Read Local

Since my local farmers’ markets won’t open for awhile I’m declaring March “Read Local” month. For me, this means a month long focus on Minnesota authors.  readlocalI have a few others tucked away too. I loved Jess Lourey’s Murder by Month series even before I moved to Minnesota, so I’m looking forward to that one first. The heroine, Mira, is my Minnesota gardening guru. I’ll post my progress (and reviews) from time to time.

Comment below if you wish to share in the “Read Local” fun. All I ask is you make a commitment to read local for a month and share any great books you encounter.  This post is as good a place as any keep comments, so I’ll pin it for March.  Thanks for playing.

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My best reads of 2014

In the annual tradition of useless best of lists, I hereby present my best reads for 2014. As per my reading habits, this does not mean books that came out this year, only books I read for the first time over the past twelve months.

As I reviewed my reading list for the year, a couple of generalities jumped out. First, I enjoyed a number of shorter works. I also started a lot of crap novellas and short stories that weren’t worth finishing. Second, there are some terrific books appropriate for middle schoolers out there. Gail Carriger, Rebecca Stead and Nick Bruel are far more age level appropriate than was the Stephen King I devoured at age 11–which was about the age I was when I first read The Shining. What goes around, comes around…

Without further ado:

10) Bad Kitty Drawn to Trouble – Nick Bruel – Once again, Bruel takes a complicated subject (in this case story craft) and breaks it down into easy to understand components all while engaging in a battle of wills with Bad Kitty. I will read his Bad Kitty books even when my kids outgrown them.

9) Fiend – Peter Stenson – Audio book read by Tom Haberkorn. I specify audio book, because I understand some people take issue with the grammar. The narrator, Tom Haberkorn brought a manic energy to Peter Stenson’s tale of a zombie apocalypse. The survivors are all meth-heads who will succumb to the zombie disease if they don’t get their fix. This book is as close as I wish to get to the urgent crush of addiction.

8) Austinland – Shannon Hale – plenty of authors have tried to write a regency and played with the tropes of Jane Austin’s books and life with varying degrees of success, but Hale’s view of Jane Austin theme park flaunts the anachronism and absurdity of an obsession with all things Austin. I picked this up because of the publication backstory. The content beat my expectations and kudos to Hale for sticking with her vision.

7) The Boys of Summer – Sarah Madison – The historical M/M romance read as part of 2014’s January Project stayed with me all year. I read a handful of other M/M historical in literary and romance categories. John Boyne’s The Absolutist got more attention, but Madison’s was the superior book both in character and story execution.

6) Gulp – Mary Roach – I’ve said it before and I hope I will say it again, I will follow Mary Roach anywhere her curious mind takes her. I laughed and learned, even through the squeamish bits.

5) Dr. Sleep – Stephen King – The man is the master. And I expect a sequel featuring the grown up Abra Stone in about twenty years.

4) Marshlands – Matthew Olshan – In this slim volume of a story told in reverse order hides beautiful language, history lessons and thoughtful meditations on colonialism, otherness, dictatorships, war, brutality, torture and forgiveness. This book deserves a wider audience.

3) Etiquette and Espionage – Gail Carriger – Is it literary sacrilege to say I’d rather attend Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing Academy for Young Ladies of Quality than Hogwarts? This steam punk adventure follows young Sophronia’s as she and her mechanimal navigate the floating school, avoid Picklemen, and learn how to kill someone with a handkerchief.

2) Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn – It lives up to the hype and is better than the movie.

1) We Have Always Lived in the Castle – Shirley Jackson – this book has been around since 1962. HOW DID I NOT KNOW OF ITS EXISTANCE PRIOR TO 2014!!!!! An instant all-time favorite.

Honorable Mentions:

Fun for the whole family edition: The Sasquatch Escape, and The Lonely Lake Monster both Suzanne Selfors, When you Reach me – Rebecca Stead

Short Story edition: Bug Stuff – Vicki Batman – for a quick laugh, La Llorona – Leslie Garcia – a haunting ghost story.

Other contenders: Lost in Shangri-La – Mitchell Zuckoff, Bad Traveler – Lola Karns, January Thaw – Jess Lourey, Shine, Shine, Shine – Lydia Netzer

Any suggestions for next year’s reading? Post them below.

The January Project

The January Project evolved from a desire to reduce my “To Be Read” pile.  Initially, I intended to only read books by authors I have met face to face and from whom I’ve received a free book. Then I decided that was arrogant, and potentially friendship ending if I didn’t like the work a person produced.  I decided to expand my list of authors to those I have gotten to know online and include books I’ve purchased as well.

My brain agonized over the point of this project.  Should it simply be to free up space on my bookshelf or should I incorporate a higher purpose? Why have I received so many books in the first place? Easy – REVIEWS.

When an author or the publisher provides you with a free copy of a book, whether at an industry event or through an on-line giveaway, a sale is lost in hopes of gaining more. Since fewer of us peruse the physical aisles of bookstores, a splashy cover is no longer enough.  For a book to become visible to readers, it needs reviews and buzz.

I offer the January Project as a way to help my fellow authors.

Here are the guidelines under which I will operate:

1. I will work from my existing to be read pile.

2. I will prioritize works with less than fifty reviews on Amazon or Goodreads.

3. I will step outside my reading comfort zone since I have met a number of authors who write erotica, a genre I don’t read.

4. If a book triggers one of my personal “hot button issues,” I won’t review it because I cannot give a fair and honest review.

5. I will try to note when I received a free copy. None of the books will be advanced review copies.

6. I will include publications of all lengths.

7. I may make an exception for audio books.  Although my library has several from authors I have met, there is no guarantee of availability during the duration of this project.

8. I will post reviews on my site and major review sites.

If you wish to join me (Lyra), please reblog. If I’m clever enough, I add you to my blog role or linked sites or something like that.

Review: Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone by Stefan Kiesbye

Stefan Kiesbye’s haunting novel, Your House is on Fire, Your Children All Gone is well worth adding to your reading list.  At slightly under 200 pages, this slim book has much to say about guilt, memory and the burden of wrongs.  Kiesbye writes with a poet’s use of words.  The technical writing is outstanding and each word matters. In this sense he reminds me of one of my all time favorite writers Jennifer Johnston, author of the outstanding, if hard to find, Fool’s Sanctuary. Both write short with an economy of precisely used words.  The beauty with which Keisbye describes horrible awful things is a rare talent.

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read this

Intrigued? The prologue begins with middle-aged adults attending the funeral of a childhood friend. The story then shifts gears and takes the reader back in time to when they were children. The chapters alternate narrators.  Often we get more than one perspective on a nasty event (think incest, rape, and murder both intentional and accidental).  Sometimes the reactions are immediate. Other times, years have passed and a character who was aged 7 during one episode is now a pre-teen or young adult.  We see how friendships unite and divide over shared memories of trauma.  There is plenty of guilt to go around and that is how this book relates to twentieth century German history.

Unlike the heavy-handed and nearly unbearable book B. Schlink’s The Reader (read my review here), Kiesbye interweaves the notions of collective guilt, perpetrators, victims, bystanders and sins of the fathers subtly throughout the book. Guilt and murder are so  interwoven in fabric of Devil’s Moor that the problems of the past are the problems of today, seamlessly, and for the characters in the book, without conscious thought.

Kiesbye treats his readers as intelligent human beings.  He doesn’t offer easy answers to the characters responsibility and duty to the past, just as there has been no clear and easy path for Germany to reconcile its present state and role with the horrors of the Nazi legacy.   In my opinion, Kiesbye’s book is par with any number of Gunter Grass’ work on a similar theme.

And if German History and memory and legacy aren’t your cup of tea, well then, read this book anyway.  It’s short, haunting and beautiful.

Let me know what you think…

Books for 7 to 9 yr olds

Some time back, a friend asked if I could recommend some books for a seven-year old boy.  I’m asked variations on this somewhat frequently so I finally decided to sit down and write out a list.  For this post, I’ll focus on series. I’m sure there will be more to come and these recommendations are in no particular order.  Most will appeal to both boys and girls, but not every child will enjoy each series below equally.

1. The Magic Tree House series by Mary Pope Osborne – I have yet to meet a child who rejected this series in its entirety. There are nearly 50 books in the series so it can keep readers busy for a while.  Jack and Annie are siblings who find a magic tree house in the woods near their house.  The characters open a book they find in the house, say “I wish we could go there,” and are transported to the desired location. Before they can go home, they have to solve a puzzle and help either a person or animal. I like the message behind these books, even if as an adult reader, the writing style is a bit repetitive.  For kids just beginning with chapter books, the series offers mild thrills and the chance to learn about the structure of narrative – without even realizing it.

2. A to Z Mysteries by Ron Roy – Three relatable kids, Josh, Dink and Ruth Rose solve mysteries in and around the town of Green Lawn.  My daughter and I loved the friendship presented in the books.  Sometimes the kids get mad with each other, but they find ways to resolve their differences in a peaceful way.  There are enough clues to help readers solve the mystery. Each book comes with a map and readers can use that to help solve the mystery too.  It’s nice to see map skills in use.  Also, I like the way the three kids teach each other.  If one uses a harder vocabulary word, or casually mentions a tougher physics or natural world concept, a second character will be a bit confused so the first speaker explains him or herself, or they will talk about what they learned in school and compare notes on what they each remembered.  Ron Roy has two other series – Calendar Mysteries geared toward the same age range and Capital Mysteries geared toward more confident readers.

3. Geronimo Stilton and Thea Stilton – These rodents both know how to spin a good yarn and get human kids excited about geography, science and the newspaper industry. Heavy illustrations support the text, giving it the feel of a graphic novel, but these are chapter books. My daughter prefers the Thea Sisters series, but the Geronimo Stilton is equally good, if not better. Also, there are a lot of bad puns and literally cheesy dialogue.  The phrases “Moldy mozzarella” and “Fabumous” have become household favorites.

4. Bad Kitty Series by Nick Bruel – For earlier readers, pick up wacky alphabet book Bad Kitty which runs through the alphabet four times and serves as an origin story for our anti-heroine. I love the series for featuring a not so lovable feline who gets her comeuppance in a humours way.  Again, there is a bit of a graphic novel feel, and the heavy illustrations make this a good step into chapter books. The author “breaks the wall” so to speak, inviting the reader to become the anonymous narrator who talks to Bad Kitty. Also clever, asides by Uncle Murray to explain more advanced concepts and the glossary.  Some readers may be put off by the “bad” language. Uncle Murray often refers to “that stupid cat” but  the reader is asked to laugh along with and at the bad examples they see on the page.  Bad Kitty for President is one of the best explanation of politics I’ve seen.

I’ll stop here for now.  What series or individual books do you recommend?  My daughter is always looking for new reads and my son is a few years away from needing some other suggestions.

For the love of bookmarks

I’ve been experimenting with ebooks lately.  I don’t have a dedicated e-reading device, just an app for my i-Touch, but it is enough to give me a taste of the e-reading experience and to teach me something about myself.

I really like bookmarks.

The e-reading app lets me turn down the corner of virtual pages.  The ability to stop mid-chapter and not lose my place is handy, but the folded corner is no bookmark. I don’t fold down the pages of my physical books.  I will use anything at hand — a gum wrapper,a business card, a leaf, or a twig– in lieu of damaging the book by folding the page.

Besides, bookmarks bring me joy.  I recently gave my daughter the Garfield bookmark I treasured at her age.  I held back a tear as I recycled the beautiful gold foil trimmed rose my mother gave me when I first started reading chapter books.  It fell apart from years of use.  Han Solo accompanies me on Sci-fi journeys and my “Meg Cabot’s got your back” goes well with comedy.  I love promotional bookmarks from authors.  The clever pitches get me excited to read what ever book is being advertised next.  Sometimes, these pitches and a cute picture propel me to finish my current book faster so I can get started on the one touted by the bookmark.

I love finding other people’s bookmarks tucked inside books from the library and second-hand books.  I wonder who left their library receipt. More than once, I’ve been compelled to check out the other books printed on a stranger’s bookmark, I mean receipt.  I’ve run across hand written notes, credit card receipts, bank receipts, post cards, grocery lists and the occasional bookmark.  When I drop off books for my library’s book sale, I try to pass on promotional bookmarks where appropriate.  My own sort of recommendation.  “If you like Melissa Marr, you’ll love Memories of Murder by Lara Nance.”

I know I’ll get a dedicated e-reader soon, but I’m not ready to give up paper books yet.  I’m not ready for a world without bookmarks.

Books I hate to read (but do) – part 2

First, I let loose on Clifford, now I’m going to trash another icon of Children’s literature – the Bear Family.

Created by the dearly deceased Stan & Jan Berenstain, the Bear Family series, better known as the Berenstain Bears, occupies four sections of prime shelf space in my local library.  They are the first books the kids see when they enter the library, being just inside the door and inticingly at eye level for a four-year old.  They frequently leave the shelf and come home in my library bag, much to my chagrin.

The best of the books focus on a specific childhood experience.  Every child preparing to move should have a copy of the Berenstain Bears’ Moving Day. I also give high marks to the easy reader series that includes The Road Race, The A Book and one of my all time favorite children’s books – The B Book.  Seriously – if you haven’t seen that one, get it and read it aloud, even if you have to borrow a child.  These are the few non-preachy books as well.

It’s the rest of the books that make me almost as cranky as Mama Bear.  You know Mama Bear, frequently introduced as happy, friendly, cheerful Mama Bear, at least until you turn the page and she’s frowning, nagging and ready to throttle one of the cubs.  Oops.  I’m sorry.  Mama Bear would never resort to violence.  She’s far too passive aggressive for that, which is why we need Papa Bear.

Papa Bear has two distinct moods – terrifyingly angry and buffoon.  When angry, he screams, pounds on furniture and throws one heck of a tantrum.  That the cubs are inclined towards melodramatic fits should come as no surprise to anyone who has heard the adage “children learn by example.” The rest of the time, he’s an idiot.  He needs the cubs and Mama to show him the error of his ways, whether it comes to recycling, eating healthy or treating others in a thoughtful manner.  By the end of the book, he’s realized his mistake and vows to make a change for the better.  inevitably, for each good habit he picks up, he develops three new ones, hence the proliferation of Berenstain Bear books.

The Berenstain Bear books seem to be as much about how parents should behave as kids.  And more often than not, the parents display poor decision-making and a lack of thoughtfulness.  No wonder the kids are in trouble so much.

As we approach Father’s Day, let’s put the Bear Family into retirement.  Treat Pops with some respect and read Sam McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You.”