Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky is one of the most intriguing new novels of the year, partially because it defies definition. It’s fantasy, speculative, sci-fi, humor, coming-of-age and awkward epic romance, with the hipster references of a not-so-distant future. Think of it as magical realism for the digital age.
Patricia and Laurence are the quintessential outcasts at school, left out and bullied to varying degrees. Both suffer from clueless, inane parents who fail to recognize and appreciate what their children are capable of — and Patricia is burdened with a sociopathic older sister to boot.
Laurence is a super-tech geek, possessing a brilliant mind capable of easily cobbling together a wristwatch-sized, two-second time machine, which jumps the wearer two seconds in time. He has built a becoming-sentient supercomputer, which he keeps in his bedroom closet. Patricia happens to be a witch, whose powers first manifest as an ability to speak with birds and one particular tree. She’ll later hone these skills at a school for magic, where she finds she doesn’t fit in either — it’s no Hogwarts. Laurence’s parents pack him up and out to a military school, where the bullying intensifies. And while these outcasts don’t immediately embrace friendship (they are really very different), it seems inevitable. The two circle in and out of each other’s social orbits, and their coincidental meetups intensify once Patricia buys a Caddy, a guitar pick-shaped social media super tablet that enhances the user’s life in inexplicable ways.
The story gains momentum when the Earth is suddenly wracked with erupting superstorms. Is Patricia’s band of avenging-angel witches the key to saving the world, or will Laurence’s hacker-inventor cohort succeed in opening a wormhole to a new, better planet? Anders’ clever pre-apocalyptic novel never loses sight of the running themes of being understood, of being valued for who you are and the difficulty of making meaningful connections when you’re out on the fringe.
Looking for a good mystery filled with offbeat characters and British wit? Then you must read The Man on the Washing Machine by Susan Cox. Winner of the 2014 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Novel Competition, this story hooks you from the very first page and continues to keep you guessing to the very end. Not dark or brooding in the least, this story is lighthearted and definitely fun to read.
Life in the quaint San Francisco neighborhood of Fabian Gardens, with its friendly neighbors and shared private garden, is just what Theo Bogart needs. So she thinks. Having fled her socialite life in England after a family tragedy, Theo lives under an assumed name as a partner in a toiletries shop. Just what the doctor ordered — life filled with the mundane tasks of running a business, while enjoying the company of her neighbors. Normal people with normal problems, including a jewelry designer with thinning hair, an overconfident surgeon, a depressed bakery owner and a garden designer obsessed with compost. But then local handyman Tim Callahan falls to his death from a third story window. Was he pushed? Why and by whom? Then, a man mysteriously appears on Theo’s washing machine. Who is he? Why did he not attack her? Odd behavior for an intruder, to say the least. As Theo becomes obsessed with finding this mysterious man, yet another murder occurs. Meanwhile, her business partner disappears and strange crates belonging to her business emerge. What is going on in Fabian Gardens? How involved are Theo’s friends? Who can she trust? Perhaps she is not the only one with a secret.
Fans of Agatha Christie novels and British comedies will enjoy Cox’s debut offering. She fills her pages with characters who keep you guessing and wit galore. Figuring out the mystery is only half the fun of this read. Learning about the residents of Fabian Gardens is definitely the other half.
Patrick deWitt is gaining a reputation as a risk-taking young author, cleverly parodying a different genre with each new work. Undermajordomo Minor is an old-world kind of folk tale at first glance, but readers will soon be delighted by how the author toys with our expectations in the vein of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Princess Bride. Having made the comparison, it is necessary to add that deWitt is in a category completely to himself and unlike anything I have come across. His humor is quirky, pitch black and surprisingly thoughtful.
Lucy Minor is sickly and near death when he is visited by a mysterious stranger who spares his life after the young man admits he just wants something to happen to him before he dies.
Since he isn’t liked much by anyone in his village, including his mother, he sets off to find his fortune working as the undermajordomo at a far off castle. Thus begins an epic tale of romance, adventure and intrigue in a somewhat fairy tale setting. There is a castle, some loveable thieves, a crazy baron, a damsel in distress. However, there is also a train. So, expect the unexpected at any given moment.
From the moment his life is spared, Lucy’s life begins to careen down the most unexpected paths. Before his first day of work at the castle, he gets tremendously drunk with a couple of pickpockets he met on the train and falls helplessly in love with the daughter of one. Unfortunately, Klara is engaged to a devastatingly handsome soldier. His new boss, the majordomo, refuses to reveal exactly what Lucy’s job is or when he might be paid. When his job is in jeopardy, Lucy takes it upon himself to intercede on behalf of the Baron in his bizarre pursuit of his own wife, the Baroness.
In each strange, new situation readers revel in observing these delightfully weird characters interact with one another. The book is fast paced and compulsively readable.
Helen Ellis’ American Housewife is a satirical collection of 12 short stories featuring a group of enthralling, outrageous and disturbing women. There are humorous vignettes, such as “Southern Lady Code,” which offers biting translations of benign Southern phrases and “How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady,” which provides tips on how to do just that. There are fleshed-out stories full of characters and situations that are just a little too bizarre to be real — a relocation program for child beauty pageant contestants, an email exchange between neighbors that escalates into all-out war. In “Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” we meet a has-been writer who leads the competition in finding the best deals at yard sales and estate auctions, to the annoyance of the producers who would rather feature the Playboy bunny. “My Novel is Brought to You by Tampax” stars a writer working hard (or hardly working) on her next novel, sponsored by Tampax. A Tampax representative will do anything to make sure she meets her daily writing goal — starting with bribing her neighbors into bringing the writer meals in exchange for feminine hygiene products. The tales feel true enough to make readers uncomfortable even as they’re laughing at the absurdity. Don’t inane parodies of reality shows actually sound like plausible reality shows? And is it such a stretch that a tampon company could make the leap from sponsoring daytime television to sponsoring novels?
These stories are a fictional alternative for people who enjoy humorists like Jenny Lawson and Laurie Notaro. Ellis even received a nod from Margaret Atwood as one of her favorite books of the year: “Surreal tales of American weirdness, with details that ring all too true.” You probably haven’t murdered your neighbor over the tacky décor in your common area…but maybe you’ve briefly considered it.
Jim Kokoris’ It’s. Nice. Outside. is a road trip novel unlike any other. Fifty-something John Nichols (former college basketball player, high school English teacher and author) is on his way from the Chicago suburbs to his oldest daughter's wedding in South Carolina in a minivan. His companion? His developmentally disabled, autistic 19-year-old son Ethan who is afraid to fly.
The family is fraught with issues. Nichols is divorced, due to an affair with a wildly inappropriate woman (he blames it on the stress of parenting a special needs son). Now that woman is repeatedly calling again out of nowhere. Despite this, he still loves his ex-wife and holds out hope of reconciliation. Meanwhile, no one likes his daughter's husband-to-be. His middle daughter, a famous sketch comedian, has been feuding with her older sister and may not show up for the wedding.
Nichols makes his way south, using up his frequent stay points at Marriott properties that have pools (swimming calms Ethan) and eating at Cracker Barrels (Ethan likes routine). All the while, he’s trying to sort out what happens next in life for both him and his son. A trio of stuffed bears along for the ride provides Nichols with a cathartic outlet, as he runs them through outrageous comic routines tailored to entertain himself as much as they do Ethan.
Kokoris does a great job fleshing out believable, empathetic characters as he portrays the dysfunctional family dynamic. He shows sensitivity in his depiction of Ethan while spotlighting the everyday challenges of parenting a special needs adult. This novel is both laugh out loud funny and poignant, and will appeal to readers who enjoy books by Jonathan Tropper or Jonathan Evison.
The Unfortunate Decisions of Dahlia Moss have resulted in a familiar premise in this debut novel by Max Wirestone: Girl graduates from college with crippling debt and zero job prospects. Girl’s boyfriend has left her for another woman, forcing her to mooch room and board off the kindness of a friend.
But then Dahlia is randomly offered a lucrative job as a private detective. All she has to do is find and recover a virtual sword stolen in a video game. She is given the suspected culprit’s name, the time he will be meeting her for dinner and the assurance that he will turn over the sword. Dahlia Moss is no seasoned PI, but this sounds like easy money.
Of course the job ends up being more complicated than expected, especially after the man who hired her turns up dead—impaled by a real-life replica of the stolen sword. And he still owes her $1,000! Dahlia can’t help but wonder who killed him… and why did he even hire her in the first place? Soon Dahlia finds herself investigating multiple mysteries and enduring uncomfortable encounters with homicide detectives, the dead man’s former friends and guild mates, not to mention her own ex-boyfriend.
Fans of The Big Bang Theory and The Guild will enjoy the MMORPG setting and the nerdy humor. A former librarian, Wirestone got the idea for the Dahlia Moss series after noticing that many of his geeky customers were also his mystery lovers. He has created a lovable, unexpected heroine in Dahlia Moss. She is funny, she is sassy, she is an amateur Veronica Mars in a Jigglypuff hat.
What happens when quirky characters, unique structure and recipes are combined? You get J. Ryan Stradal’s debut novel, Kitchens of the Great Midwest. No, it’s not a coffee table book filled with staged photos of luxury Midwest kitchens; rather, it’s the compelling tale of misfit Midwesterner Eva Thorvald, a girl with a “once in a generation palate” who overcomes a tragic childhood to become a nationally renowned top reservationist chef.
Is this a great rags to riches story? Definitely! But it’s Stradal’s uncommon structure that makes this novel outstanding. Nine offbeat Midwesterners in nine separate chapters tell their respective stories. Outcasts in their own lives, each one is connected to Eva. This is a winning move by Stradel. Not only are we presented with Eva’s viewpoint, but we also see how she’s perceived by others and how their actions propelled Eva forward in her career. Eva only speaks to the reader as a middle schooler with a talent for both growing and using habaneros as a weapon. We learn of her early childhood through her father Lars, a good chef but socially awkward man with a passionate hatred for Lutefisk. We discover how she decided to pursue “theme” dinners from Octavia, a twentysomething wife cheating on her husband. Each character is both believable and flawed. They will make you laugh, cringe and reflect, but more importantly, care. You will want to know what happens to them and to Eva. And, as an added bonus, real Midwestern recipes from actual North Dakota Lutheran church members are scattered throughout the story. You may even want to try a few.
If you have been searching for an enjoyable, mind-fulfilling read that you do not want to end, you must read Kitchens of the Great Midwest. And like a favorite meal, be prepared to devour it. It is that good!
Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella once again tickle our funny bones with light-hearted humor and everyday situations in Does This Beach Make Me Look Fat? In a series of essays alternating between mother and daughter, Lisa and Francesca tackle college reunions, remote controls, city living, country dwelling, pet perils and TV religion. They also discuss bad breakups, last goodbyes, new beginnings and growing old.
Sharing their confessions, heartaches, love lives and just ordinary living, the authors remind us not to sweat the small stuff. While the mass media spends millions trying to convince us that we must be thin, smart, sexy, modern, well-read, and perfect in word and deed, Lisa and Francesca give us permission to eat on the beach and enjoy. To love yourself as your parents loved you. To recapture those blissful moments as children when we were free of guilt. To live life as it was meant to be lived — joyfully.
Lisa Scottoline is The New York Times bestselling author of the legal mystery series Rosato and Associates and numerous standalone titles. She is a past president of Mystery Writers of America and is an Edgar Allan Poe Award winner. Lisa co-authors a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer with her daughter, Francesca Serritella, entitled “Chick Wit.” Other humorous collections by these authors include Meet Me at Emotional Baggage Claim, Best Friends, Occasional Enemies and My Nest Isn’t Empty, It Just Has More Closet Space.
Don’t miss out on this book — it’s a gem!
Coming soon to the ABC network is a memoir turned television series, Fresh Off the Boat by Eddie Huang. In his memoir, Huang describes how his immigrant family moves from D.C. to Florida so that his father can open his own restaurant. Huang goes on to describe what life was like growing up as a Taiwanese-Chinese-American, not just in the United States, but also in a community with little diversity.
The audiobook for this memoir is narrated by Eddie Huang, which gives the reader a greater understanding of his perspective. His direct manner of detailing his eclectic array of experiences is uncensored and sincere. Culture is a prevalent theme throughout the book and food is frequently a platform for Huang to discuss the topic.
After listening to the audiobook, I will be interested to see how Huang’s book translates into an ABC series that appears to be quite comical. While the book isn’t without humor, it seems to focus more on challenging what are considered to be cultural norms and showing the impact that assimilation can have on a boy and his family as a whole. If you find yourself a fan of Huang’s style, checkout his video series on vice.com.
2013 was a banner year for Rainbow Rowell, having published two major hits: the popular Fangirl and the critically lauded Eleanor and Park, which won a Michael L. Printz Honor for Excellence in Young Adult Fiction. Rowell fans can rejoice as her hotly anticipated adult novel, Landline, hits BCPL’s shelves today.
Georgie McCool is on the verge of a major breakthrough in her career. She and her writing partner have a huge meeting with a studio executive the day after Christmas to pitch their very own TV show. It’s everything she’s ever dreamed of, but the meeting means her family won’t be able to go to Omaha to visit her mother-in-law. Georgie’s husband, Neal, decides to take their daughters anyway, leaving Georgie alone on Christmas to contemplate their marriage, her career and how her marriage has turned into something unfamiliar and uncomfortable. She goes to her mother’s house and finds an old-fashioned rotary phone in her childhood bedroom and uses it to call Neal in Nebraska. Neal answers, but not her husband of 14 years; it’s Neal of 1998, right before he is about to propose, and suddenly Georgie wonders if she’s destined to reroute their shared history by talking him out of their marriage before it even begins.
In Landline, unlike Rowell’s other novels, the main relationship isn’t a burgeoning romance: It’s a marriage of 14 years. There’s too much at stake to let it falter, and the tension between Georgie and the past and present Neals will keep readers itching to skip to the last page to see how it all turns out. There is a lot to laugh about in the book as well: funny, relatable characters; a pug in labor and tons of pop culture references. Landline is a winner for a great summer read, especially if you recognize the phone on the cover as something you had in your own bedroom (or just begged your parents for when you were in junior high).