Archive for the ‘Andrew’s Picks’ Category

JacketI don’t know anyone who doesn’t long for the rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle: record company execs throwing cash at you, the weeks on the road, the camaraderie formed under the pressure of creativity, the worshipful fans throwing onesies onto the stage. Wait a minute—onesies?

Yep. And that’s what the Wonderkids face on their climb to the top of the charts. Fronted by Blake Lear (his stage name), Wonderkids ride his mix of poppy music and bizarre lyrics to million-selling albums, memorabilia, and fans, fans, fans. Billed as “your kid’s first rock band,” the music appeals to—or at least doesn’t drive mad—the parents, and the lyrics, which are based on Lewis Carroll’s imagery, William Blake’s innocence, and Edward Lear’s whimsy, grab childrens’ attention.

Raffi’s sincere goody-two-shoeism is not yet on the scene and parents are tired of “Octopus’s Garden” and “Yellow Submarine,” so when a record company executive’s 5-year-old son picks a demo at random and listens to it over and over again on a long drive, Dad knows he’s on to something. From a basement practice band and menial jobs, the newly-minted Wonderkids is on the road in England and soon to the United States.

Wonderkids’ real appeal is the live show, especially since Blake is happy to sit with every kid for pictures, tell jokes, talk with parents and give each person a real personal experience. It also sells tons of t-shirts and other memorabilia, which is where the Wonderkid of the title comes in.  Sweet is a young teen in a foster home when he and Blake meet. Before long, he becomes the guy who takes money for the swag and keeps an eye on the promoter. Tour life is his chance to make the transition from childhood to adulthood, which he does under the tutelage of a bizarre mix of characters. When the band heads for the U.S., Sweet becomes our eyewitness to Wonderkids’ spectacular rise and the excesses it leads to.

Any band aimed at the children’s audience had better be squeaky clean. When those excesses (some of which aren’t even excessive) start to catch up to them, things go sour. In true rock ‘n’ roll fashion, the band splits, but its life doesn’t end. Which makes the last portion of the story both poignant and whimsical as anything Blake Lear ever wrote.

Check the WRL catalog for Wonderkid.

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JacketI just closed Descent and can still feel those symptoms of adrenaline: heart racing, shallow breathing, butterflies in my stomach, eyes and ears hyperalert, muscles twitching and ready for fight or flight. Of course, it could be the two pieces of birthday cake I had for dinner, but I’m convinced it’s Tim Johnston’s storytelling.

The best part is that Johnston manages to pull off two good books at the same time – an intense psychological thriller and an emotionally resonant story about the family that’s left behind when one of its members goes missing.

Caitlin Courtland is a tough competitor, a runner who demands everything of herself; her younger brother Sean is pudgy and shy, overlooked by his peers and her friends. Their parents have lived through personal trauma, undergone difficulties in their marriage, and are returning to a sense of normalcy. The family is on that last golden trip before Caitlin goes to college on a track scholarship. Then Caitlin, trailed by Sean on a bike, goes for a run; the next thing any of them know, Sean is in the hospital, leg shattered and in shock, and Caitlin is gone.

Over the course of the next two years, the Courtland family breaks apart. Sean leaves home in his dad’s truck, traveling the road, taking menial jobs for gas money, and encountering the dark underside of the American character. Angela, the mother, goes back to their home in Wisconsin but is devastated by the loss of her child and the ongoing uncertainty of her fate. Grant, the father, stays on in the little town near Caitlin’s kidnapping in some vain hope that she’ll know he’s close by. He also begins forming tentative relationships–and definite enmities–with people in the community.

We learn in small pieces what became of Caitlin, and what it cost her to save Sean’s life. We also come to admire just how tough she is, and what she could have become had a strange man not come hurtling into her life. But hers is not a happy story, and as the book approaches its ending we see just what kind of person she is.

Johnston uses the story to address not only family issues (and of families other than the Courtlands), but also of the blend of good and bad that exists in (nearly) everyone. That same kind of blending propels Descent to a powerful and emotionally affecting end.

Check the WRL catalog for Descent

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onanStewart O’Nan is quite simply one of the best authors writing today. His quiet prose captures ordinary feelings and lifts them up in a light that shows them to be both specific to his characters and universal to the reader.

West of Sunset could be a departure for him; it’s an exploration of the final years of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life at a time when this icon of American literature had not yet attained the immortality that came with his creation of Jay Gatsby. (In fact, he was better known for Tender is the Night–and for his outsized lifestyle–than the work most people remember him by.) Brought down by his drinking and reputation he has fallen so far that he is relying on the charitable intervention of Hollywood friends to earn a living. At the same time, his wife Zelda is institutionalized in a North Carolina sanitarium, where her youthful free spirit has metastasized into destructive mental illness. Between the cost of her treatment, their daughter Scottie’s high class Eastern education, and his own profligate ways, Fitzgerald is consumed by worries about money.

There are bright spots in his life: his friendship with Humphrey Bogart (based on a mutual love of drinking and literature–surprise!), his friends Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, and a love affair with gossip columnist Sheilah Graham. But his working life, although it paid more than he was ever to earn from his books, was less rewarding.

O’Nan takes this period and delves into the frustration and pain of a man faced with more troubles than he can surmount. Far from being sheltered by his status (and by an income that exceeded that of nearly all Americans at the time), he knows he is as close to ruin as any Depression-era assembly-line working stiff. But he also finds respite in his own work, and in his desire to be the man Sheilah wants him to be. In essence, O’Nan is still attracted to those ordinary feelings, and with West of Sunset he once again lifts them up to us through the life of a very public man.

Find West of Sunset in the WRL catalog

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JacketI wrote about the Western Into the Savage Country, which explores the idea of a man going West to prove himself worthy of his father and of a woman he wanted. Today’s book, Crossing Purgatory, explores a different reason for a man to go West: to escape a ruined life back East. It’s also set later in the 19th century, during a time when immigrants, would-be traders, and farmers seeking tracts of their own land set out into dangerous territory with little idea what to expect.

Thompson Grey is a successful farmer in the dark and deep soil of Indiana, but without the capital to expand his holdings. Returning from a trip to raise funds, he discovers that a tragedy has taken his entire family. Grey blames himself, and goes into exile. Along the trail and at the place he breaks his journey, he constantly drives himself with physical labor to blot out his terrible memories.

Almost by accident he attaches himself to a small party, each member of which has suffered tragedy or thwarted hope. Grey holds himself apart, but still becomes an accidental pillar of a group of homesteaders. Through his encounters we come to see the arbitrary nature of death, and the consequences of failure in the early West.

Although the Purgatory is a real river and a significant setting of the story, the river itself is only a stand-in for the searing examination of one man’s conscience and the torments he inflicts upon himself out of guilt. As we accompany Grey on his desperate journey of expiation, we come to hope that his self-loathing will give way to some form of acceptance and peace. But Gary Schanbacher’s storytelling and characters make that journey a difficult  and ultimately rewarding one for us.

Check the WRL catalog for Crossing Purgatory

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JacketAh, jeez – as with so much else we know, it ain’t so. If Horace Greeley ever said, “Go West, young man,” it was in the context of quoting someone else who said, “Go West, young man,” and that may even have been an attempt to create a Greeley-sounding quote. Whatever the case, for some it was advice many young men had already taken on their own. Among them were the trappers and traders who pushed into the Rocky Mountains to forge relationships or fight with the Native Americans over the lucrative fur business.

In 1820, William Wyeth is determined that he is going to make his fortune in the West and prove to his father that he is a man of worth. He signs on with a trapping company in the frontier town of Saint Louis and heads out under the guidance of an experienced captain. Thus begins his adventure, and it is a wild one.

Wyeth is also coming up against the consequences of the fur trade. The companies he works for are pushing the boundaries of American influence against the settled Spanish and the British and French trappers who have long considered the West theirs for exploitation. With each tense encounter, the possible causes of war increase, and some of Wyeth’s companions would not necessarily mind the consequences. And the success of the trade means that more trappers and traders want to get in on it, so resources are disappearing even as conflicts are building.

Burke takes the tropes of the American Western and turns them into a literary jewel. His beautiful depictions of the landscape, exciting details of hunting, trapping, racing, and close observations of both the white men and the natives he encounters become opportunities for Wyeth’s self-examination on the meaning of manhood. There’s also a satisfying love story, a complex antagonist who helps Wyeth determine his own course, and men who open Wyeth’s eyes to the complexity of the native cultures.  Into the Savage Country offers an old-fashioned Western feel and a wonderful coming of age story.

Check the WRL catalog for Into the Savage Country

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jacketStrange that on a fine afternoon I’m thinking of death. Especially the death that killed whatever hope remained of a free Roman Republic—not that much hope existed. Julius Caesar had crossed the Rubicon, civil war wracked Rome, and the provinces were restive under the thumbs of local governors bent on earning glory on the backs of the locals. Caesar’s hollow gestures gave the discontented Senate little public reason to oppose him. He had the power to elevate or destroy the ambitious, he controlled both the public purse and a private fortune, and he was insulated by the support of his troops.

And so, over the course of a few weeks, senators conspired (I love that word—it literally means breathed together, conjuring up images of whispering figures close enough to smell each other’s breath) to test the waters and find the like-minded who believed Caesar had to go in order for the Republic—that is, the already-powerful—to rule. And on the Ides of March, gathered in the Theatre of Pompey, the conspirators struck.

Shakespeare’s famous scene compresses events that actually took place over a period of weeks as ordinary Romans tried to figure out which faction was either in the right or stood the best chance of winning the civil war everyone saw coming. Gladiators served as bodyguards for the conspirators, while army veterans swarmed into the city to ensure their land and pensions weren’t at risk. Both sides sculpted their public events to create drama and win support, but in the end it came down to money. Who could both fulfill Caesar’s will and pay the troops who would fight the actual battles?

Strauss pulls out of the wings a number of characters who are not featured in Shakespeare’s version. One of the most interesting is named Decimus, whom Shakespeare cast in a minor role as Decius Brutus. In fact, he was one of a trio—Marc Antony and Octavian being the other two—honored in one of Caesar’s triumphs, and was widely considered a rising star. It was Decimus, not Brutus, whose betrayal was more likely to have shocked Caesar, and Decimus whose post-assassination indecisiveness cost the conspirators their opportunities. Strauss also introduces us to the politically powerful women who pushed, pulled, financed, and slept their way to positions of influence. Far from the passive skirt-clutching simps that popular imagination consigns pre-Friedan women to, these were tough, astute players who had a vision of Rome’s future and who did all but carry swords into the battle.

Shakespeare can take credit for making this the most famous assassination in history, and his drama explores deeper themes than are found in the history. But the history is fascinating, and Strauss makes it read as a drama just as wonderful as Shakespeare’s.

Check the WRL catalog for The Death of Caesar.

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martianIf ever there was a book guaranteed to make you wish you’d paid attention in high school science classes, The Martian is it.

The story’s hero, Mark Watney, must have broken a mirror while walking under a ladder with a black cat on another Friday the 13th. When the story begins, he is stranded on Mars, thought dead by his crew and mission control. A fierce Martian windstorm has forced his exploration team to evacuate the surface, and an accident during the process destroyed the life support telemetry of his suit. Coming to and finding himself alone on the planet and discovering that he has no radio to contact the crew or NASA nearly crushes Mark. But a creative and indomitable spirit keeps him going as he reconfigures the living quarters, begins working out how he’ll survive until the next planned landing – which is 3000 kilometers away and a couple of years off – and looks for ways to communicate with Earth.

Most of the story is told in first person through the logs Watney keeps of his work and experiments in survival. These are not official or officious, but personal, wisecracking, and profane. Sometimes the audience is everyone off the planet Mars and sometimes it seems to be himself as he works out the details of his extraordinary plans. (If the space programs of the world would let their astronauts communicate in a voice like Watney’s, there would probably be more support for interplanetary exploration.)

However, Mark’s efforts to communicate with Earth turn the story’s focus back to our home planet, and to the committed, skillful, and highly individualistic people who will try to rescue Mark. How they deal with the enormous personal and engineering obstacles involved make for as compelling a story as Mark’s survival epic.

In one sense, I suppose the first person to be born or to die in a new place can be called its first citizen. (The terminology of European expansionism in human history aside.) In this case, we are rooting for Mark to not become the first Martian, but in the end of course he does. How he gets to that place is an intensely adventurous and gripping blend of hard science and science fiction. And it forces me to understand that I wouldn’t last ten minutes in Mark’s situation. I’ll take the desert island scenario any day.

Check the WRL catalogue for The Martian

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