Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

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 Paying Guests by Sarah Waters

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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Seconds by Bryan Lee O’Malley

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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Longbourn, by Jo Baker

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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Mrs. Queen Takes the Train – William Kuhn

Book cover - Mrs. Queen takes the train - William KuhnThis was a thoroughly enjoyable book.

The Queen, now in her mid-80’s, is feeling a little down in the years since 1995. Feeling the need for a little cheering up, she slips out of Buckingham Palace and goes on an incognito trip to Scotland. Her happiest moments that she recalls were on the royal yacht Britannia, which is now a tourist attraction. Once she’s discovered missing, various people start looking for her, palace staff, a young Englishman of Indian descent. Overall, an excellent book, and one I will enjoy reading again. If you have any interest in the House of Windsor, or even how people who have spent their entire lives in the public eye cope with the attention and stress, you’ll love this book.

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Actors Anonymous by James Franco

Actors Anonymous by James FrancoI suppose I was interested to read Actors Anonymous by James Franco for the same reason I’m interested in any kind of celebrity memoir or novel: a sense of morbid curiosity. Our culture is obsessed with celebrity, and so am I. And so is James Franco.

Although Actors Anonymous is a novel, parts of it are very clearly autobiographical. The character known as “The Actor” apparently has a career identical to Franco’s, and part of the fun for me of this book was wondering how much else was based on truth.

The book’s style is experimental. It’s loosely based on the 12 steps of the AA-like Actors Anonymous, and is told through vignettes of the lives of various actors. Some characters’ stories are presented in verse or letters. We see different perspectives on the craft of acting, as well as fame and success.

I think how much a reader enjoys Actors Anonymous will depend upon how much goodwill the reader is willing to extend to James Franco. I’ll give him a lot, honestly–I can acknowledge that he’s a pretentious art school weirdo, but I admire his honesty. Here is a lithmus test for if you will enjoy this book:

F*** business. F*** money. F*** fame. F*** coolness.

 

I am in a great position. I can say f*** all of those things because I am a famous actor and because I have money and I can do whatever I want (within a range) and I will look cool.

Did you hate that? Fair enough. Don’t read this.

If you were intrigued or entertained by it, check out Actors Anonymous by James Franco.

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Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff

Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish by David Rakoff

I’m not generally a poetry reader. I mean, I like poems if they happen to cross my path, but it’s rare that I would sit down and read a whole book of poetry. But I loved David Rakoff’s essay collections Fraud, Don’t Get Too Comfortable, and Half Empty, so I decided to pick up his last book, Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, published posthumously. Love, Dishonor is a novel in rhyming couplets, and it follows a loosely connected group of people throughout the 20th century.

Fans of This American Life may recognize one of these chapters–Nathan’s chapter is a revised version of the “Scorpion and the Tortoise” story from the Frenemies episode. For those of you who haven’t heard it, it’s a toast being given by Nathan at the wedding of his ex-girlfriend Susan and his ex-best friend Josh. He tells the allegory of a scorpion who asks a tortoise to help him cross the river. The tortoise is hesitant, and the scorpion points out that if he stings the tortoise, both creatures will drown. Yet the scorpion still stings the tortoise halfway across the river, and as they’re both drowning, the scorpion says he couldn’t help it–it’s just his nature. Nathan concludes

So what can we learn from their watery ends?

Is there some lesson on how to be friends?

I think what it means is that central to living

A life that is good is a life that’s forgiving.

We’re creatures of contact, regardless of whether

to kiss or to wound, we still must come together.
[…]

So we make ourselves open, while knowing full well

It’s essentially saying, ‘Please, come pierce my shell.’

I loved that piece when I first heard it on the radio, and in the context of the book, where it’s preceded by Nathan’s breakup and followed by the story of what happens to Susan and Josh. The novel also branches out to characters who are more loosely connected. I won’t spoil it, but the way the final chapter makes the connections clear is beautiful.

The book also features bright, cartoonish illustrations by Seth, who illustrates the children’s book series All The Wrong Questions. I liked the style of illustrations–they were a good match for the way Rakoff’s verses provide a sketch of what each character’s personality is like.

The back cover blurb for Love, Dishonor says, “Rakoff’s insistence on beauty and the necessity of kindness in a selfish world raises the novel far above mere satire,” and I fully agree. In the hands of a lesser writer, a novel written entirely in rhyming couplets could have been a mere gimmick. In Rakoff’s hands, it’s a thing of beauty.

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Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

I first heard of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan when it was announced as a 2013 Alex Award winner. The Alex Awards are for books written for adults that are deemed to have appeal for teen readers. Since I myself am an adult who works with teens, I like to check out Alex Award books when I can, and when I happened to see the audiobook version of Mr. Penumbra was checked in right before I left on a trip, I decided to check it out. I’m definitely glad I did!

Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is a story for people who love books, but also for people who love the internet. It’s a book for people who love puzzles, and figuring stuff out. It’s a book for everyone who grew up looking for a secret door into Narnia or waiting for their letter from Hogwarts. It’s the story of Clay Jannon, who lost his graphic designer job and ended up working the night shift at the titular bookstore. The bookstore has very few customers, and Clay can’t understand how it stays in business at all. With his free time he starts poking around and discovers that the bookstore is much more than it appears to be on the surface, and he and his friends get caught up in an exciting international secret society.

This really works as an audiobook because it’s so fast-paced. Also, the book’s author makes a cameo in it as the narrator of the audiobook-within-an-audiobook, which is a fun addition.

I agree with the Alex committee; I think this would be a great book for adults and teens alike. (Note: There is some mild adult language, and a glossed-over description of 2 adults in a relationship. Still, if this were a movie, I personally think it would be PG-13.)

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

As NAFCPL’s resident teen librarian, I read a lot of teen fiction and don’t often seek out adult fiction–when I do read an adult book, I tend to go for nonfiction.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy FowlerBut I read several tweets and blog entries that all said the same thing–go read We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler as soon as possible, and don’t read any spoilers for it. This piqued my interest, and I picked up the book. (Unfortunately, the plot summary for the book on GoodReads.com gives away the plot spoiler everyone was telling me to avoid. Oops.)

In this blog entry, I’ll avoid spoilers for the book’s big twist. But I will say that I don’t think the book is ruined if you accidentally hear about the twist before you read it–in a way, I enjoyed knowing what was coming. It was like knowing how a magic trick is done but still appreciating the craft. I could see what Fowler was building to and admire how cleverly she was doing it, even if I wasn’t surprised when it happened.

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is the story of Rosemary Cooke and her family. For a time, Rosemary had an idyllic childhood in Bloomington, Indiana, with her brother, her sister, and her academic psychologist parents. But as Rosemary narrates the story, she’s a college student who barely talks to her parents. Her brother is a domestic terrorist, and she hasn’t seen her sister in years. Rosemary narrates how things came to be this way  (“I sometimes worried that [my parents’] marriage had become the sort Inspector Javert might have had with Jean Valjean.”) alongside funny stories of her college life (“I’d been considering telling Harlow what I’d just learned about chimp sex. Much would depend on how drunk I got”) in a witty, insightful way. Describing a family Thanksgiving, Rosemary observes:

In Bloomington, to someone my grandma’s age, the word psychologist evoked Kinsey and his prurient studies, Skinner and his preposterous baby boxes. Psychologists did not leave their work at the office. They brought it home. They conducted experiments around the breakfast table, made freak shows of their own families, and all to answer questions nice people wouldn’t even think to ask.

This, ultimately, is what We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is about–answering questions nice people wouldn’t even think to ask. It does so in a generous, thoughtful way.

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Furies of Calderon by Jim Butcher

Furies of Calderon cover

For a thousand years, the people of Alera have united against the aggressive and threatening races that inhabit the world, using their unique bond with the furies – elementals of earth, air, fire, water, and metal.  But now, Gaius Sextus, First Lord of Alera, grows old and lacks an heir.  Ambitious High Lords plot and maneuver to place their Houses in positions of power, and a war of succession looms on the horizon.  Far from city politics in the Calderon Valley, the boy Tavi struggles with his lack of furycrafting.  At fifteen, he has no wind fury to help him fly, no fire fury to light his lamps.  Yet as the Alerans’ most savage enemy – the Marat – return to the Valley, he will discover that his destiny is much greater than he could ever imagine.

The cover of the edition that I read stated that Furies of Calderon was inspired by Tolkien.  In some ways, I see that, I guess.  I really thought it was more reminiscent of A Song of Ice and Fire series with a bit of Avatar: The Last Airbender and maybe a little bit of Pokémon thrown in, but in a good way.

It started out a little slow, but once I got to Chapter 10, it became a page turner.  I just had to know what was going to happen next because, by that point, I cared about the characters so much.  Butcher includes plenty of plot twists, which really kept me guessing and one of things I look for in a book is the ability of the author to keep me guessing.  It got to the point that, after I had been surprised by so much, nothing would surprise me, if that makes any sense.  I definitely can’t wait to read the rest of the series!

I recommend this to fans of High/Epic Fantasy, especially if you like George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series.

Five stars!

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