Circling the Sun by Paula McLain

sunBookCircling the Sun is based on the true life story of Beryl Markham. In the early 1900’s, Beryl, her parents and brother arrive from England to farm 1500 acres of untouched bush in Kenya. Two years later, when Beryl turns five, her mother and brother return to England, unable to handle the primitive conditions. Beryl remains on the farm with her father, running wild in the stable and with the nearby Kipsigis children, particulary her best friend Ruta. As Beryl grows up, she resists conventions and finds herself most comfortable training horses. After a disastrous marriage, she builds a life for herself among the decadent expats living in Kenya. Her circle of friends includes Karen Blixen and Karen’s lover, Denys Finch Hatton. (Blixen wrote her memoir Out of Africa under the pen name Isak Dinesen). Beryl also discovers the joy of flying, becoming a bush pilot and record-setting aviator. I was inspired by Beryl’s determination to follow her own path, despite many roadblocks and much hardship. Paula McClain also wrote a novel based on Hemingway’s early married life titled The Paris Wife.

Sickened: the memoir of a Munchausen by proxy childhood by Julie Gregory

Book– Munchausen by proxy is a rare form of child abuse characterized by faking or exaggerating symptoms of illness in a child, usually to gain attention from the medical community.  Gregory recounts a harrowing childhood spent in hospital rooms, performing illness (or actually being made ill) to satisfy her mother’s craving for attention. Her mother alternates between deliberately starving and abusing her, turning the rest of the family against her, including her helpless father, and cossetting her with attention. Gregory focuses on the strategies she used to survive, such as stealing food from other students’ lunches and from convenience stores.

The writing is at its best when Gregory is understating her situation; like most works of this kind, overly dramatic language can often actually take away from the impact of the story. She includes scans of her own medical records from the time and it is chilling to see how willing some doctors were to believe her mother’s stories. While Gregory obviously escapes her mother’s orbit, as of Gregory’s memoir, there are still children in Gregory’s mother’s care.

Sickened will appeal to fans of memoirs chronicling mental illness, complicated family relationships, and difficult upbringings.

Novels In Verse: The Forgotten Genre

Book – The genre of novels in verse often gets swept under the rug, lost in the muddle of YA fiction.  As opposed to the narrative style of most YA novels (words organized in sentences and paragraphs), verse novels tell stories in the form of free verse poetry.  Aside from their unique formatting, novels in verse excel at covering difficult topics and creating emotionally charged stories.

Here are a few examples of novels in verse, in a variety of themes:

Substance Abuse: Crank by Ellen Hopkins

Ellen Hopkins challenges taboo subjects such as drug addiction, abuse, sex, and suicide in her novels. In her first verse novel, titled Crank, Hopkins addresses drug addiction through the experiences of the main character, Kristina, otherwise known as Bree. Hopkins bases the story off of her own experience with her daughter’s addiction.  The strength in this novel is the connection the author has to the subject matter.

Historical Fiction: Out of the Dust by Karen Hesse

This story follows fourteen year old Billie Joe and her experiences during the dust bowl of the Great Depression.  Billie Joe’s narration is a diary of daily life on her family’s farm where she lives with her Daddy and Ma.  Emotionally charged, this story provides insight into the lives of those living through the dust bowl, while the free verse form helps readers connect to the characters more fully.

Other verse novels at the Warrenville Library include: Because I am Furniture by Thalia Chaltas, A Girl Named Mister by Nick Grimes, May B: A Novel by Caroline Starr Rose,
Shark Girl by Kelly Bingham, and Sold by Patricia McCormick


Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell

Book – Cath is a huge Simon Snow fan. Book releases, movie premiers, dressing up, and writing fan fiction have consumed her life and that of her twin sister Wren. But now Cath and Wren are starting their first year of college and Wren no longer seems to care about Simon Snow. But Cath cannot let go. Simon Snow helped her cope with her mother leaving and her father’s illness. And there is no way she can give up on her fan fiction, Carry On Simon, not when thousands of people are expecting her weekly updates. But navigating college is stressful, especially when making new friends is not your strong suit, and Cath’s upper level Writing class does not leave a lot of time for extra writing projects. Add cute (but confusing) boys to the mix and Cath’s freshman year becomes a lot more complicated than she wished.

Fangirl tells the relatable story of a young college freshman who would rather stay in her room and write fan fiction than interact with anybody. It’s about breaking out of your comfort zone in order to make new friends, have adventures, and start relationships. If you love writing and cute love stories Fangirl is a great book to read.

The Immortals Series by Tamora Pierce

immortalsBook – Meet Daine, a girl with an unusual gift that allows her to communicate with animals.  With only her beloved pony, Daine finds a new life as the animal handler of the Queen’s Riders, working with the knight Alanna.  However, it soon becomes clear that Daine’s gift is more than unusual; it’s magic.  With the help of a mage called Numair, Daine learns to harness the power she possesses.  As her magic reveals its true nature, Daine embarks on a crusade with her newfound friends to protect the city of Tortall from the attacks of  immortal creatures set on destruction.  The series order: 1- Wild Magic, 2-Wolf Speaker, 3-Emperor Mage and 4-The Realms of the Gods.

I first read Wild Magic as a teen, initially attracted by the human-animal communication aspect of the story, but there is so much more to love.  Dragons and other magical creatures, mystery, and fantasy all come together to create this captivating novel. The best part is that Daine’s story continues for four books (no need to feel rushed in your reading!).  This series was everything I wanted it to be.  Which, for me at least, is a pretty big deal.

Tamora Pierce has written a bunch of other novels within the same universe as The Immortals Series, appropriately dubbed the Tortall Universe.  Each mini-series follows a different character; if you liked Daine, try following Alanna, Kel, Aly, or Beka in his/her own adventure. Check out more tales from your favorite characters of the Tortall Universe at


Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematory by Caitlin Doughty

indexBook- 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.

Dead End in Norvelt by Jack Gantos

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.

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

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.

Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy

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.

Elsewhere by Gabrielle Zevin

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.