Adult Favorite

ODD THOMAS by Dean Koontz

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Odd can’t help it that the dead communicate with him.  They sense that he can see them, and often they tell him the stories of their deaths–which, for those spirits restless enough to stick around, were usually untimely and unpleasant. Odd is not a cop, and he has no desire to be. He is nothing more than the best short order cook in Pico Mundo. But sometimes he can’t help getting involved with apprehending a murderer or preventing a future crime. His gift just won’t allow it. And when a suspicious man comes to the diner surrounded by the shadowy spirits that usually gawk at mass-murder, Odd knows it is up to him to prevent an unthinkable tragedy, despite the warnings that his involvement may lead him down a path of incredible suffering.

Wow, was this novel great! It starts with a quick case to get you hooked and then moves into the slow-moving but incredibly suspenseful main plot. Do not mistake “slow-moving” for a negative qualifier. Odd is an unreliable narrator. He admits at the beginning that he is leaving out major details for the sake of the story. When he deviates from the main plot into quirky asides about particular ghosts, characters, the town, or himself, he both deepens the incredible character development and ramps up the suspense. In this case, the slow-broil is brilliant and ultimately very satisfying when so many little details come together in the end. And I have never read an adult mystery/thriller series with this level of character development. This is a new favorite for me!

I highly recommend the audiobook!

GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell

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When the Civil War tears through Margaret Mitchell’s romanticized vision of the Old South, a noble civilization is burned to ash and swept away by the Yankee army.  The weak whither and fade in the dust of their lost world, but the strong rise from the ashes and reclaim the land that was their own. 

Before the war, Scarlett O’Hara is the belle of the county, desperately in love with Ashley who—despite his love for Scarlett—has chosen to marry the more practical Melanie.  Scarlett marries his cousin to spite him, but the war leaves her a widowed mother, impoverished, and compelled by her love of Ashley to help support his wife and child.  Realizing that money is the only thing that matters, Scarlett is prepared to lie, cheat, steal, and kill to build her fortune again.  The only person that she can’t seem to dominate is the infamous blockade runner, Rhett Butler, whose ego, sarcasm, and impropriety make him both attractive and infuriating.

Although I grew up loving the film, every time I eyed the 1,000 page tome on which it was based, I balked.  I don’t usually enjoy long books; I often spend half the time slogging through painfully verbose descriptions, wondering when the action will.  Additionally, I don’t usually enjoy romance novels, and romance certainly features prominently in Gone With the Wind. But when a fourteen year old boy told me that Gone With the Wind was one of the best books he had ever read, I was so intrigued that I picked it up.  And from that moment, I could not put it down.

As much as it is a romance between Scarlett and Rhett, Gone With the Wind is a romance between Margaret Mitchell and the Old South.  She wrote the book in the 1920s and 1930s based on stories told to her by her grandparents’ generation, and her romanticized fiction should not be mistaken for historical fact.  Deeply entrenched, lingering racism and classism is present not only in the thoughts of the characters but also in Mitchell’s omniscient narration.  But it is easy to see how the audience that read Mitchell’s book when it was released in 1936—people who had lost so many loved ones and sacrificed so much in a Great War of their own and were then living through a horrible period of economic uncertainty—found the story of the courage, pride, and survival so compelling. 

And the well-written, heartrending story still captures the imagination today.  The world Mitchell creates and destroys is so beautiful yet flawed, and her account of the ups and downs of the war so agonizing, that even knowing how it would end, I couldn’t put the book down.  But it is the characters that truly drive the story forward.  Scarlett’s self-interested passion and determination is a foil to Melanie’s quiet, selfless, and commanding strength.  Far more than in the movie, Captain Butler’s deep goodness shines through the mask of his weaknesses and vices.  It is difficult not to both hate and pity Scarlett for failing to see through his studied nonchalance to the love he conceals out of fear that she will manipulate him, as she does all other men. 

If you love the movie, you must read the book.  The movie is a good adaptation, but even 4 hours of film cannot capture the depth and nuance of this 959 page novel.  Additionally, Hollywood’s added “I love yous” and eliminated references to sex and pregnancy cause subtle yet important changes to the Rhett-Scarlett-Ashley love triangle.  Be prepared for a glimpse into the racism of the Old South (and the 1930s South), but also for a perhaps not-entirely-inaccurate view of the hypocrisy and ruthlessness of the Yankees.  And be prepared to watch in agony the slow demise of a relationship—and a civilization—due to foolishness, pride, and miscommunication.

Thank you for the recommendation, Max!  I will second your vote: this is definitely one of the best books I have ever read.

SHADOW DIVERS: THE TRUE ADVENTURE OF TWO AMERICANS WHO RISKED EVERYTHING TO SOLVE ONE OF THE LAST MYSTERIES OF WORLD WAR II by Robert Kurson

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The world of commercial diving is competitive.  The minute a shipwreck’s location is leaked, dive teams will sprint to it, hoping to get their hands on some of its fascinating artifacts.  The divers that received the secret coordinates to “something big” lying sixty miles off the coast of New Jersey (and 230 feet below the ocean’s surface) were excited to explore an untouched wreck.  But they were not prepared for what they found: a sunken German U-Boat, undocumented in any historical record.  The divers were elated with the discovery–especially John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, two experienced and adventurous divers who also shared a passion for history.  Each diver hoped to be the one to discover the U-Boat’s identity and its story.  But diving to 230 feet is perilous, and it wasn’t long before the wreck began to claim lives.  As most of the surviving divers gradually gave up on the dangerous wreck, only Chatterton and Kohler remained, determined to discover the U-Boat’s identity–even at the risk of their own lives.

I could not put this book down!  Before I began reading Shadow Divers, I knew nothing about commercial diving.  The logistics and dangers of deep sea dives are fascinating, as are the stories of the people who engage in such a life-threatening activity.  Between the danger and suspense of each dive and the intriguing mystery of the U-Boat, I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough!  I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in history, who likes survival stories, or even who enjoys reading thrillers.  It is wonderful–a new favorite!

Thanks for the recommendation, Sally!

THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN: A TALE OF MURDER, INSANITY, AND THE MAKING OF THE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY by Simon Winchester

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The creation of the Oxford English Dictionary was the most expansive and grueling project that Sir James Murray ever undertook.  The goal of the project was to create a comprehensive record of every word in the English language, including its origins and examples of its usage in literary context.  Such a feat would have been impossible were it not for all of the volunteer submissions from philologists around the country, who mailed Murray examples of words quoted in context from literature.  One of the most frequent word-donors was a man called Dr. W. C. Minor.  Outside the man’s obvious love of literature, Murray knew nothing about this doctor, but he was determined to meet the man who had provided so many of the OED’s valuable contextual examples.  When he discovered that Minor was a convicted murderer incarcerated in an insane asylum, however, he realized that the doctor’s past was even more startling than his immense vocabulary.

This is one of my favorite non-fiction books for grown-ups.  The history of the dictionary is fascinating to a word nerd like me, and each chapter is paired with entries from the OED.  The story of Minor’s life and the glimpses into the nineteenth century criminal justice system are also very interesting.  I highly recommend this book to non-fiction readers and lovers of words.

Readers who enjoy reading about criminal justice in previous centuries may also enjoy The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale.

ENDER’S GAME by Orson Scott Card

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In Ender’s world, it is not a good thing to be a third child.  Earth has a strict law limiting families to only two children, and Ender is a third.  This makes Ender’s parents suspect for possibly holding unconventional beliefs about the morality of contraception, and it makes Ender feel like a mistake, an unwanted and potentially dangerous creation.  Only Ender’s sister, Valentine, makes him feel truly loved, protecting him as much as she can from the torments of their older brother, Peter.  Peter is still bitter that he was not quite brilliant enough to be selected for an elite school that trains future military officers for the ongoing war between the Earthlings and the insect-like aliens called the “Buggers.” When Ender is of age, it initially seems that he will not make the cut for Command School either, as the government removes the implant that has been tracking his intellectual development.  But after an incident at school where Ender fights back against a bully, fatally injuring him, the government returns and offers Ender a place at Command School.  Overcoming the disadvantage of his small size, Ender excels at the tests thrown at him, most of which are framed as “games” that challenge him intellectually.  But the greatest challenge may be navigating the social and political tensions at the school in order to prove that he has what it takes to lead an army against the Buggers.

Ender’s Game is a sci-fi classic.  There is plenty of outer-space action, but the main focus of the novel is on character development and the relationships that fuel the social and political subtexts.  I highly recommend this book to teen and adult sci-fi fans!

If you liked Ender’s Game, you might like the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov.

THE BOOK THIEF by Markus Zusak

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The first time Death met Liesel Meminger, the book thief, she was on a train with her mother and her little brother, traveling to a foster home near Munich where the children could escape the shadow of their father’s identity as a Kommunist. It was the little brother’s soul that Death had come to collect.  As he cradled the little boy’s soul in his arms and watched the living grieve, Death did not know that he would meet the book thief two more times during her childhood, nor that he would find her journal in the wreckage of a bomb-torn city and would read it again and again, memorizing her story and always carrying it with him.  He shares Liesel’s story with the readers in his own way–recounting the mischief she concocts with Rudy Steiner, the complicated but ultimately loving relationships in her foster family, the struggle of learning to read, poverty and hunger in the Third Reich, the terrifying business of hiding a Jew and the powerful friendship that results from it, the complex intertwining of patriotism, loyalty, and morality–all over-layed with Death’s observations of the tragedy of war and the enduring hope and beauty of life.

Ultimately, it is the words—of the author, of the characters, of the past—that bring the story to life so vibrantly and unforgettably.  This is a book to be savored.  It is at once heartbreaking and heartwarming.  There are no real plot twists; Death tells you the ending at the beginning.  The book is about the journey of the characters and their complex, beautiful relationships.  Zusak does not neglect even the minor characters, making them all irresistibly complicated and human.  I warn you, you will fall in love with characters in this book, and their stories will stay with you–as they did for the narrator, Death.  Your heart will likely break at some of the tragedies they endure.  But it is worth it for the journey you share with them, just as Death demonstrates that even the shortest lives captured in Liesel’s journal have profound and enduring beauty and meaning.  The Book Thief has been my Favorite Book Of All Time since I first read it in 2006, and it will take an extraordinary book to ever supplant it in my affection.  I cannot recommend it highly enough for teens and for adults.

If you liked The Book Thief for its themes and characters, you might like The Fault In Our Stars by John Green.

If you liked The Book Thief for its subject matter and narrative style, you might like Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut.

1066 AND ALL THAT: A MEMORABLE HISTORY OF ENGLAND by W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman

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1066 and All That: a Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember, including 103 Good Things, 5 Bad Kings and 2 Genuine Dates, is a humorous survey of British history from the Roman conquest through 1930, when the book was originally published.  The short book is framed as a mock history textbook, complete with absurd essay questions, pointless footnotes, and a plethora of humorous errors. The authors blend actual history with Shakespeare plays, intentionally mix up people and events, combine quotes, alter timelines, etc., which results in a mixture of clever parody and just plain silliness.  If you have a basic familiarity with British history and enjoy the sense of humor of Dave Barry, Monty Python, and/or The Simpsons, you will probably find this book as hilarious as I did.

Thanks for the recommendation, Sarah!