Nancy's Book Picks
20 years after writing Notes from a Small Island, Bill Bryson returns to the topic of his adopted homeland in this charming travelogue. Loosely using what he calls the "Bryson line", the longest straight line one can travel across Britain, Bryson wanders his way north, making curmudgeonly remarks about what is wrong with current-day Britain but still unable to hide his love for the quaint villages, uninterrupted views, unending footpaths and hot tea. Another witty, fact and humor filled work you'll want to keep on your shelf
An engrossing and riveting young adult fantasy that's likely to become a hit series, Tahir's debut takes place in the lands of the Martial Empire, loosely based on the Roman Empire. When Laia's grandparents are killed and her brother is imprisoned for working with the resistance seeking to overthrow the cruel Martial regime, she is forced to work as a spy for the resistance in order to save her brother. Elias is an outstanding soldier and the son of the vicious Commandant, but beneath the surface he dreams of nothing but escape. Treachery, political machinations, prophecies, supernatural forces, destiny, loyalty and love weave together to make an absolutely thrilling novel! This is the kind of story you need to read in one sitting. The adult themes and brutal setting, including torture, murder and rape, make this book appropriate for older young adult audiences as well as adults. Ages 16+
If you are looking for a book that is fun to read aloud, particularly to a group of people, then look no more! For lo, reading pop songs reinterpreted in Shakespearean language is an experience not even reachable by the inestimable Sir MC Hammer who once wrote, "my artistry's beyond what thou canst touch" (citation needed). To make reading this collection even more fun, try having a re-imagined pop song read to you and try to guess the song before the end of the reading. A Shakespearean name that tune, if you will!
Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins. In the wasteland of southern California where the desert is on the verge of taking back the earth, Luz and Ray live moment to moment in a careless existence until they discover amid the ruin and depravity a young child. Taking the child into their care, they find that their fragile love might not be enough anymore and begin making desperate plans that will lead them straight into the desert. Strange, disorienting and absolutely fascinating, Gold Fame Citrus is like a fever dream of a world where the only thing harder to find than water is the promise of a future.
The Secret Chord by Geraldine Brooks. An aging King David tells his prophet Natan it is time to record the story of his life. King David sends Natan to speak to three people: one of his brothers, his mother, and his first wife, who have all been commanded to “tell Natan everything”. As David's early life unfolds through the interviews Natan conducts, the reader is offered a glimpse at the man he once was as well as the man he becomes. Deftly woven, The Secret Chord brings to life both well-known and lesser-known biblical figures and uncovers the painful truths that lie at the heart of a legend.
Coming of Age at the End of Days by Alice LaPlante. Neglected by her musician mother and geologist father, teen aged Anna falls into a deep depression. Trapped in a fog of sadness, she is unexpectedly pulled out of her state when she meets Lars Goldschmidt, a recent addition to her neighborhood, and Anna is born again. The violent prophecies concerning the End of Days make Anna feel again, pulling her deeper into the world of the Goldschmidt's Christian doomsday cult. As her newfound faith clashes with everything she's ever been taught and takes her to dangerous places, Anna struggles with the hypocrisies of belief while desperately trying to find something to believe in, leaving her to wonder what it really means for something to end.
The Girl Who Slept With God by Val Brelinski. Through a narrator reminiscent of Scout Finch, Val Brelinski mixes the sweet naivety of childhood with the self-doubt, desire and shame of adulthood through 14-year-old Jory with realism, making every character's inevitable fall from grace that much more heart-wrenching.
After the death of Robert Peace from a drug-related shooting, his former Yale roommate Jeff Hobbs decided to record Robert's story. Looking extensively at the short and tragic life of a talented boy from Newark, Hobbs highlights a world that idolizes social mobility, but only allows it among the privileged. Reminiscent of Adrian Nicole Leblanc's Random Family, the end result is a devastating and compassionate eulogy from one friend to another.
Jitterburg Perfume by Tom Robbins - A small blue bottle is discovered by a janitor, setting off a chain of events that bring together some of the least likely characters to the city of New Orleans, including an ancient horned god, rivals in the perfume-making business, and a voodoo maven, but all whom seek the same thing...the essence of life and the key to immortality. Always simultaneously profound and hilarious, this story is a perfect example of Robbins' perfection of absurdity mixed with wisdom. ~ Nancy
Outlander by Diana Gabaldon - When British nurse Claire Randall visits the Scottish Highlands with her estranged husband shortly after the end of WWII, she is thrown into a completely different time...literally. Call it magic or fate, Claire finds herself in the 18th century at the time of the Jacobite Rebellion, and immediately has to fight for her life. Forced into a marriage for her own safety with Jamie Fraser, a handsome highlander with a past of his own, she must learn to navigate the times while concealing her true identity. As the fight for survival becomes more pressing, so does her growing love with Jamie. Rich historical detail, vivid and memorale characters and a love story for the ages make this first novel in Gabaldon's Outlander series one of my most re-read books ever! ~ Nancy
The Steady Running of the Hour by Justin Go - In 1924, Ashley Walsingham dies attempting to climb Mount Everest, leaving all of his wealth to his love Imogen, who has been missing for seven years. Eighty years later, college-student Tristan is contacted because he may be the sole heir to Ashley's estate, if only he can prove it. Using old letters, Tristan traces Ashley and Imogen's relationship from London to the solitude of Sweden to the WWI trenches in France. Tristan is pulled between the obligations of the present and his need to find meaning in everything that Ashley and Imogen experienced as members of a decimated generation. From the horrors of the trenches to the harsh beauty of the Himalayas, Go's debut is beautifully written and heartbreaking. ~ Nancy
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman - Orphaned wildchild Lyra Belacqua has spent her life running amok at the prestigious Jordan College in Oxford, occasionally visited by her disdainful uncle Lord Asriel. When her best friend is kidnapped by the Gobblers, Lyra makes the bold decision to get him back using only her wit and a truth-telling instrument given to her in secrecy. With the help of the Gyptians, the Witches and an armored bear exiled from his kingdom, Lyra hurtles toward danger and unearthing shocking secrets. Pullman creates a magical world close to our own and shows it to the reader through the eyes of one of my favorite female characters. The first in an amazing series, you won't be able to put it down! ~ Nancy
Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson - Social worker Pete Snow lives and works in rural Montana. As the reader is introduced to Pete's caseload, the struggles and dysfunction of his clients are reflected back in Pete's 14-year-old daughter, Rachel. Pete takes the case of the Pearls, an insane survivalist father and his son living in the wilderness. As Pete uncovers more about the Pearls, the motivations that drive people to make potentially harmful decisions become clearer. Henderson portrays the cyclical nature of poverty with compassion and brings to light the contradictions between the American ideals of freedom and security. Dark and enthralling, this debut promises Henderson will have a long career. ~ Nancy
The Round House by Louise Erdrich - 13-year-old Joe lives with his parents on a Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota when his mother is violently attacked. As she sinks into a depression and his father tries fruitlessly to navigate the murky legal waters of prosecuting her attacker, getting justice becomes even more difficult due to questions about the attacker and the location of the assault. Seeing his parents failing, Joe enlists the help of three friends to take matters into his own hands. By doing so, Joe unknowingly and tragically leaves his childhood and is introduced to the guilt and anger of adulthood. Joe's point of view brings honesty and desperation to a tragic event. Another poignant novel from Erdrich. ~ Nancy
Zita the Spacegirl by Ben Hatke - A graphic novel at its best, this is the perfect book to help reluctant readers acquaint themselves with the adventure of reading. When Zita suddenly finds her friend Joseph sucked through a portal and into another world, she jumps through after him, bringing her to a world of evil aliens, giant speechless mice who talk through ticker tape and robots with inferiority complexes that it about to be annihilated by an asteroid. Zita's strength of character helps her made friends quickly and she needs all the help she can get to save Joseph. Wacky fun, great illustrations and rich characters make this a perfect stand-alone read as well as an introduction to the Zita series. Ages 8+ ~ Nancy
People I Want To Punch in the Throat by Jen Mann - Life in suburbia is not without it's pitfalls, as professional blogger Jen can attest. Snarky, self-deprecating and hilarious, Jen brings us into her life as an unconventional mother and wife, dealing with everything from racist toddlers to PTA moms throwing sex toy parties. She may claim to make a terrible neighbor, but I know who I'd be hanging out with at the neighborhood block party. ~ Nancy
Fives and Twenty-Fives by Michael Pitre - This debut novel written by an Iraq War veteran manages to bring brutal realism, humor, and wisdom to the stories of three members of a road-repair platoon, both during their time searching every pothole for a bomb on the dangerous Iraqi roads as well as after they return to the US. Focusing on what is so often over-looked, the lives of soldiers when they aren't soldiers anymore, Pitre makes us take a deep look into who we're asking our countrymen to become. ~ Nancy
Crazy Horse's Girlfriend by Erika T. Wurth - Following in the footsteps of Sherman Alexie and Eden Robinson comes Erika T. Wurth's punch to the gut, a story about a drug-dealing, 16-year-old Native American girl named Margaritte. Gritty and tough, we follow Margaritte as her longing for connection and identity take her down a treacherous and all-too-common path. But there is redemption for Margaritte, if she can manage to accept it. ~ Nancy
SAGA, VOL. 1 by Brian K Vaughan, illustrated by Fiona Staples - Described by the author as “perverted Star Wars”, this Hugo award-winner follows the story of Marko and Alana, two soldiers from opposing sides of a centuries-long galaxy-spanning war. Having fallen in love and run away together, they are hunted by both sides as they risk everything to create a new life. Sometimes narrated by their daughter, Hazel, the series also follows those hunting the fledgling family, using real-life dialogue and nuanced illustrations t make characters who you can’t help caring about. This series proves just how strong a medium graphic novels can be. ~ Nancy
STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel - On the night the world ends, famous actor Arthur Leander dies while performing King Lear. Even after the world has ended, Shakespeare lives on in a theatrical troupe that travels the wastelands performing for small enclaves of humanity. Kristin Raymonde, one of the actresses and a former child actress from back before the Georgian flu decimated the world, finds life threatened by a dangerous cult leader, the Prophet...linking unexpectedly back to Arthur. Beautiful, jarring, and nostalgia-inducing, like a firework exploding in an empty night sky. ~ Nancy
J by Howard Jacobson - In a future world, after a violent period called "What Happened, If It Happened", everything has been renamed in order to leave the past behind. Historical texts are monitored and indulging in nostalgia and memories is frowned upon. Slogans of the time include "Let Sleeping Dogs Lie" and "Yesterday is a Lesson We Can Learn Only by Looking to Tomorrow". "Ofnow", which monitors the public mood, develops an interest in the romance of woodcarver Kevern and artist Aislinn, that escalates when three people are found murdered. In a country that claims to have eradicated everything uncivilized, violence and brutality linger just beneath the surface. Jacobson's most profound moments are what he doesn't say, leaving the reader to wonder if people can really forgive those they have deeply wronged. ~ Nancy
THE WAINSCOTT WEASEL by Tor Seidler, illustrated by Fred Marcellino - Originally published in 1994, this children's book brings together Seidler's imaginative story-telling and Marcellino's exceptionally expressive art in a story an eye-patch wearing weasel named Bagley Brown. Bagley lives in the Wainscott woods, in lively weasel community that throws ho-downs and celebrates chicken egg raids to the local farm. Bagley, who has never fit in with the crowd, makes an unlikely friend in Bridget, a fish in a nearby lake. As the two friends grow closer, Bagley realizes that an osprey plus a bad drought is in Bridget's future and only a true hero can save her from the gruesome fate that awaits her. Against all odds and much to his own surprise, a hero is what Bagley proves himself to be. I loved this book so much I wrote not one, but two book reports on it! ~ Nancy
ETTA AND OTTO AND RUSSELL AND JAMES by Emma Hooper - 83-year-old Etta leaves a note for her husband Otto, telling him that she has decided to walk 3200 miles to the Atlantic Ocean from their farm in Gopherlands, Saskatchewan, in a journey mirroring one Otto took sixty years earlier to fight in WWII. Life-long friend Russell follows in Etta’s footsteps, unable to wait for her as Otto does. And along the way, Etta meets James. Hooper manages to create not one but three intensely realistic and multi-faceted characters, portraying them not just during the highs of their youth, but even more deeply following them into the frightening and confusing territory of old age, failing health, and dementia. With this novel, Emma Hooper takes her place in the literary world. What Marilynne Robinson is to Iowa, Emma Hooper is to Saskatchewan. ~ Nancy
BLACK RIVER by S.M. Hulse - This American Western debut follows Wes Carver, a former corrections officer whose passion in life was playing the fiddle, until his hands were ruined during a prison riot. Years later, following on the heels of Wes losing his wife to cancer, he returns to the small prison town in Montana to scatter his wife's ashes and speak at the parole hearing of the inmate who ruined his life. We see Wes struggle to accept the possibility that the inmate has found God, especially as Wes's faith is hanging on by a thread. S. M. Hulse's writing is like the river at the center of her novel, a quiet surface covering the raging, black and bleak emotions underneath and her descriptions of music are breathtakingly beautiful. With her talent for writing about human rages, fears and loves, Hulse has a great career ahead of her. ~ Nancy
FOOD: A LOVE STORY by Jim Gaffigan - The self-proclaimed "Terry Bradshaw of eating", Jim Gaffigan's essays hilariously chronicle the greatest love of his life. Gaffigan advocates "eaties" instead of "foodies" and restaurants having "fatteliers" on staff (a fat-guy food expert) because he feels skinny people clearly lack the appropriate amount of passion about food. Devoted to comfort foods and purveyors of them, Gaffigan says the worse the better. The research for this book alone would have killed me. Conversations between foods, letters to food companies, and in-depth analyses of fast food experiences, this is the perfect book for someone who isn't afraid to admit their obsession with food and make fun of it. ~ Nancy
WOLF WINTER by Cecilia Ekbäck - Melding historical fiction, murder mystery, and supernatural chiller, Ekbäck’s debut takes place in the northern reaches of Scandinavia in 1717. The Harmaajarvi's, including Maija, her emotionally fragile husband, Paavo, and their two daughters, Frederika and Dorotea, have left their native coastal Finland to settle next to Blackåsen Mountain in rural Sweden. When the girls come across a mutilated body while goat-herding on the mountain the death is explained as a wolf attack. The few other settlers explain it away as a wolf attack, but Maija suspects murder. As she struggles to prepare for the winter, Maija continues to investigate the man's death and uncovers an aura of malevolence that surrounds Blackåsen, harkening back to the pagan roots of the land. Ekbäck provides realistic and suspenseful glimpses into pioneer life during a wolf winter, "the kind of winter that will remind us we are mortal...mortal and alone." ~ Nancy