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"Just the knowledge that a good book is awaiting one at the end of a long day makes that day happier."

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The Good Lord Bird

Title: The Good Lord Bird
By: James McBride

It’s both a comedy of errors and a serious piece of American history, this description of the desperate, violent struggles of the men fighting to abolish slavery or defend it. The story is told through the eyes of a fictional character nicknamed Onion, a young runaway slave disguised as a girl for survival. S/he is taken up by John Brown and his small army of Kansas Free-staters and is a witness to the raid on Harper’s Ferry. Surviving by wile and misadventure, Onion is an immature character you can’t quite love and can’t quite hate.

In an interview with the National Book Foundation, James McBride said "I wanted John Brown to be as popular in American mythology as, say, Jesse James, who was, among other things, a slave holder and a killer."

In the end, it is John Brown’s intense and soul-deep commitment to the abolition of slavery that leaves me amazed and grateful.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction
Posted by April on July 27, 2014 at 1:17 p.m.

Gifts, Voices, Powers

Annals of the Western Shore

Title: Annals of the Western Shore
By: Ursula K. Le Guin

While there are three books in the Annals of the Western Shore, and certain characters make more than one appearance, this is not a conventional trilogy. Rather, each book focuses on a different society within the larger geographic region of the “Western Shore.” Ursula K. Le Guin's father was the anthropologist Alfred Kroeber, and it's obvious that his area of study had a strong influence on her writing. Indeed, my favorite parts of her fiction are not her individual characters, but the cultures she depicts.

Gifts imagines an “Uplands” (read: Highlands) society of feuding, cattle-raiding clans. Each clan possesses a hereditary magical power—such as the power to cripple a man or blind him—that is enacted through the gaze. Certain lineages may die out while others gain predominance, but on the whole, these powers or “gifts” help maintain an uneasy status quo. Enter a young heir who for some reason is blindfolded, along with his friend who refuses to use her “gift” in furtherance of her family's livelihood, and the story unfolds.

Voices is set in a port city with a world-famous library and a thousand roadside shrines to a multitude of divinities (but no temples). This city, which also has no army, is conquered by desert-based monotheists who believe that both the written word and all other gods are demonic. While this may sound like the premise of a hundred other fantasy novels, Le Guin subverts the reader's expectations repeatedly.

Powers begins in a city-state highly reminiscent of ancient Rome, especially in its depiction of the arrangement in which educated slaves serve as tutors for their master's children. Gavir is a young slave boy being trained to become one of these tutors. However, events bring him into contact with a number of other cultures, including the traditional tribal Marsh society of his birth and a would-be-utopia of runaway slaves who live a Robin Hood lifestyle in the forest. Some of the most fascinating tensions in Powers arise from Gavir's attempts to find uses for his book learning in these largely illiterate but highly complex cultures.

Indeed, all three books meditate upon the importance of literacy and storytelling: Le Guin certainly could be accused of preaching to the choir here, but let's say instead that she knows her audience. “Stories are what death thinks he puts an end to. He can't understand that they end in him, but they don't end with him.”

View similarly tagged posts: fiction, teen fiction
Posted by Xenon on July 26, 2014 at 8:32 a.m.

Matter matters

Stuff Matters: exploring the marvelous materials that shape our man-made world

Title: Stuff Matters: exploring the marvelous materials that shape our man-made world
By: Mark Miodownik

Materialism’s redeemed in this polished tour de stuff. For Miodownik, remembrance of things past isn’t evoked by food or scent, but by the steel of a mugger’s knife. Why did the steel blade cut the way it did? What is steel, anyway? Why doesn’t a stainless steel spoon retain the taste of the food in which it’s dipped?

All those Whys of the teenage muggee—the hallmark of a future scientist—continue to fascinate Miodownik. He carries the reader along, so that you, too, can’t wait to get the skinny on glass or concrete or diamonds or paper…the splendid stuff of our material world.

View similarly tagged posts: non-fiction
Posted by curious on July 21, 2014 at 4:54 p.m.


We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

Title: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves
By: Karen Joy Fowler

I love the explanation the narrator and main character Rosemary Cooke gives for starting her story in the middle. It’s one of the reasons I kept on reading; I knew from the outset that something interesting was being held back for later. What that was, I cannot reveal. You must read the book to find out why it leaves a deep impression.

". . . I made up a friend for myself. I gave her the half of my name I wasn’t using, the Mary part, and various bits of my personality I also didn’t immediately need. We spent a lot of time together, Mary and I, until the day I went off to school and Mother told me Mary couldn’t go.This was alarming. I felt I was being told I mustn’t be myself at school, not my whole self."

This is a psychological novel about a family, with excellent character development. It’s also funny, shocking, tragic, and well-researched.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction
Posted by April on June 23, 2014 at 10:18 a.m.

A surplus of suspects


Title: Buzzkill
By: Beth Fantaskey

Who wanted to kill head football coach Hollerin’ Hank Killdare? Well, apparently lots of people wanted him dead. But there’s only one person high school journalist Millie Ostermeyer is worried about the murder getting pinned on—her father, the assistant football coach. Millie begins her own investigation and gets help from the unlikeliest of people: Chase Albright, the quarterback of the football team. Conducting a murder investigation isn’t easy, though, especially not when Millie has to deal with a testy French teacher, a strange detective, a very supportive librarian, and all the other things that come with being a senior in high school. With help from Chase—and of course Nancy Drew—will Millie be able to solve the murder?

View similarly tagged posts: teen fiction
Posted by pughc on June 16, 2014 at 10:40 a.m.

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