Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

In a desperate act, an unemployed professional takes a job night-clerking in a weird old bookstore. Customers are rare - most visitors instead stop to borrow from an immense and mysterious not-for-purchase collection shelved in the store. Then Clay's customer-less boredom and his attempt to impress a cute girl-hacker cause him to bumble upon the answer to a puzzle he didn't even know he was solving - and the start of an epic quest.

This book is like Dan Brown's stories ... but replace the religious iconography with book nerds and typography: old-school books versus new-fangled computers, a secret underground library, a shadow sect, and the ultimate search for truth in a coded codex vitae. Intrigue, suspense and a secret book club!

But I'm being unnecessarily flippant about it: this is actually a good book that I enjoyed immensely. Despite the unlikely trajectory of the story, it's not cheesy and the characters are all very true to life. Clay's biggest asset is the same as that of any good librarian: he doesn't have to know everything, he just has to know how (or with whom) to find it. Facilitation as super-strength!

Monday, April 29, 2013

The World's Strongest Librarian: A Memoir of Tourette's, Faith, Strength, and the Power of Family by Josh Hanagarne

Mostly, this book is the personal memoir of a man who works hard every single day to manage a health problem. He's been incapacitated, given up on life, and damaged by something he has no control over. And yet he maintains a great sense of humor and perspective.

Hanagarne has the most extreme case of Tourette's that his doctors have seen. His tics cause him harm in a number of alarming ways: when medicine failed to help control it, he became ... a weightlifter? When he couldn't stop the noises, he studied to become ... a librarian? While this may seem counter-intuitive, Hanagarne perseveres as a big thinker who puzzles through problems by asking a million questions without worrying that many are unanswerable.

I really enjoyed this book because it's not a typical autobiography. Josh isn't always positive, and he's never certain he'll be successful. He loses faith, and his worst nightmare (passing Tourette's to his son) comes true. Yet he keeps putting one foot in front of the other.

This is also a book about libraries: the people who love them, the people that use them, and the philosophy behind the institution. Big-city libraries are a true melting pot, and Josh does a great job explaining what his day is like and describing the people he meets (I'm reminded to be grateful as a small-town librarian that I don't have the same characters and struggles).

Hanagarne is a Renaissance man - smart, bookish, inquisitive, and polite. But he's also a physical hulk with a hobby that includes throwing boulders for no good reason. The book is well-written, a great mix of trials and tribulations, funny library stories, and moments of faith and reflection. I'll recommend it -  and not just to librarians and fans of libraries - to anyone interested in personal stories.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Memoir of the Sunday Brunch by Julia Pandl

This book has two distinct sections: the first, concerning Pandl's family and the Milwaukee-area restaurant they owned; the second about her parents' aging, illnesses, and deaths. Most of the descriptions I read of this book described a memoir on family business or an inside look at restaurants - and while that's not totally incorrect it's only half right and unfairly dismisses the powerful, emotional second half of this book.

In the first half, we get to know the Pandl family (9 kids, ham-fisted authoritarian chef father, ultra-Catholic mother) and their life in and out of the restaurant. It's well-written and funny, with an appropriate number of behind-the-scenes horror stories you would expect of one who grew up in a commercial kitchen. But what that section really does is set up the characters, emotions, and relationships for the very different second half of the book.

Many adults reach a point where their relationship shifts from parent-as-caregiver to child-as-caregiver. As the youngest child in her family, it seems Pandl frequently diverted her own independent adulthood to return home for one reason or another. But rather than making her bitter about what she lost, this offers her new perspectives on life (and religion) and an unusual, rich closeness with her parents during their decline.

It's 120 pages of a very different writing style - more artistic and less chronological. There's pain, and lots of Catholicism. But there are also some very funny sections and lots of love.

I'm recommending this book, but not necessarily for the reason other reviewers noted. For me, it's all about the second half.

Three Sisters

by Susan Mallery

Picking up this book, a love story was expected.  In reality, it's about the power of friendship in difficult times.  Yes, these women do have their own romances, but as in life, there is much more.

Andi, Boston, and Deanna each feel broken in some way.

Andi: jilted at the altar.  She ran off to purchase a rundown house and launch her pediatric practice in a small town.

Boston: her six-month old baby died of a heart defect.

Deanna:  the world sees her as the evil queen.

While their homes are geographically as close as possible, Boston and Deanna's lives were equally diverse.  That is until Andi swooped in to purchase the only other home on the street.  One bond forms nearly instantly, while the others take a little push.  The story reminds me of Cathy Holton's Kudzu Debutantes novels with fewer catfights.

Although each woman is facing challenging circumstances, the deep friendships they form through their pain make me want to find more books in Mallery's Blackberry Island series. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

A glamorous woman in a boat arrives in a tiny forgotten Italian fishing village, and that's all it takes for decades of  amazing, wonderful stories to begin. Right from the start, this book's characters will draw you into their tales: a small town and tiny lives in 1960s Italy, huge stars and over-the-top drama of Hollywood lives now and then, a failed 1990s musician and his vices.

The writing is wonderful, and the multiple storylines braid and weave themselves together at a languid pace. The story glides into the future and back into the past, which mean sometimes we know more than the characters, but not always; sometimes Walter leaves us in the dark for a while, a step or two behind the action. We gradually learn about the in-between-times - when a hole in the timeline begins to fill in - and a couple times I thought "when? wait? tell me about that!" Eventually we do hear it all, and puzzling together the pieces is one of this book's great joys.

I listened to the audiobook, and the narration by Edoardo Ballerini was spectacular. He artfully voices these myriad characters, and his Italian really brought those sections of the book alive for me in a way my own reading would have lacked.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Punk Rock Jesus by Sean Murphy

In a near-distant future, reality TV producers clone DNA from the Shroud of Turin and the world tunes in to watch the re-birth of Jesus Christ. Newly released in book format, this graphic novel was previously serialized in six volumes under the same title.

This is an amazing book, gorgeously drawn with a fantastic story arc and lots of sticky questions to ponder along the way (and long after you've finished). The evils of reality television, religious ferver of all ilks and brands, the environment, and scientific ethics: it's amazing how much is crammed into these dark, hard-edged black-and-white comics.

Highly, highly recommended.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Best Man

by Kristin Higgins

The only thing that could have made this a sweeter love story is chocolate.  Faith could be viewed by those around her as a sad character.  She's epileptic, and lost her mother at a young age.  To top that off, she was left at the altar by the man who had claimed to love her since high school.  How was she supposed to know he was gay?  She has always blamed his best friend, Levi for the whole incident, because he appeared to be the only person on the planet who noticed.

After fleeing home for years, Faith has returned to find everyone is just as she left them, except for one.  Levi is now home from the Army, and chief of police.  She can handle the pity, and probably even regain the friendship she's held so dear with her ex.  The real question is, can she forgive the man who was always on the sidelines of her life?

Higgins is one of my favorite authors.  Her tender stories bring a smile, and often a few tears as they are savored like a glass of wine from the Blue Heron winery run by Faith's family. 

Princess Addison Gets Angry

by Molly Martin

I had to read this title since I know little one with the same name as the main character and the same fantastic red hair.  So often, books with a purpose are tricky to sell to any reader.  This is a well done book on a tough emotion.  I quickly purchased the entire set for our library.

After every story time, at least one little girl wants a book about a princess.  Often, parents have read the same stories so many times that they want something new.  Ms. Martin has come through on that front, and created a series about emotions that will have pre-readers understanding more about their feelings.  Well done.