Greg Reads…THE NIX: Utterly Spectacular

the nixWow. The Nix, by Nathan Hill, is really spectacular — about as engaging, spell-bindingly readable, smart, and funny as fiction gets. This is the Franzen novel to read if you don’t like Franzen the man — expansive, modern, political, and just immensely entertaining. There are shades of Don DeLillo, Donna Tartt (if you liked The Goldfinch, you’ll LOVE this), and (I don’t say this lightly) friggin’ David Foster Wallace here (yes, there’s a 12-page sentence, but even beyond that, Hill’s astute observations of us in the modern world are incredibly DFW-esque).

It’s a novel about what it means to engage with the world, to do your duty, even as the going gets tough. It’s a novel about how personal politics aren’t usually purely formed, similar to how some believe that by its very nature, altruism can’t be perfectly unselfish (because there’s always the good feeling for the doer of doing something good). And it’s a novel about trust and loyalty, between friends, lovers, and parents and children.

We span 45 years here, from the violent protests at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 to the less violent but still powerful protests of Occupy Wall Street and the 2011 Republican National Convention in New York City.

The story is about a woman named Faye who was involved in the 1968 protests. After the protests and then a sad, quiet life with her husband Henry and son Samuel, she suddenly leaves them (Samuel is 11) and disappears.

Samuel, now in mid-30s, is a failing writer, and an-about-to-be-fired English professor at a small Chicago college. (Brief interlude: There is a section right at the front of this novel showing Samuel confronting a student who has been caught plagiarizing a paper. It is the best, funniest 20 pages I’ve read in a long time.)

In the first scene of the novel, Faye re-emerges — she throws rocks at a right-wing presidential candidate visiting Chicago — and Samuel, who is about to be sued for not delivering the novel for which he received a big advance, is convinced by his agent Guy Periwinkle to write what will no-doubt be a runaway bestseller about his mother. (Second quick interlude: The conversations between Samuel and Guy throughout the novel are another highlight. Really damn funny.)

Samuel, still angry with his mother, agrees. And we go from there — back to Faye’s childhood in a small town in Iowa, forward to Samuel adulthood in Chicago and New York City, back to Samuel’s childhood in the generic Chicago suburbs, to the Iraq war, seedy bars, Norway, and just about everywhere else in between.

As I said, this book is expansive. Allen Ginsberg is in this book. So is a dude named Pwnage who is the champion of a World of Warcraft-like game called Elfquest. There are ghost stories. Sexting. A love story. Some funny stuff about publishing. Bullies and sexual abuse. Politics. Radical hippies. Traitors. It’s just AWESOME.

This is easily one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Despite how full it seems, it’s also the shortest 600-page novel I’ve ever read. What I mean is that it felt like it could’ve been three times its size, and I would’ve happily kept reading. I spent about 3 hours on just the last 20 pages, reading one page at a time, because I didn’t want it to end. This is a novel that, if you’re thinking of picking it up (and by all means, do), I am immediately jealous that you get to read it for the first time. Enjoy!

(This review originally appeared on my book blog, The New Dork Review of Books.)

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If You Liked Harry Potter, You’ll Definitely Like…

harry potter and the cursed chidlHave a craving for more Potter after reading Harry Potter and the Cursed Child? Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we will get more about Harry Potter himself, BUT your local booksellers have put together a list of titles we like to call “Potter Picks” that have similar characteristics to J.K. Rowling’s beloved series.

1. Akata Witch, by Nnedi Okorafor

akata witchMain character Sunny is a 12-year-old Nigerian albino who struggles with belonging until she discovers the world of the Leopard People who struggles with belonging until she discovers the world of the Leopard People and is plunged into a heroic fight of good vs. evil.  This novel is perfect for readers in the upper middle-grade, lower YA bracket…it’s like a female-led Harry Potter set in Nigeria!

2. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs

miss peregrine's
“We cling to our fairy tales until the price for believing in them becomes too high.” After a 16 year old boy witnesses his grandfather dying by the hands of a “monster,” he follows clues that lead him to an abandoned orphanage on a Welsh island. Little does he know that the orphanage is not abandoned and the people that live there are nothing but peculiar.

3. The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss

the name of the wind
This novel opens with a silence of three parts and unfolds to reveal the story of the mysterious and legendary Kvothe. The first in a trilogy, this book focuses mostly on Kvothe’s journey from a member of a wandering tribe to his installment as a student at “the University,” where he begins to learn of his potential for magic and all of its wonders and dangers.  It is a novel full of magic, intrigue, and adventure in a high fantasy setting, and comes highly recommended by at least two of our booksellers (who are still eagerly awaiting the third installment …).

4. Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray

skippy dies

If you enjoy books about kids in a boarding school, “Skippy Dies” is a must-read. Sure, you know the ending, but that doesn’t mean you won’t love spending 650 pages with these goofy, naughty teens. It’s real world Harry Potter, uncensored!

5. The Unwanteds, by Lisa McMann

the unwanteds
In the land of Quill, creativity and artistic talent are seen as undesirable traits, and the children who possess these qualities are known as the Unwanteds. But when a mysterious magician named Mr. Today takes young Alex Stowe and his fellow Unwanteds under his wing, he shows them a secret world in which they can harness their powers for good. This seven-book series, which is perfect for older middle-graders, sets up a series of battles and quests between the Unwanteds and their adversaries (led by Alex’s twin brother, Aaron) in Quill…and the themes of bravery, adventure, and the endless struggle between good and evil will resonate with anyone who loved the goings-on at Hogwarts.

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RoscoeBooks Picks the Best of 2016…So Far

From heartbreaking memoirs to historical YA to Chipotle-like sci-fi (that’ll make sense if you read on, I promise!), our favorite books of 2016 are all over the place. But that’s a good thing!

Here’s our list of the best things we’ve read so far this year. And of course, we’d love to hear from you as well: Please comment below – what’s the best book you’ve read in 2016?

 

Erika picks…

when breath becomes airWhen Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi — Paul Kalanithi was a brilliant surgeon and neuroscientist who began writing this memoir after he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer at the tender age of 36. Despite the sad circumstances surrounding his writing, the resulting book is so much more than just a meditation on mortality — it’s a fascinating window into the work that neuroscientists do, and it asks vital questions about how both science and language contribute meaning to our lives. Though the end will likely have you in tears, this book is the epitome of essential reading. (Ed. note: Greg enthusiastically seconds this pick.)

 

sweetbitterSweetbitter, by Stephanie Danler — Sweetbitter was one of this spring’s most hyped debuts, and (in my humble opinion) deservedly so. Danler’s story of young Tess, who moves to New York City and immediately gets a job working at a big-time restaurant, clearly comes from a place of insider knowledge about the restaurant business, and her writing about food is lush and sensual. Just as impressive is her ability to capture the wonderful messiness of being a 22-year-old in big bad NYC. This book is one of the most purely enjoyable that I’ve read this year.

Wayne picks…

all the birds in the skyAll The Birds In The Sky, by Charlie Jane Anders — Anders, the editor-in-chief of io9.com, has delivered something really special here. In her first book for adults, Anders tells the story of two outcasts, one who has magical abilities and one who is a science-fiction scientist, as they form a friendship in childhood and meet again as adults. Filled with more quirk and playfulness than you can shake a stick at, it nonetheless remains character-focused and delivers real emotionally resonant moments. I loved it; a true blast to read.

 

Kelsey picks…

homegoingHomegoing, by Yaa Gyasi — Homegoing is a rich and ambitious debut novel about two separated half-sisters in Ghana and follows their bloodlines through 300 years of slavery, colonialism, and racial divides. But it doesn’t just take a look at big issues with society; it also delves into the deeply personal wounds that people — especially families — can inflict on each other. Despite this heaviness, this is a book that glimmers with hope and strives to open the reader to a new understanding of humanity.

 

 

Greg picks…

version controlVersion Control, by Dexter Palmer — This is a fiercely smart novel brimming with ideas — about technology, authenticity, race, loyalty, causality, history, science, Big Data, and yes, even time travel. But don’t be intimidated — it’s really fun and easy to read. The main plot-line of the novel is about a marriage — Palmer asks us to think about what really makes relationships thrive or fail. All through this novel, I kept thinking, “Man, I wish David Foster Wallace was still around to see this. He would’ve LOVED this book.” It’s a super-engrossing, hard-to-put-down read that’s as contemporary as contemporary fiction can be. Really loved it. (Full review is here.)

 

Alex picks…

girl in the blue coatGirl In The Blue Coat, by Monica Hesse — This book has been on all the new bestseller lists, and for good reason! What would you do if you spent your days secretly delivering black-market goods and someone asks, “Can you find a missing Jewish girl?” Set in 1943 Amsterdam, this book explores just that.

 

 

 

Chelka picks…

armadaArmada, by Ernest Cline — For what this book is, it’s fantastic – like the best Chipotle burrito you’ve ever had. It’s an homage to armageddon sci-fi movies, and it moves like one. The prose is on par with Christopher Moore’s: Funny, accessible, never flowery. Think of this as the book version of Supernatural or Chuck. Escapism at its best! (Ed. note: We realize this is a 2015 book, technically, but the paperback for Armada was published in 2016, so we’re counting it. Hey, it’s our blog. Our rules!)

 

 

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Greg Reads…Lily and the Octopus: Calling All Dog Lovers!

lily and the octopusThis is a tough one — how do I, in good conscience, recommend this novel, Lily and the Octopus, by Steven Rowley, which is about a dog with brain cancer? Especially considering that the dog is a dachshund. Especially considering my wife and I have two dachshunds. But I do — I recommend it wholeheartedly. Because as sad as it can be, it’s also charming, and funny, and often surprisingly profound. It’s a just good read that spans the emotional spectrum — and after all, that’s what you want from fiction, isn’t it? To feel? I do, for sure.

Okay, so technically, telling you the dog has cancer is a bit of a spoiler — Lily is the dog, and the octopus is a metaphor for a brain tumor. But if you decide to read this, you learn this fact pretty quickly, and in my opinion, you deserve to know this going in. As well, if you’ve read anything about this book before diving in, you’ll figure it out. And I’m sure glad I knew going in. The other piece of info worth knowing: This isn’t complete fictional, which actually adds another layer of emotional depth to this story. The author Rowley also had a dachshund which also had brain cancer, and so this novel is part memoir, part catharsis.

So we go back and forth in time to when the narrator (a guy named Ted) adopted Lily, has relationship troubles with his boyfriend, suffers through Lily’s back surgery (a common problem with the breed — luckily, neither of our dachshunds have had that issue yet), and tries to destroy the evil octopus that has perched itself on Lily’s head.

The highlight of this novel is the narrator’s voice — self-deprecating at times, defiant and fierce at times, vulnerable and sad at times, but always smart, interesting and fun to read. Of course, both Lily and the octopus talk, too. Talking animals are always a risky decision, but the whimsy with which this novel’s written makes this feel perfectly apt — talking animals fit in fine.

One of the gauges, though it’s almost a too-easy comparison, to whether or not you might like reading this is if you enjoyed Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain. I loved that novel, but like this one, it absolutely leveled me. I’ve had many conversations with dog lovers who could not read that one. So if that’s you, this probably isn’t the book for you, either. However, if you love dog books, and you love to put through an emotional wringer, this is DEFINITELY the book for you.

(This post originally appeared on my book blog, The New Dork Review of Books.)

Baxter and Yoshi

Our two dachshunds, Baxter and Yoshi. Fiercely loved.

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Vivian’s View: The Stranger Game By Cylin Busby

Welcome back to Vivian’s View! Once a month, avid reader and local 7th grader, Vivian, Reviews a book that she read that month. Stay tuned to see what she chooses as her favs and which ones don’t make the cut!

Nico Walker has never been very close to her older sister Sarah, since Sarah has never been very nice to her. So, when Sarah disappears, Nico finds it hard to be devastated. Sure, she is sad but not devastated like her parents and Sarah’s friends. One day, 4 years after she went missing, Sarah is found. Everyone is really excited, except for Nico. She is scared of what Sarah will do to her. But, Sarah is not at all how Nico remembered her. Where the old stranger gameSarah was mean and hurtful to Nico, the new Sarah is now loving and kind.
Everyone is so happy that Sarah is home, but Nico can’t shake the feeling that Sarah is different, too different. On top of that, someone keeps telling Nico that they know the true story of what actually happened to Sarah on the day she went missing.
This book was like no other book I have ever read. While most chapters in this book tell the main story, there are a few chapters that tell a different story, Sarah’s story. It was really interesting to learn about Sarah’s side of the story and how the two stories eventually came together. Even though I think this was an interesting addition to the book, it ended up making the book a bit confusing.
I would rate this book 4.5 out of 5 stars. I would do this because even though it was amazing, as I mentioned before, it could get a bit confusing when it would switch between parts. Other than that, this book was wonderful. If you want to find out what actually happened to Sarah on that fateful day 4 years ago, read The Stranger Game!
4-1-2-stars
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Greg Reads…Dexter Palmer’s VERSION CONTROL

version controlEvery year, there’s at least one novel that catches me unawares for how much I love, and for which I wind up being an un-shut-up-able evangelist. This year, that novel is Dexter Palmer’s fantastic, fiercely smart, mind-bendingly fun novel, Version Control.

This 500-page story is brimming with ideas — about technology, authenticity, race, loyalty, causality, history, science, Big Data, and yes, even time travel. It’s fascinating and fun and heartbreaking and hilarious and all of the other things that make great fiction great.

So the deal is this: Rebecca and Phillip are a mostly average middle class, middle-aged couple. She works for an online dating service, spending her days trying to upsell poor dateless saps to the Platinum level. He’s a physicist who has spent the last decade or so working on what he calls a “causality violation device.” Yes, what this really is is a time machine, but you won’t confuse this thing with any time machine in, say, H.G. Wells or even Stephen King — the only goal here, with the physics to back it up, is to send a robot back to a pre-established Point Zero, have it stay there for an hour, and return with evidence (a clock that’s an hour off) that it’s worked. Sadly, it doesn’t work, and Phillip’s once-promising career is flagging.

And so we spend the first several hundred pages hanging with Philip and Rebecca, and their friends. We get the couple’s backstory, how they met, how Phillip got into physics, etc. When Palmer is focused on plot, and building affinity for his characters, he’s really entertaining. But where he’s at his best is when he’s mixing in frequent and profoundly insightful ruminations on things like Kant’s categorical imperative, our relationship with technology, how we are not the sum whole of what all the parts of our data say about us, and much, much more. All through this novel, I kept thinking, “Man, I wish David Foster Wallace was still around to see this. He would’ve LOVED this book.”

But really, the less you know about what happens plotwise after the “getting to know you” phase, the better off you are, and the richer your reading experience will be. Just know things happen you won’t expect and you’ll have to put down the book, think hard, and go “wow.”

This is truly a novel that deserves a wider readership. I was as totally engrossed by it as I was in awe of how smart it is, and how Palmer uses so many different elements of our modern world (even though this is set 10 years or so in the future) to explore his themes. I really loved it — a definite candidate for favorite of the year.

(This post originally appeared on my blog, The New Dork Review of Books.)

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Emily Reads…Travis Mulhauser’s Sweetgirl

WceGgDUNlCA8RPHOz66AbHHs4RI12Vqg+OoBRGBrKx2plCphEkAr3aizNSRpuGHkIoDZcS4gLRs3LNNbucM2tzHjr1b6gOv!JK2gG4iMspVQ5iDKyCBWtzAWMsmQ+7PKNow that the seasons have finally started to change, I want to take a moment to take you back. Back when the wind was so cold your teeth began to hurt. Back when the heat from your body started to feel like a fever if you’d been out for too long. Back when the cold could make you pray to God that the el train would just arrive, even if you don’t quite believe in God.

In short, back to winter.

Travis Mulhauser’s debut novel, Sweetgirl, honors winter like a Deity, requiring both devotion and sacrifice. It stands as an omnipotent silent narrator who directs action by force, and give few allowances. I came away from this novel blistered from the Cutler County weather. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to how great this book is.

Sweetgirl starts off slow, like a pendulum swinging into action. We meet 16 year old Percy, an in-again, out-again High School Student who is currently out-again and looking for her mother, Carletta. She’s heard around town that Carletta’s “been throwing down with Shelton Potter.” Turns out Potter’s the ne’er do well nephew of the County’s foremost Weed Dealer, a profession which seems practically noble compared to the rest of the town. Shelton doles out Meth to the County’s dedicated users, one of which Carletta has been for the past few years.

With this information, Percy sets off on the verge of a blizzard to see if she can’t reclaim her husk of a mother. Turns out, her mother is not in the farm house. Instead, Percy finds the drugged bodies of Shelton and a woman, the rotting corpse of an old dog, and a shrieking, freezing baby. Within that moment, Percy is faced with the decision to continue to search for her mother, or become the mother this child never had the chance to search for.

Mulhauser does a wonderful job at keeping this novel up tempo… Once I had finished the first chapter, I pretty much could not put it down. It’s part struggle against the wilderness and part exposition of the dark underbelly in rural America (is it weird I felt a little Midwest pride that this was set in Michigan and not Appalachia? Yes? Okay), with each part perfectly balancing it’s opponent.

The novel is told in gently oscillating narration, with none of the harsh breaks I’ve found in so much contemporary fiction recently. We’re mostly following Percy on her trek through the woods and away from Potter, with a few brief windows into Potter’s tumultuous day and drug habits. The whole thing moves beautifully; Mulhauser seems far more accomplished than I’d assume for a debut author.

But, as I often find, one of the best parts of this novel is the rich characterizations of these hard up townies. Percy, Portis Dale, even Shelton Potter speak in a believable dialect and their presence reverberates throughout the story. Still, Mulhauser’s greatest accomplishment is his ability to prioritize the pulsing plot, letting the characters be felled or buoyed by that transcending force. You end up caring so much for each character and you root for them against the cruelness of Mother Nature, the harsh lighting of the writer’s hand… whatever may come.

I’ve heard this novel talked about as a funny winter’s bone–less tragedy and more satire. And that’s true, it IS funny. But what I took away wasn’t the jokes or wry remarks. It was the ease with which each character found his or her voice and used it. Seems easy, but trust me when I say most of the books I read can barely convince their characters to walk into the room.

At just over 250 pages, this novel sparkles in it’s brevity. So while this might not be what you have in mind for a great summer read, it might be just what the doctor ordered for a chilly spring. Mulhauser definitely deserves a good, long second look.

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