Monday, July 26, 2010

Nonfiction & Biography

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks - Rebecca Skloot (Crown, 2010)

If one just scratched the surface, this would be the story of a poor, young black wife and mother, who died of cervical cancer in 1951. Amazingly, the cancer cells cultured from her biopsy (without her knowledge or consent) formed a line of cells that are still manufactured today in a multi-million dollar industry. However, reading this book is like peeling an onion. Its many layers relate not only Henrietta Lacks' story (and that of her family) but also stories about medical innovation, medical arrogance, poverty in the United States, and journalism.

I've not been a big nonfiction reader, but this book was a portal into NF enjoyment for me. Whether it was the topic, the author's ability to relate the information, or a combination of the two, this book blew me away. It's a contemporary, human story and worth consideration.

I Am Scout: The Biography of Harper Lee - Charles J. Shields (Henry Holt, 2008)

With the buzz about To Kill a Mockingbird's 50th anniversary (in fact, I'm discussing the book tomorrow on a local radio show), I thought this title might provide some nice background information about Harper Lee. I had purchased it a couple years ago when I was doing the YA selection. This book, in fact, is an adaptation of Shields' book for adult readers, Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee.

I enjoyed this book for a number of reasons. Through Shields' prose, I felt I really got to know Harper Lee - a private person who was bright, unconventional, and deeply affected by her Southern family and community. This book was never "juvenile" in tone or in its writing. It was true and respectful towards its subject.

If you liked the motifs and feels of the above books, a couple fiction possibilities are the following:

Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt - Beth Hoffman (Pamela Dorman Books, 2010)

It's kind of formulaic with pretty predictable Southern characters. However, one can't help but like Cecelia Rose Honeycutt, who is surrendered to an elderly aunt by her father after her mentally ill mother is killed. The quirky relatives and neighbors do not disappoint, but issues that include parental neglect and mental health are not adequately addressed. Try it on audio book.

Mudbound - Hillary Jordan (Algonquin, 2009)

It's 1946, and Laura McAllan has given up city life to move with her husband and small daughters to build a life on a farm with no electricity and plumbing. Related in alternating chapters by Laura, her husband Henry, and other main characters, this is a gritty, sweaty, earthy tale about racism, ignorance, and tragedy.

A couple nonfiction recommendations include these:

In Cold Blood - Truman Capote (Random House, 2002)

Originally published in 1966, this book chronicles the murder of a Kansas family carried out by two grifters and is also a study of their criminal psychology. Harper Lee, a childhood friend of author Truman Capote, was intimately involved in the research conducted prior to the publication of In Cold Blood. This book might also be a good RA recommendation for the horror book in my previous blog.

Hellhound on His Trail: The Stalking of Martin Luther King and the International Hunt for His Assassin - Hampton Sides (Doubleday, 2010)

The author has "chops" (having written Ghost Soldiers), and this is an ambitious read at 500+ pages. It relates a fascinating narrative about MLK, a man obsessed with the civil rights movement and premonitions of his own death; and King's murderer, James Earl Ray, a man consumed by hatred. This book reads more like a novel than a work of nonfiction, which provided a great deal of the appeal. I think this book would appeal to younger readers as well as those (like me) who lived through this turbulent period of American history.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Horror & Sci Fi

A Special Place: The Heart of a Dark Matter - Peter Straub (Pegasus Books, 2010)

A small book with a BIG punch! This 122-page novella may leave you squirming.

The book spans several years of Keith Hayward's adolescent and teen years. Keith is a boy fascinated with torture and death. His father's brother, Tillman Hayward (Uncle Till), who has secrets of his own, recognizes Keith's inner evil and becomes his mentor.

This book was effective for me on so many levels. The language was spare and powerful; not a word was wasted. The horror and violence weren't "in your face," but, oh boy, were they there! The characters of Keith and Uncle Till were so seemingly typical of people we encounter in everyday life, but their "special places" were so incredibly awful. It makes me wonder about people as they pass through the library! It had been some time since I'd read horror, but this was an "enjoyable" experience. I know i'll be re-visiting the genre soon.

Kress, Nancy. "Images of Anna." The Year's Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2010. Prime Books, 2010.

In this short story, Boston photographer Ben snaps glamour shots of 50-something public librarian Anna - pictures she intends to give her boyfriend, whom she met on the Internet. When Ben develops the pictures, the images are not of Anna but of other people. After a second photo shoot with the same results, Ben trails Anna to investigate the mystery. Not only does Ben find out about Anna, but he also makes some discoveries about himself.

I'm not generally a sci-fi fan, and this particular short story didn't kindle any warm, fuzzy feelings for the genre. While sci-fi and fantasy might not be my things, I do like the themes/lessons that are inherent in the genres. The readings in the class text were also helpful in providing background information about the genres.

Fiction reads of note:

Dolores Claiborne - Stephen King (Signet, 2004)

This King tome is about so much more than the horrible deaths of Dolores Claiborne's husband and then her employer. It's a psychological study of Claiborne's brutalization and her attempts to protect the people and things she loved.

Flying Children series – James Patterson

Patterson took a break from his “Alex Cross” series to pen the titles in this series (When the Wind Blows, The Lake House, and Maximum Ride), which reveal the ethical questions inherent in a genetic research study that involves winged children, a Colorado veterinarian, and a handsome FBI agent.

Nonfiction reads you might try:

The Girls of Murder City: Fame, Lust, and the Beautiful Killers Who Inspired Chicago – Douglas Perry (Viking, 2010)

This book is hot off the press and relates the Jazz Age story of the real ladies from the musical Chicago, who were accused of killing their guys and became media sensations. This book was chosen because it’s true crime yet doesn’t seem to have the level of graphic violence that is blatantly described in other true crime works.

Genetics for Dummies – Tara Rodden Robinson (For Dummies, 2010)

Unless the reader is a biology student, this is probably a book that a lay reader would just want to skim and read selectively to answer one’s personal questions about this subject. Part of the highly regarded For Dummies series, this is an approachable text, which further explains the premise for a number of sci-fi and fantasy works.

Graphic Novel & Manga

Point Blank: the Graphic Novel - Anthony Horowitz, Antony Johnston. Kanako & Yuzuru, ill.

This graphic novel was adapted from Horowitz' young adult Alex Rider Adventure series book with the same title. In this installment, teen spy Alex Rider is recruited to check into suspicious activities at an exclusive boarding school operated by South African madman Dr. Grief and his hideously unattractive assistant, Mrs. Stellenbosch.

Prior to picking up this book, I was a graphic novel "virgin" with the preconceived idea that I would hate this genre. However, this particular GN seemed pretty well done. There were well-developed characters, a strong plot, and the full-color illustrations supported the story and were easy to follow. I can see the attraction of this genre for its target audience - a quick, fun read that is supported by interesting, creative illustrations. Graphic novels provide an interesting alternative to text-driven novels, particularly in the area of "classic" literature.

Fruits Basket: Volume 1 - Natsuki Takaya

It's probably not a surprise that this was my first foray into manga as well. I chose the first volume of the highly popular Fruits Basket series, which now numbers more than 20 books. This series chronicles the adventures of Tohru Honda, whose parents are dead and whose family won't take her in. She moves in with the wealthy Sohma family, who possess some family secrets.

After checking out Fruits Basket, I've decided that manga is not my "cup of tea." I thought the characters were creepy-looking. Despite the instructions in the book, I had trouble following the order of the dialogue "bubbles." The dialogue itself seemed contrived and unnatural. Perhaps it lost something in the translation, or perhaps I'm just too old to get it! Having stated my opinion, I know there is a significant audience for manga, and public librarians need to honor that audience.

Some fiction titles that might be of interest include the following:

Rapunzel’s Revenge – Shannon and Dean Hale (Bloomsbury, 2008)

I LOVE new takes on classic tales, and this book was terrific! With a Western setting (yup, like wild, wild West), Rapunzel takes on creatures and villains, rights wrongs, and changes the world. The hardcover edition is beautifully illustrated in full-color.

Superman: True Brit – Kim “Howard” Johnson & John Cleese (DC Comics, 2004)

Most everyone knows the story of Clark Kent/Superman. However, this alternate version by Monty Python veteran Cleese and Ottawa, IL native Johnson places Superman in England, where he is being reared by parents who hope to hide his power and keep him out of the limelight. This book with its British sensibility and dry humor will probably be appreciated by more sophisticated readers, but the illustrations will attract anyone.

Here are some nonfiction titles you might want to investigate:

Digital Manga Techniques – Hayden Scott-Baron (Barron’s, 2005)

What’s better than reading manga? How about creating it on a computer? Using Adobe Photoshop as the tool, the reader is given clear, step-by-step directions for creating different manga character types and traits. An added bonus to this book is the background information and definition of terms.

Anne Frank: The Anne Frank House Authorized Graphic Biography - Sid Jacobson & Ernie Colon (Hill and Wang, 9/14/2010)

Pre-pub information about this book gathered from is intriguing. It looks like it might be a valuable, authoritative addition to the canon of Anne Frank literature in public and school library collections. The authors were responsible for the graphic representation The 9/11 Report (2006).

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Hannah's List (Debbie Macomber)

This was a great opportunity to pick up a book that's getting a lot of play in public libraries right now.

One year prior to the book's opening, Michael's wife, Hannah, died from ovarian cancer. Hannah's brother presents Michael with a final letter from her, which was to be opened one year after her death. In the letter, Hannah shares her wish that Michael re-marry; in fact, she has chosen 3 potential mates for him. The 3 prospects, who had all been impacted by Hannah's life, are quite diverse. As the story unfolds, Michael navigates these potential relationships, trying to honor Hannah's wish list.

This was a quick, easy read with fast-moving action. Macomber moved the story along without unnecessary description or fanfare. I think this book could easily be adapted into a film project. In my mind, I was casting the parts as I read - Cameron Diaz should play Macy! Macomber's characterization seemed kind of unbalanced with some characters fully formed and some sketchy through the end of the book. I think I really wanted to dislike this book (and romance lit in general). However, this was a pleasant read with a believable story, which needed some "fleshing out" in certain parts. I will probably give another Debbie Macomber title a try.

If you enjoy Hannah's List, you might also try the following fiction reads:

Dream When You're Feeling Blue - Elizabeth Berg (Random House, 2007)

This novel, set in the "home front" during World War II, is typical of Berg's works - strong, fully developed women characters acting extraordinarily under ordinary circumstances. The narration is fluid and expressive without being saccharine.

Time Is a River - Mary Alice Monroe (Pocket, 2008)

This piece of contemporary fiction, like several of Monroe's other books, weaves powerful themes of nature throughout the plot. Monroe's women characters are genuine and complete; her language is true and sparse. The reader feels a real connection to the characters contained on the pages.

The following nonfiction reads might also be of interest:

Promise Me: How a Sister's Love Launched the Global Movement to End Breast Cancer - Nancy G. Brinker (Broadway, 2010)

Brinker, a breast cancer survivor, penned this tribute to her sister, who succumbed to the disease. That sister was Susan G. Komen, and Brinker led (and continues to lead) a foundation that promises to "one day cure breast cancer for good." This book puts real human faces on this disease and shows the power that one committed person can make.

The Widower's Toolbox: Repairing Your Life after Losing Your Spouse - G. J. Schaefer (New Horizon Press, 2010)

This book has a niche audience but is a valuable addition to a public library collection. Working on the premise that men and women grieve differently, the author attempts to help men who've lost spouses identify and resolve the issues that may be overwhelming and, ultimately, help men move forward. This book's value to women readers might lie in its potential to shed light on the other gender's perspective under enormous emotion.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Alan Bradley)

I never seem to do anything the usual way! True to form, I read The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, the first title of a 2-book series, AFTER I read the 2nd book in the series (titled The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag). I loved The Weed ... and hoped that The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie would help me glean background information about the characters and setting whichI might have missed by starting with Book #2.

In The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, precocious 11-year-old Flavia de Luce, a rural English schoolgirl and aspiring chemist (with a special interest in poisons), accidentally stumbles upon a man as he takes his last breath in the family's cucumber garden. The reader rides along with Flavia as she travels the English countryside on Gladys, her trusty bicycle, picking up clues to solve the mystery and absolve her beloved father, the apparent killer.

I am a mystery fan; in fact, I think it’s probably my favorite genre. I generally choose rougher, rawer mystery books (Ken Bruen and J.A. Konrath are previous favorite authors). However, the cozy mystery discussed here was a delightful change of pace. Bradley did a great job describing the English village of Bishop’s Lacey and its array of eccentric characters. I almost felt that I was traveling in Flavia’s bicycle basket as she navigated the hills, cemetery, estates, and the library of the village. Although the book was loaded with Brit-specific references and colloquialisms, it didn’t seem to distract from the story line.

Although I enjoyed both books in the Flavia deLuce Mysteries, I preferred The Weed That Strings … to The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. The story line of the previous seemed to move more directly than that of the latter. The characters were fully developed, and I didn’t need background info from the first book to fully appreciate the sequel. All in all, however, a very satisfying read!

If you like The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie, you might also try these fiction choices:

Hamish Macbeth series or Agatha Raisin series – both by M.C. Beaton

If the British Isles setting is your “thing,” this prolific author has lots to offer! With at least 20 titles in each of these series, there is certainly enough material to keep an anglophile going for a while.

The No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency series – Alexander McCall Smith

Warm, witty, and unconventional … that’s Precious Ramotswe, Botswana’s finest (and only) woman detective. It’s not your typical mystery!

These nonfiction titles might be of interest, too:

Rick Steves’ England 2010 – Rick Steves (Avalon Travel Publishing, 2009)

Rick Steves is candid and conversational. Not only does Steves describe England’s traditional historic sites, but he also shares info about quaint villages, pubs, and other places off the beaten path. Reading Rick Steves is like talking with an old friend.

The Most Beautiful Villages of England – James Bentley (Thames & Hudson, 2007)

In 285 full-color photographs, learn how and why villages in different regions of England are defined by their history and building materials. Explore the common features of English villages and their unique contributions to the culture and personality of their residents.