Before I Go by Colleen Oakley

indexBook–  Daisy is crushed when, on the anniversary of three years free of cancer, she receives a surprise stage four diagnosis, with a life expectancy of 4 months. This is especially galling for Daisy because she did everything ‘right’– ate healthy, cancer-fighting foods, got all of her scheduled follow-ups, and exercised regularly. Rather than dwelling on her own mortality, Daisy is worried about her husband Jack. Jack is a brilliant airhead who relies on Daisy to take care of him.

Oakley does a great job at characterizing both Jack and Daisy:  we get a clear picture of Daisy the type A, detail-oriented organizer and list-maker and her partnership with Jack, the big-picture, charming, dreamer type. Daisy comes to the conclusion that she should spend her last few months finding Jack a new wife/caretaker. With the help of her best friend, she frequents dog parks and coffee shops looking for her replacement, even making a dating website profile for Jack. However, once one of the prospects she’s scouted for seems to be getting too close to Jack for Daisy’s liking, and she begins to re-evaluate how she’s planned to spend the final months of her life.

This book has a definite downer ending, but that’s what you expect reading a book about terminal cancer. I especially liked that, even while near death, Oakley did not make Daisy become a  caricature of the brave cancer patient:  she retained her personality, flaws and all. This is the author’s first novel, and it will be interesting to see what she writes next.

 

The Dream-Quest of Vellit Boe by Kij Johnson

51eCqp7J8OLBook – When Vellitt Boe settled down as a professor of mathematics at the Women’s College of Ulthar, she thought that her wandering days were over. In her youth she’d traveled the Six Kingdoms of the dream world and even met dreamers from the waking world. And now she is forced into traveling again, when her student Clarie Jurat, a daughter of one of the College’s Trustees, runs off with a dreamer, putting the future of the college – and perhaps much more – at risk.

If the title sounds at all familiar, it’s because this novella is a kind of inversion of H.P. Lovecraft‘s “The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath,” in which a dreamer from our world travels the mysterious and dangerous realms of the dreamlands – and these are the same dreamlands, from the gugs and ghouls of the under-realms to the mad and unpredictable gods. You don’t need to know that to enjoy this story, though; Vellitt Boe stands comfortably on her own two feet without the need to stand on anyone else’s shoulders.

This is a tremendous amount of questing in a very small package; if you like epic fantasy novels like those of Tad Williams, Robert Jordan, or J.R.R. Tolkien, but you don’t have time for another thousand-page tome, The Dream-Quest of Vellitt Boe packs a whole world’s worth of strange beauty into fewer than 200 pages.

The Gentleman by Forrest Leo

6174e2-23JL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_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!

Bullets or Ballots (1936)

MV5BNjQ3ODAzMzM1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNjc2OTcyMjE@._V1_UY268_CR3,0,182,268_AL_Movie – Johnny Blake is a tough cop – so tough he got kicked off the force. Which only delights the local gangsters, since Blake had been a thorn in their side for years. And then a local crime boss gets a bright idea and hires Blake on to help him develop novel ways of expanding his criminal enterprise, much to the distaste of his lieutenant Bugs Fenner, who isn’t convinced that Blake has left the side of the law at all.

This is a terrific example of Warner Brothers’ premiere blockbuster genre of the 1930s, the gangster flick. The plot, based on the career of real-life detective John Broderick, is fine, but the cast is outstanding: Edward G. Robinson as a good guy for once, a terribly young Humphrey Bogart in one of his nastier roles, Joan Blondell as your femme fatale and a full range of character actors – although for me, the highlight of the movie is Louise Beavers in a rare glamorous turn as the numbers queen of Harlem.

Like a lot of the Warner Brothers’ classic films on DVD, the disc includes the “Night at the Movies” special feature, designed to give you the full experience from the year the movie was made: a newsreel, a trailer, a cartoon, and a musical short. (If you want a double feature, though, you’ll have to load the second film yourself. I recommend Angels With Dirty Faces if you believe a night of gangster movies just isn’t complete without James Cagney, or Larceny, Inc. if you’d like a little comedy.) And don’t miss the blooper reel; you haven’t lived until you’ve seen Humphrey Bogart swearing at the furniture.

Harrow County: Countless Haints by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook

indexGraphic Novel – Although she’s about to turn eighteen, Emmy hasn’t seen much of the world. She lives alone with her father on their farm somewhere in the South and dreams of seeing more – until the night of her birthday, when everyone in town turns on her, even her own father, and she’s forced to flee for her life before she even knows why, or what it is about her that the spirits in the forest gather to protect her…

This is a terrific little Southern Gothic ghost story, just eerie enough to be disturbing if read too late at night, but without the excess of gore that you see in so many horror comics. The art is beautiful, done in a soft watercolor that adds to both the comfortable mundanity of Emmy’s home and the otherworldly feel of the haints and spirits. Emmy is a great character, struggling not only with her newfound power but with what it means about her and her place in the world. Fans of Welcome to Night Vale and Penny Dreadful will enjoy this series.

Stoned: Jewelry, Obsession and How Desire Shapes the World by Aja Raden

25817092Book – 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.

Forgotten by Cat Patrick

9415951Book – As a connoisseur of all things memory-books, I love sinking my teeth into any novel focused on an amnesiac.  My “Bookshelf of Memory” mainly contains adult fiction, but I’ve recently come across some prospective novels in the Young Adult and Youth departments.  That’s how I happened upon Forgotten by Cat Patrick.

Every morning, London reads the notes she left herself the night before–general facts about her life, as well as specific details about homework, school, and important reminders for her daily life.  Navigating high school is hard enough without waking up each morning with no memory of the day before.  However, London’s curse is also a gift, for while she can’t recall the past, she sees “memories” of the future.  She knows that her best friend will be unlucky in love, throwing herself at every guy she meets.  She sees snippets of what the future holds for herself and others.   Everything changes when she meets the new kid at school, Luke Henry, who in spite of her condition, London just can’t seem to forget.

The story had such an intriguing premise, but fell short of my expectations, mainly due to the high school romance scene.  As a high schooler, I probably would have appreciated this book a lot more, but now I could have gone without the lovesick puppy romance.  I wanted it to be more about London’s memories, and her crazy unique ability to see into the future.

 

 

What Are Big Girls Made of? by Marge Piercy

519y6ulTYBL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Book – Dealing with such topics as acrimonious family relationships, nature, and feminism, this collection of poetry has something for everyone. Particular standout poems are “A Day in the Life,” chronicling a typical terrible day for an abortion clinic worker, “Between Two Hamlets,” which takes a decidedly different perspective on the famous play, and the series of “Brother-less” poems, where Piercy explores her distant, regretful relationship with her half-brother.  Piercy’s poems are full of beautiful, memorable images, such as comparing troubles to “sweaters knit of hair and wire” and exhorting women to love themselves like “healthy babies burbling in our arms.”  I am not typically a huge fan of poetry typically but this collection is very accessible to the non-habitual poetry reader.

What Are Big Girls Made Of? will appeal to those who appreciate a lyrical, image-laden writing style in prose or poetry.  You can find Warrenville Public Library’s poetry collection filed in the nonfiction collection in the 800s.

Arrowood by Laura McHugh

28007948Book – Arden Arrowood moved away from Keokuk, Iowa, and her eponymous family home, when she was little, shortly after her twin baby sisters disappeared. She hasn’t been back for years, but now, with a Master’s degree in history all but finished and reeling from her estranged father’s death, the lawyers have told her that the house belongs to her. Moving home is all she’s ever wanted, but when she gets there she finds it more complicated than she’d like it to be. Her best friend and first boyfriend is engaged, the estate is running out of money to keep up the old house, and a writer working on a book about her sisters’ disappearance wants to explain to her why she’s wrong about what she always said she saw that day when her sisters went missing. Arden might be home, but she’s being haunted in more ways than one.

I read and loved McHugh’s first novel, The Weight of Blood, a couple of years ago, but I was even more excited about this one given the setting – I grew up in southern Iowa, not far from Lee County, where this novel is set. I wasn’t disappointed. I loved the focus on the trickiness of memory, how things can become distorted with time and repetition, and what that says about long-buried hurts. A little touch of the Gothic polished off this low-key thriller very nicely.

Then and Always by Dani Atkins

atkins_thenandalways_pb1Book – In Then and Always: A Novel, by Dani Atkins, Rachel Wittshire  seemed to have it all: a drop dead gorgeous boyfriend, a close knit group of best friends, and a promising future heading off to college.  But then  tragic accident shatters everything, leaving the lives of Rachel and her friends changed forever.

Rachel was left physically affected by the incident; unrelenting painful migraines and memories plague her constantly.  Five years later, Rachel’s life has continued but she never moved on from that night.  When a wedding forces her to return to her old hometime, Rachel must face the path she left behind whether she wants to or not.  A fall lands Rachel in the hospital, and suddenly she wakes up to a new reality that forces her to question everything she thought was true.

This novel deals with memory in a way I’d hadn’t experienced in a novel before, and it was a really intriguing read.  It’s a simple story, but there was plenty of drama and a touch of romance to keep my attention.  It’s about loss and moving on but also the age old question of What if? What if you could change the past?  Is it ever too late to start anew?  I would recommend this to anyone who wants a more lighthearted mystery/amnesiac drama with a romantic interest.