September Staff Picks


The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth.  This apocalyptic novel is set nearly a thousand years ago.  It’s 1066 and the Normans have invaded England, and a Norman king sits on the throne.  A man named Buccmaster of Holland, an Anglo-Saxon, sees not only his village and family destroyed, but his entire way of life–his language, his gods, and his kings.  And he’s willing to fight for them.  Kingsnorth wrote this in what he calls a “shadow-tongue,” evocative of Old English.  It’s a compelling piece of historical fiction, based on the actual uprisings (and reprisals) that occurred after the Norman Conquest.

Mrs. Roberto by Van Reid
This is the fourth book in Reid’s The Moosepath League series (the first is Cordelia Underwood, so begin with that one). The series transports the reader to a simpler and innocent time during the 1890s in Maine, telling the adventures of a trio of naive, bumbling gentleman who set up their own gentleman’s club (the Moosepath League) and make Tobias Walton their leader ( a person they have just met).
In this installment, the three comrades set out on a quest to save a woman who they think is in danger due to one of the gentlemen finding her card in his coat pocket.  They run across the rooftops, sleep out in the open with hobos and assist in putting out a fire while they attempt to find the elusive Mrs. Roberto.  Meanwhile, their leader and his valet are on a farm attempting to cure a melancholy pig.

There Is No Good Card for This: What to Say and Do When Life Is Scary, Awful, and Unfair to People You Love by psychologist Kelsey Crowe and illustrator Emily McDowell
This little book is for everyone paralyzed by the prospect of saying something to someone suffering a serious loss—and that’s most of us, isn’t it?

On Living by Kelly Egan
Hospice chaplain Kelly Egan’s On Living recounts visits with the dying and their loved ones, sharing tender encounters and even her mistakes.

Extreme Measures: Finding a Better Path to the End of Life is by Dr. Jessica Nutik Zitter
Zitter, who practices both pulmonary/critical care and palliative care at UC San Francisco’s hospital. Her double-barreled approach to patient care equips Zitter to both do everything possible to save terminally ill patients and do everything possible to help terminally ill patients reject overly medicalized treatments for their illness. This is a tough book, but anyone who loved Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal will want to have a look at Extreme Measures.

Glass Houses by Louise Penny
Louise Penny’s fans will find themselves once again in that charming Quebecois village of Three Pines, where this time Inspector Armand Gamache and his team must confront an evil that threatens the entire province. Penny’s still got it!

Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan
Tells of two Catholic sisters from Ireland who settle in Boston in the 1940s and of the secret that drives them apart.  This is traditional storytelling done well.



Marie’s Reading: “Secondhand Souls” by Christopher Moore

secondhandRecently I re-read one of my favorite Christopher Moore novels for the 26 Books to Read in 2015 reading challenge.  I just finished the sequel, Secondhand Souls, and I loved it just as much as the first.  It’s laugh-out-loud hilarious, zany, weird, and sweet.

Back again in San Francisco shortly after the events of A Dirty Job, the souls of the recently deceased are going missing.  The Death Merchants, those responsible for passing along the soul vessels of the dead to their next stop on the karmic journey, aren’t collecting souls any longer.  On the Golden Gate bridge, ghosts are beginning to appear.  And Charlie Asher, our hero from the first book, has his soul trapped in a piece of taxidermy.

Where A Dirty Job focused on death, grief, and coming to terms with mortality, Secondhand Souls has moved on to a discussion of the nature of the soul and the cosmic journey.  A lot of the poignancy in this one comes from the movement of souls, the power of intimate connection across time, and the idea of moving along the path of life and death.

Alongside a banshee wielding a taser.  A mysterious man in a lemon-yellow suit with car to match.  A precociously foul-mouthed seven-year-old Luminatus.  And Wiggly Charlie.  Oh, Wiggly Charlie.

sartorial creatures
Author Christopher Moore pictured with the Squirrel People, designed and built by artist Monique Motil. I’ll leave it up to you to figure out which are which.

Readers who don’t like sex jokes, strong language, and sexual references might be put off by Moore’s sense of humor, but those who do like their comedy on the bawdier, blacker, and zanier side will find a lot to like.  Moore is fantastic with character voices and setting a scene.  The quick back and forth of his dialogue and his deft and clever descriptions are almost cinematic, and the pace is quick everywhere except where Moore wants you to take some time to think (the funeral scene midway through the book is a good example).

Those elements are a wonderful counterpoint to the real depth and heart behind it all.  These characters, crazy as they and their circumstances might be, still always manage to come across as real, dimensional people, never merely joke-delivery-systems.  Each character has stakes (emotional and physical), each one has relationships and motivations in regard to everyone else.  There are some supernatural elements and references to mythology and concepts of death and dying from many different cultures.  Minty Fresh fans will be pleased to hear this story becomes his by the end, and there’s even a nod to an early Christopher Moore novel, Coyote Blue.  The Squirrel People are also given a bit more to do this time around.

If you’re after a black comedy about the nature of death and of the soul, about love and friendship, and about cheese sticks, you might want to give this one a look.  Those who loved A Dirty Job don’t want to miss this one.


I just realized that under my new cheating-is-totally-allowed protocol I can double-dip!  Secondhand Souls was a book from the library!  I stayed a couple minutes late at work one day to finish cataloging it so that I could take it home.  There, I’ve covered #23 for the 26 Books to Read in 2015 Challenge!  Boom.

26 Books to Read in 2015: #24

Challenge item #24: A book you loved–read it again!

Don’t have to tell me twice.  I picked A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore.

a dirty job

Not only is this my second-favorite Christopher Moore novel (the first favorite being The Stupidest Angel, which I’ve talked about on the blog several times), but the sequel, Secondhand Souls, is due out in August!  So I thought I’d get caught up on the story and characters.

After the death of his wife, Rachel, second-hand shop owner Charlie Asher realizes that he can see people’s souls in objects.  He’s a Death Merchant–a person charged with collecting the souls of the recently deceased, and then making sure that they find their next karmic stop.  Then the really weird stuff starts happening: giant ravens, voices from the sewer, and giant hounds, and a little daughter who seems to have odd powers.  From there it’s a race to save the souls of San Francisco, the other death merchants, and maybe the world from a dark uprising from the Underworld.

This is the fourth time I’ve read this book.  I found that I enjoyed it differently this time around.   It took me longer to get into the story, but once I was in I was struck more than usual by the depth of heart and intelligence that lies behind the bawdy goofiness of Moore’s work.  I think that’s why I enjoy him so much.  I love the goofiness, and I love the humanity that lies underneath it.  I took more time with the climax and ending of the story this time around, and found myself touched.

In this book in particular there’s a lot of poignant musing about death, life, grief, and loss.  All with the counterpoint of sex jokes and slapstick and car chases.  The dynamic is almost Shakespearean.  General lunacy and very black humor abound, alongside fantastic descriptions of San Francisco and references to dozens of depictions of death and dying from all over the world.

I’m glad I picked this up again, and can’t wait for the next installment.  You can visit Christopher Moore’s website, here, and take a look around to see whether you might enjoy his work.


Marie’s Reading Two Haunted House Stories

…that aren’t.  Not really.

No spookiness or bumps in the night or bleak atmosphere or threat from beyond the grave.  These books are about spirits instead of ghosts, if I can make that distinction.  The spirits of both the living and the dead, and how they intersect, and how thin the boundary between the quick and the dead really is.

RoomsRooms by Lauren Oliver is about secrets and loss, death and change.  Heavy themes, but the book itself manages not to be.  At its heart it’s a story about family and connection.  After Richard Walker dies, his estranged family returns to their house.  Already in residence, though, are Alice and Sandra–two women who died in the house and are still there, spirits trapped within its walls.  Eventually the two worlds collide, but not in the way you might think.

This novel is compelling and intricately plotted with a pace that intensifies as you go along, but the real strength of this story is the cast of characters.  Their voices are memorable and finely tuned, and they never fail to come across as fully human.  They all have their secrets which bind them, and they all are desperate to free themselves, whether they’re living or dead.  There are some genuinely moving moments, and a sort of understated poignancy to the proceedings of this story.  If you like your ghost stories bittersweet and just as much about living as dying, give this one a try.


hundred year houseThe Hundred Year House by Rebecca Makkai is another tale of secrets, and of unlikely ghosts.  Spanning a century in a stately home that once housed an artists’ colony, the narrative moves backward from 1999 to 1900, all the while peeling back more layers of the story and letting secrets come to light.

The construction of this novel is wonderful and fresh (I’ve grown so used to bouncing back and forth in a timeline, it’s fun to see a backward one!), and I love Makkai’s quirky sort of tone, one-liners, and the way she presents imperfect relationships just as much here as I did in The Borrower.  This would be a sort of “out-of-left-field” suggestion for readers who like Kate Morton–you might enjoy Makkai’s take on unraveling secrets and exploring slightly…well, odd relationships.


Simply Books! May Meeting

I think that the last meeting of Simply Books! was quite possibly the most informative meeting we’ve ever had.  From North Korean prison camps to hospice volunteering to the history of the United States Navy to cosmology…I think we all learned something new and different, and we had some wonderful conversations about the nature of the universe, the concept of meaning, the power of mythology and story, and the reason why the U.S. government chose frigates as the first ships of the navy.

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