Saturday, December 4, 2010

Holiday Gift Guide: It's the End of the World As We Know It

For People Who Are Totally Into Dystopian Fiction

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins
For my money, the gold-standard series of dystopian novels.  Sure, it’s supposed to be for your twelve year-old niece, but readers of all ages will be enthralled with heroine Katniss Everdeen and the mash-up Collins creates between Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery and reality television show, Survivor.

The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell
Temple is alone in a new world.  It used to be the United States, but that doesn’t matter now.  People used to live in houses, ride bicycles, and go to school.  No one does anymore.  Not really.  Not the way it used to be.  Temple’s world is full of zombies, or meatskins, and survivors like her.  Like Katniss of The Hunger Games, Temple kicks so much ass that you can’t stop turning the page to find out what in God’s name this terrible new world is going to throw at her next.

The Passage by Justin Cronin
The most dystopian wasteland populated by zombies for your buck.  At almost 800 pages, Cronin’s wild ride starts in a secret military complex where they are creating awful, human weapons and heads to the California wasteland created in the aftermath of these humans playing God.  Fans of Stephen King’s The Stand will devour The Passage like a half-starved vampire.

World War Z by Max Brooks
The perfect Studs Terkel-style dystopian novel.  This one is for fans of zombie, werewolf, vampire novels, and fans of This American Life or StoryCorp.  Brooks creates a whole new appreciation for oral histories in this fascinating treatment of a zombie apocalypse.   

Holiday Gift Guide: Book Club Readers

For Your Friend or Relative Who Loves a Good Book Club

Room by Emma Donoghue
I know I’m not the first to recommend this novel, which was truly the best book I read in 2010, but I’m surely the most relentless at putting it in people’s hot little hands.  Narrated by 5 year-old Jack, Room is the story of Jack and his mother and the single room in which they dwell.  Despite Ma’s best effort, the horror that keeps them in the room is always looming and readers will be literally clutching their throats at an escape attempt and its aftermath.  

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow
Rachel’s life is coated with a strange patina of violence and fate.  Rachel, her mother, and her siblings fall from the roof of their Chicago apartment building. Rachel is too young to fully remember the circumstances that led them to the roof, leaving her and those who witnessed the aftermath of the tragedy a lifetime to wonder if Rachel’s family jumped or were pushed.

White is For Witching by Helen Oyeyemi
This is one strange, magical book.  The narrator is a malicious house (you read that correctly) who has possibly driven three generations of Silver women mad.  Miranda Silver is the female half of fraternal twins and the heir apparent to madness.  Oyeyemi has crafted a book of malevolent magical realism that is also masterfully political.    

One Amazing Thing by Chitra Banerjee Divajaruni
A massive earthquake traps a groups of strangers in the Indian consulate of an unnamed American city.  As they struggle to physically survive the ordeal and pray for rescue, they also try to keep their minds sharp and prevent despair from overtaking them.  To that end, they each share “one amazing thing”.  Each story is a revelation about the characters and the human spirit.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Holiday Gift Guide: Music

For Music Lovers
Life: Keith Richards by Keith Richards and James Fox
It’s Keith F-ing Richards!  This is the ultimate, no-holds-barred story of rock-and-roll, The Rolling Stones, and Richards himself.  The opening chapter includes Richards riding in a car stuffed with illicit drugs too numerous to remember and it only gets crazier from there.  Despite the rock-and-roll lifestyle, it’s clear Keith Richards loves music and music lovers will love to read what he has to say about it.

The House of Tomorrow by Peter Bognanni
Punk rock changes another life!  Sebastian lives in a geodesic dome in Iowa with his grandmother, a devotee of Buckminster Fuller.  An encounter with a family from a nearby town finds Sebastian with his first friend, first crush, and first exposure to punk rock music.  It’s all a revelation!  Remember when you first discovered the music that shaped the person you became?  

A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Music is at the heart of Egan’s clever novel.  Overlapping stories start with an aging punk rocker, Bennie Salazar, and his assistant, Sasha and spiral out through time and space to tell a profound story of life, love, survival, and music.

Talking to Girls About Duran Duran: One Young Man’s Quest for True Love and a Cooler Haircut by Rob Sheffield
It’s Rob Sheffield.  He wrote Love is a Mix Tape.  He’s a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.  His coming-of-age story is a reminder of how music helps define us as it provides a soundtrack to some of the defining moments in our young lives.

Neil Young’s Greendale by Josh Dysart and Cliff Chiang (illustrator)
This is a graphic novel for either the Neil Young fan in your life or the teen who is starting to explore classic rock.  Based on Young’s 2003 album and 2004 film, the graphic novel tells the story of Sun Green.  Sun is a beautiful, politically active teenager in Northern California whose convictions are also paired with supernatural powers that she is only beginning to tap.  

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Holiday Gift Guide: Food and Drink

For the Foodie

Encyclopedia of Pasta by Oretta Zanini De Vita
From the rich red cover to the amazing recipes and culinary insights inside, this book is something a true foodie will want to hand down to future generations.

The Flavor Bible: The Essential Guide to Culinary Creativity, Based on the Wisdom of America's Most Imaginative Chefs by Karen Page and Andrew Dornenberg
The ultimate book for the foodie nerd in your life.  This isn’t about cooking; it’s about tasting and experimenting.

Chewy Gooey Crispy Crunchy Melt-in-Your-Mouth Cookies by Alice Medrich
All other cookie books will seem superfluous after using this one.  The recipes are sophisticated without being needlessly complex.  Medrich also provides useful guidance when it comes to ingredients, measurements, tools, and recipe modifications.

For the Booze Hound

How to Booze: Exquisite Cocktails and Unsound Advice by Jordan Kaye and Marshall Altier
As the appreciation for a good bartender and a great cocktail grows, How to Booze is the perfect companion.  This one is full of both cocktail recipes and sage, irreverent advice from a couple of bartenders who have seen it all.

Boozehound: On the Trail of the Rare, the Obscure, and the Overrated in Spirits by Jason Wilson
From Wilson’s Boozhound column comes a book packed with stories of travel and tippling.  His passion for booze can be seen in the distances he travels in order to learn and taste, as well as the collection of recipes he includes.

Speakeasy: The Employees Only Guide to Classic Cocktails Reimagined by Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric
This is the book for the amateur home mixologist who wants to take it to the next level.  Advice and recipes come from New York City bartending royalty – the owners of Employees Only, who helped start the mixology craze.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter is a beautifully written powerhouse thriller. From the first page Franklin introduces two incredibly compelling characters whose lives intersect in shocking and heartbreaking ways. 

Larry is a loner, the designated freak of his rural Mississippi town of Chabot.  Why Larry?  Twenty years prior, his neighbor and high school crush disappeared after Larry took her on a date.  Although Larry was never charged, everyone assumed he was guilty and treated him as such.  Now that another teen girl is missing, people are beginning to suspect the town freak might be up to no good once again.  How else can you explain a man who lives alone on his parent’s farm and reads Stephen King voraciously?  A freak.  Why would a man go to work each day when he knows no one would ever set foot in his establishment?  Something must be wrong with him. Franklin does a great job in creating Larry the boy and teenager who turns into Larry, Chabot’s own town freak.  The twists of fate that take an innocent, only child with a great imagination and turn him into a possible murderer are riveting.

Twists of fate take Silas “32” Jones from a fatherless African American boy to a high-school football star and, later, Chabot’s town constable.  After a football injury halts his plans for a football career, 32 drifts back to his normally sleepy hometown and ends up in the middle of a real, live crime wave.  As Larry is targeted as the main suspect, 32 recalls their friendship as children and the reasons behind their teen estrangement.  There is an incredible twist or two, which is sure to keep readers hooked until the last page. 

Tom Franklin creates sheer atmosphere in every page - the slow pace of small town Southern life and the unknown menace that may have caused two pretty teen girls to go missing.  He captures the darkness and weakness, as well as the goodness and frailty found in both Larry and 32, as well as everyone in Chabot. This thriller will both move you and keep you on the edge of your seat.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Reapers are the Angels

Temple is alone in a new world.  It used to be the United States, but that doesn’t matter now.  People used to live in houses, ride bicycles, and go to school.  No one does anymore.  Not really.  Not the way it used to be.  Temple’s world is full of zombies, or meatskins, and survivors like her.  
Alden Bell creates both a riveting character in Temple and remarkable world from the first sentence.  “God is a slick God. Temple knows.  She knows because of all the crackerjack miracles still to be seen on this ruined globe”.  Temple’s world is a place where zombies invaded and civilization came to a grinding halt twenty-five years prior, but it’s the only world 15 year-old Temple has ever known.  Although she doesn’t know how to read, she knows how to hot-wire cars, find supplies in abandoned houses and businesses, and, most importantly, she knows how to kill.  Killing meatskins takes no thought and brings no remorse, but when Temple is forced to kill a man who tries to rape her, she must grapple with guilt, remorse, and a muddled sense of spirituality as she runs from his vengeful brother.  Temple’s travels take her places that are bizarre and almost impossible to imagine, an unrecognizable, macabre southern United States.

The Reapers are the Angels is an epic book packed into a small package.  Temple is a study in contradictions, both fearless and vulnerable.  She is brave and principled in the same vein as Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games.  Like Katniss, Temple represents a kind of hope to the people she encounters in her bleak world.  Temple continually grapples with her place in a very violent, chaotic world and wonders what if she will be a tool for good or evil.  Despite having no training in anything other than survival, Temple seeks meaning in a world of zombies, soullessness, and constant death.  Like other teens, she also seeks small pleasures, occasional oblivion, adventures, and someone to occasionally lift the awesome weight of her responsibilities from her shoulders.  

Readers will be enthralled with the zombie-infested world Bell has created.  Temple’s world is one in which she has complete autonomy to take a car and head in any direction, as long as she can stay ahead of her enemies and a zombie bite.  They will understand Temple’s struggle with spirituality and a feeling that there is something greater than herself at work and will admire her sense of immortality in a world where others are cowering in fear.  Temple doesn’t need adults to protect or advise her because she has her survival skills honed as sharply as her trusty khukuri knife.  She is an amazing heroine that will appeal to fans of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The Hunger Games.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Citrus County

Citrus County is a brilliantly conceived and executed novel about the smart, strange, and disaffected in rural America.

In less skilled hands, Toby would be just another teenage bad boy – distant, destructive, irresistible, a real-life Edward Cullen.  Yet this teen bad boy is both perpetrator and victim.  Abusive Uncle Neal, who balances on a razor thin edge of sanity, is raising Toby.  How could he end up any other way?  There’s no explanation available to Toby as to what happened to his parents, why he ended up with Uncle Neal.  But Toby doesn’t dwell on what could have been in his life; instead he accepts what is.  For Toby, that means understanding and embracing his basest impulses, his “badness”.  “He was as weak as ever.  Anything could make him weak – the wrong smell, the wrong tint in the sky, thinking about the dragging afternoons he’d endured in his lifetime and all the afternoons to come.  He was addicted to petty hoodlumism.” 

Orbiting around Toby is Shelby, the gifted, funny, pretty, new girl.  She’s too smart to tolerate the vapid popular girls and too good at being a daughter to her widowed father and motherless sister to risk shaking the family foundation with petty rebellions. When Shelby rebels, it’s going to be with Toby. When she rebels, it’s with forethought and deliberation.  Shelby will save Toby in a completely unexpected way and Toby will be unable to help himself from destroying her and her family in return. 

While Toby and Shelby torture themselves and others with anger, lust, and uncertainty, their geography teacher, Mr. Hibma, plots the murder of a fellow teacher and creates plays for the girls’ basketball team that he’s been forced to coach.  “Teaching had been the only job available to him, and for awhile it was amusing, another lark, but now he’d been doing it a year and half.”  Mr. Hibma is, in many ways, more immature than the students he teaches, as he steals sodas from the teachers lounge and forces the girls basketball team to undergo makeovers.  “In middle school, he reminded them, ugly girls are intimidated by pretty girls.  Hell, it was this way with adult women.  A team could gain advantage by keeping tan and having their nails done.”  Like Toby, Mr. Hibma struggles with his “badness”, his most immature feelings butting up against the functioning adult he is becoming despite his best efforts.

There is a crime at the center of Citrus County.  It is perpetrated and the horror of it is felt in everything following – kisses exchanged, library visits, emails written, breakfasts prepared and eaten, and greeting cards purchased.  There is no black-and-white, Citrus County is hot, humid, and full of gray areas.

John Brandon has created genuinely complex teen characters, imbuing their contempt and recklessness with the seriousness that teens treat themselves and each other.  Their voices and actions, even at their most shocking, ring true.   Mr. Hibma is deliciously contemptible as the morally questionable and thoroughly pathetic boy-man in charge of teaching adolescents every day.  The events that unfold in Citrus County will stick with you.

More about the book at McSweeney's.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Dogfight, A Love Story

Can you steal your brother’s girlfriend and business while he’s in prison and make everything okay when he returns? Alfredo’s day of reckoning has finally arrived. His older brother Tariq, formally known as Jose, is coming home from prison, where he’s been incarcerated for armed robbery. Alfredo and his hapless best friend, Winston, come up with a scheme to steal some drugs to get Tariq back in business, to steal a pit bull so they can host a celebratory dogfight in honor of Tariq, and to make it to the doctor on time for Isabel’s prenatal visit.  Just another day in Queens in Dogfight, A Love Story.

Unfortunately for everyone, but most of all Alfredo, his ham-fisted attempts at robbery go haywire when he has a panic attack and has to call in vicious reinforcements. In addition, Alfredo and Winston cannot find a dog to steal for the dogfight. All of the things Alfredo plans as a way to make amends to Tariq are falling apart. The question quickly becomes how disastrous the results will be. 

Matt Burgess does a masterful job of building tension around Tariq’s return. Alfredo and Isabel are so young, confused, passionate, and stupid that it’s not difficult to understand why they both followed Tariq before he went to prison and what they found in each other once he left. Burgess also forgoes easy characterizations about drug dealers, high school drop-outs, and teen mothers and writes about young adults doing the best they can in chaotic, barely working-class poverty.

Isabel’s conversations with her son in utero are both heartbreaking and hopeful. Alfredo’s charm, eagerness, and almost paralyzing sensitivity make it impossible not to root for him to survive, if not succeed. Tariq’s thoughts and actions are positively chilling and Burgess describes a violent psychopath who is also a beloved brother and son - no small feat.

Readers will be thoroughly sucked into the drama of the love triangle, wondering how Tariq will react when he sees Alfredo and a pregnant Isabel together for the first time. The book is also infused with the aimless bullshitting and wandering that most teen nights are full of, whether it’s in person or on AIM.  Adult readers will remember the potential for fun or danger every night seemed to hold. This is a book full of drugs and violence, but it’s not about drugs and violence. Dogfight is Shakespearean urban grit.

Sunday, October 3, 2010


Stuff by Randy O. Frost and Gail Steketee had me on the verge of a panic attack for 290 pages.  Their examination of hoarding as a growing psychiatric disorder in the United States was a balance of legitimate scholarly study and fascinating anecdotal evidence of what may cause hoarding - PTSD; OCD; a cold, withholding parent; perfectionism; genetic predisposition; or physiological damage to the brain.  There is no clear answer, but the study alone brings hope to those who hoard and the people affected by their hoarding.

Irene, one of the first participants in their study was especially fascinating.  The authors sift through her life the was she herself tries to sift through the piles of papers, mail, newspapers, and other detritus entombing her in her own home.  Her childhood is examined, especially her relationship with her withholding father.  Additional clues to her hoarding lie in how she coped with a childhood move that left her lonely and unmoored.  Another layer is revealed when examining her college years and her inability to finish her senior thesis because the information and possibilities of her research completely overwhelmed her natural perfectionism.  Her skill and pleasure in finding and organizing information took an ominous turn during her career as a librarian.  Irene could organize and weed library materials, but nothing was ever thrown away.  Instead, she brought everything home with her, excited by the sheer possibilities of each scrap of paper.  Even divorce and the possibility of her children being taken away did not stop her hoarding.  The authors describe Irene the person and provide fascinating insight into the creation and everyday existence of Irene the hoarder.  Reading about her attempt to come to grips with her hoarding provides an understanding of both Irene and the disorder.

The authors are able to bring this same insight into each case they highlight in Stuff.  The people on the other side of the “goat trails”, paths of papers and trash created in order to move around their homes, are more than hoarders, more than their “stuff”.  Frost and Steketee do an excellent job helping readers understand what “stuff” represents for hoarders, but also for society.  Their writing style is accessible and the narrative arc created in the book ensures an interest in both the idea of hoarding and the people studied from beginning to end.

We are inundated with messages of consumption everyday and I think readers will find the individual stories compelling and horrifying. It offers a chance to think about “stuff” in a new way.  Hoarding is not about materialism; it’s about how people connect to inanimate objects and the degrees of these connections.  As an extension of that idea, Stuff will challenge readers to think about mental illness, exploring how someone can use inanimate objects as a way to cope, with larger mental health issues.

Supplementary information:

The Joy and Pain of Things by Randy O. Frost on the Huffington Post

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Days of Grace

Days of Grace is a coming-of-age novel set in World War II England with a lesbian twist.

12 year-old Nora from London is evacuated prior to the commencement of the War to idyllic Kent.  A poor city girl, she is handpicked by the parson’s daughter, Grace, to stay with them.  Grace and Nora are the same age, but their lives until that point could not have been more different.  Nora was being raised along by her mother in a small, dirty city flat.  Grace lived with her mother and father in a lovely parsonage, seemingly wanting for nothing.

WWII changes Nora’s life, in many ways, for the better.  She is being educated by Reverend Rivers each day, has a constant companion in the daring and charming Grace, and is well fed and clothed for the first time in her life.  When a call comes saying Nora can return to her mother in London or stay at the parsonage, Nora chooses to stay.  In her innocence, she unknowingly chooses Grace and the Rivers family over her own mother.

As the years pass and the war comes closer and closer to idyllic Kent - fighter planes overhead, blackouts, nights in the bomb shelter, and less food for everyone - Nora and Grace pass through innocent girlhood and into their teen years.  Nora begins to struggle with her growing romantic feelings for Grace, trying desperately each day not to think about Grace or fantasize about a shared future.  She also chafes at Grace’s growing interest in boys and adventures outside of their insular lives.  Nora would be happy to stay with Grace forever.

Everything changes for both girls as their respective families unravel around them.  Childhood is over and Grace and Nora are thrust into adulthood as they run away to wartime London and try to survive on their own.  Grace is befriended by Bernard (think David in “An Education”), a man who sells black market ration books, booze, and other stolen goods.  Bernard puts Grace and Nora up in an apartment where he stores his stolen wares and sets about wooing a young, beautiful, and impressionable Grace.  Nora is hurt and appalled as her friend and love interest falls prey to Bernard’s charms.  Inevitably, disaster strikes as a result of Grace's reckless romance and Nora tries to pick-up the pieces with tragic results.

Alternating chapters take the reader into the life of elderly Nora as she observes a young, pregnant neighbor across the street.  Nora watches the young woman grower larger each day, as Nora herself grows more ill with (self-diagnosed) cancer.  When she realizes the mysterious young woman is clearly hiding in her room in labor, Nora takes a chance and goes over to see if she can help.  She finds Rose in advanced labor and helps her give birth.  Once the baby is safely born, Nora convinces Rose to move-in with her.  Having a young friend and a baby in the house brings new hope to Nora, even as her physical decline becomes more rapid.  As she sinks further and further into her illness, she reflects on her time with Grace.

Catherine Hall moves the narrative back-and-forth between elderly Nora and young Nora, weaving the story of her adoration of Grace with her friendship with Rose and creating a “circle of life” story about love, longing, loss, and atonement.  

I was interested to see how Hall handled Nora’s homosexuality in a historical setting and the overall tone was consistent with the emotional and sexual repression of the time.  However, it seemed a bit of a cop-out to strip Nora of any type of sexuality in order to keep Grace blissfully unaware of Nora’s true, lustful feelings for her.  Nora becomes a fundamentally miserable character and it is not difficult to imagine how she turned out that way after a lifetime of denying her true self.

I read Days of Grace straight through and was intrigued by Nora’s story, but I wasn't bowled over.  This is the perfect library book to check-out when you want something to read over a long weekend.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Father of the Rain

Father of the Rain by Lily King is a story of divorce, cruelty, alcoholism, self-preservation, and redemption.

Part I is the agonizing story of 11 year-old Daley during her parent’s divorce.  Her mother swears Daley to secrecy as she begins preparations to leave her wealthy WASP husband, Gardiner.  Daley is tormented by the guilt of leaving her father at the beginning of the summer and is overcome with fear and sadness by what she finds when she and her mother return to town at the end of the summer.  Daley becomes a stranger in Gardiner’s home and witness to his functional, but explosive alcoholism.  King is masterful as she creates Daley’s world of both privilege and complete chaos.  Gardiner is incredibly cruel and careless in the way only a wealthy alcoholic can be. Page after page he manipulations Daley’s heart and mind in ways that will leave readers shaking with rage and overwhelmed with sadness for a young girl who can’t understand what happened to her family over the course of one summer.

Part II chronicles Daley’s successful life, free from her father’s alcoholism and dysfunction.  At the pinnacle of young professional success, Gardiner manages to pull her back with the promise of reconciliation and the restoration of their pre-divorce bond.  I risk giving too much away by summarizing the plot in Part II closely. King creates such an atmosphere of oppression and hope that the reader is sure to literally yell at Daley through the pages as she makes herself vulnerable to a continually cruel and unstable Gardiner.  I can only imagine that the child of an alcoholic could understand how far down the path to hell they are willing to travel in order create a non-alcoholic, loving version of their parent.

Part III is essentially the aftermath of the situation Gardiner created which drew Daley back home.  King’s incredibly nuanced adult Daley is a revelation – stronger at the broken places, but still capable of responding to the needs of her father even if it could leave her broken again.  The question asked in Part III is whether she can stay safe and healthy while he is so sick.

Lily King has created an incredibly evocative novel in Father of the Rain.  It literally evoked a veritable avalanche of emotions from me as I read it – sadness, anger, frustration, happiness, profound relief, and contempt.  The novel is both a testament to how low people can sink as a result of alcohol abuse, the degree to which they are able to lie to themselves, and the innate goodness and strength that all humans possess, regardless of economic advantages. 

Father of the Rain would be an excellent choice for a book club.  The themes of familial obligation, fidelity, parental responsibility, alcoholism, and abuse run throughout the book.  Clearly, Oprah agrees with me, as the novel was included in her 2010 list of Summer Reads and a Reader's Guide was created.  

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Series Highlights

I’m in the middle of several books right now, so I don’t have a review to post. Rather than leave you in a lurch I’ve put together a list of some great series that I’ve recently read (and plan to keep reading!).  They aren’t necessarily literary, but they will keep you glued to the pages and checking Amazon to see when the next book is due out.  

Gail Carriger’s The Parasol Protectorate Series
A thoroughly enjoyable romp in an alternate steampunk Victorian England, one in which the Queen has both a werewolf and vampire advisor. Alexia Tarabotti is a sassy, intelligent, and hard-headed heroine from the upper crust of London society who also happens to be soulless. She is one of those terrific heroines who always manages to find herself in the middle of trouble and excitement.  I can’t wait to read Blameless on September 1st! 

Lisa Lutz’s The Spellman Files 
I am both bummed and extremely grateful I’m not a member of the dysfunctional, but highly entertaining Spellman family.  Yes, they’re a family running a private detective agency in San Francisco, which can be exciting.  But, they use some questionable sleuthing techniques on each other, which is not exactly conducive to healthy family boundaries.  This is especially true for main character, Izzy Spellman.  This P.I. is in her late twenties, has terrible taste in men, and a slight drinking problem.  She’s also a kick-ass detective and tough-as-nails heroine in her own right.  There’s never a dull moment with the Spellman family and Lutz creates compelling mysteries to pair with their antics. 

Connie Willis’ Blackout 
I read the first book in the series, Blackout, and it’s a rollicking story set in 2060 about historian time travelers on individual assignments in World War II-era Great Britain.  Their stories are interwoven as one-by-one, the historian’s access back to the future fails.  They each set out on a journey to find each other in the hopes of using alternate “drop points” home, unaware that all the drop points have failed.  As a reader, it was incredible to land in the middle of Great Britain during World War II.  It’s clear Willis has done an amazing job of researching everything - from the types of stockings women would be wearing, what the people of London did during those long hours in bomb shelters, and, literally, where the bombs landed.  This is a great series for science fiction lovers, as well as historical fiction fans.  I have a feeling this series is going to get better and better with each book. 

Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire Mysteries 
You might know this series by a different name - the Sookie Stackhouse books or the True Blood series.  Before True Blood was a hit on HBO it  was a tremendously popular series of books about a mind reading waitress in small-town Louisiana, Sookie Stackhouse.  While you may be a fan of the show, let me assure you that the books are a bit different in terms of characters and the direction of the plot.  Let me also promise you that they just as fun, completely over-the-top, and just plain sexy as True Blood.  I devoured the entire series in a few weeks this summer (seriously) because I really needed a mental break from some more literary books I had been reading and, well, it’s summer and summer reading should be a little frivolous.  Don’t let your vampire fatigue keep you away from this series.  You won’t regret picking them up.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Lean On Pete

15 year-old Charley Thompson is a heartbreaker of a protagonist.  He and his Dad move to Portland, Oregon, where he is left to fend for himself while his Dad works, parties, and sleeps around.  Shoplifting food and scrambling for money is second-nature to Charley at this point, although he is a fundamentally good, kindhearted teen who loves to run and longs to return to Spokane so he can play on the football team again.  Neglect and disregard turn to danger when his Dad sleeps with the wrong married woman.  Her husband decides to even the score with drastic consequences for his Dad and Charley. 

Charley is a survivor and manages to find work at the local racetrack, helping the casually cruel, repulsive alcoholic Del with his horses. Sometimes Del pays him, sometimes he pays him less than he promised, and sometimes he doesn’t pay him at all.  A desperate Charley rarely asks for what he earned, what he literally needs to survive.  He’s grateful to be remembered, to stay afloat and off the radar of Child and Family Services.  Charley is almost animal-like in his ability to survive being literally and figuratively kicked, coming back to give his Dad, Del, or others who mistreat him a second chance to be as good as he is.  But he doesn’t have to worry or flinch when he is with Del’s horses and he develops a special bond with Lean on Pete, an aging racehorse who is kicked and abused himself.  As Charley’s desperation grows, he ends up living in Lean on Pete’s stall at the horse track.  Throughout horror after horror, Charley remembers good times he had with his Dad and reflects continually on his beloved librarian Aunt Margy, who took loved him and took an interest in him before she had a falling out with his Dad and they lost contact a few years before.

Del’s plan to sell Lean on Pete is the impetus that induces Charley to steal his beloved horse and set out on an arduous journey to save the horse and find his aunt in Wyoming.  With nothing left to lose Charley and Lean on Pete drive, ride, and walk, all in hopes of finding the one person who was ever steady and good.  Charley experiences small acts of kindness along that way and his gratitude is heartbreaking.  He also continues to encounter those same type of people who have always preyed on his vulnerability and general kindness.  

Lean on Pete is such an unusual, melancholy story of a boy and a horse.  Charley’s unrelenting, gentle spirit, even in the face of chaos and violence is inspiring and a testament to nature versus nurture. He refuses to stop looking for love, even if it comes in the form of a broken down horse named Lean on Pete.  Readers will appreciate the devotion Charley feels for the increasingly lame Lean on Pete. They will also be moved by the people and situations Charley has to endure and admire his gentle, indomitable spirit.  Life is emphatically not fair for Charley and even the most jaded readers will be angry and outraged on his behalf and cheer him on as he and Lean on Pete try to make their way toward Aunt Margy and the possibility of a better life.

Be sure to take a look at author Willy Vlautin's music playlist via Largehearted Boy.

Monday, August 9, 2010

One Bloody Thing After Another

Three speeding trains are about to crash into each other.  Speeding train #1 is Jackie.  Jackie is a teen lesbian in love with her best friend, Ann.  She’s volatile, angry, and can disappear by invoking her dead mother.  Speeding train #2 is Ann.  She’s grown distant from Jackie lately not because, as Jackie fears, she’s sick of her or their relationship.  Rather, Ann’s Mom is turning into a monster of some sort and Ann is preoccupied with finding things to feed her - bloody steaks will no longer satisfy her cravings.  The third train may not be speeding as much as rolling along.  Elderly Charlie and his ancient dog, Mitchie, go for their daily walks and enjoy each other’s company.  What Charlie doesn’t enjoy is the headless ghost who exhorts him to knock on his neighbor, Mrs. Richard’s, door everyday.  Is Mrs. Richards hiding a secret or is Charlie losing his mind? Jackie, Ann, and Charlie pass through each other’s lives, wreaking havoc (knowingly and unknowingly) as they deal with both literal and figurative demons.

One Bloody Thing After Another by Joey Comeau is a strange and satisfying book. Comeau plays with dialogue, time, and place skillfully. Even when the story doesn’t progress in a linear fashion, the narrative trains speeding towards each other make sense and the reader finds themselves hoping the pedal will be put to the metal.

Both Jackie and Ann are well-conceived teen characters. Jackie alternates between mooning over Ann and dangerous willful destruction of property and self.  Only a teenager has that intensity of lust and rage.  Ann’s sense of being overwhelmed in caring for her Mom and keeping up the facade of normalcy eventually breaks down in a shocking, outrageous way.  In addition, the relationship between Charlie and dog Mitchie is twisted and hilarious.  Charlie spends their walks bemoaning Mitchie’s dawdling and desire to stop and be petted by random strangers. But it’s clear Mitchie just might be Charlie’s last tie to sanity.

One Bloody Thing After Another is a weird, gruesome, out-of-control book and I enjoyed it a lot.  I think readers who aren’t afraid to try something different will be delighted with the blood and lust and intrigued by the unusual narrative style. 

As a total aside, this book has one of my very favorite covers of all time.  It truly captures the creepy, discombobulated nature of the book itself.  

Monday, August 2, 2010


Amandine by Marlena de Blasi is an epic tale of an orphaned baby secretly sent to live in a French convent by her grandmother, the Countess.  The baby is the bastard daughter of teenage Andzelika and the brother of her father’s mistress (A sordid start, to be sure). Yet the child, Amandine, is raised surrounded by love and protection by a lay guardian, Solange, and the convent’s religious occupants.  However Mater Paul, who oversees the convent, cannot overcome her own jealousy over the unconditional love she witnesses, the polar opposite of her own traumatic childhood. She grows to hate Amandine and spends years neglecting and, finally, damaging her. As a result, Amandine and Solange are thrust from the convent just as the French surrender to the Nazis. They are in great peril, but also find unexpected reserves of strength and cunning as they become involved in the French Resistance.  Amandine’s mother and grandmother are intertwined throughout the story, as they go on with their lives, the existence of Amandine erased from the official record, but not their minds. 

De Blasi writes beautifully and deftly weaves first-person chapters from Solange, Mater Paul, The Countess and Andzelika, creating the net that supports Amandine’s tale. There is an element of Jane Eyre at work, as Amandine is treated cruelly by Mater Paul and her fellow convent school students. But De Blasi doesn’t take the easy way out with this orphan tale. Amandine is reared with love by Solange and all of the nuns and priests that surround her everyday.  She is also raised to love and appreciate the natural world. De Blasi’s description of the French landscape, as well as the food, is sumptuous. The book is infused with a large dose of sadness, especially in relation to mother-daughter relationships.  Amandine’s evolving feelings about her mother and the mother figures that surround her are extraordinary in their maturity and, many times, incredibly sad.

Despite the title, Amandine is really not just her story.  The subplots involving the Countess, Andzelika, and Solange are fascinating and are solidly tales of women - their choices and relationships - and how their choices helped create Amandine.  I enjoyed this book a lot and will have no trouble hand selling it to adult women or to my library book club.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Autobiography of a Recovering Skinhead

Frank Meeink and Jody M. Roy tell of Meeink’s story childhood spent raised by alcoholics and drug addicts on the low-end of the working class spectrum in Philadelphia. Despite a loving extended family, no one protects Meeink from savage beatings from his stepfather, the emotional abuse and indifference from both his mother and father, and the constant fear he lives in as he bounces around low-performing, dangerous elementary and middle schools. An all too brief childhood filled with severe violence and neglect makes him an easy target for recruitment when he visits his cousin in rural Pennsylvania. Older neo-Nazi teens are interested in his development and protection, something he hasn’t regularly experienced in his life. They act as mentors, friends, and a de facto family as they indoctrinate him into the movement.

Upon his return to Philadelphia at 14, Frank becomes, for the first time in his life, a leader, a strategist, an entrepreneur, and an absolutely feared person as the head of the local neo-Nazi movement. Meeink takes the reader on a horrifying journey of rage and hate, allowing a look behind the curtain into how a virtually homeless teen boy finds a sense of family in a group created around a twisted ideology of white identify. The book provides fascinating details about The Movement – everything from fashion to regional differences in organizing. Meeink does not censor the rage and alcohol-fueled actions he committed for years as the leader of Strike Force, a gang of neo-Nazi teams he created and led. In fact, he recounts the pride he felt when a neo-Nazi leader, freshly released from prison, joins Meeink and his friends in savagely beating homosexuals outside of a bar. “Shoulder to should with my comrades, back up against the wall, awaiting my first trip to juvie in the glow of Scott Windham’s approving smile, I felt proud, truly proud, for the first time.”

Eventually, Meeink’s actions in Philadelphia finally force him to flee (with the help of a neo-Nazi mentor) to the Midwest, where he descends further into violence and madness. After brutally kidnapping and torturing a member of his new group of recruits, or freshcuts, Meeink lands in prison. As he headed to prison, Meeink was a leader in the young neo-Nazi movement, an alcoholic, and soon-to-be father. He was 17.

His innate street smarts and his role as a neo-Nazi leader outside prison walls ensured he survived and, in many ways, flourished during his time in prison. But the neo-Nazis who protected him inside and revered him outside couldn’t foresee the epiphany he would have behind bars that would ultimately lead to his redemption. During his time in prison Meeink ends up playing football with Vice Lords and becoming close friends with two African American teen prisoners. They commiserate, like teens everywhere, about what their girlfriends are doing when they aren’t around, and helping each other decode secret messages of infidelity in letters and phone calls home. For the first time ever, Meeink lives with the “mud” he had been indoctrinated to hate and the holes in the neo-Nazi ideology he had held so dear become quickly apparent to the middle school dropout.

Of course, it’s not that easy to walk away from the only life Meeink has known. Upon his return to Philly, Meeink reunites with the Strike Force, but he’s not the only one who has changed. Friends and family have died, become strung out on drugs, or left the Movement. Meeink quickly turns to drugs and returns to drinking to numb his confusion and rage. He can’t live as a leader in a movement he doesn’t believe in anymore and his day of reckoning is violent and appalling, giving him another excuse to lose himself in drugs and alcohol.

Meeink’s ideological redemption ran parallel to his descent into drug addiction and alcoholism. As he found meaning in his work with the Anti-Defamation League, telling the truth about his actions as a neo-Nazi, he becomes an even bigger liar as he spends days shooting up and stealing Oxycontin from his mother. Just as it did with the neo-Nazis, Meeink faces a day of reckoning with his drug and alcohol use that is violent and heartbreaking.

Fans of Edward Norton's American History X will find this book even more compelling than that movie. 

Listen to Frank Meeink on NPR and read an excerpt.