Saturday, October 1, 2011

Making a Friend by Alison McGhee and Marc Rosenthal

This is a sweet, touching story that is so much more than a winter holiday book. It starts with a boy thinking of all the joys of a snowy day. He makes a snowman who becomes a good friend while the weather stays cold. When the winter ends, the snowman begins to melt until one day he’s gone. The boy looks for him and discovers that the snowman is in the water and the rain and everything around him. I loved the simple, compelling illustrations and spare, thoughtful text. This book has a beautiful message for anyone who is missing a loved one – What you love will always be with you.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen

This is a simple, silly picture book with wonderful illustrations. It follows a bear who has lost his hat. He asks the various animals he encounters if they’ve seen his hat, but they say they haven’t. He’s not the most observant bear. This book is almost a combination of Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus and Are You My Mother. I know, that’s hard to imagine, but it is fantastic fun. We’ve carried greeting cards by the author/illustrator, and they’re so sweet and compelling we have a hard time keeping them in stock.
Also, did the bear eat that rabbit? Oh my.

The Man in the Moon by William Joyce

William Joyce is one of my favorite illustrators and this is one of the most beautiful children's picture books that I’ve seen. The imagery is so rich and unique that I found myself just staring at the pages – imagine what a kid will do! The story is sweet and compelling as well. As a baby, The Man in the Moon (called MiM for short) is hidden away so that the King of Nightmares can’t find him. He grows up watching over the dreams of the child on Earth and eventually becomes the first of The Guardians of Childhood. That’s also the name of the series this book launches. All of the books involve classic fairytale figures – from the man in the moon to Santa and the Easter Bunny. There will also be a string of chapter books beginning with St. Nicholas of the North (coming out in November) and a movie next year. I’m not a fan of big movie tie-in stuff that’s just trying to sell, sell, sell, but this book is really exceptional. I’m excited to see the rest.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Among the Wonderful by Stacy Carlson

In 1842 New York City, P.T. Barnum opened his American Museum. It was part zoo, part freak show, part natural history museum, part theater, part restaurant, part… you get the picture. Among the Wonderful imagines the lives of two of its employees – Ana Swift, Giantess, and Emile Guillaudeu, Taxidermist. They are very different people, holding very different places in the Museum, but both are searching for their place in the world. I was impressed that that search never becomes a cliché and that the Museum never turns into a catalog of freaks.
I loved this book. I was completely captivated by the two main characters, the Museum, and all the strange and wonderful people involved in it. The only thing I wished for at the end was a companion book full of the real details about the Museum so that I would have known right away how well-researched the story was. Not surprisingly, the truth is even stranger than this great historical fiction.

The Call by Yannick Murphy

I loved Yannick Murphy’s novel, Signed Mata Hari, so much that I picked up The Call without any idea what it was about. It’s very different, but equally wonderful. The “narrator” is a rural veterinarian going through life’s trials with his wife and three kids. He ponders life, his son is injured, his own health is questionable, his wife is a little frustrated, and there are lights in the sky above his house. But his story is not told in traditional paragraphs, rather as a sort of list of prompts and answers (alternate title could have been An Ode to the Colon). Here’s the opening as an example:
     “Call: A cow with her dead calf half-born.
     Action: Put on boots and pulled dead calf out while standing in a field of mud.”
Call, Action, What the Wife Made for Dinner, and What the Children Say, are repeated often, but there’s also What the Spaceman Said and What the House Says at Night, among many others. Murphy is a strange and different writer in the best possible way. It’s amazing that she manages to tell such a complete and fascinating story in this strange style. I loved this book. It will be on my top ten for the year. Take a risk – it’s in softcover!

Friday, July 1, 2011

Pigeon English by Stephen Kelman

Normally I don’t read books with kid main characters (unless it’s a kids’ book), but I read a glowing review of Pigeon English that said it’s for anyone who loved Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clark Ha Ha Ha. OK, that’s me. So I started it on my lunch break and immediately couldn’t put it down. Like Paddy Clark, this is a novel told so closely from the point of view of the main character that I absolutely felt like I was seeing the world through his eyes, living inside his thoughts.
Twelve-year-old Harrison Opuku has recently moved from Ghana to a large housing estate (that’s British for the projects) in London and he’s trying to understand his new world and his place in it. His narration is a funny, endearing, wonderfully confusing mixture of British and Ghanaian slang. I’m still not 100% sure what hutious means. When a boy in Harri’s class is killed, possibly by the menacing Dell Farm Crew, Harri and a friend decide to use their detective skills to find out what happened. This isn’t really a mystery though. This is Harri’s story. He is so in love with the world and so fascinated with his surroundings that he could have become ridiculous at any moment, but Kelman manages to keep him filled with joy and real at the same time. This would make a fantastic book club selection – was Harri real for you, what do you think about the ending, what about the sections from the point of view of Harri’s pigeon? It’s on the short list for the Booker Prize and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if it wins.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson

Christine loses most of her memory every night when she goes to sleep. Sometimes she wakes thinking she’s in her twenties, sometimes even younger. She doesn't know where she is, or what has happened to her in the past several of decades. With the help of a psychologist and her journal, she begins to reconstruct her life and discovers just how vulnerable she really is.
Serious, strange amnesia in fiction is almost always a little too convenient. It's one of those things that happens all the time in books and almost never in real life (like the revelation that your father is not really your father). I picked up this suspense novel because of the compelling cover, but thought - boring, another amnesia story. Then I started reading and I could not put it down. It is definitely one of  my recent top recommendations for beach/vacation reading.

Robopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

Sometimes when I say that a book is movie-ready it’s not entirely a compliment, but this book is so action-packed, so creative, so visual and imaginative, so on-the-edge-of-my-seat-the-whole-time, that I’m calling it movie-ready and that means it’s great. It’s a summer blockbuster in a book (and it will be a summer blockbuster in a movie summer of 2013). I've already picked out who I think should play the various characters in this large and varied cast.
A quick description might make it seem like a rehash of The Terminator stories, but this is a robot uprising of a different sort. Yes, artificial intelligence has taken over and is at war with human beings, but that’s where the similarities end. Wilson studied robotics, so there is a very creepy reality to the way they work and move and how people interact with them. I highly recommend this for any vacation you have coming up – even if it’s just in your backyard or on your couch.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Embassytown by China Miéville

Miéville’s book The City and the City was my favorite book of 2010. One of the things that I loved most about it was that even when I was confused, I was still enjoying myself. The same is true for his latest book, Embassytown. This story takes place on a far outpost of the human diaspora (humans who left Earth to colonize other planets so long ago that they don’t even know where Earth is anymore). The indigenous creatures of this planet, the Ariekei, speak a unique language that does not allow them to lie, but they’re trying to learn. Through that (and so much more that I can’t give away) their language becomes something other than what they've known before, something other than what they've based their society on, and the repercussions are bigger than anyone could have guessed.
Miéville describes himself as an author of “weird fiction” and I think that’s perfect. Even though this particular books fits into a classic other-planet, alien-human-relations kind of Science Fiction category, I think it will appeal to readers who don’t usually like that sort of thing. It’s really about language and truth, maybe even love, and it’s about floaking. It’s perfect for someone in the mood for a unique, challenging, gripping story.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach

I can only think of two other recent books that have made me laugh so hard I cried and both are by Mary Roach. Her latest book is about the way we (humans in general, not just NASA) prepare to go into space. This fits right in with Roach’s unique approach to her subject matter – Stiff is about the uses for, and treatment of, the human body after death; Bonk is about the history of sex research. Packing for Mars covers the development of space suits, the first animals in space, psychological testing of astronauts, research into how humans handle confinement and isolation, long-term lack of any personal hygiene, etc... Mostly memorably, she covers the food of astronauts and the waste it creates. Poop is almost always funny and poop in space is hilarious.
It’s clear that Mary Roach is a little crazy, but lucky for readers it’s the good kind of crazy.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Started Early, Took My Dog by Kate Atkinson

It’s strange to love a book when part of me feels like it shouldn't be good. How does Atkinson keep pulling off these great novels that hardly have a main character and rely on series of coincidences and wrong-place-at-wrong-time encounters? Especially now that I've read the three others in this series, so I know that the people are all going to be interconnected in some way in the end. I don’t have an answer, but she’s done it again with the return of Jackson Brodie in Started Early, Took My Dog. I couldn't put this book down. The story mainly follows an abandoned boy, a retired female cop who impulsively buys a kid from an unfit mother, an actress in the final moments of her sanity before dementia envelopes her, and (of course) Jackson Brodie, former private investigator. Oh, and a dog named The Ambassador.
Two out of three of the other Jackson Brodie books ended up on my top picks of the year. It’s too early to say if this one will make it, but it’s going to be close.

The Beauty of Humanity Movement by Camilla Gibb

This is a fascinating and lovely story of a man making his place in Hanoi both during and after the Vietnam War. Hung comes to the city as a young man to apprentice in his uncle’s Pho shop. As Communism takes hold and the war follows, the shop becomes a gathering place for young subversives targeted by the government. In the present day Hung sells Pho from a ramshackle cart on the streets. Despite his greatly reduced circumstances, he still manages to keep those around him fed and cared for. His life is touching in its simplicity.
I really enjoyed this book. It would make a great book club read (I want to discuss with someone whether or not Hung is really the truest Communist of all). The food writing is also fantastic - I had to go out for Pho as soon as I finished reading.

Press Here by Herve Tullet

When the publisher rep first showed me this book she said, “Don’t just flip through, follow the instructions.” I took her advice and I think I laughed the hardest I've ever laughed over a kid’s picture book. Except that it’s not your usual kid’s picture book. The images are very simple – colored dots painted onto white or black backgrounds – but it’s the activity of it that makes it so much fun. The beginning page is one dot with the instructions below to “Press here and turn the page.” Upon turning the page you see that the one dot has become two. I can’t really do it justice here. I recommend you come in, take a minute, and follow the instructions. I bet you’ll be as enchanted as I was. It’s also a great reminder that “interactive” doesn't have to include a touch screen.