Fiction

The Man on the Third Floor

ISBN: 
9781579622855

 

I journeyed back into the 1950s with this novel about a closeted gay editor. It's all here: the strong prejudice against homosexuality, the gender stereotyping, the cold war, the loyalty oaths, friend turning against friend and colleague against colleague. Some accused Communists leap out high-rise windows when their livelihoods are destroyed.

But McCarthyism is just a side issue in this intriguing novel - The Man on the Third Floor centers on a very successful editor who has a secret domestic life. When he and his wife, Phyllis, and their two young children move back to New York after the World War II years in Washington, Phyllis decides they can afford a house of their own. They finds a nice brownstone with three floors, the top of which was originally servant quarters. But Phyllis is a modern woman, college-educated who worked in radio and journalism until she had children, and she's not keen on having servants live with them. 

But one day, a very handsome man comes to measure Walter's office for new carpeting.  Although Walter has had only one sexual experience with another male in his life--he was raped at camp as a teenager--he immediately finds himself inviting Barry, the carpet man, to a bar. Almost immediately, he offers him a job as a driver despite the fact the family owns no car, and soon gives him a room on their third floor. For some reason, Phyllis agrees to both ideas. Read more »

Flight Behavior

ISBN: 
9780062124265

This novel is the first that I've read that tackles the problem of climate change head-on. An environmental tragedy in Mexico has forced most of the continent's monarch butterflies to find a new winter habitat. Flight Behavior also narrates the story of a young woman, Dellarobbia, who lives on a hard-scrabble farm in Appalachia. She's herded in by a strict mother-in-law, Hester, and even more so by the family's poverty. One day she decides to risk her marriage by having a tryst on the family's mountaintop with a telephone lineman named Jimmy.

After hiking up the mountain, Dellarobbia sees through the fog (despite her severe myopia) that the hills and trees are on fire: hundreds of monarch butterflies have nestled there. The young woman abandons her plan for an affair and returns to her mother-in-law's to pick up her two young kids, Preston and Cordelia.

Dellarobbia's history affects many pieces of the narrative: she's lost both her parents when she was young, got pregnant as a senior in high school, and married Cub to do "the right thing." Then she suffered a miscarriage and it took many years for her to have a child. Read more »

Best Books of 2012

Bringing up the BodiesI love making lists, reading lists and cross referencing lists.  I especially love December when many journals publish their year-end best-of lists.  The New York Times has a top ten list, as does Publisher's Weekly and Amazon's Editors chose 20 books that they considered the best for 2012.  The only book to make it to all three lists?  Bringing up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel.  This is the follow up novel to Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell and Henry the VII. Both books won the Man Booker Prize and a third book is in the works. 

Other than Mantel's struck-it-gold novel, there isn't a whole lot of other crossover.  Publisher's Weekly and the New York Times both list Building Stories by Chris Ware.  This graphic novel is really an unusual collection of printed material, collected in a large box, which shares the stories of the residents of one building.  Tackling a wide range of themes, the New York Times calls it "simultaneously playful and profound".  Read more »

A Surrey State of Affairs

ISBN: 
9780670023424

Because they seem so personal and individual, I'm attracted to novels written in blogs, diaries, and letters.  You really feel as though the writing comes directly from the blogger's heart. Ceci Radford's wonderful first novel A Surrey State of Affairs provides hundreds of delightful escapades while involving you with a cast of peculiar though mostly likeable characters.

Here's the plot in a nutshell: on the advice of Rupert, her IT consultant son, a middle-aged married suburbanite named Constance begins a blog where she tells of exciting and not-so-exciting events in her life. She doesn't work outside the home and has a surly eastern European housemaid named Natalie.  Constance's main hobbies are throwing dinner parties (including faux detective ones), visiting her Mom in a nursing home, and improving her skills as a competitive church bell ringer. (Who knew Brits even competed at this?)

Pretty soon, you discover that she is also heavily involved in matchmaking: the aforementioned son with the minister's daughter and also with a bell-ringer's child. Did anyone accidentally give out her son's address to a gentle stalker?

While Constance learns the nitty gritty of posting blogs, she entertains her husband's burly Russian guest who has nasty spats with Natalie, and then takes off with Sophie. Oh Sophie!  I failed to mention Constance's 18 year old surly daughter who is on her gap year counting fish in France but comes home often for non-talking visits with Mom. Read more »

Oprah's Book Club 2.0

Twelve Tribes of HattieJust released today (so new, it isn't even in our catalog yet!) is The Twelve Tribes of Hattie, the debut novel by Ayana Mathis.  This book has gotten some good reviews, including a glowing review from the often hard to please New York Times reviewer, Michiko Kakutani.  But what makes this book especially noteworthy?  One word: Oprah.

Yep. In case you missed it, last year Oprah renewed her book club, renamed Book Club 2.0 and chose Wild, Cheryl Strayed's memoir of her redemptive and inspring through hike of the Pacific Crest Trail. 

This year Oprah chose something completely different, but no less interesting sounding.  The Twelve Tribes of Hattie is about a young African-American woman who during the Great Migraration leaves Georgia and settles in Philadelphia.  Hattie's struggles and those of her children are interwoven in twelve narrative threads coming together to paint an intimate picture of a singular family, but also that of a greater nation.  Sounds great.  I can't wait until it hits the library shelves!

 

A Working Theory of Love

ISBN: 
9781594205057

Scott Hutchins' first novel A Working Theory of Love is a wonderful spoof of California's trendiness. It also pokes fun at its computer geek population, but more importantly it's also a tender love story. In my experience few novels by men focus on love and relationships, so it's especially nice to explore this landscape from a male writer's perspective.

Recently divorced Neill Bassett just barely copes after his wife Erin leaves him shortly after their honeymoon (at least he can keep their charming San Francisco apartment). Each day begins with the same breakfast taco. Also boring and routine are his homemade dinners. He allows himself a glass of wine several times a week. The mission of Neill's day job at Amiante Systems is to give voice to his dead father who left thousands of pages of journals when he committed suicide. A non-geek himself, Neill has become the family representative at this small business working to perfect artificial intelligence and give voice to a dead man.

Why did the techies choose Neill's Dad? For years, Neill's father wrote long and extremely detailed journal entries about his life. This gave the engineers a large amount of material to parse and code into computer memory.

Hutchins knows enough about artificial intelligence to portray life at a small tech company. He also succeeds at exploring the weirdness of a character asking his own dead father questions and then having him both listen and analyze the simulated answers. Talk about father and son issues! Read more »

National Bullying Prevention Month

ISBN: 
9780399257049

Author and Illustrator Patricia Polacco has a knack for creating picture books for older readers. Her thoughtful, sensitive stories have addressed a range of issues including cancer, cultural differences, race relations and slavery. Her most recent book, Bully, takes on a topic she has written about previously in both Thank You, Mr. Falker and Mr. Lincoln's Way, but this story depicts how bullying can take place via social media, as well as through direct interactions with peers.

Bully describes how Lyla attempts to make friends and fit in at her new school. A new friend encourages her to get a cell phone, a laptop computer, and a Facebook account so that she can "stay connected with the world!" Her parents relent, and her new friend Jamie, who is a computer wiz, helps her set everything up. The cool "celebrity" girls invite Lyla to join their clique -- not for her newfound electronic communication skills, but for her tumbling and cheerleading abilities. Read more »

Buddha in the Attic and Narrative Mode

BuddhaAttic"On the boat we were mostly virgins" begins Julie Otsuka's gem of a book, The Buddha in the Attic.  One of the noticeable things from that first sentence is the unique narrative mode.  The whole book is written in the first person plural style.  This type of narration can be awkward -- most fiction is written in either first person or third person.  Convention can be comforting, we know immediately how to read the story and relate to those characters.  In first person plural, the story is told from the group's perspective, and with no main character, the rules are different.

Otsuka said in an interview that she wanted to tell the story of Japanese picture brides -- not just one bride, but that as a group.  And in this case, the narrative mode makes perfect sense.  Between 1908 and the 1920s, thousands of young Japanese women came over to the United States after an arranged marriage agreement.  Instead of focusing on one story, this book introduces the reader to many stories, some devastatingly sad, some happier, but all of them are sympathetic.  And by not focusing on just one story, we read the book with a fuller picture and are moved by their collective experiences and struggles.  The stories begin on the boat, and follow them through marriage, manual labor, child raising and the heart wrenching internment following the attacks on Pearl Harbor.  I can imagine that this book might appeal to a wide range of fiction readers -- fans of historical fiction, women's fiction, immigrant stories, Asian-American experiences, World War II home front, and readers of fiction set in California and the West. Read more »

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

ArtofFieldingHenry Skrimshander is a slight shortstop with a love and strong appreciation for baseball.  Henry isn't a great player, and not very strong at bat but he does have potential.  When his sister writes the message "Call Mike Shorts!" by the phone, Henry's life changes forever.

Mike Schwartz is the captain of the baseball team at Westish College in Wisconsin.  Mike is addicted to painkillers (also the captain of the football team, he has bad knees), hardworking and spends a lot of his time helping his teammates become the best players they can be.  He is hard on them, pushing them through more squats, more lifts, and more runs than seemingly possible. 

Just as Henry is about to break the NCAA record for most error free games, an errant ball slips out of his hands and flies into the face of his roommate Owen Dunne who is sitting in the dugout reading a book.  This seemingly innocuous error sets into motion a series of events that become life changing not only for Henry, Mike, and Owen but also the President of Westish, Guert Affenlight, and his daughter Pella who has just returned to Wisconsin after some personal problems of her own.    Read more »

The Orphan Master's Son

ISBN: 
0812992792

Every so often a novel comes along that takes your breath away. The Orphan Master's Son remained unopened on my nightstand for a couple of weeks. But as soon as I dove into this literary thriller that also includes a love story I was hooked. It's set in North Korea, and amazingly, it's written by an American.

Pak Jun Do grew up in an orphanage, yet he was no true orphan (as he repeats many times in these pages) since his father raised him, or more accurately, Jun raised himself near his father. Years earlier, his mother, a singer, had been whisked off to Pyongyang, the capital, where all the beautiful women of the provinces were sent, so he never got to know her. Jun Do's job was renaming each orphan upon his arrival--he named each boy after the 114 North Korean martyrs. Jun Do also assigned jobs, taking the worst for himself. But since even children in North Korea work Read more »

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