Gifted by John Daniel

GiftedFrom early on, Henry Fielder is different.  Although somewhat social with other kids, he is solitary by preference and has an unusual way with animals.  His mother recognizes Henry’s unique approach to the wild, and encourages him to engage with it as much as he can by hiking long jaunts near their home in Oregon’s coastal range.

His father is less empathetic to Henry’s affinity to nature, but even he understands the need to get out in it.  Henry grows up learning from his dad how to fish, hunt, and otherwise appreciate the practical sides of the natural world.

After his mother dies of cancer, the father/son dynamic between teenage Henry and his dad changes for the worst.  His father is working harder hours and trying to homeschool his son, but, as Henry is in his rebellious years, he creates some trouble.  His dad’s ideas of discipline soon turn towards physical abuse, and beyond.

Forgiveness from Henry is elusive; this is fateful, when a storm of horrendous power destroys their house, kills his father, and sends Henry on a journey of self-discovery that uncovers his wildest fears and forces him into remorse and maturity.  After his return, Henry finds forgiveness from other people in his community and acceptance from an older couple who have befriended him.  He also maintains a close contact with Raven, a member of a rural commune who helped Henry towards the end of his journey.

As a character, Henry is likeable, but pretty flawed.  He does quite a bit of crazy things, including drugs and petty theft, and there are times here where one can see how he tries his old man, who is trying, in his own flawed way, to make a home for the two of them.  Unfortunately, the dad does something unspeakable, and Henry can’t forgive him soon enough.

I’d almost call Gifted a young adult novel, but it is easily accessible to adult readers.  The book is written from the perspective of a much-older Henry, as he reflects on his teenage life in 1990s Oregon, when environmental groups and logging interests clashed.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

In case you have been living under a rock for the past couple of months, you may have 13 reasons why.jpgmissed the overwhelming success of the Netflix original series 13 Reasons Why.  13 Reasons Why launched on March 31st, streaming all 13 episodes at once.  It was the most tweeted about show in history; that is pretty insane.  However, along with its wildly huge success, it is also shrouded in controversy.  But, before we get into that, we need to remember that 13 Reasons Why started off as a YA novel.

Back in 2007 when Thirteen Reasons Why was published, Jay Asher was an unknown debut author.  The book had won several awards, but it was not until 2011 that it hit the New York Times Bestseller List.

The synopsis of the book is that Hannah Baker had committed suicide two weeks earlier when Clay Jensen returns from school and finds a mysterious box on his doorstep with no return address. When he opens the box he discovers cassette tapes numbered 1 thru 13. Clay soon discovers that he has received these because he was one of the reasons that Hannah decided to take her own life. Through this harrowing night, the reader will discover who the other people were that led Hannah to her demise.

I first read this book in 2012 and was not sure what to expect.  I thought the premise was so original and really dark.  Once you see how things build up for Hannah you will have sympathy for not only her, but for Clay as well.  The Netflix series really does a fantastic job at watching Clay go through the tapes and how he deals with his involvement in her death.  I believe anyone, teen or adult, should read the book itself.

(Michelle Colbert, McGirt-Horton Branch Library)

The Opposite of Fate; A Book of Musings by Amy Tan

opposite of fateMany readers know Amy Tan as the author of novels exploring life in China and the lives of Chinese immigrants to the United States.  These are based in part on her own family history.  In The Opposite of Fate, she has collected her autobiographical writings and her essays about her writing.  Much of what people have written about her life is incorrect, and she gives us the real story.

Tan’s life has had tragic elements: the death of her father, the murder of a close friend, and her struggle with Lyme’s Disease.  Her relationship with her mother, an immigrant from China, has sometimes been difficult.  However, her life is not, by any means, entirely sad.  In addition to her great success as an author, she’s enjoyed playing in a rock band made up of authors, including Dave Barry and Stephen King, and had a very happy experience when she played a major part in script-writing and decision-making during the filming of her first blockbuster novel, The Joy Luck Club.  I read many portions of this book out loud to my husband, and he remarked many times, “Amy Tan is funny!”

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

Amy Tan’s first novel, The Joy Luck Club, was a resounding success, but I liked this, herkitchen gods wife second novel, even better.  It’s based on the life of her mother, who criticized it with such statements as, “I never knew a person with that name,” and “I never went to that place.”  And her mother was correct, since this is fiction, not biography.  However, the story follows the basic outlines of Amy Tan’s mother’s life: abandonment at the age of six, when her mother disappeared and her father sent her to live with her uncle and aunts, marriage to an abusive husband, and, at last, a loving second marriage.  The Kitchen God’s Wife gives a glimpse of life in China before, during, and immediately after World War II.  You’ll be turning pages as you cheer for the main character every step of the way!

The character based on Amy’s mother is called Winnie, and her first husband is named Wen Fu.  In real life, Amy’s mother never told Amy this cruel man’s name, calling him only “that bad man.”

(Helen Snow, retired from Information Services)

Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller

swimming lessonsGil Coleman, aging has-been writer, finds a letter addressed to him within a book in a second-hand bookshop, and then sees a woman outside who he could swear is his wife Ingrid, gone for twelve years and presumed dead.  Gil then nearly kills himself following her through the rain when he falls over the edge of a beach promenade.

His daughters, pragmatic Nan and free-spirited Flora, come back home to his seaside home in southern England to take care of him during his convalescence.

Ingrid Coleman’s disappearance was open-ended.  The assumption was that she had drowned during one of her many lengthy ocean swims.  As we find out the family’s back story, it isn’t that simple.

The back story is told in the form of letters that Ingrid wrote to Gil and stuck inside various books in his vast collection.  Considering that Gil was a book hoarder, the chances were little to none that he’d ever read her letters, hidden among the thousands of books in his house.

In the latter-day, Flora and Nan, helped by Flora’s boyfriend Richard, take care of Gil and piece together their own memories of Ingrid.  Flora, a little hellion in childhood and a daddy’s girl, finds out some hard truths about her father as she and Nan come to terms, rather abruptly in places, with their family’s past.

Swimming Lessons was a slow start for me, but once the structure of the book kicked in (alternating chapters of narration and time changes) I didn’t want to put it down.  The main characters, I found, were hard to like, although I gained a fair amount of sympathy for Ingrid as the book progressed.

(William Hicks, Information Services)

The Adventures of John Carson in Several Quarters of the World by Brian Doyle

Robert Louis Stevenson resided in San Francisco for a few months straddling john carsonthe years 1879-1880, at which time he lived in the boarding house owned by Mary Carson.  There Stevenson recovered his health and awaited the finalization of a divorce between his fiancée  and her first husband.  His finances were meager, as Stevenson was at this time struggling to make a living as a writer.

During his stay, Stevenson was enthralled by the stories of Mary’s husband John, a former seamen who had traveled much of the globe.  Stevenson supposedly wanted to write a book about Mr. Carson’s experiences, and this book is an imagining of what Stevenson might have written.

The stories that John Carson tells are fanciful but possible, as far-flung as Borneo, the Canadian Northwest, Australia, and western Ireland.  He tells of stern tribal chieftains and noble shipmates, all with stories of their own.  The most intriguing story is about Carson’s encounter with a feral girl living in a deserted stone village; her future takes her far away from her solitary existence, and she and John are destined to meet again.

One might wonder what kind of influence Mr. Carson’s stories had on the future renderings of  Treasure Island or Kidnapped, or whether Stevenson chose his final home of Samoa, notwithstanding his health problems, as a nod to John Carson and his wanderings.

Brian Doyle is obviously a great admirer of Stevenson’s, and I think he got the rhythms of Stevenson’s prose fairly well.  Doyle’s lively descriptions of pre-1906 earthquake San Francisco the bring the city wonderfully alive; the town is practically a character itself.  The Adventures of John Carson… is also a deep study of the natures of connection and friendship.

The preface and afterword (and the Thanks & Notes!), although fairly brief, are rich in back story and recommendations for further reading.

(William Hicks, Information Services)


Lucky Strikes by Louis Bayard

lucky strikesFourteen-year-old Melia inherits a rough road of living when her mother dies of an undisclosed ailment and leaves fatherless Melia with two younger siblings to raise, and a decrepit gas station up to its eaves in debt.  Their mom, a free spirit in a tight-knit community, has left them as outcasts, their only trusted contact being the family lawyer.  The usual customers of the gas station are hard-boiled truckers, glad to see their little station after a stretch of twisty roads.

The Great Depression is on full swing, and ruthless Standard Oil franchisee Harley Blevins wants their gas station as another acquisition in his list of service centers in northern Virginia.  Officials of Virginia are also likely to make the kids wards of the state, depending on how much they do, or don’t know.  Then a hobo appears, tumbling out of a coal truck, and Melia has an idea.   And wall-eyed Hiram Watts, disheveled and needing a cigarette bad, has a new lease on life.

Brenda’s Oasis, as they come to call their gas station/general store, becomes just that on their stretch of mountain road.  Hiram has a sense of gab and business that brings in truckers and tourists aplenty, and all three kids find their places in the operation of a once-questionable enterprise.  Melia, who learned her mechanic’s acumen from her mom, earns the trust of many a motorist.  Earle, middle child and junk collector, hones his underage driving and customer service skills.  Janey, the youngest and wise beyond her years, has a flair for the bookkeeping that she learns from Hiram.

Good fortune only lasts so long, and the insatiable Mr. Blevins wants their store bad enough to play dirty.  But you’ll have to read on to figure out who really handles the competition.

Lucky Strikes is an endearing yarn of familial love, heartbreak, acceptance, and growth in the harsh realities of Depression-era Virginia.  You’ll cheer on Melia as she gets tough with the world and occasionally becomes tender from young love.

Melia is a heroine similar of mettle to Mary Call Luther from Where the Lilies Bloom, an early 1970s classic with much the same subject matter (orphaned hardscrabble family, tough teenage sister holding the family together).  I am quick to compare the two, as WTLB is a personal favorite.  As it is, Lucky Strikes stands on its own, and I would say it is a warmer, more personable book than the previous.  Read them both, if you like your YA characters gutsy and real.

(William Hicks, Information Services)