Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
The Striker is a book by Clive Cussler and Justin Scott. You can interpret that as by Justin Scott with Clive Cussler taking credit and providing guidance. This is another Isaac Bell Adventure and takes place in 1902. In this book Isaac Bell is just starting out with the Van Dorn Detective agency. This story takes place in Pittsburgh in the coal mines. The Van Dorn agency is hired to find out who has been sabotaging the operations. I could relate to the geographical area of this book. I went to college not too many miles outside of Pittsburgh and used to hitchhike in to town for a weekend. When they described the area they wanted to move their tent city to, they talked about the area where the three rivers came together and then they said just imagine a baseball diamond here. Well, since this book was written in 2013 we know that the famous Three Rivers Stadium home to the Pittsburgh Pirates was built there. I know the area well. I spent the night sleeping in a phone booth just outside of the stadium. I was a college kid with no money, it was snowing and the phone booth offered protection from the wind. The police did make me vacate and find another place, the bus terminal offered warmth. These Pittsburgh police were nice, the ones in book took easily to swinging clubs, cracking heads and putting people in jail or the hospital. In this book they develop the Isaac Bell character. He is young and has a hard time being viewed as a lead detective of a team due to his youthful looks. It is suggested he grow a mustache. In the other Isaac Bell books his mustache is constantly referred to when describing him. Archie, his best friend is an apprentice in this book and just learning the ropes. It seemed odd to have the great Archie being subservient. In the books I have already read, we have experienced Isaac’s and Archie’s love interests and their marriage, their getting shot, they are seasoned professionals. So to now discover them as neophytes was interesting. In this book we are introduced to why Isaac carries a derringer in his hat. We read of him buying the derringer, and the hat and of the many many hours he spent perfecting his drawing the gun, all the time knowing that he has used this trick of a hidden gun to save his bacon later in his life. I think what I liked best about this book was the development of Isaac’s character and the description of what it was like in 1902; the living conditions, the unions, coal and our dependence on it for fuel. This could make a good movie, steam boats blow up, people get shot all the elements of a good movie.
“The suburbs have no charms to soothe the restless dreams of youth,” sang Geddy Lee, lead singer of my favorite band Rush when I was a teenager growing up in a Chicago suburb. This is not the case in Shaun Tan’s book of mini-surreal masterpieces, Tales From Outer Suburbia. In these suburbs, there is a water buffalo that answers questions in an empty lot, a dugong (manatee type creature) that appears on someone’s lawn, ICBMs in everyone’s backyard, and a man wandering around in a diving suit.
I found the stories from Tales From Outer Suburbia to be a little too bizarre at first, but my compulsion to finish books that I’ve started carried me through until I slowly became enchanted. The stories feature physical manifestations of the hopes and fears of the people who live in these suburbs and they wove their way into my psyche and released strong feelings of wonder, healing, and letting go. The strange story lines somehow open you up and leave you thinking about them long after you have read them.
I especially identified with a story about two brothers who have a map of their suburb and decide to walk to where the map ends to see what is there. It reminded me of a 10 mile hike my brother and I took to complete the hiking merit badge. We weren’t going to get “out in nature” anytime soon, so we just decided to walk around our Chicago suburb (which, oddly enough, included a stop at the public library to pick up some 8mm films). The experience did have a surreal feeling and it completely changed the way I felt about where I lived. Walking gives you such an intimate connection with your surroundings and it empowered me, as I went to places I had only gone with my parents up to that point.
I was so struck by the book that I asked my son if I could read him the extremely short stories before he went to bed. He agreed and loved the stories and I got to have the nice experience of reading aloud to him that I hadn’t had in several years and to talk a little bit about what it is like to have an older brother who is always right.
Tale From Outer Suburbia
I was excited to discover that Fay Weldon has a new novel out, Habits of the house, the first of a planned trilogy. Set in England at the end of the 19th century, it follows the attempts of the Earl of Dilberne to solidify his family’s financial situation. From a brief summary I’ve read, it sounds like a rich American heiress might save this titled British family teetering on the brink of financial ruin, but in Weldon’s hands, it is sure to be a compelling and surprising read (and surely all the Dilbernes’ problems will not be solved by the end of the first book).
When I learned of the existence of this book, I immediately placed a hold on it, and I’m going to read it while I await the arrival of Mary Roach’s newest book, Gulp.
Habits of the house
The Dark is a brand new picture book from two children's books luminaries: Lemony Snicket and Jon Klassen. Laszlo is a boy who is afraid of the dark until he actually gets to know it. The dark lives in the basement but comes to visit Laszlo upstairs in his room one night. Then Laszlo goes down to the basement. All of this sounds terribly foreboding but is refreshingly resolved.
The Dark could be helpful with those ever common afraid of the dark childhood fears. But the way that the dark and Laszlo are presented with language and illustration is well worth the read for any age.
Private Berlin is another James Patterson, Mark Sullivan novel. This one takes place in place in Germany, bet you could tell that from the title. This mystery revolves around six children who were in an orphanage pre the Berlin wall coming down. Chris, who works for Private in the Berlin branch, see where they cleverly got the name for the book, goes missing. As Mattie and the rest of Private try to find out what happened to Chris they find that it is about these six children now grown up and getting murdered. They are one step behind this mystery man who calls himself the invisible man. Some of the chapters have us following Private and some of the chapters are told by the murderer. We learn that this man likes masks and has many disguises which make it hard to find him. Everyone they talk with describes him differently but he does make a unique clicking noise in his throat when he gets excited. Most of the book has us with the murderer, describing how he gets access to an apartment and kills his victim and then we flip and follow Private on his trail and discovering the aftermath. I don’t want to give too many details as this is a who could this be type novel. Enough people do get killed, usually with a screw driver to the neck and there is enough hot on the trail to keep you interested. They also dredge up the past atrocities that occurred behind the Berlin wall as this excerpt shows “They used torture and execution at Hoshenschonhausen Prison to make family members testify against one another. Starvation, sleep deprivation, mock drowning” I did find it a little difficult with some of the German names and was glad to be reading to myself and not having to read out loud and trying to pronounce these words.
Beach reads can be great, but they imply a certain amount of fluffiness that simply doesn't come to mind when I think about Huntley Fitzpatrick's My Life Next Door. Not that you'd know that just from a quick glance at the cover art and brief description... so I was surprised when I quickly discovered that My Life Next Door is most definitely not a turn off your brain and settle in for a comfy, sedate ride kind of book. Instead, it was filled with angst, painful decisions, and intense romance and friendship and family drama.
The characters of My Life Next Door are one of the best aspects of the novel. Each has a very distinct personality, so, despite there being quite a few children running around in various passages, each character was easily identified. I felt like I knew these characters... like maybe I lived on the other side of the Garrett's growing up and we all happened to be neighbors. I found myself tightly wrapped in the emotional ups and downs of these characters.
The main character, Samantha, is not perfect, though she's spent much of her life trying to fit the image her mother so carefully cultivates. I cheered each of Sam's rebel moments, proud of her for doing something for herself rather than her mother. And I appreciated the fact that Sam really didn't do anything that would be harmful to herself. Her rebellion wasn't full of drugs, alcohol, and sex, but rather the bravery to accept the sometimes messy, but rewarding parts of life outside of one's comfort zone.
Huntley Fitzpatrick is a talented writer and I can easily imagine her novels gaining a healthy following, much like Sarah Dessen and Deb Caletti's novels. I, for one, am anxiously awaiting news of her next project!
My Life Next Door
James Patterson books are what you call quick reads, nice big print, short chapters and it is engaging. Alex Cross, Run is written by James Patterson alone, none of that plastering his name on a book with another author and you know James Patterson read it, gave guidance but really the other author wrote it. This book is chucked full of killings. It spends more time on describing killing after killing than sharing the hunt for the killer. Usually I complain that we have to hear about the detective’s theory of what is happening, he thinks it, he tells someone, he sums it up for someone who is helping him determine if the criminal was really putting his full weight on his steps and aha he has a limp. Its filler for the book, nothing new just hammering home a summary for those of you who put down the book and are now picking it up again a week later and you forgot what had happened.
This starts out rather abruptly with Alex and Samson busting up a party that a wealthy plastic surgeon Elijah Creem and his buddy Bergman, who owns a modeling agent are having complete with drugs, underage girls and lots of naked people. It seemed to me to just toss you in the deep end bang lets arrest some slimy people. It was a way to introduce these two guys. For the rest of the book these two have a competition killing people. Creem kills young perfect looking blonde females and Bergman kills young attractive gay guys. There is not a lot of build up to the killings, no long chapters on stalking the victim. It’s just bang Bergman killed and now Creem has to kill to keep up. Creem will keep his phone turned on so Bergman can listen.
The other running story is of a young man, Ron Guidice, who blames Alex Cross for the death of his wife. It doesn’t matter that it was the bullet from another officer’s gun that actually killed her. This guy is a blogger and he writes edgy pieces about Alex painting him to be a bad policeman. And of course any one who had read the Alex Cross books knows that Alex is the best, greatest policeman ever, at least according to Alex Cross. I find him a bit pompous. Ron Guidice does come up with some interesting ways to tweak Alex Cross. I especially like when at a crime scene Ron calls out to Alex Are you high, you look like you are high. Of course Alex doesn’t just walk away, just the opposite, he walks to Ron. Ron sticks him with a needle quickly and with no one else seeing injecting him with a high getting drug. Alex enraged punches Ron several times. Everyone in the crowd is filming it with their camera phones. Alex tests positive for drugs, gets desk duty, his foster kid is taken away and Ron blogs away happily complaining about police brutality and how Alex is a menace. Nicely played Ron. It is not that hard to enrage Alex Cross. Another good one was when Ron keeps shoving his recording device in Alex’s face. Of course Alex does not do the Gandhi and just walk away, he grabs the device and chucks it into the woods. Ron is tickled pink because he now has more fodder for his blog.
The book alternates between Ron’s antics and Creem and Bergmans killings . Truth be told I was rooting for Ron. I like it when Alex gets his comeuppances.
Alex Cross, Run
Every time I stumble across a book like Kathleen O'Dell's The Aviary, I'm amazed that more readers - of all ages - don't read middle grade. The Aviary is very Gothic in setting and tone and simultaneously bursting with colorful characters, a unique combination. There are secrets and magic, plus a good dose of realism and a lesson or two as well. It actually reminded me a bit of Ransom Riggs' Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children.
The main character, Clara, is a delightful character: headstrong, adventurous, and incurably curious. I would have enjoyed The Aviary based solely on the premise and setting, but Clara made me love it. Her curiosity was engaging and infectious, ensuring that the reader was never plagued by a dull moment or stale passage, simply because Clara herself was always plotting her next move and going off on some adventure.
Since The Aviary is in many respects a mystery, there are many great elements I feel I can't really comment on in much depth. I can, however, say that every detail in The Aviary comes together quite elegantly and I was left completely satisfied by the ending. I spent much of the novel hypothesizing about how everything fit together... I liked that the mystery wasn't ridiculously easy to solve, but all the pieces of the puzzle were there, waiting to be put together by the reader and the intrepid Clara.
The Aviary is one of wonderful titles that can be enjoyed by a wide variety of readers. It is, plain and simple, a wonderfully written and imagined novel and didn't feel at all confined to one specific reading level. It could easily be a read for the whole family and will appeal to those who usually read young adult or adult titles.
There are 2 things I can say about Dan Gutman he must be big on baseball and he has found a great way to tell historical stories about baseball. He takes a very youthful and imaginative approach to telling Jackie Robinson’s story in Jackie & Me. What kid couldn’t relate to time travel, baseball cards and getting to meet a famous player like Jackie Robinson. Jackie & Me is one of Gutman’s baseball card adventures and it's a great way for a young person to take a look at what it must have been like for Jackie Robinson to break the color barrier back in 1947.
There are several other books in the Baseball Card Adventures like Shoeless Joe and Me, Ray and Me, Babe and Me, and Honus and Me.
Jackie & Me
There are some writers, whose hyper-serious books and their grim subject matter, transform the sadness and hopelessness of the human condition with remarkable accuracy and frankness (Raymond Carver, J.M. Coetzee, Samuel Beckett, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Thomas Bernhard e.g.) into great literature. Then there are those authors who do ‘funny’ really well and whose stories reflect the power and role of levity and humor to shape a book’s tone and emotional heart, including the works of satirists (David Sedaris, John Irving, Tom Robbins, Tom Wolfe, Nick Hornby, Zadie Smith e.g.). There are those who wed ‘sad’ and ‘funny’ really well (Lorrie Moore, David Foster Wallace, Amy Hempel, e.g.), mixing up the two with a deft and subtle touch. These are the great books that bring the tragic and comedic together, that suture morbidity and human fallibility with hints of irony, poignancy and absurdity. You laugh and cry with equal measure as these imagined characters’ lives unfold.
Lorrie Moore is one writer whose stories bring together the humorous and the sad. Her characters are notorious for their brilliant one-liners that highlight the gallows humor in her novels and short stories, wonderful works that often plumb the complexity and ephemerality of relationships with a stylistic nod to both quirky experimentation and minimalist realism. Her first novel Anagrams is a pitch perfect and innovative book that plays with form and plot in a way that presents a series of possible lives of the primary character Beena as she’s written into different experiences and scenarios with reoccurring characters acting in different ways. The book is ultimately about a very simple fact—that we love others while falling out of love with them.
While I’m at it, read Amy Hempel’s short stories as well. She’s great!
Birds of America