ARRT GENRE STUDY WEBSITE

CLICK HERE for quick access to the materials for the 2016-17 Speculative Fiction Genre Study.
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RA FOR ALL...THE ROAD SHOW!

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.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Reading Map: Bel Canto

And as the last post of Spring Break I want to highlight Liz's reading map of Ann Patchett's Bel Canto.

She did a nice job, especially here where she included links to pages for people new to opera.

Speaking of Bel Canto and opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago just made this announcement.

Remember, you can access the full archive of the best reading maps here.

Thanks to my students who agreed to share their work with all of you so that I could spend time with my kids during their week off.

Back to regular programming next week.  Have a nice weekend.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Take Ten: Gemini - Twins

Today it is Ally's turn.  She had a great idea.  What if library staff got together and made a rotating monthly display to change with the signs of the zodiac.  Using the symbol for the month as inspiration, you could come up with a display.  Her idea included a book talk to be given the night before a new zodiac display went up, highlighting some of the titles.

Since she is a Gemini, Ally tackled that symbol with her 10 book list of a wide range of books featuring twins.  Enjoy.


Gemini - Twins
May 21 – June 21
In My Brother’s Image by Eugene L. Pogany. 2000. 322 pages.  This non-fiction account details the lives of twins Gyorgy (later George) and Miklos.  Born in Hungary to Jewish parents, the family later converted to Catholicism when the boys were still young.  Gyorgy went on to become a priest and find sanctuary in a Catholic monastery during World War II.  Miklos was interned at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp.  This true story gives the perspective of both brothers, as well as other members of the Pogany family from World War I, through World War II and into the 1990’s.  It’s a richly detailed, remarkable tale of twins whose special, mysterious bond is destroyed by war and religion.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. 2009. 534 pages. 1954—Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Marion and Shiva Praise Stone, are born to an Indian nun and a British surgeon.  This lyrically descriptive and compelling saga follows the twins’ initial separation (they were born connected at the skull), through their boyhood (where they are nearly inseparable), their emotional separation as young adults and their final connection as middle-aged adults.  This richly and lusciously description of Ethiopia on the brink of revolution is also a haunting and moving family saga that has many of the same appeals as The Kite Runner.

Chang and Eng by Darin Strauss. 2000. 321 pages.  This compelling and richly detailed fictionalized account of the famous Siamese twins is told through Eng’s perspective. Though most people know of the twins made famous in P.T. Barnum’s travelling circus, not many know what happened to them after they left the circus.  Though fictionalized, this novel, allow people to feel emotionally connected to the twins and gives insight to what it may have been like for the physically connected, though emotionally separated, men.

Geek Love by Katherine Dunn. 1989. 347 pages.
This picaresque novel full of black humor questions our notions of what is normal and what is freakish.  The Binewskis are a carny family who, through the use of various drugs, insecticides and radioactivity, breed their own “circus freaks”. Publishers Weekly calls it a “raw, shocking view of the human condition, a glimpse of the tormented people who live on the fringe, makes readers confront the dark, mad elements in every society. …a brilliant, suspenseful, heartbreaking tour de force.”

The Butcher of Beverly Hills by Jennifer Colt. 2005. 344 pages. Red-headed identical twins Kerry and Terry McAfee have nothing in common besides their looks and their profession – private investigators.  What starts off as a seemingly simple case of finding a 70 year old socialite’s 28 year old runaway husband quickly becomes a much more dangerous and complicated matter.  This is a quick, fun mystery with snappy dialog and humorous insight to the very wealthy older ladies in Beverly Hills. Not to mention there is a very hunky detective!

Thursday’s Child by Sandra Brown. 1985. 209 pages.  Besides their looks, identical twins Alison and Ann are completely different from each other.  Although they used to switch roles all the time growing up, trouble ensues when Ann’s fiancé’s best friend, Spencer, falls for Alison who is pretending to be Ann.  But will Spencer still feel the same way about her when he finds out Alison is actually nerdy scientist Alison?  This is a feel good, light-hearted steamy read with a happy ending, sure to please readers who “delight in lovers and their uneven pursuit of mutual fulfillment and happiness” (from the author’s note).

Full Moon Rising by Keri Author. 2006. 291 pages.  This steamy, suspenseful urban fantasy, the first in a series, centers around half vampire/half werewolf Riley as she searches for her twin brother, Rhoan.  The twins both work for Melbourne’s Directorate of Other Races, an organization that polices the supernatural races and when Rhoan, an assassin, is kidnapped, Riley sets out to find her brother. This all happens during the moon heat, which is the weeklong period before the full moon when werewolves are at their most sensual.  Though she has two partners ready to fulfill her needs, Riley meets her match in sexy vampire Quinn. Between the moon heat and some dangerous cloning masterminds after her and Rhoan, will Riley be able to save her twin?

The Dark Half by Stephen King. 1989. 431 pages. Author Thad Beaumont “kills off” his alter ego after it is discovered it is actually Thad writing the grisly novels, not George Stark, Thad’s pen name.  After a spread in People in which Thad and his wife stand over the fake grave stone of George Stark (whose epitaph reads “Not a Very Nice Guy”), people connected to Thad/George Stark are gruesomely murdered.  All clues point to Thad, but it can’t be him…could it really be his alter ego? This grisly, menacing, character driven horror story is a fast-paced read sure to creep out lots of horror fans.

Whatever it Takes by Gwynne Forster. 2005. 272 pages.  Lacette and Kellie are identical twins that have very unidentical personalities.  Lacette has her life together and is a respectable young lady.  Kellie, on the other hand, is morally inept and leads a rather questionable, less than noble life. She’s always wanted everything that Lacette has worked so hard to get, taking everything from toys to boys from Lacette. But now that they are 33 years old the stakes are higher (a good man in fiancé Rawlins) and Lacette’s life is on the line, will Kellie step up and finally do what’s right or will she finally get everything she wants? Many lessons are learned in this old fashioned values centered novel that will bring up lots of discussion points—it also includes a discussion guide at the end.

The Last Child by John Hart.  2009. 373 pages.  Twins Johnny and Alyssa shared a special sense of belonging that only they understood.  But then, mysteriously, Alyssa disappeared and the perfect family with the warm home is destroyed.  With his father gone and his mom taking up with an abuse sleaze, Johnny sets out to uncover the mystery of what happened to his family. Edgar-winning author Hart’s intricately plotted, fast-paced psychological thriller is a bit gritty, but moving and dramatic. Received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly, Library Journal and Kirkus.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Take Ten: Zombie Encounters at the Library

Today, I want to share Tracy's midterm booktalk entitled, "Zombie Encounters at the Library."  From her paper setting the scene for the talk:
For this project I have imagined my audience to be a group of teen and adult patrons who have come to the library for a program on the history of zombie movies.
...I also assume something involving zombies would attract more teenagers than a program typically would, so I wanted to be conscientious the patrons could be newcomers to the zombie subgenre in literature. I also realize some audience members may devour horror literature but may have not known about the sheer variety of genres zombies are featured in. 
...I thought it would be important to remind the patrons of books which are popular thanks to adaptations while also showing some classics of the subgenre, and popular books from a few years ago that may get buried in the collection. Another critical assumption I made was the audience would be well-versed in popular zombie films, but not the literature that might be similar to those films. Since I would be booktalking to two different patron pools, I wanted to include YA books with adult appeal and vice versa.
...I wanted the booktalk to explore the many different genres that zombies can be incorporated in. I think the topic is often represented in a better variety than people initially think it is.
So that's the set-up.  I have to say, when Tracy delivered this talk she did an excellent job.  I also agree that she did make sure to offer zombie books from a variety of genres that would appeal to adults and teens alike.  And, I applaud her for tackling zombies, knowing full well that her Instructor (me) is a huge zombie fanatic.

Here is her list in simple text format.  Again, like Elissa's list yesterday, Tracy did make a snazzy handout for the class, but for here, I am going for efficiency.


Zombie Encounters at the Library...

Austen, Jane and Seth Grahame-Smith. Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Quirk Classics, 2009.
“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.” Pride and Prejudice and Zombies takes the hilarious romance of Austen mixed with modern humor and zombie outbreaks to delight new and old fans alike.

Roux, Madeline. Allison Hewitt is Trapped. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2010.
This story features a bookstore clerk who barricades herself at work when a regular customer’s head is devoured by one of the undead. This experimental piece also has the heroine creating a blog documenting her attempts to survive along with a fair dose of sarcasm, literary allusions, and a zombie squirrel. 

Maberry, Jonathan. Patient Zero. St. Martin’s Griffin, 2009.
Detective John Ledger is charged with a secret mission by the U.S. government to contain a terrorist created bioweapon that could turn the entire country into mindless, bloodthirsty corpses. The plot-driven, fact-paced action balances descriptions of special ops missions and terrorist conspiracies with familiar scenes of creepy horror as the agents combat hoards of zombies created as a result of the virus. If you like survival horror games check this one out.

Martinez, A. Lee. Gil’s All Fright Diner. Tor, 2005.
This is the humorous tale of a werewolf (Duke) and vampire (Earl) getting paid off to help a Southern diner deal once and for all with the pesky zombies cutting into business courtesy of a nearby graveyard. This comedy-horror features raunchy humor mixed with action and is sure to appeal to readers looking for something light. 

Black, Holly and Justine Larbalestier. Zombies vs. Unicorns. Margaret K. McElderry Books, 2010.
This anthology is here to answer the ultimate question you never asked yourself: who would win in an all-out war between zombies and unicorns? A group of well-known, diverse authors tackle the question in different ways, leaving all the rotting limbs and magical horns on the battlefield.

Marion, Issac. Warm Bodies. Atria Books, 2011.
This is an original retelling of Romeo and Juliet starring a zombie who falls in love with a girl after eating her boyfriend’s brains and absorbing his thoughts of her. This bittersweet, legit zombie love story is perfect for the paranormal romance crowd.

Davis, Wade. The Serpent and the Rainbow. Touchstone, 1985.
No zombie lover’s credentials are set till they get a fair dose of old-school reality. The Serpent and the Rainbow is the true story of a Harvard scientist’s encounter with zombies in Haiti. Wade Davis’s book reads like an adventure story as he explains the combination of scientific poisons and mystical magic that create mindless slaves who rise up to obey their master’s command. 

Moody, David. Hater. St. Martin’s Press, 2006.
This story follows an average man trying to make ends meet for his family when the city is suddenly overrun by a rage virus that makes normal people violently lash out at anyone not infected. A compelling, unexpected twist on a popular storyline makes this a refreshing entry to the zombie subgenre. It is set to be adapted to film, and would appeal to any fans of 28 Days Later

Adams, John Joseph, ed. The Living Dead. Night Shade Books, 2008.
I would dare say this is the go-to book for people who do not think they like zombie stories or books. Or who need more a variety of writing styles and genres. This is a short story collection from a number of familiar authors and even characters who have encounters with the undead. The writing is engaging and rich, and offers a range that should appease new and old readers alike. 

Kirkman, Robert. The Walking Dead. Image Comics, 2003-present.
The Walking Dead is an extremely fast-paced, unpredictable comic series following Rick Grimes as he attempts to protect his family following the zombie apocalypse. The series thrives on interpersonal dynamics as struggles where other humans are the deadliest threat in a world overrun by the undead. 

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Take Ten: Historical Fiction Through Time

Today's student work is by Elissa who is a 9th Grade Honors World History teacher in Chicago.  She was able to create a midterm booktalk that she ended up using with her students.  In her own words:

For my thematic booklist, I chose to include historical fiction books that align with my world history curriculum.  By aligning the booklist with my curriculum, my students will expand their knowledge of the topics we study throughout the year.
...I chose this topic for my audience because I want them to continue learning outside the classroom.  The reading in my class tends to be from the text book, primary sources, or articles from history magazines.  While the titles on my list are historical fiction books, the students can still get a better understanding about the time period/subject they are reading about.  Also, part of their assignment will include research of the actual topic/time period they are reading about.  This will help them to discern fact from the historical fiction that they will be reading.    
So, she broke up her curriculum and suggested historical fiction for them to read.  These books are all included on "Adult Books for Young Adults" so that they are still appropriate for her 14 year old students.  

Below is her annotated list in a simple text format (not the snazzy handout she made for class).  I am also happy to report that she gave this booktalk to her classes and they all were very excited to start reading.


Historical Fiction:  10 Eras in 10 Books
Ancient Rome
Pompeii by Robert Harris
Newly appointed engineer Marcus Atiilius must discover why the aqueducts surrounding the Bay of Naples have failed.  Investigating a string of mysterious natural occurrences, Atillius finds himself at the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius on the eve of its eruption.  In a compelling drama filled with details of the corrupt and excessive lifestyle of ancient Rome, aqueducts, and volcanology, Pompeii brings to life one of the most infamous natural disasters in history. 
Also Try:  Imperium by Robert Harris 

Black Death
Year of Wonders:  A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks
Widowed at 18, Anna Firth takes in a lodger from London who inadvertently brings the plague into her home.  When the plague begins to kill indiscriminately, the villagers decided to quarantine themselves to prevent the further spread of the plague.   The vivid descriptions of the plague, an inspiring, well-drawn protagonist, and an engrossing storyline create both a haunting and powerful novel.
Also Try:  The Plague Tales by Ann Benson

Renaissance
Girl With a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier
16-year-old Griet becomes the subject of a Vermeer painting while working as his maid.  As others learn of the painting, rumors begin to circulate through town of the growing intimacy between Griet and Vermeer causing trouble for the young maid.  This dramatic coming-of-age novel provides a detailed look at the elusive Vermeer and life during 16th century Holland.
Also Try:  The Birth of Venus by Sarah Dunant

Conquest of the Americas
Ines of My Soul by Isabel Allende
Ines Suarez travels from her home in Spain to the New World to find her missing husband.  Upon learning of her husband’s death, Suarez finds a new love and together they help found the colony of Chile. Told in letter form, this richly detailed depiction of the conquest and colonization of Chile is a sophisticated work of literary fiction. 
Also Try:  Feathered Serpent:  A Novel of the Mexican Conquest by Colin Falconer

French Revolution
The Hidden Diary of Marie Antoinette by Carolly Erickson
In a secret diary, Marie Antoinette chronicles her life, describing her childhood as princess of Austria, her arranged marriage to the Dauphin of France, her reign as Queen of France, and her downfall during the French Revolution.  Filled with details of courtly life during 18th century France, this dramatic work provides a look at the excessive lifestyle and tragic demise of one of the most notorious queens in history.
Also Try:  The Red Necklace: A Story of the French Revolution by Sally Gardner

Colonization of Africa
Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe
When European missionaries attempt to ‘westernize’ his tribe, Okonkwo struggles to preserve his traditional culture.  This bleak novel, filled with details of tribal culture, describes the tragic collapse of an African tribe and its customs. 
Also Try:  The Fire of Origins by Emmanuel Dongala

India:  colonialism, culture, and castes - early 20th century
The House of Blue Mangoes by David Davidar
The House of Blue Mangoes follows the Dorais, an Indian family, through three generations as they struggle with classism, racism, and colonialism.  The introspective characters and vivid depictions of Indian culture create an engrossing family saga. 
Also Try:  Keeping Corner by Kashmira Sheth

World War Two
When the Elephants Dance by Tess Uriza Holthe
Using multiple points of view, When the Elephants Dance, tells the story of the Karangalan family and their friends as they struggle to survive the final weeks of the Japanese occupation of Manila during World War II.  Hiding in a cellar and encountering danger every time they venture out, the family tells traditional stories to help pass the time.  With well-developed characters and an engrossing plot, this bleak novel expertly weaves the ravages of war with traditional Filipino stories to create a powerful work of historical fiction. 
Also Try:  The Children’s War by Monique Charlesworth

Vietnam War
The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
As a combat photographer during the Vietnam War, Helen Adams comes face to face with the ravages of war on a daily basis.  In the midst of war, Adams finds herself torn between two men: an American journalist and an ex- Vietnamese soldier.   The heartwarming love story weaved within the graphic depictions of war torn Vietnam provides a glimmer of hope. 
Also Try:  Fallen Angels by Walter Dean Myers

1994 Rwandan Genocide
Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron
Jean Patrick Nkuba, a talented young Tutsi runner, dreams of representing Rwanda in the Olympics.   When ethnic tensions increase and a civil war begins, Jean must run from the country he loves in order to ensure his survival.  The inspiring character of Jean Patrick gives us a glimmer of hope in this stark and haunting novel of death and destruction.
Also Try:  Broken Memory:  A Story of Rwanda by Elisabeth Combres

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Book Thief Reading Map

My kids have Spring Break this week so my posting may be sporadic.  In fact, in anticipation of this, I have saved some of the best student work from Midterms (back at the beginning of the month) to showcase this week.  So expect a lot of pre-loaded material this week and not much commentary on current issues.

Today, I want to share Amanda's wonderful reading map for The Book Thief.

She did an excellent job of letting the book guide her map.  As I told her, I will be adding this map to the list of those I use to teach other students in future semester's.

Have a look for yourself.

Also, remember you can always access past reading maps which received a grade of A- or higher in the Reading Maps Archive that I keep here.

Friday, March 23, 2012

This Post Has Nothing To Do With RA

As some of you know, my sister-in-law, Melanie, was on Jeopardy! this week.  And even better...she won!

I wanted to brag about her, and I also realized that many librarians also enjoy Jeopardy! so I thought you would all be interested in the subculture of Jeopardy! contestants.  I have learned quite a bit about this from her and thought I would pass it on.

The Jeopardy! Fan is the most popular blog that chronicles this subculture.  On Wednesday, Melanie got a chance to guest blog about her experiences being on the show.  Click here to read her post.  And now I am not the only blogger in the family.

I killed a few hours over the last few days reading many of the other posts too.  Thought I would pass it on.

Hunger Games Day: Resources for Readers and Movie Goers

As if you didn't already know, but the much anticipated Hunger Games movie opens today; actually last night at midnight in some places.

To better help you to serve your excited patrons, I have gathered my past Hunger Games posts here for you today.

But first, here is some news I have been saving for this exact day.  As I mentioned here, I signed the BPL up to be a book giver on World Book Night.  The process involved proving you would give the books out (easy for us, since we are a library and already do that every single day) and submitting a wish list of three titles from their list that you would be willing to hand out.

Well, on a hope and a prayer, knowing the Hunger Games movie would be out only a month before World Book Night, I made The Hunger Games my first choice.  Here is an excerpt from the acceptance email I received on 2/28:
First of all, we're delighted to confirm that the book you'll be giving away on April 23 is Hunger Games. We hope you're happy with it even if it isn't your first choice and that you are still excited to participate in World Book Night.
Oh yes, I was happy.

So it is official, the BPL will be out in the community giving out The Hunger Games on the evening of 4/23.  We had some patrons also sign up to be givers of different titles.  Closer to the actual date of World Book Night, I will have a schedule of where you can find us and which titles we will be handing out.

But, while you wait for World Book Night to come around, you have to deal with the hoards of patrons who want to read the book or already have read all three and want readalikes.  Thankfully, my students have done the leg work on this already.

Please go to Gennie's Hunger Games readalikes list here or Christi's fabulous Hunger Games reading map here.  Between these two resources you will be able to satisfy your Katniss crazy patrons.

One final note, it is days like today when I am so happy to be a RA librarian.  It feels like the entire world is going crazy over a book.  It is a dream come true.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

50 Shades of Grey

I have not been ignoring the erotica phenomenon 50 Shades of Grey, but I just didn't have much to say about it.  However, my friend Karen over at Shelf Renewal did.

Read her post about how to help a patron who comes to your desk asking for the book.  She has some great advice for you on how to delicately find out if they really know what they are asking for.

Thanks Karen.

This is also a good time to mention how the bestseller list is both a blessing and a curse to the RA librarian.  It is a blessing because as we help leisure readers it provides a common language.  Patrons come in knowing the titles on the list because these are the books everyone is talking about.  The curse comes in the fact that although they all know the titles, very few of our patrons actually know what the books are about.

Bestsellers are deemed "safe" in the patrons' minds because if enough people are buying them to make them "bestsellers" they must be good.  But being "good" does not mean that 1, every person will enjoy the book, or 2, that it is an appropriate read for you personally.

In this case, patrons are coming in asking for a title that is VERY sexually explicit, and they might not know that.  I will do the same thing I do with the Stieg Larsson trilogy when I ask patrons if they realize it is very violent, including some graphic sexual violence.  Here I will mention the phrase "mommy porn," and gauge their reaction.

So please remember, when a book becomes a huge hit, we still need to be aware of what it is about.  Just because a patron comes in asking for a specific title, that does not mean that title is going to work for that reader.  Have the RA conversation with him or her and make sure he or she goes home with the right book for their reading tastes.

We are match makers, not robots. Our goal is to find them their next great read, whether they knew about the title or author before entering the library or not.  Now is the time to show them how indispensable we are!

Student Annotations: Intellect

Last night the students read genres of the intellect: Literary Fiction, Science Fiction, Psychological Suspense and Mystery.

Click through to read what they had to say.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

BPL Book Discussion: The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake

On Monday the gang got together for another excellent book discussion.  This time we talked about The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. This novel is a work of magical realism.  It is a quiet but utterly compelling family drama with a very prominent magical element that adds tension to the story. 

Here is the publishers plot summary via Reading Group Guides:
On the eve of her ninth birthday, unassuming Rose Edelstein, a girl at the periphery of schoolyard games and her distracted parents’ attention, bites into her mother’s homemade lemon-chocolate cake and discovers she has a magical gift: she can taste her mother’s emotions in the cake. She discovers this gift to her horror, for her mother --- - her cheerful, good-with-crafts, can-do mother --- - tastes of despair and desperation. Suddenly, and for the rest of her life, food becomes a peril and a threat to Rose.
The curse her gift has bestowed is the secret knowledge all families keep hidden --- - her mother’s life outside the home, her father’s detachment, her brother’s clash with the world. Yet as Rose grows up she learns to harness her gift and becomes aware that there are secrets even her taste buds cannot discern.

Oh and before I begin, I have to give credit to one of the ladies in our group, Stella, who baked the titular cake for us.  Yum!

This book was a hit for discussing.  Even those who said it was "weird" still loved reading it.  I thought I might have trouble getting this slightly older group on board, but I was totally wrong.  These mature women surprised me both in their enthusiasm for the book and their comments.  I literally had to stop the group and make a few of them repeat what they had said so I could get it down.  I had such a good experience leading them on this book that I will probably make it the Fall 1012 book discussion title for my students.

Now on to our truly amazing discussion.
  • We opened with the regular poll.  11 liked the book, 2 disliked, and 2 so-so.  The dislikes were because of  both the magical realism and they were also upset with how dysfunction the family truly was
  • A few of the opening liked comments were:
    • I kept wanting to read it to see what would happen to Rose. I stayed up way too late to finish it.
    • This was one of the most provocative books I have ever read.  It raised so many "what if?" questions.
    • I liked the writing.
    • I liked how well she described the brother-sister relationship.  It felt very real.
    • I was unsettled the entire time (in a good way).
  • We talked a lot about Rose. One participant summed up Rose by saying she was an intermediary or interpreter for the family-- their connection to the "normal" world.  She ends up the most functional of the group, even though her gift is overwhelming to her for many years. We were awed by her strength and perseverance despite zero guidance or help from her family.  She not only found a way to be able to eat despite the pain it would cause her, but also, she learned to embrace her gift and find a way to use it to better her life.  We re-read the last lines of the novel where she clearly says she is using her gift to be a part of the world; as opposed to her brother who uses it to escape the world.  Even though the ending in relation to Rose's future is left open, these lines make it clear that Rose will be successful as a chef in the years to come.
  • Speaking of her brother, Joseph.  Obviously we had a lot to talk about in relation to him.  I will not spoil it for those of you who haven't read the novel because what happens to him is shocking and confusing, but I will say, Joseph's gift is that he can disappear. He is socially awkward and spends all of his time studying.  Eventually he chooses to use his gift to leave the real world forever.  How he disappears is a bit odd, but as one participant pointed out we only get Rose's explanation.  How do we know that is the correct one?  Was his disappearance so traumatic to her that she creates an out of the world reason as a coping mechanism? Could be.  Another person pointed out that somewhere in the novel we hear from Joseph's only friend that Joseph is working on "creating perceptions in people."  Maybe he did not disappear but got so good at altering people's perceptions that they think he is gone.  Or, what Rose says happened really did.  We didn't know! This part of the novel led to many different discussion points.  In the end when I specifically asked them if they thought Rose's explanation was the one the author meant us to believe 100%, only one person said yes.  We talked about how it doesn't matter what happened to him, only that he is gone. Wow, that was a hard part of the discussion to get through explaining without giving away a MAJOR spoiler.
    • Another sub-point here: someone said how Joseph finally disappearing for good is what eventually set Rose free.  She needed him to go in order for her to be able to move forward herself.  She could now focus on learning to join the world.
  • Let's keep it with the family.  The Dad eventually bonds with Rose and tells her that the people in their family all have something special they can do.  His father could smell death on people.  Rose with the food and Joseph with the disappearing/perceptions thing.  For his entire life Rose's father has gone out of his way to be normal and average so as not to learn what his gift is.  He is very boring and normal though; so much so that it is as if he is not living his life.  He is merely existing.  He does have a huge phobia for going into hospitals though since he suspects he may find his gift inside one.
  • The mom could have had her own book.
    • One person liked the mom because in her own way she handled her kids the best she could.  She doted on Joseph, but he was needier, probably autistic, and needed her more. Rose was the "normal" kid.
    • She described Joseph as a geode; which we discussed probably referred to how boring he look on the outside, but how special he was once you cracked his shell.  While she called Rose sea glass.  We found this perceptive.  Sea glass looks smooth and pretty but it needs to go through a lot of turmoil to get to that point. 
    • The mom always looked for unintended guidance and when she found out at her wedding that what she thought was fate on her first date with husband was all planned by him, she was never able to connect with him again.
    • One person called the mom a self-centered black hole, although the rest of us thought that was too harsh.  She had trouble finding her way in the world, but it appears once she found furniture making and her new love, Larry, she found herself.
    • Speaking of the carpentry, one person astutely pointed out that while the mom found her happiness in her wood working making furniture by hand, the brother's disappearance is linked to a cold metal chair that the mom hates. Hmmmmmmm. We liked that touch.
  • We of course talked about George, Joseph's only friend and Rose's crush.  There was a lot to say about him, but one point in particular we thought was interesting.  Early in the book Joseph is trying to draw a perfect circle, which by definition is impossible.  He would crumple up his mistakes, but George would ask him not to.  George was making wall paper out of "mistakes." This not only highlighted the differences between the 2 boys, but it also foreshadowed Joseph's future.  As one participant said, attaining perfection means stagnation; and for all intensive purposes, stagnation is what Joseph's future holds, while looking for imperfection  means  you are always open to change.  George led a full and vibrant life.  Rose, falls somewhere in the middle of this spectrum, may be because those two young men were her biggest influences.
 There was so much more, but this gives you a taste.  I will end with a list of the words the participants threw out when I asked for a word or phrase to describe the book:

  • First, one participant noted that the book is broken up into 4 sections, each with a one word title that clearly shows the progression on Rose's story.  In fact, it reads as a very brief summary of the entire novel. So here is a writer who did the work for us. Those words are:
    • Food
    • Joseph
    • Nightfall
    • Here
  • Other words people shared:
    • growth
    • weird, weird, weird (she wanted it 3x)
    • resillent
    • provcative
    • challenging
    • psychological
    • original
    • metaphysical
    • magical
    • layered
    • family secrets
    • dysfuntction
    • innovative
    • lyrical
    • emotional
    • "normal"
Readalikes:  There are a few authors who write magical realism like Bender; stories which are also character centered, explore families and/or relationships between people but have a magical element that cannot be ignored.  Following I will suggest some authors who also write this way.  These authors are also known for their original and lyrical writing.  If I have written about the author here on RA for All the link will lead you there.
When I was reading The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake it also reminded me of Away by Amy Bloom, Lionel Shriver's The Post-Birthday WorldKafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami, Swamplandia! by Karen Russell, and The Tiger's Wife by Tea Obhret, all for different reasons.

For a little edgier magical realism try Kelly Link.

Also, like everyone else in the world, I will suggest Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Equivel, the other famous book about someone who can taste people's emotions in food, but quite honestly, that is the only trait these two books share. Unless the food connection was your main reason for liking this novel, I would try something else.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

PLA Report: iPads in Libraries

Our fearless leader Kathy asked me to attend the PLA program presented by a gentleman from the Philadelphia Free Library about how they have been using iPads in libraries.  I sent her all of my notes, but here are a few of the highlights I wanted to share with everyone else.  I broke my report up into 2 broad categories: Apps and Uses.

Apps:
  • Everything on iPads works through apps.  Apps need to be purchased at the iTunes store
  • In order to use the iTunes store you need to register your iPad and fund your account.  Now, it asks for a credit card, but you DO NOT need to give them one.  Instead, go to the local grocery store and buy iTunes gift cards to load onto your account.  I do this at home and work.  You register the iPad to your library but use gift cards to have the money on the account which Apple requires.
  • He spent a good amount of time talking about how you can evaluate apps, especially those that cost money.  Right now it is hard to find reviews other than through the iTunes store.  However, he did suggest the blog, iPad Insight as his favorite resource.  They highlight apps, review apps, and run sales on apps.  I was unaware of this resource, and have enjoyed looking at it all week.
  • Another suggested place to go for app selection was the Apple Educator Group.  Although they are sponsored by Apple and want you to buy apple products, the are educators and will tell you how to use the apps they are suggesting in an education setting.
  • He reminded us that there are too many apps to look into them all, even with these selection tools.  He suggested getting staff involved.  Give the iPad to a staff member with an assignment to look into the apps available in a particular category. This gets staff using the iPad (which will increase their comfort level with the technology) and allows them to become an expert in that one category, freeing you and other staff up to concentrate on other areas. He also suggested letting your teens play with the iPad and then have them tell you what apps they like and use.
  • In general though we still need better ways to review and evaluate apps.
Uses:
  • You can use the iPad as a supplement to programs you are already doing.  So use it in a traditional story time to add sounds, music, or pictures.  Use it during a teen or adult program.  He gave an example of an Observe the Moon program he did with teens.  He did not have an iPad but afterwards he realized if he had one he could have downloaded some astronomy apps and let the teens interact with them on their own after he presented.
  • My favorite suggestion was to use the iPad to supplement a One Book, One Community program.  They did something with Jonathan Safran Foer's book Eating Animals.  As one part of the series of programs he had people come to the library to use and evaluate cooking and recipe apps and then asked people to to write what their "perfect" food app would do.  You could do something like this for any One Book program.
  • You can also use an iPad as a catalog interface.  Many libraries are beginning to work with their catalog providers to make iPad apps that can access their ILS.  Even better, give iPads to staff to encourage roving reference.
  • iPads are a great option when you are outside of the library.  Many of the reference sources already have apps and there are barcode reading apps that will allow you to remotely check out materials.  Now when you are doing outreach, at the Farmer's Market, Local Schools, Community Carnival (where ever) you can easily provide full library services remotely. I love this!
  • If you only have 1 iPad at your library and do not allow patrons to access it, at the very least he said you should remember to use it to take pictures throughout the library, especially during programs because it is an all in one device.  You take the picture or video and can immediately upload it to the website, Facebook, YouTube, etc... No other hardware, cords, or software required.
  • Finally, as a presentation tool, the iPad is not ideal...yet.  The cords to hook it up to a projector are expensive.  Although for $79 you can get Apple TV for your building; Apple TV will wirelessly mirror you iPad.
Let me know if you are using iPads at your library.  Our plan is to start by letting staff use them and then moving toward checking them out to patrons.  But we are only in the talking about it phase right now.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Monday Discussion: YA and Youth Crossover Favs

Leading up to the release of the Hunger Games movie on Friday, I for today's Monday Discussion I wanted everyone to talk about their favorite books that are actually for kids or teens.

I have a few to share:
  • I was reminded at PLA of how much I like YA author Meg Rosoff.  Back in 2008 I read How I Live NowClick through and scroll down to read my review.  She has a new book coming out, There is No Dog. I passed on the ARC to the Youth Department.
  • It is the 50th anniversary of the publication of A Wrinkle in Time.  Many people I bring this up to mention that they read it at too young an age to have really appreciated it.  This is a common problem since advanced readers are often given the book early.  I have purposely made my daughter wait to read it.  But why not read it now, as an adult and rediscover its wonder?  Also, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead which won the Newberry a few years ago was written as an homage to A Wrinkle in Time and is also excellent.
  • I have said it many times on this blog before, but I just love Shel Silverstein and cannot re-read his books too many time.  It is not possible.
This is just the tip of the iceberg of what I read and enjoy that isn't technically adult reading.  What about you?  For today's Monday Discussion, share your favorite crossover titles.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

An Update on the Bookish Brackets

Remember back here when I talked about all the March Madness in the Book World.

Go back to that post again, and use the links to check out who is winning.

PLA Report: Crime Fiction

Click here for my co-presenter Keir Graff's handouts from PLA, bothh the talk he did with me on Thursday and another one he did Friday.  As posted on Likely Stories:


Thursday, March 15
Trends in Crime Fiction Series
Friday, March 16
Good Crime Fiction You Might Have Missed

Friday, March 16, 2012

PLA Report: RA Toolkit V: RA Training Makes It Happen

This morning, bright and early (but providing a chocolate treat incentive), Joyce Saricks, Neal Wyatt, and Georgine Olson Presented their fifth RA Toolkit PLA presentation.

This year they focused on how to train your entire library staff in basic RA skills.

There are a lot of very good handouts for this program.  If you click here and scroll down to Friday at 8:15 and look for the title of the program, you will find a link to all 6 handouts.

I especially like the "The Sane Librarian Genre Study" one.

More reports still to come.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

PLA Report: Trends in Genre Series

That's my program and it is going on right now! (2pm edt).  Click here for my handout and powerpoint and it will be as if you were there live.

PLA Report: 3M Cloud Library

Yesterday I went to a short demonstration of the 3M Cloud Library in the exhibit hall at PLA.  I am going to wait to share my thoughts until after I attend this ARRT sponsored program on the topic in April, but here is a link from No Shelf Required where Sue Polanka interview someone from 3M.  It will cover the basics of what I saw yesterday.

If you are in the Chicagoland area and want to hear from a library that has been testing 3M Cloud Library, come to the ARRT program in April.  Anyone is welcome and it is only $15.

I am blogging this while I am attending an program about iPads in Libraries, which has been interesting, but I may take more time before I share what I learned here.  I need to check out a few of the links and process it a bit.  Look for that soon.

News From a Different Conference

Early Word was at the Association of American Publishers annual conference where ALA President Molly Raphael was on a panel entitled "Redefining the Dialogue between Libraries and Publishers."


Click here for their report.  It got a bit heated.

PLA Report: Top 5 of the Top 5

This morning I went to the following program moderated by Rebecca Vnuk:


Books and Authors: The Top 5 of Another 5
Genres:  Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Romance, Science Fiction, Suspense/Thriller


I will not waste your time with rehashing because speaker info and their handouts are all here.

It was a great program.  Even a seasoned RA librarian like myself got A LOT out of this program.  Click through for the detailed and well done handouts.

One final note, all of the speakers were funny and engaging.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

PLA First Day Thoughts

This morning I went to Nancy Pearl's Book Buzz where the library marketing people from Workman, MacMillan, HarperCollins, RandomHouse and Penguin all book talked the hot books for Spring and Summer. Then later in the day, I hit their exhibits and got ARCs of the ones I thought sounded the best for my patrons

Here are the links to the handouts or, if those were unavailable, their library divisions which have their current buzz books prominently displayed.  Many of them have comments on readalikes and appeal.  There are some good books coming.
That's all I have the energy for now.  I will have more tomorrow.

Oh, and Happy Pi day!

RIP Britannica

I just checked in at PLA and am about to go see Nancy Pearl, but I couldn't let the news from yesterday about the Encyclopaedia Britannica ceasing print publication pass without a moment of comment. In case you missed it:
After an impressive 244-year run (since 1768!), the oldest continuously published encyclopedia in the English language, Encyclopaedia Britannica, is going out of print. The company will be shifting its focus to their online resources and educational curriculum for schools. Britannica will shut down the presses after the 2010 edition, which contains 32 volumes that weigh 129 pounds, includes new entries for subjects like global warming and the Human Genome project, was written by more than 4,000 contributors (including people like skateboarder Tony Hawk and space scientist Jack J. Lissauer), and comes with a hefty $1,395 price tag. Britannica president Jorge Cauz reassures that the online version is a better tool. “Some people will feel sad about it and nostalgic about it. But … the Web site is continuously updated, it’s much more expansive and it has multimedia,” he told the New York Times. Cherish those school library memories, and proudly display any gold-lettered, embossed books that are hanging around the house. These are the end times.

As a child, I loved reading the encyclopedia. I would read it for fun on a cold, snowy weekend to pass the time.  I would turn to it when I had a question.  I would open it when I felt sad or lonely and find joy between the covers.  I was always in awe of the vast amount of interesting information that could be found there.  It was a sign of my life to come.  I probably sealed my professional fate while spending time turning those pages.

Fast forward to library school and my intro to reference class.  For our first assignment we were given a word (mine was "bed") and had to look it up in three different encyclopedias (Britannica had to be one of them) and three different dictionaries.  We had to write a short paper about how what we found in each resource differed and explain it based on the scope and purpose of each reference tool.

It is still one of my favorite assignments ever.  I learned so much about the differences and intricacies of each reference tool.  I especially fell in love with Britannica during this assinment.  I gained a life long respect for the comprensive index and mix of longer and shorter articles.

Although I do not use a print encyclopedia on a regular basis, it was nice to know that the Britannica was always in the library, one floor below my desk if I ever needed it.  Alas, it will soon be gone.

Today, my son has carried on my encyclopedia loving tradition.  He has a large collection of single volume encyclopedias about birds, dinosaurs, LEGOS and Star Wars (among others), and he spends hours paging through them.  I taught him the joy of using the index to find exactly what you are looking for when he was 5 and I saw his eyes light up at the "magic" of it.

A piece of my personal history and one of the reasons why I became a librarian has broken off with this announcement.  I will move on just fine, but I did want to have a moment to write this personal obituary for my dear friend.

Thank you for indulging me.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

RA for All Goes on the Road to PLA

I am travelling to the PLA conference in Philly today, so I probably will not have time to post.  But, I will be posting more frequently the rest of this week.

I hope to have smaller posts about interesting things I am seeing, hearing, and learning.  I will have my computer, but I also hope to finally break in the blogger app I have on my iPhone. After the conference, when I have had time to process things, I will have some longer posts and hopefully start some conversations.

And if you see me at PLA, stop me and say hi.  I'll be the one in the red keds; oh and with the name tag that says "Becky Spratford-- Berwyn Public Library."  I love meeting readers and especially want to hear about what you would like to see here on RA for All in the future.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Monday Discussion: What Do You Do When You Are Not Enjoying a Book?


Part 1:
Today's Monday Discussion is a bit different.  I would like to combine it with my What I'm Reading post on The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus.  Back here I posted about how excited I was to read The Flame Alphabet.  Well, I read it (sort of; see Part 2) and I am sorry to report, I did not like it.

The plot has to do with a alternative reality where the speech of children is slowly killing adults. Marcus uses this plot to contemplate the larger philosophical concepts of language and expression.  The narrator is a father.  He and his wife have a teenaged daughter.  He is trying to figure out why he and his wife are so sick.  There is also this under current of a story about a very weird form of Judaism.  (Frankly, I found it a bit anti-semitic; and I know Marcus is Jewish, but so am I and I didn't like it.)

Even after reading my own description of the book, it sounds like I should love it, but here's the main problem though, this book has no character development.  There is no one here I cared about, nor did Marcus try to get me to care.  Also, the plot doesn't move.  I only got 150 pages into the book (more on that in Part 2 of the post) and nothing happened.  I am fine for a book that doesn't really go anywhere, but only if there is character development.  (See my review of Swamplandia! to see what I mean.)

But, as I have said before, these reviews are not about me and if I liked the book, they are about who I could suggest the book to.  Therein lies another problem.  I can not think of someone to give this book to.  Jose in Circ is trying it, and will let me know.  A woman in Kathy's book club who likes more dense books couldn't finish it though.

So, I am stuck here too.  Which leads us to Part 2 of this post in a moment.

Three Words That Describe This Book: experimental, philosophical, relaxed pace

Readalikes: Marcus has been compared to other authors who are also more experiemental like George SaundersNathan Englander, and David Foster Wallace.  Someone else said he was similar to Jonathan Lethem.  Maybe, but I really like Lethem.  Click here to see more about him.

Part 2:
That's my report on reading the book, but let's move on to the Monday Discussion part of this post.  As I mentioned above, I was very torn about giving up on The Flame Alphabet.  I really thought I should like it.  Many of my favorite authors (Lethem, Safran Foer, and Chabon) all had wonderful things to say about it.  The entire plot intrigied me.  It is an experimental book about language and expression which is normally perfect for me.

Now, normally if I am not enjoying a book, I skim through the middle and read the end to get a sense of how it turns out. As I tell my patrons all of the time, if you are not enjoying a book, there are many, many more; simply close it, bring it back, and we will give you something else.  I almost always take my own advice.  As a rule, I have no problem giving up on a book.

But with this novel, I felt like I should keep plodding away on it.  I even took a 2 week break and went back to it.  But in the end, I couldn't do it.  I returned it half done and did not skip to the end to see how it turned out just in case I give it another try on audio. We will see.

What about you.  For today's Monday Discussion, share what has happened when you tried to read a book you thought you would love, only to find yourself very disappointed.  What did you do?  How did you react?  Or, just share if you are one of those people who can return a book unread, or do you finish everything, like it or not.

For past Monday Discussions, click here.

Come See Me At PLA

I will be speaking on the panel Trends in Genre SeriesHere are the details.

Thursday, March 15, 2012 2:00 PM - 3:15 PM
Venue: Pennsylvania Convention Center
Room: 115-A-B

Join us for a lively discussion of trends in genre series with four top-notch stars in the field. Joyce Saricks will speak about “Gentle Reads.” John Charles will tackle Romance. Becky Spratford will talk about horror fiction and Kier Graff will finish up with mysteries. Moderated by Janet Husband.

My handouts and power point as well as Joyce and John's handouts are already posted here.

If you do make it to the program, stop and say hi.  If you cannot make it either to my program or to PLA at all, please feel free to take a look at the handouts and contact me if you have any questions.

Also, take a look at the list Katie made over on Book Group Buzz, inlcuding panels she is on.  I will be popping in to a few of her programs while I am in Philly.

Friday, March 9, 2012

RA Links Round Up

It's been a while since the last time I gathered up the links that have been gathering dust in my "drafts" folder. So here a round up of what has caught my eye in the last few weeks.
Have a nice weekend.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

March Madness Bookish Brackets

Remember back in the 20th Century when only NCAA basketball went all "Mad" in March?

Well, thankfully, now the book world has caught the March Madness bug too.  There are three high profile bookish brackets circulating right now, using the popularity of the basketball tournament to get people excited about books.  Today, I will highlight them and provide you the links you need to follow any or all.

The Daddy of all bookish brackets is The Morning News' Tournament of Books which begins today.  Click here for the preview including rules, schedule, and judges.  Click here for today's battle which includes the blow-by-blow reasoning from the guest judge and then a commentary from the editors.  After 8 years, these guys really know what they are doing.  My suggestions, check in daily all month long.

While the Tournament of Books is mostly a battle of literary fiction with a few critically acclaimed genre titles thrown in, the "gals" (their word) over at Dear Author and Smart Bitches are in their second year of running an all romance bracket.  Their tourney is called DABWAHA.  The site is here.  It runs concurrent with March Madness.  Click through for details, titles, voting, and commentary.

I have saved the most fun bracket for last.  Over on Criminal Element, they are currently running one of their fabulous "Death Brackets."  Last year, I was glued to my computer as I followed their bracket pitting the Toughest Dicks vs the Baddest Thriller Heroes.  In fact, the best part of the bracket was how the writers told a story for each battle.  Each of the battle posts was like a great crime fiction story in and of itself.

This time the battle is over Cliches in Crime Fiction.  So you will see the following battles:
1. Hit Men vs. Serial Killers 
 2. Riding the coattails of Sherlock Holmes vs. “One Last Job”
3. The alcoholic P.I. vs. Old school Italian Mafia4. Paranormal Crime Solvers vs. Culinary Sleuths (who share recipes)
You can vote in the comments of this post.  Check back to see which cliche wins.

All of these brackets are making me think about trying to run a horror bracket next year over on RA for All: Horror.  I think I will float the idea around to fellow horror bloggers.  Maybe.  We'll see.

For now, enjoy the Madness.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Author Blurbs Revisited and RA Training Opportunities

Last year, I posted here about how to use the blurbs one author gives to another author as a tool to help readers.  In fact, I use "blurbs" quite often at the desk when I am helping readers.

Again, read this post where I go into exact detail on how I use blurbs as an RA tool.  I don't want to repeat myself.

I am not the only one out there contemplating the place of the author blurb in today's literary landscape.  The New York Times is currently running a very interesting discussion entitled, "The Quandary of the Book Blurb."  The series includes essays by bestselling author Stephen King, author and editor Sophfronia Scott, journalist and novelist Bill Morris, and literary agent Sharon Bowers.  Together, the 4 essays cover every aspect of the blurb and how it can help or hinder authors and/or book sales. There is also a place for your comments as part of this discussion.

I feel that the author blurb is an important resource for helping readers, one which is often forgotten about.  Reading these essays from the author, reviewer, and agent side of the issue will help you to understand how and if you can use these blurbs to help your readers find their next good read.

I am all about using "outside the box resources," a category into which I place author blurbs.  As readers become more savvy about finding their own readalikes, especially with the popularity of sites like GoodReads (where readers are already having intelligent and useful conversations about their reading), librarians who help leisure readers need to make sure we are using the wealth of information and resources available to us as efficiently and effectively as we can. We need to make out training and expertise count.

We need to stand out as an invaluable resource to our patrons, not only because we have the books there for free checkout, but because our knowledge and assistance enhances their reading experience.

Which leads me to...well...me.  I can come out to your library or conference to help you to close the training gap with your staff.  I am currently booked through the summer but am beginning to schedule appearances starting in Fall 2012 (after August 21).  Click here for more information.

I will also be appearing at the PLA conference next week (more details in the coming days).  For a full list of all RA related programming at PLA, use the handy link from my friends at Reader's Advisor Online.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

BPL Book Discussion: Unless

Not only did the February meeting of the BPL Monday book discussion meet a week late due to President's Day (we met on 2/27 instead of 2/20) but I am a week late getting this report done.  So yes, it is March, but here is the February BPL book discussion report.

This month we read Unless by Carol Shields. This was the final novel by the Pulitzer Prize winning author before her death from breast cancer in 2003. Here is the summary from the publisher
For all of her life, 44 year old Reta Winters has enjoyed the useful monotony of happiness: a loving family, good friends, growing success as a writer of light 'summertime' fiction. But this placid existence is cracked wide open when her beloved eldest daughter, Norah, drops out to sit on a gritty street corner, silent but for the sign around her neck that reads 'GOODNESS.' Reta's search for what drove her daughter to such a desperate statement turns into an unflinching and surprisingly funny meditation on where we find meaning and hope.
Warmth, passion and wisdom come together in Shields' remarkably supple prose. Unless, a harrowing but ultimately consoling story of one family's anguish and healing, proves her mastery of extraordinary fictions about ordinary life.
Unless provided a unique opportunity for our group.  As I always tell my students, sometimes you have a better discussion when people dislike a book than when people generally like it.  As you will see below, overall, we disliked or were "so-so" on the book, but I am happy to say, we unanimously loved the discussion we had about the book.  In fact, I would say that if you have an established group that can let their personal feelings for a book go and focus on what can be discussed about it, this book is a great choice.  But if your group does not have trust in the leader to take them through a book they did not enjoy, it could be a disaster.

Here are the highlights of our comments and discussion:

  • You know how we start by now.  3 people voted that they liked the book, 9 voted for disliked and 4 (including me) said so-so.
  • I always try to ask the minority to go first, this ensures that they have a chance to have their say.  One "liked" voter said she found it very thought provoking.  She liked looking at what happens in a family when something goes wrong; how they solve their problems.
  • Another person liked the novel because it was "a writer's book." There were entire sections that did nothing but contemplate the place of a writer.
  • Some so-so people said that Reta annoyed them, but over time they appreciated that we were watching her unravel, that the book was all over the place because she was all over the place.  
  • The style of this book is highly unusual. She was having a small breakdown and the book reads like that.  The plot is not really advanced for most of the book.  The "story" here, following why Norah is now living on the street is hardly addressed.  In fact, it is tip-toed around until the last 20 pages and then all wrapped up pretty quickly.
  • This novel, while missing a traditional plot, it also not heavy on character development.  We get a lot of Reta, but not much of anyone else.  While Reta is self obsessed, we know her daughters, husband, and mother-in-law are all hurting, but Reta is too selfish to even ask them how they are feeling.  This really bothered a lot of us.  We were craving their point of view.
  • To take it a step further, many of us in the group are mothers, and as mothers, we completely disagreed with Reta's handling of Norah's behavior. It was obvious that Norah was having some kind of mental breakdown of her own; she was hurting, yet no one asked her why.  She needed help and intervention, but everyone seemed to want to give her space.  Reta was too passive for us mothers. 
  • We all enjoyed Shield's use of letters that Reta writes to other authors she encounters while going through this difficulty time to advance the story.  We learn that Reta does not mail them, but we see her struggling to come to terms with her daughter's choices, her own writing, and even her place in the world.
  • Reta talks a lot about feminism in this novel.  She works as the translator for a renowned French feminist.  She spends hours with her group of female friend writers talking about inequality and trying not to let being a woman define who they are.  But then she lets it define her and her daughter.
  • Talking about the feminism Shields was trying to stir up in this novel led us to a long discussion  of being raised as strong women no matter our age.  Many of the older women (70+) talked about examples of feminists in their families going back to their mothers and grandmothers.
  • Although we all thought the ending was a little rushed, we had a lot of say about it. I don't want to give much away, but the reason why Norah decided to beg on the street seemed to come out of nowhere.  That combined with the visit by Reta's new editor and the opening up of the mother-in-law, led to much discussion.
  • The mother-in-law, Lois.  Her story taught us the importance of asking.  It is not enough to only listen. Sometimes you need to ask.  A question someone brought up that got us thinking, "If you don't ask do you really care?"
  • We talked a bit about Reta's transition from translator for Danielle to novelist on her own over the course of the novel  We discussed the difference in the two jobs and how the changed showed Reta's growth.
  • This led to a longer discussion about the character of Danielle.
  • Someone said how much they loved how this novel has sentences every now and then that you could pull out on their own and contemplate outside of the confines of the novel.  A few of these were shared.
  • We ended by quoting the portions of the novel where Shields has Reta talk about the word "Unless."  All of the chapters are named after adverbs, but Reta has much to say about "unless" in particular.  Although we enjoyed reading those lines, we were a bit upset that the title's meaning was so clearly laid out for us.  We like to talk about the title and what it could mean.  Here, there is not much more to say that Shields didn't write already.
Readalikes:  There are a couple of titles I thought of when reading Unless that might be a good suggestion.  First, I think Nick Hornby's How to Be Good is a better read for a reader who likes character and story but still wants to look at the idea of someone changing as their strive for "goodness."  Also, if you are looking for a book about a woman writer going through a difficult time, I would also suggest The Hunchback of Neiman Marcus by the poet Sonya Sones, which I read here.

Those are my personal off the top of my head suggestions, but after doing a bit of research, I would suggest:
  • Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout: read why here
  • Good Harbor by Anita Diamant which deals with female friendships and familial turmoil.
  • The Seven Sisters by fellow Canadian Margaret Drabble.  Here a newly divorced woman is learning to be single.  Like Unless it is thoughtful and contains a lot of looking back.
  • Many people compare Unless to Mrs. Dalloway.  I am going to trust them, but I like the Woolf book even less than the Shields.
Back to the regular schedule on the third Monday of the month in March when we meet to discuss The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender.