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!
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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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Greg Reads…Chicago: Novel of Broad Shoulders

Chicago novel Brian DoyleBrian Doyle’s novel, Chicago, is a brave book. It’s a passionate, wistful love letter to a revered city…that includes a friggin’ talking dog. It’s hard to imagine Bellow or Cisneros, Roth or Wright, making that choice. But of course dog-as-character is a metaphor — for the diversity of the city itself, and eventually, for the attachment our narrator feels to it. And your ability to enjoy this novel will hinge almost solely on whether or not you can get past the fact that there’s an anthropomorphized animal in an otherwise realistic novel. I was warned ahead of time, which helped, and so I ended up really enjoying this. So consider this your warning as well.

But let’s back up a second: Chicago is about a young man, our first-person narrator, who moves to the city in the late 1970s (the specific year isn’t important, because Doyle sort of combines events of several late-1970s years into one — the White Sox 1977 season, the Blizzard of 1979, Jane Byrne’s election, etc.) to take a job as a journalist for a Catholic magazine in the Loop. He spends his free time exploring Chicago’s neighborhoods with the dog Edward, who knows everyone and everything about Chicago.

Frankly, it’s a story that’s a bit short on story: Our new Chicagoan makes friends, plays basketball with gang members, hangs in blues clubs (like Kingston Mines), goes to White Sox games, helps his landlady out of a jam, plays matchmaker, and falls in love himself. But mostly, he spends a lot of time hanging out, philosophizing, and being shown the sites and the people with Edward, the stamp-collecting, Abraham Lincoln-obsessed talking dog.

As is the case with Edward the dog, whether you like this novel will depend on your reaction to several pages-long “thought bubbles” from the narrator himself, as well as soliloquies by various characters the narrator meets and befriends: The building manager of his Lakeview apartment building, who is Edward’s owner, but in stark contrast to Edward, barely leaves the apartment, the mailman, a bus driver, etc. Sometimes, these are so eloquent they give you chills (a particularly beautiful one about the blues, for instance), as the narrator tries to identify the soul of Chicago; what makes Chicago the most American of American cities. Sometimes, however, these feel a bit overwritten or just seem like odd tangents that don’t add much to the overall piece. But the latter are definitely fewer and farther between than the former.

So, if you’re a Chicagoan, and you’re attached to your city, as I am, this is highly recommended. It’s certainly not Augie March, my personal favorite classic Chicago novel, but it’s a solid addition to the overall Chicago canon.

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

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Vivian’s View: Everland by Wendy Spinale

RoscoeBooks is proud to feature a new segment on our blog: Vivian’s View! Once a month, avid reader and local 7th grader, Vivian, will review 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!

“The only way to grow up is to survive” in Everland. There is a deadly virus spreading around London. It has killed all of the adults, so there are now many orphans in London, or as it is now referred to, Everland. But 16 year old Gwen doesn’t know there are many other people. She believes that her parents were killed, and so she now has to take care of 26085520her little sister, Joanna, who is 12 and her little brother, Mikey, who is 6. But, Gwen, Joanna, and Mikey are not safe. There are Marauders roaming around. The Marauders are the “henchmen” of the evil Captain Hanz Otto Oswald Kretschmer, or Captain Hook. They are trying to snatch all the orphans, because they want to find a cure to the virus.
One day, they take Joanna, Gwen is determined to get Joanna back. When she meets Pete, Bella, and the Lost Boys, she has a slight hope that they may actually succeed. The Lost Boys are all the orphaned boys in Everland. Pete is their leader, and they live underground. Bella is the only girl who lives with them. Pete promises Gwen that they will try to get Joanna back.
I enjoyed this book a lot. It was very interesting, and had me hooked the entire way. This book has several connections with the story of Peter Pan. This book is set in Everland, Peter Pan is set in Neverland. Pete is the leader of the Lost Boys and Peter is the leader of the Lost Boys. There are lost boys in both stories. Gwen is the oldest girl in the family who watches over the others in this book and Wendy has that role in Peter Pan. Those are a few of the connections between this book and Peter Pan.
I would rate this book 5 out of 5 stars. It was super action-filled and excitement packed. If there is a sequel, I would definitely recommend it. So, I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys action-packed, adventurous, and thrilling book!
– Written by Vivian
You heard the lady! We’re giving this book 5/5 stars! Be sure to grab a copy when it comes out on May 10th!
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Spring Ahead: Picture Books When You’re Waiting for Spring

If you’re living in Chicago, then you woke this morning to a layer of snow covering your now frozen tulip beds. It’s beginning to feel a lot like summer, right?!

But just because our feet are freezing and our gardens are dying (eek!) doesn’t mean our libraries can’t be green and blooming! Here are a few of our favorite new children’s books that make us feel like spring might be right around the corner… maybe. We hope.


Relating so hard to this book right now…

When Spring Comes by Kevin Henkes, illustrated by Laura Dronzek

I can be a little bitter when I talk about Kevin Henkes’ new books (but only because I love his old books so very, very much!) but this picture book won me over. Henkes’ latest book is a gorgeous ode to spring. He highlights the way that spring can seem like it might never come. You wait and you wait and you wait until FINALLY you see the first tiniest green shoot in the dirt. And suddenly, it’s spring! Illustrator Laura Dronzek’s thickly painted kittens, pussy willows, and daffodils jump off the page. This book is a total breath of new, spring air!


Spring by David Carter

I’ve loved David Carter since Alphabugs (that’s my “I knew him when” speech), and Carter’s nailing it with these seasonal pop up board books. Cherry Blossoms leap off the page. Bees swarm a bunch of flowers. A robin feeds his baby birds. I love simple thematic picture books, and this is a great example. It’s the perfect dose of warm weather to pick you up on this frigid morning!


Bloom by Doreen Cronin and David Small

I loved this picture book! It’s a fairy tale with a spunky female heroine and a message about the importance of getting dirty. Emily catnip, pretty much. David Small’s illustrations are just as beautiful as always, and they really capture the magic of dirt and the wonder we can find by trying out our green thumbs. Plus, there are fairies! Well, one sort of ornery fairy, but still! BONUS: Check out David Small’s gorgeous The Gardener for another burst of color in a dreary city!


Make it Grow by Debbie Powell

We at RoscoeBooks are HUGE proponents of life the flap books. Not only are they sort of magical, but they keep kids entertained forever! This book works on a sensory level. The blacks, whites, and browns of winter literally burst into the vibrant hues of spring. Definitely worth a look when it’s snowing outside!


Greenling by Levi Pinfold

Okay, this one looks a bit whacky but stay with me. Every once in a while, I’ll read a picture book that reminds me of the picture books from years before: Sylvester and the Magic Pebble, Where the Wild Things Are, The Three Robbers. Beautiful, elaborate stories with a sense of mystery and inventiveness that can seem so unreal, so out there that it’s a bit…strange. But what’s wrong with that? Greenling is the story of an old couple who lives in a depressing, urban cityscape until the husband brings home…something. What follows is a journey through the growth of the greenling as he inspires—and provokes—the residents of the community. At its heart, this is a love letter to nature, greenery, and the birth of new things. Plus, the rhyming works beautifully! Take it from me, this one deserves a second look.


Abracadabra, It’s Spring by Anne Sibley O’Brien and Susan Gal

This is exactly what you want in a Spring picture book. The illustrations are laced with gold and brilliant pinks. Flowers are blooming and animals are hatching. Plus, it captures the sense of magic that arrives in the spring…how something so small as a seed can become something as wild as a forest. You and your young reader will have fun reading the magical words this duo has created!

Those are our picks to warm you up on this chilly, snowy, icy Chicago day. But never fear… spring is on its way!

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