Thursday, June 23, 2016

June 2016 Staff Book Recommendations

The Rook
By Daniel O’Malley 

The Rook starts with a compelling hook: A young woman wakes up in a park with no memory of her identity, surrounded by dead bodies wearing latex gloves. In her pocket she finds a letter telling her that her name is Myfanwy Thomas, that she is a high-ranking member of a secret organization dedicated to protecting the United Kingdom from supernatural threats, and that she was betrayed by someone she trusted. Now, informed only by letters written by herself to herself, she has to work at a high stakes job she has no memory of having, deal with supernatural coworkers who might literally stab her in the back to get ahead, and solve the mystery of who betrayed her and stole her memory, all while protecting London from an ancient evil. 

O’Malley’s use of the memory loss plot and the letters allows The Rook to adroitly weave in the large amount of exposition that is necessary in this kind of book. I also appreciated the fact that the pre-memory loss Myfanwy is presented as a completely distinct character from post-memory loss Myfanwy, and that both characters are equally compelling despite one only appearing in flashback letters. O’Malley also does a great job mixing humor in with the action, and his world-building is top-notch. 

While many elements of this book are familiar for regular fantasy readers, what really makes it stand out from the pack is its compelling protagonist. So many urban fantasy novels tend to be about a supernatural private detective, or a supernatural police officer, or a supernatural warrior of some kind. It’s refreshing to read about a heroine who, while able to defeat monsters with supernatural powers, solves many of her problems by being really good at bureaucracy and diplomacy. The Rook is also less “bro-y” and more British than many typical urban fantasy novels. 

I highly recommend this book. It’s incredibly fast-paced, and once you pick it up, you won’t want to put it back down. And if you like it, a sequel comes out this month.


Miller’s Valley
By Anna Quindlen 

Anna Quindlen is one of those writers who possesses a knack for exposing the kernel of truth in every situation, every scene. She is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and a bestselling author in the self-help genre, but her forte is rendering real the domestic front, as her novels Object Lessons and One True Thing demonstrate. And she knows how to build suspense—this reviewer read Black and Blue in one night! 

Miller’s Valley tells the coming-of-age story of Mimi, daughter of hardworking Buddy and stoic Miriam. It is also a tale of change for Miller’s Valley itself, the long-established town named after Mimi’s family, which is on the brink of literally being flooded in the name of civic progress. Long-time residents can accept this development “the easy way or the hard way.” The easy way is to take the government’s relocation pittance, sell and move elsewhere. The hard way? You’ll have to read the book to find out. 

Set against this small town tumult, family secrets play out. Mimi’s older brothers both leave her behind on the farm-- Eddie, off to college, and Tommy, to Vietnam. While Eddie makes good on his escape, Tommy returns from the war as a ghost of his former self. Plus, Aunt Ruth is agoraphobic, best friend LaRhonda is wild turned religious, and older boyfriend Steven is too clever by half. The plot is remarkable in its ordinariness, in that it is the story of many American families, and towns, in the 1960s and 70s, yet the novel is so readable, you will find yourself immediately invested, needing to find out the source and resolution of each character’s conflict. 

For readers who enjoy novels about families, relationships and small town history. 


The New Kids: Big Dreams and Brave Journeys at a High School for Immigrant Teens
By Brooke Hauser 

As I have been getting to know and care for the students with whom I spend my time in my American English Made Easy program, I have wanted to learn more about what it is like to come and live in the United States from a non-English speaking country. This book was an automatic must-read for me.

Told by journalist Brooke Hauser, The New Kids is an amazing story about an international high school in Prospect Heights in Brooklyn, New York. Hauser paints a portrait of several dedicated educators from International High and their incredible students, many who have survived countless dangers and hardships before they have even arrived at the school. Hauser introduces the reader to the students, including Jessica from China, who was invited to move to the United States permanently by her stepmother in order to live with her father and her two little half- brothers. However, shortly after Jessica arrived, her stepmother changed her mind and refused to let her live with her and her husband (Jessica’s father), leaving Jessica all on her own. 

The reader also meets Ngawang from Tibet, who was forced to risk his life and hide inside a suitcase as a family friend helped him escape to the United States. Other students in the school had to cross deserts barefoot or watch family members being held at gunpoint by corrupt officials in wartorn countries. Not all students in this book experienced such dangerous conditions, but they still had to face daunting barriers to their success, such as legal issues, poverty, and the difficulty of learning a new language. However, despite all of their struggles, Hauser highlights how these students have continuously shown remarkable courage, determination, and heart to follow their own dreams and chart their own courses. 

Even though there are countless stories to tell and many facets of what it is like to be a new American, Hauser composes and chronicles The New Kids with such warmth and insight that it is as if the reader is journeying alongside each of the people featured in the book. Check out it and be inspired! 


Red Queen 
By Victoria Aveyard 

Upon first glance, Red Queen is reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, but the similarities are truly few and far between. This story is set in the most unlikely places, post-apocalyptic Earth. There are only a few maps of the world before its destruction, and only the privileged eyes of the Silvers can see them.

The book starts off roughly, as the author throws out lots of names, rules, and places making it hard to follow, but hang in there because it all begins to make sense as the plot thickens. We learn that the world consists of two classes of people, the Silvers and the Reds. The Silvers (those with silver blood) rule over the Reds (those with red blood) because unlike the Reds, the Silvers have extraordinary powers, such as the control of water, fire, wind, light, and minds. The Reds are repressed by the Silvers, so much so that they live in the slums, need vouchers for electricity, food, and water, work all day and night, and are drafted into war as soon as they reach the age of eighteen unless they are apprenticing. For many, the draft means death since the only way to be discharged is old age or serious injury. 

In this repressed environment, there is one person who refuses to follow the rules (actually she is impressively good at breaking the rules), Mare Barrow. The star of this book is anything but a normal Red. Mare would do anything for the people surrounding her--family, her friend Kilorn--and she pickpockets to put food on the table. When Kilorn’s apprentice dies, Mare seeks the local black market tradesmen to ask him to smuggle Kilorn out of town, and he happily agrees to help for an absurd amount of money. Mare sets out pickpocketing only to pick the wrong (or right?) person’s pocket, which lands her a new job and a whole new life...

Read Red Queen to see where Mare ends up... 


By Cecilia Ekbäck 

As you start to plan your summer reading list, I would like to suggest a title which might seem a bit out of place for summer--Wolf Winter by Cecilia Ekbäck. The title tells you a bit about the setting - yes, it is set in the winter, specifically during the winter of 1717 in Swedish Lapland, and yes, winter is the opposite of summer, but hear me out.

Maija and Paavo reluctantly leave their home (and their past) in Finland where they made a living fishing on the ocean to start a new life in the Swedish Lapland with their daughters, Frederika and Dorotea. They attempt to make a new start at the base of Blackåsen, the ominous mountain where the indigenous Lapps live, along with a priest and a small group of settlers. All have sordid pasts.

As the family tries to adjust to their new life herding goats around the harsh and unforgiving terrain of Blackåsen, the two daughters find one of their neighbors, Eriksson, dead on the mountain. The settlers brush it off as a wolf attack but once Maija sees Eriksson’s wound, she is convinced it was done by a weapon and not by a wolf. When Paavo leaves the new homestead in hopes of finding work, both Maija and Frederika are determined to uncover the truth about Eriksson’s death. While Maija uncovers human pasts and motives, Frederika uncovers spirits and Blackåsen all the while the wolf winter rages on and Blackåsen shows little mercy.

Ekbäck’s debut novel offers readers a domestic noir (a crime genre usually from the point-of-view of the female experience) and a bit of historical fiction all wrapped in one. As the mystery surrounding Eriksson’s death evolves, the Swedish king is losing his grip on his northern empire. Ruling by divine right and using the local priests to collect taxes and send townspeople to fight on behalf of the king, the local priest is pressured to follow suit. Ekbäck offers us the story through three points of view, Maija, Frederika, and their priest. We see this part of history play out through the priest who is new to Blackåsen and is struggling to deal with the politics of the settlers and the politics of the king. This novel offers the reader a chilling story to ice the veins during the hot and humid summer months.


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