Israel Armstrong is used to working dead-end jobs, but never before has he had a job that ended before it started. When Israel moves to the small town of Tumdrum, Ireland, to become the librarian, he discovers the library has been shuttered permanently. With the intention of increasing “competitive flexibility,” the town has replaced the building with a bookmobile (a mobile library, as they say in the UK). Israel accepts the replacement position grudgingly but plans to resign as soon as he can. There’s only one small hitch: all the town's books are missing. His first task is to solve the mystery and find the missing books.
Why I picked it up: My friend Mike gave it to me. I cracked it open and the rambling writing style really drew me in.
Why I finished it: Israel, the Jewish Londoner, is combative, fussy, and physically inept. His interactions with the small town Irish characters always take him somewhere he isn’t expecting: when Tom, the former bookmobile driver, is driving Israel to his town-provided accommodations (a chicken coop), he picks up two more passengers and then charges Israel for the ride.
The book’s long, beautiful sentences really give a sense of the characters, the place, and everything else. This one about Israel’s shoes tells you everything about his circumstances with unmerciful clarity:
“He had read it all again and still the only words he took in were ‘Library’ and ‘Closure’ -- and they hit him hard, like a blow to the head, literally rocked him back on his worn-out heels, the worn-out heels on his one and only pair of worn-out best shoes, his brown brogues, too tight and permanently unpolished, shoes that had done him since graduation for all and every special occasion, for weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs and for the interminable and unsuccessful job interviews.”
Readalikes: Joseph Caldwell’s The Pig Did It features a similarly hapless protagonist getting dragged down a rabbit hole filled with rural Irish characters.
@bookblrb: Israel Armstrong moves to Tumdrum, Ireland, to become the town librarian, but all the books are missing.
Danny Wright never thought he'd be the man to bring down the United States of America. In fact, he enlisted in the Idaho National Guard because he wanted to serve his country the way his father did. When the Guard is called up on the governor's orders to police a protest in Boise, it seems like a routine crowd-control mission... but then Danny's gun misfires, spooking the other soldiers and the already fractious crowd, and by the time the smoke clears, twelve people are dead.
The president wants the soldiers arrested. The governor swears to protect them. And as tensions build on both sides, the conflict slowly escalates toward the unthinkable: a second American civil war.
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One night, seven toys are left out in the yard. The sun sets and for the first time ever, the toys see the night sky. The helpful WonderDoll tells the other toys a story about one star that is brighter than the rest, and they soon realize it is an alien spaceship looking for abandoned toys.
Why I picked it up: Ever since I was a kid, I've always had a fondness for anything space-related. I blame Pigs In Space.
Why I finished it: This story within a story is charming, and kept me going with well-placed jokes like the one about the sheep who is afraid his stuffing might get probed by an alien.
After the group of toys gets beamed onto the space ship, they discover a room filled with other lost toys in suspended animation. They know that the toys must be returned to their rightful owners. I once left a beloved Holly Hobbie behind at a restaurant during a road trip through Montana. In tears, I wondered if my doll was enjoying attention and milkshakes from the waitresses at that diner. (Thankfully my doting parents drove back to retrieve the doll, but this book reminded me a lot of the lives I imagined for my own toys.)
It's perfect for: Carrie, an old elementary school pal and die-hard adult fan of Toy Story. She once confided she still believes toys live a life of their own. The characters in this book are similar to those in the movie, with a cowboy and a dinosaur, but the true hero in this story is WonderDoll, the female superhero action figure. Carrie would love that WonderDoll is a strong female character, plus she'll have a soft spot for the misunderstood alien who is looking for his own lost toy.
@bookblrb: The star in the sky that is brighter than the rest is a spaceship looking for abandoned toys.
Congressman John Lewis (GA-5) is an American icon, one of the key figures of the civil rights movement. His commitment to justice and nonviolence has taken him from an Alabama sharecropper’s farm to the halls of Congress, from a segregated schoolroom to the 1963 March on Washington, and from receiving beatings from state troopers to receiving the Medal of Freedom from the first African-American president.
Now, to share his remarkable story with new generations, Lewis presents March, a graphic novel trilogy, in collaboration with co-writer Andrew Aydin and New York Times best-selling artist Nate Powell (winner of the Eisner Award and LA Times Book Prize finalist for Swallow Me Whole).
March is a vivid first-hand account of John Lewis’ lifelong struggle for civil and human rights, meditating in the modern age on the distance traveled since the days of Jim Crow and segregation. Rooted in Lewis’ personal story, it also reflects on the highs and lows of the broader civil rights movement.
Book One spans John Lewis’ youth in rural Alabama, his life-changing meeting with Martin Luther King, Jr., the birth of the Nashville Student Movement, and their battle to tear down segregation through nonviolent lunch counter sit-ins, building to a stunning climax on the steps of City Hall.
Many years ago, John Lewis and other student activists drew inspiration from the 1950s comic book Martin Luther King and the Montgomery Story. Now, his own comics bring those days to life for a new audience, testifying to a movement whose echoes will be heard for generations.
An atlas with cartoony maps that feature light-hearted drawings of wildlife, plants, geographic features, famous buildings, famous people, sports, traditional dress, other cultural tidbits, the country’s name in its language(s), and some of the traditional facts usually provided by maps.
Why I picked it up: I was blown away by the authors’ oversized picture book, Welcome to Mamoko.
Why I finished it: The maps of the countries are really fun. The people look like little kids because of their oversized heads and small bodies, whether René Magritte (in his homeland of Belgium), a Swedish royal guardsman, or a Romanian bird watcher. I checked countries where I’d been for things that reminded me of my trips there, and I was never disappointed: Finland’s map has a picture of two naked Finns in a sauna (one of whom is beating herself with a birch branch) and Japan’s has Godzilla, a girl singing karaoke, and a Gundam robot.
It's perfect for: My daughter. I’m keeping this around the house because I want to inspire a desire to travel to other countries (especially places I want to visit). I think I can sell her on Fiji by showing her the fish and fruit that abound there, and I know the wildlife of Madagascar will push it to the top of her list.
@bookblrb: An atlas of fun, cartoony maps filled with the people and things found in each country.
Mike Haddican, proud small-town gym owner and renowned karate instructor, is an all-around good guy. He's never needed much to be happy. Only his family, his friends, his girl. Especially his girl. So when that girl up and left him seven years ago to chase her dreams, she all but destroyed him.
Sure, contemporary dancer Kyra Brims made it big, but it cost her dearly. Now her life and career are in shambles. She doesn't need a do-over; she needs a friggin' miracle. Injured, broke, and out of options, she returns to Alden, the town she swore she'd never see again -- and home of Mike Haddican, the man who ripped her soul to pieces -- to lick her wounds and recover.
Forgetting and letting go proved impossible when they were worlds apart; now that they’re stuck together they don’t stand a chance, especially with Mike’s grandma and her partners in crime plotting, meddling and refusing to give up on them. But as the passion that never died burns out of control, so do old hurts and unresolved issues. They're going to have to dig deep down to find forgiveness and the wisdom to move on.
Richard Pollak, an accomplished journalist and onetime editor of The Nation, by his own admission a landlubber, agreed to join the Colombo Bay’s five-week transit from Hong Kong to New York to experience the life of a container ship sailor. The sailors and the ships that transport 90% of the worlds’ goods on massive ships several football fields long make up the Merchant Marine. With small crews of only twenty or thirty people, life on a cargo ship for months at a time can be boring unless the radar warns that an unavoidable storm is coming.
Why I picked it up: A recommendation from a teacher who said she was fascinated by the story of how freight moves silently and largely unseen around the world. (Thanks Bonnie!)
Why I finished it: I learned a lot about how people entertain themselves while isolated in the middle of the ocean. Because there is a first-come, first-served policy for the closed-circuit television system, and the porn guys usually get to it first, those without portable players have no other choice for movie options. The porn stash must be locked away when ships enter the Middle East in case of inspection. There is very little time to visit cities where the ship ties up to be unloaded/loaded. Computerized systems and cranes quickly grab the standardized containers from the ship and either stack them neatly or drop them onto trailers to be hauled away. These tasks can often be completed in the space of several hours. Then the ship must get underway again because no money is earned while it’s docked.
It is easy to think of these ships as unstoppable juggernauts at sea, but that’s where many issues that could be solved simply on land become big problems. A fire can cause massive explosions when containers of flammable materials or chemicals blow up. To avoid this, every cargo bay has carbon dioxide cylinders that can be opened to flood the bay with CO2 and starve the fire of oxygen. Boardings by pirates and emergency shipboard surgery without trained doctors are two of the many other dangers.
It's perfect for: My friend Jill, a sociologist, because the sailors forced to live in close proximity with one another for long periods of time on the sea are a microcosm of society, with differences in pay, schooling, and native languages. The scientist in her will be cataloging how rank, nationality (all of the enlisted crew was Filipino, as they are on many cargo tankers, while the officers were British and American), and lots of down time affect how they related to each other. They tend to separate by choice, with the officers eating Western food in one dining room and the Filipinos eating their food in another dining room.
@bookblrb: A journalist experiences five weeks as a sailor on a container ship.
"Straley strikes the perfect balance of humor and pathos in this story about the McCahon brothers.”—The New York Times Book Review
Cold Storage, Alaska, is a remote fishing outpost where salmonberries sparkle in the morning frost and where you just might catch a King Salmon if you’re zen enough to wait for it. Settled in 1935 by Norse fishermen who liked to skinny dip in its natural hot springs, the town enjoyed prosperity at the height of the frozen fish boom. But now the cold storage plant is all but abandoned and the town is withering.
Clive “The Milkman” McCahon returns to his tiny Alaska hometown after a seven-year jail stint for dealing coke. He has a lot to make up to his younger brother, Miles, who has dutifully been taking care of their ailing mother. But Clive doesn’t realize the trouble he’s bringing home. His vengeful old business partner is hot on his heels, a stick-in-the-mud State Trooper is dying to bust Clive for narcotics, and, to complicate everything, Clive might be going insane—lately, he’s been hearing animals talking to him. Will his arrival in Cold Storage be a breath of fresh air for the sleepy, depopulated town? Or will Clive’s arrival turn the whole place upside down?
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Allie Brosh shares hilarious and sometimes heartrending true-life adventures about her dogs, her childhood, and even her depression, originally published as illustrated stories on her blogspot.
Why I picked it up: I think the first story of hers I read was about her concern for her possibly not-terribly bright dog. I was hooked on her primitive illustrations because they somehow bring her feelings across amazingly well.
Why I finished it: The searing, painful, and hilarious story of her experience with depression, which ends when a dried piece of corn under the fridge somehow makes life ok.
It's perfect for: My mental health graphic novel booklist (along with Marbles). Someday, when it's finished, I'll print a bunch and sneak them into doctors' waiting rooms. Too many docs are recommending books that are boring and out-of-print.
@bookblrb: Illustrated stories, both hilarious and heartrending, from Allie Brosh’s blog.
A. J. Fikry’s life is not at all what he expected it to be. His wife has died, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and now his prized possession, a rare collection of Poe poems, has been stolen. Slowly but surely, he is isolating himself from all the people of Alice Island--including Amelia, the lovely and idealistic (if eccentric) Knightley Press sales rep who keeps on taking the ferry over to Alice Island, refusing to be deterred by A.J.’s bad attitude. Sound life affirming? No? Well, remarkably, it is! There is still time to request your e-galley on Edelweiss or NetGalley, before the Library Reads voting period for April titles ends. Your request for a galley will be authorized post hast!
After her beloved great aunt dies, fifteen-year-old Sheri Booker finds herself drawn to the local funeral home and the larger-than-life personality who runs it, Mr. Wylie (always “Mr. Wylie,” never “Al”). Over nine years of employment, Booker learns everything there is to know about running a funeral home in inner-city Baltimore: how to make bereaved relatives feel at home, how to discern whether a family is likely to have trouble paying, and how to make sure the gang-bangers don’t overrun the viewing hours. Eventually Booker’s relationship with Wylie sours as her mentor grooms his son to take over the business and becomes more capricious toward her.
Booker’s clear-eyed insights into the business of death are occasionally cynical, but her genuine affection for the community she served is obvious throughout.
Why I picked it up: Great title, great cover (big red type against a white background, sheet-covered body on a slab with a fedora on top). Plus I’m a little morbid sometimes.
Why I finished it: It’s a fascinating look at entrepreneurship in an unusual context. Funeral services were strictly segregated for years, and even after the Civil Rights era, most blacks preferred to take their funerary business to black undertakers like Al Wylie. His understanding of marketing, in the broadest sense of the term, is something any MBA student or would-be businessman should emulate.
It's perfect for: My sister, Gretchen, who used to babysit our local undertaker’s kids. They lived above the funeral home, and once Gretchen made a spectacularly wrong turn while looking for the bathroom. She'd get a kick out of Booker's first, unexpected trip to the embalming room.
@bookblrb: Everything Sheri Booker learned about life and business during nine years working at a Baltimore funeral home.
Mark Russell was telling his friend Shannon Wheeler about how he had boiled the Book of Job down to three paragraphs when Wheeler unexpectedly said, “You should do that for the whole Bible. I’ll draw cartoons for it.” The project ended up taking three years. Russell says certain books like Ruth, Job, and Esther had central narratives and could easily be squeezed down, but others, like Psalms and Revelations, proved very difficult. He enjoys including biblical verses that are usually sanitized out by well-intentioned Sunday School teachers (like Judges 4:21, where Jael, having a sleeping escapee in her tent, puts a tent peg through his head, killing him).
Russell’s genuine respect for the Bible shines through, and the end result will be enjoyed by some Christians but not much by others. He says of the potential of the book to irritate Christians, “they seemed to get that the book’s blunt, and often profane sense of humor was an attempt at honesty rather than assassination.”
Why I picked it up: Recommended by a friend, Mike, who knows my tastes very well.
Why I finished it: Russell includes a lot of slang and current pop culture references as he summarizes the Bible, like when says of Hosea: “Israel needed another prophet like literature needed another one hundred Sweet Valley High novels.” Or, when he posits that Saul changed his name to Paul because he felt it was less Jewy. Noah, gathering animals to his newly built ark, was not only the first ark-builder, he was the first animal hoarder, too. The adage “Don’t let the sun go down on you while you’re still angry” is adapted to “Don’t let a grudge ruin the fudge, people!”
It's perfect for: My friend Jim, an on-again, off-again pastor, who shares the same type of sardonic wit Mark Russell brings to every page of this book. Jim would appreciate that Russell attempts to include everything, even the bits about the Israelites destroying the women and children and pets of the peoples they conquered, and God ordering Hosea to take a prostitute as his wife (Gomer) as a metaphor for how unfaithful the people of Israel had been acting.
@bookblrb: Humorous, unsanitized summaries of each book of the Bible, with cartoons.
George Sueño and Ernie Bascom are army detectives stationed in South Korea in the 1970s. Sueño is knowledgeable about the local culture, is one of the few foreigners who speaks Korean, and has a real sense of justice. Bascom is a hard drinker who is utterly loyal to his partner. Together they maneuver within the Korean and U.S. Army bureaucracies to solve brutal murders and rapes that may involve U.S. servicemen, and to stop thefts, including the flow of goods from U.S. base stores to the Korean black market.
Why I picked it up: I read Jade Lady Burning and a few of the other novels about Sueño and Bascom about ten years ago. The South Korea I lived in for part of the 90s still had hints of the undeveloped Korea of the 70s in Limón's books, and they explored the country’s seedy underbelly in a way I never did. How could I pass up these short stories?
Why I finished it: Limón's s vision of the ugly, vice-filled areas around U.S. Military installations is a far cry from Kim Dong Hwa’s idealized Korea in The Color of Earth, and I enjoyed the contrast. (This book's setting is a lot more in line with my experience.) The tension between the officers’ wives from the U.S. and the Korean wives of soldiers over shopping in the PX seemed utterly realistic, particularly when the former try to use their influence to force Sueño and Bascom to spend their time stopping black marketeering instead of investigating violent crimes. (Our heroes largely ignore these orders, of course.)
It's perfect for: Bill, a retired Marine who I got to know while living in South Korea. I think he’ll enjoy that Bascom’s hair trigger sometimes leads him to punch first and ask questions later. And the back-alley scenes will doubtless remind him of his time in Korea, Vietnam, and elsewhere in the 70s, and I really want to hear the stories that they dredge up.
@bookblrb: U.S. army detectives solve crimes in and around U.S. army bases in 1970s Korea.
Illustrator Mahendra Singh dives deep into the strange juxtapositions and rich language of Lewis Carroll’s poem and turns it into a graphic novel. Singh's drawings, reminiscent of old Harpers illustrations with nods to Salvador Dali, Edward Gorey and Pieter Bruegel, do justice to Carroll’s hallucinatory imagination.
Why I picked it up: Lewis Carroll is a master of English Literature, and this new, illustrated version of Snark caught my eye because of the green feathered cloak, arrow’d tail, and claw-toed slippers on the cover. When I flipped it open, an illustration of a Dali-esque wilted clock draped over a frying pan told me that something unusual was cooking.
Why I finished it: This poem makes no sense, but the words feel right when read aloud. Re-reading does nothing to dispel the nonsense, which was the mischievous mathematical and literal intent of the Right Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll). Mahendra Singh understands his “logic” and draws sewing machines afloat on a table in one frame followed by beaver-faced, booted women astride human-faced circus ponies beneath flaming trapeze artists a page later. NEVER MIND that it doesn’t make sense. It’s amazing.
@bookblrb: Graphic novel version of Lewis Carroll's dark, nonsensical "The Hunting of the Snark."
Chico Bustamante is a Texas legend in his own mind. He wants to be a Texas legend for real, but Sheriff Cornwallis keeps getting in the way. But the Sheriff's giant chicken might be just the bucking bronco Chico needs to cement his status, assuming he doesn’t count his chickens too early, that is. After all, nine seconds is a really long time to ride a chicken.
Publisher's Rating: E for Everyone
Why I picked it up: It was on the new book shelf in the kids' section of my local library, and the bright orange cover caught my eye.
Why I finished it: I need a little silliness from time to time. Chico -- and many of the other characters -- say ridiculous things with completely straight faces.
Chico: "Bucky, my pal, the ability to pee in the great outdoors is what separates us from the animals."
Bucky: "No...no it doesn’t."
Texas humor abounds. Bucky spends a lot of time trying to convince the other characters that New York City (his hometown) is part of the United States and not a foreign country. Saying the word "vegetarian" was, until recently, a crime.
Mercado's art is as hip and fun as his tale. There's a Saturday morning cartoon feel to his drawings, but in a modern, cable TV kind of way. His pacing was as good as any animated show, and there are even fake ads sprinkled throughout.
Readalikes: Lincoln Peirce's Big Nate comic collections and comic-prose hybrid novels also offer middle-grade wackiness, though they are more grounded in reality. And Emmanuel Guibert's Sardine in Outer Space series has the same sort of rebellious, forget-the-establishment feel as Pantalones.
@bookblrb: To become a legend, Chico Bustamante needs to ride the Sheriff’s giant chicken for 9 seconds.