Friday, January 27, 2017

January 2017 Staff Book Recommendations

American Girls
By Alison Umminger

Alison Umminger’s debut YA novel American Girls, begins with a fantasy of many 15-year-olds: stealing your stepmother’s credit card. Anna is fed up with her self-centered, borderline insane mother, who recently left her dad for another woman (a woman whose snobby attitude and insistence on organic-only products eases any guilt about “borrowing” her credit card). Anna joins her older sister Delia in L.A., who begrudgingly puts her up in her lavish apartment that she can’t afford as a beautiful but struggling actress. Anna splits her time between mildly flirting with teen heartthrobs (if she can’t be as beautiful as her sister, she can make up for it with banter and brains) on the set of a ridiculously unfunny kid’s sitcom, and working for Delia’s ex-boyfriend Roger. 

To put it bluntly, Roger’s a real weirdo. He’s clearly still infatuated with Delia (and may very well be stalking her) and his obsession with the Manson murders is disconcerting, even if he claims he’s doing it all for a film. At least it’s lucrative for Anna – by researching the Manson girls, she’s able to reimburse her stepmom for the flight. But she gets more than she bargains for when she realizes she’s got more in common with Manson girls than she once thought… 

Emma Cline’s recent NYT bestseller The Girls was released during the same week as Umminger’s American Girls. Both forgo analyzing Charles Manson, whose manipulative tactics, “charming” personality (*eye roll*), misinterpretations of Beatles lyrics, and unconventional ideas (read: entirely racist rhetoric disguised as soulful musings) have always given him more credit than he truly deserved. What’s more fascinating is understanding why adolescent girls would succumb to actually murdering innocent (and pregnant!) victims. And why would they gravitate toward a cult like the Manson family ranch in the first place? Were they brainwashed? Totally smitten? Or simply confused, lost, trying to escape their realities…? 

These are the questions Anna tries to answer for herself – at first, just to pass the time in a long, sticky, grimy L.A. summer with tantalizing narratives of the twisted and the macabre. But eventually it's because she sees a little bit of herself in those girls. And who wouldn’t lean toward an opportunity to feel beautiful, loved, or just noticed? The difference between Anna and The Girls protagonist Evie is that Anna’s snarky, deadpan sense of humor makes her a lot more likeable. The following excerpt is somewhat of a non-sequitur, but it had your reader actually laugh out loud (and as a fellow former snarky teenager, this is definitely an accomplishment):

Trying to assassinate the president should not be funny. It really shouldn’t. It’s not like I was cracking up when we read about Lincoln or JFK. But let’s face it, they were real presidents. Gerald Ford ranks right up there with Millard Fillmore and Bush the First on the list of unexciting white men who have run this country, made their way into history books, and otherwise been human sleeping pills. If all the presidents had been television shows, Gerald Ford would probably have been a PBS fund drive. So I’d bet the fact that anyone would try to kill Gerald Ford, Gerald Rudolph Ford, was kind of hard to get excited about, even back in the day. And Fromme sounded like something out of Monty Python, dressed all in red with a sawed-off shotgun under her sister-wife dress and fake-nun robe, muttering “He is not a public servant” before not firing her gigantic gun at the president. “It didn’t go off” was her great defense as the Secret Service took her out of commission in Sacramento. Sic semper tyrannis it was not. 

Umminger doesn’t disappoint. If you were captivated by Emma Cline’s The Girls, this is certainly also worth your time. But at its core, American Girls is a reflection on the delectable travesty of being young, American, and female. Highly recommended for ages 13+.


Circling the Sun
By Paula McLain

“I had a farm in Africa at the foot of the Ngong Hills.”—Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa 

This first line of Karen Blixen’s memoir of colonial life in Kenya near the end of the British Empire could also begin Circling the Sun, a fictionalized account of the childhood and early adulthood of Beryl Markham neé Clutterbuck, the famed female aviator and author of West With the Night

Like Blixen, Markham was born into an upper-middle class European family, but when her family of origin fulfills her father’s dream of owning and training horses on a farm in Kenya, the trajectory of her life is changed irrevocably. It doesn’t take too long before Beryl’s mother abandons her and her father on the farm to return to a more sedate life in England, and henceforth Beryl is more or less raised by the neighboring Kipsigis tribe, resulting in a free-spirited, precocious child who loves animals, nature and all things wild. What she doesn’t love is conformity, which becomes problematic as she matures and is expected to enter into “society,” such as it is, in 1920s Kenya Colony. After a few bumps in the road, including a disastrous first marriage and a couple of other scandalous relationships, Markham emerges as an esteemed horse trainer in her own right. Eventually, her love of adventure leads her to embrace flying and she becomes one of the first women to make a living as a professional pilot. 

McLain’s prose is eminently readable and she is expert at describing the emotional timbre that Markham was likely experiencing at a time and place in history in which her progressive choices were almost uniformly discouraged. Also, for those of us familiar with love affair of Karen Blixen and fellow expatriate Denys Finch-Hatton, let’s just say there’s a lot more to the story than was portrayed either on film or in Blixen’s memoir. 

A must-read for Out of Africa fans, and a solid choice for readers who enjoy historical novels with strong characters. Armchair travelers, buckle up, you’re going to Kenya in a biplane! 


The Paper Magician
By Charlie N. Holmberg

The Paper Magician is a spell-binding, quirky, and beautifully written genre bender that includes elements of fantasy and mystery with a touch of romance. In The Paper Magician, author Charlie Holmberg creates a world in which select humans (magicians) can learn how to master man-made materials such as metal, glass, paper, or rubber, and, with them, create extraordinary magic.

Apprentice and magician-in-training Ceony Twill has long coveted the opportunity to become a Smelter Magician in which she would be able to bend and manipulate metal to her will. All students, especially those who graduate at the top of their class can choose any material they want to master, so Ceony is convinced she will get her first choice. However, instead of continuing her daydreams to fashion guns with the flick of her finger, Ceony is blindsided by the news that she has to be a Folder where she will be bonded for life to the most lackluster, uninspiring, “How in the world can this even have magical properties?” material: paper.

Throughout the story we meet a charming cast of characters, including Ceony’s kind and mysterious teacher Folder Magician Emery Thane, Jonto, the skeleton butler, and Fennel, the paper dog who helps to teach Ceony all about the beauty of paper. When an evil Magician threatens to destroy Ceony and her loved ones, Ceony discovers that paper is not only way cooler than metal, but it is also more powerful than she could have ever imagined. In this turning point of the story, Ceony must gather all of her courage to face her own self-doubt, and recognize that within the layers of humanity’s darkness resides points of light are as numerous as the stars. 

Check out the Paper Magician trilogy at WPL today!


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