Books to Love and Share

Even though we live nearly three thousand miles apart, I’m very close with my nieces and nephew. In my mind I’m the cool uncle who takes them on fun trips and gets them the most exciting presents. Of course when your uncle is a librarian the fun trips usually involve libraries or bookstores and those exciting presents are, well, books. Luckily for me, these kids are born readers so even if I’m not the cool uncle I am the uncle who gets asked for book recommendations and invited to class visits. I’ll take it.

Here are a few of the books that I’ve loved and shared with my young readers this past year.

methodetimesprodwebbin2146bf82-bd60-11e6-a53a-ca2ad7b229f9My youngest niece is almost two. She loves to laugh and is great at identifying animals, as long as it’s a dog or a bear, so I knew she would love Horrible Bear! by Ame Dyckman. Horrible Bear! follows a no-nonsense young girl who crashes her kite into a bear’s den. The sleeping bear rolls over, crushing the kite. The girl storms off furious at the bear, while the bear is filled with righteous indignation for being blamed. Behold, bitter enemies! Ultimately, the bear and the girl come to understand each other and this silly story delivers a meaningful yet subtle message about accidents and forgiveness. This is a great read-aloud with the girl and bear stomping around shouting HORRIBLE BEAR and HORRIBLE GIRL. It also features Dyckman’s signature humor and lively illustrations by Zachariah OHora.

A1CIvMxnmGL (1)I also read with my 3-year-old niece but of course a 3-year-old is sophisticated and requires more complex and devious narratives. This is why I recently sent her The Wolf, the Duck, & the Mouse by Mac Barnett. When a mouse is swallowed by a wolf, it seems like the end of the world – literally. But the mouse gets new perspective when it meets a duck who has made quite a lovely home in the wolf’s stomach. Their new haven is threatened when a hunter pursues the wolf and the mouse and duck must find a way to save their home. I love the sharp turn this story takes after its grim beginning and the way expectations are constantly subverted. This book also has the benefit of Jon Klassen’s illustrations, who could even make the phone book a twisted delight.

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Vera Brosgol’s Leave Me Alone! introduces a granny who feels straight out of a nursery rhyme. Living in a cramped house with her large family, she sets out to find a peaceful place to knit. She travels far and wide through harsh environments filled with terrible beasts, and even goes to space! This is another story that starts out with a slightly sardonic tone before settling into a heartwarming conclusion. Brosgol’s illustrations are pitch perfect, creating a story that feels like a loving and quirky tribute to Strega Nona.

9780545700580_mresRecently one of my cousins had her first child who is nicknamed Froggy. I’m using this as an excuse to give them Rain! By Linda Ashman. Rain! follows the parallel stories of an older man who is irritated to have to deal with wet weather and a young boy in a frog hat who is delighted to explore the rainy world. This is a sweet story with a wonderfully goofy conclusion. Rain! has the added bonus of featuring the brilliant illustrations of Christian Robinson. Robinson’s work has been on my radar for some time, but it was not until I saw him speak last year at a conference that I took the time to explore his work in-depth. He is a stunning artist who has quickly become a personal favorite.

9780545403306_mresFor the older readers in my life (ages 7 and 9) I like to introduce series that they can fall in love with. The challenge, of course, is getting these books in their hands before they hear about them from friends. This year these series included Whatever After by Sarah Mlynowski and The Ranger’s Apprentice by John A. Flanagan. The Whatever After series follows a young sister and brother, Abby and Jonah, who are swept away into the lands of various fairy tales such as Cinderella and the Frog Prince. This might be a delightful adventure for the young siblings if they didn’t accidentally intervene in these classic stories and jeopardize their traditional plots. Abby and Jonah must frantically save the day, delivering the fairy tale endings we all know so well. Some middle grade series do not hold up for adult readers. These do. Abby’s narration is laced with gentle sarcasm and the two siblings repeatedly delight by finding new and ridiculous ways to disrupt these established stories. Book one in this series is Fairest of All.

The_Ruins_of_Gorlan_(Au)The Ranger’s Apprentice is a slightly older series perfect for lovers of world building or medieval fantasy. These books follow a young man named Will who becomes (wait for it) a ranger’s apprentice helping to protect a kingdom from a multitude of dastardly threats both internal and external. I was nervous to suggest these books to my nephew as I had not actually read them myself, but my nephew has fallen deep into their world. I asked him to tell me what he likes about the series and he explained that he is enjoying the way that the story is told from different perspectives, not just one narrator. He’s also relishing all of the action and appreciates the details that go into the development of different characters. Book one in this series is The Ruins of Gorlan.

New (Enough) Series to Dive into

This winter will be my fifth in Washington, which I am pretty sure makes me an expert by Malcom Gladwell’s standards. But I don’t think I am breaking any news when I say that winter in the PNW is long, grey, and wet. It’s not my favorite weather but it makes for a great excuse to do some of my favorite reading: multi-book series.

I have a method when I jump into these series: Start too early and I can’t deal with the wait between books. Suddenly I have the patience of a two-year-old, without the charm or the excuse of actually being two. But if I wait too long I feel woefully behind the times AND I miss out on the sweet agony that comes with waiting for the final book or two in a series. If I start reading when the series is 2 to 3 books deep, I am golden. I find that this is when a lot of series really start to open up; the world-building has gotten some attention, characters gain complexity, and that one guy who got on your nerves has probably been killed off.

Do you agree? Want to prove that I’m terribly mistaken? Here are a couple of great series that are right at my sweet spot:

coverfullSabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes would have hooked me as a well written YA fantasy series. But throw in the fact that it is loosely based on the Roman Empire? I never had a chance. The Martial Empire is the only clear power in this world. Like the Romans, the Martials wield great power through overwhelming force and ruthless cruelty. Their most fearsome tool is their squad of elite soldiers, the Masks, who possess near-superhuman strength and cunning and execute the will of the Emperor with dispassionate and merciless efficiency. The greatest victim of the Empire’s excesses and greed are the Scholars, once a flourishing tribe that has been largely reduced to an oppressed lower class. Those who have not been slaughtered or enslaved exist in the margins, living in relative squalor and clinging to their traditions the best they can.

An Ember in the Ashes follows Laia, a young woman who finds herself working for Scholar resistance, and Elias, a Mask determined to flee the Martials and reject the dehumanizing and unjust duties that await him as an agent of the Empire. They find themselves thrust together, two players in a dark and dastardly plot that threatens the Martial Empire, the remaining Scholars, and quite possibly the order of the entire known world.

Needless to say there is a ton of great historical fantasy out there. What sets this series apart is the skill with which Tahir patiently develops her world. It is masterfully crafted, with fantasy elements that slowly expand over time and unexpected plot developments that upend genre conventions. There are currently two books published in this series with a third due out in spring of 2018. Considering that the second, A Torch Against the Night, was even better than the first, I’m dying to get my hands on the next book.

81YaK2aYQkLThe Darktown series, by Thomas Mullen, might be a fairly standard police procedural but for one fact: it is set in Atlanta in the late 1940s and 1950s and the cops? They’re the first black police officers in the city. Unsurprisingly, these police officers are forced to negotiate a tenuous existence. They are the pride of their community, burdened with high expectations and a mandate to be model citizens and officers. Their victories will be everyone’s, but so will their failures. And yet they are hamstrung as law officers. They cannot carry guns or drive squad cars and they are forbidden from arresting white suspects. They are also, at best, despised by their white colleagues. At worst, they are cheated, beaten and framed by these officers who are disgusted to serve in an integrated police force.

Lucius Boggs and Tommy Smith are two of the new officers facing these precarious circumstances. They make for a fun pair. Boggs is the dutiful son of a preacher while Smith likes a faster life, but they are both determined to do their duty and prove their place in the police force. When they begin to unravel the mystery of a young murdered woman and come to suspect a cover-up that involves white police officers and powerful politicians, they must find a way to pursue justice without jeopardizing the fragile and fledgling order that allows them to serve their city and protect their community.

I love the way that Mullen presents a classic detective story through racial and social historical lenses. I was reminded a lot of Richard Price’s police novels, but set in an earlier time where the lines between different communities were a little less blurred. Mullen clearly did his research, and brings a nuanced understanding of a fraught, divisive and transformative time in our history. Darktown’s sequel, Lightning Men, came out in September and I hope we will hear about a third book in the not-too-distant future.

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didn’t plan this, but the themes of otherness, power, and cruelty carry over into Southern Bastards, the third series I’ve been enjoying recently. Written by Jason Aaron, this comic is set in Craw County, Alabama where high school football is sacred and the local team’s legendary coach, Euless Boss, is somewhere between a god and king. The team’s unrivaled success has allowed Boss to run the county. The sheriff is his lap dog, he is widely feared, and he heads the local drug trade while using his players as goonish enforcers. Sometimes it is said that football coaches get away with murder. Euless Boss really does. Earl Tubb finds this arrangement unacceptable. Tubb, an aging, tough-as-nails veteran and former football star, returns to town with a haunted past and very little to lose. This sets the stage for a confrontation between two titans of Craw County, which truly is not big enough for the both of them.

This series is an over-the-top delight. Jason Latour’s illustrations perfectly capture a community rotting from the inside out, while Aaron tells a story that deftly snakes through the shared history of Craw County’s citizens. The focus of this series shifts several times, diving deep into characters’ lives to provide insight into their motivations and empathy for their actions. This is done with such careful precision that even a monster like Euless Boss might win you over. Southern Bastards currently has three published volumes, with a fourth due in February 2018.

Clearly I’ve had a hunger for dark tales of violence and corruption this fall. I promise I also read plenty of lighthearted and uplifting books. You know, like Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.  Be sure to sound off in the comments and tell us what series you’re going to dig into this winter!

Hard Truths in a Brilliant Book

When it comes to books, movies, song lyrics, or pretty much anything else, I’m not exactly known for the power of my memory. It’s why I’ve never nailed a movie quote, why I can’t get to the grocery store without the maps app on my phone, and why I’m 90% sure the new Thor movie stars Chris Hemsworth and not Christopher Walken but I can’t say for sure without Google’s help. This might also explain why my favorite books at any given time are often the ones I’ve read most recently-they’re so clear in my mind!  

And yet this year the book that I’m still talking about, that is crystal clear in my mind, is one that I read waaaay back in March. The reason is simple and it has nothing to do with the Ginkgo Biloba I forget to take every morning. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas wasn’t just the best book I read this year, but was among the best I’ve read in a long time.

the-hate-u-giveThe narrator of this novel is a teenager named Starr Carter. Starr lives in a neighborhood that is majority black, under-served, and impoverished. Starr’s family has deep connections to their community; her mother is a nurse and her father owns the local convenience-style grocery store. Starr’s father also grew up there and made many mistakes as a younger man that continue to follow him. Rather than hide his past, however, he speaks honestly and uses his own experiences as a catalyst to help the young people around him. Although they embrace their community, Starr’s parents also want Starr and her brothers to have greater opportunities and send them to an expensive private school in the suburbs.

The Hate U Give opens with Starr attending a party where she encounters a childhood friend, Khalil. The party is interrupted when members of rival gangs come into conflict and gunshots are fired. Starr flees the party with Khalil who offers to drive her home. They are pulled over by the police seemingly for no reason other than the color of their skin. This traffic stop ends like many that have made headlines and provoked outrage in recent years. Khalil, an unarmed young black man, is shot dead by a white police officer. Starr witnesses all of this and finds herself with a gun in her own face during the incident leaving her deeply traumatized, enraged, and terrified.

This shooting occurs very early in The Hate U Give and the rest of the story traces its effect on Starr, her family, and her community. Starr’s parents are fearful for their daughter and encourage her to avoid the news crews and the activists who show up in the wake of this tragedy. At the same time, Starr sees her old friend Khalil get linked to drug dealers and local gangs and unjustly blamed for his own death. Her loyalties are further fractured by pressure from people in her neighborhood and her love for her uncle, who also happens to be a cop. As Starr’s life lurches forward she must figure out how to speak the truth about Khalil’s life and death without tearing apart her family and neighborhood or jeopardizing her own future.

Thomas’s skillful and thoughtful storytelling combined with the circumstances of the lethal shooting guarantee that The Hate U Give is both a topical and emotionally charged read. While I appreciate and value this story, the book is also a masterful consideration of Starr’s full life as a young black woman. Starr spends a considerable amount of emotional energy concerned with her own identity, worried about how she presents herself in her neighborhood and in the affluent school where she is surrounded by white classmates and friends. She is aware of the way that she code-switches, altering her speech, mannerisms, and appearance to adapt to these very different environments, and she is burdened by the guilt of hiding parts of herself at school while keeping secrets about her school life from her loved ones.

Thomas also explores the emotional weight of Starr being her community’s representative at her school and the unfair responsibility Starr feels to defend Khalil, as if his death is only unjust if he led a mistake-free life. It is this final point that ties back to the unconditional, unapologetic statement that black lives matter and that the onus to actualize this idea in our communities is on all of us, not just those facing oppression. This is a statement that can be difficult and uncomfortable to accept but through Starr’s eyes it feels essential and undeniable.

Waiting for Kylo

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” Thomas Paine wrote that during the difficult early years of the American Revolution. But he could just as well have been talking about my life in the months leading up to a new Star Wars film. The second full trailer for The Last Jedi was released this week and my excitement level is higher than Anakin’s midichlorian count. This. Movie. Looks. Amazing. While there are still two excruciating months until Episode VIII hits theaters, the past few years have seen the release of some phenomenal Star Wars content to help us all survive the wait. I want to tell you about a few of my favorites in our collection, but first a warning: if you’re new to Star Wars, there may be some spoilers below.

Claudia Gray’s Lost Stars opens in the early years of the Empire, on the Outer Rim planet of Jelucan. Ciena Ree and Thane Kyrell are two natives of this world leading very different lives. Thane comes from noble stock. His affluent family has plentiful Imperial connections. Ciena has far more humble beginnings. Belonging to a lower social caste, her family is proud and loyal, but also poor and marginalized. Thane and Ciena are brought together, however, by their love of flying and dreams of attending the Imperial Academy. 

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Through hard work and determination, they both make it to the Academy where they seem destined to rise through the ranks together. Despite their strong bond their relationship soon grows complicated. Ciena continues to take pride in the order and righteousness of the Empire while Thane begins to wake to the cruelty and oppression around him. As Ciena quickly rises through the ranks, Thane chooses to defect and join the fledgling Rebellion. Their linked paths thread through many famous battles and close escapes as the Rebellion grows and begins to find success. With the battle for the galaxy heading towards an ultimate confrontation, both Ciena and Thane are forced to decide between their convictions and their ties to one another.

Despite glowing reviews, I had low expectations for Lost Stars. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good YA romance, but that isn’t what I look for in a Star Wars novel. I was delighted and surprised to find that the romance in this book takes a distant backseat to Gray’s masterful retelling of many well-known Star Wars events from fresh perspectives. As such, this sprawling novel serves as a perfect companion to the films that are indelibly ingrained in my mind.

Zahn and Thrawn are two names that are inseparable and unforgettable for many Star Wars fans. Timothy Zahn is a legendary author, while the cunning Admiral Thrawn is his greatest character. Like many fans, I was crushed when Disney excluded these novels from the new canon. But Zahn is back! He has written a novel, aptly named Thrawn, that tells the story of this captivating alien’s rise through Imperial ranks and his struggles against the bigotry and other roadblocks he faces.

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Alternating between Thrawn’s perspective and those of two young Imperials who become key figures in his career, Thrawn reminded me of an interstellar Sherlock Holmes mystery. Thrawn is a brilliant tactician always several steps ahead of his rivals and enemies. He is often impeded, however, by his total lack of social graces and ignorance of Imperial politics. His assistant and companion, Eli Vanto, is a perfect Watson helping smooth the way when Thrawn’s unrefined manner is problematic, but also serving as an audience surrogate who allows Thrawn to flash his superior intellect. Finally, this book gives Thrawn his own Moriarty, a mysterious and brilliant smuggler turned Rebel, who will either bring Thrawn great glory or prove to be his undoing.

As someone who has read an awful lot of Star Wars books, Thrawn simply feels fresh. While helping build backstory from years before the Original Trilogy and providing clues for events yet to come, Zahn has shown that he is still among the giants of the Star Wars world.

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The inundation of new Star Wars books has also spilled over into the world of comics. Marvel has put out a string of wonderful volumes covering the Clone Wars, Lando Calrission’s early years, and everything in between. My favorite series is the Darth Vader run which takes place between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Faced with the failure of the Death Star, Vader has fallen out of the Emperor’s favor. In order to re-secure his place as Palpatine’s right-hand cyborg, Vader must face down many daunting challenges including angry Hutts, newly rebellious planets, and force-sensitive rivals. And then, of course, there is a certain lightsaber-wielding Death Star destroying young pilot. He is especially pesky. 

While all of these aspects of Darth Vader are superb, it is Dr. Aphra who steals the show. With apologies to Han Solo, Aphra is the closest thing the Star Wars universe has to an Indiana Jones: a pithy and sardonic young archaeologist who comes into the employ of  Darth Vader. Throughout the series she is constantly skirting the line between rescuing the Sith Master and meeting the wrong end of his lightsaber. Oh yeah, she also has two droids, Triple-Zero and BT-1, who aren’t that different from R2-D2 and C-3PO except that they are sociopathic killers.

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Murder droid? Murder droid!

I’m trying to keep this post shorter than an opening scrawl, but there are many more new Star Wars stories worth your time. Quicker than the Millenium Falcon on the Kessel Run here are a few more quick hits:

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The Aftermath Trilogy, by Chuck Wendig: These books meander at times but do a nice job traversing the years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. They introduce some key characters, revisit some old favorites, and contextualize the rise of The First Order. Perhaps most importantly, however, the third book has a brief aside revealing the sad fate of everyone’s favorite mistake, Jar-Jar Binks:

The clown, they called him “Bring the clown. We want to see the clown. We like it how he juggles glombo shells, or spits fish up in the air and catches them, or how he dances around and falls on his butt.”

The adults, though. They don’t say much about him. Or to him. And no other Gungans come to see him, either. Nobody even says his name.

612nq+bwYGL._SY445_Star Wars Rebels: This cartoon, about to enter its final season, is a thrilling look at the years leading up to the Original Trilogy. Focusing on a rag-tag group of outcasts who are fiercely opposed to the Empire, Rebels has all the droids, lightsabers, hapless stormtroopers and goofy jokes you could want. It’s the rare kid-friendly show that can hold its own with an adult audience.

We also have tons of Star Wars non-fiction, including character guides, Lego books, origami how-to’svintage action figure valuations, and even a Haynes manual for the Death Star. If you’re need something to tide you over until 12/15, stop in and we will find you a book or seven.

Just two months to go, so I feel pretty safe saying it: Alllllmost there…

School is Coming

I’m hoping somebody can tell me where the summer went. Between visits from family, the Summer Reading crush, Eclipse excitement and (SURPRISE!) two weeks of Jury Duty, the summer has been a whirlwind and a half. With kids out of school looking for entertainment and excited to do some pleasure reading this is my favorite season in the Library. It is also by far the most exhausting.

So while it is bittersweet to see all of our young patrons head back to school this week, I will confess that I am looking forward to the structured schedule of the school year. It also happens that a lot of books I love are steeped in the petty grievances and serious identity crises that come with starting at a new school. Here are a few of my favorites:

25701463Whitney Gardner’s You’re Welcome, Universe centers on a young woman named Julia. Julia is deaf, and has always been surrounded by the deaf community: her best friend is deaf, as are both of her parents, and she attends a high school for the deaf. When Julia is betrayed by a friend, however, she is expelled from her school and faces the daunting task of attending a public school where the vast majority of students and teachers struggle to communicate with her, where she has to use a (really annoying) translator, and where no one knows her or seems terribly interested in getting to know her.

But Julia has even bigger problems. A budding graffiti artist, Julia is chagrined to find that another painter is changing her works, adding to them but also improving upon them. Julia feels humiliated and violated by this challenge to her art and sets out to best this mysterious new tagger all while navigating her new school, making new friends, and confronting old ones. Gardner does something very clever to help the reader understand Julia’s communication frustrations. When people try to talk to her and she struggles to read their lips, dialog will have some words missing, replaced with “——-.” This decision ingeniously drops the reader into Julia’s shoes, forced to decipher meaning based on surrounding context.

y648Like Julia, Riley Cavanaugh, the narrator of Jeff Garvin’s Symptoms of Being Human, has a lot going on. Starting at a new high school is bad enough for Riley who is already prone to anxiety attacks. But on top of that are the expectations of Riley’s father who is running for reelection in a hotly contested congressional race. Between the pressure to make friends, blend in, “act normal” and not screw up, it’s no wonder Riley is feeling stressed. But Riley is also dealing with something else – a secret that only Riley’s therapist knows. Riley identifies as gender fluid. A far-too-simple explanation would be that sometimes Riley wakes up feeling male, and sometimes Riley wakes up feeling female. But as Riley says “…it’s not that simple. The world isn’t binary. Everything isn’t black or white, yes or no. Sometimes it’s not a switch, it’s a dial. And it’s not even a dial you can get your hands on; it turns without your permission or approval.

To try to cope, Riley starts a blog and is shocked when posts start going viral. Riley begins to settle in, make a few friends, discover a potential romantic interest, and find some respite from all of life’s external pressure. But good things never last. A blog commenter seems to have uncovered Riley’s identity and is threatening to out Riley. Now Riley must decide whether to shutter the blog and betray those who have come to depend on Riley’s posts or to stand proud and risk the judgment of friends and family as well as possibly ruining Riley’s father’s political career.

30256109In American Street, by Ibi Zoboi, Fabiola Toussaint is a young Haitian immigrant who lands in Detroit ready to embrace the American dream. From the start, however, things do not go as planned. Her mother, who was supposed to accompany her, is detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in New Jersey and Fabiola arrives alone, meeting her aunt and cousins for the first time. American culture and expectations to assimilate immediately overwhelm Fabiola, but her resilience and determination ensure that this is not a derivative fish-out-of-water story.

Fabiola’s fierce cousins, known as the three Bees (brains, brawn and beauty), are respected and feared affording her a measure of protection in the neighborhood while also helping her find her place in school. Fab quickly begins to settle in, but is torn between her desire to conform and her devotion to her Haitian identity. She also begins to realize that her aunt and cousins might be involved in some unsavory dealings and that in order to help her mother, she may need to betray the family that welcomed her in Detroit. Though her mother is far away Fab is never alone. All around Detroit Fab sees lwas, Vodou spirits, who help guide her and warn her of impending danger. These visions give American Street a surreal mysticism that edges towards magic realism while also lending authenticity and depth to Fabiola’s immigrant experience.

One of the reasons I love YA fiction is the way its talented writers impart empathy in their work. I’m fortunate to have decent hearing, I’m not an immigrant, and until I read the Symptoms of Being Human my understanding of gender fluidity was rudimentary at best. All three of these works do a masterful job of weaving diverse perspectives into their work, helping the reader to understand the lives of others without overpowering their works’ compelling narratives.

deadlyAnd now for something completely different! In the ongoing series, Deadly Class, Marcus is a homeless teenager simply trying to survive. Sure he has some demons in his past and the police would like to speak with him, but otherwise he seems like a decent guy.  A new world is opened to him when he is invited to attend King’s Dominion High School for the Deadly Arts, a school dedicated to training young assassins. Suddenly Marcus finds himself thrust into a world of precocious young killers, the children of gang leaders, mob bosses, drug kingpins, and genocidal dictators. Marcus must learn to carefully navigate the halls of this school unsure of who to trust because he is certain that if he can survive he can take revenge on the people who destroyed his own family.  This beautifully illustrated comic is profane, thrilling, hilarious, and incredibly difficult to put down.  

An Alien-less Invasion

I’ll admit it. I am very excited. The first total solar eclipse to span the United States in over 100 years, and we are close enough to the path to get a very good show. We’ve been getting lots of questions about the eclipse, about eclipse glasses, and about the best places to view the eclipse, so I know eclipse-mania (eclipsanity?) is not restricted to my nerdy circle of friends. And I am delighted to have a chance to further build the hype among our young patrons – I’ll be presenting a special eclipse themed storytime this Thursday.

I’ve been obsessed with space for as long as I can remember. I grew up on a steady diet of Star Trek and Star Wars books, before graduating to more “sophisticated” fare like Starship Troopers, The Forever War and, of course, Ender’s Game. With the coming eclipse, I’ve been thinking about these books and even revisiting a few of my favorites. And yet what I keep coming back to is the best book about an alien invasion that I’ve ever read, even though there aren’t any actual aliens in the book.

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Andrew Smith’s Grasshopper Jungle is the history of an apocalyptic pandemic as recorded by Austin Szerba, a wry, self-aware teenager dealing with fairly typical high school problems: school, family, local jerks, and his complicated relationship with his girlfriend, Shann. He’s also facing some issues that are a little messier – his brother is off fighting in Afghanistan and he is not sure exactly how to define his feelings for Robbie, his gay best friend.  

Of course none of this is too far outside the realm of many other great coming of age stories. That’s because I haven’t yet talked about the plague that Austin and Robbie have accidentally unleashed. This is not the kind of virus that “simply” kills it’s host. Instead it causes them to molt their human shell, turning into giant praying mantis-like super-soldiers who are only interested in two things: eating and ….well, you can probably guess the other thing. As this beastly infection spreads at an alarming speed, either infecting or devouring anyone in its path, Austin, Robbie and Shann embark on a hilarious, perilous, and awkward journey towards both self-discovery and an understanding of the history and consequences of the merciless killer they’ve unleashed.

Smith is an incredible writer with a precise and masterful feel for the uncertainty and self-consciousness of teenage life. He also understands the tedious boredom of the daily adolescent routine and the bursts of frenzied excitement that punctuate these years. As with all his books, the quirky strangeness of his writing captivates from page one but it has extra vitality when delivered in the voice of Austin Szerba. Austin is obsessed with creating historical records even though he understands the futility of doing so, as he explains in the book’s opening:

I read somewhere that human beings are genetically predisposed to record history.

We believe it will prevent us from doing stupid things in the future.

But even though we dutifully archived elaborate records of everything we’ve ever done, we also managed to keep on doing dumber and dumber shit.

This is my history.

There are things in here: babies with two heads, insects as big as refrigerators, God, the devil, limbless warriors, rocket ships, sex, diving bells, theft, wars, monsters, internal combustion engines, love, cigarettes, joy, bomb shelters, pizza, and cruelty.

Just like it’s always been.

In a sense, the entire book is a narrative journey through Austin’s meticulous records. Despite the many engaging storylines what truly shines is Austin’s frustrated devotion to his town and its many residents, warts and all. His obsession with unwinding their histories may be laced with acerbic wit, but he is telling these stories because he cares desperately.

Maybe my ranting and raving praise doesn’t make you curious to read this book. Maybe you’re still wondering why I am talking about a book published in 2014. Maybe, just maybe, I can sweeten the pot. Edgar Wright, geek director extraordinaire, is in the process of developing the film adaptation of Grasshopper Jungle, which I am waiting for with far less patience than I am for this damn eclipse. And if that’s not enough, come on people! Giant, horny, man-eating praying mantises!

Comics that Aren’t Quite Safe for Work (Unless You’re a Librarian)

I love virtually all comics and graphic novels. From Pokémon manga, to Congressman John Lewis’s masterful graphic memoir, March, I can’t get enough. As a youth services librarian, I’ll be the first to shout that there are plenty of great reads for adults in our children’s and teen areas. But the books below? They are filled with adult language, adult themes, and very adult illustrations that may not be suitable for all readers. Did I mention adult language? They have some adult language. They are also some of my favorite stories from the past few years. Enjoy!

The Fix by Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber

TheFix_vol1-1Cops! Robbers! Movie Stars! And one heroic Beagle! The Fix stars Roy and Mac, two LAPD detectives who are equal parts charismatic, corrupt, and utterly hapless and have massive egos to boot. Roy is the leader of the pair, a shameless self promoter bent on wringing every last kickback out of his carefully curated hero-cop image and more than happy to destroy a few lives if that’s what it takes. Given their loose morals and access to power, life might be pretty good for Roy and Mac except for one major problem – they owe money and lots of it. And the guy they owe? Let’s just say he’s not a forgiving individual. Luckily, it seems that everyone is on the take in Roy and Mac’s Los Angeles and there is plenty of money to be made if they look in the right places. It seems that Roy and Mac might be able to dig their way out of the mess they’ve made. Only one thing stands in their way – the one cop they can’t corrupt or blackmail, a hero and legend of the LAPD, Pretzels the dog….

The Fix is a hilarious, pulpy read packed with jokes. Outside of Pretzels, there isn’t a “good guy” in this one but all of the characters are immensely likable in spite of their mountains of flaws. Even Josh, the sociopathic monster of a crime boss is a perverse delight; a kombucha pushing, yoga practicing, organic produce buying “modern man,” torturing with one hand while doting on his infant child with the other. With only two volumes published, this is an easy series to catch up on and a profane joyride that holds up after multiple re-reads.

Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

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Suzie and Jon both have a secret. They have a super power of sorts. After having sex, they are able to stop time. They’ve both been keeping this secret for as long as they can remember so they are incredibly relieved when they discover that they share this power. That they also happen to be attracted to each other is just icing on the cake. Very….convenient icing when it comes to using their powers.  And use their powers they do! Suzie is a librarian whose library is facing a budget crisis. To save her beloved workplace, Jon and Suzie set out to use their powers in a well-intentioned but misguided way – robbing a bank to raise the money the library needs. What could go wrong, right?

Like The Fix, Sex Criminals is a hilarious romp filled with smart people who are very dumb criminals. The creative duo behind this book are masters of self-aware (and sometimes fourth-wall breaking) comedic storytelling. While this is a raunchy series, it never feels too gratuitous, and as the story expands, it keeps finding new ways to surprise, delight, and reward the reader.

Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro

BitchPlanet_vol1-1Let’s take our crime to the hopefully-not-too-near future! Bitch Planet presents a world where toxic patriarchy and corporatism have been allowed to pervasively and thoroughly corrupt society. Women who fail to follow the rules established by male leaders, who fail to behave as expected, to look the way they are supposed to, or maybe women who simply dare to age in ways their husbands do not care for are labeled NC or non-compliant. NC’s are deemed simply too dangerous for the world and are sent to a giant artificial space prison, known to most as Bitch Planet. But the men in charge are about to find out that when you take a ton of bad-ass women and put them together with very little to lose and a common enemy to fight, you’re just asking for trouble. Think Orange is the New Black but in space. 

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This series tells an incredibly compelling story. It is unapologetically political and if my description made you itchy, it might not be for you. Bitch Planet is also among the most beautiful comics that I have read with a style that both embraces and subverts the exploitation genre popularized in the 1960s and 70s. Of all the comics I read, this is one of the hardest to put down.

Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples

81+Sf+bNqULSaga begins with the birth of its narrator, a girl named Hazel who is born into either the best or the worst possible circumstances depending on your perspective. Hazel’s parents, Alana and Marko, are on the run, fugitives from the law who have committed acts seen as both treasonous and monstrous. They are from home worlds that have been warring for generations. Both are ex-soldiers who have discovered that love can exist between former enemies and that their species can even have children together.  

Of all the dangers that Alana and Marko represent to those in power, it is their love and their child that are seen as the most threatening and offensive. This war has ravaged the universe for many years, and the stakeholders know that they have much to lose if word of Hazel’s birth spreads and the public begins to believe that peace may be an option. So Alana, Marko and Hazel must run pursued by genocidal armies, murderous robot royalty, and dangerous bounty hunters known as freelancers.

I saved Saga for last because it is my favorite comic. At times I could make a case that it is my favorite piece of writing or even my favorite story in any medium. This is also a work that must be approached with Game of Thrones rules – do not get too attached to any character. Anyone might die at any time and these are usually savage, gutting deaths to rich, multifaceted, and beloved characters. But who am I to say this? This comic breaks my heart every few issues and I keep coming back for more.