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Staff Picks: Books

Lost Girl

As someone who loves 20th century historical fiction of all kinds, I was drawn to Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls. The Girls follows present-day Evie Boyd as she recalls the events of the summer of 1969 when she was 14 years old. Evie, a lost and lonely adolescent, is drawn into a cult by the confident, effervescent Suzanne who is everything Evie wants to be. She finds sanctuary at the compound, but things begin to unravel when the leader plans a gruesome murder that rocks the nation. 

Being a teenager is hard on everyone. It’s an awkward time and all you want is to feel like you belong somewhere. My version of handling this stage in life was VASTLY different (mainly sitting in my room listening to emo music and reading Stephen King novels), but Cline conjured up a bittersweet nostalgia that made me feel a connection to young Evie. Cline also depicts the diversity of female relationships- with men, with girls and women, with society- and does not gloss over any of the negatives. Evie isn’t always likable and doesn’t always have a solid reason for her actions, and that’s okay. Cline isn’t afraid to show that everyone has flaws, not all decisions are crystal clear, and not all relationships are ideal, or even healthy.

I will confess that I wasn’t as captivated with the actual plot as I had hoped, but I was still drawn into this book. Even though the incident is comparable to the Manson Family murders, the thrill of the crime fell a little flat.  If you are looking for an edge-of-your-seat-true-crime-inspired fiction, move on, BUT if you’re looking for an emotional coming-of-age tale, get comfy and read on.  The Girls may not have been the historical crime story I was expecting, but it was definitely worth the read!

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding

 I’ve read many novels about World War II, but A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, is the first I can recall with a Japanese setting to the Nagasaki bombing.

Amaterasu Takahaski, now living in Philadelphia, is skeptical when a badly scarred man, claiming to be her grandson, appears at her door. Her grandson and her daughter perished nearly forty years ago during the bombing of Nagasaki, but this man carries a collection of sealed private letters that open long-buried family secrets that give her pause.

This is a heart-wrenching story of love and regret, ultimately healing and hope. I’ve been recommending this to my reader-friends and expect it will be one of my favorites of the year.

These Girls Pack a Punch!

 Do you need more dinosaurs, time travelers, and girl power in your life? If so, I have two fantastic graphic novels for you.  First up, is Paper Girls, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughn, the writer named by Wired Magazine as " the greatest comic book visionary of the last five years." This suspenseful mystery starts with a slow burn as four paper delivery girls head out to cover their route the morning after Halloween in 1988.  After the girls accidentally set off a strange machine, the story kicks off at break-neck speed, and soon the girls are facing off against dinosaurs, laser-blasting knights, and sub-human creatures that might just be from the future. It’s intense, fast-paced, wicked fun, and the series is only just beginning. 


Also, make sure to check out the Lumberjanes series by Grace Ellis and Noelle Stevenson. Lumberjanes follows five “hardcore lady types” spending the summer at a crazy camp surrounded by bizarre supernatural mysteries. The girls fight werewolves, solve riddles, and avoid the ever-watchful eye of their group counselor in this manic, off-beat, fantastic read. This series has been out for a while, but you can catch up on Hoopla digital.

Both of these series are a great mash-up of sci-fi, fantasy, action, and mystery with fabulous artwork. So what are you waiting for? 

Widow Basquiat

I’ve been interested in the New York art scene of the 1980’s since…well the 1980’s. The New York of that era would be unrecognizable to the gentrified, hyper-wealthy Manhattan of today. But it’s just that gritty, crime-ridden, underworld scene that interested me so much. It also allowed hip-hop music and graffiti art to be elevated to legit art forms and inspired some truly great artists to become household names. I was totally enamored by the populist art of Keith Haring, but the artist whose work and image intrigued me the most was Jean-Michel Basquiat. Seeing pictures of Basquiat back then, dreadlocked and in a paint-spattered Armani suit, seemed too cool to be real and when I first saw the raw voodoo power of his paintings, I really couldn’t get enough. There are many books that highlight this era and the artists who were forged within it, but the uniquely resonant prose of Jennifer Clement’s novel Widow Basquiat is exceptional in its ability to take you directly to that wild time in New York City and poetically tell the story of the volatile love affair between the doomed Basquiat and his muse Suzanne Mollouk.

The Story of Kullervo

My enduring interest in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and my Finnish ancestry are two aspects of my life I never had reason to believe would ever cross in any significant fashion. Browsing the shelves, I recently discovered The Story of Kullervo (ed. Verlyn Flieger), an unfinished prose version of what is known as the Kullervo cycle, which originally appeared in the Finnish epic poem The Kalevala.   

Tolkien set to work on the The Story of Kullervo as an undergraduate studying at Exeter College, Oxford in 1914. The original story is a tragic tale of an unfortunate orphan boy, raised by his father's killer, and centered around themes of magic, betrayal, and vengeance. Tolkien, having first read an English-translated copy of The Kalevala in 1907 while a student at King Edward’s School, found the Kullervo cycle particularly captivating. Claiming the translated version to be unsatisfactory, he set to learning Finnish in order to engage the original source material, an effort which he declared left him “repulsed with heavy losses.”

Nonetheless, he remained thoroughly interested in crafting his own version of the tale, and in The Story of Kullervo, the earliest versions of many of the themes, naming conventions, and story elements of his later works can be seen. Close students of Tolkien’s books, and those published after his death by his son, Christopher Tolkien, will find plenty to enjoy here.

Being an unfinished work, it is a quick read, but editor Verlyn Flieger has supported the story deftly with insightful analyses of what is known of Tolkien’s early efforts, the source materials he used, and additional influences on his literary style. The bibliography is substantial, drawing upon all the sources one would suspect, along with scholarly journals, monographs, and at least one PhD dissertation. Indeed, Flieger’s bibliography amounts to a well-curated ‘further reading’ list and chances are if you are investigating this book, ‘further reading’ is exactly the sort of thing that interests you.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

     I read This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz over the long holiday weekend. A friend asked me why I would bring such a sad sounding book on vacation after I had described the premise to him. The story was a bit sad, but I enjoyed it a lot. Yunior, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, is the main character in the linked vignettes that focus on man-woman relationships, break-ups, cultural identity, and family issues. Other important characters include his mother, who struggles to find a sense of community and belonging in America; his brother Rafa, who outshines Yunior in most regards; his father, the stern disciplinarian from his childhood; and of course, numerous girlfriends. 

     I appreciated Yunior's modern, honest, and sometimes sarcastic perspective as he stumbles through life. He is almost always the cause of his own suffering, but I still liked him and hoped that he would find happiness by learning from his mistakes. I would give this book an "R" rating because of strong language and sexual themes, so if that offends you, stay away. If that doesn't bother you, than this book is worth your time.

Lily and the Octopus

I've been thinking lately about having a dog again sometime in the future. So as soon as I came across this title in my review of upcoming adult fiction titles, I decided I'd put a hold on it myself. Lily is a 12-year-old dachshund with a brain tumor that her owner, Ted, as a way of coping with the prognosis, decides to refer to as an octopus. Perhaps a bit of magical realism mixed with an emotional dog-lover story, I expect this will be a popular title among readers who liked The Art of Racing in the Rain. According to Kirkus Reviews, "[i]n his funny, ardent, and staunchly kooky way, Rowley expresses exactly what it's like to love a dog."

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

     This immensely popular book by Jonas Jonasson alternates between the present life of Swedish centenarian Allan Karlsson and the timeline of his long life up until then. On the day of his 100th birthday, dreading the party planned for him at the Old Folks Home, he simply walks away. He goes to the bus station, and while there he waits for a bus that will take him as far as he can get with the money on him, and that will leave as soon as possible so as to avoid being caught by Director Alice of the Old Folks Home. As he waits, this punk type reluctantly asks him to watch his suitcase while he uses the restroom. And what does Allan do, but take the suitcase with him onto the bus, unaware of the surprising contents! 

     This sets a funny, dangerous, wonderful chain of events into motion that more and more people become involved with as the story progresses. Allan’s past is even more interesting than his present, and even more full of perilous and amusing twists and turns. He meets Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung, among other famous historical figures. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared was a joy to read from start to finish, and I highly recommend it. It will definitely be admired by readers who appreciate adventure, quirky/dark humor, and outlandish situations.

The dreams our stuff is made of

I came to this book through a small blurb I read awhile back in Wired magazine reporting that business magnate-engineer-investor Elon Musk naming his SpaceX drone spaceships after sentient spacecraft from the sci-fi novels of Iain M. Banks. When I read that those names didn’t adhere to your typical spacecraft naming conventions but instead had the provocative names 'Just Read the Instructions' and 'Of Course I Still Love You', I was intrigued and needed to find out more about Iain M. Banks and his brand of science fiction. I began with Player of Games, the second title in Bank’s series of interrelated but not necessarily sequential Culture Novels. It blew me away, and now I will read all ten novels the Banks wrote before his untimely death in 2013. Bank’s presents a vision of a far future society, called simply the Culture, in which humans and humanoids live symbiotically with highly evolved AI and technology so advanced as to create a post-scarcity economy in which everything desired is available for free with no need for work, or laws, or many rules of any kind. It is a wildly inventive concept and so much fun to read. Truly brilliant stuff!

Not All Comic Book Characters Wear Capes

Graphic novels have a reputation for being all about superheroes and explosions, but they can be a really great format to tell more nuanced stories as well. I’d like to shine a spotlight on two evocative, character-focused, slice-of-life stories that really shine in a graphic novel format.

The first is a manga called Solanin by Inio Asano. The story follows Meiko, a recent college grad, and her friends a group of 20-somethings living in the background of a Japanese city. Over the course of the summer they grapple with all of the challenges of new adulthood: starting careers, finding their purpose in life, and how to break it to their parents that they’ve moved in with their boyfriend. Though the characters are Japanese, the themes are universal. Solanin is a novel with fantastic art work, and a story that will stay with me for a long time.

The second graphic novel is called Token by Alisa Kwitney, with illustrations by Joelle Jones. Token is a story about fifteen year old Shira Spektor, living in Miami, Florida in 1987. She lives with her father in an apartment building on South Beach, and spends most of her time with her best friend, a spunky 80-year-old woman who shoots straight from the hip. When her father starts dating his secretary, and the girls at school turn decidedly nasty, Shira turns to shoplifting. Just when she feels that there’s no one she can talk to, she meets a tall handsome stranger. She is falling in love for the first time just as everything else in her life seems to be falling apart. Token is fun, flirty, and timeless.

Both books have a lazy summer vibe perfect for the upcoming warmer months.