RSS Feed

Staff Picks: Books

Recent literary award announcements

The literary awards season is now in full swing, with the recent announcements of the Man Booker Prize shortlist, the National Book Awards longlist, and the longlist for the Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Non-fiction.

The Man Booker Prize is awarded for the best novel written in English and published in the United Kingdom. The 2015 shortlist:

A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
Satin Island by Tom McCarthy
The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma
The Year of the Runaways by Sunjeev Sahota
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

The winner will be announced on October 13.

The National Book Awards honor the best American writing in fiction, non-fiction, poetry, and young people’s literature.

Fiction 2015 longlist:
A Cure for Suicide by Jesse Ball
Refund: Stories by Karen E. Bender
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Fortune Smiles: Stories by Adam Johnson
Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Mislaid by Nell Zink

Non-fiction 2015 longlist:
Rain: A Natural and Cultural History by Cynthia Barnett
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Mourning Lincoln by Martha Hodes
Hold Still by Sally Mann
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery
Paradise of the Pacific: Approaching Hawaii by Susanna Moore
Love and Other Ways of Dying: Essays by Michael Paterniti
If the Oceans Were Ink: An Unlikely Friendship and a Journey to the Heart of the Quran by Carla Power
Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith
Travels in Vermeer: A Memoir by Michael White

Poetry 2015 longlist:
Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude by Ross Gay
Scattered at Sea by Amy Gerstler
A Stranger's Mirror by Marilyn Hacker
How to Be Drawn by Terrance Hayes
The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield
Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis
Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón
Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips
Heaven by Rowan Ricardo Phillips
Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts by Lawrence Raab

Young People’s Literature 2015 longlist:
Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli
Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson
The Thing About Jellyfish by Ali Benjamin
Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson
This Side of Wild: Mutts, Mares, and Laughing Dinosaurs by Gary Paulsen
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
X: A Novel by Ilyasah Shabazz, with Kekla Magoon
Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the Secret History of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin
Challenger Deep by Neal Shusterman
Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

The finalists will be announced on October 14, and the winners will be announced on November 18.

The Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence in Fiction and Nonfiction recognize the best fiction and nonfiction books for adult readers published in the United States during the previous year.

Fiction 2016 longlist:
The Distant Marvels by Chantel Acevedo
The Harder They Come by T.C. Boyle
Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell
Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
Outline by Rachel Cusk
The Green Road by Anne Enright
Purity by Jonathan Franzen
Best Boy by Eli Gottlieb
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg
Delicious Foods by James Hannaham
Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson
Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman
The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard
Prudence by David Treuer
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler
The Dying Grass by William T. Vollmann
The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories by Joy Williams
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

Non-fiction 2016 longlist:
American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity by Christian G. Appy
Give Us the Ballot: The Modern Struggle for Voting Rights in America by Ari Berman
Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security by Sarah Chayes
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
The Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power by Steve Fraser
Something Must Be Done about Prince Edward County: A Family, a Virginia Town, a Civil Rights Battle by Kristen Green
Showdown: Thurgood Marshall and the Supreme Court Nomination That Changed America by Wil Haygood
Listening to Stone: The Art and Life of Isamu Noguchi by Hayden Herrera
H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs by Sally Mann
Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery by Henry Marsh
How the World Moves: The Odyssey of an American Indian Family by Peter Nabokov
Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal by Jay Parini
On the Move by Oliver Sacks
Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina
The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
M Train by Patti Smith
To Explain the World: The Discovery of Modern Science by Steven Weinberg
Pacific: Silicon Chips and Surfboards, Coral Reefs and Atom Bombs, Brutal Dictators, Fading Empires, and the Coming Collision of the World's Superpowers by Simon Winchester
Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf

The shortlist will be announced on October 19, and the winners will be announced on January 10.

We are fortunate to have two of these authors visiting Kalamazoo in the coming months, as well as one visiting Ann Arbor.

Bonnie Jo Campbell will visit Central Library on October 15.

Ta-Nehisi Coates will be the keynote speaker for the Kalamazoo Community Foundation’s Community Meeting on November 3.

Marlon James will give a reading at Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor on November 2.

The Cowboy Way

Cole has missed almost four weeks of school. This news shocks his mother and leads her to a hasty road trip out of Detroit to take Cole to his father. Cole has never met his father, nor has he ever met a horse and cowboys. From the book jacket - “Inspired by the real-life inner-city horsemen of Philadelphia and Brooklyn, Ghetto Cowboy is a timeless urban western about learning to stand up for what’s right – the Cowboy Way.”

G. Neri writes with an honest style that will grip readers from the start. I read this aloud with my 7th grader and we both felt just as compelled to follow Cole’s journey to the end of the book. The ties that bind family together are universal, and believing in something or someone helps us all grow. 

Take a look at this and all of Greg Neri’s work. Then meet the author on Thursday, October 1 at 5:00 pm at the Powell Branch Library.

The Series Series: Saga

I feel a little late to this party, since the first volume of this series came out in 2013 and it has been recommended to me countless times since then. This month, I happened to see that all three of the volumes were on the shelf, so I picked them up. I loved them so much that I finished all three volumes over a weekend and have since started recommending countless times to other people. The series follows a young couple who were soldiers from opposite sides of an inter-galactic war. In the first pages of the book, their daughter is born. The existence of their new family is very politically inconvenient for both sides of the war, and the series shows the beginning of what is hinted at a lifetime of trying to find a small bit of peace for a world constantly at war.

What I liked best about this series was the portrayal of a young couple in love, but instead of the story focusing on how they fall in love, it is about how they work together to protect their family. It also features a great cast of well-written supporting characters, each one with a complex hopes, dreams, and fears. As a graphic novel, the artwork adds an extra level of enjoyment.

New Shoes

I think of shoes by season and in particular new shoes for Fall. In my family, my sister and I, would always get new shoes for the start of school. We did it all through my school years and we did it again when my daughter went to school. And yes, even throughout her college years. I still think of the beginning of September as shoe shopping time. When I read New Shoes by Susan Lynn Meyer, it brought back those memories but instead of feeling my happiness it brought a sadness for the girls in the story.

In the 1950’s Ella Mae is getting new shoes, not hand-me down shoes from her cousin. On Saturday, Ella Mae and her Mom go to the shoe store but they have to wait for the little white girl to select and try on her shoes first even though Ella Mae was there before the white family. Ella Mae knows colored people always have to wait.

When it is finally her turn, she tells Mr. Johnson that she wants to try on a pair of saddle shoes. Mama sucks in her breath and tells Ella Mae that they’ll do something different. Instead Mr. Johnson points to the back where the paper and pencils are kept. Mama and Ella Mae draw a picture of her feet and Mr. Johnson brings back a shoe box. No trying on in the store is allowed for them. They purchase the shoes but on the way home Ella Mae realizes colored folks can’t try on their shoes and how unfair it is for them. Even though she has new shoes now, she feels bad. When Ella Mae tells her best friend Charlotte what happened, she said it happened to her too. Sometimes the shoes don’t fit and they hurt the children’s feet.

Ella Mae has an idea and Charlotte is eager to help. They both do chores and for pay they take 1 nickel and a pair of outgrown shoes. After a month, they line up the shoes. They get polish, they clean and shine the shoes. They wash the laces and the shoes are almost as good as new. “Ella Mae and Charlotte’s Shoes” opens for business – price 10 cents and another pair of used shoes. The neighbors line up and their children actually get to try on shoes. They are both proud – anyone who walks in their shoe store can try on all the shoes they want!

The author’s note at the end of the book describes Ella Mae as a fictional character but the discrimination that she faced was very real. Charming characters with a compelling experience compliment Eric Velasquez’s beautiful paintings. This is a story worth sharing and discussing.

Wicked Charms: A Lizzy and Diesel Novel

Wicked Charms is such a perfect summer read and in fact I spent several hours outside on my porch swing enjoying this light, fluffy read. Although it is in a series that Janet Evanovich and Phoef Sutton co-write about Lizzy and Diesel it can certainly be a stand-alone book.

Lizzy and Diesel are back in an adventure that has them searching for a famous pirate’s treasure along the New England coastline. There’s gold and silver coins, precious gems and the Stone of Avarice to hunt for. But of course they aren’t the only ones searching for the goodies.

Diesel and Lizzy both have enhanced abilities, special powers, and they are “called” on occasion to help save the world. They have been working together to locate seven ancient stones that hold the powers of the seven deadly sins. The stones are known as the seven SALIGIA stones. Lizzy and Diesel have to make sure the stones don’t fall into the wrong hands but of course there is lots of drama, adventure and a mixture of comical mayhem as the search goes forward. In the end Lizzy and Diesel accomplish their mission and save the Stone of Avarice. All is well until they get the next call.

If you enjoy Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series you will have fun with this one as well. There are a few warm beach days left – happy reading!

Little Black Lies

I admit to not knowing much about the Falkland Islands, the setting for the novel Little Black Lies. But the Falklands are a strong presence in this suspenseful story by S.J. Bolton, and I certainly feel as though I have a stronger sense now of the islands.

In the story, three children have gone missing in this wild and beautiful place, over a period of several years. Most of the islanders feel that accidents claimed the children- perhaps a fall, or swept away by a strong tide. As events unfold and the main characters and motives are revealed, it becomes apparent that certainly not all of the disappearances can be explained away by accidents.

Strong characters, a fast paced story, and a fascinating setting make Little Black Lies a winner. It was recommended to me by a co-worker, who said he feels it’s one of the best books he’s read all year, and I agree.

Daughters of the dragon : a comfort woman's story

If you liked The kite runner and Memoirs of a geisha, you may be interested in Daughters of the dragon by William Andrews. This historical fiction book set in 20th century Korea follows the life of a fictional Korean "comfort woman," Jae-hee. During World War II, thousands of young women in occupied territories were forced to be comfort women (sex slaves) for the Imperial Japanese Army. Jae-hee and her sister were two of them, ripped from their happy family farm in 1943. The book details Jae-hee's escape and attempt to return to a normal life while keeping her secret.

This book unveils a dark side of history that is not well-known, but deserves to be told.


The Nightingale

The World War II time period with a European setting is a particularly popular fiction genre within the past two to three years. I have read many of them, but my favorite to date is Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale.

The story focuses on two sisters set in a French village beginning in 1939. Both are overcome by the death of their mother and the abandonment of their father. One remains in the village which is ultimately taken over by the Germans, the other joins the French underground.

One of the sisters narrates the story from the present, but the reader doesn’t know until the end which sister is telling their shared story.

As expected from a novel of this time and setting, Hannah examines life, love, the ravages of war, and the different ways people react to unthinkable situations. It is well-written and a good read.


Fifty years later and after the sudden death of his wife, Bin travels across Canada to find his biological father who was lost to him during the Japanese internment camps in World War II. He is running both to and from his profound grief.

I have read many books about Japanese internment camps in the US, but didn’t know that Canada did likewise; about 22,000 Japanese Canadians were interned and 120,000 Japanese Americans. Requiem is set in the 1940’s camp, the late 1990’s with memories of his wife and son, and today with Bin’s drive across Canada to the camp area he vowed never to visit again.

This sobering story is well written and moving. It may well be one of my favorite fiction books of the year, although published in 2011.

One Family

Families come in many configurations. And what better way to celebrate families in all their individuality and complexity than this wonderful picture book One Family, by George Shannon.

Simple enough for even very young children, One Family has charming illustrations by Blanca Gomez. Cheerful looking families (and their pets) are shown going about their daily activities. This title has the added benefit of being able to be used as a counting book. I love the little details in the pictures that add to the overall theme- one world, one family.