Author Archive

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich

November 28, 2012

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse book coverTitle: The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse

Author: Erdrich, Louise

Publication Date: 2001

Pages: 361

Geographical Setting: Ojibwe Reservation, North Dakota

Time Period: Present Day

Genre: Literary Fiction, Native American Fiction

Series: N/A

Plot Summary:  In the last days of his life, Father Damien Modeste sets out to make a final confession to the Holy Father, the Pope in Rome.  The least of these confessions is that Father Damien is actually Agnes DeWitt, a woman.  When a young priest comes to the remote Ojibwe reservation of Little No Horse to interview him about the possible sainthood of a nun from the reservation convent, Fr. Damien sees an opportunity to lay bare the truth about his past, the woman in question, and the people whom he has shepherded and loved for the better part of eighty years.  Told through multiple perspectives and dipping into different moments in time, the story unfolds slowly and poetically, the first pages building links to the later scenes of Fr. Damien’s life.  The people of Little No Horse may be familiar to readers of Erdrich’s other works, as this novel is one in a sequence of tales about the Kashpaws, Nanpushes, Pillagers, Morrisseys, and Lazarres who make up this Ojibwe tribe.  But the perspective of Agnes/Fr. Damien, the outsider who layers Catholic dogma with the old spirituality, pushes this story beyond the reservation and across cultural barriers.

Appeal Characteristics: Intricately plotted, moving, stylistically complex, lyrical, mystical, leisurely paced, haunting, spiritual, details of Catholicism, details of reservation life, elegantly written, poignant, reflective, reverent, elegiac, vivid characterization, poetic

Subject Headings: Ojibwe Indians, North Dakota, Indians of North America, Reservations, Priests, Male Impersonators, Miracles, Women Saints

Three Terms Best Describing this Book: Moving, lyrical, spiritual

Similar Non-fiction:

Rez Life by David Treuer

Written by a member of the Minnesota Ojibwe tribe, this book offers a part memoir, part cultural history look at life on a reservation.  Treuer explores the life of present-day Native Americans as it has been shaped by decisions made long ago.  Politics, alcoholism, casinos, and tragedy are balanced by lesser known facets of Native American culture—walleye fishing, wild rice harvesting, Ojibwe language lessons—creating a narrative of sadness and beauty that characterizes contemporary rez life.

The American Jesuits: A History by Raymond A. Schroth

Schroth offers a comprehensive historical account of the order of priests who, more than anyone else, have brought America to Christ.  Beginning with the first, unfortunately murdered, Jesuit to touch the New World, Schroth details a 450 year history of serving the disenfranchised and the poor, building schools and universities, and making very public stands for social justice.  They are not always perfect, but for those who admire Father Damien in spite of his flaws may find more of the same here.

Self-Made Man: One Woman’s Journey into Manhood and Back Again by Norah Vincent

Agnes’s transformation to Father Damien is an integral part of Erdrich’s novel.  The reservation’s remoteness and the acceptance of the Native people made this easier.  In this book Norah Vincent makes her transformation in the thick of society.  In the guise of Ned, a somewhat nerdy salesman complete with crewcut and ever-present five o’clock shadow, Vincent lived for more than a year as a man, infiltrating and living every aspect of male-ness from the sacred to the profane providing an in-depth look at what is expected of male behavior and how women and men are truly different.

Similar Fiction:

The House of Spirits by Isabelle Allende

Similar to Erdrich, Allende writes a generational saga of a family and a people who suffer from the decisions made far in the past.  The Trueba family live in an unnamed Latin American country crippled by political upheaval.  Though less overtly spiritual than Erdrich, readers will find mystical undercurrents and cultural conflicts that color the portrait of this family.

Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros

Another sweeping family portrait, this time of a Mexican American family, Caramelo is the story of Lala Reyes as she grows through the revelations of family stories and histories.  The interconnectedness of seemingly different narratives is reminiscent of Erdrich’s storytelling, as are the shared tragedies and raptures that have brought the family, and specifically Lala, to the place they are today.

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven by Sherman Alexie

A set of short stories told from the inhabitants of the Spokane Indian Reservation, this is a complex picture of contemporary Native American life that juxtaposes the trappings of modern culture with the traditions of a proud, ancient, and crumbling people.

Name: Jessica

Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach

November 7, 2012

Spook CoverTitle: Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

Author: Roach, Mary

Publication Date: 2005

Pages: 311

Geographical Setting: This world or the next

Time Period: Present Day

Genre: Nonfiction, Science Writing

Series: N/A

Plot Summary:  With a heavy dose of wit and humor, Mary Roach examines the subject of life-after-death, delving into the science and the history of humanity’s search for the soul.  Roach’s search for evidence finds her to some curious and oftentimes hilariously strange circumstances—tracking down stories of reincarnation in India, examining “ectoplasm” at Cambridge, medium school—leading the reader on an amusing quest for the truth amongst the odd and the misguided.  Each chapter ends with a teaser that leads smoothly into the next making for compelling read.  And Roach’s ability to esteem both quacks and true scientists equally is charming and wonderfully engaging.  But readers looking for solid evidence and definitive answers beware.  Spook is impressively researched and deftly told.  It doesn’t promise enlightenment.  But it does infuse a great sense of wonder and delight into the world of science.

Appeal Characteristics: humorous, spiritual, scientific, accessible, witty, engaging, funny, well-researched, quirky, unconventional, thought-provoking, engrossing, unpretentious, smart, entertaining, history of science

Subject Headings: Life after death, soul, paranormal phenomena, Religion and Science

Three Terms Best Describing this Book: Funny, scientific, engaging

Similar Non-fiction:

The Disappearing Spoon, and Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of Elements by Sam Kean

Readers who enjoyed Roach’s obscure anecdotes in Spook will find a wealth of similar stories in this tale about the building of the Periodic Table.  Brimming with whimsy, wit, and authority, this book will appeal to those looking for a good story as much as those looking for scientific history.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

Combining history and science, this story brings to life the woman whose cells became one of humanity’s most important medical tools and details the history of medical ethics and the good of society versus the rights of the individual.  Skloot maintains an objective tone evincing compassion and respect for both sides of the debate.

Death by Black Hole, and Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson

In this series of essays, Tyson cheerfully explains the complex fields of astrophysics, relativity, and quantum mechanics with engaging humor, accessible language, and a Star Trek reference or two.  Readers who wished for more “hard science” in Roach’s writing, look no further.

Similar Fiction:

The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

Fans of Roach’s vividly depicted oddballs and outcasts will find their fictional counterparts in droves in this sci-fi cult classic.  Adams tells the story of displaced Earthling Arthur Dent with a serious flair for the wacky, the outlandish, and the odd bit of science.  Prepare yourself for an onslaught of witty one-liners (which is Adams’ case may actually take up an entire paragraph).

A Dirty Job by Christopher Moore

A darkly funny tale about a neurotic man who becomes a widower, a father, and a sort of grim reaper all in one day, this story takes a comical look at our soul’s inevitable slide toward the undiscovered country.  Readers of Roach will find in Moore a shared philosophy that perhaps death and dying should be approached with less trepidation and more humor.

The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

The first novel in Pratchett’s famed Discworld series, The Color of Magic introduces readers to a universe so richly detailed it seems like it could be real enough if alchemy and suspicion had won over science and reason.  Readers of Roach may enjoy Pratchett’s thought-provoking satire as well as the outrageously funny situations his characters find themselves in.

Name: Jessica

Bedbugs by Ben H. Winters

October 31, 2012

Bedbugs CoverTitle: Bedbugs

Author: Winters, Ben H.

Publication Date: 2011

Pages: 256

Geographical Setting: New York City

Time Period: Present Day

Genre: Horror Stories, Suspense Stories

Series: N/A

Plot Summary: When Alex, Susan, and little Emma Wendt move into a New York City brownstone boasting a prime location and an amazingly cheap rent, they happily embark on a new chapter of their lives.  Sure, the landlady may be slightly eccentric, and the previous tenants may have disappeared inexplicably, but these are small grievances compared to the perfection of the place.  Until the bedbugs show up, those notoriously hardy pests swarming ever-increasingly across the city.  When an exterminator finds no trace of the insects, Susan’s sanity shows signs of cracking.  Where are these bugs?  Why aren’t Alex and Emma being bitten, and what exactly is in the basement?  Winters’ story preys on our collective fear of creepy-crawlies delivering a good, old-fashioned horror story wrapped up in a modern-day package.  He draws inspiration from the best conventions of great horror classics: the hopeful beginning, the slightly off-kilter secondary characters, an ominous warning to stay out of the basement, the escalating psychological torture of a progressively unstable narrator, even a portentous portrait a la Dorian Gray.  This fast-paced novel will keep the pages turning until the chilling and twisted end; it will keep the lights on much longer than that.

Appeal Characteristics: creepy, menacing, fast-paced, foreboding, paranoid, plot-twist, details of New York City, dark, resolved-ending, off-kilter, manic, unsettling, compelling, plot-driven, suspenseful, movie-like

Subject Headings: New York City, Brooklyn, Bedbugs, Family, Haunted Houses, Secrets, Apartment houses, Paranoia

Three Terms Best Describing this Book: Creepy, Unsettling, Fast-Paced

Similar Fiction: 

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

This horror classic shares many themes with Bedbugs chief of which is the unstable nature of the narrator’s mind.  Where Winters’ tale is completely resolved, Jackson’s leaves the reader with a little more ambiguity.  Read this as both source material and a genuinely scary story.

Rosemary’s Baby by Ira Levin

Another classic horror story this time featuring the psychological torture of a young woman by neighbors whose eccentricities begin taking on a malevolent tone after Rosemary becomes pregnant.  The similar frame—everyday life slowly replaced by darkness—and paranoid feeling of this novel should appeal to readers who enjoyed Bedbugs.

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill

For anyone who wants a terrifying read with plenty of turns and surprises set in the modern landscape, look no further.  The menacing bed bugs are replaced here with a menacing—and very real—ghost.  Similar to Winters, though, Hill adds layers of poignant everyday struggles that interweave with the overall fight against the supernatural.

Bonus Watch-alike: The Innkeepers written and directed by Ti West

During the last operating days of the Yankee Pedlar Inn, Claire and Luke, the last remaining employees, are determined to expose the ghosts that haunt the one hundred year old building.  As the final night wears on, Claire’s psyche begins to unravel as the line between reality and imagination begin to blur.  A modern-day ghost story that feels like an homage to its predecessors, the movie finds plenty of common ground with Bedbugs.

Similar Non-fiction:

Wicked Bugs: The Louse that Conquered Napoleon’s Army and Other Diabolical Insects by Amy Stewart

This natural history contains not just the story of the bed bug but all manner of creepy and devilish insects.  Stewart proves that bugs don’t have to be supernatural to be scary.

Death Sentence: The True Story of Velma Barfield’s Life, Crimes, and Punishment by Jerry Bledsoe

The horror story staple of sweet, grandmotherly, ladies hiding a menacing secret isn’t just fiction, as proved by this true crime.  An account of the life and murders of the only woman executed in the US between 1962 and 1998, this book will chill readers with accounts of Bledsoe’s crimes as much as it shows redemption by prison.

Songs from the Black Chair: A Memoir of Mental Interiors by Charles Barber

A closely detailed look at mental illness and the real tortures of the psyche from the mouths of the sufferers, this book is part memoir, part investigative science writing.  As a man himself living under the dark shadow of obsessive-compulsive disorder, Barber tells the stories of the insane with balance and respect.

Name: Jessica

Castle Waiting by Linda Medley

October 24, 2012

Castle Waiting coverTitle: Castle Waiting, Volume I

Author: Medley, Linda

Publication Date: 2006

Pages: 457

Geographical Setting: Castle Waiting, a safe-haven in a fairy tale world

Time Period: Once Upon a Time

Genre: Graphic Novel, Fairy Tale

Series: N/A

Plot Summary: Castle Waiting begins at the end of Sleeping Beauty’s story, the part where she runs blindly off with Prince Charming.  Abandoned and essentially purposeless, her former ladies-in-waiting along with few other eccentric characters have created a sanctuary past the brambly hedge at Castle Waiting for those seeking peace and refuge.  The story we are brought into is only one among a host of others before it, and it begins on a dark and stormy night with a clandestine meeting between a lady and a bear, her bodyguard.  Lady Jain, our heroine, is on the run and, as we soon find out, pregnant.  She flees her home in sadness, bound for Castle Waiting.  The premise sounds cliché.  Castle Waiting is anything but.  Upon arrival at the castle, Lady Jain is greeted a stork-headed butler, a doctor who only appears wearing a beaked plague mask, a silently gruff but secretly gentle blacksmith/handyman, three ladies-in-waiting who finally have a lady, and a bearded nun.  Yes, a bearded nun.

Told through a linked set of stories, Castle Waiting draws heavily from fairy- and folk-tale conventions and spins them in a feminist light.  That isn’t to say that all the male characters are weak or bad.  In fact many of them are quite gentle and good—except for the ones who aren’t.  But they are generally not as important as the female characters, who are independent and empowered, taking care of themselves and others.  This is a joyous and humorous and optimistic story.  Bad things have happened, do happen, and probably will continue to happen, but we are assured the happiest of endings.  The art and the text blend seamlessly.  Illustrated in black and white with strong line work that is as expressive as it is lighthearted, the frames are reminiscent of woodcuts adding to the fairytale quality of the work.  This is a great choice for those who have found other graphic novels too over-stimulating.  It would also be a good crossover for those who enjoy romance or fairytale-style fantasy, or those who simply crave a warm, lighthearted read.

Appeal Characteristics: Engaging, joyful, upbeat, lighthearted, feminist, magical, warm, humorous, Fairy Tale, Quirky Characters, expressive art, detailed setting, smart, domestic, charming

Subject Headings: Fairy Tales, Graphic Novels, Magic, Knights and Knighthood, Nuns, Princesses, Pregnant Women

Three Terms Best Describing this Book: Joyful, Engaging, Charming

Similar Fiction: 

The Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson

The much beloved comic strip featuring a boy with an unbeatable spirit and his sagacious stuffed tiger will bring readers the same joy and optimism found in Castle Waiting.  The artwork here is spare but delightfully expressive.

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown

Three sisters return to their hometown to help care for their dying mother in this domestic fiction.  This novel explores the relationships and bonds between women under exceptional circumstances and features an idyllic setting populated with quirky and endearing characters.

These Children Come at You with Knives, and other Fairy Tales Stories by Jim Knipfel

This book offers re-imagined fairy tales with a decidedly darker turn.  The polite eccentricities found in the characters of Castle Waiting are twisted here into vulgar oddities.  The optimism and warmth may be absent from these tales, but the stories will certainly offer laughs—albeit of the morbid and inappropriate variety.  Only readers who enjoy their fairy tales told at a slant and who don’t mind their humor dark should attempt this book.

Similar Non-fiction:

The Magical Life of Long Tack Sam by Ann Marie Fleming

This graphic novel details the true story of Chinese magician and vaudeville performer Long Tack Sam, and his great-granddaughter’s quest to bring him back into the public light.  A moving story told through a collage of artifacts from both his and her life, this biography maintains an upbeat optimism in the face of turbulence, uncertainty, and racism.

In the Kingdom of the Fairies: A memoir of a Magical Summer and a Remarkable Friendship by Susan Coyne

A moving story about a five-year old girl who for one summer believes her pen pal to be a fairy princess.  In reality it is her elderly neighbor, a man who loves literature and wants to encourage the imagination this girl.  This memoir will appeal to any adult who still believes in the power of make-believe.

Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Another memoir told in the graphic novel format, this story told by a cult comic strip artist details the author’s relationship with her father during her childhood.  Bechdel’s writing is both witty and moving, and her artwork features strong line work and a monochromatic palette that allows the expressions of the characters to stand out.

Name: Jessica

Tell No One

October 3, 2012

Tell No One by Harlan CobenTitle: Tell No One

Author: Coben, Harlan

Publication Date: 2001

Pages: 339

Geographical Setting: New York City

Time Period: Modern Day

Genre: Suspense

Series: N/A

Plot Summary: For eight years Dr. David Beck has been living under the shadow of his wife Elizabeth’s abduction and murder.  It was supposed to be a celebration, a trip to the family’s private lake commemorating the anniversary of the first kiss they shared when they were twelve years old.  What followed instead was a scream piercing the placid summer night and Beck’s last view of his wife before she was taken from him forever.  Unable to move on, Beck has thrown himself into his work at a pediatric hospital serving New York City’s poor.  But the absence that is Elizabeth cannot be filled.  That is until he receives an email containing information that only Elizabeth would know.  With only this one piece of desperate hope, Beck plunges into the middle of a web of secrets, lies, and hidden truths that all lead back to one central question: Did Elizabeth die all those years ago, or is there something else afoot?  Coben really moves the story along with quick chapters that shift viewpoint from first-person (Beck) to third-person.  Vivid language that verges on poetic draws the reader into the space of the novel.  Characters, both good and bad, doing all manner of surreptitious and shadowy things, populate the pages and lead the reader on a twist-filled sprint that is at the same time heartbreaking and hopeful, ruthless and tender.

Appeal Characteristics: Compelling, Breakneck, Intense, Dramatic, Multiple points of view, Plot twists, Suspenseful, Action-oriented, Cinematic, Details of New York City, Vivid, Complex, Descriptive, Heartbreaking, Resolved Ending

Subject Headings: Missing Persons, Murder, Frameups, Betrayal, Physicians, Husbands of murder victims, Serial murderers, Father and adult daughters, Husband and wife

Three Terms Best Describing this Book: Compelling, Dramatic, Action-oriented

Similar Fiction: 

Vanished by Karen Robards

This novel also features the return of a missing person presumed dead, this time the protagonist’s young child.  The plot is fast-paced and suspenseful like Coben.  But where Coben’s novel contains light romantic elements, Robards is downright steamy.

High Crimes by Joseph Finder

Betrayal and conspiracy feature high in this novel where a woman must learn the secrets of her husband’s past in order to defend him in a top-secret, military court-martial.  The examination of the relationship between husband and wife as well as the breakneck speed with which secrets are unveiled will appeal to readers of Coben. 

Money to Burn by James Grippando

Another wife who disappeared under mysterious circumstances may have returned from the dead, but this time, she’s out to financially ruin her husband.  A tale of corporate espionage set against the backdrop of Wall Street, this novel contains plenty of twists and deceptions to boot.

 Similar Non-fiction:

The Restless Sleep: Inside New York City’s Cold Case Squad by Stacy Horn

Mysterious and unsolved cases set against the backdrop of New York City.  This book offers an intriguing look at the detectives who work to solve cold cases against the obstacles of time, technology, and department politics.

The Company We Keep: a Husband-and-Wife True-Life Spy Story by Robert Baer and Dayna Baer

Here readers will find the true story of a couple who met while on a mission for the CIA that echoes the theme of husbands and wives under difficult circumstances.

Thunderstruck by Erik Larson

Scientific discovery and murder collide in this Edwardian era true mystery.  Those who appreciated the technology aspect of Coben’s novel may find similar ground in this non-fiction.

Name: Jessica