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"If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing."

— Benjamin Franklin

Reader's Link - December 2013 Staff Picks Archive


The Financial Lives of the Poets

Title: The Financial Lives of the Poets
By: Jess Walter

As this novel set in the financial morass of 2009 opens, Matt Prior's journalism career is in a shambles. His online venture of giving financial advice in poetry form has failed, he's discovered that his wife has been engaging in a Facebook flirtation with her high school ex, and his financial planner of 20 years has informed him that not only have his family's finances sunk to the point of "fiscal Ebola," but Matt can no longer afford a financial planner. At midnight, Matt discovers that there is no milk in the fridge for his sons’ breakfast. He throws on his slippers and heads out to the local 7-Eleven. As he exits the store, two young men strike up a casual conversation with him and ask for a ride. After first not accepting their offer to smoke some marijuana with him, he does, for the first time in 20 years. He discovers that the pot of today is not like the pot of 20 years ago. In this mentally debilitated state, and in a desperate attempt to reverse his unraveling fate, he comes up with the idea that selling marijuana might help him out of his financial crisis and perhaps help save his marriage. Let's just say, things don't go as planned for “Slippers” (the name by which his new associates know him). This is a very funny novel, maybe not quite as good as Walter's more recent "Beautiful Ruins," but a lively read with lots of insightful commentary about the times we live in.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction
Posted by Michael H. on Dec. 24, 2013 at 11:35 a.m.

Selves, reflected

The Golem and the Jinni: a novel

Title: The Golem and the Jinni: a novel
By: Helene Wecker

Bored with vampires and werewolves? Dive into this entertaining book about two mythical creatures who may never have been paired in a work of fiction before. A golem created in Poland and a jinni from Syria intersect in New York City (where else). The golem, whose master died on the sea voyage, seeks a new purpose in life in the Jewish neighborhood of Lower East Side Manhattan. The jinni, released from a copper flask, finds himself forced to pass as a human and make a living on the outskirts of the Syrian community in New York.

Attempting to avoid discovery as non-humans, Chava and Ahmad each become entangled in the immigrant communities where they live and work. It’s the richness of the historical setting interacting with the characters’ idiosyncrasies that makes this book so compelling: the jinni smoking cigarettes but never having matches because his body is made out of condensed fire, or the golem making deliberate mistakes at her bakery day job so that her co-workers won't resent her inhuman efficiency...and then spending all night working as a seamstress for the men in her boarding house because she doesn't need to sleep.

Shaped by their very different inherent natures, each must struggle for self-determination. The jinni's nature is to seek freedom and independence, but he is bound by his nature as much as the overly empathetic golem. Both are forced to cope with the destructive and self-destructive impulses within themselves, and both struggle with the challenge of living as immigrants in a new and strange world. And ultimately, both find that the other can serve as a mirror for their own self, just as we can find ourselves reflected in them.

NB: This book was reviewed by 2 staff members, April (in bold type) and Xenon , who chose to join forces here.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction
Posted by counterpoint on Dec. 16, 2013 at 9:31 a.m.

A canny gift


Title: Shadowfell
By: Juliet Marillier

Juliet Marillier’s fantasy fiction employs what is for me an irresistible blend of adventure, romance, and fairy magic. Her Shadowfell series is set in the invented medieval kingdom of Alban, which physically and culturally strongly resembles Scotland. Alban is ruled by a tyrant whose forces are systematically rounding up or killing people who have supernatural abilities. The heroine, a young woman named Neryn, is on the run because of her canny gift. In the first book, Shadowfell, Neryn is seeking a secretive rebel group who may be able to shelter her from the king’s men. Along the way she encounters fairy people, a mysterious stranger, and a god-like being who lays a difficult task before her. The second installment, Raven Flight, describes Neryn's training in both physical and supernatural arts to aid the rebel cause, and her efforts to fulfil the task that is her destiny. Although the structure of these books is similar to many other works of young adult fantasy, Marillier's beautiful writing, character development, and skillful use of first-person narration set them apart. I particularly enjoy her treatment of the fairies, or "Good Folk". They are charming, organic, unpredictable beings, with their own laws and culture. I am eagerly awaiting the third volume, The Caller, due out in the summer of 2014.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction,teen fiction
Posted by Logophile on Dec. 15, 2013 at 8:53 a.m.

Not his story


Title: Scarlet
By: A. C. Gaughen

It’s the story of Robin Hood, but it’s not his story. Instead the protagonist is Will Scarlet, but in a way we’ve never seen him before. This time around, he’s a she, and she’s every bit the thief of legend that we’ve heard about. Gaughen does a wonderful job writing her characters. You really get a sense of who each person is and what their motivations are. You never feel as if someone is acting out of character, or doing something that is completely unrealistic. On the other hand, some of the situations, such as the love triangle, are run-of-the-mill clichés. Nonetheless, for a first novel, Gaughen does a great job of making the story flow without getting stuck in stereotypical plot devices. This is a perfect novel for young adults and mature tweens, or any adult looking for swift read.

View similarly tagged posts: fiction,kids fiction
Posted by berlinskit on Dec. 15, 2013 at 8:44 a.m.
1 Comment

Harsh and hopeful

The Dark Road

Title: The Dark Road
By: Ma Jian

The Dark Road lives up to its name -- it explores the dark side of the one-child policy in China. Ma Jian, who now lives in London, returned to his native China to research this subject. He describes the efforts of ordinary families to avoid detection and bear extra children without state permission, and the often harrowing results when they are caught. By turns humorous and horrifying, harsh and hopeful, the journey takes us from village to houseboat to the hilltop town of Heaven, where computers are recycled in a worrisome manner. In one of my favorite lines, the main female character, Meili, imagines her future as an independent, modern woman:
"She will learn how to type and use a computer, then she’ll enter the complex world of circuit boards where you can find out anything you want and dismantle the entire universe into its constituent parts."

View similarly tagged posts: fiction
Posted by April on Dec. 7, 2013 at 8 a.m.

Armchair underground


Title: Rose
By: Martin Cruz Smith

Enjoy a romantic, suspenseful tale of the underground. Visit a coal mine one mile deep under Victorian England from your own comfortable armchair. Read about free-living pit girls and hardy miners in the company town of Wigan. Be amazed by the clever methods of the American mining engineer assigned to investigate the disappearance of the local curate, engaged to the mine owner's daughter. Shiver at the description of the dangers of coal mining, from gas leaks to collapses, runaway coal cars to explosions. Well-written, educational and very entertaining!

View similarly tagged posts: fiction
Posted by April on Dec. 3, 2013 at 8 a.m.

In the name of science and self-glory

The Brother Gardeners: botany, empire, and the birth of an obsession

Title: The Brother Gardeners: botany, empire, and the birth of an obsession
By: Andrea Wulf

The 18th century was an inquisitive and busy time in the world’s history. Darwin was discovering how we evolve, and an egomaniacal Linneaus was making sense of the botanical world with his classification system as well as enraging his fellow botanists and his Holiness the Pope. Explorers like Captain Cook were exploring the new world in the name of science and self-glory.

In America and England (long before the American Revolution), two men became friends across the ocean. American farmer John Bartram and English amateur botanist/gardener Peter Collinson started a relationship of many decades, exchanging seeds and gardening information as well as personal stories of their lives. English gardens, which previously had been planted in the manner of the formal Italianate gardens of straight lines, topiary hedges and tall clipped Italian cypresses, became lushly floral, colorful living spaces, with winding asymmetrical paths.

The second half of the book focuses on the botanical mania of Joseph Banks and his voyage with Captain Cook (ostensibly to witness the transit of Venus, but in fact secretly to explore the mysterious Terra Australis Incognita). Other colorful historical characters make their appearance in snippets of stories: Captain Bligh with his life-saving breadfruit trees; and Daniel Solander, pupil of Linneaus but, unlike his mentor, universally adored and revered. We witness the evolving of Banks from a brash, manipulative young man to an esteemed statesman whose contributions to the British empire were considerable.

18th century pictures pepper the pages of Wulf’s book, and she supplies a glossary, bibliography, and notes for the scientist. Her storytelling is compelling and lively. It inspires one to think about, if not investigate, the provenance of our own gardens. Exploring the Australian gardens at UCSC’s Arboretum would be particularly interesting after reading Brother Gardeners.

View similarly tagged posts: non-fiction
Posted by libwolf on Dec. 1, 2013 at 8 a.m.

Haunted unease

Raven Girl

Title: Raven Girl
By: Audrey Niffenegger

Raven Girl is an illustrated fairy tale for adults. Somehow, a postman and a raven have a child together. When the egg hatches, their daughter has the body of a human but can only speak in Raven. Her main goal in life is one day to be able to fly, but she goes through childhood with no possibility of doing so. And then, one day, it becomes possible...

Raven Girl is a very quick read. The dark-hued artwork helps the reader absorb the atmosphere of surreal dream-logic mixed with undertones of alienation and humor (such as the human-formed Raven Girl distrusting cats because her mother, who is a bird, taught her to).

I'm still skeptical about technology's role in Raven Girl: it fulfills the same narrative functions as magic, but still feels like an external element that cannot be resolved within the framework of a fairy tale. Then again, perhaps a feeling of haunted unease is what Niffenegger considers an appropriate reaction to the modern world. Her eerie but beautiful illustrations certainly would suggest so.

View similarly tagged posts: graphic novel
Posted by Xenon on Dec. 1, 2013 at 8 a.m.

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