Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Wolf in White Van Book Cover Wolf in White Van
John Darnielle
Fiction
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
2014

John Darnielle, for all intents and purposes, is one of my favorite bands, The Mountain Goats. He writes, composes, sings, and plays guitar for all their songs, which are notable for their humorous and heartfelt storytelling. So, I was intrigued when I saw that he had written a book, and moreso when I heard that it had won an American Library Association Alex Award, which is the award given to works of literature that were written for adults but have high appeal to teen readers.

Wolf in White Van is a strange book. Its structure unfolds like the mazes depicted on the book’s cover, a story with layers upon layers. It’s the story of Sean Phillips, an avid sci-fi/fantasy fan who was disfigured in an accident when he was 17. While he was recovering, he began shaping imaginary worlds that he turned into Trace Italian, a role-playing game that is played by snail mail. Players write Sean a letter explaining their turn, and he writes back to them with the story of what happens next. Wolf in White Van is simultaneously the story of Sean, the story of Trace Italian, and the story of some of Trace Italian’s most dedicated players. They’re all the same story, of course–the story of people looking for meaning and connection in the world, trying to create connections between fiction and reality.

Some of my favorite parts of Wolf in White Van were the excerpts we got from the game itself:

Could the map be wrong? No: as the tower rises you see symbols that bear no resemblance to the ones you know will mark the spires of the Trace Italian. Half-scratched pictures, shapes that could be letters, clusters that could be numbers. This is not the bulwark, not the housing that guards the Trace. And still it rises.

 

I’d recommend Wolf in White Van to anyone who knows what it’s like to get lost in a fictional world, even if only for a little while.

 

 

 

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The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
Historical Fiction
Viking
2014
Hardcover
384

Sue Monk Kidd, who wrote The Secret Life of Bees and The Mermaid Chair, has a new book out. I loved her other books so was happy to get hold of this one too.

Set in the early 1800’s, the book is told from two perspectives, Sarah, who comes from a slave owning family in Charleston, South Carolina, and Handful, one of her slaves. Each girl has alternating chapters so the reader gets both views on the events that are happening.

Sarah is given Handful as a gift on her 11th birthday. Even though Sarah has been raised in this atmosphere of slavery, she is appalled that she could “own” someone. Sarah tries to free Handful but is stopped by her parents as well as the laws of the day which makes it difficult to emancipate a slave. The two girls become friends. They try to help each other as they deal with slavery and the submissive role of women in the world. Sarah struggles with the ideas of a woman’s role. She wants a career but is stymied at every turn. Her one salvation is her younger sister, Angelina, who she practically raises as her own. She teaches her to hate the slavery that supports their family.

Handful and her mother Charlotte have their own struggle. They are secretly working to earn money in order to buy their freedom. When caught out in an infraction, the punishments are severe. Handful gets caught up in plans for a slave uprising. Charlotte falls in love but the hardships of a black couple staying together can be insurmountable.

The book takes us through the roles of slave and master in the South, and into the North where the slave question is fought with many different ideas for a solution. Sarah and Angelina also get caught up in the struggle for women’s rights.

I enjoyed the book very much even if the stories of slave punishment were a bit hard to take. What really took me back was when I finished and read the author notes. This story is based on real people. Sarah and Angelina Grimké were actual abolitionists and among the most famous (or infamous) speakers of their day. Their writings on women’s rights were inspiration of Elizabeth Cady Stanton and others. The story of Handful, while not based on an actual person, realistically depicts the life of slaves at that time.

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The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

The Paying Guests Book Cover The Paying Guests
Sarah Waters
Historical Fiction
Penguin
2014

Recently I saw a ripple of excitement across social media: a new Sarah Waters book was coming out soon!! I thought: who? Which was surprising to me, since, as a librarian, I like to think I’m pretty well caught-up on the popular authors of the day. But of course, no one person can read everything. Still, given how excited many of my friends were about the release of The Paying Guests, I figured I should probably try reading it.

I was a little disheartened when I picked up my hold on it and discovered that it was a very long work of historical fiction set in 1920s England. I’m one of few Americans who isn’t mad for Downton Abbey–it’s just usually hard for me to enjoy period dramas. But still, I decided to give The Paying Guests a try, and I’m so glad I did. It’s the story of Frances Wray, a spinster who lives with her mother. Her brothers died in the Great War, and her father died shortly after, and as a result, the Wrays have fallen on hard times and must take in boarders to make ends meet. Their neighbors refer to the boarders as “paying guests” to make it seem classier.

At first, Frances is determined to go about life as normal, but her life quickly gets entwined with the drama their boarders, the Barbers bring with them. The Paying Guests is a beautifully-written story that combines a page-turning crime story with a tender romance. Waters’s historical details inform and shape the story without dragging it down. I would highly recommend The Paying Guests to anyone, but especially to those who already enjoy historical fiction.

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This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein

This Changes Everything Book Cover This Changes Everything
Naomi Klein
Nonfiction
Simon and Schuster
2014

I’m a longtime admirer of Naomi Klein, a journalist, author, and activist. Her previous books No Logo and The Shock Doctrine were both eye-opening for me in terms of their content, and admirable to me in terms of Klein’s ability to write sharp, concise prose that tames thorny issues into words that are not only easy to follow, but enjoyable to read. I had high hopes when I heard that she was releasing a book about climate change, since that is a complex topic with often-changing theories and information. This Changes Everything did not disappoint.

In her introduction, Klein recollects that for a long time, she felt that climate change, though unfortunate, was not necessarily a critical issue. I can relate to that feeling–it seems like there are so many problems facing the world today that it’s overwhelming. Klein reveals the first time she began to see global climate change as a truly critical issue–in 2009, she met with Angelica Navarro Llanos, Bolivia’s ambassador to the World Trade Organization. Llanos explained the “Marshall Plan for the Earth” to Klein, where wealthy countries who had benefited from causing climate change would pay reparations to developing nations who were being hurt by it. Klein began to understand how connected climate change is with food justice, super storms, clean water, poverty, and other pressing issues.

In the rest of the book, Klein goes on to show how all these issues are interconnected. She spells out who profits from climate change (energy companies; entrepreneurs who want to block out the sun) and who suffers (pretty much everyone else), and what steps need to be taken immediately to delay–and eventually repair–climate change. Her tone captures the urgency of the situation, but is not without hope. She highlights examples like the Lakota entrepreneur Henry Red Cloud, whose organization trains American Indians in the installation of solar and wind energy projects on reservations. It creates jobs and low-cost energy sources and reduces pollution. As a journalist, Klein traveled around the world and spoke with many fascinating people working on various projects related to climate change, and This Changes Everything includes partial interviews with many of those people.

If you have felt overwhelmed by media reporting on climate change, I would highly recommend reading This Changes Everything. Naomi Klein has written a compelling, cohesive story that takes into account many of the causes and possible cures for climate change.

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The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog Stars
Peter Heller
Fiction
Knopf Doubleday
2012

dog stars picI guess I’m kind of a Peter Heller fan. I first read The Dog Stars and loved it. Recently I read The Painter, and enjoyed that book as well. The Dog Stars is about a post-apocalyptic society created out of the remnants of those who survived flu and blood disease pandemics. The book is written in a way that does not transmit total doom, but conveys what the human spirit needs to go on.

If I think about the writing style of Peter Heller, I would have to say it’s unique, and takes a few chapters to get accustom to the rhythm. He writes conversationally, which makes it very personal and easy to get yourself immersed in his story. I wanted to read The Painter because, to be honest, I didn’t want The Dog Stars to end.

I hope Peter Heller will continue the Dog Stars story with another book…or possibly a prequel? The story is one that gets under your skin, and I believe it has everything to do with the writing and storytelling style of Peter Heller. I recommend it to anyone who loves great characterization wrapped in a unique point of view.

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The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chroncile #1), by Patrick Rothfuss

Title: The Name of the Wind
Series – Kingkiller Chronicle
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Publisher: DAW Books
Release Date: 3/27/2007
Pages: 622The Name of the Wind

If there is one thing that can possibly sum up the magnitude of Patrick Rothfuss’s The Name of the Wind in one sentence it is this: its popularity allowed his second book in the Kingkiller Chronicle, The Wise Man’s Fear, to become one of the few fantasy novels to hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller’s list.

The Name of the Wind tells a story within a story (a la The Arabian Nights). A bartender, “Kote,” is suddenly visited by a man he never thought he’d see again, a man who knows him by his true identity of Kvothe, a name that happens to be legendary and has spawned many a tale with equal amount of truth and myth. This man, a scribe of great importance, sets out to write Kvothe’s story, to separate the myth from fact. Kote grants him this. From the woodland setting where the boy Kvothe travels with his parents and their traveling troupe of performers, to living homeless as a beggar in the slums of a gigantic metropolis, to an academic setting similar to Hogwarts in J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, the reader watches as an innocent yet confident boy grows and learns how to transcend that confidence from mere curiosity to a passionate seeking of knowledge. A web of stories unfold in this novel, but there is one particular event that sets in motion a certain path that Kvothe must follow to the end, no matter where it takes him and, most importantly, no matter what it may possibly take from him. In his journey Kvothe dances with joy, love, sorrow, and despair, and only Rothfuss could tell this story in the manner it needs to be told. I am in awe of this man’s storytelling ability. And, as a fellow writer of epic fantasy, I am beyond excited to see what else he has to show us.

The writing is at times lighthearted, at times as hard as stone, but always crafted with precise meaning. There is often talk in the literary world that a writer must make use of every word; every syllable, even. If that is indeed true, Rothfuss certainly makes a wonderful example. Even when going off the path it still remains relevant to the story. Epic fantasy, full of dull reading and unnecessary fluff, is given much-needed innovation in a genre growing in popularity once again.

If there is one fault to the story – and really, I wouldn’t even call it a fault – it is that Kvothe is such a perfect character. Firstly, since he is the one telling the story we know that he survives everything that happens to him up until this point. Secondly, he is so talented at everything he does. He quickly picks up anything he needs to learn. He’s even good with the ladies despite what Rothfuss may want you to think. Despite this “perfect-ness,” it doesn’t detract too much from the story. He is still a flawed character in the sense that he has many troubles. And it doesn’t matter that he’s so talented; some things are more difficult to get out of than others.

The ending leaves an abundance of questions to be answered, and if the reader doesn’t find themselves on the edge of their seat that can only mean they’re not sitting at all; rather, they’re standing and waiting with great impatience. I have not yet read The Wise Man’s Fear, but from what I’ve read it is supposedly better than its predecessor. I can’t possible fathom how, given how much I’ve enjoyed The Name of the Wind, but that only has me sweating with even more anticipation than I already had.

(The second book, The Wise Man’s Fear, was released in 2011 and the final installment of the trilogy, The Doors of Stone, is in the process of being written. You can find out more at Patrick Rothfuss’s website: http://www.patrickrothfuss.com/content/index.asp)

4.5/5 stars

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Not a Creature Was Stirring (Gregor Demarkian #1), by Jane Haddam

Not a Creature Was Stirring Book Cover Not a Creature Was Stirring
Gregor Demarkian #1
Jane Haddam
Mystery
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road
3/5/2013
Kindle, OverDrive Read, ePub

Recently added to your library’s ebook collection, this is the first title in Haddam’s long-running police procedural series featuring Gregor Demarkian, “the Armenian-American Hercule Poirot.” Demarkian, creator of the FBI’s Behavioral Sciences Department, is just coming out of mourning after the death of his wife. It’s the Christmas season, his first back in his old neighborhood of Cavanaugh Street, Armenian enclave in Philadelphia where he grew up. Although Cavanaugh Street has changed, many of his childhood friends and neighbors remain, with all their quirks.

As a favor to Father Tibor, priest at the local Armenian church, Demarkian accepts an invitation to Engine House, the Main Line mansion of Robert Hannaford, wealthy heir to a Philadelphia railroad fortune. When he arrives, he meets the Hannaford children and Robert Hannaford’s dying wife, but not Robert Hannaford himself, who has been bludgeoned to death in his library. More deaths follow between Christmas and New Year’s, before Demarkian and local police chief John Henry Newman Jackman find the solution and the killer. Motives abound among the Hannaford children, largely having to do with money, with the notable exception of Bennis Hannaford, who has made her own fortune as an author of a very popular fantasy series.

With the 29th book in the series just out, this has been Haddam’s most popular, and most durable, work. The main characters, Demarkian and Bennis Hannaford, are well drawn and likable, even though they can be irritating at times. Cavanaugh Street is an unusual but fascinating setting, with lots of recurring characters bringing in subplots that mesh well with the main story line. If you enjoy police procedurals, or books with ethnic characters, you’re sure to enjoy Not a Creature Was Stirring and the entire Gregor Demarkian series.

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Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley

Seconds Book Cover Seconds
Bryan Lee O'Malley
Graphic Novel
Ballantine
2014
321

Bryan Lee O’Malley is best-known for his Scott Pilgrim series, which inspired the recent cult hit film Scott Pilgrim vs The World. Scott Pilgrim is the genre-bending story of a slacker young twenty-something. O’Malley has grown up since the publication of the final volume of Scott Pilgrim, and so have his readers. Secondshis latest work, is the story of Katie, a 29-year-old chef. Unlike Scott Pilgrim, she’s ambitious and focused. The restaurant she co-founded is doing well, but Katie’s looking to branch out on her own.

Then there’s an accident at the restaurant, and Katie meets the house spirit who lives in Katie’s apartment above the restaurant. The spirit gives Katie a mushroom she can eat to undo the mistake that caused the accident. It works! Katie discovers where the mushrooms grow and ends up using them to undo lots of things. In this way, she can try out different possibilities.

Seconds really resonated with me, a late-twenty-something. Katie’s indecision and confusion about her future are perfectly rendered here. The storyline may be ultimately predictable (I’m sure it won’t surprise anyone to learn that changing the past turns out to have consequences Katie didn’t predict!), but it doesn’t matter. It’s still cathartic to see Katie’s struggles and growth. Katie herself is a great character–stubborn, ambitious, and funny. The supporting characters are great too, especially Katie’s shy friend Hazel who tells her about the role of house spirits in her culture, and Lis, the increasingly-grumpy house spirit.

O’Malley’s artwork is also wonderful. His cute manga-influenced style from Scott Pilgrim is still present, but here he gets to use color and it really shines. He uses the graphic novel format to convey emotions and scenarios with a single glance or crowded restaurant.

I’d recommend Seconds to fans of Scott Pilgrim, but also to readers looking for a funny and compassionate take on life as a millennial.

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Lisette’s List by Susan Vreeland

Lisette’s List Book Cover Lisette’s List
Susan Vreeland
Fiction
Random House
2014
Hardcover
407

Lisette and her husband Andre move from Paris to Provence just before WWII to take care of Andre’s aging grandfather, Pascal. There they discover that Pascal owns seven masterpiece paintings. Nazi Germany has a reputation of either confiscating or destroying artwork, so Andre hides the pieces to protect them. Lisette, all alone now with Andre killed during the war and Pascal having died right before the war started, must find the missing art.

Dealing with her grief, loneliness, and the hardships of war is difficult for Lisette. But thinking about the artwork of Cezanne, Pisarro, and Picasso helps her to learn more about herself and the Provence countryside she is in which she is exiled. She also meets the artist Marc Chagall and learns more about the world of art that she yearns for.

After the war, Lisette looks for the missing paintings. Discovering where they are hidden also helps her to discover more about friendship and eventually, love.

Reading this book was like looking into an impressionist painting and discovering for oneself what the artist was trying to say. A painting can speak to each person in a different way. In like fashion, a book can speak to the reader in different ways. That’s what makes book discussion groups so much fun! We learn of different relationships between author and reader and maybe see things is a new light.

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Longbourn, by Jo Baker

Longbourn Book Cover Longbourn
Jo Baker
Fiction
Alfred A. Knopf
October 8, 2013
Hardcover
352

The story is set in early 19th century England. It takes place on the Bennet family property, Longbourn. There are five daughters in the Bennet family and their mother is quite concerned that they marry into wealth. Sound familiar? However, Jo Baker has taken Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and turned it up side down. She has created an imaginative story about the servants in the Bennet household. Their relationships with the family members and interactions with other characters from the Austen book are woven into their story. Daily work tasks are described and you get a feel for the drudgery and hardship of the life of a servant. You also get a real sense of their caring for one another, and their longings for a better life. I really enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to anyone who likes historical fiction.

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