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Staff Picks: Books

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms

For the last six years or so, it has been more or less impossible to avoid hearing discussions concerning the HBO series Game of Thrones, and most have probably heard enough to determine for themselves whether or not it’s their cup of tea.

In the case of those who have become captivated by (read: obsessed with) the show and left wanting during the between-season stretch from July to April each year, the obvious solution has been to turn their attention to George R.R. Martin’s gritty and compelling magnum opus A Song of Ice and Fire, currently consisting of five novels off which the show is based. Many will be delighted to discover that these works tend to weigh in around 700+ pages each, meaning all that much more time to spend enthralled in the exploits of their favorite characters as conflicts rage across Westeros and Essos.

For those who balk at that task, which is no small feat, yet still want to experience the canonical story elements sidelined, re-imagined, or omitted entirely by the show, I cannot recommend the audiobook versions of these books enough. This was my chosen method for getting myself up to speed so I could safely engage with online resources free of the dread feeling that I was about to stumble upon some devastating spoiler.

Since publishing the fifth entry in the seven book series in 2011 (which was only a year after the show began its run) Martin has been working on the sixth installment entitled The Winds of Winter. He had initially expressed his wishes via blog post to hand the book to his publisher by Halloween of 2015. That date was later revised to the end of the calendar year. Then it was to be finished by the premiere of the sixth season of Game of Thrones. In January of this year, he revised his stance again saying, “It will be done when it’s done.”

Fans are understandably anxious for the next book. The internet is full of angst over the idea that Martin may pass away before he’s able to finish the next two books- never mind that this is a human being we’re talking about- the books! YouTube videos have been made pleading for more news and sample chapters. Songs have been written. Guitars have been smashed.

For better or worse, Martin is not a single-minded automaton. He’s been busy attending conventions, working on the HBO show, living his life, and even working on other books. He recently published a three-part prequel novella collection entitled A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, which takes place approximately one hundred years prior to the events in the other books in the series, and chronicles the exploits of the young hedge knight, Ser Duncan the Tall, or Dunk, and his precocious squire, Egg.

The general tone tends to be bit more light-hearted than that of previous books in the series which many may find refreshing. A further departure from those works can be seen in the static point of view, told entirely from Dunk’s perspective as opposed to a rotating cast of characters. In both of these ways, it’s a bit like the Hobbit when compared to The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Martin’s fans will find plenty to enjoy in the era of relative peace that preceded Robert’s Rebellion and the War of the Five Kings, and it’s a perfect distraction for those who are anxiously biding their time and waiting for the next bit of news concerning the coming of winter.

Asian Pacific American Heritage Month

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and unwittingly I happen to be reading two books perfect for the occasion.

Participating in The Global Reading Challenge, I learned of The Turtle of Oman by Naomi Shihab Nye, which tells the story of Aref, a 3rd grader who will soon be moving from Oman to Ann Arbor, Michigan so his parents can attend graduate school. Each morning, I read a little bit of it to my 10 year old daughter and we learn about Oman as Aref and his grandfather travel around the country, collecting memories and attempting to comfort and sooth Aref’s fears about moving to Michigan.

In addition, I’m listening to The Three Year Swim Club by Julie Checkoway. This book tells the story of poverty stricken Japanese-American children living in Maui and Soichi Sakamoto who has the dream of turning them into Olympic champions. Through incredibly difficult circumstances and training routines, they become world class swimmers, but the world events of the late 1930s and early 1940s change their lives drastically.

Take some time this month to learn something new about Asian or Pacific Islander culture or both.

If it's not one thing, it's your Mother

Don’t you love reading or listening to something you never want to end? Ok, sure, it’s not fun when it finally does, but it’s cool that it was so good you didn’t want it to be over. Ah, well, such is life! And such was the case for me with listening to If It’s not one Thing, It’s your Mother. Julia Sweeney reads her own writing, and she puts such life into her thoughts, her storytelling, other people’s voices. She’s funny, thoughtful, compassionate, honest.
Apparently she wrote this book in the space of a month. (How does somebody do that?!) During that time, her daughter and husband were both away on other ventures. She starts off relishing the time to herself and by the end, can't wait one more minute till they’ve returned. In between, we (dear readers) hear about how she became a single mother, how later she and Mulan and her husband,Michael, became a family, how she juggles career decisions with other life issues…and just other cool life stuff.
Truth be told, it was the funny title which drew me in. Then it was Sweeney’s funny, interesting way of writing and narrating her essays which kept me engaged. Until, sadly, the book ended.

The Summer Before the War

My book group’s choice for April is The Summer Before the War, the new book from Helen Simonson, author of the popular Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand. Although we haven’t yet met to discuss it, I’m confident my reading friends will have enjoyed it and we’ll have a good conversation.

The story is set in a small town in England just before World War I. It begins with the arrival of a new teacher – Beatrice Nash – younger and prettier than expected. The war first touches the town when some Belgian refugees arrive, then as the town’s young men go off to war with a sense of adventure.

This novel evolves – it begins as a pleasant small town, with the English class snobbery, and becomes an account of war and its aftermath. Some of the reviewers call it a “novel to cure your Downton Abbey withdrawal.”

Learn How to Fold All That Joy

Marie Kondo started a throw-everything-away organizing trend with her bestseller The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, a book that advocates for getting rid of anything in your home that doesn’t spark joy. Some people seem to think her method, called KonMari, is extreme or even a little saccharine, but I think it makes perfect sense: who wouldn’t want their home to be filled with things they love and devoid of things that annoy them? That’s why I’m reading her follow-up book, aptly titled Spark Joy. Spark Joy goes into more detail regarding the storing of items; how to fold clothes, display beloved items, and organize other accoutrements. It also addresses a number of questions Marie Kondo has received since publishing her first book, such as getting through the untidy stages of tidying and keeping things that don’t spark joy but are necessary (she gives a screwdriver as an example). I recommend starting with the first book, but if you need more information or inspiration than that, or you just like cute illustrations, I definitely recommend following up with Spark Joy.

Tricky Twenty Two

I just finished Tricky Twenty-Two by Janet Evanovich. If you like an easy read with comedy infused, this series is a good one. Stephanie Plum is a Bounty Hunter, a rather incompetent one, who finds her skip more by luck than skill. She hangs with Lula a retired hooker, who you do not want to call fat (she hates that and will sit on you). Stephanie has two men in her life, Joe Morelli, who she grew up with, and Ranger. Morelli was a “bad boy” growing up and is now a police man. Ranger is Cuban-American and runs a very successful security service. Ranger is mysterious, drop dead gorgeous, can open any lock, and has a fleet of black vehicles. This is especially helpful for Stephanie, as in each and every book her car somehow gets destroyed, usually in a huge fireball.

In Tricky Twenty-Two Morelli tells Stephanie that he is breaking up with her, that he wants to find a different line of work, one that is less stressful. This is odd because being a cop defines Morelli, so what is really going on. Of course Morelli, like so many men, keeps it all to himself and does not communicate with Stephanie. Ranger is a man of few words but he packs in so much meaning. He can say “Babe” and it can mean so many different things. Both men have deep feelings for Stephanie. Ranger is not the marrying type so we all know that eventually Stephanie and Morelli will get hitched. In Tricky Twenty-two we are aghast that Morelli breaks it off with Stephanie and we know that they will get back together and it will probably take the whole book to do it and it does. During a marriage ceremony, there is the lighting of the candle. The soon to be wed each have a candle and they symbolically light a single candle together, signifying that they are now one. Having personally been married 36 years, communication is paramount. If Morelli would have just shared his thoughts and fears with Stephanie as he should then this the book would be a lot shorter.

You should start with book one “One for the Money” although you could read them in any order. I prefer to read them in order and grow with them. It’s kind of a formula read, Grandma Mazur will always be attending funerals, possibly trying to pry open a closed casket to peek inside. These are humorous books, even the funerals are fun events. Grandma and Lula both will be carrying huge caliber guns that they freely fire off and hit everything except what they are aiming for. Lula’s outfits are usually 2 sizes two small and the coloring is blinding at best. Stephanie has a pet named Rex, but you are going to have to read the books to find out what type of pet he is, and when you read the books you will find out where Stephanie hides her gun. Stephanie is described as cute, perky, adorable, short etc. If you turn the book over and look at the picture of Janet Evanovich on the jacket, I think Janet Evanovich is describing herself. Check it out at KPL.

Dead Wake: the last crossing of the Lusitania

I really enjoy listening to non-fiction on audio. For some reason it makes more of an impression than reading the very same title.

That is definitely true of Dead wake: the last crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson. We of course know the outcome in advance- that a German submarine torpedoed and sank the ship off the coast of Ireland in 1915. The vessel was carrying over 1000 people, with a record number of women and children aboard.

Larson gives the story a narrative feel, not just a recounting of the facts. His details about passengers, for example, make it feel like fiction, and you care about these people. He has clearly done extensive research, and it’s apparent in the many poignant details.

Dead Wake: the last crossing of the Lusitania was a New York Times Notable Book for 2015, and also appears on other “Best” books lists. The devil in the white city: murder, magic  and madness at the fair that changed America   is another excellent non-fiction read by Erik Larson, and is set in Chicago during the 1893 World’s Fair.

Rising Strong

Self-described researcher-storyteller Brené Brown is well known for her research and writing on vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Her TED Talk, The Power of Vulnerability, is one of the most viewed. Several of her books, including The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are and Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead are bestsellers. Her fourth book, Rising Strong, published earlier this week, deals with what happens when we exercise courage and fail. Resilience is a hot topic right now, and Brown's new book is definitely worth checking out.


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.

Take a Chance with a Couple of Kooks

Miranda July is a Renaissance woman; she’s a fearless explorer in multiple artistic mediums: a filmmaker, a writer, and a performance artist. I’ve been a fan of hers since I saw her movie Me and You and Everyone We Know, an idiosyncratic independent film that addresses loneliness and human connection in contemporary society.  Loneliness and connection are common topics in her work, and her latest artistic venture, the novel The First Bad Man, is no exception to that.  Cheryl Glickman is a middle-aged single woman who has her life organized to virtual non-existence; she has an elaborate system set up (this includes having just enough dishes for one person for one meal) to avoid devolving into a depressed, hoarding, non-bathing mess.  But there wouldn’t be a story here if her life just continued on lonely and tidy—things change drastically when her bosses’ 21-year-old daughter moves in with her.  The First Bad Man is weirdly wonderful. The characters appear odd at first, but really their thoughts, emotions, and illogical natures are so utterly human. I’d recommend this to anyone who’s a fan of Miranda July or who likes eccentric, well-developed characters.