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Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Links From the Holiday Weekend

After a long holiday weekend filled with out of town visitors, friends, and family, I neglected my RSS feeds.  Here then is a compilation of the best of what I missed.  Hope they help you to get back into the work week swing.


Welcome back to work.

Friday, May 27, 2011

What I'm Reading: Rot and Ruin

Rot & Ruin This is a cross post with RA for All: Horror

Jonathan Maberry is one of my favorite horror writers.  This year he started a YA zombie series.  Back in September, before the first book in the series, Rot & Ruin came out, I posted this interview with Maberry.

Of course, the book was on my to-read list from that moment on.  To help matters along, this year's bibliography for the Adult Reading Round Table will be focused on YA titles.  All of us on the Steering Committee will be reading 1 YA title that would be good for adults, and 1 adult title that would be good for teens.  I put myself down for Rot & Ruin (teen to adult) and The Radleys by Matt Haig (Adult to teen).

So with all of that hype, how could the book have lived up.  I will tell you I thoroughly enjoyed reading Rot & Ruin, but I should warn readers, it is very typically and YA novel.  If you are not used to reading YA I should let you know what to expect: absent parents, teenaged protagonist, tough moral choices, huge coming-of-age theme.  Also, while many reviews claim this novel has more violence and gore than most YA horror, if you read Maberry's adult novels, this one is tame in comparison.

Here is the basic plot.  Benny Imura was a baby when the zombie apocalypse came.  He was saved by his half brother Tom, but their parents were victims.  It is now 14 years later and Benny and Tom live in a town in CA surrounded by fences.  The rules are, 6 months after your 15th Birthday all residents need to pick a career and help out.  Benny is up against the deadline and reluctantly agrees to join the family business.  Tom is a bounty hunter who kills zombies outside the walls of town in what is known as "The Rot and Ruin."  But, he is a gentle and good bounty killer.

Once Benny accompanies Tom on his rounds outside the safety of town, Benny's entire life is turned upside down.  He must confront his own preconceived notions about the world and address his personal feelings about his brother, his friends, and his former heroes.  In short, he must reevaluate everything he has ever known.

This is a powerfully moving story.  The world Maberry has set up is one of the best post-apocalyptic zombie settings I have ever read; and believe me, I have read many.  The descriptions of how the zombies rose, why they took over, and how society now functions is detailed and interesting.  Anyone interested in post-apocalyptic tales of any kind will like this novel.

The characters are well drawn, complex, and interesting, and not just the main characters.  Also, one of Maberry's specialties is creating really evil human villains.  He is on top of his game here.  The zombies are well described, the fight scenes compelling and scary, and the over all tone is anxious and frightening.  The end is resolved and touching  but with the hint of more adventures to come.

The pace is classic horror:  begins with a foreboding scene, then backs up to fill us in on details, and beings to build steadily until the end, when it picks up and races to the finish.  Like all good horror, the story is only taking a breather at the novel's end.  We know there will be more bad guys and zombies to come.

Readers will fall in love with Maberry's storytelling style.  It is compelling, action packed, full of great characters, and awesomely evil villains.  The man rarely gets a bad review from the professionals or readers.  In my new book, Maberry is grouped with Joe Hill as the "New Kings of Horror."  If you like horror at all, read something by Jonathan Maberry.


Dust & DecayRot & Ruin was on the 2011 YALSA list of Best Fiction for Young Adults.  August sees the release of part 2, Dust & Decay.  Great covers by the way.

Three Words That Describe This Book: post-apocalyptic, coming-of-age, difficult choices

Readalikes:  Zombies are everywhere these days, and I love every minute of them.  But in this case, a readalike would need to be okay for a YA audience too.

Many readers cite The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan (also a series) as a great readalike.  Apparently, Ryan's novel is a also less graphic.

People who enjoyed Feed by Mira Grant or The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell will also enjoy this novel.  Click here for my joint review of these two novels.

Charlie Higson's Enemy series or Patrick Ness' Chaos Walking series are also great suggestions here.

Another good post-apocalyptic novel without zombies, but with a similar feel and a high quality of writing for a YA book, is How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff.

Also, Benny has a lot in common with Katniss from the Hunger Games trilogy.

I could go on forever with suggested readalike options, but I will stop with this one: The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead by Max Brooks.  Read up and be prepared...

Thursday, May 26, 2011

What I'm Reading: A Discovery of Witches

A Discovery of Witches: A NovelWhen A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness first came out with a huge PR push, I deliberately stayed away. I am not a big fan of paranormal romance, but, one night after class, Joyce told me she had just finished listening to this book, and despite the paranormal romance angle, she thought I would enjoy the literary mystery in the book.

So, like anyone who strives to practice what they preach, I took the suggestion of a Readers' Advisor who understands my reading tastes and took the plunge, albeit skeptically.  Since the book is almost 600 pages, the audio was a good move to counterbalance my reluctance.  And I am happy to report that I liked the book, maybe even enough to try the second installment.

I should mention that A Discovery of Witches is the first in a planned trilogy.  This first installment gets the story revved up and ready to take off, and then leaves you at the point of liftoff.  On its own, it is an interesting story, but if you don't like waiting for part 2, wait to read this novel.

The plot and the appeal are extremely intertwined here.  The basic story is that Diana Bishop, an accomplished alchemy scholar and well pedigreed witch who has been trying to ignore her magic all of her life, gets swept up in a mystery surrounding a rare alchemical text which has been hidden by a spell for hundreds of years.  When Diana is able to call up the manuscript in the Oxford library, she unwillingly starts a war in the realm of creatures (vampires, witches, and demons).

Assisting Diana from the start (and providing the romance angle) is 1,500 year old vampire, Matthew Clairmont.  Matthew is a medical researcher who has been collecting the DNA of creatures.  Over the course of the novel they slowly piece together what they are up against and assemble a team to try to find out why this manuscript is causing so much of a ruckus.

The appeal here is wide.  People who like paranormal romance and don't mind a slightly more serious tone would love this novel.  The plot is intricate, the pacing steady, and the characters extremely well rounded.  Personally, I really enjoyed the alchemy and research angle.  I also liked the world Harkness has created.  Her vampires, witches, and demons all get along in a cold war type atmosphere.  The details into their existences, needs, and powers are all very interesting.  For example, her vampires can be out at all times of day, but she explains why humans think they can only be out at night.

Diana's coming-of-age as a witch is also important here.  As is the mystery surrounding the book.  There are entire sections in which nothing but alchemistry, Darwin, and/or the Bible are discussed at length.  Key moments in history also come up frequently, both European and American.  These are all points at which I was most engaged by the book.

The romance is also in the forefront quite a bit, which happened to be the points in which I lost interest, but it will be the reason why others love this book.  I have also seen the romance angel described as steamy, but I would have to disagree. (They haven't even consummated their marriage yet by then end of this first book)

In terms of tone, while fun is had here, the overall tone is fairly serious.  They are on a quest which will put people in danger, but it must be done.

Overall I think there is a nice balance here of something for everyone.  I could see myself suggesting this book to a wide range of readers.  And for a RA librarian, there is no higher praise. So, while if you asked my personal opinion I would say this book was okay, as a librarian, it had me jumping for joy.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  paranormal romance, scholars and research, intricately plotted

Readalikes:  A Discovery of Witches is a great options for fans of Sookie Stackhouse.  While Charlaine Harris' novels have a more campy and tongue-in-cheek tone, the range of paranormal characters, solving mysteries, and moving within the regular world are all similar.  A huge range of readers enjoy the Sookie novels; in fact, last year I produced this popular list of Sookie Stackhouse readalikes based on what part of Harris' series you most enjoy.  Click here to access it on The Browser's Corner or here for the RA for All version.

Other novels I would suggest to readers who enjoyed A Discovery of Witches are The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova (female researcher, vampires, intricately plotted), The Outlander series by Diana Gabaldon (paranormal romance, time travel, series), The Pink Carnation series by Lauren Willig (historical mystery, female finding a book), and the Kushiel novels by Jacqueline Carey (romantic fantasy involving magic).

Books I have written about which I also think would be a good match here are Casting Spells by Barbara Bretton (range of supernatural characters, romance) and Ghostwalk by  Rebecca Stott (alchemy, female researcher, serious).  The links are to my reviews which are also a good source of further readalike options.

The quest aspect is similar in tone and scope to The Lord of the Rings.  Both stories share the theme of varied creatures coming together, despite years of fighting against one and other, in order to do what is right.

Finally for those whose interest in alchemy was piqued try, The Last Sorcerers: The Path from Alchemy to the Periodic Table by Richard Morris.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

What I'm Reading: Swamplandia!

I recently finished the heralded Swamplandia! by Karen Russell.  This is one that I felt lived up to the hype.  But a disclaimer here, Swamplandia! is exactly the type of book I adore:  dark, odd, completely character driven (almost without a plot really), quirky, and just plain fascinating.

This book is more of a character sketch of a family in transition, during said transition, than it is a typical story.  The plot follows the Bigtree family, owners of a shabby alligator wrestling tourist attraction called Swamplandia!, deep in the Ten Thousands Islands of the Florida Everglades.  When we meet the Bigtree's things have taken a grave turn for the worse.  The mother, the star of the show, has recently died of cancer and their grandpa has just been put into a nursing home.  Left is the father, Chief, and three siblings: oldest brother Kiwi, middle sister Osceola, and our main narrator, 13 year old Ava.  We also do get some alternating view points from Kiwi when he goes off to take a job at an amusement park on the mainland.

The story stretches over a few months period as the family completely falls apart.  Chief goes to the mainland in an effort to raise funds to save Swanplandia, Kiwi leaves, Osceola tires to elope with a ghost, and Ava goes on an adventure to try to save her sister, getting more than she bargained for along the way.  Each must come to terms with their grief and face reality; some just take longer than others.  As the novel ends, they have been reunited and there is a plan to finally move forward again as a family, albeit probably without Swamplandia!.

This "slice-of-life" quality of the story is one of the reasons someone would either love or hate this novel.  All we see is this transitional period.  As readers we do not see the glory days of the past or know what will become of the Bigtrees once they are reunited.  We are just along for the ride during the most trying period of their lives.  I enjoy this type of book.  It is more like a big character sketch; however, many readers will be frustrated by the lack of a clear plot.

This novel's sense of place is the next big appeal.  Russell nails the descriptions here.  I could feel, see, smell and hear the Everglades.  She meticulously describes the islands, the waterways, the vegetation, the animals, the humidity....everything.  I felt like I was there.  It is beautiful and secluded, but also sinister and creepy.  She relayed that dichotomy perfectly.  It almost made me want to visit.

The time period here is unclear too.  It seems like it is set in the recent past, but that feeling could be from their isolated home too.  No matter when it is supposed to be set, the story has a timeless feel which I enjoyed.

Other key appeals are the methodical pace, the magical feeling of the story without any actual supernatural elements, the two adolescent narrators, and the open ending.  This is a character centered story about loss, mourning, and independence.  It is ultimately about growing up and being forced to face the real world.

Before I finish, I should also say that there is one fairly disturbing scene involving Ava in the last third of the book.  It is not graphic, but it is upsetting.  It may taint the book for some readers.  I thought it made sense and pushed the novel from the magical realism realm firmly back into the cold hard truth.  I thought it made sense as a symbol of Ava's maturation from dreamy to serious.  Although I wish she could have been spared the hurt, I think the story needed it as a plot development for the reader to believe that she too was ready to move on.  Everyone else in the family had their reality check moments, hers was just the most disturbing.


Three Words That Describe This Book:  slice-of-life, sense of place, quirky

Readalikes:  I have been suggesting Swamplandia! to my readers who enjoyed The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff.  Click here (and scroll down) to see my report on when I read this novel.  Also from that report, I would also suggest these readalikes for Swamplandia!:
But in terms of readalikes matched by the overall appeal of The Monsters of Templeton, I would suggest 3 novels: The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield which is a Gothic novel that also recounts a twisted family history (click here to see my take on this novel); Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl in which a Yale Freshman (with a narrative voice eerily similar to Willie's) recounts her life history as if it were a class in Western Literature including her interesting family history and the death of a high school teacher (again, click here to see my take); andThe Stolen Child by Keith Donohue which is a magical tale of a 7 year-old who is kidnapped by a pack hobgoblins to be replaced by one of them. It is the story of the two boys' experiences and their concurrent struggle to find where they came from.
Two other novels that come to mind are Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer and Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 by Jeffrey Cartwright by Steven Millhauser.  Both are quirky, slice-of-life novels about times of transition involving young people.  These two novels also happen to be 2 of my favorites of all time.  I don't think Swamplandia! is in that tier for me, but it was very good.

If you loved the setting and want to read more books set in Florida, no one describes the place better than Carl Hiaasen.

For nonfiction, try Washington Post writer Michael Grunwald's The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise.  It is the perfect book for people who want to learn more about the region depicted here.  It received starred reviews when it came out in 2007 and Grunwald is an award-winning journalist.  We even own it at the BPL.

I was also reminded of Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession which also takes place in the Everglades and has a similar magical, timeless feel to it.

Look for more reviews of What I'm Reading the rest of this week leading into the holiday weekend.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

BPL Book Discussion: July-December 2011 TItles Revealed

As I mentioned in this post, the two book groups at the BPL were presented with their final ballot of options for our July-December 2011 book discussions last week.  I tallied the votes yesterday and Kathy turned in the order slips, so it is now official.

Since both groups discuss the same books but in a different order, I will reveal the titles in no particular order.  We will be reading 4 fiction and 2 nonfiction.  It looks like a nice mix of popular book club titles and a few backlist gems.  I am looking forward to it.  And of course, as my group reads the book, you can follow what we discussed here on RA for All.

Without further ado, here are the titles for the rest of 2011:
 

Monday, May 23, 2011

Monday Discussion: What Do You Do After You Finish a Great Book?

The Passage: A NovelThis month saw the paperback releases of my two absolute favorite books from 2010, The Passage by Justin Cronin and The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall.  Seeing the press coverage for these awesome novels' paperback releases made me pine for the days last summer when I was totally entranced by these titles.

The Lonely Polygamist: A NovelI loved every minute of reading these books.  I ignored chores and work at times in order to sneak in a few more pages.  But to date this year, I have yet to repeat that pure joy in a novel.

I also remembered back to the moment when I finished each of these novels.  I enjoyed them so much, I was almost afraid to start something else.  I wanted to treasure how perfect I though each was.  I was afraid nothing I read next would compare.  And that is exactly what did happen.  After reading these two books closely together, I then read The Man From Beijing by Henning Mankell and really didn't like it, when in theory, I probably would have liked it quite a bit more if it hadn't followed Cronin and Udall.

So when I finish a book I loved, I try to take a break from books I think I will like, and instead try to read a few genre titles to fill in gaps in my reading for work or concentrate on the next book discussion book, since I am not reading those for pleasure, but for work.

What about you?  For today's Monday Discussion, what do you do after you finish a great book?  Do you dive right into something else, or like me, do you take a breather to savor the perfection of what you just experienced?  Or something else?  Let me know.

Next week the Monday Discussion will be on vacation for Memorial Day.  It will return on June 6th.

Click here for the Monday Discussion Archive.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Flashback Fridays: Captivating Reads

It is finally a beautiful day here in Chicagoland.  It is also the first day this week that I did not HAVE to work or go to a meeting.  Oh, and it supposed to rain off and on all weekend.  So yes, I am neglecting the blog and instead have done a lot of planting today.

But, I only neglected, I did not forget.  Below, I have re-posted one of my favorite posts from just over 2 years ago.  It involves a patron who want me to find her "Captivating Reads."  What I love about this patron interaction is not my suggestions, but how "real" an example it is.  You can take what I did and apply it to your patrons.  Get them to open up and you will surprise them and yourself.

For the record, this patron came back from vacation, liked the suggestions, and continues to frequent the BPL RA desk for her next good read.  Have a nice weekend.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Patron Who Wanted "Captivating Books"

This week at the BPL RA desk I got exactly the patron I warn my students about each and every semester, and it is exciting and terrifying (at the same time), even for a veteran like me. But I have to admit, I love the challenge.

Here is the set up. A late-30s woman walks into the library and asks for an "easy read." More probing from me leads to the revelation that she is going on a 6 hour plane ride and will then spend 10 days on the beach and wants a book that will "captivate her."

Okay, first warning bell goes off in my head. What I find captivating may be be what she finds captivating. I asked more questions and found she wanted new or "hot" books. She likes to stay "ahead of the curve," or at least even with it.

She seemed to want books that were popular with book discussion groups, but not difficult or overly depressing, although sad was okay. I started throwing out titles to see if she had read and liked them. For example, she has read and liked The Lovely Bones, books by Jodi Picoult, and The Secret Life of Bees. So she wants substance, but not plodding pace; she wants a page-turner with some substance behind it. Also, I checked if she minded a mystery or suspense element and she was fine with that too.

I also found out (again by asking) that she likes to have read books that are going to be made into movies. This goes with her wanting to be ahead of the curve issue.

This discovery lead to the first book I put in her hands, Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. This book is provocative, moves steadily, has a bit of suspense, and will be a movie in 2010. My book discussion group read this book and I wrote about it here. As I handed her Never Let Me Go I began by talking up the movie (due 2010) and how she will be ahead of the curve.

I then thought of authors who are popular now and asked her if humor was okay. She said yes. I gave her the first Lisa Lutz mystery The Spellman Files (which I read here) and played up how popular she has become since this breakout debut. I told her she should read this first and then she could come back and read the new one. She loved being in on a hot new author from her beginnings.

I ended by giving her an oldie but goodie by an always popular author: The Bean Trees by Barbara Kingsolver. This is a short and captivating coming of age story. I talked it up by focusing on Kingsolver's popularity, my own experience leading a discussion on this title, and this book's timeless charm. She knew of Kingsolver and had never read her, so for her this qualified as "hot."

Notice none of these books are particularly"hot" or new in and of themselves. In fact, they are just some of our popular back list titles. They would not be featured on display at your local book store right now. That is not the point. RA service is about selling the right book to the patron for their particular reading need at that moment.

You need to think of a book or author and then find a way to tell the potential reader the highlights as it pertains to their reading tastes or needs. Depending on who you are talking to, you will sell the book differently. For example, I played down the SF angle on Never Let Me Go, but mentioned it, saying it was dystopian, not aliens, just so she was prepared. I also did not give away the huge twist but did let her know there was a big secret about the school which the characters attend (to find out click here).

Also, it is important to give your patrons at least 3 choices. She took all three (2 pbs and one medium sized hard cover) and can always switch if she is no longer captivated by any. There is nothing worse than being stuck on vacation with nothing to read! (An exaggeration, I know)

Not a single one of these books was on the new shelf, but they were all "hot" titles as I sold them. It is all about perception. She got 3 great books, tailored to her needs, all by stopping by the RA desk before going on vacation. And it didn't cost her a cent.