Staff Picks for Adults and Teens

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The Mall

(2014)
The Mall

The Mall is a psychological horror story that grabbed my attention from the start and held it all the way through to the end.  The main characters, Rhoda and Dan, take turns narrating.

 Rhoda stops at the Johannesburg mall shortly before closing in order to score some cocaine. She parks the child she was “watching” in the children’s section of the bookstore Dan is working in. When she comes back a few minutes later, the child is gone.  In spite of her frantic searching, the child is not found. As Rhoda’s anger and fear ramp up, she attacks Dan, as she believes that he had seen her enter the store with the child.  He tells her he had seen a white child playing in the corridors behind the store, but didn’t know that was the child she was missing. (Rhoda is dark skinned).  She pulls a knife on him and makes him help her search the back corridors.

It doesn’t take long for them to realize that they are lost in a place that should not exist.  No monster is ever actually seen, the horror comes from the things they feel and hear. There are piles of mannequin “remains” that feel warm to the touch. Sewage is dripping from everywhere. The smells are atrocious and described in detail. They survive several different scenarios, as when they are free falling in an elevator and have to play “name that tune” to the muzac to make the elevator stop falling. Dan superimposes the QWERTY keyboard on the 32 floor buttons in the elevator to spell out the titles. Dan’s gamer skills are put to use in several escapes, as are Rhoda’s street smarts. Every time they make an escape, they end up going deeper into the tunnels under the mall.

They succeed in finding their way back into the mall, only to find that it isn’t the same mall they had started from. The store names are off (Dan’s bookstore “Only Books “ was called “Lonely Books” and a fast food joint is “McColons”). The people in this mall never leave and the mall never closes. People there are the Shoppers (who shop till they drop) or shop assistants who are literally chained to their counters. In addition to being a horror story, this book is “a savage critique of consumer culture that examines themes of identity, belonging and the grotesque automation of human beings by an evil corporate entity.” (From an interview with the authors).

 Rhoda is identified as a “Shopper” and is catered to by shop owners. Dan goes to work at his bookstore, where he is physically connected to….well we do not know. But it leaves a hole in the back of his head, and makes him happy to serve.  Rhoda and Dan rescue each other and eventually find their way back out to the real world.

 The missing child has been found and is well. Dan brings Rhoda to his mother’s house, where the two women “bond” over gin and tonics. Rhoda makes contact with her estranged parents in England. And then, I almost quit reading, as I did not expect the direction the story was taking.  In retrospect, however, it makes perfect sense.

S.L. Grey is a collaboration between Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg.  They have written two other books that share certain themes (see the above quote) and occurrences (such as the bloody holes in the back of one’s head).  The Ward takes place in a hospital and The New Girl takes place at a private girl’s school. After reading The Mall, I sought these out and enjoyed them as well.

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A Spool of Blue Thread

(2015)

"A Spool of Blue Thread" is the 20th novel written by the prolific Anne Tyler.  The Pulitzer Prize-winning author casts her words in the direction of family dynamics surrounding three generations of Whitshanks who take turns living in patriarch Junior's home: handcrafted by his own construction company in the 1930's.  Upon Junior and Linnie Mae's passing, Red and Abby Whitshank take residence in the same space on Bouton Road in Baltimore, Maryland.  Here, they raised four children atop the same floorboards where the grandchildren now run.  And on Bouton Road, as on most other roads of a different name, parental love is unconditional while disappointment in offspring is all but guaranteed.    

The Whitshanks are essentially a successful, well adjusted family.  Red is president of Whitshank Construction while his wife is a social worker.  They enjoy a good marriage.  Red's expert craftmanship keeps the house well maintained and admired by neighbors.  Abby has a special place in her heart for those less fortunate, and she invites "orphans" to family suppers.  Fierce love for their children, as well as the imperfections of their parenting, are doled out evenly between two daughters and two sons.  There are feelings of resentment between brothers Stem and Denny and competition between sisters Jeannie and Amanda.  There are times of separation and times of togetherness fraught with laughter as well as tears.  Such characteristics could define any family.  But each of the siblings, along with Red and Abby, look forward to the coveted family vacations on the beach where ill will is most times buried in the sand; all in the interests of returning the following summer.         

The novel unravels slowly with rich dialogue as it builds into rich, complex characters.  Readers will be compelled to turn the pages to see if they might find their own families in the story.  Author Anne Tyler also expertly captures the generational shift that occurs as parents age, and children assume the role of caregiver and decision maker.  It is the Whitshank children who must rise to the occasion of necessity when health concerns threaten Red and Abby's continued presence in the beloved house on Bouton Road.  The issue of fading parents also reopens wounds infected by secrets best kept in the past.  "A Spool of Blue Thread" is written with a sense of compassion and insight which ultimately reminds that life does indeed go on in spite of itself.     

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Girl Underwater

2015

Avery is on her way back home for Thanksgiving break when the plane she is traveling on crashes into a remote lake in the Colorado Rockies. Out of the 200 passengers on board the only survivors are Avery, Collin, Avery’s teammate on her college swim team, and three young boys. It takes all of Avery and Collin’s swimming skills to get themselves and the boys safely out of the sunken wreckage, but what awaits them out of the water is just as frightening. Their story is told alternating between present day and flashbacks of the 5 days they were trapped in the mountains. This is a story of survival. Not just surviving a horrific accident but also surviving its after effects. The injuries, the reoccurring dreams, and the ultimately, the guilt of survival. Avery tries to go back to her life before the accident, but can she really escape the past or will she learn to accept a future that may include totally a new path.

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Redshirts

Redshirts: a novel with three codas (2013)
Redshirts

Ensign Andrew Dahl has just come aboard the Intrepid, flagship of the Universal Union, for his new posting.  He’s excited about the potential for his career—after all, some of the most famous UU officers are in charge of the ship and a few away missions will improve his chances for promotion.

 

As he attends to his duties in the xenobiology lab he starts to feel uneasy.  Why do his fellow crewmates disappear seconds before senior crewmen appear?  Away missions are the best way to work your way up, yet other crew members try to avoid them.  And what is going on with the Box?

 

Over time he realizes that every away mission includes a lethal confrontation with alien species—Borgovian land worms or Longranian ice sharks for example--during which senior officers never get hurt while at least one lower-ranking member dies.  He finds himself doing and saying things he didn’t intend, and having knowledge he never learned.  Finally Andy and his friends discover the secret of the Intrepid, and decide on a high-risk mission of their own to save lives.

 

This entertaining novel pokes fun at the tropes of science fiction TV series and novels.  If you ever watched the original Star Trek series you will enjoy this novel at a deeper level since you will recognize illogical and highly dramatic plot twists.  The novel also has a deeper level, pointing out that minor characters--the bit players and cannon fodder of the world--also have emotions and dreams of a better life, even if we only see it for 20 seconds.  The three codas are written from the point of view of the minor characters in the book.  They provide a poignant look at their futures.

 

The audio book is very well narrated by Wil Wheaton.  He played Wesley Crusher in “Star Trek, the Next Generation” which provides extra depth and emotions in his reading.

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The Golem and the Jinni : a novel

2013

It’s no surprise that Helene Wecker’s first novel, The Golem and the Jinni, won the 2014 Harold U. Ribalow prize. This adult fairy tale reminds the reader of the works of Kafka or Isaac Bashevis Singer. At turns it is funny but it can be dark. The Golem (Chava) is a creature made out of clay and the Jinni (Ahmad), born of fire, has been trapped inside a copper flask for many generations. It’s 1899 in New York City with a focus on the streets and rooftops of Manhattan. Immigrants abound. The reader knows Chava and Ahmad will eventually meet but Wecker writes a beautifully crafted story of this historical period and the characters who inhabit the New World, with a sense of foreboding. In many ways, this is a time-travel piece which draws the reader in by using a “soap opera” storytelling technique going back and forth between the various elements of the story. This book will keep you up way past your bedtime!

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The Room

(2015)

 

This Swedish-translated novel is about a bureaucratic office worker named Bjorn who discovers a secret room in his workplace and becomes enthralled with it.  Bjorn accomplishes his work faster and with more creativity and pleasure in this secret room, but it becomes a problem when his co-workers confront him with the unthinkable—the room does not exist.  When Bjorn goes into the room, his co-workers see him standing in a hallway, staring at the wall, and are creeped out enough by his behavior that they unanimously want him to stop.  Tensions are high and matters escalate in the battle between Bjorn and his co-workers and boss.

 

This book kept me intrigued the entire way through, begging many questions about the possibly unreliable narrator, Bjorn and his predicament—is the room even real?  If so, why can’t other people see the room?  What is the true nature of the room?  Is Bjorn insane?

 

Despite never having worked in an office, Karlsson captures office culture perfectly—the awkwardness of shared spaces, the unique vibe of a work party, the homogenous social expectations.  Bjorn runs into trouble on this last point; he definitely breaks from the herd.  This is probably the most agreeable trait about this character, since Bjorn walks a fine line of likability with his superior attitude and pedantic views.

 

I found this a really captivating, even mysterious read; it was humorous but with the ring of truth.  Definitely recommended.

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My Sunshine Away

(2015)
My Sunshine Away

 

While I could not put My Sunshine Away down, I had to summon the courage to read the last few chapters.  I could feel the anxiety in my chest grow. The narrator relives his adolescent memories as he wrestles with the part he may or may not have played in the rape of the quintessential girl next door.  His childish obsession with the victim, Lindy Simpson, steers his life in astonishing ways.  The dark mystery surrounding the event that changed everything propels this engrossing book. The most vivid character might very well be the lovingly described Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  As a coming of age story, My Sunshine Away confronts the confusion and agony of adolescence.  This story has been written with so much care, read it and be impressed. 

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Will Not Attend

Lively Stories of Detachment and Isolation (2014)
Will Not Attend by Adam Resnick

Adam Resnick has pulled together hilarious tales from his life that illustrate his reluctance to interact with people and the belligerence that raises its head when he is forced into social situations. He “refuses to be burdened by chores like basic social obligation and personal growth, living instead by his own steadfast rule: I refuse to do anything I don’t want to do.” Resnick is an Academy Award-winning author for NBC’s “Late Night with David Letterman,” so his self-deprecation is no surprise. Though many will view his behavior and thinking process as outrageous, his is a very likeable and enjoyable voice. Will Not Attend is full of laugh-out-loud funny stories told by an eccentric friend.

A note for readers: profanity is widespread throughout the book, and some may find his stories rude and offensive. (Amazon reviews)

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October Mourning

a song for Matthew Shepard (2012)
October Mourning

I am not usually a fan of poetry, but this book is an exception. Many forms of poetry are used to tell the story of Matthew Shepherd, the University of Wyoming student who was brutally beaten and left to die on a fence post in October 1998, merely because he was gay. The poet, Lesléa Newman, writes poems from the perspective of various people involved, as well as inanimate objects (ie. the fence, the road). The result is incredibly moving. Have a box of tissues nearby, I literally had tears streaming down my face at points. Powerful, raw, and incredibly important. A "must read".

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Catherine the Great

Portrait of a Woman

 

In 1745, an obscure, low-ranking, 16 year-old German princess named Sophia was married off to Peter, heir to the Russian throne.  Just six months after Peter became Tsar, Sophia (now renamed Catherine) overthrew her husband and assumed the crown for herself.  Though she had not a drop of Russian blood, for the next 34 years she was the undisputed ruler of Russia, the world’s largest nation, and one of the towering figures of the age.

 

 

 

In this book, historian Robert K. Massie brings the same superb scholarship, eye for detail, and graceful prose that marked such earlier works as Nicholas and Alexandra, Peter the Great, and Dreadnought.  Catherine comes alive as a vibrant character.  We read not only of palace intrigue, military campaigns, and jealous lovers, but of her joy in philosophy and art, and of her sincere desire to improve the lives of her subjects.  (Well, as long as their improvement didn’t curtail her power.)  Despite her sometimes appalling behavior, the Catherine of this book remains a mostly sympathetic and always intriguing subject.

 

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Last-Minute Survival Secrets

2015

When I originally saw a preview for this book, I thought, “My ten year old son is going to love this”. What science-minded kid doesn’t want to know how to make a burglar alarm with potato chips or how to open a padlock with a tin can? Unfortunately, once I actually got a chance to take a look at the book myself, I found that due to some of the content, it may be better suited for a more mature audience.  That being said, I found the book quite funny and entertaining. In fact, if you were ever a fan of the old TV series, The Red Green Show, you may enjoy this author’s humor. In a matter of minutes you can learn how to prevent heat stroke with a diaper, how to use a bra to make knee pads or even how to start a dead car battery with an aspirin! If you are in the mood for a little tomfoolery, then take a peek at this book.

 

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