The Perils of Reading


Reading a good book can be fabulous and depressing all at once. Page turners, stories that can’t be put down, books that demand to be picked up again, all can leave a reader wanting more. Perhaps it’s a sad commentary on my psyche that I grow so attached to the characters in a book, but on the other hand gifted authors paint such vivid, realistic pictures that their characters practically jump off the page.

Enter gifted author Connie Willis. Classified as a sci-fi writer, Willis writes books that are really historical fiction with a bit of sci-fi thrown in. Her Oxford Time Travel series uses, wait for it, time travel to get characters to a particular point in history, and then the stories become almost entirely historical fiction. And what stories they are! Doomsday Book finds a time traveler trapped in a village during a bubonic plague outbreak. Here Willis creates a world where you-the-reader actually feel that you’ve experienced the insane hardships of the black death.

As amazing as this book is, today I want to discuss Blackout and All Clear, two books which really are just one book split into two. In this adventure, time travelers (called historians) from 2060 go to various points in WWII England to observe and study. Initially, the story jumps around quite a bit between 2060 Oxford and each of the traveler’s adventures. As stories begin to intertwine, three historians who are on separate assignments in 1940 gradually discover that they cannot return to 2060. They start looking for each other (not an easy task in the middle of a world war), each of them incorrectly assuming that the others still have access to the future. Thus the story ends up focusing on Polly, Eileen and Mike in London from mid-1940 to mid-1941.

As much as one can know facts about WWII, there’s no way to know what it was like living through it without having done so. And although Willis’s books are fiction, they thoroughly immerse the reader in the mindset of Londoners during the war. Terror and uncertainty caused by the blitz, loss of loved ones at any given moment, annihilation of homes, daily bombings, destruction of roads and railways and on and on.

But perhaps more than the negative impacts of war, we are shown the resilience of the British. Throughout eight solid months of bombing, people continued going to jobs, shopping, celebrating Christmas and living life day to day. I can’t even begin to imagine the numbing difficulty of living through such an event. And yet live they did.

There is also a sci-fi component to the stories with each of the main characters worried that they might change history (seriously, no one considered this in the 40 years that time travel had been happening?), that they could even cause Hitler’s Germany to win the war. In fact, they are obsessed with this issue. After the time travel process stops working, the three fear that their actions have somehow caused its failure. And to top that off, Polly had earlier in her life gone back to May 1941, so she must return to 2060 before then or the laws of physics and time travel will eradicate her. So we have a thriller that exists on several different levels simultaneously.

When I finished All Clear (some thousand pages later), I felt an emptiness because the end of the book was the end of my relationship with the book’s characters, people who took me through life-changing adventures. In a small way, it paralleled the end of the war when people who had grown so close returned to their normal lives without their wartime families. Happy that the war was over, sad that the experiences which forged strong bonds had ended.


Fabulous, depressing, wondrous and fleeting. This is the literary world. So read a good book, make new fictional friends and mourn their departures as the book concludes.

And then, repeat.

Labor and Lumber


To help commemorate the centennial of the Everett Massacre, we’ve pulled together this list of historical fiction titles. Only Sawdust Empire, by J.D. Howard, deals directly with the bloody events on Everett’s waterfront 100 years ago, but all of these books look at the timber industry and laborers from the 1890s to the present day (with many of them emphasizing the labor struggles of the 1930s).

Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion, about an Oregon logging family that continues to work through a bitter strike, is the best-known of these Northwest labor novels. But it’s good to see the recent reprinting of Robert Cantwell’s long out-of-print, Aberdeen-set novel, The Land of Plenty (originally published in 1935). For a mid-century style and take see Roderick Haig-Brown’s 1942 book, Timber, with its detailed accounts of logging work, and his 1949 title On the Highest Hill. Cormac McCarthy fans ought to appreciate Brian Hart’s gritty 2014 novel, Bully of Order about the extremely rough and lawless world of a Northwest coast logging town in the 1890s.

If you like a bit of mystery with your historical fiction, take a look at the award-winning Timber Beasts or Black Drop by S.L. Stoner, or The Big Both Ways by John Straley.

Click here to see a list of all of these titles in the library catalog and to place holds. Or click on a book jacket below to enlarge it or to view the covers as a slide show.

For additional fiction focusing on the laboring life, take a look at the titles in this list.

Spot-Lit for October 2016


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 2016 (to date) | All On-Order Fiction.

3 Minutes, 4 Seconds

thecallI would die in the Grey Land. If you placed a bet on me, you’d lose all you money. I’d hear the trumpets declaring the game is on and the monsters are hunting me down and I WOULD DIE. Not because I’m weak. Not because I’m not a fighter. I’d die because I’m naked and about to do battle with monsters while naked. If I tried to run I’d catch a boob in the face and knock myself out.

Don’t worry. I promise this will make sense. I think.

In Peadar O’Guilin’s The Call a dark supernatural barrier surrounds Ireland. Planes have dropped from the sky and all life has ground to a halt in the last 25 years. The Sidhe (pronounced “She”) are deadly beautiful creatures that were banished to the Grey Land: a creepy world parallel to ours where there are grotesque living things in the trees and fields of human heads crying out in agony (the place sounds like one big Hieronymus Bosch painting). Seeking revenge for being shoved out of our world, the Sidhe instituted the Call. After the age of 10, all children are assigned to survival colleges where they learn how to fight, protect themselves, and how to kill. They’re even taught that the deceptive beauty of the Sidhe can get them killed. Whenever I imagine the Sidhe in my head all I can see is meth-addled elves straight out of a Tolkien world that are beautiful until you scrape a layer away and find all kinds of ugliness underneath.

In this new world, teenagers have to grow up fast. There’s no time to cultivate relationships or have feelings for anyone and God help you if you get knocked up because that’s not going to save you from the Call. Once called you’ll have 3 minutes and 4 seconds to survive the hunt. In the Grey Land, those few minutes translate into a full day where the Sidhe try to hunt you down and kill you in spectacular ways. It’s rare that anyone survives over there and when they do they come back like wounded war vets with zombie faces. The Sidhe have a sick sense of humor.  Sometimes they’ll show “mercy” and send a teen back alive but with the head of a dog or their backs twisted to the front or limbs swapped around.

Nessa is 14. Her brother had been called years ago and died in the Grey Land. Nessa has twisted legs and walks with the help of crutches. Most of her classmates and teachers think she should have died at birth or been killed because with legs like hers there’s no way she’ll survive. But Nessa is almost supernaturally fast, adapting her disability to become more of a warrior than most of her classmates.

No one knows when they’ll get the Call. You could be sitting down to breakfast in the cafeteria at a table with your friends and all of a sudden Jimmy’s gone, leaving a pile of clothes behind. That’s when the countdown begins, everyone studying their watches and stating the time with nervous voices. I figure the teens go over to the Grey Land naked because there are two times when we’re most vulnerable: while we’re asleep and while we’re naked. And if you sleep naked, you’re doubly vulnerable. When I’m home alone taking a shower and hear a noise all I can think is “Great. I’m going to have to fight someone naked. Maybe I can flash them and make them vomit and make my getaway.”

Nessa trains twice as hard as her classmates because of her legs. She absolutely refuses to think of dying in the Grey Land. Her one weakness is having feelings for a classmate named Anto who is a pacifist and guaranteed to die when he gets the Call. But she’s in love with him and he loves her. What are they going to do? She sees no future with him. The only future she’s talked herself into is the one where she survives the Call and returns to the college as an instructor.

But something is happening at the survival colleges all over Ireland. Whole schools are being wiped out by a mysterious presence and soon that mysterious presence sets its eyes on Nessa’s College.

If you like books about survival and kicking some monster ass, this is your book. If you like books where people have to fight naked, this is your book. If you believe in a parallel world where you are hunted down like a fox with some crazy hounds on your tail, you’ll like this book.

I still think I’d die two seconds after the Call. I can barely run bare foot let alone in my floppy birthday suit.

Quick Picks!

c1d4eb0de14c5411ecece51e6819d96eDid you know that we have a browsing section of books at the Everett Public Library that consists of newly published trade and mass market paperbacks? They are called “Quick Picks” and you can find great titles that are almost always available because no one can place holds on these books. Think of it: Brand new hot paperback titles, yours for the taking. This is your chance to get those hardbound bestsellers that are just out in paper. Here are a few that I have eyed lately.

index-3Look closely at the photo above.  I just spied a book which is on the current paperback non-fiction bestsellers list. Do you see it? S P Q R by Mary Beard is a history of Rome with passion and without technical jargon. It’s history written with common sense, a point of view and a healthy level of snark just to keep things interesting. So this is how perusing the Quick Picks works. You find books that you didn’t even know you needed!


51ab-hiwhml-_sx336_bo1204203200_I recently found a stunner of a book, Isabella the Warrior Queen.  Kristin Downey takes the Spanish Queen out from behind the shadow of Ferdinand and illuminates her importance in the history of the world. As Queen, she took effective measures against the Muslim threat to western civilization, had the vision to support Columbus’ venture and set the stage for the Spanish/Hapsburg empire building in Europe and the Americas. Oh, yes. And she started the Inquisition. Oops!  Nonetheless, this is an amazing story of a remarkable woman that reads like a novel. I highly recommend it!

indexThere’s a great selection of non-fiction in the Quick Picks section. Julie, a co-worker, recommended Pogue’s Basics: Life; Essential Tips and Shortcuts (That No One Bothers to Tell You). It’s a great ‘nibbler’ book and by that I mean you can open it up anywhere and read a bit. There’s useful information like how to remember how to set the utensils on your table: it’s alphabetical, fork, knife, spoon from the left. Also, fork and left both have four letters while knife, spoon and right have five letters. See? You gotta read this one!

index-1Welcome to Subirdia by John M Marzluff is also available as a Quick Pick. There are always overflow crowds when this University of Washington professor lectures at EPL. Avoid the crowds and get this author all to yourself with this book about how birds have adapted and survived in urban areas. In this fascinating and optimistic work, Marzluff tells how our own actions affect the birds and animals that live in our cities and towns, and he provides ten specific strategies everyone can use to make human environments friendlier for our natural neighbors.

index-2I just grabbed a copy of The Shell Collector which is a collection of exquisitely crafted short stories by the author of the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize-winning #1 New York Times bestseller All The Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr. This is a wonderful collection of longish short stories. The loose theme that weaves them together is water, the sea, love of nature, and finding your place in life, even if it means severing ties with those you love. Check it out if only to read the title story. And to gaze at the cover. Beautiful.

index-1Did you miss Paula McLain’s Circling the Sun when it was popular as a hardbound book? Read the Quick Pick! This novel by Beryl Markham transports you to 1920’s Kenya and the world of Out of Africa. This is historical fiction that is beautifully written, historically accurate, and utterly engrossing. I highly recommend this book to anyone who likes strong female figures and/or has an interest in 20th century colonial Africa. This is one great read.


index-2Who can resist the idea of a book barge on the Seine in Paris where the bookseller, Jean Perdu, uses his intuition to select just the right book to deal with whichever emotion – small or large – is afflicting you? Nina George writes a charming, wise and winsome novel in The Little Paris Bookshop. We go on a journey with Perdu to the South of France as he moves from being lost in grief to slowly reclaiming himself and his life. The further south we go, the warmer the weather and the more Perdu comes alive. Bookseller. Lost love. The wisdom of books. All combine to make an enchanting read. Don’t miss it.

So remember to check out our Quick Picks collections at both locations. Browse a selection of mystery, romance, and notable bestsellers. Don’t waste your money on books when you can borrow them from your library. Quick! Pick a book!

Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler

vinegar-girlKate Battista systematically prepares meat mash once a week, dutifully serving it every night to her father and younger sister Bunny. Her father, Dr. Battista has calculated ingredients for efficiency, but his most recent and desperately devised plan involves Kate in a whole new way. One day Kate’s father calls her at home under false pretenses, feigning that he’s forgotten his lunch. His motive is simple: he wants his daughter to marry Pyotr Cherbakov. Pyotr works as a research lab assistant with Dr. Battisa and his work Visa is about to expire.

Kate is offended and hurt by her father’s lack of sensitivity. Taking a stand, she refuses to do her father’s income taxes. Not only does Kate manage the household affairs, she is also expected to enforce her father’s rules, rules which include that her spirited sister Bunny is not to have boys in the house during Kate and her father’s absence. After work one day, Kate comes home to discover Bunny and Edward, an older next door neighbor, alone together. He is supposedly teaching her ‘Spanish.’ Edward’s influence becomes much more suspicious as the story unfolds.

One evening Professor Battista uncharacteristically, and with the help of a few drinks, pours out his heart to Kate which results in her giving into her father’s charade. She agrees to conspire with her father and marry Pyotr Cherbakov for immigration purposes. Gradually life begins to take a turn and a flicker of hope sparks in Kate as she muses over the potential to move from home and her dead-end life.

Pyotr and Kate begin doing things engaged couples usually do: grocery shop, sharing dinner together and so on. All the while Dr. Battista films these activities as evidence of their sincerity. At the market Pyotr grabs pork to which Kate objects. Edward’s influence has converted Bunny to veganism complicating Kate’s meat mash dish. Pyotr comments “In my country they have proverb: ‘Beware against the sweet person, for sugar has no nutrition.’” Beguiled but on the defensive, Kate quips back “Well in my country they say that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.”  Pyotr declares her his ‘Vinegar Girl.’ He is able to see beneath her acerbic character and a growing but awkward relationship begins to bud.

On the day of Pyotr and Kate’s wedding, Pyotr does not show up leading to a suspenseful and comical yet sweet ending.

Anne Tyler’s Vinegar Girl has been dubbed a modern day The Taming of the Shrew and I found it humorous, sincere, witty and delightfully quirky.

Heartwood 6:5 – Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett

PondHeartwood mostly focuses on older books, but once in a while I’m so taken with a new release that I simply must tell people about it. Claire-Louise Bennett’s Pond is such a book, one of the most dazzling debuts I’ve read. It could be labeled an experimental novel or linked short stories or even autofictional memoir without really mattering much to me (a pond is a pond is a mudhole). What does matter is how Bennett puts you inside her narrator’s head. I don’t know that it’s voice necessarily (but what a voice!), or even the quirky richness of the main character’s personality, but rather a kind of intensity, a shared personable intimacy, as if the reader is discovering and experiencing the author’s thoughts at the same time that she is writing them down.

The book focuses on an unnamed young woman who has moved to an old stone cottage in the rural countryside on the west coast of Ireland. The chapters often feature small details of daily living which serve as unlikely launching pads for wide-ranging meditations on recent or distant events in her life, relationships past and present, or things going on right inside or outside her cottage. For example, the broken control knobs on her mini-oven, or the act of taking a bath during a storm, or simply cleaning the fireplace grate will trigger a flood of unexpected reflections on such things as the intensity of feelings upon encountering a forgotten love letter, memories of reading a book about the last woman alive, feeling alienated from a particular place and its history. She moves from topic to topic in a perfectly natural but discursive way, telling us everything in a voice that is exactly right, conveying her wit, intelligence, gentle misanthropy and sense of wonder.

Here are some of the themes that stood out for me: a keen attention to the earth – to the everyday dirt, mud, stones, ponds, gardens, storm-blown leaves and other detritus; a concern with language, both to uncover one’s understanding of things but also in that it can misdirect, and its inability to fully capture and communicate experience; the value of solitude; a background fear of the unknown or imagined, and a compulsive interest in embracing it; love in all its complexity – as all-consuming, obliterating, brutal, inexplicable, happy; the unaccountable workings of the mind and imagination; the pressures of history; and the challenge to attune yourself to the “earth’s embedded logos,” to experience a “deep and direct accordance with things.”

I can’t begin, in this short review, to do justice to this phenomenal book; there’s so much going on and, from one perspective anyway, it seems to demand immersion and living-through rather than description and analysis. But let me, as further examples, at least chart some of the unexpected jumps in the first long chapter, “Morning, Noon, and Night.” The chapter opens, comically enough, with a detailed consideration of what makes the best breakfast food but then takes up such things as: living without purpose but just to take things in; abandoning academia; the purchase of a couple of pieces of textile art and changes in what she sees in them; how to talk of what most moves us would spoil it; fulsome sex and the pleasure of writing lustful, salacious emails; finding a secret garden and becoming an accidental gardener; a quiet early evening of intently listening in the garden. This chapter so impressed me that I found myself reading it again immediately.

Librarians have a tendency to compare and connect books, even though the most unique and striking books can only be crudely compared to anything else. So, yes, I encourage you to read Pond, it is beautifully idiosyncratic, and I will add that anyone who admires what Bennett has done with her female lead might also want to look at Robert Thomas’s Bridge (one of my favorite books of 2014), Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and Joanna Walsh’s Vertigo.

Now I’m going to shut up and return to rereading the rest of this book.