Sunday, March 30, 2014

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin

This witty, heartwarming, yet fast-paced tale will appeal to book lovers as it features A.J. Fikry, a curmudgeonly bookstore owner on fictional Alice Island (similar to Nantucket or Martha’s Vineyard). Fikry is 39 and he’s grieving the death of his wife in an automobile accident. He isolates himself like an island by drinking too much and ignoring his customers.  His only joy comes from gazing at his rare copy of an Edgar Allan Poe poem, Tamarlane. Since so few copies were printed, it’s worth $400,000 but Fikry hasn't insured it. The poem with its themes of pride, independence, and loss fits Fikry’s state of mind. When the poem is stolen, Fikry faces more loss and may be forced into bankruptcy as his lack of attention to the store and his customers have left his bottom line seriously lacking.

Soon an adorable toddler is abandoned in the store with a note:
“This is Maya. She is twenty-five months old. She is VERY SMART, exceptionally verbal for her age, and a sweet, good girl.  I want her to grow up to be a reader.  I want her to grow up in a place with books and among people who care about those things. I love her very much but I can no longer take care of her. The father cannot be in her life, and I do not have a family that can help. I am desperate.  Yours, Maya’s mother.”

Fikry takes Maya to the police station where Chief Lambiase explains that with the snow and it being a Friday night with a diminished ferry schedule that no one from the Department of Children and Family Services would come for Maya until at least Monday so Fikry takes her back to his home above the store and by Monday she’s wormed her way into his cold, hard heart and he soon adopts her. Business picks up as islanders visit to see the child and offer advice on her care.  Fikry adds new children’s books and the women who visit form a book club. The absolute delight of this novel is the many wonderful books it introduces. Each chapter opens with the title of a short story or book and Fikry’s depiction of why he loves it that then introduces characters by what they read. 

Chief Lambiase visits the store often to check on Maya but to justify those visits he buys books and since he’s frugal, he reads them.  He starts with mass market paperbacks by James Patterson then Fikry directs him to Jo Nesbo, Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosley, Cormac McCarthy and eventually to Kate Atkinson. Lambiase loves talking about the books so he starts a book club for law enforcement officers. Touches like Lambiase's book club and the ways people connect through books make this a sure bet for avid readers. 

Fikry's new life means that he abandons his old lifestyle in which he claims that he’s not an alcoholic, “but I do like to drink until I pass out at least once a week. I smoke occasionally and subsist on a diet of frozen entrees. I rarely floss.”  He then realizes that “the most annoying thing about it is that once a person gives a shit about one thing, he finds he has to start giving a shit about everything.”

A novel highlighting a man reentering life needs a love interest and the charming Amelia Loman, a publisher’s rep for a small press, is his and she and Fikry slowly fall in love and the book begins to wend its way toward “happily ever after.” Complications ensue though in this always entertaining novel that’s sure to find its way to beaches everywhere this summer. Comparisons to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society with its cast of lovable eccentrics are inevitable and apt as book-loving readers will immerse themselves in the lives of these bookish islanders.

Summing it Up:  Readers will flock to this page-turning look at literature and love.  Zevin’s dry humor and absolute love of the literary rescue The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry from being a Nicholas Sparks-like snorer. Instead, it’s a delectable dessert of a romance that even men (especially men who love books) can enjoy. Primarily though, this will be the book every woman you know reads this summer. 

Footnote: As this is one of the big books of the spring, with everyone wanting copies for Mother's Day, the author may be coming to a town near you. Grab an autographed copy for your mother or yourself at one of her appearances. This captivating novel is an homage to independent bookstores so, if possible, buy your copy at a real bricks-and-mortar bookstore where you can share your love of books with real people.  

Rating:  5 stars   

Category: Dessert, Fiction, Five Stars, Book Club

What Others are Saying:

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Byrd by Kim Church

Byrd is a quiet book that evokes timeless feelings about ordinary people, isolation, and identity while presenting an original take on a bookish young woman’s growth.  Addie Lockwood is a reader and Roland Rhodes is not.  Growing up together in a small North Carolina town in the 1970s, Roland is Addie’s first love.  They meet again in their thirties when a lonely and somewhat isolated Addie visits Roland in California.  When Addie has a baby and gives it up to adoption she doesn’t tell Roland who assumes she’s had the abortion that he’d encouraged. But who is Addie and why exactly does she give up the baby?  That and more is revealed in a series of letters Addie writes to her son, the boy she calls Byrd, the baby she’s given away so he can soar. Because the book is written in the third person, we see Addie both as she sees herself and as the universal “Addie” we might be in letters like this one:

Dear Byrd,
What’s your name now, I wonder.  Not Blake, I hope, or Blair, or Smitty. Please, not Smitty. 
I can guess what you’re thinking: what mother would name her child Byrd?
But I knew the name wouldn’t follow you.  Which is partly why I chose it – I wanted a name no one else would ever call you. One thing about you that would be mine.

Debut author Kim Church peppers this novel with pithy, short-sentence gems that help the reader get to know each character well:

About Addie herself: “Addie believes in books. They are more interesting than real life and easier to understand.  Sometimes you can guess the ending. Things usually work out, and if they don’t you can always tell yourself it was only a book.” 

Addie won silver dollars in first grade for every 25 books she read.  She collected enough silver dollars to fill a peanut butter jar. “It makes her feel rich and important, like someone you might read about in a book.”

About Addie’s mother: “Addie’s mother works at the Carousel Shoppe selling expensive girls’ dresses to mothers who don’t have to work.”

About Addie’s brother: “Sam is four years younger than Addie, with eyes gray as nickels and hair so short you can’t tell what color it is.”

About Addie’s father: Addie’s father drinks.  A lot.

About Addie’s teen years: “High School.  Girls huddle in the hall talking in whispers . . . they wear makeup.  . . Boys love and fear them . . . Addie sometimes wishes she were one of them. She wishes she were one of anything.

When she writes, the rest of the world disappears.”

When Addie goes away to college, her brother Sam writes her:
Dear Addie, this time he fell in the street and Mr. Davenport had to help us bring him in.
Dear Addie, when are you coming home?
Dear Addie, I can’t wait to be the one who leaves.

Addie’s letters made this reader “know” her and her family and friends by depicting them as commonplace people much as Emily in the play “Our Town” offered a true portrait of the family she left behind as seen when she returned to earth for a day.  Addie, too, looks back and states her philosophy:

Dear Byrd,
I have learned that it’s possible to become satisfied with your life too soon.

One joy of this book is that as Addie matures and steps out of her isolation and her satisfaction with a half-lived life, the reader gets to step into that growth with her. Addie’s love for the child she gave up grows to include a world she was previously afraid of exploring.

This novel fits my Gourmet category because it proves that nothing is more gourmet than one perfect raspberry and Church’s simple, yet not simplistic, sentences are like perfect raspberries – small, yet filled with delight. It also fits the Grandma’s Pot Roast category because Addie is a character who will stick with you and satisfy you just as the curry stew she prepares will bring nourishment to those she loves.

Summing it Up: Devour this book because it shows how loneliness can be overcome if you live with hope but without expectations. Select it because you love books and books with a book-loving main character are like enjoying an all-day sucker in your favorite flavor. Read it for the richness and joy that leap off the final pages. Choose it for your book club; it’s an original paperback so all can buy it or download it the day it comes out. If your book club reads debut novels - and they should - this would be a good choice with much to discuss.

P.S. I rarely comment on book covers but this one is special. The striking title font and the solid bird perched on a leafless tree pull the reader into a story that shows how a child can rise like a bird and impact those left behind. Designer ilsa Brink deserves an award for capturing the book’s essence.

Rating:  5 stars

Category: Fiction, 5 Stars, Grandma’s Pot Roast/Gourmet, Book Club

Publication date: March 18, 2014

What Others are Saying:

“Brilliant writing – lively and heartbreaking at every turn.”  - Jill McCorkle, New York Times bestselling author of Life After Life and winner of the Dos Passos Prize.

“A riveting debut.  Kim Church is a very talented writer.”  - Ron Rash, New York Times bestselling author of Serena and The Cove

“Addie is a particular woman—a character that will linger and grow beloved—but she could also be your sister, your roommate from college, a friend in the neighborhood. She’s still struggling in her thirties to make sense of old loves and loss that keeps cycling back into her life. A successful woman in the world, her heart remains in flux until love that can’t be budged finally takes root in her. Kim Church has imagined a world of good people missing the mark as good people sometimes do. They’re familiar, a comfort. I will never forget the impact of the final pages.” – Patricia Henley, National Book Award finalist and author of Hummingbird House

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Chasing Shadows by Swati Avasthi

Holly and Corey are twins and Savitri, their neighbor, is dating Corey in this their senior year at a private Chicago high school. They act like family and Savitri who lives alone with her obstetrician mother needs those familial bonds. There are barely any Indian families in their neighborhood so Savitri assimilates and the Paxton twins become her family and the Hindu mythology she adds to their mix seems to enrich them all.  The inseparable trio are “freerunners” who treat the surfaces of Chicago buildings as their own gymnasium and obstacle course. They all live in Morgan Park, a far southwest side Chicago neighborhood peppered with old homes and established families. Savitri is a brilliant student who’s just heard that she’ll get into Princeton but the plan has always been for the three to stay together in Chicago with Holly at UIC for film and video, Corey at DePaul for computer science and Savitri at University of Chicago or Northwestern for “thinking-too-much.” Princeton was a long shot, a fantasy, but now it might threaten their carefully laid plans.

The afternoon Savitri learns about Princeton is an unexpectedly balmy day so Holly celebrates the false spring by dangling from the edge of a roof four stories above ground and the trio then ricochet off the fa├žade of a standard row of Chicago storefronts in their own urban playground. Their “freerunning” antics show the invulnerability teens often express. Later Savitri’s car trails Corey and Holly’s Mini Cooper home and at a stoplight she watches a hooded gunman step out of an SUV and shoot Corey and Holly through their window. Corey dies immediately but Holly survives.  

In her coma and later, Holly dreams vivid scenes of a snake man who is keeping Corey in an eerie world only she  sees – a place called Shadowlands. When she wakes up, Holly won’t move beyond her dreams and Savitri tries to help her by ignoring her own grief and needs. Holly and Corey’s Dad, a cop, thinks Savitri has the clue to the gunman’s identity and presses her to find it. How the two girls and their parents work to overcome the enveloping grief and to learn the difference between a friend someone needs versus a friend someone wants is the beauty of this novel. 

The interspersed illustrated sections pack staccato punches just when simple prose isn’t enough. They bleed the hurt onto the page.  This is an amazing book that I had no idea would sock me in the solar plexus and leave me in tears yet help me think about how vulnerability is essential for growth.          “we are all vulnerable . . . It’s terrifying this life. Its precarious nature, its random un-design.”

Summing it Up: Read this graphic fiction hybrid for an emotional ride that will have you tearing through the pages as you live inside the real Chicago where Italian beef, roti, neighborhoods, families, cops, and sometimes even random acts of violence coexist. It’s too good for adults to ignore. Starred reviews in Kirkus, Publishers Weekly and School Library Journal explore the excellence of this genre-bending novel.

Graphic fiction hybrid   Ages 14 and up

Rating:  5 stars

Category: Fiction, 5 Stars, Diet Coke and Gummi Bears, Book Club

Publication date: September 24, 2013

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