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Engaging Methuen Readers


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Books to Take You Away

For those of a certain age, you may remember the classic commercial for Calgone brand bubble bath  from the 1980’s.  Beset by heavy traffic, a difficult boss, and a crying baby, a working woman voices the famous plea, “Calgone, take me away!”.  Cut to the woman luxuriating in a bubble bath, her problems slipping away in this moment of bliss…

During this time of uncertainty and stress, my “Calgone” of choice is immersive books that take me away to a different place and time.  Here are three of my recent favorites:

Cover image for Virgil WanderVirgil Wander by Leif Enger (2018)

“Virgil Wander survives a car crash with some speech and memory problems, and encounters a kite-flying stranger searching for information about his long-lost son. Enger explores and intricately layers the feelings and stories of an entire town full of people, each trying to survive their own life-changing experiences.” — Elizabeth Isabelle, DeKalb County Public Library System (October 2018,  Libraryreads.org)

The small Minnesota town in which this story is set feels like one of its quirky characters, broken-down and ready for rebirth.   A touch of magical realism, whimsy, and engaging characters make this an uplifting reading experience.  The audio book, narrated by MacLeod Andrews, is mesmerizing and casts a cozy, homey spell.

Cover image for With the fire on highWith the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo (2019)

“In a distinct, perceptive, and vulnerable first-person narrative, Emoni, a young single mom being raised by her grandmother while raising her own daughter, relates the story of her last year of high school in vignettes and short chapters, trading off between sharing bits of the story and her musings about her life and her future. Emoni has a gift for cooking, and her food, like magic, conjures emotions in people she shares it with. Her teachers, friends, and family are all ready to support her when the subject of culinary arts schooling comes up, but the one Emoni needs to learn to trust is herself.” –Kristina Pino (Reviewed 3/15/2019 for Booklist)

This book has beautiful writing (“Acevedo’s keen, stirring prose reads like poetry and demands to be read slowly”), interesting and complex characters, realistic depiction of a young woman juggling her responsibilities and opportunities, and most important for me, a warm embracing atmosphere.  Though complicated at times, the love between ‘Buela, Emoni, Angelica and Baby Girl, is visceral and I find great comfort in being included in their extended family.  The audio rendition is read by the author.

Cover image for The lost manThe Lost Man by Jane Harper (2019)

“Meeting at the remote fence line separating their cattle ranches on an isolated belt of the Australian outback, two brothers navigate the haunting realities of the isolation that ended their third brother’s life.” (Novelist)

This is a gritty, dark rural noir that vividly transports you to the harsh and unforgiving Western Australian desert.  Even though the outback setting conjures images of stocking up and hunkering down that may provide eerie parallels to our current situation, it is appropriate to the dramatic landscape so evocatively brought to life here.

 

All the titles described above may be downloaded in either ebook or eaudio format through the free Overdrive app.

 

 

 

 


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Review: “Perdido Street Station” by China Mieville

The back of Perdido Street Station dismally fails to capture it in summary. Oddly, it succeeds for exactly this reason, drawing people into the book through what are essentially false premises. By the time the hapless reader understands that they have been duped, it is too late. They are too far into the snare and there is no escape from the land of Bas-Lag.

Here’s the blurb:

Beneath the towering bleached ribs of a dead, ancient beast lies the city of New Crobuzon, where the unsavory deal is stranger to no one–not even to Isaac, a gifted and eccentric scientist who has spent a lifetime quietly carrying out his unique research. But when a half-bird, half-human creature known as the Garuda comes to him from afar, Isaac is faced with challenges he has never before encountered. Though the Garuda’s request is scientifically daunting, Isaac is sparked by his own curiosity and an uncanny reverence for this curious stranger. Soon an eerie metamorphosis will occur that will permeate every fiber of New Crobuzon–and not even the Ambassador of Hell will challenge the malignant terror it evokes.

The blurb gets a few things right, namely that Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin, a brilliant but unfocused dabbler in several scientific pursuits, is the primary focus of the book. However, the rest sucks. So I’m going to write a few better descriptions that the good people of Del Rey are free to borrow in exchange for a slice of royalties.

A visit from a mutilated foreign stranger sends scientist Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin

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Artist unknown. Saved from Pinterest

careening down a dangerous path that leads through the twisted streets and various dens of criminal activity that is the city of New Crobuzon. Along the way, he’ll hatch a deadly public health threat from its pupa, disrupt the drug trade and its maniacal mobster kingpin, and confront the most fearsome menace of all: his own closest friend. As the hum of New Crobuzon is replaced by nightmare screams and its many alleys grow dark with fear, Isaac must risk everything to save the city that he loves.

See, THIS description pulls in the city of New Crobuzon itself, which represents a vivid backdrop to the tale, while implying a decent threat level that does not rope in the *entirely incidental* Ambassador of Hell.

However, there are some issues with this description, too. After all, the cast of characters in Perdido Street Station is expansive. Let’s see if we can’t introduce a couple other people.

 

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Artist unknown. Saved from Pinterest

A chilling misstep by a hapless scientist unleashes a fate worse than death on the city of New Crobuzon. Now Isaac  Dan der Grimnebuilin must bear the burden of his mistake and repair the damage before more of his friends die. Meanwhile, Isaac’s girlfriend, half-insect artist Lin, struggles with a commission that may have everything to do with the accident, while the mysterious wingless bird-man, Yagharek, wanders the city in search of his lost power of flight. Together, they will join forces with criminals and drug addicts, inter-dimensional demigods and monsters made of gears and wheels, only to face the difficult truth: it may already be too late…

This isn’t bad at all! See? Already better than that first blurb! But what it *doesn’t* capture is the Steampunk aesthetic of New Crobuzon and the roiling wave of political tension upon which the story bucks and sways for the duration of the book.

In a city that runs on both steam and thaumatergical magic, where the political elite soar in blimps and the polity ride in taxis pulled by machines that may yet become sentient, the punishment for transgression is worse than death. But that threat can’t equal the rewards: the scientist who discovers how to make a mutilated bird-man fly could generate unlimited energy and finally correct the many social ills of New Crobuzon. But when Isaac Dan der Grimnebulin goes too far, the consequences of his research reverberate through the twisted streets of brick and stone, even as far as the great copper thinking machine that hides in the city’s expansive dump and into dimensions where enormous forces communicate in transcendent poetry. All centers on the city’s hub and center of government: Perdido Street Station, from whence all trains travel and where all dangerous things end up sooner or later.

Et voila: you now have a decent idea of what Perdido Street Station is about. Therefore, you also have no excuse to not go and borrow it from the library today.

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Artist unknown. Saved from Curufea.com


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Ve a Leer!

It’s that time of year again: birds are singing, grass is growing, and Cinco de Mayo has arrived to commemorate the unlikely Mexican victory over French forces in the Battle of Puebla! And how better to celebrate this victory than to celebrate Mexico in literature? Try these titles for a taste of Mexican culture, setting, and heritage.

 

51Ni1xAdyGLMexico by James Michener

The King of Epics turns his pen to Mexico, covering 1,500 years of history. As a journalist delves into the story of two rival matadors, he discovers the deep dichotomies in Mexican life. From Spanish and Indian descendants to prehistoric and modern religious edifices and even the strain between Mexico and the U.S., this book celebrates the complexities of Mexican society and culture.

 

1182863The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver

Full of political commentary, this popular book by a bestselling author follows Harrison William Shepard, who moves between the U.S. and Mexico in his support for communism. With cameos by Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera!

 

943862The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea

Teresita, sixteen and already gifted in the medicinal arts, rises from the dead with the supernatural power to heal. Declared the “Saint of Cabora” despite the Catholic Church declaring her a heretic, she quickly becomes caught up in the Mexican Civil War. Can her powers heal a nation from the wounds of war, genocide, and prejudice?

 

1573983The House of Wolfe by James Carlos Blake

When a wedding party is kidnapped in Mexico City, El Galâan, the perpetrator, demands a ransom of $5 million U.S. dollars, to be paid within 24 hours. But whether or not the gangster gets his cash, the wealthy family knows that the hostages will probably not survive. Enter Rudy and Frank: fixers with experience in crime on the U.S./Mexico border. This author’s work has been called “border noir!”

 


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Let’s Do The Time Warp

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Theoretically, time travel is within the reach of modern technology. All you need is a pretty fast spaceship and some luck! Failing that, you could fall through the years loosey-goosey as a result of a family curse, a set of magic standing stones, or a genetic condition. Get your time travel groove on with these once and future classics!

 

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To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

In 1940, a bomb exploded a Victorian travesty of art and taste called the bishop’s bird stump (don’t ask.) Though most people might consider this piece of history rightly lost, unfortunate temporal historian Ned Henry is tasked with traveling through time to study it for a historical restoration of Coventry Cathedral. But when one of his colleagues accidentally changes history, Ned has to keep two would-be star-crossed lovers apart…for the sake of the future! A comedy of manners with a science fiction twist, this is a great pick for fans of Downton Abbey.

 

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Outlander by Diana Gabaldon

What would this list be without Outlander? In 1945, nurse Claire Randall walks through a set of standing stones in Scotland and emerges in the year 1743. There, a young laird steals her heart and challenges her fidelity to her husband. Meanwhile, her modern-era medical skills may yet brand her a witch…and she may not be the only time traveler in 18th-century Scotland. Fans of the TV show will adore this sweeping, epic love story in its original format!

 

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11/22/63 by Stephen King

If you could change one thing about history, what would it be? Would you kill Hitler? Save the life of Archduke Franz Ferdinand? What about the life of John F. Kennedy? When modern-day Jake Epping finds himself in 1958, he realizes that, in a decade, he’ll have the chance to stop the death of a President. But time resists change…

 

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The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

Like most of us, Clare lives her life from the past into the future. But her husband, Michael, is displaced in time and randomly disappears and reappears at moments of emotional import. Though this strains their relationship, their love transcends time. This isn’t as much of a science fiction book as it is a drama with a clever theme. In other words, it’s perfect for the non-scifi fan!

 

 

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Kindred by Octavia Butler

The year is 1973. Dana has just turned 26 when she is wrenched from California back to antebellum Maryland, where she saves a white slaveholder from drowning. Then, just before she is captured and enslaved herself, she returns abruptly to her own present. Time and time again, Dana finds herself back in Maryland, trapped in a land of slavery and pain, often forced into servitude, compelled to rescue the man who would become her great-great-grandfather. Butler herself called this “grim fantasy.” It’s heavy and thought-provoking, but it easily ranks among the great science fiction – and historical fiction – books of all time.

 

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Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

An alien abduction leaves Billy Pilgrim unstuck in time, traveling back and forth through his life to experience and re-experience, again and again, its most significant and mundane events. But Pilgrim is trapped within the events of his own life: Dresden, where he’s a prisoner of war during World War II; his time of the alien planet Tralfamadore; the death of his wife. The book is a powerful statement about war and what people do when they’re at the mercy of forces more powerful than they are.

cover image of the book "Kingdom of this World"


The Kingdom of this World by Alejo Carpentier

As hundreds of thousands of people designated Haitian in the Dominican Republic are facing imminent deportation and the unknown, it’s an appropriate time to remember Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of this World. First published in 1949, this brief, lyrical novel is one of the works usually pointed to as kicking off the genre magical realism. The fantastical and historical meet in this work about the origin of modern Haiti. It renders before, during, and after the Haitian Revolution in the late 18th to early 19th century through the eyes of Ti Noel.

Ti Noel serves as a cook and a slave on the sugar plantation of Lenormand de Mezy when the novel begins. There he is drawn into a vast network of resistance by Macandal, a fellow slave and a leader in the revolt, whose stories create a community with a shared past among the displaced and dispossessed people taken from Africa to work the plantations in the Caribbean. Macandal is a messianic character with a talent for working miracles from the harm done to him. When his hand is mangled early on in the story, Macandal returns with greater magic beginning a cycle of meeting devastation with regeneration.

Through contact with Macandal, Ti Noel develops a reverence for nature, knowledge, and action. Although by his own account not a good person, Ti Noel finally, like Macandal, gains the power of transformation. However, he and Macandal do not use this power to the same ends. At the end of his life and after the rule of the infamous Henri Christophe and the re-stratification of social class based on skin color, Ti Noel uses transformation to escape human society altogether.

Ti Noel is both a witness to history and a participant in the revolution. Like Carpentier himself, Ti Noel experiences the liberation of his home in exile. This absence from Haiti can easily be read to represent the trauma at the heart of the book, something too awesome or terrifying to be seen or remembered accurately. The victory literally unseen by Ti Noel reflects the tension between the unimaginable and wonderful feat of a slave revolt trouncing French and Spanish military might and then forming an autonomous nation, a unique event in history in many ways, and the dismal failure of liberation to bring anything better than a reenactment of the old power structures under colonialist rule. These facts cannot be reconciled, and instead they are overlayed.

In some ways Carpentier is telling his own story and the story of the Caribbean in which he lived. The novel speaks to his own struggles with identity, displacement, and statelessness. After his first period of exile escaping persecution in Europe, Carpentier visited Haiti where he encountered a real sense of the marvelous before returning to his home country of Cuba. Just as magic overlays fact and triumph overlays defeat in this novel, the present overlays the past. The reader is asked to accept layer after layer of complication and contradiction. Carpentier’s Haiti is a bridge to many places, and the myth of origin he creates is an attempt to reclaim its narrative outside the official history.