While author Neil Gaiman might be best known as a fantasy novelist, he’s better described as a kind of writer-of-all-trades. His acclaimed Sandman series was one of the first graphic novels to make the New York Times best-seller list and he has published numerous children’s works to critical accolades. He’s a master of the short story. But his latest published work, The View from the Cheap Seats, is a collection of the prolific, versatile writer’s nonfiction pieces.
Gaiman is an unabashedly public figure who remains accessible to his many fans through his online journal and presence on social media. And while his built-in audience will be clamoring for this volume, it has much to recommend for those who have never read his nonfiction. The View features five dozen articles, speeches, introductions and essays on topics that are interesting and in some way important to the author.
He admits on his online journal: “It's a relief that it's published: I don't think I've ever been as nervous about a book coming out as I have been about this one. You can hide behind fiction. You can't hide behind things that are about what you think and believe.”
These thoughtful, insightful pieces are gathered under 10 categorized chapters, including “Some People I Have Known,” “On Comics and the People Who Make Them,” and of course, “Some Things I Believe.” Included here is his acceptance speech from the 2009 Newbery Awards, where he won the highest prize in children’s literature for The Graveyard Book, his Sunday New York Times piece “On Stephen King,” his introduction to the reissue of the final book in Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series and the in-memoriam essay he wrote describing Lou Reed’s songs as the soundtrack to his life.
The View would make an excellent gift book, as it’s the kind of collection you can pick up whether you have 10 minutes to devote to reading or a whole hour. You can always count on him to entertain, but here he manages to be thought provoking and incisive as well. Gaiman is the erudite friend you’d want at your dinner party, always ready to start the conversation.
As a librarian, I must admit that my favorite piece in the collection is a lecture entitled “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a better advocate for public libraries than Neil Gaiman. This essay alone will inspire you to visit the library to find out for yourself just what keeps us relevant.
When travelling between realities you may stumble upon The Invisible Library, the largest single collection of fiction books taken from all over the multiverse, and its librarians, professional spies who infiltrate alternate realities in search of rare books wanted for the library’s collection. Irene is one such librarian, whose most recent assignment is to steal a book of fairy tales from an alternative version of London.
But when she and her assistant Kai arrive, they soon discover that the book they are looking for has been stolen, and its owner murdered. They’ll have to race against a group of biotechnically-enhanced terrorists, a cat-suit-wearing burglar, a contingency of Fae and a murderous rogue librarian to find the book first if they want to succeed in their mission.
Genevieve Cogman blends real world elements with fantasy to create her London. The owner of the stolen book? Vampire. High society gentleman who knows more than he should? An agent of chaos. The plot is an interesting mix of murder mystery, suspenseful intrigue and steampunk fantasy. Everyone is hiding at least one secret, some more damaging than others. Not everyone acts in the most morally acceptable way; Irene in particular has a morally ambiguous world view because she won’t jeopardize the library’s mission — to preserve as many books as possible, no more and no less. And the best mystery is why the library even needs this particular copy of fairy tales. How much damage can one book do?
A Library Reads selection for June, The Invisible Library is the first in a series that has already been published in the UK. The Masked City (Book 2) and The Burning Page (Book 3) are slated for release in September and December 2016. If you enjoy The Librarians TV show, Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series or the Thursday Next series by Jasper Fforde, check out this series.
Louise Erdrich is the reigning queen of Native American fiction, author of award-winning books for adults and children which showcase her native heritage. Her newest novel, LaRose, reflects Anishinaabe traditions as she explores the rippling consequences of tragedy and how two families adapt in both traditional and modern ways.
Landreaux Iron is a good man. He’s a loving father, faithful husband and sensitive nurse to his home health care patients. Hunting at the edge of reservation land, he takes aim at a deer meant to feed his family and instead accidentally shoots his neighbor’s little boy, Dusty Ravich, who is also Landraux’s nephew. Dusty’s death devastates his own family with grief and the Iron family with guilt. Landraux then commits a second unthinkable act: seeking guidance from his Ojibwe customs, he and his wife Emmeline give their own little boy, LaRose, to the Ravich family as atonement.
Erdrich unfolds this story at a leisurely pace. The grief experienced by the Ravich and Iron clans cannot be neatly packaged, and Erdrich allows parents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousins to wander down separate paths as each tries to accommodate this unique double loss. Woven into the scrim dividing this life and the afterlife are the mystical stories of LaRose’s ancestors and the societal ills, historic and current, which plague the indigenous North Americans.
Visit with Erdrich online at her blog at Birchbark Books site, which is also a purveyor of Native books, arts and jewelry. To enjoy more stories featuring contemporary Ojibwe culture, try the Cork O’Connor suspense series by William Kent Krueger.
When it comes down to it, few people understand or even think about the difference between being productive and being busy. If we get as many tasks done in the day as we can, are we really being productive? Charles Duhigg explains why productivity and busyness are not synonymous in his newest book Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business. As the title suggests, we should be striving to be fully productive in our day-to-day tasks, rather than looking at them as a list of chores that need to be done as quickly as possible. True productivity fosters creativity, motivation and inspiration. It’s not just about completing tasks — it’s about fully doing tasks.
Duhigg shares his eight principles to true productivity: motivation, teams, focus, goal setting, managing others, decision making, innovation and absorbing data. Each principle has an anecdote about some sort of team, business or group that was on the brink of failure until they learned to fully harness their productivity. For example, under “teams,” by looking at the comedians on Saturday Night Live, Duhigg explains that the way team members interact with one another is far more important than who is actually on the team. Duhigg uses the term “psychological safety” to prove why that interaction is so important: When team members are unafraid to fail or be judged, they can be fully productive and share ideas without concern. Duhigg’s real-life examples make this non-fiction book a thought-provoking and narrative read. He favors drawings over diagrams and quotations over statistics, breaking down the psychological density of the topic so that readers can easily apply his productivity principles to their daily lives. Ultimately, this is a motivational and engaging read, perfect for anyone striving for self-improvement or fulfillment.
What happens when author and former Washington Post Best Science Fiction & Fantasy winner Victor LaValle writes a story that combines horror, science fiction and mystery? The result is his latest novella The Ballad of Black Tom.
The Ballad of Black Tom takes place in 1920s New York. Readers quickly enter the world of Charles Thomas Tester, a 20-year-old African American hustler from Harlem. On the streets of New York, Charles goes by the name of Tommy, and Tommy likes to put on a show. He portrays himself as the “dazzling, down-and-out musician” by wearing a gray flannel suit, an aging seal-brown trooper hat and brown leather brogues with nicked toes and completes the look by toting around a guitar case (once in a while there's an actual guitar inside). Although Tommy has no musical talent, it doesn’t stop his hustle. Yes, he'll play the role of a musician, hum a few sour notes and scam people all for the sake of supporting himself and his ailing father. Things take a turn for the worst when Tommy attracts the attention of a wealthy white man named Robert Suydam. A cop and private detective, who are watching Suydam, now have their eyes on Tommy, after witnessing their first encounter. Suydam offers Tommy a couple hundred bucks to play a few tunes at his upcoming party. Astonish that someone actually likes his non-vocal abilities, but not one to turn down money, Tommy accepts. Suydam introduces him to a realm of crime and magic that sets off a chain of dark events that will forever change Tommy's life. Suydam tells Tommy about awakening a Sleeping King that sleeps at the bottom of an ocean. Once this Sleeping King awakes, he’ll create a new world where a select few will be rewarded. Tommy is intrigued. When he immerses himself into this magical world, he becomes a different person, a monster, who no longer goes by the name of Tommy, but "Black Tom."
If you're looking for a quick entertaining read, I recommend The Ballad of Black Tom. This book is a page-turner and would make for a great film. If you’re interested in more books by Victor LaValle, check out Big Machine and The Devil in Silver.
Stephanie Danler’s impressive debut Sweetbitter is that rare literary novel that’s a perfect poolside read. It’s the sticky summer of 2006, and 22-year-old Tess has $166 to her name and the promise of a room to rent in pre-gentrification Brooklyn. Naïve ambition and a need to pay the bills lead her to apply for a job at what her roommate tells her is the best restaurant in New York. Despite her lack of fine dining experience (she has a stint as a barista under her belt) and her utter ignorance when it comes to wine, the restaurant manager sees something in this bright young English major. As a back-waiter, she’ll ferry bottles from the wine cellar, deliver plates to the tables, prepare coffee drinks and support the servers.
Danler immerses Tess (and the reader) in the culture of fine dining, a world in which her coworkers are emotionally and intellectually invested. Everyone has a story, and most never expected they’d stay in the job as long as they have. She’s tutored by career server Simone, smart and driven with a personal life rife with secrets. Tess is immediately drawn to Jake, the enigmatic bartender with impossibly pale blue eyes and bad-boy charisma. But just what is Simone’s connection to Jake? The interpersonal politics at the restaurant are far more complicated than Tess realizes. Long hours at the restaurant are fueled by a passion for excellence, sexual tension and drugs, which stave off exhaustion. The staff works hard, and parties harder. As the story progresses, Tess gains confidence as an integral part of the restaurant team, even as she makes questionable relationship choices.
Readers will revel in the culinary details, from the hearty fare served at preservice family meal to the plates inspired by the seasonal ingredients collected at the Union Square Farmers Market. Tess expands her palate with the delight of a child and the seriousness of a scholar, savoring creamy, briny raw oysters even as she learns to identify myriad varieties by sight. She finds a personal preference for a rare, authentic dry sherry.
Sweetbitter is smart, compelling and compulsively readable. Danler’s characters are memorable and her writing cinematic, with the restaurant, food, wine and New York City itself in supporting roles. Danler’s debut is a succulent coming-of-age novel rich with descriptive prose and plot. Expect to be consumed by Sweetbitter from its opening pages.
Speculating about the possibilities and ethics of new technologies has long been the domain of science fiction. As we stand on the cusp of virtual realities and cloud computing, two new books revisit these contemplations with fresh voices and compelling tales.
Forest of Memory by Mary Robinette Kowal is Katya Gould’s vernacular recounting of a mysterious abduction that left her cut off from other people and, more direly, from Internet access for one week. An antiques dealer with a recently acquired typewriter, she was on her way to a client meeting when a chance encounter in a forest disrupts her plans, and the plans of her mysterious abductor. Through Katya’s recounting, Kowal contemplates the pros and cons that come with our gradual externalization of memory through technology. Her future society envisions a culture that values wabi-sabi (a Japanese aesthetic that values the imperfections that come with objects being handmade and well-used) above all else and prizes the authenticity of experiences when its members are unwilling (or unable) to seek them out for themselves. With the thrilling elements of Gillian Flynn and an engaging tone reminiscent of Ray Bradbury, this novella doesn’t lack in substance despite being a mere 85 pages long.
Sometime in the early 21st century, “the Cloud” burst and everyone’s online secrets rained down upon them, ruining relationships and destroying lives. So the Internet was abolished. The police force merged with the press corps, new inventions like dreamcoats and flatex were created so that anyone can look like anything (for the right price) and people’s identities are carefully guarded secrets. It is in this version of the year 2075 that Brian K. Vaughan (of Saga fame) and Marcos Martin stage The Private Eye, a classic noir mystery told first as a webcomic and now in print. A vigilante PI begins a double-blind background check when his client is killed and he is framed as the prime suspect. To prove his innocence, he begins to dig deeper with the assistance of his sassy sidekicks and uncovers a megalomaniac’s sinister plans. Reminiscent of Blade Runner, this graphic novel doesn’t just pose the obvious questions about identity but also critiques how much the Internet has actually helped the modern age.
Logic. Problem-solving. Engineering. Physics. Architects have used these skills to create safe and accessible buildings for centuries. At the same time, burglars have been using these skills to figure out how to break into houses and buildings for an equally long time. A Burglar’s Guide to the City by Geoff Manaugh is written through the eyes and perspective of history’s most successful burglars. Manaugh writes, teaches and lectures on architecture, but he captures the thoughts, motives and passion of burglars with engaging, narrative prose in his book.
He begins with the story of notorious architect-turned-burglar George Leonidas Leslie, who used his architectural skills to perform hundreds of robberies in New York City in the late 1800s. The city was just beginning its development as a metropolis of wealth and affluence during the Industrial Revolution, and Leslie used this economic development to his advantage as he asked fellow architects about the structure of new buildings in the city. By gaining deeper architectural insight on the buildings he wanted to rob, he could create models and rehearse with his team, what Manaugh calls “the art of burglary.” A good burglar and a good architect both need impeccable attention to detail, and Manaugh writes of Leslie’s fervent planning and scheming with similar perspicacity.
Manaugh moves forward in history with other examples of burglaries to show that while buildings and security systems may change over time, it only inspires deeper and more complex problem-solving from burglars, reaping a bigger thrill and adrenaline rush as the stakes get higher. In addition, he writes of how architects have begun to anticipate crime in their building designs. Casinos are being designed specifically so that security cameras can be installed in ways that maximize their visual field while minimizing their noticeability. In the vast span of burglar history, Manaugh takes the reader deep into both the criminals and setting, showing how they work for and against each other in this entertaining nonfiction read.