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Staff Picks Category: Fiction

A Catalog of Birds by Laura Harrington []

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Laura Harrington’s A Catalog of Birds is a novel about a family in Geneva, NY and what happens when the youngest son, Billy, returns from Vietnam, a wounded veteran. It’s also about nature and listening, about trees and birds and lakes, about ambition, disappointment, loss and love. It is beautifully written and I would have happily continued to read about these people and this place had the book been twice as long, even though their story often brought me to tears.

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Carry On by Rainbow Rowell []

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Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On reads like a compact and quirky alternative Harry Potter. The parallels are impossible to miss. Our protagonist had no knowledge of the magical world until he was discovered and brought to a magic school where he quickly makes friends and begins a series of fantastic adventures. We have characters who clearly have analogs in Harry, Hermione, Draco, Hagrid, and Voldemort, and there are more subtle references as well. Carry On is more than an homage, however. It is an engaging fantasy with good world building and a satisfying plot. Many aspects of the book simply seem better than they have to be, which is delightful. The story is told from a number of viewpoints, each of which satisfyingly reveals something different about the characters. (The everchanging dynamic between our protagonist Simon and his rival Baz is a driving force in the book, and the contrast between their individual perspectives is part of what makes the book work so well.) The world is well thought out with complex politics and an intriguing, novel, and entertaining magic system. And Carry On is compact—it is as if Rowling had decided to tell the entire Harry Potter story in a single Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone sized volume that concentrated mainly on Harry’s last year, only touchiching upon earlier adventures in brief flashbacks.

 

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The Dispossessed: A Novel by Ursula K Le Guin []

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Shevek is born in a world created by anarchists. This world, a moon in fact, is home to a planned society in which the concept of property does not exist and the language has been designed to discourage selfish thought. The people there have very little contact with the world from whence they came—the capitalist planet of Urras. Shevek is a brilliant physicist whose groundbreaking work is too advanced to be understood by his colleagues. If he wishes to continue his research he must, therefore, visit Urras and work with the scientists there.

Le Guin’s writing is excellent. In telling the story of Shevek, of his research, and of his journey, she also subtly explores some very interesting ideas about culture, language, government, and psychology. This imaginative work, like most of Le Guin’s science fiction, stands alone, and if you have never read any Le Guin this would be an excellent place to start. And if you like it you will find that Le Guin has written many more excellent books set in the same universe.

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Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat []

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In Claire of the Sea Light, Edwidge Daticat tells a number of stories, each of which interconnects with and is enhanced by the others. The stories are all set in the fictional Haitian town of Ville Rose, a fishing community where fishing is no longer profitable, the lighthouse no longer possesses a lantern, the few wealthy residents worry that their homes will be washed away, and the town mayor is also the undertaker.

The protagonists of these stories are sympathetic, well meaning, good people, but life is not particularly good to them. Neither education nor wealth is enough to escape from the misfortunes of Ville Rose, and few are lucky enough to have either. There are many tragedies in these stories—deaths, crimes, and injustices—and yet I don’t think it is a book about sadness or tragedy. Instead it is about a place and the interconnections between the people there. It is about the connections between a radio announcer and her listeners, a teacher and his pupils, parents and children, and also about the inner lives of them all, and how each one effects the others. It is a beautiful book with stories worthy of contemplation, recollection, and rereading.

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Sunny by Taiyo Matsumoto []

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Eisner award winner Taiyo Matsumoto’s semi-autobiographical account of the Star Kids orphanage is hands down the greatest unsung hero of contemporary manga currently being published. Why this book has not shown up on more “Best Of” and “Required Reading” lists is a puzzle, and I can only hope that this small dispatch might somehow get these books into more hands. The 6 volumes of Sunny (5 currently available – part 6 to be published any day now!) follow the day to day happenings at the Star Kids home – with each chapter showcasing one of the disparate, displaced children and their caretakers. These are mostly simple stories: the new kid tries to settle into his new home, dinner time arguments about what to watch on t.v., the fallout from a white lie about a cup… but what makes them special is Matsumoto’s ability through his poetic mastery of the language of comics to instill something stronger than empathy – the reader is actually transported into the hazy logic of youth through the combination of pictures and words.

The following chapter titles, one from each volume, hint at the simple majesty at work:
Chapter 2: “Why’re Dracula’s fingernails so long?” “‘Cause he doesn’t cut ’em.”
Chapter 12: “The city always seems angry.” “Like it’s shoutin’ ‘HEY!’ or somethin’?”
Chapter 17: “If I had my own department store, I’d make every floor for toys.” “That’s just a big toy store.”
Chapter 24: “Auoooh.” “Waaaaa.”
Chapter 29: “You think a rainbow’s hot if you touch it?” “The blue part’s gotta be cold.”

These slice of life vignettes somehow manage to capture the elusive feelings and perspective of a child – treating all of their melancholy and frustration, as well as their elation, with an uncanny sympathetic tone – all through his evocative illustration style combining scratchy pen with spots of ink wash. The ambivalence of a runny nose, the proprietary daydream space of a broken down car (a Nissan Sunny 1200, for which the series takes its name), and the powerfully charged relic of a mother’s hand salve tin are all presented with what could only be considered magic. At some moment while reading (possibly during a characters’ first foray into shoplifting, or while everyone is scurrying to get out of an oncoming storm), through some sort of literary sleight of hand you’ll realize your heart has just been inextricably joined to the Star Kids’ lives and will potentially need some mending when you flip closed the last page.

Beautifully designed and printed as part of Viz’s Signature Editions, these small hardcovers are given the proper presentation to contain the deeply affecting stories held within.

Sunny by Taiyo Matsumoto

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Girl Meets Boy: The Myth of Iphis by Ali Smith []

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In Ovid’s Metamorphosis, tucked away between stories about just how cruel gods & monsters & men can be, is a happy myth about a girl falling in love with another girl. In Girl Meets Boy, Ali Smith takes this myth of Iphis and Ianthe into the twenty-first century, and the result is a story that celebrates transformation, love, and civil disobedience.

In Inverness, dreamy twenty-something Anthea quits her corporate job, to the chagrin of her serious-minded older sister, Imogen, and promptly falls in love with a graffiti artist. Anthea and her modern-day Iphis joyfully thwart conventions of sex and gender in this decidedly queer retelling. Told from the perspectives of Anthea and Imogen, Girl Meets Boy is written in Smith’s signature (& humorous!) steam-of-conscious style. Her love of wordplay and ear for conversations make it perfect to be read aloud.

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Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher []

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Poor beleaguered Jay Fitger, English professor at Payne University, is required to write an endless stream of recommendation letters. So much so, that this novel is entirely composed of them. He writes letters to his department chair, his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend, both at the same university, and many others; for students he admires and students who he caught plagiarizing in his class. Through these letters the less glamorous side of academic life is open to view, with comic results. You will want to read excerpts of these aloud. And you will be thankful you don’t have to write as many recommendation letters as Fitger.

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The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie Phillips []

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Marie Phillips, author of the delicious satire Gods Behaving Badly, now turns her gift for parody on the legends of King Arthur and his knights of Camelot. It’s a bit of Terry Pratchett meets Jane Austen meets The Princess Bride. The underdogs at Camelot are the heroes of this comic novel: Sir Humphrey of the Table of Less Valued Knights (the rectangular one in the draftiest corner, where they only get leftovers and watered-down wine) takes up a quest to find a damsel’s missing fiancé. Meanwhile in the neighboring kingdom, the freshly-minted and unwilling Queen Martha runs away from her destiny while another knight is tasked with bringing her back to the exceptionally unpleasant Prince-Consort-who-wants-to-be-King Edwin. Nobody is quite what they appear, except perhaps the elephant Jemima. Even the Lady of the Lake is a substitute, annoyed with having to hold on to the magic sword while the original Lady has run off with Merlin. Full of wit, surprises and off-the-wall characters, this contemporary re-visioning of medieval myths is a lot of fun.

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The Diviners by Libba Bray []

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An enchanting mystery that will have you on the edge of your seat until the very end! A dark story of the supernatural set in 1920s New York City. Speakeasies, theater, jazz and plenty of twenties slang to keep you giggling.

The story follows a young woman named Evie O’Neill who possesses a power she just can’t explain. After Evie’s brother dies, she is sent to New York City to live with her uncle, a professor of the occult. A chilling murder takes place and Evie’s uncle is called in to help the police investigate the mysterious circumstances. Could Evie’s power help solve this disturbing mystery?

Bray’s characters will stay with you long after you finish reading. Stay tuned for the second book in this series, Lair of Dreams.

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You Are Stardust by Elin Kelsey []

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This book will definitely spark a child’s curiosity about the world around them. Elin Kelsey explores topics of the universe and nature through simple and lighthearted text complimented by beautiful artwork. Soyeon Kim captivates her audience with magical three dimensional dioramas that jump off the page.
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Like this book? Try Infinity and Me by Kate Hosford

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Raffles: Further Adventures of the Amateur Cracksman by E. W. Hornung []

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Did you know that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s brother-in-law E. W Hornung was also a successful author? Hornung’s hero, A. J. Raffles is a “debonair, witty and cricket-loving gentleman thief” too selfish to be a Robin Hood, but too noble to steal from those he feels can ill-afford it, and patriotic enough that he goes to war for his country and once, after making suitable precautions to avoid self-incrimination, he arranges for the spoils of a particularly splendid heist to be a gift to the queen.

Like those of Sherlock Holmes, the exploits of A. J. Raffles are told from the perspective of a devoted friend and accomplice. In place of Doctor Watson, Raffles has Harry Manders, more usually known, at least to his criminal friend, as Bunny. Bunny Manders is a struggling journalist and surprisingly innocent given his enthusiasm for his scofflaw friend. At the beginning of Raffles: Further Adventures of the Amateur Cracksman, Bunny has recently been released from jail, and Raffles is presumed dead. Of course, we soon learn that they both have plenty more adventures ahead of them.

Hornung dedicated his first set of Raffles stories to his brother-in-law, and Doyle was suitably impressed, writing that “there are few finer examples of short-story writing in our language than these.” He did not however, approve Hornung’s choice of subject, however: “You must not make the criminal a hero.” Readers, however did not seem to mind: Raffles was the second most popular fictional character in the early twentieth century, second only to Sherlock Holmes.

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Hearts Made Whole by Jody Hedlund []

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This book is part of Hedlund’s Beacon of Hope Series and is the Sequel to Love Unexpected.  Set in 1865 Michigan, Caroline Taylor has helped her father tend to a lighthouse and care for her younger siblings.  When her father dies unexpectedly, she is forced to give up the job and their home. Ryan Chambers, a wounded Civil War veteran with alcohol and drug addictions and no experience arrives as the new lighthouse keeper.  This is a story of faith, hope, healing and romance.

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