Marie’s Reading: “Where the Crawdads Sing” by Delia Owens

9780735219090_p0_v10_s550x406In 1969, local golden boy Chase Andrews is found dead in the marsh outside Barkley Cove, North Carolina.  Immediately the locals suspect Kya Clark, who is known as the “Marsh Girl.”  As the investigation into Chase’s death occurs in the present, the narrative also explores Kya’s childhood and the experiences that led to her solitary life in the marsh.

Owens’ writing is so wonderfully evocative.  She writes of the North Carolina marshes and coast with such love and admiration for its beauty and creatures.  Even the human beings who inhabit it, set apart from the rest of the community, command a sort of respect and mystery.  There’s a great sense of the small-town and all of its characters and history, too.

Kya is a resourceful, tough person–you’d have to be, after being abandoned in the swamp as a very young kid.  But she finds beauty and hope and fulfillment in her solitary life.  Less solitary, of course, after she becomes friends with a local boy named Tate, who teaches her to read, and then later, when she becomes acquainted with Chase Andrews.  And from there, it’s a “did she or didn’t she” mystery as far as Kya’s role in Chase’s death.

There’s a real sense of magic to this story of a tough rural girl’s coming of age, and the lengths she’ll go to to keep herself safe. The stand-out part of the novel is the perfect sense of place and the depiction of Kya’s life out in the wild, where the crawdads sing.


Marie’s Reading: “The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley” by Hannah Tinti

twelve livesLoo and her dad have lived an unsettled life.  Always moving from place to place.  Loo’s dad, Hawley, has a mysterious past, represented by twelve different scars all over his body–all from bullets.  At last, when Loo is a teenager, she and her father settle in Loo’s late mother’s hometown in Massachusetts.  It’s not an easy adjustment, however–Loo has a lot to learn about navigating the world, and she also has to confront the not-so-warm welcome she and her father get in Olympus.

The story goes back and forth in time.  One part of the book focuses on Loo trying to get her footing in her new town, and her attempts to uncover her family’s secrets.  The novel also explores her father’s criminal past, one chapter for each bullet he took.  Tinti structures the novel very well.  The past sections are interspersed at precise moments in the story to either illuminate or to underscore what’s happening in the present.  And when the past finally catches up toward the novel’s climax, the storylines merge.

I really enjoyed Loo as a character.  She’s tough and maladjusted, as you’d expect.  Yet her relationship with her father is the absolute center of her universe, for good and bad.  The revelation of his past misdeeds seems to come as no surprise to her, and certainly doesn’t shock her.  Instead, there’s the sense that there’s a new depth and understanding between them.  As the story unfolds you realize that Loo and her dad are deeply flawed and not entirely sympathetic–but at least they’re deeply flawed together.

The Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley is a great mix of coming of age tale, crime story, and exploration of a father/daughter relationship.  Tinti’s style is very descriptive, and she puts together scenes for maximum effect–whether it’s thrilling, frightening, or, sometimes, sweet.  The sense of place is amazing, whether describing a shootout at a hotel or the woods of New England.  If you like gritty books where characters aren’t always good but have their own brand of morality, you might enjoy this one.  Fans of Donald Ray Pollock should take a look, too!


Marie’s Reading: “All Our Wrong Todays” by Elan Mastai

274050062016 wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Tom knows.  He’s from the way the future is supposed to be: a techno-utopia free of want and war, where all material needs are provided for and the only industry left is entertainment.  However, his life kind of stinks.  His mother is dead and his father is a jerk, and Tom himself is a hopeless schmuck.  It’s down to his really, really stupid decision to go back to the past that history changed, the technology never materialized, and the world is what we’re used to.

And wouldn’t you know: Tom’s life in the wrong 2016 is awesome.  Much better than what he left behind.  Swiftly his dilemma becomes whether his wonderful family and life are worth the countless billions who were erased and the society that never was.

Like the best science fiction, All Our Wrong Todays has plenty of social commentary and ethical questions. But it’s such a refreshing change from dystopian fiction.  Particularly since, in this book, the reality that we know is the dystopia.  We have to kill plants and animals for food.  There’s pollution everywhere and we just keep making more.  Every technology we invent seems to do more harm than good, despite our best efforts.  Tom is shocked when he sees the conditions of our 2016.  Even though his world had problems, they were not on so grand a scale.

Tom is a great narrator, a totally directionless screw-up who seems incapable of changing.  Endlessly self-involved and self-deprecating, Tom’s emotional and personal arc over the course of the story is a rewarding one.  He finds himself cast in the role of hero by the end of the story, commenting on the fact that he suddenly  has a purpose and a duty.  Besides, he’s pretty funny, so that helps the narrative along.

I also really appreciated the optimistic ending.  The future (and the present) is what we make it.  It can be whatever we choose.  We should make sure we choose well.

All Our Wrong Todays is funny and smart, action-packed and cinematic.  It’s also a slightly mind-bending romp through alternate realities and the fabric of time and space.

The Martian by Andy Weir would be a great readalike for this, as would Dark Matter by Blake Crouch.  If you like the humor and cinematic writing style, you could try The Intern’s Handbook by Shane Kuhn.  You could also try The Man In the Empty Suit by Sean Ferrell, about a selfish time-traveler who has to solve his own murder.


Halloween Read: “Children of the Dark” by Jonathan Janz

A group of teens, an escaped serial killer, and an ancient evil in the woods.  An opening line which reads: “The week I saw seventeen people die didn’t begin with blood, monsters, or a sadistic serial killer.  It began with a baseball game.”



I regret only that I didn’t read this in time to put it on my Scary Reads list.  The story is about a small town in Indiana called Shadeland, home to Will Burgess.  Will is a seventeen-year-old in a rough situation–fatherless, mother addicted to painkillers, responsible for his little sister Peach.

On top of that, the notorious Moonlight Killer has escaped from prison and made a beeline for Will’s town.  And as if a serial killer lurking weren’t enough, there’s an even more ancient evil lurking in Savage Hollow, the area just beyond Will’s house.  Monsters of all types collide, and it’s up to Will to save everyone he cares about.

The narrative voice is strong, the characters are likable, and the horror is built with atmosphere and building tension as well as some nicely gory scenes.  Part human horror and part monster story, this is a scary novel with plenty of blood and a very high body count.  The open, foreboding ending is great, too.  It’s also got its funny moments to relieve some of the tension.  If you like slasher flicks and monster movies this time of year, give this a try.

Careful out there, fellow Halloweenies.  Don’t let the Wendigos bite.


26 Books to Read in 2015: #18

If I’m going to keep on top of this challenge I’ve really gotta up  my game here.  I’ll try an approach that worked for me in middle school: I’ll do all the easy stuff first and then save the stuff I find more challenging–like poetry–until later on.

Well….”worked” in that I was annoyed and sleepy and sometimes close to tears by the time midnight rolled around and I was still plugging away at my crumpled and tear-stained geometry homework, but everything still got done.

My easy challenge pick was # 18: A book with a blue cover.

Life from Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness  by Sasha Martin fits the bill!

Life from scratch

I enjoy cooking memoirs.  Mostly because I’m obsessed with food and I think cooking and baking are two of the most fun things ever.  Most of my time each week is taken up with carefully planning dinner menus, strategizing for left-overs, and painstakingly deciding on side dishes.  I read (and collect) wire-bound small-town church-supper cookbooks.  I spend weeks before big holidays outlining my game plan.  I get excited about pickling things and making jam.  I feel a sense of accomplishment and pride when, in an afternoon, I have a loaf of bread cooling on the counter, a braise in the oven, and the cookie jar is full.

And the cookbooks.  I’ve read Marjorie Mosser’s Good Maine Food and Eleanor Early’s New England Cookbook several times each–the latter is falling apart from use.  When it comes to learning about what the world eats and getting a voyeuristic thrill from peeping into other peoples’ kitchens,  Hungry Planet is one of my all-time favorites, and one to have on my personal bookshelf one day.  I love to read about how others interact with food, how they cook, their challenges and misadventures, and their accomplishments in the kitchen.

So I’ll admit that, personally, I was a little disappointed by how little time was afforded to The Global Table Adventure in this memoir.  I was expecting more of a Julie and Julia vibe, all based around the project.  (As an aside, I admit that I enjoy the structure and categorizing and planning and accomplishment that comes with a project, so much so that I like to experience them vicariously in food writing memoirs,)

I came in wanting to hear about the challenges of obtaining specialty ingredients for a cooking project. I wanted to know how different cultures around the world treat the potato.  I loved her style and the way she told her story, and I really liked her insights into the power of cooking and sharing food–I was just left wishing there was more of the practical.  Those who enjoy personal journeys of family and self, getting over grief and loss, will probably not have the same issue.  And, granted, Martin takes care to explain her choice in her introduction and I totally understand why she decided to tell her story the way she did.  It’s a lovely memoir and Martin discusses food very well.

I am pleased to report that Global Table Adventure is an AMAZING website.  If you want more of the global cooking, research, and the process, go there.  It’s fantastic content-wise, well-designed, and includes some great recipes.


Marie’s Reading: “The Girl With All the Gifts” by M.R. Carey

girl with all the giftsStill more zombies?  It’s 2014, and there are still waves of the undead?  I guess the zombie scourge never really goes away, does it?  Even when we think we’re safe and rebuilding society.  Most of the marketing for this novel is hiding the fact that it’s a zombie story, but I’m not going to play along.  You figure it out pretty early on.

But there is some good news.  The Girl With All the Gifts by M.R. Carey is original and refreshing, supplies sufficient gore and sufficient heart, and actually has believable science behind the explanation for zombies.

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Marie’s Reading: “The Panopticon” by Jenni Fagan

panopticonCompletely Personal Opinion Ahead:  I loved this book.  I loved it unreservedly and could find nothing wrong with it at all.  It’s on my favorites list for 2013.  This is the first time this year, I think, that I’ve been able to say that wholeheartedly and without any quibbling about a new novel.

That said, this is a tough novel, and one that probably won’t appeal to everyone.  The Panopticon is not anything like what you might infer from the dust jacket description.  It certainly wasn’t what I was expecting.  I mean that in the best possible way.  From what I read about the book I was led to believe that this was one of those dystopia sort of novels, with the girl vs. the establishment plotline as its centerpiece.  I have no doubt this was precisely what the marketing department wanted me to think.

That is not what The Panopticon is.  At all.  Instead, it’s a story about a troubled but fundamentally kind and honorable fifteen-year-old girl named Anais.  She is in the Panopticon (a home for chronic juvenile offenders) while the police try to uncover whether or not she beat a police officer nearly to death.  Her sometime boyfriend is in prison, and the foster mother who she loved and had lived with longer than any other was murdered.  There’s a lot of bleakness in Anais’s life, and a lot of trauma in her history.  Sometimes it’s tough to feel sympathy for her in light of her actions, but that just makes her so much more real.

This novel is compelling, affecting, and tip-top in the unreliable narrator department.  Anais’s story isn’t a comfortable one to read, but it’s one that makes you care about her and feel invested in what happens to her.  Fagan displays a real talent for tone and for character voices, and her writing style is reminiscent of Irvine Welsh.  There’s also a bit of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest here, in the sense that these kids in the Panopticon band together and rebel against an establishment that fails them repeatedly.

As for the unreliable narrator aspect…Anais does a lot of drugs.  A lot of drugs.  All through the novel she talks about the Experiment, and people who fade in and out of the walls.  This Experiment, Anais believes, grew her in a test tube and now follows her everywhere, just waiting.   We’re in Anais’s head the entire time for this novel, so it’s really up to you to decide whether she’s delusional.

I was very reminded of Lisa O’Donnell’s The Death of Bees while reading The Panopticon.  This novel has a heck of a lot in common with Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh, too.  Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman and The Sweet In-Between by Sheri Reynolds are both excellent novels about girls with troubled home lives and pasts who nonetheless find strength and support networks for themselves.  (Click here for my review of The Sweet In-Between.)  Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell might also be a good choice for readers who enjoy bleak, tough stories with a strong protagonist and a Western sort of feel.

As I mentioned, this book owes a lot to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, so that could also be a readalike.  A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess might also appeal to some who liked The Panopticon, but only if you want to go even further into completely bleak and disturbing territory.

I absolutely loved this novel.  I was swept up and compelled all the way through.  Anais and her story got to me on a visceral level, which is exactly what I love to have happen when I read a book.  I was sad and uncomfortable and moved and angry and sympathetic all by turns while reading The Panopticon.  A great read, and one I’ll be talking up at the circulation desk.


Marie’s Reading: “Rotters” by Daniel Kraus

rottersI’ll tell you straight, readers: this book is not for everyone.  But if you’re one of the people it’s for, you will love it.  I don’t think there’s much in-between with a story like this, but others may disagree.

As Rotters opens, Joey’s mother has recently died in a tragic accident.  Alone in the world, he’s sent to live with his father in a remote town in Iowa.  A father that he’s never met, and that his mother never talked about.  Joey arrives at his new home to find that his father has a very bad reputation.  With good reason, as it turns out–Joey’s dad robs graves for a living.

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