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 including RA for All's EDI Statement.

Friday, November 30, 2012

What I'm Reading: Vacation Edition-- Arcadia and The Red House

I have a 2-fer today and then I only have 2 books left in the queue.  Of course I will be finishing 2 more this weekend.  Also, don't forget to look to the top of the right gutter for RA for All: Horror posts.  I have been posting reviews there too. [A new one went up earlier today.]

Now enough patting myself on the back because these 2 books are ones for which I am embarrassingly behind.  This is a report on the two novels I read on my summer vacation....at the end of JULY! For the record, I focused on catching up on more recently read titles so I wouldn't get further behind, but still.

Enough excuses.  Here we go....

I chose to read Arcadia by Lauren Groff on my summer vacation for 2 reasons:

1.  I was going to be in upstate NY not too far from where this novel was set
2. I really liked Groff's The Monsters of Templeton
I grabbed the book to read without even looking into its plot.  I normally wouldn't do this, but the 2 reasons listed above seemed enough of a guarantee that it would be perfect.  And then, I began reading and got VERY worried.  The novel is set entirely (sans one small section) on a commune, and I hate hippies.

Thankfully, I had nothing to worry about.  Even though I really dislike hippies, I very much enjoyed this novel.  That is a testament to Groff's richly drawn narrator, lyrical writing, and compellingly haunting story.

Here is the plot set up. Arcadia is told completely through the eyes of "Bit" Stone, the first child born to the people who started an upstate NY commune, called Arcadia, in the late 60s and goes through 2018 when Bit is an adult.  We follow the rise and fall of the commune through Bit's eyes.  The story takes us through Bit's life and even into his time as a city dweller and father.  The story that spans into our future has Bit returning to the almost deserted commune to care for his ailing mother and for another reason I will not 

That is really all you need to know about the plot because as I mentioned above, the commune is not why you will or will not like this book.  Bit is the reason you will love this novel.  Bit is just plain awesome, in the truest sense of the word. His sense of wonder at everything around him is amazing.  For many years Bit chooses not to speak, but he is sharp and observant.  Since we are privy to his thoughts, we do not notice his silence to others as much.  To us, he is loquacious.  He tells us everything he sees, experiences, smells, touches, hears, etc...

Because the story follows Bit through his life, this is a coming of age story.  And since Bit comes of age in a commune, when he goes to live in the city after the commune's collapse, he needs to come of age some more. In fact seeing how all of the kids from the commune do in the real world was quite interesting.

The details on the setting here are rich.  Again because of Bit we get a full, five senses picture of the commune as it grows, prospers, falters, fails, and starts to come back again.

Since it is a commune, they are also a lot of eccentric characters.  Watching how their differing personalities come together and clash is a great part of the story too. The characters alone (and they are characters) drive the story at times.

I also appreciate Groff's overall message about communal living, which I took to be that while it is a good idea, it is hard to sustain on such an ambitious scale.  We see this at the end of the novel, when all is quiet on the property, and very few are left, it goes back to being idyllic.

I was completely captivated by this novel because of Bit.  So if you pick up this novel and don't fall into his narration by the end of the first chapter, this book is not for you.  Even if you love reading about communes, you must fall hard for Bit you are going to enjoy this novel.

By the way, Arcadia just came out in paperback.  It is also on quite a few Best of 2012 lists.

Three Words That Describe This Book: coming-of age, communes, haunting

Readalikes: Brady Udall's The Lonely Polygamist is very similar to Arcadia both in setting [instead of a commune it is a polygamist's home], they share a young, troubled narrator, and both authors have a lyrical writing style.  Click here for my full review.

The way the story is told, talking about a larger movement through the child's perspective only, is very similar to the way "the slowing" is tackled in The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson.  Click here for my full review.

Canada by Richard Ford is also a coming of age story with a haunting tone.  Click here for my full review.

Finally, for another title that is richly detailed, haunting and lyrical as well as being set in an against the mainstream community, I would also suggest one of my favorites books I read last year, The Known World by Edward P. Jones.

Finally, NoveList suggests: The Irresistible Henry House by Lisa Grunwald: "Raised unconventionally, both Henry House (raised by a series of home-ec students in the 1940s and '50s) and Bit Stone (born on a commune in the '60s) face unique challenges as they find their way in the outside world."

Next up is The Red House by Mark Haddon, which I picked to read on vacation because it is about an extended family getting together for holiday in a shared vacation house. Enough said there.  Also, like with Groff, I have enjoyed Haddon's previous books.

Here is what I said about The Red House when I presented it at Book Lovers Club on July 31, 2012:
This is the newest novel by the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.  Here Haddon imagines an estranged family: 2 grown siblings and their spouses and kids renting a house in the Welsh countryside for 7 days.  Instead of chapters the novel is divided into the days of the vacation.  Within each day the point of view skips around to every character.  The changes in point of view can be jarring since they are not marked in any way; the point of view will simply change after a small break in the text. The minor confusion that occurs as a result is worth it, as you get to see everything from each character's point of view.  These are troubled people, but they are all troubled in a different way.  When thrown together, there are trials and tribulations, but also moments of revelation and joy.  The family vacation will leave permanent scars on the group, but it will also bring them all closer together.  This is a great read if you are preparing for an extended family gathering.
Sometimes when forced to hone the essence of the appeal of a novel in only a paragraph, it really works. Here is a bit more though.

The chapters are each day.  This is why the point of view changes are only marked by a double return between sections of text.  The time spent on each person's point of view is varied.  Sometimes it is a few pages, other times it is only a line or two.  I liked it because it echoed the chaos of the story.  2 families who were basically strangers to each other were thrown together in forced intimacy. The constantly shifting narration helped to mimic a bit of the chaos and unease being felt by the characters.

Speaking of the characters, since this is a relaxing vacation in the country, the novel is not about what happens on their vacation, but rather what happens to each of them psychologically and within the bounds of their interactions with each other.  It is one giant character-study of novel, which I liked, but if you are a plot driven reader, this might not be the book for you.

By the way, the age range of the characters is from 8 to middle aged.  Some of my favorite parts were when the pov abruptly switched to the little boy.  He was very realistic.

Also I only hinted at this in the paragraph from Book Lovers but the revelations and tribulations are not tragic, but they are quite dramatic.  It makes for a big climax, finale.

There are a few strong YA narrators here, so this would also be a good adult book for young adults option.

Overall, the novel is funny, touching, moving, and believable. The pace is steady and builds as the week goes forward.  It was a fun read that I would highly recommend to pair with a longer visit with extended family.  So the holidays would probably be a good time for many.  It will make your crazy family look utterly normal and give you some chuckles.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  family drama, shifting point of view, character centered

Readalikes: Although there are no vacations in it The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender is similar to The Red House in that both are moving, character centered stories that deal with family secrets. They also build to dramatic, but not tragic finales.  Click here to see my post from when the BPL book discussion group read Bender's novel.

Like The Red House, Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead also came out this summer.  Here the setting is a family wedding in New England.  If you liked the family drama parts of The Red House, this would be a good suggestion.

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby is also an adult book for young adults option, that is quite dramatic (four strangers find themselves on a roof top on New Year's Eve and all plan to jump) and told in multiple points of view.

Maybe the End of the World is Truly Upon Us...

Publishers Weekly names E.L. James Publishing Person of the Year.

I do not dispute their choice nor their reasoning.  They are right.  She deserves this designtion.  I am just not proud of us as a society that this is the case.

If you can't beat em, join em...50 Shades the board game.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

NYT Notable Books Now Available Online

Sorry so late with today's post.  I spent the morning planning the Spring semester with Joyce and the afternoon agonizing over my personal choices of the 10 best books I read this year.

I hope to have 3 reviews spread out over the two blogs tomorrow-- I also worked on those today, they just aren't ready for posting yet.

In the meantime, the 100 Notable Books of 2012 is up on the New York Times website.  Have a look.

And here is Flavorwire's response listing 25 books they feel were left off the list.

If you are really into seeing all of the best books, Largehearted Boy keeps the most comprehensive list.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

BPL Book Discussion: One Amazing Thing

Last week we met for our monthly book discussion to tackle Chitra Divakaruni's One Amazing Thing.

From the publisher:
Late afternoon sun sneaks through the windows of a passport and visa office in an unnamed American city. Most customers and even most office workers have come and gone, but nine people remain. A punky teenager with an unexpected gift. An upper-class Caucasian couple whose relationship is disintegrating. A young Muslim-American man struggling with the fallout of 9/11. A graduate student haunted by a question about love. An African-American ex-soldier searching for redemption. A Chinese grandmother with a secret past. And two visa office workers on the verge of an adulterous affair.
When an earthquake rips through the afternoon lull, trapping these nine characters together, their focus first jolts to their collective struggle to survive. There's little food. The office begins to flood. Then, at a moment when the psychological and emotional stress seems nearly too much for them to bear, the young graduate student suggests that each tell a personal tale, "one amazing thing" from their lives, which they have never told anyone before. And as their surprising stories of romance, marriage, family, political upheaval, and self-discovery unfold against the urgency of their life-or-death circumstances, the novel proves the transcendent power of stories and the meaningfulness of human expression itself. From Chitra Divakaruni, author of such finely wrought, bestselling novels as Sister of My Heart, The Palace of Illusions, and The Mistress of Spices, comes her most compelling and transporting story to date. One Amazing Thing is a passionate creation about survival--and about the reasons to survive.
On to the Discussion:

  • We began with 4 votes for liked, 7 for so-so, and 1 disliked.  Initial comments from the liked people were that they loved how the novel stresses the power of stories; another person said that she felt the book's overall tone was hopeful even though each stories was sad. 
  • The so-so people had much more to say.  Many felt like this was 2 different books, the book about the earthquake and the characters' attempt to survive and a book about their stories, but since they liked one of those 2 stories more than the other (it varied which they enjoyed more), the book was a so-so vote for them.  Another participant said she voted so-so because she enjoyed reading the book, but she thought the stories were too heavy handed in their morality lessons. One final opening comment was from someone who said she found the drama and tension of life and death situation very compelling.
  • It seemed most people were drawn to the stories each character told, so I asked if these were supposed to be true stories or were they meant to be read more as fables.  This started a general conversation about the stories. Here are some comments:
    • The stories were too amazing
    • Not knowing if they were going to survive or not, we felt the need to get out their deepest, darkest secrets.
    • The stories were very well told.  We all agreed here.  We liked the way the author unveiled the stories
    • The stories seem to allow each person to arrive at a point of clarity about their lives.
    • All had a secret that no one knew or saw.
    • These are ordinary people in a terrible situation.  How do you survive with so little to keep you going? All they had left to share was their stories.
    • Overall Malathi's story set in the beauty shop was our favorite
    • People did not know what story from their own lives they would tell because, as someone articulated, it is hard to know what would be the story you would feel the most urgency to get out as you are preparing for death.
  • I moved the questioning to the topic of how the book is structured since this is where I knew from the opening comments that we would have many opinions.
    • The point of view jumps around frequently and many had trouble keeping up at first. It was jarring. In fact, one person went so far as to say she would have enjoyed the book more if it were just the stories one after the other with an overall narrator telling us about the conditions, not the individual people in the office each having turns to describe the survival parts.
    • Since the structure alternated between stories from the past and survival in the present, another person said while she loved the stories, she wanted more about the disaster.  She thought that the author used too light a touch on describing the deteriorating situation; so light that she did not feel the tension.  This comment got a few others to counter that they thought the tension was intense.
    • This led to a discussion of whether or not they tried hard enough to survive.  A few people felt that they were too passive just waiting to be rescued.  These people felt they would have tried to get out more.  But this was countered by a reminder that this was a book, not real life.  The structure of the book was a balance between living and dying.  The author created this situation where the stories could be told.  People piped up that they liked this ambiguity in the structure of the novel. It made the book feel more real.  Their tenuous balance between life and death was well reflected in the story's structure. We may not think we would react this way, but as one person said, you cannot know what you will do until it happens to you.
    • Someone summed up the books structure perfectly by saying that the book has a zen feel.  Yes, their reactions (simply waiting for rescue? for death?) seem to go against what most of us would do-- we want to fight to survive-- but if you read it in a zen mind frame, you read the book differently.  This woman, who I was surprised liked the book based on her reading tastes, did just that.  When she read it in a zen mind frame, she loved it; when she started to lose the zen like attitude, she put the book down and did something else, only returning when she could get back into zen mode.
  • We talked briefly about many of the characters, but we spent the most time on Uma.  This makes sense as in an interview, the author mentions that Uma is the character with whom she most identifies.  Uma also bookends the novel; we meet her first and see her last. Why?
    • Uma is reading Canterbury Tales, a book much like this one. 
    • She is the most well adjusted of the group.
    • Many thought she was at the beginning and end because this is supposed to be her book. She seems like she would become a writer; we speculated that what we are reading is Uma's first book.
    • We also found it interesting that Uma's story to the group ends hopefully, but then just as it appears the ceiling may be caving in, she tells us, the reader the true ending, one in which she lied to her friend to make her feel better as she was dying.  Is that what is happening here too? Very powerful.
  • Which lead us to the ending.  The completely open, uncertain ending has left many a reader in the comments on Amazon and GoodReads very unhappy with this novel.  Overall our group was fine with the open ending because we didn't want to be told; it left more for us to discuss.  Also their stories don't really have an ending; no one's life story is complete until their life ends-- and even then it goes one, someone said. So I made everyone go around the table and vote to see if they lived or died.  I made them choose.  The result:
          • 8 said they live
          • 4 said they died.
  • One last comment.  Instead of ending with the group giving me words to describe the book, I asked them to share words that describe what all the stories have in common:
    • unpleasant
    • secrets
    • India
    • guilt
    • shame
    • bad karma
I would highly suggest this book for a book group who is willing to discuss a book they might not love.  Usually I am worried when most of the the people vote "so-so" for a book, but in this case, our ambivalence (I was one of the so-sos) made for a rich discussion.

PS: for the record, I voted that they died.

Readlaikes:  Another book we read with a completely open ending was The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason.  We read it a long time ago (pre-blog) but the book's setting in Burma, the uncertainty of the main character's situation, and a conflict between truth and stories are all key in both novels.

A few readers mentioned how this novel reminded them of the works, particularly the short stories, of Indian American author, Jhumpa Lahiri.

Divakaruni herself mentioned in an interview that she drew on The Arabian Nights as well as the obvious Canterbury Tales when writing this book.  She also mentioned reading Eckhart Tolle's The Power of Now while writing this novel, and remarks that his idea of living in the now becomes important in her book.

But the book I most thought of when reading One Amazing Thing was another title Divakaruni mentions, Bel Canto by Ann Patchett. I read this novel before the blog, but here is a link to a student reading map which contains all the details.  This is a moving novel about a group of people from different backgrounds trapped in a hostage situation.  It is a novel that still stays with me years later.

Finally, I thought of another book we had discussed together, The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama.  It had the same dreamlike, zen quality and a plot in which secrets are slowly revealed in stories. Click through for details.

Only one more book discussion group left in 2012.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

This Is Why I Am A Public Librarian

My husband forwarded this article to me.

If you ever questions why you chose to work for pennies at the public library, this article should remind you.

What I'm Reading: A Wedding in Apple Grove

Book JacketSo as I referred to yesterday, one of my resolutions for 2012 was to read some more romance authors who were new to me.  When I really looked closely at my deficiencies in the genre, I realized that it was contemporary romance where I had the biggest knowledge gaps.

So first, I read a big name author I had never read before, Lisa Kleypas. For the second book, I wanted to make sure I hit at current trends too.  So, after attending a Booklist Online Romance Webinar in September, I found out that one of the hottest new trends in Romance was "Small Town Romance," and a suggested new title to try was A Wedding in Apple Grove [herein AWIAG] by C.H. Admirand.

AWIAG is the first installment of a planned trilogy set in Apple Grove, OH.  The book begins with a list of characters and a short descriptions about each.  Just from this short 2 page list, you already get a sense of the tone here.  We are in a very small Ohio town where everyone knows each other, and everyone is (nicely) in everybody else's business. This is a town where you propose to your girlfriend by painting her name on the water tower.

Specifically, our plot here follows Meg, who along with her widowed father and 2 younger sisters, runs the local "handyman" business.  As the story opens, we are at Meg's best friend's wedding. Meg wants love, but her on again off again boy friend is a local boy who now plays pro football.  Meg thought they were in love, but she did not want to leave Apple Grove and he does not want to come back to stay when he is done playing.

Our hero is Dan who comes to town the day of the wedding and literally sweeps Meg off her feet.  He is related to one of the more humorous characters in town.  He has been hired to be the new high school soccer coach.

Like all good romances, the narration bounces back and forth between Meg and Dan. We get the standard plot of the two of them having to overcome obstacles and their own issues in order to finally end up getting married.

This is a standard romance.  It has a little steaminess-- nowhere near as much as Lisa Kleypas, but a lot more than other small town gentle reads.  This needs to be noted.  This novel has everything people love about some of the best gentle read authors (some listed in readalikes section below), but it also sticks very true to the romance genre. It is that combination, that cannot be found in any other type of book other than the small town romance. It is a niche that can be filled by a slew of readers.

First and foremost, AWIAG is for readers who enjoy romance.  It is a good entry in the genre: strong, feisty heroine, interesting hero, great frame details (the town and its inhabitants are too cute), and strong family storyline.

In terms of the trend of the small-town romance, this is a great example.  We have a small town, usually in the Midwest, where a different couple from town is followed in each book as they look for and find love.  While each novel will be complete on its own, overall, the series will provide a fun chance for readers to re-encounter the stars of previous books as secondary characters in new books.

For me, I still have trouble getting past the predetermined story arc.  But that is exactly what romance readers love.  They don't have to worry about what is going to happen, they know it will all end up with the two protagonists getting married. Instead they read for the frame, characters, and just to have a nice, happy story.  I get it for them.  For me though, I prefer darkness and uncertainty.

Overall, during my contemporary romance experiment this year, I feel like I got a much better handle on what is out there and why people like it.  I am glad I read this book, and will be handing it out to readers with enthusiasm.

Three Words That Describe This Book: small town setting, fun characters, hopeful tone

Readalikes:  NoveList has a very helpful list entitled "Love in a Small Town" from which I picked out a few suggestions:

The feisty heroine and the football player ex-boyfriend had me thinking of Susan Elizabeth Phillips.

If you like reading about the eccentric characters in small town more than a romance try Adriana Trigiani, Fannie Flagg, or Alexander McCall Smith's No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series. I enjoy all 3 of these writers for the eccentric characters, small town setting, and funny, heart-warming stories.

Monday, November 26, 2012

CODES Conversations-- Genre: Friend or Foe?

RUSA is hosting this great email conversation about genre.  I am signing up for sure.  See you there.


Focused Email Discussion

December 4-6, 2012
CODES Conversations are focused electronic conversations on current issues facing collection development and readers’ advisory librarians—or anyone interested in those areas. The conversations are open to all who wish to participate (or lurk)!

Join RUSA CODES Readers Advisory Research and Trends Committee for a three-day conversation on the subject of genre: what it means and how we use, or don’t use, the genre designation.
This free, moderated discussion is open to all—just subscribe to the discussion at http://lists.ala.org/sympa/subscribe/codes-convos, then follow and contribute to the conversation over the three days of the discussion.

Monday Discussion: Reassess Those 2012 Reading Resolutions

We are getting down to the wire here.  There are only 5 weeks left in the year.  And with only 3 non-holiday Mondays after today which are already planned for the annual Monday Discussions wrapping up this year and looking forward to 2013, that means today is the time to look back at those reading resolutions we posted in January 2012.
What, you didn't think I would remember did you?

Here is the link to the Monday Discussion where I laid out my resolutions and many of you shared yours in the comments.

I will post each of my resolutions and let you know how I did.  Text in red is copied from the original post.
1. I did not actually read a romance from cover to cover last year. I speed read a few, but actually read...no, that didn't happen. Even worse, the romances I speed read were by authors I already knew about. Shame on me. But in my defense, I was finishing a book for the first half of the year and then catching up on everything in my life for the second half. So in 2012, I resolve to read the works of at least 2 new (to me) romance authors AND review them here on RA for All. That should be interesting and entertaining.
Okay, here I did great! I took your suggestions and read Smooth Talking Stranger by Lisa Kleypas back in the Spring.  Then, since I made Romance a priority this year, I signed up for a Booklist Romance webinar to learn about the newest trends.  From that class I found out that small town romance was a big new trend.  I am currently reading a book that was mentioned during that webinar-- A Wedding in Apple Grove.  I will have a review up soon. So here I am claiming full success.  I think I will do this every year from now on-- pick a genre and read "new to me" authors. It was very beneficial to me and our patrons.
2. I got very lazy about posting my reviews this year, and as a result, did not review every book I read and spent the entire month of December frantically trying to get the most important books written up. So in 2012, while I may not be able to review every book I read, I will be better about keeping up with the ones I am choosing to post about.

Okay, here I did not as good. I got very behind, but I am doing a better job catching up.  Last year I spent the entire last week of the year writing reviews.  This year, I resolved to catch up earlier and will be fine.  In fact, I should be caught up before December even begins. So here I at least made improvement, but I wouldn't call it a resolution completely kept.

And finally...
3. I will try to delve further into the backlist on a more regular basis this year. I had such a great experience finally getting to The Known World this year that it reminded me of all of the great books I have missed. I am going to resolve to seek out 4-6 titles from more than 5 years ago in 2012.

Here I will also claim victory, although it is a sneaky one.  Looking back I read 5 books that were from 5 years ago or later and am reading a 6th one now for book club (The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman).  Here are the books with links to the reviews:
So why is it sneaky how I kept this resolution? Well, if you click through you will see that of the 6 books I will finish this year that were published in 2007 or earlier, 5 were read for book club.  The 6th (Foundation) was read for a staff meeting. Now one of the great things about being in a book club is that you read things you normally wouldn't read.  And, as the year went on, I did see that I had enough older books as part of the assigned book club titles that I would not have to do much on my own here in order to make the resolution.  So, it is a technically resolution kept, but a shady victory at best.

Overall, I did okay; not great, but not terrible either.  Now it is your turn.  For today's Monday Discussion, reassess you reading resolutions made back in January and see how you did.  And, if you find you did poorly, there are still 5 weeks to turn it around.

For past Monday Discussions, click here.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

What I'm Reading: Where'd You Go Bernadette?

The march of reviews keeps going.  In my last post I wrote about 2 debut novels, so I thought today would be a good time to look at a second novel.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple had a lot of buzz when it came out a few months ago, so I put it on my to-read list.  The short version of my review is that I was totally engrossed in this book as I was reading it.  It was all set up as a mystery.  Bernadette goes missing and her daughter has created this book as a result of her work piecing everything together.  However, as much as I loved the novel while I was reading it, I was ultimately disappointed in the ending.

That's the quick review, here are the details on the appeal (why you would read it or not) with a little bit of plot details.

The novel is set up in a mostly epistolary style.  Bernadette's precocious 8th grade daughter Bee is gathering the documents to understand why her mom disappeared and figure out where she went.  This adds two interesting things to the story.  First, we have the story of a family told in a caper style format.  Note the word caper.  That denotes not just the investigative elements but the humor here. Second, we have a precocious narrator who is not annoying.  She only takes the narration for small portions of the entire story.  Mostly, she is presenting the emails, documents, letters, and articles to us.

This boils down to a great execution of a complex style by Semple.  This could have been a disaster, but instead, it all worked perfectly.  People who normally avoid overly precocious narrators, will not be annoyed by Bee, and what could have been another wacky family story, comes off as fresh and original  with the investigation's suspense and the quirkiness of the people involved both being positively enhanced by the frame.

Speaking of quirkiness, you will love this book for the characters. Bernadette comes alive through her emails, letters, and the articles about her amazing career as an architect.  Elgin, her husband, is endearing in his incompetence, and Bee, mentioned above, is realistic in her obsession to find her mother.

One customer review in Amazon mentioned that the truth is complicated.  That's another things I liked about this book. Yes it is a domestic comedy at times, and even a bit of a tear jerker at others. but the story and the characters are not one dimensional.  They have complicated back stories and personalities that felt real.  The story could have been filled with stereotypes-- the mean moms at school, the misunderstood mother, the computer genius--but it is not.  It is as rich and complex as life's real problems truly are; well maybe a little bit exaggerated since Bernadette is an actual genius award winner and Elgin, her husband, is a computer programming superstar.  But even that is down played when it comes to the plot. The Fox family, and even the secondary characters, are fleshed out and act and react like real people, not characters.

The setting is also important here as Semple skewers Seattle, its inhabitants, its coffee and Microsoft culture, and the private school system.  Semple's biting wit is slightly exaggerated but mostly true.  She also includes an amusing secondary storyline which satirizes the green building trend.

However, like when I read The City and the City by China Mieville awhile back, a complete reading of Where'd You Go Bernadette made me question whether or not early reviewers read the entire book. The reviews universally loved this book.  I agree that this is a 5 star book until you get to the last letter and final pages of the novel, and then it turns into a 3-3.5 star book.  I was so torn about my absolute adoration for this book until the final pages that I am making a friend with similar reading tastes read it to see if she agrees.

My problem is not that the ending is terrible.  Actually it is fine and serviceable.  But the entire book was so fresh, engaging, and original, that the serviceable ending was disappointing.  I am still leaning toward this book being worth a read because of all the reasons I listed above.  In fact, it would be a great read for the holiday season.  It has some meat to it but the epistolary style allows you to pick it up and put it down easily.  It is a fast, entertaining read, and since most of it takes place in the Fall leading up to and through the holidays, it is also a timely read.

Three Words That Describe This Book: epistolary, caper, character centered

Readalikes: If you liked the epistolary style and tone, you should try Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn In this epistolary novel, a young girl named Ella, lives on the fictional island of Nollop off the coast of North Carolina. The island is named for Nevin Nollop, the author of the famous sentence “The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.” When the local government begins banning letters of the alphabet as they fall off of Nollop’s memorial statue, Ella begins to fight for her community’s freedom of expression. Ella does what she can, but with each falling letter it becomes more difficult for her to communicate.

The intricate family tangle and comedy of manners aspects also reminded by of The Red House by Mark Haddon (review and details coming next week).

This book reminded me of Carl Hiaasen only in Seattle instead of Florida.

The entire book has an investigative frame without really being a true mystery.  If you enjoyed that part of it, I would also suggest The Tower, the Zoo, and the Tortoise by Julia Stuart. Read my full review here for more details.  In this case, the main characters have lost a child, but the reader gets the full story in bits and pieces.  The humorous tone is similar.  Also, both stories acknowledge that the truth is complicated.

Finally, another 2012 release that has a similar feel is The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.  Here is the plot summary from NoveList:
Harold Fry is convinced that he must deliver a letter to an old love in order to save her, meeting various characters along the way and reminiscing about the events of his past and people he has known, as he tries to find peace and acceptance.
It appears to also be amusing, heart warming engaging and off beat.  I am putting it on my to-read list.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

What I'm Reading: 2 Different Views of the Apocalypse: The Age of Miracles and The Dog Stars

Here is a "two-fer" of two of 2012's best reviewed debut novels; in fact, both were in Amazon's top 25 of 2012, and both have to do with an apocalyptic scenario.

I first heard about Karen Thompson Walker's debut novel, The Age of Miracles at the PLA Conference back in March of 2012.  What got my interest piqued was the set-up, so that's what I will start with here.

This novel is set in a near future in which the Earth's daily rotation begins to slow, gradually, so the days and nights each go on for longer and longer.  There is no end in sight here either.  The rotation slows a little more each day, so the end of the Earth is on the horizon, but just how long until the end, no one knows.

Our entry into this world is through the eyes of Julia, an CA resident, who is 11 years old when the slowing begins.  However, it is very important to note that the narration is all in the past tense.  Julia is telling us about the first year of the slowing from a vantage point of little over a decade later. This has 3 distinct effects on the narrative.

  1. We know that Julia and the Earth itself are going to make it through the initial days of the crisis.  So we are not just waiting for the world to end while we are reading. 
  2. Since this story is a recollection you lose the annoying too precocious for a kid problem of many books with a child's point of view.  In this case, Julia is an adult looking back on that pivotal year.  She can say things like, I didn't know it then but it was the last time I would ever eat grapes, with a sense of wistfulness and loss that she has gained with the passage of time.
  3. [And this is the most important distinction in terms of whether or not you will enjoy this book.] Julia's recollections of the slowing as an 11 year old are very personal and locally focused.  She comments on the different factions that emerge--those who want to keep clock time versus those who want to keep time with the cycles of day and night.  She notes when the wheat threshold was passed, meaning growing food naturally became impossible due to the large time periods of darkness.  But she does not spend a lot of time contemplating the socio-economic or political implications of these things.  She talks about them as they effect her.  Also, on top of the slowing, Julia is also concerned with her friendships, parents' crumbling relationship, and her first love.  11 is already "an age of miracles," and the slowing only puts a spotlight on this key year in a child's growth.
This narration is one of the key appeals of the book.  But why else would you read The Age of Miracles?

The descriptions of the slowing and all of its ramifications are fascinating and frightening.  Julia gives us an account of how long the stretches of all sun and all dark are.  She talks about how people try to cope, how basic life has to change, but how some things stay the same. Thompson did some research on what would happen if the Earth's rotation did begin to slow, but she admits in the notes that she took many liberties here.  However, it doesn't matter, the world she has created in this novel is compellingly real.  Because it is based in science and not the supernatural (like zombies), and because it was a gradual apocalypse, it all felt like it could happen.

Julia is the most well rounded character here, but there are solid secondary characters.  I do have to say her Mom and Dad seemed a bit stereotypical to me, but then again, we are seeing them through her 23 year old eyes, recalling her memories from when she was 11, so that could be how she saw them.  Thinking back now to my tween years, I really didn't think of my parents as people, so if I had to describe them, they would be a bit of a rough sketch too.

Please note, if you are looking for an explanation as to why the slowing started or how it will end, you will not get it here.  This novel has a completely open ending that draws no conclusion and provides no answers.  It is simply Julia's statement that she was there, lived through it, and is trying to keep living her life in a way that is useful and adds to society for as long as that will continue.  She will not and does not dwell on the catastrophe, she simply lives each day to its fullest.

Overall, I was captivated by the book, the setting, and Julia.  She had the fresh, innocent eyes to take this great change in and give it back to us, the readers, in a compelling and intriguing narrative.

Three Words That Describe This Book: ecological disaster, coming of age, captivating.

Readalikes:  The Age of Miracles reminded me of The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta.  Both look at a type of apocalyptic event that does not have an explanation and looks at how people deal on a micro-level. Click here for my full review of The Leftovers.

The Age of Miracles also reminded me of The Parable of the Sower series by Octavia Butler which takes place in a dystopian, near future CA, and follows a teenager.  

For non-science fiction, The Age of Miracles also reminded me of The Good Thief and anything by John Green.  Click here, here, and here to see why.

For a completely different view of a near future dystopia in both tone and writing style, there is The Dog Stars by long time outdoors, nonfiction writer, but first time novelist, Peter Heller.

While Julia gave us an 11 year old's, small range view into a catastrophe, in The Dog Stars, our protagonist Hig is a jaded adult, who can literally see the big picture of a world devastated by a flu pandemic from the window of his airplane.

Hig has lost everything-- his wife, his job, and it can be argued, his humanity-- in the pandemic. 99.7% of the population died.  It is 9 years later and life is bad.  People are desperate.  Hig and Bangley have made a good team though.  Set up at a small airstrip in Colorado, Hig, an amateur pilot, flies a 1956 Cessna around the perimeter, with his trusty copilot, his dog Jasper, making sure no one is coming to kill or raid them, while Bangley, who is good with guns and survival techniques mans the ground. They must kill some people, but Hig also helps a group of Amish who have "the blood disease," and brings back treats like salvaged cases of soda.

The entire book is from Hig's point of view.  It is written in stream of consciousness.  The sections are short and choppy.  The prose is spare but descriptive.  We follow the range of Hig's emotions.  He is still very distraught over the loss of his wife and the hopelessness of the world. The pacing is steady with bursts of action, but there are also stretches where nothing happens.

This is a methodical, contemplative book.  While Julia is captivating, Hig wears you down.  Once Jasper dies, Hig finally resolves to stop surviving and start living again.  As a reader, I was ready for this change and so very happy for Hig. He literally comes back to life.

I will not give away more plot details though.   I just want to let readers know that the methodical building of a tone of hopelessness and bleakness begins to lift when Hig decides to go past the safety perimeter.  Heller needed to establish this darkness though in order for Hig's transformation and what happens next to work.

This novel is much more character dependent than The Age of Miracles.  While Thompson's world building can carry large portions of the story, Heller's world has nothing but the characters, specifically Hig and, to a lesser extent, Bangley to keep it moving. The book is more of a character story than a story.

Again, the ending here is open, but with a little more certainty than in The Age of Miracles.  In The Dog Stars, it is hinted that survivors from the Middle East are coming, and Hig and his band of plucky survivors are moving toward living a life, not simply surviving.  Despite the bleakness at the novel's open, the darkness is beginning to slowly, one step at a time, recede.

This is a novel you need to finish, put aside, and think about for at least a few days before you can appreciate it fully.  That is a plus for me, but may not be one for you.

Three Words That Describe This Book: stream of consciousness, methodical, contemplative

This near future dystopia is for people who also enjoyed The Road by Cormac McCarthy which I still believe has a hopeful ending.

The Pesthouse by Jim Crace was suggested by NoveList, "Spare prose and unexpectedly moving romances characterize these post-apocalyptic novels, set in bleak futures in which humanity has been decimated by horrible diseases."

Two books I have read, loved, and think are good fits here are: The Reapers Are the Angels by Alden Bell and A Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier. All three novels look at apocalyptic situations with compelling characters and spare language.  They are also contemplative with open endings.  Use the links for each title to read more specifics.

For an outside of the box recommendation, I would also suggest Mystic River by Dennis Lehane. While it is a realistic, crime drama, it is also compelling and spare with characters that must over come great despair.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Thanksgiving Week

I have taken the rest of the week off of work to spend time with my kids during their break. Posting will happen this week, but it will be sporadic.

Nothing here this morning, but I did post a new review over on the horror blog last night.  Check it out.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Monday Discussion: Thankful Edition

Today is the annual Monday Discussion where I ask you to tell me what you are thankful for in reference to your reading life.

I'll go first.  I am thankful for happy surprisesAs you saw in my review of 11.22.63, I could not believe how much I adored that book.  I was really reading it because I felt I HAD to, but it was about as perfect a story as I have ever read. I am thankful for the skill of authors to create such wonderful stories that allow me to escape into another world.

I am thankful for happy accidents.  As readers of the blog know, I began talking to Gillian Flynn back in 2011 about appearing at the Berwyn Public Library.  And by the time Gone Girl came, not only was the book great, but it also was the big surprise best seller of the year, and was Number 1 on the NYT Bestaeller list the week we had her come to our library. Click here to access the video of her visit.

Finally, I am thankful for the patrons of public libraries everywhere, but specifically those of the Berwyn Public Library. I am thankful that they cherish the library. I am thankful that they support the library with their tax dollars, their extra donations, their time, and just their kind words.  I am thankful that I can be there to help them with their requests both small (a good book to read) and big (help in difficult times). I cannot imagine a better job than the one I have.

Now it is your turn.  What are you thankful for in regards to your reading and/or library life?

For past Monday Discussions, click here.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

National Book Awards

Due to the temporary self imposed blog rules I had to wait to post this.  I realize I am the last one, but here are the winners of the National Book Award:


2012 NBA Winners
Young People's Literature: 
William Alexander
, Goblin Secrets
(Margaret K. McElderry Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster Children's Publishing)
David FerryBewilderment: New Poems and Translations(University of Chicago Press) 
Katherine BooBehind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity
(Random House)
Louise Erdrich, The Round House (Harper, an imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers)

Congrats to the winners. 

On a personal note, I have always wanted to read Louise Erdrich and have never gotten around to her.  Between this book's great reviews and having a student this semester who loves Erdrich, I think Round House might be the title that gets me moving on that front.

What I'm Reading: 11.22.63

Since I mentioned 11.22.63 yesterday in my review of Shadow of Night, I figured this would be a great place to continue my mad dash to catch up (I still have 11 books to review and am about to finish reading 2 more).

Here is the quick plot. Jake Epping is a divorced English teacher in Maine in the present.  He is a good guy, good teacher, and is happy with his life.  One day when he goes to visit his friend Al at Al's diner, Jake is concerned.  The diner says it is now closed forever. He saw Al just yesterday and Al said nothing about this.  Jake find Al inside the diner, but the man looks as though he has aged years and is very ill.  Al explains that in the diner's store room there is actually a portal to 1958.  When you enter the portal and return, you have only been gone for 2 minutes in the real world, no matter how long you were gone in the past.

Al had just returned from being in the past for years, trying to stay long enough to stop Lee Harvey Oswald from killing JFK, but he got cancer and would never make it to 11/22/63.  He knew his only hope was to come back, pass on everything he knew to Jake and convince Jake to take up the cause.

What follows is the story of Jake's trip, as George Amberson, into the world of 1958 and beyond.  There are a few test trips, but most of the book follows the details of the the one that leads him to Dallas on the morning of 11/22/63.

If I had to say only one sentence about this book here is what it would be-- It doesn't matter if you are someone who doesn't usually like Stephen King or if you are someone who does not care about the Kennedy assassination, but if you are simply someone who enjoys a well told, compelling story full of action, great characters, and a realistic historical frame, read this book right now.

Look, I like King and I was still shocked at how much I loved this book.  I was hooked by Jake as a character from page 1. The time travel angle was also handled in a very realistic way.

The story is methodically paced because after a fast start, we are mostly waiting, with Jake, for the years to go by.  As a result, the majority of the book is a historical piece of Jake's life during that time but with the suspense and drama of Oswald and his impending date with history.  Even though it moves slower than your average thriller, you keep turning the pages because you know, like Jake, what is coming on 11/22/63. While in this middle part, I for one, was happy to become lost in King's recreation of the time and place, but other readers might be expecting more action.

I do not want to give away much of the plot. I am glad I heard nothing more than "you need to read this book as long as you like good stories," before I read it.

"The Past", in capital letters, is a character here.  It is the main villain actually, more than Oswald, and it is not until after the assassination is stopped that we see the full fury and evil "The Past" can throw at us. "The Past" is constantly after Jake and this adds a chilling and menacing aspect to the novel.

Here are a couple of other appeal terms that perfectly describe why you would want to read this book: character driven, intricately plotted, atmospheric, dark, psychological, scary without traditional horror elements, fascinating, beautiful, heart-breaking, bittersweet.

For fans of King I should also note that Derry, Maine, the nefarious town featured in many of his other novels (most notably IT), has a supporting role here. As other reviewers have mentioned, you do not need to have read anything else by Stephen King to understand that something is very wrong in the fabric of this small town, but if you do have the King back list knowledge, it enhances the story.

I am also happy to report that 11/22/63 is not only a great read, but it has one of THE BEST endings for a book that I have ever read.  I listened to this novel (more on that below) and as I was reaching the last tracks, the clock was nearing midnight.  I could not stop though.  Instead,  I sat alone in my dark kitchen by the light of the iPod, staring at my reflect in the window, simply riveted.  With so many great books that have left me disappointed with mediocre endings, I was elated to find the complete package here.  It was a perfectly written, captivating, bittersweet ending that summed up the entire tome in a small intimate scene.

Many people have asked me if 11.22.63 should now become a first stop for people new to King.  I think I still lean toward "no."  The Shining is still the best introduction to the bulk of his work and The Stand is still his masterpiece (but at over 1,500 pages, it is too long for a newcomer).  However, if you don't like horror and want to try King, this is a great book to "start" with.

Returning to the audio experience, 11.22.63 is narrated by Craig Wasson who I had also heard reading the 2 male narrated novella's in King's Full Dark, No Stars.  Wasson is steady, and since the entire book is written as if it is Jake's confessional/memoir, Wasson became Jake for me.  When I would return to the audio, it was like I was catching up with an old friend.  Wasson confidently inhabited Jake and gave convincing voices for the other characters. Wasson also portrayed the ranges of Jake's emotions well, and he goes through a full spectrum of them from elation to despair to anger and everything in between.  Wasson also has a good sense of the cadence of King's prose, which is probably why he has done a few King books.  Click here to hear an excerpt. The book is a long one, as is the audio: 30 hours and 44 minutes.  But honestly, I did not want it to ever end.

Three Words That Describe This Book: time-travel, nostalgic, chilling

Readalikes: For readers who want to be immersed further into the 1950s, I would suggest The Fifties by David Halberstam. I read this book years ago and I still remember it.

In terms of the time travel aspects, NoveList suggests This Shared Dream by Kathleen Ann Goonan:
"Although This Shared Dream has a more relaxed pace than 11/22/63, both alternate histories evoke the sights and sounds of mid-20th-century America as they explore the consequences of using time travel to influence events -- particularly the assassination of JFK."
I would also suggest the novels of Connie Willis.  In her books, the time travel sets up a book with some suspense and a healthy dose of historical frame.

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln by Stephen Carter is an interesting readalike option here.  Click here to see why in my reading map for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

I also feel like American Gods by Neil Gaiman has the same epic feel and features a regular, flawed guy who stumbles upon the power to change the future of the world.

I listened to 11.22.63 back-to-back with 1Q84 by Haruki Murakami.  I am not yet sure if they have a similar feel independently from each other, or I just think that because of how I encountered them.  I will explore that in more detail when I complete my review of 1Q84 in the coming days.  But both are methodically paced epic works by trusted storytellers that feature parallel realities.

Finally, from my new update of the Stephen King Readalike article on Novelist:
Another genre blending author is Dan Simmons, but with Simmons you can get any combination of horror, science fiction, suspense, thriller and historical fiction. Atmosphere drives his novels, with a deliberate pacing that allows the tension to build so intensely that it makes readers squirm. Like King, Simmons’ focus is on his characters. He includes interesting and thought-provoking details about real science and/or history in his books, and then adds a twist of dark, otherworldly elements. Try Flashback, a combination science fiction, near future dystopia, and psychological suspense story of a flawed man who is trying both to right his life and save America from nefarious forces.
Click here for my detailed review of Flashback.  It is a great readalike option here.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Hurricane Sandy Relief for Schools

As readers of this blog know, I am a transplanted Jersey Girl.  My best friend still lives there and is a teacher at a hard hit school (Red Bank, NJ).  They only went back this week, but they are in dire need of replacement books for the library and school supplies for the kids.

If anyone out there knows of any relief efforts for schools, please let me know.  I know a lot of fund raising has been focused on giving to the Red Cross which is a great charity, but these kids, from a poorly funded, impoverished school district could use some help.

Please contact me at zombiegrl75[at]gmail.com with any information or leads you may have. Also, feel free to cross post this on your blog.


What I'm Reading: Series Roundup

In this review, I am going to write about three 2012 releases in series that I always read.  In this case I will not hash out the appeal for these books/series as the "why" you would enjoy them has remained constant in each series and I have already gone into that in detail.  I will link to the previous reviews with those details and talk about key changes or issues in the newest books.  Finally, I will update any readlaike options.

Here goes...

The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken is the third book in the Vish Puri modern India set, Private Detective novels by Tarquin Hall.  Please click here to see my reviews of the two previous novels in the series for details.

Again we have the mix of appeal in the eccentric characters, the frame of what is good and bad about modern India, and a satisfying mystery.  In the past I have linked Vish Puri with Flavia de Luce, and although a pudgy, middle aged, Indian private detective in the 21st Century and an 11 year-old, amateur detective/budding chemist in 1951 England do not sound like they are similar at all, I can assure you the appeal in their stories is almost identical.  They both have a fairly cozy mystery, a strong family angle, eccentric characters, and a detailed frame.

The mystery here is very interesting and accessible, even for fans who are new to the series.  The murder involves cricket players and possible game fixing schemes, but as Puri looks into the case, it actually has much more to do with the ongoing hard feelings between India and Pakistan.

This case gets much deeper into Puri and his mother's relationship (always a fun part of the series), as Puri, who had vowed never to set foot in his ancestral home of Pakistan, must cross the border,  In the course of the case, he learns about the difficult secrets his mom has been keeping for her entire life involving the partition of Pakistan and India.

Series Order Issues?  This series continues to be one that is enhanced by reading it in order, but it is by no means a necessity.  Hall gives you enough background on the characters too allow the story to flow whether you know who they are or not. Also, since Puri has been a detective longer than the books have been chronicling his fictional career, Puri frequently refers to cases no reader has ever heard of.  In this case, if the frame of the legacy of partition is of interest to you as a reader, I would jump right in with this installment.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  character driven, India-Pakistan relations, humorous

Readalikes: Again, click here for past readlaikes.  They all still hold. 

With this title in particular, readers might want more information on the conflict between India and Pakistan.  Multiple resources have led me to suggest The Great Partition: The Making of India and Pakistan by Yasmin Khan.

Next up is the newest installment in Jasper Fforde's entertaining and satiric Thursday Next series, The Woman Who Died A Lot (#7).  Click here for the numerous times I have reviewed the other books in the series books and/or talked about Ms. Next here on the blog.

The Woman Who Died A Lot marks a new turn in the series.  We have moved up a bunch of years.  Thursday is now middle-aged and still quite battered from the last installment, One of our Thursdays is Missing, where the real Thursday was missing for most of the book.  Here in the 7th book, Thursday is back in the alternative England of Fforde's creation, but she is not longer in Special Ops, nor is she strong enough to travel into books.  Her new job is as the head of the Swindon Library system, but she is still battling Goliath.  The title of the novel refers to the fact that Goliath has figured out to create Thursday clones.

The plot revolves around the stupidity surplus, smitings by the almighty God who had finally revealed himself to humanity, the disbanding of the time travel service and experiments into the promise of new plots to be found in the DRM (Dark Reading Matter).  Thursday, her husband Landen, kids Tuesday, Friday and Jenny, as well as other familiar characters are all involved.

To the uninitiated this sounds crazy, but to Thursday Next fans, you know that all of these overly satiric, crazy plot lines will all come together in the end, and along the way you will have too many literary references to keep track of.  Also, the end hints that the next will return us all to the book world.

Series Order Issues? This series needs to be read in order.  Issues from as far back as the first book pop up here in book #7.  Interestingly, the 6th book is the least important to have read.  The 3rd and the 6th books take place completely in the book world so those two can be read as stand-alones, but this book, needs the frame of 1, 2, 4 and 5.

Three Words That Describe This Book: metafiction, satire, "punny"

Readalikes:  Click here to get a detailed list of dozens of readalikes for the series.  I would also suggest
 Mr Fox by Helen Oyeyemi for readers who like the whole metafiction thing.

And now for something completely different, the second book in the planned vampire-witch romance/thriller All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness-- Shadow of Night.  If you have not read A Discovery of Witches please click here and read my review.  It will set up this sequel which begins moments after the first book ended.

While we still have the paranormal romance here, Shadow of Night is much more of a historical adventure story.  First, I need to note that there is more sex in this installment.  Personally, I could have done without the multiple, detailed witch/vampire sex scenes (in fact I did do without them; I fast forwarded the audio to get back to the plot).  But, I also recognize that this may enhance the story for others, since this sequel does mover forward more methodically than the first.

I should note that 80% of the novel takes place in 1590 with only a few flashes to the present of the first installment.

The pacing is slowed because of all of the historical detail, which I personally enjoyed.  Also the entire reason they go back to 1590, besides looking for the book known as Ashmole 782, is to allow Diana to learn how to be a witch.  I will not give away the big twist in the confusion over Diana's inability to control her powers, but it is important to note that this plot element adds a huge coming of age theme to the novel.

The focus here is on the historical frame and Diana and Matthew's adventures in the past.  It is more historical fiction than paranormal thriller.

Like the first book, the issues of this novel are resolved, but we are left at a cliff hanger for the next book to begin. Also, while the first book ended with the hope of answers to be found in the past, this novel ends on a more ominous note, one I would liken to The Empire Strikes Back (also a second story in a trilogy).

Speaking of, normally I do not enjoy second books in a trilogy, but in this case, I really enjoyed this novel.  I enjoyed the historical fiction aspects of the novel, the history of witches, and seeing characters from history interacting with Diana and Matthew.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  intricately plotted, Elizabethan setting, coming of age

Series Order Issues?  Here I think the jury is still out.  The story in Shadow of Night is greatly enhanced by having read the first book, but since this installment takes place entirely in the past, readers who are intrigued by stories with an Elizabethan setting but were not interested in the modern day witch-vampire frame of A Discovery of Witches may still want to try Shadow of Night.  However, if you plan to read all three books to get the complete story, you must start with A Discovery of Witches.

Readalikes: Click through to see my original list of readalikes.

I think there is a great appeal in this installment for books about or set in Elizabethan times.  To start I would suggest:

  • The Elizabethans by A.N. Wilson (well reviewed popular history of the era, 2012 publication date; use the link to find more nonfiction options)
  • Voices of Shakespeare's England edited by John A Wagner (collection of primary documents, geared to high school and up)
  • There are many Elizabethan set mysteries, but I chose the Lady Appleton series by Kathy Lynn Emerson because of the setting and the sleuth's job as an herbalist (similar to the witch healers in Harkness' novel)

Also readers might want to reads works by or about of Marlowe or Shakespeare since both are characters here.

Finally, although they are completely different books, I found the time travel aspect, the way it was handled, and the respect for not changing history too much all compatible with 11/22/63 by Stephen King (review soon).

BPL Book Discussion: Still Alice

Way back on October 15th, the BPL Book Discussion Group met to have our monthly book discussion on Still Alice by Lisa Genova.  I have 2 reasons for being so late with this.  The first is I just kept putting it off for other deadlines.  The second is once it got to be really late, I waited because I am also discussing this book with my class tonight, so I figured I would save the write up for my weekly class preparation.

Also, please note that Still Alice was recently named on of the 30 books to be giveaway on World Book Night.

No matter which way you look at it though, I am seriously delinquent on this post.  So here goes...

Here is the publisher's description:

Still Alice is a compelling debut novel about a 50-year-old woman's sudden descent into early onset Alzheimer's disease, written by first-time author Lisa Genova, who holds a Ph. D in neuroscience from Harvard University. Alice Howland, happily married with three grown children and a house on the Cape, is a celebrated Harvard professor at the height of her career when she notices a forgetfulness creeping into her life. As confusion starts to cloud her thinking and her memory begins to fail her, she receives a devastating diagnosis: early onset Alzheimer's disease. Fiercely independent, Alice struggles to maintain her lifestyle and live in the moment, even as her sense of self is being stripped away. In turns heartbreaking, inspiring and terrifying, Still Alice captures in remarkable detail what's it's like to literally lose your mind.
As it states above, Still Alice was a first novel for Genova and became a huge best seller.  Genova has a PhD in Neuroscience and all three of her novels feature characters with diseases of the brain.  However, the most striking thing about Still Alice as you will see, is that we watch the downfall of one brilliant person as early onset Alzheimer's claims her brain all from her perspective only!  This narrative choice by Genova is the key to this novel's success as a book discussion choice.

On to our specific discussion:
  • I used the same ice breaker as always, asking for likes, dislikes, so-so votes
    • 10 liked, no disliked, and 4 so-sos.
  • The like people began by talking about how they saw loved ones get Alzheimer's and watched their downfall.  These participants talked about how seeing the disease from the other point of view was helpful and enlightening. The so-sos were because the book was "emotionally difficult to read" and too rosy.  One person said she felt as though she was eavesdropping on someone's life.  Others chimed in that the personal nature of the book was why they enjoyed it.  Also 2 of the so-sos wanted to see other perspectives, but the likes chimed in that this is why they loved the book.
    • Overall, this ice breaking discussion showed how this tactic can work wonders for getting a group warmed up.  We moved directly into a detailed and interesting discussion right from here.
  • John, Alice's husband came up right away.  I think this happened for 2 reasons.  First, Genova writes him as a polarizing character, but second, for my group at least, since they are mostly mature, long time married women, they felt emotionally connected to his reluctance to Alice's disease. Here is some of what was said about John
    • Horribly selfish: took job in NYC and left Alice to be cared for by nurses and children.  But someone asked if maybe John told her he was going and they had a discussion about it and she forgot.  Remember, we only get everything though her eyes and as Alice's doctor tells her (and us) early on, she is not a reliable person to tell others what is going on in her life since she will forget.
    • But on the other hand, he obviously did a lot of research into her disease and tried to get her into studies.
    • Also, it was hard to remember how young they really were (50) and Alice would probably not have wanted John to give up her career and successes for her.  They were both driven  scientists and academics. 
    • It is also made clear that they had drifted apart years ago and although they loved each other, their careers were both first in their lives before her illness.
    • But, said others, when you marry it is for better or worse.
    • The scene at their vacation house when she strips and goes for a swim, thinks about drowning herself but realizes she has too much to live for was memorable for many.  And then John appears and comes into the water to join her.  This scene says so much about their love and commitment to each other.
  • I want to bring up Alice's plan to kill herself if her disease got bad right away because the group did.
    • People were not surprised to find out that Alice had created an elaborate plan to alert herself when it was time to end her life.  She made the directions and computer file when she was not very ill.  As a practical scientist it made clinical sense.  But when she put her Blackberry in the freezer as her disease got worse, the daily reminder to ask herself key questions ended.
    • When John found the computer file we learn a lot about him as a person.  Since we know about the file from Alice, when John starts to ask her the questions she had set up for herself, we know he found it too.  We were torn about how he handled the knowledge that she had wanted to end her life when she couldn't remember key things.  Some felt that he wasn't respecting her wishes; in fact for one person, John became the villain of the story because of this.  Others felt the rules had changed--she was going to have grandchildren to enjoy and since one of the daughters had a 100% chance of getting the same disease, he was setting a good example for her; that she could still have a good life.
  • This led to a discussion of the heredity issues here.  Someone said this was one of the novel's biggest strengths--dealing with the issue so directly. Since we are dealing with a disease that if you possess the gene you have a 100% chance of developing early onset Alzheimer's, Genova can provide 3 choices through 3 characters.  Not only does she offer the three choices directly, she includes a discussion about why each makes this difficult choice for themselves:
    • Anna chose to find out because she wanted to have children, so her status will effect the lives of unborn children.  It turns out she tests positive, but the good news is that her husband and her can preselect fertilized eggs that do not have the gene, guaranteeing that she does not pass the disease on to another generation.
    • Tom, a doctor decides to get tested because his scientific mind simply needs to know.  He is negative.
    • Lydia, the actress with no family of her own feels like she has nothing to lose either way at this point in her life.  She chooses not to find out now because she will get it whether she is tested or not.
  • People really liked Alice's narration.  I mentioned above how the doctor tells Alice (and the reader) how she is not the best person to talk about how she is doing since her memory is slowly going.  As readers we were totally caught up in Alice's mind.  We, like her believed what we were seeing through her eyes, but unlike her, we remembered the things she forgot and realized that she didn't tell us everything.  We enjoyed stepping back and looking at situations with this knowledge, and discussed a few from this point of view.  The novel presents an interesting take on the unreliable narrator. Normally, the unreliable narrator is unreliable for nefarious purposes.  Here it was innocent, but just as effective.  We were impressed with the skill Genova had in creating this complex narration in a first novel.
    • Also, by seeing things from Alice's perspective only, we could see how painful it was for her to go from a professor at the top of her game, someone who studies the use of language, and then turn into someone who cannot find the right word.  It was heartbreaking, but since Alice had the intelligence and knowledge to explain to us what this felt like, it made the story even more powerful.
    • Although in our group this did not come up, the negative reviews on Amazon talk about how clinical this book is as a flaw, but I think they are not understanding the structure of the book.  Since the entire book is supposed to be from Alice's pov and she is a scientist, this is probably how she would look at it--in a clinical emotionless way.
    • Another complaint is that the kids seem too rosy and happy about it all, but again this is a limit of Alice's narration.  We are only seeing the reactions she sees and can remember.  They may be putting up a brave fight in front of her and only delving into their personal sadness when away from her.  As readers we would never know. These complaints are not valid in the way the book is structured.
  • We discussed the irony of the scene when Alice went into the neighbor's house.  For a few participants, this scene was a perfect example of what was happening in Alice's brain.  She goes "home" and enters the kitchen.  She is with it enough to understand that the cabinets are not arranged how she would like them and goes about reorganizing the kitchen.  However, it turns out things are out of order because she is in her neighbor's kitchen. This scene illustrated what was going on in her head more than scientific explaining could do.
  • We talked about Alice's increased connection to her dead mother as the story went on.  While it was heartbreaking to watch Alice relearning that her mom and sister had died years ago over and over again, it was nice to see her renewed attachment to her mother's butterfly necklace. As Alice got sick and lost her identity as a professor, she began to live her life more.  Her mother's saying that butterflies may only live 2 days but their life is so beautiful, really began to hit home for Alice.  Someone else pointed out that when you are sick, you want your mom, which explains why Alice's thoughts turn to her mother so often.  Alice is also finally able to cry at her mother's grave as her disease gets worse.
  • We talked about Alice's children a bit, but it was Lydia who took up the most time.  Lydia and Alice conflicted the most before the early onset Alzheimer's  Lydia, a brilliant student, did not want to go to college; instead, she moved to LA to be an actress.  As Alice got sick. Lydia checked in with her daily and was the one who could see the little changes in Alice as they piled up.  Someone commented that actors are students of human behavior so it made sense that Lydia reacted the best to Alice's demise.  Another person said that since they had had the most antagonistic relationship before the illness, they actually understood each other the best.  Still it was heartbreaking to watch Alice enjoy Lydia's performance in a play and then not know she was her daughter.
  • One of the most interesting things about Alice is that she is frustrated by the lack of support for the Alzheimer's patients themselves. Since most Alzheimer's patients are elderly, it is most often the caregivers and family who need support.  But with early onset, the patients themselves are young, fit, and still able to care for their own physical needs. Like Alice, they are quite often all too aware of what is going on and even more isolated because their peers are out in the workforce or in the community still.  With the elderly patients, they were already more withdrawn from society.  We liked seeing this group meet and the confidence leading it gave to Alice.  But it was upsetting to see how unresponsive the system was to Alice's request to create this group, and to see how fast Alice's downward spiral went.
  • We wrapped up the discussion talking about the book's final scene which also happens to be the only scene NOT from Alice's point of view.  We see John reading a newspaper report that the experimental drug study which Alice was a part of was being discontinued because the drug did not appear to be working.  Why end here.  We came up with a few reasons:
    • This showed that John had changed and matured; he had finally given up the denial and the fight for science to win out and save his wife.
    • It gave him closure
    • It lets us know that John can mourn the old Alice and gives us hope that he might finally embrace the new Alice
    • Finally, it is closure for us a the readers too.  This was an emotionally draining book and we can now let Alice move on also.
  • As usual we ended with words or phrases to sum up this book:
    • heartbreaking
    • inspiring/inspirational
    • terrifying
    •  educational
    • scary
    • painful
    • family
    • transformative
    • emotionally draining
    • informed by science
    • great characters
    • anxiety
Readalikes:  There are many different directions you can go in terms of readalike suggestions here.  The publisher's reading group guide suggests three titles, the info in parentheses are mine though:

Of course, many readers will want to know more about earl onset Alzheimer's.  For these readers I direct you to two different books:

For a look at other neurological diseases, Oliver Sacks' The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat is a classic collection of clinical tales on the topic.

Finally, although I did not see this connection anywhere, I found reading Still Alice to be a similar experience to reading Before I Go To Sleep by S.J. Watson.  Click here for my review and to see why.