Book – Writing is both a craft and an art. With enough practice, most writers can produce a well-constructed and enjoyable book, but only a sparse few have that other thing–call it a voice, or originality, or authenticity, or heart. It’s really hard to describe why a Holly Goldberg Sloan book is an occasion and a joy. She’s just got that touch of art that makes a story special.
Counting by 7s was Sloan’s breakout hit among both child and adult readers, and justifiably so; it’s beyond gorgeous. Short, her newest book, has some definite similarities, including a young female protagonist growing up through the story, inter-generational friendships, and grief and healing as themes. But overall it’s a lighter, breezier, more comforting read. Like Raina Telgemeier’s smash-hit graphic novel for the same audience, Drama, Short centers on a young Theater Kid finding confidence and belonging through a new production. In this case, the show is The Wizard of Oz, and eleven-year-old Julia, who used to be bothered by her (lack of) height, suddenly finds that it’s her ticket to the spotlight–she’s the only kid her age small enough to land a part as a Munchkin. An average student and middle child, Julia finds that the production lets her connect with and earn the approval of adults in a way she’s never experienced before, and gives her a safe window into a more complicated, grown-up world.
Short is a quiet book, wonderfully written and touching. Definitely hand it to any tweens in your life. And when they’re done, borrow it back from them to have a look for yourself.
Book – With the new Hulu show buzzing all over the internet (yes, it’s exactly as good, exactly as well-acted, exactly as gorgeous and exactly as wrenching as you’ve heard) and the book back on top of the bestseller lists, I thought it was high time for a re-read of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic.
The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in the Republic of Gilead, the onetime United States, in a not-so-distant future. In response to a precipitous drop in the birth rate and following a major terrorist attack, America’s freedoms have been subtly stripped away–first the suspension of the Constitution, then the freezing of women’s bank accounts and the passing of a law against women taking work outside the home, then the declaration that second marriages and homosexuality are illegal and an oppressive and extreme form of Protestantism is the only legal religion. By the time our heroine attempts to flee for Canada with her husband and daughter, it’s too late to get away. The family is seized and split up.
Because the character we know as Offred (her real name is taken from her) has proven her fertility by producing a healthy child, she is a valuable natural resource. Instead of being labeled an ‘Unwoman’ and facing certain death on a crew cleaning toxic waste, she is trained as a ‘Handmaid’–part concubine, part surrogate mother, the property of one of Gilead’s powerful Commanders and designated to bear children which will then belong to him and his wife. Powerless to prevent her own monthly ritualized rape and subject to hatred, jealousy and violence –mostly from other women whose domination over her is the one small power they themselves have left in a world where women cannot lead, read or work outside the house–Offred finds tiny methods of rebellion, tiny ways to keep her sanity and sense of self. Over time, she builds the tools and connections to foster a more definite resistance.
As that description suggests, The Handmaid’s Tale is anything but a simple read. It’s dark, painful and, above all, terrifying. But it’s also starkly beautiful, a masterpiece of linguistic efficiency with not a syllable wasted, and unforgettably powerful. Everyone should read it at least once in their lives.
Book – Although high schooler Fabiola Toussaint grew up in Haiti, she is an American citizen. Her mother is not. They’ve both been planning to come and live with family in Detroit, but when Customs and Immigration stop her mother at the airport, Fabiola finds herself flying alone to a strange city in a strange country to live with an aunt and three cousins she knows only over the phone.
It’s a rough dunking in the deep end of adulthood, and Fabiola’s three cousins, while loving and supportive in their own way, don’t always make her transition easier. Tough and street-smart, they have a neighborhood rep as the Three Bees–Brains for the eldest, Chantal, and Beauty and Brawn respectively for twins Donna and Pri. Nor does Aunt Jo, partially paralyzed from a stroke and often bedridden with pain, play much of a role in welcoming Fabiola to Detroit.
Bit by bit, Fabiola feels her way through assimilation to a new culture and a new family. Her cousins’ fierceness soon translates to an equally powerful protectiveness and love. Donna’s abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend is a blot on all their lives, but Fabiola is drawn to his sweet friend Kasim. A police officer offers Fabiola a chance to help her mother through the immigration process, for a price. And Fabiola can never feel too disconnected from her roots as the daughter of a Vodou mambo when Papa Legba spends his nights on the sidewalk across from her new home, singing cryptic riddles under the streetlights at the corner of American and Joy…
American Street is a powerful, original and deeply relevant first novel from a talented writer. Anyone who objects to profanity would do best to steer clear, but for other adult and older teen readers this is a strongly recommended exploration of the present-day American experience.
Audiobook – I could recommend the book version of this title, but I won’t. Don’t get me wrong, the paper version of Norse Mythology is not in any way bad; it’s beautifully written, lyrical and fascinating, every bit what you’d expect of America’s leading myth-drenched fantasy writer retelling the tales of his favorite pantheon. But a large part of the charm of the book is its essentially aural nature. This is a text that is written to be heard, prose as hyper-aware of its cadence and meter as any poetry, and the voice it’s written for is the author’s own. So do yourself a favor and borrow the audiobook version instead of the paper book for the full Neil Gaiman experience–unless, and only unless, you plan to read it aloud yourself to a very lucky loved one.
As a book, Norse Mythology does exactly what it says on the cover: it retells sixteen of the most important myths from the Norse tradition. As a kid I devoured every scrap of Greco-Roman mythology I could get my hands on and had a fair grounding in the Egyptians, but the Norse myths were somehow more intimidating, hedged in with unpronounceable names and grim doomesday scenarios. This is the book I wish I’d had then–once again, especially with the audio version to make those names a little less scary. I’d be most eager to hand this book to anyone looking for a basic grounding in the subject, but the writing is so lovely that I think it’d be enjoyable even for a reader already familiar. Accessible and timeless, it’s a book destined to preserve its popularity for many years to come.
P.S. Gaiman’s breakout mythological hit, American Gods, is premiering as a TV show on April 30, so if you haven’t had the utter delight of reading that novel, now is the perfect time!
Book – I have a fundamental problem with the term ‘cozy mystery’. I agree that it’s a useful term to distinguish the darker, faster-paced, harder-edged tone of a thriller like Gone Girl from an all-ages mystery puzzler like the marvelously re-readable Westing Game. It seems patronizing, however, to imply that there is anything remotely ‘cozy’ about the slow-burn psychological horror of stories featuring protagonists trapped in increasing danger, like Christie’s terrifying And Then There Were None or J. Jefferson Farjeon’s pleasingly creepy Mystery in White.
For the same reason, I would hesitate to label The Crime at the Black Dudley–the first book in Margery Allingham’s classic Campion series–as a ‘cozy’. Yes, it’s written by one of the Queens of mystery’s Golden Age, and yes, it features an eccentric amateur sleuth in an English country house. But it’s also a story about a group of innocents, and one unknown murderer, locked in a remote house by a gang of international thugs, in the company of their dead host, facing increasing and violent pressure to hand over a document which one of the party has already destroyed. It’s a nightmarish (if over the top) scenario, and Allingham skillfully milks the claustrophobia of the situation for all it’s worth. The story is wonderfully told in other respects as well, like the fact that the narrator, an undercover policeman, turns out not to be the one who saves the day; Allingham intended him to be the star of her series, but Peter Wimsey caricature Albert Campion unexpectedly stole the show instead.
The Crime at the Black Dudley was a great find hidden away in our stacks, a reminder of the manifold delights of cozy mysteries–or whatever you might want to call them.
Book – I read The Princess Diarist on Christmas Day, just after the news of Carrie Fisher’s heart attack. Like so many Princess Leia fans around the world, I was heartbroken by Fisher’s death two days later. In addition to her acting career, she was an outspoken advocate for mental health awareness (she suffered from bipolar disorder) and a writer of novels, memoirs and screenplays. If you know her only through her performances, you’re missing out on the larger-than-life personality she revealed, with sometimes brutal candor, on the pages of her books.
The Princess Diarist is Fisher’s third (and presumably final, bar any posthumous manuscripts) memoir, following Wishful Drinking and Shockaholic. While I personally believe that Wishful Drinking was better-written and more consistent as a book, The Princess Diarist will probably be more intriguing to most Fisher fans because it focuses mainly on the period during which the first Star Wars film was shot. The headline revelation that Fisher and co-star Harrison Ford had an affair during the filming is by far the book’s juiciest bombshell, but also its biggest weakness–Fisher includes a sheaf of her diary entries from the period which read as the overwrought melodramatic sighs of a teenager in love (often in verse, no less) because that’s exactly what they are. In the rest of the book, however, adult-Fisher’s needle-sharp black humor and unmistakable voice shine, more than justifying the price of admission for fans of her work in any medium. Skip the titular diary, set aside an afternoon to spend with the rest of The Princess Diarist, and you’ll have yourself a fitting tribute to a cultural icon lost to us before her time.
Book – A girl doesn’t become a librarian without some fairly solid organizational skills. When it comes to home management, however, I have always sworn that I won’t turn into my mother–a woman I deeply admire, but who very nearly cannot leave the house if the vacuum cleaner is not in the closet and who has a hard time falling asleep if there are dishes in the sink. Not, I insisted to myself, that I would ever allow my house to be actually dirty, but was it really the end of the world if a basket of clean laundry took a day (or two, or five) to get folded? That I even had clean laundry was an accomplishment, surely. And my room was, after all, already much neater than so-and-so’s. And besides, it had been a busy week. And over the weekend, I’d have one massive cleaning session, and then the entire house would be beautiful and shiny at the same time. And [insert today’s excuse for not cleaning here].
How to Manage Your Home Without Losing Your Mind is for those of us who do genuinely want to live a tidier life, but whose home-keeping has not yet graduated into the land of Martha Stewart and The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up. A non-traditional, chatty and readable handbook from a self-professed recovering slob and blogger, White’s book is effective for non-neat-freaks because it’s by a non-neat-freak. It’s full of simple strategies to set and keep small but meaningful habits that add up, slowly but surely, to a cleaner and happier place to live. She does a particularly good job of analyzing and codifying mental blocks like “slob vision” (not noticing out-of-place items until untidiness reaches critical mass) and proposing practical solutions which, unlike the admirable but overly ambitious goals of many advanced housekeeping manuals, are actually sustainable for everyone.
The verdict? On the busiest week in recent memory, my laundry is all folded and my sink is empty of dishes. And as far as I’m concerned, that counts as a definite win.
Books – Something Unfortunate has arrived.
Young adult readers who followed A Series of Unfortunate Events when it was released (more than a decade ago!), and the parents and other then-adult readers who devoured the books along with them, may already know that the smash-hit series is slated for a new small-screen adaptation to debut on Netflix next year. That means that right now is a great time to re-visit Snicket’s (aka Daniel Handler‘s) playfully grim universe–especially because that universe has just expanded.
All the Wrong Questions is an recently-completed Unfortunate Events spin-off series, consisting of four main books (1: Who Could That Be At This Hour? 2: When Did You See Her Last? 3: Shouldn’t You Be in School? 4: Why is This Night Different From All Other Nights?) and one volume of related short stories (File Under– 13 Suspicious Incidents). Set a generation before ASoUE, AtWQ chronicles an exciting period in the life of young Lemony Snicket, the narrator/”author” of ASoUE, during his time as an apprentice investigator in a forlorn and mostly-abandoned village called Stain’d-by-the-Sea.
ASoUE and AtWQ definitely belong in the same universe. They share the same melancholy-yet-hopeful tone, the same focus on heroic individuals struggling often unsuccessfully against a world of selfishness and corruption, and the same conviction that the surest way of telling the bad guys from the good guys is usually that the good guys love to read. In other ways, however, the two series have significant tonal differences. Where ASoUE is about as Gothic as a story can be, AtWQ chooses a different downbeat genre and skews heavily noir–if Humphrey Bogart doesn’t actually manage to climb through the pages, it’s not for lack of trying. Another big difference is that, while ASoUE’s three protagonists are siblings who can depend on one another from page one, Lemony in AtWQ starts out alone and builds himself a found family in the course of the books. Young readers who have just finished ASoUE should also know that AtWQ is a slightly more difficult read, written for an audience a few years older.
All of that said, I think that every Unfortunate Events fan should give All the Wrong Questions a try. It’s a quick and enjoyable read with a great sense of humor–and the perfect way to tide yourself over until January 13!
Book – Sometimes, it’s easy to know from the outset whether a book will be a good fit or not. Such is the case with The Gentlemen, a book about a vain Victorian poet who meets the Devil at a masquerade ball, accidentally sells his wife’s soul in exchange for poetic inspiration and consequently launches an expedition (peopled by his bluff adventuring brother-in-law, his scandalous sister, a shy mad scientist and a stalwart butler) to Hell to retrieve her. If that premise sounds as delightful to you as it did to me, you’ll love the book; if not, don’t bother. Simple as that.
Forrest Leo’s language in The Gentleman is perfectly Victorian, his parodistic humor is spot-on for the absurd, over-the-top story he’s looking to tell, and the steampunk elements of his universe are used sparingly and well. While reading, there was a moment when I feared I would feel cheated by the ending, but I was happily mistaken in that. If I had to quibble, I wouldn’t have minded a little more swashbuckling action. Overall, however, The Gentleman was a delightfully silly, light, fast-paced, fun first novel, with a great and original premise, from a clearly talented young writer. I can’t wait to see what he writes next!
Book – Every once in a while, a book picked up on a whim can be surprising in wonderful ways. That was my reaction to Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession and How Desire Shapes the World. I was expecting a conventional history of precious stones and jewelry. I got both less and more than that, and wasn’t at all disappointed in the exchange.
Stoned is to traditional, chronological histories as a volume of short stories is to a novel. Chapters jump around in time, but each is a fascinating and complete slice of history in its own right. Chapter subjects are chosen not only to entertain and inform, but used to explore the larger question why human beings value what we value, becoming far less mineralogical or artistic than social and psychological history. For example, the first chapter explores the popular myth that the Dutch purchase of New Amsterdam (later New York) was somehow a swindle because Venetian beads were used as currency, pointing out that glass beads were, at the time, a rare and precious commodity with a globally recognized worth. We wouldn’t balk today at someone purchasing land rights with a sackful of diamonds–why do we respect one variety of shiny bauble but look down on past peoples for prizing another? And what’s going on in our brains that makes us value gems in the first place?
Author Raden does a great job choosing subjects that are both interesting and significant, from the pearl that changed Tudor history to the role of Faberge eggs in the Russian Revolution to the conquistadors’ emeralds to how cultured pearls helped Japan become a world power. Her voice is entertaining and pacing is brisk, making Stoned a quick and fascinating read. It’s perfect for anyone who loves popular and casual histories like Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything.