Posts Tagged ‘Katrina V.’s Picks’

The Last Girlfriend on Earth: and Other Love Stories by Simon Rich

October 23, 2014

The Last Girlfriend on Earth: and Other Love StoriesThis is not your traditional book of short love stories. Is there a traditional one of those? I don’t know, but this definitely isn’t it.

Simon Rich is a very funny man. I was first introduced to his writing through Elliot Allagash, his first novel, back in 2010. I did a lot of giggling. So when I saw this collection of short stories on the shelf, I wanted to give it a go.

I tend to like a short story collection, which I know not everyone does. I generally prefer to space out my consumption of the stories — I have trouble staying engaged reading an entire book of short stories at once. For The Last Girlfriend on Earth, though, this was not the case. Some stories are as short as a page and a half, others are somewhat longer, but each is a quick read that will have you wanting to move right on to the next.

The stories are broken into three thematic segments; Boy Meets Girl, Boy Gets Girl, and Boy Loses Girl. Classic tales of love and heartbreak, you might be thinking. But you are incorrect, dear friend. Rich’s plots and characters vary wildly, from the “girl” in question being your basic under-the-bridge troll (think: short, hairy, speaks in grunts) to the “boy” being Hitler, now aged 124, wheel-chair ridden, and hitting the party scene with his new gal in New York.

It’s all really very silly, but sometimes that’s exactly what you need.

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Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer

June 30, 2014

Life As We Knew ItI’ve read a lot of dystopian and post-apocalyptic teen novels over the last few years, and have been starting to tire of them. The last ones I’ve read have definitely left something to be desired, but this first in The Last Survivors series (now up to four books),  Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer, came highly recommended, so I gave it a shot.

Like her friends and family, Miranda is worried but also a little excited at the news of a meteor on a path to clip the moon. Meteor viewing parties are planned, and the atmosphere leading up to the big event is festive (think block parties with telescopes). Miranda’s neighborhood is surprised that they can see the meteor hurtling through space with a naked eye, and shocked when what they had anticipated to be a minor event ends up knocking the moon closer to the Earth.

I’m sure you can guess what would happen if the moon were suddenly on a trajectory closer to Earth. The expected tidal waves, volcanoes, resulting in ash blocking out the sun for long stretches of time, and Arctic winter ensue. Miranda and her family must use all their resources to survive, but for what?

Although in many ways this was a typical post-apocalyptic teen read, what set it apart, for me, was both the format of the book, which was written as dated journal entries by Miranda over the course of many months, and the pace of the narrative. I enjoyed that the story started before the main event and that the aftermath of the meteor’s destruction was slowly revealed.

Although I probably won’t read the rest of the series (why must all teen books be serial?) I quite enjoyed this one.

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Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt

June 5, 2014

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeYou know how awkward it is when you’re in love with your uncle? Okay, maybe not personally, but imagine you’re fourteen years old, too tall, nowhere near as talented as your older sister, and into Renaissance Faires and Medieval clothing. You probably don’t have a ton of friends and you might feel a bit misunderstood. So when your handsome, well-traveled, caring uncle/godfather who has the same interests and sense of humor as you wants to spend time some time with you, well then, how can you not be in love with him? This is the life of June Elbus, niece/goddaughter to Finn, sister to Greta, and orphaned every year from January through April (tax season) by her accountant parents.

And then, Finn dies. It’s the 1980s, and he has AIDS, and June knew that this was the only possible thing that could happen, but it’s still horrible, and June is still all alone. Greta, who is older, prettier, and somehow always knows everything before June does, fills her in on some surprising information – Finn wasn’t single and his “special friend,” the one who gave him AIDS, the one who basically killed Finn, is still out there. June sees him herself, camped outside of Finn’s funeral, shunned by the family.

The unlikely (and highly secretive) relationship that develops between “special friend” Toby and young June is sweet, funny, and sometimes bittersweet. As the two struggle with their shared grief they also learn more about the man they both loved and more about the type of friends they can be to each other. Carol Rifka Brunt’s book is the story of love, heartbreak, and sisterhood, and I highly recommend it.

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Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

June 3, 2014

sistersbookcover.phpI was first introduced to Curtis Sittenfeld’s work when I read her debut novel, Prep, written in 2005. I was drawn into the sometimes painful world of teenage girls; a coming-of-age story set in a private boarding school, full of intensely felt emotions and young identities in formation. I loved it.

Sisterland is different in all measurable ways. Instead of a 14-year-old protagonist, the story follows two adult sisters – twins – who have little in common except for the Extrasensory Perception that allows them both to see things slightly before they happen, to sense events on the horizon, to anticipate changes in their world.  Far from the iron gates and manicured lawns of a New England prep school, sisters Kate and Violet have lived pretty much their entire lives in Missouri, despite attempts by both of them to leave.

When a minor earthquake hits St. Louis, Violet is struck by a vision of another to come.  The earthquake,  maybe. Kate, who has blocked her “senses” in favor of a normal life; a husband and children and no visions about those around her, starts to get pulled into the frenzy as national news covers the story of her sister’s premonition. As the date of the coming earthquake nears, Kate must come to terms with her and Violet’s shared ESP, and balance personal needs against those of her sister and her husband.

Though Prep and Sisterland share little in the way of plot and storyline, Sittenfeld’s superb writing and character building shine through in both. I’ll continue to read my way through her works!

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Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke

May 28, 2014

strangebookcover.phpThis book has been on my “to read” book for at least two years, but I kept putting it off because of how long it is. At about 800 pages, it’s not a book to pick up on a whim! Finally this past winter, as the holidays died down and the cold kept me in more and more, I lugged this tome home with me for a read.

An alternative history set in England during the Napoleonic Wars, author Clarke’s debut novel follows the separate and intertwining stories of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, the two men who have brought magic back to England. Although the study of magic has remained prevalent among certain societies of men, practical magic, that of actually conducting spells and affecting change, has been absent from England since the disappearance of the Raven King several hundred years before.

From writing articles expounding their beliefs on the Raven King to assisting the British government in outmaneuvering Napoleon’s armies, the two men reach the height of London society for their magical knowledge. As Strange tires of his role of pupil to Norrell’s of tutor, and Norrell fears that Strange’s practical skills will surpass his own, the two men fall apart, each to pursue their own directions in life. When magic not produced by either of England’s two practical magicians begins to occur, the two men’s  paths again intertwine.   It’s not a book you’ll consume in a weekend, but if you have some time, this one is well worth a read.

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Pirate Cinema by Cory Doctorow

October 14, 2013

I picked up my first Cory Doctorow book after hearing him speak as a part of a Science Fiction and Fantasy author panel at the American Library Association several years ago, and was intrigued by the way he blended his politics and beliefs into a fictional landscape.

Canadian-born Doctorow (coeditor of the popular weblog is heavily involved in promoting liberal copyright laws and open source software, and these themes play prominently in his writing.

Pirate Cinema, published in 2012, follows 16 year old Trent McCauley who runs away from home after the shame of illegally downloading too many videos and having his family’s internet access revoked for a year. Set in a dystopian near-future England, in a world that revolves around online connectivity, this devastates his parents, who require the web for their livelihoods, and his younger sister, who can’t keep up her grades (her ticket out of small town England) without the world at her fingertips.

On his own in London, penniless and hungry, Trent learns the ways of the street. Connecting with an underground community of like-minded youngsters, Trent masters the ins and outs of apartment squatting, dumpster diving, stealing electricity, and making a new life for himself. Working with his new found friends, Trent begins to understand the politics behind the Draconian copyright laws that are being passed by Parliament, and leads a cloak and dagger scheme to change the world for the better.

Although Doctorow’s works are generally classified as teen fiction based on the ages of his characters, his writing style and themes are sophisticated and nuanced. Others that I’ve enjoyed include Little Brother (which spent seven weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List) and For the Win.

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Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

August 20, 2013

Jacob and his grandfather have always been close. As a child, Jacob was riveted by his grandfather’s tales of how he was raised. Abe Portman was a child of the Holocaust, and fled Poland, parentless, to wind up at Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.

What exactly is a peculiar child? Well, they’re all different at Miss Peregrine’s. Like a feeder school for the circus, Miss Peregrine’s hosts among its ranks a girl who can control fire, an invisible boy, and a little girl who would float away if she weren’t tethered to the ground by heavy shoes. Jacob has grown up seeing pictures of these strange children and vacillates between an unquestioning belief of everything he is told to humoring his grandfather in his old age.

When Abe dies a sudden and violent death with his grandson minutes too late to save him, Jacob begins to realize that there might be more to his grandfather’s tales than meets the eye. With the assistance of his psychiatrist (who his parents force him to see after Abe’s death), Jacob manages to convince his father to take him to the Welsh island that housed the orphanage to find closure there.

Rather than closure, Jacob discovers Miss Peregrine’s Home, and the peculiar friends that his grandfather had made some 70 years before! Using vintage photographs that he collected, author Ransom Riggs brings the peculiar children to life and tells Jacob’s story as he jumps between the children’s world in the 1940s and present day.

I’ll definitely be waiting for the sequel, Hollow City, to come out in early 2014!

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Broken Harbor by Tana French

June 21, 2013

Broken HarborI’m a little bit obsessed with Tana French and her Dublin Murder Squad  series.  And by a little I mean a lottle. Enough that I just made up  that word.

Here’s what I love: French started with a really  solid mystery, In the Woods, which told the story of Rob Ryan and his  investigation into a murder that was eerily similar to an event that had occurred during his own childhood. French’s next in the series, The Likeness, drops Rob and picks up with an investigation that his partner, Cassie Maddox, becomes intimately involved in. French continues to wend farther and farther from her original story, so that, while they all tie together, each could be read as a standalone novel, or in any order.

This holds true with her fourth in the series, Broken Harbor.  Scorcher Kennedy (first seen in book #3, Faithful Place), along with his rookie partner, Richie, are summoned to the small town of Brianstown to investigate the attempted murder of an entire family in their home. With the wife left in critical condition, the husband and two young children dead, strange holes in the walls, and video monitors set up throughout the home, Scorcher’s investigation is anything but a closed case.

Interwoven into the narrative of the investigation are reflections on Scorcher’s own family and his childhood summers spent at
the ocean town of Broken Harbor, since renamed Brianstown, and the event there that changed his and his sister’s lives forever.

French weaves a book together that is part police procedural, part psychological thriller, and all fast-paced, page turning oodness. Read this one, read them all. I’m waiting on the edge of my seat for a 5th in the series.

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The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach

May 6, 2013

I’m not a huge baseball fan. I mean, I like to have a beer and eat a hot dog as much as the next person (potentially a little more, even) but in terms of watching the game… eh. I realize this is a little un-American to say, but our nation’s pastime can get kind of boring. At least, that’s what I thought until I read Chad Harbach’s debut novel, The Art of Fielding.

Henry Skrimshander was heading nowhere. Literally, he wasn’t going anywhere – born and raised in a mid-sized town in South Dakota, it was looking like he’d be there for a while, until the day that his summer baseball team played against (and lost to) Mike Schwartz’s team. This was the summer after high school had ended for Henry, and he was thinking of settling in at the local community college for a few years, until… what? All he’d ever wanted to do with life was play baseball.

Mike Schwartz, rising sophomore and catcher for the Westish College Harpooners, knew raw talent when he saw it, and see it he did. Suddenly, Henry was on his way to play college ball for Westish, leaving behind a life of working in his father’s metalworking shop or taking classes in bookkeeping to cobble together a career.

Once at Westish, the Harpooners become Henry’s life. Between his jock-friendly classes, team practices, his bench warmer roommate Owen, and Mike’s training regimen, Henry is immersed in baseball, and he thrives in it. By junior year, the recruiters are already hanging on the fences at Harpooners games, waiting to see if Henry can break his hero Aparicio Rodriguez’s record of most consecutive errorless games by a shortstop. As the pressure begins to mount, Henry begins to fail.

It starts with a bad throw made worse by a little bit of wind, and goes downhill from there. Harbach follows Henry’s descent into depression as his confidence is broken and his playing deteriorates rapidly. As the life that Henry has been working towards starts slipping through his fingers, he pulls away from Mike and all that he has held important.

The story is told through a variety of characters, each filling in different holes of the story as it goes forward. Henry, Mike, Owen, Westish College’s President Guert Affenlight, and his estranged daughter Pella, all make up the narrative voice of the story. This was a delightful debut novel. If Harbach can make me care about baseball, I’d like to see more of what he can do.”

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Bringing Up Bebe: One American Mother Discovers the Wisdom of French Parenting by Pamela Druckerman

March 27, 2013

Okay, yes, this is sort of a parenting book, and perhaps not the type of book that you’d generally just pick up off the shelf, but it’s a really interesting read, whether or not you’re a parent. (Of course, since I am a parent, that’s easy enough for me to say – I’m game for pretty much anything that might make my kid more awesome.)

Pamela Druckerman was an American journalist living in Paris when she and her British husband started their family. Druckerman was immediately struck by the differences she saw between American and French parenting, and the resulting kids from each of those styles. French kids seemed, in general, to be calmer, less prone to tantrums, and to eat the same meals as everyone else (the concept of the “kids meal” being practically non-existent there.) American kids, on the other hand, are often more outspoken and confident in school, and… um, that might have been the only plus about American kids.

The book really isn’t anti the way we raise our kids in America, however. It shows both the pros and the cons of the French styles, and lets the reader make their own decision about what we might deem “good” or “bad”. Some things I’d steal from the French in a heartbeat (wine list in my hospital room? Well, hello!) and others I’m less inclined to take part in, like what Druckerman refers to as “The Pause,” where French parents wait for up to 15 minutes before tending to their crying infants, to try to understand what they need.

All in all, this was an interesting read, and I learned not only some new techniques I might try when my little one gets older, but also cultural differences between French and American adults that stem from the way we as a society raise our children.

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