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Archive for the ‘Coming of Age’ Category

Deed of PaksenarrionElizabeth Moon’s first trilogy of novels about Paksenarrion, a farmer’s daughter turned mercenary, then paladin, is one of the great works of epic fantasy fiction. These books, now issued as a single volume, The Deed of Paksenarrion, describe a satisfying character arc as Paks, as she’s known to friends, grows from good-natured naif to seasoned campaigner to a powerful heroine who has earned her scars.

The story begins as Paks escapes an arranged marriage by joining Duke Phelan’s mercenary company. She learns that war isn’t all adventure, and encounters the frightening powers of magic for the first time. She experiences friendship and sacrifice, and learns self discipline, and has a run-in with some scoundrels in her own company.

The second book is more exotic. Paks has left the company, as there are parts of its philosophy that she can’t make fit with her moral code. She trains to become a paladin, mixes with dwarfs and elves, and takes part in a great quest to an ancient stronghold. Ultimately Paks becomes the victim of some evil magic wielded by dark elves, and as the book ends she has lost her skill at combat and her courage, endangering her future as a paladin and even her life.

Moon brings everything together gracefully in the third book, which I won’t say much about to avoid spoilers. At its core, it involves Paks’s attempt to restore her courage and a quest to restore a missing king to power.

What makes this special? Paks is one of my favorite lead characters in fantasy, right up there with Frodo Baggins and Patrick Rothfuss’s Kvothe, and in many ways Moon’s development of her character more thoroughly builds a complete person than even those other favorites. The pacing is excellent throughout, with a great balance of action, suspense, and moral philosophy. Moon incorporates descriptions of the physical world and the details of horsemanship and fighting smoothly into her writing. Finally, I like that there’s a clear hero to get behind here, but still some gritty details. Paks earns her status.

Since publication of these books, Moon has written both prequels and sequels to this original trilogy. So while the original books are completely satisfying in and of themselves, unlike Tolkien there are more novels to continue your experience in a world you’ll probably grow to love.

Check the WRL catalog for The Deed of Paksenarrion

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East of EdenI’m a big fan of John Steinbeck. He’s a great blend of philosophical content, strong storytelling, intriguing characters, and an awareness of the effect of the natural world on people. He’s a great and important novelist, with all that implies, but he’s also still entertaining to read. Until recently, my list of favorite Steinbeck would have been 1) Cannery Row; 2) Of Mice and Men; and 3) The Grapes of Wrath. Now I have a new favorite: East of Eden.

East of Eden re-tells the biblical story of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, but moves the action to California. It starts in Connecticut just after the Civil War, where young Adam Trask goes through a difficult childhood with a domineering father and a violent brother. He eventually marries Cathy, a woman whom he wrongly idealizes. Something isn’t right in Cathy–a modern person would call her a psychopath.

Adam takes Cathy, against her desire, to northern California’s Salinas Valley. There she gives birth to twins, Cal and Aron, but then deserts the family and assumes a much different life, working in and ultimately running a brothel. His fantasy marriage obliterated, Adam flounders, but is ultimately saved by contacts with a neighboring family, the Hamiltons, and particularly with Lee, a Chinese-born man of high intelligence who hides behind a facade of the stereotypes people want to see in a Chinaman. The boys grow up, at first believing their mother dead, then each slowly discovering the family history in their own ways. Cal is the stand-in for Cain, and Aron is Steinbeck’s Abel.

That’s enough plot. Ultimately, one can overstate the allegorical nature of this story. It’s certainly there, but one could enjoy the book without knowing the bible story. Steinbeck adds additional elements to the tale, but is more sympathetic to Cal and his struggle to do good things than he is to Adam or Aron and their sometimes unconsidered idealism. The result is an epic moral tale, but a fun book too, with elements of romance, suspense, and humor.

I loved the characters in this novel, especially the neighboring patriarch and inventor Sam Hamilton and the slyly wise servant Lee, who becomes such an important part of the Trask family. Cal’s internal struggle is fascinating, and even Cathy, for all her evil, becomes something different to a modern reader, an intelligent woman trapped in a world made for men.

Another strong point here is Steinbeck’s love for the natural world of California. It shines through in his writing, even as he recognizes that the natural world can be cruel.

The library owns two film versions of this story as well, both entertaining, but neither quite as good as the book. The 1955 James Dean film is a classic, and still great fun to watch, but it condenses the story somewhat to make it fit into the length of a feature film. There’s also a 1981 miniseries, which does cover the entire book, if less vividly.

Check the WRL catalog for East of Eden

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Liars ClubMary Karr’s family was the family in your neighborhood that your parents warned you away from when you were a child. They’re volatile people, emotionally toughened one and all. Still, to get to know them through youngest daughter Mary’s 1995 memoir is a bittersweet pleasure for readers who can handle a walk on the dark and gritty side.

The Liar’s Club takes place in the 1960s in the Texas oil town of Leechfield and a few months in Colorado. Mary is nine and she and her twelve-year-old sister Lecia are wise beyond their years. They’ve been through some rough stuff: watching a sanctimonious grandmother die from cancer, sexual abuse from playmates and babysitters, and endless fights with other kids in their tough town.

Dad, doesn’t help. He’s an oil man who can be a wonderful father, but when life gets the most challenging he often turns into a distant, hard-drinking man known as the most dangerous man in town. He hangs out with the titular Liar’s Club (although by implication, this title also applies to the whole Karr family), men who tell tall stories with hard truths hidden inside them.

But Mom is the most problematic of all the Karrs. She’s a creative, independent, city woman trapped as a housewife in the 1960s in a small town. She’s carrying secrets from a painful past, details that aren’t revealed until later in the book. She tries to mask her pain with alcohol abuse, but that isn’t enough to dull her dark streaks. Her relationship with her husband alternates between passionate romance, sullen distance, and outright ugliness. For her daughters she is sometimes like a streetwise older sister, sometimes just plain dangerous.

As you can tell, this isn’t an easy book, but the lives feel authentic, and Karr leavens the pain with some hard-bitten humor. I’m often skeptical of childhood memoirs: Can authors really remember their youth in that much detail? I was at times dubious of a somewhat similar book, Jeanette Walls’ The Glass Castle, which I enjoyed but took with a grain of salt. There’s a subtle difference in Karr’s approach that makes me trust this book more. She admits at times that her memories differ from those of her sister’s, or sometimes she just tells us when recall fails and she’s working from after-the-fact speculation. And don’t forget, this is The Liar’s Club; even when the absolute truth is stretched, there is painful but sparkling and hard-won honesty at the core of the story. Read the scenes where Mary’s mother starts to burn the contents of the house or where she fails to cope under the combined pressure of a hurricane and the last days of her mother, and you’ll understand what I mean. If you like this, go on to her other memoirs, Lit and Cherry, both of which have also received high critical praise.

Check the WRL catalog for The Liar’s Club

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13

Author Maureen Johnson will be Skyping with readers at the Williamsburg Regional Library on March 21st from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m. Come hear the stories behind her young adult novels, including 13 Little Blue Envelopes and the Shades of London series. The visit is open to ages 13-22, and space is limited. Call the library at 757-259-4050 to sign up!

I do try to be a cool aunt, but Aunt Peg, Ginny Blackstone’s bohemian artist aunt, takes the cake. Who wouldn’t enjoy an expenses paid tour of Europe? The only problem is that Aunt Peg isn’t there to share the adventure any longer. Ginny’s “runaway aunt,” never the most reliable person, took off two years ago without a forwarding address, and the next thing her family heard, she had died overseas. As the next best thing to being there, she’s left her 17-year-old niece money for a solo plane ticket to London and 13 envelopes, each to be opened only in a certain time and place.

London, Edinburgh, Paris, Rome: in each city, Ginny has instructions. Find a particular café, fund a starving artist. When in Rome, ask an Italian boy out for cake! Obviously Aunt Peg’s posthumous mission is not only to retrace her European travels, but to push quiet Ginny out of her comfort zone. Feeling more and more ordinary without the company of her extraordinary aunt, Ginny fumbles her way through the assigned tasks. She meets the Harrod’s manager who packs Sting’s holiday baskets, is temporarily tattooed by a famous artist, and is briefly adopted by the world’s most frighteningly organized tourist family. It’s an emotional scavenger hunt: with each letter, Ginny learns a little more about her aunt’s missing two years, and that she isn’t finished grieving for her aunt… or quite through being angry that she vanished in the first place.

Teens will enjoy Ginny’s not-exactly-a-relationship with her adopted starving artist and the whirlwind tour of Europe with nothing but an oversized backpack and a bank card, but I finished this book thinking about things from the aunt’s perspective. If you wanted to lead someone through the greatest hits of your life—the places where you were the happiest, or learned the most important lessons—where would you send them?

Check the WRL catalog for 13 Little Blue Envelopes.

There’s a sequel, too: The Last Little Blue Envelope.

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wrinkleThe 1963 Newberry-award winning novel, A Wrinkle in Time, was a favorite of mine as a child. There was something so gently compelling about the storyline and I could relate so deeply to main character. Teenager Meg Murry doesn’t fit in, in school or seemingly anywhere else. She’s smart but stubborn, and fiercely protective of her family, even with its complete lack of normalcy. She is especially combative when anyone speaks badly about Charles Wallace, her youngest brother, who is definitely an odd child. Their father is missing, and his unexplained disappearance haunts the family, and leads Meg to be even more belligerent as she struggles to deal with the loss and the emptiness of not knowing what happened to him.

Although it has been many years since I last read A Wrinkle in Time, I was immediately swept back into the adventures had by Meg, Charles, their neighbor Calvin, with the Misses Whatsit, Who, and Which guiding them along their journey throughout the universe to save Mr. Murry from the terrible blackness that envelops him. The story, to use the words of Mrs. Murry, requires a willing suspension of disbelief, but the relationship between Meg and her brother Charles Wallace is poignant, and the storyline flows smoothly and quickly.

This work, adapted and illustrated by Eisner Award-winning artist Hope Larson, is the first time the iconic story has been presented in a graphic novel format. The illustrations are deceptively simple, and use a limited color palette of black, white, and sky blue. The blue hue serves to soften the starkness of the images, giving a dreamlike mood to the rapidly shifting number of worlds that they visit. Night and day have no definition here, as fighting the darkness without losing yourself or those you love is the only thing that matters.

This book is appropriate for all ages, but is especially recommended to fantasy readers and anyone who wants to revisit an old favorite from their childhood.

Search the catalog for A Wrinkle In Time: The Graphic Novel

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sameDoes anyone get out of their high school years unscathed? Free from uncomfortable memories of interactions they mishandled due to their own unnerving awkwardness? If you did, then you will not be able to understand the brilliance of Same Difference. The action in this novel is not about the present existence of the two main characters, but rather of the juxtaposition between their past deeds, clumsy with the emotional over-eagerness of youth, and their current ability to reassess those actions and desires through the lens of their adult experiences and maturity.

Simon and Nancy are two early-to mid twenty-somethings living in Oakland. For Simon, it has been seven years since he graduated high school and he dreads each return to the town where he grew up due to the embarrassment and unease of constantly running into people he went to high school with. Though Nancy teases him, she is just as reserved about her high school experience and fights any invasion of her privacy related to those gawky years. They both know that when you are young you are stupid and lack the experience to deal with the flood of emotions you are faced with on a daily basis. Neither wants their present judged on the transgressions of their past.

Nancy’s meddlesome response to some letters meant for a previous tenant of her apartment serves as the vehicle for a road trip for her and Simon back to Simon’s hometown. There Simon must face people and situations he thought he had long put behind him. I was especially drawn to his conflicted feelings over his meeting Eddie and Jane, two married members of his high school class who used to torment him in their separate and devastating ways. Seeing them walking down the street with one baby in a stroller and another on the way left them toothless and oddly, ordinary. Would you want to hang out with someone who tormented you in high school and called you a nerd? It would seem not, but time is an antiseptic which, if not heals, certainly numbs old wounds.

A winner of the 2004 Eisner Award for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition, 2004 winner of the Harvey Award for Best New Talent, and 2003 Ignatz Award, this title came to me with high expectations, but it far exceeded them. Recommended for readers of graphic novels and anyone who enjoys a coming of age story in all its painful clarity.

Search the catalog for Same Difference.

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friendsMaggie is starting high school. That is a terrifying prospect for anyone, but especially for Maggie because she has, until now, been homeschooled. The youngest of four children, Maggie’s mother taught each of them at home until they were old enough to enter high school, but in Maggie’s case, things are painfully different. Her mother recently left, and none of the kids know why or where she went. The hole left by her mother’s absence remains unfilled as Maggie begins to navigate the emotional minefield that is public schooling.

Her older brothers, Daniel and twins Lloyd and Zander, have already navigated their first day in a new school, but things are not as easy for Maggie. For one thing, she’s a girl, and she’s been used to having her brothers for protection all these years. She slowly makes friends with punk girl Lucy and her older brother Alistair, who seems to bear the burden of past misdeeds concerning Daniel and the captain of the volleyball team, Matt.  In case matters weren’t complicated enough, there’s also the matter of the ghost who Maggie has been seeing since she was about seven, but the specter refuses to speak or explain itself.

As with so many high school relationships, there are layers of memories and interactions. People change and grow up and the set of friends you have at the beginning of high school are often not the same as the ones you have at the end. But the inevitability of such breakups doesn’t make them uncomplicated, or any easier to understand for the participants. Maggie is stuck somewhere between factions. She’s not a cheerleader or jock like Matt, nor is she in the drama club like her older brothers. And she’s not really a punk like Lucy or Alistair, though those two serve as her only friends.

I fully admit that my love of graphic novels creates a deep bias, but I love how deep and meaningful emotions can be encapsulated so completely in the ephemeral expressions of characters in this format. The artwork can allow for profound emotions to be expressed without being overly saccharine in character all while incorporating humor to lighten otherwise weighty and insightful realizations about the character of man.

I would recommend this book to readers of YA literature, graphic novels, and coming of age stories who don’t have all the answers nor do they want them handed to them.

Search the catalog for Friends with Boys.

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Jacket (1)I’ve written before about a Civil War novel that explores the effects war has on the survivors, but from the Confederate point of view. Although “nostalgia” knows no faction, race, or even gender, authors can explore how time and place affect the treatment sufferers face. Dennis McFarland has chosen to focus on the experiences of a Union private. In doing so, he brings to life such diverse topics as military hospitals, baseball in the Civil War era, and the sacrifices made by one man for the wounded veterans of the Army of the Potomac.

Summerfield Hayes is nineteen years old when he enlists in the Union Army. It is Christmas 1863, and the casualty lists have reflected the appalling toll—after battle deaths at Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, Gettysburg, Chickamauga and countless others, and losses from disease, there is no false sense of glory. Summerfield’s sister Sarah is distraught when he makes his announcement. The two have relied on each other since the deaths of their parents three years before and are closer than most brothers and sisters. She isn’t the only one unhappy with his enlistment. Summerfield is a star player for the Eckford Club base ball team in that championship year, and the team’s fans want him to continue his pitching and hitting for the club. But Summerfield is disturbed by the way his home life is progressing and determines that enlisting is the only cure.

Within five months of his enlistment, Summerfield is cast into the Battle of the Wilderness, a chaotic clash that marked the first battle between Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant. The dense woods and narrow roads did not allow large units to maneuver, so the battle devolved into a never-ending series of hand-to-hand clashes. Many of the wounded were lost when the woods caught fire and they could not escape. Comrades were separated and wound up fighting alongside strangers. Summerfield endures the battle but wakes up to find himself alone and wounded, his last memory of a man on horseback ordering him left behind. He stumbles through the woods in search of help but wakes a second time in a military hospital outside Washington. The hell of battle is replaced by the hell of bodies destroyed in every conceivable way, suffering men treated with varying levels of competence and compassion.

Worst of all, no one seems to know who Summerfield is—he is unable to speak, unable to hold pencil and paper. Every attempt to make him speak fails and aggravates his wounds. He has many torments, but few consolations—one is the soldier in the bunk next to his, but who suffers from Soldier’s Disease in addition to his amputated arm. Another is a grey-bearded man who visits him almost daily, reading to him from Dickens, talking to him, and caring for him when the nurses can’t. As Summerfield heads to a crisis—what will the medical staff do with him when he’s cured, will he be treated as a deserter?–the old man becomes his advocate and comforter.

From vivid descriptions of camp life and battle and of New York’s bucolic urbanity, to Summerfield’s internal struggles with his battle injuries, to the way base ball was played—no limit on pitches!—McFarland brings 1864 to life. Innocence sits alongside experience, and compassion goes hand in hand with cruelty, but few people have the clarity to tell which is which.  McFarland does a wonderful job of making that a universal and timeless struggle.

Check the WRL catalog for Nostalgia

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soldierIn one life, Mark Helprin is a writer of fantasy; in another, the writer of fiction that alternates between overwrought and stunning. A Soldier of the Great War is a wonderful realization of the latter.

The story of Alessandro Giuliani, a 70-year old veteran of World War I, is told by the old man himself to a much younger companion. Like the Wedding Guest, Nicolo Sambucca finds himself in company with The Ancient Mariner (although through the Mariner’s charity), where he receives an education in Italian history, politics, and the wonderfully indeterminate study of aesthetics. It is Alessandro’s own story, told by him for the first time as the two trudge across the Italian hills to their separate destinations.

The child of privilege, Alessandro took advantage of every opportunity to immerse himself in art and literature in school, while making time for mountain climbing and horsemanship.  From an early age he also took risks, and each risk prepared him to face more difficult challenges. As he enters his young manhood, he also extends that risktaking to courting women, with whom he falls in love easily.

Since the story takes place in the first part of the Twentieth Century, and since the title references The Great War, we know that Alessandro is headed into the maw of World War I. Although he joins the Italian Navy, he winds up serving both in trenches and on mountaintops, and fighting against both the Austro-Hungarians and his fellow Italians. Blown by the winds of fate and battle, he travels from the Mediterranean to Vienna, from lonely outposts to crowded hospitals, and through despair, love, rapture, and loss before finally returning to his beloved Rome.

But Alessandro’s destiny is not always as random as it seems.  Back in Rome, a twisted dwarf named Orfeo Quatta is pulling strings that affect Alessandro’s life and the lives of hundred of thousands of men. The senior clerk in the Giuliani family law firm, he was displaced by the typewriter but wound up at the Ministry of War, where official documents are still executed in skilled penmanship. But Orfeo is the only person who sees the originals, so he changes the texts to suit his whims, and his revised orders extend the war and increase the suffering of soldiers and civilians.

In his travels, Alessandro meets many people, but Helprin succeeds in creating in each a layered character who instructs Alessandro in his search for beauty. Despite the senseless violence, cruelty, and degradation of the war, Alessandro’s search for beauty, and for the God he sees in beauty, continues. Helprin captures Alessandro’s life in an effusion of language rich in imagery and philosophy, layered with drama and irony, creating a love story with a hero in love with life and with being in love.

Check the WRL catalog for A Soldier of the Great War.

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WorldsStrongestLibrarianThis sometimes ludicrous, but always poignant memoir is in part a love poem to public libraries and in part a moving account of living with Tourette’s Syndrome. Josh Hanagarne is a librarian in Salt Lake City Public Library who starts his book by describing  his workplace as “a giant pair of glass underpants” and pointing out that in the collection of a public library “there’s something to offend everyone.” He keeps up the literary theme with chapter headings labelled with Dewey Decimal Numbers and a sprinkling of the names of books to make his points.

At the same time that is is a celebration of libraries, Hanagarne’s book is also the story of a life lived with the involuntary tics, movements and vocalizations of Tourette’s Syndrome. Hanagarne’s tics started when he was a small boy and made a misery of his teenage years as he dealt with a a difficult and–above all–visible disease. His early adulthood was a story of  never being able to settle as he went in and out of jobs and school programs. As the subtitle points out this is also the story of the Power of Family and Josh’s family–parents, siblings, and wife–always supported him through Tourette’s Syndrome, schooling, life, struggles with infertility, and the various types of physical training which he attempted in order to control his tics. He is a large man who works his way up to a 590-pound dead lift (I am not sure what that is, but it sounds incredibly impressive), but from reading his memoir his true strength isn’t physical, rather it is his strength of character and strength as a human being that shines through.

Try The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family if you like memoirs about overcoming adversity. Other books in our library about living with Tourette’s Syndrome include: Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had, by Brad Cohen with Lisa Wysocky or Against Medical Advice: a True Story, by James Patterson and Hal Friedman.

Don’t assume this is  a dark book, because Hanagarne is able to bring humor even to the description of library patrons throwing up in trash cans or his classmates jeering at him for his Tourette’s tics. And best of all for a librarian is the paean to public libraries: “I had faith in the library long before he walked in and told me what I already knew: A library is a miracle.”

Check the WRL catalog for The World’s Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette’s, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family.

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FangirlIf I say that this young adult novel was on my radar because the cover was designed by Gingerhaze, who I follow on Tumblr, because someone linked me to her fanart for Avengers and Lord of the Rings… then I guess it’s safe to say I’m a fangirl. And I’m not alone!

Cath is a college freshman and an extreme introvert. Her first year at university is complicated by the fact that she’s generally more comfortable with her laptop, sitting up until the wee hours of the morning writing fanfiction, than with actual people. Online, she’s a BNF, a Big Name Fan, the author of an epic work-in-progress set in the World of Mages, a thinly-veiled homage to the Harry Potter-verse, if Draco Malfoy were a vampire, or maybe Loki went to Hogwarts. In “real” life, she’s worried about her dad’s mental health, increasingly estranged from her more outgoing, frat-partying twin, and she suspects her roommate hates her. And her fanfiction about mages Simon and Baz isn’t going to help her through writing class, where she’s supposed to find a narrative voice of her own.

Author Rainbow Rowell is having a good year: both Fangirl and her other 2013 novel, Eleanor and Park, are on “best of the year” lists for teens at Amazon and the New York Times. As in Eleanor and Park, Rowell writes with empathy for a wide range of characters. I particularly liked Cath’s roommate, who is abrasive and sarcastic and still a good friend. Hanger-about Levi is a welcome contrast to high-strung Cath, having perfected the art of being laid back. (“He looked like he was leaning on something even when he wasn’t. He made standing look like vertical lying down.”)

As a bonus, it cheered me to see the love for Harry Potter still percolating through pop culture a generation later. Reading about Cath’s fannish enthusiasms brought back fond memories of the midnight release for Book 8. This is a light, quick read with a sweet romance (a much sweeter and easier romance than in Eleanor and Park). Readers who enjoy books by John Green or Sarah Dessen should give it a try.

Check the WRL catalog for Fangirl.

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wonderI admit it; I occasionally hit a reading slump.  I’m surrounded by hundreds of thousands of wonderful stories, and sometimes I am unable to find one book that will pull me down the rabbit hole.  So I turned to a fellow librarian for advice.  I asked for the one book she had read that she just could not get out of her head. Her response was immediate — R.J. Palacio’s Wonder.  No hesitation, no thought, no second guessing, she laid Wonder at my feet and I’m so glad she did.

Ten-year-old August Pullman will be starting public school for the first time after being homeschooled his entire life.  Auggie happens to have a combination of rare genetic mutations that cause severe facial abnormalities.  Because Auggie is so obviously different on the surface it is hard to see that he is just like many other boys his age — intelligent and funny and passionate about Star Wars.  Needless to say going to public school will be an adventure filled with friends, enemies, middle school wars, laughter, joy, and pain.

I don’t want to give details of the plot because Wonder is a story about everyday life for someone that happens to be ordinary with an extraordinary face.  These details are best appreciated and understood as revealed by Auggie.  Wonder weaves together the shifting perspectives of Auggie and his friends and family to reveal the joys and challenges of life with compassion and humor.

Wonder is magic that will pull you in and won’t let go.  For me it’s the very best kind of book, one that makes me love being in the rabbit hole, but also able to appreciate the world around me a little more when the story has ended.  There will be moments this book will make you cry, but it is worth every teardrop.  This is a book that will stay with you for a long, long, long time.

Check the WRL catalog for Wonder

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paigePaige is despondent. Her family recently moved from central Virginia to Manhattan and she has to deal with acclimating herself to a new city and culture while her relationships with her parents, especially her mother, have been crumbling. She misses her old life, and her old friends, especially her best friend Diana. Paige floats around New York with a sensation of being lost, unsure of herself or what she wants.

Both her mother and father are writers (hence her unfortunate name, Paige Turner), but she is more like her grandmother, a painter. Introverted and quiet on the outside, Paige is full of life and emotions on the inside. She can’t express these feelings in words so she buys a sketchbook, determined to follow her grandmother’s rules that she came up with to teach herself to be an artist. Starting the first drawing is daunting, and brings to the surface more of her anxieties. Is she a good enough artist, what if she has nothing to draw about? Monologues of self-doubt constantly run through her head, even as the pages begin to fill up with sketches.

Entering her new school, Paige quickly falls in with Jules, her brother Longo, and his friend Gabe. The foursome is soon inseparable. Paige still struggles with self-doubt, and everything cool and fun she sees in her friends strengthens her inferiority complex, and fear that her lack of specialness will be discovered. Her inner voice promises that she can change. But how can she build a new self and remove those parts she dislikes most?

Ever practical, Paige makes a list of those aspects of her personality she dislikes the most and intentionally faces them with the help of her friends. She discovers that they too have things that they lack the courage to face, and she begins to coach them, even as she is developing and evolving herself. The image of a seed being planted and carefully tended to as it grows into a fragile shoot appears several times in the drawings and is particularly apt.

The writing is lyrical and evocative while being relatable to anyone who was unsure of themselves when they were a teenager. Paige has a knack of summing up complicated emotions using simple phrases. She states that “like fun house mirrors, different people reflect back different parts of me” and while mourning her loneliness early on, she states that she hates how all her “friends now live in picture frames.”

Recommend for young adults and graphic novel readers and anyone else who can relate to the heart wrenching process of finding yourself.

Search the catalog for Page by Paige

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heartI am the first to flee at the sight of blood. As such, I don’t watch boxing and I quickly switch the channel when watching football if the station decides there is a need to show slow motion replays of a player’s injury from EVERY ANGLE. But for whatever reason, I can stomach violence in graphic novels, as the images can be processed as art by my brain, conveniently disconnected from reality.

Browsing our shelves, I picked up a copy of Heart but almost put it back again when I realized that the story revolved around an MMA (mixed-martial arts) fighter. I ended up holding on to the volume, deciding that since I had been in a reading rut recently, something so far out of my normal comfort zone might be just what I needed.

The story throws you right into the middle of the octagon at the beginning of a fight between Oren “Rooster” Redmond and Mike “The Hooligan” Murphy. Glaring and tattooed with muscles tensed, they square off with the cheers, jeers, and bloodlust of the crowd in a roar around them. The story is narrated by Oren, and he baldly presents his adrenaline and bravado as well as his mistakes as he takes us through his journey from slightly overweight office worker to trained fighter. He’s inspired by his older brother, who started out as a college wrestler and progressed to MMA after graduation. From the drudgery of his data entry job, Oren enters a life that finally allows him to live life on his own terms.

It’s Oren’s honesty about how his fighting career progresses that really pulls the reader into the story. He’s not trying to fool anyone, not even himself. His frankness and honesty are refreshing yet surprising, since MMA promotion isn’t known for being austere or unembellished. Oren wryly confesses to prior unkind thoughts about “guys who wore too-tight t-shirts with shiny, metallic crap written on ‘em” before he entered and embraced the culture.

Heart is an engaging and powerful read. I would recommend it to sports fans, readers of graphic novels in general, or any reader who loves stories where the human element transcends the environment.

Search the catalog for Heart

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OperationYesBo Whaley lives on an Air Force base in North Carolina. His father is the base commander, which just makes life complicated, especially when most of the kids in his class also live on base. To make life even more convoluted, his cousin Gari arrives from Seattle to live with him because her mother is being deployed to Iraq. They are assigned to the same class to help Gari fit in, but things go badly between them from the start.

The only good thing that is happening to Bo is his new teacher. Ms. Loupe, who is in her first year of teaching, has a tattoo and is young enough to have been taught by the principal. For Bo the best thing about her is her passion for theater. She engages the class in improv involving a beaten up couch, and Bo discovers in himself a talent for acting that previous teachers had seen as a propensity to talk and goof-off in class. His enthusiasm grows until he discovers that the big theater camp that the teacher is planning will be held next summer. He will be gone then, when his family is sent to their next military assignment, which makes Bo furious with the military lifestyle.

Ms. Loupe also gets the class working on a project to send supplies to her brother, who is stationed in Afghanistan. When her brother is declared missing in action, Ms. Loupe is understandably distraught, and Bo’s whole class want to help. In the most moving part of the book Bo, his cousin Gari, Ms. Loupe’s entire class and finally the whole community find a way to work together and, if not fix the unfixable, at least make things better. In the process they learn about each other, themselves, friendship and community.

In turn hilarious and heartbreaking, Operation Yes is aimed at middle grades, but has a lot to offer adults. As a librarian I love the literary profanity that the school librarian indulges in : “‘Frog and Toad!’ Miss Candy said. ‘Not again!’” or “Green Eggs and Ham!” I am doing a project on books featuring children with parents in U.S. military, and some of these books are impossible to get through without crying. Operation Yes is definitely in this category. Read it for a moving portrait of a community coming together or an accurate depiction of the military family lifestyle.

Check the WRL catalog for Operation Yes.

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hoegAlthough I most frequently read mysteries, fantasy, 19th century novels, and Southern fiction, something keeps bringing me back to Peter Høeg’s writing, though these stories in many ways fall outside my usual scope. While Smilla’s Sense of Snow was sort of a mystery, it was not particularly traditional, and Høeg’s The Quiet Girl is a peculiarly appealing blend of genres and styles. I think that it is the beauty of Høeg’s writing that keeps me on the lookout for his books on the new fiction shelves.

If you enjoy thoughtful, well-crafted sentences, along with occasional flashes of humor, you will find much to like in Høeg’s most recent novel, The Elephant Keeper’s Children. The novel follows the adventures and misadventures of Peter, the narrator, Tilte, and Hans, whose parents have disappeared off the fictional island of Finø, off the coast of Denmark. The children’s father is a church pastor, and as Peter tells it, his parents are not above manufacturing miraculous events to draw people to their church. With their parents gone, Peter and his sister Tilte set out to find out what they are up to this time, with help from their older brother Hans and a variety of unexpected acquaintances. As in any thriller, help appears when it is least expected, and shifting allegiances make the search even more challenging. Along the way, the pair encounters angry bishops, unstable teachers, a romantic pair of police officers, and terrorists aiming to explode a bomb at an ecumenical gathering. Høeg has an excellent feel for pacing a story, and his characters are all memorable.

But the book is not just a tour-de-force of fine writing. Høeg explores fundamentalism and belief, the power of love, and ultimately the nature of what it means to be human. With Peter as our guide, we come to see the world in a new way, to look for those “openings” that lead us to a better understanding of ourselves and each other, and that allow us to escape from the rooms that we put ourselves in. The title of the book is taken from an “old Indian saying”

In case you wish to befriend an elephant keeper,

make certain to have room for the elephant.

Check the catalog for The Elephant Keeper’s Children

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InfidelCoverOn the surface Ayaan Hirsi Ali and I have a lot in common: we are very close to the same age and we both read The Famous Five as little girls in the 1970s.  We both have one brother and one sister, and both lived in Holland in the late 1990s, after traveling the world in our early twenties.  Beyond that our lives diverged completely.

I grew up in a stable, prosperous English-speaking country while she spent her childhood fleeing her native Somalia to spend years in Saudi Arabia, Ethiopia and Kenya.  She began to cover herself as a teen to show her deeply-felt piety to Islam.  She was sent around the globe for an arranged marriage to a man she hardly knew, and ended up a Dutch member of parliament.

Ali is probably most famous in America for making the short film Submission with Dutch film maker Theo Van Gogh.  Submission portrays four young women talking about their husbands’ abuses.  The actress portraying all four has verses from the Koran written on her naked body which can be glimpsed through a see-through Muslim covering garment or chador.  After the film was shown on Dutch television in 2004 Theo Van Gogh was murdered by a Dutch Muslim fanatic as revenge for what he saw as the film’s insults to Islam. This caused a fire storm in Holland and led to the dissolution of the Dutch parliament.  Due to threats on her life, Ayaan Hirsi Ali was forced to go into hiding and eventually left Holland to move to America.

Ali is a controversial figure who called the book Infidel because that is what she has become in some people’s eyes as she went from an obedient Muslim girl to outspoken defender of women’s rights and strong critic of practices like female genital mutilation.  Whether you agree with her or not, Infidel is a heartfelt and moving portrait of an extraordinary life.  Her life started in Mogadisu, which I think of as a war-torn hell-hole, but she knew as a beautiful city of stone and brick buildings and white sand beaches.  She went on to live in several countries, squeezing more adventure into a few years, than most people fit into a lifetime.  She now lives in the United States and has a husband and small child.

Try Infidel if you enjoy biographies with the drama of novels, particularly those which cover true stories of women caught up in large historical events like Marie-Thérèse: Child of Terror, by Susan Nagel or Nella Last’s War, edited by Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming.

I listened to Ayaan Hirsi Ali read her own story.  Occasionally her accent made words hard to understand, but I strongly recommend the audiobook as a way to meet her.

Check the WRL catalog for Infidel.
Check the WRL catalog for Infidel as an audiobook on CD.

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YokotaOfficersClubThis compelling story of family, betrayal, and memory starts out in the late 1960s as 18-year-old Bernie is flying to Kadena Air Base, Okinawa to visit her family after her first year at college.  She grew up in an Air Force family, under the shadow of larger-than-life Major Mace Root, and popular and beautiful younger sister, Kit.  Now she has been “breathing civilian air” for a year and has joined a peace group, Damsels in Dissent.  Her large family are astonished at their first sight of her at the airport in tattered jeans with peace symbols and no bra.  She, in return, is astonished at how badly her family is dealing with their new assignment, from her teenage sister’s open rebellion to her younger sister’s anxiety to her mother’s cupboard full of Valium.

The story moves forwards and backwards in time from the 1960s to the 1940s, with poignant descriptions of the plight of Japanese civilians in the immediate aftermath of World War II when work, shelter, and food were in short supply. Slowly the picture is revealed of Bernie’s past and the book explores the nature of blame, responsibility, and human ties as Bernie comes to a wrenching realization about the triggers of her family’s disintegration eight years earlier during their posting to Yokota, Japan.

The Yokota Officers Club does a wonderful job at capturing a slice of military family life, especially the isolation of Bernie and all her siblings, except popular Kit.  A myriad of details of military life are scattered throughout, some of which are still pertinent for military families today, such as the frequent relocations. Bernie calls the souvenirs of bases where her family have lived “the spoils” of military life, particularly “the set of three framed fans that have hung of the wall in the hallways of all the houses we lived in since Fussa.”  My family lived in Europe rather than Asia so we lean more towards cuckoo clocks and wooden shoes than ornamental fans, although in North Dakota we had the same obscure brass Turkish camel wind chime as our neighbors.  Other details such as a family losing their jobs for not mowing the lawn are dated, as a base family will still get a notice about a messy yard, but the military is less strict.  And some things have completely changed: “Wives of majors who wish to make colonel wear heels and hose in public.”

In turns both funny and sad, The Yokota Officers Club is a story about loyalty – to family and to country, and to people who surround us.  It is based on Sarah Bird’s own childhood and she dedicates the book to her family – her Lieutenant Colonel father, nurse mother and three brothers and two sisters, just like Bernie’s family. But in the acknowledgements she adds, “to my family who… understood and accepted my capricious weaving of fiction through our shared past.”  Try The Yokota Officers Club for an emotional, character driven read about family relations.

Check the WRL catalog for The Yokota Officers Club.

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