Book- After witnessing a stranger’s accidental death as a child, Doughty has always been fascinated by death and mortality. This leads her naturally to getting a job in a crematory. Far from the sterile and sanitized version of death many people prefer to maintain, Doughty offers a more honest picture of what happens when we die. She tells of cleaning the bones out of the crematory, of smashing bones into “cremains,” and of many, many viscerally gross details that I won’t relate here. Even as just a memoir of her time in the crematorium, Doughty’s memoir is engrossing, informative, and, at times, hilarious.
However, during her time in the traditional death industry, Doughty has come to the conclusion that we as a culture live too far separated from death and dying. In the past, seeing an untreated dead body was not a rare sight. Today, the dead are either cleaned up and embalmed to look like they are sleeping, as in wakes and funerals, or whisked away quietly, as in hospitals where death is viewed as a failure of the medical system. Doughty wants us all to think openly and honestly about death since, after all, it is inevitable.
Smoke Gets in Your Eyes will appeal to fans of Mary Roach, who offers a similarly unadorned picture of the human body and its processes.
Book – As a children’s librarian, there is no doubt that I am biased in favor of children’s books, but you don’t need to take my word for it that this one makes a fun read even for grown-ups. Besides the vote of confidence from the Newbery Committee, I have the testimony of my grandparents–neither of whom is a children’s book reader in general but each of whom devoured this one in a day, laughing all the way–to back me up in that claim.
1962 is the summer of eleven-year-old Jack Gantos’ perpetual grounding. With a nose that won’t stop bleeding, on the outs with both his parents and forbidden from playing baseball with his friends, Jack might have a grim few months ahead of him if not for his feisty elderly neighbor. Mrs. Volker, the resident historian of the small town of Norvelt, needs the loan of Jack’s hands to type up obituaries of her fellow orginal Norvelters, the rare task for which Jack is released from house-arrest. But when those obituaries start coming a little too thick and fast, Jack and Mrs. Volker become an unlikely team of sleuths, and fast friends into the bargain.
Part mystery story, part fictionalized memoir, entirely small town slice-of-life, Dead End in Norvelt explores questions of community and memory without ever feeling preachy. Centering as it does on an inter-generational friendship, it’s a great choice to share within families–but even if you don’t have a child, grandchild, niece, nephew or cousin to pass it on to, it’s well worth the rollicking ride.
Book – It is a truth universally acknowledged that a mad scientist in possession of an evil plan must be in want of a minion. Ballister Blackheart is a mad scientist. Nimona is a teenage girl who can turn into a shark. Obviously they’re made for each other.
Okay, Ballister’s plan isn’t really evil so much as it’s subversive – turns out the Institution of Law Enforcement and Heroics maybe isn’t all it’s cracked up to be after all. And he’s a scientist, and yes he does invent giant lasers, but he’s not terribly mad. Nimona can turn into a shark, though. That’s pretty cool.
Nimona starts out full of wacky hijinks, but it has a very powerful story at its core, about friendships that have suffered unbearable things and about figuring out how to belong somewhere when you’ve never belonged anywhere before. The final chapters are heart-wrenching in the best way. If you’re sad at the end, be sure to check out the author’s tumblr, where she regularly posts little sketches of the characters being happy and adorable (as they should be). And, of course, check out her series Lumberjanes, which is also utterly fantastic.
Book- Despite living in a small Texas town collectively obsessed with football and the local Miss Clover City beauty pageant, Willowdean Dickson has managed to carve out a niche away from all that, looking to her deceased shut-in aunt Lucy for guidance. This is no mean feat, given that Will’s (or Dumplin’, as her mother calls her) mother is a former Miss Clover City winner and current pageant bigwig. However, the pageant draws Will into its orbit. First her best friend Ellen begins to hang out with pageant hopefuls, creating a distance between herself and Will where none existed before. Then Will enters a secret affair with the laconic Bo, an enigmatic-but-hot fast food coworker whom she’s crushed on for months.
Though Will is a bigger girl, she has up to this point in the story projected confidence. However, Bo’s keeping her a secret, and her niggling suspicion that her mother is ashamed of her, damages her confidence. In a wild bid to prove to herself to herself and to do what her aunt Lucy had always dreamed of doing, she, and a ragtag band of other unlikely candidates, enter the Miss Clover City beauty pageant. What follows is a campy high school coming-of-age experience reminiscent of Hairspray. Perhaps the best, most refreshing thing about Dumplin’ is that, unlike other stories in this vein and much like real life, the fat protagonist is allowed to remain fat; she doesn’t magically lose weight the moment she locates her self-confidence.
Book –What happens when we die? Does Heaven await us in the afterlife, or perhaps the fiery pits of Hell? Maybe, our souls merely evaporate into the air, leaving no trace of our existence. Shall we meet the pearly gates or travel the River Styx?
Gabrielle Zevin explores this age-old question of what happens after life in her novel, Elsewhere. Imagine that you wake up in a strange bed, aboard a ship you’ve never seen before, embarking on a journey to a place you’ve never heard of, called Elsewhere. Fifteen year old Liz thinks she’s having a bad dream, until it finally hits her; she’s dead.
Dead and stuck in Elsewhere, all Liz wants to do is go back home, or at the very least find a way communicate with her family so they know she’s okay. But the afterlife has other things in store for her. In Elsewhere, people age backwards instead of forwards, and they return to Earth as infants. so Liz is placed in the custody of her late grandmother, a woman she has never known. This isn’t how it was supposed to be! Liz doesn’t want to build a new life growing young; she wants her life back. Maybe, just maybe, there’s more to the afterlife than meets the eye…
I adored this book as a teen, and still consider it one of my favorites today. The world of Elsewhere seemed like a fantasy to me, a quite intriguing hypothesis of what lies in store for us in death. A morbidly light read, with a fun cast of characters and a charming story.
Book – Imagine if you could taste someone’s emotions when you bite into a piece of cake, fresh from the oven. Maybe you’d taste your mother’s happiness at the success of a new recipe, or the local baker’s despair of his broken marriage. Would it be a gift? Or a curse?
Aimee Bender’s explores this whimsical idea in her novel The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake. On her ninth birthday, Rose Edelstein is shocked to discover she has a taste for feelings after biting into a slice of cake baked by her mother. In that first bite, her world is shattered when Rose tastes her mother’s sadness and anguish. Her new-found “gift” sends her reeling from the impact of knowing too much about people’s hidden secrets. There is no escape from the emotions that assault her. In this magical coming of age novel, Bender weaves a sorrowful, yet hopeful tale of a young girl caught up in the sentiments of others, trying to find herself among them.
I thought this was a wonderful read, a simple yet fantastical story that is actually quite relatable. While the element of magic may not be found in our own lives, every family has its hidden secrets, the things we try to bury within ourselves. This novel allows us to consider what might happen if those secrets were revealed, as well as realize the burden they hold over us.
Book – Code Name Verity follows the World War II adventures of two young Scottish women. Sensible Maddie, who grew up in her grandfather’s bike shop, has a skill with machines matched only by her love of aeronautics. As a member of the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force she mostly flies supply planes, but her missions become a lot more interesting once she meets Queenie, the girl with many names. Queenie is fearless and funny, brilliant and aristocratic—and a spy. Thrown together under extraordinary circumstances, it isn’t long before the girls form a fierce friendship. When Maddie’s plane is shot down over occupied France and Queenie is captured on a mission, however, both girls will find their strength, and their bond, tested to the limit.
Told through letters and documents written by both young women, Code Name Verity introduces two equally vivid lead characters whose affection for each other makes them jump off the page. Elizabeth Wein does an extraordinary job of building tension and maintaining the novel’s pace, making it hard to put down. Code Name Verity functions equally well as an action-packed war story and as a coming-of-age novel, but for me the absolute highlight is the friendship between the girls—perhaps the single best female friendship I have ever read. There are mentions of off-screen torture that may be uncomfortable for some, and readers are definitely advised to keep their tissues handy, but the depth of emotion and exquisite writing in this top-notch story make it well worth the ride.
Book – In The Brilliant Light of Amber Sunrise, Francis Wootten lives in Northern England and comes from a loving if dysfunctional family. His mother is tough as nails and his grandmother is the same. His father is absent, caught up in his new life elsewhere. His brother works on a magazine no one reads and raids their pantry on a regular basis along with his flatmate, Fiona. Quiet, reserved and a bit of a loner, it isn’t until his leukemia lands him in a hospital unit, that Francis makes a friend and finally falls in love.
I found myself far more interested and invested in Francis and his family than Amber. The Woottens were easier to care about and connect to while Amber was explained too often and shown too little. That said, Francis’ voice is a compelling one and the book was quite enjoyable. This would be a good read for fans of John Green, unique narrators, and strange family dynamics.
Book – The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls is the coming of age story of Thea Atwell. She is 15, lives on a ranch in Florida with her parents and her twin brother, and is already an accomplished horsewoman and beauty. She has always been very close to her family and sheltered, as she and her brother are homeschooled and really don’t have any friends except for each other. Thea’s world is shaken when the Depression begins and she is sent away by her parents to an exclusive equestrian boarding school in the Blue Ridge Mountains as a punishment. We see her adjusting to her new school and making friends with privileged Southern belles as she tries to overcome her feelings of guilt and homesickness. The reader will keep turning the pages as the story slowly unfolds to reveal the reason for her banishment by her family from her beloved home. This is not a cozy read as it is full of scandal, sex and secrets. The book has received starred reviews from Booklist, Library Journal, and Kirkus.
Graphic novel – Rue Silver is just an ordinary teenage girl. She’s got a great best friends, a boyfriend who’s in a band, a college professor father and a crazy mother. Who’s missing. Oh, and sometimes she sees things that can’t be real. No big deal. Okay, so maybe she’s not that ordinary. Her mother is a faery, which means that Rue isn’t entirely human, either. And her grandfather Aubrey has a plan – a plan that will wrest her town from the grip of the humans and leave it under the rule of Faerie. What happens to the humans who live there, well, Aubrey just doesn’t care. Rue cares. As much as she can.
The Good Neighbors (in three volumes, Kin, Kith and Kind) is a wonderful, eerie story about love, duty, and humanity. Rue goes from ordinary high-schooler to fully embracing her faerie heritage, with all that implies. Rue is culturally human, she grew up as a human, but she is fey too, and she finds it all too easy to leave human things behind. The story really belongs to her. The rest of the characters are more like stock fairy tale characters. It’s not a terrible flaw, given how fast-paced the story is. And, of course, Ted Naifeh’s art is stunning. The two-page spreads of faerie and human crowds are spectacular, and while the art never distracts you from the story, it definitely rewards a closer second (and third and fourth) reading.