In my life, lucky means snagging the last box of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Valentine's Day cards from the Dollar Tree shelf for the child who will have no other kind. Not even the kind with scratch 'n' sniff stickers. (My mind wonders about combining the two--what does the end of a franchise/era/childhood smell like?)

The Odds by Stewart O'Nan has 67 holds, but I managed to find a copy on the Lucky Day shelf. It was exactly what I wanted for Valentine's Day--the perfect love story to pluck from the twee sea of pink and red plush animals with giant eyes, the cheap boxes of drugstore chocolates, the cards that always fall short of the mark.

Set on a Valentine's Day weekend, the story follows Marion and Art Fowler on the eve of their thirtieth anniversary. Jobless, facing foreclosure and with their marriage set to finally implode, they book a bridal suite at a ritzy Niagara Falls casino for a second honeymoon--and the gamble of their lives with their liquidated savings.

Find a cozy place to sit and break out that heart-shaped box of chocolates. (You know, the battered ones with all the tiny finger-holes in the bottoms from children attempting to locate the caramels. Or maybe that's just my box.) Bet red or black on this game of reading roulette. Either way, you'll win.

While he's written a few books since his debut trilogy I hold a soft spot for Joe Abercrombie's first trilogy: The Blade Itself, Before They are Hanged and Last Argument of Kings. And given these books when I say soft spot -- well, under the ribs is supposed to be a nice efficient spot to thrust a blade up into a man's heart. The cover of Book One is nicely splattered in blood in fair warning of the story itself.

In many ways this is a very traditional fantasy cast of characters. There's a barbarian berserker, a wise old wizard, a dashing swordsman and so on.  But there's a dark spin on all of them.  Think about it. Would you really want to be traveling with a trained killer of a man that can't tell friend from foe on the battlefield and towers over you?  Logen Ninefingers may be an ally of the moment but he is an unwashed savage killer and dangerous to friend as well as foe.  That wise old wizard?  Well, you've only lived a human lifespan and he's got goals that don't really count the ant-like human lives around him. The dashing swordsman?  Kind of a pathetic little man really. Of all the many characters I found myself feeling the most for the torturer Glokta. The most 'evil' of the main characters actually isn't too bad a least not for someone that is willing to torture people into confessions to support a corrupt institution.

They're off to save the kingdom...or collect a relic that can open a gate to the realm of demons.  Not that the wizard is passing out straight answers.  The series is dark, gritty and in its own way humorous.

Why do I do this to myself? I check out pretty much every animal rescue book and documentary that crosses my path. (And I keep the tissue well stocked.) I think it's because so many of these heartbreaking stories end on a hopeful note, with good people doing good things for animals in need. The Lost Dogs: Michael Vick's Dogs and their Tale of Rescue and Redemption is a perfect example.

Written by Sports Illustrated writer and editor Jim Gorant, The Lost Dogs tells the story of the NFL player's illegal dog-fighting operation and the amazing rescue and recovery efforts that followed the investigation. It's hard to read at times, describing in painful detail the brutality inflicted on these animals at the hands of Vick and his associates. The dogs, considered too "damaged" to be adoptable, were scheduled to be put down.

Ultimately though, cruelty proved no match for the dedication of so many people who tirelessly advocated for saving the dogs and finding them suitable homes. Most of the dogs responded surprisingly well to socialization tests, and there were more happy endings than one might expect. The children's book Saving Audie: A Pit Bull Puppy Gets a Second Chance chronicles one rescued dog's journey from terrified pup to loving pet. The simple text relays a message of compassion and resilience to young readers, and the wonderfully expressive photos are a treat for all ages.

Please welcome Gesse, a new contributor to the blog! She has this to say about herself: As a kid I used to try to read while walking, but have since realized that this is a dangerous idea.  I still try to find plenty of time for reading, though, and am always eager to share my opinions with my friends and family.  I figure that sharing my opinions in this blog will give my friends and family a much needed break!

Galore is well-titled, in that it really contains a lot of stuff!  A lot of characters, a lot of history, a lot of thoughtful observations about modern life and a lot of beautiful turns of phrase. Michael Crummey creates a specific, detailed world, which is interesting both in its similarities to and its departures from our own world.  I read most of Galore on a train trip between Seattle and Portland.  I make this trip pretty frequently and generally spend a lot of time walking to the dining car and back, and wondering if that woman on her cell phone will ever end her very loud conversation.  While reading Galore I was entirely unaware of such distractions; the first time I looked up from the book we were arriving in Seattle.  If that’s not enthralling, I don’t know what is!

The book begins with a retelling of the Jonah and the whale story. This Jonah is named Judah and he has washed up on the shore of a remote Newfoundland town called Paradise Deep.  As we learn about Judah’s story and the different reactions the townspeople have to his presence, we begin to understand the individuals that populate this settlement and the elaborate interconnections between them.  As the novel continues we follow these same families out of a mystical past into recognizable historical periods, tracing the changes they experience on both personal and societal levels.

Others have compared Crummey to García Marquez, and while I can see the similarities between their magical-realist approaches and their facility with an enormous cast of characters, I think Crummey’s writing is something unique.  The specific blend between realism and magic is all his own and in his hands common words and everyday occurrences become fresh and strange.  If you’re a fan of richly drawn, literary historical fiction or even science fiction with a well-created alternate world, you shouldn’t miss Galore.

Picture this: Death, a pudgy, half-naked bumpkin sporting only a single buck tooth and a leather codpiece, comes rolling into the small town of Shuckton on his motorized bicycle and delivers a beat down against the mayor via television remote control before snorting up his soul through a dustbuster - and that’s just in the first ten minutes.

Death Comes to Town is eight half-hour episodes of the silliest comedy hi-jinx that The Kids in the Hall have ever produced. Conceived by Bruce McCulloch after the Kids re-united in 2008 for a comedy tour, Death’s murder mystery plot is little more than a thin excuse for the troupe to breathe life into new and irrepressible characters. There’s Marnie, the terminally forgetful pizza delivery lady who calls her condition “the fuzzies”; Dusty Diamond, the town coroner who harbors an unconventional love for the dead mayor; “Crim” the local career criminal; and RAMPOP, the mayor’s adopted “special” son who speaks only in chirps and whirrs and sees all adults as large animated butterflies. My personal favorite? Inept defense attorney Sam Murray and his decrepit, perpetually dying 32 year-old cat, Buttonhole. If you don’t laugh until you weep at the scenes where Sam takes Buttonhole to the vet, you may need to upgrade your humor software.

Filled with plenty of the satire, sight gags and salacious humor that the Kids are famous for, this four hour mini-series can be knocked out in one glorious sitting and is best enjoyed with some gravel and grubs or eggs straight from the body (why yes, there is even a Chicken Lady cameo). Don’t you want to spend some time with Death tonight?

When Sandman Slim by Richard Kadrey came out I read the review and decided it wasn't really going to be to my tastes. Too violent, too scary, too gory... not my thing at all. Then I picked it up on a whim. I needed something new to read and was in the right mood to try something that might be pretty gross. Turns out I was wrong to reject it the first time. I loved it. Sure it's violent and it's gory, but it isn't actually scary. Instead the books are really pretty funny -- in a sick, twisted, puerile and violent way -- but they are surprisingly humorous.

Stark was a callow young magician who loved his girlfriend and had a few daddy issues. Then he got betrayed by his buddies and cast into Hell. Alive. There he spent eleven years getting tortured in unspeakable ways while killing monsters and demons in an arena to amuse other monsters and demons, all to survive a little longer. Now he's back on earth, has a few anger management issues, and wants revenge, in part for being betrayed and in part for his murdered love. While he's getting his revenge he earns a buck freelancing as a monster killer for an angel and as a bodyguard for Lucifer when he's on earth. The only side Stark is on is his own.

These are nice light books in their own blood-and-unspeakable-gunk-soaked way. The books are a very fast read. I also enjoyed book three, Aloha from Hell: A Sandman Slim Novel. I hope there's a fourth book in the works!

Is your iPod at capacity? Mine is. And when I download songs to my computer, I never do anything with them. Add to that a shed crammed with CDs I can’t bear to part with, and it’s too much music to handle.

Library CDs broke my cycle of pointless song-hoarding. The music they hold is ephemeral, passing through my life like fragrance. Newly liberated, I scaled way back on listening to my iPod. Overuse was making me numb to its charms. These days, I only listen to it while walking on lunch break. Reducing iPod visitation hours has made me fall in love with a few bands all over again.

Like The Misfits and the anthology Static Age. It’s a collection of songs they recorded during graveyard hours in New Jersey, but it plays like tinny transmissions from a cave in outer space. Cruddy recording never sounded so right, and neither did the words “Her omelette of disease awaits your noontime meal/ Her mouth of germicide seducing all your glands.”  It was 1978, and they were young enough to pull off lyrics like that with punky-sincere sneers. In my book, Static Age is all the Misfits you need.

I look like a mom and a library nerd lady who wears knitted ponchos, because I am. But on my walks I am listening to THE MISFITS, and therefore a bad-ass! And no one knows, unless I am pumping my fist and muttering some ridiculous mock-Satanic chant along with Glenn Danzig under my breath.

Today on my awesome bad-ass walk I saw a crusty old dude walking from the opposite direction. He had a puffy coat and a black eye and carried a little boom box like the one our youth librarian has in the meeting room. I paused my Misfits and heard Sam Cooke’s velvety voice blasting out of the boom box. I smiled at the puffy coat guy and he smiled back. And for a happy moment, our private music worlds intersected.

Do you have a case of the winter blahs? The sparkle of the holidays has passed, but the winter weather remains. Spring and summer seem a long way off, know what I mean? Well, never fear. Cue Fred Astaire! You can't go wrong with his singing and dancing charms. Check out the film A Damsel in Distress, based on the novel by P.G. Wodehouse and recently released on DVD. This lighthearted movie is heavy on talent, featuring the music of George & Ira Gershwin and co-starring George Burns and Gracie Allen. You won't find Ginger Rogers in this one, but the story involves the usual plot suspects (romantic complications, mistaken identities, etc). And the musical numbers are fantastic! An Oscar-winning fun house routine features Astaire, Burns, and Allen dancing on and around turntables, tunnels, slides, and distorting mirrors. A Gershwin gem, "Nice Work if You Can Get it", highlights Astaire's incredible rhythm and musicality, both as a dancer and as a drummer.

If you'd like to learn more about Fred Astaire, check out his engaging autobiography Steps in Time. In his conversational, easy-going style, Astaire relates the story of his life and work, at least up to 1959 when the book was first published. In a more recent publication, Music Makes Me: Fred Astaire and Jazz, author Todd Decker describes Astaire's contributions to the art of jazz music and his collaborations with a variety of musicians, arrangers, and performers.

Sit back, relax, and let Fred Astaire tap your troubles away!

Whenever some pundit or book reviewer decries Young Adult or teen books as somehow not as good as books for adults, don't believe them. (This happens regularly, usually when they think they are talking about an exception to the rule.) I find there are many teen books that are complex, extremely well-written, and compelling, and many books aimed at adults that are simplistic and puerile. So if you're looking for a quick but satisfying read, check out that YA section.

I'm sure I'll write about many YA books for adults in the future, but today I will focus on a few historical fiction books.

The Pox Party (The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing, Traitor to the Nation Vol. 1) by M.T. Anderson. A boy raised as a science experiment is given a classical education and sheltered from his status as a slave in New England in the 1760s. Blinders are removed and a pox party changes things. This book is not for the casual do have to like that 18th century baroque style.

Fever, 1793 by Laurie Halse Anderson. I'm sure you knew our fledgling nation's capitol was in Philadelphia in 1793. Did you also know a yellow fever epidemic claimed around a fifth of the residents? There would have been more if many hadn't fled the city, including George Washington. Protagonist Mattie Cook falls ill despite fleeing, but survives to return to the devastated city.

The Land by Mildred D Taylor. The son of a white landowner and a former slave, Paul Logan is openly acknowledged by his father in post Civil War Georgia. Paul works hard to acquire land of his own. Needless to say, he faces many obstacles. The author draws upon true family stories for her well-crafted books on the Logan family.

A few summers ago, I went to visit some cousins who live in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania which is essentially THE place to be if you're Amish. I tried not to stare, but ultimately failed because everything about the Amish was so different from my experience and totally fascinating. We went to a horse auction run by the Amish, parked the minivan next to a horse-drawn wagon, passed horse and buggies and a sort of bicycle/scooter mashup that was one young man's mode of transportation, and shopped at Good's which is kind of like an Amish Wal-Mart. I finally got the inside scoop about these people when I recently read Growing Up Amish by Ira Wagler.

Ira now lives in Lancaster Co, PA, but was born into a large family in an Old Order Amish community in Aylmer, Ontario (who knew there were Amish in Canada? Obviously not me.). Wagler talks about the customs, rules and differences among Amish communities (they can be pretty wide) and what it was like for him growing up in several of them. We're let in on life at an Amish school, we go to an Amish wedding and church services, we see communities work well, and sometimes not so well, and we experience the pain and struggles of Amish youth who don't fit the mold. Wagler was one of those youth. He first left when he was a teenager, and then came back and left several more times before finally leaving for good. The writing is sometimes a bit overwrought, but the feeling of being let in on a secret was certainly worth it.

Never. Never ask for what ought to be offered.

These are the words of sixteen-year-old protagonist Ree Dolly in Daniel Woodrell's book Winter's Bone, giving her younger brother a lesson in conduct. Their father has not been home in days and they are hungry. A family across the way, to whom they are related, has freshly killed carcasses hanging in the trees; he is wondering about requesting some of the meat.

Ree's father cooks crank and the story picks up after he is missing and in danger of skipping a court date; if he does, the family will lose the house and land--their only security, pledged to a bail bond. Ree's mother, mentally ill and a vacant shell of her former self, is a burden Ree carries without question, along with her two younger brothers. They are family, and family is all.  

This novel is atmospheric, darkly lyrical and devastating. While the gritty portrayal of hardscrabble Ozark life is striking, even more compelling is the seeming resignation and acceptance of the status quo by adults, children and the law. The questioning Ree is a lone and exposed nail waiting for the hammer of the system to come down. She is clear-eyed about the risk she is taking but she also knows that without that risk she will sacrifice her life and the futures of her small brothers to the ravenous and self-perpetuating cycle of drugs and poverty.

She knows that searching for her father will take her deeper into darkness than she wants to go, but she also knows it is her only chance of finding the light.