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Staff Picks: Books

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.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

For the last six years or so, it has been more or less impossible to avoid hearing discussions concerning the HBO series Game of Thrones, and most have probably heard enough to determine for themselves whether or not it’s their cup of tea.

In the case of those who have become captivated by (read: obsessed with) the show and left wanting during the between-season stretch from July to April each year, the obvious solution has been to turn their attention to George R.R. Martin’s gritty and compelling magnum opus A Song of Ice and Fire, currently consisting of five novels off which the show is based. Many will be delighted to discover that these works tend to weigh in around 700+ pages each, meaning all that much more time to spend enthralled in the exploits of their favorite characters as conflicts rage across Westeros and Essos.

For those who balk at that task, which is no small feat, yet still want to experience the canonical story elements sidelined, re-imagined, or omitted entirely by the show, I cannot recommend the audiobook versions of these books enough. This was my chosen method for getting myself up to speed so I could safely engage with online resources free of the dread feeling that I was about to stumble upon some devastating spoiler.

Since publishing the fifth entry in the seven book series in 2011 (which was only a year after the show began its run) Martin has been working on the sixth installment entitled The Winds of Winter. He had initially expressed his wishes via blog post to hand the book to his publisher by Halloween of 2015. That date was later revised to the end of the calendar year. Then it was to be finished by the premiere of the sixth season of Game of Thrones. In January of this year, he revised his stance again saying, “It will be done when it’s done.”

Fans are understandably anxious for the next book. The internet is full of angst over the idea that Martin may pass away before he’s able to finish the next two books- never mind that this is a human being we’re talking about- the books! YouTube videos have been made pleading for more news and sample chapters. Songs have been written. Guitars have been smashed.

For better or worse, Martin is not a single-minded automaton. He’s been busy attending conventions, working on the HBO show, living his life, and even working on other books. He recently published a three-part prequel novella collection entitled A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, which takes place approximately one hundred years prior to the events in the other books in the series, and chronicles the exploits of the young hedge knight, Ser Duncan the Tall, or Dunk, and his precocious squire, Egg.

The general tone tends to be bit more light-hearted than that of previous books in the series which many may find refreshing. A further departure from those works can be seen in the static point of view, told entirely from Dunk’s perspective as opposed to a rotating cast of characters. In both of these ways, it’s a bit like the Hobbit when compared to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Martin’s fans will find plenty to enjoy in the era of relative peace that preceded Robert’s Rebellion and the War of the Five Kings, and it’s a perfect distraction for those who are anxiously biding their time and waiting for the next bit of news concerning the coming of winter.

An Early Favorite for 2016

It’s not even mid-year but it is likely The Last Painting of Sara de Vos will be one of my top ten fiction books of the year.

Three continents, three centuries, three lives are linked by a rare 17th century painting. Add in art forgery, death, deception, and love from the Dutch countryside in the 1600s to an art collector in New York City in the 1950s to an art scholar in Sydney, Australia in 2000 for an enthralling novel.

Although there are no illustrations, I can see in my mind the painting in question, “At the End of the Wood,” from the vivid description.

I’m recommending this book to all my reading friends. Look for it on my “Best of 2016” list in the late fall.


Lea Leads the Way

In this book, Lea Leads the Way, Lea is still in Brazil with her family. The plan for the next portion of the trip was for the whole family to visit the rainforest where Zac is living and going to school. However since her Dad’s hiking accident, he is unable to continue traveling. The family decides that Lea and Zac will continue on without Mom and Dad.

Lea is set for an animal adventure. She has never been to the rainforest before and she is excited to be traveling with Zac and visiting his host family who live in the middle of the rainforest. She loves taking photographs with the camera her Grandmother gave her. She is especially hopeful of capturing the wildlife in the rainforest in photos. While Lea is on her trip, she is writing a blog and posting pictures so that her classmates from school can follow her trip. During a hike with Zac, they discover a baby sloth that is badly injured. Lea decides to do all she can to help the little sloth survive. Zac knows about a wildlife sanctuary and they take the baby sloth there for care. As Lea learns more about the rainforest and what is happening to the area, including poaching of the wildlife, she wonders if she did the right thing.

This is another interesting American Girl series. Readers will enjoy the locale and facts about Brazil and the culture.

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and unwittingly I happen to be reading two books perfect for the occasion.

Participating in The Global Reading Challenge, I learned of The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye, which tells the story of Aref, a 3rd grader who will soon be moving from Oman to Ann Arbor, Michigan so his parents can attend graduate school. Each morning, I read a little bit of it to my 10 year old daughter and we learn about Oman as Aref and his grandfather travel around the country, collecting memories and attempting to comfort and sooth Aref’s fears about moving to Michigan.

In addition, I’m listening to The Three Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway. This book tells the story of poverty stricken Japanese-American children living in Maui and Soichi Sakamoto who has the dream of turning them into Olympic champions. Through incredibly difficult circumstances and training routines, they become world class swimmers, but the world events of the late 1930s and early 1940s change their lives drastically.

Take some time this month to learn something new about Asian or Pacific Islander culture or both.

Another great Sally Spencer mystery!

A young mother is found dead, one of her children is missing. DCI Monika Paniatowski has just returned to work after maternity leave. Her nurturing disposition makes her vulnerable and the plight of the children sends her in directions she wouldn’t normally go.

Thicker than Water is another great mystery by Sally Spencer. Monika has become as likable as Inspector Woodend once was. The story is engaging and suspenseful. I couldn’t put it down. 

Green Island

Green Island is a sweeping story of Taiwan from 1947 to 2003 told through the lives of three generations of the Tsai family.

Dr. Tsai is a respected, wealthy doctor. When he speaks out after the February 28 Massacre, the anti-government uprising, his life and that of his family is changed forever.

The story is told from the perspective of his youngest daughter, born as the story begins. As she grows up and eventually moves to California, she is still witness to her father’s legacy and a husband who also speaks his mind. The family scars have lingered.

This is a moving, well-written story of family, betrayal, and survival. It is also a good introduction to the Chinese Nationalists who were overthrown by the Chinese Communists after World War II and Chiang Kai-Shek.

This story stayed with me long after I finished reading. To me, that is a true compelling story.