Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Young adult novels

Some of the best books in the library are cataloged as Young Adult books and can be found in the Teen Area.  The main characters are usually teens who deal with their problems without the experience and confidence of adults.  The books come in all genres and hold the interest of readers older than fourteen years of age.  Try one of these well-written and complex stories on your next visit.

          Bone Gap by Laura Ruby begins as realistic fiction with the very human story of 14 year-old Finn, who daydreams, gets into fights but doesn't fight back, and sees people in a different way.  He notices their shape and movement more than their faces, but in the small community of Bone Gap, he knows who everyone is.  His older brother Sean is big and strong and does everything right; and he takes care of Finn.  It's the two of them against the world.  Their lives change overnight when the most beautiful woman in the world is found in their barn.  Her name is Rosza, she is a great cook, and she makes the brothers happy.  As quickly as she came, she leaves - taken by a man that Finn can’t describe, even though he saw Rosza get into his car and disappear down the road.  There are several mysteries taking place at the same time, eventually unraveled through the separate narratives of Finn and Rosza.
          At some point, the story transforms into surreal fantasy, paralleling the Greek myth of Demeter and Persephone, who was kidnapped by Hades and taken to the Underworld, just like Rosza was kidnapped and hidden from sight. Finn is fearless in his quest to find Rosza and becomes the hero of the story.  There are several allusions to the myth beginning about halfway through the story such as the superhuman strength and persona of the kidnapper.  References to the pomegranate seeds that Persephone ate, resulting in six months above the ground and six months below, are found in Rosza's cookie recipe with an especially delicious pomegranate filling, and her inner struggle to stay connected to her grandmother in Poland, while, at the same time, wanting to start a new life in the U.S. with Finn and Sean.  This is a story about perspective - inner beauty versus physical beauty and the value of acceptance for each individual viewing the world from a slightly different viewpoint.

The Boy in the Black Suit by Jason Reynolds begins in Matt’s senior year in school as he reels from the recent death of his mother.  He can't seem to forget the images of his mother's funeral, but needs to get back to the reality of school and work.  He ends up working for the funeral home and, drawn to the grieving families, sits in on the funerals held there.  It's like therapy, so he puts on his black suit each day to blend in with the mourners.  While Matt is trying to get himself together, his father starts to hit the bottle as he grieves his wife's death and ends up in the hospital.  Matt is without parental guidance at this point, but relies on his best friend, Chris, and his new friend and romantic interest, Lovey, who just lost her grandmother and primary caregiver.  The two lost souls connect on several levels, including a secret they share without knowing it.

The Girl with all the Gifts by M.R. Carey is science fiction at its best, elevating the zombie theme to a new level of sophistication.  Ten year-old Melanie is collected from her cell each morning by three guards with rifles and delivered to her classroom with 30 other students who are strapped into their wheelchairs.  Melanie can’t remember any other way of life and enjoys the stories taught by her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau.  She is clearly the most intelligent student in the class, but begins to realize that her brain cannot control snapping jaws and body functions when she smells human flesh without the disinfectant chemicals used by school personnel.  She is a “hungry,” a human shell powered by a contagious grey fungus that destroyed most of the people in England twenty years ago.  When other “hungries” breach the school’s defenses, Melanie and three human school administrators make a break for safety.  Will they survive?  This thriller is currently shelved in New Adult Fiction. 

Mosquitoland by David Arnold features Mary Iris Malone, who uses the pseudonym MIM. She has just been displaced from her home in Ohio to the mosquito infested state of Mississippi with her father and brand new stepmother, prompting her to run away and hop a bus back to Cleveland to tie up loose ends with her mother, who now resides in a rehabilitation facility.  Lucky for her, she sits next to a grandmotherly woman. This woman ignores Mim's teenaged flippancy and penchant for being impulsive, allowing a chance to share their quests with each other - their reasons for being on the bus.  Mim is also unlucky enough to meet up with "pancho man," forcing her to face the moral dilemma of doing the right thing by reporting his suspicious activities, which would also blow her anonymity and reveal her as a runaway, or saving herself.  On the next phase of the journey, Mim tries hitchhiking and meets her next two traveling buddies, the handsome Beck and the charming, childlike Walt who bring humor and goodness into the adventure.   Throughout the story, Mim reflects back in time to analyze her mother's mental illness and her father's over-reaction to any hint of odd behavior she displayed as a child.  Will a family history of mental illness affect her also, or can she hope to live normally and unmedicated? This coming-of-age novel truly depicts the growth of the main character, who learns a little bit about herself from each of the quirky characters she meets along the way.

--Lynette Suckow, Reference Desk

Monday, January 11, 2016

2015 Favorites

Here are more of my favorite 2015 books.
Here: Women Writing on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula is the second of editor Ron Riekki’s loving tributes to the landscape and people of the Upper Peninsula. Here is an anthology of short stories and poems set in the U.P. or written by women with a connection to the U.P. Organized according to the seasons, the writings reflect rugged landscapes, both harshness and beauty, in what we see all around us and those more hidden and internal landscapes of the heart and mind. The writings, from the 1840s to the present, include Carroll Watson Rankin (old Marquette), Elinor Benedict (Rapid River), April Lindala (Marquette), Beverly Matherne (Negaunee), Jane Piirto (Ishpeming), Roxane Gay (Houghton) and Ellen Airgood (Grand Marais). The pieces will make you laugh, cry, get angry, want to hibernate or sigh in recognition and awe.

Miss Emily, the American debut novel by Irish writer by Nuala O’Connor, brings Emily Dickinson to life by imagining the poet’s private family life. Told through the alternating voices of Emily and the Dickinson family’s new recently arrived Irish maid, 18-year-old Ada Concannon, this story imagines how Emily might have overcome her demons and defied her family to help her young friend. Not only is the story a joy to read for its sense of 1860’s Amherst and its study of Dickinson family relationships, but Ada’s Irish prose voice is as poetic as Emily’s verse and recognizably echoes some of the poet’s themes such as nature, birds, feathers and hope.

Amy Stewart’s novel Girl Waits with Gun is based on a true story of Constance Kopp, one of the first female deputy sheriffs in the U.S. Set in Paterson, N.J. in 1914, Kopp and her two sisters are riding home when their buggy is hit broadside by an arrogant and drunken factory owner. The buggy is smashed and the horse hurt. Stubborn Constance embarks on a determined drive for justice and compensation which leads to a terror campaign of bricks, threats and bullets courtesy of the Black Hand gang. Progressive Sheriff Heath and his men work day and night to protect the Kopp family. Constance figures out a career path and how she can contribute to saving the family farm. Along the way readers learn about the 1913 Silk Workers’ Strike, the place of women, the lot of workers, and jail conditions in the early 20th century. A lot of history in a very fun book.

Barry Estabrook’s riveting Pig Tales: An Omnivore’s Quest for Sustainable Meat explores pigs, the commercial pork industry and alternative approaches to raising these intelligent, playful and social animals. Estabrook’s fondness for pigs shines through each chapter. He discusses both domestic and wild pigs and includes a tale of a feral pig hunt in Texas. He shows us the conditions under which most commercial pork is raised in the U.S., reveals resulting environmental conditions for neighbors and waterways near our pig farms, visits farms with alternative approaches to raising pigs, discusses diseases in both pigs and humans, includes both policy and science, and portrays the personalities of farmers, corporate owners, lawyers, government inspectors and chefs. I’ll still eat and enjoy pork but I will be much more aware of its source.

These last two books are my very favorites of the year, although there are many more by terrific authors that I can’t wait to read.

Last year I read and loved Anthony Marra’s 2013 debut novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. This year, Marra has brought us a collection of tightly linked stories, The Tsar of Love and Techno. The stories are told in different voices and bounce back and forth in time and place from 1937 Kirovsk (a Siberian nickel mining and smelting disaster of an outpost) to 2013 Chechnya (and Outer Space). The characters’ lives intersect in amazing and unexpected ways including a connection to a landscape painting of a bland, peaceful meadow. Each story stands alone but together they create a remarkable portrait of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the war in Chechnya. The characters are both courageous and flawed. One rewrites history by brushing out images of purged people from photos; another, after wartime capture, finds his imprisonment in an old well the most serene time of his life. The landscape is melancholy, polluted and full of land mines, yet there is enough love and repentance that you close the book with a sense of hope and gratitude.

Last week I began this list of my favorite 2015 reads with a book whose main character is a librarian. I’ll end this week’s column with another librarian. Erika Swyler’s debut novel The Book of Speculation is a magical, marvelous, whimsical, rather dark (except for the electric boyfriend who emits sparks and can make lightbulbs shine) tale. Simon Watson is about to lose his job due to budget cuts at the library. He lives in his family’s home that is crumbling into Long Island Sound. An antiquarian bookseller mails him a damaged book, a log book written and illustrated by a traveling circus proprietor in the late 18th century. As Simon reads, he realizes the book is about his family whose young females, including his mother and grandmother, worked as circus mermaids and tarot card readers, and drowned on July 24. Simon’s long-absent sister Enola, and her electric boyfriend Doyle who work in a traveling carnival, decide to visit. It is early July. Simon frantically struggles to understand and break the curse that kills the women in his family. Simon’s story alternates with the histories of the original traveling circus’ characters, including the Wild Boy, the Proprietor and the Fortune Teller, each of whom factor into the lives of Simon and his neighbor and love interest, fellow librarian, Alice.

Happy Reading in 2016.

--Cathy Seblonka, Collection Development/Reference Librarian

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Best of 2015

The “Best of 2015” lists have started to appear. Here are some of my favorite 2015 novels.

In Lynne Truss’ sometimes funny, sometimes horrific fantasy Cat out of Hell, we meet Alec, a librarian and recent widower, who loses both his job and his sister. Seeking rest and clues to his sister’s disappearance, Alec and his dog Watson retreat to the seaside where they receive a manuscript of a series of interviews between a former colleague named Wiggy, and his cat, Roger, who has told him a dark tale about demonic cats, nine lives and a campaign against humans. The Grand Cat Master, Beelzebub, is summoned. Bodies pile up. Links are found between Alec’s wife’s death and other local deaths. Alec steals a book from his library (horror!). Will he and Watson defeat the Grand Cat Master in time? Whose side is Roger on? And what is Wiggy up to?

As Chimney Sweepers Come to Dust is the 7th book in C. Alan Bradley’s delightful Flavia de Luce mystery series. Young Flavia, chemist and sleuth, travels from her ancestral home in England to attend Miss Bodycote’s Female Academy in Canada. Feeling banished and homesick, Flavia is presented with a mystery her very first night. Another student, Collingwood, rushes into Flavia’s room to inform her that three students are missing. When the Head of the school knocks at her door, Collingwood hides in the chimney and dislodges a corpse. While solving these mysteries, Flavia attends class, makes friends, discovers a connection to her mother and learns who to trust, including one teacher who is an acquitted murderess.

Orhan is a young man living and working in Istanbul in Aline Ohanesian’s debut novel Orhan’s Inheritance. His grandfather Kemal has built an international business making kilim rugs in his Anatolian village. After Kemal is found dead inside a vat of indigo dye, Orhan inherits the business. However, the estate is left to a stranger, Seda, who lives in an Armenian-American retirement facility in L.A. Orhan flies to L.A. to meet Seda, discover her connection to Kemal and offer compensation for the house that has belonged to his family for a hundred years. Unraveling the love story Seda refuses to remember reveals the painful history of the last years of the Ottoman Empire and the suffering resulting from the Armenian genocide.

Adrian McKinty sets his darkly witty Detective Sean Duffy novels in Northern Ireland during the “Troubles” in the 1980s. In the latest in the series, Gun Street Girl, Duffy, a Catholic cop in the Royal Ulster Constabulary with his own personal issues, investigates the suspected double murder and consequent suicide of Michael Kelly and his wealthy parents. He uncovers links to the fatal overdose of a cabinet minister’s daughter, gun running, and arms dealers. Attempts are made by an American agent with a fake identity and a smart, female MI5 recruiter to derail Duffy’s investigation before he discovers cover-ups not only in the Irish and British governments but with Ronald Reagan as well. Similar to WWII era Detective Foyle, Duffy attends to the investigation of murder during a time of war.

Another cop with substance abuse and women issues is Bureau of Indian Affairs Special Agent Joe Evers. Evers’ use of alcohol to mask his grief over his wife’s death caused him to bungle an investigation and lose the trust of his boss and team. Three months before his forced early retirement, the car of a former Congressman is found on the Navajo Reservation. The Congressman, his female aide and his driver disappeared 20 years earlier during a corruption probe. The congressman’s former wife is a front runner in the New Mexico gubernatorial race. Who has something to hide? The disappeared? The ex-wife? The powerful U.S. Senator who advises her campaign? A former Navajo Nation president? A dealer in Native American artifacts? John Fortunato’s debut novel Dark Reservations won the Tony Hillerman prize and kept me up reading all night. Fortunato, an FBI Special Agent, lives in Marquette and writes what he knows. Luckily for us, he’s writing at least three more novels in this series, the last of which might be set in the U.P.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal is a unique coming-of-age story about a girl with an extraordinary palate. Each interconnected chapter, told from the point of view of someone who knows Eva Thorvald, explores a period of Eva’s life beginning with her birth and continuing through her rise to become one of the top chefs in the country. Each vignette is centered on a particular food such as lutefisk, walleye, pepper jelly and venison. These foods and most of the major people in Eva’s life come together in a concluding widely popular, very expensive destination dining experience. Sometimes sad, there is a lot of fun in the novel found in its structure, a few recipes, jokes about foodies, the flawed characters and its Midwestern aura.

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro is a very atmospheric mix of fantasy, history and myth, that explores the question, is life easier without memory? Axl and Beatrice, an elderly couple, live in ancient Britain, in the relative peace that came after the Romans left and the Saxon invaders moved in. It is a place of mist, rain, superstition and foggy memory. Beatrice, who is ill, is weary of forgetfulness and wants to see their son whom they barely remember. They set out on a quest to find him. Along the way they meet a Saxon warrior, a very elderly Sir Gawain and his horse, orges, pixies, scary monks and a dragon. They also journey inwardly to understand themselves and the depth of their love for each other. Will it be enough to keep them together when they die? The parallel journeys allow for meditation on themes of war and the collective lies nations tell themselves to lessen their guilt. What price do we pay to accurately remember?

In Louise Penny’s 11th Armand Gamache Three Pines mystery, The Nature of the Beast, Armand and his wife Reine-Marie are adjusting to retirement in the Quebec village when nine-year-old Laurent Lepage tells another of his tall tales, this one about a gun as big as a building and a winged monster hidden in the forest, that no one, including the former chief inspector, believes. When Laurent disappears, villagers search the woods and learn to their horror that someone did believe the boy. Revealing his discovery leads to murder, betrayal, the unveiling of a decades-old threat with global consequences and the realization that evil can be found even in the most idyllic places.

Come on into your library, there’s more where these came from.
--Cathy Seblonka, Collection Development/Reference Librarian