I recently picked up John Steinbeck's classic Cannery Row and was pleasantly surprised by how fresh and finely wrought it is. This book is a gem, examining the lives of the downtrodden people living on Cannery Row in Monterey, California in the 1930s. Steinbeck paints his characters with humor and love, not sparing the bleakness of their lives yet including the small moments of beauty and joy that keep them going. Cannery Row is lighter than The Grapes of Wrath but also more precise, despite the apparently loose structure; while it's easy to get lost in the book, you can also put it down for a day or two in between chapters and come back to without losing a step. - Joe, owner and Cannery Row visitor
Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer
Annihilation is an unusual science fiction novel, and it immediately seized my attention. I knew only a little about the story going in - somewhere along the southeast coast of the United States, a team of scientists enters the otherworldly Area X, seeking to understand what it is and how and why it has come to be. Strange events begin almost immediately, as the scientists wonder what is out there and how much the shadowy government agency that sent them already knows about it.
The story, simple in some ways and startlingly original in others, blends elements of weird fiction and psychological thriller, with amazing results. Our narrator, a biological researcher who focuses intensely on the object of her study, is not the warmest character, but I quickly and easily fell into her way of thinking. As the scientists unravel the secrets of Area X - and the biologist reveals her own secrets to the reader - they wonder to what extent they observe, or are the subject of observation.
Annihilation is the first in a series of three books: it works as its own story, but leaves plenty of loose ends, and I ordered the next two titles as soon as I was finished.
-Joe, bookshop & beard owner
My Lady Jane
Authors: Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, & Jodi Meadows (AKA The Lady Janies)
This first book, from a collection of books about (in)famous Janes, is a mix of humor and (mostly true) history as we follow King Edward VI, his cousin Lady Jane Grey, and Gifford (call him G) as they navigate the nuances of their kingdom after the death of King Henry VIII. However, The Lady Janies take this one step further in the most fantastical way - certain people in this world can shapeshift into animals! With this added element, The Lady Janies throw us into dissent, conspiracy, romance, friendships, and coming-of-age stories as we hope and pray that King Edward and Jane Grey have happier endings than the true, bleak ones history has already written.
I found myself jumping to research whether particular elements of the story were true or happened the way The Lady Janies wrote them. It’s a great jumping off point for research and has such an interesting writing style (sometimes the authors break the fourth wall to tell you exactly what is true and what is not) They also already have a second book published, My Plain Jane (Jane Eyre meets ghost hunting), and a third slated for for 2020 entitled My Calamity Jane, so keep on the lookout for those as well!
I giggled through the shenanigans in My Lady Jane and I would give this book 4 out of 5 Awesome Austin Points for pure hilarity mixed with an interesting take on alternate history.
In case you missed my first three reviews in this series, feel free to go back and check them out: Scythe by Neal Shusterman, The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner, and Three Dark Crowns by Kendare Blake. This is my #4 pick for my Top Five favorites from the 2018-2019 Gateway Readers Award Nominees. There’s information on the award here and the Top 15 books here.
I used to pride myself on not crying during emotional scenes in books, though as I’ve grown older and gained more world experience, I find myself moved to tears by books more often. Sometimes you can see me crying in the front window of my favorite coffee shop. The Serpent King by Jeff Zentner is one such book that has reached down into my soul and tugged at each miniscule heartstring (perhaps I’ll write a future post entitled “Austin’s Top 5 YA Novels for Clearing Out Your Tear Ducts”), possibly ripping a few out before fitting them all back together.
Zentner takes us to rural Tennessee as we follow our protagonist, Dill, and his two best friends, Lydia and Travis, through their final year of high school. Dill struggles in poverty; with his father (a snake handling minister) in prison, Dill’s own unclear future seems grim. Lydia, using her fashion blog as a platform, struggles with busting out of the rural scene in a community where she feels boxed in and stifled. Travis, on the other hand, deals with his “social outcast” label - at home and at school - by escaping into fantasy novels and games (he even has a cool wizard staff). The three, however, have an incredibly deep bond that allows them to see each other’s flaws while still being supportive through their difficult times. At its heart, The Serpent King is tale of friendship, doubt, depression, and coming to terms with reality.
I feel like Jeff Zentner was channeling my inner spirit into three completely different characters. Dill’s struggle with religion, Lydia’s desire to leave her rural town, and Travis’ escapism through fiction are issues that I have dealt with in my past (and possibly still struggle with on occasion). With that knowledge, it’s quite possible (probability states 100% likely) that I’m giving this rating and review out of pure emotional connection. Someone else may read the book and find flaws that I never perceived, yet I think that is the power of this book: I was so emotionally invested in the characters (if less so with Lydia than Dill and Travis) that I didn’t notice potential flaws. I can’t even name any at this point because I just remember hoping my new “friends” would be ok!
I would definitely suggest this book to anyone who enjoys more contemporary, realistic worlds that focus on building relationships. Considering this book made me cry AND it was a debut novel for Jeff Zentner, I’d give this book 5 out of 5 Awesome Austin Points. As far as debut novels go, Zentner outdid himself with characterization while exploring religion and growing up in rural America in the present age. Get out there and read it! - Austin Miller (resident YA expert)
[Hey everyone! In case you missed my last review on Scythe by Neal Shusterman, this is Review #2 of my Top Five picks (in no particular order) from the 2018-2019 Gateway Readers Award Nominees. There’s information on the award here and the Top 15 books here. The committee always welcomes volunteer readers!]
Hey everyone, Austin here! Have you heard of the Gateway Award? If not, you should check it out. I have had the pleasure of volunteering as a Reader Selector for the award over the past few years in an attempt to expand my own reading tastes in the Young Adult reading world and, in the process, have encountered some truly amazing novels. My next reviews will be centered around my Top 5 favorites among the 2018-19 Gateway Award Nominees (they’re all pretty great though).Here’s the full list of 2018-19 Nominees if you’d like to explore them yourself!
Scythe is one of those books that, on the surface, seems incredibly dark and disturbing, yet throws you into a world of intrigue and moral dilemma - a future United States where disease and death have been eliminated due to advances in technology, and decisions for the entire world are made by an overarching technology called “The Thunderhead”. Readers follow Citra and Rowan as they are apprenticed to a group of people known as Scythes, trained in the art of killing and the history, value, and purpose of death. Scythes were created, outside of the Thunderhead, to “glean” individuals to prevent overpopulation, which causes them to be feared as well as revered as celebrities.
I do not want to explain too much of the plot, as I think it would be more fun to allow the chaos, beauty, and mystery of this book to unfold as you read. However, I want to expand upon my surprise at the depth this book created within my own psyche. I, honestly, read this book a year ago, but I still find myself thinking about two concepts Shusterman layered on top of each other as a foundation for his world - technology and death.
Shusterman created a world in which the Thunderhead is always watching, always computing, and always making the best choices for the entire world. Through this end, the world population has become accustomed to technology being a pervasive part of life. Need food? Ask the Thunderhead (it will give you food). Need a new friend? Ask the Thunderhead (it will pair you with someone analytically matched to meet your current needs). Need to be healed? Just change the frequencies of the nanobots living inside you and the Thunderhead will take care of the rest. The whole concept is incredibly “Big Brother”-ish yet the world agrees to, and seems unaffected by, complete control of the Thunderhead.
However, the concept of the Thunderhead leaves me with more questions than answers as I ponder the rise in our current technologies. Our iPhones and other devices are constantly tracking and gathering data on us to provide optimal user experiences. What happens if we give over complete control so the devices are always making our decisions for us? What would that world look like? Would it actually lead to a utopia or would the world be led into chaos? Shusterman weaves his conjectures through Scythe in an impressive feat of world building and has left me pondering the role of technology in our current existence.
Using the Thunderhead as a base, Shusterman expands his narrative around death, but I would argue that he’s actually writing about life. The Scythes are trained to kill (excuse me, glean) but the more important conversations arise when talking about how people choose to live within this world of immortality. Citra and Rowan struggle with this in very different ways, yet they both have to reach their own conclusions regarding how they choose who to glean from the world. Should they glean the oldest? Should they glean the least “successful” individuals, or should they only glean the willing? These conversations might seem disturbing, yet Shusterman builds his world so they come naturally and without shying away from the dissonance they create within his characters.
I truly loved this book (5 out of 5 Awesome Austin Points) - Shusterman’s world building and character development are phenomenal and I found myself disappointed knowing the series wasn’t yet finished and I had to wait. Ugh. However, since last year, I have read the second book in the series, The Thunderhead (January 2018). And, though such a thing is rare, I would argue it is a sequel that outshone its predecessor. I am looking forward to the third (and hopefully final) book, entitled The Toll. It is slated for publication in 2019.
- The Bookish Austin
The Strange and Beautiful Sorrows of Ava Lavender
by Leslye Walton
This. Book. Ya’ll. As the title suggests, Ava Lavender’s story is not the happiest of reads in the world and is, indeed, incredibly strange but I thoroughly enjoyed it (I read it in one day). Walton weaves magical realism, love, heartbreak, and the strength of family into a story that explores the descendents of a French-immigrant family down to their great-granddaughter, Ava, born swaddled in her very own wings. As Ava is discovering her own path in the world the reader navigates the lives of her mother, grandmother, and brother as their narratives collide in unexpected ways. I would suggest this for anyone who enjoys a read exploring familial ties and discovering one’s inner strength in a world that hates, loves, fears, and worships you.
- Austin, bookseller + resident YA expert
Review of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Joe, owner of Yellow Dog Bookshop.
This book was sad and funny, heartbreaking and hopeful; it starts out as a light read but develops into a deep story.
Gabrielle Zevin tells the story of A.J., the lonely, widowed, curmudgeonly owner of Island Books, and Amelia, an ambitious publisher rep who is determined to sell him a load of books. A valuable book disappears, an infant is left in the shop, and A.J. and Amelia find their lives completely transformed.
Each section of the book begins with an epigraph from a short story, which we eventually learn are the stories chosen by A.J. for Maya, the baby he raised in the bookshop. As the book draws to its tearful yet triumphant close, you will find yourself wanting to read it all over again. Even if you’re not a bookstore owner like me, this story will touch you deeply and, I hope, encourage you to pass on your own love of books to others.
Our Favorite Reads of 2017!
Last year I read a ton of books… this year, not so much. I started a lot of books but I wasn’t able to finish all of them. Maybe it was the general malaise I felt / feel about what is happening in our country or maybe my obsession with true crime podcasts filled my drive time / audio-book time.
Of the books I did manage to read all the way to the end, these were my three favorites:
1. The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas
Sixteen-year-old Starr Carter navigates the duality of her world, between her working class family life in a poverty-stricken neighborhood and her experiences with her wealthy private school friends. When one of her best friends from the neighborhood is killed, Starr’s life is turned upside down and she must reconcile the two spheres she’s been living in. I got to walk around in Starr’s world during one of the hardest times of her life and I feel lucky to have spent time with a smart, funny, loving character who chooses to speak up for the injustice she witnesses.
2. Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West
You may have heard of Lindy West from the episode of This American Life: Tell Me I’m Fat where she talks about being trolled on the internet about her weight and how she chose to fight back. Shrill is a memoir about misogyny, fat shaming, falling in love, being a writer, and much more. West’s voice is powerful and cuts through the bullshit about what’s “appropriate” to talk about.
3. The Widow’s House by Carol Goodman
Goodman once again sets her suspenseful story in the Hudson River Valley, this time focusing on two married writers who move back to their college town and into the historic, unnerving house of their former professor. As always, the writing is clear and crisp with a bit of supernatural mystery thrown in to make this an easy and fun read.
I set out to read over 30 books in 2017 and only finished 10. My goal for 2018 is to finish 25 books, which feels very ambitious after having just typed the previous sentence...
Finding time to read has been a struggle ever since we opened the shop - but I still read whenever I can! Here are my favorites from the past year:
1. Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor (2010)
I cannot believe it took me seven years to get around to reading this book - and now I recommend it to everyone I can. Set in a future Africa, this novel turns the conventional fantasy narrative on its head. Onyesonwu is a would-be sorceress in search of a teacher, but as an outcast child of rape it is difficult for her even to find a friend. When she comes into her power, she sets out on a quest to find and destroy her father, and the consequences of her journey go beyond anything she envisioned. Mixing the biting humor of Onyesonwu’s narration with stark commentary on the brutality of ethnic violence and weaponized rape, Okorafor transports us and transforms us.
2. China Mountain Zhang by Maureen McHugh (1992)
This multilayered sci-fi novel follows “Rafael” Zhang, an engineer in New York, in a future America dominated by China. The story is mostly from Zhang’s perspective, but also from those whose lives he connects to around the world. Zhang and his friends negotiate the tensions between individual expression and the good of the community, the difficulty of living in an inherently unfair world, and the importance of finding and spreading peace. Ahead of its time both for featuring a gay protagonist and for its uncanny (and unnerving) predictions of our future, this book will remain with you long after you finish it.
3. On Tyranny by Timothy Snyder/How to Fight by Thich Nhat Hanh (both 2017)
These two slim volumes provide outsized advice on how to live and function in present-day America. In the first, Timothy Snyder provides twenty actions for resisting the advance of tyranny, and the necessary historical context from the past century to understand how tyrannical governments have taken power and held it. The second, by Zen Buddhist and spiritual writer Thich Nhat Hanh, teaches us how to maintain our peace in the face of suffering, struggle, and real anger at injustice, and how to channel negative emotion in a positive way. Neither of these books offers easy solutions, but both offer us a path to work toward a better world, from the personal to the local to the global level.
I’m looking forward to reading more this next year - right now I’m in the middle of Pale Fire by Nabokov, just starting Philip Pullman’s The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage (beginning a new series in the world of His Dark Materials), and about to begin A Short History of Reconstruction, by Eric Foner - and beyond that in my stack are Chimimanda Adichie, Ursula K. LeGuin, and more Okorafor. Hope you join us in making 2018 a year of reading!
What book are you most looking forward to reading in 2018?
The Boxcar Children celebrates 75 years.Read more
We recently went to see the movie King Arthur, by Guy Ritchie. We loved it! It plays around with the legend, no doubt, but mostly in very interesting ways, and it’s fun to watch regardless. I’ve been a fan of the Arthurian legends ever since I can remember; the first version I read was probably a copy of Howard Pyle’s version of the tales, checked out from my grade school library. Next I found an old condensed version of Malory; this was the first antique book I owned, and I had to puzzle out the meaning of some of the archaic words. But my liking grew into an obsession when I encountered the major retellings of the twentieth century.
The first great modern rendition – and possibly the greatest – is The Once and Future King, the masterpiece of T.H. White, originally published in four parts from 1938 to 1958. You may know the first part the best: The Sword in the Stone, adapted into a movie by Walt Disney. Deliberately anachronistic in its settings, the book serves as much more than a retelling of the story of Arthur, expanding it into a truly great tragedy and commentary on history, politics, and the futility of war. The novel was also the basis of the musical Camelot.
Next up was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s epic The Mists of Avalon, which retold the saga from the points of view of its women: primarily Viviane, Igraine, and Morgaine. Though relying on Malory for infrastructure, Bradley revolutionized the tales by refocusing on likely conflicts in the actual fifth-century setting: pagan vs. Christian, old ways vs. new, female power vs. male. Brilliantly imagined characters and innovative adaptations of old plot elements make the story fresh and unexpected.
Not long after Mists, I was given the spectacular trilogy by Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave, The Hollow Hills, and The Last Enchantment, all narrated by Merlin (Stewart wrote a fourth book too, The Wicked Day, from Mordred’s point of view, but it never felt to me like it was truly part of the series). Merlin is a compelling character from the beginning, and the rise of the clever but humble child to feared advisor of kings is believable and captivating.
I’ve enjoyed other authors’ forays into the Matter of Britain as well: Bernard Cornwell, Jack Whyte, Stephen Lawhead, and Kazuo Ishiguro, whose brilliant novel The Buried Giant is set in Britain not long after Arthur’s death. I admit I still haven’t readThe Acts of King Arthur and His Noble Knights, by John Steinbeck (yes, Steinbeck!) though I did read Twain’s Connecticut Yankee a long time ago. The Arthurian legends are a rich and fertile soil for imagination, with a huge cast of characters, a vast catalog of incidents, and a centuries-long precedent for making up your own contributions, from Nennius to Geoffrey of Monmouth to Malory to Layamon to Chrétien to Tennyson.
If you’re really hardcore, I’ll suggest you take on the Alliterative Morte Arthure (in the original Middle English), or possibly the recently published (though sadly fragmentary) Death of Arthur by J.R.R. Tolkien, written in modern English but in alliterative verse, and very much in the spirit of the medieval poets.
When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
So there’s a new book you may have heard about: When Breath Becomes Air, by the late Paul Kalanithi, a neurosurgeon who died of lung cancer last March. In the last year of his life he published several essays on facing cancer, the irony of being a doctor with a terminal illness, and the sadness of not being able to see his daughter grow up. And Paul worked on a book, shepherded to completion and publication by his wife Lucy. But I don’t think of him as Paul – I think of him as Pubby (his nickname). Because that’s how he was introduced to me twenty years ago.
Pubby and I had a lot of things in common. We were English majors, active members of the Stanford Band, wrote scripts for the Band’s field shows, and served terms as public relations director for the Band. This is an understatement, but he had a great sense of humor – it worked on levels from subtle and dry to completely over-the-top and crazy. We liked each other’s writing, and shared stories about crazy hate mail we responded to. I remember when he tried to bleach his hair, and the closest he could get was orange. I’ve heard he always wore fake mustaches for ID photos, and was known to randomly show up to events wearing a gorilla suit.
He had another side, it turns out. Besides majoring in English, he also majored in human biology, and like many of my band friends, eventually became a doctor (by the way, majoring in Hum Bio alone is tough, without a reading-heavy major like English on top of it). He returned to the Bay Area, working as a neurosurgeon at the Stanford hospital. And the rest you know, or you will when you read his book. We weren’t close friends, and I hadn’t seen him in person in about ten years, but the news of his illness hit me harder than I expected. Reading his moving words made it a little easier to think of his impending death, if only because I could see how his various and disparate talents had melded in this perfect, tragic, way.
One thing that will really get you is when Pubby writes about his and Lucy’s daughter, who was born in the last year of his life. He knew he wouldn’t have much time with her, but he was determined to enjoy all the time he had. I look at my children and wonder if I have made the most of my time with them – how they would remember me if they were suddenly to lose me. Pubby was the third person from my era of the LSJUMB to pass away in a span of about a year (all from cancer), prompting me (and many of my friends, I’m sure) to dwell on my own mortality. But Pubby’s writing, I think, will not cause us to become obsessed with our deaths, but our lives: is what we’re doing worth doing? What is the best use we can make of the time we have left, however much time that is? What are the things that are really most important to us? I hope his book will help you find the answers to these questions. Snowden’s secret in Catch-22 is that man is matter, that we are fragile machines prone to destruction. Pubby’s secret is that despite that fragility, man can matter – we can choose to make a difference in this world before our own fragile machines break down, and our breath becomes air.