Sis
Came in a Scholastic box today, and because I love Esperanza Rising, I had to have it. Written with Ryan's characteristic magical realism and South American backdrop.

- Love and Summer by William Trevor
A Viking release by the author of The Story of Lucy Gault, one of those books that gets a lot of mention, but no one seems to have read. This one sounded like a safe bet, and the cover is nice.

-Eat Your Feelings: Recipes for Self Loathing by Heather Whaley
An Amy Sedaris-like cookbook, each recipe is half actual recipe with half snarky proposed scenario. Good for a laugh, and some of the recipes even look halfway decent. Yet another unique addition to my small (but growing) library of cookbooks.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book Blogger Appreciation Week!

Thanks to the ever-excellent Boston Bibliophile, I have learned not just of Book Blogger Appreciation Week {September 14 - 18), but also this fun reading meme from the sight for Tuesday, September 15th.

And, as always, I'm more than happy to indulge in a reading meme.

Do you snack while you read?
If so, favorite reading snack?
Sometimes - I do a lot of reading while commuting, and that doesn't really lend itself to another activity. Favorite reading snack? Chinese noodles or cheese and crackers.

Do you tend to mark your books as you read, or does the idea of writing in books horrify you? I don't mark my books, but it doesn't horrify me. Every once in a while, I'll highlight a sentence in a non-fiction book I'm reading.

How do you keep your place while reading a book? Bookmark? Dog-ears? Both - I make bookmarks out of just about anything, including the corners of pages.

Laying the book flat open? I've gotten better about not doing that.

Fiction, Non-fiction, or both? Both, in unequal proportions. I try to get a good amount of non-fiction in there, but I admit to falling off in favor of a good YA title or two.

Hard copy or audiobooks? Mostly hard copies, but the occasional audiobook is nice - we get promos every once in a while, which is awesome, but I mostly give mine to my mother, who is a junkie for audiobooks.

Are you a person who tends to read to the end of chapters, or are you able to put a book down at any point? Depends on the book.

If you come across an unfamiliar word, do you stop to look it up right away? Absolutely. I do the same when I come across any bit of information that I want to know more about.

What are you currently reading? Just finished the wonderful Impossible by Nancy Werlin. Just picked up The Magician's Elephant, the new one by Kate DiCamillo.

What is the last book you bought? Dinosaur vs. Bedtime by Bob Shea, a picture book about a dinosaur triumphing over various challengers, including a pile of leaves and a bowl of spaghetti. Dinosaur wins!

Are you the type of person that only reads one book at a time or can you read more than one at a time? I can really only do one at a time.

Do you have a favorite time of day and/or place to read? In the sun box (or generally in my living room), mid-afternoon.

Do you prefer series books or stand alone books? Stand alone. I never keep up on series. Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games is the rare exception.

Is there a specific book or author that you find yourself recommending over and over? Depends on the person I'm recommending to. However, I've pretty much shilled The Hunger Games to anyone who would listen.

How do you organize your books? (By genre, title, author’s last name, etc.?) Once I have permanent and collection-encompassing shelves, I will organize. Until then, my library remains a hodgepodge of this and that. I want to separate the adult and kids titles, however, with a special area devoted to YA.

Review: Impossible by Nancy Werlin

It is suitable that I fell in love with Impossible by Nancy Werlin - after all, the book is about the redemptive power of true love against extraordinary odds, about how believing in love is the ultimate leap of faith, and how that faith can bring remarkable strength for even unfathomable tasks. But the novel doesn't beg or plead for your love - it doesn't need to. Rather, like its main characters, it enraptures the reader, capturing, enchanting the reader. Picking up this book was like sustaining a hypnotic state that I didn't want to shake.

Lucy Scarborough grows up in a loving home amongst a supportive foster family and enduring friendships, but she is haunted by the recurring presence of her mother, Miranda, a frequently disappearing vagrant whose reappearances are marked by obscure, hostile remarks, inexplicable actions, and a version of the folk song "Scarborough Faire." For most of Lucy's life, Miranda's appearances are simply a disruption - a blight on an otherwise idyllic upbringing with two open-minded, understanding foster parents.

At seventeen, however, Lucy learns of the true background of Miranda's illness - a family curse, placed by the Elvin Knight after being spurned by a human woman, Fenella. The Elvin Knight arranges for each daughter of Scarborough to be impregnated by eighteen, then burdens themwith the three impossible tasks from the song "Scarborough Faire" - if they can achieve each impossible task by the time the baby is born, the curse will be broken. Otherwise, they will go insane and the curse will repeat its pattern on the next generation.

As Lucy begins to understand the curse, its implications on her, her mother, and her family history, she sets to accomplishing the three impossible tasks before the birth of her own daughter. Unlike her mother, however, Lucy has the love and helpful support of her parents and longtime friend, Zach Greenfield - but will it be enough to save her sanity and that of her unborn daughter's?

To tell more than that is to give away significant portions of the text, which would be a shame because Werlin builds an intensity so subtle, 100 pages passed without notice, then another 100 pages. The use of "Scarborough Faire" as setup is an ingenious move - the song, often thought of as beautiful and loving, can also be read in very sinister terms, with the protagonist asking the impossible of a possible "true love," insisting that if these tasks are not completed, then she is not a true love of his - but without an excellent execution, Werlin's device would have come off as a novelty.

Werlin's a better writer than that. The touch of magic inhabits almost every character and plot action, but she never overdoes it. She lets the vibe carry through the story, but doesn't pushes by filling her plot with an overabundance of magical characters, strange happenings, or fantastical occurrence. The magic comes in bits and pieces - a character's devotion to another, an implicit understanding, a family bond, a lucky coincidence, an odd presence - and the characters realistically respond to out of the ordinary things.

Werlin crafts an excellent protagonist in Lucy. She's smart and strong, but fallible, and by midway through, the reader's affection for her is on par with that of the supporting characters of the novel. There always seems to be a purpose to her choices, even when her decisions are confusing or counter-productive, and it is to Werlin's credit as an author that while the love story set up for Lucy is pushed along rather quickly, it matches the tone of inevitability coursing through the book.

Good versus evil looms large, but inevitability is also a core concept - how inevitable is Lucy's fate? In the long line of Scarborough daughters, not one has managed to break the curse on the family. In her journal, eighteen year-old Miranda confesses that she could not even accomplish the easiest of the three tasks. She fears for her sanity each day closer to the birth of her daughter, the inevitable turn that will happen after the baby is born, after each Scarborough baby was born.

But Miranda's situation is unlike the others before her, and also that of Lucy's. While the others suffered in predictable loneliness and despair, Lucy has the abounding resolution of her family around her. She is supported by something much stronger than the crushing compounding doom of the looming family curse. What has been inevitable may not be once the impossible is achieved.

This is a YA novel for any age, a fairy tale for all audiences, a beautiful and beautifully written story.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Too early for Halloween favorites?

It may be too early to post a list of Halloween favorite titles, but I'm sort of stuck on retail land, where the minute one yearly milestone passes, another begins. That's why the day after Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas displays and decorations go up. The stores are going to get you with their holiday merchandise, and they're going to get you early. Bookstores are no exception.

Still, nearly two months straight of Halloween books? Meaning two months of Halloween decorations, music, and themed storytimes and events? Sign me up! This is my favorite time of year. There's a reason the Halloween display is the most elaborate display in the department - we even have a flaming cauldron (courtesy my lovely co-workers, Mo and Brandon).

It's a slow day (too many people out drinking last night for the Steelers' opener), so I'll take a minute to cover some excellent new (and new to me) kids' Halloween titles.

- The Witch's Guide to Cooking with Children by Keith McGowan (and illustrations by Yoko Tanaka)
A contemporary Hansel and Gretel, with clever, worldly children replaces the naive waifs of the original story. When Sol and Connie come across their weird old neighbor's dog carrying a bone in its mouth, they discover not just any old bone, but a human femur. But just how dangerous can investigating the old lady next door be? A neat twist on the old folk tale, it's fleshed out even further by the vivid and detailed illustrations by Tanaka. [Hardcover, $15.99]

-The Runaway Mummy: A Petrifying Parody by Michael Rex
Coming up with one genuinely classic parody, Goodnight Goon would be enough for most satirical children's authors, but not Michael Rex, who could not resist the urge to go after Margaret Brown's other seminal kids' work, The Runaway Bunny. No matter what incredible creature Little Mummy becomes, Mother Mummy is there right beside him, a fire-breathing dragon to his mountain-sitting gargoyle, or maybe just a scary, shrieking mummy to frighten off the normal parents that drive him to karate and piano lessons. Not quite as surreal as Adam Rex's Frankenstein Takes the Cake or as starkly sardonic as Jon SciesZka's The True Story of the Three Little Pigs, this is parody light that will appeal to a wide range of children. [Hardcover, $15.99]

Cake Girl by David Lucas
A clever tale about a witch and the girl companion she creates for herself out of cake. At first the relationship is defined by the creator and the created, but gradually the cake girl establishes an equal ground with the witch, one that allows them to appeal to each other as friends instead of master and servant. A great kids book in a very old illustrative style that is still visually appealing to young readers. [Hardcover, $15.95]

Pumpkin Soup by Helen Cooper
I had pumpkin soup for the first time when I was in London, and I've never forgotten my surprise at the taste of this savory, fortifying soup. Helen Cooper's book is very much like that meal: simple, classic, hearty, and very, very satisfying. A cat, a duck, and a squirrel make the perfect pumpkin soup... until tense group dynamics ruin the flavor. Can the soup - and the friendship - be saved? [Paperback, $6.96]

Only a Witch Can Fly by Alison McGhee (illustrated by Taeeun Yoo)

One little girl wants to fly. With her broomstick, the support of her trusty cat and disbelieving little brother, she attempts to fly. At first she fails, but with perseverance and bravery, she may just achieve her moonlight sky trip after all. Adorably rendered by illustrator Yoo and lovingly told, I couldn't wait to pick this one up for storytime.

Boo to You by Lois Ehlert
I am an unabashed devotee of Ehlert's books, but this one is absurdly adorable. The garden mice are getting ready for their annual harvest feast, but the presence of a scary cat threatens to destroy the gathering... that is, unless the crafty mice can scare it away before it ruins the feast. Done in Ehlert's signature mixed media visual style and told in simple, easy rhyme, this is a great Halloween/fall tale for kids a little too young for spooks and monsters. Especially handy is the guide to harvest colors and crops, much of which is featured in the actual story. And the two-page spread of jack-o-lantern pictures features simple carving directions and an easy roasted pumpkin seed recipe. Fantastic.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Getting back into the swing... Friday Finds!

I relapsed into some bad habits, namely not blogging (not even feebly attempting to do so), so I'll include both last week's and this week's finds in this post.

I think what locks me down, at least some of the time, is that I get hung up on trying to cover everything I've been reading. In the last few weeks, I've had the great luck to read some incredible books, of varying genres and styles, but when I go to actually write about these books (whether in a formal or informal review), I realize there's a whole bunch of things I haven't caught up on as of late, and then I become convinced that I should write about this before that, devote time to this book before moving onto the next good read... etc. Excuses, all of it, but honest excuses.

In case I don't get to them in future posts - I fully intend to, but it seems that my intentions don't always play out the way they should - here are the following books that readers should take notice of:

- Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins - The riveting and surprising follow-up to last Fall's The Hunger Games. This series is going to catch on even bigger now, so get to it before the hype wears you out.

- Candor by Pam Bachorz - Egmont USA's first title, and it's a doozy - A Stepford Wives-esque tale revolving around a small, affluent Florida community that is brainwashing its youth. Bachorz offers some small, but vital twists to her authoritarian nightmare, and the book doesn't quite take you where you think it's going to. Oscar, the son of the town's founder/chief manipulator, is an unlikely hero, a boy saving others for the benefits they bring to him (money, sex, favors...) until he meets the new girl in town... A quick, unsettling, and immensely satisfying read.

- Andromeda Klein by Frank Portman - This strange YA title is going to halt a lot of readers in their tracks by the first chapter. Plow through the extended references and intellectual musings on occult history and practice from the protagonist, and you'll end up falling in deep for the story of awkward and anti-social Andromeda Klein as she navigates mysterious occurrences following the death of her best friend, Daisy, the disappearance of her secret older boyfriend, and the sudden seizure of a collection of valuable and rare occult titles by the "Friends of the Library." It's hard to be very original when it comes to YA lit, but Portman has shown he has the ability to pull off one of the most difficult of voices - teenage girl - and make it sound not only convincing, but original and true.

- When You Reach Me Rebecca Stead - Random House is kicking butt going into Fall, but perhaps no title has had as much publicity impact as this one, a coming of age story masking a subtle fantasy involving a sixth grader, 1970's New York City, mystery notes, and time travel, all loosely wrapped around A Wrinkle in Time. One of those books that you fly through, only to re-read again and again, finding more clues and ties each time around. Stead has done a beautiful job melding two difficult genres - intermediate-level coming of age story and fantasy - and working it well into its background era. I really can't say enough good stuff about this book, partially because of how good it was, and partially because to elaborate thoroughly would give too much away.

- Shiver Maggie Stiefvater - With paranormal romance being all the rage in teen literature, it's hard to find a truly captivating tale amongst the rip-offs. Maybe it's just because I've never been into the vampire thing, but I find werewolves infinitely more interesting. Grace has watched for the wolf with the golden eyes since she was a child. Sam lives two lives, a human in the warm months, a wolf in the cold, but each half is wholly concerned with the girl whose life he saved years ago. I'm not really a crier with books, but this one left me with tears running down my face. It's not perfect - there are a few plot holes and a few moments that are a little too cute to match the tone - but it's definitely well written and offers a neat twist to the already well-tread mythology of werewolves.

Okay, that's a lot of YA, but I swear, I read adult books too! Three that I can absolutely stand by:
- The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery - A concierge masks her intellectualism with bland mediocrity, but cannot hide from the precocious girl living in the building, nor the sharply observing new resident who instantly senses a kindred spirit in the lonely middle-aged lady. A surprisingly affecting tale and perfect afternoon reading. The prose is clean but lovely, but most remarkably, Barbery doesn't write intellectualism as cold and aloof. Rather, her characters, in embracing those intellectual pursuits that they hide in public, become warmer, more gracious, more open selves.

- A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore - I could go on and on about how brilliant Lorrie Moore is, but if you even slightly care, you are probably well aware of how brilliant she is. It's been eleven years since she's published anything, eleven really long years, and now she gifts us with a novel of a college-aged woman, coming to terms with the changing terms of relationships amongst a country in crisis post 9/11. I feel weirdly attached to this book. Told from the distinct position of a Mid-Westerner, I could not relate with the stoic Tassie, who relates a period of heartbrokeness in a calm, controlled manner, with the detachment of an observer rather than the person suffering. If you're not familiar with Moore's work, start with Birds of America - this novel is not for the uninitiated, but it's a great follow-up for someone looking to further their Loorie Moore addiction. It certainly fed mine.

-The Magicians Lev Grossman - Holy crap. The worlds of JK Rowling and CS Lewis meet Jay McInerney. Quentin Coldwater is a Brooklyn teenager constantly fleeing real life for the fictional world of Fillory. Mysterious circumstances bring him to Brakebills, a college for the study of magic. Now Quentin can live out his fantasies... except that no reality is perfect, not even one where magic is real... Grossman divides his book into four distinct parts, each a perfect compliment to the other, and in some ways, more riveting than the last. It's cliche, but this is a magical literary fiction for adults. Any adult who enjoys indulging in the occasional children's fantasy read should pick this book up now.

As for the Friday Finds, I bought a ton of bargain books at work, so many that I can't remember all of them. Those I can remember:
- The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
- Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
- We Tell Ourselves Stories... by Joan Didion (Score!)
- Carried Away: Stories by Alice Munro (Woot!)
- On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan
And probably at least three or four other titles that I can't recall because I accumulate books at an inhuman level.

Also "found" the last two weeks:

The Magicians by Lev Grossman - Checked this out from work for the week, and I'm having trouble deciding if I want to buy it or just wait for the paperback. I loved it, but I don't know if I require the hardback now that I've read it through...

Epitaph Road by David Patneaude - Upcoming Egmont USA title, about a virus that wipes out virtually all males on the planet. I love the series Y: The Last Man, and the premise for this YA is similar, so I'm happy to give it a go.

Pop: The Genius of Andy Warhol by Tony Scherman and David Dalton - I'm not a worshiper of the Warhol altar, but I'm always game to read about the Factory scene and the debauched fabulousness of it all. I'm hoping that this book will be more dishy than its exterior presents, but even if it is, this one's probably one I'm going to pick up and put down a whole lot.

Cooking for Friends by Gordon Ramsay - Of the several Ramsay reality shows, the only one I've watched enjoyably is the British Kitchen Nightmares where Ramsay scolds, swears, and browbeats restauranteurs into improving their failing, mediocre (or worse) businesses. This hardback was left on my desk by my generous general manager. It marks a change from my normal cookbook of choice - inexpensive, black and white, utility cookbooks with little flash or pictures. This is a cookbook of a variety I don't bother buying, but would love to own - pretty, hardback, nice quality, beautifully photographed, and filled with recipes that probably aren't immensely challenging but still look a bit sophisticated for my rice and peanut butter sandwich self. Though the point is to cook this for friends, so...