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Selections for December 2007

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Lucky in the Corner by Carol Abshaw (2002)

There was a time in my childhood when I read nothing but books about dogs and horses, and I still have a definite soft spot for novels in which there's a dog in the plot, whether his (or her) role is large or not. So, you can imagine how pleased I was to come across Lucky in the Corner, by Carol Anshaw. Although Lucky, a dog of indeterminate breed, is not around for a large number of scenes, he definitely steals every one of the ones he's in. Plus, it's his name in the title! Lucky in the Corner is one the most good-hearted novels I've ever read. It's a tender and insightful novel about friendship, love, passion, and family relationships. The main characters are Nora, her 21-year-old daughter Fern (who has never really forgiven Nora for leaving her husband and coming out as a lesbian when Fern was 11 - an event which, in Fern's view, destroyed their family), Nora's cross-dressing brother Harold (and his alter-ego Dolores), and Fern's best friend, Tracy, a single mother who is not quite ready for the responsibilities of single-motherhood and who increasingly leaves her baby son, Vaughn, in Fern's care. Anshaw presents each of these people with such compassion and understanding that anyone, gay or straight, cross-dressing or not, 20-something or 50-something, can empathize with them and wish them well as they struggle to make their way through an often difficult, occasionally turbulent, and sometimes unfair life. But (you won't be surprised to know) the character who I most loved was Fern's dog, Lucky. I realized that his approaching death from old age (which Fern dreads more than almost anything else) works as a metaphor for all that human beings have to go through before we finally grow up.

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Acacia: Book One: The War With the Mein by David Anthony Durham (2007)

In the right authorial hands, a fantasy novel can be not only a rousing read, but - because the author is limited only by his or her imagination in creating characters and settings - can also provide a unique opportunity for crystallizing and providing insight into the very real world that we live in. David Anthony Durham is such an author and Acacia: Book One: The War With the Mein is such a book. Fans of Durham's historical novels, including Pride of Carthage, the story of Hannibal's march on Rome in 218 B.C., know how well he can make the past come alive, but even they may be surprised, and newly impressed, by his accomplishment here. The rulers of the Akaran Dynasty's empire, known as Acacia, maintain their power through a thriving trade in drugs and slaves. The king of Acacia, Leodan, keeps the sordid details of his rule from his children - he wants reform, but is helpless to bring it about. When Acacia falls to the Mein (and Durham does not spare us the bloody details of war), Leodan is killed but his four children, Aliver, Corinn, Mena and Dariel, escape into hiding. Years pass, and the day comes when Leodan's now grown children set out to avenge the death of their father and regain the empire that is their birthright. This page-turning adventure includes examples of heroism, treachery, love, and bloodshed (with, because it is fantasy, after all, some bits of magic thrown into the mix).

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The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins: An Illuminating History of Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins, Artist and Lecturer by Barbara Kerley (2000)

Readers of all ages - say 6 to 106 - should check out The Dinosaurs of Waterhouse Hawkins: An Illuminating History of Mr. Waterhouse Hawkins, Artist and Lecturer, written by Barbara Kerley and illustrated by Brian Selznick. It's the true story of a Victorian artist whose interest in dinosaurs led to a career creating reproductions of them for the public to enjoy. In 1868, after achieving fame as a re-creator of dinosaurs in England, Hawkins was invited to New York to build life-size models of dinosaurs for display in a new museum to be built in Central Park. But when Waterhouse ran afoul of the notorious Boss Tweed, the project was stopped in its tracks. Hawkins' life is captured in both the text and the large and colorful period illustrations, which together will delight and inform readers as they discover the life and work of an almost forgotten 19th-century artist and scientist. And best of all, anyone really caught up in the story can travel to Sydenham Park, south of London, to see some of Hawkins' amazing creations in person.

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Dead Ex by Harley Jane Kozak (2007)

Those on the lookout for a light, bright and amusing read will be as happy as I was to discover Harley Jane Kozak's Dead Ex. This is the third book in Kozak's mystery series featuring Wollstonecraft ("Wollie") Shelley, erstwhile greeting card designer, muralist and (in this book) new correspondent for the TV show SoapDirt, in which she dates hunky soap stars and then dishes about them on air. (The first two books in the series are Dating Dead Men and Dating is Murder - I don't think you really need to read them in any particular order.) When television producer David Zetrakis (one of the most prominent "Mr. Wrongs" of Hollywood) is murdered, the police suspect Wollie's best friend, actress Joey Rafferty, who had not only been one of Zetrakis's lovers, but was once the star of his long running television soap opera, until he unceremoniously fired her. Given those circumstances, plus the fact that the dead man bequeathed a valuable Gustav Klimt painting to her, the LAPD figures they've got their man (or woman, in this case) and sees no reason to look any further than Joey. Naturally (and to the immense annoyance of Simon, her FBI agent boyfriend), Wollie ropes in several friends and relatives, old and new, to help her clear Joey of the crime. In the process, she discovers that real life can be as wacky - but a lot more dangerous - than even daytime television portrays it. Kozak, who's a movie and television actress herself, has dreamed up a supporting cast of appealingly three-dimensional characters, among them Wollie's schizophrenic brother, P.B., an uncle obsessed with Greek mythology, and her good friend, the improbably named Fredreeq, all of whom add greatly to the enjoyment of the novel. Fans of Janet Evanovich's mysteries won't want to miss this.

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Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction Is Changing Men, Women and the World by Liza Mundy (2007)

Liza Mundy's Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction Is Changing Men, Women, and the World is a mesmerizing discussion of the modern medical field of Assisted Reproductive Technology (ART). When I first picked it up, I wondered if there was really enough material to justify a whole book, or if it was going to be - like so much investigative and/or narrative nonfiction today - essentially a long magazine article stretched out (with much unnecessary filler) to book length. But once I started reading it, I realized that this is one of those topics that is definitely worth a whole book. Mundy begins with numbers: 80 million people across the globe suffer from infertility; 500,000 frozen embryos are currently in storage in the United States alone; three billion dollars worth of fertility drugs are sold each year. She then goes on to describe the current state of Assisted Reproductive Technology, as well as the myriad issues it gives rise to: Do children born from sperm and/or egg donors have a moral, and should they have a legal, right to know who their genetic parents, and even siblings, are? Is it ethical for women experiencing multiple pregnancies to delete unwanted fetuses? What is, or should be, the attitude of society, and the medical profession, toward the use of ART to help single women (or men) become parents? What about gay men and lesbians, single or partnered? Throughout the book, and this is one of its main strengths, Mundy humanizes the topic by including interviews with doctors, patients, parents and children whose lives were changed by the particular ART being discussed. Thorough, eminently readable, and eye-opening, this is indeed an entry point into a brave new world. Definitely suggest this one to your book club.

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Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians by Brandon Sanderson (2007)

Perhaps there are some people (even librarians) who could resist a book titled Alcatraz Versus the Evil Librarians, but I'm not one of them. Brandon Sanderson's novel, written for 9- to13-year-olds, introduces readers to Alcatraz Smedry, who has spent most of his life so far in foster homes, moving from one to another as each set of foster parents gets fed up with his clumsiness, despite his protestations that he doesn't break things on purpose. On his 13th birthday, Alcatraz receives a strange sort of present - a bag of sand! - from his real parents. But the gift is soon (and inexplicably - why in the world would anyone want a bag of sand?) stolen from him by a group of evil librarians bent on world domination. Only Alcatraz can prevent these librarians from fulfilling their dastardly plan. First, of course, he and his fellow world-savers (a group that includes Alcatraz's grandfather Leavenworth - all the Smedry men are named for prisons - and assorted other characters) have to infiltrate the local library. Sanderson's novel, apparently intended to be the first in a series, is funny, exciting, and briskly paced, making it a good choice to read aloud. As a bonus, it gives young readers the potentially helpful message that a person's flaws - being habitually late, having a tendency to break things, etc. - can sometimes turn into an advantage. (Alert adult science fiction and fantasy fans will recognize the authors memorialized in Grandpa Smedry's frequent exclamations, like "Blistering Brooks" and "Rumbling Rawns.")

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Body Surfing by Anita Shreve (2007)

Each time I pick up a novel by Anita Shreve, I'm reminded of what a graceful and smart storyteller she is, and how willing she is to confront the betrayals that are often at the heart of human relationships. In Body Surfing, 29-year-old Sydney Sklar has had more than her share of pain in relationships. Already once divorced, and once widowed, she takes a job with the Edwards family at their New Hampshire summer home, where she is to tutor 18-year-old Julie. (This same house was the setting for two more of my favorites of Shreve's novels, Sea Glass and The Pilot's Wife.) When Ben and Jeff, Julie's two older brothers, arrive for a summer weekend, Sydney unwittingly becomes a pawn in an old battle between the ever-competitive brothers. The strength of Body Surfing, one of Shreve's best novels, is that she is unflinching in portraying the icy depths of old angers and resentments, and the damage they can do, and the havoc they can wreak, when they resurface. Sometimes, she shows us, things just don't work out: old wounds don't heal, and siblings are not always able to overcome their childhood conflicts and become friends. The ending of the novel is sad, unexpected, and at the same time completely right.

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By George by Wesley Stace (2007)

In By George, author Wesley Stace weaves together the life stories of two different Georges--one human and the other a wooden ventriloquist's dummy. In 1973, 11-year-old George Fisher, who comes from a long line of show business folks, and is something of a misfit, is sent off to boarding school when his famous actress mother goes on tour in Peter Pan. George is heartsick at being separated from the mother he adores, but even more he can't bear the thought of leaving his beloved 93-year-old great grandmother, Evangeline. She once performed as a ventriloquist, and passed that talent on to her son, George's grandfather, Joe, whose own dummy was also named George. School is just as bad as (the human) George fears, until he's befriended by the headmaster and by the school's groundskeeper, who presents him with a how-to book on ventriloquism, a gift that will change George's life. Meanwhile, the wooden George relates his own experiences of working with (the human) George's grandfather, especially those years during World War II when Joe and (wooden) George were sent overseas to entertain the British troops. Neither of the two Georges is aware of the existence of the other, until a series of events brings them together and brings long buried family secrets to light. This inventive novel rewards the reader with its intelligence, its wit, its poignancy, and its splendid writing. By George, I loved this book!

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Double Negative by David Carkeet (2005)

Before I read David Carkeet's Double Negative, it never occurred to me that a linguistics laboratory doubling as a day care center (or vice versa) could ever be the setting for a mystery novel - and a highly enjoyable one at that. Boy, was I ever wrong! Jeremy Cook, the one acknowledged genius among his fellow linguists at the Wabash Institute, is, well, a genius at developing theories about the language development of children, but he's totally inept in the area of interpersonal relationships, especially those involving the fairer sex. He becomes the main suspect when fellow linguist Arthur Stiph is found murdered in Jeremy's office, at least in the eyes of Lieutenant Leaf, one of the most entertaining policemen I've had the pleasure of encountering in the many pages of mystery fiction I've read over the years. How Jeremy finds the culprit (with the help of a 16-month-old toddler who hasn't yet learned to talk) and wins the heart of beautiful research assistant Paula will delight language lovers and anyone who enjoys witty, intelligent whodunits.

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The Dog Who Wouldn't Be by Farley Mowat (1998)

Every year, as Seattle's glorious summer fades away, its days get shorter, and the perpetually gray and rainy weather of a Seattle winter takes hold, I dig my light box out of the closet and I reread Farley Mowat's The Dog Who Wouldn't Be. It's a book that never fails to cheer me up. Mowat spent much of his Dust Bowl-era childhood in Saskatoon, on the great plains of Saskatchewan, where his father worked as a librarian. When Farley's mother unexpectedly buys a strange looking puppy of no determinate breed (whom they name Mutt), none of the Mowats could have predicted the sort of character (if a dog can be said to be a character - and the evidence here would certainly argue yes) they'd end up living with. Mutt is a dog who knows his own mind - he climbs ladders, rides in the back seat of the Mowat's Model A (outfitted with goggles to protect his eyes from the never-ending dust of the prairies - there's a great scene in which Farley and his father go into a drugstore to purchase the protective eye-gear for Mutt), feigns deafness when he wants to get out of doing something that in his mind, at least, is distasteful (like being bathed), and, after much resistance, learns the ins and outs of the "retrieving game." (I still laugh aloud when I remember the scene in which Mutt retrieves a stuffed grouse.) With a chortle or belly-laugh available on nearly every page, this is a perfect book for the whole family to read together.

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A Death in Brazil: A Book of Omissions by Peter Robb (2005)

I am a bit embarrassed to admit it, but before reading Peter Robb's A Death in Brazil I knew almost nothing about this fifth largest country in the world (except that, unlike the rest of Spanish-speaking South America, its national language is Portuguese). But as a result of my initial ignorance, Robb's book offered me the experience that so often leads me to seek out nonfiction in my reading life - that of learning about something new. Robb's ostensible subject is the disastrous presidency of Fernando Collor, the murder of his trusted associate, P.C. Farias, and the rise to political power of the current president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva. But along the way, he offers up a leisurely look at Brazilian history, including the events surrounding the first contact of Portuguese explorers with the indigenous indios, the development of the huge differential between the wealthy and the poor in contemporary Brazil, and the repercussions of the country's historical dependence on slavery, especially as it plays out in the racism that is still part of Brazilian society. The book reads almost like an ultra-addictive telenovela, one of those TV soap operas whose characters' lives are a merry-go-round of tragedy, comedy, sex, and violence, except that Robb is writing about real life.

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Little, Big by John Crowley (2006)

John Crowley's Little, Big is, quite simply, one of the most amazing novels I've ever read. In and out of print almost from the time it was first published in 1981, I only read it myself a few years ago. (And all the way through it, I kept asking myself, "What on earth have you been reading all these years that you missed this?") Although it's probably most often thought of as fantasy, it's really too complex and unpredictable to be easily assigned to one particular genre or another; it's both emotionally satisfying and intellectually challenging. Through the experiences of several generations of the Bramble-Drinkwater-Mouse-Barnable clan, Crowley shows us just how close (and yet how far) the world of faerie is to our own world, and how the two worlds can converge at points and yet be separated by seemingly unbridgeable chasms at others. Its setting is primarily Edgewood, the Drinkwater family home, from the late 19th century through the late 20th, although there are long portions set in the City (which is modeled on New York). We're introduced to the clan through Smoky Barnable, who falls in love-at-first-sight with Daily Alice Drinkwater (and she with him) and goes to live with her in her family's home (designed two generations before by her great-grandfather John Drinkwater), on the edge of a great wood. Crowley has filled the novel with many tales of lovers meeting (and some parting); of plans made and gone awry; and of attempts to understand what just might be beyond our powers to comprehend. I can imagine some eager English PhD student writing a doctoral dissertation on Crowley's influences in Little, Big - I can see how he's made use of the fables of Aesop, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, Shakespeare, T.H. White, and Gabriel García Márquez, among others. (I must say that although I didn't think it was possible to write a fantasy novel after the 1950s without a hint of Middle Earth, there's no sign of J.R.R. Tolkien's influence here.) If you want to read a fabulous novel but fear that fantasy is not your thing, you can easily approach Little, Big as one of the best examples of a homegrown version of what in Latin American literature we refer to as magic realism.