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Staff Picks: Books

Princeless: Save Yourself by Jeremy Whitley and M. Goodwin

Princeless is an all-ages, ongoing comic book series written by Jeremy Whitley with art and colors by M. Goodwin, and is published by Action Lab Comics. I am recommending the first trade paperback of the book, which collects the first 4 issues into one book. Or, if you prefer, you can access the series on your computer or tablet through Hoopla. You will find individual issues as well as the volumes there. 

Princess Adrienne's parents have locked her and her sisters into towers throughout the kingdom, with a different mythical creature guarding each one against would-be rescuers. The king and queen want a suitable husband for each daughter, and a worthy son-in-law as an heir to the throne. Whoever slays the beast gets the girl, and therefore proves himself as the best suitor. 

Adrienne decides to fight the status quo by embarking on a quest to rescue her sisters herself. A quirky female blacksmith named Bedelia and Adrienne's lovable dragon, Sparky, help her to begin her journey. Her brother Devin, who is more interested in prose than sword-fighting, also aids Adrienne. I love this book because it addresses sexism, gender roles, abuse of power by law enforcement, and other important themes, but in a humorous way that anybody can understand. And of course it tears down fairy tale cliches. Boys and girls, young and old, will enjoy this book. If you have not read a comic book before and you would like to try, just remember to follow it from top to bottom, and from left to right. Once you practice a bit, it comes easily.

After You by Jojo Moyes (sequel to Me Before You)

To those of you who have read Me Before You, I am here to recommend the sequel, After You. Author Jojo Moyes continues to craft relatable, interesting stories for the characters she brought to life in Me Before You as well as introducing a few new people. The best part of this sequel is that the other characters are given more time to develop instead of Louisa being the main focus. We get to see Camilla and Steven Traynor’s lives after Will, observe Josie’s growth and her marriage with Bernard more closely, and view Treena’s situation from a fresh angle. The only character I did not like, a teenage girl with a ton of personal and family issues, became very important and even her story interested me. Moyes delves into themes of grief, depression, and isolation in After You and succeeds in painting a very real portrait of loss that is important to find in fiction. We watch how long it takes Louisa to get her life back on track after the events of Me Before You and appreciate that her recovery takes a lot of time and introspection. While it did require more patience from me to stay with Louisa during this most challenging time in her life, it was worth it to reach the book’s satisfying conclusion.


Lost Girl

As someone who loves 20th century historical fiction of all kinds, I was drawn to Emma Cline’s debut novel The Girls. The Girls follows present-day Evie Boyd as she recalls the events of the summer of 1969 when she was 14 years old. Evie, a lost and lonely adolescent, is drawn into a cult by the confident, effervescent Suzanne who is everything Evie wants to be. She finds sanctuary at the compound, but things begin to unravel when the leader plans a gruesome murder that rocks the nation. 

Being a teenager is hard on everyone. It’s an awkward time and all you want is to feel like you belong somewhere. My version of handling this stage in life was VASTLY different (mainly sitting in my room listening to emo music and reading Stephen King novels), but Cline conjured up a bittersweet nostalgia that made me feel a connection to young Evie. Cline also depicts the diversity of female relationships- with men, with girls and women, with society- and does not gloss over any of the negatives. Evie isn’t always likable and doesn’t always have a solid reason for her actions, and that’s okay. Cline isn’t afraid to show that everyone has flaws, not all decisions are crystal clear, and not all relationships are ideal, or even healthy.

I will confess that I wasn’t as captivated with the actual plot as I had hoped, but I was still drawn into this book. Even though the incident is comparable to the Manson Family murders, the thrill of the crime fell a little flat.  If you are looking for an edge-of-your-seat-true-crime-inspired fiction, move on, BUT if you’re looking for an emotional coming-of-age tale, get comfy and read on.  The Girls may not have been the historical crime story I was expecting, but it was definitely worth the read!

A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding

 I’ve read many novels about World War II, but A Dictionary of Mutual Understanding, is the first I can recall with a Japanese setting to the Nagasaki bombing.

Amaterasu Takahaski, now living in Philadelphia, is skeptical when a badly scarred man, claiming to be her grandson, appears at her door. Her grandson and her daughter perished nearly forty years ago during the bombing of Nagasaki, but this man carries a collection of sealed private letters that open long-buried family secrets that give her pause.

This is a heart-wrenching story of love and regret, ultimately healing and hope. I’ve been recommending this to my reader-friends and expect it will be one of my favorites of the year.

These Girls Pack a Punch!

 Do you need more dinosaurs, time travelers, and girl power in your life? If so, I have two fantastic graphic novels for you.  First up, is Paper Girls, Volume 1 by Brian K. Vaughn, the writer named by Wired Magazine as " the greatest comic book visionary of the last five years." This suspenseful mystery starts with a slow burn as four paper delivery girls head out to cover their route the morning after Halloween in 1988.  After the girls accidentally set off a strange machine, the story kicks off at break-neck speed, and soon the girls are facing off against dinosaurs, laser-blasting knights, and sub-human creatures that might just be from the future. It’s intense, fast-paced, wicked fun, and the series is only just beginning. 


Also, make sure to check out the Lumberjanes series by Grace Ellis and Noelle Stevenson. Lumberjanes follows five “hardcore lady types” spending the summer at a crazy camp surrounded by bizarre supernatural mysteries. The girls fight werewolves, solve riddles, and avoid the ever-watchful eye of their group counselor in this manic, off-beat, fantastic read. This series has been out for a while, but you can catch up on Hoopla digital.

Both of these series are a great mash-up of sci-fi, fantasy, action, and mystery with fabulous artwork. So what are you waiting for? 

Widow Basquiat

I’ve been interested in the New York art scene of the 1980’s since…well the 1980’s. The New York of that era would be unrecognizable to the gentrified, hyper-wealthy Manhattan of today. But it’s just that gritty, crime-ridden, underworld scene that interested me so much. It also allowed hip-hop music and graffiti art to be elevated to legit art forms and inspired some truly great artists to become household names. I was totally enamored by the populist art of Keith Haring, but the artist whose work and image intrigued me the most was Jean-Michel Basquiat. Seeing pictures of Basquiat back then, dreadlocked and in a paint-spattered Armani suit, seemed too cool to be real and when I first saw the raw voodoo power of his paintings, I really couldn’t get enough. There are many books that highlight this era and the artists who were forged within it, but the uniquely resonant prose of Jennifer Clement’s novel Widow Basquiat is exceptional in its ability to take you directly to that wild time in New York City and poetically tell the story of the volatile love affair between the doomed Basquiat and his muse Suzanne Mollouk.

The Story of Kullervo

My enduring interest in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien and my Finnish ancestry are two aspects of my life I never had reason to believe would ever cross in any significant fashion. Browsing the shelves, I recently discovered The Story of Kullervo (ed. Verlyn Flieger), an unfinished prose version of what is known as the Kullervo cycle, which originally appeared in the Finnish epic poem The Kalevala.   

Tolkien set to work on the The Story of Kullervo as an undergraduate studying at Exeter College, Oxford in 1914. The original story is a tragic tale of an unfortunate orphan boy, raised by his father's killer, and centered around themes of magic, betrayal, and vengeance. Tolkien, having first read an English-translated copy of The Kalevala in 1907 while a student at King Edward’s School, found the Kullervo cycle particularly captivating. Claiming the translated version to be unsatisfactory, he set to learning Finnish in order to engage the original source material, an effort which he declared left him “repulsed with heavy losses.”

Nonetheless, he remained thoroughly interested in crafting his own version of the tale, and in The Story of Kullervo, the earliest versions of many of the themes, naming conventions, and story elements of his later works can be seen. Close students of Tolkien’s books, and those published after his death by his son, Christopher Tolkien, will find plenty to enjoy here.

Being an unfinished work, it is a quick read, but editor Verlyn Flieger has supported the story deftly with insightful analyses of what is known of Tolkien’s early efforts, the source materials he used, and additional influences on his literary style. The bibliography is substantial, drawing upon all the sources one would suspect, along with scholarly journals, monographs, and at least one PhD dissertation. Indeed, Flieger’s bibliography amounts to a well-curated ‘further reading’ list and chances are if you are investigating this book, ‘further reading’ is exactly the sort of thing that interests you.

This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz

     I read This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Díaz over the long holiday weekend. A friend asked me why I would bring such a sad sounding book on vacation after I had described the premise to him. The story was a bit sad, but I enjoyed it a lot. Yunior, an immigrant from the Dominican Republic, is the main character in the linked vignettes that focus on man-woman relationships, break-ups, cultural identity, and family issues. Other important characters include his mother, who struggles to find a sense of community and belonging in America; his brother Rafa, who outshines Yunior in most regards; his father, the stern disciplinarian from his childhood; and of course, numerous girlfriends. 

     I appreciated Yunior's modern, honest, and sometimes sarcastic perspective as he stumbles through life. He is almost always the cause of his own suffering, but I still liked him and hoped that he would find happiness by learning from his mistakes. I would give this book an "R" rating because of strong language and sexual themes, so if that offends you, stay away. If that doesn't bother you, than this book is worth your time.

Lily and the Octopus

I've been thinking lately about having a dog again sometime in the future. So as soon as I came across this title in my review of upcoming adult fiction titles, I decided I'd put a hold on it myself. Lily is a 12-year-old dachshund with a brain tumor that her owner, Ted, as a way of coping with the prognosis, decides to refer to as an octopus. Perhaps a bit of magical realism mixed with an emotional dog-lover story, I expect this will be a popular title among readers who liked The Art of Racing in the Rain. According to Kirkus Reviews, "[i]n his funny, ardent, and staunchly kooky way, Rowley expresses exactly what it's like to love a dog."

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared

     This immensely popular book by Jonas Jonasson alternates between the present life of Swedish centenarian Allan Karlsson and the timeline of his long life up until then. On the day of his 100th birthday, dreading the party planned for him at the Old Folks Home, he simply walks away. He goes to the bus station, and while there he waits for a bus that will take him as far as he can get with the money on him, and that will leave as soon as possible so as to avoid being caught by Director Alice of the Old Folks Home. As he waits, this punk type reluctantly asks him to watch his suitcase while he uses the restroom. And what does Allan do, but take the suitcase with him onto the bus, unaware of the surprising contents! 

     This sets a funny, dangerous, wonderful chain of events into motion that more and more people become involved with as the story progresses. Allan’s past is even more interesting than his present, and even more full of perilous and amusing twists and turns. He meets Winston Churchill, Joseph Stalin, and Mao Tse-tung, among other famous historical figures. The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared was a joy to read from start to finish, and I highly recommend it. It will definitely be admired by readers who appreciate adventure, quirky/dark humor, and outlandish situations.