Coming of Age

I guess I like to read coming-of-age novels because they describe a process that is something painfully beautiful and life changing and totally unlike my coming of age event. I don’t think I had a coming-of-age moment, at least not the kind you see in movies (Ahem, I’m looking at you, John Hughes.) And that’s why I love novels that do have wonderous coming of age stories.

In Ellie Eaton’s The Divines, we are thrown between the present day and a run-down all-girls school in England in the 1990’s. Josephine is newly married and on her honeymoon with her husband Jurgen. As they’re driving to their honeymoon destination, Jo decides to make a detour to her old school. The school did not survive a scandal in Jo’s last year there and went on to become a dentist’s office while other buildings on the grounds were torn down.

Jo is thrown back into memories of her days at the girls’ school and how the townies used to bully them, beat them up for being “posh” girls who went to a fancy school. But Jo’s memories begin to lead her down a dark path, many of the memories involving an unliked and unwanted classmate by the name of Daphne who had an unfortunate accident falling out of a window.

Told in turn by the Jo of now (married and with a child) and the Jo of the mid 90’s (first loves, first times, finding a best friend in a townie girl who adopted her) The Divines is a novel about who you think you were, versus how you really were at a certain age. It’s also about realizing how others saw you at a certain point in your life and how you saw yourself and reconciling the two halves.

Make no mistake, this is no ‘frilly girly’ coming of age story. The Divines has sharp teeth and will dig into the deepest part of you, searching for any and everything you’re feeling only to suck that part out of you. This was one of those rare books that when I finished the last page, I had to put the book down and stare at the wall for a few minutes and sort myself out.

Enjoy The Divines and stare at the wall for an hour afterward. I swear you won’t regret it.

Whisper Down The Lane

How many times does a lie need to be told before it becomes the truth? If more than one person tells it then it must be true, right? If it is a child and the lie is outrageous then it is has to be true because a child could never make something up like that would they?

Imagine a fib you told as a child. A little white lie. Now imagine it taking on a life of its own and you have no control over it. It consumes everyone around you.

This is what happened to Sean as a young boy in Whisper Down the Lane by Clay McLeod Chapman. He told his mom a fib, she told the authorities, who then told the school, who then told the other parents. The parents then asked their kids questions in such a way that the fib was planted in their minds and confirmed. Kids being kids, they wanted to please adults and tell them what they think they wanted to hear. The next thing you know people believed the lie and lives were ruined!

Fast forward many years. Richard starts working at an elementary school. The kids in his class are great. They have a classroom routine. Study, read a story and after lunch they have “circle time” and everyone naps. The children are happy and all are doing well.

It isn’t long before the routine gets broken and things take a turn for the worse. Richard finds a threatening note written in a child’s scrawl. The schools pet rabbit is killed. There are rumors around town and in the school about “devil worship.”

Soon Richard is under suspicion for something so terrible he can’t believe anyone would think of him, or anyone, doing such things. He especially can’t believe that the rest of the school staff are even considering he could have any part in it.

This book is a gripping story that could have been torn from the headlines. It filled me with fear to see how easily lies could be spread and that any one of us could bear the brunt of it. You’ll be reading late into the night to see what happens and how it will all end. Get your fingers in shape to turn these pages as fast as you can!

A Network Effect

If you need an example of something positive in this world, look no further than the recently announced Nebula Awards. If you aren’t aware, the Nebula Awards are the premier awards for science fiction and fantasy and this year Martha Wells has won for her novel, Network Effect.

I’ve reviewed Network Effect before, but it bears repeating how smart, creative, snarky and downright fun her whole Murderbot diaries series can be. Yes, I did just write Murderbot diaries. A tad dubious about taking up a series with a title like that? Here is a little intro to the character to ease your mind… somewhat.

Murderbot, the name it uses for itself but never shares, is a semi-organic sentient android known as a SecUnit. SecUnits are created and controlled by big corporations to do their bidding. This usually entails long hours of guarding corporate assets, with a little lethal force thrown in. Murderbot has hacked its Governor Module, however, and is now completely independent from its corporate overlords.

So, what does it do with this newfound freedom? Go on a murderous rampage perhaps or take over the world? No, Murderbot just wants to watch as many video serials as possible, especially its favorite space soap opera, Sanctuary Moon. Sadly, events force Murderbot to not only interact with humans, who it doesn’t understand and wants to avoid at all costs, but also engage with a world far different from its beloved fictional programs.

Network Effect is the first novel length book in the series and can definitely be read on its own. I would highly recommend starting from the beginning, however. All of the other entries, including the most recent (Fugitive Telemetry) are novellas so no need to worry about getting bogged down in lengthy tomes.

Be warned though, once you get hooked, you will probably be wishing for more. With a brand-new Nebula award in her pocket, fingers crossed that Martha Wells will be encouraged to add even more entries to this outstanding series.

Spot-Lit for June 2021

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2021 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction 2021 Debuts

All in All it’s Just Another Body in the Wall

At first, I thought Riley Sager’s Home Before Dark might end up being another cliched hum-drum ghost story. My mind was already made up not to feel guilty if I decided to put it down and pick up another book to read. But some little voice (call it Jiminy Cricket, the ghost of the still living Stephen King, or hell, even Leonard Cohen whom I was listening to when I picked the book up) told me to keep going. So kept going I did and this book knocked my socks off. Well, they were already half off because my puppy was tugging on them so he could run around with them in his mouth, but you get what I’m saying.

As the book opens, an abandoned, possibly haunted, house still clings to the family who left it with just the clothes on their backs twenty-five years ago never to return. Ewan, his wife Jess, and their young daughter Maggie moved into the massive mansion for a fresh start. Ewan is a writer and his freelance jobs are drying up. He thinks the move into an old home with a colorful history will give him the push he needs to write a novel.

The house has its eccentricities: a chandelier that turns itself on, a record player in the den that plays a song from the album The Sound of Music. But all old houses have their own personalities, so the Holt family isn’t too worried about it. Jess made Ewan swear he wouldn’t get lost digging into the house’s past and although he makes the promise, he breaks it and finds out some disturbing things about the past owners of the home.

A father killed himself and then his daughter a few years before the Holts moved in. Before that, a 16-year-old girl had killed herself when her father forbade her from seeing a man she fell in love with. Many other inexplicable deaths occurred in the home when it was a bed and breakfast as well.

Ewan is awoken at the same time in the middle of the night to a thump and the record player starting up on its own and a strange tapping noise coming from the hallway. Meanwhile, their daughter Maggie complains about Mister Shadow and Miss Penny Face, two entities who seem to haunt her at night, watching her from the giant armoire in her bedroom. The haunting comes to a head two weeks after they move in and they flee in the night without any of their belongings.

Time shifts to 25 years later and Maggie is all grown up with a home restoration business of her own. Her father Ewan has just died. She remembers nothing from their stay in that house. But after running away in the night her father wrote a bestseller called House of Horrors that made the family a lot of money and pretty much ruined Maggie’s life. She was always “that girl who lived in a haunted house.”

At the reading of Ewan’s will, Maggie discovers that her parents never sold Baneberry Hall and her father left it to her. She decides it’s the perfect time to go there, renovate the house and finally find out what happened all those years ago, believing that both of her parents have spent the past 25 years telling her lies about it. Maggie goes to Baneberry Hall and shrugs off the feeling that the house is haunted by saying it’s such an old house of course it’s going to be odd.

But finding answers and the truth isn’t as easy as Maggie thought it’d be. The Ditmers, who used to look after and clean the house still live in a small house on the property. Mrs. Ditmer is old and has dementia and her daughter Hannah takes care or her. Hannah’s older sister Petra disappeared the same night that the Holt family ran away, and she hasn’t been seen since. Some of the talk is that Ewan must have had something to do with it, especially when her bones show up in the house.

Primarily a spooky mystery about the redemption of family and the need to heal the past, Home Before Dark is a damn fine read. Just spooky enough to pull the blankets around my shoulders and take a glimpse under the bed for any, you know, ghosts or dead folk and mysterious enough to have me wanting to hang around until it was solved, Home Before Dark is a book you can lose yourself in for a couple of hours. But make sure you keep that armoire closed and maybe put a two by four in the handles so Mister Shadow and Miss Penny Face can’t get out and watch you sleep.

Spot-Lit for May 2021

These titles – from established, new, and emerging authors – are some of the most anticipated new releases of the month, based on advance reviews and book world enthusiasm.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2021 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction 2021 Debuts

Short Story Averse

While I’ve always loved short stories, I know there are some people who are hesitant to try them out. One of the major complaints I’ve heard over the years is that short stories are, well, just too short. You start getting interested in a set of characters and plotlines, the argument goes, and then everything seems to end abruptly and doesn’t resolve.   

While it is true that short story writers have less time to get their characters and ideas across, I’ve always found that good story collections have a consistent mood and style that makes up for the choppiness the reader might feel.  

I was reminded of this while reading three recent collections. While the tones are very different, each collection has a distinct feel. This unifies all the different characters and situations making the book seem like one long work where the characters and situations just happen to change. Read on to find out more. 

You Want More by George Singleton 

In addition to an outstanding cover, this collection is chock full of quirky characters, biting satire and absurd situations. While the stories are taken from the author’s 20+ year career, they are all grounded in the same tragicomic milieu. Set almost exclusively in rural South Carolina, the characters, and their dogs, are definitely unique. While hard to choose, I would have to say my favorite is “This Itches, Y’All” the story of a man haunted by his childhood staring role in an educational film about head lice, and the catchphrase that follows him to the grave. 

Bluebeard’s First Wife by Ha Seong-nan  

A sense of fear, mystery and unease permeates all of the stories in this excellent collection. While the characters are diverse (a young mother coping with the loss of her child, a policeman assigned to a rural posting, a couple distressed by noisy downstairs neighbors) there is always a sense of something disturbing and possibly violent, just beneath the surface. Ha’s use of simple and elegant language adds to this sense of a normalcy that isn’t quite right. “The Dress Shirt”, the story of a woman whose husband goes inexplicably missing, is a particular standout.  

The Low Desert by Tod Goldberg 

All of the characters in this gritty and darkly funny collection have hit rock bottom or are headed that way. Set in the desert lands of California, mostly in and around Palm Springs, each seems trapped in a noir film, sans the traditional ‘big city.’ A grifter with a fondness for karaoke and a bullet hole in his foot tries to dispose of a body; a professor of hydrology develops a super efficient sprinkler system and promptly takes to marijuana cultivation; a waitress hops from town to town trying to escape the inexplicable loss of her daughter. All told in a snarky and biting tone. 

So even if you are short story averse, why not give one of these collections a try? You will find them well worth your limited reading time.

The A’s Have it

I don’t know you guys. The idea of having to be an initiate to get into an ultra-elite “it” group in high school just sounds exhausting. Maybe that’s because I’m 43 and at this age I’d be like: “You want me to steal the answers to the trigonometry final, so I qualify to get into this elitist snob factory? Nah. I’m good. I’m going to sit on the couch and eat this family sized bag of Cheetos while I watch The Office for the 800th time.”

In Elizabeth Klehfoth’s debut novel All These Beautiful Strangers, Charlie Calloway is a junior at the prestigious Knollwood Academy, a school her father attended, and his father before him, and so on and so on. She’s got a huge academic load to worry about and now at the beginning of her junior year she gets a letter saying a secret society known as the A’s wants her to join the group. But there’s a catch (isn’t there always?): she must pass three tests to become a member.

This is kind of a back story to the main story which is the disappearance of Charlie’s mother ten years before when she was seven. She doesn’t have much contact with her mother’s family because her father’s family kind of trash talked them because they weren’t rich. But Hank, Charlie’s mother’s brother finds Charlie and has her look at some photographs he found beneath the floorboards at the Calloway Family summer home on Langley Lake.

Charlie’s family believes that Grace, Charlie’s mother, just packed her bags one day and left, tired of being a wife and mother to her two daughters. For ten years Charlie has lived with the feeling that her mother didn’t love her and that it was very easy for her to leave and never contact her children. Questions begin to swirl around in Charlie’s mind, things she remembers as a seven-year-old: the fights her mother and father would have, her mother yelling at her father “Get your hands off of me!” Was her mother and father’s relationship that strained?

Charlie’s father was also a member of the A’s but since it’s a secret society, it was never talked about. Charlie thinks of them as a powerful, king of the mountain type of group that will open the gates to the best universities and careers imaginable for their members. Once an A, always an A for life. I’m thinking the A’s would do everything to help their members get away with anything. Even murder.

Take the case of Jake Griffin, Grace’s first love. He attended Knollwood along with Charlie’s father Alastair but when asked about Jake, Alastair pretends they were never close and just classroom acquaintances which is weird since Charlie found a picture of them in an old year book with their arms around each other and smiling into the camera. It turns out that Jake was being initiated into the A’s along with Alastair.

Jake was found dead in the river, having jumped from the ledge that was where Knollwood’s elite hung out. He got caught stealing the answers to a test and felt so horrible about it that he took his own life, something that Grace never believed. They’d know each other since they were children. She knew Jake inside and out. He never would have killed himself. But then she goes on to meet and fall in love with Alastair and they marry and fall in love. Seven years into her marriage, suspicions started popping up about the man she married and who he really was.

Told in the alternating voices of Charlie, Grace, and Alastair, this book has mysteries inside of mysteries. It’s a damn inception of a book and I couldn’t write all that I wanted to write about it without giving too much away. I will say that Charlie finds out more than she bargained for about the A’s. She begins to realize that they’re a more self-serving group, punishing those who displease them: even punishing a teacher who rebuked the amorous advances of a student. And if an initiate fails a test, they are set up to be kicked out of school. Charlie also realizes the kind of person she wants to be.

Filled with enough twists and turns to give you motion sickness, All These Beautiful Strangers tells the story of a broken family and its past, of a young woman searching for answers while searching for herself, and is a reminder of how nothing is as it seems. Go on, read it. Devour it like I’m devouring this family sized bag of Cheetos.

The Month of Humor

As April is National Humor Month and glum has been the prevailing tilt to the world’s axis this past year, it seems to be a golden opportunity to highlight titles that might make you laugh or give you a lift. Reading has always been a conduit for joy for me, and this past year, the funnier the better. 

YA and Middle Schoolers

Don’t keep the celebration to yourself. Check out the library’s collection of joke books, and pick a favorite to tell your best pal (who’s 38, for instance) and child (who’s 8). My guess is they’ll both appreciate the laugh.

One of my favorite forms is clowning around, nonsense humor, wit and satire. I have long been a fan of P. G. Wodehouse, particularly the merry distraction that is Jeeves and my favorite knucklehead, Bertie. Because of these two, The Code of the Woosters is a joyous romp. I re-read Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome whenever I’m especially blue. Bring on the silly!

More Fiction

Jasmine Guillory’s Wedding Date series

Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore. Especially fun, as well, is You Suck, although most anything by Moore is an odd, fun, joy-ride of a read.

Science Fiction/Fantasy

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, first in the Thursday Next series. 

Mort by Terry Pratchett, one of the Discworld series

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, book one of the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series.

Dark humor can be the outlet where we brighten ourselves and others up by pointing out the funny sides of adversities or shortcomings in order to laugh about them. While they can have a cheerless aspect, look for the buoyancy, as well.   

Twelve-year-old Flavia, “the world’s greatest adolescent British chemist/busybody/sleuth” (The Seattle Times), lives in a decaying mansion in 1950s England with two prickly older sisters and a distracted father. Part of the charm of a Flavia de Luce series is Flavia’s plucky take on the circumstances in front of her and then heading where that leads. Mix in her avid curiosity and author Alan Bradley’s sterling, darkly comic plot, and you have the recipe for smart and funny mysteries.

At the heart of the 10th installment, The Golden Tresses of the Dead: a Flavia de Luce novel, is a ghoulish question: “How had an embalmed finger found its way from the hand of a dead woman in a Surrey cemetery into the heart of a wedding cake?” While you can grab any one of the books and read it, if you start at the beginning with the wickedly brilliant first novel, The Sweetness At The Bottom Of The Pie, you’ll follow Flavia’s bigger story as it slowly unfolds.

Bradley, who has few peers at combining fair-play clueing with humor and has fun mocking genre conventions, shows no sign of running out of ideas.(Publishers Weekly, starred review)

In The Question of the Missing Head by E.J. Copperman, Asperger’s sufferer Samuel Hoenig puts his syndrome traits to good use running a business called Questions Answered. With the help of his new colleague Janet Washburn, Hoenig uses his unique powers of deduction to investigate the disappearance of a preserved head from a cryonics institute and the murder of one of the facility’s scientists.

Told from Hoenig’s perspective, this cozy mystery series uses light-hearted humor to point out that the approach of the “normal” world can be confusing and, at times, downright silly. Intricately plotted, thoughtful and frequently humorous, these gentle stories showcase Samuel’s unique perspective as a help rather than hindrance to his sleuthing success.

Patrick deWitt’s The Sisters Brothers is a funny, award-winning re-imagining of the Western novel.

A gorgeous, wise, riveting work of, among other things, cowboy noir…Honestly, I can’t recall ever being this fond of a pair of psychopaths. (David Wroblewski, author of The Story of Edgar Sawtelle)

Will Not Attend: Lively Stories of Detachment and Isolation by Adam Resnick. This Emmy-winning screenwriter, who started as an intern for the original Late Night starring David Letterman, makes his debut with this collection of personal tales ranging from childhood to being a dad. The book is full of tension between Resnick and everyone in his life, whether he’s on vacation at Disney World or finding a blade in his milkshake at a fast-food chain.

The writing is sharp and sharp-tongued, sometimes close to the line of mean-spirited—the book is not for readers who are easily offended…. A neurotic, unapologetic, hilarious collection. (Kirkus Reviews)

One of the best laugh-out-loud reads I have had in a long time.

Non-Fiction

The Corfu Trilogy: a naturalist and his family leave England to live on the Greek island of Corfu. These are the tales of the interactions they have there–with both humans and animal varieties.

Allie Brosh’s latest offering, Solutions and Other Problems, continues where Hyperbole and a Half, her first book, left off in 2014. Both are based on collections of personal stories and drawings, including funny tales from her childhood, the adventures of her ‘very bad pets,’ and the absurdity of modern life in a mix of text and intentionally crude illustrations. They are part graphic novel, part confessional, and overall delightful. The books come from collections of blog posts in the form of her very popular webcomic, Hyperbole and a Half. Brosh started Hyperbole in 2009.

“A quirky, humorous memoir/collection of illustrated essays.” (Kirkus Reviews)

 **************

“‘There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, “Do trousers matter?”’

‘The mood will pass, sir.’”

~  P. G. Wodehouse, Very Good, Jeeves

Spot-Lit for April 2021

Rejoice! It’s not every month that offers new fiction from 20th-century maestro Marcel Proust, or a pertinent novel on race and policing by Richard Wright from 1942 that only now is getting published, or a new translation of what is described as the most accessible novel by Brazilian phenom Clarice Lispector.

In terms of local color, Willy Vlautin’s latest looks at greed, hardship, and gentrification in Portland, and Joanne Tompkins’ intense Washington-set debut focuses on loss and connection.

April also brings us new titles by Haruki Murakami, Jhumpa Lahiri, Helen Oyeyemi, and Paula McCain along with much-buzzed debuts from Kirstin Valdez Quade, Sanjena Sathian, and Donna Freitas.

Click here to see all of these titles in the Everett Public Library catalog, where you can read reviews or summaries and place holds. Or click on a book cover below to enlarge it, or to view the covers as a slide show.

Notable New Fiction 2021 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction | 2021 Debuts