Patrons of Books on First can discuss books with Carolyn one day a week, on Saturdays, so she keeps up her recommendations, mainly through the Books on First blog, along with commentary on everything from the printed bound book to glittens to the odd radio item or two she hears on her way to and from work in Rochelle, IL, 25 miles east of Dixon.
This is one of those outsider trying to fit in kind of books which works. I and probably most non-Southerners have no interest in Southern debs or the gauntlet of activities they do to "come out," which seems like a 9-month-long group Jewish princesses' bat mitzvah, but the true-to-life voices and novel story treatment (short-term flashbacks from 9 months to 1 hour and 18 minutes earlier) teased my interest. Eighteen-year-old Sawyer grew up with only her immature but loving single mother and friendly neighbors in a rough, poor town, Smart, beautiful, determined, but with limited opportunities, Sawyer continues working hard and hoping for a break. Along comes her grandmother who offers Sawyer not only a chance at college, but opportunity to mingle among the society "a mere forth-five minutes ... and roughly three and a half worlds away," and discovering who her biological father is among those Squires with whom her mother made her debut. We and Sawyer don't know what to expect, but certainly we get more than what we anticipated, as each flashback and current "bless your heart" moment reveals more and more confusion and then, clarity, secrets and turned tables. We find ourselves caring about Sawyer and her fellow debs -- cousin Lily, shy dancing Sadie-Grace, affable Boone, "she-devil" Campbell and her brother Walker who broke up with Lily and didn't go to college, and interested in all that they do, officially part of the debutante season and not.
What a well-done work about a "neighborhood" of a big city brought to life. Set in Brixton, London -- yes, that of the poverty & "diversity" riots notoriety, it is the author's debut published novel (congratulations!) about community coming together to save the public lido -- an open-air pool, which has been around (loved, taken for granted, somewhat neglected and underfunded) and in continuous operations since before WWII, but is now threatened with closure as the Council (if you didn't know the English term, you can just tell that this means the local government) focuses on a future of fiscal responsibility and some sort of revitilization by selling it to a developer of upscale apartment buildings to convert into a private fitness center for its unit buyers and tenants.
Eighty-six-year-old Rosemary has lived all her life in Brixton, seeing and moving with all the changes, most recently, the closed shops, the upscale apartment buildings, even the closing of the public library where she worked, found friends, watched neighborhood children grow up and knew to be a community asset. But, it is when she finds out about and is solicited to help stop the closing of the lido where she had learned to swim, escaped the summer heat, lost her virginity and been proposed to, gained meditative serenity and maintained physical health that she finds her spark of activism. Kate, a journalism major who now works the local newspaper compiling notices of lost dogs and other trivial human interest, is given her big chance by covering the story of the lido closing. Lonely, discouraged, unknowingly but clinically sliding into depression, Kate is rescued by Rosemary who challenges her to understand the spiritually healing power of the lido by swimming in it. Kate becomes an even bigger advocate than Rosemary as she gains more than a new friend and a new habit of swimming every morning, but a whole new outlook on life.
Stories on Intergenerational relationships usually don't feel so true to life, but it all comes from how the character of Rosemary has been written to interact with those in her world. To be probably like Kate "twentysomething" herself, author Libby Page has been able to provide readers who may or may not have a Rosemary in their lives one to treasure.
Hard to believe that it has been 50 years since this wonderful book was first published. Is it a children's fantasy book, a Young Adult coming of age, or an early work of science fiction? The Murrys are not a normal family. For one thing, the husband/father Dr Murry disappeared quite awhile ago and only wife/mother -- also a brilliant scientist but for some reason not called "Doctor" -- and their four children: socially awkward teenager Meg with glasses and braces, socially adjusted ten-year old twins Dennys and Sandy, and "special" five-year-old Charles Wallace (not Charlie, not Chuck, not Charles, but Charles Wallace) hold the torch of hope that he will be back. And then, when Meg is almost at the end of her reserve of hope, she and Charles Wallace are transported to another world, another time, to rescue their father, to prevent something from snatching Charles Wallace for nefarious ends and ultimately, to save present-day Earth as we know it. And, we get to spend time with the smart, athletic, good-looking (even with freckles), popular but nice Calvin O'Keefe. You know he's a good guy, because he matter-of-factly accepts Meg and Charles Wallace and the fantastic situation they are in. What more can a story have, except plain-word explanations of time as the fourth dimension and tesseracting. It is as fresh a story today as it was when I discovered it 40 years ago as when it was published in 1962. This is a must-read for any boy or girl of any age. If you missed it as a child, don't let it pass you by again.
I often read the second book in the series before the first and usually like the second one better. This case is no exception, although unlike in many series, reading the first book Rock, Paper Tiger imparted me insight into the this one, Hour of the Rat, although this by all means can stand alone.
I was fascinated by the China I no longer recognize, having left Beijing in July 1982, after a mere 10 months' stay, just as the People's Republic of China was beginning to feel its roots of commerce and consumerism, when Western culture was still represented by The Sound of Music, and knowing all the words to "Edelweiss."
Lisa Brackmann's series about Ellie McEnroe Cooper is as much about the corruption of the American government and its relationship to security consultants as about the Chinese government's paranoia with Western influence and domestic dissent. Ellie very quickly grows from a fairly bitchy American thinking only of herself to an only somewhat clueless American wanting to help others. The "mystery" is not like Agatha Christie's or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's or even Stieg Larsson's which involves readers. Ellie cannot guess what will happen next until it literally hits her in the head or gut or leg and that's when we find out, too. Yet, her wanderings around Beijing and China comprise a story that is strangely compelling and ultimately interesting, even if she does have a foul mouth and a rough, almost trailer-trash demeanor.
This is one of those great crossovers between Young Adult and regular Fiction (except there's no girl with windswept hair and a great ballgown on the cover, which would definitely make it YA). The publisher's description is all wrong, because most of the story actually does not take place in London, but at Varnley, an estate in nearby Kent. The heroine (pun intended?) is 17 years old and is as annoying as any spoiled but intelligent teenager. But, each time I put the book down, I only thought about picking it up again. That's certainly a measure of a good read, no matter the cliches or the uneven narrative. One great passage was when Kaspar figured out that they were being chased by Slayers driving an Alfa Romeo. Violet asks, "That's bad?" "Very bad. We can't outrun them. I guess we could keep driving around until they broke down though." I laughed aloud as did Larry when I shared it with him, Alfa Romeos being notoriously unreliable. Dark (another pun?) and not entirely predictable, one thing still puzzles me: the subtitle (or title of this Book One of series yet to come). I encountered no "aha" moment which told me why "Dinner with a Vampire." Maybe I am just too dense. No matter. If you like engaging stories about a British teenaged girl ending hopefully and with a hint of future installments (and think you can believe in vampires like these), I highly recommend this.
When we tell people our store is called "Books on First," for those in the know, Abbott & Costello's classic baseball comedy routine is the first thing that comes to mind. Others, usually of the younger generation, don't see that connection, because they don't know of it!
Now, illustrator John Martz introduces the duo's "Who's on First?" to a whole new audience, with fresh, adorable illustrations. Multi-generations of comedy and wordplay fans will enjoy turning the pages, reading this routine aloud while seeing Costello get increasingly frustrated with Abbott's answers to his question, just like in the black-n-white films of the routine.
You can't judge a book by its cover, but Martz has delightfully extended Abbott & Costello's wordplay on the front and back of the book, making this rendition all the more fun.
This book may just become our signature title or mascot.
William Gibson is one of my favorite writers. His best known genre is fantastical futuristic science fiction, presaging internet avatars, nanotechnology, urban decay and mass homelessness, travel through wormholes and more.
Now, operating under Assumption One that THE FUTURE IS NOW, Gibson has lately been writing contemporary fiction with an edge. Readers can thrill at learning about the latest technologies. And who else would have them but the military and the spies? But even the government is old hat. "Edge" is covert business intelligence. But, wait, wait, there's more. "Edgy" is not technology alone, but also trend -- the next hot food, the next cool magazine, the next highly sought-after article of clothing, the next must-have vehicle (which does not necessarily mean new or even, collector's), ad nauseum to some, but like addictive candy to observers of trend like myself (my dream is to be good enough to work for The Rand Corporation, but the open "secret" is that The Rand Corporation is old hat in trend prediction, so that just shows you, doesn't it?).
And, of course, the next big thing needs be in short supply and in huge demand by those in the know. Starting with the special bomber jacket in Pattern Recognition (quantity in the world rumored to be in the single digits) in the chase to find a "secret" video clipper and culminating in the Turing-inspired hotel room serving as basecamp in ultimately protecting the name of the "secret" designer of Gabriel Hounds jeans sold in "pop-up locations" across the globe, Gibson delights in overturning rocks to expose the shallow searchers for meaning in life and those same searchers delight in his attention. "Social commentary," I have read someone call Gibson's insightful yet entertaining prose. I don't run in that same society, but through Gibson, I can swim in it.
I love reading the little biographies about the esteemed Poets Laureate (previously Consultants in Poetry) of our country. Even while we still have Poets Laureate today, it is almost difficult to imagine a time when civility was great and most people felt that poetry is an important part of personal fulfillment to be shared and celebrated, not simply a form of society high culture or effete artistes' pretensions. (Quick, who is the US Poet Laureate today?)
This is an opportunity, also, to read poetry no longer available in print. I especially appreciate the inclusion of William Carlos Williams who never accepted appointment to the post, preferring to remain quietly writing and enjoying poetry for love, entertainment and comfort while he continued a full medical practice and research situation.
August Pullman believes he is normal, in every sense but in the physical. But it is not so. His physical appearance, especially his head -- from his cauliflower ears to his cleft lip and mis-aligned jaw to his droopy eyes makes being "normal" not an option. He neither looks nor behaves normally. In some ways, he is younger than his age, self-focused and indulged by his family, including his older sister who had never once in his existence put her needs over his. In other ways, since he has had to brave the shock and embarrassed responses of strangers, he is wise, acknowledging that these people are not being mean or rude, just normal. If he encountered someone who looked like himself, he too would look away; it is a normal response.
For me, the book's cover art is all wrong. I began reading, believing Augie's "facial deformity" was the lack of an eye, nose and mouth. That must be difficult to overcome, I thought. So, it was a miniature shock to me not only did the artist not follow author R.J. Palacio's descriptions, the author and editors approved of the cover art. Was this a deliberate attempt to allow readers their own imagination to run wild, thinking about how much of a turtle Augie looks like, especially when he's eating?
The chapters are a series of first-person narratives, beginning with a long stretch of Augie, but then, rapidly moving to Augie's new friend Summer, to his sister Olivia to Olivia's boyfriend Justin, to reluctant friend Jack and ultimately, back to August. Throw in a facebook exchange, with deliberate misspellings and all ("frenz"?) and we can see that this really is a book written with the young crowd in mind. Palacio has feelings, words and actions of fifth graders as well as high schoolers spot-on. Yet, it makes a great read for adults, too. I see this as a parent-child book club natural. Nonetheless, while I appreciate ungrammatical sentences like, "Me and ..." written in the spirit of reflecting real dialogue, I truly believe we as writers can do better when it comes to narrating. I bet Augie would have agreed if he had had any say in the matter.
For anyone who has or knows a "special" person and as a result, yearns not to have her life defined by being Augie's sister or mother or friend, and yet feels guilty by such a normal response, this book will resonate.
To be quite honest, I was quite skeptical when Flavia de Luce first came on the scene in The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I thought her language and thinking too mature and flip for an eleven-year-old, even a chemistry genius. Adult readers just love those sassy little girls, and I thought the author was writing to that preference. However, just like my grandson who seemed to be born a 60-year-old man and gradually decreased in behavioural age to meet his physical age, now nineteen, Flavia is gradually beginning to sound and act more her age, sometimes noting to the reader that she did not understand what was being said by the grown-ups around her. And gradually, treatment at the hands of her older sisters are becoming more rounded, like a backstory is beginning to emerge which makes more sense (to us if not to Flavia) than simply resenting Flavia for their mother Harriet's jaunting off to hike and subsequently fall off a Himalayan mountain while Flavia was still an infant.
The latest is an IndieBound Pick for this past December and the scene does take place at Christmastime, but don't let that stop you from enjoying a good ol' 1950s English village mystery with all the trappings: snowbound suspects in a big crumbling mansion with outsiders from the glamorous film industry. Flavia's chemistry genius remains eerily sophisticated, but we must allow her at least one eleven-year-old character flaw.
When I picked up Robin Brande's Fat Cat to read, I had forgotten that she had written another Young Adult book which I had liked and had previously recommended somewhere, Evolution, Me & Other Freaks of Nature, a well-done commentary on the unforgiving interpretation of What Is Right.
Fat Cat addresses the issue of obesity and popularity, except they're not issues in this book. Catherine is a little fat, but not obese and while she's obviously not in the most exclusive clique, she is neither yearning to be popular nor is she being taunted for being fat. Nor does it appear she or any Honors classmates are being taunted for being geeks. This story is an evolution of a different sort. In a Science Fair experiment which first begins as what happens when Cat chooses to eat and live like early hominids -- no cars or cellphones unless in an emergency, no processed foods (like chocolate!) or even dairy (there were no domesticated animals that long ago and so, no milk), and no hair care product, Cat is motivated to win first place in the Science Fair primarily in order to beat a former friend Matt McKinney, whom she has had a rivalry for as long as she could remember. It used to be a friendly rivalry, which turned bitter -- at least on her side when they were thirteen, some 3-1/2 years ago. As the narrative is told in Cat's viewpoint, the reader is just as clueless as Matt as to why they are no longer friends. Did he throw the Science Fair competition and let her win? Did she overhear him telling lewd jokes about her?
Eating healthy and walking to school and work have the added benefit of Cat's losing weight and gaining toned muscles. She goes from "Fat Cat" to "Hot Cat" and attracts way more male attention than she ever dreamed of or even wants. The experiment morphs into how would a Homo Erectus choose a mate, and is that any different today than it would have been then? Along the way, Cat learns as much about the self she becomes as she does about her pre-historic model. And in the end, when the judges ask, "Do you think this project has changed you? Beyond the obvious physical changes?," she can smile and say, "You have no idea how much."
It's great that Brande is able to depict science in such an accessible way. While I never knew any such intelligent and creative high schoolers so into science (no Science Fairs in West Babylon and I was in the Honors program!), I can see how they would exist and how they're really just like ordinary teens with the usual teen angst. Brande is an observant recorder of young adult nature, a trait which itself is a pre-requisite to a good scientist.
Prue McKeel and Curtis Mehlberg brave the Wildwood to rescue Prue's baby brother Mac after he was spirited away by crows. Author Colin Meloy, of the music group Decemberists fame and his partner, artist Carson Ellis, created a world just on the edge of Portland, Oregon. When I first saw the physical book, I thought it reminded me of The Mysterious Benedict Society, definitely in look and feel of the book (the heavy rag content cover with the sparse yet evocative artwork), but also, its very British writing. That Carson Ellis also illustrated The Mysterious Benedict Society explained the look and feel, but I am not aware that Colin Meloy spent any significant time in Britain, although I guess that background is not necessary to have a 12-year-old American boy (Curtis) claim George MacDonald Fraser's Harry Flashman and Lloyd Alexander's Taran Wanderer as swashbuckling childhood heroes which he believes he is emulating.
An IndieNext Pick! Never mind that it is the newest title in a series, this work can stand by itself even as there are references (but not annoyingly) to at least two terrible incidences that have shaped the current situation -- the false arrest of resident co-innkeeper of a tiny town and an unrelated police raid turned bloodbath.The writing is at times funnily ironic (especially about the horse that kind of looks like a moose), at times so exquisitely descriptive that it confirms that words can indeed compete with pictures, and at all times the work of artist using words as paint.Chief Inspector Gamache and his able team return to the tiny Quebec town of Three Pines to investigate the murder of an art critic. Her body, neck broken, is found in the garden of Clara Morrow on the morning after Clara's celebrating the opening of her one-woman show at Montreal's Musee d'Art Contemporain. So tiny is the town that it is not on the map, so the first clue is how did the victim find her way there without an invitation? And, she definitely had not been invited; the host and many of the party guests were either victims of this woman's vicious reviews, or important personages within the art world. This investigation churns up much secret emotion needing resolution, between Clara and her husband Peter, among the residents of Three Pines and Gabri, the innkeeper who had been proven innocent of murder but guilty of disloyalty and betrayal, and most interestingly, Gamache's second-in-command Jean Guy Beauvoir and his relationship with his boss of fifteen years and his boss's daughter whom he had seen grow from an awkward and irritating 15-year-old girl to a generous and riveting 30-year-old woman.