CLICK HERE for quick access to the materials for the 2016-17 Speculative Fiction Genre Study.
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I can come to your library, book club meeting, or conference to talk about how to help your readers find their next good read. Click here for more information.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Tales of a Fifth Grade Book Club: Part 4-- Echo Pages 105-190

Part 4 of my fifth grade book club tackled the second half of Part 1 of the book. Please refer to the other posts in this series and the discussion guide I compiled which includes a summary of the novel.

Let get right to it:

  • While the children were getting settled in and beginning to eat their lunch, one of the other parent volunteers had used her public library card to search for and download a recording of Yo Yo Ma playing Brahm's Lullaby so that we could play it for the kids. The song, performed by the father, on the cello has a central role in this narrative. This parent will continue to do that for each musical piece in the novel.
  • I began the discussion with props to the kid who made the prediction last time that he thought Part 1 would end sad but that the entire book would end happily. While we don't know what will happen at the end of the novel, we do know that our hero Friedrich is in a difficult and probably dangerous predicament as we left his story behind.
  • Since this was the end of an entire section of the book, we had the kids go around the room to share their words to describe how they felt. Since the ending was a bit harrowing, I think this worked very well. It eased the kids' fears about Friedrich AND prepared them to move on to the next section. We are going to leave Friedrich's story hanging for awhile. Here are some of their words summing up Part 1:
    • "terrifying": His sister is away, his dad is in Dachau, his uncle is trying to escape, he was forced to take control of the situation and now he is being arrested.
    • "scary": I understood that Hitler hated the Jews before reading this book, but after the scene with the father and his musician "friends" I learned how much regular people did too. It was scary to watch friends turn on each other because 1 is a Jew. It led to the father being arrested for defending a Jewish colleague. 
    • "unknown": the question of what is going to happen next is all I can think about
    • "mad": Mad at Hitler and how he changed everyone's lives. Mad at how no one could have friends anymore because you didn't know what side they would take. Mad that no one trusted each other. Mad at all the secrets.
    • "emotional": too many emotions. 
    • "dumbfounded": The Storm Troopers wrecking Friedrich's house was a good example of how I felt about the section.
    • "tears"
  • One of the parent volunteers wanted to share her word after the kids-- "shocked." She was shocked that Friedrich got caught escaping. She was shocked he gave up the harmonica-- packed it to be shipped with others to America. I was starting to believe that it had magic to protect him. But now it is going across the ocean, away from him. Will he be okay?
    • We talked about that a bit more. We talked about how Friedrich had grown during the days leading up to his attempted escape. How he got more brave and stopped being afraid of being picked on. He packed up the harmonica because he didn't need it anymore. He felt he could protect himself now.
    • Someone else across the ocean will need it more.
    • The kids were scared for Friedrich, but they all felt like he would be okay in the end.
  • We moved on to talking more about Elizabeth:
    • Everyone was so happy that she came through when it really mattered. 
    • It was a relief to not be mad at her anymore.
    • One parent mentioned how she changed her clothes before she left home and asked the kids why they thought she did that. We talked about how she was going on to a different and new life and she needed a new "costume." 
    • She went to this new Hitlerite world to keep her family safe and give herself a better life but as soon as Hitler's rules meant endangering her family, she found a way to help her family despite the risk.
    • We talked about how hard it was for Elizabeth to get the money to her brother in secret-- hidden under cookies with a clue about how her uncle should hide some so Friedrich didn't eat them all at once.  She even had to trust a neighbor to deliver them. She risked everything to get the money to them.
  • We were trying to get the kids to speculate as to why Elizabeth and others made the choice to support Hitler even when it seemed like it was against their true beliefs.  We talk about the pressure to conform. Like last week, two kids rushed to the dictionary to look up conform. We were all surprised by how many definitions it had. 
    • We then talked about books that also use this theme-- the pressure to conform and how hard it is for those who do not conform.  One student mentioned Divergent, but I tried to show them how it is even a theme in picture books like The Naked Mole Rat Gets Dressed.  It got them giggling, talking about a Mo Willems book, but it also made the theme and its serious implications about human behavior clear to them.
  • This being election season, we also talked about staying aware of what is going on in politics and voting to stop leaders like Hitler from taking over. 
    • The kids mentioned how being secretive made everything worse. 
    • The people who were open and wanted to seriously discuss the problems with Hitler's laws were the ones getting in trouble.
  • I then asked the kids if there were final things about Friedrich's story that they wanted to share since we would be leaving him behind for awhile.
    • One student talked about how in the new Star Wars movie the scene with all the Storm Troopers (same name as Nazi's police) makes them all look like Nazi's. They even raise their hands. We know this means they are VERY bad, but Friedrich doesn't yet. 
    • This book reminded a few kids of Number the Stars and Anne Frank.
    • One last comment came from someone who wanted to say that "very brave" describes all of the main characters in this story.
  • We didn't want to make predictions because a new character is going to take up the harmonica in our next section. But, one student did think that maybe Friedrich's melody will be in the harmonica now-- it will sound like 4 instead of 3.

For those of you following along at home, no book club next week because there is no school due to the President's Day holiday. Discussion of the beginning of part 2 will happen the week of 2/22.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Great Nonfiction Book Discussion Book With An Offer From the Author To Skype With Your Book Club!

One of the biggest trends in history books-- both fiction and nonfiction-- is telling the story from a different perspective.  The most popular of these perspectives, especially with book discussion groups, is from the female point of view.

Theresa Kaminski is a Professor in the Department of History and International Studies at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point.  Her writing and scholarship is focused on American Women’s History. She is the author of three well received books on American Women in WWII. In fact, on January 29th, she was featured on the back page of the Wall Street Journal’s book section in their “Five Best” series where she gave her best books on Americans under Japanese occupation.  Here is the link to the online version, but you need digital access to read it. [I get the paper so I have a print copy, but you could also get one from your local library.]

Ms Kaminski also happens to have some deep roots in Berwyn, IL, the town where I was a librarian for 15 years. She is also a college friend of one of my friends who still works there. He mentioned Ms. Kaminski and her books to me. I was intrigued and contacted her. Turns out she loves talking to librarians and library patrons.

So I asked her to write up a little something about herself and her books. I think they would be great book discussion titles. In fact, Ms. Kaminski has even offered to Skype with any library book groups that are interested in reading her books.  

Click here to contact Ms. Kaminski about having her Skype with your book group. 

And read below to learn more about Ms. Kaminski and her fascinating books and research. 
Writing the History of American Women in World War II 
by Theresa Kaminski 

I hadn’t planned on writing three books about women and war. I hadn’t even planned on writing one. That changed after I watched the Masterpiece Theatre series, A Town Like Alice. It depicted an aspect of the Second World War I wasn’t familiar with-- British women captured in Malaya by the Japanese. I tracked down and read Nevil Shute's 1950 novel on which the series was based, then started researching the history behind Shute’s story. 

It was fascinating, but since my academic specialty is American women’s history and since at the time I was in the process of writing about postwar feminism, I couldn’t see that it had anything to do with my research agenda. Besides, the most recent works about women and World War II by American historians like Karen Anderson and Susan Hartmann focused on issues of work and family on the homefront. Other scholars addressed the internment of Japanese Americans in the United States during the war. But that was about it in terms of American women’s connection with the war. 
Then I found a copy of a 1947 memoir published by Agnes Newton Keith. She was an American woman living in Borneo with her British husband when the Japanese invaded and interned the Allied civilians there. This was my first piece of evidence that American women had experienced something similar to the fictional Jean Paget in Nevil Shute’s novel. Finding more real-life women like Agnes Keith took time and patience. It’s been so many years since that initial research that I don’t remember exactly what led me to the Philippines, but that must have been the next piece of the puzzle. 

The United States colonized the Philippine Islands in the early 20th century, after the Spanish-American War. Thousands of American men and women settled there, working for the U.S. military or government, setting up their own businesses, or taking employment with a variety of Filipino concerns. Japan, eager to find additional living space and resources for its citizens, coveted the Philippines. American and Japanese imperialism were on a decades-long collision course in the Pacific. A few hours after Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, they turned on the Philippines. 

The bombings were a prelude to invasion and occupation. On January 2, 1942, Japanese troops moved in to the capital city of Manila. A few days later American citizens were compelled to surrender for registration, a sham process that turned into enforced internment for thousands of men, women, and children. 

I started on the research. For this project, I decided to work with text sources rather than conduct one-on-one interviews. The major reason for this was the passage of time. By the mid-1990s, World War II was fifty years in the past. Many of the women who had been living in the Philippines during the war had already died. For the ones still alive, I had concerns about issues of memory.  

So I looked for printed sources. This went rather smoothly. By the mid-1990s, many library and archives catalogs were online and linked to interlibrary loan systems. I started searching under “memoir” and “personal narratives” to find published firsthand accounts of the American women interned in the Philippines by the Japanese. Most of these had been put out by small regional presses or were privately published. Very few archives had any relevant collections.  

I found enough personal narratives to form the core of my first book, Prisoners in Paradise: American Women in the Wartime South Pacific. Most of it centers on how women, many of whom had children with them, experienced detention in internment camps in the Philippines and elsewhere in the Pacific theater. A couple of chapters focus on how and why some of them managed to evade internment. 
The book’s cover photo shows a deceptively domestic scene: a group of neatly dressed women and children, most of them smiling and looking relaxed. The picture had been taken in one of the smaller internment camps in the Philippines, in the lovely mountain city of Baguio on the main island of Luzon. The first time I saw that picture, I was also the mother of a young son. I couldn’t imagine what it must have been like to be removed from my home, separated from my husband (many American men in the Philippines had joined the military and ended up as POWs; the remaining civilians were interned in quarters away from the women and children), never knowing what the occupying Japanese troops would do next. 

Researching and writing that book piqued my interest in additional projects on ordinary women. After the publication of Prisoners in Paradise, I couldn’t stop thinking about Ethel Thomas Herold, one of the women who’d been interned in Baguio. A photograph taken of Ethel and her husband Elmer in early 1945, the two of them standing in the ruins of a Manila street, gaunt, in ragged clothes, but alive, posed a nagging question. What was this white, middle-class, college-educated woman from Wisconsin doing in the middle of one of the fiercest battles of World War II? 

I wrote my second book, Citizen of Empire: Ethel Thomas Herold, an American in the Philippines, to answer that question. Here was an ordinary woman who lived through nearly a century of extraordinary events. Born and raised in a farming community in southwestern Wisconsin in 1896, Ethel Thomas traveled across the state in 1913 to attend Lawrence College. There she majored in history (unusual for a woman), took voice lessons, became involved in the suffrage movement, and met her future husband, Elmer Herold. When Elmer signed up to fight in the First World War, Ethel, now a college graduate, taught high school history, rolled bandages for the Red Cross, and volunteered for the state division of the Food Administration. 

After she and Elmer married in 1920, they decided to do something to express their patriotism and their faith in the new world order forged by the Allied victory in 1918. The Herolds applied and were accepted for teaching positions in the public school system in the Philippine Islands. After they left teaching and Elmer took a job with a local lumber company, the couple made Baguio their home, raising two children in a colonial idyll that lasted until the Japanese attack in December 1941. Just after Christmas, the family was interned in a civilian camp, where they remained until late 1944 when all of the internees were transferred to Manila. The Herolds survived the war and after a brief period of recuperation, Ethel and Elmer returned to Baguio. Over the next dozen years, they helped rebuild the city and witnessed the Philippines transition from a colony to an independent nation.  

When I finished writing Citizen of Empire and found a publisher for it, I thought I was done writing about the Philippines. A literary agent, Jacqueline Flynn, contacted me after she had seen the movie The Great Raid. She was intrigued by the portrayal of Margaret (Peggy) Utinsky, an American woman who risked her life to help POWs in the Philippines. I’d included Peggy’s experiences in one of the chapters in Prisoners in Paradise, and Jacquie wanted to know if I was interested in writing a book about Peggy. That idea, after a few years, resulted in Angels of the Underground.  

As in the previous books, it was the personalities of the women that drew me to this story: Peggy Utinsky, a nurse, bold and brash, with a love for good conversation and a glass of beer. Claire Phillips, the garrulous, glamorous nightclub singer with a flair for the dramatic. Gladys Savary, a cocktail-loving restaurant owner and entrepreneur. Yay Panlilio, daring reporter turned guerrilla. These four women were determined to survive a brutal enemy occupation and to undermine the Japanese at every opportunity. 

Together, these three books introduce readers to fascinating women, while informing them about equally fascinating aspects of American history. They can generate wonderful conversations about why these women chose to do what they did as well as that great “what if” question: What would I have done under the same circumstances?

I would be happy to Skype in with any interested book clubs and am willing to provide discussion questions and/or lists of related readings. 

Monday, February 8, 2016

Interview with Fiona Barton Author of THE WIDOW

On Friday I had a review of The Widow by Fiona Barton. As I said in that review, this is a great suggestion for library patrons who enjoy suspense-- which is most of them.  The book comes out tomorrow and Barton was kind enough to do a short interview with me.

For more information about Fiona Barton, please visit her website. I had the chance to chat with her over dinner and she is a very interesting person.

RA for All: You spent many years as a journalist. How different is it to now be a “novelist?” Were you surprised at how similar/different the writing processes are?

Barton: I am tempted to say the main difference is that I can make things up but I can imagine the general sucking in of breath by critics of journalists.  So, for the record, fiction gives me the freedom to decide what people think and say rather than being the reporter, recording people’s thoughts and words. I can invent motives and twists, inner voices, events and feelings but everything I write is fed by my experiences as a reporter. I have the best imaginable cast of characters to draw on, having spent more than 30 years watching and listening to people caught up in dramas, tragedies and conflicts.

RA for All:The Widow is a suspense novel told from multiple points of view, a structure that is very popular these days, yet it is also so very different from the vast majority of these novels. The idea of following the widow of an accused child killer and exploring her side of the story [not his] was unique and fascinating. What inspired you to take this approach?

Barton: The people on the edge of a story, just out of the spotlight, have a sort of invisibility that I found drew me in. While all eyes would be on the accused, I would catch the expressions of the wife or mother as they watched and imagine the questions forming in their heads, the panic bubbling behind the tight smiles. And I wanted to know what happened when the press pack left and the world stopped watching. Because without witnesses or the distraction of the media scrum, masks cannot help but slip.

RA for All: Along with Jean who tells the reader her story in the first person, we also have multiple chapters where Kate, the journalist, and Sparkes, the detective get a chance to drive the narrative, but from the third person. Why did you make this distinction?

Barton: When I began the book, I intended it to be told in its entirety by Jean. Hers was the voice I could hear but I gradually realized I needed other voices to allow the reader to see the bigger picture – and to point up Jean’s role as an unreliable narrator.

RA for All: Besides the original use of point of view, The Widow also stands out for how the crime at its center is resolved. Not that I want you to give away the ending, but at what point in your writing process did you figure out “whodunnit,” how, and why? Did you plot the entire thing out ahead of time, or did you let the story and the narrators lead you there? 

Barton: When I finally started writing, tapping away on an old laptop in a flat in Colombo (my husband and I were volunteers in Sri Lanka with VSO at the time), I felt chilled, despite the 30 degree heat. Jean Taylor, the widow in the title, was saying the words I had written in my head for her but it was as if I was hearing them for the first time. I wrote the first nine chapters and the ending in a week so I knew from the beginning what was going to happen.

RA for All: One of the most chilling things about this book is how real it all feels? How normal it is despite the horrible things that are happening. Your descriptions of people’s homes, their day to day actives, the minutia of their suburban lives adds so much depth to the people and events. How much of this was informed by your experience as a journalist?

Barton: Almost all of it. I was a reporter for many years and was meeting ordinary people from every sort of background and I think I was squirrelling the details away for a rainy day. It might be a gesture or an expression. Nothing is wasted when you are a watcher.

RA for All: While in America and your native England we technically speak the same language, we definitely use different words to explain every day things. Are there any funny “translation" stories you can share from when the book was adapted to American English?

Barton: There were a number of linguistic challenges (!). My favourite was my reference to an apartment smelling of “old fags”. I changed it to old cigarettes. I have also been asked what “keeping myself to myself” means. It turns out it is a very British concept – personal privacy taken to extremes. 

RA for All: Since this blog is read primarily by librarians, can you share a favorite library memory with us?

Barton: Sister Ursula, the English teacher who inspired me to write when I was 11, was the school librarian. She would be teaching us in the library and pull a book from the shelf to recommend. She turned on the light for me.

RA for All: Who are the authors you love to read for fun?

Barton: Authors who take risks to tell stories in new ways. Kate Atkinson and Hilary Mantel are inspirational. Mantel (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) for the brilliance and vividness of her story-telling. She broke so many rules – and was criticized by some – but I was in her world from page one; Atkinson (When Will There Be Good News? And Life After Life) for her characters and showing me the power of a story told by many; and John Irving (Cider House Rules and A Prayer for Owen Meany) for his sheer,  bonkers, otherness.

RA for All: Are you working on anything new?

Barton: Yes, I’m working hard on Book 2. It is a second psychological thriller with my reporter, Kate Waters, at the heart of the action.

Friday, February 5, 2016

What I’m Reading: The Widow

Last week, I had the chance to attend a dinner with the author of the debut suspense novel The Widow by Fiona Barton. It was an intimate affair with Chicago area booksellers and librarians. I share this not to brag, but to make it clear from the outset that I received this book and a dinner from the publisher.

I was under no obligation to review the book; in fact, I wasnt even asked to read it before dinner, but I requested an ARC because I wanted to read the book before meeting Barton. And boy, am I glad I did because listen up library workers, The Widow will be a HUGE hit with your patrons. It is everything they love in a well told, low violence, compelling suspense a la Mary Higgins Clark [and we know how immensely popular she is].

Today, I have a review so you know what to expect and so you can start book talking it to patrons ASAP. The book will be released on Tuesday [2/12/16].  On Monday, I will also have an interview that Barton did with me specifically for my library worker audience in case todays post doesn’t convince you.

Becky’s Soundbite Review:
The Widow is a unique take on the popular, multiple narrator, suspense tale. Glen, a man who was tried but never convicted in the murder of a 2 year old girl, yet infamous throughout England because of it, is hit by a bus and dies. Jean, his widow, is now free of the nightmare her life had become. With multiple narrators, most notably Jean, Kate, a newspaper reporter, and Sparkes, the detective whose inability to convict Glen still haunts him, the mystery behind the unsolved story of what happened to Bella is satisfactorily unraveled at a compelling pace. But it is the unique frame, with Jean taking control of her narrative that allows this suspense novel to rise above a crowded field. Readers will enjoy the twists and turns of the mystery as they look over their shoulders at their own significant others, wondering what secrets lie beneath the surface.” [40 seconds]
This is standard suspense told from a unique point of view.  The publisher is trying to market it as psychological suspense because the widow herself is unreliable, as she is holding things back from us. But, her unreliable narrator status is not a surprise. She makes this status clear to the reader from the start as do the two other main narrators. Just having an unreliable narrator does not make something psychological suspense.  I recently led an entire meeting on this topic. Use these links for the short version or the long version of this discussion.

But this quibble of mine does not make the book bad. Rather, I loved how it was a unique way to tell a more traditional suspense story. This is why patrons will love it. The tension is not as high as some psychological suspense-- tension that can be oppressive and off-putting to some readers, but it is a more complex story than most standard suspense. There is plenty of heart here for just about every popular fiction reader.

The concept of letting Jean tell the story of Bella’s kidnapping and murder from the wife's perspective made for a great reading experience.  The details Jean shares about her life, her marriage, and the entire investigation not only informed the plot and moved the mystery part forward, but it also added intrigue to the story.  It made me think about other suspense novels. How would those books have been different if instead of getting in the killer’s head I was able to be in the wife’s instead? This unique point of view drives the story and keeps you turning the pages just as much as the desire to see whodunnit.

But it is not just Jean who is strong here.  All of the characters are well drawn and sympathetic. Kate, Sparkes, and even Bella’s mom all enter the story in stereotypical fashion, but they quickly becomes more nuanced.  It felt like Barton wanted to lull us into complacency-- okay now enter stereotypical newspaper reporter, now detective, later grieving mother.-- before showing us what for.  This is a debut novel, so Barton is playing on our bias to not expect as much. But we should know better from a book that begins with the villain being hit by a bus. As a former newspaper reporter, Barton knows how to draw readers in. She catches our attention by introducing overused characters and tropes, but then employee them in new and interesting ways. It was really quite refreshing and fun [well, as fun as reading about a child murderer can be, but you know what I mean].

Finally, Barton’s journalist eye also comes out in how real this story feels.  It is very chilling-- this normality in the face of the horrible things that are happening. Her descriptions of people’s homes, their day to day actives, the minutia of their suburban lives adds so much depth to the people and events in this novel. 

The Widow will become one of my sure bet suspense titles for many years to come much like all of the readalike options listed below have come to be. Start taking holds now.

Three Words That Describe This Book: compelling, unique frame, multiple points of view

Readalikes: Fans of Mary Higgins Clark and/or the award named after her will love this novel. Click here for a full list of nominees and winners-- any author listed here is a good readalike option. This is my most used award list for finding readalikes. The Widow is suspense in the same vein of those who are considered for this award. However it is important to note that The Widow itself does not fit the requirements for this award but that is because of the unique frame of reference-- the widow is not self reliant, she is victim, and she does not solve anything herself, BUT the novel has the same feel and appeal as novels who are nominated for this award.

Two specific past winners of the Clark award who I immediately thought of as readalike authors are Lori Rader-Day and Sharon Bolton.  I know you have a lot of fans of these authors at your library. Give them The Widow. They will thank you.

The immensely popular Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty is also a good option here. Both novels deal with a crime, secrets, and lies and tell the story through the lens of marriage and from multiple angles.  Both novels are also more complicated than they seem on first glance and are set in suburbia [and include details and issues specific to that setting].

My outside the box suggestion is by a male author-- The Last Child by John Hart. Both novels follow a missing child story, but it is the unique story telling perspective that will draw fans of one to the other.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

First Meeting of the ARRT Speculative Fiction Genre Study Is About to Begin...

As I have mentioned before, we have big plans for the two year ARRT Speculative Fiction Genre Study which begins today at 2pm.

Some of the changes that I am most excited about include:

  • All meeting notes will be made available to everyone who is reading this. While the meetings themselves are still only open to members, the ARRT Steering Committee voted to open the notes to all interested parties. This means that you can see what we are discussing and use it to help your patrons right away.
  • We are beginning with 4 intro sessions-- One overall intro and then three boot camp meetings, 1 for each of the genres [science fiction, fantasy, and horror].  In these boot camp meetings we will tackle the genres in general. That will be our Feb, April, June and August meetings.
  • We will NOT break up genres into subgenres; rather we will be using major “doorways” and appeal factors to talk about authors from all three genres at the same time.  The details of how this will work and why we are making this key change will be explained today in person and will appear in the notes.
  • Due to a member interest in incorporating resources throughout the study, we will present one resource each meeting and then discuss it at the next meeting. This way participants can use the resource in conjunction with what we learned.  This will also allow us to really focus on the specific benefits of each resource. First up will be Locus whose annual recommending reading list just came out. This is one of my favorite annual lists. Click here to see me talk about why it is such an important tool both for collection development AND for patron suggestions.

These changes make for an enhanced experience for both our members who join in person AND anyone out there who wants to run their own speculative fiction genre study but does not have the support to go at it alone.

When information is added to the ARRT website, such as the notes or new assignments, I will let you know here on RA for All.

Making the Distinction Between a Book You Love and a Book That You Love to Suggest

As I was planning out my week of posts here on RA for All, I noticed something interesting-- the week is bookended with glowing reviews, but I was struck by how my passion for these stories comes from two distinctly different places.  This is a dichotomy I would like to explore today because it illustrates some key issues involved with providing RA service, issues that I don’t think are discussed out in th open quite enough.

On Monday, I posted a review of Travelers Rest, a psychological suspense/horror hybrid that I personally loved AND felt needed more attention from library workers. This is a book that is not getting a big promotional blitz, but I think it should be book talked to a wide range of patrons.  Click here for the soundbite review which you are welcome to use to book talk this title, and for more on what type of readers should try this book.

On the other hand, tomorrow, I will have a review of a book that is going to be a sure bet suspense suggestion in every public library. I read it and thought it was very good for what it is, but it will not become one of my personal favorites. This is a book you can hand out with confidence to just about every reader looking for a “good read.” For this reason, you will see that my review will be just as “glowing” as the one I wrote on Monday, but this review will have a distinctly different tone as I will be focusing on how much patrons will love this book. And they will. Tomorrow’s book [which comes out next week] is going to be a huge hit.

I am going to be enthusiastically promoting and hand selling both titles in the coming months. Both will become some of my “favorites” this year-- favorites to place in readers’ hands because I know for the correct readers, these books will deliver a “great read.” An experience so wonderful that you will win the hearts of patrons with your mad RA skills.

When you are providing service to leisure readers this distinction is key. I will LOVE to have patrons discover either title. It will give me great joy to help them have a great reading experience, but I only personally LOVE one of the titles. The point here is that I find both books awesome, for different reasons, and the distinction only matters to me personally. As a library worker suggesting leisure reads to patrons, these titles are equivalent in my eyes-- BOTH ARE GREAT!

Be able to understand and make this distinction without thinking about how weird it sounds is a sign that you have leveled up in your service to leisure readers. Because your success has nothing to do with you and what you think-- it is all about your patrons and giving them the best leisure reading experiences possible. 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Tales of a Fifth Grade Book Club: Part 3-- Echo Pages 1-104

Here we are in part 3 of my fifth grade book club posts and we are finally beginning to talk about the book. Please refer to the other posts in this series and the discussion guide I compiled which includes a summary of the novel.

As I noted in the title of today’s post, we are reading this novel in about 100 page chunks. We meet weekly, these kids are 10 and 11, and this is a voluntary group.

The good thing about reading Echo this way is that the book itself is broken up into three distinct parts. We read half of part 1 for this week and will complete the section next week.

Here are my notes on what we discussed:
  • If you follow any of my book discussion reports I try to start each discussion by asking the participants if they liked, disliked, or were so-so on the book. As I have said before, this is a great way to get people talking about their favorite or least favorite thing right away. It is also an easy way to gauge the general feeling in the room. As the facilitator you then know who is in the minority and make sure they have a chance to talk.  In this case, we are talking about eager 5th graders, so I had 7 REALLY liked it and 1 KINDA liked it.
    • This was perfect because I told the kids I would let the KINDA person go first since he was in the minority and I wanted to make sure he had a chance to talk. They all thought this was a great idea. Phew, because I was worried that they each would be so excited to talk  that they wouldn’t listen to each other.  This allowed them to listen first.
    • My 1 kinda liked participant said he was so upset with the way Friedrich was treated in school because of his face birthmark and conducting in the air to no one that he was mad at the whole story. He was especially mad at the principal for being just as awful to Friedrich. “That is not right!”
    • We then all talked about why the author included such a terrible thing. We agreed that it made us like Friedrich more [which I reminded them is important; the author needs to get us on his side quickly] and it also made us understand how hard his birthmark made his everyday life. He couldn’t even go to regular school. These kids know how much that makes you an outsider, no matter how much they proclaim to dislike going to school.
    • Kids continued to share a few of the things they really enjoyed in this first section, but I will be sprinkling them throughout these notes where appropriate.
  • The novel begins with a fairytale that appears to frame the entire book. We noted that the pages with the fairytale had leaves drawn around the edges. That comes back at the end. We let the kids talk about the fairytale a bit. Here are some of their comments:
    • The fairytale was my favorite part.
    • It made me think the harmonica was magical and mysterious from the start.
    • If we didn’t have the fairytale, when Friedrich found the harmonica we would have been like, “ok, here’s an old harmonica in the old part of the factory,” but now we are waiting for something magical to happen.
    • But Friedrich and his Dad and Uncle are not that troubled by him finding a harmonica which means they do not suspect mystery and magic. That is exciting too.
    • The three separate melodies that led Friedrich to the old harmonica, hidden in a drawer are probably the three girls. And all together they are like an “echo.”
    • I hated the king. He was selfish.
    • The witch wasn’t as cruel as I am used to in fairytales.
    • I am interested to see what happens when the fairy tale comes back.
  • Now on to Friedrich's story. Here are some of their comments:
    • The dad is such a strong person. I pictured him with big muscles because he seems so strong. As a group we talked about this a little. He probably wasn’t very strong physically. He was older, retired, and a cello player, but we all agreed he was a very strong person on the inside, and the author wants us to picture him that way.
    • We talked about Friedrich, his life and how he was different, but obviously, the bulk of our conversation dealt with the harmonica.
    • Friedrich suspects from the start that the harmonica is special because he felt like it called to him and led him to it.
    • There is foreshadowing, as another adult volunteer pointed out. She read the part when Friedrich plays the harmonica as he is walking home and how for the first time he forgot to keep his head down when he passed the school and he even talked to the mean next door neighbor. He felt like it was protecting him.
  • This longer discussion about the harmonica and the powers it may have led us back to talking about Otto’s story which is connected to the fairy tale as Otto finds the book with the fairytale in the forest, reads it, and meets the three orphaned girls.
    • We do not have a date for Otto’s story but it is "fifty years before the great war,” which we explained to the kids was probably WWI. That puts him finding the harmonica as a kid at 1865[ish] and 1896-- the date on the harmonica box that Friedrich finds would be when Otto was an adult.
    • We talked about Otto finding the book on page 3 and it has the title “The Thirteenth Harmonica of Otto Messenger.” The harmonica Friedrich finds has a big M on it. Are they related?
    • We started making predictions about the harmonica:
      • Otto from the beginning is a “messenger” of the harmonica and its magic leaving it for someone who needs it to find. In the fairytale there is talk about the harmonica saving someone from death.
      • At the end of the section we read, Friedrich is facing possible death due to his epilepsy. The harmonica will save him. He needed to find it. That’s why it called to him.
  • Which leads us to the danger Elizabeth brings up. When she comes home from nursing school she announces she has joined with Hitler and needs the entire family’s papers to prove they are 100% German. But the papers show that Friedrich not only has a disfiguring birthmark, but also for the first few years of his life, he had seizures. Elizabeth explains that this is an example of an inherited disease that Hitler wants to erase and that she has to report Friedrich. He will need to be given an operation so that he cannot have children-- an operation which could kill him. You can imagine this turn of events led to much discussion. Also, as the adults, we needed to add some more detail and clarification for them. Here is what happened:
    • The kids were shocked at Elizabeth.  How could she join Hitler? How could she turn her brother in?
    • As one girls said-- It sounded like before she went away to school she was like the sister in Wonder who was always telling Auggie that despite his disfigurement, he was perfect “the way you are.” Elizabeth seemed to be like that for Friedrich all his life, but now she finds him lacking. This was upsetting. [And yes, the kids made readalike connections on their own. Yay.]
    • First, we took care to remind the children that we are in the future of this story. We know how terrible Hitler was, but the characters do not yet. Some of them, like the Dad, suspect though.
    • The author is using our knowledge to make the situation even more tense. We know Hitler would kill Friedrich, not just make his unable to pass his genes on. This makes us even more mad at Elizabeth.
    • We also talked about propaganda.  2 of the boys got a dictionary, looked it up and read the definition. We discussed how Elizabeth is under the influence of propaganda, but that anyone can be at anytime. This led to some discussion about Donald Trump which led the kids off topic. [For reference, Trump has been a bit of a comic relief to these kids for months.] We steered it back to the book.
    • After providing this guidance we asked the kids again, “Why would Elizabeth choose Hitler over her family?”
    • They were able to focus a bit more now and had some good answers, such as, she wanted to advance her career, she thought it was the right thing to do, she was trying to help make things easier for her brother when Hitler became totally in charge. In fact, her argument that it was better to be open about his epilepsy, which had been hidden from Friedrich and her until that moment, was much better than being caught hiding it was a very good argument.
  • We left things just as Elizabeth was taking the papers and heading back to Berlin. We asked the kids to make predictions:
    • Friedrich is going to need the magic of the harmonica to get out of this.
    • I think he may go to the forest to escape. That’s where Otto first found the harmonica and on the cover three kids are in the forest. There are 3 parts to this story.
    • I think each section will have a kid who needs to be saved by the harmonica.
    • I think that the end of Friedrich’s section might not be happy, but I think [and hope] the whole book ends happy.
      • I did not say this to the kids, but I thought this last comment was extremely insightful. This young man understood the gravity of the situation and knew it would need more than magic to be resolved well.  But also, the fairytale at the start is pretty dark, so it does set up the reader for more darkness. We will have to see.
  • A few final thoughts:
    • The kids loved being encouraged to write in their books. They underlined words, highlighted passages, and were eager to read from the book.
    • An example was one girl who underlined a passage on page 91 after Elizabeth shared her news of becoming a Hitlerite to the Uncle and it said, “ His eyes filled with something Friedrich couldn’t decipher-- pity or fear or apprehension? We talked about how much this line expressed about what may come later in the story and how all of those feelings were correct.
    • Overall, I think encouraging the kids ahead of time to write in their books primed them to interact with the text in a way that they wouldn’t have without this encouragement. They were ready from the first moment of our meeting to start discussing the issues and not just to rehash the plot.
    • In fact, one of the other parent volunteers said, “you know, you can write in any of your books [that you own] at home if you like it. I think they may in the future. And I think it is a good way to remind them that reading books may feel like a passive activity, but in reality it is a very active experience. I hope this is a lesson that follows them throughout their life.
Next week, we will finish Friedrich’s part of the novel and I will have another report.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Libraries and Self Published Authors: Part 4-- Resources

As I proclaimed in my 2016 Reading Resolutions, this year I am going to make an effort to be more informed about self published authors. From that post:
Not only will I make sure I read a few self published titles in a variety of genres, but I will also be blogging about self published books and specifically how we can and should handle them in libraries.
You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, and Part 3 here.

Today I am back with resources on the current state of self publishing to help me [and those of you who are interested] in my resolution to be more informed on this topic.

  • Publisher’s Weekly has this Self-Publishing Preview 2016 which also has a 2015 recap.
  • Here is a link to BookLife the PW site dedicated to the world of self-publishing. It includes reviews, tips, and author profiles. It is a great place for libraries to discover self published authors and for the authors to promote themselves.
  • Library Journal also has their own self publishing website-- Self-e. This one is more targeted to libraries than the PW site, but the PW site has more reviews. Use them in tandem.
  • Use this link to pull up all of the article in Library Journal tagged “Self Publishing and Libraries.”
  • Use this link to pull up the articles in American Libraries tagged “self-publishing,” including this article from last February about how libraries can be self-publishing leaders in their communities. This is an area I will be focusing on later in the year.
Join me as I look into how these traditional resources have handled this new publishing platform. I am going to make visiting BookLife and Self-e a regular part of my week until I feel more comfortable navigating this arena. 

I’ll be back soon with more posts on this topic. Including taking a look at this issue from the author’s point of view because the more research I do here the more I realize that how they are organizing to try to break into libraries is a vital part of the equation.

Monday, February 1, 2016

What I'm Reading: Travelers Rest

Today I have a review of a book that walks a tightrope between psychological suspense and horror making it an AMAZING reading option for a large swath of readers. It is the best book I have read so far this year [...and I’ve already read The Fireman and loved that too!]

I am talking about Travelers Rest by Keith Lee Morris which came out in early January. After reading this novel I am SHOCKED that it is generating such little chatter.

Listen up library people...this is a book you should be handing out to lots and lots of readers. Why? Well that’s in the rest of this review.

Becky’s Soundbite Review:
“A family-- husband, wife, 10 year old son, and recovering alcoholic uncle are traveling East from Washington back to South Carolina over the Christmas break when a snow storm forces them to stop for the night in Good Night, Idaho at the historic "Travelers Rest" hotel, a seemingly small decision that forever changes all of their lives. With its slow burn pacing, readers are swept up into a time bending, haunted house story that is terrifying without any blood, but features a menace that is definitely not of this world. It is a story about familial love, memory, and identity that will make you think, but it is the creepy tone that will continue to haunt you after the final page. Think Twilight Zone meets The Shining and you know what your stay at Travelers Rest will entail.” [34 seconds]
A few more details about the story that may help you decide to read it, or to give people for whom this soundbite was intriguing. Although please note, I have given away nothing about the actual plot here.

This novel walks the line between psychological suspense and horror perfectly. It is a great example of why the two genres are very closely linked. Ultimately, because this story’s main intent is to provoke the emotion of fear and the menace involves an other worldly element I would classify it as horror, but the absence of gore means fans of the tension in psychological suspense who don’t want blood and guts, will also love it. [For a much longer discussion on this distinction, please go to this post on the horror blog.]

I want to stress that the pace is methodical. It starts with a lot of background detail about each family member, details which we need to understand why and how they are trapped in the situation which they find themselves. Details which take time to establish.

Also since the four are separated fairly quickly, the story needs to bounce back and forth between them, and while some are living in the present, others are moving through time, yet they are all in the sam geographic place. It is never confusing, just disorienting. Without Morris taking his time and setting everything up perfectly, the novel would have become a jumbled mess. So yes the pace is methodical, but it is satisfyingly so, since the story can sweep you up and carry you along in its wake.

Word geeks will love that the lack of punctuation in the title and the name of the hotel  is contemplated by the characters. That point alone could be discussed for hours after finishing the book.

While this novel has a Twilight Zone feel, it really is an original concept. As the characters try to get back together on the same time line and they learn more and more about the history of the unique town and Traveler’s Rest from two of its residents, the story goes from simply creepy to thought provoking.  There is a philosophical element at work here; you will contemplate ideas of memory, identity, family, and life choices.

As an added bonus, Travelers Rest has A PERFECT ENDING. Well perfect for horror fans. It would drive thriller readers crazy.

Just stop reading this review and get a copy of Travelers Rest into someone’s hands ASAP. Your patrons will thank you. Don’t believe me? Remember when I told you all to stop everything and suggest Bird Box to patrons.  I still have patrons AND librarians thanking me for making then read that book. I feel similarly about Travelers Rest.

Three Words That Describe This Book: creepy, methodically paced, thought provoking 

Readalikes: I mentioned the Twilight Zone above. This novel has the same type of plot and feel as any TZ episode, but it is more than just similar. The story has a few blatant nods to TZ particularly in the reoccurring TV that projects “old” shows and a lot of static with blurry figures going across the screen. Plus, these images end up coming into play toward the end of the novel.

Speaking of homage, there is also a nod to the classic haunted house tale, The Shining by Stephen King here. While Travler’s Rest is not nearly as terrifying [in fact, it is not trying to be that visceral], Morris does use an isolated hotel, cut off by a blizzard, and a compelling young boy protagonist stuck in a nightmarish situation. Think of Travelers Rest as "The Shining-lite."

Other classic haunted house stories that I was reminded of were House of Leaves by Mark Danielewski and The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson. House of Leaves in particular is a great readalike because of the way both books create tension and terror through their style. In House of Leaves the stylistic choices are very literal, while in Traveler’s Rest it is in how the story is told. House of Leaves is one of the few books I have re-read multiple times. I own a well thumbed paperback.

The pacing, the menace, the historical importance of a physical building, and the overall sense of dread permeating everything reminded me of The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters. Both novels create a terrifying and disorienting situation without any gore.

Finally, the young narrator, a family in turmoil, and the presence of something sinister in an old home preying on the people who live there [or is it all in our heads?] reminded me of A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Great Resource: Williamsburg Regional Library

I just got home from a whole day helping my Cook County IL fifth grader and his classmates travel back in time to Colonial Williamsburg.

Our “trip” reminded me to remind all of you that the Williamsburg Regional Library has one of the most useful websites when it comes to helping adult leisure readers. And you can use it to help leisure readers all over the country.

Click here to check out hundreds of adult reading lists, here to see their quarterly TV show about reading (yes, they are so good at this that they are local TV stars) or here for the no longer updated [but still full of thousands of suggestions you can use right now] Blogging for a Good Book.

You don’t have to travel back to Colonial times, or even make it to modern day VA to learn something from Williamsburg. The staff there go out of their way to provide superior service to leisure readers near and far.