Archive for the ‘Magical realism’ Category

jacketDespite being abandoned by her Danish mother when she was an infant and her Chilean immigrant father’s absence working as an international airline pilot, Maya was raised by her grandparents with spirited enlightenment and fiercely bolstering love. She was propped to have sound character, and her future held so much promise, until her Popo died when she was fifteen. Popo was her Nini’s second husband, but his presence meant the world to Maya. He had promised, “I swear I’ll always be with you.” Popo was a remarkably attentive surrogate parent to Maya, but following his death, whatever threads held her in check were unraveling at an alarming rate. The trio formed with her two girlfriends styled themselves as the “Vampires” and challenged each other to commit increasingly risky criminal acts and venture into dangerous sexual territory. By the time Maya is nineteen and living on the streets of Las Vegas, by the time she phones home, she’s on the run from criminals and the law. As she’s ushered onto a plane to exit the country and ride out the danger, her grandmother hands her a notebook for writing out her troubles as a tool for recovery, or as her Nini says it,

take advantage of it to write down the monumental stupidities you’ve committed, see if you can come to grips with them.

In the audiobook version I enjoyed, as the narrator began speaking in the voice of the 19-year-old female main character in Maya’s Notebook, she sounded far too mature, using unrealistic vocabulary and sounding too worldly. Soon, however, that didn’t matter because I was spellbound by Maya Vidal’s troubled past. She’d experienced complex problems and was running from drug lords, international criminals, and the FBI, and she comes from a highly unusual family; clearly her life was more complicated than an average teen girl’s. She was sent by her Chilean grandmother, her Nini, to Chiloé Island, perfect as a place for banishment or exile, to ride out the danger with an old friend of Nini’s, Manuel Arias. Manuel is a man with a mysterious and painful past as well. The narrative floats easily between Maya’s present in Chiloé and her past in Berkeley, California, then a rehab academy in Oregon, then in Las Vegas where she reaches the darkest pit of her degradation and suffering. Just when you think her story has been told already, it just gets deeper and more layered.

Maya’s Notebook is an Adult Fiction title which would likely appeal to many older teens, but the book contains very graphic scenes of criminality, violence (both sexual and drug-related), sexuality, and extreme drug use. It’s available in the WRL collection via regular print, audiobook on CD, e-audiobook, and in large print.

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When We Were Animals, by Joshua GaylordMost of us run a little wild at times as teenagers, but Joshua Gaylord’s When We Were Animals takes us to a town where this idea is not just a figure of speech but a literal truth: the teenagers, for a time that varies for each, but usually just a year or so, spend a few nights each month running naked and wild through the streets of their small town and surrounding countryside. They commit acts of sex and violence, following primal urges while adults and young children stay inside and keep the secret from the outside world.

Our heroine is Lumen Fowler, who recalls her youth from the vantage of middle age. As a girl, Lumen was a devoted daddy’s girl and late bloomer, well-behaved, fiercely intelligent, and overachieving, she was determined not to “breach” as other teens in her town did. She’s surrounded by a believable cast of other teens who one-by-one give into the strange call–a best friend who turns into a rival, a “mean girl” type who tries to dominate the other, a charmer of a boy who all the girls have crushes on, and a rough poor kid whose raw behavior frightens them all. Through it all, Lumen stays determined to follow in the footsteps of her deceased mother, who Lumen has been told never succumbed to the wild behavior.

This blend of Gothic horror and coming-of-age story can be enjoyed on the literal level of its exciting story or as an extended metaphor about the teenage years and the pull of darker instincts. The tone is haunting, but beautiful, and the sympathetic heroine as luminous as her name suggests. One can see the direction where the story is going, but it doesn’t make the conclusion any less powerful.

If you enjoy this as much as I did, Gaylord has written other books under the pseudonym Alden Bell, most notably The Reapers Are the Angels.

Check the WRL catalog for When We Were Animals.

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Something happened in Levy, South Carolina when Magnolia was seven years old. She is now in her eighties living in a nursing home, possibly with Alzheimer’s.  In her own words she is “trapped somewhere deep behind my eyes, waving… calling… but no one can hear me.” Her husband George is dying, but with his trademark dry humor, he knows that they have enjoyed a good life and he still adores his beautiful wife “even though [we’re] on the first floor where dementia lives, even though we are older than dirt, she is lovely and sweet and she is my bride.” But they are both learning that the past is never lost when people who lived through it are still alive.

When a life-size photograph of Magnolia and Joe, a stranger from their past, arrive at the home on the same day, we start to learn of a tangled web of lives, in the present and in the distant past. Each character, from Annie, their kind, but disappointed caretaker, to Ash, Magnolia’s long lost brother, tells his or her own story, some in the first person, some in the third person. Most of the characters have long buried secrets to hide and may not even admit the truth to themselves, so beware: everyone may not be a reliable narrator.

The Inheritance of Beauty can be read on several different levels. First it is a straightforward novel, with a leisurely revelation of the 70-year-old mystery, while it describes the sadness of families split by terrible circumstances who never get back together because no one wants to be the first to make contact. The characters are well-drawn, memorable and mostly thoroughly likable. It can be enjoyed as a touching love story of Magnolia and George’s relationship that lasted from childhood into old age. It also has touches of magic realism that are harder to spot: when my book club discussed it, only one of us noticed that a journey to a pond and a wetting symbolized a character’s baptism and rebirth.

The Inheritance of Beauty will appeal to lovers of Southern fiction, particularly for caretaker Annie’s lovely speech patterns. It is a good book for readers of Still Alice by Lisa Genova, which also deals with Alzheimer’s Disease, but on more practical everyday level.

Check the WRL catalog for The Inheritance of Beauty.

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As summer approaches, lots of folks are looking for something fun to read while vacationing on the beach or at the lake or just sitting on the back porch. There will be lots of big novels coming out and being heavily promoted this summer, as always, but rather than following the crowd, why not set your own trends and read some great midlist or older titles. You won’t have to worry about getting on the holds list for these books, and who knows, you might create some new demand for these worthy authors. This week’s posts will look at some great fiction that deserves re-discovery.

Kotzwinkle-Bear-MountainFor those readers who enjoy a healthy amount of satirical humor, The Bear Went Over the Mountain by William Kotzwinkle is a good choice. Kotzwinkle’s book is a biting send up of the pretensions of the literary world. The Bear Went Over the Mountain contains scenes that will have you laughing out loud, but at the same time they will make you pause and think. Kotzwinkle, like any great satirist, uses his humor to question the values and beliefs of contemporary society.

This story deftly mixes fantasy and reality as Kotzwinkle tells the tale of Hal, a bear who comes across a buried manuscript novel while looking for food. Not your normal bear, Hal decides to put on a suit, and take the manuscript in to town, where he proceeds to become a publishing sensation. The actual author of the novel, Professor Arthur Bramhall, is traumatized by the theft of his story, and he becomes more and more bear-like as the story progresses. OK, it sounds a bit over the top perhaps, but what is summer for if not exploring new paths in your reading? Besides, Kotzwinkle pulls off his high concept with aplomb.

Kotzwinkle applies his sharp eye and his keen wit to the publishing industry, which is centered around the search for the next big seller, regardless of its literary merit, or the species of its author. People see what they want to see, and with eyes blinded by dollar signs, their vision is often poor at best. With courtroom drama and even a visit to the White House, the story moves briskly along, and offers a great blend of humor and thoughtfulness.

Check the WRL catalog for The Bear Went Over the Mountain


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MrWufflesDrama! Danger!

Aliens invade and then …

encounter the cat.

David Wiesner once again proves that you don’t need words to tell a full and satisfying story.

Mr. Wuffles, as his name suggests, is a cat. He is a handsome beast, black with a white front and white socks. David Wiesner has perfectly captured his cat-arrogance as he moves through the pages with his golden green eyes wondering what’s in it for him. His jeans-wearing, green-shirted owner (who only appears as legs and arms) tries to engage him with new toys, but he stalks off past all the old rejected toys with their price tags still intact.  He finally finds one that engages his interest because it is full of tiny ant-sized green aliens. The appealing nose-less green-faced aliens know they are in mortal danger from Mr. Wuffles so they have to partner with friendly ants and a ladybug to attempt their escape. They communicate with each other in speech bubbles resembling hieroglyphics and with the reader in expressive gestures. They don’t notice the humans at all.

I enjoy reading graphic novels but at forty-mumble I am starting to struggle with the tiny print in some of them. I thought someone should invent large print graphic novels for the chronologically challenged, but realized they already exist and that they are called picture books. Most picture books aren’t interesting to adults on their own merits, unless they are planning to share them with a child. Some picture book authors break this rule frequently such as Chris Van Allsburg, Maurice Sendak and David Wiesner, with stories on multiple levels and gallery-worthy art. David Wiesner has a talent for turning things around like his award winning Flotsam with its changes in viewpoint.

The title, Mr. Wuffles, sounds positively sappy (which I don’t mind as a secret Reddit Aww viewer), but it isn’t a sappy book. Despite his name, Mr. Wuffles is portrayed as the terrifying hunter that any domestic cat really is to anything smaller than it. Older children will be able to follow this almost wordless story, but SF fans of any age and cat lovers will also get a kick out of it.  My sixteen-year-old loved it. See if you can spot when one of the aliens cries in his hieroglyphic script, “To infinity and beyond!” as he flies away on the back of a ladybug from the approaching killer cat claws.  Mr. Wuffles  raises important questions like,  what would happen if aliens invaded and they were not godzilla-like orders of magnitudes larger than us, but orders of magnitude smaller? What if it already happened? What if they just met the cat, who was only interested in cat things like chasing them and perhaps eating them?

And it may leave you wondering the next time your cat snubs the toys you buy, that maybe it’s because there are aliens under the radiator?

Check the WRL catalog for Mr. Wuffles.

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“The dread had not left my soul. But there was a kitten on my pillow, and it was purring in my face and vibrating gently with every purr.”

Neil Gaiman has a great talent for seeing the sinister and malevolent under the everyday and mundane. But he also has a talent for pointing out the beauty and wonder that simultaneously exist in the same everyday and mundane things. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is told mainly through the eyes of a seven-year-old boy, which gives the book a simple, direct style as the boy is without preconceptions. He reports matter-of-factly that his new nanny is an evil monster who rode out of another dimension in a worm hole in his own foot, but this is not the sort of thing that adults believe.

The book starts as a middle-aged man returns to his childhood village to attend a funeral, so we know that the narrator survives (something I would not have been sure of otherwise). Forty years ago, the tragic suicide of an almost-stranger and a series of seemingly small, but bad, decisions, lead to dramatic and possibly world-ending events, all under the eyes of oblivious adults.

Neil Gaiman has created a complete, but never fully explained, fantasy world living just under the surface of the world we see. His Hunger Birds are close to the creepiest fantasy creatures I have ever encountered. I can see glimmers of the best of other British fantasy. The woods that the boy first enters with Lettie Hempstock reminds me of the damaged, dimensionless woods in Diana Wynne Jones’s The Pinhoe Egg. Lettie Hempstock herself, being a non-human in human form, with her Universe-saving sentiments, reminds me of Doctor Who. These may be plausible connections: Neil Gaiman knew Diana Wynne Jones and considered her his mentor, and he has written for Doctor Who.

This book is being marketed as an adult novel and lots of adults and teens love it.  I think older children who are strong readers and fantasy fans will also enjoy it. They will appreciate the main character’s impotence in the face of the seamlessly complacent adult world. It has a few oblique references to sex, but they will probably go over the heads of many children. Simply, but poetically written, this a beautiful short book that I wanted to come back to and immerse myself in. I listen to a lot of audiobooks, and have heard several read by the author. Neil Gaiman is by far the best reader of his own work that I have come across. From his pleasant English accent to the menace in the voice of the monster, I can’t wait to hear more.

Check the WRL catalog for The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

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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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guestsHere’s a terrific book for those who can’t get enough of Downton Abbey and want to take that experience into their reading.  Set in Edwardian England, The Uninvited Guests visits some of the same themes of class and deeply held secrets, but adds a touch of strangeness that makes the book feel increasingly Gothic.

Emerald Torrington’s twentieth birthday celebration is overshadowed by circumstances.  Her beloved house, Sterne (ok, it’s no Downton Abbey, but it is home) is under threat of foreclosure, and her stepfather has to leave, hat in hand, to try to borrow money.  While amiable, he doesn’t hold a candle to her real father, dead these three years.  Her mother is shallow and self-centered, frequently absent from family obligations.  Her younger brother is petulant and resentful.  A neighbor and childhood friend may or may not be paying her court.  And the only people invited to the party are also childhood friends thought of with the mild contempt of those who have not seen each other in many years.  Oh, yes, there’s her little sister, everyone’s afterthought.

None of that tops the final indignity.  A train crash on a nearby branch line strands several passengers, who show up on the doorstep.  Third-class passengers, they are poorly dressed, somewhat smelly, and many are definitely odd-looking.  Since they were sent by the railway, Emerald has no choice but to take them in and give them temporary shelter.  She even gives up her birthday meal – not the cake, though – to feed the ever-increasing number of passengers.  She and her guests scrape the larder to meet the passengers’ demands, and in doing so create a fellowship among themselves that ignites new and interesting dynamics.

Then a lone first-class passenger, Charlie Somebody Something (no one can remember his name) arrives and is invited to join the dinner party.  He gradually insinuates himself into the role of host, dominating the younger people and exposing them to dark and worldly knowledge.  His power over the group is such that he convinces them to play a cruel and frightening game that shatters their tenuous bond and reveals a devastating secret.

The novel slowly shifts into a claustrophobic atmosphere in which all kinds of boundaries fall, including the boundary between the solid world and the spiritual realm.  As the night progresses, it seems that all of the young people reach a moment of revelation that forever separates them from innocence and childhood.

And that younger sister, still in the throes of childhood?  Eleven-year old Smudge has the run of the house and takes full advantage of it to pull off what she calls her “Great Undertaking.”  The consequences of that Undertaking will collide with the family’s responsibilities towards the stranded passengers and bring the evening’s events to a bizarre and disquieting close.

Jones is effective at creating an unsettled feel through her descriptions.  Wherever there is a choice of adjectives she chooses the darkest alternative.  She finds ways to describe the smells of cooking and of wet clothing and candles to bring us into an old and crowded house, and picks characteristics of each person that establishes them in the reader’s mind.  In many ways certain plot points are ambiguous, but reading back over the storyline, you discover that she planted seeds that lead to some kind of answer. Our book groups enjoyed dissecting the story, and many of the readers provided the kind of insights that make other members view it in a new light.

Check the WRL catalog for The Uninvited Guests

It will also be available beginning August 2013 as a Gab Bag for book discussion groups.

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ShadesMary Robinette Kowal’s debut fantasy novel paints an alternate setting à la Jane Austen’s Regency England (though this is definitely not a P & P spin-off), in which young accomplished ladies coming of age and out into society must not only develop skills with such things as music, proper deportment, and polite conversation. They also have access to the mystical ether with which they create glamour to enhance their domestic environment with scenic illusions. Young ladies learn how to design, form, and shape the ether’s strands into natural scenes such as a forest glen complete with a bubbling brook, fluttering birds with their songs, and scented flowers in bloom. Jane, the main character, happens to possess a rather advanced talent as a glamourist. Despite her plain-Jane looks, her intellect and skill with the ether as well as other visual arts attracts the attention of famed professional glamourist David Vincent, who is hired by Jane’s wealthy neighbor to create glamour as a means for impressing her prominent guests. Jane’s family is fortunate that she can use glamour to give their home a far better appearance than they could normally afford.

Adventure and intrigue enter the plots of Kowal’s fantasy series (yes, the first sequel, Glamour in Glass, is already in with two more titles coming in 2013-2014) when Vincent and Jane combine their talents, ordinarily reserved for domestic arts and the enhancement of one’s social status, to outwit criminals and defeat armed bandits. Romance is in the picture as well, but the relationship between Jane and Vincent builds gradually as their respect for each other is hard-earned; romance doesn’t dominate the story but infuses it with enough tenderness to appeal to romantic suspense fans.

Other than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, I’ve not read very much fantasy fiction. This is the first series that has really captured my interest, and I’m quite taken with the characters, the adventure, and the fact that its setting and atmosphere are well-grounded in historical realism. Kowal causes the magic to seem a rather natural element of that time, changing very little else about the culture.

Even though Shades of Milk and Honey is her first novel, Mary Robinette Kowal is no beginning writer, having won the 2008 Campbell Award for Best New Writer and the 2011 Hugo Award for her short story titled “For Want of a Nail.”  I think it’s neat that she also happens to be an accomplished professional puppeteer!

Look for Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass in the WRL catalog.

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Confession time?  I never read anything by Salman Rushdie until I picked up Step Across This Line: Collected Nonfiction 1992-2002.  I found his essays on everything from “Being Photographed” to “Going to Electoral College” to be funny, pointed, and written in approachable, engaging language.  So what was holding me back?  Perhaps it was that intimidating glare, which makes him look as if you’re going to disappoint him no matter how hard you try.  (Of course, looking for the picture I was thinking of yielded only photos of a smiling, avuncular wiseman.  Strange.)

On a whim, I picked up Haroun and the Sea of Stories and began reading it aloud to my wife.  It quickly became a standing date–9pm each night we’d sit down and I’d dive into The Sea.  Rushdie’s enchanting story drew us along right to the wonderfully satisfying end.  It practically defines what I love to see in totally escapist reading, but with a punch that few writers can pull off.

Haroun is the son of Rashid, a famous storyteller who lives in his own imagination and sometimes visits the “real” world to perform the pieces he finds in his fancy.  Haroun’s mother Soraya sometimes frets over money, but is largely happy until a nasty neighbor poisons her image of Rashid, and the two run off together.  Haroun rejects his father’s fantastic view of the world, and Rashid loses his storytelling facility.

Unfortunately, it’s election time in the country Alifbay, where Rashid has been hired to enchant voters so the politicians can tell equally large whoppers to earn votes.  Without his skill Rashid cannot perform, and only professional pride makes him go to his last gig in the isolated Valley of K to entertain provincial voters.  Haroun talks them onto a wild bus ride with a driver named Butt, who delivers them to their putative employer Snooty Buttoo and his fantastic houseboat.  But aboard the houseboat, Haroun finds himself flown away to an invisible moon that houses the Sea of Stories.  An immense ocean whose currents of standard storylines flow together to create new tales, the Sea is also being poisoned by “popular romances” which have turned into “long lists of shopping expeditions, and “talking helicopter anecdotes” that are spoiling the rich imaginative source that has nourished both tellers and listeners for all of human history.  The poison leads back to the enemy of storytelling, “Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech” Khattam-Shud, whose name means “The End.”

With Haroun’s assistance, the good Guppees, the Plentimaw fish, and the people of P2C2E (Processes Too Complicated to Explain) defeat Khattam-Shud and his Chupwalas, and balance returns to the moon.  With the Sea of Stories saved, the world undergoes a transformation that ensures the defeat of the colorless and the victory of the whimsical.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is called a children’s story, but it would be an exceptional child (indeed an exceptional reader of any age) to catch all the puns, literary allusions, political caricature, and meaningful verbal tics Rushdie gives his magical characters.  Haroun is a marvelous stand-in for readers living in the dull world.  His sudden gift of a wildly psychedelic experience reminds of what we set aside as we “grow up.”  It must have been a Chupwala who decided it belonged outside the realm of those who need it most.

Check the WRL catalog for Haroun and the Sea of Stories


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David Almond’s first book for young people is Skellig, which was written in the late 1990s.  I missed this when it first came out, but recently picked it up.  It wasn’t “edge of your seat” thrilling, but instead sweet and magical. I kept turning pages to see what would happen next.

Michael has experienced a lot of stressful changes. His sister was born prematurely.  Although she was released from the hospital, she isn’t doing well at home.   Everyone is worried about her health, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for Michael.  Additionally the family has recently moved to a new house, which needs a lot of work. Once his dad gets a chance to get the rooms painted and the garden cleaned up, it should be great for their growing family.  But now… all Michael can think about is how far away he is from his friends.

One of the features of the property is a dilapidated garage that Michael is not supposed to go near for fear it will collapse—but of course, he does.  There he discovers a strange-looking old man hiding behind a tea chest in the corner.  Michael is scared, but instead of telling an adult about his discovery, he goes back a second time to get a better look.  Then a third time to bring the man food and aspirin.  At last he decides to confide in his neighbor, Mina, and brings her to meet Skellig.

As Michael’s sister returns to the hospital for another surgery, he and Mina move Skellig to a safer place.  They agree that he is an extraordinary being, but is he a man, angel, owl or ghost?  And is there any chance he can save Michael’s sister?

According to the reviews, this book is for children ages 8 and up, but I found it a great story about friendship for all ages.  Mina is wise beyond her years and the lessons in the book will stick with me for a long time.

Check the WRL catalog for Skellig

Almond has recently released Mina’s story in My Name is Mina.


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The squid’s been nicked, to begin with.

But curator Billy Harrow has more to worry about than the theft of a 28-foot Architeuthis from London’s Museum of Natural History. He’s being interrogated by members of the extremely unorthodox Fundamentalist and Sect-Related Crime unit. He’s being followed by squirrels. And then he’s recruited by an underground cult of Kraken worshipers who consider squids to be saints and Billy to be their… John the Baptist?

For Billy the unwilling prophet and Dane Parnell, a renegade Krakenist, there isn’t much time to figure out who’s got the squid. Welcome to the latter days: word on—and under—the streets of London is that the apocalypse is right around the corner. Possibly more than one.

It’s tough to summarize this book without its sounding like a terrible made-for-SyFy movie (“CEPHALOPOCALYPSE*: The Squid… Are… RISING”). Nonetheless, it’s the most fun I’ve had between book covers all year. Miéville has a great ear and enthusiasm for words; his prose is a dictionary set to music. The city of London becomes a character in itself, along with several creepy, memorable villains and one great cop (bad odds, those).

The story is fueled by pure, gleeful invention. Malevolent ink, homicidal origami, strikes in the afterlife, and iPod djinn—the sense of an author brainstorming overtakes the plot at some point, and we move from a fairly normal London, in which the weird is just breaching the surface of the mundane, to a city teeming with more seers, familiars, and dueling magical crime lords than could ever possibly be concealed from public view. But for prose like this, I was glad to go along for the ride—even when it was a ride in the back of a speeding lorry, with a bunch of entrail-reading Londonmancers and a preserved squid in a tank.


Check the WRL catalog for Kraken.


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MagiciansThe comparisons to Harry Potter are inevitable, but when Quentin Coldwater is recruited by Brakebills, a magical university hidden in upstate New York, he’s no wide-eyed eleven year old. Smart, anti-social, competitive, and melancholy, he’s designed his life to please Princeton’s admissions office. He took up performing magic tricks so that he could claim an extracurricular activity without actually having to interact with other people. Then he has one of those through-the-looking-glass, or rather, through-the-back-of-the-wardrobe moments, and finds himself on the grounds of Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy, taking an incomprehensibly weird entrance exam. When it turns out there’s real magical talent contributing to his sleight-of-hand, Quentin takes about two minutes to realign his career goals. Magicianship beats his depressing real life any day of the week.

Although I may after all prefer the antics of schoolchildren to those of moody college kids and postgrads—sex, drugs, and nihilism, man, St. Elmo’s Fire with sorcery—I enjoyed Grossman’s easy, clever prose and the details of his invented magic. I particularly loved passages describing the cataloging of Brakesbills’s books, which bring an entirely new meaning to the phrase “mobile library:”

“… in which the books fluttered from shelf to shelf like birds, reorganizing themselves spontaneously under their own power in response to searches… enormous atlases soaring around the place like condors….The librarian had imagined he could summon a given book to perch on his hand just by shouting out its call number, but in actuality they were just too willful, and some were actively predatory.”

Sometimes charming, sometimes quite dark, it isn’t always clear whether this is a love letter to children’s fantasy or its shocking exposé. From Quidditch to Ents, devoted fantasy readers will enjoy the allusions to the literature of their childhood, and in particular to Narnia (“Fillory” is its thinly-disguised counterpart in the novel), where life is somehow truer and more meaningful and schoolboys become kings. But Quentin’s attempts to find love and fathom meaning in his life just do not get any simpler from one magical world to the next. A fantasy novel about whether you should make fantasy worlds your refuge, it has more in common with Neil Gaiman’s “The Problem of Susan” than with Hogwarts.

Check the WRL catalog for The Magicians.

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Angels of Destruction On a very cold January night, in a small Pennsylvania town, a nine-year-old girl with glasses shows up on the doorstep of Margaret Quinn. Margaret is a lonely widow whose only daughter, Erica, ran away from home as a teenager ten years earlier in 1975 with her boyfriend Wiley and hasn’t been seen in town since. The bespectacled girl says she’s an orphan and has never known her parents. She was looking for a warm place, and saw Margaret’s light. She begins to write her name, NOR, and Margaret finishes it, calling the girl Norah.

Margaret decides to keep the girl and tells everyone that Norah is her granddaughter, Erica’s daughter. People in the neighborhood knew that Erica ran away, and they talk of some “trouble” Erica and Wiley were involved with on their trip out West. They are surprised to hear that Erica had a daughter and that she sent her to her mother’s without coming back herself, but they don’t question things too hard.

Norah is sent to the local elementary school and makes friends with a lonely neighbor boy named Sean Fallon. Sean’s father had left him and his mother just the year before and he is in need of a friend. Norah and Sean get along as any young friends do, sometimes with teasing and suspicion, mostly with love. As the months go by, Norah demonstrates strange powers which start to get her into trouble at school.

Who is this little girl, where did she come from, and why did she show up at Margaret’s door? There’s also a man in a brimmed hat, a stranger to the town, who hangs around in the cold and seems to have something to do with Norah. Perhaps, as he wrote once in the frost on a windshield, the girl’s name is really Noriel. Perhaps he knows where she comes from and what she really is.

The story of Norah and Margaret in 1985 is alternated with the story of Erica and Wiley in 1975, when Wiley’s radical political views prompted him to take Erica out to California to join the anarchistic group Angels of Destruction. The stories converge as the little girl demonstrates more of her strange powers and the people of the town clamor to get Norah to leave their children alone.

I loved Keith Donohue’s The Stolen Child, about a group of fairies who swap one of their own for a human child, a changeling. I was eager to read Donohue’s newest, Angels of Destruction, and was absolutely delighted to find it was just as good, if not better.

Check the WRL catalog for Angels of Destruction

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It’s 2070, and we’re in next-generation West Africa. Fourteen-year old Ejii Ugabe has supernatural “shadow speaking” talents that she hasn’t fully grown into, not least because her power-hungry estranged father didn’t believe girls should be educated. Her world has already been through an enormous Change, resulting in an unpredictable mix of magical and physical laws, and it’s about to undergo another one.

Ejii’s “shadow” advisors compel her to travel to a peace conference, the Golden Dawn Meeting, between representatives of merging realities. If the talks don’t go well, there are warmongering worlds that would like to destroy us, and as if those stakes aren’t high enough, the journey itself could kill her.

She travels in the entourage of Sarauniya Jaa, the Red Queen of Niger, a great leader and swordswoman with two husbands (one of whom used to be a sandstorm). I loved Jaa. Red flowers drop from the air whenever she speaks. Also, she chopped Ejii’s father’s head off with a sword. As her protégé, Ejii is torn between reluctant admiration and concerns that Jaa, who’s bringing the sword, may not be the best person to represent Earth at a peace conference. (Jaa: We come in peace! Whack.)

From sentient desert sandstorms to thriving garden cities with literal house-plants, houses that are plants, the strength of this novel is its magical-realist African setting. Okorafor loads her writing with sensory detail and imaginative doodads like electric lizards, digital ghosts, and, my personal favorite, flocks of carnivorous hummingbirds.

Ejii is an interesting young woman, trying to balance her innate calling to be a peacemaker with the occasional need to knock somebody’s teeth out. (I see The Shadow Speaker is on ALA’s 2009 Amelia Bloomer List, which recommends feminist books for children and teens.) The action is very episodic, which may be why I felt the story skewed a little younger than the occasional strong language would suggest. The secondary characters were well-drawn, and we’re likely to hear more about them in the sequel that is in the works.

Check the WRL catalog for The Shadow Speaker

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hoegPeter Høeg’s The Quiet Girl is one of the most interesting and complex books that I have recently read. Its twisting plot, multi-faceted characters, and elements of magical realism all require the reader to pay attention. It is attention well-rewarded though. Høeg writes beautiful sentences that resonate in the ear and on the tongue.

Probably best known for his dark and icy thriller Smilla’s Sense of Snow, Høeg here has crafted another captivating story that has a compelling mix of mystery, philosophy, science, and action. The Quiet Girl begins with Kasper Krone, circus clown, heavily-in-debt gambler, violinist, and a man who can hear that “SheAlmighty had tuned each person in a musical key.” Krone’s extrasensory abilities are the hub on which the plot of the story turns. He discovers that he is not alone in hearing people’s music, and when a young girl, who has her own extrasensory abilities, goes missing, Krone is recruited to help recover her, a job that will possibly enable him to avoid prosecution for tax fraud and deportation to a Spanish prison.

The book is jumpy and shifts from scene to scene sometimes without a clear view or resolution. This constant movement adds to the tension of the story, but does require attention from the reader. The Quiet Girl is not really a crime novel, though it has elements of mystery writing, nor is it a fantasy story, though there are times where Høeg takes the reader beyond the walls of our normal world. Instead, Høeg blends stylistic pieces from several genres, writing on what Michael Chabon described as “the borderlands” of fiction (see the essay “Trickster in a Suit of Lights” in Chabon’s Maps and Legends). The Quiet Girl also has a strong sense of place. The city of Copenhagen becomes a part of the aural landscape of the story, as Kasper’s unusual hearing abilities allow Høeg to describe the sounds of the city in a new way. The Quiet Girl offers readers many entry points, beautiful writing, fascinating characters, and a thrilling plot. Give it a try.

Check the WRL catalog for The Quiet Girl

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My friend and library colleague Christine recommended this book to me. I encouraged (i.e. hounded) her into writing the review.

Here’s what she had to say:

Willie Upton’s life is in shambles, so she’s going home. But going home to Templeton, New York brings bigger problems for Willie. On top of a few “small” dilemmas including an affair with her professor, abandoning research for her dissertation, and that little problem called pregnancy, Willie’s bohemian, hippie, wild-child mother Vi has embraced religion.  Now that she’s found God, Vi reveals Willie’s father is not some unnamed hippie from a commune, but rather a respected member of the community, someone in town — someone Willie knows.

Willie takes the few clues her mother provides and begins her journey to find her father, understand her town, and deal with her life.

The audio version of this title is highly recommended. Narrator Ann Marie Lee brings to life Willie, the town of Templeton, the many generations of Templetonians, and the magical lake monster, Glimmey. Ms. Lee’s voice lends to the magical quality of the story that carries the listener through an amazing fantastical journey. Although not necessary, I would recommend keeping the book nearby for the family tree and the many photographs that give life to the characters.

And my own two cents:

There are many layers to this story – and many voices from the present and past help create the fabric of the Upton history. That can be both exciting and frustrating. I wanted to reread the story once I reached the end to make all the connections I’m sure I missed. But whether you spend extra time going back through or reading it all once, you’ll enjoy the mystery of Willie’s family story and all the magical elements.

Check the WRL catalog for The Monsters of Templeton.

Check the WRL catalog for the audiobook.

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This week I’m looking at books that I think are worth rereading – and that I’ve reread more than once. These stand up to my tests, and I’ll try to articulate what it is I like about them. If any of them intrigue you, I hope you’ll give them a shot. I envy you the first-time experience.

I once saw a program on forensic science that showed a six-foot tall granite wheel, perfectly shaped, perfectly balanced, and perfectly placed so that each revolution sliced a tissue sample thin enough to put on a microscope slide. At his best, Joseph Heller is like that wheel, as carved by Dali. His stories revolve easily on the axle of a single weighty incident, but in mad loops and twirls that randomly, inexorably peel thin layers until he lays bare an awful truth.

Heller is best known for his signature work, Catch-22 (which is probably #1 on my “most reread” list), but in my humble opinion he missed the unique voice and structure of that groundbreaking novel in his other books. Except for God Knows. A first-person omniscient narrator who is both deeply spiritual and worldly, details that are anachronistic yet incredibly accurate, and characters who defy every expectation combine to throw light on the biblical story of King David.

As everyone who ever went to Sunday School knows, David slew Goliath, played the harp and wrote Psalms, and became King. More advanced readers might know that he married Bathsheba under suspicious circumstances. Even more knowledgeable people might know that he was a rebel, was in turn rebelled against by his son Absalom, and survived palace intrigues over the succession to his throne. Heller incorporates all these stories, going to the books of Samuel, Chronicles, Psalms, and Kings to reconstruct the timeline of David’s life. Of course, being Joseph Heller, he develops that timeline in his own order, following themes and whims to convey David’s story.

David also has full knowledge of his future representation in art and literature – Michelangelo, Shakespeare, the controversy over his relationship with Jonathan – and mocks or defends himself against those interpretations. Heller’s dark humor suffuses the story, but it’s filtered through a layer of tragedy and self-pity, even as Yossarian’s was.

I reread this for Heller’s sympathetic but unyielding portrait of “a man after God’s own heart” whose very humanity loses him the relationship he wants the most. His secondary characters – the nearly idiotic Solomon, the menopausal Bathsheba, David’s vain sons, and the half-mad Saul – are caricatures, but memorable in their own right. Most of all, I read this for the devastating impact of the last line, which is the effective climax of the story. Don’t read that last line first – savor the experience of Heller’s incredible writing and David’s violent and tragic life.

Check the WRL catalog for God Knows

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