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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Best Books I Have Read This Year

It is the final day of 2013, that means it is finally time for Becky’s list of the best books I read this year.  Remember, this is not the best books written in 2013, rather the only thing that puts them all in 2013 is that 2013 is the year in which I read them.

Let’s start with the four I have already mentioned in some of my Monday Discussions. Click on the titles for my full review.




Life After Life by Kate Atkinson











NOS4A2 by Joe Hill









Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea












The Round House by Louise Erdrich









Now the final 6, but please note all but the last 2 got 5 stars from me. It was in those final 2 that I had to make some tough choices.



Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang











Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carole Rifka Brunt











The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker











Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell











The Darkling by R. B. Chesterton










Night Film by Marisha Pessl


Friday, December 27, 2013

What I’m Reading: Series Round-Up-- The Case of the Love Commandos

Today, I have a very quick review of a quick read.  It is the 4th book in the very fun and informative Vish Puri, India’s Most Private Detective series by Tarquin Hall entitled, The Case of the Love Commandos.

The series is among my favorites for a few reasons.  First, the mysteries have an old fashioned sensibility (think Agatha Christie), but Puri and his crew use all of the modern technologies available to them.  It’s the best of both worlds.

Second, I love the frame, the details of life in modern India. Hall gives a fair assessment of all the triumphs and problems, taking a hard look at Indian society.  The stories are up to date with all of the current issues too.  For example, in this installment, we have a plot involving young people in love who want to marry for love [not through arrangement] AND outside of their caste.  Two big no-nos.  There is a lengthy discussion of the caste system, specifically the Dalit class [the lowest one also known as Untouchables], and trying to discover if the caste system can be supported by DNA evidence.  These are complicated issues.

Third, the characters are great.  Puri is a great literary PI, not just in his skills, but in his quirks and habits too.  I like his crew and his family too, specifically his Mummy who is becoming quite a famous senior citizen PI herself.  Even the bad guys are eccentric here; in fact, the resolution of one of the mysteries is hysterical because of the villain’s disguise.

Finally, these novels are fun.  Because of the first three reasons, I love returning to Puri, his crew and his family. The books have lots of detail, frame, and great characters yet they are still quick reads.  All are about the same length (300 pages) with plenty of white space and dialog.  You can read one in  a few sittings. You laugh, you learn something about modern India, you visit with old friends, a mystery is solved, and justice is served.

There is one specific change in this installment that I would like to note.  Over the first 3 books, Mummy has become more bold in trying to solve Puri’s mysteries and Puri has become more upset about her helping.  Fresh off the success and national press on her help with the last novel, Mummy is bolder and Hall notes this by giving Mummy her own mystery within Puri’s novel.  So for the first time in the series, we actually have 2 full mysteries being investigated and solved in separate cities by Puri and Mummy in one book. They are not related to each other at all.  This sets up more of a conflict between Puri and Mummy.  I can see the conflict brewing.  The next mystery should bring mother and son back together and I can’t wait to see what happens.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  eccentric characters, clever cozy, modern India

Readalikes: I have reviewed every book in this series and offered MANY readalikes over the years.  Please click here to pull them all up.

For this installment in particular, readers may be interested in learning more about the modern Indian caste system and marriage issues. I have some suggestions to get you started.  The first is nonfiction all about the Dalit class and the way they are treated, Untouchables: My Family’s Triumphant Journey out of the Caste System in Modern India by Narendra Jadhav.  If you are interested in the whole world of Indian arranged marriages, click here for fiction and nonfiction options.  Finally, either link in this paragraph will lead you to even more links of books about modern India. Poke around and look for one that piques your specific interest.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

What I'm Reading: Boxers and Saints

Today’s review is really for two books, the graphic novel box set by Gene Luen Yang which contains the books Boxers & Saints.

Boxers & Saints tells parallel stories set in 1898 during the height of the Boxer Rebellion. What, you don’t know all about the Boxer Rebellion? Well don’t worry, neither did I, nor did Yang know a lot before he began. But after reading both sides of the story as Yang presents them, not only are you treated to a good story, but you learn something too.

The set up of this box set is deceptively simple.  Boxers is the story of Little Bao, a Chinese peasant whose life is turned upside down by the intrusion and pillaging of Westerners, specifically Christians.  This fatter volume follows Bao as he trains an army that harnesses the power of the Chinese opera and traditional gods to challenge the Westerners who are trying to take over his country. Together they march to the city and try to fight for their traditional ways.

The slimmer volume, Saints follows the life of a young girl, who Little Bao meets at one point in his volume.  She is an unwanted fourth child and a girl to boot.  She is abused by her family but finds acceptance, care, food, and love in the Christian church. In fact, until she converts and leaves home to join the Westerns, she has no name.  After, she is Vibiana.

So the story of a complicated war and era are clearly told in moving images and a humanized, character focused story.  It is the same story told from opposites sides of a violent conflict.  Nothing explains how complicated war is better than seeing it through the eyes of richly drawn characters from both sides of the lines.  These character centered volumes first draw the reader into Bao’s world.  We feel his pain, and cheer with him as he defeats [read: kills] the enemy.  We believe in him and his cause.  He can do no wrong, that is until we open the second volume and follow Vibiana’s story.  From reading Boxers we know what will become of Vibiana, but like with Bao’s story, we get caught up in Vibiana’s tale.  We root for her, agree with her choices, and hope for the best for her.

You know Yang has done a good job here if you can see a reason to root for both sides.  We all know war is difficult in theory, but when you see it unfolding from an intensely personal view on both sides of the battle lines, that difficulty is better appreciated. How can I agree with both, yet they are waging a violent and prolonged battle? Hmmm, just asking this question is the entire point of Yang’s work.

Yang’s pictures are perfect.  They fit the part of the story we are in.  They are drab and simple when the story calls for it and colorful, beautiful, and intricate when they need to be.  Like the plot, the pictures too are deceptively simple. You can race through the story with cursory glances and the pictures will guide you through the tale, but spend a little more time looking a bit more closely, and you will be rewarded with a deeper and more emotional story.

The senselessness of the violence, from both sides is also magnified by the images.  One of my favorite examples of how the pictures flesh the story out comes early in Boxers (the first volume) as Bao watches the Christians destroy the town’s god statue.  My heart broke for him as the god shattered in front of both of us.  And then, a mended version is put out. When Bao tells us it is not the same, we can see it for ourselves.

Boxers & Saints is an amazing reading experience. It is a rich, moving, character centered story, that is thought provoking, educational, and beautifully rendered.

Three Words That Describe This Book: character centered, moving, both sides of the story

Readalikes: If you are looking for more serious graphic novels that both entertain and teach you something about a place and time Jason Lutes’ Berlin Trilogy or the war graphic journalism of Joe Sacco are excellent choices.

Lisa See’s historical fiction novels about China have the same character centered focus and are moving and serious while also teaching the reader something about life in China. Specifically Peony in Love uses Chinese Opera as an inspiration as in Boxers.

Finally, Yang has an extensive list of further reading included at the end of each volume.  You can seen the list for yourself by going to Amazon and searching inside the book for “Further Reading.” It pops right up. I would highly suggest looking here for further nonfiction readalikes as Yang turned to these resources himself when writing the books.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Monday Discussion: How'd You Do on Your Reading Resolutions for 2013

Today, is the day of reckoning. I am going to face my reading resolutions as stated back in January and see how I did.  I figured I would make it the Monday Discussion so you could chime in if you wanted to.

Below is from my original post from January 2013 with my Reading Resolutions for the year:

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So here are my 2013 reading resolutions.  And like last year, I am putting them here in print so that I hold myself accountable to them.
  • Genre Resolution:  Last year I resolved to read 2 "new to me" contemporary romance authors. Not only did I accomplish this small goal, but by making the resolution, I also did a lot to educate myself on the newest trends in romance throughout the year. This year I am picking a new area to focus on-- Epic Fantasy.  I am a big watcher of epic fantasy in TV and movies, but not a big reader.  I love lighter, shorter single titles or series in my books. The big epic series are very popular though and I am not as well versed in them beyond George R R Martin. I am also currently working on a Game of Thrones readalikes list for the library, so a little more research will be helpful. Thus, I resolve in 2013 to read 2 first books in epic fantasy series that are new to me.
  • Reviews Resolution: I am going to resolve again to get my reviews posted in a more timely fashion.  I have already finished one book in 2013 (with 2 more about to be done), and I will try to get that review up this week. I read and reviewed 58 books in 2012, so it is important not to get too far behind or I feel like the queue of unreviewed books is going to smother me.  So while last year I only resolved to do better, I am setting a more specific goal this year: In 2013 I resolve to do my best to never have more than 3 books waiting to be reviewed.
  • Consulting Resolution: I traveled a lot in 2012.  I did have a book come out, so it was important to get out and spread the word, but it was more than I like to travel for work.  However, I do love spreading the RA gospel to those who want to improve their service.  Thankfully, I am exploring new opportunities to tape webinars for library systems to use. I am doing my first two in March.  I am excited about the chance to make it easier both for me to provide continuing education and for busy library workers to take part in it. I think this is a nice compromise. So, if you are interested in having me come to your library, near or far,contact me and we can talk about how I can film a webinar for you and your staff.  I will even be using this technique to film an interview with a best selling author later this year.
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So how did I do? Well, I would say it was a decent effort. Overall I averaged out to a grade of a high B. Here are the details on how I graded myself.

For my genre resolution, I did read the first book in Naomi Novik's Temeraire Series. But I never got to another first book in a big epic fantasy series.  I did, however, spend a lot of time researching the topic and educating myself. Grade: C for average.

We can forget about the reviews resolution.  I did great until the summer when I work less and the kids are around. I have time to read but not as much time to write.  We are too busy having fun.  The problem is, once I got behind, it was impossible to dig out.  Add to the fact that I will have written at least 60 reviews this year which is more than last year. Grade: D+

In  terms of my consulting resolutions, I did great.  I have been doing a lot more consulting from home by utilizing technology and the trips I did take, were tacked on with visiting family and friends.  In fact, I already have 1 international gig lined up for March of 2014 [via Skype] and a few more in the works. Grade: A

So what about you?  For Today's Monday Discussion...what reading resolutions did you make for 2013 and how did you do?

This will be the final Monday Discussion of 2013.  But, save those 2014 resolutions for January 6th when the Monday Discussion will return.  I'm already working on those myself.

For past Monday Discussions, click here.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

RA for All Holiday Schedule

A scheduling note for the rest of 2013 from RA for All HQ. Here is what you can expect between now and January 6th:

  • I will have one final Monday Discussion for 2013 tomorrow. 
  • I have at least 2 but probably 4 more reviews to post before 12/31.
  • I have already picked my top ten reads of the year and that will post sometime before 12/31. [I still have 1 of those books to review.
So, there will not be daily posts again until 1/6/14, but I will be popping in and out up until 12/31.  However, for the first week of the year, I expect there will be little to nothing happening here as I will be spending time with the kids enjoying our time off from work and school.


Friday, December 20, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Darkling

I was first altered to The Darkling by R.B. Chesterton by my friend and colleague Joyce Saricks who had read it and loved it, but wanted my opinion on whether or not it was “horror.”

I was intrigued because I had never heard of the author.  Turns out that there was a reason I was unfamiliar with her.  Chesterton is the pen name of the award winning mystery writer Carolyn Haines.

The Darkling is told in a flashback by Mimi, who is now a senior citizen but is telling us of the time just after college when she lived with a wealthy family, The Hendersons, and served as a governess/teacher to their three children.  The setting is 1974, deep in the Alabama swamps of an old vacation town called Coden.  Coden has fallen on hard times, but the Hendersons have moved to Coden from California, bought some of the formerly glamorous vacation properties, and are rehabbing them, investing in a bright future for Coden to reemerge as a vacation destination.

Mimi's tale of her life with the Hendersons begins when they take in a troubled  teenager with no recollection of her past named Annie. Once Annie joins the household, things start going badly for the Hendersons and their lives take a tragic turn.

The entire isolated, run down town setting, the outsiders moving in, the troubled girl with no past....this set up makes for great tension and unease. This is the biggest appeal factor of the novel, the anxiety, tension, and dread which it stirs up in the reader.  Chesterton is masterful here as she quickly and convincingly sets this stage. The atmosphere begins as oppressive and then it only gets worse from there. For readers who like tension and suspense this novel is pretty close to perfect.

The entire story is told only from Mimi's point of view.  As things start to spiral out of control we only have Mimi's side of the story, which leads us to ask, "Is Mimi reliable." Well, while you are reading, Mimi's voice is strong and convincing so I totally and utterly believed her while I was reading, but the second I stopped reading, I came back to my senses and was thinking," I think I have an unreliable narrator here."  But then when I dove back into the book again, I was captivated by Mimi and was immediately back to believing her again.

Back to Joyce's initial question now:  Is this a horror book?  I would say technically it straddles the fence. If forced to classify this book I would call it Southern Gothic meets psychological suspense with a generous helping of horror on the side.  There may or may not be a supernatural evil in the bayou and woods stalking the children of the family, but then again the killer may be human.  Mimi [and therefore the reader] definitely sees a horrific creature and it mocks her, but is it all in her head? Also, the atmosphere is oppressive and it builds to a frenetic conclusion, just like a horror novel. That's why I am calling it "Horror for the Squeamish" because it has all the traits of horror without obvious gore.  And it's not inducing terror as much as dread and unease.

The Darkling  is a short, fast read.  Things go from uneasy, to troubling, to problematic, to terrifying rather quickly.  And the ending is fabulous!  Mimi's narrative voice is perfect throughout this book. She holds the reader entranced and we blindly follow her lead through the story, even though we are always wondering if we should trust her or not.  In the end, although we never know for sure exactly what happened, Mimi sticks a final twisting knife into us that makes us think we need to question everything we just thought we read. I closed the book and literally said aloud, "Wow."  In fact, I almost started the book over again immediately.

The Darkling is going to become my new go-to Horror for the Squeamish pick.  It is also a great YA cross-over title, especially for those teens who want a sophisticated "scary" book without the blood, gore and graphic sex you find in most horror today. And now I can’t wait for The Seeker [set in Walden Woods] to come out in March.

Common Limiter Alert: There is intense stalking of and violence against children in this book.

Three Words That Describe This Book: horror for the squeamish, Southern Gothic, unreliable narrator

Readalikes: I will start with the most obvious.  As I was reading The Darkling, I kept thinking that it seemed very similar to The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters which was one of my favorite reads of 2010. And it wasn't just my imagination as to how similar the two books were because about halfway through the book Chesterton gives what amounts to a "shout out" to The Little Stranger by naming a very minor character (so minor she doesn't even need a name) Sarah Waters.  I chuckled.  What's even better, Mimi mentions that this woman does not like her multiple times.  Is that an apology from Chesterton to Waters for writing such a similar book?  It was a fun homage for those who got it.

Two other classic books which The Darkling seems to be mining for inspirations are Henry James' The Turn of the Screw [isolated house, governess who is an unreliable narrator, things falling apart rather quickly under her care] and And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie [creepy poem about people being pick off one by one, isolated house, locked room style murders]. Like The Darkling both of these novels are very scary and creepy without resorting to gore.

If you like the Southern Gothic setting and tone with an intense psychological suspense angle and don't mind some zombies thrown in for good measure, I think Alden Bell's wonderful The Reapers are the Angels would be a perfect suggestion.

Two authors who write atmospheric horror, focusing on female protagonists are Alexandra Sokoloff and Sarah Langan.  If you liked The Darkling try The Unseen or Audrey's Door, both deal with haunted houses and have young adult characters.

Two other creepy, psychological suspense books with unreliable narrators that I enjoyed greatly are Full Dark, No Stars by Stephen King and The Keep by Jennifer Egan.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

What I'm Reading: Night Film

Back in the early days of the blog, I read the debut novel Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl and enjoyed it.  That was October of 2007.  This summer, Pessl finally released her follow up novel,  The Night Film. I actually read the advanced reader copy on the beach, back in August, just as the book came out to great fan fare and a cover review in The New York Times Book Review by none other than Joe Hill [a Becky fav].

What is so great about Night Film is that it is an unclassifiable book. That might drive others crazy, but I loved that about it.  It is part mystery, part psychological suspense, and part horror movie. Yes I said movie, not book, I will explain below. And, if you are looking for a closed ending, stop reading this review right now because you aren't getting one here. I loved how the entire book was written in an uneasy and unsteady tone which never let up.  And, kudos to Pessl.  This is a very different book than her debut Special Topics in Calamity Physics (which I also loved).  We had to wait 7 years for her next book. But instead of playing it safe, Pessl delivered Night Film which is 600 pages of crazy (in a good way).

That was the general overview, now for some specifics.  Night Film is the story of Scott McGrath, a journalist whose entire career was trashed when he falsely accused the [fictional] cult horror film maker, Cordova of evil things.  The book opens as Cordova's college age daughter Ashley is found dead at the bottom of an elevator shaft in an abandoned building in NYC and McGrath feels his obsession, his years of research on Cordova, pulling at him to get involved and figure out who killed Ashley. So, McGrath and 2 questionably helpful assistants play detective. But when you are trying to solve the murder of the daughter of a highly secretive man, whose entire life has been spent creating dark, disturbing, movie masterpieces, things do not follow the straight line of a basic mystery novel.

This is all I will tell you about the "plot" but knowing there is a mystery at the center of this twisted, dark, original, and intriguing story tells you nothing about whether or not you would like reading this book.

The appeal of this book is in its construction.  This is really a story about McGrath and Cordova, both as separate people and about their relationship with each other.  The entire story is told only from McGrath's pov which reinforces the fact that while there are other characters here (including a dead body whose murder needs to be solved) they are not the focus-- McGrath is.  McGrath and his long standing issues with Cordova are the crux of the story.  This makes the book take on an intense psychological suspense angle which is unnerving and unsteading.

The other fun part about this novel's construction is that Pessl goes all out in creating the Cordova back story. We learn about all of his movies, his fans, his family.  Much of her time is spent describing this world, and it is so convincing and detailed that as a reader you start to believe that Cordova actually won an Oscar and has this real oeuvre of movies that are considered sick and twisted, but also genius.

This intricately constructed world also makes McGrath's quest feel as if he is stuck in one of Cordova's movies rather than living his own free will life.  This fact is more than hinted at in the novel and makes the reader question everything they are reading.  Again, adding a level of unease which was AWESOME.

There are also photos and screen shots of webpages spread throughout this book that add to the creepy, uneasy feeling.  It makes the nightmare that McGrath is living throughout the book even more real.

A note on the pacing.  At over 600 pages, this is not a fast read, but neither is it methodically paced.  I would say it has a slow build that  speeds up throughout the book, ending with a whirlwind final 100 pages.

One of the central questions of this novel is whether all the crazy things McGrath is experiencing as he delves deeper and deeper into Cordova's world are supernatural or just the work of a genius filmmaker. As I mentioned above, a definitive answer never comes, but I didn't care as the twists and turns, the ride itself, was so cool.  And I should clarify that while the ending is open and left up to your interpretation, there is a big event at the very end that made for a satisfying conclusion. Answers will come, but just not in time for the reader to be privy to them.  But again, this is not a book about answers. If you want answers, don't read this book.  Reading Night Film is an all consuming experience.

Overall, this is an emotional thrill ride of a book, perfect for people who love to read in an anxious state. The unease is chilling but not gory at all.  It is more Hitchcockian.  Night Film could have ended up a jumbled mess, but not in Pessl's hands.  Rather it is intricately constructed and entirely satisfying.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  nightmarish atmosphere, intense, intricately constructed.

Readalikes: In the publisher’s marketing materials Night Film is called: "a page-turning thriller for readers of Stephen King, Gillian Flynn, and Stieg Larsson.

I agree that Pessl’s novel is a nice mix of all three of these authors, but it is not necessarily a slam dunk suggestion unless a reader likes all three authors listed (like me).  If I had to choose one of the three, King would be the closest.

But really, Night Film is closest to the work of Joe Hill.  It is creepy and intricately plotted, with horror and literary fiction elements blended together. Fans of Night Film should try NOS4A2 or Horns.

Help for the Haunted by John Searles is a creepy book with the protagonist on a quest that may or not be complicated by the supernatural, however, Night Film is definitely more complex in style while Help for the Haunted is more traditional in its story telling.

The psychological suspense focus, and haunting tone of The Night Film  also reminded me of The Room by Emma Donoghue.

And finally the book that I think is the best match overall is Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon.  Both books are hard to classify but they share the psychological suspense, with a complexly layered plot, a chilling and haunting tone.  Both novels also take the reader on a journey into confusion, but it is an enjoyable ride and the ride back out again is worth it.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

BPL Book Discussion: The Time of Our Lives with Bonus Coverage of Our End of the Year Meeting

Monday was our year end book discussion/state of the group meeting/holiday pot luck party. A good time was had by all and we even had the fire alarm go off (due to construction in another part of the building) and had to evacuate.  We will have a good story from it.

Before I get into the book itself, after enjoying lunch, we had a short discussion about the group itself.  I wanted to give everyone the chance to talk about what they like and, more importantly, what they don't like about our group.

I started the conversation by talking about the Group Norms and Leadership Norms which I have created for my Re-Charge Your Book Club program that I give at libraries and for area book clubs. These are things I have created for my consulting. Since people pay for either the full program or some one-on-one coaching, I cannot link to them here, but if you contact me off the blog we can talk about it. I can even guest lead your book club in person or via Skype, and we can talk about the book and your group dynamic.

After we talked about these norms and how we do following them, I asked for comments specific to us.  I failed in getting the criticism I was looking for, but here are some of their comments:
  • I like it that you let people know when their turn is coming.  [What I do is acknowledge people who want to speak and let the group know who the next 3 people will be.]
  • I love that you take control when things start to get off track and you bring us back.
  • My friends in other groups are upset that their meetings only spend 10 minutes talking about the book and are shocked to hear we spend 60-90 mins on the book only.
  • I love that a sense of trust and comfort has developed among us.
  • If I don't like the book I know that if I come to the discussion I will learn to appreciate why others may have liked it.
  • I appreciate that the people in group are willing to be open and have an open mind.
  • We all respect each other, even when we disagree.
  • I love that this group "stretches my mind."
Now on to the book.  We discussed The Time of Our Lives: A Conversations About America by Tom Brokaw, but let me warn you, our December meeting is much lighter on the discussion than most months.  We have all agreed to this arrangement ahead of time though. The book description from the publisher:
Tom Brokaw, known and beloved for his landmark work in American journalism and for the New York Times bestsellers The Greatest Generation and Boom!, now turns his attention to the challenges that face America in the new millennium, to offer reflections on how we can restore America’s greatness. 
“What happened to the America I thought I knew?” Brokaw writes. “Have we simply wandered off course, but only temporarily? Or have we allowed ourselves to be so divided that we’re easy prey for hijackers who could steer us onto a path to a crash landing? . . . I do have some thoughts, original and inspired by others, for our journey into the heart of a new century.”
Rooted in the values, lessons, and verities of generations past and of his South Dakota upbringing, Brokaw weaves together inspiring stories of Americans who are making a difference and personal stories from his own family history, to engage us in a conversation about our country and to offer ideas for how we can revitalize the promise of the American Dream.
Inviting us to foster a rebirth of family, community, and civic engagement as profound as the one that won World War II, built our postwar prosperity, and ushered in the Civil Rights era, Brokaw traces the exciting, unnerving changes in modern life—in values, education, public service, housing, the Internet, and more—that have transformed our society in the decades since the age of thrift in which he was raised. Offering ideas from Americans who are change agents in their communities, in The Time of Our Lives, Brokaw gives us, a wise, honest, and wide-ranging book, a nourishing vision of hopefulness in an age of diminished expectations.
  • We had a smaller turnout due to the holidays.  I had 3 liked, 4 disliked, and 2 so-sos.
  • I took advantage of the smaller group and went around to ask each person to share one statement about the book to get us going.  I wish I could always do this, but it is unrealistic when we usually have 15+. So here are the comments in no order other than how we sat around the table:
    • I was familiar with Brokaw and loved his story. I liked finding out he is just an ordinary guy.
    • I thought the book had too much ego and platitudes
    • I found the quick assessment of where we have been and where we are headed interesting and it gave me some new insight to the larger picture.
    • I found it bland and uninteresting.
    • Too much I, I, I. Brokaw spent a lot of time talking about how great he and his family are.
    • I found it though provoking
    • bland
    • I liked the reflection aspects.
    • I enjoyed the style, how he started each chapter with some facts and then posed a few questions before the text started.
    • It felt unoriginal and way too much on the surface.  He never delved into any one topic deeply.
    • I think this would be a good book for middle school students to read and discuss to give them a snapshot of where our country has been and beginning to talk about where it might be going.
  • Question: What do you think of when you hear the phrase "American Values."
    • work ethic
    • freedom to achieve
    • helping one and other
    • Brokaw wrote this book because he is concerned about our American values being lost.
  • Our conversation veered toward talking about rising Asia
    • In China and Korea, education is a top priority. It is not here for our school are mediocre.
    • The Chinese have more of a community ethic.  In America it is sometimes seen as a weakness to ask for help.
  • Question: Does Brokaw think we have had a golden age and that we cannot get it back?
    • I think he has some optimism that things have been going badly for awhile but that they are picking back up now.
    • The 1950s were seen as golden but there was an ignored underbelly then too.
    • No one is taking responsibility anymore.
    • We talked about the problem in our schools today, but then one participant shared her experience working in an inner city Chicago school in 1969.  It was bad.
  • Question: The subtitle of the book  is "A Conversation About America." Did you feel like the book was a conversation?
    • It was more reminiscing than conversation.
    • I thought it was more like her was trying to share the conversations he heard while traveling across America.  It is clear he is a good listener.
    • I thought there was too much of his interjecting of his personal story, all those "I's" got in the way of allowing the book to truly be a conversation.
    • It was an easy read.
    • Too much reminiscing.
    • I liked that it was all about big issues; that made it an easy read, but then I would be upset that it was just scratching the surface.
    • But, if he went too deeply into any one issue, no one would read it. It is a problem with America that no one wants to spend the time to delve deeply into anything.  He knows that and used it to his advantage by getting as many big issues in this book that he could.
  • Question: What does the "American Dream" mean to you.
    • Opportunity! But you have to pursue it and work at it.  America rewards hard work.
    • Now I feel like the American Dream is simply to hold on to what you have and keep it.  It is no longer about doing better than your parents.  It is about not sliding back.
    • We can't grow forever.
    • Education is key to the American Dream.
    • You need to prepare yourself to grab at opportunity. Education prepares you.
    • American Dream also means to take responsibility for paying it forward to others when you succeed. Like Warren Buffet trying to persuade other billionaires to donate half of their income to charity.
    • Some people haven't bought into the American Dream yet; they won't put in the work.
    • If you get knocked down you need to get back up.

Readalikes: When the Wednesday evening group discussed The Time of Our Lives Kathy prepared this list of readalikes:

  • The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson (fiction) follows the travails of an Iowa family and includes war veterans
  • Notes on the Kitchen Table by Bob Green (nonfiction) is written in the same folksy style. It asks the question, if you had to write one note to future generations, what would you say?
  • The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America by George Packer (nonfiction) looks at the last 30 years in America by following specific individuals and charts the erosion of the social compact that kept the country and middle class stable.
  • Understanding America by Peter Schuck (nonfiction). Here leading scholars and professors and examine America's values institutions, political system, and the future.
Kathy did a great job with that list, so I am not going to add much more, but if you are looking for more fiction suggestions, I think the folksy and inspirational tone and Brokaw's appreciation for life in small town America is reminiscent of Fannie Flagg, Philip Gulley, or Adriana Trigiani's Big Stone Gap series.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Best Audio Books of the Year

Over at Audiobooker, Mary Burkey has a few posts on best audiobooks of the year.

In fact, you can pull up all of her posts tagged “best audiobooks” by clicking here.

I know I try to stay away from posting all the best lists here on the blog because they are available so many other places and I want to make the time you spend here as useful as possible, but I have noticed that very few places make a point to talk about the best audio books in their year end wrap ups.

Please remember that the best books from the more traditional lists are not necessarily books that will automatically translate into best audiobooks. And in fact, many books that are only so-so in print are greatly enhanced by being turned into an exceptional audio version while many great books have been ruined by bad audio productions.

So even if you feel like you have a handle on the best books of 2013, please take a moment to also check in on the best audiobooks too.  You might find better suggestions for your audio readers. And better suggestions lead to happier patrons.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Monday Discussion: Best Book You Read in 2013 Part 2

This week, I want to hear about your favorite book you read in 2013 that was NOT published in 2013. In other words, your favorite back list title.

I went back through my 5 star books for the year and found 2 back list contenders.  I will walk you through my reasoning for how I picked my winner.

Each year I pick at least one of the best books of the year to save to read early the next year. [For example, I will be reading one of the consensus 2013 top 10 books, Doctor Sleep, in January.]  This year's contender was The Round House by Louise Erdrich, and oh my, did I love this book.  Read my review for more detail on why. As the year continued, I figured it would for sure hold the top spot here today.

But then I was asked to interview Luis Alberto Urrea for Fox Valley Reads and read the book, Into the Beautiful North [2009].  I went into reading that book as an assignment for a job, and came away from the overall experience of reading the book and being able to talk directly to Urrea about it, absolutely captivated.  I think the fact that I was caught off guard by how much I loved this book coupled with the author himself being such a fabulous person made reading this book one of the highlights of my entire year.

So, while The Round House may be a better read overall, my best book that I read in 2013 that was not published in 2013 was Into the Beautiful North, and it wasn't even a hard choice.

But why walk you through all of this reasoning? Because I want to use it as an example of reading tastes and how they are influenced by more than how a book is written.  As you see here, in a vacuum, The Round House was the best book not published in 2013 that I read in 2013, but life does not happen in a vacuum, and for reasons related to the book itself and my experiences with it, reading Into the Beautiful North was the best reading experience I had in 2013.

As you help readers, it is important to remember what they bring to the table in terms of what is going on in their lives as you suggest books to them.  Looking at yourself and why you found some reading experiences superior to others will help you to be more attuned to your patrons needs. I share my personal example in the hopes that you can use my example to help others.

For past Monday Discussions, and in particular, to add to last week's Part 1 of the best book discussion, click here.

Next week is the last Monday I am working during 2013, so we will tackle Reading Resolutions for 2014.

Friday, December 13, 2013

What I’m Reading: The Tormentors

This is a cross post with RA for All: Horror

Some of you may have remembered when I had this post about my fellow librarian, Jack Phoenix, and his new novel with proceeds set to go to help battered women.  Click here for all the details.

I had not read the book by that point, but wanted to plug it since I knew it was for such a good cause.  Well today, Friday the 13th,  I am here to report on The Tormentors after having read it, and I am glad that I did.

Let’s start with the first rule of any good horror novel: you have to set up the atmosphere of unease right at the start.  Jack succeeds here and then some.  The opening chapter describes an older man being pursued by some evil force.  He is tormented so badly that when he is forced to halt by a police officer, he would rather kill himself than wait for the shadows to catch up to him.  And then in italics we get this to end the chapter after a harrowing first 3 pages:
That was quite fun.”“Yes, but far too fleeting. This one didn’t last long.” “Nevertheless, his anguish was appetizing.” “Indeed. What shall we do now? On to the next?” “Patience, Sisters, we await our command.” “Perhaps the next will be even tastier.” 
We are  set up for some terrifying adventure now. I was intrigued, excited, and hopeful that Jack could make this awesome set up pay off.  He did.

What follows that opening chapter is a horror novel that understands the genre and uses its tropes and standards in a way that is not cliche, but rather, enhances the story and the horror fans enjoyment of the novel.

The plot follows the terrible marriage between Roderick and Elizabeth and in particular Rod’s descent into madness at the hands of a trio of evil demons (the ones talking in italics above). However, like all good horror novels, there is a supernatural evil equally matched by a human one engaged in an epic battle here.

Rod is an abusive husband, and an overall bad guy, but Phoenix manages to make him relatable enough, at first, so that we are compelled to keep reading and to see what will happen to him. As the story unfolds, it is Elizabeth who grows into our hero.  She is forced to confront evil head on and try to save herself and her daughter in the process. She is a typical horror hero herself as she is flawed [she married Rod for all the wrong reasons] but she must grow up and figure out who she is, what she needs, and fight the evil in her life along the way.

This is a fast paced novel that has you compulsively turning the pages.  Again, like the best books in the genre, Phoenix understands that after the initial anxiety inducing first scene you have to take a small step back and build up the terror, fear, and tension before allowing the last third of the book to unfold at a breakneck pace.

And, it has a traditional horror ending with the conflict resolved but the supernatural force moving on. Who will the trio stalk next?

By the way, that trio of evil monsters are vicious, and the book is bloody. But the overall message is positive because the demons will torment their victims until they confesses their sins.  Normally though the guilt of their sins, which is the force driving the monsters, is what ultimately kills the victim.

The writing here is impressive for a first novel.  As I have said, Phoenix is obviously a student of the genre and he used his knowledge as a starting off point.  It is a novel with a nod to horror’s traditions but without being rote or derivative.

And, the book’s proceeds go to help battered women, so you really can’t loose by grabbing a copy for yourself.

Three Words That Describe This Book: monsters, terrifying, madness

Readalikes: At times, Tormentors reminded me of the ghost stalking Jude Coyne in Joe Hill’s breakout debut, Heart-Shaped Box.  The whole idea of someone being tormented by a supernatural evil driven by its victim’s sins is a shared appeal here.

Phoenix’s writing style also reminded me of Bentley Little and Graham Masterton.  I would suggest anything by these men if you liked Tormentors.  All three write novels that move quickly, are generous with the blood and gore, juxtapose human and supernatural evil, and often deal with secrets.

If you liked the “driven into madness” angle, I also highly recommend Ghost Radio by Leopoldo Gout. However, please note, the pacing in Ghost Radio is much more methodical.

Library Reads: January 2014

Another Library Reads list is out today. I have a couple of comments on how it is going.  First, on a personal note, Love Flavia de Luce!  I am glad I am not alone out there in the library world.

Seriously, I have purposely stayed out of the Library Reads process because I already have a popular platform to tell you all what to read.  Library Reads is a great opportunity for me to hear from my colleagues.  I am enjoying the combination of my own preferences being reinforced and learning about titles I would not have had on my radar at all. Thanks guys!

Second, another wonderful outcome has been the nice printable pdf's that are available closer to the start of the given month (click here and scroll down to see those).  During the last week of each month, I have been putting out the coming month's list at our desk.  After a few months of it showing up for patron use now, the list is getting quite popular, and along with the current bestseller list, it is being regularly checked and requested.  The patrons love it.

Again, you can get all of the past lists on the Library Reads site or by clicking here on RA for All or by using my Library Reads Tag which is always in the right gutter of this blog.

January 2014 Library Reads List

Favorite...
dead_in_their_vaulted_arches

The Dead in Their Vaulted
Arches: A Flavia de Luce
Novel

by Alan Bradley

Published: 1/14/2014 by Delacorte Press
ISBN: 9780385344050
“Flavia de Luce is still on the loose! This time, the almost-twelve-year-old prodigy explores some tantalizing mysteries involving her own family. Flavia uncovers surprising secrets about the characters we know and love and meets some fascinating new people, including a precocious distant cousin. You’ll enjoy seeing new depths in Flavia–this novel takes the series in an exciting direction.”
Nancy Russell, Columbus Metropolitan Library, Columbus, OH
The rest of the list...

StarforMrsBlake-201x300A Star for Mrs. Blake: A Novel

by April Smith

Published: 1/14/2014 by Knopf
ISBN: 9780307958846
“A little-known slice of American history receives meticulous, elegant treatment in this compelling novel about a group of mothers who travel to post-WWI Europe to visit the graves of their fallen soldier-sons. Cora Blake, grieving the loss of her only child, pulls the group together to provide support on their difficult pilgrimage. Sure to be a sleeper hit with book groups looking for heart-tugging history.”
Kaite Stover, Kansas City Public Library, Kansas City, MO

LostLake-197x300 Lost Lake: A Novel

by Sarah Addison Allen

Published: 1/21/2014 by St. Martin’s Press
ISBN: 9781250019806
“I was thrilled to find out that Sarah Addison Allen had a new book out, and it did not disappoint. Allen’s trademark magic is woven throughout the story and can be found in the lake, the town, and the people, but at its heart, this story is about finding home—something we can all relate to.”
Ally Watkins, Central MS Regional Library System, Pearl, MS

DaysofAnnaMadrigal-199x300 The Days of Anna Madrigal: A Novel

by Armistead Maupin

Published: 1/21/2014 by Harper
ISBN: 9780062196248
“So good to see all these beloved characters again! And we finally get the true story of Anna Madrigal. If you’re either a fan of the Tales of the City series, Burning Man or both, this is a fun Sunday-afternoon kind of book.”
Jenne Bergstrom, San Diego County Library, San Diego, CA

HighlyUnlikelyScenario-220x300 A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World: A Novel

by Rachel Cantor

Published: 1/14/2014 by Melville House
ISBN: 9781612192642
“Leonard works for Neetsa Pizza, a Pythagorean pizza chain, in the near-ish future. His job is to take calls, listen to complaints and help his customers achieve maximum pizza happiness. His employee manual gives him an answer for every scenario–until he gets a call from Marco, who seems to be calling from another time or space. Think of Terry Pratchett crossed with Douglas Adams.”
Jane Jorgenson, Madison Public Library, Madison, WI

WindIsNotaRiver-199x300 The Wind Is Not a River: A Novel

by Brian Payton

Published: 1/7/2014 by Ecco
ISBN: 9780062279972
“A tender love story about a reporter stranded during World War II on one of the Aleutian Islands, and his feisty wife, who travels to find him. The geographical and historical setting of American warfare in the North Pacific, little known to most, is very intriguing. Readers will fall in love with the main characters’ fierce determination to survive and love against all odds.”
Paulette Brooks, Elm Grove Public Library, Elm Grove, WI

Orfeo-197x300 Orfeo: A Novel

by Richard Powers

Published: 1/20/2014 by W.W. Norton & Company
ISBN: 9780393240825
“Experimental music and genetic engineering? Heady stuff indeed, but what is most remarkable about this thought-provoking journey is how intensely it makes you feel about human creativity, experience, and the enigmatic fugitive Peter Els, whose flight from an uncomprehending world anchors the narrative. A perfect introduction to this brilliant but sometimes forbidding author.”
David Wright, Seattle Public Library, Seattle, WA

Kept-201x300 The Kept: A Novel

by James Scott

Published: 1/7/2014 by Harper
ISBN: 9780062236739
“Scott has written a haunting novel about two characters who are tormented by regret and guilt and who do all the wrong things to find redemption. Beautiful writing and unforgettable characters mark this first novel that has been compared to the work of Cormac McCarthy and Michael Ondaatje.”
Alison Kastner, Multnomah County Library, Portland, OR

Little Failure-201x300 Little Failure: A Memoir

by Gary Shteyngart

Published: 1/7/2014 by Random House
ISBN: 9780679643753
Little Failure is the marvelous tale of the Shteyngart family’s journey from Leningrad to Queens in the 1970s. Gary Shteyngart captures an amazing snapshot of that time in history, and this engaging memoir is suffused with conflict, love, and a lot of hilarity.”
Laura Scott, Park Ridge Public Library, Park Ridge, IL

FirstTrueLie-200x300 The First True Lie: A Novel

by Marina Mander

Published: 1/21/2014 by Hogarth
ISBN: 9780770436858
“An unusual, well-written story told by a young boy who lives with his talented, but troubled mother in a city apartment in Italy. One morning, Luca finds his mother dead, and his worst fears paralyze him. How long can he hide the truth from his teachers and classmates? Luca uses what he loves most, words, to reach a place where he can finally open the door to others. An excellent reading group selection.”
Margaret Donovan, Cary Memorial Library, Lexington, MA

Every Book My Book Club Has Discussed 2001-2013

In preparation for our end of the year book discussion, annual state of the group meeting, and party, I updated our big giant list of every book we have ever read.

We began with 2 participants and myself in January of 2001[who are still in the group!] and the list goes through to this month's selection, The Time of Our Lives by Tom Brokaw.

That is 13 full years of books!  I had not updated the list for 3 years, so it was time.  One thing that shocked me, I have read every single one of these books over the last 12 years of my life. Working on the document felt like an episode of  This is Your Life.

Here is the link to the list.

If you have any questions about how the discussions of these books went, first try to use the RA for All search box and search for the title.  If it was discussed in the Fall of 2007 or later, there is a report here on the blog.  For all other titles, I have notes I could refer to if you wanted to know how the book discussion went.  Drop me a line for more details.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

What I'm Reading: Genre Graphic Novels

As I have mentioned a few times during 2013, I have been participating in the Adult Reading Round Table graphic novel genre study all year.  We finished up on December 5th with a meeting about Manga.  I have not shared our notes here on the blog because you need to be a member of ARRT to participate in the genre studies.  However, after we complete an entire genre study, ARRT does post the notes from the genre study meetings on our websiteClick here to see the notes for the previous genre study on Historical Fiction [2011-12].

Back in our October meeting we all read Genre Graphic Novels.  This happened to be an area where I have read a bunch, especially in the Horror section.  For this meeting I read Saga (volumes 1 and 2) by Brain K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples and Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter, by Dawyn Cooke and Richard Stark.  I was going to write just about my experience with those books, but as I looked over the notes from the group, I was struck by how useful they were in a larger picture sense.

Since the genre study is now over, I am posting the notes on all of the titles we discussed that day.  If I have reviewed a title in the past on either blog, I have included a link to that review.  I hope you find this helpful.

Also, look for news about the brand new Crime Fiction genre study for 2014-15 being led by ME coming soon.  Although I cannot post the notes for non-member until we finish the genre study, I will be posting the assignments here on the blog so you could read along with us over the next 2 years if you so choose.


ARRT Genre Study: Genre Graphic Novels
Notes

We discussed reading genre graphic novels from two different approaches:

·   Fans of genre prose fiction reading that genre in graphic format
·   Non fans of the genre in prose fiction reading the genre in graphic format
·   Genre graphic novels have a narrative quality that really appealed – more like reading a short story or watching an episode of TV
·    Unlike the Superhero graphic novels, the series had a starting point and some of the series even had an ending point
·    Most all written for adults – contained sex and violence – unlike the Superheroes graphic novels which generally had to appeal to both Teens and Adults

Overall, we agreed that sometimes if you weren’t a fan of the prose genre you could still be a fan of the graphic novel form of the genre.  For the same reasons, some fans of the genre may find their favorite elements lacking in the graphic novel version of the genre.  In particular:

·    Graphic novel genre fiction skips over the slow, long build up to set the place.  Instead it jumps right in and establishes the setting with just a few images.
·    In graphic novel genre fiction the language becomes less primary and important.  So if you read for language and style, you may be less satisfied by graphic novel versions.  Graphic Novels are more likely to appeal to people who like the TV show equivalent which is short and episodic. 
·     However, character is still just as important in graphic novel genre fiction.  If you don’t care about the character, it is hard to get drawn into the story, or series.
·    Speculative Fiction (Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror) prose readers are generally more open to trying graphic novels than other genre readers.  So it may be easier to hand sell cross-over formats to this group.  Always remember to put graphic novels on these displays.

 HORROR

·    The fact that the graphic novels are shorter makes them more palatable to people who don’t like being scared.  So it may be easier to interest people who don’t like horror prose fiction in graphic novel versions.
·     Whether in prose or graphic novel, the two most important elements are atmosphere and character
·    The atmosphere has to be established right away, although that may be easier to do quickly with the images and the color palate 
·    If you don’t care about the characters, you won’t care that someone is trying to kill them or threatening them. This is true in graphic novels as well as in prose

 American Vampire, by Scott Snyder, Stephen King, and Rafael Albuquerque
Felt as much like a western as horror, which combines with the short format to make it accessible to people who don’t like horror; Even though the leads are violent, blood thirsty vampires, they have a moral code; Unique in that it has a strong female lead

Locke & Key: Welcome to Lovecraft, by Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez
Wonderful graphics, which really make the horror element; Probably the best horror graphic novel out right now; Series has a definite end point; Lots of imagery and symbolism

The Walking Dead:  Days Gone Bye, by Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore
Zombie apocalypse may not scare everyone, but the gore of killing the zombies might make it more horror; The Post-apocalypse story draws the reader in; Reader really comes to care about the characters and the interactions between them; Almost becomes a soap opera set in a post-apocalyptic world that happens to have zombies as a threat. The most popular graphic novels right now, especially with the TV show tie-in

Revival: You’re Among Friends, by Tim Seeley and Mike Norton
Reminiscent of The Returned  by Jason Mott; Genre blend of horror and crime; Horror and crime; It’s a mystery of why people have come back; Rural noir; The story is eerie, but not really frightening

 
SCIENCE FICTION/FANTASY

 
Saga, by Brain K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples
Romeo and Juliet meets Star Wars; Doesn’t take a lot of pages to set up the world and backstory, just jumps right in; Broad appeal across ages and backgrounds; The characters have hope and are likeable; The characters are easy to relate to; The storyline isn’t as dark as a lot of what we’ve discussed; The graphics are beautiful; Along with Walking Dead, the most popular genre graphic novel series right now.

DMZ, by Brian Wood, Riccardo Burchielli, and Brian Azzarello
May appeal to fans of The Walking Dead; Similar Post-Apocalyptic feel, but with parts of America having risen up in a civil war; A photojournalist is the hero reporting from the middle of the war zone

Sandman:  Preludes and Nocturnes, by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III
Very strong world building, that draws you in and makes you wonder how the everlasting ones will all fit together; Reminds you of Greek mythology; Reminiscent of American Gods; Feels more like reading legends than pure fantasy  

Unwritten:  Tommy Taylor and the Bogus Identity, by Mike Carey and Peter Gross
Reminiscent of Harry Potter; Draws in a lot of literary themes and allusions

Fables:  Legends in Exile, by Bill Willingham, James Jean, and Alex Maleev
Familiar fairy tale characters may make it more accessible to non-fantasy fans; Genre blending mystery element; Grimm and Once Upon a Time TV Shows fans may enjoy the series

ACTION/ADVENTURE

·    Action Adventure novels are read for plot, but without enjoyable characters, people really weren’t enjoying the graphic novels.  Character seemed to still be the most important element in the graphic novel.

The Adventures of Tintin, by Herge
Written for plot; Characters don’t grow or change; Revered in Europe, but less of a following in America; Some of the adventures were dated by their social viewpoints; While originally written for children, may have some themes that aren’t currently considered child-safe

Casanova:  Luxuria, by Matt Fraction and Gabriel Ba
Time Travel elements can make for a confusing plot; A tale of spy and counter spy, but a lot of time jumping and multiple time lines; Humor reminiscent of Burn Notice; Was hard to care about the characters

Scott Pilgrim’s Precious Little Life, by Bryan Lee O’Malley
Hero is a bit of a jerk, so it’s hard to care about the hero (gets easier as series progresses); Secondary characters are much more enjoyable; Crosses a lot of genres; Couldn’t be told as a prose novel, has to be a graphic novel; Great for fans of Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline with a lot of pop culture references; Also for fans of  Big Bang Theory – cool to be nerdy

CRIME

Richard Stark’s Parker:  The Hunter, by Dawyn Cooke and Richard Stark
Graphic novel version of Donald Westlake crime noir novels; The visuals really set the 1960s New York feel; The graphics are very stylized; The story is very predictable, but still enjoyable; The readers who don’t like noir crime novels liked the graphic novel version better because it was faster and the visual descriptions instead of verbal details; The readers who love Richard Stark missed the language that is part of the prose writing

Chew: Taster’s Choice, by John Layman and Rob Guillory
Genre blending crime with science fiction; Has the limiter of the gruesomeness of eating human flesh; So improbable that the humor overcomes the darkness; Appeal of the  procedural aspects; Appeal to apocalyptic fans; Unique world with an interesting setup

Scapled:  Indian Country by Jason Aaron and R. M. Guera
Very violent plus has the bleakness of the Indian reservation; Would definitely appeal to mystery fans; A lot of politics and a lot of backstory; However, the images are dark and hard to distinguish; Could easily be made into a TV show

100 Bullets:  First Shot Last Call, by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso
Interesting setup with a puppet master and a briefcase with a gun and 100 bullets; 100 short setups of different scenarios; Each volume contains multiple vignettes each of a different bullet