A Serious Vocational Error

One of the great things about reading fiction is the way you can visit a person’s, admittedly fictional, life and experience the world from a different angle. I’ve always found stories to be much more helpful in dealing with the trials and tribulations of everyday existence than the numerous self-help and motivation works out there. Perhaps this is delusional and a tad unhealthy (you don’t want to pattern your life too closely on Mr. Kurtz after all ) but hey, it is the way I roll. I recently read three novels that let me examine different career paths and made me feel good about my own career choice. Ah the power of negative reinforcement.

The job: Middle school teacher
The book: Confessions by Kanae Minato

confessionsThis novel opens with Yuko Moriguchi’s farewell address to her middle school science class upon her early retirement. The reason she is leaving is the recent accidental death of her 4-year-old daughter on school grounds. As the address continues, however, it becomes clear that Yuko believes some of her students are responsible.  She also doesn’t believe the criminal justice system is up to the job of punishing them due to their young age. This is no simple tale of revenge, however.  The narrative shifts, with each chapter being from a different character’s point of view. This keeps you guessing as to what actually happened and who is really to blame until the very end. Even then, what is right and what is wrong isn’t entirely clear. A good book for testing your moral compass. It will also make you happy not to have chosen a career in secondary education.

The job: Office drone
The book: The Room by Jonas Karlsson

theroomBjorn, yes this book is a Swedish translation, shares a desk in an open office plan in a government ministry simply titled ‘the Authority.’ One day, while looking for the bathroom, he stumbles upon a room which is spacious and well appointed. To get away from the office hubbub and concentrate on his work, he frequently visits this room. The problem? No one else can see it. Even worse, when he enters the room, all that his fellow officer workers see is Bjorn staring at the wall and mumbling. It doesn’t take very long for objections to be raised, meetings to be held, and threats of termination to be bandied about. The entire novel is from Bjorn’s perspective, so there are definitely surreal elements that will have you questioning what exactly is going on. Primarily though, it is a funny and biting office satire that will leave you chuckling as well as scratching your head.

The job: Estate agent
The book: A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan

apleasureandacallingWilliam Hemming does not suffer from job dissatisfaction. He loves showing people new homes to buy or rent in the small English town where he owns an estate agency. His job allows him to indulge in a rather odd hobby. Mr. Hemming keeps a key from every property he sells and likes to make return visits, unbeknownst to the owners. He is obsessed with viewing the minutiae of his clients’ everyday activities (making breakfast, doing laundry) but as a detached observer who never gets involved in their lives. The novel is entirely from Mr. Hemming’s point of view and you find yourself chuckling at his observations of small town life. When his darker side is slowly revealed, and his detachment turns into involvement with deadly consequences, you may feel guilty for laughing along. At the very least, it will make you consider having your locks changed at home.

So is using fiction to choose a career a sound policy? Perhaps not, but it sure beats going to a guidance counselor.

A Stroll Through the Pun Forest or Crime and Pun-ishment

BullwinkleHello poetry lovers. Today’s poem is a pun of stunning disregard for human frailties. It is titled, Names of Hair Salons:

Bangs For The Memories,
     Shear Hostility,
          The Best Little Hair House,
                                             Come Hair;
                              Hairway To Heaven
                                   Babalouise, Bang, Headonizm,
                                        Hair Today,
                                            Curl Up and Dye,
                                                 The Bobshed

But I jest.

It’s been called the lowest form of humor, which is a compliment in this case. Puns are illegal in 37 states (I made that up, but it’s an idea whose time has come), they are frequently annoying, and the people who regale others with punnage seldom bathe (also made up) [it’s TRUE!]. Yet puns are standard fare in the names of both hair salons and cozy mysteries. Why? Is it sadism run amok?

We may never know.

Pun also risesPerhaps you’d like to start your voyage with a thorough understanding of just what a pun is all about. Wellsir, I would recommend The Pun Also Rises: How the Humble Pun Revolutionized Language, Changed History, and Made Wordplay More than Some Antics by John Pollack. Penned by a former Clinton speech writer, the author not only explores the definitions and history of puns, but makes a case that they are significant to the rise of modern culture.

Next we’ll stroll over to the cozy mystery section and discover that puns in titles are completely out of control. There are puns on classic book titles (The Cakes of Wrath; Grapes of Death; Grape Expectations; Grey Expectations), movies  (Nightshade on Elm Street; Bell, Book, and Scandal; Arsenic and Old Puzzles; The Silence of the Llamas), Plays (End me a Tenor), Poems (Murder had a Little Lamb), songs (Bewitched, Bothered, and Biscotti), television (Ghouls Gone Wild), magazines (Deader Homes and Gardens) and musicals (A Little Night Murder).

Mysteries1

Had enough? Too bad. The most egregious offenders are puns based on common phrases. Choose your favorite from the following (the last one being my fave):

Three’s a Shroud          Thread on Arrival                 If Books Could Kill
Meet your Baker        Kill ‘em with Cayenne          Book, Line and Sinker
Hiss and Hers         Going, Going, Ganache      Animal, Vegetable, Murder
Read and Buried           Wined and Died                To Brie or Not to Brie
Skein of the Crime        Mallets Aforethought             Assaulted Pretzel

Mysteries2Cozy mysteries often have a hobby or interest associated with them, like archery or fan dancing. In these examples we have food (The Cakes of Wrath, Grape Expectations, and Kill ‘em with Cayenne to name just a few), bookstores (Book, Line and Sinker and If Books Could Kill), and needlecraft, knitting, crocheting (Skein of the Crime and Thread on Arrival) among others.  Cozies, rather than police procedurals, thrillers or uncozy mysteries, tend to be the books that have bepunned titles.

Eats shootsOf course, many books sport punny titles. One of the best, in my inflated opinion, is Eats, Shoots & Leaves, a book on the importance of punctuation (no commas would be a story about a panda, commas tells of a character involved in specific activities)

CalahanSpider Robinson, a most excellent author of science fiction tales, has created a series of stories set in a bar called Callahan’s Place. Its denizens, including extraterrestrials, a talking dog and time travelers, listen to visitor’s stories, offer comments, and generally pollute the atmosphere heavily with puns. I think this series of stories truly gave me an appreciation for the gross art of punnery. Nowadays I find myself engaging in it, often against my will, and I fear that it’s just a short step to miming my incarceration in an invisible cube.

I apologize for this blog, but just like with any disease, it’s good to know your enemy in order to best defeat it. Please don’t judge me.

A Serial Killer in Love

normalI read somewhere that the average person will walk by a serial killer 36 times in their life. I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s another reason not to leave the house. Just to be safe. I found this hilarious postcard a few years ago. The scene on the front is a gorgeous blue purple pink sunset and ocean waves lapping the shore. Then off to the other side of the picture someone had written “I’ve seen enough crime shows to know that I don’t want to meet the love of my life while walking along the beach because he might be a serial killer.”

The killer in Graeme Cameron’s Normal is never named and the story is told from the first person point of view. The one thing I hated about this novel? I really started to like this guy. I felt the same way about the TV show Dexter. Dexter was a serial killer but he went after other serial killers so it was okay to like him. But the serial killer in Normal has a cage built in a secret basement underneath his garage. He keeps carefully selected women in there. When he goes grocery shopping and is the handsome man picking up apples or chicken and chit-chatting with other customers no one suspects there is a woman trapped in a cage far below his garage. And the dude doesn’t mind picking up a box of tampons! Okay, so the tampons are for the girls he kidnaps and eventually kills but any man who doesn’t mind picking up a box of sanitary items for a girl gets gold stars from me.

But something unexpected happens. The serial killer falls in love with the check-out girl at the grocery store. She falls in love with him too. With all that lovin’ he doesn’t feel the need to murder women. Except for one last girl that makes him feel like he’s the one trapped in a cage. Erica is a pretty girl who’s had it rough in life. She doesn’t trust men (especially when they lock her in cages). Her home life sucked so much that she hints she murdered her abusive stepfather. Now, I’m no psychiatrist but I’m willing to bet there are some daddy issues going on there plus a good old case of mush brain.

Erica is psychotic and she turns the tables on the unnamed serial killer. She’s not a terrified victim locked up in a cage. She is the thing in the dark water that rises up to take a taste of you. She scared me more than the serial killer himself. There were many times she could have escaped and the killer was hoping she would because she is freaking him out. Ever since falling in love with that grocery store clerk, he has no inclination to kill at all. He thinks about killing Erica because she puts her psychotic nose into his love life but can’t bring himself to do it.

The police are certain he’s the killer. His van has been seen on cctv (England has cameras everywhere) and other questions about the man himself have started popping up. The police visit his house, ask him a million questions and then leave because he’s a serial killer and it’s not like he’s going to blurt out “I chopped up a woman’s body because I got bored with her and then there’s my psychotic doppelgänger who won’t leave me alone and probably wants to spend the rest of her life with me. But not down in the cage.” By the end of the book, I found myself rooting for the killer and quietly chanting “Kill her!  Kill her!”

There was nothing normal about Normal. The serial killer is just as baffled as the reader when he falls in love and decides to give up killing. I tried to picture the next 40 years of this guy’s life: marriage, children, jobs, grandchildren. And then, life winding down as it so often does, he and his wife settle into their golden years. I can see them sitting on a porch, the sunset long faded. He turns to her and says “I used to kill girls.”

Spot-Lit for April 2015

Spot-Lit

Every month our fiction buyer scours the new fiction landscape and presents here a curated list of some of the most anticipated new releases based on advance review praise, publisher enthusiasm, library- and lit-crowd social media, and other sources (some well below the radar).

Click the book cover montage below to read summaries or reviews or to place titles on hold.

montage

 Notable New Fiction 2015 (to date)  |  All On-Order Fiction.

 

 

Heartwood 5:2 – The Green Child

JacketHerbert Read’s three-part novel, The Green Child, starts out with a bang. In the first paragraph, a South American dictator’s assassination is revealed to have been faked as he, our protagonist Olivero, is on his way now by ship to Europe.

You know, it really might be best to start reading this book without knowing anything more (I’d save the book’s Introduction as well until after you’re done). But if you’re going to disregard this advice, I’ll let you know that this book explores such wide-ranging things as the structure of society and political systems (especially of a Utopian sort), the value of surrendering to wherever your personal destiny will lead you, and the possibility of alternative worlds with their own integrally complex cultural beliefs and practices.

The three sections of the book are distinctly different. The first part of the novel, concerns Olivero’s return home, after thirty years away, only to discover the stream where he once spent so much time is now flowing in the opposite direction. His moonlit investigation into this conundrum is quickly compounded and sidetracked (in ways you will simply have to discover for yourself) before the chapter ends in a most dramatic fashion.

The middle section deals with the protagonist’s stumbling into the role of benevolent autocrat for a small community in inland Argentina. My only quibble with the book is just how smoothly things go for Olivero once he gets to Argentina, but it’s fascinating and fun to watch as he and a few others work to overturn the existing government and institute the ideals of revolutionary Europe which have come down to us from Voltaire, Rousseau, and Volney.

The third part of the book picks up – in a through-the-looking-glass way – where the first left off and shows Read as an effective world-builder. This section places Olivero and the green girl in reversed roles from what we found in the first chapter, only this time the individual’s attempt to adjust and assimilate into an utterly foreign culture is brought to full maturity in a calmly beautiful conclusion.

But stop, I’ve already said too much. Step away from whatever screen you’re reading this on and go treat yourself to a most unusual and thought-provoking reading experience. The Green Child awaits.

Heartwood | About Heartwood

Terry Pratchett Remembered

There are plenty of opportunities to read about his life, so I thought I’d share how Terry (as I called him in my head) affected me.

I was raised on Monty Python. Their brand of humor is somewhat unusual, and when they more or less ceased to function as a group there was a hole in my humor reserves. I’m not sure exactly when I discovered Mr. Pratchett (as he required me to call him), late 80s or early 90s, but I do remember the moment of discovery.

WitchesIt was a day like any other day, except that it was unique, and I was making my weekly pilgrimage to the Everett swap meet. There amongst some books I spied Witches Abroad. The cover art was silly and the book’s description was, well, extremely silly, and I was immediately taken by this post-modern fairy tale and the amazing character of Mistress Granny Weatherwax.

Discworld, where many of his books take place, is sort of a sideways version of Earth, mostly focused on a semi-pre-industrial quasi-Europe. The planet’s inhabitants face the same problems that we do, and Pratchett, amongst non-stop wet-your-pants hilarity, offers precious daubs of wisdom. Describing this fantasy world in brief is just not possible, but it is a place I think of fondly, much as one might of Oz or Hogwarts or… well, nowhere else I can think of.

MonstrousIt would be impossible to choose a favorite, but Monstrous Regiment is a Discworld novel that stuck with me. The general premise is that there’s a war, a girl’s brother goes off and does not return so she impersonates a man and enlists (wait, this is sounding familiar…), her regiment of misfits becomes notorious, and, well, read the book! But amidst all the belly laughs and borrowing from Shakespeare, Pratchett makes deep and insightful points about war. And this sums up his best books: gut-wrenchingly funny and poignantly wise.

I will miss anticipating the latest Discworld novel, but I revel in the knowledge that there are over forty of them to read and read and read again. And so I leave you with the final tweet from Sir Terry Pratchett’s Twitter feed, released after his death.

[Death speaks]: “AT LAST, SIR TERRY, WE MUST WALK TOGETHER,” it stated. Terry took Death’s arm and followed him through the doors and on to the black desert under the endless night. The End.

Terry Pratchett

 

 

Favorite 65X Series: Plot-Your-Own Stories Edition

Don’t even ask. I know what you’re wondering. “Carol, what the heck is a 65X? And why should I care?” In cataloger-speak, that’s how we code subject headings and genre terms. Generally, 650s are subject headings and 655s are genres. Relax, though. You’re not getting a lesson in cataloging, though I’d be happy to talk your ear off about MARC, RDA, and FRBR.

Wait, come back! I said I wouldn’t be talking about those things, and I intend to prove it. Welcome to a new series I’m trying out here on the blog, where I will explore some of my most favorite headings. Today we’re going to shine a spotlight on the subject heading Plot-your-own stories.

If you grew up in the 80s like I did, you may remember a wonderful series created by the late, great R.A. Montgomery called Choose Your Own Adventure. For me, I remember spending time in the stacks at the Bethalto Public Library exploring life as a ninja, a millionaire, and even an astronaut. I discovered those books when I was twelve and immediately decided that this was the element that my beloved Nancy Drew books were missing: the ability to influence the outcome of the story by making a series of seemingly small decisions.

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I still have a few tattered copies of this awesome series, and yes, I do pull them out occasionally to see if I still remember the correct series of decisions that allow me to keep the $1 million I found after playing baseball in my neighborhood instead of being killed for it. Spoiler alert: I do not remember this perfect sequence, but I do have fun figuring it out all over again. In fact, when I was writing this post I pulled out all my old Choose Your Own Adventure books and discovered my husband’s stash of GI Joe-themed Plot-your-own stories books as well. Even when we were kids we apparently thought alike!

Girl Walks Into a BarRecently I ran across A Girl Walks Into a Bar by Helena S. Paige. It looked like a standard contemporary romance novel with a fun cover. Then I sat down to read it and discovered two fun facts about this book:

  • It’s less a romance and more an erotica.
  • It’s a Plot-your-own stories book, aka Choose Your Own Adventure style.

Does anything get better than that? If you’re me, the answer is definitely, “No. No, it does not get better than that!”

The book begins with you walking into a bar and immediately getting a message from your best friend, standing you up on your girls’ night out. Since you’re already dressed up, why not stay at the bar and see what happens? Not only are there dozens of choices throughout the story, there are several choices of guys to initially approach. With each decision your night changes quite drastically. Don’t like the ending? Then start over and choose again. And again. And again! My favorite part of romances are when the heroine and hero meet for the first time. With books like this you can read a variety of “meet cutes” without having to put down the book and pick up another.

Sure, it’s a frivolous read, but I like to read for enjoyment and, to me, there’s nothing more relaxing than making a life-changing decision simply by turning the page.