Jane

About Jane

I'm a Youth Services Librarian and story addict who will happily read everything and anything, from picture books and easy readers to comics and novels in verse to classics and thousand-page nonfiction monsters. My desk is full of antique teacups, invention kits and clothes-pin alligators, which says more or less everything about my philosophy on kids and libraries. During those rare moments when I'm not reading or listening to a book, you can find me cooking, writing, falling in love with a new podcast, fooling around with any kind of game (video or paper) with a strong story and sense of atmosphere, or binge-watching House of Cards.

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep by Joanna Cannon

Book – The summer of 1976 is the hottest in recent memory, and Mrs. Creasy has disappeared from the Avenue.  Grace and Tillie, both aged ten, are determined to get to the bottom of the case, but secrets run deep in their little suburb, and the more they investigate the mystery, the further they find themselves drawn into their community’s shared and troubling past–all starting with the long-ago disappearance of a little girl.

The Trouble With Goats and Sheep is a hard book to categorize; it doesn’t really fit well into any type of mystery I know.  It doesn’t feature much actual detective work, and while we the readers learn the full story of What Happened through flashbacks, most of the characters do not.  As such, The Trouble With Goats and Sheep might better be considered as a work of literary fiction or coming-of-age story with mystery elements.

I think that my own vague feeling of letdown at the end of the book was a result of trying to force it to fit a more traditional mystery mold, but the fact that I made it to the end at all is evidence of its good points.  The author’s voice is compelling, and the novel’s themes are deep, exploring community, memory, scapegoating and the ways that fear and guilt can twist human behavior.  As a fan of ensemble stories, I enjoyed the large cast of complex and not-always-likeable characters.  As a whole, I found it a sufficiently intriguing debut novel to have hope for the author’s sophomore outing.

Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Book – “What’s your favorite book?” is a cruel and unusual question to ask any librarian, but when absolutely forced to give an answer, Good Omens is where I tend to land.  In an effort to keep this review from getting too gushing, then, I’m going to try to focus more on comparisons than description, because allowing me near superlatives in this case is a dangerous prospect.  Let me just give the basics on plot–namely, it’s a humorous take on the Apocalypse (no, really)–and hurry from there to the land of “you’ll like this if”.

The obvious ones first: if you already enjoy the solo work of either Neil Gaiman or Terry Pratchett, then Good Omens is unquestionably worth your time.  Even though it was written before the explosion of the internet and the resulting acceleration of mashup culture, it’s a perfect example of the kind of textual remixing that both writers did and do so well, deconstructing classic stories and themes and rebuilding them into something fresh and self-aware.  It has all of Sir Terry’s boundless humor (and footnotes!) and sudden moments of profound emotional insight, with Gaiman’s unpretentious lyricism and finger on the pulse of the collective unconscious, and it reads so seamlessly that it’s impossible to tell that it comes from two different authors.

But you by no means need to already be a fan of either writer to love Good Omens; it was the first thing I read of either of theirs, and I was hooked from page one.  If you already love Douglas Adams, Monty Python, Eddie Izzard or Christopher Moore, you’re a shoe-in; Good Omens is all about that same irreverent sense of humor.  It’s a great choice, too, for fans of Roald Dahl or Ray Bradbury or  Kurt Vonnegut, sharing their sometimes dark yet deeply compassionate lens on humanity.  It’s for fantasy and sci-fi fans, but for humor fans too.  It’s for the reader who wants a quick read that deserves to be called ‘light’ yet tackles big themes and doesn’t shy away from emotional impact.  It’s for pretty much anybody who doesn’t mind allowing humor and religion to mix (never, in my opinion, in a way that mocks anyone or their beliefs).  And it is–to allow myself just the one moment of gushing–an absolute, unqualified delight.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms by George R.R. Martin

BookGame of Thrones is off the air again (the season seven finale hasn’t aired at time of writing, so I can say without fear of spoilers that I just bet it was spectacular) and The Winds of Winter still has no release date. What’s a Song of Ice and Fire fan to do?

In my extremely informal survey of Martin fans, I’ve found that even among heavy readers who’ve enjoyed the five books of the main Song of Ice and Fire series, few have taken the relatively brief (~350 page) foray into the prequel world of the Dunk and Egg.  That’s a crying shame. Planned for an eventual series of about nine, the first three Dunk and Egg novellas, collected under the title A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, are an absolute treat of a read. That said, they are very different to the main series, featuring none of the same characters and, more importantly, a significant tonal shift. Where the main Westeros novels espouse an almost noir-ishly grim, nice-guys-finish-last-and-without-their-heads morality, the stories of lowborn Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire–the boy who will someday become King Aegon the Unlikely–have an absolutely opposite feel, old-fashioned in a good way. Here, 100 years before Game of Thrones, chivalry and innocence are still very much alive and well. Ser Duncan is far from pampered, and certainly the stories see their share of moral complexity and bad things happening to good people, but ultimately kindness, generosity, honor and compassion are allowed to win the day.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms is as page-turningly compelling as A Song of Ice and Fire, but with a brisker pace, a narrower scope, and, as aforementioned, a welcome optimistic tone. For any reader–even one new to Martin’s work–who needs a charming, well-written break from death and destruction (whether on the news or HBO), it’s a fantastic choice.

Modern Children’s Classics to (Re)Visit Soon

Books – Revisiting childhood favorites may be the definition of comfort reading.  Some children’s books inspire a ‘what was I thinking?’ response when revisited later in life, but some have enough depth to genuinely repay a fresh, or first, look from a grown-up perspective.  The following are four children’s classics which I find myself rereading often–not just for nostalgia, but because their messages still resonate and they still make me think even as an adult.  (They’re all from the mid-20th century, because I needed some limit or this list would be five miles long).  It goes without saying that they’re still great choices for today’s kids, too!

From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg

Twelve-year-old Claudia Kincaid has a stiflingly samey middle-class upbringing and an indefatigable independent streak.  Accompanied by her younger brother Jamie, mostly because she needs the financial security of his scrupulously hoarded allowances, Claudia runs away from home to an astonishing destination: The Metropolitan Museum of Art.  The description of Claudia and Jamie’s escapades in the Museum will never fail to be delightful, but re-reading now, what sticks with me is the depth of the story’s messages about emotional resilience and how life’s challenges teach us who we are.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I think it’s a disservice to this fantastic mystery to call it a children’s book–and I say that despite thinking that children’s books are for everyone, and despite the fact that it’s a beloved Newbery winner.  The mystery at its core is deliciously twisty, but what’s striking about this story is the size and breadth of its beautifully-drawn cast.  You could cut out the mystery element entirely and still have a fascinating story about strong personalities thrown together through the simple circumstance of apartment living, not unlike Alexander McCall Smith’s 44 Scotland Street series for adults.

The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I may be one of the two people in the world who loves the movie version of The Phantom Tollbooth, but I still really wish it had been better, because the book deserves the universal fame of better-adapted works like The Wizard of Oz.  All the classic portal fantasy elements are there: Milo receives a mysterious package in the mail and is drawn through it into a whimsical nonsense world that needs his help.  The Phantom Tollbooth is, sort of, a traditional good-versus-evil story, but it stands out because it’s actually less about outright wickedness and more about the perils of inaction: boredom, not heroism, sets Milo off on his adventure, and instead of moustache-twirling villains he faces enemies like the “Terrible Trivium”, the ultimate waster of time. Juster’s is a deeper, more complex, more contemporary and relevant kind of morality than usual in children’s fantasy, one that could easily be marketed as ‘fractured’ fairy tale were it not so full of genuine heart.

The Giver by Lois Lowry

If The Hunger Games is YA lit’s answer to 1984, then The Giver is its Brave New World.  I’m as much of a Katniss fan as the next Youth Services librarian, but The Giver did YA dystopia long before, and arguably better.  It’s a profoundly political story about every citizen’s complicity in government actions and the high price we pay for a life without discomfort, and it’s as touching, as painful and as thought-provoking now as ever.

 

 

 

Short by Holly Goldberg Sloan

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.

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood

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.

American Street by Ibi Zoboi

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.

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

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!

The Crime at Black Dudley by Margery Allingham

a-1-black-dudleyBook – 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.

The Princess Diarist by Carrie Fisher

the-princess-diaristBook – 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.