Staff Review: A Man Called Ove

9781476738017Frederik Backman

A Man Called Ove

Atria

$25.00

Available now

There is a lot of great Scandinavian fiction out there right now, so I was excited to hear about a novel from an author unfamiliar to me . A Man Called Ove is written by Swedish author, Fredrik Backman. I was looking for something on the lighter side. I like quirky, and I love European fiction. I had finished Jonas Jonasson’s book, The Hundred-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, and I had enjoyed The Year of the Hare by Arto Paasilinna.

Ove is a cranky old man who lives by himself. Recently widowed, he can’t seem to connect with anyone else, nor does he especially want to. He is lost without his wife Sonja, who brought color and life to Ove’s regimented black-and-white world. He can’t see any point in going on without Sonja, and methodically plans how to kill himself. However, circumstances keep intervening, and time after time, Ove’s plans for suicide are interrupted, due to a young family that has just moved in next door, upsetting Ove’s inflexible rules and routines, and unconsciously insinuating themselves into Ove’s life. The mother, in particular, seems oblivious to Ove’s grumpiness, and Ove finds himself being gradually absorbed into her family. He finds an unexpected lease on life, no longer trying to leave it. Fences with old foes are mended, new ties are forged, and the ending, while bittersweet, is heartwarming. There are a few nice little twists along the way, but I don’t want to give them away!

Ove is a stand-up honest guy who will always do the right thing, and he dedicates his life to fighting against “the men in white shirts”, the pencil-pushing bureaucracy. I love the metaphor of Ove’s colorless world being contrasted with the color that his wife Sonja brings, and this comes up in a variety of ways throughout the novel.

But?? Do you sense a “but”? Remember the movie “Up”, with the grumpy widowed old man, the little boy, and the house held aloft with balloons? That was heartwarming too, but not trite. And while there are some wonderful moments in A Man Called Ove, they are overcome with the quirkiness factor. Too much quirk!

What really disappointed me was the use of suicide attempts as a plot device.  The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery turned me off for the same reason. If I want to read about a suicidal character, I’m going to read something like The Burn Journals by Brent Runyon, or The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, or La Petite by Michele Halberstadt. Ove attempts suicide five different times, each with a different method: I actually made a list of these. Suicide does not equal cute and quirky, at least in my opinion.

I may be biased, as I do tend to prefer darker novels, and there are so many great books by Scandinavian authors available. For example, I recently enjoyed Before I Burn by Gaute Heivoll; I love anything by Per Petterson, and I am slowly working through Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I also love Jo Nesbo’s novels. Although A Man Called Ove is not my cup of tea, I do think it may appeal to others.

~ Lysbeth Abrams

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Staff Review: Dog On It

9781416585848Spencer Quinn

Dog On It

Atria Books

$16.00

Available now

What is more delightful than a dog? A missing-persons mystery narrated by a detective’s dog! This book is the perfect combination of well-crafted mystery and witty narration. Spencer Quinn is a master not only of pacing, but also of voice and characterization. He spins a detective tail (yes, that is a pun) that I challenge any reader to try to put down.

When fifteen-year-old Madison is kidnapped, her frantic mother calls up Bernie Little who, along with his faithful flunked-out police dog Chet, works as a private detective. The duo travel around their southwestern town, grappling with a dearth of clues, the wake of an unpleasant divorce, unhelpful clients, and Bernie’s refreshingly environmentalistic views on water and land use in the desert. In the course of their search, the two become missing persons themselves on multiple occasions, with action sequences sprinkled in at just the right moments.

The truly brilliant part of the story is that Chet occasionally witnesses key events and clues that Bernie does not . . . but he’s a dog, and most scientists would agree that dogs cannot talk, and therefore cannot communicate what he knows to Bernie. What this means for the reader is that a beautiful thread of dramatic irony has been woven throughout the story, with Chet, and therefore readers, straining to tell Bernie everything we know, and sitting helplessly as Bernie follows up red herrings instead.

All of the characters in this book are brilliantly written, even those who appear and disappear in the span of three pages. Of course, in this mystery, not everybody is as they seem, and they are seldom telling the truth.

Chet in particular is a truly lovable character. Quinn writes from the perspective of a dog better than even my own dog could (provided he could write). Anybody who reads this book will immediately begin to wonder just what exactly is going on between their own dog’s floppy ears. Chet thinks exactly like somebody would expect a perspicacious canine to think, and speaks with a voice that keeps the reader perpetually engaged.

The only thing better about this book than the characters is the plot, which weaves and worms its way on a path that is never once boring or formulaic. Quinn gives away just enough for an especially sharp reader to be able to figure out the mystery just one or two steps ahead of Bernie. It isn’t too hard, but definitely is not simplistic.

Any adult or teen who likes mysteries and dogs should definitely stop by eight cousins and pick up a copy. This is probably the best doggone book I’ve read in a long time!

~Ben

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Staff Review: Em and the Big Hoom

9780143124764Jerry Pinto

Em and the Big Hoom

$16.00

Available now

Oh, I loved this book! Jerry Pinto joins a cadre of wonderful Indian authors writing great new fiction.

Em and the Big Hoom is narrated by the 17-year-old son, about his mother, Em, his father, the Big Hoom, and his sister, Susan. They are a family of four, but Em’s bipolar disorder is like the fifth person in the family. Her mental illness makes her either a manic force, wild and unpredictable, or else a depressive suicidal wreck. In either case, her family never knows which Em they will get at any particular time. The narrator tries to make sense of his mother’s past life, looking for the real Em underneath the illness. The Big Hoom remains devoted to his wife throughout their marriage. Mental illness has the power to either bring families close together, forging unbreakable bonds, or to break them apart in a million pieces, spinning them out of each other’s lives. To be able to write about this kind of topic in such a realistic, yet compassionate way is a true gift, and Jerry Pinto has it.

~ Lysbeth Abrams

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Staff Review: Marina

9780316044714Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Marina

$19.00

Little, Brown Books for Young Readers

Available today

Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s final young adult novel is beautifully written and darkly captivating. Its onlydisappointing feature is the unfairly long time it took to be released in the US—it was originally published in Spanish in 1999. Oscar Drai, the lonely 15-year-old protagonist, wanders through parts of 1980 Barcelona that remain locked away ina frozen, post-war Spain. It’s in these anachronistic wanderings that he meets Marina, an equally lonely girl with whom he follows a mysterious woman from a graveyard to an abandoned greenhouse suffused with the stench of death. This act drags them into a web of all-too-real stories from the same era as their wanderings, and from which they are soon unable to disentangle themselves, as their investigations grow steadily more disturbing and dangerous. However, all the intrigue, suspense, and horror of their encounters with reanimated prosthetic limbs, faces ravaged by acid, and the ubiquitous black butterfly become simply a distractionfrom the devastatingly poignant ending. This novel defies categorization, seamlessly blending mystery, adventure, and suspense with a touch of the supernatural and a dash of romance. All of this is woven together in an incredible gothic story with achingly beautiful language and plot twists that keep the reader breathless and glued to the text until the final page.

Warning: I gasped and shouted audibly in public while reading this book. It’s that good.

~ Cara

 

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Staff Review: The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher

FC9780385376525The Misadventures of the Family Fletcher

Dana Alison Levy

Random House

$15.99

Available July 22, 2014

It has to be said: think Penderwicks, with four brothers instead of sisters. But these brothers have two dads, so they’re all adopted. More importantly, each brother is a distinct character, and they’re all fiercely loyal to one another when they’re not biffing each another verbally in typically playful male competition. Sam, the 12-year-old, is anxious to be a good role model even as he risks peer ridicule for participating in the school musical. Jax is the athletic 10-year-old, always competing with Sam even as he seeks his older brother’s approval. Eli is also 10, deeply studious, but worried that his insistence on attending an expensive, demanding private school may be the wrong choice after all. Frog is six, funny, and eager to keep up with all the others. The two dads are less distinguishable, but highly functional as parents, laying out and maintaining “Fletcher Family Rules” of honor, fair play, and safety. The story follows the time honored setting of a school year, and the characters are strong enough that their daily adventures and concerns fit together as tightly and unexpectedly as a Chinese puzzle, albeit one held together with mud and sweaty socks. Within all this, the fact of same sex parents and racially varied children is simply part of the fabric, as natural – and special – as waffles and strawberries for breakfast. Among the many, many middle grade books that come out each year, it’s still a thrill to find one so well done that we know at once we can recommend it wholeheartedly for at least a generation to come.

~ Carol

 

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Staff Review: Closed Doors

9780062271891Lisa O’Donnell

Closed Doors

Harper

$26.99

Available now

When the White Box shows up here at the bookstore, it’s like getting a box of candy unexpectedly, only better, because it contains books, as in ARCs (advance reader copies), as in Books That Aren’t Yet Published. Books that make you giddy with excitement because anything, Anything, ANYTHING could be in that box! Books of different genres. Books by unknown authors, mostly. Occasionally books by an author who is not well known, but whom you already love.  That’s the best, when you recognize an author, and you furtively grab the book before anyone else does, because YOU GOT IT FIRST.  And usually your co-workers are, like, whatever, because while you are convinced you have scored unbelievable book points because you get to read this BEFORE them and the general public, they have no clue why you are so excited, because they are doing the SAME THING, only with a DIFFERENT author.

In book parlance, you are about to reap the benefits of White Box Gold, baby, and you will earn unbelievable Book Cred when you can casually drop into a conversation that, oh yeah, did you know that so-and-so has a new book coming out, and oh yeah, I’ve already read it, yeah, yeah, I know you’re totally green with envy, but not all of us can have this sort of access. Y’know, some of us are just not WORTHY. Sorry, man.

I find it difficult to believe that there are people who actually don’t even CARE about this.  I mean, what do they DO? How do they exist? Do they just sit around watching reality TV and cute kitten clips on YouTube? So Pathetic.

So you can imagine me literally-jumping-up-and-down-with-giddy-excitement to find Lisa O’Donnell’s new book, Closed Doors, in a White Box delivery! What? You don’t know Lisa O’Donnell? You haven’t read The Death of Bees?! You’d better remedy THAT situation ASAP is all I can say to you.  Then you’ll be eligible to join the Lisa O’Donnell Fan Club – just remember, I was the first member. Not you. Sorry.

On the surface, Closed Doors is the story of an 11 year old boy, living in a small town on an island off the coast of Scotland during the Thatcher years of the 1980s.  Michael Murray lives with his mother, father, and grandmother, in a council house, in a town where everyone knows everyone’s business. Every good thing and every bad thing about life in a small town is magnified when it’s on an island. A strong social support system exists only for the people who fit into that system without violating any social norms.  Like The Death of Bees, Closed Doors is narrated by a child. Not every author can pull this off – often the child is amazingly precocious and sounds like an adult.  But Michael is just a regular child, obsessed with candy, being the best at “keepy-uppies” (juggling a ball using feet and legs without the ball touching the ground), avoiding certain classmates like “Dirty Alice” McFadden and Paul MacDonald, longing after the beautiful Marianne McCameron, and hanging out with his best friend, Fat Ralph.  Michael’s father, Brian, is an unemployed house painter, and his mother, Rosemary, cleans the school, and his granny is a retired nurse.

Rosemary is beaten and raped one night while walking through the park on the way home from work. This is the 1980s, remember, in a small town, when there was still a stigma attached to this kind of crime. Rosemary begs her family not to say what happened because people will say “terrible things” about her. Michael is told that a “flasher”, a kind of “pervert”, has hurt his mother, but not to say anything to anybody about any of this. Of course people immediately assume that Brian is a wife-beater, which makes life unbearable for both Brian and Michael. They are shunned, and Michael’s schoolmates make fun of his father. Their marriage suffers – what marriage wouldn’t, where a spouse would choose to let others think the other spouse was abusive rather than telling the truth? Michael knows that he is being lied to, and becomes obsessed with finding out the truth. He creeps around, listening to what others say behind closed doors. It is heartbreaking when he finally realizes what has exactly has happened to his mother.  Of course, the rapist is still free, and strikes again. Rosemary feels responsible for those crimes, because she never spoke up.  Other people suffer, an innocent man is accused and savagely beaten, and all because of one secret.  Michael “feels like a liar because you have to act like you know nothing at all when the truth is you know everything.” He thinks that “lies make people happy except our lie, it is the worst of lies and it is making no one happy and when lies don’t make you happy you have to wonder what will happen next.” The strain of having “to keep all the stories and all the words locked inside my head” takes its toll.  Michael takes Rosemary’s anxiety pills to quell his own anxiety, winding up in the hospital to get his stomach pumped. The truth is revealed to the townspeople at this point, and Rosemary becomes the recipient of the town’s anger and scorn, even though she was raped, because they blame her.

Michael and his family eventually make their peace with each other and the other townspeople who have been wronged, but Michael loses his innocence in the process, and life will never be the same.

What Closed Doors is really about, though, is secrets.  The problem with secrets and lies is that they lead to yet more secrets and more lies, a great sucking vortex of secrets and lies.  Why do people keep secrets anyway? So many reasons: to protect others, or to have a hold over others, or to maintain a social position or a situation, or because the secret is shameful. There are people who keep secrets because they treat information as a commodity. Keeping secrets gives the secret holder a power over others.  We all know families that seem to thrive on secrets, functional in their own dysfunction. But secrets themselves often take on a life of their own, creating a festering wound that has the power to destroy people’s lives and reputations, tearing relationships and families apart. And what happens when keeping a secret leads to others getting hurt? Should the person who could have prevented the crime by speaking up be punished along with the person who committed the crime?  Is a crime of omission still a crime? If being the victim of a crime is regarded as being as bad as the person who commits the crime, then why should the victim bother to report the crime? We often keep secrets from children to protect them, and yet there is a point at which it gets blurry – sometimes protecting a child by withholding information has the unintended consequence of hurting them. What gives someone the right to deprive another of the information needed to make a choice? When do we decide to give that person the information?

Once you tell a secret, it is no longer a secret. You don’t own that information anymore. You have given up all rights to it. You have lost your power. But you may have also set yourself free.

 

~ Lysbeth

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Staff Review: The Girl with all the Gifts

9780316278157M. R. Carey

The Girl with all the Gifts

Orbit

$25

Available now

Like most of the population, I am kind of obsessed with zombies right now.  They are EVERYWHERE, in YA novels, adult novels, and graphic novels, they’re in movies and television programs, they’re in games like Humans vs. Zombies, and they’re in merchandise ranging from Halloween costumes to phone covers to dog toys.

I just can’t get enough of ‘em!

So I was overjoyed to discover this gem of a zombie novel by M. R. Carey, The Girl With All the Gifts. My interest was piqued because this didn’t look like a typical undead-biting-and-infecting sort of scenario, although I would have been happy with that. Here, the main character IS a zombie, and not your run-of-the-mill slavering shambling zombie, either. Melanie is a zombie with a conscience. She does not act instinctually, unless, of course, the smell of humans becomes too overwhelming.

The story opens about twenty years after the initial outbreak of the plague, where most of the population has either been infected and turned into zombies or else has become zombie food. In an armed compound, a group of children is kept in cells, only taken out under extreme restraints for classes. It is not first obvious why these children are only fed grubs once a week and are strapped and restrained when they are not in their cells. We discover what they are along with Melanie, who has no idea what she is; she knows about zombies, but only as the “hungries” who eat the people who live outside the compound where she and her cellmates, the teachers, the sergeants, and the scientists live.

Most zombie scenarios involve some kind of virus infecting the population, spreading through bites or transmission of bodily fluids. People become zombies or they escape them by killing them, but essentially you’re either a human or you’re a zombie.

In The Girl With All the Gifts, there is an elegant twist to this: the infection is a fungal parasite that has jumped from a variety of ants to humans.  Fungi are SO COOL! And so underrated! And the really cool thing about fungi is that an individual species of fungus has more than one form, an immature asexual form or a mature sexual form. The asexual fungi just consume what they need to, absorbing nutrients and growing by adding more cells called hyphae, eventually becoming a tangle of hyphae known as a mycelium. Often you don’t even see any of this, as it is underground or in a plant or sometimes, in a living organism. What you do see occasionally is the sexual form of the fungus prior to producing spores, which can then spread in the air. Think of a puffball when you stomp on it to produce a greenish brown cloud – the spores (so much fun, by the way) – or a mushroom that you can turn over to see the gills, which release spores when it is mature.

So can you see where I am going with all this? Most of the zombies are the first generation of zombies that the fungal parasite has infected. They are just the hosts that are incubating the asexual form of the fungus; eventually it will reproduce sexually, growing the fruiting bodies that can produce spores.  This process is described in deliciously gory detail. So Excellent!

Melanie, and the others like her, is a second generation of zombies, or “new people”, who appear to have been infected with the original fungal parasite in utero, most likely eating their way out of their mothers. Yummy yummy! Melanie is able to control her baser instincts but it is not easy. She has bonded with her teacher and a sergeant at the base, and they must struggle to survive so that the “new people” can be taught all of human knowledge.

Remember, we are always only ever one generation away from extinction.

~Lysbeth

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Staff Review: Say What You Will

9780062271105Say What You Will

Cammie McGovern

Harper Teen

$17.99

Available June 3, 2014

Besides the deft plotting and writing, the believable characters and interesting setup, this book captures the uncertainty of being a teen, simultaneous with the pounding clarity of want (and don’t want). So many YA books, including the estimable ones to which this is being compared, have central characters whose desires are hard-edged, sure-footed, clear-eyed. Amy and Matt, especially Matt, are NOT so sure. Their days and nights are filled with the anxieties that exacerbate neurotic behavior, yet they struggle bravely on, never seeking the assurance of alcohol, video games, or extreme personal style statements. (There are some medications involved, but they do not constitute “drug use”.) Amy and Matt know without knowing that life is never going to be easier: her brains will never compensate completely for her cerebral palsy; his therapies and new-found friends will never wipe out his obsessive-compulsive urges altogether. The issues may evolve, but the coping never ends, and they have learned to help each other cope better.

~ Carol

 

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Staff Review: China Dolls

9780812992892

Lisa See

China Dolls

Random House

$27

Available June 2014

Lisa See once again has brought a certain time period in history to life. This time is San Francisco, 1938, there is a World’s Fair on Treasure Island and a war brewing overseas. Three young women meet and find themselves competing in auditions at an exclusive nightclub called the Forbidden City. Grace is an American-born Chinese. Helen is from a Chinese family with deep roots in San Francisco’s Chinatown, and Ruby is Japanese passing as Chinese. They form a pact to stick together alternately helping and sometimes hurting each other within the cutthroat world of entertainment and male attention. When the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, the government starts rounding up innocent Japanese and send them to interment camps.

I was really interested in following the lives of these women and See continues to portray complicated relationships in a very interesting, yet harrowing, time in our country’s history.

~ Cathy

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Staff Review: What I Thought Was True

9780803739093What I Thought Was True

Huntley Fitzpatrick

Dial

$17.99

Available now

Gwen’s close Portuguese immigrant family has served the summer resort trade for two generations, and she’s afraid she and her classmates may be yet another. All of her classmates except handsome Cass, exiled from a fancy private school, that is. Gwen tries to avoid Cass as she works in her father’s small restaurant, helps her mother clean houses, spends time as paid companion to a wealthy but frail widow. But Cass seems unavoidable, her parents are living out the tensions of marrying too young, her little brother’s disabilities weigh on her attention, her cousin and best friend are all but engaged at 18, and catering to clueless plutocrats is demeaning – as are the racy rumors of her prior summer relationships.

Yes, it’s a summer romance — but it’s so much more. Fitzpatrick weaves everything together so gracefully: economic goals and opportunities, a little brother with disabilities, plenty of humor, the purposes of marriage, ethnic and cultural divisions, aging, more humor, athletics, and above all, life in a beach community. Readers who love Sarah Dessen will be delighted to discover Huntley Fitzpatrick.

~ Carol

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