Fiction

THE GRAVEYARD BOOK by Neil Gaiman

Posted on Updated on

The man Jack had always completed his assignments thoroughly and efficiently.  His knife dispatched the man, the woman, and the little girl before even a scream could pass their lips.  So it comes as a great surprise to him when he discovers that the toddler has somehow escaped into the night.  The man Jack follows the little boy’s scent up the hill and into the graveyard, but there he loses the trail as a mysterious, black-velvet-clad man named Silas escorts him from the graveyard, persuading him that he never saw the child there in the first place.  The inhabitants of the graveyard, the ghosts of all of those laid to rest within its gates over the centuries, offer the child their protection.  The ghosts Master and Mistress Owens adopt the child, whom they name Nobody (Bod), and Silas, who is neither living nor dead and can therefore leave the graveyard to procure food for the child, agrees to be his guardian.  Bod is given the freedom of the graveyard, seeing as the dead see, moving through walls, fading into shadow, and exploring worlds on the border between life and death.  He grows up safe inside the graveyard, but outside its gates, the man Jack has not abandoned his search for child.

The Graveyard Book won the 2009 Newbery Medal, which is somewhat surprising given the book’s subject matter–the dark, fantastical world stands out from typical Newbery winners–but fully deserved.  Gaiman builds a vivid world in the graveyard and explores themes of life, death, family and friendship, love and loyalty, identity, and morality.  He weaves these themes into his brilliantly imagined storyline, which keeps readers engaged in characters and plot from beginning to end.  Fair warning: you will reach a point in the story where you will become unable to put this book down.  Plan your time accordingly.

I highly recommed this book for upper elementary, teen, and adult readers who can handle dark fantasy and murder mysteries. I also cannot recommend highly enough Neil Gaiman’s audio book performance of this book!  It is one of my top two favorite audiobooks of all time–an absolutely stunning performance.  It is great to listen to, whether you are experiencing the book for the first time or reading it again.  You should definitely check the audio book out!

THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammet

Posted on Updated on

Sam Spade never hesitates to take a case when the money is good.  When the young, attractive Miss Wonderly asks him to tail the man who ran off with her sister, he doesn’t think it will be much trouble.  But the case goes terribly wrong when Spade’s partner, Archer, is murdered.  Spade soon realizes that Miss Wonderly isn’t who she claims to be, and that a complicated web of murder, lies, and betrayal surrounds an incredibly valuable black falcon figurine.  As the police begin to question the private investigator’s methods, Spade continues to wriggle out of their grasp, throwing himself into the hunt for the Maltese Falcon and hoping to unravel the mystery and maybe get his hands on some of the profit.

The Maltese Falcon is a fast-paced, hard-boiled detective novel, with a complicated plot that keeps you guessing.  It’s great for anyone who likes classic cop banter and noir-style detective stories.  It is the book on which the 1941 film starring Humphrey Bogart was based.  (And although I do enjoy the book, I actually prefer the film; is that blasphemy?)

THE LOVELY BONES by Alice Sebold

Posted on Updated on

Fourteen-year-old Susie Salmon takes a shortcut home from school through a cornfield where her middle-aged neighbor, George Harvey, is waiting.  When she accepts his offer to show her his cool underground den, he rapes and murders her, disposing of her dismembered remains in a sinkhole.  The story unfolds as Susie’s ghost watches her father, mother, sister and friends deal with the tragedy of her death and search for answers and justice.

This book wasn’t quite what I expected when I first read it. I thought the main thrust of the plot would be devoted to tracking down her killer and bringing him to justice. But it was much more subtle and complicated than that. It’s an upsetting story, but having Susie’s ghost as narrator lends a sort of peace to the story that it wouldn’t have had being told by the father or the detective. The reader knows from the start what happened, so the pressure for justice and the need for the characters to learn the killer’s identity isn’t quite the same as it would be if we needed that information as well. Also, while Susie is dead to the characters, she is very much alive to the reader. It is upsetting, to be sure, but it is not just another serial killer book.

THE EYRE AFFAIR by Jasper Fforde

Posted on Updated on

Literary detective Thursday Next lives in the strictly regulated police state of England and spends much of her life struggling under the shadow of crimes of her relatives–her fugitive time-traveling father and her dead brother who allegedly led an ill-fated charge of the Light Brigade that left England and Russia locked in the Crimean War for over a century.  But when the manuscript of Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit is stolen by the elusive, murderous, and perhaps insane Acheron Hades, Thursday finds that her own work is almost more than she can handle.  After killing several of Thursday’s comrades–and nearly Thursday herself–Hades kidnaps the detective’s uncle and steals his Prose Portal, a unique invention that allows a human to travel into a work of literature.  The villain uses it as a means of extortion, kidnapping characters from the original manuscripts of classic works of literature and threatening to murder them–forever altering the literary work–if his monetary demands are not met.  For Thursday, this case is beyond personal.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book!  I found the literary allusions hilarious and loved the way they were woven into the plot and this sci-fi world.  I also really liked the premise of her father’s work with the ChronoGuard of government time-travelers and wish we had gotten to see more of that.  The rest of my book group had more ambivalent feelings about the book.  Most enjoyed the literary allusions, but many disliked the sci-fi elements.  I don’t think they were fans of sci-fi in general.  It is worth noting, however–for any hard sci-fi fans out there–that there is not much description of the “sci” behind the “fi” in this one.  Still, I would personally recommend it to anyone who likes quirky mysteries and classic literature.  It’s a lot of fun!

ANGELS AND DEMONS by Dan Brown

Posted on

When art historian Robert Langdon gets an urgent phone call claiming that an ancient cult of anti-Catholic scientists have resurfaced, he believes it is a hoax.  But when he sees a picture of a dead scientist with a symmetrical Illuminati symbol branded on his chest, he quickly realizes that the danger is real.  Max Kohler, the director of the scientific research facility where Leonardo Vetra was murdered, enlists Langdon’s aid in discovering the Illuminati’s motivation.  When Vetra’s daughter Vittoria arrives and reveals what the Illuminati stole, however, their objective becomes clear:  the Illuminati plan to use a canister of anti-matter as a bomb to destroy the Vatican in the midst of the Papal Election.  Langdon and Vittoria rush to Rome, only to discover that the Illuminati assassin has also abducted the four Prefereti cardinals, candidates for the papacy, who they plan to publicly murder in four different churches across the city.  As the Swiss Guard search Vatican City for the anti-matter bomb, Langdon races to decipher the ancient trail of the Illuminati and find the assassin before he strikes again.

If you like fast-paced plots with unexpected twists and turns, this is a gripping thriller that is difficult to put down!  If you read for rich characters and character development, however, you may be disappointed as Dan Brown sacrifices the consistency of his already somewhat flat characters in order to create the unpredictable plot twists that drive his novel.

COMEDY IN A MINOR KEY by Hans Keilson

Posted on Updated on

Wim and Marie took a great risk welcoming Nico into their home.  Although most people in Holland disapproved of the Nazi occupation, to hide a Jew was a particularly dangerous form of resistance.  But after only a year, they discovered that the only thing more challenging than hiding a live Jew is disposing of a dead one.

Comedy in a Minor Key identifies itself as a “black comedy,” but that label might be misleading.  The novella presents a heartrending situation bluntly with a cold, bitter irony that highlights the absurdity of the situation.  The brief story begins with Nico’s death, then uses flashbacks to provide glimpses of prior events, the challenges, the growing relationships, the emotions and motivations, and the community that developed around hiding a Jew.  It is a short and thought-provoking read that isn’t quite as dark and horrific as much World War II fiction.

RECKLESS by Cornelia Funke

Posted on Updated on

After his father disappeared, twelve-year-old Jacob sneaked into his study searching for answers.  Instead he found a magic mirror.  For twelve years, Jacob journeyed back and forth from his own world to the Mirrorworld, a parallel dimension where dark fairy tales became real: questers can sell magical objects on the black market, dangerous fairies seek human lovers, and sleeping princesses decay in eternal sleep, waiting for princes who never arrive.

For Jacob, the Mirrorworld is an escape from everything that he does not want to face in his own world.  But when his younger brother, Will, follows him and is wounded by a stone Goyl, everything changes.  As Will begins to turn to jade stone, Jacob and the fox-girl who loves him have to guide Will and Will’s fiancee, Clara, through his dangerous world, hoping to find a cure, though he is fairly sure none exists.  Meanwhile Goyl army, led by the Dark Fairy, race to find the jade Goyl who has been prophesied to protect their king and lead them to victorious dominion over the human empire.

Based in a German fairy tale tradition that is already fairly dark, Funke’s Mirrorworld is chilling and grotesque.  The book is marketed for teens, and will certainly appeal especially to an older teen audience, although adults who enjoy these kinds of twisted fairy tale fantasies will find the characters very accessible as well.  I enjoyed reading this book very much.  

If you liked Reckless, you might like Dreamwood by Heather Mackey or Breadcrumbs by Anne Ursu (both for a slightly younger audience).

THE GUERNSEY LITERARY AND POTATO PEEL PIE SOCIETY by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows

Posted on Updated on

In post-World War II London, Juliet Ashton is trying to focus on her career as a writer and to figure out how to deal with Mr. Markham Reynolds, the stranger who has been sending her flowers, when she receives a slightly unusual letter.  A man living on the Channel Island of Guernsey has come into possession of a used book that used to belong to her.  He loves it so much that he has written to see if she has suggestions for further reading.  As their friendly correspondence grows into a friendship, Juliet begins to learn about the impact that the German occupation has had on the lives of the islanders, and of the sometimes humorous ways that they resisted their German conquerors.

This book is a charming, hopeful story of friendship and romance, told through a series of letters between Juliet, Dawsey (of Guernsey), and their other acquaintances.  It is a light read, and could be good for a book group.

SHIP BREAKER by Paolo Bacigalupi

Posted on Updated on

In Nailer’s world, you need luck to survive.  You can be small and able to work on light crew, stripping copper from shipwrecks for low pay.  Or you can be strong on heavy crew, breaking down the larger metal salvage.  But if you get an infection, you won’t be able to get medication, and you’ll die of fever.  If you get stuck inside a wreck you’ll drown, or choke in the dust and oil, and the rats will eat you.  Of course, even if you have no bad luck and are smart enough to do everything right, you still die on the beach sooner or later.  Unless you get a really lucky strike. . . .

After a huge “city killer” hurricane, Nailer and Pima find an isolated wreck and hurry to get the first scavenge.  But when they find a rich girl still alive, they have to make a choice.  Pima suggests two options: cut the ringed fingers off her swollen hands while she’s alive, or slit her throat first.  The girl is, after all, a great scavenge–a true lucky strike.  With just the gold rings on her fingers they could feed themselves and more—maybe never have to work again.  But Nailer chooses to save her instead, knowing that this decision might be the last he ever makes.   Now he and “Lucky Girl” must somehow escape the clutches of her rich father’s corporate enemies and Nailer’s abusive, drug-addict father who wants to turn Lucky Girl in for ransom.

This post-apocalyptic vision of Earth’s future is very violent and very dark.  Bacigalupi explores the meaning of family and loyalty and challenges readers to reflect on human treatment of the environment and the extreme gap in wealth and lifestyle between the heads of corporations and the lowest level industry workers.  Ship Breaker took the 2011 Printz Award (for Young Adult Literature) and was a finalist for the National Book award.  It is a great read for teens and adults.

THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by Mark Haddon

Posted on Updated on

Seven minutes after midnight, Christopher John Francis Boone found a dead dog outside of Mrs. Shears’ house, stabbed straight through with a garden fork.  Since Christopher’s teacher had encouraged him to write a story, he decides to write a murder mystery: an account of his own investigations into the dog’s death.  Despite his father’s command that he “stay out of other people’s business,” he sets out to detect who killed the dog—and ends up uncovering a host of family secrets in the process.

Christopher has Asperger’s syndrome.  The entire novel is told in his voice in a stream-of-consciousness style which gradually reveals the details of his life to the reader.  The book examines both the challenges that Christopher faces in relating to his family and those around him and the beauty of his world and his unique and brilliant perspective on life.  Mark Haddon, who has worked with children on the autism spectrum, crafts the story masterfully around the murder mystery framework.  Christopher’s voice is believable and clear, and his experiences range from humorous to heartbreaking.  I highly recommend it!