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: “The After Party” by Anton DiSclafani

after partyA tale of friendship among the power set in 1950’s Houston, The After Party by Anton DiSclafani is filled with the detail of everyday life, and the details of a dysfunctional friendship.

At the center of the story are Cece and Joan.  Joan is the golden girl, Cece her handmaiden (she describes herself as a “lady-in-waiting”).  They’ve been friends ever since they were tiny, and as the years pass, Cece remains almost obsessively devoted to Joan.  Joan is always the party girl, the one who runs away and keeps secrets, the one constantly flitting from man to man.  Cece is the one who cleans up the messes Joan leaves behind.

The writing is simple but evocative.  DiScalani’s great strengths are with atmosphere and characterization.  The plot, such that it is, is secondary to the exploration of a very specific time and society (upper-class Houston in 1957) and the people who live in it. The relationship between Cece and Joan is especially well-crafted–it’s utterly believable in its one-sidedness, in the way Cece needs Joan so terribly (or has convinced herself that she does), and in the way that she feels responsible for Joan’s behavior.  Watching Cece try to evolve, to try to come to terms with the secrets she uncovers, and to overcome her past, is the backbone of the book.

For Cece, the life of a young housewife and mother, which Joan finds so stifling, provides protection, security, and identity.  Her struggle when caught between her husband and Joan feels very real and immediate.  How much of her hard-earned life is Cece willing to put on the line for Joan?  Or lose entirely?

The After Party is a great novel to kick off your summer with–filled with dynamic characters and lush scenery, simple but clear and honest writing, and a plot that’s full of secrets but ultimately second-fiddle to the people and their relationships.


Marie’s Reading: “Calvin” by Martine Leavitt

calvinI have lots of duties to fulfill at the library, but my official position is Cataloger.  So that means I come across lots of great new books every single day.  One of those was in a pile of Young Adult fiction: Calvin by Martine Leavitt.

Intrigued by that cover, what with the tiger tail, I immediately wondered what this story  had to do with Bill Watterson’s Calvin and HobbesEverything, it turned out.

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Marie’s Reading: “Whistling Past the Graveyard” by Susan Crandall

whistling Whistling Past the Graveyard by Susan Crandall invites comparison with Huckleberry Finn and To Kill a Mockingbird.  Plot-wise, it is Huckleberry Finn, more or less, just set during the Civil Rights era and with a female cast.

The story: Starla is a sassy red-headed kid who lives with her grandmother, Mamie, in 1960’s Mississippi.  After getting grounded yet again for un-ladylike behavior, Starla decides she’s had enough of Mamie.  She’s going to hitch her way to Nashville, where her mother is a country singer, and live with her instead.  But who should pick Starla up but a young black woman named Eula…who just happens to have a white baby in tow.  From there it’s a coming of age story intertwined with a road trip tale, examining race, love, and loyalty along the way.

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Marie’s Reading: “The Midwife’s Tale” by Gretchen Moran Laskas

midwifes taleFirst, a million thanks to the patron who gushed about this book and suggested I read it.  It’s as un-put-downable, compelling, and evocative as you promised!

Set in the mountains of West Virginia in the early to mid 20th-century, The Midwife’s Tale is narrated by Elizabeth Whitely, the last in a long line of midwives.  She is in love with a man who doesn’t (cannot?) reciprocate, and spends a decade of her life living in his house and raising his daughter, whom Elizabeth delivered.  Eventually, the daughter begins to exhibit an amazing gift, which the family and community must come to grips with.  The novel tells the story of how Elizabeth grapples with her loveless relationship, her love for her adopted daughter, and her connections to her mountain in West Virginia.  Ultimately, it’s a story about creation–creating children, creating families, creating ourselves.

This is a very intimate story, where nothing huge happens.  It’s the story of a life.  West Virginia is beautifully drawn here.  There’s a wonderful sense of time and place.  You can feel the deep roots the characters have put down, and the sometimes messy and convoluted connections between them.  At times there’s a certain emotional distance, for all the intimacy, but I think it works as part of Elizabeth’s character.  She does keep her distance, in many ways, and keeps herself to herself. She’s believable in her struggles, in her wants and needs, in her desperate hopes.  She comes across as complicated as the plot is simple, and it’s a nice combination.

Also check out the bibliography included in the back of the book.  It has some great further reading suggestions, particularly nonfiction and memoir.

Ron Rash’s The Cove is quite similar to The Midwife’s Tale.  The slightly haunting tone and the sense of place are much alike, as is the pre-WWI time period.  The Cove is also about a woman struggling to find happiness in her relative isolation.  I’d also suggest a favorite of mine, Bloodroot by Amy Greene.  There’s the same touch of magical realism to it, and it isn’t quite as reflective in tone, but it’s got a wonderful style, an intricate plot, focuses on family ties, and is a beautiful depiction of life in Appalachia.

If you enjoyed the subject matter of midwifery most of all, and enjoy evocative historical fiction, you might want to try My Notorious Life by Kate Manning. It’s strikingly different in tone, but the issues the main character grapples with (love, sex, gender relations, women’s private selves, and women’s rights) are all there.  The author does a fantastic job with historical detail, and it manages to feel like a book of the time (1860’s-1880’s in New York City, roughly) as well as a book about the time.

I’d suggest Red Ruby Heart in a Cold Blue Sea by Morgan Callan Rogers to readers who enjoyed Elizabeth’s narrative voice and following her journey.  Florine, the narrator, follows more or less the same character arc, right down to her relationships.  Florine’s story is as evocative of the coast of Maine as Elizabeth’s is of Appalachia.

And, finally, here’s a crazy curveball of a readalike suggestion: Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett.  Seriously.  I know it sounds insane, but I thought of it and now I am powerless to unthink of it.  Pratchett uses his books about the Witches Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg to explore myth, magic, gender relations, and humanism.  As I said, a curveball, but those who liked the relationships between the women in The Midwife’s Tale might enjoy Pratchett’s take.  Actually, try any of the Discworld books starring the Witches if you enjoy strong relationships and mentorships between generations of women.



Marie’s Reading: “The Humans” by Matt Haig

cvr9781476727912_9781476727912_hr.JPGHumans are violent and dangerous and not to be trusted.  We especially cannot be trusted with technology or advancements that we aren’t mentally or emotionally equipped for.  So, when mathematician Andrew Martin makes a discovery that has the potential to grant us technological advancement which we’ve never even dreamed of, the Vonnadorians must step in.  Our unnamed narrator kills Martin and takes his place, on a mission to erase all knowledge of this mathematical advancement.  However, our narrator begins to develop an affection for humans–alarming for a being whose race is devoted entirely to pure mathematics.   Will he complete the task he’s been set by his superiors and return to his life in his distant galaxy, or have the humans won him over?

This is one of those books that’s just nice.  There’s some swearing and some sex and some violence (it’s about humans, after all), but at its core it’s a sweet story about appreciating the good about humanity.   Plainly Haig is in agreement with Robert Ardrey, who wrote in his African Genesis: A Personal Investigation into the Animal Origins and Nature of Man:

“But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irreconcilable regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however frequently they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems, not our corpses.”

There you have the central idea of The Humans.  As I read I couldn’t help thinking how unfashionable it is to focus on the nice things about us.   To focus on our achievements seems quaint at best and dangerously deluded and arrogant at worst.    And while there’s some truth to that, I also think there’s a place for novels like this one.  We do have to acknowledge our darkness, but not to the extent that we forget the light.  Those critical of this book have called it saccharine or trite, and I can see how some readers could walk away with that impression.  There are those who really enjoyed the narrator’s initial critiques of humanity, but were totally not on board for the part where he grows to like us.  All fair enough. But readers who enjoy the occasional reminder that life isn’t all bad, and that love really might be the whole point, will find a lot to like in this book.

Calvin and Hobbes

Gratuitous Calvin and Hobbes. As I was writing this post this particular strip leapt to mind.

Matt Haig’s writing style reminds me very much of Terry Pratchett.  My husband, who also read and enjoyed The Humans, suggested Pratchett’s Reaper Man as a readalike, and I heartily second the suggestion.  In Reaper Man, Discworld’s Death must spend some time as a mortal, which gives him a new and unique perspective on the human experience.  Actually, if your favorite aspect of this novel was the outsider perspective on humanity, any of the Discworld books that focus on Death might be good choices.

Kurt Vonnegut might be a good choice for a readalike, too, particularly if you like the humanist bent of Haig’s book.  Breakfast of Champions would be a great one to start with, as would Slaughterhouse-Five.  If you’re not so much a fan of sci-fi, the curious incident of the dog in the night-time by Mark Haddon might appeal to you.  There’s still the outsider aspect, but this time it’s because our narrator is a mathematical genius with Aspberger’s Syndrome.

Adam Rex’s hilarious and touching The True Meaning of Smekday, which I talked about here, might be a good choice for those who enjoyed the angle of humans and aliens becoming friends and allies.  It’s aimed at late elementary/middle school readers, and it’s a wonderful story that plays with format and has a great sense of humor.



Ken also read The Humans–he rated it a 5 and said in his review: “Best book I’ve read in a long time–it’s part sci-fi, mathematics, suspense, love, and perspective on us humans.”  Well put!


Simply Books! October 2012 Meeting

We were marvelously back to form this month, with passionate discussions that took us well past the hour mark!

Admittedly, a lot of that time was me dweebing out about the latest Thursday Next book, but more about that after the jump. Continue reading