Staff Picks: Books
Staff-recommended reading from the
A co-worker recommended the book A Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie to me. What a great suggestion! In 1950’s era England, eleven year old Flavia de Luce finds a body in the family’s cucumber patch. “I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened in my entire life.” She attempts to solve the mystery ( sometimes to the consternation of the local police) using her intelligence, advanced knowledge of chemistry, and just plain persistence. A quirky family- two older, literary sisters and a widowed father who is an avid stamp collector-also figure in the story. Canadian author C. Alan Bradley won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel for this delightful mystery, the first in a series featuring memorable Flavia.
Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
Me, Him, Them and It by Caela Carter is definitely one of the best literary takes on teen pregnancy I've read. Carter tackles the subject with a deft hand, and while it can be said that she pushes her heroine, Evelyn, in some directions more than others, I felt that the novel presents a well-rounded and realistic portrayal of a teen faced with an unexpected pregnancy.
Evelyn is a smart girl who makes some reckless decisions in an attempt to both punish and draw the attention of her very absent parents. While she used to have a relatively strong relationship with her father and at least a passably good relationship with her mother, that all changed when her father had an affair. Instead of her parents splitting up, her mother decided to take her father back and stay together, but things are far from normal. The house is always tense and silent and Evelyn rarely see her parents who are so busy avoiding each other they forget she's even around.
Evelyn takes what one might consider the stereotypical route and begins rebelling. She quits her extracurriculars, starts lying, distances herself from her friends, and decides to lose herself in meaningless sex. Except for what starts out as meaningless sex turns into more when Evelyn finds herself falling for Todd. And then finds herself pregnant.
One of my favorite aspects of Me, Him, Them and It is how real Evelyn felt. There are moments when she's brave, moments of realization, and moments of undeniable immaturity. At first, she's terrified of what will happen to her life and what people will think of her. Not only is she pregnant, but she doesn't have a boyfriend, which she knows will create all kinds of gossip. Her aunt, who she looks up to and considers one of the only reliable adults in her life, lives far away and has no idea how much she's changed and Evelyn fears disappointing her. Along with the fear of what others will think, come Evelyn's fears about losing her freedom, gaining weight, her grades slipping, and her entire future. Overwhelmed, Evelyn shuts down and attempts to push all the decisions regarding the pregnancy and the baby onto her parents and every other adult she comes in contact with. But the author doesn't let Evelyn off the hook that easily, which I feel is extremely important. Evelyn's mother would be more than happy to make all the decisions, but she doesn't. Instead, she stresses to Evelyn how important it is that she make the decisions because, ultimately, it is her life and nobody can live it for her. This doesn't mean that our heroine is left all alone to figure things out, after all, she's only sixteen. There are many great secondary characters that form a support system for Evelyn that are integral to her decision making process.
In addition to Evelyn's parents, she also gains insight from her aunt, her partner, a counselors, and doctors. Despite her negative view of her parents, it's clear that they care a great deal for her and, though they've both made mistakes, are determined to be there for her no matter how she decides to proceed. Evelyn's aunts, who she lives with during the decision making process, are a fantastic support system, as one provides much needed understanding and the other provides structure, while they both provide plenty of love.
One character who is notably absent from the decision making process is the baby's father, Todd. While he does have some input, more or less saying that the decision is completely Evelyn's and that he doesn't want to participate in the baby's life if she chooses to keep it, he is otherwise absent when it comes to the pregnancy. I came to appreciate this detail as Evelyn struggled internally with her feelings for Todd and the idea of the baby being a catalyst for them to start a family. I'm so glad that Todd wasn't physically near Evelyn as she sorted through her options because it would have been entirely too easy for her to succumb to that fantasy, but it was fantasy and his distance allowed her to see that.
I also appreciated that Me, Him, Them and It touched on every available option to consider when faced with an unexpected pregnancy and the pros and cons. Adoption, both open and closed, teen parenthood, alone and with help or the father, and abortion are all discussed and explored. Furthermore, Planned Parenthood, religion, and family opinion are all considered. I truly felt that all options were fairly represented.
In the end, I feel that Evelyn not only made an educated decision, she also made the decision that was best for her. Of course, I can't say much more without spoiling the ending, but had come a long way by the conclusion of the novel. Her situation, though not ideal, forced her to think about her future, change her lifestyle, and her take some time away from a pretty unhealthy environment to figure things out. Though the novel did wrap up neatly, I wasn't left feeling that things were too calm or perfect. The Evelyn at the end of Me, Him, Them and It is clearly different than the one at the beginning and that, for me, allowed for a satisfying conclusion.
Me, Him, Them, and It
Kiersten White's Paranormalcy books missed the mark for me, but I was pleasantly surprised by her newest offering,Mind Games, which achieves a maturity the Paranormalcy books did not. I think it was actually the UK version title, Sister Assassins, that really caught my attention - as I'm obsessed with assassins, especially female assassins - though, after reading, I feel that Mind Games is a more fitting title. I was also drawn by the description, found below:
Fia was born with flawless instincts. Her first impulse, her gut feeling, is always exactly right. Her sister, Annie, is blind to the world around her—except when her mind is gripped by strange visions of the future.
Trapped in a school that uses girls with extraordinary powers as tools for corporate espionage, Annie and Fia are forced to choose over and over between using their abilities in twisted, unthinkable ways…or risking each other’s lives by refusing to obey.
A detail that I feel I should touch on is that the book has been marketed as an "intense psychological thriller about two sisters determined to protect each other," and while this may be technically true, I felt that the older sister, Annie, wasn't focused on nearly as much as Fia. I knew she was there in the plot, doing things, but I simply wasn't as concerned about her and I certainly wasn't as invested in her character.
However, I really enjoy Fia as a character. She's a dangerously broken individual that has the potential to turn dark, but she's inherently good. Because she sometimes lapses into immaturity and shows unexpected emotion, emotion that is the very opposite of the cutthroat assassin she's been trained to be, it's easy to see the Fia she could have been if her life hadn't been hijacked by the mysterious group that runs the "school" she and Annie attend.
The atmosphere of this novel (i.e. Fia, her boss, love interest, and the group that controls the sisters) are reminiscent of the characters and plot of shows like ABC's Alias and The CW's Nikita, which I love... and which probably contributed to my liking Mind Games as much as I did. Many of the characters are more than they seem, hiding something, or have the potential to give into the power they yield and use it for evil rather than good.
I feel that Mind Games is a great introduction to Fia and Annie's world. The action really picked up by the end of the novel, which I think bodes well for the next installment.
Last month Steve and Ann recommended two collections of short stories, and the New York Times declared the form is being revived because of the proliferation of devices like e-readers, tablets, and smartphones. I have always enjoyed short stories, but I've found myself more interested in reading them since acquiring an e-reader. Whether you read e-books or print, I recommend short stories as a way to get in a bit of reading every day.
The new collections at the top of my list are Vampires in the Lemon Grove, the latest from Swamplandia! author Karen Russell, and There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself: Love Stories by Russian writer Liudmila Petrushevskaia.
Here are a few good collections, published last year, that you may have missed:
Who are your favorite short story writers?
There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband, and He Hanged Himself
Finding Nouf by Zoe Ferraris first came to my attention on a “Best Mystery” list. It is a mystery, and much more. Set in modern day Saudi Arabia, Palestinian Nayir al-Sharqi is asked by his friend Othman to go with him into the desert to try and discover the whereabouts of Othman’s sixteen year old fiancé, Nouf. The young woman has disappeared into the desert three days before their wedding, seemingly without a trace. Nayir tries to discover what has happened to Nouf, with the help of Katya, a young woman working in the state medical examiner’s office.
What I found particularly fascinating about this book was the glimpse into modern Saudi Arabian life. The author has lived in Saudi Arabia and so has a unique perspective and insight into the lives of both men and women living and working there. I recommended this book to a friend. Her book group chose it as their monthly read, and she said it resulted in a lively discussion.
If you’re looking for a mystery with a different slant, give this a try!
There seems to be a real spike in the number of writers who are taking an interest in blending fiction with nonfiction, memoir and essay. The best of these are often clever and inventive hybrid texts that underscore the creative possibilities and evocative power of blending a traditional, linear narrative with a more fragmentary and poetic approach to language and style. Ali Smith’s new book Artful is simply an undefinable book that like the works of W.G. Sebald (The Rings of Saturn), J.M. Coetzee (Elizabeth Costello) and Geoff Dyer (Zona), strives to dismantle the narrow rules of what literature is and can be. The book is framed as a series of academic essays about art and literature channeled through a grieving narrator who is literally haunted by their dead lover, who we discover was the author of the papers (in reality, it was Smith herself who delivered these lectures). Smith’s project is to show us that fictional storytelling can be a vehicle for expressing fresh ideas about literature without that discourse being academically prose-less and obtuse, that it can explore the complex and beautiful marriage between art and life with originality.
George Saunders has hit the big time. His current collection of bizarrely funny and moving short stories, Tenth of December, is getting a lot of well-deserved publicity. Saunders is always playing his characters for laughs, but never deserts them, leaving them unsympathetic. He teases out their inner dialogues until we recognize ourselves in them, and as we laugh, we know we are guilty too. I have found reading his stories a singular pleasure ever since his debut collection CivilWarLand in Bad Decline. There is no one else like him.
Tenth of December
Do you watch Downton Abby? When I read The Husband List I was reminded of the affluent people in Downton Abby. Janet Evanovich and Dorien Kelly wrote the novel The Husband List. Janet Evanovich is best known for her Stephanie Plum Bail Bondsman books which all have a number, One is for money up to the current one Notorious Nineteen.The Husband List is set in 1894 and centers on some very wealthy families. This is where I saw the similarities to Downton Abbey. Their focus is on parties and social status. They have their main home which is of course huge and they have their vacation home. They travel in style and have plenty of servants. A warning, this is a very mushy book. Caroline Maxwell longs for Jack Culhane but her mother wants her to marry Lord Bremerton who will be the fourteenth Duke of Endsleigh. This excerpt will give you a flavor of the book “Though she wasn’t in physical contact with him, she could feel the warmth rolling off him. It made her shiver in a most delicious way.” I enjoyed this book, you just have to glide over the mush or be in the right mood.
The Husband List
Now this book was written by James Patterson with no co-writers. This is his famous Alex Cross series. I like how James Patterson writes but I am not a fan of the famous Alex Cross. I find him smug. He keeps saying how great of a dad he is but then then he is never home. Course he is fictional, which is a testament to James Patterson’s writing ability that he can get me to feel this way about a fictional character, or maybe I’m a bit bent and need to see someone professionally. James Patterson had a book titled “Kill Alex Cross”, I was routing for the bad guys. In his latest “Merry Christmas, Alex Cross” Alex is trying to have Christmas at home with his family but of course he gets called into action because he is the best and there is no one else they could conceivably call. The book starts out with a hostage scene and they need Alex. I’m thinking they must have other hostage negotiators call one of them, don’t they rotate the on duty roster. I think they put this in the book to show how Alex is “ripped” away from his family on Christmas Eve. Personally I think he could have waved off this one. The next bit he is indeed needed for as he was involved in the first terrorist attack so he knows how they operate. Hala Al Dossari is back. Alex and Mahoney worked together (in a previous book) to catch Al Dossari and Alex had constructed an extensive profile of her. He even laments being called in and away from his family on Christmas. This is from chapter 49: “Seemed like everybody in the District had given up on going outside and settled in for a sweet night. Everybody, of course, except me. When do I start saying no, I thought, instead of just reacting to whatever crisis life sends my way? When do I begin to live Alex Cross’s life? “ Then he goes on about how great his kids are and how spry his 90 something nana is, blah blah blah. Luckily we get back to Hala and she is shooting people while her cohorts are stealing dangerous chemicals from a train. One thing I really like was how he described the stopping of the train and the problems they had with the physical removal of heavy drums of chemicals in winter. I especially like when the snow plow came along. You could feel the frustration of the bad guys at having to traverse through the snow especially since they were desert people and not dressed or used to snow. I enjoyed this even if I kind of did want Alex to fail and for sure wanted him to quit telling me how great a dad he is.
Merry Christmas, Alex Cross
Well, Christopher Paul Curtis has done it again! The Mighty Miss Malone is not only about a girl but its about a family. It's about a family doing everything it takes to survive together and then just doing what it takes to survive.This story is not only about a family's struggles with the economic aspects of the Great Depression but also the political aspects. With this historical fiction Mr. Curtis has proven to me that the fights between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in 1936 and 1938 were more than just heavyweight bouts. He calls them the perfect storm.
The Mighty Miss Malone