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The Incarnations

posted by: December 16, 2015 - 7:00am

The Incarnations“Finding your soulmate” takes on disastrous meaning as repercussions echo through the centuries in Susan Barker’s The Incarnations.
 

Wang Jun’s life as a Beijing taxi driver is dictated by the monotony of routine, until the day he finds in his taxi cab a letter addressed to him. The letter comes from an anonymous sender calling themselves Wang’s “soulmate.” This person has been searching for Wang to tell him that they are two souls that have been reincarnated together into different, yet connected, lives for a thousand years. More letters follow, all appearing mysteriously, all recounting the events in these past lives ranging from the time of the Tang Dynasty to Chairman Mao’s regime, all detailing in blunt and brutal language how their past lives ended in betrayal and violence.
 

Wang is disturbed by the letters and becomes determined to find out who is stalking him and stop them once and for all. But can he successfully determine who is behind the letters? Is the mysterious letter writer someone he knows or are they a total stranger? And if he succeeds in finding his soulmate, what will the consequences of his actions be?
 

The Incarnations is a novel of interwoven narrative layers, from the letters written to Wang to the five past lives described in detail by the soulmate narrator, with Wang’s quest the thread tying them all together. Mixing historical fiction with aspects of magical realism, Barker captures snapshots of Chinese history in brilliant and ruthless clarity as she blends them into Wang’s search and into each account of the past lives.
 

A caveat:The Incarnations is also a violent novel. Barker candidly details the acts of violence – physical, sexual and psychological – each incarnation experiences or inflicts. But it is a thought-provoking story about obsession, loyalty and betrayal as well, raising questions about humanity’s fallibility and the cyclical nature of time. Without giving too much away, this book makes you reconsider what reincarnation may involve and makes you wonder about the people in your own life. Readers who enjoy exploring the darker side of history or humanity, or who appreciate books that are a bit of a mind twist should check out this book.


 
 

Odd, Weird and Little

posted by: December 16, 2015 - 7:00am

Odd, Weird and LittleThere’s a new kid at school, and the title of Patrick Jennings’s new book Odd, Weird and Little describes him perfectly. Toulouse is certainly odd — he dresses in a full suit and tie; he writes everything with a quill and ink, which is definitely weird; and he’s undeniably little: “kindergartner short,” according to our protagonist, Woodrow. Woodrow takes a liking to him anyway, and the two slowly become friends. Woodrow, often the subject of ridicule for many bullies himself, stands up for Toulouse despite his weirdness. However, even Woodrow can’t deny that Toulouse is not quite normal, perhaps even not quite human. For instance, he refuses to take off his gloves or hat. He rarely speaks, though when he does he has a musical, “flutey”-sounding voice. And he can climb higher on trees and ladders than any other 10-year-old kid should be able to. But Toulouse doesn’t say a word about being different, and Woodrow is too polite to ask.
 

Although Woodrow recognizes that Toulouse is a little odd, he empathizes with Toulouse rather than ostracizing him, understanding that he, too, can sometimes be a little odd. This book is a humorous, light read for children in grades 4 to 6, with traditional-yet-always-relevant messages about bullying: that it’s okay to make friends with the kid everyone is teasing, it’s okay to stand up for him and it’s okay to be a little different yourself.
 


 
 

Furiously Happy

posted by: December 15, 2015 - 7:00am

Furiously HappyAs if the cover featuring a deliriously excited raccoon wasn’t enough to get you laughing, every vignette in Jenny Lawson’s new memoir Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things will certainly do the trick. Based on her wildly popular blog The Bloggess and follow-up to her New York Times bestseller Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Lawson’s thoughts about living with mental illness have touched readers who identify with her daily struggles.
 

Chock-full of helpful advice on how to properly approach the Australian government with a request to hug a koala while wearing a koala costume and featuring chapters titled things like “Things I May Have Accidentally Said During Uncomfortable Silences,” Lawson’s sense of humor never overshadows the fact that dealing with mental illness is difficult, but rather celebrates her uniqueness and tenacity in getting through the toughest days.
 

Recently, Lawson made international headlines by admitting to her hundreds of thousands of Twitter followers that she replied, “You, too!” to an airport cashier after being told to enjoy her flight. What followed was an avalanche of embarrassing moments, tweeted in by thousands of people, which started trending worldwide. The particularly cringe-worthy tweets are available on her blog. In Lawson’s world, we may all be crazy and flawed, but at least we’re not alone.
 

Devoted fans may also want to check out It Sucked and Then I Cried by Heather Armstrong or Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh.
 


 
 

One-Punch Man, Vols. 1 & 2

posted by: December 15, 2015 - 7:00am

One-Punch Man, Vol. 1One-Punch Man, Vol.2One-Punch Man is just the best, and that’s his problem. Following the adventures of Saitama, “a guy who’s a hero for fun,” this hit Japanese series by writer ONE and artist Yusuke Murata is debuting stateside simultaneously as a manga as well as an anime streaming on Hulu.
 

The book follows a pretty simple premise: Saitama is a hero who trained so hard that his hair fell out, and now he can beat anybody with just one punch. Unfortunately, Saitama also discovers that without the risk of defeat, fighting evildoers has become a reluctant chore. Now, instead of leaping tall buildings in a single bound, he wanders listlessly from farmers market to farmers market, looking for sales and pining for a fight that isn’t over in one punch.
 

Despite his reluctance, Saitama’s abilities get him dragged into all kinds of unlikely scenarios. A man who gains crablike powers after eating too much seafood goes on a rampage! Mosquito season turns out to be the work of an anthropomorphic bug woman! Skinhead terrorists cause baldness to go out of style! Saitama even gets roped into training a pupil, the angst-y cyborg Genos, whose hilariously lengthy origin story is in desperate need of an editor.
 

In a season where it’s hard to avoid three-hour superhero slugfests, this series is a breath of fresh air. It’s skewering humor and clever satirization is sure to appeal to both superhero fans and haters alike.
 


 
 

Away in a Manger

posted by: December 14, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for Away in a MangerRhys Bowen conjures all the ambiance and bustle of New York City at Christmastime in her newest mystery Away in a Manger. Just barely heard above the crowd, a high, sweet voice sings the old Christmas carol. Molly Murphy and her ward Bridie discover the source; a little girl of no more than six, huddling in a doorway, holding a tin cup and hoping the holiday spirit will make people generous. For in 1905, there are no laws or agencies to protect children in need. Deeply touched, Molly and Bridie speak to the girl and soon realize she is intelligent and well-mannered. Both the girl and her older brother have been cast out into the street to make money any way they can by a cruel aunt who barely keeps them alive.

 

Inquisitive Molly cannot keep herself from getting involved. It seems the children’s mother has disappeared and their father has died. All they have left of their old life is an obviously valuable brooch. If the mother had means, why are her children reduced to begging? Do the children have other relatives who would care for them? Molly resolves to unravel their past and provide them with a better future.

 

Away in a Manger is a sweet and simple account of children no one will welcome, paralleling the traditional story of Christmas. Rhys Bowen brings to light the plight of children before principled people took a stand in their defense. While this is the latest in a long running series, this title can be read independently. This lucid and powerful tale reminds us that generosity and goodwill triumph over greed and evil, a thought even more compelling in this day and age.  
 


 
 

The Immortal Nicholas

posted by: December 14, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Immortal NicholasIn The Immortal Nicholas by Glenn Beck, a simple farmer named Agios supplements his meager earnings by harvesting precious frankincense. Following a series of tragic events, he gives up on life and wanders aimlessly, numbing his sorrow with alcohol. When he meets Caspar who is searching for frankincense, Agios’ life is changed forever as he starts on a journey to meet the newborn baby that Caspar and his friends, Melchior and Balthazar, are seeking in the town of Bethlehem. Soon Agios learns that this child, Jesus, is destined to be the King of Kings, and he feels compelled to protect Jesus and his parents as they try to avoid capture by the evil King Herod.

 

Beck’s premise for this book is to try and give Santa Claus a Christ-centered reason for being. Agios represents Santa but he is more of a misguided soul doomed to wander eternally through the world than the jolly man most of us know. Until Agios fulfills his mission, he remains immortal and goes through many personal tragedies. While he does eventually change his name to Nicholas and begin handing out gifts to deserving people, the core of the story is about Agios and his struggle to find meaning in life. 

 

The historical portrayal of Biblical era life seems accurate and even compelling, but the story is not a warm and fuzzy Christmas tale for children. Beck is aiming at adults here, and trying to bring the message of Christ into Christmas without the typical commercialization of the holiday season. Whether or not you are a fan of Beck, The Immortal Nicholas is an interesting alternative to traditional holiday stories.  
 


 
 

New Christmas Books

posted by: December 11, 2015 - 7:00am

Cover art for The Gingerbread Man Loose at ChristmasIf you’ve read every rendition of The Night Before Christmas and you know every line of How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Polar Express, you might be looking for something different this holiday season. Here are just a few new picture books featuring some familiar characters. 

 

In his third adventure, The Gingerbread Man Loose at Christmas written by Laura Murray and illustrated by Mike Lowery, the Gingerbread Man and his classmates prepare songs, cards and treats to show their appreciation for their neighbors and community helpers. Drama ensues during the delivery of gifts when the weather suddenly turns windy and snowy and the class returns to school…without the Gingerbread Man! With his icing dripping and his legs doughy, will he still be able to deliver his Christmas gift to a very special person?Cover art for The Not Very Merry Pout-Pout Fish

 

In The Not Very Merry Pout-Pout Fish written by Deborah Diesen and illustrated by Dan Hanna, the pout-pout fish is gloomy because he has procrastinated his holiday shopping, and still needs to find gifts for all his friends. The gifts must be perfect in every way— big, bright and meaningful, with a little bit of bling. First, he is overwhelmed by choices, and then all the stores close, leaving Mr. Fish wondering how he will find all his just-right gifts before the Christmas party. This holiday-under-the-sea is a beautifully illustrated variation of the typical White Christmas setting.

 

When Santa Claus arrives at the castle with presents on Christmas Eve, three knights mistake him for an intruder and are determined to keep him out in The Knights Before Christmas written by Joan Holub and illustrated by Scott Magoon. Santa Claus is just as determined to reward the knights for their chivalrous deeds, and launches their goodies over the castle wall using a Christmas tree as a catapult. This book is a fresh and enjoyable take on the original poem, and the detailed illustrations filled with speech bubbles and puns will require several re-reads to appreciate all the humor.


 
 

It's. Nice. Outside.

posted by: December 10, 2015 - 7:00pm

Cover art for It's. Nice. Outside.Jim Kokoris’ It’s. Nice. Outside. is a road trip novel unlike any other. Fifty-something John Nichols (former college basketball player, high school English teacher and author) is on his way from the Chicago suburbs to his oldest daughter's wedding in South Carolina in a minivan. His companion? His developmentally disabled, autistic 19-year-old son Ethan who is afraid to fly.

 

The family is fraught with issues. Nichols is divorced, due to an affair with a wildly inappropriate woman (he blames it on the stress of parenting a special needs son). Now that woman is repeatedly calling again out of nowhere. Despite this, he still loves his ex-wife and holds out hope of reconciliation. Meanwhile, no one likes his daughter's husband-to-be. His middle daughter, a famous sketch comedian, has been feuding with her older sister and may not show up for the wedding.

 

Nichols makes his way south, using up his frequent stay points at Marriott properties that have pools (swimming calms Ethan) and eating at Cracker Barrels (Ethan likes routine). All the while, he’s trying to sort out what happens next in life for both him and his son. A trio of stuffed bears along for the ride provides Nichols with a cathartic outlet, as he runs them through outrageous comic routines tailored to entertain himself as much as they do Ethan.

 

Kokoris does a great job fleshing out believable, empathetic characters as he portrays the dysfunctional family dynamic. He shows sensitivity in his depiction of Ethan while spotlighting the everyday challenges of parenting a special needs adult. This novel is both laugh out loud funny and poignant, and will appeal to readers who enjoy books by Jonathan Tropper or Jonathan Evison.


 
 

Wide Eyed World View

posted by: December 10, 2015 - 7:00am

Publishers seem to be making a real effort to create informative books for kids that are beautifully crafted and truly spark imagination. Wide Eyed Editions are among the best, and they have recently released two atlases that are great for aspiring explorers.

 

Cover art for Atlas of AdventuresRachel Williams’ Atlas of Adventures takes readers around the world to experience different places, cultures and events. Giant illustrations done by Lucy Letherland invite readers to dive into exotic locales while interesting captions give facts and short descriptions of each unique experience. Every full-page spread offers a tantalizing peek into another culture. Choose from pages such as “Go to sleep under the Northern Lights”, “Learn to steer a gondola in Venice,” “River raft down the Grand Canyon” or “Set the world aglow at Hong Kong’s Lantern Festival.” The editors have captured some of the most fascinating events around the globe and made them wonderfully accessible. The adventures are organized by continent, and each section begins with a map of the continent showing important places as well as each adventurous destination. Readers can leisurely explore one continent at a time or jump from Paris to the Great Pyramids with a flip of the page. At the end, there is a collection of things and people to go back and search for in the illustrations.Cover art for The 50 States

 

The 50 States by Gabrielle Balkan is another wonderful atlas for children from the same publisher.  This book shows children “the story” of each state and is fascinating even for readers who aren’t usually drawn to history or geography. It is a perfect balance of fun and fundamental kinds of facts accompanied by eye-catching illustrations. Maps include geographic information like borders and bodies of water, but they also include inspiring people, landmarks, “regional spotlights” for things you just don’t find anywhere else and historical moments that made each state what it is today. The book inspires an interest in the natural world by highlighting state parks, battlefields, reservations and national forests. It is easily accessible but still manages to give readers an idea of the personality of each state.

 

Readers who enjoy these will like other Wide Eyed Editions, such as Maps by Aleksandra Mizielinska or This Is the World: A Global Treasury by Mirosalv Sasek.
 


 
 

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