Book lovers: Are you up for a challenge? Book clubs: Want topics for which books to discuss next? Baltimore County Public Library and WBAL-TV 11 have just the thing for you — the 2017 Baltimore County Public Library Reading Challenge.
The challenge, which is a yearlong list of topics from which readers choose a book to read each month, is designed as a fun way for our customers to explore a variety of genres and encourage a lifelong love of reading. It includes a variety of themes that range from important (February’s “Read a book honoring Black History Month”), nostalgic (June’s “Re-read a book from your childhood”), fun (July’s “Read a book you faked reading in high school"), provocative (September’s “Read a book that was banned at some point") and more.
Participants are encouraged to take a photograph of themselves holding the book (or just the book for those who are camera-shy) they’ve chosen for a particular month along with the hashtag #Bwellread on Instagram, Facebook and/or Twitter. Two photographs will be randomly chosen on the last business day of each month and winners will receive $25 Amazon gift cards.
Say “Shakespearean tragedy” and everyone who has attended a high school English class can tell you how the play will end — with blood everywhere and a high body count. But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if you could take control of a character’s destiny and alter his or her fate? What if you could be Romeo and/or Juliet in a way that didn’t end in the lovers' suicides?
Enter from stage right: Ryan North, with his retooling of Romeo and Juliet in the style of the Choose Your Own Adventure series. That’s right, Choose Your Own Adventure, with all the multiple endings (over 100 in all, some still ending in death — this is a Choose Your Own Adventure model after all) that implies. Readers initially can play as Juliet or Romeo, choosing to follow the original story to its bitter end. Or they can pick a different path to see where that could lead — marrying other people, leading a life of piracy, owning a body building gym, operating giant robots, even crashing the plots of other Shakespeare plays.
There are plenty of Easter eggs for Shakespeare fans; North populates the book with references and character cameos from Shakespeare’s other works. If you’re not a fan of Shakespeare, though, don’t worry: You don’t have to understand the references to appreciate North’s wacky sense of humor. He’s also enlisted a whole battalion of illustrators to better visualize the end you choose, also to great comedic effect. This isn’t North’s first time around doing this, either; his first Kickstarter novel To Be or Not to Be, or Hamlet as told as a Choose Your Own Adventure novel, was the second-most funded publishing project on Kickstarter as of 2013.
If you’re looking for a good laugh or want to play with a play, Romeo and/or Juliet is an excellent choice, spinning a familiar tale of woe into something infinitely greater than the sum of its parts. Fans of the book may also enjoy Kate Beaton’s Hark, a Vagrant! or Sydney Padua’s The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage.
Wedding planning can be a bear — ask anyone who has done it and you’ll likely hear a bevy of stories about the ups and downs every couple deals with while putting one together. So when Lucy Knisley manages to bring levity and joy to the tale, you know you’ve found a gem. Her recent graphic novel, Something New: Tales From a Makeshift Bride, is nothing less than a delight.
Refreshingly honest and straightforward, she tells the tale of planning her own wedding from start to finish. Along the way, she includes hilarious discussions of bizarre wedding traditions and DIY attempts that fell a little far from expectations. This book really spoke to me. Her attitudes are decidedly nontraditional, and she struggles throughout the book to square a desire for a ceremony that honors all the right ideas while not being beholden to antiquated attitudes or the bridal industry complex. Her blend of humor and honesty is charming, and she had me hooked from the sweet story of how she met and fell in love with her future husband, through the fights and stress with family over so, so many details, all the way through the extremely touching and heartwarming ceremony itself.
I would be remiss if I didn’t discuss the artwork, which is fantastic. The art manages to be lifelike and recognizable while maintaining a softness and jollity that helps tell a story full of emotions. I especially enjoyed her drawings of cats, which manage to be both adorable and haughty (as all cats are). The art was a great medium for the story, bringing her characters to full life.
This book shines forth as a beacon for every person who looks at a wedding and says, “That costs HOW MUCH!!? WHY???” With a fantastic sense of humor, an honest look at the business and traditions of weddings and a true-to-life telling of her own experience, this book offers it all. Whether you’re planning your own wedding or just want to laugh at hers, I couldn’t recommend this more. And if you liked this, definitely give her earlier book Relish a try.
Looking to hang out with some amazing women? Then you must check out A Few of the Girls by the late, talented Maeve Binchy. A collection of both engaging and entertaining slice of life short stories, showcasing her storytelling prowess.
Each story is short enough to enjoy while waiting for an appointment, yet compelling enough to make you want to devour the next one. All told from the female perspective, subjects include love, marriage, friends, enemies and holidays. Marriages are ending, relationships are beginning, holidays are taken, life is lived. She focuses on true-to-life characters experiencing emotions that we have all felt at one time or another. Who hasn’t had to cope with a cheating boyfriend? Falling out with friends? Facing a milestone birthday? Being hurt by someone you love? Many of the stories include a twist — and sometimes a moral. My favorites include a cat searching for a new owner and a woman losing her meticulously packed luggage on a trip abroad. Her unique telling of a child custody dispute through a 7-year-old’s eyes will stay with you long after you read the last word. You will also learn why you should never hang a mirror in the dining room, no matter how priceless. Trust me, it is eye opening!
Don’t waste this opportunity to read previously unpublished Binchy stories! Fans will relish meeting more of her wonderful characters while newbies will be introduced to storytelling at its best. Are you participating in the BCPL 2016 Reading Challenge? All of her stories take place in another country. Want more Binchy? Read or reread one of her novels, such as Circle of Friends or Evening Class, two of my favorites. Reserve your copy now. A Few of the Girls are waiting for you!
If you’re a fan of the whimsical highbrow movies of filmmaker Wes Anderson, you’ll love The Portable Veblen, the new novel by Elizabeth McKenzie. It’s a compelling modern-day love story set in Palo Alto, California, with an appealing quirky cast of characters, including a persistent and possibly symbolic squirrel.
Paul and Veblen are engaged, but will the marriage ever happen? They come from such different worlds. Named after the economist Thorstein Veblen, who coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” Veblen does administrative work at a hospital. In her free time she dabbles in translating documents from Norwegian and studies the teachings of her namesake’s work. How can she possibly be comfortable wearing the ostentatious diamond engagement ring Paul was so proud to give her?
She lives modestly in a rented bungalow she lovingly restored from a dilapidated condition. Veblen is quite fond of the squirrel who has taken up residence in the attic, a point of contention between herself and her beloved, who has a goal of eliminating the rodent. Veblen sees the squirrel as a new friend who wants to tell her something. Paul embraces her many personality quirks, finding her endearing. But it seems as if he doesn’t really know her (it’s been a whirlwind courtship) and meeting her domineering, hypochondriac mother and enabling stepfather might be the thing that tears them apart.
Raised on a commune by hippie parents, Paul revels in his new money and status as a neurosurgeon. He wants to distance himself from his odd upbringing, especially his mentally disabled brother Justin, who gets all of the family’s attention. He’s most excited by the device he’s pioneering, the Pneumatic Turbo Skull Punch, intended to help treat head trauma on the battlefield. But Paul has fallen in with the ruthless head of a major medical and pharmaceutical company that has its own plans for Paul’s invention.
The Portable Veblen is a storybook for adults. The over-the-top characters are all memorable, and author McKenzie sets up scenes that reveal as much about Paul and Veblen’s individual pasts as they hint about their future together. So much literature these days weighs the reader down with heavy plot lines and depressing circumstances, and although The Portable Veblen trades in dysfunctional families and relationships, it soars as a comic satire. This a book I looked forward to picking up and falling into, and now I’m sorry to leave Paul and Veblen behind.
Charlie Jane Anders’ All the Birds in the Sky is one of the most intriguing new novels of the year, partially because it defies definition. It’s fantasy, speculative, sci-fi, humor, coming-of-age and awkward epic romance, with the hipster references of a not-so-distant future. Think of it as magical realism for the digital age.
Patricia and Laurence are the quintessential outcasts at school, left out and bullied to varying degrees. Both suffer from clueless, inane parents who fail to recognize and appreciate what their children are capable of — and Patricia is burdened with a sociopathic older sister to boot.
Laurence is a super-tech geek, possessing a brilliant mind capable of easily cobbling together a wristwatch-sized, two-second time machine, which jumps the wearer two seconds in time. He has built a becoming-sentient supercomputer, which he keeps in his bedroom closet. Patricia happens to be a witch, whose powers first manifest as an ability to speak with birds and one particular tree. She’ll later hone these skills at a school for magic, where she finds she doesn’t fit in either — it’s no Hogwarts. Laurence’s parents pack him up and out to a military school, where the bullying intensifies. And while these outcasts don’t immediately embrace friendship (they are really very different), it seems inevitable. The two circle in and out of each other’s social orbits, and their coincidental meetups intensify once Patricia buys a Caddy, a guitar pick-shaped social media super tablet that enhances the user’s life in inexplicable ways.
The story gains momentum when the Earth is suddenly wracked with erupting superstorms. Is Patricia’s band of avenging-angel witches the key to saving the world, or will Laurence’s hacker-inventor cohort succeed in opening a wormhole to a new, better planet? Anders’ clever pre-apocalyptic novel never loses sight of the running themes of being understood, of being valued for who you are and the difficulty of making meaningful connections when you’re out on the fringe.
Looking for a good mystery filled with offbeat characters and British wit? Then you must read The Man on the Washing Machine by Susan Cox. Winner of the 2014 Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Novel Competition, this story hooks you from the very first page and continues to keep you guessing to the very end. Not dark or brooding in the least, this story is lighthearted and definitely fun to read.
Life in the quaint San Francisco neighborhood of Fabian Gardens, with its friendly neighbors and shared private garden, is just what Theo Bogart needs. So she thinks. Having fled her socialite life in England after a family tragedy, Theo lives under an assumed name as a partner in a toiletries shop. Just what the doctor ordered — life filled with the mundane tasks of running a business, while enjoying the company of her neighbors. Normal people with normal problems, including a jewelry designer with thinning hair, an overconfident surgeon, a depressed bakery owner and a garden designer obsessed with compost. But then local handyman Tim Callahan falls to his death from a third story window. Was he pushed? Why and by whom? Then, a man mysteriously appears on Theo’s washing machine. Who is he? Why did he not attack her? Odd behavior for an intruder, to say the least. As Theo becomes obsessed with finding this mysterious man, yet another murder occurs. Meanwhile, her business partner disappears and strange crates belonging to her business emerge. What is going on in Fabian Gardens? How involved are Theo’s friends? Who can she trust? Perhaps she is not the only one with a secret.
Fans of Agatha Christie novels and British comedies will enjoy Cox’s debut offering. She fills her pages with characters who keep you guessing and wit galore. Figuring out the mystery is only half the fun of this read. Learning about the residents of Fabian Gardens is definitely the other half.
Patrick deWitt is gaining a reputation as a risk-taking young author, cleverly parodying a different genre with each new work. Undermajordomo Minor is an old-world kind of folk tale at first glance, but readers will soon be delighted by how the author toys with our expectations in the vein of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or The Princess Bride. Having made the comparison, it is necessary to add that deWitt is in a category completely to himself and unlike anything I have come across. His humor is quirky, pitch black and surprisingly thoughtful.
Lucy Minor is sickly and near death when he is visited by a mysterious stranger who spares his life after the young man admits he just wants something to happen to him before he dies.
Since he isn’t liked much by anyone in his village, including his mother, he sets off to find his fortune working as the undermajordomo at a far off castle. Thus begins an epic tale of romance, adventure and intrigue in a somewhat fairy tale setting. There is a castle, some loveable thieves, a crazy baron, a damsel in distress. However, there is also a train. So, expect the unexpected at any given moment.
From the moment his life is spared, Lucy’s life begins to careen down the most unexpected paths. Before his first day of work at the castle, he gets tremendously drunk with a couple of pickpockets he met on the train and falls helplessly in love with the daughter of one. Unfortunately, Klara is engaged to a devastatingly handsome soldier. His new boss, the majordomo, refuses to reveal exactly what Lucy’s job is or when he might be paid. When his job is in jeopardy, Lucy takes it upon himself to intercede on behalf of the Baron in his bizarre pursuit of his own wife, the Baroness.
In each strange, new situation readers revel in observing these delightfully weird characters interact with one another. The book is fast paced and compulsively readable.
Helen Ellis’ American Housewife is a satirical collection of 12 short stories featuring a group of enthralling, outrageous and disturbing women. There are humorous vignettes, such as “Southern Lady Code,” which offers biting translations of benign Southern phrases and “How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady,” which provides tips on how to do just that. There are fleshed-out stories full of characters and situations that are just a little too bizarre to be real — a relocation program for child beauty pageant contestants, an email exchange between neighbors that escalates into all-out war. In “Dumpster Diving with the Stars,” we meet a has-been writer who leads the competition in finding the best deals at yard sales and estate auctions, to the annoyance of the producers who would rather feature the Playboy bunny. “My Novel is Brought to You by Tampax” stars a writer working hard (or hardly working) on her next novel, sponsored by Tampax. A Tampax representative will do anything to make sure she meets her daily writing goal — starting with bribing her neighbors into bringing the writer meals in exchange for feminine hygiene products. The tales feel true enough to make readers uncomfortable even as they’re laughing at the absurdity. Don’t inane parodies of reality shows actually sound like plausible reality shows? And is it such a stretch that a tampon company could make the leap from sponsoring daytime television to sponsoring novels?
These stories are a fictional alternative for people who enjoy humorists like Jenny Lawson and Laurie Notaro. Ellis even received a nod from Margaret Atwood as one of her favorite books of the year: “Surreal tales of American weirdness, with details that ring all too true.” You probably haven’t murdered your neighbor over the tacky décor in your common area…but maybe you’ve briefly considered it.
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.