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I love English villages, or, at least, the idea of them: the thatched cottages, the gardens with their exotic-sounding veggies like courgette (zucchini) and Swedes (rutabaga), the endless cream teas, the common area called the green, and the often odd local vicar. Because I've never been to a single English village in all of my trips to Britain (I thought that Thirsk - the home of James Herriot's vet surgery - was, but it's actually considered a market town), most of what I believe about them comes from British television or books.  It could be that what I "know" about villages is not absolutely true, but it's been fun watching how they're portrayed.

My absolute favorite village television show is The Vicar of Dibley, starring the awesome Dawn French. Geraldine Granger, the cute, chubby new girl in town is also the village's first female vicar and at least one of the church council members is NOT pleased.  The cast is made up of some wonderfully eccentric characters including Owen, the randy farmer, Alice, the not-so-bright love interest of the not-so-bright son of the wealthiest man in town and Frank Pickle, the gay secretary who is overly meticulous in his minute-taking endeavors. Much of each episode consists of a council meeting in which serious matters are being considered in often hilarious discussions, although several of the episodes were so moving that I cried. The characters could easily be turned into caricatures, but they all have deeply human cores that are revealed throughout the course of the series and that make them all seem quite possible.

Two other series I've been watching recently are also set in villages or small towns. If you like cozy murder mysteries, try Midsomer Murders. This series has been going on so long that I'm surprised there is anyone left alive in the fictional Midsomer County! Clatterford is more of a town than a village, but you still get the village feel as this show revolves around the small group of people who make up the Clatterford Women's Guild.

The next time I go to England, I must visit a village and find out if everything I've seen on television is real!

I'd been waiting for years to read The Wise Man's Fear by Patrick Rothfuss. The first book, The Name of the Wind, came out in 2007. I finally get my copy. I take it home where my husband says "Great!  I've been waiting and waiting to read that!", and swipes it.  ~whimper~  At last, now that he's finally done with it, I've been able to read the book.

Rothfuss isn't a perfect writer and there are flaws in this book and the first, but the pages just flow by like water - all 993 of them. It seems like he just loves words and language. He never misses a chance to describe and expound. The protagonist of the books, Kvothe, is in many ways a trope character for fantasy. He's a hyper-competent red-head, almost a Mary-Sue, who seems to become good at almost anything he tries in no time at all. There's a funny section where he fails to become great at something-only just managing good enough... I won't spoil it further. He's also a teenage boy with all the emotional wisdom and people skills one might expect from a teenager with no adult guidance. The adult Kvothe may or may not be a reliable narrator. He's been a performer since childhood after all, and could be forgiven for putting himself in the best light.

Kvothe has to take a leave of absence from The University after a prolonged conflict with a high noble's son leaves him in a financial and social bind (see the bit above about the lack of wisdom...). He travels to a nearby country and takes service under a wealthy lord, leading to a string of (mis)adventures. Meanwhile the adult Kvothe, who is narrating the story, appears to be waiting to die.

I really really hope it's not another four years until book three of this series comes out. I'd be pleased to be wrong. And for this next series I want to read, I'll be hiding A Dance with Dragons from my husband until I get to read it, even if he did finish the first four books with greater dedication than I showed...

A couple of weeks ago we held a contest. The challenge was to write a haiku review of a book or film. Our winner was Michelle Overby, who got the most votes with this little tribute to Henry James' The Turn of the Screw:

Just then I felt a
presence in the room that had
not been there before.

 

 

 

 

We were impressed. In fact, there were so many fine entries, we thought we'd share a few more.

Spine not even cracked
Bossypants back at Belmont
Forgive me, Tina

- Lucy Chisler on BossyPants
 

 

 

 

Ishmael and Queequeg
Went whaling on The Pequod
Not knowing Ahab
- Jeff Palmer on Moby Dick

 

 

 

 

Southern injustice /
Black man and a chifarobe /
Kids and Boo prevail.

- Lisa Shaw on To Kill a Mockingbird

 

 

 

Four men, sworn scholars
fore-swear their books in favor
of four femmes fatales.

- Kate Karman on Love's Labours Lost by Shakespeare
 
Victories hard won
So much struggle, sacrifice
They are my heroes

- Latina Anderson on A People's History of the United States 

 

 

 

That movie about
the Disney ride: Too much length
and not enough Depp

- Greg Weber on any Pirates of the Caribbean movies
 
Guy named Sam-I-am
Does not like green eggs and ham
Until he tries them

- Juliet Morefield on Green Eggs and Ham

 

 

and finally...

Flip flip flip
pages turn effortlessly
in long summer days
- Jed Mitchell

Hope the rest of your summer days are spent in languorously turning pages.

I read Pride and Prejudice in high school and college, thankful I had put it behind me. Slumped at a desk with pink-streaked hair and dirty Converses, a marriage plot among ladies of class fell short of resonating with me as a reader. So when someone suggested I read Shades of Milk and Honey —promoted by its publisher as Jane Austen, with magic—I had my reservations. Flash forward one week to me forgetting to feed my grandmother (sorry, Grams)  and missing MAX stops with this book in hand.

Mary Robinette Kowal has won scads of sci-fi and fantasy awards for her short fiction—Hugo, Nebula, Locus, you name it. After reading Shades of Milk and Honey, it’s easy to see why. Her style is easy, her sentences agile, and her dialogue witty. And if there were a few “shews” and “La!’s” thrown in, well, I might have even enjoyed them.  

Shades of Milk and Honey is a story of two sisters, one born with stunning looks and the other born with a stunning mind. Jane Ellsworth is the neighborhood’s best glamourist, expertly conjuring scents, sounds and images that enhance the family home. Jane fights her attraction to a very eligible neighbor, Mr. Dunkirk, while her younger sister loses herself in a maze of feelings for the same man. Their sibling rivalry is full of bitterness, and jealousy, but also moments of kindness. Jane struggles to tame her own passions while keeping a watchful eye out for her sister—and fails, spectacularly, among secret rendezvous and sensational duels.

Kowal’s debut is a light, absorbing read—a perfect choice to enjoy in the Portland sunshine, while it lasts. Be on the lookout for our upcoming Twitter chat with the author on Aug. 11th, from 12-1. Please join the conversation!

I should have started reading the newest series by Elizabeth Moon much sooner. In the late 80's Moon wrote a trilogy called The Deed of Paksenarrion. In a fantasy world, a sheep-farmer's daughter, a big sturdy girl, joins the local Duke's military to avoid an unwanted marriage. She rises to become a paladin and to see that lord chosen as a kingdom's heir. I liked that trilogy quite a bit. I've even held onto my yellowing paperbacks all these years. In the decades since, Moon has written a number of military science fiction novels that just didn't catch my interest, though they've been popular and well received. Recently Moon has gone back to the world of The Deed of Paksenarrion with the start of a new trilogy.  

You don't need to read the first series to enjoy Oath of Fealty, the first in this new trilogy. It has been twenty plus years since I read the original books and I had no trouble falling into this new story. Paks, the heroine of the first trilogy is only a secondary character in this trilogy.

In Oath of Fealty, after the duke, Kieri Phelan, is discovered to be the heir to a neighboring kingdom, he leaves his former holding under the care of his captains, one of whom will be named the new lord in his place. The kingdom Kieri is leaving is in turmoil after the assassination of the king, leaving an untried young prince about to be crowned. To add further to the machinations, the assassin of the young prince's father was one of his other dukes. Now the crown prince must question the traitor's entire family to find how far their service to an evil god and blood magic has spread. That leaves only one reliable person to whom the lands might be entrusted: an aging captain of Kieri's who was cast out of the family as a girl for refusing to practice blood magic. I really need to get my hands on book two, Kings of the North, in short order because the end of Oath of Fealty left me wanting more.

Once in a while, if a librarian is lucky and judged deserving, a co-worker will recommend an especially treasured book. Different from our everyday title-swapping and book banter, these suggestions are usually made privately, with a kind of offhand gravity, and are intended as both gift and compliment. What are these personal favorites like? They're often highly idiosyncratic, and share a certain intensity. In some cases they are their authors' only works. They're always memorable, sometimes hauntingly so. Here are a few of the gifts received from librarians  over many years:

The Ten Thousand Things by Maria Dermout
Through the eyes of a Dutch child on her grandmother's sugar plantation, we see a beautiful, slightly menacing Java, alive with mysteries and scented with spices.

The Leopard by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa
Forget "The Godfather" - this portrait of the last patriarch of a great house in decline gives a deeper grasp of Sicily than any work of fiction has a right to do.

The Gipsy in the Parlour by Margery Sharp
A fey, ambitious Welsh interloper with a gift for hypochondria insinuates herself into an English country family. Charming and very funny.
    
The Bear by Marian Engel
Magic realism done right: There is Bear, the totem and archetype, and then there's an actual wild bear. Which turns up at the cabin of a lonely Canadian woman?
 
Just today, another gift-suggestion: The Blue Castle by L. M. Montgomery (of Anne of Green Gables fame). A meek young woman is handed a fatal (maybe mistaken?) diagnosis, so decides to live out her remaining days being exactly as outspoken as she feels. Sounds irresistible!
 
And from me? The Viceroy of Ouidah, Bruce Chatwin's fever dream of depravity. The Means of Escape, eight dazzling stories by Man Booker Prize-winner Penelope Fitzgerald.  And anything at all by Rose Tremain - her work is like the ideal box of chocolates, where each bite is a unique, exquisite surprise.

How do you pick books? From the bestseller list? From blogs? Recommendations from friends? By reading reviews in newspapers and magazines? By browsing and scanning the shelves? By using Ask the Librarian?

Attracted by the unusual cover, I recently read The Kitchen Daughter by Jael McHenry. What a terrific surprise! Ginny is a young woman with Asperger's syndrome. She hates loud noises, being touched, and frequently hides in the closet when life becomes too much. Over the years, she has saved scraps of the use of the word "normal" gleaned from newspapers and magazines to prove to herself that normal has many different meanings. She has been sheltered and protected by loving parents but now they are dead in a tragic accident.

She must learn to cope with her grief and with her sister who wants to protect her. Ginny has long used thinking about the tastes and textures of food, and cooking techniques to help calm herself. Now she discovers that she has the ability to cook up family ghosts from their handwritten recipes. What she learns about cooking and ghosts, grief and love and the many ways of being normal make for a lovely book. I dare you not to be touched by this surprisingly good novel.

The other night during dinner Child the Younger excused himself from the table, walked over to the cat minding her own business by the front door and proceeded to make large and dramatic conjuring motions in her direction (think Mickey the Wizard in Fantasia.) This was accompanied by those weapon sound effects that all small boys seem to perfect. When he was finished he walked calmly back to his chair, sat down and resumed eating with no explanation. I couldn't resist asking.

"What was that you just did?"

"I needed to give the kitty her laser so she can shoot fire out of her fingernails."

"Oh. Okay."

I managed to keep it together during this exchange, but my husband was trying not to look like he was howling with laughter while snorting iced tea through his nose. It's an admirable parenting skill. Why the cat needed her fire-shooting powers at that very moment remains a mystery to all but one of us.

I've read some great graphic novels lately and one of the best is directly from the mind of a five-year-old boy. Axe Cop is the imagined universe of Malachai Nicolle as drawn by his older brother, Ethan. The title character is a policeman who picks up a fireman's axe and never looks back. He uses his weapon of choice and his somewhat violent tendencies on any number of bad guys, but the best parts involve the crazy sidekick characters including a dinosaur soldier who transforms into an avocado with a unicorn horn, a dog named Ralph Wrinkles, and The Best Fairy Ever. If you would like a direct window into the imagination of a five-year-old, here's your ticket. If you are hoping it will explain why you must NEVER MOVE UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES the plastic fireman's axe that currently resides in the drawer with your brushes and combs, you will be sorely disappointed. Not recommended for reading on public transportation or while drinking iced tea, and especially not both at the same time. And remember: only cowboys and warriors can control the magic riding spider.

Smile is Raina Telgemeier's biographical saga about losing her permanent front teeth to an accident in sixth grade and the drama that ensues for the next five years as she simultaneously experiences the horrors of dental reconstruction and adolescence. The combination of compelling story and detailed drawing make it more than the sum of its parts and you will be transported back to middle school (whether you want to go back there or not. And I'm guessing not. But go anyway.)

Kampung Boy by Lat is the luminous story of a boy from birth to boarding school growing up in rural Malaysia on a rubber plantation. The love and humor surrounding this family make the story rise off the page as the tropical environment and Muslim customs and rituals are explored and explained in a down-to-earth manner.

The sunshine is finally here, so park it in a lawn chair and read some comics before Axe Cop comes after you on his transformed Tyrannosaurus Rex-turned-dragon with rocket wings and machine gun arms. Awesome.

Recently a fellow library employee was looking for some books to keep her company on a long plane ride. She took advantage of our “Looking for a good read?” form, requesting noir-like mysteries with “an engaging narrative, compelling characters, and an overall doesn't-insult-your-intelligence-ness”.

I was excited to answer this question because I love noir, and I love leading people to books. My first suggestion was Dashiell Hammett – his characters suffer, and his language really sings. Among his best works is Red Harvest, in which a nameless detective is called to the corporate town of Personville (the locals call it Poisonville) and becomes embroiled in byzantine back-stabbing. Our poor Continental Op always seems to think he’s one step ahead when he’s one step behind. The cast includes gangsters, union men and heartless capitalists. No one is better than Hammett at writing a sentence – every word pulls the weight of three.
 
A lesser known noir author is Chester Himes. His detectives Grave Digger Jones and Coffin Ed Johnson investigate crimes in Harlem. The language isn’t quite Hammett (nothing is, in my opinion -- not even Chandler), but it’s good, some of his metaphors really make you sit up. And this is popular fiction written in the 1950s by a black man about black people – a rare bird. The first book in the series is A Rage in Harlem.
 
One author that I did not suggest to my co-worker, but I will here, is James M. Cain. Cain was originally from Maryland (where he formed a close friendship with H. L. Mencken), but did not find his voice until he came out west. Western working people were his muse, and he wrote about them with a succinct and grim humor. His best books went on to be made into some of the greatest noir movies – The Postman Always Rings Twice, Double Indemnity, and Mildred Pierce.

When I was a child and my family headed out on Highway 26 toward the coast in our VW bus, we could always count on the delighted scream of my younger sister coming from the last row:  "Going beach!" Those memories of playing in the cold ocean in my Salt-Water Sandals, building castles and eating slightly sandy lunches on a blanket are some of the best I have. I still love the beach, whether it's in Oregon or elsewhere.

Apparently a lot of authors do too, as there are plenty of novels set in coastal locations. Elin Hilderbrand's books take place on Nantucket where she, herself, lives. In The Island, Birdie Cousins is immersed in planning her daughter's incredibly expensive and complicated wedding - until she gets a late night call from Chess saying she's broken it off with her fiance. Birdie decides that a summer trip to the old family home on Tuckernuck Island is just the thing to help Chess heal and Birdie reconnect with her daughter. Birdie's other daughter, Tate, and her sister, India, are soon folded into the plans and so begins a month of family time that includes old dramas and at least one new flame. Is happily ever after possible for the Cousins family?

In The Silver Boat by Luanne Rice, three sisters converge on Martha's Vineyard in order to clear out the family home after their mother's death. They lead less glamorous lives than the Cousins family, but I liked them better. Dar, the daughter who lives on Martha's Vineyard, doesn't really want to sell the house, but the other two see no viable alternatives. As the days go by, conflicts arise and a family secret is uncovered on a trip to Ireland. At the risk of a spoiler, you can count on happily ever after in this book.

If you aren't "going beach!" in real life this summer, at least try to get there in a novel.

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