Blogs: Fiction

I've read a lot of novels set in Europe during World War II. Hasn't every reader of historical fiction? It's the just war—the only war in recent memory where there was a clear line between the good and the bad guys, which makes it very useful for literature. But of course, it's not really that simple. Recently I read Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, and it gave a thoughtful and moving look at what it would have been like to be on the wrong side of that war.

We meet Werner as a young orphan in a bleak mining town in Germany. Germany is already turning into a war machine, one fueled by the coal mines that Werner and all the boys in the orphanage are going to be sent down into when they get old enough. But Werner is a bit of a prodigy. He has the ability to fix radios everyone else has given up on, and when his talent catches the right person's attention, he's given a chance to escape from the mines. He takes this chance, getting a place at a national school that, with the use of shocking brutality, is molding the future leadership of the Third Reich. 

Marie-Laure is a blind girl living in Paris with her father. She's a great character, extraordinarily brave, and indeed, she needs to be brave as she flees Paris, loses her father, and gets involved with the French Resistance.

The narrative alternates between these two characters and they do not meet until very close to the end of both the war and the book. The writing is lovely, and the book is full of interesting and well-developed characters.

Sometimes I look around at the books in the library where I work and despair-- the whole world of literature is darkness, except for those books I've inhabited for a while and made my own, and there are so many I'll never get to. If you enjoy fiction set during World War II, this list contains other good books that you may not want to leave in the dark.

 

 

Margaret MeadI have vivid memories of rummaging about in my mom’s stockings drawer when I was a kid and finding two books - one was on boys' development (my brother was in his difficult puberty years) and the other was Margaret Mead’s, Coming of Age in Samoa. I didn’t quite understand why my mom had hidden this book away and it didn’t look enticing enough to read so I left it and spent a lot of time reading about how boys develop. I wish now I had read a bit of Coming of Age in Samoa to see just how ahead of its time it was.

Euphoria bookjacket

My memory of finding Margaret Mead’s groundbreaking book came back to me as I was reading Lily King’s latest book, Euphoria. Euphoria takes as its starting point an event in the life of Margaret Mead and spins off into a tale that takes you into the world of anthropologists exploring the world of New Guinea in the 1930's. It’s the story of three anthropologists: Nell Stone, modeled after Margaret Mead, her husband Fen, and Andrew Bankson, a troubled, suicidal man who is saved by his relationship with Nell and Fen. It’s a tale of passion, imagination, memory. It makes you think about how objective any of us can be when viewing the world. And you'll be blown away by the amazing writing: 

Do you have a favorite part of all this? she asked. . .

It’s that moment about two months in, when you think you’ve finally got a handle on this place. Suddenly it feels within your grasp. It’s a delusion--you’ve only been there eight weeks--and it’s followed by the complete despair of ever understanding anything. But at that moment the place feels entirely yours. It’s the briefest, purest euphoria.

Bloody hell. I laughed.

You don’t get that?

Christ, no. A good day for me is when no little boy steals my underwear, pokes it through with sticks, and brings it back stuffed with rats.

If you’re looking for a book filled with wonderful imagery, a fascinating story, an exotic setting, and interesting characters, then Euphoria’s a book for you.

Today I made a discovery. I still enjoy reading old fashioned stories about the Old West.

Some people call it pulp fiction, but for me it brings with it memories of spending hot summer afternoons lying on the old metal bunk in my grandfather’s office in Eastern Washington, reading Zane Grey’s Western magazine  and paperback westerns by Louis Lamour.  

Cover for The Tonto Woman by Elmore Leonard

Well I’m more sophisticated now. I read Swedish mysteries by Henning Mankell and Pulitzer Prize winners like The Goldfinch and Olive Kitterige.  But something inside me still loves those stories about strong silent cowboys and rugged, bold spirited  American Indians who feel much but say little; times when everything seemed black and white simple.  So when I saw The Complete Western Stories of Elmore Leonard, my hand was already picking it up before I knew what I was doing. From the first story  "Trail of the Apache"  which takes place in Arizona in the 1880s, I was hooked again.  The tough realism of his later suspense and crime novels is there as well as a dispassionate awareness that makes the characters- native or white  stand out from their stereotypes.

If you are looking for a good read for a long afternoon, give it a try.

Cop Town cover"The good-ol-boy system was great so long as you were one of the boys." Karin Slaughter's Cop Town, my latest read, not only held my attention with its action-packed suspense, but also made me think about what it means to be a woman in today's society. 

If you've been following me since the inception of the My Librarian program, then you know that I love to read thrillers, mysteries, and police procedurals, the darker the better. Karin Slaughter has always been one of my go-to authors. Her Will Trent series is one of my favorites, and Beyond​ Reach, from her Grant County series, featuring doctor Sara Linton, contains one of the best, didn't-see-it-coming twists of an ending that I have ever read. Slaughter's latest has all of the elements of her previous books, a killer, a setting in deep south Georgia, quite a bit of violence (not for the faint of heart!), but it also speaks to the strides that women have made in the last 40 years in America.

Maggie Lawson and Kate Murphy are police officers in the almost all white, male-dominated Atlanta police force of 1974. They encounter resistance at every turn, from lewd remarks, to groping, to physical beatings in Maggie's case, all from their male colleagues (who are often drinking on the job). What makes their struggle even more poignant for me are their journeys outside of work, most notably Maggie's. She struggles to break free from her cop-infested, somewhat abusive family, but, as a woman in the south in 1974, she is unable to open a bank account, secure a car loan, or rent an apartment without her 'nearest living male's information'. When that nearest living male is her reviled uncle, and fellow officer, Maggie is seemingly out of luck.

In Cop Town, the struggle for women's rights is just as strong of a plot point as the search for the killer. Yes, this is a work of fiction, so some of the details may be exaggerated, but I can easily believe that life was like this for women in the south in 1974. Make no mistake - many of the characters in this book are appalling in their prejudice, even the females. But I highly recommend this book to you. It will not only take you on a suspenseful ride, but may just leave you appreciating what you have.

 

 

Do you like stories where families go away for the summer? Author Elin Hilderbrand takes her characters to Nantucket for the summer. OH to have a long vacation every summer! Where weeks bleed into months. Sometimes boredom sets in. Sometimes the need for fun causes tension. All of these elements are evident in this great new graphic novel This One Summer by Jillian Tamaki and Mariko Tamaki. Two families go to Awago Beach every summer. Rose and Windy have been friends who play together all summer while at their families’ vacation homes. Tensions rise a little bit because of the slight age differences of the girls in this coming-of-age tale. But like the waves on the shore they rise and fall.

Rose’s Mother has come to heal, the girls to grow and the Awago residents to cause sensation. If you like stories about friendship and families and beautiful brushwork illustrations like Craig Thompson’s, then you might like This One Summer. It might be your beach read. It might be your long exhale for vacation. Let the Tamiki creators sweep you away.

good luck cover

 

Three things you should know about Bartholomew Neil:

-His mother just died

-He’s not very good at being alone

-Coping with the above requires Richard Gere

 

The Book Thief jacketThere’s a theory I subscribe to that no matter what our chronological age might be, we all feel a different age inside. As in, our bodies grow, we mature in different ways, but mentally, we all feel stuck at some earlier age. For instance, I am mentally a 17-year-old girl who doesn't quite fit in anywhere yet.

I was thinking about this recently after reading an article in Slate Magazine entitled, Against YA by Ruth Graham. The gist of her essay is that teen fiction is written for teens and adults “should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children.”

There are several things I’d like to say to Ms. Graham. Here goes. . .

First of all, it’s sometimes a marketing/publishing decision as to what gets published as a young adult book. Take The Book Thief. Please, please take it. It's a brilliant bookFangirl bookjacket that should be read by everyone! In Australia where Markus Zusak hales from, you’ll find it in the adult section. But here in the U.S., it sits in the young adult section because his previous book was put out as teen fiction in the U.S. Arbitrary? Indeed.

And then I think back to my growing-up years. Once I reached a certain age, definitely when I was still in middle school and high school, I started reading “adult” books. These were books with younger protagonists that certainly were appealing to teens but they also were well-written novels that adults enjoy. Books like My Name is Asher Lev and To Kill a Mockingbird. The chances are that if these books were published today, they would be cataloged as “young adult” fiction and think how many adults would miss out on them?!

That brings me to today and my reading tastes. Sometimes I read young adult books and I enjoy them because I can totally remember what it was like to be that teen (Fangirl, I’m talking to you). I relate to the characters because I’m still a 17-year-old misfit inside. Other times, I enjoy a teen book because it tells a really good story (A Brief History of Montmaray fits the bill).

I hereby proclaim, I am not embarrassed to read young adult literature and you shouldn't be either! Here are a few more titles that you too can be proud to read.

Even though I haven’t left the Pacific Northwest recently, I’ve spent a good deal of the past few months with my head in Africa.

I’ve always been interested in life in other countries and the immigrant experience, but like most Americans, my knowledge of African countries is narrow at best. However, since reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, I've gotten hooked on African writers. Here are a few of my recent favorites:

Book jacket: We Need New Names by NoViolet BulawayoWe Need New Names by NoViolet Bulawayo is one of those books that crosses over into poetry. I relished every word in this joyous and harsh story of a girl named Darling who grows up playing games like 'hunting Bin Laden' with her friends in Zimbabwe until moving with her aunt to ‘Destroyedmichygan' (Detroit Michigan). This is a truly modern immigrant story and the sharp contrast between Darling's African childhood and her teenage years in Michigan is startling. Then there are the character names...Bastard, Godknows, Mother of Bones, and who could forget the Prophet Revelations Bitchington Mborro?

Book jacket: Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela

Set in 1950's Sudan, Lyrics Alley by Leila Aboulela will break your heart, heal it, and then break it again. But it's the good kind of heartbreak, offset by great beauty. Nur, the son and heir of a prominent family suffers a tragic and debilitating accident. With their future uncertain, the family is caught between the traditional values of Nur's Sudanese mother and the modern leanings of his father's young Egyptian second wife, mirroring the social changes in Sudan itself.

Book jacket: Aya by Marguerite AbouetMarguerite Abouet's Aya is the first in a graphic novel series that takes you to Abidjan, the capital city of the Ivory Coast, as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl, Aya. Set in the prosperous 1970s, the level-headed Aya and her boy crazed friends do what teenagers everywhere do; sneak out to discos and argue with their parents. This is a fantastically fun series that both teenagers and adults will relate to, while also relishing the differences of another culture. Turn to the back pages for bonus extras such as the peanut sauce recipe made famous by Aya's mom and instructions on how to 'roll your tassaba' like Aya's friend Bintou.

You can join my African reading adventure with other titles on this list. Got some favorite titles of your own? I'd love to hear about them. I've got many more countries yet to visit and Nigeria can be so hard to leave.

How I love a good Western -- no, make that a small-w western -- one that rides right down the middle of the road. I'm not into books that stumble too far into Louis L'Amour territory or ones that lean towards romance. All I need is an underdog with a cause and no-good varmint who needs to be brought to justice, or have justice brought to him (yeah, it's usually a him.) Though a lot of Westerns are historical, I also like those that are more contemporary too - after all, people didn't stop writing westerns at the turn of the 20th century.

As I've mentioned before, True Grit is one of my all time favorites, featuring a girl who is not to be messed with. Most recently I enjoyed an twist on that story. Robert Lautner's main character in Road to Reckoning is Thomas, an introspective kid who loves books and has no business being on the road with his father, a salesman preaching the wonders of a new-fangled gun, the Colt revolver. When things go badly wrong, Thomas is reluctantly rescued by Henry Stands, a mercurial bounty hunter who has no desire to be saddled with a kid. Yep, there sure are a lot of parallels with True Grit, and that makes this book all the more enjoyable.

The theme of green-horn intellectual thrown into a wild and dangerous wilderness shows up in another favorite, Leif Enger's So Brave, Young, and Handsome. The story centers on a writer who has made a name for himself in the penny Western craze - think a fictional Louis L'Amour. But now he has writer's block and just when it seems he'll never write again, an elderly stranger comes to town, one whose criminal past is catching up with him. Together they go on an adventure that promises to save them both.

One reviewer calls the West portrayed in these books "regrettably familiar".  And it's true that these stories sometimes rely on stereotypes - a kind of short form that links directly to our imaginations. It's that reliance on the archetype that makes them good. After all, what else is a western than the age-old story of a fall from grace, and an effort to reach a more perfect world? For a few more small-w westerns that range from heart-warming to terrifying, take a look at my list. Happy trails.

I found  Dan Simmons' The Terror  positively ripping, a great big adventure story filled with interesting characters-- men of the sea testing themselves against the many, many things the Arctic throws at them. Then it changed, and it started to remind me of a book I read once about the Donner party. And then it changed again and became something unexpected and unusual, and I don't want to talk about that too much and spoil it for you.

The Terror is based on the real expedition of Sir John Franklin and his two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, which in the 1840s disappeared in the Arctic on a doomed search for the Northwest Passage. There's not much sailing in The Terror, as a the ships get frozen into the ice pretty early on and stay there, the result of several exceptionally cold winters. Things start out pretty bad-- Franklin, the commander of the expedition, is something of a fool who fails to respect the Arctic as he should, the canned food is tainted and spoiling, there are no animals to be found by the hunters, crewmen are coming down with scurvy, and it’s unbelievably cold-- like -50 degrees Fahrenheit cold. The ship is crowded and the darkness is constant. And then things get worse. Something-- an enormous polar bear?-- is stalking the crew. And the ships, frozen in the ice for years, are starting to crack up under the pressure.

This is not for the faint of heart-- it’s almost a thousand pages long (or 22 CDs), and contains vast amounts of research about nineteenth century ships, polar ice, the early days of canned food, Inuit mythology, and more. But while I can’t believe that human beings actually signed up for these expeditions, I  just loved the time I spent in the world of this book. The writing is good,  the plot is thrilling, and it’s so compelling that I couldn’t stop listening. Oh, and if you are considering listening to the audiobook, as I did, you should know that the voice actor is excellent, as well, with a plummy English accent and great ability to express characters of different ages, classes and dispositions.

This list will provide you with even more opportunities to head into the cold during the hot summer days that will be coming back soon.

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