Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Strangers Assume My Girlfriend Is My Nurse by Shane Burcaw

In Laughing at My Nightmare, Shane Burcaw described growing up and striving for (and often achieving) a normal life despite his spinal muscular dystrophy, a condition causing his muscles to gradually waste away.  His follow-up, Strangers Assume My Girlfriend Is My Nurse, mostly focuses on his adulthood, including his love life’s challenges and rewards.  Just as young Shane strived for normalcy as a child, twentysomething Burcaw maintains a large degree of normalcy as a young adult.  It is inspiring to read about someone fighting the urge to give into despair by depending on his loved ones without resenting them, living his life actively, finding hope where he can, and most memorably, using humor.  Laughing at My Nightmare found the ridiculousness in Burcaw’s situation, including, sometimes graphically and hilariously, scatological matters; Strangers Assume does the same but adds sex as well.  As the title suggests, some of the book’s humor comes from strangers not knowing how to react to a man with a full-sized head but a child-sized body in a wheelchair leading a functional adult life, including his love life.

Strangers Assume has serious moments as well, notably when Burcaw expresses anger over a viral story about Jerika Bolen, the girl who wished and received crowd-sourced support for a make-believe prom followed by her planned death.  Burcaw did not find the story as inspirational as many apparently did.  “After it ran its fleeting course and the hoopla fizzled out,” Burcaw recalls, “a child was dead and the disabled community had been dealt a serious blow.”  Another (happier and funnier) thought-provoking chapter explains what happens when events occur requiring Burcaw and his girlfriend Hannah, who assists him with many daily tasks, have to switch roles temporarily and Shane comes to understand Hannah and the joys of caregiving better.

If the idea of reading books about someone with a debilitating disease sounds depressing, rest assured that there is a lot more triumph—and comedy—than tragedy.

Recommended by Andrew

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Set in the mid sixties – late seventies, Daisy Jones & The Six transports readers to the most iconic age of rock n’ roll. The atmosphere and story composition create and authentic tale that I almost refuse to believe isn’t real! Taylor Jenkins Reid is a master of fiction – her characters possess an uncanny ability to charm readers and settle into their hearts. Her novels are multi-faceted and unlike any other books I’ve read, especially due to the oral history storytelling of Daisy Jones. (Side note – the audiobook? SPECTACULAR. If you have access to the audio version, you will not want to miss this experience) Full of timeless quotes, glamorous scandals, and heart-breaking loss, you will find yourself having a hard time to put this one down.

The women in this book are all so powerful and dynamic. There are so many strong messages about women empowerment, supporting other women, and demanding credit where it’s due. Even the smaller side characters are them much more layered than most supporting characters, as we explore their own storylines. Plus the relationships between all of the women, (Karen & Daisy, Karen & Camila, Camila & Daisy – even Daisy and little Julia made my heart swell!) are wholesome, unique, and authentic. Especially for a story with a bit of a love triangle, I could not be happier with the superb study of the experience of women.

I also was left so touched by the exploration of addiction. Taylor Jenkins Reid captures the dark, devastating nature of the disease without a hit of judgement.  The story of both Billy and Daisy’s respective addictions bring light to the glamorization of drugs of this time, while not glamorizing it themselves. This book exposes the truth about substance abuse while simultaneously carrying an air of hope and recovery for those who may be in a similar situation.

Recommended by Monica Shine

My Sister, the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Set in Nigeria, amid a corrupt system of law and order, Korede is forever coming to the aid of her beautiful, but kooky, younger sister, Ayoola, who has a bad habit of killing her boyfriends. She always claims self-defense, but she’s never injured, and her conscience never seems to suffer. 

Korede, is a borderline, antisocial nurse, more comfortable around her comatose patient, to whom she bears her soul, than with anyone else. She has a crush on Tade, a doctor she works closely with. However, when Ayoola shows up at the hospital to visit her sister, Tade is immediately smitten with her. So, not only is Korede hurt emotionally, with her sister’s history with men to consider, this development is quite troubling. 

Deep down, Korede is angry, jealous of her beautiful, favored sister, but she always comes to her rescue. Ayoola is self-absorbed, flaunting her beauty, and appears not to notice the stress and strain she causes Korede. Both sisters are flawed, with abominable character traits, but at the same time, they both managed to, inconceivably, elicit sympathy from me. The author creates a unique brand of suspense, an ever- present sense of dread, while toying with the readers' emotions. The social commentary could be at the core of the story, perhaps playing a key role in the sisters’ pathos. 

There’s much to ponder on in this amazing debut novel. Kordede’s stoic inner thoughts stole the show for me, though. The story is meant to be dark, meant to be taken seriously, but so sardonic, it is morbidly funny at times. 

But, one thing is for certain, this author has done an incredible job creating these wickedly entertaining characters, adding rich layers to the story, while keeping the prose pointed and sharp, even minimal, and still manages to add the rarity of humor into the mix with perfect balance and poise.

Recommended by Monica
Find it in our catalog here!

Monday, March 4, 2019

The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke

The Boneless Mercies is a rare find: a fantastic read for the dead of winter. It is a tale of bitter cold, fearsome beasts, and untimely death, but burning at its heart we find the fierce mercenary Frey and her companions, on a quest for glory. Set in a thinly-veiled fantasy replica of ancient Scandinavia, the story follows a young band of Mercies (female mercenaries) who decide to leave their lives as death-traders behind to hunt down a rampaging beast and win fame and fortune. Along the way they become embroiled in plots beyond their comprehension, involving magic as ancient as the earth, sea, and wind. Nothing is as simple as it first appears, a lesson Frey and her friends must learn the hard way. In the end, Frey must confront the true meaning of heroism, and decide what price she is willing to pay for it.

Tucholke’s fourth novel reads like an ancient northern legend, in which the elements play as much a part as the characters. It is a testament to Tucholke’s powers of description that I found myself wishing for a roaring fire to sit beside, or a snow-covered pine forest to explore. Her previous books proved her gift for enchantment, and The Boneless Mercies does not disappoint. Prepare to be bewitched.

Recommended by Sophie
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Thursday, February 14, 2019

Unmarriagable by Soniah Kamal

If marriage is the prize, you’d better be skilled in the art of “grabbing it,” it being an eligible bachelor. In her Pride and Prejudice adaptation, Soniah Kamal transports Jane Austen’s narrative to early-2000s Pakistan, imbuing the often-reimagined story with a fresh lexicon. Unmarriageable proves the timelessness of Austen and how her centuries-old plotline finds a home in many cultures.
The Binat family has fallen far, deceived out of their fortunes by Mr. Binat’s own brother, and have been making due with reduced circumstances for more than a decade. To Mrs. Binat’s chagrin, her two oldest daughters must work, finding employment as teachers at the local school. All five Binat girls—Jena, Alys, Mari, Qitty and Lady—await their (mother’s) longed-for fate of a good marriage.
Though her prose lacks Austen’s sardonic bite and subtlety, Kamal paints endearing relationships between Jena and Alys, and between Alys and her best friend, Sherry Looclus. Due to the lack of well-developed chemistry, love matches between Alys and Valentine Darsee, and Jena and Fahad “Bungles” Bingla, unfortunately fall flat, but the real spark to Kamal’s writing comes whenever Mrs. Binat opens her mouth. The mother’s hysterics over appearances and the father’s frequent retreat to his garden (plants can’t talk, after all) provide much of the comic relief. Kamal skewers Pakistani society over their obsessions and hypocrisies much in the same way Austen did hers. Alys, told at one point by the condescending Beena dey Bagh that it must be hard for her mother to have two 30-year-old daughters unmarried, retorts that it “seems to be even harder on absolute strangers.”
As an admirer of Austen’s work, I appreciate how others want to emulate her. It is a truth universally acknowledged, however, that it is quite the undertaking. Altogether, Unmarriageable is light and entertaining. Meddling mothers, conniving sisters, arrogant men and a marriage-minded society provide plenty of fodder, and in the end, class clashes and societal expectations transcend the ages as well as geography.

Recommended by Monica
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*Portions of this review was originally published in the January 2018 issue of BookPage.  It was published with their consent. 

Thursday, November 8, 2018

A Shot in the Dark by Lynne Truss

In the 1950s, Brighton, England, was bucolic and lovely—if you disregard the hooligans, Teddy Boys and other criminal mischief- makers lurking about. In A Shot in the Dark, author Lynne Truss of Eats, Shoots and Leaves (2003) fame introduces Inspector Steine, a police captain who wants nothing more than for crime to simply relocate itself so he can enjoy his ice cream in peace. When a well-known theater critic is gunned down just before he’s supposed to share crucial evidence in an old case, earnest Constable Twitten is determined to buck departmental tradition and actually solve a crime. This farcical tale is packed with interwoven plotlines, clues strewn about like confetti and a comically oblivious chief inspector. It reads like a stage comedy, and in fact Truss has written four seasons’ worth of Inspector Steine dramas for BBC Radio. There are no dark and stormy nights here, just gorgeous seaside views marred by occasional corpses. The ’60s are coming, but for now, women are still largely ignored; this turns out to be its own kind of liberation, since who would suspect them? Sharp and witty, A Shot in the Dark is a good time. 

Recommended by Monica Shine
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*Portions of this review was originally published in the November 2018 issue of BookPage.  It was published with their consent.

Dream Country by Shannon Gibne

This epic but fast-moving novel focuses on several members of the same multigenerational family, starting with Kollie, a Liberian-American teenager in 2008 Minnesota struggling with his school, community, and family.  The novel moves between the United States and Liberia and backward and forward in time ranging from 1826, soon after African-Americans settled in the new African country, to 2018.  Gibney only spends a few chapters with each group of characters, and I would have been happy to read more about any of these parents, children, soldiers, and lovers, but the book’s relative brevity speeds it along.  All major characters’ stories are compelling, even as they face terrible hardships and losses.  The final section ties these tales together in an especially satisfying way.   Gibney is both a gifted author—her prose is poetic but realistic—and an authority on the subject: she is a professor of English and African diaspora (and she offers a helpful historical timeline at the end of the book). 

Recommended by Andrew Gerber
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