Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella

Book–Becky Bloomwood is a reluctant financial journalist with a dirty secret:  she can’t stop spending money. Despite harassment from creditors, Becky cannot resist the siren song of shiny new things, particularly clothes, to the point where she invents a dying aunt to justify borrowing money to buy a new scarf. She tries spending less money (and fails), tries making more money (and fails), and even tries marrying rich. The fun of this novel comes from watching Becky squirm; she has a knack for getting herself into sticky, embarrassing situations reminiscent of Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones and is a delightfully flawed character who with a distinctive and strong narrative voice. As long as you don’t take it too seriously, Confessions of a Shopaholic is chick lit at its light, airy, and compulsively readable best.

If you like this book because of the fashion focus, you’ll also love The Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger (and its sequel), the Haley Randolph series by Dorothy Howell (start with Handbags and Homicide), and the rest of the Shopaholic series. If you’d have liked this one better if only Becky weren’t so darn shallow, try some of Rainbow Rowell’s books, like Attachments, or A Window Opens by Elisabeth Egan.

 

 

Switching Places with Fido: Stories About Swapping Bodies with the Dog

Books Imagine waking up to find that your hands have become paws in the night.  You jump off the bed (on four legs!), look in the mirror and see a furry, wet-nosed face staring back at you.  But then, you turn around and see yourself, your human self, looking just as confused as you.  Somehow, you and your dog have swapped bodies!  Dog Days by Elsa Watson and The Dog in the Freezer by Harry Mazer (available through Interlibrary Loan) explore the bizarreness of  finding yourself stuck in the body of your furry best friend, making for some fun, quirky reads.

In Elsa Watson’s Dog Days, we meet struggling café owner Jessica Sheldon, who is going through a ruff time. Elsa holds the famed title of “number one dog hater” after an unfortunate incident in which she may have screamed at two unsuspecting pups.  “Woofinstock,” the towns annual dog-themed festival, is Jessica’s chance to redeem herself, and her café.  Jessica is in way over her head after volunteering for the festival, and taking in a stray dog named Zoe was never part of the plan. Things get even worse when Zoe and Jessica magically happen to swap forms.  While Zoe is ecstatic that she finally has the power to take any food she likes, Jessica is terrified imagining what her body double will do next!

The Dog in the Freezer is a compilation of three novellas, each tail showcasing the strong bound between a boy and his dog.  (Though we don’t have a copy of this novel at our library, you can request it through Interlibrary Loan).  This was one of my favorite’s growing up.  The body-swapping story is titled “My Life As a Boy,” about a hghschooler named Gregory and his genius dog Einstein.  Gregory and Einstein just wake up one day, on the day of Gregory’s very important basketball game, to find they have switched places!  Will Einstein be able to take Gregory’s place in the big game?  With tons of humor, and a touch of suspense, this book really is the fleas knees.

 

 

 

Since We Fell by Dennis Lehane

Book – In Since We Fell, it seemed like Rachel had it all.  A great husband and an aspiring career as a television journalist.  But everything began to unravel when she went to Haiti to cover the devastation after the 2009 earthquake. Her experiences there left her scarred and haunted. As she was reporting live she emotionally and mentally fell apart. This trauma was a major blow to her career and when she returned home she lost confidence in herself and had difficulty leaving their apartment.  Her husband, not at all sympathetic to her situation, divorced her. Rachel became obsessed with finding her birth father whom she never knew.  Her mother didn’t want to reveal who he really was.  The search brought her to Brian Delacroix a private investigator, who, not surprisingly was unsuccessful in locating her father due to lack of information.

Several years later Rachel and Brian’s paths cross again and they fall in love and marry.  Brian is loving and works with Rachel to help restore her confidence and to venture out in the world.  Rachel begins noticing that things don’t add up.  She is certain that she sees Brian in the area, when he is supposed to be out of the country and acquaintances tell her conflicting facts about his past.   What else could he be hiding? It turns out plenty and now Rachel’s life could be in danger.  There are plenty of plot twists as she learns of murder and deception and she has to force herself out of her shell to fight for her life.  Dennis Lehane does it again with another superb psychological thriller.

You may enjoy other thrillers and crime fiction written by Lehane some of which have become movies.  One of my other favorites is Shutter Island.

Other Minds by Peter Godfrey-Smith

Book – Some of the most intelligent animals on the planet, other than humans, are apes, monkeys, crows and ravens, parakeets, and…octopuses. Which is just as weird as it sounds, because while apes and monkeys are closely related to us, and birds not too far different, octopuses (and other cephalopods, squids and cuttlefish) are very distant relations. Our most recent common ancestor is 750 million years old. So why are they so smart, and what can we learn about intelligence and awareness from studying them?

Peter Godfrey-Smith is a philosopher, but also a scuba diver, and his encounters with cephalopods off the coast of Australia led him to this fascinating study of minds, both human and alien. Deep discussion of what consciousness is and how it happens is interleaved with vivid descriptions of octopus behavior and relationships. As a pure philosophy book, this would be too dense and heavy to manage, but bringing in the octopuses and their evolutionary history gives it just the right balance. An enlightening read for anyone interested in the question of animal intelligence and the ways humans are similar to – and different from – very different creatures.

Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman

Book – Eleanor Oliphant is an awkward young woman who doesn’t have any friends. She works as an administrator in a design firm and spends her weekends drinking enough vodka so that she is neither drunk nor sober. Her only contact with people outside of work are shopkeepers, utility men and weekly phone conversations with her institutionalized mother. Then, Eleanor wins a set of tickets to a concert and develops a crush on one of the singers. Eleanor decides she must improve herself to win his love and changes (and hilarity) ensue. Eleanor’s observations about people’s habits and pop culture and her attitude about life are entertaining, but also also give a glimpse of what she has endured. I loved reading about Eleanor’s transformation and her eccentric new friends. If you liked The Rosie Project or Britt-Marie Was Here, you’ll enjoy this book.

Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy by Cathy O’Neil

Book–From college admittance to the actuarial models that determine what you pay for health insurance, decisions of who gets what in our society are increasingly made by algorithms rather than individuals. Former Wall Street quantitative analyst Cathy O’Neil exposes that, while many algorithms claim impartiality, they in fact end up entrenching systemic inequality. For example, many employers are increasingly using applicants’ credit scores as a factor in choosing employees, with the rationale that reliability with paying debt is correlated with reliability generally. Long term unemployed and lower income people are likely to have lower credit scores due to the higher credit utilization rates that typically accompany a shortage of funds, and this practice unfairly bars them from the very employment that would lift them out of their circumstances. O’Neil has plenty of other incisive examples of opaque, badly designed algorithms wreaking havoc on people’s lives from birth to death, but her thesis is that unless an algorithm is transparent, fair, and carefully considered, it tends to reinforce the status quo and penalize marginalized groups disproportionately.

Despite having the word “math” in the title, which tends to scare people off, Weapons of Math Destruction is written in an accessible, plainspoken style that doesn’t require you to be particularly mathematically-minded to follow along. O’Neil’s writing has a gift for making complicated topics simple and will appeal to fans of Malcolm Gladwell.

Finishing School: The Happy Ending to That Writing Project You Can’t Seem to Get Done by Cary Tennis and Danelle Morton

Book – Like many writers, Cary Tennis had a project he just couldn’t finish: a sprawling novel he’d started writing while commuting to a detested corporate job. He struggled with it for years before coming up with the Finishing School, a method for constructing a writing group that was about support, not mutual criticism, and gentle accountability. And yes, he finished the novel.

What makes Finishing School the book unique (in my experience of writing-advice books, of which I’ve read many) is the authors’ understanding that writing, and especially projects we’ve been procrastinating on for years, can bring up big emotions, and it’s those emotions, not the writing itself, that frequently gets in the way. Finishing School, the method, is about making some space for those emotions, which in turn makes some space in your head for getting the work done.

I think this method could be expanded to help you deal with any project you want to get done but don’t have a firm deadline for. (Discussed in the book are several writers who had writing-adjacent projects they needed to finish, like cleaning out the study that had been used as a storage room for too many years.) In addition to sympathy, the book lays out the method for you to use as a two-person buddy system or as a large group like a class. I’m looking forward to recruiting a buddy to help me get started on a couple of projects of my own.

Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough

Book – It is 1888, a hot, murderous summer in London, and Doctor Thomas Bond is assisting the police in their investigations. Inspector Abberline leads the investigation into Jack the Ripper, cutting up prostitutes in Whitechapel, but Dr. Bond is more concerned with another killer, more fastidious, whose victims they pull out of the river in pieces. His anxiety high, Dr. Bond turns to opium to calm his mind, but in the opium dens he meets a foreign priest and a Polish madman, who convince him that the monster stalking London is not entirely human after all.

There are probably dozens of novels about Jack the Ripper being a man possessed by a demon; this is the first I’ve seen where Jack is a footnote to a different monster. (The Thames Torso Killer was real, and really was active at the same time as Jack the Ripper, but for whatever reason he never became as famous.) Dr. Bond is a terrific character, too; wracked by anxiety and drug addiction, he never entirely believes in the supernatural thing that his companions warn him about, but he’s willing to do whatever is necessary to stop the killing. Fans of Hannibal and Alex Grecian’s Scotland Yard series will love this book and its sequel, Murder.

Love and First Sight by Josh Sundquist

Book – Josh Sundquist is a spunky motivational speaker and Paralympian. He lost his left leg to cancer at nine years old, and often pulls from his daily experiences dealing with his disability. Sundquist is a hilarious speaker and writer; I definitely recommend checking out some of his performances. He has also composed two memoirs, and Love and First Sight is his first novel.

In Love and First Sight, we meet sixteen-year-old Will Porter. Will is blind, and he is starting high school at a hearing school.  His first day does not go well; he manages to grope a classmate, make a girl cry hysterically, and sits on somebody in the lunchroom. But then he meets quiet, sweet Cecily who he quickly develops a crush on. When Will learns that a new type of medical operation could potentially return his sight, he is overwhelmed with the excitement of seeing the world for the first time. However, Will never anticipated the challenges he would face with the miracle of sight. Things are not quite what he expected, especially when it comes to Cecily. While Will’s friends described Cecily’s appearance to him when he was blind, Will finds that the girl he’s fallen so hard for doesn’t meet the typical standards of beauty. Though he knows it shouldn’t matter what she looks like, Will feels betrayed, and is unprepared for all the changes his newfound sight has brought to him. A coming of age story of young love, life-changing decisions and friendship.

For more fiction stories dealing with blindness, check out: Love Blind by Christa Desir, and Things Not Seen* by Andrew Clements (*Followed by Things Hoped For, and Things That Are. All three books of the trilogy are available on our pre-loaded Middle School Battle of the Books Kindle.)

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.