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Staff Picks: Books

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.


The Orchardist

The Orchardist is set in Washington State at the beginning of the 20th century, where William Talmadge lovingly cultivates his orchards of apples and apricots. Talmadge, a reclusive and sorrowful man, unexpectedly becomes a foster father of sorts to two adolescent girls who escape from a brothel owner who has enslaved them.

This novel, a favorite of many book groups with much to discuss, explores the human character, what makes a family, and to a lesser extent, the history of the region.

Many reviewers consider this a strong debut novel from Coplin, with hopefully more to follow. I agree.


Hope Was Here

Joan Bauer writes a fast-paced realistic story about Hope Yancey, she is 16 years old and travels the country with her Aunt Addie who adopted her when she was just a baby. Hope has already attended six different schools and has lived in five different states. Why all the moving? Addie is a cook and all the diners where she’s worked go belly-up. Hope is an excellent waitress, a good waitress has to be ready for anything. Sweeping through the counter, getting orders. Adrenaline pumping. If you want a thrill there’s nothing like in-the-weeds waitressing. You never know what’s coming next. You could wait on a mainiac or a guy passing out twenties.
The story begins with Hope and Addie traveling to Mulvaney, Wisconsin, to begin their new jobs at the Welcome Stairways Restaurant. G. T. Stoops, the owner, has leukemia and he needs help, fast! Addie answers his ad for a cook and professional manager to run his diner.
Hope’s biological mother is Deena, her Aunt Addie’s sister, who didn’t want to be saddled with the responsibility of a baby. Hope’s never met her real father, but she keeps thinking he’ll show up someday, she even keeps scrapbooks of her adventures in anticipation of showing them to her dad… will she ever have a father?
G. T. Stoops is a great guy, so much so that he joins a mayoral race against the corrupt mayor. Hope is a busy teen. She and the staff of the Welcome Stairways get involved in the campaign. There is excitement when the diner fills with customers day by day eager for delicious meals.
The name of the Welcome Stairways diner name is explained on the menu: From early times, the Quakers had welcome stairways built in front of their homes in Massachusetts. These double stairways descended to the street from the front door and were symbols of Quaker faith and hospitality—constant reminders that all guests were to be welcomed from whichever way they came, and,My mother always said that the stairways symbolized how we must greet whatever changes and difficulties life may bring with firm faith in God... Welcome, friend, from whichever way you’ve come. May God richly bless your journey.
Hope Was Here is a refreshing story of loss and triumph.


The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place

 This is sort of a fun read for those who may be looking for a bit of a darker read but aren’t really ready for something scary.  The head mistress of a ladies’ finishing school and her brother are poisoned and rather than report the crime to the local police the seven students decide to hide it in an effort to avoid being sent home and separated from each other.  Disgraceful Mary Jane, Sly Kitty, and Stout Alice (each girl has a moniker) haphazardly cobble together a cover up while Pocked Louise sets her sights on finding the killer.  The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place is an interesting read for anyone who enjoys murder mysteries with female protagonists.

 


The Magic Mirror

Kamara had a hard day at school. One of the boys called her names and used some nasty words talking about her. The one bright spot is that she is on her way to gramma’s house. Kamara knew that gramma would make her feel better. And gramma did. Gramma sent Kamara to clean the mirror upstairs. It was a mirror that had been passed down from her great grandmother to her grandmother and it turned out to be a magic mirror. When Kamara started rubbing the mirror she saw another young girl’s eyes staring back at her.  Through the eyes of women throughout the past centuries Kamara was able to see the violence, hatred and poverty that women of color have faced throughout history. Through it Kamara sees humiliation and determination. She sees pride, beauty and courage.  

There is a lot of history in this very small book. In The Magic Mirror Zetta Elliott does an amazing job of teaching history and courage. She sends the message to young girls that they are not alone.


Station Eleven

"Because survival is insufficient."

With those words (amusingly taken from an episode of Star Trek: Voyager) as their creed, the remnants of a near-future worldwide epidemic attempt to not only survive, but also maintain their humanity. Station Eleven presents several overlapping stories, spanning decades both pre- and post-apocalypse, all revolving around washed-up actor Arthur Leander, who dies onstage during a performance of King Lear moments before the beginning of the epidemic that ends civilization.

Like The Road with a (marginally) more optimistic outlook on life, or the world of Mad Max populated by theater majors instead of post-nuclear mutants, Station Eleven asks what it means to truly be human in a landscape where humanity is severely diminished. A significant portion of the book follows a nomadic theater troupe as they wander between the scattered settlements of the Great Lakes region, performing Shakespeare while fighting off bandit attacks and foraging for food. The most quietly devastating section, however, is the last third of the novel, taking place at a small airport in Indiana where the last remnants of humanity slowly congregate, complete with all of its' struggles and triumphs realized in miniature.

Quiet and contemplative, and beautiful as it is brutal, Station Eleven is a welcome and refreshing take on the post-apocalyptic disaster genre.

 


California

I recently picked up author Edan Lepucki’s debut novel California from the Central library’s Library Reads display after seeing its cool cover there for several weeks. I’m happy to report that I have yet to be disappointed by the quality of any of the Library Reads selections that I have read and California is certainly no exception to that rule. California follows the story Micah and Cal, newlywed twenty-something Los Angeles residents, as they flee the city and the seemingly imminent total collapse of civilization for the northern California wilderness. What they find in that wilderness and how they survive will weave together their personal and family histories with more and more mystery and complexity being added along the way to keep you wildly turning the pages until the very end.


At the Water's Edge

This new title by Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants, is another well written period novel, this time World War II in a small village in the Scottish Highlands.

It is a love story, an examination of the impact of war on a naïve young woman, the search for the Loch Ness monster, and a husband’s spiral into self-deception. At times the story is quite believable, others times it is a stretch. I did keep reading to the end though.

I consider this a good beach read, better than many of that unofficial genre.

 


Landline

Georgie McCool (yes, that’s her real name) is a writer for a successful sitcom living in L.A. with a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create her dream t.v. show—but she needs to have the first few episodes written within the week.  And it happens to be Christmas week.  Ever the workaholic, Georgie skips a family vacation to Omaha, much to the dismay of her husband Neal.  Georgie’s inability to get a hold of her husband after he leaves town makes her wonder if he’s left her for good.  It isn’t until Georgie makes a call from the landline in her childhood bedroom and reaches Neal 15 years in the past that she realizes what she’s potentially lost.

The plot of Landline sounds like a cheesy romantic comedy, but Rainbow Rowell has a talent for creating believable characters with realistic dialogue.  I’ve found it to be an enjoyable read thanks to the very relatable characters.


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.