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Wednesday, December 31, 2014

What I’m Reading: 2014 Wrap-Up Including my Personal Top Ten

Happy New Year’s Eve.

Before I get into the best books I read this year, I did want to make one general comment about my reading this year.  I read way more books than I reviewed here due to leading the ARRT Crime Fiction Genre Study. However, I made the sanity saving decision before beginning my two year commitment as genre study leader to NOT review each book here on the blog also.

Besides saving my sanity (which was very important), I didn’t want to over think the books I was reading. I did not want to teach the genres. I wanted to lead the discussion, guide it, and facilitate it.  Also, I knew there would be a record of what we discussed in the form of the notes of each discussion. For the Crime Fiction Genre Study, I wanted the group experience to be my biggest takeaway from reading these titles. I feel like I accomplished this while still having a detailed record of the titles I read.

Besides meaning that there were fewer reviews here on RA for All this past year, this also meant that I read fewer books for fun.  But, looking back at my year in reading as a whole, I feel like I had a very rich, educational, and fun year with the books I did spend time with. I had the chance to read many good books for personal enjoyment, as well as having the fantastic experience of meeting with my colleagues six times to discuss crime fiction books together, share our reading experiences, and talking about how to best help patrons with these titles. I feel like this made 2014 stand out as the best year for the pairing of my personal and professional reading in my 14 years of being a reader’s advisor.

Below you can find my top 10 books I read this year.  They are pretty much in order, give or take a spot.  Covers link to my reviews.

Looking at the ten books here on one screen, I can say that what united them is that they are all written in a way that turned my world slightly askew. These book entertained me while also making me look at the world from a different angle; something I enjoy doing.

These books also made my personal best list because I not only gave them 4 or 5 stars when I first read them, but they also all stayed with me well past the day I turned the final page. What more can we ask for from our favorite books?

RA for All will be back for a new year of reading and reader’s advisory on January 5, 2015.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

What I'm Reading: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

The best book I read this year, hands down was on all the best lists last year, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena [herein Constellation] by Anthony Marra.

This is an awfully hard book to book talk though because what it is actual about and why you would love it cannot be given in a soundbite. This is because how it is written is part of the joy of reading it, but more importantly, to tell anyone what it is actually about before they begin this novel would ruin the joy of discovering what lies at its center.


Well, now I can share the basic surface plot information-- Constellation follows a handful of interconnected characters during the second Chechen War. Not very light, I know, but trust me it is equal turns heartbreaking and beautiful.

Notice I led this bare bones description of the most basic plot elements with “interconnected characters.”  This is key because as the story begins, it is not clear how the characters and their personal stories will match up, but over time we see how they all relate to and even inspire one and other. That is the beauty of the novel.

The characters are key here and they all center around keeping a young girl named Hava safe. We have her father, their neighbors, and 2 women who are sisters but have been separated.

Within the focus of the characters lies a lyrical, methodical yet compelling, and complex story of a modern, regional conflict. We see the toll it plays on the lives of regular people. We watch the characters make difficult choices.  And we see a true picture of the reality behind the small sound bites we usually get of world news.  These are not uneducated, backwoods, rural people.  These are people like us, who are just trying to survive in a war zone. That is one of the most thought-provoking terrifying things about this work; how far away it seems, yet how close it really is.

This is a sobering war story.  The reader is not spared any of the horrors, especially the horrific ways people act when their backs are against the wall.  But there are also many beautiful scenes-- some heartbreakingly beautiful and other just simply beautiful.

The other remarkable thing to point out about Constellation the the style Marra chose to tell it.  Each chapter begins with a timeline of the 10 years over which the story is set, and the year we are dealing with in the chapter at hand is bolded.  For example, the first chapter takes place in the final year of the story [2004]. The story skips around, but we get these cardinal points to orient ourselves before we dive into a new chapter.

Along with the fluctuating time line, the pov also shifts. But rather than confound the reader, these two choices make the novel better. It allows the story to unfold in a more compelling, and less depressing manner.  We also get to see what happens to every character, which is highly satisfying.

The mixed up timeline and pov shifts also allow the story to end with a beautiful scene. Marra is not a slave to the straight progression, and can step back in time to wrap everything up with a scene from the story’s past, but one that is better at closing the novel both tone-wise and story-wise.

I was amazed by Marra’s restraint as a storyteller. He takes his time and slowly set all the the pieces in place. Reading Constellation is like putting a puzzle together.  It requires work from the reader, but oddly, it didn't feel like work.  The story flowed easily and was a joy to follow. This also gave the novel a magical realism feel despite the fact that there is not a shred of fantasy or magic here.  It is all realism.

I would have never picked up a novel about the Chechen war, but I am so glad others did and talked it up to me. It was a wonderful reading experience.

Three Words That Describe This Book: character centered, stylistically complex, heartbreakingly beautiful.

Readalikes: As I mentioned in my book discussion report, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki is a great readalike.  Click through for details on why.

A book I read years ago, Away by Amy Bloom, came to mind as I was reading Constellation. It is a bit lighter but has a similar idea. Here, we have a historical story of a mom who travels across the country to find her daughter. In Bloom’s novel you also get to find out what happens to characters after they leave the main storyline.

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon also has a purposely mixed up timeline but one that adds to the readers enjoyment. Both novels are tense and emotionally difficult, but so worth the journey.  With both novels, although they are sobering, you are not sad when you finish. You are more blown away by the technical mastery, and appreciate having been part of it all.

Many readers might want to read other similar works set in different modern war zones.  Two of the better ones I would suggest are The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht [Balkan War, actual magical realism here] or The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers [Iraq].

Finally, like Constellation was last year, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is one of this year’s best.  Both are stylistically complex, atmospheric, lyrical, and moving war stories.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Monday Discussion: Best 2014 Released Book You Read This Year

Today is part 2 of the end of the year Monday Discussion wrap up.  What I want to know today is what 2014 release was your favorite this year?

I’ll go first.  I have two-- Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel followed very closely by Josh Malerman’s Bird Box. Click on the titles for details.

What about you? Share your favorite book published this year.

And don’t forget to head on over to the Browser’s Corner to see more best picks from the BPL staff. They ran all last week and will continue through this week.  I may even have a few more  during the first week in January after some people come back from vacation.

For past Monday Discussions, click here.

Back tomorrow and Wednesday then off the rest of the week.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

What I'm Reading: Station Eleven

Whenever there is a new, critically acclaimed dystopian novel, I pay attention, and with Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, even I, someone who was expecting a lot, got so much more than I bargained for.

Technically, it is dystopian.  But, set 20 years after a very fast moving flu killed off most of humanity, Station Eleven is not about survival-- not even a little.  Some readers and critics have even complained about this. But that is what I loved about this novel-- the unexpected author’s purpose.

Because instead of survival, this is a novel about the human need to continue to produce art, to save the arts, and preserve our culture, even the stupid things. Our main characters are actors, musicians, artists, and a man who creates a museum of the everyday items from the world that has been lost in the airport that has become his home.

The story is told in a non-linear fashion, following a few characters throughout time from when the flu first hit to the story’s present, bouncing between time lines and characters with ease. Because this is the quietest dystopia I have ever read, the non-linear story telling, created tension, intrigue, and interest while also allowing the characters to flesh out in a compelling manner. I kept turning the pages to  unravel all of the people, places, and plot points in order to discover how everything was related.

While the mystery of who everyone is, how they are connected to each other, and how the flu epidemic put them in the physical places they are, there is an overriding plot about an over zealous preacher which adds tension and urgency to the fairly quiet story.

This is also a novel filled with beautiful language, thought provoking moments, and memorable images, like the plane that lands on a runway during the height of the flu outbreak, parks away from the terminal, and stays there for 20 years. It is referenced by different characters throughout that time.  It is both heartbreaking and hopeful. For me, it is the image that defines the feel and tone of the entire novel.

It is worth pointing out that there is also a very strong subplot about an unpublished graphic novel series that gives the novel it’s title. I would love to read that series given the chance.

This is one of the most beautiful and compelling novels I have read in some time.  I was completely wrapped up in reading it [during the Ebola outbreak, by the way, which may have enhanced my reading experience]. It is worth a read for fans of dystopia and anyone interested in thinking about what is most worth saving as civilization collapses. And as a bonus, the ending was great-- the main conflict was resolved and there was the hint of a hopeful moving forward for humanity.

Three Words That Describe This Book: disquieting, thought provoking, character centered

Readalikes: If you loved the character centered look at what happens after an epidemic that kills most people, but wished there was more action here, you should read The Stand by Stephen King (his greatest masterpiece) or The Passage by Justin Cronin.

If you liked the quiet look at survival in a world decimated by a horrible flu which also focuses on the intimate connections between people, try The Dog Stars by Peter Heller.

If you enjoyed the way the story was told, with the jumping around between time-lines and characters, but in a way that highlighted the connections between people and events that makes the story more enjoyable than if it was read in a linear fashion, try A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.

If you want to read a graphic novel that could be a read alike to the one at the center of this novel, I would suggest Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.

Friday, December 26, 2014

What I’m Reading: Graphic Novels-- Revival, Chew, and Shadow Hero

The year is winding down and I have 4 more posts [counting today] before I will officially post my top 10 reads of the year for blog perpetuity on 12/31.

Today it’s a quick 3-for-one round up of some graphic novels I enjoyed in the last third of 2014. But please note, I saved these to be reviewed together for a reason; there is a nice progression here.

In the heat of August, I read the third volume in a horror graphic novel series that is set in a frozen winter in Wisconsin, Revival Volume Three: A Faraway Place by Tim Seeley and Mike Norton.

I read and reviewed the first 2 volumes on the horror blog here. Please read that review, because the set up and appeal here is still the same [and quite honestly, why would I take the effort to post a review and archive it if you don’t go read it].

Here is how I feel now that we are 17 issues in.  This is a solid, creepy, atmospheric, supernatural crime story.  It is still very dark, with fantastically complex female characters (which in horror is worth pointing out), but I think the authors are still finding their way story wise.

The plot got a bit muddled here in the third compiled volume, but not in a way that I would not continue.  I think we are simply at the point in the plot where a big revelation or a plot twist is coming.  The problem with complex stories told in graphic novels is that we have to wait to wait for more issues to see the entire story arc unfold, and since I read them compiled, I have to wait longer.

However, Revival is still very good.  It is an excellent choice for fans of dark, character driven, supernatural graphic novels.  It is interesting from a psychological standpoint, and is very thought provoking.

By the way, Revival Vol 4 came out this fall. I’ll be reading it soon.

Three Words That Describe This Book: dread, strong female characters, thought provoking.

Readalikes: I posted many for a wide variety of reading tastes here. But to that list I would also add the stories of Edgar Allan Poe.  This series has the same creepy, psychological feel as all of his work.

Another graphic novel series I read [and love] is Chew by John Layman and Rob Guillory.  This summer they released the 4th compiled volume of this dark, dystopic, character driven series.

I saved this review to run with Revival for a few reasons.

  1. The two series are readalikes for each other.
  2. They recently had a cross over issues.
  3. 3. Like Revival, early into the story of Chew I was also feeling like the overall story arc was getting muddled. I knew that the growing pains had to happen, and that I had to be patient while the story was unveiled, but because I loved the set up and where I thought it was moving, I was anxious to get to the meat.

[So, Revival, you are lucky that Chew has turned such a fantastic series because I am staying patient for you.]

Yes, Chew has matured into everything I thought it would and could be.  This is a robust, highly engaging, and delightfully original [without being crazy] series.  The plot, the characters and the art have matured into some of the best in the entire graphic novel industry.

Again, for more setup, I have talked about the story, the art (which I LOVE), and the appeal of both at length here. But without giving away details, just trust me-- if you like non-superhero,  graphic novel series, and don’t mind speculative elements, read Chew. How often do you get fun, interesting, and thought provoking stories in any format?

Three Words That Describe This Book: original story, eccentric characters, dark humor

Readalikes: Click here for a ton of suggestions.  I also think that fans of Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files might also enjoy the supernatural, criminal investigations here. I have had luck giving fans of the Butcher series Chew.

Also, Hellboy is a nice readalike for the dark, at times gruesome, but still darkly humorous storytelling here.  Although the art here in Chew is much brighter, and lightens the dark tone of the series quite a bit. Some Hellboy fans might not enjoy that. But I have noticed that the two supernatural crime series both attract a large number of female readers, for what it is worth.

Now, check out this transition to the third graphic novel [because I did plan this]....

Tony Chu and his entire Asian-American family who are the stars of the popular and award-winning Chew series, owe a lot to the very first [arguably] Asian American character in comics history, The Green Turtle.

Yes, I said The Green Turtle. What you haven’t heard of this classic 1940s superhero? Don’t worry, you are not alone.  He has largely been lost to history. But thanks to the fabulously talented and multiple award-winning Gene Luen Yang, with help here from Sonny Lieu we can all know learn about The Green Turtle and read his origin story in their graphic novel, The Shadow Hero.

Yang and Liew take the interesting history behind this forgotten superhero and create a YA, coming of age, graphic novel about a 19 year-old, second generation, Chinese American boy in NYC’s Chinatown-- the young man who would become The Green Turtle. While set in the 1940s, this is a very post-modern, 21st Century inspired story as the boy becomes a superhero at the nagging of his overbearing mother.

While the original story/superhero stuff here is fun and interesting, it is the characters, their motivation, and the historical frame that shine here.

After the origin story that is the meat of this volume, Yang has written a history of The Green Turtle and included some of the actual comics.  I found learning about the true story behind The Green Turtle both shocking and interesting.  That part alone is worth a read.

The art here is in the style of classic comics of the era, but in sort of a “wink-wink,” hipster, knowingness sort of way.  They know you know that it is in that style, so they pull back a little and put a tiny bit of a modern spin on it all.  Page through the book and you will see what I mean.

Three Words That Describe This Book: forgotten superhero, historical, Chinese Americans

Readalikes:  Technically, The Shadow Hero is a YA novel, but it clearly appeals to adults who are also interested in the history of comic books. And if you are one of those adults and you haven’t read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon, you need to go get a copy right now.  This if one of my personal, all-time favorites.

But if you want another Asian-American, graphic novel which is okay for teens to adults, NoveList directed me to Ichiro by Ryan Inzana. [By the way, Novelist also has a great Recommended Reads list on Asian Teen Lives for more titles with this appeal.]

If you want to read other superhero comics, I think the older Superman comics are a great readalike here since this was created in a similar time period.  But in general, any of the original comic book characters from the 1930s and 40s are a good bet here.

Finally, those interested in getting a big picture overview of the history of comic book superheroes should get their hands on one of these two encyclopedias.

Back tomorrow with another review.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Monday Discussion: Best Book You Read This Year-- Not Published This Year

There are 2 Monday's left in 2014 that means there are 2 more Monday Discussions.

This week is your chance to weigh in on the best books you read this year that were NOT first published in 2014 because great reads can happen with any book.

Many of the Berwyn Library folks have already weighed in  on this topic with their best picks on our staff reading blog, The Browser's Corner.  I have set those to run over the next two weeks.  Deb is up first today with her picks.

So please check the Browser's Corner for more "Best" picks from this year and year's past because if the publication date doesn't matter for why something is a great read, why should the year in which it was given that "Best" status by any given reader matter. Use our "Best of the Year" tag to pull them all up.

But I am also collecting your best reads here too.

I will go first.

I have a tie for the two best books I read this year that were NOT published in 2014, and both were read for a book club.

The first is A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki [2013] which my group read and discussed in October.  You can click through to read more about this amazingly deep and thoughtful book that is still accessible and compelling.

For the same reasons, I also loved A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra which I read for an ARRT Literary Book Discussion in July.  I still have not written my review of it yet, but it will be up by the end of the year. This was as close to a perfect book as I have ever read. In fact, that is why I was having so much trouble writing the review; I am struggling to put its perfection into words.  I will have details later this week and will adjust this paragraph and link accordingly.

What about you? Please share your best read from the past year of a book with a publication date before 2014.

For past Monday Discussions, click here.

Friday, December 19, 2014

BPL Book Discussion: Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore

This month we wrapped up a great year of discussions with a party, a discussion about our discussions, and an actual book discussion of a wonderful treat of a story for book lovers everywhere-- Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan.

Here is the publisher's description:
A gleeful and exhilarating tale of global conspiracy, complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, young love, rollicking adventure, and the secret to eternal life—mostly set in a hole-in-the-wall San Francisco bookstore. 
The Great Recession has shuffled Clay Jannon out of his life as a San Francisco Web-design drone—and serendipity, sheer curiosity, and the ability to climb a ladder like a monkey has landed him a new gig working the night shift at Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. But after just a few days on the job, Clay begins to realize that this store is even more curious than the name suggests. There are only a few customers, but they come in repeatedly and never seem to actually buy anything, instead “checking out” impossibly obscure volumes from strange corners of the store, all according to some elaborate, long-standing arrangement with the gnomic Mr. Penumbra. The store must be a front for something larger, Clay concludes, and soon he’s embarked on a complex analysis of the customers’ behavior and roped his friends into helping to figure out just what’s going on. But once they bring their findings to Mr. Penumbra, it turns out the secrets extend far outside the walls of the bookstore. 
With irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan has crafted a literary adventure story for the twenty-first century, evoking both the fairy-tale charm of Haruki Murakami and the enthusiastic novel-of-ideas wizardry of Neal Stephenson or a young Umberto Eco, but with a unique and feisty sensibility that’s rare to the world of literary fiction. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is exactly what it sounds like: an establishment you have to enter and will never want to leave, a modern-day cabinet of wonders ready to give a jolt of energy to every curious reader, no matter the time of day.
On to the discussion, but first, this discussion contains SPOILERS [sorry]:

  • We had 3 outright likes, 0 dislikes, and 10 so-sos, but pretty much every single so-so was leaning toward like.  As we discussed multiple people said they would probably switch to like. Details on why we voted the way we did:
    • I got a little bored in the middle but I really liked the first and final thirds a lot.  There were many seconds to this thought
    • I thought there was too much technology.
    • But I loved that part.  Also Kat, as the lead techie was a fantastic character and such a strong and positive female presence in a male dominated world. 
    • I moved from so-so to like because of the ending. The old and new knowledge coming together to show us a message of the power of friendship across the centuries was beautiful, unexpected, and just awesome.
    • The writing was "a little too cute" for me.
    • But, chimed in another person, Clay is that too cute guy.  He is young and looking for himself, and he is our narrator.
    • I could tell it was a debut novel. 
    • It is such a visual novel; it would make a great movie.
    • Yes, I would love to see the scene when Google is taken down for 3 seconds.
  • Question: What are these characters searching for-- both literally and metaphorically?
    • Manutius-- it was his body in the coffin [or lack of it] that began this search in the 1500s. By the 21st century it is so muddled that as readers we are often muddled and confused.
    • Yes, this might explain why the middle was so hard for me.  It did feel muddled, but maybe that was on purpose. The clarity of the ending felt so good as a reader.
    • Clay walks in as a middle man.  He is a outsider who has friends on both sides of the debate-- the all out techies and those who study things from the past and everyone in the middle.  It is his position in the middle, as someone who has not found himself yet, that makes it possible for him to come in, clear up, and solve this 500 year old mystery.
    • Clay uses old and new knowledge seamlessly. He made people on both sides work together.
    • I loved that he used all of his friends to solve a 500 year old puzzle and in the end the puzzle's answer was that friendship is the key to everything in life.  It made the book so much more poignant that I thought it would be as I was reading it.
    • The ending was a little too happy for me.  But, said someone else, I think it needed the happy ending to prove they all learned the message and could agree to live less on the fringes and extremes and use old and new knowledge together.
    • The search felt so real and important. I was following all of the clues and the adventure literally.  But then, at one point I wrote in my notes-- stop taking everything so literally.
    • Yes, I think the entire story is meant to be an allegory about how we need to pool all of our knowledge as humans-- the old and the new-- and use it to live our lives.  And, it is also an allegory about the power of friendship. You can get more done together than alone.  Look at all of those people trying to break the code alone; for 500 years they were unsuccessful. But together--friends pooling expertise and using old and new knowledge-- succeed.
    • I loved the parallels drawn to the structure of Epic Fantasy novels. Those are always about different creatures coming together to solve some ancient problem.
    • I liked how Mr. Penumbra himself cared the least about the bookstore. He always cared more about the message and the puzzle. Once Manutius' book was decoded, he was fulfilled.
  • Question: Let's talk about the history of old and new printing and books.
    • I loved all the information about the early days of printing. I looked up info on Griffo, Gerritszoon font and Manutius to learn more. All the info in this novel is true. I learned so much.
    • The little touches, sneaking in little inside jokes.  For example, Manutius' printing seal had a dolphin and an anchor and the bar they go to in NYC is named The Dolphin and the Anchor.  There were lots of these examples.  I want to read the book again, now that I know more, and find more of them.
    • I loved how this book provided a history of reading portrayed through the different characters.  From the old ways of the reading room all the way up to ebooks with many in-betweens. 
    • Even audio books are included. Those scenes were great.
    • It is like the author is saying with this book-- Just read! Who cares how.
    • If I had read this book last month instead of this month, it would have been my main present for all of my friends.
    • This is also about the history of movable type since its invention.
    • Could someone from 500 years ago take this book and, if they knew modern English, understand how to read it?  Yes. The technology of printing it has changed, but the action of reading a book has not.  Even an ebook.  If you gave that person the Kindle they could figure it out.  The act of reading a typed book has not changed very much.
    • What about 500 years from now? Well, they could have a way to simply insert an entire book into our brain and give us the info in an instant.  That would be very different...and less fun.
  • Question: What does this novel say about the idea of immortality?
    • Gerritszoon typeface makes Groffo immortal. And, his message is wisdom about the meaning of life.  Interestingly, his message about the importance of friendship is the key to his immortality.  It took a group of friends to solve it, and it took a group to save the book over the centuries.
    • So while no one rose from the grave as the Bound [cult] thought, they are all immortal because of their codex vitae they all left behind.
    • Manutius had to have faith in the technology of movable type to hope that his coded book would survive.
    • We talked about different ways to be immortal. One participant shared how she feels she lives on in the students she taught. Another shared how they pass on traditions from dead relatives to the next generation and share information about the relative who started the tradition. That is a way to be immortal [while actually dead] too.
    • Kat is the character who is interested the most in literally living forever.
    • But even Kat can see that Griffo is immortal in one way and dead in another.
    • Different characters in the book give different views on what it means to be immortal.
  • Question:  Let's talk about the idea of a codex vitae:
    • I love this idea of writing down all that you've learned throughout your life in one book.
    • We compared a codex vitae to journaling.  In our group there were 6 serious journalers. They shared what it means to them to take time to reflect upon their lives on a regular basis.
      • When I journal, I am not always writing about what I learned, but more about my feelings or ideas I have had.
      • If I don't journal my head gets confused. I need to get it out.
    • One participant shared how her Dad wrote a diary most of his life and she has those diaries.  She reads them often. "I have begun to relive his life and integrate it into what I remember as a kid." So cool.
    • One member shared her personal codex vitae: Love Fully, Seek "Truth," Distrust "Truth." Keep on learning. She said the middle parts are borrowed from someone else.
  • Question: What does the title mean?
    • Penumbra refers to an area of partial illumination, or something that serves as a shroud.
    • It is the night-shift people who make all of the difference in the solving of the puzzle (Clay and Moffat and Deckle).
    • Penumbra gives the curious clerks just enough light to shine through the darkness and let them be great.
    • This light is also eternal because it is 24-Hours.
    • Also the answer to the puzzle is eternal.
    • Yet the eternally open, 24-Hour bookstore does close and turn into a climbing gym. Hmmm?
    • Also, our paperback copies glow in the dark.  We had so much fun turning off the lights to sit in the dark and look at them.
  • Final thoughts time:
    • I loved the comment by Kat that we don't have the same brains as we did 1,000 years ago.  We have the same hardware but completely different software.
    • Reading takes you away. When Clay was in the reading room and lost track of time, that is what this book did to me.
    • Sloan did a great job of portraying big ideas, but he also had great small details in here too.
  • Words of phrases to sum up the book:
    • Immortality
    • Friendship
    • Meaning of Life
    • Reading
    • Illuminating
    • Old and new
    • Technology
    • History
    • Thought Provoking
    • Multi-Generational
    • Great Characters
    • Attention to Detail
    • Big Ideas
    • Visual
Readalikes: As you can see from the discussion, this book leads you in so many different, yet equally as interesting locations.  As a result, there are many readalike suggestions to provide.

The very first book I thought of when reading Mr. Penumbra was Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.  Click here for my review of this great book.  Both involve a reluctant hero on a quest to solve a puzzle using a cadre of friends with varying talents to succeed. This would be the best overall readalike.

For those who like the love of books angle here are some good options.

For those who like the technology/cyber angle try:
For those who like the Epic Fantasy angles and parallels drawn here should try:
Finally, a book that came to mind as we discussed [that I shared with the group] is A Brief History of the Dead by Kevin Brockmeier.  This is one of my all time favorite books, and would be of the most interest to those interested in the parts of Mr. Penumbra that deal with immortality.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Getting Ready for My End of the Year Best Lists

I have a couple of meetings today and then tomorrow, I will be setting the BPL’s Browser’s Corner blog to run our staff’s picks for the best books they read this year.  Also, next week I will begin the 2 part end of the year Monday Discussions where you get to crow about your favorite reads of the past year.

I love running all of these different best lists from the regular person’s perspective. Yes, the critics’ lists are fun to see and spark lots of heated discussion, but I like hearing from my friends and colleagues about what they read this year that stuck with them, moved them, or simply kept them glued to the page. And often those books were not published in the current year.  The best lists I am talking about are not constrained to the publication year as the critics’ lists are.

So when I run the Monday Discussion over the next 2 Mondays, I will be asking you to tell me the best book you read this year-- regardless of publication date.  But then I will also give all of us regular folks the chance to weigh in on our favorite 2014 too [because the paid critics don’t get to have all the fun.]

But back to the "any publication year" point.  One of my big soapbox issues about helping leisure readers at the public library is utilizing the backlist.  [You can read many of my suggestions and rants in the topic using this link.] So, I thought to get in the spirit I would post the links to all of the books I have put on my personal annual best list here on the blog, going back to 2007. [Wow, that is a long time.]

Take a look and consider giving one of these books out to a patron who wants a “best book” but can’t find any of 2014’s contenders on the shelf.

Becky’s best reads of the year:

[Editors note: Going through those links was like an episode of this is your life. Need a fun end of the year work break? Go back and look through your own personal best books lists from year’s past. It’s a great RA training exercise AND it is a lot of fun.]

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Discussion Mandatory Maintenance-- The Annual Discussion About the Discussion Group

Each year in December, our book group meets 2 hours early to have a pot luck lunch and chat. We always leave time before we start discussing the book to have our annual discussion about the discussion group. We had this meeting on Monday.

No matter how good your group is, no matter how well you think you work together, you must take some time at least once a year and have an honest discussion about the group-- the group dynamic, your leadership, the book choices, EVERYTHING.

The first few times we tried this with the group it was definitely uncomfortable.  People did not want to offer suggestions or even openly discuss any issues they were having.  But there were issues and I was able to coax them out.

We began small: they didn't like me sitting at the head of the table, so I moved to the middle.

Then, we started getting more serious: they were not happy with the books even though they voted and we mostly took the majority winners.  We worked together to fix the problem by making the ballot allow votes for up to 8 books for the 6 month period.  This actually allowed 5 clear choices to rise to the top, instead of 3 or 4. Allowing people to vote for 8 books gave us a clearer picture of what the group as a whole was most interested in.

But, it took until year 3 for people to begin to openly talk about the problems with our group dynamics.  This led to our creation of group and leader norms, a topic I talk about at length in this article and in this presentation.

Although we just ended year 13 of the group [with one original member in attendance on Monday], this is only year 5 of the annual discussion about the discussion group.  But I would have to say, this year's discussion was the most open we have ever had.

So, while I will have notes on our discussion of Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore up by the end of the week, right now, I will list the notes from our discussion about the group.

Please consider undertaking a similar discussion with your groups.  I can tell you from experience, every group needs it and every group will benefit from it.  It will be very awkward at first, but you will see positive results from an open and honest dialog about how your group functions.

Here are the notes in the order they came up:

  • The selections this year were "astounding." By this I do not mean each book was spectacular, or even that I liked every book, but rather, as a whole they made for an intriguing year of discussions
  • Some of our more recent books were hard to get into, but I powered through because I knew the discussion would be worth the slog.
  • I want to try another graphic novel.  We did Fun Home almost two years ago now.  I think we should do another.
  • I also want to try a YA book. I am intrigued by the YA books my friends are reading, but wouldn't know where to go to pick one for myself. And, I wouldn't read it on my own, but I would consider reading it so we could discuss it together.
    • Someone chimed in that this was okay, but no zombies or dystopias. There were giggles.
  • I like how much respect we show each other. There is also a great level of trust here. We all have shared personal stuff, but it is a safe environment to do that in.
  • There have been months where I have thought that this particular book was not my cup of tea, but I knew someone in the group would like it and I could learn from them.
  • I love our diversity in our backgrounds and education and interests.  Our varied experiences make the discussion better.  
  • All of the books I read here I wouldn't have picked off the shelf myself. I love that.
  • We had a couple of group dynamic specific suggestions:
    • I was in a church group recently and we tried something I would like to try here.  Instead of voting on how we felt about the book at the start and then having volunteers share their initial responses, we should pair up and talk in pairs about our initial reactions for a few minutes and then each pair can present to the group on what they thought and learned from each other. The woman who suggested this said it would give us all a chance to practice listening to each other right from the get go.  The way we do it now puts an emphasis on sharing right away, but not as much on listening.  It usually takes us a few minutes to start listening to each other; this would make listening important from the get go.
    • What about a "pass the baton" start to each discussion?  We could start with a volunteer who shares one thought about the book, she passes it to the next person who either talks or chooses to pass.
I hope this helps you to help your group to have wonderful book discussions together:

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

BPL Book Discussion Schedule January-June 2015

Yesterday, my book club met for our annual holiday party.  Besides discussing Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Book Store, we also handed out the schedule for the first six months of 2015.
Monday Afternoon Club Meets at 2:00
I will have a report on yesterday's discussion, tomorrow.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Monday Discussion: What Books Are You Giving As Presents This Holiday Season?

99% of the readers of this blog work in a library, so I don't think I am going out on a limb here to assume that many of you are buying people books for the holidays.

I thought we could all share ideas here to help each other with the Monday Discussion question: What Books Are You Giving As Presents This Holiday Season?

I'll go first.

For my mother-in-law who enjoys literary fiction and a Russian setting, I chose A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. This was one of the best books I read this year [review soon].

For my father-in-law who loves a good mystery and appreciates a mix of the old, standard tropes with good characters and a modern setting, I chose the 2 Galbraith mysteries penned by J.K. Rowling.  I also listened to both of these this year and enjoyed them [review soon]. 

I also suggested books for family members to buy others including:
What about you? For today's Monday Discussion share the books you are giving as gifts this year.  Maybe you can help one of our fellow librarians pick a gift for someone on their list.

Best books discussions start next week.

For past Monday Discussions, click here.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Library Reads: January 2015

The list is linked here.  Remember to look at old lists for sure bet ideas.

January 2015 Library Reads List


As Chimney Sweepers Come
to Dust: A Flavia de Luce

by Alan Bradley

Published: 1/6/2015 by Delacorte Press
ISBN: 9780345539939
“After the unexpected recovery of her mother’s body brings the de Luce’s family secrets to light, Flavia’s life is turned upside down. Now on her way to a Canadian boarding school, she must survive her first term–and more importantly, uncover the mystery of a corpse found in her dorm room chimney the night she arrives. A delightful installment in the series!”
Lizzie Gall, Grand Rapids Public Library, Grand Rapids, MI

The Rosie Effect: A Novel

by Graeme Simsion

Published: 12/30/2014 by Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 9781476767314
“Don Tillman and Rosie are back again, and they’ve relocated to New York. Rosie is continuing her studies, while Don is teaching and even adding to his small circle of friends. But when Rosie announces that she is pregnant, Don is once again out of his depth. What follows are crazy situations that could only happen when Don is involved. Funny and heartwarming.”
Catherine Coyne, Mansfield Public Library, Mansfield, CT

The Magician’s Lie: A Novel

by Greer Macallister

Published: 1/13/2015 by Sourcebooks Landmark
ISBN: 9781402298684
“Arden is a famous illusionist whose show involves sawing a man in half, but one night, she grabs an axe instead of a knife and her husband is found dead under the stage. Can Arden, an expert at deception, get away with murder–or is she really innocent? Recommended to anyone who likes historical fiction, strong women characters, and surprisingly twisty plots.”
Paula Jones, Brockton Public Library, Brockton, MA

The Girl on the Train: A Novel

by Paula Hawkins

Published: 1/13/2015 by Riverhead
ISBN: 9781594633669
“Rachel is a washed-up thirty-something who creates a fantasy about the seemingly perfect couple she sees during her daily train ride into London. When the woman goes missing, Rachel manages to insert herself into the investigation of the woman’s disappearance. In the vein ofGone Girl, this dark psychological thriller is fast-paced and features some very unreliable narrators.”
Andrea Larson, Cook Memorial Public Library, Libertyville, IL

Golden Son: Book II of the Red Rising Trilogy

by Pierce Brown

Published: 1/6/2015 by Del Rey
ISBN: 9780345539816
“After reading Red Rising, I was looking forward to seeing more of the politics of this world. Darrow has infiltrated the Golds and works to bring them down from the inside, end their tyranny, and free his people. There’s so much political drama and action. Brown does a wonderful job describing it all through Darrow’s eyes. It’s exhausting, thrilling, and heartwrenching!”
Nita Gill, Brookings Public Library, Brookings, SD

The Dress Shop of Dreams: A Novel

by Menna van Praag

Published: 12/30/2014 by Ballantine Books
ISBN: 9780804178983
“Tidy, romantic, and fine escapism. All the characters here have interesting back stories: Cora is believable as a no-nonsense gal trying to rebuff sweet Walt’s advances, and Etta is someone I’d like to meet in real life. Reminiscent ofLove Actually and P.S. I Love You, this cute little book is recommended to readers who want to be charmed by the possibilities of love.”
Andrienne Cruz, Azusa City Library, Azusa, CA

The Bishop’s Wife

by Mette Ivie Harrison

Published: 12/30/2014 by Soho Crime
ISBN: 9781616954765
“As a practicing Mormon, I felt Harrison did a great job of detailing Mormon culture and doctrine without evangelizing. I appreciated that the bishop is a good man, and the bishop’s wife is a woman who has been through her own struggles. The bishop’s wife sometimes can barely keep up with all the drama and mysteries around her. But she does, and does it quite well under the circumstances. This is a rather brave book.”
Amanda Monson, Bartow County Library System, Cartersville, GA

Vanessa and Her Sister: A Novel

by Priya Parmar

Published: 12/30/2014 by Ballantine Books
ISBN: 9780804176378
“Told uniquely as part diary, part epistolary novel, Parmar focuses on the relationship of Vanessa (later Bell) and Virginia (later Woolf) Stephens, one filled with unspoken jealousy and a fierceness of love that will ultimately destroy their kinship. This well-researched novel with gorgeous prose brings the characters to life with a unique perspective.”
Jennifer Winberry, Hunterdon County Library, Flemington, NJ

First Frost

by Sarah Addison Allen

Published: 1/20/2015 by St. Martin’s Press
ISBN: 9781250019837
First Frost is a great continuation of the stories of sisters Claire and Sydney, and Sydney’s teenage daughter, Bay. Each of the Waverlys has their own somewhat supernatural gift, and all of them struggle with issues of identity and family. As with Allen’s previous works, this novel will appeal to fans of Alice Hoffman and readers who enjoy family stories that are not overflowing with angst and drama.”
Lauren Mitchell, Pima County Libraries, Tucson, AZ

Full Throttle

by Julie Ann Walker

Published: 12/2/2014 by Sourcebooks Casablanca
ISBN: 9781402294518
“Readers can always count on Walker to deliver a suspenseful, action-packed read, and she delivers on all counts. However, it isn’t the heart-pounding adventure that makes this a fabulous story–it’s the characters. Abby and Steady, college friends who were torn apart by a mutual loss, have great chemistry. Walker has created a complete and suspenseful narrative.”
Vanessa Gempis, Dallas Public Library, Hampton-Illinois Library, Dallas, TX

Thursday, December 11, 2014

SLJ's Adult Books 4 Teens

School Library Journal's fantastic Adult Books 4 Teens blog released their Best Adult Books 4 Teens 2014 list. This list is exactly what it sounds like...the best adult books for teens that were relaesed in 2014.

Let me back up a second though.  The entire blog is a great resource to help teens AND adults. Click through and you can find titles organized by genre and a tab for "Best" books going back a few years.

Whether or not you help teens, all of the books on the blog serve as an excellent sure bet option for all of your leisure readers from teens to adults.  The titles here are proven winners that have wide appeal.  They will not have gratuitous sex or violence, and they have been vetted by critics.  Most are also fairy well paced.

This is a regular blog and should be consulted more often than once a year to see the "best" designations.  I actually use this resource to help adults more than teens.  I especially like the nonfiction section, as I have many adult patrons who want to read more nonfiction, but do not want to read "doorstop" books.  They want well researched, but also well paced, narrative nonfiction.  There are not many resources that I can easily search with these criteria.  Adult Books 4 Teens, however, can do that.

Add Adult Books 4 Teens to your go-to list of resources for those patrons who want a "good read," and will not elaborate further.  Trust me, it works wonders.

And, you do not have to tell your adults that you found it on a website that suggests the books for teens [I have some patrons who would not be happy knowing that] since they are ADULT books, not teen titles.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What I’m Reading: The Quick

The review train keeps rolling...

Back in August I read The Quick by Lauren Owen. Here is what I said about it in Library Journal:
What is a list of Halloween stories without some vampires? Lauren Owen’s debut, The Quick(Random. 2014. ISBN 9780812993271. $27; ebk. ISBN 9780679645054), introduces James Norbury, a shy young Victorian poet who accidentally gets wrapped up in the complicated and secretive Aegolius Club. Owen’s narrative has the leisurely pace of the Gothic novels from the era in which it is set, but those who settle in and let the well-drawn characters, intrigue, and intricate plot sweep them away are in for a great ride. Think Dickens meets Dracula for a sense of what Owen’s textured novel has to offer.
While this says a lot about The Quick, let me add a bit more.

This novel gets off to a slow start, I mean really slow.  The first third is almost a different book; however, the slow set up is important as it establishes some key relationships, settings, and situations that come into play as the novel runs its course.  The resolution here is perfect because of that long set up. It all comes around upon itself in a satisfying final chapter.

Also, this novel is filled with a rich cast of well developed, interesting, and intricate characters.  I especially like James’ sister, who is prominent in the beginning, disappears for a while, but then turns into the heroine of the novel.  But there are all of the vampires, those from the Aegolius Club and their rivals, as well as the vampire hunters/historians.  Owen spreads the point of view around to many of these characters.  We get their back stories, their motivations, their inner most thoughts.  While in less deft hands this might be confusing, Owen did a wonderful job of allowing these characters to come alive and take shape in front of the reader’s eyes, as they each take their turns with the story.

If you love interesting and fleshed out characters regardless of how you feel about vampires, you will love this novel.

By the way, the action, when it comes, is awesome.  Totally worth the wait.  The intricate plot, richly drawn characters, and intriguing frame (with vampires, humans, and vampire hunters/historians all set in “normal” Victorian London) combine for a great final third.

This is a perfect read for fans of dark, historical fantasy because much of what I have said above is standard for those fans.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  Gothic, Moody, Leisurely Paced

Readalikes: Let's start with the obvious, as I described above, The Quick is Dickens meets Dracula, but while that is helpful to catch someone's attention quickly, here are some more specific readalikes with detailed reasons why.

The Quick is the novel I had hoped The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova would be, but wasn't [for me at least].  So if you loved the idea of The Historian but didn't like the execution, The Quick is the novel for you.

Here are a few other books I have read [and enjoyed] which work as good readalikes here.  Click on the title for my full review:
  • Drood by Dan Simmons-- for the setting, the mood, and the dark fantasy element. Both novels are long, but Drood moves quicker.
  • Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker-- for the historical fantasy element, the detailed plot, and the wonderful characters. This is the shortest and most swiftly paced of the readalikes listed.
  • The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters-- for the creepy mood, leisurely pace, and intricately plot. The setting [England] is the same, but the time periods are different [Victorian vs post-WWII]. 
  • The Swan Gondola by Timothy Schaffert-- for the leisurely pace, historical setting [different place but similar time] great characters, creepy atmosphere and macabre elements.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

What I'm Reading: Saga

Catch up time.  I have many books that need reviews.  I hope to post more frequent, shorter reviews in the coming days.

So here we go...

Back in April I read Saga, volume three [issues 13-18] by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples.

I have read and posted about Saga in the past here:
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.
The series is a space opera in the classic sense.  There is an intergalactic war between two main races of creatures, with all groups throughout the universe taking sides.  This war has been going for a long time and the animosities run deep.  Our heroes are from the two races that are mortally sworn to fight each other to the death, and they have had a baby. Their survival, and in particular that of the interracial child are the heart of the story and the action. The fate of the universe depends on the survival of this child.

This compiled volume in particular is interesting in terms of time line.  It is following the same time frame as the second volume but from the perspective of other characters.  This goes a long way toward building and developing many of the secondary characters and some new villains. I enjoyed it greatly for that reason, although I have talked to some who were frustrated the the action of the story line does not move forward here.  So, your readers for character may get more invested in the series with this volume, while you readers for plot may be frustrated.

I think it will even out in the end, as this seems like a great option for a wide range of readers. In fact, what is most remarkable about this series is how well rounded it is. Saga is deserving of all of the accolades and awards it has been receiving. It combines an interesting and compelling plot with wonderful characters, and has great art work. It is clear and crisp.  The pictures and color choices reflect the tone as appropriate; sometimes beautiful happy things are happening, while others times evil, divesting, and dark actions are occurring-- the art helps to differentiate the tone. I would even go so far as to describe the art as beautiful, even when it is illustrating events themselves that are not pretty.

Three Words to Describe This Book: space opera, witty, compelling

Readalikes:  If you like Vaughan's story telling, you must go read, Y: The Last Man with art by Pia Guerra. It is a dystopian science fiction series following the last male mammal left on earth.

If you loved the space opera/intergalactic relationship issues, read the Ender's Game series by Orson Scott Card. Regardless of how I feel about the man and his personal beliefs, I cannot deny that Ender’s Game is one of the most perfect books ever written.

Finally, I think the Chew series [reviewed and discussed many other times here] although set on earth, still captures the essence of Saga well. The art in both is also similarly accessible while still being interesting [not as easy to do as it sounds, by the way]. I will have a review of the latest omnibus of Chew very soon.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Monday Discussion: Farewell to Our Fearless Leader

From left to right: Kathy, Jose, and Crystal
You will have to indulge me today with the Monday Discussion because today is the Head of the BPL's RA Dream Team-- Kathy's-- last day. She is leaving to join the team at the Skokie Public Library.

I am organizing a group tribute to her-- one that will live forever here on the blog. Most of the comments today will be from BPL staffers, but, there are many of you out there who have worked with Kathy, so please if you would like to leave a comment, feel free.

Okay, my turn.

When Briana and I were hiring for the open RA Librarian job seven years ago Kathy's was the very last interview we did, and as soon as she left, we looked at each other and knew we had found the person we wanted to join our team. We loved her so much we were worried we liked her too much.  Thankfully, we were correct in our initial assessment.

In the years that followed she moved from a librarian position to become our Department Head and even our Interim Director for a few weeks. But, she also become the spirit and driving force behind our dynamic RA and Teen service here at the Berwyn Library.

I was proud to call her my boss. I am a better librarian because of the work we have done together. She challenged each of us to use our talents to better our service to our patrons and encouraged us to learn new skills.

I could go on all day listing the fabulous things Kathy did here, but if  I had to praise her for only one thing it would be The Book Lover's Club.  This was her idea. A time and place where book lovers could meet and talk about the books they love. And then, to have us take notes on the participants' suggestions and share them on our staff recommendation blog, The Browser's Corner, was brilliant. No matter where I work in my career, this will be one of the ideas I take with me everywhere I go.

Personally, I will miss the camaraderie of having another RA Librarian right here at the BPL-- someone as committed to service to leisure readers as myself. Those of you who read the blog regularly know I have dedicated my life to RA Service in a public library setting, and I do not take this praise of Kathy lightly.  There are very few people out there equal to Kathy in her dedication AND skill at serving leisure readers. She is in an elite bunch.

While I will miss Kathy, I am glad to know she will still be working in the area in RA, and that I will get to collaborate with her via ARRT and other regional RA things. And those of you in the Skokie Public Library service area, watch out...you are about to hit the jackpot!

Now it is your turn.  Anyone out there who wants to leave a tribute to Kathy, use the comments.

For past Monday Discussions, click here.