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The Right Side

posted by: May 31, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover Art for The Right SideSpencer Quinn is best known for his somewhat lighthearted Chet and Bernie mysteries, which are narrated by Chet the Dog. Featuring titles like A Fistful of Collars, this series, as well as Quinn’s middle grade Bowser and Birdie books, are justly popular with dog loving fans of mystery and suspense with a dash of humor. Those readers might be a little surprised by Quinn’s new book, The Right Side.

 

The Right Side is a much heavier book than we’re used to seeing from Quinn, but it doesn’t disappoint. The big change here is that Quinn tells a story from the point of view of a human — and what a human she is. Veteran LeAnne Hogan was badly wounded in Afghanistan, both physically and mentally. She’s horribly scarred on one side of her face and blind in one eye. Recuperating at Walter Reed, she befriends a fellow wounded warrior named Marci. When Marci dies suddenly, LeAnne goes AWOL from the hospital and makes her way back to Marci’s hometown. There, she discovers Marci’s daughter has been kidnapped and makes it her mission to recover the child. When a stray dog begins poking its sizeable nose into LeAnne’s life, the vet is annoyed, inconvenienced and angry. But, in time, LeAnne realizes she needs the dog even more than the dog needs her.

 

Fans of the Chet and Bernie series might be surprised to learn the dog doesn’t appear until nearly halfway through this story, but her entrance is well worth the wait. The Right Side boasts a charismatic animal companion and an intriguing mystery. But it's Quinn’s intensely moving portrait of a traumatized veteran that makes this book truly memorable.


 
 

Girl Code

posted by: May 29, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover art for Girl CodeIn 2014, teenagers Andrea Gonzales and Sophie Houser created an 8-bit, side-scrolling video game called Tampon Run, where tampons  are used as weapons instead of guns. In their new book Girl Code: Gaming, Going Viral and Getting It Done, they tell about their experience learning to code, creating a viral video game and balancing high school life with their career pursuits.

 

Houser, inspired by her oldest brother who worked at Teespring, became interested in coding as a means of self-expression and creation. Gonzales, who grew up playing video games with her computer programmer father, had previous coding experience and had created a game for English class based on the imbalanced portrayals of men and women in The Odyssey. Both girls wanted to create a game that addressed a feminist issue, and their aim with Tampon Run was to challenge the idea that openly discussing menstruation is a social taboo — especially in a society that has normalized guns and violence. Their goal is to inspire more girls to get interested in computer programming.   

 

Gonzales and Houser were both New York City high school students when they met at the Girls Who Code Summer Immersion Program and created Tampon Run for their final project. Girls Who Code is a nonprofit organization dedicated to closing the gender gap in technology. Although women make up 48 percent of the total workforce, the percentage of women working in computer science is only 25 percent.

 

If you’re interested in learning more about women in computing, check out Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World by Rachel Ignotofsky and read about women like Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, born in 1815, and widely regarded as the world’s first computer programmer.


 
 

If We Were Villains

posted by: May 24, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover art for If We Were VillainsShakespeare and murder take center stage in M. L. Rio’s debut novel If We Were Villains. An enthralling literary mystery that takes readers into the world of an exclusive arts college and the inseparable group of students that will do anything to protect each other — even if it involves turning on one of their own.

 

Oliver Marks is being released from prison after having served 10 years for a crime he may or may not have committed. The man that put him behind bars, Chief Joseph Colborne, visits Oliver one last time to ask him the question that has been nagging at him for the last decade. Is Oliver guilty of murder, and if not, who was the real perpetrator? Oliver agrees to this request once he is guaranteed by Joseph, no longer involved in law enforcement, that nothing will become of the information that Oliver provides for him.

 

The story then begins a decade earlier at the prestigious Dellecher Classical Conservatory, where Oliver and the six other seniors in his class studying Shakespearian acting have formed a close friendship during the four years they have lived and studied together isolated from the rest of the student body. Though once inseparable, as their final year begins, infatuation and competition for the best acting roles sets in motion a tale of jealousy and violence that ends in tragedy for one of the players involved.

 

If We Were Villains is a suspenseful and evocative mystery set amongst the dramatic backdrop of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies. You don’t need to be a lover of the Bard, however, to enjoy this engrossing tale of friendship, loyalty and obsession that will remain with you long after finishing the haunting last paragraph.

 


 
 

My Favorite Thing Is Monsters

posted by: May 22, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover art for My Favorite Thing Is MonstersIt’s surprising when a debut book is a masterpiece, but here we are. My Favorite Thing is Monsters by Emil Ferris arrives perfect and out of nowhere. A graphic novel about a werewolf girl investigating a murder in 1960’s Chicago, it’s a new classic, reminiscent of other identity-driven comics such as Fun Home, Maus and Persepolis. Maybe Swamp Thing too.

 

The story begins in a tiny Chicago apartment, where 10-year-old Karen Reyes has turned into a werewolf. Or at least she thinks she has. Whether Karen’s werewolfism is real or metaphorical is left up to the reader, but one thing’s for sure: Karen loves her monsters. She sees them everywhere. Her upstairs neighbor looks as wrinkled as an Egyptian mummy. Her classmate’s facial scars resemble Frankenstein’s monster. And when she tries to imagine what he looks like, her absent father takes the shape of the Invisible Man.

 

Karen’s gothic imagination draws her into the murder investigation of her upstairs neighbor, Anka, a Holocaust survivor with a mysterious past. But along the way, her detective story turns into an investigation of identity. Karen is beginning to realize that she is a lesbian, and as she encounters other people that society regards as outsiders, she begins to understand the difficulties that she is going to face. It might sound sad, but make no mistake: Karen is tough as nails, and her identification with monsters is never portrayed as any kind of self-loathing. Remember, to a certain kind of kid, being a monster is the coolest thing in the world! Monsters don’t want acceptance. They’re empowered and interesting and full of stories. Monsters are the ones worth listening to.

 

It’s hard to imagine a richer book coming out this year. My Favorite Thing is Monsters feels like an accumulation of lifelong obsessions: horror movies, art history, EC comics, Holocaust narratives and a childhood spent in Civil Rights-era Chicago. Somehow Ferris has brought them all together into a page-turning murder mystery. Who knows how.


 
 

The Rules Do Not Apply

posted by: May 17, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Rules Do Not ApplyCareer. Spouse. Baby. Checking off boxes came easy for Ariel Levy, author of the short but intense new memoir The Rules Do Not Apply. The New Yorker staff writer knows now what she didn't know when she was younger and life seemed limitless. She spends her journey recounting, in agonizing observations, the ups and downs that have taken place in her life.

 

No one would accuse Levy of lacking self-confidence. As an only child growing up in the 1970s, Levy was raised to be independent. She pursued her writing career, languished in the New York excesses of the '90s and achieved success telling stories about "women who are too much." Boundaries were blurred. She had male and female lovers. By her own admission, there were times she wanted to "crawl into the pouch of a kangaroo" to protect her from own impulsiveness.

 

Levy spends much of the book coming to grips with the fact that she was not the only one who needed protecting. Despite marrying the woman of her dreams, a string of devastating losses forces her to confront her hubris and reconcile what she can. The most heartbreaking of these is depicted in a powerful 2013 award-winning article, "Thanksgiving in Mongolia," which originally appeared in The New Yorker magazine. Levy revisits this tragedy in sobering detail; it is the gut of the book.

 

The author of Female Chauvinist Pigs: Women and the rise Rise of Raunch Culture, Levy neutralizes the "perfect life" with unsparing writing that is also a surprisingly quick read. Those who enjoy Joan Didion and Cheryl Strayed will recognize those universal threads of tragedy, grief, remorse. It is the realization we don't always get what we want, and that the best laid plans are just that and no more.


 
 

Universal Harvester

posted by: May 15, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover art for Universal HarvesterPrimarily known as a musician, John Darnielle has hidden his literary chops in plain sight through his narratively dense lyrics in The Mountain Goats and a consistently sharp-witted presence on Twitter. But after the success of his first novel Wolf in White Van, Darnielle has announced himself as an impressive novelist in his own right.

 

Darnielle’s new novel Universal Harvester introduces us to a strange mystery surrounding a video rental store. Jeremy is a 22-year-old sales clerk at the Video Hut who appears to be riding the clock on his days, avoiding commitments toward a career or college, but this rudderless existence masks a deep hurt caused by the recent death of his mother in a car accident. Now, his existence revolves around the shared comfort of quiet frozen dinners with his father and little else. This routine gets upset when customers begin complaining to Jeremy about strange scenes appearing in the rentals. Disturbing footage of people tied up in sheds and masked individuals abusing their captives, spliced randomly into harmless fair like She’s All That. Jeremy’s investigation into these crimes finds him pulled into the orbit of strange rituals and bizarre organizations, ultimately leading to a confrontation with the trauma he’s been avoiding.

 

Set in the '90s (as you probably guessed by VHS being back in style), the novel is written in clean and precise prose that is endlessly inventive. One of the neatest inventions of the novel is the narrator, a mysterious party with a secret to hide. They seem strangely omniscient, speculating about alternate paths and choices the characters could have made, while dropping sinister hints about their involvement in the story. It gives the novel a sense of impending tragedy that elevates its most languid moments. Pop-culture obsessives will enjoy the deluge of references to film and '90s ephemera, but fans of white-knuckle thrillers like Gone Girl will find themselves pulled in by the mounting suspense of Darnielle’s narrative.

 


 
 

IQ

posted by: May 10, 2017 - 7:00am

Cover art for IQThis is Sherlock like you’ve never seen him before. Joe Ide’s IQ is a fresh take on the famous detective that really boils down the essence of the character and reimagines him in an entirely new context. This is not just another “update” where Sherlock becomes a quirky PI with a psychiatric disorder and a nicotine habit, nor is it a recasting where they take a cranky doctor or a malcontent police officer and throw in some brilliant deductive reasoning. Ide crafts an entirely new character who embodies the spirit of the great detective while breaking new ground; in this story he is a young African American man, growing up poor but smart in south central Los Angeles. It feels like a breath of fresh air for a story that, even when done well, has been done to death.

 

The story spans a couple of time periods. It begins present day where IQ (the nickname of Isaiah, our titular character) has become well known as a problem solver, and is called in to solve an attempt on the life of a rap mogul. It flashes back and forth with the past where Isaiah takes steps down a dark path while simultaneously beginning the journey to become a positive force to the world around him. In the present, a bevy of suspects and an unusual crime scene confuse the field for Isaiah and his assistant/frenemy/partner Dodson, while in the past we see the pair in their earlier days, striking out at others and themselves as they struggle with the curveballs life throws their way and the questionable choices they make.

 

At times, the story may feel distant from the experiences of many of its readers, but the author does a good job of including threads we can all identify with. We may not be poor and growing up in the inner city, but we all understand struggling with grief, giving in to temptation and making bad, easy choices, or trying to help people even when they won’t help themselves. If anything, Ide’s IQ is more generous and well intentioned than most of us — going above and beyond to help others even at real cost to himself. Rather than being alienating though, I found it inspiring. Plus Ide includes a cast of oddball true-to-life characters that keep the story moving and the reader’s interest piqued.

 

I really enjoyed this story — especially the tension of the mysteries and the well-developed main characters. If you like this story, you’ll probably enjoy a lot of Sherlock stories — both the originals by Arthur Conan Doyle and many of the derivatives by a batch of other authors. I would highly recommend BBC’s recent adaptation of Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch. It shares the modern setting and a certain irreverent sense of humor.


 
 

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