Monday, January 27, 2014

ALA Awards and Weekly Event Listings

This morning the American Library Association announced the winners of a slew of young people's literary awards, including the Newberry, the Caldecott, the Printz, and the Alex, at it's midwinter meeting here in Philadelphia (this gathering didn't make last week's listing of literary doings because it's really a conference for librarians and while the general public can buy tickets, it's expensive even after you factor in the number of author appearances and signings). They did live stream the award ceremony, which is great for book news junkies like me.

Anyway, go check out the list of winners. It's nice to see books I love on the lists and I also got some new titles brought to my attention. I'm especially gratified to see that The Death of Bees, which is one  of the books I reviewed here (one of the few) get an Alex nod!

I've got a couple of reviews to post over the next few days of recently released and a couple of upcoming titles including Rebecca Mead's excellent My Life in Middlemarch, Matthew Quick's new adult novel, The Good Luck of Right Now, Rachel Cantor's debut A Highly Unlikely Scenario, and a YA book that's been getting a lot of good buzz, Grasshopper Jungle.

I have to run now, but in the meantime, there's lots to do in the Philly region this week!

Monday, January 27

Ransom Riggs | Hollow City: The Second Novel of Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children
Location: Free Library, Central Library
Cost: Free
7:30 pm

Nancy Tillman
Towne Book Center
220 Plaza Drive, Suite B-3
Collegeville, PA
6:00 pm

Tuesday, January 28

Susan Nussbaum | Good Kings, Bad Kings
Location: Falvey Memorial Library, Villanova University
Cost: Free
1:30 pm

This is the One Book Villanova selection for 2013-14
Good Kings, Bad Kings is a novel told from the perspectives of several characters who either work or live in an institution for young adults with disabilities in Chicago. Readers follow the characters as they deal with the hardships of institutional life and experience personal triumphs and tribulations.
Following the book signing, Nussbaum will participate in various other activities throughout the day.

Sue Monk Kidd | The Invention of Wings
Location: Free Library, Central Library
Cost: $15 General Admission, $7 Students
7:30 pm

Thursday, January 30

Tricia Ferrara | Look Both Ways: Parent With Possibility in Uncertain Times
Location: Wellington Square Books, 549 Wellington Square, Eagleview Towne Center, Exton PA,
(610) 458-1144
Cost: Free
6:30 - 8:00 pm

David Gilbert | & Sons
Location: Falvey Memorial Library, Speakers' Corner, Villanova University
Cost: Free
6:00 pm

Nancy Horan | Under the Wide and Starry Sky
Location: Free Library, Central Library
Cost: Free
7:30 pm

Saturday, February 1

Let's Play Books Grand Opening
379 Main Street, Emmaus, PA 18049

Open 10am - All day specials! RSVP on Facebook and get a Special-Special that morning! 
1pm:  Special Guest Book Reading - A naturalist from the Wildlands Conservancy will be here to introduce us to an owl, and read the book "Owl Moon" by Jane Yolen. Donations will be accepted to benefit the Wildlands Conservancy.  
3pm:  Ribbon cutting, remarks & a champagne (or apple cider) toast! 
​3:30 - 5pm: Time to celebrate! Music, Arts & Crafts, Door Prizes, Raffles, Treats & Roll-Out of our many programs!

Black History Month Kickoff 
Location: Children's Book World, 17 Haverford Station Rd. Haverford, PA
Cost: Free
7:00 pm

Join us for dessert and discussion with four fantastic authors! 
Kelly Starling Lyons
Don Tate
Tameka Fryer Brown
Crystal Allen
Learn more about these creators and their books at, a blog dedicated to awareness of the myriad African American voices writing for young readers.

As always, please, please, if you know of an upcoming event that I missed, or an upcoming event that you want to be sure gets listed here, just let me know via a comment or by connecting with me on Facebook or Goodreads.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Reasons to Shovel Out After the Storm

This week's update is coming to you on a snowy Tuesday. It's so snowy that that the Free Library appearance of mensch of the month, Gary Shteyngart, has been cancelled, but they are promising to work on rescheduling.

I apologize for being a bit late with the events calendar this week -- I was zipping between Philly and Western, MA in my role as parental chauffeur. Now that our kids are away at school, we have traded in frequent local jaunts for periodic long hauls. The drive to the Pioneer Valley is a two day affair, but on the upside, eleven hours in the car affords a lot of audio book listening time. This trip was enlivened by Bill Bryson reading his own One Summer: America, 1927. I've still got a ways to go to be finished, so I may be concocting another road trip sometime soon.

On to this weeks literary event round-up. Tonight may be a bust, but there are some pretty amazing happenings on the schedule in the region for the remainder of this week. Seriously, check out who's coming to town next Sunday -- I am kicking myself for having a conflict. I will have to console myself by going to a number of the other amazing readings and signings that are on offer.

Wednesday, January 22

Kevin Powers | The Yellow Birds
Location: Free Library, Central Library
Cost: Free
7:30 pm

This is the kick-off event for One Book, One Philadelphia that runs from today until March 19. The free library web site already lists some 123 events affiliated with the program, including writing workshops, craft workshops, and two visits with the author. You should definitely look at the listings to see if there is an activity that interests you.

Giovanni's Room 40th Anniversary Program
William Way LGBTQ Community Center
1315 Spruce St.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
7:30 pm
Find out how Giovanni's Room became the country's biggest, best and most beautiful LGBT Bookstore!  Participating are Tom Wilson Weinberg and Dan Sherbo, founders; Pat Hill, the second owner; and Arleen Olshan and Ed Hermance who jointly owned the store for many years before Arleen moved on to other projects.  Current owner Ed Hermance who recently announced his retirement will give a status report on the store's future.  The program, moderated by John Cunningham, will be video recorded by Bob Skiba for the Center's Wilcox Archives.

Thursday, January 23

Wendy Lesser | Why I Read: The Serious Pleasure of Books with Richard Powers | Orfeo
Location: Free Library, Central Library
Cost: Free
7:30 pm

I'm planning on making it to this one. Both of these books are on my "To Read" list.

Friday, January 24

Ishmael Beah | The Radiance of Tomorrow
Location: Free Library, Central Library
Cost: $15 General Admission, $7 Students
7:30 pm

Saturday, January 25

Kadir Nelson | Baby Bear
Location: Children's Book World, 17 Haverford Station Rd. Haverford, PA
Cost: Free
2:00 pm
The Caldecott-Honor-winning illustrator of Moses: When Harriet Tubman Led Her People to Freedom, Henry’s Freedom Box: A True Story from the Underground Railroad and author/illustrator of We Are the Ship:The Story of Negro League Baseball will be in the store to talk about his timely and beautiful picture book, Nelson Mandela, and his newest picture book, a sweet story for little ones, Baby Bear.

Lyndsay Faye | Seven for a Secret
Location: Chester County Book Company, 967 Paoli Pike, West Chester, PA
Cost: Free, but please purchase books to be signed in the store or online from Chester County Books
1:00 pm

(An oopsie here, I listed this as being last Saturday, but it's really this week)

Rachel Cantor | A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee's Guide to Saving the World
Big Blue Marble Bookstore, 551 Carpenter Lane, Philadelphia, PA 19119
Cost: Free
7:00 pm

This book has a most intriguing premise and is getting fantastic reviews.

In the not-too-distant future, competing giant fast food factions rule the world. Leonard works for Neetsa Pizza, the Pythagorean pizza chain, in a lonely but highly surveilled home office, answering calls on his complaints hotline. It's a boring job, but he likes it -- there's a set answer for every scenario, and he never has to leave the house. Except then he starts getting calls from Marco, who claims to be a thirteenth-century explorer just returned from Cathay. And what do you say to a caller like that? Plus, Neetsa Pizza doesn't like it when you go off script.
A dazzling debut novel wherein medieval Kabbalists, rare book librarians, and Latter-Day Baconians skirmish for control over secret mystical knowledge, and one Neetsa Pizza employee discovers that you can't save the world with pizza coupons.

This is on my calendar with the added bonus that people I know from various parts of my life know Rachel from her time living in the area.

Sunday, January 26 (A Truly Awesome Trio of YA Superstars)

Rainbow Rowell | Fangirl
David Levithan | Two Boys Kissing
Lucy Christopher | The Killing Woods
Location: Children's Book World, 17 Haverford Station Rd. Haverford, PA
Cost: Free
7:00 pm  (doors open at 6:30 pm)

Also, if you know of an upcoming event that I missed, or an upcoming event that you want to be sure gets listed here, just let me know via a comment or by connecting with me on Facebook or Goodreads.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Perfect by Rachel Joyce

There are a number of British writers -- Penelope Lively, Mark Haddon, and Tessa Hadley come to mind -- whose prose embodies what I think of as an essential Englishness. Their style is clear, brisk, sometimes verging on no nonsense, but at the same time deeply empathetic to the breadth of human emotion and individual foibles. What I especially relish is the ability these writers often display of leavening tragedy with humor, and humor with emotional veracity.

Typically, though not always, their fiction is focused on ordinary people, troubled by ordinary troubles. Despite the seemingly small scale of these stories, they are told with the psychological acuity and social insight that result in powerfully affecting fiction. With her new novel, Perfect, published in the US today, Rachel Joyce, cements her place as a member of this club.

Her debut, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was smartly written, entertaining and touching. There was an element of whimsy to Harold's abrupt quest, but there was an underlying sadness and loss that marked Harold's journey and in Perfect that darker tone comes to the fore.

Two narratives, separated by forty years unfold in alternating chapters. Introduced first is the tale of Byron Hemmings, who as an eleven year old school boy in 1972 is consumed by worry that two seconds are to be added to the clock to adjust for it being a leap year. How can two second suddenly exist when they didn't exist before? How and when will the two seconds be inserted? As Byron says, "Two seconds are huge. It's the difference between something happening and something not happening." That something does happen one morning in late June when nothing seems to go right, and by the end of the summer Bryon's world is irrevocably altered.

With the help of his friend James, who was the source of the information about the change in time, Byron spends the summer trying undo the consequences of that morning, but the more they meddle, the more they lose control. Small ripples of upheaval become waves that quickly swamp the fragile structure that was Byron's family. Joyce beautifully captures Byron's dawning awareness of, and anxiety about, the deep fractures in the facade of his idyllic life. As events snowball over the summer holidays he begins to see how different his mother is from those of his school friends and how hard it is for her to maintain the illusion his largely absent, but controlling and angry, father demands. As she falls apart he scrambles ever more frantically to shore things up. The reader knows, though Byron does not, the disaster that is brewing was inevitable and despite his love for his mother, and his innate decency, Byron is doomed to failure.

Alongside the story of what happens to Byron and James, we are introduced to Jim, a former mental patient living in the same neighborhood, in the present day. Having spent much of his life institutionalized Jim struggles to make his way in the world. He only just manages to hold down his job at the local supermarket while spending his evenings in compulsive rituals that he believes will keep him safe. Slowly, as Christmas approaches, Jim is thrown into ever closer contact with his co-workers as well as taking the first tentative steps towards finding love. As Byron's world closes in around him, Jim's begins to open up.

While Joyce takes pain to create an aura of mystery about the connection between the two narratives, it will be clear to most readers very early in the novel how the threads are woven together. Her hints and misdirections can feel theatrical and heavy-handed, but are probably a consequence of her years as an actress and radio playwright.

She succeeds far better at using the physical environment to create tension and emotional context. Weather and scenery are brilliantly used underscore the action and characters' states of mind. The physical environment is also used to comment a shift in the English class structure in the years since 1972 -- council estates are renovated, while old manors are demolished to make way for new housing developments. In the end, I was left wondering if the particular dynamics of Byron's tragedy could unfold in the modern world. I suspect this is something Rachel Joyce would like us to think about as well.

If you've read The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry you will know that Rachel Joyce is, ultimately, an optimist, and that quality is reasserted in the conclusion of Perfect. There is hope for Jim and his newly reborn life -- look for the crocuses -- and it is to Joyce's credit that I felt that it was his due.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher via Net Galley. The review reflects my own opinion and all my own typos.

Flavia, So Good to See You Again!

Each year since 2009 I've looked forward to spending a few hours in the company of one of my favorite people. Her adventurous spirit, her daring and her sheer self-taught genius as a chemist (not to mention a breadth of knowledge of music and books that easily puts me to shame) never fails to astound me. That she is also mischievous, mercurial, and underneath her rather frayed veneer of independence lies a warm and empathic soul that is deeply connected to the people around her, even when she loves to hate them, makes her even more endearing.

I am of course, attempting to describe the eponymous heroine and narrator of Alan Bradley's six Flavia de Luce mysteries, but as with all of the best eccentrics in fiction, she cannot be reduced to a single paragraph. The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches, the newest mystery, opens as Flavia, now nearly twelve, and her family prepare for the imminent return of her mother, Harriet, who was lost in a climbing accident in Tibet before Flavia's second birthday. At the station awaiting Harriet’s special train, Flavia is asked by no less a personage than Winston Churchill if she has developed a taste for pheasant sandwiches. Then a stranger, who had just warned her of imminent danger to someone known only as the Gatekeeper, falls, or is pushed, to his death beneath a train. What does all this mean? Why is Churchill even there? And, what should Flavia make of the film footage of her parents that she discovers in the attic and, using an improvised darkroom, develops? Throw in a visiting pilot who takes Flavia up for her first airplane ride, the reappearance of a compatriot from Flavia's last detective triumph, some omnipresent sibling rivalry, and Flavia's ambition to outdo Victor Frankenstein and this romp through post-WWII village life, begins quickly and moves in directions I would never have imagined.

It's a good thing that Bradley creates an atmosphere reminiscent of an Ealing Studios comedy in this entry as the body count at Buckshaw, the de Luce’s crumbling, about to be sold, family seat, was getting a bit steep. Five, now six, murders in a single village in less than a year strains credulity, though verisimilitude is not Bradley's mission. Rather it is Flavia, who, if not a realistic character is certainly one of detective fiction's most appealing inventions, holds the author and the reader in her thrall. With all of the tragic comic machinations of the plot, we come to the end of Flavia's sixth outing with her firmly on the road to a new environment and new adventures.

What makes this series a continuing must read for me is seeing Flavia grow and change. Despite her undeniable brilliance, she is still only twelve, and she is only slowly developing an emotional understanding of the relationships of the people around her. It is touching to see in a child who is learning that her family, while damaged in many regards, is one where actions are largely fueled by love, even if it is not openly expressed. This is the emotional core that will keep me coming back and if you aren’t already hooked, you should be.

The only sad part about reading this so early in the year? I need to wait twelve months to see what happens next.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Something Bookish this Way Comes

It's Monday, not the most popular day of the week. Still it is a good time to sit down and plan how you will entertain yourself outside the hours of work, whatever sort of work it is you do -- I include being a homemaker, an artist, a writer and other forms of not necessarily remunerative activity in the definition of work.

I realize that we all have a lot of entertainment options these days. I for one want to see the movies in the Oscar race that I haven't gotten to yet (Her, August: Osage County, 12-Years A Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street), watch last night's episode of Downton Abbey and highlights from the Golden Globes, and finish reading several books that figure heavily into my own plans for the week.

I'm sure your list is equally as daunting, if not more so, but let me tantalize you with some worthwhile literary-themed distractions in the Philadelphia area this week.

Monday, January 13

James Carville and Mary Matalin -- Love & War: Twenty Years, Three Presidents, Two Daughters and One Louisiana Home at the Free Library; Central Library (this is sold out, but if you have tickets it should be good)  -- 7:30 pm

Tuesday, January 14

Max Tegmark | Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality with Dave Goldberg | The Universe in the Rearview Mirror: How Hidden Symmetries Shape Reality
Location: Free Library, Central Library
Cost: Free/No tickets required
7:30 pm

Wednesday, January 15

Gwen Florio | Montana
Location: Hooloon Gallery,  53 N. 2nd Street, Phila.
Cost: Free
7:30 pm

Former Philadelphia Enquirer reporter Gwen Florio will read from her engaging debut mystery, Montana

I've been looking forward to meeting Gwen since I first heard about her new series from her son, Sean Breslin, a talented writer in his own right. I'll be there, plus I hear there may be wine and snacks.

Thursday, January 16

If you've been working on being in multiple places at once, Thursday is the day to test out your capabilities.

E.L. Doctorow | Andrew’s Brain
Location: Free Library, Central Library
Cost: $15 General Admission, $7 Students
7:30 pm

Stephen Jimenez | The Book of Matt: Hidden Truths About the Murder of Matthew Shephard
Location: Towne Book Center and Cafe
Cost: Free
7:00 pm

Laurie Halse Anderson | The Impossible Knife of Memory
Location: DCP Theatre, 795 Ridge Road, Telford, PA 18969
Cost: $22 for two tickets and a copy of the book
7:30 pm
Sponsored by Harleysville Books

And, the event that prevents me from even considering any of the evening's other opportunities:

Carol Rifka Brunt | Tell The Wolves I'm Home
Main Point Books Inaugural Book Club Discussion. Led by Me!!
Location: Main Point Books, 1041 Lancaster Avenue, Bryn Mawr, PA 19010
Cost: Free
7:00 pm

Saturday, January 18

Lyndsay Faye | Seven for a Secret
Location: Chester County Book Company, 967 Paoli Pike, West Chester, PA
Cost: Free, but please purchase books to be signed in the store or online from Chester County Books
1:00 pm

Kathryn Craft | The Art of Falling
Book launch for a local debut author
The Doylestown Bookshop, 16 S. Main Street, Doylestown, PA 18901
5:00 pm

It's a busy week and the season only gets busier from here. I hope this selected listing whets your appetite for bookish entertainments. If you are looking for other ways to engage with books in your more immediate community, most of the stores listed here sponsor books groups, story hours and workshops that are open to the public. Please, check them out!

Also, if you know of an upcoming event that I may have missed, just let me know in the comments or  by connecting with me on Facebook or Goodreads.

Come back tomorrow when I'll be reviewing Alan Bradley's newest Flavia de Luce mystery and Rachel Joyce's new novel, Perfect.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Catching Up and Starting Over

How did it get to be January 10, 2014 already? You'd think that by this point in my life I'd be prepared for how quickly time ends up in the rearview mirror as I speed forward, but sadly I seem to be incapable of learning this particular lesson.

One thing I have learned is that it's better to muddle on and start anew rather than lament what I've not accomplished. In this spirit, I'm not going to offer up one a "Best of 2013 Reading" post despite having mentally written a million of them since various media outlets started publishing their anointed cannons back in November. After all, despite reading a hundred books last year, I didn't even put a dent in the books on my shelves waiting to be read, much less sample more than a single drop of what was published.

I will say that 2013, in my weightless opinion, was a pretty good year for books and that as of this moment, 2014 is looking pretty spectacular too.

With just the books issued this week my "2014 To Read" shelf is already overstuffed, though that's nothing new. Just look at this line-up:

Little Failure by Gary Shteyngart
On Such A Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee
Leaving the Sea: Stories by Ben Marcus
What I Had Before I Had You by Sarah Cornwell
The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

Next week brings Rachel Cantor's debut 'A Highly Unlikely Scenario' and 'Perfect' from Rachel Joyce, the author of 'The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry', a New York Review of Books reprint of Balzac The Human Comedy and Okey Ndibe's 'Foreign Gods Inc.' I'm already reading as fast as I can to get ahead of the curve given that the there seems to be no relief in sight.

I will be reading and reviewing most of these, as well as other new releases including the latest Flavia de Luce mystery. Besides posting books reviews, I'm also planning on putting together a weekly round-up of Philadelphia area author events each Monday. There are a lot of amazing writers that are going to be visiting over the coming months and they don't all come to The Free Library. Local indie stores and educational institutions sponsor great writers and open the doors to the public.

If you'll excuse me, I need to go read.