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Staff Picks: Books

A Southern Page-Turner

Natchez Burning is not my usual kind of book, but once I started reading, I couldn’t put down. 

The story is centered in Natchez, Mississippi, and shifts between the 1960’s and the present. The respected town doctor is accused of murdering his former nurse, an African-American woman who returned to Natchez after many years of living up north.

As one reviewer has written, there are racial politics, family secrets, corruption, racism, almost unbelievable brutality, and fear, much centering on a fringe KKK sect.

In spite of its length, it is a real page-turner. I have seen it listed on several “best of the year” lists. Although it won’t make my best-of list, it is good read, a book in which a reader can get totally lost.


Some Luck

Jane Smiley’s new novel, Some Luck, follows the Langdon family of Denby, Iowa, for thirty years. Each year is a chapter: 1920 – 1953. The family endures the depression, trading the horses for a tractor, a son in World War II, the cold war, births and deaths.

Much of the focus is on first born, Frank, who was “born with an eye for opportunity,” but all family members are developed. Luck is never to be relied on, but it plays a role.

Smiley plans a trilogy that will follow the Langdon family well into the 21st century. Their story is off to a strong start.

This is likely to be one of my favorite books of the year, although there are still two months of good reading left.

If I Ever Get Out of Here

It's 1975 and Beatles-obsessed Lewis Blake is entering 7th grade, expecting it to be mostly the same as last year—invisible to his classmates, even though he's the only Native American in a class of white kids. His life begins to improve when he meets George Haddonfield, a student from an Air Force family, who's equally enthusiastic about the Beatles. George takes a quick interest in Lewis, and invites him to his family's home on base. But Lewis doesn't want to return the invitation—his family lives in stark poverty on the Tuscarora Indian Reservation, and he's afraid that if George witnesses these circumstances he'll end their friendship. Author Eric Gansworth skillfully renders how it feels to be a young person on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, with little hope of moving up. But Lewis' isn't a story of despair. If I Ever Get Out of Here follows the progression of Lewis and George's friendship, showing how the friendship expands their understanding of the world and themselves.

Fans of Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian will find much to appreciate in If I Ever Get Out of Here. In addition to a similar plot and setting, Gansworth imbues his novel with a comparable sense of warmth and humor. If you're looking for more stories about characters finding their place in the world, try Mexican WhiteBoy by Matt de la Peña or Luna by Julie Anne Peters.   


Stories without words

My kindergartener and I recently developed a love for wordless stories. In these books, the plot is driven by the pictures and you and/or your child describe what is happening as you turn the pages. KPL has a lot of can find them in our catalog using the subject heading Stories without words. Some absolute FAVORITES are Journey and Quest, part of a trilogy by Aaron Becker. Journey (a Caldecott Honor Book) begins the trilogy with a bored little girl in a big city who draws a door on her wall and is transported to a magical land and kingdom. Quest continues the trilogy as the girl teams up with a boy she met in Journey, showing in great detail the adventures they have rescuing the king whose peaceful land has been overtaken by evildoers. You can read here how Aaron Becker uses 3D modeling to help build the kingdom, and then fills in the details. His work is so detailed that each time we read the story, we discover new things that we missed all the previous readings (and there are many)! The third one in this series can't come soon enough! We also love author/illustrator Gaëtan Dorémus, especially Coyote Run. Some other authors to note in this genre are Beatrice Rodriguez (Fox and Hen trilogy) and Arthur Geisert (Ice and The giant seed).



Last time I wrote about author Andrew Smith, it was to rave about how great his book Grasshopper Jungle was. Well, I'm here to tell you that his follow-up, Winger, is just as good, if not better. Winger is set in a boarding school and follows the misadventures of fourteen year-old Ryan Dean West. Our hero Ryan is a perfectly realized teen dork, all hormones and insecurity, and like Austin, the protagonist of Grasshopper Jungle, Ryan Dean has only a few things on his mind: in this case, sex, rugby, and avoiding trouble .

I'll say right now: this book destroyed me. I've yet to read another author who so completely, utterly understands what being a teenaged boy is actually like. The raging hormones? The desire for acceptance? The confusion, the attitude, the joy? It's all there, so perfectly realized. That would be enough, but then there's the other half of the book, the part that really hits hard. Suffice to say, Mr. Smith does not pull any literary punches. Where other YA authors might have softened the blow, Winger maintains an unfortunate degree of realism in how it depicts violence and also in the reactions of the main characters to that violence. Also like Grasshopper Jungle, this is not a book for everyone unless you enjoy copious swearing, raging teen boy hormones, drinking, fighting, and cartoons. But it's a book everyone should read, if only for a perfect glimpse into the mind of this 14 year-old boy.

Guest Cat

The Guest Cat by well known Japanese poet Takashi Hiraide, was originally published in Japan in 2001 and won that country’s prestigious Kiyama Shohei Literary Award. Unfortunately, it has taken thirteen years for it to be translated into English. But it has finally appeared; a gem of a book written in a very poetic style, with a somewhat unsettling ending.

The story’s narrator and his wife are a couple in their mid-thirties, who live and work as freelance copywriters in a small rented cottage in a quiet part of Tokyo. They are somewhat isolated, feel lonely and their marriage seems to have settled into a rut.

One day a small cat appears in the garden next to their abode. It happens to belong to their neighbors’ son. A simple wooden fence separates the two properties and the cat becomes a frequent visitor.

The feline’s name is Chibi, which means “little one” and she is described as being a jewel of a cat “...with pure white fur mottled with several black blotches”. She walks quietly, rarely making a sound; except that is, when she is made to wear a bell around her neck to announce her comings and goings.

She visits the couple almost daily, gaining entrance to the cottage through a partially opened window; an uninvited yet increasingly welcome, subtle guest who breathes new life into the couple’s otherwise monotone relationship. Little by little, her visits help nurture the formation of a deeper, permanent bond between husband and wife, as well as between them and her.

It’s difficult for me to relive the ending because the resolution is so tenuous and unclear. Read it and judge for yourself. The book is only 136 pages in length. But it is a powerhouse of literary emotion!

The Hidden Child

Scandanavian crime noir seems to be recognized as its own genre, and this new title by Camilla Lackberg certainly falls into that category. This is the seventh in the series that began with The Ice Princess, and features police detective Patrick Hedberg and true crime writer Erica Falck, now married and expecting their first child. Erica finds a Nazi war medal and diaries among her deceased mother’s possessions, and goes to visit one of her mother’s old friends, a historian and expert on World War 2, for more information. The man is brutally murdered soon after Erica’s visit.

Woven into the crime novel are scenes of everyday life in the small Swedish town of Fjallbacka, and characters that are interesting in their own right. Some reviews found this bothersome, but I didn’t. Even police detectives and true crime authors have real lives, running parallel to their professional ones.

If you haven’t yet discovered author Lackberg, it’s probably best to begin with her first book , The Ice Princess, although this novel can certainly stand on its own. Full of well placed clues and historical fact from the 1940’s, this kept me guessing until the end.

Tomorrow and Tomorrow

Raymond Chandler meets early William Gibson in Thomas Sweterlitsch’s debut sci-fi novel Tomorrow and Tomorrow. Set in the near future, 10 years after a nuclear terrorist attack has destroyed the city of Pittsburg, when technological advances, implanted devices, and the ubiquity of security camera data allow a fully immersive, virtual-reality copy of the city called “The Archive” to exist. The stories protagonist Dominic Blaxton, is a skilled researcher doing a form of insurance research in The Archive, but losing his wife and unborn child in the attack leaves him obsessed with the virtual Pittsburg and the immersion that the technology allows, along with Dominic’s drug use, makes his grief and sadness visceral. The discovery of a murder captured in the virtual Pittsburg sends the story and Dominic down a mysterious and surprising path.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette?

I took half a dozen books with me on my summer vacation this year and did not get to Maria Semple’s novel Where’d You Go, Bernadette until the ride home, partially because my wife and 19 year old son both read it during the trip. I wish I had picked it up first. I was immediately drawn into the story told partially through emails, invoices, and other documents that introduce you to Bernadette Fox, once famous architect now turned eccentric recluse, and her precocious daughter, Bee. Semple’s novel is laugh out loud funny as she pokes fun at upper middle class Seattle culture.

A huge mud slide starting in Bernadette’s yard had just destroyed the house of her neighbor who was holding a meeting to recruit wealthier families to the private school her children attended when I realized my time with the book was up and I needed to return it for the next person who had a hold on it. 

Now I find myself repeating, “Where’d you go, Bernadette?,” every day as I wait for my next turn with this book and wonder what crazy adventures are in store.

I Kill the Mockingbird

After the sudden death of their favorite teacher, three middle schoolers conspire to get everybody to read one of his favorite books, To Kill A Mockingbird, by misshelving and hiding copies of the classic first in their town and eventually in libraries and bookstores far and wide. Lucy, Elena, and Michael publicize what they're doing with posters and social media while making the book scarce until their plan takes on a life of its own. Like Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library, I Kill the Mockingbird is a fast and witty read that celebrates the love of books and reading. 


I Kill the Mockingbird