Category Archives: adult

Come for the cursing. Stay for the grief.

calypsoDavid Sedaris is the prince of dysfunctional families, or maybe, like Prince, he is more of an unpronounceable symbol.  One you enjoy.  (Also like Prince.)

If anyone can make death humorous, he’s your guy.  Dysfunctional families?  He’s on it.  Tumors on turtles?  Got that covered, too.  Need to know how to curse bad drivers in other languages?  It might take a few minutes, but it’ll be worth the wait.

Is he the perfect person?  Clearly not.  He’s kind of awful, but also kind of wonderful.  And he’s got that niece who’s kind of vicious at Sorry.  Is she sorry?  Is he?

I don’t know if you’ll laugh out loud, but I did.

Calypso by David Sedaris

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Friend of Agatha, not to be missed

wordismurderI was putting together a book display a while back and realized we have a pretty large collection of murder mysteries that feature authors, booksellers, editors and librarians.  Also cats.  A lot of them have cats on the cover, which I take to be a sign that it’s sort of a cozy book, much like the shirtless, buffed guy might signal a romance.  Maybe I’m reading that part all wrong.  I’m wrong about a lot of things these days.  You’ll know what I mean if you live with a teenager.

Anyway, apparently readers, writers, and publishers can all imagine pretty easily how violent death might waltz into their lives.  And if you’re going to grab a writer to stick right in the middle of it, I’d choose Anthony Horowitz just about any day.  In addition to writing the Alex Rider teen series, he wrote Foyle’s War, one of my favorite TV mystery series ever.  He’s also written a Sherlock Holmes mystery and The Magpie Murders, which is very Agatha-esque and delightful.

And now this one.  Agatha Christie would be writing this book if she were alive now and Anthony Horowitz hadn’t beat her to it.  It’s such a great mixture of red herrings, unhappy people, social commentary, lies, deception, acting and more.  More interesting stuff.

Anthony Horowitz as the character of the author is just about as perfectly snobby, anxious, smart, and reckless as you’d expect any of us armchair detectives to be.  His detective is also flawed and difficult and, like some book characters, frustratingly uncaring about details we as readers think matter.  This is the kind of manipulation that’s so masterfully done that you have to appreciate it.

I’d still like to have more of Foyle, but really, maybe, it’s just more of Anthony Horowitz’s storytelling I’d enjoy.

The Word is Murder by Anthony Horowitz

This book was released in 2017 outside the U.S.; the American edition was released June 5, 2018.

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Parallel worlds, similar crap

an-unkindness-of-magicians-9781481451192_lgMagic and the mundane operate in the same but sometimes separate spaces.  It’s not like Harry Potter, this author seems to say.  Then again, power, revenge, and secrets are universal.

Sidney’s lived her life, if you can call it that, apart from the magical world until she’s somehow able to escape the horrors of her childhood.  Her choices will certainly upend the magical establishment and expose uncomfortable truths about what magicians have accepted in order to maintain their status quo.  And there is an evil twisting in and through the whole fabric of the magical world.  It might destroy it, unless something can stop it.  Will she be that something?

I’m not sure it matters that this book is about a magical world.  The magic is an elegant, challenging, and complicated thing, but you could translate the story into more realistic settings, and it would simply be a great story about persistence and overcoming institutionalized whatever.

But the magic adds to the beauty and horror of the story.  I haven’t stopped thinking about it–about the choices the characters make, how power corrupts, and how good people let things slide or stand up.  I can’t always remember what I read last week if I don’t check my own blog postings, so believe me when I say it’s great, people.  Don’t miss this one.  Neil Gaiman likes it, too.

(Also, even though this book’s in the adult science fiction/fantasy at our library, it would be a great one for older teens.)

An Unkindness of Magicians by Kat Howard

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Graphic novel? Picture book? Both?

small thingsI hadn’t thought about it lately, but this book reminded me that even the shape of a book sometimes leads you to make assumptions about who it should speak to.  This one is big, like a picture book, although the format is more graphic novel-like.  There’s no real text to help you out, either, and it’s all grayscale, so even the colors don’t clue you in.

It could be a way to talk through how the small things in life wear at you, tear you apart, leave you without defenses to meanness or negativity.  It could be a path into a discussion about depression and how it affects people (large and small).  It is on the edge of breath-taking and has a hint of hopefulness about it, but only at the very end, and that feeling for me does not overwhelm the sadness or grayness of it all.

I showed it to my husband who doesn’t read many picture books or graphic novels, and he commented that it really wasn’t what he expected.  Exactly.  It doesn’t make it better or worse, but it left me wondering if I needed to have a stronger opinion about it than just, “wow.”  See what you think.

small things  by Mel Tregonning

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Maisie Dobbs, back again

to die but onceMaisie Dobbs is one of those characters I almost wish I’d found after the series was done.  But that would mean I’d missed her all these years and that the series was done, which would be awful.

I always look forward to new Maisie adventures, even knowing that I have left many mystery authors behind after things just drag on too long.  I’m not sure how Maisie has missed this – we’re on book fourteen now, after all.  Some of it might have to do with the way she and the other regular characters have developed over time.   Time has passed in the novels, too, from her early days after World War I to this latest entry, which takes place at the beginning of World War II.

Whatever it is that keeps me with her, I’m grateful for the chance to reconnect with her for the brief time I can dive into a new story.  To Die But Once moves Maisie and the other characters towards new personal challenges while linking them to the changing times and storm clouds ahead.  To say much more would mean I’d be here for pages and pages.  Wonderful.

And now I wait.  Again.

To Die But Once by Jacqueline Winspear

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Surviving the lies we tell each other and ourselves

educatedOur personal demons rarely make for interesting conversation or gripping storytelling.  I often can’t sleep this time of year because of mine, but I try to talk about them only when I can’t really avoid it.  Even then, I’ve never found that sharing actually helps me or the other person much.  But the extra time I’m awake at night can come in handy, giving me a bit more time to read outside my box.

I don’t read that many memoirs, so maybe this kind of story is more pervasive in the genre than I realize.  For reasons I can’t exactly pinpoint – maybe because it’s about a woman overcoming – this reminds me a bit of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild without the hiking disasters.  (In looking at a few reviews just before I posted this, I realized a lot of other folks have made that connection.  Hmm.)  It’s an amazing book, but I know that some patrons who enjoy stories about abuse survivors will enjoy it more than I did.

There’s a certain kind of reader who is a little fascinated by just how awful people can be to each other, but reading this book as a checklist of family awfulness is the wrong way to look at it.  It is inspirational, but a large part of its power is the way Westover walks us through how she saw things at the time, the way she barely survived abuse and lies and harmful thinking again and again by telling herself that what she experienced either wasn’t happening or was something completely different from reality.  How sad to think of a child, any child, suffering so much at the hands of people she clearly and deeply loved and who loved her back.

Westover’s story reminds us of the power we all have to make a difference in others’ lives.  Having spent many years working with struggling kids and families, I understand how imperfect and sometimes dangerous trying to help someone can be.  Whatever you do often feels like not enough, but we have to hope, don’t we?  We have to keep trying.

Educated by Tara Westover

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Hope and fear and the bubbles we live in

the-newcomers-9781501159091_hrBack when I worked with kids and families, I found myself doing a lot of things I’d never really imagined myself doing.  One morning I tracked down a kid who hadn’t made it to school on time again — he’d been homeless for months, living with extended family, friends, and occasionally a girlfriend’s family.  I had to explain that he needed to leave his jacket in my car or find another coat, because he reeked of marijuana, and I knew someone at school would have to deal with it if he walked in the door with it on. He couldn’t even smell it, but it was strong.  He claimed, and I believed him at the time, that his older cousin’s friends were smoking the night before, and he’d slept on the couch in his coat because he didn’t have anywhere else to go.  I knew the coat would mean time out of class, which was the last thing he needed at that point in his school career, so on the way to school on the opposite side of town, he had to figure out what to do.  This wasn’t even an unusual occurrence back then; every day had some kind of surprise for me.

Before that job, I’d worked with a program that offered English classes and outreach services to immigrant and refugee families.  There were surprises like that there, too.  I worried about some of the older ladies who came to class without winter coats, wearing flip flops when it was 15 degrees outside.  I felt so happy the day one of my favorites came in wearing tube socks with her flip flips – it wasn’t great, but it was so much better.

Why mention these things now?  Reading The Newcomers made me relive many moments in those jobs.  Being poor and/or a refugee or immigrant is something many of us cannot relate to without some work.  Sometimes we’re closer to financial ruin than we might like, but we don’t often imagine navigating our lives in another country with different rules and a completely different language as well.

What makes this book even more powerful is that the central characters are teenagers, kids who have just arrived after traumatic, frightening things have invaded their lives because they’re in the “wrong” group or in the wrong place at the wrong time.  We expect them and their families to just take whatever hope they have left and spin it into gold, and they should be able to do that within 90 days, too, if they’re a refugee.

Most of the kids have loving families who support them even as they struggle.  They also have amazing teachers and school staff who organize volunteers and donations and go out of their way to help kids, so there are a lot of successes, small and big.  The Newcomers chronicles a year in one school, which gives us a nice picture of how much change happens in that time for a small group of kids if they are lucky enough to land in the right place.  There are a lot of questions left unanswered and challenges to be faced at the end of the book, but there’s still hope.  Definitely worth a look.

The Newcomers: finding refuge, friendship, and hope in the American classroom by Helen Thorpe

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When superlatives are not enough…

the-philosophers-flight-9781476778150_lgThis book.  This book.  This book.

I don’t even know where to begin.  I brought The Philosopher’s Flight  home thinking my son might like it, because it’s kind of alternative history, kind of fantasy (not usually his thing, but it will work if it’s on the edge of sci-fi), and kind of different.  He likes that.  A day later, he announced that he loved it and that I needed to read it, too.  He’s a teenager, so if he likes something enough to suggest it to me, I try to read it and soon.  It’s really an honor when someone tells you about a book they love, and when it’s your teenager — who probably thinks you’re an idiot about half the time and doesn’t detach from the devices as often as you’d like — it’s worth taking the time to make some kind of connection, right?

The Philosopher’s Flight is a coming-of-age story set in an alternative early twentieth century.  Women empirical philosophers dominate human flight and sigilry—which is not exactly like signaling or casting spells, but can be used for transporting humans, creating smoke shields and other things, healing and more.  Robert has grown up with a mother and sisters who can do all of this, and he wants to fight for his dream of becoming a rescue and evacuation specialist.  There are all kinds of other things going on – a group of zealots who hate the women who do this, factional fighting within the women philosophers, war, love.  You know.  All the usual stuff.

I can’t shut up about this book.  I’ve told at least ten people about it already, including a few who I know don’t like reading things outside of their usual very limited boxes.  Oh well.  This is one to take a chance on, because it is just SO fun.  I can’t be friends with you anymore if you hate it.  Well, actually, I can.  But I’d be bummed you didn’t like it, because it’s just THAT good.

Also, the author is from our neighboring state of Wisconsin–Wauwatosa to be exact.  Having spent a delightful afternoon at a ‘Tosa city pool/biergarten some summers ago, I have an extra fondness for it, and I’ll be looking for the next one, Tom Miller.  Don’t make us wait too long.

The Philosopher’s Flight by Tom Miller

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Letters we all could write

dearf451Dear Dear Fahrenheit 451,

You showed up on my desk that extremely cold Saturday when almost no one came in.  Did I read you then?  No, I did not, because unlike the popular (and completely wrong) stereotype, library workers do not sit around reading at work.  I may have spent quite a long time discussing kidlit and graphic novels with a coworker I rarely see that afternoon, but you rested quietly in the stack of books in my locker until I headed home.

When I opened you later from my warm nest on the couch, I laughed frequently enough that my husband and son wondered what was up.  They were watching Game of Thrones (also in my stack) and things were particularly bloody and violent, so it probably seemed a little jarring.  What can you do?

I especially appreciated your letter to Grey: Fifty Shades of Grey as told by Christian, because I have also been told, enthusiastically and repeatedly, that I would just LOVE that book or the previous books in the series by people who don’t know me at all.  I’m not snippy about many books, but let me tell you, that’s one of them.  (Sure, there’s a book for every reader, but that doesn’t mean I’m the reader.) I would be more likely to read Sexy Beast VIII or any of the other originally and uniquely titled Sexy Beast books.  I try to keep an open mind, really I do, but I’m just not all that successful sometimes. But that’s a rant for another day, probably.

What amuses me most about you, however, is that three or four of my favorite patrons suggested you to me, although two were careful to note that some of your language is a little profane.  One handed you to me to check in and commented that she just didn’t think it was appropriate for a librarian to swear that much, but that just makes me love you more, because honestly, there are days when it’s all I can do to wait for the door to close behind the late-in-the-day-angry-at-the-world-and-taking-it-out-on-everyone-jerk-of-the-month to mutter “@#$^%!!!” and head home.

Yours  very truly…

Dear Fahrenheit 451 by Annie Spence

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Good guys and bad guys, survival and struggle

1saboteurI’ve loved historical fiction about World War II since I was first reading chapter books.  One of my all-time favorites as a kid was Snow Treasure, a story about kids who foil the Nazis by sneaking gold out of the country on their sleds.  Over the years, I’ve also read a lot of nonfiction on the topic, everything from Erik Larson’s In the Garden of Beasts to Double Cross by Ben Macintyre and quite a lot in between.  I also have a fondness for World War II era mysteries – everything from the Foyle’s War TV series to the Bernie Gunther novels of Philip Kerr, Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series (which actually starts at the end of World War I) and the Maggie Hope mysteries by Susan Elia MacNeal.

So it’s no surprise that I loved The Saboteur: the Aristrocrat who Became France’s Most Daring Anti-Nazi Commando by Paul Kix.  French Resistance, Nazis, escaping certain death several times – I’m there!  The story of Robert de La Rochefoucauld reads like a spy novel instead of a series of documented life events, which has ensured that I’ve suggested it to all of my patrons who like reading about spies, war, or French history.  It’s also a wonderful book, because it addresses the gray areas in which people exist during war.  Not everyone is 100% good or bad; there are compromises and bad decisions in addition to all of the luck and occasional happy endings.

While I can see many adults and even some teens enjoying this book, you might also consider some fictional favorites of mine on similar topics.  Some are specifically for younger readers; others work for many ages.

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