Monday, September 24, 2012

Best Book Bets - 9/25/2012

Its time for hoodies and hardcovers!

First things first, these are more recommendations than reviews, a short list for you, the hungry, insatiable reader, to find the best of the new. FYI, the usual suspects you won't find on the list (then, dear bookie, why is J.K. Rowling on this week's picks?) but just so you know, Lee Child, J.D. Robb, Patterson, Cussler, Gerritsen, and (groan) Mitch Albom all have new books out. If you like them, then you don't need me to tell you that you will again, right? Here's this week's front runners in my not so humble opinion.


(Little, Brown)
The Casual Vacancy by J. K. Rowling
CLOTH. So how's this for a challenge, recommend a book that no one in the media has read and who are forbidden to review until Thursday (release day, as opposed to Tuesday)? Well, I'm a bookie, its what I do and I'll hedge my bets that even if this novel isn't a literary triumph, the second coming of Dickens, even if it is a train wreck, it will be a satisfying read merely because of all the anticipation. What I do know about this big novel about a small town (what does that even mean?) is it will possess the same sooo British sense of place and people that warmed us to the cast of characters at Hogwarts. There is a buried family secret to be revealed which was the backbone of the Potter franchise, and her editor is top notch in the world of thrillers so, buy it and read in in the first ten days. You can start flash book groups in public spaces to wax pro and con of Rowling's first plunge in the deep end. Being the person who single-handed save the book biz, I don't think she'll need her floaties.

(St Martins)
The Forgetting Tree by Tatjana Soli
CLOTH. Soli, the novelist of the critically acclaimed, The Lotus Eaters, delivers a book about survival and acceptance of that which you can't control and how transcendence never happens on an emotional island. Claire is a widow, faced, now alone, close to losing her ranch in the town Pagford. Her next trial is her own failing health. Only by facing the fears she shares with an unlikely and acerbic caregiver, Minna, does the healing properties of the land soothe both of their troubled souls. As you read this you begin to think of people like wine or coffee; the land you are reared in becomes an intrinsic signature in your personality, be it in the bountiful fields of California or the Caribbean. The characters' strong will and deep seated pains are palatable in Soli's beautiful economy of phrasing.
Telegraph Avenue  by Michael Chabon
CLOTH. Give me the beat boys, and thrill my soul! Pop goes the literature in this culture clash of the musical obsessions that orchestrate Pulitzer winning author Chabon's lovable characters. It comes across like Maupin's Tales of the City if it was written by Nick Hornby. In that I mean its equally a celebration of people's differences and the pop culture they use to define their individuality. Humorously this search for personal vision is the very thing that bonds us. Where the unifying heart beats with the throb of blaxploitation bass beat is Brokeland Records, a church of vinyl on Telegraph Ave. (In Boston we had a similar shop, Skippy White's, a discophile's dream where I could get lost for the better part of a day in its stacks.) Together the varied cast fight against the brass railings of progress as the neighborhood's color is threatened by redevelopment. Chapon's style is as exciting as his characters, even constructing run on sentences that would make Harlan Ellison blush. This 7th outing is a work by a man at the top of his craft. In one word, outta-sight!

Sutton by J R Moehringer
 CLOTH.  There is something about bank robbers that makes even the most morally sound Americans silently root for them. At the cusp of the twentieth  century the economic climate was not too far off where it is today, banks forcing people to lose work and job, unemployment skyrocketing and the origin for these woes, the banks, seeking bailouts. From this strife was born one of the most revered criminals, Sutton. Brooklyn bred with a tough Irish soul he became a legend of bank break ins and prison break outs, became the number one most wanted and, natch stole the heart of the woman he loved. This book is slavishly researched yet reads like a Hollywood movie. Moehringer, also a Pulitzer winner, has you rooting for Sutton without writing his life's story in an overly sentimental manner. This book should give Lehaine's upcoming novel a run for the money.

(University Press N.E.)
Killer Show; The Station Nightclub Fire, America’s Deadliest Rock Concert by John Barylick
NON-FICTION, CLOTH. Rock 'n Roll, especially heavy metal, is supposed to have a dangerous edge. Its all part of the show, like Alice Coopers gullotine or Ozzy's rat eating. But the night Great White's pyrotechnics hit a niteclub's shabby sound proofing and ignited a club in seconds the difference between reality and escapism became all too real. If you come from New England you can't help but remember the tragedy. 2/2/03, West Warwick, Rhode Island, 96 dead, 200 injured. The world saw the horror up close on YouTube. The roadhouse bar, The Station (now being protested by the community to be converted into a memorial) proved negligent, the band members indited and personally devastated and a community has to live with a scar of lose burned across their hometown. Barylick was on the legal forefront of what followed after that harrowing night and leaves no stone unturned in this documentation of a tragedy that rivaled the fires at Cocoanut Grove  jazz club fire in Boston years before.

How Music Works by David Byrne
NON-FICTION, CLOTH. David Byrne, the brainchild behind The Talking Heads, thevowner of one of the most revered international music labels, and big-suited posterboy for popular art rock, takes on defining the mechanics and pathos of music. Not since Aaron Copeland (a modern composer in his own right who wrote What To Listen for in Music) has there been a book on just what makes the art tick, or boom.  This book is not only an intellectual discussion of how different music styles influence each other and how technology fits into the evolution of the art form, it also proves to be an entertaining autobiography of this Renaissance man. Creating music is what makes us human but how we do it, how others do it, and how that influences what we do, in turn redefines our unique sound. Did he just blow your mind? It is a fascinating way to look at music and its relevance in our lives.
Young Adult Hot Picks of the Week!

In a Glass Grimmly by Adam Gidwitz
INDEPENDENT READER, CLOTH. This author, a teacher first, storyteller second,knows what kids like and what drives them to read. I spent many afternoons reading chapter after chapter of Gidwitz first foray into the world of classic fairy tales, A Tale Dark & Grimm. It is an engaging, humourous, and OK, terrifying read. The asides to the reader warning of upcoming ghastly events are as enjoyable to read aloud as they are to read alone. Alas, all books have to end... until now! Our hero and heroine this time out is Jack and Jill rather than Hansel and Gretel, but that doesn't mean there will be any less blood and fear as they leave their pails aside and climb a vine to new horrors. What follows is a mash-up of fairy tales and a finale that is, well, unnerving, but in a pleasantly disturbing way. As the author clearly states, happily ever after isn't cutting it anymore. Personally, I can't wait to horrify the neighbors again (P.S.- kiddos, don't tell your folks, they just won't understand.)
 (Little, Brown)
The Diviners by  Libba Bray
INDEPENDENT READER/YOUNG ADULT, CLOTH. Wow, this is like a paranormal take on Boardwalk Empire as teenage Evie is plucked out Smallville U.S.A. and transplanted in the prohibition nest of debauchery called the Big Apple. New York is all flappers and hooch, decadent shops and movie stars. Evie bonds with  Ziegfield dancers and Dickensian pickpockets who share her rambunctious nature. Her new digs are at her odd Uncle Will's, the curator of what she calls  "The Museum of the Creepy Crawlies." and owner of a cryptic tarot deck. He discovers in Evie a paranormal premonition and armed with this gift, she looks to help solve a series of murders. Murders are nothing new in this city, except when they are shrouded in the creepy and images she has seen in the museum. Bray who gave us the emotionally charged Going Bovine and Beauty Queens has created a unique take on the teen paranormal adventure. You envision it all in a grey and sepia flicker of old time movies as you read. That might sound like I'm reaching a bit, but read it and you'll know what I mean. First in a series,so quit dancing the Charleston and get writing Libba!

Monday, September 17, 2012

Best Book Bets - 9/18/2012

Fall into a Good Book

Seasons change but you shouldn't have to take the fall (sic) when it comes to picking out your next book. That's why I'm here. I crunch the numbers, defy the odds, and come up with a short list of sure things. Why? Because finding a good read shouldn't be a gamble. 


(W W Norton)
Skagboys by Irvine Walsh
CLOTH. Trainspotting,the manifest of the slacker generation was both repugnant and captivating, possessing all the magnetism of a car wreck. Walsh draped us in the skins of his pathetic characters who seemed fatally a by product of their era. (I love the puppet strings of this cover for just that reason.) So here comes the heralded novel's prequel. Every reviewer out there has proclaimed this the author's greatest achievement and with good reason. Walsh shows use the slow disintegration of his once optimistic and lovelorn characters, from the boy-of-privilege Renton to the sociopath Sick Boy,  as the world around them tears away their aspirations leading them to the deadly off switch of the heroin needle. None of their destructive behaviors are lauded but Walsh delivers a pathos that tugs at our hearts as we follow his characters stumble through Britain's teenage wastelands of the 80s. Not for the weak of heart or stomach but captivating writing that proves a stark snapshot of lives without direction.

The Cutting Season by Attica Locke
CLOTH.  Leave it to Dennis Lehaine to discover for his new imprint another author with a similar new take on the mystery novel. Locke's second novel sets her tale in the new south, circa today. While his protagonist Caren investigates a murder in a centuries old plantation, Belle Vie, in Louisiana, she learns that not much has changed for the privileged in Dixie. As she uncovers more and more about the dead girl the more the ugly truth of the family and its town are revealed. You can feel the closeness of breath as the stifling air and plot lines thicken. It is part nail-biting mystery, and like The Help, part commentary of our times and how little has changed as the years have past. Prejudice doesn't wane, but resentment grows. Powerful stuff.
The Rebel Wife  by Taylor M. Folites
CLOTH.  Here's another tale steeped in the history and bitter emotions of The South and its reformation. This novel is a historical rather than a contemporary but here the central characters share a similar longing for earlier times. As in Gone With The Wind we have a woman trying to pick up the pieces after her homeland had been devastated. All wounds are still fresh and Southern hospitality has been reduced to a facade. Augusta is blue-blooded Southern, now a widow and mother with none of the privilege her antebellum past provided.  All the conventions of a Southern historical are here but all stereotypes are not what they seem. This solitary woman fights to defy the decayed society she has been left in. Scarlet would be proud.

Winter of the World by Ken Follett
 CLOTH.  I saw this shirt the other day that made me laugh. It read, 'I like big books and I can not lie...' While I'm sure that's not Sir-Mix-Alot's intention, I tend to agree with the inverted lyric, especially when they are written as richly as Follet's have been this past decade or so. Once known for tightly hone mysteries (Eye of the Needle, one of my favs) Follett has made the jump from the genre ghetto to the legitimate fiction section of the bookstore with such works of literature as Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. He takes the same mastery he has for suspense and applies it to the pacing, back story, and establishment of place and time in these sweeping historical novels. Here we have the continuation of The Century Trilogy with the same masterful bombast of length (960 pages.) Where Fall of Giants documents his characters through WWI, this second installment takes on WWII with the same exhaustive accuracy. Put a couple extra logs on the fire and prepare to be in it for the long haul. Only downside is waiting for him to crank out the final (I'm sure, hefty) volume.

Yankee Miracles: Life with the Boss and the Bronx Bombers 

by Sally Cook and Ray Negron

NON-FICTION, CLOTH.  I know, the Yankums are in the playoffs and the Red Suxs are languishing in the basement, only weeks from putting down their gloves and setting up tee times. Coming from New England you can't help but be hesitant doling praise on the pinstripes, but this, well, this is one cool book no matter who you root for. Curmudgeon George Steinbrenner nabs a hooligan tagging Yankee Stadium and instead of turning him into the authorities or give him the Billy Martin treatment (George was one good yeller) he took the kid off the streets and gave him a chance to be a bat boy transforming the child's life from meaninglessness to meaning. He turns his life into one of service to his community; giving back like the Yankee owner had done for him. During his journey the boy rubs elbows with the likes of Reggie Jackson, Munson, Mantle, Catfish, A-Rod, Jeter, even Mrs. Lou Gehrig. This book will make it hard for me to talk ill of the team once spring training returns. 

Young Adult Hot Picks of the Week!

The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater
YOUNG ADULT, CLOTH. Coming off the hooves of last year's The Scorpio Races Stiefvater delivers another paranormal novel that proves her most original voices in the genre. Blue has recently received her ancestor's gift of clairvoyance. She sees a premonition of one of the privileged Aglionby boys, nicknamed The Raven Boys. She begins to become smitten over one of the Richie Rich bad boys, Gansey, haunted by the knowledge that whomever she falls in love with will die.  Talk about the kiss of death! The novel gives a unique spin on paranormal romance and has an authentic creepy side as we learn more of the boys otherworldly quest. If you devoured her earlier Shiver Trilogy I don't have to tell you how additively readable Stiefvater is. If this is your first time this is a good place to start (Scorpio Races a strong second.)
10 by Gretchen McNeil
YOUNG ADULT, CLOTH. Need a Fall read priming with nail biting suspense? Do you enjoy slasher-"don't look in the basement"-types of movies like Friday the 13th? If so, brew some hot chocolate, wrap yourself in a comforter, and be prepared for a romantic, funny spook show that will keep you up all night. This re-imaging mash-up of Agatha Christie's Ten Little Indians with And Then There Were None has the Scream movie series similar sense of humor as one by one the body count grows. Party kids on an island, storm on the rise, lose of power, and the discovery of a DVD threatening revenge; all the ingredients for a blood soaked weekend don't you think? It would be so easy to follow formula but McNeil knows just when to change things up and catch you by surprise. Even the climactic ending is not what you expect. Pleasant dreams, I mean screams!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Best Book Bets - 9/11/2012

In Memorial. The ashes still fall.

In war, unlike in choosing quality book titles, there are no winners. The first two titles find insightful ways to touch upon the collateral damage brought about by 9/11 and the subsequent conflicts. Before rushing out to your bookstore, take a quiet moment to reflect on the suffering and service brought on by this tragic event and be thankful.

(Ecco Press)
Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain
CLOTH. Its Thanksgiving in Dallas and Billy Lynn has returned from Iraq, a brief break before being again deployed. Our hero and the fellow troops of Bravo company are is still very much innocents and as they travel through their once familiar hometown seeing it through new, jaded eyes. Do to a viral video of them in combat they have become media darlings and are to be honored during the halftime show of a Cowboys game. They are even offered a motion picture deal to consider. What follows is tragic-comic as they are dragged through the gris mill of pop culture while keeping a lid on the grim reality of what they have been through together. That's what they have to cling onto, not fame, ego, or noble causes, but each other just trying to make it through this crazy world. You will laugh, cry and emotionally have the back of these unlikely heros.

(Grove/Black Cat)
Fobbit by Davis Abrams
CLOTH.  This is a novel but it is based on Abrams own experiences in Iraq and proves far more disturbing than the novel, Jarhead. A fobbit is a soldier who avoids combat by remaining at a Forward Operating Base (FOB). In the back seat of the war, troops, eat sleep, do office hours and when not on the clock play XBox, watch T.V., even get lucky in vacant Porta Pottys. Chow time and leisure is more important to them than military operations. The humorous exploits display a slacker mentality that seems diametrically opposed to the do-or-die mentality of the troops in combat on the front lines but shows the same culture clash we experience at home thrives so many miles away. This may be this generation's M*A*S*H, or better, due to its stronger cutting edge of social satire, Catch-22. Fobbit rings true revealing the SNOFU of modern warfare in these difficult times.
Oryx and Crake  by Margaret Atwood
CLOTH.  I remember when I first read A Handmaid's Tale. It came across as a feminist 1984 to me. It showed me how limitless the relevancy of fantasy fiction can be and even more importantly, how science fiction and fantasy could indeed be considered literature. Here Atwood takes another stab at a distopian future, this time post-plague, a land where our protagonist searches for his best friend, Crake, and the woman they both loved, Oryx.  They may be the last of their race and the last romantic triangle in existance. The novel is writhe with corporate overlords and technological wastelands. As with all her writing accomplishments, what sells this story is no matter how out there the future she writes of is, it is founded on our current fears and our society's failings. We totally buy into her vision... again.

The Map of the Sky by Felix J. Palma
 First and foremost, my first love of authors was H.G. Wells (my local librarian allowed me to take out his complete works during the summer of my sixth grade and I crunched through it veraciously.) So, give me a novel where H.G. Wells is the central character and you've already hooked me. Luckily you don't have to be a Wells devotee to enjoy this genre-busting novel. It's a literary mash-up of Sci-Fi, Romance, Horror, Thriller, Revisionist History, you name it. It is loosely a sequel to the author's  The Map of the Sky although it stands up on its own quite well. Palma is a skillful storyteller who makes the era of gaslight come alive. Join Wells (and even Edgar Allan Poe if you can believe that) as the aliens actually do start invading earth. Here's an example of using the theme of war as escapism, like playing an intellectual video game where all humans fight together for one cause. We can only wish.

Young Adult Hot Pick of the Week!

Monstrous Beauty by Elizabeth Fama
YOUNG ADULT, CLOTH. Mermaid tails (sic) seem to be all the rage in young adult novels (I confess to have a variation of them in my own work) For the most part they mostly seem pale reworkings of Hans Christian Andersen's The Little Mermaid. I need something more, something with teeth. This novel sees being merfolk as a sort of ancestral curse that dooms the generations. If you fall in love, you die. How's that for reducing Anderson's damnation into one line?  Fama uses parallel story-lines unraveling the tale to great effect; one story, that of a mermaid from the 1800s and the second, one of a more current day teen plagued by the curse. The answers to what binds the two is buried deep in the soil of Plymouth, MA, a perfect setting for a nautical mystery embedded in history. There are also forces that are determined to keep the mythic truths hidden. Spooky & heartfelt!
(Prime/S&S Childrens)
Shelf Life edited by Gary Paulsen
INDEPENDENT READER, CLOTH. Gary Paulsen spearheaded this writing project for ProLiteracy Worldwide (1,400 programs just here in the States.) Paulson, who proclaims that 'books saved his life,' asked authors to contribute stories to the compilation to help the charity. One rule, all stories must use books as a device in the story. The result, ten stories from an all-star list of popular IR/YA/Fiction authors; Jennifer L. Holm, Gregory Maguire, Kathleen Karr, M. T. Anderson, A. LaFaye, Marion Dane Bauer, Joan Bauer, Ellen Conford, Margaret Peterson Haddix, and Ellen Wittlinger. My favorite short story is Holm's Follow The Water about a girl on Mars who so wants to return home to Earth. There are tales here, however,  for every taste, all celebrating the power and the importance of books. Plus, the profits from the sale go to a fine cause. Buy, Read and pass the gift of reading forward!

Monday, September 3, 2012

Best Book Bets - 9/4/2012

Goodbye Summer, Welcome Fall!
You've eaten your fair share of barbeque, shaken the sand from your beach chairs before putting them in storage and have started unearthing your sweaters and hoodies. Summer wanes but not so the release of new sure things in your local bookstore. Switch your beach bag for a book bag and enjoy this week's winners!

The Other Woman  by Hank Phillippi Ryan
CLOTH. It's hard to recommend the novel of a friend in the industry without it sounding like log-rolling. I knew Hank when she was first published at Harlequin and was falsely branded a romance instead of mystery writer. With each book her craft improved and her plotting tightened. She always had a tight grasp of character and this novel's television investigator, Jane Ryland, is no exception. Ryan? Ryland? Her protagonists always seem her doppelganger (not evil though) and she uses her own experience as an award-winning investigator to great effect. This is the book that breaks her into the big leagues of suspense. The combination of shady practices and coverups is perfectly timed just as the national stage is set on politics. Add a grisly investigation of a possible serial killer and a dectective/love interest (gotta have a little romance, eh?) and you have the perfect combination of elements ratcheting up the odds to an unexpected climax. You want your ladies smart and daring, meet Jane Ryland.

Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evanson
CLOTH. No matter how difficult things become in your life all it takes is one look around you to find someone in far more dire straights than yourself. The ol' 'ah, but for the grace of God go I.' Here we have Benjamin Benjamin who has hit his own personal bottom; family, home, job... everything; gone. In a process of rebuilding his life he takes a class on caregiving. Little does he know his new occupation will have him discover what's important in life as he bonds with one of his clients, a precocious 19 year old Ben who has severe muscular dystrophy. They embark on an unlikely road trip helping each other emotionally along the way. This novel is fresh, direct without being morose, and pumped with so much soulful insight, you'll be glad you went along for the ride with them.

One Last Thing Before I Go by Jonathan Tropper
 CLOTH. Nobody likes Jonathan Tropper. If they know who he is, they love him. A literary acquaintance came up to me recently announcing that "the new Tropper novel is coming!" with an enthusiasm rarely seen in a bookstore. It could be his unassuming writing style that leaves real emotion stark bare on the page, it could be his quirky characters that you always believe live and breath. Probably though, its how unashamed he is at letting you inside the underpinnings of his characters. Here we have divorcee Drew Silver, former drummer for a band now only referenced on VH1 flashback weekends. He's demoted to playing at weddings, his daughter is secretly pregnant and his heart is on the way out. He decides to forgo treatment with a 'carpe diem' attitude and enjoy his daughter and the future laid out before her. Tropper and Silver mull the importance and impact of one's life with, as always, humor, conflicting emotions, and heart.

(Lyons Press)
Conning Harvard by Julie Zauzmer & Xi Yu
CLOTH NONFICTION. Just as the latest cheating scandal has broken on the Harvard campus during the past week, this book drops. Wow! You remember the story that went down last year? The man, Adam Wheeler, who falsified his credentials on his application and was rewarded over $45,000 in financial aid. Once at the university he continued cheating the school out of grant money. Alas, he reached too high for when he applied for the Rhodes and Fulbright scholarships, a he was found out. Did that deter him? No. He repeated the pattern again and again with other universities before being nabbed. This book by Harvard Crimson reporters Julie Zauzmer and Xi Yu reads like a script. The readability reminds me of Ben Mezrich's Bringing Down the House that documented that M.I.T. scandal. Saddest fact is that each time Wheeler committed a falsehood, a worthy, honest student of promise was denied.

Independent Reader Hot Pick of the Week!

(Little Brown)
My Sister Lives on the Mantelpiece by Annabel Pitcher
CLOTH. Independent reader titles almost always seem  to be issue books, and that's not a bad thing, but after a while I think teenagers tend to zone out on the significance of the story. Here we have a novel that brings the impact of global headlines to life. Jamie's sister Rose died five years before in a terrorist bombing. He has to live with the sadness the event he barely remembers brought about and Rose's twin sister Jas has to constantly live in the shadow of the vase of remains. Not only does the novel give a face to the tragedies we read of every day, it is able to do so with a quirky humor that teen's can relate to. Sometimes touching on things too painful can be achieved by avoidance. This is a future summer read that the teens will actually enjoy as they see their world through another's eyes.

Young Adult Hot Pick of the Week!
Long Lankin by Lindsey Barraclough
IR/YOUNG ADULT. Isn't the next reading season after Summer Reads the Halloween Reads? It should be, though every season is that for me. You see, I love me a good, Gothic tale and we have ourselves one fine example here. The long lankin is a bogeyman from an old English ballad who is very much real and lurking in the dark of night hell bent on taking children's souls. Cora and her younger sister, Mimi may be next on its menu as they visit their elderly Aunt Ida. Ida is reminded of the family curse and has to fight to save the children from this long dormant evil. Atmospheric, you can almost taste the fog, and the novel is written in a sophisticated style as enjoyable (and all out spooky) enough for adults as it is for teens. Keep your night light on kiddies (heh-heh-heh-heh!).